Featured Review: Voodoo Hypothesis by Canisia Lubrin (reviewed by Julie Mannell)

Today Is a Good Day to Dream: Canisia Lubrin’s VOODOO HYPOTHESIS 

(Hamilton, ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2017, $18.00, 96 pages)

Review by Julie Mannell

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Canisia Lubrin’s seminal book of poetry Voodoo Hypothesis is one of the most artful and influential works to emerge in Canada in 2017. It raises the bar for what can be expected of debut collections. Voodoo Hypothesis reconstructs history as visceral, bodily, and endured as perpetual, intergenerational psychic injury. The poems are a map of historical displacement depicted by Lubrin as mental and physical manifestations that are both purposeful and lyrical.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will acknowledge that I have been good friends with Canisia Lubrin for a year and a half. However, this friendship formed from my involvement in the Canadian writing community: a particularly small community where it is difficult to not have personal encounters with other authors.

Voodoo Hypothesis is referentially thick. It recollects modernism through frequent allusion both to history, canonical texts, and authors/public figures (Dionne Brand, Jesse Williams, Priscila Uppal to name a few). One could venture to call this book an academic’s wet dream because of the depth of research a single poem requires of its reader in order to fully realize the multiplicity of layers and how these layers poetically conspire to render a single multifaceted and rich collage. For the speaker, the body is not ever a blank slate but is born of and into history. “I am a simple child, then, a tilled site of history.” Before their first breath, a person is already a palimpsest of linguistic signifiers that only becomes further compounded by the experiential. Writing (or becoming) oneself is always a process of writing over what has already been written, experience in conglomeration with that which has already been experienced.

Consider Lubrin’s poem “The Mongrel,” which heavily leans against allusions to Haiti: the Creole language and the Nèg maron (creole for maroon or “wild negro” in the pejorative and can also refer to a statue commemorating the Haitian slave revolt against France in 1804), as well as the Shakespearean island “monster” Caliban (The Tempest was set on an unnamed Mediterranean island but has been often set in Haiti in modern adaptations), to name a few. The word “mongrel” itself is a charged word that refers to a dog with no definable breed and has been unfortunately adopted as a slur for someone of mixed descent. The poem interestingly opens with a quote from Nobel Prize winning poet and diplomat Saint-John Perse, who was heavily influenced by Robinson Crusoe (an author who notoriously treated Caribbean characters with a British Colonial agenda), and was the son of plantation owners in Guadeloupe—fleeing to France on the occasion of the election of the first Guadeloupian President. Yet the quote Lubrin has chosen is one of longing and displacement: “There was no name for us in our mother’s oratory.” What follows renders the quote ironic, if one meditates on its context. However, it is not strictly accusatory. It takes the sentiment of displacement and namelessness and reconstructs it as experienced by “the Mongrel”—those whom Shakespeare, Crusoe, and Perse simultaneously benefit from and blame. Here I point to Lubrin’s striking line, “What else reveals us, a species of amnesiacs, cut off from the trembling that tore—our continents apart? And with so much unknowing.” The longing is as enchanting as it is elevated—it is enchanting because the strength of imagery evoked by “a species of amnesiacs” and elevated by its originality. Yet, the speaker is direct in their inquiry and treatment of historical tropes and colonial agendas that have been adopted and taught: “our knowledge of the Mongrel is only fragmentary.” Throughout the poem, not only are the thoughts and the ideas that accompany the Mongrel elevated, but the “Mongrel” itself as a posited identity is elevated through repeated capitalization:

brutality loves us this side of the name, while
only misted, our ears stretch to still the Mongreled
air landing, broken, invented again as history
in the rusted coils of coffee shops, inked
Mongrel skins, whose only escape is one cosmic
blue carbuncle.

While the breadth of information is intimidating, the universality of the many small observational phrases ground the poems in relatable sentiments that render the work immediately accessible. A dangerously thin line that Lubrin navigates well is that of the wise voice and the casual observer. Lubrin draws upon a wide array of research that for many might point towards someone who has aged into stark seriousness—but she is young, and her material is interlaced with quotable, twitter-esque observations. From her poem “Frankenstein Universe” is a favourite of these lines: “today is a good day to dream, it doesn’t matter if it rains.” Another, this one from “Up in the Lighthouse” goes: “You must know, black isn’t always the void” And here is one last one from “Epistle to the Ghost Gathering”: “Today I insist on the tenderness I may soon forget and remind you.” She successfully marries both the prudent voice of a judicious academic with the passive vulnerability of late-girlhood and the final product is pretty cool:

Nowadays I like to say cool
cool cool thrashing my tongue like an iguana

Tonally, poems often shift from reflective to angry and take you on an emotional odyssey in a fashion akin to an album of music: this is partially due to Lubrin’s expert lyricism and perhaps also due to the careful consideration allotted to the ordering of the poems—no doubt influenced by the editorial team at Wolsak and Wynn’s Buckrider Books. This shift is exemplified in the final line of “Fire of Roseau,” which seamlessly moves from indignant to elegiac: “I rebel, I like any nigger with a demand: tell me my thoughts are jagged but never why they bruise.” Little attention is often paid this kind of tonal movement, both between poems, within a poem, and as Lubrin does frequently, within a line. Something that can be witnessed in too many collections of late, is the focus on a central premise—and there is much to be said for how the Canadian grant system encourages this approach—which often ends up treating poetry collections as if they are an essay. The final product of such endeavours is often a grouping of poems of a singular tone around a central metaphor. It is obvious, for example, that an essay could be written on the Caribbean-Canadian experience in Lubrin’s work, the role of allusion in this collection, integrating pop culture within explorations of colonialism, the aesthetic of the emotive in the reflective speaker. Yet none of these is the central concern of the book as a whole, nor do all of the poems employ the same tools or muses. When a poet permits themselves this sort of freedom, the final product has some variance within it and allots the reader room to breathe. This is an integral element in the enterprise of world creation, even if that world is largely internal and confined to thought. No world is any one specific thing (trauma, ecstasy, disappointment, or accomplishment) all of the time, always, forever.

The more literary term for a “turn” in a poem is a “volta,” and these are classically featured in sonnets which often have a dramatic curve in tone. Lubrin has multiple per poem and they never tire, they are strategic so as to keep the reader alert and engaged, evoking suspense:

If proof is what you seek: these doors, clear with fright
and conscience burst at the hinges and turn out all ill this life deposits,

however cosmic the unease, into the black sweater
of nighttime. I can’t tell you what marks the hills that wait

like hexagrams of frost. But behold the sweet, holy reprieve
of a hoodie pulled over the eyes in wanton praise

of the pre-bang dark when the world is too much.
Instead the sun comes up announcing it has touched the parts of us that hurt

In this passage, the speaker employs metaphysical conceit to move from grand existential observations to the specific of a black sweater. The voice switches from philosophically instructional to pragmatic and personal. Then what follows is a transition into something simultaneously reflective and collective, implicating the speaker as part of a larger experience: one who perceives the sunlight as illuminating the historical and individual pains of the past synchronously. All the while maintaining its musicality through creative word choice and graceful imagery.

There is far too much quality material for a single review to adequately cover Voodoo Hypothesis.  I will, however, state that I think this collection is absolutely perfect and wholly anticipate its presence on the awards shortlists in the coming months.

 

Julie Mannell is an author of poetry, prose, and essays. She is currently completing her MFA in Creative Writing at University of Guelph. Mannell is the recipient of the Constance Rooke/HarperCollins Scholarship, the Mona Adilman Poetry Prize, and the Lionel Shapiro Award for Excellency in Creative Writing. She splits her time between Montreal and Toronto.

 

To view other poems published in this issue, 15:1, please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum
 magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

 

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Vallum Poem of the Week: “Day 1: Uxmal” by Anita Pinatti

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Day 1: Uxmal

No sooner got here,
sweating, squinting,
itchy to leave.

Concealment lingers—
scruffy moss and lichen
reclaim a roof.

A sudden downpour
douses the temple fires
extinguished thrice before.

Darkened chambers shelter
darker ones holding secrets,
silent as bats.

Scorching sun, lashing rain,
self-sacrifice, hocus-pocus,
spiritual necessities.

An iguana, still as stone,
blinks one eyes and turns
the gaze of chance on me.

So we are visitors here,
passing through, blinking
in this morning light.

 

Combining poetry and photography is an enjoyable challenge for Anita Pinatti, but she did not have a camera when she visited the Yucatan many years ago.  Her poem about Uxmal is based on snapshots stored inside her head.  She received a Jurors’ Choice award in 2016 for a Flash Ekphrastic poetry event at the Hartford Art School/University of Hartford.

 

To view other poems published in this issue please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum
 magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

 

Featured Review: “Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie” by Jay Ritchie (reviewed by Bill Neumire)

Jay Ritchie’s CHEER UP, JAY RITCHIE

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(Toronto, ON: Coach House Books, 2017, $19.95, 88 pages)

Review by Bill Neumire

 

The title of Jay Ritchie’s debut poetry collection is teasingly straightforward, and it begs the question, to begin, why does Jay Ritchie need to be cheered? The book is full of disappointment, especially the disappointment and depression created by deep intellectual engagement and study—this is not the bliss of ignorance, but rather the dissatisfaction of “O I make so much sense all the time.” The war between feeling/play and thought/education is apparent in “Vanishing from Yourself,” where the speaker wants “[j]ust to not / know for a minute.” He remarks, “I drank red wine and coped like an adult” and “I made pasta because / I wanted to avoid the actual / conditions of my life.” As the title suggests, there’s a real effort, though difficult, toward a practiced optimism, a sort of fake-it-till-you-make-it striving to see the positive, which culminates in “Cheer Up, Jay Ritchie,” where he tells himself:

how giving is easy,
how gratitude is free,
how I believe in everything,
how there are omens if I want them

Ritchie’s voice is concise, funny, epiphanic, self-deprecating and simultaneously self-aggrandizing, splintered, and erudite. It’s full of allusions to writers like Richard Brautigan, Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Carson, Rainer Marie Rilke, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison. It’s a mind whirring like one of those simulated cyclone booths that we can momentarily step inside. His erudition often leaves us intruding on small glimpses of others’ stories, and then, through non sequitur and associative leaping, we’re ricocheted off into a new scene, forced to use the journey of juxtapositions to form our own tale. His voice is sarcastic but it’s also appreciative and affectionate—indeed, the word “love” comes up in many of these poems. The tone is flat as he pokes fun at capitalism, education, and lit crit. His speaker notes, “‘Here I am’ // using non sequiturs and air quotes” and later, “I try to look impressed, but / it comes off stoic and sarcastic.” As he mentions, he also makes skilled use of quoted material, dialogue, and a staccato, post-modern meta-take, curating little ironies like “[p]eaceful streets / named after violent men” and “The easiest way out is to look for an entrance.
In This Is Water, David Foster Wallace presents a fish who doesn’t know what water is because it lives in water; similarly, the speaker in Ritchie’s collection is so immersed in a stream of commercial plastic capitalism that he fractures himself trying to escape, to define his condition and to find value outside the stream, as the speaker in “Town of Mount Royal” asserts, “Going outside is the only way // to have anything interesting to say / about interior design.” The speaker—and increasingly books of contemporary poetry are their speaker—is vanishing and reappearing, even “mistaken for fireflies.” He often expresses the self as otherness, as here in “Water Tower”:

When I listened to my voicemail,
I conceived of my body
and moved to St. Henri
as a tower of water

His identity is intimately tied to economy, to money, as he observes, “The stores had changed / and so had I. / We were difference together.” Some reference to money overtly appears in most of these poems, a motif that quickly becomes existential and troubling in passages like this one from “Multi-level Marketing”:

There Is No Such Thing
As Ethical Consumption
Under Capitalism.

I read that on Tumblr
while working at the self-storage,
dizzy with love and disappointment
like my past self in Paris

Desire, advertisement, and debt all play crucial roles in this book, perhaps most trenchantly when the speaker confesses, “I buy plastic to feel / normal.” As a result, one of the strongest subtextual motifs is that of value—if the plastic junk of ads is a false, superficial value, then what is real? How can one possibly not become depressed, inadequate, broken? Indeed, this is ironically highlighted in the Camus-esque “Multi-level Marketing”:

In a Society That Profits from Your Self-Doubt,
Liking Yourself Is a
Rebellious Act.

I read that on Tumblr

The quest for real value begins itself in the negative, specifically, in the absence of money, as the speaker quotes the truism, “A Truly Rich Man Is One Whose Children / Run into His Arms Even When His / Hands Are Empty.” The world of money and salesmanship is absorbed into the building of the self, and the speaker takes this to an extreme as he writes, “Every Brand Has a Story— / Here’s Mine.” This construction is front and center as here, where Ritchie again employs dialogue, a strategy he often comes back to:

The rehabbed
juvenile delinquent said,
Building a house
is just a
series of small
tasks that amount
to something big

This struggle to become whole, to become oneself, is often articulate in lament, as in “I only wish I were myself.” In Mark Strand’s famous “Keeping Things Whole,” the speaker pictures himself as an absence, and Ritchie here also envisions himself in the negative:

Inserted
into a narrative I do not recognize—
I am not that, I am
only what can be articulated
in negatives, a lost item
that is definitely not there

The process of reflection is at its most optimistic in this moment from “Upcycle”: “BE / YOU // TIFUL,” a playful moment that makes, from the fracturing of a word, a larger meaning only possible in language. Language’s effect on identity is truly under the microscope, evident in this moment from “Vanishing from Yourself”:

You’ve made an arrangement
with existence to be
mostly language, and here
are the results: an impossible
demand for expressivity,
cognitive dissonance

It’s a collection that, despite its seemingly inward self-absorption—as amusingly intimated in the book’s title—is so full of brilliant voice that it makes me want to speak with it; a collection whose speaker reminds us that “Oil and Coca-Cola linger / on the poisoned lip of the twenty-first century,” and in this reverberating proclamation makes clear that this is not the depression of a singular speaker, but rather a crisis more universal, a conversation more inclusive and necessary.

 

Bill Neumire‘s first book, Estrus, was a semi-finalist for the 412 Miles Press Award, and recent poems have appeared in The Harvard Review Online and Beloit Poetry Journal. He reviews contemporary poetry for Scout, Vallum, and Verdad, where he serves as a poetry editor.

 

To view other poems published in this issue, 15:1, please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum
 magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

Vallum Poem of the Week: “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” by Charles Wyatt

Charles

 

There’s a Certain Slant of Light

Imagine the chandeliers, the candles
at moonlight cant, hedge twist—

portrait of a pale cry,
animal rondo, puffed and pouted—

The orchestra files from the pit,
first the flutes, then an oboe,

cleaned with an owl’s feather,
then several owls, struggling

with a guitar, a wheel of cheese,
the tiny bones and skulls—

They always leave because
they can see, they can sing in the

dark—

 

Charles Wyatt is the author of two collections of short fiction, (Listening to Mozart, University of Iowa Press, Swan of Tuonela, Hanging Loose Press), a novella (Falling Stones; the Spirit Autobiography of S.M. Jones, Texas Review Press), and three poetry chapbooks (A Girl Sleeping, Sow’s Ear Poetry Review Chapbook Series, Myomancy, Finishing Line Press, Angelicus ex Machina, Finishing Line Press).  He is the recipient of the Beloit Poetry Journal’s 2010 Chad Walsh Prize and the Writers at Work 2013 Fellowship in Poetry.

His first collection of poetry, Goldberg-Variations, was the winner of the 2014 Carolina Wren Poetry Series Contest, and was published in 2015.  His second collection of poetry, Rembrandt’s Nose, was the winner of the Second Annual Ex Ophidia Press competition and was published in 2018.

A graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music (BM), The Philadelphia Musical Academy (MM), and Warren Wilson College (MFA), he has served as visiting writer at Binghamton University, Denison University, The University of Central Oklahoma, Purdue University, and Oberlin College.  He currently teaches in the Low Residency Program of the University of Nebraska and the Writing Program of UCLA Extension.

Before this, he was principal flutist of the Nashville Symphony for 25 years.

www.charleswyatt.com

 

 

To view other poems published in this issue, please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum
 magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

Vallum Poem of the Week: “The Good in Us” by Chad Norman

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The Good in Us
for James Walsh, singer in StarSailor

When my passing through is over,
when a woman smiles as she cries,
when my country stops being involved,
when that involvement isn’t about wars,
when my country is really a peace-keeper,
I will know the good in us.

As my living becomes a dying,
as a man cries as he smiles,
as my life no longer includes greed,
as that greed wakes up with guilt,
as my wish takes over all doubts,
I can know the good in us.

Our tears are caused by a voice,
our voices can never be just noise,
our routines own everything we own,
our homes do not need large yards,
our properties belong to unhappy strangers,
I should know the good in us.

To fall over the top of a piano,
to punch a clock in order to be abused,
to sit on one side of a dirty window,
to sip a blend of fine coffee and rum,
to cry when a branch sways slowly,
I claim the good in us.

The good in us.
The good in us.
I see into the troubled now,
and hear a song so loud
I wonder if anyone else
can hear it, no, I wonder
why it plays so loudly for me,
I wonder if all of you
also feel and believe in
the good in us, knowing
it is there if we want it?

 

Chad Norman‘s poems have appeared for the past 35 years in literary publications across Canada, as well as a number of other countries around the world.
He hosts and organizes RiverWords: Poetry & Music Festival each year in Truro, NS., held at Riverfront Park, the 2nd Saturday of each July.
In October 2016 he was invited by the Nordic Assn. for Canadian Studies to give talks on Canadian Poetry and read from his books at Borupgaard Gym in Copenhagen, and Risskov Gym in Aarhus, as well as other readings in both cities and Malmo, Sweden. Because of that tour Norman has started the manuscript, Counting Coins In Denmark And Sweden.
His most recent books are Selected & New Poems, from Mosaic Press, and Waking Up On The Wrong Side of The Sky, from Grant Block Press, and a new book, Squall: Poems In The Voice Of Mary Shelley, is due out Spring 2020, from Guernica Editions. Recently, he completed the manuscript, The Black Rum Poems, and presently works on a new manuscript, A Small Matter of Inclusion.
In October of 2017 he read at various Eastern Canada venues in Kingston, Ottawa, and Montreal. And in the Fall of 2018 Norman will undertake a speaking/reading tour of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, as a celebration of literacy and Canadian Poetry.
His love of walks is endless.

 

To view other poems published in this issue, 6:2, please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum
 magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

Vallum Poem of the Week: “Prism Index” by Shazia Hafiz Ramji

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Prism Index

He turns and it is 11 o’clock, face pulled
into light’s straight tail boastful of time
the slaves it illumines. Of us, smiles; beacons
somewhere in a forest, a satellite swings
its arms cupped and wide, hugging you
a path made for you, the prisms that index
spines. I thumb through your white light.
Can you feel this? Bent needs, knotted might
might not come to see these losses.

 

Shazia Hafiz Ramji lives on unceded Coast Salish land where she wrote her first book, Port of Being, which received the 2017 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, judged by Wayde Compton, and is forthcoming from Invisible Publishing in fall 2018. She is the author of the chapbook, Prosopopoeia (Anstruther Press, 2017), and her poetry is forthcoming in Best Canadian Poetry 2018. Shazia’s fiction and criticism have recently appeared in The Humber Literary Review, Quill & Quire, and The Hamilton Review of Books. She is an editor for Metatron Press and the Vancouver Manuscript Intensive.

 

To view other poems published in this issue, 14:2, please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum
 magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

Vallum Poem of the Week: “Photo of the Sculptor as a Young Boy” by Cornelia Hoogland

CorneliaHoogland by JenniferArmstrong

 

Photo of the Sculptor as a Young Boy

At eighteen months the boy has the clarity of a tuning fork;
an interior self set to a faint vibration,
caused, no doubt, by the slide of rubber on skin
as he catches the ball he’s been handed
and instructed to hold. His vivid grip—
the way his piano fingers span the circumference—
compels the viewer not to his sweet face
but to the instrument of his body, hands in particular,
made for holding the tension
in the mapping of surfaces:
see his thumb worry that fleck of loose paint. The burn
of his life’s work ahead of him.

 

Cornelia Hoogland’s “Trailer Park Elegy,” (Harbour, 2017), a book-length long poem, was a finalist for the League of Canadian Poets’ 2018 Raymond Souster Award. Hoogland’s full-length play “RED” (Fountainhead Theatre, directed by John Gerry), is based on the fairy tale, Red Riding Hood, as is Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn), which was short-listed for the ReLit Award for Poetry. Cornelia Hoogland writes about, and sits on panel discussions of the Long Poem form.  Two short-list nods from the CBC Literary Prizes include Tourists Stroll a Victoria Waterway (Poetry) and Sea Level (nonfiction). Cornelia Hoogland lives and writes on Hornby Island, British Columbia, in the Salish Sea.

 

To view other poems published in this issue, 6:2, please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum
 magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

Vallum Poem of the Week: “San Gregorio” by Tara Dourian

Tara bio photo_Vallum

“San Gregorio”

San Gregorio has been there
before her
before those two wild dogs were.

An ancient temple
that I saw before
but had not seen until now,
now that I wanted to climb up its hill,

feet digging into
the glittering orange soil
a sand mattress
with olive tree springs

spring almonds
stone-cracked, savored
before the fall could dissolve them—

before her.

before her and I
woke up
to eat plums.

Originally from Montreal, Tara Dourian was initially drawn to poetry-writing a few years ago while living in Spain. Poems became a mode of expressing a fluctuating state of perception and recollecting experiences of place. Themes of nostalgia, memory and displacement frequently resonate in her writings. For the past year, she has been living in Italy pursuing a Master’s degree in Food Studies. As such, food-based memories have emerged as a significant sub-theme in her poems. The poem included in Vallum’s Issue 14:1 “Evolution” was Tara’s first poetry publication.

 

To view other poems published in this issue, please visit Vallum’s website.

Vallum magazine is also available in digital format. Featuring additional content such as: AUDIO and VIDEO recordings of selected poets, further poems, interviews, essays, and MORE!

Download the FREE APP and FREE SAMPLE EDITION for your tablet, kindle or smartphone through PocketMags OR iTunes.

 

 

Featured Interview: Zach Pearl, Winner of the 2018 Vallum Chapbook Award

Interview by Rosie Long Decter

Zach Pearl is an American-Canadian writer, designer, and educator. Born and raised in Des Moines, Iowa, his work is often informed by the tensions of city living in farm country and growing up gay in the Bible Belt. Zach originally came to Canada in 2010 to pursue a master’s degree in art criticism and soon after became faculty at the Ontario College of Art and Design, where he continues to teach part-time. Zach is also co-founder and Managing Editor of KAPSULA, a digital publication for experimental arts writing, and sits on the board for Mechademia, a biannual journal for studies in Asian popular cultures. In Fall 2018, Zach will begin his PhD in English at the University of Waterloo. Along with his partner, Chase, they actively span rural and urban—splitting their time between downtown Toronto and the riverside village of Coboconk, Ontario.

Ladybird Bug Boy, the 2018 winner of the Vallum Chapbook Award, is a collection of 17 poems that explore the act of identity-making and play with the line between inner, outer, and other worlds. Pearl’s language is dense yet clear, inviting the reader in. Over the course of the summer, he and I corresponded by email, speaking about his experience writing Ladybird as well as the monsters, creatures, and ghosts that populate its pages. 

Rosie Long Decter (RLD): Ladybird Bug Boy was written over the last year. Can you tell me a bit about the process of putting together these 17 different poems—where did you start? Did you begin with the intention of writing the collection as a whole, or did they come together along the way?

Zach Pearl (ZP): This collection definitely came together organically without the intention of it being a collection in the first place! Prior to last summer, I had been on a long hiatus from creative writing of any kind, so many of these poems document my proverbial climbing back onto the horse—I strove to write in different voices, explore formats that I hadn’t before, and look at a wide range of subjects. Inevitably, though, certain themes emerged that represent recent events—in my life and in others: finding a life partner, leaving a toxic work environment, becoming a homeowner, and various curious encounters with ghosts (spiritual and political). Conceptually, Ladybird is dominated by an urgency to reconnect with self and embrace the fact that one’s identity is a never-ending process.

RLD: That notion of identity as a process comes through with such grace over the course of the collection. There’s a recurring sense of the malleable or changeable self, particularly in relation to the act of performing—several times in the collection you refer to masks and armour, the idea of the body as a costume.

What drew you to that recurring language of performance, and how do you conceptualize the relationship between the “I” and the “act”? Is the costume a burden, or something more freeing?

ZP: I think I’m innately drawn to metaphors of performance because I have a performance background. I was a competitive dancer for many years and did musical theatre in high school. So, the embodiment of being on stage—the dichotomy of feeling physically powerful yet emotionally vulnerable—still influences my daily interactions with people.

In my past work as a curator I’ve also often been drawn to performance art, especially by artists using video and projection to illustrate the complications of the medium: privacy and consent are hugely central to performance yet rarely confronted until there’s a screen or a live feed that makes them too difficult to ignore. But, perhaps there’s no sharper illustration of this push-and-pull relationship than when I’m lecturing to my students, as I encourage them to respect my knowledge and opinions while at the same time learning to actively question them.

Are masks and costumes freeing? My gut response is to say ‘yes’, because it’s allowed me to focus my intentions and to be able to portray aspects of my identity with a degree of clarity. It’s very hard at times to know how much of myself to share with others, and a mask can act as a filter. It also affords some amount of privacy, which is increasingly undergoing a kind of technocultural erosion in our society.

Over time, though, the mask can get heavy. Emotional armour can be too rigid and cumbersome to adapt to new situations. And, the narratives that we’ve performed consistently can start to overtake us. The burden of a good performance is that the performer effaces themselves. So, it can be quite depressing unless you have someone who you trust enough to occasionally let them peak behind that mask. Several of the poems in the collection zero-in on this chronic struggle to know where and when to lift the veil.

RLD: I’m glad you brought up your work in curation and other mediums because I wanted to ask about how your experience as a graphic artist influenced this collection. Several of the poems operate on a visual level as much as a linguistic one; was that something you were conscious of while writing? What was the experience of shifting from graphic art back to creative writing — how do the two inform one another?

ZP: Writing in a visual way has always been important for me, because art was integral to my youth and I’m a textbook visual thinker. My parents have even joked that I could draw before I could talk, which—accuracy aside—speaks to my personal conception of poetry as kind of “painting with words.” For me, visual art and poetry inform each other as studies in human perception. The same principles of Gestalt that are crucial to creating a good composition actually still apply when crafting a good poem. Housing a rich metaphor in a sparse line to amplify its impact is no different than creating emphasis in an image by surrounding the subject in negative space.

Shifting my focus from graphic arts back to creative writing has been challenging, but the limitations of text can also lead to interesting outcomes, if you embrace them. A few of the poems in the collection are attempts in ‘illustrative’ stanza shapes and line breaks that reinforce a central image in an abstract way, and this is something I want to continue exploring.

RLD: You mentioned earlier that the collection was informed by various “encounters with ghosts”—there are many characters and spirits who pop up throughout your poems, some well-known, others more personal. As much as the collection is an interrogation of the self, it also seems to be situating the self in relation to these other figures; can you speak a bit about the ghosts? How did they find their way into your work and what role do they play in the process of identity-shaping?

ZP: I was exposed to death at a young age, and because of that I have a lot of stories about people who are no longer here. My partner is also quite spiritual and actively reads about various mediums and shamans. So, that inevitably works its way into the writing. In other cases, I’ve had what I would consider some very real encounters with the supernatural as well as strange recurring events in my life that can’t be explained, like the frequent appearance of ladybugs in my books and cooking drawers since my father died in 2000. When I say there are ghosts in the poems, there are some pieces that reference legitimate ones (or, at least my perception of ghostly phenomena), but other pieces are meant to resurrect someone as a literary device. I’m telling my story through their story in order to highlight how certain truths transcend time and even circumstance.

RLD: I also found the ghosts highlight how stories are connected or inherited—another person’s story can haunt our own. One of the “legitimate” ghosts in the collection is Mary Shelley, who has a whole poem about her. Frankenstein also makes an appearance in a later poem. Why Mary and Frankenstein? Monsters, ghosts, bugs—is it fair to say your work is interested in the non-human?

ZP: Yes, it’s more than fair to say that I’m interested in the non-human. A lot of my research looking at art and technology has dealt with the concept of posthumanism. Although the term can mean many things, I’m referencing the philosophy of defining human experience in constant relation to non-human forms of life, whether these are plants and animals or machines. This is also the main tenet of “radical ecology”. In either case, I’m just into connectedness and I’ve read too much Donna Haraway.

Haraway herself talked about Frankenstein as a mythical kind of cyborg in the way that the character is an assemblage not only of body parts but of different identities—the fool, the monster, the prodigal son. I think poetry itself can be like this: the stitching together and juxtaposition of words and sounds in order to build a creature of thoughts.

RLD: I love that link between Frankenstein and poetry, creatures of thoughts. Your collection can perhaps be read this way too—stitching together various identities, human or otherwise, as a means of connecting with the self and the world around.

Can you maybe talk a bit more about how this stitching happens—what’s your writing process like?

ZP: My writing process can be pretty non-linear, consisting of a lot of editing-while-writing (poor form, I know) and moving whole stanzas around several times, or gutting them completely and starting over with a few remaining words. In this way, it’s similar to painting or sculpture, where sometimes you’ll do an entire layer of something just to cover it up. But traces of what’s come before tend to shine through.

It’s also rare that I write an entire poem in one sitting. Critical distance was kind of hammered into us in art school, so I like to take breaks from the material. Sometimes, I literally stand several feet back from the computer when opening a document like I would with a canvas, which sounds ridiculous, but helps me to see the poem more easily as a whole. Ironically though, during those breaks I’m being exposed to yet more ideas—radio interviews, subway ads, political conversations. These often creep into whatever’s currently being written. So, most everything I write takes on a kind of hybrid or patchwork perspective.

RLD: Another kind of stitching together. We’ve talked a lot about your relationship to the collection, but I wanted to ask—what do you hope readers will make of it? Or what would you like the collection to do for readers?

ZP: This is by far the hardest question!

If I’m shooting for the moon, I want readers to come away feeling a bit mesmerized. I’d like them to feel immersed in a rich, visual headspace, but also to experience a kind of enigmatic distance from the subjects. Because my poetry is so personal, publishing it can be a vulnerable act. Some of the more obtuse elements in the writing are an intentional kind of safety barrier, and I hope that these moments don’t ultimately deter the reader. Instead, I’d like them to ruminate on paradox—their witnessing of my inner world while still firmly outside the looking glass—and eventually to celebrate it.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ladybird Bug Boy will be published this fall through the Vallum Chapbook Series.

Vallum Poem of the Week: “The Balance of the World is Tested” by Phoebe Wang

A43727.jpgJohannes Vermeer

 

“The Balance of the World is Tested”
After Vermeer, A Woman Holding a Balance

It’s staged and restaged but the room’s
essential elements are static: cluttered light

that even Baroque metropolises emanate,
strained through dust and barterings and down

from the high, hinged window suggesting itself
with an egg-wash glow. Often, as in this work, we expect

a table flush against the wall. The same props pretend
to have never met before, while the Last Judgement supervises

the very set-up the artist has accustomed us to.
A life held in balance, a woman composed between

the crosshairs. We require her to tilt her covered head
To lower her gaze. We drape her in royal blue and white fur,

ensure she is thickly padded against drafts
and sharp objects. We estimate her value. She’ll tip

us between patience and possibility, and we hold still
to see if the pearls stray from us, if we’re poised on higher ground.

 

Phoebe Wang’s debut collection of poetry, Admission Requirements, appeared with McClelland and Stewart in Spring 2017. Currently she is a poet-in-residence with the national organization Poetry in Voice, and works at OCADU’s Writing and Learning Centre where she coordinates Mighty Pen, a writing circle for BIPOC students.

To view other poems published in this issue please visit Vallum’s website.

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