Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Something about War: Janet Holmes re her book of erasures "The Poems of My Kin"

RK: Can you tell us what rules and restrictions you used for yr erasures of Emily Dickinson's poetry (The Poems of My Kin)? And were you 100% faithful to these rules? I imagine it must have been tempting to tweak things up now and then. But then again I imagine it must have been tempting to be completely faithful.

JH: The rules were partially dictated by questions of copyright: that is, I was pretty sure that Harvard (which owns the rights to the Franklin-edited Reader's Edition of Dickinson, which I used for the erasure) would not look kindly upon my using entire lines from Dickinson, so my first rule was that I couldn't use a line in its entirety. I also made a rule that I had to use at least one word from every poem -- I couldn't "erase" an entire poem, even though some were only two lines long. I kept the punctuation as she had it (for example, she routinely mis-punctuated contractions -- "does'nt," for example) as well as the capitalizations and misspellings (like "opon"). And that was about it! In only two or three cases did I use parts of words (like single letters) to create new words. And then, in the book, since there were usually lines erased between two poems, I put all the blank lines at the end of the first poem so the new one would begin at the top of the page.

RK: When we spoke in person this past April or May we discussed the difficulty of writing political and/or war poetry. Of how much of this sort of poetry just comes off badly. Weakly. Too much emotion. Extreme passion. So, part (a major part) of your decision to use the erasure form was, I think, that it created a sort of distance and mask for you to write about things (the War in Iraq, our country’s leadership, etc) that you felt very strongly about. And the finished product doesn’t, as much war/political writing does, seem awkwardly drenched with raw unprocessed emotion. Your thoughts, please?

JH: Oh, exactly. I didn't want to come off like a squirrel shaking its fist at the sky--Damn you, universe!--about something most people already KNEW was wrong. A lot of political poetry is the poet's making a claim of superior knowledge of things the reader needs to be made aware of or incited against, when the reader certainly already knows and has opinions about the subject. I once heard Eavan Boland call this a "tonal fault," a kind of arrogance in a poet that ruins the work, a condescension towards the reader. But on the other hand, what makes one so furious is precisely that one has no power to change things ("Poetry makes nothing happen," etc.). To take the work of a poet as passionate and yet as canonical as Dickinson, who also wrote in a time of brutal war, and repurpose that vocabulary towards a contemporary situation was liberating to me. And I think it adds immeasurable depth to the book. It felt almost as if I were collaborating with, rather than erasing, her because the palimpsests in relation to the erased work are essential. She uses a lot of martial language when speaking of evangelism, the Christian revivals that were going on in New England, and the fact that the Al Qaeda terrorists saw their work in terms of a spiritual calling could be spoken of with that language. The language of mourning is the same then as now.

RK: One of the dangers of erasure, it would seem, is that the eraser can fall into the trap of being overly excited by certain strategies of erasing and this can lead to overuse (abuse even) of certain techniques/tics/tricks. But, on the other hand, erasure creates opportunities for chance discoveries that can at their best be absolutely magical. Can you talk a bit about some of the “tricks” you came up with (and which you had to be wary of) as well as some of the magical discoveries the processed offered up to you?

JH: I don't know that I found any tricks! The gift that I wasn't expecting was that Dickinson referred to the desert, say, or to dogs and hoods, or to Generals, or to oil. And once I found words like those I could shape new poems around them. Right at the beginning of the poems of 1861 there are references to daybreak, martyrs, the number two, planets and air -- it was exciting to find appropriate language from the get-go, and to realize that someone today reading those words would immediately see again the Twin Towers being struck by two planes. And words that were surnames: (Daniel) Pearl, (General) Pace. At one point I saw the line "Bush found a way of entering my life" -- that seemed just horrifying, because, of course, he had. So I suppose you could call it a "trick" that I spotted these trigger words, but I really never knew what might come up.

Finding lines like "It matters . . . that the oil is gone" or seeing the first line of a poem, "Mine! By right of the white Election!" (and immediately hearing George Bush's voice) were like flashes of lightning, the magical discoveries you're talking about. There's a sequence of poems in the book that talk about Abu Ghraib that unfolded for me in an almost eerie way: first there was a Captive, then dogs going to the vein, and then a line "the Zeros learned to like power," and finally "She tied the Hoods to every shoulder." That was when it felt like collaborating with Dickinson: the words were telling a narrative so like the atrocity we had lived through, and they were already there to be unearthed. And my idea at first had been that the poems would not be narrative so much . . . I actually worked against that tendency (maybe that's something I had to be wary of?), but when you look at the book it seems almost chronological in how it unfolds. That's actually a coincidence.

RK: The MS of My Kin does seem "narrative" but some of the gifts of erasure seem to be non-narrative. I mean surreal descriptions like the elephants on yr page 11 that rise with “their/gales” and their eyes shining “quiet of death.” Or, a bit further on (page 27), a “panther/dropped/into/a face/suddenly.” And a similar example from a famous Dickinson poem (your page 65): “Shadows——hold/like/Death/quenching/the sky/’s/Candle.” I mean I guess the gift of discovering strange but compelling metaphor. But in the end, consciously or unconsciously, you’ve managed these strange and delicious moments of metaphor/juxtaposition so that they don’t take over the book and detract from the linear thrust/feel. Your thoughts, please, on the gift of these beautiful moments and how they seem to be the book’s color and spice rather than its flesh and bone?

JH: Dickinson's elephants--yes! Of course, in the erasure, they're Republicans...

The gifts you mention, the surprising metaphors, seem just as wonderful upon discovery in erasure as they do when they come to me while I'm writing, from the muses or the Martians or the transgressive sub- and unconscious. Truth is, there are probably millions of choices that could be made when erasing a text, and there were great ones I had to pass up. (You wouldn't believe how often Dickinson uses the word "impeach.") Each poem has a voice, though, and in the end I had to keep with that voice, which is probably why the linear thrust of the work is more apparent.

RK: Ron Silliman reviewed yr book and praised it. But, at the same time, since there’s already been a major erasure of a classic (Ronald Johnson’s Radi Os of Paradise Lost) Ron wonders whether we need more erasures of big names like Emily Dickinson. Your thoughts please.

JH: Well heck, in that vein, do we need any more poems at all? Plenty have been written already.

The point of the book is not that it's an erasure, wooohooo, here I am, erasing! The point of the book was to say something about wars, and about the Bush-Cheney Iraq/Afghanistan wars in particular. Erasure is a way of creating work, not a singular event accomplished at some time in the past by Tom Phillips or Ronald Johnson, and I chose to work in that youthful tradition for this book. If I, as a woman, select a woman poet who also wrote during war to provide the palimpsest of my erasure, that has meaning too, unless women's writing in general is also being deemed, à la Samuel Johnson, superfluous. Ron liked the book, but he is more concerned with firsts and innovations than with content and is less likely, I think, to see the virtues of anything that (innovatively) tweaks a process performed by one of his heroes.

RK: In addition to being a writer and a teacher you also run the prolific Ahsahta Press. Can you tell us a bit about your current and near future releases and plans? Things you enjoy most about working in the small press world? And any thing else small press related (Ahsahta Pres or otherwise) that you'd like to share.

JH: Sure, happy to! In September we released Kate Greenstreet's THE LAST 4 THINGS, which surprisingly shot to the top of multiple best-seller lists, including the Contemporary Poetry Bestseller List (the one perpetually filled with names like Oliver, Collins, and Keillor). The book comes with a DVD containing two movies Kate made, the first time we've shipped a book with a DVD. Brigitte Byrd's SONG OF A LIVING ROOM also came out in September, her third book of prose poems. In January, Brenda Iijima's IF NOT METAMORPHIC comes out (with some awesome artworks by Jeff Clark inside), and Rae Armantrout's pick for the 2009 Sawtooth, Julie Carr's 100 NOTES ON VIOLENCE, will be released. Susan Tichy's GALLOWGLASS -- a remarkable work of mourning with her ever-present sensitivity to social injustice -- comes out in March, as does the new book by Sandra Doller (née Miller), CHORA. In May we'll bring forth Lance Phillips' THESE INDICIUM TALES, the third volume in his ongoing project and perhaps the most sensual.

Except for the January titles, all these books have been written by poets whom Ahsahta discovered or has published before -- the 2009-2010 season is our 35th, and we're celebrating it by showing off new work from our list of artists.

I've just put together the list for 2010-2011, which will include new books by Karla Kelsey (Knowledge, Forms, the Aviary was a Sawtooth winner in 2005; the new one is ITERATION NETS), Brian Teare (PLEASURE), Kirsten Kaschock (A BEAUTIFUL NAME FOR A GIRL), Susan Briante (THE END OF ANOTHER CREATURE), Brian Henry (LESSNESS), Lisa Fishman (F L O W E R C A R T), and whoever wins our 2010 Sawtooth contest.