“Digging out weapons in the arsenal of language” : An Interview with Meena Kandasamy

14011389075562meenakanthaswamiMeena Kandasamy is a writer based in India and London. She writes poetry and fiction, translates, and often uses social media to discuss issues of social justice. She describes her own work as maintaining “a focus on caste annihilation, linguistic identity and feminism.” She has published two collections of poetry: Touch and Ms Militancy. Her first novel, The Gypsy Goddess, was published by Atlantic Books (UK) and HarperCollins India in 2014.

The focus of this interview is a collection titled #ThisPoemWillProvokeYou. Kandasamy’s poems, as the title suggests, often rely on a direct relationship with the reader. In this interview, we discuss language, protest, translation, and the role of the poet in the world. 

John Rufo: Your newest chapbook, #ThisPoemWillProvokeYou, features a bifurcation: two sections, the first titled “Love” and the second titled “War.” Could you speak a bit about the inability of language(s) to successfully communicate and/or deconstruct, to commit war and to commit love? I love the poems because you use them to speak of things that don’t exist—or don’t exist yet—and do this incredible act of pointing, accusing, undermining the status quo, flipping off the crimes and situations permeating everywhere today through gang-rape, discrimination towards Dalits, and the loss of lives.

Meena Kandasamy: I do believe that languages are biased, fucked-up structures, clearly reflecting a lot of the status quo, reflecting the inequalities and very often reinforcing them. This does not mean that language does not contain the potential for revolution, or to serve as a call to arms. I’m with Toni Cade Bambara (who, to paraphrase very wildly) once said: “The role of the radical artist is to make the revolution irresistible.” I think language can be used to mask grave crimes (the language of United Nations reports, for instance), or to send across stereotypes, or even sometimes to denude us of all feeling, all outrage. Capitalism does this successfully—using happiness and beauty to sell—and to extend its interests without worrying about the imbalance and inequality. I think this one reason why the role of a poet becomes important—you are not only saying things but you are also digging out the weapons in the arsenal of language, you are reclaiming love, you are celebrating beauty.Continue Reading

At Some Point The Writer Should Be Having Fun: An Interview With Arthur Bradford

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An incomplete list of the animals that appear in Arthur Bradford’s latest collection Turtleface and Beyond include a dead cat, a porcupine that menaces a recluse’s outhouse, a dog liberated from the pound, and the eponymous turtle, of face fame. Besides Turtleface, which came out in February, Bradford is the author of the very funny short story collection, Dogwalker. We emailed recently about Denis Johnson, loser lit, and keeping it reigned in.

I’m sure you get this one a lot, but I see some Denis Johnson in this collection. The main character being named Georgie of course recalls Jesus’ Son, as does the story “Orderly” about, well, an orderly.

But I’m thinking more of the deadpan quality of this exchange from “Emergency”:

“Georgie’s in O.R.,” Nurse said.
“Again?”
“No,” Nurse said. “Still.”
“Still? Doing what?”
“Cleaning the floor.”
“Again?”
“No,” Nurse said again. “Still.”

That’s pretty perfect&mdashed;some of the best dialogue in fiction writing, I think. The dialogue in Turtleface and Beyond has a similar feel. In interviews you’ve described Johnson as a hero of yours. Could you talk a little bit about how his writing has contributed to shaping your own?

Yes, Denis Johnson has been a big influence on me. When I first read Jesus’ Son, back in the 90’s when it came out, I had that same feeling I sometimes experience upon hearing a new song or seeing new film that touches on the current culture in a fresh and exciting way. It was so original and cool. It made me want to to try to do something like that myself. I admire the simplicity, humor, and grace of those stories. Later on, while I was an MFA student at University of Texas, Denis Johnson showed up to teach a fiction workshop. It was a total coincidence. I would’ve traveled anywhere for the opportunity to take a class with him, and here he was becoming a writer in residence at the school I was already at. He is a very inspiring and generous person. He didn’t seem to put much stock in the notion that writing can be taught, which is a funny position for a writing teacher to take, but I understood what he meant. Denis drove around Austin in this giant red Cadillac convertible that he tried to sell to me when the term ended. He said he though I could pull off owning a car like that. I wasn’t so sure, but I liked that he thought I could. Or maybe that was just a line he used to try to unload it. I didn’t buy that car, though sometimes I wish I did. Denis helped me get a job working on the film adaptation of Jesus’ Son. If you watch the credit roll my name is the last one to go by.Continue Reading

“Little, safe boxes that contain trauma and violence”: An Interview with Jehanne Dubrow

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Jehanne Dubrow’s latest collection of poems, The Arranged Marriage, tells a difficult and moving story about the poet’s mother and her early life. The narrative gradually comes into focus for the reader through a sequence of beautiful, haunting prose poems—narrow blocks of words the poet likens to “newspaper columns” that convey her “poetic reportage.” Jehanne is also the author of four previous books, including Red Army Red, Stateside, From the Fever-World and The Hardship Post, and co-editor of The Book of Scented Things: 100 Contemporary Poems About Perfume. She is the Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and an associate professor of creative writing at Washington College.

Matthew Thorburn: How did this book come to be? Did you conceive of it as a larger project from the outset, or did it come into focus as you were writing the poems?

Jehanne Dubrow: My mother has told me the stories that form The Arranged Marriage since I was a little girl: her exiled Jewish childhood in Honduras, her experience of being held hostage by a violent man, and her forced marriage in El Salvador which followed that trauma. These narratives are so much a part of me that The Arranged Marriage happened very organically. I wrote fifteen of the collection’s central poems in the first week and then spent the next two years building the rest of the book around those key texts.Continue Reading

The Economic Crisis and Survival of Greek Letters Part 1: A Tiny Interview with Evangelia Avloniti of the Ersilia Literary Agency

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This interview is part 1 of a 2 part series on contemporary Greek letters and the economic crisis. 

Literature survives. Always has, always will. Modern Greek letters alone have seen the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire, two world wars, followed by the Greek civil war in the 1940’s along with its recovery period and its military junta soon thereafter. And most recently, it’s overseen six years of Economic crisis, which has seen Greece on the brink of exit from the Eurozone. No matter—the literature survives. And in that there’s not only hope but celebration.

Some would argue, because of the crisis, that Greek letters are more popular than ever before. I talk with Evangelia Avloniti of the Ersilia Literary Agency about just that: the economic crisis, the future of Greek letters, and the author she’s most excited about right now.

Evangelia Avloniti founded the Ersilia Literary Agency in 2009 just as Greece began sliding into financial distress. Today, the Ersilia Literary Agency is considered the premier literary agency in Greece representing a select list of twelve Greek authors, locally and internationally, as well as thirty international publishers and agents among which are Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Grove Atlantic, Kuhn Projects, Zoe Pagnamenta, Levine Greenberg Rostan, and Elyse Cheney Literary Associates.

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Indie Spotlight: Etruscan Press

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Etruscan Press began in 2001, founded by Philip Brady, Robert Mooney and Steve Oristaglio, who currently serve as Executive Director, Executive Editor, and Business Advisor. Housed at Wilkes University and partnered with Youngstown State in Ohio, Etruscan is probably best known for poetry (three titles have been chosen as National Book Award finalists and other collections have earned a lengthy list of accolades), but Etruscan also publishes a complete range of rich and varied literature. Novels, memoir, short story and essay collections, criticism, translation, and anthologies all have found their way onto Etruscan’s list.

In 2015 alone, Etruscan is putting out Cannot Stay by Kevin Oderman, a collection of travel essays to destinations that are common, uncommon, and even imagined; a gritty coming-of-age memoir, Crave, by Laurie Jean Cannady; and Poems and Their Making: A Conversation, an anthology “moderated” by Philip Brady and described as “a collection of original poems and essays by a diverse cast of inter-connected contemporary American poets, delving into the origin and development of poetic thought, line, and structure.”

Finally, Etruscan is publishing three collections of poetry this year, most notably The Other Sky, a collaboration between poet Bruce Bond and visual artist Aron Wiesenfeld that will surely show up on a number of “best of” lists by the end of this year. For Ploughshares, Executive Director and poet Philip Brady will share how the press achieves its mission of producing a “body of work in fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, criticism, and translation [that] subverts traditional boundaries and manifests the impulses beneath conventional modes.”

KF: Etruscan’s catalogue describes the press as devoted to “producing and promoting books that nurture a dialogue among genres and cultures,” yet your list of titles share such a contemplative and careful approach to both subject matter and precision of language that it seems every Etruscan title could be called poetry. What do you think makes a manuscript uniquely Etruscan? Does genre matter all that much to you over aesthetics?

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“Poets should always take public transportation”: An Interview with Maureen Thorson

MetroDCIn her second book of poems, My Resignation, Maureen Thorson immerses us in the story of two people figuring out how to start a new life together. Her poems are finely textured, moving, and often humorous. She has a keen appreciation for the quirky natural detail or odd snippet of conversation that perfectly captures a moment—and her work shows us again and again how those moments add up to our lives. Maureen is also the author of a previous book, Applies to Oranges, as well as a number of chapbooks, and the founder of NaPoWriMo, an annual project in which poets attempt to write a poem a day for the month of April.

Matthew Thorburn: Would you talk about your process for writing the poems in My Resignation and putting this book together?

Maureen Thorson: The poems grew out of little notes and quotations that I jotted down in the months after my husband and I first moved in together. I knew I wanted to make something out of them, but I also wanted to preserve their “present-ness” by not reworking the individual snippets very much. So I ended up typing all the notes into 11×17, four-column sheets, trying to preserve as much as possible the formatting of the original, handwritten notes. Once I had four sheets filled, I printed them out and started drawing circles between bits and pieces that felt emotionally or narratively connected. I refined the poems by adding interstitial stanzas, or remixing bits of separate snippets together. For the final section of the book, which takes place three years after the moving-in period with which most of the poems are concerned, I relied less on this collaging process, but wrote more directly.

It took about five years to put the book together. Many of the first drafts I discarded, or folded together in trying to get a narrative arc that wasn’t forced, and which felt true to the sometimes fractious emotional process of becoming a couple.Continue Reading

“Uninhibited Openness”: An Interview with Dario Robleto, Materialist Poet

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Conceptual artist Dario Robleto has been aptly described as an alchemist, cultural archeologist, and “raconteur in the ancient way.” By his own definition, he is a “materialist poet”—a term that encapsulates his method of creating sculptural responses to lyrical material lists that mediate on the human condition. From black swan vertebrae to stretched audiotape recordings of Sylvia Plath, braided mammoth hair to melted bullet lead, Robleto’s sculptures generate narrative resonance between unconventional and often elaborately altered objects. With emotional honesty and tangible curiosity, his resulting exhibitions launch timely and timeless inquires into war, healing, memory, and the evolutionary relationship between creativity and loss.

Above all, Robleto’s art inspires responsibility for remembrance. His installations cultivate intimacy with history, using sensory particulars to excavate forgotten yet defining threads within the fabric of collective thought. Reaching across the boundaries of various disciplines, Robleto’s work poignantly contends that our understanding of human origins should be as sophisticated as the modern technology we’re now moving toward. In his own words, “The present is the accumulation of the past.”

Robleto has had over 30 solo exhibitions, most recently “The Boundary of Life is Quietly Crossed” at the Menil Collection, and “Setlists for a Setting Sun” at the Baltimore Museum of Art. He is currently an Artist Research Fellow at Rice University in Houston, where he lives and works, and was recently named Texas State Artist.Continue Reading

Indie Spotlight: McPherson & Company

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McPherson & Company began with a simple mission just over 40 years ago. Bruce McPherson was enamored of his friend Jaimy Gordon’s manuscript Shamp of the City-Solo, so when Gordon was unable to find a publisher, he decided to put it out himself. While he didn’t intend to continue in the publishing world, the novel’s success convinced him otherwise.

McPherson has since put out two more of Gordon’s novels, including 2010’s National Book Award Winner Lord of Misrule, as well as more than a hundred fifty award-winning and best-selling titles that expand far beyond the realm of contemporary fiction.

McPherson & Co. now publishes translations, such as Divine Punishment by Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez, which Carlos Fuentes lauded as “the quintessential Central American novel,” and a fantastic line of “Recovered Classics,” republishing authors whose work has been long out of print, including modernist writer Mary Butts and poet and essayist Edward Dahlberg. Plus, there are books on art and culture, belles lettres, and even some esoteric film DVDs of early art “happenings” by Claes Oldenberg.

Almost as impressive as McPherson & Co.’s wide range of offerings is the company’s support of independent bookstores. McPherson carefully manages its distribution, sending titles to independent bookstores weeks before they’re available elsewhere, with the rationale that independent bookstores inevitably support “independent writers from independent publishers,” and deserve McPherson’s support in return.

For Ploughshares readers and authors, McPherson shares how he’s remained independent these four decades, what he looks for in a McPherson title, and where McPherson is headed in the 21st century.

KF: McPherson has had an amazing run since its inception as Treacle Press in 1974. It’s almost a given at this point that every year a McPherson title will win national recognition, whether it’s an Independent Publisher IPPY award, a Pen Center or National Book Award, or inclusion on any number of “best of” lists. What editorial decisions regarding manuscripts do you think contribute to this level of excellence?

BM: It may sound pretentious to say that I simply publish books that seem to me important and worth sharing. But as an independent publisher, without directors and shareholders, I’m free to take risks that others perhaps can’t. I go for the best I can find (or who find me), and throw everything I’ve got behind the books I choose to do. It’s not really all that hard these days to find material of the highest quality. The Big Six still publish excellent books, of course, but seem to have relinquished entire provinces of literature to smaller publishers. Over the years I’ve been fortunate to meet and become friends with writers not only from around the country, but from around the world. Add to this that it’s not uncommon for my authors to point their friends in my direction. Sadly, the front list is very small, three or four books a year. I can’t begin to take on all the books I’d like to publish, and it’s painful having to disappoint authors whose work I revere. At the Book Expo America the other day, a Canadian publisher said he thought we’re living in a golden age of literary publishing. I believe him; the difficulty comes with convincing the reading public.Continue Reading

“So that the poem is an act of discovery”: An Interview with Brian Komei Dempster

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Brian Komei Dempster received the 15 Bytes Book Award in Poetry for his debut collection, Topaz (Four Way Books, 2013), which examines the experiences of a Japanese American family separated and incarcerated in American World War II prison camps. Through their interwoven narratives, his poems show us how the past never ends: it shapes and is in constant dialogue with our present lives, as our family histories are written into, and rewritten by, the lives of subsequent generations. Brian also edited From Our Side of the Fence: Growing Up in America’s Concentration Camps (Kearny Street Workshop, 2001) and Making Home from War: Stories of Japanese American Exile and Resettlement  (Heyday, 2011). A professor of rhetoric and language and a faculty member in Asian Pacific American Studies at the University of San Francisco, he also serves as Director of Administration for the M.A. program in Asia Pacific Studies. Next month he will serve as a fellow at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry.

Matthew Thorburn: Your poems combine historical narratives, your family’s stories, and your own experiences, which gives your work a wonderful texture and density—while also illustrating how these narratives are always intertwined with and complicated by one another. Would you talk about how a poem starts for you and how you weave these different threads together?

Brian Komei Dempster: A poem starts for me with an image, a scene, a phrase in my head. I must keep my pen moving and rational mind out of the way so that the poem is an act of discovery rather than a predictable journey. Sometimes I make surprising connections between events.

For example, “Transaction” started as a poem about the narrator’s mother receiving her redress check for her wartime incarceration in Topaz prison camp. As I wrote, this vignette intertwined with others: the narrator’s exploration of sexuality at a strip club; Detroit autoworkers blaming Vincent Chin for the loss of their jobs. In revision, I found it exciting to jump cut between the three narrative strands. Moving between historical injustices suffered by his family, his role perpetuating female commodification, and details surrounding Chin’s racially charged murder, the speaker shows the exclusionary and inclusionary nature of race and gender, money and power.Continue Reading

“You start out in difficulty”: An Interview with Dan Albergotti

Field_of_Light_by_Bruce_Munro_(12642954763)Dan Albergotti is the author of two books of poems, The Boatloads (BOA Editions, 2008) and Millennial Teeth (Southern Illinois University Press, 2014), as well as a limited-edition chapbook, The Use of the World (Unicorn Press, 2013). A graduate of the MFA program at UNC Greensboro and former poetry editor of The Greensboro Review, he is a professor of English at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, SC. Dan’s poems harness inventive (and sometimes invented) formal strategies to give shape to and amplify a deeply human, deeply American voice: like your dearest, oldest friend hunkered beside you at the bar who just happens to speak in couplets.

Matthew Thorburn: Throughout Millennial Teeth one finds sonnets like “December 25, 2005,” written in a very taut syllabic, rhyming form in which each line expands by two syllables, up to 14 syllables, then back down to two syllables for the last line. How did this form come about?

Dan Albergotti: That’s a form I invented about ten years ago, and a good friend has christened it the Albergonnet (a silly name, I know, but I’ve embraced it). When I first imagined it, I thought the tight rhyme at the beginning and end would make the form unwieldy. The rhyme scheme is couplet, so the Albergonnet demands that the writer establish a sound for the initial rhyme in the second syllable of the poem and then provide the rhyme for it only four syllables later. At the end, the last rhyme occurs only two syllables apart. So opening and closing the poem is formally a pretty stiff challenge, so much so that when I sat down to write the first one I thought it would necessarily be a failure.

I was really surprised when it turned out not to be. Then I wrote another, then another, then another, and the results kept improving. I had just been playing around with the elements of form, imagining something that seemed absurd in the abstract, but I think along the way I stumbled onto a possibly durable invention.Continue Reading