Canadian Poets Petting Cats

cereusblooms said: Hi there! I was wondering how one would go about getting a poet featured on your tumblr. My friend Amal El-Mohtar, author of the stunning collection The Honey Month (Papaveria Press), is a lover of all things having to do with cats and would be keen to appear on your page alongside her feline friend Nimji. Her tumblr username, in case you'd like to contact her directly, is tithenai.

Thank you! She actually just posted something on the site. We’d be happy to contact her about her poetry and her cat(s). We’ve fallen a bit behind, but we’ll be posting more interviews soon, and we’ll email Amal to see if she’d like to be one of the new interviewees!

tithenai said: This is the BEST BLOG! Thank you for it!

Thank you for finding it!

Jay MillAr & Jonah

Jay MillAr (Other Poems) with Jonah.

CPPC: Tell us about your most poetry collection, Other Poems (2010, Nightwood Editions). It’s a bit different from some of your other collections, in that the poems are seemingly unrelated in style, subject, theme. Would it be uncouth to liken it to a B-sides collection of your poetry? Do you see a thread that runs through Other Poems?

JM: I discovered I was going through an anti-thematic period when I put together Other Poems. The manuscript was originally Lack Lyrics & Other Poems but the Lack Lyrics were too je ne sais crois for the collection, so they were dropped in the editing process. What I had left were the other poems, and I thought that was kind of an interesting space in which to make the book. I realized that I liked reading poems as poems and not worry about them as part of larger themed collections.

I’d been paying attention to a lot of books with conceptual frames – written by poets who think in books, like the way that bpNichol said he wrote books. And so I’d been writing books in that way myself for a while, such as Mycological Studies (which uses mycology to create a book of poetry) or the small blue (which is a series of meditations on a little line by Guillaume Apollinaire). So maybe I was wondering if I could create an interesting collection based on differences. So that’s definitely one of the threads running through that book – that no poem necessarily has to be the same as the one that came before it. Another thread is amusement – because I was having a lot of fun (and I hope readers do, too) engaging with different variations of the muse. The same thing has happened in my next book Timely Irreverence (forthcoming 2013) which is made up of a lot of occasional poems that were originally written using a massive 100-poem constraint until I finished writing them all and realized that the constraint sucked and was getting in the way of the poems, so I dropped it.

It makes me nervous because publishing a “collection of poems” (you know, the kind in quotes) doesn’t give the media anything to talk about. But maybe this will mean people will read the poems and think about them rather than sound-biting the book to death before they get a chance to read it.

CPPC: Your previous collection, ESP: Accumulation Sonnets (2009, BookThug), is the exact opposite: four sequences of 15-line sonnets constructed from the language that normally ‘passes through you.’ Is that a fair description? What effect were you aiming for in these sequences of sonnets?

JM: I suppose it isn’t what I was aiming for that comes across in this book, but what I wasn’t aiming at. Sometimes you want to lead the poems, and sometimes you like to let the poems lead you around. I was definitely following the poems where they wanted to go in that book. I was a gatherer rather than an author (if we think of authorship as a position that holds some kind of authority), but there still remained a curiosity about the line, about collage and framing. So I gathered and I edited (gatheredited?), and the idea was to see what would happen if I sustained that attention through the time it took to manufacture 52 poems. I like that book a lot – it is an aid to my memory.

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Angela Szczepaniak with Amelia, Audrey, Whatley & Violet

Angela Szczepaniak (The QWERTY Institute (Annual Report)) with past residents Amelia (in arms) and Audrey.

CPPC: Tell us about your most recent book, The QWERTY Institute (Annual Report). It seems a bit like a really erudite Mad Magazine, but all about fonts and letters.

AS: Mad Magazine — you’re too kind! The QWERTY Institute is for every reader who has ever wondered what letters get up to beneath the dust jacket when no one’s looking. Formally, QWERTY is a collection of visual short stories that dramatizes language’s role in constructing narrative. As Raymond Federman puts it, characters in fiction ‘exist only as beings made of words.’ The QWERTY stories make Federman’s observation literal by treating typographic characters as narrative characters to create a literary space that explores the limits and borders of language — that gap between what we say and what we mean, where language gets away from us and has a life of its own.    

As a whole, QWERTY is invested in the visual aspects of language and typeface. Many of the stories use page layouts borrowed from the comics medium, so that both the aural and visual elements of language come into play (and are sometimes at odds with one another). Other stories revel in the awkward design suggested by word processing templates (like the poster layouts in Word or Pages that end up in workplace kitchens to enforce lunchroom etiquette). In some ways the book is an ode to bad design. 

The individual stories take on a variety of shapes. There’s a bio-pic style story about a washed-up font comedian (‘K’) trying to stage a comeback; a series of font-on-the-street interviews with various fonts who consider themselves ‘normal’ and give advice to future generations; an e finds a discarded accent aigu and changes his life by wearing it as a toupee; and lots of other font hijinks. It may be easier just to look at a sample.

CPPC: For the record, how many cats do you currently have in your apartment? Do all the duties of attending to a cat ever keep you from your poetry?

AS: Right now, four, but the numbers fluctuate a lot. I house foster cats (for a fantastic organization called Abbey Cat Adoptions) so they stay until they’re adopted, then new ones move in. As of today there’s Bookman, Whatley, Tuppence and Violet — and you can take any of these fine felines home with you right now. There are many cat duties, especially when the numbers get higher. And many of them like to lure me into napping with them. Some of them actively try to stop me from working — lying down on my keyboard or books is a favourite tactic.

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Ray Hsu (Cold Sleep Permanent Afternoon) with an homage to Pussy Riot.

CPPC:  Your most recent book Cold Sleep Permanent Afternoon (Nightwood Editions, 2010) looks at the individual through the grammar of ‘Plural’ and ‘Singular.’ (The book is split into those sections.) How do you think these two grammatical categories affect our sense of self?

RH: ‘I’ is large, ‘we’ is small. ‘I’ contains multitudes, ‘we’ contains singularities. Does ‘we’ contradict our selves?

CPPC: When I first contacted you, said, ‘I don’t own a cat currently though I love cats and continue to have dreams about the cat I had to leave behind.’ Can you tell us about the cat you left behind? Is it too sad a story to tell?

RH: When I was little, I wanted a smart pet, one that could play chess with me. At first I thought it would be a chimp. But then I realized I actually wanted a sibling.

When my sister was born, my mom wanted to name her ‘Mabel.’ I suggested ‘Rachel,’ which stuck. Rachel thanks me for having suggested so.

When I was in grad school, I dated a librarian who suggested I get a cat. I named her (the cat) ‘Mabel.’ She is still with the librarian.

CPPC: You also taught for over two years at a Wisconsin prison. Were you assisting inmates in writing poetry? Can you remember your favourite poem from an inmate?

RH: [Listen to audio file.]

CPPC: Though you have no cat, you suggested an homage to Pussy Riot [the feminist Russian punk band currently imprisoned for hooliganism]. This was interesting, as most people have interpreted the ‘pussy’ in the band’s name as a colloquial reference to the vagina. But do you think a feline interpretation is equally valid?

RH: Yeah, I think that ‘pussy’ can refer to cats as well. The anthology title Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot has a ‘cat’ in it.

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Jesse Patrick Ferguson & Islay

Jesse Ferguson (Dirty Semiotics) relaxes with Islay.

CPPC: Tell us about your most recent book, Dirty Semiotics. It’s a collection of visual poetry? Is there any thread that runs through it?

Yes, my latest collection is Dirty Semiotics (Broken Jaw Press, 2011), which consists entirely of visual poetry (which some call ‘concrete poetry’). It collects my work from over several years, and I didn’t consciously attempt to give it a theme or to impose any rigid structure on it. That said, there are some recurring concepts in my visual poetry, and my process significantly determines how the pieces engage those ideas. One theory that I keep circling back to is that language shapes and limits consciousness. For example, I have a number of pieces that combine letters with found images of fetuses, suggesting the well-established idea that we extend our consciousness by means of language acquisition. In a sense, we are born through language.

As for how I create the pieces, I self-identify as a traditional vispoet. (I guess that’s no longer an oxymoron.) I insist on some element of manual/tactile creation in my work: my hand has to actually touch, cut and mark real paper. My tools are the typewriter, X-Acto knife, glue stick, felt-tip marker, stencil and Letraset rub-on transfer. I’m not such a Luddite that I won’t use computers at all (I use them to scan my final images, to tweak their contrast levels and to send them out for publication), but my process always begins with some old-school, hands-on element. That limits the types of images I can create. It also entails a fair bit of mechanical imperfection, which I prefer. I want to see the artist’s hand in the work.

CPPC: Have you ever thought to do any cat-related visual poetry? (I know you have some bird-related visual poetry pieces …)
I must confess that I’ve been somewhat leery of writing cat-themed poetry. This is partly the result of having been an acquisitions editor for a number of literary journals (including The Fiddlehead). We would receive heaps of dreadful cat poems, which often portrayed a cat sitting on the poet’s lap whilst he or she sipped tea. The temptation, I guess, is to become saccharine and cliched when writing about one’s beloved pet, and I’ve resolved that if/when I do write about my cat (or my son, for that matter), I’ll try like hell to make it fresh. Visual poetry might be a liberating choice in that regard, as I don’t remember seeing many cats in visual poetry.

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Nikki Reimer, Amy & Bella

Nikki Reimer ([sic]) with Amy and Bella

Tell us about your Lampert-nominated debut poetry collection, [sic]. What’s the error at hand? 

NR: Hmm. It’s all error. I’m the error. Poetry is the error. Writing poetry in the 21st century and thinking that its going to do a damn thing is an error; foolishly, I can’t stop myself from doing it.

You’re a Vancouver poet. Did the city inform your view of contemporary sexism and corporate culture (as captured and grappled in [sic])?

NR: I recently – in June – moved back to my hometown of Calgary after nearly eight years of living in Vancouver, but equal portions of [sic] were written in each city. I’d say yes to both: in each city, my personal experiences with and observations of the specific-to-that-locale contemporary sexism and corporate culture greatly informed my discomfort and frustration and therefore bled into the book.

One reviewer noted she’s never seen the word ‘crotch’ so many times in a poetry book. Why don’t you think the crotch gets mentioned more often in poetry?

NR: That is an excellent question. We need to rectify that immediately.

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Christine McNair & Lemonade

Christine McNair (Conflict) with Lemonade.

CPPC: Tell us about your
debut poetry collection, Conflict. In the classic ‘man vs. man,’ man vs. nature,’ man vs. himself’ literary tropes, do the poems focus on any one more than the others? Or is this a different sort of conflict altogether?

CM: Less man vs. and more woman vs., or else full of verses of neither. I think the book is more interested in conflict as a principle rather than death matches and tropes. It’s such a polite word for such a wide range of iteration, from the minor disagreement to great squalling brawls to world wars. I’d say there’s a slew of interpersonal stuff in the book tied up with the conflicts inherent in language and machines.
CPPC: Have you ever done a poem about the conflict between humans and cats? Or cats and dogs, for that matter?
CM: I have not. For shame! says Lemonade. I plucked words related to cats for Conflict, however. Feral comes to mind. Paws.

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txts-from-my-editor said: Nikki Reimer is a poet with a cat

That is true. And she’s coming up on the site soon! Thanks.

Zoe Whittall & Biggie Smalls

Zoe Whittall (Precordial Thump) with Biggie Smalls.

Tell us about Precordial Thump, your most recent book of poetry.  What is a ‘precordial thump,’ and how does that relate to your poems?

ZW: You know when you watch old movies or TV and someone’s heart stops and a doctor will just hammer their chest with a fist to get their heart to start up again? That is called a ‘precordial thump.’ It’s a single, purposeful blow to the sternum that will hopefullyget the heart beating properly again. When I heard the term I thought it was a weird, very beautiful combination and I liked saying it. Thump! Say it out loud. I love it, that p sound. At the time the book was written it wasn’t a legal procedure anymore, but I think that may have changed. It related to the poems because the book is part memoir, and it chronicles the end of a relationship with a pathological liar, and a new romance with a paramedic who was divorcing someone who was also a liar - truly bizarre that we found each other in that moment. I became a bit obsessed with the jargon of emergency medicine - it’s such an intricate and precise vocabulary that meant absolutely nothing to me. I would listen to medics talk about their days and it was a fun kind of voyeurism; I only caught about three-quarters of what was said. I liked that blurriness.

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