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Joy is to feminism as language is to Exhuastive?
One in a series of brief conversations followed by a poem from a few of poets you might not have heard of yet, starting with Susan Holbrook.
SQ: Susan, Joy Is So Exhausting is an exhaustive compendium of constraint based turns. Has your practice always been rooted in this way? Can you talk about the first turn?
SH: I don’t know if you mean the first turn in the book or first turn as a poet, so I’ll address both because I love to talk about myself. I wrote the first poem in the book after reading Michael Pollan’s bestseller In Defense of Food where he says of the past, “To guide us we had, instead, Culture, which at least when it comes to food, is really just a fancy word for your mother.” Of course his book is full of great stuff, but that line was bugging me, mildly. I guess because it implies mothers aren’t fancy. Mothers are very fancy! It didn’t bug me enough to inspire some kind of excoriation of Michael Pollan, who is a good guy, but was just a little linguistic burr that inspired a poem. I set those two deflating words “really just” into motion, bookending them with terms formed using words and parts of words taken from the quotation.
You’re right that there are many such constraints in Joy, and you don’t see that too much in Misled. I think you’ve already noted a rapport between my book and Harryette Mullen’s Sleeping With the Dictionary. Clearly I have no secrets from you – that is one of my favourite books and inspired much of the writing I’ve done over the past few years. I really like to start with a formal constraint; it’s a way to get started that proceeds to corner you again and again, forcing you to veer off predictable tacks, and it’s a particularly nice foil for me, because I also tend to write voice-y, ‘I want to tell you something’ poems like Good Egg Bad Seed.
SQ: There is a poem titled Q&A with Nicole Markotic. Can you talk about how that was written and whether your poetry is necessarily dialogic, or collaborative?
SH: Nicole and I have been doing homolinguistic translations of each other for around 15 years now. One of us writes a poem and hands it over, then the other translates, primarily through sound translation. It goes back and forth until the conversation ends. As in the childhood telephone game, phrases evolve and mutate and it’s fun to participate actively in those productive errors, see how each one plays into successive recastings of the poem. Aside from the libretto “Tse to Sea,” written with my composer brother Geof Holbrook, this is the only collaborative poetic project I’ve done. The most intensive collaboration I’ve done was with Thomas Dilworth, with whom I edited the Gertrude Stein/Virgil Thomson letters, a process inspiring the poem below. That was real collaboration, with the sharing of hotel rooms, the mutual editing, the bickering. I suppose the poetry that engages source texts is somewhat dialogic, though it’s hard to bicker with the absent author.
SQ: Women aren’t funny? Did you say that?
SH: It’s not a party until the humourless feminists arrive!
SQ: Seriously, is there a serious side?
SH: I get asked this a lot, which makes me wonder if there’s too much sugar on my pills. I feel there’s a lot of feminist, anti-homophobic material in there, and that that general ethic underlies the whole book. It’s interesting, though, to hear someone say of “Girlwatching,” which I imagined as two lesbians chatting about gals walking by, “I love that poem about the two guys watching girls.” You have to work hard to keep that heteronormative lens from flipping back into place. In my ridiculous S+7 tampon poem is buried the line “The tomboy should now be comfortably inside you”; I take that line very seriously. I just recorded the entirety of Joy for the Book Madam, Julie Wilson, which meant I had to read the whole of “Nursery” aloud, something I’ve never done. I myself was a bit shocked by the naked emotion of it, and realized I’d written a seriously passionate poem. I guess I’m pretty serious about the power of playfulness, about the ways a ludic disposition toward language puts you in more flexible, empowered relation with it.
SQ: Women and questions? What’s the deal? They are apparently a rhetorical nightmare. Do you find yourself less serious than “others” in the way you use questions??
SH: What? Are there that many questions in the book? For Q & A, we thought we’d try to be more conscious of the implied question-and-answer dynamic of our exchange, so I composed the first prose poem as a series of unrelated questions. The questions in “Textbook Case: Questions to Consider Regarding Our Last Phone Call” are of course silly. What else? Hm. You’re making me question. I guess Good Egg Bad Seed is really chock full of implicit questions – are you this or are you that? I must like the rhetorical attitude of questioning. Of inciting questioning. As Robert Kroetsch assures us, “Answers are always wrong. Questions are always right.”
SQ: You are a Stein scholar and recently, as you mention, you published a book of Stein’s correspondence. Can you tell me a little about that?
SH: Several years ago I was thinking about Stein And Virgil Thomson’s opera Four Saints in Three Acts, and went to the library to get their correspondence. It wasn’t there! You had to go to Yale to look at it in the original. Knowing it had been a source of interest for scholars and artists alike (the letters have been featured in documentaries, musical and theatrical performances) I thought it should be published, with annotations. I don’t think I quite knew what I was getting into; if not for ignorance, lots of great projects would go unpursued. In cahoots with my friend and colleague Tom Dilworth, who knew Thomson, I began the arduous process of learning Stein’s handwriting. Early transcriptions didn’t bode well. My worst, and the one Tom loves to tease me about, was my transcription of “somebody gets 50 000 francs” as “somebody gets SOOOO famous”! Over the years I figured it out. The other huge challenge was that the Thomson envelopes had been discarded, so there were no postmarks, and we had to establish chronology of letters that often address little more than food or the weather. It was more like detective work than anything I’ve ever done. Sometimes the two challenges would end up dovetailing, and a solution would come to light; for example, I assumed I had mistranscribed Stein’s statement that her dog Basket “has fleas but no almonds,” and Tom had no date for a Thomson letter about having a dream about Basket all covered in candied almonds. So Thomson’s letter confirmed the transcription and Stein’s dated letter put Thomson’s letter in chronology. This is probably not interesting to anyone but us. But that’s the kind of minutiae I’ve been completely immersed in for years working on this book which is now, finally, published! These two created remarkable experimental operas that entered the mainstream imagination, and were both incredible stylists, of course, so the letters are fascinating, as a record of collaboration, friendship (and, famously, quarreling). Navigating the project in collaboration with Tom seemed fitting.
Transcribing the Letters of Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thomson
I am practicing lejibibity, do you recognise it, Stein to Thomson, 23 Sept. 1928)
Thanks for the duffings.
Love to my Gody and quineff pumfally.
Smile and write look the same.
Saints and Emily.
Clippings, thanks for the clippings.
See you Tuesday. Fine, until Thursday. That’s Tuesday. Yes, ’til then.
At seven in the afternoon.
After Estuary after Easter flu, full
of almost almonds.
Margaret and Nougat.
Avery Hopwood assumes or assures. Avery Hopwood amuses.
Have you been a little better? Have you sent a bitter letter?
The train comes on the hon and half-hon.
There’s a good chance of having you finished
in January, or printed in Germany, printed
in January, finished in Germany.
A bitter winter. A pay official novel. Psychological.
The book was famously, permanently, persistently, furiously, permanently lost there.
It looks like terrified hills, sewing ourselves, Alice is rippled.
It looks like buttered
nightingales, and it is.
Love to anybody and yourself pumfally.
That story about piano is rapturously narty and that story
about Picasso is xceptionally nasty.
Thanks for the Christ on Epps.
There is no famous church at Epps, there is no Epps.
Georges’ 50 000 francs was SO OOO famous.
Love to everybody and yourself principally.
Anyway always, smile back soon. May your mossy
grutty be revealed as snowing gently.
From an uncatalogued box, buried
in the archive, may you fish out a postcard
of the Burgos Cathedral in Spain:
Jesus standing on eggs.