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Margaret Christakos: Latches, Hyphens & Dashes Oh My
Margaret Christakos is one of those poets who seems engaged with and writing for the next generation, even though she is in fact using tools and tactics very much of the moment. In her second last collection, Sooner, previous to What Stirs, she proved that she is a master of the recombinant text, creating bitingly satirical and luminous collages of mostly self-generated, occasionally google-generated, material.
Christakos is also a generous community-minded spirit concerned with fostering poetic discussion. To that end she has been running the Influency series out of the U of T’s Continuing Education twice annually since Fall 2006. This poetry seminar asks a roster of poets to encounter and respond to the work of other poets and brings the discussion of these poets, as well as the poets themselves, to a serious writing community. This is pedagogically brilliant. And even more brilliant is the idea that these poets don’t simply bring what they know to the table but that they themselves must reach out of their usual frames of reference: in other words they often find themselves having to assess and be assessed and addressed by “the terrifying other.”
Christakos has described her own work as employing strategic word pairings sometimes harvested from the internet or composed, to construct “forceful collages.” The indeterminate narrator undoes, or troubles, lyric expectations. The latter isn’t perhaps news. We have Hejinian, Howe, Moure, Robertson, Zolf, Riley, and so on, but what she does with all of that certainly is original and effective. Thematically What Stirs operates, as I’ve stated previously, as an exploration of the word “latch” and its many implications, most importantly the notion of entitlement and comfort. Grace Jones comes to mind here, her strangely haunting disco hit from the early 1980s in terms of our endless desire for comfort and capacity for entitlement. What if what we have is enough, Christakos asks. What if we are sated? Why are our fists still out for more?
One of the powerful forces at work in Christakos is the complicated representations of motherhood and domesticity. Here we see a poet/mother figure who traces desire textually/linguistically/and literally through her texts such as “News & Now,” “Mumsy,” and “Used:”
Be a letdown Always match Cleverly
match the gaunt Be up up
vain All the cleverly the punk
bowtie with some nice elbows Zesty
The desiring mother with her nursery rhymes and status as President of the Frank Sinatra fan club serve as markers here, the text using the tropes of mother/child expectations: the repetitions that soothe and the differences that surprise and offer pleasure. Throughout the text Christakos returns to latch, turning and turning the word on its head, so that we see the “maternal subject negotiating her desire to resist the sealed suction of the ‘latch’” through costuming in poems such as “My Attache Case,” for example, the usual shopping tropes in “Visual Splendour Coupons,” and “Lost (‘Immortal’)” There is a lot of fun in this text. Very subversive fun. “Turret Door,” had me laughing out loud:
She lifted the hyphen dash and entered the turret door, while the lady and I waited below.
She He’ll dash on fine initially, then he pulls off and pops himself back on with a shallow dash.
She The pink one has a hyphen dash for the lid and would look real cute on a chain.
She So they think because there is a hyphen dash you push under a flange a bear could not watch you once and figure the whole thing out.
She I will have to come up with some sort of hyphen dash.
She I admit that I am an addict.
She Dash hooking is my life.
The latch becomes what we click down, attempt to hold in place, rely on, undo and do. Finally we see the very structures of language, letters latching one to the other, piercing and clicking our own tongues. Here you can read a brief essay by Meredith Quartermain on a poem from Christakos’ What Stirs.
I recently had a brief email exchange with Christakos about both Influency and her recent work.
SQ: How did Influency begin?
MC: Sometimes you sense a gap in the poetics conversation; sometimes you topple into it headfirst. Critical reception is a very wide gap. I proposed Influency as a course because I was looking for teaching work, and had the ear of the Creative Writing program at U of T’s School of Continuing Studies. (I wanted to expand audience, not only work within the defined writing community I was part of, here the institution had some draw.) They met my proposal with some basic guest-poet honoraria—which was essential. After years of going to 12-minute readings and participating in the easy glaze of “you’re fabulous” and “that was great,” while bemoaning vacuous and mean-spirited reviews across the “literary” press, I thought a salon format where the expectation that poets would read at length and respond to each other with substantive, thoughtful prepared essays was, well, a real salve.
SQ: What is the basic outline of the course?
MC: Each session, 8 quite different poets are set into a round table of attentive pairs. One produces a 40 minute essay on the other’s new book, presents this to a room of registrants who have read the book, the poet gives a half-hour reading, we engage in a 45 minute Q & A, and then registrants compose responsive essays of their own. Each poet comes twice, once as poet, next as essayist.
SQ: What is the strangest pairing you have had and how did it work out?
MC: I asked Lola Lemire Tostevin to explore Barry Dempster’s The Burning Alphabet, knowing these two were established Canadian poets working in quite remote communities. Tostevin, by way of looking at Betty Goodwin’s figurative paintings and discussing Benjamin, laid out a resonant rubric of the implicit as core and key to artistic affect. It was a stunning essay. Barry was very moved and would never have received this treatment outside the bounds of the course.
SQ: In what way do you see the trajectory of participants change?
MC: There are established and emergent poets taking Influency; there are also readers of poetry who gradually are encouraged to become critics. I’m seeing various writers take hold of the project of critical reception as inherently creative. The essays being produced are hybrid poetic-critical, with teeth, and good aim.
SQ: You are planning on moving the discourses from Influency into a new, permanent online space. Can you tell me about that?
MC: In about three weeks, on April 19, an ambitious new Canadian poetics online magazine will emerge from an editorial group formed through Influency over the past years. Coach House has helped with the inaugural setup and hosting. Each issue will be organized around the in-depth reception of three book “nodes,” with major essays, editorial round-table extensions, and audio readings. The site will give poets a space to explore the essay and hydrid writing forms, far more than simple, basic reviews, although we will have a review commitment too. I’m thrilled about it, and will offer more details soon.
SQ: Your own work is quite unique in its ability to conflate feminism, desire, innovation and motherhood into a compact poetic. And speaking of influences, I see your influence in poets such as Rachel Zolf, particularly in Human Resources and the Neighbour Procedure, just released from Coach House Books. Do you see your influences??
MC: Thanks for characterizing my work this way—I appreciate it. I do see my influence with a lot of the younger writers I’ve worked with, yes. I have a commitment to encourage and help deepen the work of other writers without demanding that it in any way turn into mine. And there’s mutual influence flowing between Rachel and me, out of friendship and professional co-reading. I miss her, now that she’s in New York. Hanging out over coffee is important to writing culture, and everybody in Toronto is so busy trying to make ends meet.
I, the poets and all the registrants show up for these 5-hour Influency evenings out of the same significant thirst.
SQ; Margaret, I have described your work as “rigorously honed syntactical and etymological machines,” that are as domestic as they are conceptual, or in conversation with lyric desires as much as flarfist desires. Would you classify your own work as conceptual? Could you pledge association to flarf?
MC: I relate to minimalism and proceduralism, and have used selecting, framing and text-processing strategies intentionally to aerate grammar and redistribute syntax. I’ve harvested from the net, counted and used a lot of substitution procedures. These tactics go on always in relation to other poems and parts of series that do not operate this way, that in fact privilege writing from the imagination. Flarf is a trend I observe but do not mimic or extend, really; whatever continuity of Flarf’s outcomes found in my work has been generated within my handling of a counterpuntal banal and shallow piece with maximalist spread/leak in relation to segments that strive for affective lyric intensity and centripetal focus. I compose relationships among disparate poetic parts. I’d say my field is a lyric field within which these acerbic scores and gashes of the anti-lyric somehow stand in for the random, the belligerently chaotic, the boring, the ironic, the flat.
I really would not use the term machine in relation to my work, even though generatedness is obviously an important value, and engine is part of my lexicon. Cyborganics, sure, to reach for a body that is both natural and technologized: my interest in writing has to do with the relationship of parts to each other, of parts to their past or origins, of parts to their variant reappearances. It is/I am always interested in human relationship, and the relation of subjects to subjects. “Something inside me” takes for granted that there is, safely, something inside me, and it can be usefully lampooned, and it can also be a lung turned inside out to a life raft. I’m disturbingly sincere, often overtly concerned with grief, which I don’t think Flarf is.
SQ: I’m thinking of what many term Flarf’s limited range of responses, noting that, as you say, you are cognisant, perhaps even parallel in ways but not in that tradition. Wondering about the complicated relationships between humour, feminism, lyric, desire, and what you term “disturbingly sincere.” Is that a tactic or inscribed in DNA?
MC: This question makes me want to move into a resistant frame; let’s talk about writing as artistic practice instead of strategy. Tactics are the framework I use for teaching, yes, but not for poetry. What I am engaged in when writing and building poetry calls on the uncontained, unnamed, unknown as well as on the lost, missed and crushed, heard partially. I’m summoning, not reporting.
SQ: I see your work in conversation with Rachel Zolf, as mentioned, but also Lisa Robertson, Erin Moure, Susan Holbrook all of the women included in Prismatic Publics, perhaps, but who else? Which American poets, for instance, might you claim as immediate influences?
MC: Formatively I was affected by Americans like Laurie Anderson, Kathy Acker, Carolyn Forché and Adrienne Rich. John Cage, Meredith Monk, Cindy Sherman, sculptor Eva Hesse and painter Nancy Spero had an early impact. Over this last decade I’ve been interested in Lyn Hejinian and Jorie Graham.
SQ: What’s next for you Margaret?
MC: I have three teenagers and they bend me into consistently unknown trapezoids. I have a new book being released in April, called Welling. Very chuffed about the soon-to-go-live online mag, and I’m hoping to find some higher paying teaching to allow me more time for my writing. So: job hunting, that’s truly next on the list. I have a poetry manuscript called Solos I’ve been working on as well. I can’t give you a piece of it yet, too fledgling to too long, as much of the work unwinds with an ear for ambiance and slow transitions between the lived and the patterned.
Here is an excerpt from “The Problem of Confessionality,” a longer poem you can find on Lemon Hound.
Months later, actually
years later, a robin
bows at me from the fence
and then sails, in slow-motion
arrival, to my feet. He
with his dried-blood chest
has literally leapt a
fence to enter my yard,
sirens singe the air, I’m not
making this up. Through
the (vertical) fence slats, down a
(horizontal) laneway, a car flashes