SKEIN OF DAYS

Skein of days Necessary Fiction

EXPERIMENTAL POETICS:
WRITING AS RESEARCH IN SKEIN OF DAYS
OR LOOKING FOR AMYGDALA

“Marjorie Perloff points out that conceptual or uncreative writing projects are born of interesting ideas but are largely not for reading; in my mind, I nailed interesting but not compelling. Layering tables of contents and song titles and then physics text and finally award-winning poetry both broadened and deepened the public lexicon and slowed a compensatory drift to narrative in what a friend called “Little Sonja” pieces and instead set in motion a series of accretions including the text containing red, referencing the monarchy, women, racial designations, aircraft crashes, etc. These gleanings shimmer or flame with specific frames of lived time. My goal was not remotely a grand narrative; it was to examine the fabric of the language surround.”
Visit Necessary Fiction’s page to read the full text of Sonja Greckol’s Research Notes: Skein of Days

Skein of days reviews

The Poetics of Everyday Life by Kit Dobson

Kit Dobson Reviews SKEIN OF DAYS

This review “The Poetics of Everyday Life” featuring 3 poets including Sonja Greckol, originally appeared in Recursive Time. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 222 (Autumn 2014): 148-50.

These three recent books of poetry attest to the range and diversity of works that are being published across the country by both new and more established authors. Glen Downie’s Monkey Soap, Sonja Ruth Greckol’s Skein of Days, and Luann Hiebert’s What Lies Behind work across and between found, procedural, and lyrical modes in order to display the possibilities of the poetic form.

Glen Downie’s Monkey Soap is a book that mines its material from a series of out-of-date, how-to and fashion books, as well as noir films. It builds on Downie’s previous titles, such as his 2008 Toronto Book Award-winning Loyalty Management and 2011’s Local News. The title comes from a recipe found by Downie for a household produce that he states, “includes no monkeys among its ingredients” and whose “efficacy in washing monkeys” he is unable to “vouch for.” The book manages to uncover surprising poetry in what would otherwise be relatively banal material. For instance, the poem “The Wild Grain” notes, with deceptive simplicity, that

Anyone who has had anything to do
in the last 15 years
can hardly have escaped

contact
with plywood
But many persons know
very little about it[.]

The poems of Monkey Soap, in other words, work across the everyday and the bizarre, finding poetry in places we might not expect. The everyday world reveals important questions and answers that move from the quotidian toward the existential, and, as the book ends with a woman who “was once kind enough / to mourn” the speaker’s death, even though it ended up being an “occasion” that “was / fortunately // a false alarm,” we see a poetic practice that builds upon the scraps of daily life to uncover broader questions.

Similarly, Sonja Greckol, in Skein of Days, uses archival newspaper research in order to construct an image not only of the poet’s life through headlines, but also of the ways in which life proceeds over the second half of the twentieth-century and into the twenty-first. This book builds on her previous Gravity Matters and displays a strong command of its material. Greckol searches for and remixes material from headlines in key periodicals on dates near to her own birthday each year, and sets it alongside snatches of then-popular songs and lines from each year’s Governor General’s Award-winning book of poetry. Each year produces a poem as a result; for 1969, for instance, we read:

comets and petroleum transverse optical lattice scared claw

or suddenly velvet returns to bug and prod Edmonton refinery of $85
million rising to bad moon Aquarius

Now we are here and because we are short of time
I will say it; I might even speak its name. 
—Gwendolyn MacEwen

The effect is jarring, yet at the same time curiously melodic; the cacophony of the competing voices that we encounter in every year makes way for a settled voice that demonstrates that these unsettling rhythms are simply the poetics of the world. People die, suffer, and debate endlessly in the headlines of Greckol’s book, yet, as we hear in the poem “Small Matters Still Matter,” “small things thing / up into / large, complex like us” and, ultimately, “still matter.” The minutiae matter, profoundly so, and become the hum according to which the days assemble themselves over a long enough timeline.

Finally, Luann Hiebert’s What Lies Behind is a strong debut volume of lyric poetry that meditates on the middle of life from a prairie landscape. Hiebert’s verse is at its strongest when she uncovers puns in the language that she playfully breaks apart, as in “meno madness”:

how do you do
meno  pause     your imbalance hormones    all    heyday fightto con       troll the game live  playm-bodied craze

Hiebert’s book plays with the line and with language at the same time as it traverses questions of love, loss, the natural world of the prairie, and the haunting calls of trains on tracks that “race on relentless==just beyond reach.” It is welcome as a debut book that provides glimpses into an order that seeks quiet in between the eruptions of the everyday world.

  
Poetry as the Conceptual Experiment of Language by Jacqueline Valencia

Review by Jacqueline Valencia

I once heard that everyone’s eyes and ears are shaped differently. It is very possible that we don’t hear and see things the same way. What’s blue to me might be green to someone else. How can we decipher specific scenarios or emotions if we all see things in our way? As a means of communication, language must internally suffer from a form of literary synaesthesia, whereupon no one word could precisely describe the tones or hues of our individual experiences. Poetry as a translation of experience, setting, place, time, and most of all, emotions, became a challenging form of expression for me.

My love of poetry began in childhood when I was taught sing-a-longs in school. I’d jot down the songs in my diary and I would make a note for the future reader to sing along with me. At some point, I realized that the reader probably wouldn’t know the tune, so I’d try to transcribe it in onomatopoeia next to the lyrics. Many years later, I picked up the diary again. I still remember the songs, but the gibberish writings beside them made me curious. They looked like songs written in an alien vocabulary. This is when I started to think of language as abstract machinery.

I once heard that everyone’s eyes and ears are shaped differently. It is very possible that we don’t hear and see things the same way. What’s blue to me might be green to someone else. How can we decipher specific scenarios or emotions if we all see things in our way? As a means of communication, language must internally suffer from a form of literary synaesthesia, whereupon no one word could precisely describe the tones or hues of our individual experiences. Poetry as a translation of experience, setting, place, time, and most of all, emotions, became a challenging form of expression for me.

As a teenager I would write about my day in poetry. It was a school notebook where I’d scrawl childish stanzas of my existential angst and my silly crushes. A lot of that was infused with sounds and colors that I couldn’t accurately elucidate. The sound of running shoes shuffling on gravel evokes thoughts of recess and sitting by the fence watching kids play. I found it safer there to connect with my thoughts instead of joining in playing. If you don’t join in, you don’t get bullied. If you don’t join in, you don’t say the wrong thing. Needless to say, to me the soft friction of rubber soles on concrete is an isolating sound with dark tones and hints of expectation. To someone else the same sound will elicit different memories, delineated from their own realities.

In university, it seemed like a breath of fresh air to learn more about poetry and that it could exist in conceptual forms. Poetry is experimental when we use it as a tool to decipher our individual lexicons. Language is an organic, breathing, and ever evolving entity. Learning about conceptual poetry put new tools at my disposal. I could use sound itself, pictures of words, pictures of pictures, appropriation, and materials from the real world to discern the internal. A spoon, a book, a grocery receipt becomes a blank page.

Sonja Greckol’s Skein of Days (Pedlar Press) is an excellent example of portraying personal history through a mixture of the lyrical and the experimental. By fusing diary entries, newspaper headlines, popular song lyrics, and stanzas from her favourite poets, she travels from her birth to the present. Greckol finds language place cards in her memories and assembles them on the page.

“Soviets Meeting  — Bloodier War Feared

commons canon submarines storm yellow refuse 
       made walking home oscillate boots grey fleck

        …you see in the left-hand corner 
       a things that is like a branch; part of a tree
       (balsam or spruce) emerging
                                       -Margaret Atwood” (Greckol, “1966”)

The response to the ominous headline describes a once hopeful band of shiny troops, already gutted from the war having to turn back again toward bigger battles. Grey boots fleck as if they were kicking up the dirt in the Atwood excerpt. In the peripheral sight of the reader, amongst the gloom, there is possibility in the emerging greenery.

“World Baffled By Refugee Problem – Homeless Arabs Still Present A Big Threat To Peace In the Middle East

orbit Jupiter breathless 
spin smoke in your eyes
waves torso come hooked
dance unhooking things

        With eyes whose tears have quotaed out to ice long ago,
        Eyes bright as the critical light upon the white snow;
                                                   -James Reaney” (Greckol, “1958”)

Here Greckol emphasizes the world’s detachment from the refugee. The world is baffled at this foreign problem on earth, yet in the following quatrain, alien planets navigate in a beautiful harmonic dance. Reaney’s Invocation to the Muse of Satire becomes an ironic punch line: the “problem” has existed for years, but the poet must look with new eyes at this tension between threat and peace. Greckol seeks her own muse and invents one in the god of thunder, hoping he’ll enlighten her.

Sonja Greckol takes direct examples from her surroundings to create a historical document with her poetry out of the filigree in her life. I researched the dates and tried to place myself in Greckol’s space and time. We live in a world where everything is searchable and the information we find is overwhelming. Greckol’s algorithms run congruent to a certain generation, a specific geography, and various revolutions, and their perspective ideologies. It made me wonder what my poetic timeline would look like. The collage would include the influx of the very technology that I would be utilizing to create the poem.

While Skein of Days focuses on textures of time, Kaie Kellough creates all manners of prose utilizing the poet’s lyrically linguistic background. His poetry collection Maple Leaf Rag (ARP Books) is housed in a sleeve, like a record, which is his work’s conceit. Pulling out the book the reader will notice a faint outline of graph paper on the cover, plotted with time signatures and rests. If we look even closer, the pattern is reminiscent to an ancestry map. The reader is immediately presented with a visual expression of the poetry within.

Leafing through the pages, the work becomes a songbook whereupon the oral tradition manifests itself as a diversely amoebic map of Kellough’s poetic and musical DNA. He renders his ideas through devotional lyric poems, densely packed prose poems, blues lyrics, activist chants, dub poetry, and more, paring down these forms to expose a tune, a thought, or a provocation. 

“til gabriel’s final blast 
summons all sufferah
to the world-purging firmament

the dee-jay hones his voice
to blare, horn-brazen
to scatter oppression

to blight di wicked dem
smug in dem manshun
to mute all hypocrite

lecteur, priest, politician
to quake the land 
wid a wall-crumbling cry”

(Kellough, “deejay”)

Kellough employs the syncopated blues tercets in the voice of the deejay. The deejay transforms into a powerful locutor that controls the medium regardless of the message or the setting he transmits in. In one of the footnotes that go with some of the poems, Kellough explains: “Dee-Jay: In the hip-hop tradiction, the DJ spins the records while the MC elaborates in rhythmed language, engages beat with speak.”  The poem’s emphasis on elocution continues on this note and places the reader in the poet’s world. Kellough’s work is an immense feat exploring the audial multicultural self in an environment that continually struggles with its national identity.

Maple Leaf Rag references Kellough’s history also as a sound artist and the cultural meat that goes into the language the artist must create for that individual expression. I can’t even imagine tackling my own background in the Latino diaspora where we have the African, the European, the Native, and as in my case, the Asiatic histories that weave through it. My Colombian parents’ musical and spiritual history would be an immense responsibility for me as a daughter, let alone as a poet.

While Kellough’s and Greckol’s works journey through personal worlds, Lisa Robertson’sCinema Of the Present (Coach House Books) places the reader as the subject. Many critics I’ve read have labelled Robertson’s work to be indefinable, which is partially what attracted me to her. In this book she navigates the reader through various scenarios, much like a director instructing her actor through a scene. Exploring that metaphor with more intensity, Cinema of the Present is an extended avant-garde art recipe the reader must follow entirely in their minds.

“What is the condition of a problem if you are the problem?

You move into the distributive texture of an experimental protocol.”

Through two-line sequencing, the author dives into questions, answers, non-sequiturs, declarations, settings, backgrounds, and ideologies. Sometimes the reader will go from line to line in a different quadrant or universe altogether. Subliminally, through these instructions, the reader becomes the subject, the pronoun, experimented on. Robertson sculpts a hybrid entity out of the words and labels around us.

“You were somersaulting in darkness.

And then you recline against an image.

How difficult to choose between a system and a method!

And there you were, still in your travelling clothes.

You were being internally photographed.

And these phonemes were the phonemes of a perfume that combed your body.

Sometimes the concept of plentitude is a help.

And this is the continuous action of the given world on your person.

You were pulled over to sleep.

And this too?

Very simply like this you disappeared into the interval.”

(Robertson)
    

Text and its utterance becomes a sculpting medium where patterns form within the reader’s imagination. Robertson intermixes a confessional style with a scientific method. “You” were doing one thing, but really you were being “photographed.” The passive observation of the subject influences like a “perfume that combed your body.” Nature versus nurture provokes the analytical mind to seek out truth and Robertson plays with the verbs, and the timing of the sentences around them to abstract the reader’s intrinsic reality.

While reading this book, I kept going to the title,Cinema of the Present. As a film critic, I’ve been exploring the idea of the separate movie that plays inside the viewer’s brain. An audience will see the same film in the same theatre, but each of the viewers will experience the film in a variety of ways. A viewer brings in their own histories, thereby their own interpretation of the director’s artwork. The director has very little power over the movie that plays inside an individual’s brain. They can merely guide the audience to their vision, but they cannot direct beyond that. Robertson breaks through that barrier by using the same techniques a director would use on an audience if they had a supernatural power to reach inside an audience’s brain.

Roberston left me questioning that outside versus inside positioning of thoughts and perspectives. It’s hard to shake off a book of interrogations that posit and reposition the reader. There are no lyrics or histories here, only the here and now. 
These are all serious language works that use words as directorial playgrounds to convey their conceptual messages. However, like Kellough, and having seen both in multimedia performances, Gary Barwin comes to mind when I think of sound and the visual in poetry; only with Barwin, the word play is at the forefront. In moon baboon canoe (Mansfield Press) Barwin crafts a series of intimate, lyrical, and concrete poems full of semantic and word persiflage.

3

glass braid of the eclipse
winter makes smaller our small sun
for whom consolation
is everywhere
a song of longing
whispered between fiche and phone

seedpod is the nape
of springtime on the map of trees

[insert song here]
a fossil
an earnest stethoscope
but no end”

(Barwin, “seedpod microfiche”)

A seedpod contains many possibilities, yet a fossil of a seedpod encompasses a limitless amount of unheard stories. If the reader Googles the two words of the title separately and reads the passage above, an entire dimension opens up. Pods and fiches come in many forms of information and life within that information. The line “Winter makes smaller our small sun” is contrasted with “seedpod is the nape/of springtime on the map of trees.” Barwin makes the minutiae larger than life, even when he writes stuff like this:

“Delete this line
Delete this line.
Delete this line.
Delete this line.

Delete this line.
Delete this line.
Delete this line.
Delete this line.”

(Barwin, “sonnet”)

 

“Delete this line,” is a phrase that is familiar that often repeats itself in the writer’s process, occurring when writing poetry, an essay, or even status update.

The joy I encounter the most in modern poetry that experiments are the lists of notes and acknowledgements. While I enjoy some explanations or dedications for the poems, I do look for influences and source texts. moon baboon cafe has several poems written as responses to works of art (“Carrying Big Boy” is a response to a repainting of “Ecce Homo”) and magazine articles (“Animal Intelligence” is sourced from a science piece on moths that drink the tears of sleeping birds).

I source a lot from written works from James Joyce to The Wall Street Journal. If it’s part of the setting where I write, it’s probably in something I’ve written. This is why appropriation is a natural extension of the poet. An author can reinvent the meaning of a subway poster or they can cast a new light on a pre-existing work. Poet Gregory Betts only wrote the introduction to This Is Importance. The book is a collection of mistakes Betts’s students have made. We might term this book as a form of uncreative writing, but the art in Bett’s curation lies in the chapter headings he’s condensed them in.

Here are parts of “On Reading.”

“Reading is a painful experience, although pleasurable.
Reading creates a sinister impression of the imagination.”

On “Profound Forisms I”

“The author uses a forism to express a commonly held belief.
Atomization is about atoms flowing around in space.”

On “Stephen Leacock”

“Stephen Leacock is considered to be a humouristic novel.
Leacock’s work describes the small town of Maripoza, full of zany inhabituals, like the Pathetic Knights who sink a boat to show their love for Canada.”

The student’s mistakes become comedic fodder, although in some ways they also make the reader think. Well, Leacock could very well be a humoristic novel, no? The intention of the writer doesn’t necessarily denote the intention of the curator or reader, thus creating a new work from an available text. This is the bare bones of a poem, coming from what the writer takes from the microcosm in their lives, the conversations we hear, the beggar on the street, to the stop sign by the curve. The poet steals from the outside to describe their individual process in their life trajectory. There are times when these samples create connections with the reader, then there are other times when these experiments provoke revolutions. I don’t necessarily believe that the Pathetic Knights will make me sink a boat for the love of my country, but I sure might watch with a name like that. The revolution will not be televised; it’s probably being curated online as I type.

There have been many times though where I have observed or created unintentional humour in my conceptual work. It usually occurs when I read it outloud or hear someone else performing it. Google searches and computer generated poetry is rife with accidental chuckles. The Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jonathan Ball anthology Why Poetry Sucks exposes some of that humour in experimental poetry.

Dante Alighieri @DanteAlighieri
Sad Clown of Commedia shall I tweet,
Whose droll gestures purge all melancholy,
To socially network with Bill Murray.
1.04-06

Dante Alighieri @DanteAlighieri
Chicago Catholic, one of nine – O
Sarcastic Muse though Don Pardo opin’d
Thou wert Not Ready for Prime Time TV.
1.07-09”

(Nathan Duek, “Invocation”)

By parsing Alighieri’s works through the stream of Twitter as he observes Bill Murray, Duek remixes an old literary master with a present comedic hero. Social media is a compelling toy to the poet. We network through it, render information from it, like Barwin’s seedpods the sources and its combinations are infinite.

“Pablo Neruda said that language of the soul …
I know —-I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda,
and, as your president, I would demand a science-fiction library
with an A-B-C of the genre: Asimov, Bester, Clarke…

it’s the Lisa Simpson Book Club —-
Poe, Ginsberg, Kerouac.
those are my only friends —-“

(Lindsay Cahill, “drunk as a poet on payday”)

Cahill is a poet that pilfers directly from episodes of The Simpsons in this poem. Remixing transcripts from the show, you wouldn’t know she hadn’t written any of it or where it came from had she not included “Lisa Simpson Book Club.” Since the show is part of our popular culture, the humor in Cahill’s work here, connects to an audience that might not be exposed to poetry, but will understand the humor in the poetics of the show she exposes. It’s interesting to note that while the experimental might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the methods the conceptual poet uses and the sources they use generally contain universal components. Possible connections are everywhere for the taking.

 

The fun part for the conceptual poet is creating work in a scene where many still debate whether your art form has any value in the here and now. I listen intently to these debates because there are valid points in either argument. Poetry is an art that should be continually challenged, regardless of it being lyrical or conceptual. Just as we have language barriers, we have art roadblocks. We either break or create or stagnate.

As much as I work in the conceptual world now, it all started with a foundation of knowing my metres, the energy of the metaphor, or the aesthetics that support my view of my subject. My general attitude as a writer has been that the world is too much with us, thereby I must translate what I feel, what my eyes see, and what my tongue tastes so that we can expand our knowledge of each other. No one person will experience my moments in the same way, but the best thing I can do as a poet is recreate these moments as accurately as possible. Regardless of my methods, whether I utilize my prose or rearrange someone else’s words, it’s out of my hands how the reader will handle the images I place in their brains. They will transform them, swallow them, chew them, and savour the work with an entire galaxy of forms that are yet unknown to me. If the reader takes to saying my words out loud will they sing them to a tune? Will they sing them the same way I would in school?

There’s always a new way of looking at things and of digesting those things. With the internet creating language memes every day, will we ever be able to precisely portray our thoughts and emotions to each other? The poet takes on a big responsibility as a painter of experience, a cataloguer of histories, and a purveyor of indescribable worlds. Poet is a label. Poetry is a universal work.

 

Toronto-based poet, writer, and film/music/literary critic Jacqueline Valencia earned her Honours BA in English at the University of Toronto. Jacqueline is currently a freelancer, Assistant Editor at Beyond Borderlands, contributor at Broken Pencil Magazine, founding editor of These Girls On Film, and a film journalist and senior staff film critic at Next Projection.

  

  

Skein of Days Audio

A collection recorded at various events

In SKEIN OF DAYS, Sonja Greckol fractures, repeats, alliterates, asonates and mesmerizes readers with glimmers of historical detail. More narrative pieces that provide toeholds in the vortex of a woman’s lived experience in the latter half of the C20th.

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