It's here! Issue 14 is overflowing with quirky invention, grade-A humour, lightning and literary finesse. Thank you to the folks who came out to our Launch last night! We're damn excited to share this book with the world.

Thank you to our wonderful contributors and editors for making this thing real! Shout-outs and hugs to our cover artist, Shawna Smith and many thanks to our printer, Jesjit Gill, from Colour Code Printing.

You can order your copy here: http://echolocationmag.com/?page_id=55.

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Editors Laura Ritland and Michael Prior discuss Gillian Sze's most recent collection of poetry, Peeling Rambutan

Peeling Rambutan
Gillian Sze
Gaspereau Press, 2014
ISBN: 9781554471331
Page Count: 80 pp
15013849581_bfa18a458d_hLaura Ritland: Peeling Rambutan features a speaker’s journey to trace a generational past. It treks across Malaysia and China in the footsteps of three generations of relatives—the speaker’s parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’—through Fujian, Muar, Johor, Hong Kong, weaving together a rich assortment of forms and content—personal memory, family history, travelogue, folk medicine and myth, to name a few. It struck me that Sze’s central questions in this collection seem to revolve around how the “I” comes into relationship with a geography and history—both cultural and familial. Despite, or perhaps through, the fractures created by time, distance, and lost family connections, how can she recreate a sense of her meaningful relationship to an inherited cultural past? Or, to put it in Sze’s geographical terms, what does it mean for her to be “here,” in Asia, as a Canadian born to immigrant parents? “Here can’t be found on a map,” the speaker says in “Arriving” (p.19). For this speaker, locating her cultural identity isn’t as straightforward as pinpointing a few villages on a piece of paper; it seems there’s a creative struggle to even find an appropriate process or method to undertake this journey.

Michael Prior: The relationship between self and place is undeniably central for Sze in this collection, which expands upon her previous explorations of the self in relation to art in Fish Bones, (DC Books, 2009) and the self in relation to narrative and confessional modes in The Anatomy of Clay ( ECW Press, 2011). The “I” in these poems is almost always conjoined to the “you”—the latter being a slippery pronoun that stands in for various family members, where the specific antecedent is rarely made clear. The distance between the “I” and the “you” in these poems is key to Sze’s poetics: both the speaker and addressee need the other to exist, and, as such, there is always a tension between what the “I” knows about the “you” and what will never be known, due to cultural, temporal, and geographic distance, the “somewhere / between” that Sze’s speaker is often passing through (24).

This distance reminds me of Louise Gluck’s observation about the “power of ruins"—the incomplete or unsaid in art. For Gluck, such ruins are powerful because we can imagine them as whole but only experience them as fragmented. In an analogous way, Sze’s speaker must navigate the “ruins” inherent in her own personal cultural history—that is, the divide between her familial narrative as comprehended in her imagination and the fragmented, real-life experiences that she accumulates while travelling and recounting anecdotes passed down by parents and grandparents. As Sze’s speaker in “Arriving” notes, “Place becomes myth. Facts arrive bent out of shape… I didn’t know I would find myself here between your parentheses” (29).

How does Sze grapple with these issues: the experience of home as, at times, fragmented and foreign, the divide between the speaker’s “I” and the addressees’ “you”? I think part of the answer lies in the formal choices Sze makes throughout the book. Out of the fifty-two poems in the collection, over half are prose poems, and rhetorically, many depend on anaphora and other variations of repetition. Surprisingly, even with such insistent devices, many of the poems feel quiet, subtle in their movement towards a striking image or realization—dependent upon accumulations of images and sensations, rather than bold assertions. Perhaps you can speak more to the rhetorical and formal choices Sze makes throughout the collection? Why prose poems? Why anaphora? How do such choices function in Sze’s exploration of cultural identity, familial history, and the self that must simultaneously inhabit such diverse times and places?

LR: Definitely, the form of these poems are crucial to Sze’s exploration and recovery of a generational history. I especially like your concept of “accumulation”; it’s such an apt way to describe how the prose poems in particular gather snippets of the past—often in discrete, paratactical sentences—into an amorphous whole. The opening poem, “East is the Sun Behind the Tree” is a beautiful demonstration—a collage of folk sayings, superstitious adages, the history of the Chinese language, the speaker’s parental heritage, her birth, the preparation of traditional recipes and her development into womanhood. Each sparse sentence relies on both glancing similarities of content and parallelism in their clausal structures to create a sense of connection between distinct parts:

An old saying: if you never reach the Great Wall, you’re not a real man. If a bird relieves itself on your head, eat a bowl of noodles before entering your home. … The Chinese character for good is a woman with a child. A newborn cried in the next room and someone whimpered back to life. My grandfather took off decades before I was born. Spring bamboo shoots after the rain. A father, I once read, is a necessary evil. (9)

I want to use the word “bricolage” to describe Sze’s process here—a sculpture created from a felicitous assortment of found objects. Yet, Sze seems much more deliberate in choosing and assembling her materials; through the sentences’ juxtaposition and placement in the paragraph, we get a sense of a narrative progression, a genesis story, starting from the very origins of language and ending with the speaker’s development into maturity. To me, the variations in formal repetition—parallelism, anaphora, and so on—seem to mark the rhythms of a recurring cultural past, or at least each parts’ belonging to a common “culture,” one identity, the prose poem.

Interestingly, I think the effect does seem to “mute” or “quiet” any assertive or dominant voice in the poem. The tone of the speaker in this and other poems is musing, gentle. Comic or disruptive tension seems to be produced through surprises in juxtaposition—of images, statements—rather than direct claims about the subject matter. What might be the effect or reason for this tonal choice? Or more generally, how would you describe Sze’s tonal range throughout the collection and how might this serve the collection’s content?

MP: I like your reading of “East is the Sun Behind the Tree,” I think you’ve managed to aptly articulate the way(s) the poem is working; “bricolage” is an insightful way to describe the process. As for the collection’s tonal range, I would say that the poems, while cycling through different structural conceits and devices, tend to be similar in tone: wistful and patient, underlain by moments of loss and acceptance. This isn’t to say that Sze’s book feels flat—not at all! —but rather that Sze has a found a central speaker and a voice that are best suited to reclaiming and delivering her material—intergenerational memories, cultural errata, folk remedies—and speaking them anew.

There are variations in tone, of course, and I would argue that one of the most salient tonal shifts in the collection falls between the prose poems, in which the speaker is given more room to interpret and meditate, and the other shorter lyrics, in which the speaker’s voice is often sublimated into description. Take the poems “Panorama” (40) and “Garage Band” (41) which follow each other in sequence in the book.

In “Panorama,” the speaker “grasp[s] at small details” in order to psychologically situate herself in her surroundings. Most of the poem comprises list of images: a woman “arranges a bathmat,” buildings “dribble shadows,” and “the living room floor is ashen from daily incense” (40). This catalogue of details seems simultaneously comforting and othering for the speaker, an ambiguity reflected in the verb “grasp” and the poem’s brief final sentence: “I hover above the offing.”  “Offing” can mean both the part of the sea that can be seen from shore, as well as the near or immediate future, and Sze rightly refuses to provide the reader with any further clarification—“Offing,” then, gestures towards the aspects of cultural and familial identity that continually recede before the speaker into literal and metaphorical distances, things only able to be seen or “grasped” in part from wherever she stands.

In “Garage Band,” a group of local musicians rehearse outdoors and the same sense of uncertainty present in “Panorama” is conveyed, but only through reportage and description; accordingly, the already quiet tone is made even quieter by the simple language and few images, and the speaker’s voice all but disappears. However, certain details, such as the use of spatial markers like “outdoors,” and “indoors” to move the reader between the images of the women who “fret over what to prepare / and pack for next day’s lunch” and the conductor who “stands to face his players” hints at another ambiguous intersection of place and self: where does the speaker stand so that she can see both outside and in? And what has led her to that particular perspective?

LR: Yes, perhaps “speaker” would be better dubbed “reporter” or “cartographer” in those descriptive poems. There’s an earnest attempt to “catalogue” each detail, to parse a foreign environment into literal definition. And yet, as you’ve pointed out, a sense of uncanny mystery escapes the speaker’s attempts to establish a fixed perspective: “Five-century-old buildings dribble shadows,” “Someone paints a tiger in one breath” (40). Yes, the metaphorical play makes the surrounding environment fluid, just as the speaker’s relationship to place “hovers” just beyond certainty and familiarity.

So, this brings me back to asking: what does it mean to “know” one’s history and one’s place in history? Evidently this is the question Peeling Rambutan opens for us, and leaves open. But I’d like to hazard a proposition that poems like “Eating Fruit” suggest cultural knowledge continues to flow along very visceral and somehow intuitive embodied practises. “In my mother’s language, if one does not have a taste for a food, one does not know it, as in to comprehend, or have the knowledge of how to eat,” the speaker states (34). In tasting rambutan, and knowing the cultural “how-to” for peeling this fruit, the speaker seems to see a possibility of intrinsic connection to her history. In a similar way, the other “How To” poems of this collection (“How to Treat Minor Cuts,” “How to Treat Arthritis,” “How to Cut a Cabbage,” “How to Kill a Cockroach”) indicate a traditional corpus of knowledge, a way of being, of physically enacting the past in present time. If we practise these embodied traditions, we “carry on,” or “inherit” a way of knowing the past.

The funny thing is, it’s not clear if the speaker comfortably embraces the traditions that she’s gathered here. The “How To” poems often strike me as humorously eccentric when compared to our modern know-how (crab shell powder for arthritis, anyone?). As well, there’s a suggestion that the speaker doesn’t fully understand what she’s tasting when she consumes rambutan and dragonfruit: “But a brailled slice tasted subtle as melon, as if its flavour dimmed at the close of my lips” (34). Still reaching for similes to describe the sensory experience, the speaker seems to find the “moment” or “act” of cultural inheritance (i.e.: tasting), somewhat anticlimactic, or at least continually elusive. What do you make of that line?

M: I think you’re right to latch on to that simile as indicative of something central to the concerns of the poem, and the book overall. Not only does the simile pair the known (the melon) with the unknown (the dragonfruit), but it also cleverly juxtaposes present and past: the melons that have been eaten and the rambutan being eaten, whose taste must be expressed as recalling something else, before familiarity eventually colours it as unique. The line becomes even more striking when it is considered together with the preceding sentence: “And dragon fruit, chemical-pink shone with tiny black seeds. But a brailled slice tasted melon…” (34). The reader is moved in quick succession from the lush visual “chemical pink” to descriptors of taste and touch; and the inclusion of the adjective “brailled” seems to almost preclude any sense of sight by evoking the raised bumps of the dragonfruit’s seeds as a way of “reading” the fruit’s meaning while being in some sense metaphorically blind.

In an interview with Miel Press, Sze states

I suppose my first draft was terrible because I was trying too hard to answer something. The book as it is now doesn’t. And I like it better this way. What do we do with all this history anyway?

This stuck with me: I appreciate her honesty, her lack of any parochial designs upon the reader. And I think it might have some bearing, in a roundabout way, on your observation that in many of these poems the speaker’s moment of cultural inheritance is “anticlimactic, continually elusive.” I would agree that Sze is implying as much: such moments that we would hope to be catalytic are often anticlimactic. In a way similar to Sze’s observation about her own first draft, Peeling Rambutan questions our tendency to expect certain cultural experiences to “answer something” without understanding that any definite answer is no answer, while also poignantly revelling in the context that allows such experiences to arise.

LR: Yes, the wonder of the “taste,” the moment of bafflement. Like the best poets, Sze puts experience first before interpretation.

 

The following post, written by Liz Windhorst Harmer, is part of a series that explores what we read in order to learn to write. This one is one writer's attempt to understand a particular genre (and her love for it) in novel form. If you'd like to submit a post on this or any subject to the blog, please contact the editors (echolocation.utoronto@gmail.com). 

For my Creative Writing thesis this year here at the University of Toronto, I’m writing a novel in which I seem to have mashed up various genres, many of which are not my natural home. I’m finding it to be a surprising, fun, and exciting challenge, even if it is nearly more than I can chew.

What would happen is one of the novelist’s most insistent concerns. In speculative fiction, this is even more amped up: the suspense comes from drawing lines between present cause and future effect, making guesses about all sorts of things. More deeply than writing done from life, it requires this thing they call “world building”.

I began making a list of books I should read in and around the genres I’m writing (though that too has become unmanageable) and in so doing realized I am far more of a sci-fi nerd than I believed myself to be.

For me it all started with Z for Zechariah ZforZby Robert C. O’Brien. I read this thin volume of post-apocalyptic sci-fi right around the time we were learning about World War II in my Grade 8 history unit. In Z for Zechariah, a sixteen-year-old girl appears to be the sole survivor of nuclear devastation until a stranger comes to town. Various war images and reports, Hiroshima, Anne Frank, the evils of the Nazis, the possibility of annihilation were swirling around in my imagination then, and I was terrified. I remembered the book as one remembers a vivid nightmare, and almost disbelieved in its existence, but now it appears it will be coming out as a film.

Then for a long time I read nothing in the genre until Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker sneaked riddley-coverinto a graduate syllabus on the Modern and Postmodern Novel. That class was also filled with holocaust tales. Riddley Walker looks at what nuclear war might to do humanity, and it does not look away; even so, it is sometimes funny, often moving, and weird in ways that are not always horrific. It is also experimental in its prose:

“The woal thing fealt jus that littl bit stupid. Us running that boar thru that las littl scrump of woodling with the forms all roun. Cows mooing sheap baaing cocks crowing and us foraging our las bar in a thin grey girzel on the day I come a man.”

Riddley Walker’s quest is mythic and takes him through a landscape in which all of the things recognizable to the reader are illegible relics. Speculative fiction can do this: see our own era from a distant anthropological lens. Since reading Riddley Walker, I have never again had the feeling it gave me of being utterly creeped out and also, somehow, full of hope.

This story by Donald Barthelme came close, as did the television show LOST in its better moments.

The closest novel to approximate that feeling was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I’ve read it now five times. The first time in one terrified sitting, the second and third times because I wanted to teach it, and fourth and fifth times for graduate courses. My second and third readings were richest—I had a chance to really analyze how McCarthy does suspense when so little happens, plotwise—and I was also plagued for weeks with bad feelings over human nature, something that many post-apocalyptic books and films do well.

The list grew and grew. To be read, still: Nevil Shute's On the Beach and the classic A Canticle for Liebowitz. 

Still from the film version.

Still from the film version of The Road.

Something the books have in common is atmosphere, and I find atmosphere to be both very important and a little bit mysterious. It rises from the totality of effects, from the diction and sentence structure to the choice of details and imagery. The Road is unrelenting—there are no moments of sarcasm or comic relief and the overall effect becomes both harrowing and hallowing as many of this type of literature do. Many of the books have a pared-down prose, which lends them a feeling of mythos and gravity. These books offer us the feeling we might have if we had stopped into a cathedral after the world’s end and listened to the tales of how we’d gotten there.

Elementary lessons in the third element of importance when it comes to metaphors show us  how different the effect is if a person’s head looks like a cabbage than if it looks like a pearl. (For me, this lesson came first from Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction. The other two elements are that a metaphor must be both, as David Bezmozgis puts it, new and true. That is, not clichéd but still accurate.) Thus even the choice of simile builds the world.

This sort of fiction demands a balance of plot elements with complex ideas. If you want it to be high-literary, as well as to fit into the generic conventions, you must also have compelling characters who do surprising things. Other challenges that seem amplified in this genre are that of plausibility (given the future “science” and presence of tech) and the problem of cliché. For example, I love films and shows like I Am Legend, Vanilla Sky and The Walking Dead when they present us with vistas that are horribly emptied of human life, but to pull that off in one’s own work without always nodding to some other work is a strain.

The Anxiety of Influence. It’s always with us.

I have also enjoyed Margaret Atwood’s MADDADDAM trilogy, especially Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood. Then I read Colson Whitehead’s Zone One, Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, and Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers, and now I don’t want to read in this genre anymore for a while. You start to have that familiar exhaustion, tired of seeing the moves as they’re made. A remedy is to read radically outside of your genre, to immerse yourself in classics or poetry instead. Or Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation which is also incredibly good, if you like novels gorgeously written, aphoristic, full of “fun facts”, heartbreaking, and not at all speculative.

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I will leave you with a final tip from David Mitchell, whose Cloud Atlas has elements of the best kind of speculative fiction.

How to immerse oneself in the moment-to-moment nature of a time and place you’ve never personally experienced?

Well, I would put a question to you. What’s the difference between you and your great great great-grandfather? What makes you different?

I think the answer is this: What you take for granted.What you take for granted about your life, about your rights, about people around you. About ethnicity, gender, sexuality, work, God. Your relationship with the state. The state’s obligations and duties to you: Health care, education, recreation. What you take for granted about all these things is I think what marks one culture from from another, and one generation from another.

So when you’re writing about the future, you simply try to work out what people in that future point will be taking for granted.

Don’t be beaten, keep working. Listen to criticism but remember none of it is final.

The conversation below, between Jennifer Wong and George Szirtes, is one of a series of upcoming posts in which Echolocation writers and editors ask established writers about what it was like when they were emerging. We're delighted to share the conversation between these two talented poets--enjoy!

Jennifer Wong: How did you start writing?

George Szirtes. I was at school, doing sciences when I started picked up poetry books from the school library, and, for the first time in my life, felt a real interest in them. One day round about then a friend brought me a poem written by someone we both knew. I immediately felt it wasn’t good. There and then I decided what I wanted to be. One minute before I had no idea what I wanted to do, the next I knew. It was something to do with truth, with the idea that these short bits of writing might be ways of approaching it. With this in mind, I bought a new notebook and wrote something in it every day for three or more years, and I did. After three years or so I had about a thousand. Not that they were much good of course.

JW: Who was your first mentor?

GS: I’d say it was Martin Bell, who taught at art college in Leeds when I went there to study fine art and become a painter. He had a considerably reputation at that time. He was like a second father to me. A poetic father. Martin helped and encouraged me over the three years of my degree and after by introducing me to poets in London when I moved to study at Goldsmiths, particularly to the Australian-born poet, Peter Porter, who became my next important mentor.

JW: What books have inspired you when you first started out as a writer, and as you progressed in your writing journey?

GS: Whatever book were cheap: paperback editions of poets and poetry anthologies. I had stopped studying English Literature at the age of fifteen and I did not read criticism or indeed any secondary literature at the start. Those old Penguin books included The New Poetry, selections from Donne and Keats and Blake, the Penguin Modern European Poets series from Yevtushenko onwards, very much including Cavafy, Montale, Rilke, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Enzensberger, anthologies of French twentieth-century verse (where I met favourite French surrealists like Max Jacob and Robert Desnos), the Penguin Russian poets anthology and many others, including the Beats, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and the UK Liverpool poets, Henri, McGough and Patten. I was in love with Dostoevsky and Gogol. It was only later I came into contact with Larkin, Hughes, Heaney and so forth, as well as Eliot and Auden and, later, Brodsky, Walcott and worlds beyond the European imagination. The big game changers for me were Rimbaud, Max Jacob, Gogol and Eliot, but then the rest came in. Not having had any systematic teaching I read through a wide range of literary texts on my own, from Chaucer, Shakespeare, to the Jacobeans and Pope etc. ...continue reading

For this week's writer feature we're proud to introduce Geoffrey Morrison: poet and recent finalist in Lemon Hound's Poetry Prize!

from "Lyric Guy"

Lyric Guy V

Yesterday some ghosts whooped out of my tankard.
I whooped them back in with my McEnroe bellows. But for how long?

Ghosts suck. This is because you can’t crunch them.
Next year, in Dianapolis, we will hatch a man,
And he will eat all specters. I nominate McMenamin.
Q: Who is? A: He said “fuckpants” on the piano.

Lyric Guy VII

Marshia Crangular is extremely pensive.
She says, “I puzzle about dents, solars – gaps and voids in the sky.”

In her latest bluebook, she wonders if we live in a mouth.
I agree with that wonder. She says what we’ve all been thinking.
Exception of course is the barbers, who glory in hair.
They strongly dispute that any it could be even different.

 

Hi Geoffrey! Could you introduce yourself to our readers?

I grew up in White Rock, which is more or less the southwesternmost corner of the Canadian mainland. There I enjoyed standing on piers and looking out at the sea with a plaintive expression, probably because I couldn't swim very well. I did my undergraduate degree in English literature at Simon Fraser, where I spent my time alternately falling headlong into antiquity and trying to read the names on the hulls of distant cargo ships. Right now I’m finishing up my MA, also in English, at the University of Western Ontario, and in September I’ll be starting my PhD at the University of Toronto in the same discipline. I like gas-station food, Gregorio Allegri, and wool. ...continue reading