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Natalie Simpson and Jonathan Ball at Play Chthonics

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Natalie Simpson and Jonathan Ball read yesterday evening (that’s Wednesday, March 19, 2014), for the last installment of Play Chthonics: New Canadian Readings at Green College at the University of British Columbia. It was a real pleasure to host them in Vancouver.
Before the reading, they graciously stopped by my undergraduate course on contemporary poetry and discussed their poetics with the students. The course focuses on British, Irish and Scottish poets, but they each lent a welcome Canadian presence to the class, giving the practice of writing an articulate immediacy that was both inspiring and provocative. Natalie Simpson spoke about the impact of Gertrude Stein and Lisa Robertson on her work, and described her own technique as associative and extemporaneous, building poems from sonic and phonemic echoes within and around text. Jonathan Ball talked about his interest in horror writing, and suggested that poems can act as trauma generators, pushing both readers and himself into new and surprising aesthetic relationships with language and with image. He said that he conceived of poems not as individual lyrics – he confessed to abandoning the lyric some years earlier – but as larger-scale sequences or books.
         At the reading, later, Jonathan Ball went first. He read from his collections Clockfire, Ex Machina and The Politics of Knives. “I noticed,” he said between poems, “I tend to use knives a lot.” He likes the idea of a poem as something that should cut you, engage you, to produce some kind of “ontological uncertainty.” He talked about the poem providing source-matter for, and also consisting in, the re-mix. And he suggested that poetry often inheres in moments of the loss of direction.
         Natalie Simpson read poems from Thrum, her collection forthcoming in April from Talonbooks. “Language,” she said, “is a likely state,” pointing up an aural and syntactic mesh in her work that seem to consist in sets of strange attractors. “Our form,” one of her poems declares, “is buffeted.” Her poems entangle listeners in a kind of attentively close sidewinding, a careful distraction. We find ourselves, as another of her lines has it, “adrift in plainsong tasked with swim.” At least, that’s how I heard it.

         Thanks to both poets for a terrific reading. And thanks to Green College for their ongoing support for this series.


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