The following piece appears as part of the month-long series “Conscientious Conceptualism and Poetic Practice” on the blog, curated by guest editor Andy Verboom.
E Martin Nolan: In this month’s series on ‘conscientious conceptualism,’ one of the focuses has been the consequences of the formal choices that poets make. That brings me to your ‘parallel poems.’ In an interview in Arc Magazine’s Newsletter, you describe them this way:
The ‘parallel poems’ emerge from tension and—I hope—create their own tension on the page through the juxtaposition of two geographically-based poetic halves or sub-poems.
To me, what you’re describing—and my experience of the form bears this out—is an experience that requires a kind of doubleness of reading, to try to hold the two places in one reading experience. It forces the reader to decide how to reconcile—or not—the juxtaposition you are representing.
This formal choice on your part has a specific effect on the reader, controlling to some extent the experience of the poem. Even though a reader’s personal experience of the poem is ultimately unknowable and intimate, they must still confront a representation (the poem) that precedes them. This is especially apparent in a form as unique as the ‘parallels.’ When devising that form, or writing in it, do you intend for the reader to have to somehow confront doubleness? Or is that too narrow of a reading? How much of your choice to use the parallel form derives from a desire to confront the concept of doubleness, and how much of it is more about intuition, aesthetics, and just creating a dynamic (dare I say ‘cool’?) reading experience?
Doyali Islam: If a poem is working at an elemental level, it offers up the potential for a variety of dynamic reading experiences—regardless of how formally innovative or formally traditional it is. Poems are capacious. For me, if a poem is working, it operates with clarity, ambiguity, and tension all at once and allows for various interpretations and engagements—each being equally valid.
I don’t intend for the reader to confront anything in particular. Furthermore, the language of confrontation in the context of poetry alarms me, especially when amplified by diction such as “intend” and “control.” I like poetry because it’s the exact opposite of a confrontation. (What can I say? I’m a Libra.)
… a poem must have something at stake. I once told Yusef Komunyakaa that I destroyed two of my early full-length manuscripts because they didn’t feel urgent enough.
I don’t think your particular reading is inherently “too narrow,” but I recognize that it is just that—one particular reading. As the writer, it is impossible for me to switch hats and speak to the consequences of these innovations from a reader’s perspective. I know when a draft/poem is or isn’t working for/on me because I trust my instincts and self-awareness. But how my poems—parallel or otherwise—live out in the world, I cannot know, unless someone tells me.
Contemporaries to the rescue! Natalie Hanna has described the “centreline” of my parallel poems as “a spine, a gap, a mirror, a break, a breath, duality, unity,” and Kim Trainor has said that they “resemble Rorschach blots, the anatomy of a spine, a blood vessel’s lumen.” Phoebe Wang has said they give her
options on how to approach the poem […] —that is, reading the two columns one after the other, reading the right-hand column first, only reading one half and reading the other later, or reading across. These options allow me to feel a sense of multiplicity and that the meaning will shift depending on how I read it. This in turn makes me pause to think about how I read other poets’ work—why am I always reading top-down, for instance? What about reading poems top-down, from left to right, informs how I receive the poem’s message?
Parallel poems provide her with a “kind of richness to feel like [she] can enter the poem in more than one way.”
I never create anything for purely aesthetic reasons. I shake my head at Top Chef contestants who focus on presentation at the expense of taste! As a poet, I push myself to write substantively and to the best of my ability. I always return to language, which, for me, must be precise and exquisite even if—and especially if—it is simple. Also, a poem must have something at stake. I once told Yusef Komunyakaa that I destroyed two of my early full-length manuscripts because they didn’t feel urgent enough.
But to return to my formal inventions: I began work on this poetic form, which I termed the ‘parallel poem,’ in 2010. CV2 was running a special 35th Anniversary Contest, and their call for submissions challenged writers to submit poems that somehow incorporated the number 35. I wanted to stay away from trite/hackneyed approaches. Somehow, the idea of geographical latitude lines came to mind, and I began wondering if I could create a poem relating to the 35th parallel (north).
… self-imposed restraint → new kind of productivity → reining back of the restraint → achievement of a middle ground (integrity or balance, perhaps).
It frequently happens for me that something seems to suddenly arrive in my mind, as if from nowhere: verse fragments, key words, and my ideas for formal innovations. But are these arrivals actually sudden, or has my subconscious mind been at work after a period of conscious daytime investigation/self-questioning? In my parallel poems—and subsequent ‘split sonnets’ and ‘double sonnets’—everything began with the question, “What if?”
I started wondering, “What if I juxtaposed two sub-poems or halves—each about a city that falls on the same parallel—and separated them by a gap? What would that mean?” So while the two columns are crucial to the parallel poem form, I was also interested in that third aspect—the white space between them. I researched to find out which cities fell along this parallel, and was pleased to find out that both Tehran and Kyoto did. I knew someone who self-identified as a Kurd who had lived in Iran before moving to England. I also knew someone who was from Japan’s Wakayama countryside but who used to travel by train to Kyoto for university. I plucked certain details from my memories of them—the zereshk in the Tehran half, for example, as well as the rice-bran soap, pumps, and makeup in the Kyoto half—and filled in the gaps to create two experiences of women travelling through their respective cities and negotiating/navigating their identities. I also placed extra restraints on myself while writing “ – 35th parallel – ”: the poem contains 35 lines total, and each line contains 35 characters, including spaces and em dashes. So this poem, in particular, emerged from these restraints—tensions—that I imposed upon myself in order to see how working under restraint would change my writing’s syntax, diction, et cetera.
This first parallel poem ended up winning CV2’s contest! I hadn’t intended on writing more parallel poems because it was a real pain to achieve the correct character count for each line while still writing a good poem. (I felt like I imagine a carpenter might, checking and rechecking measures before cutting.) Encapsulating each line with dashes—to gesture to cartographical lines—was also extremely difficult to do, for some reason.
About a year later—I guess after the sheer madness of the initial endeavour had dulled itself in my memory—I started wondering what would happen if I wrote a whole suite of poems in that format. The basic premise would be the same: string together two places that fall on a given parallel, and, depending on the number-value of the parallel, create lines with that same number of characters. Eventually, I relaxed the form and stopped counting the number of characters per line, and even the line count itself, so that self-imposed restraint → new kind of productivity → reining back of the restraint → achievement of a middle ground (integrity or balance, perhaps).
“What if I juxtaposed two sub-poems or halves—each about a city that falls on the same parallel—and separated them by a gap? What would that mean?”
When I was a child, I had an exercise book in which I recorded the rules for various poetic forms—haiku, tanka, couplet, quatrain, cinquain, limerick, sonnet—and then tried my hand at them. As a teenager, I turned to free verse. At age 24, I returned to form with the desire to invent and innovate. I am now 32, and I wonder what I’ll do next. Probably nothing—unless something is urgent enough.
EMN: First I’ll address my use of “confront” above. I’m using it too loosely. I would consider looking at and smiling at a flower to be a kind of confrontation. I wasn’t thinking similarly about “intend” and “control.” Not something violent, but more like the poem as a constructed thing that the reader interacts with. Could you help me get my vocab more on point? What would you say is a better word than “confront,” one that captures a non-confrontational relationship between poet, poem, and reader?
DI: It might be worthwhile to examine the possible foundations of the diction, rather than just seeking to change it. I am curious to know why people use particular words in certain situations. What long history or systems of thought/culture might have influenced an individual’s diction? Anyway, right now, I’m thinking about poems as potential invitations, offerings, gestures, gesturings, questions, windows, watering-holes, and dwelling-spaces—private architectures—in which we can live and by which we can thrive. But I love the approach in Terrance Hayes’s “Carp Poem.”
EMN: My use of “confrontation” is definitely influenced by my personal history. I come from a confrontational country, the country of “Mississippi Goddamn.” The man in the White House now must be confronted, as must be his base of support. I could go on. And on. I also grew up on rap, The Grapes of Wrath, early (protest) Bob Dylan. These are artistic approaches that attempt to confront power structures quite explicitly. I also grew up in a city defined by racial and economic conflict, with social justice as an ideal I was taught in school. I’m involved in my union right now. I think somewhere in there is the foundation of that diction. Forces of ill-will will confront us whether we respond or not. I want to be prepared to confront back. And so I do think of art through that lens.
But I also acknowledge that this is a limited approach to art. You mention “transformation, healing, and hope” below. Those are definitely appropriate, and necessary, ways to react to the things I’ve just said “must be confronted,” and I certainly look for that in poetry. “Confront” may be appropriate as a way to enter into the art of someone like Tanya Tagaq, who is, in my reading, challenging the foundations of the dominant culture’s worldview. I think you really do have to confront a thing like her latest album, Retribution. I mean, a confrontation is implied in the title. At the same time, you still have to be able to take in the beauty of it, not just the ‘message.’ Your work does not, indeed, seem to fit with a confrontational reading approach. I like the idea of it being more like a room you enter into, or a landscape you walk through, that you’re invited into kindly. Poem-as-watering-hole is also very intriguing to me.
… I’m thinking about poems as potential invitations, offerings, gestures, gesturings, questions, windows, watering-holes, and dwelling-spaces—private architectures—in which we can live and by which we can thrive.
Turning to your description of your parallel poems, I’m seeing this: prompt leads to process, which leads to form, which then directs the content. Of course, I would doubt it’s that linear. Things tend to circle back on each other and inform each other dynamically (just as the reading of a parallel poem is necessarily dynamic). Still, it’s interesting that the process proceeds the content here. A reader could easily assume you went from the content (perhaps globalism as presented through the pairing of cities across the globe) to form (how to devise a form that brings the cities together). But then there’s the “somehow” you mention above, and you wonder if the content was already there in your subconscious.
DI: For the past seven years, I have definitely been more interested in investigating the ways in which process influences poetics. For example, I’m just finishing up a Chalmers Arts Fellowship, which I used to explore the connections between parkour (freerunning), a sense of place/space, and poetics. I taught myself the basics of parkour—quadrupedal movement (QM), balancing, rolling, swinging, running, jumping, and falling(!)—and then practiced site-specific movement in random environments like empty parking lots and on bicycle racks in order to investigate how changes in my physical movement would change my approaches to poetry elements such as rhythm, diction, lineation, and form. I was terrible at parkour; however, it was amazing how quickly an empty parking lot with its painted lines became an invigorating site—full of opportunities for physical play and artistic questioning!
To clarify, when I began musing about the role of the subconscious in my previous response, I didn’t mean that the content might have already been in my mind at a subconscious level. Rather, I wonder if inventors and creators of all kinds work at both conscious and subconscious levels. For example, someone who is engaged in scientific research might have a question or problem they are trying to solve head-on for many hours of the day. But what happens to that question or problem during sleep? And what happens to that question or problem when the researcher is preoccupied by seemingly unrelated tasks, like washing dishes, buying milk, or petting the cat? I sense that, because one is so absorbed by the question or problem, all of one’s activities end up feeding the possible responses to it. Everything in life becomes saturated by it, seen through that particular lens.
I sense that, because one is so absorbed by the question or problem, all of one’s activities end up feeding the possible responses to it. Everything in life becomes saturated by it, seen through that particular lens.
For instance, since I have been writing in split forms for seven years now, I have started seeing splits in other places. Take, for example, Francis Alys’s “A Story of Negotiation” exhibit (December 8, 2016 – April 2, 2017) at Art Gallery of Ontario. It includes many masterful and poetic things, such as two short videos, installed on either side of a gallery wall, jointly titled “Sometimes Doing is Undoing and Sometimes Undoing is Doing.” His website shows the films in split screen and describes them as the “juxtaposition of two parallel adjacent yet parallel scenes” in Afghanistan in 2013. The description continues:
The films … show two soldiers—one a member of the Western forces still occupying the country on the side of the official government and the other a Taliban anti-government fighter—as they take apart and reassemble their weapons, each in their own separate world.
I’ve also wondered about splits in a performance piece I heard about this past February—“The Only Good Indian”—which was halved, apparently, running over two consecutive nights with two different performers alternating in the lead role. I heard that some people found it highly problematic and walked out because they didn’t realize the full performance spanned two nights. Many splits also exist around the globe in the form of walls—historical and current, real and proposed.
EMN: This brings me back to the ‘concept’ behind your doubled forms, your parallel poems and double sonnets. I use the scare quotes because I’m suspicious of this term ‘conceptual poetry.’ (Is it possible for there to be a poem without a concept?) Still, I think many people would categorize your double forms as ‘conceptual.’ I’m still new to these poems, so my experience of them is still developing. But if I had to give them a conceptual label, I would venture that it has to do with the Internet and globalization. In your parallel poems, a speaker is addressing two places while potentially writing from a third. And in your double sonnets, you’re often casting your imagination across the globe: “susiya” takes us to the Hebron Hills, while “two burials” (winner of the 2015 CV2 Young Buck Poetry Prize) moves us from the French Pyrenees to somewhere “closer to home but just as foreign.”
I’m fascinated by this last description. We’re not told where “home” is, but we know that proximity to home does not equate to “less foreign.” What does that say about the very concept of “home”? It could be that home is a less certain concept. But you could also say this global speaker is at home in both locals: “just as foreign” could mean that both places are foreign or that the speaker is just as “at home” in both places. Do you think an attention to globalism, or some kind of global consciousness, is what directs the content, or concept, behind these poems?
DI: I, too, am suspicious of the term ‘conceptual poetry’—but less from a philosophical perspective and more from a cultural-capital perspective. Historically, it seems the term has lifted up and lauded certain persons while keeping other persons out. Often, what is considered or labelled ‘conceptual poetry’ seems very inaccessible, and I am not sure what is at stake. That is, ‘conceptual poetry’ often strays too far from the human—experiment for experiment’s sake. Experiments can be valuable as private endeavours, but publishing—making them public—is a different matter. I don’t care what a poet writes about, or how—but if a poem loses its humanness, it loses its reader or listener.
In terms of the poem “two burials,” the temporal shifts are significant. For me, the lines “I was reminded, then, of another / day – closer to home but just as foreign” mean that the circumstances of that particular day were just as unfamiliar as the French terrain. It is the two girls’ (sisters, one might ascertain) first real encounter with death, and it provides them with a “tiny [rite of] passage.”
… ‘conceptual poetry’ often strays too far from the human […]. I don’t care what a poet writes about, or how—but if a poem loses its humanness, it loses its reader or listener.
But to answer your question about global consciousness, the poet Saadi said it succinctly in verse: “If you are not concerned / with another’s / suffering, we shall not call you human.” (You can find this poem in Coleman Barks’s introduction to Rumi: Bridge to the Soul.) I’m not sure what the original Farsi reveals, but I like the translatory use of the word “another,” here, which is much wider than the word “person.”
Thank you for saying that I “cast my imagination across the globe.” I love that articulation. To be honest, though, part of the reason my work bases itself in far-off places is that, up until recently, I found it incredibly difficult to write about Toronto. Toronto is so many things, it feels like nothing. How can one write about it without cliché? I recently had the opportunity to challenge myself: this past January, I wrote “ – 43rd parallel – ,” which speaks to the experiences of two working women going about their lives in Toronto-past and Toronto-present. This poem is forthcoming in The Unpublished City—a specific Toronto Lit Up! initiative in the form of an anthology curated by Dionne Brand.
Above all, I hope that my work is sensitive, finely-wrought, and complex. The world has many terrible realities, none of which I can shift or fix at a macrocosmic level. But the language and approaches one finds in poetry allow for potential transformation, healing, and hope.
Then again, I don’t actually mind if I never write another poem. If something compels me, I will write. If not, I am fine to stop. When I die, I hope someone says, “She was kind. She loved.”
Doyali Islam discussed listening, parkour, and her poetry with Michael Enright on CBC’s Sunday Edition (April 16, 2017). You can find Islam’s poems in Kenyon Review Online, The Fiddlehead, and The Puritan. She is the winner of League of Canadian Poets’ inaugural National Broadsheet Contest, Arc’s 2016 Poem of the Year Contest, and CV2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize. Her poetry is currently a finalist for the 2017 National Magazine Awards. Her formally-innovative manuscript—which includes her parallel poems, split sonnets, and double sonnets—is heft and sing. She lives in Toronto.
E Martin Nolan is a poet, essayist, and editor. He edits interviews at The Puritan, where he’s also published numerous essays, interviews, and blog posts. He teaches at the University of Toronto. His essays and poems have appeared in Arc, in CNQ, and in CV2, among other journals. His long, illustrated poem about Donald Trump, “Great Again,” can be found here. His non-fiction writing focuses on literature, sports, and music.