Dante Di Stefano: Kenneth Koch, adding to the famous adage by Wallace Stevens, said: “Not only is all poetry experimental, but all that is truly experimental is poetry.” When I think about the work Canarium Books has published I think of this Koch quote. Can you begin by discussing the Canarium catalog along the lines of the experimental (the surprising, the anti-quotidian, the unorthodox)?
Joshua Edwards: I don’t trust anything poets say, but I like the way Koch’s adage sounds! U.S. poetry’s standard metric of experimentalism has a lot to do with syntactical disruption, fragmentation, and the deployment of philosophy and its problems, and I think many of our books fit the bill, but newness isn’t what we’re most interested in as editors. We certainly do our best to publish work that challenges modes of inquiry, explores how language can be used, wonders what’s worthy of attention and obsession, and reimagines forms, but mostly we’re looking for unique visions and interesting thinking.
DD: How did Canarium Books come into being?
JE: I guess you might say it was an experiment. A year or so after graduating from college I had the idea to start a journal, mostly as a way to educate myself about poetry, and through poetry, about the world. I had no idea what I was doing and no money, but I was fortunate to find funding and to cross paths with a few great young poets in Oregon, and with their help The Canary was born. That lasted six years, until we decided to transform the journal into a press ten years ago. At that time I was graduating from an MFA program at University of Michigan, and I pitched an idea to the program for a collaboration, whereby they’d help with printing costs and interested students could help out as readers and managing editors. Miraculously it all worked out. The first two books published were Union! by Ish Klein and Tod Marshall’s The Tangled Line, and we’ve recently published our 26th and 27th.
DD: Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book is such an amazing book. Not only does Buffam succeed in taking an ancient form and rendering it in a vividly contemporary way, she’s composed a hybrid text, which is exceedingly complex and, yet, easily accessible. She winds up writing a book that is a serious contemplation on motherhood in the digital age, and at the same time its one of the funniest books in recent memory. What do you find most notable about this book?
JE: I find all the characteristics you mention to be notable, but for me it’s the consciousness at the center of A Pillow Book that makes it so powerful. Suzanne is incredibly funny, and I think she has a profound understanding of the relationship between humor and its dark or difficult sources. There’s a kind of electricity that runs through all of her books that holds everything together while also creating moments that jump off the page. But I’m skirting your question. I guess my answer would be that I find the sharp, sustained portrayal of restlessness to be my favorite aspect of A Pillow Book.
DD: What does American poetry need more of, in your opinion? Less of?
JE: The young poets who are starting presses and doing all sorts of great stuff right now are really inspiring, and I think they can answer this question better than me, but I’ll offer my cranky answer nonetheless: What poets in America and all people everywhere need is health care, safety, and affordable lives, but speaking specifically about poets in this country, they need more freedom and less nationalism and “culture.” About 80 years ago somebody (Herman Bonnert or Frank Zacone or Henry Maar or someone without a good publicist) had the idea to twist a balloon into a recognizable animal shape. Whatever made that first balloon animal happen—be it the chance encounter of a clown and a giraffe at balloon factory or a person’s desire to make a child laugh at a birthday party—is for me the poetic moment, when imagination brings something surprising into the world. (Take that, Koch and Stevens.) A lot of poetry is the product of a manner of thinking, which trades the classified impulses of creation for a kind of political affect or performance. Wonderful things can still happen in this mode, since language has its own magic and the individual mind is ultimately irrepressible, but it’s hard to make a great work of art with the qualifications of an industry. The overwhelming majority of the poets I know compete with each other for a handful of academic jobs. Teaching is of course an absolutely amazing career and time to write is a miracle, but the industry that has been built up around creative writing is out of control. I think poets need to be very aware of the institutions that support them and the technologies used to disseminate their work.
DD: What is on the horizon for Canarium Books in 2018 and beyond?
JE: Our recently-released 2018 books are giovanni singleton’s AMERICAN LETTERS: works on paper and Anne Kawala’s Screwball, which are both super examples of poetic experimentation. 2019 will be slow for us as publishers, since we’re focusing on our current roster of authors and none of them have manuscripts that will be ready this year, so we’re going to take that time to do some other things. We helped our friends at Marfa Book Co. to put on a poetry festival in August 2017 and we’ll likely do that again next summer. We’ve also organized performances by a couple of my favorite songwriters (who I think of as poets with guitars), Mitski and Christopher Owens. I’d like to keep doing that when the occasion arises. In 2020 and beyond, there are a couple of new books by current Canarium folks lined up and a translation or two.
JE: Screwball is a wild ride. Like John Beer’s Lucinda, it’s a book-length poem or verse novel that changes forms as it goes, and every page offers something unexpected. I won’t go into the plot too much, for fear of ruining some surprises, but I will say that it involves a huntress-gathress, an iceberg, and an adventure that traverses geographies. Anne Kawala is a virtuoso, and this is a book that puts on display her vibrant imagination as well as a multitude of technical talents. Hats off to Kit Schluter for his excellent translation.
DD: You recently published giovanni singleton’s AMERICAN LETTERS: works on paper. Could you introduce this collection and end the interview with a poem from it?
JE: There’s so much going on in AMERICAN LETTERS: works on paper that any description I could give of its themes and ideas would be reductive and not do justice to giovanni’s great book, so I’ll just stick with the basics. The book is a collection or gallery of poems, many of which incorporate or are comprised of images (mesostics, illustrations, performance scores, drawings), that explore lives, how we’re perceived, and how we live together, among other things. We’ve got a page at our website with recordings of giovanni reading beautifully from the book, so I’ll end by directing folks there: https://www.canarium.org/recordings
Joshua Edwards co-edits Canarium Books and works at bookstores in West Texas and Chicago. He’s the author of Castles and Islands, Imperial Nostalgias, and Architecture for Travelers, among other collections; he translated María Baranda’s book-length poem, Ficticia; and his photographic projects have been exhibited at Akademie Schloss Solitude, Rice University, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, Galveston Artist Residency, the Pensacola Museum of Art, and elsewhere. Information about his work and the reading tour he’s currently on can be found at www.architecturefortravelers.org
Dante Di Stefano is the author of two poetry collections: Love Is a Stone Endlessly in Flight (Brighthorse Books, 2016) and Ill Angels (Etruscan Press, forthcoming 2019). Along with María Isabel Alvarez, he is the co-editor of Misrepresented People: Poetic Responses to Trump's America (NYQ Books, 2018). All proceeds from this anthology go directly to the National Immigration Law Center.