Friday, September 18, 2009

author talk: Daniela Elza + Arlene Ang


Daniela Elza is a free-range poet, and a non-medicated scholar of the poetic consciousness. She has rel.eased more than a 140 organic poems into the wor(l)d in over 42 publications. Her inte.rests lie in the gaps, rubs, and b.ridges between poetry, language, and philosophy. She is currently compiling her second manuscript and collaborating with fellow poets. Daniela is the recipient of this year's Pandora's Collective Citizenship Award. She lives with her family in Vancouver and spo.radically blogs at Strange Places.

Arlene Ang is the author of The Desecration of Doves (2005), Secret Love Poems (Rubicon Press, 2007), and a collaborative book with Valerie Fox, Bundles of Letters Including A, V and Epsilon (Texture Press, 2008). Her third full-length collection, Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu was published by Cinnamon Press in 2010. Her poems have appeared in Ambit, Caketrain, Diagram, Poetry Ireland, Poet Lore, Rattle, Salt Hill as well as the Best of the Web anthologies 2008 and 2009 (Dzanc Books). She lives in Spinea, Italy where she serves as staff editor for The Pedestal Magazine and Press 1. Website: arlene ang, Blog: event museum

This author talk took place in the virtual daily café in September.

Arlene: To begin at the beginning, how did you get started with poetry? How did this influence your writing?

Daniela: I have written poems for as long as I can remember. In the beginning, mostly for fun, for friends and family, for different occasions. Recently, my parents read me over the phone a poem I wrote for their anniversary. I was touched. They have kept it for close to three decades. There was something very rewarding and magical to express in words (words available to every one), something that touches another. Something I could give as a gift. It is empowering, especially for a child, this kind of giving. To create something real with your words. I am still under that spell. After two Masters degrees and an almost PhD I have not changed my mind about the power and magic of poetic language.

And for you, Arlene? Why poetry?

Arlene: What fascinates me about poetry is how it involves the reader and allows different interpretations depending on who's reading it. It's like Da Vinci's Mona Lisa and people would stand there saying: "That's a man. Trust me." "Don't like her. Bet she poisoned puppies and children." "Look at her hands. That's chronic arthritis for you." I find it quite fascinating. Fiction, on the other hand, requires less creativity on the reader's part. I also like to think that poetry has a higher alcohol content than prose since it's a distillation of experience or thought. It's no incident that alcohol travels faster in the blood stream and gives a nice rush to the system.

Daniela: Freedom in interpretation that poetry offers is important. Perhaps the kind of freedom that one experiences in reverie. Isn’t that how we come to own a poem? Although we do not tend to teach it this way. There is a tendency to put a straitjacket on it. Interesting you liken it to alcohol. Robert Bringhurst (2007) says: "Poetry, like alcohol and sex, is subject to rules and invested with ritual because of the threat it represents."

Arlene, this year I compiled my first full-length manuscript and am now working on putting together the next one. I feel like a beginner again. How did you go about putting together the manuscript of your latest book: Seeing Birds in Church is a Kind of Adieu?

Arlene: Seeing Birds started out in 2005 as The Lean Season, which came out of my obsession with dying and illness. At the time, my father just passed away from cancer and most of the poems were written during his last months. It bounced around from one rejection to another—once with a ticklish comment attached that it was too depressing and the publisher didn't want to bring down the morale of their readers—until 2008 when Envoi editor, Jan Fortune-Wood mentioned that she might be interested in a poetry manuscript. I was, by then, a regular contributor to the print journal as well as their anthologies, published under Cinnamon Press. Incidentally, I had The Lean Season manuscript lying around, forgotten and lonely in some folder. My mother had just passed away from cancer, two years after my dad did, and rather than obsessing about death, I was more concerned about letting go this time. With both of my parents gone, it felt important—like losing the two pillars that held you up, it was either you learned to let go and stand on your own feet or get buried under the rubble.

Originally, I had the manuscript divided into four sections—one in particular contained the sonnets and sonnenizios. The publisher suggested removing them because she thought the poems flowed well into each other.

One thing I did insist upon was using Oana Cambrea's gorgeous artwork for the cover. I'm a huge fan of her work and have also used her art for my website and a chapbook, Secret Love Poems (Rubicon Press, 2007).

Daniela: Curious comment you got from that publisher. I am not much into stuff that is dark and depressing and I believe that if an author chooses to write about that they have to work at redeeming the reader. Otherwise, what would be the difference between that and the 6 o'clock news?

When I started reading your book I knew it was going to be one of those books you savour. I did not want to read too fast, in fear of getting to the end. After I read it I caught myself reading the poems to friends, over the phone, or over a cup of something. There are not many poetry books I do that with. Like a part of me knew I was learning something important. I keep going back to different poems I have folded the pages on. It is brave, full of heart, wonderfully surreal, not at all sentimental. For sure, a loosening of the grip. Some lines that stuck with me:

in the poem "A Study of Loss" (p. 42) you say:

_____Death itself is a growing out
_____of one's body—

and later:

_____If you listen carefully,
_____you will hear how the house
_____creaks from the burden
_____of holding itself together.

and "Col San Martino" (p.17) ends with:

_____The journey is over. You empty
_____your pockets on the front seat: old coins,
_____a bracelet, fridge notes, his birthstone.
_____There is no burden like unwanted things.

Arlene: “A Study of Loss” originally had an epigram from Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red—one of my favorite poetry books ever.

_________How do you think it feels
growing up in a house full
of empty fruit bowls?

It struck me on a personal level because ever since my father, who was passionate about bananas, died, all the fruit bowls in the house just stood there empty. The poem eventually evolved outside that context and the quote felt out of place so I removed it.

“Col San Martino” is a very old poem, from more than five years ago. Even though it’s about a marriage ending and coming to terms with it, it’s also about letting go. I’ve often wondered if life itself is a lesson on letting go. We hoard so many things and try to hold on these—memories, material goods, loved ones, our physical bodies—but in the end we ourselves have to slip away from them.

(click to enlarge)

Daniela: Yes, how to let go? Here, in North America materialism is so rampant. A plague, really. And the disposability that supports such a system also robs things of acquiring spiritual meaning. I see freedom in poetry because we all own the materials it is made of, and it provides a spiritual self sufficiency which materialism does not like, since it wants you to be dependent on it. I think when we are emotionally in tact we need less stuff.

But back to loss. You write about loss in a away that is not dumping it on the reader, saying: here you figure out what to do with it. You own it. And the poems rise above it. They move into the realm of the metaphysical addressing questions of existence "We don't know exactly why we are here" (“Fishbowl”, p.8). The grief seeps through the images. It is tender, this grief. The way you offer the poems allows for me to enter, orient myself, find my own emotional compass. In “Refraction” you say:

_____I have death hiked up to my waist.
_____It is afternoon as the rest
_____of a woman's life can be an afternoon.

and later on in the poem:

_____Between the body he is,
_____and the body he isn't, there is a refraction
_____of light. An afternoon, raised
_____like an arm reaching up for an apple.

I like the way you manage to slow time down to a canvas. The way you use art in the poems reinforces that. Paintings on the walls, looking into mirrors, your dad painting his 111th crucifix. Like still life canvases:-), in which we are still in the face of what we are confronted with or perhaps confounded by. This kind of stillness allows for a meditative space where enlightenment, epiphany (call it what you will), this coming to understanding, to acceptance, is possible.
And humour. I appreciate your humour. I love:

_____The doilies are punishing
_____the sideboard with floral designs. (Fishbowl, p.8)

But, really, just pulling quotes out is not doing it justice. The taste is in the whole. The complexity of it. In the threads it teases and pulls out of the fabric of human frailty and existence.

Arlene: Thanks, Daniela. I was just thinking about your poem, "interpreting the winds" (4 poets by Mother Tongue Publishing, 2009) and how it seemed to stop time because of the flurry of activity happening between the lines:

____________today_____ they are lovers ________peacefully sleeping

________yesterday____ they were legends: ______feuding brothers

_____and sisters _____who turned to rivers_____ forever

__flowing away_____ from each other.

I think it’s very clever how you managed to make the words/phrases work horizontally and vertically. My favourite is "they are lovers / they were legends: / who turned to rivers / from each other."
This illustrates so well the nature of winds as they carry the weight of many dust particles, even insects.

Also, "in the flicker of (time," there's a sense of life as it is captured:

_____this river ________is not time.
_____in the shutter of __ _your eye
________it is __________a l w a y s.

I do love how these lines evoke the spirit of photographs and how places/moments seem to stop in those. I notice that you use the river image in both poems. Do they have a personal meaning or symbolism to you?

Daniela: I am happy you found these alternate readings. One of the things I like to encourage with my form is such readings. Where you allow yourself to make your own poem. So thanks for doing that.

Interesting, about the river. I do think better around water. Water is life. And the river is the same, and always moving and different. Just like us. (And curious that both the cover images of our current books have bodies of water in them).

I realise that water is quite present in my work and part of my quest is to find out why. Reflections in lakes and puddles invite me to reflect. Maybe my next manuscript will help me puzzle some of it out.

Arlene: How about your current manuscript? What made you decide it was time? Would you like to talk about the process of how you put it together?

Daniela: My manuscript is looking for a home right now. What compelled me to gather the poems is to gain insight into why the crows are such a persistent image? Over the course of a decade I had amassed quite a number of these poems. I put them together. Read them, moved them around, re-read them, until it felt right. There are a few sections in it. It keeps changing. They do not want to sit still, these crows. What I discovered was that the whole begins to take on a life of its own and to reveal patterns that none of the individual poems could by themselves. So there were discoveries along the way.

Did you find something new once you gathered the poems in Seeing Birds...? Were there any surprises?

Arlene: Surprises, no. My poems are more static than yours, I think, less open to different shades of meaning. I’m moved to capture the moment instead of letting the moment slide into view. It’s one of the reasons I’m terrible at writing haiku.

I've been enjoying the anthology, 4 poets (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2009) where you have 9 poems (26 pages) published. Did you reply to a call for submissions or were you invited? I noticed that Al Rempel—with whom you have a collaborative poem in the recent issue of Pedestal Magazine ("unhinged")—also has poems in the anthology.

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Are you connected in other ways to the other poets, too?

Daniela: There was a call for submissions for 4 poets. Al and I were introduced to each other in the Rocksalt Anthology (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2008) and met in 4 poets. The same for the other poets in the book, which brings together four emerging BC poets. It also has an interview with each poet, a bio, a poetics, a photo, and one of the poems comes with three previous drafts, and a translation. I translated my poem into Bulgarian. It is a made in BC book: artists, publisher, editor/s, poets. Talking about journeys, I realise the poems there are all about the journeys we are on. What we find in the process.
Incidentally, both Al and I had excerpts selected from poems in 4 poets to be part of the
Poetry in Transit for 2010 which puts poetry on the transit system.

Al was one of the poets who accepted the invitation to write together. Not everyone is into that kind of stuff. Sometimes people give it a try, and are done. And sometimes we go on to write more poems. Like you and I (starting our 5th poem soon).

Arlene: How many languages do you speak, by the way? Do you find it easy to write poetry in Bulgarian and other languages? Even though my native tongue is Filipino and I can converse in Italian, I find that my command of both languages isn't sufficient when it comes to writing poetry.

Daniela: English is the language I write in. I went to school in English. I cannot compose poems in Bulgarian. I mostly spoke Bulgarian at home. The translation, however, was a different experience. That process brought me to a new appreciation for my mother tongue.

Arlene, Just the other day, I was sitting on my patio reading to a friend of mine, Christi, from your book. Well, really taking turns reading. It was interesting to note the recurrence of the image of the fish. The fish, also a symbol for Christ.

Arlene: I never made the Christ connection before, but my dad collected fish figurines—a symbol of prosperity for the Chinese—and also used the image a lot in his paintings (like the example above). Back in Manila, I was constantly surrounded by people who had ponds or aquariums. I used to have suicidal goldfish, too. Which makes me wonder... what about your affinity for crows?

Daniela: Me and the crows go way back: I gave them my milk teeth. That was the custom in Bulgaria: you chant a little chant and toss your tooth on the roof asking the crow to give you a strong new tooth. I have tried to capture this experience in the poem “Milk Tooth Bane Bone.” A title which I adopted as a working title for my crow manuscript.

Arlene: The idea of giving your teeth to the crows is fascinating. When you wrote:

_____I gave my teeth to the crows
_____and they have not left me alone.

I thought it was only metaphorically. I do love the idea of the crows refusing to leave you alone—as if it was a kind of Faustian soul contract. Incidentally, I just saw Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather and the villain there kidnapped the tooth fairy based on the theory that who has your milk teeth has power over your beliefs and dreams. It's fun to think of the possibilities of crows being in the teeth business instead.

Daniela: That is a delightful observation. It is a big topic—images. The images we are fed with, the relationship we form to them, may be playing important roles in our formation as beings. We all have such images. The "transaction" with the crows connects me with the world of the wild, to otherness, and one that is so close to us. Reminds me of my own wildness. Bringhurst says: we are grown out of this world like mushrooms and buttercups.

Arlene: Would you say the same for poems? That they grow a life of their own?

Daniela: Incidentally, just the other day I was reading Dorothea Lasky’s little book called “Poetry Is Not a Project” in which she says:

“I think poems come from the earth and work through the mind from the ground up. I think that poems are living things that grow from the earth into the brain rather than things that are planted within the earth by the brain.”
(Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010).

No matter how we think of our poems, they have a life of their own. We are exchanging ideas about each other’s work. These layers are like gifts. Each time the poem is read it has the potential to capture something anew. Even for the one who wrote it. The writer too changes.The poem comes to life between the page, the dreamer and his reverie. Once it is out in the world, the poet has little control over it. Like our children, we give them life, we do the best we can for them, and then they go out into the world and become their own beings. They surprise us in different ways. Some developments you can link directly back to something you laid the seeds for. But some things will surprise you. The fact that someone was touched this way, or came up with a connection, cannot be overlooked. It is as real as your poem is. That is their experience of it.

Arlene: That is so true! I usually write my first drafts in ITWS, an online forum where there’s this challenge to write 30 poems for 30 days. The basic rule there is to comment on everyone’s poems—there would usually be three to five people doing the marathon together and it’s always interesting to read the immediate interpretation or reaction of others. It feels like Rashomon every time—one scene with everyone noticing and interpreting different things based on their experiences.

One of the things that I love about our collaborations is that it's like watching two realities merging—mine and yours.

Daniela: The experience is unique with each person. With some it is easier than others. At its best it is like a dance between two. I feel it has been that way for us. I am learning form our collaborations. I become more aware of my own processes, while I am also invited into yours. And I learn from both. We can even talk of intimacy here.

Arlene: Intimacy. Oh yes. And there's something rather wicked about doing "it" in PiratePad, too.

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Do you find that having this real-time editing/chat room helps you in terms of collaborating on a poem or is it the same for you via e-mail?

Daniela: Yes, PiratePad is great. Thanks for setting us up with it, for getting us our own room. :-) Much better than email. Or sending docs back and forth.

It saves time on the fidgety boring parts of copy, paste etc. Helps me focus more on the work.

I recently got my copy of Mutating the Signature (print version). It is lovely to see us again in there. We met in a book, Arlene. Ok, originally the issue went up on the qarrtsiluni website. But, now, I have the book. Alternatively, we met online at some dating service. :-) Titled Mutating the Signature. :-)

Arlene: That feels like ages ago. And here we are—four grown kids later, I mean, poems. It must be the “nature” in signature working its magic. Our eldest, “what fills our footsteps” has even found stable employment at Poemeleon. Feel free to check it out and say hi to junior for us - click to enter, then scroll down.

Daniela: Thank you Arlene, for joining me here at virtual cafe today. We are out of time, but let the talk continue in the comments below. No one is clocking the comment section.

Arlene: And Dorothee, thank you for the invitation, and for hosting us. The coffee was excellent.

Dorothee: Arlene, Daniela: Thanks for visiting the Daily Café, and for bringing your words and images, and your reflections. It was a joy to listen to you, and almost feels like this talk happened for real, at a wooden table filled with books and coffee cups.


further reading + browsing

author links:
- Website Arlene Ang
- blog Daniela Elza

- Bringhurst, R. (2007). Everywhere being is dancing: Twenty pieces of thinking. Nova Scotia, Canada: Gaspereau Press.
- Carson, A. (1998). Autobiography of Red: A Novel in Verse. New York, NY: Knopf.

other author talks
- Jessie Carty and Mel Bosworth (poetry + fiction)
- Rose Hunter and Dorothee Lang (stories + journeys)


  1. What a wonderful conversation. Thanks for this ~

  2. It is fun to eavesdrop on your conversation. Thank you for the bits of whimsy and wisdom. And thank you, Daniela and Arlene, for your lovely poems.

  3. I enjoyed your chat, Daniela and Arlene. Thanks for posting. Great to learn about Pirate Pad, too- makes collaboration so much easier!

  4. I enjoyed this too! A great read. The poetry on the transit system made me think of Toronto, where I used to live. They had it there too. I don't think I've seen this in too many other cities.... I'd never heard of PiratePad either - how interesting, and the way your did your collaboration!

  5. Thank you all for stopping by. This is such a wonderful way to build and grow community.