STARLIGHT, PHILADELPHIA seeks to cast a glow of starlight around the Philadelphia Poetry Community & its people.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


                                    JenMarie Davis is co-founder of Fact-Simile Editions
                                    & Press, & an amazing visionary.

from Origin's Glow
by JenMarie Davis

In outer space, there’s a fabric
of sympathetic atoms some-
when. This is the homeward wander.
The whole cosmos contracts within
your insides. Consciousness twists towards
a phenomenal point. Unwind
it. The universe rests here, in you.
Your body begins to black hole. 

I have been thrilled ever since learning from fellow Philadelphia poet Kim Gek Lin Short that JenMarie Davis & Travis Macdonald were moving to our fair city.  In my opinion, these two stellar poets have it right on the mark with their amazing Fact-Simile Editions Magazine & Press.  They have created a space for poetry of this millennium to shine & breathe.  They continually feature some of the best poets writing today – thus, they contribute widely to contemporary poetry.  

Beyond the magazine & press, they also create Poetry Trading cards, which are lovely, portable, hand-held objects depicting some of today’s most cherished poets.  Recently, they created a trading card of one of my favorite living humans, CAConrad.  These trading cards, along with their magazine & the beautiful chapbooks they create, make poetic art a lovely thing that one can hold in the hand, pass around, share, & admire.

Recently it has also come to my attention that the mind of JenMarie Davis seems to bear the hallmark of stellar genius.  I think you will agree with me after you read this interview with her.  I hope you enjoy it!!

Debrah:  JenMarie, after reading your poem, from Origin's Glow, I am left with a moment of fantasizing about my own self's connection to the greater cosmos -- something I love to think about all day.  Thank you for sharing this piece.  My day will be better off today now that I've read it.  

That this poem is entitled "from" Origin's Glow makes me surmise that this is a piece from a longer work.  Is this the case?  If so, what is your longer piece like?  What does it do?  What are your thoughts about it?  I take from the title & much in the piece that it deals with metaphysical concerns -- origins --  is this the case?  Do you have a particular notion about origins that you are imparting to us?  This poem seems so full of vision.  Do you believe in the visionary, &, if so, how do you use the process of vision in your writing of poems?

JenMarie:  First, thank you so very much for including me in Starlight, Philadelphia. I'm delighted and honored and glad that you enjoyed the poem!
This piece is from a suite of poems that I began as an exercise to escape a recursive pattern I'd fallen into with a stuck manuscript. I decided to write one self-contained poem a day with eight lines and eight syllables per line. Why eight? Eight has always been an auspicious number for me--when I imagine this number, it's always pearlescent and seems to contain the entire universe within it--it's an infinity sign standing up. After re-reading the "self-contained" poems and seeing thematic resonance, I've recently decided to swell the suite into a full collection, but by changing the form slightly, from eight lines per poem to ten, which will result in 108 syllables. 

This number will probably stick out for anyone with knowledge of Eastern philosophy, as 108 is considered a sacred number. Before I go on, I should admit that I work as the operations manager at an ashram. Although I mostly deal with the same kinds of projects and tasks with which most managers deal, mine come entrenched in a metaphysical atmosphere of ancient yogic tradition. That said, I am often in conversation with others about their metaphysical concerns and relationship of self/Self to the greater cosmos. At the same time, I am also fascinated by physical science and read a lot of science publications, listen to a lot of physics-based podcasts and watch a lot of documentaries about physics. So both of these cosmologies are part of my quotidian thinking and deeply influence my poetics, currently manifesting as these poems. 

To be more specific, the collection is an investigation of the spaces where Eastern philosophy and theories and discoveries in physical science parallel, intersect or resonate. In my engagement with these sciences of yoga and physics, I began to notice that yogis can often find parallels to many physics theories and discoveries in the last hundred years in ancient yogic texts. In fact, the Indian government gave a statue of Nataraja, the embodiment of the Hindu god Shiva's cosmic dance of creation and destruction, to CERN, in recognition of the metaphor between Shiva's cosmic dance and the cosmic dance of subatomic particles, a parallel first attributed to physicist Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics, which has become a great source text for this project. The concept of origin and human preoccupation with it found its way organically into all the poems, too, as both sciences explore universal origin. The collection also investigates how language mediates the human relationship with out-of-scale objects--the super-small or super-large, the immaterial and phenomenal. As for the repetition of form? It is born from the necessity of repetition within both yogic tradition and physical science as a path to some revelation or a kind of "attainment" of origin: mantra repetition as a path to enlightenment and repetition of exact experiments to definitive universal truths. 

I am drawn to your question of visionary and vision. But I must admit that I immediately think of David Bowie's song in which he sings "waiting for the gift of sound and vision." Every time I hear it, I think of poems, little gifts of sound and vision. This idea of poems as gifts made of these two components tends to stick with me when I write, too. 

In short, I do believe in the visionary. Your phrase "process of vision" at once imparts mysticism and procedure, and "visionary" calls forth fancy, imagination, revelation and premonition. I would use all of these to describe my writing process and the atmosphere that I experience when I write. Vision extends beyond sight and into other sensations--as a detection and manifestation of both the phenomenal and immaterial realms, the immaterial realms being the supernatural,  which is the immaterial but mentally "seen." Experiencing and being open to all these kinds of vision, for me, provides a richer world in which to translate into poems.  

Debrah:  I am definitely intrigued by the material of your piece/manuscript.  I think poetry-writing along these lines is extremely important, so I am always happy to encounter a poet who works with things like numerology & investigations into the "spaces where Eastern Philosophy & theories/discoveries in physical science parallel."  I love especially how this poem begins in outer space, & then ends with the body beginning to "black hole."  How, would you say, does the body black hole?  What are the connections between the cosmos & one's insides?  What is the "homeward wander"?

JenMarie:  Thanks so very much, Debrah. I love that you are attracted to the subversion of scale that happens within the poem and the paths of inquiry that manifest. 

Why I chose to construct a functional shift with the line "Your body begins to black hole" is, one, to use language that straddles mystical and scientific, and so that the reader asks the question "how does my (the reader's) body black hole?" So, it's purposefully vague. Yet, there are markers here--"your," "body," and "black hole"--which suggest a phenomenal personal relationship with an extreme and relentless gravitational force that culminates in a supreme and perhaps terminal density. Any "how" that evokes such an effect is, then, how the body may "black hole." For me, my body/mind begins to "black hole" when I enter a very deep level of meditation. Some other experience may evoke that effect for another person. 

The "homeward wander" is also somewhat purposefully vague so that its meaning can expand for each reader to develop his or her own path of inquiry. For me, any quests for origin, metaphysical or scientific, are "homeward wanders."  Also, to reference the preceding line in the poem, there is a consciousness-theory that states there exists a "fabric of sympathetic atoms" in outer space to where a person's consciousness travels during death and near-death experiences. It's a really attractive idea, this one of a deep space consciousness vault, a kind of "home base" where consciousness waits for its next incarnation. 

When relating to the lines beneath it, however, "homeward wander" points towards a speculated effect of understanding primordial universal laws or to enlightenment. What happens when you "arrive home" and realize the hidden truths of the universe, either through a metaphysical or scientific lens? What happens to your body and mind when you internalize that information? How are you different? How is the world around you different? I am interested in these questions because the only anticipated variable is knowledge and understanding. I say anticipated because of the shocking occurrences in physical science in which observation affects the nature of subatomic particles. But now I am getting off track... 

The cosmos and your insides, on the subatomic level, are made from the exact same stuff, matter from which both are formed would have been compacted and exploded outward during the Big Bang. Your guts and stars are made from the exact same energy and particles and are just arranged differently, compressed to different densities, enacting different properties. The same energy flows through both, yet each expresses that energy differently. And in order to continue to maintain your body, you must take into it matter from the external world--water, air, energy--a process through which these things condense to form your body. 

Debrah:  I love that your language "straddles the mystic & scientific."  My good friend, poet/writer Holly Jean Buck, visited me from Baltimore this past weekend, & she was speaking a lot about just this -- how the quest to make visible the invisible forces of the world ("homeward wanders") led to modern science as we now know it, & how many of the early scientists were like magicians -- identifying invisible things like the periodic table of elements -- how invisible are things like nitrogen & carbon!  Yet how much they impact the daily lives of us all!  & how we are composed of them!  

After reading this wonderful poem & discussing with you so many angles of inquiry, I am very interested to know what you are reading that has perhaps inspired this straddling of science & mysticism in your writing.  Do you have any particular inspirations of note?  I am certainly interested in engaging with a reading list of this nature.

Also, I like your positing of "some-when."  Sounds a bit like "somewhere" but also seems like a minute thingness attached to temporality.  Tell me more about this very interesting "some-when." 

JenMarie:  What a gift your conversation with Holly Jean Buck must have been! Yes, the quest to make visible the invisible forces of human perception--isn't that what language is all about? I would love to study the evolution of language as it compares to the evolution of science, philosophy and religion (as these attempt to explain the invisibles). That will be the next round of books to read...

I'm reading or have recently read The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, The Science of Yoga by IK Taimni, Cosmos by Carl Sagan, The New Scientific Spirit by Gaston Bachelard, Yann Andrea Steiner by Marguerite Duras, A Cordiall Water by MFK Fisher and lots and lots of physics articles and websites ( has a great database of physics web pages that it hand-picks for you based on your age and knowledge level). Also contemplation articles by Nirmalananda Saraswati ( And I've been listening to lots of science podcasts. 

I love your extrapolation of "some-when." It is mental concept used to evoke temporality and spacetime. I first heard the term used by Carl Sagan to discuss wormholes. There is something wistful in its sound to me that I love, a sorrow and longing to reach a specific place/time in spacetime that exists but is inaccessible to the human body and mind. 

Debrah:  JenMarie, thanks so much for participating in this interview for Starlight, Philadelphia.  It has been a delight to speak with you about poems & process, science & imagination.  Now for our last question...  As this interview is, of course, for Starlight, Philadelphia, could you speak a bit about how you've found your experiences in the Philadelphia Poetry Community so far?  It is so wonderful to have you here.  I have also enjoyed frequenting the readings that you & Travis have put on so far in Philadelphia.  Thank you for sharing your gifts with us here.  Do you find the landscape of Philadelphia inspirational?  If so, how?  If not, what could be done to improve this?

JenMarie:  Thank you so very much again for inviting me to participate in Starlight, Philadelphia, Debrah, and for your kind and loving words! It's been very sweet to engage with you and your marvelous questions! And on to the last one...

I loved the Philadelphia poetry community for a long time, before I even really knew it. When I lived in New Mexico, I would receive Facebook event invites for all these jaw-droppingly great readings, and nine times out of ten, they were in Philadelphia. Then, Travis and I decided to move to Philadelphia. While the actual move was still several months away, I received very thoughtful welcoming emails from you and many other Philadelphia poets. And once we did move, we continued to be very warmly welcomed and included.  

It's this inclusivity that I really love about the poetry community here. And this inclusivity manifests as readings and literary journals and other projects: every member makes spaces for poetry and for one another, such as Starlight, Philadelphia. It's one of the most supportive and sustainable communities I've encountered.  There are so many outstanding poets living and working here! Truly amazing, innovative and hard-working writers. I'm blessed to be in the right place at the right time. 

While the writers here provide a massive supply of inspiration, the city inspires, too. All these rivers and bridges! There's a lot of connective tissue here, and circulation, which I appreciate. I journal and diagram a lot, and I think that I've begun to model the movement and architecture of these daily practices after such structures. I'm meditative and a natural lingerer; the city keeps me moving. 

JenMarie Davis co-edits Fact-Simile Editions and builds books from recycled and reclaimed material. She is the author of Sometime Soon Ago (Shadow Mountain, 2009) and her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from GlitterponyCourt GreenLittle Red LeavesInterim and Gargoyle

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

FEATURE: TRAVIS MACDONALD, 333333333333333333333333333333

                                         Travis Macdonald co-founded Fact-Simile Press & is an
                                         amazing poet & proceduralist.

by Travis Macdonald

To have descended from common parents,
the relation
of the ideas involved in it to objects
is, on my theory, of equal
the stars.

Of these ideas among themselves? It is not
of the heaven to give light upon the earth,
feel constrained to call the propositions of geometry “true,”
and of their hybrid offspring it is impossible.
Objects in nature, and these last
works of
“And” (the evening and the morning) were the

ideas. Geometry ought
God said, Let the
waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature, that
high generality,
and fowl that may fly.

About a year ago, the founders/editors of Fact-Simile Editions Magazine & Press, Travis Macdonald & JenMarie Davis, moved to Philadelphia, much to the delight of the community here.  Travis & JenMarie contribute much to poetry through their endeavors, both with the press/magazine, & with their poems.  Look for a Starlight, Philadelphia feature on JenMarie Davis soon -- & while you’re waiting for that, I hope you enjoy this interview with Travis Macdonald.  We are lucky to have him among the many talented poets here in Philadelphia. 

Debrah:  Travis, I am very excited to engage with you about your poem 06286208998628034825.  I suppose for me it's important, before really engaging the text, to ask if this is a conceptual piece, or a mathematical piece, or a piece in which you engage experiments with appropriation.  If so, what was your method, & which texts did you use in the creation of this poem?  What moved you to use these texts, & to use this type of experimentation?  Is there anything akin to alchemy or magic in this process?

Travis:  Thanks for inviting me to participate in Starlight Philadelphia. You've gathered a really wonderful and inspiring group of writers so far and I am honored to be in such company. The short answer to this first round of questions is: yes! 3... is a conceptual mathematical experiment in appropriation. 
The long answer goes more like this: I tend to think of my own work in terms of procedure rather than concept. I see conceptual art and literature as existing alongside, if not independent from, its actual enactment or execution. Conceptual writing, it has been said, is in search of a thinkership rather than a readership. The procedural work, on the other hand, is characterized by and entirely dependent on the process of creation that it sets forth. While, like any good literature, it should arise from and engender thought, poetry has the ability to contain so much more than just ideas. Logopoeia, after all, is only one third of the poetic elemental equation. In fact, I would venture to say that the other two thirds, music (melopoeia) and form (phanopoeia) are more important for my particular poetic tendencies and proceduralism at large.

As an avid reader, I guess it comes down to the fact that I have little to no interest in a book that can’t, won’t or shouldn’t be “read.” For instance, while I can appreciate the literary and artistic conceptual gestures of Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing”, in my own work, I labor under the assumption that the words I write, compose and compile will somehow find their way (today, tomorrow or someday in the distant future) into one or more human eyes, ears and/or mouths. If only for the fact that I very much enjoy holding the words of others in this way. 

But back to the piece at hand: 3... is composed solely of language borrowed in direct numerical sequence from The Book of Genesis, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (Chapter 8 - Hybridism) and Albert Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity. Each poem is comprised of individual lines whose word count corresponds precisely with the relative decimal point of pi (3.14159265 etc.) to its first one thousand places. When drawing from each source, I made a point of never exceeding 3 consecutive lines from any given text and, even then, only in cases where the process of natural selection demanded. While the original language of each line is preserved, each selection was re-punctuated for the purposes of the new narrative I was working to create.

I think there is most definitely an alchemical, transformative process at play in this piece. As is the case with much of my work, the form/procedure came first or, at least it was the seed from which the idea grew. I had an idea that I would like to write a poetic series structured around the decimal places of pi. At first, I tried composing using these numerals as syllabic counts but soon abandoned this method as overly restrictive. I began working, instead, using the numerals as a line-by-line word count restraint, composing my own “original” poetry into the vessel that pi provided. However, this process too soon felt hollow and unfulfilling. It wasn’t until I read a poetic play of Elizabeth Guthrie’s called Dub - Notes - to Refrain (from Condition) written in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that the form I was after began to take a more definite shape. [Ms. Guthrie’s text was later published in Requited though you can’t necessarily tell that it was written in Excel by looking at the final version.]
This piece got me thinking about the possibilities of the spreadsheet as poetic vessel. The mechanical organizing structure presented by the spreadsheet seemed to beg to be filled with something pre-existing. Looking back to the “3” that precedes the decimals I was dealing with, I felt the need to braid or merge three disparate or conflicting texts into a single document. After this basic form had coalesced, it was almost as if the necessary texts chose themselves...After all, what could be more seemingly disparate or conflicting than the oppositional creation myths of Darwin and Genesis? As for Einstein, I felt that there needed to be a textual referee of sorts mediating between these two fiery polemics. And what better connective/disruptive tissue than the cold hard math of The Special and General Theory of Relativity? Of course, as disparate as these three texts may seem at the surface, at their core they are each actually approaching the same task of explaining creation...just from very different angles.

I feel as if this is an already long-winded answer and we’re just getting started so I will try to tie up with the question of magic with the following excerpt from the Author’s Note: π (pi or 3.141593) is a transcendental number, which suggests, among other things, that no finite sequence of algebraic operations on integers (powers, roots, sums, etc.) can be equal to its value. Consequently, its decimal representation never ends or repeats. It divides in endless variation.

That, to me, is just about as magic as it gets.

Debrah:   Very interesting procedure.  You are definitely using texts that have inspired & created avenues of debate regarding existence & human life for many.  I notice the repetition of the term "geometry" in this poem.  Does your mathematical procedure present a sort of poetic geometry?  Also, I greatly enjoyed your discussion of how conceptual writing is "in search of a thinkership rather than a readership," & that you note that you hope that your work "will somehow find their way...into one or more human eyes, ears, &/or mouths."  How do you anticipate that this poem might enter someone's mouth?

Travis:  I work as a copywriter for a marketing agency just north of Philadelphia. A colleague of mine asked me recently about the best way to explain a 3-frame rotating website concept to a particularly difficult client with no appreciable sense of humor or creativity. This conversation inevitably turned to “the rule of 3,” a principle of pattern recognition commonly utilized by poets, politicians and comedians alike. 
The rule of 3 essentially states that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying or more effective than any other number of things. There are examples of this basic geometry extending back throughout the history of western storytelling and literature (the holy trinity, three blind mice, three little pigs, etc.). I think it stems from the fact that our brains are somehow hardwired to more easily consume information written in groups of threes. If I were to examine this phenomenon further, I would venture the explanation that a series of 3 is the absolute minimum number of elements necessary to illustrate a narrative progression in which tension is created, a pattern is established and the reader/audience’s expectations are either reinforced or subverted.
In geometric terms, of course, a triangle is the most basic shape, containing the fewest number of lines necessary to enclose an area of any size. Is it a coincidence that it is also the sturdiest, most structurally sound two-dimensional object?
The word “geometry” in 3... is taken entirely from Einstein’s contribution to the project. It seems fitting to me that this organizing theme or concept should come from The Special and General Theory of Relativity since it was this text that, to my mind, was necessary for connecting the rather divergent angles of the other two and enclosing the resulting combinatorial narrative.
I think the rule of 3 can also be applied, albeit in a somewhat different manner, to the second part of your question. While I hesitate to make any generalized assumptions about the internal experience of others, for me the act of reading takes place entirely in the interaction between the those three primary sense-orifices listed above (eyes, ears and mouth). This interplay of the senses is most obvious, of course, when reading aloud: one takes information from the page through one’s eyes, translates that information internally and channels it out through the mouth in the form of speech.
On the surface, it may seem as if the act of hearing or listening takes place passively on the part of the audience and falls outside of the domain of the poet or speaker. But if you’ve ever heard a deaf person speak or read aloud then you know full well that our ears are responsible for controlling all sorts of modulations in tone and volume that result in the basic music of the human voice. (Side note: The poet Ilya Kaminsky is a beautiful living example of this phenomenon. I encourage anyone who has not heard him read his poetry aloud to seek out a recording or, better yet, a live performance!) For my own part, even when reading silently to myself, I am fully aware not only of the sound of the words in my mind’s ear but the taste or feel of every letter and phrase as it rolls around the echo chamber of my mouth. It is my goal as a writer and arranger of words to enter the sensory-corporeal forms of other human beings in this way. In fact, I can think of no greater honor or privilege.

Debrah:  Travis, these are such marvelous lines of thought.  To encounter "3" does seem like a sacred positioning.  We say that so many things happen in threes -- deaths, births, marriages -- these rites of passage of lives & culture.  There is the magical Three-fold Law, Gurdjieff's triune nature of Endlessness, & Newton's Three Laws of Motion.  Plato said that the four elements were composed of triangles, & his triangles were akin to atoms.  Such power in this numeral.  Is this also why your poem has three stanzas?
In this poem, as the words are taken from your three source texts using mathematical experimentation, would you say that you, the poet, Travis Macdonald, find yourself in the actual synapses and/or ideas that a reader might garner from this poem?  Or would you say that you, Travis Macdonald, the person & poet, exist only in the process?  For instance, do you believe that we have descended from common parents?  

Travis:  I really like Plato’s concept of triangular atoms! I had never heard that before. We’ve been raised on this idea that the universe is made up of spheres, (from the macro to the micro) but it’s not as if any of us has ever seen an atom up why not triangles? In any case, yes, 3 does seem to be a powerful presence in the human consciousness experience. The alleged center of that consciousness is, of course, made up of three parts: the cerebrum, the cerebellum and the brain stem...maybe that has something to do with it? However, I’m afraid the fact that this particular poem has 3 stanzas is merely a cosmic coincidence in the decimal places of pi as this selection of twenty places just so happened to contain 3 zeros.
Despite the constraint of the form and process of appropriation that created these poems, there is most certainly an authorial presence at work. The nature of that presence is a little bit more difficult to pinpoint within the binary you’ve presented: I’m not sure that I could make any definite distinction between whether it is contained in the poems or the process that gave rise to them. In fact, for me (and perhaps this is a tenet of proceduralism itself) the process and its results are co-creational forces.
However, in an effort to avoid being completely vague and evasive, let me say that I think your characterization of that presence as synaptic is particularly apt since the first level of authorial control or manipulation took place in the space between each individual line. At each of these intertextual junctures, I was presented with a choice between 3 predetermined outcomes. The challenge in composing these poems then became finding the new thought that wound through and between each text to formulate a narrative that was both composed of and completely separate from each individual thread.
The second level of authorial control came in the form of re-punctuating the resulting text to further draw out and claim ownership of that new narrative. The third and final level was in the curation of each individual poem in the series: In order to provide some much needed variance while honoring the 10 numeral nature of the decimal places themselves, each poem was arranged in a series of lines divisible by 10.
All procedure aside, by repeating it over and over again to myself, I’ve learned to believe in everything I’ve ever written. Especially the contradictions. If Travis Macdonald the person and poet can be said to exist anywhere, it’s probably there.

Debrah:  Travis, thanks for this response.  I believe in all you've written as well, & am happy that it's on the earth for us all to enjoy & learn from.  I am also happy that you & JenMarie moved to Philadelphia roughly a year ago, & for all that both of you have contributed to the Philadelphia Poetry Community thus far.  Which brings me to the final question.  As this interview is for Starlight, Philadelphia, what are your thoughts & feelings about the Poetry Community here so far?  What brought you to Philadelphia?  Do you feel your poetry or thoughts on poetry have been influenced at all yet by the city's cultural influences?   

Travis:  Thank you! I’ve been putting together some notes toward a proceduralist manifesto of sorts and this dialogue has really helped me formulate some new and unexpected avenues of thought in that pursuit. As for Philadelphia, I know for a fact that I speak for both JenMarie and myself when I say we are incredibly happy to be here. Hard to believe it’s almost been a year already!  Somewhere around July 4th of 2010 we were sitting in our little adobe home in Santa Fe...missing family, feeling poetically isolated and really fed up with our respective jobs. We decided it was time to make a change.

Philadelphia just seemed like the obvious choice. Jen’s family lives a little bit west of the city and mine is a short drive away (compared to NM) in upstate NY. More importantly, we’d been hearing a lot of really great things about the amazing poetry scene developing here and that was something we never really found in Santa Fe. It seems like the writers who go to the desert do so to be alone and we were craving contact and exchange. Not only have we discovered that thriving community we were searching for here in Philadelphia, we’ve also found really great jobs that we love and a cozy little twin up in Mt. Airy. All in all, it feels like home in ways that the west never did.

That said, I don’t know if the city has really found its way into my poetry just yet. I’m not really a “poet of place” in the tradition of Olson or WCW to begin with...but more than that, I almost don’t feel as if the city’s given me its permission just yet. I’ve encountered so many great writers here who do a truly superb job of speaking for, through and into her streets and secret spaces (CAConrad, Frank Sherlock, Ryan Eckes, Kevin Varrone and Jacob Russell to name just a few) that I don’t think I could ever really add to that communal body of least not until I’ve lived here for another decade or more. Or maybe the right form just hasn’t found me yet. I’ll keep you posted…

Debrah:  Thanks, Travis, for these insights & thoughts.  We are lucky to have you in Philadelphia.

Recent books by Travis Macdonald include: BAR/koans (Erg Arts 2011), Hoop Cores (Knives, Forks and Spoons Press 2011), Sight & Sigh (Beard of Bees 2011), N7ostradamus (BlazeVox Books 2010), Basho's Phonebook (E-ratio 2009) and The O Mission Repo [vol. 1] (Fact-Simile Editions 2008). Other poetry and prose has appeared in print, online and elsewhere. He works long hours in advertising and lives happily in the Mt. Airy area of Philadelphia with fellow Fact-Simile Editions co-founder JenMarie Davis.

Saturday, August 20, 2011


                                               Jacob Russell stands with his Spirit Stick.

As music (is) ...
By Jacob Russell

the organization of sound in space      dance
            a single leaf
turning on a winter branch or motionless
the arrangement of           Things
                        on a kitchen shelf
white beans in a glass jar, rice
basket of onions -- three of them, brown
     skins peeling
whole wheat penne, rigatoni
yellow & green, oatmeal, raisins
       spices -- name them, name them
taste           touch          see

the cats tongue
the water in a white clay dish

Yes, there are those moments
waking, not quite awake the world unreal but for the cat at your feet
sexual dreams unfurl like flags on a windless midnight
he lets you know he needs to be fed

uncurl the dream from the dream
body & mind are not two
things you leave behind will find you
another day another night
feed the cat
feed the cat

In Philadelphia, we are lucky enough to be graced by the presence of the esteemed Jacob Russell, who enacts a kind of shamanism whenever he enters the room.  He carries with him a spirit stick – a walking stick he decorates with found materials – you can see it in the above image of him.  He blesses poetry readings with his spirit stick at request, & you can feel an ancient energy enter the room when he does this.  It sends a positive charge for the reading that can be felt in the surrounding air. 

Not every poetry community has a shaman with a spirit stick.  We are very fortunate.

Beyond this, Jacob writes amazing poems, & a long one that is a poem to the end of his days.  This is an inspiring gesture – to write poems until the air & the breath & the world around us…  This is a sacred act, a political act, an act of self-respect, a spiritual act. 

Jacob also invigorates the landscape of Our City by creating what he calls “Poem Trees.”  His Poem Trees can be found in South Philadelphia, literal street-trees decorated with poems & beautiful objects he finds along the way.  Thus, he breathes a human poetic spirit into these beautiful trees that line Passyunk Avenue, & as people pass the trees, they come into contact with the poetic – inviting people to participate in the realms of the poetic while they are taking a casual stroll is much needed, & Jacob has accomplished just this.

I hope you enjoy this interview with Jacob Russell, the Shaman of the Philadelphia Poetry Community, whose energy & vitality inspires all he meets.

Debrah:  Jacob, I am excited to discuss your poem "As music (is)..." & your ideas/thoughts about poetry in general.  This is a very intriguing piece of poetry, as your work tends to be.  

I am interested in your title. Does the title "As music (is)..." suggest that one should engage with the musicality/sonic quality of this piece?  Do you feel that poetry ought to engage a certain rhythm?  

Jacob:  “As music (is)” This isn’t really a title. It’s a convention I’ve adopted for what I envision as a work-in-progress without closure: think of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, which he worked on till his death… how it ends mid-contrapunctus, the voices trailing off one by one, like a last breath of life .  I don’t even think of it as a poem, but rather a single entry in a longer poem, “Chloe,” itself but one chapter or ‘rondo’  in the second book of Poem to the End of My Day. Because I find it easier to let the poems explain themselves, here’s the first & fourth entry of book one: Chronic, Chronos, Kairos.

Sunday, February 6, 2011
Every poet worthy of the title
…writes but one poem in a lifetime. Not little framed verbal icons to inscribe in the margins of soon to be forgotten books, but a single tottering edifice of found things held precariously together with spit and sperm and shit and blood--inviting readers to enter, at the risk of contagion--an unholy order of life without rule or law, but that which it creates for itself

February 7, 2011
As all time past is present…
... the date of origin of any of these pieces is of no matter in determining the sequential order which is to say immaterial & such significance as one may find by the assignment of any one occasion to a place on the calendar is paradoxically a-temporal as are all days of
commemorations of births & deaths
the numbers assigned to these being entirely
beside the point & without meaning outside the delusional waking dream we have come to accept as history   

Each entry is on a single page. The first line in bold & in a larger font, followed by the rest of the poem indented 5 spaces. The dates may indicate the time of initial composition, a remembered incident or both. Where there is no date, and the first line doesn’t begin upper case, it’s either a critical insertion (usually in prose block format) or, as above, to indicate a more intimate continuation from the preceding thought &/or point in time..

If you’ll indulge me here—there are some key ideas in the two pages proceeding ‘as music (is) that I’d like to follow up on.
January 2011
I’ve been thinking a lot about sparrows ...
so many sparrows in my poems there’s really a lot of them
I could do a book -- a book of sparrows
they’re not real, of course        word-sparrows
in the way words are

how words need sparrows ...
... sparrow-words, singular or plural
in a way sparrows don’t

a one-way street
strictly unrequited

is this what happens when we
fall in love

with the world ...

of the world

go on about their business
with               or without us

another winter searching for seeds

another spring
fledglings spreading begging

for everything we cannot give
for all Things lost

Word-Things… but let me get back to your question: “… Does the title "As music (is)..." suggest that one should engage with the musicality/sonic quality of this piece?  Do you feel that poetry ought to engage a certain rhythm?

First thing… ‘should’ & ‘ought’ are gatekeeper words—a language I’m allergic to! … but an interesting question. I think I have a pretty good sense of verbal rhythm & I used to indulge this—open metrical patterns, internal rhyme, assonance, alliteration—and that still sneaks in, but it’s something I tend to resist. Rhythm is enchanting… & though I like enchantment, I want to avoid the sort that lulls the brain to sleep—that replaces or submerges the inclination to think. There are many kinds of verbal rhythm, of course. I love what Ryan Eckes does with natural speech—how his poems keep you awake, full of little surprises. That’s something I’ll remember when I feel the lines falling too easily into metrical ebb and flow—jerk myself back into something closer to conversational speech, or deliberately awkward lurches… like a Twyla Tharp dance piece! I’m more attuned to tempi—alternating allegro adagio largo, controlling the reading speed, easing & impeding the flow… so yes, I guess music is important to me, and structurally as well. I think of the sections or chapters in Poem to the  End of My Days as ‘rondos,’ a musical form of at least three iterations on a major theme, interspersed with subordinate themes and motifs—each of which is progressively developed as contrapuntal ideas or themes, each rondo introducing new ‘voices’ or taking up old ones. 

Debrah: I am also drawn to what this poem does to the senses.  Towards the middle of the poem, after describing some lavish kitchen items, you say “taste      touch    see / listen,” which almost feels like an invitation to the reader to pay attention to the senses.  Do you think poetry can improve the use of one’s senses?

Jacob:  Here’s where we get to Word-Things! I’ve thrown some chum on the water with the quoted entries above… so ask me about word-Things!  

Debrah: Okay!  Was your response saying asking me about word-things your response to the question about the senses?  I am confused...

Jacob:  I’m confused too, but I never let that get in my way. This question was more difficult to answer than I anticipated. You asked about the shift from a list of concrete nouns, stuff on the shelf over the counter where I work, to a line made up of words of sense “taste  touch  see/ listen, words that might be read either as nouns, or verbs in the imperative mood (exclamation marks implied… another reason I prefer to do without punctuation of closure: periods, question marks, exclamation marks, the better to compound ambiguiation)—so that’s a good place to start. What I think happens there, what I had in mind—was to jar the reader out of any sense they might have that this list was about image making, that it was a list of words, not a description, not meant to conjure a picture—and if it did, to shatter the picture-window—a call to pay attention, maybe—to whatever happens to be around them at the time (the imperative)—so in that way, this is a call, an invitation to sensual awareness—to attention, without INtention, as I like to put it. The extended list, then, is a kind of reminder of how full the least incidental glance can be—full of Things, as the poem is full of Word-Things.

Here I find myself on the cusp of something I find deeply fascinating, and have no better way to explore than through writing poetry. I recognize that the voice in the poem has been acting as a sort of tour-guide for me as I wrote the poem, and by extension, for the reader—a tour of the intersection of sense & mind… though they’re not really two things, so “intersection isn’t the best word. Mind has a way of fooling itself, into believing in its own independent existence—seducing Philosophers of a certain stripe--since Plato--into an idealist ontology irreconcilable with our place in the material world, bedeviled as a consequence with an epistemological conundrum—that if you can only know what you hold in mind, you can never affirm the reality of anything outside the mind… the ding an sich that Kant can’t touch (say that with a high-tone Brit accent!).

I feel myself, in my animal life, as a person, in my thinking, in my poetry, so deeply embedded in the material world (& happy to be there!) that I instinctually resist idealist metaphysical claims of any sort--or of the supernatural—which are really a variant form of idealist belief. And yet… by temperament, I’m on the side of the mystics.

I think any poetry worth reading—& certainly, any poetry worth thinking about, begins in contradiction. Not merely logical, but a contradiction at the core of one’s being-in-the- world. …and I still haven’t gotten to Word-Things!

Debrah:  Jacob, please tell me about Word-Things.  I would love to learn about these.  Also, I am curious about your origination & conceptualization of the Poet Trees.  What inspired you to begin making Poet Trees?  Are you still making Poet Trees?  Where can people find them if so?

Jacob:  I call them Poem Trees… but maybe I should think about them as Poet Trees… the tree isn’t merely a passive recipient of the poems that dangle from its branches, is it?  I saw the tree, felt the possibility with it—of its being a poem tree—& that power to become a Poem Tree wasn’t mine, but was of the tree itself, its own creative power. So why not, Poet Tree?

How did the Poem Tree happen? This is a good question. It leads to an idea for me, about the power of Things. It wasn’t like I had this idea, something in my head—“I’m going to tie poems to a tree & call it a Poem Tree”… like it was my invention. To become a Poem Tree, the tree has to participate.

I mean, I couldn’t say to the air conditioner in the window, “I’m going to make a poem tree of you!” Every object presents you with certain possibilities in how you engage with it—but those possibilities aren’t limitless. The object resists becoming just anything. This is something both obvious, and mysterious, & it goes both ways. As you bring about change in a Thing, you yourself are changed. A mutual transformation.

I can’t say this idea was entirely new to me, but it took on a profoundly new reality, material, embodied … on May Day, 2010.  That was the moment the branch of tulip poplar I was carrying on the streets of Baltimore was transformed into a Spirit Stick. I had picked up a blue sash and feather left from a street performance in support of low wage harbor workers. There was this branch in my one hand, and the feather & sash in the other, & there was an affinity between them—you see, I wasn’t the inventor, but the agent of that affinity, putting them together—and it was only after the feather & sash and branch were together that I saw how they had become a New Thing… Spirit Stick! & this New Thing had powers of becoming. I began more to feel more deeply the affinity of Things I found… can tabs, wires, ribbons… Other people when they saw the Spirit Stick, they felt this too & gave me Things to add to it.

That’s how the Poem Tree happened. A poor little dead tree on Passyunk, like the dead three branch I had carried—that wasn’t dead at all, like a poem, how Things have this affinity for other Things, have powers all their own to become New Things together… like words reveal their affinity when you write & they come together & become a Poem. It’s so obvious, isn’t it? Spirit Stick. Poem Tree… & it happened with me too—the way I see myself, a felt attraction to Things…& it seemed mutual. Feathers. Can tabs. A kind of marriage… that I was like them, part of them… Spirit Stick, Poem Tree… I was agent to their becoming, my gift to them, & theirs to me… to show me more truly to myself.

You do stuff. & if the stuff you do is a Poem… you are …  ?

Does that make sense? The idea of Word-Things? Thinking about 'naming' in poems--what almost all description is. You write, 'tree,' and readers will call to mind their own associations, their relationship to what that word names. Further elaborations guide those associations, but at the core, there’s something in common, not the thing named, not the word, but the fact of its having a name, a word shared...with the Thing it names.  Word-Tree. In a poem, the reader enters its field of power, or is caressed by it, or sliced, or struck dumb, or sent off with a terrible need to do something with what has happened… like the need to find other words… mates to engender yet more words.

There is the feel of magic about names, names of things, names of persons. I ask, what is around me? Now, at this moment, in this place. What is it that most impresses itself on my senses? And I write that down--without elaboration. Without decoration. A statement. And in naming the thing I become something more--something else: I become a reader. THE reader. Every reader, and what has been named calls out to me, wakens in me--as myself, and as a Reader, a need to find words for what the name... the Word-Thing has summoned.

Let the mind follow.

It's like meditation. Where you focus on one thing, and this becomes a guide, opens a path that wasn't there before--or wasn't seen or recognized as a path.

The name is the gate. The reader is on the other side, but it's the same gate to the same path... at least, to the first step. From there, the divergent branches are without number. Another word. Another step. And each step loses the reader, and finds him again, her again. Until you reach a point of realized failure.

Observe. Write what impresses
the senses
let the mind follow

It's in naming common things
we draw the reader in

A kind of touch
                                                               you see
                                                               I see

where every conversation
wants to go

The first poem tree—having survived a hard winter…  was uprooted by the City this spring, replaced by a living sapling. But soon after, a tree a few yards down the block—the leaves grew brown, the branches brittle, & it said, If you want me to, I will be the Poem Tree.

And it was so.

Debrah:  Jacob, this was such a lovely & living explanation of word-things & the poem-tree, and how closely the two are linked, & how interconnected we all are to each other & to the objects around us – this idea of “mutual transformation” really resonates for me & feels quite important.  I love, also, how the trees seem to speak to you & how things speak to all of us – “every object brings to you certain possibilities of how to engage with it….”    & thus to my final question.  As this interview is for Starlight, Philadelphia, I would like to know how the city of Philadelphia brings to you certain possibilities of how to engage with it poetically?  What strikes you most profoundly about our community here?  What sorts of poetry do you think engaging with this city & its lore & people & sounds & smells brings to you &/or to all of us?

Jacob: I came to Philly in 1964.  I’ve probably lived here longer now than most of those who were born here. 47 years. But that I wasn’t. And that I bring with me childhood memories from elsewhere, Chicago, Kansas City, means that even after almost half a century—still not a “native.”

I think that we discover place in childhood—a magical bond of wonder & fear, & there is no re-placing that, no matter how long we’ve been away, or how much we’ve come to love where we find ourselves—&  I have come to love--to truly love this city.

It’s like a marriage, isn’t it? We leave our fathers and mothers to cleave to the body and soul of a stranger… who gives us nourishment we could not find in the heart of our own family. This is probably true of most of us now in a time of great mobility. It’s rare when a poet remains, or returns to their first home… the lake country of Lorine Niedecker’s Wisconsin, Wendell Berry turning the soil of Kentucky. Even for them, it seems that this return was only possible because “home” had become as strange as it was familiar. Learning to love where we are not at home is a work of a lifetime—a work made for a poet—a work that is perhaps the making of a poet.

What is it about Philly?

I love that it doesn’t sound like the voice in my head—that for all my years here (& I’m pretty good at picking up dialects… ‘accents’), I can’t for the life of me imitate someone who grew up in Kensington, or South Philly… or Mayfair. 

I love the Mummers—a celebration of working class neighborhoods, not Corporate sponsored made-for-TV extravaganzas like the Rose Bowl parade. Philly’s a big city that never feels near as big as it is when you live in one of its neighborhoods. There are wealthy and powerful people here, movers and shakers on the national and international scene, big corporations—this is an international city—but its more than that, & other—and that’s what I love.

I would hate it if it weren’t so, if I didn’t feel when I’m riding the Broad Street subway, walking the streets of South Philly, under the el on Front Street on the way home from a reading on Frankford, the tower of Episcopal Hospital poking out over the row houses of Kensington (where I worked as an orderly in the ER 40 years ago) .. that this city and its people—here in the Belly of the Beast, the fucking American Empire—the greatest killing & looting machine in the history of the world… that we (yeah… WE) are more and different & better & worse & not just worker cells in that fucking beast.. but something else, living and good … good.  We’re good.

Look at me, world. Look at us… we’re GOOD! You hear that?

Zoe Strauss… she sees it.

Ryan Eckes… he hears it. Frank Sherlock hears it. A fucking perfect ear for this city, the LIVING city.

And I wanna be part of that. I see it too. I hear it. And I want it to be in my poems. I’ll always be a stranger anyplace I am in this world. But I love this place. And that’s what I want to write… not about      … but the thing itself… to drive the soldiers from the garden of the world.

& when they’re all gone, Philly will still be here. OUR Philly.  Not theirs. Not theirs anymore.

Just ours.

Debrah:  Jacob, thank you for this interview.  You have so lovingly described many of the important aspects of our dynamic city, Philadelphia, and your inspiring thoughts about poetry & Poem Trees.


I was born in Chicago a long time ago, came to Philadelphia in 1964 from Wichita on a Vespa motor scooter & never found the exit.  In the 50's & 60's I studied art, in the 70's I was a potter.  My last gainful employment, 12 years teaching English comp at Saint Joseph's University, ended in 2008.  Having retired from worldly occupations, I walk the streets with Spirit Stick in search of poems & Found Things.

I've written poetry since I learned to form letters on a page, & finally accepted this as my calling one morning in April, 1987, standing in a kitchen in Northeast Philadelphia.  It was another twenty years -- enriched by the wonderful community of poets I've met since moving to South Philly, that I feel like I've begun to write in the fullness of my own voice.

Found Things...  having been set loose from the mesh of relationships that define (& confine) their manifest Being, they are free to reveal powers previously withdrawn & hidden.  In a poem, names, ideas, linguistic structures -- along with cultural & verbal fields of reference, constitute the aesthetic 'regime of attraction' of the poem -- which in turn, becomes a new Thing, pried loose from the prison of its context in the world.  For me, writing a poem is a struggle to keep the emerging mesh of the new regime of attraction fluid & open for as long as possible -- like Tantric sex, withholding consummation till the strength to resist it is exhausted.

In the past year I've published work in Big Bridge II, decomP, Criiphoria 2, Conversational Magazine, Connotations, BlazeVox, Scythe, Battered Suitcase, Clockwise Cat, Apiary, Fox Chase Journal, & Pedestal.  Links to published poetry & fiction can be found on my blog:  Jacob Russell's Barking Dog.