Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with David B. Goldstein

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David B. Goldstein

David B. Goldstein is the author of Laws of Rest (BookThug). In this collection, David explores a new form, the prose sonnet, which he created for this book. In this new form, the mysterious, gender-bending character of Lucy presides over narratives that range from geopolitics to butterflies.

David speaks to Open Book about the origin of the sonnet, eavesdropping on taxi drivers and letting readers choose the book's title for themselves.

You can catch David in person at the launch for Laws of Rest on Tuesday October 29, 2013 at 7:30p.m. at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre (750 Spadina Avenue, Toronto).

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Laws of Rest.

David B. Goldstein:

Laws of Rest explores what happens when those little tunes the sonneteers invented (“sonnet” comes from Italian for “little song”) are sung in prose. Or, perhaps, what happens when poetry meets prose in a space so small that neither can escape the other’s clutches.


Tell us about the prose sonnet. Is this a form you've ever written in before, or did you create it specifically for this project?


It emerged for this project. A few years back, my taxi got stuck in traffic on the way from Manhattan to LaGuardia airport. Increasingly nervous that I would miss my flight, I started trying to distract myself with some other topic (this was before the anti-anxiety medication known as ipad). I realized that the driver was having a bizarre and beautiful cellphone conversation. I listened in and started copying phrases. What emerged was a prose line with strong rhythmic and imagistic elements — it sounded more like poetry than prose. As we neared the airport, I started hoping for more traffic, so as to have more time to listen to the driver. By the time we arrived (just before check-in closed) I had the rough draft of the poem that became “Jewel Avenue” in the book. I figured that the structure was a one-off, but I kept hearing interesting conversations on trains, in taxis, walking around. And then other language started flowing into the form, and soon I was writing a series. Every time I tried to go back to more traditional poetry lineation, the poems sucked. So eventually I gave in and decided I was writing a book-length cycle. Only then did I start to think about sonnet cycles of the past — Cavalcanti, Petrarch, Sidney — and what they might have to do with these weird little poems.


How did the character of Lucy come into being? How do you see her and her role in the collection? Do you see any of yourself in her?


Lucy is the lover of the narrator of the first section of the book (the narrator disappears after that first section and other voices take over). Lucy is female, but the narrator’s gender is fairly indeterminate, and the gender parameters of their relationship shift over the course of the sequence. “What Lucy Used to Be,” the opening poem in the collection, was one of the earliest poems I wrote. I have no idea where it came from. There were scraps of autobiography — at the time I wrote it, I was living near the Amsterdam Pub, which appears in the poem because of its wonderful name, and I used to ride horses (much of the poem takes place at or near a horse barn). But the relationship and characters came from elsewhere (some of the book’s later poems are more directly autobiographical, revisiting the end of one relationship and the beginning of another). I’ve always been fascinated by gender, sexual orientation, and the ways that these play out unpredictably in relationships. In my experience, few people fit gender stereotypes in all their rigidity, and the links between desire and the object of that desire is still a puzzle. These poems were an attempt to explore some of that. Also, “Lucy” is of course a resonant name — Wordsworth, Australopithecus, etc. So the figure also became a meditation on origins and endings, both poetic and erotic.


"The Laws of Rest" are part of real Jewish laws of Sabbath observance. How did you hit upon this title? What does it mean to you personally?


I came to the current title very late in the game. For a long time the book was “The Muses’ Birdcage” (a line that appears in the prologue poem), and then it was “Bone Enough” (which comes also from the title poem). Readers who like one of the earlier titles may feel free to substitute their title of choice. “Laws of Rest,” though, seemed to me to capture both the constraints of the form, the restlessness of the long prose lines, the importance of Judaism and Jewish concepts to the work as a whole, and also the fact that the book is an elegy of sorts for a lost friend and a lost teacher. What lies at the end of speaking? What does it mean to “rest” in and beyond language?


You've written non-fiction on a number of subjects and also worked in translation. How do you find your wide variety of writing work fits together? Do you draw from these other forms when working on poetry projects?


All of it got thrown into the sink of this book! While I was writing it, I felt that all language was alive. There are scraps of translation, often mistranslation (based on deliberate mishearing and mistranscription) as well as transformations of nonfiction texts, from The New Yorker to restaurant menus. I don’t get too concerned with how my work fits together — I just try to explore fully whatever compels me, and hope that I end up in a place I didn’t anticipate.


What were you reading while working on this book? And what is next on your to-read list?


All sorts of stuff — Edmond Jabès, Augustine, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Robert Duncan, Francis Ponge, Fanny Howe, Jen Bervin, Anne Carson, Michael Palmer, Rimbaud, and reams of seventeenth-century cookbooks, to name a few. Right now I am looking forward to reading Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager, Paul Ricoeur’s Oneself as Another, Mary Reufle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey, and a volume or two of the Japanese food comic Oishinbo.


What are you working on now?


I have another book coming out in a month or so: a work of scholarship called Eating and Ethics in Shakespeare’s England. And I’m working on a new poetry collection, Lost Originals, which camps out at the juncture between translation and metaphor.

David B. Goldstein's poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies throughout North America, including The Paris Review, The Malahat Review, filling Station, CV2, Epoch, Harp & Altar, Jubilat, 6x6, and Octopus. His first chapbook, Been Raw Diction, was published by Dusie Press in 2006. As a literary critic, food writer and translator, he has published on a wide range of subjects, including Shakespeare, contemporary poetry, translation, cannibalism, philosophies of food, and the politics of Martha Stewart. His first book of criticism, Eating and Ethics in Shakespeare's England, is due out this fall. His translations from Italian poetry appear in The FSG Book of 20th-Century Italian Poetry, among other publications. Goldstein lives with his family in Toronto, where he is Associate Professor of English at York University.

For more information about Laws of Rest please visit the BookThug website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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