"It’s All About Having a Laugh and Experimenting" Poet MLA Chernoff on Affect Apocalypses, the Meaning of Squelch, and More
MLA Chernoff's debut full length poetry collection, the delightfully titled [SQUELCH PROCEDURES] (Gordon Hill Press) explores childhood and identity, touching on gender norms, trauma, poverty, and more in Chernoff's utterly original voice. It's an arresting debut, with echos the playfulness of beloved experimental poet bill bissett (who called the collection "wun uv th best books evr" in his trademark phonetically rendered style) and the late R.M Vaughan's dark wit; but Chernoff is so thoroughly themself in every line that their writing can't be boiled down to easy comparisons.
Their poetry in the collection is wonderfully witty and strange while still being thoughtful and wise, and we're excited to celebrate the publication of [SQUELCH PROCEDURES] by welcoming MLA to Open Book to talk about their journey as a poet as part of our Poets in Profile series.
They tell us about surprising themself with inspiration found in as unlikely a place as finance-focused Reddit threads, why they look for an "affect apocalypse" at the end of every poem, and precisely what "squelch" means to them.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
Feel free to cancel me, but the world of finance has become a strangely horny bedfellow of mine. There are currently hundreds of thousands of cringey Reddit posts in circulation sounding so many little death knells for Wall Street. It's riveting to watch masses of anonymous individuals take revenge for the 2008 financial crisis in ways that the Occupy movement could have only ever dreamed of. There are people with usernames like “potato_in_my_ass_69” divulging and carefully explaining information that would have otherwise been lost in translation or intentionally ignored by mainstream media – it’s absolutely wild and shockingly effective in its accessibility.
But it’s not just about information, awareness, or any kind of representational politics – we know those have their limits. The best part of all this is the simplicity of the plan of action: “buy and hodl [sic].” That is to say, large hedge funds have acted so deviously that the entire system is in a position where all it can do is collapse, in a way that is much worse than ’08. “Buy and hodl” is the new motto of financial Reddit because all that’s left to do is buy and hold onto, for dear life, a “memestock” that you like and know has been heavily shorted and boom – a short squeeze and, subsequently, a mass redistribution of wealth is bound to occur. It’s impossible to explain in such little space, but a quick perusal of r/superstonk will take you where you need to go. Given how certain hedge funds have already been bled dry because of this ruckus, it seems like one of the few instances in which URL ““pRaXiS”” has been able to make a tangible difference IRL. It’s given so many people hope, too, which is always a nice bonus.
Rather than shrugging off the stock market as something entirely alien and impossibly obtuse, I’m learning how to embrace and learn from the things that I disdain the most. Know thy enemy and love thy enema amiright? I’m currently composing a suite of prose pomes that examines the overlap between financial, psychoanalytic, and linguistic economies. These are by no means ground-breaking ideas, but the ongoing “memestock” saga has unexpectedly breathed new life into how I think about capitalistic practices and desire as mutually constitutive entities.
What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?
Tough call. I have ADHD so I personally require a good opener to keep me engaged. Suspending the question of utility and accessibility, however, I’d say the way a pome ends is more significant; I need it to be a kind of affect apocalypse. If the ending doesn’t leave me completely gutted – like I’m grieving the death of a loved one or a version of myself I didn’t realize I even possessed – I probably won’t revisit it, or even remember it at all. This is why I can’t help but return, compulsively, to writers like Paul Celan. To be sure, this guttedness doesn’t necessarily need to be morose. If a pome ends on a very funny note, that will also leave me trembling in an impactful way, yearning for the next chance to lose myself in a fit of laughter.
Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?
I used to follow Jack Spicer’s dictum that poems “should create resonances. They cannot live alone any more than we can.” I think [SQUELCH PROCEDURES] embodies the pathos of this idea very effectively – a squelch is so incredibly malleable and omnipresent. As the sonic remnant of an act of suppression (e.g. squelch as the soft sucking sound made as you walk through mud on a gloomy day), it is always the result of a collision and collusion of bodies. A squelch may be suffering silently, but a squelch is never alone. Nor am I alone because there is a squelch in everything – that’s how respite gets in.
[SP] may be my last serial pome for a while, save for the financial pieces that have already been drafted. I’ve been finding it more difficult to create Spicerian resonances because the pandemic has forced me and many others to live and to feel and to inhabit language in a very isolated manner. I am still in the process of learning to be alone with myself, particularly when my old, squelchy coping mechanisms begin to fail. I think if I am to continue growing as a poet and a person, being able to dwell happily in this kind of solitude is essential. I’m hoping to compose more standalone pieces, rather than pining for pieces of writing that offer the comforts of companionship, dialogue, and trust. I want to write pomes that deceive me or pity me or are completely indifferent to me, existing on their own terms.
What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?
I usually take all the phrases that I like from that piece and make new, individual pomes by embellishing and playing off those phrases. If I really feel they need to be contained in a single pome, I try rearranging the order of the stanzas. If I’m in a really spicy mood, I’ll listen to a podcast and absentmindedly transcribe some of the interesting bits and mess around with the words I glean from those external voices. It’s all about having a laugh and experimenting until the piece feels somehow right. If all else fails, I’ll give up for the day, go for a long walk, forget about the pome for six months, and then shove it in a manuscript, hoping that I managed to finish it somehow – it’s a way for my past self to flex on/prank my future self, which is kinda cute.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
Vannessa Barnier’s debut chapbook, Sample Platter, is stunning. The humour is so deadpan and subtle; it feels like every pome is directed at you in a very precise, discomforting way. It’s like a mixtape replete with songs about all the banal mistakes and everyday hiccups you’ve made or witnessed over the past five years, all the small things that you can’t unremember late at night while you lay awake with bad case of Screaming Brain.
Liz Howard’s Letters in a Bruised Cosmos has also been on my mind a lot lately. Much like her first full-length collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, this book is very, very good at wreaking emotional havoc. Howard is, without a doubt, one of my favey writers :’)
What is the best thing about being a poet... and what is the worst?
The best thing about being a poet is being a poet. The worst thing about being a poet is being a poet. Between those two disgusting poles is the sobering knowledge that, in my heart of hearts, I am cringe – but I am free.
MLA Chernoff (they/them/@citation_bb) was born at Women’s College Hospital in December of 1991 – oops. They are a six-hundred-year-old Jewish, non-binary pome machine, a Postmodern Neo-Marxist, and (somehow) a PhD Candidate at the Neoliberal University of York University, where they once held a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship – no kidding. They would like to recall a slightly edited version of their first widely published “bio,” featured in Bad Nudes, Issue 2.1: Their pomes have been featured in ditch, The Hart House Review, AND Acta Victoriana, AND angelfire.com. MLA Chernoff lives in Toronto and (naïvely) believes in love and/or/as resentment. The velocity of this bio is their dissertation – a thanatropic tepidity in the key “dang.”
Their first chapbook, delet this, was released by Bad Books in 2018. Their second collection, TERSE THIRSTY, was released by Gap Riot Press in 2019. MLA has also been featured in The Bad Dog Review, Peach Mag, Spam Zine, Train, Trash Magazine, and other loveable publications. What a wild ride it’s been for them! They are currently spewing out a sequel to TERSE THIRSTY, entitled TONGUE HUNGRY, but most of all, they are taking time to work on themself. MLA would like to add that they are a settler living, working, kissing, and hissing in Tkaronto, particularly in Treaty 13 territory. [SQUELCH PROCEDURES] is their debut full-length collection of poetry.