Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Before I could read or write, I loved scribbling lines of what I thought looked like cursive across pages, finishing each document with a flourish of fake signature, and authorizing it with my dad’s drafting business’ embossing seal. This early interest in the writing soon developed into a serious notebook fetish, as well as an obsession with filling these notebooks with text. I find something strangely pleasing about flipping through a notebook that is filled from cover to cover with my handwriting. When I was a teenager and became more interested in writing poetry specifically, I’d often end up scribbling all over napkins if an idea struck me, or, more often, all over my arm when paper was scarce. As I got older and walking around with messy, blue-ballpoint writing all over my left arm seemed less and less appropriate, I went back to the notebooks. Once I started university, I also began typing my poems up on the computer so that I could print and hand them out for workshops. My final project at university included visual poems made to resemble corsets, which I could only produce on the computer. When not working on this project, however, I’ve mostly gone back to the notebooks.
The creative writing program I took, however, tempered my compulsive desire to write. Today, I rarely feel so taken by a line that I need to scribble it on my arm. Instead, poetry has become something careful and calculated that is usually done at a desk, not a bus stop, in line at the bank, or in the middle of a movie. Having completed school and being released back into the wild without this compulsion, the material appeal of writing plays a big role in motivating me to write. A desk crowded with coffee cups, bills, and other randomly discarded junk will keep me from writing for days. A messy desktop on my computer has the same effect. Running out of pens, the right paper, or ink cartridges will send me for a similar dry spell. But I’m not just making excuses. I love to write—not just to put down ideas, but the actual, physical writing part. I find the clacking of keys while text pours onto the screen extremely satisfying. I love the sound my pen makes when I scratch a bad line out of a poem. I love the cracking sound the spine of a new notebook makes the first time I open it, and I love writing my name on the first page. The paraphernalia of writing is not just of peripheral or secondary importance. If you’re feeling blocked, sometimes all you need to get writing is a clear desk, a new blue pen, and crisp sheet of cream-coloured paper—or whatever your fetishized writing tool is. Writing isn’t always just about what you say—sometimes writing is just about how wonderful it is to write.
Here's some of my favourite paraphernalia...
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Here I am thinking particularly of men who do not identify with the male sexuality constructed in pop culture. While women’s sexuality is usually portrayed in nauseatingly objectified terms, men’s sexuality doesn’t get a much better treatment. Men are expected to be promiscuous, detached, ambivalent to their partners, and are also expected to objectify women. But what about men who don’t identify with this image of male sexuality? What about men who do not see the women in their lives as idiots or objects?
This article in Esquire inspired this particular line of questioning. Reading the article as a woman, I find it insulting and degrading. But how might a man feel about this? Would faithful husbands and boyfriends not find this equally offensive? Sexism often takes women as it’s object, but sexism also forces men to play a role that many neither fit nor want. There are many faithful husbands… do they really want the writer of this article representing them, or telling them what they need?
Beyond sexual stereotypes, there are more severe feminist issues that affect men as well as women. For example, when a woman in a developing nation dies in childbirth because she cannot gain access to adequate healthcare in her region, does this not have adverse effects on the life of her husband or partner? Feminist issues often have a strong bearing on the lives of men, but, like women, they are discouraged from taking a stand and identifying themselves as feminists. Indeed, I’ve even heard it claimed that men simply can’t be feminists. I personally don’t see why not. If you respect women and think we deserve equal treatment and consideration in our society and under our laws, then welcome to the club.
If it’s true that dentists are the most chronically depressed professionals, there may be a strong chance that librarians are the happiest. “The Hollywood Librarian,” presents interviews from a number of librarians in a variety of fields, each giving a slightly different image of the importance and role of librarianship in the United States. What each librarian has in common, however, is the twinkly-eyed, grinning enthusiasm that lights up their face when asked about their work. But why are librarians so pumped? “The Hollywood Librarian” explores the world of librarianship, through the lens of Hollywood films and through the spectacles of real librarians. The movie seeks to dispel the image of the librarian as a pinch-faced, grumpy spinster with a tight bun in her hair and a permanent frown on her face. The librarians interviewed all gush about how much they enjoy their work, particularly the aspects that allow them to help their patrons—whether those patrons are preschool children or medical doctors. The movie also strives to disabuse viewers of the notion that librarianship is simplistic or inconsequential, describing complicated aspects of cataloguing, and exploring the influence that a librarian has on their patrons and community through their collection building and through community programs. One of my favourite sequences includes a montage of librarians in film defending their choice to lend out banned or controversial books.
The most interesting part of this movie, however, is its discussion of why we need libraries. Scenes from the Twilight Zone and Fahrenheit 451 explore the hell of a world without libraries—but “The Hollywood Librarian” does not simply assume the viewer will automatically abhor these images. Instead, the movie introduces us to a variety of libraries and library programs that strongly benefit their patrons, and, in so doing, humanity in general. We visit the library program at San Quentin, where inmates who entered prison with third grade reading skills improve their literacy to the point of completing technical degrees while incarcerated. Those men who serve shorter sentences are able to re-enter the world with the necessary literacy to find work, and to leave their former lives of crime and poverty behind them. Those sentenced to decades or to life in prison remain to teach literacy to their fellow inmates, making a valuable contribution to the outside world from the enclosure of the prison. We also visit Salinas, hometown of John Steinbeck, where funding cuts were set to force all of the town’s libraries to close. The film shows the negative impact the closures would have on the community, especially children. The town eventually holds an election to grant the necessary funding to the libraries, despite the objections of conservative voters that the measure was simply a liberal, partisan plot. The library is also given additional funding diverted from San Quentin, where inmates insisted that funding to their own services be diverted to fund library programs for children in Salinas. Having been granted access to the world of reading, the inmates believed access to a library would prevent the children of Salinas from ending up in a place like San Quentin.
One of the librarians interviewed insists on the library as a symbol of freedom. Basic literacy skills empower individuals to find work and to take control of their lives, while a variety of texts can open our minds to new ways of thinking—from empathizing with someone different from you, to identifying and rooting out the social injustices of our culture. Libraries represent not only freedom, but also autonomy. One librarian reflects on his abusive home life, where he was always told he was stupid. In the library, as a child, he found a space where his curiosity was rewarded. The library, often even more than the classroom, is the place where we learn to think for ourselves, and to escape negative, coercive control of our minds. The library is the place where we are most free to imagine a better life for ourselves, and a better world for everyone. I can see why librarians like their jobs.
Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Throughout my academic poetry training, my cohorts and I were encouraged to identify our unique or idiosyncratic areas of knowledge, and to write about them. Obsessed with Mongolia? Got zombies on the brain? Have a thing for Victorian woodcuts? We were taught that the topics we had the most specialised knowledge of would make for our best writing. This was not only because we could write something unique and interesting about our favourite subject, but also because our unconventional knowledge would allow us to compose a poetry uniquely structured and suited to our topic.
Having finished my degree, however, and having entered the workforce, the subject I am now most intimately acquainted with is my job. I spend my days retyping the same email, cutting and pasting things into spreadsheets, and checking documents for formatting errors. Initially, I got my poetry kicks from the deluge of spam that poured into my inbox every day, snatching the best lines for poems, but a better filter has since been installed, and now only the most boring spam can make it through. While I often come across interesting phrases in the innumerable poorly written emails I receive every day, I am unwilling to save any of these sentences for the sake of the senders’ privacy and dignity. While I like my coworkers, and am grateful to have found a job in this economy, like many first jobs, my work is dull and uninspiring.
Since I’ve begun working, for the first time, my daily life and experiences do not move me to write. Though I initially believed any job could somehow be made poetic, there’s nothing about my work that I can turn into poetry (except, perhaps, the last spectacular paper jam I caused). Moreover, there’s nothing about my work that I want to write about—I find my job boring, and not in a poetic way. This has led me to a new appreciation of poetry, similar to the appreciation I had for novels when I was younger. While you can write great poetry by exploring your experiences and idiosyncratic knowledge, you can improve your life by embracing poetry. Instead of writing about my daily dose of office induced sedation, I look forward to coming home and reading poetry that has absolutely nothing to do with my work, and to writing about subjects that have nothing to do with my job. When I was a student, it was my job to write, and it could be stressful just like any other academic program. Now that I am nine-to-fiving it, however, poetry is my escape. I’ve had other more inspiring jobs, and am certain that one day I will again find a job that inspires me to write. Until that time, my area of expertise doesn’t have to be the thing that carries my writing. Instead, poetry can be the thing that carries me.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
While frantically pawing through the shelves of my local Chindigo in search of a last minute gift, I hit a shelf of books about making books. Though I rarely suffer attacks of greed while shopping for others, these books inspired in me such a ravenous, consumeristic desire that it took my mum 15 minutes to convince me not to blow half a paycheque on the stack of book books I was clutching to my chest with a lust reminiscent of the lust with which Gollum clutches the one ring. Of course, there is a better way: the public library. The public library is a treasure-trove of books on making books which I highly recommend you check out… unless you’re in Calgary, in which case, back off—they’re all mine… my own… my precious…
These books are great for many reasons. If you are a literary fanatic of any leaning, there is a strong chance you are of the group genetically predisposed to love books in all their tactile, musty glory. The prospect of being able to design and craft one of the objects you love so much is pretty exciting in itself. If you’ve been picturing your ideal notebook in your head for years, yet have never found such an object in reality, you can simply make it yourself.
What really excites me about these books, however, is the creative possibilities that they open up for writers. The vast majority of writing is confined to two major forms: online publishing, such as a website or blog, and the standard left-bound book or magazine. While both of these forms of presentation are extremely functional, they can rarely be considered an extension of the writing that they hold. While many poets spend a great deal of time and effort considering alignment and white space, we rarely have the opportunity to extend similar consideration to the structure of the object in which the poems will be presented. On a micropublishing scale, however, this becomes possible—if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and grab a glue-gun.
Flipping greedily through the stack of book books pilled on and around my desk, it’s impossible to resist the poetic possibilities that the suggested book formats provide. The dos-à-dos book could be used to frame one scene or to tell one story from two opposing perspectives:
while the accordion book could be used to follow a single, unbroken stream of consciousness:
The more skilled you become at making these books, the more sculptural your creations can become. Slowly, the typical book can vanish completely in favour of an architectural manifestation of the writing that the book holds. Ultimately, the book could become the poem itself.
This sculptural potential is extremely exciting—if you’ve ever felt stuck putting pen to page, why not reframe the page? These handmade books reveal a whole new world of possibilities that the traditional book is simply not designed to hold.
Tuesday, March 2, 2010
Experimental writers in Calgary are pretty lucky. In my experience, the avant-garde writers here are supportive and inclusive, and the critical climate is constructive. This is not the case for all writing communities, however. Canada is home to a few vocal writers who seem to believe that the role of the critic is not to critique books, but rather, to insult the work and its writer. Tensions between writing camps often express themselves in snide insults and a generally dismissive attitude, and with online publishing making it easier and easier to vent ones grievances, the simmering animosity between writers can easily boil over. It often seems as though the mere existence of a writer who does something differently is enough to get another writer fuming.
Writers are famous, if not infamous, for this fiery defensiveness, and while it’s regrettable that we cannot all coexist more amiably, there is a certain voyeuristic pleasure to watching these arguments rage. Literary Feuds: A Century of Celebrated Quarrels—From Mark Twain to Tom Wolfe, by Anthony Arthur, exploits this voyeurism for all it’s worth. Despite its trashy tabloid appeal, Literary Feuds is beautifully written in clear, evocative prose that bring to life the eight tales of literary mud slinging that the book chronicles. Arthur avoids sensationalism, basing his descriptions of the feuds on articles and reviews published by the combatants, on letters written by the authors, and on verifiable evidence from their personal lives. Arthur is also adept at quickly summarizing the works of the authors discussed into compact and interesting paragraphs, so that even if you haven’t read the material that sparked a particular feud, you can still enjoy reading about the argument.
Though the entire book is appealing, I found the chapter chronicling the feud between Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway particularly embroiling. Stein and writer Sherwood Anderson mentored Hemingway, helping him make the transition from journalist to literary writer. Hemingway learned much from both Stein and Anderson, but as he exceeded both in popularity, he became increasingly nasty, mocking his mentors in both interviews and in his writing. Stein eventually got back at Hemingway in The Autobiography of Alice B. Tolkas, where she and Anderson lament mentoring him, and portray him as a shallow writer with not much going on behind his, “interested eyes.” Stein also characterizes Hemingway as a traditionalist, a blowhard, physically weak, and intellectually thick. While Hemingway often resorted to physical violence to get back at critics, throwing vases and books, he got back at Stein with violent comments, insulting her on the basis of gender and sexual orientation. He also attacks her in the posthumously published Movable Feast, where he says she had nothing to teach, was too lazy to learn from him, and was so pathetic that he could no longer stand to visit her.
This chapter is satisfying because, though Hemingway got the last jab in after both he and Stein were dead, time is on Stein’s side. Hemingway’s reputation for unreasonable and violent behaviour makes his criticisms of Stein seem grasping and pathetic, while Stein’s ever increasing popularity vindicates her from Hemingway’s accusations that she couldn’t write. Furthermore, Stein’s salon is now perhaps the most famous literary salon in history, further shoring up her reputation against Hemingway’s attacks. Being on team Stein myself, it’s gratifying to see her win. Whether or not your writer is winning, however, Literary Feuds provides an entertaining take on its eight battle, and is written well enough to do all of its combatants justice.