Tuesday, November 5, 2013

i taught the toaster to feel love

A little monkey goes like a donkey that means to say that means to say that more sighs last goes. Leave with it. A little monkey goes like a donkey.
-Gertrude Stein

Monkeys aren't donkeys! Quit messing with my head!
-Professor Farnsworth

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Monday, June 17, 2013

Whale Sharks

 Live every week like it's Shark Week 
-Tracy Jordan 


though immense, i am
composed of the microscopic
each cell complex, dividing,
enclose within me
i am made up of so many
i am mottled, i am motile,
alone, each swish of my bulk
is my own, spontaneous,
the borders of my form are drawn
begun as a blastula, now,
inside i am a cavern,
a chamber, an unavoidable fact
i must ingest living systems,
though i draw no breath.


in the bathypelagic gloom
or vague tint
of the mesopelagic there is
only the churning tide
only the tiny bioluminescent
creatures who light their own way,
communicate their own
tiny intentions to the dim.
year to year, month to month
the cold, constant and
predictable, envelopes me
every inch, every fin
the pitch-black, pressing down
in this heavy night
these freezing depths
i am compressed—
here, i am so small.
i will stay here
as long as i have to
constantly moving forward
straining the sea,
swallowing the dark.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

New Chapbook from No Press

Thanks to derek beaulieu, I have a new chapbook available from No Press! False Friends is excerpted from Magyarazni, an abecedarian of the Hungarian alphabet where I've chosen a word in Hungarian for each letter, written a poem in English about that word, and then done a visual poem in the style of Hungarian folk art to accompany each written poem (The Double Bind Dictionary from above/ground is also excerpted from Magyarazni, reviewed here). False Friends contains poems about the four letters in Hungarian that are not 'true' Hungarian letters. Each of these poems is paired with its accompanying visual poem. 

Review: "Undark: An Oratorio" by Sandy Pool

Sandy Pool’s Undark: An Oratorio (Nightwood, 2012) explores the tragic story of the Radium Girls, women who in the early to mid 1900s worked in factories painting watch and clock dials with Undark, a radium based glow-in-the-dark paint invented by Sabine Von Sochocky. Encouraged to lick their paintbrushes to keep the brushes pointed, these women developed an array of fatal diseases related to radium poisoning—Von Sochocky also had to remove his thumb because of necrosis, and eventually died of radium induced anemia. Adding insult to injury, lawsuits against the U.S. Radium Corporation were largely unsuccessful, and the company accused the women of having contracted syphilis, rather than having been poisoned at work. Undark opens with a single-page introduction outlining these facts and events, and gives just the right amount of background for the reader to appreciate the details of the poetry that follows.

Given that the book is An Oratorio, Undark provides a “Dramatis Personae,” which includes Sappho, the famous ancient Greek lyric poet, Nox, a woman in her 60s reminiscent of Marie Curie, Radium Women, a group of factory workers ranging in age from 11-45, Undark, a propaganda radio personality, a Chorus, described as “a sea of light,” Sabin, the aforementioned inventor of Undark, and Hatshepsut, the fifth pharaoh of the Eighteenth dynasty of Ancient Egypt, who, (according to Wikipedia), “reigning longer than any other woman of an indigenous Egyptian dynasty. According to Egyptologist James Henry Breasted she is also known as ‘the first great woman in history of whom we are informed.’” Using different writing styles for different speakers, Undark masterfully weaves together the multiple voices and modes of writing to create a global, epic, and truly dramatic account of the Radium Girls and the history of the Undark paint.

For example, the poems in the voice of Sappho and Hatshepsut scatter bits of text, laden with square brackets, across the page, reminiscent of transcriptions of ancient fragments. These poems, written under the names of the famous poet and ruler whose works and legacies are obscured by time (or even by the physical decay of the material on which they wrote, or on which records about them were written) provide an inventive and astute commentary on the obscured history of the women who lost their health and lives working with the Undark paint—the erasure of the text mimics the erasure not only of their story, but also of their bodies and lives. Given that Sappho and Hatshepsut are still known to us today, however, these poems also suggest that the Radium Girls deserve to be remembered, if imperfectly through second-hand accounts and interpretations. By selecting two such historically important women as speakers, Undark implies that the experience of the Radium Girls is an important event in women’s history, emblematic of a particular era yet still relevant today—perhaps as a statement on the condition of women in a capitalist labour market, which I will explore further in this review.

Other styles of writing in the book include found or cut-up poems in the voice of Undark, composed using material from advertisements for Undark paint. Not all poems in the book are clearly attributed to a speaker, so I may have this one wrong, but there are also prose poems, written beneath a line towards the bottom of blank pages, probably in the voice of the Chorus. Finally, many of the poems in Undark are narrative poems, composed as though they are lyric poems written from the point of view of the Radium Women, Nox, and Sabine. These poems, though not necessarily the bulk of the text, certainly dominate Undark, forming the linear narrative that frames the styles and voices of the other poems. The blend of voices and writing styles in Undark is absolutely effortless, allowing a coherently integrated, multifaceted presentation of the topic.

As for the actual content of the poems, the book moves smoothly, ominously from a sense of wonderment with the luminous paint, to a mood of dread and desperation as its users begin to fall ill. Undark is gripping, and triggers a very real, very visceral empathy with the Radium Girls, and, unexpectedly, with Von Sochocky. At the beginning of the book we find the workers enthralled with the seemingly magical paint, with their glowing teeth (from licking the brushes), and their clothes, glowing in the dark where the paint flecks have landed on them. We also meet a tragically innocent and naïve Sabine, in awe of his luminous invention, and hopeful for all its potential uses. As the book progresses, however, it is not only the Radium Girls who suffer but Sabine as well, whose own illness is chronicled, as well as his crushing guilt and regret for creating the paint that would ultimately kill the women, as well as ultimately killing him. In contrast, the found/cut-up poems in the voice of Undark are steady in tone and devoid of any real remorse. The final poem from this speaker implicitly acknowledges the illnesses and deaths caused by Undark paint, but the speaker looks to the future where the paint can be modified and used in manufacturing items once again. The contrast between the tone of the lyric-like narrative poems and the Undark poems is eerie and disturbing. As I suggested earlier, Undark seems to position the Radium Girls significant figures in the history of women. The human voices and emotions of Sabine, Nox, and the Radium Women clash with the upbeat, impersonal tone of Undark. This disparity in tone is emotionally effective, but also underscores the abuse of women workers under capitalism, just as other poems detail the Radium Girls’ inability to win compensation from the U.S. Radium Co. in court.

There are numerous metaphors and images that reoccur throughout Undark, gradually developing and taking on meaning as the story progresses, but the most thoroughly explored is that of time. Undark is full of ticking clocks, the licking and ticking of paintbrushes, ticking or licking hearts, and a deeply developed exploration of the relationship between the Radium Girls’ job painting clock faces, the march of time, and death. The relationship between discrete time, labour, and death is also explored, further reinforcing the potential for Undark to be read as an evocative and human critique of exploitative, gendered capitalist labour practices. This discourse on time is reminiscent of the invasive and traumatic intrusion of discrete time experienced by workers in the Victorian era, with the shift from agrarian work based on seasonal changes and sunlight to factory work based on discrete time and electric lighting, which can be seen in factory rules—for example, factory rules that include statements such as: “The normal working day begins at all seasons at 6 A.M. precisely and ends, after the usual break of half an hour for breakfast, an hour for dinner and half an hour for tea, at 7 P.M., and it shall be strictly observed....” (Scroll down to see the section Discipline in the New Factories). The story of the Radium Girls is exemplary of the invasiveness of discrete time, given that the workers were involved in the manufacturing of clocks and watches, and given that time invaded not only their work lives, but their physical bodies as the paint they used in the making of clocks poisoned them. The relationship of artificial lighting to this shift is also exemplified in this situation, given that the poisonous paint glows in the dark. This is most clearly seen in the poem “1912,” in the voice of Undark:

With the coming of electric light, it seemed, the last
step in illumination had been taken. But, already,
there is a supplement. No longer are electric
light, the light of lamps, or candles necessary
to see things in the dark. Undark shows
them to you. Manufacturers recognize
the value of Undark. They have been painting
it on everything. No longer is it necessary to grope
aimlessly for a switch; the switch itself shines.

Adding to the drama, dread, and inevitability of the plight of the Radium Women and Sabine, the bottom of many pages of Undark have times that gradually count down to 00:00:00:000 by the end of the book.

In Undark, the potential of the tragic tale of the Radium Girls to become a lasting and emblematic part of women’s history is solidified by the ending of the book, through the character of Nox, the “woman in her late sixties, reminiscent of Marie Curie.” Besides Marie Curie being an important, lasting historical figure herself, Nox is a timeless character in Undark, with her first entry dated 1905, and her second to last entry dated 2011 (her last entry, “Nox, Epilogue,” is not dated). In her second to last entry, Nox contemplates the vacant radium dial factory in Toronto, and in doing so explicitly links the historical events of the story to the present. The short, two line ‘Epilogue,’ reads simply, “Since then I’ve hated / the dark. I never turn off the lights.” These closing words create a sense that the tragedy of the Radium Girls echoes through time, a noteworthy black mark on this history of women in the workforce and the violence that capitalism can and has perpetrated on the bodies of workers. The relationship between capitalism and the sexualized bodies of women workers is also apparent elsewhere in Undark, where the U.S. Radium Corporation accuses the women of being ill because they have syphilis, and where the sexual partners of the factory workers suggest that the women should paint an unspecified part of their body, probably their genitalia, with the Undark paint (the workers speaking as “we” and the partners referred to as “he”): 

                                       …We come, dead tired
to bed, slip into place. We’ve painted our teeth again,

and we laugh until he kisses us, tells us
there are other places we could paint, nuzzles

himself in…

All of this to say, Sandy Pool’s Undark: An Oratorio is a smart, carefully wrought, brilliant book, and a significant contribution to contemporary poetry. A remarkably engaging volume, Undark is a pleasure to read, and a pleasure to delve into critically—this is a book that warrants and rewards serious scholarly attention. And finally, the cover glows in the dark… just in case I haven’t sold you on it yet.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Review: The Porcupinity of the Stars by Gary Barwin

I started out reading The Porcupinity of the Stars by Gary Barwin (Coach House, 2010) quickly, tearing through half the book in a sitting, and I had to stop. I then started over again, taking a few weeks to get through it, reading a couple pages a day. The poems in the book vary in their content--there are ones about family life, personal experiences, dreamlike sequences, poems that reference other poetry ("two roads diverged in a yellow wood / I took one / it doesn't matter / I'm not giving it back")--but the poems share the same warm, heartfelt, vaguely surreal, and utterly charming tone, and they were a pleasure to spend time with. Porcupinity is sometimes funny, sometimes melancholy, but above all a quiet, human sort of book. Barwin's use of language is expert--clear and inventive--and reading Porcupinity quickly was fun, but it was more rewarding to read the book slowly and let the poems sink in. I'm sure I'll be reading it again.

from The Porcupinity of the Stars

Planting Consent

I carried my TV down the stairs
buried it on a hill
with a beautiful view

by spring a small antenna
sprouted in that place

somewhere under the earth
wispy clouds and wingbeats of birds

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Review: "Woods Wolf Girl" by Cornelia Hoogland

Cornelia Hoogland's Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011) explores the fairytale of Red Riding Hood, with the poems in the book divided between three speakers; Red, Mother, and Woodsman. At first the book sticks closely to the original tale, focusing on the grandmother, the trip through the forest, and the threat of the wolf, but gradually slips into a more individual story of one woman's experience, while still maintaining the themes and voices established earlier in the book. Woods Wolf Girl is written in concrete, imagistic language that makes it a compelling and provocative read. Through the fairytale, Hoogland keeps a sense of violence, sexual guilt, and desire percolating just below the surface, pulling you along as the book and the three speakers develop. Despite focusing on issues surrounding sexual development and desire as it relates to heterosexual relationships, the text remains focused on the female speakers and their emotions, perspectives, and relationships to one another. This strongly matrilineal approach to the fairy tale is refreshing, especially when combined with the sense of dread that Hoogland builds throughout the text. Though there are two or three clunky moments where the link between the threat of the wolf and sex is directly expressed, with the effect of bursting the ominous mood of the poems, Woods Wolf Girl is almost always subtle and powerful in its manipulation of the fairytale. I found Hoogland's text tremendously entertaining and effective.

From Woods Wolf Girl


On the escarpment, a wolf
snares an elk calf, grips it in her jaws.

Shakes it senseless.
Throws it down; snaps its neck.

Carries the still-warm body home to her pups.

She carries blood, she carries milk.

As an aside, Woods Wolf Girl reminded me very strongly of the tire iron scene from My Winnipeg in its tone, subject matter, and approach 

My Winnipeg - "Tire Iron" by ifcfilms

Sunday, February 24, 2013

All the Brilliant Books I'm Not Writing: Life After Creative Writing

From early childhood until I became a student in a creative writing program, I wrote compulsively. Before I learned how to write I would scribble over blank pages in what I thought looked like cursive, and then stamp them with my dad’s business seal. Once I learned how to write, I would quickly fill notebooks with journal entries and stories, quickly even when considering my giant handwriting. As a teenager I started playing guitar and writing songs, gradually abandoning the guitar but sticking with the poem writing part. I wrote constantly, and if I didn’t have a notebook or ran out of paper I would write on coasters, napkins, cigarette packages, even all over my arm.

Though my early childhood writing is pretty bananas and charming (if I do say so myself) the rest of all this text I produced has one thing in common—it sucks. It’s really really crummy—trite, saccharine, obvious or deliberately obtuse—one way or another it’s hard to read it without cringing. The month before I began university I remember reading two poems I had written, and though I recognized that one was better than the other, I couldn’t really put my finger on why (let’s face it, they both sucked, but one may have sucked slightly less). I then did two years of an English degree at a small college, which helped my writing, but not too much. My writing improved, but reading some of those things now it strikes me that I was simply mimicking the poets I enjoyed reading. All in all, still not much improvement.

In my third year, however, I transferred to a university and began the first of three year-long creative writing classes I would take, in addition to completing a creative honours project. Enrolling in a creative writing program vastly, dramatically improved my writing skills in a short period of time—this was as true for my poetry as it was for my essay writing skills. By the end of the first course I had a much better grasp on the different approaches I could take to writing poetry, as well as the skills to judge the effectiveness of a piece of writing based on the approach I took when writing it. I have by no means fully reached the level of proficiency that I hope to when it comes to writing poetry, but I have a pretty good toolkit now to work with. Above all, when I write something I know WHY it sucks, and often I know how to fix it.

Despite the astronomical improvement in my writing, however, I no longer write a lot. This is partly due to external factors and demands on my time, but not entirely. In fact, I think some of the strange habits I have that keep me from writing now are ones I picked up as a creative writing student. I have to stress that I had a phenomenal experience as a creative writing student, and was surrounded by incredibly intelligent and supportive people who pushed me and challenged me to improve my writing skills. However, I think that might actually be the problem.

So, here are the counterintuitive reasons why taking creative writing classes turned me into not a writer:

Hobby vs Work
Before doing the creative writing program, writing was purely recreational and way to blow off steam. I felt deeply compelled to write, or um, inspired. It often strikes me that inspiration is a dirty word in a lot of writing communities these days, and it’s easy to see why. Inspiration alone is not enough—if you rely on inspiration alone you can’t write in any dependable, regular way. Inspiration also doesn’t necessary lead to good writing. On the other hand, when combined with dedication to your writing and a critical eye, it does provide the motivation to sit down and write and edit for long periods of time. I don’t really experience inspiration anymore, partly because of the way being a creative writing student made me re-conceptualize writing. I now think of writing poetry as contributing to an ongoing dialogue between texts and traditions. I think I have to have the project all planned out before I sit down to write. I am pretty much terrified of writing bad poetry now, so I don’t practice, I don’t play around, I don’t just sit and write and see what happens, discarding things that aren’t working or editing things until they become better. I’m petrified of writing, of making terrible contributions to this genre I love and respect. The disdain I feel towards inspiration has worked its way into my mind in such a way that if I do feel inspired, I just push it out of my mind. To me, poetry is no longer a conduit for expression—it’s work. Inspiration is an insipid trickster, and if I want to write poetry I have to sit down and work, not express myself. And like I said, I’m afraid to sit down and work in case it’s bad. Also, I feel unmotivated to do extra work after school and my job and homework and chores, especially when I feel so rotten if I’m screwing it up.

Single Poems vs Book-Length Projects:
I first feel in love with stand-alone poems… Marvell’s Coy Mistress, Eliot’s Prufrock, Hopkins’ Carrion Comfort, Plath’s Mushrooms, Atwood’s This is a photograph of me, Stevie Smith’s Not Waving but Drowning, Auden’s As I Walked Out One Evening, Williams’ This is just to say, Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est… the list goes on and on. I love these stand-alone poems in a greedy, highly detailed way. I memorized them—I loved and still love every little lick of language in them. However, my favourite contemporary poetry is by and large Canadian book-length poetic works… Queyras’ Lemon Hound, Walschots’ Thumb Screws and Doom, Bök’s Eunoia, Ball’s Clockfire, Foreman’s A Complete Encyclopedia, Robertson’s The Weather… this list goes on and on too so I should stop. In any case, these books are all unified works in some way—stylistically, thematically, something. And they are glorious. Before I encountered these kinds of books, I mostly wrote stand-alone poems. Now, however, I feel like I have to plot out and completely arrange every aspect of a book-length project before I sit down to write. This too isn’t necessarily bad… like I said, the majority of contemporary books of poetry that I love are coherent books, not random collections. I think this approach to writing is a great way to engage with an idea and with readers in a sustained, meaningful way. However, I now think I shouldn’t write a word unless it’s part of a clearly planned out major project that is going to take a year at minimum to complete. This is daunting, and vaguely stressful. It also prevents me from again, practicing, messing around, seeing what happens. One of my chapbooks, A History of Button Collecting, was actually stuck together from bits and things I had written. This worked because the random little things I was writing eventually did fit together stylistically and thematically. Writing this chapbook was also kind of fun. Arriving at a coherent book doesn’t necessarily mean planning out every little detail before sitting down… it could mean sanding and polishing work until it clicks together, and then filling it out once a shape has begun to emerge. I don’t know how other people work, but either seems like a perfectly reasonable approach. Anyway, considering that poetry now feels like work, it feels like even more work when I feel pressure to only write book-length projects rather than trying to get just 15 super solid lines down. It seems increasingly difficult to start writing when it’s got to be the first steps towards a heavily planned out gigantic manuscript that has to be good because like I said, I’m petrified of screwing it up now. On the subject of shame and terror…

Before the creative writing program I thought poetry was important. Yup, IMPORTANT. It felt pretty important—so many poems were so important to me and close to my heart. They changed the way I felt about the world and about myself, and I don’t think I’d be going to far to say being an English major saved me, in a lot of ways. I found something I loved, something I was good at—it gave me purpose. I don’t know if I would be dead or in jail without it, but I certainly would be worse off than I am today. Creative writing classes in particular helped me. Our mentor insisted that our weird compulsive interests and ticks would be the best source for our writing. This made me feel like, by extension, it was okay to be a weirdo and that being odd was actually the best thing about me. When I started taking creative writing classes I was so paralyzed by social anxiety that I couldn’t order food in restaurants. Having someone tell me that being a weirdo was potentially good was an enormous relief. And having to sit quietly while my prof (of whom I was absolutely terrified) and my classmates talked about my work also boosted my self esteem. I wrote a lot of duds but people often pointed out the strengths of my work, even if it was just one good line in a poem. One of my most vivid memories is my mentor reading a poem I took as risk on out loud, and then commenting on how good it sounded. Be still my beating heart. Workshops helped me see that people didn’t think I was an idiot and that people thought the things I wrote had value and potential. I can’t stress how much this changed how I saw myself. Creative writing workshops aren’t therapy, but for me seeing that I could do something well and seeing that people held me and what I did in good esteem was incredible, and it changed me. I am so much more secure with myself and so much more confident now, and I owe it to those classes.

On the flip side, however, pretty much every poet I know and look up to jokes a lot about how poetry and poets suck. Considering how few non-poets like poetry, and how odd poets can be, as a group, these jokes aren’t baseless. And they have to be taken with a grain of salt. If in our heart of hearts we didn’t think poetry had some value, we wouldn’t be doing it. The problem for me however is that these jokes have gotten under my skin. It’s hard to sit down and work on a big book-length project that I am terrified of writing in the first place when all I think about is how it's a foolish thing to do and that no one will read it anyway. It’s not that I want to be famous or well regarded—I have 0 illusions about these things, but I have a voice in my head now needling me about why I should even bother. This little voice undermines my desire to write, and makes me feel like what I do doesn’t have any value. It also increases the pressure and anxiety to create works of startling transcendent genius because, I have no business contributing to the quantity of texts out there if I'm not contributing to the quality, right?*

But then again…

Before I took the creative writing classes I never would have said that poetry and poets suck. I think I joke about it to come to terms with the fact that this one thing that I am really good at can never be my career and that it won’t really matter to many people. The fact remains, though, that it matters to people who care about poetry, and it matters to me. But I feel a bit ashamed and shy about being a poet now, having internalized our jokes. And speaking of bad attitudes…

Inflated Ego with No Experience
Going through a creative writing program made me a better critic of poetry. Not only did I learn why my poetry sucked, I also learned why other poetry sucks. I can expound upon why a particular poem or book sucks, at great length and with great detail. Buuuut. This is a tricky thing. First, I firmly believe that writing is a useful and therapeutic means of catharsis. It used to be for me. If anyone anywhere wants to write to get things off their chest or for the pleasure of writing then they should. Not that anyone needs my blessing, but that’s how I feel about that. When poems are published however, they’re up for scrutiny and boy can my friends and I scrutinize. Which is a good skill. But this too has worked its way into my brain and has started picking apart my motivation to write. I suspect that my critical skills are better than my poetry writing skills. It’s a lot easier to sit in a pub and be honest about some stranger’s book than it is to sit alone in your apartment and be honest about your own book. I’ve never published a bad review, to the best of my recollection… it’s not something I could bring myself to do for a number of reasons. But all this behind the scenes dissecting and criticism has made me wary. Being a creative writing student made me a good critic of other people’s art, but do I really have the chops to back it up? It’s a sort of be humble lest you stumble situation. I’m afraid of undermining myself—of being critical of other people’s poetry, but not being able to apply this to my own writing. It makes me afraid to write. And, to take the other meaning of criticism…

The Need to Engage in Critical Discourse
I used to post to this blog a lot more, and was given the fantastic chance to blog for Lemon Hound (now a most fabulous website). Then I had to move across the country, I did an MA where I focused on medieval studies rather than contemporary poetry, I finished that degree and started an MLIS (2 more months! Woohoo!), I had several big emotionally messy things happen in my life… my time went poof. But, I was always busy, all be it slightly less so. Finishing the creative writing program and my undergrad left me without the luxury, the privilege of being able to dedicate most of my time and mental energy to thinking and writing about and around poetry. I feel like a failure because of this. My critical work trickled out, and this is the first substantial piece of critical work I’ve done in months. But I wonder how necessary doing this is to being a poet. I know writers who insist that engaging in the critical discourse surrounding poetry is as necessary to being a poet as writing poetry. I just don’t know what I think. I feel like people expect it of me and I’m screwing up my writing “career” (haha, oh anyway, see “Self-Deprecation”) if I don’t blog or write reviews. But I feel like what I really need right now is to just read and write poetry. I find blogging and having a public life in that regard stressful. After posting something, I’ll sit at my computer for ages, checking blog stats, seeing if anyone has written anything mean or encouraging in the comments. Pouring hours into the critical work instead of the creative writing wasn’t helping, and it wasn’t making poetry feel any less terrifying or daunting (see “Inflated Ego with No Experience”). This has become one more node of psychic stress for me when it comes to writing, or rather, not writing. And speaking of guilt…

Constant Feeling that I am a Slacker
To my surprise and delight, I got a grant to write the manuscript I just finished. From December 2011 to January 2013 I worked on this thing, while holding down a part time job, moving three times, and being a full time student. I didn’t really know how to draw but I made 44 big visual poems/folk-art drawings for the book, I wrote 45 poems to go with those, and I travelled across western Canada for a month interviewing people who came from Hungary to Canada as refugees in 1956, their descendants, and other Hungarian-Canadians who are part of that experience.

I then came back to Montreal and transcribed 655 pages of interviews. I handed the project in on January 15th. I’ve done some editing on the poetry over the past month as well as editing some older poems I was working on before, but I’ve also taken a bit of a break, did some homework, paid some bills, read some books, and doubled my hours at my job. And I feel like the worst, laziest poet ever. Post-creative writing program, writing takes more time. Like I said, I no longer feel like jotting down whatever pops into my head is an adequate writing practice. And I just finished a 700 page project. Yet I feel like a fraud for not having written a new poem for a month. Pre-creative writing program, I wrote a ton, and during the creative writing program writing became a much more deliberate, difficult, challenging activity, but I wrote a ton. My life no longer allows me to block out hours and hours a week to do this difficult writing thing, so I can’t reasonably expect myself to produce as much as I did when I was in the creative writing program. Yet, I do. And I know these amazingly driven poets, some of whom are profs or sessionals, who churn out so much great stuff, and I can’t keep up. Feeling like a lethargic slacker has proven to be a self-fulfilling force for me. Not only am I terrified of writing, I also think I’m a fraud and somehow unworthy of dabbling. I’m fortunate to have great mentors… the kind who are not only supportive but who push. My personality is largely based on my ‘I’ll show you!’ attitude, so when I tell someone I just finished a manuscript and they ask me why I haven’t also finished my other, older manuscript yet, it does get me going. But it also feeds my self-doubt and picture of myself as a dilettante. Oh, and speaking of mentors…

Dependency on Mentors
I’ve had crazy awesome luck when it comes to all things creative writing, not the least of which was that the university in my hometown had an ass-kicking creative writing program. My writing prof there was incredible—incredibly high standards, incredibly supportive, incredibly invested in seeing us improve—invested in us period, really… I consider this person one of the most important people in my life to this day. I feel the same way about my mentor in the creative writing community, who has been, again, supportive, determined to see me succeed, invested in me as a writer and as a person. These two people not only mean the world to me, but they gave me all the tools I have to be a better writer. My prof spent ages working through poems and essays with me, my friend has done the same thing, pointing out where they need fixing, and why (um, often arguing with me. I’ll show you!). And… I have become dependant on them. A friend of mine who did the same classes at the same time with me and counts this prof and friend as his mentors as well confessed to doing the same thing that I do… we play the prof's voice in our heads when we write. We imagine what our prof would say and how, we imagine our prof reading the poem out loud in order to demonstrate its weaknesses or absurdities. This was easy a month after I finished my BA. It’s less easy to do so four years later… I can’t remember the particularities of our lessons or my prof’s voice and mannerism with quite the same level of detail. So this strange co-dependency with the imaginary friend version of my mentor is starting to break down, but my need for it is not. My internal editor is a facsimile of someone else, it’s not my own voice and thoughts. Of course, it’s the voice of my imaginary friend at this point, so the content of my imaginary friend’s comments is coming from my memory and brain… but it still seems external to me. I don’t have enough confidence in my ability to pick a good idea as the basis of a project, to write well, to read my work honestly, to edit well, to be smart enough to be a great poet the way I think my mentor can/is. More paralysis.

Dependency on Classmates
The creative writing workshop classes I took were the best. I still think those classes are among the best things that ever happened to me. I met my best friends in those classes. And the classes were incredibly intense, weird experiences. Our prof insisted that in order for us to not hate one another, we had to go out after every one of our weekly classes and have a pint together so that no one would be sore about what was said in the workshop and so that we would keep working well together. My mentor’s also big on the idea of community… that no one writes in a vacuum and that being a poet means being part of a community. So, off to the pub we went. We had a blast hanging out together. We’d get drunk and argue about poetry. We’d sit up late on msn or on the phone chatting about things we were working on. We’d spend hours and hours in the basement computer lab together, freaking out about our creative writing class assignments. We’d be in the copyroom helping whoever was handing out a workshop that week print and staple their pages 5 minutes before class, and then run across campus together to get it handed in on time. We’d go to the well-funded poetry readings the university held and sneak beers from the open bar to drink outside later while we debated the merits of the reading. We read together at local reading series events, and volunteered together for local and university magazines. It was f**king amazing. (In a fit of nostalgia I just called one of said dudes and told him about this post and he agreed with everything I said, incidentally, also lamenting all the things that have him all writer-blocked up. Ha.) This was a great time in my life, and these friendships had a hugely positive effect on my writing. There was always someone there to bounce ideas off of. Like with my mentors, though, I became dependant on these relationships for my writing. I don’t really feel qualified to write all by myself without a group of like-minded people around to debate my work with. We all finished school and moved… across the country or to other ones. We’re all in some kind of grad school and busy as hell. A couple years ago dude from the phone call and I made an effort to swap poems every few weeks, but that eventually trickled out too. We went from having our lives deeply interwoven together in one big poetry tapestry or something, and it’s frayed now. Getting used to that kind of environment at such a critical stage of our development as writers has left us a bit stunted now that it’s over. And speaking of things being over…

Like I said, the creative writing program made poetry into hard, picky work, and work comes with deadlines. Lots of them. An assignment every other week, 20 pages of poetry every month, a 40 page portfolio or a book manuscript at the end of the year. Dialing up the stress made me get a lot of work done in a short time, and I became hooked on these deadlines as well. With these artificial deadlines gone, there’s something missing from the dwindling cluster of reasons to sit down and write. Getting a grant to write a book put this into high relief. I once again had external pressure to get a bunch of writing done. I vastly underestimated the time it would take to finish the manuscript (see "Constant Feeling that I am a Slacker") and spent the sticky Montreal summer inside sweating over stacks of illustration paper and typing until 5 am or until my hands went numb, whichever came first. Now that it’s over, I once again feel like picking at little projects piecemeal here and there, but I feel little motivation to churn out another manuscript before I finish my degree in April. Some unidentified part of me used to make me write, now I’m in the habit of being made to write. Inspiration used to be the big motivator, and on the subject of inspiration…

Exercises in Style
Our creative writing classes let us explore a wide variety of writing strategies, from Oulipo to Dada, conceptual to lyric. We had an assignment every two weeks that let us try these writing styles out. For our workshops we were allowed to hand in any style of poetry, though we all sensed something more experimental was the way to go. Indeed, these were often the most exciting types of poetry to explore and play with. Now that the classes are over though, it’s hard to know what to write. Before being a creative writing student, the question of what to write never would have entered my mind. As a creative writing student, I had a constant source of external stylistic input. But now… It’s not that I’m short of ideas. After finishing my manuscript I wrote up a list of all the projects I’m interested in doing, and it’s about 30 items long. But there’s something missing… on the phone my friend complained that he feels like he can’t write the kind of poetry he wants to write right now. That is, stand alone poems that are well, written poems. Poems that are not necessarily completely lyric, but that are written by him, not picked out of google searches or a bag, that are not erasure, that did not have their text generated by someone else. We both feel afraid to write, like, actually write our own work. The manuscript I just finished is half visual poetry, but the written poetry is pretty solidly in the lyric camp. Some of the poems are about me, and some of them are about my bigger community and our shared experiences. But with the exception of two poems they are poems I wrote. About people. People and their experiences and feelings. I am pretty freaked out about this, actually. I’m afraid once it’s published the writers I care about will think I am irrelevant and that my work lacks inventiveness. But I wrote a book I want to read. Even my first book, which was a found/cut-up book was about humans and their lives and feelings. Yet I’ve been left feeling like I have to write in a style that is not really the one I want to write in. I was flipping through a pile of my creative writing portfolios from the first and second year workshops, and noticed that while the first class’ work sounds like me, the work from the second class is unrecognizable to me. There’s none of me in it, and I probably won’t write like that again. I find the further I am out of the creative writing program, the more my writing sounds like me… it’s far better than it ever was before the creative writing program, but I’m falling back into the tone and flow I used to favour. I’m afraid the writers who matter to me won’t be impressed by my new stuff, but on the other hand, a lot of the writing I really love isn’t high conceptual writing. Instead, most of the contemporary poetry I adore pulls from multiple traditions and genres, creating experimental texts that are stylistically innovative yet at the same time evocative and relatable. So the imagined pressure to be a purely conceptual writer is coming from my brain, not the outside world. I think it’s a hangover from the writing program… to pick a style, to follow it all the way to end. But I have my whole life to dabble around and figure this out. I’m going to try to use what I learned from the stylist exercises not to completely hang my entire writing practice on, but instead, as building blocks that I can arrange and rearrange in any way I like as I work on this and that.

I’ve painted a rather bleak picture of arrested writing development here, but I think it’s something I need to do to banish these problems from my writing practice. I’ve wanted desperately to be a writer since I was a little kid, and now I am. I’ve published a book. I’ve had my poetry taught in university classes. I’ve even been awarded a grant. I kind of can’t believe it. I’m about to finish school and look for a real career in my profession and my life is going to change in so many ways... I don't even know where I'll be living in six months. But I want to keep being a writer through these coming changes and into the future. Despite desperately wanting to be a writer, I am constantly dismayed by how paralyzed I am. But I’m trying to take all the great things I learned as a creative writing student and to put down all the weird anxieties and hang-ups I picked up at the same time. I've spent four years pulling my hair out wondering what my problem is when it comes to writing, but I love poetry as much as I did 10 years ago, and I still want to love it as much in another 10 years. And I just managed to finish my first book completely alone—without my mentors, without my classmates. I know I'm not the only graduate of a creative writing program with these weird problems, so I think all this is worth articulating. Above all, I'm trying to get over this and just write again and get the same joy out of it that I used to. Which means making mistakes and writing some crappy poems. Which is okay. I can always edit later.

*"there is no point whatsoever in adding to the quantity of poetry in this world. The world has quite enough poetry already. The only excuse for being a poet today is to add to the quality of poetry, to add a quality which was not there before. One tries to introduce a quality rather than merely adding a quantity" (Bob Cobbing, Ballet of the Speech Organs: http://www.ubu.com/vp/Cobbing.html)

Sunday, February 10, 2013

New Chapbook

Courtesy of above/ground press I have a new chapbook available. Check out their blog for ordering info, or get in touch with me if you're interested in a copy.

The chapbook is excerpted from a longer project Magyarazni, an abecedarian of the Hungarian alphabet where I've chosen a word in Hungarian for each letter, then write a poem in English "about" that word. The poems in this chapbook are the ones for all the multi-character Hungarian letters... cs, dz, dzs, gy, ly, ny, sz, ty, and zs.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Second book of poetry? Written. And um, drawn? In any case, done. Check out early drafts of some sections over at The Rusty Toque, and keep an eye out for chapbooks from above/ground and No Press.
Additionally, this should mean more blogging time in the upcoming months. Sorry for neglecting you, blog!