Sunday, May 01, 2016

We Who Are About To Die : Michael e. Casteels

Michael e. Casteels is the author of over a dozen chapbooks of poetry, most recently Solar Powered Light Bulb & The Lake’s Achy Tooth (Apt.9 Press). His first full-length book of poetry The Last White House At The End Of The Row Of White Houses will be published in autumn of 2016 by Invisible Publishing. He lives in Kingston, Ontario where he runs Puddles of Sky Press.

Where are you now?

I’m in my office. Usually it’s very cluttered and messy. That’s the case right now. Actually this might be the most chaotic this room has ever been. I’ve got my computer in here, but this room also doubles as my music room/recording studio, as well as my Puddles of Sky Press printing room. I normally try and do a big clean and organization between projects, but I’ve let it go too far this time and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to get it back in order. Sometimes my wife is frightened to enter. You need to know exactly where to step, where to duck and where to contort your body just to reach my desk. It’s actually quite perilous. I’ve been back here for days.

What are you reading?

I’m in the midst of re-reading The Collected Works of Billy The Kid by Michael Ondatje. This is probably the 5th or 6th time I’ve read the book in its entirety. Some of the poems I’ve read at least 20 times. It’s one of my all-time favourite books of poetry. I’m a big fan of the western genre in general. I love watching old spaghetti westerns, and I occasionally read those little pocket-westerns when I feel like something kind of mindless. The Collected Works of Billy The Kid is something I like to turn to when I’m in need of that western fix, but also in need of some writing with substance. 

What have you discovered lately?

I don’t know if ‘discovered’ is the right word as this was shown to me by my friend Nicholas Papaxanthos. It’s this way of frying tofu that involves coating the cubes in a thin layer of corn starch. It ends up coming out much crispier. Tonight I also experimented with adding a little curry powder to the mix. I used a little too much oil in the frying pan, but aside from that the tofu was delicious.

Where do you write?

I do most of my writing at the kitchen table where I can look out our front window. It’s a little easier to focus there. I do most of my writing by hand in my journal. All of my typing and editing happens here in my office. Today was the first day that I was able to write at a picnic table by the Cataraqui River. When it’s nice outside I tend to do most of my writing outside. I always have my journal with me. Often when I’m walking my dog I’ll end up stopping beneath a streetlight to jot down some notes. Once I found a desk on the sidewalk with a ‘free’ sign on it and I stopped there and wrote out a whole poem. My dog is very well-behaved and patient. I try to repay him by giving him lots of time when he finds something interesting to smell.

What are you working on?

I’m working on edits for my first full-length book of poetry that will be published this October with Invisible Publishing. It’s called The Last White House At The End Of The Row Of White Houses. Many of the poems have appeared in chapbooks over the years, and I’ve written a fair amount of new pieces too. There’s a combination of narrative-surreal poems that read like fables or tiny myths, and some poems that are more abstract and language driven.

Editorially I’m working on the 6th issue of a journal called illiterature. It’s an issue of one-word poems. I’m rubber-stamping a bunch of poems in it. Some poems will be printed on cards that are placed in envelopes that glued into the book. Some of the pages will fold out to reveal larger pieces. I like to challenge myself to create interesting book-objects to house such beautiful poems.

Have you anything forthcoming?

Aside from The Last White House At The End Of The Row Of White Houses I’ve got a few new poems forthcoming in NōD Magazine (published through the University of Calgary) as well as a poem forthcoming in Taddle Creek. All of these poems are from another project. It’s meant to be a novel in which each chapter is a prose poem.

What would you rather be doing?

Riding a wild mustang into the sunset amid cheers from the townsfolk now safe from the bandits that rustled their cattle and robbed their bank and killed their sheriff in cold blood.


The Robot rides a bus

While crossing the street, a robot is hit by a bus. Small parts of the robot roll down a hill, frayed wires spark, lights flash. The bus driver kneels beside the robot and cries, “If I were a mechanic, you might have been repaired. If I were a priest you’d be blessed.” The robot attempts to raise an arm but there is only the grinding of gears, the leaking of oil. The robot tries to speak but its voice is garbled and growing faint. Its many lights flicker and dim as silence envelops the scene. A robot lies in the street. A crowd gathers. The driver, still on his knees, cradles the robot’s dented head.  The crowd closes in and hoists the robot to its shoulders. In a short procession they enter the bus. The driver wipes his eyes with a heavy sleeve and follows. The doors close. The bus lurches into gear and continues down the rolling hills, towards a  lake that is always in the distance.


The irises arrive, serene and swallowing
the orchard, the sultan seated beneath harvest.
Pupils dilate and ripen in this hinterland, this
salubrious work-in-progress. A pheasant
oscillates from treetop to treetop; the curtains
part and there she is, oh trembling heart,
oh hyperventilation! If I were a horse I’d
equilibrate, if a rhinoceros I’d radiate
tungsten. But I am only a salvaged typewriter
draped in seaweed; my bell no longer dings.
She is one dozen donuts. To blink would obliterate.
To drown in the ordnance of her synaesthesia,
I’d punctuate this moment with a phalanx of ampersands, I’d
lasso that golden sphere you sometimes see in the sky.

Monday, April 25, 2016

On Writing #92 : Ashley-Elisabeth Best

The Hard Remainder
Ashley-Elizabeth Best

            I'm reading through a poetry book, making notes, notes that will eventually turn into a poem. As I write this I am overwhelmed with anxiety. Recently I have been having difficulty writing, trouble putting words together in the right order, of making the meaning I want to make. Writer's block? Maybe. More likely, as in the past, it's the new medication my psychiatrist has me on. For the past four years, every six months or so, I try a new regime of medications in the hopes that it will be more effective in helping me to live with Type II Bipolar. With every new regiment of medication I have to relearn how to write. At least that's how it feels. Last September I was on a medication that made me forget how to spell most words, how to speak fluently and most disconcertingly whole words altogether. It took me a month to figure out it was the medication hindering my words.

            There was another medication two years ago that made me gain twenty pounds and sleep constantly. When I was trying not to sleep, I was writing. There were times I stopped taking the pills to be able to write. Those were desperate decisions made badly. My writing life is not my own in many ways. It's governed by emotions I don't know I'm having until someone else tells me, by medication meant to chemically help me process said emotions and the faulty wiring in my brain.

            I won't complain too much. I can usually figure it out after hours, days, and sometimes months at my desk. I have to trust it will come back. Writing soothes a part of me I don't have access to. I grew up in a house with few books and many siblings. I remember loving to read as a kid and wanting to write a book into existence. There was never time for writing then, not until I moved out. Helping my mother raise four kids left no room for anything other than immediate problems. Those years are lost to me.

            Sometimes I try to quit, to stop analyzing myself.

            I ride the bus a lot, across the country westward as far as Edmonton and once as far south as New Orleans. I get some of my best ideas on Greyhound Buses. I'm able to get at a more honest conversation with myself, something unlocked from the cage of my body. I can practice being unknown, being a better me, a healthier me. Somewhere in Kentucky on that bus to New Orleans I decided to stop trying to understand the mess of myself. Instead I pulled out my notebook and wrote what I could by hand, toward my destination, towards my own well-being.

            It's embarrassing to discuss with other writers. Often I say I can't write but not why, which leads to all sorts of condescending advice. Well intentioned but not very helpful.

            Now I've opted for a simpler, quieter life. I'm able to read without children screaming around me, I can set something down and know it will be there when I return. I like being accountable only to myself. Sometimes time opens its expansive mouth and swallows me whole.

            I have absolutely no advice for anyone else. Well, maybe one thing— read! I'm too busy pushing my own thoughts through the medicinal fog, gathering whatever I stumble upon, scratching it down before depression or medication reclaim it.

Ashley-Elizabeth Best is from Cobourg, ON. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in CV2, Berfrois, Grist, dusie, Ambit Magazine, Glasgow Review of Books, Lumina, and The Literary Review of Canada, as well as a chapbook through above/ground press. Her debut poetry collection was shortlisted for the 2015 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and appears with ECW Press in 2016. She lives and writes in Kingston.

Friday, April 15, 2016

On Writing #91 : A.J. Levin

The Curse of Writing Poetry
A. J. Levin

Sane people don’t choose to write: especially poems.

Think about it. Why would well-adjusted people write about something when they could be doing it?

And why, of anything, poetry, with its total lack of commercial appeal?

Sure, it’s popular to want to be a writer. People are seduced perhaps by romantic images of authors as wealthy flâneurs, or freewheeling unconventional partiers à la Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But then, Mr. Thompson blew his own head off.

The Muse is not a friend who comes over for coffee and leaves once you start dropping hints.

The Muse is a poltergeist who appears unbidden, and who stays for unpredictable lengths of time, lumbering you with conditions. And then, after the inspiration, the work: editing, pruning, shaping, massaging.

Yes, the impulse to write is an unwanted guest, very much like prophecy was to Jonah.

To extend the “unwanted guest” metaphor, you could say the urge to write is a mental disease akin to depression (or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia, or ADHD, or all those).

You heard me right. This isn’t news—it’s something you can find in scientific journals,* as well as in the Elizabethan English poet Michael Drayton’s description of Christopher Marlowe:

            …that fine madness still he did retain
            Which rightly should possess a poet’s brain.

Given the difficulty of harnessing a Muse who is, after all, a sort of psychiatric disorder, it’s a wonder writers actually make money. It was hard enough for a poet to make money in the time of William Blake, who claimed to have seen God peeking into his window. 

*See for example S. Kiyaga et al., “Mental Illness, Suicide, and Creativity: Forty-Year Prospective Total Population Study,” Journal of Psychiatric Research online (Nov. 2012), Elsevier; and A.M. Ludwig, “Mental Illness and Creative Activity in Female Writers,”.American Journal of Psychiatry 151.11 (Nov. 1994), 1650-56.

It’s even harder now, in an age where no two children have the same cultural references, even Shakespeare and the Bible cannot be referenced without fears of a blank stare, and the average person is more likely than not to think Yeats is a brand of handbag.

So why write?

There’s just one good answer—because you have no choice

A.J. Levin is the author of Monks' Fruit (Nightwood, 2004) and a freelance writer in Winnipeg. He is currently working on a non-fiction book about his family tree.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

On Writing #90 : Julie Morrissy

On Writing
Julie Morrissy

Brains that call on their corresponding body parts to write are odd phenomena. People with brains of this nature probably already know what I’m talking about. The writers I know, more often than not, have been writing creatively in some form since they were children – since they learned how to read and write. I remember one of my first poems expressing a grief much more real than the death of a goldfish probably merited. I think the first line was “suddenly all memories float to the top”. Strangely, that sums up my experience of writing. Memories, feelings, words float to the top of my brain, and I have to tap them out. Sometimes it is one niggling feeling that I don’t understand but I know if I write it out, it will go somewhere – maybe not toward a resolution but it will move, somewhere.

Writing is a criss-cross urge between brain and hands, something I can feel on my tongue, words I can imagine as objects inside me. It is not simply thoughts – it is the process of burrowing into and expressing the thought behind the thought. It won’t always make sense but it will float to the top.

And when I’m not writing, do I stop being a writer?

No. Sometimes I feel even more like a poet when I haven’t written for a while, or when I notice a thing or a feeling that I know will come back to a poem, maybe not for months, but I have an assurance it will reappear. I don’t really take notes. I remember things that I think will be of significance, and when I wake in the middle of the night with a “genius” idea I don’t remember in the morning, I shrug it off and figure it will return, or it won’t, and so what anyway. Not writing can be as important to me as writing. I don’t want to document every nonsense thought or idea that I have. I don’t want reams of notebooks with indecipherable scribbles. I write that stuff down when I am actually ready to write. I don’t take notes on the contents of my own brain. I figure my brain will do that for itself.

Sometimes I not write so I can spend an extra few hours with pals or so I can extend my weekend or have another drink. I write more when I am happy than when I’m sad. Sometimes I learn more about myself and my writing but not doing it, by having experiences in real time and being in the moment.

All memories float to the top. If they’re good enough, they will rise up and I will write them down when they are ready to be a poem, when I am ready to be poet. I don’t put my writing in a drawer. I leave it in my brain – I find that prevents a cluttered home.

Today, there is ice for the first time this year. Layered on the cars outside my window. As I pass them on my bus journey home, I know I will sit with my computer for a bit when I get in. I know because the ice brings me to former lives in other cities with old friends. From the frozen face of the Mississippi, to the icicles on the staircases in Montreal, to the PATH of downtown Toronto. Writing lets me live in my world of impermanence. It keeps Mont Royal in my bones, Drawn & Quarterly in my heart, and 43 Cecil in my dreams.

Julie Morrissy is a poet from Dublin currently living in her home city after spending a number of years living in Canada and the USA. In 2015 she was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize in the UK, and selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. Her work has published widely in Ireland, the UK, and Canada. Morrissy has performed readings at the Strokestown International Poetry Festival, the International Literature Festival Dublin, and on national radio. Her debut poetry pamphlet I Am Where is published by Eyewear Press in the UK.

Friday, April 01, 2016

We Who Are About To Die : Chris Turnbull

Chris Turnbull lives near Ottawa, Ontario. Recent books include continua (Chaudiere Books, 2015) and [ untitled ] in o w n (CUE Books, 2015), alongside work by Heather Hermant and angela rawlings, respectively. Recent work has appeared in Spiral Orb 11 and Brick Books' A Celebration of Visual/Concrete Poetry Part II (ed. Amanda Earl). She is currently collaborating with Portuguese artist and poet bruno neiva on a multi-form poetic series and working on site specific installations, or pieces, with Fieldworks and CSArt Ottawa. She plants poems on trails via her footpress, rout/e.
Where are you now?
At home.
What are you reading?
Invisible Cities (Darran Anderson); Stories (Anton Chekhov), Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form (ed. Lynn Zelevansky); Lost Language (Maxine Gadd), a couple of archaeological magazines. Some land-based essays & bits and pieces.
What have you discovered lately?
The dryer harbours socks. New trails, unmapped. A metal historical signpost marking the location of an absent church on a walk (that I've done multiple times) to Oxford Mills. Funny what happens when your gaze shifts just a bit.
Where do you write?
In my head in my notebook from outside
What are you working on?
a series of series; a collaboration with bruno neiva; a continuation of my dusie 8 chapbook; a rock-centric installation; a riverine installation that returns me to cubes; a contribution to CSArt Ottawa. My ongoing footpress, rout/e; a video for continua (Chaudiere 2015) incorporating the voices of multiple folks and land-based film. That latter is going to be a slow, and fumbly, project. Most of these are collaborative in some way.
Have you anything forthcoming?
I have a couple of pieces coming out in Canada & Beyond and ColdFront and a tribute piece to poet/activist Jamie Reid in Cap Review's ti-TCR-13. The installations will be at Fieldwork and 4 Elements. I have a collaboration with ceramicist Susie Osler with CSArt Ottawa, and another with a local conservation area (potentially) in relation to posting and launching (with a walk) a rendition of rout/e. CSArt Ottawa is a neat venture modelled after the agricultural CSA whereby individuals are invited to subscribe to receive art works or attend events over the course of a season. In part, its design focuses on the reciprocity between artists and engaged communities.
What would you rather be doing?
I try to focus on perspective - most of the time I am doing what I like to be doing, when I'm not, I find something in it that I can enjoy. Sometimes even doing a thing I like to do can have irritations to it but I know I'll work through those to the integral elements of whatever it is that makes it integral.
Can you include, also, a recent poem or two, as well as a bio and photo? The poems don’t need to be unpublished, and we could cite book or chapbook (if that is what you send), as long as you have permission to reprint.
 Yes - see attached "sweeps predicate a)" [unpublished] and can you use this link to [untitled]: Can cite that [untitled] is part of o w n with a rawlings and Heather Hermant, respectively. CUE Books 2014.
Thanks, Ian.

Monday, March 28, 2016

On Writing #89 : Alice Zorn

Alice Zorn

I don’t write fiction when I’m travelling, because I want to be in the new place I’m visiting, not focussed on words in my head. But then I miss not doing any writing, so I keep notebooks of impressions and scenes, wine labels, menus, descriptions, receipts.

When I’m home again, I sometimes get ideas for stories set in places where I’ve been. Months, even decades might have passed, but I have the fixings in my notebooks.

I like writing stories set in other places. When characters are immersed in a new culture they don’t understand, they’re forced to question their preconceptions—where they are and where they’ve come from. Before I even generate tension, there is tension. 

A year ago I was planning a new novel, and started thinking about taking a trip to Austria with the specific aim of setting part of the novel there. I wanted to do research on a topic I wouldn’t be able to at home.

I wasn’t sure if my idea would work, but I wrote some query letters. My German is only semi-functional, so when I believed the person at the other end understood English better than I could write German, I wrote in English. I could offer only the thinnest of pretexts for disturbing all these people: “I’m a writer from Canada. I hope to write a novel...”

Some letters were never answered, though when I showed up on the doorstep—as I did—I was welcomed. One letter that I’d written in English requested entry to a sanctum where the practicants wore lab coats and gloves to handle fragile objects. An eminent person with many titles wrote that I could come with my film crew to shoot a movie. I decided to reply in my awkward German, thanking the distinguished eminence for generous permission granted. I wrote when I would be coming and what I hoped to see. As a footnote, I added that I would not be arriving with a film crew. I was writing a book. No movie yet. I wondered if I’d been stereotyped as a North American. All they want to do is make movies

Usually my trips are ad hoc. Look about, check out the place, walk around. For this trip, every day was planned. At first, that felt constrained. Too structured. At the same time, I was seeing things I couldn’t have expected. I told myself to go with the flow. Keep an open mind.

I was allowed to touch to feel textures. Drawers were unlocked with a filigree key. People showed me techniques I would never have seen without their help. They were kind, if also puzzled. Why had I come all the way from Canada to watch them? Did I truly intend to write a book about the work they did? I took pictures and notes. I asked questions.

Now I’m home again and have a book to write. I’m curious to see how the notes and impressions I collected will reconfigure as fiction. I know I want to travel to do research again. 

Alice Zorn’s book of short fiction, Ruins & Relics, was a finalist for the 2009 Quebec Writers’ Federation First Book Prize. In 2011 she published a novel, Arrhythmia, with NeWest Press. She has twice placed first in Prairie Fire’s Fiction Contest and won the 2013 Manitoba Magazine Fiction Award. She lives in Montreal, Canada and can also be found at Her second novel, Five Roses, will be appearing with Dundurn Press in July, 2016.

Friday, March 18, 2016

On Writing #88 : Lillian Necakov

Writing is a Hyena
Lillian Necakov

chasing you down every single day of your life
it’s an albatross
a disease
a hero
a regret
a sorrow
a mistake
a yearning
an ache
a delight
a love
a brutality
an echo
a lie
a path
a curse
a life.

Lillian Necakov has been writing and publishing for over 30 years. She is the author of Sickbed of Dogs, Wolsak and Wynn, 1989, Polaroids, Coach House Books, 1997, Hat Trick, Exile Editions, 1998, The Bone Broker, Mansfield Press, 2007 and Hooligans, Mansfield Press 2011, The Lake Contains an Emergency Room, Apt. 9 Press, 2015. During the 80’s she sold her books on the streets of Toronto.

Lillian runs the Boneshaker Reading Series in Toronto.