Friday, February 05, 2016

On Writing #84 : Chris Eaton

On Writing
Chris Eaton

People who are curious about a book typically lead with the same question: What is your book about?

Typically I come up with something that is a) overly simplified b) a line of post-considered marketing c) regretful.

My books are not about something. My books are something. They’re not metaphor or parable. They’re not trying, as Alistair MacLeod once said to me about his books (over middling Chinese food beside another author who had recently invited me to friendship on Facebook then didn’t recognize my name when we were introduced), to accurately portray a time or place. They’re not trying to teach something, not trying to represent a life, not trying to capture what it might be like to be a child trapped in a basement; a child who travels through a wardrobe; a horrible child who thinks and does horrible things; someone else, good or bad, who is not a child. They’re not trying to accomplish the things that correspond to the reasons why people often tell me they buy books, which of course makes it even more difficult to explain.

Sometimes I think of myself more as a classical composer than a writer. I’m just a composer who quit piano lessons after a year and a half but never gave up reading. When I was young and just starting to read, I read everything. I read so many books. All kinds of books. And the stories and ideas filled me up. I thought that’s what books were for. To convey stories. Ideas. But gradually I began to feel that I had read the books before, that they were, in fact, all the same story, only with different words. Imagine that most of our songs only had one melody, and that only the lyrics changed. Even with the successes that have been achieved in bringing marginalized stories to the fore, the execution still too often traffics in the same colonial structures, the same tropes, the same way of connecting nodes of thought, the same rhythm and cadence, stuck in the echo of a familiar capitalist narrative form.

Part of this is based in causality, linearity, the illusion of time passing. The idea that one action leads to the next and the next is reassuring to us, like the idea of God. It gives life some sort of purpose or meaning, and we seek it out in our fiction. Science argues otherwise, however, that time is not only relative but that the concepts of past and present and future are illusory. Our memories are not a line but a collection of instances existing simultaneously, like the Internet with its hyperlinks that take you from a word in a sentence on one page to some tangential relation.

But the most important part of communicating is in the rhythm of it, the music of it, the energy of it. Ideas are only the most basic level of understanding. Too often, the message gets confused with the art, the message is considered the art. But a message is a statement. Art is less clear than that. It is itself. One might see a message or statement reflected in some aspects of it. But it is always more than that. If I can fiddle with the popular McLuhan expression for a moment, the medium isn’t really the message, nor is the message the message; the execution is the true message.

More often than not when I’m writing I’ll just leave underlined spaces, because I don’t know yet what I want to say, which descriptors I want to use, but I know I need two words in that space. And the first has to be two syllables, say. And the second has to be three. And the stresses have to be on the first syllables of those words and nowhere else. Otherwise it doesn’t sound right. I also don’t typically begin a novel with a story in mind, just a rhythmic pattern I’ve been playing with in my head.

I sense the energy or the rhythms before I have the sentence, for example. Or the paragraph. Or the page or the chapter or the this. I say the this because it’s so clearly different from the that. The that is wrong. The that is something that someone else once did, and it can be copied, which is often the case. Sadly. Too often when I read contemporary fiction I’m reading the that. I have an interesting story, I hear the book telling me. How should I tell it? That is the that. It’s the way you tell a story. In the this, the music and energy are always first. The this is mine. The this is mine all mine. I can, however, sense it, and be carried away by it, in the works of other writers, like William Vollman, or Roberto Bolano, or Mary Robison. Leanne Simpson. To name a few. More often than not, I don’t even remember what happened in a book I’ve truly loved. But I can still feel it, could hum it back. When someone else copies that rhythm, either by quoting a passage directly or just aiming for the feel, I remember it, or recognize it, like a duet that’s been happening since the first author got it right that has simply taken forty years for the second voice to enter.

When I can’t find the rhythm, when I’ve had a particularly awful writing day, I’m also less apt to understand the world. I find myself completely out of synch with existence and am miserable, inconsolable, am unable to interact with others and find the requirement to do so oppressive. At those times, about the only thing that can solve it for me are a good run, wherein I am forced back into a rhythm, or a conversation with either of my sons, 5 and 2, because they are still too young to have been lured by something else, and live within the rhythm at all times.

But when I do, everything is good, and I know I’ve done it right, and I know that other people who are looking for it, listening for it, searching for it… that they will hear it too.

Chris Eaton is a novelist and songwriter/musician. He is the author of three published novels: the inactivist (2003), The Grammar Architect (2006), and Chris Eaton, a Biography (2013), and a retrospective book of short fiction called Letters to Thomas Pynchon (2012). He has also recorded a half dozen CDs under the name Rock Plaza Central, including the critically acclaimed Are We Not Horses? He currently lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, with his wife and two sons. His next novel, tentatively called The Second Mourning of Cole Afcott, is forthcoming in 2017 from BookThug.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

ottawater: Ottawa's annual poetry pdf journal / 12th issue now online!

Ottawa’s annual pdf poetry journal
edited by rob mclennan

The twelfth issue of ottawater is now online, featuring new writing by Sylvia Adams, Susan J. Atkinson, John Barton, Frances Boyle, Stephen Brockwell, Carellin Brooks, Sara Cassidy, George Elliott Clarke, Anita Dolman, nina jane drystek, Claire Farley, Mark Frutkin, jesslyn gagno, Shoshannah Ganz, Jenna Jarvis, Ben Ladouceur, Sneha Madhavan-Reese, Karen Massey, Robin McLachlen, Colin Morton, Peter Norman, Julia Polyck-O’Neill, Roland Prevost, Tim Mook Sang, Lesley Strutt, D.S. Stymeist, Anne Marie Todkill, Deanna Young and Changming Yuan. Artwork by: Alysha Farling, Anna Griffiths, Anna J. Eyler, Erin Robertson, Gail Bourgeois, Jeff McIntyre, Nichola Feldman-Kiss, Patrice Stanley, Sarah Dobbin, Susan Roston, and Verbal.

Come out to the launch (featuring readings by a number of this issue's contributors) on Saturday, February 6, upstairs at The Carleton Tavern, Parkdale at Armstrong; doors 7pm, reading 7:30pm. Lovingly hosted by rob mclennan.

Founded to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the City of Ottawa, Canada's glorious capital city, "ottawater," and its chemical formula/logo "O2(H2O)," is a poetry annual produced exclusively on-line, in both readable and printable pdf formats, and found at An anthology focusing on Ottawa poets and poetics, its first issue appeared in January 2005, 150 years after old Bytown became the City of Ottawa.

All previous issues remain archived on the site as well. Thanks to designer Tanya Sprowl, the ottawa international writers festival, and Randy Woods at non-linear creations for their continuing support.

Monday, February 01, 2016

We Who Are About To Die : Billy Mavreas

Billy Mavreas is an artist and writer who lives and works in Montreal, Quebec. He usually makes zines, collage, comics and visual poetry.

Where are you now?
Right now I'm in my office behind the counter of my shop, Monastiraki, in the Mile-end neighbourhood in Montreal. It’s January, it’s cold and I’m listening to instrumental James Brown.

What are you reading?
I’m reading the Dover edition of The Collected Books of Charles Fort. It is staggering in it’s scope and turns of phrase, let alone it’s ideas and thousand-fold stories.

What have you discovered lately?
More of a rediscovery. That I need to honour my tendencies towards spirituality. That I need to maintain a regular meditation practice.

Where do you write?
My writing consists of drawing and collage and photoshopping and, well, writing. If it's text or photoshop I write in said office (see above) but also scribble on the couch at home. I draw on the couch also but collage and draw at the counter of my shop. I talk to myself everywhere I go.

What are you working on?
Right now I’m adding pages to a six panel per page minimalist stream of consciousness graphic novel project. I’m 120 pages in or so and will aim for at least a hundred more. This may turn into a web comic or a series of zines or if it’s tight into a book.

Have you anything forthcoming?
Not more than usual. There is always a trickling of small chap books, self-published, that I work on. Tiny editions of ten or twenty, although I did complete a colouring book just before the holidays last year. That was fun. I’d like to consider a series of art booklets later on this year or a solid kids picture book but I’ll see how my process unfolds. Things veer sideways easily enough without my cajoling.

What would you rather be doing?
I’d rather be securing a large enough bright room for myself to act as home studio, study and temple. A place with a door that closes, a window overlooking greenery, all my books and art and collections in the same place to inspire me to keep doing what I do.

from New Abstract Blues

Monday, January 25, 2016

On Writing #83 : Kaie Kellough

Kaie Kellough

for Jayne Cortez

You write because you are haunted: not hunted, not vanquished, but visited by something that hovers just beyond immediate perception.  You write because you are aware of something that flits close then away, that is vague but prescient, like an invisible twin, an entity you can only approach by by calling out, sounding, knowing that words are equally abstract. Words may say other than what you think, and may mislead away. Words are themselves but they are also other, scattering without discretion. A ship is spelled s-h-i-p but it is not a ship. It may also be a shape and a slip across an expanse, an estrangement, with an interrogation point looming in the rising song.  The writing process is a reach across this unknown, and as the letters are pushed and pulled across, they dissolve into something greater than themselves, somehting as expansive as a family never met, a hauntology, a bush of ghosts.    

The stories you want to tell are always the stories that tug and release when you try to grasp.  The only way you can pursue them is by laying out a trail of letters, a trail that you and others can follow, a spelling into being. Somehow, these stories are always vexed by inabilities, inadequacies, lack. Inability to completely address or redress immediate or historic grievance, inadequate ability to act on the world and directly effect change, inadequate ability to rise above the roiling mess of dialogue that is, at the end of the day, just dialogue struggling with dialogue. Inadequate ability to expand the stories of the minor characters in official histories, in everyday life, and in literature: characters who have been written into the background or erased altogether, and whose haunting is never fleshed into full presence. 

The process of writing is also bruised by dismissal and rebuke.  When it hears: we don't have an audience for your story and your kind of work; your language is too strident; your rage is too loud for this festival; your verse lacks "density";  your poetry isn't nuanced enough, you hesitate and question the value of your undertaking.  But even in the face of rebuke, the mind drifts.  Its unconscious drift traces letters, words, and that too is haunting. 

You reckon with the vexation, hurt, digression, and haunt before sitting down to write.  This writing, then, honors the difficulties and the inadequacies.  It is a ceremony of slow sentences encircling, decorating, and temporarily ennobling the crushed ego, a wreath of letters to throw into the void, perhaps a sacrifice or a purification rite, an acknowledgement that this service is not good enough but that it will be performed in spite of its naught. Welcome to the ceremony.

Kaie Kellough is a word-sound systemizer. His systems originate in the inchoate swirl of vowels, consonants, misspellings, shapes, stammerings, and emerge as audio recordings, books, visual entities, volumes of letters, and performances that verse and reverse utterance.

Kaie's work fuses formal experiment and social engagement. Kaie is the author of 2 books of poetry Lettricity (Cumulus Press 2004), and Maple Leaf Rag (Arbeiter Ring Publishing 2010), and 2 Sound recordings: Vox:Versus (WOW 2011), and Creole Continuum (HOWL! 2014). Kaie performs and publishes internationally, and is presently working on a novel.

Please visit: and

Thursday, January 14, 2016

On Writing #82 : Jacqueline Valencia

On Writing
Jacqueline Valencia

For me to talk about writing, I’d have to explain my obsession with James Joyce.

I was in my second year of doing my undergrad at the University of Toronto. I had hit a hectic time of exams and essay writing and two hour commute from home to my campus garnered me time to study and complete my class readings. During this time, I was tackling Ulysses for my Post-Modernism class. On little sleep I found myself in the middle of a pub scene in the chapter called Cyclops whereupon a character called The Citizen (an Irish nationalist) goes on a xenophobic rant against our protagonist & simple hero, Leopold Bloom. I fell asleep on the train and lucidly dreamed of the events I had just read. When I woke up, I hit my head on the windowsill and something happened. It’s something that I’ve tried to capture since then. It was a fleeting moment; an epiphany. It hard to put into words, but everything felt so clear and could think many things at once. It could also have been a psychotic break due insomnia. I don’t really know. What I do know is that my heart raced so fast and having missed my stopped. I clung tightly to my book just to get some grounding. It wasn’t panic I was feeling, but rather it was an extraordinary sense of elation.

Since that fraction of a millisecond I’ve read Ulysses too many times to count. I find new things in it and learn many interpretations from others who have digested it as well. I’ve gone on to type his first work The Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man in its entirety online and I am currently transcribing Ulysses by hand, a work that is also online through scans of these books.

* * *

Think of a seed that takes root in freshly poured concrete. It has death written all over it. Sometimes, in defiance of its predicament, the seed bursts open out of the dried concrete and wriggles its way out into the open. Suddenly a schoolyard, a parking lot, and a subway station wall all have sprouts and seedlings growing out of them. In concrete, a budding flower from any garden becomes a weed
My ideas can be impossibly ambitious or ridiculous useless. Once in a while, a concept plants itself like the seed mentioned above though and it will take root. It won’t budge. It doesn’t matter how idiotic or over my head the thought is, it keeps nagging at me until I let it out.

“You’re going to write me now,” it says.

“No, I think it’s best that I don’t. You need time,” I reply.

“What’s the worst that could happen? You say nothing? Pffft. Write me!” it demands.

“Ok, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to anyone see you.”

I write it and instantly feel relief. Before I knew it, without editing it, I’d post it, and run away to do errands. It’s too scary to look back and cringe at what might have come out of my head. I’d discombobulated myself.

Honestly, those are the moments when I have my most fearful and satisfying times as a writer. The Ulysses-ean epiphany exists there.

“Every life is in many days, day after day. We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.” – James Joyce, Ulysses

* * *

James Joyce lived most of his life in a self-imposed exile. This nomadic state spilled over to his work and he was obsessed with collecting words, learning many languages, and recording as much of the world as he could. The great trauma of not living in his homeland caused him to hoard the world of words. His passion for interpreting the real world, the daylight hours in Ulysses and the nighttime dreams in Finnegans Wake, were his way of trying to translate the reality of human existence. Writing is like exploring a mystery and recovering the known. A dedicated lover of literature faces the hard task poetic interpretation utilizing the very limited sphere of language. Individual emotions and the filigree in their personal experiences are as numerous as the stars in the sky.

From Eveline, a short story in Joyce’s first collection, The Dubliners:

“She sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue. Her head was leaned against the window curtains and in her nostrils was the odour of dusty cretonne. She was tired.”

From Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s last novel:

“And whowasit youwasit propped the pot in the yard and whatinthe nameofsen lukeareyou rubbinthe sideofthe flureofthe lobbywith Shite! will you have a plateful? Tak.” 

Joyce was a master of language. He claimed to be at the end of language and felt compelled to break it. He lived, worked and breathed in the rapidly advancing time of industrialization. The assembly line, electricity, technology changed the world every day. Joyce felt like he needed to translate his here and now via a new way of writing to catch up with it. It could be said that Finnegans Wake was one of the first works to showcase prose and poetry in a technologically advanced way. He created a word assembly out of notes and text detritus to write the undecipherable in the best way he could.

* * *

Today some writers parse their words or remix them the words of others.  This is constantly happening in social media and the digital world of writing. We all have opinions and we must share them. We all have objectives and we must collaborate them. Writers can pick and chose from many mediums to sculpt worlds and create situations. There are perpetual epiphanies within this kind of experimentation.

It’s a frightful, but provocative world to write in nowadays. Real and digital worlds are built out of words. People bargain, deal, and navigate the universe through speech and written text. It is assumed that everything has been written and that all a writer is doing now is rearranging the alphabet. What would James Joyce do?

“Shut your eyes and see.” – James Joyce

He’d probably tell us to write from the outside in and then from inside out. Joyce was a man more concerned with how to say something than saying it all. Shut our eyes to see the best way to put it down and make the world clearer for everyone. If a seed of an idea implants itself in your brain, no matter how absurd it is, go for it. The mind is a universe of unknown obscurities and there is connection there if we let it all out. The seed becomes a weed in the concrete, but some of those seeds become giant oaks despite the soil they break out of.

All of these tiny seeding epiphanies form unique algorithms to become a meditative grain, to become a part of the writer’s consciousness, to become a biting thought, and eventually become part of a written page. Ideas are all different buds formed through various patterns in the mind of the writer. It is in the process of writing and the world behind the words where the real reason for writing dwells. We write to reveal ourselves.

Language is a virus because it exists to make ideas solid. The computer I’m writing on now was once just a dream. Now I type on it. The possibilities in this are terrifying. All the dreams have the possibility of seeing the light of day. Look what it did to James Joyce? Try reading Finnegans Wake or Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses. As a writer, I am trying to give birth to dreams and I’m having the time of my life navigating that realm. All because I hit my head while reading a book.

Writing isn’t a condition or an affliction. It helps me escape and offers me relief. Writing is human nature.

Jacqueline Valencia is a poet and film/literary critic. She has written for Broken Pencil Magazine, Lemon Hound, Next Projection, subTerrain magazine, and Notebook Mubi among others. Jacqueline is a senior literary editor of The Rusty Toque and a CWILA board member. Her debut collection There’s No Escape Out Of Time will be out with Insomniac Press Spring 2016. She lives in Toronto.