Friday, February 15, 2019

On Writing #159 : Douglas Piccinnini

Douglas Piccinnini

Because I am a relatively unknown writer, who often goes to great lengths to remain faithful to the impulse to write in a life where I am not typically known for writing or poetry outside of a few small circles—I suffered a kind of soul-nibbling doubt in responding to rob mclennan’s call to talk about writing.

In fact, it has been more than a year since rob first extended the invitation to me. And, despite starts and stops which may have indicated progress, these attempts were abandoned due to the embarrassing platitudes that seemed first to fruit.

I value this outreach as increasingly, having little time to work on reviewing books, my prose is regularly limited to explanatory notes on invoices and bland, perfunctory emails. So it is with a degree of intense self-scrutiny that I have trashed the first few attempts at this in which, I attempted to be “interesting” or “enigmatic” or worse, both.

I am a poet and not a scholar and perhaps, as John Ashbery notes in Other Traditions,  more often I feel that “poetry is the explanation.”

For the most part, the only artifact(s) of process or putting together the poem is the poem itself. Lots of my work begins as fragmentary notes that act as catalysts for a poem or series of poems in which some basic riff has been stored on a slip of paper,  text or email and then is restored in a poem.

This is to say, the writing itself is the documentation of a creative time. I am terrible at saving drafts as composition is a movement of steps, missteps, deletions and accretions that happen quickly during the initial impulse. I revise for sound.

For this reason, I often prefer not to give anything in the way of explanatory introductions or notes during readings or anything in the way of endnotes as academic proof of process in a manuscript. This scaffolding remains invisibly mine.

The impulse follows the inspiration and is the attempt at clarity rather than the making of clarity itself.

And yet somehow it is also resisting the interference of other work overwhelming my work, even if the interference is the influence of previous “successes” of my own work.

But I also recognize the value in being generous in speaking about process.

What keeps me writing is a sense of community or readership, however or wherever it may be.This is perhaps one of the more reasonable aspects of opting into a graduate writing program in which a writer can meet a readership, even if it is brief.

The first few readers of my work, outside of school, helped me into writing and have kept me going.

If I can take a brief detour for a moment:

There was a point in my life when I thought I might become an academic, but about a decade ago, I instead began cooking professionally. The decision came as an act of survival following the sudden non-existence of reliable teaching opportunities in the humanities as the economic “down turn” came. This “catastrophe” — from the Greek: “kata” down and “strophe” turn(ing) set me on the path to where I am today.

In 2008, I remember hearing the news of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008— better known as the “bailout,” while driving to the grocery store in Marquette, NE. I was at a residency at Art Farm Nebraska and one year into graduate school. I had just left my job in academic publishing as an editorial assistant to focus on school and writing.

But also, a decade ago while living in Brooklyn, I soon found myself in the midst of luxurious time of leisure to attend three or four readings a week, go to the movies almost every week and be surrounded by a vibrant scene of writers, publishers, performers and creators—all of which helped me into a creative life. 

Out of school and a year later, I began working at The Strand bookstore. There I met poet, publisher and musician Zach Barocas. As publisher of The Cultural Society, Zach was one of the first people I met after graduate school who was encouraging of the type of poems I was making. I mean, I was away from people who were paid to be interested in my progress. And on the other side of the country, David Lau and Cal Bedient made a home for my work in Lana Turner: A journal of poetry and opinion.  

Also, around this time the musician, writer and editor Michael Barron introduced me to Nat Otting. Nat was doing everything and also, took an interest in me, publishing a chapbook.

Corina Copp. Ben Fama. Macgregor Card. Chris Hosea. Chris Martin. Mary Speaker. Nicole Trigg. Aaron Hodges. Josef Kaplan. Eric Conroe. Brett Price. Joel Lewis. Todd Colby. Matvei Yankelevich. Ben Gocker. Will Edmiston. Corrine Fitzpatrick. Eddie Hopely. Lucy Ives. Stacy Syzmaszek. John Coletti. Nicole Wallace. Judah Rubin. Camilo Roldán. Christopher Stackhouse. Joanna Penn Cooper. Niina Pollari. Cynthia Gray.

These people among many others, whether they are aware of it our not, were among the scene of people that propped me up, inspired me and nudged me along in those fledgling days of poem making.

Two years later, after a string of unsatisfying temp-jobs, I found myself in culinary school at The French Culinary Institute. My logic was simple: I could live anywhere and cook to support myself. Everyone needed to eat.

This is to say, now I spend a lot of time cooking and thinking about food.

When I am free from the obligations of work, I take walks. I like to walk everywhere, but especially in the woods. There I get to thinking in a different kind of way. My senses need  to be alert in order to avoid tripping on an exposed root, or knocking off my glasses with a branch.

There are two short hikes I like to take often. And, although I have been on these paths many times, I find that each time I am faced with the same onslaught of small decisions to make while walking so as to avoid falling over, etc.

This is like poetry.

While I am usually overcautious of making statements about my work, I feel that writing is learning how to make many small decisions to keep going.

And to this end, I do not have any kind of regular ‘writing day’ though my ideal situation is to get dressed, leave my apartment and go to a cafe a work for few hours…

But to return to the feeling of connecting with other writers and artists:

It’s such a small community of people who care about poetry. So my advice is to be generous if you can, when you can, to all people in this community or any community for that matter.

I guess what I mean is that it happens quickly. If you are lucky, you meet a few people that you can talk to and that talk to you in a way that offers something nourishing, something delicious, something like a meal, in which the feeling is almost as important as the food. This helps you on your way.

Douglas Piccinnini [photo credit: Bradlee Hicks] is the author of Victoria (Bloof, forthcoming), Blood Oboe (Omnidawn, 2015) and Story Book: a novella (The Cultural Society, 2015). Recent writing has appeared with Brooklyn Rail, Denver Quarterly, Fence, Lana Turner, Nat. Brut, Seattle Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Tammy, Verse, and the Volta—among other publications. Currently, he lives in Lambertville, NJ and works as a chef and consultant. Website:

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

On Writing #158 : Margo LaPierre

Margo LaPierre

The window by the bed is open. The morning noise—children and cars in the courtyard— bubbles up to the woman’s tiny fourth-floor apartment, but this is her day off and she sleeps through it. The sheets are splayed around her on the bed. She buys the thin white linens because they are cheap and easy to bleach. Under the dark mess of her hair, something glistens on the pillowcase. Viscous letters shimmer; a sheen of modest emerald. A word. Kiln. The secretion oozes from her ear while she dreams. She wakes, touches cold mucus stuck to her lobe; alarmed, she calls her doctor from her bed. He tells her he can see her tomorrow, and bring the pillowcase! She hangs it to dry on the line that extends over the courtyard from her smoking balcony. The word congeals. Neighbours look up as they pass it flapping and sparkling in the sun. Some take pictures. The next day, a second dream has eked out its alphabetic form. Grasp. The snaky text is the colour of taillights at dusk. She takes down yesterday’s pillowcase, pins this new one up. The doctor can’t explain the phenomenon, but he assures her she is healthy. Each following morning, there’s a new word. She buys more pillowcases. The landlord knocks. Someone’s inquired about her art. They want to buy one. A pillowcase? Yes. She starts selling them from her home. She organizes a show at the café in her neighbourhood. Her pillowcases sell out. An agent calls her. He thinks she would kill in New York, he’s talking MOMA. Or Miami, Art Basel would scoop her up and he’s talking real cash. She accepts. Why not? She can literally do this in her sleep. The art world erupts with her pillowcases, they want more. Her name becomes international. She flies back and forth to meet with investors and dealers. She quits her job and moves into a spacious and stylish apartment with a king-sized bed and thick downy duvets. There aren’t enough sleep-filled nights to keep up with demand. The agent suggests a retreat: a state-of-the-art sleep clinic in Canada where she can work without disturbance. People would be hired to cook for her, to do her groceries and her laundry. She’s prescribed sleeping pills. They work. She can sleep twenty hours and produce as many as four a day. But now with the medication, they’re coming out like trippy rainbows, no more muted hues. Are they ever gorgeous, says the art world. Her prices keep rising, she’s making bank. There she is. She’s snoring. The window by her bed is closed, the air is still and slightly stale. The blackout curtains fulfill their purpose, you can’t see anything in there.

Fifteen years ago I read a poem online—dreams leaking onto pillow—and reimagined it as a short story for an English class. I don’t remember the title of the original poem or who wrote it, though I’ve searched for it multiple times. My tenth-grade story is also MIA. I wrote a much longer version from memory a couple years ago, presently archived on an external hard drive plastered with glittery kitty stickers. And now, because I 'd rather write another go at a mini-iteration than sift through archived files, I’ve recast once again.

The appeal of that idea—milky confusion curdling into words—is undeniable. Type and rearrange and delete and type some more and watch as thoughts crest on the screen. Ever try watching your thoughts in the mirror? Spend a minute looking at your face sometime. Think of ham sandwiches; serial killing; the way trauma flattens your past, present and future. Emotions are there in plain sight, but the thoughts fail to surface, fail to become visible. You can speak what’s on your mind, but each utterance flutters away.

I wrote poems to pull myself inside out, to give myself a body that made sense to me. We’re all red inside, but as writers we get to craft a literary skin. We can teach ourselves to feel, to touch.  The body of work is a membrane that grants us access to a community of others.

Margo LaPierre writes poetry and edits fiction. Her poetry collection Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes was published by Guernica Editions in 2017. She lives in Ottawa.

Friday, January 11, 2019

call for interviews : queen mob's teahouse,

Interviews editor rob mclennan seeks interviews! Queen Mob's Teahouse is open to submissions of interviews with poets, fiction writers, comic book creators, non-fiction writers, etcetera.

Is there someone you know who hasn't been interviewed lately, or even at all? Who haven’t we heard from yet? What writer, in your opinion, deserves further attention?

If you are sending a query, include what else you’ve done and about the subject of your interview. If you are sending a finished interview, please send as .doc with a short introduction, a bio of the interviewer and a photo of your interview subject to include with piece.

See here for a link-list of recent interviews posted at Queen Mob's Teahouse.
Send submissions to rob [at]


Thursday, January 10, 2019

On Writing #157 : Erin Bedford

Losing My Muse
Erin Bedford

Every once in a while, usually at social gatherings where I am trying to go unnoticed near the cheese tray, and after I’ve just been introduced as a writer, a stranger will ask me why I write. I spit out the typical but not-totally-truthful answer about wanting to explore the human condition.

Human condition, wow. I see. And how do you do it? How do you write all those words?

I go through a rather mundane list of everyday writing routines. I’m getting pretty good at standard writer-ese. It’s much safer to fill an awkward silence with details about the amount and style of coffee I consume, or the music I listen to, or if I need to sit at a desk, but it isn’t really how I do it. Before now, I’ve never volunteered the rather integral ingredient: redirected sexual energy.

(All who know me, especially family: pause here for deep breaths.)

I’m not the first (and definitely not the best) writer to use that kind of heat as creative fuel. Yeats mused on Maud Gonne, Nora Barnacle was Joyce’s Molly Bloom, Woolf and Vita Sackville-West carried on a love affair that inspired both to write some of their best work. And okay, so maybe the idea of having a muse is a little obsessive and strange to the general populace, but a writer knows better than to pass on something that might provide longterm inspiration. I’m pretty convinced many more writers have a muse than admit it. Until now, I’ve been one of them. For fifteen years, I had a muse. He was how I wrote. He was why I wrote. Or that’s what I thought until I lost him.

I’m no classicist so before I began this piece, I did a little backgrounder on the originals, those nine inspirational women of Greek myth, each of them assigned to a specific area of art or scientific inquiry: epic poetry, love poetry, tragedy, dance, music, astronomy, history, comedy, and sacred poetry. These goddesses were the result of Zeus getting down with the Titan Mnemosyne for nine nights in a row. Well, who’s she? I clicked through to her wiki entry and this is the part that almost made me fall off my chair—Mnemosyne was the goddess of memory.

For those of you who write because of a muse, be honest, is there any description more fitting? Isn’t the process of creating for or because of that muse a little like having languid sex with a memory?

I met my muse when I was twenty-two. He was just a few years older but seemed decades wiser. While I’d been pinned under the too-tight buckle of the Bible Belt where I was born, he’d been kibbutzing, and backpacking, and gaining nicknames on numerous continents. He was scruffy and direct and more than a little intimidating.

He was adventure. I was engaged.

If I’d been a little less shy, we probably would’ve had the kind of affair that twenty-something intellectuals tend to be quite good at— full of gravitas, but with less of life’s actual difficulties (mortgages, children, full-time careers). But I was timid and totally inexperienced with any kind of direct sexual expression. I wanted him, badly. But I also couldn’t bring myself to do anything more overt than send intense looks across the seminar room where he and I and twelve other undergrads met every Tuesday and Thursday to discuss historiography. I developed a killer smoulder and he noticed not one bit. Or maybe he did and assumed I was really into Ptolemy.

Finally (quite literally), I got some courage up. On the last trip to the subway, after the last class of the last semester of our last undergrad university year, I caught up to him at a street light and we made a date. I danced toward the St. George subway station, impressed with my dramatic and impeccable sense of timing. I’d sunk a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer.

But he never showed. His beloved da was dying and he’d flown home to be with him.

After, he stayed in Calgary to take care of his ma. I wrote my last exam and got married two months later. What might have been a quick fling between us, or maybe a slightly-less-brief-but-probably-more-tumultuous relationship, turned into a meaningful long-distance friendship. We met up a couple of times the following summer, but mostly we wrote emails that seemed to scroll forever, always at the end of our respective days. Except for us in our midnight rooms, three provinces apart, the whole world seemed fast asleep. Sometimes he wrote things that made me realize I might be edging toward a life lived half-asleep too. Why don’t you do this thing you are so very good at? Why don’t you write?

I fell in love. I didn’t see him for fourteen years. I was married. He was adventure.

I lived another life. I became a mother and a writer when I had the time. I wrote a novel and I turned him into one of the characters who made me want to keep writing. Eight drafts later, ten years after the last time I saw him, the novel was done and he wasn’t really in it anymore. I’d bent and twisted the character he’d inspired so much, and stuffed words in his mouth that he never would have said.

And so, after a few months, I began writing again, searching for him.

This time, I wrote historical fiction, not the thinly-veiled wanto-biography like my first time around. But, when I wrote this second book, (and I hope he’ll forgive me this) he most definitely became the inspiration for the beautiful-but-doomed Charlotte Vogel, soulmate to an old lighthouse keeper. It is but one of many frustrated love stories going on in that novel. I couldn’t have written it so without feeling it for real.

When I finished the second book, I fell into a blue rut. I missed my story. I missed the characters and the daily habit of writing about them. I missed emoting for the sake of my work. My marriage had been wobbling for some time, and when I finished the novel, I finally felt the pit that my feverish writing of the past year had filled. I seemed to be trapped at the bottom of it. My marriage fell in. In fact, more honestly, I pulled it in. I was the pit.

I began to write poems like therapy. I spent my days in a panic of loneliness. At night, I wrote verse that made me weep, just to make sure I still could. I wrote nine poems and submitted them to a contest. Eight of them were about the end of a marriage. One of them was about my muse. I called it Varicella, a frantic itch that needed scratching. My collection didn’t win, but it made the long list, and quite suddenly, poetry seemed a thing I might actually be able to do.

I went off to find something that would stop the hollowing out and help me feel again. Anything. Good or bad, as long as it was real. I went to the mountains for the first time in my life. Classicists know, the mountains are a popular spot for muses. Mine happened to live there too.

Let me say this here, now, because many of you may be wondering when I am going to get to the point of this essay: Dear Reader, I began to lose my muse as soon as I made him real to my life again. And actually, he was the first to warn and question the sagacity of my seeing him again in real life: Please don’t take this the wrong way, but you are a novelist (+ poet), and I think this means that the world you imagine, in order to write, is likely a richer world than the one we live in…Indeed, you might actually prefer to keep me a part of ‘the writing world’ and not ‘the real world’!


I enrolled in a mentorship program and travelled back and forth to the mountains to work on my poetry and hike and make love with my muse. I’d fly home after five or six days and leave him with a handwritten poem. When I asked him one evening on the phone how he felt about being a muse, he skirted a bit. He told me it wasn’t really about that. All of my work, even if it was about a very particular moment we shared or feeling he evoked, was really only about me. It was my experience I was writing about. He just happened to be part of that experience.

My mentor, the quietly magnificent Betsy Warland, had a habit of rejecting all the poems I wrote about my muse. I would go to her after hiking hand-in-hand with him through Stanley Park, all flush with the excitement of he and I actually being a real thing happening in the most beautiful place I’d ever been in my life. And she would offer me a cup of sobering tea and ready her sharpened pencil stub and mark exes on every page that held a poem I’d written for him. She almost rolled her eyes when she read them for the first time. These ones, they’re about your current love? I nodded. They’re not ready. You need distance. Instead, she wanted to know more about Frank and Rose, the married couple in my poems who were falling apart. For a moment, I hated her like a child hates the grown-up holding the tablespoon of bad medicine they know they have to take.

I returned to my muse in the mountains and he wrapped his arms around me and held me as I cried a little. He, too, was confused about why Frank and Rose held such interest to my mentor. Why those sad sacks, after all? Why not this fresh desire?

Being with him was whimsical and fun, sometimes breathtaking. But there was a lot of not being with him too, a lot of intermittent text messages, a few midnight phone calls I made from inside the shower stall in my bathroom so as not to wake the kids. Still, the yearning was good for my poetry, and as much as it hurt, as bonkers as the distance sometimes made me, it was good for me too. Like my summer swim in the glacier-fed Lynn River—what beautiful pain to feel so alive.

He took me away to an island mid-winter. We talked about practical things in person for the first time: my children, and career prospects, his skeptical ma, and money, and theoretical future children. We walked through ancient forests and kissed the mist of a waterfall off each other’s faces. He held my hand inside his hand inside his pocket. Some of it was magic. Some of it was pure suspension of disbelief.

I told him I loved him. He was adventure. 

The sun set in a beautiful glow on Wickaninnish Beach and everything got suddenly cold.

Whatever we had ended a month later, but not before I flew out in a fit of poetic spontaneity and surprised him. He was not happy to be surprised. We collected my hiking boots from his mountain aerie and I read him one last poem as he drove me to a hotel. It was a new poem about birds, raggedy ugly birds, becoming magnificent when they flew.

For days afterward, I hardly slept. When I did, I woke in full panic mode. What had I done, after all? I had made a hundred plans to change my life that seemed downright embarrassing. I was deep into a poetry manuscript where two-thirds of the poems were about him. I didn’t want to open the file and read all of that tender longing. How could I ever go back to it? When would it not hurt?

Betsy, oblivious to the mess I was in, was pushy for my final submission to the mentorship program. I wrote her a pitiful email of excuses and then I opened the manuscript, expecting the worst.

But, hey, hmm. How interesting.

It turned out a lot of the poems I’d written for him didn’t make a lot of sense at the time because they each contained a sort of poison pill not fully digested. You see, I knew somehow. I knew what he and I had was powerful and completely overwhelming, but I also seemed to sense that what I wanted from him wasn’t to be had in reality. What had been annoying equivocating before, as Betsy recognized, became, with tweaking here and there, with hindsight and a bit of distance, stark. These poems were no longer wobbly love Jello. They were desire and loss, cut clean. 

Still, I couldn’t write. I couldn’t write much of anything for months. And when I did, it was still always about him. I was supposed to write this essay three months ago, but couldn’t bring myself to sit and contemplate the loss of that source of creative energy. And I didn’t want times that had definitely glowed to acquire the grey and boring tinge that explication sometimes imparts.

When I wrote to my muse, to tell him about my fear, that my Maud Gonne was no longer, that I didn’t know what would fire me up enough to write again, he wrote back and told me what he’d told me once before. You’re Maud Gonne is not gone (indeed it is not me, I don’t think!) I think it is you and it makes you a great poet… 

Until I lost my muse, I thought he was real. But my muse was no more real than the nine lovelies of Greek myth. Sure, yes, there is an actual man out there and he is the one I experienced the very real love affair with. But the fifteen-year muse was always just me. I peeked behind the curtain and found my twenty-something self sitting there scribbling in a notebook, wild for a little more from life, always a little more.

During our last session, Betsy asked me to go through and tell her who each poem was about. I had trouble but I gave her a list. It didn’t feel right though, and I didn’t figure it out until much later. The poems, all of them, were me. I was Rose, and I was Frank. I was their child, and their cats, and their old kaleidoscope, and the half-dead squirrel they found in the street once. I was the boat, and the refugee, and the moon. I was the red balloon inflated with my mother’s breath, and the 800-year-old tree that swayed near my lover’s house in the mountains. I was me being in love with my muse. I was my muse. And I was feeling it all, finally. I am adventure.  I am adventure.  I am adventure.

Erin Bedford's work is published in William Patterson University's Map Literary, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Temz Review, and Train: a poetry journal. She attended and won a Certificate of Distinction for her novel Fathom Lines from the Humber School for Writers. Currently, she is acting as shill for her newly-completed second novel Illumining, and a manuscript of poetry. Follow her to find out more @ErinLBedford