Monday, November 23, 2015

On Writing #78 : Michelle Berry

On Writing
Michelle Berry

It’s that image, isn’t it? That picture in your head that forms crystal clear. The characters gathered together or apart, thinking or talking or fighting or making love or dying. So close you can see the hairs quiver inside his nose. So close you can feel the heat coming off of her. You can smell his body odour –  a not unpleasant garlic from last night’s dinner. You can sense she is about to pinch you. And then the words form, after the image, the words that capture the image. They don’t work at first, you struggle to get them on the page, but then they come quickly, they flow like a river, rushing over your fingers as you type. Sometimes you can’t keep up. That image, you follow it, watch it, move with it, turn your head to see it, you listen carefully. And then you turn it into words and sentences, into dialogue and laughter and chatter, into screaming rage and howling wind. When they talk quickly, back and forth, it’s like tennis sped up and you duck catching the volleys, often missing the volleys. Save that for editing. Because editing isn’t only taking out, it’s putting in, structuring, moving around, misplacing, and finding again. Words. Images. Scenes. Sentences. Letters. Add an “s” and everything changes. Change the tense and the world shifts.

It’s funny that the image is clearer some days. Other days it’s milky or blurry or watery. You see through a veil. Once in awhile it’s in Technicolor and you know exactly what is happening and keep track of it all, even that blown piece of litter heading down the street when your character turns to leave her mother at the edge of the park. You see both the character and the mother as they walk away, separately, the mother into the dark wilds, park full of pickpockets and murderers and rapists, you see your character moving into the light of the city. And then snow starts to fall and you are cold. How can you see both at the same time? You don’t bother to stop and think about it because if you do, if you for one little minute stop. And think. You’ll be distracted and the image will “poof,” disappear. Go up in smoke, like the character who has left her mother to certain fate, as she walks quickly over a subway grate and the steam rises to meet her.

How do you write? Speak on writing. Write: on writing. Say what you will. You can never fully explain it. There are times you come close – watching TV in your head, following characters as they move, staying with them, watching watching watching. You are a passive participant in this game. But more times than that no one understands. Because how can they understand when you yourself can’t even understand? You teach writing and are stumped by questions. “I find dialogue hard,” she says. “How do you show, don’t tell?” he says. You give them a line or two you’ve picked up from someone else, a line or two that has worked before, that seems to ease their tension, and then you go home and think, “I don’t know how I do it.” And “most of the time I’m not even sure I DO do it.” And when you try to explain even more than the magic disappears for you because you are overthinking it, wondering it, worrying it. You know it’s the same for every writer, and also different. There are no tricks, there is no one piece of advice.

It just happens. It’s that image you see. On good days. Sometimes on bad days. Beautiful people, horrible people, angry people, happy people, sad people. They are solid, standing in front of you, and you just have to reach out somehow, with your mind’s eye, and touch them. You have to get to know them carefully and slowly until they become even more solid, until you can see the back of him as he walks away from you, until you can see the small bits of dandruff on the lapel of his coat, the scuff on the back of the right shoe where he stepped down heavy when he was getting off the streetcar, until you smell his garlic as he walks quietly and carefully into the park following the mother. You know you’ve got him, you see him, when you suddenly feel the itch on his neck before he even reaches up to scratch, when you feel the chill come over the mother who is crying because her daughter wouldn’t walk her home.

On writing. The magic. The beauty.  The  terror of losing it. The horror of presenting it. But then these characters turn back most of the time, as they walk deeper into the park, or into the city, they turn towards you who are scratching and typing and buttoning up your sweater, and they look you in the eye. Solidly.

Michelle Berry is the author of three books of short stories, How to Get There  from Here, Margaret Lives in the Basement, and I Still Don't Even Know You (which won the 2011 Mary Scorer Award for Best Book Published by a Manitoba Publisher and was shortlisted for the ReLit Award, 2011), as well as five novels, What We All Want, Blur, Blind Crescent and This Book Will Not Save Your Life (which won the 2010 Colophon Award and was longlisted for the ReLit Award, 2011) and Interference (which has been nominated for the Silver Fachion Award, Nashville, 2015). Her writing has been optioned for film and published in the U.K. with Weidenfeld & Nicholson. She is also co-editor with Natalee Caple of The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writerswhich is based on the famous Paris Review interviews -- and has collaborated on an art book with Winnipeg artist, Andrew Valko, called, Postcard Fictions. Michelle taught creative writing at Ryerson University, was on the board of PEN Canada and the authors’ committee of the Writer's Trust and served as Second Vice-Chair of The Writer's Union.  She presently teaches online for The University of Toronto, in-class at Trent University, and is a mentor at Humber College. She is a contributing reviewer for The Globe and Mail.

Monday, November 16, 2015

On Writing #77 : Eric Schmaltz

Writing as an Intimacy with Machines
Eric Schmaltz

We are born into language, into its flows, into its complex of shifting & shimmering circuitry. Every component of language has a machinic life that emerges in & through interactions with humans & non-humans. Each language component is a piece of data, encrypted with visual & sonic information which we meet in endless recombinance like lovers among & upon themselves. Writing is an intimacy with machines.

When we write, we construct a multitude of machinic assemblages. Beginning within, our body initiates an interaction of synaptic events coupled with the application & interaction of muscles, tissues, textures, & pressures that guide the flow of data. These bodily processes assemble with a technologic realm––taut skin on a fine tipped pen; graphite on a yellowed notepad; a Macbook held close as it purrs at midnight. Like antennae, we receive & transmit data thru & into these assemblages. This is an intimacy.

For us, writing opens at these realizations: the machinic & the assemblage. Letters, sentences, paragraphs, poems, & books are machines formulated from various strains of input & output, all of which are created collaboratively in & thru the meeting of bodies, of machines, & of systems. The visual & sonic information of language is that which acts upon us & with us. It alters our biochemistry & neurology, & we respond with our placement of & response to the mark. This is how we arrive at the delicate curve of a meticulously designed serif, the flick of a tongue sounding “love” or, the epic span of the long poem. There is no one assemblage. Each language component is a block of data that we couple to another to formulate a machinic enterprise of potentiality. Writing is being intimate with an assembly line of infinite configurations.

Eric Schmaltz is a language artist, writer, researcher, & curator. Born in Welland, Ontario he now lives & works in Toronto, Ontario. Eric’s work has been featured online & in print across Canada & internationally including places such as Lemon Hound, The Capilano Review, Rampike, CTRL+ALT+DEL, Open Letter, & Poetry is Dead. His visual work has been featured across Canada including Havana Gallery (Vancouver), Rodman Hall (St. Catharines), & Niagara Artist Centre (St. Catharines).

Friday, November 06, 2015

On Writing #76 : Barbara Tomash

Dear PRE-
Barbara Tomash

Here’s a writing question I’m currently carrying around in my pockets: After having been immersed for several years in the close-up (small motor) work of collaging found language for my poems, how do I re-position myself to embody the broader strokes needed to see the work through to completion?  The poems in my manuscript in progress, PRE-, spin out from dictionary definitions for words beginning with particular English prefixes. All the language is found—but, fractured and juxtaposed with a free-hand, freewheeling approach. Recently, the poet Elizabeth Robinson suggested I write a letter to the manuscript in order to “open up to the heart of this project.”

Dear PRE-
            When I work on you, dear PRE-, I am working instinctually and with an approach that is more common in the visual arts than in the literary arts—you may remember I was an artist first. Like a collagist, I lay out the materials I have gathered—in this case words and phrases from the dictionary—and examine them disassociated from their source—I have selected specific language fragments, words, images that appeal to me, interest me in some way (more about this later), then, in a process of trial and error I begin creating an assemblage out of them—the assemblage is the poem. I don’t know where the juxtapositions will take me—that is what I want to find out—that is my inquiry.
            Dear PRE-, what meanings and emotions can arise out of this instinct of mine to put non-narratively attached language pieces together? I don’t want to create a new narrative—I do want to transform.  I want to metamorphose the purposeful, explicatory, directive language of the dictionary into something that surprises and glows, that stumbles, make mistakes, that disregards and regards.  One of my attractions to prefixes as a jumping off point is that they are agents of transformation—and that that is all they are—they do not stand outside their agency. By creating a new beginning (and they create it by the action of butting up against and thus hold the art of collage within themselves) they change the world/word into something it wasn’t before they arrived.
            I don’t know what the assemblage (poem) is going to “mean” or the emotions it will hold until it starts to take shape. As it takes shape I get a feeling that has a movement or direction—this movement is the lyric element, the lyric response—it is a response within the making, not outside it. This feeling/thinking that comes out of the act of juxtaposing directs the choices I make.  Perhaps a theme emerges—and since these come out my unconscious preoccupations, I do find shared themes throughout the work—a preoccupation with the body (female) its intimacies and vulnerabilities; the human in concert with and alienation from nature; death, transformation, and the spirit; human created catastrophe (war, devastation, cruelty), natural catastrophe, displacement and exile.
            The creating of each assemblage, dear PRE-, is an intense process of experimentation.  Just as a visual artist works with color patterns and the dynamics of shape and texture in creating a collage—moving things around, trying out different formal relationships, attaching and ripping apart, I work, as poets do, with sound and rhythm and image, forming and reforming relationships. I am experimenting with how language unmoored from source and even from that deep desire “to tell” can hold emotions and even ideas (as an abstract visual collage does?). That is an inquiry. 
            And voice is an inquiry too. The voice you have, dear PRE-, is the voice of the process itself—not of a speaker, per se— I hope this voice of juxtaposition, with its odd sounds of rearrangement (moving furniture?) and strange sutures, is invitational to the reader, sparks thinking and feeling.  (I think now, as I write you, how I love Meredith Monk.) Is this “voice of process” opposed to “voice” as we experience it in a lyric? That is an inquiry.  Where I (the writer) come in as voice is as the shaper of the process, or more truly the user of the process—obviously this same process in other hands would create completely different poems.  Is the hand that chooses material and makes juxtapositions equivalent to voice? Can it be as filled with meaning as the voice in a lyric? Or is there an emptiness at the center that can’t be overcome?  I hope not. Or I hope that the emptiness is an evocative one that creates possibility as the reader fills and empties the space of the poem with her own engagement with language—a kind of surprising and revealing which I hope the juxtapositions make possible. Can language taken out of the “telling” context be flexible and pleasurable and emotive and even personal—a talk between writer and reader? That is an inquiry too.  
            What, dear PRE-, do you need from me now? Do you need more clarity of forms—are there too many forms? Do you need fewer interruptions in flow—the poems deriving from each prefix perhaps in longer more continuous movements together?  Do you need titles that move away from the prefixes and toward suggestion of the themes?  Do you need to be able/allowed to explain more to the reader—oh, how would I do that?—or, do you want me to find ways to show and tell and “teach” the reader about the poems while she is reading it?  Do you need a vigorous winnowing out? Are you meant to be a quite short book?  This is a “maximalist” work—there is a lot of language going on.  How to claim that maximalist quality, which seems to me so intrinsic to my own drive and desire, my own demonstration of my love of the process (and in this sense the heart of the book) without swamping the reader in too much “abstract” speech.  Are even more patterns or repetitions needed within the poems and between them as a device to counter and/or make accessible the plenitude?
            Dear PRE-, I would like to add illustrations in your text—I’m thinking dictionary illustrations—from vintage dictionaries (my own beloved Webster’s Collegiate is now vintage since I received it in 1969).  Perhaps these could go between sections.  Or do I want to add other kinds of visuals? More empty images, to create blank spaces, but that are not quite as blank as simply the blank page. I have the sense that visual pauses would give the reader resting points. Would you even like me to find an artist to collaborate with? Or is this too, too much in the already much of the poems?  I also wonder about epigraphs at the beginning of the sections to point more to themes?  These are perhaps not the crux of the “problem of the text”—but, part of the inquiry.
            For now, dear PRE-, this will be all, because I want to get this to Elizabeth.  But, I will write you again soon, with my questions and etc.  I appreciate your infinite patience.

Barbara Tomash is the author of three books of poetry, Arboreal (Apogee 2014), Flying in Water which won the 2005 Winnow First Poetry Award, and The Secret of White (Spuyten Duyvil 2009). A portfolio of poems from her manuscript PRE- is featured in the June 2014 issue of Verse and additional selections were recently published in Web Conjunctions, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly and are forthcoming in Hotel Amerika. Her poetry has also appeared in OmniVerse, New American Writing, VOLT, Witness and numerous other journals. She teaches in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University.