Thursday, April 03, 2014

On Writing #26 : Kevin Spenst

On Writing
Kevin Spenst

Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.
    Wallace Stevens

     Paul Valery writes about the creation of a poem beginning with the gift of a first line - une ligne donnee given by god, nature or the particular placement of a baguette - a line through which you pull the rest of the poem. It's a beautiful notion but how do you get to that ligne donnee, and really, how do you pull the rabbit of a poem out of the slit of a single line?

   There are ten essential slight-of-hand tricks to writing poetry and nobody knows what they are.  If our goal is to write poems that really take people's heads off, then we need to dwell in the mysterious realms of religion, art, theater, Resident Evil 6 (or something equally intense to you.) No, but seriously. 

     Long after some spasmodic bursts of teen angst poetry, I found my way back into the realms of the literary sublime through the most circuitous of routes: acting lead to making my own short films which lead to scripting plot ideas which lead to becoming serious about fiction which lead to an MFA where I focused on poetry. My head is still spinning.

     For me, writing starts with poetic attention that exists in an open alertness to the world. On my bike ride home from work the other day, I tried to look at the entire road in front of me - from the ongoing rush of the asphalt beneath my front tire to the slow movement of the coming distance. There was no stuttering middle ground dragging my gaze down and then up, but it was all one gestalt. It felt different for a couple seconds. Who doesn't want to live with the possibilities of the mundane being filled with the new? I love poetry for its potential to open up spaces in my day-to-day life. (For the record, I don’t pay poetic attention to anything while drinking and operating heavy machinery.)

      In October of 2003 I started writing a story everyday. I’d been living amidst a growing heap of half-fished journals and motivational writing quotes, but none of my resolutions to take writing seriously solidified into a consistent practice. A friend, the supremely talented Paul Pratte, offered to help me design a website. The crux of the site was to be a short-short story everyday. Making a promise with a mostly imaginary online audience was what got me into the practice of writing.

    Poetry itself feels like the apex of potential. Poetry is game for invading any other discourse. Poetry raps: gratitude is the only attitude. Poetry plunders in wonder. Poetry is high-tech primitivism. Poetry runs the gamut of great ideals and taboo filth straight into the ground beneath our feet and plants something hybrid. Poetry is confessional and denialistic. (de-nihilistic?)As far as my poetics are concerned, poetry is language at play with the core plasticity of the self.

     When I read fiction or poetry, I don’t tend to see anything the first time through. I have to put effort into witnessing a scene unfold. It makes sense that I fell in love with poetry. The French Symbolists wrote with musicality in mind and there’s a mellifluous strain that runs through a lot of poetries. Certainly, we all have varying degrees of sensitivity towards language. Nabokov saw words accompanied by colours and presumably there are other synaesthetes who experience words with other sensory qualities. “’The Sublime smells like an aardvark to me,” someone might have once said.

     We speak from a place of flesh and blood and our “voice” is physically determined, but our culture and personality shape how we use it. A man growing up with four brothers who’s significantly shorter than the rest might compensate by speaking in the deep voice of a six-foot powerhouse. When I edit my poems, I listen for the quirks of a voice that may be hiding something. I let the poem keep its secrets as long as it’s willing to share something of greater interest.

     Language is at home in our mouths and the page is a strange fiction we all agree to take for fact.

     Poetry is an ideal, a place where the senses and abstractions are united. Nowhere is this interplay of modalities more dynamic than the work of Ken Babstock. Amanda Earl does a meticulous job of scratching at the paint and colours present in his first two books in “A Catalogue of Colour, Texture & Shiny Things in Ken Babstock's Poetry-Part One.” She explores the tone created through colour choices, drawing our attention to brush-stroked lines:

this year's open mouth looks like a red room of your own
heart; tin icebox; bloody plush at his chest (Waiting on a Transplant)

     What does this year, this month, this week, this day, this hour, this second look like to you?

     Last piece of advice: set up win-win situations for yourself. Write for yourself and for others. Think about your ideal writing circumstances. Imagine your dream audience. Think about how you want to feel when you write. Your warm coffee, the morning sun singling out the tip of your nose. What might seem drudgery can take on the quiet beauty of meditation. Through your editing and rewrites, listen carefully to determine what you’ve written for yourself and what might be of interest to others. Practice so that you can get to the place where you are simultaneously writing for yourself and others. Even if your poem doesn’t win the $50, 000 Montreal poetry prize, you’ll have grown from that time on your own.

    To sum things up in the BASIC programming language.

10 PRINT “Live”;
20 PRINT “Read everything from chapbooks to Chaucer”;
30 PRINT “Write”;
40 PRINT “Laugh at your mistakes”;
50 GOTO 10 

In addition to the UK, the United States, Austria and India, Kevin Spenst’s poetry has appeared in over a dozen Canadian literary publications such as Freefall, Prairie Fire, CV2, Dandelion, filling Station, qwerty, and Poetry is Dead. His work has been shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and his manuscript Ignite has come in as a finalist for the Alfred G. Bailey Prize. In 2011, he won the Lush Triumphant Award for Poetry. In 2014 he is going to do a 100-venue reading tour across Canada with his chapbooks Pray Goodbye (the Alfred Gustav Press, 2013), Retractable (the serif of nottingham, 2013), Happy Hollow and the Surrey Suite (self-published, 2012), What the Frag Meant (100 tetes press, 2014) and Surrey Sonnets (JackPine press, 2014). Follow the chapbook tour at

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