Wednesday, March 09, 2016

On Writing #87 : Ken Norris

Ken Norris

I think it would be strange to write the same way as a young man and as an older gentleman.

So I don’t. And couldn’t.

As a young writer I had a lot of strategies, routines and rituals.  In short, the act of writing was “a big production.” There was a lot of prep time. There was a lot of surveying and planning. There was a lot of thinking about what I wanted to write, and how to do it. There was a lot of delving into.

Now I look back on these strategies, routines and rituals and find them cumbersome and boring. But that’s okay—they intrigued me then, and they proved necessary. I had to talk myself into writing. I had to sharpen my technique. Like a ballplayer, I needed my routines and my superstitions.

So time was set aside, structured, rooms done up into writer’s spaces. And in those days I used to move every year. So every year I was setting up a new writer’s space.

Things began to change in the 1980s when I moved out of the room and into the notebook. Notebooks became where writing happened, and in some way they were distorted mirror images of printed books. If I was writing a book I should be writing in a book. Eventually, the book I was writing would come into being as the book that I had written. Actually writing by hand became really important. Now the magic was how the handwriting got turned into type. There was one book, One Night, that I wrote in a day and which was pretty much published fairly closely to the way that I had written it. So the handwriting just turned into type and the notebook became the printed book. That was the closest I came to perfecting the transformation from notebook to printed book.

As I got older I started to feel like I had less and less to say. Some writers interpret this as Writer’s Block coming to town. I didn’t look at it that way. I just interpreted it as a change of feeling, and as a change of feeling that was, essentially, untrue. For whatever reason, it was clear to me that the feeling I had that I had less to say was just a big illusion. What was really going on was that my psyche was resettling, re-situating, and the content of my poetry was changing.

Slowly, what I began to discover was that when I felt the most like I had nothing to say or nothing to write it was actually the best time for me to write. Because, perhaps, the established ego had nothing to offer, this meant that all of my other faculties and senses were free to operate. To make George Bowering happy I would say that I began to write with my less than conscious mind.

Jack Spicer talked a lot about dictation, perhaps because he didn’t want to take ownership for what he had written while drunk, or else he genuinely could not remember having written it.

But it wasn’t like that exactly.

Reading H.D.’s Trilogy got me a lot more comfortable with the oracular in poetry. That was good, but that wasn’t exactly where I was situated either. It was more like this:

Something always comes out of nothing.

For that is, in essence, what Genesis creators do: they create something out of nothing.

Also, I noticed a change in the density of a poet’s silence.

There is always something that can be written, but for the past five years or so it needs to come out of what I’ll call “the nothing space.” I write best when I am not thinking and when I am feeling nothing in particular.  Then poems just happen. They get borne out of the nothingness with almost no traces of the author attached to them.

The poem has no fixed subject and no real floor plan. It just IS. It gets written down and it just is. Maybe it has something to do with me. Often it doesn’t.

This past semester I was teaching Sylvia Plath’s poem “Tulips,” a rather bleak poem that I quite like. It is artfully constructed and heavily architectured. And Plath demonstrates so much authorial control. How I mostly write now is the exact opposite of “Tulips.” Often the poet isn’t even in the poem, never mind the room. Plath in her hospital bed is the driving intelligence of her poem. She fixates on those excitable tulips. My poetic consciousness tends to drift and wander, getting up to all kinds of mischief.

I think it is interesting that, when I was confronted with what many writers live in fear of, Writer’s Block, I decided that it was unreal and that it didn’t exist. Then the strategy became to sit down, disarmed and empty, an instrument of grace, and demonstrate that it’s unreal and doesn’t exist by writing a poem that disproves it. I have now done that maybe a thousand times, and it has become my current approach to writing.

Admittedly, I don’t know how well this would work if I were stuck on page 87 of a novel and trying to get further with it. But the great thing about poetry is that it can literally go anywhere without having to justify its activities at all.

After teaching Canadian Literature in the United States for the past thirty-one years, Ken Norris will be moving back to Canada in the Spring (Toronto). His most recent book is THE WEIGHT (Guernica Editions).

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