Wednesday, May 22, 2019

On Writing #163 : Amy Lauren

On writing through the wound
Amy Lauren



Years of tutoring from friends, football coaches, and professors could not solve the way my brain scrambles numbers. Until I said my final goodbyes to math after college, the subject was always a painful one. People often assume math skills on my part because I’m a professional musician, and musicians are supposed to be good at math, they insist. Sure, the two subjects intersect, and even a basic chord involves mathematical concepts. Those are truths with which I play, express, and improvise on a daily basis. But as much as I can approach mathematical principles, I’ll never be able to work with numbers. The explicit, objective language of math eludes me, a young woman with a graduate degree who has had to blushingly count on her fingers in front of her boss. As it turns out, she could never quite escape numbers.

In college, ever the cliche, I was no less a mental health disaster than any other music student. This was in the Deep South, and when a lesbian at a religious college complains of excess worry and sadness, well, nobody thinks to look any deeper than that. The problem is plainly visible, staring you in the face with sunken cheekbones from sudden obsessive weight loss. Numbers, and all that.

In the wake of traumatic events, faded collections of images holed up in my cells, resurfacing uncontrollably when I tried to eat or sleep. Thankfully, it’s not so severe anymore. But if you ask me to recall the details of my trauma, like "what exactly happened," memory fails and words escape. It is the same helpless feeling as when I try to copy down a phone number and write a 6 where a 9 belongs. I’m reaching for something I can’t grasp, like reaching into a wound and expecting to pull out a date and time.

But you came to read about writing, and here I am talking about trauma.

Writing poetry allows us express mysteries that we cannot articulate in plain terms. Nobody reads a poem to be told outright, “There is both beauty and sadness in the world.” Where’s the proof? But when you see two boys examining bones in the forest, the clues they unearth about the crime scene point toward the broader truth. Nobody reads a poem to be told, “Some things are too tough to be killed” with a line break here or there. But when you see the alligator crawling back from the edge of extinction and moss unfurling over an abandoned shack, then you may feel some approximation of the truth.

So writing poetry is like doing math. “Pi” is a number that is infinitely more than a number, but if even if we could know all its digits, the concept is still better expressed by a simple circle. Math and poetry both work from the same ideas of logic, of economic precision, of man-made languages. Both explain the universe with the help of our own imaginations to fill in the gaps, the unknowns.

There are many ways to suss out truth or, at least, pieces of it. Poetry does not demand explicit recounts of emotions, experiences, and stories, which perfectly suits the PTSD survivor who doesn’t remember what has happened to her anyway. Instead, she can point you to the ruler, the raised voices, the textbook slammed down on her knuckles. Then, the poet can solve a problem or beg a better question. Even an awkward first draft can at least prove a connection where she may have forgotten one existed.



A graduate of Mississippi College, Amy Lauren was a finalist for the 2019 Tennessee Williams Poetry Prize. Her chapbooks include Prodigal, God With Us, and She/Her/Hers. Her poems have appeared in publications such as The Gay & Lesbian Review with four Pushcart Prize nominations. She lives in Florida with her wife.

Friday, May 03, 2019

On Writing #162 : Lydia Unsworth


On Writing and the Self
Lydia Unsworth

past moments old dreams back again or fresh like those that pass or things things always and memories I say them as I hear them murmur them in the mud
SAMUEL BECKETT, How It Is


As with walking, there is only one place from which to begin, that being wherever your feet happen to be. I rise from the folds of my interior, a consciousness that began as a seed and expanded into this. Into hands that tap on a computer screen, attached to a torso that belongs to its environment, a head that is habitual and formed by how it is received.

My command, if I have command, comes out of this body, my ability (thus far) to persist. This body lives with me and I with it. You get used to each other. You familiarise yourself with your set of limitations, real, imagined, affected, believed in, and wriggle a little inside your veil of skin.

I am one hundred cats inside a soundproof cube with a hairline leak. Those cats disagree, fight, both with themselves and with each other, change their minds, howl, die, come back to life. I can’t see outside these walls, not with any clarity, not with all this noise in here.

The exterior feeds in, becomes the surrounding fields. A whine overhead, a newspaper headline, advertisements, words of wisdom, the glass shattering in a car window and the sirens that geyser from the scene. Imagine an already damp cloth sprawled out across the table, lapping up the spreading sea.

I’m a venus-fly-trap munching on my own leaf. From the lockjaw of iteration comes a kind of release. An ability to make certain movements, to walk a person through the rooms of one’s house and illume the debris.

Curtains of static and association filter the impressions coming in. You tune the station, fiddle with the channels. Catch a breath of pure oxygen, a swift in flight past an old barn beam.

Walls of tiny metal beads, like ball bearings, rain down in all directions. Each bead carries a small image, a sentence remembered, a name from the deep. And your body charges past, heading for the glimmer of light flickering off some stranger’s watch face as their feet scuff the threshold of the door as they leave. Beads in disarray, metal fragments reverberate like hail, the birdsong of disruption falling back into place. A nearly, a helix of just-missed steam.

Everything detours this way, for a second, a year, a day. And, as with walking, you grab whatever is within reach. Pick up a pebble on the beach. Pass it from one hand to another, admire its curvature, estimate its weight. Do you need it? Can you put it on a shelf? How long should that shelf be?

You juxtapose one thing with another, like a bower bird lining a nest. You select, compare, reconsider, throw away. You turn a thing over, pick at it, chisel. A slab of intensity, finessed, is left to harden. Complete, you step outside, and dance your ridiculous dance in front of the resultant array.



Lydia Unsworth is the author of two collections of poetry: Certain Manoeuvres (Knives Forks & Spoons, 2018) and Nostalgia for Bodies (2018 Erbacce Poetry Prize winner). She has two chapbooks forthcoming in 2019 from above / ground press and Ghost City Press. Recent work can be found in Ambit, Litro, Tears in the FenceBansheeInk Sweat and Tears, and others. Based in Manchester / Amsterdam. Twitter@lydiowanie  

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

On Writing #161 : Michael Turner


Oh Writing
Michael Turner


An invitation to contribute to an ongoing project is to first familiarize oneself with that project. I tell this to anyone interested in a life of writing. “You can’t just send the New Yorker your poems without having read an issue or two,” I said recently to an emerging writer. “Why not,” the writer demanded, “they pay more than The Fiddlehead!” When asked if the writer was familiar with The Fiddlehead, the writer burst into tears and confessed, “I can’t do everything, you know!”

To contribute to any ongoing project -- be it a magazine or an exhibition space or a concert series -- is to enter a conversation. Typically, this conversation begins with an idea or an event and, as it is added to, expands beyond the sum of its contributions. For the self-conscious vanguardist, expansion is a forward motion, where the medium is pushed ahead and its practitioners follow. Modernism was big on this (formal) gesture until it was outed in the 1970s as Modernity’s PR department. Humanists have their own idea of expansion, where inclusion (often to the point of affirmative re-inscription) is privileged.

My contribution to this project has more in common with humanist inclusion than it does with vanguardism.

A couple weeks ago I began preparing a talk for the Kamloops Art Gallery on the artist Samuel Roy-Bois, whose current exhibition explores how “architectural structures act as vessels for everyday objects,pointing to the ways in which human experience is inextricably linked to manufactured things and spaces and how the greater meaning of our existence is being mediated through things.” With Samuel’s proposition in mind, I went to my bookshelf looking for Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974), hoping that it might expand my talk, take it in a different direction. While looking I noticed Peter Culley’s The Age of Briggs & Stratton (2008), the middle book of his Hammertown trilogy. Pete often began his readings by telling audiences that it was Perec’s fictitious Hammertown that provided him with the title of his trilogy. For reasons I am never entirely sure of, Perec chose to locate his Hammertown in more or less the same place as Pete’s hometown of Nanaimo.

Flipping through Briggs & Stratton I thought about the first time I read its poems, recalling how so many of them were first published on Pete’s blog. And with Samuel’s proposition in mind (less its content than its form: a statement of a relationship between variables), I remembered thinking how odd it was that a book whose title was taken from a 100-year-old manufacturer of gasoline engines was filled with poems that could have only been written with (or at least accelerated by) an electrically powered interweb. Last week I shared these thoughts with rob: Have you thought about a project that asks non-Millennials to talk about how the interweb has impacted their writing? A couple days later rob emailed back to ask if I would write on this topic for his On Writing project.

An invitation to contribute to an ongoing project is to first familiarize oneself with that project. With that in mind, I clicked on the On Writing link rob included in his email and what came up was not a table of contents, per se, but a mass of contributor links bunched together like socks in a drawer. George Bowering’s contribution (09/2018) had “Oana” (Avasilichioaei) in its title, and because I know both writers and their work, I clicked on George and read:

We do not really need poems that tell us what the poet saw and how he can make figurative language to give us his view of those things. We do not really need language that is passed over the counter by its baker. Ms Ovasilichioaei is environed by language as she is by any world she enters, and when you read you don’t read her version––you are too busy negotiating the pleasant difficulty of her pages. If you run into one another from time? Well, what a nice thing to experience first thing in the morning. This poet offers no Frostian conclusions, but possibilities leading in all directions. Judith FitzGerald was right when she wrote that you can’t really read the poems, but you can sure experience them––and if you do not want poetry to lull you, you will want that experience.

This emphasis on experiencing a poem over reading it is a hallmark of Donald Allen’s New American Poetry 1945-1960 (1960) anthology, of which George and contemporaries Daphne Marlatt, George Stanley and Fred Wah are among its readers. That’s something else I tell those interested in a life of writing: if you want to write poems – if you want to participate in the conversation that is Poetry – read poetry, particularly the poems of your contemporaries. But how has the experience of reading poems online, versus reading them in Donald Allen’s glue-and-paper anthology, changed the way poems are written? Is something (necessarily?) altered in the haptic shift from book to notebook? Are we “closer” to our sources when we are writing a poem on the same device as the one we are reading from? Does this closeness imply an intimacy? Or is this closeness closer to a flattening, what Byung Chul-Han refers to as a “smoothing” when speaking of the consequences of a “transparent” society, where “everyone is so smoothed out and uniform that we only meet each other ourselves”?

The next name I clicked on was new to me. In Sennah Yee’s entry (04/2018) the reader is shown how procrastination is not a threat to her writing but, in the same way Han inverts what many believe to be a truism (transparency is not a freedom but an “auto-exhaustive” constraint), a generative activity (“In a twisted way, procrastination is how I am productive”). Yee writes:

I recently realized that I only write when I’m trying to avoid writing something else.

I started writing screenplays when I didn’t want to write a play. I started writing poetry when I didn’t want to write screenplays. I started “writing” found poetry when I didn’t want to write my “own” poetry. I started writing prose when I didn’t want to write any poetry.

This goes on for some time, and we let it, in the same way we let ourselves reach for a book that isn’t the book we are looking for or, like Charles Baudelaire or Walter Benjamin or more recently Lisa Robertson, we find ourselves taking the long way to the fromagier because something in our soul has encouraged us to do so. Han might find diversions like these exhausting, but for those careful not to take on too much, they can be a pleasing.

Elee Kraljii-Gardiner is another On Writing contributor (12/2016), a poet, editor, organizer and mother who invited me many years ago to participate in the Thursdays Writing Collective, of which she is a founding member. Elee’s contribution, entitled “Essay on Inclusivity”, begins with this:

My literary community in Vancouver seems to rotate around and on social media – or maybe that’s just my epicentre. It’s a question worth asking myself beyond lamenting writing time lost to gif giggles and memes. In truth, social media has enabled me to do far more writing and creating with other artists than I would have managed without the internet and it has given me an easy channel to connect with writers and editors with whom I can exchange thoughts and eventually, poems. 

Elee talks about the importance of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) in connecting writers and editors. Further on she notes how not everyone has equal access to its technologies – and therefore not everyone gets the “call”:

But their submissions may be sampling only one end of the pool of writers. Who is not part of the conversation?

Elee speaks plainly yet passionately about Collective members like Henry Doyle. In doing so, she brings more than Henry’s situation into her essay – she brings (with his permission) his words. Elee writes:

If a writer living in an SRO (https://dtescollaborative.org) can acquire a laptop they may not have the time, connections or quiet they need to figure out saving and backing up, a confounding experience for me even when I am rested, fed, focused and undisturbed. If belongings or housing aren’t secure, the writing isn’t either. Theft and damage of laptops or jump drives means losing novels, submission records, bios, author photos, literary CVs, manuscripts, editing conversations, journals – imagine all of that hitting you at once. Imagine it happening repeatedly. These practical difficulties in the writing life are a colander, straining the breadth and depth of voices from a fuller literary community. Award-winning poet Henry Doyle (https://vimeo.com/178824020), who periodically struggles with Wi-Fi issues told me on the phone, “It’s really hard to be out of the loop. I don’t know what’s going on or how to get in touch with people. I feel like I’m missing a lot.”

The last contributor I clicked on was Bruce Whiteman, a name I was only just familiar with, having read a book review he wrote for Quill & Quire a few days before. Rather than assess Michael Redhill’s Twitch Force on its own (specialized) terms, Whiteman states his preference for those poems that are “most accessible and least determinately clever.” How many times have we heard this? How many times do we have to read a review that suggests a poem or a painting or a video installation be “accessible” to an ostensibly unspecialized subject? As for the commissioning publication, if a poetry book that uses scientific language is submitted for review, would it not make sense to offer it to a poet/reviewer who shares that language – or at least a disposition towards it? I am sure if Christopher Dewdney or Sylvia Legris were given Redhill’s book we might have a review that extends beyond the connoisseurial.

Here is the opening of Whiteman’s On Writing contribution (08/2016):

I am neither young nor old, i.e. I am at that point where no one much notices what writing I do. Young poets deservedly occupy the limelight, or what there is of limelight for poetry in Canada today, they and the revered dead, who occasionally get statues erected to them in Queen's Park, near where the business of provincial governing goes on. The statue of Al Purdy stares at the statue of Edward VII.

Whiteman was 64-years-old when he wrote this. I know this because, as someone who also thinks of himself as “neither young nor old,” I looked up Whiteman’s birthdate to see how old I might be feeling. (He has ten years on me, so I feel better!) And yes, while I too think young poets deserve attention (young poets received much less of it before social media became the force it is today), I relate especially to what Whiteman says later, how he

began writing poetry out of emotional need: a confessional, a talking cure, a vague aspiration to shrive myself without help from anything or anyone save words and rhythms. It took a long time to figure out that that impulse often made for boring poems, whatever psychoprophylactic benefits it might have had. Sitting on the sunny deck of a summer cottage somewhere north of Toronto in the early 1980s, I decided quite consciously to give up that kind of poetry, and to try to open up my writing to something more encompassing than personal experience and private grief.

Apart from that “summer cottage” and those “psychoprophylactic benefits,” this is something I might have decided in my early-30s -- not towards a life-long poem sequence, as Whiteman has (or Pete, with his Hammertown trilogy), but the opposite: towards occasional poems, discrete poems, poems that suggest themselves through an ongoing engagement with new and unfamiliar spaces; poems that pull me outside of myself, to the point where they no longer come out of me, but through me. And in doing so turn me inside-out, exposing me to that which requires a different sense of being in the world. Only rarely have I achieved this state, but I keep trying. An ongoing project I hope to become more familiar with.



Michael Turner [photo credit: Brian Jungen] is a white man living on stolen Coast Salish land. He is, and will likely remain, part of the problem. His most recent book is 9x11 and other poems like Bird, Nine, x andEleven (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2018). He is currently an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Graduate Studies at OCAD University.


Saturday, April 13, 2019

fwd: June poetry workshop via VERSe Ottawa/VERSeFest with John Wall Barger

Poetry Workshop - The Underglimmer
sponsored by VERSe Ottawa/VERSeFest

Workshop Conductor: John Wall Barger
Saturday, June 8th, 2019:
2-5 pm, MacOdrum Library 583, (Archives & Special Collection)
Carleton University

Program Fee $40
Reduced Fee (for underemployed, students, seniors, or economically disadvantaged) $20

Workshop size: 12

Playful writing exercises and enthusiastic discussion meet in this engaging workshop by successful poet, John Wall Barger. What is the underglimmer in your poetry? The Japanese poet Bashō said that, if you succeed in leaving your ego out of your poem, “Your poem will well-up of its own accord when you and the object become one, when you dive deep enough into the object, to discover something of its hidden glimmer.” This “hidden glimmer” has been widely translated as “the underglimmer.”

John Wall Barger’s poems appear in American Poetry Review, Rattle, The Awl, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, “Smog Mother,” was co-winner of The Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fourth book, The Mean Game, is coming out with Palimpsest Press in spring 2019. He lives in Philadelphia and is an editor for Painted Bride Quarterly.

If you are interested in reserving a seat for this small workshop, please email the workshop organizer, D.S.Stymeist, President of VERSe Ottawa, (dstymeist@yahoo.ca).

Monday, March 04, 2019

On Writing #160 : Simina Banu


on pop
Simina Banu


            I’ve sat down to compose “on writing” many times over the past while, trying to come up with something insightful or purposeful about my own process — but I’ve come up short each time. The unremarkable truth is that I approach everything like a pop song.

            I moved to Canada from Romania at age five, English-less. Language was an enemy, a spring of anxiety and insecurity. My reprieve was sitting in the back of my parents’ Chrysler, listening to late 90s hits, hanging on to melody and rhythm in lieu of semantics. It calmed me to hear something as scary as language packaged in a familiar and non-intimidating structure. I could feel Celine Dion’s sadness in “My Heart Will Go On” even though I thought she was singing something about Hercules (?). This (in)experience of words washed into the rest of my life. Before I really started to understand the English bouncing on, off, and around me, I heard it — waves of sound bopping rhythmically and melodically all over the place.

            Years later,  having discovered poetry, my process remains sound-based — some sort of linguistic calamity banging around my head to convey an emotion I can’t name. After the storm, I try to rearrange the sound into something semantically and/or visually coherent. As a partial result, my writing is a strangely sincere fib: biased in its interpretations and re-expression of events and emotions, and detached in language — in the direction the language takes its own damn self. I’ll think a phrase fits the intonation and rhythm of an emotion, but the phrase is a lie. It’s something I heard on the metro, at work, in a podcast; I cut-and-paste it into the bass-line of a poem about lost love.

            My impression of the whole event aligns in part with Wordsworth’s, his view of poetry as a “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions.” At the same time, my struggle with the slipperiness and elusiveness of words once had me partial to Barthes’ whole “Author is Dead” conspiracy. I really enjoyed that idea for a while, being dead. It absolves all responsibility. I’d write something obscure, and let the reader’s interpretation take it where it may. You don’t like what I said? Fooled you! there’s no “I”! it’s all on you! language is a mess!
           
            Eventually, I came to understand the importance of accountability and intentionality, and of language as relationship, not as screaming into the void. Like any relationship, it takes a lot of work. I’m taking steps to combat my lifelong fear of meaning and the creative ways I’ve beat around it. My writing now comprises a balancing act between harnessing the arbitrary rhythm of words and an accountability to the meanings they hold in the world, their histories, and where I’ve borrowed them from.

            Whether Celine’s singing about Hercules or Jack Dawson, it’s still liable to make me cry. My poetry — like a pop song, like a traditional Medieval ballad —  aims to translate specific experiences into relatable universals, hopefully with new subtlety. In some way, these words are mine. In some way, they’re yours. We share them. More than anything I hope they can be a good enough soundtrack in this moment — for both of us.



Simina Banu is a Canadian poet. She is an outsider investigator of the oddities that inhabit the English language—from its strange punctuation, to its accidental musicality, to its meanings, unconfined by the structure of words, wandering and irretrievable. Her poetry has been featured in journals such as filling Station, The Feathertale Review, In/Words Magazine, untethered, and Otoliths. In 2015, words(on)pages press published her first chapbook, where art.