Tuesday, January 21, 2020

On Writing #168 : Rae Kearney

Writing through fear
Rachel Kearney

How to write? No idea. I mean I know what works for me; I read and take long train rides. I am always thinking in poems, some are white noise as I stare out the window, others demand to be recorded and with urgency. There is no off button, but there is a choice to record them or not. I choose to, even if I think I’ll throw it away once I’m done. The habit of writing is addictive and instills a confidence in myself and my work. I have a whole drawer full of napkins filled with bleeding lines and mismatched pages. There is a special place in my iPhone notes app where poems go to die. The point is, it’s not a performative act. I do it because there is no expectation to crush my writing before it exists, no pressure from the strangers peering over my shoulder while I write in public. I do it because poetry brings me joy, and assigning shame to writing crushes creativity. I am in no way qualified to give you a step by step guide for writing (if one could even exist), but I can share things I’ve discovered through my own experiences that make it easier.

I recently sat down with a writing friend a few weeks ago, with the chance to discuss something other than school work. We were able to voice small life blunders and give each other some advice. My friend looked at me for a while, then finally said, “You need to relax and be brave”. I thought about that, and while the advice was meant for my personal life, it was even better advice for my writing. Every time I put my pen to paper it requires both these things: relaxing enough to let myself write without hyper-editing as I go, and being brave enough to know that work doesn’t have to feel finished or perfect for you to share it. Writing should never be self-conscious, or censored. In fact, it should be fun.

Relax by trusting the process. Some days I can write three complete poems, other days I spend hours writing long entries, exhausting what little creative energy I had to begin with. It’s all okay, there can be ease in the process and you can be in the process and not know it. I was stood up by a friend this summer and ended up sitting on a bench outside of Kensington, watching pigeons eat bread for two hours. This turned into a poem, and then a theme of poems followed. Sometimes the process is just stopping and listening. I often feel like observing other people’s lives is part of my job, and to do this, I have to do it objectively.

Be brave enough to say what you feel, and be brave enough to experiment with how you say it. It takes courage for me to share my unfinished work, but the lingering excuse of “it’s not done yet” prevents me from moving forward with my writing. A safe first step is to start with someone you trust, and outsource from there. Wherever it is, the process is important and hearing other people’s opinions are equally important. The best way to get people’s opinions is to read. Out loud. In front of strangers! There is nothing I am more scared of, than standing in a badly lit bar and reading my work. If there’s a microphone it’s game over. I didn’t know I could sweat through my elbows, but poetry readings have taught me that anything is possible. Going to readings alone can be scary, but worthwhile. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still awkward but be brave and meet new people. Their work may inspire you, or they might care enough to give you advice on your own.

You don’t have to sit down and write a novel, just start with a line. Writing is something that should bring joy and the advice my friend gave helped pull me out of the struggle I created. Writing is a choice and sometimes it’s hard but you are the one who chose to do it, so just get started.

Rachel Kearney is a writer from Toronto who is interested in the intersection of poetry and design. She is pursuing her Bachelor of Design with a minor in Creative Writing at York University. A chapbook is forthcoming from above/ground press.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Talking Poetics #9 : Barâa Arar

Imperfect poems

I am a person who is eager for answers. I am uncomfortable with ambiguity. I do not like feeling helpless. Yet it seems the world is full of questions, grey areas, and things outside my control. It is writing that helps me reconcile the world’s almost ineffable complexities and my craving for certitude.

Yet ironically, the enterprise of writing a poem is punctuated with uncertainty. Does this poem say what I mean? Did I encapsulate that moment, that energy, that feeling properly? In other words: does this poem capture my humanity?

Poems are objects, that is to say, they can be shared with a friend or stored in a book. But poems are also actors. Poems make us see one another; they help us feel the pain, the love, the suffering, the kindness of another. I repeat, somewhat ironically, in one of my pieces, “poems are not about politics; poems are about people.” When poems act, they allow us to empathize, to understand, and even perhaps, to heal. That is why I insist that poems are in service of both our intimate interiority and our shared experiences.

But how do we write such potent poems?

When I get confused or scared, I find solace in writing a poem. For me, a poem begins with something I know to be true. It can be an experience of fear, of love, of despair, of wonder. I get lost when I start writing about what “should” or “could” be instead of what is, and more specifically, what the world is like for me. For example, sometimes I start with the experience of a sound, like in a recent poem of mine: “my heeled boots hit the sidewalk— the metronome of our silences.”

I think of all the specific instances that make a moment special or magical or intense for me. I want my poems to feel grounded and rooted in something material. So I write: “I take it all in:/ the colourful Koreatown murals/ the demolished department store.” Then I like to juxtapose with a sentiment others might relate to: “I listen to your smile/ as you listen to me talk / about school / and friends/ and death.”

Many of my poems start in my mind – usually as a string of words– either that I said or heard. If I can, I write it down as quickly as possible because I will inevitably forget. I prefer to begin writing my poems in a notebook, not just for the aesthetics, but because I think we self-censor less that way. With a keyboard, it is easy to backtrack and to dismiss our own words. When I write with a pen and paper, I viscerally feel the writing experience and it supports my process more steadily. The free flow is sometimes jarring and I think: “wow am I really feeling that way?” I find it a useful exercise in introspection and authenticity.

I think poems begin as kernels of truth about my existence, but I often polish, curate, and even embellish them. That urge to modify our feelings and experiences in their representations is equally as human. We are not always proud of what we feel and how we experience. I think our inclination to hide or sanitize that reveals something about who we are as well.

I encourage everyone to write, especially in moments of anxiety or bewilderment. I have to constantly remind myself to write too. I have to remind myself that poems are not meant to be perfect and that is precisely why they are important.

Barâa Arar is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and community organizer. She holds a Bachelor of Humanities from Carleton University and is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Toronto, focusing her research on photography, gender, and colonial resistance. Her poetry and personal essays have appeared in Room Magazine, This Magazine, Canthius, among other publications. Barâa is the recipient of the Carleton Provost Scholar Award for community engagement and immersive research.   

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Talking Poetics #8 : Dale Tracy


At first I thought I pilfer things I say out loud for poems later. Then I realized what I said was already a piece of poem when I said it.

Writing down lines I say is not the only or main way I write, but I’m focussing on this practice because it highlights my interest in the borders of poem and world, the relationship between the writer and writing.

So I fixate on the two meanings of “poetics”: one, “the branch of knowledge that deals with the techniques of poetry” and two, “the creative principles informing any literary, social or cultural construction, or the theoretical study of these” (OED). Let’s say that I could find creative principles informing the forms of my poems and the forms of myself—in both cases, caught up in conventions, habits, and assumptions belonging to my larger social and cultural contexts and their inheritances and influences. What would it mean to apply the same principles of form to my life and my art?

If I sometimes think and speak in poetry when I’m not writing poetry, what is the difference for me between poetry and not-poetry? I know what I mean when I say that poetry “does” life (it performs or makes active an idea or experience or feeling), but what do I mean if I say that life “does” poetry?

I like to think that I am a poem (as Julia Alvarez, for example, has done before me), except that I don’t want to muddy things with metaphor. The poem is me (as much as a cut-off fingernail is), but I’m not a poem—I’m a human. Nevertheless, you can tell I’m getting into trouble here if I need to point out my humanness. Am I a poem? I make myself and a poem within the contexts that also make me and it. Like a poem, I don’t have a direct practical purpose—me and poems, the information we convey and the things we make happen aren’t pre-established and unswerving like an office memo or a stop sign. Like a poem, I have rhythms, the habits of the lines I walk, the ways I walk them.

Am I a poem? I ask unanswered questions in my poetry too. Reader, if you have any better ideas, I’ll be checking the comments section for help. Am I a poem?

Dale Tracy is the author of the chapbook Celebration Machine (Proper Tales, 2018), the forthcoming chapbook The Mystery of Ornament (above/ground, 2020), and the monograph With the Witnesses: Poetry, Compassion, and Claimed Experience (McGill-Queen’s, 2017). She lives in Kingston, ON, where she teaches at the Royal Military College of Canada.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Talking Poetics #7 : Pearl Pirie

talking (Ottawa) poetics

Running on the red line made for a lot of words. My emotional intensity came across but people often had no idea what I was saying. I write very little now, compared to before anxiety meds.

I used to be “sent” by anything; a phrase, a concept, a scrabble board word combo. I’d riff or recant who I was reading. I would search notes for a electrical pulse and connect up all the pulses, organizing by energy rather than (conventional) sense. I wrote to focus so I could hear just one train conversation at a time instead of the whole busy train station. To that end it did its work. I went intuitively impulsively against the currents of gravity wells I pushed this vessel to solid ground. I want to look at the how and why more than the what, what, what.

Whereas I was diverting a lot of energy to shields and to monitoring communications arrays, now I’m a cartographer.

Before, if I let myself write automatically, I feared it would reinforce the old ideologies I wanted to eject. Mechanical procedures of poetry were an out, to redirect and retrain the brain not to entrench along old easy paths. Even prepositional phrases were suspect because of all the grammatical branching hierarchies. Phrases, fragments, insistence on partial understanding, and process allowed the self to move freely, explore.

I used to worry that I’d lose vital inspiration in the shower or as I go to sleep, but a poem nags at me for weeks and I have to honour that with space and time.

I’ve become aware of how little I contextualize myself, how I jump in mid-way. I’m trying to use the potentially slower pace of writing to my advantage to work out what is relevant to convey. I aim to map what I want to carry forward with me, what matters to me and others. I write as a practice of mindfulness. I’m largely editing to understand what I wrote, 6, 10, 15 years ago. This substantive editing is a kind of writing.

I explore the loss of my father. A third chapbook length of that is underway. I explore the theory of mind of what my father’s experience would have been, now that I have the neural space to see past my own inner fireworks show. That involves a lot of working physically and letting understanding come vulnerable to me, then find words to chart so others can see what I saw and offer that.

Pearl Pirie’s 4th poetry collection, Footlights, comes in the fall of 2020 from Radiant Press. Her haiku and tanka chapbook, Not Quite Dawn, comes from Éditions des petits nuages in spring 2020. This chapbook of haibun, Water loves its bridges: Letters to the dead has another epistle with Eldon, letters (above/ground, 2019). She can be found on twitter at pesbo, and at her author site where she offers resources and conducts poetry courses at www.pearlpirie.com

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Talking Poetics #6 : Rusty Priske

When rob asked me to discuss my process of building poems, my first reaction was remembering what I told a fellow poet out in Lanark County – I have no idea how to write a poem. She literally laughed at me as by that point I had been performing for a while and had received a number of accolades for my work. I explained that I wasn’t claiming that I couldn’t write poetry, just that I didn’t know HOW I did it. I just wrote.

Of course that was an over-simplification. I DID have a process, it just wasn’t something I put a lot of thought into. These days, as I continue my move away from writing for the stage and more towards writing for the page, this process has changed and I continue to find what my new normal will be. As a spoken word poet (and especially a poet who concentrated on Poetry Slams), there was definitely a specific process.

I started with a topic, most of the time. Sometimes I started with an idea for a rhythm or a ‘gimmick’, but those were rarely my better poems. It had to be ABOUT something that I wanted to talk about.

Since I mentioned that I wrote for Slams, I should explain that a bit. For those who don’t know, Poetry Slams are competitions where poets get up on stage, perform a poem in under three minutes, and judges chosen from the audience give a score. This is absolutely nothing more than a hook to get people to listen to poetry, and it works (mostly), but over time the ‘sport’ of the competition has grown so that sometimes, to some poets, the sport is more important than the poetry.

This is why, in my process, it was very important to me that I ignore the competition aspect when I was writing. If I thought about the scores or what the judges would like I ended with bad poetry. Every time.

(Now, CHOOSING which poems to perform in competition, is a whole different thing. If the poem is written honestly, there is still an art to knowing what the judges will like.)

Once I had the topic, I just wrote the poem.

Which is nonsense, of course.

I often tell people that I write quickly. I would generally finish a poem – from the time the first word is written down – in under an hour. This seems incredibly fast, but it ignores that by the time I have written that first word, I have already done a bunch of advance work, in my head. I think about ideas on the bus, in the shower, on conference calls at work, wherever. My only rule was to not ‘write’ anything in my head, so I wouldn't feel bad when I inevitably forgot it. The feeling of the poem – and the general structure – would be there before I start writing.

One of the things about writing for Slam, is the timing of the poem. I always wrote all my poems in one of those steno-style notebooks (though I think they are not technically steno-style, because I wanted the cover to open to the left and not the top).

I found it interesting that when I wrote fiction (mostly when I was working on the Legend of the Five Rings story team for AEG Games), I wrote on the computer, but when I wrote poetry it was always longhand. I never gave that much thought. I just did it.

Also interesting to me, since I switched my focus to the written word from the spoken word, I have also changed that. I now write almost exclusively on the computer. Why the change? Unsure, though it does make editing easier.

When I first started writing poetry, I had the kind of notebook with a blue line down the centre, so I treated each side as its own page (which is why when you see my poetry written down, I tend to write very short lines). I learned very quickly, with my physical writing style (printing with fairly small letters), that three pages was three minutes. That was the space I had to work with. (Not an exact science.)

That also meant that edits were something I could do only with pen scratches and margin writing. I didn’t edit much at all. Part of this was the Allen Ginsberg style of ‘first thought, best thought’, but the other part was the fact that with oral poetry, nothing is set in stone. I do not have a deadline that says ‘after this, the poem is final’. Most of my real editing was done as I was memorizing the poem for performance. I would learn through that where the awkward phrases were and where things didn’t come across the way I meant them to.

Example: One of my first ‘big’ poems is called ‘Why Art?’ Originally there was a section in there that read something like:

That little feeling in the
Back of your stomach
The pit of your heart
Or around your brain
That tells you SHE... is the one

When I started memorizing the poem, it just felt awkward. I intentionally had mixed the metaphors, but  what looked like an intentional shuffle on the page sounded weird and garbled on the stage.

It became:

That little feeling in the
Pit of your stomach
The back of your brain
Or around your heart
That tells you SHE... is the one

So, I did edit, just not on the page. (Later when I was publishing some of these poems, I had to go back and make sure that what I had written down was actually the way the poem was in my head.)

I remember Kevin Matthews saying that the poem wasn’t finished until it was performed and while I agree with the sentiment, I would argue that it wasn’t finished even then.

I remember standing at the back of the Knox Hall during VERSeFest, with one of the feature performers, Mary Pinkoski. Mary is the former Poet Laureate of Edmonton, a former National Slam Champion, and a current incredible poet and good friend of mine. We listened as another talented poet (whose name escapes me), said during his reading that he had changed the ending of his poem a number of times but now it was published so he was stuck. Mary and I looked at each other and said, “Uh, no. If you want to change it, change it.” That shows a clear attitude difference between written and spoken word poets. Poems are alive. When I stop tinkering it is only because I am now working on something else.

But, as I said earlier, I have shifted to working more for the page. So now how do I construct a poem?

I have no idea how to write a poem.

I just do it.

My Creation Myth

Our reading tonight
Comes from the first gospels of Rusty

In the beginning there was an idea
Or the germ of an idea
A concept, a nagging thought
Or maybe a hook
Something that could be a poem
Or wants to be a poem
Or IS a poem yet unformed
And the desire to create is upon me
And I see that it is good.

On the second day there are words
Turning concepts tangible
From Air to Water to Earth
And hopefully Fire before going back to the Void.
Words tumble over each other
Forcing perception into meaning
Until they form prose.

On the third and fourth days
Come the rhythm and the rhyme
As the words fall into place
Into a pleasing shape
More palatable for the mind.
My body feels the beat
Of the words on the street
As prose becomes poetry
And craft becomes artistry
The poem flows from the pen
(Can I get an amen?)
But creation is not yet complete.

On the fifth day I learn the way to Carnegie Hall.
I go over the words
First memorize then learn
Gestures, movement, speech
Disparate parts of the whole
Until the poem no longer exists on paper
It lives in my head until ready to be shared
On the sixth day.

This is C-Day
Collaboration Day
Poetry ceases to be a solo affair.
There is me.
A mic.
A stage.
A crowd.
The poem is released from its prison
And unleashed upon the ears of the audience
The words enter and are transformed
Each is altered by the one listening
Until the poem has become ten poems
Twenty poems, forty poems, more.

And on the seventh day, I rest
Until there is an idea
Or the germ of an idea
A concept, a nagging thought
Or maybe a hook.
Something that could be a poem.

Rusty Priske [Photo by Erin Dingle] is the Spoken Word Editor of Arc Poetry Magazine and the President of the Arc Poetry Society. He was the long time National Slam Master for Spoken Word Canada and Slam Master for Capital Slam in Ottawa. His work has appeared in three books (most recently in Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology from Mansfield Press), on eight CDs, and in multiple issues of Oratorealis. He has performed poetry from Victoria to Halifax, including with members of the Vancouver Opera Company and as part of the Caravaggio exhibit at the National Gallery.

In 2018 Rusty was awarded the Zaccheus Jackson Nyce Memorial Award for his contributions to the Canadian Spoken Word Poetry community.