Monday, August 19, 2013

On Writing #8 : Colin Morton

A Writing Life
Colin Morton

As a child growing up I wrote recreationally: long summer holidays in the backyard tent writing comic books and horror fantasies. I wrote to fill the days when all the other games had been played. Then – last year of high school – I got the vocation and became a writer. This was the identity I embraced, the one I aspired to.

            It was the 1960s. Society, I wrote, was an effigy. I crouched under the vulnerable roof beams of a suburban house and wrote fables of the post-apocalyptic poet’s passion as he sits – “starving, hysterical, naked” – amid the rubble of nuclear holocaust. Already sentenced to death by radiation poisoning, the poet refuses all aid, raging only for the page and the pen to record his last inspirations. His masterpiece is no less sacred because no readers may survive to appreciate it. Writer as cultural hero in the ruins.

            Fast-forward a couple of decades and there’s that anomalous character again – the writer sitting up in the dark. There╩╝s a job to get to in the morning, but a poem is in there somewhere struggling for survival, the messy room the death scene of many a story and poem before it.

            In those middle years, time was always short. I wrote after Tree readings or First Draft meetings till two in the morning. Wrote standing at the basement workbench after everyone in the house was asleep. Walked early to my desk in a government office and wrote for half an hour before taking up the day’s chores. My identity as writer had found its voice and it gave orders: Finish what you start! it told me. Get something in the mail today! Don’t self-censor! Get out there! That there is no one, or nearly no one, to read what is created with such urgency lends some pathos to the image, but the romantic gloss still gleams like coal.

            Jump cut forward another two decades and observe the writer no longer burning with the need to write but rather content in his work. Having made the bold move and quit the day job, I put together a living with writing at the centre and, surprisingly, time doesn’t rush to an end; it expands. And the writerly vision expands to fit. Whole days are spent in half-trances. The poems get larger in scope yet take form in a year or two, not gradually over a lifetime. Society may be an effigy, but it is on a slow burn. The writing won’t save it, even if it had readers, but even without readers it does something for me, something short of redemption.

            Looking ahead another decade or two, I can imagine writing as recreation again. Surely I will by then have answered my doubts about what must be told, what may remain unsaid. I will not be staying up till dawn for fear there’s another line to be added that may never have another chance to be born. I will have written poems instead of building furniture or serving meals, and that will be an okay thing to have done with my life, even if it is not that important to anyone but myself. And in the middle of the night one more poem might be circulating, gasping for air, seeking a chance to be.

Born in Toronto, raised in Calgary, Colin Morton has been writing in Ottawa for over 30 years. As well as writing ten books of poetry and fiction, he has performed his poetry on stage with musicians and artists, on audio recordings and in an animated film. He was publisher of Ouroboros editions and vice-president of the League of Canadian Poets.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Recent Reads: punchlines by Aaron Tucker

punchlines by Aaron Tucker

Published by above/ground press, 2013.

After a thorough reading of Aaron Tucker’s new chapbook, the follow-up to his bpNichol Award shortlisted apartments, I felt compelled to go visit my parents. That might seem like an odd reaction to a collection with poem titles like “what did the cowboy say when he found his dog was missing?”, but punchlines’ wallop lies moreso in somber, raw data than its comedic trimmings.

Hypertext warrants mention as an important component to Tucker’s poetic craft – he teaches digital literacy at Ryerson University – but the term also applies quite literally to Tucker’s wit. Poem “did you hear the one about the elephant on the crash diet?” is an encoded series of jokes requiring noun/verb substitution. Elsewhere, he goes so far as to include a poem composed entirely in HTML markup, navigating key themes from punchlines as a sort of syllabus on the hilariously titled “what’s wrong with me?”.

As evinced by his take on evolution (“what do you get if you cross a monkey with some egg whites?”), Tucker takes pleasure in the absurdist view of recognizing that the meaning we seek in our lives is intangible, unattainable. It’s this existential humour that provides the cornerstone of punchlines’ yearning subtext. Here’s “what did the Twitter say to the Facebook?”:

we propel hyperlink from space to space linger long enough to be
terrified + continue
without ornament unaware of external things.

(137 characters)

This dozy indifference between online avatars and real life is something Tucker engages with constantly, whether tossing a “hyperlink” into the melatonin dream-space of “where do fish sleep?” or surveying the impatience and uncertainty of real-time, physical travel in “when is a car not a car?”. In “when is a turk not a turk?” one of these avatars is even modeled as a small man living in poverty, alone but without complaints within Tucker’s smartphone!

Trapped in Tucker’s careful code are recurring themes that alternately feel quite tangible. Montana seems to be real as well as the death of Tucker’s father; both of which are detailed with surreal potency in “why was the camel unhappy?”, a closing poem that necessitates an immediate re-read of punchlines altogether.

One disadvantage to being digitally illiterate is that, several times through now, I’m still theorizing on parts of punchlines that confound me. No matter. The distinct layers of Tucker’s poetry promise a beguiling read that flourishes under the microscope. And if it makes you call your parents, all the better. 

Except from “what month are we?”:

that extreme excess of search terms + status updates
as uncontainable as old couch springs
grain of splinters mixes with cotton stuffing
a desk a set of drawers | | metal of lawn chairs
jut into footholds + the neighbourhood
races each other to the top grabbing spare cushions
always one shelf from summit

we stealthy emerge each night
take one object back for ourselves
reupholster it in French

Friday, August 09, 2013

On writing #7 : Pearl Pirie

Use of Writing
Pearl Pirie

What is writing good for? Writing is not a direct path. It may be a lousy strategy. When there are better ones, the point is to get to goal, not to make poetry a gofer. It's not as if poetry will stop unless it gets time to play dress up by the couch. It's the boy scout that will carry indignant middle aged men across the street, given no assignment at all.

Writing is not a gentle-handed masseuse. it is not a therapist of the under(cash-economy)employed but it may play that role in the wee hours with the blinds down. is it pre-prayer?

Poetry might not only be perceptive. It might be another perceptual organ. It feels outwards for resistances and bliss routes, fumbles to retrain the damaged bits and restrain the oafs from smacking their over-energetic limbs into passersby in their clumsiness. Perhaps writing is a parent to the other selves, guiding, caring, adding its higher vantage point or offbeat blown raspberry.

It is there to turn a knotted gut and a deep muscle cramp and resistance into a listening "what?" and a "you seem to mean this" and to discern the difference between calamity and calm and the forced carl of hoping the angel of death will mistake me for a rag mat and keep on going.

Sometimes writing comes easy, sometimes hard. When the body/mind/poem is spent, I leave it. reread it, re-edit. A b.s. buzzer may go off, but at least the body is released from its pent and we can start, body and I. The preliminaries are out of the way.

If you can stop, do. I made my first chapbook in primary school and two more in high school and mostly beavered away thrashing as emphatic as a mute signing to the blind for the next few years. 15 years or so in, I pulled out an exacto and cut myself out from behind a bit of wallpaper and actually talked to some poets, in person. It's fine to talk to yourself. Even helpful to keep the crazies away if you look crazier than them. But writing comes into its glory when it communicates.

I want to make poetry for long enough to begin to not just change stylistically, but improve. Was it Marcus Aurelius who said to make a better poem, you have to live and be a better poem? That confines to incremental increases.

In the preface to Changing on the Fly George Bowering observes how it's pretty common for people to write poems, because someone died or they had a big experience. What's distinctive? "It's just that most people never try to write better poetry; they don't read books of poetry that will teach them how to do it. Even many ones that do drop out early. I have known young poets who write the best lyric poetry of our young years, and then went on to other line of work".

Writing has its focus in reading. Reading is more efficient than going to readings, as useful as it is to talk with colleagues, or have an evening outside one's head. But listening to poetry is like getting written instructions or having to watch a video for them. I can take reading at whatever pace I need for my uptake by similarity to what I know and my energy. I can change streams mid-phrase or read for 5 hours. Why I am I telling you this? You know.

That community to communicate with may be the crowd within trying to sort itself, or shout other parts down. Poetry may be taught articulacy and so instruct the rest of the mob who doesn't give whit for letters but can use the insights into how human nature or nature operates, all the little cause and effects.

Writing is I suppose a sort of companion, to build a better self, to try out ideas, think through words where they are on a digital or physical page. Out there they can be manipulated. They have more solidity when they have sound than when they are just restless pacing in one corner of the mind's busy square.

It's important to me not to let poetry stray too far into making nice stories or florid runs of descriptions without a point. Writing needs time apart to listen and synthesize but it also needs other minds to complete it. It needs a reader to refine how to say things so that it can hook. Unless your internalized ideal readers are so accurate, or your articulacy so great, that you no longer need to touch ground with real people anymore.

I want to make a poetry that I want to read, and that others gain from reading. I want poetry that is alert enough to quip, self-assured enough to joke and sit in stillness long enough to discern the necessity of both play and the essence and wisdom and underpinnings from the general noise and dross. I want poetry that shows me something specific that I didn't know before that is true and said with skill. I want to make a poetry that models for myself how to be with others with compassion despite. With comprehension despite. With thriving despite.

Pearl Pirie authored two poetry collections been shed bore (Chaudiere Books, 2010) and Thirsts (Snare, 2011) and various poetry chapbooks. She has given workshops and since 2009 has run the Tree Seed Workshops. She has phafours micropress out of Ottawa, Canada. She is working on a few manuscripts, or rather, they are working on her.