Monday, December 14, 2015

On Writing #80 : Mike Spry

On Writing
Mike Spry

Whenever I hear a writer asked about their process I’m reminded of Dennis Miller, who once wrote something like, “The two things I care least about in this world are other people’s dreams and other people’s orgasms.” Sucks to be his wife, I guess. I don’t care about other people’s dreams either; I mean their involuntary occasions of the mind not their aspirations. I like aspirations. But I don’t care about other people’s writing processes. I don’t mean to be dismissive of other writers. I’m sure people who say they get up at 7am, write 2000 words, walk the dog, read some Dostoevsky, write another 2000 words, then don’t watch TV are comfortable in their lies. I’m sure they’re nice people on the inside. It’s just that writing is so personal, and contextual, that to share a process as if it was a universality is folly. To me, anyway.
I suppose I could tell you what I don’t think should be part of your writing process, though that would seem like a long list. Off the top of my head, and for brevity’s sake, I’d suggest to avoid:
·         Posting on social media that you received a grant
·         Sharing your daily word count
·         Using the #amwriting hashtag
·         Listening to other writers’ advice
But, of course, if any of those things work for you, aces. Except the grant thing. Gloating about getting a Canada Council grant is like bragging to the cashier about your scratch-and-win skills after a successful $3 lottery effort.
There are a few things that worked for me. Drinking did, until it didn’t. Smoking did, until it didn’t. Being unhappy did, until it didn’t. Love works, until it doesn’t. Living in Wakefield worked well for my last book, but I live in Amherst, Massachusetts now and that’s working fine too. I always wear shoes when I write. I drink tea as opposed to coffee. I like being in a crowded room where I don’t know anyone. Thesauri are helpful. Dictionaries are overrated. Never underestimate the literary acumen of a good bath.
But, as with the above, my writing process is about avoiding bad habits. But, so is my eating process. And my loving process. And my driving process. And my… you get it.
There are certain things that have greatly helped my process. Good editors are invaluable. Someone you can email a text to and get honest, quick feedback from. Deadlines are helpful. When something needs to be done, the motivation tends to manifest itself. Money. Money is good. I rarely write as well as I do when there’s money at stake. My wife recently bought some houseplants, and I like writing around them. Come to think of it, a wife is good too. Nothing accelerates and informs my process like 5’4” Turkish-Canadian woman yelling at me.
If writing processes could be easily explained, or transferred, or marketed, then there would be no need for university creative writing programs, and then where would all the writers find income? Which reminds me: Income is good. Get one of those.
My process comes and goes. It works and it doesn’t. I like it though. I like that it’s fluid, and that I don’t feel beholden to it. I don’t owe it anything. A writing process is an open marriage. And as anyone who has ever been in an open marriage will tell you: Don’t brag about your Canada Council grants.

Mike Spry has written for numerous publications including The Toronto Star, The National Post, MTV, and TSN. He is the author of JACK, Distillery Songs, and Bourbon & Eventide and has been shortlisted for the A.M. Klein Prize and ReLit Award, and nominated for the Journey Prize. He lives in Amherst, MA.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Recent Reads: Culls by Roland Prevost

Culls by Roland Prevost (above/ground press, 2015)

Although bookended by poems about a tropical escape, Culls is less preoccupied with contrasting locales than it is balancing an inner conflict: fear of some unknown malady and gratitude for the presence that fear has made possible. The threat posed at the outset of “Seeds, on Rock Again” has no concrete form but Ottawa poet Roland Prevost ensures the stakes feel real: 

"Stand. Stare at the dry ground where
nothing grows. Crossed fingers hide
inside pockets. Last glass bottle of cold
water soothes a final parched throat. Enough
to fuel a desperate play. One meant
to unhinge. Either us, or these locked doors."

This early stanza, which structurally resembles about half of Culls, marks a notable shift for Prevost, after Singular Plurals (Chaudiere Books, 2014) constantly stretched, tightened and fractured its lines on an impressionistic metric. Here the relative directness affirms a sense of urgency, of basking in each fleeting moment. Prevost engages the natural world for solace and interprets an experience with a dragonfly from two distinct vantage points. From "Grounded to Airborne":

"The sepia colour of memory, too long
from the darkroom bath. A dragonfly close-up, 
my solitary index offered as a perch. Its seeming
friendliness, ad hoc, filled-in. As with all fictions.
Willing fools, we cram every blank space with connection." 

And an excerpt from "Knack to Promise":

"Rust string spun transformer-like round
my bent index anchors your paper flight;
a dragon less tyrannical. Many wishes tax
the voltage of your Talisman powers,
from this place. Mine’s to know what you know.
Minus the pompous tones, I mean. I’m in a mood 
to hear simpler godly things. Hard decades spent
asking, as against your easy millennia. Fruits of this."

In both poems Prevost attempts to reconnect with his mystical state but the natural world is either supplanted (by a photograph) or mechanized (through the “transformer-like” reenactment of a long-gone moment). Progressing from resignation in the former poem to openness in the latter doesn’t necessarily yield new results, but it does see the frustration of unattainable knowledge convert into a calmer, personalized faith. Wisely, that faith — much like the threat that spawned it — is conveyed more through feeling than exposition. And as this excerpt from "Crabdance Lessons" suggests, a change in perspective can be metamorphic:

"When riding on these waves

it's the view not the world

bobbing up & down"

Through doubt, superstition and joy, Prevost's subtle pacing toward self-discovery forms the heart of Culls. By the time a suite called “Five Cuban Poems” completes the chapbook, each a recollection of sun-kissed imagery and weathered textures, Culls has earned its newfound peace. 

Recent Reads: The Destructions by Amish Trivedi

The Destructions by Amish Trivedi (above/ground press, 2015)

It seems paradoxical to describe Amish Trivedi’s The Destructions as both sharp and blunt. Scenes of visual memory flash out from a vague, romantic crisis. Using brevity to skirt what reads like a complicated relationship, these minimal arrangements isolate precise emotions at the expense of any greater context. In some cases this paradox translates into original perspectives of universal themes. In other cases it mystifies.

The “destructions” I find most rewarding tend to be provincial to the self, a portion-taking of agency or ego in favour of some erotic pleasure:


I stepped in
a flood
    for you:

decided to be
a cherished sacrifice
    in this moment

feared and rejected.

And yet other instances feel wholly, well, destructive, the loss of agency coupled with heartbreak:


In another set
of moments,
    in silence
    this schism

is burnt and
delusional and
    digestive and


These groupings may feel rudimentary — like semantics of what it means to be selfless — but Trivedi’s motifs reinforce them: poems that suggest sensual giving are loaded with water imagery whereas poems focused on time denote a wasting away. The “soggy plastic / bags run over / in the parking lot” set the scene for “a pair of / wet excited thighs” in “Destruction (4th time around)”. By contrast, “95th Destruction” confesses: “I’ve been here / four hours / lying on / the ground / pretending to / laugh or / be dying.” The passing of time amid a physical coma creates slow-boil tension.

While it’s clear that my imposed groupings hinge on a break-up  its friction and fatalism are as distinguishable as water and oil  that traumatic separation-point is tough to pinpoint. As such, The Destructions nixes an obvious narrative for a mixed chronology, fitting these poems together like splintered glass. The collection’s a bit of a dead bouquet, in that respect. But for readers coping with their own turmoil, Trivedi’s verse may thread a worthy catharsis.

Friday, December 04, 2015

On Writing #79 : Dina Del Bucchia

OMG. Watch TV!
Dina Del Bucchia

I don’t believe in unsolicited advice. It’s kind of like someone punching you in the face out of the blue. You didn’t ask for it and it probably didn’t feel very good and now everything is uncomfortable and weird and you don’t know what to say.

But a lot of times when people talk about writing they are really telling you what to do. Like, turn off your Wi-Fi while writing or go to a coffee shop at a certain time every single day like you’re going to a boring day job or spend money you don’t have on a desk in some shitty building across town so you can have your own space to write and your own taxing commute. Or what not to do. Like, don’t check social media, don’t read the comments, don’t watch TV. Don’t even think about it!

You’re reading this, so I’m going to assume this advice is solicited. And you can take it or leave it. That’s the kind of thing I’m into. You do you. So, here goes. Keep your Wi-Fi burning up. Look things up online and go down rabbit hole tangent after rabbit hole tangent. Watch videos of otters holding hands and read the comments. Don’t unfriend those gross people who are offending you on Facebook. Stalk them and see what sticks. Study a rom com on Netflix and write a poem about it with a friend. OMG. Watch TV! As much of it as you like. Even if you’re into those shows about building decks that I watch if I need to induce a nap. I still respect you if you’re into that. TV is TV is TV.

Take the advice and ideas that appeal and the others can GTFO of your brain to make room for more and better ideas. And don’t punch people in the face.

Dina Del Bucchia is the author of Coping with Emotions and Otters (Talonbooks, 2013), Blind Items (Insomniac Press, 2014) and Rom Com (Talonbooks, 2015), written with her Can't Lit podcast co-host Daniel Zomparelli. She is the Artistic Director of the Real Vancouver Writers' Series and dress enthusiast who lives in Vancouver.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

We Who Are About To Die : Robert Swereda

Robert Swereda is the author of Signature Move (Knives Forks and Spoons 2015) and re: verbs (Bareback editions), as well as four chapbooks: bloom circuits, Capture, chicken scratch and ionlylikeitwhenitrhymes.  His writing appears in Canadian and international literary journals.

Where are you now?
I’ve been in Victoria, BC for 2 years now, though I like to roam around on adventures.

What are you reading?
Crash - J.G. Ballard

Scorch Atlas - Blake Butler

Tres - Roberto BolaƱo

Walden & Civil Disobedience -Thoreau

What have you discovered lately?
That I'm not motivated by higher education and working a job is stupid so I'm confused what direction to follow.

Where do you write?
Places quiet and caffeinated

What are you working on?
A 3rd manuscript of poetry. A collection of fiction based in rural Alberta. A collection of visual poetry.

Have you anything forthcoming?
According to Submittable, no.

I just published a digital chapbook though

What would you rather be doing?
napping, fapping, smoking, eating. Mostly napping.

.:. albertan bodies

paddle cold elbow elkwater ghost 
whirlpool snaring rocky fiddle battle sylvan muskeg

headwall hidden pembina
saddle spirit westprairie pelican house 
buffalo belly smokey spray

moose peerless pigeon sand
whitemud heart bow panther
badheart sterling rosebud

 wolf meadow primrose skeleton
goose sulphur powder coal sturgeon kananaskis

 driftpile swan
thunder vermilion sunwapta chip
bighorn gull lobstick

birch horse abraham beaver keg
athabasca spruce slave raven clearwater

crowsnest castle
blindman calling cardinal peace jackpine
wolverine pyramid

snake-indian highwood 
hay milk death garden sheep lesserslave redder

 elk baptiste medicine barrier oldman cascade ram redwater

Monday, November 23, 2015

On Writing #78 : Michelle Berry

On Writing
Michelle Berry

It’s that image, isn’t it? That picture in your head that forms crystal clear. The characters gathered together or apart, thinking or talking or fighting or making love or dying. So close you can see the hairs quiver inside his nose. So close you can feel the heat coming off of her. You can smell his body odour –  a not unpleasant garlic from last night’s dinner. You can sense she is about to pinch you. And then the words form, after the image, the words that capture the image. They don’t work at first, you struggle to get them on the page, but then they come quickly, they flow like a river, rushing over your fingers as you type. Sometimes you can’t keep up. That image, you follow it, watch it, move with it, turn your head to see it, you listen carefully. And then you turn it into words and sentences, into dialogue and laughter and chatter, into screaming rage and howling wind. When they talk quickly, back and forth, it’s like tennis sped up and you duck catching the volleys, often missing the volleys. Save that for editing. Because editing isn’t only taking out, it’s putting in, structuring, moving around, misplacing, and finding again. Words. Images. Scenes. Sentences. Letters. Add an “s” and everything changes. Change the tense and the world shifts.

It’s funny that the image is clearer some days. Other days it’s milky or blurry or watery. You see through a veil. Once in awhile it’s in Technicolor and you know exactly what is happening and keep track of it all, even that blown piece of litter heading down the street when your character turns to leave her mother at the edge of the park. You see both the character and the mother as they walk away, separately, the mother into the dark wilds, park full of pickpockets and murderers and rapists, you see your character moving into the light of the city. And then snow starts to fall and you are cold. How can you see both at the same time? You don’t bother to stop and think about it because if you do, if you for one little minute stop. And think. You’ll be distracted and the image will “poof,” disappear. Go up in smoke, like the character who has left her mother to certain fate, as she walks quickly over a subway grate and the steam rises to meet her.

How do you write? Speak on writing. Write: on writing. Say what you will. You can never fully explain it. There are times you come close – watching TV in your head, following characters as they move, staying with them, watching watching watching. You are a passive participant in this game. But more times than that no one understands. Because how can they understand when you yourself can’t even understand? You teach writing and are stumped by questions. “I find dialogue hard,” she says. “How do you show, don’t tell?” he says. You give them a line or two you’ve picked up from someone else, a line or two that has worked before, that seems to ease their tension, and then you go home and think, “I don’t know how I do it.” And “most of the time I’m not even sure I DO do it.” And when you try to explain even more than the magic disappears for you because you are overthinking it, wondering it, worrying it. You know it’s the same for every writer, and also different. There are no tricks, there is no one piece of advice.

It just happens. It’s that image you see. On good days. Sometimes on bad days. Beautiful people, horrible people, angry people, happy people, sad people. They are solid, standing in front of you, and you just have to reach out somehow, with your mind’s eye, and touch them. You have to get to know them carefully and slowly until they become even more solid, until you can see the back of him as he walks away from you, until you can see the small bits of dandruff on the lapel of his coat, the scuff on the back of the right shoe where he stepped down heavy when he was getting off the streetcar, until you smell his garlic as he walks quietly and carefully into the park following the mother. You know you’ve got him, you see him, when you suddenly feel the itch on his neck before he even reaches up to scratch, when you feel the chill come over the mother who is crying because her daughter wouldn’t walk her home.

On writing. The magic. The beauty.  The  terror of losing it. The horror of presenting it. But then these characters turn back most of the time, as they walk deeper into the park, or into the city, they turn towards you who are scratching and typing and buttoning up your sweater, and they look you in the eye. Solidly.

Michelle Berry is the author of three books of short stories, How to Get There  from Here, Margaret Lives in the Basement, and I Still Don't Even Know You (which won the 2011 Mary Scorer Award for Best Book Published by a Manitoba Publisher and was shortlisted for the ReLit Award, 2011), as well as five novels, What We All Want, Blur, Blind Crescent and This Book Will Not Save Your Life (which won the 2010 Colophon Award and was longlisted for the ReLit Award, 2011) and Interference (which has been nominated for the Silver Fachion Award, Nashville, 2015). Her writing has been optioned for film and published in the U.K. with Weidenfeld & Nicholson. She is also co-editor with Natalee Caple of The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writerswhich is based on the famous Paris Review interviews -- and has collaborated on an art book with Winnipeg artist, Andrew Valko, called, Postcard Fictions. Michelle taught creative writing at Ryerson University, was on the board of PEN Canada and the authors’ committee of the Writer's Trust and served as Second Vice-Chair of The Writer's Union.  She presently teaches online for The University of Toronto, in-class at Trent University, and is a mentor at Humber College. She is a contributing reviewer for The Globe and Mail.