Friday, June 26, 2015

On Writing #64 : Laisha Rosnau

The Long Game
Laisha Rosnau

“So much has changed. And still, you are fortunate:
the ideal burns in you like a fever.
Or not like a fever, like a second heart.”

Dear Gossips,

The nominations were announced. I’ll have more
analysis later – all you need to know is this…
you’re happy.
If you’re well, I don’t know if living
up to expectation will make up
for the fact that we live in a world
where all could have collided.
But for those of us who love,
that’s where we find our delight.
Holy sh-t. More thoughts to come.
And don’t forget, it’ll be our only chance
of the year…
—a found poem excerpted from Lainey Gossip

So much has changed. It keeps changing, and still I find it easy-and-or-challenging to believe myself fortunate. One day I am deeply, plushly fortunate. Poetry lines the walls and there is a gleaming metaphor there – right there! Another day, piles of hardened snow are smattered with yellow piss and the letter at the end of the driveway says, “Sorry.”

But, yes, I’ll take that ideal that burns in my chest like a fever. Like a second heart and a pair of full lovely lungs, robust balloons who did not have a time in their twenties best referred to as The Lost Years. See how I romanticize those wasted years so that they begin to take on the soft form of a woman?

We dress up our past and send it down the red carpet, blind it with flashbulbs, then click through light-rooms forming Best and Worst lists. Or, is that our future?

True story: while watching a movie awards show, my son wandered in, asked, “Mommy, will you win an award like that one day?” Insert laughter here!

True story: not bloody likely.

True story: maybe.

My award is this. This life working in semi-isolation, semi-obscurity, riddled with self-doubt and daily tussles with existential angst. This life being called to arms and/or finding solace in words on a page, arranged just so. Of gasping and getting misty-eyed over the rhythms of the fevered second heart of another writer.

I’ll take it, this life, these doubts. Playing the very long game.

Literature, poetry – reading it, writing it – is a long game, indeed. Not for those satisfied with the relatively instant gratification of a regular paycheque, job security, or a dental plan. No, no, my friend. We’ve got our eyes on a distant horizon – that place where our poetry collections are award-winners, our novels are bestsellers, our memoirs made into films starring the tautest, glossiest embodiments of ourselves. How rosy is that distant horizon? So rosy! It glows! Squint. Can you see it? Nope? It was there but now the sun has gone down.

What role this envy, these pristinely unreasonable dreams?

Do accountants have professional envy? I bet they do. I should ask. One of my best friends is an accountant.

This is the belief to which I cling: That there are aspiring accountants out there who know which courses to take, that if they study hard and then study harder that they may one day pass the CGA, or CMA, or whatever it is. That once they do, they will have a job. A real one, with a nice paycheque and benefits. Right? I like thinking of those accountants, with their professionally cleaned teeth and gleaming new appliances. I really do.

This is the belief to which I cling: That there are aspiring writers out there who have no idea which courses to take, or if they should take courses at all or, rather, live harder, gentler, looser, with more depth and gusto so that they can pass this knowledge or heart, or whatever it is, into their writing. That once they do, they will not have a job. Are you kidding? They will have a way of life, a real one, not one that can be measured with a nice pay cheque and benefits. Right? I like thinking of those writers, with their neglected dental health and shuddering aged appliances. I really do.

I also like thinking about you, out there with me.

You, who responds to an email about doubt with, “just to catastrophize, what effect does tribulation – just for instance, as an extension of periodic rejections and insufficient income etc. – have on one's sense of legitimacy or commitment to go on working not only in the face of vast indifference but of immediate discouragement and oppression?” because you know that is just the thing to cheer me up. Truly. Then you mention Marina Tsvetaeva.

You, up there, up north, with whom I’ve been walking and carrying on a conversation for ten years now about writing and work and kids and how we cross bodies of water. How many kilometres we’ve walked together, most of those in our own damn minds. How good it feels to walk beside you.

You, who reads a draft and responds with an email that begins with the subject heading: HOLY CRAP!!! and this means something very good.

You, my writers’ group, spokes on a turning wheel, women who need the male gaze, male criticism, male domination in awards and tenure and what-the-f-not like fish need bicycles. You who work hard for pay, work hard for no pay, who raise kids and spirits and a little hell. Who are dogged in your craft, your art, your beliefs, your support.

You, who picks up every Lainey Gossip reference I put down. Who appreciates that gossip is as much about poetry and litratcha as anything else. And everything is.

Now is time for an epiphany, one about the writing life, the long game, the role of isolation and envy and friendship and wee morsels dangled from arts granting agencies and awards juries in navigating the way.

That epiphany is not forthcoming. I’ll let you know when my subconscious spits one out like so many seeds mucked in the juicy pith of fruit – or you can keep me updated on yours. Until then, let’s admit that we’re all a bit of a wreck. In our own writerly isolation, let’s make it collective. Let’s laugh about it, raise a festive drink or two. I’ll meet you in the lounge of the next literary event that we’re at together. We can hug and tell each other how much we love one another, okay?

As I tell my kids nearly every day: life’s not fair; that’s not the point. The literary landscape is not a flat one. Together can we agree to enjoy both the heights and the valleys? They are what make us who we are, yes? There, I found one, a kind of epiphany. Now, I’m going to keep my eyes on that horizon. I’ll will it rosy, smatter some dark clouds for texture, emblazon light-rimmed edges. Then I’ll go back to my fevered ideals, my second heart pink and plump and strong, pounding with words.

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.”
—Louise Gluck, October

Laisha Rosnau is the author of three poetry collections, most recently Pluck (Nightwood Editions, 2014), and the novel, The Sudden Weight of Snow (McClelland & Stewart). Her work has been published internationally and nominated for several awards, including an honourable mention for the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award, three times for the CBC Literary Award, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. Her first collection won the Acorn-Plantos People's Poetry Award. Rosnau is working on a novel about the artist Sveva Caetani. She lives in Coldstream, BC, where she and her family are resident caretakers of Bishop Wild Bird Sanctuary.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Recent Reads: Strange Fits of Beauty & Light by Karen Massey

Strange Fits of Beauty & Light by Karen Massey (above/ground press, 2014)

In a discipline where capturing the first draft is considered everything, the attraction to erasure poetry seems plain. A foundation is usually presented in pristine shape and becomes an immediate subtext (or talking-point) once the author has taken her scalpel to the work. But when that “first draft” is a smattering of Archibald Lampman’s sonnets, as it is in Karen Massey’s collection Strange Fits of Beauty & Light, that talking-point risks becoming clout. Lampman’s work tends to get more attention in high school syllabuses than Canada’s small press circles, so Massey’s choice brings a formal gravitas but also, curiously, hype. What angle will the erasure form reveal about Massey, let alone a populist poet such as Lampman?


Trees dream through me;
Sweet trees flower
Little notes of red heat all day

Source: “‘Sweet Trees,’ I Cried, In Plaining Dreams Astray”  May, 1885

What early poem “Red” suggests, with its nod to the compact serenity of haiku, is that Strange Fits of Beauty & Light has no big reveal, meaning none of the overt commentary erasure projects tend to convey through source material. And that first impression stays true over the next twenty-something pieces, all of them taking pensive glances at mortality, love and nature. Such themes advance the already timeless feel of Massey’s erasures, generated through strands of Lampman’s sometimes antiquated vocabulary and linked into cadences that disclose modern concerns: having enough time, responsibility and aging, among others. Nature poems like “Night Mist” and “Summer Night” hover as weightless oases around knottier entries about unnamed conflicts.

Alone, sleeping

A sad, beautiful dream
Came and fled
In slow soft ruin.

A so-so day comes pillaging
In wild harsh silent wreckage.

Source: “The Ruin of The Year”  1892 

A theme of persistence meanders these isolated poems, winding the occasional obstacle in search of a creative impulse Massey and Lampman can share. In “Prayer”, after Lampman’s “A Prayer”, Massey captures it, asking art to “smother us in light”. Elsewhere, she nurtures whatever gleaming she can and moves forward, undeterred:  

Now What

Sign me on
For a life of leisure
And broad hours:
To think small things,
To wander like the aged,
Weary and grown heavy

Source: “Knowledge” May, 1887

As promised by the cover image of Lampman among blocks of redacted space, Strange Fits of Beauty & Light seeks only to reassemble an exceptional canon of sonnets into new poems that delight on their own merits. In lieu of a hot-button subtext, this erasure work draws attention to its own discipline — namely, deep reading and really absorbing oneself in the words and possibilities of a text. Perhaps that is my own commentary, subbing in for the author’s lack of need for one, but I enjoy that Strange Fits of Beauty & Light simply responds to the universal themes Lampman formed his reputation on. In repurposing the feast that is these sonnets, Massey creates stunning appetizers that speak just as clearly to the wonder of today’s world.

Recent Reads: Shut Up Slow Down Let Go Breathe by Marcus McCann

Shut Up Slow Down Let Go Breathe by Marcus McCann (Dusie Kollectiv 8, 2015)

With ice-breaker “In Praise of the Sun-Cloud-Rain-Lightning Icon”, McCann gives a tongue-in-cheek tribute to our collective panic, a false idol to combat life’s unknowable odds — even when it comes to the weather. Absurdity has long been a crucial component in McCann’s verse and, with Shut Up Slow Down Let Go Breathe, the EJ Pratt Medal and John Newlove Award winner takes aim at overlooked elements of our workaholic lives, at once elevating our awareness of and reducing their real-time significance. 

I say elements because unlike the sun-cloud-rain-lightning icon, some of McCann’s targets have no concrete appearance. Take, for instance, how “Cover Letter” and “Resignation Letter” poke at the formal cloaks we don in pursuit of careers, with wry truths inserted at the expense of bullet-point skills. The workplace-approved vocabulary is further refined in “To Whomever Checks the Office’s General Email Account”, although its chrome sterility is challenged by a very human dysfunction:

"Among us one who tracks info at, office at, questions at

like a teen collects and doles out bowling shoes. Support
at. Dear madam, dear operator, if it concerns you,

a mix of thanks and unease follows me
like a hunter who doesn’t know his rifle’s empty.

Please administer to us who are angry, bratty, bored,
whiny, irregular, mentally ill, unusually inventive,

truly abusive or angling for a refund.
This is, all of us, virtually." 

There is no strict theme unifying this collection, although many of McCann’s critiques find unexpected levity amid the hum-drum rhythms of daily life. When unmoored from superfluous focal points, Shut Up… also abandons the office setting for “Funk from the Man-Man Cave” and “Use the Smallest Chainsaw Suitable for the Job”, two poems that seem to be talking about something other than sex, but then… aren't! Sliding between abstract imagery and abrupt directness, McCann’s metaphorical powers balance two interpretations with read-it-again stealth.

Occasionally I’m kept at a distance. Is the italicized line “lie down with snowboarders, wake up with fleece” a diss or an adage? I reckon it’ll take more than that to solve “Easy Living While Everything Else Moves” but at least I really want an answer. In McCann’s percolating verse of narrative strands and astute asides, sometimes the impenetrable bits are just as compelling. 

McCann’s humour tends to grab the spotlight and, in this collection, I cannot say if that’s because or in spite of how sparingly he exercises it. A poem like “On Not Being Able to Sing”, in which he describes his voices as a “puff of noise/ you can squeeze from a rabbit with all the melody of a poem/ about Marcus McCann written by Marcus McCann”, is a solo homer. But more often than not, the amusement in Shut Up Slow Down Let Go Breathe supports a more pervasive ideology — the transcendental advice of its title — and isolates the stress placed on certain conventions. Sticking with my baseball jargon, McCann’s more poignant offerings prove capable of going to bat with the same muscle as his comedic musings. In the imperfect snow globe of “Shores of One Island”, McCann reflects on the promise and restlessness of a day-trip; our expectations capsize a potential utopia. Although it isn’t as outwardly quotable as “On Not Being Able to Sing”, I’ll bet “Shores of One Island” stays with you longer.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

On Writing #63 : Arjun Basu

Arjun Basu

I am leery about trying to answer a question about writing that begins with the word “how” and I am leery about writing about my own process or about writing about writing in general because almost always I tell people that what I do is irrelevant to everyone that is not me, and that somehow there is a  kind of ruination implicit in answering this question, and I’m not talking about my ruination but the questioner’s and I care, I surely care about the questioner because I care about writing (note I didn’t say “good” writing because, frankly, who is to judge what is “good” writing and what is not?) and I want writing to continue, forever if possible, because now that we have the technology, why not? at least until something better comes along but here’s the thing: nothing better has come along, not even emojis, because emojis are a form of writing.

I am leery about speaking of my process – admittedly my process leaves much to be desired, but it leaves much to be desired to me and it is, or should be, irrelevant to you – because, like actual taste, meaning how the chemicals in food interact with our taste buds, process is personal, one of the most subjective things there is. There is nothing objective about my process because it is singular, mine, and shall be mine forever. Again, that word, but it’s my process and you can’t and shouldn’t follow it. Ever.

I am leery about writing about writing, just as I find, say, movies about moviemaking (or, worse, about a certain version of “LA”) or plays about the theatre itself, tiresome and closed to a lot of people, namely everyone (yes, there are exceptions because in the end a good story is a good story, don’t fill the comments section with examples of how I’m wrong, I was asked to write this not you). Of course, if you take this idea to its logical conclusion you would say I am advocating the end of Creative Writing programs everywhere and, no, that’s not what I’m doing, that is perhaps another essay, perhaps, but also perhaps not from me.

I am leery about telling you how I write because I will let you in on a secret: no two works are alike. Every novel/story/poem (I’m assuming this since I don’t write poetry) is different and each one demands a different kind of preparation and, yes, work, there is no other way around it, each piece of anything is of a new thing, a work that is independent, of itself, the similarity nothing more than words on a page.

I am leery about writing. It seems such an odd activity, the product of compulsion more than anything else, an act of brave foolishness, sure, or perhaps just foolishness, I don’t know, again, I’m just happy we have people foolish enough to write because there are certainly simpler things we can do, simpler ways of putting ourselves out there, simpler activities.

I am leery about anything to do with writing. Except reading. I like that. And I’m happy there are writers out there battling whatever forces they must battle in order to give their work to the world.

My answer to any question about writing that starts with “how” is “write.”

My answer to any query about “process” is “write.”

In the end, that’s all we have. Everything else is just window dressing. Or flotsam. The ooze of procrastination.

Arjun Basu's first novel, Waiting for the Man, was published in 2014 and longlisted for the Giller Prize. In 2008, he published Squishy, a collection of short stories that was shortlisted for the ReLit Prize. His stories have been published in many literary journals, including Matrix and Joyland. He also writes 140-character short stories he calls Twisters on Twitter (@ArjunBasu), which have won him a Shorty Award, lots of press, and a worldwide following. Arjun lives in Montreal with his wife, son, and dog.