Monday, April 25, 2016

On Writing #92 : Ashley-Elisabeth Best

The Hard Remainder
Ashley-Elizabeth Best

            I'm reading through a poetry book, making notes, notes that will eventually turn into a poem. As I write this I am overwhelmed with anxiety. Recently I have been having difficulty writing, trouble putting words together in the right order, of making the meaning I want to make. Writer's block? Maybe. More likely, as in the past, it's the new medication my psychiatrist has me on. For the past four years, every six months or so, I try a new regime of medications in the hopes that it will be more effective in helping me to live with Type II Bipolar. With every new regiment of medication I have to relearn how to write. At least that's how it feels. Last September I was on a medication that made me forget how to spell most words, how to speak fluently and most disconcertingly whole words altogether. It took me a month to figure out it was the medication hindering my words.

            There was another medication two years ago that made me gain twenty pounds and sleep constantly. When I was trying not to sleep, I was writing. There were times I stopped taking the pills to be able to write. Those were desperate decisions made badly. My writing life is not my own in many ways. It's governed by emotions I don't know I'm having until someone else tells me, by medication meant to chemically help me process said emotions and the faulty wiring in my brain.

            I won't complain too much. I can usually figure it out after hours, days, and sometimes months at my desk. I have to trust it will come back. Writing soothes a part of me I don't have access to. I grew up in a house with few books and many siblings. I remember loving to read as a kid and wanting to write a book into existence. There was never time for writing then, not until I moved out. Helping my mother raise four kids left no room for anything other than immediate problems. Those years are lost to me.

            Sometimes I try to quit, to stop analyzing myself.

            I ride the bus a lot, across the country westward as far as Edmonton and once as far south as New Orleans. I get some of my best ideas on Greyhound Buses. I'm able to get at a more honest conversation with myself, something unlocked from the cage of my body. I can practice being unknown, being a better me, a healthier me. Somewhere in Kentucky on that bus to New Orleans I decided to stop trying to understand the mess of myself. Instead I pulled out my notebook and wrote what I could by hand, toward my destination, towards my own well-being.

            It's embarrassing to discuss with other writers. Often I say I can't write but not why, which leads to all sorts of condescending advice. Well intentioned but not very helpful.

            Now I've opted for a simpler, quieter life. I'm able to read without children screaming around me, I can set something down and know it will be there when I return. I like being accountable only to myself. Sometimes time opens its expansive mouth and swallows me whole.

            I have absolutely no advice for anyone else. Well, maybe one thing— read! I'm too busy pushing my own thoughts through the medicinal fog, gathering whatever I stumble upon, scratching it down before depression or medication reclaim it.

Ashley-Elizabeth Best is from Cobourg, ON. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in CV2, Berfrois, Grist, dusie, Ambit Magazine, Glasgow Review of Books, Lumina, and The Literary Review of Canada, as well as a chapbook through above/ground press. Her debut poetry collection was shortlisted for the 2015 Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry and appears with ECW Press in 2016. She lives and writes in Kingston.

Friday, April 15, 2016

On Writing #91 : A.J. Levin

The Curse of Writing Poetry
A. J. Levin

Sane people don’t choose to write: especially poems.

Think about it. Why would well-adjusted people write about something when they could be doing it?

And why, of anything, poetry, with its total lack of commercial appeal?

Sure, it’s popular to want to be a writer. People are seduced perhaps by romantic images of authors as wealthy flâneurs, or freewheeling unconventional partiers à la Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But then, Mr. Thompson blew his own head off.

The Muse is not a friend who comes over for coffee and leaves once you start dropping hints.

The Muse is a poltergeist who appears unbidden, and who stays for unpredictable lengths of time, lumbering you with conditions. And then, after the inspiration, the work: editing, pruning, shaping, massaging.

Yes, the impulse to write is an unwanted guest, very much like prophecy was to Jonah.

To extend the “unwanted guest” metaphor, you could say the urge to write is a mental disease akin to depression (or obsessive-compulsive disorder, or schizophrenia, or ADHD, or all those).

You heard me right. This isn’t news—it’s something you can find in scientific journals,* as well as in the Elizabethan English poet Michael Drayton’s description of Christopher Marlowe:

            …that fine madness still he did retain
            Which rightly should possess a poet’s brain.

Given the difficulty of harnessing a Muse who is, after all, a sort of psychiatric disorder, it’s a wonder writers actually make money. It was hard enough for a poet to make money in the time of William Blake, who claimed to have seen God peeking into his window. 

*See for example S. Kiyaga et al., “Mental Illness, Suicide, and Creativity: Forty-Year Prospective Total Population Study,” Journal of Psychiatric Research online (Nov. 2012), Elsevier; and A.M. Ludwig, “Mental Illness and Creative Activity in Female Writers,”.American Journal of Psychiatry 151.11 (Nov. 1994), 1650-56.

It’s even harder now, in an age where no two children have the same cultural references, even Shakespeare and the Bible cannot be referenced without fears of a blank stare, and the average person is more likely than not to think Yeats is a brand of handbag.

So why write?

There’s just one good answer—because you have no choice

A.J. Levin is the author of Monks' Fruit (Nightwood, 2004) and a freelance writer in Winnipeg. He is currently working on a non-fiction book about his family tree.

Thursday, April 07, 2016

On Writing #90 : Julie Morrissy

On Writing
Julie Morrissy

Brains that call on their corresponding body parts to write are odd phenomena. People with brains of this nature probably already know what I’m talking about. The writers I know, more often than not, have been writing creatively in some form since they were children – since they learned how to read and write. I remember one of my first poems expressing a grief much more real than the death of a goldfish probably merited. I think the first line was “suddenly all memories float to the top”. Strangely, that sums up my experience of writing. Memories, feelings, words float to the top of my brain, and I have to tap them out. Sometimes it is one niggling feeling that I don’t understand but I know if I write it out, it will go somewhere – maybe not toward a resolution but it will move, somewhere.

Writing is a criss-cross urge between brain and hands, something I can feel on my tongue, words I can imagine as objects inside me. It is not simply thoughts – it is the process of burrowing into and expressing the thought behind the thought. It won’t always make sense but it will float to the top.

And when I’m not writing, do I stop being a writer?

No. Sometimes I feel even more like a poet when I haven’t written for a while, or when I notice a thing or a feeling that I know will come back to a poem, maybe not for months, but I have an assurance it will reappear. I don’t really take notes. I remember things that I think will be of significance, and when I wake in the middle of the night with a “genius” idea I don’t remember in the morning, I shrug it off and figure it will return, or it won’t, and so what anyway. Not writing can be as important to me as writing. I don’t want to document every nonsense thought or idea that I have. I don’t want reams of notebooks with indecipherable scribbles. I write that stuff down when I am actually ready to write. I don’t take notes on the contents of my own brain. I figure my brain will do that for itself.

Sometimes I not write so I can spend an extra few hours with pals or so I can extend my weekend or have another drink. I write more when I am happy than when I’m sad. Sometimes I learn more about myself and my writing but not doing it, by having experiences in real time and being in the moment.

All memories float to the top. If they’re good enough, they will rise up and I will write them down when they are ready to be a poem, when I am ready to be poet. I don’t put my writing in a drawer. I leave it in my brain – I find that prevents a cluttered home.

Today, there is ice for the first time this year. Layered on the cars outside my window. As I pass them on my bus journey home, I know I will sit with my computer for a bit when I get in. I know because the ice brings me to former lives in other cities with old friends. From the frozen face of the Mississippi, to the icicles on the staircases in Montreal, to the PATH of downtown Toronto. Writing lets me live in my world of impermanence. It keeps Mont Royal in my bones, Drawn & Quarterly in my heart, and 43 Cecil in my dreams.

Julie Morrissy is a poet from Dublin currently living in her home city after spending a number of years living in Canada and the USA. In 2015 she was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize in the UK, and selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series. Her work has published widely in Ireland, the UK, and Canada. Morrissy has performed readings at the Strokestown International Poetry Festival, the International Literature Festival Dublin, and on national radio. Her debut poetry pamphlet I Am Where is published by Eyewear Press in the UK.

Friday, April 01, 2016

We Who Are About To Die : Chris Turnbull

Chris Turnbull lives near Ottawa, Ontario. Recent books include continua (Chaudiere Books, 2015) and [ untitled ] in o w n (CUE Books, 2015), alongside work by Heather Hermant and angela rawlings, respectively. Recent work has appeared in Spiral Orb 11 and Brick Books' A Celebration of Visual/Concrete Poetry Part II (ed. Amanda Earl). She is currently collaborating with Portuguese artist and poet bruno neiva on a multi-form poetic series and working on site specific installations, or pieces, with Fieldworks and CSArt Ottawa. She plants poems on trails via her footpress, rout/e.
Where are you now?
At home.
What are you reading?
Invisible Cities (Darran Anderson); Stories (Anton Chekhov), Beyond Geometry: Experiments in Form (ed. Lynn Zelevansky); Lost Language (Maxine Gadd), a couple of archaeological magazines. Some land-based essays & bits and pieces.
What have you discovered lately?
The dryer harbours socks. New trails, unmapped. A metal historical signpost marking the location of an absent church on a walk (that I've done multiple times) to Oxford Mills. Funny what happens when your gaze shifts just a bit.
Where do you write?
In my head in my notebook from outside
What are you working on?
a series of series; a collaboration with bruno neiva; a continuation of my dusie 8 chapbook; a rock-centric installation; a riverine installation that returns me to cubes; a contribution to CSArt Ottawa. My ongoing footpress, rout/e; a video for continua (Chaudiere 2015) incorporating the voices of multiple folks and land-based film. That latter is going to be a slow, and fumbly, project. Most of these are collaborative in some way.
Have you anything forthcoming?
I have a couple of pieces coming out in Canada & Beyond and ColdFront and a tribute piece to poet/activist Jamie Reid in Cap Review's ti-TCR-13. The installations will be at Fieldwork and 4 Elements. I have a collaboration with ceramicist Susie Osler with CSArt Ottawa, and another with a local conservation area (potentially) in relation to posting and launching (with a walk) a rendition of rout/e. CSArt Ottawa is a neat venture modelled after the agricultural CSA whereby individuals are invited to subscribe to receive art works or attend events over the course of a season. In part, its design focuses on the reciprocity between artists and engaged communities.
What would you rather be doing?
I try to focus on perspective - most of the time I am doing what I like to be doing, when I'm not, I find something in it that I can enjoy. Sometimes even doing a thing I like to do can have irritations to it but I know I'll work through those to the integral elements of whatever it is that makes it integral.
Can you include, also, a recent poem or two, as well as a bio and photo? The poems don’t need to be unpublished, and we could cite book or chapbook (if that is what you send), as long as you have permission to reprint.
 Yes - see attached "sweeps predicate a)" [unpublished] and can you use this link to [untitled]: Can cite that [untitled] is part of o w n with a rawlings and Heather Hermant, respectively. CUE Books 2014.
Thanks, Ian.