Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On Writing #136 : Frances Boyle

On Writing and Wandering
Frances Boyle

Writing for me is fumbling around in the dark, tripping over things, bruising my shins. Going by feel—the cool smooth lines of a lamp, or the shape of a window. Assessing, with fingertips or palms, differences in texture between the flat glass of a screen and the flat wood of a desk top.

Stumbling, cracking, trying. Writing must be failing because succeeding is a dusty-hazed apparition somewhere on the horizon. To say what you mean when you’re not sure you have any sense of meaning, either ‘what it means’ (definition) or ‘what I mean to do’ (intent).

To write, especially poetry, I often need to trick my mind—my nattering monkey mind—into letting go so I can sidestep conscious intent, force myself out of the way. Sometimes freewriting or prompts have resulted in me tapping into a vein of memory, so images and sensory impressions—the tastes, textures, sounds and smells—begin to flow, build up in pastiche. On putting pen to paper, I had no intention that I’d write, for example, about the personal impact of Montreal’s École Polytechnique massacre, or being stood up by a boy on Christmas Eve, but quite unrelated lines by other writers led me to these poems. If I had made a deliberate decision to write about those subjects, I’d mostly likely have ended up with stiff and stilted drivel that I would have discarded.

Other times, what flows is a mess of jumbled images that seem to add up to situations that have nothing to do with me, experiences—sometimes dark and rumbling—that aren’t mine. I may be drawing on my subconscious, tapping into the collective unconscious, or maybe just filtering dredged-up film or book images. While I don’t really understand, I’ve felt mystified, sometimes amazed at the scenes that shape themselves out of the flow.

I never seem to be able to direct this flow, however, and I have been troubled by my lack of intent in writing. But more recently I’ve been more certain that my process will bring me someplace interesting. Wise mentors have said that intent comes afterwards, as you shape the poem, and that starting out with a particular intent can prevent the writing from going where it must.

I felt the need for intent, I think, because my mind is tuned to logic, which makes sense given a long career as a lawyer-scribe. People generally see lawyering as the antithesis of the creative life, but much of my legal career involved writing and rewriiting. I was valued as much for being able to create a cogent summary and analysis as for any of the other lawyerly skills in my toolkit. I never did any courtroom work, but spent decades documenting agreements for loans, business succession, etc. and synthesizing policy decisions from discussions at long meetings.

A senior executive at my workplace once joked that my drafting ‘was poetry’. But it seemed to me that it wasn’t totally a joke, that such ordering of chaos is not dissimilar to what we do when writing creatively. A lawyer colleague told me she could never write poetry. I disagreed with her, pointing out that the way she debated a single word almost to the point of stasis was very much like poets’ striving for ‘the right words in the right order’. They’re both about precision of language.

I was reluctant to self-identify as a lawyer, partially because it was always a job and never a passion (unlike friends who do social justice work, who I consider to be the real lawyers).  I didn’t live and breathe the law, so felt a bit of a fraud. I may equally be a fraud as a writer. I am far from as well-read as I’d like to be—too many books on my shelves waiting to be read (though I can’t help acquiring them), too many writers whose work I haven’t even experienced. I recognize myself as a perennial beginner and that may allow me to approach all my writing with a certain humility.

This quasi-essay is typical of my maundering process (pause to check the dictionary to ensure a word I use all the time actually means what I believe it does). To think about writing is to enter into a dense forest, assuming that a gap between trees is the start of a path but soon discovering that you’re snagged on stubs of branches, tripping over underbrush. The breaking through into a clearing, then more stumbling and crashing before a breakthrough into the same clearing, as in T.S. Eliot: “We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring /Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” 

A different analogy: writing as ‘peristalsis’ (another stop at the dictionary to be sure): slow digestion, of words and images, literally gut-wrenching, ideas in gelatin or in amber.

I’ve just returned from a week-long writing retreat where one of the writers had suffered unspeakable tragedy just a few days before, but made the decision to come to the retreat anyway because she deeply believes in the healing power of poetry. Writing that delves into the depths of pain and grief is more than heart-felt, it is gut-felt; we (or at least I) feel an icy quiver in my stomach when the words resonate.

Writing about writing can include much agonized (literal) belly-aching about what writers can and should do in this world of alternate truths and legitimate fear, of communities divided among themselves. Why and indeed how to write our little scrap of something, a post-it note missive as true as we can make it, and to stick up on a vast billboard, one of a zillion little yellow tongues flittering in the breeze.

Frances Boyle [photo credit: Stephen Brockwell] is the author of the poetry collection, Light-carved Passages (BuschekBooks). Her poems and short stories have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies throughout Canada and in the U.S. Awards for her writing include This Magazine’s Great Canadian Literary Hunt, the Diana Brebner Prize and Tree Reading Series’s chapbook contest. She is a member of the editorial team for Arc Poetry Magazine.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

fwd: CFP: KANADA KONCRETE: Verbi-Voco-Visual Poetries in the Multimedia Age (The Canadian Literature Symposium, U Ottawa) (deadline: Sept. 25, 2017)

The Canadian Literature Symposium
Department of English, University of Ottawa
May 4-6, 2018

Arguably, there have never been more opportunities for poetry to live ‘off the page.’ Over the last 20 years, the radical proliferation and expansion of online social media, media-sharing sites, web-based archives, blogs, vlogs, institutional web-pages and the like have made archiving, accessing, and distributing poetry easier than ever before. The multi-media possibilities of the web, the optic flexibility of digital books, the ability to record image and sound cheaply and share that material quickly and widely over a variety of platforms, have drastically undermined poets’ dependence on the page and print-based forms of distribution. One needn’t be a technological determinist to acknowledge that something has changed in the manner we encounter ‘poetry.’ To what extent, though, have these technological changes transformed the forms and functions of poetry as such? Have they, for instance, finally produced the necessary conditions for truly ‘verbi-voco-visual’ work, a one-time dream of the modernist avant-garde?  Have multimedia forms of poetry displaced more traditional forms and formats, or do they operate alongside print journals and books—mere addenda to an essentially unchanged institutionalized discourse? How has Canadian poetry, in particular, exploited (or perhaps ignored) the available material supports for innovations in form, format, and dissemination?  Kanada Koncrete will explore these questions over three days, May 4-6, 2018.

We seek papers, talks and presentations on the preceding questions as well as the following topics:

  • sound poetry and sonic experiments
  • visual concrete
  • poetry in performance
  • kinetic poetry/ animated poetry/ video poems
  • web-based and digital poetries
  • comics poetry / poetry and comics
  • treated texts
  • illustrated poetic texts
  • poetry and photography
  • artists’ books
  • poetry installations
  • poetic graffiti
  • poetics of ‘the found’
  • poetry and social media
  • electronic distribution
  • collecting and archiving non-print poetry
  • teaching poetry ‘off the page’

Please submit a 250-word proposal and a short biographical statement to Robert Stacey at before September 25, 2017.

Monday, July 10, 2017

On Writing #135 : Carla Funk

On Writing: In Search of the Greengage Plum
Carla Funk

Some meditate cross-legged in a yurt. Some breathe the deep Om and yoga their way to transcendence. Some listen at the window for Rumi to drop a high and dervish thought into their cracked-open consciousness. At least, this is what I imagine some do to prepare the way for words that sizzle and glow. I do none of these things. Never have. Likely never will. But I do walk every morning—trails, sidewalks, paths in forests and around the nearby lake— with lit-up expectation that I will bear witness to something miraculous, that truth and beauty will slip out from behind the veil, appear in who knows what costume, as what image, what scent, what peculiar roadside thing, and stage-whisper—like a revelation of glittering eternity— ta-da!

I was nearly home, walking on the Goose, a well-traveled pedestrian trail, when I spotted a red mobility scooter parked in the lane, and just ahead of it, a squat, silver-haired man in a plaid shirt and denim overalls bent over the jutting limb of a small fallen tree, debris from the last night’s April windstorm.

“Well, what’re you doin’ here?” he said, brow furrowed my way.

“I’m walking,” I said. “What are you doing?”

He waved a pocket-saw over his head. “Cleanin’ up the trail. Git over here, and gimme a hand, why don’t ya.”

I joined him at the tree branch, and braced it as he finished sawing it into lengths. Then we chucked the pieces of wood off the trail and into the brush.

“You live around here?” he said. When he spoke, his mouth flashed gold—a shiny crown on one of his upper teeth.

I lived around the corner, I said. How long, he wanted to know, and so we talked about the neighbourhood, what used to be here, the RV park where he lived now, his scooter route to Timmy’s for coffee every morning, how long his battery kept a charge, that snake he saw not even two weeks ago when it tried to strike a dog—oh, he pinned that thing with his cane, then flung it off the trail—and the farm just down the road, soon to open for the season.

“That farm sell food?” he said. He ran his tongue over his teeth, over that glinting gold tooth.

I ran down the list of what grew there—potatoes, apples, Walla Walla onions, raspberries, broccoli, squash, and corn.

“Can’t eat the corn no more.” He shook his head. “Had the cancer. In the colon.” He patted the lower left side of his round denim-covered belly. “Got me the bag now.” He settled himself back on his scooter. “But if I could get me some greengage plums,” he said. “Haven’t had ‘em since I was a kid on P.E.I. My dear ol’ mum made greengage preserves.”

He closed his eyes, sighed. He shook his head. “Mmm—mmm. Nothing like the taste of the greengage plum.” He leaned forward over his handlebars and squinted at me through his dark-tinted glasses. “Think you can find me some greengages?”

Though the man was nearly a stranger, I said I’d try. And if I found some, I’d let him know.

“Name’s Dean,” he said. “You can find me at the RV park. Ask at the main office.” Then he motored away, tooting his horn as his scooted.

And I did try. I talked to the farmer down the road, to friends with fruit trees. No luck. I read up on the greengage, where it grew, the chalky clay terroir required for prime cultivation, the sun and heat needed to sweeten it. I learned of a farm in the Okanagan that used to grow greengages, but no more. Yes, their syrupy sweetness was unrivalled in the realm of plums, but they were too fussy a tree for market, too unpredictable in their yield.

I kept walking the trail where I’d met Dean. Greengage Dean. Every so often, he’d zoom by on his red scooter, honk, wave, but not seem to recognize me as the woman who helped him clear the trail, the woman now engaged with his greengage, on the hunt for, in search of.

Summer came, and with it, the farmer’s raspberries and potatoes, corn and apples, friends’ prune plums and red plums. The greengage faded, not fully, but enough that I no longer looked for it or asked about it. The greengage belonged to someone else’s mythology and nostalgia.

But then—as it is with ideas, with inklings and images and questions that won’t let go, with a poem whose final line will not, cannot be wrought, with a story whose plotline refuses to unsnarl, with a title that won’t emerge with clarity and metaphoric heft and unifying force—the elusive and mysterious and hidden came suddenly into view. There, illuminated by late evening’s low sun, across the road from our house, just down by the vacant house with the rotting fence, growing up from the far side of the ditch, a tree—a tree leaning and loaded with plums, some of them so ripe, they’d split and oozed a sticky syrup, some of that sugar hardened into what looked like tiny icicles dripping off the bottoms of the fruit.

I nearly walked past the tree without noticing, but then, a breeze lifted its perfume, and before I saw it, I smelled it. The greengage plum. As in the photographs, dusty and greenish-gold. I plucked one from a low-hanging branch and bit in. Honey. And butter. And caramel. And the sun poured into a wineglass. And the mock orange bush with its showy blossoms. And a picnic in a field of wildflowers in the French countryside, beside a river. And a river flowing toward the ocean, and the ocean around an island, and on that island, a dark red dirt that feeds the roots of trees that grow up flush with sun and fruit, and in one tree, a child who leans out to pluck from a leafy branch one fat gold plum, who bites in, closes his eyes, lets the juice run down his chin, who tastes yesterday, today, and tomorrow in that single mouthful, who witnesses one more secret of the intricate world undone, unhidden, and—ta-da!—laid beautiful and bare.

Born and raised in Vanderhoof, BC, Carla Funk lives and writes in Victoria, where she taught for 15 years in the Department of Writing at UVic. She served as Victoria’s inaugural poet laureate (2006-2008), and helped to promote the literary arts in the city. Gloryland (Turnstone Press, 2016) is her fifth book of poems. She is currently finishing up a creative nonfiction collection about childhood, God, loggers, and small town imagination.