Wednesday, April 17, 2019

On Writing #161 : Michael Turner

Oh Writing
Michael Turner

An invitation to contribute to an ongoing project is to first familiarize oneself with that project. I tell this to anyone interested in a life of writing. “You can’t just send the New Yorker your poems without having read an issue or two,” I said recently to an emerging writer. “Why not,” the writer demanded, “they pay more than The Fiddlehead!” When asked if the writer was familiar with The Fiddlehead, the writer burst into tears and confessed, “I can’t do everything, you know!”

To contribute to any ongoing project -- be it a magazine or an exhibition space or a concert series -- is to enter a conversation. Typically, this conversation begins with an idea or an event and, as it is added to, expands beyond the sum of its contributions. For the self-conscious vanguardist, expansion is a forward motion, where the medium is pushed ahead and its practitioners follow. Modernism was big on this (formal) gesture until it was outed in the 1970s as Modernity’s PR department. Humanists have their own idea of expansion, where inclusion (often to the point of affirmative re-inscription) is privileged.

My contribution to this project has more in common with humanist inclusion than it does with vanguardism.

A couple weeks ago I began preparing a talk for the Kamloops Art Gallery on the artist Samuel Roy-Bois, whose current exhibition explores how “architectural structures act as vessels for everyday objects,pointing to the ways in which human experience is inextricably linked to manufactured things and spaces and how the greater meaning of our existence is being mediated through things.” With Samuel’s proposition in mind, I went to my bookshelf looking for Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974), hoping that it might expand my talk, take it in a different direction. While looking I noticed Peter Culley’s The Age of Briggs & Stratton (2008), the middle book of his Hammertown trilogy. Pete often began his readings by telling audiences that it was Perec’s fictitious Hammertown that provided him with the title of his trilogy. For reasons I am never entirely sure of, Perec chose to locate his Hammertown in more or less the same place as Pete’s hometown of Nanaimo.

Flipping through Briggs & Stratton I thought about the first time I read its poems, recalling how so many of them were first published on Pete’s blog. And with Samuel’s proposition in mind (less its content than its form: a statement of a relationship between variables), I remembered thinking how odd it was that a book whose title was taken from a 100-year-old manufacturer of gasoline engines was filled with poems that could have only been written with (or at least accelerated by) an electrically powered interweb. Last week I shared these thoughts with rob: Have you thought about a project that asks non-Millennials to talk about how the interweb has impacted their writing? A couple days later rob emailed back to ask if I would write on this topic for his On Writing project.

An invitation to contribute to an ongoing project is to first familiarize oneself with that project. With that in mind, I clicked on the On Writing link rob included in his email and what came up was not a table of contents, per se, but a mass of contributor links bunched together like socks in a drawer. George Bowering’s contribution (09/2018) had “Oana” (Avasilichioaei) in its title, and because I know both writers and their work, I clicked on George and read:

We do not really need poems that tell us what the poet saw and how he can make figurative language to give us his view of those things. We do not really need language that is passed over the counter by its baker. Ms Ovasilichioaei is environed by language as she is by any world she enters, and when you read you don’t read her version––you are too busy negotiating the pleasant difficulty of her pages. If you run into one another from time? Well, what a nice thing to experience first thing in the morning. This poet offers no Frostian conclusions, but possibilities leading in all directions. Judith FitzGerald was right when she wrote that you can’t really read the poems, but you can sure experience them––and if you do not want poetry to lull you, you will want that experience.

This emphasis on experiencing a poem over reading it is a hallmark of Donald Allen’s New American Poetry 1945-1960 (1960) anthology, of which George and contemporaries Daphne Marlatt, George Stanley and Fred Wah are among its readers. That’s something else I tell those interested in a life of writing: if you want to write poems – if you want to participate in the conversation that is Poetry – read poetry, particularly the poems of your contemporaries. But how has the experience of reading poems online, versus reading them in Donald Allen’s glue-and-paper anthology, changed the way poems are written? Is something (necessarily?) altered in the haptic shift from book to notebook? Are we “closer” to our sources when we are writing a poem on the same device as the one we are reading from? Does this closeness imply an intimacy? Or is this closeness closer to a flattening, what Byung Chul-Han refers to as a “smoothing” when speaking of the consequences of a “transparent” society, where “everyone is so smoothed out and uniform that we only meet each other ourselves”?

The next name I clicked on was new to me. In Sennah Yee’s entry (04/2018) the reader is shown how procrastination is not a threat to her writing but, in the same way Han inverts what many believe to be a truism (transparency is not a freedom but an “auto-exhaustive” constraint), a generative activity (“In a twisted way, procrastination is how I am productive”). Yee writes:

I recently realized that I only write when I’m trying to avoid writing something else.

I started writing screenplays when I didn’t want to write a play. I started writing poetry when I didn’t want to write screenplays. I started “writing” found poetry when I didn’t want to write my “own” poetry. I started writing prose when I didn’t want to write any poetry.

This goes on for some time, and we let it, in the same way we let ourselves reach for a book that isn’t the book we are looking for or, like Charles Baudelaire or Walter Benjamin or more recently Lisa Robertson, we find ourselves taking the long way to the fromagier because something in our soul has encouraged us to do so. Han might find diversions like these exhausting, but for those careful not to take on too much, they can be a pleasing.

Elee Kraljii-Gardiner is another On Writing contributor (12/2016), a poet, editor, organizer and mother who invited me many years ago to participate in the Thursdays Writing Collective, of which she is a founding member. Elee’s contribution, entitled “Essay on Inclusivity”, begins with this:

My literary community in Vancouver seems to rotate around and on social media – or maybe that’s just my epicentre. It’s a question worth asking myself beyond lamenting writing time lost to gif giggles and memes. In truth, social media has enabled me to do far more writing and creating with other artists than I would have managed without the internet and it has given me an easy channel to connect with writers and editors with whom I can exchange thoughts and eventually, poems. 

Elee talks about the importance of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) in connecting writers and editors. Further on she notes how not everyone has equal access to its technologies – and therefore not everyone gets the “call”:

But their submissions may be sampling only one end of the pool of writers. Who is not part of the conversation?

Elee speaks plainly yet passionately about Collective members like Henry Doyle. In doing so, she brings more than Henry’s situation into her essay – she brings (with his permission) his words. Elee writes:

If a writer living in an SRO ( can acquire a laptop they may not have the time, connections or quiet they need to figure out saving and backing up, a confounding experience for me even when I am rested, fed, focused and undisturbed. If belongings or housing aren’t secure, the writing isn’t either. Theft and damage of laptops or jump drives means losing novels, submission records, bios, author photos, literary CVs, manuscripts, editing conversations, journals – imagine all of that hitting you at once. Imagine it happening repeatedly. These practical difficulties in the writing life are a colander, straining the breadth and depth of voices from a fuller literary community. Award-winning poet Henry Doyle (, who periodically struggles with Wi-Fi issues told me on the phone, “It’s really hard to be out of the loop. I don’t know what’s going on or how to get in touch with people. I feel like I’m missing a lot.”

The last contributor I clicked on was Bruce Whiteman, a name I was only just familiar with, having read a book review he wrote for Quill & Quire a few days before. Rather than assess Michael Redhill’s Twitch Force on its own (specialized) terms, Whiteman states his preference for those poems that are “most accessible and least determinately clever.” How many times have we heard this? How many times do we have to read a review that suggests a poem or a painting or a video installation be “accessible” to an ostensibly unspecialized subject? As for the commissioning publication, if a poetry book that uses scientific language is submitted for review, would it not make sense to offer it to a poet/reviewer who shares that language – or at least a disposition towards it? I am sure if Christopher Dewdney or Sylvia Legris were given Redhill’s book we might have a review that extends beyond the connoisseurial.

Here is the opening of Whiteman’s On Writing contribution (08/2016):

I am neither young nor old, i.e. I am at that point where no one much notices what writing I do. Young poets deservedly occupy the limelight, or what there is of limelight for poetry in Canada today, they and the revered dead, who occasionally get statues erected to them in Queen's Park, near where the business of provincial governing goes on. The statue of Al Purdy stares at the statue of Edward VII.

Whiteman was 64-years-old when he wrote this. I know this because, as someone who also thinks of himself as “neither young nor old,” I looked up Whiteman’s birthdate to see how old I might be feeling. (He has ten years on me, so I feel better!) And yes, while I too think young poets deserve attention (young poets received much less of it before social media became the force it is today), I relate especially to what Whiteman says later, how he

began writing poetry out of emotional need: a confessional, a talking cure, a vague aspiration to shrive myself without help from anything or anyone save words and rhythms. It took a long time to figure out that that impulse often made for boring poems, whatever psychoprophylactic benefits it might have had. Sitting on the sunny deck of a summer cottage somewhere north of Toronto in the early 1980s, I decided quite consciously to give up that kind of poetry, and to try to open up my writing to something more encompassing than personal experience and private grief.

Apart from that “summer cottage” and those “psychoprophylactic benefits,” this is something I might have decided in my early-30s -- not towards a life-long poem sequence, as Whiteman has (or Pete, with his Hammertown trilogy), but the opposite: towards occasional poems, discrete poems, poems that suggest themselves through an ongoing engagement with new and unfamiliar spaces; poems that pull me outside of myself, to the point where they no longer come out of me, but through me. And in doing so turn me inside-out, exposing me to that which requires a different sense of being in the world. Only rarely have I achieved this state, but I keep trying. An ongoing project I hope to become more familiar with.

Michael Turner [photo credit: Brian Jungen] is a white man living on stolen Coast Salish land. He is, and will likely remain, part of the problem. His most recent book is 9x11 and other poems like Bird, Nine, x andEleven (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2018). He is currently an Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Sciences and School of Interdisciplinary Studies and Graduate Studies at OCAD University.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

fwd: June poetry workshop via VERSe Ottawa/VERSeFest with John Wall Barger

Poetry Workshop - The Underglimmer
sponsored by VERSe Ottawa/VERSeFest

Workshop Conductor: John Wall Barger
Saturday, June 8th, 2019:
2-5 pm, MacOdrum Library 583, (Archives & Special Collection)
Carleton University

Program Fee $40
Reduced Fee (for underemployed, students, seniors, or economically disadvantaged) $20

Workshop size: 12

Playful writing exercises and enthusiastic discussion meet in this engaging workshop by successful poet, John Wall Barger. What is the underglimmer in your poetry? The Japanese poet Bashō said that, if you succeed in leaving your ego out of your poem, “Your poem will well-up of its own accord when you and the object become one, when you dive deep enough into the object, to discover something of its hidden glimmer.” This “hidden glimmer” has been widely translated as “the underglimmer.”

John Wall Barger’s poems appear in American Poetry Review, Rattle, The Awl, The Cincinnati Review, Poetry Ireland Review, and Best of the Best Canadian Poetry. His poem, “Smog Mother,” was co-winner of The Malahat Review’s 2017 Long Poem Prize. His fourth book, The Mean Game, is coming out with Palimpsest Press in spring 2019. He lives in Philadelphia and is an editor for Painted Bride Quarterly.

If you are interested in reserving a seat for this small workshop, please email the workshop organizer, D.S.Stymeist, President of VERSe Ottawa, (