Friday, December 27, 2019

Talking Poetics #7 : Pearl Pirie

talking (Ottawa) poetics

Running on the red line made for a lot of words. My emotional intensity came across but people often had no idea what I was saying. I write very little now, compared to before anxiety meds.

I used to be “sent” by anything; a phrase, a concept, a scrabble board word combo. I’d riff or recant who I was reading. I would search notes for a electrical pulse and connect up all the pulses, organizing by energy rather than (conventional) sense. I wrote to focus so I could hear just one train conversation at a time instead of the whole busy train station. To that end it did its work. I went intuitively impulsively against the currents of gravity wells I pushed this vessel to solid ground. I want to look at the how and why more than the what, what, what.

Whereas I was diverting a lot of energy to shields and to monitoring communications arrays, now I’m a cartographer.

Before, if I let myself write automatically, I feared it would reinforce the old ideologies I wanted to eject. Mechanical procedures of poetry were an out, to redirect and retrain the brain not to entrench along old easy paths. Even prepositional phrases were suspect because of all the grammatical branching hierarchies. Phrases, fragments, insistence on partial understanding, and process allowed the self to move freely, explore.

I used to worry that I’d lose vital inspiration in the shower or as I go to sleep, but a poem nags at me for weeks and I have to honour that with space and time.

I’ve become aware of how little I contextualize myself, how I jump in mid-way. I’m trying to use the potentially slower pace of writing to my advantage to work out what is relevant to convey. I aim to map what I want to carry forward with me, what matters to me and others. I write as a practice of mindfulness. I’m largely editing to understand what I wrote, 6, 10, 15 years ago. This substantive editing is a kind of writing.

I explore the loss of my father. A third chapbook length of that is underway. I explore the theory of mind of what my father’s experience would have been, now that I have the neural space to see past my own inner fireworks show. That involves a lot of working physically and letting understanding come vulnerable to me, then find words to chart so others can see what I saw and offer that.

Pearl Pirie’s 4th poetry collection, Footlights, comes in the fall of 2020 from Radiant Press. Her haiku and tanka chapbook, Not Quite Dawn, comes from Éditions des petits nuages in spring 2020. This chapbook of haibun, Water loves its bridges: Letters to the dead has another epistle with Eldon, letters (above/ground, 2019). She can be found on twitter at pesbo, and at her author site where she offers resources and conducts poetry courses at

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Talking Poetics #6 : Rusty Priske

When rob asked me to discuss my process of building poems, my first reaction was remembering what I told a fellow poet out in Lanark County – I have no idea how to write a poem. She literally laughed at me as by that point I had been performing for a while and had received a number of accolades for my work. I explained that I wasn’t claiming that I couldn’t write poetry, just that I didn’t know HOW I did it. I just wrote.

Of course that was an over-simplification. I DID have a process, it just wasn’t something I put a lot of thought into. These days, as I continue my move away from writing for the stage and more towards writing for the page, this process has changed and I continue to find what my new normal will be. As a spoken word poet (and especially a poet who concentrated on Poetry Slams), there was definitely a specific process.

I started with a topic, most of the time. Sometimes I started with an idea for a rhythm or a ‘gimmick’, but those were rarely my better poems. It had to be ABOUT something that I wanted to talk about.

Since I mentioned that I wrote for Slams, I should explain that a bit. For those who don’t know, Poetry Slams are competitions where poets get up on stage, perform a poem in under three minutes, and judges chosen from the audience give a score. This is absolutely nothing more than a hook to get people to listen to poetry, and it works (mostly), but over time the ‘sport’ of the competition has grown so that sometimes, to some poets, the sport is more important than the poetry.

This is why, in my process, it was very important to me that I ignore the competition aspect when I was writing. If I thought about the scores or what the judges would like I ended with bad poetry. Every time.

(Now, CHOOSING which poems to perform in competition, is a whole different thing. If the poem is written honestly, there is still an art to knowing what the judges will like.)

Once I had the topic, I just wrote the poem.

Which is nonsense, of course.

I often tell people that I write quickly. I would generally finish a poem – from the time the first word is written down – in under an hour. This seems incredibly fast, but it ignores that by the time I have written that first word, I have already done a bunch of advance work, in my head. I think about ideas on the bus, in the shower, on conference calls at work, wherever. My only rule was to not ‘write’ anything in my head, so I wouldn't feel bad when I inevitably forgot it. The feeling of the poem – and the general structure – would be there before I start writing.

One of the things about writing for Slam, is the timing of the poem. I always wrote all my poems in one of those steno-style notebooks (though I think they are not technically steno-style, because I wanted the cover to open to the left and not the top).

I found it interesting that when I wrote fiction (mostly when I was working on the Legend of the Five Rings story team for AEG Games), I wrote on the computer, but when I wrote poetry it was always longhand. I never gave that much thought. I just did it.

Also interesting to me, since I switched my focus to the written word from the spoken word, I have also changed that. I now write almost exclusively on the computer. Why the change? Unsure, though it does make editing easier.

When I first started writing poetry, I had the kind of notebook with a blue line down the centre, so I treated each side as its own page (which is why when you see my poetry written down, I tend to write very short lines). I learned very quickly, with my physical writing style (printing with fairly small letters), that three pages was three minutes. That was the space I had to work with. (Not an exact science.)

That also meant that edits were something I could do only with pen scratches and margin writing. I didn’t edit much at all. Part of this was the Allen Ginsberg style of ‘first thought, best thought’, but the other part was the fact that with oral poetry, nothing is set in stone. I do not have a deadline that says ‘after this, the poem is final’. Most of my real editing was done as I was memorizing the poem for performance. I would learn through that where the awkward phrases were and where things didn’t come across the way I meant them to.

Example: One of my first ‘big’ poems is called ‘Why Art?’ Originally there was a section in there that read something like:

That little feeling in the
Back of your stomach
The pit of your heart
Or around your brain
That tells you SHE... is the one

When I started memorizing the poem, it just felt awkward. I intentionally had mixed the metaphors, but  what looked like an intentional shuffle on the page sounded weird and garbled on the stage.

It became:

That little feeling in the
Pit of your stomach
The back of your brain
Or around your heart
That tells you SHE... is the one

So, I did edit, just not on the page. (Later when I was publishing some of these poems, I had to go back and make sure that what I had written down was actually the way the poem was in my head.)

I remember Kevin Matthews saying that the poem wasn’t finished until it was performed and while I agree with the sentiment, I would argue that it wasn’t finished even then.

I remember standing at the back of the Knox Hall during VERSeFest, with one of the feature performers, Mary Pinkoski. Mary is the former Poet Laureate of Edmonton, a former National Slam Champion, and a current incredible poet and good friend of mine. We listened as another talented poet (whose name escapes me), said during his reading that he had changed the ending of his poem a number of times but now it was published so he was stuck. Mary and I looked at each other and said, “Uh, no. If you want to change it, change it.” That shows a clear attitude difference between written and spoken word poets. Poems are alive. When I stop tinkering it is only because I am now working on something else.

But, as I said earlier, I have shifted to working more for the page. So now how do I construct a poem?

I have no idea how to write a poem.

I just do it.

My Creation Myth

Our reading tonight
Comes from the first gospels of Rusty

In the beginning there was an idea
Or the germ of an idea
A concept, a nagging thought
Or maybe a hook
Something that could be a poem
Or wants to be a poem
Or IS a poem yet unformed
And the desire to create is upon me
And I see that it is good.

On the second day there are words
Turning concepts tangible
From Air to Water to Earth
And hopefully Fire before going back to the Void.
Words tumble over each other
Forcing perception into meaning
Until they form prose.

On the third and fourth days
Come the rhythm and the rhyme
As the words fall into place
Into a pleasing shape
More palatable for the mind.
My body feels the beat
Of the words on the street
As prose becomes poetry
And craft becomes artistry
The poem flows from the pen
(Can I get an amen?)
But creation is not yet complete.

On the fifth day I learn the way to Carnegie Hall.
I go over the words
First memorize then learn
Gestures, movement, speech
Disparate parts of the whole
Until the poem no longer exists on paper
It lives in my head until ready to be shared
On the sixth day.

This is C-Day
Collaboration Day
Poetry ceases to be a solo affair.
There is me.
A mic.
A stage.
A crowd.
The poem is released from its prison
And unleashed upon the ears of the audience
The words enter and are transformed
Each is altered by the one listening
Until the poem has become ten poems
Twenty poems, forty poems, more.

And on the seventh day, I rest
Until there is an idea
Or the germ of an idea
A concept, a nagging thought
Or maybe a hook.
Something that could be a poem.

Rusty Priske [Photo by Erin Dingle] is the Spoken Word Editor of Arc Poetry Magazine and the President of the Arc Poetry Society. He was the long time National Slam Master for Spoken Word Canada and Slam Master for Capital Slam in Ottawa. His work has appeared in three books (most recently in Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology from Mansfield Press), on eight CDs, and in multiple issues of Oratorealis. He has performed poetry from Victoria to Halifax, including with members of the Vancouver Opera Company and as part of the Caravaggio exhibit at the National Gallery.

In 2018 Rusty was awarded the Zaccheus Jackson Nyce Memorial Award for his contributions to the Canadian Spoken Word Poetry community.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Talking Poetics #5 : Sonia Saikaley

Carving Images

Firstly, I would like to thank rob mclennan for this opportunity to talk a bit about my process when writing poetry. How do I craft a poem? It begins with an image. Even as a child, some images would intrigue me and I’d imagine a story or scene using that picture. I’d race up the stairs to my room, grab a notebook and pencil, hop on my bed and scribble down my thoughts while thinking about a particular image. Back then, my poems rhymed but not so much now.
          When I lived in Japan over a decade ago, I wandered Matsushima, a beautiful place in the Miyagi Prefecture where the haiku master Basho had travelled and while I was there I found a papier-mâché of the famous poet. Sitting next to this sculpture, I felt inspired to write a series of poems about Basho that would later appear in my collection A Samurai’s Pink House (Inanna Publications). I also saw a red bridge in Matsushima and another poem came about. Then I lifted up a kokeshi in a shop and studied the details of the handmade wooden doll. I went to a small and lovely restaurant and in between bites of grilled beef tongue and rice I composed poems containing kokeshi dolls and beef tongue too! White ribbons on a tree at a shrine. The hem of a kimono lightly brushing against the earth. Someone spreading open indigo curtains of an entrance to a sushi restaurant. A child holding a persimmon in her small hands. All of these images stirred in me the desire to create poetry when I travelled across Japan.
          I suppose like cue cards aiding a speaker, images in my surroundings encourage me to write. Conflicts in the world can also motivate me to find a way to understand the loss, the heartache and the situation. In my poetry collection Turkish Delight, Montreal Delight (Mawenzi House), the conflicts in the Middle East inspired several poems and I tried to imagine what it would be like for someone living through wars and chaos and the yearning to move to a new land and once in that place, the longing for the old country.
          Images and empathy coexist while I’m creating poems or fiction. My poems are often prose-like and the two genres form a medley. As a child, I always composed poetry by longhand in a notebook (well, given that I grew up in the seventies and eighties and I didn’t have a computer or typewriter, this was the only way I could write). Although computers and other technologies exist today, I still write poetry longhand. The feel of holding a pen and moving it along lined pages brings me closer to my idea and the characters in the poem. When writing the first draft, I never interrupt myself or hold back. Only after the entire draft is completed do I start striking out words. I read the poem aloud and try to hear the line-breaks as if they are pieces of wood being chiselled by a carver. I close my eyes and envision the image that guided me to start a poem in the first place. An initial draft is written from that image and from my heart too. I don’t let the inner editor enter this space. Only after creating a draft do I invite the editor to glance at the pages in my journal. I sit in my solarium, sipping green tea, and begin the process of chopping, carving and finalizing something that is hopefully as moving to others as it is to me.  

Sonia Saikaley was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada to a large Lebanese family. Her first book, The Lebanese Dishwasher, co-won the 2012 Ken Klonsky Novella Contest. She has two poetry collections Turkish Delight, Montreal Winter and A Samurai’s Pink House. She is currently working on a novel called Jasmine Season on Hamra Street. A graduate of the University of Ottawa and the Humber School for Writers, she lives in her hometown of Ottawa. Her novel The Allspice Bath was recently published by Inanna Publications.