Thursday, January 30, 2020

Talking Poetics #10 : Jean Van Loon

Bending History to the Poetic Page

My book Building on River represented a change for me— having a broad, roughly defined framework within which to craft individual poems. My subject, J. R. Booth, lumber king of the Ottawa Valley, had intrigued me in occasional short pieces I read about him, and more so the more I read. I debated the ethics of an imagined picture of a real person, but felt it defensible as long as the work was so labeled.
          I wanted to learn viscerally about Booth and his times— not just names and dates, but textures, sounds and smells of his era— to allow poetry to do what it does best, evoke feeling through senses. Because Booth left no correspondence to speak of (I did come across a letter informing the Department of Marine and Fisheries that one of his steam vessels had been taken out of service— not much psychological insight there), most of his private life was left to my imagination. And a study of “peripheral history.” Photographs showed the pride and confidence of lumber camp workers. Even Booth’s stiff Victorian “captain of industry” photo revealed a sensuous mouth. Charlotte Gray’s Sisters in the Wilderness, although about different people in a slightly different time and place, gave me a sense-image of rural travel in the era of Booth’s youth, which sparked  poems. Newspapers of the time (though threatening blindness from the library’s microfilm readers) exposed me to early attitudes and vocabulary and sometimes telling details: an ad for reduced-price bunting at the time of a royal visit, an ad for a large downtown house that vaunted running water in the kitchen. For one of the poems in the book, I needed to know what a workman would wear as underwear. Enter the book, How to be a Victorian, based on a British TV series, and stuffed with relevant information. Looking for mid-1800s treatments for scarlet fever, I stumbled across answers in a blog prepared by a writer of historical romances. A You-Tube video showed how to make shingles by hand.
          Poetry, for me, is about fresh language and unfamiliar images. History is full of both. I found myself relishing the language around logging (its trades of timber cruiser, swamper, rosser, and more; its tools such as pike pole and crazy wheel.)  I relished the language so much that various workshop commenters had to drag me back from overindulgence.
          Each poem came about as poems do, from an imagined moment, a mood, an image, a phrase that pops into mind. But there was also a guiding hand. After I’d written perhaps 15-20 poems, I listed them in a possible order for a book. That revealed gaps, and sent me to research new aspects of Booth’s career. Research invariably presented me with new poetry prompts. There were also facts in Booth’s life that I knew had emotional resonance (the deaths of children, his father, and his wife) and I hoped the reader would experience those moments.
          I wanted to vary the poems’ voices beyond “the poet” or Booth himself. I imagined who might offer an interesting perspective. His wife? A forest worker? A mill hand or tavern habitué? Visiting royalty? Voice chosen, it was a question of finding a tone, a taste of the period language, and appropriate diction. A huge book I found on the forest industry from coast to coast helped, with hundreds of first-person accounts and famous songs and tall tales.
          Various technical challenges shaped the work. One was conveying enough information without overloading the poem with facts (a constant temptation for me!) Several poems made use of the traditional Victorian long-winded title. In others, an epigraph from the era provided information plus flavour. For an extended work, I wanted to avoid the dullness of one left-aligned free verse after another. So I tried a villanelle, a pantoum, a palindrome poem, where it seemed to me that the form would enhance to the poem’s impact. The roughly chronological arrangement of the work helped address the challenge of creating narrative continuity in a discontinuous form. I also played with line breaks. In one poem, evoking Booth as a young fellow splitting wood, variations in breaks around the phrase “the wood splits clean” embodied his decision to leave home.
          I found this first exploration of an integrated project rewarding. I was able to delve into a different world for a prolonged period, and gain an in-depth feeling for what the times were like. Having that world to return to made new poems easier than starting completely afresh. I missed both Booth and his times when I was done.

Jean Van Loon’s collection, Building on River (Cormorant Books, 2018) was shortlisted for the Ottawa Book Prize. Her stories, poems, and reviews have appeared in literary magazines and in Journey Prize Stories.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

On Writing #168 : Rae Kearney

Writing through fear
Rachel Kearney

How to write? No idea. I mean I know what works for me; I read and take long train rides. I am always thinking in poems, some are white noise as I stare out the window, others demand to be recorded and with urgency. There is no off button, but there is a choice to record them or not. I choose to, even if I think I’ll throw it away once I’m done. The habit of writing is addictive and instills a confidence in myself and my work. I have a whole drawer full of napkins filled with bleeding lines and mismatched pages. There is a special place in my iPhone notes app where poems go to die. The point is, it’s not a performative act. I do it because there is no expectation to crush my writing before it exists, no pressure from the strangers peering over my shoulder while I write in public. I do it because poetry brings me joy, and assigning shame to writing crushes creativity. I am in no way qualified to give you a step by step guide for writing (if one could even exist), but I can share things I’ve discovered through my own experiences that make it easier.

I recently sat down with a writing friend a few weeks ago, with the chance to discuss something other than school work. We were able to voice small life blunders and give each other some advice. My friend looked at me for a while, then finally said, “You need to relax and be brave”. I thought about that, and while the advice was meant for my personal life, it was even better advice for my writing. Every time I put my pen to paper it requires both these things: relaxing enough to let myself write without hyper-editing as I go, and being brave enough to know that work doesn’t have to feel finished or perfect for you to share it. Writing should never be self-conscious, or censored. In fact, it should be fun.

Relax by trusting the process. Some days I can write three complete poems, other days I spend hours writing long entries, exhausting what little creative energy I had to begin with. It’s all okay, there can be ease in the process and you can be in the process and not know it. I was stood up by a friend this summer and ended up sitting on a bench outside of Kensington, watching pigeons eat bread for two hours. This turned into a poem, and then a theme of poems followed. Sometimes the process is just stopping and listening. I often feel like observing other people’s lives is part of my job, and to do this, I have to do it objectively.

Be brave enough to say what you feel, and be brave enough to experiment with how you say it. It takes courage for me to share my unfinished work, but the lingering excuse of “it’s not done yet” prevents me from moving forward with my writing. A safe first step is to start with someone you trust, and outsource from there. Wherever it is, the process is important and hearing other people’s opinions are equally important. The best way to get people’s opinions is to read. Out loud. In front of strangers! There is nothing I am more scared of, than standing in a badly lit bar and reading my work. If there’s a microphone it’s game over. I didn’t know I could sweat through my elbows, but poetry readings have taught me that anything is possible. Going to readings alone can be scary, but worthwhile. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still awkward but be brave and meet new people. Their work may inspire you, or they might care enough to give you advice on your own.

You don’t have to sit down and write a novel, just start with a line. Writing is something that should bring joy and the advice my friend gave helped pull me out of the struggle I created. Writing is a choice and sometimes it’s hard but you are the one who chose to do it, so just get started.

Rachel Kearney is a writer from Toronto who is interested in the intersection of poetry and design. She is pursuing her Bachelor of Design with a minor in Creative Writing at York University. A chapbook is forthcoming from above/ground press.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Talking Poetics #9 : Barâa Arar

Imperfect poems

I am a person who is eager for answers. I am uncomfortable with ambiguity. I do not like feeling helpless. Yet it seems the world is full of questions, grey areas, and things outside my control. It is writing that helps me reconcile the world’s almost ineffable complexities and my craving for certitude.

Yet ironically, the enterprise of writing a poem is punctuated with uncertainty. Does this poem say what I mean? Did I encapsulate that moment, that energy, that feeling properly? In other words: does this poem capture my humanity?

Poems are objects, that is to say, they can be shared with a friend or stored in a book. But poems are also actors. Poems make us see one another; they help us feel the pain, the love, the suffering, the kindness of another. I repeat, somewhat ironically, in one of my pieces, “poems are not about politics; poems are about people.” When poems act, they allow us to empathize, to understand, and even perhaps, to heal. That is why I insist that poems are in service of both our intimate interiority and our shared experiences.

But how do we write such potent poems?

When I get confused or scared, I find solace in writing a poem. For me, a poem begins with something I know to be true. It can be an experience of fear, of love, of despair, of wonder. I get lost when I start writing about what “should” or “could” be instead of what is, and more specifically, what the world is like for me. For example, sometimes I start with the experience of a sound, like in a recent poem of mine: “my heeled boots hit the sidewalk— the metronome of our silences.”

I think of all the specific instances that make a moment special or magical or intense for me. I want my poems to feel grounded and rooted in something material. So I write: “I take it all in:/ the colourful Koreatown murals/ the demolished department store.” Then I like to juxtapose with a sentiment others might relate to: “I listen to your smile/ as you listen to me talk / about school / and friends/ and death.”

Many of my poems start in my mind – usually as a string of words– either that I said or heard. If I can, I write it down as quickly as possible because I will inevitably forget. I prefer to begin writing my poems in a notebook, not just for the aesthetics, but because I think we self-censor less that way. With a keyboard, it is easy to backtrack and to dismiss our own words. When I write with a pen and paper, I viscerally feel the writing experience and it supports my process more steadily. The free flow is sometimes jarring and I think: “wow am I really feeling that way?” I find it a useful exercise in introspection and authenticity.

I think poems begin as kernels of truth about my existence, but I often polish, curate, and even embellish them. That urge to modify our feelings and experiences in their representations is equally as human. We are not always proud of what we feel and how we experience. I think our inclination to hide or sanitize that reveals something about who we are as well.

I encourage everyone to write, especially in moments of anxiety or bewilderment. I have to constantly remind myself to write too. I have to remind myself that poems are not meant to be perfect and that is precisely why they are important.

Barâa Arar is a Toronto-based writer, editor, and community organizer. She holds a Bachelor of Humanities from Carleton University and is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Toronto, focusing her research on photography, gender, and colonial resistance. Her poetry and personal essays have appeared in Room Magazine, This Magazine, Canthius, among other publications. Barâa is the recipient of the Carleton Provost Scholar Award for community engagement and immersive research.   

Thursday, January 02, 2020

Talking Poetics #8 : Dale Tracy


At first I thought I pilfer things I say out loud for poems later. Then I realized what I said was already a piece of poem when I said it.

Writing down lines I say is not the only or main way I write, but I’m focussing on this practice because it highlights my interest in the borders of poem and world, the relationship between the writer and writing.

So I fixate on the two meanings of “poetics”: one, “the branch of knowledge that deals with the techniques of poetry” and two, “the creative principles informing any literary, social or cultural construction, or the theoretical study of these” (OED). Let’s say that I could find creative principles informing the forms of my poems and the forms of myself—in both cases, caught up in conventions, habits, and assumptions belonging to my larger social and cultural contexts and their inheritances and influences. What would it mean to apply the same principles of form to my life and my art?

If I sometimes think and speak in poetry when I’m not writing poetry, what is the difference for me between poetry and not-poetry? I know what I mean when I say that poetry “does” life (it performs or makes active an idea or experience or feeling), but what do I mean if I say that life “does” poetry?

I like to think that I am a poem (as Julia Alvarez, for example, has done before me), except that I don’t want to muddy things with metaphor. The poem is me (as much as a cut-off fingernail is), but I’m not a poem—I’m a human. Nevertheless, you can tell I’m getting into trouble here if I need to point out my humanness. Am I a poem? I make myself and a poem within the contexts that also make me and it. Like a poem, I don’t have a direct practical purpose—me and poems, the information we convey and the things we make happen aren’t pre-established and unswerving like an office memo or a stop sign. Like a poem, I have rhythms, the habits of the lines I walk, the ways I walk them.

Am I a poem? I ask unanswered questions in my poetry too. Reader, if you have any better ideas, I’ll be checking the comments section for help. Am I a poem?

Dale Tracy is the author of the chapbook Celebration Machine (Proper Tales, 2018), the forthcoming chapbook The Mystery of Ornament (above/ground, 2020), and the monograph With the Witnesses: Poetry, Compassion, and Claimed Experience (McGill-Queen’s, 2017). She lives in Kingston, ON, where she teaches at the Royal Military College of Canada.