Monday, March 30, 2020

On Writing #171 : Claire Lacey

On Writing
Claire Lacey

I have been delaying this piece for well over a year now (sorry rob!). What do I want to say about writing? For me, it’s a fraught process, unlinear, and currently, physically painful. I have arthritis (maybe it’s gout, I am waiting on blood results as I write this) developing in my left hand, and ongoing issues working on screens from multiple concussions. I often feel I am doing writing wrong: I don’t have a daily practice, I have bursts of productivity and long slumps where I do nothing. I publish inconsistently. I have so many projects in the wings. Sometimes deadlines help me generate work, and sometimes they paralyze me. I feel lazy. I joke that I am a professional crastinator. Sometimes I feel okay that I move at my own speed, that this is just how I work and I am more a slow drip coffee than an espresso. Yes, it’s time for another cup of coffee.

Writing is how I think. It is how I work out problems. My first book was written as a kind of ethical dilemma, a book that was by necessity problematic, as I, a white Canadian woman, a teacher and scholar, tried to unpack the language politics of Papua New Guinea, a place I had never been. That project was a response to the linguistic textbooks and case studies I had been reading, which discussed the pidgin spoken in Papua New Guinea in dismissive terms. At the time, I was also an English language teacher, and I had trouble with the amount of authority I was often given by my students, most of whom were older and more experienced than I was. I wanted to work through the ethical problems I was encountering, and I wanted to show and share that process. In some ways, I think of it as the same as showing the work in mathematics. I do it so that errors can be found, argued, addressed. For me, writing is not about being right, but rather, a way of thinking-through and engaging with broader conversations around particular topics. What I write is always interconnected with what I am reading, seeing, learning, doing and feeling.

Recently, I wrote on Twitter about an anti-abortion billboard. I had a kind of internal debate over whether I was bringing additional publicity to something meant to shame women and skew the ongoing debate about decriminalizing abortion in New Zealand—the billboard included a misleading image showing a much later term pregnancy than the 20 weeks currently under discussion. It coopted the language of Black Lives Matter. Almost immediately after I had done this public writing, I had my email address attached to a fake dating site profile and was flooded with notifications. Fairly innocuous as doxing goes, but a reminder that it is important that I continue to use my platforms to write. The complaints I lodged with the Advertising Standards Association were dismissed, as the billboards apparently are opinion and so the inaccuracies break no rules. How much more necessary, then, to publicly rebut the shaming of people who have had or will have abortion procedures.

My current project is about my experience with brain injury. I am writing a creative/critical PhD where I use poetry to represent that experience, and to explore the current scientific knowledge around brain injury. I love using poetry to navigate the space between medical literature, meant for medical practitioners, and first-person narratives. What does brain injury feel like? How does sensory disturbance alter a sense of selfhood? How does the way we represent brain injury influence care paradigms? Again I use writing as a way of navigating a complex interdisciplinary space, a space where public and personal collide. Sometimes I think this is important work that could potentially help other people with brain injury feel seen and understood. Sometimes I think it is a self-indulgent practice. Probably it is both.

The hard part of writing is that it can take time before there is a response. It can feel like shouting at the ocean. The orca don’t really mind, but they aren’t interested either. Then out of the blue, a reader gets in touch. Or perhaps another writer or translator engages with your work. It lives. Whatever the response, the conversation has happened. And that’s the real magic.

Claire Lacey is a Canadian writer and global meanderer. Her first book, Twin Tongues, won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her most recent book is Selkie, a graphic novel collaboration with illustrator Sachie Ogawa. Claire is currently pursuing a creative/critical PhD on brain injury and poetry at the University of Otago in New Zealand. She can be found online at

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Talking Poetics #15 : Eric Baus

Lately I will re-discover a file on my computer with a title that I don’t remember writing. Then I open it and re-work the contents into the shape of my current impulses and concerns. I think it’s fair to say that I work from a “scattering of notebook entries” but with an eye toward smoothing out the transition points.

I often write toward certain gestures that I’m using at the time and merge an older sensibility of mine with a newer one. For example, a while ago I wrote a poem called “Minnow Pulses” (link to poem in Jubilat ) that is built of phrases containing a larger image embedded in a smaller image (“The ocean in a jellyfish. The sky in a cloud. The storm in a worm.” etc.) and I liked how clean and simple that form was while remaining evocative. After writing that poem I have tried to use that move here or there while also evolving in it different ways. 

There is always the danger of forcing the old fragments into a new shape in a way that feels too artificial. However, if I can trust the previous self enough to preserve some of the surprise that drove the earlier draft while also allowing it to drift in new directions, then I usually end of keeping the result. 

I have a file open on my computer now that is called “And everything and I started seeing” which is an echo of the final line of Frank O’Hara’s poem “The Day Lady Died” ( “…and everyone and I stopped breathing”) and probably is also influenced by the title of my friend Whit Griffin’s book We Who Saw Everything

The lines of poetry inside that file are in prose, and I can tell that some of them are collaged from previous poems that I’ve written while others borrow syntax from friends’ work or other writers. Inger Christensen’s book/poem Alphabet has been in the back of my mind for the past few years, and reading her work helped my write the poem “Minnow Pulses”, which I’m now using as a template to grow and graft new language upon. 

Eric Baus is the author of five books of poetry: How I Became a Hum (Octopus 2019),
The Tranquilized Tongue (City Lights 2014), Scared Text (Center for Literary Publishing,
2011), Tuned Droves (Octopus Books, 2009), and The To Sound (Wave Books, 2004). He teaches literature and creative writing at Regis University’s Mile High MFA program in Denver, where he is assistant director and core faculty in poetry. His latest is the chapbook Euphorbia (above/ground press, 2020).

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

On Writing #170 : Michael Sikkema

Automatic Writing and Good Company
Michael Sikkema

I used to stutter pretty badly and couldn’t talk much to people outside of my immediate family. I had to go to speech therapy, practice reading out loud a lot, and do vocal exercises. I had to come up with strategies to deal with the stuttering.

I experience(d) speech as contradictory.

Around some people, I’d stutter, get hung up on a consonant and then fall silent.

Often I couldn’t say my own name.

Around others, I never shut up, and wove together cartoon voices, punch lines, non sequitors, and dramatic lines from whatever tv show my parents were into at the time. Flow was the goal. Comedians who could “machine gun” impersonations and morph their voice into several other ones, they were my heroes.

Far from hanging up on a sound, they were a site where several sounds came bursting forth and all the rules of time and space and the individual subject were shattered.


“Language speaks” is a usable idea despite the problematic nature of the source, and since it’s true, it hardly would have mattered if Heidegger had dissolved as a zygote. Language and its invisible net shapes our understanding as it surrounds, permeates and flows through us.


As a kid, as a teen, as a 20 something, as a new dad, I would watch cartoons, especially Warner Brothers and Hanna Barbera because I was obsessed with Mel Blanc. At first, I just liked his voices, and thought of them as cousins, kind of. I could tell that they were related but didn’t understand how. Later, I was amazed that he could fit all those cartoon characters inside him, and would spend time trying to figure out how they stacked up, who stood where. I’m pretty sure I was imagining some sort of nanotechnology. I’m more convinced of that now. 


When I start to write, I (try to) disappear and listen with my pen, a tuning fork. I (try to) acknowledge the site where the voices cross/gather. A person reaches into their skull via their face and throws the ink onto pages, Jurassic technology. Or, my thesis statement is a quilt of pissed off ghosts, a river or two. Emily Dickinson: “One need not be a chamber to be haunted.”


Emily Dickinson: “Nature is a haunted house, but art a house that tries to be haunted.”


When Blanc was working on cartoons, he would do the voices working from a storyboard then the animators would draw to accommodate the voices. Pre-birth we float in a world of sounds, including voices. Later we learn to draw and then write which is just more abstract drawing. Writing IS drawing. Someone’s hand gripped our hand as it formed letters, and we both mouthed the sounds at the same time. I draw poems to accommodate the voices.


After Mel Blanc was in a car crash and suffered a triple skull fracture, he was in a coma for two weeks and was unresponsive. His son sat with him, talking, calling him dad, pops, etc, no response. Other family members and friends did the same. Mel’s body was there but wasn’t animated. When a resident doctor sat with him one afternoon, and asked how Bugs was, Blanc responded in character. Or Bugs responded, depending how you look at it. When the same doctor asked for Porky Pig or Tweety or Foghorn Leghorn or Sylvester, it was the same story, there they were and there Mel was saying them into the room. After a few rounds of this, Mel Blanc as Mel Blanc was back in the room, eyes open, talking as himself, whatever that means.


Frottage. A sheet thrown over a ghost for form. Tattoos pushing up through your skin to warn you about ink in the air. There are the winds and they speak, occasionaly hooking through our lungs to do so, we’re bottles, wet lips properly pointed.


An automatic writer lights up the language that was already there, waiting to be here. Like genes waiting to curl your eyelashes or web your toes or give you red hair, language is possible, virtual, before it’s actualized in meat or air or print or pixels.

One imagines the letters reaching up through the paper to guide the pen as the grooves on a record guide the stylus. This might seem crackpot, but the box I typed it into suggests words and “corrects” my spelling.


I shouted words into the leopard print blanket, shouted for an hour, then shook them loose off the front porch, seems obvious that they ended up on streetsigns, in emails, and in sexts. You’re welcome.


Writing and walking are natural acts if we understand both as mark making. Walking an established trail is both reading and writing, with landscape as palimpsest. To take a step is to leave a mark. To take a step on an established trail is to follow marks that have been left. One marks over the marks that are there already.  Voices braid.


As a stutterer, I was silent most of the time, language roared through my head from every direction, I rode out a constant stream of thoughts on top of my thoughts . . . potential speech like light streaming through a day. Later then, I started recording my voice to practice ‘efficient speech.’ I also started practicing my script, the usual things I’d have to say on any given day. Redundant, empty, word as currency, hollow. Some weather. How are you?


According to neuroscientist Steven Kotler, what happens neuroanatomically in the brain of the animated automatic writer is called transient hypofrontality (not an easy phrase for a stutterer). The dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex (where our sense of mortality, will, linear time, self-direction, inner criticism, and self seem to stem from) is quieted. The automatic writer shares this experience with the dreamer, the person high on drugs, anyone experiencing a deep spiritual experience of cosmic unity. I’d say that’s pretty good company.

Michael Sikkema is a poet, visual poet, collage artist, and is learning to write songs. He lives in the Great Lakes area, which is often confused with the Midwest, (which of course does not exist.)