When it works, it goes something like this:
1. I start with a question or a set of questions, a discomfort, a hunch. Sometimes it has to do with the way people are talking to one another. Sometimes I want to respond to an event, the conditions, something in the world.
2. I prototype. Maybe I do something that’s worked for me before. Maybe I cop an approach from someone or somewhere else.
3. The prototype settles into some kind of processual container that helps me think. I serialize that container until it hits some kind of limit.
4. I take that serialized mess and try to comb it into something that has a shape or an arc, not necessarily narrative, not necessarily dialectical, but where it makes some kind of slant sense as a thread of thought.
Ultimately, this is meant as a messy kind of way to look to poetics as a mode of thinking or even research, to do things that “academic” research methodologies can’t. This is probably always the way I worked, though it didn’t completely make sense to me until I was doing academic research in an intensive way. Poetry isn’t magic, but it might be utopian, making allowances for different ways of thinking. I think that’s important even if I get annoyed sometimes with other poets who lean a bit too hard on that sense of possibility.
I’ve always been resistant to writing a poetics statement like this, because the thing we sometimes call craft is still bound up with a sense that there are right and wrong ways to write. We carry around all these truisms (show don’t tell, use only necessary words, etc.) about how to write a poem that maybe we picked up in an MFA workshop or on the not-so-hard streets of Poetryworld. They’re things we swallowed for our own good – and they are useful, don’t get me wrong – but all of it could be replaced with a more exploratory practice related to the way poetic form shapes thinking. Which isn’t anything new, but it is something we need to remind ourselves of.
So maybe, to get more nuts and bolts, I can talk about how I worked through a suite of poems in my next book Coast Mountain Foot (forthcoming in 2022, probably). The poems started as an attempt to write during my bus commute up and down Burnaby Mountain by tapping short-lined pieces into the notes app on my phone. The size of the lines was driven by the restrictions of my phone, but were also informed by the short lines of Robert Creeley. I wrote a few of these and shelved them after realizing that tapping out these poems set off my motion sickness. I came back to them a few years later out of a desire to cobble something together out of all my stray pieces of work. The form of these Creeleyesque bus pieces allowed me to be attentive to the spaces around me. I joined the pieces to a joke I had been making that I wanted to write a book that voiced all my complaints about Vancouver, reversing the gesture of George Bowering’s Rocky Mountain Foot, where he complains pretty vociferously about Calgary. Instead, the poems gave me a chance to reflect on both cities, their approaches to urban development, and what it was like for me to shuttle between them literally and conceptually.
When I started writing the poems, they looked something like this:
A century wide
lot to renovict.
Stand each façade up
to make a block.
art is only
art a buckling
no teary hold.
Even though this poem ended up in the manuscript (along with a few more like it), after a while I found this style obscured my thinking in a way I didn’t want. I like this poem. It has a nice swing from couplet to couplet, but my problem is precisely this dependence on parataxis that carried over not only from my earlier work, but from other poems I was writing concurrently for another project. The tightness of the parataxis limits how I can write through the things I was thinking about: the problems around heritage homes, the celebratory vibes of Calgary’s Wreck City, the way these crash against the renovictions that were an epidemic in Vancouver at that moment.
My solution, worked out over weeks of writing, was to maintain the parataxis, but loosen it, stretching images and observations out so that the poems could carry more of the things I was trying to be attentive to. This is maybe a roundabout way to say that I started writing lyric poems, but I don’t like the way that just snaps me into a genre category instead of acknowledging that the lyric carries a set of formal possibilities too. The newest poems in the manuscript look something like this:
on the north side.
Across the street,
A block down
courtesy of Westbank
we can do?
of value generation?
(an art space
formerly Selector’s Records).
That’s great, but
to this piece
Hotel in Calgary?
for the development
of the East Village.”
Studio Bell, near
the new library.
gets sung in
an emptied space?
This poem trades the terse abutments of the first poem for the leisureliness of the walk (something that has a very specific history in Vancouver poetry). Other poems written like this trade the walk for the coffee shop window, the bus ride, or the bed of my Mount Pleasant garden suite. The decision to stretch out the angular shifts actually makes the angles seem to disappear. The kind of aggressive specificity that gets papered over in the first poem’s suggestiveness is very upfront here, making it clear, I hope, when the shift from Vancouver to Calgary happens, allowing the content, rather than the form, of the juxtaposition to be the focus of the poem. The poems of the manuscript play between the formal poles set up by these two poems, teasing at the possibilities of putting together the pieces of urban life that seems so fragmentary or contradictory even when we understand that the systems and places we live in are connected.
What I hope I’m making clear here is the way that form and content lead one another through a kind of open-ended decision making. Writing, for me at least, needs to find ways to be intuitive and improvisational within a form-oriented process, though maybe that’s only because every time I try to plan things ahead of time, I write myself into a ditch.
ryan fitzpatrick lives and writes in Toronto. He is the author of two books of poetry: Fortified Castles (Talon, 2014) and Fake Math (Snare, 2007).