Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Amanda Bell : ‘My Writing Day’, 9 May 2019

When my kids were small it was much easier to have a fixed routine. We got up at a set time, walked to school, and I had the house to myself for long uninterrupted periods. Nowadays, with two young adult children living at home, and elderly parents a couple of hours away, things are much more amorphous. I try to set objectives at the beginning of each month, and tick them off as I go, prescribing routines for fixed periods of time. I find that being in a state of flow is the only way anything comes to fruition: A writing life rather than a writing day. This can be a difficult balance. I’m quite suggestible and easily distracted by things I find ‘interesting’. One way of dealing with this is to have a list of five priorities at any given time. These must include family, and mental and physical health, which includes exercise of some sort (Feldenkrais, yoga, walking, gardening, swimming). So, when an idea, proposition or suggestion arises I use this list to assess whether it can fit in with my long-term agenda. In theory, anyway.

Another, and important, practice is to write last thing at night when my mind has already entered a dream state. I’m at a late stage of drafting a middle-grade novel, much of which was composed in this way. Longer poems sometimes emerge fully formed; and a haiku practise is an excellent way of anchoring yourself. Writing as you fall asleep seems to free up the brain, and results in productive dreaming. I will then wake up during the night to write things down in short bursts (aspirational – see below), because if the phrase is lost, it is gone forever. The ideal for me is to wake up early having slept and dreamt deeply. In that sort of fugue state I can pick up a pen straight away and write up whatever has presented itself.

The desk is the last place to go when in creative flow, and is best for transcribing work written in longhand, or for editing. I’m about to embark on a redrafting of my novel, which is going to require iron discipline, computer with internet disconnected, and lots of large sheets of paper stuck up on the wall for maps and narrative arcs. I’m currently front-loading other commitments in order to devote myself completely to this. 

My official work space is a zone of multiple distractions, so I attach a photograph of a wild place at the end of the garden to which I can retreat with my notebook. Ideal conditions for writing include plenty of silence. I find listening to anything while I’m thinking stressful and distracting. Physical activity is helpful – gardening, walking, swimming, any type of crafting that I’m moderately good at and can get lost in. As soon as the mind is empty, something will materialise – often fully formed. I’ve learned to have confidence in the process. My ‘writing day’ for the last 24 hours (interwoven with domestics, phone calls, emails, gardening, and trying to recover from ten days of conferences and festivals) has been something like this:

Yesterday afternoon: I managed to edit two haibun I’ve been working on for a couple of months and submit them to a journal which prefers hard-copy submissions, (walking to the post office = the physical activity quotient of the day) and to finish a couple of poems which I’ve been tinkering with for a while. I have unexpected visitors arriving this afternoon, which necessitates trying to clear a path through the various piles of books, papers, shoes, clothes and cat toys strewn around our house. As usual, forced myself to write in my sleep-state before dropping off. Often feel this is pointless but the results can be surprising.


6am tried to remember the poem that had drifted into my head after I turned the lights off last night. Failed. Cursed. Got up, showered and dressed; various domestics.

8am critiqued a couple of poems for friends I exchange work with.

9am – 11am Prepared for a bilingual reading that I’m doing with Gabriel Rosenstock next week. Formatted it, emailed him a copy for his appro, then printed it out. I’m going to stay with my parents for a few days, so it’s good to have done this well in advance. Now all I have to do is prepare my intros for the evening, as I am also ‘emcee’-ing.

11am. Started to promote the forthcoming reading by a posting on Twitter and a mass email.

12. Rewrote this article for the fourth time.

12.45. Collected daughter number 2 from the tram. Dropped into local shops to buy pears for a pear frangipane tart.

1.30. Quick lunch.

2-3pm Various online displacement activities.

3. Some email exchanges re an article I wrote recently.

My brain goes into a slump from 3.30pm to 10pm, so it’s time to make that tart. Guests due any minute.

Amanda Bell is a Dublin-based poet, writer, editor and reviewer. Her most recent book is the loneliness of the sasquatch, a transcreation from the Irish of Gabriel Rosenstock (Alba Publishing, 2018). Her poetry collection First the Feathers (Doire Press, 2017) was shortlisted for the Shine Strong Award for best first collection, and her poem ‘Points’ was shortlisted for Irish Poem of the Year 2017. Her haibun collection Undercurrents (Alba, 2016) came second in the Haiku Society of America’s Merit Book Award and was shortlisted for a Touchstone Distinguished Books Award. She has written an illustrated children’s book (The Lost Library Book, The Onslaught Press, 2017) and is working on a middle-grade econovel.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Alexander Dickow : my (small press) writing day

For François Cornilliat and Mary Shaw

Each poet tends to fall to one side of the debate between deliberate labor and inspiration, of willful work or furor poeticus. But the careful laborer and the possessed Ion ultimately both seek ways to provoke happy accidents, and one cannot plan an accident. This task requires a rhapsodic approach; I cannot write in linear progression, from one line to the next. I need to invent a series of entryways, and combine these, working recursively, constructing the poem as a mosaic or a work of marquetry, constantly resisting the impulse toward intuitive continuities in favor of fresh conceits. Words constantly attract words with neighboring values; waves tend spontaneously to roll or tumble rather than to trill or to fade. Pages tend to turn or flip rather than to stumble or to click; feet tend to stroll or wander rather than to vibrate or to stutter. Convention acts as a centripetal force, drawing words toward one another in combinations that appear natural. One cannot simply céder l’initiative aux mots, leave the initiative to words, as Mallarmé wrote: or else, one must follow the words but not our impulses with regard to them, in a perpetual attempt to resist our habits of thought and speech. The rhapsodic impulse works centrifugally against convention. Different poets work at different scales; some accept the centripetal force of convention between words in order to combine sentences or passages in unconventional ways, but all poets must somehow negotiate the tension between expectation and counterintuition.
          The café provides a naturally rhapsodic environment. I am pointedly not watching the world go by. Two women are discussing their aspirations in Christian ministry and faith ; I wonder how their conversation affects the writing process of the neighboring Jew daydreaming about his writing process. The writer, of course, resembles a monk, but the hum of human life around me seems vital to my supposedly ascetic activity. The word inspired returns over and over in their conversation, but in faith as in writing, I believe in doing, inspired or not ; debatably, this confidence in the ritual act rather than the reliance on unpredictable inspiration has a strong Jewish resonance. I prefer the provocation to the accident, while Ion prefers to emphasizes the accident over the process that provokes it.
          The opposition to ascetic isolation also inhabits Judaism : the Christian tradition emphasizes distance from the world in favor of the spiritual ; Jewish practice affirms an engagement with that world ; our very appetites may serve godliness. This idea also has a place in the Christian tradition, by way of Rabelais, for instance : Gaster, human god of our appetitive nature, gives rise to the best and worst of human enterprises, but the ascetic distance of Stoic apatheia cannot provide an adequate compass for action and decision, for we live in the world.
          The café sustains my writing process with an echo of the world. Around me, people wonder whether or not they ought to get married, while only the Dive Bouteille, the divine bottle, will provide them an answer. Writing is a confounding series of similar decisions, just as arbitrary and just as decisive, and the poem, like the Dive Bouteille, remains out of reach, just over the next wave, on the island of happy souls, though we settle for our own offal, and claim it smells of saffron. Panurge’s final metaphor encapsulates the poetic process, the alchemy that transforms excremental words into a delightful spice. Rabelais wrote an ars poetica.
          Must one find one’s voice in writing ? Perhaps attempting to shape words beyond the pressures of convention and habit is instead an attempt to escape our voice, to the extent that the latter represents our tics and our spontaneous impulses. I am always trying to write someone else’s poem. To imagine a way out.

Alexander Dickow is associate professor of French at Virginia Tech. He is a bilingual poet and translator who works in French and English, and a scholar of modern and contemporary French and Francophone literature and film. His poetic works include Appetites (MadHat Press, 2018), Trial Balloons (Corrupt Press, 2012), Rhapsodie curieuse (Louise Bottu, 2017), and Caramboles (Argol Editions, 2008). His translation with Sean T. Reynolds of Air of Solitude and Requiem by Gustave Roud is forthcoming from Seagull Books in November 2019. He is currently working on a novel, The First Supper

Friday, May 17, 2019

Anna Veprinska: My Writing Day

I began collecting kaleidoscopes when I was ten years old. On a visit to family in Israel, my father asked what I’d like him to bring back as a gift. I’m not sure how the idea of a kaleidoscope slipped into my mind, but the slipping turned into a two decade long fascination with the miniature, mosaic, cylindrical worlds. Kaleidoscopes became a way of entering places through magic.

I began writing poetry in a similar way. One day, when I was seven years old, I asked my father for a notebook, which (like the kaleidoscope) he procured for me with an ease that could not possibly recognize the irrevocable effect this gift would have on my life. When my father gave me the notebook, I don’t remember if I understood what poetry was, but I started to write it. It shook loose from my very bones.

If kaleidoscopes were a metaphor for my poems, then the metaphor would look like this: each turn of the kaleidoscope sends the trinkets that create the colourful landscapes into unexpected patterns. Years later, I understand how kaleidoscopes work, with their positioning of mirrors and eye piece and beads. I’ve even built a few kaleidoscopes. But at ten years old – really, even today – when the pieces came together, it could only be explained by magic.

With poetry, too, each day stumbles upon the unexpected. There is no preconceived mould into which I have been able to shape my work – no particular poetic form, no particular physical location that oils the pouring of words. I’ve studied poetry, even written a Ph.D. dissertation on it, but the fragments and lines that make their way into my work are still the erratic turns of a kaleidoscope; their coming together, in many ways, can only be explained by a kind of magic.

Whatever form it takes, my writing day is always an attempt to reach for this magic. So I carry a notebook and pen everywhere I go, capturing the kaleidoscopic turns but also tugging at them, inviting them in with the (part-fearful, part-brave) fascination of a child.

The many writings I do – poetic, academic, commercial – although born from distinct intents into the hands of diverse readers, feed each other with the hand of creativity. I find pleasure, though certainly not an equal pleasure, in each through my participation in the others.

And so my writing day is – as I’m certain it is for other writers whose minds serve as the battleground on which structure and creativity (not mutually exclusive) wage war – not very much about what each hour holds. Instead, my writing day is about what the words on that day look like, the movements they make toward one another, the ways in which they bend their faces toward the light so those near can catch a glimpse of their particular magic.

Anna Veprinska is a poet and scholar. She has published a collection of poetry, Sew with Butterflies (Steel Bananas), and has had poems published in or forthcoming from 8 Poems, Echolocation, Labour of Love, and Cherwell. She holds a SSHRC-funded Ph.D. in English from York University, where she specialized in poetry after trauma, and a Master’s in English from the University of Oxford. Her academic writing has been published in Contemporary Literature and The Bristol Journal of English Studies. You can find her on Twitter @splitendedpoem

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Shannon Webb-Campbell : My Small Press Writing Day

I’d be lying if I gave you a detailed schedule of my writing day. It’s a little more haphazard, yet the words come, days go, hours pass. Weeks, months, years, lifetimes. I am still writing. Sometimes I am on a speeding train between Montreal and Toronto, other days I am sitting in my kitchen in Montreal’s Plateau. I am still writing even though I am starring out the window, or counting the bricks on wall, calling them almost poems.

Today I am on the terrace. It’s one of the first few warm spring days – the birds are up, and the trees are bursting. I am thinking about writing, and the thinking is part of writing. It’s opening up the mental space in order to let thoughts to come, ideas to arrive, and concepts to form.

I would like to say I write in the notes section of my phone in line at the grocery, and on the back of receipts, as if writing has no consequence, and there is some element of whimsy or divine intervention to it all. But that’s not entirely true. Fragments, or ideas sometimes come quick, and so I jot them down, but writing is more complex and temper mental.

A practice is a practice is a practice. Writing is part of breathing. Sometimes part of my practice is walking in the woods, other times its writing lists. I think it’s all part of the process, or rituals of writing. When writing sings, it is a deep connection to an ancient knowing, yet most often writing feels like hacking up a lung, coughing in failure

I do think different genres of writing require different spaces. While writing academic papers I often find myself in institutional spaces like libraries, and universities. It helps sharpen my wits, so to speak. Critical or journalistic writing seems to be something I do around a city or place – in bars, cafes, and mostly in borrowed kitchens.

Critical writing, editorial work, or academic work is typically done on a computer. There’s is a rotation of coffee, still water, soda water, and/or kombucha. If it’s later in the evening, sometimes I will write with a glass of wine. I’m always listening to music – which is the ultimate fuel for writing and being. I light candles (I know, how cliched). I like a full belly.

Poetry is more allusive. Often poetry comes when I am not thinking about writing – I could be swimming, hiking, at a yoga class, or drifting off in thought mid conversation. I don’t think I write actual poems in these moments, but lines or notes towards a poem. Sometimes I jot them down, and they become part of a poem or poems, other times they drift into the ether. On these types of days, I remind myself of an editor who kept the following words posted on his fridge: you only fail if you stop writing. 

I’m still writing.
I’m still writing.
I’m still writing.

Shannon Webb-Campbell is a mixed-Indigenous (Mi’kmaq) settler poet, writer, and critic currently based in Montreal. Her first book, Still No Word (2015) was the inaugural recipient of Egale Canada’s Out In Print Award. She was Canadian Women in the Literary Arts Critic-in-Residence in 2014, and sits on Canadian Women in the Literary Arts board of directors. Her work has appeared in many anthologies, journals and publications across Canada including The Globe and Mail, Geist Magazine, The Malahat Review, Canadian Literature, Room, and Quill and Quire. In 2017 she facilitated a book club-style reading of The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada at Atwater Library in Montreal; she also championed Carol Daniel’s novel Bearskin Diary for CBC Montreal’s Turtle Island Reads. I Am a Body of Land is her latest book.