Thursday, September 28, 2017

Jennifer Pederson : My (small press) writing day

I am up at 6:00 am carefully tip-toeing up the stairs so that I can drink coffee in peace before my granddaughter awakens and fills the day with her chatter and demands. I get a poem (that’s how it works with me) as I cruise Facebook and examine my bitternesses.

Pop! Out it plopped. I have been called a diva by my partner. I told him that I would be writing about my process and he said, “Oh, so a seven-minute emotional barf and then nothing?” As a professional musician and music teacher, I will toil for hours creating a song, endlessly reviewing, tweaking, listening for flaws. I am angered when a poem doesn’t fall out fully formed. Disheartened. I have refused to work, convinced that my inability to lay a golden egg indicates that I must be a terrible goose.

More coffee. More listening to my own music, preparing to fix and to perfect. And more ignoring the poem I just wrote even though it whispers to the back of my brain like a forgotten appointment. I know there’s something I have to do, and I feel guilty for not doing it. Skipping homework. Handing in my assignment late. Forgetting to wear pants to school as in many of my dreams. There’s a lot of shame in there.

Time is ticking. My blissful morning period of creativity will be ended shortly by Esmée’s cries for breakfast and for Totoro. When I was young I could stay up all night creating. Once I turned forty, my internal clock flipped and I became a potato after four o’clock. Morning it is. Morning, with dreams still fresh. My dreams are so vivid that I’ll awaken myself talking. Apparently I also try to pee out windows and fall over bedside tables, concussing myself. So it goes. I've got a few things to work out.

Poetry does that for me. I work out my shit because maybe it’s your shit too, and so perhaps worth something. I'm trying to process horror into beauty. I don't know how else to do it. I try to veer from the confessional, but wind up clever. Which annoys me in both myself and others.

Throughout today I will visit and revisit that poem, skeptical of my own abilities and motivations. Skeptical regarding the worth of what I’m doing. I will send it to some people I love, hoping that perhaps I’ve created something that will get me the “wow!” I get for the music I work so hard to create. But I don’t suppose I work on poetry, unless endlessly chewing my own bones is work.

In order to avoid what I’ve done, I will review other poems of mine. I invariably pronounce them not good enough. The passion of the moment of writing them fades once I put them through the lens of “good poetry.” I feel self-indulgent. I beat myself up for a while. Then I do it again on another morning. And another.

Time. Up until the age of twenty my writing day was quite different. Writing time was all day, every day. I went nowhere without a journal and favourite pen. Lines and sometimes entire poems scribbled on napkins, on receipts. I worked on them just as little as I do now. I have a Rubbermaid bin filled with efforts only worthy of a glance and a cringe now and again. Time pieces nonetheless. A diary of those days in intellectual abortions.

Once children arrived, three in quick succession, this outlet mostly shut its doors. I wrote short fiction for a reading series in Vancouver. I felt that if I produced something once per month, I wasn’t quite dead. My time was eaten by responsibility and the thing that I gave myself the right to pursue—providing what I could for my children.

Now that twenty-four years of raising them has yielded adults and a mostly empty house, I suddenly have an abundance of time. Years of strain and despair from various sources have ended, and I find myself with mental space. These two factors have converged, and I'm writing poetry again without having trained myself well enough to make it a vocation. To call myself a poet.

I love to tell beginning writers that if they write poems, they are poets. I am less equitable with myself. I have been a paid musician for more than half of my life, so I am comfortable calling myself one. I have been legitimized in my own mind by remuneration. However in terms of poetry, I have difficulty not calling myself a hack. This is insecurity. It is also recognition of my own lack of discipline. My gut says that I have no right to rank myself among those who sweat and refine. Who are paid or are well published. I am no poet, so I do not toil. I do not toil, so I am not a poet. A snake eating its own tail.

However time is still a gift. I have more of it than many and I feel a responsibility to make the most of it. I am trying to create a non-abusive work environment for myself. I am trying to be kind.

I let my accomplished poet partner rest an eye on that morning poem. His eye is terrifying in its honesty and unerring in its judgments. He is gentle. Past my morning creative bloom I look at the poem again. I make changes. I work through the afternoon fueled by dill pickle chips and Gatorade.

There is hope.

I work.

Jennifer Pederson is the director of The Sawdust Reading Series. She is a mother, a grandmother, a musician, and a music teacher. Her work has appeared at, in In/Words Magazine, and in the Ottawa Citizen. She has a solo album forthcoming in the spring of 2018. She is finally getting happy.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Robert Martin Evans : Small press writing day

These days I write a few nights a week. I’ll put in a good day’s work then head out to buy some groceries or a couple of IPAs, and I’ll come home with a line blazing in my head. If I get that kind of start I’ll probably go for a few hours. 

I have a small writing desk near the front window. Mostly I use a typewriter here; the platen’s old and rubber stiff, so I double up the pages to soften the key strikes. Still I like to hear it bang. It’s physical, rhythmic; j’affirme ma présence.

I like images and objects and places and how they age or stay the same. If I repeat and re-contextualize certain words, it’s like they mature or ripen. When a poem’s ready the words complete the syntax. I like how a word can change a poem. I adore finding it and placing it and turning the key and feeling the click.

I write in notebooks, and I write on my phone, on the backs of receipts, grocery lists, the inside pages of books, whatever’s around. I type drafts of a few poems at a time, then revise on my computer. Lines come when I’m walking or dreaming or cooking. Sometimes they work out and often they don’t. But sometimes they do and that’s the great magic.   

Robert Martin Evans is a freelance translator and editor. His poetry has appeared (or will appear) in Vallum, Vending Machine Press and Oratorealis, and as one of the Wall Poems of Charlotte. In 2012, he was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. He is a member of the selection committee at

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Lisa Pasold : A typical writing day…

Every day/any day. Everywhere/anywhere. Café tables, bars, kitchen counters. Bus terminals, metros, trains. Paused while standing at my bicycle. Cars, gas stations, airports. I never write on airplanes. I am too busy putting psychic energy into helping to fly the plane while drinking heavily.

I’ve been writing a poem of some kind every day for the past decade, so that’s part of any typical day. All my poetry and much of my prose come from this daily writing. Overheard remarks, passing observations, an interesting turn of phrase in a conversation, street signs, misunderstood foreign words—all of that gets written down in daily notebooks and then recrafted at the desk.

My new book, The Riparian, was mostly written on the terraces of three different cafés: Who Dat in New Orleans, Dionis in Paris, and the Good & Cheap in Hoi An, Vietnam. Here is a photo of the chicken there:

A typical writing day starts with a coffee in a café, accompanied by my very shaggy dog. Often all I do is read. Sometimes I write. Then we walk home, the dog lies on the rug, and I go to my desk, where I spend the rest of the day. I drink a lot of green tea. I work at home—wherever home is at the time. The desk is for writing, journalism, editing— everything, really.

This August photo from Paris is pretty typical of my work area, mid-project (I was writing about literary Paris.) My husband, Bremner Duthie, made me this desk over twenty years ago in Vancouver—every few months, I clear it off and start a new project and marvel at the fact that this desk is still with me, after so many different addresses.

Lisa Pasold’s third book of poetry, Any Bright Horse (Frontenac House, Calgary) was shortlisted for the 2012 Governor General’s Award. She has been thrown off a train in Belarus, eaten the world’s best pigeon pie in Marrakech, and been cheated in the Venetian gambling halls of Ca’Vendramin Calergi. Frontenac House is bringing out her new book, The Riparian, this month.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Karl E. Jirgens : My Writing Day

Yesterday, rob mclennan asked me to prepare a piece on “my writing day” in the style of authors writing similar accounts for the Guardian. I agreed. Overnight, I dreamt this response. I regularly record my dreams with the hope that one day my unconscious will write a great story-line, but the best I’ve managed are grade B movie-plots. The night before, I dreamt of a teenager who invented a laser-apparatus that animated every statue in the city. They all came to life and started going about their business. This “animation” caused congestion on city buses and elevators, but otherwise life went on in its usual mundane manner. – So, I suppose my “writing day” begins at night because in a way, I write in my sleep. Anyway, here’s the response I dreamt of for rob:

Typically, I begin my writing day at my old hardwood desk. The desk has a crack running across the middle. My laptop computer regularly gets stuck on that crack. Sometimes, I imagine my writing is being held back because I work at a cracked desk (it might be bad luck). But, I remember what Leonard Cohen said about how there’s a crack in everything, and that’s how the light gets in. So, maybe this desk is all right. Today, I’m editing a story that I’m sending to a radio station. I’m considering exchanging the semi-colons for colons. In this story, semi-colons represent a connection between the narrative voice and the protagonist’s thoughts. It’s all second-person and sounds like this: “You’re working at a fitness and colonic irrigation centre ruminating about how to re-write your life. You’re thinking; I want to rip the rose-tint sunglasses from the nose of my floundering plot, and march out of this end-of-the-road job forever.” Now, if I replace the semi-colons with colons, then, it diminishes the conceptual link between narrator and protagonist; between, “You’re thinking” and “I want to rip, etc.” Colons are signals to pause, and then move ahead: to list outcomes, proceed to culminations. Semi-colons indicate hesitations stronger than commas; however, they’re weaker than full-stop periods. Acoustically, it’s subtle. I doubt the radio-station people will notice, but I obsess over such things. It might be grammatically correct to change the semi-colons to colons, but it might be conceptually correct to keep the semi-colons. Phil Hall and Gary Barwin both told me that semi-colons are just colons with strap-ons. I’m unsure how that information helps. – When editing, I often pause to read literary tips, including from authors I’ve published in Rampike. Here are a few:  Don’t wait, just write.” (Una McDonnell). Good! I began this piece at night, in my sleep.  Launch with a conflict.” (Rick Mofina). Yes! I’m incensed by global politics, and the U.S. reaction to North-Korean nuclear threats. Tacit public acceptance of militarism horrifies me. We, the Sheeple! “Get out of your comfort zone.” (Jordan Abel). My neighbour cuts his lawn thrice weekly. The noise drives me batty. I agonize over cutting my lawn. I like tall grass. While painting my front porch, I encountered a hornet’s nest and was stung on my right hand. I don’t want to harm the hornets. I deliberate about visiting a walk-in-clinic. My right hand looks like a boxing glove. Read it out loud,” (Carol Shields). Right! bpNichol said the same thing to me years ago in Toronto. It’s a sunny-hot September day. Outside, cicada concertos resonate. Competing insect orchestras assemble in diverse trees. The Oak cicadas’ sonata closes with a gentle diminuendo, the Maple’s orchestra replies with a flourishing crescendo, soon answered by the Pine ensemble’s allargando. – One of my favourites is, “Play with language.” (Kyo Maclear). I consider palindromes, and wonder: “Do geese see god?” I’m sure it works the other way around. I read onward. “Keep your drafts drafty,” (Ryan Knighton). I fear that a hurricane will gut Florida’s nuclear-waste storage sites. I envision sleazy radio-active alligators prowling Miami night-clubs. Write what only you can write.”(Lawrence Hill). It’s comforting to think that there might be some advantage to my eclecticism. I listen to classical music; write fiction; do laundry; discuss the Baltic, NATO and Russia with my son; watch the Gong Show with Bella; and eat marzipan while riding my unicycle. How does that become literature? Then, there’s Cut, cut, cut!” (Carmen Aquirre). FYI, after I wrote this, I cut it by half. So, I’ll stop now. Or, maybe not… my favourite tip is, “Forget the rules.” (Ross Belot). Yes!  I’ll plagiarize openly, disjoin plot-lines, and dangle participles while mocking pointless literary rules. Later today, I’m phoning my agent to announce that I won’t produce anything further until I get a complimentary case of Veuve Clicquot-Ponsardin. So, that’s my writing day; now, back to those semi-colons! KJ

Karl Jirgens, former Head of the English Dept., at U Windsor, is author of four books (Coach House, Mercury, and ECW Presses). He also edited two books, one on painter, Jack Bush, and another on poet, Christopher Dewdney, as well as an issue of Open Letter magazine. His scholarly and creative pieces are published globally. His research on digital media investigates literature and performance. He has new fictions coming out with Fiction International (USA), and with Someone Press (Canada), as well as poetry with Stanza Room Only (Canada), and in Short Flights 2 (USA). He has a scholarly essay forthcoming with McGill Queen’s University Press in Un-archiving the Literary Event. Jirgens is a black-belt grandmaster of Tae Kwon Do. He edited and published Rampike (1979-2016) an international journal featuring contemporary art, writing and theory. He currently serves as a professor at the University of Windsor.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Jean Van Loon : Feeling My Way. September 8, 2017

On the top shelf of the bookcase facing the desk in my study, there’s a white Stelco hard hat with my name on a brass plate affixed over the bill. The hard hat leans against a large black and white knitted cat. The cat was pressed into my possession by a compulsively generous friend when I made the mistake of admiring it during a visit to her house.

A picture of that friend, whom I’d known since Grade 3, is propped on the shelf below the cat. She died last spring after decades of coping in resolute good cheer with various forms of cancer. In the picture, she leans forward with a smile of enthusiastic encouragement that helps me in writing’s darker moments.

The next row down features a small photograph of my father aged about three, dressed in white and gazing with puzzled curiosity toward the camera. My childhood basement held porcelain developing pans. On the same shelf are two small artworks by one of my granddaughters, who carries a shoulder bag filled with sketching supplies wherever she goes. Below that are a couple of books on the Boer War, acquired when I was thinking of writing something set in the era. My father’s father volunteered for that war. His photo, taken in Halifax pre-embarkation, his ammunition belt and bayonet, and a letter from South Africa to his sister in Manitoba, are in a paper bag in the closet to the left of my desk. A couple of Bibles share the shelf with the Boer War books, available for a dip when I crave the rhythms of King James prose.

No one of these bookcase items has inspired a poem or story. But they confirm my rootedness in this space and remind me of the richness of life’s small details.

Originally this room served for sewing, ironing and the hiding and wrapping of gifts. Over the years, the sewing gear moved away and the drawers of the credenza behind my desk filled with stationery, files, clippings for inspiration, computer and sotftware manuals, and specialized cords for successive generations of electronics.

My desk itself is actually a writing table, its legs cut down a bit to suit my height. Normally it is covered by heaps of more or less organized books and papers, my preferred reminder system being visual, my most effective motivation being to get one more thing off the desk.

At the moment, desk and room are unusually tidy, having been emptied ten days ago for a paint job. The books have been weeded down to poetry and short fiction that I might actually want to consult. The new wall colour, slightly less yellow than the one I’d enjoyed for many years, is called “Sand Castle.” It is my hope that it will free my mind to roam in empty spaces where interesting shapes and sounds may emerge.

I took my first literary workshop in my fifties. By then, my work habits had been formed by years of office jobs. I get up between six and seven, depending (now that I have retired) on the light from the east window. After an initial mug of coffee and radio news with my husband in our bedroom, I get dressed, eat breakfast with him at the kitchen table he built, and go to my study, with greater or lesser dilly-dallying on the way.  Usually I work till 12:30 or 1:00. Then, after lunch, go for a long walk. This routine-based approach used to feel wrong to me as an aspiring creative person, until I learned about Alex Colville. Six days a week, he put on a jacket and tie, and after breakfast walked upstairs to his studio. There, he took off his jacket, hung it up, and worked until noon. I don’t suppose he dilly-dallied.

Jean Van Loon, an Ottawa writer, holds an MFA from UBC. Her short prose, poetry and reviews have appeared in numerous Canadian literary magazines. Her first book of poems, Building on River, will be published by Cormorant Press in April 2018.