Monday, December 18, 2017

Jennifer Baker : My (Small Press) Writing Day

I don’t want to sound precious when I describe my writing process, but for years there has been a particular horror bubbling up when left to my own thoughts while writing in isolation. I have had to learn to pick my way between two voices. The first: you are not smart enough to earn a doctorate; your writing is shit, and you’re shit; you’ll always be almost smart, but never very impressive; nothing you do will ever matter; you don’t matter. The other: Get up. Go get it. Go back and make them call you Doctor Baker. Make them feel how thoroughly you’ve scrubbed your name from their mouths. The first doesn’t feel like it belongs to me. The other is still so hot with rage it scares me. By now I recognize both voices as responses to trauma, and I’m starting to learn to push them aside while writing and give them room elsewhere, later, where it’s safe. As I write in that room full of colleagues with their own writing struggles, I wonder what we would hear if our inner monologues were amplified.

I think it says a great deal about my writing day that I have rewritten this particular blog post four times.

I try to reserve Thursdays for writing, and this particular Thursday, I stuff my laptop and several books into my bag and walk the 20 minutes to campus. I’ve started working with a writing group that meets Thursday mornings at the university. We begin by setting intentions and then working for two hours of dedicated dissertation time from 10-noon. I’ve worked with many of its members since the first, second, and third years of my doctorate, and the combination of guilt and comfort is the perfect combination for focus.

There is a part of me that knows I began the PhD at a sprint and in rage, running from the chasm that had opened up between myself and home in a catastrophe of grief. I disappeared. For a long time, grad school was a way to make sure I stayed gone. Several years of therapy later, I’m well aware of the machinations of this impulse and have shifted my priorities to discover new reasons for urgency that extend outward as intellectual curiosity, rather than inward as masochism (most of the time). I have bought that shift with time, though, and spending almost a decade writing a dissertation is nothing if not a working through. I wouldn’t trust anyone who would avoid admitting it.

Poetry and scholarship get worked out work in tandem somewhere beneath consciousness, and somehow, they both brush up against my urgent questions about the deep structures of abuse, whether it be interpersonal or systemic or ecological. On the surface, a dissertation about the history of Canadian literature’s fascination with farm work and its implications and poetry about abuse or apology don’t seem intimately connected. And yet I am the conduit between them. This is not something I’d say at my thesis defense.

So today I edit my final chapter—about object-oriented ontology and the Georgics and Canadian poetry—until noon. Then I go for coffee and chat with friends, revel in the little community I can’t stay in forever. I come back to my office on campus and do some editing work for Arc, and begin drafting some queries for a chapbook I’ve already written but have held onto for another six months: it was an ambitious project. I had wanted to print the final version of three poems on seed paper that could be planted, so I made a couple of prototypes myself, on a Thursday night, several months ago. I linocut the words, because the paper was too delicate (heat would destroy the viability of the seeds) and too thick to fit into my printer, and hand-stitched the covers. The prototypes are sitting on my desk, now, because I didn’t like them, after all of that. I enjoyed learning to construct them, but these first constructions are amateurish because I am an amateur. Maybe I’ll try again. Maybe I’ll ask for help. I haven’t decided. My heart is still set on their being plant-able, and there must be a way.

After dinner, I turn to edit a new poem for a new project. No writing this time, because the subject would take too much out of me, and I’m not in the mood to go there. But with the bare materials I can try to stretch my language beyond cicadas.  I turn on my fake fireplace and my cat nestles herself into a bun at the base of my chair. I begin to pick away at the poem, intimate with the knowledge that my sense of comfort and safety is deliberately manufactured. Go get it.

Jennifer Baker is a Part-Time Professor and doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa, and the incoming Reviews Editor for Arc Magazine. Her first chapbook, Abject Lessons, was published in 2014 by above/ground press. Her poetry and reviews have since been published in The Journal of Canadian Poetry, illiterature, Dusie, Ottawater, The Bird, Philomela, and The Bull Calf Review. She also recently performed her poetry in collaboration with Natalie Hanna and Aella, an Ottawa women’s choir headed by Jennifer Berntson, for Her Voice (June 2017), and with Just Food’s Canada 150 Wine and Words tour (August 2017).

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