Wednesday, March 21, 2018

R.Kolewe : My (small press) Writing Day

Prefatory disclaimer: Mostly this was written in October 2017, and has then spent several months lying fallow while I tried to figure out how to shorten it, which is what you’re reading here. Since then my typical writing day has changed a bit, but some of this was semi-fictional anyway.

The day begins with Charlotte, the cat with whom I share the house, informing me that she can see the bottom of her food dish, which is not good. This usually happens sometime after sunrise, later in the winter than the summer; today, about 7:15. I go downstairs to the kitchen, closely supervised by Charlotte, and refill (or top up) her food dish, then head back upstairs. Shower, dress, that sort of thing, go back downstairs to the kitchen, put a croissant in the warming oven, 200ºF, and turn on the espresso machine which takes about ten minutes to get to its operating temperature of 220ºF by which time the croissant will be as close to fresh as a day-old croissant can get. Charlotte is in her favourite spot on the kitchen table, keeping an eye on what exactly I’m getting out of the refrigerator. It’s orange juice, in which she has no interest.

Anyway, when the espresso machine reaches its operating temperature I grind coffee beans, tamp the ground coffee, and make a large cup of espresso. It’s getting close to 9:00 now. While I’m having my espresso and croissant (breakfast generally) I read “the news” on my iPad, which means scanning headlines and reading what’s interesting. There have been times when I’ve gotten quite obsessive about this but I think the addiction is under control now. I regularly read the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail, the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Financial Times, as well as a bunch of blogs on finance, poetry, photography, physics, and Toronto politics, typically 60 or 70 articles most of which I won’t read in depth. I stay away from Twitter almost completely and would like to do the same with Facebook, which is difficult given it’s become the default place to announce events and a lot of people have replaced email with Facebook Messenger; still I’ve learned it’s best to avoid even glancing at the FB news feed, which is a stream of poison. No doubt I miss things that way but it seems better for my mental health. But I’m told it’s important for writers to maintain a social media presence: my concession to that is my Instagram account, where I mostly post pictures of Charlotte and books I’m reading. And that winds up on FB.

Anyway, today the news is pretty uneventful. And it’s almost 11:00. I make a second cup of espresso. Charlotte is asleep on the kitchen table across from me, very cute. I’m done with the news. I’ve made notes on a few things I want to follow up on. I find my reading generally takes three paths: things I read that are related to my work, things I stumble upon in my news reading (this leads to that which leads to...) or via friends, and things I read for pure pleasure. Right now I’m working on (and I really wonder if “work” is the right word; maybe “playing with” would be better) three “projects:” a series of poems that interrogate the idea of landscape, which I described to someone a little while ago as “a quantum-mechanical critique of the pastoral,” whatever that means; revisions of a book-length poem called The Absence of Zero which is about memory, time, and the 20th century (I just described that one as a quantum-gravitational annihilation of the Fiur Quartets, it’s all quantum writing these days, random bits); and another bunch of poems that are the result of a collision between Dante, Rilke, and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, again, whatever that means. So now, with that second cup of espresso, I turn to my “work reading.” Today that’s an essay by Jacques Derrida and a book by John Sallis, “Khora” (collected in the volume On the Name) and Chorology respectively, about that thing or void or site or space referred to in Plato’s Timaeus which is where the demiurge creates the forms, more or less, I think. Somehow this seems relevant to the landscape poems but I’m not quite sure why. 

Anyway, I read until about 1:30. By then the sunlight that was coming into the kitchen has shifted, so I rinse out my coffeecup, clean up the espresso machine, and go upstairs to my study, or office, or whatever: the room with bookshelves (actually there are several rooms with bookshelves in this house) and my computer, although I prefer to write on paper. So when I go upstairs I get the notebook for the “project” I’m in the midst of, sit down at the table, and open it to the last page of writing, or more accurately, the first page of not-writing. The first blank page, ok not exactly blank since I prefer lined paper. Unlined paper never works for me; maybe I need a certain kind of structure. At this point I could just say “and then I write” and you might even believe me. After all, what could be simpler? The fact of the matter is that I do much more not-writing than writing. In fact most of my day is spent avoiding writing as much as possible. Since, in fact, what have I got to say that anyone could possibly be interested in? And, in fact, after the morning and early afternoon’s reading, many days I go out, to buy groceries, cat food, croissants, to Type Books on the other side of Trinity-Bellwoods Park, to look at books I might not be that interested in and maybe buy one, or to Knife | Fork | Book in Kensington, to chat with Kirby and probably buy one or three chapbooks and a book of poems from some small press (are Wave or Carcanet small presses?) or even to see my dentist to have a root canal. Anything but write. Answer emails. Pay bills. Charlotte often helps by coming upstairs and lying down on the open notebook.

Anyway, today I get the notebook for the Dante thing and open it to the first blank page. At one time, I would try to begin the day, or most days, by writing two pages (yes, “morning pages”) in those days in my journal, usually a record of misery of some sort, spiritual or romantic. One morning before dawn in winter sitting at a desk in a hotel room in Chicago in 2003 stays in my mind particularly, I’m not sure why. I don’t often begin the day that way anymore, but the habit of writing at least two pages has stuck. This has the result that when I open my notebook to write, I usually have a blank spread in front of me, perhaps terrifying but that way I don’t see what I wrote (notionally) yesterday. It’s a fresh start. Otherwise I’d probably look at yesterday’s work and think, omg what shite, and call my dentist to schedule an emergency root canal, I’ll be there in 20 minutes.

Anyway, once I start writing, on a good day I get into a kind of flow of words and associations, sometimes pausing to look something up, those dictionaries, my notebook of ideas, my reading notes, one of the books in the room or something online... The danger being, of course, that this turns into an endless digression (I’m prone to digression) from the page. This is one reason I prefer to write on paper and keep notes on paper, there’s less distraction, the internet library of Beelzebub is hellish useful, but... And although I’m writing with the iMac on the table in front of me the screen is blank and I have to log in to do anything with it.

Anyway, if I’m writing, what I’m writing in my project notebook tends to be monotonously rhythmic, verbose, repetitive, and soaked in cliche as often as not. Another reason not to look at yesterday’s pages. But on a good day it has some energy. Eventually that energy does run out, and I almost always find myself in the midst of a digression from which there’s no return to the page. On a good day that’s after a couple of hours. (I’ve never managed to write for more than abut four hours continuously.) Of course some days I never really get started: I write the date at the top of the page (that’s a way to get started, right?) and that’s it. A few lines of utter drivel. Maybe a quote from something that’s come into my head (“A Country Road. A Tree. Evening.”) but it doesn’t go anywhere. Usually when this happens things go in predictable directions.

1.      A long digression, maybe I need to look at the Timaeus in Greek (nevermind that I don’t really read classical Greek), log in to computer, point the browser at the Perseus Project but look! an email from the NYRB (it’s nice of them to write) says there’s a review of a novel about Samuel Beckett, I’ve never heard of the author and it doesn’t sound interesting really, but oh well, byebye. Writing is over for the day.

2.      Get up, go downstairs, get a glass of water, come back upstairs, start again. Ignition.

3.      Get up, go downstairs, get a glass of water, think of something related to another project, come back upstairs, put away the notebook I’ve just covered with crap and take out another one, start again.

4.      Get up, go downstairs, get a glass of water, realize it’s just not on today but there was a line I wrote last week... Go back upstairs, look at last week’s work (ok, maybe yesterday’s), log in to computer and open WriteRoom (full screen! no distractions!) and begin transcribing from the notebook, revising and rearranging and adding and deleting... This is where the monotonously rhythmic, verbose, repetitive, and cliched language meets its maker: in a way this is the real writing. Eventually it becomes a matter of printing those transcription/revisions and scribbling more revisions on those printouts, crossing things out and crossing things out, but eventually there aren’t any more revisions. Then it’s either done or I’ve killed it.

Today it seems I’ve managed two pages of more or less... something. And it’s about 4:00. As you may have noticed, I haven’t yet left the house, or interacted with any sentient being other than Charlotte. One of the things about living by myself and “working at home” is that it’s easy to get into a mode of life that approximates that of a hermit in his cave. And there have been times when I haven’t left the house for three days at a time, but I can say that’s been because of weather, or illness, and that would be true. It’s not that I’m antisocial, just a bit introverted. I actually try to make a point of having some sort of significant in-person interaction with someone other than Charlotte every day. Emails or text messages don’t count. I have to leave the house.

Anyway, after having actually written something (I did it! I did it!) I often need to clear my mind. I’ve found two reliable means of doing so: exercise and meditation. This is where I tell you that every day, after writing, I meditate for an hour and then run 25km. Except that isn’t true. After an extended illness in winter 2015-16 I couldn’t run 250m, much less 25km, and after a year and a half haven’t managed more than 4km. (I never ran more than 5km regularly, and that was a long time ago.) So the truth is I’ve pretty much given up running. (I do walk a lot.) As for meditation, it’s a bit like writing, in that mostly I avoid doing it. But I do spend 30 minutes staring at the wall a few times a week, usually after time at my desk. Over the years, meditation has not led me to enlightenment, or helped me deal with unspeakable childhood trauma, or let me throw away a medicine cabinet full of pharmaceuticals. (I don’t have a medicine cabinet.) I haven’t even stopped drinking gin. But interesting things have happened.

Anyway, today I actually do meditate. I have a black meditation cushion with a hard purple pillow in the room next to my study. The only other things in this room are bookshelves, and the cushion faces away from them, so I sit staring at a blank wall. When I first began meditating, 25-odd years ago, in a different house in a different city, a village actually, I did sit facing a bookshelf, having no choice of space, and the titles of books on the shelves were a tremendous distraction. Thinking back on this I suppose distractions in meditation, traffic sounds, the cat, etc. can be a good thing (practice!) but why make things harder than they need to be? I sit facing the wall in a quiet room, having turned my phone to alarms-only-until-the-next-alarm, the alarm being set for 20 minutes from now, the alarm tone being the sound of one hand bell and I practise thinking not-thinking, following the breath, you know the drill. More or less unsuccessfully, usually. Sometimes Charlotte comes into the room and gives me that you-are-so-weird look that cats have perfected, and then leaves, or jumps up on one of the shelves where there’s space in front of the books to keep an eye on me, just in case I vanish, I suppose.

Anyway, after meditation, today I decide to go for a walk before having dinner. I get my frayed formerly white Freitag shoulder bag and load it up: iPad, notebooks, pens, and a book, usually a novel or a book of poetry, sometimes (optimistically) both. Get my coat, say goodbye to Charlotte, and head out the door. Of course it depends on the weather, and whether I need to pick up an order of coffee beans or some such, but typically I head south, walking through Trinity-Bellwoods Park, then east along Queen a ways, sometimes heading south if there’s a movie I want to see at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (but I don’t actually watch a lot of movies) but more often swinging north back to College and winding up at a pub pretty much around the corner from my house where I have a beer, read (usually on my iPad, ignoring the book in my bag: I actually find it hard to read poetry with the typical background noise of classic rock you get in pubs, to say nothing of the death metal I seem to run into frequently in coffee shops, maybe this is why the only times I go to coffee shops is to meet friends for coffee), chat with the staff, eventually have dinner. Then it’s home, read a bit more, maybe that book of poems I didn’t read earlier, though the stack of books on my bedside table (which isn’t actually beside my bed, but nevermind) consists mainly of big fat translations of koan collections and talks by old Zen guys like Dogen and Hakuin. Finally, sleep, and tomorrow, more writing, or not.

R. Kolewe lives in Toronto, where he shares a house with a cat named Charlotte. He has published two books of poetry, Afterletters (BookThug 2014) and Inspecting Nostalgia (Talon Books 2017).

No comments:

Post a Comment