Sunday, June 17, 2018

Stephan Delbos : My Writing Day

Sometimes writing involves not writing. These days I’m in a state of near-complete expectation, with three manuscripts under review at publishers—a collection of poetry, a novel and an academic book—and my wife pregnant with our second child. I’m poised for action to merge with actual, I’m crouched and ready to pounce. Thom Yorke says, “waiting for something to happen.” Guru says:
I’m ready to blast, ready to surpass and harass
I’m ready to flip, yeah I’m ready to dip with all the cash
I hold my chrome steady, with a tight grip
So watch your dome already cause this one might hit
Between my finger and my thumb this squat pen rests. I fill the wait with others’ words. I’ve been Transcendental since the winter so my day usually begins and ends with reading Emerson, Thoreau, Margaret Fuller. Kafka’s Stoker. Words like coal. Emerson warns against getting hypnotized by the writing of others and ignoring your own voice. Proust talks about the same thing. Reading’s easier. Books have always been important for me. Fuel and life rafts.
I make my living by writing and teaching writing. Every day I write and edit thousands of words. It keeps the joints limber and the larder jammed. During the week the real words come where and when they can. On weekends like this one, I can focus fully on my own vocabulary.
We live on a square in Prague. The largest clock in the country on a brick church just across the street reminds me seconds slip. But it’s translucent and made of glass, reminding me that time is relative; you can look through if you stare hard enough.
My day starts early in early summer. 4:15am sunrise. I’m often up with my son. But waking so early can mean I need a nap by 10am. Today I indulge because my wife takes him to the swimming pool. I’m reading Emerson on fate and power as I nod under linen sheets, happy with the thought of being free in my body on a Saturday, nothing I absolutely have to do.
I’m sitting at my table now, white curtains drifting breezily in and out of the window. A flamenco guitarist at the farmer’s market across the street plays “Spanish Caravan.” In college I could play that too. Got some strong coffee brewing. It’s getting too hot for anything but iced coffee. Love that cold kick.
I wanted to start this piece a couple weeks ago, packed compartment on a train to Dresden, knee-to-knee with Germans and Czechs, looking out the window at the long flat bright yellow plains of rapeseed in full flower. My writing days have always been flexible, nothing is ideal, and I don’t like to force it unless I’m on deadline. I’ve always been diligent. The deadline can be simple as lunch. Time loses elasticity and is completely finite. I don’t have hours to fill, I have minutes, and off I go.
A clarinet is playing and my coffee is ready. On the wall there’s an old map of my hometown, Plymouth MA. I like the feeling of being in two places at once, three if I include the text I’m writing now. I look up into the room and there I am in Prague. I look at the computer and here I am inside my text. I look at the map and I’m young again in my old neighborhood, fishing at Murdock’s pond, sledding down Burial Hill, looking across the harbor, sailing.
I just got a new notebook, I mean a paper notebook, and I’m wondering, hoping through what I’ll fill it with this summer. I used to write in notebooks exclusively, then type the manuscript on a typewriter, then on the computer. That way once it was on the screen I’d already taken it through at least two rounds of edits. It’s a good system if you have the luxury of time, which I have less of now. I remember how excited I used to be to open a new notebook, thinking about all the poems and experiences that would be captured there. It’s been a long time since I was a devoted notebooker. I’m trying to plan a project for the summer, when time feels more abundant. August is more or less accounted for, a second collection of Nezval poem translations. I started it last August, got about 3/4 of the way through, and now haven’t looked at it for almost a year. Fast year! But it’s due out in 2020 so there’s plenty of time.
Maybe the novel I thought was done isn’t. Maybe it’s only half done. Maybe the protagonist doesn’t die. Maybe his would-be in-laws come get him and it turns out he was having a nervous breakdown. Maybe the second half of the book takes place 10 years later as he looks over those old pages documenting what he thought would be his final days. Maybe he’s older, a little more settled, more medicated, a little heavier and a little nonplussed at the fire and brimstone of his earlier self, and envious.
Or maybe this summer I’ll finally finish that book of book essays, the one that will establish me as the founder of a new movement known as “Dirty Literary Criticism” (#DirtyLitCrit), and will be linked to the “heroic small talk and militant light reading” of my poems. Or what about that biography idea? The late morning light is changing, the curtains languidly wipe the air, my Macbook Air backlit screen automatically brightens, the wifi quits and I don’t care, I am writing. Keys do my bidding.
It’s June 2, 2018. I’m 35 years old. I’ve edited an anthology of poems and published a chapbook of poems, a book of poem translations, and more in the ether of journals and websites. I’ve seen two of my plays produced. I don’t feel I’ve accomplished anything. For a long time my self-esteem was directly linked with what and how much I was writing. Over the years my life has expanded and my soul has grown and now that’s not so much the case though I feel that deep nag still.
Writing happens, if you let it. But are these the right words?
First distraction: I check my email. A friend writes to me, a poet: “I think in grad-school, our heads are filled up with some strange fantasy of a ‘poet life’ of snacks, wine and readings, when really that makes up less than 1% of 1% of the experience. It is a lot of continuous engagement, with your own work, in some vast interior landscape, and the work of others.... So it’s good to connect with the outside when we can.” This feels right, and I’m jealous of his young eloquence and wisdom.
There’s a book of writers’ houses that shows all the beautiful spaces great writers have worked in. But the real writing is such interior work it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as it’s working. During my writing days, the actual writing is punctuated by clipping toenails, ear cleaning and the like, digging in the the grit of the self and the mind. Today is no different. It’s noon now and I’m debating whether I should take a shower. Is there more laundry to do? I get up and wander through the rooms. Look outside: the park is packed. There’s good food and beer down there. But no, not yet. I trimmed my beard last night so the skin on my face feels tingly, more alive, as if splashed with witch hazel oil. I still like how Kunitz said Wright was “sweaty with genius.” I wander the rooms more.
I have books. An academic friend the other day said he was considering renting an extra apartment just for his books. That’s a lot of books. I keep my collection slightly more curated but I love books. I’m certain I spend more time reading than anything else. My writing, as you can see, is often referential. That’s a natural voice for me in this nonfiction mode. Margaret Fuller and Frank O’Hara died on Fire Island.
The door buzzer. I let my family in.
Now it’s 2:15 pm. Everyone’s napping. If I’d gone for a run this morning as per usual I would be napping too. I’ve showered. I had to do some grading, took a shower, might fire up some more coffee. Don’t like to overeat when I’m writing. I did have a mandarin orange creamsicle. Always that delicate balance of calories, caffeine, hydration, trying to maintain the optimum equation for firing synapses and snappy thought language. Once took a road trip through Florida to skateboard, eating mustard sandwiches.
I’m thinking about carrying my paper notebook to BOHO, a cafe around the corner. They play good music not too loud with a sympathetic vibe. I’d like to map some ideas for this fictional protagonist, who he might be ten years later. For now stay put. Bill Evans Live in Paris, February 6, 1972. Often I’m writing with music, no lyrics. Lately even the horn is too much voice. Bill Evans and Monk. Their genius might be latent for the lay listener because theirs can be background music, unlike Ornette or Cecil Taylor. That stuff’s front and center. But piano, think Satie, originator of ambient, that instrument just sort of lubricates the air, gets things moving more smoothly, a little honey oil in the cogs of time.
My face feels dry from the mildly exfoliating soap I used in the shower. I go into the bathroom and rub  moisturizer on my cheeks, nose and forehead. It comes in a nice little green bottle with a gray cap. Then there’s always tickets to be bought, hotels to be booked. We travel a lot. This week my wife will be in Berlin, next weekend we’re in Vienna and at the end of the month Massachusetts. All that stuff’s taken care of for now though, I think. I’m trying not to look at the news. The sideshow at center stage. Being in Prague feels more fortunate than ever.
They’re closing down the farmer’s market. Bring on late afternoon. It won’t get dark until 10 pm. Who knows what will happen between now and then?
I’ve had a corn on my left foot since this time last year. Lately I’ve been using more aggressive techniques, so I go to the bathroom and apply these. In Czech a corn is “kuří oko,” which literally means “hen’s eye.” The Czech surrealist poet Vítězslav Nezval uses it in the title poem of The Absolute Gravedigger, which I translated a few years ago:
The gigantic man shrugs his shoulder
As if shaking off a coffin
To a foot
Afflicted with a corn
The eye of an arthropod
That breaks to the surface
From the little toe
Peeking through a split in his cracked boot
Nezval lived around the corner from here when he wrote that. In fact his great creative push toward the book happened at this time of year, summer 1936. Nezval was a great walker, the Prague flâneur. Lately I’ve been running more and walking less.
My wife wakes and asks if I remember where the burrito place is in Berlin with the vegan ground beef and smoky peanut salsa. I do. It’s a good one. I help her get train tickets. She takes a photo of me at my workspace. My son wakes. We do our “slap me five so I know you’re alive, slap me ten so I know it again” routine. Now they’re leaving to meet friends. I’ll stay and enjoy the rare quiet. I put sunscreen on my son. They go.
When I wrote the character I’m working on it was like looking into my alternate past, another possibility of what might have happened to me. Now I’m trying to look into his future and in so doing chart a possible path forward, but not for me, writing through an alternate reality, what might could have been if what had been was different. And I don’t even know if it’s a good idea. Maybe the novel is finished. Maybe I’m just spinning my wheels. I flip through a folder of old, unpublished poems. Written ten years ago on a typewriter in a little attic apartment on the other side of town. I used to tape my drafts to the wall so I couldn’t escape them. White streamers in summer skylight breeze.
Recently I’ve realized there are different types of time. There’s poetry time that’s very very slow. When my chapbook came out last summer, the oldest poems were almost a decade old and the newest were several years old. The poem manuscript I have at publishers now was originally written in 2012, which is about the same time I started researching the academic book. If I start a new project this summer it might not see the light of day for another 10 years. Then there’s social media time, news time, family time, life time, all running at different paces. Now it’s 4:15 pm.
5pm approaches. Oscar Peterson, Bossa Nova. Spin cycle. Jet engine. Matuška California APA. After I unload and hang I’ll read this over then go for a walk with my notebook and pen and hat and phone and keys and wallet and The Education of Henry Adams.
5:33 pm. I check my email again get me out of here!
7:44pm. After a couple hours mapping ideas about characters and reading intermittently at a BOHO cafe sidewalk table under a tree, I pay my bill and go home. Order Indian food. Our family eats together. Later ablutions. Then bed. To dream and be dreamt.
Stephan Delbos is a writer living in Prague. His poetry, essays and translations have appeared internationally. He is the editor of From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology (Litteraria Pragensia, 2011). A collection of visual, music-inspired poems, “Bagatelles for Typewriter,” was exhibited at Prague’s ArtSpace Gallery in May 2012. His play “Chetty’s Lullaby,” about the life of jazz trumpeter Chet Baker, was produced in San Francisco. His co-translation of The Absolute Gravedigger, by Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval, was awarded the PEN/Heim Translation grant in 2015 and was published by Twisted Spoon Press. Deaf Empire, his play about Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, was produced by the Prague Shakespeare Company in 2017. He is the author of the poetry chapbook In Memory of Fire (Cape Cod Poetry Review, 2016), and a founding editor of B O D Y.


  1. Hey Steve,

    Great piece. It is cool to hear about your life, sounds lovely. Hope to make it back to Prague some day.

  2. Thanks, Sam! It would be great to meet up again.

  3. Hiya! Sounds like you're doing well. I was surprised not to see mention of your acting career in the footnote!! :-D
    PS: I still owe you a shirt. (Fred)

  4. Hey, Fred! Haha, yes, that was the start and end of my acting career! Would be great to catch up sometime. Hope you're well!