Monday, January 21, 2019

Kevin Spenst : a slice of my (small press) writing day

To live is so startling it leaves little time for anything else.
 - Emily Dickinson

if you need us we'll be on the water watching it all go up in smoke
 - Hilary Peach

I hate to admit it, but I’m stunned. I hate to admit that I’m not only reliant on technology to write, edit, email, query, and submit poetry and prose to various places around the globe, but I also need my computer to… well, think. It’s a sort of mental prosthetic and with my old macbook pro flatlining on me this morning, I’m left a little stunned, braindead dazzled. I promised rob to write something for my (small press) writing day and it was on my list of things to do this morning, a list that was on my laptop that is now an empty, flat cranium. Yesterday, I wrote from nine to five. I wrote the rough drafts of two new short stories, which fortunately I had written on google docs. I had set aside today for applying for a writing grant, applying to go back to university and… all the other things that were on the list that was on a word document that no longer exists.

This is not a normal day.

What makes all this particularly irksome is that I’ve taken two months off to be the writer-in-residence at the Joy Kogawa House. I’m now living in the childhood home of Canadian author Joy Kogawa. I see her family’s cherry blossom tree in the backyard. I have a writing room, which is something I haven’t had in over ten years. I have a new neighborhood to explore and a house all to myself. I’d applied for Canada Council funding but I didn’t get anything, so here I am writing and applying again.

The rest of the year I teach ESL at a private school downtown Vancouver. Usually, I wake up early, do a bit of journal writing, and then spend the rest of the morning corresponding to any number of people in regards to reviews that I write for subTerrain magazine, or interviews I co-host at Wax Poetic… etc and so on. After a day of teaching that ends at two-thirty, I try to hunker into a poem or essay for an hour or two. On rare occasions, I write into the evening. This past fall I read a lot about mushrooms and I’ve been putting this mycological matter into a series of new poems that have been absorbing the rain in a number of literary ways.

But this morning, I took my unresponsive laptop to the nearest Apple store in a mall two short bus-rides away. I stepped into the middle class glitz and glamour of Oakridge mall and made a beeline to Apple’s tech support station.  I stood in a lineup of five. Astonishingly, no one was on their phone. Was it that we all sensed we could absorb what we usually needed from our phones and devices by just standing in the midst of so much shimmering technology? Or was it something else? “This is the only lineup where people aren’t on their phones because their devices need fixing and they’ve just lost faith,” I suggested to an older woman standing behind me. “It’s awful isn’t it? Everywhere you go everyone’s on their phone.” “And here they are with broken devices and they need to stand and wait.” I was fishing for some recognition that I had an idea of possible interest. She stared at me. “What do you usually do on your device?” I asked. “I love biographies. I get them from the library and listen to them. They help me sleep. My favourite is the biography on Wallis Simpson. She had an affair with the king, hoping that she would become queen and then he abdicated.” “That sure did backfire.” “I listen to it every night and it puts my mind at ease.”

It was my turn to talk to the man with the all-knowing tablet. He had a slight British accent and I wanted to ask him if he’d heard of the dark British comedy Flowers, but his expert slickness had me scheduled for an appointment before I could squeeze in anything superfluous. “You’ll be texted in about forty minutes or so.”

On my way out, I stopped in front of a MacBook Air. A salesperson approached me, asking if I needed help. “Essentially, I just need something for writing and the occasional bit of netflix.” He took me through the features of the MacBook Air, ending on how the new ones didn’t have USB ports. “No disrespect, but isn’t that kind of douchey of Apple?” He was delighted to hear me diss his employer, so I said even worse things about Apple that made him smile even more. “You know you can just get the Air and return it in two months after you’ve used it,” he said quietly.

I stepped out into the mall and sat down, wondering what I’d say about my writing day as it so rarely fell into any sort of routine. For one thing, distractions. While staring back into the store, I saw an Apple employee who looked like Blaine Thurier, keyboardist of the New Pornographers, Vancouver indie pop darlings. A elderly British couple passed in front of me with their grandson or a boy they’d stolen. Someone took over the mall’s PA and a loud “hello?” boomed out. I soon grew restless and went to the library, which adjoined the mall. Just as I found the poetry section, my phone beeped with a flirtatious text: We’re almost ready for you at the Genius Bar. Please let a specialist know when you’re here.

I returned and sat at a stool and talked with a man named Dan. I explained how my laptop had gone from perpetual beachballs to a flatline. He hooked my computer up to the store’s network. We talked while he did the diagnostics. I asked him what his company Christmas party was like. “We have it in February.” He asked me what I did and I told him I was a writer. “Who’s your publisher?” “Anvil Press. They’re local but they have pretty good distribution across North America. They’re great. I get a lot of support. They’ve helped me with my book tours across the province and country.” “My sister works for a large publisher in London, England. She’s always complaining about not making enough.” “Her salary doesn’t match the prestige of working for a big name publisher?” “Exactly.” We talked about the likelihood of me not being able to retrieve data from my hard drive. “I have a lot of my writing on google docs,” I explained. “Smart. You know if I were a professor, the first thing I’d do is get my students to write on google docs. They’d get one percent of their mark for doing that.” He turned to a coworker and repeated his idea while smiling and bobbing his head with enthusiasm. “Hey, is that Blaine Thurier?” I asked. “Yeah, we trained together. He gets lots of flexibility working here. They’re going on tour in the spring for their next album.”

Leaving the store with a new MacBook Air, I raced back to the Joy Kogawa House to get caught up and collected, to get everything out of my head and onto the page. Below the essay, I wrote down all the to-dos I could remember under categories of “now” “today” “this week” “this month.” When I started writing on a daily basis fifteen or so years ago, it was easy. I woke up early, wrote a flash fiction, and put it on a website. That was my old writing routine. That practice has multiplied into a hundred different writerly activities and I’m lucky to be doing each and every one, connecting with so many brilliant people in Vancouver and across the country. Even on a day of stupifying misadventures, I’m here to learn my way through.

From January to the end of February, Kevin‘s goal at the Joy Kogawa House is to start his first book of short fiction, which will be rooted in the Mennonite refugee experience centred around South Vancouver in the 20s and 30s and branching out to 1495 Southwest Marine Drive, where his mother lived in the late 30s. Furnishing his stories with Vancouver and world history, he also hopes to bring an element of the surreal with an eye to creating a kind of Mennonite magic realism. For upcoming events at the Kogawa House visit:

Kevin Spenst is the author of Ignite, Jabbering with Bing Bong, (both with Anvil Press), and over a dozen chapbooks including Pray Goodbye (the Alfred Gustav Press), Ward Notes (the serif of nottingham) and most recently Upend (Frog Hollow Press). His work has won the Lush Triumphant Award for Poetry, been nominated for both the Alfred G. Bailey Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, and has appeared in dozens of publications including, the Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, CV2, the Rusty Toque, BafterC, Lemon Hound, and the anthology Best Canadian Poetry 2014. Kevin Spenst is one of the co-organizers of the Dead Poets Reading Series which takes place every other month at the Vancouver Public Library.

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