Saturday, March 30, 2019

Lisa Young : My Writing Day

my typical writing day? well, it usually starts in the morning

But today it didn’t. And come to think of it – it is rare to get to the page every morning – but that is the aim. Before I run out of energy, time or inclination, I like to schedule writing time at the beginning of the day. But I had to go to an appointment this morning, so writing was delayed till the afternoon. 

walking over slabs
      of ice to our parked Yaris
            city sparrows sing


there is so much hope nestled in my plan to write

But when it finally comes down to putting pen to page – I’m already doubting how much can be done. I mean writing isn’t a linear journey. It’s not as if I can plan to write a poem in an afternoon – writing has a mind of its own – or at least poetry does.

There seems to be a contradiction at work when it comes to putting aside time to write. Even a half hour devoted to writing makes a huge difference – but in the same moment I’m appreciating that I’m able to prioritize writing in my day – there’s another spiny part saying writing takes forever and there never is enough time.

          thinking about writing
                 is not writing – although it’s
                       often more pleasant


no alarm is set

Breakfast in the living room with my husband Mike – we talk leisurely – we like to savour this time. Sometimes long talks ensue and we read to each other. Then chores. Then the day proceeds around me as I write.

          I fear not getting
               what I need out of this hard
                     stone of daylight


my day consists of just keeping my hand in

I gather words, fragments, and entry points into what hopefully will become a poem at some point. When there is no sense of urgency and no new draft to work on – I’m kind of skulking around for the next thing.

At some point during a day – I have a plan to write, to read, to get the fires burning again. Of course that doesn’t always happen.

          in my home office
                 I print up today’s work
                      alone with the dog


when something does catch fire, i run with it

I often want to table all my responsibilities and just write for a few days straight – but I never plan it – it just happens.

The other day I was innocently coming to a dead end with a poem. I’d been trying “to gather a poem,” compiling word lists, trying different forms, rhythms, and I was just about to give up. I can’t write this. It’s not happening. It was about 10 a.m. and Mike was headed to an audition (yes, an actor and a writer in one household!) and I read him a poem (not one of mine) from a favourite anthology. And then somehow this poet’s poem gave me permission to write what I needed to write. The whole first draft poured out in a few minutes. I was so elated and surprised and then I did table everything else in my life to spend time with this draft and complete it. I spent all day – and all night till about 5 a.m. in the morning working on it.

          being driven by
               a poem is a
                    bumpy ride


there’s always something in the way

Chores present themselves and so does my freelance work, so sometimes I don’t set to dabbling/scribbling/musing until late afternoon.

I close the bedroom door, saying not now, when asked to walk the dog.

night darkens the room,
      maybe we should enjoy it:
             Friday wine awaits

Lisa Young is the author of When the Earth (Quattro Books, Poetry) and This Cabin (Lyricalmyrical Press). She has published poems and short stories in several print and online publications, including Minola Review, Verse-Virtual, The Quilliad, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and in Diane Lockward’s craft book, The Practicing Poet. Lisa is also the founding editor of Juniper – A Poetry Journal. She lives in Toronto where she works as a freelance editor and writer. Visit her author website for more information.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Isabel Sobral Campos : My Writing Day, 2019

My daughter walks in holding a freshly laid egg in her cupped hands. Egg meeting egg. Here is an image that summarizes writing. I write in the pulse of such moments without describing them. I prefer to live in their raying forethought, through gasps and gulps of fluctuating completion. Round, cyclical, wrapped, unwrapped, writing happens in spirals of various density, upon edges of various solidity.

For the past year and a half, I have been looking for a new job. This has disrupted my writing routine and seemingly taken over everything. I have been trying to regroup within and thrust this dark cloud away. Currently, I am writing a long poem about breathing, in which I speak to an elusive “you,” part-animal, part-stone, part-past self. This poem has alerted me to the strangeness of my own body. My back nudges closer to the chair. My phalanges feel pricklier.

I usually write in the morning. Sometimes (between semesters) I have the luxury of writing whenever I want. This comes at a price, but never mind that now—it is one that I am willing to pay. Daily writing suggests the temporality of an exposed nerve. I try to keep each beginning in sight as it cycles through multiple iterations. Words are the aging of thought, and thoughts our bodies aging.

Four years ago, I moved to a small town in Montana for a position at the local university. Writing occurs in seclusion out here. Everything boils under tonnage of snow. New windows splay a grid of spurs. Small towns are places that choke and constrain. Yet, I have adjusted. Wittgenstein once said that he fabricated his own “air” so that he could withstand living anywhere. Or something to that effect. I have been trying to find a similar resilience. Sometimes, however, I realize how much writing I have done during these past years.

Inhabiting the spacetime of writing are linguistic centaurs—hybrids of English, Portuguese, and a language of bones with an untamable logic that makes floorboards creek under eerie footsteps. Being a writer in a second language poses its own challenges, although I am aware that it does so more for some than for others. I am uncomfortable with my memories. I cannot rely on a stable sense of linguistic competence. I often fear my writing will be dismissed as fake. I struggle with authority and, more often than not, feel I possess none. Writing sleepwalks. Sometimes I write in my sleep and when I awake, butchered words appear on the page. My notebook is a record of stringed words found elsewhere, aural records, wellsprings of poems. A word like “inflorescence” can sustain a whole week of scribbling. Often I am shut up inside a word; often words shun me. Words mean more to me than structured thoughts. Yet, structure prevents erosion of what makes writing possible. The sitting, the walking, the mulling, the reading, a kind of monkish life.

On the days I teach, I prep and grade, and have little time for anything else. Here is my routine on the other days:

6:00 a.m. Kris and I wake up, sit on the couch and read together.

7:00 a.m. Kris, Otília, and I have breakfast while watching Democracy Now! From time to time, we pause the recording to comment on the news. Otília has learned to call Trump, “bad guy” without our guidance. We eat eggs when the chickens lay them, toast, or oatmeal, and about a year ago, switched from coffee to tea.

7:45 a.m. I leave the house and walk up the hill to my office at Montana Tech, usually braving sub-zero temperatures, icy ground, and fog.

8:00 to 10 a.m. I sit at my desk and write, often pausing to read. As always, I need help from others. Sometimes nothing happens.

10 am to 10:45 a.m. I am off to the gym for a run.

11: 15 a.m. I eat lunch at my desk while checking social media.

11:30 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. I am currently revising a manuscript on Emily Dickinson’s proto-ecology, so I work on that.

2:00 to 3:30 p.m. I read at my desk with my chair propped against the wall, as I do not have a comfortable reading chair in my office.

3:30 to 5 p.m. I apply for jobs. Sometimes I get called for an interview. The psychological pressures of this kind of job hunt are not discussed enough within academic circles. It can lead to anti-depressants, substance abuse, and general collapse. It is deeply injurious to well-being.

5:00 to 6 p.m. I am back home and ready to play with Otília. Lately, she enjoys drawing together, which I prefer to puzzles. Because most of her books are in English, I have begun reading her impromptu Portuguese translations of the ones she knows in English. When I have forgotten a word in Portuguese, I shout it out to Kris, who quickly looks it up for me while he cooks dinner. This excites Otília interest in the word and she often will repeat it non-stop. I am especially deficient which it comes to animal names in my mother tongue. Apparently, a praying mantis is called louva-a-deus. Otília now repeats this word that I have only recently said aloud for the first time: louva-a-deus, louva-a-deus, louva-a-deus…

6:00 to 7:00 p.m. We have dinner. Otília usually eats sitting on my lap. She will also gobble up all the olives and tomatoes in the salad.

7:30 p.m. Kris and I put Otília to bed. I pretend to be a zombie while Kris whisks her away to our bedroom. They hide in the dark and attempt to ambush me. We brush her teeth and read her several books.

8:00 to 10:30 p.m. Kris and I read for at least an hour. Often, we watch a film. I love reading on the couch with him next to me.

Isabel Sobral Campos is the author of Your Person Doesn’t Belong to You (Vegetarian Alcoholic Press, 2018), as well as the chapbooks Material (No, Dear and Small Anchor Press, 2015), and You Will Be Made of Stone (dancing girl press, 2018). A new chapbook is forthcoming with above/ground press. She is the co-founder of the Sputnik & Fizzle publishing series and teaches in Montana.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

My Small Press Writing Day : Toby Altman

There is waking, which is a rhythmic activity. Around 4am each morning, I get up and shuffle to the bathroom and sit on the toilet. I do so—sit—because, even in the blurred moments of early morning, there is a kind of pulsing terror at work in me—the fear of fainting and falling while I urinate. To release the bladder: a trigger for fainting. And I am the kind of person who does faint, who has fallen, and fractured the envelope of the skull. Then I shuffle back to bed, the dog flexing expectantly in her spot.

There is waking, which is a rhythmic activity. Every day around 6:30am, I return to consciousness. This happens as a snap. I wake up all at once, suddenly and completely. I dress and take the dog for a walk in the graveyard. Her fascination is with the earth, the smells lodged in it. And she is a hunter, poised, silently, patiently, watching the movements of squirrels—though she is now too ancient and arthritic to catch them.

I make tea and breakfast; I listen to the news; I do French exercises. For a long time, I was the kind of writer who accumulated scraps—little phrases and notes—and then collaged them together. My work is still rooted in juxtaposition: collage and montage. But for the last six months or so, I’ve begun to write in a much more concerted, scheduled way. After I finish my French, I sit on the couch with my notebook open and read for half an hour or forty-five minutes. Usually Leslie Scalapino—Way, Considering How Exaggerated Music Is, Sight, etc. There is something about the way she bends syntax that I find not only pleasurable but reactive: to brush against her work makes writing happen. And there is something luxurious about taking some time from each day and insisting that it belongs wholly to the act of writing. That in this sliver of the morning, I will not answer any emails. I will not work. I withdraw from the daily pressure to produce value—for and through the university where I work. To write in this way is to create a rhythmic pause, a form of silence and retreat—however brief and however illusory. Even as I write in silence, in refusal, the electricity bill is accumulating and the rent is being depleted.

I am a poet who composes at the level of the book. I do not write individual lyrics: I think in terms of projects, sections, sequences. This way of working has its advantages: there are aesthetic resources and opportunities that appear only when one works at such a scale. But—particularly in the later stages of working on a large project—there are costs. It becomes difficult to write without trying to slot each line into the project. Writing ceases to be a site of play and improvisation; it becomes, instead, the laborious fulfilment of some abstract, external teleology. To write with and through Scalapino offers a kind of relief: it detaches the act of writing from the project and its burdens. I compose in sympathetic response to the microscopic movements of her syntax. Her syntax, its motion, fluid and plural, refuses to be unbent, to accommodate itself.

The rest of the day is consecrated to the business that sustains a life of writing—teaching and grading; attending meetings, workshops, and seminars; organizing readings and festivals; freelancing. I love most of this work (not freelancing) and cherish the chance to do it. And I don’t think that it is somehow separate from the act of writing. To work with students and colleagues—to train younger writers and to create space for writing to be celebrated: this is not a burden but a form of collaboration. I am always dismayed when people complain about the writing recommendations for their students or the difficulties of organizing literary institutions. For poets in particular—who work without big money or big publishers—the whole art depends on poets themselves, their work to carve a space for it from hostile institutions. The whole art depends on our collective labor to organize new, better institutions outside the boundaries of or dissident with respect to universities. To ignore the material conditions that frame, inhibit, and generate, our writing is to tacitly accept those conditions, to refuse to participate in the work of transforming them. To denounce the way those conditions affect you as an individual is to ignore the way they affect poets as workers, as part of an institutional proletariat. It is to sever solidarity.

In the evening, I return to the couch with a stack of books—monographs on the history of concrete poetry, on 19th century urban planning, architectural theory. My projects are often research oriented: I think of them as deranged or drunken monographs. They make arguments, but they do so in ways that refuse the usual standards of academic argumentation. Their arguments emerge through, syntax, juxtaposition, the visual organization of the page. The poems themselves digest and reconstitute academic knowledge. As I sleep, I imagine these arguments and facts curdling inside of me: they have the mass and density of cream. Sometimes, they boil and I wake in the middle of the night to write some strange, prophetic sentence. Recently: “We are not unsolid and cannot avoid supping on love.” When I return to Scalapino in the morning, it will be there: jagged or smooth, fermented or chilled, seeping into the writing. A shard or spread of strangeness and complexity that arrives, like all writing, from elsewhere.  

Toby Altman is the author of Arcadia, Indiana (Plays Inverse, 2017) and several chapbooks, including Every Hospital by Bertrand Goldberg (Except One), winner of the 2018 Ghost Proposal Chapbook Contest. His poems can be found in Colorado Review, jubilat, Lana Turner, and other journals and anthologies. He holds a PhD in English from Northwestern University and is currently a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Typical Writing Day: Chad Sweeney, blog entry, March 3, 2019

My mind is very busy, to say the least. I am on the autistic spectrum, so I need to create the right conditions before a writer’s focus is even remotely possible. I write in a café, safely recessed into a corner where I can see trees outside whose gyrations record the high turnings of the wind, clouds and changes in light, pickup trucks rumbling past with rakes and shovels in the back, parents pushing strollers and skateboards jumping curbs, where I can hear the humming of conversations and trains, indistinct like the babbling of waters. In this way I feel human, grounded and included, with enough sensory stimulation but not too much. I live in Redlands, California now, so most of the time the writing is happening in Bricks and Birch Café near my house, across from the old police station, down the street from the exquisite temple of our public library, the Lincoln Shrine and the oddly formal outdoor Grecian auditorium which houses two free concerts per week all through the summer. From my table in the corner I can see queen palms and fan palms, Lebanese cedar, jacarandas, yucca, pine, olive trees, Mexican birds of paradise, fire hydrants and one stop sign.

I am grateful for this life. All of my relatives were artists, writers and storytellers, carvers and quilters, in barns and garages, after farm work, after folding clothes at the thrift store, after taking orders in restaurants and office buildings, after the assembly line, after laying rail line or preaching in the country church—I am the first one to make a living from this, to be a creative writing professor. I write after talking about and thinking about writing all week, all weekend, all summer, all winter. Everything I do is part of the writing life. I never forget that this is a privilege folded inside a responsibility. 

In order to write I need to feel a sense of timelessness, of being off the calendar and off the clock. I often start by reading a good book of poetry slowly and thoughtfully, or I stare out the window. I drift into an attentive consciousness, one which is especially sensory and embodied, empathetic and awake. In this state the colors sharpen, the wood grain and reflectivity of glass, the fan blades and the shadows of bicycle wheels in motion over the concrete, the surfaces and forms clarify. The world provides its own subject matter and I follow it where it goes, outward in concentric rings, inward in concentric rings. The dimensionality and elasticity of mind begins with this embodied sensory experience. The metaphysical distances open up through the ordinary surfaces. Then the words begin.

The words come in bundles and strings. Each string is surrounded by space and silence. I trace the words and record them. I hear them and feel them and see them at about the same time. The words come from wars and from homeless shelters, from off-ramps and parking lots, from the high desert Santa Ana winds sluicing through the canyons and passes, from Oklahoma, , San Francisco, Michigan and Thailand, from the delicate eyes of children and the tumbling of dice. The words teach me and surprise me, and I record them faithfully.

While writing, I try not to evaluate the material, not to assign it a place within a given writing project or to relegate it to whatever requests I’m fielding from lit journals. The instant the mind of the editor or agent takes over, the covenant with language is broken and the meditation closes up.

I write until I am too tired to maintain this level of wakefulness and singular focus, then I drift back into my name and look around for someone to talk to. I get up, take a walk around the block, think about what I’ve written, come back to my seat, reread it all and do some light editing. It’s possible to re-enter the writer’s mind from here, to write some more or to just drift into other activities. Regardless, the remaining hours of the day feel special, hallowed and haloed. The best days are writing days, and the writing touches everything.

Chad Sweeney is the author of six books of poetry, Little Million Doors (Nightboat Books, 2019), Parable of Hide and Seek (Alice James), White Martini of the Apocalypse (Marick), Wolf’s Milk (bilingual Spanish/English, Forklift Books), An Architecture (BlazeVOX), and Arranging the Blaze (Anhinga), and two books of translation, The Art of Stepping Through Time, the selected poems of Iranian dissident poet, H.E. Sayeh (White Pine) and Pablo Neruda’s final book, Calling on the Destruction of Nixon and the Advancement of the Chilean Revolution (Marick, 2019). Sweeney’s poems have been included in Best American Poetry, The Pushcart Prize Anthology and Verse Daily. He is the editor of the City Lights anthology, Days I Moved Through Ordinary Sounds: Teaching Artists of WritersCorps in Poetry and Prose, and Iroquois elder Maurice Kenny’s posthumous collection of poetry and prose: Monahsetah, Resistance, and Other Markings on Turtle’s Back (Mongrel Empire Press). Chad Sweeney holds an MFA from San Francisco State University and a PhD from Western Michigan University. He is an Associate Professor of English/Creative Writing at California State University San Bernardino where he edits Ghost Town Lit Mag. He lives in southern California with his partner, Jennifer Kochanek Sweeney, and their two little boys.