Friday, May 31, 2019

Ben Robinson : My Small Press Writing Day

My writing day often starts with reading. I’ll usually get up and read for about an hour or so until my mind starts to drift back to my own work and then I know it’s time to migrate from the couch to the desk.

I was recently given a desk that’s been in my family at least as far back as my grandfather and maybe even my great-grandfather. It’s been pretty meaningful to sit and write there knowing that both my dad and my grandfather have worked here before me, even if they were probably writing letters to their ailing patients or something and I am just scribbling my crazy little poems. The desk is covered in all kinds of strange and inspiring objects I’ve collected including a postcard from the Franz Kafka Museum, a selection of my wife’s rock collection, a photo of a heron in the dead of night that I found on a walk a couple of years ago, a copy of Frank Davey’s beautiful chapbook Weeds and various scraps of paper.

Once I make it to the desk I usually open up the notes section on my phone and start with a little snippet of dialogue or some strange observation I’ve tucked away for later. The other day I heard a teacher yell to a bunch of kids, “If you belong inside, stay inside!” so that went into the phone. I find I get sparked by being out in the world – going for a walk, or generally being in transit. There’s something about being in motion that requires more of my attention. The city bus has been a reliable source of inspiration for me lately – so many different kinds of people in such close quarters, lots of interesting conversations that make for good eavesdropping. David McFadden wrote a lot about the busses in Hamilton and I’m starting to see why.

I’ve also been doing these social media centos recently where I go through my recently-liked tweets, jumble them up and then see what the pile looks like. I’ve been trying to think of social media as not only a waste of time but also as a kind of research. I think there’s a similarity of craft between a good tweet and a good line of poetry and I’ve been using Twitter to try and explore that connection, experimenting with ideas that might end up in my poems later on. Joshua Whitehead wrote somewhere about having a wide understanding of research and that has really stuck with me.

Most days my writing day lasts until I have to go to work. I work part-time these days so I’m usually heading in for noon or one which gives me a good chunk of time in the mornings to get some writing done. Otherwise, if I have the full day off, I usually write until about mid-afternoon and then I find my brain starts to get pretty useless. Time to go for a walk or start making dinner.

And then there are times when I’m out and I can feel that a poem is coming whether I like it or not. When that happens I forget about all of the above and I try to disappear into this really beautiful unselfconscious place I can get to sometimes. It’s a pretty good feeling when that happens but it doesn’t happen that way too often.

Ben Robinson's recent poems include the tale of a man who finds himself lodged in his condominium’s garbage chute, as well as an account of the Christian God’s foray into Spanish lessons. In 2019, The Blasted Tree and Simulacrum Press each published a chapbook of his computer-generated poetry, The Sims in Real Life and Mumbles in Hollywood, California respectively. He has only ever lived in Hamilton, ON, on the traditional territories of the Mississauga and the Haudenosaunee.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Nagmeh Phelan - My Writing Day

I work in advertising full time. This is out of necessity as my husband is also an artist – a filmmaker – and has been a stay-at-home parent with our high needs child for the past 4 years. So most of my writing day happens in my head. I live in there – as poets tend to do anyway – but I live in there, and every once in a while I write a word or two down, sometimes whole sentences on my Notes App - that I my later get to it - and remember the essence that wanted to be a poem. Poems ask to be poems. And sometimes we ignore the ask. Truthfully, when I go back to my notes on a free weekend or a weeknight after the kids are in bed, I realize that my notes have barely captured that initial spark – the poem that wanted to be. And then at that point, I have to close my eyes and think hard to go back to that place. It’s torture. Where did that word come from? Why did I write it down? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

One time I wrote a poem on the way home from work. On the streetcar.  About a year ago I was inspired by William Carlos Williams and further fuelled by Jim Jarmusch’s film, Paterson. Writing days can happen in hospital emergency rooms and advertising meetings and streetcars and cafes and backyard decks. Poets are resilient and industrious.  Or is that the poem itself?

On the rare days that I carve out and reserve as ‘a writing day ‘ – I wake up late.

Maybe 9AM. I dress in something beautiful. Always. Walk to my café, chat with neighbours. Eavesdrop on patron conversations. Align their words with the colours of that day and make my way back home.

10AM. A sense of anxiety takes hold. What can I write that hasn’t been written better before? I’m not deserving. I should probably read the words of accomplished writers first. At this point I usually take a moment to pay tribute to my regrets. Why did I get a science degree instead of a fine arts degree? Maybe I should light a candle.

1PM. Okay, yes – So many good writers. Not enough time to read them all. By this time, I have read at least 2 or so books of poetry and posted jolts of inspiration on my various social media accounts. Changing the world one poem at a time? That’s my current motto. Should I have ice-cream for lunch? Yes. Should I have a bath? Yes.

2PM. I open my laptop and open my Notes App and begin. My poems are mad for having been kept in and they spill out. I write in one go, editing nothing until the majority of the words are in front of me. I do this for about 3 hours and usually 3 poems at a time.

5PM. Should I order dinner? Yes. This is my writing day and I will not use it cooking.

7PM. I binge watch a random show – one that my husband wouldn’t be into anyway, so…

10PM. I revisit the poems and realize they’re not bad. They’re okay. I edit ferociously and with little sentimentality. I wish I knew some actual editors. I read the poems out loud over and over until they sound right – to me. It turns out I love deleting whole sentences. I press save and go back to binging my show.

This kind of day only presents itself to me (if I plead for it), about 5 times a year. And someday I hope to have more Writing Days, but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll be okay with that too. Advertising is closer to poetry than you might believe. Mad Men. Mad Poets.

My first three poems ever published can now be read on More, forthcoming. 

Nagmeh Phelan resides in Toronto with her family. Her work has appeared in Room and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. Find her @somesomersaults.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Natasha Ramoutar: my (small press) writing day

It is a luxury to sit at a desk in a quiet room with nothing but your thoughts and a notebook to write. I can’t think of a time when I’ve had that luxury.

That’s not a complaint, just a fact that defines my writing practice. Much like Manahil Bandukwala, a fellow emerging poet who I greatly admire, I write in the interim, in transit, during the spaces in between.

All of my ideas get placed into the Notes app on my phone as I go throughout my day. Sometimes it’s words or phrases that I find myself drawn to - “enclave, excavation, relic, arcane.” Sometimes it’s strange ideas - “what if there was a shark in the water tower?” Sometimes it’s mundane snippets of conversation - “the 116 is the best bus.”

During the week, I do most of my writing and editing on the train while commuting to and from my 9-5 job. My in-progress work all exist on my Google Drive. I take one of the bits and pieces I’ve jotted down in my digital notes, add it to a new document in the Drive, and layer on top of it until it starts to bloom into a full piece. A one-way trip on the Go train is about 30 minutes.

I am fortunate that I have always been drawn to flash fiction and other short forms, even when I was a student and had more time to write. I’m fascinated with the way these forms immediately immerse you in a story and extensively unpack something as small as a single moment. Even my longer pieces are amalgamations of multiple smaller scenes.

If an idea really grips me, I might stay up until the early hours of the morning and finish a poem or short story or essay in one go. The next day, I am insufferable and grumpy. By the following day, I am overjoyed and ready to edit.

On weekends, I head out to a cafe or library. These days aren’t usually used for writing. Instead, they’re used for the more administrative parts of the writing life: sending out work to literary magazines, applying to grants, and researching residencies.

When I applied for a writer-in-residence program recently, they asked how writing fits into my life. My reply sums up my writing day well:

These days, I squeeze writing into lunch hours, after work, and on weekends. I write on the train. I scribble lines down on napkins in coffee shops. I wake from half-formed dreams and type the remnants into my phone, eyes squinted at the bright light in the darkness.

Perhaps one day I’ll have a picturesque desk, a nice notebook, silence and an abundance of time to write. For now, I’m truly happy to grasp the ephemeral, transitory moments as they come.

Natasha Ramoutar is an Indo-Guyanese writer by way of Scarborough (Ganatsekwyagon) at the east side of Toronto. She has been published in The Unpublished City II, PRISM Magazine, Room Magazine, Living Hyphen, and more. Her first poetry collection Bittersweet will be published in 2020 by Mawenzi House. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Megan Cole : Writing fueled by coffee, music and urgency: My writing day

Drip. Drip. Drip. Scroll. Scroll. Scroll.

I should have stayed in bed a little bit longer. My head feels like it's still asleep. Coffee will help. Probably not, but I’m making it now so I might as well drink it.

Some writer who wrote about writing said that writing is as much the time you spend thinking about your work as it is sitting with fingers on the keyboard, so my writing starts in those foggy moments where I pour hot water from my kettle over ground coffee. The thoughts of new essays and in-progress ones mix with the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Oh, and don’t forget those chapters I still need to outline and the ones I need to review. But first coffee.

Leaning over the counter listening to warm coffee fill my cup I scroll through social media on my phone. My finger is more awake than my brain. A few more minutes of sleep and I would be refreshed and alert. A few more minutes and I would have ideas for good sentences instead of the ones I’ll likely just erase tomorrow morning.

While I wait for my coffee, I try to decode the notes which I’ve either typed into my phone, sent myself by email, or written on post-its and stuck to my desk. Many of them are written in the moments between sleep and awake where I hover in this limbo and suddenly all these ideas and images pop into my mind that I think are important to remember for my writing in the morning, but first I have to figure out what the hell I was trying to tell myself.

Writing happens in the few hours before I go to the job the pays the bills. Sometimes I start with ideas pouring out, knowing exactly where I want to start, filled with inspiration, other days, like today, I feel like a sputtering, rust-eaten car barely pulling out of the driveway as it makes its way out into the world to possibly not return. As I drain the coffee from my mug, I rely on music to maintain a certain forward momentum.

A word about coffee mugs: I have a lot of coffee mugs. Too many, my husband would say. They are either handmade and carefully selected by me, or handmade and given as gifts. There are also a few that I’ve purchased on trips like one from my favourite food truck in Portland, Oregon (Fried Egg I’m In Love), and a Guerilla Girls mug from the Brooklyn Museum. Selecting the right coffee mug for the morning is an important move that can change the trajectory of the day.

Selecting the right soundtrack for my morning writing is much like the act of picking the right coffee mug. Pick something too slow and I’ll be struggling to keep my head upright while I type. Too loud and aggressive, and I might end up writing a political manifesto instead of a memoir. Too nostalgic and I might end up crying and writing (not always a bad thing).

Music as important to my writing as coffee is. I don’t write without music. It’s often so loud that when my husband comes into my office an hour or two after I woke up and sat down at my computer, I don’t hear him and always scream out as if Hannibal Lecter has just entered my house.

For a few weeks I listened to “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen over and over and over again. It made me think of longing, which I was writing about in a chapter of my book. I listened to the version that appeared on Born in the U.S.A. and then I switched to the cover done by The Staves, and then I went back to the Springsteen version, and then I went to YouTube and looked for live versions, and then I found one of The Staves performing it live, and then I watched the music video, and then YouTube suggested I watch that acoustic version of Damien Rice singing “Rootless Tree” that I watched five or six times last week. At this point I was in a black hole of YouTube and music, and likely had to forcefully yank myself out of it.

Shit, my coffee is getting cold. Again.

After work, after I make dinner, and after I go for a walk around the neighbourhood with my husband I read. Reading is vital for me as a writer. Reading keeps me connected to the writers I love and admire. Reading keeps me inspired and thinking. It gives me new ideas, a full heart and a full mind. I read fiction, poetry, memoirs. I read for research and I read for the love or words. I read until my eye lids are heavy and my mind is full, hopefully it will flow into my writing in the morning. But until then, more coffee and maybe more Springsteen.

Megan Cole is a reformed community news reporter turned freelance journalist and nonfiction writer. Her work has appeared on CBC Radio and in publications like Coast Mountain Culture Magazine, Kootenay Mountain Culture Magazine, The Growler, Taps Magazine and Boulevard Magazine. In 2017 Megan edited Water & Wood: Recipes from a Coastal Community, but now she’s turned her attention to the world of creative nonfiction and is an MFA student at the University of King’s College. She is currently working on her memoir Crazy Making: Surviving the Shipwreck of Male Mental Health and has several essays to be published later this spring and summer. 

Thursday, May 23, 2019


This morning, a green bird leaps from the fig tree outside my bedroom window and slams its small body against the glass—thunk—over and over, some twenty times. It will leave and come back again, shortly. It will do this all day long, every day, as it has done for weeks. Madness, routine, or game—does it want in? Later, long after dark, a different bird will visit. A night bird that sings a variety of melodies and so beautifully, I wish I could see it.

The first alarm sounds from my phone. I have alarms for everything. Alarm to get up. Alarm in case I didn’t get up. Alarms to take the kids to school. Alarms to pick them up. Alarms for baseball, cartooning class, the kids’ appointments, my appointments, choir, swim lessons, lunch dates, play dates, date nights with my husband, school events, birthdays. Alarms, two calendars I ignore, and sticky notes with bold lettering in conspicuous places. I am a late rememberer and an early forgetter; also, a constant dreamer, obsessed with details. I set alarms; not reminders. I’d love to be a lists person, but that would require basic constancy and a leash.

Mornings are for the kids. One or both are usually at my side before I’ve risen. I read emails. Before coffee, I make breakfast, pack lunches, help the kids get ready for school, review for tests, find lost things. Make the coffee, pick up the house, do dishes. My oldest son’s friend arrives for carpool. Corral the kids loaded with stuffed animals and backpacks and school projects into the car. Drop off the older kids. My youngest son attends two schools: pre-k specialized academic instruction, three days per week; gen-ed preschool, two days. Drop off and pick up times are all different. Alarms. Drink the coffee, gone cold, in the car.

I spend the rest of the morning with my youngest. I am tired (I don’t sleep well at night), but I cherish this time. Sometimes we go to the park at the beach. We build forts, we play in the backyard, we play restaurant, we go to the library and the secret garden there, we put on records and dance, we make banana bread, we go to play dates, we chill and watch a movie. We argue about many things, but he runs the show, he has always run the show.

One day a week, I watch my niece who is now five months old. When my two are at school, between feedings and naps, we play and I read to her. We sit outside on a rug under the fig tree and tell stories and pound drums and a broken xylophone; we talk about what’s growing in the vegetable garden, birds and squirrels and spiderwebs, butterflies and clouds and planes, the loquat trees with big solar lanterns swinging in their branches, bugs in the grass. She is already caterpillaring all over the place.

Slivers of time between tasks, I read or scroll news and social media, Google whatever. I take notes in my notebook or phone or screenshot things I want to draw, paint, or write about later. Notes are the best way to keep track of where my mind has flown and momentarily landed; a map and catalog for later reference.

There are two glorious days per week my youngest is at preschool four hours when I get the most creative work done. Art, writing. I play the keyboard, go for a bike ride or walk, dance, and sometimes, though rarely, take myself to the beach with a book and a lunch picnic. I try not to do cleaning or laundry during this time, but I am maniacally tidy. I operate better as a creator, a mother, a partner, a nicer person in general if I am able to maintain a clean and orderly home environment. I am also most friendly if I have taken care to feed myself, and if not, I am a Snickers commercial.

The place I work is one I have grown into over the years from a 1950s dinette table in the basement to a larger kitchen table to a seven-foot-long worktable in a section of the living room. The workroom—I call it that because “studio” feels either pretentious or like something I haven’t yet earned—is filled with things I wouldn’t put out in other parts of the house, things personal, superstitious, and inspiring—though that last word is fruitless to me, so I’d rather add things musical. Music, of course. A self-portrait my oldest drew; Polaroids of my husband, our children, me as Alice in Wonderland, and Andie (our dearly departed cat); a small blue and white plane I found in the grass at school that reminds me of The Little Prince; books…Dare Wright/Lona, Alice Notley, Ghost Towns of the West, a garden encyclopedia, Hollywood Costume, and a picture book of present choice propped open in a recipe stand; carts of art and sewing supplies, rolls of specialty papers; and an orphaned organ bench, whereupon I sit and write, lovingly, to you now. Here, I am a magnet to joy.

Afternoons are for the kids. Homework. Minecraft and basketball with my oldest. Catching up on laundry, dishes, cleaning. Evenings we all do our own thing for a bit. Weekends for birthday parties, helping people move, working in the garden, cleaning out the garage, family outings, outings with friends. Summers? A wholly different time and task structure. But if I’m working on a project, solicited or not, with or without a deadline, one that I am deeply embedded in, well, I become selfish and greedy and am a stronger magnet to work.

Nights are for TV shows and movies the kids can’t watch. Revising written work or digitalizing and cleaning up artwork in Photoshop. Reading until melatonin, wine or whiskey, and nighttime tea are at the door. Melatonin dumps me off between 2:00 and 4:00am. I read or stare at nothing. If I don’t let guilt keep me in bed, I go to the workroom. I turn on a small, warm lamp. I won’t write but I may pick up where I’ve left off on an art project.

Tonight I may hear the night bird, its colorful, genetic repertoire. A mockingbird, perhaps? To whom does it sing and for what purpose? Not to me. For another’s appreciation, for love. Whom does it seek in the dark? I cannot tell. I only know it is a visitor, like me, and that one night, suddenly, it won’t be there. And one morning, the little green bird will not return to my window. But each of us will have given something of ourselves to the same world and, perhaps, something to each other.

Sarah Shields is a writer, artist, and mother of two living in Southern California. She is lost and sometimes found on Twitter @saraheshields. Publications, illustratio portfolio, abandoned blog, and what she looks like via selfie are here: