Sunday, June 30, 2019

Lisa Fishman : Where/how I work

The blue table.

In a 1,000 square-foot farmhouse built by Norwegian settlers in 1900 on  Winnebago land. A river runs underground, we’re told. We moved here in 1999 and planted the orchard, tree by tree.

The house has few windows (because of the Early American “window tax” and cold winters). Not many windows and not many rooms; therefore, no particular room to work in for 19 years. Of course I’d read Woolf, but without imagining that one could be helped, in a practical way, by claiming a room of one’s own. As if because Woolf figured out that necessity, because she so brilliantly made the case for it, because she wrote what she wrote, one needn’t actually go on to find such a space. The point was the critique: to have made the argument for the necessity of doing so, and Woolf had done that.

And so, to work at home (rather than on the bus or train or outside with a notebook), was to work wherever wasn’t in the way at that moment. The most I might hope for was a few hours––in whichever room, on whatever surface wasn’t needed for other purposes (eating breakfast/lunch/dinner, shelling beans, playing Scrabble, etc.). Inevitably, I’d end up removing all my papers and notebooks and stacking them unobtrusively in a corner until another space opened up. Then I’d start over, spreading everything out again until it had to be cleaned up and put away.

It’s probably obvious that I write on paper only, in pencil preferably, until it’s absolutely necessary to shift to the computer when a thing is “done.”

Three years ago, after the publication of 24 Pages and other poems (which went from paper to manual typewriter only, until the publisher took over), I realized I wanted to deal with dozens of notebooks and piles of looseleaf and see what was there. I wanted to type everything and take seriously Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of writing as arrangement, to see how writing that spanned 16 years and was in many cases notational, fragmentary, prosaic, diaristic, observational, might occupy the same space (since it was all from the same life), a space just as subject to change and variability (in form, tone, subject, stance) as a life is. Ultimately, that material became the long book that will come out next August (Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition). It spans the time between 2003, a year before James was born, and 2019. But it’s not in chronological or any kind of order. What is?

To make the book––to gather the writing, type, arrange, re-write, edit, rearrange, and write newly alongside, all of which took over two years––I realized I had to be able to keep all my stuff out: piles of papers, dozens of notebooks of all different sizes and shapes, drawings, scraps, books, poetry journals, maps, everything that had anything to do with what was emerging. I had to be able to leave it out overnight or a week or a month––indeed, indefinitely––and come back to it just as I’d left it. I had to be able to not keep starting over.

So I claimed one of the three rooms on the main floor. Its two narrow windows face south (a hickory tree) and west (a giant white pine and beyond that, the barn). The room has been used as a bedroom, a spill-over living room, a nursery (for starting plants) and for the past several years, a dining room. The formality of that term is misleading. The oval-shaped blue table came from an alley in Chicago. The pine-and-plywood “pantry,” from a dumpster on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin. The cedar trunk and the cabinet with tin doors were made by my woodworker father from Montréal. From a garage sale here in Orfordville (pop. 1300) came the round braided rug under the blue table. Really nothing in the house has been acquired new, only scavenged, “picked,” given, found. That seems related to my writing, even when I’m not working with found language or appropriation. Echo, allusion, and the sensation of poems as cadence, music, ways of moving all give the lie to what’s “new,” at the same time as never having existed before, just so, at any moment.

We have a big vat of vinegar fermenting about three feet from where I sit––cider from our apples, in continuous fermentation, to be sold at the farmer’s market as “live ACV” alongside fresh cider and the 100 or so varieties of apples (at different times). So the room still functions in a few different ways; it’s also where the only closet in the house is. The room itself has no door, and people come in and out to get things from the pantry or cabinet or closet. It’s also where the dog sleeps, on the cedar trunk under the window that faces the hickory.

Nonetheless: I have a space to work, if not a room exclusively my own. We now eat only in the kitchen at my great-grandmother’s table in the center of that room, and I work in this room, at the blue table. The piles of stuff on top of it and on the floor all around it never have to be packed up and put away. The wooden board with rocks from the harbor in Main-à-Dieu (Cape Breton, Nova Scotia) never has to be emptied, ditto the plate with rocks from the Driftless region in Wisconsin (where the glaciers haven’t been, yet). The stones help me work. They are restful to look at and periodically to pick up and hold.

So much of writing is not writing, just waiting. Pick up a stone and wait for a word?

I have been talking mostly about the space and not the process of working, not a record of a day. It must first feel necessary for me to place myself. As if that, itself, is a huge part of the process: being placed, knowing where one is. I am aware of the luxury of that, the privilege of doing so, and that it is far from universally possible.

What is most helpful of all about working here is that we can’t connect to the internet. It is not possible to check e-mail or to look anything up. A cell signal may be picked up at the far end of the orchard by the woods––because of the network of mushrooms facilitating communication in any form, I believe––but it’s a longish walk over a hill, easily avoided. Or you can drive a mile to a gas station with internet, if you want to sit with your laptop in the car. 

If today is to be a work day, it will include: the coffee I’ve already drunk and the dandelion root tea I’m presently drinking. Looking up every few minutes at the Nova Scotia rocks on the table or out the window. Lots of looking out the window. Taking the dog through the orchard shortly, saying hello to Henry and James who are tying grapes today, I believe. After a couple of hours I’ll shift to the living room, or outside under the white pine, for a break with a novel. That has always been part of my process, wherever I am. Right now it’s Elizabeth Taylor’s first book, At Mrs. Lippincote’s. On most excellent days, anything by Iris Murdoch or Elizabeth Bowen except her last few. I read more novels than poetry. I even read more short stories than poetry and, to be fatally honest, even more bottom-of-the-barrel mysteries. Probably not “more” in the largest sense, but on a more daily basis.

I would like today to include responding to Martin Corless-Smith’s review of Alan Halsey’s The Text of Shelley’s Death. I will try not to get distracted by the tattered paper atlas to study the distance between Thunder Bay and southern Wisconsin.

The work today may include some endless fine-tuning of “Kasm of Arachny,” a long sequence of poems in play, partly, with Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy. And/or the manuscript of stories I’ve been working on for a year, some fabulist or fairytale-like, others not. Those are what I’m most excited about right now because it’s like going to the moon each time. Sentences! Characters! Paragraphs!

Finally, the day will end with a trip into town (officially a “village”) for June Days. At the pancake breakfast this morning to benefit the library, we saw the rides being set up. We don’t go on the rides, but we’ll walk around before the band starts. One year Henry won a picture of a tiger for James, I think at the softball-throwing booth. One year James won a goldfish and it died two days later. We buried it under the medlar tree and wrote a letter of complaint as a way of dealing with a five-year-old’s grief.

Because I live in two and a half places (here at the farm in Orfordville, part of a house in Madison, and part of an apartment in Chicago), there is no typical work day. But the blue table offers the most consistent space and sense of a work-space, and it represents my breakthrough into conceiving of such a space. Here it is (see accompanying photo), on the fifteenth of June, 2019, just before toast with Henry and James in the adjacent room, the kitchen. Right now they are talking about a strange mushroom they found out back and paging through Mushrooms and Other Fungi to see if it’s poisonous. Plants of all kinds come in and out of the day here, and therefore are part of the work.

Lisa Fishman’s most recent books are 24 Pages and other poems (Wave Books, 2015) and F L O W E R  C A R T (Ahsahta Press, 2011); her seventh collection––Mad World, Mad Kings, Mad Composition––is forthcoming (Wave, 2020). She is currently working on short stories and on a new poetry ms. (“Kasm of Arachny”) in play with Shelley’s “Mask of Anarchy.” She is dual (dislikes the word citizen), with plans to return to Canada.

Friday, June 28, 2019

katie o’brien : my (small press) writing day

some days I don’t know whether I’m a writer or not. my wife wakes up at ungodly hours for work and leaves me a list of reminders on the kitchen counter for when I wake up years later – close the windows, give the dog his medication, give yourself your medication, make the bed. some mornings waking up takes seconds. others, I waste time in the shower until our defective smoke alarm gets triggered by the steam.

some days I am productive. I take the dog for a walk and notice the picturesque weeds in the alley, jotting down half-baked poems in my Notes app. I pack my lunch for work and fire off some emails on my phone before even leaving the house. I don’t get frustrated by the morning commute because I pick the right playlist and am too busy jamming out to Angelique Kidjo to develop road rage.

on productive days, I bring my laptop to work and fool around with poems on my lunch break. sometimes I’ll head to the Belgian patisserie across the street and attempt to listen to a podcast while also sorting through adjectives. I’ve wanted to be a podcast listener for years, but I lose focus when my hands start to fidget. I come home early and spend time with my wife. I pick a few lines of a poem to post to Instagram. I go to bed early.

some days (most days?) I’m not productive. the smoke alarm gets triggered by the steam and my anxious dog needs consolation over the noise. he stages a sit-in protest in the backyard when I try to leave for work. my mostly-recovered eating disorder translates into kitchen anxiety and I decide to buy something for lunch, rushing out the door too late. I spend my lunch break scrolling through social media feeds of more successful friends, comparing my weird free-form poetry unfavourably to their polished, university-educated publications. I have two pieces of very expensive paper on my office wall but the fact that they’re not in creative writing sometimes stresses me out.

some days I remember that I’m a writer. I spend a Saturday afternoon weeding my wife’s beautiful garden, occasionally adding to the thoughts in my Notes app. I submit a poem or two from my potentially-complete poems folder and cross my fingers that someone finds them interesting. I tweak the coding on my website, put a new playlist together, and work on a post for the music blog that I started on a whim. I read from friends’ chapbooks and rave to my wife about new small press releases.
those are my favourite days.

katie o’brien is a poet, community worker, queer activist, and Netflix enthusiast originally from St. John’s, Ktaqamkuk, on unceded Beothuk land. a peal of thunder, a moment of (The Blasted Tree, 2019) is their third chapbook. katie dislikes lying, sings a lot, and doesn’t kill bugs.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

My Atypical Writing Day: Nathanael O’Reilly

As an academic, husband, father and runner, I don’t have the luxury of a typical writing day. My days are long and busy during the academic year, which runs from late August until early May. I finally have time to write during the three-month summer break, as well as during our month-long winter break. People outside academe might find it strange that I teach literature and creative writing, but rarely have time to write, or read for pleasure. It’s certainly ironic. Fellow academics, unless they are fortunate enough to have a light teaching load and/or teaching and research assistants, will understand exactly why there is little time during the semester to write – teaching, preparation, grading, meetings and email quickly fill the long weekdays and parts of the weekend. One of my colleagues gets up at 4am every day to write, but I clearly need more sleep than he does! So, during the semester, writing takes place during brief (and sometimes unexpected) downtimes, such as while my students are working on an in-class writing exercise, while students take an exam, a rare Friday morning when I’m caught up on grading, or on a flight home from a conference.
Although I don’t have a scheduled writing time, let alone a whole day, I still manage to write dozens of poems per year, along with essays, academic articles, book reviews and conference papers. I’ve written, edited and co-edited nine published books over the past nine years, and my tenth is currently awaiting a decision re publication. My productivity is certainly not the result of regular writing days or sticking to a strict schedule, but due to the fact that I am always thinking about writing, usually have multiple projects in various stages of production, and write whenever I get the chance. Even when I’m not at my desk, I’m composing. I’ve run six marathons during the past four years, and many of the hundreds of hours spent training have also been hours spent composing poems and arguments for essays and thinking about what I would put on the page once I got back to my desk. My preferred location for writing is the desk in my study at home, overlooking a tree-lined street of 1930s brick houses, two blocks from campus. However, I’ll write anywhere, and have composed on trains, busses, trams, ferries and planes, as well as in cafes, bars, libraries and classrooms, in open fields, on mountainsides and beaches.
            Since I am currently on my summer break, I have a lot of writing time. I spent the last two weeks of May writing a 6000-word essay on Australian suburban literature for The Routledge Companion to Australian Literature. I’ve spent all this week writing and revising an essay about language, landscape and migration in my poetry for Ireland’s Skylight 47 poetry journal. Today I sat down at my desk before 8am and worked on some essay revisions before driving my daughter to Film Camp, then stopped at the coffee shop for a take-away latte before heading back to my desk. I spent half the morning revising and cutting the essay, since I was well over the word limit that I had been assigned. By 11am I was happy enough with the current draft of my essay to email it to my editor in Galway, which was extremely satisfying. I turned my attention to writing poetry between 11am and noon, rewriting and revising a poem that I began during a workshop taught by Irish poet Annemarie Ní Churreáin at the Doolin Writers Weekend in January. Coincidentally, while working on the poem I received an email from Annemarie regarding her visit to Fort Worth in September for a reading as part of TCU’s Live Oak Reading Series.
            I had lunch and a chat with my better half, and was back at my desk by 12:30. I eased back into work mode by checking Twitter and Facebook, which led me to watch a video of Metallica covering “Whiskey in the Jar” at their Slane Castle concert on June 8th. I’ve never been more than a casual fan of Metallica, but thoroughly enjoyed their version of the Irish classic folk song and felt ready to create again. I returned to the poem I’d been working on before lunch, reworking the stanza structures, line breaks and some of the diction, consulted Google maps and satellite images to check some details of the poem’s setting in two of my childhood hometowns in Australia, then composed a title I’m happy with. I re-read the poem several times, checked my email again, then read the poem one last time. Satisfied, I moved it from the “Poems in Progress” folder to “Poems to be Submitted” folder, where it will rest for a while. 

            Having completed an essay and a poem before 1:30pm, I felt pretty pleased with my writing day so far and brewed my afternoon coffee. Once it was ready, I treated myself to a piece of chocolate and returned to my desk to write this post. Before starting, I returned to the my (small press) writing day site and read posts by Erin Russell and Claire Trevien to get me in the mindset. I wrote the first few paragraphs, then my wife stopped in to give me some news about a new Chinese translation of her book The CIA in Hollywood: How The Agency Shapes Film and Television, which was great, but then I was out of the writing zone, so I got up and walked around the house a bit to reboot. Once back at my desk, I checked my email again – this time there was another message from Annemarie, providing her flight details for her September visit and some ideas for a poetry reading in Dublin. Soon after, the sound of a beautiful voice singing caused me to look out the window, where I saw a young Beyoncé lookalike wearing a yellow backpack walking past while singing like a Broadway star. And then an unseen worker at a nearby house under renovation started up an angle-grinder, which changed the mood completely. Just a minute later, a Volvo sedan was pulled over across the street from my study window by a Fort Worth police SUV, and not one, but two officers approached the vehicle, one on either side. The officers checked the driver’s license and insurance papers, which they took back to their vehicle and spent several minutes examining, presumably checking info on their laptop, before returning the paperwork to the young female driver and letting her off without a ticket. All very exciting. Possibly material for a future poem.
Like many writers, I believe that reading frequently and widely is crucial for anyone who wants to write. I try and read at least fifty-two books per year. Lately I’ve been reading a combination of poetry, fiction and literary criticism, including Sally Rooney’s much-hyped Normal People, which provided an interesting contemporary exploration of romantic relationships and friendships amongst teens and young adults in Ireland; Another Last Day, the latest poetry collection from Alex Lemon, one of the best living poets in America - my assessment of his brilliance has nothing to do with the fact that he is my friend and colleague and we live on the same street – seriously, if you’ve never read Alex Lemon’s poetry, buy one of his books and see for yourself. I also recently read Brigid Rooney’s Suburban Space, The Novel and Australian Modernity, which I was especially interested in because it is just the second book-length study of Australian suburban literature, and I happened to write the first, Exploring Suburbia: The Suburbs in the Contemporary Australian Novel. Rooney’s book is thoroughly-researched, insightful, fascinating and tremendously useful for students and scholars of Australian literature. She’s built upon my work and written a better book than I did, which is really gratifying. Tom Lee’s Coach Fitz is my favourite of the new novels I’ve read this year. It’s mostly set in Sydney and focuses on running, suburbia, architecture, philosophy, relationships with mentors and foodie culture. If you’re familiar with the great Australian fiction writer Gerald Murnane, imagine if he wrote a novel with a narrator in his early twenties who loved running, suburbia, bread and olive oil. I loved everything about the book.
I’m currently reading Paul Kane’s latest poetry collection, A Passing Bell: Ghazals for Tina. The 133 ghazals are addressed to Paul’s late wife Tina, who became ill with the motor neuron disease ALS in 2013 and died suddenly during a trip to their second home in Australia in 2015. I am fortunate to have known Paul for sixteen years and to have met Tina numerous times. Paul writes brilliantly about Tina, their thirty-five-year marriage, and his grief. I can only read a few pages of the book at a time because the poems are so powerful. I’ve also started reading Taboo, the latest novel by award-winning Indigenous Australian novelist Kim Scott, who I had the honour of hearing read at the American Association of Australasian Literary Studies’ annual conference in Fairbanks, Alaska, in April this year. Kim is a brilliant writer, a powerful reader of his own work, and a lovely bloke; I feel really honoured to have met him and got to know him a little over a few Alaskan brews. He’s certainly one of the most impressive people I’ve met in my lifetime.
I’ve read interviews with (or articles about) many writers who claim that they write for about four hours per day – I know that Charles Dickens followed this model, as does Peter Carey. A typical schedule seems to be four intense, highly-focused hours of writing in the morning, followed by lunch (maybe with a glass of wine or two), then perhaps a long walk or a nap, and maybe some revisions in the afternoon. I’ve put in about seven hours and am just about to finish my third writing project for the day, so I consider that a successful, atypical writing day.   

Nathanael O’Reilly is an Irish-Australian residing in Texas; he teaches creative writing and Australian, British, Irish and Postcolonial literature at TCU in Fort Worth. He is the author of Preparations for Departure (UWAP Poetry, 2017), named one of the “2017 Books of the Year” in Australian Book Review; Distance (Picaro Press, 2014; Ginninderra Press, 2015); and the chapbooks Cult (Ginninderra Press, 2016), Suburban Exile (Picaro Press, 2011) and Symptoms of Homesickness (Picaro Press, 2010). His poems have appeared in journals and anthologies in twelve countries, and he has given invited readings in Australia, Canada, England, Hungary, Ireland and the United States.  

His academic publications include New and Selected Poems of Anna Wickham (UWAP, 2017); Tim Winton: Critical Essays (UWAP, 2014), co-edited with Lyn McCredden; Exploring Suburbia: The Suburbs in the Contemporary Australian Novel (Teneo Press, 2012); and Postcolonial Issues in Australian Literature (Cambria Press, 2010), and dozens of journal articles, book chapters and reviews.

Monday, June 24, 2019

My Writing Day : Dawn Hurley-Chapman

6:45 a.m: Legs in squat position, I clasp and heft the coiled ends of two thick battle ropes again and again. They undulate as my thigh and arm muscles burn, my heart palpitating. Amidst the grunting efforts of my classmates and the smell of sweat, I silently recite, “I will succeed…I will …I will…” I envision myself at my desk typing the last sentence of a perfectly revised chapter. I believe my writing success for the day is tied directly to my ability to lift and slam these ropes without stopping. However, the inner voice that tells me I will succeed has an evil twin. She hisses, “Drop the ropes. No one will notice if you stop.”

I would notice. So I don’t stop.

7:30 a.m: Back at home, I make sure my two tweenagers are ready for school. Then, I head to my café to get a coffee and check on the team. When I first started Lazy Daisy’s Café seven years ago, I imagined myself the cheery proprietor, sitting in the corner writing my novel, popping up to pour a fresh brew for the occasional customer. People do write novels in my café but I am not one of them. The café became a beast - busy and unruly, but fun and still loved in spite of all the effort it took to tame it. The café, more than anything, distracts me from my writing; a sick staff member or a broken dishwasher rips me out of my creative mind and I become all business.

My phone buzzes. “Hi Dawn! Be sure you make time to write today.” It’s a text from my writing buddy, Whitney French.

I first met Whitney at Lazy Daisys when she was the featured poet at Smashmouth! Open Mic. The Toronto Slam Team, Charlie Petch and Ian Keteku were just a few of the artists to grace the stage. Creating space for others to share their words was a way I could connect to the writing world when I didn’t have time to write. Three years later, Whitney and I reconnected through an online course led by Rachel Thompson. I text back, “Will do. Did you press ‘submit’ on your short story?”

Our texts are brief but powerful pushes to keep us focused on our writing goals. I’m grateful.

10 a.m (if I’m lucky): Back at my desk I turn on Classic FM and remove any detritus not associated with writing. Depending on how much time I’ve spent at the café, I set a word count goal of 1000 to 2000 words. I spread out my notes and timeline for the historical novel I’ve been working on for the last two years, researching for the last ten. In my early 20’s I worked on several documentary films in Yemen. I was spell-bound by the story of the Jewish exodus from Sana to the new state of Israel known as ‘Operation Magic Carpet’. I’m neither Jewish or Yemeni so accurate research is paramount. I received a Toronto Arts Council grant to write this book, but two years later I’m only half-way to where I had planned to be. The process is harder than I imagined, but I tell myself, ‘Keep going’.

Taped to my desk are pictures of people I photocopied from historic documents. I imagine they are my main characters. I stare at them until I dissolve from the present and shift into 1949 Yemen. Some days time travel comes easy; I can conjure the smells of the suq: incense, cumin, camel dung. I can taste the bitter juice of the narcotic leaf qat. The words fly from my fingertips and I don’t even need to open my eyes. Moments like these are the reason I write.

When the writing does not come easy, the evil twin in my head hisses,“Drop the ropes. No one will notice if you stop.”

I would notice. So, keeping in mind Anne Lamott’s premise that ‘it’s ok to write a shitty first draft’, I push on.

1 p.m:  After reaching my word count I ‘brain bomb’ point form notes about what’s going to happen next. These cliffhangers will entice me back to the desk. I thank Russell Smith for this advice from his class ‘How to Write A Novel’ at the Flying Books School of Reading and Writing.

I don’t allow myself lunch until I’ve completed my word count goal. While eating, I read the fiction in the New Yorker. I flip to the back page and try to think of an amusing caption for the cartoon competition.

I’m still thinking.

1:30 p.m: After lunch I check my social media feeds, then regret it. The plethora of socio-economic and environmental problems overwhelm me. I’m reminded of Wordsworth’s poem:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

To me, the primary benefit of being on-line is connecting with the writing community. It’s easier to endure the pain of creation knowing you’re not alone. I’m thankful to be part of several on-line writing communities whom I’ve met though Nicole Briet’s Outlier course and Rachel Thompson’s Lit Mag Love. Although I’ve made many connections online – I am also lucky to belong to The Eastwood Writer’s Collective, a group of eclectic, inspiring writers who host a monthly salon in the east end of Toronto.

2 p.m: Mondays and Wednesdays I work on CNF. Tuesdays I read and submit to lit mags, while Thursdays and Friday’s I devote to course assignments or reading and editing fellow writers’ work. That’s the ideal, but often this carefully crafted schedule is broken up by work needs, snack making and homework help, then driving my kids to and from volleyball or soccer.

10 p.m: At night, I luxuriate in reading while drinking a special tea concocted by my naturopath to help me sleep. Bedside reading at the moment is Lisa Moore’s ‘Something for Everyone’ and ‘A Mind Spread Out on the Ground’ by Alicia Elliot.

It’s only after the tea takes effect, that I finally put down the battle ropes, tired, a little stronger and hopefully, a better writer.

Dawn Hurley-Chapman is an emerging writer based in Toronto. Her short prose and CNF have appeared in Understorey Magazine, Cargo Literary, The Feathertale Review, Quality Women's Fiction (UK) and Women Travel: A Rough Guide Special. In 2017, she was awarded a Toronto Arts Council grant for her historical novel in progress, "The Orphan's Edict". She is a student of the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies in Creative Writing.