Thursday, March 26, 2020

Andrew Velzian : my (small press) writing day

In my sitting room I have a large desk, a small settee, and no carpet. Outside, there are few houses and no shops. It is an eight mile round trip to get a pint of milk and distractions are few and far between. I have returned to the Orkney Islands in the North of Scotland and now live with the tidal patterns of island life and weather fronts. A year ago I was living in Vietnam.

While I am lucky in that I have silence, solitude, and scenery, I also miss and need the ebb and flow of daily life. The friction of busy streets, long journeys, new faces and new places. For me, place is as important in my ‘writing life’ as it is in my fiction, influencing not only productivity but what forms my writing takes. For example, here in Orkney time can move slowly, almost generational, and this can inspire more meditative writing.

I am an online ESL tutor so my hours of work follow Beijing Time (early mornings!). While the kettle is boiling I sit at the desk and record any dreams I had, or, failing that, any ideas that may come to me during that half dream state.                                               

On mornings when I have no fresh ideas I will work on my current poem or piece of writing which in turn allows the ever trustworthy subconscious to do its magic while I’m teaching. Sometimes it throws out the perfect word/sentence/narrative twist much in the same way delights are to be found on shorelines after a storm. It is important for me to do this before the internal editor/critic interferes. I need to write something, anything, before I talk myself out of it or get distracted. I need to feel that momentum and sense of creative accomplishment otherwise a sense of failure and frustration follows me throughout the day.

Afternoons are usually a dead zone for me. This could be down to so many years working split shifts as a chef or just the fact that I’m a lazy bugger. Whatever it is, I know I won’t accomplish anything decent on the page.  I try to use this time productively but naps can be too big a draw for me. Reading and napping are part of a writers job – aren’t they? I am studying and experimenting with Haikus so I try to use some of this time to learn about/practice the form. I also read for a couple of online magazines so I try to look through the submissions during the afternoon. If the weather isn’t too bad I will go for a walk.

Since returning to Orkney I have been taking the time to organise about three years’ worth of unfinished writing and this is something I will dip in and out of throughout the day. This can be finishing stories, poems, or organizing notes for longer projects.

I seldom type first drafts, and as a heavy drafter (especially of poems), this results in an ever increasing amount of paperwork. I have folders, notebooks, and drawers full of drafts that I am making my way through.

I have a group of poems that I think work well together so I am revising a lot of those at present. I also have my Vietnam journals that I am attempting to edit into something with a more cohesive narrative arc that would draw a reader in. I usually work on these in the evening if I get my second creative wind.

Obviously not every day follows this pattern. Low mood, lack of self-discipline or confidence, as well as the normal intrusions of daily life can interfere and add to the anxiety of not writing. I try not to stress too much about not being productive on a daily basis and tend to look back over a week to see what I’ve accomplished. The anxiety of not writing every day is common so I am learning to let go off it.

Andrew Velzian holds a BA Hons in Creative Writing and has several stories and poems published both online and in print. He has been a reader for various magazines and competitions including The Cambridge Short Story Prize 2018, and is currently a fiction reader for Blanket Sea Magazine. He recently returned to Orkney after living in Vietnam where he now teaches English as a second language.

Monday, March 23, 2020

My Small Press Writing Day : Ethan Vilu

I used to have really intense problems with getting out of bed too late and sleeping too much, but now that I have nowhere to be I get up at 9am like clockwork. The current context – that of COVID 19, and the resulting political, economic and social upheaval – has bizarrely meant that I have more time and less inspiration. I struggle with both motivation and culturally disciplinary forces (there’s a hell of a lot of “don’t you dare write about COVID/self-isolation/______” posts on Twitter these days, hey?), and yet at the same time I (like many of us) am turning to writing and reading as incredibly important forms of catharsis and action. There’s an incredibly rad thing happening these days as well, in the form of intentional book buying, cross-promotion and virtual readings/book clubs/the works. While I don’t want to overplay the importance of these things as some grandiose world-saver, I do think that these are critical sites of mutual emotional aid and solidarity. I’m proud to play whatever small part I can, and with that in mind, I’d describe my writing day as follows:

9am: Get out of bed. There’s a certain vertigo involved in this, of course – the realization of a new day in the same reality, only amplified enormously due to current circumstances. Nonetheless, one moves on.

9:05-11am-ish: I’m very fortunate in that I live with both my immediate family and one of my best friends, all of whom I get along with really well. Thus, for the first two-ish hours of the day I usually find myself having multiple cups of coffee and riffing on all kinds of subjects. This is great, both because it’s absolutely key in emotional and social terms right now, and because it provides nascent/nebulous inspiration for things I could write about.

11am-3pm: At some point I have lunch, but more to the point is the fact that this is a period where I tend to get some actual writing done. A key component of this is research, which for me is currently a fully holistic process: reading about anything and everything, and in so doing trying to create those spontaneous associations which are so critical to poetic writing. This is closely intertwined with my budding capacity as a book collector and seller – I spend a lot of time on AbeBooks and Biblio, and I firmly count that as productive time. All of this research eventually points me towards some shred of inspiration, and I try to run with that as best I can. Right now, for example, I’m finding (for the first time in my life) inspiration and motivation in formal, constraint-based writing. I’ve taken to writing rondels (a medieval French form which is highly variable, but which is often defined by a particular rhyme scheme and the use of a refrain) and am vaguely talking about doing a whole manuscript of them. I think that formulas and constraints offer, for me at least, a way to arbitrarily apply order to the chaos of thought and expression, and I think that that’s critical in this moment in time.

3pm-???: At the moment, the rest of my day typically lacks structure. More writing ideally gets done, more book browsing takes place, and so on. In summing up both my typical and my idealized day within the current circumstances, I’d really like to end by placing unconstrained emphasis on the importance of communication – checking in with your friends, doing online hangouts, playing a part in larger community efforts, and broadcasting messages of solidarity. As much as it gets dismissed and denigrated, I earnestly believe that Twitter is really important right now, and my days have increasingly been reflecting that belief. I’ve been trying to consistently drive home the fact that I firmly believe that we are all in this together, and that I am ready and willing to help both friends and strangers in whatever way(s) I can.

So, at the moment, that’s mostly it. Had I been asked to write about my typical writing day two weeks ago, all of this would have looked markedly different. We find ourselves in a particular moment in time, and I want to wrap this up by simply saying: Solidarity forever. Solidarity with the writers who’ve had book launches cancelled, with the publishers delaying releases, and the booksellers struggling to get by. As a community, we are going to get through this, thanks to the support and effort which we all provide for each other. As I write every day in these times, those are the thoughts that are guiding me, in terms of both content and practice.

Ethan Vilu is a writer, editor and fledgling bookseller from Calgary, Alberta. Their poetry longsheet “A Decision Re: Zurich” was published by The Blasted Tree in March 2020, and their play “Godspeed Fair Helena” was produced by Rocket Science Collective in Fall 2019. They edit(ed) the speculative journal Trouble Among The Stars (which is currently in the process of wrapping up with a final issue and chapbook), and they also work with NōD Magazine and filling Station. Passionate about material culture and weirdly obsessed with space stations, Ethan spends much of their time dreaming of buying books, selling books, and buying more books off of that. You can find them on twitter at @CNNSwitzerland.

Friday, March 20, 2020

My writing day - Matthew M. C. Smith

For most writers I know, the time to sit down and put pen to paper, without interruption, is a luxury. I work full-time and am very busy as husband and father. When I have time, I'm often tired or can't concentrate and want to go to the gym or for a run. This limitation of time is also a gift as it helps to focus the mind and value the solitary act of creation. Much of what I write is completed in stages and fragments rather than in long sessions. Perhaps this is why I enjoy writing micropoems and the short form.

I don’t have a standard writing day or any particular routines. However, I find time, even if it just for a few minutes, to record images or phrases that surface on a daily basis. Is that a routine? Perhaps. I also edit, looking over existing pieces and have a drawn-out process of revision. A poem will go through several drafts and edits in pads, on scraps of paper, or on my phone, until it gets to the first 'proper' test – typing it up and printing off to see what it looks like in print. On a computer screen or printed sheet, it becomes much easier to see the shape and character of a poem - how it looks and how precise it is in regard to phrasing and layering. Most pieces will undergo a dozen drafts and then get tinkered around with until I am reasonably happy.

There is a myth about poetry that is should pour forth and be uncorrupted by the rational mind. When you read about the lives of established, canonical poets, you quickly realise they were crafters and grafters, with poets, such as Robert Graves, Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins revising drafts of poems hundreds of times and altering their work over decades.

My first collection 'Origin: 21 Poems' was worked on over the space of a year in time for my 40th birthday. I got myself into a routine of work each night on paper and on the computer. This was in the attic, which is always one of the most poetic locations. I wrote pieces, such as 'Origin', 'Green Man', 'Footprints' and 'Hesperides' at the top of the house, in company with bookshelves, my children's neglected toys and boxes of Christmas decorations, with windows ajar through all the seasons; blisteringly hot weather, lashing rain and the chilly days we know so well in South Wales. My mind reached for words to describe conjured, sequential images around poetic themes.

I’ve written more recent work at my writing desk in the lounge - a brown bureau, packed with pens, cartridges, books and little objects to fidget with. I have a mini Yoda, part of a deer antler, mini-cases of fossils and gems, poetry by Wallace Stevens and R.S. Thomas and assorted bric-a-brac. I also write at the dining table, on the sofa, in bed or on the back-door step overlooking my garden, with a sea view.

Getting out is a must. I find the inspiration to write anywhere - car parks on a work break, shops and cafes, long walks or trips on holidays. I spent a day walking through Gower last year – over twenty miles - and wrote pages and pages of notes that resulted in prose-poetry about neolithic ruins and ancient remains. Another hike to caves in Gower led to a number of deep time-themed poems. I recently visited the Mendip hills and wrote notes on my phone and took pictures to prompt writing. Oddly, I remember where most of my poems were written, whereas other memories quickly disappear. Research goes hand-in-hand with the writing process and I'm always reading to ensure accuracy of ideas and looking for better words to use.

I leave poems for days, weeks, sometimes months, and this is always a healthy process as I feel I can become more objective about my work. I’m pretty ruthless and a lot gets culled. I send almost-final proofs to a small group of writer friends, who are constructive and honest. My work also gets road-tested at open mic nights in Neath and Swansea and the process of reading out work publicly aids the process of critical reflection.

I'm heading towards writing more poetic prose and this requires a more focused approach with time dedicated to longer pieces. I hope that I can find time to focus on this as I have a hybrid collection of prose, poetry and photos that I desperately want to develop having published part of this with Icefloe Press for their Geographies project. 

I've edited Black Bough poetry for a year. This micropoetry project was started online to create another platform for poets and to focus on the short poetry, inspired by imagism. This provides a break from my own writing and allows me to develop greater sharpness in my own work.

I would encourage all poets who are really serious about the craft to experience being an editor and also to be open to feedback and edits on their own work. A stubborn attitude to feedback prevents growth. Wide reading is essential as various poets I know stick to the same authors or types of poetry. The smallest changes can really heighten the potency and impact of work.

The Soft Fall of Midnight

I know the soft fall of midnight:
the film of dew on dark buds’ lips

a scent of lavender pressed underfoot
the celestial stream in the shallow brook

the pulsing throb of turning carp
in slick pool below willow’s dark

the fox’s tread and backward stare
the owl’s descent in the thicket’s air

hear the hush of shrouded hills
a quickening wind in star-filled fields

a curve of dawn in eastern light
drink the bitter wine of night

First published in Other Terrain, Dec 2019.

Matthew M. C. Smith is a Welsh poet from Swansea. He studied a PhD in Robert Graves and Celticism and is published in Anti-Heroin Chic, Fly on the Wall Press, Icefloe Press, Other Terrain, Back Story and Wellington Street Review. He is the editor of Twitter: @MatthewMCSmith FB: @MattMCSmith