I’ve just been tagged by friend and fellow writer Angeline Schellenberg to join the Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour. Angeline is a poet who just had her first book manuscript accepted, for which I am quite excited. And I love the title of her blog: 37 Mice.
Some writers have compared this to a “chain letter,” but if it is, it’s a much more pleasant exercise than any chain letter I’ve ever participated in. You don’t have to foist it on ten reluctant friends, and you do get to hear from other writers about their latest work and their writing process.
So, unlike much of what I post here, this entry will be about me, answering the four questions posed to all participants on this virtual tour.
1. What am I working on?
Like Angeline, I am looking forward to the publication of my first book of poetry. Mine will appear with Turnstone Press next April. At this point the editing is done, the manuscript has moved into copy-editing and production, and it’s starting to look like a book, which is quite exciting. It’s taken a long time for this book to come together; a handful of the poems are new, or new-ish, but quite a few are ten years old and more. Ideas of home form a prominent theme, in the literal sense of looking at the place and people I come from, and in the metaphorical sense of finding one’s place in the world.
In between looking at proofs I have been trying to get back to other projects for a while. I have a second manuscript that’s been half-finished for some time now. Among other things, this one looks at places, how we live within them, how they can be familiar and strange at once, and what happens when we move between places. One section grew out of a long train trip I took with a friend, and another draws on my grandmother’s diary written while her family was en route to Canada. I also have two new series of poems that might fit into the new book, and another series that I might turn into a chapbook. And I have a stack of miscellaneous poems in various stages of revision, which I’d like to polish and send out.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Poetry is such a diverse genre that my work will be similar to many and different from many others. I never used to know what to say when people asked “What kind of poetry do you write?” and I still don’t; at least, I don’t have a short answer to that question. My poems are definitely about something—that is, although I strive for evocative language and aim to write poems that sound good when read aloud, language itself is the means rather than the subject of the poems. I like to think my poems are accessible but also interesting. They often involve narrative, and quite a few in my upcoming book use little bits of dialogue. My language and imagery tend toward the concrete and sensory rather than the abstract. A couple of people have said that my poems “make them see pictures.” I like that.
3. Why do I write what I do?
Years ago I talked with a friend about writing, and although I don’t remember much of the conversation it probably involved my bemoaning the fact that I wasn’t producing very much. He said—if I remember right—that he thought being a poet was not so much an occupation as a state of being. At the time I didn’t know what he was talking about, but I think it may have something to do with viewing the world through a certain kind of lens.
I write about whatever captures my attention and refuses to let go: persistent questions, important experiences. If something sticks in my mind—a dream, a conversation, a bird-song, a snippet from a sermon—my default response is to make something with it by putting it into a poem. At times it’s because I want to interpret and make sense of an experience (and the more profound the experience, the longer this takes). Often what I want is to put into words whatever it is that has captivated me, and try to convey its captivating qualities to a reader. I don’t tend to write with the intention of following a particular theme, but as I accumulate work, themes emerge on their own and my preoccupations gradually reveal themselves.
4. How does my writing process work?
Very slowly. I start with lines or fragments of lines that gradually become a first draft in my notebook. Sometimes these lines start out even smaller, written on the bus, on the back of a grocery receipt with the stubby pencil I keep in my pocket. I keep those scraps of paper until the bits of writing on them find a place in a poem. I begin working on the computer once a piece has begun to come together—or sometimes, when I’ve done so much inserting and crossing-out that it’s become unreadable and I have to separate out the lines I want to keep. At some point the poem always gets vetted by my writers’ “group,” which at the moment consists of Angeline Schellenberg, before undergoing further revision. This is a lengthy part of the process. I often decide a poem’s finished, send it out, then get it back and think “nope” and go back to revising.
I joined a writers’ group for the first time over twenty years ago, and although that first group was not overly helpful, since then I’ve always preferred to have someone to whom I can show new work. Writers’ groups have been helpful in a couple of ways (besides the obvious incentive of a monthly deadline): first of all to test the general effect of a poem, to get a feel for whether it’s working. The responses and questioning from others have also made me become more conscious of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
Part of my writing process is doing things that nourish my writing, like reading good books, whether poetry or essay or fiction; listening to writers read (and I include writers of sermons here), looking at art, making music, and walking.
Now I’ll tag Susan Olding, whom I met at the Sage Hill Writing Experience several years ago, and whose essays I very much enjoy.