Straining

Having finished one manuscript and having sent that off for consideration I now have a sort of frenzied feeling about what to work on next. I’ve settled on finishing The Winter Garden next, as it’s easy to work on on the go, although I’m thinking rather than one long poem about the last greenhouse on earth it’ll be made up of several apocalyptic poems. I don’t want to stretch that core poem past the boundaries of it being interesting.

However I could also stop trying to finish things for a little while. I have a trip coming up in two weeks that could use some planning, a long list of errands, and I am sore. Time spent writing right now could be easily and probably very well spent stretching.

I don’t know about other writers and artists, but on me making stuff takes a physical toll. Sometimes it’s sleeplessness. Sometimes it’s eye strain. Sometimes it’s neck and arm pain. Sometimes it’s full back pain. Sometimes it’s just the cumulative effects of long periods of time spent neglecting little aches and pains and not making time for other activities.

When I am feeling motivated and inspired as I am now it’s hard to give up a half hour of writing for a half hour of stretching. I am not the kind of person who finds stretching intrinsically rewarding. And it’s not just that I’m not stretching, it’s that I’m typing on my phone which is hard on my arms neck and back. Writing also effects my legs—I have a habit of twisting my right leg into uncomfortable positions that are hard on my knee and ankle when I’m writing.

In May I really wrecked myself working on a piece of embroidery, I wanted to write a series of polished blogs over the course of the month reflecting on the third anniversary of Magyarázni being out and the first since my dad had passed and presenting these thematically relevant crafts I made along the way. What I ended up doing was finishing the craft just as May turned to June and I never wrote a blog post about it. It was so hard on my body I went for a massage and the massage therapist waited for me in the hall after to insist that I must take up doing yoga every day given the state I was in.

I find I don’t really maintain a realistic view of how much I’m getting done. I just finished a project but feel like I must finish another. Maybe what I really need is to slow down a little and stretch my arms and back and neck and legs and feet out. When my arm hurts a lot writing hurts too. Maybe I can trick myself into thinking of stretching as part of my art practice in order to stick to doing it regularly. Though I guess that’s not really a trick.

Done! Well, this step anyway…

The snow has melted and been replaced by grey skies and a pervasive brownish tone all over the city but the Gawain-weather inspiration carried me through—I’ve finished thirteen new poems that are a kind of ambiguous, Steinian retelling of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from the perspective of the Green Knight. Proofing them today I’ll say I’m quite happy with how they turned out. And with that, I have a complete manuscript ready to send out for consideration.

Now, I really don’t want this to become a blog of unreasonable and only semi-truthful representations of productivity. This manuscript is one of those things that seems to have taken two weeks but in many ways took much longer. For me poems often take a long time to germinate. I first met Gawain in my second year of undergrad and have been fascinated with medieval English writing since then, and hoping to do something with a medieval source text in my own writing for just as long. That’s the part that usually takes the longest for me… encountering the idea, and mulling it over for a good, long while before the idea for how to do the writing bit becomes clear. The writing part’s the fastest for me, but I don’t usually get going on it until I’ve done the protracted mulling. And of course, in this case, the bulk of the manuscript is Bloom and Martyr, a sixty-five part poem I finished years ago. So this is definitely not a case of “look I finished a book in two weeks!” but rather the end of a long journey, which I’m happy to celebrate.

And now… once I write a cover letter and all that off it’ll go to a publisher for consideration. Finishing a manuscript is just the first step in a long journey to a book, but I do hope this manuscript will become a book soon—i.e. in the next year and a half or two. Fingers crossed.

Also, thanks for reading along. Blogging about trying to get things done gave me the focus I needed to do this. I’ve been wanting to cross one of these projects off my list for a long time and it feels really good to do so. Now I can’t wait to get started on the next item… I just have to decide which one is next! I’ll leave that until another day though. For now I’ve got to start writing that cover letter…

What to do with failed projects?

The first little bit of weaving I didn’t was a truly hideous combo of pastel purple, navy blue, and grassy green. After about 3” of it I realized how terrible it looked and switched to using navy blue yarn to make something less ugly. But I was left with an rectangle of useless and unattractive weaving. I was looking at it today feeling bad about the wasted materials and wondered if it’d come apart. The answer is yes, with only about 5 minutes of effort.

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This might look like a semi-useless pile of too-short threads but I’ve recently watched a few videos on YouTube about Saori weaving, where weavers approach the craft in an artistic intuitive way. It sort of seems like the abstract expressionism of weaving to me. One of the things I’ve seen people do is adding little bits of waste thread into their piece as accents and flourishes. It’s pretty cool—it’s a way to turned trimmed ends and little bits like the threads from this failed project into something lovely and useful. As I think about reducing waste overall, as many people are, I think it’s worthwhile for me to think about art supplies that way too. So this way these bits of thread can end up in a new piece rather than the trash, or in an unused piece, stuffed in the back of a drawer. I feel better about that, both from an environmental perspective and an artist one. These supplies don’t end up being only a failed project, instead they can be reused in a more success creation later.

Maybe next time?

So! I started putting the warp-starter threads on the loom, using the warp I’d already put on to pull my grand idea through the heddles and beater and then I discovered this:

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The pattern should be shed 1, 2, 3, 4, but in one spot I did it wrong—1, 3, 3, 4. Ah well. I’m not feeling put out though for two reasons. First, I’d been planning to take a more free-form, artistic approach to this piece and so now, knowing there’s a little flaw in it, I’ll feel more free to just play around and try things out. And second, and most importantly, I was able to confirm that the warp started threads work! As I’ve said a few times to David through this process “there’s more than one way to warp a loom” (also I think that should replace the skin-a-cat saying because it’s way less gross). This warp started idea forgoes that flexibility for the sake of speed which is a trade off I’m more than willing to make. I’m sure I can spend quite a while exploring the potential of this way of setting up the warp, and it’s gonna make it easier for me to keep going with this craft because warping a loom from scratch is so time consuming and hard. So—while this plan hasn’t turned out exactly as I planned I’m pretty pleased with where I’m at with weaving right now anyway.

Will it work?

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If you’ve ever thought “hmm that hand woven X is kind of expensive” it’s because someone spent EIGHT MILLION YEARS warping the loom to make that X. At about 2/3 if the way through the task I find myself thinking “you know I could just buy a scarf at the Bay.” But the weaving part is really fun and rewarding so… one perseveres.

That being said, this time I put the warp in the loom which is a really backbreaking task (I know it doesn’t look like it but I assure you, it is) and I found myself not being able to face the idea that I did all that for one shawl’s worth of warp. Plus the good chunk of yarn that’d be wasted.

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So, I devised a plan. I made colour coded warp started threads with a loop at each end, and am now binding them to the loom and to the yarn strands I originally warped the loom with, one by one, and am now pulling these back through the heddles and the beater. One that’s all done then I’ll wind on and weave until I arrive back at these warp starter strings, and then I’ll pull those back through the beater. When I want to weave again all I should need to do is tie the strings to the warp starters. That is, no counting out heddles on different sheds, no pulling each thread through the heddle, and no pulling the the thread through the beater. Just tie on, wind, and weave!

I hope this works as well as I imagine it will. Cross your fingers for me!

What if it’s bad?

I just took my first weaving project off the loom and I am so very proud of it. It is too short to be a scarf, not made of cotton so no use cut into tea towels, and quite lumpy and inconsistent in tension on the end where I started. Half way through it suddenly gets nice and even and consistent so I can tell I got better at it as I went. Woohoo!

I think it’s really helpful for me to try new arts and crafts to keep me from getting too precious/anxious about making stuff. When I feel I’m good at something it becomes harder for me to get going on it as I think I’m afraid of doing a terrible job and then having to what… examine whether my deeply held image of myself as a writer/artist is valid? And while I secretly hoped this first piece of cloth would be just perfect I was neither surprised nor disappointed that it isn’t. It was really fun cleaning the loom up with my mom and watching YouTube and Instagram videos showing how to weave, it was challenging getting the warp on the loom, it was puzzling starting to weave and figuring out what was going wrong, and it was fun when I knew it had started to go well. It was also really meaningful getting the loom, which my dad kept for so many years, always seeing the potential in it, working at last.

I don’t know why writing feels like a risk—I mean, it’s not. If I write bad poems alone at home literally nothing bad will happen to me. I don’t know why writing a bad poem feels like a threat—why a writer can’t write well some days and badly some days and have it all come out in the wash. Doing something new like this highlights that for me—making something for its own sake and for the fun of it is a great creative space to be in.

Plus I have this too-short scarf now! I made cloth! Pretty cool.

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When to write?

Now that I’m writing this blog and thinking more about Getting Writing Done I’ve become more conscious of when I feel most like writing—late at night and early morning. These aren’t ideal because 1) while I could easily and happily stay up until 2 a.m. every morning writing this does not work for my life and daytime responsibilities, so I’m always fighting my natural night owl impulse to start working on something at 11 p.m.; and 2) due to my night owl-ness thought I might feel inspired in the morning there’s no time to write, as I struggle to wake up and have about negative 5-15 minutes before the morning routine/panic begins in earnest. I must also say that I have a tendency to let moments of inspiration pass me by when I’m doing other stuff. Like if I should be starting dinner or I’m doing laundry or need to run errands I don’t stop those to write. I seem to have the never ending opinion that I’ll get my life responsibilities out of the way and then I’ll have cleared everything out of my schedule to write. It’s a great recipe for never writing.

So I have a few options to improve my writing habits in a way that works with my schedule and when I’m inspired. I always fantasize about becoming the kind of person who wakes up early to jog and write Big Important Novels and makes egg-white omelettes all before 8 a.m. but the likelihood of me spontaneously becoming a totally different person seems low. So I’m going to release myself from those fantasies of becoming a morning person. Indulging in my desire to stay up late is something I can work with a bit. I can’t go full tilt into staying up as late as I like because I’d be chronically under-rested at all times and it’d be irresponsible of me to do that to myself, but what I can do is say “everything else stops at 9:30 p.m. and I write until 10:30.” That should still give me some time to unwind and get to sleep at a time that works with the rest of my life. And finally—the random moments. These I think I should take more advantage of by changing my way of thinking about how long those chores take. Like if I stop in the middle of Saturday chores for 5-30 minutes because I had a good idea, then chores will just take that much longer and that’s how long chores now take. Basically, I want writing to become a chore, in the sense that I should make it a non-optional part of my weekly tasks. Like, I don’t skip laundry because I also have to do groceries. Similarly I shouldn’t skip writing because I have laundry and groceries to do.

Maybe those are bad examples though… maybe it’s more like when you’re expecting your landlord to stop by “sometime this afternoon,” or are waiting for some trades person to arrive to do something, or you’re expecting someone you really need to talk to to call you back but you have no idea when. I often feel inspiration is an outside force so that seems more fitting. I can’t just not let the plumber in because I’m in the middle of making rice. So I shouldn’t not let inspiration in when I’m doing other must-do tasks. After all in the end I’ll be more satisfied with myself if I finish a project than if I finished cleaning up or whatever 20 minutes earlier.

The thing is writing is important to me. It matters to me that I get writing done. It’s more important to me than many of the other things I make sure I make time for. So I have to strike a good balance between guilt, health, responsibilities, and writing. Guilt: I am going to permanently shelve the idea of writing or doing anything else in the morning. I’m never gonna be that guy. Health: I’m going to get ready for the day early in the evening—pack my lunch and pick out clothes and stuff before 9:30 so I have the late evening free to write and also still get a reasonable amount of sleep. Responsibilities: let things take more time when that’s ok (ex. I’m not needed by someone at a specific time then it can wait a few minutes). Writing: clearly identifying for me to myself that this is a chore and priority, and then acting like it by making time for it—creating the conditions for it and considering it a “must” not a “when everything else is done.”

How do you make a puppet?

Today we went to see the puppet exhibit at the museum of anthropology. This was actually why we came here right now—I saw the exhibit for 15 minutes on a work break and resolved to come back to spending more time with the show. The puppets from all around the world and spanning hundreds of years are amazing. I sort of want to give up all my other projects and just make puppets. I could make their hands and faces or air dry clay and make clothes for them on the loom!

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Should I photograph this?

We are in Vancouver for a long weekend and went to the Vancouver Art Gallery to check out their shows. On one floor I took one cellphone photo, then another, and soon was photographing every piece I walked by. I always enter a museum thinking “this time I’m not taking any photos” and then take a bunch. It becomes a burden once I’ve started—not taking a photo of pieces makes it feel like I’m letting the art slip away. The first time I think “oh just this one really interesting piece I want to remember” and then I end up taking a photo of everything I find marginally interesting or beautiful lest I forget the works. But i’m not sure photographing things is really that great a memory bank for me. I have 40,000… 40,000 photos on my computer to tidy when I get home from this holiday. That is more photos than I need of anything, and certainly the quantity of them makes finding a memorable photo of art in there difficult.

So anyway, on the next floor I decided, on the way up the escalator, that I would take no photos on that floor. Many of the pieces were incredibly, achingly beautiful and I normally would have taken photos, but I feel like not taking photos made me engage with the art more deeply. Rather than avoiding the feelings of a really overwhelming piece of art, with no apparatus between us, I simply had to feel it fully. I feel like there’s something of Barthes’ Camera Lucida in this—not photographing the art makes me feel more aware of the transitory nature of life and then the full force of how art exists my life and that space and time where I’ll see it and feel it just the once (especially if it’s a show out of town and I can’t go back to see it again).

I have some photos from museums that are really meaningful to me. Ones of my dad, or ones of shows I saw with him, principally. The last show we saw together was Anna Torma at the Esker, and I was really emotionally affected when I saw on his camera the photos he had taken of the show. I’m not sure if he ever had the opportunity to go back and look at them, as he took them relatively soon before he passed away. They’re a little blurry—his hands a little unsteady from the side effects of chemo, so there’s strong evidence of him in those photos. So I don’t want to be dismissive of the potential power of taking some photos of art in galleries. But for me there is a balance between avoiding taking photos in a way that wrecks or undermines the experience of the art, and taking photos that really do or will mean something to me.

Vikki Alexander - Extreme Beauty - Vancouver Art Gallery (and David)

Vikki Alexander - Extreme Beauty - Vancouver Art Gallery (and David)

What does it mean to be a multilingual writer?

Tonight’s reading at the CPL was really wonderful. Jaspreet Singh, who speaks almost five languages (he is learning Spanish—that’s the “almost” fifth one), hosted a group of us local writers who engage with two or more languages in our work—me (Hungarian), paulo da costa (Portuguese), Sharanpal Ruprai (Punjabi) and Trent Fox (Stoney Nakoda).

The event was an incredibly warm and welcoming one, and though I’d scripted out a talk in case I was too nervous to speak off the cuff I was, indeed, able to just speak off the cuff which I think is probably more fun for all involved.

Before the event, Jaspreet asked us each to read for four minutes, and to talk about our work and multilingual writing for four minutes. Since I didn’t end up reading it at the event, here’s what I had scripted myself:

Why do I speak Hungarian? Why am I a multilingual poet? My dad came from Hungary as a refugee, when he was 13, in 1956. He said he’d often ask Canadians where their people came from and whether or not they spoke the language of that place. The answer he said was often “No, but I wish I did.” And this, he said, was the motivation behind his insistence that we speak Hungarian. Speak Hungarian. I’d bet the phrase my dad uttered most frequently in his life had to be “beszélj magyarul!” Having had a long career as a contractor and welder my dad, it seems to me, had some hearing loss, but he always seemed to be able to hear us speaking English from clear across the house. Or perhaps when we quieted down for a while he assumed we were sneakily speaking English (which we were) and so just yelled it at semi-regular intervals to see if that worked. Who can say. 

I have no flare for Hungarian grammar which I wasn’t taught formally and which is incredibly complicated. As an inflected language one can also rearrange the words in a Hungarian sentence almost any which way and still have it be comprehensible, though I also have no talent for remembering which order a person whose primary language is Hungarian would put those words in.

My speaking Hungarian was a fatherhood-long journey for my dad. He was correcting my Hungarian even in the hospice. When I gave a speech at his funeral I mentioned this—that people would have to forgive the bad grammar as I didn’t have my life-long language coach at hand. My most frequent use of Hungarian is now when I speak to my dad at his grave. 

Magyarázni was an effort to figure out how Hungarian was my own—in what ways and to what extent. I wrote it in Montreal when I was no longer living at home here in Calgary anymore, and was no longer speaking Hungarian daily. Some children of refugees/immigrants will joke about how when your parents began scolding you in THEIR language you knew you were really in trouble. In my case it was the opposite—I knew i was really in trouble if my dad spoke English to me... MY language. Magyarázni is an adventure in coming to terms with this relationship to language, in life, in words, in speech, and in visuals—the ways in which my dad’s own folk art and (at the time I wrote the book) the opacity if written Hungarian inspired me. Hungarian is now much less opaque to me—in writing the book I corresponded with my dad and learned to read it properly. 

I could make more of an effort to speak Hungarian now. I’ve tried to prod my partner into learning it a bit, but it’s not exactly an easy task. As I contemplate having children I wonder if or how I might pass the language on to them. I am certain I do not have the stamina or insistence to transmit a language to another in the way my dad did to me. So once again I find myself considering, a year and two months after my dad left this earth, what Hungarian means to me. 

Indeed, reading Magyarázni sort of helps me—I wrote my own roadmap to considering these issues. In the absence of my dad and my cultural anchor I find myself wondering how he made me Hungarian—the very literal meaning of “Magyarázni” (the proper meaning is “to explain”). When I cook without a recipe I often make Hungarian food by accident. I still love making folk art. I still get excited when I see someone with a Hungarian name in film credits or with a Hungarian bumper sticker. When I remember my dad, I still hear him speaking Hungarian, and I’m going to Budapest for only the second time in my life in a few weeks.

As I work through the profound grief and life altering trauma of losing my dad, with whom I was so close and shared so much, I suspect I will often come back to considering his language, my language, our language. I think this will be a lifelong process for me. I am glad I wrote Magyarázni years before his final illness. I’m glad he was at the launch of the book, that he told all his friends, store cashiers, and everyone else he met about it. I’m glad he learned in an interview I did that the chest he carved in our living room was a main source of inspiration for me—I thought I’d told him but I never had. I’m glad that this document is something I shared with him, and I’m glad I’m not considering this for the first time after his death. 

Honestly, I have no idea what being a multilingual writer means to me. Or what being a multilingual person means to me. I think that question is so deep in me that it’s the same as asking “what does it mean to be me?” I think I’ll be asking these questions for the rest of my life. 

 

What is language away from home?

Tomorrow I will be reading along with a group of other authors who write in multiple languages at the event “Polyglot: Multilingual Readings by Calgary Writers.” It’s at the downtown Calgary Public Library at 6:30. The event was organized by the CPL writer in residence Jaspreet Singh, which is especially cool for me as he was the writer in residence when I was a student at UofC, and I was quite in awe hearing him read from Seventeen Tomatoes.

After reading for a few minutes, we will each be speaking for a few minutes about writing in multiple languages I was thinking how this has changed for me since my dad passed, but it occurs to me that I wrote Magyarazni when I lived in Montreal, and not at a time when I was home in Calgary speaking Hungarian on a daily basis. I’m not really sure what significance there is to that, but I’m thinking about it… and might talk about it a bit tomorrow if I can pull out the interesting thread there.

 

How do you spell shop?

Today was our last day with my dad’s shop, so I thought I’d share my poem from “Magyarázni” about this incredibly important place. (Of course, for this poem, for this Hungarian word that we used so, so, so often, for this one I spelled the title wrong! It should be “Műhely,” not “Mulhey.”)

Please enjoy, and in doing so help us celebrate and commemorate this meaningful place.

 

What are we preserving?

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As our time with my dad’s shop comes to a close (tomorrow is the last day), we’ll (I’ll) have to move from “quick—grab that while we(I) can!”-mode to “ok what do we(I) do with this now?”-mode. That second phase is a lot longer and one filled with more and more difficult decisions. Thankfully, today for Doors Open YYC we went to the City of Calgary art archive, and the conservation specialist spoke a bit about how they maintain outdoor steel statues. While acknowledging that it probably wouldn’t hurt to do a bit of research to confirm the particulars of our pieces in question etc, it sounds like my dad’s outdoor statues are going to basically be fine where and as they are, and that aside from a very occasional rinse with water and maybe a gentle soap they shouldn’t need much active care to keep them in good shape. This is a huge relief, as I watch the snow pile up on them, wondering if they’re ok if we just let them be, just as they’ve always been, since they were made. I was never afraid of their durability when my dad was alive, but he also would have known how to care for and fix them if need be, or as their creator, he could neglect them if he thought they were just fine as-is, but my/our relationship to them is different.

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Seeing how the city stores and cares for its collection was quite wonderful. The very small team of specialists discussed some items in the collection that the artists intended for use, and how that intention is balanced with conservation goals so that, as they put it, we don’t use up the whole of the work’s existence greedily, letting it be enjoyed by future generations as well.

As we prepare to say goodbye to the shop, where he worked for over thirty years, and which was the site of so many formative moments for me, at least I know there’s something of that place embedded in the sculptures he made there. I know that, other than my family members and a few of my dad’s friends and colleagues who were at the shop and saw some of those sculptures there, no one will look at these objects and see that place in them, like a viewfinder or crystal ball. But it’s there, in the steel, in the welds, in the motions used to twist the works into shape. Aside from the litany of photos we’ve taken of the shop, there’s this evidence of that time, place, and my dad still. The shop will be gone soon, or at least it won’t be ours anymore, but these things remain, and these things we can preserve, and in preserving them, share them in the future too.

Its comforting to know too that using the sculptures, that is, not wrapping them in plastic and hiding them in a basement or something, is ok. People can still see them, we can still see them, and I think that’s what my dad would’ve liked. In any case, it’s what I like—I’d much rather watch the dancers in his sculptures get their annual cap of snow that see them hidden away. This way the art, and the memories they represent for me, feel free and beautiful and alive. I’m glad there’s no need to choose between that and keeping the art safe.

 

Maybe this instead?

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Gorgeous snow on the golden and green leaves of fall today. It just so happened that the audiobook of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight that I had on hold became available today, which was ideal with the weather. Chores all day, and a hard day given that the day my dad’s shop becomes someone else’s is fast approaching, so today there was neither the time nor the emotional space for much else. However, listening to Gawain as I clean up I think this might be what I can do for the poem to go with “Bloom & Martyr”—a long poem about the Green Knight might be just the thing, and I think it’d go with “Bloom and Martyr” thematically really well. And having something to work with as a source text might actually give me the direction and parameters I need to get this poem going, and get it sent out for consideration soon.

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What Will I Make?

Today it snowed in Calgary which somehow doesn’t seem odd to me. I find that first breath of air that smells like snow so invigorating and inspiring that early snow doesn’t seem to bother me this year. Actually, given how inspiring the snow is to me, I’m wondering if snow poems might be better than fall poems to go with “Bloom & Martyr.” But then maybe I should save my snow thoughts for the eyeSnowScape book I hope to write. Hmm.

Today’s big art news is that we retrieved the large loom from my dad’s shop, as the new owner will be taking over on October 1. The loom is too big to fit down the stairs so for now it’s wrapped in a tarp in my mom’s yard like a big lumpy present. One of the more vivid childhood memories I have is of the year there was a big green and gold present for me under the tree and I was beyond enamoured with it and looking forward to finding out what was inside and this feeling is kind of like that. This big tapestry loom is all possibilities right now - pure creative optimism. I’m sure whatever I make will be pretty lumpy, but that first lumpy thing I make when I’m trying to learn a new skill is so great. I’m always more proud of that sort of thing than something I made using a skill I have and that’s actually objectively much better. I will be so proud of my lumpy cloth. Wish I could do this with my dad.

Merry Christmas!

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What does it need?

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I’m currently trying to get used to new glasses (which I think are a real fresh new look but that no one else can distinguish from my old glasses) and have a mild headache as I adjust to the new prescription. Tonight after some chores feeling on the sleepy blah side and I now find myself watching people make fettuccini alfredo on YouTube for some reason and am wondering if it’s reasonable to think of getting anything written tonight. Thinking of working on poems for “Bloom & Martyr” but will probably not get anywhere in this mood… instead I’m mulling over two things 1) what “finishing a project” means, and 2) when something can just be itself and not something I think it should be. 1) Was saying to Julya that I always think I can finish a project in a night and that’s never true because the project is writing a book, and she said so redefine what a project is - like writing one poem for the book is a project rather than only thinking only in the unit of the book, and 2) I have all these projects that I’ve been thinking of as half done, but maybe they ARE all done already. This is principally a problem where I have a) a bunch of written poems that I think need art/visual poems to go with them b) a bunch of artworks that I think need poems to go with them, and 3) a bunch of visual poems that I think need written poems to go with them. I guess another is c) things that really only need to be one-off poems or little chapbooks that I feel should be worked into full books. Books books books. I want everything I do to be an illustrated book of poems. I have this big thing I made about a decade ago called “Alphaseltzer” of melting letters that I stowed away ages ago, but that now I think some publishers may be interested in. It’s long enough to be it’s own thing, but I’m so convinced I’m going to write a poem to accompany each visual poem, all part of a hallucinatory dream of a rubricator - the scribe who would add the big red letters and fancy stuff to a completed medieval manuscript. Ah even when I write that description out I feel like it would be so cool and I want it to be done, yet it’s been ten years and I have yet to do it. Will I? Should I? When I type out the idea I think “yeah, I gotta.” But there are some projects - one with some old photos I bought at the flea market, for instance - that might just be visual art projects. I’m not sure, but I suspect. And in that case the scope and length is totally different, and what “finished the project” is will be totally different. There also doesn’t have to be the shape and structure of the book, or the whole sense of any one part not being totally done until the whole manuscript is done and can be edited as a whole. I dooooo love illustrated books and want to write a whole bunch of them, and some are just taking a long time. But some of these ideas I think aren’t going to grow into whole books or maybe publications at all. It’s maybe an unusual balance for me because I am more practiced a writer than a visual artist so perhaps I feel like I have to add words to make the visuals legitimate. Or maybe I just really really love illustrated books of poetry. Either way, when it comes to drawing satisfaction from a project, knowing when to share a project, knowing when a project is done, and knowing what the scope of a project is, I think it’s time for me to let myself think small, and see if hat leads anywhere interesting or at least satisfying.

 

Where are the Songs of Fall?

I’m back! Day two of daily art blogging success *pats self on back.* Anyway… as I mentioned in my last post I’m trying to write a series of poems about fall to go with “Bloom & Martyr,” which is all about flowers, to make a book that would have been less than 50% published. Right. “Bloom & Martyr” just enveloped me when I wrote it. I completed 65 poems in like, no time at all (a week or something?). This fall poem thing, however, is turning out to be more of a labour for a few reasons. First, and foremost I think, I think I used all the good, foliage-related textural words I know up in “Bloom & Martyr” and every time I try to write a fall poem I think “hmm I’m pretty sure I used all that language in the flower poems so I shouldn’t be doing it here or it’ll get boring.” Both “Bloom & Martyr” and this thing I’m trying to work on now are written in a Steinian, a-grammatical style so that build up of mood based on odd juxtapositions of words, so this thing about running out of good words rather than say, good images or ideas is a thing, in this case. The other issue is a grief one - I’m trying to draw inspiration from a landscape that really makes me think about my dad and his art depicting the prairies and his love of that landscape and that makes it difficult to write about when I’m not wanting to write about those subjects. And finally, and this one does tie in with the grief issue a bit - is how strongly the metaphor between fall and human death is drawn. Walking in Nose Hill, and whenever I try to write about fall, the first thing that pops into my head is “Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?” from Keats’ “To Autumn.” And then I feel sad about poor Keats dying at 25, and I then I get sadder thinking about death and loss more generally and specifically, etc. But this reaction to fall, I think, is rather manufactured for me. I really love fall - I mean Keats also has some lovely things to say about fall in his poem but he’s still equating it with death and decline. But there’s nothing dead about the sharpness of the light, the luminous and incredibly variety of colours, the dramatic clouds, and the cool breeze. Actually I like early winter too - the incredible freshness of the first snowfalls and the contrast of the white snow on the wet cement and evergreens is gorgeous. Indeed, in my case my father’s eyeSnowScape art project, which he started and which we later worked on together, depended on winter for its canvas, and that was and is a great wellspring of joy and life for us. My father also passed in July, the supposedly full-of-life time of the year. This layering of the phases of a human life on the cycle of the seasons isn’t really all that perfect a fit, and in a way I feel like it’s obstructing my ability to see and write about fall the way I really feel about it. Fall doesn’t truly feel like a time of decline and death to me. July of 2018 was a time of loss, followed by the horrible smoke that blanketed Alberta for weeks - that felt like a season of death, both personal and on a mass, planetary scale. But I find fall absolutely incredible and full of life. It has grief woven into it the way all things have grief woven into them, yes, but in the case of fall for me that’s done in a way that embraces and remembers and celebrates life rather than dwelling on its end. So if I haven’t really used the good words all up I would like to be able to get there, to write about it like that, without the metaphor of human death layered on it. Just the colours, just the change, just the beauty of it. I want to revel in it and celebrate it.

 

What am i doing?

I realized a little while ago that it has been YEARS since I’ve published anything with another press—be it a poem in a magazine, a chapbook, or a book. YEARS! How did that sneak up on me? Well, ?! Press has been more active than ever before these past few years so it’s not like I haven’t been sharing poetry with the world but… what have I been doing? This situation reminds me of when I was in undergrad, in a creative writing program, and would wonder at how some poets would take years upon years between books (Tool style). When turning in a big stack of new poems every few weeks is one of your main responsibilities it can tint your vision slightly in when it comes to the level of productivity you can except to function at in the long term, let’s say… But that aside… what have I been doing? Taking my time mostly, thinking, brainstorming, making and not sharing, or sharing with a small audience. My dad’s illness and passing in July 2018 was not at all a detriment to my creative process or output—just the opposite in fact. He was throughout our time together a profound, profound supporter of my work, and having the chance to create art together in the circumstances in which we found ourselves was a deep change in me as a writer and artist. Any feeling of fear or hesitancy or of being “blocked” fell away and has not returned. Putting on our annual Popsicle! art shows has been a fair amount of work that has made me produce a lot of work and that had been an incredible source of inspiration. So—that’s all good.

But still … I don’t have anything ready to send to a publisher today, or perhaps more rightly, nothing I want to share with people beyond the more intimate one to one of selling someone a chapbook for $5, or emailing a pal a poem.

I have been attempting to maintain a proper functioning Instagram but I feel I keep sliding into this feeling that I should only be showing finished things, or nearly finished, nearly ready for purchase things… and I don’t think that’s a great well of productivity. I think I can and should break out of that because I find a lot of value in Instagram. I don’t want to be too uncritical of it but I find the neat things the artists and writers I follow post inspiring. Right now I have a great big chunk of a manuscript that’s part of a still bigger project done, but I find myself thinking “well can’t share that until the book’s about to come out or everyone will already be sick of it and won’t buy it…”—I do a lot of that sort of thinking lately which is just a whole lotta nothing. So I’m gonna have to shake that up and stop feeling so contrived when it comes to the gram.

But I digress… writing for me right now is a slow burn, which I’m fine with, but I also want to direct my energy in the way that I’m going to find most satisfying, which includes finishing some long term projects and sharing them with the world. I was also writing a list of priorities out for myself (life stuff like “get sleep, exercise, eat at home more, make time for friends”) and “bring people together with art” slipped out without me thinking about it. I’m not totally sure why I wrote it, but it gave me the idea of blogging more.

I used to blog more regularly many years ago, but I laboured over those posts quite a bit—theory, reviews, research, etc. Rather than getting back into that kind of thing this time I’m just going to write about what I’m up to, the process I’m going through with the projects I’m working on, and when I’m not actively working on a poem what I’m doing that feeds into my writing and visual art making overall.

I think this will be fun and satisfying for me both to see “hey I didn’t write a poem today but I actually did do something to help me work on that project” and I hope it’ll be fun for you… either as a simple diversion or as a way to say “yup me too, I’ve got a full time job and responsibilities and other interests BUT I sill want to be an active writer.” Through all this will run a ribbon of grief and loss I’m sure. My dad’s passing is something I feel every day and it echoes in all aspects of my life, including in my art, especially in my art, even when that art isn’t about my dad. So if you’re grieving while also doing your art thing maybe this will appeal on that level.

Overall, I think doing a regular blog about writing and art will help me focus my efforts to finish some projects, and be a fun way to reach out from that quiet, solitary, creative space of making stuff alone at home.

So this is the first of these regular posts.

So what am I doing? Well our latest Popsicle! show was on the weekend, so I know I have some admin-y things to do there (photograph the new chapbook and put it on the website and such), and I also need to complete my report for the Alberta Foundation for the Arts on “Glass Clouds” the manuscript I recently finished (more about that to come). But the first writing goal I’ve set for myself is getting “Bloom & Martyr” out in the world in its entirety in book form. I was all set to send it out for consideration when I realized I published slightly more than half of it which I know can be bad news for publishers, so I’m now writing a long poem in the same style about fall to go with “Bloom & Martyr.” I didn’t do any writing today but I did go for a walk with the fam to take photos and soak up the almost intolerable beauty of autumn and get inspired. I do feel inspired.

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Death Written Right: "Swing Time" by Zadie Smith

Includes: Spoilers for the novel; Discussion of the loss of a parent

I just finished Swing Time by Zadie Smith. I’ve been reading it on and off since December. It’s a beautiful, engaging, evocative, moving novel about the protagonist’s life from childhood to her mid-thirties. I won’t describe the novel much but I will spoil it—it ends with the passing of the protagonist’s mother in a hospice due to cancer.

Before my father passed I would find works (books, movies, tv shows) that killed off a loved one bland when it was done badly, but now I find such things deeply annoying to the point of offensive. It feels so horribly false and ridiculous when someone hacks away at such a deep experience with little skill or precision, communicating nothing about life as they try to use such an experience only to move the other bland characters from point A to B like limp dolls. I especially resent the triggeryness of these bad uses of death—they remind you of the death you experienced without doing the profound experience any justice.

Since my dad passed, the casual use of death as a plot point in nearly everything jumps out to me more. The overuse of it without any proper thought or interesting treatment is laborious and boring. I turn off a lot of tv shows I might have otherwise finished. I reject a lot of mediocre movies. Death of a loved one is scattered everywhere and rarely done with any semblance of real human emotion—neither the grief nor the weird humour—none of it.

Dead to Me is for me another exception, on the humour side. The lasagna rage, the weeping on the toilet, and listening to death metal while driving are all just perfect.

Zadie Smith’s Swing Time is the perfect counter example of this sort of experience as a reader or viewer. I’ve taken a great deal of comfort in a few interviews with her and a few of her essays since my dad passed. The way she discusses the death of her father is so humane that it counteracts the wash of media so filled with blanched depictions of such intense experience. In listening to her and reading her work I feel that moment of recognition—that someone writing has, in fact, thought and felt this same experience. It’s not some apparition in my life—the feeling of death and the way it makes me consider the past, present, and future, the finite and infiniteness of life. It’s not just something to drive a boring show or story to its inevitable over-telegraphed conclusion.  

Swing Time firmly situates the protagonist in her own life. Her relationship with her childhood friend, her origins, and her mother’s conception of their identity all suffuse her. In interviews Zadie Smith talks about the finiteness of life as she sees it, and this is so strikingly real, as someone who is still in the first year of a loss, and someone who writes, is so real and so cathartic it’s hard to communicate the relief of reading such a novel, the work of such a person.  

I’ve lately spent time with two of my childhood friends, and friends I met a decade ago, links that are often severed by moving here and there, time and space. Links that don’t really do much for the forward, upward momentum that is the general order or narrative of our culture—they’re real and deep and pointless to capitalism unless depicted inaccurately in shows or ads. I’m also presently writing a book, the basic idea of which started forming in me when I was a child, and more pointedly when I was a teenager. I find myself thinking both about how, as a writer, there are only so many works in me. My ideas germinate at one moment and take years to develop, or they come and go quickly but then become a significant curiosity to me when I consider my past. I have a list of works I’d like to write and most are at a minimum ten years old—most of them older. I feel too that my father’s passing has changed my conception of time. I was telling my old friends since my mid-twenties everything has felt like it happened two years ago, when it could be anywhere from one year to ten. That’s changed—I am very aware of the difference between the time when my dad was alive and the time when he passed. I won’t call it a sharp line, as I find memory and emotion mean his presence is still very much with me, but there’s a difference in time and in me. Having the opportunity to go through that difference with people who know you only on one side of it, new friends, and people who remember you as a child, even have childhood memories of your parent that you don’t from their own perspective, is a big deal. These components and people in our lives are not moveable or exchangeable. The experiences that inspire us aren’t either.  

It makes me wonder if the people writing the bad portrayals of death haven’t experienced it, or can’t manage to express it though their work, or don’t want to face it and what it reflects back at them about their personhood or life more broadly. I don’t mean to be cruel, but there’s such a dull cruelty in making a bland mush this experience.  

Anyway, all that, all that feeling is what Zadie Smith pulls out so beautifully in her interviews, essays, and in Swing Time. When I got to the part where the mother goes to the hospice I felt that moment of resistance, of not wanting to let the book unexpectedly drag me back to that place, but the feeling softened quite quickly, as it’s easy to trust Smith with your psyche. You know that she, as an artist, isn’t going to subject you to some hackneyed torture, yanking meanly at the aching parts of you just to find a way to tie up her book in the absence of any other ideas. Quite the opposite.  

In our family of four, three of us were from Canada and one was an immigrant, a childhood refugee. Our experience differs from the one Smith describes in many obvious ways—my father was Eastern European and an immigrant to Canada, not a Caribbean immigrant to England like the mother in the book—but there is something so incredibly accurate in the way Smith speaks to your heart if your family is composed in any which way like this—not all people from the same place. The way the immigration experience and exploration of one’s identity make up such an important and all encompassing part of your life, and the weirdness of the person whose experience formed that core being able to die and be gone in that way… it’s hard to explain how much Zadie Smith’s writing reaches into my heart and holds that glowing experience and let’s me feel it.  

Being subjected inadvertently to so many bad and meaningless depictions of death, Smith’s writing on death in Swing Time is the perfect opposite. Rather than the usual dull thud on a sore spot, it was a gift. The echo of death, it’s delirium, the kindness of hospice workers, the strange aura of people not experiencing what you are at the time—Smith evokes it all in a way that makes my ears ring. Place, childhood, my parents, my present, death, my experience as a writer, how I see life forwards and backwards and conceive of myself in death’s wake, how it feels to be in the loss of my immigrant parent—Smith lets me look into these experiences when I can’t find them elsewhere.  

While I’ve read a few non-fiction works about death a grief that have spoken to me this way, Swing Time is the first piece of fiction that’s properly sprung death on me. Rather than feeling annoyed by it, blanched by it, Smith makes me feel seen. She makes death feel real. It’s a relief to read it.

Interviews with Smith:

CBC: https://www.cbc.ca/radio/writersandcompany/zadie-smith-on-the-ups-and-downs-of-female-friendship-in-swing-time-1.3840639

Adam Buxton: http://adam-buxton.co.uk/podcasts/ep40-zadie-smith

Desert Island Discs: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03bg4v7