Thanks to Jason Heroux for kindly asking me to participate in this literary chain letter. Jason’s Blog Tour post on his writing process can be found here.
What am I working on?
I'm working on a new collection of poems about the difficulty of distinguishing between what is real and what is not in our current technology-dominated age. For the past 12 years, I’ve written about technology for my day job and I’m attempting to bring some of that experience into the new work. There are poems about algorithms and the uncanny valley, a problem roboticists face in designing machines with human characteristics: when robots look and behave in ways that are too life-like, we tend to respond with revulsion. Our skin crawls.
To what extent has technology usurped the natural world in our consciousness, and what are the implications for our co-dependent relationship with nature? Why do many of us prefer to watch nature programs on the Discovery Channel rather than walk in the woods? Why does the sandwich I’m eating taste better when I tweet a picture of it? And what about our own creations – the global economy, multinationals, governments and healthcare bureaucracies – that are forces to be reckoned with and can make us feel so small and insignificant? These are a few of the questions that kettle over the new collection. Of course, the project is compromised because language is also a technology, an evolution of our tool-making tendencies.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I’m probably the least qualified person to answer that question. Every writer needs to believe that their work is different and unique, that it bears the unmistakable fingerprint of individual talent. Why else would we sacrifice so much of our lives in pursuit of the next great and singular work? When I was younger, I used to worry more about what my peers were doing. For a time, I subscribed to that popular notion – much-touted by young male writers – that writing is a blood sport: cutthroat and competitive. I’m not immune to anxieties of influence, and I do want to write the poems that no one else can write, but as I get older, I believe this adversarial view of creativity is limited and leads to some bad behaviour. These days, I find myself agreeing with Don Domanski who, in an interview with S.D. Johnson, put it this way:
“…each of us stands on the shoulders of thousands of men and women who have gone on before us. It isn’t just one hand holding the pen or moving across the keyboard. This sense of connectedness has gone a long way in appreciating the poetry of others, of realizing that the poem written has only a little bit of myself in it and far more of the world, of other poets, both dead and alive.”
Don Domanski, Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation, ed. Tim Bowling. (248)
Why do I write what I do?
The question could be split into two parts: “why do I write about the things that I do?” and “why do I write the way I do?” The short answer to the first part is that there’s an urge to memorialize (a mug’s game). I’m trying to lift the veil of inattention, forgetfulness and everydayness, and bestow an afterlife of words on the people, animals, places, objects and events that have meant something to me in my little life. We snap pictures – snick, snick, snick – of the passing comet's tail because it won't be back this way again in our lifetime.
As for part two, I play around with different shapes and forms because I don’t want to bore myself or my 2.5 loyal readers by writing the same poem over and over again. I mostly write in free verse as opposed to strictly patterned forms, not because I don’t appreciate and enjoy traditional forms, but because I believe free verse is a story that has legs. I love the subtle, complex and surprising interplay of sounds, rhythms and textures you find in the best free verse. Assonance, alliteration, slant rhymes, internal rhymes, thought rhymes, line breaks and the whole gamut of rhetorical devices – these are the bones and connective tissue that hold any poem together, whether free verse or formal. I’m also conscious of wanting to vary the tone and inject some humour into my poems. I’ve had to consume too many terribly earnest poems that mean to educate and enlighten but forget to entertain. (Eat up! They’re good for you.) My disposition to use humour in the service of serious subjects also has something to do with emotional risk: no one is more vulnerable than when they’re telling a joke.
How does your writing process work?
Poems worry themselves into being. They might start with an image, some stray piece of dialogue that I’ve eavesdropped and jotted in a notebook, or a line that won’t stop looping through my head when I’m trying to get to sleep. My writing process is about trying to puzzle out why this particular image, phrase or idea has stuck in my consciousness: why is it so damned important that it has to be written down? The poem might take weeks, months, years or even decades to take shape. And for every poem that eventually finds its form, there are many others that remain stillborn. We writers like to romanticize the work and worry of creation: this poem is worthy of your attention, dear reader, because it was years in the making, carefully distilled and barrel-aged like the finest of single malts. But how a poem gets made or how much time and toil goes into it doesn’t really matter. It takes as long as it takes. Rilke spent ten years completing the Duino Elegies; Louise Glück wrote The Wild Iris in six weeks. Evolution can be gradual (slow and steady wins the race) or it can proceed by startlingly rapid leaps.
Next week's blog tour participants are:
Susan Gillis is a Montreal-based poet, teacher and editor, and a member of the collaborative group Yoko's Dogs. Her books include The Rapids, Volta (winner of the A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry), Swimming Among the Ruins, and (with Yoko's Dogs) Whisk, and the chapbook Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids.
Kathryn Mockler is a poet, writer and filmmaker, co-founder/editor of the literary journal The Rusty Toque and the author of The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, 2012) and Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011).