Sunday, May 24, 2009

A column I did for Canadian Literature


It was what I'd been waiting for almost forever, when the letters
danced together to make sounds, the sounds I heard in my head, or
anyone's. When I first realized I was doing it I thought I was
cheating, borrowing the "ook" from "book" to make "took" and
"look," like copying someone else's tree in my drawing instead of
making up my own: central pillar, three branches, a pillowy
crown, five apples. Shouldn't each word have its own special, its
own personal letters? But there could never be enough letters,
enough angles and curves and loopy loops, to make all the words I
knew and those I didn't know yet but would. And so I learned the
economy of language, to borrow and copy and make do, remaking
meaning. Someone else's tree in my drawing, curly smoke from the
chimney, two windows, tulips all around. "Look" what I "took"
from the "book!"

"Reading" originally appeared in Canadian Literature #121, "What the Archives Reveal"

Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?

It seems to me that from the first moment I heard poetry, before I could even read, it entranced me. In those early days my fascination was more with the sounds and rhythms of words than their meanings, and I continued making up rhyming poems for many years after I learned to read.

I think I only started writing poems that didn't rhyme once I was in high school, once my experience of language became more grounded in text than in the speaking and singing voice. The first poet who made me think that maybe I could pursue poetry seriously was Leonard Cohen; I bought The Spice Box of Earth at a book fair in my school gymnasium when I was in grade ten and it took the top of my head off.

How/where do you find inspiration today?

I used to find inspiration in books, then in landscapes and lovers. Now it's just everywhere. I don't even think of it as something as exalted as "inspiration"-- it's more humbly "material." Every single thing I experience can pass through poetry.

Poetry is like Lyra's alethiometer in The Golden Compass. By writing it I come to know the world.

What is your writing process?

I try to make time to write every day, even if all I can muster up is the energy to edit stuff I wrote the day before. I usually need to spend about an hour warming up at my desk by reading my email, paying bills, just getting my butt firmly fixed in the chair. Then once I get going I find it really hard to stop. Sometimes I'll even get up in the middle of the night to keep working.
What is your revision/editing process?

With prose, I edit fanatically, constantly, incessantly, as I go. Each day I go over the previous days work and edit it, adding and deleting, adding and deleting, and eventually moving forward. With poetry, there tends to be a lot more deleting and revising than adding as I refine exactly what it is that needs to be said. Sometimes if I'm lucky, with a shortish lyric, I get the first draft the first day and then just fiddle with it for ages. With a long poem it may take months.

What inspired "Reading"?

I can't remember.

What poetic techniques did you use in "Reading"?

It's a prose poem, which means it dispenses with the white spaces between lines that make poetry slow down and give emphasis to certain syntactical units and instead relies on ordinary devices, primarily punctuation but also sentence structure, to control the pace. But I still use a lot of "poetic" devices, primarily repetition and rhyme, to give it the density we associate with the lyric.

Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?

I use memory. That's a damn fine resource! Except when you can't remember things (see above).

When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?

Read lots, write lots. Learn your craft. Think about how you learn to play an instrument, or a sport—practice is everything. That means you MUST revise. Don't assume that your first draft is the best you can do!!

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