We asked the poets shortlisted for our 2018 Book Awards some questions about their writing lives, inspirations and -of course – poetry. Join us for our weekly series Ask a Shortlister until the winners are announced on June 16, 2018.
DO YOU FEEL THAT YOU’VE FOUND A WRITING PRACTICE THAT WORKS FOR YOU? IF YES, CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT IT? IF NO, DESCRIBE YOUR CHALLENGES OR WHAT PREVENTS YOU FROM FEELING THIS WAY.
Billy-Ray Belcourt: I’m a PhD student and a writer, so I spend the vast majority of my time writing, thinking about writing, or completing tasks – like reading – that will enable me to write later. So, I don’t have much of a routinized way to maximize productivity, nor a secret to writing more.
Lesley Belleau: I never have a set practice that works or has worked for me. I have five children and I’m a single mother, so I write when I am able and I write in my mind and spirit when I’m doing yardwork or working or going to school, travelling or cleaning the house. Then, later, when the kids sleep, I will be able to sit and think and pour out the memory and lived experience into words. Definitely not everyday, but as often as I am able.
Jack Davis: I think I have, although it’s not a formal practice. I don’t have a daily writing routine. I don’t assign myself time at the desk or word counts. In fact, I tend to avoid any direct approach to writing in general until a given poem or piece is well under way in my head. I suppose mine is a peripheral process—I just keep my senses open and antennae up for an idea or sense or word or two that might appear or grab my attention.
For me, the opportunities for such impressions to accrue are greatly increased and enriched by long periods of uninterrupted solitude and quiet, sustained by patience, attention and openness. Being open to the collaborative agency of your environment, which is for me most often and most potently, the natural world. Being open to the collaborative agency of other writers, other books. This is all to make it possible to follow the thread of a thought or impression as far as it will lead toward those substances out of which a poem might take shape or be formed. For me, this often arrives first as single words or sounds and, sometimes, these will attract or accrete other words or evocations over time. Often things never progress past this rudimentary sprouting. I feel no urgency to make something happen until it has really begun. Then I will follow an idea or a thought or an image as willessly as I can at first and leave these efforts alone in notebooks for as long as possible before revisiting them with a more critical and editorial eye, and then, perhaps, a more rigorous revision takes place.
I have been fortunate and determined enough to be able to make and preserve these periods of solitude in my adult life, without which I doubt that many—or perhaps any—of the poems in Faunics would’ve been written.
Wendy Donawa: I’d love to say I sit down at an immaculate desk every morning for three hours, but it’s more that the well fills up, then it runs dry. And then I feel despondent and think I’ll never write again. But even if the muse isn’t cooperative, there’s always editing to be done. Or I read. If there’s a deadline of any sort, then I really do chain myself to the desk.
If I can’t drum up an inspiration, I get prompts from poetry retreats, from writing groups, from sites like Poets & Writers magazine, from Ted Kooser’s Poetry Home Repair Manual. I free write. But best is when a flash of insight arrives- a newspaper headline, conversation overheard in the supermarket, a scientific factoid–even if I don’t know where it’s leading me, I hunker down and turn off the world and write like mad until I see where it’s going. “Testimony of Subject No. 22” emerged from a report of scientists’ contact with remote Amazonian forest dwellers.
The actual writing? I can’t think on a computer; I’m habituated to yellow lined paper and a mug of favourite pens and pencils. Another mug of cappuccino. And silence. The brain/hand/eye works for me. When I have a reasonable written draft, I type it out and edit by hand from the printed copy. When I think I’ve polished it as much as I can, I put it in its own brown manila folder and leave it to compost for a few days or weeks. When I look at it again, it would be so nice to find perfection, but I always find glaring errors of tone or logic or grammar. I keep doing that; I probably over-edit.
Karen Enns: My writing practice is probably built on my approach to practicing the piano. I spent many hours at the keyboard when I was a pianist — mornings were best — and practicing was sometimes inspired, sometimes not. There were times of bliss and times of complete frustration. There were hours and hours when nothing really happened at all (in a musically imaginative way), and I thought of other things. I’d look out the window and see that the lawn needed cutting, or I’d see my children running by doing something dangerous with garden tools. I thought of grocery lists or conversations or what to make for dinner. But I knew that at any moment there could be a turn — I might be swept away by a phrase or an idea into a different, extraordinary world; I might get lost in it, my attention there completely focussed, clear — and the day would be a good practice day. I left myself open to that possibility every time I sat on the bench.
Beth Goobie: I’ve been writing since the mid-eighties, and my “practice” such as it is, has varied a great deal, depending upon my life circumstances. Earlier on, I wrote in the morning, when I had more energy – since I was dealing with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for about a decade, timing was really important. But now that I’m fully recovered, my focus is much stronger throughout the day. I often find it’s helpful to put in a volunteer shift at the Food Bank in the mornings, which wakes me up and enervates me. Then I come home and write in the afternoons. It varies from day to day.
Catherine Owen: Yes, I write every morning I can. On copious amounts of java. And keep myself open as a kind of channel the remainder of the time.