The Press Gallery

K.I. Press on writing • literature • publishing

Category: Poetry

Notes on AWP 2015 from a Canadian first-timer

In no particular order…

1. America: the service really is better, notwithstanding the grumpy man at the New York Times booth (Picture not available).

2. But all the medical ads are unsettling. Also, did you know the art gallery doesn’t allow guns on the premises? Now you do.

 

At the Walker Art Center, where there are no guns.

 

3. Okay: AWP. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the biggest writers’ conference in North America, with more than 500 sessions, 700 trade show exhibitors, and about 12,000 delegates; this year’s event was in Minneapolis, which is why I decided to go (it’s possible to drive down from Winnipeg). First thing that became obvious: the book fair (trade show) really is where it’s at. I mean, there were good sessions, and I wish I’d seen more of them, but there were really more opportunities to meet people and gather information in the book fair.

Random book fair picture

 

4. Do I need to declare free swag at the border?

 

Mostly free


5. At Canadian writing gatherings, I find people struggle to talk about poetry. It’s often not presented well; people make jokes about it; poets are a bit sheepish and self-deprecating and apologetic. Basically, poetry gets relegated to second-class. Not so here. There were featured poetry readings, poetry presses by the score, poets collaborating with museums and art galleries and film makers, and just a general attitude of respect for poetry that I don’t normally feel when writers get together. Or maybe I’m just totally insecure and imagining that.

 

Poetry.

 

6. And about collaboration: I saw so much of it! Maybe it’s just that the sheer size of the community offers so many more opportunities, but it was really inspiring. It makes me want to write proposals.

Edit

The Walker commissioned a collaborative novella about this Hopper painting, and published it on its website.

 

7. Memorable panel moment: to paraphrase panelist Roxane Gay, nothing “substantial” can be accomplished in a 600-700 word article whether on-line or elsewhere, and if you can’t read long articles, you should go “have a conversation with your God.”

 

Most of these contain more than 700 words.

 

8. Things I’d do differently if I came again: plan ahead and get a hotel near the conference centre so I can attend more events, and go to some of the social events to meet more people.

 

I did a relatively small amount of socializing.

 

9. I’ll be interested to hear how much business the Canadian presses did at the book fair. There were so few there! Is it always thus? Is it just not enough business to be worth the expense?

 

I may be biased because I’m a UBC student, but — Best. Canadian. Booth.

 

10. Last, there were a lot of regionally themed sessions at the event, but hardly anyone from Manitoba came down. It seemed a shame–there were sessions about North Dakota literature, so why not something about Canadian Prairie writers? Ah, well, that moment has passed, and the next conference is in L.A.

 

Ariel womanning the Brick Books table. Note the books by Winnipeg authors.

 

So, those are my ten disjointed thoughts about AWP. I’d like to go again some day–but probably not next year.

 

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Writing Process Blog Tour

I recently got tagged in the Canadian Writers’ Writing Process Blog Tour, which has been going around for months. I was tagged by Ottawa writer Cameron Anstee. So, I’ve got four questions to answer:

1. What am I working on?

Well, this is awkward, because that was what my last post was about. But I’d say that of the things on my plate, the one I’m most interested in, and am the farthest along with, is the draft of the YA fantasy book about Shakespeare Land. I’ve got a massive backstory for Sycorax, who is so not dead. And, oh, Hamlet is the captain of a pirate ship (he took over the ship instead of returning to Denmark). A pirate airship.

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Hmmm. I’m going to take this question to be referring to my work in progress, which is totally unlike anything I’ve written before (I’ve mainly published poetry). I don’t know for sure yet, but here’s what I hope. I did go on a YA reading binge for the project, and found that books in the small sub-genre of Shakespeare-related YA books tend to be romances. I found one that had both fantasy and romance elements, though I may have missed others. I wondered, why can’t I do a Shakespeare book for fantasy readers? There’s so much supernatural in Shakespeare. I’m still looking at a romantic sub-plot, but I’m pretty committed to avoiding a sunset-ending romance. My heroine is questioning her sexual orientation, for one thing, and I don’t intend for the outcome of that to be clear even to her by the end of the story

3.  Why do I write what I do?

“Try everything” is my current writing motto. When I was a teenager, I wrote whatever I wanted: humour, plays, choose-your-own-adventure, audio plays, whatever seemed like a good idea at the time. Then somehow, I can’t even remember how, I ended up being a poet. Not that there isn’t a huge field to work in there – poetry is so vast – but I kind of felt hemmed in by my own work. Maybe I’m entering premature second childhood, but I’m trying to come back to a place of “anything goes” in choosing what I work on. Though I have a new book of poetry coming out soon, the writing of it goes back years. I am sort of trying to give poetry a rest for a while. Maybe it’s not just age: I think I can also blame this on teaching, which has made me think about many different genres and styles of writing in ways I wouldn’t have considered before.

4. How does my writing process work?

Oh, that depends. It has changed so much. My forthcoming poetry came about through the accumulation and filtering of fragments, but some of my earlier works were very “project” oriented, in which I’d set myself a number of poems to write about x, y, and z, and though I’d still filter some of it out later, it was through setting myself a structure that I was able to write those projects fairly quickly—at least, far quicker than the new book, which was a nightmare. I’m writing the first draft of this novel via an extensive outline (and using Scrivener), though I’m still expecting the revision process to be its own nightmare.

That’s all, folks. I’m tagging my friend and colleague, Winnipeg’s Sally Ito.

Books, bountiful and rare

So, a little over a week ago, we ordered Chinese food. My fortune read thusly:

"Something interesting will happen soon at work."

My fortune

In case you can’t read that terrible photo, it says, “Something interesting will happen soon at work.” Or, on the French side of the fortune, “Il se produira bientôt au travail quelque chose d’intéressant.”

Now, “interesting” is a weak, sickly and slippery word, so this fortune struck nervousness into my heart. A little bit. As Mindy says to Homer, “Desserts aren’t always right.” (It’s in the episode with Michelle Pfeiffer guest starring, for those who can’t quite remember the line.)

The next day at work, I got a mysterious email message from a new college librarian I’d never met before, saying there was a gift he wanted to give me that he’d had for a few years, and now that we were colleagues, he thought he should give it to me, sorry if this sounds creepy, etc.

The thorough LinkedIn background check I performed revealed only an affinity for books, and for rare books in particular, so I quickly assented to a meeting, despite feeling at the mercy of a fortune cookie.

It turned out I was gifted with the best surprise I’ve had in a long time: a copy of Henry J. Morgan’s 1903 illustrated biographical dictionary Types of Canadian Women. Volume 1.

Nearly six years ago, my book Types of Canadian Women—Volume 2—was published. It’s a mock biographical dictionary in poems and poetic prose, inspired, you guessed it, by Morgan’s Volume 1. I talked about the source material in the publishers’ bumpf, and in some interviews at the time. Morgan’s book says a Volume 2 was in the works, but, having never found trace of one, I thought I’d just have to write it.

Types of Canadian Women title page

Types of Canadian Women title page, with lovely 1903 print ads opposite.

I’d been in Winnipeg for about a year when Types came out. But our mysterious new librarian, Matthew Handscombe, was still in Toronto, where I’d written all but the last few drafts of the book–partly on Toronto Island at the fantastic Gibraltar Point centre, partly in a second-floor apartment in a Victorian brick oven in Parkdale, with no air-conditioning, one summer on a Canada Council grant.

Matthew was operating a tiny bookshop specializing in fine press books. My publisher, Gaspereau Press, does some pretty fine printing, so Matthew had no doubt seen my book in the catalogue, probably read one of the interviews, and may have been familiar with my earlier Gaspereau release, Spine, which contained, among other things, poems about fine printing. Somehow, my reference to Morgan’s Volume 1 stuck in his brain.

I used to consult Volume 1 in the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, as part of my work as a researcher on Canadian history books and book proposals. The Robarts had a circulating copy, and while I was aware of a few copies on offer from book dealers, even after I’d fallen for the book and decided to write Volume 2, acquiring my own copy—which dealers listed for around $300—had never become a priority.

Still with me? Let’s get back to Matthew Handscombe, who, somewhere in the depths of his brain, catalogued this detail about my interest in this book.

A spread from Morgan's Types of Canadian Women, Volume 1: the book responsible for inflicting 50 of my poems on the world.

(Wait, I have to digress again to say how much I like librarians. There’s Wendy, with whom I hung out during my M.A. in Ottawa, and now works at Memorial University Newfoundland; my sister Christine who works at the library in the Law Courts in Edmonton and is finishing her MLS on the side; Brian in the cubicle opposite mine who teaches in the library tech program–Hi Brian!; his colleague Tabitha whose CanLit class I once bombarded with my collection of obscure–duh–Canadian poetry chapbooks. I used to think librarianship was my lost calling, but then remembered that I promised myself, after paying off my student loans, never to go to university again. In short–go visit your library.)

Matthew’s father, Richard Handscombe, taught linguistics and children’s literature at York University (scroll down the linked page for bio), and was an avid book collector. Though significant parts of his collection were donated to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the U of T—particularly a collection of over a thousand items by and about John Cowper Powys and his brothers—when Richard died, Matthew was left with a massive number of books to find homes for. Thirteen thousand, I think, was the number he told me (he’ll correct me if I’m wrong. Right?).

Types of Canadian Women was not, alas, lurking in the collection. But slowly, as Matthew and his family donated or sold books, he started to acquire things from the dealers, essentially doing part of the transaction in trade, with the intention of gifting specific books to individuals. It was at Greenfield Books here in Winnipeg that Matthew saw Types of Canadian Women and acquired it, somehow remembering that I, a writer he’d never met, had wanted it. It never occurred to him that I was also living in Winnipeg, until he noticed that I was a colleague at Red River College, where he’s only recently arrived.

Matthew styled the gift as a present from his father. I never met Richard Handscombe, and Matthew had never met me when he picked up this book and put it aside. I ran back to my office to get Matthew a copy of my little Volume 2, as an inadequate thank-you.

Types of Canadian Women Volumes 2 and 1

Types of Canadian Women Volumes 2 and 1

This post has gone on too long, and there is much I still want to research and write about: how books end up in rare book collections (my books are all in the Fisher, I can only assume by virtue of being Canadian small press books); more about Matthew’s father and his collection; how all this talk of book collecting reminds me of my father-in-law, Martin Levin, and his house filled with books; how Morgan’s Volume 1 will read to me now, years after I left my project behind on the poetry circuit; and how none of this would happen in a world where books are infinitely reproducible.

May Day

Yes, I know I’ve been neglectful. For the month of May, I’ll be poem-blogging again over at http://maydaypoems.blogspot.com/, courtesy the wonderful Ariel Gordon. First poem tomorrow… I hope.

Sigh for the end of summer

I wrote and posted this on the last day of The May Day Poetry Project this year, but I think it bears reposting here to herald the end of summer. It takes on a few new meanings at this time of year.

The poem’s a bit of a short-liner, which I don’t always like, but I thought it worked here.

Onward, and see you in school.

Petering Out

Going out, like Peter, humbly,
not exactly petrified but
stone-faced at least,
solemn as the spring
drowns in its sorrows
its lost weekends, its standing
pools filling with exponential eggs
hatching bloodlust.
I prepare to be drained,
upside-down,
pained,
undone
by decadent caesars
and not enough summer
to avoid knowing
how it ends.

Saint Peter

I sure hope I'm not late for my first class.

Writing Avec Baby

How does anyone get anything done when they have children? While preparing to join the not-very-elite club of people who have reproduced, I was told repeatedly that my standards would have to slide. If those people were referring to housework, then they were certainly right, and I’ve got to say that I wasn’t sure that my standards could go much lower than they already were.

They have.

But strangely, I seem to have found more time to write since having a baby. Maybe if I stopped writing, I would be able to clean the toilet more often.

Nah.

Now, I’m hardly working on my novel-in-a-drawer, or even writing anything as impressive as essays or short stories. I’ve defaulted to poems, my first language apparently, though my sights were set not too long ago on more sustained forms. Sustained time is not something I can find. But snippets of time, yes.

I’ve always noticed that parents become more efficient people, can switch on and off, back and forth between this task and that. I’ve been switching the magic on quickly, in the middle of the night perhaps, to just get it out as fast as I can in case the girl wakes up and rips the keys off my keyboard.

Which is all fine and good and after a year or so of this, I have a whole lot of poems.

First drafts of poems.

Hammering stuff out is one thing, but I haven’t figured out yet how to switch on the frame of mind needed to revise. I don’t know the last time I’ve actually used my printer. I think it must have been before she was born.

But who needs paper anyway anymore, right? If I never finish another book, I’ll save some trees. Or, rather, the sapling needed for the print run a poetry book gets.

Never mind. I forgot that by the time I finish my next book, paper books won’t exist any more. Right?

Tree pulped to print my last book.

Tree pulped to print my last book.

Teaching the Trade

This past week I took a fairly enjoyable class in “Instructional Methods” along with 19 other instructors, mostly from Red River College. We spent most of the week listening to each other teach. We were a class of guinea pigs, testing out our colleagues’ lessons. I now know only a very little bit about the following: filling a syringe, setting up a surveying instrument, wiring household receptacles (also known as plugs), how digital clocks work, the best way to sharpen a knife, and how to micropipette test samples into those little test tubes in a rack like on CSI.

Now, for some reason, I’ve had trouble getting students interested in poetry in the past. It was the first thing I tried to teach when I was hired, and I made a lot of mistakes in my approach. So I tried a new concise and snazzy poetry lesson on the guinea pigs last week–people with, ostensibly, less interest in poetry than even my Cre-Comm students–with much success. I had mechanics and electricians writing poems within 15 minutes–and it wasn’t even for marks. Someone even brought in a new poem the next day, unbidden, and read it at the end of his electrical lesson.

The other thing I tried out was a proofreading lesson, which, well, was not quite as exciting and for which I still got a lot of glazed faced (still needs work, I guess, but I don’t want to give up on trying to teach a little proofreading).

I hope to learn more about the ever exciting field of teaching creative writing at the inaugural conference of the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs association, in Calgary and Banff this coming Thanksgiving weekend.

May Day is Over

May Day is over — does that mean I have to blog in prose again?

I did great at the beginning of the month, by the second week I just couldn’t write on the weekends, and any day post-Victoria Day was hit or miss. Today I posted my last, “Petering out.”. While you’re there, read some of the other poems posted by the May Day poetry folks.

May Day Poems

For the month of May I’ll be blogging poetically at Ariel Gordon’s sixth annual May Day Project blog. It’s a challenge to write and post a new poem every day. They may only be first drafts, but it’s a fantastic motivation to write. I’ll be trying not to cheat with old drafts from the electronic drawer.