Guest Blogger

Writer and good friend, Una McDonnell recently included me in the Blog Hop. You can read her piece at:

My piece isn’t completed yet. I promise I’ll post it soon. But in the meantime, let me introduce you to Dilys Leman, Una’s other nominee. Dilys and I have been friends for many years. I have always admired her writing. She recently completed her first book of poetry: The Winter Count

What am I working on?

I am working on a collection of linked poems set in Toronto around 1910. Since moving to Toronto from Ottawa seven years ago, I’ve become fascinated with the notion of buried rivers, and the Don River, for some reason, is particularly compelling. About a year ago, I began delving into Toronto’s history – reading archival documents such as medical reports (e.g. Toronto Dept of Health) and perusing old b&w photographs (hugely evocative). For me, historical research is like traveling to a foreign country – you notice more, everything seems more intensely present. My first book, The Winter Count (McGill-Queen’s University Press, August 2014), began with research on my great-great grandfather.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

It differs in the particular stance I choose, the personal values I bring to the subject matter, which is the case for every writer – an internal set-point that is uniquely calibrated. We could all be given the same topic, but obviously the results would be different in terms of perspective and intent, and in turn, the stylistic choices we make. I naturally gravitate toward a social-political history in poetic form, with multiple voices – some poems have two or more voices — and “found” poems that de-construct language borrowed from a different time. I’m very project-oriented – I work toward a continuous narrative set in a particular locale and time. I rarely do “confessional” poetry per se, preferring to weasel my way into the heads of historical and imagined characters to explore issues that matter to me.

Why do I write what I do?

I write poetry for many reasons. The form enables me to dig into parts of myself that are more difficult to reach through other forms, even fiction, which I did for a while. Poetry is a kind of meditation, a quieting of the mind’s clutter and noise. But it also gives me the freedom to experiment, to make a lot of mess and start over, if necessary. I like the brevity of a poem – I can throw out a one-pager without too much regret, as opposed to trashing an entire novel which may have taken years to write. And I write poetry because I love the idea that paying attention to the music (or lack of it) in a poem matters a great deal. I like playing around with the visual potential of poetry – how the arrangement of text and white space provides for different readings of the same poem. I recently discovered I have a form of visual synaesthesia (two senses cross over), which I suppose accounts for my sometimes unusual choices in the placement of text on the page.

How does my writing process work?

It can begin with a particular emotional response to something I’ve seen or read about. In the case of my current project, I remembering feeling spooked while strolling along Philosophers Walk, the concrete pathway that covers Taddle Creek, a buried stream that flows beneath the building in which I live, traverses the University of Toronto campus and ends up near Lake Ontario. At the time, I didn’t know it was there, but I felt its presence – the way you sense someone is following you. For days, I keep that feeling inside, massaging it, coaxing it to stay put while I checked out its credentials. That meant reading and research to know more, to gauge whether this niggling idea was something I wanted to commit to. Then I fell into my so-called writing process, which is: I start drafting a few poems. I write initially by hand, very fast, and very messy. Pages and pages of crap, really. And I let them sit for a while – a week, two weeks – and I write more really crappy poems while the first batch percolates. At some point, I feel ready to start shaping the least terrible of all the poems, not refining it at this stage, but blasting it open. Enlarging it. Teasing out more and more, then stripping it down to its essentials. I try to stay off the computer for as long as possible – it’s too tempting to get distracted with line editing and making the poem look visually pleasing before the overall structure is in place, and the wacky thoughts and ideas have had their chance. I read through all this messy stuff and look for connections and openings, and I do more research if necessary. And then I head into the surgical unit and begin revising. This is the part I like best. But it’s also the most dangerous. I tend to slash and burn.

I am passing the poetry baton to my poet friend nancy viva davis halifax, whose first book of poetry, hook, will be released in 2015 by McGill-Queen’s University Press. Nancy is Associate Professor and Graduate Program Director in Critical Disability Studies at York University. She will post on her blog The Gathering Space

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