Apparently there is a blog hop going around: writers answer questions about their writing and then tag two more people to do the same thing, on pain of writer's block for seven years. One of my former students, Cassidy McFadzean, tagged my current student, Courtney Bates, who in turn tagged me. How can I resist playing with the young'uns?
What am I working on?
Too much. I'm working on a collection of ekphrastic poems inspired by Veronica Geminder's photographs, and need to write about ten more poems to have a good-sized manuscript. I'm also working on a study of Virginia Woolf's aesthetics whose working title is Virginia Woolf's Aesthetics of Engagement. This is a project I've been chipping away at for a long time. In the wings are a novel, Soul Weather and some essays I'd like to write. But working on two manuscripts--which works well most of the time--is enough, so I'm only taking occasional notes for the novel and essays.
How does my work differ from others of its genre?
This isn't just a "blog hop" question: it's something every writer should be asking herself or himself once the manuscript begins to take clear shape. I don't know that many books that are entirely ekphrastic, or that match each poem with a work of art. The one I know best is Elmet by Ted Hughes, with photographs by Fay Godwin. Godwin's remarkable black and white photographs of Yorkshire came first, and Hughes's poems about the place where he grew up followed. Sometimes the relationship between the photograph and the poem is clear; sometimes the photograph seems like the occasion for a meditation that runs parallel to the photographs, rather than being ekphrastic. It's a remarkable book. But I'm no Ted Hughes, and I'm not trying to be. Moreover, these poems are clearly autobiographical and nostalgic (if one can accuse Hughes of nostalgia).
Veronica and I are working in a similar way: the photographs have come first. But unlike Godwin's photographs, Veronica's are ceaselessly urban, and often they are of cityspaces that I've only visited, so there's no nostalgia involved. Rather, what I'm trying to do is not only to write a collection of ekphrastic poems, but to explore the role cities play in our lives, how they shape our days, how they give us places to play and sometimes make us feel imprisoned by the way they're structured and regulated. I'm hoping, then, that the book as a whole will be a kind of "essay" on cities, that it will prompt people to think about the urban spaces where most Canadians live--spaces that can make our lives easier and spaces that can be frustrating and limiting. We tend to take the built environment as "always already" there, rather than to be critical of the way it shapes us. I'm trying to make people more aware of its role in their lives.
Why do I write what I do?
Because I'm curious. It's my curiosity about how Woolf structured her essays and novels that has led me to write about her aesthetics. I suppose the poems about Veronica's photographs have a different impetus: she's my daughter, as well as a photographer who doesn't really know how to get attention, so I thought initially that I'd just write a handful of poems I'd place in journals. But I found that writing about her photographs was a wonderful challenge that took me beyond the kind of poetry I have written in the past. So this project is allowing me (when it's not forcing me) to grow.
Soul Weather has yet another motive behind it. You could say that it's motivated by a lot of questions: what does it mean to be at home in our houses, our bodies, our lives, our futures, our weather and planet? What are the different ways of being at home? But at the same time, I want to write a kind of Condition of Canada novel that will tell readers something about what it's like to be young and not very at home.
I find that the most interesting work, whether it's poetry, essays, or fiction, comes out of questions. Any writer who says she or he also has answers is bullshitting you or only considering simple questions.
What's my creative process?
For me, it's important to balance discipline with the writer's need to live, play, reflect, and read; to balance going inward with looking outward.
Retirement is allowing me to experiment with keeping a very rigid work day: I read under Twig, coffee in hand, until shortly after nine. By ten, I'm at the computer, and most of the time I don't check my email or Facebook. I try to take an hour for lunch, and then get back to writing from one until three. When I can actually do this, I'm blissed, and I feel oddly liberated, given that my job as an English professor involved meetings and administrivia that took away more and more time to reflect, teach, and do research.
But there are important breaks from this pattern. This week, instead of being at the computer for those hours, I'm reading Woolf criticism, and I'm keeping much longer hours. I also tend to know when I'm not getting anywhere with a poem and need to turn to something else. I know when I'm trapped in my own head and need to do some reading or walking or gardening to shake things up.
Perhaps the most important part of my creative process is allowing drafts to go anywhere, not to censure myself or worry about whether something is good. If I'm making discoveries, then good things are happening. This free part of the process is balanced by an almost savage editor who queries every choice of content or language. Why do I think that? Does this really reflect the human experience? Is that the best word? Does that image work? How does this piece work with the others? Am I making a whole? Am I obsessing about unity? Will anyone care?
This last is the one that trips me up. I seem to care about a lot of things that don't even register with other people.
The photographs here are all taken by Veronica in Paris. The first is taken on Rue Descartes, the second in an arcade called Le Grand Cerf--shades of Walter Benjamin, and the third on an a street that had modern reflective buildings on one side and old buildings across the way. I'm using it to think about cities and history. These are the prompts for the poems I'm been writing over the last month.