August 27, 2010

getting closer to living up to the blog name

Plastic bag

So this is what it is like then, no
ceaseless flame or trumpet crescendo,
not a rose of such a hue or a lingering glance
or wondrous thought.
Even less some grand expanse: the air, the sky —
I think not.

Marks the palms and cuts the wrists
when you carry it, as it twists
round and round in the wind. Yes, this is
like my love, with no shame and no graces
and in places here and there
worn through.

But what can’t it bear? It bends to serve, and
in a pinch grows larger than we deserve.
For me and for you, this love, I think
it will do. This sorry, crumpled sack not what I chose,
yet takes one thousand years to decompose
to earth.

August 16, 2010

editing break

the Y stick

there was a fallen branch
you held it by the handles it had
already become an object to us

you came from the base
dry prefab house its kitchen curtains
had followed you across the country

dragging a net someone had given me
for nothing we could imagine
i trailed you past lawns edged by
split crabapples squirrels left to rot

palms down, you spoke too
loud the woods seized and i was
watching you hard as you watched
the rod you held so lightly

i’ve since learned that
magic comes from sadness
in a person with hope
so all those religions
there you go but
never mind
we were children we
would have been children
if this had happened

another time we talked
for hours you were not
exactly shy but you were used
to leaving people behind

there was something
sad about your brother
you wouldn’t tell me

quivering, the switch led us down
to the creek and along its muddy bank
you moved to kiss me

i took you in
sweating in your blue t-shirt
you were being
strummed by something larger

August 11, 2010

one more

One more poem I've been working on today and yesterday. Posting it here with the usual apologies, so that I can stop fiddling and get down to work. Must. stop. poeming.


Cinema L’Amour


I wore long sleeves, tights,
a shirt to remind you of my breasts.
You coached me outside and
counselled caution
regarding the armrests.
(Genetic trysts with red vinyl, the whole place a sticky mess.)
“Couples Free!” the marquee lure, and your eyes alight
with something new or like with her. I told you I could never
resist a bargain. A chronic dupe, it’s how I ended with the
ceramic garden, the vibrating scoop, the plum-headed
parakeet that doesn’t sing, only cants,
“Not again, not again, not again.”

At the door, a man with an ocular prosthesis
waved us in, and, out of his depth,
stumbled on the balcony’s winding steps.
Combined, the humidity and my cleavage
made him misty-eyed. He began a history, sanctified over time:
X-rated since ’69, the cinema was red before it
went blue. Back in 1914, when Yiddish movies drew a queue
up along the Main, past the thrift store and the chess cafe
or whatever was there back in the day, the haberdasher and an apothecary,
the front curtain we picture black and white was already
gold-trimmed, scarlet as a bloody mary.

The doorman boasts, the continent’s largest screen!
The flick not one we’d already seen: a coming-of-age, loosely.
Bree’s College Daze. A prick in each hand, just eighteen. A phase?
A nudge from you to watch the stands, the real show. I turned and saw
what was not a tableau. Three couples coupling, nude, unconcerned
with the host of viewers, you and me. It felt less rude than shocking.
I whispered a joke, but no-one was talking. Your eyes were bright,
and I remembered trying to count the limbs that night you described
how she took you with the other girls and guys. Twelve legs,
eight breasts, a Vedic god of the undressed. You were high and drunk.
While I’m no prude, I’d prefer to be on par. No monk — but not so far
from my own nineteen or twenty. Modest, but plenty, is how I’d always
considered it ere I learned how far you’d plumbed
the river of your inhibitions, the one nobody could ever
dream of stepping in twice.

The film was overblown, heavy pumping for a venial lark,
toe-curling groans to make that proscenium arch
shudder away in a smooth curve from its white sharding paint.
It felt like a place where things come apart, though the couples remained
discrete, we noticed snuck peaks, and as they flew open I met the eyes of a
woman when her head fell back against the arm of a sagging couch and
we heard the bump. Another man, balding, in a heroic crouch mated with
an aging rump. And for you these old balls were just old hat;
even more for her: smooth-skinned, pimpless, thighs that could snap a neck. Every night
you watched her primp, dress in black,

silver sequins like a magician for a trick. Her eyes going soft
when she caught your glance or maybe she was already turned off,
or on, steeled however for that dance.
The professionals know seduction’s not another soft science.
You muttering the names of her repeat clients as she zipped up her boots.
To tell you the truth,
I don’t know if you’ll ever get over it.

The balcony creaked unheard while we paced back and forth;
things followed the natural course, or in one case longer,
which made the gaze stronger as Bree dazed behind. We
held hands, let go, maybe you tried not to remind me
or you of her. I studied your shoes, green-soled, wishing I smoked.
Finally, I choked on my own spit, an aspiration that
briefly broke the spell, brought some indignation from the other
watchers, we could tell. They glared almost long enough to
miss the point: the last pair getting rough at a new pace to
a grand finish. Then shrinking back to separate selves and clothes,
diminished, as the crowd slunk home.
A fine exchange of pleasure was how you framed it as we parted
the velvet curtains of the exit. But I only thought
how strange and hard to measure the places
love will take us once we’ve started.

August 10, 2010

Prisoners' Justice Day

One of my favourite things about the new thing I’ve been writing is that it has a discernible topic. When somebody asks what it’s about, I can (and do) say, “The death penalty.” How simple is that? No attempt to penetrate arcane family drama or mumbling, “Uh, it’s about this family, uh, these sisters.” (Yes, that’s the current novel. I will figure out how to talk about that one at some point.) Of course, it’s not really about the death penalty so much as it is about a particular set of characters and circumstances…

…But I’m so pleased about this short-form response. Not only has it saved me some embarrassment, it has also allowed me to talk about it in such a way that I can actually receive useful contacts and information! I mentioned it to another writer when I was at Yaddo, and he immediately encouraged me to get in touch with the Innocence Project. I had also mentioned it in passing to another friend of mine, M., who yesterday sent me some emails about Prisoners’ Justice Day, which just happens to be today.

Since most of my research into prisons has been U.S.-based because of the death penalty angle, I haven’t been as frequent a visitor at prisonjustice.ca as I might otherwise have been. Here is the mandate behind Prisoners’ Justice Day:


...August 10, the day prisoners have set aside as a day to fast and refuse to work in a show of solidarity to remember those who have died unnecessarily -- victims of murder, suicide and neglect.

...the day when organizations and individuals in the community hold demonstrations, vigils, worship services and other events in common resistance with prisoners.

...the day to raise issue with the fact that a very high rate of women are in prison for protecting themselves against their abusers. This makes it obvious that the legal system does not protect women who suffer violence at the hands of their partners.

...is the day to remember that there are a disproportionate number of Natives, African-Canadians and other minorities and marginalized people in prisons. Prisons are the ultimate form of oppression against struggles of recognition and self-determination.

...the day to raise public awareness of the demands made by prisoners to change the criminal justice system and the brutal and inhumane conditions that lead to so many prison deaths.

...the day to oppose prison violence, police violence, and violence against women and children.

...the day to publicize that, in their fight for freedom and equality, the actions of many political prisoners have been criminalized by government. As a result, there are false claims that there are no political prisoners in north american prisons.

...the day to raise public awareness of the economic and social costs of a system of criminal justice which punishes for revenge. If there is ever to be social justice, it will only come about using a model of healing justice, connecting people to the crimes and helping offenders take responsibility for their actions.

...the day to renew the struggle for HIV/AIDS education, prevention and treatment in prison.

...the day to remind people that the criminal justice system and the psychiatric system are mutually reinforcing methods that the state uses to control human beings. There is a lot of brutality by staff committed in the name of treatment. Moreover, many deaths in the psych-prisons remain uninvestigated.

August 8, 2010

I saw this painting a few weeks ago at the Guggenheim. I sat and looked at it for a long time. The image here doesn't do it justice. The colours in the background are so delicate, so finely blended, so, well, pretty. Everything about it is so deliberate; I wanted to know something of what it was trying to say.

I ended up coming home and reading a bit about Kandinsky. He was a pretty far-out dude with an elaborate and esoteric theory of art (involving music, Theosophy, synesthesia). And he had a special thing for triangles. The point of the triangle is the avant garde as it moves into tomorrow, and the artist is living at the tip. Lonely. That sounds about right.

The other thing I learned about Kandinsky is that he didn't begin painting until he was 30. Astounding!


Composition VIII

In other (less random?) news, I wrote this last week about how it felt to be waiting to hear back about my second draft:

I’m waiting to hear back from my agent about my manuscript. I’m not nervous or even excited. Which isn’t to say that if she tells me it’s all garbage I won’t be upset or discouraged. I feel like, no matter what, there is a lot of work ahead. Thinking about it is only going to depress or panic me, so I plan on not thinking about it at all --- just doing it when the time comes.


On Friday, I heard back from her, and I'm relieved to report that the changes I made at Yaddo seem to be working. (Phewf!) She thinks it is perhaps a touch too long (and I agree: the second draft went up to 350 pages), but...it is probably just about ready to submit! I'm going to do one more edit before the first week of September. Right now it has a pacing problem that mirrors the writing process (beginning & middle: slow and steady; ending: rushed).

Now to try and tear myself away from these little poems I've been playing with. My obsessive tendencies mean that I can't really switch between projects with much fluidity. Once I'm back into the draft, that's it.

August 5, 2010

Ode to the lunch counter

In the basement of one of McGill’s ugliest buildings (1970s precast concrete slabs), there is a little-known lunch counter called the Burnside Snackbar. For a while, it was the best deal going on campus: $5.25 for a hot lunch with a side salad and choice of dressings. The price-jump to $6.72 over the past few years is probably the only instance of the financial crisis having a real impact on my life, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain. It’s still a good deal.

I like it because there is something old-fashioned about it. (I also like a good deal.) It’s lovely and simple to just walk up and say, “Hot lunch, please.” I love diners and dive bars and all those frozen-in-time kind of places, and not in an ironic way. (It’s exciting for me to know that Montreal has lots of these places I’ve yet to discover, outside of the developed downtown and gentrified Mile End.)

The construction workers on campus at any given time always get hip to the snackbar pretty quick, and there is a regular clientele within the building itself (Departments of Mathematics and Statistics, Geography and Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, and the McGill Media Relations Office and McGill Reporter). I wonder sometimes if I’m the only person hauling ass halfway across the campus for the privilege of enjoying a pre-selected menu in a windowless basement at the peak of summer. (There’s something about the Burnside basement I really like, or maybe it’s just the comfy chairs and tables and the general studiousness of the other people who go there.)

This time of year, of course, it’s nearly deserted. It’s wonderful. My new lunchtime routine is to go hang out there with a book of poetry. I’m still struggling with whether or not it’s a good thing, artistically, to dabble in other mediums, or if it’s ultimately just a waste of time that one should be spending on one's primary pursuit. I guess if it’s fun, then it might be an end in itself. E.g. one thing I really enjoy is playing and writing music, but I’m pretty terrible at it. (No false modesty here either – it’s wretched stuff.) Poetry, too, is not something I know much about. But I’ve decided that a meagre allotment of a couple of lunch hours a week to reading and writing poetry is something I can afford to indulge. I present the following for your amusement, with all the usual disclaimers, apologies to real poets, etc. etc.


All the Fixings

You learned this
rainbow as a child:
Red yellow green.
Bun blonde as a beach.

You should use up
all the mustard.
That’s what it’s there for.
Holding back a packet’s
last squeeze
won’t keep it
off your shirt.

At the heart of the sandwich
is the breast of a bird. Circling,
you cast it aside,
dishonour death. You
whose hunger is like the
struck gong
of new love, ringing through
every quaking limb.
Each pried apart
wing and thigh.

For you the ring of white and purple.
For you the pickle.
Everything in life that bites and tangs and
does not sustain,
but makes the maintenance
worth the long campaign.


And in case you're wondering: yes, there is a distinct possibility that every other unremarkable poem I write this way will also be about my lunch.

August 3, 2010

how to make it into the acknowledgements

On the worst, last day of last month's heat wave, my friend J invited me over for a work date. I'd mentioned how I was finding it really hard to write and she told me she'd bought a second air conditioner for her apartment and that I ought to come over. She's working on her Ph.D. thesis (pure brilliance on Heidegger*), and has her own routines and preferences, as well as probably a pretty good sense of my writing quirks, no doubt due to me droning on and on about them now and again in the form of some sort of complaint.

Her invitation went something like this: "Do you prefer a desk or a couch? I've changed the sheets on my bed, so you can have a nap! I'll make us lunch and tea and cool drinks all day long! Here's the wireless password! I don't like music when I work, so it will be quiet. Is that okay?" (Is that okay? Can I kiss you?)

It can't always be easy to be friends with a writer. I have certain anti-social tendencies. I don't always like talking on the phone. (Not a hard and fast rule, by any means, but I've gotten out of the habit of making calls. When I sit down to use the landline at home, I usually catch myself dialing "9" first.) My friendships have adapted. We text. We email. We go on Google chat.

When the writing is going badly, I usually start to feel down and guilty and drop off the map. I miss everyone, but I don't know how to reach out when it feels like every little thing I'm doing is taking me away from the writing and I'm too miserable about it to have anything interesting to say. I'm grateful to know people who don't take this personally (or who can forgive or overlook this awful habit). I'm grateful, too, to have friends who can ask how the novel is going and be satisfied (and not visibly surprised) to receive the same answer, or variations on the same answer, ten times in a row.

I have friends who are writers, too, of course. We write a LOT of emails, then we get together when we can and drink and talk for four hours at a time. Once a month or thereabouts. Sometimes longer.

I've been feeling really lucky lately for the people in my life. I feel like they put up with me, and they prop me up. They inspire me, too. Trying to be a better friend is something that makes it onto my list of resolutions year after year.

J., naturally, was as good as her word. Her apartment was a cool paradise. She made incredible, unearthly food (yummy spicy rice and dumplings), endless tea, and fascinating refreshing tonics involving lime juice and rosewater. We sat and worked quietly (and sometimes talked), as her boyfriend generously left us to our own devices, and I made some critical headway in reading over my manuscript after a lot of days in a row of heat-induced mind mush.

* I have only a passing familiarity with Heidegger, and I haven't read her thesis, but I am assured of its brilliance nonetheless. And I'm certain that when I do read it, I'll find out everything I need to know about the big H.

August 2, 2010

It takes an ocean not to break

Still daydreaming and slacking off. I've been dipping into books and abandoning them around the apartment. Poetry is easier, but I need more suggestions of who to read. Sometimes somebody tweets a poem and I get turned on to someone new. That's when I'm lucky. I'm starting to get a sense of how casual fiction readers must get lost looking for their next book (I get lost, too, but I think from an excess rather than a dearth of knowledge on the subject).

Went to see Winter's Bone, which is apparently based on a book. One of my movie companions leaned over to complain that it was brutally slow, and since he, ahem, woke me up in telling me this, I was hard pressed to disagree, and yet it wasn't an unpleasant slowness. It felt real and hard. And it had an absolutely incredible payoff scene. I left thinking that if you could just come up with one scene like that, the rest of the story could fall into place around it.

I've also been listening non-stop to the National's new album High Violet. I saw them play Osheaga on Saturday and this has had no effect on my singular listening dedication (sometimes I find that seeing a band during the height of an obsession can kind of satiate it, for the time being, or spur it on even further). I'm wondering what kind of effect it might be having on my psyche to keep hearing lyrics like It's a terrible love and I'm walking with spiders or Sorrow found me when I was young / Sorrow waited, sorrow won over and OVER and OVER.