Tuesday, October 20, 2020

ON INSPIRATION and why you can't take a taxi out of the underworld

One of my kids found inspiration in this dictionary, years ago, too.

I sit at my desk. The sky cracks open. It's my ceiling. What? It's leaking again. No, it's angels. It's my muse. Their beautiful satin-wearing non-binary wingy-ness hovers above. I'm annointed. A wand might be involved. "You, precious, special person, have been granted INSPIRATION. You must act now, because evanescent fleeting thing that it is, it will not return again. Care for this idea as if it were a small and fragile bird fallen from a nest, Hold it close to your heart, and START writing. It is as the gossamer filaments connecting the very molecules of the universe. It is quantum so don't look it too hard or else it will disappear, like love, or happiness, or a Snapchat. Or your savings."

Is this how inspiration works? Sometimes. But really, I think it is bogus. Certainly it doesn't happen that way for me. Unless of course, I'm standing with leonine hair in a cape on a wind-swept hill and my special suffering attracts Great Art, just like it did in the old days.

Sure, I get an occasional good idea as if from nowhere but mostly it comes from mulling over things, and then a surprise connection happens, sometimes when my head is stuck in the fridge rooting for some lettuce that still looks edible. Or wondering if I can risk that yogurt. Or while flossing. (Yes, dear dental hygienist, I do follow your vaguely passive aggressive advice.)

There is this belief that inspiration is magic, but getting in the habit of writing and not trying too hard for inspiration seems to work for me. I can get in "the zone" more readily the more I do it. Not all my ideas are good, but if I generate enough of them, some will be decent. And some are good places to start. To keep going until they are good or to revise them until they seem like they "just came to me," like an Amazon package you'd forgotten you'd order and then one day, there it is! Battery-operated heated socks! Besides, it's better not to get frustrated and throw in the towel (what? laundry? I don't think so!) but rather keep working and figuring things will work out. Best to trust the process and your own very human ability to make something of interest. Best to try to be a decent writer rather than a "genius," whatever that is. Oh yeah, that's that guy standing on the hill with his Great European Big Mangod Hair waggling in the broody wind.

I want to tell you two recent "inspirations" that came to me over the last couple of days. The sky cracked open...a lithe luminous figure appeared...no, no. That was my dog licking my nose while I slept. What really happened was this:

I couldn't figure out what to write next in the novel that I'm working on. I really didn't have any specific ideas, so I was messing about Facebook. I mean, why address a problem directly when you can futz around social media? An artist friend of mine (Donna Szoke -- check out her work, she's marvellous!) had posted a drawing she did of an old fashioned telephone (you know, the kind that has a rotary dial and was carved from granite by primitive Neanderthal telecommunications specialists). The phone was missing the number seven. Why? She didn't know. I'd collaborated with her in the past and so I thought I'd write a spiffy and clever prose poem response that would amaze and delight all our social media friends. But I couldn't. Instead, I found myself writing a passage for my novel—it's set in the underworld—where Death tells my protagonist that all he had to do was to dial 666-6667 and he can get a taxi out of there. Of course, when my protagonist goes into the phone booth (remember them? I think Attila the Hun used to change into his Hun outfit in one of them) and dials the numbers.  When he gets to the last digit, he discovers that there's no seven. This passage that I wrote worked quite well -- it shows the grim humour of Death and the impossibility of getting out of the underworld. It also was good that it was a bit funny which undercut, you know, all that rumination about mortality that writing a novel set in the underworld always entails.

The second inspiration was this morning. I was again searching around for something to write for my novel. I knew (because I'd woken up in the middle of the night thinking about it!) that I would write a story ostensibly written by my protagonist (a failed comedian). What was he going to write? I had no idea. I hauled out a book I'd bought when I was in undergrad (when universities roamed the earth with tiny little arms and roared at the ferns)-- a dictionary of Folklore and Mythology. I read a few entries ("Underworld," "Afterlife," etc.) and then came across a bizarrely-named Brothers Grimm story, "Jew in the Thorns." (What? There was anti-semiticism in Germany? Who knew?) where the main character was granted three wishes as a result of his kindness to a beggar. I won't reccount the story here (among other things, it involved a fiddle which made a Jewish guy dance until he got hurt in thicket of thorns.) But, I had the idea that my protagonist could write a story about a failed comedian where a similar thing happened. Then the story flowed quite readily. It was a kind of random inspiration, but really came as a result of thinking a lot about my novel, the characters, and being open to the possible connections ("gossamer filaments'?) between things, to seeing how things might apply to what I'm working on. It's as if I was rooting around in my fridge and found a misplaced spice and thought, oh wow, that'd work really well in this reheated Mac and Cheese that I'm making. Inspiration! Really inspiration is making the field ready for the sprouts. Fertilizing, ploughing, sowing--all those farmery things that farmers do. And then when the sun shines, the little words begin to send their hopeful buds up into the bright air and soon enough, you're ready to harvest a beautiful crop of writing. And then your editor comes and mashes the whole thing down and just when you're beginning to despair entirely and after having waiting so long you've given up, you realize you've got wine!

Here's that little passage that I wrote "inspired" by "Jew in the Thorns" (That does sound awfully Boraty, doesn't it?):

Idea for a script.

A down-on-his-luck comedian worked the night shift in a grocery for too many years. He finally decides to move on and the manager gives him his pay. It’s two dollars and forty-three cents. As he is trudging despondently down the street, he sees a homeless guy on the sidewalk holding out an empty coffee cup. The comedian roots around his mostly empty pocket and finds some lint and his years’ pay. There it is, arrayed on his open palm. Two dollars and forty-three cents and a piece of lint. It’s all he has. 

He pours it all into the homeless guy’s cup. 

“Spend it in one place,” he says.

The homeless guy nods. “God bless.” 

Later, while the comedian is in the park looking at the pigeons and their apparent lack of sadness, an old woman approaches him

“I saw what you did?”

“What? Eat the grapes while I was stocking them? Sneak some cookies at breaktime?”

“No,” she said. “You gave all your money to that homeless guy. And lint.”

“Yeah,” the comedian said. “It wasn’t exactly enough to pay rent.” 

“He could by himself a sandwich.”


“I’m actually a witch and because of your kindness, I’m going to give you three boons.” 



“Shouldn’t you give them to the homeless guy? He’s the one who needs it most.”

“That’s not how systemic privilege works.”

“And saviourism. Though this is all probably a bit too political for a script.”

“True, but as long as no-one is reading it, here goes, your three gifts: the ability to tell jokes that make people laugh, the ability to make people do as you want, and the ability to make the world’s best sandwiches.”

A few years later, the comedian, not really able to adapt to his new reality, and in fact, not believing in the reality of the “boons” at all, is arrested after stealing some beef jerky from the very grocery store he used to work at. Social change is hard, man.

He is in the prisoner’s dock and about to be sentenced when he  tells a joke. The judge, the Crown Attorney, the court clerk, the police, his own lawyer, the members of the public and the court transcriptionist all began laughing uncontrollably. They bend and contort, writhe and shake. Tears stream. The judge’s sash is soggy. The transcriptionist’s dictaphone is ruined. Two cops embrace each other, quaking with mirth. 

“Take off my handcuffs,” the comedian says but the police are laughing too hard to hold the key steady. Instead, the comedian climbs out of the prisoner’s box and leaves the courtroom with the handcuffs on. He never is able to remove the handcuffs but he is able to make sandwiches. He opens a sandwich shop. His shacklewiches become very popular and he becomes a wealthy man. One day the homeless man walks into the shop and asks for a sandwich. The comedian makes him a sandwich and the homeless guy pays him two dollars and forty-three cents and a piece of lint. 

“You never spent it?”

“Social change is hard, man. And besides, who wants a piece of lint?”


Friday, October 16, 2020

Kaie Kellough & Jason Sharpe: UBGNLSWRE


Kaie Kellough, poet, novelist, performer is coming to speak and perform at Sheridan this term. I'm really thrilled—he's really astounding. All his work is fresh, energizing, and insightful, exploring language and story from his perspective as a Montrealer of Guyanese-background. He often works with musician Jason Sharpe (and besides who doesn't swoon for bass saxophone!) Here is a really fantastic performance that Kaie and Jason did recently for the fabulous Aga Khan museum in Toronto. There's discussion before the performance, but I'd recommend jumping to the performance right away (it's so good!) and then going back to hear what they have to say.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020


A quick note about procrastination before I, uh, get to the work I'm supposed to be doing.

I remember when I used to make lists but avoided putting the things on it that I really had to get done. If they were on the list it was a guarantee that I would try to avoid them. And anyway, those important things? I couldn't possible forget them—that's why I was avoiding doing them.

But this isn't about that, though I see you, students with way too much to do and who have to create systems to try to manage all of it. I watch in honest awe as my daughter who just began grad school creates organizational systems of pure beauty with coloured makers, white boards, Google calendars and the kind assistance of whichever Greek god was responsible for Blundstones and Moleskine notebooks. 

I want to talk about the tremendous LIFE GIVING POWER OF PROCRASTINATION. Buy my handy guide now. Or...later. What do we want? Procrastination. When do we want it?

But though of course I want and need to get things done when they need to be done, I also acknowledge that sometimes that delicious and awful procrastination energy leads me to create other work. Like the image and prose poem above. I've got lots of things to do—including getting dressed!—but somehow I wrote this instead. This morning in bed (instead of getting out from under the lovely covers) I read a rather scathing review of someone's book which included explorations of the idea of "The Visionary" and the end of the world, so after I poured myself coffee (I mean, poured coffee INTO myself) I sat down here (at my computer) and with some idea of the notion of "Visionary" in mind (and thinking about how to work on a project I am "supposed" to be working on, including my novel, and student work to read (which, honestly, I really am excited to read—and I'll get to it after this) and even feeding the dog, I stumbled into writing that piece and, indeed, this blogpost. I'm really quite happy about the piece and about the fumbling avoidance behaviour which resulted in it. And sometimes, if it (the procrastination) is going to happen any way, one might as well make laterade out of the procrastilemons.)

I guess that procrastination energy reaches deep into the well of my most essential humanity! But really, there is something existential about procrastination. It's part fear--fear of failing or not succeeding enough—in what one has to do. Fear of the discomfort of setting that aside, of all the feelings of uncertainty or inadequacy (or of only 'adequacy'), rolling up one's metaphoric sleeves (did you know my literal bathrobe has rollable sleeves?) and getting to work on the required work. 

So, I both forgive myself those times when I don't get down to work and relish the often surprising and energized work that results. Is it me listening to what I really need? Maybe. Is it me finding meaningful (at least to me) things do to with restlessness and anxiety and some kind of lack of executive function which goes when I don't get enough sleep? Yeah, probably. But I know that I do make my deadlines. That I'll get to those other things in time. That things generally work out. That when the crunch is really upon me, I'll focus well enough on the task at hand to get the thing done.  To quote that ol' paragon of self actualization, Artie Prufrock:

There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands.
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me.

So here's a list of things of five things to do to avoid procastination:


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Grunt of Grants

Probably not the author photo to use in a grant application.

This week I applied for a Canada Council grant for my novel-in-progress. I was lucky enough to receive a grant for Yiddish for Pirates, my first novel, which really did "buy me time" to work on it. $25,000 was a significant amount of money. I could have got my sheepadoodle bronzed more than once, but instead of doing that, I was able to devote myself to writing, if not full time, then to give the writing some very serious daily time while pursuing other things (such as teaching and a writer-in-residency) and opting to take the dog out for walks instead of bronzing.

Writing the grant made me think more about what it is to do something even though you have doubts, even though you "aren't feeling it." Maybe this is how you felt applying to college. I know I felt that way applying for the programs that I went to. But, like many performances, or writing projects, even though I didn't feel like I had the confidence and assuredness of a king of the world, I did it anyway. A bit of "fake it till you make it," kind of thing. I knew that I could write a solid grant application even if I didn't quite feel it. (And over the years, I've got better at writing them.) A grant application that, though saying things in a way that I wouldn't personally speak (and feeling more "sale-sy" that I'm used to) did, in fact, represent what I thought I was doing in my work. I understood that I was using "grant voice," and that this was appropriate. And, though I didn't know how the project would turn out, of course, I had to speak about it as if it would work out in the end. Because of course it would, even if not exactly what I proposed. I knew that I'd figure it out on the way.

I put my best foot forward and wrote the grant, trying to provide the best answers.

6. Describe your project. Explain the inspiration for your project or why you wish to undertake it at this time. (approximately 750 words) 

Ok, so Question Six is pretty straight forward. What is your project and why do you want to write it?

8. How will this project: (approximately 500 words)
 • contribute to your, or your group’s, artistic development? 
 • advance artistic practice? 

Consider the following questions, as applicable: What types of artistic risks will you be taking?

But Question 8 is more tricky. Ok, how is this going to contribute to my artistic development? I can answer that. Explading what I've done before, letting me try new things. All that. But how will it "advance artistic practice"? Like I'm going to find a cure for COVID-19 or render fossil fuels obsolete. Or I'm James Joyce or Laurie Anderson, Anne Carson or Christian Bök (implanting poems in DNA and sending them to space.)

But they want to hear what I think I'm doing. They don't necessarily think I'm landing a human on the literary moon for the first time, but how I answer is probably as important as how. Like in a job interview, in many cases, they're asking to see how you respond. I figure if I can explain how I'm taking what seems a fresh (i.e. not stale) approach that's good enough. That's I've thought about not just doing the same old thing.

And the "artistic" risk is our risk, not necessarily the risk someone at the edges of radical artistic practice might take. Also, in these kind of arts grants, they're being assessed by other artists, so they do come into the process with an understanding of where we're all coming from. 

So though I don't honestly think I'm changing the world or doing something so bright and fresh and original that I'm rocking the roots of our civilization, I am able to find things about my project that are trying to be fresh, that have my own take or view on things and perhaps that bring together some things that haven't quite been brought together in exactly the same way before, if only because I'm limited to what I can do, and I'm writing from a particular time and place. I don't know that I could take the pressure if I thought I was reimagining civilization. Also, even if I was, it probably would feel that way to me, but rather, pursuing something authentic and interesting and arresting to me.

Will I get the grant? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends who else applies. How much money the Canada Council has allocated at them time. Who is on the jury and what their judgement is--they try to be fair, but of course, they have different tastes, different values, a different sense of what is important and should be funded, even as they do their best to interpret the guidelines of the grant. "Artistic merit" obviously involves some personal judgement, based on experience and knowledge.

I should also say that I am profoundly grateful that we live in a place that has arts grants--national, provincial, municipal. That these important supports (given by taxpayers through government policy and arts organizations) are hugely significant and an important vote of confidence from our society to artists, the arts, and audiences and readers.   

Saturday, October 3, 2020

More rejection: On balancing bad news with good.

[I watched a bit of the Presidential debate and really needed to process it, so I literally did that. I translated the speaking into music (and drowned out the speaking) to make this video.]

So I had a delightful time in March writing a collaborative poetry MS with an old friend. We wrote poems back and forth (she had the time since she was a librarian and the libraries were closed) and quickly assembled a really interesting manuscript--lots of strange diagrams and drawings, odd riffs off an old and eccentric article from a newspaper published in 1910, some lovely and unexpected passages about whales. We edited and revised and then sent it off to several publishers. Well, today I got the following rejection. They loved it but still, no thanks. It's too long (although in truth, if they really wanted to publish it they could since they do publish long books quite often.) Ah well. I'm glad that these thoughtful readers enjoyed it.

I’m writing to you (and ____) about _____. The members of the poetry board agreed that it’s the best title we can recall coming across! It’s almost a book in and of itself…

The board loved the manuscript. It’s fun, inventive, joyful — which they definitely appreciated in this moment.

In the end, however, it’s considerably too long for us, and the board didn’t choose to offer you one of our very few poetry spots. There are so many great manuscripts and so few spots for them... 

I’m really sorry. 

All the best 

I should say that while of course I'm disappointed, I do know that the manuscript is still being considered elsewhere. And, more importantly, I'm not dead. I mean, it's disappointing but there are dire things going on in the world and I do put it perspective. Also, I just got this great gig as Writer in Residence at Sheridan. Did you know? I'm really happy about it and THAT is definitely good writing news. Also, I've got several poems coming out in magazines and journals (I just got a $300 for a suite of visual poems coming out in the Fiddlehead. Gotta buy myself some deluxe sweatpants!) and I've just had a super beautifully designed chapbook come out with Knife Fork Books that I wrote with my friend, Kathryn Mockler. So, I think the best way to deal with the ups and downs (the "vicissitudes") of the writing life is to be involved in lots of things so it really can be a case of "you win some you lose some." One increased the chance of winning by doing more things, by trying more often. Also, it's good not to die. Instead, I get to keep on writing. In fact, though I've had a really bad flu (I'm actually going to get Covid tested tomorrow just in case) and spent a couple days feeling lousy in bed, I managed to write a bunch more on my novel (some terrible jokes where my protagonist is taken to IKEA by Death to find a portal to the underworld) and make a few visual poems and write some other text only poems. So, I keep on keeping on. 

Here's part of an ongoing project where I'm modifying an old anatomy textbook by adding new visuals and inserting new poetic text in with the original text. I made a few pages in the last few days.