on actually writing stuff

Great news, folks.

Simpkin and the drafts

For all of my dubious talk, I have something to show you. After sifting through two years of accumulated drafts and notes, after memorizing one Yeats poem, after starting to fill the first new binder of finished work since 2009, after realizing that, contrary to my whining mantra, I actually never stopped writing, I have one new poem and one new story. 

The story I just finished yesterday. It's my first story since The Crow Suits (does anyone remember that one? I scribbled the first draft when I was 16). It's fact-based. It seems that now I can write about my childhood (what?). It takes place in the very small Saskatchewan town that I lived in from the ages of 4-8, and I'm hoping to add to it with more "episodes" from the same weird era. Do you want to read it? I can't publish it online because it's destined for a contest, but I can (and would love to) email it to you. 

The poem, along with a few older, unpublished pieces, will be up on my Tumblr page tomorrow. 

I'm back again, kiddies. It feels really good. 


You might remember this sweater that I knit for Justina Smith a couple of years ago in exchange for a painting. Well, a year later we decided it was time to initiate another swap, and this time I had a very specific idea I was hoping she could manifest on a big canvas. I wanted a lively, vibrant portrait of Miss Dickinson, based on the iconic, pinched portrait everyone is familiar with. As Justina and I were emailing cardigan (her) and painting (me) ideas back and forth, we decided on pumpkin-coloured wool and Tim showed me a Dickinson poem I had never seen before. I was so taken with the poem, and the fact that Tim had discovered it, that I immediately asked Justina if she could incorporate it ("and two different blues, please") into the painting. 

And she did, along with some brilliant wallpaper. I like the way the background encroaches, the flowers trailing right over her shoulders, while Emily sits serene and poetic.

Emily Dickinson (1830–86).  Complete Poems.  1924.

Part One: Life

THE BRAIN is wider than the sky,
  For, put them side by side,
The one the other will include
  With ease, and you beside.
The brain is deeper than the sea,        5
  For, hold them, blue to blue,
The one the other will absorb,
  As sponges, buckets do.
The brain is just the weight of God,
  For, lift them, pound for pound,        10
And they will differ, if they do,
  As syllable from sound.

Cat booklets

For two or three years now, I've been getting requests for the Cat poems to be collected. Well, I finally collected them. I printed up a plain-Jane, bare-bones, print-fold-staple zine. It is not a beautiful handmade object so much as the thing that books have been: just a conduit of text.

Like the medium, the message is rough and undecorated. I wrote these poems when I was 17; I am printing them up now as a tribute to my younger self and her fear and trembling, but also to put the poems somewhat aside. Unscrubbed as he is, I've been living under Cat's shadow for too long. He'd have me believe that none of my new poems will ever measure up.

I've been thinking a lot about my future as a poet. I want to write and publish in a culture where both information and distraction are more readily available than ever on the internet. It seems doubtful that I or any writer of my generation will be making a living (or a name) selling physical books. However, my rebellious spirit says "Here. Take this last book anyway. Five of the poems are plastered all over the interwebs, but two of them have never seen the light of day."

If you'd like one of these white booklets, comment here, or send me an email with your mailing address. I'm not going to charge for these. I have 20 copies, and I would love to post you one. 

xx Lizzie

"October Dawn" by Ted Hughes

Last year's pods, in our old backyard, which I miss.

October Dawn

October is marigold, and yet
A glass half full of wine left out

To the dark heaven all night, by dawn
Has dreamed a premonition

Of ice across its eye as if
The ice-age had begun its heave.

The lawn overtrodden and strewn
From the night before, and the whistling green

Shrubbery are doomed. Ice
Has got its spearhead into place.

First a skin, delicately here
Restraining a ripple from the air;

Soon plate and river on pond and brook;
Then tons of chain and massive lock

To hold rivers. Then, sound by sight
Will Mammoth and Sabre-tooth celebrate

Reunion while a fist of cold
Squeezes the fire at the core of the world,

Squeezes the fire at the core of the heart,
And now it is about to start.

The Finishing Project--Day 7 (that is, 9)

Indian Summer

Forget your gift of an Indian Summer.
We do not want it;
We run on towards Winter.

This pulpy haze seems kinder,
But we gnaw the pit,
And your gift of an Indian Summer

Deflects our dive for the center.
Like the whitening rabbit
We run on towards Winter. 

We crones won't stand the meander--
Our short time is split.
Take your gift of an Indian Summer,

Give way to the year's inevitable splinter,
Let us begin the fit;
Forget your gift of an Indian Summer.
From here we will run on towards Winter.

An imperfect villanelle, to finish off. Yes, this one's for school too.

The Finishing Project--Day 2

Plates, pitchforks, knives, dishes
And extra bought
All we have for the loaves and fishes
All panicked, caught

Crumbs, soupbowls, bones and cups
And broken plates
All the dishes wash them up
All we will wait

Another ENGL 294 assignment--surprise! A nursery rhyme. I'm not bothered, using school writing for this project, so no one else needs to be bothered either. It's a small miracle that in September I'm writing anything but smarmy essays. 

ETA syllables

The Finishing Project--Day 1

I've responded to Candace's invitation to The Finishing Project--one poem a day for a week, the goal being simply to produce finished work. This is Day 1, and I have a poem.  I must fess up, and tell you that I'm killing two birds with one stone here. I've been assigned 10-12 lines of blank verse for my Introduction to Writing Poetry class. These are them.

A Misuse of the Word 'Entropy'

Pining for nothing more or less than pure
Fabrication, now that I can't construct
A thing, and unlike before, nothing will
Materialize out of thin air under
My hands, and more and more, even more appears
Under others' hands in China. We know
"Longevity is the antithesis
Of fashion". We feel the horror of that
Life which causes visible wear. The scab
Of repair, a darn or a patch, will peel
Back to gnashing of teeth, detritus, debris--
We must make all things new every morning. 


I'm afraid the season has already turned. After our one allotted Canadian week of +30 degree temperatures, the days are already a wee bit shorter. The plants are in an obscene rush to put themselves out before time is up.

Tomato plants flop over the sides of their raised bed. Potato plants bloom floridly. Pea plants sprawl, fattening pods before they've done any climbing to speak of. The weeds stop spreading (quite so fast), and just quietly grow taller and taller. We're having a dour, stormy day. It's so dark inside the hobbit hole that I had to go outside this morning to try and photograph the experimental legwarmers. It was raining by 9 am, but luckily the structure that I've been cleverly calling "the laundry roof" protected the laundry.

The miserable-looking avocado plant to the right, the plant we've had for over two years, and started from seed before we were married, was broken (and possibly killed) by our tenants' friends.

Knitting the legwarmers, I've gained some valuable practice working on five needles in the round. When my sock yarn ("peaks ferry") arrives (tomorrow?), I will be ready to attempt a somewhat neat job. I've had several failed attempts at Making Things over the past couple of days--including one this morning. This afternoon I am ignoring everything but The Poetics of Translation. 

(I did have a piece of news that made various sad paper-sewing and -folding catastrophes seem less important: around 11 this morning I received an email from The White Wall Review*. They want to publish "Thirteenth House", a poem I wrote this past winter, in their Fall 2012 issue. So I will have two publications coming out within the next few months. I have to say I'm ridiculously pleased.)

*WWR published "Cat Wants" under the name Patrick Walker-Nelson in 2009. It was my first and only acceptance under a pseudonym. Nice that I've made it in again, under my own name.

a paradigm shift: beauty (in which I make unstylish claims)

"The coats of arms that encrust those South German walls were once as simple as upside-down flat-irons with reversed buckets on top: at the touch of the new formula, each shield blossomed into the lower half of a horizontally bisected 'cello, floridly notched for a tilting lance, under a twenty-fold display of latticed and strawberry-leaf-crowned casques, each helmet top-heavy with horns or wings or ostrich or peacocks' feathers and all of the suddenly embowered in mantelling as reckless, convoluted and slashed as spatulate leaves in a whirlwind. The wings of eagles expanded in sprays of separate sable plumes, tails bifurcated in multiple tassels, tongues leapt from beaks and fangs like flames and inlaid arabesques. All was lambent."

- Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts, 99

Part 2. 

(Incidentally, in composing this post and the last, I seem to have tricked myself into doing some real writing. Having a clear goal in mind, the pressure lets up. Rather than to fabricate, vaguely, a perfect, core-shattering poem, I am trying to communicate a specific event of my recent mental life. With my ducks thus in a row, I can give myself up to wordsmithery; that is, to technique. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I think that--even though (in good writing) the medium becomes part of the message--when the message is clear in the author's mind, it becomes easier to mold it to a beautiful and expressive medium. Thorough understanding and better familiarity allows an author to judge what paraphrasing an idea will stand or be enhanced by, and what first-thought, gut-level words and expressions must remain.)

Reader, I am entranced with technique.

On Monday, July 2, I wrote:

Have, for two days, been reading the blogs of (knitting) pattern designers. I am getting my first glimpse of the techniques and mechanics of more sophisticated knitting (and, partly thanks to the blogs, partly thanks to Laura, of garment construction in general). I am entranced. This may be my equivalent to Tim's woodworking.

The best way to create the crotch seam in a pair of pants is amazing (you put one leg inside-out inside the other). I have just purchased my first sock pattern, and I can't wait to find out how to create a gusset. And fair isle sweaters--why did I blindly assume that a plain garter stitch sweater, like a steel and glass building or a plastic Eames chair, must be intrinsically more beautiful, have greater integrity? Decoration in the material arts is unfashionable, like form in poetry or adjectives in prose. Display of a technique rather than a bare concept is said to be gaudy. But why?

To approach from another angle: this marriage of mine is astonishing. The two years that Tim and I dated were one long, mutual interrogation. We talked philosophy more than anything else. What did the other think of ______? We were delighted to have discovered someone who felt the same way about almost everything, and we both felt that, on the subject of beauty, the mid-century modernists had it soundly and sacredly right. However. 

Maybe it was reading Donne, maybe it was the intricacy of my friend Justina's henna-inspired partial sleeve, maybe it was Patrick Leigh Fermor--his lavish writing and his memorized Latin odes, maybe it was all the lovely old houses in Old Strathcona, maybe it was admitting my love of medieval hymns and carols. By the time I started Hofstadter's book, I was already primed for a drastic change of feeling, but I did not want to bring it up with Tim. 

But I didn't really have to. Before I did, he showed me a seventeenth-century table on a woodworking site. 'Elaborate' is not quite a sufficient word. Then we started watching a three-part BBC series on the history of metal working in England, and by the time we had finished the first episode (silver), it was clear that both of us had been quietly revising our aesthetics for months, along almost identical lines, and simultaneously. 

"When two people live together intimately, each comes to understand the world to some extent in the way that the other does. Each imbibes the other's point of view, and over a period of years, another person's way of looking at the world has become internalized. One can now look out at the world with the other person's eyes, see it with their soul." 
- Douglas Hofstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot, 479

Tim sent me a link to this video about a week ago. Ignoring some of the dubious metaphysical claims, I think it is spot-on. 

a paradigm shift: rhyming poetry

The external life is quiet and (quite literally) homely these days: If, on any given day at the bake shop, you happened to ask me what I did on my days off, you would learn that once again I watered and weeded the garden, baked a loaf of bread, baked a pie, bicycled over to see my friend Adam perform in a Shakespeare play, wrote in my journal, knitted, hung the laundry outside, watched a BBC documentary, and worked my way through a novel, some math, a few more pre-emptive pages of honours thesis research. I am not complaining. And I have to tear myself away every time I go to work, because meanwhile the internal life has been fascinating and deep and rewarding.

Back in May, finishing up Le Ton beau de Marot, Douglas Hofstadter's book on poetry translation (you may remember the exercise I posted here), I was flabbergasted to find myself helpless in the face of Hofstadter's arguments for the primary importance of formalism, particularly rhyme and metre, in poetry:

"Thus the act of looking at a poem in print or reading it aloud should be directly tangible to a reader engaged with the poem, as opposed to being merely a covert intellectual fact."
- Douglas Hoftstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot, 524

"The need for sensuality of sound in poetry, as well as its analogue in music, was taken for granted until not all that long ago. But around the turn of the twentieth century, a wave of change started rippling throughout the arts. In poetry, free verse starting taking over, and in the world of classical or "serious" music, tonality was dropped, at least in some quarters, and replaced by a severe, austere, unhearable cerebrality; thus did poetry and music together start down the sad slide from being sensuous and visceral to being solely intellectual. And in the course of that slide, they lost more and more of their mass appeal, in the end becoming esoterica appealing only to tiny coteries and cliques of people who listened with humorless scholasticism and pretension."
- Douglas Hofstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot, 526

Though I haven't written explicitly about it here, my poetry-loving career has been almost exclusively  devoted to British, American, and Eastern European modernists--not the most rhymey company. Up until my first year of university, I actively shunned formal poetry, though I began to come around to it during our class study of Beowulf (and by the time we'd gotten to John Donne, I was won). But I remained unwilling to declare formal poetry anything special. 

Reading Le Ton beau, I was bombarded with memories of poems that had struck me hard and slain me. These poems were not prose-with-line-breaks, nor were they poems based on complex, but invisible, math.   They were kissing cousins to every one of human history's ceremonies, rites and traditions. They were not only beautiful messages, but beautiful mediums. And sometimes--oh infidel!--function followed form. 

My scattered reading in philosophy, psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology has been enough to convince me of the existence of a universal (though not Platonic) human nature. Isn't this what I have always held that great poetry speaks to? To ignore the innate appeal of rhythm, rhyme, and repetition would be to ignore a major aspect of beauty in poetry--and, in fact, to ignore the nature of beauty and the human desire for it in the first place. 

I am surprised at this swing-around in my own opinion; I have always thought that I loved only the intellectual in poetry. All of this is not to say that I am abandoning blank- and free-verse, that Milosz and Hughes are dead to me. It is only to say that I think there is an unmysterious reason why Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle" cuts as close as it does. How on earth will I incorporate it into my own work? Where much of contemporary poetry demands only unfettered feelings or salty descriptions, formal poetry demands technical skill. 

And I must continue later in a second post, because I am also recently enamored with technical skill, and from there a host of other issues open up. Bear with me.

Oh Anglo-Saxon

Thus, after the eradication of Latin and Greek derivatives:

"For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.

The underlying kinds of stuff are the firststuffs, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

The firststuffs have their being as motes called unclefts. These are mighty small: one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. Most unclefts link together to make what are called bulkbits. Thus, the waterstuff bulkbit bestands of two waterstuff unclefts, the sourstuff bulkbit of two sourstuff unclefts, and so on. (Some kinds, such as sunstuff, keep alone; others, such as iron cling together in chills when in the fast standing; and there are yet more yokeways.) When unlike unclefts link in a bulkbit, they make bindings. Thus, water is a binding of two waterstuff unclefts with one sourstuff uncleft, while a bulkbit of one of the forestuffs making up flesh may have a thousand or more unclefts of these two firststuffs together with coalstuff and chokestuff.

At first it was thought that the uncleft was a hard thing that could be split no further; hence the name. Now we know it is made up of lesser motes. There is a heavy kernel with a forward bernstonish lading, and around it one or more light motes with backward ladings. The least uncleft is that of everyday waterstuff. Its kernel is a lone forwardladen mote called a firstbit. Outside it is a backwardladen mote called a bernstonebit. The firstbit has a heaviness about 1840-fold that of the bernstonebit. Early worldken folk thought berstonebits swing around the kernel like the Earth around the Sun, but now we understand they are more like waves or clouds."

- Poul Anderson, from "Uncleftish Beholding"