Create an Effective Writing Routine

The cornerstone of a productive writing schedule is an effectively crafted writing routine

Serious writers keep a writing schedule — but even the most serious writer has trouble keeping a writing schedule from time to time. (If you don’t think you need a writing schedule, then read my post “Write a Lot by Writing on Schedule.”)

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To help you, I’ve written a short (25-page) eBook called 5 Steps to Create and Maintain Your Writing Schedule, which is available for free if you sign up for my newsletter, wherein I reveal the secrets of life and death and time (plus some writing stuff).

Or, alternatively, you can buy it for $7. Your call …

Below, I share a section of the book — on how to establish an effective writing routine.

5 Elements of an Effective Writing Routine

Most writing schedules fail because they are not realistic and the writer becomes discouraged and quits. However, even the best schedule can fail when the routine itself remains flawed.

The most important part of a routine is its existence. The schedule, of course, is the basic element: you write at the same time every day, or the same few times every week. However, it helps to go further and approach each writing session in the same way. The more rigid a routine you have, the better.

Many writers resist establishing a routine. They feel that true creativity can only flow from unfettered process, from creative chaos. They don’t know what they’re talking about.

Literally. Ask one. Dig a few questions deep. You’ll see. Either they actually have a routine, which they don’t recognize, or they only create on occasion, miraculously. Often sporadically. And usually terribly.

There are five basic elements of a strong writing routine:
(1) Triggers (2) Focus (3) Planning (4) Work (5) Organization

Let’s look at each more closely. As an example, I will walk through my writing routine. Yours will differ — but think through each of these elements to see how they might work for you.

Triggers

Train your brain and body to get into “writing mode” by establishing a set of triggers. You can use any object, action, or environmental cue as a trigger to help you stick to your writing schedule and prime yourself to produce. You have to be as consistent as possible and only associate the trigger with writing.

I use three triggers. One, an alarm on my phone with a specific ringtone (Elvis Costello’s song “Every Day I Write the Book”). Two, the music of the band Agalloch (I listen to the exact same songs, in the exact same order, every time I write — and never listen to this band otherwise). Three, coffee (I only drink coffee on two occasions: when I am writing or after I have written … so it is halfway between a trigger and a reward).

I’ve heard of people putting on a hat or tie to write, or keeping a specific chair they only use to write. Anne Carson has two desks, one for her day job and scholarship and one for her creative writing.

Focus

Once my coffee is in hand, I shift my phone to “do not disturb” mode — I have it set so that only calls or texts from my wife and daughter come through. Then I move into Scrivener and shift to full-screen mode. Then I start playing Agalloch — and write.

The problem always is distracting myself. Writing on a computer is a bad idea, really, because computers have evolved into distraction-machines. But I’m not willing to go back to writing by hand, so I just have to be disciplined about this. If you find the computer is killing your will to work and leading you astray, then start writing by hand.

Other people use programs to block themselves from the Internet and so on. I try to cultivate discipline, which requires me to have temptation handy, but I might try one of those programs someday. At minimum, turn off or strip down your various automated alerts and notifications.

Planning

Hemingway used to stop writing when he knew he could continue, when he still had the next thing clear in his head (sometimes mid-sentence). I prefer to just spend a few minutes planning, but it amounts to the same thing: developing a clear sense of what you will do before you begin work, rather than flailing.

Sometimes this is just me sipping coffee and thinking, but other times I jot down a few notes by hand on a notebook I keep near the laptop. (I use the same notebook to keep from distracting myself — if I have a random thought like “I gotta email that dude!” or “driveway needs a shovelling” or “You know what would be cool? A rap song about Dostoevsky” then I just jot it down and get back on task.)

When I’m writing fiction or a film script, I spend more time planning. I review my outlines and I sketch out the scene I plan to write next — just hand-write a few story beats with some action or dialogue or random ideas in point form. Planning for a few minutes like this can save you a lot of time in the actual writing session, and boost the amount of writing you are able to get done each time you sit down.

At minimum, you want to decide what to write and maybe how much to write. Perhaps your goal is to write 300 words of your novel. Perhaps you want to edit a poem. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that you actually have a plan, rather than just staring at a blank page or screen and freaking out.

I actually plan my writing month in advance, so that when I sit down to write I open up my agenda and see what I’m supposed to be writing. I trust past-me to make the decisions for present-me, because past-me was thinking about the big picture and planning ahead. Present-me gets distracted by pretty lights.

Work

Actually write something. Crazy, right?

The key here is to focus on this part of the routine even if you can’t do anything else. Right now, I’m on the bus — not at home in my office, not drinking coffee, not listening to Agalloch. I was doing all of that stuff, but then I had to go catch a bus. But I didn’t get as many words as I wanted down — I had planned to write 2000 words on this project before I left the house.

Now, I’m on the bus. Still trying to hit those 2000 words. Sometimes, I wake up late, and I don’t even get to start the routine. But I try to focus on doing the work regardless of whether or not I can do the routine.

Organization

It helps to trigger the session’s end by cleaning up. Your physical space and your mental space both benefit from organization. Sometimes I set a timer, if I have to be somewhere else or do something else after my allotted writing time. Other times I just quit when I hit whatever target I had planned to hit.

Once I quit, I clear off the space where I was writing. I clean up so that it’s ready for the next day. The last thing you need is to sit down during your writing time and find your desk cluttered with junk.

Then, suddenly, cleaning off the desk is a more attractive priority than writing. I have a second, smaller desk (more like a big stand) where I keep my printer and a pile of junk that would otherwise be sitting on my desk. When I’m rushed, at the end of my writing session I just throw all my junk off the desk and onto the printer stand.

The exception is anything you will need at your next writing session, which you want to keep at hand. When I’m working on editing proofs, for example, I keep them on my desk so they don’t get lost in my stacks.

Like your schedule, your routine is an ideal. Focus on actually writing even if all else fails.

A minimal routine is best. Actually writing (the work) is the core element.

You may need to experiment and add or subtract things as time goes on. See what works best for you. Be willing to discard elements. I can’t let “no coffee” be my reason to skip a writing session. Neither should you.

If you craft a smart routine, it will serve you well. Ritualize your writing sessions, and even on the bad days your body and mind will drag your flagging spirit through.

Don’t forget your free eBook!

The rest of 5 Steps to Create and Maintain Your Writing Schedule, is available for free if you sign up for my newsletter.

Natalie Zina Walschots on Slasher Films

A Conversation on Writing, Horror, and Genre Subversion

Natalie Zina Walschots is a freelance writer and bailed academic based in Toronto. She writes everything from reviews of science fiction novels and interviews with heavy metal musicians to to in-depth feminist games criticism and pieces of long-form journalism. She’s recently written about her time working as a content creator for an Internet pornography company, the years-long catfishing deception behind popular Gamergate figurehead Alison Prime, and the most misandrist metal records of 2015. She is the author of two books of poetry, and is presently finishing a novel about super villainy and henchpeople, exploring the poetic potential of the notes engine in the video game Bloodborne, and writing a collection of polyamorous fairytales. She also plays a lot of D&D, participates in a lot of Nordic LARPs, watches a lot of horror movies and reads a lot of speculative fiction.

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Visit Natalie online at http://www.nataliezed.ca or tweet to her at @NatalieZed.

… And buy her books! I recommend her excellent DOOM: Love Poems for Supervillains!

The Conversation

(Less of an interview and more of a conversation, as you can see from my first question — I just popped Natalie an email the other day, and this a cleaned up version of what eventually unfolded.)

Hey, you like horror films, right? What are you favourite slasher films? And why do you like them?

I love horror movies. I always have. As a little kid I was fascinated by them — I read a lot of ghost stories and SpecFic and tales of the supernatural kind of stuff, and was just starting to explore some classic horror when I had a pretty intense traumatic experience: my father took me to see Se7en in the theatres when it came out, I was I think 11. He made me sit through the whole thing, a 10 p.m. showing, even though I was so scared that I entirely froze. I remember not sleeping for days and after that the prospect of frightening films was off the table for a really long time. I would still read horror novels, and read the backs of VHS tapes and DVDs longingly, but I was too freaked out to attempt much.

It was in my very early 20s that I started to really explore the genre again. It was William Neil Scott who helped me through it. I explained my problem, that I adored horror narratives but had a trauma thing that I was having a hard time getting over, and so we improvised a course of exposure therapy. Over the course of a couple of years we watched a ton of movies together, starting with classic ’70s slashers (which were more funny than scary, but still foundational) during the day, and gradually ramped up until we watched The Exorcist late at night. That was the moment I felt like I could watch everything I was interested in. Torture porn is still something I can’t handle, the Saw movies are fine but Hostel and anything like that is completely off the table. 

I have a soft spot for slashers because they were the first step in my horror recovery. I like the archetypal nature of them, the fairytale-thick symbolism. Every character is an allegory, every move symbolic. They may as well be the fucking Faerie Queene. Within the very tight bonds of the genre restrictions there’s a lot of creativity and variation, and I enjoy watching all the different ways that the steps play out. There’s both the satisfaction of having expectations met and also the novelty of it changing.

All horror is deeply cathartic for me, but it’s also an issue of relateability. No other genre more accurately reproduces my lived experience about what the world is like. Not in that there are ghosts or whatever, but that things are scary, and challenging, and sometimes straight-up want to maim or rape or kill you. It presents a model for fighting back, for winning, for emerging bloody but unbowed. Horror is also a genre that acknowledges that trauma has consequences, that it makes monsters, it leaves people harder and weirder than they were before, but victory is still possible. The stories are stranger. 

My favourite slasher film is unquestionably Behind The Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon. It’s a slasher deconstruction that is super funny and brilliant. It creates a world in which slasher monsters are real, but also allows a bunch of peeks behind the curtain, taking them from supernatural to manufactured. It acknowledges and plays with the archetypes brilliantly. Leslie Vernon, the horror monster in question, is deeply likeable while also being profoundly threatening. Plus the action sequences are genuinely intense. I adore it.

How do you feel about horror films, especially slasher films, as a feminist? What works or doesn’t work for you in horror, from a critical perspective — and is it the same or different from what works for you as a fan?

My feelings about horror as a feminist and as a fan are inextricably bound together, and I don’t (usually) find it helpful to separate them. What works for me, in the context of horror, is that they represent, with an accuracy that no other genre approaches, exactly how harrowing, frightening and dangerous the world can be. It’s the only place I see the fear reinforced as real and valid rather than something to dismiss or ridicule.

In particular, the fears of women (and children) are shown to be real and valid, and those who dismiss them do so at their extreme peril. There are monsters, they are trying to get you, and ignoring that gets you dead. Only fighting back and treating those fears as real leads to survival, and the sooner you get with that program, the better your chances of living will be. Women are not only cast as believable characters and reliable narrators, but also tend to be the most resilient characters (the Final Girl trope is an excellent example of this).

What I struggle with, as a feminist and a fan, are places where the genre conventions are still kind of sexist and shitty — like purity myths, the equation of sexual abstinence with virtue, and the likelihood that being sexually active will get you killed off first. The characters tend to be very archetypal, which is great in some circumstances and problematic in others. I also struggle with certain kinds of violence, but I can also find it very cathartic. It’s complicated!

One thing I find interesting and perhaps progressive in modern slasher-horror is how it borrows Gothic conventions but transmutes the “woman imperilled by a male monster and saved by a male hero” into “heroic woman imperilled by a male monster.” At the same time, it’s troublesome how these final girls tend to be masculinized or de-feminized.

I go back to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as perhaps my favourite of the genre (before it really congealed as a genre) because among other things the final girl is clearly feminine and sexual, not playing into the purity myth you mention (and yet, of zero sexual interest to the male killers!), and in that film more men than women are killed. It also interests me that the male killer, Leatherface, is feminized to some degree, especially when he’s wearing his female face, although Carol Clover has pointed out that this is common.

All of this brings me to another, related question: What do you think of female monsters? When do you find them engaging and perhaps admirable versus ridiculous or offensive?

This is a great question!

I LOVE female monsters, and I think there have been some excellent ones recently. Three of the horror movies that I’ve seen recently that have scared me the most, and that I also adore, are Mama, The Babadook, and Goodnight Mommy. I find monstrous mothers especially fascinating. I think that these monsters tackle very complicated questions of love, attachment, obsession, abuse and vulnerability in very different and eloquent ways.

I don’t think female monsters are inherently more offensive somehow than male monsters, not at all. 

It seems to me like a strain of horror presents female monsters who operate to illustrate cultural fears of women that transgress social roles. I think of the Arthur Machen novella “The Great God Pan,” which was a touchstone for both H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King — the monster there is a half-human woman who has a lot of social power and mobility and is seen as a corrupting force, specifically to be corrupting men, and in many ways I think it’s an anti-feminist story about these “horrible” Victorian women that don’t need men.

I feel like women don’t get to be monsters in the same way as men. They represent social fears about women more than being “simply” horrible. Like in Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter is a monster but his male-ness is almost beside the point, except insofar as he relates specifically to Clarice Starling, whereas a female Lecter would be seen as illustrating something about how women move in the world.

Am I generalizing too much? Do you get this same sense that women don’t get to “be monsters” in the same way in horror, where the gender issue is always firmly and primarily in play? 

Oh I disagree — I think a lot of monsters embody “maleness” pretty profoundly. In particular, a lot of male monsters embody the worst aspects of patriarchal violence: they penetrate, destroy, do violence, annihilate agency, violate. I feel like a lot of horror movies actually succeed by putting men in situations that women face regularly: being seen as prey, stalked by a predator, in danger of being injured, raped, kidnapped, destroyed, etc.

I think men and women are transformed into monsters differently. Male monsters are often extreme versions of the violence we see in the world — serial killers transformed into something supernatural, obsessive exes turned into ghosts, etc. Female monsters tend to be vessels that pain has been poured into until they have been transformed and broken into something terrible, or monstrous incarnations of things like motherhood.

That’s an interesting and (from a writer’s perspective) useful distinction. Something I’m working on is trying to produce a novel modelled in some ways on slasher films but with a female monster that is NOT one of these “vessels of pain” — someone completely without weakness, who also doesn’t serve as a cipher for male fears of women (often both get conflated — like in Dracula where Lucy works both as an “evil mother” who is feeding on children at night as the “bloofer lady” and as representing male fears of women’s sexuality).

One of the things I am struggling with is that I wonder if my goal is possible. Will any female monster who isn’t “broken” and a victim just be coded by the reader as representing some fear of women themselves, whether I like it or not, even if I strive to avoid this? Does the culture just fear powerful women so much that the gender issue overrides anything else?

I try to just work and not think too much about things as I work but it’s always a concern in my mind, how things will be “delivered” to the reader, if you know what I mean.

Man, it’s really tough — trying not to at once feed into fears about women (bloodthirsty sirens! witches!) or transform them into monstrous victims (rape ghosts! dead mothers!). The thing is, monsters are monsters for a reason: they tap into something about our culture that scares us. And that usually means playing with stereotypes to some degree. I think the key is just to do is smartly and critically, and make is as weird and complex as possible.

On another note — are you finding yourself in a similar position with your novel-in-progress on the supervillian “hench” figure … how do you handle the weight of the existing ways the genre and gender inside the genre is already coded, and maybe coded against what you’re trying to do?

In Hench, I am embracing every part of the genre in terms of the structure, but in terms of the actual embodiment of that structure, I am blowing up as much as I can. Which means it’s all about comics, of course, but there are no women in refrigerators. On the surface it appears to be about a superhero and supervillain duking it out, but really it’s about female friendship and recovering from trauma.

Thanks for talking, Natalie. This is really helpful.

At long last, Winnipeg’s place in weird fiction has been secured by the publication of The Shadow Over Portage and Main: Weird Fictions, a horror story anthology edited by Keith Cadieux and Dustin Geeraert.

I wrote the introduction for the book, which you can read here. The anthology also includes a short story by Richard Crow, an exciting and obscure author about whom nothing is known. (Rumours have it that Richard Crow is the pen name of Jonathan Ball, although I obviously deny any such rumours.)

Get your copy of The Shadow Over Portage and Main: Weird Fictions and support its amazing authors and editors! Discover what’s so terrifying about Winnipeg!

Date: April 20, 2016
Time: 7:00 p.m.
Event: Book Launch: The Shadow Over Portage and Main
Venue: McNally Robinson Booksellers
Location: 1120 Grant Ave.
Winnipeg, MB R3M 2A6
Canada

Winnipeg Horror: The Shadow Over Portage and Main

My Introduction to Winnipeg's Weird Fiction Anthology

At long last, Winnipeg’s place in weird fiction has been secured by the publication of The Shadow Over Portage and Main: Weird Fictions, a horror story anthology edited by Keith Cadieux and Dustin Geeraert.

Shadow cover

I wrote the introduction for the book, which is reproduced below. The anthology also includes a short story by Richard Crow, an exciting and obscure author about whom nothing is known. (Rumours have it that Richard Crow is the pen name of Jonathan Ball, although I obviously deny any such rumours.)

Get your copy of The Shadow Over Portage and Main: Weird Fictions and support its amazing authors and editors! Discover what’s so terrifying about Winnipeg!

Preface: There Is a Thing That Should Not Be, So We Must Be in Winnipeg

“Why is Winnipeg so gothic and dark?”

This was not a question I had expected to answer, not something I prepared myself to answer, in the oral defense of my Master’s thesis. I don’t remember what I said. I had written a screenplay adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic horror story, “Der Sandmann,” as a creative thesis, and the question came from my external examiner, Cliff Eyland. Whatever I said satisfied him enough to move on to a different question, more on point. But now I didn’t care about those other questions.

Now I wanted to know why Winnipeg was so gothic and dark.

*

Winnipeg is so gothic that people actually use the phrase “Winnipeg Gothic” to refer to, in Eyland’s words, Winnipeg’s “part of a much wider gothic-influenced scene, [which] shares Romantic, Freudian, and popular horror film and fiction influences with a much wider world of art.” In an article on Jillian McDonald’s video project REDRUM, Eyland references a Gallery One One exhibition, “The Gothic Unconscious,” curated in 2003/04 (a year after my successful defense) by Sigrid Dahle.

Many of the artists Eyland lists as exemplifying or otherwise connecting to this haphazard aesthetic best described as “Winnipeg Gothic” also appear on my personal list of influences: Guy Maddin, Ivan Eyre, Diana Thorneycroft, Rob Kovitz, and the Royal Art Lodge. (I would add filmmakers Jeffrey Erbach and Solomon Nagler.) If “Winnipeg Gothic” means anything, it means that these artists with gothic sensibilities connect an atmosphere of threat, gloom, death, and despair to the urban environment of Winnipeg.

In My Winnipeg, for example, Guy Maddin spends a good deal of time talking about The Forks, that meeting place of two rivers, and claims that there are also two ghostly, subterranean rivers underneath them, which also happen to fork together in the same place. This makes Winnipeg, and The Forks, a dangerous place of magical, chthonic power. Since The Forks was traditionally considered a meeting place not just for the two rivers but also for the First Nations, Maddin’s film plays into horror tropes about the dangers of constructing your home (in this case, a settler city) on top of an aboriginal burial ground.

Even discounting Maddin-esque myth-making, Winnipeg seems ripe for horror. More than any other Canadian city, it conforms to the tropes of the horror story’s “bad place.” Winnipeg is Canada’s “murder capital” (so-named for, most years, claiming the nation’s highest per-capita homicide rate) and thus a place of violence, both personal (murder) and systemic (at the time of writing, Maclean’s stirred up national controversy by decreeing Winnipeg the “most racist city in Canada,” citing alarming statistics). Winnipeg’s environment itself is deadly, monstrous even — as I write this, it’s a balmy -31 degrees Celsius … before the windchill. (And it’s morning now. While I slept, in the darkness, we reached -42. One colder day, almost a decade ago now, I went to unplug my car in the morning and the extension cord snapped like a twig.) Winnipeg is not just a place of cold, but a place of fire — with alarming arson rates — and a city that seems like a small town, with barely three degrees of separation between any two people, thus allowing it to play into both urban and small town horror tropes. Add to this Winnipeg’s ruined landscape, gothic in its decaying architecture. A place famous for its ghosts, for bygone glory.

Most of all, its isolation. Winnipeg, the bad place that you can’t escape. The perfect place to die.

*

I was once asked, for a documentary on the Winnipeg filmmaker John Paizs and his 1985 masterpiece Crime Wave, why Winnipeg seemed to breed so many strange, experimentally minded filmmakers. My response there seems to apply here: because Winnipeg is a city without hope.

Winnipeg is fate. It dooms its artists to obscurity, to failure, before they have begun. And so, ironically and paradoxically, it breeds artists who don’t even bother to try to succeed, and thus don’t water down their art to make it more marketable (it’s impossible to market, since it’s from Winnipeg) — and can therefore succeed, in an artistic sense if not a commercial one.

Winnipeg the ruin, Winnipeg of the haunted past, Winnipeg of murder and flames. Winnipeg of cold and death, Winnipeg of the hopeless, Winnipeg the doomed. It seems significant that so many of the writers in this anthology, which proclaims to feature stories inspired by Winnipeg, don’t bother to offer any actual indication within the stories that they are set in Winnipeg. Few of them mention Winnipeg, or mention any Winnipeg landmarks.

Why bother? It all goes without saying. Since there is horror here, and since the horror cannot be stopped, since hope is gone and the world is a nightmare of chaos, we must be in Winnipeg.

Get your copy of The Shadow Over Portage and Main: Weird Fictions and support its amazing authors and editors! Discover what’s so terrifying about Winnipeg!

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Gary Barwin, “Shopping for Deer”

Poem + Interview

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist, and the author of 20 books of poetry and fiction as well as books for kids. His most recent books are the short fiction collection, I, Dr Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457 (Anvil) and the poetry collections, Moon Baboon Canoe (Mansfield), and The Wild and Unfathomable Always (Xexoxial). Yiddish for Pirates, a novel, will appear in April 2016 from Random House Canada and a new poetry collection in 2017 from Wolsak & Wynn. A PhD in music, Barwin was 2014-2015 Writer-in-Residence at Western University and the Toronto Public Library Young Voices eWrite-in-residence in 2013. He has taught creative writing at a number of colleges and universities and currently at Mohawk College. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario. GaryBarwin.com

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Shopping for Deer

I went shopping for deer

there were no deer

the shopping cart became the deer

I brought it home

climbed inside

and turned off the lights

the seasons changed

I lived on earth

sometimes the bright sun shone

I became old

when I die, I will remember the deer

I will remember its wheels and antlers

I will remember its flesh and lightning

its womb of silver bones

from The Porcupinity of the Stars

( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

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Interview

Let’s start with this poem in its broad strokes — in a review earlier I said that “Barwin’s poetry expresses a near-religious faith in poetry’s transcendence, its ability to forge meaning rather than simply convert meaning into money.” You said that you disagree with this, or at least don’t fully agree — I’d like you to comment on my comment, but let’s get there through the poem.
 
I feel that when it comes to forging meaning, “it’s complicated.” It’s not that I don’t believe that poetry or “the poetry experience” can’t construct meaning — and a meaning that is somewhat sometimes able to elude being co-opted by capital — but I believe it’s a question of what kind of meaning and where it is located. For me, the issue is connected to my interest in non-realistic forms of representation, of moving outside of the consensual forms of reality (including grammatical reality), those that are sold to us by mainstream culture and master discourse. In this poem, I think I could make an argument for the shopping cart as an image that resonates with this. By not consenting to a normative notion of reality and representation, or at least by problematizing it, I think the poem attempts to open up the implicit assumptions about the reality we are “sold.”
 
It’s also true that I am intrigued by poetry’s ability to create an aura of meaning, a husk of numinosity, resonant meaning-ripples moving out from the signifier and/or signifying empty or ambiguous centre. To get all Basho about this: “plop” = centre, “water-sound” = ripples. The writer and reader are somehow involved in the concepts of water, leap, and frog. But the relationships are destabilized, not quite what they seem. I do think it “begs” these questions.
 
This puts me in mind of a favourite few lines of Wordsworth’s from when I was an adolescent (and yes, I had friends…really…)
 

Oh! grant me Heaven a heart at ease
That I may never cease to find
Even in appearances like these
Enough to nourish and to stir my mind.

          — “A whirl-blast from behind the hill”

I think about how the “appearances,” in addition to the “natural” world and human culture, are also the process and results of signification, of metaphorization. Of enlanguaging.
 
Here’s how I like to look at “Shopping for Deer”: the first stanza forges a metaphor (shopping cart as deer) but the real metaphor, the one that gets overlooked (by people who read the poem as about homelessness, or hunting, which are the two common ways I see it interpreted) is this: the shopping-cart deer fusion is the vehicle in a metaphor where the tenor is metaphor itself. The poem then becomes an extended metaphor for how central metaphor is to our lives and our understanding of our lives, and of course is our only way to somehow comprehend death.
 
I do really like how you look at it — the tenor being the metaphor. The message is the medium.
This chimes with what I’ve said above about consensual ways of conceiving of the world, I think. We see the world metaphorically. Is it that perception is a metaphor for itself or that our world is always metaphor for itself?
 
I also see the deer/shopping cart metaphor as engaging with an exploration of the relation of the technological or human-made and the construction of nature and the natural. What ideas are embedded in the concept of the pastoral and how does it relate to the modern world? In this sense, the poem explores ecopoetic concerns. I think that the poem asks if shopping can be considered as hunting and gathering. Are shoppers (i.e. the modern person) both hunter-gatherers and consumers of the spoils of hunter-gatherers?
 
And as for death, I hear it is inevitable, but I’m waiting until it’s all over before I make my final determination. To click on that ultimate shopping cart and “check out.” But I think the fact that we have the possibility of metaphor, the possibility of both engaging in and feeling a kind of poiesis is how we can try to, if not understand, then at least reckon with our world of life and death and the experiences in between.  To have it to “both nourish and stir our mind.”
  
Can you explain a bit about how you came to write this poem? I understand it was inspired by an image by Banksy?
 
First of all, as I walked about the city (Hamilton, Ontario), I kept discovering deer. Deer in the woods. Deer on the road and on the lawn bowling field, deer in the park, late at night as I walked through the mist with my dog. And I’d find shopping carts nestled in alleyways, nuzzling telephone poles. Shopping carts tipped into rivers. Carts that had strayed far from their grocery store.

I had been thinking about how we respond both emotionally and intellectually to human-made materials versus those of the “natural” world. How the modern pastoral might include a toaster, a TV, sheep and a cellphone. And perhaps beyond the pastoral, how an ecopoetics would include wire clothes hangers, a gas giant, an echidna, and tractors. I’d been following the blog Next Nature whose philosophy states that, “Where technology and nature are traditionally seen as opposed, they now appear to merge or even trade places,” and considering the notion of biomimicry and how we populate our image banks and metaphor hordes with a kind of conceptual pareidolia or technological/nature synaesthesia. In other words, we tend to biomorphize. On the Next Nature blog, I came across this image by Bansky which was a resonant conflation of shopping cart with prey.
 
The conflation of shopping cart with prey seemed apt. Of course there is the visual rhyme: the rectangular box-form and four wheels of the cart resembles the torso and legs of the imagined prey. (It also conjures for me a gurney and a coffin in a procession.) The carts often seem to roam and graze across the urban grasslands. But, unlike Banksy, I was interested in the cart/prey image in the “developed” world. We are hunter-gathers as we prowl the city for product, pulled by the tracks and scents of our commodity prey, picking and choosing, both hunting and gathering. And there is the implicit movement of capital, of commodification, of marketplace in the transaction. The shopping cart is the “check-out” symbol on websites.
 
And what does the image of the deer mean in our culture? I’m thinking back to the heads of deer on medieval castle walls, on the modern hunter’s wall. The deer carried on a stick back from the hunt, or on the roof of an SUV. The deer as spoil. The ballads about the aristocracy’s control of deer. As a symbol of wealth and power. I think of, for example, a song that I love, “Geordie” where the eponymous geordie “stole sixteen of the King’s wild deer,” — the “wild” deer “belong” to the king — and so the geordie is sentenced to death for hunting them.
 
But there’s also deer-headed people in cave drawings who I think are shamanic. And so the deer is a portal, a gateway between worlds. As I said, between the human and the non-human (whether animal, commodity, object) but also between the worlds of life and death, the immanent and the transcendent, the phenomenal and the noumenal, the material and the spiritual. But as I see the glinting silver of the shopping cart, its strange yet familiar shape, I see these dualities in the image of the shopping cart also. I feel that it’s not me doing the Shklovskian ostranenie but the world is making me strange to myself.
 
I assume you wrote the poem operating with the image more surrealistically, without trying to develop it metaphorically. Can you respond to my reading here by way of explaining how you see yourself working in poetry to forge or even resist meaning?
 
So, in terms of your question about the actual writing of the poem, it’s true I don’t begin with an explicit concept of what an image or trope means, but rather feel its heft and location in multidimensional meaningspace, culturespace, or languagespace. That is, how it feels to me as material — what it suggests in terms of development as an image, what might go with it, or where it might go formally. “Meaning” per se isn’t something that I consider except, as you suggested, to resist it colonizing the poem with big-booted obviousness.

Putting my ear to the verbal track usually means that there will be some “meaning” coming down the line in some form, though I won’t know what it is until it arrives. My usual line is that “the writing knows more than I do.” This means that I try to trust the language to take shape and self-organize, the way interstellar dust gradually forms planets, comets, and other space objects. I feel like I am tapping into language and culture this way and the result will be much more complex, subtle, and interesting than if I tried to impose my likely more monolithic and simplistic ideas and meanings.

Of course, it some way it necessarily will reflect the shape of my looking, the way I see or am able to conceive of language and culture as I work with the material until I’ve shaped it into—or discovered within it—a satisfying aesthetic shape. (By the way, I do hope you are enjoying the ongoing unfolding and salmagundi braiding of my mixed and mashed metaphors. Perhaps they’re reflective of the heterophony of my thinking on this. Or just lazy bloody noise.)

Your earlier draft of the ending stanza read this way:

When I die, I will remember the deer.
I will remember its wheels and antlers.
I will remember its silver bones that are
a womb for flesh and lightning.

Then, you moved to this:

When I die, I will remember the deer.
I will remember its wheels and antlers.
I will remember its womb of silver bones.

Can you talk about how you (1) moved from one draft to the other, and then how you (2) combined elements of both drafts to produce your “final” version (the one in your book The Porcupinity of the Stars, which is reproduced above)?

I can’t quite remember the process, but looking at these various drafts, I can see how the last two lines of the original draft are more pedantic or at least less energetic (“its silver bones that are” is a much more passive construction). Also, “[i]ts silver bones” isn’t as interesting or surprising (for a shopping cart) whereas a “womb of silver bones” is much more so, both imagistically and sonorously.

The image relates the part of the cart meant for carrying to a womb, which brings in lots of interesting associations: the cart as a female body, as a mother figure, as (re)productive, as a source of birth. But yet this fecund place is metallic (silver) — maybe that glitter is magical or alchemical or symbolic — or maybe fruitless?

Likewise “bones.” Is that a fetal image or one of death? What is a “womb of bones”? It doesn’t sound good, quite like a death image, although of course we grow bones inside the womb and they’re not the dry rattling Wasteland bones of T.S. Eliot. I have a line in the same book describing fetuses as “soft-fisted swimmers.” What if they were silver-fisted?

I wonder how this “womb of silver bones” relates to shopping? To cultural icons? The poem refers to getting old and aging with is, of course, related to birth and the life cycle. Also, the w of womb and wheels plays nicely and there is an interplay with the o of womb and of bones, and those m’s in remember.

As you note, in the final draft, I put back the “flesh and lightning” which I liked for its contrast of images (this is also present in the womb and the silver bones line). All the way through the poem, there’s a contrast between the organic and the non-organic and how they relate. And also, between some kind of energy — “light” or “lightning” or life-force — and the corporeal (whether embodied in a deer or shopping cart) so I can imagine why I added the line back in.

I can also see why I chose to end with the “womb of silver bones” line — that’s a stronger image and one that ultimately embodies the energies of the poem. It also has a better rhythm and sound for ending the poem, I think.

Your earlier versions of the poem contained normative capitalization and punctuation, as the ending drafts show, and I’m wondering why you moved away from this?

There are two reasons. One is that in putting poems together in a book, I want to standardize how I handle punctuation and capitalization so that when there is a deviation it is meaningful, either in terms of semantic or musical notation. In this book, I opted for no capitalization (except for the first person “I”) and to reduce the use of punctuation wherever possible. Part of this is an impulse toward minimalism and concision: I try to use only the signs that are absolutely necessary and include nothing extraneous or non-essential. Part of the decision also stems from the thought that I am signaling that this is specialized linguistic space. It’s not expository text but a particular kind of textual music.

I also like the idea of the contrast between the energy of the poems (their “meaning” or their images) and the fact that they are made from such unpresupposing and plain materials. Even the choice of a very simple and inconspicuous unselfconscious typeface is part of that.

When you are making changes in editing like this, what are the typical things you are trying to do? In other words, what are your usual editing goals, other than the vague “improve the poem”?

As I mentioned, I do try to eliminate anything extraneous, to compress and compact. I try to remove any weak spots, any dips in energy, any “filler” or merely functional text. I look for opportunities to tweak the poem in order to create the most energy. This doesn’t mean that the poem is necessarily a blur of high-intensity gesticulation. Sometimes it means that it is a quiet yet steady flow, or perhaps, better, an ebb and flow. I look for places that I haven’t considered, places that aren’t doing anything particular and see if I can make something of them. I also see if by changing the order of lines or images, or by eliminating or modifying words, phrases, or images, or by reorganizing the shape or size of stanzas, and linebreaks, I can generate more textual electricity at whatever is the appropriate wattage for the particular poem.

When I teach, I tell my students to “trust the writing, it knows more than you.” I try to be guided by this. I really believe that by trying not to get in the way or impose one’s own expectations or desires, but rather by listening carefully, by looking for opportunities and possibilities and then by tinkering, tweaking, buffing and shining to attempt to bring out the innate music of the poem (whether punky, brash, luminous or shimmery), the inherent “genius” of the language and culture will make the text far richer than if you relied on your own conscious desires for it.

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