Poetry in the future will take the form of pills, pulse-bearing wires, neuro-implants, grafts, virtual realities, and genetic manipulations. Every poet will be half-poet, half-something else: half-plastic surgeon, half-programmer, half-pharmacist.

Daniel Scott Tysdal
The Writing Moment (Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2014), 114
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The Writing Moment (Don Mills: Oxford UP, 2014)

Simply put: the best book on writing poetry I have ever seen, and the only book on the craft of writing poetry that I recommend. From the preface:

“The second assumption about the creative process upon which this book is founded derives from the first assumption: if poems arise out of a convergence of occasions, then the best way to teach the tools, techniques, and traditions of poetry is to immerse poets in the complex blend of occasions that characterizes the act of writing. This immersion is an effective way to encourage poets to write poems that — to honour the root of the word “verse” — turn, unfold dynamically with ingenuity, imagination, and skill. The following chapters accomplish this immersive introduction to craft by pairing my thoughts on a topic with a series of practical, hands-on writing moments.

“These writing moments are micro-writing exercises that invite you to try your hand at the topic under discussion. I call these short exercises writing moments because of the helpful double meaning of moment. These writing moments are “moments” because they will only take a short time to complete and because, when you undertake them, you will be “having a moment,” experiencing a break from the day-to-day that may already be common practice for you: turning—from a dinner table conversation or from an obligation at work or from a mindless stroll—to your notebook to scribble down the line or the form or the vision that just struck you.

“The writing moments have been designed with two goals in mind. The first goal is to immerse you in this meeting of life and art, this convergence of occasions, by coupling active practice with abstract explanation; as is the case with all poets, your reading process will also become your writing process. The second is to initiate you into the two extreme poles of the poetic practice: the work—the writing routine, the daily grind, the practice that becomes a habit—and the invigorating experience of inspiration—the burst of insight or feeling with which a poem so often begins (and the experience that can transform the writing habit into an addiction). Writing moments take place within the purview of both of these poles, nurturing your habit and stimulating you to compose new work.

“Each section also ends with a number of writing exercises and a pair of sample poems composed by some of the many talented students with whom I have had the good fortune to work. The writing exercises will give you the opportunity to further expand on the work undertaken during the writing moments, encouraging you to test out the new lessons and techniques as you compose new poems.” (xiv-xv)

Keep reminding yourself that literature is one of the saddest roads that leads to everything.

André Breton
Manifestoes of Surrealism (Ann Arbor: Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1972), 29

You Should Quit (including a translation of “Catullus 85”)

Every once in a while, people complain to me that they just cannot get their writing done. They feel they have too many other commitments. They feel blocked. They feel uninspired. They feel depressed as a result, or anxious.

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I tell them they should quit.

They should quit. I have too many commitments. I feel blocked. I feel uninspired. I almost always feel (sub-clinically) depressed or anxious. What’s the difference between us?

It isn’t that I am any better than them. I’m not. I just can’t quit.

There is not a moral difference. This is not a Puritan screed on the ethics of work. If I could quit, I probably would. If you can, you probably should. Why? Because nobody wants you to write.

No one wants you to write

Your family doesn’t. You friends don’t. They might talk a lot about how they love your writing, or how they support you, and they might even be telling their version of the truth. But really, everyone loves what you have written — not your process of writing — and would probably prefer that you quit, whether they recognize or admit this or not.

Everyone that loves you supports your happiness, when your writing probably makes you miserable on some level, at least some of the time. Of course, most people don’t love us. Your boss doesn’t want you to write (even if your boss tells you to write, s/he wants you to get it over with, now). Your bank certainly doesn’t. Your lover, however much s/he loves your writing, would love you more if you quit and made a gift of that time.

Writing is a bad career choice (except when it is a part of a non-writing career — in which case, it often elevates you and gains you glory in that other field). Even writers who claim to love writing will admit that it is often a source of constant frustration and mental strife. Writing takes physical tolls on your body due to the inactivity it requires in long stretches, in poor positions. Writing isolates you socially. Writing isn’t respected culturally.

So why don’t people quit writing?

Most writers, of course, do quit. We all know writers who quit, either one-book wonders that claim to be writers but never really seem to write anything, or who actually admit to having quit, or (more commonly, perhaps) secret writers that secretly harboured ambitions we aren’t aware of, and that secretly quit. Often, in your family, if you dig you will turn over a relative who at one point “tried to write” but quit.

One of the standard questions I ask in my 8-Ball interviews is “Why don’t you quit?” Almost every answer to the question is a variation of “I can’t” due to either stubbornness or compulsion. In the minority are answers that express actual pleasure in writing, or that see writing as useful in some way.

My favourite response is by Sina Queyras: “Why would I quit? I don’t understand that question.” Although Queyras is negating and turning against the question, in a sense she sums up the idea that I’m trying to express here: there is something in some writers that doesn’t understand quitting as a viable option. Is it strength of character, or a character flaw?

If I could quit, I might. But here’s what happens when I don’t write. I can’t sleep. I can’t focus. Ideas for writing jam up in my head. I hate whatever I’m engaged in doing (with very few exceptions, like spending time with certain people), because I feel like there’s something more important I should be doing. I feel like I’m wasting my time and I can’t enjoy anything. When I write, even a little, then I feel better and I can enjoy myself again in my off time.

Despite this, of course, I still harbour some “(lapsed) Catholic guilt” about writing — either I feel bad for not writing or I feel bad for writing. Under these circumstances, quitting makes sense.

Is the writing more important than other things? I would like to think so, but I’m a nihilist at heart. Even without being nihilistic, you could argue that clearly, in many cases, it’s not. If anything has value, it’s clear that in various ways writing has value — which doesn’t mean it is more valuable than other things you could be doing.

I don’t even like writing that much! This is a trend I’ve noticed among writers. Many often enjoy having written but hate the process. Personally, I am process-oriented, and find the process fascinating and rewarding. But that’s not the same as liking it. It’s hard work and it isn’t fun. But if I don’t do it, then it throws my life into chaos and disorder and fills me with anxiety. (Probably, I should seek out a psychiatrist rather than a pen.)

So why write? Again, I find writing and the writing process rewarding, even if I don’t enjoy it. Not everything that is important and valuable is fun. But how important and how valuable is it? Why write? This isn’t an easy question to answer, and I don’t have a good answer.

My Best Answer

My best answer takes the form of a poem by Catullus. Let’s misread it (in my own, loose translation) to imagine he is writing about writing itself:

I hate and love. You may ask why.
I ask also. Then it happens and destroys me.

What I like about this misreading of “Catullus 85” is that writing is typified as an event — in a sense close to how I like to read philosopher Alain Badiou’s conception of an event: as an intervention that disrupts and alters being, which creates some (provisional, temporary) truth.

This isn’t the moment for arguments about Badiou, but simply to note that the destructiveness of the “event of writing,” the disruptive potential of art (its conceptual violence), is the thing that attracts me to writing in the first place. At its best, I see writing as a method of destroying ideas in and about the world. I would be worried if I started to enjoy it more fully. I would suspect my motives or suspect the work.

You might be different. What happens when you don’t write? How do you feel? If you can get through life without writing, then maybe you should quit. There are no great rewards from writing unless the process itself rewards you, holds value for you, and creates its own meaning.

If you aren’t getting any writing done, then there’s nothing wrong with you. And if there’s nothing wrong with you, then you should probably quit while you still can. On the other hand, if you want to become a monster, you should write.

You might do well to become a monster. A monster threatens normality. A monster therefore has radical potential, as does a writer. If you are looking for a great way to destroy your life, then writing is for you! Destroying your life might be the very value of the process. Turning yourself over to the work, to its event, which demands transformation in fidelity to its truth.

Standards and Best Practices for Poetry

1. Check Your Poetry Shelf Life

Ensure your poetry is fresh by checking the “Best By” date on your book or page of immortal poetry.

2. Make Sure Your Materials Are Clean

To get the most out of your poetry experience, poets recommend that you use a clean page every time.

3. Cook Your Poetry to “Sound”

Because tastes vary, always write your poetry to “sound” — and listen to the pop to know when to stop.

4. Maximize Taste

To maximize taste, shake contents of poem before pouring onto page. This will help coat the poetry with insight. To maximize epiphanies, be sure to edit the poem immediately after writing.

5. Store Your Poetry for Freshness

Store poetry in a cool place such as a bookshelf out of direct sunlight. Avoid the refrigerator. Some say the cold storage makes the poetry better, but many refrigerators contain little moisture and can dry out metaphors. Always keep your poem ideas sealed in the original black notebook until you’re ready to begin writing.