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

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.

Connect

What do you think of Gary’s poem? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook, or send me an e-mail — and if you haven’t already, join my mailing list and keep in touch.

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The Porcupinity of the Stars

( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

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These are 11 of My Favourite Things

While the site is on hiatus, check out some of my greatest hits

I am in the midst of a combination of vacation and work, and need to put this site on hiatus for a few weeks. When I return, things will have changed — I am working on some cool secret projects, two of which mean BIG changes here at Writing the Wrong Way.

While you wait, I’ve selected 11 of my favourite posts for you to enjoy. You can also browse my archives and don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter to get a free ebook and notification when the site returns to regular updates (at that time I’ll send you a second cool free ebook, which is one of my secret projects).

My Top 11

1 My Interview with Frank Black from The Pixies

I’ve strayed away from interviews here, with one exception, because otherwise this would just be a list of interviews. (My favourite thing about the site is other people!) But hey, I don’t mean to brag, but like in 2002 for about five minutes Frank Black thought I was cool and thanked me for saying something. Frank Black!

2 My Visit to the set of Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World

Oh wait, you know what was cooler than talking to Frank Black? That time I met Isabella Rossellini and then got scared and ran away. Man, I kind of suck and am cool at the same time.

3 The Haunted House

Ever want to read the first poem I ever wrote? No? Well, never mind then.

4 Write a Lot by Writing on Schedule

The most popular post ever on this site. Elisabeth de Mariaffi liked it, so you should like it! Peer pressure!!!

5 4 Simple Editing Tricks That Are All The Same Trick

I wrote this for my daughter, Jessie Taylor, because she asked me for some editing tips that would help her on her high school exams. And she got, like, an A+ and is the coolest and you should be more like her! She helped me make the cool green mug in the photo up top (it says “VENOM” on the side and has a snake on it).

6 Advice to Graduate Students

Another reader favourite: survival tips for graduate students. I did my PhD in 4 years, and also wrote 5 books in that time, which is maybe your goal?

7 Read 95 Books This Year

Ryan Fitzpatrick and I created the #95books hashtag, which you may have seen, and anyway here are my tips on how writers (and less deviant dudes and dudettes) can read more.

8 Don’t Attribute Dialogue

A reader non-favourite. Lots of people think I am the devil for writing this. I’m not the devil though! I just wish I was.

9 How I Wrote Clockfire

My favourite post about the idea development part of the creative process, using my favourite of my own books, Clockfire as an example.

10 Introduction to Why Poetry Sucks

Ryan Fitzpatrick and I co-wrote this lengthy and hopefully not too dry introduction to our anthology Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Poetry.

11 Introduction to Tony Burgess’s The Bewdley Mayhem

I say it all the time: Tony Burgess is the best writer in Canada, and you probably never heard of him. One day, I will write a book about this dude. In the meantime, here’s an introduction to his three-book omnibus edition.

By the time you read all that, I’ll be back in the saddle of evil! Later, gators.

Ryan Fitzpatrick on Editing a Poetry Book (Interview)

ryan fitzpatrick is a poet and critic living in Vancouver. He is the author of two books of poetry: Fortified Castles (Talonbooks, 2014) and Fake Math (Snare, 2007). With Jonathan Ball, he is co-editor of Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry (Insomniac, 2014). With Deanna Fong and Janey Dodd, he works on the second iteration of the Fred Wah Digital Archive, originally spearheaded by Susan Rudy. He is a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University where he works on contemporary poetics and the social production of space.

The Interview

Highlighted Pages from Fortified Castles

In the video, Ryan talks about using highlighters in his editing process. Here are a few examples, up close:

More with Ryan on This Site

Two poems from Fortified Castles (McNally | Amazon) in various drafts, so you can compare the early versions with the later versions.

Ryan and I co-edited *Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry.

You can read the introductory essay for Why Poetry Sucks or read a negative review of the book that we also wrote (yes, a negative review of our own book written by us). Ryan also made a few comments as a follow-up in this short video.

Also, check out “Join the Wrinkle Resistance,” a great poem from Ryan’s first book, Fake Math (McNally | Amazon).

And of course, an interview from 2008 about the early stages of Ryan’s Fortified Castles project.

ryan fitzpatrick is a poet and critic living in Vancouver. He is the author of two books of poetry: Fortified Castles (Talonbooks, 2014) and Fake Math (Snare, 2007). With Jonathan Ball, he is co-editor of Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry (Insomniac, 2014). With Deanna Fong and Janey Dodd, he works on the second iteration of the Fred Wah Digital Archive, originally spearheaded by Susan Rudy. He is a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University where he works on contemporary poetics and the social production of space.

Highlighted Pages from Fortified Castles

In the video, Ryan talks about using highlighters in his editing process. Here are a few examples, up close:

More with Ryan on This Site

Two poems from Fortified Castles (McNally | Amazon) in various drafts, so you can compare the early versions with the later versions.

Ryan and I co-edited *Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry.

You can read the introductory essay for Why Poetry Sucks or read a negative review of the book that we also wrote (yes, a negative review of our own book written by us). Ryan also made a few comments as a follow-up in this short video.

Also, check out “Join the Wrinkle Resistance,” a great poem from Ryan’s first book, Fake Math (McNally | Amazon).

And of course, an interview from 2008 about the early stages of Ryan’s Fortified Castles project.

Ryan Fitzpatrick: Two Poems (in many drafts)

Compare early and late drafts to see the poet's progress

These two poems are from Fortified Castles (McNally | Amazon) Ryan Fitzpatrick, which was published by Talonbooks in 2014. The poems in Fortified Castles underwent many revisions over those years, and below you can compare some early versions with the later versions.

Check out a video interview where Ryan and I discuss the editing process for Fortified Castles and detail some of the decisions that went into the shape of the book and the specific changes made to some of the poems.

ryan fitzpatrick is a poet and critic living in Vancouver. He is the author of two books of poetry: Fortified Castles (Talonbooks, 2014) and Fake Math (Snare, 2007). With Jonathan Ball, he is co-editor of Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry (Insomniac, 2014). With Deanna Fong and Janey Dodd, he works on the second iteration of the Fred Wah Digital Archive, originally spearheaded by Susan Rudy. He is a PhD candidate at Simon Fraser University where he works on contemporary poetics and the social production of space.

ABSTINENCE VAMPIRES (2014)

for Jonathan Ball

The problem with rehearsing Shakespeare for reals
is the puritan bonbons caught in the margins.

There is clearly something wrong with boys,
at least, it’s tough how they act all panoramic.

Imagine Donna Reed as a reverse vampire
except for the missionary-style beatdowns.

There is an infection risk inherent in how we
sit so close to the industrial processing fluids.

It’s funny how the rape fantasy isn’t apparent
until the dancing unicorns get too intimate.

We were tired of the current set of tableaux
(Hollywood, dustbowl, etc.), so we planted trees.

Changing what might indicate an end-of-the-world
scenario is quite important in any new century.

Down here on Earth, we’re happy with teenage
boys and their immigrant solutions in GTA.

Reading smut is a clear gateway to a college education
since the best guys have a purity about them.

These househusbands are so fluffy and silly
for letting themselves become totes gay vampires.

Why do you keep looking at the transformer
towers hoping they’ll become steaming geysers?

Yay for one Tiger Beat fangirl who refuses
to divorce her rainbow-fast ejaculations.

Did you know that vampire blood can cure
any possible STDs, including syphilis?

It’s clearly a tattoo that represents how much
I respect and care for all woodland creatures.

I hope that these half-vampire Juno wannabes
remember to be someone else in their life.

ABSTINENCE VAMPIRES (2009)

for Jonathan Ball

Yay for one Tiger Beat fangirl who refuses
to divorce her rainbow-fast ejaculations.

There is clearly something wrong with boys,
at least, it’s tough how they act all panoramic.

The problem with rehearsing Shakespeare for
reals is the puritan bonbons in the margins.

Imagine Donna Reed as a reverse vampire
except for the missionary-style beatdowns.

It’s funny how the rape fantasy isn’t apparent
until the dancing unicorns get so intimate.

Down here on Earth, we’re glad that teenage
boys are assaulting each other in GTA.

Reading smut is a clear gateway to a college
education since the best guys are smutty.

These house-husbands are so fluffy and silly
for letting themselves be totes gay vampires.

I hope that these half-vampire Juno wannabes
remember to be someone else in their life.

I’M OBSESSED WITH IT (2014)

The song in the ad upset me so much I cried
for days. All day long, I just want to fucking
get out of here and watch some movies. I shut
the windows then the drapes then opened my eyes.

I pull strips of copper wire from my face. This
film is one I won’t finish. Who cares how it
works? I pick up Windex for the picture window.
I wash the grain and crackle from my exchanges.

Really, I’m just embracing culture. I spool my
nerve into a shopping cart. I watch two cars
unfold in the street outside. I’ve been quietly
humming the fabric of our lives for days now.

I’M OBSESSED WITH IT (2012)

I’ll stay home to watch a movie that I just won’t
finish. Six months since moving and I still don’t
know what an addict is. You won’t know how it
ends. You pull strips of copper wire from my face.
 
The song in the ad upset me so much that I cried
for days. I read a lot of things I have to do. All day
long, I just want to fucking get out of here to watch
some movies. I cover the window with a screen.
 
I love watching the process unfold and I stare at
your face to compare marks. I’ve slowly focused on
small elements of our exchange, washing the grain
and crackle out. Really, I’m just embracing culture. 

I’M OBSESSED WITH IT (2008)

My ugly frown lines upset me. Six months
away from moving. I don’t know what an
addict is. My friends and family never hear
the end. I’ll stay home to watch a movie.

Many things upset me. There’s a song in
the ad. I read a lot of things I have to do.
Sometimes, I just want to fucking get out
of here and watch the movies. All day long

When does the movie start? I love the process.
I stare at their faces to compare. I’m glad
that I’m not obsessed by it. I appreciate and
respect it. Really, I’m just embracing culture.

More from Ryan Fitzpatrick

Ryan and I co-edited *Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry.

You can read the introductory essay for Why Poetry Sucks or read a negative review of the book that we also wrote (yes, a negative review of our own book written by us). Ryan also made a few comments as a follow-up in this short video.

Also, check out “Join the Wrinkle Resistance,” a great poem from Ryan’s first book, Fake Math (McNally | Amazon).

And of course, an interview from 2008 about the early stages of Ryan’s Fortified Castles project.

The First Five Pages (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000)

The First Five Pages is an excellent primer for a beginning writer, one of the best of its type. Lukeman walks the reader, in clear and direct prose, down a garden path of practical examples and exercises to solve the most common writing problems that beginning writers face.

A literary agent by trade, Lukeman frames his advice in professional terms: if you find your work being rejected by publishers because of your writing, then Lukeman’s book will explain why, and explain how you can avoid this.

If you are a professional/publishing writer, the book is just a refresher. I would like to walk down the garden path and find an executioner at its end, or find that it has turned into a hedge maze, and die trying to find my way out. Lukeman’s book does not address a writer like myself, so cannot be faulted. However, it does indicate a basic problem with the how-to-write industry that publishes books like Lukeman’s — where is the book I can read next? So few of these books recommend themselves beyond the beginner’s level, despite claims to the contrary.

“Whether you are a novice writer or a veteran who has already had your work publishing, rejection is often a frustrating reality,” reads the back cover. Sure. But what can a veteran gain from this book? I gained some writing exercises I can recommend to students or use in my classes, and a possible textbook/book to recommend, so I was happy to discover this book. I wouldn’t say I learned anything, though.

All that said: I like this book enough to recommend it and assign it as a textbook. It is one of the best of its kind. If you are having serious problems getting your work published, read this book.

Possibly, (probably,) your problems are superficial, or substantial but common problems that plague novice writers. The back cover also proclaims that “If you’re tired of rejection, this is the book for you.” I second that emotion.

The reason that Lukeman’s book towers above similar books is that his focus is so narrow. How do you get an editor to read past the first five pages? In reality, as Lukeman notes, you would be lucky to have an editor read that far. (This often shocks writers, but having been an editor and knowing many editors, I assure you Lukeman is right.)

Let’s run down some of the pros and cons of this book:

  • The use of the masculine, to refer to both men and women.

This may seem like a minor point, but I consider it a major issue. Why not use the feminine to refer to both men and women? In my experience, most student/emerging writers are women. Regardless, I don’t see why anybody finds it confusing to switch from he to she throughout a book. This seems like an unexamined assumption, and even if it is true, the obvious solutions to the overwhelming use of the “generic” masculine is to use a “generic” feminine or simply switch between he/she every chapter or section.

Later on, Lukeman writes:

Despite popular conviction, a writer needn’t wear black, be unshaven, sickly and parade around New York’s East Village spewing aphorisms and scaring children. You don’t need to be a dead white male with a three-piece suit, noble countenance, smoking pipe and curling mustach[e].

Yes. So, you don’t need to be called he. I find the inclusion of both you don’t need to be male to be a writer and the constant use of he bizarre — especially in its unremarkable conformity across many of these books on writing, often prefaced with disclaimers that he also means she.

  • Inclusion of a rejection letter from a Chinese publisher to Louis Zukofsky (rejecting “A”).

This is the epigraph to Lukeman’s book and is the only reason I made it to page five (having just read the disclaimer about the masculine on the facing page). It’s delightful:

Most honourable Sir,
We perused your MS.
with boundless delight. And
we hurry to swear by our ancestors
we have never read any other
that equals its mastery.
Were we to publish your work,
we could never presume again on
our public and name
to print books of a standard
not up to yours.
For we cannot imagine
that the next ten thousand years
will offer its ecotype.
We must therefore refuse
your work that shines as it were in the sky
and beg you a thousand times
to pardon our fault
which impairs but our own officers.

  • Lukeman is not overly prescriptive.

He follows that epigraph with the following:

Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art. Most of the truly great artists have broken all the rules, and this is precisely what has made them great.

So why the book? Well,

There are no rules to assure great writing, but there are ways to avoid bad writing.

Lukeman starts from the right point, it seems to me. And the book, as a whole and as promised, performs surgical airstrikes on the common root causes of bad writing. (We could have a conversation about why what we consider bad writing would be considered good in another time and place — and maybe should. Lukeman’s book does not participate in that conversation, nor should it.)

  • Lukeman is systematic.

This spells death for more complex issues, but when it comes to these simple problems that simply plague poor writers, the best cure is swallowing a system. His categories of error make sense, he focuses a large part of the book on dialogue, and he eventually delves deeper into some structural problems (at a basic level) after focusing on stylistic problems.

Although I think writers should work the other way — address structural problems before stylistic issues — Lukeman is looking at things from the perspective of a reader (the agent or editor) and explaining to writers, in sequence, the things that will kill their chances at due consideration.

  • The structure of the book is elegant, simple, and smart.

As a former editor — I have run literary journals (I even founded one) and ran a micropress — I appreciate how Lukeman has organized the book. He starts with the first thing that will get your manuscript thrown into the trash, then addresses the second thing, and so on.

Writers frustrated with rejection would do well to think through how a professional reader views their manuscript — Lukeman’s approach reveals this, and even if you learn nothing else, you will learn how editors look at your manuscript.

  • The book is useful to editors, who are not writers.

As an editor, you need to know more than this. But if you are a budding editor, rather than a budding writer (I believe a writer needs to be both), this is also the book for you.

4 Simple Editing Tricks That Are All The Same Trick

Editing is a complex process, which requires analytical rigour and solutions specific to the text in need of editing. At the same time, there are some fundamental rules of editing that can be applied without much trouble for immediate improvement.

(This sourdough crab wants to help you be a better writer!)

These are simple prescriptions. They are one-size-fits-all. With complex texts, especially unconventional pieces of writing, they will fail you. However, most students or beginners should simply apply these rules without questioning them. They will move your work forward by leaps and bounds, and move you closer to the moment when you will require more complex solutions, and have developed the skill to dispense with prescriptions like these.

1. Be Specific

I learned two things in my Christian grade school. I learned that if you hit a student’s fingers with a ruler when they make typing mistakes, they will learn to type slowly but accurately. I also learned the most important thing I ever learned about writing.

My teacher used to hand back my papers with the letters “B.S.” scrawled on them. I assumed this meant my writing was bullshit. He was a tough, gruff teacher. At the same time, I couldn’t believe my Christian school teacher was actually writing “bullshit” on my papers. Finally, I summoned the nerve to ask him what “B.S.” meant.

“It means Be Specific,” he said. I sighed, relieved. “Why, what did you think it meant?”

Well, he asked. “I thought it meant my writing was bullshit.”

“Sure,” he agreed. “If you aren’t being specific, you’re just writing bullshit.”

What does this mean in practice? First off, it means to avoid words with unclear referents. In other words, take words like he, she, it, they, this, and so on, and replace them with specific words.

If I was writing about Romeo and Juliet, I might end up with a sentence like this:

In the play, the author shows how their sacrifice is misguided.

A revision would be more specific:

In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare shows how Romeo and Juliet’s sacrifices are misguided.

My next revision would isolate words and phrases that are not specific enough. In this case, the first question is What sacrifices?

In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare shows how when Romeo and Juliet sacrifice themselves by committing suicide, they are misguided.

Here is when I finally get to the problem with the sentence. It was hidden earlier, because my language was too vague. This is the problem with not being specific. Not only does the writing lack clarity, it hides its problems. The real issue here is this: How are the sacrifices misguided?

In Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare shows how when Romeo and Juliet sacrifice themselves by committing suicide, this youthful rashness is meant to bring them together (in death) but actually prevents them from being together (since Juliet would have awoken and been reunited with Romeo if he hadn’t killed himself).

My revisions should get more and more specific in each draft. Not only will my drafts become more clear, and my arguments more complex, but the additional detail will lengthen the paper.

When students run out of things to write, and start panicking and repeating themselves and rambling to fill up space, their efforts are misguided — just like Romeo’s! They are committing academic suicide.

They should just revise each sentence to include more detail. That way, they will fill up the space by developing their arguments, and clarify them while adding complexity, rather than just vomiting onto the page.

2. Eliminate the Passive Voice

Passive voice constructions use some form of the verb “to be” in order to construct a sentence where the subject of the sentence is acted upon by some agent, rather than being the actor itself. Here are two examples of a sentence written in the passive voice:

The road was crossed.

The road was crossed by the chicken.

Active voice constructions turn the subject of the sentence into the actor. Here is an active voice revision of the above sentences:

The chicken crossed the road.

The problem? The chicken is what this sentence is about. The chicken is the one that did something. So the sentence should be about the chicken. Not the road.

On a structural level, the issue is that the actual thing the sentence is supposed to be about (the chicken) is put at the end of the sentence in the passive voice example.

Or — and this is worse — you write the sentence without ever mentioning the chicken.

When a sentence gets really long, this kind of passive voice sentence gets unreadable:

The road was crossed on Thursday at five o’clock when the sun was just starting to set in the wintertime and shadows were lengthening across the road sign that was yellow and fading and could barely be read anymore.

I don’t know what the hell is going on here. Certainly, I don’t know that the point is that a chicken is what crossed the road.

When you do a revision, first go through your paper and circle every occurrence of a “to be” verb — every “is” or “was.” Often, these will be close to another verb, like “crossed.” Rewrite the sentence to eliminate the “to be” verb and just use the verb close by, which is the verb you want to use in the first place.

There will be a few instances where you may retain the verb “to be.” Basically, you want to only keep “to be” if you cannot rewrite the sentence and have the same point. In other words, if the point of the sentence is that something exists, you keep “to be.” If the point is anything else then you need to rewrite the sentence to put it in the active voice.

Figure out the subject of the sentence. Put that thing first (“The chicken”). Then find the right verb. Put it next (“The chicken crossed”). Then conclude the sentence.

3. Eliminate Adverbs and Replace Verbs

Adverbs are words that modify verbs. Often, they end in “ly” and are near a verb:

I ran quickly down the street to get some exercise.

I walked quickly down the street to get some exercise.

The presence of adverbs indicates one of two problems: (1) redundancy or (2) imprecision.

In the first example, I could eliminate the word quickly. Why? Because running is quick. The adverb does not help clarify my meaning.

The second problem is the real problem. I wrote “walked quickly” when I meant something else. I could have written “ran” or “speedwalked” or “jogged” or some other thing that I meant.

What adverbs often indicate is a writing error. I meant ran but I wrote walked. So I had to add the word quickly to cover up my mistake. I need you, the reader, to understand that I am not talking about walking. I’m talking about running or speedwalking or jogging — something quick.

The biggest problem related to this issue is when people write dialogue in fiction, then add an adjective to the attribution tag:

“Whatever!” she screamed furiously.

The problem here is that I wrote some lousy dialogue. “Whatever” does not convey the emotion of fury. It is not something people scream. So I tried to cover up my bad dialogue by telling you how to read it.

If I just wrote some better dialogue, I wouldn’t even need to have a dialogue attribution tag at all:

“I will murder you and your children and your children’s children and then your dog.”

I don’t even need the exclamation mark now.

The solution here is simple: go through your draft and circle every word that ends in “ly” Then ask yourself: Can I just delete the word? If so, delete it. If you can’t, then ask yourself the second question: What mistake did I make, that I am trying to cover up? Fix that mistake.

When can you use adverbs? What are they for? Adverbs work when they modify a verb in an unusual manner, to suggest an action that a single verb cannot convey. Here is the classic example from the King James Bible:

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face (1 Corinthians 13:12)

Darkly modifies seesee suggests clarity, but there is no clarity in life. Only in the afterlife, when we see things as they are, will true seeing be possible. Therefore, when we speak of seeing in this mortal coil, we mean sort of dark-seeing, like squinting through a dirty piece of glass, one that distorts things so that they are almost unrecognizable.

Instead of writing all that, I can use the poetic image of “see through a glass, darkly” — this is when adverbs are your friends. Otherwise, they are not your friends. They are enemies and you should murder them, and their children, and their children’s children, and their dog.

4. Eliminate Adjectives and Replace Nouns

You might have noticed that tips #2 and #3 were just variations of #1. You are killing non-specific verbs and replacing them with more specific verbs, and killing off some adverbs as you go.

The same is true with nouns. Why write dog when you mean terrier? Why write small dog when you mean teacup poodle? Whether you are writing an essay or writing a poem, teacup poodle clarifies and communicates your meaning more than small dog ever could.

Adjectives — words that modify nouns — will often tip you off (like adverbs do) to when you have used an imprecise noun. Again, go through your draft and circle every adjective — all the words that tell you how to read other words. Can you say something more specific, instead of whatever you just said in that sentence?

The simplest way to improve your writing is to look for the words that indicate weaknesses in your draft. Circle them. Revise the draft to get rid of them. Then go through your draft again. Circle the same kinds of words. Keep going. Keep going until you run out of time, patience, or talent.

Be specific, or you will just write bullshit. If you learn only this lesson, you will be a better writer than most people.

Don’t Trust Your Instincts — The Idea That Became Clockfire

My second book, Clockfire, began with a single image: a clock on fire in the middle of a theatre. The audience was watching the clock burn. This was the play. Once that flashed into my head, I knew I had something, but I didn’t know what. So I wrote it down.

I wish that I could show you what I wrote down, but all of my files and early drafts of Clockfire were destroyed due to computer problems and faulty backups. In fact, if I hadn’t mailed a copy of the first draft to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (who graciously funded the writing of the book), I would have lost the manuscript altogether. I had to write to them to receive my copy back. I lost all of my revisions, but salvaged the draft through the AFA and thus salvaged the book.

However, I do remember a number of significant early changes I made, which I’d like to trace for you here. I’m often asked how I came up with the idea for Clockfire, and unlike most non-superhero origin stories, the story holds some interest since it illustrates how significant particular, structural changes can be if they are made in the early stages of an idea — and why, contrary to popular belief, you can’t trust your instincts as a writer, at least not in the early stages of an idea.

From Image to Idea

Although it’s kind of cool, a bunch of people in a theatre looking at a burning clock is hardly enough for a book. However, it’s a good example of how even something this small and simple can be enough for an entire book if you can just interrogate the image.

I kept turning the image over in my head. Why did I find it compelling? Well, there was a certain strong surrealism to it. Clocks and fire were practically surrealist cliches, but the addition of the theatre context elevated it somewhat while allowing it to retain a primal quality.

At this point, I thought that maybe I might get one good poem out of the idea. However, I was afraid of how that poem might unfold. The obvious way would be to develop the image into a metaphor for life. However, having read Antonin Artaud’s book The Theatre and Its Double not long before, I was struck by how one might read the title. The “double” of the theatre, arguably, was life. Artaud’s title could be read to suggest that life paled before the grand myth-machine of the theatre. At the same time, I had been disappointed by Artaud’s plays. They were hopelessly dated because his “Theatre of Cruelty” relied on shocking and appalling the audience’s senses, and our sense of what is shocking or appalling changes radically and quickly over time, so that they seemed tame today.

I felt that where Artaud had gone wrong was in focusing on visceral shock over conceptual violence. After all, his book about the conceptual violence that the Theatre of Cruelty might deliver remained compelling, whereas the actual plays he wrote in this vein seemed tame. Today, I felt, Artaud would have to murder his audience to get the shock value he’d wanted, since “breaking the fourth wall” had become commonplace and lame, while “controversial content” had become a marketing tool.

I started to wonder why I felt the theatre was so lame, in general. The clock on fire suddenly seemed symbolic not of life, but of the theatre. I wanted a clock in my theatre — an acknowledgement of the theatrical situation, of the real-time the audience was passing (rather than a suspending of disbelief, a paying of attention to the immediate situation of being in the theatre). I also wanted fire — a shocking, violent, visceral thing that would forge a connection with the audience, however horrible.

At this point, I returned to the image of the audience watching the clock on fire. I started wondering if I’d made a mistake. Maybe the clock shouldn’t be on fire.

Maybe the clock should work fine, and the audience should be on fire.

Everything flowed out of this change. Who would set the audience on fire? The actors, of course. The clock wasn’t the play — the audience burning in the theatre was the play. The clock was a diversion.

I quickly re-hammered out my draft. Not only did I have a image and an idea, I had a concept — an imaginary theatre where the actors and the audience were at odds, enemies, each striving to vanquish the other. A theatre about the failure of the theatre to become life, to cast life into its shadow, as its double. This is really where the book began.

The Title

I knew at once that I had a book concept on my hands — plays that would be impossible or illegal/immoral to ever produce. The theatre must therefore take place in the reader’s head.

I realized that I had a book concept on my hands, and I needed a title. I couldn’t think of any good ones, which is unusual for me. Usually, I have the title right away, sometimes even before any idea (I often come up with titles first and then cast around for the idea second). However, I’d decided to apply for the aforementioned AFA grant, so I needed at least a working title. I chose Clock-Fire, thinking that although it was stupid it was functional enough.

I asked Natalee Caple for a letter of support. Time passed and in a mad rush to gather all of the materials to meet the deadline, I noticed too late that she had misspelled the title as one word: Clockfire. I was worried the AFA would discount Caple’s letter if the title was misspelled, for some reason, and it was easier, due to time constraints, for me to rewrite the entire grant with the one-word title. Later, of course, I realized that Caple had accidentally produced the perfect title, and started calling my “impossible plays” clockfires.

The Clock

I didn’t just shift the fire — in another, smaller way, I shifted the clock. In the original draft, I had just written “clock.” In my later draft, I decided that I needed to be more specific. I changed it to a modern, digital clock. It was important to the play that the clock would display the correct time to the audience, and I decided that hands on the clock would be hard for the audience to see, so the clock should have a large digital display.

For the final draft, I changed it to “a large, ornate grandfather clock,” which would of course have hands and a face. There were three main reasons for this final change, that might appear insignificant but helped set the tone for how I approached the book as a whole:

  • First, I thought a digital clock would look less cool on fire. It would burn up too fast and it would smoke too much, since it would be mostly plastic. It was more likely to melt and shrivel, whereas a larger, older, wooden clock would burn more gracefully and slowly and impressively. This may seem like an odd consideration given that the poem/play does not describe the clock burning. But I wanted to be setting forth “instructions” for the audience to imagine the plays. So, even though I wasn’t writing about the clock burning, I was setting things up for the audience to imagine the clock burn.

  • Second, I decided that it didn’t matter if the audience in the play would be able to read the time. It was only important, conceptually, that the time be correct. The audience in the theatre could be confused or unclear about it — only the reader needed to know.

  • Third, I wanted the clock to have hands and a face, to give it a human-like dimension. A grandfather clock would also be tall like a human. I wanted to suggest a bit of anthropomorphism in a subtle way like this, because I wanted the reader to feel like the clock was also a victim. Even though it is part of the performance, like the actors setting the theatre on fire, it is going to be sacrificed to the theatre, like the audience. I saw it, as the only thing on stage, as a hybrid object in a liminal space, and so wanted to push it further towards the kind of human-like associations that a nostalgic object like a grandfather clock might have.

Ignore Your Instincts

The lesson of Clockfire, for me, is to ignore your instincts. Often, writers talk nonsense like “first thought, best thought” and otherwise warn about the dangers of over-analysis. I’ve found that under-analysis is the greater danger for writers.

You can analyze without overanalyzing, and as long as you keep your analysis away from your writing desk, you can usefully reconsider your instincts and reshape your writing.

When this is most important is in the early stages. I was careful to keep writing while I played with the ideas for Clockfire, and not get trapped in the paralysis of analysis, which I’ve done before. However, if I had just run with the idea and my instincts, I would have ended up with (at best) a decent poem.

When your ideas are still ideas, and not written out, it’s easier to play with them, and experiment with alternate approaches. If you always trust your instincts, you’ll always repeat what’s safe.

You can read the entire script of the play “Clockfire” (it’s very short) on my store page for that book.

You can also read about the “original” version of “Clockfire” that was performed by Vlad III Dracula.

Rewriting vs. Revising (with an addendum on the virtues of Thought)

I’m in the rewriting stage of my novel The Crow Murders — not the revision stage. The difference is one of degree, the degree to which I intend to make structural changes. I define a structural change as a change that affects the book’s overall structure. So, combining two characters into one (something I’ve never done, but a common example) would, unless they are very minor characters, be a structural change. (More commonly, I have reassigned a character’s “work” in the book to another character.) Another example of a structural change would be to add or eliminate a chapter or a number of scenes. What I’m mostly doing with The Crow Murders is shortening, lengthening, adding, removing, and reordering scenes for the purposes of generating suspense.

So I’m rewriting, not revising what I already have or otherwise fine-tuning it. I have a fairly detailed process for this, which is funny because I have no real process for writing my first draft. First, I create a structural analysis of the book. So I write on a file card (I actually use a program called SuperNotecard for this purpose) a quick sentence to describe each chapter, and each scene, with a tally of what major characters appear in the scene, what important objects appear there, what happens, and how long the scene is. After I’m done this, I have in front of me a map of the book. I then make major editing decisions on the basis of this card set.

The point of this activity is to manufacture objectivity. If you’re a writer, you’ve heard the advice about leaving your manuscript in a drawer for a year or a month or whatever, to gain some distance and objectivity. I don’t have time for that bullshit. Objectivity can be manufactured or learnt. I have no patience for quasi-mystical attitudes towards writing, or related rituals. Even though this advice, to put the manuscript in the drawer, is good advice in one respect, it is bad advice in many other respects. What you gain you gain by forgetting about the manuscript, and the story, and this forgetting can be the wellspring of other problems. If you have a hard time being objective about your writing (and who doesn’t?) then the solution is not to ride jetskis for three months while it collects dust. The solution is to learn to become more objective about your writing.

When I’m done making decisions on the basis of the notecards, I will begin retyping the manuscript. Yes. Retyping. I start a new file and retype the entire book, rewriting as I go. This is slow and difficult. Nevertheless, I would recommend it if you are like me in this sense: when I try rewrite on a computer, I often slip out of rewriting mode and into revision mode. There are already words on the screen, and since I’m just changing words, I start revising. I hold back from rewriting. I try to make what’s there better, instead of throwing it away. I find when I retype in a new file, I make more changes to the original draft (which I print and put on the desk in front of me). Sometimes, I’ll just retype verbatim. But mostly I add, remove, reword, and otherwise rewrite. The next sentence or paragraph is not already on the screen in front of me, so it is easier for me to invent and create, since I don’t feel shackled to the words I already wrote.

If you haven’t tried retyping, try it once. And if you’re putting your manuscript in a drawer, to collect dust, take it out. Just look at it and think about it, the way any rational person would.

Writers try to solve a lot of problems with waiting, problems which are better solved by thought. “I don’t know what to write next!” Think about it. Figure it out. “I don’t know how to make this book better!” Um, might I suggest that you think about it? I don’t mean idle thoughts while you stroll in a flowered field. I mean, sit down (or walk around that field) and put some serious hours of thought into the problem. Consider various options. Weigh the pros and cons. Try things out, experiment with options. Action and thought trump the drawer every time.