Okay, it’s confessional time. I started this conversation with Kevin Spenst waaaaaay back in the fall, and then just as the time came for the post to go up, I lost my shit. Well, not all of it; in particular I lost the specific shit related to my ability to format and post this conversation. Also, the shit related to responding to emails. The shit required to feel constant, never-ending, self-flagellating guilt about not-acting never went away, oh no! I had plenty of energy reserves for that. Lucky for me, Kevin nudged me this week and I somehow found my way out of the shame spiral. So here we are.
Kevin Spenst is a great poet and a charming person, and he really, really didn’t deserve to be left dangling in a Google doc for so long. Not only is he a Pushcart Poetry nominee, he is also the author of the spectacular poetry collections Ignite, Jabbering with Bing Bong, (both with Anvil Press), and over a dozen chapbooks including Pray Goodbye (the Alfred Gustav Press), Ward Notes (the serif of nottingham), and Flip Flop Faces and Unexpurgated Lives (JackPine Press). His work has won the Lush Triumphant Award for Poetry, been nominated for both the Alfred G. Bailey Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, and has appeared in dozens of publications including Oratorealis, subTerrain magazine, Prairie Fire, CV2, the Rusty Toque, BafterC, Lemon Hound, Poetry is Dead, and the anthology Best Canadian Poetry 2014. He is a cohost at Wax Poetic on Vancouver Co-op Radio and part of the organizing team at the Dead Poets Reading Series.
Luckily for Ontarians, Kevin is on tour again! He’ll be in Toronto, Hamilton, and London from May 24 to early June. Check out his website for details!
SACHIKO MURAKAMI: So, Kevin. What’s the hardest thing about being a writer?
KEVIN SPENST: Thanks for asking, Sachiko. I appreciate the opportunity to reflect upon this question. I just returned from a book tour across North America. I’ve been back for three days and I’m still transitioning into my Vancouver life. The psychological stretch from extreme extraversion (reading and joyously raging in front of audiences in New York, Montreal, Toronto and Kingston!) to the quiet repose of my home where I’ve been writing new material has left me with my head spinning. One of the hardest things about being a writer is that you can’t just be a writer. Or at least, I can’t. The follow through of writing is reading publicly and doing everything I can to share my work. I also enjoy the process of discovering the voice for each poem as I try out various reading strategies from venue to venue. At the same time, I’m not interested in organizing a parade of one for the world; there are so many amazingly talented writers whose work is staggeringly gorgeous. I’ve been reading Cassidy McFadzean’s Hacker Packer these past few days. It’s heart-splittingly sweet and smart! I’m reading her book but I also want to Instagram it, put lines from it on Twitter and tell people about it. Again, there’s the “psychological splits” of enjoying it within my own quietude and then wanting to drag it gregariously out into the world. One of the hardest things about being a writer is that you have to be a reader and you’re going to fall in love with every great book. There are so many talents to champion! (Perhaps, I should just read everything I love through a megaphone.)
But the hardest of hard things might exist at a more fundamental level. Let’s say you settle for an Emily Dickinson existence. You like your town. There are no earthquakes. You have a three block commute that you walk to work. You write everyday as a meditation on language and existence. Well, even then you have to negotiate the live-work balance. How do you turn off the part of you that’s always in search of some new turn of phrase, wording, or insight? In the literary arts, we’re entangled in our material. A word is used in some pedestrian yet essential way in the afternoon, but turn a corner and suddenly it’s working aesthetically in a radically different manner. An actor can (in theory) put down her script, step off the stage and make the transition into her non-acting self, but writers are always working and living in or around language. The live/work balance becomes blurred. I suspect there has been such a gaggle of literary drunks throughout history because alcohol turns off that hyperawareness of words. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if research turns up a new picture of Emily wherein she’s hammered most of the time and when she referred to Death she really was writing about the Bottle.
The hardest thing about being a writer is organizing your life into a routine that allows you to turn tangents into poems, short stories or novels.
SM: Lots to dig into here! The first thing I’m curious about is your relationship to performance. Anyone who’s seen you perform knows that you give a lot of your body to the poem. Any performance requires the mustering of the body into the performance space, but you do it with deep and committed aplomb. And you go on these whirlwind tours – for your first book, 100 readings in 10 cities! I, on the other hand, get wiped out travelling to Ottawa for a single reading. I’m wondering about how your body stands up to the challenge of intense touring and extravagant performance. Or is this not one of the hard-things for you at all?
KS: I’m fascinated by the interplay between language and the body. I teach English as a second language by day so I have ample opportunities to observe different linguistic groups from around the world. At the most basic level, it’s interesting to consider how different languages often match up with certain physicalities: Italians are famed for their gestural flair, Brazilians make this back and forth slapping of their hands to express that they’re fine with either side of a decision and this loose and comfortable comportment runs through so much of of their expressiveness, Francophones sometimes jut their lips out while making that long thinking sound (as if an entire nation of Mick Jaggers!) and Japanese often tilt and lower their head while making a “heeeeyyyyy” sound. Deep down, I feel like these movements and gestures are somewhat tied to certain aspects of their language such as tonality, stress and rhythm. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s deterministic, but I think there is influence at play.
When I read for an audience, I’m interested in how my body filters the singular language of a poem. I enjoy the process of discovery that comes from shaking some unique reading loose. I spend enough time in my head worrying and wondering about the right word, line or form a poem should take and so readings are the fun part where I let my gestures and movements interpret the poem. Certainly, there are times when I make a conscious decision to read a poem in a particular accent (German is one of my go-to’s) or style (a “broken hymn”), but just as many times I’m making a discovery within the pressure cooker of a social setting where we all create something together as I read a poem out loud for the first time. I want to get it right so the more performances there are the better. It’s a rush each time.
As for the intense touring and extravagant performances, I find it deeply satisfying. I have an intense temperament tempered by “Canadian niceness,” so when I get to let loose, I’m as happy as a pig in mud, a carnivore at an all-you-can-eat bacon festival or an angry vegetarian policy maker banning bacon festivals and letting those pigs run free! Also, I’ve lived in Vancouver my whole life; I’m eager to see more of the country and learn about the different poetics from various people and regions. From the Prairies to the West Coast (Patrick Lane, Lorna Crozier et al), the Moosejaw to Victoria to Toronto (Karen Solie) or Lower Mainland to Toronto (bpNichol, Frank Davey, etc) or Victoria to Newfoundland (Don McKay on his most recent move) and on and on, there are so many different flight paths and migratory patterns of poets. At 76 years of age, bill bissett vibrates back and forth across the country feeding on all sorts of enthusiasms! Even poets who are associated with certain cities like rob mclennan in Ottawa have done stints in other parts of the country. He did a residency at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for the 2007-2008 academic year and that certainly added to his store-house of knowledge and experience of this colossal country of ours. You lived in Vancouver for a long stretch of time and then made the move to Toronto. Did you find that move helpful in terms of expanding your awareness of poetry?
SM: Okay, so performance or the energy touring requires isn’t THTABAW for a Kevin Spenst!
In answer to your question – I basically moved from Vancouver-Montreal-Vancouver-Toronto over the course of 5 years (2004-2009). I definitely think I’ve benefitted from living in Toronto in that everyone comes through Toronto, eventually, so it suits me just fine to stay mostly still. It’s especially nice when people come and read at a series like Pivot, where I met you – it’s intimate and friendly enough that it’s easy for a shy person like me to introduce myself to a visiting writer. I’m not a drinker any more, and I can’t stay out very late without wilting, so I lose out on the after-reading drinks typical of my encounters with visiting writers in Montreal or Vancouver. But I get their books, and read them, and maybe that is a better relationship to have with someone than slurring my theories about poetics and spilling my beer on them.
So you have energy, and enthusiasm, and a lot of positive energy. At the same time, you say “the hardest thing about being a writer is organizing your life into a routine that allows you to turn tangents into poems, short stories or novels”. It seems like someone with so much enthusiastic energy would have no problem finding space in the day to do so. Or is that not the case?
KS: Here I’m going to complain from a privileged point of view: when I started writing on a daily basis in 2003, I wrote without much thought of the bigger picture. I wrote micro-fiction alongside a haphazard reading schedule with nothing else in my life but a job, friends and a fictional audience who I imagined as one lump of “possible readers”. Times have changed significantly. I’m reading more, meeting more and more people, and, with two books under my belt and a heap of chapbooks, I have more commitments with a real readership. Mostly, I want my work to reach out to more of the people and authors that I come across and my process of writing a book is time-consuming. I write a poem, put it into the manuscript and reread all the poems proceeding it often tweaking them along the way. This takes a good two to three hours which I don’t always have in the juggle (jungle?) of other commitments.
On top of that, the more my life changes the more time I need for journal writing in order to mentally digest what’s happening around me. Journal writing is where I spell the world out for myself and in so doing create some clarity, from out of which I can move on to less explicit forms of writing. I’m a proponent of the benefits of writing and I need to maintain my own personal practice. Today alone, I spent the first two hours of the morning unpacking some of this past week onto the page. I read a little from Sadhu Binning’s “No More Watno Dur” and Mathae Harvey’s “If the Tabloids are True What are You?”. Afterwards, a poem popped out. It’s Saturday and I’m looking at and listening to the rain on autumn leaves, so what better way to spend the first half of the day. Come Monday morn’ I may not have the time for this leisure-heavy process.
Do you have a journal writing practice? If so, in what ways is it important to you?
SM: Journaling has been very important to my writing practice. I have a lot of fear around writing, so I’m afraid I’m one of those morning-pages people who needs to get out all the negative thinking before I can approach the page without my censor scolding down every line I write. (I actually have a whole complicated magical ritual I often need to do before writing, but that’s another story.) I also have a practice which involves a nightly review of the day, and my mental health – and thus my capacity to write – is much better when I am engaged in that practice.
What happens when you don’t journal?
KS: After a couple of days without writing, I cough up ink. My eyes make a clinking sound when staggeringly gazing over objects. Words blister up from my skin. My fingers furiously type on my pillow in the middle of the night. (So says my girlfriend.)
In truth, I don’t feel like I’m fully digesting the world in its fullness of ideas and experiences. I’ve recently finished Zygmunt Bauman’s The Art of Happiness, a critique of consumer society that incorporates sociology, history and philosophy (among other disciplines). I’m still stunned by its beauty and I haven’t written much since finishing its last page. I’ve been thinking a great deal of how consumerism creeps into all the books [sic] and crannies of our lives but I haven’t written much. The phenomenology of my daily life (what I often start writing about when I approach the page) is taking a back seat.
Then, there was Trump. Like the rest of the world I woke Wednesday morning [ed: see?? I’m a super terrible person] in trepidation. Minutes later, I faced the glow of my phone in utter disbelief. My inner life has been turned inside out: every shitty feeling I’ve ever had (with a heaping of horrors I’ll never know from others) is now out in the world. I tried writing something on Facebook and found my expression compressed into poetry. I skipped my morning pages and went straight for a poem.
Also, over the past couple of days [ed: Kevin means, just after the US election. Shame-spiral resumes], I’ve been thinking of the extremism emerging in America. While there was so much support for Bernie Sanders among young people, Trump grabbed a whopping number of votes from older people. I can’t help but see this generational divide exacerbated by social media with the youth celebrating social change in a medium that keeps people separated by algorithms of interest (so that products can be sold more efficiently). If more of our lives were happening out in the “real world”, there would necessarily be more conversations mediated by face-to-face interactions. All this is to say, I’ve been talking with most everyone I see in the “real world” these days. I’ve been asking them questions. My efforts are minuscule, but with the political creeps in our country galvanized by Trump’s presidency, we all have to talk, ask questions, discuss things outside of “social media”. I don’t want Zuckerberg, or anyone else for that matter, mediating the terms of my conversations on topics that really matter. I asked a young girl at a bus-stop in Victoria what she thought of the elections. “I heard that if Hillary won, there’d be a nuclear war with Russia.” This is what people in America were thinking.
I’ll return to a routine of journal writing to write all this down. It’s essential. I have a lousy memory and only through journal writing can I hope to freeze and store that snowball in hell. Also, I want to work on fluidity of expression, so that when the moment comes, I’ll be able to voice my opinion with surety and intelligence. I want to keep the page alive within me so that composition will be swift and singular. Having said that, there are all sorts of modes of communication that play out in journal writing: prosaic, poetical and practical. Journal writing is a place where I can take time to listen to the different forms emerging.
To put all this terms of a David Cronenberg film: Journal writing is the guts of my practice. It takes shape, comes to the surface of my skin as something else, boils off into some creation that I hold up for people, not telling them where it came from. People laugh and cry. I don’t go into the details of its genesis. Some would find those details gory, others just medical and dull. Without journal writing, I’d be uncomfortably silent for a period of weeks or months until one big, final explosion.
SM: I think all of our journal entries for November 2016 are going to be interesting to look back on. And the writing we do in public, as well. It’s been an emotional month. Are there any words from your journal this month you would be willing to share? (Mine have been impossibly dull due to extreme burnout. A sample: Shitstorm on social media about SG/UBC/”the letter”. Hope I made a useful contribution. Nice to work in M’s office today. J upset I didn’t have time to play video games with him but I promised I would tomorrow. Tried to be respectful on Twitter.)
KS: Sure – here’s some snippets of my journal entries from November to December:
Transitions. I love mornings for the simple fact that they hold the biggest and easiest transition of the day: sleep to wakefulness. This morning came without such a clear demarcation: I rolled through an up and down hour of waking, hitting the snooze button, drifting off after a thought or two, and then waking to repeat it all again. Finally, as I was thinking about all the various modes of thought – linguistic, visual, aural and proprioceptive – I thought of movement and that was the word that galvanized me out of bed.
I’m not a fan of subtleties. I love clear-cut bombast or bliss. I love total darkness or visual overloads of art. I love the silence of the morning or heavy-metal riffs in the afternoon. I love working up a sweat or breathing while focusing on nothing but my breath. I love this place of the page where I can make everything explicit. An inside out pocket sewn to the front of the jeans: an awkward aesthetic. I love the sweet song of intensity, the mental immersion. I love waking up and thinking philosophically. Transitions are sometimes hard because I need to make a big move from one of these intensities to another. Transitions are hardest when you need to move from one subtlety to another. Beer helps.
Wednesday after work, I had a beer with Luke “the Duke”. He told me how the eight-year-olds in his practicum classroom were freaking out. They’d been singing “Better Build a Wall” to the tune of the song from Frozen the previous week. Now, it was real. Trump was their source of entertainment and terror. After we finished the Brassneck bottle, I had one hour before I needed to take off for the Cottage Bistro. Under the benevolent influence of alcohol, I was finally about to write an email to Steven Epperson explaining my absence. I’d been putting it off for sometime, but I finally got down to it. I transitioned into it smoothly.
Thank Booze Almighty!
What is it about alcohol that helped me? Alcohol lowers our inhibitions. Is that all there is to this? My inhibitions are lowered. The wall from one task to another has been lowered. Is that all I need to move from one task to another? Lower inhibitions? What’s an alternative to beer? Near beer? Singing? Stop thinking. Stop making sense. Nonsense will sing its way through your heart as you make the move from one task to another.
Woke up from dreams of trying to teach Joyce’s Ulysses to my ESL class. We were in a large church. At the other corner was a band rehearsing. I tried to shout overtop of their instruments. Their sound technician came over and talked with my sound technician. Disagreements grew heated. All the while, I was rolling around in bed in the blasting heat of the morning radiator.
In those moments when you are at your lowest, when you feel your identity is fraying, remember all the people who are at the core of your existence: your loving (late) father, your exuberantly loving girlfriend, your brilliant teachers, your keen students, your talented nieces and nephews, your most excellent sisters and mom, all of your inspiring friends like Adam and Sarah and Kim and Jason and Owen and Terry and Marc and Jodi and Kerry and your poet friends Rob, Raoul, Mariner… and on and on. While you may feel you’re run ragged, these people are your core. Your identity is made out of them. You’re lucky to be living through the happiest period of your life, yet only a week ago you teetered on anxiety and worries. The next time you feel like you’re coming apart at the seams remember all the people who are forever an integral part of your innermost being.
I almost started class yesterday with the question: What is the most tangible way in which your imagination influences your life? We often determine whether or not we can do something based in part on our self-imagine. “I can’t see myself succeeding at that task,” we sometimes say to ourselves. Our imagination is where this image of ourself is held in a limiting or liberating way. “I can see myself succeeding at that difficult task.” If we see ourselves as people who can get back up from a small defeat and try again, then we open ourselves to the possibility of that success. The truth is we may fail every time but if we can see ourselves learning, growing and adapting, we will have succeeded at becoming something more. Our imagination is not only the place where we might develop solutions and new approaches to the challenges around us, but also where we define the extent of our capabilities.
The imagination is sometimes dismissed as a playground for childish games or thoughts. Certainly when there’s no action taken with the dreams of what we desire, the imagination might be seen as nothing other than a place of escapist fantasy, but when we put our dreams into words, art or action, the power of our imagination becomes manifest.
What a journal – it’s a real inspiration to for me to get back to my practice. Or I could just go back to scrolling Facebook until I don’t feel anything.
I do have one more giant post in the works, from even before I spoke with Kevin, which will be coming so soon. Promise.
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