Thought Trafficking


there are books that describe all this
March 29, 2012, 4:34 am
Filed under: listening, Reading, Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

The internet is abuzz with tributes tonight; both Earl Scruggs and Adrienne Rich have died. I like the banjo, but I have more to say about Rich, so I will add a selection to this, this, and this (among, I’m sure, many others).

I first read Adrienne Rich in an American Poetry class taught by Prof. Luke Carson. It certainly one of the best classes of my undergrad, and Prof. Carson would read each poem aloud before we talked about it. I still have the anthology used in that class, and I still find the notes very useful. Adrienne Rich was one of the first poets that I really struggled with, because as much as I liked some of her poems, others really frustrated me, in particular “Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff”: I felt, at the time, like she was completely denying the grief that Rilke had felt in composing his elegy for Becker. It was only this summer, reading a book of essays on female poets and ekphrasis, that I realized why some of her poems bothered me the way they did: her tendency is to appropriate a “male” way of speaking (and on occasion, of gazing) for “women”–it’s a strident voice, sometimes a confrontational one (I put those in quotes because, who knows, gender in writing is often a fluid thing). Which is also what I so enjoyed in certain poems, my favourite being “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children.” If you would like to hear it read, you can go here (it goes a little quickly, but you can hear a train in the background).

We are fortunate to have, to have had such people in our world, fortunate that they left us parts of their lives.

And then there’s this, this amazing thing.

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Back so soon
March 27, 2012, 3:36 am
Filed under: listening, Reading, writing | Tags: ,

The silence of the desert is a visual thing, too. A product of the gaze that stares out and finds nothing to reflect it. There can be no silence up in the mountains, since their very contours roar. And for there to be silence, time itself has to attain a sort of horizontality; there has to be no echo of time in the future, but simply a sliding of geological strata one upon the other giving out nothing more than a fossil murmur.

Jean Baudrillard,  America

It was the sea’s vacancy that the ancients found most disturbing. Medieval Europeans also viewed the waters to the west as a void, but eventually they turned this emptiness into potentiality, first as a spiritual asset and later as material opportunity. When they finally ventured into the Atlantic in the fifth and sixth centuries they did so in search of a desert in the sea, coveting empty rather than inhabited islands. The initial motivation for voyaging was religious…”Landscape is the work of the mind,” writes Simon Schama; and desert is something we project on a place.

John R. Gillis, Islands of the Mind



Spring Fever
March 21, 2012, 3:10 pm
Filed under: Reading, Toronto, Uncategorized | Tags: ,

The urge to write here always strikes in the spring. The sun comes out, the grass is warm enough for sitting on, I dig out my password for this blog. Inevitable.

Lots of things have happened since last June, many of them nice, some of them difficult. I am in between readings watching the neighbourhood’s muscular black squirrels shimmy up trees.

I turned 27 a few weeks ago. I thought I would be more uncomfortable with that than I am. Time is moving faster than I expect, faster and faster every year, but the people and the experiences I gain so much more than make up for it.  In a certain sense, however, I am aware of living on borrowed time: we are already experiencing highs of 25C or more during the day, here comes summer and the trees have been caught without their leaves on. 

With daylight savings, what Joan Didion (and surely others) calls the blue nights have returned, now there is ample time to enjoy the evening, enjoy being north, or northish. In the sky these nights, Venus and Jupiter are aligned to the west, and opposite them, Mars is visible to the east (or southeast). This is visible from my city balcony, Jupiter and Venus particularly bright and huge. I can remember as a child visiting that I loved Toronto’s sunsets.

And now, since I apparently like to post poetry here, and since I don’t want to type up all of Charles Wright’s “Homage to Paul Cézanne,” here is Lisa Olstein, from her collection Radio Crackling, Radio Gone. Here is what I like: the colour blue, the idea of God as an absence we feel, an absence we need to search out, or a book we open. I like unrhymed couplets, especially the enjambments straddling the gaps. I also like reading all of this while picturing a bear and a man.

Man Feeding Bear an Ear of Corn

What we need is an allegory.

What we want is a parable.

What we remember is a face,

movement of hands like wings.

If God is an absence, what’s missing

is blue. If God is a book, its pages

are blue. Doorways appear green.

Night is a small patch in the distance

where everything swirls inviting–

a place, from this distance, you might like

to stay for a while. An arm extends

an ear to an arm extended.

If you have a hand, place it over your heart.

This necklace will not be mistaken for its chain.

One last thing before I go, from Agamben’s The Open: Man and Animal, from the chapter called “Tick”:

He then draws the sole conclusion that ‘without a living subject, time cannot exist.’ But what becomes of the tick and its world in this state of suspension that lasts eighteen years? How is it possible for a living being that consists entirely in its relationship with the environment to survive in absolute deprivation of that environment? And what sense does it make to speak of “waiting” without time and without world? (47)

Waiting loses its meaning without time. But what constitutes a living subject? The chapter on the tick confused me most, and interested me most, because it describes the way in which we can attempt to conceptualize the tick’s relationship with the world. More than that, thought, I wondered how limited our own perceptions, our own relations with the world, are. This is, of course, not a new thought. We do not know it is blue that is missing, blue that we are looking for, if we’ve never gone looking, yes, but if we find it, we can’t even be sure of really, really seeing blue. “Everything that is readable with the eyes is not everything”–Arvo Pärt.



The Writing Process
June 22, 2011, 5:30 pm
Filed under: academese, observations, writing | Tags: , ,

I’m back at it–writing, that is.

I recently realised that this blog was, in many ways, therapy for me while I tried to finish my thesis to earn an MA in French Language and Literature. Now I have returned here, this time with a “Major Research Project” for an MA  in English Literature.

The therapeutic value of this blog occurred to me when I was trying to remember what writing was like last time. I’m reasonably certain that I wrote the whole thing in a fugue state, because apart from some of the things on this blog, I cannot really remember the writing process itself. Granted, I had just moved back in with my parents, I was working a full-time job, and I got engaged not 20 days after my defense–I was somewhat distracted.

This time, I’m actually enjoying the writing process, observing myself while I go through it. Having several months to research and write a 40-page paper (mercifully short) is a luxury, and not working full-time while doing so seems utterly selfish. That, and I feel like I actually learned how to write an essay this year. Not that I didn’t know before, but that I remained almost intentionally ignorant of what I was doing, afraid to look at it and realise that what I was doing was wrong, or lazy.

I expect that there are many similarities between this kind of academic writing and  various kinds of creative processes, and so I want to share some of my “findings” and hear from other people about their own writing styles, their own creative processes.

1) I can’t tie myself to one place. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always had a desk, and wherever I’ve lived, that desk spends 75% of its time as storage. I need to go from desk to floor to living room to café to kitchen, changing it up whenever I feel like I’ve stagnated or I’m getting too distracted.

2) My favourite place to work is actually the kitchen table, because working there requires me to clear my stuff away at least once a day. I find that this really helps: re-stack, re-shuffle, re-organize. I often find things that I’d forgotten, or discarded, that are now of use to me. The kitchen also often has really great lighting in comparison to the rest of the house, as well as an easy and close supply of tea or coffee.

3) Don’t depend on your outline as a concrete plan. Make an outline, then try to start writing with it. Then change the parts of your outline that don’t work. Then write again, then update your outline. This back-and-forth process helps me to see the bigger picture.

4) When outlining, use as many methods as possible. This advice came to me from my current supervisor as well as a prof that I am working with as a research assistant. Use cue cards and thought maps, spread these out on the floor, rearrange them, colour-code them, translate them into different formats (lists, etc). Again, it helps you find things that you didn’t see before.

5) Talk to other people, especially people outside of your field or discipline. Meet with a writing group: even if you only see them a few times during the process, you’ll be accountable for having something to say. I was afraid to talk about my research with anyone while I wrote my last thesis, and I suffered for it. This time, I bug my husband at least a couple of times a day to run ideas by him and try to figure out how to explain what I want to say.

5.5) Don’t think that you need to use anyone else’s schedule or routine. If you try it and it works for you, that’s great, but if not, keep trying new things while you write.

Of course, this might not work if you’re writing 4 term papers on a deadline. As I said, having the time to observe all of these things is something of a luxury. That said, the more you learn about your own writing process (and how to maximize your time), the better you’ll feel about writing.

Now, hopefully I can keep taking my own advice when I start my PhD next year.

So: what have you learned or observed about your own writing/creative process? What do you wish you had known earlier?

P.S. I really need to update everything to do with the garden because we have a jungle on our balcony now.



No Moose Yet
May 16, 2011, 2:32 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The back of the neighbourhood, visible from our balcony.

Husband, plus homemade skirt.

The only good pictures are balcony pictures.



A Signal
May 16, 2011, 2:20 am
Filed under: between times, living, married life, outside, Toronto, wanderlust

It has truly been a long time.

I felt like I should write something because it has been a long time, and because there is rain outside that hungry little plants are drinking up. There were three marigolds up yesterday, ten this morning, twelve this afternoon. In the face of such fecundity, I ought to be able to offer a few words. Lots of things have changed since last February, but lots of things remain the same. For instance, I have learned to crochet and sew in the last 6 months, but I still haven’t finished knitting that massive green blanket. On the whole, then, there is balance.

The most frequent topic of discussion in our household (that was something I couldn’t have said last February!) has lately been “the future.” More specifically, what does it mean to know what you want? what does it mean to have direction? and what does it mean to be happy? I am, on the whole, very happy with intermittent periods of stress to help me appreciate that happiness. But if I have one design, I have six: I want to stay in a big city where I can walk everywhere; I want to live on a farm; I want to teach far away; I want to move closer to family. A few years ago, Jane correctly observed that it sucks more to have lots of good options. When there’s a bad option, or several, there is generally a clearer indication of which option you have to take at the time. I can’t remember if she was talking about ice cream or about life choices.

To come: something about living in Toronto; something about working as a doula/working at being a doula; something about things I’ve been making; a picture of that moose I wrote about in the last post.

Also, because I am ridiculously proud of the balcony garden that Basit and I planted a week ago, I have added a page called “Garden Journal.” I will try to confine my superlatives about Toronto soil and climate to that area.



Commandment #6: Thou shalt not be mean to a moose.
February 1, 2010, 6:39 am
Filed under: living, outside | Tags: , ,

It is grey – the world only comes in monochrome this week. The full wolf moon of January was completely obscured by an obtuse cloud-cover. In all of that grey, today offered spots of amazement: two moose and a great-horned owl.

This morning, sitting in the kitchen after breakfast, my companion started to yell: “OH! OH! OH! OH! OH! OH!” My confusion was quickly cleared up when he followed that up with: “MOOSE! MOOSE! TWO OF THEM!” There were two moose, a female and her calf, wandering up the driveway and into my backyard. After brief consultation, they used a snowbank to clear the fence into the neighbours’ yard, whereupon the mother jumped a second fence and the calf stayed in the yard, not quite tall enough.

Within minutes, there were two “Peace Officers” and their cars parked outside of the house, standing on the driveway, quickly followed by two individuals from Fish and Wildlife, plus their trucks. They milled about for over an hour, eventually shooting the calf with a tranquilizer gun, netting it, and hauling it carefully onto the back of one of the trucks. The mother was picked up in another neighbourhood.

It is a strange feeling, seeing two moose in your backyard. They are huge. Taller than fences, with spindly-looking legs, lanky with a clumsy gait. The snow has been falling steadily for days, and their two-toed prints seemed enormous in comparison with the tire tracks and bootprints. And what a shock for the animals. Suddenly the world you are wandering is sectioned off, blocked in the strangest places. Walls and fences and cars with only decorative trees in stark contrast to stands of poplars and open, rolling grasslands. The way is no longer clear, and street signs, pavement, imposed uniformity all seem hard and ridiculous when you look at it like that. And the sad thing is that I had forgotten that.

I had forgotten how sharp these contradictions were. I had forgotten how artificial this is, or despite a quiet awareness I wasn’t thinking about it enough. A world so awful in comparison that we have to tranquilize the animal and release them elsewhere to get them out of it: they are in danger in our world, and, if we aren’t smart about it, we are in danger because we don’t know how to act around these animals. Like tourists on the side of the highway to Jasper, who idle their cars and run towards the grazing wildlife. They are objects.

We must get used to the idea of recognizing hierophanies absolutely everywhere, in every area of psychological, economic, spiritual and social life. Indeed, we cannot be sure that there is anything–object, movement, psychological function, being or even game–that has not at some time in human history been somewhere transformed into a hierophany. It is a very different matter to find out why that particular thing should have become a hierophany, or should have stopped being one at any given moment. (Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion, 11)

I cite this not to talk about or comment on religion, but as a brief comment on loss of meaning. How an animal, a plant, a tree, becomes an outsider to our context. Which plants can we eat? What can we build, and with what? The world makes less and less sense to us. All of the things sheltering and supporting us right now are at the same time dangers to us. Houses collapse. Pavement ruins watersheds. Etc. I don’t mean to be a tiresome old crank bemoaning the old ways, but seeing that huge moose loaded onto the back of a truck to be brought back to a place that it understood underscored the separateness of these worlds, the artifice of what we have. Not that artifice is always negative, but I can’t find the moderation.

I hope to be hopeful.

“Courting Forgetfulness”

It’s hard to know what sort of rough music

Could send our forgetfulness back into the ground,

From which the gravediggers pulled it years ago.

The first moment of the day we court forgetfulness.

Even when we are fully awake, a century can

Go by in the space of a single heartbeat.

The life we lose through forgetfulness resembles

The earth that sticks to the sides of plowshares

And the eggs the hen has abandoned in the woods.

A thousand gifts were given to us in the womb.

We lost hundreds during the forgetfulness of birth,

And we lost the old heaven on the first day of school.

Forgetfulness resembles the snow that weighs down

The fir boughs; behind our house you’ll find

A forest going on for hundreds of miles.

Robert, it’s to your credit that you remember

So many lines of Rilke, but the purpose of forgetfulness

Is to remember the last time we left this world.

(Robert Bly)

Noor spotted this. One day, I would like to have eyes as keen as hers.

Click on the picture for the full-size picture, and click again to zoom.

Goodnight, all.