I read a tweet earlier this week by poet Stephen Collis that said, "Writing prose is too hard. I need to stick to poetry. Prose breaks me. Poetry is just an open door, even if painful things sometimes pass through."
In some ways, I could relate.
Early last year, I set out to work on a series of essays and I've been surprised at how slow the process has been. I thought creative non-fiction was my genre, and yet, I found myself turning more and more to poetry in 2021 especially. I mentioned my difficulties of writing non-fiction in conversations with two separate writers: an essayist and a poet, while working at Deer Lake in Burnaby last month.
[id: Black and white photo of a boardwalk with mist rising into the air. Trees and bush surround the trail on both sides.]
This essay writing project feels like pulling teeth, I told the poet over zoom. She responded, face aghast, writing should be fun, not feel like forced work! She looked concerned for me, but I felt like she didn't quite understand what I was trying to say. The ideas were there—alive—swirling through my brain, just unable to take shape on the page. The agony or frustration of the process was, perhaps, less dramatic than I was making it out to be. However, the nature of the work meant it was unable to be birthed in a succinct and timely manner.
Later that week, while chatting with the essayist, I spoke to how slowly the words have taken to arrive. I feel like I have spent the whole year gathering, note-taking, collecting, I said. I stared out at the shadowed lake, but I could picture her nodding on the phone. There are so many cycles and patterns that I am tying together in the work, I explained, and they are finally starting to come through. She encouragingly sent me a few reading recommendations.
When I write poetry, I notice I am often chasing a feeling: regret, anxiety, longing, anger, frustration, sadness, joy. I have been told that some of my poems attempt to fit a lot (too much?) into one piece, as my mind is often making leaps between so many different ideas. The essay can be well-structured for that kind of excavation and bringing together of a multiplicity of ideas and questions.
[id: photo of post-it notes gathered in my notebook with scribblings related to the Jordan River, Michael Jackson, forest fires in California, the Nooksack, urban wildlife, killer whales, and ghosts. The beginnings of a poem or an essay, who knows?]
[id: two post it notes taped to a surface. The first says "Is it possible to find freedom on the page? What does that look like? How does it sound?" and the second says "essayer / essay (underlined) / to try/to attempt"]
At its core, the verb form of the word "essay" means to attempt, or try. Another meaning of this verb originates in the late 15th century: to test the quality of. In many ways, I believe this is what I am attempting to do when I write prose, test the quality of my ideas, while also seeking new understandings of the world.
Poet Isabella Wang replied to Collis' tweet with an excerpt by the late Phyllis Webb who described prose writing as "forced labour compared with the labour of love that is the poem." While this may be true, it doesn't mean I do not still love the work of writing prose just as much as I love the work of making poems. I'd like to think I'm up for the challenge of making sense of the world through both forms, and more. I can't recall where, but I once heard someone describe poems as little meaning-making machines. And perhaps, in that vein of thought, essays are like highways, with ideas driving back and forth across vast distances, seeking to arrive at faraway destinations. You don't have to make the long drive, but its often worth it.
I'm waiting to see what spring brings and excited for my words to rise up when they are meant to, like tulips after frost. Whether you write, tinker, crochet, bead, or create in other ways, I hope this spring and the energy of 2022's water tiger will bring you renewed creativity, too. 🌷
I’m reading… From the Poplars by Cecily Nicholson (poetry), Moonlight Rests on My Left Palm by Yu Xiuhua (poetry & essays), Let's Not Talk Anymore by Weng Pixin (comics/graphic memoir).
I’m listening… to Esi Edugyan's Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling, recorded for the CBC Massey Lectures.
I'm watching... Best in Miniature.
I'm poem-ing in Vallum: Contemporary Poetry (“MOTION” can be listened to or read online) and in issue 290 of The Fiddlehead (winter 2022: BIPOC solidarities special issue). I also wrote a short arts profile for THIS magazine: "Embracing water through poetry" to highlight the audio poetry project I created in collaboration with Rita Wong, Emily Riddle, and Sacha Ouellet.
I'll be sharing some of my comics at SFU Library's One Book One SFU event on March 9 (tomorrow evening!), in celebration of Hiromi Goto's graphic novel Shadow Life. Hiromi Goto, Sarah Leavitt, and myself will be discussing grief and joy in comics, amongst other topics. If you haven't yet read Shadow Life, I will continue to recommend it, always!
I'm organizing a poetry event at the Burnaby Art Gallery with April dela Noche Milne, Natalie Lim, Heather Saluti and Brandi Bird on the afternoon of April 3. It'll be small and intimate (20 to 30 people max). There will also be food, drinks, and event registration will open someime next week. E-mail me if you're interested in coming and I can keep you posted on how to register. Or, keep an eye out on the Deer Lake Artist Residencies facebook page.