is this a sacred calling or not?

I refuse to listen to people talk about their dreams. A lot of people crave to do this, and I believe that there's something about the study of writing - as opposed to, say, a class like 'Learning to use QuarkXpress' - that encourages it. I don't mean their capital-D dreams (although I mostly won't listen to those either), I mean like the dream they had last night about their best friend from childhood sawing a peach in half on their grandmother's hatbox. I don't want to know about that. I don't want to know about their personal experience with heartbreak, drug or alcohol abuse, or sexual indiscretion. I will do anything to make them stop. I'll end up making unequivocal, patently false statements like 'Personal experience has nothing to do with writing' and 'What goes on in your subconscious has no connection whatsoever to what goes down on the page,' just to shut down these conversations. God help me, I've even started giving grammar quizzes.

I'm engaged in a futile assignment here. What I'd like to do is change the way our entire culture treats matters of the subconscious, known in still other circles as the spirit. That's right, I said it. I'm trying to get writers to take the spirit seriously. Art, as far as I know, along with perhaps a handful on monastic sects, is the only realm that does this. Otherwise, think of how we speak about the spirit in this culture - how impossible it is to separate it from the perverting, silly-making influences of capitalism and self-obsession. Think about yogic flying and American 'mega-churches' and vastly expensive meditation and 'personal growth' retreats in exclusive tropical resorts...

So I give grammar quizzes. Grammar, like algebra, scares people. It inures us with the kind of holy terror our ancestors probably felt at some placid mountain's first violent, volcanic retches. If this is the only way to get would-be writers quaking at the task at hand, then by god, the dissection of participle phrases it will be. I flip out over syntax and punctuation. I. Flip. Out. I want to say: Look! Is this a sacred calling or not? Are you commuting with something vast and profound or aren't you? Do you revere and respect your own humanity in relation to that of your fellow human beings or what? Then, for the love of all that is holy, learn how to use a semi-colon. Care enough to do it well, and right. Then you can think about the peach.


- Lynn Coady, from her "Notes on Writing" essay for Event Magazine (Summer 2007)as collected in 50 Years of Event Magazine: Collected Notes on Writing.


a feeling of true revelling

I hear the call of 'successful' middle-class life, and then I'm overwhelmed by poetry. I read some marvel of a poem, famous or not-so-famous, and I'm taken up in the interlacings of sound and beyond-what's-thought-of-as-sense, and in the shock of pleasure and knowing the poem imparts again and again. I look at my front room, and I realize that books of poetry are scattered everywhere. I go to my kitchen table, and my own papers are there, pages I've scribbled lines on, made notes on, gotten poems out whole and viable on. And I realize I can't turn away from this other call, this invitation to form a voice. Sometimes it's a whisper, sometimes an inchoate singing, sometimes a cry of hurt or ecstasy... and at all times I know that poetry is its only proper mode of expression. But not being able to turn away, and instead, able only to try to express at least something of this voice, to try to utter it in words, as if articulating desire itself, is a blessing and curse. Irving Layton, in one of his poems, refers to words as 'my friend the enemy.' That seems apt to me, I suppose all language both opens and closes sets of doors on reality. And poetry is is language at its most intense. So poetry draws poem-writers and poem-readers into paradoxes and problems on all sorts of levels. And then, invariably, or so it seems to me anyway, overwhelms them with a feeling of true revelling.

- Russell Thornton, from his "Notes on Writing" essay for Event Magazine (Spring 1999)as collected in 50 Years of Event Magazine: Collected Notes on Writing.


a recluse clamouring for attention

I both want, and do not want, success. The writer is a recluse clamouring for attention. We want it both ways: Dear Reader, love my writing, extol my virtues, but let me get on with my work. And always of course, I am assailed by self-doubt. Libraries and book stores strike fear in my heart; all those spines of all those books looking back at me. Do I have something new to say? I read, with a great deal of self-consciousness, the words of Startsev, a character in a Chekhov short story: 'It isn't the person who can't write stories who is third-rate, but the person who writes them and cannot conceal the fact.' The point, of course, is to know when one has become boring. 

To save myself, I blank out the world and become my own reader; I write for myself. Then, finished, I mail off a story and am amazed when it is accepted. Or, I am amazed when it isn't. I say to myself, 'That was one of my best stories, the shape of a circle, inconsequential, rambling, no beginning, no ending, a complete lack of message. Perfection.'

- David Bergen, from his "Notes on Writing" essay for Event Magazine (Spring 1994)as collected in 50 Years of Event Magazine: Collected Notes on Writing.


expanded, not shrunk

A year before my long vigil in the hospital began, like most other poets I know, I'd been knocked over by Sharon Olds's poems, particularly the ones about her father. Why had I never written about mine, I wondered. What was I afraid of? I admired Olds's openness, the way she seemed to strip her skin raw in the telling, her amazing strength and bravery. As a poet I longed to be that truthful, that strong.

Last April, I heard her read in Toronto. She stood at the podium, and before each poem, took a deep breath as if she were about to dive under, squared her shoulders and presented her words to the audience. The poems swept over us like a shock wave - they were sexual and aggressive, brutally honest, metaphorically brilliant. Sitting in the dark in the audience, I felt small and insignificant in the face of this onslaught of talent. Yet something began to irk me - perhaps it was that very feeling of smallness. In hearing Galway Kinnell, or Anne Szumigalski, or Adrienne Rich, I have expanded, not shrunk. I have felt excited, and whatever my place in this poetic world, so glad to be a part of it. After their readings, I've wanted to go home and write poetry. After hers, I wanted to stop.

Most of what she read was new, but as in her previous work, the strongest poems that night were about her father. I began to feel that her blunt, painful honesty was a kind of excess. The poems seemed obsessive, almost salacious, in a way I hadn't noticed until I heard her read. For me, it was as if a certain element of poetry, its egocentricity, got magnified, thrown on a big screen, and I did not like what I saw. I did not like the way she had used her father to make a poem. I did not like what I might do to mine for the sake of the poem. I did not like the arrogant, self-absorbed, amorality of the poem. It made me small. 

 - Lorna Crozier, from her "Notes on Writing" essay for Event Magazine (Spring 1991)as collected in 50 Years of Event Magazine: Collected Notes on Writing.


statements of the high priests

I think that if an author believes in the value of what he has to say through his work, he must be very persistent and strong in that belief, and he must be 'willing to stand the rain.' There is a danger/temptation to be too much influenced by critical trends or the statements of those who worship at the altars of different religions - especially if they are considered the high priests of their time. It is good to remember that Henry James once dismissed the Dorset writer as 'poor little Thomas Hardy' and that Virginia Woolf said that the writings of Joyce reminded her of a young undergraduate scratching his pimples.


- Alistair MacLeod, from his "Note on Writing" essay for Event Magazine (Spring 1989), as collected in 50 Years of Event Magazine: Collected Notes on Writing.


how far our sense of poetry has strayed

In a 1967 essay, poet Howard Nemerov anticipated that, if people grew to love poems written by computers, it wouldn’t be because “the machine had imitated the subtlety of the mind, but that the mind had simplified (and brutalized) itself in obeisance to its idol the machine.” That we struggle to recognize machine verse means our expectations for the human stuff are lower now. In his 2010 book You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier reminds us that the Turing test “cuts both ways.” For AI to pass, humans have to fail. We are judged as much as the machine. And what the test exposes is how far our sense of poetry has strayed, how ready we are to be persuaded, to credit anything as genius. As machine poetry spreads, it will create a tolerance for things bots can do. AI will heighten, and push us to honour, poetry as a “construct,” a system of vocabularies, a remote-controlled theatricality. We may end up cherishing the superficial and arbitrary effects most feasible for algorithms, becoming bored with interiority. Writing will appear less risky, less troublesome. We will be free of the expectation actually to understand it. We will also be free of its judgment on us—the demand that, as Rilke put it, “you must change your life.” Maybe we will come to prize poetry that doesn’t have any human reality in it. We will value deepfaked emotions, seeing them as better. Hand-woven stanzas will become vintage objets d’art: artisanal goods peddled on Etsy-like storefronts in the metaverse.

This isn’t a debate about whether AI can write poetry. It’s a debate about how much longer it will matter that humans can.

- Carmine Starnino, from his essay "Robots Are Writing Poetry, and Many People Can’t Tell the Difference" in The Walrus. You can read the whole thing here.


that just means I'm not joking

Pearl Pirie: Does writing poetry remind you to keep perspective with humour or does humour remind you what you could share in a poem?

Rae Armantrout: The humor in the poems seems like an integral part of them–, or some of them anyway. I think you’re right to talk about perspective. Sometimes it’s a sudden change in perspective that seems comical—the way that, if you take the long view, the problems and issues of the day can seem ridiculous. Or the humor can be triggered by a change in who’s looking at something—what does it look like to another person or to a bird, for that matter. Surprise makes people laugh because it makes them a bit uncomfortable. My poems often have what gets called dark humor. I guess that just means I’m not joking. As every comedian knows, if you just come out and say what people know but don’t want to know, that’s “funny.”

 - Rae Armantrout, in "mini-Interview" with Pearl Pirie over on Pearl's blog. You can read the whole thing here.