Photo by Alice Stancu
By Esther Griffin
Daniel Scott Tysdal is the author of three books of poetry, The Mourner’s Book of Albums (Tightrope 2010), Predicting the Next Big Advertising Breakthrough Using a Potentially Dangerous Method (Coteau 2006), and Fauxccasional Poems (forthcoming from Icehouse in 2015). I had the pleasure of meeting Daniel this spring when I attended his Master Poetry Workshop, “The Convergence of Occasions,” at the Canadian Authors Association CanWrite! Conference in Orillia, Ontario. His workshop was inviting and inspiring, which is how I would also describe his latest book, The Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems, published by Oxford University Press (2014).
In your poetry workshop, “The Convergence of Occasions,” you discussed how “poems are born out of occasions, not a sole occasion.” This is explored further in your creative writing poetry textbook, The Writing Moment. How does this convergence provide inspiration for writing poetry?
The basic idea behind the convergence of occasions is this. Yes, different poems have different origins at their core—a sense of elation or emptiness, a birth or headline-making news, a desire to test out another poet’s techniques. Yet, in all cases, as the poem develops, this original occasion is joined by the other occasions out of which poetry arises: the insight, the emotion, the life moment, and the artistic motivation.
The way this convergence of occasions can inform the creative writing classroom, and the way it does take shape in The Writing Moment, is through the composition of exercises that immerse students in this mix of occasions. For example, The Writing Moment opens with the section “Working with the Image” in which four variations on, “Write the poem you are forbidden to write,” are used to move students to compose with different aspects of the image.
This approach has benefits for new poets, poetry teachers, and veteran poets alike. Old hands can brush up on craft while exploring new terrain. For teachers, this modular approach, which promotes the mixing and matching of different topics, tools, techniques, and traditions, provides an almost limitless set of productive writing exercises. Finally, new poets are introduced to this wide range of topics and tools in a way that encourages attention to craft and really sparks the imagination. The key I’ve found is underpinning the exercise with a provocative request. I mean, what’s the poem you’re forbidden to write?
What has been one of the most profound convergences that you’ve written about?
Though they might not be profound, two convergences have profoundly consumed me: the meeting of the poem and the non-poem, and the meeting of the image and the word.
My first encounter with the convergence of the poem and the non-poem was in Robert Kroetsch works like The Ledger and Seed Catalogue, works that really spoke to me both as a farm kid and as someone who grew up in a generation obsessed with and inundated by all sorts of media and mediums. Kroetsch’s work really inspired me to find the lyric in the non-lyric languages of everything from poker to porn, and to explore how non-lyric forms like the MAD fold-in or encyclopaedia could reshape the poem.
My obsession with the convergence of the image and the word, then, grew organically out of this first obsession. My first big step in this direction arose out of necessity. In the early 2000s, while trawling the underbelly of the internet, I chanced upon a video of a man shooting himself in a police station and I was shattered. I started writing a poem to find balance and I knew I needed to work this man’s image into the language of the poem in order to honestly bear witness to this experience and to our time and, I hoped, to bring dignity to a person’s death whose “shock” was presented as entertainment. This poem appeared in Predicting and spurred the mixed media elegies I wrote for Mourner’s.
In The Writing Moment, while you use previously published poems, most of your examples for analysis are your students’ “poems in process.” I really enjoyed reading your students’ work. It created an intimacy for me that I haven’t experienced with other textbooks. Why did you decide to use these “poems in process”?
I wanted to foreground the idea that we are all poets and can all learn to write insightful and moving and mind-bending poems. Also, too often poets just starting out think that poetry begins and ends as a single moment of perfect inspiration and expression. This misapprehension results in either frustration with the process or, worse, the total block and turning away from poetry. My job in The Writing Moment, and in my teaching more generally, is to emphasize the raggedy “in process” as a necessary aspect of creation.
Having been a participant in your poetry workshops, I know how passionate you are about teaching. Your “writing moments” took our poetry to fresh places, and we all left feeling exhilarated. Your enthusiasm for teaching poetry also comes through strongly in The Writing Moment. How does teaching poetry compare with writing poetry?
Thank you for the kind words, Esther, about the workshop and The Writing Moment. Your use of the word “enthusiasm” makes me suddenly picture myself as the anti-Larry David. I wonder if I should just scrap the novel altogether and pitch a classroom-based sitcom to the CBC: Intensify Your Enthusiasm? Escalate Your Enthusiasm?
In terms of comparing the two, writing poetry and teaching poetry are united by an incredible interactive and improvisational quality. How this plays out in both, though, is very different. With poetry, this happens while writing—the rush of the interaction with language and other poets and the world and the improvisation that arises as you don’t know what will happen one line to the next. By contrast, teaching preparation is more like the time spent reading other poems, thinking about poetry, talking about poetry, and so on, whereas the classroom experience—sharing ideas and insights, asking questions, taking questions, spurring discussion—is more like the act of actually writing the poem, the wonderful moment where the interaction and the improvisation occurs. The classroom is a sort of collaborative poem that takes no single form and has no end.
In The Writing Moment, one of your writing exercises asks the readers to “compose a manifesto poem in which you state the motives and goals of your writing.” In this moment, would you write a “poem in process” stating your current motives and goals for writing?
Awesome question! Okay, the muses are not totally cooperating, so I am going to cheat and offer a quatrain from a poem I composed two years ago, “Ballad of the Follower.” This ballad is the final part of a long poem I wrote during my last twenty-four hours on the recently sold family farm. The Puritan published the poem online, so you can read it in full here. I have tweaked the quatrain so it reads like an oath, giving it a bit more manifesto-esque verve:
“I will not follow followers;
I’ll follow following.
The fallow path’s within the path
and flowers the fringes string.”
The Writing Moment: A Practical Guide to Creating Poems is a must-own book for both emerging and established poets. I would also recommend this book as a textbook choice for post-secondary creative writing courses. For more information on Daniel Scott Tysdal, and to order his books and see his upcoming workshop schedule, please visit his website: danielscotttysdal.com.
Esther Griffin teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario. Her poetry and fiction have been published in various anthologies, and she is currently pursuing her Optional Residency MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia.Visit her website at www.esthergriffin.ca