Writing: what I’ve learned

In the beginning, writing was a fun school assignment. It was a way to compete with my friends. It helped to wean me off my toys, offering an age-appropriate medium for the expression of my imaginative impulses.  

Then, when I was sixteen, going on seventeen, while hiking across a glacier in the Rockies, I experienced something I couldn’t quite make sense of. In response to the experience, I tried to make sense of it by writing a poem. It was, I think, my first true poem. I also now suspect that I turned to the page only because I had no one else to talk with about the experience. 

If writers, like super heroes, have secret origins, my experience on the glacier and my effort to make sense of it with words is my secret origin. Like every super hero’s secret origin, it has shaped everything else that has come after. I never finished that first true poem; I don’t think I’ve ever stopped trying to write it either. 

Twenty-nine years after that first unfinished and forever-revised poem, I now know this about writing: Luke got it backwards. Flesh becomes word, and not the other way around. The marks on a page don’t affect us. We affect them. The influence we suppose we feel in words originates in us. We make marks work. We make marks words. The power of words is us imaginatively transubstantiated.

The power of writing, then, is always the power of a community. Like a currency, writing is only as influential as the people who call it their own. If you want to craft writing that wins friends, influences neighbours, or earns money and acclaim, the marks on the page are probably the least important consideration.

Don’t write each day; instead, ingratiate yourself each day to the right people. It’s gatekeepers all the way down.

I also now suspect that words have limited efficacy when it comes to making sense of the kind of experience I had on the glacier. The experience originates, I think, in a part of our brains that experience, know, and understand without using the marks, sounds and physicalizations we learn as children to express as language. If this suspicion is correct, it is probably impossible to express in words the experience I had on the glacier. My adolescent turn to words, poetry and writing, to make sense of my encounter with the infinitesimal nature of human experience, was probably futile from the outset. 

Fortunately, writing has helped me to understand myself, others, and the world around me, even if it can’t magically motivate people to action or express the inexpressible. Despite its mundane limitations, writing can be very satisfying, especially when I catch in words some feeling, intuition or idea that had previously seemed ineffably out of reach. Rationally, I know writing — my writing — is little more than an elaborate game of solitaire; irrationally, I also know that it feels important. I’ve always been one of those kids who takes play very seriously.

In another twenty-nine years, I will be seventy-four, going on seventy-five. With so much life left to learn from, I wonder who I might yet become. Will the person I am today be as much of a stranger to me then as that sixteen year-old is a stranger to me now? It seems likely. It also seems likely that the different texts I have created or will create will be insufficient to forge a persistent identify over time. My past selves, my present selves, and my future selves, like any other reader, make of texts whatever they bring to them at the time of the encounter. There is no indelible message that can be preserved in the bottle of my words, even for my future selves. Waves in the ocean of experience leave no trace. 

If all of this is true, why write at all? It’s a fair a question, and one that I often ask myself. If there are so many other enjoyable activities that are much more likely to win friends, influence neighbours, and earn money and acclaim, why bother writing, why persist in a habit which serves no greater purpose than its own perpetuation. At the age of forty-five, going on forty-six, this is my answer: writing deeply is like breathing deeply; you understand its value, whenever you take the time to do it.

Poem: Crow

and other lesser
prophets pretend
to perceive personality
and other anthropoid
properties in you.

inside your eyes,
I know
this poetic pretension
is a prevarication.

Descendant of dinosaurs
too deft not to persevere
in the cacophonous repercussions
of that colossal bolide’s
prodigious plunge,

your ancestors scrutinized
with petulant patience
our impetuous ascent
while your progeniture will
contemplate our phosphorescent descent.

inside your eyes
I know I
am the anthropomorphism.

New Poem: my father was a liar.

My father was a liar

— is a liar —

and he wanted

— wants —

to please people,
to tell a good story,
to be Irish,
to make life easier.

I can’t say

— I don’t know —

if he ever got what he wanted out of lying,
but, once I figured out
he couldn’t be trusted,

I resolved not to be a liar.
And that’s a useful fiction

— the causality —

because, had he been an honest man,
I wouldn’t have resolved to be a liar,

unless the hard wiring

— my hard wiring —

is set
to opposition
rather than honest,
as I hope it
to be.

later on,
I resolved to write like a camera,

to make eyes of words,
a lens of sentences,
and sprocket holes of punctuation.

the light
our light
our shared light you
as reader I
as writer
would do the rest

because I wanted to be true
true to these moments
these still moments
of clarity

but nothing can be true to them

truth is a property of language
and these moments
are felt
deep in the history of the brain
before sentences
punctuation and the spaces between them
this knowledge
this feeling of knowledge
of understanding
knowing feeling understanding

— emerges —

long before our reflective minds.

So, I guess that makes me a liar.

Poet at Play: I Hate Perfection.

I wrote another poem.

You can listen to it here.

I think this poetic uprising of late is driven by the realization that I can record a reading of the poem and share it instantly.

It’s helped me find the fun in poetry again. It’s also reminded me that a good measure of play acting is required for poetry. The poetic voice is by definition a voice other than the voice we normally use. It’s a kind of character. A refinement of personality. A bit of make believe.

I suppose this is true of all writing.

It was Hans-Georg Gadamer that first reminded me that play — at least among children — can be a very serious affair. A tea party or an epic battle between two highly armed forces only works if everyone at play takes the fiction seriously. For Gadamer, it is this sense of play that is at the heart of the experience of understanding and art.

Let us play.

I hate perfection.

I hate perfection
enemy of the good
enemy of the all
enemy of the people
fuck perfection
and the beautiful white stallion it rode in on

Unless it’s beauty
beauty is always perfect
and I am in awe of beauty
I worship beauty
I carry beauty’s books home from school
I stay up all night talking to beauty on the phone
I spend too much time stalking beauty’s Facebook page
I’m happy just to be near beauty

And whenever I get the chance
I make sweet love to beauty
over and over and over again

But god forbid don’t try to marry beauty
don’t propose to beauty
don’t even go steady with beauty
beauty is for everyone
and it’s had more lovers than you’ve had wet dreams

And it knows better than all that anyway
and my empty lies
it knows I’m rough and uneven
quick and immediate
full of comma splices,
and dangling prepositions
thoughts and metaphors running wild
in the underbrush of memory and the unspoken spoke
but my enemy’s enemy is my friend
so we do it every now again
almost by accident
passing from here to there
and there to here
late at night at a Greyhound rest stop
heading west
(never east tho)
and because we both hate perfection
and it can’t help being perfection
and I can’t stop seeing it as perfection
and because we both know I will write and say
whatever it takes
to lie
inside it
every now and again

sometimes, we even get along.

Another Poem: I’m Not So Different From That Guy

I wrote another poem.

Either Spring is in the air or I’m drinking just the right amount of wine.

If you saw this tweet the other day

sterlinglynch Mar 21, 9:51pm via Web I went for chicken and wine and came home with wine, cheese, and a poem.

This is the poem I was talking about.

Listen to it here.

I’m not so different from that guy.

I’m not so different from that guy
even though my clothes are cleaner
and I don’t smell so fucking bad
and he begged his coins on the street
and I at the office.
We’re both here for the same goddamn reason
something cool and cheap
that hits our bellies
with the same warm glow as the good stuff.
Though he understands the value of tobacco
and sweeps up every scrap he dropped on the counter
and makes small talk and lies
as he struggles to get the tiny easy to toss from a distance coins
from his pocket to the counter
he even apologizes for the coins
after a story about paying his son’s tuition.
The clerk is pretty good to be honest
noticeably a little nervous
and trying to move things along
as quickly as possible
but he isn’t rude just brisk
and I guess that he gets a lot of them in here
a lot who can’t get served at the LCBO down the road anymore
and everyone is on their best behavior
for now
like a family reunion
to make sure nothing gets broken
and no one gets barred.
But I am different from that guy
because I don’t appreciate the magic of tobacco
and I wouldn’t make small talk
and I don’t make small talk
and I use far more efficient plastic to get my hooch
and responsibly decline the plastic bag I’m offered.
As I’m thinking and leaving
leaving and thinking
that I’m not so different from that guy
I hear the clerk compliment the old boomer behind me
for buying the good stuff
in her ridiculous I must be young because I’m not dead yet short shorts
and I know she’s here for the same goddamn reason
and he knows she’s here for the same goddamn reason
and maybe because he doesn’t want to feel like a pusher all the time
and she hides the game better by buying the good stuff
he makes her feel good for buying the good stuff
whereas he only took the bottle from me
so I didn’t have to hold it
through the fumbling and stalling and small talking
and as I pass the guy that I’m not so different from
giving him a wide berth
because I still can’t get the stench of him out of my stomach
I think
next time I might get the cider he got.

Why I Love Social Media: The Story of An Unexpected Poem.

I was working on a review Sunday. Because I’m concerned about how much time I spend sitting in front of a computer, I decided to set up an impromptu desk at which I could stand (ironing board, shoe box, one book of the Yellow Pages).

With the new found height, I pointed myself in the direction of my window rather than the wall. Now, for a change, I could look up from my writing to a view.

Some time later, I looked up to the resplendent image of two pigeons sexing it up on the roof across the street.

Naturally, I tweeted it.

Now, there are all kinds of experts who would claim that tweets about sexing pigeons is not best practice. In contrast, I trusted my hunch that someone on my list would be amused.

Some time after that, I got this response.

David Hicks ‏ @ALL_CAPS
@sterlinglynch This reminds me of my second favourite Bukowski poem: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/179728

I read the poem out loud and I loved it.

If that were the end of the story, it would still be a good enough reason to love social media. Send out random observation into the ether, get a great poem in return.

Twitter intervened again — this time, proactively.

Some time ago, in a fit of poetic nostalgia I read T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland out loud one night. I tweeted that I had and someone suggested that I should have recorded and shared it. I hadn’t thought to do it that time, but because someone suggested the idea to me via Twitter, I thought of it this time.

But first I hesitated. It was late. I was thinking of bed. Then, it occurred to me, David had been kind of enough to send me the poem, I should be kind enough to try and send him something in return. And who cares, it doesn’t need to be perfect and your microphone is right there any way.

So I did and tweeted the recording to Dave.

If the story ended there, that would already be a pretty decent social media success story — from sexing pigeons to impromptu poetry reading.

The story doesn’t end there because, as I was trying to go to bed again, a poem popped out of me. I’m sure it only popped because of the exchange of the poem and recording.

Here it is:


I had
— have —
a friend
who loved
— loves —

and I never felt
more like a poet
the night
I wrote him a letter
with pen and paper
paper and pen
at a bar
the bar of the Jazz bar
in Auckland
a million miles away
because he had smoked crack
and had been in orgies
and had orgied
and I felt
by writing drunk
late one night alone
at a bar
in Auckland
I could claim a place
a place
in that line
that degenerate line

we met again
in Toronto
at Sneaky Dee’s
he was still
and quiet
and still broken
from the girl
— woman —
who had driven him
to it all.

Here’s the recording of it.

And to add one more mark under the social media win column: I now have this blog post (and hopefully some of your comments).

Not bad for a tweeting about two pigeons humping.

So, yes, of course, one is wise to exercise some restraint when it comes to tweeting and sharing but there’s no real reason to rule out anything in every case. Because the really cool stuff only happens when people reciprocate and figure out how to add value by responding. The tweet isn’t as important as the way it is returned.

David got this ball rolling because he added value as a response. He was reminded of the poem by my tweet and he could have left it there. Instead, he took the few seconds required to send me the link — adding value. I could have ended it with a simple thanks but instead I tried to come up with some way to respond with added value.

There are lots of different way to use Twitter. There are as many ways to use it as there are communities who use it. What counts as added value will be determined by your community. Figure out whatever counts as value and give it to your community whenever you can.

And yes some people like to know what you ate for lunch — check out @foodieprints for instance.

Sounding the Tongue: What Does It Mean?

The words, “Sounding the Tongue,” are best analyzed in this way:

“Sounding” names the action or process of measuring the depth of the sea or other body of water and / or it names that which is giving forth a sound.

“Tongue” names the body part and/or a person’s language.

So, Sounding the Tongue names the action or process of measuring the depth of language, a hydrodynamic body that is seen, spoke, and heard.

The measuring is not the poem on the page or even the collection of poems. They are the plumbs dropped into the depths where the seas of our languages meet. The measuring sounds in the discovery of a previously unknown texture of the reader’s tongue.

What do you think? Has your tongue been sounded?

Download Sounding the Tongue for free until March 16, 2012, with this coupon code KH76S.

An Unexpected Poem: Empire


The insect —
flying, striking, crawling —
can’t see the barrier,
can’t understand it.

it feels it

over and over again.

suddenly, unexpectedly, strangely,
my heart goes out to it.

There’s a metaphor
here I’m sure.

I can feel it
but can’t see it,
hear it,
but can’t write it.

I return instead

to fantasies of empire building
in beauty’s name.

A 2010 Winnipeg Fringe Reflection: A Poem Before The Data!

I think it was the second Thursday of the festival when the itch for a good write had to be scratched. I went to The Fyxx, ordered a coffee, and barfed out some automatic writing on my phone.

Today, I thought I’d tidy it up and share it.

And because I know there are more than few of you out there who enjoy a peak behind the curtain of process, I thought I’d also share the mental vomit in it’s original unedited form.

Let me know what you think!


the question before me.

in anticipation of the someday
touch of clairvoyant grace.

where within? where with all? where again? where we all?

soon shall be.

a perfect moment:
without too soon, too long, or a longing too long.

A trail! A trace! A remark unclothed!
Each embrace a story untold!

In loving search of the horizon.

I do declare:
“Attention is the precondition of living!”
Mammalian living, that is.

nits and nits and nits.
Even Buddhists get together for lunch.

success and the means to it are simple but there’s little in success that i want and little in the means to it that i enjoy.

death’s equivalence : shunning : the exile

And still i could drift away. here. go. be beyond and begone. no cost of other.

A tube! A tube! A wonderful wandering tube!

no benefit either.

only food, water, and a forever solitude of unending shelter. costlessly perpetual.
but no more mammalian warmworth.

No! A theatre! A living theater! A theater of living! A life lived theatrically!

But no fucking drama.
no unnecessary drama.

I hate it.

all conflict, yes
but unnecessary conflict
for the sake of drama
most of all
the very most of all!

No. I do declare:
“No more conflict, no more obstacles,
no more development!”

in life and theatre
in life’s theater
in theater’s life
in theatre and life

and instead,
the clarity of our ether’s stillness:
a perfect moment
without too soon, too long, or a longing too long.

[and therein he realizes again]

where we all soon shall be.

Here’s the source material in all its unedited glory:

the question before me. the time witheld. the anticipation of someday. the clairvoyant touch of grace. where within. where withall. where again. where we all. where we all soon must be. a perfect moment. without too soon. too long. a longing too long. attention as the measure of worth. nits and nits and nits. in loving search of the horizon. even Buddhists get together for lunch. a trail. a trace. a remark unclothed. each embrace, a story untold. attention is the precondition of living. mammalian living. This ape love living. shunning. the exile. death’s equivalence. a theater of living. a livting theater. a life lived theatrically.  not dramatically. conflict obstacles development. the clarity our ether’s stillness. and still i could drift away. here. go. be beyond and begone. no cost of other. no benefit either. only food water and a forever solitude of unending shelter. costlessly perpetual. but no more mamallian warmth. a tube a tube a wonderful wandering tube. success and the means to it is simple. but there is little in success that i want. and little in the means that i enjoy.

Questions? Comments. Poetic replies? 🙂

Sunday School Poetry: An Author’s Creed.

An Author’s Creed.

Let us pray.

I believe in beauty the begetter of human being, the source of happiness and peace.

And in art, its honest expression our creations; conceived in love, produced with intention; an expression sometimes of sorrow and suffering, of the darkest absences of beauty, and of our unlimited possibility; art approaches beauty but never is identical to beauty; and it always leads us, and those who shall be, back to beauty.

I believe in love; the artfulness of community; the inherent creativity of all persons; the value of risk; the development of craft; and in a life lived artfully. Amen.

For more of my poetry, click here.