Friday 23 April 2021

Robert van Vliet : part five

What are you working on?

This last year has wreaked havoc on how we answer questions like How are you doing, not to mention What are you working on… I’d already been having some difficulty writing over the previous few years, and the fun-filled laff-riot that was 2020 only made things worse. So, starting last April, I committed to writing a poem every day. 

I turned to some writing exercises that relied heavily on chance operations. I rolled my old D&D dice to pick a handful of words from a very long list I’d collected. And using other chance operations, I selected a line from a book. These randomly chosen words and texts were the starting points for the poem I would try to build each day. 

Full disclosure: it hasn’t been every day. I quickly settled into a pattern of several runs, or series, each a few months long, with a month or two off in between. Before starting the next series, I would refresh the list of words and switch the source book, to keep things fresh. I’m in my fourth series now.

The point of using chance operations was to leave as much of the decision-making process until the very moment I began composing. I was too swamped by the quotidian to hear anything else; if I allowed myself to pick the words, I knew they would be nothing but fear, rage, mask, police, murder, racist, climate, protest, Covid, Covid, Covid — and that’s what most of each day already was. I knew, of course, that those concerns were going to turn up in my poems anyway, I just wanted them to knock first, not kick in the door. 

Before this year, it was not part of my normal composition method to rely so heavily on chance operations — I’m usually more of a bricolage guy, setting fragments from my notebooks next to each other, to see what slips and sparks. But I’ve been so grateful for this tool, which has allowed me to keep working even when working has, so often, felt impossible. And it has allowed me to write more poems in the last year than I’d written in the previous five. An unexpected gift in a year notoriously short on good news.

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