Writer in Residence

Canisia Lubrin on Poetry Exercises

By Jennifer LoveGrove


Next up in my interview series with poets on their relationships to poetry prompts and exercises is Canisia Lubrin. She was born in St. Lucia and serves on the editorial board of the Humber Literary Review and as an advisor to the Ontario Book Publishers Organization. With a BA from York University and an MFA from Guelph-Humber, she has contributed poetry, fiction, nonfiction and criticism to journals and anthologies and inter-arts productions. Her first poetry collection is Voodoo Hypothesis, forthcoming from Wolsak & Wynn in 2017.

Canisia by Ralph Kelowe

photo by Ralph Kelowe

What do you do when you’re stuck, when the writing is not coming readily, or maybe not at all? Or perhaps you only have a limited block of time in which to write and you want to dive in but you aren’t sure where to begin? What do you do to get started?

Ah, yes, the limited time conundrum. So my jam. I always stock my shelves with some ultra-interesting nonfiction: philosophy, mathematics, chemistry, biology, natural history, etc. Then, I light my candles, put on a pot of tea (Bay Leaf is a personal favourite), and pull out a nonfiction title. Flip to a random page, find a captivating phrase, type it (if I’m writing fiction) or transcribe it (I write all my poems by hand first), and then see if that takes me anywhere. When the need surfaces for a fresh perspective, I flip to another chance page in the same book and go again. Like so until I have something that resembles a poem. This is one of my favourite exercises and it could set me writing for the full limited time I have: usually between 3 and 6 AM.

Do you use writing prompts or poetry exercises? If so, where did you learn or find the techniques? If you don’t use any kind of prompts or exercises, why not?  

It is rare that I use prompts and the one that may work today won’t work tomorrow. This may be because my primary relationship with poetry is one of arrest. I feel quite literally under arrest and compelled to write immediately, or that thing, that frequency of poetic energy disappears until the next arrest. But I did pick up a few prompts from my undergraduate creative writing workshops. I find ekphrastic exercises are generally great, though they can produce a kind of sensory overload for me. I also enjoy repeating line exercises because I feel quite at home in the music of this kind of repetition.

Why do you use this method? What about it works for you?

I developed a method over time that has been consistently productive. I start off by listening to music until I find a rhythmic pattern that marries well with the subject I have in mind. I then attempt to reproduce this rhythm in chosen lines: so, perhaps first and last stanza lines. Once I’ve figured out the general shape of the poem, I improvise. I love music. My foray into poetry is very much a musical activity. I try to make myself at home in a poem’s complicated sounds, depth and height of pitch, etc. To me a poem’s anatomy is music. That’s where I like to coexist with it.

Do you these methods in your own writing, in teaching if you teach writing, both, or neither? Why or why not? If you use them in teaching, what sorts of responses do you get from students?

I’ve had some exceptionally interesting responses from students when I use the music exercise. Once I assigned a subject for a poem to some students in a community program. I think it was vagrancy or some such thing. And then I had them listen to a rap instrumental followed by a 15-minute writing session. They then took a five minute break and then listened to classical music, which might have been some Chopin number. They then wrote on the same subject for 15 minutes. The two poems they ended up producing were strikingly different, not just in tone but in argument and style. Students have mostly loved this one. I think I might have had a student complain about the discomfort of going from one type of music to another in so short a space of time.

Do you have a favourite exercise or prompt or two you’d that you’d like to share?

Yes, as above, though my mind doesn’t bend in hierarchies, so I can’t call any of them a favourite.

Are you ever concerned that you’ll rely too much on these techniques?

No. I’m concerned that I won’t ever rely on them because I’m precious about spontaneity and/or I never figured out how to be fine with homogeneity in my activities. I’m the farthest you’d get from an A-type personality.

Does a finished poem differ much when you write from an exercise or prompt from when you write without? If so, how?

Generally, yes. If I‘m referring to the prompts that I was assigned as an undergraduate, even a graduate student, my general take is that I don’t like how much they limit if I have to stick to their boundaries. I want to get out whenever I feel the need to pull away from the prompt and do what the work needs. So, most of the poems and fiction I produced within the complete parameters of prompts, to me, felt lifeless and rigid to varying degrees. I favour prompts that I can abandon as soon as the need arises.

Would you like to share any other tips for jumpstarting your writing or using new generative methods?

Nah. Do the damn thing.

Great advice and thank you!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Jennifer LoveGrove's latest book is the poetry collection Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes (BookThug). She is also the author of the Giller Prize–longlisted novel Watch How We Walk, as well as two other poetry collections: I Should Never Have Fired the Sentinel and The Dagger Between Her Teeth. In 2010, LoveGrove was nominated for the K.M. Hunter Artist Award for Literature and in 2015, her poetry was shortlisted for the Lit POP Awards. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications across North America. She divides her time between downtown Toronto and rural Ontario.