I think it’s really important, even if you are not gonna be a writer, to still acknowledge that you have right to creative production. That it’s not just the domain of people who are like highly specialized and trained to write songs. That you can write songs if you want to write songs. There’s nothing that says that you have to stop drawing or, or painting after middle school or high school. Celebrate your capacity to make something out of nothing.
You are listening to Parallel Careers where writers who also teach, share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
My name is Ian Williams. I’m an English professor and a writer. As a writer, I write poetry, fiction and nonfiction with six books right now. And as a professor, I teach mostly poetry courses. I’m at University of Toronto now, but I taught for a while at the UBC creative writing program.
So Word Problems, my most recent poetry collection, attempts to write through our moment, which is really hot with moral and ethical issues, and tries to construct those in the dominant mode of our time, which is scientific <laugh> and see what are the limits of this particular lens. So I try to investigate really thorny and complicated problems through a really clean mathematical kind of model, and we see just what are the limits of that.
One of the starting points for Word Problems was, Are these problems that we’re facing simply a problem of nomenclature or language?
Is the problem the word, or is the problem the methodology of how we’re talking about it? Why does it seem like we’re going nowhere? Is it because our methodology is flawed? And then, you know, I I’m a math lover and, I’m always sort of borrowing forms and borrowing shapes <laugh> and so the word problem seemed like, Huh, let’s, let’s try this. Right. And not all the poems in the book are these actual word problems, you know, if like “Jim is painting a fence and Sally’s painting a fence, and if they work together, how quickly will they paint a fence?” It’s not that kind of thing throughout but in, I think, just about every poem, there’s a kind of sticking of language where it becomes a problem in itself. And the poems kind of go back and edit or revise themselves or try to. And another way I’ve described it is like it’s like being in an industrial building with all of the pipes and plumbing and stuff exposed and doing that kind of grammatically. So if we leave the surface of our sentences or the structure of our sentences exposed and really naked so that they’re not just communicative, but also like structural and functional and supporting, then what can we both glean about our language and then glean about the content that we’re trying to fill into our language?
Excerpt from Word Problems
Tu me manques
is how the French miss.
Backward. Like car wheels in commercials.
You me miss. Word every possible the place wrong
- There are only three.
I had a
farm in Africa, no just a friend on the French-Swiss
border who argued the English I miss you
didn’t make any sense. Had? How could you
meaning me miss you meaning him. Easy.
You he explained miss me because we are not together.
Who’s missing? I wanted to know. You are. You are
gone somewhere from me. La lune. I cannot be missing
from myself. Ever. You are missing from me and here
he clamped a love handle and that causes me great
how do you say l’angoisse.
We are apart now
we never met actually we Skyped through the cheesy
maze of our friendship. He made a joke once
when I asked for details (he had a postdoc
on breast cancer proteins) that he was in charge
of terminating the rats. By guillotine. That was the joke.
Then he quickly explained the real way—an injection
I think. How faint the tune. I could never tell
how tall he was or ask correctly in French how high
As long as we’re longing, I had a
farm in Africa, no just another friend on the border
of Rwanda and the Congo who said I miss you
for tu me manques was a perfect and incorrect
translation. Just trust me. Everything makes sense
until you have to explain it. Have? You don’t say
tu m’aimes for I love you. Correct. That is very true
but surtout because I don’t love you. See the stars
comment elles brillent for you. Wait, wait, wait. Not you,
not your words, not your feeling.
Music transition ends
I stuck poems up on the wall of my apartment in Vancouver and it was so that every day I would be able to see the book or see all of the poems that would end up in the book at one glance, right, instead of turning pages. You know, when you turn things in sequence they appear for a while and then they disappear, but I wanted the poems to always be present at all times always. And so things would happen like when I would be putting on my shoes or taking off my coat, I would stand and pause a little bit longer at that wall. It was right at the door. So every time I entered or left, I had to deal with it. I’d pause there and you know, there’d be a pencil on my keyboard nearby and I would just kind of make an adjustment or make a change.
And then I would draw a line between this poem and that poem and say, like, “This is a repetition here. You’ve already dealt with that. That’s unnecessary.” And then I would like re-tape the poems and move them so that they could be closer to their friends and whatnot. So a lot of editing happened just by living with the poems and giving them space to exist. And, you know, it’s one thing to sort of write a book and then you kind of put the poems away or you put the book away at the end of the day. Like they’re not always there. And there’s some value to that kind of compartmentalization, but there’s a point in the process, I think, where you have to surrender your life to the work. And so the work takes precedence over the comfort of closure <laugh> so that I can put it away and come back to it later.
And for, you know, some time it’s just like, nope, the work is always here. There’s no mental rest. It is always, always before me. And it worked. It works brilliantly.
So one of the exercises that I do in my creative writing classes is called a 7/7 or 14/14, and those numbers stand in for days. And so I ask students to create a poem every day for seven days and to post it online by midnight. And the purpose of that is to get them to just produce and to write something every day. And I don’t grade quality. It’s, it’s simply about meeting the deadline, and getting something creative done every day. And there tends to be a rhythm to that exercise. The first couple of days, they’re super excited about it. And then somewhere in the middle, they have a hard time finding content, right?
So they start mining their days looking for fragments of conversation or a line that they read or some ad that’s stood out and they start looking at their worlds more intently. Yeah, they try to extract things that might have some kind of poetic ramification later on. So they, how they view the world kind of shifts somewhere, doing that exercise. And towards the end, they get excited again, right. Because they discovered they can make something out of nothing. The extended version of that assignment, the 14/14–and I’ve done it for a month too, so like a 30 by 30–but in the extended version, I have them produce something in the first week. So a poem a day for the first seven days. And then in the second, week, they revise those poems from the first day. So they go back to their material and they engage in a revision process.
And that alerts them to the things that they stumble over and the things when they feel like, I don’t know how to make this better, but they must make it substantively better or changed or different. And sometimes it’s not better, right? Sometimes it’s just different. But I do want them to have another encounter with the work that they thought had been accomplished, right? How to reenter work after a stretch of time.
Excerpt from Disorientation
I am the only black professor some of my students will ever have. Occasionally they remind me that I am a novelty.
At the beginning of my teaching career, students in my composition class were completing course evaluations around the time of the Great American Boycott of 2006. Immigrants, led by Latinx people, plan to withdraw from work, school, and commerce on May 1 in protest of proposed reforms to immigration laws. I absented myself from the room, as college policy goes, while students completed the evaluations, but from the outside, I could hear them—all white—buzzing in debate over the boycott. By the time I was signaled, in the buzz had grown to a roar, and the students weren’t so much debating as trading clichés about immigrants. They seem to have reached consensus, more or less. One particularly vocal student saw me in the doorway, realized his opportunity, and struck: Dr. Williams, you can come in now. We have your green card ready.
What followed was the kind of laughter and wincing that comes when someone gets roasted. Too slow to react, I played the part of a good sport. This class was one of my favorites that semester. The students were frank and open to identifying and interrogating their biases. Yet, in that moment, I felt my status slip away, the way it did whenever I left my role as professor or writer and became simply a Black man in America. Suddenly the classroom had become a politicized nation, patrolled by student-officers who were bound in solidarity as Americans. And I, literally stepping in from the outside hallway, had become the immigrant.
Later, walking back to my office, I processed that bout of disorientation. Why didn’t I defend myself? Why didn’t I say, at the very least, That joke is inappropriate? Why did I find my resources as Herr Dr. Professor Williams, PhD, bankrupt at that moment?
Music transition ends
So Disorientation is a collection of 10 essays about race and coming to racial awareness, and what it is, what it feels like, to be a Black man moving through the world. So I’m interested in global Blackness and not simply like African American <laugh> version of Blackness. Yeah. And so what are the, what are the challenges of being a Black man in the world. And the title word Disorientation actually refers to the effect of constantly being reminded of race at every, every turn. So even when you’re innocently just going about your business and, you know, shoveling your snow or whatever, if someone shouts out like, “Bet you wish you were in Cuba!” or something.
And you’re like, is that like a Caribbean reference? Or it’s like, what’s going on in that moment, right, this constant reminder? And so this process of being snapped out of our present task or where our attention is, to being a kind of racialized role.
In Word Problems, a lot of the sort of racial energy, well, it’s pretty explicit there, but in that kind of poetic way that can feel sometimes, off-centre, or coded, or beneath a layer of language or something. And in Disorientation, I just wanted to talk directly to a reader. The nonfiction that I’ve written in the past is small scale. But for a reader. And at this point in my life, I wanted to write sort of a large scale nonfiction thing where I can see you and I am myself and we’re not in this kind of contract of fiction or, or literature; we are just ourselves.
And this book is a medium for us to communicate. I like that mode, right? I really like that mode. And it doesn’t stop being art because it’s non-fiction and true. It still is shaped. And it still is the best way to sort of talk with you and to create space too, for the reader to think and respond. And how much space do you need? It’s been a really, sort of pleasant experience, strange word for a book that’s so often gut wrenching, it’s been a really pleasant experience not to perform through speaker or narrator, or point of view, and just to write as myself to a reader.
So when I was writing Reproduction, Lauren Carter and I were in Calgary and she’s a Winnipeg writer and we set ourselves a deadline, that at the end of this month, we’re gonna be done draft five or whatever it was.
And we worked just tirelessly on it. And at the end of it, we printed out our manuscripts and we took our manuscripts to dinner <laugh> at an Irish pub in downtown Calgary and we sat it on the table and she had a glass of wine and we had a good dinner. And I bought a suit that day, too, you know, just like celebrated it all. It was a gray suit. And it was really great. It was not by any stretch, the end of Reproduction. Right. But it was just the closure of a really messy draft. And to share it with somebody when, you know, our celebrations or achievements are so private as writers, the stages of it. It’s like draft four, you tell your partner. And they’re like, Great, great, let’s have some lentils. But to really sort of mark that occasion with someone who, who gets it, with a writer who gets it, was really special. But you know what, I’m doing these days?
So it’s not, it’s not celebration quite, but it’s an attempt to recover joy in, in the writing process. And so right now I’ve gone back to longhand pen and paper, this kind of—I just held up my notebook. I keep it close to me. Pen and paper. And I write longhand, by hand, every day. And my goal is I’m not writing to a market. I’m not writing with a purpose or an intention in mind. I’m writing in the spirit of, you know, the 19-year-old boy who used to take the train home and write on the train and write on the bus without any dream of getting published or without any hope of finding a reader. And it’s been just so great to approach the page without a project every day. And so that’s what I’m doing these days, these attempts to like recover or to keep your joy alive.
Yeah, they’re really important, I think, uh, for writers.
Excerpt from Reproduction
He stocked shelves at Zellers. He was skinny boy who flicked hair out of his eyes. He didn’t wear a name tag. A rebel. His shirt was always untucked from his black pants at the back. Without a cause.
Despite her best efforts at stalking, Heather couldn’t predict his shifts so she had to go to the mall two or three times a day if she wanted to see him and be seen. That day, as Heather and Diane entered the air-conditioned store at ladies’ wear, the skinny stocker was pulling his trolley of abandoned and rejected items toward them. He didn’t smile. He didn’t nod. But for the first time Heather felt his eyes flood her in the aisle. Heather touched her undercut. Sweaty. Sophie B. Hawkins was singing, Damn, I wish I was your lover.
And then, when the skinny boy was close enough to smell her, Heather dropped the single most brilliant line of her life. She turned her pink breath toward his passing head, looked at his belt and said, Need a hand? It seemed like it happened in slow motion, with close-ups of her lips and his belt, but it happened very quickly: she was passing, she said, Need a hand? Need a hand was at once so banal as to be forgettable and so full of insinuation that it could not be. Did she throw cotton panties or lingerie at him?
He paused. He was trying to figure out which. His neck tinted.
She pulled a sleeve from the cart. Menswear, she said.
His jaw mottled red.
She tugged the tip of the hose with her thumb. Garden centre.
His cheeks. His temple. Vines of blood climbed his face.
Music transition ends
It’s so, so, so challenging to accrue a good character. And I think accrue is the good word for it because it’s not like designed right. Not to work off of like a list of blue eyes, brown hair, this kind of thing, right. But to actually let them, whatever the gravitational centre is, to find that early on. And for someone like Army in Reproduction, it was the “Yo, hey, pretty lady” kind of voice there. And then suddenly these, this planet started forming around him, the gestures and all of that. Um, and so for characters, like whatever that nucleus is all of this other stuff will be, be added on. And I think the physical gestures actually are really important. In class I have students—the last assignment for an Intro to Creative Writing class is to write a play, a one-act play, and they write it together.
And one of the characters—this is my stipulation—one of the characters has to communicate primarily through gesture, or has to be nonverbal in some way. And you should be able to reveal something about character and about their distress without them saying anything. And so for character creation in fiction too, I feel like there should be a kind of repertoire of gestures. When you think about Army or Edgar. For Army it’s, you know, or Edgar it’s, you know, holding the forearms and stuff, like folding the arms, you just kind of like embrace the self or cradle the self. For Skinny Boy it’s the flicking the hair out of the eyes, those little details that kind of put their personal stamp of how to be in the world. And it’s embodied, it’s not simply like a plaid shirt, although those things are telling too. I think it’s really important to pay attention to the physical.
So one of the things in my very first class, in say like a 300-level class, a poetry class, I will ask students to write an autobiographical poem. This is their way of introducing themselves instead of going around the room and saying, “Hi, I’m a fourth year major.” Right? So write an autobiographical poem and your technical challenge—so prompts for me come with a kind of technical challenge–your technical challenge is that there can be no people in your autobiographical poem. So not you <laugh>, not your mother, no friends, nobody peopling your poem, no pronouns or anything. And so then they’ve got to figure out how to start and how to tell their story without centring themselves. And so they do it, they figure out the difficulty of it. I give them some starting points if they’re really stuck.
Start with a toy or start with a piece of clothing or start with a food or, you know, start with an image or an object. And I say that one of the merits of this exercise is the decentring of the young “I.” And there’s also a need to decentre the young “you” too, whoever that person is. And so if you find your poems are really I-heavy, that, you know, you can’t exist in the poem without that subjectivity, that marker of subjectivity, present. And so how are there responsible ways of removing the I? We do the revision exercise too, right, where now, can you remove the “I” from there? Right. I’m not, obliterating you, I’m not saying you’re worthless. I’m not saying any of that. In doing this, it’s partly technical, but it’s partly about balance, too, in the poem.
So if you find that you’re too present in the poem, how can we restrain and cut back? I’m eliminating completely as an extreme form of it, but this is just to teach you how to sort of pull back from the I-I-I.
The great thing about introductory, big, large lecture classes is that you get students who don’t plan to be writers in those classes. They’re in those classes, from the sciences, from business, from all other areas of campus life. They already have a sort of loose chart for their lives that doesn’t centre writing. Doesn’t centre that, but I say things to them like–and I taught my last class recently—I say to them, How are you gonna go on? How are you gonna go forward–a really kind of Beckett line—beyond this class and without the structure?
And I suggest to them that even if you’re doing something totally unrelated with your life, you have to make a plan for your creative life. We have ambitions for our social lives, you know, people, in a very sort of heteronormative way, wanna get married and have kids and all of that. And they have plans for their professional lives and their personal lives and their physical fitness and all of that. But we so neglect, I think, as a society plans for our creative life, and this is the antidote, I think, to consuming <laugh> right? Like how do we produce things that don’t necessarily need to enter a market? They feed us simply by our making of them, right? So the making is the actual reward of it.
And so we did this profile exercise where we determined when students are most creative, what they hoped to produce, what are their ambitions and all of that. And then they had this kind of chart or plan to go forward, first over, you know, Christmas break and then into next semester, and then how this might look like for life when you’re 40 and working a corporate job.
Creativity is not a failure because it’s a part of your life rather than all of your life. It can do its work just being part of your life.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon, in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Ian’s work, including his most recent book Disorientation. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Ian Williams discusses tackling complicated ethical issues in his writing and finding ways to maintain lifelong creativity. He discusses:
00:50 | Examining thorny moral and ethical questions through a mathematical model in his poetry collection Word Problems
05:10 | Sticking his poems on the wall and the point in the writing process where he “surrenders to the work,” giving it precedence over the comfort of closure
06:45 | Asking his students to write every day and how he adapts the assignment to different course levels
08:33 | His essay collection Disorientation, about what it feels like to be a Black man moving through the world, and writing directly to the reader without the filter of fiction
13:00 | Taking his book draft out to dinner and the importance of recovering joy in the writing process
16:41 | Accruing a character through a repertoire of physical gestures
18:29 | Decentring the “I” by asking students to write an autobiographical poem without any people or pronouns in it
20:20 | Why it’s critical to make plans for our creative lives and how creativity is not a failure because it’s a part of your life rather than all of your life