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What’s On Your Desk?

By Jason Guriel

Unlike Seinfeld’s Kramer’s coffee-table-book-about-coffee-tables, Evie Christie’s Desk Space – a Web site devoted to writers’ desks – is much more than a novelty.

Each week on Desk Space, Christie plays curator to an interesting exhibit: the ephemera surrounding and, in some cases, dwarfing the work space of a particular writer, usually a Canadian poet or novelist. The selected writer gets to talk about her writing methods, her everyday rituals, these sorts of things. This may sound dull, but Desk Space’s weekly entry can be, not unlike a Paris Review interview, weirdly addictive (“weirdly,” at least, for those who don’t already know they are voyeurs).
I for one have always loved the stories of writers who, unwilling to write on anything but a particular brand of tablet that’s no longer manufactured, keep a dwindling hoard of such tablets. I like to know about the makes of pencils, and the directions in which desks face, and the grubby Troll doll that presides over some of our best thinking. Desk Space is relatively new, and non-Canadians may not be familiar with many (or even any) of its writers. But Christie’s quirky site is not too guilty of a pleasure and, unlike many of its featured desks, clean and uncluttered. (The desk shown above, by the way, belongs to poet and critic Zach Wells, who has left comments at Harriet.) So take a tour of Desk Space. It goes great with coffee. And while I have you here, quick: what’s on (or around, or rising up against) your desk, right now? And why do you need that particular tablet, pencil, or Troll doll to compose your poems? (And wouldn’t it be fun to find out what’s on the desks at 444 North Michigan Avenue?)

Comments (11)

  • On January 28, 2009 at 4:47 pm Evan Jones wrote:

    Hi Jason,
    My desk is covered in piles of paper, mostly, beside a laptop, lamp, books, some stones I use to keep books open. But even in writing this for the fun of it, there’s an element of self-mythologising that makes me uncomfortable–something the interweb excels at and that perhaps links back to your early thoughts on blogging. Looking at the photos on Evie Christie’s site, I wonder what kind of effort people go through to make their space ‘look’ writerly in these photos–not because I’m pessimistic or anything like that, but because both Picasso and Brancusi did the same with their studio portraits in the early part of the last century, making themselves ‘look’ like artists in a controlled manner. Writing does this anyway, and there’s nothing new here beyond the supposed spontaneity of the blogpost. But what it comes down to is that while I share your interest in the ‘how’ of writing, I’ve often suspected many writers are too process oriented, and that there’s a cultural interest in general that seems to fix on this because it’s easier to approach than the actual subject matter of writing. That may sound strange but hear me out: As processes go, automatic writing, as practiced by the Surrealists, is the classic example of this–over-rated in importance by many critics because it implies an objective and unconscious approach to poetry that anyone can master, while the poetry is underrated because this suggests unedited gobbledygook (‘The history of automatic writing is one of continual misfortune’, wrote Breton). Better still, ever see the episode of Deep Space Nine when Jake meets an alien muse and is suddenly spurting streams of prose, the meaning of which is unimportant to the plotline as a whole while the method is the plotline? That’s what I mean. In the end, we need Guernica more than the palette Picasso used while painting it. In fact, we might need Guernica more than we need Picasso.

  • On January 28, 2009 at 6:17 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Evan, your fine comments loom over what is essentially an enthusiastic commercial for a Web site I really dig. But thanks for them. I shiver in their shade – and that’s not sarcasm. I definitely agree that method is often mythologized and overrated. I’m not a romantic. I just like to know about pencils and stuff, is all. And Desk Space is great fun.
    PS Has anyone ever located Deep Space Nine alongside Picasso? I love it.
    PPS It would be nice, and not too late, to hear about the desks of Poetry magazine’s staff (insert awkward silence here)….

  • On January 29, 2009 at 3:43 am Lavinia Greenlaw wrote:

    The Guardian has run a series called Writers’ Rooms
    for the last two years. While there have been plenty of trolls and rituals, what’s interested me most has been the built-in possibilities for deferral. Isn’t deferral part of the process?

  • On January 30, 2009 at 8:39 am Jason Guriel wrote:

    Lavinia, thanks for the link. If by “deferral” you also mean “procrastination” then deferral is definitely a part of my process!

  • On January 30, 2009 at 11:44 am Lavinia Greenlaw wrote:

    Jason, does deferral/procrastination bother you or do you accept it as an inevitable, even necessary, part of the process?
    My work is the deferral of work, which exhausts me; the actual work I barely notice.
    (Don Paterson)

  • On January 30, 2009 at 12:37 pm Jordan wrote:

    The Paterson quote reminds me of James Richardson’s remark:
    All work is the avoidance of harder work.

  • On January 30, 2009 at 1:09 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Lavinia, I suppose it depends on the nature of the procrastination. If I’m reading a good article (or having a good conversation, as I am right now) when I should be working on an obligation – say, my next blog post – I’m not too bothered. I do think a certain (and maybe even great) amount of deferral is necessary, at least in my case. My own poems arrive in brief bursts, between long and un-Romantic stretches of time spent doing other things, long stretches of letting the field lie fallow, letting the mind do its catalyzing business. Hey, here’s an interesting, though inevitably boring, Web stunt (which has probably already been tried): the live recording of some poet, for months on end, drinking coffee, reading the paper, etc. That would certainly take the mythology out of the method. Unless, of course, the poet then writes The Waste Land or something…
    Lavinia and Jordan, I love the quotes.

  • On January 31, 2009 at 5:31 am Daisy wrote:

    I think you have to feel bad about the deferral *and* need it as part of the process.
    James Richardson is brilliant.

  • On February 1, 2009 at 3:34 am Lavinia Greenlaw wrote:

    Daisy, you’re quite right about the feeling bad. This kind of bad is such an ugly sensation, too – perhaps reflecting what’s going on at that point in the process. As if the tension between the poet and the poem needs to be pushed to breaking point.
    Maybe deferral is a way of allowing what you’re writing to go off the map when it has to, when the balance needs to be restored between the making of the poem and its imperative – Coleridge’s “more than usual state of emotion with more than usual order”.
    Jason, I really like your idea of recording a poet for as long as a poem takes. You’re right it would reveal that poets spend a fair amount of their time not in the fervoured grip of Fancy, and that some of them spend a fair amount of time downloading MP3 files, watching soap operas, going to football matches and painting their nails. It would also draw attention to the actual mystery/mythology of it all, which may be what’s going on during those periods of deferral. As far as you’re concerned, nothing’s happening (you’re drinking coffee, reading the paper) and then something surfaces, having happened. We have to learn when to allow and how to attend to this.

  • On February 1, 2009 at 6:58 pm Jason Guriel wrote:

    Well put, Daisy and Lavinia!
    I’m a bit disappointed, though, that we haven’t heard more about people’s desks. My own is pretty unremarkable – I do a lot of my writing on the go – but for what it’s worth my desk is surrounded by stacks of books (which is less a sign of bookishness than laziness). The stacks’ layers work like the rings of a tree: they indicate what I was reading at different points during the last year or so. Near the top of some of these stacks you will find Samuel Menashe’s New and Selected Poems, the recent Atlantic (the one with Obama on the cover), books by David Foster Wallace (I’ve been reminiscing), Little Eurekas (a great book of essays on poetry by Montreal’s Robyn Sarah), and Fielder’s Choice (a fine collection by Canada’s Elise Partridge).

  • On February 2, 2009 at 2:59 pm Lavinia Greenlaw wrote:

    I tried, I really tried, to tell you what’s on my desk. But I can’t. Now why’s that?

Posted in Uncategorized on Monday, January 26th, 2009 by Jason Guriel.