Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

At the Desk: R. Kolewe

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At the Desk: R. Kolewe

"Quiet like a thundercloud" is one description of R. Kolewe's collection Afterletters (BookThug). The description comes courtesy of Christina Baillie and it is an apt one, capturing the tension and impact of Afterletters.

Star-crossed lovers might be a familiar story, but in Kolewe's hands, the story of poets Paul Celan and Ingeborg Bachmann takes on a life that is tense and lush, pulling a reader through the claustrophobic pressures of fate. The collection takes letter fragments and works by Celan and Bachmann and weaves them into new work to create a poetic sequence that breaks open a story of mental illness, love and loss in the wake of the Second World War, when Celan and Bachmann first met.

Today R. Kolewe joins us as part of Open Book's At The Desk series, in which writers pull back the curtain on their workspaces and give us a peek into their writing processes. He talks with Open Book about starting by hand, seasonal writing locations and the erroneously named Breakfast Bear.

Once I was able to work in the midst of a fair bit of chaos; now I need quiet, and a minimum of distraction. I always begin poems in a notebook, then at some point "promote" them to the computer, after which they get revised extensively. I'll print the poems and mark them up by hand, as well as revising on screen. It's a rare poem that looks anything like its first draft.

I'm a bit obsessive about notebooks and pens. The first drafts of Afterletters were in a black, lined hardcover Moleskine, written with a Lamy fountain pen and black Pelikan 2001 ink. When I was writing Afterletters I would move between notebook and screen every couple of pages or so. That was my rhythm until the fall of 2013. Then I got stuck. I decided to make two changes. First, get a new notebook. A shop called Wonderpens had opened on Dundas St. West near me: they carried a line of plain Japanese paper notebooks. I bought one. Second, I decided that rather than alternating notebook and screen, I'd write in that notebook until it was full, then revise. I filled the notebook a few months later, and began revising, but I missed writing by hand, so I got another notebook...

Other than working at the kitchen table or outside on the deck in summer, my writing happens at my desk, in the afternoon. The desk is a harvest table of reclaimed wood. I like a clear desk, but it isn't completely bare: there's the stack of notebooks I'm working in, a small orange Rhodia scratchpad, some pens, the wireless charger for my phone, a glass of water, a blue notebook where I keep track of what I've been doing with my time (to remind myself I'm actually doing something), and a soapstone bear by an Inuit artist whose name I can't remember. The bear used to sit on my kitchen table; a friend called him Breakfast Bear. I don't have breakfast at my desk, though, so maybe he needs a new name.

At the desk I'm looking at a wall of bookshelves: all poetry. Well, mostly. On the wall beside me there's a photogravure by BC artist Takao Tanabe that I got a few years ago when I was obsessing about different photographic processes. A few photographs are on the bookshelves: one of mine, from a show in 2009, one of my parents in a happy moment, one of an old friend taking a photograph, and, beside all my books by Ingeborg Bachmann, a black and white photograph of the German countryside, near where my mother's family wound up living after the war. There's also a watercolour a friend made of me and her cat reading Derrida together. That's beside my collected Calvin and Hobbes. And there's a folk-art tiger with toothbrush bristle whiskers.

Beside the desk there's a keyboard I'm still learning how to play. It's my cat Charlotte's favourite perch, when she isn't trying to lie on the notebook I'm trying to write in. Often she succeeds, and I fail. She's better at the piano than I am, I think.

Behind me there's a table with dictionaries, reference notebooks, a sheet scanner, and an in-tray for the few sheets of paper surviving the scanner/shredder challenge that don't make it into my fling cabinet right away. Six sets of small drawers from Ikea under the table for supplies. On top of those there are printouts of revisions of the current project. A printer on top of the fling cabinet, and a (small!) stack of books I've just bought. The painting above all this is by Alberta artist John Hall: a jade plant on the windowsill of his house in Mexico. I'm not sure why I love that picture. I've never been to Mexico.

Then there are more bookshelves, mainly theory and random non-fiction. A folk-art bear and a few old cameras: a Zeiss that belonged to my father, a Leica M6 that I bought on eBay, and an old Cambo studio view camera that is a relic of some experiments with 4x5 sheet film. (The cover of Afterletters was shot with that camera.)

The fourth wall of my workroom is plain: the closet door and a small watercolour by another Alberta artist, Robert Sinclair. An abstraction of mountain roads. Very calm. As is the workspace itself: I live on a quiet street. It's pretty much ideal.

— R. Kolewe

R. Kolewe was born in Montreal. Educated in physics and engineering at the University of Toronto, he pursued a successful career in the software industry for many years, while living in a picturesque village in southwestern Ontario. Always a reader, he began to devote his time to writing not long after returning to Toronto in 2007. His work has appeared online at ditch, e-ratio and The Puritan, and he has been associated with the online magazine of Canadian poetics, He also takes photographs. Find Kolewe's work online at or

Check out all the At the Desk interviews in our archives.

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