It’s about time I wrote about what I am up to in this writing life. Today I joined eight other poets to celebrate the Ruby Tuesday Writing Group’s 16th anniversary. What an incredible group of women to work with every Tuesday morning. It’s been the engine that has driven all of us to publish often in journals, chapbooks, anthologies and full collections.
But this is an all-about-me day, for if George Harrison can write a memoir called I Me Mine, then I can post this one blog in memory of his. (More about George later…)
During the pandemic, my collections rabbit (Aeolus House Press, Toronto) and Park Ex Girl: Life with Gasometer (Shoreline Press, Montreal) were published, which gave me time to work on several other things. A collection of poems about the wild lives of wildflowers is the hands of The Longmarsh Press in Devon, UK, whose editor loves the poems and wants to ‘do something with them’.
So I have been busy, and still am. This winter I’ll put my energies into editing a book-length poem about designing and building my old-lady house more than twenty years ago. So you see, this why there’s all this hurry to get things published. Now I am a lot older, and my time on this mortal coil is getting shorter and shorter. I’m not upset about it; I’m more upset about the state of the world I will be leaving. Meanwhile, there’s still the life of writing, the life inherent in a writing life.
So I finally finished a collection I’ve been working on for years called Pink Hibiscus: Poems of the South Pacific. I was a CUSO volunteer in Vanuatu from 1986 until 1989, and returned for three months in 1993. It’s a challenge to write memoir as poetry. The inclination is to try to tell everything, so that poems become stories rather than poems. With the help of three writing groups and several editors, the stories did become poems, and now they have arrived in a lovely publication by Éditions des petits nuages, an Ottawa small press run by Mike Montreuil, who publishes Japanese-form poetry as well as lyric collections in French and English.
The main title comes from a particular poem, but the subtitle is a reference to James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, because Michener wrote that book while stationed in Vanuatu during WWII. It was then known as the New Hebrides. Not many people know about the island of Bali Hai, but I have been there. He spied the island while writing in the officers’ mess on the island of Santo. He knew it was really the island of Ambae, where all the beautiful young women had been sent in order to protect them from the American soldiers (true!). And he never went to it, fearing to be disappointed. As all writers know, mystery can be important, and he never wanted to see anything different from what was in his imagination.
I, on the other hand, have been to Bali Hai (Ambae) several times, staying in my students’ villages, explaining to the villagers and the chiefs, in the language of Bislama, why the village should build a preschool, and why they should pay a teacher for it. The language of Bislama?
In a country of roughly 110 distinct languages, a common language was necessary, and originated with white colonizers’ need to communicate with the original peoples whom they hired as workers or used as slaves. It is a pidjin language, and I learned it in order to teach and to speak all over the country and even on the radio. Then I wrote ( I was Claudia Brown at the time…) a teacher’s manual in the same language. (Terry Crowley made sure my written Bislama would be easily understood.) The manual showed teachers how to teach preschool concepts and run a preschool without money on an island without, sometimes, even basic amenities.
I spent time on about 15 of Vanuatu’s 80+ islands, traveling in small planes, over pathetic dirt roads in rusty land Rovers, in aluminum runabouts and dugout canoes over shark-infested waters, and took photos at night, from its rim, of the fires inside a volcano. You can get a copy of Pink Hibiscus or any of the books mentioned earlier by messaging me.
My plans are to concentrate on the long poem about my old-lady-house-building experience, continue a non-fiction account of the Vanuatu experience to go along with the poems, and oh, I am having so much fun with the ‘George’ poems.
Being a much too intense Catholic teacher in the 60s and 70s, and being a good Catholic wife and mother, I missed the whole Beatles experience. Wasn’t everyone told that pop music was the Devil’s creation, meant to lure young peoples’ souls?
But now, I have the chance to discover a beautiful musician, (I’m not too old not to realize how physically beautiful he was) and am entranced with his life, with his music, and with his life philosophy. He, now, was a beautiful soul, and may still be one. I’m not speaking from a religious point of view, but even the Catholics would have approved. George and I were born within weeks of each other, both of us had fathers who drove for a living, we both owned Cooper mini-cars, we both married the same year. I’m impressed with so many of his songs, with his sense of humour, his generous spirit, and the fact that he made only the movies he wanted to make. I am also impressed with how he handled his life pressures. True, drugs were part of his life and certainly not part of mine, that he was a genius musician and I know nothing about music, but even this late in the game, I can discover some of what I missed all those years ago. And, like him, I feel that life is just this little play that is going on. And, yes, another ‘and’, I am having a whale of a time writing my ‘George’ poems.
Claudia, this is fascinating and wonderful. It’s thrilling to hear of your pandemic accomplishments. I vividly recall your reading and talk at Elizabeth Bishop House, sharing some of your Vanuatu experiences, and can’t wait to read Pink Hibiscus.