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 Ihave 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.
Today is not my writing; I am shamelessly sharing a post ( as we are asked to do in his post) from a wonderful blog on haiku and tanka called Neverendingstory, and its approach to changing how those forms are being written today. Thank you to Chen-ou Liu and Angela Leuck. You will always thank me for encouraging you to follow the Neverendingstory blog. It will be a brief beautiful moment in your day.
My Dear Friends: Please join NeverEnding Story to expand the readership base for tanka by tweeting at least one tanka a day throughout the month of May. The hashtags for Tanka Poetry Month are #MayTanka and #NaTankaMo.
on the windowsill two canaries singing to each otherI tweet and retweet NeverEnding Story
Below is excerpted from Angela Leuck’s article, titled “Tanka and the Literary Mainstream: Are we ‘there’ yet?” (“Book Review Editor’s Message,” Ribbons, 10:1, Winter 2014, p. 74):
An alternative approach is suggested by Chen-ou Liu, author of the blog, “NeverEnding Story.” In his June 2012 Lynx interview with Jane Reichhold, Liu describes the current relationship between the haiku/tanka community and the literary mainstream in terms of “an asymmetric power relationship.” He believes a “top down” approach will not work; i.e., trying to change the perceptions of those in the mainstream. Rather, Liu supports a “bottom up” approach, which for him means consolidating and expanding the readership base for tanka through online publishing and social networking sites.He argues:
If there are more people who love reading/writing haiku and tanka, the mainstream poetry world will eventually open their main gate to haiku and tanka poets. This approach to reversing the asymmetric power relationship has been demonstrated in the case of the power transfer from traditional media, such as news papers, TV, and books, to online and social media.
Please help spread the word about this celebration via your poetry blogs, websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts. And NeverEnding Story seeks tanka submissions.
To conclude today’s “Celebrate Tanka Poetry Month” post, share with you my interview excerpt and tanka selected for the upcoming Bulgarian-English Tanka Handbook written by NeverEnding Story contributor, Dimitar Anakiev. Red Moon Press’s tanka 2020: poems from today’s world gives me a glimpse of what is possible when efforts are made to challenge the poets to write something new and relevant to the world we live in. Poetry acts as a witness in, to, and most importantly, through troubled times. That’s what this book does.
Here are five of my tanka for the handbook:
a winter fog smothers the winding road to her mother’s house the bruises on her face say everything & nothing
bits of gravel embedded in blood on his knuckles my teenage son says nothing and I’ll do … nothing
a wind rattling the dry leaves on eucalypti — an ink-dark trace of koalas
unshackled from my childhood beliefs I’m a passing thought in the mind of God who forsook his Son on the Cross
we’reallinthistogether snow on snow onhomelessshelter
Happy Reading and Writing throughout the month of May
The facts of a life, the remembering of that life, affirming its importance, is a challenge biographers and autobiographers have taken up for thousands of years. Australian Aborigines saved their cultures and survived under the harshest conditions because of storytelling, their storytelling in song, precursor to poetry as we think of it today. Even the Odyssey was possibly a way to map the Mediterranean, the journey compressed into poetry, because to tell every thought and emotion and fact along the way would have been too long for a culture to remember and pass down.
Therefore, poetry, to capture in a shorter literature, using poetic form to aid in the compression of fact and emotion, was the best way to tell my story of a girl and a gasometer and how it was integral to the growth of a neighbourhood.
Because that doesn’t sound too interesting, does it. The gasometer has passed from the modern world, along with the memory of it and the way commerce, urban society, and eventually rural society depended upon finding ways to store an aethereal commodity so it could light, warm, and feed communal populations before electricity was economically and technically available. What about the processes that made it possible?
From Genii of the Lamp, an essay by Charles Dickens, in 1862:
The manufacture of gas, although it
includes many beautiful
scientific processes, is not, on the
whole, a sightly operation. What is
not seen may be refined and
interesting; but what is seen decidedly
savours of pandemonium.
There are huge caverns of red hot
coke, and a row of fiery ovens,
which sooty men are constantly
feeding with coal thrust in, out of
large iron scoops.
So then, I chose to use poetic techniques to tell the whole story effectively, to use drama, memoir, repetition. Capture the sound of a part of history in thirty lines, repeat for emphasis, connect the past to emotions one can relate to in the present day. Bring back childhood, make the past, what has been lost, real.
four years old
breathing is such hard work
there are two doors in my room
one to enter the room and one
to the verandah
a window in the door is divided
into four squares and the squares
are filled with gold
is it heaven?
my mother tells me
it is a gas tank
And tell the story so that it can be absorbed in hours. Do it through words that can lodge in the brain, rather than flash on a screen for minutes, and easily forgotten.
your grandfather who came to do this whose tough
European build dug this trench dug miles of it
no steel-cap boots no compensation just stay ahead
ten hours a day to dig a trench for miles of gas pipes
a solid trench a reliable wood plank shoring wall
on a good day a good man shifts three tons of dirt
I wanted to emphasize how the lives and work of those before us were as important as anything people do today, and that without them, today would not exist. This is the work narrative poetry does.
Read this excerpt, preferable aloud…(there are 15 more lines of processes in which steam was important, in order to have clean gas reach the gasometer). Hear the rhythm of how steam once caused our world to go round…
steam for clearing chemical obstructions in pipes
steam for clearing naphthalene in pipes
steam for clearing tar in pipes
steam for preventing congealing in chemical tanks
steam for preventing congealing in chemical wells
steam for general cleaning of equipment
steam for heating cold buildings in the works
steam for maintaining the temperature of process piping
steam for preventing freezing of the water under the gasholder
steam to ensure high-quality secondary combustion
steam as a reactant in the carbureted water gas plant
steam to drive the equipment thereof…
I hope you will, with me, feel the loss of childhood, everything that was my, and your, world:
I wasn’t there when they took down the gas holder
I can’t image how that huge bell was dismantled
though I sometimes see its miles of rounded rivets
in my dreams like cloth buttons fastening the great
curved metal sheets together and how they turned
smartly at the corners of each panel two by two
double rows catching the sun like a marching drill
that we learned at school; could I have handled
the dismantling or the empty gasometer exoskeleton
bereft and without purpose like someone unexpectedly
not able to find their way home from the supermarket.
My childhood neighbourhood is gone, and yet it lives on, because of poetry.
To obtain a copy of Park Ex Girl: Life with Gasometer, send an e-transfer for $25 to firstname.lastname@example.org, (address and name in message) or send a check to her at: 49 McArthur Ave, Carleton Place, On, K7C 2W1
It’s the easy kind, right? Tell a story and break it into poetic lines. Go back to it with the old saws, add interior rhyme, see if you can emphasize rhythm, at least in part of it. Take out articles, adverbs and extra adjectives. See if you can fit a metaphor in there, a morale, perhaps, a relevant line from someone else’s poem. Make it more political. Quote something that sounds preternaturally wise.
And so forth, which is like trying to turn a plastic kayak into a schooner by adding a particular kind of sail. Both shapes float, after all. It’s a difficult thing to do, but I find it hard to pull it off.
There are no right and wrong ways to do it, but perhaps going ‘slow’ is a good suggestion. On the other hand, going ‘fast’, letting it all out in one blast, can work too.
Elisabeth Bishop said it took her twenty years to write ‘The Moose’, which meanders lyrically, establishing the Atlantic setting geographically and psychologically, taking a while to get to the actual moose. It’s clear that she has a lot to say about many things, and that while the moose has been roaming around in her mind for many years, the passengers on the bus, the clinging, dense, claustrophobic feel of the woods and a subtle atmosphere of menace are integral to the main point of how the curious power of nature can transform a rather ordinary moment into a transcendent one.
All to say that spending time with a first draft is a step forward for me. I decide what form I will use, what poetic form. It helps me to determine right away that I am writing a poem, and not a story, not only a story. Giving my narrative a definite poetic is important to me helps even if I change it later. I decide on a short or the long line, on the kind of punctuation I will use.
My long poem rabbit (rabbit, Aeolus House, 2020), happened because a rabbit died. With zillions of rabbits in the world, that death should not have been momentous, but I needed to write the poem. It wouldn’t take long to tell. The rabbit came to our yard. It was hurt and it died.
I knew there was more to the story but not why. Here’s where writing habits kick in, such as the benefit of writing on and on, like a marathon, stream-of-conciousness, and continuing even if nothing seems to make sense. Eventually something will kick in and say Enough, time to edit and look for a pattern or a path. Amazing things sometimes happen if I stick with it.
But poems can get bogged down in trying to make sense, trying to dig deeper, trying to be more poetic. The key word is ‘trying’. The opportunity to free my mind from any constraints, (maybe wine would have helped) was there when I wrote ‘rabbit’. I needed to plod on, because I thought I had more to say that was connected, the way that everything is connected. It was time to play, and grab whatever came along in the wind.
Eventually the synapses decided to connect and linked this particular sorrow, one that seemed out of proportion with all the other sorrows in the world, to those lurking somewhere inside of me. One sadness instantly brought back many previous and concurrent ones.
In this case what the poem was after was loss, eventually zeroing in on the Notre Dame Cathedral fire in Paris, where I had sat to listen to an organ concert by a famous Canadian organist. How I worried during the fire about the thousands of organ pipes I’d heard in glorious song! Loss lingered on the severe illness of one of my dearest friends, and the possibility of losing her.
I write a lot of narrative poems. At present I am working on a series called WILD Wild Flowers & friends, about plants that I met on local trails in the summer. I say met, because the encounters seemed entirely personal, as if I’d met some of them before. Of course, I had. In years past I had even tried to remember the names of some of the flowers, nearly all of which to all I felt about meeting that wild plant. I’d forgotten. Once I identified a flower on a trail, I focussed on it, research on the internet, tied information gathered, reclaimed our acquaintance.
So I had a few ways into a poem. I had, for example, the water lily’s Latin name, Nymphea odoratus. Already I had nymphs, and odors to think about, and my reactions to both while further research uncovered amazing facts about this ubiquitous lily. I had tonnes of material, and I still wanted to write a short narrative poem. It’s easy to get carried away in narratives by enthusiasm.
Here’s where the value of The Ruby Tuesdays, an Ottawa writing group, kicks in. I had so much botanical information in the first water lily draft that the wonder of the lily itself was eclipsed. I had allusions to great Art, and to Greek mythology. I had the whole kitchen in it. But it didn’t have a heart yet.
It helped to ask for the opinions of other poets I trusted; my family and friends might like what I’ve written but are prejudiced, sometimes against. A botanist might be over the moon to see an abundance of her specialised language in my poem, but if I wanted valued advice, I needed the point of view of poets. Meeting on Zoom, I read the poem aloud, and started to realize some of my problems. I listened to comments and took them seriously, whether I agreed with them or not. It’s such a great group, there’s no need to be defensive.The Rubies said cut the scientific jargon down, along with editing the cracks, crevices and alcoves I’d included, on rhythm, and gave advice on syntax, cadence and word choice.
I had written a terrible draft, and needed underscoring of where I’d gone wrong, because it is so hard to throw out my favourite words, even if the only reason I liked them was for the sound of the scientific vocabulary.
I have trouble making a group of words, of lines, into a poem that I’m satisfied with. I always want my poem to take wings, and am disappointed that I often don’t know enough, haven’t read enough, haven’t spent time enough thinking and rewriting. It’s hard when a narrative I care about crashes like a kite in a storm.
Writing a good narrative poem is just as hard as writing a good ghazal or sonnet. I think of trees. The final narrative is the tree, but it exists because of its roots and the mycorrhizal interplay underground. Without fungus, the tree might be lost. The more healthy the underground inter-reliance, the healthier the tree. I do believe though, that the more free associating and cutting I do, often makes for a better poem.
The tendency is to lapse into free verse, which again, seems easiest, but isn’t. It depends on what the writer wants: a story or a poem. If a poem, why not make it a good poem.
A line comes to mind, an image, a quote, a throwaway comment, an intriguing word, and a poet realizes a poem has to come out of it. At least that an attempt must be made. What the poem will be, its shape and content, even its theme, might be unknown. The poem starts to be made, another line, a word follows, coming as if out of the air. If I have an idea for a poem and know where it is going, I might as well forget it. My interest is gone.
This isn’t how all poems are made, but it’s an interesting way to work. Underneath all the thinking and making, a poem may end up being about something deep in the subconscious, something important that has been waiting for a platform.
But since a poem is a made thing, it can be approached in many ways, the way a child looks at the materials available and without thinking, begins to make or build. We grow out of it; as adults simple playing can be embarrassing. Adult play sometimes narrows to games of one sort or another.
The poem at the start of the rabbit collection, ‘where language forms’ had several beginnings. I’ve written poetry for many years in the Japanese forms of haiku and tanka, among others. In three or five small lines, the poet often is conscious of using juxtaposition, of not following a thought in what many would consider a logical way. Something magical can happen by having a reader or listener make their own leap between two written concepts.
Another ‘brick’ in the building of this poem is my collection of pretty well anything that comes to my attention, via book, facebook, conversation, television or radio, basically I’m like the bird that collects things becaus they are blue or shiny. I collect words in various arrangements.
When I started writing lyric poems like this, it confused me. How do such disparate sets of words seem to work for me. They didn’t seem to work for some in a critique group. But some juxtapositions took hold ‘in my gut’, and insisted on staying together.
In this case, the poem started with the second verse, a quote from Lewis Carroll, and when it came to continuing the adventure, I decided to play and find lines that were noteworthy, colourful, or lines that I wanted to read over and over. Well, I’d think, let’s put that into a poem, see if I’m still interested in what I’m making.
It reminds me of Mary Dalton’s Hooking: A Book of Centos, and being astounded how lines from other poet’s work fit together because the poems ask readers to use their own intelligence and sensitivity to make meaning from a poem. Because I wanted to make my own leaps, and my own meaning.
So it was that ‘a hint of the philosophy behind the southern drawl/ sweet and delicious as falling into butterscotch’ from the mystery writer Barbara D’Amato, was so delicious and buttery that it need something to ‘stop the story’ because ‘the lens of our mother tongue changes it’, a quote from Czeslaw Milosz.
In the same way, singer/songwriter Adam Lambert’s ‘broken pieces break into me’, is true to Shakespeare’s ‘this our life, exempt from public haunt’.
The critical point is when all the pieces are in the right position, and the maker realizes what the poem may be about, discovers a central meaningful idea. Here the flexibility of language, the freedom of it, how curious it can be, how what a biologist with expertise in parrot-ology has to say is of equal merit to that of a well known poet or philosopher, how the one expression can deepen the richness of another all spoke of shadows, memories, the everyday realities we live with.
The first two lines are mine and they came after the rest of the building blocks had rearranged themselves into a comfortable room in this language house. As ‘poem’ comes from the Greek poíēma, meaning a ‘thing made,’ and a poet defined in ancient terms as ‘a maker of things’ it’s comforting for me to remember that a poem is a strange thing which operates as nothing else in the world does.
Yehuda Amichai’s lines about an old toolshed, saying so much about how we can ‘read’ a toolshed as a toolshed, or spend time to read more deeply, and discover that a toolshed is love, and a great love at that, leaves me with so much more to consider about language and ways a great love can be dismissed or discovered in the most unlikely places. I also like his lines there, to hand every time I open this collection, so I can read them and appreciate them as often as I want to.
Next time, I’ll try to figure out why a more narrative poem in the collection went where it went, and why, and why I wanted to keep it. Because a narrative poem, too, is a made thing.
So here is rabbit, taken from the last long poem in this collection. rabbit is my very own leporid.
Every once in a while, you get the feeling that things are meant to be. Take this rabbit. I mean the one in the poem, the last long poem in the collection. rabbit just hopped into my life and meant something more to me than I realized, until something happened to make me realize it.
Many of us have rabbits in our yards. They are ubiquitous, in quiet colours, make hardly any sound, so why do we like them so much. Why then write about one, and deem it important enough to name a collection after it. All I know is that one particular rabbit was important, and it took writing about it to know why.
I may write about that in a later post. This is more about putting a group of poems together. What’s interesting is when you end up with a terrific editor who has suggestions and you look at, in this case, his suggestions, and you ponder, and you respond to them. When you have Allan Briesmaster as that editor, you quickly become aware of his alertness and sensitivity to the poetry, to the content, to his author, and to our readers. It is a very alive time. You feel listened to by someone with more than a poetic mind, someone who is looking at a whole book and how it fits together. Your book.
I am stubborn, ask anyone, but when it’s about a poem or a cover, I will offer reasons for that doggedness, always believing that I am right and that I have the best argument. It must have been hell for Allan at times, because he is, on top of everything else, a gentle man, and alert to his author’s delicate ego. I, on the other hand, have had very many years of building up to this moment. Like a three-year-old I pummel my fists and pound my heels on the floor, it’s my book! But, mostly, once he suggested where it could be improved, I usually quieted down and thought, well that’s exactly how it should go!
One question was whether it was a good idea to have so many different styles in a collection. We came to the conclusion that we both liked the idea. At first I was just so pleased to have him as editor as well as publisher that I was okay with every dropout suggested, especially as he always gave a reason for his suggestion. Some poems I fought for, and others were dropped. Then I found that I cared more than I thought I would. At times I had to argue my point more strongly, and to give Allan credit, he was impressed by a good argument, something to remember if you are lucky enough to publish with Aeolus. But be ready to back up your stance. Very ready.
I was surprised at how I dug my heels in a couple of times. It made me think more than I usually do about what I do and why I do it. What words I write and how I put them together and why. We get so little chance to talk about our own poems. As a member of two excellent critique groups, The Other Tongues and The Ruby Tuesday group, I benefit from having other poets’ eyes on a poem, and from feedback. I then benefit from looking at the work of others, and bending my lazy mind to understanding and expressing what I think and feel about the poems of others. It’s excellent practice.
But talk about our own poem, where it came from, why it is in the form presented, the motives behind it and what we actually thought we were doing when we put those words down, why our lines end where they do and the reason for the distribution of white space, any philosophy or personal histories that brought us to this point, well, there isn’t enough time to do that thoroughly. And I couldn’t do that, you say to yourself. It’s so self serving, isn’t it? And really, there’s no time for it all to be about me. But there are times we want to say more, times we are exploding with it.
Because there are times when reading someone else’s collection, we are wondering about those particular things. When I read an essay about a poet and their work, I am pleased to see a little more elucidation, something about a poet’s background, whether the garret had an electric heater, what they thought about sex. Something about their educational background, or the history of the period in which they lived.
It’s like knowing why a cook uses olive oil instead of butter, or how the colours of an oil painting have changed in the past centuries. In understanding the clockworks, or why a poet uses an expression like ‘Charlie bit me!’, the context makes the poem clearer and more accessible.
So I’m going to talk about this collection. And maybe a little about me. Horrors! You might choose to unfriend me or unfollow my blog. Better do that now, because the next post is going to be about MY poems, and why. Just wait until I start writing about making gas from coal. Oh, sorry, that’s my next collection. Right now, it’s all about rabbit.
Before I close this post though, a short tale. Once I knew Aeolus was going to publish rabbit, I started to think of cover ideas. That very day, on facebook, I saw a photograph posted by a ceramicist friend in readiness for a craft fair: it was a little rabbit sculpture, and the rabbit looked so vulnerable, so fragile and breathtaking, that I needed to bring it home immediately, and ask Allan if it could be on the cover. I messaged that I wanted to purchase the rabbit and I did. The artist is Lanark’s Molly Forsythe and her email is in the book. I am so happy about this! A professional photo was made and cleaned up (three hours!) by Chuck Willemsen of Merrickville, a close friend and the husband of one of my dearest friends, Lesley Strutt, poet and Young Adult author. I feel wrapped in friendship with this sculpture on the cover of rabbit. Thank you. You are all such very special people.
But back to me. Beware. Next post will be all about me and MY poems. And my rabbit.
The highlight that happened on February 29th, 2020, was composed of fifteen poets willing to go along with me as facilitator, suggesting things to do with words, ways to manage words, ways to wrangle with sets of words on the page, arrangements of words and white space, and risk with phrases. The highlight was a highlight because of several elements. The first big one was the welcome in the home of poets Angela Leuck and Steve Luxton, though Steve was away that weekend. The second was savouring this little village in a hilly area of the Eastern Townships, when the snow was thigh high, and the whole world there white and clean and illuminated by sun. It was cold, but even in the dark, the air was so clear, it sifted through a person leaving a more refreshed being.
What else to say. The cliché of crackling fire, food, oh the food. And this was the day before the workshop, poets sitting around, one from Montreal, one from Ottawa and me from Carleton Place, west of Ottawa. Before I left, I was my husband Ted wondered why I would travel for four and a half hours in winter for one afternoon workshop, but I sensed somehow that those nine hours of driving would bracket an amazing experience, and I was right. You have to be a writer to understand, I suppose.
When the poets started to arrive, they were welcomed with some blessing cards made by Sheryl Taylor, which fit in beautifully as a welcome, and because we would be composing a blessing poem later, though Sheryl hadn’t known that. The room we were to work in was a writers’ muse in itself. Long, with many windows, the view, the trees around the property. It was a room partially walled with books, floored with warm wood, filled with interesting tables and places to sit. Part of the room can be seen in the first photo, but not the sunny warmth. And I think my serious/sour look gives the wrong impression. As long as the other poets look happier, and they do.
I’d been to a workshop given the weekend before by Mark Tredinnick of Australia (see the post before this…)who’d suggested we could write a poem about fifty words for snow as one of the constraints. (another constraint had been to write it as a ten-line poems, with ten syllables in each line, which I never managed to accomplish, though others did…) but the idea of fifty words for snow hinged itself into my brain, and on coming home from that workshop, I was too wired to sleep and found myself listing words for snow, many of them outrageous, silly, unsuitable; I couldn’t sleep until the list was 12 notebook pages long. So I thought I’d read some of this list to open the workshop, to show how fluid this idea could be, to show that the imagination could take over and create fantasies, how rhyming elements can stir ideas..
So after introducing ourselves to ourselves I started: glister snow, crow snow, lawful snow, awful snow, hipster snow, moon glow snow, wet sock snow, boot snow, cute snow, blown snow, store window snow, snow globe snow, fractious snow, glazed snow, ankle-biting snow, igloo snow, melting snow, about to melt snow, pelting snow, snowball snow (you get the idea snow).
My list ‘poem’ was so ridiculous, and the chanting element caught on. I suggested they start their lists with as little thinking as possible, and quick writing. After a few minutes I suggested we read in round-robin one after the other, if they wished to join in, and they did. The sound was joyous and fun and relaxing. I inveigled one poet to send her list to me and, with some joint editing, Carolynn Rafman came up with:
hints of snowflakes
hint of snowflake snow
blowing on river snow
snow squall snow
fast highway driving snow
windshield wiper snow
blinding blizzard snow
invisible car snow
morning after snow
snowmobile track snow
snowy woods snow
snowshoeing through woods snow
snowshoeing in mountains snow
snow track snow
winter wonderland snow
whispering pine tree snow
alone in deep woods snow
snow day snow! …
…which is glorious! And rhythmic and mind-loosening. (I am not including the whole list as she may want to publish it and showing the whole poem means it would have been published. It makes a difference to some journal editors that only take unpublished poems.)
So the workshop started with an explosion of unusual ideas and language, and I hope the poets continue with their snow word list poems. It was time to knuckle down, because these poets were good, and they were up for more meaty work, even the vegetarians.
Next I let each choose a box from my bag. It didn’t matter what kind of a box it was. Boxes from tea, clear boxes from pens bought at Indigo, little ring boxes lined with velvet. I was The Voice, and the participants were to imagine they’d awoken to find themselves small enough to sit inside the box, cross-legged, in a corner, their head just touching the cover with the lid not completely closed. How did they feel finding themselves in that Kafkaesque situation. They were to jot down only fragments, short phrases, and write them quickly. The questions and suggestions followed one on top of the other. Stretch your arms. What can you touch. How does it feel? How do you feel. What can you see? Are there textures. What are you thinking? Are there colours. Sounds. Smells. Start to get up, kneel, look outside your box. What do you see. Etc… Then write a poem using some or all of those jottings.
Again, I’d love to show some of the poems written after that. I would insert them later if they are still on their way to me. For some, this was a difficult and even frightening exercise. I’ll have to take that into account if I ever decided to do it again with a group.
Some poets had wanted comments on poems written before the workshop. They sent them to me and I’d pencilled in possible edits, comments, general suggestions. Before the break, I asked if they wanted to read the poems to the group, but they wanted me to read them aloud, so I did with commentary. It was a good opportunity to talk about shape and space in poems, line length and endings, effects of enjambment, of short and longer lines, and to bring out the gems I’d found in the poems. The poems deserved more than this, but there was time to have individual discussions during the break. They all wanted those marked-up poems back. I hope they could read my messy writing.
Marjorie Bruhmuller has let me include her edited poem here. Again, for the same reason, I only give part of it:
Deep into ‘Cowboys and Indians’ in the 60s
we never thought about
shooting off our guns.
Ours were magical, couldn’t kill a fricking toad.
But now I imagine my mother watching
from the kitchen window
as we played; the aim, the fire, the KABOOM!
The hit, the roll, us dead on the lawn
with a tongue out.
She told us later how after leaving her house
one day as a girl in England, she noticed
as she rounded the corner,
a whole block leveled, the people gone in their sleep,
despite the air-raid sirens,
a nightmare becoming fact.
How war had outlasted the toilet paper, sugar
and egg rations, outlasted the young men
in the villages, who never returned.
Outlasted everything but hope—
This was a poem that she reorganized after discussing form, and it works beautifully. I love the use of the word fricking and the details like dead on the lawn/ with a tongue out.
You can tell by now the spirit and creativity in that room. I was flabbergasted by what they were coming up with.
I read excerpts from Mark Tredinnick’s A Gathered Distance, for rhythm among other things, and discussed the in percentage terms the relationship of ‘setting’ to ‘emotion’.
It was time for translations. I gave them a poem of Tomas Tranströmer in his original Swedish, and explained the rational of writing their own translations.
FRÅN MARS – 79
Trött på alla som kommer med ord, ord men inget spark
for jag till den snötäckta ön.
Det vilda har inga ord.
De oskrivna sidorna breder ut sig åt alla håll!
Jag stöter på sparen av rådjursklövar i snön.
Språk men inga ord.
None spoke or read that language. They had such inventive minds, and after a round of sharing, I gave them the following Japanese tanka in romaji:
Kasasagi no Wataseru hashi ni Oku shimo no Shiroki o mireba Yo zo fuke ni keru
Tsukuba ne no Mine yori otsuru Minano-gawa Koi zo tsumorite Fuchi to nari nuru
Emperor Yozei In
…and suggested they translate either one. These poets were such good sports! Again, marvellous things were shared.
And finally, I’d brought a memoir with me, The Organist, by Mark Abley of Pointe Clare, Quebec, that focused on his life with his parents. His father had been a well-known organist. Mark had included a poem about the father/son/mother relationship as he’d seen it in 1964. It begins:
Mother and Son
You are the voice in the kitchen singing;
I am the smell of new-washed linen
in a summer bedroom with the window open
before drowsiness tucks me in and silence falls.
You are the ladies’ book club member;
I am the furtive reader of Anatomy
of a Murder . You are the steady
towel beside the bathtub…
My suggestion was to write a similar poem about any personal relationship. I wish I had some of the poems written for this; they were very good. Fortunately Bernice Sorge sent me an edit of a poem read out that day:
this witnessing involves a pickup truck
four men, a grandmother
her 14 year old granddaughter Aisha
a policeman who was driving the pickup
to a stadium in Somalia
the granddaughter who was raped
in a small village
and maybe the radio program
I heard when working in studio
interviewing a man
who lost his arm in a car bombing
helping Mandela in the anti-apartheid
did I mention that the stadium
could hold one thousand people
its playing field covered in sand and grass
with stones lying about
the pickup is part of this story…
Her poem ‘Aisha’, which had been quite long with very short lines, needed some breathing space, especially as the content was so emotionally gripping. She is still working on further edits. Poems like this leave me without words…
I was delighted when another poet wrote of the relationship of two sides of herself. Poems read out were between sisters, brothers, partners, parents. Those who wished to, shared their poems; the emotions and insights that poured out were varied and exciting, with not a cliché in sight, and these poems happened at the very end of a long afternoon. These poets gave of their all, and then some.
I gave out the actual translations for the poems above, in case anyone really wanted them. I was left with a feeling that the poets had written themselves out, but in a good way. They were incredible people to work with.
We headed for the kitchen and a pot luck spread that dazzled the eyes. How could we ignore our eyes that were bigger than our bellies? It was really beyond description because the flavours and textures were so memorable, and I have no idea how these dishes were created. These were no ordinary vegetable curries, salads, quiches. I drool thinking back to them. A three star pot luck dinner! And then…I’ve been watching what I eat for a couple of months, no sugar, no dairy etc. etc. etc. But for the second weekend in a row, the meal ended with my favourite dessert of all time: Pavlova.
And, with no thought to manners, I asked if I could finish what was on the serving plate, and scraped it clean for the second Sunday in a row.
Our host, Angela, is an angel. Pavlova! The weekend included walking along those plowed streets. Just walking and looking at snow. It was heaven. So you see, it all ties up.
I would like to thank Angela, the participants, who gave so much of themselves and their talent, especially Bernice Sorge and Carolynn Rafman who stayed over which added great conversation to the time I was there, also Mike Montreuil, another friend, participant, publisher and visitor, who took care of groceries, shovelled snow and cleared snow off cars, and is a whizz in the kitchen, Angela again, who offered crêpes on Sunday morning.
This workshop took place north of Val des Monts, Quebec, on the weekend of February 21st to 23rd. Lise Rochefort and her husband Adrian Jones were our hosts, and Lise’s cousin Christine was the cook. For 18 people! We filled three houses by the frozen lake, neighbours to a circle of ice fisher people out on the snow-covered ice. Two of the houses are owned by Lise and Adrian, and the third, a neighbor’s who was away for the winter, was rented for the weekend. Mark Tredinnick and his partner Jodie are here from Australia which led to many a discussion of the devastation there. The food was incredible. I may have to mention the food again.
For example, on Saturday evening, there were tortieres in honour of Quebec, and Pavlova afterwards to honour the world down under. The setup was awesome. What a word to use. We were all comfortably housed, and getting from one house to another was made easy by Adrian’s having plowed so many pathways.
Mark had copies of his newest book, A Gathered Distance, and he orchestrated the weekend sessions around it. We had been asked to write a poem before the weekend, a response to one of his poems. We shared and discussed those poems on Friday afternoon for three hours. We were assigned homework: a choice of three prompts, and some reading to do, three poems each night. Of course, by the time we finished talking and eating the glorious food, the delicious desserts, it was already late, but we had to do the reading and write a poem to share the next day, and same thing on Saturday night.
By the time we got to our rooms to do our homework, we were fried before we started. A few hours later, some few hours of sleep, and back to sharing our poems and learning about poetry. Each session began with two participants reading from our fave published poets, and discussing those poems. Mark has a way of doing general critiques that suggests things, but makes the poet feel they have accomplished much already in their attempt. The poems got better as we went on. He had hours of things to say about what makes a good poem…
We learned to write sijo, a Korean form, for one session, and were asked to write a sijo over lunch, so we spent as long as we could in the sun, not wanting to waste a minute of it, and sat back in the ‘classroom’ counting syllables on our fingers. ‘Classroom’ with fireplace, brand new kitchen, wall-to-wall windows, view of the lake. The silence while we were counting.
Tredinnick’s breadth of knowledge, his familiarity with poetry from all over the world, is daunting, but broadening for us. He knows lines and poems, and has met many poets, as he has travelled read, and workshopped from China to Peru. So much learning for us in two and a half days. In between the sessions we could walk to the lake, only a hundred metres away, or wander the plowed paths. Saturday night at 11 o’clock Mark, Jodie, Lise, Adrian and I were standing in a foot of snow at the edge of the dock, looking at stars. During the day, birds, otters and fishers explored the property too.
I am replete. But I must not forget: we had goodie bags! And and a super pair of long fleece-lined socks from Christine whose sewing group had had little labels made, and sewn onto each pair, that said ICE & FIRE 2020. The socks had little rubber pads on the soles so everyone was wearing them like slippers all weekend.
I didn’t want it to end. For such an incredible event, we were so intensely occupied with conversation, writing, listening and sharing that no one took photographs, not even of the Pavlova! Or the lemon meringue pie! The carrot cake! The African peanut soup! The chili! We are fortunate that someone woke out of our intensity at the end to take a couple of group photos. That’s why we all look a bit stunned. Stunned by poetry. Stunned by what Lise and Adtan put together. Stunned by Mark Tredinnick.
Every morning I get help making coffee. Desirée is a rescue bird, a Green-Naped Rainbow Lorikeet with whom I’ve shared my home for nearly nineteen years. She is in charge of my daily routine, with her no-nonsense timing for meals and petting. But in May I had to leave her with my husband while I flew to Vancouver for our annual Haiku Canada Weekend, our conference and AGM.
You might conclude that we are a bit crazy. Perhaps. This is Pat Benedict Campbell and Vicki McCullough after their dramatic presentation, ‘A Dialogue about Haiku Reviewing’ written by Paul O. Williams. It was so much fun as well as full of information. Pat and Vicki nailed it.
First a shout out to Vicki McCullough and Lynne Jambor who organized this whole weekend plus, including University residences, food, our Western style banquet (My, that food was good!) the programme, before and after events, and so much more. You were always there for us. You are wonderful, both of you.
Vancouver is gorgeous in the spring. The gardens around The University of British Columbia brilliant with colour.
We stayed in residence which was no hardship at all. Here is a night view from my window.
But we really did meet there to work on haiku, which may seem like another reason to consider us a bit mad: three days and a good part of two nights given over to these tiny poems.
Our annual anthology, at the water’s edge, was presented on Friday evening, and introduced by one of its two editors, Devin Harrison of Coquitlam, BC. Mike Montreuil, the second editor was not able to attend. Then the Weekend race was on, with the AGM, presentations by Rich Schnell of Plattsburgh, NY, ‘Rockwell Kent, a Pacific Northwest Thoreau?’, the reading of Eartshine, by Chuck Brinkley, and another presentation by Chuck on ‘Re-re-rewrite’, one of the most illuminating and courageous presentations, as he showed how he worked on his own haiku through the years and suggested a list of ways to edit our poems. Nick Avis, of St. John’s, Nfld, explored haiku under the intriguing title of ‘Naked Haiku’, and whowould want to miss that. He discussed the cultural and literary contexts that are often layered in haiku.
Kathy Munro told us of her trip to The Frankfurt Book Fair, Jacquie Pierce introduced ‘Between Mountains: Haiku and Japanese-Canadian Internment Camps.’
Claude Rodrigue launched his Tanbun From Old Deer House (catkin press, 2019) which is introduced by Larry Kimmel who invented the form. Claude also enlightened us with a history of Haiku in Comic Strips. Michael Dylan Welch fascinated with the publishing history of Anne McKay, and GAVE us her beautiful last collection, the journey, passed on to us through Angela Naccarato from a dear friend of Anne’s.
Calgary’s Magpie Group, (Pat Benedict Campbell, June Read, Liz Gibbs, Meghan Elizabeth Jones, and Mary Vlooswyk) shared their work in a lively reading from their third anthology A Pebble in my Shoe, and Pat Benedict Campbell also launced her Alchemy of Tea (catkin press, 2019). My she has a way with presentation!
There was a unique experience in listening to ‘Women Echoing Women – A Haiku Enchamtment’, with Alegria Imperial, Josephine LeRo, Isabella Mori, Rachel Enomoto and Tracey Wan in which we heard haiku in several languages.
A ‘Town hall’ hour was with special guest, archivist Lara Wilson, Director of Special Collections, University of Victoria, where our haiku Canada Archives now reside, in which there was great audience participation as everyone is curious about how the archive works and how to contribute to it.
Angela Naccarato presented ‘Preschool Haiku’, and Edward Zuk followed with ‘Haiku and Surprise’, and we were impressed by this quiet poet’s energetic argument, and the poetryAngela has done with small children.
Bob Butkus displayed his Photo-Haiga, Julie Emerson talked about the ‘Haiku Gumball machine’ and Carol McRury read ‘How To Write a Haiku’ a piece written by Naomi Wakan.
Patrick Gallagher led us on a Raw NerVZ treasure hunt, a tribute to Dorothy Howard and her creation and editing of the journal. How grand to hear her editorial choices in the voices of poets at the conference.
Marshall Hryciuk and Karen Sohne again led the ‘not-too-late’ renku on Friday and Saturday nights, and performed the completed kasen on Sunday near the end of the Weekend.
After the revealing of the winners of the Sea to Sky sort-of-ginko, the Jocelyne Villeneuve Award and the Betty Drevniok Award, we almost said goodbye.
As you can see, anyone can see from this report how the business and fun of tiny poems can fill the days.
Of course, when it was over, it wasn’t really over. Haiku is never really over…so those who could stay longer went to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden, with guide, Jacqie Pierce, and then afterwards we had a meal at a Chinese Restaurant.
I especially want to thank the volunteers who made the whole experience run smoothly, organizing the silent auction (over $700 raised!) and book tables, talking care of registration, sewing beautiful hand made notebooks, designing the graphics!!!! A million thank yous are on their way to you.
It took a few days to wind down from this time with some of our favourite members of our Haiku Canada family. And so, on to my next gallivant to the opposite side of Canada, St. John’s, Newfoundland, where The League of Canadian Poets held its AGM and conference.
I was terrible at taking photos during the presentations, but some of the highlights were the launch of Thirteen, New Collected Poems from LGBTQI2S Writers in Canada (a League Chapbook), at The Eastern Edge Gallery, and the launch of John Barton’s latest essay anthology, We Are Not Avatars: Essays, Memoirs, Manifestos. (Windsor: Palimpsest, 2019). The Sheri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award went to Andea Thompson who slayed us with three of her Spoken Word Poems. The Pat Lowther Award was presented to Kara Du Plessis for Ekke (Palimsest Press, 2018).
The Feminine Caucus Panel moderated by Sarah De Leeuw, featured Kara Du Plessis, Andrea Thompson and Sharia Shazia Hafiz Ramji. A new Chair of the caucus, Ayesha Chatterjee, was elected to continue the initiative and work of Anne Burke.
I was not present at the Grant Writing panel, but heard good things about it, and about Edmonton’s Billy-Rae Belcourt who gave the Anne Szumigalski Lecture in a voice recitation.
Our National Council meetings (the representatives of Canada’s regions, and the Executive Committee) were lively and productive. A great Thank You to Michael Andrews, our new Treasurer, for coming to St. John’s and for having the answers on finance, and also to Lesley Fletcher, Nicole Brewer and Madison Stoner for your organizational skills, and for being there so we could know your faces and friendly efficient personalities.
An unexpected delight was Mary Dalton. Poet Laureate of St. John’s, who joined us for several presentations, and at the Ship Pub after John Barton’s launch. Spending time with her was a highlight.
Of course, we didn’t end the conference there either, for several of us went out to spot whales and puffins, rented cars and drove around the island hunting icebergs and exploring some enchanting villages. The magic of Cape Spear. I think I know at least one person in love with Brigus and its tiny library.
I’ve not said anything about other hunts, like for the World Award Winning products of breweries and distilleries of the island. Oh yes, oysters, and mussels, and carousing on George Street, during which one of our number sang on stage in a bar with accompaniment.
On our trip around a peninsula, and the western shore of Trinity Bay, I kept calling Old Perlican, Old Pelican. So much for teaching reading for forty years.
For me, a treasure was spending an afternoon at the home of Nick Avis with Tom Dawe who has been named to The Order of Canada. I had met him when we had our Haiku Canada Weekend in St. John’s a few years back. He has been the Poet Laureate of that City and has taught literature at Memorial University for many years. Tom writes haiku as well as lyric poetry and one of my prizes is a copy he signed for me of his latest publication, New and Collected poems: Tom Dawe, (2019, Breakwater Books). I could spend months listening to his voice and discussing all manner of things in the universe.
My last hours were at The Rooms, the city’s magnificent Library and Archives, where I had lunch with poets Gwen Brooker and Maureen Dunne, who gave me two of their writing group’s anthologies, and whom I enjoyed very much.
Yes, I did tuck some Iceberg Gin into my suitcase. Who could resist?
The first clue: after half an hour just trying to get this image to be right side up (yes, I used the edit functions, yes I renamed it, yes I tried various other image variabilities) it’s going to stay this way now.
At the beginning of this little project I thought that’s great, I’ll learn how to do make a video and post other poems on my blog…
Backstory: A poem was accepted by Vallum for its ‘Chase’ theme, Issue 15:2, and I agreed to make a video of the poem for Vallum’s digital issue.
The experience was not a happy one, at least I wasn’t happy with the results after trying about twenty versions. What fun it is to think you’ve got it, then the video makes you look like a loon on funny drugs. Or you get halfway through the poem and screw it up. Read the wrong word. Skip a phrase. I managed to do things like that quite a few times. (recalling how, in grade three, I was a really great oral reader…)
And don’t I look terrified! I realize the light is wrong so move downstairs, laptop, accompanying cords, mouse and mouse pad…Try again as the parrot is asleep and Ted is out so it’s quiet. Go through the whole miss-a-word, add-a-word, forget-a-phrase sequences until finally, it’s going well…and Ted walks in and Desirée the parrot starts to sqwawk.
And it’s only a little poem!
Here I am banning my husband from his own house and shutting an innocent little bird into the bedroom. For about a minute’s poetry that will remain somewhere in the universe forever and be seen by perhaps seven people, all related to me, or who owe me favours. Or who just are too kind. Or who do not want to see me cry.
Result: Not great, but it is what it is. Thank you Vallum, for suggesting that I try this and for the digital publication. No pain, no gain. Sometimes pain and little gain…But I did it! That much I can be proud of. (insert apology here for saying I’m adding a video without following through…)
And now that I’ve written this post I find that I am not able to add a video to my post. So I will send it separately on Facebook, even though the process was excruciating.
Probably someone knows the trick to inserting a video into a blog post. All I know is that I will not be giving any workshops on how to do it. Not yet, anyway.