Enough of being lazy

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’.

Aeolus House Press, 2020

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.

of cabbages and kings, and leporids

So here is rabbit, taken from the last long poem in this collection. rabbit is my very own leporid.

My photo of Molly Forsythe’s sculpture

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.

Three cover drafts from the Aeolus graphic artist

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.

the professional photo by Chuck Willemsen, used for the cover

But back to me.  Beware.  Next post will be all about me and MY poems.  And my rabbit.

‘my own’ rabbit in a towel in a box by my chair