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:
Wataseru hashi ni
Oku shimo no
Shiroki o mireba
Yo zo fuke ni keru
Tsukuba ne no
Mine yori otsuru
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.