fish spine picked clean end of conversation

Hello new book! I begin this post with my editor and publisher’s name along with mine, and part of the skeleton of a fish. It’s sometimes a good idea to start with a part of something, a manageable piece, to take time to see the part, and so the whole, more clearly.

So here is Éditions des petits nuages, a small press with a big vision, one that takes risks and sends out into the world a fullness of books on poetry, mostly Japanese-form poems, in French and in English. Poet, translator and editor in his own right, Mike Montreuil’s ‘nuage‘ publications run from the historically important through compilations of contemporary poetry. I’m proud to be published once more with Éditions des petits nuages, pleased that some of my books are part of his publications list.

Montreuil is also the Publications Editor of Haiku Canada, main editor of the Haiku Canada Review and its Haiku Canada Sheet Series, both functions he has recently taken over from LeRoy Gorman. It’s a hat that is not easy to fill, but Mike will do a fine job.  And so, back to some the many poets published under the mantle of the ‘little clouds’: Andre Duhaime, Micheline Beaudry, Maxianne Berger, for starters, and Jocelyne Villeneuve. The Villeneuve project alone is worth many blog pages, as is the collection of years of The Betty Drevniok Award poems and judges’ comments, all this besides Montreuil’s work for The Haiku Society of America and sundry other poetry-related projects.

Now it is my turn again to be published by the little clouds, with fish spine picked clean, a collection of tanka, the five-line poems that can, every once in a while, be written in one line as it is in the title of this blog. It’s one of my briefest tanka, but one that pulls in what I like to portray in such a short poem, an image, but an image that links with an emotion, a very human poem.  After so many publications with my name on them, it’s still amazing to see the title and my name on the spine of this spine.  It’s been a long time coming for another tanka collection (after Your Hands Discover Me/ Tes mains me découvrent, 2010, Éditions du tanka francophone,  Montreal), and it mostly comprises already-published tanka in other other journals, in paper or online, such as Skylark, Take Five: Best Contemporary tanka, or Gusts, Canada’s Tanka Magazine, or in themed books such as Blackbird’s Throat.

These poems might count as a section of memoir expressed in tanka, but as such, it is of course, only the smallest part, a particle perhaps, of thoughts and feelings throughout my life.  Records of a kind. Not a narrative per se, but bits and pieces of nature, happiness, love, and sadnesses such as most people have, and about which many poets write. The ‘spine’, so to speak, of tanka poetry.

And what is this spine, my spine, trying to say and why collect all these pieces of my self into a book.  For I am not famous or rich as a many a poet may and should be. Not a celebrity poet whose books everyone wants personally signed, a writer the world clamours to know more about, which doesn’t matter, as it’s the right time to do what you’re doing as long as it is the right time to be doing it. Ah, I will be known throughout the land for long, oblique, tortured sentences. Still, it’s the way it is. Now is the time for fish spine to be shouting ‘life’ and this is how life is for me: how it has been, how it is, including the lusty erotics… who is to say when those experiences in life have been there and gone. Not me.

fallen into temptation/i unbutton/his shirt —/moon’s wry/romantic grin

never sleep they say/in the path/of a moonbeam/but my love/who’s thinking of sleep

crossing the bridge/across the border/the fire in us/could have melted/this steel

Putting the collection together has given me the chance to share the beauty of a dear one’s love of language, the simplicity of  a Brahms passage, or cross cultures with the poetry of another country, showcasing the relationship between early tanka and the Chinese poets.

languish languid limpid livid/you loved words/they came tripping out/like spring brook water/lively

then three simple notes/down and back/generates a measure/the ordinary…/seeding the/extraordinary

the smiles/of small girls/deny what is written/that no one is glad/when a girl is born                        (with reference to a poem called Woman by the poet Fu Hsüan who died c. AD 278.)

Within this collection of notes and whimsies written over the years, and the freedom allowed by Montreuil as editor, I can even approach being funny, reference Artificial Intelligence, indulge in my liking for the word ‘tarty’, and, using a famous pair of dancers, give a nod to how women are men’s equals, perhaps at times more equal, despite obstacles that few even notice.

it’s been with me, officer/all night long/the robot/had already/learned/to lie

fred and ginger/she in high heels/this marmalade is a hit/packed with tarty bits/of orange peel

The book will be out by March 12th, and I will be reading from it at Ottawa’s Tree Reading Series on March 13th.  Thank you so much,  Mike Montreuil and your little clouds.


From Literature to tanka, Part II

More from the Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Ribbons, the Tanka Society of America Journal, and its theme of tanka based on novels.

ribbons spring summerFor those willing to let themselves feel it, any story leaves behind something at the center, other times at the edge of perception, and poetry’s work is in part, to take up that residue and remnant.

In her tanka, her own identification with the protagonist of a novel by Nina Schuyler, Amelia Fielden courageously writes:

The Translator: / how much like Hanne’s story/ might mine have been/ had I chosen to stay/ with a Japanese lover

translatorI’m impressed by Fielden’s honesty; her life experience means that her tanka are never dull. It’s clear that not choosing to stay with her Japanese lover was a pivotal experience in her life. One of the things I like about tanka in general is the opportunity to let down your hair, let others know who you are, share the richness or poverty, physical or emotional, of your life. Tanka readers are listeners. You know there will be a listener.

That ‘might’ may indicate simple nostalgia, simple memory, or regret. I like its open endedness.  This poem could be about a secret she has been longing to share; I can imagine her intensity as she was reading The Translator, how well she must have understood Hanne’s emotions and her struggles. In five lines Amelia Fielding has said all that.

Linda Jeannette Ward goes into the psychological center of one of the characters by writing:

at the thrift shop/ Lady Chatterley’s Lover/ is falling to pieces/ I see she contains herself/ no better than I

chatterlyWard’s three choices of phrase, ‘falling to pieces’ and ‘she contains herself’ and ‘no better than I’ puts you right inside her mind. Lady Chatterley, thanks to D.H. Lawrence, has become a part of the poet; ‘no better than I’ shows a vulnerability, the kind of thing that makes us worry about ourselves. We bring ourselves to a ‘station’ in life, but know there are darknesses within ourselves that might one day make us crash, or simply react without thought of consequence.

You can imagine yourself standing in the store with her, surrounded by clothes and household items. It smells a bit musty. She has an ironic look on her face, yet you sense that what she is feeling is deeper than irony. You want to be able to ask if she needs a shoulder to lean on, if she’s okay.  And then she will laugh and you’ll go for coffee.

ashesthe Guilt/ indulging in this hearty/ Irish boiled dinner/ beneath its savor, a taste/ of Angela’s Ashes

Autumn Noelle Hall brings back the guilt (oh that wonderful  capital ‘G’!) we try to suppress when we feel particularly replete; it brings back our mother saying ‘Think of all the starving children in China”, and the images of famine and war we have just seen on the news or passed over in the newspaper. How can we eat after all that. But we do, we carry on as if such terrible things don’t happen to real people in the world.

The inspired pairing of ‘…hearty/ Irish boiled dinner/’ with the word ‘Ashes’ leaves you with the sensation of ashes in your mouth. It’s a visceral reaction; the poem leaves you uneasy. Frank McCourt makes us feel uneasy. Fiction can hit truth close to the bone. In the few words of a tanka, Hall reminds us of the history of the Irish people, contemporary and in the not so recent past. It’s a reminder that it’s in the Irish character that their history is alive for them every day of their lives.

“a rose in my hair/ like the Andalusian girls…/ yes I will yes”/ should I change my name to Molly

ulyssesSemi-quoting, lifting words from the glorious ending of James Joyce’s Ulysses and using them in a tanka… I take my hat off to you Kath Abela Wilson. It’s genius!

Readers tend to become engrossed in the lives of Leopold and Molly, empathising with them over the loss of their son, their issues, their friendships, their passions. We ache to be brave enough to live as fully as they do.

But if Leopold Bloom functions as a sort of Everyman, then Molly functions as every woman, a strong woman, an ardent woman who does not want to let life pass her by. There is more than one reason for a woman yearning after ‘Mollyness’; the two last lines capture that yearning.

In creating new poetry from the writing of another, the poet identifies in his/her personal way with the original author, and the new poem gives the original work an indefinable immediacy. Poets sense an underwritten suggestion, think ‘maybe I’ll go back to that novel too’. There, tanka writers, your work is done!


From literature to tanka, part 1

ribbons spring summerThe Spring/Summer 2015 issue of Ribbons, the Tanka Society of America Journal, highlights the theme of Novels.

The editor, Michael McLintock, introduces the theme with a memory of being a six year old walking out of the library with a real novel, his first. It was Stowaway to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron (Little Brown and Company, 1956). He tells of his terror and excitement. I can remember that feeling the first time I was allowed to choose a book that was not in the children’s section. My book was Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, and I took it home feeling very grown up though I was only ten.

We who love reading and poetry have often felt that excitement. It hangs around in our heads for a while, and we don’t want to let it go.

When we write a poem about a novel we’ve read, we get to relive that excitement and let ourselves fall back in time to the books that have changed ou lives or that were exceptionally memorable. It gives us a chance to get inside the book again, and create a new poem from inside the beloved pages.

Literature does many things for us but writing tanka or other literary forms from older literary works gives us a stake in the original story, taking us out of ourselves or deeper into ourselves. Either way, something new is made, and adds to the literature. The challenge is to put a whole novel into five lines.

catcher in the ryegorman tankaLeRoy Gorman has been a longtime supporter of visual poems. As editor of the Haiku Canada Review, he has accepted many such poems, aware of their visual impact and how a visual arrangement can affect the meaning of a poem. Here he arranges the lines into an upside-down A, but the lines step down carefully and deliberately to the possible result of a decision he has to make.

We don’t know whether the student’s work deserved an A, and this hidden aspect heightens the conundrum in this poem. We wonder if he did give her that mark, and the shortening of each line takes our breathing into account as we read it.

Because she loved J. D. Salinger’s fictional rebel in The Catcher in the Rye, possibly because she is one of his few students who actually read the book, Gorman wants to award her, ring the church bells, tell the whole world about it. The student became part of Holden’s life, and LeRoy Gorman celebrates a teenager’s realization of what a good book can do.

war and peace40 years later/ rereading War and Peace ―/ no longer Natasha,/ I’m old Drubetskaya/ fretting about her son

Angela Leuck becomes Tolstoy’s old Princess Drubetskaya fretting, as we all do, about our sons and/or our daughters. Once in a while what we are reading comes so close to personal experience, we stop breathing. At present, reading this poem, I fret about my son far away, and he is forty-eight years old!

Every woman wants to be the gorgeous Natasha. I like that ‘no longer’. She’s been trying to be Natasha in one way or another, perhaps in fantasy. To change, to suddenly prefer being an old poor woman because she knows love in the truest sense surprises the reader. The poem is full of empathy for the long suffering and the powerless. Creating new poetry out of that empathy honours the original work, and gets us thinking more about minor characters in literature and in our own lives.

farewell to arms

the last pages/ of Farewell to Arms/ so unbearably sad/ I play Moonlight Sonata/ again and again

Literature affects. Sometimes it touches so strongly, we have to do something about it. Immediately, right now, before we drown in the feelings the writing has stirred in us.  Luminita plays music, and she writes tanka.  She also has the gift of writing tanka that are concise and precise.

Key words are ‘again and again’, Moonlight Sonata after Moonlight Sonata until the sadness is driven away. Until we come back to earth and see that beauty can help counteract sadness.

Michelle L. Harvey loves the English classics:bronteausten

the old cow pasture/ where it meets the sky/ good enough for Austin and Bronte/ and falling in love

Harvey has entered the lives of the two writers by reminding us of scenes they would have encountered daily. The tanka puts us in a romantic mood, perhaps for some of us, our ancestral roots. It makes us want to go to that pasture and talk with the novelists, ask them how, from such rural settings, they thought to become writers.

I like the line ‘where it meets the sky’. It acts as a symbol of where the writers saw themselves and their writing. They escaped from the cows into worlds of their own making, far away from the everyday. Women of vision. Suddenly we want to go for a long rural walk, watch some cows, see if the cows will inspire us too.

a fine balance

for years I’ve sought/ relief from the seesaw/ of my life…/ today I finished reading/ A Fine Balance

How many of us go through what Dawn Bruce talks about in her first three lines. She’s just finished that novel and perhaps looks up, looks around her and realizes how fortunate she is. A Fine Balance is overwhelming; the lives of its characters are so difficult and they survive on so little.

Characters in the novel are caught up in the middle of great political and economic difficulties, and as always, it is the ‘little man’, the ordinary citizen who suffers the most.  In this novel, dignity is a silent character, its personal defining, its loss, its murder.  Dawn Bruce’s fine poem turns on the fourth line. The first three lines are a simple commonplace remark. The last two hint at awakening.

Dawn Bruce says a great deal in these eighteen words. We look around us stunned after finishing such a novel. How good our life is.  How small our see-saw of troubles in comparison.

The use of the word see-saw is perfect. We’ve been moved by a novel, or come face to face with some other desperate truth, and it’s human nature to look for a way to not let it interfere with what we have. We go out of our way to avoid the homeless, grump because they park themselves outside our favourite Starbucks and we don’t like feeling our uneasy feelings as we exit with our lattes. Some publications of this novel show an image of a balancing act on the cover, but we are the ones balancing.

Poetry as a state of grace, as Susan Stewart says. In writing the tanka above, poets have caused books and literary characters to come to life, to be organically connected with our own lives.