I’m back. But not with poetry today. A friend from the Banff Writing Studio, Jan Redford, tagged me to take part in The Next Big Thing, a literary blog interview. In The Next Big Thing writers answer ten questions about their work-in-progress, then tag five of their writer friends to do the same.

What is the working title of your book?

Diary of an Angry Woman. I’ve had a few friends recoil from the title but others have recognized it. After all, she could be your co-worker, your neighbour, or your ex-wife.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was sitting on my sofa reading a novel by Carol Shields when I heard this voice speak in my head. Instead of rushing to a doctor, I went to my computer and started to listen. Out came this tale of rage and loneliness. It was from an older woman remembering her divorce:

It is still a tooth-ache, a splinter, a badly reset bone aching constantly in the background of my mind. Before it, I was like everyone else. I had a husband, children, a circle of friends. After it, my life slipped away until now it is as empty as this house.

What genre does your book fall under?

Literary. I don’t think this would count as a beach read.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

That’s easy. I’d love Judi Dench or Maggie Smith to play my main character. Both can do that icy disdain. Both know how to soften.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Patricia Chadwick used her children to get revenge on her ex-husband and is now growing old alone and hating it, so she sets out to analyze where her life went wrong and find out whether she can fix it.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I’ve been debating this. What I’m best at is simply keeping it on my hard drive and editing it regularly. However, I know it needs to leave home so the question is how? I think I’ll try a few of Canada’s wonderful small presses. That’s if I can get myself to stop editing long enough to let go of it.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Just over three months. I’m a fast writer. Next question: how long has it taken me to edit? Best not to answer that. I love language and I love to continually hone it.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Anne Tyler has written books about women who suddenly stop and reassess their lives: Earthly Possessions, Ladder of Years, and Back When We Were Grownups. Joanna Trollope has also written about divorce and its effect on parents and children. Both authors have been big influences on my writing.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I was working with older women at the time as part of my job at an Anglican church and so I’d heard many of their stories and knew of their sadnesses (and their joys). But I was also inspired by the image of a road I could have taken, by who I could have become had I made other decisions in life. In some ways, I consider this novel to be my fictional autobiography. I haven’t had children. I haven’t been divorced. But Patricia, my main character, is someone I carry inside me. I know her.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Everyone’s curious about what causes the train wrecks they read about in the newspapers, the parents who battle viciously over every hour of Christmas Day. What makes them like that? Where does their anger come from? My novel offers one answer.

 

And now, visit these links to see what these wonderful writers are working on (more names will be added later):

 

Sandra Nicholls

Pearl Pirie

Ben Stephenson

 

Message for tagged authors:

Rules of the Next Big Thing

Use this format for your post

Answer the ten questions about your current WIP (work in progress)

Tag five other writers/bloggers and add their links so we can hop over and meet them.

 

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

What is your working title of your book?

Where did the idea come from for the book?

What genre does your book fall under?

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.

Be sure to line up your five people in advance.

 

 

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I’m back after a long summer of working on poems for the book, copyediting, and migraines. It’s been a busy few months when I haven’t had as much time to write as I would wish, but then not many people can afford to work full-time at poetry.

It’s almost a year since I went to the Banff Wired Writing Program and, when I look back over the year, I am so grateful for all I learned from working with Don Domanski. And also, from being part of the community of writers. I feel fortunate to have attended the same year as so many talented and supportive people. We had a great time together, in person and online.

Two of the three poems that I have coming out in Descant soon were written as a result of working with Don. They show how he taught me to go deeper into each line, to not settle with a surface, however pretty.

He also taught me how to convey emotion. Look at these lines of his from ‘Riding the Train in Secret’ in All Our Wonder Unavenged, where he talks about taking train trips with his mother:

the town where we arrived was the same town where we left
except my father didn’t live there    never lived
or walked the street’s with harm’s custom
the accepted practice of removing warmth from language
There is such quiet power in these lines. Don doesn’t tell us how his narrator feels about his father. He allows his imagery to carry the emotion.

Reading back through my poetry file, I am glad Don taught me a whole new way of approaching writing. My poem a day was useful while I learned how to to do it but it was seriously holding me back by the time I reached Banff. I was ready to try something new. Don’s advice to experiment with wordplay (as I call it), the juxtaposition of two opposing ideas and finding their common ground by image, was helpful, but even more was his advice to be a magpie, to collect phrases as I hear them and to lift and steal from my own discards, to find the shiny bits and place them in a new poem, constructing it as one would a fence or, better yet, a dress. And then, to edit.

To go from here:

And this is what winter looks like, a week lost
to barbed wire wound around an unarmed
head as you hear others’ voices speak
your own words,

To here:

She is what winter looks like, a week lost
to barbed wire as you hear others’ voices speak
your words
(from: It Happens Every Morning, to be published in Descant)

From this:

I visited the place
where you lived today, thinking
I should return you. The grass looked
flat without your edges. And those
who’d sheltered under your roof
had moved away, thinking
you’d abandoned them.

To This:

I visited the place
where you lived today, thinking
I should return you. I saw
the sorrow of grass without
your edges. And the small ones
who’d sheltered under your roof.
They were leaving, believing
your absence was a choice.
(from Apologizing to a Rock, to be published in Descant)

In both cases, I knew I had something I wanted to work with but the bones weren’t set right. I had to find a way to phrase the idea that was new. The following quote from an old Six Feet Under episode, spoken by the art teacher, Olivier, sums it up well for me:

“Every work you make has to be a surprise to the earth, a seeing that never happened before, because it’s what happens when what exactly is inside of you confronts what exactly is outside of you.” (Season 3, Episode 3, written by Kate Robin)

In the first except above, I was writing about how I look when I have a migraine, how it feels. I could have simply described my face as being white as a sheet, but that image is tired. And I could have said the pain is like a knife stabbing my head, but that sounds overly dramatic. Saying “She is what winter looks like, a week lost/to barbed wire” conveys the same information but in a much better way.

Rhyme can also help to transform an image. I’m not, in general, attracted to rhyming in poetry but these lines, “had moved away, thinking/you’d abandoned them” work much better with this rhyme in it: “They were leaving, believing/your absence was a choice.”

In future weeks, I’ll look at other techniques I’ve used to edit my poems. I’m not going to post every week, as I did for my first year with this blog. I’m too busy working on poems for my poetry manuscript. But I will post as often as I can.

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Today I’m celebrating the one year anniversary of this website and reflecting on my goals for it and my poetry. While writing was always my first ambition, my secret desire, I was initially trained as a musician: my undergraduate degree is in performance. The correlation between the two practices has always been obvious to me, the painstaking hours spent alone in a small room first warming up then running over and over the same passages, the listening(reading) to others, the disproportionate rewards for time spent, the sheer joy of performance.

The difference for me was that I didn’t enjoy the practice time for music whereas I love editing. I would watch the clock while running over sections of a sonata but am regularly late for dinner while choosing and discarding words.

This website was designed to lay bare my editing process, because I’d always wanted to see how others edit but couldn’t find anything in print or on the web. Clearly, others are interested in the process too. According to my statistics program, I have over 300 regular readers who come back over 3 times a month to read these posts. Most of you live in Canada and the United States but others come from Germany, Spain, the UK, etc.

While reflecting my love of editing, this website also inadvertently reveals my perfectionism: my love of honing a line has made me aware of my ability to improve it, which becomes a fierce responsibility, which ends up as a kind of fear. If I know hard work can make a poem better, then I think I must keep working at it and I become afraid to let go, knowing I can always improve on what’s there, if I just read more, learn more, and then revise again.

Obviously I have periodically persuaded myself to part with some poems. That’s why I have the publication record I have, plus three more coming out in an upcoming Descant issue. But I am holding myself back. Friends have published several books of poetry while I sit writing and polishing.

And as for my novel, my third one (I’ve already rejected the previous two), it sits in permanent virtual reality on my hard drive, once again waiting for that final final final edit even though I keep promising myself I’ll send it out again.

I love editing, yet I need to learn how to let go. How to know when a work is done.

John Adams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer, reminds me in his Juilliard Commencement Speech, ‘A life in the arts means loving complexity and ambiguity, of enjoying the fact that there are no single, absolute solutions.’

Much as I wish it were possible, there will never come a point when I feel I’ve reached perfection in a poem. I need to stop aiming for it. But not to stop aiming towards it.

Earlier in his speech, Adams reminded his audience of graduating performers – and us – that ‘The arts … are difficult. They are mind-bendingly and refreshingly difficult. You can’t learn the role of Hamlet (no less write it), you can’t play the fugue in the Hammerklavier Sonata (no less compose it) and you can’t hope to move effortlessly through one of Twyla Tharp’s ballets without submitting yourself to something that’s profoundly difficult, that demands sustained concentration and unyielding devotion.’

I’ve given poetry my devotion. Now I also need to learn how to let go. Which means, I also need to learn how to stop posting what are probably final versions rather than current versions of my poems on this website. It’s time I got a book manuscript off to a publisher.

So today, here’s a first draft:

uprooting the wild maple, the weed maple, a hundred
mini trees bunched in my hand, smelling
of the greenness of the earth, the white roots still
wriggling, the blind seeking earth’s black
blindness, the sucking that leads to
growth, the sun transposed cell by thirsty
cell, placing rings around a tiny
stem longing for the thickness only time
can bring, time and the abundance of
rain falling, snow’s thickness, the white blanket against
the bite of cold’s teeth on the young. All the grief in
one hand, all the cut-off life, all that will not
grow by my choice, the choices each day forces
hour by hour. I could turn, leave the hundreds
more, the jungle my garden wants
to be, let thirst thin the tiny twin leaves, choose only
sofa’s static safety, but those rings have
choked you already, a tightness of throat preventing
speech so you weed, hearing the hydrageanas’
voice sing as you do.

And a stage further along, where I’ve simply started working on it, at this point, only tidying the language, not yet looking at where it’s going. I’ve been playing with line endings, choosing verbs this time to drive the poem, which help to set an eerie atmosphere.

Next Stage:

uprooting the wild maple, the weed maple, a hundred
mini trees bunched in your hand, smelling
of green, the white roots wriggling, the blind seeking
earth’s black blindness, the sucking
that leads to growth, sun transposed cell by thirsty
cell to place rings around a tiny stem longing
for time’s thickness, time and the abundance of rain falling,
the snow white blanket against
the bite of cold’s teeth. All that grief in
one hand, all that cut-off
life that will not grow by your choice,
the constancy of choice a weight the tree won’t have to know. You could
repent, leave the jungle your tree wants to be, let thirst thin
the tiny twin leaves, choose only
sofa’s static comfort, but rings choke
you already, a throat tightness so
you weed, hearing the hydrangeas sing
as you do.

.
p.s. Many thanks to my composer/conductor friend Marg Stubington for sending me Adams’ speech.

p.p.s. I know Adams says “A life in the arts means a life of sacrifice and tens of thousands of hours of devotion and discipline with scant remuneration and sometimes even scant recognition” but couldn’t some of you 300+ leave comments more often?

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I recently accompanied my husband to the American Association of Geographers’ Annual Meeting and snuck into a few fascinating sessions on, of all things, the geography of poetry. I wrote non-stop during those sessions as the geographers’ words sparked lines in my head.

It’s appropriate that I have sat down to edit some of them while attending the Canadian Association of Geographer’s Annual Meeting, which is being held in conjunction with the Canadian Cartographic Association. Inspiration is all around me at every table.

Today’s poem owes particular gratitude to Adele J. Haft, Professor of Classics at Hunter College of The City University of New York. The paper she presented at the AAG was called ‘”Like Maps Laid Face to Face”: Bodies as Maps from Aristophanes to Louise Bogan and Sharon Olds’. She introduced ‘fifteen twentieth-century poems and touche[d] upon their map-related themes and debts to cartographic literature, maps, and the history of exploration’ (from her abstract). It isn’t published yet but meanwhile, you can read her other articles on maps and poetry by checking out her CV.

Having talked about the inspiration for this poem, I have to confess that its first few lines didn’t come from the conference. They were scribbled late at night by flashlight:

Staying Up Late

postponing the wrapping of sleep’s caul, the rolling
of sleep’s tight rug, holding your eyes open against
the words your brain whispers in the night, the words you wake
to turn against, a shovel
digging, boot firm against the sharp lip while stars
take their light years to remember

To continue this poem, I turned to my files from Adele’s presentation. I immediately discarded the poem fragments I’d written then because they were irredeemably bad. But individual lines could be worked with. I chose the ones below:

having to walk the map as your body, the one you redrew over & over as a child

your body a map you can’t follow, stretching your legs like roads into a new city, one you can’t explore
your face a map showing the way things were, a topography that holds you back as you age,

mirror world you could enjoy, green tunnels leading you to a cool world

all our histories a stutter in time, a leaf’s shake

You have no myths

Having put the lines together, the poem first came out like this:

Studying Cartography

You stay up late
postponing the wrapping of sleep’s caul, the rolling
of sleep’s rug tight
around you, holding your eyes open against
the words your brain whispers in the night, the words you wake
to turn against, waking to turn and turn, a shovel
in the earth digging, boot firm against
the sharp edges while stars open
their blind eyes, taking light years to remember
your name. The hum
of the air conditioner perfumes the air, the green
curtain descending, your body falling, falling, as you walk
the map of your body, the one you redrew
as a child, your face showing the way things were, your legs
stretched, roads into a new city, one tourists knew
well. You remember the mirrors, green
tunnels leading you to a cool world, the glaciers
at opposing poles they once believed
would never melt, history a stutter, a leaf’s
shake, a foreign country that was always
on your to do list. But Icarus’ wings never
appealed. You were too smart
for melting wax. You knew the sun’s
raging heat from textbooks and so you sit,
the woman who threw her coat
on the floor and left.

This was scary. The poem had flowed so well under my hands, I was convinced I had a winner. But rereading it, it didn’t work. It’s too obvious, for starters, which is a standard weakness of mine. I think there probably is a rule against using the word ‘whispers’ in a poem. If there isn’t, there should be. It’s trite. Grossly overdone. (I convict myself here.) So I replaced it with ‘repeats’. After all, we’re all kept awake at night by lists of things undone, by worries and regrets we rehearse.

The poem has a lot of images in it, so I seriously considered removing the shovel image (and may still). Again, I run the risk of cliché here. The only reason I’m still allowing it at this stage is because I think the setting is surprising. It’s a bit of a jolt every time I read it and I like that. Instead, I changed the mirrors further down to lakes, allowing the lakes to become mirrors so that the image remains consistent with the topography at that point.

The next stage of editing was about taking out anything that telegraphed what I wanted to say. So the word ‘stretched’ went, as did the whole section on glaciers. For the latter, the word ‘cool’ will suffice. So then you might ask why I allowed ‘waking to turn and turn’ to remain in, since the previous phrase says the same thing. As I’m learning from reading others, repetition can be good if it’s used in the right place. I deliberately repeat the ‘wrapping of sleep’ the ‘rolling of sleep’ and contrast it with ‘waking to turn’ and its repeat. This is the point where I’m setting up the poem and my narrator’s restlessness. I do not want to say the word ‘fear’. I simply want to set a picture of it in place. So I aim to make sleep sound like a nervous respite (‘caul’ ‘tight’) and waking worse (‘shovel’ ‘sharp edges’ ‘blind’, etc.).

Using cartographic images, the mapping of the body, gives me the freshness this poem needs, particularly in the context of my writing as I seem to be a little obsessed with night/sleep/stars. Insomnia will do that to you. So turning my eyes in a new direction, constantly turning my mind in new directions, is good. I thank geographers, and especially Adele today, for what they teach me.

Here’s the current version of today’s poem:

Studying Cartography

You stay up late
postponing the wrapping of sleep’s caul, the rolling
of sleep’s rug tight
around you, holding your eyes open against
the words your brain repeats in the night, the words you wake
to turn against, waking to turn and turn, a shovel
in the earth digging, boot firm against
the sharp edges while stars open
their blind eyes taking light years to remember
your name. The hum
of the air conditioner perfumes the air, the green
curtain descending, your body falling, falling as you walk
the map of your body, your face showing the way
things were, your legs roads into
the old city, ones tourists travelled
often. You remember the lakes, green
mirrors leading to a cool place, history
a stutter, a leaf’s shake, a foreign country always
on your to do list. But Icarus’ wings never
appealed. You were too smart
for melting wax, having studied the sun’s
raging heat in textbooks. Yet how boring
dusk becomes, smoothing the land’s contours until
the sky is tranquil. You can’t help yourself. Your head becomes
a soft pillow
on the sofa.

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As I’ve said before, I didn’t have the happiest childhood. Among other things, I was subjected to that hand in the night we’ve all heard about. Writing poems about it isn’t easy but it is necessary. Otherwise, I’d still be stuck in the writer’s block I suffered for decades when I wouldn’t face my past.

Confessional poetry is not the style I would have chosen for myself. But having learned the hard way that self-censorship doesn’t work, I’ve also learned blurting doesn’t either. Memories have to be turned into good poems.

Here’s the first draft of one of them.

The Consolation of Birds

Stay with me as I work
this through, the curlew’s graze
the crow’s flight by the window while
I sit, a huddled mass of silenced
words. We are the unspoken, full
of complicated thoughts we could not
name. Birds flew by heavy
with colour, that was all
we knew. They had wings
and a beak and were free
on a wind we could not see.
Let loose upon that wind great
cries we could not hear. Glass
and other sadnesses blocked up
our ears. Our tongues
were too young for all
of it. Branches swayed without
our knowing what
they were. Our minds made
black holes in the earth
for our memories to crawl
into. If you cut them
still, they lived.

I wrote this poem a few months after receiving a really lovely rejection letter from Arc Poetry Magazine in October of 2008. The rejection letter included comments from three readers who all advised me to be less blatant with my memories, to learn how to allude to them, to trust the reader to follow me. They also, bless them, encouraged me to keep writing.

In the draft above, you can see that I have committed quite a few serious sins. I move from first person singular to plural without any explanation. In two lines, I manage to hammer home that it’s all about ‘silenced words’, ‘unspoken’, ‘complicated thoughts we could not name’. Rather a heavy-handed attempt to be less blatant. The poem goes downhill from there, to the point where I say the birds had wings and a beak. Sigh.

You’d have thought I would have thrown this draft out. But I loved how the poem opened. The poetry group that I belong to also loved it – they found it to be a very intimate invitation. So I set to work pruning.

First off, I took the poem back to a single point of view, first person singular. Then I changed the first bird. The yellow-breasted warbler allows me to subtly set up a couple of images in the reader’s mind. I also use the naming of the birds as a way of signalling the two different time frames in the poem.

A small change in the title plus the tightening of each line allows the images in the poem to speak without needing to spell anything out.

The Bewilderment of Birds

Stay with me as I work
this through, the yellow-breasted warbler
and the crow’s flight returning me
to when I was young. I looked
out on birds then too, soft
with colour or none. I knew
no names. Nor could I see
the wind they were free on
nor hear the cries
they made. Glass
and other sadnesses blocked
my ears. My tongue
was too small to speak.
Black holes in the earth
were where my memories
crawled. If you cut them
still they live.

.
PS: One of my namesakes in the world, Gillian Wallace, the former Deputy Attorney General for British Columbia, died in March. She was a lovely woman who cared about human rights and helped bring about freedom of information and other important legislation. You can read one of her obituaries here.

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Today’s poem is quite different from what I usually write. That’s because it’s an older one: I’m hitting up the archives, trying to save time while working on my copyediting backlog. It didn’t work. I’ve had too much fun with today’s poem, as you’ll see, spending an hour editing it, concentrating on getting sound to carry the weight of the imagery in the poem.

Here’s the first draft:

Walking Home

Used to do this nightly alone,
my poverty self unafraid
of streets empty except
for the carapaces of cars
waiting curbside under
streetlights. Whistled
when I saw a man,
to show I wouldn’t go
quietly, usually
Prokofiev, something
jerky to make them move.
It always worked. I never
knew knife’s edge,
the dragging of heels, mouth
gripped by teeth-bitten
hand. Only the smell
of worms rising on wet
concrete, leaves blowing
greenly in wind, and the peace
of a closed door.

When I read a recent version of this poem at Tree Reading Series’ open mic last summer, that night’s featured reader David Starkey, Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara, praised it. But still, I wasn’t quite satisfied so as I started to write this post, I decided to play with it some more.

I didn’t want to stretch the poem much. I’m still copyediting madly so time is at a premium and I’m determined to send poems out to journals. I’ve been bad about keeping up with submissions lately. As in, I haven’t sent anything out in ages despite being asked for poems. So at first, I just tweaked a few words.

And then I got sidetracked by an interview on The Malahat Review’s website with Steven Heighton (one of my favourite poets) where he talks about the “re-enactive techniques–the little tricks and torques by which a poem’s word-music and rhythm, punctuation, structure, and layout all embody and re-present their subject matter instead of just describing it” which he says “are at the very heart of poetry.” I kept going back to reread his words, looking at my poem to learn how they could be applied. In the end, he prodded me to edit more keenly than I normally would have. Taught me how to push an image hard until its sharpness (in this case) shone.

You’ll notice I’ve only used a few of the tricks in Heighton’s bag. I’ve only played with the words and the rhythm. So far, I’ve not started experimenting with punctuation, structure, or layout in my poetry, preferring instead to concentrate on its sound. I’m not saying I won’t work on the visuals one day. I never rule anything out. But for now, I’m still specializing.

This was once a small poem, another one for the mulch bed. But I’m getting fonder of it. Let me know what you think.

Current version:

Walking Home

Used to do this nightly, unafraid
of streets empty except
for the carapaces of cars
waiting curbside under
the shells of streets’ lights. Whistled
when I saw a man
to prove I wouldn’t go
quietly, usually
Prokofiev, the tune
prickly to prod them
along. It always worked. I never
knew the sharp slit
of a knife’s edge,
heels black-dragged under
a heaving hot heaviness, mouth gripped
by teeth-bitten
hands, a belly’s blood
bruising. Only
the soft scent
of worms rising on wet
roads, leaves blowing greenly
in wild wind, and the luck
of a locked door tight
at my back.

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Another brief post today as my copyediting backlog has grown exponentially. I almost think I should change my email address for a while so my boss can’t find me until I get caught up. Needless to say, this is not a boom time for poetry. Though I am still writing every day, I’m producing more than I’m having time to edit, and what I’m producing is fragments, the kind of fragments that will later pull together into poems I can be happy with, but that right now exist as scraps of paper and emails that are only slowly getting copied into my work file.

So for today, I’m going to settle for showing you one such scrap, scribbled initially late at night after I’d copyedited pages of references, then edited whenever I could between manuscripts. I know what this scrap will become. It just needs the kind of time my current deadlines won’t allow.

Here are the words, first draft:

postponing the wrapping of sleep’s caul, the rolling
of sleep’s tight rug, holding your eyes open against
the words your brain whispers in the night, the words you wake
to turn against, a shovel digging, boot firm
against the sharp lip while stars turn
their blind eyes

Even though I was very sleepy by the time these words starting speaking in my head, I knew I had to grab them. Ignoring the muse has bad repercussions – it’s like turning down date after date with a friend and then expecting her to be there when you feel like talking. That voice dries up if you don’t listen. And while I know this makes me sound a little schizophrenic, I don’t know how else to describe it. After years of practise, I now hear poetry in my head the way a musician hears music. And when a new line comes, I drop everything to pay attention.

In this case, when I found the note to myself the next morning, I was glad I had. I immediately liked the images in the lines, even though I could equally immediately see the problems. So far, I’ve dealt with them by extending the images, hoping in that way to remove any echo of cliché. I still have to deal with the missing segue between the being in bed and the shovelling. I know what the link is, but I’m going to have to find a way to make it a little clearer.

But not now. Now it’s 1 am and I still have to finish copyediting 2 pages of a manuscript, proof it, then send it back to its authors. So here’s the current draft of this fragment. You’ll see it again, either here or one day in a book of my poetry.

Staying up late
postponing the wrapping of sleep’s caul, the rolling
of sleep’s rug tight
around you, holding your eyes open against
the words your brain whispers in the night, the words you wake
to turn against, waking to turn and turn, a shovel
in the earth digging, boot firm against
the sharp edge while stars open
their blind eyes, taking light years to remember
your name

As a mental health break during this busy time, I’ve been deeply enjoying Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist, a stream of consciousness novel about a successful poet going through a time of serious writer’s block. In many ways, it’s a comforting book.

So when I worry about my poems, about whether this fragment can become as good as I want, can become part of a fine poem, I remember what Baker’s character, Paul Chowder says about what it means to be a great poet: “Out of hundreds of poems two or three are really good. Maybe four or five. Six tops. All the middling poems they write are necessary to form a raised mulch bed or nest for the great poems and to prove to the world that they labored diligently and in good faith for some years at their calling” (p. 101-102).

At the very least, this is my offering to the mulch bed I’m raising. Despite my deadline, I’m still writing.

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I don’t have time to write a long post today as I’m behind on my copyediting, and want to send my novel out again, Anansi having sadly said no. I’m thinking Freehand Books this time.

So I thought I’d do an easy one and show you the editing behind the poem that won me the Diana Brebner Award from Arc Poetry Magazine in 2009. It might help to remind me that entering contests can be worth it so I’ll start making the time to do it again.

Here’s where the poem began, a few lines quickly written as I looked out the window.

And crows can fly
updrafting freedom with friends
Clean and free. How
an updraft lifts or, with the pull of a pinion
allows an easy turn on a spot no eye can mark

They’re not good lines but I wanted to write a poem that afternoon, so I kept at it. And got lucky:

The blackness of birds, a flotilla flying silently
in the blue of my window, cawing held
by glass, refrigerator hum, the wisp
of a passing cloud. They look so clean
from here, beaks that have never known
the soft meat of a lamb’s eye or how
a squirrel comes, one strand at a time,
off a flattened road. They updraft
freedom with friends, a chatter of trees,
don’t know the loneliness
of doors, chairs, single cups and plates.
Age leaves them black-downed
in mud, obliterated.
How can we not envy them?

Now it looks as if those first eight lines came easily, since they appear without any intervening drafts. But I remember sitting on the sofa gazing into space for long minutes, my hands hovering above the letters as my brain debated word choice, the nature of crows, incidents I’d read recently in the newspaper.

This technique can be fruitful but if you allow it to go on too long, it can rob you of your momentum and, as happened here, the poem starts to crash.

That’s okay, that is what editing is for. I could see I’d achieved a certain tightness in those first eight lines that I needed to make the rest conform to. The first to be cut was ‘freedom’ because it’s a concept, one which doesn’t belong in such a concrete poem. As for the rest, I was spelling too much out for the reader, which cheapened the earlier part. I kept a couple of good phrases and single words. I threw the rest out.

Next draft:

The blackness of birds, a flotilla flying silently
in the blue of my window, cawing held
by glass, refrigerator hum, the wisp
of a passing cloud. They look so clean
from here, beaks that have never known
the soft meat of a lamb’s eye or how
a squirrel comes, one strand at a time,
off a flattened road. Not for them
the singleness of chair, cup, bed. They
updraft to a chatter of trees, a caw-fest
lasting until age black-downs them in the mud.
If I had pinions, I’d float on the first draft
out of here, but we’re all trapped, all in
the grey-celled cage of our own construction.

At this point, the poem is almost there. But I’ve done something dreadful to it. I’ve inserted myself. Worse yet, I’ve tried to go all profound. After reading it over a couple of times, it was clear what had to be done. The delete button should always be a writer’s best friend. I used it.

Here’s the final version, short and sweet:

Crow, of the family Corvidae

The blackness of birds, a flotilla flying silently
in the blue of my window, cawing held
by glass, refrigerator hum, the wisp
of a passing cloud. They look so clean
from here, beaks that have never known
the soft meat of a lamb’s eye or how
a squirrel comes, one strand at a time,
off a flattened road. Not for them
the singleness of chair, cup, bed. Instead
an updraft to a chatter of trees, a caw-fest lasting
until age black-downs them in the mud.

P.S. Want to read a superb poem, very tight, very well-written? Check out Zach Wells’ Anatta. That’s something to strive for.

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There’s been a lot of talk in Ottawa recently about the value of being an experimenter in poetry, constantly trying out new forms, always open to new ways of writing a poem so one doesn’t get stale or bored. I’ve sat back from the discussion not because I don’t have an opinion but because I wanted to think about it and about why it doesn’t appeal to me at this point.

I had to ask myself if it is age-related – most of the poets talking about it are at least a few years younger than me. Or is it a stage of life issue? There’s no question I’m settling down – I’ve done the student years, the living in attics, the joyous partying times. I’m now happy to curl up on the sofa. I’m also traveling in a way I didn’t used to be able to.

So perhaps those play a role. Also, I’ve done some experimentation in order to reach where I am now, both in reading and in writing. I had to. It’s the way writers, artists, and composers find out which style is going to be theirs, which is their own voice among all the clamour. It seems like a necessary part of discovery.

But I don’t want to stay there, in discovery. I’m at the point where I want to concentrate on learning one aspect of the craft really well. Of focusing on it.

This doesn’t mean I think I’m better – or worse – than some of the other poets in town. Just different.

It’s like medicine. Some are born researchers, keen to search out new drugs, new treatments. Others want to be family doctors, learning as much as they can about everything. Or emergency room doctors, fast on their feet, constantly open to a new problem every minute.

And then there are those who want to specialize, to study just one aspect of the body in great detail.

In the end, I’ve realized that’s what I want to be – a cardiologist, if you will, not concerned with the superficials of the heart, but struggling with its relationships to every organ, every chemical pumping through the veins, every crisis and aging whimper.

To be precise, I’m specializing in lyric poetry, which is to say, in poetry that is not specifically narrative (most of the time), that is more contemplative and personal. Lyric is considered to be the most common type of poetry, which would normally have me running in the opposite direction as I tend not to be a pack-follower. But this form is the one my words choose. And so, I have committed myself to learning how to do it as best I can.

Here’s the first draft of the lyric poem for today:

The bird in the kitchen slides a feather in
your yoghurt bowl, black depths layered with
the ocean’s green iridescence beside
the purple grapes floating in a small sea of
rind-flecked white. Orange scents the room as
wings beat, each wing enough
for one heart, one day. You’d open a window out
of courtesy but it’s a grey day and the bird shines
better under your small light. Still the wings
beat, a flutter your throat echoes as one eye observes
you, wondering what you’ve got planned.

It might seem odd, but this is one of my train poems, written on the trip from Montreal to Schenectady as we passed Lake Champlain, a long ice-skinned lake covered with birds, the surface a tracery of their footprints. I wrote several other poems too, during the length of that narrow water, but this is the first one to be finished. Its inspiration comes from the sight of a feather falling, yes, but also from the memory of a pigeon that flew down a friend’s fireplace chimney when we were visiting one day. Judy showed great cleverness in catching the pigeon with a towel and releasing it outside but that’s not where the poem decided to go.

As happens so often with memory in poetry, it slips sideways, obeying its own truth, its own inner logic, especially through various drafts and edits.

Here’s another draft:

Looking for the Way Out

The bird in the kitchen slides a feather in
your yoghurt bowl, black depths layered with
the ocean’s green iridescence, each tip
its own evening dress, its own hat
trick party, beside the purple
grapes floating in a small sea of
rind-flecked white. Orange scents the room as
wings beat, each one enough
for one heart, one day. You’d open a window out
of courtesy but the sky is weighed down
by clouds and the bird shines better under
your small light. Still the wings
beat, a flutter your throat echoes
as one eye observes you, wondering
what you’ve got planned. You measure a towel
with your eyes, a soft one, bearing the imprint
of autumn’s leaves, a suitable nest to line
a box. But what do you know?

The work this poem mostly required was of expansion. It started as a short image with a couple of lines I really loved that I then had to build on, editing the new additions as I went. You can see one of my experiments above, “each tip/its own evening dress, its own hat/trick party”. It was hard to hit delete on those lines. They work in and of themselves. The problem is, they don’t work well with what followed so, as always, the poem wins over my own desires. The same happened with several versions of the ending, until I got one I was finally happy with.

By the way, you’ll notice I’ve ended many lines with a preposition, something I almost never do. I did try arranging the poem in different formats, but this is the one that creates the insistent movement forward the poem requires.

Current Version:

Waiting for Wings

The bird in the kitchen slides a feather in
your yoghurt bowl, black depths layered with
the ocean’s green iridescence beside
the purple grapes floating in a small sea of
rind-flecked white. Orange scents the room as
wings beat, each one enough
for one heart, one day. You’d open a window out
of courtesy but the sky is weighed down by
clouds and the bird shines better under
your small light. Still the wings
beat, a flutter your throat echoes as
one eye observes you, wondering what
you’ve got planned. You think towel, measure it
with your eyes, a soft nest to line a
box, bearing the imprint of
autumn’s leaves, perhaps a suitable
home. But what would you know? You of
the hollow bones bearing the weight of
supper’s flesh, each meal a girdle the
bird doesn’t have to understand. You’d rather
have wings to lift you to the sun, wings made of
the softness of feathers plus
sharp pinions to set you free.

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I’ve just spent a full week riding the rails, crossing the United States from east to west and back again on Amtrak because my husband was going to the big American geography conference in Seattle and we thought this would be the best way to travel. (I am so off airport security, I can’t even write a poem about it.)

We took the northern route there, which proved to be a soggy choice, one that delayed us for a full day on an embankment above the brown flooded fields of North Dakota. Then we came home down the west coast to orange blossom-scented Sacramento and across through the Sierra Nevada to Salt Lake City (at 3 am), the Rocky Mountains, and down into the golden plains to Denver and finally, Chicago, where we abandoned the train to fly home as the times didn’t work from there on.

All this is to explain why I won’t be showing you much more than a minimal edit of a poem today. To my surprise, since this was supposed to be a holiday, I have written non-stop since leaving home on April 7th. I had, of course, planned on writing a poem a day while away. A good musician always keeps their chops in shape. But I have written more than eight hours a day, including during the conference, since I sat in on a few geography of poetry sessions which I found inspirational too.

I also took pictures during the trip and, on the way home, video since I realized, partway through, that I was clearly working on a second book of poems, currently called The Four Seasons, as I plan on taking this same train trip another three times. Okay, I know it’s not an original title, but it too will probably be edited when I have time to breathe again.

Because I need to start editing what I’ve written. By the time you read this post, written on the train, I will have only just arrived home. My inbox will be full of files sent from my phone with the most recent work in them. Some poems exist as fragments, some as longer chunks, and some as major sections of text as I finally stopped trying to format them as poems on my phone’s small screen and decided to just write and leave the formatting to later. I’d like to see this book published as an e-book so it can incorporate the video with the poetry.

Today, I’m going to share just a first thought on this amazing country, this astonishing landscape. I had not expected to fall in love with the States, but that’s my usual mistake of thinking politics are the sum total of a place, which is, of course, nonsense.

It remains a sadness, however. The poverty is visible in the rural States, with many communities at least half made up of trailer homes, some parked so close together, they breathe each others’ air. And too many houses are peeled paint, shingles thinned and patchy. There is a lot of money here, in the monster homes. But there is a lot of hunger too.

The poem below doesn’t look in that direction. It started as a fragment before we left but was written and edited on our first Amtrak ride from Montreal to Schenectady, as we passed a long frozen lake full of birds.

Today you see the black birds from the fields
and white birds flying from the sea and hear
the chittering of sparrows in bushes under
the blue sky, nesting cries, the wild voices free
on the still cold wind, the red buds forming,
like the flames in a fire just catching and you
with your hands held out rejoicing in
the new warmth each new red-gold flicker
brings, the wild shoots, the fresh greens,
the tight unfurlings

This poem shows once again why poetry is not filed under either non-fiction or fiction, why it simply is. I may have been writing about the birds I saw in a lake, but at no point did I want to write that word into the poem. In the first draft, I used sea, but that was because the first two lines are the original fragment of the poem, pre-train. When I revised it, I didn’t want the harsh sound of the ‘k’ in lake. ‘Pond’ lingers much better in that line. Yes, the ‘k’ could have found its echo in the ‘c’ of conversations but by using ‘pond’, that ‘c’ is softened too, all the consonants become rounder.

I chose ‘conversation’ for two reasons: ‘chittering’ is a somewhat overdone verb in relation to sparrows (I’d hate to do a count on it in my own poems) and ‘conversation’ is more intimate and of course was what I was overhearing as I typed, since I couldn’t actually hear the birds we were passing.

After that, I rearranged what was in the original, slipping in what I was seeing before me in the landscape, maintaining the perspective of my new title, but also remembering that brightness is always brighter if there is some darkness. You’ll know this if you edit your photographs. Just adding fill light or highlights whitens out a picture. You always need a bit of contrast to make it work. That’s why I added what I could hear, the train’s cry, ‘the voice of lonely’ and the ‘faint glisten of hoarfrost’ our late spring has left over the land.

So this is the current version of the poem. I’ve read a lot of wonderful poetry on this trip, thanks to the excellent Poetry Foundation iPhone app, and have learned how far I still have to go.

Moving Towards Rejoicing

Today you see the black birds from the fields
and white birds filling a blue pond and overhear
the conversations of sparrows in the bushes by
the red buds forming, flames in a fire catching and you,
hands held out, singing with the red-gold
flickers, the wild shoots, the tight unfurlings,
fresh greens upthrust in leaf-scent, earth running
in brown-streamed gurgling. The sun
blinds you, slipped-disc following you around
the sky, but you refuse to let it go without
the warmth spring beds deserve even though
you hear a train’s cry, the voice
of lonely in the dimming sky. You’re moving
towards rejoicing, only a faint glisten
of hoarfrost holding you down.

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