Helianthus

The thing about writing poetry is that it’s a pretty solitary experience. Mostly I just think about things quietly in my head, write them down, tinker with them until I’m satisfied and/or finished tinkering, and nobody else is involved except for when something is accepted for publication. Even then, there’s not a lot of back and forth — mostly just confirming availability, publication rights, and other administrative stuff. I miss working with other creative people. I miss the writing group I was part of ten years ago; I miss singing in choirs and, back in dinosaur times, playing in my high school band. Writing poetry is a balm for me, but it can be lonely too.

All of this to say — it was a real pleasure when Canadian composer Frank Horvat contacted me a week or two back, looking for text for a choral piece he wanted to write. Frank has been very moved (as have we all) by the plight of the Ukrainian people, and wondered if I had any poems in my files on the theme of peace? Well, I didn’t, so I wrote him a new one. And while I have had some of my existing poems set to music before, this was the first time I was writing a text specifically for that purpose. It was a fun challenge and I enjoyed collaborating with Frank!

The poem text is called “Helianthus,” which is the scientific name for sunflowers. It draws from a few different things: the language of flowers, specifically around poppies and their role in commemorating those lost in war; the sunflower as Ukraine’s national flower; and my own comfort throughout the pandemic and other turbulent times in my life in the knowledge that whatever else happens, the sun will rise and set, the moon will wax and wane, and the seasons will still turn from one to the next.

“Helianthus” is scored for a cappella treble choir (SSAA). The sheet music is freely available on Frank’s website, and includes the full poem text on the last page. I dearly hope to hear a choir sing it one day — but for now, I’m just very pleased that it exists.

A pandemic pantoum

Last spring, Perpetua’s godmother came to visit us when she was in my city for a weekend — a visit that was technically illegal under Ontario’s then-current pandemic restriction measures, which prohibited gatherings between people not of the same household. I don’t think I’d had a chance to be vaccinated against Covid-19 yet, but she’d had her first dose, and we sat inside with the kitchen window open and the back bathroom fan running so as to create a nice draft. It was the first social visit I’d had with anybody in many months.

I baked a cake for us. Later, I wrote a poem. It’s a pantoum, a form made up interconnected, repeating lines grouped in four-line stanzas. (So in a four-stanza pantoum, the first three would look like 1-2-3-4, 2-5-4-6, 5-7-6-8, with lines from the first stanza coming back around to finish: 7-3-8-1. Clear as mud?) Constructing a poem that made sense with all those lines moving around was a fun challenge, and its repetitive nature was perhaps especially suited to writing about the pandemic given the latter’s own Groundhog Day-style monotony.

“Pandemic Restrictions, Day 402” was recently published by Dunes Review, available for puchase here.

The Dickory

Many years ago, I started writing a series of poems that I would characterize as nursery-rhyme-adjacent. My inspiration petered out after three or four, but I kept them in my files and have occasionally sent one or two out into the slush piles of the poetry world.

It is my great pleasure to announce that my poem “Up the Clock,” a meditation (of sorts) on Hickory Dickory Dock, has just been published by Better Than Starbucks in their Children’s Poetry section. You can read that poem here. Print copies of this quarter’s issue of Better Than Starbucks are available for purchase here.

“Weaning” and “The Sleeper”

I’m very pleased to announce the publication of two new poems, “Weaning” and “The Sleeper”, in Antilang no. 10 — emergence. You can read the entire issue here, or skip right to my poems on this page. In either case, hitting the “fullscreen” button in the bottom right will provide the best reading experience.

These poems are about my daughters, though somewhat obliquely in the case of the first. When Perpetua was a toddler, I had to wean her very suddenly, going from nursing frequently throughout the day to nothing at all. That abrupt stop was physically painful, and my body struggled to adjust to the fact that I didn’t need to make milk anymore. “Weaning” captures a little bit of that experience.

I wrote “The Sleeper” about six months into the pandemic. Having a young baby around during most of 2020 was, in some ways, surprisingly grounding. Tertia didn’t care about germs or geopolitics, but only about the simplest aspects of our being: warmth, food in the belly, love, sleep. Tending to her needs became a way to shield myself from the greater worries of the world.

Learn more about the magazine at antilang.ca.

Emotional states for which the English language has no precise word

The mix of admiration, curiosity, and chagrin when you google your flunk-out elementary school bully and find that he now owns a law practice and is heralded for his professionalism and gentlemanly conduct;

The surprising burst of tenderness when you unexpectedly come across a photo of the aging parents of a former friend you haven’t seen in twenty years;

The ineffable consciousness of future loss triggered by the body heat left behind in your toddler’s doffed sandals;

Realizing that the entire purpose of a cat is simply to be a cat.

Going Home for Christmas / Going South

Once upon a time, I lived in a city that was a few hours north-east of my hometown. At the time I didn’t have a car (or a driver’s license, for that matter) so visiting my parents usually meant a long Greyhound trip. Sometimes, though, the train tickets went on a big enough sale that I could mentally justify the expense of the much pleasanter rail trip. I loved taking the train — still do, really.

One of the funny things about traveling between these two cities was that winter arrived in them at different times. About a decade ago I took the train home for Christmas, and while it was thoroughly cold and snowy in the city where I lived, it was really still just late fall where I was going. It was so odd to see the scenery change from winter to fall, as if a time-lapse film were playing in reverse.

Naturally, I wrote a poem about the experience. It has just been published by The Scriblerus in their Spring 2021 “travel” issue and you can read it here.

Small spring updates

Garden

The tulips are out.

Kitchen

I made lasagna today for the first time, and so the kids and I also made homemade ricotta following this recipe from America’s Test Kitchen. Dead easy, delicious, and about half the price of a tub from the store. We’ll be doing this again.

Gelatine adventures continue. I’ve been doing teas! Vanilla Rooibos is delicious in jelly form, Jasmine Green Tea a little pretty so-so. I’m thinking my next experiment will be cubed jellied Earl Grey with a sweetened condensed milk pour-over. Also I’m saving bones in the freezer to try my hand at p’tcha. More foods should have names that fun to say. P’tcha!

Words

My poem “Seclusion (A Checklist)” has been published by Jet Fuel Review (issue 21) and can be read online here. It’s part of this issue’s special section featuring golden shovel poems — a relatively new poetic form that is technically challenging and used to pay tribute to another poem or poet. The poet chooses a line by another writer, and each word of the origi line becomes the last word of each line in the new poem — such that the original line may be read down the right-hand side. Confused? I always find it a bit difficult to explain but seeing an example will make it fairly obvious.

In my case, I used a line by Christabel LaMotte, a poet who does not, technically speaking, exist; she’s a character in A. S. Byatt’s remarkable novel Possession (about which I have written here, and which also makes my list of desert island books). I was struck by the line “to drag a long life out in a dark room” in one of LaMotte’s/Byatt’s poems, and — well, click the link above if you would like to see where that took me!

Maryland Summer

Toddler Perpetua in Ocean City, MD.

Our family lived in Maryland for almost three years, in a walk-up apartment with a South-West facing balcony. I loved to sit out there in the long summer evenings: our complex was surrounded by trees, which were perfectly silhouetted by the changing colours of the sunset. They would slowly shade to black as the sky became a deeper and deeper blue, until finally the first stars came out. Behind the nearby sound barrier, the cars on I-83 sounded like waves on the beach.

I’m very pleased to announce that my piece “Maryland Summer: Three Small Evening Poems” has just been published in the second issue of Humana Obscura.

You can read the entire issue online here, or purchase a print copy here. You’ll find me on page 19.

Writing means to try

Right now I am about halfway through reading the first volume of Beverly Cleary’s memoirs, A Girl from Yamhill. It covers her early years, from her first memories of their family’s farm in Yamhill, to her adolescence Portland, Oregon, where her family moved when she was six. As a child, Cleary lived near Klickitat Street — a name you may recognize from the Henry Huggins and Ramona books. She was born in 1916, which makes her a few years older than my oldest grandparent, and A Girl from Yamhill is a wonderful peek into the world of children a century ago.

It’s also given me a lot to think about when I consider the craft of writing. I enjoy catching moments from Cleary’s own life that later made it into her books, like the school play in which she played a soldier, bowled over with her leg in the air after being hit with a basketball cannonball; the same thing happens in Henry’s school play. But more than that, Cleary relates an epiphany she had as a young girl of eight or nine, about the practice of writing:

If I lost something, Mother said, “You’ll have to learn to look after your things.” I did. If I was involved in a neighborhood squabble, I got no sympathy. “What did you do?” Mother always asked, leaving me with the feeling that, no matter what happened, I was to blame. “Try,” Mother often said.

And try I did. When Abendroth’s store across from Fernwood [School] announced a contest sponsored by Keds shoes for the best essay about an animal, many of my class planned to enter. I chose the beaver, because Oregon was known as the Beaver State. On green scratch paper left over from printing checks, which Father brought home from the bank, I wrote my essay and took it to Mr. Abendroth. On the final day of the contest, I ran to the store to learn the results. I had won! Mr. Abendroth handed me two dollars. Then he told me no one else had entered the contest.

This incident was one of the most valuable lessons in writing I ever learned. Try! Others will talk about writing but may never get around to trying. I also wrote a letter to the Shopping News, which published the letter and paid me a dollar.

Beverly Cleary, A Girl from Yamhill, 105.

Try! I’ve been writing poetry for years and years, since I was a girl not much older than Beverly Cleary with her beaver essay. And I’ve wanted since I was a teenager, in a vague sort of way, to be a published poet. I don’t know how I thought that would happen given that I never submitted a single line anywhere, but want it I did. In the middle of the 2010s I started sending things out — barely — just one or two poems to one or two outlets about once a year. My expectations were not realistic; when I wasn’t instantly picked up by the first places I tried, I just stopped trying. This may have soothed my feelings, but it’s not exactly a path to publication.

Last summer, though, I also came to realize that if this was really something I wanted, it meant, well, trying. Now I sit down once a month, browse open calls on submittable, and send out a big batch of poems. This takes me an evening or two; there’s a lot of fiddly work to do in making sure that I’m following each journal/magazine’s particular guidelines, picking poems that I think would be good matches for their themes or style, and the like. Mostly I submit to outlets without reading fees; occasionally I will pay a few dollars if I think I have a particularly good match. Everything goes in a spreadsheet where I keep track of what I have out for consideration, response times, acceptances, rejections, and a page just for nice things people say about my poems that I can read over when I feel like a phony. And you know what? Trying works.

Here are my current numbers:

  • Contest placements: 1
  • Accepted poems: 4
  • Withdrawn from consideration: 8
  • Rejections: 141
  • Still under consideration: 42

There are some things that have become clear to me. One is that this is a numbers game. Perhaps more than any other genre, poetry is highly subjective, and it takes time and a lot of tries to match up what you’ve written with someone who wants to publish it. The second thing is that publishers need writers. Poetry magazines and literary journals could not exist without writers submitting to them; in a way, editors need me just as much as I need them. And the final thing is that rejections are a good sign. I don’t mean that I’m never disappointed when a submission is rejected (although as time goes by this is less and less true), but rather that I can take every rejection as evidence that I’m trying, I’m putting the process in motion, and that’s a good thing.

Of course, all this trying doesn’t necessarily mean that I’ll succeed. I might keep sending things out for the next five years and never publish another poem. I don’t know, and that part of it is out of my control. But I do know this: trying gives me infinite more chances to succeed than not-trying does, and that? That is something I can work with.

Here’s to trying.

Breaditations

I’ve very excited to announce that my poem “Breaditations” has just been published by Understorey Magazine in their “Food Work” Issue (19). I wrote this poem in the early spring of this year, and it conflates my experience trying to process pandemic-related news reports with the process of baking bread. You can click through here to read it, and I encourage you to explore more of what this issue has to offer!

(Note that because of some formatting stuff, my piece will look best either on desktop, or if you turn your phone sideways to access a wider screen.)