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.

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!

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.)

Charles Williams on poetry

I am currently struggling through Charles William’s text The Figure of Beatrice: a Study in Dante. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a pleasant struggle, but I am feeling my dearth of a classical education here. I have no Latin, I have no Italian, and I’ve only read The Divine Comedy and none of Dante’s other work. But I’ve had this book on my shelf for a few years now and it felt like the right time to pick it up — especially since I have a hankering to re-read the Comedy, perhaps in the new year.

At any rate, I’ve been wading through Williams’s prose, dredging out such insights as I may. I am not getting as much out of this as others might, perhaps, but that doesn’t mean I’m not getting anything out of it — and last night I found a wonderful gem about poetry:

The poems (in both? certainly in both) have two meanings — literal and ‘allegorical’; he will deal with both. It is perhaps worthwhile pointing out that when a poem is said to have two meanings, both are included in the poem; we have only one set of words. The meanings, that is, are united; and the poem is their union. The poem is an image with many relevancies, and not only so, but it is itself the expressions of the relevancy of its own images to each other. The poem, not the literal or allegorical meanings, is the existing thing, the image we have to deal with; the meanings assist and enrich the line; they do not replace it (which is the danger of all — even necessary, even Dante’s — criticism and comment). One goes outside the poem, in following the meanings, but only to return; only to centre again what, for a good purpose, has been de-centred. (Williams, The Figure of Beatrice, 45)

That is a very helpful image for me, especially when we are talking about the “meaning” of a poem: there is a plain or literal meaning, and there is often a secondary allegorical or figurative meaning, and each is equally what is meant and expressed by the same words. Their meanings are in contrast to each other without being in competition with each other, because it’s the unity-in-tension that they form that is the poem.

There is a paradox here — or something that seems paradoxical to us, at any rate. But it made me think of another paradoxical image, one that surely came to mind because of Williams’s subject matter: Dante’s vision of the Trinity at the very end of Paradise, the concluding volume of The Divine Comedy. In this final canto, Dante has been granted (through the intercession of St. Bernard and the Blessed Virgin Mary, a vision of the Godhead at the centre of the created universe. He writes,

Now, even what I recall will be exprest
More feebly than if I could wield no more
Than a babe’s tongue, yet milky from the breast:

Not that the living light I looked on wore
More semblances than one, which cannot be,
For it is always what it was before;

But as my sight by seeing learned to see,
The transformation which in me took place
Transformed the single changeless form for me.

That light supreme, within its fathomless
Clear substance, showed to me three spheres, which bare
Three hues distinct, and occupied one space;

The first mirrored the next, as though it were
Rainbow from rainbow, and the third seemed flame
Breathed equally from each of the first pair.

How weak are words, and how unfit to frame
My concept — which lags after what was shown
So far, ‘twould flatter it to call it lame!

(Dante, tr. Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds, The Divine Comedy III: Paradise, XXXIII.106-123)

The image of three spheres occupying the same space, and yet distinct, is one which our reason has difficulty grasping — so too the doctrine of the Trinity, so too William’s image of two meanings found united in one set of words. Yet we recognize a truth in these images, even as we grapple with them in our reasoned understanding. They are not anti-reason; they are rather beyond it.

I haven’t gotten far enough along in The Image of Beatrice to get to The Divine Comedy — I just finished Williams’s chapter on the death of Beatrice and am about to start reading about the Convivio — but I am looking forward to further insights and connections when I do!

How to start reading poetry

I like poetry. I read it; I write it. Occasionally I end up talking about poetry with someone of my acquaintance, and what I often hear about it is some variation of “Oh, that’s great. I just don’t get poetry. But good for you, though.” And I think that’s sad; most of the time the impression I get is not that people don’t think poetry is worth their time, but that they think they’re not good enough, smart enough, insightful enough to engage with it. Probably their experience with poetry has been predominantly, or entirely, within the confines of a classroom. And so they conclude: I just don’t get poetry.

But really, that statement should sound as strange to us as saying “I just don’t get novels” or “I just don’t get magazine-length personal essays” or “I just don’t get television shows” — because the content, meaning, message, plot, etc. of each of these varies so widely from one to the next. We don’t watch one or two TV shows and then decide TV just isn’t for us; we recognise how broadly we need to sample before drawing that kind of conclusion. I don’t think I’m not good enough to read novels because I hated The Name of the Rose. All of these genre forms — screenplay, novel, essay, poetry, etc. — are vehicles for meaning, not the meaning itself. Poetry as a form is just one way of conveying meaning, often a highly structured way — but within the bounds of that structure, the poet has the freedom to say anything at all. Really anything: deep or shallow or profound or silly or fantastical or realistic or highly allusive or completely straightforward. I once read a lovely sonnet about mowing the lawn. (What’s more, I managed to find it again, and now you can read it too.)

But poetry has a popular reputation of being obscure, difficult, elitist, and arcane. I think a lot of it must have to do with the way that poetry is taught in schools — at least it was taught this way to me — where the emphasis is very heavily slanted towards academic analysis rather than experience or enjoyment. Now, don’t get me wrong; understanding what a poet is doing in a poem, and how they are doing it, can greatly enhance our appreciation of their work. But it still needs to be a secondary consideration. Before understanding we should be looking simply to experience a poem, to feel it out, to let it shape a response in us. Poetry is art; art is an invitation, not a treatise.

What’s the difference between understanding and experiencing? Consider this excerpt from John Ciardi’s wonderful essay, “How Does A Poem Mean?” (which I highly recommend reading in full):

The point is that the language of experience is not the language of classification. A boy burning with ambition to become a jockey does not study a text on zoology. He watches horses, he listens to what is said by those who have spent their lives around horses, he rides them, trains them, feeds them, curries them, pets them. He lives with intense feelings towards them. He may never learn how many incisors a horse has, nor how many yards of intestines. What does it matter? He is concerned with a feel, a response-to, a sense of the character and reaction of the living animal. And zoology cannot give him that. Not all the anatomizing of all the world’s horses could teach a man horse-sense.

So for poetry. The concern is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience. There will never be a complete system for “understanding” or for “judging” poetry. Understanding and critical judgment are admirable goals, but neither can take place until the poem has been experienced, and even then there is always some part of every good work of art that can never be fully explained or categorized. It still remains true that the reader who has experienced most fully will finally be the best judge.

When we start in by working to analyze and judge rather than allowing ourselves to simply experience, we get so wrapped up in trying to “figure it out” that we completely miss the point. We forget that it was written to be enjoyed, not dissected. We end up like the students in Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry”:

Introduction to Poetry (by Billy Collins)

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Do you think you’re not good enough to read poetry? Would you like to start experiencing it instead of beating it to death? Put down your hose. Relax a little. If you’ve found poetry inaccessible in the past — or if you’ve been inadvertently taught to find it inaccessible — let go of the idea that you have to understand everything that’s going on. Don’t worry about identifying or labeling each discrete element or its function within the poem. Don’t label at all. Just read — broadly, widely, with no expectation other than to receive and respond. Here are a few more tips, in no particular order, about how to get started.

1. Read around. There are hundreds of styles of poems on a million different themes out there, and the best way to find what you like is to sample widely. Go to your local library and look in sections 811 or 821 for anthologies. Try something like The Norton Anthology of Poetry or The Best American Poetry or Good Poems (ed. Garrison Keillor) for a nice broad sampling. If you prefer to read online, head over to poetryfoundation.org or rattle.com or poets.org and click on anything that looks interesting. If you find an author you like, try looking for their “Collected Works” or “Collected Poems” to sample their best.

2. Start with contemporary poets. Poetry loses some of its natural oompf when we are removed from it in time, because we don’t intuitively understand the cultural/political backdrop against which it is being written. But lots of poets are writing about things that are happening right now. A great resource for brand-new poetry is Rattle’s “Poets Respond” section, which collates poetry written in response to events in the past week, every week. As an example, here is Devon Balwit’s poem, “Jew”, responding to the recent shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

3. Start with poetry written for children. Poetry written for children is less concerned with Imparting Great Meaning and more concerned with the joy of language, rhythm, word, and sound. Try Shel Silverstein or Edward Lear or a nice big collection of nursery rhymes.

4. If you find a poem you like, read it two or three times. Repetition often clarifies meaning (like when a shift or twist at the end changes our impression of what’s come before). Read slowly. Doing this often will help you read more attentively, to start to see what a poem is doing and how it is doing it, without the burden of formal analysis. You will understand more than you thought you could.

5. If you find a poem you don’t like, move on. Read something else. Don’t dismiss the entire genre because of a few bad reading experiences.

6. Start with more “plainspoken” poets. If you’re just venturing into poetry, jumping straight into something like T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” is probably not going to be all that helpful. This past year I have discovered some wonderful poets who write with breathtaking clarity. Try Mary Jo Salter or Billy Collins or Mary Oliver or Ted Kooser or Gwendolyn Brooks.

7. Remember that taste is subjective. You’re not obliged to like any of the poetry “greats”. You’re not even obliged to read them at all. What I like you might think is complete bosh, and vice-versa. All of this is fine. Just as liking novels (in general) doesn’t mean you have to like any particular author, liking poetry (in general) doesn’t mean you have to like any particular poet or poem.

8. Be open to delight. Let poems surprise you. Read with a sense of expectancy. And enjoy!