Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Three things I’ve learned recently

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

editing1. I like to think that I am generally good at keeping up routines, but apparently I’m not good at the routine of keeping up a blog.

This is the least interesting of the three.

2. Sometimes, looking at the big picture doesn’t help.

Writing was not going terribly well the last little while—and by “writing” I mean poetry. Over the past few months I’ve written book reviews, an article, and an online interview, but have had trouble focusing on poetry. Thinking that a bit more structure might help, I decided to get deliberate about setting up a routine. I settled down on a Monday afternoon, went through the magazine file on the desk and pulled out a stack of poems that need revising. There are quite a lot; the file box was bulging. I read through all of them, and that was where the trouble started: I couldn’t decide which one to start with. I just stared at each one in turn and thought, “I don’t know what to do with this.” After beginning with high hopes, or moderate hopes anyway, I ended up having a frustrating and unproductive afternoon.


Where poetry comes from

Saturday, October 17th, 2015

reflectionRecently I came across that line by William Wordsworth about poetry having its origin in “emotion recollected in tranquility.” It had been so long since I’d read Wordsworth that I couldn’t recall the context of that phrase, and suspected that there was a bit more to it.

The quotation is from the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads, which Wordsworth produced together with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In the Preface, he talks about his approach to composing poetry, his view of how poetry works, and the language of poetry. This is what he says:

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of re-action, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.

So really, the tranquility is the beginning of a process, not a resting place. And feeling isn’t the whole story, either. Several pages earlier in the preface, Wordsworth says this:

For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility, had also thought long and deeply.

Thus, says Wordsworth, the poet’s contemplation of feelings and thoughts in relation to each other, continued over time so that it becomes habit, helps him or her to determine what is important, and the resulting poetry will enrich both the feelings and the understanding of the reader.


To the dictionary, and beyond

Saturday, August 15th, 2015

word bookI began using an online dictionary a few years ago—not because I found it more convenient than a paper dictionary, but because my old Webster’s is just too distracting. I would open it up, intending to look up “phaeton,” and right next to it I’d see “phage,” which has nothing to do with “phaeton” but is an interesting word in itself, as is “phatic” on the opposite page. Having also glanced at “phalanstery,” “petrous,” and “petroleum jelly,” I would end up acquiring some interesting bits of assorted information but forgetting which word I’d meant to look up in the first place.

So, yes, I’m easily amused as well as easily distracted. But modern dictionaries are really just the beginning. Besides the words currently in use—400 thousand or so—there are many that have fallen by the wayside. In Forgotten English, Jeffrey Kacirk collects archaic words that are odd, fascinating, and sometimes hilarious. If you’ve read any literature from before the 20th century you may have encountered words like “ferule” or “press-gang.” But others are intriguingly obscure: “galligaskin,” “sockdolager,” “fulluht.”

The thing about Forgotten English is that it’s both a collection of words and a rambling, whimsical history book. In many cases it’s not just the words that have been forgotten, but the things they refer to: occupations, practices or beliefs that no longer exist. “Purl-men,” for instance, were itinerant beer-sellers “who plied their trade on the Thames and other navigable waterways of southern England,”  and a “bee-master” was one who “tended hives and performed the essential task of informing an estate’s bees of important household events.” So each entry is at least a paragraph, up to a page and a half long, often incorporating literary excerpts that enlarge on the definitions.  It’s fascinating, and it also makes me wonder which of our current practices and their corresponding words will go extinct over the next century or so.


Elise Partridge

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

I was sorry to hear of Vancouver poet Elise Partridge’s death in late January. Not because I knew her—I didn’t—but because, even though a poet’s words will still exist after she dies, that death ensures that there won’t be any more words than what’s already out there. And by all accounts, it would have been a privilege to know someone who was, in the words of Damian Rogers, poetry editor at House of Anansi, both “an uncompromising artist and a kind, supportive person.”

I read through Chameleon Hours, her second book, in one sitting, and found poems that are both compassionate and forthright. She doesn’t back away from suffering or the prospect of death; in fact, it’s a constant theme throughout. Yet what’s striking is not so much the presence of this theme, but the sustained attentiveness displayed in the poems—attentiveness, and affection. Whether she’s talking about a friend, a family member, a mosquito caught in a spiderweb, the letters of the alphabet, or her own experience with illness, she shows herself to be “a close and compassionate observer” (quoting Damian Rogers again) with a real and deep love for the world.


Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour

Thursday, November 27th, 2014

I’ve just been tagged by friend and fellow writer Angeline Schellenberg to join the Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour. Angeline is a poet who just had her first book manuscript accepted, for which I am quite excited. And I love the title of her blog: 37 Mice.

Some writers have compared this to a “chain letter,” but if it is, it’s a much more pleasant exercise than any chain letter I’ve ever participated in. You don’t have to foist it on ten reluctant friends, and you do get to hear from other writers about their latest work and their writing process.

So, unlike much of what I post here, this entry will be about me, answering the four questions posed to all participants on this virtual tour.

1. What am I working on?
Like Angeline, I am looking forward to the publication of my first book of poetry. Mine will appear with Turnstone Press next April. At this point the editing is done, the manuscript has moved into copy-editing and production, and it’s starting to look like a book, which is quite exciting. It’s taken a long time for this book to come together; a handful of the poems are new, or new-ish, but quite a few are ten years old and more. Ideas of home form a prominent theme, in the literal sense of looking at the place and people I come from, and in the metaphorical sense of finding one’s place in the world.

In between looking at proofs I have been trying to get back to other projects for a while. I have a second manuscript that’s been half-finished for some time now. Among other things, this one looks at places, how we live within them, how they can be familiar and strange at once, and what happens when we move between places. One section grew out of a long train trip I took with a friend, and another draws on my grandmother’s diary written while her family was en route to Canada. I also have two new series of poems that might fit into the new book, and another series that I might turn into a chapbook. And I have a stack of miscellaneous poems in various stages of revision, which I’d like to polish and send out.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Poetry is such a diverse genre that my work will be similar to many and different from many others. I never used to know what to say when people asked “What kind of poetry do you write?” and I still don’t; at least, I don’t have a short answer to that question. My poems are definitely about something—that is, although I strive for evocative language and aim to write poems that sound good when read aloud, language itself is the means rather than the subject of the poems. I like to think my poems are accessible but also interesting. They often involve narrative, and quite a few in my upcoming book use little bits of dialogue. My language and imagery tend toward the concrete and sensory rather than the abstract. A couple of people have said that my poems “make them see pictures.” I like that.


Leaves on the family tree

Thursday, August 18th, 2011

Summer is reunion season. On the August long weekend my mother’s family, the Klaassens, gathered in Saskatchewan to visit and to recount family history.

It occurred to me, not for the first time, that our family is very fortunate in having a wealth of documents detailing its history. We have diaries and memoirs, as well as family registers that go back at least a couple of centuries. Many of these have been translated into English for the benefit of those— probably the majority, by now— who don’t read German (or don’t read enough German, at any rate). Some documents are even available online now.

The benefit of having documents like these is that through them it’s possible to see one’s ancestors as personalities rather than merely names. And larger events take on a new significance and vividness when we see how they affected particular people.

My great-grandfather’s diary, for instance. He faithfully records the weather, who preached at each church service and on what scripture text, what garden produce he took to town and the price he got for it. Not particularly riveting, at first glance. But his entry of August 6, 1934 stating that he got less than one cent per pound for his cabbages, was for me a strong illustration of the depth of the 1930s’ Depression.

My grandfather’s memoirs describe how heavy medical expenses, on top of the effects of the Depression, could completely drain a family’s finances. He admits that things might have been easier if they had applied for relief sooner, but he had scruples about it. “As it was,” he writes, “it took us all through the forties to get back on our feet financially.”

And reading the family registers brings home the fact that mortality rates were once much higher than now. It’s especially striking because, two hundred years ago, parents would re-use names: there might be two Catherines or three Johanns in the same family, but only the last survived to adulthood.

I am grateful for the previous Klaassens who first thought to record these things, and for those who saw the worth in them, who preserved the records and  and handed them on.

Naming flowers

Friday, July 15th, 2011

I’ve just returned from a week of vacation in a nearby provincial park where, among other things, I discovered many wildflowers I’d never seen before. After my initial delight and surprise I realized this was because, in other years, we’d always gone there in August, when many of these flowers were no longer in bloom, and I hadn’t even known they were there. The biggest thrill, probably, was finding wild columbine and blue flag. But there were many more, and I spent a lot of time searching through my copy of Wildflowers Across the Prairies. (An excellent reference book. Even reading the flower names is fun: lilac-flowered beardtongue, hoary puccoon, nodding onion…) In fact, I’d say flowers turned into a minor obsession on this trip.

What’s with this passion for naming and categorizing things? It’s useful to identify plants like wild raspberry, hazelnut, or Labrador tea. A person should be able to recognize poison ivy and stinging nettle, just for the sake of self-protection. But why should it matter that this yellow flower is a form of groundsel, and those other ones are yellow avens? Why would you want to distinguish among the many types of vetch?

Yet naming and classifying is important to us, whether it’s grouping plants into families, sorting minerals, or dividing history into periods according to one scheme or another. I suppose it’s a way of looking for order in the world.

Much of the pleasure of wildflowers (or birds, or rocks, or mushrooms) is in the discovery, that involuntary “oh!” at seeing something exquisite for the first time. Still, there’s also something satisfying in being able to not only describe a plant but also name it. Columbine. One more little check mark in the book.

Winter trifles

Monday, December 13th, 2010

It is a cold day in Winnipeg, a real freeze-your-face-off day, and while walking to a nearby café to meet some friends for a late breakfast I remembered this little poem:

Oh, the cold of Canada nobody knows,
The fire burns our shoes without warming our toes;
Oh, dear, what shall we do?
Our blankets are thin, and our noses are blue—
Our noses are blue, and our blankets are thin,
It’s at zero without and we’re freezing within!

(Chorus)—Oh, dear, what shall we do?

—John Dunbar Moodie

Clearly, this was written before the days of central heating! Few of us now can complain of being so miserably cold indoors, whatever it’s like outside.

(John Dunbar Moodie, by the way, was the husband of Susanna Moodie, and this poem is quoted in her book, Roughing It In The Bush.)

And of course the “nobody knows” in the first line reminds me of this, from The House at Pooh Corner:

The more it
The more it
The more it

And nobody
How cold my
How cold my

To which Piglet eventually responds: “Pooh,… it isn’t the toes so much as the ears.”

But for me, it’s always the toes.