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I started teaching poetry in my Grade 11 class this week. To begin, I had the girls brainstorm around their views of poetry, after being in both elementary and secondary panels as they’ve come up through the system. The words and phrases started flying, so that I hardly turned my head from the whiteboard because I was writing so quickly. Here’s the list of some of the phrases: “terrifying,” “too difficult,” “confusing,” “not easy,” “like another language,” and “I hate it.” There were one or two words like “beautiful” and “artistic,” but I kind of think they did that because they know I’m a poet! 🙂

The course I’m teaching, NBE 3U, is centred around contemporary First Nations, Metis, and Inuit literature, but I did the thing I always do…I threw in one of my own poems, so that I could be vulnerable about how I create poems, and how they come to be in my mind and heart, and how I have an intention as an author when I write. I gave them my heart on a piece of paper, so that they could see you can be brave, as a poet and as a reader, with every piece of literature you consider and encounter. I talked about wanting them to understand annotation of a text as ‘having a conversation with the text and its author.’ I talked about how I love writing in the margins of my books and how I see characters as living people in my head. (They were mostly appalled about how I write in my books. “Miss! How can you do that to your books? You’re ruining them!” “Nope.” I answered, “Just having a conversation with the book and its people, or its poems and lines.” They did what they always do, which is mostly to shake their head and laugh because they’re not quite sure what to make of me after only two weeks into the new semester.)

When we were brainstorming preconceived notions of poetry, one student raised her hand to say, “Poetry is complicated.” Then, another student raised her hand and said, “No, Miss. Poetry is DEFINITELY complicated.” I threw back my head and just laughed. “We’ll see. By the end of this semester, I’ll have it as my goal to have converted you to see poetry differently.” She just shook her head.

The poem, “It deepens into love,” is one I wrote on Pelee Island last spring. I love it. I used images of geese flying in formation, individually strong but also part of community; stones on long, thoughtful beaches; water lapping on shelves of shoreline; and, fossils that represent pieces of memory and love. All of this is woven into the poem. So, I read the poem out loud to the girls, and asked them to cite the poetic devices. We talked about how I tend to use internal rhyme to create music in my work, rather than end rhyme. We talked about how images are the building blocks of good poems, how they evoke visual images (like photographs) in a reader’s mind, and we talked bout how metaphor works to create a wider meaning.

“It deepens into love” sounds like a love poem. When I read it, I asked the girls what they thought it was about. One spoke up. “It’s a broken hearted poem, isn’t it, Miss? Your heart is broken.” I just smiled at that. “Well, you’d be hard pressed not to have had a bit of heartbreak when you’re my age, so yes…” They thought it was a break up poem. One girl chimed in: “Well, he wasn’t very nice, was he, if he broke your heart.” What can you say? “No, he was fine…there were a few…and they’re all fine. It happens. Your heart breaks and you move on. We’re made to move forward, and not be vindictive or wish people ill will. What would that serve us, to be mean to other people after you’ve cared enough to love them, and for them to have loved you back?” They are teenagers, though, so that’s typical, to link everything to boyfriends, and to think that everything is so simply dealt with afterwards. “So, Miss, if it wasn’t about a man, then it’s about who?” Another girl answered before I could. “It’s about someone who died, isn’t it?” I just nodded. “My dad, actually.”

Then we talked about how love is linked to loss. All types of love–platonic, romantic, familial–they are all linked to love…having experienced it, even briefly, and losing it at some point. I told them I had written the poem after driving down through southwestern Ontario to get to Pelee Island. It is the country and landscape my dad most loved, through most of his life. In the last year, I’ve been down to Southwestern Ontario about five times, to different towns and places, and for different reasons. Each time, I think I am more and more drawn to its landscape, mostly because I feel him down here when I’m driving in the car. I can almost hear him giving me advice. It’s comforting. Arriving on Pelee Island, last May, I just remember thinking “Oh, I wish I didn’t have to be around all of these writers right now” because I felt raw and vulnerable. It felt like I had lost Dad all over again leading up to getting down to Kingsville. I had to pretend to be ‘normal’ when my heart was aching.

I kept thinking of C.S. Lewis and his A Grief Observed. It’s helped me so much over the past five years, since Dad went. I love the part where Lewis says that grief feels a lot like fear, even if it isn’t actually fear. Lewis also wrote, “I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process.” He was right about that. Lewis says that death is like an amputation. Make no mistake about it; it is. There’s a phantom pain that my mum used to talk about, after her foot was partially amputated. She felt that her toes were still there, and that they hurt, even if they obviously weren’t. I know, now, that the phantom pain you feel after losing people you’ve loved is just as awful. So. Lewis played a key role in “It deepens into love,” too. Love and loss will always be intertwined, but you can have a broken heart and still feel attached to the person, whether they are living or dead. That happens to me a lot. I think it’s my Irish psychic side. I just accept it. But that’s a whole other blog post and too much for me to feel while I sit on a Victorian settee and look out a bright bay window, in a beautiful yellow room in an 1870 historic house in Mount Forest.

I went on to ask them questions about how the stanzas and lines of the poem were structured, and the girl who had said poetry was “DEFINITELY complicated” chimed in to offer a number of answers and comments. I looked at her and smirked a bit, “Um, so, you think poems are DEFINITELY complicated, but you are giving me more answers than anyone else right now.” She turned bright red and smiled. “So, is it really DEFINITELY complicated now, after studying just one poem?” She shook her head. “No, but this is different. It’s your poem, and you make it easier to understand how it works, how you made it.” It made me happy to hear this because I know I’ll be able to work with this group and get them into the structure and architecture of poetry, but it also made me sad and a bit angry. Something has gone wrong with our education system in Ontario if a major genre of literature is so poorly taught at both the elementary and secondary levels of study.

I started a PhD in Education about ten years ago, but gave it up because I was beginning to deal with my own struggle with depression and then Mum got sick. It was too much to do a PhD on top of teach and take care of Mum, so I left it behind. No regrets there, though, because I had more energy to give my own writing. When I was doing a couple of PhD courses that year, my focus was on how poetry is usually taught in the school system in Canada. I read the work of Carl Leggo and Kieran Egan, both of whom talk about how imagination is key in terms of how we educate our kids. That’s a philosophy I can get behind, both theoretically and practically, in the classroom. Here’s what I know: when I go into the schools to work with kids, as poet laureate, and I talk to teachers, I get a sense that they aren’t sure of how to approach teaching poetry. One teacher this past year said to me, “Wow. That session you just led helped me to realize that I can do more than I thought in my classroom. I can use art to enter into it all…” I think, to be honest, that the League of Canadian Poets’ “Poets in the Schools” program is so key to all educators. As an educator, and as a poet and writer, I know I can use my love of poetry as a doorway into students’ hearts and minds. For me, it’s a key that unlocks a door. Once I unlock it, then I can help them to build a comfort level and actually want to spend time reading and talking about poems.

What needs to happen, if we are to change the way in which teachers and kids perceive poetry as a genre? You shouldn’t, for instance, hear that an entire unit on poetry was just left out of an English course because a teacher feels a bit uncertain of the genre. (You couldn’t get away with that in Biology, say, if you decided you didn’t feel comfortable with teaching about the cell or DNA. You shouldn’t be able to do it in English, either, but it’s happening more often than not, and across all boards.) This means, I think, that Bachelor of Education programs should maybe think about the way in which they have their in-service teachers trained. Yes, veteran English teachers make for good teachers of new English teachers, most times, but not always. Maybe they should also think about integrating actual writers as teachers (poets, playwrights, novelists, short story writers, essayists) in the university classroom as they teach future teachers in Ontario how to talk about poetry and other genres to elementary and high school kids. By all means, have a veteran teacher speak to classroom management and educational theory, but then ask a poet in to teach the piece on how to weave poetry into the senior English classroom, or ask a playwright or actor in to teach the piece about how to work drama into elementary and middle school classrooms. Doesn’t that make more sense?

Why does it matter, even, some of you might be wondering as you read this piece. I’ll tell you why it matters. We need to have some appreciation of art in our education system. This means that, along with the literary arts, the fields of visual art, theatre, and music are also key–in my mind, anyway–to helping future generations grow up to be well rounded people. It’s ironic, and so tragic, that these are the very programs that are often cut first in schools when it’s time for scheduling next year’s courses. Sometimes it’s easier to justify not offering a strings class, or a certain arts class, or an optional creative writing class, or a drama section, because the “numbers just don’t warrant it.” Here’s the thing, though…and I truly believe this…or I wouldn’t write it: when you’re a kid who’s an introvert, and really cerebral, and really creative, and who might not fit in, or who might have been bullied (as I was), then these are the programs that speak most clearly to those types of little souls. They need to find places where they can be themselves and not feel ‘odd’ or ‘left out.’ Imagine what would happen if we put money and well-trained educators into our schools, where they could foster young people’s love of the arts in a way that would help them to be more self-confident and expressive. Imagine how anxiety and depression might decrease, and how children in our society might blossom as they grow up. Just imagine…

Look, I’m not saying I have the answers to everything to do with education and poetry, or education and the arts, but I am saying that–as a practicing artist–I believe that the education system can do a better job. I know. I’m idealistic. It’s likely one more reason why I’m single. 😉 I have to believe, though, that we can do better, and that poetry can somehow be taught within our schools in new and creative ways. I’m tired, to be honest, of hearing kids say that poetry is “like a foreign language” and that they feel it’s a riddle to be solved. It isn’t. Never has been. That perception has to be changed. Soon.

peace,
k

During my term as poet laureate, I wanted to focus on getting into the local schools, to work on breaking down barriers surrounding poetry for both students and teachers. I have a sense, as a senior high school English teacher, that a lot of kids come to me without having had a very rich diet of poetry in their time in the school system. It used to make me angry, but now I just find it makes me sad. So, based on both of these emotions, I made it part of my portfolio, my goal, to do outreach into schools, especially at the elementary level. To be honest, I wasn’t comfortable at first. I teach secondary level students and they are a different breed of people entirely. I have the greatest respect for elementary school teachers because they are delivering all sorts of curriculum each day, rather than what I do, which is to just teach straight English.

The first time I visited an elementary school, last April, I was a mess. I was visiting five classes of Grade 2s and 3s in one morning. I would focus on the haiku form, given the short bits of time I had to work with, but I was more worried that the kids would sense my fear. They were an unknown variable to me. I knew how to interact and connect with teenagers, but not people who were younger. I thought, by the end of that morning at Walden Public School last spring, that I had failed miserably. Then, as I was leaving the school, I had a whole slew of little people throwing themselves at my knees, wrapping their arms around me and telling me they loved me. It was, to say the least, a little bit overwhelming. It was, too, a bit of sensory overload because, as a single person, you aren’t often touched, so having a whole little crew of people swarm you for hugs, all at once, well, you can figure out that it might be a bit too much. At first I wanted to pull away, because I was confused by why they were all so drawn to me, and then I just thought ‘oh, my goodness…they don’t mind me!’ It was a huge relief. I hadn’t bombed in my haiku writing classes. I had, it seemed, done a good job.

In through the spring last year, I visited classes at Sudbury Secondary School, Lockerby Composite School, and St. Benedict’s. In the fall, I visited Holy Cross Catholic Elementary School and I visited a Grade 12 English class in my own school, Marymount Academy. I’m amazing with secondary level kids, but I always get nervous with smaller kids. Today, too, out in Markstay, I wasn’t sure I was doing the best job of trying to get them all talking about poems. One little boy said that poetry was like art and that it didn’t have to rhyme. They were all so proud to show me the tanka poems they had written at Thanksgiving, going over to the wall to pull down their writing portfolios. I had them read out some of them, which was really quite lovely. I loved seeing how they took pride in their work. We talked about what makes poetry work, and the various poetic forms, but we also talked about how we can use art as a way to make poems. I love ekphrastic poetry, as you know if you read this blog. Heck, if anyone comes into my house, they know I love art. I think, sometimes, I would die without art. I love buying original art when I travel, and I schedule trips around art galleries so that I can see exhibits I have a hankering for. It’s an odd passion, and one that’s only cropped up in the last seven years with a greater fervour. So, I used the laptop and Smartboard, and pulled up one of my favourite Canadian artists, David Blackwood, a wonderful Newfoundland artist who etches out black, white and grey scenes of outport and fishing life. Whales play a key role in his work, along with fishing boats, and the lovely little clapboard houses that were towed across the bays when the resettlement of Newfoundland took place after the fish went. We brainstormed words and phrases that described the painting and then we talked about how we could use the painting to help guide us to structure a poem.

After I was done, we took a class picture, but there was a little girl who hung back and then came over quickly and said, quietly and without fanfare, “You are amazing.” That was a little zap to my heart. I just shook my head and said, “Um, no, I sort of think that you’re the amazing one.” Then, she went away and her friend came back with her a bit later. Her friend said, “Kim, she wants to have a photo with you.” Again, I was a bit shocked. I guess, I thought, I did not bomb the poetry lesson with the Gr 7s and 8s! So, we took a photo, I gave her a hug, and I told her to keep writing, because I remember when I was her age and wrote and wrote and never said anything to anyone about it. I kept it a secret, hidden in my room, reading books and writing long stories and gloomy poems.

I will say that I have learned to love elementary kids for their honesty and genuine nature. I think I get along with them easily because I’m a lot like them. I don’t mince words, I’m honest, and I say what I think and feel. Most people my age don’t understand me. I get it. Most people my age seem to create layers and layers of something that stops a real self from coming out. Deceit, maybe. Protection, perhaps. Me, well, I’m a mid-forties person with no filter. People either find it amusing, offensive, or endearing. Kids, though, seem to recognize that I’m like them, always looking for something amazing or filled with wonder when I go walking. In November, I was going into a building with an acquaintance and a little girl was coming out. She looked up at me and beamed, a great and glorious little smile. I smiled back and said hello. My friend noticed it and said “Did you know her? Did you see her smile at you? It looked like she knew you. It looked like you knew her.” Yeah. I knew what he meant, but what are you going to say? How can you explain it, that notion that you can recognize similar souls in the world is a gift that not everyone understands. The little girl that day was a unicorn, someone who could see that I wasn’t about to put on layers of deception. She knew, somehow, that I was who I was, and that might have been one of the more powerful encounters I’ve had in my whole life. It was two minutes at the front door of a building, but it let me know that I was more connected to people than I’d thought possible.

Driving home from Markstay this afternoon, about thirty minutes outside the city proper, I found myself looking out into the woods, into the thick pines of northern bush, and thinking, “I would have been a good mum.” It’s not something I think about a lot, to be honest. I just know that I would have been, had my life been different. It wasn’t, though, so I’ve missed out on some things: a great love, a husband, a child. What I’ve had in return, though, is the time it takes to write three books of poems, a novel, and a couple of plays-in-progress. The time I lost in my thirties, to illness and care taking duties, well, that time also gave me some time to read when my head wasn’t too bogged down by anti-depressants or grief. The life experiences I’ve had, while not very light and airy, have formed my character. I value things differently now, I’m compassionate, and I’m aware of time passing. I wondered, today, whether or not I’d lost something, not being a wife and mother, but then I thought, well, what can I do to change anything that’s happened in my life up to now? I know that I’ve done my best, maybe even better than a lot of other people might do if given the same situation. I know I did what I needed to do for my parents, so I don’t have regrets there, and that is freeing on many levels. I do, though, get sad to think I might’ve missed out on the love of my life, or the possibility of a child.

This all takes about ten minutes of “I wonder…” and then I think about how I’m mothering in a different way. I have created beautiful pieces of writing, pieces that have moved people in different ways, based on what I hear after a book is released, or after a play is workshopped. I have been creative in a different way. I have taught hundreds of thousands of kids in sixteen years in a classroom, and I think of them all as ‘my kids,’ so maybe I’ve been a mother of sorts after all. Some of the kids I’ve taught are now actually friends and colleagues, which is a gift. I also have friends whose kids are part of my life, so I don’t feel I’ve missed out on that. Still, there are times when I think about how my life might have been different…if only….but then “if only” hurts too much and I just have to put it into a beautiful metaphorical box and store it in the back of my mind and heart. For now. Just for now.

In the meantime, I just focus on the beauty that the world offers me every single day, in each walk I take, or in each conversation I have, with friends and with ‘strangers.’ I focus on how I write, how I craft a piece of poetry and let it marinate in my heart and mind until it emerges, brilliant and bright, and how each moment of each day is steeped in the sacred…if you let it light up your world. Being mindful has been such a grand teacher over the last twelve months. Reiki, yoga, zumba and walking, along with writing and reading, have really allowed me to blossom into myself. I used to think too often of the people I had lost, either to death, or break ups, or just from drifting apart. There are a lot of them…and I miss them. But, I know, too, that they are fine.

In the meantime, I’ll read, write, travel, sing, dance, and teach…opening my heart as wide as it needs to be to let the light out, and in, and to breathe into the presences and absences in my heart. I’ll feel any love, grief, or pain, I’ll breathe through it, and then I’ll thank God/Creator/Universe for letting me feel it so intensely because it means that I’m still here, alive and learning, growing and blooming, moving forward in a new way, and learning to mother myself.

peace, friends.
k.

It’s been about three years since I went to a yoga class in a proper yoga studio. I love yoga, so I don’t really know why I’ve kept myself absent from it for so long. Well, that’s not totally true. I have my notions, theories of why I stayed away. Tonight, though, I went back. On the way in, I met the woman who was my first yoga teacher back in 2007. Lana Boyuk is a yogi and spiritual guru of the highest order. When I was at my most darkest place in life, in the midst of a full fledged episode of major depressive disorder, back between 2008 and 2010, she was the one whose ‘beginners’ class I took for about two years straight, repeatedly, until, one night, she came over and put her hand on my shoulder and said kindly, but firmly, “I think you can move up to ‘All Levels’ now, Kim.” I had no self-confidence then, and I felt like a blobby creature on the mat. I was obese, puffed out by a high dosage of Remeron that killed the depression but mysteriously seemed to add weight while I slept. (I hated Remeron because it blew me up physically, but it pulled me out of suicidal ideation, so you had to thank it for that.)

When my dad died in December 2011, I weighed about 230 lbs. I don’t say that often, but it’s true. The weight of the world pressed down on my shoulders. Taking care of ill parents isn’t a pleasant experience. Watching them slip away and die is even worse. At my darkest point, I found yoga class at OM Yoga Space and then, later, at Cedar Street Yoga, which then evolved into Myoga. Lana was my first yoga teacher. (I still remember her saying, one night, “Let your bottom blossom like a flower….let your sit bones root into the floor.”) My second teacher was Willa Paterson, a woman who knew how to adjust my overweight body so that I wouldn’t hurt myself. (I have a weird staple in my left hip from a childhood surgery at Sick Kids…so I’m always mindful of the fact that my left leg sort of just ‘sticks’ sometimes during Zumba, or yoga, or even sometimes hitches painfully when I’m walking. At times, it can cripple me and it takes everything not to buckle to the ground. Still, I know that, if I don’t move, it will all seize up and be much worse. I can never wear a dress without a cardigan because of the stupid staple that is lodged in my hip. I look lopsided…it’s the one thing I really don’t like about my body…that and the fact that, when I get tired, I start to limp because of it. Then I feel just a wee bit broken. True story.)

Willa Paterson was my second teacher, and the person who was teaching me again tonight. I went in, thinking that–for the first time ever–this would actually be the very first yoga class in my life that I would take while I was both physically and mentally well. I’ve never been healthier, physically, and I know I’m the healthiest I’ve been mentally in my entire life. I’m more content and physically fit than I was in my 20s. That’s quite an accomplishment. I’m proud of it. It didn’t come easily. I worked hard for it all. I lost 55 lbs between the time my dad died, in December 2011 and 2014. Most of that is due to weekly Zumba sessions and about two years of Weight Watchers weigh ins. Then, I just started walking…and I never really stopped. 🙂

In the last year or so, I stopped weighing myself. I only know that I’ve lost weight because of dropping clothing sizes…and because people mention it to me. It isn’t about sizes or weight, though. To be honest, it’s the ghost of sick parents who didn’t take care of themselves that has motivated me the most. That will haunt you, as it should, and it served as a wake-up call. In the last year, and especially in the last few months, I’ve shrunk again. My confidence has grown. I feel strong and sexy, which I would never have said two years ago. I’ve rooted myself in my writing, which has given me more joy than I’d ever imagined. When you step into yourself, after most of your life trying to please others and be dutiful (even if you wrongly mistake duty for love), well, it’s quite brilliant. 🙂

Tonight, standing on that mat in Myoga, listening to Willa talk about pointing your feet forward, to move forward in life, I thought, “Yes! My feet are finally pointed forward. How fucking brilliant is that?!” It took so much work. Medication, therapy, yoga, walking, singing, Zumba, writing, and a few very good friends. Eight years of work. Hard, hard, slogging work. I’m exhausted now, to be honest. Being strong is hard work. When your family is fairly small–almost non-existent, really–you learn to cultivate a family of friends. I’ve been blessed to find like minded and kindred souls here in Sudbury (and farther afield) who take me as I am. That’s new for me. I’m blessed. Those closest to me, and they know who they are because I talk to them every week on the phone, or in person, or in a conversation via email or texting, don’t just ‘take’ from me, but ‘give’ me more love than I sometimes even feel I deserve…

So…why did I stay away from it so long, when yoga only ever makes me feel freer and more empowered? I think, lately, it’s been my energy. Since my ‘encounter with the wretched snowbank’ outside Oro-Medonte on my way home from Bobcaygeon after Christmas break, my energy has ramped up. I couldn’t figure it out at first. Maybe it was just that I’d finally fully accepted my new ‘self,’ or that I was anxious for exciting new things that seemed to just hover on the edges of my life, teasing me with possibility. Today, I figured it out. (I’m slow sometimes….when it comes to deciphering signs and messages from the Universe!) What I just passed off lightly as an ‘encounter with a wretched snowbank’ was actually–as my friend, Jason, said a couple of weeks ago, with a very concerned look on his face–an actual car accident. I was very shaken by it, but tried to deny it to myself. I was lucky to have not seriously hurt myself, or the dogs. (I know…they’re ‘just dogs’…and people will sort of be reading this saying, “Whatever…get over it…dogs are replaceable.” But they aren’t. Not to me. To me, they’re my family. That I nearly hurt myself, and them, makes me feel sick inside.)

Here’s what I think: I think my energy ramped up in January because I realized, on some level, that I had very nearly died. That sounds dramatic, but it was a terrifying accident. I downplayed it in writing, so as not to scare myself, or my dearest friends. But it was terrifying. Thank God for the Scotsman who took me in and made me sit in his garage while he puffed smoke in my general direction…and talked to me to be sure I wasn’t too shaken to continue on driving home that day. You see…and here it is, really…I think that accident made me realize, yet again, that we really don’t know how much time we have here on the planet. We can’t dawdle. The result of me making it through that accident meant that my soul ‘kicked it up a notch,’ sending energy surging through my physical and spiritual body with an intensity I’ve never felt before.

The result has been excessive Zumba dancing, walking, and (seemingly) overly exuberant shows of poetic and creative fervour. Now, as it levels off, I know what it means…that, maybe, I’m lucky to have found an outlet to exorcise the physical discomfort I feel if I feel bored or ‘stopped’ in my life. It was a wake up call, that ‘little’ accident. January and part of February have served as proof that it changed, again, the way I look at how I live each day. My friend Jen said the other day, “Um, you do get that this energy isn’t normal, right? Like, ‘P.S., it’s a bit too intense and I’m worried about you.'” I just laughed.

Maybe it’s the new me. I’m okay with it. It makes me feel content and confident. I feel it’s a gift…to realize you might have died, to realize that, when snow is flying over your windshield when you hit black ice on a farm road, well, your life doesn’t really flash before you. All I thought was, “Well, if it’s time, it’s time.” I felt calm. Too calm. But I was glad I felt calm. It meant, on some level, that I felt I’ve done a good job with my life thus far. I don’t have any regrets…well, maybe a couple to do with loves from my 20s, but nothing more that would break me. There are times when I wish I’d kissed someone more often, but that’s in the distant past now…and he’s married with kids, so I wish him well. Always.

Tonight’s yoga class…made me realize that I can move more easily now that my belly has shrunk. I can twist more easily. I can stretch into myself, into the spaces inside my rib cage and heart, and open up even more of myself to what will come in the years that haven’t arrived yet. So, yes, my feet are pointing forward. Finally. They are pointed forward…and it’s bloody well about time.

peace,
k.

If you follow me on social media, on either the Poet Laureate Twitter account (@SudburyPoet) or on Facebook, you’ll know that my current project, leading up to April (National Poetry Month!), is called the Sudbury Street Poetry Project. Yup. There’s alliteration there. Typical poet. It’s a seemingly simple project, but it’s had me running around the town over the last few weeks, chatting up all sorts of local business owners and convincing them that putting poetry in their front windows is a good idea. So far, no one’s tossed me out on my bum, and I’ve worn out my boots most afternoons walking around downtown and in the south end. I’m loving it, knowing that I can get poems out into spaces and places that normally don’t see poetry. It’s part of my notion of trying to spread some “poetic graffiti” around town, bringing the idea of poetry from one of elitist language to regular, everyday words that just make you think differently about the way in which you see the world. I want to make poetry more accessible as a genre, but I also want Sudburians to think about what poetry is, and maybe even try their hand at writing a bit of it. Sure, there are open mic sessions in town–one at the library and one at the Speakeasy–and these are great initiatives, but I also want to encourage people who may not think of themselves as being poets to try their hand at writing a stanza or two. It shouldn’t be something terrifying, but more of an experiment in language and expression of ideas.

Someone asked me the other day where the idea for the project came from. Well, if I’m honest about it, the whole thing traces its origins back to the West of Ireland, where I was taking part in an ekphrastic poetry writing retreat at the Anam Cara Writers’ and Artists’ Retreat, led by noted Seattle poet, Susan Rich, back in summer 2012. Anam Cara is a magical place, situated just a twenty minute walk outside of the tiny village of Eyeries, on the Beara Peninsula, in County Cork. It was a brilliant week that led me to further strengthen my poetry, and specifically made me consider how visual art played a role in my creative process as a poet.

While in Eyeries, I often walked through the village. That week in 2012, the “Windows of Eyeries” art exhibition was on in the village. The unique thing was that this exhibition wasn’t in a gallery, but instead meant that you could walk through the village, with its beautifully painted little houses, and see a piece of art in every house window. It was nothing to stand in front of a bright blue cottage and peer into someone’s front window, to better see the piece of visual art that was sat there in the window frame. I loved the idea! First of all, I love walking late at night so I can see in people’s windows. As a writer, I love making up stories about people’s lives in my head. I also like to see how people decorate their front rooms, especially if they live in older houses. (I am entranced by older, period and character homes. I touch anything in sight, drawn in by the history and by the stories that I start imagining in my head.) Windows without curtains drawn closed are so seductive to me. I also tend to photograph windows and doors when I travel. I love the idea of how a window is a passage way between places and spaces. The time in Eyeries, and the sight of art in each house’s front window, struck me as genuine and clever. It seemed, somehow, voyeuristic and charming at the same time. It was beautifully complex, in a simple and elegant way.

After that, in 2014, I remember reading something online about how people in Dumfries, Scotland, had put up some of Robbie Burns’s poems in windows of that town. Again, I was drawn to it…something about windows, and looking in them, and trying not to because it might be considered rude, but doing it anyway because I was curious. That you could put something in a window and want people to look (even though they maybe shouldn’t!) made me smile. It seemed…whimsical.

Here’s a link to that story:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/art-blog-remembering-robert-burns-national-poet-of-scotland-with-windowpanes-of-words/

Then, when I was on a tour of the Hebrides and Skye this past summer in Scotland, I met two young women on the little bus who told me about the poetry library at Morpeth. “You must see it…especially because you are a poet!” They said it enthusiastically and told me it was one of the biggest and most amazing poetry libraries in England. My first reading in the UK was in Newcastle in July of 2016 and I met some brilliant women poets. Somewhere in a night of poetry reading and chatter and drinks, I heard about the Newgate Street Poetry Festival. Newgate Street is a street in Morpeth. The notion behind this festival was to document the life of a street, by having poems written about its history and then hung in participating business windows.

Here’s a link to that quirky little story, on my friend Oonah Joslin’s blog:

https://oovj.wordpress.com/2016/09/

The photo gives you a sense of what you can do with the scope of this project. Drawing poetry into places where it hasn’t traditionally been seen or read before, as in a dress maker’s window, for instance, catches my fancy. It’s quirky, a bit ballsy, and invites the onlooker (reader!) to take the time to actually read a piece of poetry.

So…fast forward to fall-ish of 2016. As poet laureate for the City of Greater Sudbury, I put out a call for submissions of poems that would be easily matched to the windows of small, local businesses. There were some submissions, but not as many as I would have liked. We called it the ‘Sudbury Street Poetry Project” because it’s about the whole town, in terms of where we post poems, and in terms of who wants to write and submit poems, and what they’re about. It also appealed to me, with the naming of the thing, not to call it a ‘festival,’ but to focus on it being a ‘project,’ something that might be just for a season. I’m never sure if my ideas will ever work. I’ll always try, though. (I’m stubborn that way!)

Last weekend, my friend Sarah asked me, “How do you do it?” So I said, “What?” She shook her head. “Well, you just have these ideas, ones other people don’t have, and you make them happen. How do you do that?” I shook my head. I’ll tip my hat in honour of the Windows of Eyeries, and to the Newgate Street Poetry Festival as the roots of my idea, but it’s more about just having the vision and then getting the work done. If people are surprised that things get done, I’m not sure what to say. I can only say that I feel the pressure of the term ending later this year, and that makes me want to try to put my ‘poetic graffiti’ projects out there before it’s time for me to leave the role and let the next person move in and make it their own for a while. I also want to have done a good, creative, and kind of quirky job of it all, by the time the end of my time rolls around.

Now comes the ‘kicker,’ as my mum used to say: I need more poems from all of you, my Sudbury, Ontario poet people. (And, yes, you have to be a resident of Sudbury to take part in this one!) Try to keep them to a page, or about 25 lines. We don’t want to overwhelm the ‘non-poetry readers.’ Send them in to the library site, via the poet laureate page. Follow the links on the page below!

http://www.sudburylibraries.ca/en/booksmuchmore/Poet-Laureate.asp

It’s all there! Now, here’s the thing…this poetry project of mine is about getting poems out into places where they’ve never been before. We’ll soon be putting up a list of participating businesses and organizations on the laureate page of the library site so that you can see which places support the literary arts (and culture) here in Sudbury. The other part of all this is to try and cultivate and foster a sense of community between the arts community and small, local businesses in Sudbury. Part of this is that you can, as Sudburians, visit the businesses that support the work that the library and the office of the laureate is doing. You can let them know that the literary arts and culture is important to you, as a citizen of this city.

For me, well, I love the arts with my whole heart, body and soul. In recent years, the arts have helped me to lift myself out of difficult times. A night at a theatre production, or a wander through one of the funky little art galleries in town, or the launch of a new literary magazine or journal, these things all make me feel like something’s being done to cultivate the arts in Sudbury. This is just another way in which to do the work that so many of us try to do in supporting the arts, especially through our volunteer committee work and in attending arts events around town.

You can help by writing a poem! Now, I can hear you as I type, “But, Kim, I’m not a poet!” And I will answer, “You may not consider yourself a poet, but I would ask you to do one thing: Each day, try to find one thing that strikes you as being beautiful, either something you see, or experience, or hear, or find just fills you with love, light or wonder. Now, write that one thing down. By the end of the week, you will have a series of little images, mostly rooted in the five senses I will venture a guess, and you can play with lines to make a stanza. Before long, you will have a little poem. If size intimidates you, try a simple haiku. They are so elegant, those little haiku jewels.”

Come on, fellow Sudburians! Get out your pens and bits of paper, and jot down a few lines. I so look forward to reading them. I look forward, too, to doing more innovative and creative work as your poet laureate, but I’d like to invite you to come along and take part. That, to me, is so much more fun than just me doing it on my own!

peace,
k.

I’m a big believer in certain things: kindness (why is that so rare these days, I wonder, when it should come as naturally as breathing in and exhaling out, without thinking?); compassion; respect; treating others as equals; a dynamic classroom (where learning happens in creative and sometimes magical ways!); a person’s ability to make a real difference in their own community (if they have a vision and the work ethic and dedication to make it ‘real’); the way in which words can transform and transport you (whether you read or write, or do both) out of dark spaces in your mind and heart, or in the world; the saving grace that is democracy; the value of art in a person’s life, from birth to death (and beyond!); the worth of poetry in the world (in small and in majestic ways); and, I believe that admitting you know nothing is the best way to learn as you make your way through the journey you’re on while you’re here in the world. That admission, of opening yourself up to being vulnerable, to taking a risk, in admitting you don’t know an answer, or that you are willing to learn because you are ‘wrong,’ is a powerful doorway to new knowledge.

Teaching NBE 3U this past semester has shifted the molecules in my world for me. I can’t recognize who I am anymore. That sounds dramatic, and teaching this course is only part of my transformation, but I’m well aware that the shift in the way I look at the world dovetails, at least partially, with learning more about the teachings of First Nations cultures. From the first day of class onwards, I told the girls that I wasn’t indigenous, that I would never dare to speak for anyone else, but that I would bring in guest speakers who would be able to answer their questions, and I told them that we would learn together. We would make meaning together. To me, that was the most powerful intention that I could have set for my own classroom, as a teacher. If I’m anything, I’m just a teacher and an ally.

When my school replaced the traditional ENG 3U, Grade 11 University-bound English, with this First Nations, Metis and Inuit literature course, some people wondered why. Parents might have wondered, and I know kids wondered because they asked me about it. To me, it makes perfect sense. If part of what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is doing is helping to educate Canadians about the true history of this country, in all of its harsh reality, then courses like these need to be mandatory, and not optional. Why wouldn’t we use English as a curriculum discipline, and literature, to be the vehicle through which the history of Canada’s First Nations peoples is more properly taught? As a teacher, too, I can tell you that teaching the literature has been exciting and energizing. (You can love Shakespeare, and he can definitely be one of your top ten ‘secret husbands,’ but there is a wide body of beautiful literature that’s been written by Canada’s indigenous authors.)

This past semester, we looked at work by Drew Hayden Taylor, Richard Wagamese, Thomas King, Liz Howard, Gregory Scofield, Marilyn Dumont, and Louise Bernice Halfe, just to name a few. I asked my friend, Sudbury playwright Sarah Gartshore, to come in and speak about her play, “Survivance,” and then my friend Shelley Frappier, who works at Indigenous Studies at Laurentian University, came in to speak to the girls about treaties. Liz Howard also came to visit Marymount, when she was up in town for Wordstock, Sudbury’s Literary Festival, which was fabulous as we asked her to read “The Look Book,” a poem we had studied in class. The course is a literature course, but you need to start from scratch when there is so little known because of how the school system has dealt — or not dealt — with Indigenous issues and history. You need to weave in some core teachings to root your students in a knowledge base. Then you can stir in the words. We also visited the Art Gallery of Sudbury to see two Indigenous artists’ exhibitions. (You can read about that in one of my earlier blog entries, if you’d like, so I won’t re-write it all here.) 🙂

As a class, we spoke about the course’s guiding concepts of identity, challenges, relationships, and sovereignty, as they were reflected in the literature we studied in class. What we learned, as a group, is that all four concepts are intertwined. You can’t speak of one concept without mentioning how the others weave themselves into one another. There’s something so beautiful about that, how the culture and spirituality permeates the literature, and the lives of the characters. We spoke of the Four Directions and the four sacred medicines. We spent time smudging in the school courtyard together, and we learned about how the Elders are the ones who pass the history, culture, language, and ceremonies down to the younger people in communities. That sense of continuity, really, is one thing that I find comforting about the literature. The role of residential schools is a dark, dark blot on the notion of continuity, because you end up with the destruction of family structures, lateral violence, abuse, addiction, and poverty, all as a result of the wrongs done to First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples through the government imposed structure of the school system.

Beyond the actual study of literature, though, there were quite a few life lessons that I learned from teaching this course for the first time this past semester. The most significant one was just being open to being an active learner, and to not always feeling you have to know the answer to every question. (And, believe me, when you teach, there are questions coming at you all day long!) As a learner (and as a teacher and person) I’ve traditionally been someone who wants to try to know everything, quickly, impatiently, and then take it in. It’s a control freak and perfectionist thing, I know. It also means that I’m more than a bit sponge-like, I guess, when it comes to learning. (I’m cerebral and creative, which can be a dicey combination in social situations and likely is another reason why I do well on my own with dogs!) By shifting my intention in learning and teaching, in pedagogy really, and by teaching my mind/brain that I didn’t need to know everything–that I can be curious and questioning as a way to lead my students through the curriculum–I freed myself from a number of old patterns of thinking. Letting myself relax a bit in the classroom, and letting our group conversations and questions guide the lessons, really ended up reflecting more of a non-traditional approach to pedagogy. I found that intriguing, too. My teaching style has shifted because of the literature I’ve been teaching, has shifted from being defined by a dominant social group’s perspective. The TRC, within the scope and sequence of this course, serves as a centre point, an anchor point, around which everything else revolves.

It may just be (after all is said and done) that this was “one of those classes”, though. If you teach, you know what I mean. A class like this, a “magic class,” might only come around once in a blue moon. When it comes along, though, you know it’s the one, or one of very few, that will sit in your heart for years to come. You can feel it when you walk in the classroom, and even when you leave. There’s an energy there that can’t be denied. To deny it would be a travesty and an affront to the Universe, I think, so I honour it by speaking of its power here.

I told my girls today that I was proud of them. They walked in, on the very first day, knowing only the stereotypes of First Nations, Metis and Inuit cultures that their culture and education system had previously offered them. They didn’t know about residential schools, or the 60s Scoop, or Charlie Wenjak’s Secret Path, or Christi Belcourt’s beautiful paintings and her exhibition of half finished moccasins. They didn’t know about the Red Dress Project in honour of Canada’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, and they didn’t know about treaties and wars on our own soil. They are young, but they are very wise girls. In conversations at the ends of classes, when they’ve shared their own poems or pieces of art, knowing how much I love art, we have talked about how spirituality can infuse all sorts of things. One young woman gave me the gift of a painting last week. She painted a bear, her spirit totem, guarding a stand of northern pine trees. “Miss,” she said, “The bear is my totem, and the trees are for you…because you love trees so much.”

Today, on our last day together, I thanked them for having taught me. At a girls’ school, when they’re emotionally moved by something you say or do, you see little smiles and all of them sort of go “awwwwwwww” all at once. It’s kind of sweet, like a wave of goodness. Then, one girl gave me a note that thanked me, but that also spoke to how this student now wants to help with reconciliation in her own life. To me, if nothing else came of this course, that would be a telling statement. This is where the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will find the spirit, I think, of what needs to be done in this country. Educating Canada’s youth means that they will know the truth, which is something I didn’t know at that age. It means that they will want to be more socially aware and conscious in how they choose to live. They will understand the connections between human and Creator (or God, or Universe), and between human and environment, and between human and human. That these young people now feel more confident with what they’ve learned, and that they are willing to help educate others, even parents who may not know about the true histories of our nation, is more than rewarding. (If I were to get hit by an ore truck tomorrow, I’d be perfectly happy in knowing that I’d done a good job with living my life fully on a daily basis and trying to start up some ripples and choruses of questions and ‘I wonders….’)

The most touching gift I’ve received this year has been the braid of sweet grass that I was given today at the end of class. One of the quietest girls waited until the very end of class and gave me the braid. That did it. I just started to get totally emotional. I hardly feel I’ve done the course, or its content, proper justice, but I can only hope I’ve made some change in some heart. Receiving that sweet grass braid today, well, it’s more than amazing when a sixteen year old thanks you for teaching them some of the most difficult things they’ve ever heard, and that she chooses to gift you with one of the four sacred medicines as thanks, well, I can’t tell you how that makes your heart open up.

I feel so grateful to have spent five months with my little group of Grade 11 girls at Marymount. They have, I know, taught me so much more than I will ever have taught them…and there is a place in my heart where gratitude swells up in big Great Lake waves tonight. All I can think, too, is that, in the face of their surreal world’s recent days, these bits of light are things to hold onto and cherish.

Every bit of light ripples out against the dark, in the smallest, but oh-so-significant of ways. Trust that, friends. Stir those waters, ripple your light, send it out.

peace,
k.

Here’s the thing about Gwendolyn MacEwen: for me, as a young female Canadian poet back in the mid to late 1990s, her work struck me in the heart, the solar plexus, the brain, and the ever-important root chakra. Her poetry hit all the key points in my physical, spiritual, sexual, and intellectual body, in terms of where I think and feel, and her work still has that ripple effect on me. In high school, the only sorts of poems I studied were curriculum-driven, directed by the Ontario government. This narrow view of poetry included Shakespeare’s sonnets, Purdy’s and Layton’s poems, a sprinkling of Cohen, and some Atwood. (I especially loved “You fit into me,” which has a visceral kick to it.)

I didn’t come to Gwendolyn MacEwen’s work until university, likely in third year, when I read “Dark Pines Under Water.” It resonated with me. Looking back now, as a woman and not a girl (who stupidly thought she was a woman in her twenties) in university, I can see why it speaks to me. MacEwen writes: “This land like a mirror turns you inward/And you become a forest in a furtive lake;/The dark pines of your mind reach downward,/You dream in the green of your time,/Your memory is a row of sinking pines.” These lines, for me, speak of how I can walk into landscape and find myself at one with the spirit of a wild place. I never feel at home in a physical or material space, but am only most myself in amidst rocks, trees, and water — anywhere I can sit and open my heart and mind to let the essence of that natural world in. That’s where magic happens…and MacEwen understood the idea of magic. It’s in so much of her work, in her imagery of Egypt and the Middle East, and even in the costuming she used as she read her work in Toronto through the 60s, 70s, and 80s. She knew how to create a persona, a voice, and this essence of the poet and woman is so aptly evident and reflected in playwright Linda Griffiths’s “Alien Creature.” The big, dark eyes and the darkened kohl that rimmed them, well, so much of that was a reflection of self, and also a magical distortion of self, at the very same time. That’s what makes her so fascinating, and why her life and work speaks to me still.

Here is her oh-so-beautiful “Dark Pines Under Water:”

When I read the work of poets and writers–and when I study the work of visual artists–I often will immerse myself in their bodies of work. I like to live in their words (or artwork) for a while, weeks even, and I’ll read biographies and search out obscure bits of information. I’ve done this with MacEwen, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf, and also with artists like Georgia O’Keefe, Mary Pratt, and Emily Carr. Yes, they are all women, I know, and I suppose this means that I am curious about how women artists and writers have, historically and culturally, succeeded in times when women were not considered as being even close to ‘equal’ to men. A few of them, but not all, had issues with mental health, and so I suppose–when I was very ill with major depression in my 30s–I was drawn to the notion of how creativity/genius and madness intersected. Looking back, I can see that I was trying to heal myself from the inside out, through reading and studying the work of other creative women.

Beyond that, though, I think that I was drawn to their life stories first. They were fascinating women, people who didn’t follow social mores or expectations. They were obviously unique and vibrant. These might be considered acceptable traits now for women, but then, well, they were the brave minority. I admire(d) them for their bravery, spirit, and ability to be all right with who they were. It takes forever and a day to come into yourself and, when you do, it frees you as a person, but also as an artist or writer. I only speak of this with reference to my journey as a writer since my twenties. I wouldn’t go back to that age if you paid me. There’s a depth of experience and understanding that comes with your years on the planet. I’m grateful for that now, as a woman and a creative. Complexity intrigues me, as I find I’m more interesting now than I was in my twenties. I’m glad of that.

MacEwen didn’t have an easy life, as anyone who knows the history of Can lit likely knows. She came from a family with a mother who struggled with severe mental health issues, and a father who was an alcoholic. She was born in 1941 and died in 1987. Some suggested she may have committed suicide, but Linda Griffiths suggests, in her play “Alien Creature,” that MacEwen died of alcoholism. Either way, it is horribly sad, how such a bright and creative poet should have felt so disenfranchised in a city like Toronto. At its peak, the Canadian poetry scene in the 1960s was vibrant and full of so many amazing voices. She was one of them. That she died alone–on the margins of society, in a town she had once loved, in a place where she had once been considered a sort of “magical woman, or alien creature,” and that she was so isolated and outcast–makes me sad. Very, very sad.

After completing my undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature (at Laurentian University and Carleton University), I found Rosemary Sullivan’s “The Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen.” I read it and felt sort of transformed. Here was someone who was spirited, creative, who loved magic and the way in which worlds (or dimensions) could weave themselves one into the other in a seamless and sensual way. She had struggled with parents who had dealt with mental health issues and alcoholism, as I had. (Sometimes, these things are in your family’s history and you don’t even know until you are an adult…because you may have somehow blocked them from your comprehension, in a psychologically protective way.) When your parents are caught up in these issues, you often aren’t aware, I think, because they hide things from you…and then, later, you want to believe they aren’t real. It’s easier, I guess, as a young person, to imagine that your parents are not human, that they do not struggle with issues like depression and alcoholism. Then, though, you need to deal with it later, as an adult. The work is harder, the time is longer, in terms of healing yourself. No one else can magically do it. The road is long, and tiring.

The first time I read Linda Griffiths’s play, “Alien Creature,” was in borrowing copies of plays in the fall of 2015 from Matt Heiti, during my time in his Playwrights’ Junction play writing session at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. I knew I loved MacEwen’s poems, and I had eaten up Sullivan’s biography of MacEwen, so I knew I would be drawn to the play. I read it in the fall of 2015, and again last week in anticipation of going to see Griffiths’s “Alien Creature” at Theatre Passe Muraille. Directed by Jani Lauzon, and starring Beatriz Pizano, the play comes to life on a simple stage. The images and smoke that curls around the stage evokes the sense of magic that is conveyed in MacEwen’s poetic work. Nothing in her poetry is clear, and everything is rich and complex in terms of her use of imagery and metaphor. It is sensual poetry, I think, and intellectually and spiritually stimulating on so many levels. (You can’t read MacEwen’s work without thinking about female desire and sexuality, and this is another thing that intrigues me. How men view women, in terms of desire and sensuality, is very different from what women feel inside. I think, often, of D.H. Laurence, and his view of how women must experience desire. Oh, goodness, D.H. You have no idea, do you? That’s why MacEwen’s body of work is intriguing, too. She wasn’t afraid of writing about female desire, about sensuality, and that is — for the time she was writing in, for she was, even then, ahead of her time — bold and empowering. It still is.)

I love what Jani Laurzon, the director of “Alien Creature,” wrote in the Director’s Notes for the play. “Gwendolyn’s journey was not an easy one. But bridging light and dark creates worlds of shadows that are rich, complicated, passionate and painful. That is what living is: the light and dark breathing together.” Yes. Just “yes.” I would so much rather be complex and unique than simple and one dimensional, as both a person, a woman, a soul, and a poet. To be otherwise, well, it would be boring and ‘flat.’ In my twenties, I kept thinking as I watched the play at Theatre Pass Muraille last night, I was so easily influenced, especially by men I fancied. I was wobbly, unformed, a fetus almost. Now, in my mid-forties, there’s a sense of confidence that’s well rooted. As a poet, I can look back on my body of work and see the various phases and stages of my life, as they are reflected in my own literary work. The path has been interesting, certainly, but the place I am now is a place of origin and certainty, and I kept thinking–last night–how sad it was that Gwendolyn MacEwen had reached that place, that climax of creativity, but then died. She could have done so much more…with her words…her heart…her spirit.

There are places in the play that speak to me, deeply. Griffiths puts words in MacEwen’s mouth. The ones about being a woman poet are telling, for me, anyway. A few times during the performance, I heard myself making sounds of agreement deep in my throat. Resonance is powerful. I loved the lines: “Just because I’m a poet doesn’t mean I don’t like light coming through the windows like anyone else.” How people (or society) view poets always intrigues me, sometimes frustrates, and sometimes even makes me laugh and shake my head. There are romanticized versions of what people think a poet should be. Sometimes, to be honest, I’ve even had other writers (mostly novelists or short story writers…those prosaic types!) make odd comments about my being a poet. It’s easier to explain me away, and define me, if you consider the historic, poetic story and archetypes: Ah, yes, she walks in the woods and touches trees. Poet. Is drawn to water and great natural landscapes. Poet. Broken hearted and melancholic. Poet. Likes to wear long, billowy black coats and walk through mist. Poet. Reads widely and writes in small (or wide) spaces. Poet. Believes that ‘pathetic fallacy’ is a permanent sort of weather pattern that reflects internal life and musings. Poet. Reads voraciously. Poet. Introvert. Poet. (Now add the title “Poet Laureate” to the definition and it goes berserk and escalates to another level of societal delusion and stereotype.)

All of this is bullshit. A poet is a person. People are unique, and so are poets. The thing that might make us different, though, is that we walk through the world seeing it in a close-up kind of way. The world speaks to me in imagery. That’s why I love art so. I know that. Imagery is my language, my heart, and my way of being in the world. I even speak in metaphor when I teach. For some reason, kids seem to understand it. They don’t question it. I love that about them. They don’t label as easily as adults, ironically. Maybe it’s that they are too new to the planet to have become jaded and weary and cynical. Perhaps that is why I like to teach. They accept me as I am: poetic, unique, beautiful, bright spirit, magical woman, and alien creature.

The magic of the Theatre Passe Muraille production of “Alien Creature” is that you can feel MacEwen’s spirit in the theatre with you. She isn’t sitting on the bench next to you, and she isn’t hovering up in the rafters. She’s embodied in the words that Griffiths wrote, and that Beatriz Pizano speaks and embodies. Pizano mesmerizes in her performance, speaking as Gwendolyn: “Poetry is breath, and sometimes the breath comes too fast and sometimes nothing at all will let it in.” The pain MacEwen felt, as an alcoholic, depressive, and as a poet too, is conveyed in these few lines: “I don’t want you to think I’m angry. I’m not. I love living inside this mind. It’s a constant adventure.” That breaks my heart, you see. I can imagine, Gwendolyn, that you knew what I know…that living inside a mind, being cerebral and creative, is both a blessing and a curse. You walk between worlds, as a magical woman and alien creature, gathering people, and then losing them…all because you are so much light in darkness, and too much light for others to understand. The only answer is to root yourself in the poems. There, Gwendolyn, is where you found some peace.

Griffiths writes, giving MacEwen a voice: “I want you to know I was brave. I want you to know I fought hard. I want you to know I loved beauty; that I laughed. I want you to know I was a coward.” MacEwen was, I think, more a brave soul than a coward, even if she couldn’t envision or believe it. I’m sad, to be honest, that she couldn’t believe in herself. I’ve only just got to this place of believing in myself…at the same age as she was when she died…so I can only imagine what work might have come afterwards, if she had lived. That makes me ache inside, for the loss of such work.

If you have the ability and opportunity, you need to try and see “Alien Creature,” at the amazingly dynamic Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, before the run is up on February 5th. It will speak to you, resonate, sit inside the cage of ribs, inside your heart, so that you carry it with you for quite some time.

And now, I feel like leaving this entry with Gwendolyn MacEwen’s words, to let her speak even though she’s been gone for thirty years this coming November.

Poetry has nothing to do with poetry
Poetry is how the air goes green before thunder
is the sound you make when you come and
why you live and how you bleed
and the sound you make or don’t make when
you die.

–“You Can Study It If You Want” (from Afterworlds)

I wish she were still here, but I’ll always have her words…her image…those kohl black eyes and the purple kaftan…and the magical woman who taught me how to be ‘poet’ and ‘self’ in a way that roots and empowers me.

peace, friends.
k.

I’ve had a lot on my mind this week. I have so many ideas (for new stories, poems, and plays) that I can’t even sleep properly. I end up waking up by 5am–after a horribly fragmented sleep–and writing, or reading, and then going down to Lake Ramsey to walk my dog. It’s only when I get down in amidst the trees and alongside the shoreline that I feel I can breathe again and sort out what’s happening in my mind. I have been doing Zumba with excessive force, too. I know this about myself: when my brain is too busy, because I’m an introvert, a creative, and a cerebral kind of person, I need to be more physically active. I lose my appetite, can’t sleep, and just need to move physically. (It’s busy in my head. Always has been. That can be a blessing if you’re a writer, but also a curse, I think. These last few weeks, it’s been a bit of both, depending on the day or the situation.) It’s funny enough that, when I speak to my principal at work, suggesting new ideas, I often finish (as I did today) with “Um, so yeah…I think that’s all I have to talk with you about…what’s in my head right now, anyway.” And then he laughs (as he did today) and asks, “Are you sure there’s nothing else in there, Kim?” And then I just shake my head and say, “Um, yeah, you know…it’s busy in there. I have a lot of thoughts.” I think, sometimes, they seem to build up and come out all at once and then, well, I don’t have a filter (never have!) so I’m sure being on the receiving end of one of my chats can overwhelm the most well rounded and intelligent of souls.

These past couple of months, at school, my students have wanted to talk about what’s happening in American politics. I took American history way back in high school. That was a long time ago. I do read a lot, though, so I try my best. Usually, I steer them towards trying to define and identify what makes us ‘Canadian’ and which values we espouse as a nation. They are, at times, different philosophies than American ones…even if we share a physical continent with our neighbours to the south. (Just think of different philosophies on gun control and violence, as well as education and health care. I’m sure that’s only just the surface, but enough of an example to start you thinking.)

Teaching a Grade 11 First Nations, Metis and Inuit Contemporary Voices in Literature course this semester at work, for the first time, has made me more aware of the overarching ideas of identity, relationships, challenges, and sovereignty, as they are embedded in literature written by First Nations writers in Canada. We’ve spent four and a half months talking about how we choose to define ourselves, and how others view and define us. Then we’ve talked, in class, about how these notions and ideas arise in the literature we study together. One of the most helpful pieces that has anchored the course has been a TEDTalk that I found via a teaching colleague. “The Danger of A Single Story” speaks to the idea of how listening to just one interpretation of history, or of any story, really, is damning in so many ways. You can watch it here. (Trust me when I say it’s worth the time it will take.)

It’s been the touchstone piece that I’ve used to anchor my interpretation of the course. My students are all girls (as I teach at Marymount Academy, which is the only all-girls’ school north of Toronto). When the American election occurred, so many of my students wanted to react with fear. I spoke to them, though, about the choices we have as humans. “We can,” I said, “either choose to act out of fear or love. Which is most beneficial, for us, as individuals, and as a society?” If you avoid things in life, because you’re afraid, then you end up not growing and changing. If you take some risks, with the idea of being open and living with a loving heart, then you’ll be hopeful and positive in your approach to life. It’s more of a risk, to speak and act out of love, but it seems to me that there is no other choice if you want to grow and develop. (How boring would life be, otherwise, if we all just stayed inside our respective homes and avoided things that might challenge our views and previous life experiences? We may get hurt by walking through life with open hearts, but I think it’s worth it. I hope my kids think so, too, at the end of the five months I spend with them.)

This week has been hard on them, and it’s been hard on me to see them struggling. I worry about them. I don’t have kids of my own, so these girls are my kids. I deal mostly with Grade 11 and 12 students, all ranging from 15-17 years old. They are under such pressure in the senior grades, especially at this time of the year, trying to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. (I’m in my forties and I still don’t know what I want to do with my life….other than just write my heart out!)

One student this week came to talk to me during my Student Success period and she just wanted to talk about courses and where she was heading after high school. I just listened and asked questions. (This is, as you’ll know if you’ve read my blog before, a skill my dad had…and which has, somehow, miraculously even, been passed on to me. It comes in handy in teaching, let me tell you!) After hearing her out, I just stopped and said, “Well, it seems as if you have already made your decision. You know the pros and the cons, and you’ve just talked them through while I listened.” So she looked at me, with a sort of wistful smile, and said, “But, Miss, I just want someone to tell me that I’m making the right decision.” I laughed. “What’s the ‘right’ decision? I wish I could have someone help me with my decisions, too, sister, and I’m an adult. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to your life, is there? Nothing is a final decision, and you can always go back and change it, or just start off on a new path. A decision that was right three months ago might not be the right one now. It’s a journey, and the road isn’t always straight. You can’t always see where you’re going.” She asked me how I make decisions in life. “I worry it out, and overthink it, probably more intensely than I should. When you live alone with two dogs, you do a lot of thinking and deciding on your own, so you hone the skill. Mostly, though, I think it out and reason it through. Then, after all is said and done, though, I follow my heart. After all, you carry your heart with you through life.” She smiled and said, “Right, Miss, but that applies to you, too, with your writing?” My breath caught a bit, then. “Yes, absolutely. I’ve been practicing with following my heart. It takes work.” Some days, I find, these kids are wiser than the wisest elders. They teach me.

Today, after a discussion about the Joseph Boyden controversy, and an examination of news articles on the subject from different points of view, the girls moved to talking about issues of cultural identity and one student raised her hand. She was frustrated. “But, Miss….I don’t understand. We know better, right, as humans? We know about residential schools now, and we want things to be more equal for all races and genders, but racism and segregation still happens.” She sighed. “I don’t get it. Why is that still happening, when we know better? We all bleed the same colour of blood.” Then we had a class discussion about how we manage in a world that can seem–this week, especially–a bit scary and overwhelming and racist. We talked about what happens at inaugurations, and what that means historically for Americans, and also what it means for Canadians and other people around the world this time around. I brought them back to the ‘fear vs. love’ question and that helped. The Trump thing has been hovering in class for a while. They’re all bright girls. They worry, too, because they’re bright and well read. They know life, the world, isn’t simple.

I was thinking, tonight, about the role that poetry plays in American inaugurations. I loved Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” (for Clinton’s inauguration), and I’m also terribly fond of Richard Blanco’s “One Day” (for Obama’s swearing in at the beginning of his second term). I love poets. That sounds weird, because I am one, but I mean to say (and convey) that poets have a role in the history of the world. The bardic tradition goes back farther than we probably even know.

Maya Angelou has always been someone whose work I admire. There is so much scope for positivity in her words. She saw that, even in the darkest parts of the world, there was good…and then somehow she was so incredibly gifted that she could convey that good, that hope, that potential for positive change, in the majority of her pieces. I love, love, love, the rhythm of her poems. She was pure music and magic, especially in the way that she read. She spoke of how all races and religions are one. (I still miss her being on the planet…cried when she died.) You can listen to the beauty and hope that is conveyed in her poem here:

In the face of the worry and fear, there’s still something beautiful about America, too, though. When we speak of change, it’s too easy to say that things are “bad” and “good,” or “white” and “black,” or “right” and “wrong.” These are all polar opposites, or binary opposites. It’s reductionist, I think, to imagine that we can interpret the world, and human beings, in such a basic and simple way. There’s something beautiful about America, despite the fear that surrounds the new president who will be sworn in on Friday. It’s a country that has survived through difficult times before, and it will do so again.

In class today, when someone asked me what I thought about Friday, I took a minute: “I think that life will go on. I think that democracy is a blessing. And, I think that we have a choice….whether to move forward while thinking, speaking, and acting…out of love, or out of fear.”

I’m hoping that most of us, even those of us who aren’t American, but who have American friends and relatives, can be mindful and set the intention to move forward with love and not fear. After all, what are our alternatives?

peace, friends.
k.