Archive for July, 2014

I’m coming to the end of my time here in Lumsden, Saskatchewan. I’m cherishing every sky I see, from the picture windows of the big glassed-in lounge, or on my twice daily walks on the long road. The skies are something I will miss when I return to Ontario later this week. It almost feels as if you are inside a ‘sky globe’ of some sort. The sky envelops you here. The clouds shift with the weather, making shadows on the fields below. I’m also going to miss the dragonflies on the road, even though I don’t like insects. I remember reading somewhere that dragonflies are symbols of transformation, and I can say that is true of this ten-day experience with other writers at Sage Hill.

What makes the place work so well? I think it’s largely due to the hard work of the Executive Director, Philip Adams, who shepherds people into Regina when they need things like toothbrushes and deodorant, or takes clutches of writers to see the Mary Pratt exhibit, knowing that even writers need breaks. He also, though, stays in touch with each writer, making each one feel that their work is worthy, valued, and important. Sometimes, as solitary creative people, writers need that reassurance. He often offers a quick, kind word to let them know that someone understands that drive to create, even if others (sometimes those who love and know us best back home) may not.

What I’ve found most amazing during my time here at St. Michael’s Retreat is that writers are similar souls with big brains. We sit for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, always learning something new about what others are working on in different workshops. I haven’t had this much stimulating conversation with people, regarding writing, in a very very long time. By the end of the afternoon, people are yawning, their brains loaded up with new ideas for their writing. They’re also really very interesting people, are excellent story tellers (of course!), and they are so funny! I love it! 🙂

I feel very lucky to have been able to work with some great poets this week. Under the guidance of Ken Babstock, who has a keen eye for poetry, I’ve worked most closely with Dawn Kresan, Kathleen Wall, Margaret Hollingsworth, Bernadette Wagner, and Kevin Wesaquate. We’ve had one-on-one consultations with Ken, which have really made me see my work with new eyes, and then we’ve workshopped our poems as a group. What I’ve learned has a lot to do with editing and revision. I’ve begun to feel less attached to the poem, to sit back in an observational manner and let the poem tell me what it needs, or wants, to tell me. I also question it. I’ve begun to question why I’m doing the things I do, in terms of how and why I fashion my poems. I’ve honed in on image and line length, pushing at my own poetic wall. Evolving. It’s what I came here to do.

There are other great faculty members here at Sage Hill this week. Larry Hill, Helen Humphreys, Merilyn Simonds, Wayne Grady, and Denise Chong, along with our poet-guru, Ken, have given so much of themselves. They’ve read endless pages of poetry, non-fiction, and fiction, pushed at all of us to go deeper and get better. The sign on the banner says “Sage Hill Writing: Helping Good Writers Write Better.” It’s done that for me.

At the end of each night of readings, Philip says “Now, go write better tomorrow.” I’m going to take that phrase with me when I return home to Sudbury on Thursday, reminding myself of my commitment to my own writing. I’m going to be sure to carve out time every day to write, read, or think about poetry. I may be a teacher, but I’m a writer and poet first. I wouldn’t be as good of a teacher, I don’t think, if I didn’t take the time to feed my own creative work. I like to think, anyway, that my work as a poet and writer enhances my work as an English teacher. That’s my hope, to be sure.

I’ve met some fabulous people here these last days, and I’m going to miss them. At home, I don’t often get a chance to “speak writing” with kindred spirits. Here, well, it’s been a buffet of writers. I’m going to miss conversations about the structure of sestinas, or the way metaphor works, or how to best title a piece. I hope to see at least some of these writers again someday, but if I don’t, I’ll know they’ve made an imprint on my heart, as has Sage Hill.

….and for this part of Saskatchewan, the Qu’Appelle Valley, well, what can I say? Its land, spirit, people, and skies have marked me. I know I’ll be back someday. It’s inevitable. If I could, I would write the prairies a love song…and try to find a tick-free hill from which to sing it loudly.

For now, I’ll work on revising another poem, gaze out at the valley, watching that collie across the way herd cattle from one hill to another. For today and tomorrow, at least, I’ll breathe Saskatchewan in.


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My bag, fondly named “Monster” by a Dublin cab driver two years ago, finally arrived this afternoon after being delayed by an onslaught of fog. Being without it left me a bit out of sorts today. I have never before found myself staring longingly out of a window, waiting for a delivery service. (You never know how much you’ll miss something until it’s lost in an Air Canada vortex, let me tell you!)

Arrived at Sage Hill late last night, so missed the opening get together. This morning, the first person who said good morning to me was Lawrence Hill, the author of The Book of Negroes, one of my favourite novels ever. It’s like being in a surreal film or something…

Meeting my poetry cohort was cool. They come from all over Canada, but they all share the same love of poetry that I feel in my heart. It’s nice to be in a place where people are like minded, where talking about line length, metaphor, and imagery in a stanza can be a discussion that lasts 25 minutes. In my books, that’s a cool thing. (It made me think about how amazing it would be to live, some day, in a commune of poets. There are retirement homes for actors, so why not the same for writers and poets?) Our guide is Ken Babstock, a Toronto-based poet who said, today, something that stuck with me. When in doubt, when trying to make the poem say something, he suggested that, instead, the poem will tell the poet what to write. “The line will guide you…” Loved that. Made lots of sense to me.

At meals today, I’ve met loads of cool writers…some are poets, some are novelists, some are journalists and others are memoir writers. I’m looking forward to hearing more of their work…the poetry I heard this afternoon was amazing, so I can only imagine that it will be a week of words and wonder!:)

The views from St. Michael’s Retreat House are stunning. Rolling green hills, over the valley, which is spliced by a motorway, with birds chirping just outside. I spent some time in the chapel this morning after breakfast, and it may just be the most peaceful place I’ve been in a long time. These Franciscans know how to create a sacred space for soul. This is not the landscape I’m used to, but I’m hoping it will crack me open so that some poems will spill out.


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What I find interesting about “spending time” with Georgia O’Keefe, by reading her letters or diaries, or by listening to interviews on YouTube, is that her mind and creativity was amazingly diverse. People so often speak of her flower paintings, but these Hawaiian pieces go beyond that, to include the waterfalls of the Iao Valley on Maui, and the lava fields. She was, quite simply, pulled into the natural world, and to the vast landscapes that she was drawn to so often in her lifetime.

With research, I learned that she hated the fact that people only viewed the most famous of her flower paintings as representations of the female genitalia. These interpretations only began after her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, took and exhibited some nude photographs of O’Keefe. Perhaps she didn’t know they would end up being exhibited when he took them, but once there were on the walls of New York art galleries, the work ended up creating a mythology around her own paintings and persona. She was, in so many ways, a very private person who was sexualized by her own husband’s photography exhibition. She never intended her own flower paintings to be analyzed from a Freudian perspective, but she had no say in the matter.

I never knew that until I started reading about her over the last few months. Imagine loving someone so much that you trusted that person to photograph you while naked. (I’m sure that’s common these days, what with the culture of selfies, sexting and such, but Stieglitz’s photographs of O’Keefe are beautiful works of art, and a testament of his love for her.)

Anyway, here is a new poem, created this afternoon on the back porch, until I was driven indoors by a sunshower that threatened my laptop. It’s a draft….work in progress.

Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast,
No. 1, 1939
(for Georgia O’Keefe)

On the edges of things,
away from the pineapple fields,
she found the ocean, smashing itself
up against the rough skin of lava
that had naturally found its way to the sea.

Far from the Iao Valley,
where ancient chiefs were buried,
their sacred voices now silenced
by the rushing of waterfalls
amidst rainforest green,
this eastern coast of Maui
spoke to her now with new words.

Here, the lava made a crazy coast,
carved out by the gods, painted all black
with bright blue
waves that reflected sky.

At Hana, the waves rise up, pounding surf
rising high
into the air that hovers,
so that lava poured by Pele is sculpted
into bridges, pathways, gates,
etching out holes where water
sprays, hissing and blowing,
letting the light in with each wave’s retreat.

She climbed all over those rocks,
feeling the push of rough lava
up through the soles of her shoes,
rooting herself just as the ocean
rose up to meet her with saltwater,
ready to paint again.

*The italicized words in this poem are taken from a letter that O’Keefe wrote to her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, on March 15, 1939.

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Well, I’m working on a manuscript. There are plenty of poems on paper, all pooled together in a file folder, scratched out on little notebook pages, some jotted down while I was supervising June exams. (I know….it’s illegal….I did invigilate, but I also wrote down a couple of ‘first lines’ for poems. It happens and, if you’re a poet, you know that if you ignore them, the words vanish as quickly and mysteriously as they have arrived.)

Last August, when I was in Hawaii for a few days en route to Australia and New Zealand, I found an exhibit of Georgia O’Keefe’s work. She and Ansel Adams both visited Hawaii to work on artistic commissions. It was common in the late 1930s and 1940s, I’ve discovered through research, although I’m sure they both battled with the eternal question of whether or not art should be made commercial. In any case, O’Keefe negotiated fiercely with the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (later to become good old Dole), committing herself to painting just two stylized posters even though they wanted more. Beyond that, she shifted from the island of Oahu and then moved over to Maui, spending about three months in the Hawaiian islands, but falling head over heels in love with Maui. Her paintings are stunning. They remind me of some of Emily Carr’s totem paintings of the Haida.

A shout out to my poetic guru, Susan Rich in Seattle, Washington, who has officially got me hooked on ekphrastic work. I did a lot of it before I went to Eyeries two years ago, but I’m fully committed to it now. 🙂 Thanks, lady! 🙂

So…..here is the introductory poem for the “suite” or “sequence” of poems that I’m working on….based on the paintings I viewed last August at the Honolulu Academy of Art.

Hope you enjoy it!

Her Hawaii
(for Georgia O’Keefe)

From Sun Prairie, in Wisconsin,
to the badlands of New Mexico,
she searched for wide open spaces,
with deep reverence, as a seeker does.

Flipped through travel brochures,
found one for Hawaii, went there
to paint pineapple posters for Dole,
but fell in love with Maui,
her heart toppled by waterfalls,
lava bridges, bright salted ocean spray.

She was 51 then,
in a marriage that floundered
like a fish out of water,
when she bravely crossed oceans
to find white birds of paradise
and pineapple buds of promise.

Landed on Oahu, stayed in Honolulu,
afterwards shifting to Hana, on Maui;
transfixed by sea caves, sugar cane fields,
tasting tamarind, star fruit, avocado & mango,
so that they soon became colours on canvas,
marked on her heart ever after.

She expected so little of those islands,
after being seduced by the badlands,
but they surprised her, catching her unaware,
sweeping her off her feet, gathering up her heart,
paintbrushes mad with passionate abandon.


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