Archive for August, 2016

I was speaking to an older, more established poet last year here in town and he said to me, “I don’t understand why you go off to travel to all these places and write…why you go off to workshops given by other poets when you could, in fact, run workshops and not take them. You have the experience and stature as a poet now. So, why wouldn’t you do that instead?” It’s a hard question to answer when it’s been posed to you because, as you can imagine, if someone’s posed the question, then they likely think you shouldn’t be going off to ‘little retreats.’ They have already formulated their view of the worth of such travel and work. The other side of all this going out of town to write is that people think you’re going off on holiday when, in fact, you are working on your writing. It may be in beautiful places, that is true, but it is often also true–I find, anyway–that you need to leave home to get your head in the writing game sometimes. Why? I mean, I am a single woman with two shih tzus. I can write in my house, and I normally do, but there are interruptions that occur and–when you’re a writer–sometimes interruptions become ways to procrastinate.

I can already hear the uproar out there. It’s the same uproar I’ve heard for years: “Well, if you’re single, you don’t have any responsibilities! Surely you don’t need to get away to write when you live in a quiet house with two dogs?” Or, in the case of work: “Well, you’re single, maybe you could take on a few more things after work…there’s no one waiting for you at home, so why not put your energy here?” Other single people, of both genders, will likely know what I’m talking about. (Maybe I should make up a boyfriend or husband, or 2.5 wholesome kids? That might work in deflecting some of the chatter…but I won’t…because what’s the point? You have responsibilities when you’re single and without kids. I could go on, but I won’t because I’m off topic on a tangential bungee jump.)

So: workshops and retreats. Why are they a good thing? Here it is: They force you to take your work seriously. When I first went to the Anam Cara Artists’ and Writers’ Retreat in the summer of 2012 in Ireland, to work with the amazing Seattle-based ekphrastic poet, Susan Rich, I thought ‘oh my God, they will all know I’m a fraud poet,’ but afterwards, I felt more committed to knowing my work in a new way. When I went to the Sage Hill Writing Experience in Lumsden, Saskatchewan to work with Ken Babstock in summer 2014, I thought ‘oh my God, they will all think I’m a hick poet from outside of the 416 area code,’ but afterwards, I learned how to edit my work more cleanly and with a more subjective eye. When I go to workshops and retreats, I learn from my mentors and those poets and writers I meet while I’m there. I find my tribe. 🙂

This year, having had my seven months away from formal teaching, I’ve given myself the space and time to sink into my writing, committing to the vocation of it with a new force and dedication. (It’s sort of a bit like I was dating my writing, not too seriously, and that I wasn’t too sure I was good enough to have it want to stick with me, and now I’ve grown accustomed to its ways, and sometimes it makes me tea when I didn’t think I wanted or needed any, and we’re in a committed relationship. 😉 Seriously. It feels that intense to me. (In April, someone asked me if I was in love and I looked at them like they were crazy. “Um, me? Do you know my luck with men? No! I’m in love, though. With my words!”) There’s something empowering, to know that you’re moving into a place and space where your writing is something that’s more organic, more holistic, more all encompassing than it’s ever been before. I’ve stepped into it, and it’s stepped into me. (I’ve been so loving Maggie Rogers and her song, “Alaska.” It speaks to me of the journey I’ve gone through this year. Her words are strong ones: “And I walked off you, and I walked off an old me. Oh me, oh my, I thought it was a dream, so it seemed. And now breathe deep, I’m inhaling. You and I, there’s air in between. Leave me be. I’m exhaling.” Having seven months to feed my writing, my creative work, has been exhilarating. More of her grand words as she says she “Learnt to talk and say whatever I wanted to.” Yup. That’s happened, too. Some of my closest and oldest friends have noticed it, and I’ve certainly noticed it. Sometimes, if you take the time to feed your passion, it helps you to blossom into yourself, and that’s a pretty cool thing…even if you can’t always recognize who you’ve become.

This year, I’ve done four writing retreats–outside of just spending hours and days at home, trudging along with books, papers, pens, and my laptop. The first was my writing workshop in Banff with Larry Hill. I met great people, now friends and kindred spirits, and I started to realize that maybe–just maybe–the story I wanted to write in my novel might be good enough for other people to want to read in their spare time. That’s a big leap of faith, in yourself and in your own work. I’m not an ego-y person, so I’m not in any of this for any weirdly imagined glory. That’s all fake, anyway. People who are in it for that aren’t the people I want to know, to be honest. I’m about telling the story that’s in my head to the best of my ability. It needs telling, so I’ll tell it. I need to serve the story. That’s my job as a writer.

The second retreat was a ten-day stay on Pelee Island. It was self-directed, but I met seven other amazing people and writers. They’re grand friends now, too, I feel (or maybe that’s just me being an empath and ‘feeler’). 🙂 That retreat was interesting because of an encounter with Margaret Atwood, one afternoon in a rented cottage, with platters of pigs in blankets and slabs of Brie. I learned a lot in that hour or two. Some of it was rough to hear, but that’s okay. I still learn from rough things. To be honest, I probably learn more from them, if I take a look at my life historically speaking. Sitting across from a Canadian lit icon is, well, a bit surreal to say the least. Besides this, though, I met someone who was kind enough to offer me a space to write this August, at a house called Woodbridge Farm in Kingsville. Once you start to meet people who are like minded, ripples happen…serendipity.

The third was a poetry writing retreat at Moniack Mhor in the highlands of Scotland, just outside of Inverness. I got to work with noted Scottish poet, John Glenday, as well as the amazing Jen Hadfield, who lives in the Shetlands. I can’t tell you how my discussions with the two of them, in terms of specific poems that I’ve written, helped me to fine tune my style. I also met some great poets from around the world. Plus, I did my first reading outside of Canada, in Newcastle, England.

This last retreat was self-directed, at Woodbridge Farm in Kingsville. It’s a beautiful old yellow brick house that sits on the edge of Lake Erie. (I love yellow brick…memories of driving with my Dad through Southwestern Ontario in my youth and staring at beautiful yellow brick houses next to wide green fields. I also have one house on Kingsmount that I regularly stalk just because it’s yellow brick. I know…I’m weird.) The fact that it houses the best swing set in Canada is just an extra bonus, in my book, because I am all about late night swings under trees and stars. Having ten days there, just to sit and work through the second draft of my novel, titled “The Donoghue Girl,” meant that I couldn’t avoid what I needed to do. I had to cut and burn, write new scenes to strengthen characters and their relationships to one another, and then I kept a notebook of things I need to go back and research to add more detail into the story. It’s a bit like taking apart and putting together a jigsaw puzzle, but there’s no instruction manual as to how to best finish that task. Sometimes, it’s as big as figuring out the structure, as to where to put chapter breaks, which is harder than it looks, and other times it’s as simple as changing sentence structure or taking out excessive commas. All it kind of happens at once, so you sort of feel like you’re a circus master inside your own head.

I don’t have an MFA in Creating Writing. I have an MA in English Lit. There’s a difference there. Sometimes, I feel like a big fraud. I’ve written before about how I often feel like I’m cheating on poetry, with either playwright work or novel writing work. It’s been a shift for me, in the last twelve months, to begin to think of myself more as a writer in a holistic sense. When you’ve only ever been considered, or introduced, as ‘the poet,’ it’s a bit of a stretch inside your own head. I’m thankful to Marnie Woodrow, who’s been my guide in this novel writing process, giving me feedback as I go. Otherwise, I honestly don’t think I would have the faith in myself to try to write something as vast as a novel. The other person who’s been grand has been Matt Heiti, who has taught me everything I know about writing plays. Two autumns ago, we had a chat and I said I wanted to write a novel and he said ‘so do it.’ Rather than get caught up in the size of the thing, he suggested just thinking of it as a series of scenes. I see it all theatrically, or cinematically, in my head, so it was an analogy that worked.

Self-directed retreats work. If you have a goal, then you need to be firm with yourself and just get down to business. It’s not simple and there are times when your head gets so overwhelmed that it’s a bit buzzy in there, or if someone comes to say hello and you’re writing, you look a bit stoned (not that I would know about that because I can’t inhale; I can’t even take Benadryl without being loopy!). It’s almost as if you slip into another world, populated by characters who are as real as your friends or family members (or dogs!). If you get pulled out of that space without warning, well, people need to expect it not to be a nice thing.

Besides going on retreats this year, I’ve begun to carve out time to write. This doesn’t make me popular with some people. I say ‘no’ now sometimes when I feel I have work pressing on me with my novel, or plays, or poems. Being poet laureate, too, has quite a bit of responsibility attached, so I feel like I am juggling things. I’m hoping that people will understand if I’m not quick to say ‘yes’ to social invitations. I hope they’ll understand that the writing I do needs to be done. My goal is to have this next draft ready for Thanksgiving, and then I’ll get feedback and move into a third draft. It’s a long journey, this novel writing thing, but I need to keep setting my own dates and goals. If I don’t, it’s just too easy to say, “yeah, let’s just avoid sitting my ass down to write.”

It’s not a sexy thing to do, writing a novel. There is a lot of drinking tea, talking to yourself, drinking water, pacing, maybe listening to music (for me, if I’m writing new stuff, it needs to be instrumental so I don’t start singing…like Bach or the Chieftains…or singable stuff if it’s just transcribing and editing as I go…for that it’s Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Harmer, Ron Sexsmith.) I usually light essential oil (lavender or patchouli) to ground myself, and I write next to a braid of sweetgrass. It can be a really lonely pursuit, this writing gig. I know it sounds cool, when you hear of a person who’s working on a major creative project (and I have lots of friends who write, so I know this is true) but often times, a writer is wondering if their work is half decent, or if it needs to be jettisoned, or if it’s all bullshit. The inside of a writer’s head is a busy place…but writing a novel isn’t what people think it is. It’s hard stuff…a lot of it is just slogging and trying not to avoid the chair and laptop.

But it’s also the most beautiful thing I can think to do in my life these days…to see words emerge, to craft them, to see a story rise up. That, to me, is well worth all of the solitary, self-doubt filled wanderings inside my head. I’ll take that any day of the week. With thanks and gratitude.

peace, friends.

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As someone who wishes she could have grown into being a visual artist, it makes perfect sense to me that I am drawn to writing poetically about art. So, whenever I travel, I research what art is being exhibited in the city I’m nearest to. It’s become a kind of pilgrimage of sorts, I guess you could say. 🙂 This week, I’ve been writing at the Woodbridge Farm Writers’ Retreat in Kingsville, working on the second draft of my novel. I’m almost to the very end, so the ten days have served me incredibly well. I can’t thank my friend, Grant, enough for letting me borrow this beautiful space by Lake Erie. Sometimes, the best gift you can give a person who writes is space and time, and that’s what he’s given me so I’m very thankful for that. 🙂

On Sunday, I drove into Windsor to see the exhibition of 1920s Modernism in Montreal work. It’s work that has been done by a group of artists, and they were called “The Beaver Hall Group.” I bought the big art book (of course!) so that I can write some ekphrastic poems about the pieces I saw there the other day. What drew me to the Beaver Hall Group was that, as Shahir Guindi says, “this group of artists was also the first to include professional women artists among its ranks in equal numbers to men.” Yup. That’s the thing. This group is often spoken about as an ‘alternative’ group to the more famous (and very male) Group of Seven. Now, I’m from Group of Seven land. I can drive about half an hour from my house and see some landscape that A.Y. Jackson painted. I think that’s a pretty cool piece of Canadiana right there, if you ask me, but I’m a bit nerdy when it comes to art, theatre, and literature so I know I’m likely the exception to the rule.

There are quite a few artists in The Beaver Hall Group, and some are men, but I have always been drawn to the work of Kathleen Morris (in particular), Anne Savage, Lilias Torrance Newton, Emily Coonan, and Prudence Howard. There are beautiful paintings of women from the 1920s, all full of deep emotion, longing, sadness and generally just a lot of deep gazes. I quite like them. I especially like the portraits done by Randolph S. Hewton.

You can’t talk feminist theory without talking about ‘the female gaze.’ Even at the Stratford talk by women playwrights last week, Kate Hennig spoke about ‘the feminine gaze.’ I imagine, just as it goes with defining ‘feminist,’ each person would have their own view or interpretation of these phrases. You can study all of this stuff in books, of course, and you should, but when you’ve lived your life and have some experiences, then I sort of think that you’ll identify and re-identify yourself as you go along in years. I know, if I think of my views of feminism in my 20s, that I’ve evolved since then. Happily so. You can’t live a life in this world and not ask yourself questions about what your beliefs are, or wonder about how and why your views might be shifting as you are more of a woman than a girl. (There’s a whole lot of material to talk about here, but you can imagine that would need to be a different blog post!) In any case, I loved the portraits of women by women. I noticed where their eyes were looking, and whether or not they were staring directly out from the frame. In many cases, but not all, the women who were painted seem to be looking off into the distance, pondering something. I kept standing there, in front of them all, wanting to say “So, what are you looking at over there? Tell me!” There’s a sense, in this exhibit, of women thinking and maybe keeping secrets. I sensed that. I wondered, too, whether a man would have that same reaction, or if it would be something different. (You can’t help but think about gender when you’re seeing an exhibit that heralds female artists in the 1920s.)

I could have stayed there all day. I really could have. I loved the Art Gallery of Windsor so much, and I loved the museum on the first floor. It stretched back to First Nations settlement of this part of the province, and then moved right forward to the present. The First Nations section of the museum was fairly impressive, I thought, and well done.

I knew I wanted to get back to Kingsville to write more, though, so I wanted to stop by Biblioasis in Windsor. I have two friends who work there, so I’d heard it had a good poetry section. I messaged Bob on Saturday night and asked about it, so he said they were open on Sunday afternoon. It was like entering heaven. Seriously. Besides art galleries, I also stalk book stores when I’m in new cities. Bob had said they had a great poetry section, but I had no way of expecting what I’d find there. It was one of the loveliest afternoons I’ve spent in years, sitting on the hard wood floor and peering at oodles and oodles of great books. I bought some Eavan Boland, Paul Muldoon, Mary Oliver, Elizabeth Smart…and a whole slew of other things. I won’t tell you how much I spent, but I do know that I’ll be stopping at antique stores on the way north tomorrow to see if I can find some bookshelves to plunk in my RAV. (My house is too small!!! I need more walls for art and more space for bookcases! These are my problems!)

I spent time with friends, walking, talking and eating. They filled my soul up. (I hope it was mutual, but one never knows!) Today, I went to visit two tiny stores. One was called Paisley Dreamer, and is the kind of place I’d love to work in, I think. It’s all spirit and spunk and magic. Then I went to visit The Painted Moon. The woman there was lovely and we started talking. I said I was down here to work on a novel and she asked me what it was about, so I told her and then she said “oh, I have goosebumps. That’s a good sign for me.” I bought some things for the bedroom redecoration I’m about to do at home and she just said “You know, love, that you’re on the right path, don’t you?” It almost made me weep. “Yes, I said, but thanks for saying that today. I needed it.” It’s lovely, I think, when you meet kindred spirits in the most unexpected places. So much of my traveling and writing this year has been about that…meeting new kindreds and resonating with people who ‘get’ my energy and spirit. Not everyone does…I know…how many people can say they like to hug trees, or have their own swings in the back yard, or speak out loud to the universe when they’re thankful? I don’t care anymore. That’s the beauty of it. Growing up, not old I might add (!), means that you can be a part of something greater, in a vibrant and passionate way, and not be afraid of it. It’s taken me a long time to get here, and I’m damn glad it was worth all the struggle and heartache. It makes it all so much more worth the while, and I value each moment of every day. I am so blessed…I feel it in my bones…and I’ll sing it to the high heavens!

It’s beautiful here. I don’t want to leave. It’s that beautiful and peaceful. If you can fall in love with a landscape, and I can (fairly easily, I know), then I’ve fallen for this part of the province in a way I hadn’t expected. I knew Pelee Island had struck my heart in the spring when I was down for a writing retreat, but being here again, on the edge of such a great and powerful lake, well, I kind of think lakes call to me. Big ones, like this, are almost shouting in my ear. That’s energetically speaking, of course. There’s good energy here. I hope to come back again soon. God knows, the words come quickly here…and I don’t know why…but I’ll take that gift any day of the week. 🙂

peace, friends.

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I was in Stratford last night, so I went to see As You Like It for the second time this year. (Yes, I have a thing for Shakespeare. If he were alive, I’d be a stalker…but as it is, he’s dead, and so he’s safely in my stable of ‘secret husbands.’ They are ‘secret’ because they don’t know we’re married. Some are musicians or actors, or songwriters, but most are dead writers. I know. It’s okay. I’m in therapy. 🙂

This morning, I bought a ticket to see a talk given by Hannah Moscovitch (Bunny), Anusree Roy (Pyaasa, Brothel #9), and Kate Hennig (2015’s The Last Wife and The Virgin Trial, a play which will be staged at Stratford next season). The focus of the talk was what “being women” has meant to them at various stages of their careers as playwrights. Both Roy and Hennig are working actors, while Moscovitch started at the National Theatre School of Canada in the acting program, but quickly switched to the playwright option in second year.

One of the things that struck me this morning was a discussion about voice in writing. Anushree Roy mentioned that, while at York University, she found a professor named Judith Rudikoff who told her: “You have a voice; don’t change it.” This struck me because of a conversation I had with the Scottish poet, John Glenday, last month on retreat at Moniack Mhor. I had talked to him about worries I had about my ‘poetic voice,’ how a writer can sort of have a particular style that may or may not vary over the years. Mine has definitely evolved. I can look back and see where I was as a poet twenty years ago and see that I’ve grown. This makes sense to me. I mean, we live our life and have experiences, and all of this melds into our work as writers. All three women have written for years, and Kate Hennig spoke about having come to play writing work later in life. She’s older than Moscovitch and Roy, but has been writing plays for about the same amount of time as they have. This made me feel better about my work with plays.

Here’s the thing…I often feel a bit of a fraud. I love art, all art, and I wish I could paint. So, as a ‘failed artist,’ I love to write ekphrastic poems. That allows me to delve into art and then transform it into poetry. The same thing is happening, for me, in my writing of plays. I love theatre. I love plays. Nothing transports me more than being in a darkened theatre and wishing I could act. So, instead, I have now fallen in love with writing plays. If I can’t make it on stage, I can at least see my words go from ‘page to stage,’ and I find great joy in that process.

Moscovitch, Roy, and Hennig answered a question about the themes or ideas that they deal with in their plays. This, too, was fascinating. Anushree Roy said: “My play finds me…my soul needs me to write the play.” She speaks of herself as a vessel, which is something I also found resonated with me. I can’t understand where my words come from, but I love to see them come through me. It feels like magic. As Roy said, “…the play comes through me, rather than me having to generate ideas about plays.” Yes! Hannah Moscovitch then said that she writes in an “emergent fashion,” so that she “writes to find the story.” She writes many drafts and says that she “listens to characters.” Her purpose is to use “the personal to get to the political” and is interested in issues of morality. Roy then jumped in to say that she often finds she has conversations with her characters. She’ll write something and then say, “Why did you just do that?” and then laugh because she realizes that she was the one who had the character do that in the first place. (Here, then, is the magic that sits inside a writer’s head, I think. How else can you convey that to people who don’t write? It’s difficult…and maybe not even worth trying to do, to be honest. Maybe our job, as writers, is just to do what we’re meant to do…and let people interpret it all as they will.) I loved, too, what Kate Hennig said about playwrights being ‘vessels,’ which followed on what Roy had said earlier. Hennig said she believes that “plays move through individual artists as acting does through actors.” She spoke about “how the story comes through your body and soul.” Yes. Just ‘yes.’ It really is that visceral and sensual. It’s a raw experience, to find words coming through you and emerging onto whatever page or screen you choose to use. In fact, it’s fairly intense, if you stop to think about how you create as a writer; there’s an intimacy to it that is just too hard to explain.

One piece of the conversation that made me nod was the part about the relationship that exists between the playwright and the dramaturge. A dramaturge is someone who helps the playwright in developing the play. This person asks questions of the playwright, making them question their own crafting of the play. Hennig referred to the dramaturge as a “coach” of sorts, someone who can ask you questions and be honest with you about how your work will manage on the stage. Hannah Moscovitch spoke about how she purposefully tries to create “constructed ambiguities” in her plays, so that audience members have two possibilities playing in their minds as they watch the play. This kind of creation is more difficult than trying to simplify a play’s structure. In terms of her creative process, Anushree Roy spoke about how she works intensely in revisions at the ‘front end’ of a play. She wants her production draft to be finalized, if only for the sake of the actors. As a working actor, she finds it’s important to honour the actors and the work they do in remembering the lines, in embodying the characters. She also spoke about the role of the dramaturge as “someone who will tell you the absolute truth.” You would rather, all three women agreed, have someone tell you early on in the writing process, than to see your work on stage and then poorly received by an audience. (I’m blessed to have worked with Matt Heiti and Lisa O’Connell as dramaturges. I trust them. I have no idea what I’m doing when I write my plays, but they make me feel I must know more than I think I do…and that is pretty amazing in and of itself, if you ask me!)

The discussion soon shifted to the notion of storytelling. Kate Hennig wondered if there was, as Bob White says, “a feminine gaze” in women’s plays. Hannah Moscovitch said that she believes this is true simply because she writes from a woman’s perspective, just because she is a woman. Hennig spoke about how the earliest plays are rooted in male origins, citing Homer as an example. All dramatic structure and form is really male-centric, as Hennig said that “all plays are a masculine construct.” They are all mostly linear, with a beginning, middle, and an end. Think of Shakespeare or Miller here and you’ll understand. 🙂 Hennig wondered if there are ways to create new plays from “the feminine.” (Not the “feminist,” but from the “feminine,” as she clarified.) The question she herself posed was: “Is inclusivity part of what a feminine construct might be?” Hannah Moscovitch responded by speaking about “collective creation,” a process which is happening more and more in playwrights’ work these days. This leads playwrights away from text-based plays to plays that are image-based. Anushree Roy then spoke about the importance of text-based plays. Someone wondered whether or not text-based work would disappear, but Roy said that humans are drawn to text-based plays because they can see themselves in the works.

The question of why there aren’t more female playwrights’ works being produced arose. Recent stats from the Playwrights Guild of Canada (PGC) says that more than 50% of the members are women. However, in a single year, only one quarter (1/4) of productions in Canada are written by women. There’s a notable discrepancy there. The PGC says that this is because women playwrights tend not to submit their works. Hannah Moscovitch posited that this may be because male playwrights are more often rewarded for their work, whereas she believes “women tend to be penalized for pushing their own work.” She feels uncomfortable in advocating for her work, but has taken on that role of mentor for four new young women playwrights. As she said, “I find it easier to advocate for others rather than myself.” I found this very interesting. I think it’s a cultural phenomenon. As women, perhaps, we are not really taught how to advocate for ourselves. It takes years of life experience to find your own voice and be rooted in some kind of confidence about your writing, whatever genre you might be dipping into. Anushree Roy said that she is always aware that she must “hustle.” In the early years of her time as a female playwright, she did that for herself, but now she has an agent who does most of that “hustling” work for her. (This fall, she has four new productions on stage across Canada, the result of a great deal of ‘hustling’ and advocating for her own work.) She then said “Finished plays get opening nights.” So, if you want to see your play workshopped, as a woman, you need to finish and submit your plays. Kate Hennig further emphasized this by saying, “You need someone to take a chance and actually put your play on a stage.”

Conversation shifted to how the three playwrights find their work is received. Hannah Moscovitch said that she “finds my plays with male protagonists do get produced more often.” She finds this frustrating. Often, she said, her plays are reviewed and critiqued by “younger male critics who say I don’t write about big ideas.” Her response was, aptly, “Fuck all y’all.” She does, she said, write about big ideas. Anushree Roy said that she finds men of colour are often the ones who respond negatively to her work. They say that she should “tone down her work or you will never find a husband.” Hannah Moscovitch laughed at this comment and said she often finds, after a play is staged and produced, a series of Jewish mothers will appear and tell her “You’ve got to meet my son!” Moscovitch also said that, as she “moves along,” she gets bolder in the themes and issues she addresses in her plays. In “Bunny,” for instance, she addresses issues of sexual desire and sexual shame. In upcoming work, she is focusing on the confessional form, writing about a miscarriage and thinking about what “modern maternity” means for today’s women.

A question arose about how, as a woman, you are often torn between generations. Anushree Roy spoke about being very close to her parents. She talked about how, as you age, you realize that “with different life experiences, your life changes and your writing changes…your dreams change, too.” The lens through which you view the world changes. (If it didn’t, that would be sad, I think…) She did admit, near the end of the talk, though, that “it does make it easier if you have a partner who loves and supports you…and who likes doing laundry.” Moscovitch talked about being a new mother, having a son under the age of one, and how that has changed the way she sees herself, and her role in the world.

Near the end of the talk, all three women spoke about the idea of trailblazing. As Moscovitch said, “trailblazing is hard work; you get to be original just by being yourself, but you also end up getting lots of branches in your face as you go,” and Roy said that it is all such incredibly hard work. Hennig spoke about the groundbreaking work of three particular Canadian women playwrights, namely Judith Thompson, Sharon Pollock, and Colleen Murphy. They are the first generation of women playwrights in Canada, but this group of three today is a key part of the next generation.

The thing that spoke to me most was when Kate Hennig talked about the importance of playwrights finding other playwrights. She says ‘circles’ are not to be underestimated, in terms of their power. Having feedback from your peers, especially in terms of new work, is crucial to your development as a playwright. Hennig also said that the first time she saw her work on stage, with actors reading her words, she was shaking. “The boldness of having your words spoken out loud, even in small circles of playwrights, and on stage with actors, is crucial to your development.” Yes. I get that. I’m blessed to have a few good friends whom I met through the Sudbury Theatre Centre’s “Playwrights’ Junction” program and we still meet every second week at my house to workshop our new plays. Without them, I don’t know that I’d have kept on writing my little “Sparrows Over Slag.” Seeing that play on stage, too, made me shake. There’s nothing as raw as either a) reading poems in front of people or b) seeing your words go from ‘page to stage’ and have characters become flesh and blood people because of the blessed work of brilliant actors. That’s divine!

I’m on a ten day writing retreat down in Kingsville at my friend Grant’s house. It’s a lovely old yellow brick place, with a view of Lake Erie. And swings. So, I’ll blog if it strikes me, but maybe not so much. Trying to finish the second draft of my novel, and trying to complete “Sparrows” with a third act that is yet to fully emerge.

Keep writing, people.


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I should begin by saying that these are my personal views and may not represent others’ views. It’s my disclaimer, simply because of my poet laureate work, before I begin to rant a bit here as a human, a woman writer, and a feminist. Still, I should also say that the position itself means that you advocate for something, and I know that I’ve been advocating for social activism in terms of the arts, poetry in the schools and in mental health and palliative care. There’s not a lot that’s very poetic or subtle about what I’m going to write here; I’m reflecting on the social media upheaval that has been sparked here in Northern Ontario — and beyond now — regarding a video that has gone viral. The video in question advertises the Ring of Fire project and was created by a company called KWG. Any of this information can be found easily online. It doesn’t take a genius to take on a Google search. I refuse to post any links to this video within this blog post.

There are so many problems with this video that it’s hard to know where to begin. Right now, I should be working on a new scene for the second draft of my novel, but I’ve been cleaning and doing laundry all morning, and pondering this video for a few days now. (You never want to write a post when you’re absolutely incensed and without logical reasoning powers, so I let it sit for a couple of days.) You can’t avoid how it’s caused a furor up here in Northern Ontario. There has even been a Sudbury Star poll asking people to vote as to whether or not it’s a sexist video. What’s upsetting about that is the huge percentage of people saying that it isn’t sexist, essentially saying that women aren’t demeaned or sexually objectified in the piece. That makes me feel ill, to be honest. I live up here. I love this place. But, when things like this happen, I wonder if we’ve come as far as we think we have, as a society, as a culture, within Northern Ontario. Maybe the sexism that I thought was lessening is actually just boiling around under the surface in a really insidious way. The response to this video, on social media anyway, and the results of that poll in the local newspaper, make me angry, ashamed, and very very worried for the future of the young women whom I am privileged to teach at Marymount Academy here in Sudbury.

As a teacher, I am so proud of my girls. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve asked students where they are headed after Grade 12 and they say, “Miss, I want to be an engineer,” or “I think I want to go into mining.” These are words and phrases that I never heard when I was their age. Things have shifted, so that young women are encouraged to go into trades and careers that have traditionally been male-based and centred. How amazing is that, I often think! How grand is it, to be alive to see shifts in our culture when it comes to gender and career?

My own family’s ties to mining are close ones. My paternal grandfather worked at INCO, as did my father, in the Copper Refinery back in the 1960s and 70s. Some of my earliest memories of my dad are of him getting up before dawn, making eggs in the kitchen, and of him packing his lunch into one of those sturdy metal lunch boxes which almost all Sudburians will recognize and think fondly of, I imagine. The stove light would always be on as he cooked, because it was so dark and he didn’t want to turn on the kitchen light and wake us. I still remember poking my head out, seeing him there, back to me, down a long bathroom hallway, pushing eggs and bacon around the pan and thinking about his day. On my mother’s side, my great-grandfather owned the general store in Creighton Mine for years (and before that managed the Hudson Bay Company store in Sudbury) and my maternal grandfather was the superintendent at Garson Mine in the 1930s. Mining is so tightly interwoven into so many lives here. I think, sometimes, we forget that we live above a series of catacombs, of shafts and tunnels, until we feel a rock blast or hear of the tragic loss of a miner’s life. Then, we all realize, that regardless of how this town diversifies, it is all still very rooted in the earth, and in the industry of mining. That’s why this video is even more upsetting to me.

Now, I’m no expert on mining and engineering, and I wouldn’t claim to be. I am, however, a fairly intelligent woman. I’m a writer, an editor, a teacher, and a feminist. All of these things come together to make me who I am. I’m also a very widely read person. I was thinking, this morning, of what women like Virginia Woolf, or Gloria Steinem, or Audre Lord, or Kim Campbell, or Beverly McLaughlin, the Chief Justice of Canada, would think of all this. I’m especially thinking of Chief Justice McLaughlin today, as I’ve been researching her life and the decisions that she has made during her time serving on the Supreme Court of Canada. She has always fought for women’s rights, if you read about and consider her various decisions within the courts, but she has also been very vocal about her support of any inquiries into the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women here in Canada.

Here’s the other part of the video chaos that I find particularly repulsive. It’s repulsive (and yes, I know that’s a strong choice of wording) that you see and hear a bikini-clad woman speak to the idea that this mining firm has the ability to ‘partner’ with First Nations communities in Ontario. When you think of colonization through history (and you can read Thomas King’s brilliant book The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America to get a sense of that historical fiasco) it has always been about Europeans arriving in various countries around the world–Australia and New Zealand included in this–and beginning to ‘manage’ people and ‘farm’ the land’s natural resources, without care for the land. I’m also reading Basil Johnston’s book, Ojibway Heritage, right now. We lost Johnston last fall, which is a shame because he was groundbreaking in terms of the work he did in archiving and writing about First Nations culture in Canada. If you read any of the stories in Ojibway Heritage, you quickly realize that we are all — whether First Nations people or not — meant to be guardians of this land. We are meant to guard it for future generations of humans, not plunder it thoughtlessly. So, imagine seeing that a bikini-clad woman is speaking of how grand it is to partner with First Nations communities?

If you’ve read about First Nations history and culture, you’ll know that women play a key role. I can’t imagine any woman would be pleased to see this video, but that the makers of this video think it’s wise to speak about First Nations ‘partnerships’ is a travesty. In a time when we finally have an overdue inquiry into the Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women here in Canada, it seems so cruel to use the sexual objectification of women to advertise mining in Northern Ontario. It makes me angry, but when I get angry, I also get weepy. It makes me shake my head and question what’s happening here…in Northern Ontario, in Canada, in our culture, that so many think it’s all right to continue to perpetuate stereotypes of women as sexual objects, as a way to just further cement that idea that sex still sells.

There isn’t a nice way to end a post like this. How can there be? This is, I think, something all men and women in Northern Ontario should find repulsive. Having a mining CEO say that he thinks it’s grand that people are talking because of his “Mining Minute” video, because any talk is good talk or p.r., really isn’t all right.

I don’t know what this says, friends. I only know it doesn’t bode well for us all, in a geographical and cultural sense. I’ll think, upon leaving you now, in a spirit that is culturally refreshing and reviving this area right now. The Up Here Festival, for instance, and the Northern Lights Festival, and the Art Gallery of Sudbury, and YES Theatre, and the Sudbury Theatre Centre, and the Sudbury Symphony Orchestra, and all of the very talented artists (visual, musical, literary, theatrical)…these are the organizations and people into which I choose to pour my hope for cultural and artistic renewal in this region.

But…for now…when I return to teaching in a few weeks, I want to be able to say to my girls–with absolute faith that I’m right in this–that sexism has faded, or at least that equality is coming along on its journey. So much has been done, over so many years, in terms of promoting women’s equality in mining. You only need to visit the website for Women in Mining in Northern Ontario to know that. (You can go there from here! (http://www.wimnorthernontario.com/)

It’s my fervent hope that this video is just some kind of strange aberration because I want my girls to go off into a world that is more about equality and less about sexual objectification and being demeaned because you happen to be a woman. That’s my hope.


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When I heard that Billy Collins was going to be reading in Orillia last night, I told my friend Deepam that I wanted to come, and so she suggested I come and spend time with her. It took no excessive arm pulling on her part. She’s a joy to spend time with, and Billy Collins is one of my all-time favourite living poets. I mean, I teach his poems to my girls at Marymount every year, along with the work of Mary Oliver and Seamus Heaney, until they are nearly exhausted. My favourite poems of his include “Shovelling Snow with Buddha” (I’m a Northern Ontario girl, after all!), “The Dead,” “Watercolouring,” “Taking Off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes,” and “Forgetfulness.” These are my top five, but to be honest, I love all of his poems. His voice is so distinctive, like Heaney’s was, and as Oliver’s is, and that draws me in like a moth to a flame.

His uncle was once mayor of Orillia, so he was back for a family reunion, he said. Many of his poems are rooted in the summers of his youth, when he spent time in the area. His mother was born in Orillia, while his father was an American, so there was some talk after the reading about how his parents met. (I love ‘meeting stories.’ When you’re single, and a poet, well, you tend to fixate on romantic imaginings. They warm your heart, I find.)

When he first walked across the stage, I thought “Oh my God! If only I had heard Seamus Heaney read his work live, too.” (You can read about that gong show of a meeting in a Sligo pub in 2012 if you go back and find the posting here on the blog…it’s too embarrassing to write about twice and I usually only recount it to other writers.) Then I thought, “Oh my God. His voice.” If you’ve read his work, well, you know he has a specific poetic voice. It’s often a bit quirky, which is (I think) why I quite like his work. I like funny people. In my experience, I have found that they are most often well read and very intelligent. I also, though, love that he speaks to the universals in a life. He talks about dogs and cats, love and sex, death, and of seasons and continuity. He does all of this with a grand sense of style and a meticulous ability to turn poems around so that you begin with something seemingly ordinary and then find yourself being drawn into something extraordinary…so much so that you lose your breath as you listen to him read.

Take, for instance, the beauty of another favourite of mine, “Litany.” I won’t quote it here…because it will make you (perhaps) go and read it online somewhere if you haven’t already encountered it. It seems, at first, to be witty and funny, but at the end, it pulls at your heart because there is an essence of such love buried in the lines, so that you sigh when he finishes reading it. (Or, at least I did.) The last stanza conveys the idea of the kind of love I would hope for someday…but that’s a whole other blog, and more suited to my journal. 🙂

While the reading was brilliant (I couldn’t feel my hands, which is always a sign — for me — of excellent art!) I found his question and answer period afterwards was so telling. He spoke about Orillia, of how his parents met in their late thirties or early forties, of how he was an only child of older parents, and of how his mother loved Shakespeare and poetry. Collins also spoke about his role as poet laureate, which was pretty fascinating. He is so down to earth, even though he was poet laureate of an entire nation. He speaks with a humble voice, but he is such a truth teller. (I like people who are normal and down to earth…can’t stand egotistical people who are full of themselves…)

Someone in the audience asked him about how his poems move from the ‘ordinary’ to other fantastical realms, and then usually return to root themselves in that ‘ordinary’ place. He admitted to the pattern, saying that he “begins in Kansas so that the reader can enter into the poem, but then moves into Oz.” Brilliant! If he says he is sitting at a kitchen table, if he allows the reader to find herself in a recognizable place, then he can lead that person into more metaphorical places.

I especially loved how he defined poetry. When asked, he said that poetry is ‘memory in amber.’ This is an idea I subscribe to, and I would imagine other poets would also agree with in conversation about what our role is in the world. Poets are documentarians of a sort, capturing memory in stanzas. (Not like a pinned butterfly, though…not at all like that.)

Afterwards, Deepam and I lined up to get our books signed. He was lovely. I’m a ‘touchy’ kind of person, so I touched his arm, but babbled “Oh, I so love your work….” or something to that effect. Better than saying “I so love you,” which can sound rather stalker-ish, especially coming from a hobbit poet. Better, too, than the babble I spouted at Heaney four summers ago…trust me.

I left there last night feeling so full of words and excitement. I said to one of my friends last week that I am continually saying “I can’t even believe…” all the time these days. My time off this year has totally rejigged my head and heart, my plans and goals, my hopes and dreams. “I can’t even….begin to tell you…how glad and grateful I am to have met Billy Collins, or that I’ve met new friends like Deepam and my other writer friends from Banff, Pelee, and now Moniack Mhor. Am feeling so blessed that, as I was driving up north today, I felt like weeping with gratitude. How amazing is that? (Pretty amazing…let me tell you…pretty amazing. The light has emerged from the dark.)


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