I’ve learned to listen with my eyes. – Donna Langevin*
Try it! Listen with your eyes! If you read the back cover of The Banister Volume 34, an Ontario poetry anthology launched October 26, 2019 by the Niagara Branch of the Canadian Authors Association (CAA), you will be transformed by Donna Langevin’s award-winning and heart-felt words.
For example, imagine what it would be like to have trouble hearing: “I’ve lost the inner ear within my ear, the sea of sounds once filling up its shell – cathedral bells…echoes in the belfry.” Such lines introduced her poem “Even With the Help of My Hearing Aids” which won first prize in the CAA’s 2019 poetry contest.
It’s a poignant piece and contest judge Bruce Meyer praised it highly. In his comments (p. ix and x) he wrote that Langevin’s first place creation is “a beautifully crafted poem…The poet has a wonderful idea of what constitutes a poetic line, and within those lines, the poem connects, not by paltry simile but through the unison of image and language.”
Meyer also stated that “language [in a poem] should engage both the ear and the eye”.(p. ix)
Langevin’s work certainly does that and this poet has a habit of winning contests. One of her humourous poems, “The first time”, received an honourable mention while two more of her poems were also selected for the same anthology. Two years earlier, she won second prize in the CAA’s 2017 Banister contest and in the 2014 GritLIT contest, plus she was short-listed for the Descant Winston Collins Prize 2012.
A few days ago, I chatted with Donna (via e-mail) about her recent win, her poetry books including Brimming (Piquant Press, 2019), her writing space, and her plans for the future.
Donna, belated congratulations re: your win in the 2019 Banister contest. In your opinion, what is your secret for writing award-winning work?
I don’t have a secret recipe for writing award-winning poems. When I’m writing a poem, I do it to please myself, to make it the best I can. If it meets my approval, then I may think about marketing it. Usually my goal is just to get into an anthology I enjoy and respect like The Banister. I love being included and reading the poems others write. If I happen to win a contest, then it’s a lovely surprise, but I’m always aware each judge has his/her own tastes, and I usually find several poems in the anthology that are just as worthy as mine. And there are also times I get flat-out rejections. Though it’s only natural to feel disappointed, I try not to take that out on myself and to keep working on my craft.
Tell me about your writing process.
My poems come in intimations, sensations, gut feelings that I must translate into words. Once in a while I get a flow experience, but it’s often a struggle, as words don’t come easily to me. But if I don’t at least try and keep working at it, I lose my feeling of well-being because I know the experience will either elude me or melt away. This compels me to write. I usually carry a notebook but sometimes I write on scrap paper, old letters, flyers, napkins, doctors’ appointments, you name it.
Editing with fellow poets is an essential part of my process. I have a few trusted editors. Most of the time we just trade work although I sometimes use a paid service.
Writing plays is very different. Once I get an idea, the characters start talking to me, telling me their stories. They yack, yack, yack at me and I have no peace of mind until I write down what they say. They wake me up in the middle of the night and interrupt my meals. If I wonder what’s next in the story, I just go for a walk and they update me. Once I get stuff down, then the hard part begins. I develop the arc, make speech more natural, flesh out the characters. It can take years, and many, many drafts. Sometimes the whole play collapses like a house of cards. I belong to Act 2 at Ryerson and I’m a member of The Toronto Alumnae Theatre. The directors, dramaturges and actors at both places are fabulously helpful for whipping a script into shape.
Do you have a favourite time and place to write? Describe it.
I prefer to write in the morning when I’m fresh, but sometimes I do it in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. Evenings are okay too although I prefer to relax, catch up on the news, or go out to a play. I like to write at my dining room table but can write just about anywhere else. A long subway ride is fine, so is a coffee house. When I was teaching and my students were busy with written work, I’d sneak a few words on to a pad. When I had my two dogs, I loved to write on the sofa with a dog on either side. That gave me a feeling of well-being, although one of them would soon whine for a walk.
I can write almost anywhere, but I find it hard to write in a group especially if I know the participants. I do however go to rewarding workshops such as James Dewar’s Sanctuary, and Kate Marshall Flaherty’s Stillpoint because they inspire me to explore new themes and directions. I wrote my sonnet, “Even With the Help of My Hearing Aids” at James’ home in a forest near Port Perry. I wrote several of the poems in The Laundress of Time and Brimming at Katie’s workshops.
I just started reading Brimming, your latest collection of poems. Upon first glance, the poems appear to be longer and richer in detail than your fourth book as you step into the “barreled” lives of those who have tried to go over Horseshoe Falls. You also continue to focus on the aged and those dealing with an illness. How has your poetry changed over the years?
When I first started writing in my late 30’s my subject matter was all over the map and I had no distinct voice. I still write “all over the map.” Many subjects fascinate me, and I want to keep it that way. Lately I’ve been writing a lot about illness and ageing, because being old myself, dealing with events such as the recent death of my husband, is a big part of my life.
My “voice” took at least 10 years to develop. I try to write poetry that is accessible, layered and full of fresh imagery. Billy Collins and my friend Kate Rogers are my inspiration. Lately, I’ve been trying to add more realistic details, and I admire writers like Walt Whitman and Jack Kerouac who let everything spill out to create a rush experience. Although many poems are drawn from my own life, I also love doing voice poems where I can pretend to be someone else. (eg. The characters who went over Horseshoe Falls in barrels, balls and kayaks) My plays tend to be a mix of my personal dilemmas and fiction.
I just finished reading The Laundress of Time, your fourth full collection of poetry, and I was so impressed by the depth of your work, your vivid imagination, the way you played with metaphors and how you nudged me to see the world in a different light. I took my time reading the collection because I wanted to savour each poem. I kept turning the page and saying “Wow, these are so good.” Many of the poems focused on art and New Orleans plus your mother played a major role in this collection. The last section in particular paid a beautiful tribute to her life. What do you feel is poetry’s role in our society? For the poet? For the reader?
This is a tough question and one I haven’t thought much about, because I write simply because I don’t feel well if I don’t. But turning the question over, I have to say my answer is that the role of the poet in society varies with each individual. Some poets (eg. Yeats) are political and have a mission to speak out against injustice and inhumanity. This is a very important calling because words can help change the world. I admire Wilfred Owen and Robert Bly, and the political poems of brave friends such as Banoo Zan, Kate Rogers and Tom Gannon Hamilton.
Other poets see themselves primarily as entertainers, magicians, storytellers, you name it … I respect them too. My only criteria for judging a poem is whether it moves me and is well written. Having said this, I’m also convinced that poetry is time-consuming, and it can take years to develop a mature voice and craft. As such, I believe it is the role of society to help the poet buy time to write by offering government grants, bursaries etc. I am not so unrealistic as to believe a poet can support themselves just by writing. Most poets have to have other careers to survive. It’s just that supporting oneself or family can be so fatiguing and time-consuming that there’s no energy left to create. I know I never could have written plays when I was a single parent, teaching full time. Now that I’m retired, I have time to write them. But there are many hard-working writers who deserve some financial assistance every bit as much as a hospital or small business that gets a tax break or grant.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, you participated in several readings across the province but also had a few readings cancelled. It is indeed a challenging time. What are you doing to relax to keep your creativity flowing?
A week before quarantines became mandatory, I returned from visiting my brother in the USA. Luckily, I got to the New Ideas Festival at Alumnae theatre where my short play, Remember Him Chasing Squirrels was produced during week one. But after that, I had to go into quarantine, and the rest of the festival was cancelled.
At first, I liked being alone and having all that time for my writing. I wrote a few poems about COVID-19 and worked on some prose poems about Arizona. I go online with some actors from Ryerson who are rehearsing for a production of my new play, The Summer of Saints about the 1847 typhus epidemic in Montreal. But now that I can’t have much face to face contact with anyone, living alone makes me feel lonely and kind of weird.
I tell myself that there are a lot of people in the world who are lonely most of the time even when there’s no pandemic, and I am lucky because my youngest son is an angel to me and shops and takes me for rides in the country. I go for a walk every day and exercise to music and watch good stuff on Netflix. And though the pandemic brings out the worst in a few people, I am amazed at how kind others are.
What’s next on the horizon?
My play, The Summer of Saints about the 1847 typhus epidemic in Montreal, is slated to be produced next fall by Ryerson University Act 2 studio. At the time I wrote it, I had no idea how quickly the script would become relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I am also working on a series of poetic monologues about my paternal grandmother, Sadie Page. She spent from 1922 to 1946 in a mental asylum in Montreal after the crib death of her third child. Nobody ever visited her, and she was rarely mentioned. I never met her and was only four when she died and didn’t even know she existed. When I was a teenager, my mother told me that my father was terrified I’d turn out to be a “loonie” like her, and I often felt her shadow looming over me. Fifteen years ago, I finally found Sadie’s grave and promised to “give her a story”. I am determined to fulfill this commitment because without her, I wouldn’t exist.
Thank you so much Donna for the chat. I look forward to seeing and reading more of your work
If you’re looking for something to read either during April is National Poetry Month or your self-isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I would highly recommend Langevin’s books.
As I mentioned earlier, her fourth full poetry collection The Laundress of Time (Aeolus House 2014), 110 pages; ISBN 978-0-9878154-9-1 (pbk.) was layered and filled with vivid descriptions and metaphors. My full review of the book appears here on Goodreads.
Canadian poet Norma West Linder in the September to December 2015 Verse Afire stated The Laundress of Time had me with the first poem and kept me spellbound till the last.”
Additional information can be found on the Aeolus House website.
Langevin’s fifth book Brimming (Piquant Press, 2019), 120 pages; ISBN 978-1-927396-15-5 (softcover) or ISBN 978-1-927396-16-2 (e-book) gushes with back cover accolades such as “stunning”, “a-brim with wise tenderness” and “overflows with emotion for the vulnerable people she loves”.
Canadian poet Marsha Barber stated in a June 2019 Verse Afire review, that “Donna Langevin’s wonderful new book casts a spell. Here’s the writer who isn’t just an accomplished poet, but a master storyteller. Her sense of narrative is pitch perfect. She’s also a superb imagist…It’s a wonderful offering by a poet at the top of her game.”
ADDED JUNE 17, 2020: My review of the book appears here on Goodreads.
Additional information can be found on the Piquant Press website.
Titles for Langevin’s earlier full-length collections are: Improvising in the Dark (Watershed Books, 2000); The Second Language of Birds (Hidden Brook Press, 2005) and In the Café du Monde (Hidden Brook Press, 2008).
She has three chapbooks: Songbirds of the Hours (Fooliar Press, 2004); The Middle-Aged Man in the Sea (Lyricalmyrical Press, 2009) and Looking for Yesterday (Lyricalmyrical Press, 2013).
A video of one of Langevin’s readings at TUFAS April 28, 2016 appears here.
Donna Langevin is also an award-winning playwright. Her plays, The Dinner and Bargains in the New World won first prizes for script at the Eden Mills Festival in 2014 and 2015. If Socrates Were in My Shoes was produced at the Toronto Alumnae Theatre NIF Festival in 2018 and Remember Him Chasing Squirrels was performed there in 2020. The Blue Girlwon an honorable mention Stella award at Act 2, Ryerson, 2019.
A video of her 12-minute play Remember Him Chasing Squirrels appears here.
For 34 years, the Niagara Branch of the Canadian Author’s Association has published a poetry contest anthology. Last fall, several Ontario poets read their award-winning poems during the anthology launch in St. Catharines. Congratulations to the selected contributors.
As 2019 contest judge Bruce Meyer wrote in his intro, “The winners, I will remember because the poets took the time to make the poems into works of art.” (p. ix) The 2019 winners were: First Prize: Donna Langevin, Second Prize: Mr. Shelley Woods, Third Prize: John Smallwood.
Honourable Mention poets include: GB Retallack, John B. Lee, Barbara Ponomareff, Michael Mirolla, Gail M. Murray, Mary Frost, Donna Langevin, Phoda Hassman, Tom Wood, and John Di Leonardo.
Other anthology selections include work by: Carlinda D’Alimonte, John Di Leonardo, FJ Doucet, Sharon Frayne, Keith Garbarian, Tom Gannon Hamilton, Debbie Okun Hill, Marianne Jones, Rosalind Knight, Donna Langevin, Ruth Latta, Norma West Linder, Michael Long, Michael Mirolla, Deb O’Rourke, Kimberly Peterson, GB Retallack, Renee Sgroi, Vanessa Shields, Guy Simser, John Smallwood, Susan Smith, Tom Wood, and Mr. Shelley Woods.
Limited copies of The Banister: Poetry Anthology Volume 34 are still available from the Jordan Art Gallery, 3836 Main Street, Jordan Village, ON, Canada, L0R 1S0 905-562-6680. During the COVID-19 closures, the gallery can be contacted by e-mail.
Each year, the Niagara Branch of the Canadian Authors Association organizes a poetry contest for Ontario residents.
Submissions for The Banister 35th annual poetry anthology contest will be accepted until May 31, 2020. This year’s contest judge is Windsor’s poet Laureate Mary Ann Mulhern.