Author Archives: d78hill

About d78hill

Canadian poet, blogger and freelance writer. Member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers' Union of Canada, the Canadian Authors Association, and a past President of The Ontario Poetry Society. Author of Tarnished Trophies (Black Moss Press, 2014)

Introducing My Chapbook – Drawing From Experience

“If we had more breath, more time/we might have taken art lessons.” -Debbie Okun Hill*

It’s late, almost midnight.

A full moon zip-lines through the bow window and shines a flashlight on my copy of Drawing from Experience, a chapbook of 15 ekphrastic** and art-themed poems recently released by Big Pond Rumours Press.

Hold that image! Hold that spotlight on the ballerina sculpture immortalized on the book’s cover!

Tonight, I’m brainstorming promotional ideas, sketching prototypes, being silly, playing with words as if they were clay.

Drawing From Experience by Debbie Okun Hill -Big Pond Rumours Press 2017 Front Cover

HOT OFF THE PRESS…Drawing from Experience (Big Pond Rumours Press, 2017) by Debbie Okun Hill

I could try cartwheeling or breakdancing on the kitchen floor.

Hold that youth-inspired thought.

Perhaps I should celebrate my NEW 30-page chapbook with the release of white butterflies on the rooftop of The Winnipeg Art Gallery or in the foyer of a national museum.

That’s not my style either.

Promoting other writers energizes me. Marketing my own work exhausts me but tonight I persevere.

Who is my target audience? Male? Female? Artist? Poet? I should know this by now. What is the best message and medium to grab a reader’s attention?

Art lessons and painting parties pop into my mind. I read that Instagram is where it’s at. Imagine 700 million registered users as of April 2017! Would any of them be interested in poetry? My head spins as I stash more images inside my cluttered brain bank!

For a moment, an imaginary paint brush swirls ideas like the wind-twirled sky in Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. Call it magical! Call it spiritual! Call it serendipity! I love this creative process where the visual and literary arts converge. I hope the reader will feel this too. Take my poetic words and allow them to be organic! Feed them with quiet reflection! Watch them transform, grow, and speak beyond the page!

Last winter when Big Pond Rumours, a newly-transported (now local) micro-press, announced a contest for chapbook manuscripts, I was consumed by my husband’s house renovations and his desire for me to de-clutter and re-organize our storage area.

My mind drifted to painting art for the walls which led me to dusting off several previously published art-themed poems written between 2006 and 2017. I had nothing to lose except time.

Tonight, the full moon keeps me focused. I pick up a copy of my printed book and read the last line on the back cover: “This chapbook was the third place winner in the 2017 Chapbook Contest run by Big Pond Rumours Press.”

Always a night owl - I found inspiration in my father-in-law and his closet filled with bird sketches

My artistic father-in-law inspired me with his bird sketches including this night owl “whoo-whoo” reminded me of my own nocturnal writing habits.

The tug and gap between the busy-ness of selling and the tranquility of creating increases. I glance at my cluttered desk, the remaining stacks of unread books on my vacation reading list, the blogs I had hoped to post. From my patio door, I stare into backyard shadows. I strain to see the Canadian thistle and milkweed co-existing in my flower gardens and to hear how the wind rustles the first fallen maple leaf.

Summer closes her eyes.

Tomorrow I’ll welcome a new chapter with a new publisher as this literary journey continues.

This Sunday, September 10, 2017, from noon to 5 p.m. Big Pond Rumours Press will be promoting its products and services at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival. If you’re in the area, drop by and browse through the vast selection of chapbooks (including my own) that will be on display along Publishers’ Way. Can’t attend? A list of available titles and order information appears on the publisher’s website.

Additional information about my upcoming reading dates and locations will be posted on-line as soon as details are confirmed.

Special thanks to the early reviewers who have shared their thoughts about my chapbook:

From Kara Ghobhainn Smith, author of The Artists of Crow County (Black Moss Press, 2017):

‘Okun Hill “recoats our sandpapered arms/ with orchid leis and tropical oils”, breathing new energy into our old lives….[The poem] “Things We Might Have Done” really spoke to me. The voice fit my place in life like a glove; and I LOVED the line, “I could buy your coffin/stuff you in a boutique bag”.  

Ottawa Sightseeing October 2014 photo 2

All of the previously published poems in my third chapbook were inspired by my love for art, galleries, museums, and the creative process.

From Canadian visual artist/poet John Di Leonardo  who wrote this review*** for  Verse Afire, the official newsletter for The Ontario Poetry Society:

Phil Yorke’s photograph of a woman observing a Degas sculpture of a lithe ballerina on the cover is an apt image to set the stage for Debbie Okun Hill’s new collection of poems Drawing from Experience. Her words scumble a tender palette on which the poet lays and mixes images experienced through art, artists, and the poet’s keen power of observation. 

Debbie’s poems make clear she has the love and eye of an artist, her rich visual imagery whether observed from museum masterpieces, a dramatic tribute to Emily Carr, or from a tarantula framed in a gallery gift shop touch on the necessity for art and artists to enrich our lives.

Debbie Okun Hill at the Music Evoked Imagery Workshop held during the League of Canadian Poets conference June 6, 2014 in Toronto. Photographer unknown.

In this Music Evoked Imagery Workshop offered at the League of Canadian Poets 2014 conference in Toronto, poets explored the relationship between various creative forms.

There is a wonderful sense of surprise in reading this collection, as the poet presents many perspectives in framing our ekphrastic experience. From the very first poem “Shades of Grey,” we are guided through secret feelings of loss, and the visual pleasures art offers “…from light to shadow/white washed with air brushed pendulum/grey hues that make us human.”

Through minute details we feel the loneliness of a little girl, painted in a museum masterpiece (A Sunday Afternoon On The Island of La Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat.) where “Even her guardian-mother/turns, looks away…Even the four opened umbrellas/draw more attention/ than the sun and her blurry eyes.”

In the poem “Pinned by Your Image on the Web” the poet muses on a framed tarantula at a museum gift shop and offers a meditation on the fine line where life and art are interchangeable, “…stuff you in a boutique bag/ walk out the door/ and call you ART/ …And I try to calculate/ how long your body will last/…had you crawled quicker into hiding.”

Rich rhythms and visual imagery abound in these poems as when the poet reflects on the pain of a loved one, “you whisper your last words/ like pencil sketches, grey smeared/ a half-breath we strain to absorb/ lean close…” This collection contains excellent examples of ekphrastic poetry, and thoroughly satisfies the mind’s eye for readers who enjoy the pleasures of visual art.

Thank you Kara and John for your insights. Both reviewers are poets with full collections of work using the ekphrastic form. Additional information about Kara and John can be found on the links posted above their comments.

For those who are interested in exploring the relationship between various art forms, check out this earlier post “When Poets Heard Music They Painted”.

Follow this blog for more exciting news to be announced soon!

Hope to see you at some of the readings!

Night all…

*From the poem “Things We Might Have Done” from the chapbook Drawing from Experience (Big Pond Rumours Press, 2017) Page 20 Used with permission from the author © Debbie Okun Hill 2017
**Ekphrastic poetry is a poetic term referring to detailed poems written about specific works of art including paintings, photographs, sculpture, or anything else that is considered aesthetically pleasing.
***John Di Leonardo’s review will appear in the January 2018 issue of Verse Afire. Used with permission from John Di Leonardo and The Ontario Poetry Society.
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Sarnia-Lambton’s Sesquicentennial Celebration – A Literary Reflection

Some people stuff history into a closet. I can attest to that.

Any time I opened a history book in high school, all those dates/figures/names would cobweb my eyes and lull me to sleep at my desk. I’m surprised I even passed the course.

Sesquicentennial Reading Featured books photo 1 - August 22, 2017

History is all around us: a sample of featured books on display during Sarnia-Lambton’s Sesquicentennial Celebration held August 22, 2017.

When all the neighbors pulled out their Canadian flags and other memorabilia to celebrate the country’s 150th anniversary of its Confederation, I felt the urge to de-clutter my office and clear my mind of all the festive noise and streamers. Seriously, how does one erase the controversial rental cost ($120,000) and image of the world’s largest (six-storey, 30,000-ton) rubber duck that made its official Canadian debut at the Toronto harbour during the Canada Day weekend?

That’s when it hit me, as I tugged on a box of unsorted literary magazines, moved a pile of photo albums onto a shelf, and opened a small blue/white/gold cardboard box labelled “The Spirit of ’70: 1870 Manitoba Centennial 1970” .

Decluttering - 47-year-old box

De-cluttering can unearth some historic or memorable treasures.

 

History is someone’s memories. It doesn’t have to be about politics and war. It can be closer to home, even tucked in a drawer inside your own desk.

Why else was I saving this 47-year-old Souvenir Cake Box? I certainly don’t remember the taste or style of the miniature cake or the Centennial event in which I received it. Yet, for all these years, it housed approximately 30 little pencils from my childhood.

Sesquicentennial Reading - Group Photo - August 22, 2017

Featured readers at Sarnia-Lambton’s Sesquicentennial Celebration: (from left to right): Bob McCarthy, John B. Lee, Lynn Tait, Patrick Connors, Norma West Linder, and James Deahl.

Memories matter!

Last Tuesday, several writers gathered for Sarnia-Lambton’s Sesquicentennial Celebration! The audience appeared smaller than normal but similar to the dwindling attendance at other literary events I’ve attended this summer. The emcee (Sarnia poet James Deahl) wondered whether the event would have attracted more people if it had been advertised as a literary versus an historic event. I wondered if people were just overwhelmed by busy summer schedules and are just taking a much needed break.

For those who missed this local August 22nd celebration below are some snapshots spotlighting the six featured readers!

Each of the presentations was thought-provoking and inspiring.

Historian Bob McCarthy shared a moving (and humourous) story about the time his parents forgot to tell him that his family had moved to a different home. The story is part of his memoir collection The Book of Bob to be released November 2017.

Poet/photographer Lynn Tait read six poems including a new creation titled “The Bird Watcher’s Daughter” with the memorable line my heart flies with the cardinal and the powerful poem “Strip” with its hard-hitting line the punishment never fits the crime.

Out-of-town poet Patrick Connors read 8 poems including the poem “Madness” which won third prize in Big Pond Rumours’s Winter 2015 contest: Einstein defined insanity/as doing the same thing//over and over again, while/expecting different results.

Deahl shared work from his new book Red Haws to Light the Field (Guernica Editions, 2017) including the poem “Adoration & Prayer” with its lines Let my tongue be the stonemason’s hammer/let red haws light the field.

Prolific Sarnia writer Norma West Linder shared five poems from her book Adder’s-tongues (Aeolus House, 2012). In her humourous poem “Chokecherries” she reflected on her memories of Manitoulin Island and how her mother sprayed: crimson juice/across the spotless bosom/of her astonished hostess.

The evening concluded with six poems by the prolific out-of-town poet John B. Lee. From his book In the Muddy Shoes of Morning (Hidden Brook Press, 2010), from the poem “Vantage” he provided more sustenance for future thought: I grip at ghosts/and rise like mist in heat/where memory sets heaven/in a bowl of bone….

Sesquicentennial Reading Featured books photo 2 - August 22, 2017

John B. Lee often writes about the history and memory of farming in his poetry books. Most poets will include some form of history or current events in their work.

 

Thanks for the memories….for sharing what matters to you….for teaching me that history plays a vital role in everyone’s life.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE FEATURED READERS:

Patrick Connors: author of Scarborough Songs and Part-Time Contemplative (See Q & A here.) 

James Deahl: launched his 25th poetry title Red Haws to Light the Field (See Q & A here.)

John B. Lee: author of over 60 books and twice winner of both the Milton Acorn Memorial People’s Poetry Award and the CBC’s Canadian Literary Award 

Norma West Linder: author of 25 literary titles and contributor to From This Day Forward (Sarnia-Lambton’s sesquicentennial anthology) (See more info here and here.)

Bob McCarthy: Lambton historian and author of a Lambton Shield’s series of 150 videos celebrating Canada’s 150th birthday year. (See more info here.)

Lynn Tait: award-winning photographer and author of Breaking Away

Interested in attending a future literary event in the Ontario? Check my partial list of upcoming public events, updated weekly or as time permits.

Follow this blog for future Canadian author profiles.

Behind the Scenes with Writer Ryan Gibbs

“There’s no quicksand in the creek,” I said./ Aunt Helen stopped and glared at me.* – Ryan Gibbs

 Call it a mystery! Call it serendipity! When I first read Ryan Gibbs’s “Quicksand”, an honourable mention short story in Indelible (a 2006 Cranberry Tree Press contest anthology), I was curious. Who was this phantom local writer and why was he hiding at the local college versus socializing with like-minded scribes from the literary community?

Ryan Gibbs Profile Photo

Canadian writer Ryan Gibbs Photo by Lois Nantais

Super sleuth-college colleague-local poet Lois Nantais tracked his whereabouts and eventually nudged him to attend a Spoken Word event in the Turret Room of the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts. Gibbs’s kind demeanor immediately left a huge impact on those in attendance.

When Nantais and Ena Forbes stepped down from hosting this popular open mic event, he joined the organizing team as the new co-host.

2010-10-29-4

Mysterious, a bit of a sleuth, Ryan Gibbs appears in costume during one of the themed Spoken Word events at the Lawrence House.

For six years (September 2007 to June 2013), this Lambton College English Professor played a major role in Sarnia’s literary scene. Spoken Word, a vital forum for emerging and professional local talent as well as those interested in the arts, was held on the last Friday of every month except July and August.

During that time, Gibbs exhibited a flair for making readers feel comfortable. His experience with teaching college students made him the perfect emcee and his ability to speak on his feet was something that others in the audience wished to emulate. Certainly, even at his young age, he was a role model for me, although this may be a surprise to him.

Upon reflection, the protagonist in his “Quicksand” story now reminds me of an even younger version of Gibbs: adventurous, mysterious, the making of a sleuth! Without spoiling the plot and ending, let me just say that Gibbs (the adult) continues to seek truth in his surroundings and to have compassion for others.

For example, in “watercolour poet”, his tribute poem to the late Peggy Fletcher, he wrote: she stained a blank canvas in tears and/shaped them with meticulous strokes/delving deep into our prismatic hearts/illuminating colours we had never seen.

2011-03-25-1

Co-host Ryan Gibbs created six years of Spoken Word memories in Sarnia.

His love for animals shines in his popular children’s poem “My Kitty Cat”. Even though he states that his cat hunts me down throughout the house/As though I were a hiding mouse, the poem ends with She licks my feet to make amends,/Letting me know we are still friends.

As a storyteller/poet, he gathers facts, swirls ideas/images/words in his head, and then precisely records the final product on paper or his computer. He often uses an element of surprise and/or darkness in his work as shown in his opening lines: Didn’t I tell you I’m the best from his poem “Maestro” published in The Saving Bannister, Volume 23 and I broke into your house/And lived in your place: from his poem “Just to be You” printed in Delicious.

As a person, he’s reliable and a pleasure to work with.

After he stepped down from his co-hosting position in 2013 to pursue his PhD in Literature at Western University in London, Ontario, Canada, several of the regular Spoken Word attendees lost track of him. Where did he go? Was he still writing? Or had his literary goals changed? Did the study halls of academia swallow him up?

 The mystery has been solved.

For those living in or within driving distance to London, mark your calendars. Gibbs will join poet/performer/spoken word artist David Stones for Couplets #12: a collaborative poetry reading to be held Thursday, August 24, 2017 from 6 to 7 p.m. at The Arts Project, 203 Dundas Street. The teaser on Stones’s Twitter account asks, “What do #DavidStonesPoet and #RyanGibbs have in common with Shakespeare and Chaucer?…Find out…”  I can’t wait.

August 24, 2017 in London

London-based poet Ryan Gibbs will be performing with David Stones during an upcoming Couplets poetry event to be held Thursday, August 24, 2017 in London, Ontario, Canada. Combined image courtesy of Couplets.

In anticipation of his reading, I contacted Ryan via e-mail to catch up with his news. Below are his responses to my questions:

Ryan, welcome back to the literary scene! So much has happened since your 2013 retirement as co-host for Spoken Word. You moved away from the Sarnia area. You started and finished classes at Western. You moved back to teach in Sarnia and then you eventually changed your home base and settled back in London. Did these changes hamper or stimulate your writing? Please expand.

These changes ultimately stimulated my writing. I’ve been torn between the two locations, but London seems the right home for me. There are more literary events here, and it is also closer to Toronto, a city I have been frequenting a lot lately.

Without ruining the surprise, what can people expect to see and/or hear during your Couplets performance in London with Toronto/Stratford poet David Stones?

People can expect a great evening. David and I have been working on the program for weeks now. His experience as a spoken word poet has made me reflect upon the difference between a poetry reading and a poetry performance. I’m looking forward to interpreting my poetry differently and to sharing new work for the first time.

Writing poetry is often a labour of love and yet one of your poems was discovered by the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Assessment in the United States and is now part of their testing program. You were paid a nice sum for the poem’s use. How did this news impact your future writing?

It encouraged me to send my work out – you never know where it will end up. Even before it was picked up by STAAR, “My Kitty Cat” was a poem I was known for at poetry readings, so it seems fitting that it should be my most recognized work. Its success reminds me of the value in simplicity.

When you first joined a local writers group under the leadership of the late Peggy Fletcher, you were workshopping a young adult fantasy novel. Your characterization, setting, dialogue, and sentence structure were strong and you were taking a correspondence course on Writing For Children/Young Adults. Somewhere along the line, like many of us, you turned to poetry and had additional publishing success in that area. You are now a member of Sarnia’s After Hours Poets and an associate member of the League of Canadian Poets. What genre have you enjoyed writing the most? Why does it appeal to you?

I enjoy all genres. I’ve been writing poetry exclusively lately, and that’s because of time restrictions balancing academic and creative writing with teaching. But I hope to write more fiction, particularly travel writing.

That doesn’t surprise me. You’ve become a world traveller and it seems like every summer you are off to another historic or exotic place. Out of all the trips you have taken, which location or setting has inspired you the most? Please explain why.

Paris. There is something magical about the City of Lights. I first visited Paris five years ago and returned there this summer to join the Left Bank Writers Retreat. Writing in Tuileries Garden, visiting art museums, and eating in cafés were all inspirational. I frequently return to these places in my imagination.

Ryan Gibbs Musee Rodin

A world traveller! Ryan Gibbs at the Musee Rodin in Paris, in front of the sculptor’s famous Le Penseur (“The Thinker”). Photo by Kendra Adele Hinkle.

What other activities inspire your writing? Who are your favourite writer/s or mentor/s? What trait/s do you admire in these people?

Reading. I’ve done a lot of reading in my doctoral studies and have compiled a list of ideas for poems and stories. One of my favourite poets is former poet laureate of Ireland, Paula Meehan. I attended a reading of hers last year in Allihies, Ireland, and it inspired me to write. Her poems are lyrically narrative, and she remains humble despite her accolades.

Share your writing process with me. Do you have a specific routine or do you just write when the muse nudges you? Is there a certain place where you like to write? Please elaborate.

I used to write when inspired, but I’ve found that results in too infrequent writing, so I try to write a little each day. Early morning and late evening are best – times closest to dreaming – which is why I often write in bed.

In a sentence or two, tell me a little more about the dissertation that you are currently working on? How’s that going?

My dissertation focuses on the redress politics behind contemporary Canadian internment narratives and how literature serves as an intermediary between state interests and ethnocultural advocacy groups. The writing process is long, but I continue to make progress. I’m heading to Halifax this weekend to give a paper at Dalhousie University on Behind Barbed Wire: Creative Works on the Internment of Italian Canadians, a text that features two Sarnia writers, Delia De Santis and Venera Fazio. My interest in their work inspired my dissertation.

Sounds like an ambitious but important project! What’s next for Ryan Gibbs in terms of your life and/or your literary aspirations?

Hopefully, books. My upcoming Couplets performance has caused me to look over the extent of my poems and consider putting together a manuscript. As well, I’ll be revisiting my novel again when I attend a writing workshop with Toronto editor and creative writing instructor Brian Henry at Algonquin Park next month.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m writing vignettes about my travels. I’ve been inspired by the writing exercises I did in Paris this summer. I’m also feeling the influence of my dissertation work as I’m starting with my trip to Italy a few years ago. This trip marked the first time I left the tour to explore Cerveteri, Sicily, and Sardinia on my own.

Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

I haven’t disappeared. I continue to write and go to events. I’m planning to attend London’s Open Mic and Sarnia’s Open Stage next month.

I’m glad. It will be great to see you again! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and literary news. I wish you continued success for your future goals and projects. Safe travels. May you get a huge turnout for your reading.

Ryan Gibbs - Samples of published work

Ryan Gibbs’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals including The Windsor Review and anthologies such as Under the Mulberry Tree, The Saving Bannister, and Whisky Sour City.

Ryan Gibbs lives in London, Ontario, and is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Western Ontario. He works as an English professor and coordinator at Lambton College in nearby Sarnia, where he is a member of the After Hours Poets and has read his poetry in the City Council as part of the nation-wide Mayor’s Poetry City Challenge. His poems have appeared in Tower Poetry, The Windsor Review, and the anthologies Under the Mulberry Tree and Whisky Sour City. His children’s poetry has been included in the State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness.

Additional information about Couplets: London’s collaborative poetry series can be found here.

Follow this blog for additional Canadian author and poet profiles as well as a feature post about London’s Couplets poetry series and Sarnia’s Open Stage event.

*Quote is from the short story “Quicksand” printed in the anthology Indelible (Cranberry Tree Press, July 2006). Page 30. The story won honourable mention in the “FIBZ”, 2006 short story anthology contest as judged by Nino Ricci. “Quicksand” © Ryan Gibbs, 2006. Used with permission from the author.

Standing Ovation for Diana Koch’s “Prime Time Stories”

He couldn’t remember growing old. It hit him like a freak thunderstorm on a sunny afternoon– Diana Koch*

 Local author Diana Koch’s work appears flawless. The only wrinkles in Prime Time Stories, her debut short story collection, are found on the faces and hands of her characters. Almost all of her protagonists are older, coping with various challenges in the later stages of their lives. The suspense (what they ‘do or don’t do’) propels the reader to turn the page in rapid succession.

Prime Time Stories Cover

“Prime Time Stories” (Greenstone Press, 2016) by Diana Koch is “a collection of 24 stories about men and women whose lives have been influenced by secrets, betrayals, regrets, illness, and even death”.  Cover image by the author.

Meet Mary, the woman who was now as withered as a forgotten summer apple that had rolled unnoticed under a storage bin. Sneak into Ivan Leeson’s barn as this widower/farmer touches the sinewy roughness of a rope as he contemplates suicide.

Will Mrs. M., a retirement home resident, lonely and confined to a wheelchair, be scammed by one of her visitors? What will become of Taylor Montgomery, a rich woman who steals trivial items to cope with her husband’s affairs? As Koch writes, Youth, in a slow trickle, is seeping out of her.

This focus on ageing (in its various forms) is like the yolk and egg whites that hold the nourishing bread of her book together. Consider it a loaf of 24 stories sliced and packaged with crusted secrets, yeast-bubbled humour, heart-warming sugar, flour-coated hauntings, unexpected crumbs, and cinnamon-twisted endings.

Like a baker or pastry chef, Koch slips in special ingredients to enhance the flavour of her work. Most notable is her use of the five senses such as scent: the captivating fragrance of “Promise Me” wafting around her like an exotic butterfly, the sweet smell of wood shavings and sound: the slamming of screen doors…his heavy steps on the stairs…water running in the bathroom…the ring of a telephone… the clanging of cutlery….

With a dinner-knife-sharpened imagination, she spreads her thoughts out like butter. The rhythm and flow of her words are silky-smooth and her sunny-yellow disposition slips between the sandwiched narrative and dialogue of her short stories.

Diana Koch Author Photo by Klaus Koch

Local author Diana Koch says writing fiction became a serious past-time after she retired. Photo by Klaus Koch.

There’s a caring motherly-maturity in her literary voice and yet, her intelligence fueled by her long career in the educational field adds a layer of depth to her writing. Don’t let her mild demeanor fool you. Some of her fictional material is more sinister than her settings let on.

Her characters are easily recognizable with just enough quirkiness to make them interesting. One of my favourite descriptions is from the story “Albino” where she writes, He stomped through the mire of daily living with bricks in his shoes, and a neon sign on his head that challenged people to gawk at him as if he were an invasive species.

Another strong description appears in “Assassin of Dream” where it was her unusual eyes that made people turn and stare at her. One was the brilliant blue of a summer sky, the other as brown as a chestnut.

Koch insists her stories are just average tales not worthy of notoriety. Those who are familiar with her work would disagree. Her fictional narratives are too strong to sit in a drawer.

The first time she shared her work aloud at a local writers’ workshop, I was mesmerized. The first time she submitted a story to a contest, it won first prize in the Ten Stories High Annual Short Story Competition organized by the Niagara Branch of the Canadian Authors Association.

When she officially released Prime Time Stories last November 27, 2016 at The Book Keeper in Sarnia, her family and friends applauded loudly.

Diana Koch Author Prime Time Stories Book Launch at The Book Keeper November 27, 2016 Photo by Klaus Koch

“Prime Time Stories” by Diana Koch was officially launched last November at The Book Keeper in Sarnia. Photo by Klaus Koch.

This summer, I asked Diana to share her thoughts about her writing process. Below are her responses:

Congratulations Diana on your debut collection of short stories! In a sentence or two, describe the theme or thread that binds your stories together. What inspired you to focus on characters in the ‘prime time’ of their lives?

 Prime Time Stories introduces the reader to people who are faced with an emotional crisis that must be dealt with in order for them to move on with their lives. The characters in these stories are from diverse walks of life, but all have dilemmas that cause them distress. Prime Time provides the reader an intimate view of people who have already travelled through the spring and summer of their lives and must somehow find their way toward a satisfying future. (Spoiler alert – some are successful, others not.)

People are fascinating at all stages of life, but they become more interesting as they grow older. Over the years, we have many experiences and interactions with our fellow humans, some positive, others that bring discontent or even heart-break. We make choices that determine our destiny. On some occasions, Fate plays a role. Lives become more complex when there are secrets, betrayals, regrets. (Provocative recipe ingredients for stories!) In the end, we all search for happiness, or at the very least, a degree of contentment or peace of mind.

Which of your stories in this book is your most favourite and why is it important to you?

Although all the people in Prime Time are fictitious, I have come to know them well. Ivan Leeson in the story “When the Dog Barksis a favourite. I grew up on a farm and understand the pride and attachment that farm people have to their land. As people age, they are often forced to give up a way of life that sustained them economically and emotionally. Ivan Leeson finds himself in this unfortunate situation. Although he had hoped for a different ending to his life, ultimately, he faces his future with the courage of his pioneer ancestors. Ivan Leeson reminds me of my Dad.

Your story “Rats is the Cellar” won first place in the Niagara Branch of the Canadian Author Association’s Ten Stories High Annual Short Story Competition. I recall it was the first story you ever submitted to a contest and it won the top prize. How did it feel to receive this honour? Is it important for writers to enter their work into contests or to submit their work to literary journals or consumer magazines? Why or why not?

To say I was surprised to learn that “Rats in the Cellar” had been selected as top prize is an understatement. If you recall, I submitted the story at your suggestion. I had no ambition at that point to have any of my writing published. It was thrilling to see my work in print in the anthology Ten Stories High. The experience encouraged me to keep writing and helped me overcome the shyness of sharing my work with others. I believe that my writing has improved and matured because I gained confidence to have my work critiqued and considered for publication.

Many of your stories have a twist at the end. Where do you find the ideas for your stories?

People intrigue me. I like to watch them and have conversations.

Sometimes, a few words strike me as significant. That was the case when a friend, who volunteers at a retirement home told me about a resident who “sits and waits for visitors who never show up.” It inspired the story “Waiting for Rhonda”.

A few years ago while in Toronto, I observed an attractive, exquisitely dressed and groomed woman in a coffee shop. She was sitting alone, clutching her handbag and staring into space. Her sombre expression suggested that all was not well in her life. She became the protagonist in “Taylor Montgomery Plays Chicken”.

Newspaper articles can also be an inspiration for stories. I once read about a man who had spent considerable time and money building his own coffin. Why would someone do that? My musing resulted in “Magnum Opus”. 

Other times, I imagine what it would be like to lead a totally different life from my own. How would I feel? What would I do? How resilient would I be? “The Sewing Circle” is such a story.

The twist at the end of my stories? Isn’t life like that? We think we have a plan, a certain path we wish to follow, a goal in sight – then something unexpected happens and everything changes.

Diana Koch Author Walking the Beach Photo by Klaus Koch

Walking down the beach is one of Diana Koch’s go-to places to get her creative juices flowing. Photo by Klaus Koch.

You had a long and successful career in the educational field. When did you decide that you wanted to write on a more regular basis?

I have always enjoyed putting thoughts on paper. I took pleasure in letter writing when that was in vogue. From the time I was a child, I fabricated stories – not always with the blessing of my Mom! Writing fiction became a serious past-time after I retired. I find the process of creative thinking satisfying and relaxing.

Describe your writing process.

Almost always, the process begins with a main character. It’s important that the character has a name. From that point, physical attributes and personality develop. It often takes weeks, months, sometimes years before I truly know that character. Only then can I build a story. It happens in my head before I can write it.

I am a methodical writer. I need time to let a story develop and grow. However, once it is written, I seldom change either the character or the plot. I do many revisions to mechanics such as sentence structure and vocabulary, but the story remains the same because it is character driven.

What are you currently working on?

I’m still writing short stories. I like the variety and the neatness of completing a project in just a few pages and then moving on to something new. My writing style tends to be succinct and lends itself to the short story format.

I have one completed novel. It is a coming of age story that takes place in Germany during WWII. For years, the characters and story rattled around in my head until I finally succumbed to the irritating mental prod to write it.

Currently, I am also working on a second novel about a modern-day woman who is the reincarnation of a historical figure from the 19th century – basically a story within a story. At the moment, it’s causing me some grief. One of the characters is not cooperating. I will have to give her some one on one attention.

Diana Koch Author with her favourite book Photo by Klaus Koch

“Wuthering Heights” has been on Koch’s book shelf for over half a century. She purchased it for $1.05 while she was a student at the University of Western Ontario. She says, “it’s timeless. A book for all seasons.” Photo by Klaus Koch.

What are your future plans? 

I’m happy to continue writing at my own pace, with abundant time to think things through. Aside from completing the novel, I hope to revisit a collection of short stories called Loss of Innocence that I wrote several years ago.

Your work is so strong and yet you decided to self-publish your collection versus submit your work to a trade publisher. Would you follow this path for your next book? Why or what not?

My decision to self-publish Prime Time was an easy one for a number of reasons.

After doing some research, I discovered that books of short stories are not popular with publishers. I also wanted to experience the publishing process myself. I enjoyed the creative aspects of designing the actual book – format, font, and cover.  My writer friend Bob McCarthy was a great mentor in the process.

By self-publishing, I was able to get a sense of how readers respond to my writing. It has been a positive experience beyond my expectations.

Seeking a suitable agent and publisher is a time consuming task. So much more than writing is expected of authors. I’m still not certain that I have the talent or the resilience to deal with agents and publishers.

It gives me pleasure to write. My reward comes from readers who enjoy reading my work. With that in mind, I will have to make a decision regarding my completed novel, The Button Girl.

Thanks Diana. Over the years, you’ve shared several draft chapters of your books with various local and out-of-town writers’ groups. I can’t wait to see more of your work in print. I wish you continued success with your writing. Please keep in touch.

Diana Koch was born in the Netherlands. She arrived in Canada as a young child with her parents and younger sister. Raised on a farm, she developed a love for the outdoors and spent many hours reading in the apple orchard or daydreaming in the meadow. Her collection of stories Loss of Innocence (as yet unpublished) relates the experiences of an immigrant child growing up in rural Ontario.    

After graduating from the University of Western Ontario, she taught French and German at the secondary level, and a variety of subjects in elementary schools. She obtained a Masters degree in education and enjoyed the years in her leadership role as Principal.

Since retirement, she has spent many enjoyable hours reading and writing. Some of her work has been published in chapbooks and anthologies. Prime Time is her first published book.

A review of Koch’s debut book appears on Sharon Berg’s blog and on the Lambton Shield website.

Additional information about Prime Time can be found on The Book Keeper website.

*from the short story “When the Dog Barks” published in the book Prime Time Stories (Greenstone Press, 2016) page 50. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © Diana Koch, 2016 
PLEASE NOTE: Several other quotes from Prime Time have been reprinted with the author’s permission. They appear in italics within the body of the blog post.

Watch this blog for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles.                        

Three Ontario Publishers Offer Advice Spiked with Harsh Reality

“Publishers want champions…books that they love.” –Dan Wells, Biblioasis

Forget the magic wand and lucky charms! There’s no secret shortcut for a wannabe author or poet seeking a book deal from a traditional publisher. If you want your manuscript published in Canada, you’ll need to work hard and have patience, lots of patience. That’s the consensus from three Ontario publishers during a “Getting Published in Canada” panel discussion held last week (July 20, 2017) at Biblioasis, an award-winning independent publishing house and bookstore in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.

Summer Reading Bookshelf July 28, 2017

We all have our favourite books! Check your home library to see who had published the earlier work of your favourite writers. If you write in a similar style, that independent publisher is worth investigating.

Panel members Dan Wells (Biblioasis publisher), Aimee Dunn (publisher, Windsor’s Palimpsest Press), and Paul Vermeersch of Buckrider Books (an imprint of Hamilton publisher Wolsak and Wynn) held the ‘standing room only’ crowd captive. Each shared his or her view about the publishing industry and answered questions from individuals in the audience.

Moderator Jael Richardson, a published author and the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD), ensured the evening moved along at a steady pace.

For those who missed this hour and a half ‘free to the public’ presentation, below are some of the highlights:

CONCENTRATE ON CREATING A STRONG MANUSCRIPT

“Don’t think about publishing until the writing is ready,” emphasized Vermeersch. “Be a writer first. Picture yourself with all your love & passion for words plus focus on what you feel is important…never submit a book that is still rough around the edges.”

Biblioasis - Patricia Young - July 28, 2017

Award-winning poet Patricia Young had fiction and poetry published by Biblioasis.

One of the ways to polish a book and to ensure the manuscript is ready for submission is to find people who will give honest feedback that is both useful and constructive. A writer can also take classes, join a writing circle or find a mentor. This should be done before the work is submitted.

RESEARCH ALL THE PUBLISHERS

Dunn stated that once the writing is complete, the real work begins. For example, before submitting any work, writers should do their homework. Research is important. “Check the websites of the publishers to determine what they publish, what their submission guidelines are, and when their deadlines are.”

For example, Palimpsest Press and Wolsak and Wynn only accept queries between January 1 and March 31. Dunn is surprised by how many authors ignore that rule. It’s an automatic rejection.

“Know who you are submitting to,” added Wells. “All the presses are different…so get to know the press.” Even editors amongst the same press have different opinions and interests.

“Read some of the publisher’s books,” said Dunn. If you feel your book is the right fit, then prepare your submission. For Palimpsest Press, she said it’s important to query first. “If we don’t like your work, we will e-mail right away, sometimes within a day or two. If we ask to see a manuscript, our response could take months.”

Palimpsest Press July 28 2017

According to its website, Palimpsest Press “publishes poetry, fiction, and select nonfiction titles that deal with poetics, the writing life, aesthetics, cultural criticism, and literary biography”.

Most presses will respond in six months (sometimes longer) but it’s best to check the publisher’s guidelines. If you don’t hear from the press in a reasonable amount of time, check to make sure the query or manuscript was received.

“Sometimes submissions get lost,” said a member from the audience. “It happened to me and shortly after the manuscript was found, I received an acceptance.”

As for multiple-submissions, Vermeersch said “most publishers don’t mind…but make sure you withdraw your manuscript if it is accepted by someone else.”

BE PATIENT AND LEARN HOW TO DEAL WITH REJECTION

“If you get a rejection don’t take it personal,” advised Dunn. “It may be the wrong press or the wrong editor.”

According to Wells, Biblioasis wants books that they love. They often receive 400, 500, 600 submissions a year. However, the editors at Biblioasis also read literary magazines and keep their eyes on the literary scene to solicit work not only from established authors but those who are deemed up-and-comers. The majority of their 25 to 35 titles per year total are selected this way. Your chance for acceptance by a trade publisher improves if you have a strong publishing record with numerous credits in prestigious journals. Winning a major literary award is an added bonus.

The harsh reality is that the number of manuscripts accepted is a small fraction of all the submissions received.

Vermeersch revealed that Wolsak and Wynn may receive 300 to 400 submissions a year. “I can only accept a few.” He usually selects 8 books (2 poetry manuscripts and 2 fiction manuscripts per season) for his imprint and another 8 to 10 books are selected by the main press for an annual total of approximately 18 books.

Wolsak and Wynn July 28, 2017

At one time Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd. was based in Don Mills, Ontario. Today its website states “they are a quirky literary press based in the heart of Hamilton, Ontario”.

Dunn has been the publisher of Palimpstet Press for only three years. Each year, the press has worked hard to increase the number of works published. In 2017, they will publish 7 books and in 2018, 8 books have been scheduled for release.

“If your manuscript is rejected,” said Vermeersch, “put it in a drawer and start something else or send the work elsewhere.”

Successful writers keep moving one step at a time.

BE AWARE OF SCAMS AND VANITY PRESSES

Some authors are impatient and opt to self-publish or work with a vanity press. Caution is advised.

“Many vanity presses charge for printing and marketing,” said Vermeersch. “Traditional publishers don’t…..why pay for someone to publish your manuscript when a traditional publisher will actually pay you an advance with the possibility of additional royalties?”

Dunn said there is one small exception. “The only time a traditional publisher asks for money is when the author wants to buy extra books to sell.”

THE WAIT FOR A TRADITIONAL PUBLISHER IS WORTH IT

Many authors aren’t aware of the benefits of working with a traditional publisher.

Wells explained that “our investment in a book is $20,000 to $30,000 per title.”

“If you want an advance and a professional experience (for free),” said Vermeersch, “then the traditional publisher is the way to go.”

The cons of self-publishing are numerous.

According to Dunn, unless you pay for it, you won’t have a collective who can market and put the book into international, national and big-chain bookstores and libraries. Also, self-published books cannot qualify for awards, the author cannot apply for writing, travel and reading grants, and in many cases it becomes difficult to obtain professional status as a writer.

Moderator Richardson added that “literary festivals won’t allow self-published authors to read because the quality of self-published books is inconsistent and there are already enough traditionally published authors who are willing to share their work.”

READ AND UNDERSTAND THE CONTRACT

Once your work is finally accepted for publication, “make sure you read the contract,” said Vermeersch. “There should be no surprises….Working with a press is both a business and a creative relationship.”

Understand what an advance is. These payments are given to an author in anticipation of projected sales. The author gets to keep the payments but won’t receive any more royalties until he/she works through his/her advance. According to Vermeersch, poets will usually receive a $500 advance while a novelist will receive about $2,000. This can vary with the number of copies printed or the reputation of the author.

Dunn said “the normal print run for a literary trade publication is 500 copies.”

Biblioasis Books July 28, 2017

Biblioasis publishes “short fiction, novels, poetry, literary criticism, memoir, belle lettres, local and regional history, and general non-fiction.”

Wells added that Biblioasis “contracts are pretty fair or more fair than the Writers’ Union of Canada…Everything can be negotiated.” For those who want help, he suggests contacting the Writers’ Union.  As for agents, he said “in the 14 years that we’ve published books, we’ve only published one book with an agent…I wouldn’t worry about an agent in Canada.”

BE PREPARED FOR MORE WORK & ADDITIONAL PERIODS OF WAITING

It usually takes approximately two years from the time the contract is signed to the time the book is released.

“It’s at least a two-year process,” said Dunn. “The (release) deadline is often tentative and sometimes an author can get bumped.”

According to Vermeersch, the author is usually given one year to fix general edits, then another six months to work on more specific line edits. The last six months focuses on copy editing, design, and marketing.

“While the editor is working,” said Dunn, “the publisher is working on marketing. Lots of authors don’t realize that when your book is released, the publisher is already working on books that will be launched two years down the road.”

Wells explained it takes nine months to promote a book properly in other countries like the United States. It’s important to get advance copies and the word out early, long before the book is released. “In Canada, the buzz in conversation needs to happen at least six months before the book is launched.” Once released, the shelf life of a new book is also about six months. After that, the next season of books will be released. Therefore, those first few months of sales are important.

A FEW COMMENTS ON DIVERSITY

More Canadian publishers are seeking ways to diversify their title offerings. All three publishers stressed their need for more submissions.

“My male slush pile is high,” said Vermeersch. “We all want to tell all kinds of stories but we don’t always get the diverse submissions.”

“We get lots of female and white submissions,” said Dunn. “So we have to ask for more diversity. Geographically, we are good.”

ONE FINAL NOTE ABOUT MARKETING

“If you are not a salesperson,” said Dunn, “then you need to learn to take chances.”

As Vermeersch stated earlier, “Working with a press is both a business and a creative relationship”.

Publishers and writers must help each other. Gone are the days when publishers handle all the promotion on their own.

Paul Vermeersch books July 28, 2017

Paul Vermeersch is multi-talented. In addition to his editing work at Wolsak and Wynn, he is an established poet with work published by McLelland & Stewart.

“The Getting Published In Canada” event in Windsor was presented by the Ontario Book Publishers Organization and the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD). It was generously sponsored by the Ontario Media Development Corporation.

A similar event was held in Sudbury in June with Heather Campbell of Sudbury publisher Latitude 46; Christie Harkin of Clockwise Press; and Jennifer Knoch of ECW Press.

The next panel discussion will be held on Thursday, August 24, 2017 with publishers Renee K. Abram of Kegedonce Press; Naseem Hrab of Kids Can Press; and Hazel Millar of BookThug at the Six Nations Public Library, 1679 Chiefswood Road, Ohsweken, Ontario. Admission is free. Refreshments provided.

A partial listing of future Ontario literary events appears here.

Follow this blog for future posts about literary happenings and author profiles. Coming soon, a Q & A with Sarnia musician/songwriter Gregger Botting and his debut CD release as well as a look at a new collection of short stories by Sarnia writer Diana Koch.

Artist Mary Abma Preserves Memories with her Ash Tree Project

This project will become an ongoing legacy for the community…* -Mary Abma

More than a tree-spirit chill down my spine! Sarnia-Lambton’s Ash Tree Memorial Performance commenced with haunting woodwind sounds from Kelly Kiyoshk’s flute. Handmade baskets crafted from black ash trees sat on a table beside him.

I shivered with the other performers.

Mary Abma, a local contemporary artist and organizer for the event, stood at the outdoor microphone, apologized for the unexpected drop in temperature, and warmly welcomed the crowd that gathered at the Seaway Kiwanis Pavilion in Sarnia’s Canatara Park.

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Artist Mary Abma said “we need to slow ourselves down and pay attention to the natural world around us”. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

Around her, the Carolinian forest raised its eyebrows. April’s weather had turned shivering cold. Even a winter coat, woolen hat, and gloves couldn’t protect the mourners from the unwelcomed winds off Lake Huron. A Canadian goose flew by, honked in protest.

My fingers and emotions numbed. I waited for the rain-tears to fall but the clouds held them tight inside a grey blanket.

A few days earlier at the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery (JNAAG) in Sarnia, Abma spoke about her new exhibition Signposts & Traces: Ash Tree Memorial Trail.

Photo 1 Courtesy Mary Abma

Abma’s memorial artifacts were on display from April 28 to May 14, 2017 at the Judith & Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia and can be seen on her website. Photo courtesy of the artist.

“In January 2015, 300 dead trees were cut at Canatara Park”, she said as a slide show of snow-laced ash limbs, stumps, and zig-zagged patterned logs silenced the crowd in attendance.

“In Lambton County, 24 percent of our canopy was ash…37 percent of the total volume of wood in woodlots was ash….”

Almost all of those trees were destroyed by the emerald ash borer (EAB), an invasive beetle from Asia. The destruction continues to spread to new areas in Canada and the United States, often as the result of humans moving beetle-infested firewood.

Because Lambton County was one of the first Canadian areas (after Windsor, Essex County, and Chatham-Kent) to deal with the loss associated with EAB, Abma wanted to keep the memory of the ash trees alive.

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Abma created ash tree shrouds from phragmites, a wetland grass considered to be another invasive species in the Lambton County area. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

Her community-engaged, ecological artwork which memorializes the ash trees of Canatara took Abma four years to create.

The project is multi-faceted. First the Bright’s Grove resident went through Canatara Park and selected some of the dead trees and gave them an identity. Fourteen ash tree memorial stations were constructed and identified with such names as “Ash Nursery”, “the Elder”, “Ash Graveyard”, and “The Guardian”.

Then she took the concept of Victorian mourning practices and used some of the dead ash to create “individual stories, death notices, mourning art, and jewelry”. All of these pieces were displayed at a recent exhibition at the JNAAG.

To connect the indoor exhibition with the outdoor showcase, she mapped an Ash Tree Memorial Trail for mourners to stroll through. She also designed shrouds from phragmites, a wetland grass and another prevalent invasive species found in the area. Using a smartphone (with a QR code reader app), visitors can scan the QR code at each station to retrieve Abma’s memorial art made for the ash trees in that particular area. Those without scanners or those who are not on the trail can see the same webpages through her website.

The final element: the Saturday, April 29 (rain or shine) performance and community gathering pulled her vision and the mourners together.

Despite the cold weather (which couldn’t be controlled), I appreciated the effort Abma exerted to fashion a safe place for the public to grieve.

Canatara Park - Ash Tree Memorial Performance - April 29, 2017

Eulogizing the ash trees. Photos by Sharon Berg.

The one hour service included the music of accomplished Anishinaabe flute player Kelly Kiyoshk, the performance of accomplished singer/musician Missy Burgess, author/aboriginal historian David D Plain’s talk on the uses and artifacts of the ash trees, the beautiful voices of the Wavesong Vocal Ensemble, the readings by Allan McKeown, the dance performance with Robi Williams and my own poetic words.

Following the performances, I walked with several people (like a funeral procession) towards the park’s Tarzanland area where Abma’s Ash Tree Memorial Trail began. The Carolinian forest opened its arms. Despite all the fallen trees, I felt warmer as we followed Abma then paused at the various stations for shared stories and reflections. For the first time, since losing four large ash trees in my own backyard in May 2011, I felt closure.

Canatara Park - Ash Tree Memorial Trail - April 29, 2017

Walking the Trail. Photos by Okun Hill.

Normally, my blog concentrates on poets, fiction writers and/or other literary events but because of my own interest in the lost ash trees, I yearned to learn more about Mary Abma and her project.

One thing I’ve discovered since studying this local destruction of these trees is that you can’t mess with Mother Nature. Diversification in the forest and amongst humans is vital for survival.

A few days after the service, the sun finally nudged the grey clouds into a corner. I drafted my questions and welcomed Mary’s response. Below are the results:

When I first heard you were working on a project focusing on the local ash trees and how they were being destroyed by the emerald ash borer, I was thrilled. Here was another individual who was passionate about preserving the memories of these trees. At what moment did you decide that this would be a worthwhile project to work on? Did something happen to draw your attention to the trees or was it a more gradual process? Explain how you were feeling at the time.

The development of my projects is a gradual one. I began by paying attention to the trees in my environment. I had heard of the emerald ash borer but had not really been aware of the extent of its damage until I started to pay attention. Once I began to see the great numbers of dead trees in our roadside woodlots, my interest about these trees was sparked and I wanted to find out more.

Research led to passion and a desire to create an artistic response.

Did you have to do anything special to prepare yourself for this project? If yes, what did you do?

 I prepare for a project by doing research and by talking with specialists in fields related to the project. In this case, I spoke with Larry Cornelis, a local naturalist and tree expert. He taught me to identify ash trees and he told me about how they have been affected in this area. I also visited the Guelph Arboretum and spoke with scientists there. I visited their ash tree “seed bank”. I contacted an invasive species scientist in Sault Ste. Marie and received information from him.

An artist’s journey can be a challenging one. It took you four years to complete your Signpost & Traces project. Not everyone likes trees, and certainly ash trees have a reputation for being a ‘weed tree’, something that’s messy and not often written about or featured in a work of art. Did you ever feel like giving up? Why or why not? How did you stay motivated?

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Bright’s Grove artist Mary Abma worked on the Signposts & Traces: Ash Tree Memorial Project for four years. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

I never felt like giving up. I think that is in large part because as the four years progressed, so did the problem. About halfway through, the city culled all of the ash trees at Canatara Park. I documented this cull and its aftermath. That experience led to one of deep mourning for me. This kept the passion for my project alive.

What is the one message you wanted the audience to walk away with?

Every one of us has a responsibility to protect and to restore the natural world. One person can make a difference and those little things that we do, however small, are important if only on a ritual or symbolic level. We must not be discouraged because to be discouraged is to give up.

One of the things I liked about this project is that it is organic in the sense that you not only included a performance segment featuring work from multi-disciplines but you invited the public to walk along the trail to experience the loss first hand. Should visual artists be working more with people in other disciplines such as the literary arts or the performing arts such as dance, theatre, and music? Why or why not?

I would never tell an entire group of artists what they should or should not be doing. I can only speak of my own artistic practice. I have discovered that my work is enriched by letting others into my process. I enjoy working this way.

I also liked how you incorporated technology and the use of QR codes for your project. Where did that idea come from?

I once read about cemeteries that put QR codes on tombstones. People who purchase this service set up a webpage that has photos and video of the deceased on it. Visitors to the cemetery can access these from the grave site. I thought that this would be a good way to give access to people walking the trail to the artwork I made in memory of the lost ash trees whose remains they were viewing.

Photo 3 by Jeff McCoy

Each of the 14 stations on the Ash Tree Memorial Trail has a QR code that takes visitors to Abma’s memorial art made for the dead ash trees at each stop. Photo by Jeff McCoy.

You’ve created a few other projects focusing on the ash tree. Please share a line or two about those projects.

The biggest one was an installation in Hampton Park, in Ottawa. I joined together with two other artists, Marcia Lea and Peggy DeVries, to create an installation memorializing one of the old ash trees that had been taken down, there. We laid down the shadow of the old tree from wood chips that had been made from the ash trees in that park.

In your artist’s talk at the gallery, you said “art stimulates awareness”. Could you expand on this? In your opinion, what value is there in the visual arts in a society now obsessed with science and technology?

I think that more than ever, we need to slow ourselves down and pay attention to the natural world around us. I do not have a problem with science and technology, but I do have a problem with our allowing our collective desire to make our lives ever more convenient and full of possessions to overshadow our need to steward the earth and to live in harmony with it.

Lost Canopy medallions by Mary Abma Photo by Murray DeBoer

Lost Canopy Medallions by Mary Abma. Photo by Murray DeBoer.

What’s next for Mary Abma?

I am not yet finished with the ash tree. I am working on a large installation that will bring all of the themes I have been working with together.

That sounds exciting. Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?

If you have the time, check out the trail at Tarzanland. As of May 15, most of it is still intact and the signs with the QR codes are still there. Walk the trail, enjoy the beauty of nature, and remember the ash trees.

Thank you Mary for sharing your thoughts. The work you are doing to create awareness about the loss of our ash trees is important. I wish you continued success with your visual arts career.

Mary Abma, a resident of Bright’s Grove, Ontario, is a contemporary artist who works in a variety of media. A full-time artist, Mary has exhibited in several group and solo exhibitions at galleries over the past 25 years. Mary comes from a long line of artists and grew up with the benefit of mentoring from her grandmothers.

Additional information about Abma and her art can be found on her website.

An earlier blog about her project can be found here.

Follow this blog for additional Canadian author and poet profiles.

*Quote is from the artist’s on-line statement about her project Signposts & Traces: Ash Tree Memorial Trail © Mary Abma Used with permission from the artist.

Introducing Canadian Poet Sharon Berg and Big Pond Rumours Press

And the truth is horrible/for this is just a paragraph in the story of a river* – Sharon Berg

 A dark current runs through Sharon Berg’s latest chapbook Odyssey and Other Poems (Big Pond Rumours Press, 2017). Whether she is writing about the atrocities of a global war, the shadows associated with Canadian poet Al Purdy or the individual pain associated with a dysfunctional family, Berg adds a layer of depth that enriches her work. In the second section of her two-part poem “2 Songs, Almost a Lullabye” she writes: “you stretch your odd bubble/this space shuttle under my skin by which/you travel toward a small blue planet”.

Odyssey and Other Poems (Big Pond Rumours Press, 2017) by Sharon Berg

Odyssey and Other Poems (Big Pond Rumours Press, 2017) by Sharon Berg is a powerhouse of words and phrases.

Her journey or odyssey theme (reinforced by her book cover with the looming grey clouds and fork in the rural trail) may first appear as a cliché, but don’t let the six-poem, 20-page book fool you. What may appear as a thin volume of poetry is actually a powerhouse of words and phrases that leaves the reader either loving the material presented or squirming in his/her seat in discomfort.

For example, in two poems, Berg challenges Al Purdy’s reputation as a legendary giant by jabbing his abilities as a father. In the poem “Voice of the Land”, she writes “My first memory of you-/was a shadow that crept across/my brothers’ future”. For some the work will be shocking, even borderline daring, sometimes depressing. However, to evoke an emotional response is one sign of success. To keep the reader engaged with the work is another important trait.

Berg’s new chapbook does both. I also admire her unique imagery. In the poem “Bone Shards” she writes: “he arrived like a shard/off the old bone, white and delicate/in my mother’s arms” and in “Trouble”, a dark poem about accidents, falling, and stumbling, she pens “the lamp is a crashing globe/that turns out the lights”.

Her strongest poem in the collection is “Odyssey: Contemplations The Angels Have Not Left Us”. Each of the eight sections builds upon and reinforces the complexities of the River of Life. It is a dance between the atrocities in the world and the saving spirit where “My prayers rise on tobacco smoke” and “I decide to trust the current/as my guide.”

A few weeks ago (Tuesday, April 11), Berg introduced and read her new chapbook at the Art Bar Poetry Series in Toronto. On Tuesday, April 18, Berg was one of two featured guests at Sarnia-Lambton’s National Poetry Month celebration. Her reading was made possible thanks to the financial assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts through The Writers’ Union of Canada.

Sharon Berg's reading during Sarnia-Lambton's 2017 National Poetry Month Event was made possible thanks to financial assistance from the Canadian Council for the Arts through The Writers

Berg’s reading at Sarnia-Lambton’s 2017 National Poetry Month Celebration was made possible with thanks from the Canada Council for the Arts through The Writers’ Union of Canada.

Seven months ago, I chatted with Berg about Sarnia’s new CADENCE reading series as well as her on-line e-zine Big Pond Rumours. That interview appears here.

Recently, I asked Sharon about her new chapbook, her upcoming projects, and an update on her involvement with the micro-press Big Pond Rumours. Below are her responses:

Welcome back to my blog Sharon. When we last chatted here, you were the organizer/host of CADENCE: a reading series with a little music. Despite the lack of volunteers, you organized four highly successful events before deciding to refocus your energies elsewhere. Now you are writing and posting book reviews, which is in high demand by poets and other writers! In your opinion, why are book reviews so important?

Every artist hopes to have an audience. That is why they do what they do – for the audience. And in that audience, they hope to discover a response to their work. The critique is part of the integral response an author receives from others about specific pieces of their work. Book reviews are meant to be a public, critical response, an evaluation. They should point out both the areas of success and the missteps in the work being reviewed. The best reviews offer both affirmations and suggestions for improvement as they point out any problems. I know some people say they never read their reviews but it would take an incredibly tough ego to resist reading them. I write book reviews to assist the author in judging the things they can pat their own back for, and the things they need to improve upon. Yes, it is only one opinion, but that is why every author hopes for several book reviews. Book reviews can also alert readers to points that may persuade them to read a book, and every author knows that. 

You have a reputation as a tough critic, providing praise where it’s due but also offering suggestions for improving a book. In your opinion what constitutes a good poetry book? What is your definition of a poorly written one? 

Two questions there. First, a good piece of writing connects with its audience, whether it is poetry or prose. The connections that can be made are many, from the use of language that provides a visual imagery through metaphor and simile to the way it draws up an emotional response in the readers. The topic of the work can vary, but it is also in their manipulation of the flow of words and line breaks, the depiction of the characters, theme, conflict, and resolution that an author demonstrates their skill. It has to do with their ability to tell a story and hold the reader’s attention. That is key. Human kind is a storytelling animal. That is a huge part of our communication to one another. Even a haiku tells a story. Integrity is also important. The story has to feel authentic.

The answer to the second question is, if they allow the reader’s attention to wander too far from their writing then it is game over. Different people have different levels of tolerance, but if the author writes in a stumbling, self-conscious manner they will never capture the full attention of their audience. Consistency of language plays large in their writing skills, so likewise, inconsistency leaves the story like a bucket full of holes. A lack of integrity in the writing, a feeling that the author is not being authentic or truthful, can also lose the attention of the reader. These are subjective assessment tools though. Some authors experience a minor success because they appeal to small, specific segments of the population.

SHARE National Poetry Month - Sharon Berg Photo 5 - April 18, 2017 in Sarnia

Sharon Berg is a Canadian writer of poetry, prose, reviews, and educational materials about First Nations education.

 

Earlier this year, your micro press Big Pond Rumours held a chapbook contest and four manuscripts were selected for publication and will be launched in a few months. What did you look for in a prize winning manuscript? What do you feel were the strengths in the four collections that were selected? I understand they were all quite different from each other. Why were some manuscripts eliminated?

Actually, the 1st place winner, Bob Wakulich, is launching his chapbook of satiric poems, Channeling the Masters, at ‘Author for Indies’ in Cranbrook, British Columbia on April 29th, 2017. He is at ‘Lotus Books’ from 1 pm to 3 pm, and ‘The Heidout’ from 7:30 to 9:30 pm. The next chapbook I chose is You Can’t Make the Sky a Different Blue by Nelson Ball. I am planning to release it in Paris or Dundas, Ontario sometime in May. The details will be offered later. The other chapbook releases, for yourself and Harold Feddersen will follow in a few months.

I was hoping that running a contest would garner me a few submissions of quality, even one or two, but I was overwhelmed by the strength of so many of the manuscripts I received. The ability to use language to portray emotion, to paint visual pictures, and their consistency of form was key for me, rather than a particular topic or style of writing. I found it very difficult to decide on just four, but my press is limited to just four or five titles each year.

Yes, my choices show a range of approaches. I picked one collection of satiric poetry, one of minimalist poetry, one of thoughtful free verse, and one of haiku. It was very touch and go, in terms of who I picked. Often, the winners were simply a touch more consistent in the execution of their form than the other submissions.

Each of the authors managed to tell a story, or several stories, in their own way. That is their strength, their ability to convince a reader to submerge themselves in the poems.

What advice would you give to an emerging poet to present his/her work in the best possible light? Is there a formula for organizing a strong manuscript?

As I have said, the ability to tell a story in a poem is key for me. There are forms of poetry that don’t tell stories like this, mostly because there is little investment in portraying emotion, but I don’t connect with those forms as easily. Their audience is also much smaller. The organization of the poems (which poem follows this one) in the manuscript and presentation on the page, are often the key for getting noticed by an editor. If it seems the line breaks are not set at the best place, or the internal rhyme is erratic, or the focus of the poem itself seems to wander, an editor is unlikely to accept the challenge of walking you through the necessary changes to present your work to the public in its best light.

I think every book should be thought of as a negotiation between the publisher/editor and its author. Each has their own reasons for wanting to present the book in it best possible form. If an author is unwilling to entertain suggestions for improvement, then they are not ready to publish their work. They have to exhibit enough skill in their work that the editor can ‘feel’ the finished work. Some will get closer to that goal than others. I believe all authors can benefit from sharing their writing with others, taking their work to an author’s workshop, listening to the feedback and acting upon what rings true for them to make changes.

SHARE Sharon Berg photo 4 Art Bar Reading April 11, 2017 in Toronto

Berg introduced her new chapbook on April 11, 2017 at the Art Bar Poetry Series in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

You also found time to publish a chapbook of your own poems.  In a couple of sentences, describe your new book Odyssey and Other Poems?  

It is really difficult to describe one’s own work. I can say that my poetry usually presents the audience with a challenge. I am always trying to state my own truth on any given subject, and this chapbook is no different. I talk about water in the poem “Odyssey”, that is the main metaphor. Water is symbolic. Odyssey talks about spiritual, emotional, and physical endurance through a variety of human struggles. In that chapbook, I also share the effect that growing up in the shadow of Canada’s great poet, Al Purdy, had on his son (my half-brother, Brian Purdy) and my immediate family. I don’t tend to tell comfortable stories or paint pretty pictures with my words, rather I share personal truths with my readers.

Your latest book is indeed dark but there are elements of hope to present a balanced viewpoint! In your opinion, what is the role of poetry in today’s society? 

Anyone who is asked a question like this will hope to provide an insightful answer. Sometimes it is difficult to provide an answer that looks as intelligent to the outsider as it ‘feels’ on the inside. I have received criticism before for my view, but I want to be honest about what guides me. When I was young, my brother told me that poets always sit on the edge of their community, looking at it with a critical eye. I grew up believing that there has always been, and will always be, a role for poets in society. Poetry provides a forum for the discussion of social goals, large and small. We draw people’s attention to what is beautiful, yes, but we also call out the inconsistencies in the governing rhetoric of our society, the challenges of conscience, and even the horrible acts that human beings commit. We use pattern, end-of-line rhyme, internal rhyme, simile and metaphor to draw people into our word constructions. We use the effects of language to help people experience what we are talking about. Poetry or prose, we are storytellers. When we do it well, we point out the problems we have observed and hopefully suggest ways to solve those problems. 

Your first book “To A Young Horse” was published by Borealis Press in 1979. Has the literary world changed much since that time? Why or why not?

Yes, just as our social consciousness has evolved to address a variety of important issues we face now (racism, the strife behind the hierarchy in social class, environmental pollution) so the landscape for authors has changed. This is expected because culture is not a static thing, but something that evolves and changes in order to adapt to the situation. Economics change. So does culture. Social sensibilities change. So does culture. And poetry is a response to culture, either directly or indirectly. A poem about a bowl of fruit on the table will not fare well these days in comparison to a poem about the struggle to defend rivers from pollution. People are generally more alert to the problems faced by people in a larger community than they were in the 1970s or earlier. These days, the author who lives a sheltered life and writes from that point of view will not compare well to one who expresses heart-spoken truths about the battle to protect basic elements (water, air, land) from industrial or corporate abuse and pollution.

But beyond that, there simply is not the same level of funding to support the arts that there once was. The whole idea of being philanthropic, of making it your goal to offer donations to support the arts, has lost its appeal to those in the top one or two percent in this consumeristic society. Instead of offering support to people who are gifted with the artful expression of ideas, the majority of one or two percenters seem to focus on and reward those who produce solid things, things that can be sold. This is reflected in our governments. Donald Trump has withdrawn financial support for the arts, sports, and science. Consider the fact that he is using a business model to govern his country. Other politicians may not operate with the same openness of ideology and intent, but that is how most of them are leaning these days.

For instance, the tobacco companies used to support the arts and sports, two areas that now rely almost exclusively on government or private sponsorship. That financial support from industry no longer happens because it is viewed as the advertising of a harmful product. Many of the old-style philanthropists who privately funded anthropological digs and other important geographical explorations have passed into the great beyond and no one has taken their place. Everyone now relies on the profit from sales of their books and paintings or a university or a variety of government run agencies that dole out money for their financial support. Even the important reading series, that are so vital to supporting authors, are mostly funded through government grants. That means that very little money is divided endlessly until the authors at each reading series receive little financial support.

In my view, based on my personal understanding of the role of authors in society, part of the responsibility for the current state of affairs has to be accepted by authors themselves. We all feel we are doing important work, but the measure of its importance has to be understood in terms of the number of lives that we impact. It has not always been the case that poets received small audiences, as we do today. We used to be invited into the courts of Lords and Ladies and Kings and Queens to entertain them. We used to call out in the town square. Poets were historians who shared their knowledge with the general public. We were the voice of social conscience. That is not highfalutin talk. Everyone has a role in society and that is our role. Yet the business frame of mind that guides our contemporary lives has narrowed over time and we have not been able to assist in stopping a similar constriction of public conscience. We have known for at least 200 years that the Industrial Revolution is harming not only the environment but human life. If we, as poets, want to honour our history and take up our previous powerful position in society, we need to find a way to enter the conscience of the people in positions of power again.

Imagine what it would be like if more people read poetry! Thanks Sharon for your thought-provoking words. Congratulations again on your new chapbook and all your accomplishments. I’m wishing you continued success re: your literary projects.

sharon-berg-at-cadence-sept-28-2016-photo-melissa-upfold-for-calculated-colour-co

Sharon Berg, founder/editor of Big Pond Rumours, was the organizer/host of CADENCE, Sarnia’s 2016 reading series. Photo by Melissa Upfold for the Calculated Colour Co.

Sharon Berg is an author of fiction, poetry and educational history related to First Nations. She is also the founder and editor of Big Pond Rumours E-Zine and Micro Press. She published widely up until the 1980s, with her poetry appearing in periodicals across Canada, the USA, the UK, The Netherlands, and Australia. Then she pursued her teaching career. Since retiring from teaching in April 2016, she has returned to her writing and has new work appearing in several places in 2017. She has produced two full books, four chapbooks, two audio tapes, and a CD of her work. Her academic work in First Nations history and education will be published as The Name Unspoken: Wandering Spirit Survival School in ‘Alternative Schooling: Canadian Stories of Democracy within Bureaucracy’, published by Palgrave MacMillan in June 2017. She is currently working on finalizing a full book about the history of Wandering Spirit Survival School.

Check out Sharon Berg’s website and her review site.

Additional information about Big Pond Rumours is located here.  The next submission deadline for her e-zine is June 30, 2017.

*from the poem “Odyssey: Contemplations The Angels Have Not Left Us” published in the chapbook Odyssey and Other Poems (Big Pond Rumours, 2017) page 5. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © Sharon Berg, 2017

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