Tag Archives: writing

Filling Your Heart with Love Poems

“All You Need Is Love,” wrote John Lennon. The lyrics to this 1967 Beatles single holds me captive and warms my mood like a lit fireplace on a snowy evening.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if love could soften some of the hatred in this world? Call me an optimist! I’d sooner be hypnotized by cupid’s arrow than lambasted by hurtful words. Are you feeling drained by all the negative news? I know I am.

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Mark your calendars for this special Red Valentine event in Chatham, Ontario.

In just eight days (Saturday, February 11), the Thames Art Gallery presents “All Four Love”, a special Red Valentine themed event featuring Black Moss Press* poets Cornelia Hoogland, Vanessa Shields, Kara Ghobhainn Smith, and Debbie Okun Hill (that’s me) plus special musical guest celebrity sing-songwriter Crissi Cochrane. If you’ve never heard Crissi perform, here’s your chance. She has a beautiful voice.

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If the idea of poetry frightens you, attend anyway. I dare you. We all have different styles and voices to reach a wide audience. Expect your heart to be filled with poetic words from the sentimental to the sexy to the humourous.

For example:

“What’s your hurry? Don’t be such a schoolgirl.” – from the poem “Red Meets the Wolf in the Woods” by Cornelia Hoogland.

“These days I choose sleep over sex/Fiction over poetry/Movies over dancing” – from the poem “Where Is the Love?” By Vanessa Shields.

“She thought he was/boring, arrogant/even full of it/but he showed her” – from the poem “The night the music ended” by Kara Ghobhainn Smith.

“Remember when…/I first kissed you,” –from the poem “Gentle Devotion” by Debbie Okun Hill

Yes poetry CAN be entertaining! For additional information and performers’ bios, stop by the Thames Art Gallery website. Crissi also has a website.

Will there be food? Of course!

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A seven-course fully red tapas menu by William Street Café is included. Expect gazpacho shooters, beet hummus with vegi chips, red pepper bruschetta, phyllo cups with goat cheese pomegranate syrup & pistachios, cranberry glazed chicken wings, tortellini in tomato sauce, and mascarpone tart with raspberries.

Mmmmmm….is your mouth watering yet?

What are you waiting for? Forget your troubles. Bring a date, a friend, a group of friends. Wear something red. And yes, tickets are available here.

Still not convinced!

Below is a short section from my longer poem “Taped Together”.**

  1. iv) Two-sided Tape

They say there are two sides

To a coin, to a story

Sometimes two sides to love

His and her sides of a bed

Two sides to an argument

And two sides to mend.

Love, love, love! May love heal our world, today, tomorrow, and always. Hope to see you in Chatham at the Thames Art Gallery/Chatham Cultural Centre.

Can’t attend? Perhaps you’d prefer to share your own love poems. Check my Ontario 2017 event page for additional love themed readings and open mics such as the Poetry and Roses reading in London on February 9, The Ontario Poetry Society’s The Love of Poetry Gathering in Toronto on February 12, and/or the Art Bar’s Cupid Wins & Wounds All Open Mic Night in Toronto on February 14.

Happy Valentine’s Month Everyone!!!

*Additional information about Black Moss Press can be found on this website.
**The poem ‘Taped Together’ received an Honourable Mention Award from The Ontario Poetry Society’s (TOPS) The Open Heart 10 poetry competition 2015 and was first published in Open Heart 10: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry, Beret Days Press, 2016. Copyright © Debbie Okun Hill

Canadian Poet Allan Briesmaster Heightens Form in ‘River Neither’

“Or might I front, down steeper paths of thought,/some earthly light that verges on divine.” – Allan Briesmaster* 

The image of French sculptor Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker pops into my mind while reading Canadian poet Allan Briesmaster’s book River Neither.

Perhaps it is the way Briesmaster uses a more classical yet varied form of metre and rhyme that pulls me into the 19th Century or maybe it’s his concentration on nature, deep reflection, and abstract reasoning that challenges me and provokes additional study.

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Canadian poet Allan Briesmaster is inspired by music, visual art, poetry and other writing from all historical periods and world literature, natural phenomena, and people who are close to him. Photo by Peter Rowe used with permission.

In his author’s notes, he states, “It is my cautious hope that, at a time when the creation, production and reading of poetry tends to be increasingly fragmented and over-specialized, and when in some quarters traditional form is deemed archaic or obsolete, a few discerning readers will set preconceptions aside and simply enjoy the journey along River Neither – one that will lead them to discoveries of their own.”

For me, the serendipitous moment arrives when I discover that Rodin originally called his famous sculpture, The Poet. It was also speculated that Rodin’s work was inspired by Dante Alighieri and his literary masterpiece The Divine Comedy, which outlines “a soul’s journey towards God or some spiritual realm.”

Similar to Dante’s complex quest, Briesmaster’s poetry dares the reader to slow down, pause, re-read passages, and reflect. I find it necessary to not only embrace the poem’s layered meaning but to examine the structure and other poetic elements that make the work strong.

I also love how Briesmaster takes me down a path and then when I get lost, his use of language challenges me to get up and seek the philosopher’s stone. It reminds me of hiking through a dense forest and how each trip reveals additional details and insights to reward the patient traveller.

This exploratory and poetic journey is the metaphorical river that follows through the collection.

For example, his 90-page book published by Aeolus House in 2015 begins with “Absence From An Eden”, a 14 poem section that drifts from paradise to a state of yearning, transitions, and uncertain familial relationships.

In the section “Greenrise”, nature takes the stage with seasonal spring and summer accounts such as “draw an inch more of green scent down your lungs./Maybe now see the tree-branch’s rungs/on an ascent that isn’t any steeper.”

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Allan Briesmaster’s newest book ‘River Neither’ (Aeolus House, 2015) is “a concentrated exploration of poetic form: traditional, modified, and invented”.

 

In the section “Onward Turnings” the journey continues through autumn and winter where reflections of ageing and death end with “Fine farewell glow, revert me to the dawn/of rapture at leaf-motion, on the fly,/tugging the heart afresh like that bird-wing/flashed from a bare branch in sun’s orange eye.”

The last section “Flight Home” is an inward reflection. In the poem “Age and Solitude”, Briesmaster makes reference to the Chinese poet Tu Fu and writes “A solitary gull is all I am,/borne off between earth and the heavens.”

In keeping with his philosophical viewpoint, he often asks questions, to challenge himself and the reader. For example, in his poem “A Sagittarian Tension”, he writes “Has he a compass-point by which to steer,/predefined mission, fore-cast destiny?” In his last poem “Not I” (a variation of a sonnet), he offers “Of its own will, I can become the vessel/bearing the fluent force that pours through me.”

Humble in his thoughts and actions, Briesmaster is a major force in the Canadian literary scene. He is the author of seven full-length books and eight chapbooks and shorter books. According to the League of Canadian Poets website: “In 1986-90 Allan led Phoenix, Toronto’s longest-running poetry workshop. He was one of the chief organizers of the weekly Art Bar Poetry Reading Series from 1991 until 2002: playing a central role as it grew into the largest series of its kind in Canada.”

Unfortunately, I missed his recent featured reading at the Art Bar series in Toronto. However, earlier in November, I asked him to share his thoughts about his new book and writing process. Below are his responses:

Your first collection of poetry was published in 1998. River Neither is your 7th full trade book. Describe this poetry collection in a few sentences and mention how it is similar to and different from your other books.

Yes, my first book of poetry, Weighted Light, came out some 18 years ago. Since then I’ve had six other full-length books and eight smaller ones published. River Neither differs from the previous books in consisting entirely of short poems, almost all in strict forms. Many are sonnets and variations on the sonnet, and the rest also use formal constraints like metre and rhyme. There were quite a few “formal” poems in the earlier books, coexisting with an equal or greater number in open forms.

In a sense, River Neither is a concentrated exploration of poetic form: traditional, modified, and invented. It is “about” form itself and what form can uniquely accomplish, while, of course, being about much else besides. The series of poems on my late parents is something new, as is the writing about the early and later stages of life’s journey in the first and last of the book’s four parts, though some of this was initiated in the book that preceded this one. The poems set outdoors that celebrate and reflect on nature, the seasons, and ecology have themes which will be familiar to readers of my other books.

In your author’s notes, you wrote, “form can actually serve to liberate and open up paths to new discoveries of all kinds.” When did you first start working with such formal principles as metre and rhyme and how difficult is it to focus on and market such traditional forms in a poetic community that appears to value more open and experimental work?

I have always enjoyed reading classic poems that had metre and rhyme. Formalist poetry was out of favour when I first began writing seriously, but I remained intrigued by it. There are quite a few formal poems in my first book. While I am well aware of literary fashions (and there has been a considerable revival of formalist poetry in some circles in the past 20 years), I don’t ever consciously fall in line with them. Although I want people to enjoy my writing style, and to understand and be moved by the content, I need to write in the ways that are given to me and that most deeply challenge and satisfy.

I do not actively “market” my books, partly because the audience for poetry is rather fragmented and diffuse, and also because I favour readings and occasional radio programs as the best way for people to discover my work. As well, I am a publisher and editor and much of my time is dedicated to helping promote the books with which I’m involved. Which is not to say that I don’t have any aspirations for my work to be more widely read, or that I don’t think it has lasting value.

In any case, I would insist that the poetry in River Neither is not merely traditional. It has an innovative dimension, and it aims to extend and refresh forms and formal principles that are by no means obsolescent but offer perennial possibilities. For instance, I have sonnets with 13 and 15 lines, and ones with four or six end-rhymes instead of the standard five or seven. It’s gratifying that, when I give readings, a wide range of listeners respond very favourably, even when their usual taste in poetry is for something different.

Many of your poems in this collection are philosophical, nature-based or relationship themed. There is often a depth, a richness of language and intrigue that forces the reader to either slow down and concentrate on the printed words or to re-read the work several times to grasp and appreciate both the structure and meaning. What do you feel is the role of poetry in today’s society?

Thank you for this very complimentary characterization of my writing. It is certainly important to me to create poems that make readers slow down and think. I’m convinced that much, if not all, of the poetry most worth reading – that is most fully rewarding and most durable – is itself a mode of thinking: one which invites and encourages reflection and cogitation on the reader’s part.

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Allan Briesmaster is a major force in the Canadian literary scene.

 

I believe that poetry’s social role can and should be much the same as it has always been, despite the encroachments on its old domain by the electronic media that tend to make it appear outmoded. That age-old role is multiple and manifold, and poetry’s protean nature is one of the most remarkable things about it. It means to be enjoyed, producing a certain, very special artistic pleasure, and at the same time it extends our emotional, intellectual and spiritual horizons. It does not necessarily do so comfortably and reassuringly, but works to deepen our understanding of who we are, whence we came, and in what directions we may be heading as individuals and as social beings. It had better not simply confirm our prejudices or preach to the converted. It should open eyes, minds and hearts to new perspectives and other avenues besides what we’re accustomed to. It should remind us of the delight and the power language holds for us if treated with artful care.

What inspires you and who are your mentors?

A list of all the sources of inspiration would be long. High on it would be music (classical, jazz, and contemporary in particular) and visual art, a mostly indirect but vital influence nonetheless. I don’t mean writing in response to specific artworks, although I have done some of that, but just being given hope and confidence that I could approach something equivalent in my own medium. Then I am challenged by and induced to respond to a very wide array of poetry and other writing from all historical periods and world literature, including some in translation. Natural phenomena I encounter near where I live in Thornhill and throughout Southern Ontario call to me for responses more compellingly than do domestic and urban scenes. People who are close to me or otherwise make a powerful impression also spur me to write, sometimes in response to their remarks, pointed or casual – more so than items in the news. I have constant concern about political and social justice issues, but have not yet found ways of writing about them to my satisfaction, though some of this awareness does inevitably seep into my work.

I never had what I would call a mentor. I suppose I got the equivalent of mentoring, when I was young, from reading literature for pleasure and from having closely studied the classics when I majored in English. I had some good teachers but they did not directly influence my early aspirations to write, which came straight out of what I was reading: the English Romantic poets, for instance. Later, my participation in poetry workshops was helpful in learning about “the craft,” but still there was no individual who took me under his or her wing.

Describe your writing process.

I produce poems in various ways. There is no predominant “method,” and I do not have a single place or regular time when I do my writing, though I spend at least a part of an hour on it almost every day, at home, on a park bench, in a café, even once in a while on the subway; and I devote much more time to revising than raw creating. A poem could arise through an abrupt recollection of an emotionally-charged experience; out of an on-the-spot observation (I always carry a notebook around); as a response to a text I have just read that excites or annoys me; or from an image, a phrase or even a rhythm that springs to mind spontaneously from no definite source. I might jot down a promising line or two and return to it later, or I might be able to persist and, within minutes, end up with a partial sketch or entire first draft. Only rarely is the poem finished when I reach the last line of the first version. The majority of poems need at least several drafts, with possibly a substantial rewrite or two, usually across a minimum of a few days, sometimes over a week or more. The first couple of drafts are hand-written, and revision almost always continues when I enter the text on my computer. Some poems take many weeks or even months before I feel ready to show them to anyone else.

There is no time when I do not have two or more poems under development in these ways. In the later stages, I often get useful feedback from friends and the writing groups I attend, which prompts me to do further fine-tuning and sometimes come up with still more revisions. Publication in a magazine or anthology does not necessarily mean a poem is finally finished either. And when I come to prepare a book, I call on multiple readers and/or an editor to advise me.

sample-of-books-by-allan-briesmaster

Briesmaster’s first book of poetry, ‘Weighted Light’ was launched 18 years ago. To date, he has seven full-length books  and eight smaller ones published. Above is a small sample of his work.

In addition to being a poet, you are one of two Executive Directors for Quattro Books and the publisher of the micro-press Aeolus House. You were also the main literary editor of Seraphim Editions and since 1998 you have assisted with the production of over 200 books. What advice would you give to a poet who is currently seeking publication of his/her first trade book?

No matter how far along a writer thinks the manuscript has come, it is highly desirable to seek the input of trusted friends or perhaps even hire a qualified editor, so that its chances of favourably impressing a publisher are maximized. In choosing which publishers to submit to, be sure that the kind of poetry you have is suited to their particular aesthetics, and, of course, check their submissions guidelines.

What are you currently working on?

I am in the early stages of what will become my next book of poetry. As always, I also have several book-editing and freelance-editing projects underway, amidst my ongoing responsibilities with Quattro Books.

What are your future plans?

I would like to do more traveling in future years than I’ve managed in the past. I’ll have time next year, after the two books of poetry I’m editing for Quattro are published in March.

Is there anything else you would like to add or share?

My writing may appear to some readers to be cerebral and constrained, but to me it is passionate as well. It comes out of a mixture of anxiety, rage, awe, and gratitude. Also of fundamental importance for my poetry is musicality (the sound, rhythm, and architecture of the words together with the pauses between them); a rootedness in physical being and the senses, not just the mind; having a basic element of play; that it wants to be enjoyed, not merely admired; and that it is a thoroughly social art, created in a spirit of generosity: with the hope that any extra effort and attention given back to it will be well rewarded, and that many poems will retain their freshness and their strangeness on successive readings, with no “best before” date attached.

Thanks Allan for the interview and for taking time from your busy schedule to answer my questions. I wish you continued success.

Additional information about Briesmaster appears on the “Members page” section of The Ontario Poetry Society and The League of Canadian Poets websites.

Information about his books can be found at Aeolus House, Hidden Brook Press, Seraphim Editions, and Quattro Books.

*from the sonnet “Octobering” published in the book River Neither (Aeolus House, 2015) page 56. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright © Allan Briesmaster 2015.

Watch this blog for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles.

Celebrating the Life of John Drage 1930 – 2015

“Remember me with humour,/The jokes I loved to tell and hear told,/The pranks that were played by me and on me.” John Drage*

He towered like a silo over a flattened toad poem. I can still hear his dry cough, the way he spun a tall tale or a comical verse with a straight face. He made so many people laugh.

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In Memory of the Late John Drage. He made so many people laugh.

Almost a year ago** (December 11, 2015), Sarnia-Lambton’s literary community gathered with his family and friends and embraced the fond memories of the late John Drage, a local storyteller /poet who often slipped jokes from his shirt sleeves and magically created laughter with his dry wit. If anyone had a “hole in his or her bucket”, he would try to fix it. He was not only handy with a hammer on the farm but also dandy with his words when he moved into the city.

“I was especially fortunate to have been able to hear many of the stories John told about his own past, about his own family, and his skills in the kitchen,” said historical fiction writer Bob McCarthy in his tribute to John at last year’s celebration of life. “As a local historian, I was able to learn about many of the early pioneers who farmed in Southeast Lambton, people John had known, folks who built so many of the small communities in places like Shetland.”

Family members, friends, and celebrant Allan McKeown also highlighted John’s love of the arts, marriage, learning, nature, and love in general. Five candles were lit while poetry, music and heart-felt stories enlightened the audience. Following the benediction, Leonard Cohen’s famous song ‘Hallelujah” filled the room.

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John had a passion for the arts, marriage, learning, nature, and love in general.

What a loss for the local literary community! He (and his wife Peggy who predeceased him by four years) left two holes in my bucket-heart.

I first met John back in 2002 when I joined a local writers’ workshop group. He penned and shared what he knew, then used his imagination to liven it up. He also loved local history and often wrote humourous and traditional form poems that rhymed.

“Like all poems, a humourous one starts with an idea or a line,” wrote John in an article called “Finding Humour in Your Poetry” published in the May to August 2015 Verse Afire. “I am a tall man with a short memory. I try to keep pen and paper handy to catch fleeting ideas. Sometimes, I start with an opening line and work forwards. Sometimes, I start with the last line and work backwards.”

His humour followed him to Spoken Word events where he would recite such old-time favourites as the children’s folk song “There’s a Hole in My Bucket” or attempt to teach the audience how to play bagpipes without the actual instrument.

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John was a regular reader/performer at Spoken Word at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.

He was a regular contributor to: Canadian Stories, a national folk magazine written by or about Canadians; and Daytripping in Southern Ontario, the “Biggest Little Paper in Canada”. For several years he was also a columnist with The Observer, a daily newspaper from Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.

He was a member of several local writing groups: Writers in Transition (WIT), Spoken Word at the Lawrence House, Lambton Writers Association, and Writers Helping Writers (WHW) plus the provincial group The Ontario Poetry Society (TOPS). He also attended book launches, ArtWalk and First Friday events in Sarnia.

Despite his accomplishments, fame did not interest him. As a writer he was content with the old ways: plunking on his typo-infected typewriter and submitting work via snail mail. Most of his work is compiled in books published by Sydenham Press, a small press he owned and operated with his late wife, the award-winning poet Peggy Fletcher.

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Several books by the late John Drage were published by Sydenham Press, a small press he owned and operated with his wife, the late Peggy Fletcher.

His sudden and unexpected death from a stroke at the age of 85 shocked those who were close to him.

“He was like a father figure to me,” said Melissa Upfold, former Spoken Word Sarnia host who also lost her own father a year ago. “He and Peggy attended all my readings and art shows. They were true supporters of the artistic and literary community.”

“Such a great loss to our writing community, said Phyllis Humby, founder of the social networking group Lambton Writers Association. “John was a gentle man of great wit and compassion. Quiet and unassuming. Some of us are comforted to imagine that he is with Peggy now. And [his dog] Patches, too. Still heartbreaking to say goodbye.”

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John recites the children’s folk song “There’s a Hole in My Bucket” during a Spoken Word event.

“He always made jokes about his height and my lack of,” said Lynn Tait, spokesperson for the AfterHours Poets group. “His ‘Ode to a Flattened Toad’ is a classic, recited for us annually, and I will always remember his Dandee stories. His ability to memorize and recite his poems was amazing, and his on-going, tongue-in-cheek limerick battles with Anne Beachey [close friend and storyteller] were legendary. He was a kind and gentle man. All of us in After Hours Poets, miss him very much. He is back home now with his soul mate, Peggy.”

“John Drage was more than just a poet,” said I.B. Iskov, Founding Member of TOPS.  “He was a storyteller and a humourist. The Ontario Poetry Society was fortunate to acquire a short essay from John appropriately titled, “Finding Humour in Poetry”…. His wit, his charm and his “voice” will be missed.”

“I still can’t believe he’s gone,” said Norma West Linder, one of the members who established Writers in Transitions (WIT), a local writers workshop group. Below is a poem written by Linder, as a tribute to her long-time friend:

Shadow of a Special Smile
for John Alfred Drage
(July 9, 1930-Dec. 7, 2015)***

Stuffed in an envelope somewhere
in my cluttered computer room
John’s obituary
–John, who made everyone laugh
with his droll sense of humour
his limericks and tall tales
delivered with panache
 

John, who was like a brother to me
for half a century
taken by a massive stroke
on Pearl Harbour Day
 

I still expect to meet him
just around the corner
still expect to find him
there on his usual chair
at our Unitarian Fellowship
each Sunday
still expect to see his special smile
whenever writers get together

This week I look back and remember John Drage, a writer who gifted the literary community with such fond and humourous memories.

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In Paradise: John Drage reunited with Peggy Fletcher, the love of his life.

*originally printed in the program for the Service of Thanksgiving and Celebration for the Life of John Alfred Drage held Friday, December 11, 2015 in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. Reprinted here with permission from the estate.

**Almost a year has passed since this blog was first drafted. It was revised and posted here for the first time as a reminder that John Drage has not been forgotten, that his spirit and love for others remain in Sarnia’s literary community.

***poem used with permission from the poet. 2016 © Norma West Linder

If #WritersMatter, Why Did I Stop Writing?

Search the internet for American author Ernest Hemingway and you’ll find a copyrighted quote about writing and how all you need to do is to sit at a typewriter and bleed.

If only today’s literary life was that simple more individuals would be willing to sacrifice their lives for what? Fame? Fortune? Immortality?

Dream on! None of the above!

I’m not the first to question the value of a career in the arts nor will I be the last. My reasons are my own. I love my quiet space and in some small way I hope my inner peace will transcend into some meaningful dialogue. When I slip into that mystical zone called “writing”, housework hides beneath the cobwebs and even my gardens succumb to nature’s playful ways. You could call this chronic neglect of chores procrastination!

 

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Can’t wait! My Summer Reading 2016 Challenge!

 

I call it prioritization for activities that stimulate the mind. Writing and writers matter even in this noisy-extroverted-technical-money-famefocused-socialmedia-obsessed world. Some days I feel like a poetic dinosaur lost in a jungle, a maze of twisting vines and over-crowded trees. All these voices clamoring to be heard: some are mean-spirited and discouraging; others are more nurturing and supportive. Frankly, I’d sooner be wooed by the sun than the wind. I can’t stand this hurtful “gushing of blood”, no matter where it comes from.

Have you ever been hit on the head with an axe?

In Newfoundland, 54 libraries are expected to close over the next two years. Seriously? Libraries are a hub for face-to-face community discussions.

Due to fair dealing interpretations, several Canadian educational institutions have stopped paying royalties to authors for the copying of published work. Another whack!

Last year, The Writers’ Union of Canada released a document Devaluing Creators, Endangering Creativity. Doing More and Making Less: Writers’ Incomes Today. See my earlier blog post here. Based on the union’s survey, 81 percent of the respondents said their writing income fell below the poverty line, that the median net income from writing was less than $5,000, while the average income from writing was $12,879.

Ouch, there’s that axe again.

Sometimes negative circumstances cause a paradigm shift and the creative process slips in a hole like a seed waiting to be watered again. A writer can bleed only for so long. This spring I took some time to spend with family. In my travels, I rolled along like a pebble tossed into the waves and later took a reflective break on a park bench. I needed a change: a housekeeper, a gardener, a personal assistant. Nope, I knew it wasn’t going to happen, not on my salary.

A few days ago, I yanked a strand of outdoor Christmas lights from our front bushes. A muddy film clung to the glass bulbs and I could almost hear the neighbors cheering as I also plucked the meter-high thistles from the flower beds. A June rain had softened the soil and the moist air cleared my head. Enough was enough!

Writing will always be one of my priorities. Words fuel my existence but burnout for writers is common.

I wish I could provide statistics but even in my circle of writing friends, three have already announced a summer hiatus from writing. In a competitive, cut-throat, blood-shedding environment is there no wonder that creative beings are feeling rather anemic? Organizers of writing groups and reading series plus volunteer editors of magazines and journals often step back to recharge batteries or to cut expenses. Some lose the battle like Other Voices in Edmonton. Descant in Toronto stopped publishing after 45 years. On June 28, The ArtBar Poetry Series in Toronto will close its doors and officially retire.

And yet despite all the negativity, the rejections, and disappointments, writers continue to write. New on-line magazines like Cede Poetry in Vancouver are created and new reading series like Couplets: Poets in Dialogue in London, Ontario are born. Hope prevails!

On June 2, The Writers Union of Canada issued a press release urging readers to support and celebrate authors and to participate in the #WhyWritersMatter campaign. See additional details here.

To me, writers open doors and windows to new worlds and ideas. They are the history recorders and thought provokers. They are the philosophers and change makers.

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What are you doing to show #WhyWritersMatter?

 

What are you doing to show #WhyWritersMatter?

When was the last time you purchased a book? Supported your local library? Attended a reading? If you love books, make it your priority to write a review for Goodreads, Amazon.ca, or one of the literary journals. It may just be the words of encouragement and support that an emerging or experienced author needs. Recharge or ignite her literary spark. Nurture the creative seeds buried deep within the earth.

Although I temporarily stopped writing to declutter my yard-house-desk, I also plan to spend the summer reading, relaxing, and celebrating other poets and authors through my blog.

As a writer, I still believe in miracles, those thought-provoking words that pull people and nations together.

Canadian Poet James Deahl and His New Book Unbroken Lines

When dusk fell the luminous stones kept singing.—James Deahl* 

Canadian poet James Deahl is no stranger to this blog. News about his books and events often populate my posts. With over 20 poetry collections linked to his name, he’s currently one of the most prolific poets in Lambton County. He’s a busy guy. That’s an understatement.

Unbroken Lines - Collected Poetic Prose 1990 - 2015 (Lummox Press, 2015) by James Deahl

Unbroken Lines: Collected Poetic Prose 1990 – 2015 (LUMMOX Press, 2015) by James Deahl

His latest book Unbroken Lines: Collected Poetic Prose 1990-2015 was released last fall by LUMMOX Press and was officially launched in Toronto in November. On Saturday, January 16, he will share the spotlight with his literary wife Norma West Linder who will be launching her children’s novel The Pastel Planet. The event starts at 2 p.m. at The Book Keeper, Northgate Plaza, 500 Exmouth Street in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. (More details on Linder’s book will appear in a future blog post.)

So far, reviews on Deahl’s latest book have been favourable.

In a Canadian Stories review, Carol Malyon wrote: “These works are gentle, reflective, meditative, and the language is poetic. They have been created by a mature poet, in complete control of his craft, and of the life that feeds it.”

In a news4u review, Patrick Connors wrote: “he never writes the same piece twice. In content as well as form, he seeks to expand and diversify his body of work.”

One of my favourite Deahl poems from this new collection is “Theology of Stones”. In the poem, he poetically describes how pilgrims were so focused on their journeys that they failed to notice the small yellow flowers, the singing rocks, and “the forgotten beauty of innocent desire*.”

James Deahl

Canadian Poet James Deahl

Unlike the pilgrims in his poem, Deahl manages to capture (and share in his writings) those subtle details that are often missed. Many of the poems reflect his experiences as a traveller. As he states in the Author’s Preface, “The pieces in this collection were written over a quarter of a century: from May of 1990, while I was in England, to May of 2015, when Norma and I were in Connecticut.”

Similar to the rocks and other scenes and scenarios he writes about, his poems enlighten and keep singing long after they are read.

Last December, I asked Deahl to share his thoughts about his writing process. Below are his responses: 

1)      Describe your new book. What inspired you to write it?

Unbroken Lines is a collection of brief prose poems, micro fictions, and creative non-fiction. While I was on a government-funded reading tour of Britain in the spring of 1990, and upon my return to Canada, I wrote seven prose poems. They simply happened. Back then, as he remains today, my best-loved prose poet was Robert Bly, who has laboured hard to establish prose poetry as a major prosody in English.

2)      How does your work differ from other writers? What makes it unique and special?

Every writer approaches the universal topics from a unique point of view. The same is true of painters. That is what keeps art alive. It is made by interesting people who bring a perspective not our own. Through art we find a fresh appreciation of life. 

3)      What is your writing process? And why do you write the way that you do?

For me, writing and reading go together. I write and read as part of the same creative process. In all but a very, very few cases, my first draft is pen & paper. And most often my second draft, too. I delay typing poems up because, once typed, it seems to be more difficult to discover other possibilities, other directions the poem could take.

Author Talks and Lectures

James Deahl launched his latest book at the Main Street branch of the Toronto Public Library which is where he presented his first reading as a professional writer thirty years ago.

4)      What are your plans for promoting your book?

First off, I intend to present readings in the cities where I have lived and where I am well known within the writing community: Pittsburgh, Ottawa, Toronto, London, Hamilton, and now Sarnia. Next up is The Book Keeper. This will be on Saturday, January 16th at 2:00 p.m. Then I hope to do a West Coast tour: Los Angeles, Portland, Victoria and Vancouver, that sort of thing. The only way to sell books is in person. You want to sell books in New York, you go to New York. New York is a big goal.

5)      Who are/were your mentors and why did they inspire you?

Robert Bly for one. He has achieved the most in the field of prose poetry. Also Bly’s colleague James Wright. In Canada I mainly read Allan Cooper. And in French, the work of Francis Ponge should recommend itself to all readers. I like Bly’s romanticism, a quality not found in Ponge. But in Ponge I value his objectivity. Cooper is very fine, too. His description is excellent, really without equal, although his “leaps” are less smooth than Bly’s. In my view, Robert Bly is the master of the poetic leap.

6)      You are a prolific writer. What advice would you give to a young writer just starting his/her career as a writer?

One only becomes a writer by writing. One only becomes a better writer by writing. That is the only way to learn and develop. I do something in the way of writing or editing or translating every day except Thanksgiving.

James Deahl at the April 2014 Spoken Word event at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts in Sarnia

James Deahl shares his work at the April 2014 Spoken Word event at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.

 

7)      What are some of the challenges facing today’s writers?

The two main ones are (1) the paucity of rigorous criticism, especially here in Canada, and (2) the strident limitations on monetizing what one has written. Criticism helps a writer become better, and we should all desire to be better. Being paid helps one survive. A third challenge would be having Canadian writing taken seriously in major nations like the United States and Britain. Now that Alice Munro has won the Nobel Prize perhaps a few more doors will open. 

8)   What future writing project will you be working on following/during your tour?

This winter and spring (and maybe into the summer) I am working with Katherine L. Gordon on a joint book on Southwestern Ontario landscapes, a book to be published in Israel. I also have to get another lyric poetry collection, To Be With A Woman**, into print. Writing is pure joy; getting stuff published is hard work.

9)   Is there anything else you would like to add about your book, your writing, your past or future?

Nothing other than the pursuit of perfection. An elusive goal never to be attained. 

Thank you for sharing your comments. 

*epigraph and quote are from the poem “Theology of Stones”, Unbroken Lines: Collected Poetic Prose 1990-2015 (LUMMOX Press, 2015), page 77. Reprinted with the author’s permission: Copyright ©2015 James Deahl

**A few days following this interview, RD Armstrong of LUMMOX Press accepted James Deahl’s manuscript To Be With A Woman. It will be published in 2016. Congratulations!

Watch this blog for additional Canadian Author and Poet Profiles.

 

Conference Highlights – The Tough Business of Writing in Canada

“The work of writers fuels an almost 2 billion dollar industry, and yet more than 80% earn an income from their writing that is below the poverty line.” –The Writers’ Union of Canada*

It is late, almost midnight, but I can’t stop thinking about Winnipeg and all the ‘writer-ly’ chats and facts gathered during “Cultivating the Literary Ecosystem”, the League of Canadian Poets (LCP) and The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) 2015 Joint Conference held May 28 to May 31, 2015 at the Radisson Hotel. By now, most of the conference highlights would be considered old news but some messages need to be repeated, personalized by other voices, and shared with new audiences.

All lit up - Winnipeg view from the Radisson Hotel

Winnipeg, all lit up – a view from the Radisson Hotel

Did you hear The Writers’ Union of Canada’s announcement? Let me SHOUT it again from the rooftop: “Today’s writer does more to earn less. Taking inflation into account, writers are making 27% less than they were making in 1998 from their writing, while 45% of writers say they must do more to earn a living now.” 

Some might argue: “So what? These are tough and challenging times for many workers not only CanLit writers.” However, when a writer or any employee is paid less than minimum wage isn’t that against the Employment Standards Act?

One could also argue that the Employment Standards Act does not apply to self-employed writers. Authors/poets are similar to struggling small business owners, working long hours for little pay. It can take years to establish a name. Are writers and publishers pricing their products too low or is the Canadian market saturated with too many writers willing to work for free?

That’s one of the concerns Dorothea Helms, writer/editor/owner of Write Stuff Writing Services expressed in her “The Business of Writing” workshop I attended back in September 2003. She used this analogy: “Would you say to a plumber, gee, I can’t afford to pay you, but you can sign my pipes? Unless it is for a charity or non-profit group you want to help, giving away your writing devalues your work.”

40logobluewithtypeWEB2Here are some additional facts presented in the recent TWUC document Devaluing Creators, Endangering Creativity. Doing More and Making Less: Writers’ Incomes Today. (A copy of the TWUC media release and the condensed report are available here.) Based on the union’s recent survey, 81 percent of the respondents said their writing income fell below the poverty line, that the median net income from writing was less than $5,000, while the average income from writing was $12,879. The survey also indicated that 88 percent of the respondents had an undergraduate degree and that 50 percent had a master’s or doctorate degree.

Writers are well-educated folk and yet, in order to continue writing, many must juggle their priorities and seek paid work in a different field.

The document also indicated that the main source of writing income (46 percent) came from royalties from traditional publishers. Eight percent (the third largest source of income) was derived from self-published titles.

These statistics can only tell us so much. Is the number of “paying” markets decreasing while the number of writers seeking publication increasing? Has it become a supply and demand issue or has the general public lost interest in the creative arts? Or is a paradigm shift in the markets that writers haven’t adapted to yet?

For example, over a decade ago, my creative writing mentors reminisced about their earlier years when CBC and Chatelaine paid good money for poetry and short stories. Now these and other lucrative literary markets have either dried up or are accepting less work or paying less. Payment sometimes means receiving a free copy of the publication in which the work appears.

Reminiscing with Manitoba writers and TWUC members John Parr and Bob Armstrong.

Reminiscing with Manitoba writers and TWUC members John Parr and Bob Armstrong.

Even newspapers are downsizing their staff. About a year ago, I was shocked to hear that an assignment editor of a daily newspaper was also required to multi-task: answer the public’s webmaster concerns and supervise posts for an on-line event listing.

Authors have become jugglers. For example, blogging and social media networking #twucLCP2015 @twuc  @CanadianPoets have also become one of those necessary evils for professional writers. Unfortunately, author blogs rarely pay the bills and I am still searching for a poet or fiction writer who has been compensated for his or her time spent on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Yet, some publishers are now asking for a record of your social media following and fan base as a criteria for accepting your book for publication. Maybe ten years down the road this extra promotional work will generate more book sales but it’s difficult to measure its immediate value in the short term.

During the Conference Gala, Penn Kemp received the prestigious Sherri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award. Congratulations!

During the Conference Gala, Penn Kemp received the prestigious Sherri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award. Congratulations!

From my perspective, the market is now flooded with writers and on-line publications that are here today, gone tomorrow. The internet is inundated with words, tweets, YouTube videos, blogs. People are chattering but is anyone listening? Will anyone read this blog post?

The general public’s expectation of FREE information is also a concern.

TWUC pointed out that “recent changes to the Copyright Act, broadly misinterpreted as an education exemption, have also had an impact on writers’ incomes.”

As writers, what should we do? Continue to work long hours for little or no pay?  I know several talented writers who just gave up because, frankly, they either ran out of money or just ran out of steam. Others are passionate about working with words, so they cling onto their dream and forge forward but for how long?

 The union indicated they would continue “to work to reverse the distressing trends outlined in these results.”  I suspect this will be a daunting task, one that writers will continue to discuss for a long time. The League of Canadian Poets is also looking for ways to help its members.

Fortunately, for those writers attending the joint conference, not all the presentations were gloomy. Below are some additional memories worth noting:

Conferences are great places to meet up with familiar faces. Several participants and/or organizers of the 2015 Great Canadian PoeTrain Tour gather for chat!

Conferences are great places to meet writer friends from across Canada. Several participants and/or organizers of the 2015 Great Canadian PoeTrain Tour gather for a quick chat! David Brydges shared the success of this project during the May 30, 2015 LCP annual general meeting.

-This year, over 135 professional writers and an additional 15 guests, panelists, non-members, students and staff were listed on the attendee list. Thirty of these attendees held joint memberships. What a great weekend to mingle with not only poets but fiction and non-fiction writers as well!

Author, poet, performer Sapha Burnell was a conference rookie, attending the TWUC AGM for the first time.

Author, poet, performer Sapha Burnell was a conference rookie, attending the TWUC AGM for the first time.

-‘Conference rookies’ attending their first Union Annual General Meeting were encouraged to wear their identifying yellow name tag. This was their ticket to the rookie reception where a room-full of conference newbies gathered to talk about….writing!! TWUC’s out-going chair Harry Thurston and incoming chair Heather Menzies mingled with the guests and made everyone feel welcome.

-Metis poet, playwright, and educator Gregory Scofield presented a powerful Anne Szumigalski Memorial Lecture reinforcing his concerns over the missing and murdered indigenous women in Canada. His talk will be published in Measures of Astonishment, a collection of Anne Szumigalilski lectures to be launched during National Poetry Month 2016.

-Thanks to the Writers’ Trust of Canada, Toronto speculative fiction writer Guy Gavriel Kay delivered the Margaret Laurence Lecture on the topic “A Writer’s Life”.

-For those interested in learning more about literary trends and the characteristics of an average reader, Noah Genner from BookNet Canada shared some interesting stats. Check the non-profit organization’s website here.

Anna Yin, LCP Ontario rep and the new Poet Laureate for Mississauga and Alice Major, the first Poet Laureate for the City of Edmonton (2005 - 2007) and a Past President of the LCP

Anna Yin, LCP Ontario rep and the new Poet Laureate for Mississauga and Alice Major, the first Poet Laureate for the City of Edmonton (2005 – 2007) and a Past President of the LCP

LCP Toronto rep Kate Marshall Flaherty

LCP Toronto rep Kate Marshall Flaherty

-Such a wide variety of panel discussions, it was impossible to attend them all: Affirming the Artistic Life, Time and Money, Writing and Editing the Long Poem and so many more.

-Former LCP vice-president Ayesha Chatterjee became the new President of the League of Canadian Poets.

-Four prestigious LCP awards were presented at the Gala Awards Ceremony and Dinner. Congratulations Washita (Harnour Publishing) by Patrick Lane, recipient of the 2015 Raymond Souster Award; M X T  (Coach House Books) by Sina Queyras, recipient of the 2015 Pat Lowther Award; For Your Safety Please Hold On (Nightwood Editions) by Kayla Czaga, recipient of the 2015 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award; and Penn Kemp, recipient of the Sherri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award. Additional details here.

Congratulations to Kayla Czaga, recipient of the 2015 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. She was also shortlisted for the CAA Emerging Writer Award during the Canadian Authors Association's annual conference in mid-June 2015.

Congratulations to Kayla Czaga, recipient of the 2015 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. She was also shortlisted for the CAA Emerging Writer Award during the Canadian Authors Association’s annual conference in mid-June 2015.

-American Innovations (HarperCollin Canada) by Rivka Galchen won the 2014 Danuta Gleed Literary Award. Additional information here.

As a writer or non-writer, what will you do to help improve the living standards of Canadian writers? Purchase a book (or even an e-book), encourage libraries to carry the work of Canadian writers and borrow those novels and books so that they won’t be removed from the shelves, lobby schools (and governments) so Canadian literature won’t be forgotten, invite authors to the schools, attend and support local readings, write a review and post on-line or better yet, treat a local author or poet to lunch and exchange your views on the future of Canadian literature. Keep the dialogue going!

If you missed this year’s joint conference, mark your calendars for next year’s conference “Write – the Canadian Writers Summit” to be held June 16 to 19, 2016 at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto. Numerous national and provincial literary organizations will be involved.

*The TWUC quote is from the document Devaluing Creators, Endangering Creativity: Doing More and Making Less: Writers’ Incomes Today, 2015.

Celebrating Writers’ VOICES in Winnipeg Beach, Manitoba

A sail’s triangular tongue banters with the rocks. Waves toss thoughts and fragmented sentences against a sandy shore. I concentrate on the shared words. In this resort community known as Winnipeg Beach, each sound, each scent, each writer’s voice matters.

That’s one of several treasured lessons I penned into my notebook while attending the May 20th workshop of the Lake Winnipeg Writers’ Group.

In solitude, listen to the voices in the trees.

In solitude, listen to the voices in the trees.

As a stranger, I wasn’t sure what to expect at this gathering but I inhaled the fresh air of an opened window and smiled as each writer entered the room. We met inside a quaint cottage adorned with original Manitoba art and we sat in a circle like friends telling stories around a crackling campfire. This casual atmosphere definitely enhanced the exchange of literary voices and chatter.

Winnipeg Beach is a resort community nestled along the south shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada.

Winnipeg Beach is a resort community nestled along the south shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada.

Richard, the only male in attendance, started the evening by reading chapter 13 of his novel in progress. His writing flowed smooth like beer from a bottle and soon his main character was faced with the discovery of a dead friend. His addition of believable dialogue kept the story moving. I enjoyed his use of sounds: “bang the lid”, “cough, cough”, and “clanging noises”. A lively discussion followed with other writers in the room offering suggestions and words of encouragement.

I relaxed and settled deeper into the soft folds of the couch.

One by one, we shared our work, sometimes pausing to sip tea or nibble on an offering of homemade cake or a slice of juicy watermelon. Ruth read her submission to the Contemporary Verse2 Two-Day Poem Contest, Olive shared a technical piece written for an educational market. Jeanne read a character sketch. Helme presented an ekphrastic poem based on an artist’s manipulated photograph. Tyra shared a sci-fi piece while Linda read a shocking short story about a woman involved with a male character who had eyes “the colour of blue jeans”.

Gathered at the May 2015 Lake Winnipeg Writers’ Group workshop: (back row, left to right) Ruth Matlow Asher, Olive MacKay, Linda Lafontaine (2nd place winner, Adult Fiction Category “Write On the Lake” LWWG Writing Contest) and Tyra Masters-Heinrichs (Publications Director); (front row) Jeanne Gougeon (President), Helma Rogge Rehders, and Richard Koreen (Treasurer).

Gathered at the May 2015 Lake Winnipeg Writers’ Group workshop: (back row, left to right) Ruth Matlow Asher, Olive MacKay, Linda Lafontaine (2nd place winner, Adult Fiction Category “Write On the Lake” LWWG Writing Contest) and Tyra Masters-Heinrichs (Publications Director); (front row) Jeanne Gougeon (President), Helma Rogge Rehders, and Richard Koreen (Treasurer).

After focusing on poetry for over a decade, I welcomed the variety of genres with each writer presenting his or her own style. Sometimes when our feedback crossed the line, we were reminded to respect the writer’s voice and to not influence our writing style onto someone else.

Voices showcases the work of many talented writers. It is produced twice a year with the help of volunteers from the Lake Winnipeg Writers’ Group.

Voices showcases the work of many talented writers. It is produced biannually with the help of volunteers from the Lake Winnipeg Writers’ Group.

What a magical moment to have met such a warm community of gifted writers. I thought about my friend who gave me a Special Edition copy of Voices in December 2012 and who encouraged me to become familiar with the Manitoba authors who published in this biannual anthology. At first I hesitated to contact the group, but years later when my schedule took me to this Canadian prairie province, I decided to venture out.

I still recall the muffled hum of van tires as I travelled north along Highway 8 towards cottage country. A storm had passed through the area a few days earlier. Ditches swelled with run-off and rainwater. A chorus of frogs serenaded me into the Winnipeg Beach area. Their voices were loud yet inviting as if these amphibians sensed my unease as I inched my way towards the meeting location. What was I doing here?

Like a sail’s triangular tongue bantering with the rocks.

Like a sail’s triangular tongue bantering with the rocks.

Arriving over an hour early, I drove passed the workshop location and parked my car along the beach where two fishermen cradled fishing lines beside the dock.

I took a deep breath, listened to the waves splash beneath my shoes as a sail boat glided along Lake Winnipeg.

Writers sometimes speak about the muse or hearing voices in their heads. I’m glad my inner voice nudged me towards this group. I hope many of the members will stay in touch.

As Ruth Matlow Asher, co-editor of a previous issue of Voices wrote: “Sincere thanks…to you, reader, without you our voices are not heard.”*

We are more than twigs along the shore.

We are more than twigs along the shore.

May we all find the courage to share our unique writing styles and may we appreciate those writers’ groups and readers who support us in our literary goals.

For more information about the Lake Winnipeg Writers’ Group, check out their website here.

Introducing Voices, Volume 15 Number 1….

Introducing Voices, Volume 15 Number 1….

For more information about Voices: Journal of the Lake Winnipeg Writers’ Group, see here. Volume 15, Number 1 was launched Sunday, May 3, 2015 at McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

For more information about the group’s past and future contests open to all writers see here.

Visit here for more information about the community of Winnipeg Beach.

This resort area also houses many artists. Several will be participating in the 14th Annual WAVE Interlake Artists’ Studio Tour to be held on two weekends: June 13 to 14 and September 5 to 6. For more information, check their website here.

*This quote by Ruth Matlow Asher appears in Voices, Journal of the Lake Winnipeg Writers’ Group, Special Edition, Volume Eleven, Number One, an anthology she co-edited with Richard Koreen in 2010-2011.