One of my biggest writer’s block busters has been poet and workshop instructor Jennifer Still. I wrote a tribute to her on my publisher’s website. Since she’s the one who got me into found poetry, I had fun writing a found poem out of her feedback on my second manuscript. You can read it all here: http://www.brickbooks.ca/week-80-jennifer-still-presented-by-angeline-schellenberg/
My prose poem “Black with a vengeance” from my colour series was shortlisted for Arc Magazine’s Poem of the Year! You can see all 24 poems and vote for the Reader’s Choice award winner here: http://arcpoetry.ca/?p=8690
On her blog Borrowing Bones, novelist Dora Dueck tagged me to carry the next leg of the “Canadian writers’ blog tour,” a chain letter that a.) doesn’t promise death by zombie if you don’t respond within 24 hours, b.) doesn’t spread lies about Bill Gates, c.) doesn’t make anyone angry at you for passing it on.
When Dora asked to tag me, she observed that I was a little behind in blogging. I started this blog to collect strategies for overcoming writer’s block, and it worked: now I’m so busy writing that I don’t have time to blog! Thanks, Dora, for the excuse to blog again. It’s good timing since I have big news.
1. What am I working on?
I have a poetry book coming out with Brick Books in fall 2016! It’s a collection of poems about longing for the experiences of a typical family and giving birth to unusual children instead.
The poems reveal both the ache and whimsy of autism. Through the public judgments, broken dreams and unspoken prayers, they trace our slow, unexpected bonding. From a newborn “glossed and quivering” to the fear of strange toilets, I hope to internalize the earthiness and transcendence of mother love – to startle readers with joy.
We don’t have a firm title yet, but we’ve nicknamed it “Zippered.” This domestic image suggests both the connection of two sides into one and separation of each individual into their own covering, both the comfort of a closed sweatshirt and the jaggedness of teeth. I’m playing with some fun titles about outer space too.
I also have arts grants to draft my second project: poems about my four Mennonite grandparents, my childhood memories, their histories, their deaths. These poems contain more nature images. Like the autism collection, I want joy and connection to be the final word.
2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
My work differs from many poetry books in that it’s accessible to non-poets. Even poetry-haters. Language play and musicality are means to placing the reader/hearer within a new experience (such pulling their child off a bridge railing), not the ends in themselves. I love it when readers/hearers say, “I hate poetry, but this is so funny,” or “That was the first time a poem has made me cry.”
And it’s not like some books by parents of autistic children in that it’s celebratory. Books about autism often fall into these categories: my child is a fairy messenger from heaven, my child was cured by peppermint oil and puppets, or I wish my child were dead. The first downplays the difficulties and ODs readers on Sugar Twin, the second places guilt on families who’ve tried everything without improvement, and the third denies the dignity of human life in a way that makes me sick.
My book is honest about the adjustments, the fears, the exhaustion, as well as the goofiness, the surprising successes. If I promise any improvement, it’s in the parent and the relationship through the magic of acceptance.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I write to turn my life from a series of burnt cookies and lost keys into a work of art. Making a memory into a poem both memorializes the pleasure and redeems the pain. In a poem, I can hold onto my grandma a little longer. In a poem, I can see my mothering from the outside, find the humour, and offer myself grace.
I write for the fun of performing what I’ve written. For the joy of rubbing shoulders with other writers. And (I’ll be honest) I write for the praise. Hearing Brick’s acquisition editor (and one of my favourite poets) Barry Dempster say my manuscript “has guts and heart and takes loads of risks” meant almost as much to me as his request to shortlist it!
It’s been said about newspapers, preachers, and social activists that they “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” “Afflict” is too strong a word for my poetry, but my editor said, “it shakes up some of her complacencies.” I hope that my poems change the way the uninitiated see the screaming child in the checkout line and the mother who’s distracting him with his DS instead of threatening punishment. And in a time when we’re debating assisted suicide, I hope my poems about my grandpa show that meaningful connection and dementia are not mutually exclusive.
The comforting piece is even bigger for me. I want parents and individuals with autism to see themselves in some of my poems and feel like someone else “gets it.” Someone interrupted me once at my reading to say, “I have autism and I want to thank you. Your stories are very encouraging.” That’s why I write what I do.
4. How does my writing process work?
The biggest step in becoming a poet for me was overcoming perfectionism: learned to be okay with writing crap. If anyone read my notebooks, I’d be mortified. Crazy lines about French fries in the snow next to itchy skulls and imprinting goslings. One out of every 100 crazy lines grows into duller than dull prose. Then I pull out the phrases that grab me (something Erin Moure taught me called “finding the heat”) and write material around them. I try the text in long lines and short lines.
Workshopping is a huge part of my process. I take every Manitoba Writers’ Guild poetry class I can. And a new poem is not ready for the public until it’s passed Joanne Epp and whoever else joins our little writers’ group. In the beginning (2012), it was Melanie Dennis Unrau; for the last year, it’s been Sue Wonnek. They see musical sound combinations I didn’t realize I was making and find places where I’ve left key elements in my head instead of on the page.
And speaking of Joanne: I’ve tagged her “Words and Music” blog at joanneepp.com as the next stop on the blog tour. She has a book coming out this spring that I cannot wait to read.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged autism, Brick Books, Canadian Writers' blog tour, dementia, Dora Dueck, Erin Moure, good news, grandparents, Joanne Epp, Manitoba Writers' Guild, Melanie Dennis Unrau, Sue Wonnek | 2 Comments »
Most days, I take my kids to school, and after six hours emailing at the office or puttering around the house, I pick them up, make supper, and put them to bed. Every day is great in its own way, but April 17, 2014, is not that kind of day.
I pick Kevin Spenst, my Sage Hill friend from Vancouver, up from the airport at 9:30, and become chauffeur, B&B host, tour guide, paparazzi, and co-poetry-bomber for the Winnipeg leg of his 100 stop chapbook tour of Canada.
Stop 30: Neighbourhood Bookstore and Cafe
After a rest at home and a call from CBC Montreal, we head to Wolseley, an artsy community near downtown. Poets Joanne Epp and Sally Ito meet us there. Some minestrone, my first taste of onigiri, and the fabulous coffee make a post-Saskatoon sleep-deprived Kevin “come to the surface for air.” Following a few minutes of scribbling, he rises and reads the poem he just wrote about Winnebegopeg, owner Bill beaming beside him. Kevin hands the one-poem chapbook to “the first guy who clapped” – none other than children’s author Joe McLellan.
“You could be Patrick Friesen’s body double,” says Kevin.
“What? That ugly guy? He’s old,” Joe laughs.
Stop 31: Patterson Global Food Institute
We meet fellow Alfred Gustav Press author Annie Deeley in the Exchange. We write; the gargoyle above us comes alive. Kevin delivers his just-created piece about the 1919 strike to the lone student in the Powerland lounge, then the crowd in the cafeteria below.
Stop 32: PLATFORM: Centre for Photographic + Digital Arts
The three of us walk to Artspace, where Kevin writes about Raymond Boisjoly’s Station to Station exhibit and reads for a gallery audience of one. After saying hello and goodbye to a stick-wielding Michelle Elrick, we rise to the 6th floor to see Perry and Charlene, but unfortunately, they’ve vanished out of Thin Air. On to floor two…
Stop 33: Manitoba Writer’s Guild
We meet the legendary Mora Gregg, Guild library organizer extraordinaire. Languishing behind a desk, director Carolyn Gray is resuscitated by poetry, and in return, offers us a paska (made by culinary students at Patterson), which Kevin and I will eat with our fingers in the car. As we’re leaving Artspace, Kevin and I corner Prairie Fire editor Andris Taskans, who graciously remembers publishing both of us.
Stop 34: Plug In Institute of Contemporary Art
We say goodbye to Annie for the moment, and head to an exhibit by and about Moholy-Nagy. Kevin locates curator Oliver and his photographer and reads them a piece he crafted by marrying the show’s foreign words with Twitter. My husband, Anthony Mark Schellenberg, meets us at the gallery and takes over as chief tour photographer.
For the first time today, what I see – a suspended sculpture of motorized plexiglass arrows by Winnipegger Erika Lincoln – yields a poem and the courage to perform it. Oliver calls it “polished” and urges me to email it to Erika.
Inspired by Floe 2014, Erika Lincoln
A web of ideas
suspends above our ears
which way which way
to lead or follow
spin and wait
we shed our wallets phones
and watch the snowflake turn
but not fall
all narrow ways
glitter like glass
Stop 35: Millennium Library
A small group made up of Colin Smith and some security guards enjoys a reading from Annie and Kevin’s Alfred Gustav chapbooks. Little gasps trail the raw ends of Annie’s poems about her relationship with her brother, who has cerebral palsy and autism. Kevin’s preacher voice and a wall of 2,000 card-catalogue-sized images draws our eyes to heaven.
Stop 36: McNally Robinson Booksellers
About 40 people gather in the travel alcove for an advertised reading by local poet and very nice person Ariel Gordon (whose collection Stowaways comes out May 15), myself, and Kevin. My parents, in-laws, sister-in-law, a fellow autism mom, two co-workers, my first mentor Méira Cook, and a few fellow poets are here to support me and hear nine short poems about my children’s life with autism.
As I’m introducing my last poem, “To make an Aspie” poking fun at the wild theories about what causes autism, a woman in the back row stands and calls out, “I have autism, and I want to thank you for these stories. They’re very encouraging.”
Afterward, my mom says, “You looked so natural up there,” and when someone whose most vivid memories of you involve poo or spaghetti says something like that, it means something. So many people say nice things including friends…
Anthony’s sister Luann Hiebert, whose collection What Lies Behind comes out April 23,
Melanie Dennis Unrau, my former poetry group partner and the Geez poetry editor who selected my poem “To make an Aspie” for the disabilities issue (some people get us mixed up, so this photo is proof there are truly two of us),
and a favourite poet and relative of both myself and Kevin, Sarah Klassen.
After Kevin signs chapbooks, a bunch of us move to the restaurant. A couple nearby, whom I’d seen at the back of the reading, call me over.
“We have two adult sons with autism and enjoyed your poems.”
“Thanks! How’d you hear about the reading?”
“We just happened to be walking through the bookstore because the movie we came for was sold out.”
Then the guy at the next table perks up. “You write poems? About autism? I’m a principal and my daughter here is a teacher, and we’d love to introduce our students to a poet. Do you do school visits?”
I sit down with some friends from the autism community. A teen poet with Aspergers asks me what it’s like to be a poet, a journalist. I tell her about receiving the gift of people’s stories, chipping away at them to create a sculpture.
“That’s so cool….”
Out of the corner, I see her mom smiling.
Kevin and I head home. Anthony beat us here, and after telling the respite worker what she made happen, sends her home to bed. The three of us sit down to finish Carolyn’s paska at the end of the best day.
Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged Ariel Gordon, Carolyn Gray, chapbook, Geez, Joanne Epp, Kevin Spenst, Luann Hiebert, Manitoba Writers' Guild, McNally Robinson Booksellers, Meira Cook, Melanie Dennis Unrau, Michelle Elrick, Mora Gregg, poetry, Prairie Fire, Sally Ito, Sarah Klassen | 2 Comments »
I love workshopping.
Since October 2011, I’ve been to 3 masterclasses and 7 workshops through the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture (CCWOC), and the Mennonite Heritage Gallery. I’ve met with writers-in-residence at the Winnipeg Public Library, CCWOC, and University of Winnipeg. I’ve committed to a five-month mentorship and travelled to a two-week writing retreat. And I’ve met with one or two other poets for feedback every month for the past two years.
I love gathering ideas for new ways to enter a poem, the intentional practice of playing with form, the suggestions of alternate wordings and ways to tighten a piece from poets who see my tired grooves with fresh eyes.
Or, I should say, I loved workshops. Lately, when I’ve workshop my poems, it’s felt something like this:
Instructor: Angeline, I’m curious why you chose to write this as a prose poem.
Me: Don McKay (or other past workshop instructor or participant) suggested I play with that. I did and really liked it.
Instructor: What kind of poet are you? You obviously haven’t found your own voice yet!
Me: Aren’t we here to get ideas from each other?
Instructor: No, create from your heart and don’t listen to anyone else’s advice! Now go home and rewrite this poem in couplets!
Let me get this straight:
1. I’m a lousy poet for taking anyone’s advice.
2. My poems would be better if I took your advice.
3. Obviously, there is something wrong with this system.
So at the moment, I’m icked out on workshops.
I’m sure I’ll go back. Workshops give me a chance to block out a chunk of time for writing without distractions, and they set me in the path of other poets. That’s valuable in itself. But for now, I’m sticking to events that get me writing new work instead of asking stranger to critique my old stuff.
And if anyone does ask why I write the way I do, I’ll silently give credit for who I’ve become to Don, Méira, Sarah, Jennifer, Sally, et. al., in my head, and just say, Because this is my voice.
Here’s a link to the Centre for Creative Writing’s blog post where you can find recordings of the collective star poetry from the workshop I mentioned in my last post.
I was at a Star(t) Factory workshop led by Jennifer Still this week: how we start a poem, letting the stars can open us up to language. We met in U of M’s planetarium, and in the dark with small red flashlights, wrote.
Jenn said “begin” is from the Old English “biginnan”: “about opening.” To begin a poem is to open ourselves wide, to sit inside the openness of language.
I don’t approach poetry very openly. I come with my topic ready and try to force the words to come. One way Jenn said to get around the stuckness that ensues is to write backwards: take your idea or fragment and find its beginning.
I arrived in the star theatre with two goals: write a title poem for my autism collection and write an ending to a poem about looking for my grandpa.
I love the title “You’re not nisselling” (or perhaps spelled “nisteling”) because this childish mispronunciation of listening fits the theme of miscommunication, unwanted messages, and the longing to be heard. But most people, who didn’t spend time with my preschool daughter, don’t get it. So I want a nisteling poem for a back cover or first page that will clue the reader in.
I’ve played with it since the workshop and it’s still not done, but you can see how the stars came in:
your brother’s high on Magic School Bus, following a bouncing
lizard across moon rocks, heading straight into the sun, eclipsing you
as you hold out your sippy cup for dew, beg me to beep beep
your oatmeal warm, pound craters with a spoon, yelling
you’re not nisteling! above the unexpected orbital
resonance, the whoosh-whiz-zam.
The ideas I started with – my daughter’s mispronunciations – are at the end, and I wrote back to the beginning with the brother.
The other fragment I entered the planetarium with was
I looked for my grandpa
in his handwritten sermons
but found only God
I had no idea where I was going with this. Here’s how the stars gave me a new beginning:
I looked for my grandpa
in the stars
and found his spectacles
his clipped chin hairs floating away