I get lost easily. I try to drag my husband everywhere as navigator, but when he’s not around, I take my GPS. At ever wrong turn, she calmly says “Recalculating…” The cul de sacs and one-ways of “poetry” have bigger pits of sludge to bridge or wind around than Winnipeg’s Red or Assiniboine, so newcomers like me need a guide. That’s what the Writers’ Guild has given me.
It’s hard to believe now, that when I joined the guild last summer, I said I didn’t know what good it would do me. This winter I was selected to participate in the guild’s Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program, under the direction of Meira (may-ear-ah) Cook, CBC literary award winning author of two novels (one forthcoming) and four poetry collections including “A Walker in the City.” When I got the call, I screamed and leaped about like a Price is Right winner, and I still haven’t come-on-down from the high.
Every two weeks until June, she and I meet for two hours in a coffee shop to go over the 10-20 new poems/revisions I’ve emailed her. Besides being enchanted by her gentle nature and South African accent, here’s what I’ve gained/learned:
1. An understanding of line breaks. I used to begin lines with a bomb-dropping words and leave my frayed pronouns and prepositions dangling at the ends. Meira taught me that the end is more important than the beginning. I know I’ve internalized good breaks because last week I gave her a poem with naughty breaks that worked well, and she said I’d broken the rule effectively. You can’t break until you’ve got it.
2. Metaphors need to carry forward; for example, if children are circling me like hot popcorn, they can’t immediately chant. Burst or snap, perhaps, but not chant. If I’m inside a womb, the images need to be round; no frames or borders here, only rainbows.
3. The psychological transparency of pronouns. Pronouns reveal a poet’s anxieties (Are they my ancestors or ours? Is it my childhood home or theirs?) but they (or I) doesn’t need therapy before we can fix the poem.
4. Capitals at the beginning of each line is outdated. Get with the 21st century program.
5. A grasp of immediate, concrete images, and a knack for skating off the cliche (eg. “What to get for the person who gives everything?”), together with an aversion to idioms and cop-out “glitter-glue” words like “beautifully” and “twinkle.” When I use a “Hallmark” image like angels or dream or love, I need to twist it, so the angels are drunk or rheumy. (And always put the most shocking item in the list last.) The power of the poem is in the tensions, the surprises.
6. An awareness of more poetic forms. I was already using metaphysical conceit, dramatic monologue, narrative, nature, and shadow poems, I just never knew it. Now I can read other poems who use these styles and learn from them.
7. On the subject of reading other poet, Meira has introduced me to Tim Lilburn (a stretch for the imagination), Anne Szumigalski (I’m embarrassed to admit I hadn’t heard of her before), Dionne Brand, John Donne (I lived too long before I read “Batter my heart, three-personed God”), and Don MacKay (speaking of surprising metaphor!).
8. The need for more than one layer of meaning. If I could count the number of time Meira has written “Go on!” on my drafts, or the number of times she’s asked “Nice start. So what are you planning to do with this?” on my “completed” submissions…well, I can’t. We’ve discovered I have a talent for writing in an playful child voice, but I can’t leave my poems in petting kitty land. There must be a “shadow” falling across the barn door. I don’t need to hit people over the head with answers about the nature of femininity and the meaning of childhood or a new definition of family, but I do need to hint at something profound. I still really struggle with this one, but I have another three months to move my work closer to, if not a hint, at least a wink or glance of profundity.
9. As per Meira’s advice, I’m swearing off contests. My poetry submissions and mice-inspired ficitonal work sent to Prairie Fire and The Fiddlehead’s contests were all rejected by the guest editors in favour of one of the other bazillion contest entries. From now on, the goal is to get published sooner rather than richer, so I’m submitting to the journals’ regular editors – who love promoting new artists – rather than throwing my lottery ticket in a barrel of legends and hopefuls.
10. I qualify (or so we hope) to apply for a Manitoba Arts Council grant for the first draft of a poetry manuscript. Imagine: the government might pay me $2000 to start my book! (At 15 hours/week for a year, that’s $2.56 an hour more than I’m making as a poet right now. As the CFO at my office likes to say, I know how to pick the lucrative careers.)
11. Hallelujah, I have a focus: my manuscript will be about the experience of parenting a child with autism – from pregnant fears, to the first suspicions, medication “trials,” close-calls in traffic, and echolalic rhythms. From not picking a genre to having a manuscript idea, I’ve walked a long way this year.
And I’m so glad to have a peripatetic master walking with me. “Arriving at joy-of-creating, on right.”