The Canadian writers’ blog tour

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.

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The best day

1396963_554548374658271_1713762060563600480_o - Copy (2) - CopyMost 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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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

before us

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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.

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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.

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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,

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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),

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and a favourite poet and relative of both myself and Kevin, Sarah Klassen.

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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.

Last stop

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.

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Mouse #16: Revision checklist

I took a Masterclass with Roo Borson, Griffin Poetry prize winner from Toronto, through the Manitoba Writers’ Guild in November. It was freeing to realize, as she says, that “any given poem could be so many other poems.”

She gave us a list of small changes to try out in a poem that can make a big difference:

1. Tense: past creates nostalgia; future, a sense of foreboding; present, immediacy
2. Person: I, you, she, we, they
3. Punctuation: take it out, put it in, move it all around
4. Line breaks: try long, try short, expected/unexpected
5. Make it a prose poem: take out all the line breaks. What does this allow you to say?
6. Switch the order of the lines or stanzas: rewrite it backwards line by line or stanza by stanza.
7. Change the articles: a/the
8. Make it all negative: I saw becomes I didn’t see

I’ve tried most of these before, but I’ve always thought of them as things that may be wrong in the original; Roo re-framed them for me as a toolbox for experimentation.

We played with our poems. Roo had a specific exercise for each of us. Mine was to take the strongest line of the poem I brought, which happened to be the last one, and write a new poem with that line at the beginning. I expected to write a better version of the original; instead, I got a draft part two!

I went to the class feeling discouraged because I’d just received a rejection from The Fiddlehead, stating that my images “lacked depth.” In my next post, I’ll tell you what Roo dreamed up to help me.

Walking alone

at Meira's House on Sugarbush Road launch

I had my last mentorship meeting with Meira Cook this week. For the past 4 months, I’ve been sending her 10-20 new or revised poems every 2 weeks, then meeting for coffee to read and hear her comments.

I’ve accomplished so much:

– Together, we worked on 129 different poems!
– Some 45 of them were written during the mentorship; the rest were started or completed (in rough form) in the year prior.
– About 20 of the ones we worked on went through significant revisions or additions and were submitted to Meira twice. Many times she told me “This needs to go on!” and as often as I could, I added a stanza or two. She was right: they were always better poems in the end.
– “Stigma” (inspired by a conversation with the director of the Schizophrenia Society) crossed her desk numerous times, growing like a weed – we laughed that it would become my “opus.”
– At least 90 of the poems we worked on feel ready to be seen (but ask me again in a year: I’m sure most of them will look totally different).
– I submitted to 5 literary journals over the past 4 months.
– 5 of the poems we workshopped were selected for publication in 2 journals (Rhubarb chose 4 of my favourites, and Geez liked “Stigma”)!
– I chose a manuscript focus and submitted my first grant proposal.
– I was asked to read at a chapbook launch. My biggest letdown is that I will be unable to attend the mentorship wind-up performance this week, but reading at St. Margaret’s with Joanne Epp, Sarah Klassen, and Sally Ito was a nice surprise that mitigated my disappointment.
– I no longer fear the blank page! (Or worry that by adding to a poem I will dilute the good stuff.)

Growth

Obviously, I’ve generated a lot of material and developed confidence, but the biggest thing I’ve gained is skills. When I look back on where I was 4 months ago, and the work I was performing/submitting then, I’m embarrassed for my younger self and proud of where I’ve come.

– I’ve added the “so what” metaphysical aspect and/or the “hard edge for the softness to rub up against” to many poems that began as simply “nice” memories.
– I’m aware of “register.”
– I’ve learned there is such a thing as too much alliteration. (and too many adjectives, and too many metaphors…)
– My “You’re not Nisselling” collection has developed its own affectionate-exasperated tone, generating a couple series around the loveable real-life characters of “The imaginative child” and “the diminutive professor.”
– I still find found poems and list poems challenging, but now I have a better idea of what they require (more irony on both levels and a more surprising ending, respectively).
– My images are more surprising, and (I love it when Meira says this:) more “devastating.”

Some of the issues we’ve discussed:

How does one write about another people group’s suffering without objectifying or sounding voyeuristic? It’s very difficult, but I do know of some poets who’ve done it well (eg. Di Brandt). And how should a poet approach a manuscript? At times, Meira praised my drive to grow and generate and publish as my greatest strength; other times she cautioned me to “follow my aesthetic” and not look ahead to the final product, the reader, the publisher, the book. I wonder if she interpreted my motivation as impatience for success and recognition, rather than as an outflow of my forward-thinking personality? She both challenged me to think in terms of how the pieces work together in the collection and to not get distracted from the art in front of me by considering the manuscript as a whole – on this issue, I’m still unclear.

Moving forward:

I hope to do a 2 or 3 week intensive program at the Banff or Sage Hill (Saskatoon) writing school next spring. I’m looking into taking a University composition course, and I plan to register for every workshop the Guild offers! Whether or not I receive the grant, I will continue to build my “You’re not Nisselling” autism collection. I’ll keep meeting with my monthly poetry group, reading at Speaking Crow, submitting to journals (reaching my goal of “10 rejections by Christmas” will be tricky if my streak of beginner’s luck continues!), and returning to Meira’s notes as I revise, revise, revise!

It’s going to be a challenging adjustment, not having Meira to run all my poems and ideas by (or her lovely presence to look forward to sharing)! I’m still a lot way from finding my own voice and trusting my gut. Meira’s suggestions have been so encouraging and eye-opening. Almost invariably, the poems I was unsure of were the ones in which she found some delightful juxtaposition of devastation and humour, observed and magic realism, or half rhymes and musical sounds. The drafts that gave me initial pride often required the most revision (too glib, too unclear, too wordy).

Her parting blessing: “To succeed as a poet, you need 3 things: talent, tenacity, and luck. You have loads of talent and tenacity, and you’ll make your own luck! You might not believe this: it will take time, but time is on your side. Someday, you will have a published collection of poetry.” This is what I will hang onto in the years ahead.

I’d encourage anyone with the itch to write to join the Manitoba Writers’ Guild (only $60 annually) and apply for a mentorship. It’s priceless!

Happy plaid mice month!

April is plaid mice month, or as most people call it: Autism Awareness month or Poetry month, depending on which community you’re part of. I happen to belong to both. What better time than April to talk about writing a collection of autism poetry! So I’m bringing my mommy and professional selves together (hopefully they play nice) and posting this on both Plaiditudes and 37 Mice.

Today is the birthday of my writing group co-founder (Happy birthday, Joanne Epp) – it’s hard to believe that we only started meeting this past winter after a mutual friend invited us on an outing to the museum and we discovered we both write poetry. For the past four months, I’ve been meeting biweekly with Meira Cook (who’s been called the greatest living Canadian poet) to hone my skills through the Manitoba Writers’ Guild mentorship program. A year ago, I didn’t belong even belong to the writers’ guild yet!

A year ago, I also hadn’t visited the Manitoba Adolescent Treatment Centre parent group, or attended any Asperger Manitoba events, joined the Autism Winnipeg Facebook page, or met any of the PACE (parents of autistic children everyone) entrepreneurs like Mike, Ljubica, and Ruby Lou, who’ve become good friends.

It’s amazing what can happen in a year. Now I’m writing a collection of poems about the devastating and celebratory moments I’ve shared on Plaiditudes: the drug trials and side effects, assessments and diagnoses, close calls in traffic, judgmental stares and kick-ass Christmas performances.

A friend and fellow artist asked why I didn’t write my life as a book of stories in addition my poetry. Perhaps someday I will, but for now, I’m so in love with the art of poetry, the intensity of emotion that just a few devastating or playful words can evoke, that I don’t have eyes for any other genre. Through my blog, I gain perspective and find meaning in the affectionately exasperated “better laugh than cry” experiences of parenting autism, but through poetry, I don’t only find beauty: I create it.

And on Thursday May 3, 7:30, at St. Margaret’s Anglican Church, Winnipeg, I’ll be reading from my collection at Joanne Epp’s chapbook launch, along with two of my favourite poets Sarah Klassen and Sally Ito. The event is free and open to the public.

I’ll be wearing turquoise, but the busy mice in my head will be decked out in plaid.