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 # 19: Find your way back to the beginning

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

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.

Mouse #15: Abundance mentality

“You have to stop treating your poems as if they were scarce!”

I’ve been saving my best poems to submit to contests and literary journals, but my husband’s right: if I believe a selection of poems are ready for public viewing, there’s no reason to hoard them. I start a new poem every day, and in a month develop, workshop, and perform at least three of them to the best of my ability (which is still very green), so I’m not going to run out any time soon. The phobia “What if I never write again?” is silly and about as likely as waking up without legs.

So this weekend, I sent out three packages, one to a place that pays but isn’t a literary journal, and two to online literary publications/sites that promise momentary fame minus fortune. One of them, Leaf Press, published my piece today on their Monday’s Poem page here.

I do still have a couple dozen favourites I’m saving for Prairie Fire‘s contest (Gotta try for that prize ring!), and for submissions to Grain and Malahat Review. I’ve workshopped all of them with my poetry “group” (aka Joanne Epp), and sent a few to poet Sally Ito, writer in residence at the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture (CCWOC) at U of M, for her feedback.

On a blog I started as a place to work through writers’ block, I have to confess, I don’t have it anymore. I have weeks where I don’t complete something new and exciting (most of my nearly 500 starts never make it past the second line and read more like rants/bad punchlines than poetry), but every week adds something: a great line, a new idea, and lots of beautiful lessons.

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!

Mouse #7: accountability

I’ve completed 7 poems in the past few days. (I’ve warmed up considerably since my “Spring Shivers”!) Some were brand new; a few were completions of ideas I’d abandoned.

What’s the fire under my literary behind? I hired a sitter and invited my husband to the next Speaking Crow open mic, but having read all my old favourites at the last event, I didn’t have any more fit-for-the-public poems to read.

I’m part of a women’s accountability group at church, where monthly I hear myself confess aloud the selfish, weak, faithless thoughts I’ve held onto for weeks, and watch them fall away, and hear reminders of how far I’ve come and where I strive to be. I’ve been praying for a group of writers to hold me accountable in my writing, to give me monthly feedback, encouragement, and probably most importantly, a deadline. But it has to be the right mix, so I’m not rushing to make a match. In the meantime, a monthly open mic will do nicely. Especially if I keep bringing my own mentees/fans, aka accountability partners, with me.

Mouse #6: show your ID

I’ve been having a reoccurring conversation with a colleague: at what point can one may safely identify oneself as a “writer”? Is a writer someone who enjoys writing? Who writes a lot? Who writes for their living? Or is there a certain level of proficiency required? To use a bad medical metaphor: someone may enjoy cutting people up, and in a bizarre world may find idiots willing to pay them to do it, but unless they are trained and certified, they should not be calling themselves “surgeons.” So when I hack away at words, am I in danger of malpractice?

Warning: Weird Al is not licensed by the Canadian Society of Plastic Surgeons.

As you know, my goal is to expand myself beyond news writing into the more creative genres of poetry and fiction. To that end, I’ve decided to hang out where the literary people go. (While walking into a barn hardly makes one an animal, if one spends enough time there, a person does start to smell like one.) I finally went to Speaking Crow poetry open mic at Aqua Books. I took a young poet friend from church, both to encourage her as a writer and so I didn’t have to walk into a new place alone. I expected a circle of chairs where we’d join 10-15 other amateur poets reading and giving each other feedback.

We walked into a long room that had a stage with a podium and row upon row of chairs. It resembled a church, with the exception of the bar at the back and the lighted “applause” sign up front. (I’m sure my pastor would have fun with one of those.) I’d say there were at least 100 people in those seats and 17 readers that night. The conspiracy theorist sitting next to us, who smelled of alcohol and reads his 5-syllable acrostics here regularly, said this was the largest gathering of Crows he’d ever seen. We were a mix of teenage rappers, gray-bearded impersonators, prolific authors, foul-mouthed political satirists, Aboriginal spiritualists, storytellers, award winners, and comedians. The level of writing challenged and impressed me.

My friend and I each read three poems. Like a true chicken – I mean “coach” – I let her go first. She was the only one to receive spontaneous applause (started by the other teenage poet in the room) after a passionate piece about accepting differences. Most of us received applause when our names were announced and when we left the stage, which was plenty gratifying, although they may just have been happy to see some of us go. I began with a little experimental poem using computer terms to describe the isolation of motherhood:

It all starts with a mother-bored
no connection options
left to her own devices
driver
demand for enhanced performance
embedded in her system
error message
processing connections
no communication with the network
components of a lost memory
upgrade initialized
expansion
complete

Then I read one of my favourites, “Now I Lay Me Down,” reflecting on my late night moments of remorse on the floor beside my sleeping toddler’s crib before we knew why he was so difficult to reach and redirect.

Unlike when I preach at my church, I had everyone’s eyes; also unlike at church, I couldn’t begin to guess what they were thinking. When I read the last few lines about sleep and hair, I heard the emcee on stage beside me gasp. I wish I could have asked him why.

I finished my 3 minutes of glory with the “Deep Cleanser” poem I wrote for this blog and published in the MB Herald. That one got even more audible audience reaction than the second, and I wondered: Did they love my use of metaphor? Were they offended or moved by my message about the power of Grace to transform? The next day, I woke up and gasped myself when it hit me that they may have taken the “he” in “where you need him most/ he travels deep/ works while you sleep” as referring to a “member” of something other than the Trinity. The thought that I may have introducing myself to the poetry community as sexually provocative, rather than spiritually and artistically evocative, made me want to drink my cleanser. Which brings me back to the messy issue of identity.

Last weekend at the Manitoba Book Awards (where Dora Dueck’s This Hidden Thing won Book of the Year!), I wanted to meet novelist David Bergen. Remembering my colleague’s cautions, I wondered, should I introduce myself to him as a writer? I don’t want to sound arrogant or presumptuous. (But neither do I want to sound like just another reading fan.) He’s won the Giller Prize and numerous Manitoba book awards; I’ve won 2 Canadian Church Press awards (and they weren’t even first place). His name is on the front of books; mine is buried in the table of contents. He creates life out of nothing; I dumpster dive, transcribe, revise, hit & miss. The only thing we have in common is a hometown I was eager to leave.

Am I “another writer”?

Surgeons shouldn’t be hacking flesh without the paperwork, but there is no ID card for writers. Maybe writing is more like parenting: you pop out the baby, and presto: you’re the parent. You barely know which end to wipe first, but you learn as you go. And perhaps writing is more like faith: you tell Jesus you want to follow him and, even though you’re still a bumbly mess who doesn’t know the poisoned apple from the fruit of the Spirit, he says confess it with your mouth, tell it on a mountain, identify yourself with me. The more you do, the more like Jesus we become.

“Hi David. Congratulations on your award. I’m Angeline, another writer refined in the fires of Niverville.”