Thoughts on a pandemic

” how to write about something so massive, so pervasive, so threatening?”

Like so many of us who have been engaging online during this period of social distancing and self-isolation, I too have been reflecting on COVID-19 and what its spread has meant for all of us.

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But how to write about something so massive, so pervasive, so threatening? How to address the daily news stories with their tallies of deaths from the virus, and the mounting numbers of confirmed cases?

I don’t know.

In emails and messages with fellow poets and writers, I’ve observed some common threads, statements like: how do we even begin to write about this? Or, I want to write about this, but… And then there’s the really big one: are you managing to write at all?

I’ve tried to stay true and disciplined to my own writing practice. I’ve committed to keep working on my ongoing projects. But then I think about:

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healthcare workers, transit workers, cleaners tasked with sanitizing public spaces

grocery store employees, restaurants serving take-out

the elderly, the isolated, the vulnerable

How does a writer keep writing in light of the fact that so many others are risking their health and potentially their lives to keep the rest of us safe?

I’m not sure I have an answer.

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I know folks are quoting and checking out Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Defoe is probably better known to us as the author of Robinson Crusoe, and in many ways, we are all finding ourselves isolated in our own, private islands (and yes, stay home!). It is comforting to know that we humans have been through pandemics before, and that somehow, we will get through.

But for Defoe, the Journal ends with the belief in divine intervention, that somehow the plague stopped because it was God’s will. I’m not much into divine intervention (and no slight intended to those who are), but the interesting thing is that Defoe charges: “let the philosophers search for reasons in nature to account for it by”. He meant that philosophers could try as hard as they want to try and explain the end of the plague, but Defoe was sticking to his divine intervention theory.

I want to think about Defoe’s statement differently. As writers, we are the philosophers who will reflect on recent events, not necessarily as scientists or doctors, but as thinkers, as meaning-makers.

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As wordsmiths, we will search for language to make meaning of the generosity of spirit we’ve seen in so many communities, the care for the vulnerable, and the recognition that we truly are all part of one global community.

So as I sit pensively thinking about COVID-19, I recognize that as writers, we might be experiencing writers’ block, at a loss for words to describe the immensity of our global situation. But as writers, I know too that eventually, the words will flow.

What meanings will we create from our experiences of this social isolation, of having lived through the pandemic caused by this coronavirus?

As writers, what stories will we tell?

Playing in the toolbox

But do we really play? Just have fun with the sport, the musical instrument, the piece of writing we’re working on? Do we improvise for the sake of improvising?

When I was in kindergarten, my classroom, like many of its generation, had a sandbox and a wooden jungle gym. Children were encouraged to play in the sandbox, and to climb the jungle gym. It’s hard to imagine having a jungle gym inside a classroom nowadays, but it says something about how adults viewed childhood when I was a kid. Back then, children were meant to play.

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As adults, many of us seem to forget how to play. And when I say play, I mean it as an activity in and of itself. Maybe we play tennis, or golf. Maybe we play guitar in some corner of our basements. But do we really play? Just have fun with the sport, the musical instrument, the piece of writing we’re working on? Do we improvise for the sake of improvising? Are we comfortable colouring outside the lines, and discovering where those colours will take us?

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I’ve been re-reading Julia Cameron’s work recently, and she’s big on play. In her book, Walking in This World, Cameron writes that “We’re so respectful of ‘great’ art that we always, chronically, sell ourselves short. We’re so worried about whether we can play in the ‘big leagues’ that we refuse to let ourselves play at all.”

Right now, I’m working on a new novel, and worrying if it makes any sense. That’s because the novel is experimental and has characters who don’t make much sense to the everyday world. But they’re funny, and working on this book makes me laugh. As I sit down to work on my novel each day, I feel always like I’m just playing with my literary toolbox.

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And so, Cameron’s point speaks straight to my art. What if I became so worried about the quality of my novel, that I just gave up in despair of writing something “worthy”? I know this happens to folks sometimes, but fortunately I have Julia Cameron and others to back me up. What if we just all played?

Thinking in this way reminds me of one of the most interesting poets I encountered back in graduate school. Reading Gertrude Stein’s “Lifting Belly” for the first time was like an exercise in frustration:

Dear me. Lifting belly.
Dear me. Lifting belly.
Oh yes.
Alright.
Sing.
Do you hear.
Yes I hear.
Lifting belly is amiss.
This is not the way.
I see.
Lifting belly is alright.
Is it a name.
Yes it's a name.
We were right.

--"Lifting Belly" by Gertrude Stein, from The Yale Gertrude Stein, Selections, with an Introduction by Richard Kostelanetz, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

“Lifting Belly” was frustrating until I realized how it plays with language, with rhythms, with ideas about poetry. Stein’s poem challenged me to challenge my own thinking, and forced me to re-evaluate the nature of play.

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So I’m heading back to a kind of intellectual kindergarten classroom. I’m heading back to that literary toolbox, and performing mental gymnastics all over my literary jungle gym. I’m heading back to play. Because, as Julia Cameron asserts, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

Loving what’s local

A behind the scenes look at running a poetry collective

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my work running a local poetry group.

It’s not my actual work — my full-time job is elsewhere and requires other skills. No, running a poetry group is volunteer work that I somehow found myself mysteriously stumbling into a few years back. I was hesitant at first, as I’d never done anything like it before, and I wasn’t really sure I wanted to take on more projects. That actual job of mine keeps me quite occupied.

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But I stepped in and filled some empty shoes.

And when I did, some amazing things started to happen. First, I began dreaming. I dreamed of a website, which, with some support from members of the group, I was able to get up and running. Next, we moved on to publishing a poetry anthology.

BPS anthology cover for website

Third, we started running a poetry contest. And lately, we’ve been expanding our online presence through social media

Before I knew it, I was the point person for this little poetry community of ours. I found myself organizing poetry workshops and library bookcase displays, and speaking at other, local events as the rep for our poetry group.

And along the way, I realized:  I love it.

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Running a poetry collective is creative because it brings people together — people who might not otherwise have met. Like a good online dating site, we bring people together to do something they love: in our case, discuss poetry! In an era where we are all hyper-connected to our cellphones and devices, I somehow find myself behind the scenes of this great bunch of folks who willingly come together to sip a coffee or tea, all the while discussing some great poem they’ve read or even better, they’ve written.

And the amazing thing about it? It’s inspiring. Discussing and sharing ideas with like-minded folks can move us to write new pieces or see things in new ways. At least, that’s my experience with the poetry collective I run.

And lately, these folks in our little poetry group have been sharing the love.

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I’ll chalk it up to February, the month for Valentine’s. Because for the past several weeks, these poets from our collective keep thanking me for all the work I do. Sure, I do a few things like send out reminders and ask for monthly blog posts from members for our website. And yes, I ensure that the coffee shop where we meet is ready to receive us, as well as a few other administrative details.

But being the “boss” of the group? Well, it’s a bit of a labour of love.

So, for this month of February, I wanted to share the love by giving this behind-the-scenes look at running a poetry collective. Spread the love by checking out some great poetry from my lovable, local, poetry family at: https://brooklinpoetrysociety.com

Happy February!

 

Winter, writer

It’s easy to begin the new year with a blog about new prospects, resolutions, new hopes and aspirations, especially as we all look forward to this new decade. But I want to begin this year’s blog, this new decade with the idea of winter. Real winter — the kind that brings double-digit, sub-zero temperatures. The kind that makes you look out your kitchen window and think: I have to shovel again?! That kind of winter.

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Why would I want to think about that kind of winter, you may ask? Why start the new year and the new decade writing and thinking about the depths of snow and cold?

It’s because winter is a fallow period, a time when the earth and all the plants and animals are meant to rest, and I want to consider that especially as it applies to writing.

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If in nature winter is a time for shutting down, for saving energy, can it also be a time for us? for building up our reserves? As a writer, this may feel like a frightening prospect — aren’t I supposed to be writing every day? Aren’t I supposed to be producing those 500 words, or that finely edged and nuanced poem?

Maybe.

Or maybe winter is the time to watch the snow, to sit and think. To be.

So this winter, I’m looking at the next three-month writing period as a time for quiet reflection. I envision it as a time to pick up left-behind loose ends, to examine them in an afternoon light that reflects the blueness of an icy snowdrift, and as an opportunity to see new crystals sparkling there. My winter writing this year will intentionally be a period that allows the snow to gather, that allows me a kind of breathing room. A time to rest.

Before we know it, the snow will melt. (It will. I promise!) Before we know it, the muddiness of spring will awaken our hopes for something cleaner, fresher, alive. Before we know it, the projects and deadlines and to-do lists will sharpen our focus, sharpen our discipline as we sit at the computer or pad of paper, scribbling.

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But before any of that happens, I hope you will consider joining me this winter, this new year, in what is for me, a new idea: winter as a meditation, a pause, a stillness. Winter as a time to collect, to germinate new hopes, new dreams. Winter, writer: a toast to the quiet energy within.

Finding community and quiet

“It’s really important to work together. It goes back to community. it’s important for womxn to support one another”

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For my next interview in the occasional series on womxn writers, I was fortunate to be able to speak at length with the accomplished poet, Debbie Okun Hill. A member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers’ Union of Canada, and a past president of The Ontario Poetry Society, Ms. Okun Hill continues to write poetry and blogs on her website, Kites Without Strings, and recently judged the Golden Grassroots Chapbook contest for The Ontario Poetry Society, which you can read about on her website. This interview was conducted on August 14, 2019, and has been edited for length.

RS: One of the questions I’m interested in is about poets and their engagement with the community. You’ve been past president of The Ontario Poetry Society, and former co-host of Sarnia’s Spoken Word event. Are there any other community groups that you help to organize, and more importantly, why do you think it’s important for poets to engage with their community? How does your contribution to the community affect your work as a writer?

DOH: I believe as a writer it’s important to find a caring community; it’s just so nice to have that support. Many writers tend to be introverts — they’re used to being on their own. They enjoy solitary activities like reading and writing but at some point, they have to go out and meet other people for encouragement, support, and the generation of new ideas — it’s all part of the learning process. You learn by going out into the community, you learn about what readers may like to read, and you can test your ideas with different people.

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For example, when I returned to creative writing after a long hiatus, I joined a local group called Writers in Transition, which was based in the Sarnia area. It was a great group with established and emerging writers who met weekly to workshop new work. Because the membership included an eclectic mix (poets, short story writers, novelists, columnists, and people writing non-fiction) the variety of genres enriched me and fed my love for writing. Sometimes you feel that it’s such a drain to be a writer, but when you’re with other people who love writing, and who share the same dream, you support each other.

So even though I started with writing short stories, I feel that this community helped me in my journey to become a poet.

Sometime later, I stumbled upon The Ontario Poetry Society (I don’t even remember how!), but this provincial organization was also supportive and warm and welcoming at a time when I was just learning about this genre.  When they asked me to be part of the executive, initially I said no, but I soon reconsidered. I’ve always believed that being part of a community makes the experience richer, and TOPS gave so much to me that I wanted to give back and thank them.

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I discovered that being part of the executive, being part of that community was so helpful, because it helped me with my confidence. For example, when my writing wasn’t going well, I could fall back upon something really positive such as my work with the organization.

As a writer, it’s so easy to get down, to fall into a negative space when the writing isn’t going well, or to feel down when you’ve sent something out, and you don’t receive any feedback. But once you work behind the scenes, and you get involved, perhaps help to edit an anthology, or judge a contest, all of a sudden you realize that sometimes things are rejected only because they may not fit that particular publication, or maybe everyone’s written about apples and so the person who writes about a peach gets published just because it’s a little bit different. So, it’s another part of the learning process.

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As for participating in and co-hosting Sarnia’s Spoken Word event for eight years, I discovered the tremendous value in sharing work in front of an audience. You know, poetry is meant to be heard and shared. It was gratifying to watch writers grow in such a warm and caring environment. For me, the participants were like family and each month we gathered together to applaud and celebrate how unique everyone was.

Today, there are so many literary communities that one can join or participate in. Not every group will be a good fit but each one has the potential to make our work stronger. Sometimes the time commitment interferes with the writing but overall, it’s worth it.

RS: I’d like to ask about your trajectory as a writer, and how important you think it is for writers to take themselves out of their comfort zones.

DOH: I believe any kind of writing is helpful, because it helps you understand the world a little bit more. Diversification is a really good thing. So is moving outside one’s comfort zone. And sure, it’s nice to be an expert specializing in a particular area but there needs to be a balance.

For instance, I worked at Lakehead University earlier in my career, and I was exposed to so many different people. I realized after a time working with the professors that, because of their careers, they had to specialize and dedicate themselves to such a small part of the world, even though they were doing important work. But I just feel that the more you know about many things, you become richer as a person, especially if you step into different genres. I believe it enriches what you’re doing, especially when you’re just starting out as a writer, you don’t always know the direction you want to go in.

As I’ve mentioned already, I started out writing short stories and then people suggested I write poetry, and now I’ve been writing poetry for over fourteen years. So sometimes you don’t know what genre you want to write in until you start experimenting and trying different things. And for the past few years I’ve been slowly moving away from poetry, and I’m really enjoying blogging, but blogging reminds me of going back in time to when I was a journalist, and the enjoyment I received from interviewing people. Moving towards blogging is a bit of a break for me – a break from the poetry.

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And then there’s art. I’ve always loved art. So it doesn’t surprise me that art started to creep into my poetry, first as a subject matter, and more recently in writing ekphrastic poems. So maybe eventually I will go beyond poetry and move into another genre like the fine arts, photography or something like that. I know there are people who are inspired by music, and I think that all the arts (dance, theatre, music, writing) they all feed each other. And you’ll notice that poetry is changing, you’ve got the Instagram poets, for example. People just need to have those spaces for creative expression. Most human beings want to be creative.

RS: This blog and these interviews are meant primarily to focus on the spaces for womxn writers. What is your perspective on the importance of supporting and encouraging womxn writers? Have there been moments in your own life when you’ve felt the need to encourage and support womxn writers?

DOH: I’ve been fortunate in my life that I grew up with a mother who never hindered my childhood dreams but encouraged me to do whatever I wanted. The way I see people helping each other is like the interaction between trees in the forest. I’ve done a fair bit of work on the emerald ash borer, so I also studied a lot about trees. As a result of that work, I’m starting to learn that it’s important to be diverse and to support people as they are. It’s important to support womxn, but also immigrants, people from all cultures, and I feel it’s really important to work together. It goes back to community. It’s important for womxn to support one another, and for men to support womxn, we need to support trans folk, and it’s important for all of us to support all genders. Similar to the trees, we’re all adapting, but in the end, everyone needs to support each other.

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It’s like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If we’re all still at the lower level trying to get shelter, or food, or love, it’s challenging to be creative because we’re still trying to get those other needs met. But when we support each other, and provide those spaces where we can move up the hierarchy, then we find that space to become creative, and we find the voices that we can share with other people.

My involvement with the Sarnia writer’s group, now that I think about it, was mostly composed of strong womxn, and because many were older and started to pass away, it was a really difficult period because I felt I was losing my mentors. Just imagine! They had all been writing together for a long time, and they were friends, and had been together for thirty or forty years. They were very good writers and when I met them, they were very very supportive of each other, which I thought was so nice to witness. They shared ideas. For instance, if someone heard there was a contest, or someone heard there was a submission call, they would share that information. They wouldn’t hide it from everyone else; they would openly share it. And then when someone had a poem published or a short story published, they would all celebrate and embrace that. They made people feel good. If someone received a rejection, they would say, ok, well, just keep going.

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They also mentioned that the writing industry had changed a lot. Back in the 70s and 80s there weren’t that many writers, so it was fairly easy to get published in Chatelaine or CBC. They acknowledged that in the early 2000s that things had changed. But yes, the older womxn were writing at a time when it was difficult for womxn to be writing, but they were quite successful in what they were doing, so they were quite inspiring. One of the womxn was I think a journalist back in the 1940s, so she was one of the first womxn in the newsroom, and she had to fight to write hard news, because they wanted her to write for the women’s pages. A couple of these womxn are (or were) well into their 90s, and so it’s encouraging to see older womxn who are still writing.

It was a wonderful experience to be part of that group. I hope I too can be so supportive to other womxn and writers.

RS: Whose work (which writers) inspire/s you the most? Or more generally, what inspires you?

DOH: In response to the second question: quiet. The stillness that we no longer have in the world. Because I’m an introvert, I need quiet time to think and reflect. If I don’t have it, then my mind starts racing too much and the creative side doesn’t emerge.

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Art has always inspired me. Many years ago, I worked at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and I found that most inspiring because I could write about art and interview artists. That was the best of both worlds for me, because my love for art and writing were combined.

I also find nature inspiring. I live in the country, well sort of on the edge of the urban and the rural, and I just love the quiet and the outdoors, and being with nature. We have rabbits in our backyard, and milkweed, so I see monarch butterflies in the summer, and it’s always a lovely surprise when I open my curtains. It’s just fascinating to spend time with nature. So I find when I’m stuck and cannot write, I just go outside and get in touch with nature. It’s important to be away from people just to recharge my batteries.

So nature, art, and just having that quiet time and that space and time to think. And it is worth the sacrifice living outside the cityscape in order to have that.

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In response to the first question: I absolutely have to say Margaret Atwood. I have to admit I haven’t read all her books, but when I was in high school, we read and studied The Edible Woman, and somehow it just stuck with me. For whatever reason, it spoke to me and it introduced me to metaphors and symbols which are literary devices that still appeal to me. Surfacing was also really significant for me. Atwood’s work just inspired me because of its symbols and deeper layers of meaning. I believe the strongest writers are the ones who, perhaps they don’t always consciously do it, but they make magical things happen.

Toni Morrison’s work also inspired me. Her work was so poetic, and different, and powerful, and it really affected me. When I first picked up Beloved, I couldn’t read it. I was a new mother and the subject matter was too disturbing.  However, eventually I went back to it, and read it, and even though it was a painful book, it was well-written and left the reader with a powerful message. In hindsight, she needed to tell that story and to make the reader angry. Morrison took that anger, gave it a voice to educate people, and hopefully it makes people think twice.

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And oddly enough, Agatha Christie, which is totally different because her mystery novels are light but clever with her twisted puzzles, the working with the reader’s mind and just her brilliance in trying to solve the mystery. And maybe that’s the kind of writing I like, where you have to analyze it and try to figure it out. And maybe that’s where the poetry comes in, where you have different layers.