Reading “What They Wanted” by Donna Morrissey as a Writer

I remember clear as yesterday those last days in Cooney Arm, the sea dying around us and taking Father’s spirit with it. And my, but he had fought. Long after his brothers and the others left he’s stayed, netting cod, netting salmon, spearing flatfish, hauling crab-pots, trapping eels and rabbits, hunting seals and turrs and boo birds, and landing capelin and squid and all else the sea hove at him.

What They Wanted by Donna Morrissey explores loss of home and all that means, of becoming lost while chasing survival. Memories haunt her protagonist and then one day she asks herself,

What of memory is truth? It was a staggering thought, and for a moment I felt a great fear, like those split seconds sometimes upon awakening when all sense of self is still caught back in the nether world of sleep and the eyes alone are opened onto the blankness of a room without memory. I clutched my arms around myself, needing to feel the solidity of flesh and bone, like the ghosts from Cooney Arm whose lives have been vanquished into time, leaving behind fragments of soul clinging to wood, no longer knowing what, if any of this, is real, and frightened of their invisibility.

In Newfoundland, Sylvie—a sister, daughter, and granddaughter— confronts “what is and what could be.” After a time, she follows her quiet brother Chris to the oilfields of Alberta. There, they face a different kind of fear from the old ghosts and guilts of childhood. Sylvie:

If I’d learned anything from this camp, it was that fear doesn’t necessarily present itself in well-defined situations; more often it’s that darker shade of red flowing through our veins, tinting our views and no doubt stripping us of the courage to make decisions along the way.

In Newfoundland, the graves and past was tangible, but in the oil fields of Albert, the fears were elusive shadows. Yet, decisions are made and consequences unfold.  To say more would be to give too much away and spoil your reading.

For the writers among us:

  1. As you read, pay attention to the details of place and culture. See how these play into and reveal character.
  2. Notice how Morrissey creates situations that, in turn, create the need for decisions, and notice how decisions often carry unforeseen consequences.
  3. Notice how she controls tension, keeping us turning pages.
  4. Notice also how an undercurrent develops, a movement beneath the thread of the surface story.
  5. All these things together lead to a story that we believe; it feels authentic.

Morrissey uncovers the human cost of loss while also revealing the power of family and love and  she does this within the specifics of a time and place that we recognize as also universal. It is what we aim for as writers.

If you have read What They Wanted—or when you read it—please share your thoughts on how Morrissey achieves moving the personal (particular) time, place, and situation of the novel into the universal so that we can each relate, regardless of whether we share the Newfoundland experience of dislocation.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: What They Wanted

10 Tips for Poets and Readers

“Tell the truth but tell it slant” (#1263, Emily Dickinson) continues to be good advice, but there are more.

Over the years a collection of writing tips have accumulated along with lessons learned while teaching creative and memoir college-level classes and workshops. Occasionally, I review, add and subtract. This is my current list of things for poets to think about:

  1. Write what you know
    • Experience life (do something out of your ordinary and see with fresh eyes)
    • Write about it
    • Avoid abstractions and ideas alone;
  2.  Ask yourself if your subject and theme are relevant to readers
    For readers to buy your poetry collection, you must create a bridge that joins you, and the subject and theme of your poem is what will attract and hold them;
  3. Choose the best point of view for your poem
    • It makes a huge difference whose perspective tells the story; find what best suits the poem (first person “I” or second person “you,” or third person “he, she, they”);
    • First write it with one narrator and then the same poem with another p-o-v and see the difference;
  4. Choose the best literary form for each poem
    From free verse to traditional forms like ballad, epic, ode, and sonnet;
  5.  Use accessible language and make every word work
    Choose only the perfect words for each poem (invest in a good dictionary and thesaurus);
  6. Create poetry that is clear and accessible
    Avoid being obtuse or vague;
  1. Use literary techniques
    • Create images, sounds (assonance, alliterations, repetition – read your poem aloud), and metaphors and similes;
    • Think about tone and mood and the importance of evoking emotion (and remember that even in the darkest place a sense of wonder often exists and, if you can create it, readers will feel rewarded for accompanying you on the journey – this does not mean happy-happy, but more awe to balance the awful, or perhaps simply wonder that the sun rises even after the nightmare);
    • Create echoes within a poem and across a collection (perhaps a symbol running through as A.F. Moritz’s sparrow);
  1. Look at your finished poem
    • Just as in story writing, you must hook your reader; then, you must maintain interest; and finally, you must reward them for reading to the end;
    • This has meant providing a twist, a surprise, something that builds within the poem but is still unexpected (perhaps it is easiest to see this in the three-line haiku);
  1. Invite readers into your poems by leaving the door open for them to find their meaning
    • As Jane Hirshfield suggests, “a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over….” Leave room for more than your personal meaning (a poem is not an essay) to the dilemma, situation, or question your poem raises.
  1. Read other poets
    • Learn as much as you can about the poets who created the foundation on which we write;
    • Read contemporary poets;
    • Read. Read;
    • Figure out what you like and don’t like and why; don’t copy or mimic but …
    • Learn how a successful poem unfolds.

Of course, this incomplete and inadequate list points to characteristics that I like in poetry and advice that I find useful. After you’ve been writing and reading for a while, create your own list. If you already have a list, share it with us.

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Good News for Poets and Readers: Sales Trend UP

To say poetry sales slumped in recent decades would be an understatement, but there’s good news for both poets and readers. The sale of poetry books is on a healthy upswing. What’s it about?

The good news:

Sales are improving according to “The Rising Popularity of Poetry: The Surge of the Poetry Market.” In Britain, between 2015 and 2017, poetry books enjoyed a 21 percent increase in sales. According to BookNet Canada, “between 2016 and 2017 [poetry sales] increased by another 154%” over the 79% increase between 2015 and 2016. And Broadway World tells us that “the poetry book category in the United States has grown at a compound annual growth rate of 21 percent since 2015, making it one of the fastest growing categories in publishing.”

A word about the “slump”:

Poetry was once found on bookstore shelves and even printed in newspapers and magazines. It was read and discussed broadly, not just in academic cycles. Then it began to disappear; perhaps poetry had become tired. It found limited oxygen among songwriters and new life in the spoken word trend. But bookstore shelves remained next-to-bare and poems had virtually disappeared from the popular press. Literary magazines struggled to stay afloat. I wonder why.

Throughout the 1970s I was studying literature, and I was writing, enjoying invitations to read in cafés and other popular settings. I was being published in some of the best literary magazines (Descant, The Fiddlehead). I felt on the edge of an exciting upswing and dreamed that writers and readers had entered a portal to something like the golden age jazz and literary modernism, something akin to Paris post WWI. After all, the beat poets’ popularity had surged, feminism had opened a door to voices like that of Sylvia Plath. Poets were sharing meaning drawn out of the context of their lives. They found a link between experience and audience; they were relevant. I was living on the Windsor-Detroit border at the time and excitement was in the air; everything was possible. But all that changed.

Perhaps the economic recession of the 1980s, the rise of conservatism, a shift from “frivolous” arts to “applied and practical” endeavors may have led to fewer-and-fewer poetry sales and to those empty bookshelves. Some commentators have suggested that while creative writing degrees improve knowledge and skills, it also narrows life experience. Poets had become teachers of poetry and life experience shrank to academia. Yet, poetry breathed in new-old forms.

Poems found a home disguised as song lyrics (think Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell) and there have been other hopeful notes such as the spoken voice poet-performers who gained a measure of success. These carried us through the desert of the late 20th century and into the 21st.

I’m encouraged by the popularity of writers who found outlets for their work during the drought, writers like, Canadian poets Mary di Michele, Lorna Crozier, and more recently Ken Babstock, as well as American poets Jane Hirshfield and Taylor Mali. (Please scroll down for links to my reviews of these poets).

What’s happening to poetry now:

Publishers Weekly (PW) has profiled the meteoric rise of Canadian poet, Rupi Kaur, whose self-published Milk and Honey was picked up by a trade publisher. In 2015, the collection was selling 30,000 copies a week. It would seem that self-publishing and sales generated through a social media presence can catch the eye of publishers and the public. According to The Guardian, by 2018 this Canadian author enjoyed the #1 best-selling spot for a poetry collection in the U.K. Milk and Honey has sold over a million copies.

The Guardian article quotes a source identifying the crux of poetry’s new popularity. He says that it isA passion for politics, particularly among teenagers and young millennials, is fuelling a dramatic growth in the popularity of poetry, with sales of poetry books hitting an all-time high in 2018.” The Guardian article also notes that poetry “is a really good way to explore complex, difficult emotions and uncertainty,” and it seems that the brevity of poems means they can “be easily consumed on phones and shared on social media.” (Given the quotes from The Guardian article, one might assume the reference to politics is about the state of the public world, but the politics of Rupi Kaur involves the intimate politics of violence, abuse, love, growth and healing.) The formula, if there is one, seems to be twofold. First, content must be relevant for today’s social context and readers (which really isn’t new, although sales history suggests that it may have been largely forgotten). Then, through the Internet poems can be shared, buzz created and sales increased.

The sales trends should be good news for poets who are exploring themes that connect with readers, poetry lovers, publishers, the literary press, and booksellers.

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Links to references:

“The Rising Popularity of Poetry: The Surge of the Poetry Market”

BookNet Canada

Broadway World

Publishers Weekly (PW)

The Guardian

Rupi Kaur “ I’m Taking My Body Back”

Links to my poetry reviews:

Jane Hirshfield

Taylor Mali

Mary di Michele

Lorna Crozier

 

 

 

 

 

 

Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock: “A Poetry Book Review”

Days into Flatspin is Ken Babstock’s extraordinary second collection and it reveals a poet in full flight, fearless and technically brilliant.

Diving into and then beyond what is seen, or the “coma of looking” as one poem calls it, Babstock veers into the inner core of things, animals, and places through portals that exist all around us…. And these are always entry points, always a means by which to go forward and further into… (cover overleaf).

The first time I read Days into Flatspin by Ken Babstock, the words rushed through my mind and over my lips: they raced. They carried a voice, dramatic and theatrical. It was easy to imagine Babstock, like poetry slam writer Taylor Mali, performing the poems (see May 2018 review: The Whetting Stone). I was carried by the force of words and rhythms and was left feeling disconcerted. Then I read Days into Flatspin again.

Reflecting on Babcock’s choice of words, I thought of Ursula LeGuin who wrote that words “transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it” (The Wave of the Mind). Babstock’s poems brim with energy and they clearly fed energy to me. But that addressed only part of my dilemma, which led me to Jane Hirshfield (please see Ten Windows). Hirshfield notes that “a poem needs to retain within its words some of the disequilibrium that called it forth, and to include when it is finished some sense also of uncomfortable remainder, the undissolvable residue carried over….”

In Babstock’s second collection, his mastery of these skills – words that create action/energy and words that leave the door open for a remaining question – is clear from the outset. I looked closely at Babstock’s word choices and the work they were doing together.

The first poem titled “Carrying someone else’s infant past a cow in a field near Marmora, Ont.,” ends:

…What was I shown that I haven’t retained?
What peered back long before the cracked
bell of its name

This unknown (unknowable?) is also apparent in the second poem “Bottled Rabbit,” in which Babstock describes an image seen, alludes to a charcoal sketch by Cézanne, a CBC interviewer in Gander, Newfoundland, a play by Pinter, and his great-aunt’s kitchenette. But suddenly, the scene shifts: “The word wore down, thinned to a film on the air in the ear. Morning ate its hinge.” Once more, after the carefully constructed images and linkages Babstock provides, we leap into something surprisingly different from where the poem ostensibly was taking us. He draws us into what is seen but also unseen, what is felt, unknown, unsayable.

My favourite poem in Days into Flatspin, “The Painting on the Cover of Otherwise,”  seems to explain a bit about what drives so many of the poems in the collection toward unsettled feelings.  He begins with an image:

A small pond dug
into a footpath that bisects
a French garden. The neat
hedgerows bent, obey.

And then, he identifies what is missing, things like “wind…litter, heel-scuffs…a sparrow, anything.” Perhaps, like me, you will come away from reading the collection with a new awareness of the dichotomy between what is seen – how we often idealize it – and what is more deeply experienced through what lingers after the immediacy of the moment when we ponder the place “where hard edges slip…unclipped…beyond the vined wall that darkens the middle distance.”

This unfocused middle distance of mystery is what Ken Babstock discloses through a turn, a surprising glimpse that doesn’t provide an answer to our questions, but draws us to a deeper, elusive potential.

The writers among us will have heard Emily Dickinson’s instruction to “tell it slant.” Many will know LeGuin’s advice about making every word a choice; particularly poets will know that every word must work. We have probably also been told to reward readers for reading to the end, to provide a surprise, a twist, something that illuminates. Hirshfield’s suggestion to create a disconcerting disequilibrium is another consideration that pushes boundaries and borders.

Days into Flatspin achieves this triumvirate of advice. The poems begin with what we may each have experienced, but they take us beyond images, sounds, emotion into deeper, surprising places of heart and mind.

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In addition to Days into Flatspin (2001), Ken Babstock has published Mean (1999), Methodist Hatchet (2011; Winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, 2012), and On Malice (2014).

Available through your local bookstore or online: Days into Flatspin

Anita’s Revolution by Shirley Langer

Anita’s Revolution targets young adult readers. It is a coming of awareness story—both in a personal context as well as a social one. It is also an historical fiction and a teen adventure. But travellers to Cuba of all ages will enjoy the story and gain insights into a past no longer evident, yet still in the memories of people they will meet. Writers of YA fiction will be interested in figuring out how Shirley Langer gets under the skin of her protagonist and how she creates a time and place that readers can experience. Pay attention, too, to her language, pacing, and the literary techniques she employs to keep youth interested and turning pages.

Anita, the protagonist of Anita’s Revolution, is a young teen in 1960 when Fidel Castro announces to the United Nations and the world that Cuba will stamp out illiteracy by the end of 1961. To accomplish this extraordinary goal, he elicits the aid of Cuba’s youth. In 1961 more than 100,000 volunteers answered the call—many of them students, along with teachers and others. They streamed across the island with energy and enthusiasm. The fictional Anita is one of them.

Anita must overcome her own fear given the real danger of volunteering, since counter-revolutionaries have killed a young brigadista. She must also overcome the concerns of her parents. She joins forces with her brother and they win their parents over, even if a bit reluctantly. With others from her school, Anita sets off for training and for the adventure of her life. Anita is a determined girl. Besides the literacy focus, Anita’s Revolution, takes us along on a journey from the innocence of a protected childhood to the awakening of a young woman.

Besides Anita’s personal story, Anita’s Revolution is a social justice story, and a story that demonstrates the very positive difference youth can make in a society. She arrived, not exactly welcomed by the people she would teach to read and write. But when she left, she left family behind.

Anita returned to her suburb of Havana knowing that more needed to be accomplished and wondering how she’d adjust into her relatively privileged life. The story doesn’t end like a fairy tale; it presents a believable girl in a real situation with the ideals and dreams of youth, but the bigger job beyond literacy isn’t finished.

Shirley Langer lived in Cuba for five years in the 1960s and writes with the immediacy of knowing a time and place. She writes with the knowledge of having lived among the people of whom she writes. During my research, I learned that she also lived for a period in the Bay of Quinte region (Ontario, Canada), which is my home. Langer has lived at Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) since 1995.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Anita’s Revolution

Cuba aficionados will also want to see my review of A Simple Habana Melody for a pre-revolutionary novel. And perhaps two of my travel blogs: A Cultural Portal: Windows and Doors and scroll through my travel blog.

Readers and writers of YA fiction, will want to take another look at The Great and the Small, a YA novel by A.T. Balsara that I reviewed last February.

 

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

Circling the Sun will appeal to readers who enjoyed The Paris Wife and who have not read other stories of Kenya’s colonial era, particularly Beryl Markham’s memoir or Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. It’s a juicy read but repetitive in many of its details and expressions. Writers of historical fiction will take note to examine how the author leaps from historical fact into juicy fiction. For writers of bibliography, Circling the Sun provides a cautionary tale. Beware that you can become so engrossed in your research and character that you may slip deeply into your material and repeat phrases and scenes that are iconic and recognizable, leaving this reader scratching her head.

When Circling the Sun by Paula McLain about the flyer Beryl Markham came my way, I could hardly begin to start reading. Having read Markham’s memoir West with the Sun, I looked forward to McLain’s take on this adventurous woman’s life. I had also read Out of Africa by Markham’s contemporary Isak Dineson / Karen Blixen, and watched the movie of the same name many times (partly because I love John Barry’s soundtrack, which captures my mood-memories from a month long visit I made to Kenya in 2010). Another contemporary of Beryl Markham, Idina Sackville, has been written about in Frances Osborne’s The Bolter. Besides these stories, a bookshelf dedicated to African writing and writers brims. So, I curled up in my favourite chair with a tea ready to learn more and perhaps have my eyes opened to a new take on the early 20th century era when Kenya was a British colony and change was rampant.

Circling the Sun focuses on Beryl Markam’s childhood, which is unique—even when compared to that of other settler children—but l learned little that was new, although perhaps a bit more detail. Markham’s young adulthood as portrayed in Circling the Sun is limited to troubled relationships—with both men and women. The bibliography takes us up to her early flying days but doesn’t examine her flight across the Atlantic or her life after the landmark adventure (perhaps McLain hopes for a sequel). The sun Beryl Markham circles in this book is not the one that follows her across the ocean; it is, I suppose, the sun of youth’s annual seasons.

With a publisher like Bond Street Books / Doubleday, I anticipated original information and new revelations about the woman, place, and time. Too frequently as I read, I found phrases and images that felt repetitive from my other reading and Out of Africa the movie. For example, “I was in real trouble now”; “ ‘Oh, Berkeley, I’ve got myself in deep this time’”; and “I…lay my hand on his chest, feeling along the slick buttons of his shirt and the perfect piped edge of the cotton,” which is pretty much what Karen Blixen does to Denys in the movie. Perhaps someone who is not familiar with Beryl Markham’s memoir and with other writing about Kenya, especially during the early 20th century colonial era, might enjoy Paula McLain’s take on Markham’s life. However, if you are looking for a light read about a fictionalized woman during an exciting era, Circling the Sun will entertain you.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: Circling the Sun

After & Come, Thief by Jane Hirshfield

Let’s begin the year with the poetry of Jane Hirshfield, which is simple, elegant, deep, and heartfelt in the understanding of what it is to be. Subtly, she evokes what quietly resides within, while also recognizing the transience and transformation that is part of each daily life and life span. Writers, whether prose or poetry, will want to think about themes and images as you read (coherence, consistency and surprise).

In After, the beauty and wisdom in Jane Hirshfield’s poetry elicits “aha” moments, a sudden clarity. She challenges us, beginning with the first poem, “After Long Silence”: “The untranslatable thought must be the most precise. / Yet the words are not the end of thought, they are where it begins.

In an essay five years later, she wrote: “To write a new sentence, let alone a new poem, is to cross the threshold into both a larger existence and a profound mystery.” The mystery that is life is a theme she strives to express for her readers and for herself. In the poems in After, Hirshfield coaxes us with her words to enter the mystery.

Perhaps my favourite poem in the collection is the very short (eight-line) poem called “Pyracantha and Plum.” It begins, “Last autumn’s chastened berries still on one tree, / Spring blossoms tender, hopeful, on another.” Who among us—who hasn’t had the pleasure of witnessing spring in an orchard, or even a garden—hasn’t stopped to marvel at the beauty and awe of nature? Beyond the obvious, the poem speaks to time passing, alludes to art, and subliminally layers more. Then, a few pages on, we come to “Bonsai”: “One morning beginning to notice / which thought pull the spirt out of the body, which return it.” In this poem the “turn” takes us to rebirth and into longing.

My final example of her grace and wisdom shared in After comes in “The Monk Stood Beside a Wheelbarrow:”

The monk stood beside a wheelbarrow, weeping.

[His tears] gathered at its bottom,
where the metal drank them in to make more rust
.

You must decide why these lines move you; for me, they speak of grief, loss, and the never-ending surprising transformation that is life.

Seven years later, she published Come, Thief in which one thief is time’s passage and another is mortality, related themes are attachment and loss. The plum tree is a recurring image as it is in After. Here, it shows up in the book’s first poem called “French Horn”:

For a few days only,
the plum tree outside the window
shoulders perfection.
No matter the plums will be small,
eaten only by squirrels and jays.
I feast on the one thing, they on another,
the shoaling bees on a third.

We see how her perspective broadens and shifts, which continues throughout the poem and the collection. With the shift in perspective, readers will also notice a shift away from the first person, but this does not mean that the poems are less personal. We get the clear sense that these poems come deep from within the poet.

Another poem that is characteristically accessible is “The Decision.” It begins, “There is a moment before a shape / hardens, a color sets. / Before the fixative or heat of kiln” and proceeds to explore opportunities for choice. While Hirshfield’ poems are spiritual in nature, they do not succumb to fate nor do they eliminate responsibility of the individual to act. At this poem’s conclusion, she shows us just how big a small change can be: “As a sandy track-rut changes when called a Silk Road: / it cannot be after turned back from.”

Finally, in “The Promise,” Hirshfield provides a litany of things she wants to stay the same, but that do not, including:

Stay, I said to my body.
It sat as a dog does,
obedient for a moment,
soon starting to tremble.

And after the litany through flowers, a spider, green leaves, and the earth itself, she concludes with irony that brings a chuckle: “Stay, I said to my loves. / Each answered, / Always.” [Emphasis the poet’s.]

Check out my review of Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World, essays by Jane Hirshfield. Also, look for other of Jane Hirshfield’s poetry books.

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Available through your local bookstore or online: After and Come, Thief.

If you enjoyed reading about Jane Hirshfield’s poetry, you might also like these previously published poetry reviews: