Tuesday, 31 December 2013

The Weight of Trees

A note to begin
This is the final poem in The Starbucks Poetry Project blog. I have been writing twice a week for 6 months and have loved the challenge, the discipline, and the resulting work. I’ve also loved hearing from readers; it’s a great privilege to know my art has had an impact. I’m hoping to extend my reach by getting this collection into print… and into a coffee shop near you. Stay tuned, and thanks so much for sharing this space with me.

Overheard: Discussion between two people in their 20s who used to date:
Her: Is she your girlfriend?
Him: Um, I guess. I mean she lives in a different country, but yes.

Where it took me: I used a writing exercise that asks the writer to juxtapose two very different objects. There are lots of ways to find your objects, but I took ‘long-distance relationship’ from the overheard line and, after a long walk in my neighbourhood, the recent ice storm in Toronto as the other object. I used one of my favourite techniques, the scramble, to write the story before pairing all the first lines, second lines, and third lines. As I had hoped, breaking apart the lines this way forced the similarities between the ice storm and relationships to the fore in a very satisfying way.

The poem

The Weight of Trees

I walk the valley
in search of destruction:
branches in pieces,
power lines sailor-knotted.
Cub-scout badges
against the storm.

Eight days now.
Neatly trimmed and bundled,
life by the curb, changed completely.
I thought I wanted
the weight of trees.

White towels whip from sagging wires:
caution, or surrender.
I resist the pull.
A train wreck, but I’m struck.
How we remain connected.
How intricately we are strung.

Friday, 27 December 2013

What I Can Give

Overheard: Two men in their 60s, with eastern European accents, trying to keep their voices very low.
Man #1: So, he sees her two or three times a week.
Man #2, nodding: That’s the best way.

Where it took me: There is a bit more to this scenario, a few hand gestures and a description of what said couple is not doing. It was funny, yes, but it made me think of what other perspective there could be for the type of relationship described. Unless they tell us, we don’t know the reality of other people’s lives.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

This Is a Terrible Date

Overheard: This entire conversation below, as described by my friend ARi Lyon in hilarious detail on Facebook. I couldn’t resist the spoken language, the body language, the awkwardness, and the way both gamely try to turn this around if they can. No matter where we are in life, I think we can all empathize with either party in this conversation.

Where it took me: ARi’s updates were perfect as a found poem, so aside from a very few edits, I accepted this gift as I found it.

The poem

This Is a Terrible Date

She is noticeably bored.
He is noticeably boring.
He tells her
his friend Kyle takes a long time to respond to his texts.
And snap chat. Also, he hates snap chat.
Aw, she says, I kinda like it.
Oh me too! Just … y'know …

She looks around awkwardly. Stretches.
He texts. Probably Kyle.
Who may or may not respond swiftly.
She manages a few words about her family.
Holiday plans. He turns
the conversation back to himself.
He’s talking about Kyle again.

Tries to show her a picture
of something Kyle did.
She gives a brief glance. Looks away.
Sam, now. Brent.
People file in and it’s hard to hear.
They both get quiet. Melancholy.
Both begin to text.

They try again.
I can't re-watch movies or re-read books, he says.
She says she can.
He tells her about a book he's re-read a lot of times.
Can’t decide whether he wants to bore her
or make her like him.
He goes for both, tells her he’s writing a paper
about body image. How the covers
of men's and women's health magazines make people feel.
That’s fascinating, she says.
She may be lying.
He moves on to 3-D printers.
Does not ask her a single question.
She folds her arms, gives up talking.
Spins her leopard-encased phone.
This catches his attention;
they both watch it circle the table.
You can print a gun with a 3-D printer, he says,
years late on the story.

She rests her head.

Friday, 20 December 2013


Overheard: Teenage girls over coffee planning their weekend of partying (already bought their Red Bull for their vodka).
Girl 1: My parents are SO brutal. I am so getting emancipated when I am 18 and buying a condo downtown.
Girl 2: OMG! The condos downtown are so nice!

Where it took me: Teenagers. You want to smack them and be them at the same time. How painfully I remember those years. And yet… really, girls? I used this overheard line along with one of my favourite writing methods: the letter. I write a lot of letters, including longhand ones that I send via snail mail to my friends who live far away. But some letters are not meant to be sent; just to be written, just so I can find a voice.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013


Overheard: Expensive beer and Steve Stamkos.

Where it took me: The people beside me at Starbucks were going through all the details of their upcoming holiday plans, and debating whether to spend their money on hockey tickets (whose shorthand was ‘expensive beer and Steve Stamkos’); or a few nights at a hotel. A few days later, at a workshop, I was given a prompt to list all the sights, sounds, and smells I could think of related to a holiday that I celebrate; and then to write about holiday disappointment, incorporating everything on the list. The result is this entirely fictional poem; being Jewish, I don’t have Christmas holiday memories; and I have no reason to believe something awful happened to that guy beside me. But I do know that expectations veer wildly from reality, sometimes in the worst possible ways.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Coffee Talk

Overheard: That’s her. She’s here every day eavesdropping on people’s conversations.

Where it took me: I continue to be fascinated by the blurred line between public and private. If you choose a public place for a private conversation, you may be compromising your right to privacy. If you don’t want others to hear, don’t speak loudly enough for them to be part of the conversation.

The poem

Coffee Talk

At first, nothing but
bean-grind and steam-wheeze,
sneaker-squeaks, heel-taps.
Bells over the opening door.
Horns and the Doppler effect
of traffic passing.
Just below 70 decibels,
the ear attunes.

It’s mostly murmur and mumble —
I realized the problem …
everyone deserves a chance …
so you broke up …
just go with it …
we call it football … —
until your raised voice forgets
its public place,
releases secrets from stage-whispers.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Dad Words

Overheard: This is a 3-minute warning. We’re going to start in 3 to 4 minutes. So get a drink, go pee, whatever you need to do.

Where it took me: OK, fair enough, I did not overhear this at Starbucks. These were the first words of the MC at a literary reading I was at earlier this week. To me, this sounded like a dad talking to kids. He wasn’t at all being condescending even though he was talking to a room of adults in a bar; I was just struck by the way our discourse changes as the circumstances of our life change.

Friday, 6 December 2013

And You're Still Married

Overheard: And you’re still married. (Group of 40ish guys at a table, all in suits and ties, all wearing wedding bands.)

Where it took me: This was half a question, half a statement; probably in response to something silly that one guy did; one of those things we do that we wish we hadn’t, but nothing that rips out the roots of a strong relationship. Adrienne Rich wrote: “An honorable human relationship — that is, one in which two people have the right to use the word “love” — is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other … It is important to do this because we can count on so few people to go that hard way with us.” I can’t get her words out of my head.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Those Shoes

Overheard: Two women in their 50s: He’s a nice guy. I don’t know much about him, but I really like him.

Where it took me: I used this line in conjunction with an exercise to write two descriptions of the same place but in different situations. Instead of a place, I wrote about a relationship at two different points in time. The ending surprised me; I like the ambiguity. What's your interpretation of the ending?

The poem

Those Shoes

I like how tall he is. Not too tall.
I like his brown eyes. Not too showy.
I like the way he parks at a meter and has enough change to pay.
How he doesn’t circle the block
looking for something better.

I like his jeans. Not old-man jeans, but not skinny jeans either.
I like the grey sweater.
Fitted, tidy, no moth holes.
I like the shoes. Not hikers. Real shoes.

I like that he wants to know what I’m reading.
That he can answer that question, too.
I like that we’ve read some of the same books.
That we haven’t.

I like that he owns a bike.
And rides it.
That he doesn’t mention every new restaurant in town.
That he knows how to cook.

Stacey says everybody’s better before you know too much.
Before ‘cooking’ means one recipe
and you never see those shoes again.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Her Belly an Orange

Overheard: When she was pregnant she got all emotional.

Where it took me: This line really didn’t take me anywhere; I was emotional when I was pregnant, though possibly no more so than I usually am. My husband, on the other hand, really liked this line. Perhaps I was more emotional than I thought. In either case, I didn’t want to write something straightforward about being pregnant and emotional. Instead, I used an exercise that focuses on metaphor. I wrote 20 random nouns on sticky notes, then closed my eyes and chose two. I got ‘orange’ and ‘midwife.’ I wrote as many details as I could that described each noun. In the end, the details for ‘orange’ led me, quite unexpectedly, to this poem.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

He Left the Train

Overheard: He was fine, sobering up, eating Chinese.

Where it took me: I’ve had two conversations with a new friend about traditional Chinese poetry, and have wanted to explore the form. The rather tangential fact that someone mentioned Chinese food in this line gave me the opportunity to research the basics of the form and use it to write a poem. I need to do more research to understand the form properly, so for the moment, the only resemblance to traditional Chinese poetry of this poem is the use of couplets and the use of 5 or 7 key words in each line.

The poem

He Left the Train

He was fine. Sobering up. Eating Chinese.
No more drinking. That was the deal.

She stepped out for a short errand:
a year to write; a cabin at the Nova Scotia shore.

She had a return ticket.
But he left the train.

Open door yields to a tidy apartment.
Everything in place; no scent of a life.

Her name lettered on an envelope
set empty on a spotless countertop.

Thursday, 21 November 2013


Overheard: High school’s not like I thought high school was going to be.

Where it took me: This one’s a bit circuitous. I had a prompt to write something that scared me as a child. I remember being scared of my first day of high school, and somehow (too much TV I’m going to guess) thinking there were girl gangs in the bathrooms waiting to knife me. I grew up in an upper-middle-class area just outside the centre of Toronto. Girl gangs were not an issue. Wearing the right clothes, yes. Knives, not so much. But then I also remembered being terrified of dogs as a very young child. So I combined these fear experiences to write this poem.

The poem


We walk the path from our street,
between two houses, to the schoolyard.

It’s not the walk that scares me,
though my only company is another five-year-old.

I find my sense of direction early,
never take the kind of wrong turn

that sees my junior-kindergarten sister and her friend
frozen by the roar of cars on Sheppard Avenue.

It is not the brief disappearance we have to make
from bungalowed streets onto school property.

We are not the only children to pass this way.
It’s Igor. He rules one of the fenced yards

with bellows that echo the mountains
of his St. Bernard ancestors.

I hear nothing in his frantic bark
but a refrain I translate to “I want to eat you.”

There’s no bite, I come to understand.
Dogs generally do not eat little girls.

Next, I am petrified by Nero,
the black lab who lives next door in our next house.

Later, I imagine girl gangs in the high school bathrooms,
though it turns out there is much more to fear from girls

than their steel-toed workboots behind closed doors.
You always know what’s making a dog bark.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013


Overheard: Barista to customer: We have the festive one, if you’re looking for gifts.

Where it took me: The line itself made me think of how much marketing there is in coffee now. When I was growing up, for all I knew of it, it was coffee. My parents ordered it when we went to restaurants and we had to wait for them to finish before we could leave. I don’t recall anything about festive. Or bold, or mild, or Canadian, for that matter. My first experience with coffee was as something to keep me warm during a week-long youth retreat. But that first experience is completely tied up, for me, with being 16, becoming an adult, and my relationships with others. The premise for the poem comes from a prompt to write from the point of view of an animal; that gave me the way in.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

What We Need

Overheard: The older you get, the more you need it.

Where it took me: This is a line spoken by one of a group of 60-ish women. I have no idea what they were actually talking about, but I started by free-writing what others expect women to do to maintain themselves as they age (the late Nora Ephron wrote note-perfectly about maintenance in I Feel Bad About My Neck). The technique is from Pat Schneider: use the phrase ‘this is not about’ to deny a subject about which you are, in fact, writing.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Newlyweds

Overheard: You’re not part of this conversation.

Where it took me: I used this line in conjunction with an exercise to imagine talking to one’s parents at the age they conceived you. That’s a conversation we are not part of, whatever choice they end up making.

The poem

The Newlyweds

They have this conversation by the shore in Maine
the summer that the cities burn.
It’s a bit of a beach, no pull for tourists.
Its north end is violent rock,
stone and ocean flung over and over.
Toward the south the rocks flatten.
A patch of sand the size of a picnic blanket
dries when the tide retreats.

To get there, they pick their way across the boulders.
She complies to shoes for the climb,
dismisses them the moment her toes touch sand;
the tug of history primal beneath her feet.
He keeps his laces tied.

They come here to taste the salt that proves
how small a decision it is
whether to bring a child into this inflamed world.
Their talk ebbs and flows.
Words skip across the surface, bounce and sink.
Her toes dig holes where she sits,
touch one intact shell, 
its details miniscule and complete.

Thursday, 7 November 2013


Overheard: I hate being scared.

Where it took me: I’ve had this line for a while. and didn’t know what to do with it. I opened one of my poetry guides to a random page. The exercise was to write a multiple-choice poem. (In hypertext, this could turn into a choose-your-own-adventure poem… and I might just give that a try.) Given how many things we fear, this exercise seemed like a perfect fit for a poem about being scared. Interestingly, at my New York launch last month, I asked my guests to do exactly what I describe at the beginning of the poem. The three answers come directly from them. I particularly like how, when I am searching for a way to get started with a poem, different threads from my life come together at what appears to be just the right moment.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Truth Is a House Made of Tea

Overheard: There’s your own truth that you live by.

Where it took me: This statement is either very profound, or very twisted. Its potential has been on my mind for several weeks, but every time I try to write, my writing turns into platitude. Halfway through writing from the prompt today, I stopped, not happy with the trite, sitcom-like character I was drawing. But I had just written about a smell I remembered from childhood, and that got me writing about scent, and that reminded me of seeing Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei’s solid house of tea at a recent exhibit. I had made a note to write that tea house as a metaphor for something. Thinking of it today made me consider the house of tea as a metaphor for what we consider to be our own truth.

The poem

Truth Is a House Made of Tea

Ai Wei Wei builds his Tea House
the way a child draws home:
straight lines, solid expectations,
a cube packed tight,
safe from intruders.
We build our truth this way.

We forget its walls are made of leaves.
At night they dream of wind,
in the daytime wish for heat.
Crave water; a grave risk worth taking.
Fingers unfurl and unfurl.

The wolf never imagined a house like this.
There is always a way in.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

On the Menu

Overheard: Everything bagel! Cup of ice!

Where it took me: I’m always amused by the things people order, even more so when I realize that some orders sound like personality traits. Since I’m a writer, I get to make things up anyway, so even if I’m guessing at those traits, that’s part of my job. And it’s Hallowe’en, a good day for considering the costumes in which we present ourselves to the world.

The poem

On the Menu

If we could order up people
like we order coffee:

Tall decaf. Blueberry scone.
Tall, not too excitable.

Blueberry; can be both wild and cultivated.
Scone; has some history. Sweet, but not cloying.

Everything bagel.
Overeager. Wants it all.

Bottled frapuccino and a pumpkin muffin.
Doesn’t care to wait. Gourd-shaped.

Grande caramel macchiato.
Open to possibility.  Pushes boundaries.

Tall banana latte.
Blonde. Unconventional.

Iced venti latte.
Cold, direct. Needs a lot of coffee.

Cup of ice.
Sexually frustrated.

Viennese coffee.
European, arty, distinguished.

In here, people don’t look like their dogs.
They resemble their drink orders.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Lowering the Bar

Overheard: I made broccoli yesterday and I didn’t forget to turn off the pot.

Where it took me: Another exception to the usual process; this line was a line a friend said to me in response to a conversation she’d overheard. She may have felt a tiny bit inadequate about her own cooking; though she should not, especially given that she spends her days bringing compassion to people at the hardest time of their life. We set the priorities that let us be content in the world. When I am content, I am a better person, friend, partner, and parent. Anything I can do to achieve that works for me.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Safeway, 17th and R Street

Overheard: (Woman on cell phone) I changed the text inside and I changed the picture to make it more modest.

Where it took me: I heard this in the grocery store and just had to write it down. She could have been anywhere having this conversation, for instance, at home rather than in public. I used the scramble technique to write down the story; then put all the first lines, second lines, and third lines together before editing to make some sense out of them. Taking apart the story this way allowed me to move back and forth between the physical fact of the woman in the store, and the curiosity I had about her conversation.

Thursday, 17 October 2013


Barista: Can I get your name, please, for your coffee?
Customer: What do you need my name for? I’m standing right here!

Where it took me: Giving the barista your name at Starbucks has spawned a culture of its own, with fake names, hilarious misspelling and mis-hearings, ongoing jokes between customers and baristas, and more. Obviously, this woman just needed her coffee. The prompt got me thinking about the power of naming; how names have the power to make something exist. I tried a scramble poem (writing the scene then reordering the lines) but ended up liking the scene itself.

The poem


Why do you need my name?
I’m standing right here.
The old woman refuses

to unhand the only power
she still holds, this name
her parents gave, the one scripted

on the marriage licence,
inked on the papers that proved
her babies alive;

the one who did not survive.
The name her husband still murmurs
in the safe cave of their bedroom.

In fair weather she rides the back
of his Vespa, imagines through her helmet
the stir of the sky in her hair,

wishes to be reckless though she won’t,
yearns to know
how the breeze really feels.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

My Apologies, Professor

Overheard: What’s the worst that could happen?

Where it took me: Everything that came to me right away was too obvious with this prompt. So I used one of my poetry guides for a challenge to help me shape this extremely open line into something more focused. The challenge that seemed to fit was to write an outrageous excuse for being late for class. What’s the worst that could happen?

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Art of Poetry

Overheard: I don’t know how much of it is the anxiety.

Where it took me: I used this line in conjunction with a poetry challenge to find a metaphor for writing poetry, but without naming poetry in the finished product. As it turns out, I didn’t exactly use it as a metaphor, more as part of a recipe for what goes into a poem. 

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

I've Mastered Critical Thinking

Overheard: I’ve mastered critical thinking.

Where it took me: The audacity of the statement made me laugh, but the statement itself was a good prompt for a list poem, which I’d been in the mood to write. The last one I posted here was “Everything’s Carbs,” so it felt like time for another one. This line gave me a chance to put together a list of the outrageous claims people make in an effort to prove their life is better than yours.

The poem

I've Mastered Critical Thinking

Also classical French cooking,
tai chi,
table manners,
conversational Spanish,
business Mandarin,
effortless small talk,
all the digits of pi,
the theory of relativity,
my whole-home remote,
zen meditation,
motorcycle maintenance,
wine tasting,
how to make artisanal cheese,
the ukelele,
impeccable knife skills,
basic plumbing repairs,
social media,
the Rubik’s cube,

Thursday, 3 October 2013

X-Ray Judgement

Overheard: I know what she’s getting out of it, but what’s in it for him?

Where it took me: First of all, you know other humans can hear you, right? I’m pretty sure what’s in it for either of them isn’t your business. But now it’s my business, too. And I can’t help but wonder, as I often do, why we spend so much energy trying to decipher other people’s lives.

The poem  

X-Ray Judgement

Maybe he was tired of cooking for one.
Not that he could really call it cooking,
after a while. An apple. A can of soup.

Maybe he gave up polite conversation
for the chance at one baby,
and hit the jackpot
when she stuck around and gave him two.

Maybe you see the money,
the house, the cars, the beaches;
and not the chest torn ragged
by things she lost
or left behind.
Maybe she has her own money.

Maybe in the quiet that settles
when children are in bed
and kitchen counters are wiped clean,
when the fridge hums like comfort,
he offers backrubs
that unpoison her arrows;
she tells him she is sorry.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013


Overheard: They don’t want superstars because they can’t afford it.

Where it took me: The people I overheard were talking about a company’s hiring practices. I wondered what kind of ad they might write to get the kind of person they could afford.

The poem


Mediocre sales person.
Must be able to converse about weather,
children, and the last time
a given sports team won its
highest honour.
Must have a favourite colour.
Outside interests should be minimal:
said sports teams, mystery novels,
travel within Zone 1 of a typical
credit card loyalty program.

Should not paint (houses are okay),
read poetry,
listen to indie music,
eat kale or quinoa.

Must be likeable.
But not too likeable.
Fashion sense may run
from the late 1990s to the mid-2000s.
May speak any foreign language
taught in the local school board
or that reflects personal heritage.

Avid television watcher preferred.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

When Your Brother Dies

Overheard: Insurance exec 1: Andy’s older than Rob, so they sort of have a father-son relationship. Like in Star Wars.
Insurance exec 2: I have a hard time seeing Rob as Luke Skywalker.  Are you sure he’s not Yoda?

Where it took me: I know slightly less about Andy and Rob (whoever they are) than I do about Anakin, Luke, and Yoda. The Internet, though, knows lots. I sat with the information from the online biographies for a few days. I knew I would write a poem about fathers and sons, but I wasn’t sure how. The death, in our family, of a cousin estranged from his parents and brother gave me a way in.

The poem

When Your Brother Dies

You are the only one left.
One man, an orphan, no spare.
But he was gone long before last night.
Over money, or power.

Or what an ass your father was.
This brother too big a personality for compromise.
This father too.
Each his own legend.

You are more Yoda than they ever were Anakin and Luke.
A diplomat. A humble man of practical jokes.
A speedy swordsman,
but not inclined to battle.

I exist outside the structure built
between father and son.
I don’t recognize its bricks,
can’t name the force that makes them crumble.