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.