Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Publishing Poetry of the Spirit

A friend has written to ask why I chose to self-publish my anthology of poetry (Hierophany: Poems of the Sacred). The truth is that many people had been asking me for a collection, and I was having no luck with the small independent publishers here in Canada. It's discouraging to send your work out consistently and have it come back with "Lovely work. Unfortunately it's not right for our company right now" letters. I understand that this is part of the writing process, and I am not really as peevish as I sound to myself as I type, but...well, part of me is a little peevish!

I think it's not entirely because I am dubious about what else I will need to do to turn "pro", so to speak. Poetry continues to be a passion, and I continue to read other poets widely as well as occasionally getting up the gumption to submit to things. However, I am gradually recognizing a few things about getting published: one, the field is capricious. It's often just a bit of a crapshoot: who receives your poem, who reads it, who shortlists it, who just doesn't like your style or the way you put words together. Another reason is that I am rather cheerful by nature: I don't write a lot of I'm-depressed-woe-is-me poetry. Yet it strikes me that at least some of the post-modernist ethos is to revel in the dismal (or perhaps, as one of the Baha'i prayers puts it, to "dwell on the unpleasant things of life".) I am usually not a "dweller". Yes, I like the contemplative life, and yes, I tend towards the serious, but no, I am not a dweller.

My poems tend, however, to be a little "spiritual", and I think that doesn't go over well in 2010. I don't mean this in a self-help-guru-I-have-all-the-answers kind of way. I'm not (self-helpish), I don't (guru), and I don't want to pretend to know more than I do. But I do tend to want to lean towards the spiritual. I wonder if I should explain that a little?

There are some classic, and in some cases, quite popular writers (Rumi, Mary Avison, Lorna Crozier, Mary Oliver, Rilke) whose voices are spiritual. They may not be commenting directly on the spirit (although sometimes they do) but they imbue the words with the transcendent nature of longing, which to me is a spiritual condition. Exploring God, or whatever you might wish to call the Creator or the Universe or the Magic-that-makes-us-alive, is an essential component of their relationship with the world. It's beyond time-and-space. It's soul work. I love it; I love reading a poem by Rumi or Oliver and discovering that even back then, even now, there is someone who speaks my language and who has left letters to the world about spirit, in poetic form. This is also intimately connected to beauty, both in the Big Letter Beauty sense and in the small, macrocosmic, delight-in-the-beauty-of-the-world beauty. The poetic ability, it seems to me, is to take the time and place you find yourself surrounded by and make it, through your words, a time and place anyone can enter with you through the magic of your words, descriptive, narrative, and honest.

So if I am to write, I want to write from the spirit. And in this day and age, it's really hard to do well. Sometimes I hit it, and some of the poems in my own collection are ones which I feel leave a glimpse of the unblemished spirit within me, the part which has been untouched by all the mistakes I've made. For this is the thing: it's the human condition, it seems, to make mistakes and have regrets (or at least something like) but to dwell on those is also to deny the beauty of the power of redemption. And trust me, redemption is not a popular word in modern-day poetry, really, although there are a few authors who write themselves into that sacred space through beauty. That's the poet I'd like to be, and gradually, through patience, prayer, and some perseverance, she's emerging. I hear her voice whispering within, sometimes softly, and I want to recognize her and allow her to speak.

Annie Dillard did this in prose, of course, with that amazing work, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Est├ęs, whom I've just re-read, kindled spirit throughout Women Who Run With the Wolves...and Barbara Kingsolver consistently does it, works through words and the deep longing of the world to create beauty. Their works are redemptions, and they are not alone. And their poetry is lovely, too...but, there's something hesitant, perhaps, when we try to understand the numinous. I find that I have to wait for it, and sometimes it just flows into me like heat. Something kindled. Crozier said this; I listened to her at the Ottawa Writers' Festival a few years ago and she reminded us of the gift of immanence. Yes.

This is also kind of why I blog, too: not just to send letters to my parents (although that too) but to leave an exploration out there, something for both friends and strangers to ruminate about and perhaps share right back. So I published myself because I got impatient! And when you hope that what you have said can kindle something for someone else, find that resonance, then you want the words out there. If poets are given a gift (even minor poets like me!) then it's best to share it, and sometimes you just have to get it out there whether the literary powers-that-be think it's worthwhile or not. One acquaintance reminded me that there is value in following your passion.

So here's someone who said all of this better:

Word Fog

Words, even if they come from
the soul, hide the soul, as fog

rising off the sea covers the sea,
the coast, the fish, the pearls.

It's noble work to build coherent
philosophical discourses, but

they block out the sun of truth.
See God's qualities as an ocean,

this world as foam on the purity
of that. Brush away and look

through the alphabet to essence,
as you do the hair covering your

beloved's eyes. Here's the mystery:
this intricate, astonishing world

is proof of God's presence even as
it covers the beauty. One flake

from the wall of a gold mine does
not give much idea what it's like

when the sun shines in and turns
the air and the workers golden.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Summertime poems

Summertime brings more opportunities to read. I revisit poems I have come to love, and thought that I would share one with you. Mary Oliver is a stunning poet. One of my favourites is a poem ostensibly about summer, but more about how we spend our lives. Check out "A Summer Day".

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

From my daughter

Here is Melodie's newest poem as published to her blog.

The Stranger

The face of the person at the front of the bus this afternoon - I wish I had a camera.
Almost comical, with surprisingly young, popping eyes.
The young eyes make the skin seem pasted on.
The skin is a city map.
Not an old city.
Not spidery arterial roads stretching from freshly designed traffic circles - a touch of design amid ancient, sprawling arrondissements.
A new city - a grid.
So many lines both horizontal and vertical, it seems the result of modern planning.
Modernity in a face made for a student's black and white photography exhibit.
You can just see this face under a big straw hat, next to a llama.

He is speaking to a man standing near him and it takes me a minute to realize they are strangers.
He speaks with the familiarity of one ignorant of etiquette, and right I way I think I know this type.
He is ancient and yet ageless. What type? He makes me think of Forrest Gump at eighty.
The standing man moves back and the old one turns to speak to a woman next to him. His young eyes, so odd in his face, are restless, energetic, wide awake next to tired commuters with their sore backs and impatience to get home.
The woman is polite, answers as though to a child. He grins and one dirty stub appears in an otherwise toothless mouth.
I feel a little humbled.

Sunday, February 07, 2010


Every so often a quiet Sunday. This one is replete with sunshine and everything outside is dressed in sparkling frost. It's not warm: -21 but not too cold either. In short, February.

I thought some of you might be interested in what I am reading. From time to time I go to Value Village and check out their books. It's a way of buying books on a somewhat limited budget; most are about $3.99 and every fifth book is free. It is in this manner that I have found several terrific literary reads. To wit: today I am reading Kingston, ON author Steven Heighton's 1997 Anansi-published work, a series of essays entitled The Admen Move on Lhasa: Writing and Culture in a Virtual World.

So here are a few gems for your ruminating pleasure:

"Art is an invitation change what can be changed - one's self, first and finally - and to cherish what is receding, vanishing, as all things are." p. 19

"Poetry and fiction - especially when the writing is sensuous and visceral instead of cerebral, abstract - are deeply rehumanizing and for that reason they're subversive, whether overtly political or not. Art, and literature above all, is uniquely equipped to convey that indispensable facility, that rare and socially redemptive force, the habit of empathy - of trying to see through the eyes of others and to feel with another's body and heart. I think of literature as putting us face to face - and, at times, hand to hand, in struggle or in love - with strangers. So we're forced to look them in the eyes and see them not as others but as variations on a vast, familiar theme. Ourselves." p. 32

"And surely the first step for any writer who dreams of reaching the cells and cadres of the fed-up and the disaffected is to shun capitulation to the Disneyesque spirit of the age, to Casper, the friendly Zeitgeist; to refuse to fiddle around in cyberspace while the ghettoes burn; to remain a believer, unafraid of the unfashionably serious engagement with human joy and sorrow that still yields meaning and still seeds in readers the socially vital habit of empathy; to resist not only the virtual realities and cyberabstractions of post-modernity but also the atavistic impulse to heroic vitalism, that fascist denial of the modern world that seduced and so often stultified Eliot, Pound, D. H. Lawrence, and others..." p. 48

"...literature is uniquely armed to introduce each new generation of readers to the habit of empathy - of learning to see things through another's eyes and to feel with another's body and heart. Film has an instantaneous power that books can't match, and at its best it makes us see in startling new ways, but only literature can offer the kind of nuanced, qualified, many-dimensioned psychological insights that let us feel things, however briefly, with a stranger's heart. / Fresh poetic images that in some small way change forever the focus and range of the eye; how the inviting openness or alarming finality of a novel's conclusion reawakens readers to the course of their own lives, the possibilities of a life. How the rhythm and music of a poem reawaken sedentary readers to the half-forgotten metres of their own pulses, while certain lines of poetry elicit a primitive, physical response - cause shivering, tears, cause hairs to hackle on the forearm. Re-embody us. Reconnect us to real life." p. 59

There's more...but this gives us a start on contemplation.

Thanks, Steven Heighton.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Writing English as a Second Language

Writing English as a Second Language

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Saturday, October 04, 2008

Elegy for Jacob Bighorn

Lakota Man
(for Jacob Bighorn, d. Oct. 4, 2008)

There are many languages.
There are many colours.
Our rainbow leads to a pot of gold
upon which is written:

Allah'u'abha, Allah'u'abha, Allah'u'abha.

These are the magic words.
These are the chanted psalms
for this day, for every day.
These are words

like confetti, strewn by scattering angels
as you join the winged ones
blessing the weary world.

These are words offered
like the scent of smoke from sweetgrass,
like incantations heard as though from a distant room,
from a sky become water and back again.

Jacob, you climb that ladder
with the ease of a hunter,
with the ease of a master gatherer,
filling your strong arms with bouquets,
garlanded by Ridvan's messengers,
trumpets blowing the new pageantry and party:

Jacob is arriving, is breaching gates
carried by tears of pearl,
tears of joy wept by all these willing ones,
those whom you brought to story,
those whom you brought to prayer
and the power of the chanted incense,
the song you shared through the beating drum
of your stalwart heart:

Allah'u'abha, Allah'u'abha, Allah'u'abha.

Whom will you visit, in the dream world?
With whom will you tarry, offering words
and worlds, wisdom? Whose will be this
benediction, memory carrying us from here
to you in the spirit world, and back.

Pray for them, as they pray for you.

We're praying, Jake, we're singing,
good neighbours here below and there above,
rousing the chorus of forever more,
Jacob, yours forever more in this vale of love.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Here is a lovely link for moviegoers, from my daughter. Enough said.