Nobody’s Fool

Nobody’s Fool

Ruth E. Walker

On the first day of April, it feels right to consider all the times I’ve been fooled in the past. Despite the pandemic upending our world right now, it is probable that plenty of people had something pulled on them this morning.

Of course, some of the April Fools’ Day jokes I’ve endured have been the usual silliness, like the kids hiding under the bed so I’d think they disappeared. Or a decidedly less-than-brilliant piece of mischief like putting plastic wrap between the bowl and the toilet seat (saw the plastic before I sat down…phew!)

Corporate chuckles…

April Fools jokes even find traction in news media. I recall a front page story in London, Ontario, that confirmed a massive dome would be built to cover the city (just think — no more shovelling snow and one bad-ass form of isolation).

The corporate world has had its fair share of April Fools’ foolery. Ikea once had a recall on its “left-handed Allen key.” Can you imagine all the toolboxes upended to find the faulty item?

But for readers of thrilling fiction, Amazon launched a Twitter ad on April 1, 2018 that goes one step further in terms of “delivering” books. Author Patricia Cornwall jumps off her yatch and scuba dives to California to get her book to an avid fan.

How about that for delivering the goods? It’s a joke, of course. But fun to imagine. I’ve always said I’d do anything for my book, but I guess scuba diving is not on that list after all.

Put funny in your fiction?

I suppose we could all benefit from things to laugh about — especially these days. But also consider the power of humour to capture our imaginations and remind us of our gullible, fallible selves. It’s a useful writers’ tool to keep in your writing workshop: the human condition, warts and all.

We Canadians have a long line of writers whose sense of the absurd finds its understated way into stories and novels, chief among them Margaret Atwood. I once told her that her novel Life Before Man was the first novel that made me laugh out loud. In retrospect, I hope she took that as a compliment.

The great American storyteller, Mark Twain, opined that “there are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind — the humorous.”

Indeed. But it’s not often recognized as such. In a May 1, 1916 Maclean’s magazine article, beloved Canadian humourist Stephen Leacock wrote:

“…ordinary people, quite unconsciously, rate humor very low: I mean, they underestimate the difficulty of “making humor.” It would never occur to them that the thing is hard, meritorious, and dignified. Because the result is gay and light, they think the process must be.”  

While writing humour well is difficult, readers do value the end result. Especially from brilliant writers like Margaret Atwood, as well as in the works of Twain and Leacock. Great storytellers have always understood that to hold difficult truths up to the light, humour in its many forms can keep us reading. And more importantly, it can plant the seeds of changed perspectives.

And that is one powerful tool for any writer.

What funny novels or stories have tickled your funnybone just when you needed it most? What writers made you laugh first and then stop and think? On this April Fool’s Day, share with us in the comments.

Writing in Difficult Times

Writing in Difficult Times

Jessica Faust, BookEnds Literary Agency 

Originally posted in BookEnds’ blog, the following is such sage and practical advice for writers that we requested and received permission from Jessica to share her words on our Top Drawer blog. This is an unprecedented and uncertain time in modern history. But there are ways we can all keep our creative flames lit. Write on, as best you can, knowing that we hold the mirrors for the world in which they see themselves. Let’s encourage only the best in each other.

There is no doubt that difficult times make writing harder. When the world seems like it is blowing up, focusing and being creative feels nearly impossible. And yet, deadlines don’t stop just because the world is crazy.

No one thing will work for all people and, certainly, everyone’s situation will be different. But for those seeking guidance, I have some tips.

1. Just keep writing. It doesn’t have to be great. It doesn’t even have to be good, but sitting down every day to put words on paper makes a difference.

2. Shut down social media. When the world is crazy-making we all go to social media for information. It’s useful, but can also be destructive. Pick a few times each day to check-in, limit your time, and get out.

3. Talk about it. If you’re truly struggling, reach out to your agent [or mentors or writing colleagues] and let them know. Sometimes just sharing can release what’s holding you back. It’s okay to admit you’re struggling.

4. Do something else creative–make a cake, knit a scarf, take a photograph, or build a coatrack. Finding something you enjoy outside of writing helps take your mind off what is blocking you.

5. Give yourself a break. Times are tough and it’s okay to acknowledge that you’re struggling. Allow yourself some time if you need it.

I wish you all good health. And promise, the words will come again.

Jessica Faust is President and founder of BookEnds Literary Agency where she represents adult fiction and nonfiction. Her areas of expertise are mystery, suspense, thrillers, women’s fiction, literary and upmarket fiction. She also represents select areas of nonfiction. More about Jessica can be found through her blog, YouTube, and Twitter.

10 Signs You Need A Writing Retreat

10 Signs You Need A Writing Retreat

10 on the 10th for March 2020

When your usual source of inspiration has packed up and moved elsewhere or just thinking about sitting down to work on your writing feels more like a chore than a delight, it may be time for you to escape somewhere to write.

Of course, we’d love it if you joined us at our annual writers retreat Spring Thaw this April but there are other options. From renting a cabin in the woods to pitching a tent in the backyard, there are ways to arrange your retreat from the world. No matter your choice, it’s up to you to get inspired once more and put your focus on your work in progress.

Here’s 10 signs that just might be pointing to your need to get away and write:

1. Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are far more interesting than your current work in progress…even if you fooled yourself into thinking you might find inspiration from other writers posting their success stories.

2. When friends or family ask you how your writing is going, you change the subject. Repeatedly.

3. You spend a lot of time looking up recipes to at least be creative somewhere. That soufflé might be amazing but it won’t look great on your bookshelf three years from now. Your book will.

4. Your day job drains every ounce of creativity you once had and even the days off are lost causes. You yearn for vacation time but then remember that it’s booked up with family events.

5. The name of your main character is hard to remember…or the working title of your book…the name of the antagonist…or why you set a science fiction novel at a seaside resort…it’s all so vague now.

6. You have nightmares about winning the Giller Prize where everyone boos and calls you a hack and they take the cheque back. Really? Doesn’t every writer have that nightmare?

7. You yell “plot hole!” repeatedly at the television and then worry your novel is nothing but plot holes.

8. You can no longer imagine your book being published — in fact, you’ve forgotten why you started the darn thing in the first place.

9. The noise level at home is a constant distraction: kids, pets, neighbours, the dishwasher — you name it, there’s no quiet zone to just reflect.

10. You avoid meeting up with other writers to avoid hearing how well it’s going for them. Not that you don’t care, but really, it is hard to take when you’re in a literary sinkhole of nothingness.

Some of these may be a bit tongue-in-cheek but there’s a ring of truth in all of them. We know, because we’ve experienced them in one form or another. That’s why we offer our escapes.

And for 2020, we’ve opened our country properties to writers who want a self-directed or supported writing escape. Choose from a cozy lakeside home in the Northumberland Hills or a traditional riverside cottage in the Haliburton Highlands. Send us an email at info@writescape.ca for more details.

There are probably 110 signs that a writer needs a writing retreat. Add to our list in your comments.

Same but different

Same but different

Gwynn Scheltema

The sun was out today and I took a photo of the view down to the lake…the same view I’ve taken dozens of times before. Yet I keep taking it because every photo is different.

It made me think of creative writing exercises in a group where everyone gets the same prompt and the results are always different. It also reminded me of several creative exercises that riff off the concept of same but different.

Australian writer, Paddy O’Reilly,  says“Deep and focused attention makes the old new. It recognizes connections between things we thought were unrelated. It throws light on hidden parts of ourselves and others. The attention we pay to the world pays us back as writers.”

View out the window

Poet Ingrid Ruthig taught me that same can be different. The basis of her book Slipstream  was a scene observed out of a window every hour on the hour for eighteen hours.

  • Pick a vantage point: maybe the same window or the same bench in a park or the same table in the café where you write. On different occasions, record what you see. Jot down notes or list randomly on a page. Also, take note of the thoughts that come to your mind that may not seem to have any relevance on the scene. Reminds you of… Same colour as… Makes you feel like the time when…
  • I try to write down at least 30 different observations each time. I find the first 20 are things that everybody sees. The last 10 are the interesting ones.
  • When you’ve done it several times, look for connections or themes or opposites—and see where freefall writing takes you.

The Hunter technique:

Some years ago, I made it into the finals of a slam poetry contest with a poem about naartjies (what Canadians call clementines). It was a poem about my life, but I used the naartjie as a thread to weave different periods in my life together, a technique called the Hunter technique.

In his book Write Your memoir: The Soul Work of Telling Your Story, Allan Hunter describes this technique as a way to rediscover details and memories buried under accumulated life.

  • Select an item we wear, use or make, and that recurs in your life: shoes, sewing machine, apple pie, bathrobe, car, eyeglasses, garden…
  • List 4 to 6 examples of when you had that item in your life. Where were you? Why did you have it? Who was in your life? Note as many details as possible about the item itself: old/new; given/purchased; physical details, etc. Most importantly remember how you felt about that item during the time you had it.
  • Make the connection: Very often the things we own and especially the way we feel about them reflect our emotional state from that time in our lives. Using the objects as a thread we can link different episodes in our lives. Try it…

Alien invasion

My husband and I play a game we call Alien Invasion. We imagine that we are trying to describe things that would seem the same to an alien. For example, all the kinds of moons we see: wolf moon, rain moon, wishing moon… Recently we had a full moon in February—a snow moon. If you were to describe such a moon, what words would you (or your characters) use?

What colour is snow? You’ve only need to spend an afternoon looking at The Group of Seven paintings to realize that it is everything from grey to pink to purple and yellow.

And how about water? What colour is that? Or the sky? Or hillsides?

Hone your observation and vocabulary skills by playing Alien Invasion: Waiting for a bus? Find 3 different ways to describe the bus shelter. Bored travelling in a car? Ask what colour blue the sky is today. Find words for the feeling in your stomach from watching the world woosh by.

That’s not how I remember it

When I read Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible, one of the things I loved most was the different perspectives the five voices telling the story had on the same events.

Weddings, holiday dinners, business meetings. Any occasion that brings people together will be a sea of different emotions, motivations, memories, attitudes, etc., all reacting to the same event.

If one of your scenes seems flat, switch perspectives for a while (just an exercise; you don’t have to keep it.) Once you know the perspective of others in the scene, you’ll be able to make dialogue more effective, and who knows…the scene may even go in a completely different direction.

Last Word

On April 17, 2020, a group of very different writers will all gather at the same place, Elmhirst’s Resort for Writescape’s Spring Thaw Retreat. There are only a couple of spots left, so if you were thinking of joining us, visit our website and secure your spot.

My non-journal

My non-journal

Gwynn Scheltema

I’ve just returned from a couple weeks’ vacation in the sun: idyllic ocean vistas, new taste experiences, and cultural delights. Lots to write about in my daily travel journal…except…when I travel, I don’t write a daily journal; I keep a non-journal.

My Non-journal

My non-journal began when I was on an extended trip back to my childhood home in Zimbabwe to look after an ill relative. What should have been a golden opportunity to stir up old memories and write screeds and screeds of material turned out to be a dry well. I had all the physical sensory impetus around me, but emotionally and mentally I was in a very different place, and just couldn’t write a word.

With that came the guilt: “I should be making the most of this golden opportunity”; “If I just start to write- write anything- I should be able to get going, so why can’t I?”; “Is this self-sabotage?”

In the end, I stopped fighting the ideal and just did what I could: lists, photos and language.

Lists

I began to make lists: a list of local flower names, a list of bird sounds; a list of signs of decay in the house where I was staying……

Making lists freed me up emotionally and mentally, because I didn’t have to craft sentences, and I didn’t have to call on memory or emotion. I gave each list its own page and added to it whenever I could. Even travelling back on the plane, I could add to any of the lists.

Now, years later I look at those lists and realize what a goldmine they are. I have details that I likely wouldn’t have recorded had I been writing a prose piece:

  • half a phone book from ten years ago
  • a dried-up bottle of cochineal
  • iron burn marks on the sheets

Photos

Sure, we all take photos, but we live in a social media age that programs us to take pictures of perfection: beauty, excitement and such—all things we would share with others. Or personal moments with people. Or the food we eat. All that is fine, but in my photo non-journal I also take photos of things for my future writing.

I don’t advocate experiencing life through a lens, so I’m not suggesting that you stop just looking and recording in your memory, merely that when you do stop to take photos, you take a full range of the experiences, not just the “nice bits” or the “Facebook worthy bits”.

I take pictures of the dirty back street one block back from the tourist route, close ups of the kind of garbage lying in that street. I take photos of the menu as well as the food. I take close-ups of flowers and leaves of trees. I take photos of oddities, both pleasant and disturbing, like the old lady asleep, wrapped up in a moth-eaten crocheted blanket on a sunny yellow porch on a thirty-degree day.

Language                                                                                    

One of the best ways to make a character or place seem real in writing is to include local idiom and language. Being unfamiliar, I find cultural phrases are easily forgotten, so in my non-journal I keep pages for jotting down things people say and explanations of what they mean if necessary.

  • dumb as a cow’s arse
  • she flapped her lips
  • give it to Old Pisquick over there
Southern ground hornbill walking in the high grass in the Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe.

I also record foreign language words and phrases that locals pepper their conversation with.

  • names of things – utshani = grass
  • exclamations of surprise—ini indaba? = what’s the matter?
  • orders—faga punzi = put it down

Hidden Gold

Initially, I didn’t have great expectations from the jottings in my non-journal. I think I did it more to assuage the guilt of not writing. But I was wrong.

Those “meaningless” jottings have a peculiar effect when I reread them. Even the smallest snippet has the power to take me back to the time I wrote it. If I open my mind, whole scenes and sequences come back to me. I can use my lists or photos as prompts to write.

And it goes beyond that. For instance, that item in the list above “a dried-up bottle of cochineal” doesn’t just take me to the house where I observed it, but also back to memories of days doing ballet and using cochineal to dye our pointe shoe ribbons pink.

Each non-journal entry is a quiet tendril, moving slowly through my mind encircling memories for me to use now that I am home from my travels.

Dream Your Writing Life

Dream Your Writing Life

Gwynn Scheltema

A new year and new dreams. It can be stifling sometimes to set goals— analyzing what coulda, shoulda, woulda. Instead…

Let’s dream a little…

What do you want your writing life to look like?

The operative word here is “you.” Never mind what others think you should be or do. Never mind about modelling someone else’s writing life. Pay no attention to any nay-sayers out there.

If you could write what you want, when you want, how you want or even not write at all, what would that writing path look like?

Go on… grab a piece of paper and just fantasize. Be bold. Be free. Don’t be hampered by skills, resources, obligations you may or may not have. This is an exercise in digging into your subconscious for what you really want. Write it; draw it; collage it. Doesn’t matter what medium you choose.

  • Why do you want to write?
  • What would you like to write?
  • Where would you like to write?
  • How often?  

So now what?

Phew! I bet that was quite the mental workout. Did you surprise yourself? Did you uncover new aspects to your possible writing journey? Did you leave out any writing you currently do? The chances are, if you were honest with yourself, you did all those things. So now what?

Once you dream it, the next step is to believe it.

Believe it

Stop! I can already hear the reasons for not achieving your dreams bubbling up….not enough time, got to pay the mortgage, I should be… It’s okay. We all know that reality has a habit of stomping on dreams, but I’ve also found in my life that defining what I want is the first step to believing it.

It is like telling my whole being to be on alert. If my conscious mind and subconscious mind are on the same page, (pardon the pun), I notice opportunities more, I take more risks, I’m stronger at dealing with blockers. And the more often I reaffirm to myself what I want, the more I believe it and the more able I am to make it happen.

Nobel Prize winner, Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said, “A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind.” For me that is also a way of thinking of serendipity.

My dream

And I’ve seen it played out many times in my life. In the late 1990s, I was single, divorced, living pay cheque to pay cheque in a tiny townhouse and renting out my spare bedroom to make ends meet. I made a collage vision board of “My life in 10 years’ time”:  A large country home; forest; drifting in a canoe; me in a gardening hat with time to garden; piles of books; a figure seated at a computer typing away; a cat; an easel, grandchildren playing on a swing; words and phrases like “content”; “be a little selfish”; “watching clouds.”

Well, guess what? That is my life now. Knowing what I wanted helped me to seize the opportunity to buy the house I was renting, to have the courage to look for a better paying job, and to find a way to renovate the basement to rent out—all of which eventually allowed me to buy my present country property on the lake.

Knowing where I wanted to go helped me say yes to Ruth when we discussed pooling our writing workshops under a new umbrella, Writescape. And that opened up all sorts of writing path opportunities.

They say that you can’t run a race if you don’t know where the finish line is. I don’t like to think of it as a finish line, because my dreams change. I like to think of it as the next corner or the next bend in the path. I only need to see that far. I’ll dream again when I get there.

Season’s Greetings

Season’s Greetings

Thank you to all our subscribers and clients for your continued support of Writescape. You inspired us throughout 2019, and we hope our wee bit of holiday lyric editing puts a smile on your face and ink in your pen.

With a tip of the toque to Winter Wonderland*

The muse is calling, are you listening?  
Poems and stories; ideas glistening
So pumped we can write
We're happy tonight
Writing in our winter wonderland                                  
Gone away blocks and crying 
Here to stay fingers flying
Good wishes to all
As the words fall and fall
Writing in a your winter wonderland
May the muse be always with you,
Gwynn and Ruth

*Winter Wonderland: composed in 1934, lyrics by Richard Bernhard Smith & music by Felix Bernard. The song is so popular, it has been recorded more than 200 times. Now, how’s that for inspiring?

Handwriting vs. Keyboarding

Handwriting vs. Keyboarding

Gwynn Scheltema

Often among writers, the recurrent discussion over plotting versus pantsing ends with us acknowledging that there is no definitive “winner.” The creative mind, after all, is an elusive, complicated, temperamental entity.

So what about the question: Write by hand or keyboard?

 I’m sure you’ve heard these common arguments for or against:

  • I can’t write as fast as I think!
  • I love the tactile feel of a pen and paper.
  • It’s much easier to carry a notebook with me.
  • I can’t read my own handwriting.
  • I have to waste time typing up what I’ve written afterwards.          

It is already a proven fact that taking notes by hand improves learning, understanding and processing information, and remembering it afterwards. It’s also obvious that our writing needs to be typed up at some point and many of us are faster on the keyboard. We can also edit typed text more readily and send it out.

But, I know for myself, I feel differently when I’m holding a pen. I believe I’m more connected to the work and I feel like I write more authentically. So is there evidence that this could be true? Can our choice of writing implement affect how we create?

My Experience

I’ve been a creative writer for almost thirty years and I write both ways— but I always create in the same patterns:

I always compose poetry longhand,  I do free writing by hand, and I begin fiction pieces longhand.

I prefer to type when I’m working from an outline or extending something that’s well underway. I also find it easier to write genre fiction on the computer than memoir or literary fiction. I always type business writing directly into the computer.

So pulling back and analyzing this, it seems that I choose longhand for projects where I must delve deeply into my creative well and find ideas and get the juices flowing.  I also use it to access memory and emotion. Once I have the ideas in my head, I revert to the keyboard to get the work done. And as business writing for me is largely formulaic, it’s always a case of “getting the work done”.

Could my choices be based in science?

Emotion

We’ve all heard about writing being cathartic, relieving stress and helping diminish trauma. This is one of the great benefits of journalling. And there’s evidence that handwriting may be better for this form of therapy than typing:

Virginia Berninger at the University of Washington concluded from her studies: “When we write a letter of the alphabet, we form it component-stroke by component-stroke, and that process of production involves pathways in the brain that go near or through parts that manage emotion.”

Another 2005 study by Chris R Brewin and Hayley Lennard in the Journal of Traumatic Stress found that writing about a stressful life experience by hand, instead of typing it, led to higher levels of self-disclosure and a greater variety of words used to describe the experience.

Perhaps the emotional component in my poetry. freefall writing and non-genre writing is the reason I prefer to write them longhand?

Motor activity and focus

When we write, we are finding, formulating and externally processing our thoughts, all at the same time.

In the words of neuroscientists, writing is a complicated combination of perception, motor commands and kinesthetic feedback. Writing by hand is a two-way street, an inter-dependency, with the visual focus at the point of the pen.

Typing, by contrast, is a physically disembodied action, we’re focussing only on the screen. There’s no physical two-way communication.

“The primary advantage of longhand is that it slows people down,” says Daniel Oppenheimer, a professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.

That makes sense for my process: The beginning stages of telling my story need to be handwritten. Slowing down gives me more opportunity to access thought and formulate it before communicating it. The kinesthetic process lets me feel more connected. I’m also free to scribble notes, make diagrams, shove in arrows or circle important matter. I’m dealing with an unformed creation and have the freedom to let it speak through me, before it is locked into formal text.

Once the ideas are formed, then typing can take over: faster, more convenient and easily manipulated.

So, handwriting or typing?

As I said at the start, there is no one answer. It’s all up to you. But perhaps knowing a smidgen of the science behind it, you can tailor your own choices.

Or perhaps technology will solve the problem for us with the new wave of e-writers: write by hand and convert to text.

Last word (or video?)

Jake Weidmann is one of only 12 people in the world who holds the title of Master Penman. He sees handwriting as a creative art form in itself and a direct link to his creative mind.

A Panel of Poets

A Panel of Poets

Guest Blog by Antony Di Nardo

But first a word from Gwynn

As mentioned in last week’s blog, The Spirit of Sharing, I was honoured to moderate an unusual literary panel at the Spirit of the Hills Festival of the Arts in Cobourg, Ontario, on October 25, 2019. Four very different poets shared what form their poetry took, what poetry meant to them, what inspired them and what happened when poetry was shared. The Four poets who shared their thoughts on “A Panel of Poets”, were Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate emeritis, American/Canadian poet Katie Hoogendam, subversive poet Wally Keeler and performance poet Dane Swan.

Among the audience members was Antony Di Nardo, a fine poet I first had the pleasure of meeting during the days when Ruth and I were editors for the literary journal Lichen Arts & Letters Preview. As the event progressed, I saw Antony scribbling notes and taking part in the discussions. Later, I asked him if he would mind sharing his observations with you here on The Top Drawer, and to my delight, he agreed. Thank you Antony, and over to you:

The Poetry Panel

Amsden talks of poetry as a state of rapture; Swan listens for its pitter patter; Keeler playfully recites the poet’s prayer in an Anglican chapel and subverts an institution; and for Hoogendam poetry is a world where time can come to a stop. Four poets, four traditions, four perspectives, four very different ways of understanding and questioning. Of giving poetry a forum for human discourse. And Gwynn Scheltema, our moderator, looks for answers.

Readers, writers, thinkers, talking and reflecting across the arts. A panel of poets, in this case, to ratify the only truth there is in poetry: it’s as subjective as personal experience.

Sure, there’s common context and cultural bias, societal slants and preferences, there’s even the current flavour of the month that contributes to shaping a poet’s voice, their choice of words. Each poet occupying their own seat, their own space in time, like every listener in the room. Who else, I wonder, saw the crucifix in the corner from the same angle that I did? The nail plunged into the heart of where the cedar crossbeams met? The lashing? The angel that appeared as a shaft of light?

Vitruvian man

“My mind wanders to Joy Harjo,” says Katie Hoogendam before she reads her own sample selection, and Harjo’s poem, she tells us, is about a farm boy who loses his two-year-old sister to a drowning accident and how he sees his mother descend into grief. The poem is called She Had Some Horses, and Hoogendam calls hers, Vitruvian Man, and while I listen to the narrative that unmistakably is the fabric of her poem, my mind wanders to the crucifix in the corner that is unmistakably Vitruvian.

Poetry is play.

Poetency & Apoetasy

Trucks and dolls and Lego blocks, our very first metaphors, our substitutes for making real (or “realer”) our understanding of the world around us. The Poetician, Wally Keeler, says so and I believe every word he says. In a poet’s mind there can be a new world order and it appears on paper and on the sides of transport trucks and as manifestos and in gleeful fabrications like “wire taps” that serve no purpose but to confront and re-imagine. Metaphor: to cross over and go beyond where no one has gone before. Poetry can do that and never hurt a fly.

Poetry is music, rhythm and jazz

And it takes words to do that says, Ted Amsden. It takes words that you might hear at the foot of a master, Earle Birney, say, who also had horses in his poems or Michael Ondaatje who referred to Ted’s first attempts with a manuscript as “half a beer commercial.”

Poetry is everywhere

And there’s poetry in beer commercials and also in Nathan Philips Square where one day Dane Swan looked down at his bare hands and wrote, “do not look at your hand, look at your hand.” Form he says is a function of the poem’s direction. And poetry, says Ted, happens when you treat yourself as a poet. Both rely on the intuitive, a poet’s first faculty.

Paying attention

Poetry also happens when you pay attention.

When she pays attention, Katie Hoogendam enters another world. The world of the imagination, I suppose, or Wally Keeler’s Imagine Nation, perhaps. Alien to some, familiar to others. It’s a good thing we have words in common to know what we mean. Nevertheless, it’s another place, a place of rescue or a place where you can meet yourself on different terms. Katie will follow an image to the ends of the earth and bring it back to put on the page. And sometimes, as it happens, she’ll open her hands to the sky and the words just fall in.

Poetry is work.

And when we work, we make mistakes, we fail and try again and get it wrong until we get it right. It’s a mind mapping activity, says Dane Swan. He makes a list of themes, supporting images, metaphors, visualizes concepts that fit the tenor of his observations where the poem had its beginnings. It’s a balance of trial and error. Of beauty and terror.

Leave more than you take

Here’s part of a poem by Dane Swan, Soothsayer, that Dane never read:

I am the result of my flaws,
mistakes,
failures,
losses.
Yet treated like a snob,
judged ornery,
misunderstood.


If my destiny is to fall apart
I shall give away my limbs
after using them to print text
hidden under pillows
by those who say my name in vain.


I’ll leave more than I took.

It is a good reason to write poetry, I think. To leave more than you take. One day I will see Wally’s People’s Republic of Poetry as a Broadway Musical. Vitruvian Man will come down from the cross and sashay into poetry. Ted will recite the words vulture and voucher from the back of a motorcycle and Dane will have figured out how to slip barbed wire into a poem.

But for now, I’ll content myself knowing that poetry is its own rapture.

Antony Di Nardo is the author of SKYLIGHT, which includes the long poem suite, “May June July,” winner of the Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Prize. His other books are Roaming Charges (Brick), Soul on Standby (Exile), and Alien, Correspondent (Brick). Born in Montreal, he divides his time between Cobourg, Ontario and Sutton, Quebec.

The Spirit of Sharing

The Spirit of Sharing

Ruth E. Walker

As noted in last week’s Top Drawer, Gwynn and I attended the Spirit of the Hills (SOH) Festival of the Arts in Cobourg, and filled our creative wells with workshops on the craft of writing. But there was more energy and inspiration to be found in the community rooms at St. Peter’s Anglican Church.

Ruth at Writescape’s table

Drawing together the arts of all kinds, the festival celebrated visual arts, music, theatre, dance and literature. And in each of those disciplines, there was a myriad of creative expressions. From Flamenco dancing to fabric art to photography to performance poetry, SOH festival attendees were treated to a rich immersion in the arts.

Not only were there feasts for the eyes and ears, there were several opportunities for collaboration and communication between artists.

Gwynn moderated an intriguing panel discussion between four poets, who proved that poetry is not just an economy of words on the page. Ted Amsden, Cobourg’s poet laureate emeritis was joined on the panel by American/Canadian poet Katie Hoogendam, subversive poet Wally Keeler and performance poet Dane Swan. The audience was challenged to consider how each poet approached their craft

A Royal reception

Hon. Elizabeth Dowdeswell

The arts tend to be taken for granted, so when the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, the Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, entered the exhibition hall on Friday afternoon, the excitement meter rose significantly.

She is the Queen’s representative in Ontario, and in her own words, is “Storyteller in Chief.” Her Honour knows the power of words to engage others, and holds close the stories she hears from her travels throughout the province. Gwynn and I were delighted when she stopped by our table for a brief chat.

Reva Nelson & Piers Walker

On Friday evening, we were treated to an evening of music, dance and theatre. As much as I enjoyed all the offerings, one short play held a special joy.

“Mouse”, by Marie-Lynn Hammond, explores how two different commuters — an introverted older woman and an over-active young man — have far more in common than they first realize. Of course, the fact that I had a connection with the young male actor might have influenced my strong preference. Cannot lie: I’m always a proud mother when I watch any of my children do something they love.

Mixing up the arts

The arts were thrown into a different mix of voices when Saturday’s lunchtime panel, moderated by Alan Bland, brought together poet Dane Swan, multi-talented singer-songwriter David Newland, award-winning author K.D. Miller and opera singer turned author and editor, Christopher Cameron. The audience engaged in a free-ranging discussion on the challenges and benefits of sharing across the arts.

Our consensus? There’s a definite richness of thought when artists of various disciplines take the time to talk with and learn about each other.

Marie-Lynn Hammond
& San Murata
Gwynn reading poetry

But the best example of sharing across the arts, for me, was the very cool Words on the Wire, multi-media event on Saturday afternoon. Video poems engaged our eyes and minds, exquisite music and singing rose to the rafters in the chapel setting, pioneer Susanna Moodie addressed the audience, and poetry and prose was shared by diverse voices. Musician and songwriter Marie-Lynn Hammond was joined by acclaimed violinist San Murata. And a personal favourite of mine, Gwynn Scheltema, read two gorgeous poems from her poetry manuscript.

By bringing together a diverse gathering of arts and artists, the Festival attracted the attention of the Queen’s representative, someone who regularly consults with the provincial government and who articulated her belief in the power of grassroots art and volunteer activity to bring people together and enrich their lives. The Festival showcased the work of creative people in a public, accessible place. But more than that, Spirit of the Hills festival organizers created a space in which artists could share ideas, inspiration and art forms with each other.

The Festival of the Arts is held every two years in Northumberland County. I’ll be marking fall 2021 on my calendar to be ready for another immersion in the many creative experiences that will be on offer. In the interim, I’ll be looking at ways I might collaborate with various artists to see what synergy can develop.

Collaboration + creative people = ??? Share in the comments what you think can come out of collaboration across art forms.

Collaboration Opportunity

Applications have just opened for Halls Island Artist Residency in Haliburton County. For summer 2020, organizers are dedicating one 12-day residency for up to four artists who want to collaborate on a project(s).

main cabin

Halls Island is an off-grid, eco-sensitive island on Koshlong Lake. Residencies are available to artists of all disciplines. Other than a $10 non-refundable application fee, residencies are free to successful applicants.

“As an environmental artist and geo-poet, the Island itself was a way to rejuvenate, and become re-inspired in my practice.”


Sophie Edwards, artist residency at Halls Island, 2019

Applications and additional details are available online.