March 10, 2017

S. E. Venart: A Poem

S. E. Venart

Some things cannot be faced head on. Inside
the bay, men in boots come with shovels, open our
washed ocean floor. The thoughts I can never lose

or use spout from the sanded throats of clams beneath
what the tide exposes. Two years after your death, you’re back
visiting my sister’s yard, admiring the lilacs. Some things cannot

be faced head on. When the men climb in a dinghy, they accept
a black mask and plunge for whores’ eggs: prickled delicacies
to be eaten, peeled, by eastern men. These thoughts I will never lose

lie beneath our bay’s smooth skin, it’s coming in, low tide holds
its copper strength for only sixty seconds. I have no time
to fix you in place before you’re gone. Some things cannot be faced head on.

This visit, you stood by tiny lilac flowered flutes, unruffled
bay behind you. All pettiness aside, I can’t be the daughter pulling
something hopeful from your thoughts. I must never lose

you, but we are allowed a break. On the peeling rust stones, the tide
stops in its moment— nothing to heed. The black suits dive for gold
among our waves. Some things cannot be faced head on.
What I can never lose, I’ve used.

March 8, 2017

Bicycle Thieves

Among my most anticipated of 2017, this from Mary di Michele, officially out in April.

The poems entered me like starlight, like messengers from another planet.

You can read some of them over at Numero Cinq, and in the Vallum Press chapbook Montreal Book of the Dead. 

"A masterwork from one of Canada's most important poets" at ECW Press

January 30, 2017

MAKING A FIST: Naomi Shihab Nye

Today this poem, from the Poetry Foundation website. Read more poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, and about her life and work, there.

Making a Fist
    We forget that we are all dead men conversing with dead men.
                                                                  —Jorge Luis Borges

For the first time, on the road north of Tampico,
I felt the life sliding out of me,
a drum in the desert, harder and harder to hear.
I was seven, I lay in the car
watching palm trees swirl a sickening pattern past the glass.
My stomach was a melon split wide inside my skin.

“How do you know if you are going to die?”
I begged my mother.
We had been traveling for days.
With strange confidence she answered,
“When you can no longer make a fist.”

Years later I smile to think of that journey,
the borders we must cross separately,
stamped with our unanswerable woes.
I who did not die, who am still living,
still lying in the backseat behind all my questions,
clenching and opening one small hand.

Naomi Shihab Nye, “Making a Fist” from Grape Leaves: A Century of Arab American Poetry. Copyright © 1988 University of Utah Press. 

Image by Nina Tara, courtesy of Red Edge Images

January 13, 2017

Ronna Bloom: A Poem

Ronna Bloom

I write poems for money ––
where the giving over
is immediate, before the fact
of the poem, the hill-climb of heart,
the pillage of cells, the language
eruption. It is all and only
in response. The conversation
with silence tapped out
like an invisible ink, held to light.
The cash – a dollar or a thousand –
simply the glow I'm held to;
the person saying: ‘Do it for me.
Here is my door ­–– will you
open it? Hold it open for me to enter?
Will you leave me there alone?’
When the poem is written and I am gone,
it is in the hands of the lover,
as a lover leaves another behind
with the satisfaction and grief
of their own life, shared,
but taken back ultimately
into their skin. It was
always yours. I only held it
up to the light, I only
saw it flickering, caught it like a
moth in my hand and
gave it back.

Ronna Bloom

(from Queen's Quarterly by permission of the author)

Ronna Bloom is a writer, teacher, psychotherapist, and author of five books of poetry. She is Poet in Community to the University of Toronto and Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital. Pedlar Press will publish her sixth book of poems in October.

January 6, 2017

The Poet is IN: Ronna Bloom and the Rx for Poetry

For several years now the poet Ronna Bloom has worked as Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital, dispensing poetry to patients and staff in need of what poems offer. I chatted with Ronna about her work in this program: how it came to be and how it unfolds in her own and others' lives. 

SUSAN GILLIS: Often I come across references to you being busy with "the hospital gig." Could you explain what "the hospital gig" is? How did it begin -- was it an existing position, or did you (or someone else) propose it and convince somebody that it would fly?

RONNA BLOOM: I created a job at University of Toronto called “poet in community” nine years ago, after leaving my job as a therapist in counseling services because poetry was calling more loudly. 

Before I left I would go into staff meetings — you know how staff meetings can be sometimes intense — and because I had to say something that was making me nervous, I brought in a poem to start. They all knew I was a poet “over there in the other part of my life” but here I was, bringing it in. Mainly to calm myself down, but also maybe to make a different space in the room. 

When I went on leave from that job to work on a book, a colleague said “will you be coming in to give us a poem?” I was baffled and realized that it did something for her

This raised the question for me, which I followed: what was that, that poetry did for my former colleague? What did poetry do in places where it wasn’t expected? 

And so Poet in Community came to be. 

SG: Tell me about that program. 

RB: It's a program about connecting the parts of ourselves that are in silos and letting them all be in the same room to write. Like the student who is a mother who is having an affair who is devoutly religious who likes chocolate who studies chemistry etc. And how we don’t tell people these parts but they’re always all there. 

The Whitman quote has been my signature since the start: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large. I contain multitudes." So with a bit of funding cobbled together by various Student Life services like the Multi-Faith Centre, Hart House, Academic Success, the Sexual Assault Counsellor of Health and Wellness…. we started in 2008, this program where people could write and explore the meeting place of all the parts of themselves — the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical — because it’s always all happening anyway, right? And then if they want, share it with the others there, the freedom not to share being key. 

SG: Was this a full-time job at this point? How does it connect to your work at the hospital? 

RB: No, never full time. It was where I began this practice of poetry and it started to move. 

Around then I'd begun teaching the course “Personal Narrative: Inventing Your Truth,” at U of T's School of Continuing Studies, a course I inherited from the storyteller Helen Porter when she got ill. The phrase ‘personal narrative’ got the attention of Dr. Allan Peterkin at Mount Sinai Hospital. Allan is the founder and director of the Health, Arts & Humanities program at U of T ( and an incredible force for the work of the arts and humanities in health care and education. This was not all in place in 2008, but the field of Narrative Medicine has been exploding nationally and internationally, and Allan is a key figure. 

So back then we had coffee and a big chat and he invited me to try out a few of the workshops I had been doing for the Poet in Community program — workshops which aim to offer a space, without grades or bosses, where a person could write on a particular theme exploring something that mattered to them. In 2011 we did a pilot program where I went in and did a bunch of open workshops, which any staff member at the hospital could come to. Some of the names of my workshops are “Writing Your way Out of a Paper Bag” (for stuckness of all kinds), “Awake at Work” (about presence and the senses in the workplace), “What if you didn’t? And other questions to ask when you’re exhausted”, and “Be Good to Yourself, Whoever You Are.” We did five or so of these open workshops for staff in 2011. 

SG: These sound great. Many people would stop there and say, this is working out well. But you had a different vision. 

RB: In 2012, three of us -- Allan Peterkin, Melissa Barton, head of Occupational Health and Wellness, and I -- applied to the Ontario Arts Council for an Artists in the Workplace/Community grant. With this type of grant, the workplace needs to match the funds, and Melissa was willing and able to do that. Our idea was to create the Poet in Residence program. Workshops for staff, which we'd already demonstrated were successful, formed the mainstay of our proposal, but we also proposed a talk for Grand Rounds, a Spontaneous Poetry Booth (which I had started at U of T), and coaching sessions. 

Essentially my working method is that all I need is a lead who gets what I do — and wants it — a little bit of funding, and we can do anything. We make it up together. 

SG: What are Grand Rounds? 

RB: Wikipedia tells me that “Grand Rounds are an important teaching tool and ritual of medical education and inpatient care, consisting of presenting the medical problems and treatment of a particular patient to an audience consisting of doctors, residents and medical students." 

It's where doctors and residents present cases to a group of assembled other health care professionals and guests. For me it was a very scary prospect. I was asked to present at Grand Rounds for the Psychiatry Department after I'd been there for a year. My talk was called "The Reflecting Poem: What Can Poetry Do in Health Care". (The talk is included in Keeping Reflection Fresh: A Practical Guide for Clinical Educators, published last year by Kent State University Press.) 

I talked about the workshops and The Spontaneous Poetry Booth -- where I write people poems on the spot for a dollar on the subject of their choosing. In that my aim is to listen to the request, the content and the feelings, to wait for the first line, and then write. It's a crapshoot. I try to hear and write what's coming, and then, good or bad, I give it to them. So during rounds I talked about writing poems for people in the hospital cafeteria and then of course I read poems as part of the talk. I do love giving talks -- but I can't bear to leave without offering even the most hesitant (doctors, nurses, students…) a chance to write. I wait till I've talked for a while and shared enough poems that they're ripe. I asked them what they needed a poem for in one line. Then I asked them to write the poem. I think at Grand Rounds it was a very unexpected thing. 

SG: This is such a great and simple formulation: identify a need, attempt to fill it. What about the idea of dispensing poems? How did that come about, and who can get a poem prescribed for them? 

RB: The Rx for Poetry came later. I was asked to do something in the waiting room of Family Medicine. We felt The Spontaneous Poetry Booth might be a bit too intense. It's strange but when the poem hits the mark it can be very undoing. A nicer way to say it is that it sometimes articulates what hasn't been said. So something else was needed in the waiting room where people might be even more raw than in the cafeteria. We came up with the idea of poems already printed on prescription pads, like a medicine chest of poetry I could rifle through to see what fits. (Read more about how Rx for Poetry works here.) 

SG: What do you have inside that medicine chest right now? I imagine there must be some William Carlos Williams, given his habit of composing poems on prescription pads. Does his work in any way inform what you are doing? What are some of the poems you've prescribed, and for what conditions?

RB: Ack, I have no poems by Williams. I use them in workshops, though -- that red wheelbarrow sometime wakes people up. I have a very idiosyncratic way of choosing poems. Basically I'm trying to plug into the feeling, starting with my own experience, and then I go looking in books, online, in memory. Sometimes, bizarrely, just when I'm pulling my hair out because I can't find one that meets the need -- I’m thinking right now of a workshop I did last fall for 40 OB/GYNS in London Ontario, and this Lucille Clifton poem arrives in my inbox, "Won't You Celebrate with Me." Amazing! And I had to play her reading it because I wanted them to get a hit of her power and presence. 

I will now go looking for some Williams. 

The key is always that the poem is the active ingredient between the need and person. As in a prescription. It is an alchemy. One by Hafiz I use a lot:

          I wish I could show you,
          When you are lonely or in darkness,
          The astonishing light
          Of your own Being! 

I use poems by Emily Dickinson (Bees), Langston Hughes (Still Here), Hafiz and others, as well as some of my own. Someday I'd like to get my friends and local or far-flung contemporary poets to send me poems. They have to be short! Perhaps that will come next. 

I joke that I'm allowed to double dose, etc. This too can be powerful. It always surprises me how acrobatic the poems are -- how one poem that seems to respond to a need speaks to something completely different in the next minute. 

A little note about prescribing: I like to be with the person, or at least on the phone. To hear someone's voice, feel what's happening -- these are important in a relationship of care and attention. Which I think this is, even though it lasts only ten minutes or so. Also, I read the poem out loud so I can see immediately whether it has impact. Like a prescription, you know pretty fast if it works. Then I sign it and hand it to them. There's something potent, too, about this little slip of paper. 

SG: Are there poems you could prescribe for someone suffering from the anxiety malaise many of us are experiencing as we move into a year of major change in the North American political landscape? I think I need a strong dose of whatever it is poetry offers. 

RB: What I’d offer would depend on the day, the weather, the news and how I am feeling too. The "doctor," or whoever is in that position, their feelings are also there, whether acknowledged or not. It's useful for me to know if I'm bringing my own hopelessness or agency. The day after the American election I posted my poem "No Poem" on Facebook. I can imagine now many others I might have posted, but it was a moment of grief for me, and for many of us, and this one fit.

The Hebrew phrase tikkun olam refers to healing the world, that is, picking up the shards that are broken, feeling the pain and shock of that, and being with the pain. Maybe poems are a portal to that way of being. The word 'healing,' though, makes me nervous. It feels like it expects too much. Likewise, the word ‘prescription.’ The poems I offer are not prescriptive. I think of them as little flags of possibility. 

Doing this by email, with spans of days between questions and responses, it’s hard to know the exact tone of the anxiety malaise. Is it dread? Hopelessness? Panic? And what does it need? Comfort? Courage? The poem that comes is Cavafy's "Growing in Spirit." 

Ronna Bloom is a writer, teacher, psychotherapist, and author of five books of poetry. She is Poet in Community to the University of Toronto and Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital. Pedlar Press will publish her sixth book of poems in October 2017. 

Do you have a poem you'd like to offer the Rx program? For more details, contact Ronna at her webpage,

November 30, 2016

The Certainty of Poetry

This week I find myself returning, not for the first time, to Kate Hall's shivery-perfect 2009 book The Certainty Dream.

A young writer is standing in my office. She barely knows she's a writer. She has materialized from somewhere down the hall and is standing there practically giving off sparks of electricity, sputtering and catching like a combustion engine, talking about poems and other things writers make and do.

I pull down this book and show her the poem "Dream in which I Am Allowed Twelve Items." It's a poem I return to often. I can't help reading parts of it out loud.

Let me let me let me the poem pleads.

The young writer doesn't know quite what to do with it, but that doesn't stop her.

The Certainty Dream is full of poems like this, poems that erupt into my consciousness and take up residence there, poems so sure of their desire and unknowing they change me.

Let me have and let and let and let and let, the poem urges, its lists becoming ever more intricate and complex. And let it all count as one thing.

There are so many books I want to read that have yet to arrive. Kate Hall's next is one of them (though I understand it may be close). This young writer's is another. She stands there almost out of words, ready to break into utterance.

November 9, 2016

On Poetry & Teaching after Nov 8, 2016

In my Cegep class Poetry & Wilderness we're reading Sue Goyette's brilliant book Ocean.
As usual, I’m asking myself, what do I want my students to take away from our time together today?

My answer is the same as always: Respect for ideas, for each other, for themselves, for the planet; for writing that demands they open their minds; for receptivity. Moments of joy, or at least pleasure, in learning and discovery. Courage when faced with challenges. And the courage not so much of convictions but of doubt, of expression of doubt. Of the usefulness of doubt. 

This American election shows that none of this, for now, is of value.

I don’t know how to model this. I don’t know how to respect this election. 

Today I have nothing. To contemplate a world in which none of this matters is anguish. To accept a world in which none of this matters is impossible.

But despair, the real despair I suffer as a human, is not useful. 

Therefore I continue.

December 16, 2015

Opening a Place: Ben Lerner in LRB

Back in the summer of 2015 when I still liked poetry, liked it idly, as I was gardening, say, or doing the dishes, that is, without thinking about it too much, I missed Ben Lerner's inviting consideration of poetry (and Poetry) in the London Review of Books (18 June 2015 issue).

Coming to it over coffee this morning with the first snow of the season melting from the deck, I experienced a renewal of sorts.

Here it is, in case you missed it too, or would simply like to return to it now.

December 1, 2015

Truth and Surfaces: Gabe Foreman In Conversation

Gabe Foreman makes poems that render little secrets in image and music; they often turn corners into the unexpected: streets, parks, neighbourhoods, backyards and byways of the adventuring psyche.

SUSAN GILLIS: How did you first come to poetry?

GABE FOREMAN: I think that the writing of poetry first came to me on a school bus. When I was a teenager, I used to ride one of those big yellow buses with a friend and neighbour who went to a different school. She had been given an assignment to write a handful of love poems for her English class, for Valentines Day. When she asked me if I would write the poems for her, I agreed. I can't remember the content of the poems very well, but I do remember that it was liberating to write poems as somebody else. I had written things for my own courses, but something about ghost-writing poems for a friend made the process more relaxed, and more fun. I wasn't trying to make them too good, and that probably made the poems better. If I remember correctly, I think we got a satisfactory grade.

In terms of reading poetry, I remember enjoying the mix of darkness and humour in poets like Leonard Cohen, and T.S. Eliot, that I was assigned to read for my own creative writing course. I liked the darkness, and the surprising imagery, and the rhymes.

SG: I'm interested in what you say about ghost-writing -- not exactly in the voice of a persona, more like you-not-you. Do you still write this way? Is it one of the necessary conditions? What else have you carried forward from those formative experiences with poetry?

GF: I think that the 'you-not-you' observation makes sense. There is a personal core to a lot of what I write, but I'm more than happy to change the terms of the argument in the original draft for the sake of humour, imagery, sound, or some other aesthetic goal. I feel like the 'truth' of the original experience remains in some form, and the reader can detect it. Maybe that's false, but I think that starting poems from real experiences, or from ideas that I care about, makes a difference in how I write a poem, and adds an important element of contrast to the end result. Is the poem serious or is it a joke? I like absurdity and humour, but I feel like my favourite humour has a current of some 'serious' experience running underneath it, muddying the waters.

In 2003, I was at a talk by Margaret Avison where she said that when she was three years old, she went outside with a toy shovel to play in her sandbox, but was disappointed to find that the sand had frozen solid because winter was coming. No one had told her that the sand could do that. She told us that the devastation she felt at that moment was as real as any devastation she had felt since. Emotions do not age, she said. I thought that was wise and interesting and tried to apply this general principle to my first book. I wanted to keep the emotive core of the things I write about, the truth of the emotion, but play around with the surface details.

In A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People I tried to deploy a lot of vaguely universal places, nameless cities and lakes, so that the action was potentially taking place anywhere. I broke that rule more than once, and named specific places, but I wanted to use a host of generic Dick-and-Jane sort of names, so that the characters were somewhat interchangeable, cardboard cut-outs of you and me, on the assumption that our similarities may outweigh our differences. We've all experienced grief, love, disappointment, etc. A lot of the silliest poems in A Complete Encyclopdia are actually kind of personal. I write about failed and successful friendships, love, anger, insecurities, ideas, and more specifially, about my father's suicide, but I like to change things and have fun with language. I've changed names to protect the reality, to mimic encyclopedic objectivity, and at the same time, to poke fun at that objectivity. It's me, but it's not me.

Gabe Foreman grew up in Northwestern Ontario. His first collection, A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People (Coach House, 2011) was awarded the A.M. Klein Prize for poetry, and was shortlisted for the Concordia First Book Prize. More recently, he has read several poems as an on-air guest at the CBC Montreal morning show, Daybreak, and illustrated two books: Halifax Hal, by Nick Thran (Bayeux Arts) and The Rude Story of English, by Tom Howell (Random House). Gabe lives in Montreal where he manages a soup kitchen. Read his poem Mammoth here.