July 18, 2019


Word-hoard, lone-wolf, stormcloud, throw: Tanis MacDonald on four paths that brought her to poetry -- and poetry to her.

Path #1: word-hoard

I was a reading kid, a memorizing kid, a reciting kid. I learned to read with oddly Victorian books: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Stevenson’s A Child‘s Garden of Verses, an illustrated Grimm’s Fairy Tales as big as a phone book. I suspect that my grandmother’s educated friends bought these books for me. I know that my parents didn’t, though they read them to me night after night until I was old enough to read by myself. Each of these books, and the other book I heard read aloud in the first few years of my life, the King James Bible, used incantatory and repetitive language. Words crowded into my head and stuck.

To this day, I have a strong aural memory and sensitivity to sound. If I quiet my mind enough, smooth down the shoutiness of the day and just listen, I can hear a voice in my head that speaks poetry nearly all the time. This is not an auditory hallucination so much as it is what I think of as the underlying babble of consciousness. I never took creative writing courses at university; I was in a big rush to graduate and move thousands of miles away, and I was a bit suspicious that creative writing courses would interfere with the good thing I had going on in the privacy of my mind. So taking my first poetry writing workshop was a trip to another planet.

Prose was someone else’s language for a long time. I wanted a way to refer to everything I didn’t read about. Poetry seemed like a private language that was public, and eventually, a public language that was private. Poetry gave me the chance to bring together the consonances I couldn’t make sense of but also couldn’t ignore. Somewhere along the way, I decided that language belonged to me. There were people along the way who said yes keep going but my beginnings were modest, and mostly my practice still is.

Path #2: to have and to have not

Beginner writers often ask me how I started, looking for practical ways to think of themselves as writers. So it’s important to say all the things I didn’t have and became a poet anyway. I didn’t have a mentor, or the encouragement of someone powerful in publishing, or an MFA. I didn’t have a family member who was a practicing artist of any kind. I also had no standards to live up to and no one to especially care what I wrote or why, and that is a certain kind of freedom.

My lone-wolf literary existence suits me in many ways: some by choice and some by circumstance. I live in a small city that is beginning to find its feet through the work of a new generation of artmakers. I’ve had a front-row seat on the highs and lows of that kind of development, all while being a public writer and a private person. Some of the people who are making the public scene in Kitchener-Waterloo were my students five or ten years ago, and I think my contribution has been, mostly, the fact that for the last fourteen years of teaching I have stood in front of 120-200 strangers every four months and called myself a writer. Many of those strangers thought “who cares?” but I’m not doing it for the majority.

Path #3: the recovering actor

I started writing poetry because it was impressionistic and weird and a bit mysterious: a lens in front of a screen behind a veil in a stormcloud. It made sense only when you looked at it from all sides. It used language that revealed its opacity. There is no question that feminism became important to me as soon as I started to write seriously, because the patriarchy hates a young woman who takes herself seriously.

Theatre training was an unexpectedly great incubator for poetry. Poems are personae or tiny one-act plays; every utterance is important. My theatre training placed an emphasis on letting the audience work to make meaning from the text as performed, so I was lucky – I got to skip a beginner’s step in poetry, though I didn’t understand that until much later. I arrived at poetry thinking that my voice ought to be bigger than I was, a legacy of my apprenticeship in the theatre, where I had absorbed the lesson that I was dull but characters were endlessly fascinating. Not a bad lesson, all things considered.

Path #4: suddenly, slowly

The April I turned ten, I suddenly understood how to throw a baseball. I felt that physical knowledge in the line of muscle down my shoulder into my arm to my grip on the ball now releasing with alarming speed and accuracy. It may have been tipped off by something my father said – use your whole arm, or follow through – advice that made no sense until suddenly it did and I was hitting the small target of his glove over and over. I came to poetry like that. We should all say the ordinary about our origins. I came to poetry with a good deal of puzzlement. I wasn’t a prodigy. I wrote without thought to publication. I came to poetry with no expectations; I stayed because I had created a space for poetry in my own head that wasn’t easily shaken.

Tanis MacDonald is the author of Out of Line: Daring to Be an Artist Outside the Big City and the co-editor of GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos for Our Times (2018). The Daughter's Way was a finalist for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literary Criticism. She received the Bliss Carman Prize in 2003 and the Mayor's Poetry City Prize for Waterloo in 2012. She has taught at the Sage Hill Writing Experience, and won the Robert Kroetsch Teaching Award from the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs in 2017. Originally from Winnipeg, MacDonald now lives in Waterloo, Ontario, and teaches Canadian Literature and Creative Writing at Wilfrid Laurier University. Mobile, among other things a feminist reconsideration of Dennis Lee's Civil Elegies, is forthcoming from Book*hug in Sept 2019.

June 21, 2019


A brilliant appointment! Alice Oswald, Oxford Professor of Poetry, the first woman to serve in that role in its three-hundred-year existence.
Alice Oswald photo by Kate Mount


    as soon as each tree becomes
particular and a working  wood
emerges and the river begins to speak
back with underwater woodland 

(Alice Oswald, Falling Awake Norton 2016)

April 30, 2019


Rainer Maria Rilke 
from DUINO ELEGIES, Ninth Elegy, Lines 43-52 (Trans. A. Poulin, Jr.)

This is the time for what can be said. Here
is its country.  Speak and testify.  The things

we can live with are falling away more

than ever, replaced by an act without symbol.

An act under crusts that will easily rip

as soon as the energy inside outgrows

them and seeks new limits.

Our hearts survive between

the hammers, just as the tongue between

the teeth is still able to praise.

I read these lines when I was a graduate student working on the new field of ecopsychology. They gave voice to so much of what I was feeling at the time that I held them close for the rest of my student days. Decades later, now, I still recite them often.

This is the time…for moral courage, for giving honest testimony about this epochal historical moment we share, all of us on the cliff edge together.

The things we can live with…are, in my reading, all those more-than-human kin—the Butterflies, Song Birds, Grizzly Bears—the great community of all beings—that give our own human life its coherence. “One does not meet oneself,” said the naturalist Loren Eisley, “until one catches the reflection from an eye other than human.” But these things we can live with are falling away more than ever, in an accelerating event of mass extinction.

What replaces our falling-away relationships? A great cry of pain held under crusts. A mass of felt experience that can find no symbolic mirror in a world that ideologically denies or de-languages our kinship with the rest of life. The act of ripping the crusts and seeking new limits is the movement toward new forms of expression, new social imaginaries and ways of producing our lives together, that can reconstruct an existential space of relation with the wild world. This is the work of ecopsychology.

Our hearts survive between the hammers…, which means we are still able to praise. From reading Rilke, I have come to love the word still. Our hearts still beat. And so we can still sing the world, still feed the gods with beauty, as we face those hammers.

Andy Fisher is author of Radical Ecopsychology: Psychology in the Service of Life (2nd Ed.). He keeps up an active schedule of teaching and writing, while also working as a rites of passage guide, mentor, and psychotherapist.

April 26, 2019


Wendell Berry, born Aug 5, 1934, is an American novelist, poet, essayist, environmental activist, cultural critic and farmer.  His writing is grounded in the notion that one’s work ought to be rooted in and responsive to place. From 1979 to the present, Berry has been writing what he calls “Sabbath poems”.  The poems are inspired by Berry’s withdrawal from civilization and consumer culture when he walks onto the land on Sunday mornings.  As he puts it, “I go free from the tasks and intentions of my workdays, and so my mind becomes hospitable to unintended thoughts – to what I am very willing to call inspiration.”

Wendell Berry
(from This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems)

I go among trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.

I literally knew nothing about Wendell Berry when I decided, with little thought, to bring along this poem on a three-day wilderness fast, on a piece of land I had come to know and love through the four seasons. The first line of the poem appealed -- I knew I was going among trees to sit still with an intention to embrace my aging mind and body at this crossroads in my life.  By choosing to cross the threshold into a different mode of being from the busy-ness that had become my life, I hoped to create a space to really “see” myself and the world I was embedded in a deeper way.  In order to become alive to the place through all my senses, to deeply immerse into my dreams, my imagination, the soul of the world around me,  I brought my sketch book and this poem that I intended to memorize by heart while on the fast. 

And I brought something else which has haunted me my whole life – a healthy dose of fear and trepidation.

Then what is afraid of me comes
and lives a while in my sight.
What it fears in me leaves me,
and the fear of me leaves it.

It sings, and I hear its song.

As I emptied myself of food, drinking only water, I became nourished by the wildness around me.  I sketched for hours the beauty of land, and began to learn the poem “by heart”.  I was allowing myself to be opened and changed by the intermingling of the land and creation of art.  Wendell Berry says “Nothing exists for its own sake, but for the harmony greater than itself which includes it.  A work of art, which accepts this condition, and exists upon its terms, honors the Creation, and so becomes a part of it”. And as the wild ones came, the otters, the squirrels, the bluejays, “singing their songs” I realized that the poem was a part of the unfolding of the experience.

Then what I am afraid of comes.
I live for a while in its sight.
What I fear in it leaves it,
and the fear of it leaves me.

It sings, and I hear its song.

It was on the second day of the fast that I began to wonder about this 3rd stanza of the poem. The act of speaking the words aloud vibrated and resonated through my being, calling them forth into the world I was now so deeply engaged with.  “Then, what I am afraid of comes.” And around dusk, with the golden light permeating the rocks, water, trees and sky - it came.  And I cannot share more in words, because the moment was so deeply sacred. 
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last,
and I sing it.  As we sing,
the day turns, the trees move.

And so, in the arc of a life, as my face wrinkles, and my teeth begin to fall out, I am reminded by this experience to embrace it all.  My heart is opening to a deeper creativity,  immersed in a mystery that is so much greater, where I hear my song at last.  

Jill Dunkley, Still Life with Deer Skull, Nest and Feather
Jill Dunkley practices and teaches yoga and mindfulness in rural Eastern Ontario. A pivotal question for her is how these practices help to ground our experience in the natural world. See more about Jill at https://www.yoga-therapy.ca/

April 23, 2019


Sometimes a poem will slap you in the face. "Tulips" by Sylvia Plath is one such poem. 

The poem is a painting of white on white with a sudden splash of red. Like white hotel sheets with a stain of menstrual blood. Shocking and explosive.

In the poem the narrator is in a hospital bed.She seeks oblivion. Pure. Winter white. Colourless. Emotionless. Empty. The only colours are the green of the trolley car and the black pill box of her overnight bag.

There is a nautical flavour to the poem. Nurses float by like seagulls. She is the pebble that is soothed by their hands. She sees herself as a thirty year-old-cargo boat being swabbed clear of loving associations. The husband and the child in the photo are little smiling hooks. Her belongings sink out of sight and the water envelops her. She is nothing. She lies “Like an eye between two white lids”. She is in a snow white emptiness. “I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.”

And then the tulips enter the poem , wrapped in gift paper. She can hear them breathing lightly, “through their white swaddling, like an awful baby.”
The tulips suck oxygen from the room. They are too red. They are too loud. They are like a dozen red sinkers around her neck. They are dangerous animals who should be behind bars.

They haul her back from sinking into nothingness.
She becomes aware of her heart opening and closing. “Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.”

Then the closing lines; 
“The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea.
And comes from a country far away as health.”

The poem was written two weeks after Plath suffered a miscarriage. She is in hospital recovering from an attack of appendicitis.  Throughout her life Plath suffered from clinical depression. Her five year marriage is fragile. She and her husband Ted Hughes separate the following year. On February 11, 1963, she commits suicide.
I read this poem when I was a young wife and mother. I had never been exposed to modern poetry. As a student in the 1950s, we only read dead white male poets: Chaucer, Donne, Shakespeare. If we were introduced to a female poet, chances are the subject she wrote about would have been home fires, children, nature and flower gardens.

Reading “Tulips” was a shock. I knew what lying in a starched sheeted hospital bed was like. I also knew how to lie perfectly still to quiet the pain of a tooth ache or diverticulitis. I knew if I didn’t breathe, I wouldn’t disturb the beast.

I also could identify with savouring the pure white emptiness of nothingness. One of my favourite experiences in the water is to do the deadman’s float. To test how long I can float without breathing. 
I also knew what it was like to lose myself. To put my husband and children’s needs before my own. To tether myself to them. To be bereft when they were gone from my axis. Who was I when I wasn’t wife or mother? 

It is a wonder to me to be able to paint with words, the startling contrast between the arctic wasteland and the excited red tulips. They call her back from the precipice of annihilation. The sadness I feel knowing how Plath ended her life is ameliorated by the wonderful gift of her life. 
Marilee Pittman is a grandmother, gardener and retired lawyer living in Corner Brook, NL

Sylvia Plath

The tulips are too excitable, it is winter here.
Look how white everything is, how quiet, how snowed-in.   
I am learning peacefulness, lying by myself quietly
As the light lies on these white walls, this bed, these hands.   
I am nobody; I have nothing to do with explosions.   
I have given my name and my day-clothes up to the nurses   
And my history to the anesthetist and my body to surgeons.

They have propped my head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff   
Like an eye between two white lids that will not shut.
Stupid pupil, it has to take everything in.
The nurses pass and pass, they are no trouble,
They pass the way gulls pass inland in their white caps,
Doing things with their hands, one just the same as another,   
So it is impossible to tell how many there are.

My body is a pebble to them, they tend it as water
Tends to the pebbles it must run over, smoothing them gently.
They bring me numbness in their bright needles, they bring me sleep.   
Now I have lost myself I am sick of baggage——
My patent leather overnight case like a black pillbox,   
My husband and child smiling out of the family photo;   
Their smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks.

I have let things slip, a thirty-year-old cargo boat   
stubbornly hanging on to my name and address.
They have swabbed me clear of my loving associations.   
Scared and bare on the green plastic-pillowed trolley   
I watched my teaset, my bureaus of linen, my books   
Sink out of sight, and the water went over my head.   
I am a nun now, I have never been so pure.

I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.
How free it is, you have no idea how free——
The peacefulness is so big it dazes you,
And it asks nothing, a name tag, a few trinkets.
It is what the dead close on, finally; I imagine them   
Shutting their mouths on it, like a Communion tablet.   

The tulips are too red in the first place, they hurt me.
Even through the gift paper I could hear them breathe   
Lightly, through their white swaddlings, like an awful baby.   
Their redness talks to my wound, it corresponds.
They are subtle : they seem to float, though they weigh me down,   
Upsetting me with their sudden tongues and their color,   
A dozen red lead sinkers round my neck.

Nobody watched me before, now I am watched.   
The tulips turn to me, and the window behind me
Where once a day the light slowly widens and slowly thins,   
And I see myself, flat, ridiculous, a cut-paper shadow   
Between the eye of the sun and the eyes of the tulips,   
And I have no face, I have wanted to efface myself.   
The vivid tulips eat my oxygen.

Before they came the air was calm enough,
Coming and going, breath by breath, without any fuss.   
Then the tulips filled it up like a loud noise.
Now the air snags and eddies round them the way a river   
Snags and eddies round a sunken rust-red engine.   
They concentrate my attention, that was happy   
Playing and resting without committing itself.

The walls, also, seem to be warming themselves.
The tulips should be behind bars like dangerous animals;   
They are opening like the mouth of some great African cat,   
And I am aware of my heart: it opens and closes
Its bowl of red blooms out of sheer love of me.
The water I taste is warm and salt, like the sea,
And comes from a country far away as health.