Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hooray for Hams

Plastered Hams. The name came from one of the poems we were looking at one evening (I think it was a Beatrix Potter reference (oh those two bad mice!)), and it stuck because it's wonderful.

As are The Hams. For the past year, the four of us have met once a monthish to share and talk poetry. We get together on perfect-early-summer-green-evening porches and in gorgeous grown-uppy living rooms (and sometimes at my house). We sip tea and wine and sometimes there's pie (never pork) and always it's lovely.

For me, it's like being surrounded by a dream team of poets. (I keep hoping they won't notice I don't belong among them. But, in addition to being superb writers, they're also kind and generous people, which is probably why they let me stay.)

It's so heartening to have three people in the world who are eager to think about poetry, who invest  time in reading and caring about my work. Who push and poke and prod and pep-talk. Who can turn a poem on its head or help find its feet.

And who trust me with their work -- it's a huge honour.

(Of course, I can't think of Plastered Hams without this plastered ham coming to mind. OK, I think it was papier mache. Still.)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Home (in) body

Yep, it was wah, wah, wah (not whee! whee! whee!) that I cried all the way home from Spain.

It's been a tough transition after three months away. Not going home, per se, but returning to a world ruled by an alarm clock. It's a losing battle; I'm grudgingly getting used to it.

On the plus side, there's my new creative project: the garden (the beans are already up!), which I've combined with my ongoing creative project: the MS, and I've had a few little stretches of time out in the yard tinkering with the MS, soil still under my fingernails. (Though it's killing me to think those days are probably already done for the season. If the rain ever stops, the mosquitoes will be vicious.)

I'm just getting reacquainted with the MS after putting it away for a month while J and I gallivanted around Europe on our pizza, wine and stair-climbing tour. After the huge mistake of looking at the poems while blearily jet-lagged and tearily out-of-sorts (when nothing could ever, possibly seem acceptable), I've been sanding and sanding and sanding them down.

It kind of coincides with how I've felt about re-encountering our house. I was immediately struck by how much stuff we have and how little of it we really need. After living a pretty simple life for the last little while, I'm now also editing our house: tossing, sending to Goodwill and amassing boxes in the basement for the next giveaway weekend. Sure, there are some sentimental attachments that survive my ruthless mood -- both in terms of knick knacks and poems.

Which brings me back around to the garden, which I'm also editing: weeding (even plants that aren't technically weeds, just in the way), moving existing plants to spots where they might work better, and finally accepting the fact that we just don't get enough sun for peonies and digging out the duds.

Makes me think that all of life is writing. Or revising, anyway.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Travel writing

It's pretty fitting that I spent my first weeks here, writing furiously, feverishly at a place called La Fragua (the forge).

Looking back on it, I wrote like a fuse had been lit, like pages were burning behind me. I had no thought of editing, did no second-guessing or fiddling, just amassed raw material. I piled all my files into folders and never lifted the lid. I was a little afraid it was a seething pit of sun-stroked mumbo jumbo. I kept shoving poems in, eyes closed.

I arrived in Granada set to begin editing, but was soon distracted by the city, its tapas bars, its cheap wine and my new colleagues. So, I didn't rush back to the manuscript, just poked around in it once in a while. Tested it the way you gingerly toe onto ice to see if it'll hold. It felt pretty solid, but at the same time, I knew there was work to do.

I've spent my five lovely days at Can Serrat editing and assembling and immersing myself in the project as a manuscript. And it feels good to see it coming together as a tangible thing. But it's funny re-encountering the poems, even after just a few weeks under wraps. With some I can remember very specifically where in the garden I sat as I wrote. Others are completely foreign, like finding someone else's work among my own. "Where did that come from?"

It's what's kind of great about writing in a new place. You get to be a foreigner even to yourself. And it's fun to explore a place you thought you knew so well.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Work: the space time continuum

I wouldn't exactly call my current situation a holiday. But since I've vacated my home and my job for three months, I guess that does make it a vacation. I've worked every day, to some degree, even though that work has ranged from moments of vague thinking about my manuscript to hours upon hours of butt-in-chair, pen-in-notebook/fingers-on-keyboard writing.

It's a very different kind of work than my regular, for-money gig. I get to decide what I do, when. (Except for the days when the project bosses me around.) I can go for a walk when I get antsy or drink a glass of wine at my desk. My days fly. And, the very best part: I almost never have to set an alarm. (Then again, I do work evenings and weekends.)

In all of those ways, it does seem very much like a holiday. (Not to mention the gorgeous backdrops!)

But I've been thinking of it simply as time and space to write. Days and days of time; gorgeous spaces. 

The real holiday begins in a few days when J. joins me in Barcelona for four weeks of adventure. (Not that I feel the need for a holiday. This is the sweetest work life imaginable!) I'll still be scratching in my notebook during that time, but the project that brought me here will sleep for a month until I'm home.

In the mean time, I am: editing, assembling, bits-and-bites writing and general fuss-budgeting on the first draft of the MS. Plus, suddenly, Spain poems are niggling.

So much work to do! So few days left!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Voice over

A couple of months after I started running, I decided to sign up for a race. A little 5k? No. A leisurely, sensible 10k? No. A half marathon. (Ten years later, this is still as far as I've run. I plateaued very early in my running career.)

When I decide to step out of my comfort zone, I tend not to tiptoe.

Which is why I find myself feeling a bit in-over-my-head on this project. I've never before written poems from any other perspective than my own. So, why not build a manuscript based on not one, but three, other voices -- especially when there is very little information available about these folks?

(That's then-little Edouard on the right. His father (Gaspard) and mother (Florestine) are -- at least so far -- also present in the manuscript.)

I've never written about anything more historical than my own childhood. So, why not wind back 130-some years to places I've only briefly visited?

And I've never written about subjects I don't know intimately. So, why not take on a world of cowboys, parenthood, freak shows and death?

Because all the crazy, far-fetched ideas I've had, the ones that have scared me most, seemed ridiculous and impossible, have consistently been the most full-filling experiences, the ones that have made me most proud.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Changing time/comfort zones

Today, during one of our manic and frequent gmail chats, J. pointed out how my current writing adventure parallels Edouard's own fish-out-of-water experience.

He was a confirmed country mouse, thrust into the hustle and bustle of cities, travel and crowds. Sure, he would have been used to being stared at, but Willow Bunch wasn't home to nearly as many pairs of eyes as Winnipeg, or Montreal or St. Louis, where he ended up. Plus, he was making his living being looked at.

Here, though my friendly "¡Hola!" (defying my well-practiced downtown Winnipeg detachment) is usually returned with a smile or a greeting, I'm well aware of being a foreigner in a close-knit town. The kids, especially, are on to me, pinching each other until one yells a mocking "hell-LO" at me.

I'm also on metaphorically foreign ground, writing for the first time in voices that aren't my own, of a history I don't know except from reading, and a landscape I've only visited once. It helps me feel more credible in telling his story -- during this writing I am keenly aware of what it is not to belong.

However, I'm reasonably sure my stranger-in-a-strange-land experience will end better than Edouard's.

(This despite the fact that I let a bird in the house last week. You know what looks a LOT bigger inside than out in the wild? A swallow, that's what.)

Monday, April 2, 2012

Unplugging away

Sure, it's a challenge being in a country and not knowing the language. I can pick out the odd word here and there (thanks to my rudimentary French) and, thankfully, grocery shopping is pretty easy since most packaging has pictures of the contents. (If there were No Name brand here, I'd be sunk. And starving.) Unfortunately, the way I say salmon, must sound like jamon. I was pretty disappointed to find out I'd ordered a ham sandwich in Seville. Two ham sandwiches, actually, but that was a different issue.

So, in a lot of ways it's quite isolating. (Everyone in the house speaks English, though, so that's great for me.) I had been thinking that, compared to Canada, there's a real lack of media here but then I realized, it's just that it's all over my head. No radio, no TV -- not that I could understand them anyway. There's a guy who drives up and down every street with a loudspeaker making announcements. The first time I heard it I was hoping it wasn't some sort of emergency warning system, but since no one seemed to pay any attention to it, I ignored it. When I asked later I found out that people hire him to go around announcing when someone has died and when the mass will be. (Or if there is a sale on fruit. He will announce anything you like for 30 euros.) Apparently, back in the day, this service was performed on foot, opening every front door and yelling the announcement inside. Hmmm.

But what it means for me is that I'm not really distracted by the outside world so much. Especially since, after a month, I'm getting used to the views. (Still swoon over every sheep, though.) And, unless I seek it out, I really don't know what's going on in the world. Yes, I look at the Free Press website. But I always, always regret it. (How about something less than gruesome on the home page, for a change?) And yes, I can't stay away from Facebook and gmail chat.

But living in this state of haze is, I think, helping the writing. Most days it feels like the world is just me, my notebook and a some birds in the garden. No to do list. Nothing I should be doing instead (or even can be, really). No office hours to work around. It's a pretty sweet kind of fog.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Shift work.

(Sometimes I write on my sunny little balcony, wispy curtains swirling around me.)

For me, writing isn't exactly a sedentary activity. I can't imagine spending a day with my butt in a chair, pen in hand. If I get stuck on a word or an idea, I like to walk around a bit, figuratively jog it out. (At home, this takes the form of going to the kitchen for a cookie, or a cup of tea, or another cookie.) At the convent, it means walking around the garden, moving my chair to a sunnier/shadier spot or watching the birds flit and flicker in the almond trees.

The other day someone said to me that most writers here have found a spot inside the convent, tucked themselves away where there aren't distractions. Besides the fact that it's literally stone cold inside, I can't imagine anything worse than that -- only a blank wall to distract me from a blank page.

Sure, it feels great when a poem is really cooking and I'm so immersed in it I don't even think of cookies. But I also love to dip in and out of a piece -- even for seconds or minutes -- because every time I come back to it the light hits it from a different angle and I see some new possibility that wasn't there before.

I like to feel I'm part of the world -- not removed from it -- when I write. And I hope that makes my poems feel that way too.

Of course, this might all be a way of rationalizing lazy work habits. Or just a luxury of the poet's life. (I can't fathom the focus it would take to write fiction. I'm certain that novelists couldn't get away with roaming around after every few words.)

Still, I've always felt a connection between movement of the body and the mind. (At work-work it takes the form of trips to the bathroom. In school it was pacing the house while I wrote essays.) I do some of my best writing and thinking while I'm running or walking, even moving in/out of sleep. (Never while driving though -- safety first!)

What can I say? I've got stanzas in my pants!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

At home on the range.

My Edouard was, for a time, a cowboy. (Until he grew so tall his legs dragged on the ground when he rode. Tragic, yes?) So, I find myself -- a person who has never even ridden a horse (though I did feed a donkey once... does that count?) -- writing cowboy poems.

Sure, it helps that I'm currently in a rural setting, where horses clip-clop by my balcony from time to time (and the most swayed back horse ever grazes at the stream below the house), where I pass sheep and goats and chickens every time I head to the convent to write, and where I hear cattle mooing from beyond the walls of the garden.

But what helps even more is Google. I can't think of a better invention for a writer, except maybe the alphabet. In the past few days I've Googled: "treating lump jaw in cattle," "how to castrate a calf," "how to stop a horse from rearing," "how to start a fire in the rain," and so many other oddball things I can't even remember. (Side note: as I start to type "How to" into Google, the option that pops to the top of the list is How to Tie a Tie. Maybe there's a poem in that too.) I've also become a big fan of eHow.

I don't expect the poems will ever sound like they were written by a cowboy, but I hope they might have some moments of authenticity. And, in the meantime, I'm learning about all kinds of interesting things. (Just like I'm learning how to light a gas stove, how to perk coffee, how to navigate this hive of a town, and how to sit with my head in the shade and body in the sun.)

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The writing life

It seems sort of crazy now, but among the many items on my To Worry About list before leaving home was "what if I'm not able to write?". I've never had writer's block, but then again I've never had time devoted just to writing. At home, if I don't feel like writing or don't have anything I want to write about, or am at a crisis point in whatever I'm working on, I just don't. I bake cookies or watch Modern Family.

Or, I'd find some other writing-type work to do. Actually writing new material makes up a smaller percentage of my "writing" time than you'd probably think. So much is spent on editing -- the big life-altering changes and the tiny picks to line breaks and commas. And then there's submissions and researching markets and all those other business-end parts of writing.

So, even though I've long craved such an expanse of time just to write, I wasn't exactly sure how I'd end up spending my time.

But, other than my first day sitting here, sitting down, opening my notebook and thinking: "OK, now what?" none of that has been an issue. And sure, it's only been two weeks -- plenty of time for things to go awry -- but so far my time has been remarkably productive. It's really amazing what you can do with a whole day sprawling before you.

Most mornings have started with a leisurely sleep in and reading myself awake, followed by some puttering and possible exercise, and breakfast. (I'm so thankful yogurt is the Esperanto of food.) Then I make my way to the convent, where I spend 5 or 6 hours writing and following the sun (or shade) around the garden.

Then it's home for Facebook scrabble, whatever Internet research is required for the next day, dinner, wine, some more writing. And then it's a bedtime gmail chat with J. before he leaves work* and, perhaps, an episode of Mad Men. (* some variations on weekends.)

So far, it's working.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Someone asked me the other day if the setting for this part of my writing adventure, a convent, had any relation to my current project.

I didn't think it did, other than the sense of isolation I imagine prairie pioneers -- and anyone measuring 8'3" -- must have experienced.

I thought the rural surrounding was a stronger tie, the agricultural life that is so evident here (every day I pass cows, goats, horses and chickens, which seem to be more or less in people's lawns) and particularly at the convent, where the large garden is currently producing spinach and chard (in March... a miracle to a Canadian!), and where they've just finished planting chick peas and will soon start on potatoes, everything sown according to the moon calendar. (Andalucia, it's the Saskatchewan of Spain.)

But then J. reminded me that the Willow Bunch museum, which has a room dedicated to my giant (complete with giant bed, giant sock, giant ring), is in a convent. And then I remembered that Edouard's sister was a nun. So, there are ties.

And, working outside helps me imagine a life that was lived much more out of doors. Birds and plants are finding their ways in to so many of the poems. I've been here only a week but already I'm noticing buds on trees that weren't there when I arrived. And every day the garden is raucous with spring.

I just have to make sure the olive trees and the amazing hoopoe I saw the other day don't make their way into Willow Bunch.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Under the Andalucian Sun

As you might imagine, the life of a writer in the Spanish countryside is pretty damn sweet.

Here's my house:

(with mimosa tree!)

Here's my castle:

(with storks!)

And here's where I go to work every day:

(with sweet-baking, basketball-playing nuns... on the other side of the wall)

But, god help this hardy Canadian, it gets cccccold here when the sun goes down. (Aside from a certain fellow, I'm most homesick for my green hoodie.)

Sunday, January 1, 2012

recap in hand

I do so love a year-end list, even one that's a little late.

But when I started thinking back on 2011 in terms of writing, it seemed at first like there weren't many milestones. In a lot of ways, it wasn't a very productive year for me, other than 20 poems toward the Beaupre manuscript during May Day (a leisurely pace for me) and a handful of random one-off pieces (some of which please me very much!) later in the year. But not every year can be filled with launches, touring, media interviews, etc.. So, I have to look a little deeper for the highlights of 2011. And it turns out there are lots.

I came within sniffing distance of the Bliss Carman Prize that I so covet. And, as a result had a poem in the summer issue of Prairie Fire, the second time I've appeared in their pages (other than as a donor or board member). And, the MASH poems (well, four of them), found a home in the Antigonish Review.

I did a few readings in 2011, but my favourite was in Spring Green, WI. Nope, it wasn't my finest reading this year, nor most lucrative, but it was the funnest -- and I remember the warm reception and beautiful space very fondly.

I squealed with delight when I found out I was a finalist for the Acorn-Plantos Award. And didn't cry that I wasn't the winner, which I think is an important sign of maturity and personal growth!

I joined a writing group, with three other poets whose work I admire, feedback I relish and company I savour. Our time together is inspiring, encouraging and delightful in every way. I look forward to our meetings in 2012.

Probably the biggest writing-related coup of 2011 won't actually be realized until early 2012, when I head to Spain and Italy for back-to-back writing residencies, thanks to a grant from the Manitoba Arts Council and a sympathetic employer, to focus on my next project. (More to come on that!) It also represents the first time in my life I've Visualized A Goal and Planned For The Future. Crazy!

Plus, it was a great year for reading (The Lacuna, The Cat's Table, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Bossypants, The Biggest Modern Woman of the World, and so many others) and for going to readings (Patrick Friesen, Bren Simmers, Jen Still, Joanna Skibsrud, etc, etc.).

But probably the greatest delight in my 2011 writing life was al fresco scribbling in the backyard during a hot, dry, mosquito-less, and perfect-in-every-way summer. (Of course my most successful creative endeavor of last year was our garden, a delicious delight.) And here's the view from notebook: