Tuesday 30 October 2007


The essay assignment is "What does nature do?" in a selection of five of a dozen or so poems we've read. I'm going to give the topic a try myself.

Right now it brings a cold hand, a morning in which I'll step out carefully, first opening and closing windows. In some of the poems it takes animal forms, gazing. Other poems bring weather, darkness, a wildness at the end of some road. Wildness at the end of every road, is what this essay might get at.

Yesterday I asked them to test a comment Graham Swift made, as reported in the Oct.6 Globe review of his new novel: "Our big feelings are drawn out of us by small things." (Thanks to Ibi for pointing the quote out to me.) So we spent thirty minutes outside. Start small, see what happens.

(When I tried it, I heard a cardoor slam, and got into a few paragraphs about "Did I really rush out and hug Dad's legs after I heard the sounds of his '58 Chev, the gravel on our driveway, the thunk of his door?")

Monday 29 October 2007

Leon's Chopper Episode

He's spreadeagled over the curve of a glass dome about the size of an overturned rowboat. Must be way up there, because Leon knows if he lets go he's a goner. A helicopter dangles a rope ladder close enough for Leon to grab hold. As the chopper lifts him to safety away from the dome, Leon hears "Climb! Climb up the ladder!" It's only four or five feet, maybe that many rungs, but Leon decides he's better off just dangling there, holding tight. The pilot refuses to fly unless Leon climbs all the way up and through the open hatch. Leon refuses. The chopper sets him back down onto the dome and flies off.

Thursday 25 October 2007

Leon's Story

So far the short story's not going so well. Maybe because I write sentences like that. Anyway, I haven't gone much beyond the name, Leon, and the fact that he once owned a movie theatre in a small town, but sold it after a while. Now he lives in the city, works at a grocery store part-time. He wishes he had more company, but then notes he's happier the way he is.

Lucky I'm not one of my own students, or I'd have to come up with a complete first draft in a week. (Hell, I know a few short story writers who'd be happy with a paragraph in a week.) All their stories are started; we've workshopped a few.

Might be time for Leon to step things up a bit. To be continued.

Friday 19 October 2007

Two Generous Writers

Yesterday Ibi Kaslik came to my creative writing class. She's the novelist who's writer-in-res at the library this year. As it happened, I'd already written a list of certain things on the board--suicide, murder and mayhem, serious illness or surgery, exotic destinations, rape, assorted other sensational or melodramatic plot bits--and wondered if my students would agree to BAN them from their short stories. Then Ibi shared some of her tips, one of which was "start small," as in, your characters don't have to go from zero to sixty in two seconds. Perfect!

Today it was Brenda Schmidt. Talking about one of her poems in my "writing the western landscape class", I waited until the class got good and puzzled, then said "Hey, why don't we call her up right now?" followed by my favourite question: "Anybody got a cell phone?" Of course, I'd set all this up with Brenda ahead of time. So we compiled some questions and called her, using one guy's blackberry phone on speaker so we could all hear. Brenda had everyone's attention, I'll tell you, as she patiently responded to our queries, although "most of the time, writers don't have a clue about their own work," I'd warned the class, and Brenda agreed. When at one point she articulated a connection between "place" in general, her boreal forest place in particular, and herself, well it was as if she'd leapt from the pages of the Banting text we've used for most of the material in the class. I also really liked Brenda's notion that any poem is just part of the the trail to the next poem, part of that lifelong trail.

Wednesday 17 October 2007

5:48 pm

Today read a few of Lorna Crozier's Mrs. Bentley poems, the ones that give a voice to the Mrs. B of Sinclair Ross's As For me and My House. In Crozier's hands, Mrs. B is a poet naming, for example, the various spirits of horse, grass and sometimes rain. My class found them convincing, I think--"Joe Lawson's Wife" such a finely honed telling of story.

In the other class today it was "Naming of Parts" by Henry Reed. About the instructor barking out the parts of a rifle while keeping one eye on the blossoms out the window, the silence there (except for bees). Lots of repetition evoked--of action, of season and some poor bugger of a rifle instructor wondering How can I get out? and Should I?

And marking the last of the poetry assignments (six poems, at least three of them revisions) plus a page of commentary. No fun coming up with a grade, but looking over the poems is a gas. I guess I should admit that I'm worried some of the writers are putting down what they think I want to see. As long as what I want to see is fresh stuff that listens to itself and doesn't settle for easy words or phrases and stirs up some action in its lines, well then I suppose that'll do.

Tonight: reading for Grain.

(Last night: first curling game of the year. We kept it tight for four ends then lost it.)

Monday 15 October 2007

16 and Sunny Today

We were looking at those seven poems again today, this time more conventionally. Trying out the "what is nature doing in these poems" question, to which two or three students offered useful responses. It might lead to figuring the human/natural "conversation," as Pamela Banting calls it, in fresh ways (beyond, for example, calling nature "God's creation").

Two other ideas I'm thinking about for this class: Get Luther Dean Mary Vetter, a botanist, to take us for a walk down by the lake, drawing our attention to whatever she knows about. And/or take the class to the Joe Fafard show at the Mackenzie. See what kind of conversations he's been having in his work.

Today at Luther a reading room was dedicated to Margaret Belcher, long-time Regina-area birder and naturalist whose Birds of Regina, first published in 1960, helped turn Trevor Herriot on to birds. Trevor was there today for the dedication. The ceremony was, for me and quite a few others I think, a meaningful connection to Belcher's passions as a naturalist and to Luther's past (she was a Luther student early in her career).

Friday 12 October 2007

Result (for the moment)

We had lamps shone through holes in cardboard, soft guitar, poems storyboarded on the blackboard, gestures and mime, "wefts" of leaves with those seven poems today. I'm pleased with what they came up with. We'll talk about the poems a bit more on Monday then move on. Thinking of this for a second essay assignment: What does nature do in this literature?

Wednesday 10 October 2007

An idea

Big poetry festival in G.Hill's "writing the western landscape" class today. Just coming up with the idea right now. Seven brand new poems by Philips, Weber, Kane, Wilson, Trussler, Hyland and Smith. Seven groups of English students commanded to "somehow do the poem" in front of the class. Get their bodies moving, figure out ways in and out of the poem, make the poem happen for us, etc. We'll take a half hour today, present the poems on Friday. This will be a challenge for these students, most of whom have never met a poem they didn't resist. But freed of any obligation to figure poems out or get what the author is trying to say (I can barely utter those words), they'll come up with something useful. Poems as invitations, not demands.

Later this same day: So far, so good. There's talk of surprise, colour, bags or real leaves, simultaneous translations. As applied to, or sampled from, poems in which (to make a long story short) figures vanish into nature and don't come back.

Tuesday 2 October 2007

Beautiful Dreamer

I'm supposed to bring one of my own poems to creative writing class today so the students can critique it and send me off with some possible edits for Thursday. Might as well bring in something new, maybe something based on "Beautiful Dreamer," the Stephen Foster parlour ballad from 1864. Wrote it a few months before his death, the poor bugger, destitute.

Too bad about those lyrics, though. I'm going to need to come up with a contemporary sound so words like "dewdrop" and "steamlet" don't slow me down. Wish me luck!