The Gift of Collage

Collage is just a whole lot of fun…the way I remember finger-painting in elementary school. A few days ago, I  took a drawing that didn’t really work as a drawing and starting adding bits of coloured paper to it. It was just a small sketch, but when I added the various bits of paper, the little sketch became something else, something joyful. While I haven’t used collage to help me with my own writing, I work with a small group of writers whenever I go to Ontario, and one of them used collage to help her as she was writing a poem. (I’ll show her wonderful collage in my next post.) There is something freeing about collage: we can be messy, we can mix things that don’t match, and we don’t have to worry about the thing that is created.

The poet Alice Notley talks about making collages in an eight or nine-month period when she was too exhausted to write. She wanted to do something other than writing, and she came up with collage. She put the finished pieces all around her on the walls of the room where she worked, and I like to think that it gave her joy to look at them. One day, she tried making a collage on a discarded fan, and realized that it was a wonderful object on which to work. As she points out, a fan has the “mechanical characteristic of opening and closing…it curves, it has spokes.” She discovered with that first fan that the images in her collage were like “constellations rising over the earth.” Her fan collages can take a long time to make (as long as several years), during which time she keeps adding layers to change the surface of the fan. Each one may be in response to a life event, she explains, or it may be the form of a long poem that she doesn’t want to examine closely. For this, she needs the indirection of collage to work out what she is doing. (Quotations from Alice Notley can be found in the article – “My Fans” – on the Poetry Foundation website, which offers images of some of her fans as well.)

Collage, with its disparate materials, and its haphazard formulation, is a lot like the act of writing: putting one thing alongside another to see how they correspond. When we need a break from words having to mean something, a collage will give us, in effect, a multi-dimensional language. It’s a way of thinking without using words, and for me, it is a momentary and happy release. Of course, I love words and what they do, but I also love this flowering space, this open sky with its constellations.

Fooling Around

A few years ago when I was in New Brunswick with two friends, we had a whole lot of fun creating stencils with leaves and spray paint on old windows retrieved from a barn that was going to be torn down. The windows would soon be thrown away, but first we made them gorgeous. We had no idea what we were going to make, but one thing led to another (spray painting the leaves), and then another (adding maple keys and dirt and twigs on the surface, and then another (taking photographs when we thought we were done).

When I’m stuck in my work, I often try to keep going. I’m like someone trying to move through knee-deep mud. It’s slow and I don’t get very far. But occasionally I stop, fool around with something else, and then the “stuckness” no longer seems to be the insurmountable problem that it was before.

Fooling around doesn’t have to lead to anything. That’s the great thing about it. But even though we were laughing about the craziness of what we were doing, we were still immersed in the process, deep in the moment. No one was looking, and we wouldn’t have cared even if they had been.

The photographs of these windows, with their radiant colours, are among a few I’ve saved to remind me that the messy, vibrant “aliveness” of the making matters just as much as the thing that is made.

Mornings

Not long ago, I suggested that we needed blessings during these times: specifically, poems of blessing. I found Jane Hirshfield’s “A Blessing for Wedding,” a wonderful poem that leaves the reader with a sense of quiet celebration, as if the cake had been passed around and everyone had eaten a slice of it.

The poet Yvonne Blomer, who lives in Victoria, took up the challenge of writing a poem of blessing. Her poem makes me think of all that I love about mornings, and since she sent it, I’ve been meditating on the way the world is so new in the morning, so ready to meet us. Here is Yvonne’s strong and lovely poem:

In Praise of Mornings

Today when the birds are a chorus, and the only chorus heard.

Today when the dog warms your lap, his eyes and ears following every flit and trace of sound.

Today when you can count the cars from rumble of tire tread and it is one, and one, and one.

Today when the cloud shelters the sun and a bright-eyed raccoon high wires across your fence, peering in at you from above.

Today the skewed piles of books, dead moths, your cooling mug on the windowsill.

Today and the world is standing still, one fly at your window.

With each breath praise the breath.

The birds are now scrapping or squawking for food. Praise the birds their hunger.

With your stillness, praise these fleet creatures, and the distance your neighbours keep, smiling from their windows.

With plum blossom and lavender soap, wash and be praised.

Let the vow of the day be human.

Let the vow of the future be light.

Let it be feathered and finned, furred and winged.

Let the pause here be a breath and the future a breathing symphony.

*

Yvonne Blomer lives, writes and is kept by a dog and kid in Victoria, BC. Her most recent poetry books are As if a Raven (Palimpsest Press) and Sweet Water: Poems for the Watersheds (Caitlin Press). She has also written a travel memoir Sugar Ride: Cycling from Hanoi to Kuala Lumpur (Palimpsest Press). See more at www.yvonneblomer.com

Writing a poem of blessings

Outside, we have a spring blizzard. It’s lovely. In Newfoundland, I think this is called “Sheila’s Brush.” It has got me thinking about teaching a workshop in St. John’s when I was doing a residency there. I suggested that the participants write a poem that was either a blessing poem or a poem that cursed something (but not someone). “Be careful,” I told them, “with what you curse!” They came up with wonderful poems. Someone wrote a poem that cursed the study of sociology, which made us all laugh. Someone cursed the weather – and it was a rollicking and delightful poem. Others wrote poems of blessing. How lovely they were. Here (below) is exactly such a poem by the American poet Jane Hirshfield. In these strange times, it seems to me we need poems of blessing going out into the world.

Try writing a poem of blessing, using Hirshfield’s approach: “Today…” Keep repeating this in each line, considering an image that you could take from nature, from objects in the house, from photographs you love. Notice how the poem changes near the end, to gather people in: “With these friends…” In the next line, she draws on fragrance: “With lavender and snow-scent…” Even though your poem may not be one about a wedding, you can still offer a vow, just as she does in the next line: “Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly / Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears / Sleeping and waking, unfold itself inside your eyes.”

Finally, she ends with an invocation: “Let its fierceness and tenderness hold you…” and she repeats “Let its…” in the last line. Find a way to let your poem go out into the world in the way Hirshfield does.

Happy writing…

A Blessing for Wedding ~ Jane Hirshfield

 

Today when persimmons ripen

Today when fox-kits come out of their den into snow

Today when the spotted egg releases its wren song

Today when the maple sets down its red leaves

Today when windows keep their promise to open

Today when fire keeps its promise to warm

Today when someone you love has died

     or someone you never met has died

Today when someone you love has been born

     or someone you will not meet has been born

Today when rain leaps to the waiting of roots in their dryness

Today when starlight bends to the roofs of the hungry and tired

Today when someone sits long inside his last sorrow

Today when someone steps into the heat of her first embrace

Today, let this light bless you

With these friends let it bless you

With snow-scent and lavender bless you

Let the vow of this day keep itself wildly and wholly

Spoken and silent, surprise you inside your ears

Sleeping and waking, unfold itself inside your eyes

Let its fierceness and tenderness hold you

Let its vastness be undisguised in all your days

The Idea Box

In a time when the world has tilted, when we are all worried about loved ones, small things can help…planting seeds in cups on a window sill in readiness for a garden, listening to music, reading a poem, meditating, or doing yoga.

Lately, I re-discovered drawing. Some of these little drawings are of ordinary objects I’ve collected: feathers, shells, spruce cones, and a few others are sketches made from photographs. I asked friends to send some photographs and they did. Often these drawings didn’t work. I’d get stuck trying to do something over and over again. I crumpled them up and kept going. The idea was simply to focus, to meditate on what I was doing.

One afternoon, I pulled out a book I loved when I was younger – The Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation – by Frederick Franck (Vintage, 1973). Franck describes the method he used in an outdoor workshop, after distributing cheap sketchbooks and pencils to his participants. They were asked to find a place by themselves, leaving six feet of distance between one another, and then he asked them to open their eyes, letting them fall on whatever plant, tree, or patch of grass was in front of them. Next, they were asked to close their eyes for five minutes. After that time, he asked them to open their eyes, giving an instruction: “Focus on whatever you observed before – that plant or leaf or dandelion. Look it in the eye, until you feel it looking back at you. Feel that you are alone with it… You are no longer looking, you are SEEING.”

Drawing as meditation… It doesn’t matter if the drawing works or doesn’t work: what matters is just attempting it. A line can lead to another line, and occasionally, there is a sense of resting with the mind alert. What I noticed was that I forgot about the news, and began to feel a sense of equanimity, of calm.

Try it with a leaf or a shell or a feather. All that’s needed is paper and pencil. As Frederick Franck says, let yourself truly see the object in front of you “until you feel it looking back at you.”

Speechless: A Novel

A’isha Nasir is a Nigerian teenager who has been charged with adultery and sentenced to death. Sophie MacNeil is an ambitious young Canadian journalist who meets A’isha and writes an impassioned article about her plight. But when the article sets off waves of outrage and violence, Sophie is forced to come to terms with the naivete with which she approached the story. Who can – and should – tell a story? What happens when one speaks on behalf of another?

Speechless is a stunning novel of justice, witness, and courage. In luminous prose, Anne Simpson explores the power of words, our responsibility for them, and the ways they affect others in matters of life and death.

Speechless: A Novel

“Passionate and ambitious . . . Simpson introduces us to a cast of fully realized characters and spins a fast-paced and gripping narrative. What does it mean to speak for yourself, or for others?”

– Johanna Skibsrud, author of The Sentimentalists

“[F]iery, poetic, and at times devastating . . . An excoriating and beautiful read with the urgency of right here, right now.”

– Carol Bruneau, author of A Circle on the Surface

“Simpson deftly navigates the chaos that erupts at the outset of this sublime novel, guiding us through the vividly imagistic and intertwined desires of all her characters as their stories unfold in this deeply moving whirlwind of a read.”

– Elizabeth Philips, author of The Afterlife of Birds

“A global narrative about gender and race, about words and actions and reactions, this novel is bursting with tough female characters who will not back down and instead stand together against injustice. Simpson is a beautiful writer and this is a bold, brave book.”

– Alexander Macleod, author of Light Lifting

 

Strange Attractor: Poetry

“All of us are many selves within our lifetimes, one that is thrust upon us at birth, shaped during youth, and reconstructed throughout our lives. Who is this self? Who is this self in relation to others? In the coming-to-be of childhood or In the midst of illness, we face an unknown self within the one that is known. Even after death, we appear as fluid as water in the memories of those who knew us best. Strange Attractor reveals our multiple, shifting selves with power and tenderness, as if Simpson were showing us how to shed our skins.”

Strange Attractor

23 collections of Canadian poetry to watch for this fall

Falling: Novel

falling

On a late summer day along the shores of Nova Scotia, a young woman makes a mistake that will claim her life, while at the other end of the beach her brother, Damian, is unaware that she is drowning. Beginning with this shattering event, Anne Simpson’s mesmerizing novel unfolds in unexpected ways.

A year after the accident, Damian and his mother, Ingrid, travel to Niagara Falls to scatter Lisa’s ashes and to visit Ingrid’s estranged brother, once a famous daredevil of the Falls, now blind, and his mentally disabled son. But old wounds and new misunderstandings soon collide. Damian, burdened by guilt, finds solace in an intense relationship with a girl he first glimpses in a tattoo parlour. A runaway with dreams of New York City, Jasmine has her own reasons for wanting to escape the past. Meanwhile, Ingrid, having reluctantly returned to her childhood home, finds herself at odds with her brother and besieged by memories. As the summer progresses, each of them becomes caught in the pull of the past — until an act of recklessness shocks them into a new course for the future.

In startling, luminous language, Anne Simpson captures both the natural beauty and tawdry eccentricity of Niagara Falls, while evoking the elemental bonds that tie us to the ones we love. By turns uncompromising and heartbreakingly tender, Falling is a riveting story of ordinary people poised on the knife-edge of grief and hope.
With this, her second novel, Anne Simpson proves herself to be one of our most striking and original writers.

Grab a copy of this book at Amazon.com com it comes in 2 formats:
Hardcover Edition
Paperback

Is: Poetry

is
A cell is a world within a world within a world. In this remarkable new collection, Anne Simpson finds form and inspiration in the cell – as it divides and multiplies, expanding beyond its borders.

As these poems journey from the creation of the world emerging out of chaos to the slow unravelling of a life that is revealed in a poem that twists like a double helix, Simpson illuminates what it means to be alive, here and now.

Rich with the muscular craft, vibrant imagery, and exquisite musicality for which her poetry is widely acclaimed, this collection sees Simpson continuing to “negotiate an ever-changing path between language and structure” (Vancouver Sun) – with astonishing results.

It is a work of great vision from one of our most compelling poetic voices.

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Kindle Edition
Paperback

The Marram Grass: Poetry & Otherness: Essays

the marram grass

In six essays, poet and novelist Anne Simpson traces the paths of her thoughts, from observation to association, through poetry, language and metaphor, otherness and wilderness. Walking the beaches and trails near her home in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Simpson studies the connections between outdoors and inner life.

A hike along a local ridge and the sighting of an owl spurs an examination of birdsong and its kinship with poetry, whose own perch is somewhere near the edge of grammar, beyond sure knowledge, where resonance and insight take the place of certainty – what Thoreau called “tawny grammar.” Following the owl, Simpson takes us to the underworld, also home to otherness, and to the Spanish concept of duende, the imminent presence of death in life.

In the work of other artists – Matthias Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece, Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry and lesser known visual art, and the fiction of Nabokov, Borges and Dostoevsky – Simpson ponders the location of the other in what is presented as subject. For in this impasse between what readers and viewers and even the subjects themselves see and cannot see resides the death in life, the wilderness on the edge of grammar.

Along the way, Simpson shares some of her own poetic process. The final piece in the collection recounts attempts to write poetry in response to a friend’s photographs. Simpson writes of missteps and her eventual decision to abandon grammar in an effort to move closer to the emptiness that form illuminates and that illuminates form. This consideration of form takes on board the Buddhist teachings found in the Heart Sutra, the commitment and responsibility we have to imagine what we are not. Here then is the other that compels the poet to write, to occupy a place on the outside edge of onself.

“This book is a kind of wild walking,” Simpson says, “because, as I was writing it, my thinking became a little wild, brambly and overgrown – a kind of elderberry bush. The walking and writing became almost indistinguishable. I’d be busy turning something over in my mind – imagining a world without grammar, for instance – while walking in the woods at the Fairmont Ridge, and be startled out of it by the drumming of a ruffed grouse.

In winter, walking across ice, I began thinking that the descents and ascents of poetry were like those of the shamanic journey. And why was poetry so intimately concerned with suffering – did it reveal voyeurism or a depth of care?These essays range around Nova Scotia, as I kept returning to the way this province has become the home of my thinking, not just the place where I live.

The final essay, which seemed to grow out of the marram grass along the barrier beaches of the Northumberland Strait, traces the connection between the Heart Sutra and poetry. I guess the real question, in each of these essays, is the way writing depends upon otherness – and how it arcs toward a relationship with the other.”

Grab a copy of this book at Amazon.com com it comes in 2 formats:
Hardcover Edition
Paperback