What’s New

hyaena-season-coverMy new collection of poems, Hyaena Season, is about to go to press! The poems touch on the intimacies of a wide range of human experience from the killing grounds of Rwanda and DR Congo, to settings more familiar here in Canada.

I’m doing a number of launches and readings over the next few months – hope you can join me for one of those.

You’ll find a complete list of my works here.


Here’s a short piece on what this site is all about.


If you’re wondering where my page of readings has gone, it’s just moved – from the home page to its own place inside the site. You can always reach it from the main menu under “Richard Reading”.

The Squinch – An Architecture of Appetite in Poems by Hass and Kinnell

August Blackberries

August Blackberries










 


















BLACKBERRY EATING

I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making; and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths and squinched,
many-lettered, on-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.

Galway Kinnell from Mortal Acts, Mortal Words, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980

I first knew the word squinch defined as an architectural feature that helps hold up a structural component like a dome over a square building. And I confirmed this looking my real not virtual dictionary! The Oxford! But no matter! What a juicy word. And brought so wonderfully and deliciously to life by American poets Galway Kinnell (1927 – 2014) and Robert Hass (1941 – ). But by using squinch in a very different way. Squinch, as in compressing or closing something.

And beyond the delight in the mouth of the word squinch, Kinnell’s poem has particular significance for me. Earlier this summer at a poetry retreat in Italy, Kim Addonizio, the retreat leader, recited Kinnell’s poem from memory. Better still she recited it during a festival in the village of Il Castello Di Valle Di Nera in Umbria. What makes the location even more relevant is that this village was devastated by the 1997 earthquake and completely rebuilt! Last week’s equally devastating earthquake to the north of this area brought the reality of this into much clearer focus. Eerie for me as well. I was in Italy during the 1997 quake and just missed the most recent one by six weeks.

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The Bigness of Small Poems – #19 in a Series – David Fraser Storms the Unspeakable!

Canadian poet David Fraser

Canadian poet David Fraser

The End

The room is too small
for a serious debate between
two lovers who are no more,
but perfect for the silences
of space, the cosmos
swallowing up comment,
leaving only one exit
for both of them, each not
wanting to be the first.

David Fraser from After All the Scissor Work Is Done, Leaf Press, 2016

The life of poetry on Vancouver Island, B.C., and in particular, in Nanaimo, would be a lot leaner without the contributions of David Fraser, undaunted champion of all things poetry. Whether his own poems, or the one’s published in his magazine Ascent Aspirations, or the poems shared at WordStorm, Nanaimo’s spoken word poetry reading series he co-founded in 2007, Fraser believes in the power of the poetic word.

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Where Does a Great Poem Point To? – Poems and Comments by Franz Wright and Li-Young Lee

Franz Wright (1953-2015) Pulitizer- Prize-Winning American Poet

Franz Wright (1953-2015) Pulitizer Prize-Winning American Poet

NOT NOW

for Dzvinia Orlowsky

Where is the 
the man of heaven
in me—

my body’s filthy, face and hands

completely filthy
with
the man of dust

This mask
this glove
of human flesh

is all I have
and that’s not bad
and that’s not good

not good enough

not now

Franz Wright (1953-2015) from The Beforelife, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002

This poem by Franz Wright (Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet like his father, James) jumped out at me with a shovel and a rake when I read it today. The day after I came home from a week long poetry retreat with American poet Li-Young Lee at the Glen Workshop in Santa Fe sponsored by Seattle-based Image Journal (the Journal of Art, Faith and Mystery).

What a line by Wright: Where is/ the man of heaven/ in me—. It challenges me especially after my week at the Glen. How do I access, not my persona, but what Lee calls my unknown self, the one I discover if I surrender myself to my poem and what ultimately my poem points me to! Can I get to the same place Wright does where he says his mask of flesh is not bad but where he adds that this is not good //not good enough // not now.

Wright’s first lines cohere with Lee’s main contention during our week together: if we, as poets, don’t write from the ultimate authentic place in us (in Christian terms, the Christ consciousness within us) we are writing as a persona and our poems will not fulfill their ultimate potential. Lee makes no bones about his contention that poetry is a spiritual practice. Other poets will disagree but not me. Here is one of Lee’s statements that still echoes inside me.

The artist knows we are surrendering to something bigger…. We have to practice being God’s eye, heart, mind and will. I don’t want more separation. I don’t want to write a persona poem. My ego is a persona. I won’t get to the real Li-Young unless I let Christ inhabit the art.

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The Bigness of Small Poems – #18 in a Series – James Wright – A Poem to Counter Terror

Victims of the July 1st Dhaka Attacks: Abinta Kabir, Faraaz Hossain, and Tarishi Jain.

Victims of the July 1st Dhaka Attacks: Abinta Kabir, Faraaz Hossain, and Tarishi Jain.

 

TODAY I WAS HAPPY,
SO I MADE THIS POEM

As the plump squirrel scampers
Across the roof of the corncrib,
The moon suddenly stands up in the darkness,
And I see that it is impossible to die.
Each moment of time is a mountain.
An eagle rejoices in the oak trees of heaven,
Crying
This is what I wanted.

James Wright from Above the River: The Complete Poems, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1990

It has been a few weeks since the tragic terrorist attack in Dhaka but since then violence in the world continues unabated.  Attacks of all kinds: the attempted coup in Turkey, the deaths in Nice, France by a man in a truck, the deaths of five policeman in Dallas and days before that, the two deaths of black Americans at the hands of police. At times like these poetry can bring some kind of solace. Which is why this James Wright’s poem brought me such comfort when I learned of the deaths of the three young people who died in the Dhaka attacks.

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The Bigness of Small Poems – # 17 in a Series – Song Lines – The Eco-Poetics of Basma Kavanaugh

Canadian poet Basma Kavanaugh

Canadian poet Basma Kavanaugh

from NICHE

Last winter a chorale in an old church, a cold night in a prairie city. The
unaccompanied human voices smouldered and keened, swelled the stone
building, fluttered in the wooden rafters, soared

over shining pews, ruffling the hairs of my body. With my skin suddenly too
small, and pain burnishing my larynx, I thought, this is why we love the birds,
this is our gift to earth, our reason for being.

Basma Kavanaugh, from NICHE, Frontenac House Poetry, 2015

Poetry as rabble-rouser in the best sense of the words. To stir our spirit and our consciences! Especially in its passionate call to preserve our fragile planet, all its creatures!  That is something Basma Kavanaugh sings out again and again in her 2015 collection: NICHE. Not only is the poetry noteable in this collection but the production quality is way above average especially with its use of illustrations. A book that feels good to hold in the hand.

Kavanaugh is a poet, visual artist and letterpress printer from Manitoba who was short-listed for the CBC Canada Writes Poetry Prize in 2014. But even more, she is a woman who gives voice to an eco-poetics we need to hear and sing in our blood! So many of her poems are praise songs for the land. And what an appropriate epigraph she uses from Pablo Neruda to begin her book: This is the land./ It grows in your blood/ and you grow./If it dies in your blood/ you die out. Ouch and double ouch.

In this small poem, number seventeen in my occasional series, Kavanaugh brings singing into her poem and in so doing, for me, provides an echo from a long poetic tradition. The idea of poetry as its own kind of singing. The incredible importance of singing, and the singing that is poetry!

Her poem makes me think of American poet Gregory Orr’s wonderful line: Turn me into song. Sing me awake. Even more directly it reminds me of these lines by American poet e.e. cummings from his poem # 53:

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old.

So many references to singing in Kavanaugh’s book!  Here’s the poem that comes after the one that introduce this post! Oh, the songs we all need to sing to save our precious Earth:

To sing. To warble, cry, croon, chant. To trill, lament, howl, wail,
To ululate, to lullaby.

Long ago people grew tobacco high in the Rockies. In cool, short summers,
they sang two hundred songs so the sacred leaves could ripen before frost. In
this gadget-rich gallup

to apocalypse what have we lost? What have we gained? If evolution has
stopped, can we sing tenderness, surrender, sing our ending, coax the future
from a seed? With a chorus of seven billion,

one small song each?

Basma Kavanaugh, ibid

 

 

 

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 16 in a Series – Li-Young Lee

American Poet Li-Young Lee

American Poet Li-Young Lee


 One Heart
 Look at the birds. Even flying
 is born
 out of nothing. The first sky
 is inside you, open
 at either end of day.
 The work of wings
 was always freedom, fastening
 one heart to every falling thing.
 Li-Young Lee (1957 - ) from Book Of My Nights, BOA Editions, 2001

As I collect more small poems to highlight in my poetry blog I find myself once again going back to poets I have written about before. In this case the Asian-American poet Li-Young Lee. For a link to my post on Lee last year click here.

I discovered this poem of Lee through American poet Dorianne Laux. She savours it for its music and cadence. His use of one syllable words, startled by a few double syllable words and one three syllable word: fastening. It is an exquisitely crafted poem. But even more. I call it a love poem to God. Am I right? I don’t know for sure. But I do know something mysterious is happening in this poem!

This poem proves how important each word is in a poem. Lee doesn’t say Flying is born… He says: Even flying is born out of nothing. His use of Even changes everything. It suggests a comparison or a link to something else born out of nothing. Could that be God? Perhaps. And what, who is, the one heart. Again, for me, it makes sense if it is God.

And for me this small poem achieves such a largeness. A sense of a sky inside and outside. First the birds in the sky then the astonishing lines: The first sky/is inside you, open// at either end of the day. Yes! And if its true, the first sky being open inside me, how much bigger I feel. What a sense of expansiveness fills my spirit.

Read this poem out loud. Savour its meaning and its mechanics that amplify its meaning. Feel it on the tongue. How rich the poem’s music tastes in the mouth. Thank you Dorianne for your love of this poem. It’s a great one to memorize!

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 15 in a Series – Advice from Rukeyser: Burst Into Flower


Pink Iris
THE POWER OF SUICIDE

The potflower on the windowsill says to me
In words that are green-edged red leaves :
Flower     flower     flower     flower
Today for the sake of all the dead     Burst into flower.

Muriel Rukeyser, from The Collected Poems of Muriel Rukeyser, McGraw- Hill, 1982

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980) is no stranger to these pages. I included her in a post late last year. To read that post click here.

 

American Poet Muriel Rukeyser

American Poet Muriel Rukeyser

Rukeyser didn’t write many small poems so it seems odd that for a second time I feature one of her small poems. Small, literally, but metaphorically huge. I don’t want to add much to what already bursts out of this poem, beginning with the title. This poem is a wake up call. A reminder to go for broke. Burst into flower.

And the poem seems somehow, these summer-like days, appropriate to the state of my garden here on Vancouver Island. We are in the midst of a frenzy of flowering. Iris (purple, pink, yellow, white); California lilac, poppies (red, pink, white), wild roses, yellow roses and tree-like rose bushes bursting white, pink and red. And in the picture below, a flowering tree thirty feet tall beside our house, festooned with purple blossoms that are beginning to fall, adding a purple tinge everywhere around it!

Flowering Tree

This call to flower! Yes! No matter the reason. No matter the season.

 

 

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 14 in a Series – May 15th, The Death Day of Emily D.

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Lara Lasworth

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Laura Lasworth

I Reason, Earth is Short
#403 (Franklin Edition)

I reason, Earth is short –
And Anguish – absolute –
And many hurt,
But, what of that?

I reason, we could die –
The best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay,
But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven –
Somehow, it will be even –
Some new Equation, given –

But, what of that?

Emily Dickinson from The Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited, R.W. Franklin, Harvard University Press, 1999

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Barry Moser, from Emily:Opposites Attract, Horse Whisperer Press, 2004

Portrait of Emily Dickinson. Copyright: Barry Moser, from Emily:Opposites Attract, Horse Whisperer Press, 2004

One hundred and thirty years ago today Emily Dickinson died, a virtual unknown who had written at least 1789 poems, many in various versions! Although none were published in her lifetime about 600 poems were sent out by her to  some forty recipients. Now, of course, she along with Walt Whitman are seen as the two pillars of modern American poetry. And surely she has entered the pantheon of world-celebrated poets, as well!

(Just to acknowledge a cheat. This small poem above is bigger than my self-imposed limit of ten lines! To compensate I have included an eight line poem below – one of her best known!)

Helen Vendler, the esteemed poetry commentator and author says this about Dickinson in her 2010 volume, Dickinson – Selected Poems and Commentaries:

Dickinson the writer: How do we characterize her? She is epigrammatic, terse, abrupt, surprising, unsettling, flirtatious, savage, winsome, metaphysical, provocative, blasphemous, tragic funny…

Many of Vendler’s adjectives could apply to poem # 403 . Unsettling, blasphemous (perhaps), surprising and, yes, provocative.  If ever there was a  perfect hymn to mindfulness and living in the “now” this poem might quality! Shocking might be another way to describe this poem. For me it has the impact of smelling salts. A stinging wake-up. A stinging rebuke to sentimental notions of our lives here on earth.

The poem’s repeated refrain: But what of that? is so dismissive that it forces me to a deep self examination. Does pain, suffering, death or even promise of an afterlife matter! And if it doesn’t, what does? For me, what matters to me, just weeks before my sixty fifth birthday, is to live wholeheartedly. Awake to all of it. Do I succeed? I’m working on it. Watching for those moments when I split-off and withdraw. Trying to stay present. Ouch!

Now, here is the promised “small” poem. What a great reminder this poem is to me when I want to be celebrated, acknowledged! In a world where so many seek celebrity status this poem is a good bromide. May, today, I feel like a fulfilled and contented Nobody!

I’m Nobody
# 260 Franklin Edition

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

Emily Dickinson, ibid

Notes on Images: I purchased the Lasworth portrait at an Image Journal event years ago in Seattle. The Moser portrait comes from a limited edition letterpress volume published by Apollonia Elsted, daughter of esteemed letterpress publishers, Jan and Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press.

The Bigness of Small Poems – # 13 in a Series – The Double S in Sue Sinclair!

Canadian poet Sue Sinclair

Canadian poet Sue Sinclair. Photo: Brick Books


Belief

The floorboards creak overhead,
heavy with stars.
The sound makes you think of the dead,
as though they’re closer than you knew:
like the doubled s in essence,
an extra consonant slipped into the word
for the very truth of you.

Sue Sinclair from Heaven’s Thieves, Brick Books, 2016

It isn’t often I open a book of poetry, read, and then find myself trying not to look as astonished as I feel. The last time I felt that gob smacked was with Sarah Eliza Johnson’s book, Bone Map. Today, I felt that gob smacked again. By Canadian poet, Sue Sinclair’s latest book, Heaven’s Thieves, published this month by Brick Books. Sinclair, who was raised in Newfoundland and lived for many years in the various places in the Maritmes, is now based out of Montreal.

Sinclair’s small poem above is just a taste of this poet’s ability to word-play her poems into music and meaning. Her poem Belief works at so many levels, its lyric mysteriousness and its exquisite sounds: her rhymes and consonance; her alliterations, her susurrations! The doubled s in essence,/ an extra consonant slipped… Yes!

Her metaphor in this line, delicious: The floorboards creak overhead,/ heavy with stars. Then that move to add a layer to the creaking sound by invoking the dead. A ghost, perhaps? Then the move to sound and word play that reminds me of the American/Canadian poet Heather McHugh.

How Sinclair leaps from a sound that makes her think of the dead as though they’re closer than you knew to the double s in essence. And then to a surprising intimacy, unexpected self-reflection. On the narrators own essence: the very truth of you. Or is the very truth of something, someone, else. Does the title, Belief, point us to something supernatural? I’m not sure.

What I am sure about is how this poem strikes down deep in my emotional depths. To an essence deep inside me. To a question of who am I and why am I here? And how is it these feelings all began with a simple creak in a floorboard!? The surprise, the gift, of poetry. Sinclair’s poem will stay with me. So will her book which will live on my bedside table for days to come.

For those who aren’t familiar with Sinclair and her work (she has published four previous poetry volumes since 2001) check out this link.

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