The Proof is in the Pudding – American Poet Gregory Orr’s Ongoing Healing Journey Through Poetry

American poet Gregory Orr (1947- )

A Song of What Happens

If I wrote in a short story
Or novel that when my father
Was young, about thirteen,
He and his best friend
Stole a rifle from the car trunk
Of a man who worked
For his family, then took
paper plates from the kitchen
And went out into a field,
intending to toss them
Into the air and shoot them...
That there’s been an accident
And he killed his best friend.

Sad, but believable—it happens
More often than you’d imagine
In the country.
               But then I add:
My Dad grew up, married,
Had four sons, gave each
Of the two oldest
Shotguns when they were
twelve and ten
so that they could all hunt pheasants.
And when I turned twelve,
He gave me a rifle—a .22.
And that same year
We went hunting deer
In a far field in our property
And my gun, that I didn’t know
Was loaded went off
And killed my younger brother
Who was standing beside me.
Two boys, my father and I,
Barely in their teens,
Killing two others they loved
By accident—
That kind
Of coincidence isn’t credible
In fiction, much less in a poem
Where you’re not allowed
To describe too much
Or explain, or ascribe motives
Because each word is precious
And the fewer you use
The better the poem.
                    And yet,
I’m telling you it’s true,
It really happened.
                   All of us
Can you see the pattern here—
Two young boys kill
Someone they love
By accident.
            But do you
Think God planned it?
And if so, why?
Do you think my father
Unconsciously arranged
A repetition, hoping
It would end differently?

I’m happy for you if you
Can explain it
To your satisfaction.
I can’t.
       I’m only telling you
About it, because
It’s factual; it happened.
And because I want you to know
how strange life is.

Gregory Orr (1947- ) from The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write, W.W. Norton & Company, 2019

American poet Gregory Orr practices, in his own poetry, what he so often preaches, and what he most recently makes a compelling case for, in his wonderfully fine recent book – A Primer for Poets & Readers of Poetry: that writing and reading poems can bring order out of disorder, can heal. In his book he says: Lyric poets have always claimed that expressing emotions in words can heal, bringing a transformative sense of release and relief. And years ago Orr made similar claims in his book of essays: Poetry as Survival.

I cannot recommend A Primer for Poetsenough. A treasure chest of wisdom from forty years of teaching. It is filled with great poems,craft elements and writing prompts but it views the process of poetry, both reading and writing it, through a lens of seeing how poetry serves to hold words together – to forge them into solid but dynamic structures that contain and channel the chaotic inner and outer experience that we humans seek to express.

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The Art of Narrative Finesse – The Poetry of Susan Browne

Maddona and Child with St. Anne by Caravaggio. Credit: Galleria Borghese, Rome


The Italian birds fly over the garden
where this morning I stood on sunstruck
tiles next to an olive orchard,
thinking how fortunate to land here,
eating the earth, drinking the vineyard,
traveling to Rome to a room of Caravaggios
that nearly stop me from breathing,
especially the painting where Mary,
her skin incandescent, leans out of the gloom
to help her young son try to crush the snake’s head,
his little luminous foot on top of his mother’s,
the details eerie and real as if I could touch each figure
and feel the plush of flesh, as if the serpent
could uncoil and slither out of the frame.
Later, in the taxi, the driver tells me about
the shooting—a nightclub in Florida—
and then I’m back in the garden,
mumbling a prayer although it’s only us
who can save us, as I watch the birds cross
the sky, sweeping the light into their dark wings.

Susan Browne from Catamaran, Summer, 2019

American poet Susan Browne

This poem, light and dark, sweeps me back to Rome and the Galleria Borghese. That’s where I first saw Caravaggio’s painting Madonna and Child with St. Anne. I was there with Susan Browne as part of a group that was attending a poetry retreat at the La Romita School of Art led by Kim Addonizio. What a great time we had in that retreat. Great poems, great teaching and excursions! But I especially remember early morning walks up a steep road, dodging cars, to a lookout at the top in a village aptly named San Libratore. Usually there were three or four of us most mornings including Susan.  We shared great stories of poetry and life on those 6 kilometer tromps!

Susan, poet and former full-time college teacher in the San Francisco area, is receiving a fair bit of press these days having won the 2019 Catamaran Poetry Prize for her Manuscript Just Living which is forthcoming in November. And yesterday morning her poem, Strange Ode, was published online by  the literary journal Rattle. But this is not new for her. Her work has been catching notice for a while. Her first poetry collection Buddha’s Dogs published in 2004 won a first book poetry contest adjudicated by the deeply respected American poet and essayist Edward Hirsch.

Susan’s poetry has a narrative simplicity that belies the heft her poems carry. A disarming wisdom there. In this way I think of her having a similar style (put perhaps more gentle and understated) to her older contemporaries Tony Hoagland, Thomas Lux and Billy Collins.  Her poem Chiaroscuro is such a good example of how she find ways to surprise her reader. And the importance of how she ends her poems. How her endings seem to shake up our expectations.
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Making the Opioid Crisis Personal – Leslie McBain and Fourteen Other “Mums” – and a Poem by Sheryl St. Germain

Fifteen Canadian Women Mourning the Loss of Their Loved Ones to Opioid Overdoses. In the right foreground, poet and activist Leslie McBain, co-founder of  Mums Stop the Harm (MSTH). Photo credit: Nicole Richard/

Prayer for a Son

May your soul now be with the creek,
may it swell and flood in Spring, brimming
with excitement and wildness
as you sometimes were in this other life,

                         ebbing and emptying in winter
                         to reveal what had been hidden
                         in those spring floods—
                         the wounds and bones of your heart.

May the small fish that live here
nibble at your ashes, finding them
sweet and filling,
and may the dusts of your body fall

                          like pollen on the spring wildflowers,
                          deepening the pinks, yellows,
                          and lavenders of their petals
                          until their colours are like wells
                          that lead to another way of knowing.

May the insects sense the presence
of your spirit as they make trails
through your leavings,
may summer rains join with you, and
together may you enter the thin crusts
of this soil to reach the roots of oak
and cedar, juniper and cactus.

                           May you overfill their veins with that joy
                           you sought but rarely found
                           until you burst into acorn or berry or fruit.

And when the wind blows, may it catch
and scatter the dust of you on wing of bird
or butterfly, on fur of squirrel or rabbit,
coyote, cougar, or wild horse,
may you fly with them to strange places
those you have left behind can neither know nor imagine.

and when you are root and wing, seed
and flower, when you are bone and breath,
then may we be blessed to hear you

                           in song of bird and cricket, may we see
                           you again in the mad blinking
                           of the fireflies, and in the silence after
                           the poem's last word.

Sheryl St. Germain, from The Small Door of Your Death, Autumn House Press, 2018

Today the Globe and Mail featured stories on the Canadian women taken in this picture. Each woman has lost a loved one to our current opioid scourge. These women and their crosses signify the personhood of each victim. A person not a statistic.

This picture, in Knox Mountain Park over looking Okanagan Lake near Kelowna, was the brain child of Helen Jennens who has lost two sons to the opioid scourge. She wanted a way to recognize International Overdose Awareness Day that takes place on August 31st.

And as it happens I know the woman closest to us in the picture on the right: courageous and indomitable Leslie McBain who lost her son Jordan to an overdose in 2014. Spurred by that tragedy she went on to co-found Mums Stop the Harm. I met Leslie more than ten years ago at a poetry writing retreat with the exceptional poet/teacher Patrick Lane.
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Announcing My Fifth Poetry-as-Prayer Retreat at Hillhurst United Church, Calgary, Alberta

The First Sky
Is Within You

A Generative Poetry-as-Prayer Retreat
with Richard Osler

Hillhurst United Church
Calgary, Alberta
October 18th to 19th, 2019

Retreat Introduction

When we address the world with unmixed attention it’s prayer, said the artist, poet and mystic, William Blake. Simone Weil, the scholar and mystic goes further and says: absolute unmixed attention is prayer.

Another way to address the world prayerfully is through the absolute unmixed attention of poetry. Poetry as prayer. The celebrated American poet Mary Oliver says this clearly: Poetry is prayer, it is passion and story and music, it is beauty, comfort, it is agitation, declaration, it is thanksgiving.

In this retreat you will be invited to discover what Mary Oliver says in her poem Praying: just pay attention, then patch//a few words together and don’t try/to make them elaborate, this isn’t/a contest but the doorway//into thanks, and a silence in which/ another voice may speak. Again, this admonition to pay attention to hear a voice other than your own. And with this attention, you may also discover The first sky is inside you, as the Asian-American poet Li-Young Lee writes in his poem 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.

Come and join fellow retreatants for an evening and a day of fellowship and poetry and experience your gift of words, words both your own and seemingly not your own. Because what are words that come to us when we write poems, if not the air from a sky larger than all skies. And discover a truth claimed by Li-Young Lee when he talks about poetry as prayer: We pray through a poem. Don’t make a god of the poem. Poetry is a gate to what contains the thing. Go to the thing.

Retreat Details

We will start at 7 PM on Friday, Oct. 18th with a brief introduction and then a reading of the poem each retreatant will bring based on the pre-retreat adventure they will receive after they register or no later than September 6th. The pre-retreat poem will be a way of each retreatant introducing themselves to the group. In addition to the writing of a pre-retreat poem each retreatant will have the opportunity during the Saturday sessions to write two more poems. These poems will be supported by full handouts with example poems and commentary.

Please Note: Whatever time a participant can give to their pre-retreat poem (fifteen minutes or days!) will be enough. My invitation is that each participant has fun with the writing adventure and doesn’t stress over it. I have found that meeting each other through their poems adds so much to the retreat.


The Retreat Leader – Richard Osler

I am so pleased to be returning for this 5th annual Poetry-as-Prayer Retreat at Hillhurst. I am the author of the full-length poetry collection, Hyaena Season (2016), a poetry workshop facilitator and former president of specialty money management company based in Calgary. I have conducted numerous weekend writing retreats in Canada and the U.S. and three ten-day poetry writing retreats In Italy. Also, I lead, on average, about 70 poetry workshops per year of up to three hours at addiction recovery centers and out-patient recovery clinics in Canada.  For more details on Richard and poetry please visit his website at

The Schedule

Friday, Oct. 18th                   Saturday, Oct. 19th

7 p.m.   to 9:30 p.m.                       9:30 a.m to 4:30p.m.

A light lunch and snacks will be provided. Please being writing material or a device to write on.

To Register

Please register through the Hillhurst United Church website under Coming Events. Scroll down to the event and click on the Register link! Or click here!


Registration fee: $87.50


Hillhurst United Church
1227 Kensington Close NW,
Calgary, AB
T2N 3J6



Searching for the Poet Deborah Digges (1950-2009) – Part One of a Two-Part Series

American poet and memoirist Deborah Digges (1950 -2009) Photo Credit: Star Black

My Amaryllis

So this is the day the fat boy learns to take the jokes
by donning funny hats, my Amaryllis,
my buffoon of a flower,
your four white bullhorn blossoms like the sirens
in a stadium through which the dictator announces he’s in love.
Then he sends out across the land a proclamation-
there must be music, there must be stays of execution
for the already dying.
That’s how your pulpy sex undoes me and your seven
leaves, unsheathed. How you diminish
my winter windows, and beyond them, the Atlantic.
How you turn my greed ridiculous.
Now it’s as if I could believe in having children after forty,
or, walking these icy streets, greet sullen strangers
like a host of former selves, so ask them in, of course,
and listen like one forgiven to their crimes.
Dance with us and all our secrets,
dance with us until our lies,
like death squads sent to an empty house, put down,
finally, their weapons, peruse the family
portraits, admire genuinely the bride.
Stay with me in this my exile
or my returning, as if to love the tyrant one more time.
O my lily, my executioner, a little stooped, here,
listing, you are the future bending
to kiss the present like a sleeping child.

Deborah Digges from Rough Music, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995

I am no expert on Deborah Digges and her poetry. But I have followed her story with interest: how she won two prestigious prizes for her first two books, wrote two memoirs including one about a son’s struggle and recovery from addiction and was a beloved professor who fell off the high top of the stadium at the university where she worked, an apparent suicide at 59.

I can’t remember what brought me back to Digges during these past few weeks. Was it reading W.S. Mervin’s elegiac tribute to her in Brick Magazine featuring the eponymous poem of her first collection Vesper Sparrows? Or was it the biting and I may say pretty edgy poem, depicting a party with notable American poets, authored by the celebrated memoirist and poet Mary Karr in her 2018 collection The Tropic of Squalor?  That poem mentions Digges by her first name and tells how she died.
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Wise Words from Two Great Sages and Teachers – Pema Chodron and Jelalludin Rumi

American Buddhist nun, author and all-around wise woman, Pema Chodron.


The only reason we don’t open our hearts and
minds to other people is that they trigger confusion
in us that we don’t feel brave enough or safe enough
to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and
compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and
fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes.

Pema Chodron (1936 – ) from The Pocket Pema Chodron, Shambala Publications, 2017

What a gentle surprise these words of the Buddhist sage, author and teacher, Pema Chodron, were to me this morning. And what a reminder to me of beloved lines from a longer Jelalludin Rumi poem as translated by the American poet and translator, Coleman Barks. The lines are these, from the poem Green Ears:
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The Rough-Knuckled Life and Poetry of Charles Bukowski Born on This Day 99 Years Ago!

German American poet Charles Bukowski (1920-1994)

   a song with no end

when Whitman wrote, “I sing the body electric”

I know what he
I know what he wanted:

to be completely alive every moment
in spite of the inevitable.

we can’t cheat death but we can make it
work so hard
that when it does take us

it will have known a victory just as
perfect as

Charles Bukowski from the night torn with mad footsteps, Ecco, 2003

Today, August 16th is the birthday of the notoriously controversial and provocative bad-boy of poetry, the German American Charles Bukowski. The author of more than forty novels and poetry collections his latest poetry collection was published earlier this year: On Drinking which not surprisingly is a collection of his “drinking” poems. For a wide-ranging discussion of the critical response to that book (many disapprovals) and to Bukowski in general the recent article by American poet Clint Margrave on Bukowski is helpful. The the link to the article please click here.

And please note: nothing about Bukowski is straight forward. Some of his poems have multiple versions and some of his poems published after his death are said to have been mangled by an editor.

Bukowski is not for the faint of heart.  And everything about him seems larger than life. That is apparent in the number of Hollywood films (Barfly and others) on him and taped interviews with him. He could be fouled mouthed and abusive. He lived a rough and tumble drinking life with lots of womanizing but he was not afraid to make that uncomfortably explicit in many of his poems. But and this is a big but for me, based on the relatively small number of his poems I have read (out of about 5,000 that have been catalogued) there is a treasure trove of wisdom on life and living in his poems that he earned the hard way.

The emotional depth in his poems is evident in some of his best-known poems including The Bluebird, The Crunch and The Laughing Heart. The Bluebird, in particular, strikes me as a heart-stopping look inside the heart and soul of an alcoholic. The power of alcohol to numb the Bluebird, the vulnerable and aching part I would say lives in all of us. but is expressed or not in so many different ways.
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Heidi Garnett’s Blood Orange – An Important Poetry Collection from 2016


Canadian Poet Heidi Garnett

Upstairs in the Study

A wound is a place where light enters you.
So many words, books on shelves, paper shoulders
holding dust’s weight. But what is this pain
I should search for again?
Where is the joy in it? On the window sill
an angel with wire wings plays Shostakovich’s Concerto # 1
in a minor and I begin to weep,
not because the music is beautiful, which it is,
but because for a moment I am perfectly content to do nothing,
but listen. It’s been so long. Snow begins to fall
and the corner between my desk and cedar chest
draws back into shadow. Outside
mountain siskin with their notched tails
tap at the birdbath’s frozen water, its split lip.

Heidi Garnett from Blood Orange, Frontenac House, 2016

It seems never ending: the flood of new poetry books year after year. But sometimes it is such a delightful surprise to go back  and rediscover notable books that are at risk of being forgotten. Left behind in the rush to find the next great book.  Such a book for me is the 2016 collection Blood Orange by Canadian poet Heidi Garnett.  The emotional and narrative range of the book is impressive. But I want to limit my focus to only two poems in the collection.

I come back to the epigraph poem of this blog post again and again. It is such a good example of her poetic mastery. The quick mind of her poems. And the imagery that supports her thinking. And what a poem of the moment. Of presence. And what a bold first line.
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A Huge Small Poem from Greg Orr’s latest Poetry Collection

American poet Gregory Orr








Song of Aftermath

Standing now, in a place
Scrubbed raw by flood.

I, who sought neither
Rapture nor fracture.

Now the question is:
What do you do with shatter?

Someone else’s map?
I’d end up half-trapped;

And even the best often
Just guess what’s next.

If I’m to grow now,
It will be through grieving.

It will be through this
Deepening I didn’t choose.

Gregory Orr from The Last Love Poem I Will Ever Write, W.W. Norton & Co., 2019

Registrations Open! – A Ten-Day Generative Poetry Writing Retreat in Umbria, Italy – June 11 to June 21, 2020

La  Romita poet, Liz, reading her poem at the La Romita Spoken Word event, Terni, June, 2019

Poet as Diviner: Hunting the Pluck of Poetry

A Ten-Day Generative Poetry Writing Retreat
June 11th to June 21st, 2020
Writing “En Plein Air”
with Richard Osler
at the La Romita School of Art
Terni, Umbria, Italy


Richard, just want to say again how amazing La Romita was. You are an extraordinary facilitator and made the whole time there so wonderful and poetically rich – Thank you. Liz M –  July 2019. (For more endorsements please see below.)

La Romita


Please consider this invitation to join me, Richard Osler, poet and highly regarded poetry retreat and workshop leader, this June, 2020 in Umbria for my fourth retreat at the  La Romita School of Art in Umbria (click here for the La Romita website) where you will read and write your poems in some of the most beautiful places imaginable.

A poet’s room at La Romita, June 2019

During the retreat I hope you will become a diviner, not one hunting the pluck of water as Seamus Heaney says in his poem The Diviner but one hunting the pluck of poetry. Discover how, as Heaney claims, both a diviner and poet make contact with what lies hidden, and…make palpable what was sensed or raised.

Through writing sessions, many en plein air on site where we visit, you will be inspired by written meditations on craft and by creative prompts. And on our last full day, guided by the celebrated book-maker Terry-Ann Carter, enjoy a day of making magic out of paper and words.
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