Making Beauty Out of Wood and Words – Guest Poetry Blog #26 – Introducing the Latest Contributor, Canadian Poet and Woodworker, John Terpstra – Part One of Two

Canadian cabinet maker and poet, John Terpstra

The Kind of World We Live In
—lines for Lent

The kind of world we live in
is fraught
with where and when the next outbreak
will occur,
which passenger aircraft
the missile will hit,
whether the children will be freed
from their cages
to go find their mothers and fathers, if they can,
and what we’ll all do next,
after the last iceberg has melted
into the waters that lap against our e-car doors.

The kind of world we live in
feels as though it’s reaching a pitch,
and here I sit,
cinching up the hiking boots
for another 40-day wilderness trek,
another round
of walking over rock,
talking to trees,
and hoping for blessed nothing to happen
while I’m out there alone.

The world is on your shoulders,
it’s in your backpack,
which just happens to get lighter and lighter
the farther you go,
the deeper you delve into these woods,
the closer you come
to losing it all
for love
of the kind of world we live in,

while fasting on
the roots and berries of a wild hope.

John Terpstra from Wild Hope – Prayers & Poems, The St. Thomas Poetry Series, 2020


I am so pleased to introduce one of Canada’s important and accomplished literary figures, John Terpstra from Hamilton, Ontario. John, who began his writing career forty-five years ago is not just accomplished as a poet, non-fiction writer and recording artist but as a cabinet maker and carpenter. Truly, a maker in all senses of the word. A man of wood and words.

And John continues to make beautiful things out of wood for exisiting customers and not only published a new poetry chapbook in 2023 but, through the wonderful Gaspereau Press, is coming out with a new non-fiction work in the Fall, detailing his life in writing and woodworking.

While I am thrilled and honoured to have John join the Recovering Words Guest Poetry Blog Series I have a touch of sadness because the literary journal where I first met John’s work, and the journal that celebrated him ten years ago as one of the top fifty contemporary writers of faith, has just announced it will cease publication this summer after thirty-five years.

Yes, Image Journal, a Seattle-based journal tag lined: Art-Faith-Mystery, is closing down this summer after thirty-five years of publishing four outstanding issues each year. And in all those issues faith was an undercurrent, an invitation to something other, never a demand. It also supported other initiatives like the legendary week-long Glen Workshop that offered workshops to poets, playwrights, novelists and non-fiction writers. I took my first writing workshop there!

Sad, yes, to see the end of Image but so glad to celebrate John who continues to write and work with wood. And I am happy to include as the epigraph poem/prayer for this post, The Kind of World We Live In which comes from John’s 2020 collection of poems and prayers, Wild Hope, published through the Toronto-based St. Thomas Poetry Series.

The Kind of World We Live In is such a strong example of how John is not afraid to look at this beautiful yet messed up world of ours and not lose hope of something better. And a poem that celebrates the Christian season of Lent that began a week or so ago on Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day! Lent, a season that walks in darkness but comes out in light. A world John figuratively calls a 40-day wilderness trek where he acknowledges the dark of the world we live in yet paradoxically fasts: on the roots and berries of wild hope.

There is such a tension in John’s last line. After a backpack is being emptied of the world what else is there to feed on, literally or metaphorically? And it would be more appropriate to fast from something. Not fast on, since to fast is to abstain, not eat or do something. Yet he is fasting on the roots and berries of wild hope. A mysterious paradox. Yet, somehow I am left with a sense that as the speaker removes more and more of the world and its troubles as he travels on this figurative trek through Lent, within the resulting emptiness, all that’s left is hope.

Craft is important in poems and prayers and I appreciate John’s craft in The Kind of World We Live In. How the poem starts from a plural first person perspective of such a damaged and damaging human world, Then in the second stanza after one more plural we the poem introduces the singular I and the metaphor of entering the days of Lent like a hiker would enter a wilderness of a forty-day trek. The challenge of that. And the move from more generalized statements of events in the world in the first stanza to the more particular and intimate I moment of a hiker getting ready for a demanding trek.

Then in the third stanza more shifts in perspective. A radical shift to the second person your and repetitions of you. The way this could be referring to the I in the second stanza or a your that includes the reader. Perhaps a risky move if the reader is not a Christian but it is a forceful way of making the poem/prayer more intimate for the reader. Makes it more personal. And then the poem moves back to the plural we and the more general statement the world we live in before moving back to the more intimate you coming closer:

to losing it all
for love
of the kind of world we live in,

while fasting on
the roots and berries of a wild hope.

Something so haunting for me in these last lines that force me, regardless of having a faith in something transcendent or not, to answer this question: Can I lose the burden of this broken and damaged world and hope for something better. And a more difficult question: can I become part of that hope regardless of what I believe in.

Now, to read John’s story of how after more than forty years of writing he came to writing prayers for his church in Hamilton. And while John says he wonders if all his poems have been prayers and then says he thinks not, he then says this: When we write, we’re talking. When we’re talking, we’re talking to someone other than ourselves. We are talking so that we may be heard. Is this then a way of praying as well as writing a poem? I wonder.

And to finish his post John leaves us his striking poem/prayer that re-situates the famous Twenty Third Psalm to wilderness Canada in Summer. A prayer, that for me is also a poem.

John Terpstra and his 102 year-old legendary former English Professor William Blissett. William is also a noted bibliophile among many other life accomplishment. So glad to include him in John’s post!

When I John sent me this picture of him and his former professor William Blissett I couldn’t resist putting in the post. A celebration of two men of deep Christian belief and a huge belief in the power of prayers and poems!


In the forty-five years since my first book appeared, I have published eleven books of poetry, five works of creative non-fiction, and made three full-length recordings. But more recently, I have also published two books of prayers. In fear and trembling. Throwing caution to the wind. I have the distinct impression that waving a religious flag in this country could put one’s literary credibility on the line. So I went ahead and did so anyway.

John at the 2023 launch of his chapbook “Greetings from Head of the Lake”

These compilations of prayers came about because our church has not had a minister for a long time, and so we lay folk are obliged to fill in. When I was first asked to compose a Prayer of Thanksgiving and Intercession, as it is formally called, I was daunted, and could not find my way in until I began to think of it as simply another writing project. If I approached the page as a writer, rather than as a kind of spiritual professional, the door opened.

The prayers are installments in an ongoing conversation with the Creator. It’s not asking for things, which is how many people perceive the genre (can I call it a genre?), but simply presenting the current predicaments. Within a context of appreciation and thanks, I should add. On behalf of us. That is, on behalf of the people in front of whom I am standing and speaking on a Sunday morning.

It’s a deep dive into who and where we are. It’s a tight-rope between the personal and the communal. The writing requires compassion and humanity; a belief in, and quest for, meaning making; humour and wit in service of spiritual dilemmas, in monologue form; and a personal, non-fiction, earthly approach. As you can tell, I’m still leaning on my literary saints. (To read more about John’s literary saints, John Steinbeck, Richard Wilbur, Christopher Fry and John McPhee, please read Part Two in his series of two posts.)

Here’s the rub, though. The prayers are a different thing altogether, to my mind, from the poetry that I write. But as careful as I have been to name them prayers, and to distinguish these from my poetry, no one else seems to bother.

In a sense, it has always been thus. An audience in the seats of a reading can’t seem to tell the difference between my poetry and the non-fiction. To them it is all poetry. Or so they say. Readers tell me the same thing, especially if they have heard me read. I take this as a compliment. And though I’d like to maintain a distinction between genres, should I care? In the end, it’s all simply writing. A scrawl on a page. A voice in the wilderness of what it means to be human. Maybe it’s the voice that is the common denominator.

I have very little to contribute directly to the conversation about poetry as prayer, or poetry as definitely not prayer, other than my particular experience. Maybe everything I’ve ever written is a kind of prayer, even though it was not intended as such and I don’t consider it to be. Maybe that’s what writing is. When we write, we’re talking. When we’re talking, we’re talking to someone other than ourselves. We are talking so that we may be heard.

Canadian Summer Psalm 23

Creator Guide, I have
most everything I want,
my needs are more
than simply met,

you’ve more than simply earned
my trust.

You invite these tired bones
to lie down in the grass,

You take me to your favourite
camping spot
by the lake
to watch the water’s surface
turn to glass
at sunset.

You restore
body and soul
with tree and leaf,
with sand and soil and rock,
cloud and breeze.

You lead me
ever on
the narrow path
that is blazed for my feet
through the wood of this world,

for your own sake,
your own reasons,

which I see

but dimly and fleetingly,
between the trees.

Ha! Even though
I go barefoot
through the darkest dense forest
with shadows only
for company,

and must squeeze myself
between the rock
of my mortality
and the hard place
of never ever wanting to leave
life and its beauty

I swallow my fear
of anything bad happening

because you’re here:

your carved walking stick
and your trusty hatchet
are a comfort.

You gather firewood
and prepare
a veritable banquet
of wild edibles
in the presence
of every demon
black dog and dementor
I have ever faced.

You wash my hair in the lake.

My tin camp cup overflows.

I can hardly believe
how confident I feel
that this goodness
and the mercy that falls
as a light rain
with the sun shining through
will accompany and surround me
ll the days I have left to live

and I will dwell
inside the tent
of my wilderness guide
and trek companion

and the circle
will be unbroken
n around the campfire,
and there will be no more pain or sorrow
on all your holy mountain,
or in the streets of this city,

and we will sit on logs and tree stumps
together again,
listening to the sounds
of creation restored,

singing folk songs,
gazing into
the pentecostal flames.

John Terpstra for Recovering Words. A previous version was published in the, July 13th, 2022


  1. Gisela Ruebsaat
    Posted February 19, 2024 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    A lovely tribute and thought provoking. Talking and praying…

  2. Richard Osler
    Posted February 26, 2024 at 11:17 am | Permalink

    Gisela: So happy to see your comment. So grateful for the readers of my blog! Encourages me to keep going!

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