The Danger of Poetry – Guest Poetry Blog # 12 – Introducing the Latest Contributor, Canadian Poet Pamela Porter – Part One of Two

Canadian poet Pamela Porter. Photo provided by Pamela Porter.

Poem for my younger self

I hid my poems from her.
Stuffed them under my mattress,
into my pillow case.

Mother scoured my room for them.
I tucked them into my shoe,
my bra.
I was fourteen.

I wrote a poem for another
mother who was kind to me,
slipped it into her palm
on Easter Sunday.

I took me three weeks
to write it, though I didn’t know
for certain if it could even
be called a poem.

The other mother passed it
among all the singers in the choir.
Of course, it was passed
to my own mother.

After church Mother said,
I read that poem you wrote.
And I want it. I want it
And anything else you’ve written.

I hid my poems from her.
In my textbooks, in my shoe.

We were always at church.
My father said, We don’t go
to church because we want to.
We go because it’s right.

Mother watched my every move.
My sister didn’t write poems
in bed with a flashlight.
My sister didn’t scour for poems
in books.

Mother searched my closet for them.
Demanded to know what I’d written.

I hid them.
Wrote them in the pages
with my history notes,
a flashlight under my blanket.

She stuck her head inside
my door, said, You’re writing
about what a terrible mother
I am, aren’t you?

I have to finish this book report,
I said. For extra credit. (I lied.)
The other mother encouraged me,
the one for whom I wrote the poem.

I hid poems in my shoes.
My bra.

Mother went through every
scrap of paper in my room.
As if she wanted to arrest
my poems, put them in jail.

I hardly knew what a poem was.
Already I’d learned that poetry
was a danger.
I was digging my way into truth,
which, of course, is fire.

It could burn the whole house down.

Pamela Porter, from Between the Bell Struck and the Silence, forthcoming from Caitlin Press, 2024


I had no idea when I introduced my Recovering Words Guest Poetry Blog Series back in August 2022 that I would be so soon introducing poet number twleve in the series – the  much celebrated Canadian poet Pamela Porter, born in the United States. And I had no idea I would receive such a generous response from poets on both sides of the border to my invitation to join the series. The power of all these yeses. And with busy schedules a yes to not just one post but two.

And each poet in their own way has been so open and creative in writing about their poetry histories. Pam is no exception. Part one of her post, with two previously unpublished poems, is below.  How her poems add such torque to her story of her life and writing journey. In Part Two she will feature another wonderful Vancouver Island poet, Wendy Donawa.

I met Pamela through the remarkable Canadian poet and teacher, Patrick Lane. At one of his four day poetry retreats on Southern Vancouver Island. I forget, in which of the three retreat centers where the retreats were held over the years, where it was we first met. But I do remember the wide-eyed curiosity and openess that Pam brought to those retreats. Although Pam was already recognized as an accomplished writer through her many writing prizes I was struck by her gracious and low-key demeanor. How at ease she made me feel in those first retreats in spite of my anxiety as a newbie and unproven poet!

Pam is the author of ten collections of poetry (the eleventh forthcoming), two verse novels, and a novel and picture book for children. Her poetry collection, Cathedral, was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award, and her poems have won the Vallum Magazine Poem of the Year Award, the Prism International Grand Prize in Poetry, the FreeFall Poetry Prize, and have been shortlisted four times for the CBC literary awards. And in 2005 her first verse novel, The Crazy Man, knocked it out of the park. It won nine literary prizes including the prestigous Governor General’s  Award for Children’s Literature and was commended and short or long listed for twelve other literary awards.

I was shock when I went back to see when I had last featured her in my blog and discovered it was back in 2012! Many books ago! Two long a gap! In that blog post I said of Pam: She fearlessly explores the heart’s dark and hidden places and brings them to the light with luminous metaphor. She has a gentle way in life and with her words. But in that gentleness is her fierceness; her hopefulness, her generosity.

In that same post I featured a poem that seems even more apt, after reading her introduction below, especially these lines: I am here now. This is my story./ Lift your head and I will tell it to you.


 I knew there were infinite possibilities.
The world was catching fire.
Leaves turned one by one to flame
I saw my life clearly, in an instant:
I had travelled by train, the long scarf
of its smoke the colour of your hair.
Once, the conductor turned his head to look at me.
His eyes told me he knew.
I travelled by foot the rest of the way.
Someone else had planned the journey.
Someone knew what my life was for.
I am here now. This is my story.
Lift your head and I will tell it to you.

Pamela Porter (1956 – ) from no ordinary place, Ronsdale Press, 2012

Now, with huge thanks here is Pamela:

PAMELA’s INTRODUCTION – PART ONE OF HER TWO BLOG POSTS – Poetry ushers you in to a darkened room and invites you to light the candles.

August, 1994. We waited at the Peace Arch border crossing to be let into Canada. All the papers had been signed and we set off toward the Tsawwassen ferry terminal for Vancouver Island.

It was only a year since the brilliant June day when my father in-law arrived to our log house on a peaceful 34 acres that lay along the Smith River in central Montana, to ask Rob to take over the family farm business. Located in Saskatchewan! We were familiar with prairie winters but checked the rules. We could live anywhere in Canada, they said. We packed the kids in the van and drove from Winnipeg west, and completed our tour on Vancouver Island. We were parked at a Motel 6 in on the Pat Bay Highway. I looked out the window of our motel room and saw how green it was. The fresh air. What could be better?

Soon after our arrival I took our daughter, who was starting grade 1, to buy school supplies. The trouble was, I didn’t understand the items on the list. Scribblers. Duo Tangs. I asked an overworked cashier where to find them. “Aisle 2,” she said, and waved me off. Overwhelmed, I had to leave the store but promised myself I’d try again in a day or so.

In addition, I needed a time and space to write. Between Rob and me, we decided on one day a week that would constitute my “writing day.” I found out about a retreat centre in Victoria, called Queenswood House, where the Sisters of St. Ann lived. I was too timid to call Queenswood House myself, afraid that I might sound like a Texas hick, so my husband called for me.

Sister Audrey ran the library at Queenswood. Of course I could come and write, she replied. She located an old school desk and placed it in front of a window, with an outlet so that I could plug in my computer. Always, on my writing days, Sister Audrey invited me to eat with the sisters for lunch and dinner. I stayed to write until the kids would be in bed. I did this for ten years.

I tried to get my manuscripts published, and was turned down. Over and over again. But I kept writing. I kept sending my manuscripts out and was rejected. But I soldiered on. At one point, I was sitting in the Queenswood library and counted up the number of years I’d been writing, trying to get my poetry published. Eighteen years.

I’d been working, trying to get one or another poetry manuscript published, for 18 years. If I’d known then what I know now, I would have looked back on myself and said, “Well, honey, it’s going to be another eleven years,” I might have given up. But I didn’t know. All I could think was, it could be tomorrow that someone publishes my manuscript. I found Wendy Morton and her Friday night poetry gatherings in Victoria. I brought my poems with me.

I turned to writing a story for children, based on the life of a friend who lived in Montana near where our farm had been located, and who survived a deadly flood on her family’s ranch, and I sent it to Groundwood Books. A few months later, an editor called me to say they liked the story. But it needed work.

I was ready to work. It took me three weeks of dedicated work to revise the book to their liking. Then, after several more weeks, the editor called again, to say that they wanted to publish the book.

No one else was home at the time. I held myself together enough to thank her and to say a proper good-bye. I hung up the phone, found a chair by the window, and sat down. And I started to sob. I counted the years that I had worked at writing in order to get a manuscript published as a book: it had been 29 years of rejections.

It was then that I allowed myself to start a novel in narrative poems, set in Saskatchewan, narrated by an eleven year-old girl. The girl suffers a terrible farm accident which leaves her disabled for life. Her father in his guilt shoots the dog and walks off the farm. Her mother hires a man from the mental hospital to take over the farming. The editors came up with a title for it: The Crazy Man. It won the Governor General’s Award.

Once you win an award, others want to publish your work. I could publish my manuscripts then. Ron Hatch at Ronsdale Press published ten books of my poems. He died of cancer a year and a half ago, but it was said that he was sitting up in his hospital room editing manuscripts until two days before his passing. I will always be grateful to him.

I had two degrees in poetry writing when I came to Canada. But no one held a candle to Patrick Lane when it came to teaching. What a gift he was. Wherever he is now, I tell him about every other day what a gift he gave to us all.

The past may never leave us but we can write about it. I began this post with a new poem from my past. And I end it with another new poem from that past: The Lieutenant. After reading a poem in translation of Pablo Neruda, my poem poured out, triggered in part by the cadence of Neruda’s poem. It happens sometimes.

The Lieutenant

He continued soldiering long after the war,
Lieutenant over two small girls. The summer
heat stood at attention, sweated out the days
and weeks as a silence hung over the house, the girls
commanded not to speak unless spoken to. Until
the younger one climbed high in the sycamore, sealed
her mouth shut and would not open it. Words burrowed
inside her and no one to trust in the telling. Her tongue
grown sickly from neglect, she searched for words
in books which appeared instead as little birds
she imagined holding in her palm. The air grew
colder, the leaves, in salute, flew higher, her tree
buffeted by wind as salt tears streaked her face.
The sycamore her sanctuary. It did not occur to
the Lieutenant or his wife or to the sister that the child
had been blessed with a hidden understanding of the music
in loneliness and wings, or the way the sky deepened
on the rutted road toward winter. She read messages
the leaves left for her, the size of the Lieutenant’s wide
hand, her face stung with the thought of him. Here
it must be noted also that a war raged in the house
between the Lieutenant and his wife. The elder sister
allied herself with the mother and took on a certain
degree of power as the house — foundation, bricks
and mortar, kept the battle from neighbours on either side.
As the wind rose and night stole in, the girl held
her grip on the tree, and even as she clung, surrounded
by bare branches, the Lieutenant never thought to look
up to find her. Yet the chickadees, sparrows, the commonest
of birds settled in their nests beside her and breathed
from the nostril-holes in their beaks and blinked their fine,
feathered eyelids, unafraid. And she listened to the prayers
of grass and beheld all she could of the stars she wanted
to grasp in her fist, and which still found her once she climbed
down and slipped into bed beside her window in the dark.

Pamela Porter, ibid

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