Conversing with Trees

Here I sit, empty.
No poem comes to me.
Stirred, I go in search
of a verse to pluck.

But on what kind of tree does
a poem grow? Our garden
offers plenty of possibilities:
pine and oak,
beech and maple
spruce and hemlock.
Each one of these spirited trees is
ripe with grace and
rife with peace.

I settle, conversing with trees.
And even if no poem should arrive,
I’ll be succored by the sight of leaves aloft,
and trunks holding up the sky, my eye now
soaking in the chlorophyll filtered light,
inciting wonder, if not a poem.

Staycation in Canvas and Verse

Today my wife and I were to return home after a week spent in Trinidad and Tobago building a home with Habitat for Humanity. It became apparent some time ago that this was not to happen, but I had a week of holidays to be completed before the end of April, so a staycation was in the offing.

The danger of staycation, especially after an extended period of working at home is figuring out a way not to work at home. I have to admit that I wasn’t altogether successful at this, but I did better than I thought I would. I was helped, largely, by two decisions I made. One was to buy a year’s subscription to Master Class, and the other was to work on a painting that has been kind of drifting about in my head for some weeks.

I was especially interested in Billy Collins’ class on poetry in Master Class. I delight in Collins’ poetry and so was not surprised to find his lessons entertaining, insightful and inspiring. He revealed much about himself and his process of creating poetry, all the while sharpening my tools for reading poetry as well as writing it. One of his great lines from the class was “the beauty of a poem can be measured by the degree of silence it creates when it is finished.” He read a few poems of his own and introduced me to others that gave me pause at their completion. Collins’ lectures, mostly in 10 minutes clips or so, allowed me to take in small bits, think about them for a time and return when I was ready for more. Undoubtedly, I will be revisiting these before the year is over. I have just started Margaret Atwood’s class, and it proves to be promising as well.

I would spend my morning doing a bit of reading, listening to a few Master Classes, and then think a bit about my painting for a half-hour to an hour. At noon or so I would go for a jog, eat some lunch with my working wife, and paint for a good part of the afternoon. Painting, when you are in the right space, is a timeless activity. A minute feels no weightier than an hour. Sometimes, I find my heart racing as an idea falls in place for dealing with some shape, or colour, or balance. Sometimes I tremble at the fear that I am going to wreck something that feels right as I move the painting forward. Painting, like running, are really spiritual experiences for me. I feel God powerfully in them, and they do not need to be successful to be successful.

I spent my evenings watching a movie, or another Masterclass, or reading some theology. I would end my evening with some yoga and a glass of red wine. I found good bits of silence in the course of my week, which makes me think that some of it was poetic, à la Collins. Luther famously said that the Holy Spirit is the best poet of all and so I suspect that divine fingerprints can be found here and there in this week of canvas and verse.

The Joy in Writing

Another year of writing this blog comes to an end. A colleague at work the other day commented on this practice, wondering whether I have found it to be a good discipline. I think that to be true. I don’t quite write something every week, although most weeks I do – generally alternating poetry and prose. I sort of wind my way through each week, looking for a muse in some form or the other to generate a thought, or spark an insight. It doesn’t always happen, and when that it is the case, I sit downstairs in the basement on a Saturday night and start pondering the first thing that comes to mind. Generally something comes together. Writing is funny that way: sometimes it just clicks and other times, not.

I mentioned this to another colleague the other day; we were talking about academic writing in this instance. She was asking me about a paper I gave at a conference, and I could tell her that the paper under discussion nearly wrote itself. An idea fell in my lap, and I did some research around it, but the basic form of the essay was in place and I researched to span gaps and to strengthen pillars. But at other times, I do copious research; reading and reading with a view to finding some idea to chase after. For such a paper, every paragraph is pure effort.

I think, to some degree, I have been well served by another colleague of mine, who speaks of the classroom as a workshop, inviting students to test out ideas and play around a bit – not being too anxious about piety, or fidelity, or orthodoxy in his space. They can take on those concerns when they leave his class, or not. In a way, I find this space to be something like that. Here, I sit down and write and refuse to worry about my writing passing the muster of an editor, or a publishing gate keeper of some sort. I just write for the joy in writing.

But this joy, like so many other joys, is fueled by facilities empowered by practice. I write more easily when I write often, I think. And so, when it is time to write an academic piece, I think that the time I have spent in this workshop, or gym, or studio called “stillvoicing” has prepared me to get to work. Or at least that’s what I’m imagining today. The freedom this space affords, allows me to stretch in new ways, and develop new skills that make their way into a different kind of public.

And so I write: sometimes prose and sometimes poetry. I remember hearing Leonard Cohen in a CBC interview some years ago, where he said that being a poet is a verdict not a decision, or self-declaration. I suppose that is true for writers of other genres as well. Many people write; but I’m not sure how many writers there are, or poets, or artists. But then again, I don’t know that this much matters. If writing brings some joy, or meaning, or relief, that is reason enough to write. And perhaps, from time to time, that reason translates into something worth reading.

Citing in the Trenches

In my academic work, pretty much all writing is actually a conversation. What has this person said about this issue? What has that person said about that? Academic writing is not to be an exercise in mere opining. It is an entry into great conversations. And when that works well, well, it can be rather exciting.

I recently wrote a paper that was exactly that: a delight to write. I had completed a good bit of reading and research in preparation for it, and the paper nearly wrote itself. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does, I feel as if the heavens have opened and I have been given a gift: the ideas came flowing in, and I couldn’t write fast enough. When that happens, I have the important task of noting which ideas I am building on, and which ideas I am refuting, and which ideas are my own. The first two bits are really quite easy; it’s the last that is somewhat vexing. When I’ve read reams of material, I want to make sure I give all the authors I’ve read their due: I want to make sure that it doesn’t appear as if my seemingly novel idea is novel when, in fact, it builds on the thought of another. Sometimes in the flurry of writing, I’ll make a note: “citation needed.”

When editing time comes, this note-to-self is most trying: “citation needed.” It demands that I get back inside my head: was I referencing something I remembered someone saying; was I uncertain about the idea and wanted some support from another thinker; did I simply need to think more about the matter under investigation? When I’m editing, and hit this, I feel like I am doing nothing but grunt work.

But here’s the thing. When I was a teenager, I spent a summer working for a construction firm, and did nothing but grunt work. I tamped dirt in preparation for cement; I hauled about forms that shaped a place for the cement to land; I pushed wheelbarrows full of cement. This work was not intellectually challenging, but it was incredibly important. Without a solid foundation, a house is soon uninhabitable.

Without solid ground-work nothing holds together. The same is true with writing. The preparatory work makes the writing a pleasure, and the need to acknowledge those who have fed you is an ethical obligation. Yesterday I spent a number of hours chasing down a handful of references. It isn’t as heady as experiencing an idea arrive in my lap, but it is just as important: ideas don’t arrive without further ado. They are the gift of my conversation with scholars who have proceeded me. I honour them by making sure I give them credit that is due.

A day spent tracking down quotations and making sure that commas and footnotes are in place isn’t my favourite way to spend a day. But I take a certain satisfaction in knowing that when I take care to credit sources informing my ideas, I am doing a good thing; the right thing, really. I expect it of my students, and when I expect it of myself, I remind myself that I too, am a student. There is certain giftedness in this realization that I will always be sitting at the feet of masters who have generously made space for me to say my piece in this conversation that is life.

A Travel Guide for One

What a gift it is to
feel blood stream from
heart to hand to pen, now
staining this page with
my very being

I can hardly help myself
and yet I must since
no-one else can and
so after bleeding ink
on paper I practice
the augury of
ancient days.

I wind my way into
the labyrinth I am and
so finally settle into myself;
where I write a travel guide
for one.

To Catch a Tear

The clock just chimed 5:00 am
and the neighbourhood birds
are singing the sun up,

and the sun coaxes the earth
to turn again and again and
again without end.

The chimes fill the house,
every corner penetrated by
morning’s evangel.

I sit in the basement and scribble
this poem while around the world

this tick accompanies a death;
that tock witnesses a birth.

The hands are on the face:
now in delight; now in lament;
now in laughter; now…

in time to catch a tear.

Gone now, save in this memory

What will come of all
of this poetry:
verses
words
letters
punctuation? Will
they fill the white space
or will it consume
them? A
Q now an O, a
bite taken out of it; a
t now an l, the ‘–’
erased…

I remember well a poem
I wrote in grade nine, published
in an education column in the Edmonton Journal. It was
sent in by Mrs. Massing, my Language Arts teacher, and cut
out by my modestly proud mother, who pasted it
on the inside door of the food pantry,
only to be seen by certain eyes, and
gone now, save in this memory:
my chewing on it,
its chewing on me.

Limping toward You

And then You come to me
again, and again, and again,
slipping Your words into the silence
of my speech. You right and write
my wrongs in strophes of
reconciliation, allowing
my ears to be hallowed
by Your cries; my
eyes to be sanctified by
the sight of Your tears
now made mine.

You are not
content to see
me face to face
but embrace me
from the inside out:
Your presence now my joy,
Your absence now my hope,
my words now my tongue
limping toward
You.

This sentence is a scar…

Imagine, if you
will, this pen
a knife, this page
skin: sheet bleeding
ink into quill.

The scratch, scratch,
scratch you hear
is the sound
of paper being
lacerated and
from this
vellum comes
blood blue.

This sentence is a scar…

There is no writing
without pain, no
words without death.
“The Word was made flesh”
is both promise and warning:
“Write at your own risk.”

The Poetry of Your Prose

I can smell You in this text, in
these words bearing
Your breath

Your warmth
Your concern
Your passion.

I can see Your neck’s nape

in this ‘r’
in that ‘j’.

My flesh meets Yours

in both belly laugh
and anxious palpitation

at Your tales.

I can taste You as

tears flow from eye to tongue

at the poetry of Your prose, Your poise.

Take and read. Taste and see. The Lord is good.