Why would you do that?

February 22, 2013

Sometimes you forget why you started writing in the first place. You get so caught up in minutiae: rewriting an article for the fifth time, or compiling endless lists of addresses to which you need to send something, or writing careful emails to other poets so you don’t inadvertently hurt their feelings…which is about as possible as teaching a walrus to tap-dance.

Rodrigo will tango, not tap

Rodrigo will tango, not tap

And then you come across a poem that reminds you why it is all worthwhile. These things often happen through serendipity. I was lucky enough to be short-listed in a Canadian literary competition a while back, and have been receiving the journal CV2 (Contemporary Verse 2) from Canada for a year. It is most excellent, and the Summer 2012 issue (which translates in Winter 2012, for Southern Hemisphere dwellers!) contains some truly beautiful work by John Steffler. I can’t reprint the poems here, as I don’t have the rights. But there are poems about rock art and trees and people living in snow and, yes, moose, that stole my muscles for a moment or two.

Mr Steffler is on the cover of the journal, wearing a black beanie. (I get the impression that everyone in Canada wears a beanie all the time…) He is, to put it euphemistically, no spring chicken, even an autumnal chicken, and the backs of his hands are deeply mottled, as if they have poems bubbling away, just waiting to filter into the fingertips and onto paper.

A lot of poetry comes about from the sort of chance meeting that led me to this journal. (And please note I am talking about my own poems and methods here, not those of the far more experienced John Steffler.) You see an orange-tinted cloud that reminds you of the flavour of ice-cream. You don’t know why exactly, and then you remember an orange dress that you were wearing where you smelt the first drops of rain while eating an icecream and how they drew you outside into the sudden cold. You notice the particular curve of certain words; yes, obviously, the word curvy (not in this angular font, though) but also cove. Does the word cove change its meaning when written in the longhand of say, James Cook, to when it is dashed off on the spur of the moment blog entry on a computer? These thought can lead to a poem. It’s the quirk of things; the infinite jest of language itself; grinning from its deep grammar into the everyday exchange of inanities.

And that’s why you say yes to poetry, even when you have a cold. Even when you just wish you were a tad more ‘normal’ and didn’t get excited about words in a way most people don’t, and wish you didn’t see a misplaced apostrophe as a knife stuck into a sentence’s bowels.

You feel even better when you can indulge in a little schadenfreude: Clarise Foster’s editorial to CV2 for Summer 2012 mentions that there are only a few months of the year in Canada where you can get out ‘without ubiquitous winter gear’.

Makes the first signs of Autumn seem bearable. (Autumn translates to Spring, Canadians! And our Autumn, even here in Canberra, is probably a lot warmer than Canada’s Spring, I suspect.) Sometimes we even go out without beanies!

Ode on the Mammoth Cheese
Weighing over seven thousand pounds

We have seen the Queen of cheese,
Laying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze —
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provincial Show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.

Cows numerous as a swarm of bees —
Or as the leaves upon the trees —
It did require to make thee please,
And stand unrivalled Queen of Cheese.

May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to send you off as far as
The great World’s show at Paris.

Of the youth — beware of these —
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek; then songs or glees
We could not sing o’ Queen of Cheese.

We’rt thou suspended from baloon,
You’d cast a shade, even at noon;
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

James McIntyre

Two weeks ago, Helen McKinlay posted a subtle, surprising and interesting poem by Judy Brown called ‘The Cheese Room’. In her editorial notes, however, she mentioned James McIntyre, ‘Canada’s worst poet’, who wrote a lot about cheese. Now, as someone who recently published a poem by the Great McGonagall himself, the invitation to explore was impossible to resist. And this led me to this Homage to Fromage.

Now, the poem scans, unlike most of McGonagall, but the rhymes are dreadful. I particularly like ‘Beau’ and ‘Toronto’ which makes for a pronunciation of the Canadian city that one will surely never hear in real life. Most satisfying. Far less annoying to me than the GPS on my phone, which has an American accent and pronounces Canberra with the emphasis on the last syllable. (By the way, a University of ToronTOE site gives the spelling baloon, so who am I to argue?)

I must point out that McIntyre was born in Scotland, seemingly in 1827 (possibly 1828), making him a near contemporary of McGonagall (the latter’s dates are also somewhat murky, but 1825 seems to be generally accepted as the true birth year). ‘Oh Scotland, Scotland!’ as Macduff says. There must have been something in the air in the mid to late 1820s, when these two were conceived. If one reads the Ode, one can still catch a whiff.

I promise to be serious next time. Press this feather to see if any other Tuesday Poets have been scraping the bottom of the barrel, or if I’m the only one to go that whey.

Tuesday Poem

I recently competed in an interesting competition run by a Canadian journal, Contemporary Verse 2.  They give a list of ten words, and punters (who must have pre-registered) have two days to create a poem which contains every word.  I sometimes like doing this type of thing as it stops me from falling in a rut, and if the result is less than wonderful, it doesn’t really matter.

I was very pleased to receive an honourable mention, particularly as I found myself writing about cockatoos; hardly something that the average Canadian would see stripping the bark from maple trees on a daily basis, or resting on the antlers of moose.  Actually I know that Canada, like Australia, is overwhelmingly urban, so please excuse my tired and narrow stereotypes. (Is there such a thing as a vibrant and broad stereotype?) Here in Canberra cockatoos are as common as sparrows.  If not commoner, which is remarkable given how many foreign birds have been released in this country over the past 200 years.

I won’t put the poem up here, as I can’t remember if I granted exclusive e-rights for a time to CV2 (probably not) but here is a link to the poem about cockatoos, imaginatively entitled ‘Cockatoos‘.

Muse with beak

Reading the other poems is fascinating; they are so good that I forgot that they had to contain the magic ten words.  And the other poems were mostly urban.

Really urban, not Canberra urban.