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!


Yes, we’ve heard their sad repetitions,
the ‘Pieces of eight’, the rote ‘Pretty boys’,
dropped from tired beaks like peanut shells;
birds bored far beyond the thinning bone.
Compulsive as a handwasher who never
satisfies herself against germy armies
(save her hands are gloved in blood,
and cleansed into gauntlets of agony)
the caged bird will repeat this or that,
sigh, then hear that weird word clever,
thrown at his misery like a charity coin,
a beggar at our table of meaning.

But to see them treed, hanging upside-down,
greeting wet wind like a blown umbrella,
yellow winking at sun like a wicked punch-line,
raucous joy a cascade of brassy cunning sax;
this is the true sound of this bossy bright thing.
Why quibble about what they know, or don’t?
A screech floats to ground like a metal bird,
cut with tin-shears by a half-blind drunk,
so gratingly loud that ears are near-shorn.
Cockatoos mar the sky with jagged freedom,
as far from a nightingale’s sweet treacle
as a sudden mouthful of shattered glass.

P.S. Cottier

Muse with beak

Take this poem as a kind of apology for my rampant criticism of Canberra’s weather in my post on April 10th.  Cockatoos are one of the many beautiful things about this city. There’s been some world-championship Canberra bashing going on lately, and I wanted to post something in response to the mindlessness of some of those criticisms. I’ve posted a link to this poem before, shortly after it appeared on the web-site of Canadian journal Contemporary Verse 2. Now it’s been in the print edition, and I feel free to publish it here. It came from a competition where participants must pre-register and have 48 hours to produce a poem containing all ten words given in a list. I didn’t enter the more recent competition (last weekend) as I knew I would be writing my line for the Tuesday Poem global poem, which has just been completed.

One ‘prompt’ at a time, please. I found the Tuesday Poem process, writing one line in an unfolding poem written by dozens of poets around the world line by line, very challenging. I was actually very scared as the time for writing my line approached.  There were tears. There was a slight spat. But perseverance and wine got me through.

I am actually amazed that something readable, nay, even quite lovely, can come out of a process like this. For me, it was useful in that I had to make my line fit in with the previous parts of the poem. I was worried I could never produce something that gentle. But I did! I just played a straight bat and didn’t shy away from the rather joyous tone that threatened to stump me.  To drop the inane cricket metaphor, it’s good to be pushed around a little at times, poetically speaking.

Click this feather, and you’ll be transported to the blog, where you can read the completed global poem, written to celebrate two years of Tuesday Poem.
Tuesday Poem