Is Writing Poetry Hard? (1)

… poetry interrogates the reader… “Dionne Brand in Conversation.” Interview by Christian Olbey (2002)

I’d say writing poetry is a hard thing, yes.

In an oft-quoted statement in a 2002 interview with Christian OlbeDionne Brandy, Dionne Brand tells Olbey “poetry interrogates the reader” while “the reader interrogates prose”. If poetry interrogates the reader, it grills the poet much more. It is in part that cross-examination that for me, at any rate, makes writing poems such a tough business.

The probing proceeds at all kinds of levels. Do you, the poet, have wit enough? Wisdom enough? Watchfulness enough? Words enough? Do you have craft enough? Stamina enough? Patience enough? Daring enough to bare your body – breasts, belly, booty of images – to the casual stare of any old reader, pinching your ass on any old passing page? Will you choose to share, or, like Ken Ingram, Jamaican librarian-poet, take a manuscript of maybe your best writing to the grave?

Those are just some of the queries. Then there’s Emily Dickinson, writing nearly two thousand poems, all but a dozen or so unpublished in her life, and raising a question about the necessity of audience, a question that Louise Bennett would appreciate. The Hon Miss Lou would no doubt laugh, allowing it was Providence alone that made Dennis Scott, Mervyn Morris, Rex Nettleford and Ferdie Sangster come along to help arrange an answer for her.

Being Louise, she probably also knew that having had her answer, and an audience for a while, fickle Jamdowners would love her and leave her soon enough. (I’m told many of today’s Jamaican children have never heard of Miss Lou. For sure we’ve scrubbed the Ring-Ding tapes – an irreparable loss.) Our little island is not Newfoundland, ready to make a bard of every man and, having done so, cup its ear to every bard…

And there are the terrible queries, every time, of whether what one is trying to say is worth it.

Fine… Enough with the smoke and mirrors, you say. Is the actual writing difficult? The answer depends on the individual poet, of course, but it’s only ever happened a couple times in my life that a poem came out, ten perfect fingers and toes, yelling at the top of its lungs. Mostly they are preemies, needing an incubator and lots of TLC over days, weeks, even months… There are the ‘rules’ of course. Pare it down, for every word must work. Cut ‘the’s’ and ‘and’s’ and ‘then’s’. Watch the adjectives, adverbs, -ing words. But rules cannot a poem make.

One of the reasons I sometimes write in traditional forms is that they help me mind the baby. I can’t entirely explain how that works, but, in the case of metre, the rhythm reassures me, and I now know enough about the music to mash it up when I need to. The rest of the time we hold hands and walk together, and it’s comforting. Similarly, I’ll reach for a rhyme and it will lead me to an image, or some other kind of word play, or drag my imagination in a new direction. At which time I am at a crossroads, with decisions to make. FolloDobru 1w the rhyme? See where it’s going, but keep a version of things as they are, so I can come back if I decide that I’ve strayed? Crash on through the brush, prepared to throw the whole thing up if it doesn’t work?

This last is perhaps the greatest challenge. I recall a poem I once saw Surinamese poet Robin Dobru perform, counselling that sometimes the poet must give a poem to the wastepaper basket. He’s right. One must be prepared to do that. And not find it hard.




Thanks to Carol Narcisse for the question, a perfect one for Poetry Day.

Rote Learning, Rhythm and Rhyme

If there is no rhythm, there is no God. – Derek Walcott

A sad day it was when learning by rote went out of fashion – after all, acquiring native and other languages is one long, elaborate, ongoing process of memorizing – words, structures, idioms. Then there’s math and periodic tables, definitions, user instructions, recipes, important addresses and telephone numbers. I am always amazed when my 16-digit phone card number instructs my fingertips as I dial my sister in Jamaica, overriding worries that I’ve forgotten it. Long gone – I hope long gone – is the concern of educators who thought we’d be damaged by being obliged to learn things by heart. Memorizing is here to stay. In addition to the above, we’ve learned too many proverbs, songs, hymns, chants, and wise sayings that way…

Sorry. Rhyme often creeps upon me. That’s just as well, for into this brief discourse I wish to slide the matters of the two Rs, rhyme and rhythm. I’m a big fan of both, perhaps because I write poetry for children as well as the adult stuff. They love the music of those Rs as utterly as they love jokes, which I throw into the mix when the Muse of Hilarity is about. See “Toes Knows” here Rhyme and rhythm are mnemonic devices, as any parent or teacher of reading, or anyone who’s ever watched Sesame Street knows. It’s worth learning a poem by heart for there’s no power like that of letting your internal or external voice recall and rehearse words with the measure of moans and mirth those two Rs can conjure.

But alas, there’s the danger of doggerel once a poet gets into words metred and rhymed! Thus, not every poem profilinJane Kingg the two Rs is a poem that deserves to be committed to memory. Rhyming is a heady but dangerous business, and if you are not Keats or Walcott orJane King, you should tiptoe around end rhymes. Run-on lines are saviours, as also slant rhyme, and rhymes in places other-than-the-end-of-lines. As for measure, it is there to be crossed, fractured, all shook up for the poem’s purpose.

The truth is these two Rs are playmates. If you frolic with them long enough they can lead you into the ways of meaning, and in the last analysis, what makes the poem is the depth and breadth of the subject that rhyme and rhythm are servicing; it is how these Rs transmit image and word play; it is how they convey the meat that metaphor explores. So Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Brook” is not as fine a poem as Edward Thomas’s “The Brook” “Trees” by Joyce Kilmer, though much beloved, wont bear comparison with Housman’s, “Loveliest of trees, the cherry now.” William Shakespeare and William Blake, Philip Larkin, Gerald Manley Hopkins, Louise Bennett and Derek Walcott show us what poems can be, even if one is working within the most traditional constraints.

The truth is also that what seems to be free verse is often hiding metre in plain view. Nose through Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Envoy to Palestine”and find the iambics.  Ignore the line breaks and scan the lines as they run on. Hear the half rhymes – wheat and beneath (full rhymes for a creole speaker like me), coat and lute, and the completeYusef Komunyakaa 2011 NBCC Awards 2012 Shankbone.JPG rhyme of dead and ahead. It’s not that the poet doesn’t know he’s deploying these tools, for he’s too fine a craftsman. It’s just that he mayn’t be such a free versifier as we like to think.

The Rs live in language. It’s tough to escape them. So let’s learn poems by heart so we can taste them as and when we like.

So, which black writers have sold out?

“One can argue that, to earn mainstream cred, [black] artists typically had to be culturally inert, pandering to the masses with racial broad strokes at the expense of artistic integrity. Alexis has risen above, delving into universal themes and cultural commonalities that are enriched by his racial makeup and illuminated though (sic) his methodology to prose.” So says Ryan B. Patrick in a recent piece entitled “André Alexis and the changing narrative of popular black literature”

In the concluding comments in a recent post entitled “Publishers vs People of Colour Who Write” I remark, “It’s hard to resist conforming with ‘mainstream’ values, aesthetic and otherwise, when that conformity opens doors.” It’s not just a problem for People of Colour. (Hereafter POC.) We all know very well that some writers choose marketability over deep truth. Writers, like other people, have got to eat.

Whereas I agree with much of what Ryan has to say about the difficulties writers of colour face, I also know, as an old editor, that generalities are sensible cover, especially when one qualifies them carefully. When one proceeds to specifics, it’s a different calabash of crabs. So, though I do not know what Ryan Patrick means by André Alexis’s “methodology to prose” and I’d disagree with his describing Alexis’s work – or for that matter the writing of Marlon James or Ta-Nehisi Coates, who also figure in his post – as ‘popular’, my ignorance and our disagreement about terms needn’t constitute a problem. I must also say that I admire André Alexis’s work, and that I enjoyed Fifteen Dogs. (I’ve just finished Childhood on my second attempt and will reserve judgment on that book.)

But if man going bring dis kind o argument – “[black] artists typically had to be culturally inert, pandering to the masses” – no mind if him is Marlon James (who just now make a similar comment) or Ryan Patrick, him must come better dan dis.

I note Patrick’s careful, “One can argue…” Indeed. One can argue that Donald Trump would make a fine president of the United States, or that the earth moves round the sun – and persuasively, if one has wit enough. “One can argue…” can also shape shift, Anansi-like. Is one making this argument? And if one is, as seems to be the case, upon what basis? Who and how many are these black writers? African? Black British? Caribbean? I’d be glad if any of these had that much of a look-in to publishing!

I’m left to think they must be Black American or Black Canadian writers. But it doesn’t really matter. Whoever Ryan Patrick is flinging stone at (perhaps in the wake of Marlon James’s comment?), he needs to name at least some of those he indicts for selling out. That there may be many in some respects would be a good thing. It would mean writers of colour are getting published. But if one is going to praise and name (as in André Alexis’s case), one should, in fairness, damn and name. It needn’t be a long list; just a couple examples would firm up Ryan Patrick’s case.

It’s true that for some a publishing contract with a big house – or any contract at all – may be a temptation to desert the narrow path of honest insight. Others, though, like Ezekel Alan , self-publish to answer their responsibilities as griots in this millennium. The irony is that Ryan Patrick is making this argument in the midst of self-searching by the publishing industry, which at all its levels and in all its permutations, includes a miniscule proportion of POC in both Europe and North America, and, as it is now admitting, systematically whites out these writers.

That said many black authors accept that, even if their work is good enough to warrant their becoming “authors of note”, they will likely have to wait till they are dead for that recognition. In this, they follow writers of all colours through the ages. As Lydia Davis says of Lucia Berlin, “I have always had faith that the best writers will rise to the top…sooner or later, and will become exactly as well known as they should be…” The struggle meantime is for all the people to hear their stories told, to see their lives and experiences thoughtfully and skilfully explored, their sorrows mourned and their triumphs celebrated. Black writers will write bad books, mediocre books, and fine books, just as all other writers do. They are perhaps the most to be forgiven for selling out. The sad truth is that for a young person to merely see the name and photo of a black author on a book is still eminent cause for rejoicing.

Some Thoughts on How to Write Down Englishes…

An aspiring novelist from the Caribbean who grew up in England recently asked me about ‘appropriation of voice’. Her novel takes place in both these locations, places where people speak a variety of Englishes, or dialects of that larger dialect, English, for the word applies to a national, as well as regional or local language. She didn’t feel confident in accurately representing all these language varieties, since only some were native to her. It’s a concern that I appreciate, since, for one thing, it irritates me enormously when I come across writing purporting to represent Jamaica Talk and it no sound like no patwa me know.

So how to avoid insulting people by writing their languages inaccurately?


I pointed her to Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys, which is full of Jamaican language that doesn’t hardly stumble — well, maybe in one likl place, but is ongle one likl one dat me did find inna de whole entire book. So is how him manage dat and him no talk patwa, tall tall? (I could have written ‘t all ‘t all, a question of orthography that we’ll come back to.)

I took to the Internet to find out if there was a place where Neil Gaiman explained, but there wasn’t one that I could find. I don’t think it takes a genius to figure out, though, that he probably wrote down what he wished his Jamdown characters to say in the best Jamaican he could come up with, then sent it to a native speaker or two to fix anything that wasn’t authentic Jamaica Talk.

That’s one solution for an author creating characters who speak a language that he/she doesn’t speak fluently – or at all – and so doesn’t feel confident putting down on the page. Another, perhaps faster way would be for the author to invite one or more folks who are native speakers of any or all of the languages used in the text, ask him/them to listen as the text is read to them, and, in consultation with the native speakers, make any necessary adjustments.

A time intensive method that involves lots of invention but can work well, is to comb the Internet for posts, documents, articles and books (creative, linguistic, historical, etc.), and using these resources, cobble together dialogue, narrative, or both, out of written speech as represented therein by native speakers, always being careful of copyright issues. In fact, if one is creating characters for a story in any language set in the past, this approach is pretty much the only one possible. So, for example, to discover eighteenth century spoken English, one might forage in Defoe and Fielding, while to ferret out nineteenth century English as spoken by folks of various classes, one might search Dickens and Thackeray. One might research monographs by linguists and historians as well, of course, but I would go first to the writers with the hope of getting inspired as well as informed.

A further, and challenging problem that arises, regardless of whether the author is a native speaker or is working with ‘strange’ languages, is that of orthography. Representing the sound of a language is not so easy. The most accurate means, which would be to use a phonetic alphabet, is often not helpful, since only the initiated are able to understand these writing systems. Many people complain about Di Jamiekan Nyuu Testiment for that reason. Delighted at the idea of a Bible, or portion of it, in patwa, they are distressed to find that they can’t cipher it out!

I tackled that problem when writing my most recent collection of poetry, de book of Mary, published by Mawenzi House in November of last year. The book is entirely in Jamaican Creole, and is intended for audiences of creole speakers, as well as those who don’t speak patwa. Jamaican writer friends like Mervyn Morris, who has used patwa in his own work and also edited Louise Bennett’s poetry, as well as Jean D’Costa, Olive Senior and Velma Pollard, were generous with advice, and I eventually arrived at a method that was workable. There’s a note on language in de book of Mary, but I’ll share more of the process by which I arrived at the method I used, and the rationale for my choices, in my next post.

Whatever the means, it is worth taking the time to get down dialects, patwas, local and regional forms of speech in a respectful and reasonably accurate manner. In addition to which, meeting the challenge is inevitably instructive for the writer himself or herself…


Happy New Year!

Wishing you all the best for 2016, as I note, with a sigh that winter is back. Half a foot of snow at the window, and a driveway that needs clearing once a day. We listened one winter to a wonderful poem about a man who died from a heart attack while shovelling snow as we drove back from visiting our daughter and her family in the US. I seem to think we were driving past Albany at the time. After that, it seemed sensible to pay someone to clear the snow, thereby creating employment and heading off heart attacks – in that situation, at least.

It’s hard to believe that we are already two weeks into 2016. I don’t make resolutions, not usually, or at least I haven’t made them for so long, I’ve forgotten if ever I did. What I will try to do more of, though, are the things I’ve been concentrating on for a while, like being more mindful; hooking up more regularly with the Great Spirit, the cosmic Christ and his lovely Mum, and the holy ancestors; being thankful for family and friends, and for the earth, food, shelter, freedom of expression and worship, and a system of socialized medicine that more or less works. And the new Canadian government that 3 million young voters turned out at the polls to give to Canada! Thanks too for the spirit of generosity that has impelled so many Canadian communities to embrace refugees.

Some utterly unexpected things have occurred since my last post in August 2015. (A mere three posts in all of 2015! It won’t do!) I freely and joyfully admit that Red Jacket’s shortlisting for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize was utterly unexpected. I was very happy to have the book published, flattered that it was one of the first three to be produced by Dundurn’s literary imprint, Thomas Allen Publishers, glad to work with Diane Young to born it, as we ‘d say in JA, and prepared to work hard to promote it. Dundurn offers its authors a small subsidy to help with launches but leaves the authors to organize and arrange. I want to say belated but no less hearty thanks to Ben McNally Books on Bay Street in downtown Toronto, Wordsworth Books in Waterloo, Ontario and Coles Bookstore in Corner Brook, Newfoundland for hosting launches. Thanks too to Claire Grady Smith, my personal publicist at the time, and to the many friends and family who pitched in to promote and make them possible and turned out to in dire weather (all three!) to make them a success.

However, I’ll be forever indebted to Aislinn Hunter, Shani Mootoo and Richard Wagamese, the jurors for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.–Trust-Fiction-Prize/2015-Finalists/Jury.aspx That they defiantly selected the work of an apprentice novelist writing in unfamiliar Englishes and largely ignored by the bigtimers in the print media restored my faith in juries of my peers. My thanks go also to Shelagh Rogers whom I was truly delighted to meet at the Writers’ Trust Awards and privileged to talk to after that on The Next Chapter. Our conversation was a very special one. Listen out for it on Monday, January 18th at one o’clock in the afternoon on CBC One.

And to the amazing Janet Somerville, maven of books and all thing literary, I have only this to say: “Good fren better dan pocket money!” Mwah! Mwah!

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Last year, for the first time since 2001 I had two books published. Come November, Mawenzi House released de book of Mary, which the OAC had funded a couple years ago, and which I had been working on for a while. (I had long ago finished with Red Jacket, and set it aside ’till someone bought it’.) de book of Mary was launched in November at Beit Zeitoun – again in bad weather. Here I am signing a copy for my friend and faithful supporter these many years, Marlene Bourdon King. I look forward to readings in 2016 and will keep you updated on the “News and Events” page. Stay warm! Bless!