by Mary Ann Moore
A friend of mine was editing a magazine devoted to fiction which led me to change things so that, for instance, a dog’s breed becomes Chihuahua because miniature Doberman Pinscher just doesn’t have the cadence I’m looking for. There are all sorts of changed or imagined elements in a poem, as well as aspects that simply arrive when one lets the poem lead the way. I thought about poems I appreciate and asked myself, what elements in these poems are fiction? I got in touch with some poets about their thoughts when it comes to fiction in poetry. I was surprised, and rather pleased, by the outcome. I learned that poems can contain “small fictions” and while poets may be writing about someone else, often they are also revealing their own insight and emotions they otherwise may be reluctant to express. As gifts and epiphanies, poems can be revisioned realities, unveiled. When I read Eve Joseph’s poem about frogs falling from the sky in her 2019 Griffin-award-winning book of prose poetry, Quarrels (Anvil Press, 2018), I figured the poet had made it up. After all she has other poems in the collection about Prometheus being “at it again” and Gandhi swimming in Burrard Inlet. The “frogs” poem begins:
FROGS FELL FROM THE SKY AND LANDED ON THE ROOF OF THE Citroen. Caught in the headlights, they bounced like gymnasts on the road in front of us. A plague? A child’s game? . . . (p. 25)
Eve Joseph did see hundreds of frogs in a torrential rain one day while hitchhiking through rural Quebec with a friend in 1971. There was indeed a Citroen driven by a guy who stopped to pick them up. It appeared as if the frogs were falling out of the sky, as they were rained out of their “usual hiding places.” What Joseph said she loved about writing the poems (in an email to me) “was how small fictions came out of real events. They were never just made up. It was really important to me that there was a relationship between fiction and reality in the poems; that those two things could speak freely to one another.” I like the way she put that, as I’ve found something similar when I craft a poem: three people become two for instance, and other elements arrive unexpectedly on the scene. Sometimes, it’s as if someone else takes over the writing.
Natalie Meisner, Calgary’s Poet Laureate and a professor at Mount Royal University, said in an interview that it’s as if her book of poetry, Baddie One Shoe (Frontenac House Poetry, 2019) was written by “an alter ego” (Education News, January 7, 2020). Meisner writes of “Baddies I Know” and “Baddies I Know Of” in her book of poems, with “odes to the renegades of the past and present who fight the powers that be with laughter.” In the latter s ection, Meisner imagines the voices of Camille Claudel, Frida Kahlo, Dorothy Parker, Kate Millett, and others who stepped beyond the bounds of what was expected.
Are you going to be trouble? You asked me I might be, I had to be honest Good then, here’s your room
The speaker in “Making Trouble (for Kate Millett)” says to the woman who “founded an art colony / communal living farm for women artists” and was a major figure in the gay liberation movement (Baddie One Shoe, p. 96). I was in touch with one of Meisner’s “baddies” myself in a poem I wrote entitled “Frida’s Advice.” I knew something of Frida Kahlo’s turbulent history and to that I added imagined comments from the Mexican artist. Was this fiction or was it my own wise advice allowed to reveal itself through the guise of another woman? Writing about bold, rebellious women, I realize, helps us get in touch with those parts of ourselves.
metaphora which means “carrying from one place to another”. I like Edward Hirsch’s description as “a matter of identity and difference, a collision, or collusion, in the identification of unlike things. There is something dreamlike in its associative way of thinking” (A Poet’s Glossary, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, p. 373). I asked Natalie Meisner, who has a background in indie theatre and is an award winning multi-genre author, how she would describe metaphor. “I think metaphor lets us ‘tell it slant’ as [Emily] Dickinson said. And since the myth of objectivity has been finally thankfully soundly trounced, we know that slants are all we have. So paradoxically, metaphor applied with skill and fidelity is our best hope for humans to tell the truth. Metaphor saves us from the deadliness of singularity,” Meisner told me in an email. And how about a description of metaphor as a “baddie?” I asked her. Baddie replied: “Metaphor is my escape hatch. Metaphor saved my life. Metaphor is a bucket with a hole in it & we must run for the other side before she runs dry.”
Lorna Crozier, author of seventeen books of poetry, imagined “Making Pies with Sylvia Plath” in her poem included in What the Soul Doesn’t Want (Freehand Books, 2017, p. 48). While it may have begun as imagining, it could also be seen as so much more. Crozier speaks of prescience in poems in her memoir Through the Garden: A Love Story (with cats) (McClelland and Stewart, 2020). She wrote, “I discovered in my mid-twenties, when I began writing and publishing, that poems are more prescient than any fortune teller.” Crozier’s debut collection of poetry, Inside is the Sky published in 1976, has a central character who had children and was a baker of bread. The young poet, publishing as Lorna Uher at the time, didn’t have children and “I’d never made a loaf in my life,” Crozier says in her memoir about her four-decades-long relationship with poet Patrick Lane. While Crozier believed she was writing about a fictional character who felt trapped, she realized the “lyrics in my debut collection announced the end of my first marriage before I knew it was over” (Through the Garden: A Love Story (with Cats), p. 26). Sometimes fiction in poetry helps us get to the feelings we are not quite ready to admit. And so often, the poem knows more than we do.
There’s imagining, prescience, and then there’s reimagining in poetry. Reimagining allows the writer to recreate a scene or event with a different, more uplifting outcome. Laura Apol did that in her poem “The Gift of Yes” in Nothing But the Blood (Michigan State University Press, 2018, p. 65). She reimagined a different scenario for a childhood incident. Apol teaches creative writing and literature at Michigan State University and leads workshops internationally, including for survivors of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. I first heard the term “reimagining” from Apol when she led a “Poetry as Healing Art” workshop on Vancouver Island. “Reimagining / reclaiming the story” was one of the focusing themes of the workshop. I appreciated the chance to write something that felt lighter, not about myself, but a reimagining of myself. In the workshop I wrote a poem about telling people I have a boat, even though I don’t own one. The fictional aspect of my poem helped me to see what I craved. I was missing solitude and described myself:
on a bench in the bow of my boat, a few belongings in small cupboards, wild lupine in a jam jar on the table, water lapping against the hull, a gentle rocking. Cormorants drying their wings. From “A Beautiful Thing to Say” (unpublished)
In his book of poetry, Witness, I Am (Nightwood Editions, 2016) Gregory Scofield “reimagines Metis identity and belonging.” Scofield is a Red River Metis of Cree, Scottish, and European descent. The poems in the collection are in honour of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Scofield lost an aunty in 1998 to an unsolved homicide. He told Shelagh Rogers on CBC’s “Good Company,” that his poem, “She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars (nikawi’s Song),” was “a gift poem, a poem that floated out of thin air.” The poem begins:
She is spitting a mouthful of stars She is laughing more than the men who beat her She is ten horses breaking open the day She is new to her bones She is holy in the dust
We can describe the horrific details of an experience in a narrative poem and if we are fortunate, a transformation may take place. Some fresh insight may arrive as a gift to give new meaning to a loss. In fact, I realized that transformation is key in the retelling. In any story we have an opportunity to add something of what could be. We may call it fiction: a little gem that arrives in the middle of a poem, a turning, an opening, into a new discovery.
Poetry can contain small fictions; become a fortune told, a gift, an arrival as the great Chilean Pablo Neruda referred to it, and perhaps an improvisation. I got in touch with Daniel Scott who is a poet and outgoing Artistic Director of Planet Earth Poetry in Victoria, B.C. Scott has a background in theatre having been theatre artist-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John in the mid seventies. He believes in not dismissing the ideas that enter our imaginations when we’re writing poetry. “In improv style theatre games,” Scott says, “when one actor initiates an idea or a scene by s aying or doing something, it is known as making an offer.” He tries “to apply this practice of accepting offers to writing by working not to say no to the offers/ideas that come into my imagination, even if I have no idea where they are from or where they may lead. This is how, in theatre, you get lively and unexpected interactions. I think it works for me as a writer to accept what comes and follow, rather than trying to control and manage. Accept, surrender, and soar.”
The late Tony Hoagland refers to improvisation in The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice (W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, p. 121) in the exercise and “skill-building” section of his book. He includes his own “improvised” examples to illustrate how the exercise could work. The late Toronto poet, Gwendolyn MacEwen, wrote about an improvised poem in “Poem Improvised Around a First Line.” She also wrote about a voice from beyond or perhaps a metaphor for a muse in “The Red Bird You Wait For” : It is moving above me, it is burning my heart out . . . (20th –Century Poetry & Poetics, Fourth Edition edited by Gary Geddes, Oxford University Press, 1996 p. 423). I’ve attended many improv workshops where scenes and situations are completely made up and yet they include elements of our own experience. It may be that improvisation helps to approach the stories that are hard to tell, to write ourselves out of one life and into another. Could what comes through be messages from beyond?
While prescience is something of which to make note (perhaps, we poets ought to look back at some of our old poems), omniscience appears to be another aspect of a poem’s speaker. In a review of Nouveau Griot by Tawhida Tanya Evanson (Frontenac House Poetry, 2018), Marcela Huerta and Pearl Pirie (Montreal Review of Books, Spring 2019), refer to “an omniscient wisdom; Evanson knows something that we don’t, but she’s willing to show us the way.” Evanson is an Antiguan-Canadian poet, performer, producer, and arts educator who “moonlights” as a whirling dervish. “Griot” is a French African word meaning “poet, singer, and traveling musician [ . . . ]to whom supernatural powers are often attributed”(Frontenac House description of Nouveau Griot).“I can’t speak to the reviewer’s experience of the work,” Evanson told me, “but am glad to know it affected them.” I get that sense of omniscience in one of my favourite poems of Evanson’s “Blood and Honey.”
A humble beginning turns into music Somewhere during the song, we rejoice at your birth There is a gift inside you Do not let it gather dust in a far closet
Tawhida Tanya Evanson, who lives in Tiohtia:ke/Montreal, was living in Istanbul when she wrote the poem “Blood and Honey” and “had fallen in love and gotten married.” She told me in an email: “The poem attempts to find balance between the sweetness of a love story and the anxiety of living in a foreign country. The answer was patience and hard work, and I expressed this through a Sufi lens. The work is only ever as good as my ability to transmit the Truth.” She added, “I write from epiphany that is then crafted. The result may want to remain on the page or take another art form. I try not to get in the way. Prayer is part of my spiritual practice. Linking the two would entail a much longer conversation about the essence of prayer and the essence of art.” As I thought about epiphany, I remembered it described as “an unveiling of reality” by the late Lithuania-born poet Czeslaw Milosz (A Book of Luminous Things, Harcourt, 1996, p.3). While we may think we’re “making things up,” it looks to me that we are accessing our own wisdom and insight, an unveiling, as another character perhaps, by opening ourselves to a revisioning of one’s own truth. Perhaps small fictions are like epiphanies helping poets get to an unveiling of truth, when we can accept and surrender to the poem knowing more than we do.
Poems are a place where dead people are alive, famous people become part of the every day, and other people are known through intuition rather than appearing as they would in “real life.” All of it is a mix of the real and imagined, gifts as if out of thin air. Lorna Crozier’s early poetry had a truth foretold. Telling “The truth” was something Natalie Meisner mentioned in describing metaphor. Tawhida Tanya Evanson spoke of truth in a phrase that needs repeating: “The work is only ever as good as my ability to transmit the Truth.”
But truth, I have found, is not as simple as the so-called accurate telling of a story. A poem can be “true” while filled with imaginings, metaphors, and omniscient wisdom. A poem’s truth is not in its accuracy but in its little fictions. What began as a notion of fiction in poetry as become something else, just as happens in the writing of a poem. We start somewhere and end up somewhere else, privileged, one could say, by flying frogs or something holy in the dust.
The Visit II
Mum is back here, in my room, in the shape
of a black bird with one red eye.
We don’t speak. Not much
can be said
one short word at a time.
Her eye has a gleam a blood stone,
sees earth, sky,
I am glad for her wings a jet black pitch,
the breath in which I dream her.
-Mary Ann Moore
Mary Ann Moore is a poet, writer and writing mentor who lives in Nanaimo, B.C. She leads women’s writing circles called Writing Life and has been leading poetry circles and writing retreats in various Canadian settings for over twenty years. Her poetry has been published in chapbook anthologies edited by Patrick Lane as well as in The Sky is Falling, A Collection of Pandemic Poems and in literary journals including Carousel, Room, FreeFall, Vallum, Taddle Creek, and WordWorks. Her full-length book of poetry is Fishing for Mermaids. Visit her at www.maryan nmoore.ca.