Shortlisted: Room’s 2015 Poetry Prize

What makes a poem?

I’ve asked songwriters this question. “What inspired this? How did this amazing thing happen? Where do songs come from?”

When I asked my friend, Eryn, she shrugged, raising her hands as if to say “I don’t know” but also laughing a bit as she gestured mysteriously to the heavens.

With songs and poems there is some kind of alchemy at work, it seems, where the mysterious “out there” merges with whatever’s “in here” — deep inside the mind of the poet or songwriter.


I learned on Monday that a poem I submitted to Room’s annual poetry contest was shortlisted, much to my surprise and delight. Although I can’t explain the alchemy that happens when a poem becomes a poem, I would love to share a bit about the influences and forces that shaped this particular piece, which is about the aftermath of losing someone I loved when I was in high school.


First things first, this poem begins with acknowledging Laisha Rosnau, whom I’ve been mentoring with over the past year.

Last fall I told Laisha what I wanted to write about. She posed a challenge: write a long poem for the Malahat Review’s annual contest, but first read Sue Goyette’s long poem, “Ocean”.

I ran with the challenge and wrote a lyric series of 10 poems which, like every section of “Ocean”, begins with the collective “we”. Whether my shortlisted poem took on any other traits of Goyette’s beautiful book or simply acted as a prompt for the poems that wanted to be written, I can’t say.

My long poem wasn’t longlisted, but I kept working with the individual poems in the series, one of which became, “Later I’ll Set Aside Sorrow,” the poem that made me a finalist for Room’s contest.


Although my poem was drafted as part of a longer work, its first stirrings began 25 years earlier deep in my subconscious. The poem is based on a dream I had in the months following my friend’s death. I wrote about this vivid dream — which felt like more than a dream — in a journal. But I didn’t need to revisit my old diaries to recall the details. It’s still very much alive in my memory: my friend’s unexpected appearance — happy, radiating light, laughing when I was startled upon first seeing him in my basement, his body a solid form I could wrap my arms around although I knew, at the same time, he couldn’t be alive.

“I didn’t die,” he told me. “Not really.”

The rest of the dream I spent trying to get some resolution to the nagging questions I was left with when he died. Why did any of this happen? What did it all mean? Did anything even matter when you can die suddenly at 17?

What in the teenage confusion of a close but undefined friendship did we mean to each other, now that it was over?

There is resolution by the end of the poem. And there’s resolution in me, finally, for having written this and other work.


The final major influence that helped me resolve the poem was meeting with my friend’s sister. Talking to her led to some unexpected insights and epiphanies. I thought I understood everything that had taken place all those years ago. When I told my friend’s sister how strongly I felt about her brother, she said, “You were special to him, too.”

“No,” I resisted, “I wasn’t. He didn’t feel that way. He never told me.”

“You didn’t understand him!” she said, “He could never tell you.”

That lack of understanding is what I spend the poem grappling with. But in knowing him a bit better through his sister, I was able to finish the conversation we could never finish in life. I was able to have him say at the end of the poem, “You didn’t understand me. But one day you will.”


What makes a shortlisted poem?

This, too, is mysterious.

In my case, it helped to have a trusted mentor who could provide objective feedback on which poems were the strongest contenders for this particular award. I don’t submit to every literary contest and lately I’ve been focusing my writing efforts on creative non-fiction. But I decided to submit three poems to Room after reading an interview with Jen Currin, the judge for this year’s contest.

It can be difficult to write about less-than-tangible things like spirits, energy, intuition, etcetera; yet, for me, these things are just as “real” as the computer I am typing this on and the coffee cup next to it, said Currin.

I thought: This is a kindred spirit. Those less-than-tangible things are very real to me, too. I want to keep writing about them. And I want to share my strange poems with the world, where spirits visit and help you work out your stuff.

I knew, then, that this was the right contest to submit my recent work to.


What does this honour mean to me?

Being shortlisted for a contest held by an esteemed magazine like Room is something I’m always going to carry with me. It’s a thrill to be recognized for this work that is so close to my heart. It’s encouragement to keep writing, to keep working on the manuscript I’ve started and see it through to the end.

And I already feel like my poem is a winner no matter which poet is awarded first or second prize next week.

A strange “less-than-tangible” thing happened this morning as I was driving my kids to school, still daydreaming about how incredible it is to be a finalist for Room’s poetry prize.

The license plate on the car in front of mine caught my eye: GDN 222.

Ha! I thought. Nice one, Universe. GDN. Gordon. Shorthand for the name of the dear friend I wrote about in my poem. Funny coincidence.

Then I remembered reading somewhere that 222 is considered by some to be of spiritual significance. An angel number.

I don’t understand the mysterious workings of angels or why certain numbers are purported to be meaningful in angel-human communication. But these strange things happen often enough to take note of, and seemingly at meaningful times.

Like making Room’s shortlist, I’ll take it as a good sign.

Kindergarten Art Inspiration


Some recent artwork by my son.

Such ingenuity, combining his love for playing cards and his favourite stuffie, Shamrock Puppy, who has been a part of his life since the day he was born.

Isn’t this what creativity is all about? Putting together new and usual combinations, exploring all possibilities?

Such a champ winning a robot stuffie at the PNE. All I had to do was toss three nickels on plates without them flying off...


I also love that a memorable day we spent this summer at the PNE — where I won a new stuffie for my son — also became inspiration for a work of art.



Who else but the King of Spades?

Roboty, King of Spades

Now off to for a week of creative exploration, for kindergarten artistes and mommies alike…

I’ll be working top speed to meet the writing deadline for this exciting call for submissions

Happy Monday, everyone!

Boston Marriage

Art card by Karen Watson

My forever sweetheart and I were married in Boston five years ago. We joined hands in a ceremony with our children on a full moon Thursday at the Arnold Arboretum — a gem of stunning greenery in what’s known as Boston’s Emerald Necklace, a 4.5 km2 stretch of parks and waterways that includes the city’s Public Garden, Boston Common and Jamaica Pond.

Our friend, Angela, custom made our wedding dresses for us. I arranged $100 worth of white be-ribboned faux hydrangeas, creamy blooms and violet blossoms into bouquets and a boutineer for our six month old son.

A pair of purple and turquoise Converse high tops completed our look — what else to wear when you’re married in a verdant forest in the city that heralded the old Victorian (and yet thoroughly modern) notion of the Boston Marriage?


Our choice of wedding shoes resulted in a number of inspired works of art. Our beloved on-site wedding photographer, Mitch, captured us wearing them on a park bench in Boston Common. The talented illustrator and our dear friend Karen Watson recreated the photo above in watercolour. Another talented artist and friend, Graeme Partridge-David, did the same for us as a wedding gift.

Heart shaped…

On our five year anniversary, my well-worn and well-loved high tops are bleach-splattered from a leak in the hall closet emergency kit three years ago. The rubber outer lining is cracked on one side; my right shoe lets in water on rainy day walks. The piano-key laces I laced them with are no longer a crisp white.

I’m sad to say, it’s time to retire them for a new pair. But not without memorializing them in one last photo. And this blog post.


I remember wearing my purple high tops on our honeymoon in Cape Cod. One afternoon we got caught in a spectacular rainstorm as we explored the town of Orleans. It was the first week of October and just a few weeks after Hurricane Earl had swept up the New England coastline, reaching 145 mph winds at its peak. The afternoon we drove down the Mid-Cape highway from our rental house in North Truro the sky was heavy and grey.

By the time my wife and I finished off our lattes at our new favourite haunt, Hot Chocolate Sparrow, the rain was pounding against the roof of the cafe. It sounded like Kate Braid had turned her toolbox upside down and a cascade of nuts, bolts, screws and tools were pinging and clattering against a hardwood floor.

We were drenched by the time we dodged puddles and parked cars, carrying our wide eyed three year old and swaddled babe through the lot to our car. The yellow double lines were barely visible along the length of Route 6 back to headquarters as stretches of the roadway began to flood.

Driving below the speed limit for a long stretch time I had to rely on the brake lights of the car in front of me to guide us home; even the shapes of cars were blurry as rain slid down the windshield in sheets, the glass only momentarily clear in rainbow arcs. Heart racing, I pulled into the garage and we clambered into the warmth of our cozy living room.

That night lightning lit up our bedroom. The wind howled and shook the windows, tossing lawn chairs across the back deck. We couldn’t sleep under the bubbled skylight. By midnight, we’d moved the kids downstairs with us into the twin beds of second floor guestroom for fear a swaying tree would fall on the roof or the windows would shatter in the bluster.

It may seem that I’m sidling up to some kind of metaphor for marriage. Of course the odd storm hits. External pressures — not unlike unforeseen and threatening forces of nature — can batter and blind you as individuals or as a couple, testing the strength of your commitment.

As I write this post I don’t really know how a storm metaphor belongs in a post about wedding shoes. Surely a quirky-cute pair of shoes won’t hold back a Category 4 hurricane.

Can a heart full of love? The deep desire to nurture and protect the children you wanted with an indescribable ache long before the dream unfolded and finally became real?

Maybe. It has so far.


Noam shoes reduced


As I bid farewell to my well-worn shoes, I can take comfort that our son’s navy blue baby-size Converse will continue to hang from the rear view mirror of our car, as it has since the day we returned from our honeymoon.

They’re so small and perfect, though they’ve faded several shades from exposure to the sun. They remind me of my sweet son on that day, his perfect chubby baby faced smile. The handsome tuxedo onesie I changed him into in the bathroom of the Omni Hotel where we dined that night on steak and lobster, drank Moet et Chandon and ate Boston Cream Pie in the very place that invented it.

Here’s to five years of Boston Marriage, Honeys. Because the wedding wasn’t just about two people; it was about all four of us.

And soon, for many more years of adventure together, some new pairs of shoes.

Freewheeling Inspiration (And Finishing What You Start)

It’s the best feeling in the world, being inspired, I say.

These past few months have been a particularly fertile time, with ideas cartwheeling out of my brain almost faster than I can catch them. At the same time, I’ve been trying to finish a number of pieces I’ve started. The more time I spend hashing out new ideas, the more neglectful I feel about the stories that still want to become what they’re supposed to be and just need a little more time and care.

Yesterday I read a really comforting and encouraging blog post from one of my new favourite writers, Sarah Selecky (author of the gorgeous collection of short stories, “This Cake Is For The Party”) about those abandoned stories that are waiting for you to come back to them.

She writes:

When you come to a story after time away, ask yourself: where can I find the truth in this story now?

An interesting question for a writer of creative non-fiction. After all, we’re supposed to be telling the truth, from our perspective, all the time with every line.

But her advice spoke to me. From a distance the truth can look different. We can uncover new facets, or dig deeper and touch the stuff we weren’t ready to see before. Our experiences have so much to offer us — so much to offer whatever it is we must write. I believe it’s true that finding the energy, be it a new angle, a new form, a different genre or approach to the material, may be all we need to turn our tired but patient work into something that lives and breathes — and is ready for the world.

I also like to believe that no writing is wasted; from an abandoned piece we can lift at least one or two great lines, stunning images, or at least know that pivotal moment that makes the experience matter in the long narrative we tell ourselves about our lives. That thing we all do to make some kind of sense of our experiences, and maybe our very existence.

As Sarah explains: If you try to go back and write the story according to what you thought it was before, you will miss what the story has to offer you right now. And if you abandon it because you feel like you don’t know it anymore, you will also miss what the story has to offer you right now.

While I don’t want to miss any of the ideas that are trying to climb up and out (all toward the completion of a book idea I’m working on), what is new and wonderfully welcome is this excitement about what those old poems and stories have to offer me — and I, them… my fresh truth — now.


Time Travel Is Lonely

nicolewriting11.jpgSince March I’ve been trying to get a grasp on writing in a very new genre for me. For years I wrote poetry because I was drawn to a form I could get in and out of quickly. By nature I’m impatient, and once I became a mom (nearly 8 years ago now!) poetry was the most practical option.

But ever since I read Barbara Kingsolver’s “High Tide In Tucson” in 1999 I knew the personal essay was the form I was made for. Telling stories, personal stories, based on my life experience, was what inspired me to write poetry in the first place. Timing is everything, and over the past few years I’ve been biding my time, knowing the moment would arrive when I’d finally take a swan dive into creative non-fiction.

This summer I took a ten week online course on the Lyric Essay — a kind of hybrid form which I’ve come to think of as the place where poetry and the personal essay meet. Over ten weeks I drafted ten essays. Nowhere near enough experience to claim mastery over the form. But I’ve been able to tell some of the stories I’ve been dying to tell in a more expansive form. And I’ve learned some things about storytelling, and also, the human heart.

I’m not the first person to say that we all have stories to tell. But what was a major discovery for me was just how many. I’ve carried around with me a few stories that I thought of as the major ones — the ones I use to trace some loose narrative arc over my life, and draw some kind of meaning from.

Once I pushed past the major stories I’d been saving up, there were  more stories. Interesting stories! And then there were more. Now I know I will never run out of stories. There’s no way we can ever exhaust them all. The experience of digging deep, back in time, can itself be exhausting, though.

Creative non-fiction, my friends, is not for the faint of heart. In travelling back through time, reading old diaries, listing to music from other eras, revisiting photos of different “me’s” over the past four decades, I found myself sleepwalking through my life until the story was done. My heart was scraped raw with trying to dig out the honest story, the true feelings, the real impact. But I always came back so much wiser, with the gift of the long view to make sense of things.

One more thing I learned in all this time travel. The heart is strong, and very, very resilient. Way more resilient than any of us may think. Every stop I made back in time was at a point of heartbreak. Love and loss are where the power lie for me. And those stories are the ones that intrigue me and always have the most to teach me. As strong and resilient the heart is, I will admit that as I relived old times I felt immersed in a lingering malaise which only let up once I felt the story was done.

Some stories took a long time to get there; one took six months. For six months I wandered around thinking of the person I missed, wishing I could be the girl I was then with the guy he was then. And then the story was finished. The feelings dissipated and were replaced with a feeling of peace. The story made sense. It was right to have ended where it did. Writing it, and only writing it, helped me see that.

The story I just finished writing — a lyric essay in the form of a screenplay — is the most heartbreaking story I have to tell. It took me 24 years to approach it, and four or five attempts before I even hit on the right form. I’m still in it, but I’m looking forward to the peace that will come when I can finally call it done and let it go. Writing it was painful. I felt real sorrow and resisted writing the ending until I felt strong enough to do it, with a lot of encouragement from my instructor (the wonderful Gretchen Clark). But completing it gave me back something invaluable — someone I lost. It was worth revisiting the heartache so boldly.

I can’t wait to do it again.

Where In The World Is Randy Gould? (A Bit About Me And Music)

Randy Gould

A story about music and musician, Randy Gould

When I was a teenager, nothing mattered more to me than music. It was almost like a physical place I lived in. Music was all-encompassing, resonating inside me, both creating and following my shifting moods.  It provided a kind of solace away from the real world while reinforcing my own private reality. I listened to music all the time, from the moment I woke up in the morning and was getting ready for school, to the second I burst into the door when I got home. I still have a crazy passion for music and suspect I always will.

As a teenager and in my 20s I was probably pretty annoying about music. Not because I was obnoxious about my snobby taste in bands. I was never an early adopter (or early dismisser) of whatever was cool. I was often, in fact, a late adopter. My musical tastes typically reflected those of people at least ten years older than me. I was the odd girl rocking out to “Lunatic Fringe” in my bedroom while everyone else was lining up to watch “Rattle and Hum” at the theatre. And even though I loved Ann and Nancy Wilson I firmly believed (and still do) that Karen Carpenter was the best female singer who ever lived. I was also inclined toward classical music thanks to an enthusiastic grade 4 teacher who inspired me to borrow “Hooked On Classics” records from the library. I stayed out of most musical conversations at school and on the bus because I was — let’s face it — pretty nerdy about music.

But it wasn’t because of my out of step tastes that I was annoying. It was because I was so completely dazzled and subsumed by music, to the point of distraction. In the same way that I can’t hear people talking to me when I’m reading, I have trouble pulling away from the experience of listening to a song I love. I remember when I finally had my own car and could listen to whatever I wanted to while driving that my trances interfered with socializing with others. In my teens there were bitter arguments over what to play in the car when riding anywhere with my family. It got down to a kind of mental arm-wrestling. The winner had to have the best argument and my brother was really good at it. Why should we listen to Pearl Jam in the car on the way Christmas dinner, asked my frustrated, religious, Christmas carol-loving Mom? Because what does Auntie Alma wear every Christmas? Pearls. And what does Auntie Gina give us every year? Homemade jam. In spite of my mom’s protests, we listened, briefly, to “10”. Jim Reeves and the Christmas polka had to wait.

But I digress. The one exception to my completely out of step old soul musical tastes was contemporary Canadian music, which I was right on top of. My first concert was Platinum Blonde at Expo Theatre in 1986 when I was 13. I was an avid fan of any video show and most Canadian bands. I was delirious with joy on rare MuchMusic free weekends when I could tape music videos on our recently acquired VCR; many of the bands were by default Canadian thanks to CanCon regulations.

But of all my musical education, live concerts were the best. They were major events and also one of the major sources of conflict in my home. My parents were kind enough to allow me to buy tickets, but logistics were the issue. No question, my dad would drive me and my friends downtown and home again, and that was great. But there was that long, uncomfortable post-concert hangout that drove my patient Dad crazy and prompted him to ask me, a bit unkindly, if I was a groupie. I had no idea what that meant but could tell it was something unsavoury and that he disapproved. My friends and I just wanted to be there until the last moment with other fans like us. Getting a glimpse of a rock star and maybe an autograph was part of the experience.

I had the sense not to tell my parents until very recently about my phone calls and visit to the home of a local musician when I was 15. Randy Gould was the guitarist of Vancouver band, Blvd. Although there would have been no way of convincing my parents at the time, he was nothing like the typical rock musician stereotype. He was not egotistical or narcissistic, nor did he harbour any sordid motives in talking to me and my friends. In every interaction he was kind, maybe a bit amused, and he went along with the antics of a silly teenage girl in order to teach us the truth about rock stars: that they they were just ordinary people, like everyone else. I’m grateful to Randy for that lesson, and recently wrote about that slushy January afternoon when I met him in 1988 (and will be submitting my story to the CBC’s Creative Non-Fiction competition by deadline tomorrow).

So where is Randy Gould, 25 years later? I wish I knew. I’ve tried to find him so I could thank him for being so sweet to me and my friends. A few years ago I came across a woman on facebook who used to know him and was also looking for him. “He was such a nice guy,” she said, and promised to let me know if she found him. In spite of my efforts I haven’t been able to find him or any recent references to him on the web. I don’t want to imagine worst case scenarios, and really hope he’s just out there laying low, quietly doing what he loves.

Via my story and my blog post, I have vague hopes that my gratitude, 25 years later, will reach Randy Gould some way, somehow. But if not, I’ll tell the people here: my story is for you, Randy. Thank you for the music and for being a positive force — and most of all, for helping me tell a great story.

The Ex-Wife Special: A Recipe Just For You

Image of black olive and cheese appetizers on plateWant to connect with your family history? Put aside the photo albums and go to your kitchen. It’s right there, in the cookbooks.

Tonight my family and I went for dinner at our friend’s place. I brought along my aunt’s infamous appetizer, which she refers to as “The Ex-Wife Special”.

Why? Because apparently the one thing my uncle wanted to rescue from his first marriage was his wife’s recipe for black olive and green onion cheddar melts. So my aunt has the ex-wife’s cookbook in her cupboard, alongside the Joy of Cooking and The Best of Bridge.

I think it’s funny (and fascinating) how the foods and drinks we associate with certain people and days past can bring us right back to the good stuff – no matter how much time has passed or how things ended.

My dad’s mom was Austrian and an excellent baker. (She was also pretty feisty, and could tell your future with playing cards if you let her — a skill she learned from the Gypsies she knew in the old country). Her best bakery-worthy sweets were made with almond paste and poppy seeds. But what do I remember liking the most when it came to Grandma’s baking? Her deadly moist and sweet raisin bran muffins, served up alongside her kid-friendly half OJ, half ginger ale cocktail. These were served, without fail, in tall 1970s-style pink and orange frosted glasses whenever we visited Grandma O. at the co-op for a game of Aggravation.

I wonder, years from now, what signature recipe my kids will remember from the time we’ve spent together in the kitchen. I hope they remember making gingerbread houses as a family every Christmas, and baking sugar cookies with seasonal shapes, icing and sprinkles for every fun date on the calendar. But maybe it will be something as ordinary as Sunday morning chocolate chip pancakes (they may just get my son’s vote forever), or cheeseburgers with mashed potatoes and gravy (which my daughter special-requested for dinner at her recent birthday party)?

I bet there’s a family story or two behind some of your favourite foods and recipes — and the people from your past who made them for you. Why not share the memories? I’d love to read about your personal connections of food and family history.

And just in case you’re interested, here’s my aunt’s Ex-Wife Special recipe, just for you:

1 cup chopped black olives
1/3 cup chopped green onions
1/2 cup mayo
1 1/2 cups shredded cheese
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp curry powder
8 English muffins

Mix all the ingredients together, spoon onto English muffin halves and bake for 10 minutes at 400 F. Most importantly, enjoy!