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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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.

 

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!

Relax and Enjoy the Arts. It’s Good For You.

My Grandma Bakes

From Mrs. Davies Kindergarten Classroom, circa 1978

Art education is important for our kids.

It helps develop imagination, critical thinking and problem solving skills. Making art helps stimulate memory and develop symbolic communication. It’s also a natural source of learning — a form of expression that reveals and deepens our understanding.

It’s good for all of us in other ways, too. For many creativity can be a joyful journey of self-discovery, even healing. Spending time making stuff also has a way of suspending time. There is nothing quite like the feeling of passing hours that feel like minutes in “the zone”.

Since my happy childhood days drawing horses, choreographing dance moves to Montavani and writing stories I’ve tried all the art forms I could get my hands on.

I collaged, painted and mod-podged my way through my 20s and 30s.

I wrote books of poetry and essays and started a doomed (but ambitious!) novel.

I took flamenco lessons.

I learned to play the guitar, wrote songs and performed them to a small audience of my brother, my girlfriend and my car, Ginger.

I don’t ever want to stop. Self-expression is blissful, even divine.

Being creative, especially writing, helps me process my thoughts, feelings and impressions. When I don’t journal, I feel over-full and stuck, thinking in circles. I generate new and more original ideas when I’m writing. I solve problems magically, it seems, by the process of pushing my hand across the paper.

I’ve noticed when people say they don’t enjoy making art  it’s because they’re struggling with aesthetics. They’re focused on the outcome. They fear that whatever they try won’t turn out. It won’t look good, it won’t sound good, it won’t be good. It will be, worst of all, a waste of time.

For me, the outcome is of course part of the fun, but secondary to the process. Making something is so exciting in itself. Who knows how messing around with paint or words or chords will turn out? If we admit it, wandering in the hazy unknown, even on paper, can be a bit scary for most of us — which makes artists a special kind of brave.

In Negotiating with the Dead Margaret Atwood writes of the dark tunnel writers face (and dread) when they start writing. They don’t know where the story will take them. They don’t know how it will end, or if their hard work will amount to anything. But they do it anyway, over and over again.

I believe artists and other creative sorts enter the dark tunnel because we have to. We’re so strongly compelled into the dark place to see what’s on the other side that it’s not really a choice. The idea won’t go away. The urge to create is too strong. The possibility that something amazing will come out of our efforts outweighs the risk it might actually, in fact, suck.

I dread the tunnel, too. But what I love about emerging is the wonderful surprises you could never predict — those brilliant sparks that make writing and painting and dancing and making music all the more fun.

If we approached creativity as play, nothing more weighty than a doodle, would more of us feel free to relax and enjoy the process?

My New Gig: Barbie Fashion Designer

Barbie clothes

A new artform explored in my house: the 45 minute no-pin, no-fuss Barbie ensemble

This week I embarked on a whole new chapter in creativity.

I took on the challenge of making clothes for my daughter’s Barbie. I’d never thought I’d have the patience for sewing on such a small scale. Now I see that this experiment could lead to a lot of time spent at my beloved avocado green vintage Kenmore.

As it turns out, turning your creativity to small sewing projects has its benefits.

    • No trips to the fabric store until I run out of fabric in 2023
    • No pricked fingers with endless pinning — cut’n’sew!
    • No fussy hems
    • Success in an hour or less

The best part if I throw myself into this new craft? The possibility of fulfilling my dream of one day actually designing clothes — a project I could conceivably start *and* finish. There’s also finding my fortune on Etsy like my friends Hilltop Hausfrau and Red Pear Creative … and, most importantly, delivering all the joy my daughter’s little heart can handle

Which leads me to the real reason creativity, on any scale, is so important.

It’s for sharing.

Creativity. Spirituality. Personal growth.

Nicole Breit sketchbookWelcome to my world!

I’m a writer, artist and all around crafty lady. I’m also a mom who runs a home based business so I have the flexibility to be there for my kids. I’m married to a fellow bookworm who supports the decisions I make to nurture my creativity. We live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest on the northern side of the 49th parallel.

Our home is a cozy, smallish townhouse with a fireplace in my favourite writing room. Pretty much any day of the week our place smells like home baking and craft supplies. There’s also a lot of paper in our home. Novels, true crime, personal essays, and how-to type books vie for space alongside my daughter’s home reading, my son’s preschool art work, bills, invoices, client notes, coursework and my current book-in-progress.

Every day I make stuff. For me, creativity is both spiritual practice and an important process for personal growth. When I’m attuned to creative energy and working with it I feel purposeful. I love connecting with other creatives. I feel alive when I write for myself and divinely useful when I help others communicate through my work as a freelance writer and editor.

My blog is the place where my heart meets the art I care about and am striving toward making. You’ll also get a dose of spirituality here, as I believe that self-expression is sacred, and also the way we find our way back to our souls, and to the divine wow.

xo