New Course: Poet Laureate of Your Own Life


Two weeks ago I wrote a piece for the Sunday Reader entitled Be the Poet Laureate of your own life. This was not an idea I had been incubating for a long time; it came to me fresh and pink and new and I wrote it down and hit send.

That’s how it works sometimes.

In the days that followed, I was haunted by this big crazy idea of being the Poet Laureate of ones own life; the more I thought about it, the sparklier it became. The conviction that our lives are worthy of having a poet laureate, and that we are entitled to the position of esteemed story teller grew stronger and made me feel goofily happy and strangely free. I started writing a longer piece, like an extended job description of a Poet Laureate of ones own life. And the more I wrote, the clearer it became that I was writing a course.

Yup. A new online course.

Here’s how it will work.

Over 20 weekdays, participants will receive a daily email with:
* a poetic reflection of one aspect of the Poet Laureate job description
* an illustration drawn by a super-creative Grade 1 student
* a poetry prompt

There will be a private + {top} secret Facebook group for people who want to share their writing with other Poet Laureates. Feedback will be positive and celebratory in nature.

The course will run from Monday November 9th until Friday December 4th.

Poet Laureate will open up for registration on my site on Sunday 25th October.

The cost is 20 USD. {I know! It is a great deal.}

If this sounds like fun… if you have a poetry-shaped hole in your life {like I do}… if you’d like to play and experiment with words in a low risk way… if you’d like to spend some time thinking about your own story… if you’d like to make some joyful noise, I hope you’ll join me.

Registration is now open here.

If I had been on my iPhone 6 today

pic {Photo by Damien Pitter}

If I had been on my iPhone 6 today
I would have missed
a mother at my school
say to her seven year old,
“Have a great day. I love you.”
and I would have missed
the kid’s gleeful response.
“Thanks, Mom.
Bye, Mom.”

I would have missed a student,
the daughter of a friend,
walking a small dog
at the end of the school day.
Not her own cute little dog
as it turns out but a dog
that makes her want
a dog of her own.

I would have missed a girl
spot a moth on our train car
and follow it
from Motomachi-chukagai
to Yokohama Station
with her eyes
and her index finger.
I would have missed
her narrate its journey
to her mother
in a quiet voice
filled with reverence.

I would not have noticed
the adults forming a long line
for the escalator
at Yokohama Station,
all of them standing
on the left
and two small girls
in plaid skirts
and blue cotton blouses
racing up the right,
laughing loudly.

I would have missed the free samples
of pain de fromage
at Maison Kayser
and the shy smile from the woman
at the counter of the Chinese place
as she tried to remember
the phrase, “Anything else?”
in English
and how happy she was
to say “thank you.”

I would have missed two girls
walking home from school
in the rain
and how they engineered
a hat from a binder tied
to the top of her head
with a grey hoodie
and how the other girl
a small person with braids
walked beside her
letting the rain come
come as it might.
like the first day of spring.

Be the Poet Laureate of your own life


In the last days of summer when I had nothing but time, and only the sun for a clock, an idea arrived. How cool would it be for our high school to launch a search for a Poet Laureate, for one student passionate about poetry who would compose and perform poems for special school events. {And although this hasn’t happened yet, I have a very good feeling about it.}

And then I began to wonder how it would feel if we all thought of ourselves as Poet Laureates.

Poet Laureates of our own lives.

We’re already the noticers of the small details, the “tag-you’re-it” play between dust and light, the very particular way a loved one throws her head back as she laughs, how the temperature dropped and the wind blew ice-cold the morning your best friend moved away.

So we’re already partway there.

As Poet Laureate, we’ll also get to make decisions about the form our poetry will take and what we’ll share and how we’ll share it. How often and how much. We will need to be brave and sturdy in our bones because not everyone gets poetry and not everyone loves it (the way we do) so we’ll need to decide to be okay with that.

Consider this process: to design one’s own life, to break-dance in its brightness, to observe and appreciate moments of exquisite beauty, to meet crushing disappointment and shards of heartbreak with stubborn gladness, and to share all of that with others. That seems like a divine calling. A spiritual practice. And well worth the risk.

Here’s the thing with poetry: it does not need to be published in a literary journal or posted in a blog. You can whisper your poems to your partner over scrambled eggs or rap them in the car with your kid on the way to Girl Guides. {Actually, I’m thinking of an Ode to Girl Guide Cookies right now.} You can write a poem on the back of a postcard, or make a movie out of it, or a quilt. Poems definitely do not need to rhyme… or even use words.

And no, your life is not boring. Those moments that you consider mundane… somebody, somewhere finds them fascinating. Somebody somewhere loves those kinds of poems. Lives for them. Wants to publish them in their own heart.

So sing your poem-songs of absurd joy, embarrassment and longing. Sing, you Poet Laureate of Yourself.

Pink and Blue Benevolence


It’s raining in Yokohama.
I hang my transparent umbrella
on a hook near the door.
Water drops fall
and explode
on the carpet below.
I sit at my desk.
I turn on the red lamp
and look out
the window.

I peer in shop windows
in ancient Trastevere
where the sun pours in
at the ends of the streets
like rain falling
sideways soaking
the streets golden.
The buildings are tinted
with sun-variations,
butter yellow and
cantaloupe orange.

It’s not a memory.
I don’t remember walking.
I am walking.

I walk
through a small piazza
where two friends
with golden retrievers
on red leashes
greet each other
with kisses
on each cheek.
The dogs move closer,
stand so their bodies touch,
share a memory of open fields.

I walk past the restaurant
where we had dinner
was it two nights ago?
The waiters mock
the foreigner students,
send away those
without reservations.
Yet to us, they are
Kind the way that Romans are.

I pass the shop
where he purchased
the red ceramic bowl.
A Christmas gift.
The white haired shopkeeper
pushes her glasses
to the top of her head
just like I do.
She waves.
Come in.

I shake my head.
My inbox is too full.

We are at another restaurant
with white linen table cloths
and heavy utensils.
The man beside us
the patriarch
wears navy adidas pants
with three white stripes.
Three children devour their pasta
and make fun of each other.
They do both loudly.
Every few minutes
their mother says “taci”
and they are quiet
for as long as it takes
to remember
who they were teasing.
At the table on the other side
a young foreign couple
spends the evening
looking at their phones.
We order cacio e pepe,
mac and cheese for adults.
We wonder aloud if we could
make this at home.
Pecorino and pepper.
He says he thinks so.
He says he thinks
with some practice
he could get it.

From the safety
of street corner shrines
the Virgin Mary
regards us.
she is pink and blue
I believe
she is here for me,
my patron saint
of time travel.

In Yokohama
it is still raining.
My inbox is full.

Time is a circle.

Travelling The Road to Atlantis with Leo Brent Robillard


In August I was invited to participate in a blog tour for Leo Brent Robillard’s fourth novel, The Road to Atlantis which was published on September 15th. Here is the conversation that unfolded over the next month.

Dear Brent,
I read your novel as a former teacher of English lit, as a voracious reader, as someone who is currently writing a novel, and as your friend. All of those selves unite to say congratulations on this gorgeous, tragic and sweet novel. Thank you for writing this story and for sharing it with me in this way. I feel really proud of you ~ and happy for you.

MM: In the opening scenes of The Road to Atlantis the family is quite similar to your own. I felt as though this story could be another branch of your own story, a life unlived through the grace of the universe or chance or whatever you believe in. Could you talk about this. How did you look after yourself emotionally while you wrote this novel?

LBR: The opening scene of the novel is based on an experience I had during a family road trip back in 2006. Just prior to leaving the beach in Cape May, we – my wife and I – lost track of our daughter on the busy beach. The entire experience did not last more than five minutes, and yet it escalated very quickly toward hysteria. Unlike David, I did not hear the lifeguard’s whistle. For that, I am eternally grateful. However, I did have that moment, thirty seconds before my daughter was located, when I thought, “So this is how my life is meant to be.” This novel almost wrote itself, but it took me close to a decade to finally sit down and put pen to paper. In the end, it was almost a relief to write it. The characters lived a dozen different lives in my mind, and none of them were comforting. Writing the book was how I looked after myself emotionally.

MM: You are both a writer and a teacher of literature but these roles are, I think, not entirely compatible. Was there anything in your lit analysis training that you needed to unlearn, or place on pause, in order to create the world of a novel?

LBR: I think that my training as an English major in university is much more evident in my three earlier novels – certainly in the first two. I don’t think of this as a bad thing at all. However, I must admit that I was much less self-conscious in the writing of The Road to Atlantis. I was not thinking about craft or language. This may have something to do with experience, or it may have more to do with the fact that the subject was so much more personal. I became a teacher of literature, and later of languages and creative writing, because I loved books from an early age. I want to deal with them always. But it is true that analysis and creativity are two different paths. I could never wholly abandon either.

MM: Trains, and specifically model trains, play an important role in the second part of the novel. Tell us the story of you and trains.

LBR: I had a model train set when I was a child. It was built on a simple plywood board. I do not think that it was an expensive set, but at the end of each pay period my father would take me to the local hobby shop to buy a new piece for it – a train station, a hotel, etc. They were models that required assembly. We worked on them together. It was a small part of my own history with my father, in whose memory this book is dedicated.

MM: A character who has not seen the protagonist, David, in a long time thinks that he is a mess. I disagreed. I respected the way that he was living and thought he was really onto something good. Simpler. Why do you think people will have different interpretations of his living situation?

LBR: This is a particularly astute question. And I’m so glad you asked it. David is on to something. We all need to live simpler. It is perhaps the manner in which David arrives at simplicity that is hard. He takes the slash and burn approach, which hurts those around him – particularly Matty. But one reviewer remarked that “the great truth” about this novel is that “when you find yourself again you can be a better parent.” We can, none of us, be the people that we are without having lived the lives we have lived. Or, as Kahlil Gibran said, “One may not reach the dawn save by the path of the night.” David could not seek redemption, nor could he achieve reconnection with his son at the end of the novel, without having travelled “by the path of the night.”

MM: The novel, which explores the life of a family, after the death of one of its members is, in part, a story of brokenness yet you managed to keep the story fresh, free of cliches and moving quickly. How did you do this?

LBR: The last thing that I wanted to write was a novel about the “Five Stages of Loss and Grief.” So I didn’t. I couldn’t even tell you what they are. I only know that they exist because of a disparaging reviewer’s remark concerning another writer’s work. This is a novel of the imagination. It isn’t written to prove or support a theory. I did not want to be reductive or to belittle anyone to whom this has occurred. I tried to envision what would become of me in such a circumstance and I went from there.

MM: If you were to write another novel about one of the characters from The Road to Atlantis, which character would you choose. Why?

LBR: My knee-jerk response is to say Matty, because his story is far from over. The story of Larry’s “lost” years would also be interesting. But the real novel belongs to Kim. She is the sort of character who deserves a novel. I’m imagining her future already.

MM: Tell us about your writing process. Do you write every day or do you write in bursts scheduled/squeezed between other things?

LBR: Bursts. I call them appointments. If my son has three hours of dance practice then I will drop him off, hit the nearest coffee shop, and write like crazy for three hours. I keep big, fat, spiral bound notebooks into which a stick everything in the interim period. I also plot meticulously so that I do not waste a single minute of those three hours. I edit nothing until I begin entering the story into a word processor. God forbid I ever lose my notebooks.

MM: An eclectic playlist of music is weaved into the very fabric of The Road to Atlantis. What singers and songwriters inspire you? What did you listen to while writing this novel?

LBR: First, I am an aural leaner, so I cannot listen to music while I write – especially the music that I like. I want white noise, idle chatter, the sound of a coffee grinder in the background. I will actually wear headphones when I’m writing in a public space, but I never play music through them. The headphones mute the ambient noise slightly, and they also discourage people from speaking to me. Does that sound bad? I’m not anti-social or anything, but writing takes focus, and more importantly, flow. I am, however, constantly inspired by music. I listen to Preservation Hall Jazz, nineties grunge, dirty blues, and classic rock. I like folk and alt-country. I even play and build guitars. If there is music in Atlantis, it’s because life is suffused with music.

MM: In The Road to Atlantis, all of the characters leave each other. Some come back. In our own lives, we leave each other in all kinds of small ways, every day, don’t we?

LBR: People come and go from our lives, physically and emotionally. We never know if they are truly gone until they never come back. I know a woman who married her high school sweetheart more than a decade after they broke up and went on to live very different lives. I’m sure neither of them saw that coming. Departures are often sad, because they remind us of our own mortality, the possibility of never again. But we have to be open to leaving and to being left. That what stories are made of.

Robillard,Brent_Caroline Bergeron3_2 Leo Brent Robillard is an award-winning author and educator. His novels include Leaving Wyoming, which was listed in Bartley’s Top Five in the Globe and Mail for Best First Fiction; Houdini’s Shadow, which was translated into Spanish; and, most recently, Drift. In 2011, he received the Premier’s Award for Teacher of the Year. He lives in Eastern Ontario with his wife and two children.

On Starting and Stopping. {The End of Poetry}


On Tuesday 4th of August I stopped writing poetry.

It wants to be dramatic like that, doesn’t it?

In the middle of February 2015, I started a daily poetry project quite by accident. I had been writing poems almost every day, they came without effort or planning, and I began to wonder what it would be like to write a poem every day. Not just every day, but every day for year. “Why not?,” I thought. I had lots of ideas and lots to say. By writing every day, my writing would improve. And I love the form that poetry takes… the rhythmic pops and weaves, the hard kernels at the bottom of the paper bag of meaning, the small sparkling somethings from a regular day in a regular life in Yokohama, Japan or New York City or Ottawa, Canada. And so I began, poem by poem, to map out my world and the people and emotions I encountered there.

And it was good.

I shared these poems on my blog and on my Facebook page and people let me know, with their words, which poems they loved and, with their silence, which ones hadn’t worked so well for them. But I was not put off by the silence. Every poem found its readership even if that was just one. One Damien or Spike or Jessie or Aynne or Ashley or even myself. The world of a poem is not greedy. It does not demand more space than you can afford. It can be as small as one idea jotted on a Starbucks napkin and folded into small squares in your pocket. A marble of a poem. A one yen coin.

And even though I traveled, this summer, to Bangkok and then to New York and then to Ottawa and then to a cottage I had rented with my family, and even though I experienced a passport mishap (entirely my fault) and the subsequent high velocity issuing of a temporary passport, the poems still came, more or less every day, without stress or worry.

This was also a summer in which I’d decided to take a break from social media. Primarily Facebook and Twitter although, in truth, I have never understood how Twitter works. I feel like Twitter is social media’s great black hole and everything I put there just disappears. So taking a break from Twitter was no great loss but being away from Facebook took a lot of discipline on my part. And then not so much.

And I got to the part of my summer when I was surrounded by other writers, many of them truly lovely people (like kindred-spirit-lovely), and they were sharing their words and images freely, madly and something in me just shut off. Two somethings, actually. The creative something in me that writes the poems and takes the photos, and the courageous something in me that doesn’t overthink the sharing. That one that just jumps. She’s a sparkly bit, that one.

When you write a poem every single weekday, you get to a point where you are just going to tell the truth. Whatever the truth happens to be. This is both uncomfortable and inconvenient. Not nice. It felt not nice to have these true and distinctly unlovely things to be working through and to be faced with the task of producing a poem from those thoughts every day.

There are people who write about the darkness. Stephen King, God bless him. Stieg Larsson. People who have purchased their Writing Palace in a dark realm. That’s not the neighbourhood for me. I’m a real estate agent for the light ~ committed to helping people find the light and then live there.

So I stopped writing poems every day. I did feel a bit guilty at first. I considered writing eight more so that I could claim I had written six months’ worth of daily poems. (We’re such fragile, vain creatures, aren’t we?) But I did not write eight more. I began writing notes on scraps of paper and in my fuchsia pink moleskin and on my phone… notes about what I saw and felt and how all of those things fit together or do not.

With each poem-less day, I thought more about my novel The 37 Impossible Loves of Naoko Nishizawa. Six months ago I completed a shitty first draft. Two months ago, a friend gave me brilliant notes for some next steps. Now, in the absence of daily poems, I am working my way back to that world, to writing a second draft and then a third and as many as it takes to put that story into your hands.

And that makes me really, really happy.

This morning, in Tokyo, I started typing a poem into my phone. It’s about an old woman and a much younger man sitting on a bench in the rain and the art of sitting still and how beauty is God in the world. This is the poem I want to write.

Maybe I’ll share it.

What would you like to start if you could?

What would you like to stop?

What are the stories


What are the stories real and imagined
told by you, those who love you and also
by complete strangers, the stories that are
holding you back from living your fullest,
truest life, from becoming the person
you know you can be?

What’s the story that would set you free?