Hi, here's a little project I've been working on for the blog. I wanted to pay tribute and draw attention to an emerging artist coming from St. Thomas University's creative writing program. It took some planning and a whole new computer, but I'm happy to finally debut this. I sat down with Lexi McCormack, who won STU's 2018 David Velensky Prize in Creative Writing. We had a conversation, I recorded it, and have transcribed their words for you here. Hopefully future ACPA editors will take up this project for our next prize-winning poets.
- Jamie Kitts
I just graduated from STU with an English Honours and Concentration in Creative Writing. I'm going into the Education program in the fall. I write things sometimes.
There were two pieces that had a similar scene in it, and I hadn't decided if I wanted to write it as a poem or more of a prose-y piece, so I played around with both, and ended up submitting both because they kind of compliment each other a bit. It's a memory from my childhood that I kind of wanted to explore and that's why I was debating on whether I wanted to do that in poetry form or a prose form. I didn't know because in poetry you can be a little bit more secretive, or vague; you can be a little bit more abstract, but in prose it's more of detailing out a scene, and I didn't know if I wanted to hide a little bit more or if I wanted to detail the scene a little bit more.
I guess I still didn't say exactly what happened in the prose piece. In "dumpster kitten" it's more of what actually happened, which is kind of weird because I just said that poetry can hide a bit more, but I guess I still found a loophole or something with the prose. The poetry is non-fiction, the prose piece is creative non-fiction.
In prose it's more step-by-step, detailing a scene, outlining a scene with each step the character takes, whereas poetry is more about the raw emotion which can be left up to interpretation. I don't need to write "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened," I just put an emotion on a page and let people look at it. I have to put it out there but I don't have to explain myself -- the words that stir a certain emotion, even if they're not saying what happened, they're stirring an emotion.
The prose piece takes the image in "dumpster kitten," except it's slightly altered for the sake of narrative that I had been going to write. The poem came first. The poem was the first thing I wrote for this memory. It has more of the emotions in it, the true emotions. A lot of my pieces, especially starting out, had been mostly prose poetry. When I do write prose, it still sounds a little vague. It's more complicated for me to write with prose, because you have to say things, whereas I feel safer in poetry.
If you're writing an emotion you're gonna write the emotion, and emotions don't have a pre-baked form. You write the social construction of love, you can be like, "These characters went and had a milkshake. Now they're in love. Now they're married." Like, love doesn't look like that. Love sucks. But it's not cookie cutter, and emotions usually start leaking through their cardboard boxes that they're put into, and then they make a nasty little puddle on the floor, and sometimes it floods the whole house, and sometimes all your belongings are ruined. Sometimes the cost is really high.
I was going to add the prose as a scene for a thesis concept at one time. And it was also going to be a series that I wanted to work on. But I didn't know if I wanted to do it with prose excerpts and whatnot. So, I was just playing, just testing things out. I didn't use it as a thesis concept, and if it was going to be for another series I wouldn't use it either. The memory was told differently for a thesis concept rather than the memory as it is in "dumpster kitten," so I wouldn't use it there either.
the scooby-doo cake melts into the kitchen
table & my pj bottoms. he took the unstruck, thumbing sourpuss--
bites back & knocks back; outside a helicopter, the tv an
amber alert, the garbage bags of filler-teeth— i look, he coos:
— he won’t be at his morning shift, i won’t be in bed
on time. hide-&-seeking--
kitty, kitty, kitty
mummy showers off coca-cola, mouths at
my nape & the baby hairs there. all fours, i mother the dustpan greys,
the stranded strays of a birthday present, & wait for the moans & claws
at a glass door
his waving to be let in
Used with permission of the author.
I come from the middle of the woods, which is not an overstatement. I grew up in very very very rural New Brunswick down a basically dirt road. I lived a very sheltered-from-humans childhood, I would say, Until very recently I had never lever left New Brunswick. I think my roots in this province and my absorption into always being here affects a lot of my feelings when I write about locations and the outside love.
Love poetry, I also write prose. When I write prose it's usually short stories. I don't think I've ever finished a long piece. But I'd also like to get into writing children's books. I also draw, I watercolor, I sketch. and I do online drawing with a tablet. I think something that would be really nice someday would be to combine a cute poem for kids and draw illustrations for it. That's one of my dreams, one of my goals in life.
I think the fact that I currently work at a bookstore in the kids' section has reignited the want for writing a kids' book. Children's books coming out now are so beautiful — not just aesthetically pleasing but, a lot of them are so heartfelt — I read them in the kids' section and I'm like, wow.
I am going into my fourth year. Sociology is my passion. I'm honouring in sociology and I'm also majoring in English with a Concentration in Creative Writing. Not everyone would be proud of this but I'm very proud of this because Creative Writing/English and Sociology are so important to me. After first year I have only taken Sociology and English courses.
I only have a year left so I should probably get on figuring out what I want to do with my life. I'm trying to choose between becoming an elementary school teacher or I'm going to continue on and get a Master's in Sociology. I have no idea where I'll be next year and it's terrifying.
The first draft of "hiraeth" was for Advanced Poetry Workshop here at STU with Kathleen McConnell. The theme of the week was to write a glossa. Stanzas are supposed to be 10 lines long — mine are nine lines long but I changed it up a little bit. I found "Ghazal For Her Voice" by J.P. Howard quite coincidentally.
Even now it's hard to describe how I was feeling when I created the poem. I know what I wanted to try and convey, but I'm a person who has a hard time conveying my feelings anyway. I have a really fractured relationship with memories of my childhood — the younger the worse. Not necessarily because of offense, but for some strange reason I have a really hard time knowing what's real and what's false. Because of how easily memories decay and how often we can create false memories within ourselves, I struggle sometimes with things that I'm sure happened, but I'm also quite certain I just thought they happened. And now my memories of home I mixed into my brain and it's really hard for my to pinpoint ones that really affect me that I'm certain are real. When you think of that, and you combine that with the concept of home, like warmth and what you picture of a home a child grows up in, it's hard.
I drew on my grandmother and my mother. This "she" in the poem is like an entity that is both my mum and my grandmother. We're addresssing a single person throughout the poem, a metaphorical version. That was largely because growing up my mother was a stay-at-home mom and my grandmother lived with us. And even when she moved out she lived next door, basically. I was very close to them both but I also had very tenuous relationships with them, especially the older I got and the more I learned about the world and about their place in the world. Combining that with memories I'm not sure I can formally address to them makes for a confusing relationship with one's past.
Both my nanny and my mum were green thumbs, loved the outdoors and adored birds. Not necessarily bird-watching, but making bird feeders, carving little wooden steps for birds. They would buy bird feed with every grocery order. Think of a mother figure standing at the kitchen window right above the sink looking to a bunch of bird feeders, and she's talking to the birds while she washes dishes. I knew one thing that I could use to ground the poem are birds. I tried to include a form of birds in every stanza whether that was as simple as mentioning a type of bird as ambiguous as mentioning feathers. That's real, that's something that is tangible. I remember birds like I remember my mum and my nanny. I wasn't trying to focus on specific events and ideas. I was more trying to put down feelings and emotions, especially what I felt with this ambiguous problem. I wanted to impression the reader to feel certain emotions that I feel when I look back on memories of home.
Something that definitely soaked into there was this melancholy which you get at the end of almost every stanza. It's in part due to the fact that I have a problem writing happy poems. Not in a my-life-is-sad-and-this-is-awful sort of way — which is valid; if you want write poems about how the world is awful, power to you — but just this feeling of a slow creep of dread and sadness and regret that you can't wash away. It soaks you and it comes out in everything you write, and that's what happens with my poems. But I've learned to embrace it, and now I'm just working with what I have.
My nanny actually passed away last month. She was very old and it was something we were preparing for, but it was still very sad, obviously. It seemed addedly sad that it happened around the same time I found out about the award. I actually read a bit of the poem at the funeral. Kathy Mac talked a few times in out class about how it's very strange that in times of grief even people who don't like poetry or don't think that they like poetry, or think they know nothing about it or have never written are almost drawn to it. It's a way to express a lot of feelings you can't express in any other medium.
Life is a circle, weaved
around fragments of her voice.
I keep entering an empty room;
drawn to the memory of her voice.
“Ghazal For Her Voice,” JP Howard
i hear her voice in just echos now,
tiny taps on a birdfeeder reverberations –
or in coughs late at night. except when i find crows
looming on the couch dancing in dew,
no shoes, never crochet or prick blood
thin thread cleaved, from flowers in bloom.
just two rods; dirt sticks between
two snakes. her craters in my fingers,
life is a circle, weaved. i keep entering an empty room.
cooking in vanilla- the still air tastes
splattered apron, no sash. of gingersnap cookies:
whistling with chickadees, burnt.
careful of barefeet i grasp at crumbs,
on sawdust floor. follow the oblivion path.
no choice ears filled with feathers,
to mid-morning movement. steps tilted downward –
the squirrels scatter shaking, shivering,
around fragments of her voice. drawn to the memory of her voice.
Used with permission of the author.
Part of this editing gig is taking pictures. While I could grab something from the internet, we don't need to ask permission to use our own photos. This gives me an excuse to get up from my computer and go for a walk -- and man, it's a hot one, a good time to be walking. There's only one problem: I'm not a photographer. All I have is my phone, the three-by-three grid on the camera display, and a vague understanding of something called the rule of thirds. Oh yeah, and my music. Can't go for a walk without a soundtrack.
One of the things I've been working on is the Poetic Places Fredericton app. A poem by Kathy Mac about the Bill Thorpe Bridge is going live soon, so we needed pictures of the bridge. The photos needed to be a wide shot and two close-ups, but those were the only directions I had. I might not know much about photography, but I think I know a little about writing.
So I get down there, find a good spot on the walking trail, and take this picture:
Alright, good start, a nice wide boy of a long boy. Now the obvious close-up is this next one:
So what we have here is probably the right answer: wide shot of the bridge, close-up of the memorial. Seems like an open-and-shut case.
Well, yeah, but it's boring, and obvious, and a little too much like what the tourism board would want. And we're not Fredericton Tourism, we're a Poets' Archive, man! That's a story for Heritage Minutes!
So I keep walking, looking for basically anything that isn't this plaque, and I notice for the first time that the trail doesn't just go up onto the bridge access, but downwards. I find this:
This homely nook under the bridge is exactly what I'm looking for. In that little ridge between the bridge and the support is an abandoned red gym bag. There's a trash can for cigarettes on the ground from the city. The view is much less romantic from behind those trees. It's moist. It's a mess. It's perfect.
I have a tendency to ignore good advice. Or rather, I don't like the obvious answers. I've done the creative writing program here at STU, and I've gotten a lot of good advice, but I've also ignored a lot of it. Not because my peers are wrong, but I already thought of a lot of their feedback. I don't think I'm better than that advice, especially since that stuff would probably make my writing better. But I don't know, man, wouldn't you rather be Ed Wood than Paul Greengrass? Wouldn't you rather make Plan 9 from Outer Space than Captain Phillips? I'd rather do something nobody else thought to do or actively chose not to do rather than just make something correctly.
I'd rather everybody see this monument:
Now that's ambition!
Jamie Evan Kitts
(P.S., the soundtrack to this excursion was Secret of Mana: Resonance of the Pure Land, a free triple-album from OverClocked ReMix. Dad wouldn't have much to say about that.)
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