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KIRA Day 3

Where has the time gone? Don’t answer that question. The Retreat has settled into a structure of its own and outside time no longer has any meaning. The internal time of the retreat runs smoothly as clockwork, a wooden, self-oiling clockwork, of the most delicate kind.

08:00 – 09:00 Breakfast. We gather in the kitchen and the conversations begin over breakfast. We talk about the previous night’s readings, the plans we have for the day, or whether we want to workshop of just retire to our studios and write.

09:00 – 10:30 Workshop time. Each morning we have a topic and we illustrate it and discuss it fully. Each workshop also comes with ideas and prompts for writing. At the end of  each workshop, we plan the rest of the day. We hold regular Blue Pencil Cafés in which facilitators and participants discuss submitted work. We suggested about 20 minutes for the BPCs, but my first one last over an hour and we managed to get through half a poem. Jeremy’s first one lasted an hour and a half (prose) and he covered more ground than me. My second one was marvelous: we spent an hour or more on one paragraph, three lines.

What happens in the BPCs is unbelievable. It’s not just the revision of the poem or the piece of prose, but a wide-ranging discussion on theories, ideas, prompts, the nature of writing, directions a piece may take, the nature of creativity, where inspiration comes from, how it may be channeled, how writing occurs, where it can lead … incredibly exhausting at times, yet energy fills us and we are always ready to write, re-write, revise, and talk again.

14:00 – 16:00 Art School. On Tuesday, Geoff Slater sat us down with paper and paint and we experimented with color, the creation of color, the basics of primary colors, how to make secondary colors, how to create the color wheel. Geoff enthralled us: never will the color wheel ever look the same again. Never will I use a color again without thinking in depth about it’s composition and meaning. Green no longer means Green: it means so much more. I read Lorca’s Romance Sonámbulo, this morning, and it took on all sorts of different and very new meanings. Verde, que te quiero verde. Green, for I love you green … green wind … green branches … green flesh … green hair … 

I sat opposite Geoff this morning. Behind him, green bushes, green trees, green leaves, green grass, green foliage … Yesterday, I paid little attention to all that green-ness. Today it fascinated me and I was able to distinguish between the amount of yellow, the amount of blue, the lightening factor, the darkening factor, the tinges of red and brown and oh to be able to capture it all, all that green-ness, all that certainty, blurred into a sea of green.

16:00 -17:30 BPC time. We pair up facilitator / participant and share our work. Each day a different piece, a different conversation, an advancement of yesterday’s talks, another step or two forward. Sometimes we take tiny steps. Other times we make gigantic leaps. Time and space lose meaning. We have been gifted with something different and we are truly blessed.

18:00 – 19:30 Dinner. This is a sumptuous meal provided by the Garden Café, our very own award-winning Kingsbrae Garden Café. The group is open. The man who provides us with desserts, he makes them in our kitchen, specially for us, joins us as we sit at the table and we add culinary art to the poetry, prose, and painting that we are always discussing.

19:30 – 21:30 Readings. We read what we have written during the day and facilitators and participants share together. I try to choose work of mine that reflects the day’s themes. Linking theory (morning) to practice (evenings) is also a fascinating procedure. We finish the evening by planning the next day’s work. The key to the retreat is flexibility. We respond to each others’ needs. Colors are important? We concentrate on colors and read about them in our evening sessions. Today we talked symbols. Tonight I will offer a reading in which symbols play an enormous role.

Alas: my free time is over. Now I must descend and return to the joys of BPCs, discussion, dinner, and the evening’s read. Farewell for now: I will be back as soon as I can.





Never underestimate the importance of the sentence, the power and placement of each word, the dynamism of the parts, the wisdom of the whole. I could write about this at length but, much more important, others have done so. My thanks to my friend and fellow artist, Jan Stoneist, for choosing the above sentence from my book, Stepping Stones, and carving it in Old Red Sandstone, from Wales. Cymru am Byth.

This article, attached below, illustrates the theory much better than I can.









My body’s house has many rooms and you, my love,
walk through them all. Your shadow dances on walls,
in mirrors, and your breath brushes my cheek

every time I open doors or windows. That silly cat
looks for you and hisses when I bring her kibble.
I move from room to room, but when I seek you,

you are no longer here. I knock, nothing opens.
Afraid, sometimes, to enter a room, I know
you are in there. I hear your footsteps on the stair.

Sometimes your voice seems to break the silence.
You whisper my name in the same old way.
How can it be true, my love, that you have gone,

that you have left me here alone? I count the hours,
the days, embracing dust motes. I find no solace
in salacious sunbeams and my occasional dreams.

Comment: Regular visitors to this blog will probably recognize this poem. It is a rewrite of an earlier one, also bearing the title Lost (click here for earlier post). I rewrote, or rather, reorganized the structure of the poem, added some words, and subtracted others. I did this earlier this summer while Clare was in Ottawa visiting our daughter and grand-daughter. And yes, I missed her. I always do when she in not present or I am away. Comments on either version will be welcome, particularly if you prefer one version over the other.

Revisions: Wednesday Workshop


Wednesday Workshop
27 June 2018

Below are the texts of a poem that I am attempting to revise. Any comments on the text(s) or the revision process will be welcome.

In Absentia 1
Princess Squiffy

I hear her voice, delicate, distant. I
run to the sound, jump on the table in
my usual spot by her plastic plaything.
She isn’t there. He is and he’s talking.

I can see him, smell him. I hate him, his
other sex perfumes, but there he is and
when he stops talking, I can hear her voice.

I move to his talk box. A shadow, I
can’t quite make it out, then her voice again.
My whiskers stiffen, I lean forward, sniff,
but no smell. She has no smell, and scentless,

I cannot sense her, I bristle, she calls
me by my favorite names, mews, and I mew
back in reply. But I can’t smell her. There’s

no sense of touch … is this the hell all cats
will suffer … shadows on a screen, a voice,
haunting, memories shifting and dancing,
nothing solid … just shadows and absence?

Repetition of scents / smells, there, voice (4), plus avoid all cats

Seems easy to tidy up … but … how do I end the poem with I hate him? Would it make the poem stronger? It would man a total rethink and restructure. 

In Absentia 2
Princess Squiffy

I hear her voice, delicate, distant. I
run to the sound, jump on the table in
my usual spot by her plastic plaything.
She isn’t here. He is and he’s talking.

I can see him, smell him. I hate him, his
other sex perfumes. He stops talking. I
can hear her warm, sweet words: where can she be?

I move to his talk box. A shadow, I
can’t quite make it out, then her tones again.
My whiskers stiffen, I lean forward, sniff,
but cannot sense her. I bristle. She calls

me by my favorite names, squeaks, and I mew
back. There’s no sense of touch, of her presence.
Is this the way we all will suffer? Wood

burns. Firelight flickering, shadows on
cave walls, long gone memories revived to
haunt us. Are these the torments held in hell?
Will dark shapes shift on half-lit screens? Will the

memories of loved ones come back to taunt
us, haunt us?  Will there be nothing solid
in the afterlife, just outlines and absence?

First Revision:
I quite like it, but it has become much longer and the cat’s voice has either been conflated with the human voice at the end or it’s an exceptionally intelligent cat, knowing all about Plato,  unless those can pass as feline memories because she was in the cave with him.

In Absentia 3
Princess Squiffy

I hear your voice, delicate, distant. I
run to the sound, jump on the table in
my usual spot by your plastic plaything.

You are not here. He is. I can hear you
talk. I stalk to his noise box. I see a
shadow, moving, but I can’t make it out.

My muscles first tense, then stiffen. I sniff,
lean forward, but find no trace of female
smell. I cannot sense you. You call me by

my favorite names, mew at me, and I
respond. Shifting shadows, your haunting tones,
memories dancing to the music of

your absence. I can’t eat. I bristle when
he laughs. Where are you, my love? He doesn’t
care for me the way you do. I loathe him.

Second Revision:
This is much shorter, builds up to the proposed new ending, eliminates the repetitions, and replaces hate with loathe, a very catty sound. However, I have lost the ending that I liked so much: the suggestion of Plato’s Cave has now been lost. So, let’s head to Plato’s Cave.

In Absentia 4
Plato’s Cat Cave

Princess Squiffy

I hear her voice, delicate, distant. I
run to the sound, jump on the table in
my usual spot by her plastic plaything.
She isn’t there. He is and he’s talking.

I can see him, smell him. I hate him, his
other sex perfumes, but there he is and
when he stops laughing, I can hear her voice.

I move to his talk box. A shadow, I
can’t quite make it out, then her voice again.
My whiskers stiffen, I lean forward, sniff:
she has no smell. I bottle-brush my tail.

by Plato

Firelight flickering, shadows on walls,
distant voices echoing, memories
perched on our shoulders, night owls hooting.

Is this the hell we all will suffer, shapes
shifting on a screen, voices taunting us,
memories dancing to half remembered
melodies, nothing solid, shadows, absence?

Third Revision:
This poem has now changed shape and direction. I quite like it but it is dependent on a knowledge of Plato’s Cave. Does the cat belong in Plato’s Cave … I think of Kipling’s Just So story The Cat that Walked … perhaps it does. Perhaps it doesn’t.

Decision Time:

Playing around with the text was fun. The text moved in several directions and now I must choose my final direction.

Comments on any of the versions or on the revision process I used will be very welcome. And yes, nothing perishes. My poems, like my cats, have nine lives (well, four in this case, with possibly a fifth to come).

Broken Record


Broken Record

I have worked on this poem for a long time now. I worry about it, gnaw at it like a dog gnaws at a bone or a cat plays with an insect trapped beneath its feet. Francisco Quevedo  (1580-1643) rewrote one of his poems (Miré los muros de la patria mía) six times between his first version (1603) and his last version (1643) two years before his death. Are we condemned to dance attendance on those poems that haunt us? I don’t really know. Here is the link to my first version of Broken Record. Is it the best one? The only one? The one I should keep? Here is my link to This Old Man. Is this a better version? Does the change of photo change the context of the poem?

Like Francisco de Quevedo and his long history of Miré los muros … I can no longer tell.  That said, here is the latest version of my poem. I hope you like it. Do some clicking (it’s also called research) and let me know what you think. I look forward to your comments.

Broken Record (?)

A vinyl disc going
round and round,
the diamond-tipped needle
stuck in a groove:
me and my broken-
record memories.

I stop old friends
in the supermarket
and, when I start to talk,

they stand there,
tapping their feet,
trapped in a doldrum
where no winds fill
their sails to move them on.

Caught in multiple mirrors
surrounding the barber’s chair,
my tongue is an open razor
constantly stropped.

I have turned into
a babbling book of hours,
life’s moribund albatross
a hot towel round
my reluctant throat.



Wednesday Workshop: Reading


Wednesday Workshop
11 April 2018
Reading for Writers

Miguel de Cervantes once wrote that he was so fond of reading he would pick up even the scraps of paper he found in the street to read them if anything was written on them. This is well-known. What is less known is that Don Quixote, his immortal novel (DQI, 1605, DQII, 1615) is a masterpiece, not only of writing, but also of reading.

From the initial sortie, a prose transcription of an earlier short play, to the Scrutiny of the Library, Cervantes demonstrates right from the start his awareness of current trends in poetry, theatre and prose. In addition, he shows (especially DQI, chapter 47) his acquaintance with contemporary literary theory, as E. C. Riley has so ably established in Cervantes’s Theory of the Novel.

Cervantes begins with the traditional Renaissance novel (DQI, 1605) in which he experiments with plays and poetry turned into prose, oral and written histories, pseudo-autobiographical episodes, the picaresque novel, the pastoral novel, the Italianate Novel, the picaresque novel (briefly), his own versions of the realistic Spanish short story, and then, after a ten year gap during which he receives all kinds of reader feedback, he invents (DQII, 1615), the self-referring modern novel. DQII refers back to DQI as if it were true history. Don Quixote on his ravels meets with people who recognize him, for they have read his story and know all about him. The fictitious character establishes himself as an almost flesh-and-blood living person.

What can we, as writers, learn from this? Above all, we must learn to read copiously, not just once in a while, but all the time. Not only must we read, but we must learn how to read. Yes, we can read for knowledge and information; yes, we can read for pleasure and enjoyment; yes, we can read to lose ourselves and wash away the cares of the world. However, as writers we must learn to read in a different fashion. We must read in search of the narrative structures that inspire other good writers. We must read in search of the iterative thematic imagery that binds a text with meaningful, repeated images. We must read in search of the poetry that sates the soul’s constant thirst for beauty. We must read in search of the dialog that cuts to the bone and reveals the hidden character of the protagonists. We must read in search of the layering that allows us to give extra meaning at all levels of the narrative. We must read in search of the secret that allows us to trim all unnecessary material in order that our stories may be spare and sparse with not an extra word or thought.

Reading: I have just finished taking an eight-week online course with the School of Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. In the course of those eight weeks, I read the following books.

  1. 3 short stories a week, recommended by the instructor, the wonderful novelist Kerry Lee Powell, to illustrate each week’s lesson. [24 stories]
  2. 14 first drafts, one from each of the magnificent students in the course (I had the honor of being the fifteenth student). [38 stories]
  3. 14 revised stories. [52 stories]
  4. 14 first drafts of a second story. The course asked for two stories to be written by each participant over the duration of the course. [66 stories]
  5. 14 revised drafts of this second story. [80 stories]
  6. My own voluntary reading included Raymond Carver’s What we talk about when we talk about love (17 stories), Cathedral (12 stories), and my own short story collection, Bistro (35 very short stories). Recognizing the errors, weaknesses, and inaccuracies in my own collection reduced me to tears. [144 stories]

I have spent eight wonderful weeks exploring creativity and the art of short story writing.  Am I a better writer for all that work? Undoubtedly. I can see and think much more clearly and I am beginning to gain a better understanding of how short narratives work. I am a better writer, but I am not yet a good one. There is still a long way to go.

I am retired. A long, cold, icy New Brunswick winter has kept me in the house, close to the fire. I have been gifted the time and mental energy to make the most of this course I have taken. I attended the University of Toronto, as a graduate student, back in the sixties. I was amazed at the quantity of work handed out by the professors in the School of Graduate Studies. My first decision, made very early on in my graduate career, was to take a speed reading course. Accelerating my reading speed and capacity for understanding was the only way I would be able to compete. I am still a fast reader, though not as fast as I was. This speed reading has left me time for long thought and slow writing.

Over the last eight weeks, in addition to the reading, as described above, I have written five new short stories, including two for the course. I have also revised and re-written a series of short stories for my next collection. As a good friend keeps telling me, we are not writers, we are re-writers. After eight very intense weeks, the acts of re-writing, re-reading, re-vising, and re-editing have become much, much easier.

Carpe diem, seize the day: pick up a book and start reading. Pick up your pen and start writing. No excuses. Participaction: don’t think about it, do it.

Wednesday Workshop: Attending a Reading

weir 2

Wednesday Workhop
Wednesday, 04 April 2018
Attending a Reading

            Number one piece of advice: don’t arrive late. I thought last night’s reading at the Oromocto Public Library began at 7:00 pm. I used Google maps to locate the library and I left plenty of time to get to there early. The Oromocto Public Library is just off the main road, tucked sideways on, so you are driving past it before you see it. I didn’t see it.

            I drove to the first roundabout, went straight through that, looked again: no library where the library ought to be. So I drove to the second roundabout. Still no library, and now I was running out of road space and the highway beckoned. So, I went right around the second roundabout, scanning both sides of  the road for the library as I drove. Still no library. I returned to the first roundabout, went right around it, drove back to the second roundabout … I was becoming fixated on driving in circles … then back to the first again.

            Just past the first roundabout, I spotted a gas station. I pulled over to ask the way to the library and there it was, just in front of me, right beside the gas station, facing the new Japanese restaurant, and sideways on to the road. There was one parking spot left and I took it.

            When I got inside, the library was very silent. I asked directions to the reading room and was directed to the back of the building. The reader stood before the audience, with the podium at his back, and was already talking. It was 6:50 pm. “Wow,” I thought. “He must have started early.”

            I have known Chuck Bowie, the invited reader, for several years and we share the same writer’s group, a group which he organized. He invited me to join it and we meet regularly (there are seven of us), once a week, on Tuesdays. Regularly: this is Canada … regularly, when it isn’t snowing, when there’s no icy rain, when the temperature is above -30C, when the wind doesn’t threaten to blow the car off the road … regularly, you know what I mean. There are usually three or four of us at each meeting.

            “There’s Roger,” Chuck announced my presence as soon as he saw me.  The audience turned round and several people whom I knew gave me a smile and a wave. There were no vacant chairs. A lady at the back gave me hers and went to fetch another one for herself. I found out later that she was the organizer and I thanked her profusely for her generosity.

            Chuck, as I found out later, had started at 6:30 and was well into his stride. He mixed anecdotes from his stories with advice about writing. As I was settling, he was explaining how much research he had done into wine and wine growing for the winery scenes in his four Donovan novels (the series is called Donovan: Thief for Hire). I love wine and I have visited several excellent vineyards in Rueda and La Seca (Spain). Chuck’s deep knowledge of the vines impressed me. “Roots,” he told us, “sometimes going down twenty-one to twenty-four feet.”

            I thought of the Spanish wines with their denominations of Old Vines, Reserva, Gran Reserva as Chuck dragged me from the outside world to the inside world of the winery laboratory where the crime had taken place. Then he read an excerpt from his novel, four or five pages that illustrated the use to which he had put his knowledge of the vines (Book Four of the series, Body on the Underwater Road).

            Chuck then talked about writing from memory (Rumania) and emphasized that memory alone was not enough. Memory gives atmosphere but accurate details come from many places, including the ubiquitous, omnipresent, and virtually omniscient Google search. Thus, as he explained, cum grano salis, the churches in Rumania are circular, constructed that way “so the devil may not corner you.”

            From memory and Rumania, he moved to Manchester Gangs in the 1980’s (Book Three: Steal It All), a simple anecdote about how the neighborhood protection racket protected the local families who in turn protected the criminals, while all crime was committed outside the area. Chuck’s ability to turn a table-top conversation into the idea for a story, or in this case, a full novel, is exemplary. How many creative seeds are scattered on stony ground, never to come to full fruition?

            Violence can play a meaningful role in the crime thriller but it has to be meaningful, and it must be accurate. Chuck spent some time explaining how he had researched guns and armaments so that the right weapons would always be carried by the right people and used in correct fashion at the right time. He talked a little about entry and exit wounds and I had visions of Rumpole, in the Penge Bungalow Murders, stabbing a ketchup filled sponge in the kitchen of his suburban home on The Gloucester Road, to see how the stains spattered, much to the disgust of She-who-must-be-obeyed.

            Chuck’s next book, the fourth in the Donovan series, Donovan: Thief for Hire, is called Body on the Underwater Road. Much of this story takes place in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and Chuck explained how he had scouted out the local area and, in particular, the ‘underwater road’ from the mainland to Minister’s Island. The Fundy Tides, the highest in the world, cause the roadway to disappear at high tide, thus making the island inaccessible for long stretches of time. It also makes the underwater road a natural fishing weir for dead bodies. This research work involved live interviews with the local RCMP and others on the movement of bodies in the Fundy Tides, where would they end up if they were inserted into the water at place A, B, or C. That sort of thing.

            Chuck ended with a request for questions and the audience announced their own engagement by asking questions on how to develop characters, how to name characters, how to thread narrative arcs, and on how much rewriting is necessary if an arc goes wrong. The answer: “Lots. Sometimes you need to abandon the arc completely; other times, you must rewrite it from top to tail. But cave scriptor / writer beware: if you make a change on page 272, make sure that it checks out all he way backwards, page by page, back to the book’s beginning on page 1.”

            The use of humor within a thriller series serves to illustrate the layers of complexity that the characters manifest. The insertion of this element serves notice that genre writers who are serious about their craft write with the intention of elevating words, their sense, and their impact on the discerning reader. It also serves to layer the novel with additional meaning. Such layers of complexity spark joy in the writer.

            An interesting evening, then. With some old friendships renewed and some words of wisdom cast before an appreciative audience by the Atlantic Provinces Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada and local Fredericton author, Chuck Bowie.  I attach his web page. Do some research: check it out.

Painting credit: Roger Moore. Fundy Weir Poles (acrylic), St. Andrews, NB.