Monday, July 25, 2011

Moodling Metaphor

I bought Luci Shaw's Breath for the Bones after reading the first instalment of the Book Club discussion by Laura Bogess last Monday. (Grabbing a book at a moment's notice — I love it that I can do that sort of thing with my Kindle.) It is a good time for me to be reading this book and thinking along Shaw's lines. I read the two chapters discussed last week and found myself nodding, yes, yes.

Then I came to Chapter 3 ("Meeting the God of Metaphor") and on reading her story of the oak tree, my heart began to pound. Here's that story:

"After Harold died, my good friend Bernie Bosch and his sons took down the old dead oak tree that stood in our front yard. The previous spring it had not leafed out at all, and we had known it must be toppled. Bernie waited until the ground was frozen hard so that the crash of its enormous bulk wouldn't damage the lawn.

It was a huge job. And after the screaming power saws were silent and the tree was dismembered, all the wood had to be split and trucked away (that was the deal—he cut the tree down in return for the wood), and the mass of debris piled on top of the stump and ignited. The white-hot blaze burned for days, and even after the flames died down, a thin tendril of smoke still threaded the air above the site. It looked like a dormant volcano. The fire ate away most of the stump and the roots deep below the surface so that a week later all that was left was a black-rimmed saucer of ashes like a wound in the sod.

It was then I realized why the felling of the tree occupied my thoughts so consistently and with such a sense of significance. It was because I was the frozen sod with the deep wound, and Harold was my tree who was simply... gone. How unreal it seemed that his roots that had for more than thirty years penetrated deep into my life, that had anchored us and joined us so solidly and securely, had been eroded by the fire of decay. The space above ground that for so long had been filled with his vertical strength and solidity and shape was empty; air had risked in where, before, the towering trunk had outbranched to leaves" (Kindle location 678).

She goes on to explain how her latching onto that metaphor of Harold as the tree and herself the ground with the gaping hole was a healing thing: "I needed to find a picture, something so real in my imagination that I could derive sense impressions from it, and building from this stimuli I could perhaps see a pattern and derive significance from the image."

The reason I responded viscerally to Luci Shaw's story and how it affected her is because I have my own tree root story. Four years ago, when we were moving, we needed to empty our son's bedroom. Even though he hadn't lived at home for some time, his room was still full of 'him.' I spent hours one weekend, collecting his stuff from every nook and cranny of his room and assembling it in the middle of his floor, ready for him to take it to where he lived. It made me very sad and I felt restless until I saw a metaphor in it all. I even wrote about it.

The Prodigal’s Things

Unearthed from dresser drawers 
   closet corners and bookshelves 
his things sit in the middle 
   of his empty room 
the rootball of a dug-up tree

Lawn bags stuffed with clothes 
   balance on plastic tubs 
      heavy with Playstation, Game Gear
      trophies, marbles, a slingshot 
      ball glove, card collection, skate decks 
  and boxes bulging with photo albums, CDs, books . . .

Will he think we’re kicking him out?
“Don’t be silly,” says his dad
   “He hasn’t lived here for two years
and we’re selling the house”

Still the taste of mother-angst
   lingers on my tongue 
   wakes me at night
In the morning I place empty hands 
   on those uprooted tentacles:
“God, please look after this transplant 
with light, love, new life,”

and my heaviness lifts 
   as I am reminded
the great Tree Farmer 
   who made the tree
   planted him first in our home
   and knows intimately 
      each sapling in the forest
is still in charge

© 2011 by V. Nesdoly

Luci Shaw again:
"A metaphor, because of its implicit reality and force in one arena of life, can transfer or carry over its meaning into another arena. The image acts to bring sense and immediacy and relevance to the real-life situations it parallels."

I agree. We can spend our time in much worse ways than moodling metaphors.

This post is linked at "Breath for the Bones: Tell Me a Story," where writer Laura Bogess talks about chapters 3 and 4 of Luci Shaw's book.  There you can find links to other blogs which have joined in on the discussion.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Inscribe - join the family!

I first came across Inscribe Christian Writers' Fellowship ten years ago. We met in the back matter of a 2001 Christmas anthology published by Essence. As I read the bios of the contributors I came across many who belonged to Inscribe Christian Writers' Fellowship (Alberta). Curiously, only one of these people lived in Alberta. The rest came from B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. Could that mean that Inscribe was an organization for more than just Alberta writers, I wondered?

It took me a little while to find them (internet newbie that I was back in '01), but I eventually did and discovered they were indeed Canada-wide and beyond, making connections via email and online. I soon decided to join, and Inscribe has been like a writing family to me ever since. Here are some of the reasons I love being a member:

1. Writer friends.
As an Inscribe member I never need to feel alone or isolated as a writer. Each member gets an invitation to join Inscribe's Yahoo forum where we can connect at the click of a mouse. Even if you're like me and choose to lurk more than chime in on the conversation, it's so nice to have this daily connection with other writers.

2. FellowScript.
One of the perks of membership is a subscription to Inscribe's quarterly newsletter, FellowScript. I find FS a great source of information and inspiration when it hits my mailbox every February, May, August, and November.

3. My own poetry column
I felt hugely honoured when I got the assignment to write a poetry column for FellowScript back in 2005. Writing my Line Upon Line column for each issue is a wonderful challenge for me to keep on top of all things poetic.

4. Conferences.
The writerly development of Inscribe members is further encouraged at regular conferences. These happen about twice a year at some location in Alberta. I have had the privilege of attending one and it was a fabulous time of learning and meeting people in the flesh that I had up till then met only online.

The beautiful cake that the Inscribe organizers (Marcia reminds me it was Sue Plett - thanks Sue!) commissioned to celebrate the launch of Marcia Laycock's novel One Smooth Stone and my poetry collection Family Reunion at the Inscribe Fall Conference, 2007.

5. Contests.
Inscribe also sponsors regular contests (often in conjunction with the conferences). At various times I've been a winner, a runner-up and a judge in these. They are an opportunity to work up a piece of writing and, if one chooses, even get it critiqued.

6. Online presence.
Finally, I must mention Inscribe's online presence. The website is a virtual smorgasbord of helpful articles and links available to everyone — not only members. They also publish a group blog where individual members get to showcase their writing.

So, if you're a Canadian Christian writer who is going it alone, consider joining Inscribe. At only $40 a year for residents of Canada, $50 for US and international residents, I'm sure you'd agree it's a bargain!

This post is part of the July's Inscribe blog tour.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Poetic Voice Lesson 1 - Sharpen Your Ear

Chances are what attracts you to your favorite fiction writer, newspaper columnist, blogger, or poet has a lot to do with voice. Les Edgerton, author of an entire book on voice says, “The theory I’ve arrived at ... is that readers select certain authors to read in much the same way they select their personal friends: on the basis of the ‘voice’ (personality) of that person” -  Finding Your Voice, p. 4.

If voice is so important and having a pleasing one determines whether you’ll be published and read, a study of voice is worth a little time and effort. Let’s take a close look at voice, then, with a focus on voice in poetry.

In this first voice lesson:
  • We'll ask ourselves what voice is. 
  • We’ll take apart the notion of voice by isolating its components and thinking about how each might contribute to a poet’s voice. 
  • We’ll practice listening by reading segments from poems by contemporary poets. 
  • Finally, we’ll describe the voice we hear coming from each.
Defining voice
Finding a useful definition of voice was not as cut and dried as I expected it to be. The simplest said that voice was the revelation of a writer’s personality. That is somewhat helpful. But for the purposes of getting our teeth into the concept, I settled on John Drury’s The Poetry Dictionary definition: “The characteristic sound, style, manner, tone of a particular poet or poem. On the page voice comprises diction (word choice), syntax (word arrangement), attitudes, subject matter, rhythmic proclivities, line lengths, punctuation, the presence or absence of meter and rhyme, and tone" - The Poetry Dictionary p. 342

Let’s look closely at the elements in Drury’s definition (not necessarily in his order), to see what each might contribute to a poet’s voice.

A poem begins with subject matter. It’s an important starting point in developing voice, according to Michael Bugeja: “When they (well known poets like Sylvia Path) matured as poets, they began to write about people and topics that thoroughly consumed then.... Once they had discovered their subject matter, voice followed" - The Art and Craft of Poetry p. 140.

Another aspect of subject matter would be the imagery used. The world those images are taken from (for example nature, home, war, business), their originality and the aptness of the comparison all contribute to a poet’s voice.

Tone is a musical term that suggests the very sound of the voice coming from the page. It is also sometimes used interchangeably with mood. How writers achieve tone or mood brings into play other elements of voice like diction and syntax.

A poet’s sensitivity to a word’s shades of meaning affect diction. For example it will dictate what synonym for “run” he will use in a certain poem, knowing that gallop, jog and flee each indicate, besides a different speed, a different mood. 

The order of words (syntax) will be influenced not only by rules of grammar and which word sounds best at the end of the line, but also by the weight of the idea or thought that the end word conveys.

The length of lines, rhythmic proclivities of the writing, and the punctuation —in the way they imply pauses, places of emphasis, places to speed up, slow down, and stop—give us a glimpse into how the poet wants the piece to sound when read aloud. The use of meter and rhyme, and their way of satisfying us at a deep level, may leave us with the feeling that the poet sees things in an orderly, tidy-ending way, as opposed to the more random, loose-end feeling conveyed by some free verse poetry.

Other things that are achieved with these choices is writing that contains nuance and attitude. All the elements work together to become the writer’s voice or personality behind the words on the page.

Listening for and describing voice

One of the first things we can do to become aware of voice—our own and others—is to listen for it. To give you some practice, try the exercise below. Read each poem segment, then choose a word or words to describe how that poet’s voice sounds to you. My responses follow the poems—but of course, there are no right or wrong answers.


Just try it. If you dare,
I will hang you
from the highest tree
–on display
for the frail eyes
of this earth
You created.
(Read all of "Cursed.”)


Those months of infatuation
are over.
Our honeymoon is in pictures
boxed away somewhere.
It’s been rocky:
anger, a separation or two.
(Read all of “The Relationship.”)


O God, Your righteous judgments give the king
Who shall with justice judge the waiting poor;
And lofty peaks and tiny hills will bring
Peace, and by righteousness the calm restore.
(Read all of “The Reign of Messiah.”)


Sobs crack air
eyes, tumid map of veins
pulse a widow’s elegy
scan horizon flat as hope
(Read all of “Naomi.”)


This evening
I picked ripe
red, raspberries
In a gentle summer rain.
(Read all of “This Evening.”)


I can’t help myself, caught up in your love. On my tip
toes dancing, side to side, round and round, dip,
swerve. Got to have a lot of nerve to dance so wild
No, not really, caught up in His love, seeing Him with
eyes like a child. All my senses absorb all they can.
(Read all of “Caught Up.”)


Wire-strung words transmit requests for prayer.
The assassin returns, aims, strikes vulnerability,
recalls your mother caught in the crosshairs.,
Sights daughter pain across soft milk flesh
targets an inheritance the size of a plum.
(Read entire poem “April Winter.”)

Here are my responses. Were they anything like yours?

1. taunting, disdainful
2. resigned, intimate, honest
3. dignified, elevated
4. hopeless, doleful
5. simple, direct
6. energetic, excited, joyful
7. intelligent, alert, violated

Do you want to sharpen your ear some more? Try this: Find a writer’s voice that you like a lot and a writer’s voice that you don’t like at all. Study them closely. How are they different? Similar? Try to find the ingredients that make one voice appealing and the other unappealing.

Copyright © 2009 by Violet Nesdoly
First published in January 2009 at Utmost Christian Writers  in the Poet's Classroom series.