On Writing Poetry

I’m not a poet. Yes, I wrote some shitty poetry in my teenage years, but didn’t everybody? And then, in my early twenties, I had a short-lived poetic spell after I broke up with my first love, in which I penned some terribly unoriginal poems about love and loss. But I’ve always been a fiction lover first and foremost, and anyway, after I moved to Canada at twenty-five, faced with a new language, I wasn’t writing much of anything.

When I started writing in English in my thirties, I wrote exclusively prose, first nonfiction and then fiction. Sometimes, people kindly referred to my writing as poetic and asked if I ever wrote poetry, and I scoffed at their crazy question and said that if I ever went back to writing poetry it would have to be in Hebrew. Poetry, I was convinced, came from such a deep part of our soul that it could be only expressed in one’s mother tongue.

After I became a mother I had to learn to write in short bursts. Suddenly I found myself scribbling lines of poetry, sometimes on my phone while pushing a stroller with one hand. (A friend who once ran into me startled me by yelling, “Stop texting!” and I said, indignant, “I’m not texting! I’m writing poetry!”) None of these orphaned lines added up to a full poem. Finally, when my kid turned one, I decided to use the free course offered to me as an instructor at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and enrolled in an Introduction to Poetry course with Catherine Graham. I wanted to challenge myself, step outside of my comfort zone. And I had missed being a student. During the course. I wrote about 4-5 poems. “Sisters” was one of them, the only one I felt somewhat happy with. Naturally, it was a narrative poem. Because, you know, I write prose.

I don’t know what made me send it, two years later, to CBC’s Poetry Prize. I mean, it’s crazy, right? Perhaps it’s because I’ve been working on English translations of Hebrew poetry lately (you can read my translations of Adi Keissar’s poetry here) and that made me dig out the poems I’d written in class and rework them. In fact, it was Maya Tevet Dayan, a beautiful Israeli poet who lives in Vancouver and whose amazing work I’ve been translating, who read “Sisters” and said, “Just send it. It’s good. It’s ready. What do you have to lose?”

So I did. And then this crazy, wonderfully unexpected thing happened. “Sisters” is one of 33 poems on CBC’s Poetry Prize longlist, selected from 2400 entries. Also on the longlist are poets I admire like Lauren Carter, rob mcleannan and Laboni Islam.

Since I took the course I only completed a couple other poems and only one I was satisfied with. That poem, titled “Forty Four,” spilled out of me in one sitting my forty-fourth birthday a few months ago, and I uncharacteristically posted it on Facebook. The slew of supportive responses and shares shocked me. Then, Leah Kaminsky, an Australian writer and editor I know from Facebook asked if she could publish it in a magazine and I said yes.

Lauren Carter, in a blog post about writing poetry said that “poetry can help us say the unsayable, translate human experiences that feel too huge into something that can be contemplated, worked with, addressed.” I guess both these poems – “Sisters” deal with tremendous guilt and “Forty-Four” is about reaching the age my father was when he died – helped me do that.

I still don’t feel like a poet. I don’t know if I have any more poems in my future. I still have a novel to complete (which, comes to think about it, includes some poetry in it!). But I have two poems out in the world right now and it feels pretty awesome.