Poetry for the Earth, from Victoria

By Amy Reiswig, July/August 2013

Friday night poetry gatherings have birthed a book reflecting life in the whole.

As backyard sun filters through amber liquid crowned by green leaves of mint, I think: poetry is a lot like making tea. Words, like herbs and flowers, are gathered carefully, thoughtfully, into compact packets and dropped into the often bland water of our daily lives, infusing minds and moments with new ideas, imaginings, observations, meditations, passions and perspectives. Depending on what we’re in the mood for, we can choose from a variety of forms and flavours—sip on an elegy, lyric, prose poem, sonnet or sestina; savour something on love, death, family, nature or art itself. And if Victoria’s Planet Earth Poetry reading series is anything to go by, poetry is also a good thing to gather over with friends.

Planet Earth Poetry (PEP), formerly Mocambopo, is Canada’s longest-running weekly reading series and has been a meeting ground for poets and poetry appreciators every Friday night since 1995. Now at Moka House on Hillside and renamed after P.K. Page’s poem “Planet Earth,” the series is also the basis of a new anthology, Poems from Planet Earth (Leaf Press April 2013), edited by PEP artistic director Yvonne Blomer and guest host Cynthia Woodman Kerkham.

Blomer and Kerkham are accomplished poets in their own right. Blomer is author of a broken mirror, fallen leaf; The Book of Places; and Bicycle Brand Journey. She has been included in anthologies, including In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry; Force Field: 77 Women Poets of BC; and A Crystal Through Which Love Passes: Glosas for P.K Page. Her new volume Caged is forthcoming in 2014. Kerkham is author of Good Holding Ground and has won the Federation of BC Writers Literary Writes Competition, The Malahat Review’s Open Season Award for poetry, and had a poem selected for the BC Poetry in Transit initiative. 

In Poetry for Planet Earth the two women have blended their poetic and PEP experience (and long friendship) to create a sampler of 117 voices—from the well-known to the neophyte, the international and local, the award-laden to at least one person for whom this represents his first publication. What’s common is that they’ve all read right here on Victoria’s premier poetry stage.

With its open mic plus featured reader format, PEP attracts and welcomes all-comers. And the editors wanted the book to reflect that inclusivity as well as the social goals of the reading series. “You make a lot of connections with people,” Blomer says, “but not to see what you can gain. You might have had a bad week, but you come and listen to each other’s poems and it opens you back up. We sit down and we all listen.” Kerkham admits that “sometimes it’s hard to drag yourself down there on a Friday evening, but we always feel nourished in a way that sitting on the couch doesn’t provide.” In 2003 Kerkham took a year off work and went to every reading series in town. “They welcomed me,” she says with genuine emotion. “They brought me along, got me over my terror. However corny it sounds, I feel like I found my tribe.” 

The anthology’s call-out went to everyone who had read at the series between 2006 and January 31, 2012. With about 150 poets submitting, Blomer laughs that she couldn’t open her door due to the pile behind the mail slot. So Kerkham came to her aid, sharing in the sitting and sifting. “It was hugely fun,” Blomer exults, her smile competing with the sunshine flooding Kerkham’s backyard. “Spreading them out all over the floor—we were IN the poems!” “We wanted it to be like the reading series, with different voices but maintaining the standards of good poetry,” Kerkham explains. The selection process was therefore another form of listening, being careful with words with each other. 

The 207-page book is divided into seven sections: life and loss, nature, place, love, death and hope, music and art, family. They are interlinking themes within which we encounter topics as diverse as human experience: travel, suicide, urban change, observations and meditations on individual objects (doorknob, apple, stone) or creatures, like a hummingbird or the carcass of a dead bear—“gargantuan/ shoulder of meat that once had/ felt her senses blossom as she/ ambled over a ripe salmonberry bush.” 

We find riffs on old myths, like Rhonda Ganz’s quietly comic “Persephone Tries Internet Dating but Every Man Reminds her of Hades,” in which “Demeter insists I go on blind dates, disregard my conjugation underground” but poor Persephone concludes: “Sniffing burnt toast in the elevator,/all I can think about is you…I miss you./I miss our dog.” We also experience modern difficulties like squeezing into and out of a wetsuit in a surfshop changeroom (“It is moments like these that test the mettle of the man.”), and other poems are purely playful, like Liz Zetlin’s simply titled “&,” a symbol she calls “My buxom pretzel, twisted gift/of conjunction & connection…You beckon us to join you with/a wag of your tail, promises/of always together.” 

Readers find new takes on the familiar like Leonard Neufeldt’s “Juan de Fuca Evening,” where we see the “Small dome of a seal’s periscope/and gulls rising falling/in the fresh-wrapped sound/of the water near the black pier” and Harold Rhenisch’s “The Lords and Ladies of Upper Cook Street” where crows “drop sticks into the perms of old ladies,/and pass the joke along from branch to branch.” But we are also treated to the more exotic, like Kate Braid’s “Mumbai,” Derk Wynand’s “Guanajuato,” Eve Joseph’s “Pantanal,” Michael Fanshawe’s “Ortona” or Pat Smekal’s “Last Man” which inhabits the thoughts of Luis Alberto Urzua Iribarren, the last Chilean miner rescued in October 2010 after 69 days underground. These different eyes and styles allow our own seeing to be refined, refocused; Susan Telfer exhorts us to “Roll down the windows of your eyes. Now see.” And I can’t help but perceive a perhaps unintentional but apt description of poetry in Zachariah Wells’ line “Such a slim barrow into which to stuff/a life” or in Daniela Elza’s poem about buying a painting in Chinatown: “along such simple lines fire burns.” 

So while each sip of poem is unique, the anthology—gathered carefully for you by Blomer and Kerkham—pours forth the transience, terror yet heart-warming beauty and, yes, fun of life in the whole. As Patrick Lane observes in his introduction, “all of us in our untold, unimaginable selves are one beautiful thing…our story one story.” That’s the poetry of planet earth.

Amy Reiswig is a writer, editor and former college literature teacher with fond memories of long academic summer vacations spent in the company of many voices in favourite anthologies.