2013 Archives

Poetry “resembles the graceful nature of dance; it is like a moving thought”: Conversation with poetry prize winner Natalia Darie

Natalia Darie’s poem “Maroon” has won first prize in the 2013 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest. Now in its second year, this national poetry contest for previously unpublished writers was established by Heidi Stock, a poet herself. Heidi is president of Prospect Research Experts Inc., a grant research and writing firm that helps charities find private sector funding, and creator of Gift To A Star, an initiative that recognizes and rewards staff and volunteers at Canadian charities. She is also the founder of the Singer-Songwriter Mentor Experience.

Vancouver’s Poet Laureate Evelyn Lau is honorary patron of the Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest. This year’s judge and mentor is poet Shannon Bramer, whose thoughts on the competition and Natalia’s poem you can read here. For the past two years I’ve been the contest’s editorial/media adviser.

Here’s my conversation with Natalia …


Natalia Darie

Natalia Darie


What inspired you to enter the Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest?

For years I enjoyed writing as a very private and intimate endeavour. Gradually, however, I began to yearn for a sense of connection with other writers and readers. I started to see the beauty in sharing by attending poetry readings and coming into contact with the wonderful community of writers that Toronto has to offer. Because of my extremely introverted nature, I have never recited in front of an audience — although, I dream of building up the nerve, one day, to do just that. In the meantime, I decided to share my poetry in silence by entering the Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest. The idea of being mentored really attracted me to this particular contest. There is, after all, no greater gift than learning.

Your winning poem is beautiful and haunting. Why did you choose this particular one to submit?

I must confess that, learning how to write, or at least how to give a coherent voice to my thoughts, has been a very slow process for me. In the past, I struggled through many drafts and revisions of poems and remained very critical of them. Over time I learned that it is more important and satisfying to relinquish some control and allow thoughts, emotions, and words to flow before revising and rethinking. This, I believe, has slowly added more authenticity to my work and allowed me to express myself more accurately. The reason I entered “Maroon” is that it is one of the few poems I feel most complete about. Many times, there exists a discrepancy between what I wish to express and the reality of the work. I feel that “Maroon” comes very close to depicting my feelings and thoughts at the time it was written.

What is the backstory to your poem, if you don’t mind sharing?

Like most things in life, the backstory is a love story. The poem is based largely on the unique cocktail of feelings that appeared in me when I reconnected with an old lover whom I had not seen or spoken to in a couple of years. As we learned each other all over again, I was overwhelmed by the exquisite way in which old memories blended with the reality of the present to create an experience that was at once familiar and slightly alienating. It was like a perceptional paradox and I knew I had to put it down on paper.

What has winning this contest meant to you?

I am very grateful to have won because it is the first recognition, so far, that I have received for my work. There is perhaps no greater feeling than that of being understood, and winning this contest has given me a great deal of positive reinforcement to continue writing. My goal in writing has always been to communicate precisely how I feel. If someone out there “gets it” or can relate to my poems in some way, then I have achieved my purpose. Of course the prize of being mentored by an inspiring poet and author like Shannon Bramer is a precious one.

Have you written in other forms? Fiction? Creative nonfiction?

I have attempted several times to write short stories but the much larger volume of words at my fingertips alarms me. In the end, my sentences get shorter and shorter, thoughts get more and more condensed, symbolism takes over — and then suddenly the whole thing turns into a poem.

When did you know you wanted to write poetry? Was there a trigger or “aha” moment?

When I was an overly dramatic teenager, I used to scribble words instead of doodling as a way to vent my angst. Slowly, as the hunger to articulate my emotions became more and more acute, I began to write. At first the writing was very clumsy and free-flowing, mostly just an outlet for frustration. Over time I began to love the writing itself over the purpose it originally served. What I love about poetry is the way in which it can seem aloof and yet be incredibly precise; the beauty of its conciseness; and the powerful impact of the arrangement of words on a page.

What sparks your desire to write a poem?

I seek new experiences and sensations almost constantly, so a lot of my inspiration is born out of novelty. I feel that there is no better time to explore an emotion or thought than when it is fresh, raw, and not yet changed by time and desensitization. Of course the effect that time and change have on life can also be valuable to delve into during the creative process. Most of my inspiration comes from questions I ask myself, and lessons I learn about human interaction. I am also sometimes plagued by bigger, philosophical questions that turn into obscure poems that nobody can understand.

How do your experiences as a nurse inform your writing?

Aside from the obvious material that nursing provides me with, adventures in human suffering, it has also taught me how to approach fear. I have often been, and still am at times, very afraid of being creative because of the vulnerability it requires and the uncertainty that it carries. In nursing, you are not afforded the luxury of being scared. So one must develop the ability to enter an unstable situation in which exist multiple variables beyond our control, and rely on focus, critical thinking, faith in oneself, and sharp powers of observation to be successful. Nursing has given me the confidence to recognize and address the fear that sometimes appears in starting, continuing, or finishing a poem. It has also taught me immeasurable lessons about human relationships, and about our relationship with death and impermanence.

Are your poems generally rooted in personal experience, or are they works of imagination, or both?

My work is mostly rooted in personal experience, although the specific imagery that I stumble upon is often pure fiction. I become obsessed with the ideas that arise out of experience because I believe that, with enough reflection, we can learn something from everything that happens to us and in front of us. I naively refuse to accept that most lessons are subtle ones and I often fall into the entertaining but tormenting trap of thinking that I am on the verge of figuring out certainties. Poetry helps alleviate the need to find concrete answers to life’s questions by allowing me to embrace the beauty of the chaos intrinsic to living.

You enjoy interpretive dance. Are you influenced by the intersections between the artistry of poetry and dance?

I am fascinated by the parallels between dance and poetry. Both art forms are highly fluid yet require discipline and, at times, restraint. Because poetry is rhythmic in nature, it resembles the graceful nature of dance; it is like a moving thought. Dance is also highly personal; when I watch a dancer, I know that if another dancer were to perform the exact same choreographic scheme, they would probably do it differently, adding to it their unique essence. Poetry is also very subjective because it has the potential to capture even the most obscure and complicated of emotions.

Who are some of your favourite poets or writers?

The first poet I ever read was Sylvia Plath. Her work was truly transformational; I could sense the anguish in many of her poems and her use of imagery astounded me. The work of Reinaldo Arenas possesses an almost dream-like quality and his fearlessness is palpable in almost every poem. David Rakoff has been an inspiration in terms of his astute social commentaries and scorching humour.

Are there individuals who’ve personally encouraged you in your writing?

I am exceptionally lucky to have an avid reader for an older sister. She has a BA in English from York University, and she exposed me to important writers such as Douglas Coupland, Michael Ondaatje, Chuck Palahniuk, and Gabriel García Márquez. I think it is important to have a strong guiding influence when one is young and presented with an endless variety of authors. My father too has been an inspiration in terms of my spiritual perspective; he has been immersed in Buddhist teachings for approximately four years and has propelled my curiosity in that area. This has heavily influenced my worldview and, as a consequence, my poetry. Last but not least, my mother has been my pillar during many complex and often difficult conversations on topics ranging from death to happiness, and she has taught me that one can expand enormously on an idea simply by having an honest dialogue.

What do you do regularly to practise and develop your craft?

I feel like I read constantly. Reading, for me, is like experiencing different lives simultaneously. I believe that I will never cease to learn from and be influenced by other authors. I also immediately capture any words/phrases or ideas that come to me unexpectedly (I  have a notepad that follows me everywhere). While I was in school, I completed a creative writing course at Ryerson University and I plan on participating in University of Toronto’s creative writing summer workshop. I attribute a large part of my development as a writer to trial and error. I learn best when I experiment.

Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?

I can only provide advice plucked from my own limited life experiences. I think the most important thing is to have a plan for dealing with the fear that will inevitably appear during the creative process. This fear is good, because it means we are questioning ourselves — but it should be informative rather than debilitating.

What are your personal writing dreams?

I arduously desire to develop the self-discipline required to write more often and more consistently. In a world filled with constant distractions and noise, it is very challenging for me to achieve the inner quietness needed to focus on the essence of my feelings/thoughts. I hope for more people to relate to my poetry, and of course I am eager to continue to learn from the inexhaustible sources of literary genius that exist in the world.

♦     ♦     ♦


Visit the website of the Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest to read all three winning poems: Natalia Darie’s “Maroon” (1st prize); Whitney Sweet’s “Brass Plaque and a Bottle of Beer” (2nd prize); and Bria Lubiens’ “Blue” (3rd prize).

And read my interview with the Ana Rodriguez Machado, first-prize winner in the 2012 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest. Poet and writer Catherine Graham was last year’s judge and mentor.

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Poets Are Always Aspiring: Shannon Bramer on judging the 2013 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest

Coming up in my next post is an interview with Natalia Darie, first-prize winner in the 2013 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest. Here’s poet and mentor Shannon Bramer with thoughts on her role as judge and why Natalia’s poem captured her imagination. ~ Allyson


Shannon Bramer

I was flattered and surprised when Heidi Stock wrote to ask if I would judge a contest for aspiring poets. I thought — who, me? I’m still aspiring! I still nervously send work out to publishers and literary journals. I still struggle with every new poem like it’s my first time trying to write one down. So I come to this contest with humbleness.

I chose three poems from a stack of dreams, complaints, heartache, nostalgia, and mystery. Every person who sits down to try and write a poem, no matter how experienced, is taking a risk. Sometimes this risk involves a semi-colon or a lowercase letter — other times it’s an idea or an emotion or a wobbly metaphor trying to find its way into the world.

Poetry is about putting strangeness and beauty to work. Poetry is about the silence between words and all the weight of one word left in the right place, alone. Sometimes a poet writes something down and leaves it there even when he or she isn’t sure how it got there. That’s what I like about poems.

This contest was especially wonderful and challenging to participate in because of the rules: poets entering should not have had a poem published. You must not be a poet yet. You must be aspiring. Hmmm.

I chose Natalia Darie’s poem “Maroon,” because it made contact with me. The title, first of all, a colour: maroon. A brownish-crimson colour, the dictionary says. The colour of dry blood. But the verb maroon is important too. This time the word means to leave (someone) trapped and isolated in an inaccessible place, especially an island.

And so I found myself on this island, within a poem about remembering a body, a voice, a place. Yet this poem also evokes reunion. The past and present are depicted as one landscape: a landscape of lakes, ruins, trenches — the stubborn curve of years that come between people. And finally, one voice, one body — merging with another:

Tighter and tighter you wrap

skin of a still lake

over, water my body

a drum against yours

I read this poem over and over again. I wanted to take the poem apart and put it back together again with the poet. I found the voice raw, not in a crude way, but in a deeply thoughtful, genuine, reaching sort of way. And I wanted to know the person who wrote it.

One must always be aspiring. Being a poet means just this: striving, aching, reaching for the words and silences that seem beyond us.


Natalia Darie


Visit Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest to read the winning poems:

Natalia Darie’s “Maroon”

Whitney Sweet’s “Brass Plaque and a Bottle of Beer” (second prize)

Bria Lubiens’ “Blue” (third prize)


SHANNON BRAMER is a poet, playwright, and co-founder of Broken Cloud Company. She is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently The Refrigerator Memory (2005) published by Coach House Books. Currently she teaches poetry to elementary school students and is the poet-in-residence at The Creative Children’s Dance Studio in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto. Her newest collection of poetry, Precious Energy, is forthcoming from BookThug.

Shannon blogs at Broken Cloud Company and Poet in the Playground.

Saturday, December 28th, 2013

Oh, Christmas Tree: Six (Plus) Short Seasonal Stories

by Allison Howard, Barbara Lambert, Cheryl Andrews, Carin Makuz, Elizabeth Yeoman, and Allyson Latta

(Click above links for their Christmas Wordless Wednesday photos.)

Photo by Elizabeth Yeoman

Photo by Elizabeth Yeoman

The best-kept secret about my Wordless Wednesday photography group is that behind the scenes, the six of us aren’t wordless at all. In fact, we’re downright chatty. Most weeks the photos we post generate a flurry of storytelling among us. The subjects range widely (and wildly) from week to week, and sometimes flow seamlessly into Thursday and beyond.

When the topic turned to fondly remembered Christmas trees, I asked the other five “Click Chicks” (as we’ve dubbed ourselves) if they’d allow me to share their stories here. To my delight they said yes. I hope you’ll enjoy theirs, as I have, and mine as well.


Swiss Christmas Spirit

by Allison Howard

While living briefly in Germany in the early 1970s, my friend Peggy and I received an invitation to spend Christmas in Switzerland. Peggy’s friend Bert, who lived in the same small town in B.C. that we came from, planned to travel to his family home for the holidays and invited us, along with another friend, Tom, to join him. When I think of it now, it’s amazing that Bert could turn up for Christmas with three friends, strangers to his family, and that we’d be so completely welcomed by his large clan.

We took the train to the small village in Switzerland, where Bert’s parents, cousins, aunts, and uncles, and many siblings welcomed us as though we’d always known them. Massive meals seemed to appear out of nowhere and were served on a beautifully set and decorated table. We were also frequently invited to the homes of their friends and treated to their enthusiastic hospitality. One memorable meal involved an authentic Swiss fondue that went on for several hours and involved the consumption of many bottles of cherry kirsch, white wine, and other spirits. (I think I remember that, anyway!)

After an early dinner on Christmas Eve, the tree was decorated with help from all, and candles were placed upon it but not yet lit. During the evening while we wrapped presents (none of this was done weeks ahead as we tend to do now) we heard music from outside and opened the door to a scene that took my breath away — a group of carolers was gathered outside in a field lit by lanterns, with a gentle snow falling upon them. I remember tears welling up as I stood listening to their beautiful voices in the cold night air. The carolers’ appearance seemed to be the signal for all the villagers to begin walking to the local church for a traditional Christmas Eve service. Later, shouted greetings and best wishes followed us home for the climax of the evening, the lighting of the real candles on the tree. It was, simply, breathtaking.

Red Birds

by Barbara Lambert

For a number of years when our three children were young, we spent every Christmas at our cabin at Whistler. But in 1978 all three of them were off at various universities. We decided, when they came home, to spend Christmas at our home in Horseshoe Bay. All our decorations, though, were back at Whistler.

So one day Douglas went out at lunch hour with a Grand Concept in his head. A tree that would be decorated completely in red.

He came home with with two boxes of the most luscious red apples with a shiny enamel gleam (somehow a box of softly felted green pears sneaked in too); many strings of red lights of all different shapes and sizes; and a box of delicate red-feathered birds. These made for a stunning tree. And we have used the same decorations ever since, though some have fallen by the wayside, and some eclectic bits and pieces have crept in. In particular the beautiful red-feathered birds have been a treasured feature every year.

Why do I recall so clearly that first red tree? It was a Sunday morning at the start of 1979 when we took the decorations down. Douglas and I were listening to the CBC. A morning-long program on the revelations that had come to light after the recent Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, of the horrors that had been going on there under the Khmer Rouge. Revelations new to much of the world, and completely new to Douglas and to me.

So maybe this is not exactly a “Christmas” story. On the other hand, every year when I rewrap those red birds in tissue, I think how blissfully ignorant I’d been when we first put them up, of a nightmare on the far side of the world. And yet how every nightmarish regime carries within itself the seeds of its own destruction. There is hope that peace and sanity will prevail, even in the most troubled parts of our still-so-troubled world.


The Tree Bandit

by Cheryl Andrews

My Christmas tree tradition was all about hunting for that perfect real tree. Tree-trimming night, Christmas tunes roared through the house while my sons and I guzzled eggnog and made tree garlands of popcorn and cranberries. In 1991, my first Christmas in a kid-empty house, I switched to a silk tree, beaded garlands, all new ornaments … the works! When you can’t change circumstance, change tradition.

But my folks were the makers of tradition, the family hub at Christmas. They had a bottle-brush tree so jammed with keepsake ornaments from our large, blended family you couldn’t tell it was fake. Dad even had his own, custom-made Santa suit. The year my niece told all the kids Santa wasn’t real and Grandpa was in the suit, he had a neighbour do the “Ho! Ho! Ho!” Many little mouths gaped as Santa burst through the front door while Grandpa sat in his armchair!

In 2004, my parents died — Dad first, Mom three months later. My sister and I had carried the brunt of mom’s palliative care at home. We were heart-weary and physically exhausted, so we changed Christmas tradition and went to Florida. She and I spent a lot of time debating, tree or no tree. Our husbands felt the decision should be up to us. By bedtime December 23rd we were still weepy and undecided.

We woke up Christmas Eve to a beautiful Calusa pine standing in the lanai! My brother-in-law had snuck out in the wee hours that morning, hiked into the bush, and cut it down. He didn’t know it was a protected species in parts of Florida, and he’s fondly known to this day as the “Tree Bandit.”

By the way, all these years later, through many moves and life changes … I still have the silk tree.



Trees I’ve Loved

by Carin Makuz

1) The Charlie Brown ones from greengrocer’s, carried home through snowy streets. They were part of my earliest days in Toronto when I had less than no money. For some reason I thought the cheapest and simplest way to decorate was to make my own ornaments with a package of oven-bake clay. I still have them. They’re hideous and beautiful.

2) The one I gave Peter the first Christmas after his divorce, when he was in an apartment he hated. I asked to borrow his key, brought over a tiny tree while he was out, decorated it with dollar-store baubles and a couple of Bert and Ernie dolls (from Sesame Street) for the top. He had kids; I thought it might make them smile. I was stunned when, recently, we were talking with friends about the best gifts we ever got and he named that tree.

3) The big ones we chopped down at the place way out in the country that had a bonfire going and served hot chocolate. We’d spend at least an hour in the woods, searching and arguing about just the right specimen. Snowball fights too some years, as I recall. The prices were reasonable and the people who owned the land were great, down-to-earth. It wasn’t a tree farm so much as a forest that needed some thinning out. Almost all the trees were lopsided. Part of the charm. It’s not open anymore. My guess is the owners took their fortune and moved somewhere warm. Or maybe they’re just letting the forest regenerate …

4) The tabletop houseplant that served as a tree when we lived in the Caribbean.

5) The tiny bare branch trees I sometimes decorate now … the previous year’s models sans “leaves.” I can’t bear to toss them out on the road, so I keep them at the back of the garden and eventually they either become firewood, or serve for another year.




They Can’t All Be Like Them NB Trees

(A found poem, from Facebook)

by Elizabeth Yeoman


Yesterday via mobile

Anybody know if they are selling christmas trees at the sobeys on merrymeeting?

don’t know, but they got Maple Leaf Bologna $1.59 a pound.

Very helpful Sean. Thanks:)


Churchill Square bud.

They were last week but they weren’t local trees.


Dads got ns trees nova Scotia

Just got one jerm. Thanks though


Did you get one for me too?

Didnt mom. I will go with you still to grab one.

It’s OK. I’ll drive out to the TCH and saw down a wild one.

they are selling on ropewalk lane

Did you walk home with a Christmas tree in tow??

Ilse, you know those trees in NFLD are like midget trees, so Dom could walk home with one no problem!

hahaha Michel they cant all be like them NB trees



Small, Big, Just Right

The tiniest Christmas tree we ever had was provided by the hotel we stayed at in Hawaii the Christmas I was four years old. It sat on a table in the corner, Barbie-doll sized, dwarfed by the few wrapped presents my parents had brought along for my two-year-old sister and me to open. What I remember most about that Christmas, aside from being astonished that Santa and his reindeer could find their way to a place where there was endless beach instead of endless snow, was the discovery of Captain Kangaroo, and of the colourful mosaic mermaid on the bottom of the swimming pool (I’d hang in the water, eyes wide open, holding my breath, entranced). The only gift I recall from those around the miniature tree was a set of suitably wee plastic dinosaurs with very long names embossed in small hard-to-read print on their bellies. I coerced the two older women I befriended on the next balcony into deciphering them for me. Until Mom found me out there with my pile of dinosaurs and told me to “Stop bothering the nice ladies.”

*     *     *

The tallest tree we ever had was an unexpected gift. When I was a teen, my sister and I dated two close friends, Mark and Mike. One December, while my mother was out, they showed up on our doorstep with proud grins, dragging behind them a massive tree they’d chopped down themselves. I recall it had been felled somewhere they shouldn’t-a-bin felling, and I don’t even want to think about how they transported it — they both had very small cars.

We couldn’t get that tree in the side door, so with much lifting and levering,  pushing and yanking,  grunting and groaning, cursing and giggling, we jammed it through the front door into the hall, then through another door into the living room of our 165-year-old stone house with its 12-foot ceilings, leaving a trail of sticky needles and debris. With anticipation we set it in a corner and tried to right it … only to discover it was two feet too tall. Since we couldn’t very well jam it back through two doorways to the outside, there was just one logical recourse: the guys set to work with a saw in the middle of the living room, only adding to the mess and to my sister’s and my certainty that when Mom got home and saw what we’d done, we wouldn’t live to see Christmas. (We knew this partly because our three younger siblings were freaking out and reminding us so.)

Finally we wedged the tree into place, barely. There was no room even for the treetop star. But it was glorious: the grandest tree we had ever had. I’m sure our hurried clean-up left much to be desired — but if Mom noticed, or wondered how we kids had managed to squeeze that much of the Outside into our Inside, she never said.

*     *     *

Hans and I moved in together in Kingston within a couple of weeks of my return from Japan, where I had by then lived and worked for three years. We had known each other for three years before I left Canada, and in the time I’d been away I’d returned twice for extended holidays — most of which we’d spent together. We’d also broken up, gotten back together, and, a year before I came back for good, decided to make a life together. But in our starry-eyed naiveté we hadn’t figured on the rocky adjustment period.

I loved him, but at the same time felt I’d left some vital part of myself behind in Japan. Reverse culture shock made me an extremely grumpy person to be around. Hans, meanwhile, was entering second-year law school with its inherent stresses. We alternated between being ecstatically happy and romantic, and arguing over the minutiae of cohabitation (like where in the kitchen to put the coffee-mug tree). And four months after my return, in late November and before we’d had time to sort this stuff out, I was pregnant.

We were shocked by the news, and thrilled, scared, confused. We were also poor. Yes, we wanted children together, but … already? I moved back to my mother’s for a week so we could have time apart to think things through. We talked on the phone in uncharacteristically subdued voices and hung up with nothing resolved. I imagined possible lives that didn’t involve Hans. They all made me cry. Then a few days passed during which I didn’t hear from him at all.

When he finally called, he simply asked me to meet him at “our” place — the Chinese Laundry Café. He didn’t say why. But when I got there and we sat down together, he took my hand in his and looked at me. We didn’t have to say anything. We both knew.

A week later, we chose a Christmas tree and dragged it home. It was a tad scraggly, I realize now in looking at the photos, but it fit our compact, barely affordable apartment. It wasn’t too little and it wasn’t too big. It was just my height, actually. And it was ours, together.

I couldn’t say which present meant more to me that Christmas: the moment at the Chinese Laundry Café when we made a promise — one we’ve kept now for more than 20 years — or the awareness, as we decorated that just-right tree, that the following Christmas we’d be three.



Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

Wordless Wednesday photo: 60

Each week on Wordless Wednesday, bloggers around the world post a photo they’ve taken that tells a story. If my photo brings to mind a memory or inspires your creative writing, I hope you’ll share a comment below.


©2013 Allyson Latta

©2013 Allyson Latta


Scroll through more of my photos here.

Read the rest of this entry »

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Wordless Wednesday photo: 59

Each week on Wordless Wednesday, bloggers around the world post a photo they’ve taken that tells a story. If my photo brings to mind a memory or inspires your creative writing, I hope you’ll share a comment below.


©2010 Allyson Latta

©2010 Allyson Latta


Scroll through more of my photos here.

And drop in on the following writer friends for their takes on Wordlessness:

Allison Howard (PhotoAlly)

Barbara Rose Lambert

Carin Makuz (Matilda Magtree)

Cheryl Andrews

Elizabeth Yeoman (Wunderkamera)

Sheila Yeoman (Houyhnhnm’s)



On Writing

Travelling to Write: Reflections aboard a Cargo Ship, an essay by Sandra Shaw Homer

Will Come the Words: guest posts by Robert Rotenberg, Coral Jewell, Susan Siddeley

“Ideas seem always to have been there, lurking, latent”: Interview with award-winning author Peter Behrens (Part 1 with link to Part 2)

Granting Ourselves Permission to Write by Blanche Howard

“Our week had a rhythm …”: Memories of a Grenada writers’ retreat by Frances Shepherd

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Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Travelling to Write: Reflections aboard a Cargo Ship, an essay by Sandra Shaw Homer



In the roomy bottom drawer of my desk are three generations of travel journals, my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and mine.

My grandmother’s are strictly reportorial: “Spent entire day in my room with diarrhea. Missed tour of Santa Maria Novella.” My mother’s style is livelier and more descriptive: “Went to Les Halles at 3 AM and had some onion soup, along with a couple of glasses of brandy, and then irresistibly bought an entire crate of the most beautiful peaches.”

For years my mother kept the ship’s logs as she and my father knocked around in small yachts. These make pretty dry reading — position, wind, currents — but every once a while something interesting happens, the anchor dragging in the middle of the night, the dinghy painter separating mysteriously from its cleat, and these call forth my mother’s seemingly endless talent for limericks, small bright “literary” moments of sheer entertainment.

Banana boat off Honduras (photo: Sandra Shaw Homer)

Banana boat off Honduras (photo: Sandra Shaw Homer)

My own journal style has tended to follow my mother’s style and I have found that describing things adds immeasurably to the pleasure of travel. I never wrote specifically for entertainment, however, until I took a forty-nine-day freighter voyage around the South Pacific.

“But what are you going to do all day?” my friends asked.

“Write about it, of course. You want to be on the mailing list?”

And as I sailed along I set about writing my first full-length travel manuscript, Letters from the Pacific: Forty-Nine Days on a Cargo Ship.

The original idea had been simply to describe what was happening and send it back to friends and family in installments whenever I got to an Internet café in port. But very early in the voyage it became clear that I was taking this trip for a lot of reasons that had nothing to do with adventure, and I started working on a parallel journal, my feelings opening up in the presence of all that wide, wild, empty ocean.

I began to discover the power of memoir — and the fact that travel, removing yourself bodily from your daily life for extended periods of time, offers a wonderful opportunity for reflection and truth-telling.

It also offers the perfect chance to practise one’s writing.


Cruising along the north coast of Honduras at 257˚, west by south, at 11.5 knots, winds so light that the sea looks wrinkled like the skin of a pachyderm. A torpid haze hangs over us, deadening the light, turning the nearby Bay Islands into amorphous humps rising out of oblivion.


The Captain’s Dinner Diatribe tonight wound up with, “Media, politics, all just a circus.” He took a forkful of salad and then looked at us both intently over the rims of his glasses. “Like the Romans — give them bread, give them circus. Keep the people happy.”

“But, Captain, you’re so cynical!” I protested.

“And the world is not cynic? What about Iraq and the so-called weapons of mass destruction? Three days after invasion they are saying, no weapons of mass destruction. That is not cynic?”

I countered, “The western powers were supporting Saddam Hussein for years. I would call that invasion hypocritical.”

“And what means hypocrite?” Rodolfo and I were obviously expected to wait for the answer. “Hypocrite, Greek, it means actor.” And he lifts his hands from the table, palms up, in that international gesture, What more to say?


The morning after my first night in the room, I reported to the Signora the foul emanations of sewer gases from the bathroom. Unable to sleep, I had sniffed around until I identified the shower drain, no doubt squeezed into the old building without a trap. I threw a towel over it and went back to bed. The Signora told me that “these smells always occur in the bad weather,” and then she suggested that next time I use a wet towel. I recognized in her insouciance about the plumbing something wonderfully familiar, and it felt just like home.


It’s incredible to me to be passing Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in my transit to Malta, these places having been nothing more for me than bad news in the daily paper. Now the shadow of the coast, sometimes visible, sometimes not, haunts me, because I know I’ll never go there and its mysteries will remain forever locked in the realms of fantasy and horror. Incredible also are the stars; we are somewhere around the thirty-ninth parallel, not that far south of where I grew up and lived half of my adult life. Could it be that this is the same nighttime sky?

At the Bow of the HS Schubert, North AtlanticTravelling is a little like losing your identity; everything familiar that defines who you are is gone and you open up more fully to your surroundings, emptying yourself of the quotidian so as to fill yourself with the new and strange. In such open-hearted states experience becomes more intense, and this lends great power to the pen. Somewhere I read a quotation that I wish I could ascribe: “Great stories happen to the people who can tell them.”

Someone asked me recently where I ever acquired the dream of freighter travel, and I couldn’t pinpoint it. I love the ocean, certainly — many happy times spent on small boats, and the romantic idea that must be hidden away in some nook in our culture, of climbing on board a freighter and writing a book, destinations be damned. And I had always loved tales of ships and the sea. If you have read any of that rich literature (Conrad, Melville, Dana), you know that there’s plenty to describe out there in the middle of nowhere:  people, conversations, subtleties of relationships in close quarters, movements of the ship, weather, and the ever-changing sea and sky.

One freighter voyage was not enough, as it turned out, and my latest voyage took me to Europe. While the first had not been at all about destinations (more like jumping off a cliff), the second one was; there were a few people I wanted to see and things I felt I had to do before a looming major surgery that might have made any future such trip impossible. Facing my increasing physical disability made this trip a great deal more poignant, and I determined that it would be an active search for the joie de vivre.

So this time I was writing with a special purpose, and that was to focus on all the things that gave me joy: the vivid colours of a fishing boat in Malta, the first taste of a seafood ravioli on the Italian coast, the silky perfection of a Michelangelo sculpture, sharing a day in a remote Alpine village with the family of a dear friend, holding my sister’s hand in Paris as we both felt the tones of an 18th-century cello pierce our hearts … There was all this and so much more, and I realized that writing about it helped me to find what I was looking for.

♦     ♦     ♦

The daughter and granddaughter of unsung travellers and sailors, SANDRA SHAW HOMER has been writing travel journals all her life, but only recently aboard cargo ships. Her Letters from the Pacific: 49 Days on a Cargo Ship is now a Kindle Book. For more than 20 years she has made her home in Costa Rica, where she has taught languages and worked as an interpreter/translator and environmental activist. Between 1997 and 2000 she wrote a regular column, “Local Color,” for the English-language weekly The Tico Times. She became a Costa Rican citizen in 2002.

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013