©2018 Joanne Van Leerdam
Some people think you can write any old thing and call it a poem.
That’s not how it works.
©2018 Joanne Van Leerdam
My mother was the most influential person in my development and career as a bookworm.
Today is celebrated as Mother’s’ Day in Australia and many other places around the world. My mother passed away in 2011, but today I want to pay tribute to her as the most influential person in my development and career as a bookworm.
I inherited my love of books and reading from both my parents, but it was Mum who put the consistent effort in to enabling my reading habit.
I surprised my mother – and probably everyone else, now that I think of it – by being able to read when I was three years old. In a manner entirely consistent with how I would behave for the rest of my life, I picked her up on skipping words and sentences when she was reading to me. I can understand her doing that – I’ve read the same book to kids a bazillion times, too, and it does wear a little thin. Back then, though, I was probably morally outraged as only a three year old can be when they’re getting shortchanged on a favourite story. When I read back to her the story as it was written on the page, Mum thought I had merely memorised the whole thing. So she chose a new book for me, and I read that one to her, too.
From that time on, Mum was always enthusiastic and active in encouraging me to read widely, and spent many Saturday afternoons driving me to the library so that I could borrow enough books to keep me going for two weeks.
By the time I was ten, I had read all of her Agatha Christie books and many of my grandgather’s Perry Mason and James Bond books, and I had well-loved copies of the Narnia Chronicles and the “Little House” books on my own shelf.
It was then that Mum let me read the old copy of Anne of Green Gables that her own parents had given her. I clearly remember reading Lucy Maud Montgomery’s descriptions of Prince Edward Island sand saying to her, “I’m going to go there one day.”
“You have no idea how far away that is!” she replied.
“I don’t care. I’m going!” was my response.
I finally did go to PEI and visited Green Gables in 2015, and I wished that I could have told Mum and shown her my photos. I believe she would have been genuinely happy for me, and proud that I had achieved something I had wanted to do since that young age.
I know my mother was proud of me for following her into teaching, and I know she would have been proud as punch of the fact that I became a writer, too.
My career as a poet and author, though, would have been far less likely to happen without the love for books and reading that Mum and Dad modelled and mentored for me, and for that I will always be thankful.
My first book was not born until almost five years after Mum graduated to heaven. I couldn’t write about her passing for several years afterwards, because it was too raw. When I did finish the poem that I wrote for her, I shared it with my father and siblings so that they could share my memory. If they hadn’t loved it, I wouldn’t have published it. They did, though, and it enabled me to share part of that last day of her life to which they were not witnesses.
Since ‘July 19, 2011’ was published in ‘Nova’, it has touched and encouraged many people who have lost their mums – and dads, and others close to them. When people tell me that my poetry has touched their heart or affected the way they think about something, that’s when I feel the most fulfilled as a poet. I’m really proud today that Mum’s poem can have that effect on someone else. Although she is gone, her legacy lives on, not just in my memory and my heart, but also in my writing.
It’s impossible to not miss my mother on days like today, and not a day passes that I don’t think of her. So, for Mothers’ Day 2018, I want to share the poem I wrote for her with you. I hope you enjoy it and find it meaningful.
As a poet, I am always inspired by the beach and the sea.
I posted recently about needing to write some positive poetry to balance the number of dark and melancholy poems that I’ve written, so that my next collection isn’t entirely moody, angry and defiant.
On Wednesday evening, between a meeting and a theatre company rehearsal, I grabbed some dinner and headed to one of my favourite spots – the beach. It was an unseasonally mild evening for early May— still 24 celcius when I got there— so I took off my shoes and grounded myself in nature with some deep breaths and my bare feet on the earth. It felt so good to find quietness and solitude there, just the sea, a few gulls and me.
While I sat on the foreshore and pondered the scene before me as evening fell, the beginnings of a poem came to me. Now that it’s finished, I’m pretty happy with it. I love the sensuous, joyful feel of a lovers’ reunion, and I think I’ve captured the moment well.
Consider me encouraged.
Thank you to everyone who took the time to encourage or inspire me with ideas, whether as a comment or in a private message. It means a lot to me that you would do that, and that you’re interested enough in my writing to help me in that way.
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I’m looking for positives. Feel free to help me out!
Balance is something I often aim for, but things don’t always work out that way.
I’ve just been looking at the poems I have written for my next collection, and the majority are quite dark. I’m going to have to make a conscious effort to write some more positive or happy poems to balance it out.
Easily done. All I need is for the universe to be nice to me, and for wonderful people and happy events to inspire me. No biggie… right?
If you’d like to inspire me, leave a story, an observation, or a happy experience in the comments!
Apparently, I never learn.
Only on rare occasions am I ever tempted to feel as though I might just get on top of things.
Other days, like today, I realise yet again just how little most people value me, or anything I do.
Seriously, universe, what am I doing wrong?
I work hard, I’m a loyal friend, and I care more about people than most of them will ever realise. It’s true that I don’t come in the smallest package with the sleekest, glossiest wrapping, but if I’m given the choice of someone who “fits an image” or someone who will both help me and defend me or die trying, I know which person I’d pick to have on my team. I’m not perfect, but who is?
So, tonight I’ve spent a few hours trying to think through and process how I feel and why, In that process, the words of one of my own poems came back to me. I wrote ‘Cold Shoulder’ on a previous occasion when other people’s behaviour left me feeling a similar way.
Many years I’ve lived on the Cold Shoulder
An inhospitable, stony place –
Where there’s little but frosty silence,
No allowance for comfort or grace.
The chill wind of indifference
Cuts the air without making a sound,
Skittering icy flakes of apathy
And leaves’ skeletons over the ground.
A fine specimen of resilience,
I’m a fine diamond in the rough,
A survivor of hostile conditions
Where life is invariably tough.
I suffer no delusions of love –
For that loss I have frequently wept;
But knowing I don’t matter at all
Is the hardest of truths to accept.
Weary of relentless erosion,
I implore the stone lords for reprieve,
But there is no reward for devotion
To those in whom you don’t believe.
Let them preach not to me of salvation
When they hold all the power in their hands
To inflict such complete desolation –
One could never meet all their demands.
So I remain here on the Shoulder
In this treacherous, heartless place:
Although frigid, this landscape is honest,
And each rock only has the one face.
©2017 Joanne Van Leerdam
This is not new territory for me. I have survived every other “kick in the head”, and I’ll survive this one, because I refuse to lay down, shut up and die. And I’ll make all seven people who do actually care about me proud in the process… again.
It does make me wonder, though, why I fall into that same trap of assuming that anyone else ever actually tries to see my worth, or cares about it.
Apparently, I never learn.
‘Cold Shoulder’ is published in ‘The Passing Of The Night’
by Joanne Van Leerdam.
A poet reflects on what inspired her latest piece of dark poetry.
One of the things I find hardest to deal with in life is the perception that sometimes, evil seems to win.
I don’t know why it should surprise me each time it happens, but it still does. I don’t know why people’s cruelty and evil actions still shocks me, but it does.
Let me explain where this train of thought originated.
Not long ago, I witnessed the complete and irreversible downfall of someone I’ve known for some time. I haven’t always necessarily liked that person – less, in fact, as time went on, although that’s not really relevant to this post. I honestly thought that their behaviour couldn’t get any lower than what I had already witnessed, and what I already knew of him. I was wrong.
Please understand that in writing this post, I do not for one moment mean to suggest that I feel sorry for him. I don’t.
I do feel incredibly sorry for those whose trust he, and every other person like him, has broken and abused. My heart breaks for those who find themselves and the rest of their lives shattered among the trail of destruction they leave behind. These things leave permanent scars from which some people never recover.
And there is no denying that I am incredibly angry. How dare he? He can’t say he didn’t know it was wrong. He can’t say he didn’t know what he was thinking. He knew, and he went ahead and did it anyway.
So, as his life unravelled before my eyes, I was left feeling the same about him as I do about everyone who betrays the trust of the people they should be protecting.
Whether it’s broken friendship, corruption, or an absolute degradation of one person by another, I believe that there are powers in this world that celebrate when someone who has always taken a strongly moral stand falls from a position of leadership and finds themselves in a downward spiral of shame and humiliation, especially if it’s a person of faith.
It was this chain of thought that led me to write ‘The Demons Dance’. It is grim imagery of demons dancing and celebrating around the crumpled form of their latest victim, upon whos miery and death they are completely drunk.
In this poem, as in a number of my others, my love of writing horror and the macabre has combined with my penchant for poetry to produce what I believe is poetry that is both grotesque and beautiful at the same time.
Click to read ‘The Demons Dance‘.
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Songs and Poetry: Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.
In an earlier post, I referred to song lyrics as being a form of poetry.
There are many songwriters who write deeply poetic songs. Elton John and Bernie Taupin, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Billy Joel— they are among the greats. Today, singer/songwriters like Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry are among the artists whose songs contain some incredibly powerful poetry.
While it might be fun to come up with more examples, I have no desire to try to list them all – I don’t even think that’s really possible. Chances are, some who make my list might not be included in yours. I just named a few to get you thinking.
While many songs rely on a catchy hook or a beat that makes people want to dance, it’s the poetry of others that gives them the power to move a person emotionally, or to profoundly affect someone’s thoughts and actions.
Consider the influence John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ had on an entire generation. Similarly, Simon & Garfunkel touched hearts and lives worldwide with the soaring power of “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, while the poignant emotion of Elton John’s “Candle In The Wind” or “Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word” is still hard to resist.
I don’t know if this happens to everyone, but poetic songs seem to attach themselves to part of my soul and remain there, indelible and timeless.
This line of thinking led me to trying to work out which song contains my favourite “song poetry”. That’s actually a really tough question, so I decided I’d listen to a few of my favourites and try to narrow it down.
A week later, I think I have an answer. (Disclaimer: this answer is likely to change at any moment.)
This song is a brilliant extended metaphor about identity and finding one’s place in the world. The contrast between a rock or an island with the vulnerability of being human, and the paradox of isolation being a form of sanctuary, are ideas which should be jarring, yet they are delivered with such finesse that we’re left thinking, “I totally get that!” They’re ideas and images we all understand, and the poet communicates uses a depth of emotion and human experience to say things that many other people could never bring themselves to verbalise.
The clincher for me is the final verse. “I have my books and my poetry to protect me.” That’s exactly what I do! I retreat into fictional worlds. I write stories and poems that help me to deal with life. I use poetry to crystallise my thoughts and feelings, and use my writing to communicate what it’s hard to say any other way.
As I was reflecting on that final verse, a poem I wrote last year came to mind. I’m not suggesting that I think I’m as good as Paul Simon, but it does explore similar ideas of hiding behind – or within – the books and words I have written.
It was written during a time of great personal conflict and turbulence, and expresses the refuge I found in my writing. In different poems written during this period, I portrayed myself at different times as a fighter, as a hostage, and as a traveler. At no time did I portray myself as willing to surrender to the storm that raged around me, nor to anything else that tried to do me in. In my writing, I was strong. I was safe.
When I went back to read that poem as part of the process of writing this post, I was stunned to discover the similarity of the ideas to those explored by Paul Simon, even though my poem was neither based on nor drawn from his lyrics.
I was also confronted by the warning of the last two lines. I have to take care when I feel or experience something, or when I write something powerful, that I can’t afford to unpack and live there. I still have to live my life and be who I am, and I still have to deal with whatever life throws at me.
After all, I am neither a rock nor an island, no matter how much I might sometimes wish I were.
‘Safe’ is published in my book, ‘The Passing Of The Night’.
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What makes an introverted poet breathe fire?
Two weeks ago, I had finished an incredibly busy first term at school and was looking forward to a well-earned break for a couple of weeks.
When people asked me, “Are you doing anything for the holidays?” I gave them my standard answer: “As little as possible.”
You’d think I’d learn not to tempt fate like that, but apparently not.
Family came to stay, visitors called in, things happened. I just needed to rest… but when was that ever going to happen? I wanted to write, but there was no time for that, either. I began to feel as though life was out of control.
And then, I started to get angry. It wasn’t directed at anyone or anything in particular – instead, it was a rumbling discontent within me. As the only introvert in a house full of rampant extroverts, I felt misunderstood and somewhat neglected.
One afternoon, my house fell quiet for a few moments. I sat in the comfy chair in my study with a book, took a deep breath, and before I knew it, I had dozed off. It didn’t last long.
I woke up to a barrage of sound from the football blaring on the TV in the adjoining room, people talking loudly to be heard over it, and others talking loudly with a phone on “speaker” mode. They could have gone to another room. They could have closed my study doors and left me there in peace. But they didn’t.
That was when this poem erupted from within me.
The imagery of a dragon is not accidental: I wanted to incinerate them them all, or at least toss them around a bit with my tail. Knowing that I couldn’t breathe fire on them all like I wanted to – they are family, after all – I escaped to my bedroom, closed the door, closed the drapes, and promised myself that whoever dared to knock on that door— or, heaven forbid, walk through it— and interrupt me again definitely had it coming. Then, as I generally do, I unloaded my feelings in the most therapeutic way I know: angry poetry.
It doesn’t tell the complete story. It’s really just a brief glimpse of a scene, but it reveals enough for the reader to understand. And I’m sure every exhausted teacher or parent, every person who is exhausted by constant demands, and every introvert who reads it will totally get it.
The poet tells the story behind her poem, ‘The Artist’.
The inspiration for this poem came from my long-time friend Nicky, who is an gifted artist.
Nicky was one of the people who really pushed me to pursue publication of my poetry. She is an infinite source of encouragement and support, but more than that, she is a loyal and constant friend and confidant.
I should preface this story by pointing out that I’ve never been good at drawing or painting. My grandfather was an artist. My sister once painted a brilliant life-size portrait of Charlie Chaplin that covered her bedroom door for years. My mother could draw animals, people, and groovy designs with a ball point pen and make them look fantastic.
And then, there’s me. The only thing I can draw is cash from an ATM, and the occasional stick figure.
One day, Nicky showed me one of her beautiful paintings, which she had just completed. I gazed at it for a while, and sighed,”I wished I could do that.”
Without missing a beat, she replied, “You do. You just do it with words.”
That came as a real revelation to me. At that point in my life, I just wrote poetry for myself, and shared the ones I liked with a couple of friends. I didn’t really consider myself a poet as such, nor did I think I’d ever be published.
With those words, she inspired this poem.
As a poem, I believe it hass integrity. It feels and sounds good when reading it aloud, and the rhythm works well with the ideas of making brush strokes and splashing a bit of paint around. At the end, it’s a reflection of that moment when the artist stands back and is surprised by what she finds on the easel in front of her.
The artist in the poem is definitely me. Like the artworks in the poem, some of my writing is vivid and colourful, while other pieces are dark and tear-smudged. Even a poem that appears to be fictional, like ‘Misery’ – which has been included in a fairy tale anthology! – is deeply rooted in my own reality.
I have very great affection for ‘The Artist’ for the truth it tells about my own experience as a poet, but I also love the fact that it will always be about my friendship with Nicky, too. Without her inspiration and encouragement, I might still just have a bunch of notebooks full of poems that nobody else would ever read.
I first told ‘The Artist’s story when Nicky spoke at my book launch for ‘Leaf’ in June, 2016. Completely unaware of the story behind the poem or the fact that she had inspired it, Nicky chose ‘The Artist’ as the poem she would like to read to the guests. When she finished her reading and speech, I followed with the account of the poem’s inspiration. It was a beautiful moment in time that highlighted the wonderful thing that we share in our friendship.
I hope you enjoyed ‘The Artist’ and the story behind it. If you appreciated this post, please click “like” below so that others find it more easily. You’re also welcome to leave a comment.
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One of the simplest pieces of advice given to writers is to “write what you know”.
One of the simplest pieces of advice that is given to writers, especially those just starting out, is to “write what you know”.
It’s good advice.
It doesn’t take long, though, before it gets more complicated: it’s what you do with it after the first draft that makes any piece of writing effective and powerful.
While I don’t have any personal experience of unicorns or magical black cats— yes, it’s hard to believe, isn’t it?— my poetry is full of what I know. Every poem is inspired by real-life experience, either mine or that of someone close to me, or my own observations of other people and their actions. Even those poems that appear to be fictional are grounded in personal truth.
For this reason, there really isn’t anything that I won’t write about.
Grief. Fear. Joy. Sadness. Depression. Temptation. Despair. Determination. Anger.
It’s all there.
Writing poetry is the most effective therapy that I have ever experienced. At different times in my life, I’ve sat through grief counselling, infertility counselling, and therapy sessions to help with my depression. Each was worthwhile in its own way but, for me, none of that has come close to the healing power of ink on paper, working through ideas, shaping and crafting meaning with the words I choose, so that I can express my thoughts and feelings effectively.
Late last week, for example, I found myself confronted by the actions of a particular individual whom I had not seen for some time. Churning inside with revulsion and anger, I knew I was not ready to get into the car and drive home in that state, so I went and found a place where I could think and write and start to deal with both the new knowledge and the way it made me feel.
I didn’t write one poem. I started several, and have made progress on three. Only one is finished- at least, I think it is. It doesn’t identify anyone, nor is the finished poem specific to only my situation, but it leaves the reader in no doubt whatsoever about how I feel. It’s a poem that is entirely relatable for anyone who finds themselves horrified by the unsavoury actions and/or evil intentions of another.
My hope in publishing it is that, if someone in a similar situation to mine should read it, they will know they’re not alone in their feelings. There is, after all, solidarity in numbers.
I haven’t decided whether or not ‘Evil’ will make it into a future collection for a book.
I do know that I felt a great deal better when I had written it than before I started. And really, that was the whole point.
If you’d like to read more of my poems, there are a number of them published on WordyNerdBird Writes.
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