Place-Making with Poetry

Posted by Celia Brogan

We are halfway through Poetry Month! In a change from last year, this April we are focusing on specifically BC literatures in support of the ABPBC’s Read Local BC campaign but luckily, when we look around poetry features prominently in the local cannon.

Today I would like to continue a thread started yesterday and share another iten created by the intersection of Local + Maps + Story.

A Verse Map of Vancouver  ed. George McWhirter (photographs by Derek Von Essen) is a beautiful volume of poetry and photographs whose aim is to celebrate and “represent the city’s places and principal features in poetry.” (from the introduction) It’s not meant to be exhaustive, but a snapshot of the city (so to speak: the actual photographs often are more portrait-like than snapshot.)

I love the idea of a verse map. Should you be inspired by this idea, the breadth of topography might vary: from covering a region or your entire town, to remaining on within the bounds of the school property.

Another book that could fall within the Local + Maps + Story thread, and is simultaneously smaller and larger in scope, is Gulf Islands Alphabet by Bronwyn Preece (Illustrated by Alex Walton). This picture book is a poetic description of the Gulf Islands and the Salish Sea, featuring an alphabetic sequence of alliterative passages accompanied by rich watercolour illustrations. It differs from A Verse Map of Vancouver in that it covers a wider area, but does so with a single text. It’s another option to inspire a way for students to engage with their geography through poetry.
(One drawback of this text for me is the minimal mention of First Nations’ current and historical use of the area as well as not enough information about marine life. These two aspects can serve as entry points for a critical reading.)

If you have a local resource of this sort for your town or area in BC, please share it in the comments!

Homegrown, and still growing

Posted by Celia Brogan

What writing is more homegrown BC writing than that of our students? The BCTELA Student Writing Contest is more than a great way for students to give their writing a broader audience, the published pieces, Voices Visible, is also a useful resource to show our students what their peers are writing.

BCTELA members receive a copy of Voices Visible free, and you can order additional copies to make up a lit circle/text set group, or enough for a whole class set.

BC features as a setting in many of the pieces in Voices Visible, either completely or sometimes as a juxtaposition to an immigrant’s home of origin. Students can find their home in these pieces written by their peers in a way that may be different than from pieces written by adults. Do you have back issues of Voices Visible? Try it: copy a piece or two and see what your students think, or try including a book or two in a poetry text set.

This year’s submissions are due at the end of this month. Click here for the application form and contest rules. You must be a current BCTELA member to submit your students’ work.

Why write about this place?

Posted by Celia Brogan

This evening I went to my second #ReadLocalBC event, called “An Evolving City: Writing Vancouver’s Past, Present & Future,” featuring George Bowering and Wayde Compton.

During the question period after the readings the authors were asked if writing about Vancouver was an obvious choice of setting for them in their writing, or, why did they choose to set their work in Vancouver. Their answers discussed how the choice to set writing, specifically fiction, here provides the power to address some very real and serious topics in a way that can be more powerful than setting their work elsewhere. They pointed out that readers can often feel saturated with concerns and an author’s voice can get lost in the chorus of ‘realistic writing.’ Setting fiction in our local environment allows an writer to propose a ‘what if’ scenario in a way that opens a space for readers to reflect on our current society. Readers can wonder what realities might come to pass given an event as plausible as a toxic fuel spill in Burrard Inlet.

Imagine the stories our students might write given this environmental event in Vancouver as a starting point. What might they imagine as futures for your community? Bowering and Compton suggest that by writing our stories, current and possible, we open the door for ourselves and our readers to see positive futures and to act to realize them.


*Check out the list of free #ReadLocalBC events at There may be one or two in your community.

Listening to where we live

Posted by Celia Brogan

Listening to the sounds in our local environment is a great way to enter into a study of place.

Today’s BC text is Sara Leach‘s Sounds of the Ferry. This picture book was nominated for the 2012/13 Chocolate Lily Book award. As the name implies, the narrative is full of onomatopoetic examples of what a BC ferry rider would hear on a crossing.

This text could be a great mentor text for an exercise in representing a particular place or experience through sound. Sounds of the Ferry might introduce activities to:

Sara Leach is an author and teacher-librarian who lives in Whistler, BC. Check out her CWILL profile.

Do you have a text to share that would compliment this one? Share it in the comments!

Poetry Month: day 19

Well, April is almost over.  There has been lots of poetry at my school this month, I hope there has been at yours too.

Yesterday I sat down to have an informal book club meeting with a colleague (we’ve been trying to read a professional text on teaching creative writing and it’s been a sporadic endeavour) and our conversation went from creative writing, to chatting about a collaborative social studies project we’re doing together,  to having a SUPER AWESOME poetry brainwave!

My colleague, Kelly, and I were discussing how we might build a short poetry piece into her class’ creative writing for term three, when we got of topic talking abut some struggles her students were having with the big social studies project they’re doing.

The SS project is called Historica.  You may have something like it at your school: students choose a historical event, within their grade-based time period, to research and produce a variety of products to show their understanding.  All the intermediate students participate and there is a big celebration at the end.

What we ended up with was a great solution to both these issues: we have decided to teach her students a simplified version of epic, or narrative, poetry.   I teach Kelly’s prep time so we have lots of class time to work with.  We will start with a review of basic figurative language (simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration.)  I will practice those with the class until the students have a general facility with them.  Kelly will focus on voice and word choice in the non-fiction writing they’re doing for their research project.  Soon I will start to read some story-poems and tell them about epic poetry.  We will talk about narrators in prose texts (fiction and non-fiction) and in poetry.  They will write their own story poems, on topics of their own choice (or maybe we’ll do the stories of movies they already know, like Frozen) and I will ask them to use at least one each of the basic devices so I can check their understanding.  Eventually we will hand out story/poetry frames that Kelly and I have written, tailored to each of their Historica topics (such as “the last spike,” “the potlatch ban,” and “the war of 1812.”)  For instance, for the group researching the potlatch ban, the frame might start with a narrative voice explaining the significance of the potlatch to the Haida people, followed by the voice/perspective of an enforcing Indian Agent, followed by the voice/perspective of a Haida chief or other member of the community, finished by the effect of the ban.  The frame is simple, but it provides the two grade 4 students a guide with some of the basic aspects of their topic (which is challenging for them).  They will have to write a four-section narrative poem, based on their research, and using figurative language appropriate to the form.

I’m looking forward to seeing if this works, and what kind of results we get (in products, and in students’ enduring understandings.)

A Girl I Met Today by Megan Gager

The following is a story written as a reflection of my time spent in India teaching Tibetan children in exile. As a member of the International Teacher Education Module I spent 2 months teaching English in a small community called Chauntra, tucked in the foothills of the Himalayas. The students, teachers, and members of the community were very welcoming and their story has inspired me on many levels. It was this life changing and eye-opening experience that has transformed the way I view both learning and teaching. With this story I hope to give my readers a brief glimpse into the life of a Canadian student named Madison that is introduced to the world of a Tibetan student in India. Madison experiences a transformation that can only be seen in her heart and her actions.


Mastering Marking Madness by Brooke Moore

“Marking is soul-destroying,” proclaimed a disheveled looking woman in the front row. “I’m not kidding,” she insisted, “it is actually destroying my soul.” Shouts of Amen! came from several teachers in the crowd, and the woman with the destroyed soul leaned forward, looking eager to hear whatever advice the workshop leader might offer. This was not a light-hearted affair. She needed help.


Teacher in Play: The Invitation of Performative Inquiry by Lynn Fels

Lynn Fels is Assistant Professor at SFU. Her research interests are performance and technology, performative inquiry, and teacher education. She and co-author George Belliveau recently published Exploring Curriculum: Performative Inquiry, Role Drama, and Learning.

The story that follows was told to me by a colleague of a grade twelve English teacher who had taken his students outside into the playground of the elementary school next door. “Take time to explore the playground,” he tells them, “the swings, the climbing bars, the slide.” It was, as he tells my friend later, a curious sight, witnessing his grade twelve students, on the cusp of adulthood, playing, shouting, laughing, calling to each other, as they scrambled up ladders, swung into the blue sky, and slid down the slide. “Back to the classroom,” he yells, as the elementary school recess bell rings, and the playground is swarmed by wide-eyed children, who stutter to a stop at the sight of high school students occupying their playground. (more…)

Writing Palettes: An Exercise in Writing, Seeing, and Breaking Writer’s Block

Harold, lives in 150 Mile House, BC. He won the Confederation Poetry Prize, 1991, and the Arc Poem of the Year Award and the Critic’s Desk Award for best long poetry review, 2003. He has been a five-time runner-up in the CBC/Tilden/ Saturday Night Literary Contest and won the BC & Yukon Community Newspapers Association Award for Best Arts and Culture Writing, 1996. His non-fiction book Tom Thomson’s Shack was shortlisted for two BC Book Prizes in 2000, and its sequel, The Wolves at Evelyn, will be published by Brindle & Glass in September, 2006.

“There is a lot of time up on the Cariboo to contemplate the colour of snow: six months out of every twelve, in fact. When you add it all up, it becomes half a lifetime. So, what colour is snow? Well, not white. The snow that falls in November, for example, comes down in the evening like ashes from a July forest fire. The next dawn, it lies on the ground the colour of plum blossoms. By February, after the snow has half-melted and refrozen countless times, the shadows of trees burn across it in tattoos of bright lilac, while between the shadows it is dogrose pink – something between Martha Stewart’s “Plaster Pink” and “Heirloom Rose.”

Mind you, when I ask students what colour snow is, the answer is most often “white.” I know what they mean. This confusion has a lot to do with the generalizing way in which language is most commonly used. Most of the time generalities serve our purposes well, allowing us to set shared terms and to encompass large amounts of information within easily transmissible categories. Where generalities don’t always work, however, is in creative writing. However useful generalities might be in conversation or in technical writing, they are not easily going to lead to symbolism or expressive metaphors. To create those, we need enough individual, sensory material to make sufficient connections with our physical, perceptual lives to allow for the opening of unexpected doorways. With those doorways open, there is little, if any, writer’s block; with them closed, every sentence can be a struggle. I know about that: when I first moved to the Cariboo, I was silenced completely.


I had just left the Similkameen Valley, where I had lived for thirty-five years, most of that spent working the land. In fact, I knew the land so intimately that I could walk out of my house, smell the cloudless, 35 degree early afternoon air, and tell you that a storm would come at 2 a.m., bringing two inches of rain. I wrote poems and my autobiography Out of the Interior out of that knowledge. Even so, it was not easily transferable: as soon as I moved to the Cariboo the world became generic overnight. I looked out over the lake in front of my new house and saw blue water, white clouds, green trees, brown tree trunks, and blue sky. It was ridiculous. I felt like I had entered a box of Crayola crayons.


My solution was to create palettes of colour. I set myself the task of sitting outside for a half hour every afternoon to create, in the manner of a watercolour painter, a palette of colours which I would be able to apply to my writing. Over the next three weeks, the reeds out on the point revealed their colours: old mason jars in my grandmother’s basement, Bibb lettuce, the yellow of a D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer, and even, on the edges where the glaring light burnt into the stalks, the crazy purples of zinnias or petunias and the red of my daughter’s rusty wagon. So it went for the whole landscape, until at the end of three weeks I was writing with great energy – no longer creating palettes but applying them. The result was a host of books: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, and, most importantly of all, my latest book Winging Home: A Palette of Birds – the direct result of that experiment with colour. Over the course of writing the book – and living it – the palette did change, of course, from the use of colour to find my connections with the landscape to the use of the lives of birds to find connections between my family, my children, the land, and the social life of an entire community. The book became a celebration – one which would have been impossible without that exercise in creating a palette. The experience was so powerful that I wanted to share the process with others. In short, I wanted to give it away.


I got my chance this spring in Vernon. In early May I met a group of writers at the Alan Brooks Nature Centre in the grasslands overlooking town. During the following six hours, I shared with them a variety of colour palettes, from the rather stultifying soil colour profiles of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Brown, Light Brown, Dark Brown, Dark Yellow Brown, etc.), to the delightful shades of Revlon hair dyes (Honey Glaze, Cherry Cola, Buttered Toast) and the riotous extravagance of Martha Stewart (Hooked Rug, Green Tea, Lamb’s Ear) and explored the colours within the landscape of the nature centre grounds itself. Together, we moved through palettes of red, yellow, green, blue, and violet to describe the leaves, flowers, stones, and man-made objects that surrounded us. To focus our discoveries, I set three limitations: first, we would not use the generic names of colours, second, we would describe each colour in terms of a second obect, and third, we would find at least one example of each colour in every type of object. When it came to blue, for example, we found shades of blue within the gravel of the walkways (not an easy task!), in the doors of the Nature Centre storage shed, in the leaves of the saskatoon bushes, in the balsam root flowers, in the sky – everywhere, even where it seemed impossible. By the afternoon, we had a detailed palette for the landscape and were able to write about saskatoon bushes like silk blouses and garage doors like hydrangea flowers, and applied our palettes to our own writings. The results were stunning: generic descriptions of landscape written early in the day suddenly came alive. Instead of each sentence ending a thought and the next sentence coming in with a new one, each sentence suddenly provided doorways for memory, emotion, and gave linkages which bound paragraphs into common threads of thought. The writing now flowed with ease between description of natural and humanly created landscapes, including the growth of subdivisions and the entire history of land use in the valley. All the connections so important to the creation of poems, short stories, and essays had become immediately present. All that was left was to follow them.


A week later, I repeated the exercise with a group of writers in Kamloops. This time, we covered a far larger area, and with a far less homogenous group. The responses varied: some people responded to the walking itself, actively surging ahead to be the first to discover colours, while others hung behind more contemplatively and discovered colours that the more active members had missed. Still others initially bypassed words altogether and collected debris – posters, sandwich wrappers, etc. – blown off of the TRU campus by the wind, to illustrate colours they had noticed earlier in pine bark and lichen. We concluded the day with a thirty minute discussion while looking out over the Thompson Valley and the city of Kamloops. During the discussion, each participant explained what struck them most about the landscape, after which the entire group explored the possibilities of colour, shape, and motion which could create alternate palettes for teasing out the connections within their particular interests. One workshop participant, for instance, was drawn not to colour but to the traffic crossing a distant bridge; the palette we worked out communally for him was a palette of movement, not one of colour.

Right now, I am editing a book on the grasslands of the Chilcotin and am making plans to lead a group of writers there to experience that remarkable and little-known landscape. I’m confident that we will find a palette for it and that if we start with a palette of colour some people will quickly gravitate to palettes of stone, dust, grasses or wind, while others will move as deeply into colour as I did with Winging Home. I see no reason why a dozen other books will not come of the workshop, following the process which Winging Home documents in greater detail than these brief notes can do. As liberating as the grasslands are, to lead this workshop you don’t need them, of course, or even a lake, or trees, or even a cityscape. In a pinch, any school yard will serve just as well, or even a collection of natural and artificial objects within a classroom. All that are required to break the bounds of the ordinary are open eyes and a sense of discovery – which, of course, abound, even within our more generalized world.

Harold Rhenisch


You can find out more about
Winging Home from the publisher at
Winging Home: A Palette of Birds
Vital Statistics 1-897142-12-9 ($24.95 C | $22.95 US)
6″ x 9″ paperback, 288 pages.



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