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13th Anniversary Poetry in Transit Contest Winner Announced

June 7th, 2010

It was a small but satisfying group of entries for the contest we launched to celebrate this year’s Poetry in Transit poets and poems. “Did you meet your soul mate while reading a poem together on the bus?” Yes, in fact one writer (Peter Haase) relayed a tale of happily ever after that started with a chance meeting on a bus and an impromptu poetry reading. “Have you gotten into a heated argument with a fellow passenger over a line in a poem?” Another yes, but this time the author (Rob Taylor) told his story cleverly within the verses of a poem itself (The Before Unapprehended Relations of Things). There was even an entry from a driver (Amrit Bains) of the 99 B-Line who loves his job so much he couldn’t help writing a story about it (Route Ninety Nine).

But it was one entry in particular that resonated for us here at the ABPBC and that came from SheLa E. Nefertiti Morrison who wrote about her bus travels with her grandmother Blanche and how reading Poetry in Transit caused an “aha” moment in their lives. Here’s SheLa’s story:

My (then) 92-year-old grandmother, Blanche and I had a transformative bonding experience due to Poetry In Transit.

Everyone who met Blanche was astounded at how spry and “with-it” she was. She walked completely unaided; enjoyed hip-hop (K-OS and André 3000 were her favourites); typically wore Reeboks runners, jeans, Roots hoodies, and a Kangol cap; voted repeatedly for her “Canadian Idol” and “Canada’s favourite dancer” (on t.v’s “SYTYCD”); and loved to people-watch on the buses and sky-train, on her way to a concert at The Orpheum, shopping at Metrotown, or to hike one of the Lower Mainland’s many park trails.

Until Blanche, a two-time survivor, passed away a few months ago at age 99 from her third battle with cancer, I was her avid companion on her adventures. She called me her “running mate.” I called her “Mom” because she – my grandmother – adopted me at birth. She was my best buddy, too.

Some people have always seemed to follow their calling, while others come to their passion gradually, still others need a kick in the keester to cause the big “Aha!” moment to get them living their dreams. The latter was the case for us – and it happened while riding transit together.

We always looked forward to “finding” the poems in the Poetry In Transit series. “Camouflage” by Fiona Tin Wei Lam caught our eyes; we read (it) silently, then did our usual ritual of reading it aloud together, often laughing as (the poem) became a tangled dual tongue-twister. However, this time we were both so caught up in the poem’s deep meaning, that neither of us said to the other: “Okay, 1-2-3…go -”

I wondered – no, make that, worried that Mom saw the similarity between the pre-adolescent girl in “Camoflage” and me/my experience. Then, I wondered (make that, worried) that she DIDN’T see the similarity… It was she who spoke first: “I remember when you ‘pretended to be a shoe’…” I wanted to ask if she remembered WHY I, like the girl in (the poem) was in ‘a narrow closet, innards jumbled – wooly hems, boots, and a twelve-year-old./her crouched silence…’ Then, she asked me: “Do you recall, when you were about eighteen and starting to write… you said: ‘That’s the thing about poetry – it’s the only real truth any of us get’? I never told you, but that tweaked something in me and I started to TRY to write poems…but I guess I wasn’t ready to get truthful – but…I am now.” We both sat transfixed, re-reading this dead-on portrayal of family strife and rock-bottom self-worth, child-style.

“Reading this poem,” Blanche stated bravely, “I’m ready…to get…truthful…at last.” I knew she was a “repressed writer” and so, I felt relieved, excited and happy for her. I felt that THIS TIME, she meant it. We agreed to seek out the poet’s book. A (lapsed) poet, myself, I had been in a creative slump and had not written any poems in too long to live with. For the rest of our trip, I felt something large and looming stir in me – vaguely aware of the slumbering poet stretching and plunking her numb feet on the floor.

At our destination – the Vancouver Museum, lo and behold – in their gift shop: “Swallowing Clouds: An Anthology of Chinese-Canadian Poetry” with the poem, “Camoflage” in it! Since the poem seemed to “fall in our laps” we took that as a “sign.” Once home, we looked into writing workshops – and started writing.

Since Ms. Lam’s “..medusas in the wallpaper’s clumped foilage…” stuck their snaky tongues at us and dared us to stoke our passions’ fires, Blanche has been in over a half-dozen courses, including being the eldest person (at 94) to attend The Victoria School For Writers (she got her first choice, Ivan E. Coyote for instructor) and continued until cancer grabbed her back
at 97-and-a-half.

Blanche passed away before she could see her work published – BUT she died in receipt of an acceptance letter for “My First Job: Circa 1910” (to be published in a U.S. anthology called “Daughters of the Land.”) Near the end, she had asked me to bring her that acceptance letter. After she went and I was summoned to her hospital room…I found that letter under her pillow.

Since that “Aha!” moment, thanks to Poetry In Transit, I’ve read all the poems of Fiona Tin Wei Lam’s I can get my hands on – in literary journals, anthologies and her own solo titles; AND I have exhumed the Muse, resumed my play-dates with Her; I’ve recently begun to be published (On Spec; AESTHETICA; Ascent Aspirations…) and place in contests (New Millennium Writings, cooldog, The Pinch…) and I was short-listed for DESCANT’s Best Canadian Poem. Some of my best poems are about my Mom/grandmother/Blanche – my dear “running mate” – enough for a manuscript (as yet unpublished) tentatively titled “She Saw A Century: The Blanched Years.”

Since that pivotal day on transit, my Muse has sung to me, to the tune of over one hundred finished poems, in search of a place on the shelves – or, dare I say? – a place on the sky-train or a crowded bus…