Borrowed Room: Paul Monfette
in Conversation with Barbara Pelman

Barbara Pelman

Malahat volunteer Paul Monfette talks with Barbara Pelman, winner of the 2018 Open Season Awards (poetry category) with her poem, “Nevertheless.”


Barbara Pelman is a retired English teacher who divides her time between her home in Victoria and her family in Sweden.  She has three books of poetry: “One Stone” (Ekstasis Editions 2005), “Borrowed Rooms” (Ronsdale Press 2008), “Narrow Bridge” (Ronsdale 2017), and a chapbook, “Aubade Amalfi” (Rubicon Press 2016).


Read what contest judge Evelyn Lau had to say about Pelman's winning poem.

First of all I want to say how grateful I am to read and be so moved by a poem. As a man and a lover of nature and all creatures big and small I appreciate your caring and love of nature and our planet which shines through your words. Have you always had a love of nature and the small miracles of everyday life?

Thank you, Paul! Actually I consider myself a ‘city girl’ and not a great walker in the woods. But the small miracles of everyday life, definitely. Every day from February to April a hummingbird returns to sit in the hawthorn tree in the backyard, despite my neglect. In early March the star magnolia near the window blooms before any other flower. Despite the absurdities and craziness in the news, babies are born and four year old grandsons call themselves “The Why Machine” and people do small gifts of kindness to each other.

In your poem you take us on a sensory journey. To what do you attribute your skill in evoking sensual experience in the reader.

In a sense, the poem demands it. I think writing, making art or music asks you to pay attention. If you are considering that the cedar leaning over the fence is going to fit into your poem, you will look more carefully, notice the sounds and smells and textures around you. One feeds the other—the sensual world feeds the poem, and the poem reflects it back.

The dark and hopeful tones are so poignant in "Nevertheless"; I shed a few tears. Is there any intentionality around this? And does writing poetry help you retain a 'good' sanity?

What a big question! Dark and hopeful is the state of the world, I think. We live in paradox, the solstice being the loveliest example of this: at the longest night is when the light returns. There is no understanding of light without shadow, there is no understanding of joy without sorrow. Keats’ Ode on Melancholy: “Joy whose hand is ever at his lips bidding adieu.” Or Cohen’s Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring”—about the crack in everything. I think this is the world that poetry explores, the darkness at the heart of life, the losses that inextricably bring great gifts. Poetry is a little bell. And hope seems an integral part of that ringing. Words. We try to capture the mystery of it.

Did the glosa form choose this poem?

This poem began, I think, with being knocked out by Merwin’s poem “Listen.” Writing a glosa is a way to live within the poem, to explore its many branches and images. Often a glosa happens like that. The first one I ever wrote was in response to Carl Sandburg’s marvellous four line poem called “Splinter.” By stretching it out, the glosa can use the wisdom of the original poem to allow you to build your own imagery and ideas. Not that the original wasn’t complete in itself! It’s a kind of borrowed room that perhaps can become your own. So, yes, I guess the glosa was the right way for this poem to behave.

I like your use of enjambment in this poem. Did you choose not to follow a traditional rhyme scheme and how important is it for emerging poets to deviate from traditional poetic forms?

I have a good story about the lack of end rhyme in this glosa. I once talked with PK Page about glosas, when she called the school to thank me for getting my students to write her poems (among others) on hoardings around Victoria. I told her I write glosas and teach my students to write them, then nervily sent her a couple of mine. She chided me for not rhyming the 6th and 9th lines to the 10th borrowed line. But I seldom do. I think the glosa continues to work well rhyme or no rhyme, and Page’s rhyme is pretty open (“blisses, caresses,” “brightness, neatness,” “loving, moving”).

On the other hand, I don’t think poets writing in the traditional forms should go beyond the form’s requirements until they feel they have mastered that form. Like basketball, the player sticks to the rules until he/she can go beyond them. And that’s the point, isn’t it? The challenge of form is to be able to express what you want within its limitations. There is great delight in this, and once you know how the form works and what it will allow you to do, you can play within it.

Gratitude sandwiches grief and loss in your poem. While we all die do you think it is important to do everything in our power to help the plight of other more vulnerable species?

Of course! Whatever we can do that will help the elephant, the rhinoceros, the other 99% of society, all the unnecessary victims of human greed and arrogance (what? a photo of a dead giraffe and the killer grinning beside it?) What we can do, we should do. Though it is never enough, is it? There is a wonderful statement from the Talmud: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief…. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
Even to mourn its passing, to pay attention to the losses, to be a witness—that is something.

What propels you to continue to write poetry?

Again, what you can do, you should do. Whatever talents are given you to nurture, it is your job to nurture them and to improve the world. The Jewish tradition has a word for this: tikun olam, repair of the world. And in conjunction with it, tikun nefesh, repair of your soul. Poetry is one way to clear the windows of perception, to know more about yourself and the world through honing your craft. It is a very tiny part, though every small part adds to something. The challenge of writing, the discipline of it (though I don’t think I’m very disciplined), the camaraderie of workshops and the community of writers who desire the challenge of dancing with language and who love the magic of it—that’s what propels me.


Paul Monfette

Paul Monfette

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