Cobourg Poetry Workshop
feature poet

Deborah Panko


Northumberland's
Highway of Heroes

Under rain-soaked umbrellas
strangers on a bridge
reporters taking pictures

From Trenton to Toronto
black processional
past hay-stack hills, childhood lakes

Where trees give way to six lanes
true patriot love
one future, one uniform

Repatriated soldiers
leaving behind towns
like Brighton, Welcome, Port Hope

After tours through lamp lit
Arabian nights
fabled flying carpet ride

Yellow ribbon of traffic
Greenbelt's green road signs
a web of comfort, compliance


On Line with Deborah Panko

Your book, Somewhat Elsewhere, reveals a wonderful view of Deborah Panko, poet, humanist, environmentalist, dreamer, feminist, critic, carding daughter, nature lover, loving wife, a supberb wordsmith. How would you describe your poetry?

I feel like I'm getting to know myself when I write poems, finding clarity around things that are vague or obscure or just coming to terms with the emotions attached to them. Labels to describe my poetry don't concern me so much as the process of writing them. Since every poem is different, I'll explain the process of writing Northumberland's Highway of Heroes ( poem above ) at the end of this interview. It's fairly detailed but might be of interest to anyone wondering about the poem's content or how/why I crafted the poem itself.

You were recently published in a collection of poetry, Not A Muse, by women from all around the world.

It was exciting to have three poems published in an anthology of women poets from around the world. The editor, Kate Rogers, tells me that the book has gone into reprint to accommodate the U.S. market which was nice to hear. The book was first published in Hong Kong where Kate lives and works.

..... and a new collaboration coming out soon?

From O to Snow is a collaboration between me, Kate Marshall-Flaherty and Donna Langevin (both from Toronto). I met Donna in 2007 in Cuba doing readings with the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance and Katie later at one of the Artbar workshops. Richard Grove at Hidden Brook Press heard us read together at 66 King in Cobourg in the summer of 2009 celebrating the publication of Not a Muse and decided to do a book for us which is coming out early December (fingers crossed). We have a launch date at the Black Swan in Toronto on December 5th and here in Cobourg on December 9th and a radio spot on HOWL, CUIT, November 23rd, 10 p.m. As Donna said, our subject matter and styles are very different but we each share a commitment to poetry, which brings our work together.

Going back to the beginning ... how did sitting down for the first time and writing a poem happen?

I pursued a lot of different therapies in my lifetime, much of it in attempting to learn how to be with a schizophrenic mother without being overwhelmed by her. Because I kept dream journals, there was lots of material that seemed artful, a canvas of images that implied meaning but needed a form, hence poetry writing ... not surprising having spent so many years teaching English.

In your poem Index, you describe yourself In the beginning/a cynic.Care to elaborate?

I was cynical when I was younger, expecting the worse, which was what I was taught to do by fearful parents. But life has been generous to me as well so I think I've come to see myself more as an investigator than a cynic but with skepticism still as a strong motivator.

Dictionaries are great for investigating especially for the origins of a word, these little worlds unto themselves that have evolved from often surprising beginnings. For example, 'spirit' comes from the Latin word 'breath'. If a person says he is spiritual, it essentially means he's alive and breathing. So I ask myself, what is it exactly that this person believes about himself? That's where I'm skeptical. I try to avoid abstracts in my writing unless I'm intentionally trying to discover how an abstract word has been used and manipulated by us. Recognizing the degree to how we are manipulated by words, especially the Godword, is at the core of my skepticism.

How would you describe yourself today?

Personally, I'm busy with things I love doing and with people I enjoy doing them with. I'm contented, grateful for the beauty that's still out there even though we seem to be doing our best to destroy it.

When you read in front of an audfience, you have a very distinctive style, a very intimate relationship with the audience. When you create a poem do you consciously write it to be heard, or to be read on the page?

The feel for the rightness of a poem for me lies in how it sounds. But then there's the problem of how another person will read it. There are some external things you can't control in a poem. If it hangs together tightly enough though, it should stay intact whether on the page or read aloud by someone else.

These days it seems poetry has no boundaries ... Slam, performance, prose, as well as the more traditional writing. Your thoughts?

Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time calls the universe a self-contained infinity. So is poetry. It has no boundaries but there's somehow a centripetal force that holds it together if it's to be called a poem. The 'what' and the 'how' are inseparable. They contain each other. Some poets turn that around into a centrifugal force, more a scattering of images. I prefer the former.

So what is poetry in 2010?

Poetry in 2010 is whatever you want it to be, the same as it has been throughout time ... people playing with words, evolving patterns. It's the person who has to carve the poem out, a person who exists at a particular time within a particular context and culture, with a very particular character and background and who has taken up the challenge to articulate what that's like, given whatever tools are available. I said poetry writing is a process but the poem is a thing unto itself that one crafts ... like what a person needs to do in finding his way of being in this world ... how he talks, moves, enjoys himself and comes to understand what moves him. The poem also has to do what it needs to do in order to exist even if you're following a traditional literary format. So it doesn't just fall onto the page, at least for me it doesn't. It's too precise for that.

Who are your favourite poets?

I don't have favourite poets - I just like good poetry. I suppose I could start with Shakespeare or Proust who is a poet to me.

What are you reading these days?

Apart from the Saturday Globe, I've started the Tale of Gengi, ancient Japanese text and very, very long. My book club keeps me busy with the classics.

In your biographical sketch in Somewhat Elsewhere you write of discovering other writers at the Cobourg Poetry Workshop. Your thoughts on the Workshop.

The Cobourg Poetry Workshop is very different from when I joined 5 years ago - more organized, more women, more networking but still a place to try out your poems if you're so inclined and for comradeship. The connections and the energy from the group moved me towards pulling together Somewhat Elsewhere in 2008.

'Highway of Heroes' and how it got written

An image that has stayed with me since the first soldiers were repatriated from Afganistan was the newspaper photo of people standing in the rain on the overpasses ... this war reported as news event removed from the war as it is happening there (apparently 109,000 civilians have been killed so far). I wrote the first three lines as what I thought was a haiku and thought I had said what I wanted to say, but a friend who read it said it needed more.

I thought of Highway 401 cutting through beautiful Northumberland with its rolling hills and lush vegetation, this linear roadway becoming ever wider to accommodate more and more traffic - the highway as this singular, uninterrupted symbol of how we've constructed the modern world - totally dependent on cars and oil. And we're all traveling down this same road - the entire world having narrowed itself into one vision that is inescapable - a country 'at war' despite the lovely words we've used to name our towns. We're all complicit. The tragedy here in Canada is the repatriated soldiers being the inevitable outcome of a nation 'protecting its interests'.

I used simple, concrete nouns for what I saw 'out there' until the last stanza where the poem needed to round itself off - where abstract nouns frame the state of mind I think we must be in to continue down this highway we've constructed.

I had mistakenly used the pattern 7/5/7 for the first stanza, not the 5/7/5 of a haiku, but it sounded right so I decided to keep that pattern when I added more stanzas. What took so long writing this poem was finding the exact words that would fit this self-imposed pattern. Although tempted to give it up and just go with free verse, I was determined to see if I could make it work. It seemed important given that the subject matter includes the military, a rigidly constructed organization intent on following its own rules, much like a religion or the lifestyle we have that has become 'non-negotiable', or the actual structure of a highway. I persisted and ended up satisfied that it became what it needed to be and there was nothing more I could add or wanted to change.

Each stanza is an impression, not a statement - so after I had written the stanzas, I decided to start each one with a capital letter but use no end of line punctuation since each impression is open-ended

The last consideration was the ordering of what are basically stand-alone stanzas. There was no narrative with a beginning, middle, end that would determine the ordering but a certain impression left from one stanza did seem to lead on to another. I played around with those a bit - and went with what seemed to be the strongest connectives

I wrote this poem because I feel misrepresented. (i.e. PM McGuinty has erected a billboard on behalf of the province's citizens that does not speak for me and I know I'm not alone in this). Canada's repatriated soldiers are to be grieved. Packaging that grief into what is essentially an advertisement is distasteful. Advertising to make this war more palatable is excessive. It creates a distortion because the intent of an advertisement is to manipulate. It's what the word 'heroes' does. It glorifies, glamorizes and sells this war which serves to perpetuate war. We may believe we are 'enlightened', heroic, but advertising what we believe doesn't make it so.

And the billboards are becoming more daring. I saw one the other day, big bold letters in red and white as I was leaving Toronto on the GO train. It asked if our military should keep 'killing the bad ones to help the good ones'. If this billboard was sponsored by our government, we're in serious trouble - a soundbite targeting what our leaders must see as a nation of four-year-old's, its morality reduced to our seeing people as all good or all bad where we, apparently the all good ones, have a right to kill the all bad ones.

Maybe it's aging or having walked with my husband, Ron, to his death, but whatever anger or frustration I feel (and these billboards make me angry) is more and more being overwhelmed by sadness. We seem incapable of altering our self-destructiveness.

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