Elizabeth Zetlin on Prompted by Happiness
Elizabeth Zetlin, Owen Sound’s first poet laureate, initiated the Poet Laureate map of Canada project, and has travelled across Canada giving readings. She published The Punctuation Field with Black Moss, in 2011 and in 2020 she celebrated th launch of Prompted by Happiness.
Prompted by Happiness was born out of the idea to write a poem a day for a year. Where did you get the idea, and was it difficult to do? How did it influence your writing?
I was looking for a way back into a regular writing process, because I can go long periods without much writing – months, even years. Joan Didion’s “A Year of Magical Thinking” inspired me to focus on a calendar year. I also hoped to capture morning mind before the day got away from me.
I began with the daily poem from Garrison Keillor’s “The Writers’ Almanac” as a prompt, taking the first line and going wherever the morning and those words led me.
Not too far into the year, I added Tricycle’s Daily Dharma as another prompt. I no longer had to start with the first line.
The year was one of transition. Geographically – from 12 acres of bush and field along the Rocky Saugeen River in the hamlet of Traverston, Ontario to an old house backed onto the Sydenham River in the city of Owen Sound.
I decluttered. Mentally and emotionally. Therapy was an important touch stone too. I began, again, to meditate. I was surprised to discover how many poems focused not just on varieties of pain, but also happiness and joy.
At the start of each poem, I note the ‘prompt’ poem and/or daily dharma article that served as inspiration. I include them to honour my sources and to offer them as other paths readers may wish to explore.
Was it difficult? Not at first. Like many resolutions I make, say to meditate daily or eat less sugar, they last for a while, then start to fade away and I have to refocus once again. I’m grateful that I managed to make it to December, still writing.
365 poems is no small feat, but choosing which poems to include in the final collection must have been an even bigger challenge. Can you tell us how you chose which poems to include? Was there a certain theme or emotion you were trying to capture?
Well, I didn’t really write 365 poems. Maybe half that. Choosing the poems was difficult. I was surprised to discover how many poems focused not just on varieties of suffering, but also happiness and joy.
Highlighting the various themes mentioned above helped in the selection process.
I also wanted to make sure enough happiness poems were included, to do justice to the title. I chose others not because they were perhaps the best poems, but because they were meaningful to me.
Editor/poet Bruce Meyer helped me narrow down the list. Then Black Moss folks said I had to reduce the number of pages again. So I sent the manuscript to several poet friends, asking their advice on which ones to cut. They both made wildly difference choices, which were again, different from mine, though there was a little overlap. I love the editing process, but boy, this was a struggle. One poet said “under no circumstances cut this one.” The other poet said of that same poem, “not one of your strongest.” I learned that each poem speaks to someone. But not all poems work together. A fine balance for sure. So I made the final cut, still not knowing if I’d made the best choices.
Can you explain the significance of the image on the dedication page?
I wanted to include my 2 granddaughters in my creative process and encourage theirs.
The drawing was inspired by “Creation Story,” one of the poems in Prompted by Happiness. I asked my 16 year old granddaughter Zoe to do a drawing, using imagery from that poem, which I had based on a dream her six year old self had told me.
Zoe’s dream mind had created a fascinating creation story, including a dinosaur, a baboon, the first woman, and her family’s dog Kora, who sent Zoe postcards from heaven. Sixteen year old Zoe drew the sofa, floor, dinosaur and clouds. The only instruction I gave was for her drawing to be “prompted by happiness.”
The girl on the left and the dog come from a dream Zoe had at the age of eight, which I turned into an iBook, using her drawings and videos I filmed of her recounting the dream.
Then I commissioned our seven-year-old granddaughter Ella to draw a stick-figure self-portrait. She added the turtle on her own. On Kids Messenger, Ella and I are now co-writing stories featuring her stuffed animals. I type them up and she reads them to her parents. Seeing the world through the eyes of children takes me back to the serious pleasure of play and imagination.
Do you have any ideas for your next book?
I’ve been doing memoir writing on and off for years, so that might be the next one, combining poetry and prose. This April, I was stunned to be contacted by a woman in Virginia, where I grew up, who had found boxes in her attic containing dozens of my mother’s journals and sketch books, dating back to the 1950’s. She had no idea how they got there.
I felt as though, during this time of Covid, my mother was somehow reaching out to me, over thirty years after she died. The boxes are now sitting on our dining room table, waiting for a clear space to devote to them. Reconnecting with my mother could bring new insights and inform and inspire my own work in unexpected ways. Like many writers, I don’t know what I think or where I’m going until I start to write.
Can you share a list of poets who inspire you and explain how they impact your work?
Early favorites include my mother reading A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and Now We Are Six. I still love Milne’s profound playfulness. I also loved listening to my mom read Edward Lear – her entrancing voice animating Lear’s gift with language, nonsense and memorable characters like The Dong with a Luminous Nose.
When I was six, my mother let me stay up late to join her friends doing a reading of Macbeth. I got to play the three witches. I’ll never forget the rhythmic thrill of repeating Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and caldron bubble. Fillet of a fenny snake. In the caldron boil and bake. At the end of the evening, I whispered to my mother, could we do it again? I want to be Lady Macbeth this time.
Later on I fell in love with E. E. Cummings for his brilliant discombobulation of punctuation, line breaks, and idiosyncratic syntax. Garcia Lorca for his sensuality and the pleasure of reading him in Spain, in Spanish, in a leather bound book.
When I started writing in my late forties, Marlene Nourbese Philip was the first to read my early poems and encourage me. She intrusted me with creating the cover of her first book of poems and I was in awe of her talent. Bronwen Wallace taught me you could write about ordinary things.
David McFadden because I love his sense of humour. He was the first one to call me a poet, when I got up the courage to meet with him when he was writer-in-residence at the Metro Library.
Don McKay for his witty nature-inspired lyrical prowess and gentle editing guidance at Banff Writers’ Studio. When he labeled me a ‘rummager,’ I realized that the way I work is legitimate – like a clothing swap scavenger who thinks she finds the perfect outfit, takes it home, tries it on but never wears it, only to regift it the next year. So much effort to find what really fits. It doesn’t come easy.
I created a new punctuation mark and poem in his honour, “The McKay.” Here’s a few lines from that tribute:
Able to climb sheer cliffs, where language
often fails, the McKay travels timeless
space and deep time, ticking off
the longest not-to-do list in the multiverse
the unwritten (check)
the unspoken (check)
the unsayable, the unbearable, the
Right now I’m reading Jane Hirshfield for her lyrical wisdom, Billy Ray Belcourt and Thomas King for their fierce poetry, and Sharon Olds for her unflinching exploration of relationships.
I’ll stop there, for the list is endless.
Poems from Prompted by Happiness
(after “Sticking with It,” Sharon Salzberg and “Advent,” Mary Jo Salter)
She doesn’t believe in god,
our granddaughter tells me after lunch,
right before we leave for the beach.
This is what I believe, she says.
A T-Rex found a large rock and stamped it
into many pieces with his foot.
Then all the dinosaurs went extinct.
A baboon came across the rocks
which were really crystals.
She was hungry so she ate the crystals.
Slowly she turned into a woman
and the woman had a baby
and the baby had a baby
and then there were hundreds of babies
and that’s how humans were created.
There still are baboons, of course.
Then around the time of the pilgrims
the people walked around barefoot.
They cut their feet on rocks
and their feet got bloody
and the blood from all the feet
got mixed up and then people
knew that they were all related.
This happened in Africa.
I believe in heaven
cause our dog Kora is in heaven.
She sends me postcards.
She says she’s happy in heaven.
The post cards come to me as clouds.
Heaven is up there, she gestures,
to the kitchen ceiling,
and hell is here on earth.
I wait all day, trying to remember
cadence and stream of her story,
through ice cream cones after swimming,
making dinner and cleaning up,
pajamas, tooth brushing, and chapter
after chapter of The Wind in the Willows,
until she falls asleep and I have
a moment to write down her words.
I don’t tell her parents,
because it’s just between us.
The world will soon enough
change her mind.