“Call me an introvert with a thirst for knowledge. For the first five years of my life, I lived on the prairies in a three-room house with no running water or working toilet. That serene life (books, words, open rural spaces and unscheduled play) is something I still treasure. My interest in poetry developed much later.”
What started as a writing career in print journalism and public relations in her twenties and thirties has evolved into a poetic journey spanning over the last eleven years.
Today, she is a professional poet currently on tour with Tarnished Trophies (Black Moss Press, 2014) her first full collection of poetry by a trade publisher. She is the Past President of The Ontario Poetry Society, a Member of The League of Canadian Poets, The Writers Union of Canada, Sarnia’s AfterHours Poets and the recipient of two Writers’ Reserve grants from the Ontario Arts Council. She loves promoting the work of other writers and for eight years she has been a co-host of a monthly open mic event in southwestern Ontario.
To date, over 290 of her poems have been published in over 110 different publications/websites including the Literary Review of Canada, Descant, Existere, Vallum, The Windsor Review, and Other Voices in Canada plus Mobius, The Binnacle, Thema, and Still Point Arts Quarterly in the United States. She has read her work throughout Ontario including the Fringe Stage of the 2011 Eden Mills Writers’ Festival and during the 2012 PoeTrain Express/Spring Pulse Poetry Festival in Cobalt. Several of her poems have won awards.
In addition to her Black Moss Press book, she has two chapbooks published by Beret Days Press and is part of EnCompass I, a 75-page anthology featuring the work of five Canadian poets. Between touring, she hopes to polish two new manuscripts. Next spring she will be editing Mindshadows, a 2015 membership anthology for The Ontario Poetry Society.
Follow her website/blog Kites Without Strings and on twitter @OkunHill.
Four Poems by Debbie Okun Hill
On the Way to the Cottage
You see them stranded
male metal apron strings
cut from a father’s fist
the ball and chain
used to drag them
his aluminum baggage of
his sail boat
quick spin of tires
his motor home
barely out of the box
Heavy burden of debt
no match for tiny tires
broken axle succumbed
to extra weight
now littering gravel roads
(First published in POEMATA, Volume 25, Number 01 The Canadian Poetry Association, 2010 ISSN 1920-8847 (PDF)
(Reprinted in Tarnished Trophies, Black Moss Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-088753-528-4 (pbk)
Spilling Warm Lemonade
I remember sinking
soft slow slide
deep in summer’s
the way it cushioned
made crisscross imprints
on the back of my thighs
my legs dangling
toes slipping in
cool pool water
your blank stare
distorting your reflection
You were angry that day
spilling your warm lemonade
not saying a word
kicking your thoughts
against wooden fence
hot sun blanketing
blistering your shoulders
the blue faces of
shriveled and curled brown
You had forgotten
your favorite sport
the way you swam laps
first your breast stroke
the steady up and down rhythm
your twisted turn, then
a smooth glide off pool wall
your fluttering fin feet
against nature’s current
Instead you kept asking
about your lemonade
as your memories spilled
sticky and thick
like a fog over your empty deck.
(First published in Tarnished Trophies, Black Moss Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-088753-528-4 (pbk)
(Reprinted on http://www.leafpress.ca/Mondays_Poems_2014/Debbie-Okun-Hill/Spilling-Warm-Lemonade.htm (Leaf Press Monday’s Poem link) Leaf Press Website September 7 to 14, 2014 then archived on site)
(Broadcast on http://findingavoiceoncfrcfm.wordpress.com October 31, 2014 4 to 5 p.m. (40:00 to 42:00) Recorded at October 7, 2014 ‘Poetry at the Artel’ Open Mic Reading Series in Kingston, Ontario).
Standing alone, near wooden post
ostracized from adult crowd
young male teen
fidgets, kicks a pebble
outside rural train station
loose gravel crunching
beneath his feet
hot sun searing his cheeks
quick snap-pop, click of teeth
his tongue twirling
juicy piece of bubble gum
grape flavour released
ball cap turned backwards
skateboard shoes untied
In this afternoon game of waiting
he loses valuable playtime
like rolling childhood marbles
on his stepfather’s whittle wasting hours
wood-chipped seconds suspended
each yellow dandelion
turning grey between thin cracks
slight breeze unraveling
unnourished seeds of his mind
wandering, blown away
when no one picks him up
leaves him feeling small
reminiscent of his days
hiding as an abused toddler
curled beneath a bench
coiled, thick wad, stale
like his gum—stuck
with no place to go
(First published with the title “ Stuck at the Train Station” on http://badpoetsclub.blogspot.com/ Bad Poets Club Blog Website Thursday, July 22, 2010)
Reprinted in Tarnished Trophies, Black Moss Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-088753-528-4 (pbk)
(Broadcast on http://findingavoiceoncfrcfm.wordpress.com October 31, 2014 4 to 5 p.m. (42:00 to 43:30) Recorded at October 7, 2014 ‘Poetry at the Artel’ Open Mic Reading Series in Kingston, Ontario).
The Finish Line
So those who are last will be first,
and those who are first will be last.
In this obstacle race, steeplechase with horses
she cannot run from the black stallion
his flaring nostrils, a clutch of death
upheld by his team of immortal jockeys
they are buried in the ash
at the base of the church steeple
his hoof prints, their haunting voices
rising like waves, surfing behind her
chasing her like vicious sundogs
nipping at her ankles
Turn this way, turn that way
she tries to escape, to lose them
to hide in her whirling cloud dust
Each hour, she runs through her daily life
attempting to create a better world
where Olympic torches lead athletes
away from gutters and ditches
dark bowling over lanes
Confused, she pauses, catches her breath
as if the phoenix feather
the wings of Pegasus she carries
can survive, can stay preserved
in the cup of her hands
these rewards of winning
in becoming first, in pushing forward
over the rapids, across the deep valley
how quick will they lead her
to death’s finish line?
She hears the hoof prints, she teeters on the edge
this is a race, a line she refuses to cross
(Published in Tarnished Trophies, Black Moss Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0-088753-528-4 (pbk)
(Broadcast on http://findingavoiceoncfrcfm.wordpress.com October 31, 2014 4 to 5 p.m. (43:30 to 46:30) Recorded at October 7, 2014 ‘Poetry at the Artel’ Open Mic Reading Series in Kingston, Ontario
Interview with Debbie
(Interview by Kevin Heslop for London Open Mic Poetry Night)
H: On the homepage of your website, Kites Without Strings, your make reference to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”. What does the phrase mean to you, and what compelled you to take “that road less travelled”?
O.H: For me, life is more about the journey than the destination. We can set goals and work hard towards them, but often along the way we encounter a fork in the road which forces us to rethink our original plans. In his poem “The Road Not Taken”, Frost writes about “Two roads diverged in a wood” but if you extrapolate this idea, and think outside the box, there are actually more than two paths a traveller can follow. For example, a person can turn right or left but an adventurous soul might sit on a stone fence, build a wood cabin and remain content with an inward journey without taking another physical step. Or she may forge a new route through the woods, dig a tunnel down to China or climb up a white pine tree and explore the skies. He might even go back home the way he came. For me, those are the roads or options that are often forgotten. Too often we see the world in black and white when in reality it is filled with not only shades and light of grey but also a multitude of colour. Look close, a leaf isn’t just green but includes streaks of brown, yellow, red and blue. I believe highly creative individuals like artists, poets, philosophers, and musicians are better problem solvers because they are not afraid to explore those roads less travelled. As for what compelled me to embark on this poetic journey, I would have to say it started off as strong nudge by a local writers’ group. For decades I hated poetry and yet, for the last 11 years, I’ve been a full-time poet. Today, I like to advocate: if you don’t like poetry, you just haven’t found the right poem yet.
H: The phrase “the love of creating word pictures”, referring to a writer’s journey, appears in “Starting Over”, first published by Sydenham Press in 2007. Would you identify yourself in relation to Imagism, or any particular school of poetics? What can a poem achieve, and how, with respect to ‘poem as succession of word pictures’, may it do so?
O.H: I hate labels such as “imagism”, “objectivism” or “surrealism”. At the same time, I know university scholars like to analyze and study the movements of past and current poetics. I want my poems to be like kites without strings: not tied down to a particular school but free to fly in new, perhaps less travelled directions. During my teens, my obsession for reading lessened as I explored my interest in the visual arts. I would spend hours in front of a paint easel or a sketch pad. In my twenties, I worked in the public relations department of The Winnipeg Art Gallery so the importance of cultural and artistic expression stayed with me. For me, poetry is organic, just like art is organic. It is the channel through which the muse speaks. A poem’s achievement or lack of it should never be part of the equation. Remember, the reward is in the journey. Once a poem is published or read aloud, it takes on new meanings based on the reader’s or listener’s own experiences. Of course, not everyone will agree, nor will everyone like the same poetry. I like to think that my work is eclectic. Some ‘word pictures’ are clear like a traditional landscape painting but other images are fictionalized with talking objects or askew with surrealism like a Salvador Dali masterpiece.
H: In “Portrait of the Poet as Landscape”, A.M. Klein offers the lines:
... Set apart,
he finds himself, with special haircut and dress,
as on a reservation. Introvert.
He does not understand this; sad conjecture
muscles and palls thrombotic on his heart.
If you’ll forgive Klein’s limited pronoun, how has introversion informed or shaped your writing and sense of self?
O.H: Wow, what a long and powerful poem! I wish I had time to fully explore the depth of meaning behind A. M. Klein’s work. I cannot speak for all introverts, and again I don’t like using labels, but for me, it’s easier to retain your sense of self when you have a strong support group behind you: people who love you unconditional despite all the failures. My mother is that loving person and cheerleader. My husband is my rock. I have several close friends who keep me grounded. It’s also easier to understand who you are when you are older than when you first leave home as a young adult. Yes, I’ve had to develop coping skills to deal with large parities or crowds. Yes, I’ve had to learn to be ‘out there’ when promoting a new book but I will always need that space to unwind and to re-charge my batteries.
As for shaping my writing, introversion helped me to become a better listener (I ask lots of questions) and to watch for the non-verbal clues that can often go un-noticed. I am fascinated by people who live on the fringe, those individuals who dare to be different in a society that wants everyone to conform to a certain image. Because I am happiest at my desk writing, reading, creating or spending time one-on-one with close friends and family, it is easy for me to pump out poems on a daily or nightly basis. Also it is during those quiet moments that it becomes easier to enter that mystical ‘ZONE’ , tap into the muse or become aware of the spiritual thread running through our lives.
H: Your most recent book of poems, “Tarnished Trophies”, explores the sports world. Explore, if you will, the impetus for merging the ostensibly disjunctive worlds of poetry and sport.
O.H: Earlier, we chatted about the road less travelled. I neglected to mention that life sometimes throws you a fastball and knocks you off home plate. Marty Gervais and Black Moss Press did that for me. I had submitted a sample of sports poems for a submission call for The Windsor Review. The publisher liked them so much he called to ask if I had any more. At the time, I didn’t tell him that I was at a fork in the road: ready to quit poetry and to change my focus to either short stories or photography. Three long years later, Tarnished Trophies, my first trade book was released. As noted on the back cover: “Debbie Okun Hill leaps from the bleachers into the light and shadow of the sports world. Mixed with the poetic portraits of sweat..the thirst for first…and the juicy taste of orange victory are the metaphorical snapshots of tarnished men and women, the unrewarded failures, and the need to reflect. Tarnished Trophieswrestles the athletic soul: this essence of winning and losing, loving and changing, growing and shaping.”
Some readers may shy away from this athletic theme but I’m hoping others will take that chance to see how sports can be a metaphor for life where more traditional poetic themes such as competition, bullying, ageing and suicide are also addressed. The truth is that I see poetry in everything and everywhere. Last month, Lummox Press in California published a themed anthology on desire and roadkill. Yes, now, I even have a published ‘roadkill’ poem inspired by Canadian artist Robert Bateman’s interpretation of a busy highway well-travelled by beavers. The poetic journey continues.
H: It seems you’ve had something of a love/hate relationship with poetry: “For decades I hated poetry and yet, for the last 11 years, I’ve been a full time poet." Later, you mentioned you were “ready to quit poetry and change my focus...”. Which poems or poets urged you to write poetry in the first place, and which specific emotions, uses of language or resonances within those texts helped you recognize the theatre as your own?
O.H: My answer is complicated. May I include novelists and children’s games in my list? Consider wooden puzzles, blocks, Scrabble and in my adult years, the Rubik’s Cube, Word Seek games and the Jumble puzzle. My mind needs to be busy so I seek out mentors and friends who I can have deep and challenging conversations with. Agatha Christie fueled my love for a good mystery. In high school Margaret Atwood spoke to me through her books: The Edible Woman and Surfacing. From then on, I was hooked on symbolism. I even purchased A Dictionary of Symbols to deepen my writing. However, poetry was never a significant part of my life until I met Sarnia poet Peggy Fletcher in 2002. She was the one who told me I was a poet. Of course, I didn’t believe her. I wanted to write fiction but agreed to try poetry as a stepping stone towards my larger goal. Then Bunny Iskov and The Ontario Poetry Society provided me with poetic challenges and deadlines. Before I knew it I was on this poetic journey, a road that I never expected to be on. It’s been fun but difficult at the same time. You need to have a tough skin to handle all the rejections from publishers and people who think writing poetry should be a hobby versus a worthwhile career.
H: “On the Way to the Cottage” renders the abandonment of male status icons; the sailboat, the motorcycle, the trailer, all reduced to “litter”. How and to what degree do you see the hollowness of ‘really existing capitalism’ and this patriarchic society as fused, limbs of the same animal?
O.H: Another tough question. What I want this poem and the poems in my book to do is to stir up a conversation about all competition, not just in the sports arena or amongst a specific gender. It’s easy to point fingers at Capitalism and a patriarchal society but the world is more complex than that. When you’ve been raised in a traditional family in an impoverished area, you see the importance of the team where neighbors and friends must work together to help each other survive. However, after living in a more prosperous province, I see how greed, the ‘thirst for first’ and the worship of materialistic goods can be detrimental to the well-being of others. I’m also old enough to see the paradigm shift where not only men but women are becoming more aggressive and self-absorbed in their own importance. Is this good? You tell me. I see many rich but very unhappy people.
H: You mentioned being inclined towards short story writing in the early stages of what would become “Tarnished Trophies”. What can poetry accomplish that prose can not, and vice versa? What kind of stories or messages are better fit for one or the other medium?
O.H: Poetry is a rain droplet. Prose is a rain barrel filled with droplets. Both are an expression of creativity; one more compact than the other. Snapshot images or word pictures are best captured in a poem. Concrete or shaped poems add an element of visual design to the published words. I have never seen this done with prose. Poems based on sound or slam poetry are additional forms that work best on the poetic stage versus being printed in a book. Narratives with setting/characters/dialogue are best expanded upon in prose. However there are exceptions to every rule and I admire when writers stretch those boundaries. The prose poem is an example of an interesting blend. I wish I had some statistics to share, but I’m guessing there is a larger audience for prose than poetry. Readers want to be entertained by prose. Poetry is for those who like to think and feel.
H: “The Finish Line” seems to be a kind of manifesto within the collection. It explores the vapidity of ‘victory’ in the face of oblivion, rendering the poet alone with her irreconcilable entanglement, all scoreboards darkened or useless. Extrapolate on this relationship between death and the fleetingness of victory in sport, if you would, with reference to your abstention from the use of the period, that final punctuating mark.
O.H: Like the vanishing periods, we are all going to die at some point; some sooner, some later than others. When the casket is lowered, what happens to these “undusted unappreciated trophies of/tarnished men and women/molded in various fitness poses”? Does it matter who is first or last? As stated on the back cover of my book, “Tarnished Trophies wrestles the athletic soul: this essence of winning and losing, loving and changing, growing and shaping”. Divided into three sections: Training, Building Muscle, and Hitting Home, the book also touches on bullying, ageing and yes death, including suicide. The first poem “It Starts Here” explores the planting of competitive seeds. The last poem “This is Where it Ends” is a whimsical resurrection of “all-star immortal heroes”. For those who enjoy a challenge, the meaning of life and death is another mystery to solve.
WHERE: The Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, covered terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60 poetry lovers. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. Except for the coldest months, the terrace is open to the parking lot behind. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014.
MUSIC: We are quietening down our music to allow for easier conversation than was possible in the past. Consequently, we will have live accompanying music from 6:30 to 7:00, or, if we can't get a musician, piped-in restaurant music.
THE FEATURED POET: Debbie Okun Hill will open the poetry portion of the event at 7:00, followed by a Q&A.
OPEN MIC: Following the featured poet, 15 open mic poets will read for about 1.5 hours, ending about 9:00 pm. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). Sign up on the reader`s list, which is on the book table at the back. It's first come, first served.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates to London Open Mic Poetry Night receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked after the intermission. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by Brick Books and The Ontario Poetry Society. Donations are our only source of income. We still haven't paid off our initial debt!