Poetry as Memoir

A few months ago I received an invitation from Patricia Elford to submit a piece to an anthology called Grandmothers’ Necklace. As it was to be published as a fundraiser for the Grandmothers to Grandmothers Project of the Stephen Lewis’ Foundation, I was highly motivated to send something. My problem was: what to send? I could write about my experiences as a new grandmother but those feelings seemed too recent to write about. I had already written and published a short story in Wisdom of Old Souls about a woman who was like a grandmother to me. I never knew my paternal grandmother as she never emigrated from Ukraine and died when I was 6. My maternal grandmother or Baba had immigrated to Manitoba from Ukraine in 1911. We visited her once when I was about 18 months but I have no memory of her, and she died a few months later when I was two. How could I write about them?

I had interviewed my mother extensively trying to piece together my family history, so I had stories she had told me about her childhood and her parents. I decided to write a short poem based on a story she had told me about doing laundry on the farm under primitive conditions. The story tied into many feelings both she and her mother had about their lives. I called it Wash Day. After finishing one poem and feeling successful, I thought about my paternal grandmother and remembered an audiotape my sister had done with my father talking about his life. I listened to it again, especially the part where he talks about his mother then wrote a second poem about her called Knowing You. It too felt right so I sent both poems to Patricia, along with photos of my grandmothers and crossed my fingers.

On the 7th of July, almost 2 months later I was delighted to receive an email that both poems had been accepted.

What I learned from this experience was that memories, the basis of memoirs, can be expressed in many forms. Poetry is a great vehicle for short focused thoughts about a person, place or thing you remember from your past or, as in this case, a memory of someone based on stories you’ve heard. It’s all part of your past and all fuel for your memoir. Michael Ondaatje also knew this when he wrote his family memoir Running in the Family.

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