Thursday, July 27, 2006

a brief note on Rhonda Douglas

Recently, Ottawa poet Rhonda Douglas won the 2006 Far Horizons Award for Poetry, sponsored by The Malahat Review and judged by George Bowering, for her poem "Non-Exclusive List." The contest celebrates the achievement of emerging writers who have yet to publish their poetry in book form, and her winning entry is now scheduled to appear in the fall 2006 issue, due out in late September.

Rhonda has been around for a few years, although most of the time she's kept her head down, quietly getting work done. In 2004/5, she was part of Seymour Mayne's creative writing (poetry) workshop at the University of Ottawa, along with Jesse Ferguson, Nicholas Lea and Wanda O'Connor, among others [see Amanda Earl's review of the resulting class chapbook here], as well as The Banff Centre Writing Studio in 2005. What's interesting to note is that she took the same workshop at the University of Ottawa years ago with Mark Frutkin (the year Mayne took sabbatical) in 1991/2, the same time I happened to be there (it feels like millions of years ago, now). What was she doing in the years between? Working, and raising her daughter, and honing her craft, it seems.

Her re-emergence on the Ottawa scene happened at the same time she also started more aggressively submitting works to magazines, and is part of a whole slew of poets around town that have become far more interesting over the past year or two, including Mike Blouin, Gwendolyn Guth, Amanda Earl, Una McDonnell, Ferguson, Lea and O'Connor, so expect to see her name here and there with increasing regularity in various Canadian journals over the next few years. It simply seems a matter of time. And too, with James Moran and Jennifer Mulligan stepping down from running The TREE Reading Series last fall, it was Douglas who stepped up to the plate to take over, on January first of this year. Now its official: we have to watch for her name now. We wait for great things to happen.

Here is a poem of hers that appeared in the second issue of ottawater:

Cassandra and the Fifth Grade Essay

Miss? I don’t understand why
I got an ‘F’. Didn’t I have all
the right grammar: past, present,

You said write a page about your family
and all I said was:

This is me and my house, my mom
and my dad and my forty-nine brothers.
My dad carries the weight of authority
and the inability to say no to women:
this will be our downfall, all of us,
these things that run in the family.

Once upon a time there was a city
and the people were happy. Mostly happy,
only sometimes sad in daily ways,
small griefs given perspective.
In the city, a family; around the family, walls.
What happened next was like a fire
made by Boy Scouts who are still learning –
many sparks, at first no hope and then
one catches and we are all
ablaze, uncontained.

That is all past tense now.
Future tense; my favourite
and the one we all fear.
Flashes of something normal: it’s just your sister-in-law Helen
in a pretty dress, the gold on her neck like the warning rays
of the sun at noon in July – go inside, protect yourselves.

I tell this to my mother, she says “no, Cassandra,
today it’s raining”, takes me firmly to the roof
of our house, makes me hold my hand out
to feel the warm wetness slide
across the centre of my palm.
I know enough not to say
it feels like tears, the temperature of blood.
She holds my hand out in the rain
as if I’m blind but I can see
and this is the problem.
Is guilt easier to handle if you can’t see it coming?

Nothing you can do, Miss? Same grade?

By the way, Miss, did you know you will die alone?