Life on Planet Poetry

Way back in 1988 I visited England for the first time as an adult. I had just published my second poetry collection, with a third on the way, and was keen to learn more about what was going on poetically in the UK. Before I left I got in touch with Mike Shields, then editor of the long running litmag Orbis, where I had had a few poems published. I asked if he knew any London poets I could meet, and he sent me the names Judi Benson and Peter Kenny, both of whom I met that visit and who both became longtime friends.

Towards the end of last year, Peter started up a podcast, Planet Poetry, with fellow poet Robin Houghton. Still fairly new, it charmed me from the outset with its straightforward approach; it feels like joining these two in the pub for a pleasant chat about poets they like, and what they’ve been reading and what they think about it.

So I was charmed to be invited into the virtual pub recently for a chat with Peter about long ago poems and themes of Arrivals/Departures. Hope you enjoy the trip!

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Over and Out: BC Seedy Saturday 2021

Well – long in the preparation and now over! Some 450 people from around the province registered for BC’s Virtual Seedy Saturday, and there were audiences of around 150 for each session.

I attended most of the events, with growing admiration for the Farm Folk City Folk team’s stamina. They were on hand at every session to keep on top of technical issues, monitor the chat and field the questions, so speakers were well supported.

Poetry videos began most of the sessions (and can now be viewed here: )

The live sessions were not recorded. These zoom days we have become accustomed to having recordings at our disposal if we cannot attend an event. The organizers explained, when this came up on the last day, that a great deal of thought and discussion had gone into the decision not to record sessions. One reason was simple logistics: how to distribute recordings after the fact to participants. Another was permissions: the speakers would have had to consent to having their images and content shared, potentially to people other than those who had registered.

And my feeling is that the sense of constant availability really knocks participation down, since many people (guilty!) do sign up for things and then don’t attend, thinking they will watch later. But this means fewer people in a live audience – which affects the energy in the ‘room’ and means some questions don’t get asked or answered.

Among my favourite sessions, though, and there were many…

Vandana Shiva kicked things off on Friday night with a fiery talk on the importance of seed and food security, and the value of local action for both.

On Saturday The Master Gardeners Q&A was lively and well-attended, with MGs from around the province, able to discuss garden issues that differ hugely in the wide range of growing climates in this province. Kristen Miskelly of Saanich Native Plants (at Haliburton Farm) gave a great overview on the value – environmental, cultural and ornamental – of native plants for gardens and restoration. Saturday’s screening of Gather was a pleasure – I’d long wanted to see this film on indigenous foodways.

On Sunday, a panel on invasive species gave some helpful reminders on the perils of random seed and plant sharing, an update on problematic species of plants and insects, and recommendations on contacting local experts to report suspects when spotted. There was Bob Wildfong‘s (Seeds of Diversity) helpful talk on how to preserve seeds and build a usable local seed collection of any size. And Connie Kuramoto gave thorough coverage of seed germination and healthy soil.

I’ll be reflecting further and then discussing my takeways from the weekend at Frances Litman‘s Creatively United webinar on Wednesday Feb 24.

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Nose Diving

I’ve yet to get my hands on a copy of Harold McGee‘s latest book, Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells, but I revere his classic work, On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen. And was delighted to catch his talk at last summer’s Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery... That conference truly was one of the highlights of my year. A sincere thank you to pandemic lockdown which made it possible to attend, and even greater thanks to the Symposium organizers who demonstrated, with deceptive ease, how to run a warm and friendly event, attended by hundreds of food lovers from all points of the compass.

Since then, Symposiasts have been attending Kitchen Table discussions on many and various topics. Today’s theme was Smells Nasty and Nice: How they guide us in the kitchen and at the table. McGee was in conversation with food writer Fuschia Dunlop, and around 200 of us gathered round our Zoom screens to hear what they had to say, filling the Chat with the observations, quotes, questions, recommendations and the same passionately informed and good-natured banter that featured in the Symposium.

McGee enchanted us with language: the “osmocosm” is probably going to be our favourite word for a while.. encompassing geology, biology, human culture: the idea that where you live provides its own aromatic microspace. The smell of eucalyptus in San Francisco.. volcanic emissions in Hawaii.. the smell of the sea, and underlying notes of cedar used to welcome me off the plane when I’d return to Victoria.

Anosmia was a popular topic, since loss of smell (and taste) is so often a symptom of COVID-19 infection, but it can also signal other viral infections, and the sense of smell declines with age. McGee said he’d experienced anosmia a couple of times – including one bout while writing this book! – and that it greatly affected how he ate and cooked, and lived, since he stopped going out for meals as there was little point if he couldn’t taste the food.

Some smells are culturally defined – Dunlop, an expert in Chinese cuisine, described the concept of a ‘fishy’ smell in raw meat (Xīng wèi according to google translate), which is dealt with by specific preparation methods. though smell receptors are to some extent genetically determined, many smells are also contextual: such as a foul odour that followed Dunlop around town, before she realized she was carrying cheese bought earlier from Neal’s Yard Dairy (surely one of the most aromatic establishments in London). Foul became fair as she anticipated the meal to come.

A question about why out of season tomatoes don’t smell or taste of anything, and whether aroma is tied to nutrition, elicited what I am sure is a greatly simplified answer: aroma molecules in plant materials like fruits and grains are made in the course of making other molecules in the plants. Plants have limited resources in making those molecules, so having time to ripen fully will optimize the taste, texture, aroma and nutritional qualities (vitamin A in the case of the tomato). A particularly strong aroma may in fact occur at the expense of other aspects, like taste and nutrition. Growing a fruit (such as a commercial tomato) as fast and heavy as possible, pumped up with water, means all molecular pathways are being depleted, in which case a lack of scent will correlate with lack of nutrients.

Molecules are really McGee’s bread and butter. The book includes a number of tables, he said, that show molecular correlations between otherwise different foods, e.g. cucumbers and oysters. These tables show what chemists have uncovered that explain why two foods have similar aroma notes (but different intensities. A 2.5 year old Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese develops an aroma like pineapple – why those resonances exist is why the book came about. Even toxic chemicals, which in larger quantities warn us off eating a food, can, in tiny amounts in the background, add an enjoyable flavour; for example notes of ammonia are present in ripe camembert, but in over-ripe camembert the ammonia overwhelms – so if the chemicals are excessive, we know to avoid the food.

The book covers far more than cooking, but cooking came up a lot in the discussion, like the idea that cooks monitor their dishes through smell (this one does it by sound!) – a kind of aromatic index of the transformation from raw to cooked. But, said McGee, really most of us start at the beginning, a quality test: we sniff anything we start cooking with – nuts (so often rancid), meats, dairy – to see what shape it’s in before they start.

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Poetry Among the Seeds

Our BC Virtual Seedy Saturday poetry lineup is out. Eleven BC poets will be featured among the talks that make up the three days of the event.

Some months ago, when the idea for a virtual event was mooted, I was talking to Carla Hick, one of the organizers from Farm Folk City Folk. She said they were open to all kinds of ideas, and the word “poetry” crossed her lips. I jumped on that and offered to organize something.

I conferred with a couple of people – Yvonne Blomer, who’s well connected in the Island poetry community; and then Nancy Holmes, who teaches at UBC-Okanagan in Kelowna and knows many of the mainland and BC Interior poets.

It was Nancy who put her finger on the key issue: a regular poetry reading would not do, as our audience was not a literary one, but made up of farmers and gardeners whose focus is seeds, plants and the products of horti- and agriculture. She suggested something more multimedia. “Why not poetry videos?” she mused. Inwardly I cringed – learn another thing? Would there be enough BC poets writing around our subjects and comfortable with the technology?

Turns out there were! Farm Folk City Folk reckoned we’d have room for 10 videos, scattered through the weekend’s program rather than posted as one long piece. In the end we’ve got 11 poets represented, and here they are, with the names of their pieces and the date/timing in the program:

Sarah de LeeuwOctober Chanterelling – Sat Feb 20, 8:45am
Matt RaderGarlic – Sat Feb 20, 10am
Nancy HolmesThe Way We Are Made Of – Sat Feb 20, 12:15pm
Michelle DoegeFields of Wheat – Sat Feb 20, 2:15pm
Fiona Tinwei Lam – August Raspberries – Sat Feb 20, 3:30pm
Yvonne BlomerRhubarb, Death in a Garden – Sun Feb 21, 8:45am
Renée Sarojini SaklikarGrandmother’s Instruction, Sun Feb 21, 10:05am
Shelley LeedahlSometimes – Sun Feb 21, 11:15am
John Barton Malus Pumila – Sun Feb 21, 12:30pm
Rhona McAdam! – Wild Bees – Sun Feb 21, 1:45pm
Cornelia HooglandSeaweed, Sun Feb 21, 3:45pm

All the poets used their own poems and created new videos for this program, so check ’em out! Registration for the weekend is only $5 (or more if you want to donate towards a share that goes to the organizing nonprofits). See you there!

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Seedy Saturday, Pandemic Style

I’m back online after a long absence! It seems right to pick up the thread here with news of this year’s Seedy Saturday.

Autumn is the time gardeners and farmers are starting to pore over seed catalogs, and community organizers are normally well into booking venues and speakers and seed vendors for that fine Canadian tradition known as Seedy Saturday.

But back in the fall of 2020, infection numbers were starting their winter ascent, and we were beginning to hunker down for more isolation after a carefully sociable summer. So the folks from Vancouver’s Farm Folk City Folk took the bit between their teeth and invited regional Seedy Saturday organizers into a series of brainstorming meetings to see if we wanted to put all our seeds in one provincial basket.

The consensus was a resounding YES. And FFCF has done a remarkable job of engaging seedy folk from around British Columbia to prepare a rich and fertile schedule for BC’s Virtual Seedy Saturday from Feb 19-21.

The nonprofit groups who organize local Seedy Saturday events in ‘normal’ times have lost this valuable source of income, and FFCF is sharing whatever profit may ensue with those groups. One of them, with which I’ve long been associated, is Haliburton Community Organic Farm.

Hali’s contribution is a talk by Kristen Miskelly of Saanich Native Plants, one of the longtime farm lessees on Hali’s land. She’ll be speaking on ‘Native Seed For Gardening and Restoration’.

I’ve also been working with Kelowna poet Nancy Holmes to coax poetry videos from BC poets. We approached those we thought would have a passion for seeds, gardens or similar, and our harvest will be scattered through the program. More on all this in upcoming posts!

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