Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Life of a Poet - Carol Stephen

Kids, Carol Stephen of   Quillfyre  says she thinks of herself as an “emerging poet,” but I beg to differ.......I think we will find this poet  has Fully Emerged!  As I sleuthed around her blog, I discovered that Carol is a well-known and active member of the writing community in Ottawa, Canada's capital city.  A member of the League of Canadian Poets, she has won awards and honorable mentions, and the Tree Reading Series recently proclaimed her one of "Four Hot Ottawa Voices”.  Wow. Come along with me.  For a long time now, I have badly wanted to take a train across Canada to Ottawa, as I did in my misguided youth, so this is the perfect occasion.  And, when we get there, since it's Canada, we must have at least two cups of Red Rose tea while we visit. 

Poets United: Carol, so nice to be chatting with you! You seem very well established and recognized in the Ottawa writing scene. Have you always lived there?

Carol: I was born and raised in Toronto, actually. In the 80’s my husband’s job saw us move to Kitchener, Mississauga (as a true Torontonian, Mississauga, then anyway, was not Toronto!) Montreal (Kirkland on the West Island), to King City, just north of Toronto, and then to Ottawa. In 1997 we moved to Carleton Place, which is about half an hour southwest of Ottawa.

I own a townhouse in Carleton Place, which is a town of 9800 people on the banks of the Mississippi River. (No, not THAT Mississippi!) I have no children, but I do have a very vocal Siamese cat named Tojo.

He’s been with me since he was about 12 weeks old, and became “the only” cat about a year ago. He’s eight, and loves to sleep in front of my computer when I am trying to write. I have to keep moving his legs, like being on a manual typewriter with the old carriage return…

For awhile, I was in a relationship with an Irish poet from Belfast. Now, I am sharing my home with my brother, Norm.

Poets United: I actually was married in Ottawa.(Not Ottawa’s fault! I hold no grudges.) I remember all the tulips in springtime there.

Parliament Buildings in the background - 
photo by planetware

Carol: Ottawa  is still mostly a pretty city, especially along the River Parkway, Parliament Hill, and, of course, the tulips in spring. Sorry about your mis-marriage. I had one of those too, which started in 1968 and lasted about nine and a half years longer than it should have. We split in August, 1977.

Poets United: 1972, for me. Where did you spend your childhood, kiddo?

Carol: I grew up in Toronto, in the Eglinton and Oakwood area, which was the north part of the city when we moved there when I was six. Now it is really central, I suppose. I’ve driven past the old house in the last few years: it looks so small and the street is very different than I remember. 

I remember before moving there, visiting Riverdale Zoo. At night I could hear the lions roar, as we did not live far away. I also remember Sunnyside down on the waterfront. They had rides all summer long. My parents called them amusements. Being very young, I mixed that up. I would clamour to go so I could ride on the ornaments! I also remember riding the streetcar to Kew Beach in what is now the trendy Beaches area ( except I think they call it THE BEACH now..)

I remember tulips, but they grew in my father’s garden, alongside the hollyhocks and lilies-of-the-valley.

Poets United: Did you write as a child?

Carol: I dabbled in poetry as a teen, left it behind when I joined the workforce at the ripe age of 17. Got married. Got divorced ten years later. Wrote some poetry for a little while, but met my second (late) husband, John and the writing dried up for 25 years.  I started writing again about a year after his death in 2004.

Poets United: I’m so sorry to hear of his death, Carol. I’m glad you turned to writing, during that time of grief. 

Carol: John developed diabetes and heart disease which became apparent about 15 years before he died. It was hard on him, as he had been an athlete all his life, even was on the alternate team for Hungary in 1952 Helsinki. His event was Modern Pentathlon: riding, swimming, crosscountry running and fencing. He took a bronze medal in one of the fencing events at the World Championships in Montreal sometime in the '70s. He had come to Canada after escaping from Hungary during the Revolution. He taught himself English, and became a physicist and electronics engineer, founding his own company at one point. I didn't know him then. 

I got to know him through a mutual love of downhill skiing. And travel. He loved to travel, went around the world two or perhaps three times. (I went with him the last time) and he had lived in Italy for awhile, so he had to show me that. And Germany, Austria, Hungary. Many trips to places in Canada and the U.S.

His heart disease was a progressive one, and in 1997 he developed congestive heart failure after having an emergency triple bypass. That gradually got worse, but what we did not know at first was that he was developing cardiovascular dementia as his brain was getting less and less oxygen.  He was being evaluated for a pacemaker so they could get his condition more under control when he had a bad car accident one day after dropping me off at work.

I got a call from the police telling me there had been a small accident. Understatement. His heart stopped at the scene and they had to work awhile to revive him, then airlifted him to Ottawa. He spent the next seven weeks in hospital fighting two bouts of pneumonia, toxic shock and his injuries, which included many broken ribs, a punctured liver...   In all that time, there was only one short visit where he was really lucid. I think he had had a stroke, and perhaps that is what caused him to lose control of the car. In any case, it was going to be a long, slow recovery. Perhaps he would have been a paraplegic, or confined to a wheelchair. He would have hated that. But his heart was just too tired, and one early morning it stopped.

Poets United: How terribly sad, kiddo. I'm so sorry. Would you tell us a bit about your writing journey?

Carol:  I began writing poems as part of English  studies in Grade 11. I have a lot of the old poems I wrote which seem to be in 1963 and 1964. I would have been 16 or 17 then.  I’d have to say that I was not a brilliant writer at that time, although some of those poems are probably salvageable as children’s poems. I see a strong nursery rhyme kind of feeling in them.

Then I wrote a lot of relationship poems when I was 30, when my marriage ended.  These were not rhyming poems. I am not sure, though, how I learned to move away from the rhyme, which was apparent in most if not all the early work.   After I met my second husband, I left my banking career to take some time off to decide what I wanted to do. I began a correspondence course in writing, but it focused on journalism, (at least in the early part of the course), and I wasn’t really interested in that genre of writing. I wanted poetry. And the writing stopped again. I didn’t even think about poetry or writing for about 25 years.

Poets United: What do you love about poetry?

Carol: Perhaps I never related much to stories and essays. I remember hating the Literature part of the English curriculum. Always asking what the author meant… I was never sure what it was supposed to mean, and that made me uncomfortable. So that may have turned me off those genres.  Although I had enjoyed children’s stories as a child.

My father loved poetry even though he did not have a lot of education. He would read in the evenings, and taught me to love it. I think the rhyming was one influence. Also perhaps, because as a child I was ill and spent six months in bed, I related very strongly to poems like In the Land of Counterpane, and Winken, Blinken and Nod. I don’t remember the words to most of them, but the titles are still with me.

Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear was another.

I think I also like the conciseness of poetry, how you can pack so much into so few words. Ironic, though, that I just can’t seem to write good haiku!  But I notice that I seldom write poems that go beyond a single page. I get the thoughts out and I am done! (Well, except to go back and edit, which is still difficult for me!)  Outside poetry, I tend to like to cut to the meat of the situation, present a summary, then fill in later. Except with poems, you don’t do the fill in part!

Poets United: What do you think  makes for “good” poetry?

Carol: Gee. I wish I knew the answer to that. It would save me from writing a lot of “junk”.  Seriously, though, I think good poetry is a combination of things. Finding the right words, the ones that make the reader say “WOW!”, that stick in memory, or that feel good on the tongue. (Figuratively.)  And poems that connect with readers, ones that readers say, “Yeah, that’s how I feel too!”  I guess what I mean is that all writing is meant to communicate. Poetry should communicate too.

Poetry should communicate, too

In my own work? I am really the worst judge of my own writing. In fact, recently I was thinking I should be sending out all those poems that I think are not so good. Why? Because invariably the poem that I like the least gets a lot of positive feedback from readers!

Specifically, the poems of my own that I tend to return to over and over are the ones that are funny, and the ones that are rich in the senses. I’ve been told that one of the strengths of my poems is the rich imagery that I often have in my work. I suppose that is through word choice and through the use of alliteration, sibilance, and of course sensory detail. In fact, the poem, Walking in Thomson’s Red Sumac, which took 3rd prize in the National Capital Writing Contest, was describing what it would be like to take a walk inside Tom Thomson’s painting. It is full of colour and visual imagery.

Poets United: What a cool subject for a poem.  I am impressed that you placed in a national contest. You must be stoked! Where and when were the winners announced?

Carol: Ok, clarification. National CAPITAL Writing Contest. Still stoked about it though. I had entered a number of times and this was the first time I placed in the winners. It was announced in May 2012 at the Canadian Authors Assocation, National Capital Region meeting at the Main Branch, Ottawa Public Library.

Poets United: So cool! Any advice for beginning writers?

Carol: YES!  If writing feels like something you HAVE to do, go for it. Don’t waste years like I did. Keep at it. Don’t wake up years later to realize you’ve got a lot of catching up to do.

It will be hard work.  And yes, you DO edit poems. A lot of young poets (me too!) think that you just write down what comes, and that’s it. That’s the poem. No. That is the sturm und drang, that’s the stuff you need to write to get out of your system. But that is not good poetry. Once the heavy emotional writing is on paper, you can then begin to work on the real poem.

Poets United: I so agree about not letting life sideline us  from writing. 

I see that you have two chapbooks out and just this August  held a mini-launch for your second book, Architectural Variations. (Great title!) Would you like to tell us about your books?


Carol: Above the Hum of Yellow Jackets came about as the result of a birthday gift to me by a dear friend and fellow poet. Claudia Coutu Radmore offered to edit poems and publish under her micropress imprint, Bondi Studios. She was tough. Almost none of the first poems I chose made the cut. I was envisioning a theme of colour. She wanted no part of theme.  “Your best poems” is what she said. So I went back, pulled out the poems that Claudia had earlier said were good ones, and those made the final cut.

There are humorous rant-style poems, poems with strong visual and sensory images, and a couple of ones that comment on relationships.

The second chapbook, Architectural Variations, is a collection of poems about various aspects of houses, whether about the historical reasons for how a house is placed on the landscape, or about people who lived in a particular house, or about different structures that are part of houses. Even about the relationships of people living in the houses. (Hence, the title!)

Poets United: They both look so intriguing, Carol. Any plans for further books?

Carol: Well, I would like to have a full collection. I am still learning the discipline of going back to edit my work. I find it more fun, I guess, to go with the new ones that spring from some of the most unexpected places. When I am working on new poems so often, it is hard to find time to pull together a full book. And of course, I always feel like the work isn’t good enough.

I have been thinking about one based either on my father’s life as a Home Child and/or my ancestors. I have a few poems along these lines already, but I need to do more research.

Poets United: I LOVE the sound of a book about your father. What an important topic to bring to the light of day, too. I can only imagine the impact being a Home Child had on him and, later, on you, as well. I’d love to read it, when it’s finished. Do you write prose as well?

Carol: I usually say no, but that is not strictly true. I have written Arts columns for local and regional papers, including a great regional Arts monthly called The Humm. I’ve written one short story, creative non-fiction I suppose. And I have written a story about my father that appeared in an anthology of stories about British Home Children.

Poets United: There you are: Chapter One of your book! Who – or what – would you say has been the most significant influence on your writing?

Carol: Hmmm. Not sure there would be a “what”, as I find my poems now might be in a variety of styles, different voices and many themes.

Claudia Coutu Radmore, who sees most of my poems in their early stages, and has given me good advice, even when I haven’t wanted to make the cuts she suggests. (I do anyway, mostly.) 

Of course, my writing circle has influenced some of my work, as they critique and I revise. That’s the Canadian Authors Association writing circle. We call ourselves Licence to Quill.  And my fellow CAA Exec members, Sharyn Heagle and Sherrill Wark, who often boost my confidence when they talk about my work with me.

Brent Robillard, who ran the first workshop I took when I returned to writing after my husband died. During an exercise he gave us, I wrote a line that he later said he wanted to steal.  When I heard that comment, I thought, “Hey, maybe I AM a poet, after all!” 

I have also been greatly influenced by listening over and over and over, to Leonard Cohen. The Essential Leonard Cohen. I wish I could turn a startling phrase, turn those unexpected corners that he turns in his poems and songs. Wow.

And Barry Dempster.  I was fortunate to take a 3-day workshop with him sponsored by Ottawa’s wonderful Tree Reading Series.  He too juxtaposes the ordinary with unexpected images in his poems.

And just lately, John Barton, who did a fantastic workshop on “The Line”. He’s called the Master of the Line, and I learned a lot about the whys and wheres of line breaks.

James Arthur, my Stanford course mentor, who continues to offer advice and encouragement, and as a fellow Canadian poet (even though he lives and works in the U.S.), relevant information on the Canadian poetry scene.

Poets United: A veritable wealth of influences! How wonderful! I am feeling rather envious of the rich literary resources in our capital city. I live in a culturally deprived area, so I am saved by the blogosphere! Who is your all-time favorite well known poet?

Carol: Oh my. Just one?  Leonard Cohen. Lorna Crozier. Yusef Komunyakaa. William Stafford. RobertPinsky. Barry Dempster.  I guess I will stop there. 

Poets United: How long have you been a member of the League of Canadian Poets? This is a highly prestigious organization, at least in the opinion of we Canadians. (Kids, it is a professional organization for established and emerging Canadian poets, founded in 1966 to nurture the advancement of poetry in Canada. Their website is at

So I almost feel as if I am talking to someone who has been knighted!

Carol: I joined the League in 2006 as an Associate member.  I am also on the executive of the National Capital Region branch of the Canadian Authors Association as VP Regional Outreach. I put out the weekly notices on events and contests (see below) and I field questions about our Writing Circles (critiquing groups).   

This organization is the longest running writers association in Canada, established in 1921 in Montreal. It has/has had a lot of Canada’s best known writers among its members, including Stephen Leacock.

Poets United: Carol, the home page of your site is a wealth of information for the Canadian writer. You perform a great service, by listing all of the links and events and submission deadlines on the Canadian writing scene.  Did you begin your site as a writer’s resource,  or as a writing site for yourself, which grew and expanded through your participation in the eastern writing scene?

Carol: I started the blog not knowing exactly what I wanted it to be. My first posts were about the Barry Dempster workshop I was attending, and the sessions were so inspiring, I had to share that. I had also recently taken over the task of weekly event notices at Canadian Authors Association (NCR branch), and realized that this would be one way I could ensure ongoing blog content AND reach a wider audience AND share some of the information that I was acquiring.  The events themselves are primarily in the Ottawa area, but the workshops, submission calls and contests might be from anywhere.

In January, 2012, I began the Writing Small Stones 30 day challenge that was running through Writing Our Way Home . I noticed that I got a lot of responses when I put up poems. Then I found imaginary gardens with real toads,  and Poets United, and found the same thing. Lately I’ve responded to prompts from dVerse Poets as well. 

I also started the No-Comfort Zone Challenge in January, to push myself out of my little safe place, whether it be personal challenges and fears that I needed to work through, or pushing myself to submit poems for publication.  It is also a way to keep in touch with some of the friends I’ve made on line.

Poets United: I love the name Quillfyre – how did you arrive at it?

Carol: Oh, boy. Well, Quill for writing, of course. I think I searched on Quillfire and found a lot of places already associated with that. So I changed the spelling up. I really can’t quite remember all the things that inspired it. Perhaps also that I am an Aries, which is a fire sign. And I love red…

Poets United: What other interests do you pursue? I know you have a smorgasbord of cultural events in the east, of which I'm rather envious.

Carol: Since retiring, I’ve found writing all-consuming! I go to readings, I write, most of my friends here are writers. And I no longer live in the city. But I think city life is an appealing one. As you say, so much to do and see.  Ottawa, as Canada’s capital city, has a thriving cultural life. In the past, I have attended musical performances at the Brazilian Embassy and haiku and music presentations at the Japanese one.

I’ve attended a couple of receptions at Library and Archives Canada by the British Isles Family History Genealogical Society (phew!) especially when they are presenting on British Home Children, as my father was one.

In the early summer, Ottawa has back-to-back Jazz and Blues festivals, which are wonderful. In late summer over in Gatineau there is the Fireworks Festival (with wonderful music there too!) and a Hot Air Balloon Festival. 

There are also the Italian Festival, the Greek and the South-East Asian ones.  And one I‘ve never managed to attend that I would love to see: the Odawa Pow-Wow.  Every time it’s on, I miss the announcements. 

And locally, I am on the board of Arts Carleton Place as a volunteer.  In June, I was part of the committee and was the poetry judge in Arts Carleton Place’s Youth Art Competition.  We promote the Arts in our area, and especially Youth programmes.

Poets United: It all sounds very wonderful! Any passions dear to your heart?

Carol: Travel. I love travelling.  It doesn’t matter whether it is a city or a beach. In North America or in Europe or in Southeast Asia.  I had major surgery four years ago, and for a long time I was afraid to travel. In May of this year, after much angst, I got in my little green Mazda (neon green! Love it!) and drove myself from Carleton Place to Lenox, Massachusetts for a week-long writing retreat. I even shared a room with someone I had never met before. It went well.  Now I feel the travel itch again.

I would still love to visit Italy one more time, and to see Morocco. And I am hoping in October to revisit Ocean Isle, North Carolina.

I used to love to cook. My husband was Hungarian. Food was important! He cooked Hungarian and Japanese, and sometimes Greek.  I became somewhat proficient in Chinese and Mexican, with smatterings of others thrown in. My childhood dining was based on bland Canadian/British food, so I really moved away from most of that. But I still love Prime Rib with Yorkshire pudding. And a good filet mignon!

I also have found that it is very difficult to live alone, or to live without a cat in my life. Even if he is a mouthy one.

And in the last couple of years, genealogy. I started that out of curiosity and am amazed at some of the things I learned about my father and his ancestors.

Poets United: Our family stories become ever more important as we age. Any last words for Poets United?

Carol: Perhaps just to say that I would love to hear from other poets and writers if they want to get in touch. And if anyone has attempted doing a series of biographical historical poems, I would love to hear about approaches to that.

Poets United: Thanks so much, Carol, for this interesting look at the eastern writing scene, which sounds very lively. We look forward to reading much more of your work.

Well, kids, there it is, one more fantastic poetic journey unfolding before us. Isn't it true that the people behind the pens are some of the most interesting folks around? Come back to see who we talk to next. Who knows? It might be you!


  1. Very interesting interview, Sherry. And congratulations, Carol, on placing in the National Capital Writing Contest! And on having two chapbooks. Ah, you mentioned Leonard Cohen. I am a GREAT fan of his as well. And Ottawa -- I was there only once for almost a week and would return again in a heartbeat. Loved the walkability, and oh - the restaurants.

    Sounds like you are really immersed in poetry and the poetry scene. Glad you got back into it again after a long time away. I move in all of the poetry sites you mentioned; but haven't encountered you, I don't believe. What name do you use when you post?

    Again, Sherry, you always find the most interesting people to interview! Thank you.

  2. Thanks Sherry, so much for the privilege of being profiled here! You made the experience quite painless, and rewarding, I can see, from all your glowing remarks.
    One thing I should clarify: I said I was "not a brilliant writer at that time", but did not mean to imply that I am now, either!

    Mary, most of the time my posts would be showing up under Quillfyre. I try to remember to tag them also with at least Carol, sometimes Carol A. Stephen.
    But I am by no means a frequent poster at any of the sites. I'd like to be, just that I have so many different places I want to be that I often get distracted. Right now I am taking the Modern and Contemporary American Poetry course online (free) and there are some 30,000 students, so am constantly behind in reading student comments and trying to work on the assigned readings. 10 weeks of this to come. Perhaps more than I can deal with!

    Check out my blog and leave a comment if you care to.

  3. How lovely to meet another Canadian writer ~ Congrats on your publications ~ I will be checking out the links for emerging Canadian poets ~

    Sherry, thanks for another inspiring interview ~

  4. Wow Carol, I am fascinated by all of your involvement in thepoetic world~
    You inspire me to want to do more. Yes, Congrats on your publication and all that you do for Canada! I am originally from Maine and been to Canada and loved it ;D Keep writing, thank you for being so involved and so motivating! Great interview Ladies! :D

  5. thank you Sherry for another enlightening interview. I am ever amazed by the talent that enters the halls of Poets United.

  6. Great interview Sherry!
    Carol, your life has been so interesting and full. You make me envious with all the poetic happenings where you live. Where I live in Tennessee doesn't have much to offer for the Arts. Congrats on all your writing accomplishments.
    This was a fantastic interview. I really enjoyed reading it and getting a peek into another poet's life.

  7. Carol, as always, it was my pleasure. And so interesting. It blows me away every week, another talented person with an incredible life story. Keep coming back........there are more to come!!

  8. Another great interview Sherry. You have a knack of getting the best out of your subjects.
    It is a pleasure to meet and to read about some of your life and works Carol. You've had and still do have a very busy schedule. Many congratulations on being published and for having the confidence to do what you do in the groups you're in and workshops you attend.
    Your cat sounds delightful, if vocal... :)

  9. Lovely to meet another Canadian writer, Carol! I lived in Ontario when we emigrated to Canada in 1958, but oddly enough, have never visited Ottawa. I, too, love to travel and write about what my trusty camera and I have seen. I agree with you on the concise nature of poetry, my choice being haiku where every word has to count.

    And thanks for another great interview, do introduce us to the most interesting people...:)

  10. What a great interview, Sherry. Your questions gave Carol the opportunity to say what is important to her in her writing and in her work with poetry organizations. I enjoyed this ever so much, both of you.


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