Bernice Lever gets “high on” words. A poet with 8 poetry books, (Never A Straight Line, Black Moss, 2007), she has also written a college textbook and other prose pieces. Living on Bowen island and retired from teaching English in college, she gives editing and marketing advice, and writing workshops. She enjoys performing her poems and prose, as she has read on 5 continents. Best known as editor of WAVES, a literary magazine from 1972-1987, Bernice has won awards for her poems, recently the Wm. Henry Drummond poetry prize, 2008. www.colourofwords.com
In 2004, she received CAA’s Allan Sangster Award for service to writers; in 2007, the Special Achievement Award: Surrey International Writers Conference from the Surrey Board of Trade, and in 2008, a Lifetime Achievement Award: Vancouver Public Library and World Poetry Reading Series. Bernice is a Life member of the Canadian Authors Association & Canadian Poetry Association and a member of the BC Federation of Writers. She now has provincial and national executive CAA positions, just as she did with the League of Canadian Poets in Toronto in the 1990’s. Currently, she is E-Writer-in-Residence for both CAA Vancouver and Ottawa branches.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
Even as a pre-schooler, I liked fun rhymes and witty words, but detested crude or vulgar language, which was my father’s norm. I wanted to be good at entertaining with words. As I couldn’t sing or dance, I wanted attention as I was the fourth daughter in a family that was trying for a son. In elementary school, I copied poems, then tried to imitate limericks, but I didn’t think of these fun jingles as the start of my poetry career. That would have been too bizarre in our isolated, mountain town: pre-television, with not much worldwide radio or newspaper content.
In 1950, I was a teen in Grade 9. Our English teacher, Miss Elsie Varcoe, told us to write a poem for the school annual. Back then, such hardcover books were B&W with few pictures, but I was thrilled to see 2 of my poems in print. I have never gotten over the desire to see my poetry or prose published, even though I always expected scorn or laughter as a result. Then in 1970/17, as a mature student in an Irving Layton workshop at York University, I began to believe I might have had some poetic talent. I’m not so sure everyday, now.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
Inspirations abound in my life everyday: what I experience outdoors or indoors, in conversations and news broadcasts, in snatches of dreams recalled as well as deliberate daydreaming. Occasionally, a poetry contest or literary journal will have a theme, then a topic dances around one’s brain waiting to be captured, but differently from an essay or article assignment. As inspirations arrive at all hours, I keep pen and paper on my bedside table and in my handbag. Rarely, do I write poems more than once a week as I don’t have too many messages for the world. I believe in word-composting.
What is your writing process?
Early mornings are my best writing times: alone at my kitchen table, in a park or on a bus, with just a hot drink or cool juice to savour, as meals make me sleepy, not alert. Since my teen years, I have written drafts, even fragmentary scribbles in notebooks, which are dated in order. My rough poems are on the right-hand pages—sometimes double spaced—and the left-hand side is for additions and revisions. Crossed out lines are gentle, not full erasures. Years ago I typed poems after I had worked on them 3 times; now they go into my computer files. I only compose prose on the computer screen as I believe the first free-flowing poetry attempts have the best lines among the doss. More revisions happen after poems are on my iMAC. Once edited on screen, it is difficult for me as a non-techie to compare it to the original version, to see if the final one is ready for submission. I save all versions.
What is your revision/editing process?
My revision/editing process is simple, mainly learning patience. Rarely have I created a poem that needed no changes, maybe 3 in a lifetime. My first notebook copies are left for a week, even weeks, then I read them aloud while marching, waltzing, moving to their rhythms. I try to imagine my future audience listening. Will I move their emotions the way I want to? Is my language—not just my message—engaging? Today, no longer shy, I look forward to performing my poems. Poetry is an oral art.
Yes, many notebook poems don’t get polished, and never seem to come alive that year. A decade later, I reread and discover lines I will use in a different poem. Do preserve all your written words, especially copies of all your poems.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
(A.) Get to know other poets by attending readings and workshops, listening to blogs and CD’s, as well as reading some current literary magazines and a few classical poetry books. Discover what forms and styles you enjoy.
(B.) Do not clutter your mind with too much research. Give yourself hours of free time in your chosen place in which to write, even with your favourite music playing or in silence. Your mind is a wonderful resource, so allow yourself to jot or type random thoughts and feelings, try different shapes and moods. You can always organize them later.
(C.) Take part in Open Mic events to share on a public stage. Yes, some will boo and some will clap. Send your poems to journals and websites. The only opinions and reactions that matter are the editor’s. Some will say “no” and some will say “yes”. Find your audience in the “literary bingo game”. Dare to be heard, to be read. Poetry is an enriching life for the spirit.
(D.) For my teen writers at a community college, I select Prism Of Poetry by Bob & Anne Cameron (Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-435330-7). Acquire a large dictionary, thesaurus and a style guide book, literary terms booklet, but do not focus on poetics theories unless you wish to be a teacher/Professor. Be choosey, there is not enough time to read everything the Internet offers.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
I remember getting a rejection letter from a N.Y.C. magazine. Sending it across the continent, I thought I would avoid embarrassment. My Dad held up that unopened envelope, angrily demanding to know what I was up to. I told him it was just some sci-fi writing, which no one probably wanted. He snorted in disbelief as he did not agree with my ideas that someday there would be “a human on the moon”. He handed over my rejection slip, scoffing, “Well, as long as your poems don’t hurt anybody”. Yes, at ten it would have been fantastic to talk with a published poet, any writer who had survived those early “no thank you notes”. With little idea how to find markets, I mailed away few submissions, always secretly. Years later, I learned our public librarian sold her prose pieces. Then, living provinces apart, we corresponded. I was too shy to ask others if they wrote poetry or stories. There were no teenage bands with songwriters in that high school or nearby towns.