TreeTalk-ing or, "How I Became a Serial Poetry Monogamist"

Ariel Gordon, award-winning poet, brings things together—people, ideas, forms and genres, and more. She is author of essay collection Treed: Walking in Canada's Urban Forest, and her latest release is TreeTalk, her third poetry collection.


It was a midnight proposal.

I was a long-time admirer of Synonym Art Consultation’s residency program, which took place at The Tallest Poppy, a Jewish diner/hangout in Winnipeg’s West Broadway neighbourhood.

One night, after a good half hour of browsing SAC’s website like it was a dating site, all I could think was: “I want to do one of those!” And: “But what could I do?”

At that point, I was halfway through the writing of my collection of essays, Treed: Walking in Canada’s Urban Forest, which means I was (and still am!) obsessed with all things arboreal.

And while I was officially working on Treed, I am a serial poetry monogamist, which is to say that I’d published two collections of poetry (Hump and Stowaways) and generally made it my mission in life to convert non-believers to poetry.

At events, I’d shamelessly try to steal prose-writers’ audiences. My favourite thing, afterwards, was to hear people say, “You know, I don’t read poetry usually, but that was really interesting…”

(And yes, if you must know, I usually cheat on my WiP with side projects that sometimes become the main project.)

So I was staring at the big old elm in front of The Tallest Poppy on Google Maps, measuring myself against it, measuring my midnight ambitions against it.

From my lurking on SAC’s website, I knew that Tallest Poppy Residencies typically involved artists occupying a booth inside the restaurant for a weekend.

Many of those projects were conceptual, so I knew I wanted to do more than just sit in a booth, eating chicken and waffles, and writing. It had to do something that was ever-so-slightly performative, something that brought people to poetry, and, ideally, something that put us all in the tree.

I had just seen articles about how City of Melbourne authorities had assigned every street tree a unique email address. They expected people to email when the street tree near them dropped branches or showed signs of disease but instead they got love letters, jokes, and existential questions.

I found this fascinating. I thought it would be very interesting to write to trees instead of about trees.

But instead of the Melbourne example, where city employees monitored thousands of treemails, I figured I’d invite other people to join me in writing to one tree.

What’s more, I’d go completely analog and use paper and string to hang the poems from that tree, adding a new temporary canopy of leaves.

So I wrote SAC an email, proposing this, and, to my great surprise and delight, they very shortly said yes. (Which is to say, that I proposed and they accepted…)

Of course, the weekend that we chose, in July 2017, was in the middle of a heatwave. It was 30+ degrees Celsius both days, so even though I was sitting in the shade, by the end of each day I felt like a melted candle.

But I talked about poetry to hundreds of people over those two days, sitting at my table under a tree as eggs and coffee and people catching the bus or just walking down Sherbrook sailed by. I convinced 107 to collaborate with me while I wrote 111 short poems of my own.

In the months that followed, I worked like stink to make my tree-based ambitions real. I finished up Treed and what would become TreeTalk pretty much at the same time.

For TreeTalk, the main challenge was figuring out how to incorporate those 107 voices alongside mine, to create a long poem that was as much a collage as a text.

That weekend, my sister—the visual artist Natalie Baird—had come for breakfast and hung a couple of drawings in the tree.

And since At Bay Press publisher Matt Joudrey commissioned Natalie to do a series of pen and ink drawings to include in the book, we also had to figure out how to incorporate them.

We decided to release TreeTalk a year after Treed so that each one got evenings and weekends and maybe even months of undivided attention.

Or that was how it was supposed to be, but while I was touring Treed, taking people on urban forest walks, while I was working on edits of TreeTalk, I just kept on TreeTalk-ing.

First, I wrote to a elm in an avenue of elms leading to a monastery graveyard at the Sage Hill Writing Experience in Muenster, SK.  

Then it was a cottonwood near the Hand-Made Village as a part of the Winnipeg Folk Festival’s Prairie Outdoor Exhibition.

In the fall, I spent most of the Prairie Gate Literary Festival writing to a linden in the quad at the University of Minnesota, Morris while a early tree-killing storm blew into Winnipeg’s urban forest.

So now TreeTalk is a series of long found poems, each with its own rhythms, its own histories and its own set of collaborators.

So now I find myself in a long-term lit relationship instead of looking back on a lost weekend of poetry.

I guess you could say that the launch of the first TreeTalk (this book!) is a shotgun wedding of sorts, where I announce my love to my community, which is to say my weird friends, my multiple sisters, and my smooch-y aunt.

September 24, 2020
Books mentioned in this post


Walking in Canada's Urban Forests
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by Ariel Gordon
illustrated by Natalie Baird
tagged : canadian
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