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Prince Edward Island Poetry Residency


Right now the remnants of Hurricane Matthew are rampaging round Prince Edward Island. Seems he’s still plenty wild. He’s dropped the temperature by 10 degrees and is hurling branches, pine needles, autumn leaves and horizontal rain against the double-glazed windows. He’s forced the cancellation of ferries and the closure of the bridge to the mainland is a distinct possibility. There are reports of power outages and occasionally the lights and the radio get a bit shaky so I’ve dug out a working torch, some candles and a box of ancient matches... just in case. We’ve all been warned to stay indoors. It reminds me a bit of the ex-tropical cyclones that periodically hit the far north coast of NSW when I was a kid growing up in Ballina. The swells would become enormous, the beaches would officially be closed, banked high with drifts of wind-whipped foam, and riding our bikes to school across the Missingham Bridge was a matter of great daring and precise timing as huge waves crashed over the old wooden slats, seriously threatening to sweep us into the churning river. But Mum said we couldn’t miss a day of school... when it was only an ex-cyclone.

Today’s wildness is such a dramatic contrast to the autumnal mildness of my first ten days on The Island. Then the sun shone benignly, the breeze played the river gently, the trees began to light up with their rich colours, the plump pumpkins (to celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving) lolled beside fence-posts looking for all the world as if they’d love to chat with strolling passersby. I tamed my jetlag by taking long walks by the North River enjoying the sea air, the friendly faces, the huge blue herons, and sightings of my first blue-jay.

And people on The Island made me feel welcome. I gave a reading on Tuesday night (4th Oct) at the university (UPEI). The room was full and the audience wonderfully responsive. One man described my reading as ‘sublime’ while another said, in a tone of deep surprise: ‘I had fun here tonight’. Can’t ask for much more than that for a range of descriptors, eh? The bookseller looked pleased with the night as sales were steady, better than either of us expected. He even invited me to go out afterwards to sample some seasonal pumpkin beer. Apparently it’s good, he looks forward to its appearance every October. But I’m not quite convinced. Maybe I’m haunted by memories of kiwi fruit wine in NZ in the 1980s... Still, I probably should sample the pumpkin beer at least once before I leave. Wouldn’t want to die with that item not ticked off my bucket list, now would I?

At this time of year there are an amazing array of pumpkin-inspired entries on Canadian menus. Pumpkin soup, well that’s hardly radical to an Australian, didn’t we invent that sometime in the 1970s? But spiced pumpkin latte? Mmm, not gunna let that one pass my lips. Does it have anything to do with coffee? Can imagine the baristas of Melbourne coming out in pumpkin-sized hives at the mere thought of it. Course there’s sweet pumpkin pie and one woman has promised to bake me a pumpkin jelly-roll with cream cheese filling. Happy to taste that, for sure. Haven’t seen any pumpkin scones yet. Flo Bjelke-Petersen’s heirs need to up their marketing strategy. There’d definitely be an opening for that on the menus here, I reckon.

Last night I was invited to a Thanksgiving dinner. A lot of fun and a lot of food. Everything from vegan lentil casseroles to traditional turkey to fresh stewed cranberries (so very different to the insipid stuff in jars) followed by pavlova, vegan chocolate-chip cookies and lemon scones. We talked about everything from Donald Trump to cyst removal to poetry to pets to Women’s Studies (here called Diversity and Social Justice Programs) to book design, and I think there was even some discussion of baseball as the Blue Jays (a Canadian team) is doing well against the Americans who of course invented the sport sometime last century (but don’t quote me on that).

Tonight I’ll stay indoors and try for the poise of Hillary Clinton. I’ll cook up a feast of vegetables bought from the wonderful local farmers’ market while Hurricane Matthew does his Donald Trump impression outside. I’m hoping he blows himself out soon.


The tiny red squirrel, agile spirit of the garden here in Charlottetown, did survive the exigencies of Hurricane Matthew, much to my delight and relief. It is a native inhabitant, I guess, well-versed in surviving hurricanes, blizzards, and anything else The Island throws its way. I’ve had to vow not to let it come inside the house I’m minding. Apparently, tiny though it is, a squirrel can wreak havoc inside domestic spaces… and I have taken a solemn oath to protect the two baby grand pianos in the basement. So, no squirrels inside.

Writer-in-residence is my title here but I’m clearly not a native resident of Prince Edward Island albeit I’ve been made to feel very much at home by the people, some of whom were born here, some of whom are known as ‘come-from-aways’ by ‘true’ islanders. In the Island Studies common room at the University of PEI, over a lunch of delicious egg sandwiches and homemade chilli, we discuss the different terms used by various communities to label those who are not born to a particular place. ‘Come-from-aways’ is the noun used on PEI. I quite like its soft sounds and the sense of journeying implied. Not quite as sibilant as ‘wash-ashores’ (the term used on the island of Nantucket) but decidedly less binary and stern than ‘non-belongers’ (the term used in the British Virgin Islands). In Tasmania we refer to people who were not born on the island as ‘mainlanders’ or ‘blow-ins’. Are there other terms? I’m not sure, perhaps because I’m a full-blown blow- in myself. And how do indigenous Tasmanians refer to the white (un)settlers? As far as I know we don’t have an equivalent term to the Maori’s wonderfully contemptuous-sounding ‘pakeha’ to refer to those original disrupters, the white-skinned ‘non-belongers’.

Eating breakfast yesterday, my eye was following the squirrel’s agile foraging in the conifers as I listened to CBC radio (the Canadian equivalent to our ABC). Fascinating report on the different dialects deployed by male cod (Gadus morhua) when they sing to attract female cod. The kind radio played recordings of both an Atlantic cod and an Arcto-Norwegian cod. The Atlantic cod had definitely been listening to blues music – his call was rhythmic and surprisingly sexy in a Paul Robeson kind of way. The other call was a more utilitarian grunting composition. The point of the research was that fish biologists have discerned subtle regional dialect differences among cod populations (many cod are sedentary and live their whole lives in one village in one valley - if I can use that landlubbers’ analogy). That’s pretty amazing to know, isn’t it? The problem is that as ocean temperatures rise, male cod are having to swim to different valleys in search of water that’s the optimal temperature for spawning. But female cod in the next valley over may not ‘get’ the dialect of these male ‘come-from-aways’, might not be attracted to their different dialects. This means the females might fail to release their eggs in response to the male’s foreign-sounding song. This means the spawning and fertilising of eggs won’t happen which means ‒ no baby cod.

Yes, of course, there’s a climate change angle. What else would you expect? The red squirrel here on Prince Edward Island, resilient as it is, might not survive the next hurricane which may be more intense than ever experienced, the cod of the world might not survive because the warming seas disrupt their age-old songlines and breeding rituals. Climate change is undeniable and real and it’s everywhere. And resorting to extremist, xenophobic labelling of ‘The Other’ is not going to help any of us.

Yes, perhaps a bit of a rant snuck in there. It’s hard not to when America has just elected a reality game-show star as their next president. It shocks me and it scares me. I fear for so many who will be affected by this enraged decision. It is hard to feel hope in the face of this news. But then I remind myself that throughout history creative people have written and painted and sculpted and stitched and sung in spite of all the wars, plagues, famines, fascists and other catastrophes. Right now the act of writing a poem feels tinier than a red squirrel’s kidney. But I think of the resilience and courage of all those generations of artists who preceded me – and for whom I am so grateful. The word ‘courage’ comes from the French word ‘coeur’ meaning ‘heart’. Like the squirrel after the hurricane we need to take heart, forage for hope, stay agile, and keep on making the world.

Author and former Island editor Gina Mercer commenced her 2016 Prince Edward Island residency in October, working on a new collection of eco-poetry around the theme of water. Gina has spent three decades teaching creative writing and literature and has published poetry collections, academic books, and the novel, Parachute Silk (2001). Her latest poetry book is all about birds: Weaving Nests with Smoke and Stone (Walleah Press, 2015).