No-Comfort Zone Challenge 2012 in review


In 2012, I stumbled upon the No-Comfort Zone Challenge and decided to give it a go. It has been an interesting year! The weekly posts for that drew a fair bit of interest while keeping me focused on trying new things or new ways of approaching old ones.

I travelled to Massachusetts on my own. The last time I went on a trip alone was in 1979! So that was a challenge, but also dealing with the fear that I had acquired after my illness four years ago. And I was successful!

I had some successful poetry submissions over the course of the year AND a couple of encouraging rejections (!). In the summer, I signed up for a course through Coursera, Modern & Contemporary American Poetry, expecting something not too challenging. After all, it was a free course. But come September when the course got underway, I became immersed in the 20th century of American poetry, and would remain so for the next 10 weeks. Along with some 36,000 other students from all over the world. What an amazing experience!

I also worked on a lot of fears about health and aging. I am still working on that! But I feel like I’ve come a long way since last January. For that I owe thanks to the No-Comfort Zone Challenge that I found through MargeKatherine at the Inside Out Cafe blog.

And at the same time, visitors from 82 countries visited my blog! Wow! I have not made any resolutions for 2013 yet. I look forward to more poetry, more challenges too. At the end of January, I’ll be doing the Intro to Philosophy course, also through Coursera. That sounds interesting too!

Happy New Year everybody, and thanks for visiting me!

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 6,100 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 10 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.

No-Comfort Zone Dec. 16, 2012


This week marked the retirement from Tree Reading Series of Director, Rod Pederson, after 5 years of excellent work promoting and advancing poetry in Ottawa. We’ve seen the launching of Ottawa’s own poetry festival, VERSeFest, the addition of the Tree Seeds Workshops, Master Workshops with some of Canada’s leading poets, and reading events with major voices in Canadian poetry. Three new Directors will share the Directorship going forward: Margaret Malloch Zielinksi, Deanna Young, and yours truly, Carol A. Stephen. We are all looking forward to being part of the literary scene in Ottawa, with the assistance of David Currie, as the new Admin.

To say goodbye to Rod, Tree held a special tribute at Arts Court on Tuesday, December 11th, with readings by regular attendees at the open mics, as well as board members. There was also a play with Rod as King, his wife Liz Bertholdi as Queen, Murray Citron as Merlin, David O’Meara as Sir David of the Manx. peppered the performance by repeating his line at random, “What the heck does that mean?” as well as providing a little swordplay with Kevin Matthews played Sir Kevin Hoboken Spoken, David Currie was the able Jester. Rona Shaffran portrayed Guinevere with her husband as Sir Brian Lancelot (Laughs a Lot) doing his version of Groucho Marx. Claudia Coutu Radmore was Lady Claudia, both MC and playwright. Her husband portrayed Sir Ted of the Red Moor, complete with fancy plumed hat. The previous director, Dean Steadman, also appeared as the old King. The three incoming Directors were the Supreme Duchesses, with Margaret stealing the scene as a regal duchess visiting the colonies. Margaret’s Scottish/British accent added much to that role!  After the play, the audience and cast feasted on a buffet with contributions by everyone. Rod is known for his mismatched two-different-colour socks, so many of the people attending had socks on their hands to wave, or mismatched gloves, but Brian Cook outdid us all with his special hat sporting two stuffed socks on top!

Brian Cook ably manned the video camera for the evening so we’re hoping to see it all again here now that the video is up on the Tree website. Meanwhile though, here are photos that Pearl Pirie, Pesbo, took at the event:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


In Week 10, the final week of ModPo, we met Kenneth Goldsmith, Christian Bök, Erica Baum, Caroline Bergvall, Michael Magee, Rosemarie Waldrop, Jennifer Scappettone and Tracie Morris.

Kenneth Goldsmith

Kenneth Goldsmith (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We started off with Goldsmith’s Soliloquy, a book transcribed from Goldsmith’s recordings of  himself for a one-week period. This includes only his side of conversations, and nothing has been edited out.  Goldsmith has also released a book that transcribes one entire day from the New York Times. It is 900 pages long. Goldsmith teaches a course about uncreative writing, where students are penalized for showing originality. Their work must be taken from other writers’ work, patchworked, cut-and-pasted, and thus repurposed. He has written that there is enough writing in the world already, that we should, in effect, re-use and recycle. But to make sure I am not misquoting, you can read for yourself here:

We then moved on to Canadian poet, Christian Bök‘s Eunoia, Chapter E. Eunoia is the shortest English word that contains all five main vowel graphemes, apparently. Bök‘s constraint was to write each chapter using one, and only one of the vowels in the chapter. This took him seven years to complete, and won the 2002 Griffin Prize for Poetry. A number of students made efforts to come up with poems, stanzas or phrases that used this constraint. In one student’s final essay, she did a remarkable job of using exactly this constraint.  Bök also created languages for both Gene Roddenberry’s Earth: Final Conflict and Peter Benchley’s Amazon.

Erica Baum is a poet and photographer who has combined both in the visual poems we studied: Card Catalogues and Dog Ear. Interesting to note that some students tended to read the words or phrases from the card catalogue differently than the way they were put together by the teaching staff. I started from the front and worked backwards, while the video discussion started on the left hand side, which meant working from the back of the file to the front. While I don’t plan to become a visual poet myself, I can certainly see how this might work as a blogger about poetry.

We then moved on to Caroline Bergvall’s VIA. Her concept was to take the first stanza from Dante’s The Divine Comedy, and then she looked for all the different translations she could find in the library. (Here is an article about working with translations.)  She then stacked them in alphabetical order by the first line. She reads it here in a even tone, each stanza, then the translator’s name, then the year of publication. It is interesting to note the slight nuances of meaning as the translators interpret the original Italian.

After that, we looked at Michael Magee’s Pledge, stanza after stanza of riffs on the American Pledge of Allegiance. At first, I didn’t realize just from the title what it was, but finally clued in on how it might sound read aloud. This was a series of  homophonic translations of the Pledge. I found myself checking for the original words, as there were some differences from the Canadian pledge I remember from school, and which, apparently, no longer exists. At least, no pledge to the flag exists.

Then we studied Magee’s My Angie Dickinson. This takes Emily Dickinson poems, using Emily’s dashes and style. It is a disruptive parody that weaves in flarf (Google search results)  from various TV and movie roles that actress Angie Dickson played, and also honours Susan Howe’s My Emily Dickinson.

Cover of "My Emily Dickinson"

Cover of My Emily Dickinson

Rosemarie Waldrop’s concept for Shorter American Memory of the Declaration of Independence used the technique of collage, drawing from Henry Beston’s American Memory from the 1930’s which she then applied the N+7 constraint of taking every noun, and replacing it with the one that falls seven nouns after it in the dictionary.

Jennifer Scappettones Vase Poppies is a hark-back to H.D.’s Sea Poppies imagist poem, using the sound, rhyme, number of words per line and number of lines per stanza from H.D.s poem. Scappettone used rhyme as she called it, “schmaltzification”. During the video discussion the comparison was made that Cage’s Writing Through Howl  poem was to Ginsberg’s Howl what Scappettone’s Vase Poppies  is to H.D.’s poem.

The final poet on the final week was Tracie Morris, whose poem, Afrika (video of it is the third poem on the Pennsound page), is a spoken word/music poem which is very much influenced by the nuances of the individual sounds, repetitions and disruptive flow of words stopping, starting, restarting. There is also a version that is a collaboration, adding music to the composition.

The poem never really seems to get going, stuck as it is in its repetitions. It is a poem about slavery, the arrival in America, the history of America. And even in its disruption, still provides a coherent narrative if you consider the back story and how the inflections, tone, the words relate to that history.

The final video discussion for Week 10 examined the Morris poem, and then moved on to talk about how the course of study has brought us through the lineage of modern poetry to Morris, the reflection of Stein and Dickinson here, of Cage. Final words came from each of the TAs. Here are my impressions of what I took away from their comments:

Max: “Will we, over this century, come back to the “what”.

Molly: worries about experimentation for the sake of experimentation.

Kristin: sees the lineage of modern poetry, sees Stein, sees Dickinson in “it” and “this”.

Al: hears Cage breaking the language down.

Anna: is reminded that language is a living breathing organism. Making it new = remaking it new= making it newer.

Ali: finds it easy to marvel at Tracie’s voice, her presentation. Gets pleasure from engaging with it.

Dave: likes how the poem lets you know the delivery of the poem IS the poem. You miss most of the message if you concentrate on content.

Amaris: history embedded in each word. Language is a living thing, renewed consciousness.

Trend in poetry moving from the authority voice to learning voice.

AL: Model a collective, collaborative close reading. The crowd is wise. The crowd has more to say than one expert.

Goal metapedagogically: to model a kind of collective reading of the poems that gets better the more we say on it.

Emily: renewed consciousness. Likes Afrika and Via of this section, which are also some of her favourites from the whole course. Experimentation augments the content, confrontational but not dogmatic, polemic or proselytizing. Asking a deeply important question, how we share our life experience, formal way of asking a question.

The following Monday there was a live webcast of goodbyes from the teaching staff, from the ModPolians who travelled to Philadelphia for the dinner the night before and went to the Kelly Writers House to attend the final webcast, and from those who called in from around the globe. And those of us who shouted our farewells from the sidebar chat on YouTube as well as from the discussion forums.

Is it over? No. The site is available for a year for us to review and to catch the discussions and further readings that we didn’t manage to squeeze in, or to revisit the ones we did. There are new discussion forums set up for us to discuss new material, and a couple of FB groups. There is a new blog for alumni to join, which we hope will continue after the official site has been closed down. There is a committee working to put together an anthology of poems from the ModPolian students who are also poets, and perhaps essays from those who are not poets. One student has set up his own blog to include a blogroll of ModPolians. Did I say we had a good course? Must be so, because no-one wants to see it end!

P.S. I should have commented further about the final webcast. This is the only course I have ever taken where not only were the students teary-eyed over saying goodbye, but so were the teaching staff, including the professor, Al Filreis! That really says it all, doesn’t it?


On Monday, November 19th, we had our last live webcast with the professor, Al Filreis, and his TAs and many of the ModPolians (a name someone came up with for students of the Modern & Contemporary American Poetry Coursera course I’ve been living in for the last 10 weeks).

Kelly Writers House at the University of Penns...

Kelly Writers House at the University of Pennsylvania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had never imagined anything like this course turned out to be. I spent most hours of every day watching videos, listening to poets, discussing with fellow students as well as the teaching staff, and in the latter part of the course, even some of the poets dropped by to discuss reactions to and questions about their poems. The last couple of weeks were quite challenging, especially trying to keep up with all aspects of the course. I wanted to be finished on time, and still didn’t quite manage. Yesterday I watched the last video. But I still have some of the posts to read and further readings and extra videos outside the main syllabus. And there are new discussions still going on, as the site remains open for the next year. I was planning to do both Weeks 9 and 10 summaries in one post, but as I ended the Week 9 poets realized it would be a very long post, so herewith Week 9 on its own.

In week 9, we studied John Cage‘s mesostic form, which takes a name or a title to form a spine in the centre of the lines, draws the rest of the words from a source text, then that is run through an algorithm to produce a poem similar in ways to an acrostic. We reviewed a mesostic he wrote (Writing Through Howl) using Howl as his source text, an article by Marjorie Perloff about that Cage poem, and a selection of his adagia. We also heard him speak about his quest to make English less understandable. Some of us also listened to his composition 4’33” which is unusual to say the least.

English: Jackson Mac Low, photo taken by Glori...

English: Jackson Mac Low, photo taken by Gloria Graham during the video taping of Add-Verse, 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Next we studied Jackson Mac Low‘s Vocabulary for Peter Innisfree Moore, which is a performance piece of words all drawn from the letters of Moore’s name. The instructions for this piece are extremely complex. I think you can hear the complexity when you listen to the recording.  We listened to Mac Low’s reading of Stein’s A Carafe That is a Blind Glass and to his commentary on Stein’s Tender Buttons, as well as his reading of  poem #100  in his Stein series, “A Feather Likeness of the Justice Chair”.

We listened to Jena Osman‘s poem, Dropping Leaflets, which was produced by printing out political press conference releases, cutting them up, and standing on a chair to drop the pieces like dropping leaflets from the sky. The leaflets, she says, told her what to do to create the poem.

Still in week 9, we read a selection of Bernadette Mayer‘s writing experiments, which I have saved in a couple of places for experiments once I find some writing time again.

We listened to and read Joan Retallack‘s “Not a Cage” poem. Her technique in putting this one together was something I’d like to try too. She was downsizing her library (something I desperately need to do too) and had a pile of books she’d not read, but was ready to part with. She took the first lines and last lines, sentences or phrases from each book, then whittled down the list and made a poem from them. She didn’t change words or orders of words within her selections, but she did decide how much of the line or phrase she would use.