Quiet rebel says her poetry is a mirror on life's highs and lows

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 March, 2008, 12:00am

One thing school in Toronto, Canada, in the 1970s didn't teach me was how to deal with being a non-conformist. I struggled with that for years and with accepting myself as someone who did not fit society's moulds.

Primary school was difficult because I was quite shy. My sister and I used to get beaten up and shoved through cedar hedges by a gang of bullies. When one broke his leg, our teacher asked us to make get well cards.

I drew a picture of the bully in bed with his leg in a cast. But I signed it, 'Your friendly enemy ...'. The teacher was outraged and called me a bad girl in front of the class. He gave me detention and called my parents.

Fortunately, my mother came to my defence and explained that I was just being honest. I've never forgotten, though, the pain of the humiliation by that teacher and I'm sure that experience has helped to make me a more compassionate teacher myself.

During my childhood and adolescence, I learned so much from close encounters with nature in the wilderness of Algonquin Provincial Park. My immersion in the natural world was better than any botany or zoology class could ever be: loons and timber wolves echoing each others' calls, shimmering curtains of aurora borealis decorating the night sky.

During junior high, I found classmates with similar interests and more sympathetic teachers. High school was the same but I was never part of the mainstream. For a short time I dated a football player and went to a prom with him, but he was only interested in one thing - and it wasn't what I was reading at the time!

I had an inspiring but quirky Latin and classical civilisations teacher called Mr Payne. He'd quote the chorus from Aristophanes' The Frogs: 'Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax, Brekekekex, ko-ax, ko-ax!' as we did Latin declensions in our notebooks.

In fact, I was quite lucky to attend school in Toronto during the '70s because Canadian society was experiencing rapid intellectual, artistic and cultural growth.

My mother took me to performances by blues singers like Howlin' Wolf and I attended some great concerts by Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Blood, Sweat and Tears. My classmates came from all over the world - including Hong Kong. In fact I dated a really nice boy called Hubert Ing in junior high and went to a dance with him.

My funniest memory was at secondary school dating a would-be actor called Tavish. He ran around acting out Monty Python skits with his friends. He also put on tattered clothes and chained himself to his locker, acting out his 'imprisonment' by the education system.

It was also in secondary school that I began to think I was interested in writing or journalism as a career. I wrote poetry and short stories but didn't show them to anyone for many years.

I went onto do a BA in journalism at Ryerson University. I would've taken a BA in English literature immediately, but my father didn't think that was practical. It took me until my 30s before I went back to school to do a double MA in literature and creative writing.

I got a teaching assistantship as a kind of subsidy during my MA and that's how I ended up going into teaching after eight years working in broadcast journalism and public relations.

My first collection of poetry, which is being launched this month (March 5), is Painting the Borrowed House. For me poetry is a really good method for channelling responses and in the eight years I've been in Hong Kong I've found that sometimes it's easier to borrow methodologies and rituals from here to express my experiences.

Writing is my voice, my mirror, my heart. It's my way of finding connection and expressing my perceptions, my joy and my pain.