Writer in Residence

Writing the same poem as everyone else, over and over

By Manahil Bandukwala

A tasbeeh hanging on a tree branch in front of a river

The Credit River

If you’re in Southern Ontario you might have spent last week soaking in the sun, switching from sweatpants to shorts, and strolling along a river, lake, stream, etc. 

I walked along my usual path around the marsh near my house with Like a Beggar by Ellen Bass in my purse. There was an empty bench overlooking the water and I sat down there to read: “I’d like to take the same walk / down the wide expanse of Woodrow to the ocean.” The spring buds were out and in a few weeks there will be full leaves. One tree even had pink flowers that have started to open. My catalogue of animals from the day: a stork, a frog, a bunny. I have pictures of storks in my camera roll from last year. I tried to take a picture of the frog but it hopped between the tall grass. I didn’t even bother with the bunny.

The poet way is to write a poem about every small thing. In 2018, I wrote a poem about an ice storm in Ottawa, how each spring leaf had another ice leaf on top. In early April 2023, Ottawa and Montreal were hit with a severe ice storm. How many poems will Southern Ontario poets write about the sudden shift from winter jackets to shorts? I have one in my drafts as I write this post.

Ellen Bass has another poem in Like a Beggar titled “Ordinary Sex,” in which she writes:

         I like it
         when you do the same old thing
         in the same old way.
         And then a few kisses, easy, loose,
         like the ones we’ve been
         kissing for a hundred years.

Is there something beautiful and magical about writing the same springtime poem as other poets year after year? Each season has its own moment of beauty, but perhaps we are most accustomed to noticing change. The same small bundle of hyacinths blooming new every year after a few months of absence.

I’ve been getting in my own head about trying to write something new and fresh. What is new and fresh? The same path to walk along every day, but maybe with a new friend or wearing a new hat. Is “fresh” pointing out the sweat and sunscreen on a lover, as Bass does in “Ordinary Sex”? The details not beautiful enough to enter a poem but the ones we notice (and love).

Every spring I take pictures of the same things as though I’m afraid I’ll lose them. It’s so easy to search up a picture of a more exotic frog. A colourful frog that doesn’t get lost between tall grass. But the point of the photograph of this dull and boring frog is that this frog is the one that suddenly appeared in my path.

I started this post because I wanted to write about the same animals I see on my walks. About wearing shorts outside for the first time in 2023. I had my first outdoor ice-cream of the season. I’ve done all of this before, and I’ve written this poem before. In these iterations, I’ll come out with something new.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Manahil Bandukwala is a multidisciplinary artist and writer. She is the author of Women Wide Awake (Mawenzi House, 2023) and Monument (Brick Books, 2022; shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award), and numerous chapbooks. In 2023, she was selected as a Writer's Trust Rising Star. See her work at manahilbandukwala.com.