Lost in ‘Transition’: Poetry finds humour in ‘bitter, ugly things’

Adela Talbot // Western News

Arts & Humanities professor Sonia Halpern is the author of The Life and Times of Transition Girl, a collection of poems commenting on jarring, yet comical relationships between women and men.

Sonia Halpern’s poems have been compared to those of Dorothy Parker. She likes that comparison. And who wouldn’t?

If you pick up a copy of Halpern’s new poetry collection, a revised edition of The Life and Times of Transition Girl, you’ll see why. There’s a similarity in wit, brevity and turn of phrase. A feminist, snarky thread seems to bind the poets together.

*   *   *

 When I’m old I’ll call myself bold

Like a pane of vivid stained glass

But at middle-age I can already gauge

They’ll just call me a pain in the ass

*   *   *

 So reads Aging Gracelessly, just one poem that could (and likely would) leave you with a smirk.

“This poetry thing is kind of weird, for me. Before 2005, I never wrote a stitch of poetry in my entire life. It was really one of those weird things – you know when you watch a movie and somebody just wakes up and they have a thought and they write it down? That’s exactly what happened. And it was the beginning of it all,” explained Halpern, who has taught in various departments at Western for the past 25 years, including Visual Arts, Women’s Studies and Feminist Research, and, now, English and Writing Studies.

Transition-Book

A trained art historian, Halpern has published a diverse collection of articles and other books – including a music book. After that initial poetic reverie, verse became a new creative outlet, like a puzzle.

“I gravitated to poems because I love making these really complex concepts really contained and really quick – to say a lot in a few lines,” she said.

“I usually get the idea pretty quickly, I get it down pretty quickly, but as I’m revising, it takes a long time because I’m very particular about the words I use. Everything is there for a reason. Whatever I’ve excluded isn’t there for a reason. I love the process, especially when I see the poem getting shorter with the meaning left intact. I love that idea. The quicker you can say it, the more impact it has.”

The collection of poems housed within The Life and Times of Transition Girl is “a mixed bag,” she said. It comprises autobiographical elements, bits and pieces gathered form conversations with friends and acquaintances, things she’s heard in elevators and stairwells.

“Most of the poems are premised on the fact I think it’s really humorous our culture encourages men and women to live together, because men and women couldn’t be more different from each other in a lot of ways. That’s very funny to me – not only the scenarios men and women find themselves in together, but just the fact our culture encourages it so much,” Halpern said.

“The poems have this idea that men are this way, women are this way, and the ways don’t really mesh really well. But in a funny way.”

Among her favourites is Retail Therapy.

*   *   *

 I won’t see a psychiatrist

and talk about all my life’s drama

I won’t pay her hundreds of dollars

and share all my childhood trauma

I won’t relay that my father’s withdrawn

or my mother’s compulsive nag

Because my favourite kind of therapy

is buying shoes and a matching bag

 

But could the heels be the no-good men in my life?

Could the straps mean I feel confined?

Could the purse snap be my need for closure?

Could its mirror be the self I must find?

 

No. Sometimes shoes are really just shoes

and bags are really just bags

But, maybe I’ll see a shrink just in case

before I remove all the tags

*   *   *

 The poems haven’t resonated with just women, Halpern said. Men, she added with a slight laugh, have liked the book. Perhaps they recognize themselves somewhere within.

“People find it funny,” Halpern said. “Some people see bitterness in it, but I don’t think they get it. If you don’t see the humour, in my mind, you don’t get it. In life, sometimes, you find humour in bitter, ugly things. I don’t like negativity and bitterness by itself – it has to be accompanied by humour. Everything does, for me.”

*   *   *

READ ALL ABOUT IT. The Life and Times of Transition Girl is available at The Book Store at Western, on Amazon, at Kiss the Cook (a culinary store on Richmond Row) and from Halpern directly.