When I read PJ Thomas’ poetry, I feel like I am connecting to the rhythm of the heartbeat that uniquely belongs to the people of Peterborough, Ontario. There is something about her words that feel that they express the shared experience of our community, although they can connect with people from places all over. One of the most respected and celebrated wordsmiths of the small Ontario city located in the heart of the Kawarthas, PJ Thomas has become known throughout the community for her literary and poetic journey via social media which has increased not only her following but also the visibility of her work.
With over 750 poems and counting in her notebooks, the COVID era, despite being a precarious time for the arts community, proved to be a time of great success for PJ. In 2020 PJ released Undertow, her first book of poetry, and is currently preparing a second volume. Then, in 2021, PJ was accepted into the League of Canadian Poets. Most recently she contributed lyrics to three tracks on Peterborough based musician Rick Fine’s album, Solar Powered Too, which has been nominated for a Juno Award.
Just as it happens to most beautiful souls, PJ’s journey hasn’t always been an easy one. But now in her latest act, she has become a revered and respected artistic icon for both her words and her wisdom.
“There are some things that are good for people from all walks of life – learning, yoga and art – and we need these things,” PJ tells me on a beautiful weekday afternoon. We are located at an obscure park, just off of one of Peterborough’s nature trails, right where Rubidge St. and Reid St. meet. Despite many warm interactions with PJ on-line for a few years, this is the first time I have had the chance to talk with her one on one, and I am moved by the powerful, yet warm, energy she brings to our surroundings.
“I write about nature and magic,” she says. “I’m not particularly religious, but I write about spirituality. Very armchair spirituality. I know sometimes the intelligentsia might think it’s a little bit Pollyanna, but I try not to depress people. I can’t take it. I’m full up on sad stuff and I can’t take it anymore. So, I write in spite of that. I very much try to keep it in modern language so it can be related to today.”
Motioning to a bush across from us PJ states “I don’t know if God exists, but this bush is phenomenal. The light shines through it, and it smells nice, and it helps the Earth and people love it. I find magic in that. I find magic in nature. It’s just the most magical thing to me – people, nature and animals.”
Originally from Toronto, PJ gained her desire to become a writer at the early age of four years old through the inspiration of watching her father at work. “My Dad was a writer, and while I taught myself how to read at four, I didn’t know how to write,” she recalls. “But I’d pretend to be writing. I’d make loops and lines just like my dad. The fifth grade was the first-time poetry was on the curriculum. My teacher asked me to write out my poem in on a big sheet of paper and she’d put it on the wall. No other kids got theirs put on the wall. Only mine. The poem was about the wind, and the only line I can remember was the last line, which was ‘Hold on to your underwear.’ So, it was very much ten-year-old stuff.”
“That same year I was asked to write a poem for the Memorial Day services for Veterans Day, so I did that and was the only poet who was read. I wrote a bit of poetry in high school, but I got into the sciences. I went to an alternative school in Toronto called SEED, which was 120 students who did the hiring and the firing. I learned a lot about Shakespeare there. They’d load us into the back of a cargo van and take us to Stratford every year. So, I was fascinated by poetry.”
PJ relocated to Peterborough in 1982 to attend Trent University, but it wasn’t her first adventures in the Kawarthas. “I went camping on my own at fourteen years old at Ferris Provincial Park with no food and no tent, a canteen, a tarp, a sleeping bag and a book and a pen,” PJ tells me. “I went out into the forest to have a cleanse and a fast and a vision quest. It was April and the bugs were out. I got soaking wet the first night, and then I was freezing cold. Then, at about day three I looked at my water bottle and things were growing in it. So, I thought that since I didn’t know what I was drinking that I gotta get home. That was the first time I ever hitch hiked. I decided to walk in a straight line, and I’d get to a road someday. I stuck out my thumb and two pork farmers from Ohio stopped. I threw my backpack in the back of the truck. They wanted me to sit in the middle, but I said ‘No, I think I’ll sit by the door.’ Then they started telling me all these rude jokes about farm animals, so I got out. I had seven rides between here and Toronto, and I met so many people. Some people were so kind. There were church people who would say a prayer for you, and drinkers, and used car salesmen. I kind of really loved it.”
Only a few years later she was out on her own and at Lady Eaton College on the Trent campus, and quickly found that Peterborough was a different experience than Toronto. “Everybody said to me, ‘You’re a big city girl and you’re not going to like Peterborough,” says PJ with a laugh. “But I got to Lady Eaton College and hooked up my stereo and spun my radio dial and the first thing I heard was the ‘Slaughter Calf Report.’ So, I knew I wasn’t in the big city anymore. I was a little bit freaked out by that, but within a week I fell in love with this place. I knew it was everything I ever wanted. It was the right size, there is a college and a university and radio and TV, but most of all, the people here are so supportive. They are helpful, talented. I guess everyone feels that way about their town, but here it’s true!”
But while still writing, PJ wasn’t ready to publish. It was an incident while she was working at the college paper that her poetry first found its way into the community. “When I got to Trent, I was terrified to publish anything,” she says. “But the editor of the college paper, which was called The Drumline, read a poem on my desk and said, ‘I need to publish that.’ I said ‘I don’t know about that’ but a couple of weeks later he stole it and published it. He certainly put my name on it, but I hadn’t given him permission. Well, people were cutting it out and putting it up on their walls. They ended up publishing it in the first Trent Annual. But I left poetry. I wanted it too much. So, I thought I had to become an editor to make a paycheck.”
In the years that followed PJ immersed herself into the Peterborough arts community, working with arts institutions still vital to the city today, including The Arthur, The Wire, 4th Line Theatre and Trent Radio. Working primarily as a professional editor, PJ also began to do promotion and management for an independent band which was gaining a certain amount of success. But, despite riding high on the arts scene, a cloud was forming from PJ’s past that would affect her life in profound ways. As a young teenager, PJ had suffered from mental illnesses, but with a certain amount of therapy, she felt that those days were behind her. “I was always called a cry baby as a kid,” PJ explains. “I had really bad anxiety and depression. I became suicidally depressed when I was fourteen and ended up in my first psych ward. So that went on for a while, and I was in and out of hospitals and therapy. But then I had the best fifteen years where I was fine. I was doing school, and I was doing the arts, and I was having the time of my life.”
“Everything was fine and going along smoothly but eventually there was a fall out between me and the singer in the band,” PJ continues. “I lost my job, which was also my social group just overnight. I didn’t want to go. I became very mentally ill and was in and out of hospital for ten years.”
PJ spent much of the 1990’s in and out of hospitals, and in an era when mental health was only staring to get the understanding and respect that it needed, PJ was finally able to get a diagnosis. “I’ve had a schizophrenic diagnosis for thirty years,” she reveals. “I saw the greatest diagnostician in Canada. He was the senior psychiatrist at Whitby Psych, and he said, ‘You are so far up on the shallow end of schizophrenia that its actually more of a delusional disorder,’ which I think makes me a better writer. I know it’s very fanciful, but I decide to just go with it and write about the magic and how I want things to be, and how they could be, and imagine a better world.”
Often part of surviving mental health is turning towards creativity, and in 2003, PJ returned to writing as a way to find her path back to the Peterborough arts community, which resulted in the publication of her first book, Almost Up and Down. “At some point I had come out of hospital after six months, and I was sitting at home feeling depressed when I thought to myself ‘I’ve lost everything. I’ve lost my job. My pets have passed. What am I going to do? I can’t just live here at the bottom of a hole.’ So, I decided I was going to write my way out of this depression and II wrote my first novella,” PJ explains.
“I sent it to Professor Ian McLachlan at Trent University who had his own publishing company, but it was only 23 typed pages long,” she recalls. “He read it and contacted me and said, ‘I’m not going to publish it, but I would like to talk to you about it.’ We started meeting every two weeks, and he was editing, and I kept writing, and eventually it turned into my first book.”
A second book, Gert’s Book of Knowledge, soon followed in 2011, but it took a while before PJ returned to poetry. “I didn’t write for five years before I found poetry,” she admits. “I had given up on the novellas and I hit a dry patch. I couldn’t find my niche and I didn’t know what to do. I was filling time. Again, it was I sat down, and I decided to write myself out of this. The first poem I wrote was called The White Cat, and the first hundred poems were called Schizophrenic Prose Poem #1, Schizophrenic Prose Poem #2 and all the way to a hundred.”
For PJ, her poetry is a way for her to connect to the people in her community, and in return the local arts community has been very receptive. Through her words she has managed to paint a vivid picture of the emotional landscape of the Kawarthas. “I write to communicate, and when I sit down to write every morning I say, ‘Who do I want to connect to, and how do I make their heart lift a little or feel understood,’” she tells. “The human connection we all share goes far beyond ‘I’m a musician’ or ‘I’m a painter’ or ‘I’m a brick layer.’ People want connection. They want community. These things are sadly lacking in our culture right now.”
“But I see a resurgence of it,” she continues. “People are aware that it’s one of the healthiest things for humans is to have a community and be connected to others. I think of people being isolated, and to warehouse people in homes and hospitals and institutions is nearly unforgivable. I realize that, in my case, it had to be so. I understand the need for hospitals and homes, but I think they need to be more human, and not be privatized. You want to starve people to make a bit of profit? That is horrible.”
“What I’ll say about having been in a mental hospital is it’s like mining for gold. I spent ten years mining for gold in some of the back woods of these Canadian hospitals. I met a lot of beautiful people in there. The dear hearts in there, and the sensitive people.”
During the COVID pandemic, a locked down community longing for human connection took to social media and the internet for artistic inspiration, and nearly daily PJ’s poems would appear on-line, becoming an artistic highlight to many people. For me it was a daily reminder that that while our local art scene seemed to be dormant, it was still out there, and it wasn’t in a coma. It was only soundly sleeping. PJ was still writing and capturing the mood of our times, but in a positive and honest way that radiated hope and a sense of calmness that cut through the chaos. That coincided with the release of her first book of poetry, Undertow, which she self-published and sold out of quickly. PJ had amassed a strong local following who related to her words and vision.
“We made a profit in six months,” PJ says of Undertow. “A lot of publishers go into debt with promotion, and spending a lot of money, and the great thing about self-publishing is you can keep the cost low, have full artistic control and largely get to set your own schedule which, for me, allows me to do it. If I had a real big book publisher, I couldn’t do it. To keep it small and in Peterborough is beautiful.”
Her on-line poetry also caught the attention of musician Rick Fines, who contacted PJ, creating a new and exciting artistic collaboration. Ironically, PJ tells that she first saw Rick play at Trent during her earliest years in Peterborough. “Rick Fines played by college in 1983 and forty years later we are writing together,” PJ laughs. “I wrote a poem and posted it online, but before I wrote it, I felt that I should pay more attention to rhythm. Rhythm is important to me and maybe it’ll come across musically. Well, Rick Fines read it and said, ‘That’s a song’ and I told him I’d love if he did it. So, we ended up writing three songs for the album.”
“I thought poems and lyrics were basically the same thing, but I was wrong,” PJ continues. “Writing a song is like writing a poem into a crossword puzzle. There is structure. I really enjoy it. I always thought poetry would be my highest aspiration, but now that I am writing lyrics, I think that I am enjoying that even more than poetry.”
PJ Thomas brings so much to Peterborough, and she is so many things. A writer, a poet, a novelist and now a song writer, she is also a survivor, an advocate, an activist and a voice of wisdom. But most of all, she is a woman with a special vision, who is bringing people together through her words of beauty, positivity and the celebration of the human experience. PJ Thomas is a true community treasure, which has brought her a devout following of readers and friends.
Shine On You by PJ Thomas
I would marry you in a heartbeat
if either of us was the marrying kind,
or so inclined to be exclusive,
or if we swung from that same vine.
But I would never date you
because you are too dear to me
to ever lose in a lover’s feud.
You play the heartful chord
between comfortable connection
and my watery knees,
the flutter of butterflies
beneath my rib cage,
like skating super fast on the river,
to swimming in a frothy, choppy sea.
If I ever mixed friendship with romance
I could lay my head beside you
and beg to be let in
to your careful thoughts.
Fundamental Nature by PJ Thomas
A mouse thunders in the forest.
The elephant whispers from the jungle undergrowth.
The monkey, you ask?
She’s just swinging,
chattering, and screeching
great uninhibited shrieks.
She is free.
A bass smacks the water
with a crack of its tail.
The great whale glides soundlessly,
like silk through liquid gels.
The dolphin, you ask?
He’s just laughing,
swimming upright and backward,
and flapping his flippers joyfully.
He is playful.
A hummingbird buzzes in my ear,
while the raucous seagull circles silently.
The cuckoo bird, you ask?
She’s just mocking, singing
She does not hear
any clock’s tick-tocking.
She is joyous,
A Friend Late in the Season by PJ Thomas
Night shine times
and wind chimes
outdoors on the porch.
Pipe dreams and moon cream
gleaming rich and oily
on slow, black water.
Practicing geese fly
across this light,
and all my tomorrows are rolled into today;
hovering like moments of beaded rain
on tilted glass.
If I could cast this moonlight
onto your countenance,
would I see clearly
the thoughtfulness in your eyes?
But I can see you in the dark,
my oldest friend.
I can sense the crinkling
of your crow’s feet
that our time is here,
for the luxurious moon has grown late,
and no one knows about next year.