Tammy Armstrong


  1. Biography
  2. Why Should We Read and Study Armstrong?
  3. Literature & Analysis
    • “Clam Bake 1973”
    • “Carol”
    • “Boat Builder”
    • Analysis of “Clam Bake 1973,” “Carol,” and “Boat Builder”
    • “Wood Stove Sunday”
    • “Horse Girls”
    • “Zombie”
    • Analysis of “Zombie”
  4. Questions and Considerations for Reflection
  5. Strategies for Teachers
  6. Further Reading
  7. Copyright


Poet, novelist, and travel writer Tammy Armstrong was born in 1974 in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, a small town that straddles the Canada/U.S. border. It was perhaps the experience of growing up on the edge of two countries that contributed to Armstrong’s wanderlust. She travelled extensively as a young adult, documenting her experiences in poems that share the personal voice of Elizabeth Brewster and Alden Nowlan. Her first collection of poetry, Bogman’s Music, was released in 2000 when she was living in British Columbia. Four poetry collections have followed, as well as two novels, each examining her precarious position as a “global” citizen against a backdrop of childhood memories of contrasting stabilities: of mother, locale, ancestry, and relationships. Her negotiations of the foreign and the familiar characterize a body of work that has been highly acclaimed by critics and readers alike. Bogman’s Music was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, and subsequent works have been similarly lauded.

For a much more detailed biography of Armstrong, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.

Why Should We Read and Study Armstrong?

  • Tammy Armstrong is perhaps the best example in New Brunswick of our new generation of writers. Anchored emotionally but not physically or imaginatively to New Brunswick, her work is characteristic of a nomadism that many younger residents of the province will recognize. She has come and gone frequently, alighting in places outside the province from which she reflects on her position within the province. The paradox is not new to New Brunswick: Charles G.D. Roberts’ signature poem of the nineteenth century (“The Tantramar Revisited”) established “return” as a major provincial trope, one that has been further explored by A.G. Bailey (“Here in the East”), Elizabeth Brewster (“Return of the Native”), Alden Nowlan (“They Go Off to Seek Their Fortunes”), and Wayne Curtis (“September Morning”). Armstrong’s entire body of work is a larger version of this trope in that it meditates frequently on New Brunswick as a place from which things radiate to wider spheres.

Literature & Analysis

“Clam Bake 1973”

My father was a footprint, a moon shot
my mother fell into one night
while she concentrated on prying corduroy shells, awkward seams
away from a steamed ocean.
Through bonfire glow
he followed her
until they stood too close,
tasting salt on skin,
Turkish tobacco on fingers.
He moved in and out –
an ebb tide,
through her until
a teaspoon of him became me,
curled inside
the horn of a nautilus shell –
I came with no apologies, no answers.

My mother walked home alone,
fingers to her navel.
She would wait months for a kick,
for a rattle on rib bone –
of a dissipated sea squall,
butter and salt on his tongue;
who washed to shore
the comfort of knowledge:
she would love only small things now.


Evenings with the push-pedal Singer
sewing sofa covers, throw pillows in gaudy baroque print,
the threads broke rashes on your fingers and arms.
Mornings – a freedom of picking at five dollars a bushel,
months spent reaching into autumn
into the flames of apple and cloud.

By twelve, I grew taller,
spent too many hours on the vanity,
feet in sink, mooning over adolescent reflections.

There will always be more beautiful women, you said.
I rested my chin on your pippin-scented hair,
stepped on your shoes, so foolish,
more childlike than my own.

Those nights while father complained
of watered whisky, the cost of family,
you studied to have grade twelve before us
but sister grew into angry gristle
and you and I learned to smoke together,
how to leave men on rainy afternoons.
We never went out for milk
but to other provinces, other countries.
Drunk, I found myself calling you
from a Budapest brothel,
while German schoolboys took my picture.

But those mornings
when apples froze in the kill-frost,
no one needed new chesterfield prints,
you performed puppet shows with scrap box pleats,
your face perhaps darkened, a jaw slightly swollen –
our world tight, but with beauty,
your beauty as you threaded a silver needle,
sutured a button eye back into place.

“Boat Builder”

Swollen belly of the hull,
ribs nestle between your ill-fitted jeans
while I shuffle through mahogany shavings,
through the planed curls that spell out
the spaces, the rootless pockets of our silence.
The frame moans as you tip it to keel,
speak the body softly,
rub a palm over smoothed sides,
inspect for nicks, for ant galleries.

You've kept me away all these years,
running me to the house to refill three-finger drinks
a ten-year-old cocktail waitress who wondered
about this hidden world
half-finished creatures
under crinkled tarpaulins.

Gone now,
an element of summer dusk
dragging the boat over gravel,
sawdust-speckled arm jerking the choke
to urge the outboard purr,
push you through the channel, out beyond
the farthest buoy where gummy moonlight
beads you into a dozen hunched shadows
a breathing ember, sleepy with rye.

Analysis of  “Clam Bake 1973,” “Carol,” and “Boat Builder”

These three poems illustrate what was said above about Armstrong’s personal voice – and the similarity of that voice to the best of New Brunswick’s confessional poets, Elizabeth Brewster and Alden Nowlan. Each writes from a deep well of personal experience, and each employs a mature emotive language (direct rather than allusive, controlled rather than defensive or overwrought) to bring readers into a common humanity. What is also striking about the poems above, and reflective of the confessional impulse, is how Armstrong uses poetry as a mode of self-exploration. Though all artists do that in different ways, the confessional artist centres that exploration so poems and collections of poems (especially early work) act almost as postcards addressed to and from the self. Those postcards revisit childhood memories, seek to interpret formative relationships, and attempt to come to terms with aspects of the past. While this focus may suggest that Armstrong’s work does not rise above autobiographical indulgence, nothing is further from the truth. All writers endeavour to understand and ask questions through their work; however, artists with confessional tendencies such as Brewster, Nowlan, Elisabeth Harvor, and Armstrong raise that questioning to the level of the artistic.

Armstrong’s “Clam Bake 1973” is a good example. Striking in its similarity to Nowlan’s “Beginning,” the poem imagines the start of the poet’s life in the generalities of a party on an unnamed beach. Two figures emerge out of darkness, colliding briefly in the circumference of “bonfire glow.” One is her father, the other her mother. He is “a footprint, a moon shot” that her “mother [falls] into.” Each circles the other like celestial bodies, a strange gravity bringing them closer. Consummation is elemental, like a tide, the ebb and flow delivering seed to egg. There is no passion, only release, which the poet likens to a “sea squall.” Her “mother walk[s] home alone,” sealing the fate of the unborn child (the poet) in the uncertainties and grief of the next two poems.

The poem suspends judgement, preferring to document the collision of two forces rather than the consequences of that collision. The consequences are clear enough, and are implied by the few details given about the mother. From the moment of consummation, it is clear, the mother is anchor and pivot, the unwobbling constancy in the speaker’s life. And this despite the hardships she endures (“Carol”) and the indifference she attracts (“Boat Builder”).

“Carol” and “Boat Builder” seem to be companion pieces to “Clam Bake 1973” because they continue the same personal narrative. In the first, the speaker (again, probably the poet, whose mother is also named Carol) revisits memories of a tough but caring woman who was provider and entertainer (apple picker and puppeteer), bearer of hard truths (“There will always be more beautiful women”), role model (“you studied to have grade twelve before us”), and confidante (“you and I learned to smoke together, / how to leave men on rainy afternoons”). Embodying constancy amid hardship and violence (“our world tight,” “your face perhaps darkened, a jaw slightly swollen”), the mother exudes a stoic “beauty” in contrast to a father who complains of “watered whisky, [and] the cost of family.” That father appears again in “Boat Builder” and “Wood Stove Sunday” as a pained figure, a man “full of drinking stories” and indifference (“You've kept me away all these years”), a man unable to make a connection with a daughter who (presumably) is not his own. That man hides in his workshop, caressing the inanimate objects that he builds rather than the daughters that have come into his life. Again, Armstrong implies rather than states these facts, yet she skilfully offers all we need to form conclusions.

What she constructs for us is a childhood tableau, a matrix of circumstances, conditions, and relationships that constitute a personal history. We are privileged to peer into this life – and more so to see what an artist has created from these raw materials. Armstrong’s work proves again that every human experience is worthy of the literary. Literature is not made of high ideas, nor is it the possession of certain places or classes. Rather, literature is forged in the hearts of talented artists who come from all places and classes, even small border towns in New Brunswick.

“Wood Stove Sunday”

The next poem I write will have firewood right
in the middle of it.
Raymond Carver

Dish-eyed in the basement,
my sister piled walls of pitch pine,
hummed a hymn from the saltbox of a church
we attended every Sunday morning
three feet between us as we fought
over those frost-heaved hills.
We agreed to hate each other, burn hollows
through supplications, first sermon
before the collection quarters fell
too often from our balanced tongues,
spun over Murphy Oiled floors.
Now we worked in accepted silence,
kept our eyes to the damp earth
while piling winter’s wood.

On Wood Stove Sunday we tried to hide along the river,
tried to hide from the inevitable evening:
darning needles, splinters,
our mother steadying our palms in her lap.
But autumn’s rust drove us out,
blistered until we could no longer breathe,
until we knew our hands pitchy, raw
to remind us we had come from orchards
born in the belly of cast-iron stoves,
our vanity was a sin.

Stained from sap and wolf spiders,
we wore rain capes over good sweaters,
whispered library books near the tailgate
while father full of drinking stories
stacked stick after stick into my hooked arms.
Staggering again to the flakeboard chute,
I slid them down slowly
while my sister bowed to each one
before piling the wall higher.

“Horse Girls”

So you’re a horse girl, he says,
smiles as though we are somehow afflicted,
somehow convergent with dark rutted fantasy.
Yes, we are the ones who dream
in pale sparrow grass,
who tick our tongues at the sunfisher,
climb on, barely breathing,
knowing fear could fill a field,
snap a spine like tinder.
We ride bareback
to watch the boys squirm
at the insistence in their minds:
we will always find something to hold on to.

Belly muscles quiver beneath our legs
while the struts of rib cage,
large enough to envelop the sky-licked lake
carry us through backwater country,
out to where we no longer hear the highway,
no longer fear a moment with a gelding,
a hatchback, car horn,
something even the horse girls can’t anticipate.

There is memory through tiger lily switchbacks,
a tongue-twist around a bit,
a muzzle soft as deer moss, old denim,
snuffling over a palm, searching
horse girls who smell
of sunburn and barnyard dogs.
No longer child-women,
but extensions of broom tails,
of Sable Island serenity
in love with no one
as we crawl easily over,
urge the gate open with a tanned foot,
gone while the light still holds above.


Say we’d die because you’re slow moving,
not good in emergency situations.

Say this cinematic study of an abandoned farmhouse’s
clapboard light
makes up the man and the woman,

makes the kitchen hutch and the poster bed against a door.
Always the same motivation for raggy zombies

moving stilted and slow,
always a story written on EI stubs and hydro bill envelopes.


Here’s to all who never got loose of ruts and patterns,
whose hands scratched wallpaper into Sheetrock,

where years of energy went to chopping, digging, dragging.
Went to jalopies, unemployment,

the money, the money, the money.
And here’s to the bartered side of beef,

mealy raspberries, the garden stretched too far in pigweed,
the winter with candle and kerosene,

and the Holy Rollers at the door again,
again this afternoon –

blinking as they step through,
snapping birch bow past property line,

blinking out the clearing’s light –
their vegetable ink pamphlets at their starched hearts.


The starlet screams –
hands over her ears to stopper the sight of zombies

breaking through, bringing light,
all those stories we work not to tell,

after those summer binges –
all those families forgetting the windows are open,

the sad stories running toward the river,
looking back, running for all they were worth.

Analysis of  “Zombie”

Armstrong’s final poem is a different kind of testament, a testament not to a personal history, directly, but to a way of life that that personal history equips the poet to understand.

The poem is framed by first and last stanzas that are disconnected from the affection and sympathetic understanding of circumstance revealed in the middle stanza. To make the point clearer, think of how New Brunswickers are normally depicted: we are depicted through the stereotypes that outsiders rely on to make us intelligible to them. We are depicted as slow and unresponsive, rooted stubbornly and irresponsibly in a way of life that is no longer sustainable in a fast-moving, global world. As such, we are easy targets for zombies, being zombies ourselves. Proofs of the stereotype are everywhere around us. In 1976, to take one example, one of the leading figures in Canadian literary criticism wrote that “‘The Maritimes’ has its image in the rest of Canada: dour, demanding, rural without being pastoral, industrious without being profitable, the exporter of brains and the importer of money, everyone’s half-forgotten past and no-one’s future” (New 3). Floundering between a forgotten past and a non-existent future, we are a people whose stories are “written on EI stubs and hydro bill envelopes,” at least in the minds of most Canadians. Our “story,” in other words, is the story of deficit, absence, dependency.

In the face of this stereotyping, Armstrong offers an alternative view, a form of secular beatitudes that celebrate New Brunswickers rather than demean them. “Here’s to all who never got loose of ruts and patterns,” she begins, “whose hands scratched wallpaper into Sheetrock.” Here’s to a place

where years of energy went to chopping, digging, dragging.
Went to jalopies, unemployment,

the money, the money, the money.
And here’s to the bartered side of beef,

mealy raspberries, the garden stretched too far in pigweed,
the winter with candle and kerosene[.]

Her beatitudes, like Herménégilde Chiasson’s, celebrate real instead of constructed lives and histories. Her beatitudes, like his, speak openly of foible and hardship, of circumstance and consequence, but with a knowledge of causation rather than a desire to generalize or accuse. The thinking subject of the middle stanza knows intimately about “all those stories we work not to tell,” and knows also why we choose not to tell them. That thinking subject, in ways similar to the thinking subject in Alden Nowlan’s “Britain Street,” knows, because she has heard, what comes from houses where families forget “the windows are open.” She also knows the “sad stories” and why people run “for all they are worth.” What she knows, however, is not a “cinematic study of an abandoned farmhouse” – its embellishments trading on the basest assumptions about rural people in impoverished circumstances – but rather the real lives of actual people who, like zombies, have been slowed and demoralized by dependency, made to feed off those who are more affluent, more alive, and better constituted by opportunity.

The arc of Armstrong’s work in this small selection of poems is characteristic of her larger trajectory, for what began in personal exploration of family and roots in Bogman’s Music has advanced to more ambitious questioning in her most recent work. But still she is outside, and still straddling other worlds as she ruminates on New Brunswick. While she clearly understands why people would run “for all they are worth,” she does not run. For her, there is more value in explaining why people run than in joining the exodus.

Questions and Considerations for Reflection

► At this point in the New Brunswick Literature Curriculum almost every new poem or story will remind readers of earlier works that share a similar theme, voice, or form. Armstrong’s “Clam Bake 1973” is an example. It is similar to Alden Nowlan’s “Beginning” and “It’s Good to Be Here.” It also has echoes of Kay Smith’s “When a Girl Looks Down” and “Autobiography,” and Elizabeth Brewster’s “Inheritance.” All of these poets are forthright about the personal. None are ashamed of personal statement or worried about tempting readers with fallacies of the autobiographical. Modernist poet T.S. Eliot’s dictum about the personal – that writers should strive for the “extinction of personality” (7) – has not only been eclipsed in New Brunswick, but eclipsed by the province’s best modernist poets. More of our literature deploys the personal than avoids it, and in so doing resists what is still an unsaid rule of creative writing. This raises the question of why? Why have so many of our poets put their own subjectivity at the centre of their work? Is this impulse related in any way to a larger culture of disenfranchisement in the region and province? Is foregrounding the personal a feature of (or reaction to) federalism? If so, what does examining the personal correct? What myths or stereotypes does that examination dispel?

► Readers will also find it instructive to read Armstrong’s “Zombie” against the selected stanzas of Herménégilde Chiasson’s Beatitudes (see The Acadian Renaissance). Common to both poets is the desire to present a landscape of actualities to counter what is normally thought to constitute place. Is it, then, the job of literary artists to counter-punch; that is, to respond to the assumptions and generalizations of others, especially when those views are inaccurate, partial, or unfair? Is this what is meant by writing politically? And does writing with a political motive (to answer back, set the record straight, tell it like it is) compromise an artist? Alternatively, is it possible to write without political motive? Can writing be apolitical? Is T.S. Eliot’s goal of extinguishing the personality (see paragraph immediately above) apolitical? In the absence of an individual’s politics, what other politics exist?

Strategies for Teachers

Strategy 1: Tableau (All poems)

As described in the first analysis above, Armstrong constructs “a childhood tableau, a matrix of circumstances, conditions, and relationships that constitute a personal history.” This tableau is turned to pedagogical ends in the strategies below.

  1. Have student groups develop one or more tableaux vivants (living pictures) based on scenes from Armstrong’s poetry. Emphasize the importance of arrangement, lighting, bodily positioning, and so on, presenting historical and contemporary examples of the art form. Students might choose to present their tableaux “live” or in photographic form. If developing more than one tableau, students can attend to how the selection and ordering of scenes tells a cohesive story. Students might also wish to consider which other New Brunswick writers would share similar vivants with Armstrong. Would the pictorials of Raymond Fraser’s fictional world and Armstrong’s be similar?
  2. Have students compare Armstrong’s confessional self-exploration with that of contemporary artists such as Tracey Emin. Students might compare the tableau Armstrong constructs with words with the visual tableau of an artwork like Emin’s “My Bed.” How are these tableaux representative of the larger whole of the artist’s life?
  3. Ask students to create tableaux based on their own lives, perhaps a triptych of three meaningful scenes. Since this is so personal, it might work best as a journaling assignment. Alternatively, students could select a relative’s life to depict. Forms of representation could include poetry or prose, or visual modes such as comic-book panels, dioramas, or even Lego.

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Writing and Representing: Explore the use of photographs, diagrams, storyboards, etc., in documenting experiences
  • Writing and Representing: Demonstrate a commitment to the skilful crafting of a range of writing and other representations

Strategy 2: Change the Narrative (“Carol”)

There is nothing accidental about the snapshot scenes included in this poem; all fit meaningfully in a narrative of the speaker’s relationship with her mother. First, ask students to describe the narrative of the speaker’s youth in only a few sentences. Prompt with questions such as: how does the speaker feel about her mother? Is the relationship constant, or evolving? Does she feel differently towards her mother now than she did as a young girl? What role does the father figure play? And so on. Students should be able to point precisely to where they drew their conclusions. Then, challenge students to alter the narrative of the poem by changing only x number of words or by adding a scene. For example, if Armstrong’s line read “father bragged / of watered whisky, the cost of family” instead of “father complained,” how would this change the story embedded in the poem? What student or student group can most dramatically alter the narrative, while only changing/adding/deleting a few lines?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Writing and Representing: Demonstrate an understanding of the ways in which the construction of texts can create, enhance, and control meaning

Strategy 3: Perspective (“Boat Builder”)

The perspective of this poem is not that of a child, but that of an adult re-examining a childhood event with new insight. A child might feel a sense of neglect in the moment, but only a reflective adult would describe the boat as having a “swollen belly,” the allusion to pregnancy suggesting that the father figure’s paternal affection is misdirected onto objects rather than children. This rear-view perspective (adults looking back) can also be found in Elizabeth Brewster’s “Inheritance” (see Confessional Humanism), Robert Gibbs’ “The Death of My Father” (see Modernism and the Fredericton Ferment), and Wayne Curtis’ “The Game” (see The Literary Miramichi). Potential teaching strategies are offered below.

  1. Have students identify “tells” in the poem, those things that clue readers to the adult perspective. The speaker uses the present tense, so what are the clues of phrasing or imagery that let readers know that the speaker is returning to or re-experiencing these events, rather than experiencing them for the first time?
  2. Compare this poem to the Brewster and Gibbs poems mentioned above. What insight does each speaker acquire with time and reflection? Looking back, to what extent do each parent’s idiosyncrasies become the object of sympathy? When students look back at their own childhood experiences, do they judge their parents more generously or harshly than they did as children?
  3. Ask students to recall a personal childhood memory. To assist, offer prompts such as “getting lost” or “new toy.” Have students write two distinct paragraphs about their memory, first from the perspective or their younger selves and then from their current perspective. What do they see now that they may not have seen then? Do they now, perhaps, have a larger context within which to fit the experience? With time, do experiences transform from terrifying to amusing, from happy to bittersweet, or do some experiences retain their character, meaning, and intensity over the years?

Key Stage Curriculum Outcomes:

  • Reading and Viewing: Make informed personal responses to increasingly challenging print and media texts and reflect on their responses
  • Writing and Representing: Use writing and other ways of representing to explore, extend, and reflect on their experiences with and insights into challenging texts and issues

Further Reading

Armstrong, Tammy. Bogman’s Music. Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2001.

---. The Scare in the Crow. Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane, 2010.

Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Selected Essays, 1917-1932. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932. 3-11.

Ferguson, Jesse. Rev. of Take Us Quietly, by Tammy Armstrong. Antigonish Review 152 (2008): 41-43.

Guest, Kristen. Rev. of Take Us Quietly, by Tammy Armstrong. Canadian Literature 196 (2008): 148-150.

Houglum, Brook. Rev. of Bogman’s Music, by Tammy Armstrong. Canadian Literature 180 (2004): 131-133.

New, W.H. “Maritime Cadences.” Canadian Literature 68-69 (Spring-Summer 1976): 3-6.

For much more detailed primary and secondary source bibliographies of Armstrong, see her New Brunswick Literary Encyclopedia entry.


We gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Tammy Armstrong for allowing us to use the poems above for this curriculum. Further use or distribution of these poems, however, is a violation of Canadian copyright law and is strictly prohibited. Under no circumstance may literary material used in the curriculum be reproduced, distributed, or stored without the permission of the copyright holder.

“Clam Bake 1973,” “Carol,” “Boat Builder,” and “Wood Stove Sunday” appear in Tammy Armstrong’s Bogman’s Music. Vancouver: Anvil Press, 2001. “Zombie” appears in The Scare in the Crow. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2010. “Horse Girls” appears in Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada. Ed. Anne Compton, et al. Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2002.

All contents except for poetry and fiction copyright © Tony Tremblay, James W. Johnson, and Alexandra Cogswell.