February 20, 2014

In Conversation with Sue Sinclair

I push open the door of the café, my glasses fog briefly, and Sue Sinclair materializes at a nearby table. It strikes me that each time I've met her--at a reading, a festival, in a café, at home--it's like this. There's the space, and then she's there in the space.

SUSAN GILLIS: You work in several modes: lyric, academic, and an exploratory kind of critical writing—and I think it’s fair to include dance in this list. What first brought you to poetry?

SUE SINCLAIR: I have many possible answers to that question, but one is contained in your second question:  a craving for lyric intensity.  Not all moments in life can be experienced as lyrically intense—it would be exhausting, at least for me.  But moments of lyric intensity are so enriching!

How enriching, what do I mean?  I mean that such moments reveal the preciousness of particulars and the place of those particulars in the resonant structure that is the world--this is to pick up on Jan Zwicky’s take on what lyric is.  You could also simply call it an experience of meaning.  Though I couldn’t endure experiencing all moments with lyric intensity, I suspect that most have the possibility of such intensity, given the right alignment of the experiencer.  And poetry is a way of helping me to be so aligned, both as reader and writer.  It presents me with a way of coming to the world, invites me into a lyric experience of webs of relationship that I might not have been sensitive to otherwise.  Of the other activities you mention, dance probably offers the richest possibility for lyric intensity, though it really depends on how a person goes about participating in a given activity.  I’d like to be lyrically intense in my academic and critical work too, but it’s harder to find my way lyrically in these realms.  

SG: The expression 'lyric intensity' only hints at what’s waiting for readers in your poems. You don’t just show us the galloping horse; you get us inside the beauty of its galloping. The poems seem to flower forth, in language that is clear and direct, and this is what I’m curious about: what is it, for you, that makes a poem shiver into being?

SS: Thanks for saying that the poems “seem to flower forth.”  I’m quoting this because in my experience, there’s actually an aspect of poem-writing that is effortless in the way that phrase suggests.  I’ve sometimes felt compelled to demystify the writing process, to deny the romantic view of the inspired writer, which belies the sheer labour that goes into making a poem, hides the all-important editorial blood-sweat-and-tears, the enlivening but sometimes endless-seeming work of fine-tuning.  But for me there’s also a dimension of the writing process that is effortless—even the sometimes excruciating effort of fine-tuning can feel effortless.  A real paradox.

I think what I mean when I say that the effort feels effortless is that I’m responding to a call from something in the world.  Something, some situation, presents itself to me as imbued with lyric intensity, and to respond is second nature.  An urge to respond just “flowers forth.”  I don’t think poets are the only people to be called by aspects of the world and who feel the urge to respond; that’s just part of what it is to be human--we’re responsive, susceptible, if sometimes more so than at other times.  And response can take many forms.  But for me, to respond is often to make a poem, i.e. to work to build an instrument that helps me—and, if I manage to do it well enough, possibly others—to align myself appropriately with the world.  

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?

SS: For the last several years I’ve been working on a PhD in philosophy on the subject of beauty.  So beauty—what it is, why we might need it, what dangers it might present to us—has been a theme in most of the poems I’ve been writing.  This theme isn’t entirely new—it’s not an accident that I took up beauty as a topic for my dissertation; beauty has always been a puzzle to me, and I’ve always questioned my relationship to it, so it crops up in earlier work.  But it’s a little more front and centre these days.   I’m also currently in the last trimester of a pregnancy, and although I’m not writing directly about my experiences, I’ve been surprised to find myself struck by images of pregnancy and birth as I feel my way through some of the poems I’m writing these days.  In a way I shouldn’t be surprised, especially given what I’ve said above, but sometimes it really is amazing how the world has its way with us.

Sue Sinclair is the author of four books of poems, most recently Breaker from Brick Books. In 2013 she served as the inaugural Critic in Residence with CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Read her poem "Days Without End" here.

Sue Sinclair: A Poem

Sue Sinclair

Spring rages
like a fire in the house,
wants to eat
every splinter.

It forces its way
into buds that explode
like pockets of gas.
Tears new life from the thin
tissue of what was.
The ground shivers.
The trees ache
under the pressure,
look to the sky
for a cool blue rain,

a sign that God
doesn’t sit idly by
while creation burns,

that He too endures
the heat of His love,
the great fire
He’s pushed upon
the living.

(from Breaker, Brick Books 2008. Reproduced by permission)
Read my conversation with Sue Sinclair here.

February 13, 2014

A Bit More Speaking

On poetry, witness and our difficult times: In response to my earlier post, A Bit of Speaking, on Carolyn Forché's "Elegy," Stephanie Bolster reached out with some thoughts on these topics, including a poem translated from the Dutch by Sadiqa de Meijer, and a conversation ensued.

Stephanie Bolster: Thank you for the moving post. I find it timely in two ways. Given that Carolyn Forché will be at Concordia in March, I've hauled out The Angel of History for a reread; it's been a long time, and that book has been hovering on the edge of my consciousness for the past few years as I’ve been working on my Long Exposure project about Polidori’s photographs, among other things. I imagine that rereading will corroborate my sense that Forché’s work has significantly influenced my approach to the long poem, not to mention, of course, informed my understanding of the complex implications of “witness.”

And the second timely aspect is that just the other night I watched that terrifying Fifth Estate program online (Silence of the Labs), which confirmed something much more alarming: that we really are living, largely obliviously, in a dystopian place. I've been writing about these things – witnessing, a dwindling sense of hope and a heightened sense of culpability and fear, the inseparability of the individual and the social, the personal and the political – in Long Exposure (though not this latest information about the ceasing of research funding . . . that belongs in the poem and will find its way in), but it's so hard to say anything convincing. How to say anything new about the sad state of the world? And how to make the attempt sufficient, in both the act and the larger gesture of making public?

Here's this, from a Dutch poem (by Herman de Coninck) cited and translated by Sadiqa de Meijer (with Kristien Hennerechts) in a wonderful anthology I've been reading. (More timeliness.) It's not an answer, but it's an affirmation of the value of the attempt and of the sharing:


The way you say to a sick little daughter:
my miniature human, my tiny homemade
sorrow, and it doesn't help;
the way you lay a hand on her hot forehead,
as thinly as snow lies down,
and it doesn't help:

so poetry helps.

Susan Gillis: This poem is a great example of what you are calling the inseparability of the personal and the political. It leaves open the question about helping: what, exactly does poetry help with? Whatever that is, it's compared with the daughter: the offspring, for which we are responsible in so many senses. On the surface the poem would suggest poetry helps by comforting, or attempting to comfort. But these gestures are comforting only to the giver, and only if the giver fails to acknowledge that they don't help the recipient. In fact, the gesture doesn't comfort: instead, it speaks. Sadiqa, what brought you to the poem and to the work of translating it?

Sadiqa de Meijer: I came across this Flemish poem almost ten years ago, when I was staying in Utrecht for a month – it was printed in the newsletter of a local women’s group. I loved it immediately: the peculiar and poignant addressing of the child (my miniature human, my homemade piece of sorrow), the incantatory quality, the perspective on apparent futility. I tore it from the paper, and carried it with me for a long time afterwards. 

More recently, I wanted to use the poem in an essay I wrote ("Stork Bite," published in the anthology How to Expect What You're Not Expecting: Stories of Pregnancy, Parenthood and Loss), and contacted the writer’s widow Kristien Hemmerechts for permission. She was generous with both the rights and a collaboration on the translation. 

I’ve written about poetry translation in a series of posts on another blog – partly about the question of what to retain and what to let go when translating. Sometimes the languages decide for you: in this poem, what I regret losing are the diminutives that are possible in Dutch (and Flemish): adding ‘je’ to a noun makes it small, and so ‘little daughter’ and ‘tiny sorrow’ are less cumbersome.

But the lovely thing is that the translation still seems to hold what matters – at least, its effect on many listeners and readers resembles that of the original version on me: people ask for it at readings, or request a copy of the text. It makes me feel, much more straightforwardly than my own writing ever could, that I’m passing along a gift.

Zoals je tegen een ziek dochtertje zegt:
mijn miniatuurmensje, mijn zelfgemaakt
verdrietje, en het helpt niet;
zoals je een hand op haar hete voorhoofdje
legt, zo dun als sneeuw gaat liggen,
en het helpt niet:

zo helpt poëzie.

 ~Herman de Coninck

Poem and translation reproduced by permission

Read my earlier post A Bit of Speaking here

February 4, 2014

In Conversation with Suzanne Buffam

Suzanne Buffam, by Ellen Dunn

Half-close your eyes and squint into the shadow this side of the window. There she is, in the chair across from you; she's just said something, and the pith of it is still twirling, hovering in the air.

SUSAN GILLIS: What first brought you to poetry?

SUZANNE BUFFAM: I guess, like most poets, poetry brought me to poetry.  Reading it as a child--an ancient anthology of my father's I found lying around the house, I remember-- falling in love with the then-to-me-opaque music of poets like Shelley and Dylan Thomas, memorizing poems whose content escaped me almost entirely.  Also, I had some great teachers in high school.  Mr. Heath, wherever you are, I hated you with your clipboard roaming the halls and scolding me for my nail polish and hiked-up kilt, until I took your English Lit class in grade twelve and fell in love, through you, with Shakespeare and John Donne.  What else?  Heartbreak, melancholy, boredom?  "To fill a Gap--" says Emily Dickinson.

SG: Many of your poems share certain characteristics with other, more everyday forms: the memorable aphorism, a really good joke—the zing of truth delivered in a concise yet complex language packet I feel I could carry around with me like a pocket stone. Is this a form you continue to work in? What other forms are you probing?

SB: I love aphorisms.  I also love Thomas Bernhard's hilarious excoriation of them, and those who write them, in his masterpiece of self-mockery, The Loser, which I'm reading right now: "So-called half philosophers for nurses' night tables...those disgusting tagalongs of philosophy who exist by the thousands...I could also say calendar philosophers for everybody and anybody, whose sayings eventually find their way onto the walls of every dentist's waiting room...the so-called depressing ones are, like the so-called cheerful ones, equally disgusting..."  This made me laugh out loud, with the sting of recognition.  I think it's safe to say that my thinking still leans towards the petty, but I often find myself feeling restless when it comes to form.  For the moment, I'm working on something longer, which is mostly in prose.  Made up, mind you, of petty units.  

SG: What’s inspiring you these days?  

SB: Over the past year or so, I've spent a lot of time reading Sei Shonagon's Pillow Book--an 11th century miscellany written from within the gates of Heian Japan--and thinking a lot about the form, such as it is, of this unruly text.  Anecdotes, descriptive passages, etiquette tips, gossip, and of course her famous lists--all these, and many other sub-genres, find their way into this book, and rest side by side with no clear sense of structure (and certainly no scholarly consensus on structure).  In the work I'm doing right now, I'm hoping to find a way to make a home, within a somewhat coherent whole, for an assortment of styles and genres, including a lot of lists.  Also, lately reading a lot of darkly hilarious prose--along with Bernhard, lots of Lydia Davis.  And watching reruns of Louis CK, who just may be my favorite living artist today.  

Suzanne Buffam is the author of two collections of poetry, Past Imperfect (House of Anansi, 2005), winner of the Gerald Lampert Award, and The Irrationalist (Canarium / House of Anansi, 2010), a finalist for the 2011 Griffin Prize.  Born and raised in Canada, she currently lives in Chicago. Read her poem "Altered Proverbs" here.

February 3, 2014

Suzanne Buffam: A Poem

Suzanne Buffam

People who live in glass houses should install blinds.
Home is where the Walmart is.
Where there’s a will there’s a lawsuit.
Let she who is without sin take the first bong hit.
In the kingdom of the blond the albino is king.
Two in the bush is better than nothing.
If you lie down with poets, you will get up with fleas.
When in Rome stay at the Ritz.
The road to hell wasn’t built in a day.
Oil and water make the world go round.
The grass is always greener over graves.
To forgive is human, to forget divine.
A journey of a thousand miles begins when the fat lady sings.
Truth is stranger than the sum of its parts.

Reproduced by permission of the author.
Read my conversation with Suzanne Buffam here.