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.