Sue Sinclair

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Sue Sinclair is the author of four previous collections, all of them nominated for regional and/or national awards. She also recently completed a PhD in philosophy at the University of Toronto on the subject of beauty and ethics. In 2012 she was Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick, and in 2013 she served as the inaugural Critic-in-Residence for CWILA. Sue was raised in Newfoundland and is now based in Montreal, where she writes, edits and teaches.

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Author Questionnaire

When did you start writing?

I started writing pretty early in life—I still have a “book” of poems a friend and I made in Grade 3, an exercise book we decorated painstakingly.  That being said, anyone who wants to be a writer shouldn’t panic if they weren’t writing poems on their way out of the womb.  What’s important is that I responded to the ways different writers invited me to engage with the world, and the timing of that experience doesn’t matter; anyone who responds at any age is in fine shape to be a writer.

Why do you write? Has this changed over time?

Why do I write poetry?  There are many answers to that question.  One is that it’s a way of tarrying awhile with an experience, a moment, a thing—a cherry tree, a leaf, a painting—that has struck me.  Something that has evoked a response of some kind from me, whether it’s awe at its beauty, the perception of a metaphoric relationship it bears to something else, an idea it awakens in me, etc.  Writing the poem is a way of responding, of teasing out and extending my relationship to what has struck me, deepening my understanding of it.  And with any luck the finished poem may help readers to do the same.

Who are some of your favourite writers? And what do you draw from their work?

There are many writers whose work I revisit regularly.  Charles Wright is one.  I appreciate the long, easy-going lines and his spirit of calm surrender to the fleeting character of experience.  His poems are both inspiring and soothing to me, and I find this a rare combination—I think of inspiration as exciting rather than calming, but in this case I’m inspired by and toward a sense of calm.  I’m also a metaphor lover, and he is a brilliant perceiver of metaphor.  Rainer Maria Rilke is another writer who has been with me for years—I’m drawn to the scope and intensity of his regard.  Jan Zwicky and Don McKay were my poetry teachers when I was at university, and I still can’t imagine being without either of their poetries or philosophies.  They introduced me to Tim Lilburn’s poetry, and he remains a strong influence.  I’m drawn to his vivid imagery and muscular lines, and to his exploration of the via negativa, the way of unknowing.  His poetry often bears witness to the strangeness of the world, shows how it escapes our grasp, yet he also reveals the way in which by exposing ourselves to its escape, we may find a kind of fleeting intimacy.  Jorie Graham’s early work is also a significant influence; I reread Erosion and Hybrids of Plants and Ghosts regularly.

Explain a particular poem of yours from a Brick Books publication.

Big East Lake

This is the world, impenetrable, the flat
black pupil that doesn’t look at you.
You want to be wooed, to praise it,
Instead, you’re bored: beauty, what of it?

You feel yourself at the bottom of a well;
love of the landscape can’t be roused.
Nature has shifted into your blind spot,
no longer a vision, no longer your ego
revealed to itself. The trees immersed
in growth, occupied by their own being.
The water slips off your paddle.
The shore slips into the water’s darkness.

You shift uncomfortably in the bow,
haven’t the heart for this.
The light travels a little slower here.
The trees quieter, sober.
If it weren’t too late, you’d go back
on whatever promise brought you here.

I sometimes call “Big East Lake” (from the collection Breaker) an anti-nature poem, but it isn’t really anti-nature.  Big East Lake is an Ontario lake I once canoed with a friend.  The poem addresses my experience of shoving off into the wilderness expecting or hoping for a connection with the natural world, and not finding that connection.  I felt the world around me as distant somehow, unconcerned with me—the lake was a “flat black pupil” that didn’t look at me.  There was no communing with nature, no sense of oneness with lake and trees and sky, no “vision.”  That’s the way in which the poem is anti-nature; the nature it presents is disappointing.  But the experience of that disappointing nature was helpful.  I had wanted the world to embrace me, even to reveal myself to me.  But of course the world doesn’t revolve around me and my wants:  “the trees immersed in growth, occupied by their own being.”  To learn this is paradoxically to get a little closer to the trees and lake.  It’s to experience trees and lake on their own terms rather than on mine.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t also loneliness in the experience, and the end of the poem is a little forlorn:  “you…haven’t the heart for this.”  Even if there’s a touch of heartbreak in the poem, I hope there’s also a reassuring peace in the way it moves.  I hope, for instance, that repetition of “dips” in the last lines of the second stanza evokes the dip, dip of the paddle and the peacefulness of the paddle’s rhythm.  I also hope that the short sentences and fragments, particularly toward the end of the poem, suggest a kind of slowness, a peaceful acceptance of the way things are.

Writing Exercises

I do practice some writing exercises, but I don’t tend to use “prompts” in order to write a poem.  By “prompt” I mean the setting of some kind of writing task:  “write a poem using only verbs” or “write a poem based on a childhood memory.”  Prompts work well for many people, but when I try, the process often feels artificial, as though I’m forcing the poem, and often the resulting poem is literally uninspired.  So what do I do when I’m looking to get to work on poetry and am not feeling it yet?  Most often I read.  I reread poems by some of the writers I mentioned above, writers I feel a strong connection to.  More often than not, I find that moving toward writing poetry is a matter of changing gears, shaking off the constraints of schedules and to-do lists, moving away from more linear or analytic modes of thought and toward a more dream-like logic, a lyric mode in which I become alive to unexpected connections between images, ideas, the sounds of words, their rhythms—to the various elements that come together in/as a poem.  If I’m feeling distant from that way of thinking/perceiving and want to find my way there, I can follow already-written poems into that space because that’s part of the work a poem does:  it carries us into that way of being.

The writing exercise I practise most often is the mapping of patterns of repeated sounds in a poem.  This includes scanning, i.e. charting the rhythms of a poem by noticing which syllables are stressed and which unstressed.  Using a pencil to make notes on the page, I regularly map the sounds in both my own poems and others’.  I write free verse, meaning poetry with no regular rhythm or rhyme scheme, but that doesn’t mean rhythm and repeated sounds aren’t significant, and scanning and mapping sounds makes me more aware of the roles of sound in a poem, shows me new possibilities for using rhythm, rhyme, alliteration, assonance etc.

I’m often surprised by the sonic patterns I find in my poems—so much of writing is unconscious, intuitive.  But then many of our gestures of response are unconscious:  how conscious are you of the muscles you exert to smile at a friend?  Unless you’ve been to the dentist and your cheek is frozen, you don’t give it a second thought.  It can, however, be useful for a writer to practice consciously working with the different gestures that a poem makes—in the same way that it can be useful for an actor to practice a smile for a role in a play.  I find that taking time to concentrate on the role of sound in poems makes my reading of others’ poems richer and keeps me alive to the work of sound in my own poetry.

In sharpening my awareness of sound patterns in my work, I’ve noticed that I often tend to end a poem with an iambic rhythm (i.e. an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable:  da-DA, da-DA, da-DA).  This isn’t something I do deliberately, but it seems to create a sense of closure.  This is true of the last lines of my poem “Asleep”:  “we sleep SIDE by SIDE with e-TER-ni-TY, / and NE-ver TOUCH.”   The rhythm of “-nity and never touch” is iambic:  da-DA, da-DA, da-DA.  In these lines I would also have noticed the repetition of long “e” sounds; I would have underlined “we sleep side by side with eternity”.  As I map the sounds in a poem, I also think about their effect.  In the case of those long “e” sounds, I might notice how the repetition simply pleases the ear, and also how those soft, drawn-out “e” sounds fit in with the ease of sleep.  A series of hard “k” sounds would create a much less peaceful effect.

Short responses to or reflections on the work of other Brick Books authors

Among my favourite Brick authors is Don Domanski.  There’s a sense in which I don’t have a favourite Domanski poem–a point I’ll comment on in a moment–but let’s take a look at “A History of Sunlight” from All Our Wonder Unavenged.

 

A History of Sunlight

an orb spider hitches a strand to a branch

abacus of her viscera beading the movements

 

like me she’s part of the rust and pulse

of the day falling and time only speaking

to the veiled face   to the whisperer

beneath the foliage   now wordless and still

 

speechless is one way for the weight

of the hibiscus to open   white against white

against light folding to half-light along the fence

 

speechless is one way for the traffic to run

down streets between the houses

pushing the inaccessible along a line of sight

 

cars pass with a sorrow shared between them

something lost when the motors were turned on

something like a promise to loneliness that was broken

loneliness of deep forests   old growths dark with genetic

drainage   everything that becomes lost

when it flows into presence

 

presents is what I saw yesterday in the dead robin

extending its wings on a slow glide into the earth

beetles moving like fingernails along its back

a scratch but no itch   head bowed into a cold climate

ground-flying to Netherworld   to other private trees.

 

 

the sky is shine corroding blue   clouds like seamounts

the neighbourhood softening to a fine dim silk

someone hitching it to a bough   someone weaving

the hours   one over the other   the highlights

and gloss braided along a hunger for infinity

and all that prettification cool against the skin

 

hours some and the gods keep busy in their corners

knitting chromosomes to disengagements   creating

pullouts of flesh and bone from apparitional dust

cut of the metaphysical   snip of the unknowable

signing everything in the low cuneiform of the self

 

sometimes the self peels away in late afternoon

moving off as the heat of the day collects on the faithful

on all those children playing madly in yards

all those flies with their snouts in the silk

those dogs running hard in their sleep

our lives wander off for a moment or an hour

and we never wish them back   it simply returns

simply enough like fetishes of absence

the shadowless idea of empty space

or the bodies of ghosts clinging

like damp newspapers to grass and to our wrists

as we reach for the car door   driving away

shredding numberless haunts of a physical world

 

I sit between the inner sides of my small landscape

by the roses   each a fortune-teller’s table

a red fate   a white fate   stained by invocations

bees fly by with the strength of thumbs

crows fly by with the strength of hands

I sit unable to lift the hem of what surrounds me

Fate’s diaphanous cloth of attitude and appearance

silks that breathe a transparence onto circumstance

 

I’m thinking of serenity’s heartbeat carried on the breeze

just one beat   just once coming into what’s to come

 

I think of Life pushing all of her heaven into spores

I think of Death walking behind us in the dark

his feet a swarm of hands picking up the distances

lying on the floor.

 

 

the planet pedals on slowly in the heat

while chlorophyll moves it closer to the sun

while along the sidewalk pigeons carry no messages

other than the universe cooing to itself in supplication

down the block children rehearse being human

good practice   multiple repetitions of joy and ache

summer changelings   each boasting up their holding

each standing like a curtain about to be drawn

 

the solitude of children   this is the way of heaven

it’s the same for adults    this feeling of otherness

like a body within our body   like someone else’s

fingerprints having easy passage through our skin

someone disremembering the intrigue of our hands

so we drop the water glass and the fall is luminous

 

and those dark panes on the ground offering a view

reminding us of what rushes into light

expecting birth and a grace and a world to appear

the accident   the shattered moment   broken surfaces

all the small fractures in absence that brought us here

 

this is the way of heaven and I try not to forget

as two minuscule clouds drift by   almost motionless

carrying their single glass of water   afraid to spill it

 

this is the earth’s signature   two clouds

and a damselfly gliding between them

till that almost imperceptible body fades on a mote

on a jot of the empyreal   little firmament   tuft of air

 

this is the way of heaven   that impenetrable fade

beating its wings to traverse the strategy of the self

 

the small self   that small silence lying to the night

saying it wakes when morning comes.

 

 

The afternoon slants into further hours   jays repeat

the grand speeches of the gods and the missing word

wounds in the pine tree vein a light into the underworld

of the little songs   roots singing blades of grass

through their sequences   singing us to otherness

 

a ball of flames over Cancer and Leo   a crab and a lion

then a dog barking in the street   vertical to reason

 

a dog’s sweep of visual perception   dog-sized   dog-born

the second sight of animals counting the suns we never see

 

there’s so little we comprehend   yet we keep coming back

to the world   to sit under a star equal to locality

equal to the light on our skin   to the warmth in our blood

each thought and deed a history of sunlight

while Fortune draws straws   who will live   who will die

whose ache will be the ache of poppies

whose will be the pain of towns on fire

day after day and some of our lives shepherded through

sleeping on nourishment   eating the lower food

while night comes in both sexes   mating the inner world

to the outer   otherness to otherness

while a breeze moves hieroglyphically   symbol by symbol

one for God   one for God’s absence

while the given is a heartbeat and a half-demise

half-life of a visitation among the weeds

while attendance comes

while the rain comes handing out darkness

like books to be read.

 

Here are a few things to notice about this poem:

  1.  It’s a longish poem, in four parts.  Poets may break a poem into parts for many reasons: in Karen Enns’ “Suite for Tools,” each part is dedicated to a different tool—hoe, shovel, ladder, etc.—so the poem becomes a kind of tool box in which each tool is stored in its own compartment.  A poet might also break a poem into parts to signal changes in thought, or to introduce the voices of different characters.  But I don’t think any of this is exactly what happens in “A History of Sunlight.”  The fabric of “A History of Sunlight” feels continuous to me, one long meditation in which the poem drifts off into wordlessness with the end of one part, then moves back into language with the beginning of the next.  Each part feels like an episode in one long thought, or a gentle closing of the eyes during one long look at the world unfolding around the speaker.  Such shifting in and out of language, in and out of focus, in and out of being, is not just the way the poem proceeds; it’s also the way of the world it sees:  “the whisperer  / beneath the foliage   now wordless and still”, “that imperceptible fade beating its wings”, “something in the self peels away in late afternoon.”  Things come and go in a Domanski poem as the poem itself comes and goes, as sunlight comes and goes—I read this poem and it feels to me like one of those days when the sun drifts in and out of the clouds, now light, now shadow, now light.  Many of Domanski’s poems feel like this to me, which is why I don’t really have a favourite Domanski poem—to me his books often read like one long episodic poem.  Writes Domanski:  “our lives wander off for a moment or an hour  / and we never wish them back    it simply returns”.  That’s exactly how this poem feels to me.
  1. You may also have noticed that “History,” like most of the poems in All Our Wonder Unavenged, has no capitalization and no punctuation, save for a full stop at the end of each of its four parts.  Within each part, in lieu of commas, colons or full stops, there are just spaces—spaces that contribute to the easeful, drifting quality of the poem.  The poem seem less to “capture” a moment, as we often speak of a poem doing, than it does pass through the moment.  It notices the hibiscus, the corroded blue sky, the two clouds, the damselfly; it names them then lets them go, passes seamlessly onto the next moment, onto the next fly to buzz across its path.   The sense of seamless passing is partly due to the absence of conventional punctuation.
  1. The poem is almost hypnotic, and this is partly the effect of Domanski’s use of repetition.  Notice, for instance, the repetition of “speechlessness is one way” at the beginnings of stanzas three and four.  Or the repetition of “something” and “loneliness” in stanza five.  Then there’s the end of the poem, which becomes almost chant-like with its succession of lines beginning “while”.  The poem builds power as a chant does; it layers on clause after clause, grows toward its end.
  1. You can’t talk about a Domanski poem without talking about metaphor and comparison.  He has a genius for perceiving unusual but apt metaphors, and he layers them on lavishly.  His metaphors are often multidimensional, work in more than one way.  Take for instance the very first metaphor in the poem:  in describing the orb spider, Domanski speaks of the “abacus of her viscera.”  I instantly picture the beads that were used for counting on the abacus, and I see the spider’s belly as a round bead.  But the reference to the abacus also suggests an old intelligence, so it invites me to conceive of the spider as a knowing, perhaps calculating creature.  The use of the word “viscera” rather than “belly” also carries a whiff of ancient knowledge—it connotes the reading of entrails.  These associations are not front and centre, but they add a certain flavour to the poem.  The abacus metaphor doesn’t just help to create the visual picture of the spider; it suggests something of her nature too.  Domanski’s metaphors are often densely and complexly woven—consider the passage in which “our lives wander off for a moment or an hour”.  In this line our lives are compared to a person wandering off, but Domanski doesn’t stop there.  He layers on another comparison:  they return “like fetishes of absence”.  Then he offers yet another comparison:  “or the bodies of ghosts.”   Then he nests a comparison within the comparison:  the bodies of ghosts cling “like damp newspapers”.  Our lives are wanderers, fetishes of absence, the bodies of ghosts, and as ghosts they cling like damp newspapers.  There are four layers to the understanding of “our lives,” one comparison laid on top of the other like coats of oil paint, making for a richly textured poem.

Reflections on the Genesis of One of my Own Poems

Red Pepper

 

Forming in globular

convolutions, as though growth

were a disease, a patient

evolution toward even greater

deformity. It emerges

from under the leaves thick

and warped as melted plastic,

its whole body apologetic:

the sun is hot.

 

Put your hand on it. The size

of your heart. Which may look

like this, abashed perhaps,

growing in ways you never

 

It is almost painful

to touch, but you can’t help

yourself. It’s so familiar.

The dents. The twisted symmetry.

You can see how hard it has tried.

 

The poem “Red Pepper” emerged from two sources.  One was my move from Newfoundland to New Brunswick, where I worked for a time in a house with a vegetable garden.  Precious little grows in Newfoundland, and I hadn’t really seen peppers growing before.  I was fascinated.  Then there was my discovery of Edward Weston, a photographer famous as a formalist, i.e. someone who concentrated his attention on shape and line.  He made several photos of peppers, and the curves and contortions are very much the centre of attention.  As an aside, someone once noticed that apart from its title, the poem “Red Pepper” doesn’t mention colour.  That’s probably partly because I had Weston’s photos in mind, and he worked in black and white.  Colour matters, though, even if it isn’t explicitly referred to in the body of the poem:  the redness of the pepper is part of what invites the comparison with the heart.

These two discoveries, the garden and the photographs, were what got me focussed on peppers and their often bashed-in, warped appearances.  So I looked for “chewy” language that would fill the mouth, make it feel awkward to speak the poem.  Consider the line “thick and warped as melted plastic”:  the long vowels in “warp” and “melt” and plastic” have almost to be masticated.  In this sense the poem has a formalist element, tries to embody in sound the awkward shape of the peppers.  But the poem isn’t thoroughgoingly formalist in the way that Weston’s photographs are, because there’s also the contribution of my experience in the garden, where I felt downright protective of the peppers, which I saw as vulnerable.  Their growth looked almost painful in its contortedness; they seemed to be working hard to become themselves, squinching themselves up with effort, yet falling short of supposedly perfect, grocery-store pepperhood.  In the process of writing I realized that I was empathizing:  most of us experience difficulties in growing into ourselves, inevitably falling short of perfection.  We are often abashed, both in the sense of being a little dented, a little bashed-in, and a little embarrassed by our dents.  So it was that the pepper emerged as a metaphor for the human heart, itself a metaphor for the soul.

Books:

Reviews:

Heaven’s Thieves

Breaker

Mortal Arguments

Secrets of Weather & Hope

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