Sheryda Warrener is the author of two poetry collections; Floating is Everything (Nightwood Editions, 2015) and her debut Hard Feelings (Snare/Invisible, 2010). Her work has been shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, the Arc Magazine Poem of the Year, the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize, and was a runner-up for Lemon Hound’s inaugural poetry contest. She lives in Vancouver, where she teaches at the University of British Columbia.
Your new collection of poetry, Floating is Everything, came out this fall with Nightwood. Can you tell us about the book and its composition? Were you trying to achieve something different than in your first collection?
I don’t know about you, but the first page I turn to when I pick up a book of poems is the Notes page. This becomes a kind of road map for me as a reader. I’ve noticed more poets providing access to their work this way, leaving clues as to who they’re reading, and what kind of an impression this reading has on their thinking, and eventually on their poems. Mary Jo Bang and Elizabeth Willis come to mind. I’m grateful for really in-depth note keeping. I think the epigraphs throughout Floating, and the Notes and Acknowledgements pages give away some of my process. I was listening to Silver Jews, specifically American Water. I was looking seriously at art, and much of it in person: Sophie Calle, Cindy Sherman, Yoko Ono, Rineke Djikstra, Stephen Shore, Jeff Wall. And I was reading some really kick ass poets for the first time: Brenda Shaughnessy, Mary Ruefle, James Tate, Allan Peterson, Amanda Smeltz.
The composition of this book took place over the course of five years, from kitchen tables in Stockholm and Vancouver, with brief visits to cafés and art galleries and bars in Reykjavik and Paris. I feel like the poems in Floating differ from Hard Feelings not because I purposefully set out to try something new, but because all this stuff was just blowing my mind. The shift inevitably occurs; I grow and the persona of my poems grow along with me. The question What am I trying to do when I make a poem? is one of those inexhaustible loops. It’s part of the obsession of writing poems in the first place, but it’s also endlessly difficult to answer without either damaging the creative process or giving up entirely. I imagine I will ask that question all my life. Maybe the poems are the only way to attempt an answer?
One of my favourite poems in the book is “Long Distance”, a long poem in 10 parts about, among other things, Soviet cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov, the man who has spent the most time in space. What made you want to write a long poem? Was it simply that the wealth of material, images and story “overflowed” a shorter poem, or did you actively want to try writing in a longer form?
If only I knew what compels me to write long poems. They are a total pain in the ass! But I can’t stop. With “Long Distance”, I couldn’t shake the voice. I wanted to abandon the poem many times, but the Valeri Polyakov I had imagined wouldn’t let me. Obviously, he is me and I am him, so I guess it was a story I needed to tell. I never actively write anything, not initially. I become active during the editing phase, and by that I mean more measured when it comes to the why and the how, but the initial writing is driven by voice, and the form is demanded by the content.
I imagine a challenge of the long-form is to keep a cohesive aesthetic. Each poem has its own internal circuitry. Each poem is its own little ecosystem. And it’s already hard enough, on one page, to sustain that ecosystem, to keep it balanced and living and thriving. How do you manage that over 20 pages? And how do you keep it from becoming repetitive?
It took a long time to write that poem. There were so many drafts. Two voices, one voice, no sections, sections, headings, sub-headings, more data, less data. It wasn’t until my editor, Silas White, gave me some notes on the piece that I had the necessary A-HA moment. That’s when I really thought hard about sustaining my reader’s attention, and realized the prose pieces could break up the linear narrative, shifting the rhythm and giving the reader a break. But Dom, if I told you right now I would never do it again, would you believe me?
I moved to Japan after I graduated with a BFA from the University of Victoria, so I knew I wanted to write and was feeling very passionate about this fact. When I admitted to one of my students, a woman in her early 60s, that I was a poet, she said, “I wish I had time to write poems.” Basically she was saying don’t call yourself a poet unless you’re really ready to give everything over to the process. That was a deeply humbling moment. I changed the way I thought about my commitment to poetry after that.
I have never been as truly alone as I was in Japan. My first purchase was a CD player. I had very little money. I had no friends, at least not at first. So I sat in my tiny apartment loft and read the books I brought with me, and sometimes ventured out to the huge bookstore in Shinjuku to buy more overpriced but delightful books in English: Kawabata, Banana Yoshimoto, Shusaku Endo. And I would read and look out the window at the persimmon tree in the neighbour’s yard, and at the futons folded over balcony railings, and the blue tiled roofs (Japan is saturated in colour for me) and I would just let myself feel really lonely and not talk. I had no laptop. I was off the grid! This time alone was essential to getting at that deep kind of listening that’s required for poems. I’m grateful for that time.
I spent most of my childhood and teenage years in Moscow, Paris and Beijing, and those three cities have influenced my poetry in very different ways. Moscow, for example, has provided a lot of visual inspiration (its colours, architecture, landscapes). Beijing, on the other hand, doesn’t come through as explicitly, but provides a lot of inspiration for personal relationships. And from the French Lycee come a lot of my literary influences. What do you take from the different cities and countries you’ve lived in?
I think I experience place just as you’ve described here. The quality of light in Stockholm left a deep impression on my work. That light could be traced all through the poems in Floating. From Japan, it’s no surprise image leaves a deep impression: a $26 cantaloupe at the market with its stem and leaf intact, the purple blur of the iris farm in early spring from the 8:46 a.m. express train. And Paris is just green green green.
I’m always interested in the starting points of poems. Sometimes, the genesis happens at the level of language—a particular word, or phrase. Sometimes, it happens at a visual level, just an image, stripped of words. Or something bigger—a whole scene, a story. Or something less concrete—a thought, a feeling, an idea, a pattern. A lot of my poems come out of Wikipedia wormholes. Where do your poems usually begin?
I’m not sure where my poems begin. When I look back on my notes, a phrase like “Matlock re-runs,” or “Blackjack at the Peach Festival” is enough for me to keep digging. But to answer your question in a totally professional manner, I looked back at my notes to see where a poem actually begins. In the case of “Many Tiny Pagoda”, I was visiting friends on Galiano Island, and spent the morning writing at a little café by the fire. I had Matthew Zapruder’s Sun Bear with me. The combination of coffee + fire + Galiano + the direct address of the poem “Paper Toys of the World” propelled a rough first draft. The energy of that moment fed the original idea enough to drive further drafts, even though that particular attempt was terribly written. I just kept going back to that wonderful line “many tiny pagodas” and the concept of “beauty” and tried to be in conversation with Zapruder as much as possible, because he had extended generosity with his poem. That seemed to work. Most of the time it is finally having enough lines cohere on the page. A poem will fail immediately if I begin with a very focussed idea.
What’s exciting about poetry today?
Everything is super exciting right now. I’m waiting for Sarah Blake’s book of poems for and about Kanye West to arrive in the mail. Warsan Shire has over 50,000 Twitter followers. Brenda Shaughnessy has a new book, So Much Synth, and Suzanne Buffam has a new book, A Pillow Book, both out Spring 2016. There’s so much to look forward to, and nearly nothing can be predicted. There’s a shift that has taken place in terms of voice. It’s all swagger and power right now in contemporary poetry. How close up the persona of the poem can feel, a voice speaking directly into your ear or a voice speaking into a tin can from Mars. What’s going to happen? Who knows! It’s a good time for poems.
What’s happening in your future?
Laying low. Working. Reading. Fortune-telling. One of my students let me borrow his Stereolab album. Where is that going to lead me, I wonder?
Dominique Bernier-Cormier is a poet and non-fiction writer from Montreal. His work is forthcoming in The Malahat Review and BAfterC, and has recently appeared in Scrivener Creative Review. He is the poetry editor for PRISM international.