Interview by Matthew Walsh
Robyn Sarah’s most recent collection of poetry, My Shoes Are Killing Me, won the Governor General’s award for poetry in 2015. The poems touch on themes of nature, motherhood, and time, and allude to poets as diverse as Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, William Wordsworth, and Shakespeare, not to mention Mother Goose and the Bible. I was immediately drawn to the collection by the voice and by the places it took me, both real and imagined. I had the pleasure of asking Robyn Sarah some questions about her new collection, how these poems came to be, and what’s keeping her busy currently.
What were you doing when you found out that you had won the Governor General’s award for poetry?
I had just returned home from an early morning practice session at Café Résonance, a local arts venue where I sometimes play piano; lately I’ve been practicing there before they open. Back at my desk I checked voicemail before settling down to work, and there was a message from the Canada Council asking me to call. I hadn’t been thinking past the shortlist, and it didn’t even occur to me this could be “the” call—I assumed it must be about some media promotion of the finalists. Being media-shy, I even considered not calling back until the next day! But I knew my publisher would be disappointed if I missed a chance to promote the book, so I did phone back, and you know the rest.
How many titles for “My Shoes Are Killing Me” had you considered before you made your final choice?
None. Generally, I wait until a poem is finished before giving it a title—finding the right title is the final creative act that completes the poem. But in this case the title predated the writing and attached itself to the poem unexpectedly, midway through the composition process. Years earlier, I had jotted down that familiar expression in a notebook, thinking I might one day use it as a title for a short story, though I had nothing clear in mind. Then in May of 2010, as I was working on the sixth section of the poem—the one that begins with the image of bronzed baby shoes—I realized I was writing “My Shoes Are Killing Me”. Why memorialize a child’s first shoes? Walking upright, wearing shoes, is the beginning of human agency in the world, a symbol of “grown-upedness.” Now serious life begins. We put on shoes and go off to our workaday worlds—school, farm, factory, office. We live out our mostly pedestrian days. Perhaps it’s significant that one of my favourite poems in childhood, and one of the first I ever memorized on my own, was John Greenleaf Whittier’s “The Barefoot Boy”.
How does this project fit within your body of work?
It’s funny to hear it called a project; I don’t think of my poetry collections as projects, even though our prevailing literary culture encourages poets to conceive and think of poetry books that way. I write poems only as they become necessary to me, and each is conceived as an individual work. When enough new poems have accumulated to gather into a collection, I begin assembling a manuscript and it naturally will reflect my preoccupations (conscious and unconscious) of the period in which they were written. The passage of time, as observed through natural and seasonal and human cycles, has been the dominant theme of my poetry almost from the beginning—certainly from my second chapbook, The Space Between Sleep and Waking, back in 1981. My latest collection is no exception. It’s a continuation of what I’ve been doing all along. The perspective changes as I get older (more focus on the past in this collection) but the themes are the same. Interestingly, the chapbook I just mentioned contained one long poem in numbered sections, “The Cyclist Recovers His Cadence”, that in many ways prefigures “My Shoes Are Killing Me”: both are about mortality, with flashbacks to childhood, and both have a musical aspect, and they end similarly, with the idea of a leap into eternity.
You pay homage to several other poets in “My Shoes Are Killing Me”, notably Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams, who appear so different from each other as poets. Were you reading a lot of their work while you wrote your latest book? Do you find you read a lot when working on a project?
I don’t read in a sustained way when I’m in a phase of actively writing. I do read certain poets when I’m trying to get my head back into poetry after a lapse. Wallace Stevens is the one I come back to most often, but I also like to revisit Moore and Williams—not because they’re my favourite poets, in fact I disliked both at first—but because they stimulate me; an irritant can be stimulating. Yes, the two are very different from each other as poets (and from Stevens), and all three are very different from me: difference is also stimulating. When I have to travel, I often grab a book of poems for the road—usually a poet whose work I find valuable but do not read often or know intimately. That line from Williams caught my attention while reading him on a train. “Reading Marianne Moore on a Train…” was written during the train ride it describes.
What particular poetic forms do you like? I noticed you included a Villanelle in this collection. What drew you to the Villanelle for this particular poem?
The sonnet is the form I always come back to, because it’s such a versatile expressive vehicle and does not draw attention to itself; even keeping strictly to the formal template, one can write so naturally in it, and make it one’s own. Other forms are more artificial, and they boss you around more. What I know about the relatively few traditional forms I’ve worked in, I learned by studying and imitating exemplars I’ve admired in the literature. Bishop’s “Sestina” and “A Miracle for Breakfast” prompted me to try a sestina; later I wrote two more (this was long before the sestina became the darling of creative writing school poetry classes.) Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle” and Roethke’s “The Waking” taught me what a villanelle was (though I wrote my first one before I knew what it was called), and I’ve published four over the years. A friend sent me a pantoum he wrote, and I found the form appealing enough to try one. I like my poems to have shape and to be musical, so I use things like rhyme and rhythmic cadence and stanzaic pattern even when I’m not working in a particular form; sometimes I invent my own forms.
To answer your other question, I don’t remember what drew me to the villanelle form for the one in this collection, but flipping through old notebooks, I see there was some ambivalence. On a page dated June 16 (2011), there’s an entry that reads, in its entirety, “Could I write a villanelle on a line of WCW? —So close are we to ruin every day!” Below that, on the same page, an entry dated June 18 reads, “Yes I could,” followed by the first three-line stanza of the poem, and beneath that, the next four lines, with “August 5” scribbled beside them in the margin. The entry on the following page (dated June 20) begins, “But I don’t want to. I need more freedom of form, or freedom from form.” Then nothing further on the villanelle until August 24 (twenty pages later), when a rough-out of the full poem finally appears. In between, I worked on four other poems.
I really enjoyed “Squares for a Patchwork Quilt”. The phrases about nature, “Why do I not know the names of more flowers?” and “I don’t dote on every leaf the way I should” stick out for me. You also include a line from Sonnet 18 by Shakespeare. I think the voice really drives this poem, and I couldn’t help but be reminded of Ophelia from Hamlet. How did you begin crafting the voice for this particular poem?
Crafting a voice wasn’t necessary. The voice in “Squares for a Patchwork Quilt” is my own—at least, my voice when I’m talking to myself on paper. The poem is composed entirely of snippets collaged from my journal—sentences and phrases taken from entries spanning several years. Judging by the lines you quote, it’s probably the whimsy and wistfulness of the voice, and the attunement to nature, that evoked Ophelia. The stitched-together-from-bits aspect of the poem is the reason I called it a patchwork. The form is why I called it a quilt (nine stanzas, three to a page, each stanza itself a square of three, being composed of three linked tercets.) I think I was trying for something like a structured stream-of-consciousness in this poem—a contradiction in terms, I know.
Have you ever made a patchwork quilt? What do you do when you aren’t writing?
Needlework isn’t my forte, but I did make a patchwork skirt once, during a winter sojourn on Vancouver Island in the mid-1970s. I do a variety of things when I’m not writing or editing—I mean they have varied over the years; there’s never enough time to do even half of the things I’d like to do in a day. I’ve taken tai chi classes, language courses, drawing lessons; I’ve participated in Jewish study groups; I’ve volunteered and facilitated support groups for a grassroots organization that assists families coping with mental illness; I co-founded Potluck and Shakespeare, a Shakespeare reading group that has been meeting for eight years. Music in one form or another is always part of my life. These days, most of my free time is spent at the piano.
Do you spend a lot of time in nature? Are there any particular spots you like to go to?
While I’ve always loved nature and I love being in the country, I’m a confirmed city dweller. But I live very close to Mount Royal (what we in Montreal call “The Mountain” though this is a hyperbole)—and I walk there in all seasons. There’s an access to the “Serpentine”, a.k.a. Chemin Olmstead—a wooded path for walkers and cyclists that winds its way to the summit—just a three-minute walk from my front door.
There are a lot of references to nature, mothers, and time in these new poems. Did you set out with these themes in mind or did they naturally occur during the writing process?
It’s rare for me to start a poem with a theme or subject in mind; both make themselves known to me as I go along. But as poems accumulate, I begin to notice common threads, and this helps me to sequence the poems when it’s time to compile a manuscript. It may also nudge me in certain directions, consciously or not, especially when I have a nagging feeling that there are gaps in a manuscript. Late in the compilation process I’ve often found myself writing a couple of new poems that seemed to come spontaneously, but that perfectly fit the needs of the sequence.
I was curious about “In The Dream It Made Sense”. Was the poem based on a dream you once had? Do you often base poems on dreams?
Yes to your first question; the poem actually alludes to two dreams, one recent and one remembered. The “dream of the driverless car” was a recurring one when I was in my thirties.
Dreams have always interested me. I haven’t often based whole poems on them, but I can think of a couple of other times when I have (“Getting In Deeper” and “Windfall”, both in A Day’s Grace, are based on dreams. As I recall, “Windfall” was actually about writing “Getting In Deeper”, which was in its entirety a dream.). More often, my poems allude to dreams in passing.
Are you working on any other writing projects? Have you been writing any fiction lately?
It’s been more than a decade since I’ve written any fiction. I’d like to publish another book of stories some day, but I first have to finish a book I’ve been working on for years (very slowly, because I’ve had to live it while writing it). It’s a memoir and meditation about music—about my early classical training on piano and clarinet, my abandonment of a musical career path in my early twenties, and a serious return to the piano late in life.
Matthew Walsh’s work has been featured in Arc, The Found Poetry Review, Carousel, Descant, Existere, Matrix, Carte Blanche, The Steel Chisel and as part of the Halifax Commons Poetry Anthology. His short fiction will appear in 11th Dimension Press’s Rock is Not Dead short story anthology. He is currently poetry editor of Plenitude Magazine.