from “Closing the Distance: An Interview with Robyn Sarah”
Robyn Sarah was born in New York City to Canadian parents, and has lived most of her life in Montreal. She studied philosophy at McGill University and music at the Conservatoire du Québec. Her poems began appearing in print in the early 1970s, and she has to date published ten collections of poetry, most recently My Shoes Are Killing Me (Biblioasis, 2015), a book of essays, Little Eurekas: A Decade’s Thoughts On Poetry (Biblioasis, 2007), and two collections of short stories. In 1976, with Fred Louder, she co-founded the literary press Villeneuve Publications, publishing important early works by August Kleinzahler and A.F. Moritz, among others. She taught English at Champlain Regional College, 1975–96. She has edited The Essential George Johnston, The Essential Don Coles, and The Essential Margaret Avison for The Porcupine’s Quill, and is poetry editor for Cormorant Books. Robyn Sarah is the winner of the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry.
This interview was begun in May 2015 and conducted by e-mail, the interviewer in Manchester, UK, the interviewee in Montreal, Quebec.
Evan Jones: “On Closing the Apartment of my Grandparents…” is an intimate poem, a moment to which you invite the reader that is also in its way a private moment – we learn little about the grandparents and the speaker. Intimacy and privacy at once, which shouldn’t work, but in your poems does. Any thoughts on this?
Robyn Sarah: This is an interesting observation and you aren’t the first to make it; Margaret Avison, reviewing one of my early books, remarked that my poems “illuminate the reader’s privacy without destroying the poet’s.” I was pleased that someone of Avison’s stature had noticed and articulated so clearly what I meant to do: to allow the poem to resonate from my personal experience without detailing that experience too specifically, thus leaving room for a reader to hear his or her own experience in my text. I have always felt that poetry should transcend biography – that even if a poem is transparently autobiographical in origin, it should have a surface that takes it beyond the personal, a hardness as a made object, such that it ceases to be one’s own and becomes everybody’s – becomes public. There are many ways to do this, and I believe these constitute the art of poetry. A fellow poet, critiquing some of the new poems in The Touchstone, remarked in a letter to me that some readers might be disappointed at not being given “the whole story… plot, narrative, facts, emotions” behind the poems: she posited that the “expectation of gossip” is human, and legitimate in a reader of poetry. I wrote back that I distrusted the overly personal, or personally-specific, in poetry, and that instead of the whole story, I thought a poem should detach itself from the biographical facts and deliver the emotional essence of the experience as a distillate – through image, sound, metaphor, and whatever formal devices best serve the purpose – evoking mood and feeling in the way that a piece of music does. This view and practice may not always be appreciated by a reading public that has extended its hunger for confessional narrative beyond prose memoir to the personal lyric. But I must write from my own sense of what a poem is.
EJ: Your comment “hardness as a made object” makes me think of the poem “Castoffs” from your new book, My Shoes Are Killing Me. You draw a connection here between useful and unused objects, the “intact, discarded.” You clearly see a value in what others might discard. Am I safe to connect this to the value of poetry in our society? Is the birdcage without a bird like a poem without a reader?
RS: You want to make something of that birdcage that is not what I had in mind myself, but I think it’s legitimate. I gather you see the birdcage as just such a “made object.” Purposefully designed, but not just utilitarian – birdcages tend to be fanciful creations, often quite beautiful. So the empty, discarded birdcage becomes, in your eye, an analogue for the unread poem? (This may be a total non sequitur, but when I finished writing this poem, I read it aloud to fellow poet Bruce Taylor, whose immediate response was, “I want that birdcage.”) But “Castoffs” is about discarded things in general – not just intact ones – and what prompted it was not thoughts about the value of discarded things, but thoughts about their poignancy, the peculiar sadness that seeing such things can evoke in us. The first stanza of the poem lists things once valued and used, discarded because they are broken or damaged. I contrast these with the “intact, discarded.” It’s sad to see a thing still potentially useful languish unused and unappreciated; it seems a waste. To me, the “perfectly good” birdcage is poignant because it suggests that the bird has died, and the owner does not want the cage around as a sad reminder. Yet there’s also, in the title of the poem, a hint that it isn’t just the owner who has cast off the cage – it’s the bird. A bird that lived its life caged. The cage is meaningless without the bird; every detail was designed for the bird – but birds weren’t designed to live in cages.
Read the rest of this interview in Arc 79, available in winter, 2016.