“Sequencing a collection is like writing one last poem”: An Interview with Robyn Sarah

The following interview was originally published on PRISM international's website in February 2015. After PRISM recently updated its website, much of the old online content was lost. I've worked to archive some of that content here on the blog.

PRISM 53.2 included a homecoming of sorts. It opened with five poems by Montreal poet and editor Robyn Sarah, whose first published poems appeared in PRISM 13:1 in 1973.

As PRISM Poetry Editor at the time, I had the opportunity to ask Robyn a few questions about the poems in the issue, her new book My Shoes Are Killing Me, and the development of her writing and editing process. My Shoes Are Killing Me went on to win the 2015 Governor General's Award for Poetry.

Robyn Sarah
Rob Taylor: Your five poems in PRISM 53.2 will be included in your forthcoming collection My Shoes Are Killing Me (Biblioasis, 2015). They could then, in a sense, be seen as a little sampler representing the book as a whole. From this perspective, what about the collection do these five poems capture well? What do they miss?

Robyn Sarah: The dominant theme of this collection is the past: what stays with us, what we lose, how perspective changes the past, how our relation to past time changes as we move farther away from remembered events. These are poems of memory, nostalgia, retrospect and reckoning – sometimes, they encapsulate moments suddenly remembered, arbitrary moments that in hindsight seem “decisive” or symbolic. (“Breach” is one such poem.) A secondary theme of the book, not as overt, is the future – less and less certain or predictable as we inhabit a present marked by constant rapid change. (“An Infrequent Flyer Looks Down” reflects this.) I think the PRISM selection captures these aspects of the book quite well.

What does it miss? Well, the book also includes two long experimental sequences that could best be described as impressionistic – poems built from unconnected “scraps” of consciousness poured into a stanzaic structure: a rapidly moving stream of random thoughts, observations, feelings, and sensory data. I think these sequences represent a less orderly aspect of how we experience “life time.”

RT: Has working as Poetry Editor at Cormorant Books changed the way you approach the arrangement and editing of your own collections? If so, how?

RS: I would say it’s the opposite: I’ve been able to bring to the books I edit for Cormorant what I have learned over some thirty-five years of arranging and editing my own collections. When I first began publishing, it was very hard for me to conceive of an order other than chronological – the order in which I’d written them – for presenting my poems, even though this is rarely the most effective order (creation is rarely orderly.) It wasn’t until Questions About The Stars, my sixth collection, that I began to get a handle on how to sequence a manuscript of individual poems effectively, and to recognize that this is as much a creative act as the writing of a poem.

I’m well aware that many if not most readers approach a poetry collection as something to open at random and flip around in, and that’s fine (I often do the same myself, at least on first picking one up), but it became important to me to present my own poems in an order that would reward reading them in sequence. This doesn’t mean that I look for a narrative thread; it’s more about finding juxtapositions that are satisfying: pairing or clustering poems that resonate with each other thematically, imagistically or aurally, looking for poems that can serve as natural transitions between clusters. It’s a lot like hanging an art exhibition. For me, sequencing a collection is like writing one last poem, which is the book itself: discerning the overarching concerns of this body of work, finding the unity in its diversity, meeting the challenge of how to present it in a way that will best illuminate connections, contrasts, echoes. I have come to very much enjoy this stage of putting a book together. At Cormorant I was pleased to discover that I can do it just as effectively for someone else’s poetry collection as for my own. Poets not infrequently tell me that when they see my suggested sequence for the manuscript, they gain a new and better understanding of their own work. It’s a great feeling to hear that.

PRISM 53.2
RT: Could you tell us a bit about the process of bringing “An Infrequent Flyer Looks Down” (the opening poem in PRISM 53.2) into its current form? Was the first draft composed, as many might suspect, in the “backwater of an airport lounge”? How many iterations did it take to get to the poem we see today, and at what point in the process did the nursery rhyme slip in there?

RS: It’s rare for me to compose a first draft of a poem in the commonly understood way, i.e. conceived as a poem from the start and written whole, then put through multiple revisions. By the time I get to the end of a first full draft of a poem (such that I feel what I’m working on is actually a poem, something worth moving from scratch-pad to keyboard and a trial printout), it is usually closer to being a final draft than a first draft. But the germinating fragment or fragments that led to this point may have been evolving in my scribblers over a long period (months or years) – repeatedly picked up, played with, and abandoned – expanded and contracted as I try different continuations, abandoned again, rediscovered, sometimes combined with other such fragments that have been evolving separately. I can’t really call these “drafts” because I am not yet “writing a poem”, or not one that I know I’m writing. The provenance of these fragments is various: a dream, a line or phrase written in my journal or a letter, a quotation, often just a phrase that pops into my head out of nowhere, or a phrase that emerges in the course of what you might call warm-up scribbling.

To answer your question about “iterations”, I would have to go back through several years’ worth of raggedy Hilroy notebooks to see how long I had been playing around with various lines, phrases, and other jotted fragments that found their way into this poem. The first three lines were indeed written in an airport lounge, but they were written as prose, in my journal – this was in 2000. On the plane later the same day, I wrote the sentence “Now we are so high that you can’t see a car unless it twinkles” – also as part of a journal entry. Periodically, I mine my journals for lines with poetic potential and copy them into a notebook (sometimes inserting line breaks), and I see that I copied these bits from the journal into my notebook in August 2013 – more than a decade later. “Twinkle, twinkle, little car” appears immediately after the second journal fragment – but it is written with a different pen, which almost certainly means that I added it at a later date. Perhaps it was the spontaneous addition of this line – appended to the journal fragment as a joke, just a bit of free-associative wordplay – that triggered the first full draft, which appears on a notebook page dated a few months later.

Altogether I can discern eight or nine preexisting fragments that came together in that supposed “first draft.” The last stanza is the only one I wrote from scratch on that day. The rest of the compositional process was one of assembling, juxtaposing, and connecting these fragments to make a whole – conceived as such for the first time on that day. Subsequently I tinkered a bit with line and stanza breaks, but otherwise changed very little.

My Shoes Are Killing Me
RT: The process you’ve described for composing “An Infrequent Traveler…” reminds me very much of collage, and of collage-like forms of writing (found poetry, centos, etc.) in which an author pulls in language from various sources to construct their poems (the great difference between such forms and your technique, of course, being that all of your sources are you). Do you think of your composition process as a type of collage? Perhaps as a kind of collaborative effort with your former self – the person who wrote those notes in a journal long ago? Have you written any “found” poems yourself, using others writing/voices in your own work?

RS: From time to time I have indeed composed collage poems entirely from “found” material: in fact there’s a collection of these in my last book, Digressions: Prose Poems, Collage Poems, and Sketches (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2012). The source texts are various, ranging from Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time to the Editor’s Preface to Roget’s Thesaurus, physical clippings from magazines, and phrases that popped up in a Google search.

But I think there’s an element of collage in most poetry. Poetic logic is nonlinear; it makes leaps; on some level it is improvisational, free-associative. One of the things a poet does intuitively is to discover/uncover unlikely connections between diverse particulars by placing them next to each other (e.g. last night’s dream; today’s weather; something heard on the news). Whether these particulars come out of one’s daily life, out of one’s head, or out of somebody else’s written text, the poet is doing the same thing: choosing, highlighting, and juxtaposing things that have caught attention. It also doesn’t matter whether they are freshly observed or remembered/rediscovered. I keep notebooks where I jot things down as they come to me – physical or sensory particulars, random thoughts, words or phrases, words heard or read, stray memories. Why did they catch my attention on the day I noted them – who knows? Some jottings begin growing immediately into poems-in-progress; others just sit there, waiting to catch my attention again. They ripen as I get older. They accrue. After four decades of keeping notebooks, there’s a wealth of such material to draw on for inspiration on a day when I need a jump-start.

I like what you say about this process as a collaboration with a former self. Sometimes the former self knows that a phrase or image is significant, but doesn’t know why: I have to live longer before I see what it signifies. I now understand that many attempts I’ve made at poems over the years – “poem starts” that went nowhere – simply were poems I wasn’t ready to write yet; I began them prematurely. They were prescient flashes of where things were headed, in my life or in the world or in my development as an artist, but I needed to be further along on the path before I could make something of them.

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