The following interview is part one of a seven-part series of conversations with BC poets which I released between January and April 2022. All eight interviews were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca. This was the third year of my collaboration with Read Local BC (you can read the 2019 interviews here, the 2020 interviews here, and the 2021 interviews here).
Sun Valley Lodge - Ellie Sawatzky
Somewhere in my mind, you’ve become
inseparable from the old boats, the plastic
Adirondack chairs. Listen, I saw plastic
Adirondack chairs long before I ever
saw you. I also saw red cars, fireweed,
deer in the road. I saw ukuleles and Amélie.
I rolled my own cigarettes, smoked them
alone, I crocheted poems to keep warm
at night before you, so step back, love,
this is my line of pine trees. This is my
soft light falling fast behind the lake.
Reprinted with permission from
(Nightwood Editions, 2021)
A good number of the poems in None Of This Belongs To Me
are set in remote locations: lakes, farms, tents, the Sun Valley Lodge, etc. I often think that poets who write about their immediate experiences have their lives distorted in their books: it looks like they’re always on vacation! The reality, I suspect, is that these are simply the moments in a poet’s life when they have the time and mental/physical space to write. Would you say that’s true for you?
Ellie Sawatzky: I actually tend not to write when I’m on vacation. I like to romanticize myself as the kind of writer who is overcome by inspiration, scribbling madly in the lounge car on the night train to Montreal. But in reality I’m too distracted in the moment, and I can’t process what’s happening to me while it’s happening. But I do take down notes and file away moments to revisit later, in my mind, when I’m at home in Vancouver at my desk. I write best in moments of quiet reflection when I’m feeling more grounded. I tend to explore my experiences “away” in my poems for reasons that are probably pretty obvious: they are times when something new has been revealed to me about the world and/or myself.
RT: One lens into the world, and yourself, in None Of This Belongs To Me is your work as a nanny. The third section of the book explores your time helping raise “B,” while you were still quite young yourself. You write “Grown-ups // made me, explained things like / sex and art and garbage. Lately I’ve been // explaining”. Later in that same poem you describe poetry as “the way the night / tries to make sense of its day”. Caring for a child and writing a poem both require a certain amount of “explaining” and “making sense” of the world. What was it like to be engaged in both processes simultaneously? Did you find that how you made sense of the world in a poem bled over in some way in how you made sense of the world for “B”? Or vice-versa?
ES: I think something that I’ve learned both from taking care of children and writing poetry is that some things just don’t make sense. Anyone who’s ever spent time around children knows what it is to ultimately answer a line of questioning with “I don’t know why, it just is.” It can be very humbling — and existentially terrifying — to admit that you don’t know something, or to acknowledge that there are multiple contradictory truths. In childhood so much is unknown and there are so many possibilities. As we get older things seem to narrow. But when you spend time with children, you connect with that sense of mystery and possibility and its inherent vulnerabilities, and this certainly inspired my poetic practice while I was working as a nanny. To me, poetry is a space that allows adults to ask questions the way children do. So it’s not so much about “making sense” as it is about wondering.
RT: In “Poetry Wants My Imaginary Boyfriends,” you write that poetry “wants me to malfunction perfectly forever.” You expand on that a few lines later: “poetry wants my ache and ache and a thumb / lost to frostbite.” We are certainly in a moment in poetry where, like the 6 o’clock news, “if it bleeds, it leads.” It feels like there’s an unspoken expectation that lyric poets will put the darkest moments of their life on display. You meet that expectation in many ways in this book, but you equally seem to resist the pressure: in their humour and surprising imagery and music, even the most difficult poems in None Of This Belongs To Me feel buoyed by lightness. Could you talk about that pressure to “malfunction perfectly,” and how you embraced (or rejected) it in this book?
ES: I think it’s important to be vulnerable when writing poetry, and I definitely feel that I followed that impulse in the poems in None of This Belongs to Me (how else to explain the massive vulnerability hangover I’ve been feeling since my book came out), and I also think that humour and levity are important when it comes to conveying meaning and connecting with a reader. Sometimes the process of writing poetry is a way to remind myself not to take myself too seriously. I agree that there are expectations around a poem’s content/tone/style, presuppositions about what poetry is and does, and in the process of writing this book I found myself embracing funny and joyful content — something I wish to see more of in poetry — alongside the more serious stuff. Part of that comes across as self-consciousness, I’m sure: in drawing attention to the process of writing a poem, pointing out its expectations and the ways in which those expectations are subverted. Poking fun at the process, even. For example, in “Ways to Write a Poem” (“Imagine how you might be murdered, but / make it beautiful”).
RT: The joy is there in the content of the poems, and also their playful musicality—rhyme and consonance in particular, especially plosive sounds like hard “t”s. Lines like “thistle-stitched ditch of adulthood”, or “a quivering / night lit occasionally by lightning”, or “a still moonlit / morning in Lillooet”, or “slips out into the wet knit of night / to unhitch the horse…” revel in plosives to an extent I’ve rarely seen in recent years (speaking of things we wish to see more of in poetry, that’s one of mine!). Could you talk about your interest in creating these dense sonic landscapes in your poems? How does this sound-making contribute to the sense-making of a poem’s content?
ES: To be honest, I’ve never thought too much about why I do that, but now that I’m thinking about it, that kind of writing strikes me as being very “muscular,” so perhaps when I’m playing with language in that way I’m just flexing a little bit — constructing a moment where the imagery really packs a punch (pardon the plosive). It seems to me that these dense moments affect the pacing of a poem; they might force a reader to slow down a little bit, to linger on an image, to really hear it, or feel it in the mouth.
RT: Were you inspired by particular poets in writing in this way?
ES: I’m certain I learned how to do that from watching other poets flex their linguistic muscles. A few that I can think of include Ken Babstock, Ellen Bass, Sonnet L’Abbé, Liz Howard, Selina Boan, Adèle Barclay — and you, Rob!
That being said, my mother is a speech language pathologist, and I sometimes wonder if I’m a bit obsessed with the way words sound and feel in the mouth because of something that was instilled in me in the early years of language acquisition.
RT: Yes, I think your mother deserves to be at the top of the list!
While many of the poems in None Of This Belongs To Me are united by their “muscle flexing,” some are much more plain-spoken. Other stylistic choices seem to shift from poem to poem, too: in the book’s fourth section, for example, we start encountering poems written entirely in lower-case letters and in shorthand (“u” instead of “you”, etc.). Some poets have a singular style, while others seem to decide anew their style from poem to poem. Where would you put yourself on that spectrum? Do you write in one “mode” for extended periods, or are you starting fresh with each poem, or somewhere in between?
ES: I would say I decide anew with every poem. I often worry about being repetitious with my poetry, or hitting the same note too many times, so I’m always switching it up. Over the ten years I spent writing this book, I’ve tried a lot of things. Some have worked, some haven’t. This is a collection of what’s worked. It’s a wide spectrum of practice. The oldest poem in the book is “The Boy Next Door,” a narrative poem that is arguably more “conventional,” and tonally it’s very heartfelt and sincere. It almost reads like a short story. And the newest poem in the book is “Blessings Upon U and Ur Bullshit,” in which I’ve tried something new with lower-case letters and shorthand, but also with form and tone; it’s more playful and sassy. I think it’s cool to put those two poems beside each other and imagine the ten-year journey it took to get from one to the other — both in life and in poetry.
In recent years I’ve landed more comfortably in myself as a poet — which is to say I have a better understanding of what I like and why I like it. For example, I like reading and writing poems that don’t use conventional punctuation, because there are more opportunities for experimentation: word play, double entendre, etc. So maybe there’s more stylistic consistency in the work I’m producing nowadays. But I still like each poem to be its own being.
RT: I’m not sure if it’s one of your older or more recent experiments, but one recurring “shape” to your poems is what I’ll call “shrinking quatrains,” in which each line of the stanza is noticeably shorter than the one before it. In your endnotes, you credit a Ken Babstock poem for inspiring the shape of those poems. What drew you to that form originally, and what kept you returning to it? Are there other shapes you often find yourself returning to?
“Shrinking quatrains”! Yes! I’ve been looking for a name for that particular shape. I really love the Ken Babstock poem that first inspired that shape (“Carrying Someone Else’s Infant Past a Cow in a Field Near Marmora, Ont.
”); the content of that poem was evocative for me too, and reminiscent of my own experiences with other people’s children. I loved how the shape seemed to reflect lineage, the ways in which a young child is influenced by what has come before—what trickles down through the line, what is retained, what is forgotten, what makes an impact even if it isn’t remembered.
The first poem I wrote in that form was “This Little Girl Goes to Burning Man
,” and at the time Ken Babstock was my poetry instructor at UBC. I remember him telling me, after the poem was workshopped, that if I’ve found a shape that works, to write more poems in that shape. I really took that advice to heart. I wrote “Crystals” a while after that, and then “Kenora, Unorganized.” I’m sure it’s one I’ll return to again in the future.
Another shape that I find myself returning to is one I’ll call the “indented couplet” (“New Moon, Gemini Season” and “Self Portrait as Ostrich”), where the second line of a couplet is indented and often shorter than the line before it, and each couplet sort of bleeds into the next. This is one I made up, and it’s reflective, for me, of the natural stream-of-consciousness rhythm of my brain, aka my failed attempts at compartmentalization.
RT: Another form that runs with a bit of a “stream-of-consciousness rhythm” is the list poem. None Of This Belongs To Me features a number wonderful ones, including the powerful opening poem “Overnights at the Hospital.” What draws you to write about certain experiences in list form instead of a more narrative approach? Are there certain subjects that you find more conducive to the form?
ES: If I don’t know how to start writing or what to write about, I write a list poem. Usually it’s a kind of free association exercise. I find list poems easier to write than other kinds of poems, probably because of the free association aspect. It makes it more fun, like a game almost. It gives me more freedom, too, maybe because it isn’t tethered to a narrative arc. A list poem is like a movie montage, where each little scene or image is a story unto itself.
I don’t do a whole lot of planning or thinking about what I’m going to write before I write it, but in retrospect the featured list poems in None of This Belongs to Me all tend to cover vast swathes of time and move between childhood and adulthood, so there’s something there… Perhaps list poems work well when I want to pull back the lens and move through time in a different way.
RT: What’s the key to writing a good list poem? Once you get writing one, how do you know when to stop?
ES: I think the key to a good list poem is surprising the reader, whether that’s by using a particularly provocative image or by playing with cadence/rhythm/pacing in such a way that you subvert the pattern that’s been established. That could be done by playing with enjambment, cultivating breaths and beats between lines, mixing up short lines and long lines — or using short sentences after a long one.
There always seems to be a natural place to end; I tend to arrive at a breaking point, and then there’s a denouement, a slowing to a stop.
RT: Subverting the pattern—yes! I’m glad you said that. I’m interested, too, in this idea of a list poem as a movie montage. Many of the poems in None Of This Belongs To Me feel cinematic to me, especially in their compelling closing images: the boy across the frozen water “going into / the lit house” at the end of “The Boy Next Door,” or the family in “Recalculating” who arrive late at a Days Inn, switch off their bedside lamps, and “blink in the black room / like mice.” I could easily see some of your poems being turned into short films, the final image before the fade-to-black already set in place.
Could you talk about the relationship between narrative and image in your poems? Do you more often start with the image, and build toward the story, or vice-versa? Another way to put it: in your narrative poems, do you think of yourself more as script-writer or cinematographer? Or, looping back to our discussion about sound, perhaps more film composer?
ES: Someone please buy film rights to my poems! I definitely think of myself more as a cinematographer. I also write fiction, and my approach to a poem is much the same as my approach to a short story. I almost always start with a landscape, character or image and then the narrative unfolds from there. For me, writing a poem is more about telling a story than it is about exploring a concept or theme the way a lot of poets do.
RT: Ok, let’s end things with a Very Important Question: you reference Tom Petty in two different poems in the book. I love Tom Petty as much as the next person, but still an explanation seems in order…
ES: I had to go looking for the second reference to Tom Petty in my book (in “Spotify My Body”). It wasn’t even really on my radar. Ha! I guess Tom Petty lives in my brain rent-free.
Funnily enough, there was actually a third Tom Petty poem that got cut from my manuscript — one that I wrote when I was asked to perform at Mashed Poetics
a few years back. The album we were “covering” that night was Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever
. I wrote a poem after “Feel a Whole Lot Better
.” And I dressed up as Tom Petty for the performance—I had the right sunglasses and the right haircut. The resemblance was uncanny.
Okay, so I’m a Tom Petty fan. My parents listened to Full Moon Fever A LOT when I was growing up, so it’s very nostalgic.
RT: Ok, I’m going to need to see a photo…
is a writer from Kenora, ON. A finalist for the 2019 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers and the recipient of CV2’s 2017 Foster Poetry Prize, her work has been published widely in literary journals such as Grain
, The Fiddlehead
, PRISM International
, The Matador Review
, The Puritan
. She works as an editor for FriesenPress, and is the curator of the Instagram account IMPROMPTU
, a hub for writing prompts and literary inspiration. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC and lives in Vancouver.