The Chat: Trevor Corkum Interviews 2015 GGs Winner Robyn Sarah

Following on the heels of our special Giller edition of The Chat, I’m pleased to announce that over the next few weeks we’ll be interviewing the English-language winners of this year’s Governor General’s Literary Awards.

First up, I’m pleased to talk to Robyn Sarah, winner of the 2015 Governor General’s Award for Poetry for her collection My Shoes Are Killing Me. Robyn Sarah is the author of ten poetry collections, two short story collections, and a book of essays on poetry. She was born in New York City to Canadian parents, and grew up in Montréal, where she still lives.

In My Shoes Are Killing Me, according to publisher Biblioasis, Sarah “reflects on the passing of time, the fleetingness of dreams, and the bittersweet pleasure of thinking on the 'hazardous … treasurehouse' that is the past."

From the Montreal Gazette:

"Simply put, we can place ourselves in Sarah’s work with ease. Yes, her details are personal, but they are so well chosen, so real, that they make the leap into the universal with a smoothness that can only be the result of much hidden craft."

Thank you again to Publishing@SFU for sponsoring this special Governor General's Literary Awards installment of The Chat.

TheChat-GGs

 

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THE CHAT WITH ROBYN SARAH

Robyn_Sarah_cr_DR_Cowles

What was your first reaction to finding out you’d won this year’s Governor General’s Award for Poetry?

My first reaction was shock. I felt physically light-headed, as if I might faint. When I confessed this, Lori Knoll of the Canada Council laughed and said, “Maybe I should have told you to sit down.” I said, “I am sitting down.” After the shock wore off, I felt amazed and lucky. Finding out I’d won felt much better than finding out another book of mine had failed to make the shortlist.

 

How was your collection My Shoes Are Killing Me born?

No particular starter moment. The heart of the book is the long title poem, a poem in nine sections I call “movements,” which I wrote back in 2010, and which I sensed would be central to the new body of work I was then embarking on. It’s a poem about the end of summer, literally and metaphorically: it enacts a dawning awareness of mortality, interwoven with nostalgia for childhood. The subject of time—the passage of time—has been at the heart of my poetry almost from the start. As I get older, my perspective changes and the time frames that I’m focusing on widen, but the underlying theme is always time. This collection focuses more on past time, and on how our understanding of lived moments keeps changing as we move farther away from them.

 

Besides being an award-winning poet, you’ve also published numerous essays and fiction. What are the advantages and challenges, in your opinion, of writing across genres?

I didn’t begin publishing essays until the late 1990s, after publishing several collections of poems and stories. It was a revelation to me that I could write essays even when I felt uninspired. I’m not sure they come from the same part of my brain as my poems and stories. With an essay, I can actually sit down with a subject in mind; I can address that subject deliberately, explore it, play with it; I’m at the helm of the process. By contrast, poems and stories ambush me and then play hide-and-seek, eluding my attempts to pin them down, repeatedly making me wait for moments of grace. For me, the advantage of writing essays is that I can turn to them and keep my craft honed even during the long dry spells I used to torment myself over—times when my muse for poetry and fiction seems to have gone AWOL. 

Poems and stories ambush me and then play hide-and-seek, eluding my attempts to pin them down, repeatedly making me wait for moments of grace.

Do you have any rituals or superstitions involved in your writing process? Do you generally follow a fixed writing routine?

I wouldn’t say rituals or superstitions, but I do have preferences. In the late fall and winter I like to scribble for an hour or two in the early morning, beginning before it gets light out—but I can’t always get to sleep early enough to drag myself out of bed at that hour.  In summer I like to scribble on my front balcony, after breakfast, over a second cup of coffee. I do mean “scribble.” I always begin poems and stories longhand, in Hilroy notebooks like the ones we used in high school—switching to computer only when a piece of writing is well off the ground. These aren’t what I would call fixed routines—they’re would-be routines. I have trouble keeping to any sort of routine for very long.

 

What's your own litmus test for good poetry? Are there particular writers or works that have influenced your own development as a poet?

 
My test of a good poem is that I remember it individually from a body of poems, that I want to read it again, that I want to say the words aloud, that I want to share it with others, that it makes me want to write a poem myself. Different writers and works have influenced me at different times and this is ongoing, so it’s hard to answer—there are far too many to mention. My earliest influence, in the sense of a writer I consciously emulated when I began to write seriously in my early twenties, was Katherine Mansfield.

 

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EXCERPT FROM MY SHOES ARE KILLING ME (WHAT WE KEEP)

Excerpted from My Shoes Are Killing Me by Robyn Sarah © 2015. Published by Biblioasis. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

 

What We Keep

The last leaves came down in a warm wind
that blew all day on the fourteenth of November.
There were three balmy days in a row—we walked
in the park in the last sun of afternoon. Only the willows
still clung to their foliage, golden weeping willows,
sun catchers. We climbed a small hill. One of us
was in labour.

Do we all cling to grandeur of the past?
The ruins of the Parthenon loom over modern Greece,
and the laws of Temple sacrifice endure
in the synagogue prayer service.

Today a man in his fifties
showed me his first-grade workbook,
and a story he wrote on the reverse side
of a cereal box panel at the age of six,
and his first pair of baby shoes, saved
by the mother who abandoned him as a child;
these things sent to him in a box, decades later.
Proof that he once had a mother who loved him.

November 3, 2015
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