Robyn Sarah has been a quiet but persistent presence in Canadian letters since the mid-1970s, when her poems and short stories began appearing in Canadian journals and anthologies. Born in New York City to Canadian parents, she grew up in Montreal, studying simultaneously at the Conservatoire de Musique du Quebec and at McGill University where she majored in philosophy. In 1976, with Fred Louder, she co-founded Villeneuve Publications, a small press intermittently active until 1987, and co-edited its poetry chapbook series which included first titles by August Kleinzahler, A. F. Moritz, and others. During the same years and until 1996, she taught English composition and literature at Champlain Regional College, a community college in St. Lambert, Quebec.
The year 1992 saw publication of The Touchstone: Poems New and Selected, incorporating work from four earlier small-press collections, and A Nice Gazebo, a first collection of short stories. Since then, Robyn Sarah has published a second short story collection, Promise of Shelter (1997) and two more poetry collections, Questions About The Stars (1998) and A Day’s Grace (2003). Her latest release, just published, is an essay collection, Little Eurekas: A Decade’s Thoughts on Poetry. In the U.S., her poems, stories, and essays have found their way into The Threepenny Review, The Hudson Review, Poetry (Chicago), and New England Review, among others. Her poems have been broadcast on MPR’s The Writer’s Almanac and anthologized in the Anthology of Magazine Verse & Yearbook of American Poetry, Poetry: An Introduction and The Bedford Introduction to Literature, Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times, and The Norton Anthology of Poetry (Fifth Edition). In 2005, she participated in the Festival franco-anglais de poésie in Paris and the Oxfam Poetry Series in London.
At present anticipating the release of Ta portion de jour, a Selected Poems in French translation, Robyn Sarah lives in Montreal’s Mile-End with her husband, Boston-born photographer D. R. Cowles.
Preamble: Geographies, Outer and Inner
ROBT: Having been born in New York, living most of your life in French-speaking Quebec as opposed, say, to English-speaking Ontario– where are your roots? Or, may I ask, where are your loyalties? Interests? Identifications? And how are those geographical allegiances expressed?
ROBYN: I have only the haziest memories of my very brief sojourn in New York City, though I like the idea that I was born there. My parents returned to Canada before I was three. If anywhere is home for me, it’s Montreal, the city where I grew up and where I’ve lived most of my life–city of the proverbial “two solitudes”, but also a very international city, a city of immigrants. I remember it hitting me, one day in my twenties, riding home on the bus with all the ads in French and conversations going on around me in French, Greek, Italian and Portuguese, that for me “home” meant having this comforting cacophony all around me which I mostly would tune out, losing myself in thought. Visiting Toronto, now that felt foreign to me. All the signs were in English and in those years, all you heard was English… you couldn’t not eavesdrop…it was like there was no private space. To sum up: my consciousness is a minority consciousness, the consciousness of an outsider. All my identities are minority identities. Are you a Canadian? Yes, but I’m from Quebec. Are you a Quebecer? Yes, but my langue maternelle is English. Are you a Quebec Anglo? Yes, but I’m Jewish. Being a minority means you always live at one remove from whatever’s at center stage. The down side is you never feel you fully belong; the up side is that you can comfortably opt out–your status as minority confers on you a kind of exemption from normal expectations. As a Montrealer, I’m part of the cacophony of a minority-tolerating, live-and-let-live society and I feel uniquely free to go my own way.
ROBT: As you understand it, Robyn, what is Imagination? Peter Ackroyd in his biography, “Blake,” suggests the poet’s inspiration and visionary experiences were part of a special fate, a natural gift, perhaps inherited, and that for Blake, Imagination was primary, a near sacred element in his life and his work. As a poet, what do you understand by that word, Imagination?
ROBYN: It’s a scary word for me, imagination. I don’t think I have very much imagination, the real world is always more than enough for me. When I was in my teens my piano teacher once made a remark, “Actually we learn by imagination, not by experience”, which I wrote down and brooded on for years, but I’m still not sure what he meant by it or what it means. Recently I came across a conversation I recorded in an old journal, a remark someone made at a party: “Imagination is knowing what to do next.” I hang on to these snippets hoping to understand them one day… For me, inspiration takes two possible forms. Sometimes words come into my head—fragmentary phrases that I like the sound of—I call them “tinder words” because they’re like fire-starter for poems. Or sometimes it’s a sudden feeling I get, that the thing I’m looking at is infused with mysterious significance–that it is both itself and more than itself. It’s like the world jumps into a different kind of focus. I can’t make it happen, I don’t have control over it, but I try to arrange my life to keep myself open to it. Is this “imagination”? Whatever it is, I know that when it’s not there, I can’t write poetry. And I don’t even try.
ROBT: Is it like the idea of “grace” in your book (A Day’s Grace)–something that we don’t exactly deserve, that we haven’t exactly earned, that comes to us when we least expect it, as God’s unmerited assistance, a knockout blow from the muse…? often accompanied, Robert Graves says, by an out-of-body experience? I know that in 1952, at age eighteen, on the USS Menard, sailing to Korea, standing out on deck evening after evening as the sun set, I seemed to leave my body and lost all fear of losing… anything… and there was no need for imagination or anything else for that matter… what was, was enough… life itself… are we ever NOT imagining? And is Imagination, in fact, what occurs when we STOP imagining and see things as they are? Or do we ever see things as they are?
Robyn: Is that a question you’re asking me? It sounds like one for the man with the blue guitar…
The Mind’s Ear
ROBT: A tune upon the blue guitar/ Of things exactly as they are…
But I’d rather ask the lady with the grand piano. Robyn, you’ve said elsewhere you are “a writer who revises sentence one after writing sentence two…”, that you hone as you go along, and you’ve speculated, “I think that’s because I write with my ear, having been trained as a musician.” We may be getting ahead of ourselves, but since the blue guitar comes up now, I’d like to know more about how your training as a musician has influenced your writing–the lyricism and the formal means in poetry of achieving music. I’d also like to know more about HOW you revise, and how you decide when a poem or story is finished. The Latin poet Horace suggested we wait nine years after completing a poem before sending it out into the world…
ROBYN: One thing I can say for sure is that whether I’m writing poetry or prose, my ear is guide and arbiter. I “hear” the words on the page, even if I’m not saying them aloud—I hear them in my mind’s ear. The word with the right meaning isn’t enough–it also has to have the right number of syllables for the line or sentence that it’s in, and the accent on the right syllable. If I take out this line or phrase or paragraph, then for rhythmic reasons I may just have to put in something else. Any change I make–even a very small one–my ear may dictate that I have to change what comes before it and/or what comes after. I don’t think I have to tell you how endlessly nitpicky it is to work this way… So, how I revise… My poem drafts all look the same. There’s the opening of the poem, say four or five lines. The sixth line doesn’t feel right. I cross it out, but instead of trying something else immediately, I have to go back and recopy from line one again–get to the same point (hearing it in my head as I go), and THEN try something else. And if I’m happy with it–on I go, but only until the next false line–cross it out, start over from the beginning. I can begin again as many as eight or ten times, before I get to the end of a finished draft. How I know when I’m finished–that’s easy, I’m finished when I get all the way to the end without having to start over! Sometimes I have an idea of how I’m going to end–I may even have the exact words in mind; other times, an ending overtakes me by serendipity.
ROBT: And that’s it? No second draft?
ROBYN: After that, it’s just tinkering. Type up a clean copy, look at it first thing in the morning–and maybe I see a punctuation mark I want to change, or a line break, or I think of a better word here or there. Very little things. This malleability lasts maybe a week–then the poem seems to harden up, and I’m ready to let go of it. With fiction, the process is basically the same, but in parcels–when I start over, it’s by the paragraph, section, or page. I keep inking over typed copy till it gets too messy to read, then I retype as far as I’ve gotten, and forge on. When I get to what feels like the end, the story is basically written–no major rewrite to engage in, just the same kinds of tinkering as with the finished poem, a word here, a phrase here, small additions and deletions–and the “malleable” period goes on a little longer. I must add that many, many attempts at poems and stories never make it as far as that finished draft. They get dumped, or abandoned to a drawer– a ragbag drawer where I dig for inspiration during dry spells. Sometimes they get resurrected, even years later, or cannibalized for parts. But my test of whether something is publishable is that I’m able to get to the end of it.
ROBT: While we’re on the subject of music, how did you come to write the poem “Old Tune” (“A Day’s Grace,” p. 59)?
ROBYN: That poem grew out an old notebook entry, taking off on the double meaning of the phrase “to beat time”. It was something like: “Beat time–no one can beat time, time beats us all.” I came across this, it was right after my uncle died and I’d been thinking about death–and the poem evolved out of that note by free association, a flight of double entendres. When I wrote the phrase “a cold conductor”, I was thinking of the conductor of an orchestra, but then I thought: heat conductor, cold conductor–a baton made of iron would be another kind of “cold conductor”–and from there to the idea of a branding iron that is cold not hot–hence death as a “cold branding”–which brought on the sheep and shepherd imagery, shepherd’s rod, shepherd’s pipe—and full circle to that old tune, something to beat time to. As for the poem’s own musical effects, I think I probably had been reading a lot of Hopkins when I wrote it.
ROBT: The opening of that poem, “Beat time,/beat time to the music while you can…” reinforced for me the degree to which music and musicality infuses your work. Given that a skillful poet (Yeats, Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Birney, Rilke…) is capable of achieving extraordinary musical effects, delights for the ear–what would you say to students who read little or nothing and pour out their musings onto a page with minimal regard for structure or tradition or how the work will sound when read aloud?
ROBYN: I always urge young poets to read, read, read poetry–to read the English classics, especially from the Elizabethan period on, to read the early moderns and world poetry in translation. Especially, to read aloud–to memorize and recite the poems that speak to them. When applicants to creative writing school ask me for letters of support, I always first play devil’s advocate, ask them why they would choose that road? I still believe a poet’s best education is to be had in reading great poems, studying them to see how they work. I tell these kids that the best teachers are dead, and their instruction is free.
ROBT: Free verse can include rhyme and meter and all the other devices available to formalists. Like jazz, free verse is improvisational. It uses musical effects and devices as needed, without the regularity of pattern(s) and exacting rhyme schemes. Is this cheating? Can you hear the music in such work? Speaking as a poet who is more formal than most, what do you find to enjoy in what is typically called free verse?
ROBYN: Of course it isn’t cheating to use musical devices in free verse! I’ve written at least as many free verse as formal poems, and they’re full of irregular rhyme and other sound play, loose iambics, repetition, rhythmic cadence. I enjoy the same things in good free verse that I enjoy in good formal verse, namely, concentrated feeling or thought or perception expressed in felicitous language. And what makes language felicitous? Originality, aptness, metaphor, and music. Maybe music above all. I notice in your own “Statement of Poetics”, that you too came to believe more and more in music, wanting rhyme, wanting the rhythm of people talking, in your poems.
ROBT: Who are your favorite contemporary musicians? I’m thinking in particular of those vocalists who not only write their own lyrics, but perform them well. Are such musicians a source of inspiration to you? And have your listening tastes changed from the time you were a student? How much of what you listen to would you call “classical”?
ROBYN: Strange to say, I don’t listen to music very much, it’s not a habit and hasn’t been since I was in my 20s. When I do listen, it tends to be obsessive–the same piece over and over again, important to me at that moment for whatever reason. Brahms’ First Symphony. The Goldberg Variations (Gould, but not the first recording; I like the later one.) Mozart’s Requiem… a handful of pieces I keep coming back to. I play more than I listen. I play only classical music, and I play every day–for relaxation, meditation…anywhere from ten minutes to a couple of hours. Usually piano, once in a while clarinet–or I fool with violin, which I don’t really play. I like jazz, but I don’t play jazz and have little knowledge of it–but I like listening to Coltrane, Evans, Mingus, Monk…some old records I’ve had forever… for the mood they put me in. I like Paul Simon–his best songs move me in the same way that good poems do. I think of him as a poet. I would call his “American Tune” a great poem.
ROBT: To return to revision–One writer (Doug Powell, Lecturer in Poetry at Harvard) speaks of how he once cut his poems into shreds and glued them to the walls of his bathroom so that he could revise with steam and a straight-edge razor. I say Whatever works, whatever serves the end of making a good poem better is legitimate… add it to one’s repertoire of means and devices. Younger writers, in particular, are reluctant to revise. In your view, how important is revision and what are some of the means you use in moving from an early to a later draft?
ROBYN: Given that my own process is to do one long draft that I’m continually honing as I go along–I can hardly separate “writing” from “revision”. For me, writing IS revision. If you ask what guides my honing process, I’d say: economy, lucidity, consistency, and sound. I make it tighter, I make it clearer, I make it true to itself, and I make it sing. Sometimes this comes easily, more often it’s slow and labored. But part of the process is knowing when to stop. I’ve watched some poets flog the life out of their poems by over-revising. And sometimes–albeit rarely–a poem comes whole, almost perfect, first utterance. You don’t want to touch that.
Genre: A Case of “Sometimes”
ROBT: Robyn, you write in several genres. This isn’t all that usual for a poet. How and, indeed, WHEN, do you know that “notes on a page,” let’s call them, that preliminary burst of creativity, is going to result in a poem or a story? What determines the direction the material will take?
ROBYN: It’s not always clear to me right away. I thought my poem, “Astronomy” was going to be a short story, but looking at my preliminary notes, I saw they could almost stand as a poem, so I made it one. My story “Deuxième Arabesque” began as a poem, but I couldn’t get the lines to break right, so I typed it as prose and realized I was looking at the opening sentence of a short story. Generally, if line-breaks are giving me grief, I try typing the poem as prose. Usually the result is a prose poem, but some of my prose poems could arguably be called very short fictions. For me, poem and short story are close relatives, but fiction involves a more sustained commitment to the material and a stronger nod towards narrative. But I think most of my short stories are closer to poetry than to fiction, in that their metaphoric or allegorical subtext is stronger than their narrative drive. And in “Drift”, my most recently published story–I even found myself using meter (occasional sentences in iambics), alliteration, and refrain.
ROBT: “Drift,” that’s the one in The Hudson Review whose opening sentence is repeated several times, sometimes with variations, like a refrain: “A floater took up residency in Helen’s eye.” And the alliteration and meter of lines like “…this was her fate, at fifty-five. A fact to face: all right. No fix forthcoming”… make this a poet’s story, for sure. But tell me, too–how do you know that a given poem is going to evolve with rhyme and meter, as opposed to something freer in form? You’re at a crossroads, say, with an evolving poem, and you may have to decide for the poem: “You, you’re a sonnet, only you don’t know it yet.” How do you decide? Or is it a collaboration between you and the vulnerable draft? You know, like a husband and wife deciding to stay home in bed and watch TV instead of dressing up and going to the opera.
ROBYN: Questions like this make me think of a fisherman we met on Vancouver Island. I was asking him a lot of curious questions about his work, and at one point he threw up his hands and said, “Thing about fishing is—just about anything you might want to ask me about it, the answer is Sometimes.” That’s how it is for me with writing. Sometimes I know from the outset that I’m going to write a sonnet or a villanelle, because my “tinder words” are in iambic pentameter and easily suggest one of those forms. Sometimes I’m working in free verse but if the poem looks to be headed to end at thirteen or fifteen lines, I’ll see if I can’t rework it to fourteen and make it an untraditional sonnet–especially if it employs other formal effects. So, yes, something like collaboration–building consciously on what has presented unconsciously. But I can also be impulsive. If in the course of reading, I discover or rediscover some poetic form–I may in the excitement of discovery want to try a poem in that form. So I take something I’ve abandoned, some unfinished free verse lines, and see if I can build on them, shape them to that form. That’s how I wrote my first sestina (“On My Son’s Birthday”). Sometimes if I notice my free verse stanzas coming out roughly the same length, I try to get them exactly the same length–an exercise that usually improves the poem in other ways. And a final thought: sometimes I try a new form as an exercise for breaking writer’s block.
ROBT: At one point, in his correspondence with Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell exclaims, “How different prose is; sometimes the two mediums just refuse to say the same things. I found this lately doing an obituary on Hannah Arendt. Without verse, without philosophy, I found it hard, I was naked without my line-ends.” Robyn, in your fiction and personal essays, do you sometimes find that the various mediums “just refuse to say the same things”? I wouldn’t label you a formalist, but do you, too, feel naked in certain instances without your line-ends?
ROBYN: Not at all–just differently dressed. For me, the divide isn’t between poetry and prose, it’s between poetry/fiction and essay/journalism–and it doesn’t have to do with what the medium can say, it has to do with whether I can “say” in it, at a given moment. My poems and short stories come from the same place, I don’t know where that is exactly but I know that sometimes I can’t get there, sometimes I’m locked out for long periods. I used to suffer intensely when I wasn’t writing–I say “wasn’t writing”, but I was always writing–reams in my journal, reams of letters, but in my mind that didn’t count. It wasn’t until quite late, when I was phasing myself out of teaching, that I began doing some freelance journalism and realized that here was a kind of writing I could do even when my muse was AWOL. That at any time, on assignment or self-prompt, I could write an Op Ed, a piece of literary journalism, a personal essay or memoir. There was no terror in it, no “page fright.” It didn’t require “tinder words” or a moment of epiphanous perception. All it needed was a subject, and the world is full of subjects. This discovery has taken the horror out of my dry spells; now I just switch modes. I enjoy writing essays. The wordsmithery part is the same as if I were writing poetry or fiction, but for the rest, I would swear it’s a different part of the brain I’m using.
ROBT: The word “essay” derives from the Middle French, essai, and the Latin exagium, meaning “to drive, to test, to attempt…” What can you “drive, test, or attempt” in the personal essay that you cannot do in your poetry?
ROBYN: If I’m inclined, I can make a case, develop an argument–though theoretically I could do that in a poem too. Mostly I think of my essays as explorations. I can get into all the corners of a subject in a way that doesn’t happen in a poem. But since I write essays mostly when I find myself unable to write poetry or fiction, I think a big part of what I’m “essaying” is to get back to my home ground. So my essays tend also to be formal explorations–borrowing formal devices from music, poetry, or fiction. “On Seeing: Essay in the Form of Variations”, which appeared in New England Review, mimics a musical form–a set of variations on a theme–but it’s also very lyrical. Writing it proved to be the transition from a long spate of journalism back into writing poetry. “Nine Days” (Antioch Review) and “Connections” (New England Review) both employ fictional conventions and devices: the first is narrated in what look like journal entries, the second alternates between miniature “home movies” and sections that are expository or contemplative.
ROBT: How do you distinguish between “confessional” poetry and work that is transparently autobiographical? At what point does the autobiographical become confessional? I personally admire Robert Lowell’s book Life Studies. Using that word “confessional” to describe Life Studies seems to me to diminish the importance of a seminal work. “Confessional” suggests emotional messiness, a shouting from the rooftops, at worst, burdening the reader with tabloid revelations, telling stories “outside the house…”
ROBYN: Yes, it suggests all of those things–an absence of borders, the poem as dumped laundry bag. I like something Yehuda Amichai once said: that a poem is the sign we have gotten over something. I would use “confessional” to describe poets who use the poem to do the getting over. But there’s more to it, I think. A transparently autobiographical poem is not confessional if it can transcend its particulars. How? By metaphorical flight, by humor, by formal structure, by sheer melody, by dramatic device (which you yourself have used in your father-son poems)… there are numbers of ways. If my personal revelations in a poem evoke some Biblical or other archetypal narrative, or shed powerful light on some aspect of your life as reader, then my poem is not confessional. But if you as reader can only listen in, captive, like someone sharing a bus seat with a prurient blabbermouth…. I think of a poem as “confessional” if the poet’s revelations make me uncomfortable, if they force me into the position of voyeur. For me, it’s in how the poem treats its subject (with respect and humanity?–or thoughtlessly, even exploitatively? and I would call the aestheticization of suffering exploitative, no matter how well done.) And it’s in how the poem treats me as reader. Does it allow me my own space? Does it stand too close, does it breathe in my face?
ROBT: In writing what you yourself call “personal essays,” how far are you prepared to go in “opening” yourself to the reader?
ROBYN: It’s not a question of “how far”, but of whether I can sufficiently transcend the particulars so that what I’m sharing is fundamentally human rather than merely personal. And whether the experience I’m writing about is one that has universal resonance. Even so, sometimes it feels like a risk.
“Wrote and sent reviews…” : Citizenly Duty and Mailbox Anguish
ROBT: Lots of writers have no interest in reviewing books, or refuse to review them. Many fear the consequences of giving an honest, but negative review–which is part of the job. You reviewed as a very young writer (1975-76 for The Daily Colonist in Victoria, under the name R. S. Louder), then stopped for 20 years. Recently you have reviewed any number of books. How do you explain this return to book reviewing? For my part, I should say that I agree with Dana Gioia who argues that if we’re responsible writers we should take up the pen now and then and do what you’re doing, write reviews.
ROBYN: I agree with Dana Gioia one hundred per cent. I think if one is capable of writing a readable review (not all writers are, alas), one should take one’s turn doing it–as a “citizenly duty” of literary life. I’ve argued this with writer-friends who have no inclination at all to write reviews, yet who express in conversation lucid, incisive and sometimes divergent literary opinions that deserve and NEED to be aired. Sadly, some of the willing are less than enlightening… You ask why I returned to reviewing, but not how I began it or why I stopped. How I began is a funny story. I was 24, living in the woods on Vancouver Island on dwindling savings and Unemployment Insurance, while I worked on poems and stories. You had to have published a book or “the equivalent in magazines”, then, to apply for a writing grant. To keep collecting UI, to which I was entitled for 11 months, I had to prove I was looking for work–but if I found a job too soon, that would be the end of my writing time. So I applied for jobs I was sure I wouldn’t get. Reviewing for the Daily Colonist seemed a good bet (I had never published a review in my life) but on the basis of an interview and one sample review written on request, books editor Edward Ward-Harris hired me to review up to three books a week. Happily the pay was so low, it wasn’t enough to get me cut off UI. We would drive into Victoria once a week to take showers at the “Y” (no running water where we lived), raid the library, pick up my review books at the Colonist office, then drive back to Sooke where I wrote my reviews by kerosene lamplight on a junkshop manual typewriter, then hiked up the road in next morning’s rain to mail them. It gave me great satisfaction to write in my journal, à la Katherine Mansfield (my heroine at the time) “Wrote and sent reviews.” But no matter what I wrote, I felt a toe-curling anguish every time I dropped my review in the mailbox. I always felt I’d been too soft or too hard on the book (hell, it wasn’t THAT good, or hell, it wasn’t THAT bad.) When we went back east, Ward-Harris kept sending me books and I went on reviewing for several months but eventually begged off. The pittance didn’t seem worth the angst, or the time it took away from my “real” writing—especially once I had some teaching work. He never forgave me.
ROBT: And how you came back to it…?
ROBYN: I returned to reviewing for cash, around 1995, as I phased out of teaching, but it didn’t take too long for me to realize I could make the same amount of money in half the time writing op-eds (no book to read and re-read, no mailbox anguish.) When I started again, in 2000, it was poetry only, and it was for Dana Gioia’s reason: because I felt a responsibility. I was tired of reading poetry reviews that dealt only with the content of poems, that betrayed a complete ignorance of what made poetry good or even what made it poetry; reviews that dropped mystifying, syntactically butchered “quotes” that weren’t contextualized in any way; reviews that were unreadable or pretentiously highbrow. I thought I should do my part as someone who could talk/write about poetry in a way that was accessible, unintimidating, and instructive… as an antidote to the kinds of reviewing that I think are damaging to a poetry readership. And this led to other kinds of writing on poetry—columns, appreciations, short essays—many of which have been collected in my new book, Little Eurekas.
Weighing Words: Villeneuve Publications
ROBT: Your ten or so years of running Villeneuve Publications (1976-87) involved printing letterpress, on a table-sized, hand-operated platen–essentially the same machine as used by Hogarth, I believe. You published mostly poetry. You did your own collating, saddle stitching, trimming. You weren’t especially prolific but published some landmarks, like August Kleinzahler’s first title. What led you into this venture?
ROBYN: The idea of starting a small press was hatched during that same ten-month sojourn on Vancouver Island. You’ve lived in Victoria, Robert–you know what the winters are like there. It rained and it rained, and we pillaged the library, I read all of D H Lawrence that winter, and I read a lot of literary biographies, letters and journals of the “Bloomsburies”. And I turned 25–that stock-taking birthday–and thought, What have I done in my life? It was a shock to realize that Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray had edited not one but two literary magazines by the time they were my age, and had published work by contemporaries who proved to be important writers of the day. Around this time, we (the other half of “we” being Fred Louder, my first husband) met an amateur letterpress printer with a motorized 1890s Chandler & Price platen press, who offered to give us a lesson in hand typesetting–at which lesson we met Kleinzahler, sojourning on the island for his own reasons and apparently fated to bump heads with us there. Not long after, Fred and I decided to go back east and get on with our lives, and the plan included starting a literary magazine and saving up to buy a platen press. We did both (but we could only afford a table-sized, hand-cranked Kelsey), and Fred taught himself typesetting and design out of books, and a year or so later August turned up in Montreal with a terrific manuscript of poems. We launched The Sausage Master of Minsk in June 1977–a couple of days before our son was born. That slowed us down a bit (poor August was quite nervous during the last stages of production.) A year later we published chapbooks by A. F. Moritz, Brian Bartlett, and Jack Hannan. Then another baby–that really slowed us down. Then my own second title, the chapbook The Space Between Sleep and Waking, in 1981. I’d by then had a poetry collection published with another small press, and Villeneuve had first published other writers, so I felt okay about that–it wasn’t my first and it wasn’t our first–that was important to me.
ROBT: I personally believe ALL poets should, as part of their craft, learn to set type by hand (desktop publishing doesn’t count), and produce at least one or two works by another poet, not themselves, before daring to set up shop and call themselves “poet.” It’s not enough to read other poets; it’s not enough to say their words aloud. In addition to the other training and experience one needs as a writer, there is much to be learned about the craft that can come only from designing pages and setting type by hand. Speaking as a writer and someone grounded in the nitty-gritty of “making books by hand,” what do you feel you gained (as a poet) by your ten years of work with Villeneuve Publications?
Robyn: I learned (vicariously, since this was Fred’s domain) to understand and appreciate good book design, and also to appreciate the concept of the poetry chapbook–a small, tightly edited body of poems meant to be read all the way through, in sequence, attentively, lingeringly–not dipped into and out of, casually, at random. When you’re setting type by hand, and you only have the evenings to do it in, there’s good reason to keep a book short. That necessity fostered stringent editing: only the strongest poems (your tolerance for anything less drops sharply when you’re setting a poem in cold type, letter by letter) and only poems that work well in sequence. We found that a baker’s dozen was plenty. A book that size teaches you how poetry should be read. I’m nostalgic for books like that–a joy to hold in the hand, a joy to the eye, books that invite you in, that have an intimacy to them. Finally–there is something about setting type by hand: the way it slows you down, makes you physically experience every word, every punctuation mark, even the spaces between words. Jack Hannan, our co-editor for the short-lived serial anthology Four By Four, had occasion years later to introduce me at the launch of one of my story collections, and he took the opportunity to recall that experience of setting type. He described the feel of a composing stick in the hand: how heavy it is when full, even though it can hold only a few lines of lead type at a time; how it makes you feel, literally, the weight of words. And he remarked that what he felt in my writing was that each word had weight. I was very struck by what he said. I think it’s true that learning to set type by hand had that effect on me as a writer: subliminally, it intensified my weighing of words, my valuing of each word.
ROBT: Which Canadian and American writers would you credit as influences on you and your poetry? Are there poets who have influenced your fiction, or fiction writers who have influenced your poetry? For myself, I’d credit Saul Bellow, William Faulkner, Doris Lessing and Philip Roth as influences on my poetry… and musicians, including Klezmer groups… like Andy Statman’s “Between Heaven & Earth.”
ROBYN: My first major influence was neither Canadian nor American. In my early twenties I read Katherine Mansfield so closely that I think I had a sizeable number of her short stories from memory. She influenced my poetry as much as my fiction. What I got from her was a passion for integral detail, and that attunement to the level of the syllable–the sheer musicality of her sentences. Like me, she began her artistic life as a musician… as did Carson McCullers, another writer I admired in my twenties. (McCullers and Mansfield both wrote short stories about a piano lesson–an adolescent girl at her piano lesson: McCullers’ “Wunderkind” and Mansfield’s “The Wind Blows.” My story, “Premiere Arabesque”, written when I was 24, may have been inspired by theirs–certainly the existence of their stories seemed to give me permission to write a piano lesson story.) Among American prose writers who have influenced me are James Agee and Loren Eiseley–two more writers who attend to every syllable, to haunting effect—and, more recently, James Salter.
ROBT: What about poets?
ROBYN: Different poets have mattered to me at different times, but I keep coming back to Frost (for metaphor and speech-rhythm) and Stevens (for strangeness). Who else? Hopkins. Dickinson. Dylan Thomas. Roethke. Berryman. Elizabeth Bishop (her prose possibly more than her poetry.) I’ve also been influenced by poetry in translation. Chinese poetry of the Tang dynasty, for one. Neruda and Vallejo. In recent years, Yehuda Amichai and Wislawa Szymborska. Of Canadian poets, Peter Van Toorn was an early influence–I was lucky enough to be around his brilliant kitchen-table talk about poetry in the early 70s, and to read much of his early work in manuscript and, later, publish some of it. Other Canadian poets who have influenced me are Margaret Avison (her philosophical bent and strangeness) and George Johnston (from whom I learned, above all, subtlety of craft.) And Emily Carr, the painter–she only began writing in her 70s and is an absolute original—influenced me as an example of a very pure artist and independent spirit.
ROBT: But she wasn’t a poet…?
ROBYN: Not overtly… but her prose has the ring and precision of poetry. As for fiction–if I had to name one American writer who has been an inspiration, it is Grace Paley–I’m in awe of her stories. Oh–and how could I forget Bernard Malamud? And I’ve been influenced by a number of Israeli writers in translation, especially S. Y. Agnon, but also Aharon Applefeld, and A.B. Yehoshua (the short stories and earlier novels), and Amos Oz (his novel Fima in particular). Quite a mixed bag of influences, and I’m sure there are many I’ve neglected to mention.
ROBT: And what musicians and composers have affected your writing? Perversely, would you name any writers or musicians as negative influences, even if fine artists themselves? It is always possible for one artist to misuse or misunderstand another.
ROBYN: I don’t think individual musicians or composers have had direct effect on my writing. But music was a huge part of my life from the age of thirteen to twenty-one, so musical allusions get into my poems just because it’s a natural vocabulary for me. Often I resort to it for poem titles. like “Fugue”, “Intermezzo in a Minor Key”, “Ad Lib for Bone Flute”, “Chamber Music.” The titles peg the mood of the poem, and sometimes they also hint at content, or allude to it by punning. Two poems in my latest collection, “The Orchestre du Conservatoire Rehearses in Salle Saint-Sulpice” and “The Plunge” (a thumbnail portrait of a young woman flautist), are “memory-scapes” from my Conservatoire days. You ask about negative influences. I think there’s hardly a Canadian woman writer of my generation who has not picked up some mannerisms and devices of Alice Munro’s fictional style. Much as I admire the best of Munro’s stories–and I do–the temptation to slip into a fictional voice resembling hers has been more of a hindrance than a help in developing my own.
ROBT: Robyn, how do you balance the need for solitude with the need for contact with other writers? Some writers find it difficult to sustain friendship with other writers. There’s jealousy, rivalry and one’s need to be alone for long hours in order to produce and that sometimes means neglecting one’s most valued friends. The pie is small. The rewards are few. The competition brutal. So there’s a degree of paranoia… (you and I being the exceptions, of course).
ROBYN: Well, you know, some of my best friends are writers… But, quite seriously, a lot aren’t. Of my “soul-friends”, I think if I took a tally, more have NOT been writers. And the writers tend to be friends I don’t see or communicate with very regularly (rather in intense, extended bouts with long lacunae.) By nature I’m pretty reclusive. But I do feel a communality with other writers, a shared calling. A lot of my contact with other writers is by correspondence. It’s my way of having that important exchange, but preserving my solitude at the same time. But when it’s time for a break from my desk, time to meet someone for lunch–often I prefer to see friends from other walks of life. It’s good to get away from the claustrophobia of writing, thinking about writing, talking about writing — and good to hear about other lives. As for that competition, paranoia… generally I don’t cultivate friendships with writers who are career-driven, and I avoid or flee the kind of event where writers gossip about their agents, book deals, advances, foreign sales. That kind of talk brings on needless anxiety and self-doubt, and distracts me from what really matters, which is the work itself.
A Day’s Grace: Poetry’s Shelf Life
ROBT: Yes, the work itself… so many of us get distracted by the “writing biz,” the urge to publish for its own sake, the need to compete for recognition. Yet certain writers exhibit a kind of integrity, a thoroughgoing dedication to writing as opposed to “doing business.” That sense we have in such writers, that they are absolutely committed to the work itself, can’t help but manifest in what they write. I find it in your poem “A Solstice Rose” and imagine you in Montreal one day in December with your sad and droopy flower, propping its “nodding head awake, in a brace of metal.” Awake, that is, through your grace, as one who would rehabilitate a rose… Wonderful poem! And, in the penultimate stanza you employ the phrase “a day’s grace”, which gives the book its title. Tell me, what do you understand by the word “grace”? The word comes up elsewhere in the book, too.
ROBYN: What does it mean to you, Robert?
ROBT: Life, hope and the gift of life. I know it comes from the Latin, gratia, favor, charm, thanks, grateful and it can mean God’s unmerited assistance. There are, of course, the three sister goddesses in Greek mythology, aesthetically concerned beings responsible for charm and beauty and, I would say, they grace this book and many of your poems and stories. The word “gift” comes to mind.
ROBYN: It does for me, too. In particular an unexpected gift, something we might not even recognize as a gift if we aren’t open to it. Every day brings its own gifts, but many days we don’t unwrap them or take them to ourselves. “A day’s grace” can be understood as the grace, the beauty, the surprise that any day offers–take it or leave it. But as used in “A Solstice Rose”, it’s the expression meaning a little bit of extra time granted, a stay of a deadline. Which is a gift too, of course.
ROBT: That idea is implicit in the publisher’s note on the back cover. Here, too, is that ring of truth one looks for in a book of poetry: “‘A Day’s Grace’ wavers between consciousness of a day’s brevity and celebration of its gifts… these are poems that seize the sparkle of the moment and hold it up to light.”
Robyn: Ha–that’s because the publisher asked me to write the publisher’s note. And I thought, Do we really need a note? Do I have to spell out what this book is about? Haven’t I already done that in the title? Do I have to explain that the phrase is meant to be taken two ways? But consensus among my nearest and dearest was: “Yes, you do have to spell it out. There’s nothing wrong with giving readers a handle.”
ROBT: I agree and I’m not surprised. Frankly, I didn’t want to be so bold as to ask if you’d written the “publisher’s note” yourself. It’s one of those things we all get asked to do… at the very least to provide starting material for some editor who may or may not have read one’s manuscript with care. I’ve had a hand in writing mine, and, speaking with friends, understand the practice is widespread. Yes, Robyn, we do have to spell it out… and hope to attract readers at a time when, as Coffee House Press publisher Allan Kornblum observes, “The shelf life of a book of poetry is somewhere between yoghurt and cottage cheese.”
ROBYN: That is the publishers’ and booksellers’ view, isn’t it? I’ve always been under the impression good poetry had a rather long shelf life. Some of it has lasted centuries. What was it Jeffers wrote in “To the Stone-Cutters”? Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found/ the honey of peace in old poems.
ROBT: What matters is that you deliver on that “publisher’s note”. Grace and the need to “seize the sparkle” …that theme runs through the book. It’s there in a poem like “Time”, with its “Lights, cameras, action …Cut!” and, too, in “A Vision of the Future,” apocalyptic! and “Day” and “Circa 2000″ — restrained and passionate. These poems transcend politics, yet could not be more relevant to what is happening in the world today.
Robyn: I’m so glad you said that. We get served an unending diet of politics. I think poetry should offer something different–a refuge from politics, a larger way of looking at the world.
Robt: Another favorite is your poem “The Orchestre du Conservatoire Rehearses in Salle St.-Sulpice,” which lingers in the mind as, “beyond the heavy drapes, out / on the snowy street, making moan,/ the hooded pigeons promenade/to a solemn bonging of bells.” Like much else in A Day’s Grace, this poem is rich, musical and emotionally charged. Earlier, you called this poem a “memory-scape.” I can guess the meaning of your phrase, but I’d like to hear your definition of the term as it applies to this poem.
ROBYN: An intensely relived memory, not of any one particular Sunday morning rehearsal but of many: the ambience of a whole period, long past. I think nostalgia is what gives the poem its emotional charge.
ROBT: I’m also interested in how you choose, what you select for, in ordering your poems? Why this order? Why not another? I look at the sequence you’ve chosen, recognize how carefully you’ve worked out the arrangement and, as reader, couldn’t imagine changing anything. For example, “A Solstice Rose,” somber and yet hopeful–open to grace–is followed by the sonnet “Circular,” which I find ominous. Spooky in the way Robert Frost’s “Design,” also a sonnet, is spooky: “What but design of darkness to appall?–/If design govern in a thing so small.” I think of those lines when I read your final couplet: “Ignore this letter and forgo great gain./You have been chosen. Do not break the chain.” Frost toys with the reader, playing with the old question of fate versus free will. And you, it seems to me, do something similar–though the sonnets are very different.
Robyn: You’ve picked up on something, though I would never have thought to compare those two poems. Both are about our vulnerability to bad omens—the flip side of “grace.” We may want to shrug off the ominous, but we’re only partly successful.
ROBT: To go back to your Table of Contents, what did you have in mind when you followed “A Solstice Rose” with “Circular”?
ROBYN: When I’m ready to sequence a manuscript, I spread the poems out on the floor and begin moving them into clusters that seem to have something in common (whether it’s imagery, theme, or mood), and then I sequence each cluster by looking for poems that “sound right” together if I read the last lines of one and the first lines of the next (once again, the ear decides!)
I must have chosen to begin this collection with “A Solstice Rose” because it was the source of the title phrase. As to why I put “Circular” next–I don’t remember the exact process, but looking at the last lines of “A Solstice Rose”, it’s clear that this resuscitated flower hasn’t long to live–and the first words of “Circular” are “The death threat.” And in a way the whole book is about “the death threat” and how we hold it at bay. But also, there’s a pickup of energy with “Circular”, because it has a regular meter and a longer line–and my ear likes that rhythmic shift, the contrast it offers, like a new movement in a musical composition. Oh, but why didn’t you ask about the next poem–it’s easier! “Circular” ends with a letter on the mat, and is followed by “Letter in Reply to Linda’s…” which begins with a letter on the mat. And there’s a contrast there too: the letter in “Circular” is ominous–but the letter in the next poem comes from a friend, and invokes springtime–so it has a lightening effect.
ROBT: “Signs and portents” are words that come to mind as I open and, starting on page one, begin reading A Day’s Grace. Yet there is lightness here, too, and the musicality of the poems, oddly, grounds them in hope… as does the wit and humor of a poem like “Salvages.” Or “Poem,” which offers an ars poetica : “A poem is a small machine/to move the heart” — and then goes on to do it, to illustrate in ten lines, ten short lines, what it is saying. Am I right? Is “Poem” an ars poetica and, if so, is it complete? Is there something else you’d like to say on the subject?
Robyn: No doubt there are other things I could say, and have said, but “Poem” is my bottom line. I do think that above all else, poems should move us.
Robt: “Two Conversations about Poetry” presents two vignettes that, one way and another, also enact what it is they say. Your lines, “What is the about of your poems, he/wants to know…” make me want to ask that same question, one that doesn’t get answered in the poem. But then you’re going to put me off, aren’t you? I want to know and make myself vulnerable in wanting to know…
ROBYN: But aren’t my poems, most of my poems, really quite transparent? The one you just quoted is about a man who asks a woman poet what her poems are about; she replies that the “about” of a poem is not what really matters; and he takes her reply for an evasion. And you know what, Robert? They’re both right.
ROBT: Maybe so. But that “wanting to know,” it’s real, and I’d like to follow up on what we were saying a moment ago about “the writing biz.” I can’t let you go without asking a couple questions having to do with the “creative writing culture” –and making a financial proposal. Say in my capacity as book editor I were to offer you a contract to write one of those Natalie Goldberg or Anne Lamott type books on writing and the writer’s life? A book for writing hopefuls who want to know both the “about” and the “how-to”. How would you respond? I hate to be crass, but there’s gold in them thar hills.
ROBYN: I don’t think I could write a book like that, I’m too skeptical about them myself. I’ve read Goldberg and Lamott and a couple of others–I liked Lamott best, she was very entertaining–but whenever I look to such books to find help for myself as a writer, I end up feeling that I’ve wasted my time–that reading them, for me at least, is really a form of self-indulgence, a procrastination. The books don’t help me. And that makes me mad–at the books, and at myself for thinking they would.
ROBT: I personally find their books helpful—both in my teaching and when I’m “blocked.” But tell me, as someone who feels as you do yet sometimes leads writing workshops, how do you begin, what do you say to your students?
ROBYN: Well, now that you mention it, the main reason I acquired those books was to give me ideas for workshops, because when I was first asked to lead one in 1997 (never having participated in one myself) I had no idea what was expected. And I admit the books were of some help. But I’ve begun every workshop (the few I’ve led!) by saying that if I knew how to write a story or poem, I would write a lot more of them myself. For me, it’s always driving into a dense fog, heart in throat–and it’s never even the same road. I tell my groups I can teach them a lot about how to READ–how to look at that story by their favorite writer and see things in it they never saw before, see how it’s built and what holds it together; and I can look at what they’re writing and help them identify and clarify their own intentions and be true to those. But if they’re looking for formulas, “how to get ideas”, “how to write a short story”, or, worse, “how to land a book deal”, I tell them they should probably ask for their money back because they aren’t going to be happy campers in my group. What can I tell them–“Don’t do as I do?” I mean, look what I’m doing right now–saying no to a lucrative book proposal.
ROBT: You mean you’re saying No to a contract and (possibly) enough money to allow you to carry on in future as a writer? A book that could be marketed to creative writing students and literature students? Think of it: No outside jobs. No scrambling for grants. A break from leading workshops…
ROBYN: To write a book that tells somebody else how to do it–how to write or how to succeed at writing or how to live as a writer… no, I don’t think I could. I wouldn’t be able to believe in what I was writing. I would feel I was contributing to something suspect… putting another book out there to usurp time that would be better spent reading great writers, great poets—or even biographies of great writers and poets. Anyway–now that I think of it–I’ve already written my inspirational writer’s manual. It’s a poem called “When the Angels Leave” , it’s basically a pep talk in six short movements, addressed to a poet (me, the day I wrote it) suffering from loss of nerve. Here’s how it ends :
The child of five
is offended by the child of three’s
pink rabbit in the coloring-book—
says: That’s not the way!
says: Stupid, there’s no-such-a
thing-of-a PINK RABBIT.
That’s all it takes
for you to lose it—for the rope
Kiddo, get it straight.
You can make a rabbit
any color you want to.
-from “When the Angels Leave” in Questions About The Stars (1998).
ROBERT SWARD has taught at Cornell University, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the University of Victoria and University of California Santa Cruz. A Fulbright scholar and Guggenheim Fellow, he was chosen by Lucille Clifton to receive a Villa Montalvo Literary Arts Award. His twenty books include: “Four Incarnations, New & Selected Poems” (Coffee House Press), now in its second printing; “Heavenly Sex” and “The Collected Poems, 1957-2004 (Black Moss Press). Born and raised in Chicago, he served in the U.S. Navy in the combat zone during the Korean War and later worked as book reviewer and feature writer for The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail. Sward’s non-fiction book “The Toronto Islands,” was a bestseller. Robert Sward has interviewed Saul Bellow, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Earle Birney for CBC Radio, Quill and Quire, The Malahat Review, and other publications in the U.S. and Canada.
[This conversation was originally conducted by email over the month of December 2004. A shortened version appeared in Nimrod in 2005. This full version, revised in 2006, has been updated for LMR.]