Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists is up for a Giller Prize (the “darkest horse” in the race according to the Toronto Star), but she is also a poet, and the author of two collections, most recently I Do Not Think I Could Love a Human Being, Gaspereau 2010. We corresponded by email this week.
SQ: When I initially thought to speak to you it was about your poetry, in particular, I Do Not Think I Could Love a Human Being, Gaspereau 2010. I thought this was your first book and it was poetry, but I see there is an earlier one, also poetry and also with Gaspereau, and of course, the novel. Were these poems you wrote while a student at Concordia, or were the earlier ones?
JS: I concentrated on writing fiction while I was at Concordia, but I was also writing poems, and a few of them show up in both collections. A version of the first section of I Do Not Think That I Could Love a Human Being, “Measuring Depth,” was written for Stephanie Bolster’s poetry workshop in the fall of 2004, but they still weren’t anywhere near ready to publish in my first collection four years later. A lot of stuff sits with me for a long time like that.
SQ: The poems in this book are quite quiet, lyric poems that seem to focus on childhood, memory, the often startling nature of consciousness, the desire for presence. They can be surprising—such as “Lament”:
How sad that the light when I shut my eyes should linger in such precise formation in my mind without having properly illuminated anything.
Is poetry, as opposed to fiction, the place one can simply ruminate? And what does it take to be the one ruminating that makes others compelled to listen in?
JS: I don’t think it’s about simply ruminating. That would be more the job of a journal than a poem. A poem has to hinge on a particular idea, or problem; it has to move. Poetry does offer us a really valuable space for contemplation, for slowing down and paying close and particular attention to language and therefore to our manner of relating to the world around us, but this space of contemplation in a good poem is the farthest thing from a “still point” – instead, it is a space of active, engaged participation in the very process of language and thinking. It is that “active” quality of poetry that compels a reader, I think. A still poem, a poem that simply ruminates, would fall flat.
SQ: The title poem is part list, part litany, part incantation and quite gorgeous. It reminds me a little of Jane Kenyon’s Let Evening Come, for the kind of insistence on the beauty of the unruly quotidian. It is bereft of named anxieties and yet there is the sense of them there in the margins. Does that resonate for you?
JS: Thank you – and yes, certainly. I hope that the repetition of the last lines evokes just that. For me, each of those last three lines has a different tone and implication that hopefully has been set up by the rest of the poem.
SQ: In other poems there is a foggy at-sea quality—quite literally boats appear throughout and the narrator finds herself turned, and turning, wanting to find where the rope is, what distance, what “vastness of comprehension,” feeling her way through that which muddles and befuddles the human experience. Yet you don’t let this appear as fractures in the lines, or in the texts themselves. The self is fully in tact, only in a fragmented world, grasping rather than the fragmented self being grasping at self? Does that make sense?
JS: Yes, I think so. I think there is a certain assuredness in the voice, in the sense of self behind these poems. A self that is the opposite of fragmented, that finds itself instead too vast, sometimes, and then has to struggle to reconcile a world that must necessarily be understood in fragments (individual identities, experiencable objects, thoughts and memories) with that more expansive experience of being.
SQ: This is your third book with Gaspereau—they must be doing something right. I know they make gorgeous, tactile books and seem to publish innovatively lyric titles. How did you find each other?
JS: I sent out my first poetry manuscript to a handful of small presses and Gaspereau picked it up — I feel incredibly lucky to have been with them ever since. Each step of the way with Gaspereau you feel the genuine passion and care that Andrew Steeves and Gary Dunfield take with their press. From what I hear from poets published elsewhere, Gaspereau puts a lot of energy into editing books of poetry, comparatively speaking — I learned a tremendous amount working with my editors (Andrew and Kate Kennedy –Kate is now at Nimbus), on the books. They were endlessly patient with me, and genuinely understanding of how important decisions about each word, comma and line- break felt for me, and were for the book as a whole.
SQ: Can you tell me a little about the editorial process? And can you talk about whether this is different in poetry and prose?
JS: The editorial process is long and sometimes painful for me, as I’ve hinted at, above. I have never experienced writer’s block–on the contrary, especially in my fiction, I have the opposite problem in that I don’t know when to stop. The editing process is the part that I most enjoy in some ways–because it’s the part that’s all about attention to language and detail–but it’s also, by far, the most difficult part. My process for editing poetry is similar to my process for editing fiction, I think—just on a smaller scale. I go back again and again over everything I’ve written, fiction or poetry, and read it out loud and fiddle with it until something invisible seems to click into place inside it. Sometimes that never happens – you just get close, and have to leave it at that. Sometimes getting close is enough. But you have to hit it exactly sometimes — otherwise “getting close” doesn’t mean anything.
SQ: There is currently a lot of fuss about the MFA MA creative writing world, the “poem mill” someone said recently on Facebook. How important was your time at Concordia? And I read somewhere that you are doing a Phd? How important is that?
JS: My time at Concordia was extremely important to me. Primarily, it gave me the time and legitimacy I needed to concentrate on my writing. I was 23 when I started the program, and though I had always written, and always wanted to be “a writer” I had never devoted myself fully to the work, and didn’t have any real sense of what that would mean. My doctoral studies (I am specializing in American poetry at Universite de Montreal) are also important to me as a writer. They’ve given me an opportunity to read more widely and more methodically than I would have been able to otherwise. Every writer has to be a good reader, I think, first of all, and my current studies have given me the opportunity to develop my critical reading skills.
SQ: Do you classify yourself as a Montrealer? What does it mean in a literary sense, at the end of the first decade of the 21st Century to be a Montreal writer?
JS: Not really. I love Montreal — it’s definitely my favourite Canadian city, but I don’t really identify as being “from” Montreal. I grew up in Nova Scotia, and I feel connected to the East Coast, but I am still too restless to identify with a single place. As far as what it means to be a “Montreal writer” now, I’m not sure it means, or should mean, anything. I think the whole purpose and strength of writing is that it (potentially) transcends the bounds of a specific identity—place, time, gender, race. Even when it explores or develops a specific identity, it invites the reader to share in that experience and so immediately it becomes about more than that single identity. Writing is about breaking down, rather than further defining, the limits of our understanding of identity and being.
SQ: What is your favorite Montreal poem?
JS: I am actually not sure if it is about Montreal, but I read it that way: Kate Hall’s “Dream in Which I am Separated From Myself.”
SQ: What book of poetry do you come back to that you may perhaps not quite understand—who do you grapple with? And why?
JS: I am writing my dissertation on the poetry of Wallace Stevens because he is this poet for me. Every time I read a Stevens poem I don’t understand some different thing. To me, that’s what his poetry, and maybe all good poetry, offers: a space of questioning, of generative non-understanding.
SQ: What site should every poet have bookmarked?
JS: Penn Sound.
SQ: What advice do you have to all the young writers who wish they were in your shoes?
JS: The usual things. Keep writing. I think you have to be either really lucky, or really imperceptive, to not hate most of things that you write at first. Also: listen to other people’s criticism of your work — but not all the time, and never be discouraged by it.
Johanna Skibsrud is the author of two collections of poetry, Late Nights With Wild Cowboys (Gaspereau 2008), shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, and I Do Not Think That I Could Love A Human Being (Gaspereau 2010). She is also the author of a novel, The Sentimentalists (Gaspereau 2009), which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize in 2010. Originally from Meadowville, Nova Scotia, Johanna currently lives in Montreal. (Update 11/9/10 10:41 pm, The Dark Horse took the Giller. Poetry rules.)