Susan Goyette & Susan Gillis
SQ: Goyette & Gillis you are both mid-career poets by the Canada Council standards. do you feel satisfied by your trajectory so far? What are the signposts of a successful mid-career poet? when do we know we have “enough” or that we’ve “made it” in conventional terms?
Hi Sue and Sina; Gillis here. Although “career” isn’t usually the way i think of my practice or myself as poet, i can say this: when i hear that people are sharing my poems with friends, with students, with other poets, I feel i’ve done my work. I don’t mean ‘done’ as in ‘completed’ but ‘succeeded.’ That’s a signpost for me: something in the work transfers, because somebody else wants or needs it to.
Goyette: I made the mistake, early on, in keeping my writing separate from everything else, guarding it and I’ve noticed, in the past few years, that my writing and, more generally, poetry has integrated into my daily life in a way that feels entirely organic and proper. My writing practice has changed me, awakened me, and now, when I leave the house, I attend to my city as I would my page, if that makes sense, which means I have great, intense and unexpected conversations in the grocery store or with people passing by when I’m sitting on my porch. This is meaningful to me, and has changed how I encounter my neighbourhood and the people in it.
SQ: The topic of the day is poet/critic: where do you see your critical faculties coming into play in your poetry practice?
Gillis: Largely in the classroom, the work I do to support my poetry habit. I teach poetry to large groups of mostly uninterested students who need the credit for a Genres course on their transcript. What I mean by “teach poetry” is that I ask students to practice getting up close with something they don’t understand fully and learn how to be with it in that state, and not be afraid or dismissive. That’s a first step, anyway. Poetry teaches them. Selecting poems for that kind of classroom, and deciding how to present them and what to do with them, means I go in close in my own reading. Together with reading unrelated to teaching, that close reading informs my daily (okay, ‘daily’ is an unattainable ideal) practice. I don’t write reviews of books anymore. My collaborative work with Yoko’s Dogs is another way the critical muscle gets exercised. When the Doggies go for a walk….But that’s a private aspect, not a public one, in the way reviewing or teaching touch the public side of the practice.
Goyette: I teach and coordinate a mentorship program through the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia so I get to work with a lot of emerging writers and talk about the discipline a writing practice requires and the level of presence or attendance necessary to write authentically. We read poems in class and discuss our response to them, critically and personally. A big component of my job is to instill confidence in having any opinion at all. There’s a good community of poets in Halifax and I sometimes depend on them to keep me informed of who is spitting out sparks, who I should read.
SQ: SG why don’t you write reviews? Do you read them? Heed them?
Goyette: All of this conversation about reviewing has been incredibly interesting to me. I don’t write reviews at this point. I’ve only got a couple of mornings a week to myself and I use them to write but I’m still reckoning with the idea of reviewing and how it would fit in my schedule. I think to write something meaningful about a book is to spend time in its company, finding ways to articulate its ecosystem, finding navigational landmarks that would be helpful to other readers and I’m always grateful when someone has given that kind of attention to a poet’s work. I read the reviews when I can trust that the reviewer has done the job and is writing of the poetry and the risks the poet has taken. I don’t read them when they’re primarily about the reviewer. I also depend on essays and interviews about poets I’m interested in to lead my reading.
I guess the bottom line is time. I work at a couple of jobs and find that I guard the time I do have to read and write.
Gillis: In the few that I’ve written, the experience of fixing my ideas in a timely (deadline-meeting) way was problematic. As soon as I’d explored one line of thought about a work, another opened up. This I normally love, it’s what’s great about poetry and reading, but trying to nail it down in clear, unambiguous prose in a short period of time wasn’t satisfying or feasible. Maybe there’s a more organic form i could discover. Maybe I just need to learn how to let uncertainty stand. When Gillian Jerome started up the conversation that resulted in CWILA I got on that train and thought I might do some more reviewing, but most of the time I’d rather focus on poetry and let the “service” part of my life as poet come through teaching those sometimes resistant teeangers (some of whom do discover value and excitement in it, to their surprise).
There was also the time I had to return the book to the editor, having simply nothing to say about it, and the other time the editor (not the same one) tried to not-so-subtly direct my reading. These things — one a limit in me, the other an outside force — made me quit.
Do I read reviews? Yes, sometimes, depending on the venue. Heed them, as in decide whether or not to read the book or writer under discussion? That depends on so many factors, many of which have little or nothing to do with the review itself. Factors like, what else is on my to-do and to-read list. I love it when a review gives me something to chew on, whether I go to the books they talk about or not.
SQ: We’ve all known each other for more than a decade now, and we met at the Writing Studios in Banff. can you talk about the impact that writing studio had on your career?
SG: Banff afforded me the opportunity to see and experience my writing practice stripped of anything else. My kids were young when we were there, what was it, 15 years ago??!! I wasn’t saddled with any other busyness and had no excuse but to write and to read, to talk with other writers. So encountering how and why I circle my writing, what comes up for me, how I navigate the inevitable moat of unease before creating is still helpful to me. I got to know my natural pace, not insinuated by other schedules. I grew more comfortable with my process and committed to a practice in a way that I still use as a reference point, as a way of realigning myself.
Gillis: Yes, 15 years ago! That writing studio — I came to it during a time of complete and total upheaval, when just about everything I knew was called into question. I hadn’t written very much. I thought I could write a poem? Think again, it said. But also, and keep on! It was make-or-break for me. It made me confront what I was doing, and choose to commit to it. It’s also where i learned that nothing good comes from comparing myself or my writing or my achievements to others. Nothing. Zero. It’s a zen lesson, one I keep learning.
SQ: What is the most exciting book of poetry you’ve read in the past few years?
SG: I’m liking Lynn Emanuel, Rae Amantrout, Lisa Robertson (I’m loving Lisa Robertson) Anne Carson. Other people in my karass right now are Pina Bausch and Marina Abramovich (!!). John Cage and Merce Cunningham. Susan Sontag and Annie Leibovitz. Tig Notaro. I just found Louise Bogan again. I’ve reacquainted myself with May Swenson. Gertrude Stein. Alice Notley. C.D. Wright. A friend has veered me towards Jeremy Prynne. Charles Olson. Derrida, Benjamin, Herzog. Calvino is always in the house. Lorca. The most exciting? Is it cheating to say they all excite me? Whenever I encounter a frisson of language, that wonderful and unexpected combination of words and ideas and spirit that taps into an intellectual and nourishing silence, that has verve, that makes me sit up and reread it, that makes me say what the what to the empty room, work that continues the dialogue that poetry instigates makes me fiercely glad that the book has been written/that the work has been done, fiercely glad the writer wrote.
Gillis: War and Peace. It’s fiction, but its moments of poetry are brilliant. I realize this is cheating, answering this way.
SQ: Cheat away, but I shall follow up. I wonder if the novel is a natural development for a poet? I mean, given the time and stretch. Thinking of those who get to epic, if not, as we have in Canada, the many who actually leap from poetry to that form. I confess, having now written and published a novel (as have you Sue Goyette), to want, not necessarily the genre of fiction but the range and leeway. I seem to have no interest in form at the moment, and a keen interest in “speaking directly.” The latter seems more poetic. Can we not do everything in poetry? Can we not write War & Peace in poetry?
SG: I’m not so much interested in the slack that occurs when I’m writing a novel, the stretch of time, the construct. I think poetry is the original Occupy, it suits our time, it’s a direct address so I think we indeed can do everything in poetry.
Gillis: War and Peace in poetry, absolutely. Especially in terms of the fully revealed, the light thrown into corners. Sue Goyette, what do you mean by “slack” in this context — slack in the way you spend time? in thinking/responding? in time away from the ‘real’ world? The bit of time i’ve spent on a novel (which seems to be going nowhere) did feel like time away from the world, spent in a world I was inventing. It was awfully delicious, that. Seductive. Poetry time is more essential, elemental.
Going back to the original question: the most exciting. It brings me up close to that word “exciting.” Partly because of the work i’ve been doing in collaboration with three other poets, a lot of my reading has involved much quieter kinds of effects: Tang dynasty poets, Japanese masters Basho, Issa, others like Santoka. The excitement there is often in the snap of something revealed, a little twig-snap in a forest. And sometimes not a snap but an ah, moss springing back. In other reading, early Neruda excited me into response a few summers ago; Milosz and others I keep going back to are doing the same now. Throwing a book across the room or wanting to tear out the page and show someone, sometimes they’re the same thing.
Goyette: By slack, I mean the way I am when I’m writing fiction, holding the story and its weather, its geography, its family tree in my head and only having one foot in my day. I find, personally, that I like the way I spend a day when I’m writing poems, I feel more connected to what’s currently going on in the world, in my city, on my street. I like how poetry demands a kind of participation in the moment that fiction, for me, doesn’t. It could be that I have to thrash a new way into fiction if I’m going to write it again that would elicit that same voltage but I think what I’m figuring out is that I may not be a fiction writer…
Gillis: I love how so many of your nouns and verbs and qualifiers are connected to fire, Sue –spark, voltage–is that the Aries in you?
More on the exciting books front: CD Wright. Phil Hall. Jorie Graham. The old guys: Hopkins, especially. Coming back to Elizabeth Bishop. Next up, Juliana Spahr. A lot of the time I’m not reading “books” as such but scatterings of poems in journals and blogs. One thing that’s clear, thinking about this question, is that “exciting” is not always “new.” There’s the excitement of discovery, and the other excitement of return. And it’s always fascinating to hear what people who aren’t poets but love poetry are reading (the New Yorker comes up reliably often in this context. But that’s so…Muldoon).
SQ: Goyette, you have been termed, very respectfully, as a domestic poet. what do you think of that title? is it apt? is your sense of domestic any different than say, David Harsent’s?
SG: Harsent is on my pile to read. I’ve only encountered poems of his. I’m interested in imagination and metaphor and how they collide with our days. How that sense of curiosity, that sense of making it up is endangered and yet so essential. I’m interested in humour, in the skidding into humour. In landing laterally. I like words, I like sentences. My palette involves doors, plates, walls, windows and then beyond all of those things. I like writing of our bodies and the wilderness they contain, or is visited upon them, how we attempt to domesticate wildness, medicate it, how we try to live in its company. If I use the domestic, it’s to collude or create friction with that wildness.
SQ: What advice would you offer to a young you, heading off into your first real publication?
Goyette: Stay loyal to the wild, intuitive, imaginative, intelligent force art is. It’s smarter than you are and knows what it’s doing. There’s life and then there are distractions.
Gillis: Feed the writing. Don’t be so hungry for the first publication.
SQ: Can we end with a poem? Want to choose one of each other’s??
Gillis: I like this idea. Will browse and digest.
Goyette: Me too. Here’s mine:
The ships are little fires on the river, candles
you can’t blow out. Breath
only has so much power, after
all, like luck. Mostly our lives
flow along like skeins of water in the river,
side by side much of the way, mixing a bit
close to the islands. Year after year
comes and goes, and we just go on
notching the doorposts with our little hatchets.
Come then, husband, stranger.
The city is decked out, the port is on fire.
We are waiting for you
to make your wish.
–Susan Gillis, Lachine Rapids
Fog is nomadic. A low prowl of Atlantic rooting
through the city like a bear. In the small town of Prospect,
fog once swallowed a school bus. The children,
taught to hold hands in an emergency, emerged older
and craving gills. Fog is a flood of the moonlight souls
of dead fishermen. The elders warned us not to breathe it in
or we’d cough for days, their last thoughts caught in the net
of our lungs. Watch how fog seduces a lamppost. It’s a crowded harem
vying to undress all lights. It can turn a thought into a pigeon,
the bird that refuses to be unwelcomed and keeps coming back
and keeps coming back. Fog is the migrating breath
that careens off mirrors; it’s smoke from the fire of our names
that the ocean keeps putting out. A traveling salesman for thirst,
it’s got a briefcase squalled with gulls. It’s the Mafioso of wind
coming to collect its street corners and the mastermind behind
getting lost. It swallows directions and small cries for help,
spitting out the bones of lifejackets. It puts its snout against our windows
and breathes heavily, the succulent smell of home, a feast it’s starving for
in the middle of its clouded travels. The lit shark fins of taxis swim
through streets as meaningfully as the coast guard but fog has a mouthful
of rocks and a swarm of blind hands. When it finds you, it’s been said,
it will chew you in a way that you’ll not soon forget and will linger
like a shell to your ear, convincing you the answers
to your many questions all sound like the ocean.
Susan Goyette, Outskirts
Sue Goyette lives in Halifax and has published three books of poems and a novel. Her fourth collection of poems, Ocean, is forthcoming from Gaspereau Press in April, 2013. Sue currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Dalhousie University and works part-time at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia.
Susan Gillis lives in Montreal.
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