Women, Epic, Live Wires: In Conversation with Sue Goyette

Halifax poet Sue Goyette is the author of six books of poetry including Ocean, a finalist for the 2014 Griffin Prize for Poetry, and more recently Penelope, published last month from Gasperau press and arguably one of the great books of the year. The following conversation took place over email. See a sampling of poems from the books under discussion here.

Sina Queyras :  I think we’ve known each other since before our first books, haven’t we? I recall hearing you read poems from The True Names of Birds at Banff. You were already known, I think, as a “poet of the domestic,” which I am sure you felt constrained by, but you were also known, from the outset, as someone who was exceedingly talented, intelligent, warm, and real. Also, as someone who could pull off a laugh (a rare gift in poetry circles). The humour part might have seemed like a diss at the time—but I suspect that if it was, it was a diss wrapped in a thick blanket of envy. I remember you saying on more than one occasion that we (poets, I assume not just those of us at Banff) took ourselves too seriously. I guess my question relates to those early descriptors and the ways in which they were (and continue to be) applied to emerging poets, and how they informed and clung to our relationship with the poems and the larger poetry world.

Sue Goyette: It’s true. I remember you were writing poems that would be in your first book. The energy of them coming off you like smoke. Ghazals about curls.

I think those labels served the closed system of understanding that was still de rigueur in that time. And in charge. If I felt anything, it was rebellion, a pre-articulate apprehension that I wasn’t truly being seen. Sure I was domestic if that means I was writing about inside rather than outside a house, but I was also writing about outside, and I was writing about some big transformational experiences I was having the farther I moved from dysfunction and its reverberations. Also, I was beguiled by the company of my children, they had a natural vitality, an élan vital and curiosity that realigned me somehow, reignited my spirit in a way that not much else had done. So there’s that.

What I sensed from you and from others at Banff, Catherine Kidd, Susan Gillis, Ken Babstock, was the energy coming off of you. It was potent and undeniable. And I was grateful to know I wasn’t alone.

And humour, well, I learned early in my life that it is the most hospitable way to disrupt what was (and is) going on. It wasn’t as violent as direct confrontation or anger. So I’d say a seriously dysfunctional house honed my skill at laterally colliding things and making jokes. It’s an ongoing operating system that I still reckon with because it relates so directly to how poetry moves and how I approach it.

SQ: Collision is something I understand well. In the beginning, as you note, there’s a kind of collision out of necessity, but then as a way of making art, right? And humour, yes, my partner and I think and talk about humour and the possibilities of humour as a liberatory, or perhaps more a thinkerly, handling-things, kind of practice, a way to snap out of binaries and hard positions. Liberatory seems too inflated really in the hour we are in. But isn’t humour a risky thing these days?

SG: That’s why I think it’s so important. That risk equates to vulnerability which is the threshold to real connection, community, intimacy it seems to me. Humour broaches that connection with the vulnerability of maybe saying something wrong, or going too far, is that what you mean? I know I sometimes skid way past what I’m trying to say. Sometimes, what I’m saying falls flat. I flail. But it’s the imaginative reach into what’s possible that disrupts the “same old same old” in a way that I find spirited and engaging and I’m game to keep trying.

To make mistakes and practice humility. Not an easy thing because that mistake making brings up a lot of shame, and for me and shame is a hard place to occupy.

SQ: Yes, shame is another topic of conversation around our house. Shame and how it limits our thinking…

I want to talk about your trajectory. You have six collections of poetry: three with Brick, and now three with Gaspereau. We see you evolving in those first three Brick books, starting with True Names of Birds, through to Outskirts, but Ocean marks a distinct leap, a kind of severing almost, with the poetic persona you had become very well known for with your first book. The polyphonic voices, the recombinant move of stitching/splicing together, the wild juxtapositions and the central unifying theme and/or actions of the book. It’s a real tour de force, and again, really funny in a dark, dark way. Can you recall a shift in your thinking? The way you approached poetry as a project at that time?

SG: I’m still thinking about this. I went back and looked at True Names and was astounded by how public I had made a very private progress. I felt a tenderness for my younger self. And though I’m still very much present in my work, I relate to words and silence so differently now.

Each collection represents an era or a way of being and engaging for me. Ocean had a wider horizon line and was Halifax based. It felt local in the way the ocean is at the bottom of all the hills in downtown Halifax and I thought publishing it with a local publisher better suited how I wanted the collection to come into being. The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl (Brief) and Penelope are sibling to Ocean somehow and it seemed they wanted to come from the same place.

As for the leap/severing of the poetic persona, that’s something I want to give some more thought to. I see it as a progression. What’s that saying about radish seeds? How they don’t look anything like radishes and yet know what they’re doing? The only thing I continue to do with the progression I’ve been making is nourish my unfurling by reading and watching and listening and hanging out with things that move me, that challenge me, that expand or complicate how I think about things. I also have learned to weed out the things that get in the way of me becoming. The things that feel more like pesticide, that leave me feeling wilted. I also understand that I needed to write each poem before I wrote Ocean to be able to sustain the kind of practice/energy/expanse I needed for its poems.  

Starting with Outskirts, then Ocean, Brief and finally to Penelope, the feeling of having to go with the poems in a way that I hadn’t felt before has been a steady progression. There was an energy to them, a cohesion that I had to trust. If I tried to intellectualize what I was doing, if I started measuring the value or the reach, the architecture/structure of each poem, I’d lose that energy and would mistrust the poems, mistrust their morphology and physiology, their ongoing design. I could barely talk about them. The writing was water-based and fluid, if that makes sense. Trying to reckon with that praxis, that forward motion with words was like me looking at my feet when I dance. I’d lose the rhythm. This trust or giving over in such a complete way is still new to me. I had done it by the poem before but not for such a sustained time. I’m still learning how to be vulnerable and open, it’s become a kind of discipline or practice for me.

SQ: I actually understand that very well: it reminds me of the experience I had writing Lemon Hound (the original poetry book, not this site). I was out of breath, it felt like I was barely tethered to the world, and to the idea of what poetry was, or could be—it was both liberating and terrifying. I see this meld of voice and rhythm—the performance of the sustained voice that appears to click in with Ocean as very timely—I mean really, how better to write of devastation than to project a point of view that is both inside the self and outside—at once looking down and out of the poet/body? This tactic becomes very clear in Brief—which must have been so difficult to write—and now in Penelope: a really remarkable text. In each of these books you seem to be exploring the idea of voice—where does it come from?—and its relationship to syntax. (For example, just now I grabbed these last three books down from a shelf and found that Lisa Robertson’s The Apothecary had slipped inside Penelope and I thought, yes, there’s a similar quality of sustained linguistic and syntactical attention to your books that is really difficult to achieve. It’s a kind of “after lyric” or “elevated lyricism.”)

SG: I’ve also felt it in your later work, MxT has a cohesion, a force that informs its progress as well, I think. My Ariel is waiting for me to read and I’m looking forward to seeing how that fusion has progressed. It’s interesting to me that we’ve both gone back, you to Plath, me to Homer, to move forwards.

The tone, the weather of Ocean helped me keep one foot on the ground while I wrote it. Otherwise I would have been overwhelmed by the deep grief I think we’re all feeling for the planet without knowing how to articulate or honour that we’re experiencing such devastation and loss.

Writing The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl was similar. I had the idea of girl, of holding her above system, institution and pathology to carry her to a place I felt I could put her down. Her voice was what was missing for me in the story. How voice develops or progresses, the ongoing of voice fascinates me—its genius of becoming. How we try to name or contain it too soon. And giving over to how it wants to progress, how it knows something about where it’s going that defies my authority is so beguiling and heartening to me. It’s a master class on stepping from the expected, the safe, the norm, into an imaginative wildness that is breathtaking and vital.

SQ: The voice. Yes! And the way it sustains the central metaphors of the book. As in I can literally feel the girl floating above the system, as you say. Absolutely. The Irish playwright Marina Carr visited recently and hearing her read was like bathing in chlorophyll—I felt so fed, so nourished, and it was the voice (similarly when Claudia Rankine visited last year, and when Lisa Robertson did last fall) that I responded to. Carr’s is a devastating voice: Hecuba, is intense, difficult, but also nourishing in that yes, there’s Hecuba, in the throne room, surrounded by bodies and body parts and she is fierce, and she is seeing, taking account, assessing, figuring out a way forward and all so abjectly beautifully. Hearing Lisa Robertson one of my students remarked that she felt that “Everything in the room disappeared for (her), it was as though she (Robertson) had drilled a tunnel into (her) brain.”

Your Penelope has a similar presence, and urgency to her waiting. My response in reading this book was similar to Carr, and Rankine—such a joy to encounter a full, complex, present, embodied character in poetry (theatre is also poetry):

I wake hungover, my sullen tongue a warp in dried weft.
Are you alone? I was asked. Do you see anyone else?

I had replied. The lighting was poor and it had taken
a few tumblers to realize I was drinking with wolves.

It seems imperative to me, particularly at this moment in time, that we hear women wrestling with difficult knowledge and succeeding despite the worst. I suppose that’s what took me back to Plath, and as Carr points out, the Greek women are powerful figures, not merely backdrops, they are in the middle of war. Casting out into the world, into history, away from our small bodies can lead us even closer to the bone, can’t it?

SG: Absolutely. I went back and listened to Carr’s reading and was mesmerized. It was like she was following a wire to its power source. There’s something fierce, righteous, and deeply chlorophyll-ic about casting out into and losing sight of the land, of allowing voice to scythe or whisper a new way into silence, saying what it wants to say, not what I/we think it should. That practice deeply informs how I engage with my days and the people who are in them, how I remind myself to step from the assumed, the normalized, the expected, the binary of success/failure; good/bad into an active, ongoing terrain that is sustained more by curiosity than anything else. I love that this year’s Time’s person(s) of the year are the silence breakers. And how their voices are being honoured as well as their ability to sustain/endure/succeed what they’re having to say. This is new territory and I’m attending to it with a lot of feelings. I’m so grateful that they’re being seen and listened to and how that seeing and listening is widening in engagement and including all of us in the conversation.

SQ: Yes, to the silence breakers as women of the year. Speaking of being seen—how do you feel about the reception of The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl? As I said, it must have been hard to write. It was certainly a harrowing read. And I have found very few reviews of it anywhere. It seems since Ocean, which was very well received–was shortlisted for the Griffin–your work is becoming increasingly its own aesthetic world, and as such requires specific critical responses. Or perhaps it’s more about—as we see with Anne Carson and Lisa Robertson—the work requiring an international readership in order to weave back into a Canadian discourse? But do we still think of a “Canadian voice”? Can we talk about Canadian in a sentence that includes Goyette, Carson, Robertson? Probably not. We don’t need to argue for that anymore. But voice, yes. You’ve talked here and elsewhere about voice as the glue that holds the poems in your last three books together. There’s something else too, the upended logic and reason of the linear lyric in favor of a kind of mythical surrealism. Also, a reclaiming of wild and tender:

The bear carried the ghost of the girl tenderly
in her teeth and ran until walls and verdict were replaced
by trees. She stood the ghost of the girl by the river.
She kept slipping so the bear moved her to a sapling and leaned her
into it. She waited to see if the ghost would slip again
but she stayed upright, squinting at the sun. What is that?
she wanted to know. That’s your sister, the bear told her gently.
I drew her wrong, the ghost dismayed. The bear shook her head,
you were close, she said, then concentrated on the task
she’d set out to do. She threw the first fish back.
Too slow, the bear explained. The sapling was carbonating
the story it was giving the ghost with tender leaves that rose
in the telling like bubbles, bursting their green into that place
where her ears would be if the ghost of the girl had ears.
The bear was patient having grown old in the winters she’d spent
with the girl and her reach was slow. The girl had often groomed
the bear and gave her words to speak, then would sing the bear
more words that were lozenges of honey the bear would gulp.
Between them, there wasn’t a moment they weren’t famished. (60)

What we are all seeing, and saying: aren’t we famished in this moment? Isn’t that partly what the #metoo movement is? We’re tired of reason being swept aside for the powerful to indulge in the most base physical addictions and at the cost of so many lives and careers. And of the infrastructure—inside the body and psyche as well as manifested in institutions and governing bodies that have literally depleted our world?

SG: I think that’s it exactly: we are famished and we are tired. We are also resistant and have endured and yet there is no budging the hegemonic, neoliberal system that’s in place that is oppressive and works at perpetuating culture in economic terms. In effect, it’s the windshield and we’re the songbirds continually flying into it. I come to my work wondering what stepping out of that system looks like. Rather than engaging with it, which seems to perpetuate it, why not forge off its road back into the wild and see what happens? Why not believe that our stories, our imagination, our vulnerability and tenderness are the real currency?

SQ: Yes, why not believe our stories? Believe that what matters is the stories, the voices. As I’m writing this the latest announcement is of the editor of The Paris Review, Lorin Stein, stepping down. It’s as if this younger generation of women has taken the scrim of privilege and given it a good shake. It’s reverberating out, the ripples are unbelievable. Bodies—to come back to the Greeks, to Hecuba—bodies piled high in the throne room. But in this case it’s not the women ordering the bones. Or it’s the women ordering the bones out! I love Penelope. Where did the idea for this book come from? And what was the method of composition? Which lines and how did you set about suturing them? I was reading your book alongside the Marina Carr plays, and also Eileen Myles new book, Afterglow (a dog memoir). My two favorite chapters concerned foam, and tapestry, and both ideas seemed helpful ways of approaching your poems. By that I mean the overlaps, the repetitions, the way in which the narrative is both resisted and pulled forward. A fragmented pastiche that is both direct and also historically uprooted.

SG: It’s interesting how singular experiences are gathering force and are sounding like one loud, persistent protest. And how that sustained sound is creating even more courage which I’m hoping can migrate back to the singular experience and to the person who is doing the serious work of healing from it. Yeah, I read about Lorin Stein. Also John Oliver calling out Dustin Hoffman in an interview and the level of discomfort it created was something I didn’t expect to see. We’re definitely ordering the bones out.

I re-read the Odyssey a couple of summers ago when someone in my family was experiencing some mental health issues which felt, to me, to be a version of an odyssey. What I missed in the reading was Penelope’s voice. Like her, I was in the proximity of epic and have come to understand that the last thing waiting is passive. It was an alert, engaged state for me and I was lonely for the particular company that understands the species of waiting that involves waiting rooms and plastic chairs and phone calls. I started writing it a few months after that. The form insinuated itself and at first I resisted it. It wasn’t until I realized that the poems were her days and that each day was her weaving and unraveling that it made sense and seemed crucial.

I was interested in how we evolve/progress while we’re waiting. The sense we make of the time. The narratives we construct to make the situation worthwhile or meaningful. I was also thinking about the real need I had felt for her voice, her woman’s voice in the story which got me thinking about how that is a particular homesickness I have most of the time. There are women who are such vital voices in literature, in film, in art, in music but there has also been a historic silencing, a redacting of women’s voices that I have lived with and now find painful and lonely. Writing this helped that loneliness.

SQ: You say you were interested in how we evolve/progress while we’re waiting, which is of course, the story of women. I love how you make this painful state an act of beauty though—you do it in The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl as well—the poems keep formally, syntactically, even imagistically repeating, but become more fantastical as they proceed—as if being a mother is a hallucinatory trip. Here from Penelope for example, one of the cycles keeps beginning with the statement “I wake,” but each poem wildly leaping from the next as in “I wake to a clean mirror,” “I wake to the goddess,” “I wake pale,” “I wake without a name,” then “The feast wakes in a house,” and then we have shifted from Penelope to Telemachus who “wakes to music,” or “wakes to find his endurance has been topped up/ by sleep.” I see motherhood as an epic as well. And I find the composition here, the accumulations, particularly moving.

Prior to committing my time to My Ariel I was working on a piece called The Endurance in which I traced motherhood as a stateless experience of yearning for safety. My women, various and allegorical, were aboard “The Endurance” but unlike the Shackleton expedition, my women are looking for safety right in our contemporary civilization, and are subject to night raids and sharks coming from who knows which direction. This seems to me to be the emergency of the world. If this basic unit isn’t the central concern it seems to me we have no hope. The question is how to make this poetically clear and urgent and beautiful and politically real… Your last three books suggest that the way we do that is by moving back into metaphor and allegory, not into manic snippets of the now.

SG: I’m enthralled by your Endurance with its women. And the raids and the sharks. I’m taking a pottery class to keep my hands in clay and have been making plates and bowls with sharks and whales on them. The creatures, it seems, are protesting in the way they do by either dying or turning up in places we don’t expect them to be. The right whales dying all summer are still haunting/paining me. And you’re right there is a persistent sense of emergency and grief in the world. I’m always thinking of ways I can collaborate with this time of ours that is sustainable and aerated somehow, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to get out of bed. It’s too easy for me to feel overwhelmed and intensely sad. So the question I start with is basically how can I participate with poetry that is articulate and imaginative and still connected laterally or rhizome-ly to what I’m seeing in the world? How can I create another way to consider/encounter this time that cultivates or invites a way forward in good spirit and courage rather than malaise and dirge without skirting the real state of things? Maybe I can say it’s a species of lateral translation.

When I’m alertly waiting, on the periphery of epic, there are moments when I wake up and whatever I was dreaming is still there breathing, stomping, whatever, before I remember what I’ve got to get up and face. If it’s grieving, there’s a merciful lacuna when things are alright before the dying comes back. If it’s a health or mental health issue, it’s the same small mercy, for a moment, before the duty of the waiting makes its first request. And when the waiting is epic in nature, those demands do seem to become hallucinatory. Overwhelming. Otherworldly. The system that holds my days in place, the normalcy, the hours moving forward, shimmers close to breaking. Those are the mornings when I literally can’t conceive of doing what I have to do or facing what I have to face, saying what I have to say. That’s when the waiting thrums.  

This conversation took place via email from December 7-11, 2017. You can find a folio of poems from Sue Goyette in this issue as well as an interview with Marina Carr. At the end of Carr’s interview you can hear part of the reading discussed in this interview.