Sunday May 26

GoyetteSue Sue Goyette lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia and has published two books of poems, The True Names of Birds and Undone (Brick Books).   Her novel, Lures (HarperCollins), was published in 2002.  She's been nominated for several awards including the Governor General's Award for Poetry, the Pat Lowther, the Gerald Lampert, the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award and won the 2008 CBC Literary Prize for Poetry.  Her third collection of poems, Outskirts, is forthcoming from Brick Books in the spring of 2011.  Her poetry has appeared on the Toronto subway system, in wedding vows and spray-painted on a sidewalk somewhere in St. John, New Brunswick.  Sue currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Dalhousie University.
We in the United States are certainly aware and appreciative of Canadian-born singer-songwriters, and the names Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Alanis Morissette, Celine Dion, and many others come easily to our tongues.  Not so, it seems, when it comes to Canadian-born poets.  Margaret Atwood may come to mind, but the typical reader of poetry (and this includes most U.S. poets) seem largely stuck beyond Atwood.  Does this work both ways; that is, are Canadian poets largely unaware of the work of U.S. poets?  How do Canadian poets tend to feel about the disconnect between the poetries of such close neighbors?  Does the poetry of U.S. poets play much of a role in the discussion and practice of poetics in Canada?
The poets I know read a lot.  I think good work blurs boundaries, and I find I’m not as interested in where a poet is from as I am in what the poet is saying and how they’re saying it.  Having said that, I think it’s important to go out of my way to find poetry I wouldn’t normally encounter.  I consider that part of my practice.

Are there any U.S. poets whom you’d care to name as influences or as poets whose work you follow closely?
I try to read widely and follow my nose.  Here are some of the poets who are surrounding my desk right now:  Charles Wright, Charles Simic, Jane Hirshfield, Mary Oliver, Bob Hicok, Dean Young, Tony Hoagland, Jack Gilbert, C.D. Wright, Alice Notley, Louise Glück, Kay Ryan, Brigit Pegeen Kelly and Sharon Olds.

Two of the poems represented in this month’s Congeries, “
experts” and “malaise,” in a whimsically wry register, address ecological issues, and while tooling around in cyberspace I came upon a site for Writers in the Schools that states, “Sue believes that making art is a good deed we can do for the planet.”  Can you speak about how the ecology figures into your writing?
I think art is a great opposition for the hurry we find ourselves in.  It invites us to step out of our schedules and be present.  It also conveys information in unexpected and thought/heart provoking ways.  This, I think, is important.  Awe, said Rumi, is salve for the eyes. I think good art invites us to participate and in participating, we open to a different idea of ourselves and the place we’re taking up on the planet.  Ecology fits into my writing because I’m concerned about it.  I’m also concerned about some of the things I think we’re losing in our busy lives, things like silence, darkness, real connection, imagination.  I write of these things because I’m thinking about them.

Speaking of Writers in the Schools, it’s a program in which you’re actively involved.  Can you tell us a bit about it and why you take time from a busy writing and teaching schedule for it?
When I was young, I turned to writing when I had to navigate through unknown or confusing emotional terrain.  It was the way I mapped.  When I felt lost, I wrote and in the writing, I’d figure things out or, at least, feel like I’ve done something about it.  That transition between feeling overwhelmed and alone to making something from those feelings and the process that the making requires is important information to pass along.  I like going into classrooms and telling a roomful of kids that how they feel and think about their days and what they do with those feelings and thoughts is valuable and can be really helpful to other kids who are feeling or thinking the same way.  I think it’s important to validate the process of communicating, in whatever form.  Of course, if I presented that validation in the way I’ve just explained, I’d have a roomful of paper airplanes and kids melting out of their chairs, so I use a few teaching stories I’ve developed; the most popular one right now with the younger grades is about living with an extremely fat cat.  You can cover a lot of ground with a good metaphor!

You’re enjoying a good deal of success as both a poet and a novelist.  I believe that I can count on two hands the number of writers who are able to regularly produce both poetry and fiction at a high level of quality.  Is it difficult for you to work in both genres?  Are they complimentary writing acts, or do they conflict in troublesome ways?  Is one more fun or rewarding for you?
These are all good questions and ones that often keep me company.  I’ve published just one novel and really felt invigorated while I was writing it because, I think, the work had found the right form and in the right form, could luxuriate itself into being, if that makes sense.  I am busy and I find connecting to the attentiveness, imagination and curiosity poetry seems to thrive on difficult.  I’ve been writing long enough to be able to write well on the surface, to produce well-crafted poems but I’m not so interested in staying on the surface anymore.  I like to sink into a poem, and to do that I need a kind of nutritional silence, hospitable to reading and that curiosity I mentioned.  I guess the short answer to all of these questions is that right now I’ve managed to maintain the kind of concentration I need to write the way I like writing and I’d rather continue writing poetry with that intent than get out of the lake of it, dry off and then have to go back in and find a new way back into a story.  I’m not sure if this is because of how busy I am and how much time it does take to submerge or that to develop as a poet requires the kind of attention that doesn’t look away.  Right now, poetry has got me fired up and engaged so I’m going to stay with that.

As a teacher of writing, what two or three things do you constantly try and convince young writers that they ought to concentrate on in the furtherance of their art?
Part of my job as a creative writing teacher is to instill the ideas of a writing practice and of discipline.  By discipline, I mean creating a space in the schedule of things that isn’t polluted by worry, doubt, emails or phone calls.  They can all crowd in afterwards.  For the duration of the class, I invite my students to create a field of time that is clear of everything but writing.  It is between the poet and their schedule how much time this is or how often.  But it is a practice and should be made as a commitment.  I also get them to tell their friends that they’re writers.  It’s amazing how our community will sometimes remind us of who we are when we feel the darkest about it.  That kind of support will keep them lit especially if they’re in it for the long haul.
I also urge them to trust their Jiminy Cricket voice that warns them when they’re trying to get away with something easy and to push themselves into writing in ways they aren’t entirely comfortable.  Reading widely is important and pulling off a little poetry karaoke is just fine, trying out different voices and stances.  What becomes apparent over time is the poet’s furnace, what heats them and, in turn, the ecosystem the poem then creates.  Getting to know themselves on the page happens organically, and it’s really inspiring to watch.


Tourism was great until the ocean went all coyote on us.
Lurking behind schoolyards, attacking people.
We were told to act big.  To stand aggressively in our place.
Experts in animal control told us we had polluted its natural habitat
with our motored hands and greasy mayor.  It had to feed further
afield and was too wild to mediate.  The marriage counselors
suggested we do five random kind things for it on a weekly basis
until it trusted us again.  Also, to show we were listening,
we were to “mirror” what it was saying.  We gave that job
to the poets.  Apparently, it was “a tired bus driver”
and “a wayward friend.”  It was “the midnight of the death
of nights” and “the orphanage we’d been taken from.”
A fourth grade class made it their Spring Fling project.
With glitter glue and feathers, we were given murals
of how our life should look.  We’d need more diving boards,
exploding rainbows and smiling dolphins/unicorns to achieve
any of it.  The mothers of teenage boys elected themselves
to counsel.  They wore wedge shoes and pink nail polish
and were either fiercely tired or determined to get supper on,
nodding while we explained how it sprawled its stuff everywhere.
How it stayed up until all hours of the night and gave us no
respect.  Sound familiar, we asked. They leaned in as if over a map:
you are here, they said, manicured but in the trenches, trust us,
let go of any ideas of what you think it should be doing.


The harbour didn’t like being held captive by the shadows
of our buildings.  We treated it well but still its dorsal fins
weakened and flopped.  The tide was nothing more than
a sleepy scratch of water up over rocks
and then a yawn back down.  The balls we threw to it
sank.  It stopped slurping, it stopped nibbling.
It hardly growled.  Some days it looked like a carpet,
other days, a flooded campsite:  disks of paper plates,
lipsticked cigarette butts, the wet embers
of our vacations.  What was the fun of these skyscrapers
if the only view we had was a petulant body of water?
We bought fish from the market to feed it.  The older women
crocheted the most tender dialogue skimmed from our dreams,
carrying afghans by the armload down to its shore.
In this way, they invented nets and managed to catch
the grit of starlight from previous nights.  With the right amount
of sugar and boiled darkness, we soon had vats
of a nectar so potent it bubbled.  It wasn’t that we got drunk
but forgetful and became so greedy for more, we over-fished
our dreams for their tenderness.  When poverty arrived,
we were down to the bones of our talk.  If we rubbed
two sticks together, briefly we’d be nourished by the smell
of their wood.


I am the new wife and the old wife.  It is difficult
to know where to sit.  Long ago, I skinned his words
and served them with the roasted root vegetables
of our silence.  We ate well and often though everything
sounded familiar when we talked.  You can see how I
misunderstood.  When he said home, I imagined
a forest.  When he said love, I imagined its birds. 
Often we parked only to walk.  It made sense at the time
but now that the moon is lower and the animals
no longer whisper into our palms, I’m not so sure.
At night, the trees dreamt of the furniture they’d become
and I dreamt of the tables I’d set.  If there was a chair,
it breathed of birch and therefore welcomed my repose.
I no longer bathed before I approached.  His jealousy was for
the pine needles.  His jealousy didn’t kill him but lowered
the rope deeper into his well where thirst, that old echo,
swam.  I can speak freely now, the soup has cooled
and there is no danger of burning my tongue.  It is true,
I fell in love with the trees.  The way they grew inspired me
to return home and regale him with tales of our children,
still only spirited in wind rivers.  I’m speaking of the winter
he set out with his traps never to come back though he did,
of course, return.


We are sitting in the front room at about two o’clock
in the afternoon of our marriage.  We no longer try to skin
each other’s words.  There is a fine dust on our sweet talk.
I am no longer sweeping beneath things.  The windows
are faithful but have surrendered to the weather.
If I had to choose between pots or pans, I would need
a chimney for the frustration I’d feel.  There is an argument
defrosting in the sink.  Each minute leaves its own soot
on the floor.  We are in no shape to care about anything.
He is telling me his boots turned into ships that he could no
longer control.  He just has to sail.  He just has to. 
It has been days since I’ve been to the forest.  I had gathered
twigs to light beneath his pillow while he slept, thinking
he’d wake with his hands on fire for me.  My body is young
and fights the bridle of this apron.  It remembers running
over roots to drink deeply at the river.  When the moon lands on it,
it flowers.