12 or 20 questions: with Sharon Thesen
Sharon Thesen spent her childhood in small towns all over western Canada. She was born in Tisdale, Saskatchewan, in 1946. By the time she was six years old, her family had migrated via Edmonton and Fairview, Alberta, to Prince George, B.C. From age seven to nine, she lived in a kind foster home in Vernon, B.C. while her mother recovered from tuberculosis at Tranquille Sanitorium in Kamloops. She attended several schools in and around Kamloops until the family moved to Prince George, in 1960. She graduated from Prince George Senior Secondary School and moved to Vancouver in 1964. In 1966 she enrolled at Simon Fraser University, where she did a Master’s degree in English. In the mid-seventies, she worked at a Vancouver community planning agency and then at Capilano College, where she taught English until 2005 and was involved with, and editor of, The Capilano Review. She is now living near Kelowna, BC, and is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at UBC Okanagan, where she co-edits Lake: A Journal of Arts and Environment. Since 1980, she has published eight books of poetry. She has been shortlisted three times for the Governor-General’s Award, has won the Pat Lowther Award for her book A Pair of Scissors, and has served on the Griffin Poetry Prize jury. She has edited two editions of The Long Poem Anthology and is currently considering a third edition, as well as a new poetry collection and other writing projects.
1 - How did your first book change your life?
Terrified! Now I had to be a poet.
2 - How long have you lived in Lake Country, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?
I’ve lived in Lake Country for two and half years. Geography—i.e. topography, the landscape, the weather, what’s outside, hugely affects my writing. The light, the clouds, the time of the day, the cars going by—they are all poetic signals. Race and gender are two words that I find dispiriting, although I understand that they most likely inflect everything.
3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem usually begins for me with a feeling of hunger. And then sometimes a first line. But sometimes I have a “topic”, too—for example, my goldfish waking up in the spring, or the way things are in February. I write short pieces that eventually accumulate into a book length manuscript, but I’ve also written long poems and short books on certain subjects (e.g. the Kelowna wildfire, Malcolm Lowry, the death of a friend).
4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?
Public readings help sometimes to edit a particular poem. Readings help me to deeply hear my own work. Readings can also be humiliating events. I remember one reading where I became more and more mortified that the poem was so full of similes. In that reading venue, similes were a big no-no. I felt like killing myself afterwards.
5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
No, not really. If anything, my poems fight against “theoretical concerns.” I suppose I try to answer whatever question comes up. The current questions, or question, seems to me to be about sanity.
6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Unfortunately, I’ve not much worked with heavy-duty outside editors, or even medium or light-weight editors. As I said, unfortunately. I could use a stronger editor.
7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?
Harder, because you expect more of yourself just as you’re beginning to thin out, get tired.
8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?
Pears I am not crazy about. Pears so often disappoint.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“The only way out of this mess is to become enlightened and then enjoy it!”
10 - - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
A typical day for me: Wake up, get out of bed, drag a comb across my head. Drink coffee, read the paper, leave for work. Writing is ALWAYS on my mind but I find it hard to find enough time to spend on it. When I write, it’s usually because I have a deadline, or I need to. I’m not a morning writer, nor do I have a schedule.
11 - Where is your favourite place to write?
My favourite place to write is at my desk at home.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
For inspiration, I read something, sometimes poetry (I have a shelf of poetry books that can sometimes get me going), sometimes something random from the shelf; or I go for a walk; or listen to some music, or I make a cup of coffee. Writing used to be much easier when I was still smoking.
13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?
The Good Bacteria is all over the map. It’s the weirdest book I’ve ever written. Robert Bringhust imitation Haida cadences using Okanagan imagery, 9/11 fantasies about cropduster airplanes in innocent barns, wildfire meditations, eulogies, lyrics, you name it. I was completely amazed (and grateful) that Anansi published it! (It received a GG nomination, a Dorothy Livesay nomination, and a ReLit nomination—you could have knocked me over with a feather!)
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’m a soaker-up of anything beautiful, anything alive—whether person, place, or thing. Certainly nature plays a huge role in that, but I’m not really a “nature poet.” For some time I studied Matisse and tried to write poems out of that, but it didn’t work. My own living in the world in whatever ways I do seems to furnish me with enough “material.”
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
All writings, all language use. I read all the time. I read a lot of student writing, I read the local rag, I read Chatelaine at the hairdresser’s. I listen to the way people speak.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
An exquisitely beautiful and brilliant play!
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’m still trying to be a writer! Otherwise, maybe a dancer, or a cartoonist.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Poetry seemed to me to be the vitality of truth. Before that, I was misled by a search for truth alone.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was The Inheritance of Loss, by Karin Desai. Last great film? Anything with Philip Seymour Hoffman in it.
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m currently at work on three projects: a poetry manuscript; a prose work entitled “My Education as a Poet”, and a long piece about the Queen Charlotte Islands/Haida G’Waii in the 1920’s and 30’s.
12 or 20 questions archive