Thursday, August 06, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Gillian Sze

Gillian Sze was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Her poetry has appeared in such venues as CV2, Prairie Fire, pax Americana (U.S.), Crannog (Ireland) and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong). She is also the author of two chapbooks, This is the Colour I Love You Best (2007) and A Tender Invention (2008). She has an MA in Creative Writing and resides in Toronto. Fish Bones (DC Books) was published this Spring. Her website is
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

Working with Withwords Press on This is the Colour I Love You Best opened my eyes to the amount of work that goes into publishing. It’s humbling what Sasha and Ann create out of their bare hands – literally. From that experience, I also learned that the Internet is a great sales tool, and that the question I like the least is, "What does your title mean?"
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

It was by mistake. When I started writing, most of my energy was invested in short fiction. I would write small pieces, much the same as postcard stories. It didn’t occur to me that the form I should have been working in that best suited what I was doing was poetry.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I adopt Eliot’s approach to writing. He describes the poet’s mind as "a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together." I do that a lot. I am always searching for the missing piece. Sometimes it’s discovering a poetic form that offers itself as the perfect vessel to mould everything I want to say. Sometimes it’s an epigraph, or the right title.

On days when the receptacle feels empty (and it never truly is), I force myself to write the way one forces oneself to workout. Sometimes you don’t want to because you feel lazy but if you don’t, then you feel guilty. So you tell yourself to change into your workout clothes and hit the gym and then, after a two-hour-workout, you feel great.
4 - 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?

The poem is often half-begun before it gets on paper. It begins with a sight, a memory, a piece of overheard dialogue, something strange in the sky, a dream, flamingoes, smashing first lines, the sound of a girl’s voice, anxiety of airports, names of new fruits. I rarely know if a poem will center on any of these images, but I know they’ll appear somewhere.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Public readings are divorced from my creative process. I rarely read poems that are still going through heavy revision. I just don’t find that fair to the poem. For me, poems are read after I edit them, or someone else has edited them, or after I forgot about them and then edited them again. Public readings are like the final performances. I’m not a fan of the dress rehearsal.
6 - 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?

I am always interested in issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnicity. I’m particularly interested in thinkers who view identity as performative and experimental. As a first generation Chinese-Canadian, the intersection of identity and ethnicity has been concerns of my work.
7. What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

The French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, says that a great writer invents a language for a people not yet born. I like that.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with people I respect, admire and trust. I think outside editors are necessary and those qualities are essential for it to work.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Stop trying to change things that are out of your control.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?

Creative writing to critical prose poses more of a difficulty for me. I just receive too much joy from making things up and lying; switching modes and writing critically takes some time to adjust.

Between poetry and fiction, however, I find the move fairly easy. Last summer I wrote a poem about a character named Delilah and when I was done, it was 200 words long and utter rubbish. There was just too much to say about Delilah – too many other characters and situations and events to include so that my short portrait was inadequate. I ended up turning it into a 1000-word prose piece. Conversely, I once wrote a short story for my prose professor, Terry Byrnes, and he said frankly, "This should be a poem." Sure enough, in my final portfolio, I had revised "The Art of Gardening" into a long poem. I guess the transition is easy because in the end, the essence of the idea determines the form and I really have no choice but to obey.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
The night before, I always tell myself to get up early to write. Sometimes it works. I try to do something with writing each day, like jotting down ideas, writing my first line, writing my last line, or completing a poem well into the night. A notebook and pen is never too far from me. They often interrupt my day.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

When my writing starts to stall, I look to new poems, favourite poems, trusted writers like Jeanette Winterson, Milan Kundera, Salman Rushdie and Anne Carson. I take a walk. I take a break. I relocate. I write glosas, which is a good boost because it fends off the blank page since I start off with another poet’s lines.
13 - What did your favourite teacher teach you?

Humility. Mary di Michele once told us during class that a poet only writes about six great poems in a lifetime. It was crushing, but eye-opening. The majority of poets will come and go, effaced and forgotten. It reminded me of something David McGimpsey once said: "Let’s face it. There are no readers of modern poetry working at the morgue."
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there many other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Certainly. Fish Bones is a prime example of using other forms, in this case, visual art, to influence my work. I am always open to everything around me. Once, out in the country in Quebec, I wandered into a forest and reached a pond where there was a huge sign describing the various frogs and toads that inhabited the area and the specific sounds they make. I stood there scribbling all this down and started thinking about writing a series of poems about these frogs and mimicking their sounds in the rhythm, style and syntax of my poems. To exclude forms like nature, music, science and art unduly narrows the range of influence.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Western philosophy, Buddhist texts, poetry of every possible nature, Classical authors, fortune cookies, advertisement in subways, bathroom graffiti, snail mail, greeting cards, old love letters, astrology.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Visit the east coast. Visit Europe – check out what the hype is all about. Publish another book.
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 was a closet writer. Especially having a strict, traditional Chinese upbringing – there was a lot of fear and anxiety over the career questions and in some ways, an overwhelming sense of responsibility to my family.

I suppose if my responsibility to myself didn’t kick in the way it did, I would have continued at University of Winnipeg in the pre-med program. I would have become a pharmacist and worked behind a counter, imagined stories about my clients. I probably would have been distracted by the chemical names and the surprising but frequent appearance of the letter "x." I probably would have made many mistakes.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I write because I can’t not. Obsession made me write. Questions about language’s boundaries made me write. And something else that I can’t name, something that keeps me looking around myself, something that keeps me distracted all the time.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

While I was teaching at Centauri, I re-read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. That’s always a good one. Right now I’m finishing Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian and it’s mesmerizing. As for the last great film, I’d say The Drummer.
20 - What are you currently working on?

A few things: The Anatomy of Clay; an ongoing collaborative poetry project with my friend, Alison; and a short film with the talented, Rob Huynh (Roberutsu).

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