conducted over email from March 28 – June 17, 2013
This interview originally appeared in filling Station #58. Thanks much to the editorial board for their ongoing support.
Ottawa poet Sandra Ridley has accomplished quite a lot over the past couple of years, from the trade collection Fallout (Hagios Press, 2009), which won a Saskatchewan Book Award for Publishing, to the chapbooks Lift: Ghazals for C. (Jackpine, 2008), which co-won the 2009 bpNichol Chapbook Award (shared with Gary Barwin), and Rest Cure (Apt. 9 Press, 2010), as well as collaborating with the writer/publisher jwcurry in a number of his orchestral “Messagio Galore” sound poetry performances and the more recent “Playback” sound poetry group, originally triggered as a response to the work of visual artist Michele Prevost. She won the Alfred G. Bailey Prize for the manuscript “Downwinders” and was on the shortlist for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry for a manuscript she collaborated on with the Ottawa poet Amanda Earl, an award she had previously shortlisted for the manuscript “Post-Apothecary.” The trade collection, Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press, 2011) appeared with great acclaim, and precipitated a series of readings across Canada, including stops in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Saskatoon, including an appearance at Harbourfront in Toronto in 2012, where she won the IFOA’s annual Battle of the Bards. On top of all that she has spent the past few teaching a poetry writing class at Carleton University, a class that, according to Shayla Brunet of the Local Tourist Ottawa blog, “taught the students how to punch up a piece with sharp sounds and living words, often bringing in guest speakers and even a funky sound poetry group.” Her third trade poetry collection, The Counting House, appeared in fall 2013 with BookThug.
rob mclennan: You wrote that “Fallout, my first book, is more earnest and pointed, simple story making, and much of it is located in the prairie landscape. Post-Apothecary is more hermetic and rooted in the landscape of the feverish mind.” How would you describe the pieces that make up The Counting House?
Sandra Ridley: There isn’t much of a landscape in The Counting House and not a strict narrative either. The four serial poems are centred on the lack of information about courtly affection gone awry and about the tallying of the gaps that kind of absence makes. The first section was catalyzed by my reading of interpretations of traditional English rhymes, as found in the Roud Folk Song Index—petty epics of kings, queens and maidens, and the pageantry and pedantry of their unnoble state of affairs.
The remaining three sections are connected in tone. One was written via ekphrasis, with me looking through a bifocal lens of Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. The second section is a long poem composed in response to michèle provost’s art installation, ABSTrACTS/RéSuMÉS: An Exercise in Poetry, with that lens in front of me.
If there is any thematic continuity following from my first two books, it would come from my obsession with harm—as manifest through seclusion and (re)assertion.
There’s a substantial amount of accusation and denial in the house’s tallying, and as the text moves through time, the tabulation takes different forms. The non-story becomes clearer and more like a reckoning. I was curious about what an accountant’s notebook might look like in poetic form.
rm: Interesting you mention ekphrasis. I know of your responses to works by Pedro Istzin and Michèle Provost, as well as your full-on writing collaboration with Amanda Earl, which was shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Writing. What attracts you to working from and with others, and what do you feel it brings to your other works?
SR: For me, collaboration is a kind of reciprocal correspondence with another writer—and with the text itself. Sometimes, it seems, the words themselves converse. Looking at the project between Amanda Earl and I, it’s almost impossible to tell who wrote what. Collaborative work, as a whole, doesn’t really concern itself about personal authorship and ego. It’s more about attentive, tuned abandon. There are very fluid and unknowable trajectories. The exchange originates and thrives in otherness. Compared to writing alone, the creative process feels inherently more dynamic and unexpected. It’s a chance to relinquish control. Calls and responses, both the same element, push and pull through evocation and/or provocation—and that can be very rewarding, serious and playful at different times.
I have a difficult time saying NO to what may lead me outside of myself. What’s beyond typical habituations feels instinctively more exciting.
With ekphrasis, I feel more pressure. It’s a one-way response, a focused listening, not a true dialogue. And I hate to disappoint. Again and again, I’ve sworn that I’ll never (again and again) write poems through this approach. Really, it’s agony, especially if one adores the work one's responding to, like michèle provost’s art. The salve in this case is that with her the creative circle is turning another set of degrees—michèle recently created artwork for the cover of The Counting House. So, there is correspondence there, between us and between different media.
rm: In the interview you did with Michael Blouin for ottawater #7 (later reposted in Open Book: Ontario), you said:
I’ve never been overly concerned with narrative, but more interested in atmosphere or tone, or embodiment of emotion, or its complex of. Lately I’ve been thinking about how writing can enable readers to make associative connections or disconnections in ways that create movement or repositioning.
There may be loose narrative elements in my poems in that many of them are linked and piece together larger wholes. Nothing novel there. There’s lots of space to work within, or extend, in the Canadian long poem or serial poem tradition. I’m happy that Robert Kroetsch and Nicole Brossard have influenced me.
I’ve seen more than a couple references to your second poetry collection compared to a work of fiction. How do you feel about the description, and how deliberately narrative are your constructions?
SR: I have love for Robert Kroetsch’s work, so I’ll say that in A Likely Story, he wrote about text as being collage, as made through careful and deliberate placement of images, “side by side”, so that they can “suggest a possible meaning without insisting on it.” With Post-Apothecary, I was quite conscious of that capacity, but not just about imagery itself, but also the placement of the poems—the cumulative arc. Also, I love the idea of allowing spaces for suggestion, rather than for prescriptive insistence. If some readers feel that Post-Apothecary works under the guise of fiction, I’m heartened to hear it.
There’s definitely an overarching temporal perspective at play in that book. Front to back, it has a timeline, of sorts. Together, the fragments can be joined to signify meaning. It’s a montage I hoped a reader could build for themselves. Many classic elements of a novel are subverted. Setting, character, plot, point of view, and theme all shift via the trajectory of the atmosphere I was trying to develop. My failure is that the poems I write may not function alone. They need their other. If I do have constructions, it would be with the hope that I could elicit a curve of emotion through the poems.
rm: Why do you see that connectedness as a failure? Both Jack Spicer and Michael Ondaatje wrote of the impossibility of poems living alone, “no better than we can.” What do you think accounts for these connections between your poems?
SR: I don’t believe connectedness to be a failure. It’s a strength. I’d like for poems to function both in tandem with each other, but also as single, solo entities. Because of the inherent tetherings within a serial or long poem, there’s a difficulty in excerpting from it. It may not be possible to capture the essence of the length, or the arc, within one piece, but that’s something I’d like to work towards.
rm: I like that you mention Robert Kroetsch’s A Likely Story, a book I also return to, repeatedly. But one could ask, if exploring certain kinds of narratives appeal, how did you come to poetry over fiction? What is it about poetry specifically that holds your attention?
SR: One needs a storyteller’s heart to work in fiction and I don’t have that. I’m more interested in moments and minutia—disparate fragments—accumulating and condensing them. There’s an element of math too in writing poetry, which I’m drawn to. Every word and sound has to fit as essential elements to the line’s equation and to the geometry of the poem itself. Each element has to be requisite. If I were to write a novel, I strongly doubt that it would have the feel of one.
rm: Part of what has always attracted to me to your writing is in the importance you appear to place on uncertainty, often working through questions that could never be answered. How important is it for you to constantly be exploring a deliberately-shifting ground?
SR: There’s never one correct answer, or approach, to living. Life is a shifting ground. I’d rather circumnavigate everything with uncertainty rather than certainty—the tactic isn’t out of trepidation, but out of natural curiosity. What if? is more interesting than What is. It’s the act of navigation itself that is exacting.
As for writing, a know-it-all and didactic approach might have a practical utility for non-fiction work, but it’s quite boring (for writer and reader) in poetry and fiction.