Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Six Questions with Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang: 2014 Pat Lowther Award Shortlist

From early April to early June, I’m featuring short interviews with the authors of the six shortlisted titles for each of the three awards run through The League of Canadian Poets – the Raymond Souster Award, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Pat Lowther Award. Today’s feature is Kingston poet and Young Adult author Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang, whose book Status Update (Fernie BC: Oolichan, 2013) is on the shortlist for the 2014 Pat Lowther Award. See my previous Pat Lowther Award shortlist interviews with Elizabeth Bachinsky, Anne Compton, Alexandra Oliver and Sadiqa de Meijer. The winners to all three awards will be announced on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at The League of Canadian Poets 2014 Annual General Meeting in Toronto.

Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang is the author of the poetry books Status Update (2013), currently nominated for the Pat Lowther Award and the Gerald Lampert award winning Sweet Devilry (2011). She is featured in Best Canadian Poetry 2013, and is also the author of several children’s books, including A Flock of Shoes and Warriors and Wailers. Sarah’s work has been named to the OLA Best Bets for Children 2010, Best Books for Kids & Teens 2011 & 2012, and the Toronto Public Library’s First and Best Book List (2012). She is also the editor of the anthology Desperately Seeking Susans, and the forthcoming Tag: Canadian Poets at Play. Her new Young Adult novel, Breathing Fire was just released with Orca Books.

1. status update is your first trade collection of poetry, after the Gerald Lampert Award-winning Sweet Devilry (Oolichan Books, 2011). What was your process of originally putting the manuscript together, and how long did it take? How do you feel your concerns as a writer has developed over the space of two poetry collections (as well as a Young Adult novel)? How do you feel the work, and even the process of writing, evolved?
I think that Sweet Devilry was very much a first collection in that it dealt with everything of importance to me in my life up until then. The death of my father and the birth of my daughter were prominent in that book. For Status Update I wanted a book that was less about me. I don’t know if I succeeded really, since all the poems draw from my own experience and imagination. There was one complaint from a person who was included in this book, she was upset that I had used her status update as a title for a poem. She felt that it was an invasion of her private life (fair enough), though what struck me was the poem ended up being about my husband and daughter. The division between our lives and the lives of others can be a bit of a blurred line.

I started Status Update in part because I was feeling very much at sea when it came to writing. I had also just finished some course work with Susan Musgrave who had provided excellent writing exercises that I always found productive. I took to using the endless loop of people-watching (Facebook) as the writing exercise that would turn into Status Update. The entire thing took about 3 years to complete. It’s hard to say how my writing has evolved. I think it’s become professionalized – I don’t wait for inspiration. I continue to love writing in different genres for different age groups. I like the challenge of writing as widely as I can. 

2. Who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
Depending on what genre I’m working in, I try to immerse myself in the voice of those genres (picture books included). It’s a fine balance though. There is an unlimited amount of work that is so much better than my own – I need to remember that I’ll always be reaching, and to celebrate the fact that those wonderful and brilliant books exist. I always come back to Bronwen Wallace when I’m in a funk. Somehow there’s always something new in her writing that I appreciate with every pass.

3. You’ve lived in Kingston for quite some time, and I’m curious as to how the community of writers around you, as well as the Ontario landscape, have contributed to your work. Do you think you might have been a different kind of writer had you lived in another part of the country?
Kingston has been pivotal in my development as a writer. We have a ridiculously strong and supportive writers community in our relatively small city. When I first came to Kingston I started a writers group (now called The Villanelles). It’s been immensely helpful to have this great group of keen-eyed editors to take my work to. I feel like we’ve all grown as writers together. Carolyn Smart has also implemented a fantastic Writer-in-Residence program which was invaluable. To be able to work closely with a changing rooster of fantastic writers has been a blessing. As for the Ontario landscape it does inform my work – especially since Kingston is such a strangely divided city when it comes to the rich and the poor. I live very close to Belle Island which is, to me, emblematic of Kingston. It is a gorgeous piece of land that used to be right next to a municipal landfill. It sits on the water and to get to Belle island we walk through a path strewn with garbage, and it eventually opens into idyllic marsh and woodlands right on the water. They’ve found human remains there dating from 900 CE. That’s Kingston.

4. status update explores the relationships we have with online text, specifically social media, and utilizes various other writers’ own status updates as jumping-off points for your own poems. How important was each update author to the poems you ended up composing from their individual prompts?
It varied based on how well I knew the individual. Quite a few people I’ve never met or talked to, and so their updates were a jumping off point for my imagination. Others, like you rob, I had a vague idea of what was going in their lives and used that to inform my writing. There’s something so universal in the specific experience of fundamental human experiences, like love, or grief. I found the best updates were the ones that were not poetic. I loved having a mixture of the unexpected, the mundane, the profound, and the simplistic. Much like eavesdropping at a local coffee shop.

5. What do you feel teaching writing and creative writing has brought to your writing and writing life? Or are the two entirely separate?
I love teaching creative writing. Having a class work together to make a poem or a story the best it can be is interesting and illuminating every single time. There are a million ways to approach a piece of literature and I find it endlessly fascinating to see how my students will interpret a work and to hear their ideas on how to strengthen those pieces. The process keeps me aware of my own foibles and crutches. It forces me to try and look at my writing from multiple perspectives.

6. Literary awards have been known to shine spotlights on individual works and authors, as well as writing generally, but has also sometimes brought with it a particular kind of pressure, and a frustration for those works overlooked by awards. As a writer, reader and award-winner, what are your feelings on literary award culture generally?
I think, especially for poetry, awards are necessary and they do a lot of good. Writing a book of poetry is like taking a few years of your life and throwing it down a well. To hear a little splash at the bottom is helpful. I think we all know  too, that awards aren’t everything – there are so many brilliant books that aren’t nominated. It’s a bit of a crap shoot, and it really depends on your book landing with a jury that naturally responds to your style.  I remember when I found out I was nominated for the Gerald Lampert for my first book – I felt overwhelmingly thankful that anyone had even read the book.

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