get out of the way of writing the poem

Today’s Couplets interview is with Sue Goyette, Nova Scotian author of the poetry collections The True Names of Birds, Undone and outskirts, and the novel Lures.

Goyette is a 2011 winner of the Province of Nova Scotia’s Established Artist Recognition award. Her work has been nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, the Atlantic Poetry Prize, the Pat Lowther Award for best book of poetry by a woman writer and the National Magazine Awards, and won the 2008 CBC Literary Prize for Poetry, the 2010 Earle Birney Prize and the 2011 Bliss Carman Award.

Joanne Merriam: I remember when The True Names of Birds [actually, it was Undone – Ed.] was shortlisted for the Atlantic Poetry Prize [which is administered by the Writers’ Federation, where I worked at the time], at dinner after the award ceremony, we talked a little about process. I’ve forgotten most of the conversation now, but what I retained, and often repeat to poet friends, was your admonition to “figure out what your own process is, and then always trust your process.” What is your writing process? Any words on your evolving thinking about process?

Sue Goyette: My writing practice involves a specific writing time each day that I clear of internet and phone access. I sit in my room and ruminate. I wait and try to ride out that awful hurry-up, anxious feeling. I think of the words, the ideas or images that have snagged lately in my brain. I think of the stories I’ve heard myself repeat. I comb my memory for articles, facts, curiosities that I’ve noticed. I try to stay present and not sink into making lists of things to do once this time is done. I try not to manage my Word.doc files or do any other ‘meaningful’ tidying. I’ve realized that I do things fast. Too fast. I walk fast. I talk fast. I eat fast. And I write fast. I’ve been trying to adjust my writing practice so I come to it with a slower pace. As Frost said, I try to ride out the melt of the poem.

I think that our process or practice should serve our writing and can be adjusted to do so. One of our jobs as writers is to get out of the way of writing the poem. As long as we’re vigilantly heading towards what the ecosystem of the poem needs and not towards what we think it needs, then our practice is serving us. The thing I’ve learned is that it’s really great to challenge or adjust a familiar way I do things so that I feel refortified somehow, reinvigorated.

Joanne Merriam: I notice that you have multi-part poems in outskirts, something I don’t think I’d seen you do before. What led you to start writing poems in parts and what attracts you about that approach? Does it have any disadvantages?

Sue Goyette: I like multi-part poems for lots of reasons. I like the space and silence the sections imply and how that helps pace the reading of them. I like the long look and attention they give to a theme or subject. The vista of them. The opportunity they offer to play, to improvise between sections. The subterranean root systems of them. I like the expansion of them. They’re just a longer walk with someone or something interesting.

I’m not sure it’s a disadvantage but the thing I’ve had to be careful of is not pulling the poem out for so long it loses its shape or becomes diluted, pale. You’ve got to know when to stop or when an idea can’t maintain that kind of marathon pace or long look. Some poems resist that kind of expansion and, really, each poem demands its own form.

Joanne Merriam: How has writing fiction informed your poetry (if it has)?

Sue Goyette: I wrote fiction like I would a poem. I learned to trust the headlight of its narrative path. Any exercise that flexes that trust, that intuition, informs my writing. Writing fiction also helped me develop a keen ear for silence, for what’s not being said that is so important in writing poems. A proper respect for the space between and around the poem as well as in the actual poem is so necessary if participation between the reader and the work is going to have any kind of lasting meaning.

Check out more poetry-related interviews, reviews and guest posts at Couplets: a multi-author poetry blog tour.

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