A short interview with Sandra Ridley
Sandra Ridley is the author of three books of poetry: Fallout (Hagios Press), Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press), and most recently, The Counting House (BookThug). She has taught poetry at Carleton University and has mentored poets through Ottawa’s Salus and Artswell’s “Footprints to Recovery” program for people living with mental illness. Sandra has also facilitated poetry workshops for the City of Ottawa, Ottawa Public Library, and the Tree Reading series. She knows how to use a compass.
Q: Your work tends to favour the extended sequence, often utilizing extended lyric stretches, and avoiding individual, stand-alone poems. What is it about the sequence that appeals? Are all your poems in conversation with one another?
A: For me, the landscape is larger in an extended sequence as compared to a stand-alone poem. A sequence encourages movement through, not movement to; there is more space for refuge and more room to breathe.
In longer serial work, an atmosphere coalesces, poem upon poem. If there needs to be a narrative, it can become perceivable within that. A narrative can be held in abeyance as other essential elements, like mood or emotion, manifest. Moreover, with fragments and associative/dis-associative leaps, a narrative can be hinted at, and not insisted upon. Who wants to be told what to think? This can be transformative. Approaching writing in this way, being unconcerned with a narrative, gives me flexibility. And this gives the reader flexibility in their own approach and response. In a way, both the reader and the writer become a kind of seer. Extended stretches can unveil a kind of déjà vu—a deeper resonance or reverberation of specific embedded images or lines. There’s also space for tracings and concealments. I love too how a long sequence suspends time or creates a sensation of timelessness. The serial poem’s landscape and time-scape is of the in-between.
Q: When working on a sequence, have you a possible end-point in mind, or is the poem opening up organically until it comes to a natural conclusion? Are your sequences planned or process (or both)?
A: Typically, the end-point is unknown as I set out and is discovered through the writing process. Looking back and thinking about atmosphere, up until now my work has been framed by notions of apocalypse—not as narrowly defined as a global doomsday or the end of the world, but including intimate and daily-lived human crises, and the revelation and transformation that comes from them. When working on my previous collections, I think I may had an idea of what the crisis is/was within them (i.e. the downwind effects of nuclear radiation in Fallout, medical incarceration, and the archaic and experimental treatments for tuberculosis and mental illness in Post-Apothecary, the trauma(s) of a relationship gone wrong in The Counting House) but the elements of revelation and transformation coalesced in unexpected ways as the poems accumulated.
When a serial poem works well, each part of the sequence, or each individual poem, functions independently and carries its own significance, even if it’s a bit cryptic in its isolation. With my own sequences, I hope that the individual poems, when gathered together, work as montage, and through that the reader can decode a larger meaning. That part, that larger meaning, or narrative, is always an enigma for me—until it isn’t. For me, the serial poem is a puzzle.
Q: I’m curious as to your models for how you approach the serial poem. What writers or works have influenced the way you put together your poems-as-puzzle?
A: Robert Kroetsch asked, “How do you grow a poet?” (But he may have been talking about the influence of his wide horizon of brome grass.) He’s certainly on my list, and also, Nicole Brossard, Anne Carson, Phil Hall, Denise Levertov, Dennis Lee, Daphne Marlatt, Adrienne Rich, John Thompson, and Phyllis Webb. The list, of course, goes on.
Q: There is something of the prairie that resonates throughout your three poetry collections, from physical and historical references to an exploration of what Andrew Suknaski referred to as “loping, coyote lines.” I know for some time after you moved to Ottawa, you still included your Saskatchewan origins in your author bio. How important is the language and landscape of Saskatchewan to the ways in which you approach your work?
A: If there’s any echo of prairie language and landscape embedded in my work, it’s not something I’m consciously trying to make manifest. But the way I do approach writing is that it comes from my sense of place/space in time. Part of who we are, where we came from and where we now are, does become part of the page—even if only the structural frame. But also what the words we use and how we use them. We’re spatial beings. The inside of us is shaped by what’s outside. Is there containment, freedom, or constraint? We’re made by our environment, I believe, and so too then are the words, our lines, and our pages.
Our landscape, whatever it is—the infold cityscape of compact high rises or the infinite line of brome grass touching the sky—gives us a kind of perception, a way of seeing and being in our world. Maybe this is what you’re sensing with Suknaski’s reference to “loping, coyote lines”. The prairie horizon undulates on and on—and what is absent there becomes absent on the line, and anything present asserts a profound weight.
The free coyote, unconstrained.
Q: As you say, we are “made by our environment,” which makes me curious to know how you think your writing has been affected through your time living in Ottawa. Has the city itself made a difference?
A: Has the city made a difference in my writing? Maybe? Maybe not? For me, to be here in Ottawa, in the city, is to feel out of place. I’ll always have some Saskatchewan in me—my affiliation and affection for the remote, the rural, and the farm. Like identity, these kinds of feelings are latent and immutable, formed and carried by memory and imagination. The complex of childhood experiences does shape who we are. Isolation, the need for it, is part of my bones. I do miss the unbounded sky, and I feel closed in. Where is the expanse of horizon? Where is the infinite? The city makes the writing stop.
City life involves a mental fracturing and busy-ness. To do, to do, to do. This reminds me of a line in Robert Kroetsch’s “Field Notes” poem: I don’t give a damn if I do die do die do...” Because of this fracturing within city living, me with multiple selves with multiple tasks, on the level of creative practice, it’s difficult to write. Each summer, in early June, I leave Ottawa to live in a small wooden A-frame cabin beside a very small lake with no neighbours, no motorboats, no distracting noise. Life is simplified, condensed, to an outhouse and a weekly sponge bath in the woods. The sky is bigger there and the isolation is soothing. Writing returns.
Q: You worked with poet Phil Hall on the manuscript for The Counting House, well before the book had been accepted by BookThug. How was it working with Hall, and what was he able to articulate about the manuscript that helped to further it along? What was the process of working with him and how effective a midwife was he for the book?
A: Through the auspices of BookThug, the Toronto New School of Writing runs a program where writers are partnered with midwives (mentors) to deepen or edit a manuscript. Working with Hall on The Counting House was pivotal and I can’t begin to list the ways he was helpful, is helpful, because I wouldn’t be able to stop. This may sound like hyperbole but it isn’t. The Counting House, as a book, likely wouldn’t exist without his involvement. He seemed to have an unshakeable faith in the manuscript, and that was something I couldn’t myself find. I couldn’t inhabit the poems in the way he did. I was stuck in in being the ‘writer’ of the ‘work’. He pulled up his dungarees and got in the muck with me. He heard a kind of cadence in the work that I couldn’t. He helped me find ways to unfasten myself, to open my senses to the lines, so I could better listen to the music.
Q: How has this affected the writing you’ve been working on since? Have you noticed any changes in your composition since working with Hall?
A: The biggest impact Phil Hall has had on my writing is on the interior aspect of the composition process. It’s one of being or philosophy: to not yield to the temptation to abandon or forsake the work—and that if there is an end point to composition, it’s the opposite of that. As Celan said, “Once the poem is really there, the poet is dismissed…” In truth, aside from a few commissioned ekphrasic responses, which I’m grateful for, I haven’t written all that much since I finished The Counting House. Today, there isn’t that much, writing-wise, for me to consider giving up on or to be dismissed by. It’s been a long fallow period.
Q: What does one do in a situation like that? Is this something that has occurred after each of your books?
What to do? If I said I knew, I would be lying. It seems best to detach from the want to write to save myself from the disappointment of not writing. I say fallow in an attempt to make myself feel better about the lack. To write fallow as if to imply there is some sort of latent process of creative nourishment happening. But I’m not sure that there is. Even in the city, I try to inhabit a concentrated solitude. There’s always the always-indispensible sensibility for reading, for the want to read, and the impulse to indulge the daydream, and to recover, day to day, the impetus to revere the curiosities. Each day will fill with small things. And at some point, a writer will ask herself, how integral, how necessary, writing is for her life.
Q: You’ve had at least a couple of post-The Counting House pieces, such as the poem “Up North,” from The Peter F. Yacht Club #21. How does a poem such as that fit into what you’ve been attempting since your third collection?
A: It’s a one-off. There are two pieces in the same vein and both arrived at the cabin in the summer of 2010, five years ago. I’m glad that this issue of the Yacht Club gave it a home. I think that for many poets there are these one-off poems that seem to come out of nowhere, that seem to write themselves. This one wasn’t part of a larger vision for me, but there it was, an occasional poem. Ten of them or so have accumulated over ten years. If I’m attempting anything since my third collection, I’m gathering words and images, through pleasure reading and research (which is also a pleasure), trying to find a common language to a set of disparate things. If any of this sounds worrisome, it’s not. There is accumulation. And there is that one long poem from last summer.