Friday, June 29, 2018

TtD supplement #108 : seven questions for Sarah MacDonell

Sarah MacDonell writes, bakes and scuttles around Ottawa. She is the social media manager for Tree Reading Series and a contributing editor for Canthius. She performs and publishes in vestibules around town.

Her poem “sifting” appears in the seventeenth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poem “sifting.”

A: I wanted to write about the magic of baking. I wrote sifting when I was working at a bakery. I had exaggerated my abilities and experience because I needed the job, and it surprised me how much I loved the work and loved the womxn I worked with. We chatted all day, and chatted to the cakes and ovens too. I told the batter and dough everything. There was something magical about seeing it turn decadent in a few hours, despite of— or in response to—what I told it. Dressing it up, fluffing it out. The routine of it too. I decorated the cakes and sometimes they looked sad. They were always pretty. But sometimes they looked sad or silly or joyous. I guess it’s like any art. You and your moods shine through it. And when you work so closely with people, they shine through it too. It’s magic to me.

Q: How does this work compare to some of the other writing you’ve been doing lately?

A: I’ve been on a bit of a writing break lately, haha so it’s incomparable to anything I’ve been writing lately because I haven’t been writing. I’ve been promoting other poets’ work through Tree Reading Series and Canthius Literary Magazine and that seems to take up most of my writing time, which is lovely. I enjoy promoting other writers and attempting to forge the kind of community I want and respect. Hopefully, inspiration and personal time will strike soon. But if it doesn’t, that’s fine too. I’ve met so many amazing writers in the past few months. I’m learning that writing isn’t a solitary act at all. Nor should it be.

But I would say that “sifting” is much more contained and immediate than my past work. It felt important to remain within the space of the bakery. The oven, the movements of bakers, the sifting, whisking and kneading, all happen quickly. They demand presence. I usually write in longer, breathless lines, but this poem needed more staccato. It would have been dishonest to the baking and magic to drift into histories, thoughts or wordplay, as my other poems sometimes do. (And it was really, really difficult to resist the baggage of yeast: all the stories crafted around fermentation).

Q: Despite the recent break from writing, how have you seen your work developing? Has there been any shift in your consideration to writing through your work at Tree or Canthius?

A: Hm, my writing used to be interested in geologies and landscapes (physical landscapes, landscapes of the body, landscapes of the text). And I’m still interested in those, but I’m writing more contained pieces. Now, I’m more interested in my grandmothers and the lives they lived. How their memories and languages get passed through heritage, how their stories get repeated through my mother’s life and mine. (What closure did my mother experience for my grandmother? What experiences will I live unknowingly for my mother? And what has my grandmother already lived for me? …Among other questions) It’s more personal, and sometimes it feels very narcissistic. But maybe it’s just more upfront about its narcissism. It doesn’t have form to hide behind.

Before I got involved with Tree and Canthius—and to some extent before I got to join a writing group of my peers (hey &co)—I was writing and thinking in isolation. I used to write poetry as a means of exploration. It was good, but it no longer feels possible. Now writing feels social and I feel less certain in what I believe good writing is or should do. I have a lot more reading to do, and a lot more thinking through what space poetry has in a public (and which public).

I also get overwhelmed by the space poetry requires. Or at least how it’s imagined under CanLit. There’s the space of the performance, the page, the audience, the open mic, the sound, the body (that of reader and poet), the press, the publisher, the community, etc. And all of that has to be navigated in real time. Through all its complexities: its permissions and erasures, its joys and violence, its epiphanies and silences. Let alone the historical weight of each word. That’s something I’m thinking through.

Q: Have there been any specific writers that have helped prompt some of these shifts? What have you read recently that has struck a chord with what you’re attempting to do?

A: Sure! With ideas of family, heritage and archive, I’ve recently read Veronica Gonzalez, Chelene Knight, Hoa Nguyen, Kayla Czaga. More locally: Sarah Kabamba, Manahil Bandukwala, Jennifer Pederson, Mia Morgan, you, Stephen Brockwell.

Q: What do you mean when you speak about “the space poetry requires,” specifically “how its imagined under CanLit”?

A: Oh just that sometimes we write inside communities or alongside them or outside of them. So what does it mean that a poem was written in one space (physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally, whatever) and then transported to be performed or published or read. How do we care for that poem outside it’s space, or help create new space for it? And what work goes into creating those spaces. How does the work need to be contextualized? What work do the reader, the audience member, the series facilitator, the MC (everyone who witnesses and participates in the reading/ performance of poetry) have to do to best represent, make space for, the poem? (And maybe that’s unfair to say under CanLit. I just think of the ways publishing has so obviously failed so many womxn and POC.)

But with space so I’m rereading Maggie Nelson’s the argonauts. And that’s a book I think that requires a lot of trust in her reader. She jumps brilliantly and elegantly from subject matters to weave these narrative and questions, but she trusts her reader to jump with her. Maybe it’s an ethics of readership, or a responsibility. Haha I’m not really sure.

Q: What do you feel CanLit should be doing differently? What do you feel should be the response to addressing such failures?

A: Haha believing womxn. Believing POC. I’m mostly thinking of the past year. I really appreciated Lauren Turner's essay On Covered Mouths, but also oppression beyond gender. A community response to bullshit so that gossip isn’t the only legitimate tool many people have. There are series and presses that do this well. That I know of, Desert Pets Press, Battleaxe, Canyon Copper, Tinhouse, and others. I think I’m also still rectifying Canadian politeness. And I’m thinking about Maya Binyam’s Watching the Woke Olympics so I’m not really sure how to help things change. But I’m thinking about it.

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: I really love CA Conrad’s Ecodeviance. I find myself returning to it often, sometimes in awe of language, of energy, of poetic ritual ideas. I also find myself returning to Lorine Neidecker for archive, Natalie Diaz and Brecken Hancock for family.

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