Monday, November 8, 2021

TtD supplement #201 : seven questions for Sue Bracken

Sue Bracken’s work has appeared in G U E S T [a journal of guest editors], Hart House Review, WEIMAG, The New Quarterly, Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem Anthology (Mansfield Press), The Totally Unknown Writer’s Festival 2015: Stories (Life Rattle Press) and other publications. Her first collection of poems When Centipedes Dream was published by Tightrope Books in 2018. She lives in Toronto in a house ruled by artists and animals.

Her poems “Du Fond des Mers,” “At Swim,” “S. B.,” “The Goodwill Store Disrobes” and “A Roomful of Teeth” appear in the thirty-first issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about the poems “Du Fond des Mers,” “At Swim,” “S. B.,” “The Goodwill Store Disrobes” and “A Roomful of Teeth.”

Du Fond des Mers
A huge skeleton of a blue whale hung suspended from the ceiling at the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum). It was reflected below on some material that looked like water. It was beautiful but the whale wasn’t in water. It was dead, completely dissected, disassembled and on display. Its huge heart sat apart, beside a smart car for comparison.
Sure, I learned some facts about whales, especially their unbelievable communication abilities. But all I could think about was that it didn’t have a say in being displayed in such a primitive, objective way. I just wanted it back in the sea.    

At Swim
I’m a water baby, love the freedom that water gives, want to swim as an old broad and beyond.
I was probably daydreaming about retiring from my job then. I’ve since taken that swan dive!    

I heard a woman read a poem about her name. It included an umlaut over one of the letters and the poem was pretty unique. I thought I’d give my initials a shot. It was great playing with the hissing S and the bombastic B, and attempting to present their shapes literally. Summum Bonum was a cool discovery.

The Goodwill Store Disrobes       
The Goodwill stores in Toronto closed suddenly.  I passed our local Goodwill daily enroute to and from work. The mannequins displayed in the windows had regular outfit changes, displaying new items for sale. As the store was being cleared out, rather than the window items being removed as a unit it seemed the mannequins were being gradually undressed. It felt like a subtle strip tease show, one you didn’t want to admit to watching.

Roomful of Teeth
A COVID poem from one of the many waves of tension last year. (Also the name of an American vocal ensemble.)

It was also part of a project during COVID called Xcess & Ohhs in collaboration with my visual artist partner. His 12 works of art were called Bandaids for Worrisome Times. My 12 poems responding to (NOT describing) his imagery were called Wondering When to Worry.

Q: How do these poems relate to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: I’m the last born of five and therefore an observer. I have to crawl to the starlight before I can fall back barking. I’m also an Aquarian and by my definition that’s a water baby. Water often leaks into my poetry. Dust to dust never seems to apply. I love water’s float, its fit. I just seem to belong in the silk of it. Many of my poems, including three of the ones you’ve accepted and about a dozen in a recent manuscript (One Goose Honking) are water related.  

In addition to water related images/experiences, my writing is also influenced by train graffiti, news items and artwork. I retired from my job in early 2020. I walked out of the corporate world directly into COVID, with all its appendages. I felt brilliant in the timing, but also an urgent need to continue to be creative. The project noted above- Xcess & Ohhs - was a collaboration with visual artist extraordinaire David McClyment (also my partner, also extraordinaire). Neither the images nor the poems are directly about COVID though there is some of the tension of the pandemic, its isolation, and the question around the extra time on our hands. Water themes and responses to images persist.

Self-reliance was also on my mind pre-COVID and pre-retirement (hence the title of the manuscript noted above).  I recently saw Franz Kline’s painting Cupola 1956-57 at the AGO. It floored me. Huge, fearless, singular. That need in me to be creative was in that painting.  Somehow my reaction to Cupola seems connected to my most recent work. It’s a suite of related prose and poetry (somewhat unusual for me) around my sister who died in 1976, way too young. She was 27 (also the working title). Writing this homage to her felt sensitive yet visceral.  Some of the pieces continue to be responses to images/family photos, others were inevitably physical reactions to memories. It was a difficult bit of writing, pooled with feelings of privilege and survivor’s guilt. Reflecting on my other work, facing these photos of my sister, and seeing Kline’s painting helped me recognize the need, the adventure, the surprise of why I write.

Q: Given so many of what sparks your work is visual, what brought you to responding via writing? What does writing provide that working with visuals, for example, might not?

A: Living with a visual artist does present the opportunity for a daily and deeper involvement with visuals, so I do take advantage of that. I have also danced semi professionally (=I got paid a few times) and I have taken some not bad amateur photos. But it’s the adventure of seeing what might happen when I write and trying to make the idea my own, that pulls me.

I guess the short answer is that writing can satisfy me. Plus I can't draw. At all!

Q: With a published debut and your work-in-progress since, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: To your first question, I feel my work is and I am more confident. Over the last few years I have been exposed to more poets, more writing styles and more ideas through reading, live and zoom events, and the increased time to ponder. Some of my recent work has also tackled bigger subjects.

To your second question, I would like to be involved in more collaborations; some meaty, richly themed writing topics while maintaining astonishment in the overall adventure. At this point I really don’t feel the need to know where my work is going, just that it is going.

Q: Have there been any writers in particular, over these past few years, that have sparked differences in your work?

A: Here’s a few.

Anne Carson: (Short Talks, Float) for her blunt, unique, exquisite descriptions

Natalia Diaz: “Dome Riddle” (New Poets of Native Nations, ed H. Erdrich) for her very clever humour

Albert Goldbarth: “Coin” (Heaven and Earth, a Cosmology) for being one of the most beautiful poems I’ve ever read. It reminds me to reach. (Michael Redhill wrote about it years ago in a fabulous weekly column “How Poems Work” in The Globe newspaper, I think. Sadly the column was cancelled.)

Don McKay: Many of his works feel like we're sitting together, having an amazing conversation.

Laura Lush: “Women Who Run With Buffalo” (Going to the Zoo) for her wildness (also her other prose and poems)

Susan Holbrook: “Your First Timpani?” (Joy is so Exhausting) for her crazy play with the English language

Michael Ondaatje: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid for the description of a bullet’s path, slow motion, almost lovely if a bullet could ever be so, in the midst of all that blood

Sue Goyette: Ocean. I was mesmerized by the writing and the couplet-like style when I first read the book. It’s in my to read (again) stack.

I couldn’t say specifically how these works changed my writing, but they have helped me generally to experiment more with style, humour and adventure. To let loose with the language and break a few more rules.

Q: Have you found that this period of pandemic-isolation has had any effect upon your work, whether the way you approach writing or the shift in opportunities for observation?

A: There have been a few effects.

The poetry group I belonged to fell apart, so that interaction and feedback unfortunately dissolved. I physically have been able to get out daily as we have a few walking/running paths and a park nearby, and a dog who has to move. Dog walkers are varied types so some of the conversations have been thoughtful and provoking, but lately they are always about the virus and vaccines. Not stimulating.

Regarding the park noted above, it’s right across the street so we are treated to international swearing/soccer matches, stories from the men of the local shelter, new COVID kids learning to stand and walk, a fabulous wandering blues harmonica player, and a big sky currently featuring Jupiter and Saturn. We can see all this from our front porch, if not during dog walks.  Some writing prompts have come out of these observations.

I miss giving and attending live readings. However I have been to more readings/launches/festivals and exposed to so many new (to me) writers, thanks to zoom. A poet friend from England invited me to read with the online version of the Norway Square Arts Festival, from St Ives. They include musicians and a wide range of writers and actors. Writer Bill Arnott from B.C. is part of this group, so many of us also participated in his events from B.C. These online events have kept me involved in some form of a writing community, but I miss the personal discussions.

I’m fortunate to have a place to write, so I try to make a point of writing or doing something poetry related everyday. I have also used the extra time to submit more of my work.

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

A: This is going to be a mixed answer, but here goes.

In addition to many of those authors I mentioned in question #5:

I listen to Tom Waits, played very loudly, to charge up. His lyrics are energizing, especially sung at that volume.

For humour I sometimes look to product instruction translations, written or drawn. For example, the written ones for a Three Man Chess game were hilarious and a good prompt for a poem.

This circles back to Anne Carson again, who wrote a poem based on her VCR instructions. She seems to be able to write beautifully about anything, from floating cows (Autobiography of Red), to pronouns (Float), to an elegy for her brother (Nox). I’ll read anything she writes.

I live near a CP shunting station, so train tags are good for prompts (e.g. “Uncle Susan is a Wolf”).

Also, snippets of out of context conversations have the same effect. (“I’d rather have a washing machine than an orgasm.”)

Online and previously live readings have introduced me to many great poets. I try to buy some of their books or the anthology when available (The Griffin Poetry Prize, Watch Your Head) to see if their other work resonates.  The more I read the better I write, or at least the more ideas I have.

The Journals of Dan Eldon, and The Curiosities by Janice Lowry. Yes they’re both visual artists which leads me back to your previous question re what about visuals inspires me to respond via writing? It’s the process that intrigues me. Why that colour/form/shape, clay versus spray paint, why that layout etc? I find the process totally, often directly, related to writing. When I’m stuck I look at other art forms, not to emulate them but to get back to my own. It's a total refresh.

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