Friday, July 29, 2022

TtD supplement #220 : eight questions for Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer based in Tkaronto. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Prism, Room, Filling Station, Freefall and Mom Egg Review. She has read at the Bi+ Arts Festival and other venues. Personal experience and family histories linked to mothering, anxiety, aphasia, young dementia sometimes inform her work.

Her poems “STRESSED TEST,” “PETTY CACHE” and “FEELED GUILDED” appear in the thirty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.


A: “STRESSED TEST” and “PETTY CACHE” are part of a series of poems I wrote pre-pandemic when my sister was dealing with a brain bleed of unknown origin or cause. She recovered and is ok now, a few years later, but at the time I felt quite frightened and it brought back a lot of feelings and memories of Calgary, where I was raised, where she lives, and where our mother suffered a fatal neurological disease in the 1990s. My sister was being treated in exact hospital where our mother spent her final months. During that same season of my sister being ill, I was also participating in Hoa Nguyen’s reading and writing workshop focused on C.D. Wright’s One with Others: [a little book of her days]. Some of the exercises and readings we did focused on place, memory and influential women. So... these poems emerged. I’ve also been influenced over the longer term by a workshop Hoa previously led focused on Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T and other works. Mullen’s way with rhyme, sound and puns/jokes is something I admire a lot. I wrote “FEELED GUIDED” during some warmer months in 2020, when I was trying to learn more about local alleyway and park plants, and engage my daughter in this (however unsuccessfully) from time to time as well.

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

A: Fairly different, I guess. The past couple of months I’ve been researching East Toronto settings of the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, the better to write some historical fiction focused on women characters of Jewish, Irish Catholic, mothering and/or bi+ experiences in that time and place. (I live in that area now, and my dad is Jewish, while my late mum was Irish Catholic.)  I’ve also been trying to understand, I think, how prior generations of my ancestors responded to pandemics and overseas wars in their day. I have been making some notes towards poems as well—more just processing daily life, though. Sometimes I wonder if this research I’m doing will end up manifesting more in poems than in fiction—likely because my own writing routines and process need a bit of work as well! Process being a project in itself, for me, I think.

Q: Is the project-based idea the way through which your work is typically generated?

A: No. Most of my work has typically been generated in a workshop setting. I’ve found group reading and writing to be very generative for me.

Q: What is it about the workshop setting that appeals?

A: I think that in many ways, for many years, I bought into the idea that artists and writers should be solitary forces. Of course, this idea was not based so much in evidence. Rather, it was based in ideas about the maverick or solo artist that I somehow absorbed, even after going to art school and learning about artist practice that way. Even though I knew I liked school in general, it took me a while to realize that the group process of just going through something together at the same time – a writing process, a drawing process, a photography process – provided a kind of implicit support or momentum, and was part of what I enjoyed. Naturally, as an introvert, I do enjoy working on my own, too. But groups (or or out of workshop or school settings) provide me with accountability, fellow feeling, a sense of collective endeavour or ritual even when members of a group are working on separate “things” or “end products.”

Q: I’m curious about the nature of these collective endeavors, if the individual works end up existing in conversation with each other, or if any of these collective explorations have ventured into collaboration?

A: Not for me as of yet, perhaps for others. I can be fairly shy, which is why “working alongside” or in the same space is my usual mode. It’s still important for me, even if not explicitly collaborative. I did get to work on a fun (explicitly collaborative) project for InPrint Collective in Toronto in 2019. They paired poets with printmakers. I just really, really enjoyed assisting artist Shirley Mpagi on pulling prints, to be honest! And being in a group visual-art studio again for a while. For more information about InPrint, visit inprintcollective.com.

Q: With a handful of poetry and fiction publications over the past few years, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: Great question! I think my poetry work has developed to be more playful in terms of language. And also more concerned with sound than I could have imagined when starting out. And sillier! My fiction work has shifted to become more engaged with historical settings, which has been a surprise to me. In terms of looking ahead, I have mixed feelings. I know that fundamentally I need to prioritize staying with creative process – to keep writing or making in some way. At times in my life when I have neglected or foregone creative practice/process, I have been a very burnt out and unhappy person. At the same time, there is part of me that would like to focus more on product – getting a chapbook published, say, or a book of short stories. I realize these process/product dynamics can be complementary, not opposed. But what I’m saying is I also know my own biases and tendencies: I’m capable of letting the idea of a future finished “product” supersede the actual “process.” So for now I think what I can best hope for is to keep making work, to get more comfortable and confident with revising, and to connect with communities and structures that support all that.

Q: Do you have any particular models for the kinds of work you’ve been attempting? Are there any particular writers or works in the back of your head as you write?

A: Emma Donoghue does historical fiction so amazingly well. I guess she is in the back of my mind right now in that respect. Even nonfiction that conjures a time and place terrifically is something I’m trying to pay attention to. At the moment, I'm reading Elspeth Cameron’s And Beauty Answers: The Life of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, which fits the bill for that. There’s so many wonderful books and authors out there. Alison Bechdel is a perpetual favourite. I recently read Camilla Gibb’s The Relatives, which doesn’t travel so much through time but definitely does through space—and I find a lot to admire in those kinds of transpositions too. Poetically, I enjoy the frankness and form that Kirby’s Poetry is Queer achieves. And in terms of things that can be funny and serious in poetry at the same time, I liked Cody Caetano’s Pleasure Dome Poems a lot as well. These are just a few examples; for sure whatever I’m reading in the moment influences what I think is possible in writing.

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

A: To reenergize my own work, I might actually go browse the library shelves for poetry I haven’t read before. Or make sure I’m reading Poem-a-Day in my inbox. Or read poetry and short fiction that’s in magazines and journals—again with that element of surprise, rather than something pre-planned. Or go see some visual art, or watch a film. I will say some touchstone texts for me that I return to on creative and writing process are Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Even just returning to their key lessons in my mind can be helpful. Sometimes to get a sense of what writing can do, or how sharp it can be, I also enjoy critical writing by Derek McCormack and other top critics. I am looking forward to reading more widely, though, and delving deeper into process works. I have plenty to learn! (And that’s an understatement.)

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