Scaling the Topography of Poetry: Samantha Ainsworth in Conversation with Sarah de Leeuw

Sarah de Leeuw

Malahat poetry board member Samantha Ainsworth talks with Kelowna writer and professor Sarah de Leeuw about her poems, "Rogue Stars" and "Our temperate life," which appear in Issue #191 (Summer 2015). In this interview, de Leeuw sheds light on poetic craft, the power of extensive reading, and how place and space fit in to the writerly life.

Your poetry rolls with lovely language and imagery, and draws its reader along to a point at which human connectivity occurs. In your poem, “Our Temperate Life” the speaker pulls “the blue grey exoskeleton from farmed/ Northern Striped Shrimp, my fingers cold/ under the tap’s thin running stream.” This sort of common experience bites at the senses and reminds us that we are similar beings that exist together on this earth. In the rendering down of complex issues in this concise manner, do you find that poetry reaches more people, is a more effective vehicle of communication than other genres?

It does seem to me that poetry encompasses such a huge range of expression; it’s hard to say one specific thing about it. On the one hand, I think poetry is something quite primal, something many people feel an affinity towardsI'm thinking here of greeting-card poetry or poetic quotes that offer many people daily affirmations. I’m also thinking of musical lyrics or powerful public speeches, both of which often deploy a kind of poetic convention. On the other hand, I think that poetry (shall we say Poetry with a Capital ‘P’?) has, for many people, a very alienating and elitist ring to it: how often have I heard “I just don’t understand poetry” or “poetry’s one thing I could NEVER write….”

So I think as poets we need to be careful with the incredible power of the genre we’re working within. I tend to try and use accessible language, with a focus on vernacular and embodied things that I hope many people can “get” or can connect with. But I am effortful in doing this inventively, hopefully surprisingly. Skinning shrimp under a thin stream of water evokes in the speaker a much larger set of reflections about marriage and divorce, about domestic happiness or a lack thereofI think ordinary minutia, if positioned intelligently and used as a spring-board, can flip a reader into intense and concentrated connections with much larger topics than those the words are specifically dealing with or representing.

Your book, Geographies of a Lover received the 2013 Dorothy Livesay Award for Poetry. The book maps a journey through Canadian landscapes and sexual desire. What link and method is used to explore and demonstrate this vital connection?

On very applied and structural levels, I used concepts fundamental to geographers, the kinds of things one might learn about in a first year university geography classlike ‘place’ and ‘scale’ and ‘topography’to frame another key way that space is parsed and organized by humans: latitudes and longitudes. I also wrote a relatively linear temporal and spatial narrative arc that connected specific sites to specific moments in an intimate relationship. The arc has a beginning and an end, various climaxes, a seasonality, a birth, growth, and death, each of which is tethered to a particular location. Finally, poetically and more abstractly, I explored raw sexual desire in relation to the physicality of earth, of geology, of ecologyI quite literally used elemental materials like ice, water, mud, rock, and soil to call forth orgasm, penetration, genitals, oral sex, love, and loss.  

How and when did you first discover poetry? And what brought you back to it?

The “discovery” of poetry was, for me, a fairly haphazard phenomenon. It also happened very early in my life, say between the ages of 9 and 14, when I was utterly unencumbered by even the vaguest of formal understandings about what poetry was, about the conventions or histories of writing it. I was just ingesting all this “stuff” I accidently bumped into, from my parents’ Bob Dylan albums to my first cassette tape of Cindy Lauper, from old copies of The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner to Judy Blume and trash teen romances like Sweet Valley High, from what I now know were incredible Haida orations given by Elders at the local community hall to an utterly random copy of The Collected Poems of Rupert Brookes in the Terrace Public Library.

Really, I was a kid somewhat intent on lashing out at the world, one who was searching for stories and language expressed in interesting ways. So I honed in on what I’d totally unsystematically decided was poetry and then (very arrogantly) thought: I could make myself heard THAT way. I want to do THAT—I want to move people, to be read and listened to. My diaries, from Grade 4 onwards, are full of the most embarrassing tripe: angry (and often rhyming) ballads to my parents, strangely sketched out limericks, free verse confessions to those I loved and admired from afar.

In a strange way, then, nothing ever really “brought me back” to poetry–in so far as I never left it, was never really without it in my life. What happened was that I simply pushed myself to think more and more about poetry, to write more and more of it with the aim of learning how to become better at writing it. Beginning in my early 20s, I began to understand poetry (and other genres, including creative non-fiction) through academic literary theories—I also just began to read better and better books of poetry! I still, however, have a penchant for randomness—nothing gives me greater pleasure than browsing through stacks of books in a library or a bookstore, just kind of flipping through everything and anything, looking for lines that jump off the page and grab my breath away.

Have you found there to be a supportive community among Canadian poets? What advice might you offer emerging poets and where might you direct them?

Absolutely! Although there are always exceptions. Something I learned to differentiate between, as a young writer, was writing-mentors who wanted to mentor the kind of writing I was interested in as opposed to mentors who simply wanted me to write like them. Now, as a professor, I understand this is a fundamental difference in pedagogy: it can be very challenging to teach people who are exploring something you don’t support or fully understandbut I would encourage young writers to find mentors, and communities, who are committed to rigorous and critical engagement of their writing, on its own terms. One way to find yourself as a writer, and to sort out the terms of your own writing, is to read. Read scads and scads and scads of books. Find out what you like and don’t like, but do it through conversations with books, with other writing.

The only other pieces of advice I might offer are, first, that there is nothing precious about your writing (it can always get better) and, second, writing is not a lifestyle you can emulate or something that exists in your head that you can simply ponder on: it is a hard physical act, like running or swimming. The more you do it, and the more you learn from the falls and the sprains and the cramps, the better your writing will become, the stronger you will be as a writer.

As Vice-President of The League of Canadian Poets, I would also really (really!) encourage young poets to professionalize, to do readings, to send their work to literary journals, websites, and magazines. Go to conferences, apply for grants, and sign up for associations of professional writers.

As well as poetry, you have established yourself as creative nonfiction writer. Your accomplishments in this genre include two books, Unmarked: Landscapes Along Highway 16 (2004) and Frontlines: Portraits of Caregivers in Northern British Columbia (2011) and the CBC Literary Prize for Creative Nonfiction, twice. Poetic elements weave their way through your works of creative nonfiction. Can you explain poetry’s place in CNF?

Making hard and fast distinctions between poetry and creative nonfiction is something I work hard against. For me, the beauty of creative nonfiction is its elasticity, its openness. As a genre, CNF is a space to work with fact and truth, with contemporary and historical issues of, for instance, social injustice, racism, urban-privilege, sexism, or colonialism…but it is a space that demands these issues be granted literary license, be considered through writerly tools of sound resonance, metaphor, word echo, staccato sentences, lyricism, or expansive and detailed description. In this way, then, I am interested in rendering ‘fact’ creatively, in using the power of poetic language to invite readers to rethink the world around us. Similarly, however, my poetry is often informed by tools of nonfiction writers: research, data, clinical investigation, historical or archival materials, journalistic coverage of events. These are, after all, poetic things, beautiful things, factual fragments that can find new lives when given literary voice within poems.

You have lived in some very remote areas of British Columbia. How has this affected your writing style?

I grew up in places where the idea of a child or young person being “overly scheduled” did not, and in some ways could not, exist. In any way shape or form. There were no Baccalaureate programs, no specialized educational streams, no swimming pools or movie theatres or elite sports teams to strive for, no universities or stadiums with world-class performances, no first class art galleries or or or…you get the idea. Instead, I had my imagination and a limitless outdoors. I had books, but ones I chose through sheer happenstance. I also had the very acute sense of always existing on the margins, of living a life I did not see reflected back to me in the books I read, the magazines I coveted, the school texts I was taught from, the music I listened desperately and attentively to, the videos we were occasionally lucky enough to rent.

I think these realties are very directly reflected in what I write about today, in how I write: I don’t see myself as steeped in a specific tradition, but (like the books I read in the remote places I have lived) instead draw inspiration from multiple sources, which I then tend to filter through an imagination very anchored in and expanded through activities (hiking, running) in the outdoors. I am committed to writing about people and places I think are too often overlooked, or are pejoratively positioned when Canadians bother to think about them at all. It still astonishes me, the types of flippant reductive remarks people make when I say I work in Prince George, when I say I grew up on Haida Gwaii. About Prince George, I get comments like “that place stinks” or “oh, Canada’s Crime Capital, hey?” or “what does anyone even do up there?” About Haida Gwaii, I get “that’s such a beautiful spiritual place to go for a vacation” or “I went there once to fish.”

Many other places I’ve lived or worked in, like Belle2 or New Aiyansh or Port Clements, people have just not heard of at all. It’s like the places I’ve known as home simply don’t exist. Given that the vast (vast!) majority of Canadians live in one of the country’s six or seven largest cities, which mostly exist in the country’s south, close to the American border, I think there is a naïve and reductive sense of hinterland places: they are either full of unthinking louts where there is nothing to do or they are places into which you pop for some personal growth and adventuring before you return to ‘real’ life.

With a PhD in historical-cultural geography and having written prolifically on this subject and all it encompasses, how do you condense your vast knowledge into poetry’s brevity? How do you manage to focus so acutely?

In truth, my academic and research writing are so different from my creative writing that I am not, in my creative writing, really attempting to focus or translate (so to speak) what I think/write about academically. With that said, I firmly believe that writing (all writing) is a process, a physical act that strengthens one’s ‘writing muscles.’ Any kind of writing requires attention and discipline, time management and a willingness to edit and revise, the desire to make a point with an openness to change. I think writing is about conveying ideas, so I am a believer in comprehensible writing, in writing that assumes a reader is an intelligent and interested person with whom I’m in conversation. Just because I have something to say, does not mean anyone has to listen. To be read is a privilege and an honour, not something to be taken for granted. I focus in hopes that others are able to focus on what I have to convey.

How important do you feel it is to tap into our environment (socially and geographically) and recognize our place in it?

Oh my goodnessit’s VERY important! I simply cannot be convinced that we humansand all that we understand and imagine ourselves to beactually exist outside or beyond our relationship to and position within broader social, ecological, and geographic systems. If we want to understand ourselves, if we want to recognize ourselves, we must do so relationally, contextually. In many ways poetry insists upon that connectivity, mapping language lines between varied subjects, opening spaces for metaphor to work precisely by seeing one thing more clearly through comparison of it to something (often utterly) different.

You have a new book of poetry to be released this fall. Please tell our readers about it.

Skeena is both very different and quite similar to Geographies of a Lover. It is similar in so far as it is another long poem, it is effortfully geographic, and it operates in many ways as a fairly theoretically-driven workby which I mean that I set out to write a single book-length poetic work with a focus on internal cohesiveness and extended coherence across the sections. This is quite different than, for instance, a book of poetry that is comprised of a collection of single poemswhich, it should be noted, is exactly what I’m working on right now, which are appearing in The Malahat Review, and which I’m really finding exciting but super challenging!

Skeena is different from Geographies of a Lover in some very obvious ways: there is nothing overtly sexual or sexy in Skeena, although I hope there is sensuality in the language. I also tried hard to push my own comfort levels of ‘language-work’ in the new book, reaching back into modernist conventions of sparse pure imagistic wording, of lists and assemblages. In some ways, Caitlin Press has captured the book really perfectly:

An elegy to and celebration of British Columbia’s second-longest river, one at the centre of contemporary conversations about resource extraction and northern geographies, Skeena is an assemblage of voices, stories and histories both about the river and from the river’s perspective. As a single poetic narrative spanning more than ninety pages, this second collection of poetry by award-winning poet Sarah de Leeuw follows a Canadian tradition of long poems, weaving together poetic rendering of the river’s perceptions with archival material that includes highway signs and historical newspapers, scientific reports and local lore, geological surveys and tourist websites. Mirroring a river’s complex tributary structure and rendered in highly concentrated imagistic language and experimental description, Skeena is a poly-vocal watershed of poetry, a book that unflinchingly demands humans understand the power of a river, the life and world of the Skeena River.

Samantha Ainsworth

Samantha Ainsworth

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