Eating (Poems) Like Air: Celina Silva
in Conversation with Sina Queyras

Sina Queyras

In "The Applicant" and "Stings," both appearing in The Malahat Review's Spring 2017 issue, Montreal author Sina Queyras dares to re-imagine poems with the same titles by the iconic, mid-twentieth-century poet, Sylvia Plath. Queyras' "re-writes" are drawn from My Ariel, forthcoming from Coach House Books later this year. Two other poems from this project—"The Rabbit Catcher" and "Thalidomide" appeared in our Autumn 2015 issueMalahat poetry-board intern Celina Silva probes into this highly anticipated rethinking of Plath's final great work.

In an interview that appeared in the National Post you describe yourself as "pathologically shy." I was enchanted by this contrast to your poetic voice, which is wickedly gutsy and has a feistiness to it that I relish and really gravitate towards. In the poems I have seen from your upcoming poetry book, My Ariel, your poetic voice intensifies the energy of your most recent book MxT. Is this amped-up power in some ways a response to your new book's muse, Sylvia Plath? Can you speak to how Plath has been integrated into your own lines and voice?

Directness has not always been my forte. Intensity, on the other hand, I can't seem to avoid as much as I try to tamp it down—or distance myself a little from it by writing through and across other texts. In a strange way, writing these poems has taken me back to the beginning of my writing life, which was situated in a more clearly lyric mode and with a good deal more vulnerability. My poems were always more revealing than I understood them to be. These poems have offered me a chance to pick up some of the little shards of my young self and integrate them into the person I am now. They are more direct than usual I think. And "yelly."

In your poem "The Applicant," in the spring issue of the Malahat, and forthcoming in My Ariel, the lines seem to hurl themselves onto the page and are quite epiphanic. As a response to the poem by Plath with the same title, how does your revision process work to achieve the same energy as your own version?

I'm glad you describe the poem in physical terms because I always want them to feel alive, moving and still becoming something after they are published. That has been difficult to achieve in this work because some of these poems feel like old thorns. Well, actually more than thorns, there is a certain amount of coming to terms with the many possible trajectories my life has had. I have two versions of "The Applicant" that I hope to include in the book—I haven't had final edits so we'll see what stays in. Both versions respond to the essence of the Plath poem as I read it: Are you are a sort? Will you fit in? Can we count on your silence? The ways in which we prune ourselves back to fit in certain trajectories is something I have never had patience for, but I suppose, like anyone else who finds themselves mid-career, I have also done my share of such pruning. This is true of marriage, the academy, literature—all institutions—and in poems too I think.

The version of the poem in the Malahat is a fairly straightforward updating of Plath's, although I have not kept the cinquains that she used so often. I did keep the direct address, and the looseness in the line, as well as some of Plath's anger—and humour, I hope, she was actually quite funny: "Now your head, excuse me, is empty. / I have the ticket for that."

From the beginning this manuscript has been in danger of being too direct, too political, too angry—I hope I've navigated this well enough.

Tim Lilburn once instructed us in workshop to become obsessed with something—such as your hometown, an event, etc.—and the permission to really immerse myself in a poetic focal point felt electrifying. My Ariel "obsesses" over Sylvia Plath, and I'm curious if and what kind of catharsis this has provided you creatively? Do you see yourself moving on to a new obsession, and if so to what? Or does Plath still have a hold on you?

Obsessions are good, and hard to rid oneself of. I introduced Claudia Rankine [at a reading] in March of this year and in my preparatory reading I realized that in her first book, published in 1993, she lays out the questions realized to perfection in Citizen. She has been obsessing about the same questions, with very different spins, in different forms over these many years, honing her thinking, the images, the lines, landing—it would seem inevitably if you read the trajectory—in the prose-poem form. It's fascinating to watch the pull between the lyric and prose, with what to leave in, what perspective the poem should have.

Similarly with Louise Glück, whom I was never a fan of until I read her collected poems a few years ago. I was struck by her obsessiveness, how she had clearly decided, early on, to explore central family questions over and over again refracted in different parallel investigations of form, mythology, fable… Glück brings a formidable intellect to her work, but it's hard for a woman to write about family in this way and not be dismissed as a "domestic poet."

As for my own obsessions…Plath has never really been one of them. She was always just there, and speaking to someone other than me, while still being of interest to me. In a way she represented a kind of feminine experience that was very foreign. Or so I thought. Turns out it isn't at all. I turned to Ariel when I became a parent and looking to find my footing in motherhood and poetry. I confess I didn't find much of that genre of use to me, but I wasn't willing to keep my practice completely apart from what was happening in my domestic life. Plath's situation spoke to me. There was something there I needed to confront, and wow, I had no idea how intense it was going to be to do so. I think that in my work I remain in denial about the emotional cost of a poem long enough to find myself far out beyond my comfort zones, and then I begin to panic. These poems took me far back in time and to places and instances that I thought I was over. I didn't anticipate meeting my mother in these poems, but there she was. As was my own childhood, and my coming of age, and coming to myself a little later, and coming to myself again...

The thing about obsessions is you have to simultaneously defend and tend them, but also keep them loose, let them change and complicate. If you think you know the how and why of what you're working on you're not going to write much of use. At least this has been true for me. So firm, and flexible with obsessions.

What practices help you to keep growing in your writing? Does your fiction, such as Autobiography of Childhood, infuse into your poetry, or do you find prose and poetry separate pursuits?

That's a good question. Everything goes in the creative process for me. As for fiction and poetry, they are, and they aren't separate pursuits. I see narrative as distinct from fiction—the latter doesn't interest me much. I do find myself inextricably drawn to narrative, and then upending and complicating narrative. Responding to a collection of poems that are and are not telling a story is a challenge. The poems in Plath's Ariel are not narrative, but together they give the impression of the last two years of Plath's life. As well they indicate a critical literary history. In responding to the poems I initially forced myself to do so poem by poem, replicating or resisting her choices and content, but ultimately I could not restrain myself from trying to make a narrative. I also couldn't keep my own life out. And then, once I began to learn the critical reception, the history of the book, the origins—I didn't even know that the Ariel we all know and love isn't quite the Ariel Plath intended to publish—then all that wanted to push in as well. At that point what the narrative was became quite impossible.

I do also like more conventional narratives and, like Plath, I am frustrated by my lack of productivity, in particular my lack of prose as distinct from the prose that finds its way into my poetry collections. I am generally not someone who suffers from writer's block. What I suffer from is lack of time for my own work, and worse, these days, lack of time to do nothing other than daydream and think. This has always been an essential part of my practice, one that teaching, social media, and having children has seriously strained.

 

Celina Silva

Celina Silva

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