An interview with poet Sandy Shreve
Waiting for the Albatross, Sandy Shreve
An Interview with Sandy Shreve, by Jane Eaton Hamilton
J: Congratulations on your new poetry collection “Waiting for the Albatross.” The book consists of found poems from bits of your father’s diary while he was a deck hand on a freighter in 1936. What was your impetus for writing “Waiting for the Albatross?” What can you tell us about the process of bringing these poems to life and this book to print?
S: The first thing that comes to mind is that it was a very long process. I had this diary of my Dad’s and after I first read it in 1993 I knew I wanted to get it into print somehow. My first attempt was to approach a publisher with excerpts from the diary. They asked to see the whole thing, but for various personal reasons I had to set that project aside. By the time I was able to get back to it, nearly 20 years later, the publishing world had changed and interest in publishing diaries had waned. On the bright side though, by then I’d been given some photo albums of my Dad’s, and it turned out they included all his pictures from his 1936 trip.
I decided to see if I could create a dialogue between my father (who died when I was 14) and me by keeping a diary over the same five-month period as he kept his, but 75 years later. So on Feb. 11, 2011, I dove in. For a bunch of reasons the conversation I was hoping to create didn’t materialize, but I kept on with my diary anyway. Unlike my Dad, I’m not much of a diarist, but staying with it brought me closer to his stories and experiences. Each day I wrote, I also researched the references in his diary for that day in 1936: seafaring terms, shipping terms, geography, depression-era tidbits like the origins of paperbacks and stamp collecting, tourist attractions and restaurants and movies the crew went to while ashore in various ports, and so on. What I wound up with was an extensively annotated version of Dad’s diary, along with the photos from his trip. After getting feedback from a couple of friends who are also very good editors, I acknowledged that to interest a publisher in the work I would need to expand what I had into a history of the Canadian merchant marine. But much as I enjoy reading non-fiction, it isn’t a genre I want to write. Another editor and friend suggested using the material to develop a young adult novel about a teen stumbling across the diary and, in reading it, coming to terms with her father’s death. I love that idea and were I a novelist I would no doubt give it a go. In the end I decided that what I had done was something that would interest my family, so I added various anecdotes and photos from Dad’s life after 1936, printed it up and sent it out to them.
From the start of that prose project, I had the idea that it would be fun to open each chapter with a found poem I’d write using words and phrases from that section of Dad’s diary. At first my attempts were dire failures. When I told a friend I was abandoning the idea, her instant response was to urge me to keep at it. The next day I decided to give it one more try, came up with a new approach, and to my surprise the poems began to flow. In a few weeks I had 11 poems I could use as chapter headings so I included them in what I gave my family. I thought that was the end of it … but a few months later more poems came knocking at my door. By the time I finished writing those I had another 11. So I made a little chapbook for friends and family who’d supported me in various ways while I struggled with this project. I thought that was definitely the end of it… until some months later I found myself writing yet more poems. So I put those and the earlier ones together with my favourite photos from Dad’s trip, several prose vignettes taken word for word from his diary, and all the relevant annotations I’d done for the prose project – and sent the whole thing off to Randal Macnair at Oolichan. That was a stroke of luck, actually, as he’d told me when I met him at Word on the Street in Vancouver (now called Word Vancouver) that he was interested in publishing books combining poems and photographs and invited me to send him mine. He accepted the manuscript and a couple of years later – his press turned it into a beautiful book.
J: As a poet, you’ve been associated with the labour movement; you edited “Working for a Living”, a special double-issue of Room of One’s Own in 1988; can you tell us how this interest in labour is elucidated in your poetry?
S: In the early 1970s I closely followed what was then the new work-writing movement. Tom Wayman, Helen Potrebenko and others were big influences. A few years later when I decided to give my own writing some serious attention, the first-person world of work and union issues were the subject matter that got me started. Later on, I edited “Working for a Living” (the special issue of Room you mentioned) because I wanted to give more space to women’s work.
When my first book came out a couple of years later, about one-third of the poems had to do with clerical / secretarial work. That theme carried over to a number of poems in my next book, but after that I didn’t return to work-writing until “Waiting for the Albatross”. So in my own writing I’ve gone from contemporary & primarily female workplaces to a 1936 working environment that was entirely male. In both cases the jobs I’ve written about are at or near the bottom of the hierarchy they are part of. As such, the work and those who do it are usually underappreciated, even demeaned. I wanted to show what it’s like to be the people doing the work under those conditions.
J: You are the author of 4 previous collections. In them, we see a slow easing into form; what snagged your interest about form poetry?
S: In the late 1980s, when I was in the Vancouver Industrial Writers Union, Kirsten Emmott brought a pantoum she’d written to one of our meetings. That was my introduction to a whole new world of forms. Until then, I was aware of English and Italian sonnets, stanza poems, haiku… but not a lot else. (Like most people I was familiar with a few poems written in other forms but I’d never given a thought to what those forms were. I’m thinking, for example, of John McCrae’s rondeau, “In Flanders Fields” and Dylan Thomas’ villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”.) A couple of years later, I ran across a palindrome by Gudrun Wight in a chapbook published by some Pender Island poets. What hooked me in both these forms was their use of repetition – it became a fascinating and challenging device for my poetry toolbox. So I started looking for more forms featuring repetition. I found lots – triolets, sestinas, sonnet coronas, terzanelles…
This latest book is written almost entirely in forms that feature repetition. I did that intentionally, letting the various forms act as a kind of metaphor for the repetitive routines that dominate life on a freighter.
J: Your second book, Bewildered Rituals, with a Claire Kujundzic cover, was followed by Belonging and Suddenly, So Much. How did each title deepen your poetic experience?
S: I’m not entirely sure anything I might say about this could accurately track what happened, and when, in this regard. So much seems to percolate away somewhere in the subconscious. Certainly with each book I’ve learned more of the craft – discovering various poetic devices and how they work so I can better use them, tweak them, even ignore them. My early poems were often anecdotal and focused on stories whereas later on I became more interested in, as Emily Dickinson would say, writing things “slant”; not to be obscure, but to allow for more ambiguity – which I think is one way we can approach complexity. I talked a bit about this process with respect to my poem “Crows” in a guest blog [insert link: http://ooligan.pdx.edu/sandy-shreve-guest-poet-post/%5D a few years ago. When I wrote that poem (which is in Suddenly, So Much) and, earlier, my poem “Leaving” (in Belonging) I quite consciously made a shift away from direct story and toward suggestion. With both, I began to figure out how to move past anecdote and into something perhaps a bit deeper. Which is not to say I never wrote another anecdotal poem – just that I learned how to do more than that. I think – hope – this kind of learning must be an ongoing process. In large part it’s what keeps writing interesting and challenging for me.
What hasn’t changed a lot for me is subject matter. Whether I’m writing about the historical or the contemporary, I continue to be interested in the everyday, the lives led by so-called ordinary people. And small-p politics: matters of ethics and justice. And nature – always, nature.
J: You started BC’s Poetry in Transit program in the 90s, a program that has made many poets and transit riders very happy. It’s a wonderful legacy that’s been recognized recently with a location on Alan Twigg’s Literary Map of BC [insert link: http://www.literarymapofbc.ca/]. What can you tell us about this project?
S: First of all, I’m deeply honoured and pleased about being included on that map. And I am especially proud that – unlike most (maybe all) other similar programs, BC’s is province-wide, rather than limited to just one major urban area. I’m also proud that ours has continued for so long. Really there are two reasons for its longevity. First is its popularity. People still come up and thank me for it – and not just the poets. People who use transit love to have something of substance to read instead of ads. There are lots of stories people tell about finding and reading the poems. One of my all-time favourites is a comment from a woman who said she knows a poem she saw on the bus by heart because she “wrote it down and memorized every word of it.” Another is one about two people who met by discussing one of the poems on a bus… and wound up marrying.
Equally important is the role of the co-sponsors. From the beginning, Margaret Reynolds brought the Association of BC Book Publishers on board (pardon the pun…) as a co-sponsor. And after the first three years when I decided it was time to pass the torch, Margaret and the other staff at the association enthusiastically took over administration of the project and have kept it going all these years. And of course we wouldn’t have the program at all without the ongoing support from BC Transit and Translink. I’d love it if more people would take a moment to let them all know how much having the poems on transit means to them. I think that is key to ensuring the program keeps going.
Anyone who’d like more information about the origins of and responses to Poetry in Transit can check out Fiona Lam’s 2010 article on it in The Tyee – recently re-published on the Brick Books Celebration of Canadian Poetry page (scroll down to #65). [insert link: http://www.brickbooks.ca/category/news/celebrate-canadian-poetry/%5D
J: You are the editor, with poet Kate Braid, of In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry. When you started to explore form poetry for this book, were you surprised by what you found? Is form poetry alive and well in Canada?
S: I wasn’t at all surprised that we found a great many very good form poems from the 1800s and early- to mid-1900s. Or even that a lot of contemporary Canadian poets were still including some form poems in their books. But I was surprised by the large number we received in response to our very limited call for submissions for the first edition. And I was pleasantly surprised by how creatively all Canadian poets – historically and today – approach traditional forms. Most are playful and willing to experiment with the rules to come up with wonderful variations.
Kate and I have just finished a second edition under a slightly revised title: In Fine Form – A Contemporary Look at Canadian Form Poetry. It’s due out this fall with Caitlin Press [insert link: http://caitlin-press.com/]. We’d both been gathering form poems for the past decade and by the time we were ready to start work on this edition we had plenty. Enough that we didn’t put out a call for submissions this time around (though for some new sections, like spoken word, we did ask key people in the field to point us toward poets and poems we should consider). So I’d say form continues to be alive and well in this country.
We’re very excited about this new edition. As I said, it includes a section on spoken word, but there are other new sections, too – found poetry, prose poems, pas de deux and doublets… And this time around we even have a couple of children’s poems. We’ve also added poets and poems to bring the anthology up to date. But as always with anthologies, limited space meant we had to make a lot of painful decisions. We had to take out some of the poems that were in the first edition to make room for the new ones. And we had far more excellent new poems than we could possibly add in. Making these kinds of choices is always really hard.
J: I was thinking recently of Sex, Death and Madness, the group you and I founded with Kate Braid in the early 90s. We had a unique focus, in that instead of workshopping, we only discussed problems, issues and successes within our artistic communities, one month discussing, say, jealousy, and another our artistic legacies. Can you tell readers about this group? Who were the group members?
S: This seems like a question I should be putting to you, since, as I recall, you were the one with idea for the group. I remember we were at a Polestar Press party in the very early 90s. I think that’s where we first met, isn’t it? Anyway, we were talking about this and that, and then you said you wished there were someplace where women artists could talk about being artists. Not to workshop what they were doing, but to support each other in doing it. Kate joined our discussion at some point and said Claire Kujundzic knew a lot about co-counselling, that maybe it would be useful to look into that. So Kate got some information about it and the three of us went to a session run by a woman whose name I forget. But after, when we went for tea to debrief, it turned out it wasn’t quite what any of us wanted. Except it gave us some of the listening tools that we brought to the group we wound up forming. I wrote a brief history about us for ABC BookWorld [insert link: http://www.abcbookworld.com/view_essay.php?id=101%5D which talks about this in more detail.
At first there were just five members – we three along with Claire and Christine Hayvice. Together we decided to invite more women, so very soon Cynthia Flood, Joy Kogawa and Sheila Norgate joined us. Later on, Carmen Rodriguez, Margaret Hollingsworth, Bonnie Klein and Thuong Vuong-Riddick joined the group; then after that, Kath Curran and Tana Runyan.
Was it Joy who came up with our name? It seems to me she was the one who, at the end of one particularly free-wheeling discussion, commented that we’d covered it all: sex, death and madness. We’d been thinking for awhile that we wanted to give our group a name. After that comment, someone – I can’t recall who, can you? – suggested that’s what we should call ourselves. Everyone laughed; then we looked around at each other and I think we all thought, well, why not? So we did.
NB: I remember someone said it at Sheila Norgate’s studio on the corner of Abbott and Pender—and it may well have been Joy. I don’t remember who suggested taking it up, though. A photo collage that I made for Joy at that time is now hanging at Historic Kogawa House, so SDM lingers on with a photo on Kate’s back steps in Burnaby. –Jane Eaton Hamilton
More of the Just
The mother who comforts the tearful child who bloodied her son’s nose.
The estranged friends who get over it.
The citizens of warring countries who refuse to take up arms.
The flash mob dancers.
The driver who screeches to a halt in the crosswalk and blanches.
The estranged friend who calls first and the one who gladly answers.
The teenager who shovels her elderly neighbour’s driveway, anonymously.
The publisher who chooses not to sell to the chains.
The driver who apologizes to the children he just missed.
The ham radio operator who keeps the Morse Code alive.
The husband who reads poetry to his ailing wife.
The publisher who sells, instead, to the staff and the staff, who form a co-op.
The sand artists.
The ones who walk down city streets smiling at strangers.
The husband who doesn’t get the poems, but reads them anyway, beautifully.
The father who teaches the winter sky to his neighbour’s kids.
The mother who comforts her bloodied son without laying blame.
The ones who stop and talk with street people.
The citizens of countries at war who march arm in arm for peace.
after Steven Heighton’s “Some Other Just Ones” and Jorge Luis Borge’s “The Just”
A note about “More of the Just”
Steven Heighton issued a challenge of sorts to poets at a Vancouver reading in February 2011. He was promoting his two latest books – Every Lost Country (a novel) and Patient Frame (poetry). Introducing “Some Other Just Ones”, he explained that it was his response to Jorge Luis Borges’ poem “The Just”, in which Borges portrays a few ordinary people doing ordinary things and ends with the line “These people, without knowing it, are saving the world” (Heighton’s translation). Heighton casually remarked that he assumed all poets would probably want to add to what Borges started. When I got home that night, I re-read both poems and began to think about how I might contribute to the conversation.
Both Borges and Heighton wrote list poems, so I wanted to do the same – but rather than use free verse as they did, I decided on a terzanelle. Using (and slightly tweaking) the line repetition feature of this form, I could introduce some characters in one stanza, then revisit them later. Other characters would be interspersed throughout, appearing just once in the unrepeated lines. My hope is that the form helps create a sense of movement, an ongoing goodness.