Of Re-writing, Reclamation, and Unredacting: An Interview with Sue Goyette

by Annick MacAskill

Annick MacAskill’s poems have appeared in journals and anthologies across Canada and abroad, including Arc, Canadian Notes & Queries, The Fiddlehead, Plenitude, The Puritan, Room Magazine, The Stinging Fly, and Best Canadian Poetry 2019. Her debut collection, No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and shortlisted for the J.M. Abraham Award. Her second full-length collection, Murmurations, was published by Gaspereau this spring. Originally from Southwestern Ontario, she now lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. Visit her website at annickmacaskill.com.

I was living in Toronto when I read my first book by Halifax poet Sue Goyette. I found The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl (Gaspereau Press, 2015) while browsing poetry books at the Runnymede branch of the Toronto Public Library in the late winter of 2016. The slim pink volume was easy to spot among the other spines on the shelf.

I went home with a stack of books, but Goyette’s collection is the only one I remember. I read it in one sitting in the grey but bright afternoon light that filtered through the parted panel blinds in my bedroom. Electric and urgent, Goyette’s verse had an unmistakable flow that propelled me through a skillful, sensitive account of child abuse and trauma.

“Electric” and “flow” are two words that came up in the conversation Goyette and I held over email correspondence these past few weeks. I reached out to Goyette in March to interview her about Anthesis, which is her latest poetry collection forthcoming with Gaspereau Press. I had heard Goyette read from and discuss this project at a couple of readings over the past year. In early March, Goyette read from Anthesis at Saint Mary’s University art gallery in Halifax, where I also now live.

There was one line from Anthesis she read that night that I found particularly striking: “His anger grew a side door.” A metaphor that, like much of Goyette’s figurative language, is at once unexpected and immediately evocative, even if something in the logic of the comparison eludes us.

That night, Goyette mentioned that Anthesis is a re-writing of her only novel, Lures (Harper Collins, 2002), shortlisted for the 2003 Thomas Head Raddall Award. I was intrigued, and wondered how Anthesis might be similar (and different) to Goyette’s 2017 collection Penelope, itself a re-writing of Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of the protagonist’s wife. In our conversation, I asked Goyette about these acts of re-writing, her striking figurative language, her consideration of the “domestic” sphere in her books, and her thoughts on poetic voice and form.

This interview was conducted over email between March 28 and April 21.


Annick MacAskill: Your two most recent books take the shape of re-writings—one, Penelope (Gaspereau Press, 2017), of Homer’s Odyssey, the other, Anthesis (Gaspereau Press, 2020), of your own novel Lures (Harper Collins, 2002). Did something motivate this turn to re-telling stories? 

Sue Goyette: Though my last two books share the shape of adaptation or reclamation, the impetus for each was different. Or, at least, still feels different.

I returned to the Odyssey during a time where I felt like I was in the thralls of a modern version of an epic in which I wasn’t at its centre but the person waiting at home for it to be over. What struck me rereading Homer’s poem was how redacted Penelope was. How her waiting was an aside when, in truth, waiting, in my experience, is its own epic and one that is so often taken for granted. I found waiting to be an active experience; I was alert to any shift, any change, any development. I was hyper-vigilant, attending to the nth. This state comes with its own challenges and, at the time, I was hungry or lonely for that version. I realized I wanted Penelope’s company more than Odysseus’ and wrote Penelope to satiate or accompany my experience because I wouldn’t have her company otherwise.

Reclaiming the girl I had been from my novel was more a quest that therapy sent me on. I was learning how creating a narrative to navigate difficulty or trauma makes legible a version that relieved me of truly grieving some of my early experiences. Anthesis is a long poem that silences that story to make room for the girl I was (and for the grief I needed to process). The process created space for her, for her own version that disrupts the linearity of narrative for a more authentic/wild cohesion of her choosing.

Anthesis is a long poem that silences that story to make room for the girl I was (and for the grief I needed to process). The process created space for her, for her own version that disrupts the linearity of narrative for a more authentic/wild cohesion of her choosing.

The work of reclamation and of unredacting were, for me, about centring voices that had been silenced, so perhaps hearing those voices was the starting point that the collections have in common.

Annick MacAskill:: What was the process for these two books like? Did you notice any differences in re-telling your own story as opposed to an ancient, canonical myth?

Sue Goyette: The writing of both required an initial relinquishing of a plan. Both engaged with risk and vulnerability but for different reasons. Writing Penelope meant disrupting or aerating a canonical myth to create space for a silent voice to flourish. I resisted the form the poem was manifesting at first—the repetitive structure of wake / asked / reply / dutifully / loss—until I realized how it was a kind of loom and was enacting or replicating the weaving Penelope had done by casting each day as something she created and then undid. Once I crossed over the threshold of this resistance and remembered how to participate in the poem’s emergence, well, then the vitality of its manifestation made its own way.

This practice of letting go that Cy Twombly considers the sensation of its own realization (“its” being the drawn line, or in this case, the line complicated into words) was also an important method of engagement for Anthesis so the two poems share a way of becoming/being. My relationship to the words in Anthesis, words that had already been cast, is different to my relationship to the way the words emerged for Penelope, if that makes sense.

AM: Can you describe the process you used for transforming Lures into Anthesis?

SG: Without realizing it, I was preparing for the reclamation/recovery work of Anthesis when I began visiting an agave plant in the Halifax Public Gardens every day for the duration of its blooming a couple of summers ago. It was a pedagogical experience for me, witnessing this plant become itself as I was doing similar work in therapy, so I felt a kinship with it. I was working with early trauma and its consequences at the time. During the same summer, J35, a Pacific Northwest orca had been swimming with her dead calf for over 17 days, an unheard of length of time, about a 1,000 miles off the Pacific Northwest coast. This behaviour also felt akin somehow; the orca’s show of grief proved to be a tuning fork for how I was feeling and provided a direction I could swim to in my own silence. I was also interested in how J35’s pod took turns swimming with her dead calf to relieve her of her vigil. I wondered what I could learn from this. What would navigating by my emotional intelligence of this experience look like and legitimize? What meaning-making would this process create? And what kind of work would it produce? And how might learning with the orca shape a private and then a feminist collective response to (public) trauma and grieving? In its way, this poem is a public response to these private questions. And considering J35 and community trauma and grieving prompted me to consider publishing this work.

I set out with the novel and read each word rather than letting myself become caught in the current/syntax of it. I was more interested in disrupting that narrative, its normative and confining telling, for a more authentic and wild version that honoured the girl I was. I committed to align the work with the 17 days of swimming J35 did by casting the poem out for 17 pages. Three stanzas per page. But the work was so immersive, so potent for me personally, that I had to give that idea up in order to stay with it. Remarkably, the last word that presented itself did land at the end of the third stanza on the 17th page. After living with the work for a few weeks, I decided that three stanzas on a page was too intense. Each needed more space to wild so they each got their own page/space.

AM: I think you’ve just come pretty close to answering my next question, but I’ll ask it anyway—the title of your new book is a botanical term for the period in which a flower expands, or the very expansion itself. What made you choose this title?

SG: I’m enamoured/inspired by how we are constantly emerging into who and how we are. And how botanical terms serve this manifesting. I’m also really interested in replacing a pathologized/patriarchal/capitalist vocabulary for a greener one. The word anthesis also relates to how this poem is part of my thesis and, in its way, disrupts the institutional lexicon for a pedagogy of blooming.

I’m enamoured/inspired by how we are constantly emerging into who and how we are. And how botanical terms serve this manifesting.

AM: Reading Anthesis, I was struck by the focus on the space of the house/family home. The collection’s narrative concentrates on a family and a relatively young (at least at the outset) girl, of course, but beyond this, I noticed that many of the metaphors reinforce the home as a reference point—the mother is “the teapot, still on the table,” for example. And yet, obviously, something quite enormous is at stake. In this, the book recalls your Penelope, where an ancient, grand epic is recast through the eyes of a wife who remains waiting at home. Over the course of your career, you’ve frequently been referred to as a poet of the “domestic,” and I love the way you repeatedly insist, in your writing, on the importance of this space, which has traditionally been gendered as female. Can you comment on this? 

SG: I’m struck by how it feels as though something enormous is always at stake. Especially now, during this particular time on the planet. You’re right, the idea of the domestic has been considered traditional(ly) and gendered. When I think about how much is sown in that roofed space and how much wildness lives within walls calling out to the bigger wildness outside, “domestic” is not the word that comes to my mind. Also, I resist the idea of the safety that is implied in “domestic.” I guess I generally resist binaries and labels or words that somehow try to coalesce what a particular art is doing. I’m much more interested in the more expansive how and the why of it, how it’s thinking itself into being and why it’s making the moves, the reach it is making.

… the idea of the domestic has been considered traditional(ly) and gendered. When I think about how much is sown in that roofed space and how much wildness lives within walls calling out to the bigger wildness outside, “domestic” is not the word that comes to my mind.

AM: Oh, I just love this point about the illusion of safety in the “domestic”—thank you for this. The resistance is so important.

SG: I’m also thinking how the domestic narrative is a patriarchal and normalized way of meaning making. Disrupting that way of telling seems important as well.

AM: There’s a cohesion to all of your collections, but your most recent books, starting with Ocean, are particularly focused in their themes and voice—they read like concentrated, extended projects, where it would be difficult to consider any poem outside of its place in the collection. With Anthesis, it seems you’ve taken this cohesion even further; you describe the book as a single poem in your introduction. Did you think about this book as one long poem while you were writing it, or did that distinction come later? 

SG: There is something about deepening and lengthening my engagement that I feel immensely and potently engaged by. This poem definitely manifested like lava, like a force and species of telling that doesn’t align with conventional narrative or conventional syntax. It felt like it was asserting/reclaiming authenticity and wildness. The better I get to know it, the more I understand how this work recovers and redeems my sense of self and how crucial that feels to my healing. I’m also understanding how this micro version can serve the macro. How personally engaging with trauma as an opportunity for growth and connection may inform a way of engaging with community trauma and pain and that there are commonalities. Here I’m thinking of poet Edward Hirsch’s immense intimacy and intimate immensity as a way of describing some of this work that poetry can do. How healing, in this case, and for me, invokes and prepares me for vulnerability and for generosity. The poem is also temporally fluid which was interesting to go along with.

And it hijacked pronouns and skinned the she to a barer version than I’m used to while ruffling all the words so they act a little verbier.

AM: You’ve already mentioned poetic form and use of space in Anthesis, in which each stanza is allotted its own page. I also noted that these stanzas often end in the middle of a thought, with lines enjambed onto the next page. This starts to happen a few pages into the collection. Can you speak to your motivation for introducing this kind of radical enjambment?

SG: I’m interested in how that radical enjambment engages or considers preconceived ideas of cohesion/narrative by perforating the syntax. And how those perforations disrupt the more conventional and expected end stop by enacting the pauses that hard situations are replete with. The anticipatory meaning making and vigilance that is so true of trauma is replicated in a way by the silence and space on each page. That silence is no small thing when self-preservation is being acutely challenged. It’s where dignity and courage can be replenished and it can be a cave for big fear and aloneness. How that space is occupied is crucial, I think, and can be full of potential. 

That silence is no small thing when self-preservation is being acutely challenged. It’s where dignity and courage can be replenished and it can be a cave for big fear and aloneness.

AM: About halfway through the book, your speaker comments “Memory was / electric.” There is an electric feel to this collection, which also repeats the word “electric” several times. What kind of electricity were you trying to communicate with this book?

SG: A couple of things come to mind thinking about this. The circuitry of memory, for one: the original experience that the memory is plugged into and how, from there, it wires a power/energy that moves and connects and alights and fuses and extends and motors in a way that is temporally fluid and performative. Another is the actual force of the flow—the sap, Virginia Woolf would say—the current in the wiring, in the words, how memory is remembered/relayed and the voltage of that remembering. As well as how the charged particles of words create their own dynamism, their own network or current that manifests form and meaning/logic/framework of the poem.

AM: What writers feel electric to you? 

SG: Lorca, C.D. Wright, Alice Notley, Virginia Woolf. If I can widen the question, I’d add Diane Arbus, Cy Twombly, Agnes Martin, Jenny Holzer, Amy Winehouse, Prince, John Coltrane, Pina Bausch, Theo Jansen, dahlias and zinnias, palm trees, pine cones, the Atlantic-this list feels like it’s just beginning to simmer, and is just the start of naming an expansive collective/collaboration/company that recharges me. Mostly anyone or thing or creature or contraption that is coming to be by aligning with the sensation of its own realization, as Twombly described; emergent and aligned with the singular version of itself becoming, relating and interconnecting.

AM: I want to shift to a more general question about your poetry, which touches on something you’ve already mentioned in this discussion of Anthesis—pronouns/voice. 

I really admire the command of voice and perspective in your books; in addition to the lyric first-person singular, you use the second-person singular address, the narrative and observational mode of the third-person singular and plural (as in Anthesis), but also, on occasion (in Outskirts and Ocean, for example), the first-person plural (“we” and “our”), which is a different kind of lyric mode, and one that’s not terribly common in contemporary poetry. How do you choose the voice you write in? What differences do you notice when you shift perspectives?

SG: Situating perspective seems a crucial first step on the journey of writing whatever. And the experience is always surprising. The first-person plural, for example, felt invitational in the writing as if the “we” and “our” are conditional on the reader’s consent. In other words, it felt important for there to be a way for readers to not align with this perspective but watch it unroll nonetheless if they chose. This “we” positioned itself behind or beside me and didn’t presume the reader’s company. It was as if I was writing in the company of people, whether they were ancestors or contemporary or both, who had already acquiesced to this way of thinking/being and were extending an invitation to the reader to join us, or to consider this way of being. Which sounds pretty strange writing the feeling out now. I was also struck by how first-person the “she” in Anthesis feels. How it feels like an upholstered “I”—and how its politics and position wants the fur, the armadillo-ed addition of the letters s, h, e, to cover the “I” at the heart of her. 

I was also struck by how first-person the ‘she’ in Anthesis feels. How it feels like an upholstered ‘I’—and how its politics and position wants the fur, the armadillo-ed addition of the letters s, h, e, to cover the ‘I’ at the heart of her.

I guess the lighting of each position is different and extends its own version of request. And each perspective takes its own singular amount of space. First person, for example, can get a little self-absorbed though I am besotted by how Eliza Griswold is using first-person in her latest collection: her I is-ing really shocks me into thinking of new syntaxes and voice in this era of plenty-of-“I”s.

Once the right perspective asserts itself and once I choose to trust it, the flow/force of the writing quickens as if it has been claimed which is a righteous feeling, I think, and related to the true seeing Oppen refers to as an act of love.

AM: I wonder if there are other similarly significant early decisions you find yourself making in your poetry. In other words, are there choices you make at the beginning of a project besides perspective/voice that you find determine the “flow/force” of your writing? Like the kind of figurative language you set out to use, imagery, setting…?

SG: I listen for the kind of language that’s percolating and the way words want to be strung along to create a meaning I don’t know yet. I have to say, a lot of the writing I do fails and doesn’t see the light of day. Maybe most of it. I sometimes get heavy-handed and drive it into a wall of being too literal, too wordy, too repetitive, too whoo hoo, too Sue, too important, too “meaningful,” too out there, so weird that I’m a little aghast by it and by weird I don’t mean a good weird. I get ready for this failure by lighting it as an attempt, as part of an ongoing practice that I’m choosing to engage with without much invested in an outcome. So one of the early decisions I make is consenting to taking the risk.

AM: I also want to ask you about what you mean specifically by “flow/force”—because what I do find is a real flow, an urgency, a distinct and insistent élan to your writing. 

SG: I think writing that is constructing something as it goes along has a liveliness to it that writing describing something that has a finite shape and sense of time and ending doesn’t necessarily have. Woolf, as I said above, refers to it as the sap. It’s a hard thing to describe because it sort of resists being named but it’s the thing that is surging in poems that are still green, still vital beyond the time they are written in. Some poems remain fresh. As if they’re up to being read again and are at the ready to be revived. The art I lean in to is art that thrums somehow, that is still alive and is waiting for us to find it. But it is really difficult to confine/define this idea of flow/force into words here. So here I am, not being very helpful.

Some poems remain fresh. As if they’re up to being read again and are at the ready to be revived. The art I lean in to is art that thrums somehow, that is still alive and is waiting for us to find it.

AM: Not at all! I find this so helpful. This comment makes me think of the figurative language in Anthesis, which is so suggestive—I’m thinking, for example, of the way you use the colour “green” in the collection (a word you’ve also just used in this response). This word is never strictly well defined, in the sense that it doesn’t limit itself to literal meaning—even when compared to other metaphorical language, it seems there’s an extra leap in the associations being made—but it’s so evocative: a thirst that’s “beginning to look green”; “the green smell of crying”; the girl’s hand, “an emerald green”; and a green that seems to be some sort of force unto itself (“Each green reaching for each other”).

SG: This reminds me of Tranströmer’s so many dialect of green. So many versions of green. Perhaps green is a way of engaging, a way of being that attends to the present as it’s emerging, as it’s greening. And, in this way, attending relates by greening as well. Going along with the green. Whew. Spontaneous and thriving are words that come to mind. Participating and manifesting, a couple of other words. This way of being instigates a vulnerability, I think, for how that engagement isn’t foolproof or knowable. The radical and relational you-be-you-ing.

AM: I’ve probably made it obvious that I quickly saw parallels between your new collection and Penelope. But there’s also a line (and a poem) in your first book, The True Names of Birds, that immediately made me think of Anthesis: “In naming my childhood, I’ve given it a room / to rest in” (“In the Naming”). Do you ever think about your writing, your many books, as one long project or conversation?

SG: Do you think this is true of all of us? Of the trail we are leaving? I’m thinking about how the impact of that realization is a source for an ethical practice and how it also creates a singular integrity that, as an artist, I am always reckoning with. I think the progress of my thinking, of my growing, of how I am becoming is a kind of ecosystem that engages with the time I find myself in, the culture and how that becomes apparent, more cohesive, more legible the more I pay attention to it. This ecosystem could be considered with the same properties as a waterway or a forest, as in it is an organic process, but yes, this is one long something I am attending to and caring for and what a glorious, expansive, evocative, radical experience it is to watch it greening. I feel immensely grateful to be able to do who I am.

agave


Sue Goyette has published five previous collections of poetry, The True Names of Birds, Undone, Outskirts, Ocean (winner of the 2015 Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia Masterworks Arts Award and finalist for the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize) and The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl. She has won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, the Atlantic Poetry Prize, the CBC Literary Prize for Poetry, the Earle Birney Prize, the ReLit Award, and the Bliss Carman Award. Goyette lives in Halifax where she teaches creative writing at Dalhousie University.


Annick MacAskill’s poems have appeared in journals and anthologies across Canada and abroad, including Arc, Canadian Notes & Queries, The Fiddlehead, Plenitude, The Puritan, Room Magazine, The Stinging Fly, and Best Canadian Poetry 2019. Her debut collection, No Meeting Without Body (Gaspereau Press, 2018), was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and shortlisted for the J.M. Abraham Award. Her second full-length collection, Murmurations, was published by Gaspereau this spring. Originally from Southwestern Ontario, she now lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on the ancestral and unceded territory of the Mi’kmaq People. Visit her website at annickmacaskill.com.

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