Peculiar Radiance: An Interview with Sue Sinclair
Sue Sinclair’s latest collection of poetry is Breaker, published by Brick Books and nominated for the Atlantic Poetry Prize and the Pat Lowther Award. Sue is currently critic-in-residence for CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) and is living in Montreal, where she’s practising her wobbly French.
EVENT published one of her poems in 41/2, and Elena E. Johnson was curious to ask her a few questions—about beauty, criticism, her current influences, and the new collection of poems she’s working on at the moment.
EVENT: I was pleased to find one of your poems, “The Dead,” in a recent issue of EVENT (41/2). The poem’s second section begins:
What if the dead don’t leave,
what if instead they’re what orients you, the sixth sense that turns you
this way and that,
tilts your face toward the light? What if they are the light?
That would explain, wouldn’t it,
the strange clarity after someone dies,
the peculiar radiance things acquire, even the least of them,
your loss everywhere transformed…
As a reader, I found this passage especially striking. Did this idea, this question, “What if they are the light?” occur to you before you started to write this poem, or did it emerge as the poem unfolded?
SS: Thanks for asking about an actual poem! As it happens, the question emerged from another question: What is that peculiar radiance things acquire after a loss? What is that vividness? When I thought about it, or rather kept feeling it out, it felt like the light was a kind of inheritance, as though the presence of things were amplified by the presence that had been the beloved. While this may not be objectively what’s going on, there’s a subjective truth there: Something about the loss has truly made other things brighter, sharper, more vivid. It does feel at times like the irreplaceable presence of the beloved has been dispersed among them—that’s how the world actually appears in such moments. It’s a sort of scattering of the ashes.
E: I’ve heard that you’re working toward a PhD in philosophy, focusing on beauty. On the back cover of your second poetry collection, Mortal Arguments (Brick Books, 2003), we find these questions: “What is beauty? Why does it matter to us? How can we allow it to matter when our daily lives are sustained by global violence and injustice?” Are you seeking answers to similar questions now, in your PhD studies and/or in the poems you write? Are these the sorts of questions that led you to focus on beauty as the subject of your studies?
SS: Yes to all those questions. I’ve been confused about beauty for years; it has sometimes seemed a frivolous enjoyment, at times has felt oppressive, and at other times has been life-giving. What to do! I’ve always craved beauty but haven’t been sure how much of a role it should play in my life. So I wonder about it in poetry and I wonder about it in my PhD dissertation. The dissertation focuses on the relations between beauty and ethics, the connection between beauty and a good life. There are various ways of approaching the question, but one that feels meaningful to me sees living well as living beautifully. This depends on a quite old-fashioned understanding of beauty as pertaining to fitting relations of some description. It also depends on seeing living well as a matter of the ongoing work of creating or maintaining fitting relations by paying attention to who and what we live with, and responding appropriately to them. In this sense to live well is to live beautifully—it’s the beauty of call and response. This is not to deny that there are versions of beauty that have been and are used to oppress—as a woman I’m hardly unaware of that—nor to deny the possibilities of a wolf-in-sheep’s clothing kind of beauty, but given that beauty has been dismissed and mistrusted by thinkers in Western culture, I’m interested at the moment in unearthing what it has to offer.
E: Are you working on a new collection of poems at the moment? Is it too soon to tell us a little bit about it?
SS: Nope, not too soon—it’s close to being done. Not surprisingly, beauty is the big theme, and many of the poems come at beauty from different points of view. In the poem you quoted, for instance, I think about a moment when beauty seems out of key; it doesn’t seem right in the moment of mourning—yet it doesn’t feel entirely wrong either. That ambivalence shows that there’s a kind of limitation on beauty, that it sometimes exists in tension with other aspects of our lives. Another poem asks about beauty and utility: Is beauty useless, as in lilies of the field that “toil not neither do they spin,” and is that beyond usefulness part of beauty’s value?
These explorations have been semi-conscious: Poems usually begin with something I experience or witness—like the radiance of things after a loss—and anything like philosophical questions emerges from the depths of that experience. I sometimes wish I weren’t so helpless in this regard, wish I could decide to investigate a particular question and just dig in, but on the other hand, these questions matter because they’re rooted in lived moments, so starting with those moments means that the questions are firmly planted there, where they belong.
E: You were recently selected as the inaugural critic-in-residence with CWILA. What sorts of critical projects are you working on, and what is your approach to literary criticism in general?
SS: CWILA was formed in response to the underrepresentation of women in literary criticism. In 2012 we did a count of reviews both by women and about women’s books in Canada’s major journals, magazines and newspapers, and we found a significant gender imbalance. The critic-in-residence position was formed as part of the effort to redress the balance, and I’m happy to be in that role this year. I hadn’t felt particularly excited about criticism before the CWILA count, but the energy it generated made me wonder why I hadn’t been. Part of the reason was certainly the blood sport attitude of some critics, and those ego-fuelled battles that took/take up so much airspace. For my part, I’ve been aiming to engage with books in a way that is rigorous but considerate; I hope that even when I offer criticism, the sense is that I’m standing with, rather than against, the author. I work to be more description-oriented than verdict-oriented—I want to share with readers my experience of a book, give them a glimpse of what they might find there.
I am primarily addressing first books by women and have also pledged to review at least one book of poetry in translation from a French-Canadian author. Francophone Canadian poetry is a gap in my reading, and I know I’m not the only anglophone poetry reader out there who can say that, so the hope was to help others as I helped myself. As it turns out, the translation I’ve reviewed is of poems by an Innu writer named Joséphine Bacon, who wrote originally in both French and Innu-aimun. Learning about Innu-aimun and the culture from which Bacon’s voice emerged helped me to bridge another gap in my cultural education as a Canadian.
As CIR I’m also facilitating monthly public discussions at the Atwater Poetry Project here in Montreal. Anyone who wants to participate is welcome; we look at a single poem about which I ask some questions, and we think together about how the poem was made, trace out resonances, puzzle over passages. I find this incredibly rewarding. It’s a critical practice that is less formal, more collaborative and more ephemeral than writing book reviews; it’s a little under the radar, but it creates community and enriches our individual readings of the poems.
E: Which poets or books of poetry are an influence or inspiration at the moment? What else is inspiring/influencing your work—or your thinking—at this point in time?
SS: Apart from all the beauty theory, I’m finding A.F. Moritz’s work helpful lately. I’ve always admired his poems, but we were far apart enough in style that they weren’t as directly instructive before as they are now. Some of my poems are getting more discursive and the sentences longer than they have been—perhaps not surprising, since I’ve read and written so much philosophy lately—and his work stands as an example of how to do this well. I’m also working with a slightly more formal tone at times, and I admire his capacity to hit that note without sounding like a stuffed shirt. A couple of years ago I went to a wedding and was quite taken by the officiant’s style: She spoke with enough formality to create a sense of occasion, but with enough humanity that her words felt real. I guess you could call her an influence too!
Elena E. Johnson’s poetry has been nominated for the CBC Literary Awards and the Alfred G. Bailey Prize. Her work has appeared in literary journals across Canada, including The Fiddlehead, ARC and PRISM international. She proofreads and interviews for EVENT.