Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Jenny Sampirisi

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Jenny Sampirisi

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June. In this interview, Malvern Collegiate students Katrin Bell and Mia Shabsove speak with Jenny Sampirisi, author of is/was (Insomniac Press, 2008) and Croak (Coach House Books, 2011).

Katrin Bell & Mia Shabsove:

Hi Jenny, we want to thank you so much for participating in this project. The questions below cover a variety of topics and we can’t wait to receive your responses!


In both your published works, is/was and Croak, there seems to be a certain preoccupation with the anatomy of the body, both of humans, and then in Croak, of frogs. It seems that a lot of your life has been dedicated towards writing and literature, from both your education to various jobs. What aspect of your life influenced your compulsion towards body parts?

Jenny Sampirisi:

It’s hard to say what in my life has led me there. I’m an observer of people. I watch people on subways and I go for long walks where I watch how people move. I’ve always been very attuned to shifts in moods in others and I feel that comes from this observational stance I’ve taken since I was a kid. I’m interested in how the physical body holds/displays/exhibits the internal emotions one experiences in life. There are ways of reading each other that we often dismiss as vague (certain gestures or twitches might reveal a lot about what another is thinking but if you say “You just did a thing with your hand! What did that mean?” The other person will likely just say “What thing? I didn’t do anything!”). With is/was, I’d created characters who were suffering both physically and emotionally. I wanted their bodies to express some of the internal conflict. In writing I find, it’s easy to outright state “He felt shame” but to show how that presents itself physically in the ways one carries themselves, in the ways the body might display that emotion or surprise us as it attempts to mime feeling “fine” or “saving face”, is more difficult. It was very productive for me while I worked through humanizing characters that could easily be dismissed as ugly. And that was also present in Croak. The reading I did for Croak was into frog deformity (frogs are actually deforming all over the globe due to chemical and noise pollution). That was a rich ground for me to explore what a “pollution” might be in both a physical sense and an emotional one. Ultimately, I’m attracted to the ways we convey emotion without stating it outright. In both Croak and is/was I turned the volume up on the body as it went through emotional crisis.


When reading Croak I noticed some stylistic similarities between your work and the work of Samuel Beckett who wrote How It Is. In his play Words and Music, he combined poetry and music to create a lyrical connection between his characters and the audience. You also mentioned that your poem Croak is somewhat like an opera, and has a similar lyrical connection. Are you familiar with his works? And if so, did he influence your own work in any way?


I am familiar with Beckett’s work and did actively engage the texts you mention. I’ve been deeply influenced by Beckett partly because his work offers the hybridity I enjoy. By hybridity I mean in a literary sense. I like works that muck up genre a bit. I like poetic language and I like to see how others have bent the form that can take. Beckett is known as a playwright and as a novelist but I wouldn’t say that either his plays or his novels conform to what we usually expect a play or a novel to be. How It Is, for example is a “novel” but it looks like one long run-on sentence with no punctuation and the entirety of it is manic and repetitious. Words and Music is a radio play and was performed on the BBC with a composer doing instrumentation for the part of “Music” who becomes a character responding to the dialogue and action of the other two characters “Words” and “Croak”. The character Croak in that play helped me form my own book. Croak in that play is a bit of a love-sick brute and that fit well with the themes I was presenting there.



In Croak, the poem or part of the poem on page 78, the page facing “Part Three Limbus” begins with establishing that it is the Girls speaking and then in the ‘stage direction’ it says that the girls are dancing slowly whilst speaking. When you write poems with multiple aspects like this, which parts do you write first? Do you decide on the visual aspect first (dancing girls)? Or the written part? As well, how do you think the fact that they were dancing impacts the words in the poem?


First question: Oh, I do wish I were so methodical as to know whether the chicken comes before the egg! I never do. I’m often zoned out (or in) while writing and it’s like I’m watching it all play out on a movie screen and trying to catch it before the lights go out. Most of the hard decisions about how to craft it come in the editing process. So for many of the scenes, like the one you’re referring to, the stage directions were tweaked, added, or removed later. Mostly, I wrote the “speaking parts” first and added the stage directions in phases. This might sound strange, but for most of the process of writing the book, I didn’t know what the characters were going to say until they said it. As in, I’d zone out for a bit, then look at what had appeared on the page and then I’d see how they moved while they said it. In the case of Croak, I wanted a grotesque cabaret to happen in the reader’s mind, which is a good transition to your second question! Most of the stage directions are pretty impossible to perform. I’ve had dancers work with it, but the idea is that only a transitional body could dance it. As in, a creature with multiple and ever-changing limbs. So I think the stage directions act as an overlay on the speaking parts and serve as a reminder to the reader that the words are pained and difficult to speak, even when they seem joyous.

KB & MS:

Being your two published works so far, is/was and Croak are quite similar in many ways. Though Croak is considered to be a book of poetry and is/was is not, the style is similar and they both feel very personal, probably due to the intimate language used. They are also both in the form of narratives. Why did you decide to make them both stories? Did you find that you preferred using your style to get emotions across through poetry or prose?


Very good question. I can’t escape narrative and yet I often am frustrated by the nature of it as it’s expected to be in literature. We all have stories we tell about our lives and ourselves. If I asked either of you to draw out a timeline of your life, you’d plot it out starting at the left of the line with your beginning (birth) and dotting out significant moments along it until you reached today. The problem of that for me is that it implies we live very linearly. But the present is always, for me anyway, a mashup of the past, the present, and some imagined future. So both Croak< and is/was have been my attempts to complicate narrative, as much as I still want to participate in it. So the short answer to the second question is, yes. I do prefer narrative as a method for showing emotions because it offers me a chance to explore, fully, a complicated present that does include events as they mingle with and revise a history and a future. I rarely write a poem or a piece in isolation. I like a long arc so that I don’t have to tell everything at once or ever. I can layer and build a collage of ideas and emotions that never stay still. And for some reason, to me, that feels honest.


Your prose novel, is/was, is written about a little girl who goes missing. What made you choose this topic to write about? Did this relate to your life in any way?


I grew up in Queensville, Ontario. Most people have never heard of it. It’s a very small, rural town (my school was a one-room schoolhouse with portables attached). When I was two, a girl named Christine Jessop went missing after school one day. The entire town was asked to help search. My mother didn’t have a babysitter (they were all also searching) so she brought me along. I don’t have a memory of this. Four months later Christine was found brutalized and murdered on a dirt path not far from my house. My mother told me years later about taking me on the search and that stuck with me. In many ways the story of Christine pervaded my childhood as a young girl living in a town that had become fearful of what could happen to young girls. That led me to write is/was.


Both of your works follow a similar pattern in the form of storytelling. Though Croak is a book of poetry, the poems are all connected and as whole tell a short narrative. Do you have any books currently in the works or plans for the future? And if so, would you follow a similar layout to your previous works or would you want to try something new?


I’m currently writing a piece that I’m tentatively calling “The Possum Play” or “A System of Objects.” It is similar to Croak in that it is performative and weaves a narrative. But it is also deeper into a dream space than I’ve written before. It’s hard to say what it will be at this stage. There are a lot more poems that look like “poems” in it than in previous work. But, again, I can’t seem to get away from my love/hate relationship with narrative. I feel like I can’t write anything without acknowledging that I’m constructing a narrative, and that the narrative is one among many possibilities of shaping meaning in the world. So the new piece has taken me into a much more surreal space where narrative is both nurtured and thwarted yet again.

Thank you both so much for your questions!

Jenny Sampirisi is the author of two books. is/was (Insomniac Press, 2008) is a novel that explores, through poetic fragments, the impact of a missing girl on a family. Croak (Coach House Books, 2011) is a book of dramatic poetry that features Frogs and Girls slowly evolving into a single creature: the Frogirl. Sampirisi is the 2011 recipient of the KM Hunter Artist Award for Literature. She teaches at Ryerson University.

Katrin Bell is the victim of having an unpronounceable name and is often incorrectly addressed. She likes to stay on top of things, is harshly judgmental and wishes she could control the lives of her friends. She has the tendencies of a serial-traveller and keeps a large map on her wall to plot upcoming adventures. She has done nothing that would be considered noteworthy on a global scale and only sometimes has the intention to do so. She dreams of the time in the near future when she can live in a flat in London, drink tea and have a weiner-dog named Oscar. She grudgingly lives in Toronto.

Mia Shabsove lives in Toronto with her parents, sister, two dogs and one cat. She prides herself on her ability to stay organized while simultaneously maintaining her messy habits. In summer you can find her at the beach passing on her knowledge of beach volleyball to young children. When she is not at the beach you can find her watching all 236 episodes of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. in her bedroom. She is clueless as to what she wishes to do in her future and hopes it will unfold for her before the June 3rd deadline to accept university offers.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page