Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Sarah Dowling

Share |
Sarah Dowling

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 posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June and July. In this interview, poet Sarah Dowling speaks with students Kate and Solanaa.

Hello Professor Dowling, our names are Kate and Solanaa. We are writers craft students in grade 12. In post-secondary Solanaa is going into Journalism and I am going in to Teaching. Thank you for taking time to answer our questions. Your explanations will be valuable to us and our writing in the future.

I’ve done some research and learned that you are a professor at the University of Washington, where you teach many different classes. As you know teaching and writing are very different. Teaching involves being extremely collaborative, while writing is a sort of independent art. Which do you prefer? Which environment are you more comfortable working in and which one of the two brings you a greater sense of accomplishment and pride and why?

Hi Kate and Solanaa, it’s great to meet you. Thanks for these wonderful questions.

Yes, I teach at the University of Washington, and I do teach a wide variety of classes. It’s true that teaching and writing are very different, but they are also related in the sense that they are both ways to think through complex ideas with other people. In teaching, you think through these ideas with other people in a more immediate, physical sense: you are in the same room, and you are presenting an idea and soliciting discussion, writing, and sometimes even performance that will help people work through it. In writing, as you said, you are often working independently, but you are still working through an idea and (at least for me) you are presenting that idea to other people in such a way that they will see it differently than perhaps they did before. So I think that the process and the techniques are different, but the goal is quite similar in both.

I think I’m equally comfortable in writing and teaching, but they certainly both involve anxieties around self-exposure, being wrong, and so on. In both, you have many opportunities to open yourself up to criticism! This can be very productive, but also scary and embarrassing. I get a sense of accomplishment and pride from both, probably equally.

As I’ve noticed in Birds & Bees you love to use the scheme of repetition and that it is very effective for you for example in “Morning” you repeat “number” from one to twenty nine. Then you continue to use repletion when you say “can you.” What feel do you try and get from it? To me it gives me a sense of familiarity after reading a line multiple times. Why is this a favourite of yours? What are some of your other favourite writing tools to use?

I really like what you said about repetition conveying a sense of familiarity. That was very important to me in writing the “Morning” poem, which will be re-published in a longer form in my book DOWN, which is coming out in the fall. In that poem I wanted to use repetition because the poem is about things we do repeatedly: drinking tea, looking out the window, saying good morning— all these very everyday things that we don’t necessarily think about very much, but that add up to the texture of our lives. These little activities are quite meaningless, they can be happy or sad or neutral or something else entirely, and when you put them all together you get a feeling for what a life is like. I think this is probably true even though they are not the kind of events that we would use if someone asked us to describe ourselves— they seem pretty irrelevant on their own. But that sense of familiarity, or even intimacy, is important. It’s through these little things that we live with other people, and also with ourselves.

Some other things that I do a lot in Birds & Bees and also in my other work include quoting from popular sources (songs, websites, the news), erasures (where I delete part of an existing text), and re-ordering a text (writing it one way, the writing it backwards or in some other direction). These are all techniques that help me to look at language differently, and to think about what’s hidden in plain sight, so to speak.

One thing that really caught my eye while reading Birds & Bees was the poem at the beginning that counted up to one hundred and twenty nine, I found this extremely fascinating and although the poem itself was not self-explanatory I did have my own interpretations of what this poem meant to me, for me i thought of growing up and the different stages of life that we all go through and how are view on things can change so easily as we live longer I was wondering why you chose to open your book with this and also why you chose such a specific number to end it on.

Great question! I love your idea about thinking of the different stages of life and how one’s views can change over time. The choice to end at one hundred and twenty-nine was fairly random: I was trying to follow through certain patterns of repetition, and by the time I got there, I felt as though I had exhausted the possibilities of the material. As I’ve revised this poem I have changed it a lot, and the number that I end on is different in different versions of the poem. But it is always over 100, so I think that your idea of thinking about it as tracing out a person’s lifetime works very well!

I wanted to start Birds & Bees with this poem because it is called “Morning,” and I was thinking about this poem’s repetition as being somewhat meditative. So I was imagining the book as starting in the morning, and as starting with a kind of morning ritual, like drinking tea or coffee. There was a sense of contemplation that interested me, and I wanted to begin with a kind of immersion in a familiar routine. I think you are right that the poem is not self-explanatory— there’s not a “moral of the story” at the end, or anything like that. But I think the things it talks about are pretty uncomplicated and familiar for many people, so it was a way of gently and slowly bringing people into the world of the book.

Another thing I was wondering about is why you chose to format your books the way you do? Birds & Bees is an e-book, yet some of your other poems are in small book forms. Is there a specific reason you chose to do this?

This is such an interesting question! The group of people who published Birds & Bees, the Troll Thread collective, publish all their books online as well as in cheap print-on-demand format. So if you like you can go online and order a book version of Birds & Bees, which is printed without any colours and looks just like the version that you saw and costs about $10 or so. But you can also just download a file of the book for free and store it however you want: on your computer, in a binder, with a clip, whatever. So the book is very easily available and anyone can get their hands on it easily.

Other books like Security Posture are published as small books, like you said, and in some ways they are a lot prettier to look at than Birds & Bees is. But because they are published by very small presses, it can be harder to get a copy of them— the publisher that published Security Posture, Snare Books in Montreal, actually went out of business, so now a different publisher is selling that book, which is Invisible Publishing, in Halifax. So it could be kind of hard to find a copy of that book in a store or even online.

I guess to answer your question a bit more directly, a lot of the decisions about what the books would look like were more the publishers’ decisions than my decisions (or the book designers’ decisions, to be more clear). But I was interested in their decisions and wanted to work with these particular presses and designers because they different ways they make books present different possibilities for how people will access the work. A lot of people who live very far away from me were able to read Birds & Bees within days of its publication because they could get immediate access to it online (and then they could discuss it together on Facebook or over email). With Security Posture, it was distributed differently, in a less immediate way, because it only exists on paper. So each format has different advantages and effects, and it has been interesting for me to experiment with the different possibilities.

This may be too personal of a question but through reading Birds & Bees I couldn’t stop wonder who the “you” and the “Boy” you kept talking about were. Are they meant to be directed towards the reader or are they meant to be directed towards someone or something in your life? Are the “you” and the “Boy” they same person or thing?

This is a great question, and don’t worry, it is not too personal. I wanted both of these words, “you” and “boy” to be relatively open, so that they could be occupied by the reader, especially the “you.” Of course when a text says “you,” we always feel somewhat addressed by that. But I was also interested in the “boy” because it was coming out of some of the song lyrics I was working with, especially Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody.” At one point in the song she says “Oh boy, I been watching you / Like a hawk in the sky that flies / And you were my prey.” I thought that was an interesting (and somewhat creepy) way of telling someone that you’re interested in them. I also think it’s an interesting way of intensifying the metaphors that we typically use when we talk about dating or pursuing someone romantically as a “hunt” or a “chase.” In Aaliyah’s lyrics, she imagines herself as a hawk that is going to swoop down and kill the little mouse— and the little mouse, then, must be her boyfriend! So to me that was kind of funny and very vivid and unusual. It’s also a very empowering image, since it comes from a woman who was apparently quite abused by her partner during her short lifetime.

I was also interested in the “boy” part of that song lyric, though, because this Aaliyah song has been covered by The Gossip, which is a queer band, and in that version of the song it’s less clear whether the word “boy” refers to a “boy” in such a direct way. So even in the song itself, the question you asked about who the “boy” is comes across. I liked the idea of using a word that normally has such a specific meaning about gender (and also about age) in a more open way, where maybe the reader could be the boy, or I could be the boy, or the lover who is being addressed could be called a “boy,” whether they are a boy or not (and in my case, they would not be— I’m married to a woman).

I think that this word opens up nicely because it’s part of that expression “Oh Boy,” which doesn’t have to refer to a boy at all (“We’re going out for ice cream? Oh boy!”). So by keeping it at least sometimes within that expression, but using it a little differently, suddenly being a “boy” is a position, rather than a thing one “really” is— maybe you can be the boy in the book whether you are a boy or not. So we can get a different set of possibilities around who can step into that position. I thought it was exciting to use these words that were not too attached to particular people as a way of talking about love.

With all the amazing work you have done at such a young age I’m sure you have no intentions of stopping now. So where do you see your writing evolving in 10 years? Do you think you will continue with poetry or can you see yourself branching off into the non-fiction or fiction world of things? Do you think you will publish more books?

Ah, Kate and Solanaa, you are too nice!

It’s true, I have no intentions of stopping writing, but I’m also not sure how my work will evolve. I have noticed that each time I finish a large project, I have to re-learn how to write in order to do the next project, so it is hard to predict where I will go next.

I think I will definitely continue to write poetry, as that’s really where my home is in writing. But I have written a little bit of very weird fiction, and I think I will probably do more of that over the next ten years. Last summer I wrote a short story called “March” which will be coming out in Encyclopedia Project, vol. 3, which is a strange and interesting journal of prose and fiction, where all the “entries” (a.k.a. stories or essays) are arranged in alphabetical order, as though they were listings in an encyclopedia. I think that “March” is going to be the entry for either “March” or “Little Women,” since it is partially about the March sisters from the novel Little Women.

As I said earlier, I also have a book of poetry coming out in the fall, DOWN, which will revisit some similar material to what previously appeared in Birds & Bees. So I will keep chipping away at various creative projects. I also write literary criticism, and I am trying to finish up a book about poetry that uses more than one language— wish me luck!

Thank you so much for your very perceptive questions. I had a lot of fun answering them, and I hope that what I’ve said will be helpful to you. Your questions will definitely be helpful to me as I put the finishing touches on my new book, DOWN.

Take care and all the best,

Sarah Dowling is the author of Security Posture, winner of the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Selections from her work appear in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women, and an e-chap, Birds & Bees, recently appeared on TrollThread. Her critical work has appeared in American Quarterly, GLQ, Canadian Literature, Signs and elsewhere. Her second book, DOWN, will be published by Coach House books in fall 2014. Sarah teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics at the University of Washington, Bothell.

Kate is a young girl that is known to be very cat-like. The name Kate was extended from the word Kat. Her parents noticed from a young age that she shared many traits with the cat species. She enjoys lounging around, and getting into mischief in the Toronto Beaches community she grew up in. When she isn’t acting like a cat she likes to feed the economy by shopping and can sometimes be spotted playing her guitar for the birds in the park. Although just a student, Kate has big plans for her life, unfortunately she does not know what they are yet because her cat-like traits overwhelm her.

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

Related reads

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