Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Entitled Interview with Suzanne Buffam

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Suzanne Buffam

The publication of a new Suzanne Buffam collection is a celebration-worthy event for poetry lovers. The Chicago-based, Griffin Prize-nominated poet is part of House of Anansi's powerhouse Spring 2016 line up, with her new collection A Pillow Book.

Witty, dark, and as unsettling and all-encompassing as a sleepless night, the book-length poem touches on privilege, marriage, motherhood, age and more. Buffam's subtly, humour and slyly insightful style is on full display in A Pillow Book, which is presented as a modern riff on an age old Japanese genre.

We're thrilled to have Suzanne on Open Book today as part of our Entitled series, where we ask writers about how they come up with their titles, what a great title ought to do and their own favourite titles.

Suzanne tells us about stealing titles, just what a pillow book is and how a great title is a bit like a magic spell.

Open Book:

Tell us about the title of your newest book and how you came to it.

Suzanne Buffam:

I totally stole the title. It comes from a medieval Japanese text called The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. I’d been enchanted by the notion of a “pillow book” for years without ever feeling the need to read Shonagon’s. Then one night, sleepless mother that I was, I picked it up. I read it on my pillow by the dim light of my headlamp, and began, after months of not writing, to write prose. Once I realized that what I’d been writing all along was a pillow book, the title stuck.

In a sense, the title is purely generic. A “pillow book” is a sort of miscellany, made up of anecdotes, essays, character sketches, descriptions, diary entries, and lists, among other odds and delights not easily reconciled within Western notions of genre. “The quintessential ungenre,” “the formless form,” “the echt-genre,” as recent scholars have called it, the pillow book was, in a sense, the original blog.


What, in your opinion, is most important function of a title?


It should ring in the ear. It should cause the hand, by way of magic, to reach out and open the book.


What is your favourite title that you've ever come up with and why? (For any kind of piece, short or long.)


All my favorite titles are for books I haven’t written yet. I may never write any of them, but on the off chance that I do, I’d better withhold them.


What about your favourite title as a reader, from someone else's work?


Archimedes’ The Sand Reckoner is hard to beat.


Did you consider any other titles for your current book and if so what were they? Why did you decide to go with the title you eventually picked?


It took me a long time to figure out that what I was writing was a pillow book. For a while, I thought it was a talk, and called it “Pillow Talk.” My only real decision in the end was whether or not to include the indefinite article.


What are you working on now?


First grade math.

Suzanne Buffam’s first collection of poetry, Past Imperfect, won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for Poetry and was named a Book of the Year by the Globe and Mail. Her second collection of poetry, The Irrationalist, was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Her work has appeared in international anthologies and publications, including Poetry, Jubilat, Denver Quarterly, Colorado Review, Books in Canada and Breathing Fire: Canada’s New Poets; her poetry has been translated into French, German, Spanish and Slovenian. She lives in Chicago.

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