Five Questions for a GG Nominee

Jason Guriel talks to Robyn Sarah about her first-ever nomination

EARLIER THIS MONTH, Robyn Sarah was nominated for a Governor General's Award in the category of poetry. The nomination, for her book My Shoes Are Killing Me, published by Biblioasis, was Sarah's first in a long career that has included a number of books and prestigious publications in venues like Poetry, The Hudson Review, and The Norton Anthology of Poetry. Partisan recently reviewed My Shoes Are Killing Me and also listed Sarah's 2003 collection A Day's Grace among the best Canadian poetry books. As poet and critic Evan Jones put it, "Who else in Canada writes poetry this way? Full of intimacy and warmth, her poems extend an invitation to the reader." We invited Sarah to answer a few questions.

 Robyn Sarah. Photo credit: D.R. Cowles

Robyn Sarah. Photo credit: D.R. Cowles

JASON GURIEL
How does it feel to be nominated for the GG?

ROBYN SARAH
After more than 30 years of publishing books in Canada and eleven eligible titles in three genres, it was a little surprising. It does feel good. I feel especially happy for my mother, and am glad she has lived to see this. If I had needed high-profile recognition to keep believing in my own work, I would probably have quit writing at least two decades ago. And I'm very aware of the extent to which luck is involved in these things.

GURIEL
You haven't always received a lot of attention in Canada, compared to other writers—and you've often published in American venues, some quite prestigious. Do you feel connected to the Canadian literary world?

SARAH
I feel much more connected to the Canadian literary world than to the American—after all, this is where I live and where all of my books have been published. But in general, I'm not much of a connecter—my writing life has been pretty reclusive. For various reasons I haven’t sought out or taken advantage of the many opportunities Canada has to offer for writers to be around other writers. I mostly just write, and I put manuscripts in envelopes and mail them out to publications I respect, wherever they happen to be.

GURIEL
In addition to this one, which of your books would you like to have seen receive more recognition—and why? I think A Day's Grace is a masterpiece.

SARAH
Thank you for saying that about A Day's Grace. I'm happy that it has finally gone into a second printing as of last year. It’s probably the book closest to my heart (or was until this one, which I think is as good.) The Touchstone, my 1992 New and Selected which reprinted the best of four earlier out-of-print collections, is another I would have liked to reach more readers. It is now itself out of print as well.

GURIEL
Which other Canadian poet deserves more attention?

SARAH
To mention just one, M. Travis Lane—also shortlisted this year for the first time—is a wonderful poet who has been marginalized as an "Atlantic" poet and till now never received the national recognition that should rightfully have been hers long ago. Besides publishing fifteen poetry collections, she has reviewed poetry for The Fiddlehead for half a century, an act of great generosity to her fellow poets. I edited her two most recent collections for Cormorant, and was delighted to see the second one on the shortlist along with my own. 

GURIEL
You edit poetry books for Cormorant. What are you looking for in a novice's manuscript?

SARAH
I look for the same things I would look for in any manuscript—why should I regard a novice's manuscript any differently? I like poems that invite re-reading and reading aloud, that balance sound with sense, and that go beyond mere personal biography or the topicalities of the day to evoke universal human questions and emotions. I am not interested in the trendy. I look for honesty in poetry. I look for language that is original, surprising, playful, yet also disciplined. I look for a distinctive voice, a feel for metaphor, and a sense of form. In short, I look for the same qualities that have allowed great poems to survive centuries and to transcend languages and cultures.

 

JASON GURIEL is co-editor of Partisan. His recent work appears in The New Republic.

ROBYN SARAH's most recent book, My Shoes Are Killing Me (2015), was nominated for the Governor General's Award for Poetry.
 

WHAT TO READ NEXT:  "North American readers are used to hearing about “voice”: i.e. the distinctive persona of the writer as expressed in sentence forms and tonal stylings."