In celebration of the release of Measures of Astonishment: Poets on Poetry, Jeanelle Mandes from the University of Regina Press sat down with Gregory Scofield, Anne Simpson, Marilyn Bowering and Glen Sorestad, who are four of the 13 contributors from Measures of Astonishment: Poets on Poetry. They talked about the poets’ aspirations, how long they’ve been writing poetry, how they deal with writer’s block, and their upcoming new work.
Our next poet is Anne Simpson. She writes fiction, poetry, and non-fiction which have won her a number of awards. Anne has been a writer-in-residence at libraries and universities across Canada. Find out what Katherine Lawrence, who is an established writer, said to inspire Anne to write the lecture in the Measures of Astonishment book.
How long have you been writing poetry?
Probably longer than I published, a long time, some of it wasn’t ready to be printed. I first published a book of poetry in 2000, so I had been writing poems long before that but I didn’t have a manuscript ready so it was published in 2000. I published four books of poetry altogether since then.
What inspires you to write poetry?
Well it’s not what you think, it’s not necessarily some big event and I think “oh that has potential.” It’s often very small things. It’s usually more than one thing. It might be as simple as a memory and I work with that. … I would say that’s how I usually operate. … my daughter [was] learning about cell divisions in her biology class and we were looking at the textbook and that led to a long poem on cell division and the basic beginnings of life.
Are there are any young poets that inspire you? If so, why?
Very often it’s the people you work with that inspire you because you then get a sense of their work and it can be invigorating to work and learn from them. They’re learning from you as well, it’s very much a conversation that you’re having as much as anything … very often this happens when poets got a sense of what they’re doing. But I remember working with Daniel Scott Tysdal and he’s from Moose Jaw, and he was very experimental. He does so many interesting and unusual things in his poetry that sometimes you wouldn’t think of it as poetry—you think of it more as experiments. He would be, I think in his 30s. I’m always learning from younger writers, there’s no question about that, but I’m also learning from older writers too and certainly dead writers, we all do.
In the lecture you wrote, was there anything that you would like to highlight or elaborate on?
One of the questions I had was: you can write poetry but how does that really relate to being actively involved in the world and how does it relate to being actively involved in your community? For instance, I really mean by that, how do we take this thing we do, we write in any way to the rest of the world. Is it relevant in terms of our actions? And if we’re interested in social justice, which I am, then does it have relevance that way? My question came about because a poet by the name of Katherine Lawrence asked us a question, “what does poetry have to do with community?” At the time she was working with young cancer patients … you can be doing that kind of work. In her case, how does it relate to her case, the daily work, the daily life in the community? Does it connect or doesn’t it? So that led me into the lecture I wrote. So it wasn’t so much poets who inspired me, it was more what it is, this thing that we do, and how is it relevant to the world. And if we feel we need to somehow be connected to act in the world, does that come out in our writing? Then I talked about creative writing programs at Sherbrooke Community Centre in Saskatoon. I was the writer in residence there at the Saskatoon Public Library and I started this program for elders, and their writings were like stories. Many of them really wanted to tell their stories. For me, that was a way of being engaged in the community and it didn’t have a whole lot to do with my own poetry, but it’s because I was versed into writing and teaching writing I could do something like that. The elders gave much back to us and we simply started the program—they were the ones who had the stories to tell. That was really what the question was that lead to the lecture. I wrote it as an essay.
Are there any new publications that you’re currently working on?
I’m working on something; I don’t know what it’ll be called. I’m thinking about what is the self and what happens to that self when you have a disease like Alzheimer’s? What happens then to that concept of self? What happens after someone dies? I think that’s what I’m questioning when I’m writing poems.
How do you deal with writer’s block?
That’s an excellent question because I don’t know if I deal with that well. I don’t know if it’s necessarily blockage, or blocked, but I might be writing and not know why I’m writing. I keep on writing. … I can feel like I’m going down a dead end here, but I guess I have to do it. It’s kind of like you keep writing to figure your way out of the little hole you’ve gotten yourself into. I usually keep writing. But I don’t know where I’m heading. I keep on working at it just like lifting weights or going for a run or whatever discipline people have. Writing is so much the same; you just have to keep doing it.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think I would add I’m really heartened with the writers—the ones that are coming up. I’m so engaged with what it is they’re doing. I think it’ll get more exciting as we go along—diverse voices will be heard. How can that not be exciting? It’s wonderful to think we’ll be hearing from more people and more people from different cultures and backgrounds too. It’s been one-sided I think, and it seems the whole country is opening up now.