“Put together”: A conversation with poet Sarah Klassen

Sarah Klassen is a Winnipeg writer, author of eight books of poetry as well as two short story collections and a novel. Her work has won numerous awards, including the Gerald Lampert Award for poetry. She’s also a long-time friend.

The launch of her new book had to be virtual on account of the coronavirus, which also meant I could attend, in spite of now living several provinces apart. And I’m honoured to be a stop on her subsequent “blog tour” with the following conversation we had via Messenger.

Congratulations on “The Tree of Life.” Your 8th book of poetry, and another wonderful collection! Before we talk about it, I’d like to go back to the beginning of your poetry writing, to the when and why.


SK: I started late in life, when I was teaching English language and literature to high school kids. I enjoyed teaching kids to write but was doing no writing myself, apart from lists and occasional letters, ironically. I loved reading and admired good writing, but believed I couldn’t do that. But eventually I wanted to try. I would have preferred writing fiction – short stories – a form I admired, so why did I turn to poetry? Because it was shorter and a poem could fit on one page. That was all I thought I could handle – my work space was cluttered with student assignments, lesson plans, and I thought pages of my own fiction would get lost in the shuffle. This was pre-computer days and I had an electric typewriter with a clumsy correcting device. Once I began writing poetry, I found it engrossing and I was hooked.

Your poetry exhibits close observation and a great love of language. Was that fostered in your home?

SK: I can’t say that it was. I believe we spoke correctly (in German) but ours was a home without books. I was hungry for books and found them in our limited school library where I read and reread indiscriminately. Also, a family we visited had tons of books and I would come home with piles of borrowed books and when I was getting to the end of a pile I’d worry where would my next “fix” come from.

After teaching for many years, what was it like to “become” a writer?

SK: It was sort of thrilling and I knew I wanted to keep on writing. In fact, I took early retirement from teaching in order to have more time to write. Also, when I started writing poetry, I looked differently at teaching it. Kids often complained that they were required to “pull it apart.” I wanted them to like my poetry, not feel it was a “pulling apart” when we studied a poem. I viewed the study of poetry as a process of looking/reading closely to see how it was “put together.”

Put together! I can imagine a few readers here wishing their high school poetry classes had been about that! “The Tree of Life” is a collection about travel/pilgrimage, ancient cities, women, nature, dreams and much more, so I’m wondering how the title, and the striking cover image puts all that together? Or perhaps I could just ask, why that title?

SK: You’re right, the poems go in all directions, so shaping the collection required some maneuvering. Short answer: I liked the title, which seemed a “large” title somehow. In the course of writing the poems, references to the tree of life had occurred here and there and because I like the phrase I considered it for a title. It gradually made sense – roots in the ground (physical) and branches reaching for the heavens (spiritual) and I do aim to write about both those aspects of life.

Yes. And, as you said at the launch, it’s a powerful image that appears at the beginning and the end of the biblical story, and trees figure significantly in the traditions of other cultures as well. This collection has 7 sections. I would love to discuss them all with you, but let’s touch down on just a few. In the section “Rise and Go” I was struck by how the poems work on several planes at once, from pilgrims on their way to Canterbury to 9/11 to current refugees and more. Launch emcee Joanne Epp referred to the sense of “timelessness” this creates. For me it was also a sense of drawing together many people and places from many times, a huge and encompassing view but somehow intimate too.

SK: Tomas Transtromer, Swedish poet, writes that his poems make “sudden connections” between aspects of reality often kept apart. And I think poetry does lend itself to that – making connections, often by making a “leap” from one to the other. This may invite readers to see the one in the light of the other or alongside the other.

Yes. Again, that sense of putting together. Which leads me to a process question. How do poems “happen” for you?

 SK: They happen in the course of life and can come from experience, reading, travel, nature. The first poems in [the section] “Half the Sky” were written for Prairie Fire’s special issue on women’s suffrage. Sometimes I begin on a scrap of paper, and write a few lines or notes. But I always move quickly to my computer where I do the composing, rewriting, editing etc. I can’t imagine writing without this technology but if I had to I guess I could. So if anyone asks, how many drafts, I couldn’t say because I don’t save drafts.

Speaking of “Half the Sky” — it features women: biblical women, Sylvia Plath, Etty Hillesum, as well as your mother, whose stories you’ve told in earlier collections. Tell me about her as a source of your poetry.

SK: My first book of poetry, Journey to Yalta, rose out of stories my mother told and retold me about that trip to Yalta she took with her family because her mother had TB and was going to a sanatorium. I heard that story so many times, and when I began writing, I wanted to write a story about it. But I couldn’t seem to handle a story (as I’ve said) so one day it occurred to me that I should try poetry. So I’m indebted to her for that idea/inspiration. Her stories also found their way into my novel, The Wittenbergs.

The section “Travelling with Children” features children, as the heading indicates. But children appear frequently in the rest of the collection. Why were children so insistent to be here?

SK: That’s a good question. They just seemed to appear.

Children are our future, and right now, with the pandemic, there is so much focus on them, how to keep them safe, how to educate them under the circumstances. I’m certainly not claiming that my poems are prescient in this regard. Also, in my church (and that section “happens” in church) we have very few kids right now and much attention is paid to them, rightly so.

That section is in response to a sermon series. This isn’t the first time you’ve written poems in response to sermons. It makes me think that sermons aren’t enough, that poetry does something they can’t. (Smile emoticon.)

SK: …A poem appeals to the imagination and the emotions and also the intellect, all of which a sermon might do too, but it seems as if a poem with its tight structure and its imagery and rhythm and resonances is the shortest way right into the heart.

I agree. — At your launch, you quoted someone to the effect that a good poem makes you want to read it again and also to write poetry. Do you have poets you return to in particular?

SK: I have most of Margaret Avison’s books and admire her writing very much. The late Jane Kenyon’s work is very moving. Lately I returned to Tracy K. Smith’s fine tribute to her father in Life on Mars. And Christian Wiman.

Oh yes. Which reminds me of Tracy Smith’s wonderful memoir of her mother, Ordinary Light.

SK: Yes, I read that too.

Although pilgrimage/journey figure throughout these poems, there’s a keen awareness of destination. A reaching, like the tree towards the heavens. You’ve declared that this is your last book of poetry and I know you’re well into your 80s. Do you see the collection as a kind of summing up? Of a life rooted in the world and rooted in faith but yearning into completion?

This pandemic has required all of us to let go or give up so many things, at least for the time being. It’s made us take stock. At least it’s done that for me. I wrote all the poems before the pandemic, and I can’t say that I was thinking deeply about completion (other than completing the manuscript). What I was aiming for was to make it as good as I could. And maybe I’ve come to the point where I can no longer hope that I can improve or do better next time round and there’s no point in going on and on.

I think of my years of writing as very fulfilling years. Writing is a gift that was given to me. A gift for which I’m grateful. I don’t plan to publish another poetry collection, but I likely won’t stop writing poems.

No, I don’t think you’ll be able to! You’re still hooked! I do love this book, Sarah, and recommend it. And I wish you well and thank you for the conversation.

Note: “The Tree of Life” can be purchased through your local bookstore, Turnstone Press, Amazon, etc.

The Margaret Laurence project

In blog-as-confessional mode today: it’s always gratifying to signal what’s been accomplished, but less gratifying to consider what was begun in high spirits and never completed.

In terms of the done, I refer to items along the right aisle of this site, where I’ve just updated “Recent essays and stories.” I was pleased that “Burial Grounds” found a home in the latest Prairie Fire. This piece grew out of concerns, when we first moved from Manitoba to British Columbia, about where I would be buried someday. All those years in Winnipeg, I’d had my eye on the beautiful Elmwood Cemetery and now we’d left it behind. (I know, I know, I worry about odd things.) I was delighted that The New Quarterly took “On the Memory Set,” a reflection launched by once trying to write a play. And, most recently, a review of Cameron Dueck’s fine book, Menno Moto, at Mennonite Historian (pg.11.)

Margaret Laurence

But the unfinished, the abandoned! Some time ago I made a list of these and it wasn’t short. This morning, needing a binder, I emptied accumulated notes for my Year of Reading Margaret Laurence project (2019), which I referenced back in December. Of four formidable women writers who shaped my sense of Canadian writing — Margaret Laurence, Mavis Gallant, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields — it’s Margaret Laurence to whom I’m most drawn. I suppose I dreamed of one of those “annualist” manuscripts, even though I find them somewhat pretentious.

I glanced through the notes, remembered how much I enjoyed reading Laurence’s African stories for the first time and two collections of her correspondence (with publisher Jack McClelland, with friend Adele Wiseman), as well as re-reading some of her novels. I also read James King’s slightly irritating biography of Laurence. I noticed in the notes that I wondered whether she would have liked me. (Another odd worry, I know.) She didn’t suffer fools gladly, as her letters attest. It was the question of my own identity as writer, I think; a hope for resonance. But it’s the stories, not the personality, that remains. Their passion, their language. (Just one image from a story in The Tomorrow Tamer, by way of illustration: “the children darted, velvety with dust.” Which makes me ache with pleasure.)

While my admiration for Margaret Laurence’s work was affirmed, I lost interest in continuing the project. But if there’s not enough wool for a blanket, I offer a narrow scarf, namely encouragement to read, or re-read, Margaret Laurence. She’s worth it. Still, and again.


Listening to a book

This week, beguiled by the offer of 10 Giller-winner titles FREE from Audible.ca and feeling the need to try something new during Covid-19 isolation, I downloaded Sean Michael’s Us Conductors and proceeded to listen to the book, all 11 hours 21 minutes of it.

I know I’m coming to audio books late; all of you have probably listened to dozens of them while running, walking, knitting, driving, whatever it is you do while listening to books. But indulge me please, because the experience was new and I’m still thinking about it, both the novel and the fact of listening to instead of reading it.

152EACD2-CE40-49EF-B04C-21149F599CDD_4_5005_cThe book is based on the life of Russian scientist Lev Termen, who invented the theremin, a musical instrument played without physical contact by the performer, except for contact with the invisible electric waves or whatever. (Watch the inventor play it here.) That might sound boring, but it’s a love story too, and a spy story, and a story of being in New York in the jazz age and in the Soviet Gulag. The fictional Termen, who narrates, speaks crisply like a scientist but observes and describes like a psychologist and poet. It’s quite wonderful.

At first I didn’t like listening. I was afraid I was missing something by not seeing the words. I actually own the print version, just hadn’t gotten to it yet, so for a while I followed along in the book. But that seemed silly. One or the other, I told myself. Listening, I could follow easily enough but when I stopped I didn’t feel as if I knew where I was, as if I’d been looking down at the path through a forest instead of around me the way I do when tracking text with my eyes.

Then I decided to work on a jigsaw puzzle at the same time, which ironically focussed my listening concentration and then I listened and listened and the hours advanced, and I was there, in Termen’s America and ship cabin and Kolyma and Moscow. I was there the whole time and I heard Termen telling his story and I still feel affected by where I’ve been and what I’ve heard.

Some time ago a friend who listened to a book club’s selection asked me if I thought that “counted.” I said Yes. I would still say Yes. As far as retention goes, I feel I know the book as well as if I’d read it. The content is the same. Nevertheless, I’m puzzling over Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” and wondering how to articulate the difference. Because it is different. Hearing the book felt intimate, unsteady in some way. It seemed to add a layer of vulnerability, as if another’s voice into my ear, instead of my eyes and personal voice of my mind, both skewed and strengthened perception.

Oddly, I now feel like reading Us Conductors. But why would I? Don’t I know it already? Am I simply looking for familiar ground? At the same time, I feel like listening to another book, to test the book-listening experience again.

Do you listen to rather than read books? What is it like for you?