“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.

Waiting

I sit on a log at the bay, seek words for a strange and unexpected time. I’ve resisted words until now, words on paper, that is, — real or virtual — for there are many words already. Into a new kind of silence, a constant bustle of noise. It’s like everyone is talking at once. News, zoom meetings, invitations to Ted talks and re-configured choirs and spoken poems, virtual museums to visit, prompts for writing, prompts for art, tips for productivity, soothing reminders that productivity is not required. Words for information, words for grief and uncertainty and craziness.

The daily cacophony of pot-banging and honking and shouting at 7 p.m. seems about the truest we can do, word-wise. And the constant true refrain: we’re in it together.

Except that this is hard to believe. We can’t touch. We veer away from others’ breath. We’re in it together, we say, but each of us is keenly, separately Body now and our individual skin aches for contact and disbelieves assurances of together.

The tide is out. There are people on the mud flats. Putting floaters into distant water. Walking dogs. Everyone careful in their social-distancing zone. I step on to the flats, walk water-ward too. I have new shoes, grey Skechers with pink laces, blissfully comfortable, no breaking-in necessary, and then I notice their imprint in wet black sand and suddenly I notice many marks of other shoes. (Bare feet too). Crisscrosses, vertical lines, circles. Each brand unique. Who knew the underside of shoes had such variety? For a while I am thoroughly absorbed in the moment.

But eventually one needs to find language for the moments we’re in.

Waiting, that’s the word. That’s the sum of it. No wonder it’s hard to read or write with any kind of focus. The kind of waiting you undergo in a waiting room, like maybe the doctor’s office, some place where you have an appointment and you pick up a magazine and browse, listlessly, for you can’t concentrate, you’re alert to your name being called and everything is running late and it’s a watchful waiting laced with anxiety.

For about a week, I wasn’t well. I was afraid then. The inspiration of well people irritated me then. In my fear I wondered what I needed to still do or say. Just in case. Do: nothing. Say: a note in my journal to my children and grandchildren. I’m halfway embarrassed about it now, halfway ashamed. I was tested for Covid. The test was negative. In retrospect, I had an ordinary flu, an ordinary migraine. This time is strange and unexpected and I couldn’t see my ill-health clearly for what it merely was. I was continuously conscious of my breath. All I needed was air in my lungs, and I had it, but what if I lost it?

I’m surprised now how desperate I was over the possibility of not having it. Haven’t I considered myself a person of equanimity?

Waiting. It’s not the present that disappears, but the future. The main question on our lips is when?

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With the granddaughter. Before Covid.

The nine-year-old granddaughter texts: “COVID-19 is a nightmare, it is the worst thing in the world I’ve ever heard of. [Weeping emoji] But I’m somehow surviving it all. [A cluster of happier emojis.]” In her short world, definitely the worst. No school, no playdates. Yes, I say to her, the worst thing in the world.

But I’ve lived longer. I make myself read, make myself think into the past. If the future is failing us, or the assumption, at least, that the future is ours for the taking, perhaps I can be wiser, more robust, about the past. I read Katherine Anne Porter’s novella Pale Horse, Pale Rider, set in the time of the terrible influenza plague after the First World War. I finally read Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, and think, that was worse, a siege so long, and hatred woven into it. Hatred and killing is worse. I have to find my reading among the unread books on my shelves, so I also finally read Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and I’m touched by the old couple Axl and Beatrice and their tender love and the courage it takes to remember. The courageous necessity to remember. 

The lives of we two in our apartment aren’t, ultimately, so very different than before. We haven’t lost jobs, don’t have a house lively with children to teach and console. Nevertheless, we’re in it, we too, even though our skin, scrubbed clean more often than ever before, aches and finds it hard to believe together.

I remember Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl’s words and they orient me: “It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”

And these, encountered in an interview at Paris Review with Marilynne Robinson: “One thing that comes with the [religious] tradition is the idea that you’re always being posed a question: what does God want from this situation? It creates a kind of detachment, but it’s a detachment that brings perception rather than the absence of perception.”

 

 

 

You must take living seriously, he said

Just past the middle of our two-week Turkey tour, we had a day “at leisure” in Antalya, on the Mediterranean Sea. In the morning, H. and I wandered around Old Town, an area of charming narrow streets, ruins, cafes and shops which we entered via Hadrian’s Gate. We came upon a monument–to a Turkish poet. An odd-looking thing, a scroll of words tumbling downward, as I recall, and in relief, a face behind bars. (The photo I took of it seems to have disappeared, though here’s the one I took of the English inscription so I could look him up later.)  Continue reading