“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.

My take on “The Tree of Life”

We had just purchased our movie tickets when the matinee audience streamed out of the theatre. Two women accosted us with a warning. “It’s horrible,” they said. “Don’t go.”

I wasn’t entirely surprised at their vehemence, because Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and Jessica Chastain,  has been getting rather strong reactions from critics and audiences alike. Seems it’s one of those movies that folks either hate or love, and can talk about or argue over for hours. At Salon, Andrew O’Hehir called it “pretty much nuts overall, a manic hybrid folly with flashes of brilliance…[but] noble crazy, a miraculous William Butler Yeats kind of crazy…”

It has craziness about it alright. It’s the story — though “story” is a stretch, given its lack of narrative and its non-linearity — of a Texas family with three sons growing up in the 1950s. And the story of creation! We learn early on that the middle son has died and that not a day goes by that oldest son Jack doesn’t think about his brother. Penn doesn’t have much to do in the film, it seems, besides look brooding and unhappy in his world of skyscrapers, but it leads into reflection, through a gorgeous long sequence on the unfolding of the universe, as it were, which leads to Jack’s birth and then into reminiscence on his childhood.

Child actor Hunter McCracken is wonderful in his role as young Jack. This section of the movie depicts the delights of childhood, and also, as Jack grows, loss of innocence. Mother is warm, almost an angel, and Father full of contradictions — loving one moment and brutally demanding the next. We see Jack’s confusion, his growing resistance, his awakening to sexuality. There isn’t much dialogue in the movie, but there are voice-overs, like the mother’s opening words about the “two ways, the way of nature and the way of grace… choose which one you’ll follow… no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end” (which sounds like the biblical Wisdom literature) and whispers against shots of the sky that seem to be prayers: Lord, where were you? and Did you know? and Hear us, Lord and I search for you. This section of the movie ends with the family moving away from their familiar and beloved neighbourhood. The movie segues back to Jack as an adult and into a strange, almost ethereal, coda which may represent a sense of reconciliation with his past. Or may represent something else; I’m just not sure.

The movie is profoundly religious on several levels. It depicts the religious practice of the family, at a baptism, listening to a sermon, speaking prayers at meals and bedtime and church. It also contains many scriptural allusions, including the title, and asks those philosophical questions we ask — of God or life — such as mentioned above. Since the movie opens with a quotation from  Job (38:4,7) — Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation… while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? — it seems to me this ought to be taken as some kind of clue about Malick’s intentions for the movie. Job’s questions about his losses and grief weren’t really answered, and to that extent, it’s fair to speak of God as a disappointment, though in fact God does eventually speak, if from an entirely different perspective.

I make no claims to understand what Malick is really up to with The Tree of Life, but I would certainly like to see the movie again. The emotional effect it had on me was quite unlike that of most movies we see. Generally one experiences in moviegoing an entertainment of some sort, with its release in laughter perhaps, or the vicarious satisfaction of romance or justice, or a takeaway thought to mull over further. This one, however, pulled me open to the core, tense with fear over the father-son relationship, stunned into a sense of worship through the photography and music, frustrated that it was so obvious one minute and obtuse the next, and altogether reeling with the power of it though unable to say exactly why.

If, and when, you’ve seen the movie, what did you think of it?