Sarah Pinder answers rob mclennan's Questions

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Sarah Pinder answers rob mclennan's Questions

By rob mclennan

Ottawa writer, editor and publisher rob mclennan is now working on the second series of his 12 or 20 questions and here is his recent interview with Sarah Pinder.

Sarah Pinder is a writer, editor and small press publisher living in Toronto, ON. A zine maker of nearly 10 years, her work has been part of the Distroboto project, and shortlisted for the Montreal Small Press awards, as well as NOW Magazine’s Best of Toronto. Her writing has been published in She’s Shameless, invisible city, Canadian Woman Studies and underCurrents. Once an editor for Existere magazine, Sarah now writes for Broken Pencil. A graduate of McMaster’s Labour Studies MA program, she can talk for a long time about call centres and precarious labour in Northern Ontario. You can visit her website here.

RM:

How did your first chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

SP:

My first ‘chapbook’ was a zine I made in the middle of high school. I had read a tiny sidebar in a Seventeen magazine at the library mentioning Sarah Dyer’s famed Action Girl zine and describing what a zine was. I ripped out the page and kept it with me – I never ordered Action Girl, and had never heard of or seen anything like a zine before, but my immediate thought upon reading the description was ‘I could totally do this.’ Never mind I lived in a town without a copy shop. I made a two page zine called Balance, printed twenty copies on the sly in the school staff room and got it distributed at the local thrift store in town.

It’s been about ten years since that first zine, and I still play around with zine/chapbook work. I really like the design control you get by doing it yourself – I enjoy messing around with graphic design. My zines have become more and more distinct over time, where now I can say I’ve got a specific aesthetic to what I do. I like to make things that are fairly crisp – in contrast to the initial zines I bashed out on a typewriter and collaged around heavily before photocopying.

RM:

How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

SP:

I didn’t really hit on poetry until I was a teen. It sort of culminated in discovering the Beats and Dennis Lee – the former through a friend of one of my parent’s, and the latter through Nightwatch, a collection I stole from my high school’s library. I grew up in a small town in Northern Ontario – so access to new writing, or at least relatively contemporary writing was pretty limited for me. I was really drawn to the sprawl and rambling play of both Ginsberg and Lee. I was also really into Leonard Cohen, at the time. Poetry just seemed a means of speaking to what was happening in my life and hyper-distilling it, trying to find the interesting kernel within the story. I sort of alternated between bleary screeds while trying to figure out my politics (I was a hippie/punk nerd outsider kid and was grappling with the usual ‘being different in a small town’ stuff on top of going through the ‘there’s no god! I’m vegetarian! Fuck Mike Harris!’ stuff) and really calculated, whittled and honed pieces.

RM:

How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

SP:

I have a notebook, and am an avid note keeper on scraps of paper. I post a lot of paper on my wall in front of the desk I work at, with concepts or snippets of phrases to think about. A friend of mine growing up had a wall in his kitchen lined with butcher paper so he could write whatever came to mind when he was hanging out there and have it around to reference visually – I sort of do the equivalent with post it notes.

I find things can both hit me quickly, or come trickling in. I tend to generally be really busy and bite off a lot more than I can chew with paid work and creative projects so it’s not an issue of having ‘quiet time’ for the project to start. Quiet time might be nice, but I’m normally somewhere in a vortex of activity, so I just make space somehow (at the expense of things like sleep or laundry).

RM:

Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

SP:

I chew on ideas for a long time, but writing long pieces is difficult for me. That ends up meaning that I return to ideas a lot in different ways in poems – ‘13 ways of looking at blackbird’ syndrome, I guess. Working on zines allows me to make ‘book length’ thematically linked work on the micro scale.

RM:

Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

SP:

I really like reading aloud, actually. I like to hear how the poems sound, ‘cause that can tell me if they’re flowing well and my phrasing is clear. I’m a recovering academic, so I have the tendency to be long-winded and try to cram a lot into a line. It’s not always clear to me when length or wordiness is counterproductive on the page – reading aloud helps.

RM:

Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

SP:

I have this fixation on truth. I recognize that ‘truth’ is a relative concept, mutable and shifting, but I still end up returning to the idea of transparency and being honest – how people convey truth, what they choose to highlight or leave out. I’m doing a lot of thinking about memory lately, too, and the potential for its absolute loss. I also think a lot about our cultural fixation with the immediate moment. It sounds so arcane to say that digital communication interests me, as though I should be over how altered speech and communication has become with the increasing prevalence of the internet, but I’m still intrigued by it. Quasi-anonymous virtual public space that’s perpetually updated can make people behave very strangely.

RM:

What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

SP:

To remember. To be present and document what is going on around them. To name.
(That all feels so epic and pretentious to write down. I feel cautious.)

RM:

Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

SP:

I find outside editing to be useful, and will often pass work around to writing friends (other writers, editors), as well as folks I’m close to, to get their review and see if things are working. I’m pretty quick about it, too – for better or for worse, I’ll often hit people with a first draft right after I’ve written it, then send different edited iterations out, as they come. I’ve got a short list of folks I can be pretty raw with, and trust to show fresh work to.

RM:

What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

SP:

I need to know who said ‘guilt is a luxury’, ‘cause that’s been a huge motivator for me, and I forget where I first saw it written. I get hung up a lot on guilt and trying to do things ‘right’ politically.... There’s so much mess and terror in the world, so much to get angry about or to yell about – and I want to name it, you know? I have to work really hard at not being didactic, and always struggle with trying to make work that’s topical and invested without being ham-handed. I also get really scared sometimes about speaking about fucked up stuff that happens in the world, like I’m not doing it right, or doing it justice. (I’m still trying to write a poem about this photo I found of girls in a residential school dorm in Northern Ontario that I found at the provincial archives) Thinking about guilt as a privilege prods me to just write – not to ignore those greater concerns, but to say, make the work with them in mind rather than have them stop me from working, with the knowledge that I can edit things into shape or even write multiple iterations that I keep private until I feel I’ve gotten it ‘right’. At the same time, for all the certainty of that last statement, I do hang myself up a lot.

RM:

How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction to essays)? What do you see as the appeal?

SP:

I hated writing fiction for a long time, but am slowly coming around to it. I think it’s important to be able to be flexible – to be able to work in a few genres. I don’t think that means you have to be a superstar at all of them, but it’s useful to be able to write an essay or a story as much as a poem, in terms of commenting on the world around you. I guess coming from a community that wasn’t so open to poetry, I realized early that I should probably be able to say what I wanted to say by other means, as well.

I’m also open to experimentation in other genres, in the ‘why the fuck not?’ vein. A friend sent me a call for submissions for a short play festival a few months ago, so I wrote my first play. It wasn’t easy or pretty to get done, but I treated it like a challenge and did it as an exercise in getting over this block I have in writing dialogue. My fiction is always full of characters who do a lot of seeing and thinking, but not talking! Working in a form that’s normally deeply wedded to talking made me pry my character’s mouths open.

RM:

What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

SP:

Right now, I’m working a lot at a couple paid gigs, and I’m also a grad student again, so I don’t have a set routine for writing. I try to fit it in – I’ll write before bed, or in the morning. Generally, if I’m hacking something out, it’s often at night (as I’m at my job during the day), so I’ll come home, eat, make some tea and retreat into my bedroom or office to get going. Ideally, I’d be writing in the morning– the quiet and solitariness of it is the appeal, as I live with roommates and early mornings are when they’re sleeping, generally. But I make due with the free time I can get right now. I also like to listen to music on repeat when I work. Thankfully, headphones exist.

RM:

When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

SP:

I use found poetry to jog me. I’ll go to the library and sign out a swath of texts in sections I don’t go into too often – there’s science, how-to books, math books, gardening guides, kids reading primers, various reference texts. I’ve also used cookbooks. My most recent found poem zine Do You Like What You See? uses selections from a month’s worth of craigslist dating ads. I’ll just sit with scissors, tape and photocopies on the floor and cut out all the words, then lay them out. It’s less intimidating to make something out of something else, rather than looking at a blank page.

RM:

What fragrance reminds you of home?

SP:

The rotting leaf decay smell of deep fall. Toronto gets it on a rare day, but it’s never as dense as home.

RM:

David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

SP:

There’s textile / sculptural work like Suzen Green’s sweater hybrids, as well as Allyson Mitchell’s giant sasquatches, which are awe-inspiring to see in-person. Nadia Myre’s beaded Indian Act. Kent Monkman and Donigan Cumming’s work – Cumming’s giant collages, in particular. I’ve also followed Helena Kvarnström’s work since I was a teen – she’s begun to experiment with landscape photography in really interesting ways. And Wil Murray’s paintings just sort of explode.

RM:

What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

SP:

Lynda Barry, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, bell hooks, Libby Scheier, Anne Carson, Erin Moure, Dorothy Allison, Jonathan Lethem

RM:

What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

SP:

I’d like to write a full-length play. I’d also like to try a long-form poem – something multi-multi-paged, as opposed to my usual ‘long for me poem’ (2 pages).

RM:

If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

SP:

A potter.

RM:

What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

SP:

You don’t need a lot of equipment. That was useful. And, as someone who’s a terrible debater, I liked having space to get the last word.

RM:

What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

SP:

Sina Queyras’ Expressway is brilliant and beautiful.

The last film that sort of turned me on my ear was Enjoy Poverty, this sort of pseudo-doc by Renzo Martens. My friend and I immediately went to a bar after the screening and practically screamed at each other ‘That man is an asshole! What did I just bear witness to for the past hour? Why am I crying?’. The basic premise being that Martens takes this giant neon ‘enjoy poverty’ sign to various remote locales in Africa, fires up a generator to get it running and just sort of... metaphorically shits on people, giving them a blunt chat to the tune of ‘you’d better enjoy poverty and use it to your advantage, as it’s the only capital you’ve got.’ It’s enraging and stunning and overwhelming all at once. It was a terrible, unethical film, but it seizes you by your collar and just shakes you until you get yelling.

RM:

What are you currently working on?

SP:

Trying to get my zines distroed. Writing some more micro-fiction while trying to figure my way into longer fiction. I did a recent project with a friend, a split short story zine with my story this is plague city. We both wanted to write about H1N1 while the topic was still fresh in people’s minds. I’m still thinking about contagion and obsessive hygiene, though, trying to figure out a new place to go next with those concepts.

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