An interview with Sandra Ridley by Michael Blouin
Note: this interview was originally solicited by rob mclennan for inclusion in the seventh issue of the online Ottawa poetry pdf journal ottawater (ottawater.com), published in January 2011 and appears with the permission of all participants.
The launch of Michael Blouin's newest book, Wore Down Trust (Pedlar Press), is on April 27th in Ottawa. See the Open Book: Ontario Events page for details.
You've had a good run lately. Co-winner of the bp Nichol Chapbook Award in 2009 (echoing your previous Alfred G. Bailey prize), your first trade book publication (Fallout, Hagios Press), another book in preparation with Pedlar Press as well as some stellar reviews and readings all on top of your current stint as an instructor at Carleton. I suppose my first question might revolve around the issue of finding time for the work. How do you manage that? Do you find that success in the world outside of the world of the writing desk impacts you in any way as a writer?
The question inside your question, in my mind, is what constitutes work. It’s not only hours at the desk. I’m considering work defined in parallel with vocation — as in impulse, inclination and occupation. To be occupied. I’m occupied with writing all the time, with just about everything I’m doing, whether I like it or not, whether others like it or not, whether it’s justifiable or not. Each activity is victual for the process, often to the irk of those close to me. It’s hard to stop thinking about whatever project I’m currently working on, almost impossible to stop and just be. Even moments of respite are productive. They recharge. Writing is more than the physical act of transmuting a word to a substrate, though that renders (some) finality and relief.
As for the impact of success in the world away from the desk? Truthfully, I’m quite wary of anything termed success.
Right, achieving what you set out to achieve often creates a new set of hurdles to overcome as well as the potential for a mindset possibly not conducive to the writing process. Fallout is a collection of poems that has some elements of narrative to it and your forthcoming Pedlar Press book seems to both play with and subvert the concept of narrative structure. I know there’s another manuscript you’re tinkering with that builds something like a narrative through poetry but which leaves much open in that regard for the reader. Do you see this (if I’ve correctly perceived it) as working within a Canadian tradition per se? How do you see your role as a writer in relation to that which has preceded you?
I’ve never been overly concerned with narrative, but more interested in atmosphere or tone, or embodiment of emotion, or its complex of. Lately I’ve been thinking about how writing can enable readers to make associative connections or disconnections in ways that create movement or repositioning.
There may be loose narrative elements in my poems in that many of them are linked and piece together larger wholes. Nothing novel there. There’s lots of space to work within, or extend, in the Canadian long poem or serial poem tradition. I’m happy that Robert Kroetsch and Nicole Brossard have influenced me.
As for subversion, I’m curious about discomfort and silence (as absent information) in a text. I’m after the more suggestive — the déjà vu of story — familiar and unfamiliar, but no story manifest. Poems as wisps or phantasms. Is that subversive?
Would it be possible then to think of your work as a sort of shadow in a sense? I mean the sense that by reading the pieces that make up a book one is left with a whole? Not in the sense that puzzle pieces constitute a complete picture but almost analogous to the Old Testament sense of the presence of God — you will only have a sense of that presence by what it has touched, where it has been, in a sense your pieces add up to a cohesive whole that is not strictly on the page and it is incumbent on the reader to do some of the lifting involved. Your wisps or phantasms seduce the reader into collusion with you. You are, in a very real way, in cahoots. Can you comment then on the reader/writer relationship as collaboration?
Ah, cahoots! Wish that word was used more often, especially in conversations of poetry. I like the idea of collusion as a coming together to play, with a generative attitude. There should be more of that too. Interplay is vital. I don’t believe it’s the poet’s job “to tell” and the poems that excel in only that fail in my mind. There’s no engagement. And accomplice to that, where does passive listening or reading take us? Not very far.
With respect to collaboration, the relationship between the reader and the writer is indirect, with the final text being intermediary. There are great exceptions, including online “live” writing integrating active reader response — the reader becoming writer, the writer becoming reader. Excluding exceptions, there are two acts of direct collaboration then; one of reader and one of writer with a particular text — every poem being a liminal space that both can enter, unbounded. I’m speaking generally here. Not so much a lifting required by reader and writer then, but an openness for gambolling into a textual space, whatever form it might be. Phantasms are threshold creatures.
Ah, gambolling! We are breaking new semantic ground in poetic discourse. Let’s shift from your work to the wider work of poetry at the moment. You’ve reached a certain level of, if we’re not going to use the term success, let’s say achievement, let’s say recognition. I would certainly place you in the ranks of writers who are expanding what is possible. Who currently for you also deserves mention on that list? Who should people read?
I’m slowly reading translations of poems by Paul Celan and Marina Tsvetaeva, each book borrowed from a close friend. I should have read the work of these two before now. Another gut-punch book on my desk these days is james i wanted to ask you by Michael Holmes. As for other writers expanding possibilities? Phil Hall, Nathalie Stephens, Gregory Betts, and to name one from Ottawa, Max Middle. I’d love to see more of Middle’s poems on the page.
It’s not for me to say who people should read, but I will say though that we should be reading as many books as we can, classic and contemporary, and as many literary journals as we can — broad-spectrum. Aside from accessing material via public readings and online publishing, journals are as close as we can get to current. Ah, but the lack of time.
I’ve seen both Max Middle and jwcurry in print lately (which isn’t always easy to find due in large part I believe to author choice) and was knocked out by both. It has been said of your work, specifically in reference to Fallout, but I think equally applicable to a lot of your work, “In her world madness intrudes upon the mundane.” Care to comment?
Yes, Middle and curry both appear in the 2011 Arc Poetry Annual on ekphrasis; a poem by Middle and an interview with curry (in conversation with Michèle Provost) with Grant Wilkins.
Each of our worlds, plural, has a degree of madness and we each respond to it in our own ways, even if through denial. I’m preoccupied by the relationships between doubt and certainty, fear and hope, ruin and decadence, tragedy and ecstasy, taint and shine — not in opposition, but in the nature of their fluid pivots. At what point do we collapse away from joy and into sorrow? I don’t think this collapse can be exactly pinned down, but how is it experienced? What vulgarity and grace manifests in the apocalypse of the personal or individual? I want to keep my attention turned to the (seeming) flaws. There’s beauty there.
Then too, the subtle distinctions between mercy and forgiveness, salvage and rescue — and the assertion of the regenerated self, amidst or post-spectacle. Who witnesses this? How?
Beauty, yes, in the complexity of the flaws — whereas often we are too preoccupied with the beauty that is seemingly inherent in simplicity. I have an ongoing discussion both with my writing students and within my own head, as to the nature of the authorial voice. I heard a radio interview with an author recently in which the host said something along the lines of “Your novel is fiction but it seems to echo much of your own experience — where’s the line?” It struck me as a very tired question, one which is presented to most writers at some point, often multiple times, and so I offer you some variations on the theme; to what degree does the authorial voice you create for your poetry represent a character which you are writing? How does Sandra Ridley inhabit the work? What space is there for her?
Good god, there’s already too much of me in my own life. My work is of me only in that it comes from my hands, my mouth. On the whole, readers will read into poems what they will — amidst that gnawing issue of intentionality — but poems are true in and of themselves. There may be residue of emotional assonance or dissonance in my work, but not much more. At this point, I have no desire to doppelgang a character.
(I’m excluding Fallout here because many of those poems were grounded in family mythology, as a body of stories with elements of implausibility that speak to family origin and history. So, in places, a reader may find some symmetry with my lived experience. Not an approach I take now.)
I write, in part, to create an alternate space where characters will self-configure in the energy or atmosphere. For me, they become part of a poem’s visceral landscape. I research to find my initial waypoint. For instance, first treatments for tuberculosis, doctor-patient dynamics inside sanatoriums, and these days, the social origins of traditional English and Irish folk songs and rhymes.
It is similar for me — my first book of poetry was virtually confessional in nature and I haven’t written poems like that since. But it’s an interesting process of distillation isn’t it, the research? One can spend hours (as I know you do) engaging in research into a time period or a subject matter and what eventually makes its way into the text may be quite a small percentage of that body. The exhumation of that material though can be crucial to the authenticity of the work, the believability of the voice.
There’s been a nattering in the streets of late about e technology and the future of publishing. Many of these discussions seem to come from a place of anxiety and concern over the future of the economics of the trade and for the most part this discussion has seemed stalled at the same point for some time. This concern is quite understandable and is certainly important in the short term but it seems to me that we as a community may to some degree be missing the more important point for writers in what I now firmly believe will be a game changer. It seems to me that what we should be focusing on is how the e book will change not merely the selling of the book but the book itself. I have not been one to enter enthusiastically into this realm but my novel is now an e book and I am doing a lot of my reading on an e reader. I’m finding that the experience is radically different from reading a traditional book and not at all lacking in the ways I imagined it would be, the ways in which I was certain it would be. It’s not particularly popular for a writer to claim this at the moment but I’m finding the e reader to be a very freeing way to experience a book. It’s nothing but words! This excludes some fine elements of book production to be sure, ones that I would hate to see disappear altogether, but surely as writers it’s the words that are our most important element. I also think that we’re missing the boat in the sense that we may be running the risk of limiting ourselves creatively if we don’t perceive the possibilities rather than the limitations of the technology. I remember those who, in 1996 or so, were heard to say “This music downloading will never really catch on, people still want a physical record or a disk….”
How do you see technology such as this in relation to poetry? Does it have any bearing on what you do or how you see yourself in relation to an audience?
Reading is an act of the body — the experience is not just about the words — it’s completely sensorial. Obviously, ebooks and books are completely different media, so our physical and emotional responses to them would be noticeably different. People listening to music hear a shift in quality when it comes to listening live versus vinyl versus CD or other digitized file. What’s transferred? What is the integrity of that transference? What’s degraded? What’s lost? With an e-reader, I as a reader would miss turning the pages. I would miss the smell of ink and the tactile run of grain or gloss under my fingers. The give of a book’s binding. Each book held in its own way by the hands.
But you were asking your question with the parameter of me as writer. I don’t imagine an e-reader would open up a larger audience for my work in a noticeable way. I’m talking numbers. The readership of poetry is very small. Within that, my readership is barely negligible. I don’t expect to be writing any poems in the e-reader in mind.
As for the possibilities for poetry and an e-reader? Well, assuming awful Billy Collins kinks like split lines and broken stanzas can be ironed out, an e-reader could become adaptive technology for accessibility — for instance, for the visually impaired, the capacity to increase the font to a desired size without affecting the poem’s form. But I don’t think any e-reader is there yet. There are also possibilities for multi-media embedded content and external links to wherever, if the tech isn’t doing that already; however, with either of those, the poem itself becomes one aspect of many and loses primacy.
I guess one of the aspects I’m seeing as less of a problem than I had anticipated for myself as a reader is the absence of the other sensory experiences you mention. It is lovely to hold a work of art in your hands in book form but consider also the book which may not have had the luxury of artful production. E-readers put the text of an author with a high end, well designed book with superior paper and flyleafs etc ( and the requisite funding ) on a level field with that of an author who has a limited print run by the cheapest possible means. I suppose I’m also unmoved by those who want the whole experience of a Miles Davis recording, for example, to include the shine and smell of the wax record, the liner notes and album cover, the look of the label as it spins on the turntable… well I’m reasonably certain that none of that (aside from the album art possibly) was of much importance to Davis. I think he wanted the music to be about what happens in the head for the listener.
There is a loss of quality in an mp3 file (as I understand it) but you can’t convince me that the same holds true for the printed word, whether it’s printed in ink or pixels seems largely irrelevant. I would lament the tactile experience of the well made paper book yes, but I often feel we’re standing in front of a hurtling locomotive wondering if its wheels are aesthetically pleasing. It won’t matter as much when we’re under them. I knew we’d largely disagree on this. What fun!
Who doesn’t love being railroaded.
There’s nothing like the smell of tar and axle grease. Where do you see yourself headed creatively? Do you think ahead like that for your work? Does the work lead you? What projects are you working on now?
I’m part of a few collaborative poetry projects of radically different types and at different stages of completion. My second manuscript, Post-Apothecary, is in desperate need of revisions. And The Counting House, a series of linked long poems, is still deep in the foundry.
Typically, images lead me — an image leading to a subject leading to a textual form.
I don’t want to feel too secure in whatever I’m doing. Surely, complacency is asphyxiating. I’d always like to be risking something in my writing — risky for me — by confronting discomfort in some way. Being open to not-me styles and approaches is one of the best ways for me to learn. I’ve never considered writing prose, so maybe that’s indication I should try.