Profile: Ottawa poet Sandra Ridley

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Sandra Ridley performing at VERSEFest

Ottawa poet Sandra Ridley has accomplished quite a lot over the past couple of years, from the trade collection Fallout (Hagios Press, 2009), which won a Saskatchewan Book Award for Publishing, to the chapbooks Lift: Ghazals for C. (Jackpine, 2008), which co-won the 2009 bpNichol Chapbook Award (shared with Gary Barwin), and Rest Cure (Apt. 9 Press, 2010), as well as collaborating with the writer/publisher jwcurry in a number of his orchestral “Messagio Galore” sound poetry performances and the more recent “Playback” sound poetry group, originally triggered as a response to the work of visual artist Michele Prevost. She won the Alfred G. Bailey Prize for the manuscript “Downwinders” and, this past year, was on the shortlist for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry for a manuscript she collaborated on with the Ottawa poet Amanda Earl, an award she had previously shortlisted for the manuscript “Post-Apothecary.” On top of all that she recently started her second year teaching a poetry writing class at Carleton University, a class that, according to Shayla Brunet of the Local Tourist Ottawa blog, “taught the students how to punch up a piece with sharp sounds and living words, often bringing in guest speakers and even a funky sound poetry group.”

This fall sees the release of that first Robert Kroetsch Award shortlisted title, Ridley's second trade collection, Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press, 2011). Originally self-described in author bios as “always a wheat-farm girl,” Ridley moved from Saskatchewan in the 1980s, “then lived in Toronto while studying at York University. I moved back to Ottawa in 1999 to be closer to my mother.” Given her previous self-description, Ridley responds that, between being an Ottawa or Saskatchewan writer, she remains neither, “though for the most part, I am a writer of place. Everyone breathes their environment in. Our surroundings shape who we are, we take them in, even as we’re moving about.”

There is a long meditative ease and flow in Ridley's poems, something that favours the space of the full-length collection over the limitations of the chapbook, yet something she can manage just as easily in a single prairie line. In a recent interview conducted by Vancouver poet Kevin Spenst, Ridley talks about her larger canvas:

Most of my poems tend toward the serial and editing one affects the content and trajectory of the rest. One poem needs to be considered in the context of what comes before and after, particularly in serial work. Repeating images (or phrases) are okay until the objective eye sees that they can be read as infected with laziness. Also, individual poems taken from a serial often don’t retain the intensity of the whole, on their own. It’s a worry. So, I’ve been thinking about how to condense the serial’s integrity into excerpts. It’s a good thing we each have our heroes (and our agonists). We learn from them. These days I’m rereading Phil Hall’s An Oak Hunch and Nicole Brossard’s Notebook of Roses and Civilization (translated by Erín Moure and Robert Majzels).

Over email, she responds: “Fallout, my first book, is more earnest and pointed, simple story making, and much of it is located in the prairie landscape. Post-Apothecary is more hermetic and rooted in the landscape of the feverish mind. As for new work, I’ve been writing poems in response to artwork by Michele Prevost, and will be also be responding this fall to Pedro Isztin’s new collection of photos 'A study of structure and form of nature.'” In her “12 or 20 questions” interview, she continues:

I’ve been playing with overlaying images and like-minded sound-based words, trying to develop a looser, not quite so linear, narrative. Which seems different to me than earlier work. Less constrained. [...] For me, projects overlap and inform each other. Extend. I’m planning and researching a second one before I’ve finished the first. Ideas tend to come quickly, some workable, most not. But the work also gets stuck quickly too — and first drafts take a very long time. I’m always considering and reconsidering how I can best do what it is I want to do. Second guessing. My new manuscript Post-Apothecary is structured by forays into ideas of sickness, seclusion and disorientation. How can this stuff be represented on the page? Can I write in a way that a reader could feel any of that? Probably not, but I’ll try. And I do take far too many notes.

Meditative, and quietly methodical, Ridley's poetry exists in much the way she exists in person, choosing each word very carefully before it's used. Further in the same interview, she says:

When I was doing research for Post-Apothecary, I snuck into the grounds of Fort San, a TB sanitarium in Saskatchewan, and hung around the abandoned buildings. It’s been closed for years, but, for what’s worth, I tried to experience the environment as much as I could, for the short time I was there. And I went back. Place is important — it sets tone and atmosphere, generates image, and carries its own language. For me, it informs the whole process of writing.

Since Post-Apothecary appeared, Ridley has performed sections of it, as she says, “at John Pigeau’s First Edition Reading Series in Perth, Winnipeg’s Thin Air Writers Festival and Kingston’s WritersFest. On Sunday Oct 23, [I read] with Jennifer Still and Nick Thran at David O’Meara’s Plan 99 Series (in tandem with the Ottawa Writers Festival) and [in] Montreal for the Yellow Door Series on October 27. There’s also a November reading being scheduled for Toronto.”


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011), kate street (Moira, 2011) and 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) (Obvious Epiphanies, 2010), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottwater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com) . He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

Photo of rob mclennan by Christine McNair


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