carte blanche’s Greg Santos interviewed Gillian Sze by e-mail in April 2012.
cb: What drew you to poetry in the first place?
Sze: I would say that it was the combination of black marks and white space. I still find the form arresting at a very fundamental aesthetic level: how a poem looks at first sight, the leaps from line to line, the breaks, the position of words.
You’re originally from Winnipeg but currently live in Montreal where you’re pursuing a PhD. How does place influence your writing?
Any creative act requires one to be open to everything: the sounds, the smells, your fellow drifters, and no doubt the surroundings. Place is just another opportunity for catching moments and affects: to feel dislocated, or at home, or nostalgic. I needed to carry the idea of my Winnipeg in order to write about home – and I also needed to leave it.
In my first collection, the spectacular space of the museum and art gallery dictated the ekphrastic mode of Fish Bones. I would say that place is more palpably felt in The Anatomy of Clay, where everyone in the urban landscape (recognizably Montreal and Toronto) is a spectacle.
The poems in your first full-length poetry collection, Fish Bones, were ekphrastic pieces sparked by visual art. You are also the co-editor of Branch Magazine, a national magazine devoted to showcasing both literary and visual arts. Can you discuss your interest in combining the different art forms?
In general, I like leaps between forms and genres. In my final year in high school, my calculus teacher allowed us to do a final project where we approached any math topic of our choice in any way we chose. So I went down to the art room and worked on a painting of the Archimedean spiral. But an interest in the combination between the textual and visual started, I would say, as early as children’s books. It’s a visible engagement with language that I think gets lost when we grow up and start reading novels that have no pictures. The visual seems to be a natural place to turn in poetry.
Fish Bones was a delight to write as a creative thesis – there was no way of getting bored, no way of exhausting the method when there was always a new art piece with which to start, always a different angle to see the beginning of a new poem.
My friendship with Roberutsu, a visual artist and designer, was crucial in our founding of Branch. He is both a friend and collaborator, and our conversations over the years naturally turned to creating a public venue where our main interests dovetailed to become, we hope, a fruitful, and exciting project.
Branch Magazine is exclusively an online magazine. How do you think the Internet has changed poetry and the literary arts?
Accessibility. Everything is just available and easily accessible. We encounter so many new and amazing artists, writers, and ongoing art projects on the Internet; reciprocally, Branch has a far-reaching audience. Since our debut two years ago, we’ve received 11,000 visitors from nearly a hundred countries. The numbers are nuts. Needless to say, with the Internet, all art forms experience an increase in sharing and exposure. This can be great but some may argue that there’s the downside of increased mediocrity as well.
How does editing a magazine affect your own writing or vice-versa?
I see editing and writing as entwined activities, but editing and evaluating others’ work is a different game than editing and revising my own. It’s hard to be gentle with yourself. The work isn’t safely insulated when it’s yours. But I always enjoy reading what gets sent to Branch. I’m sure all that reading is doing something to my head and, in turn, something to my writing.
Your poem “Like This Together – Crisis” won the 3Macs Prize in issue 13 of carte blanche. Do you have any thoughts about this poem that you would like to share? Could you explain its origins?
“Like This Together” maps onto the late and great Adrienne Rich’s poem by the same title. In terms of the process, I see it as if I had just tugged at a thread in her poem. I quote her lines (“A year, ten years from now / I’ll remember this – / this sitting like drugged birds / in a glass case”), because in them I find something for myself, my own “this” to remember. I’ll always return to Rich’s version though. You can read it in her collection, Necessities of Life (1966).
The title of your second book, The Anatomy of Clay, is inspired by a passage from The Aeneid. How would you say Virgil’s epic poem guides your collection?
I wouldn’t say that The Aeneid was a guiding principle for The Anatomy of Clay. Like everything else, it took part in a convergence of influences during the writing of it. What else happened around that time? I was reading Virgil while I was on the other side of the world. I was traveling, so everyday felt unfamiliar. Furthermore, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I returned to Canada. I was in a transitional phase – uncertain, restless, slow. I visited twenty temples in three weeks. I decided to cut out meat and followed the lunar calendar. And, for some reason, something stuck when I was reading Book VI, where Anchises explains to Aeneas the process of human reincarnation, the sinning body as “deadened and dimmed.” I made an impromptu decision, moved to Toronto shortly after I returned, and finished writing the book.
Who are some of your favourite poets, and how do they influence your work?
There are too many to name, but off the top of my head: I turn to William Carlos Williams because he reminds me that the simple image is best; I turn to Anne Carson because she reminds me that “you can never know enough”; and I turn to Whitman because, hell, sometimes you just want to read about swimming boys.
Now that you’ve published two full-length poetry collections, how would you compare the two experiences? How is The Anatomy of Clay different from Fish Bones?
I worked closely with Jason Camlot (poetry editor at DC Books) on Fish Bones and Michael Holmes (poetry editor at ECW) on The Anatomy of Clay. David McGimpsey always told me that the most important thing when it comes to editing and publishing is to work with someone who really cares about the manuscript and I’ve been lucky to have had that with Jason and Michael.
Seeing one’s manuscript through is both exciting and exhausting. Susan Stanford Friedman puts it best when she describes the book as being “both you and not-you, a forever fixed extension of your passionate labour, but cut off from your continuing evolution.” I look at Fish Bones now and it’s very much written in an earlier stage of my development – and perhaps it’s too soon to say the same thing for The Anatomy of Clay, but I hope I’ll detect some difference, some mark of growth.
What’s next for Gillian Sze? Are you currently working on anything?
I’m always trying to keep busy, so there’s always a “next”: – another poem, another manuscript, another issue of Branch. I’m involved in a cross-country multimedia collaboration that’s coming out later this year. It’s been in the works for over a year now and the finish line is almost in sight. I wish I could get into it here, but since the idea for the project didn’t originate with me … I’ll play it coy.