Sue Sinclair's Heaven's Thieves (Brick Books) gets right to the heart of the questions that drive us. What is beauty? What is the point of art? How are we meant to live, and how do we engage with the natural world? These are big questions for a poet to take on, but Sinclair has proved in her past collections that she doesn't shy away from tough subjects. Fierce and original, with a focused, pared-down lyricism, Heaven's Thieves is a collection showcasing a poet who has proven herself "insightful, even — dare I say it in this secular age — soulful" (The Toronto Star).
We're speaking to Sue as part of the WAR Series: Writers As Readers questionnaire, which gives writers an opportunity to talk about the books that shaped them, from first loves to new favourites.
Sue tells us about reading by porch-light in the rain, the book that still sticks with her twenty years after she first read it, and learning to be unapologetic for her work.
The WAR Series, Writers as Readers
The first book I remember reading on my own:
The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White. I loved that book — enough to read it start to finish on my own — though I remember feeling, in the back of my mind, a little uneasy imagining the swan encumbered by the trappings of blackboard and trumpet (Louis-the-swan was mute and used these things to get by). Some part of me wanted the swan to be sublime, wild. I wanted to be sublime, wild.
A book that made me cry:
Tell Them It Was Mozart by Angeline Schellenberg (forthcoming in fall 2016). The poems chronicle the life of a mother with two autistic children. It isn’t maudlin, is laced with humour and wit, but I cried all the same. If you want a good cry, try “It’s Not What They Say.” It’s clever but breaks my heart in the end.
The first adult book I read:
E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End. I was afraid of adult books, afraid to live those vicarious injustices and sufferings that wouldn’t necessarily be rectified or redeemed in the end. I could read well but didn’t feel ready to take on the adult world in all its vividness. Howard’s End was subtle and nuanced enough to be rewarding in a way that children’s books weren’t, but it didn’t tear me up inside.
A book that made me laugh out loud:
I read Mo Willems’ Do You Want to Play Outside? to my two-year-old daughter, and we both think it’s hilarious. If you’re not familiar with the adventures of Elephant and Piggie, you’re missing out.
The book I have re-read many times:
A Sad Device by Roo Borson. It was one of the first poetry books I read in full. I was enraptured by her metaphors before I could have picked a metaphor out of a poem.
A book I feel like I should have read, but haven't:
Where to begin?! The one that’s on my mind at the moment is Susan Holbrook’s Joy Is So Exhausting. Hopefully I’ll remedy that soon.
The book I would give my seventeen-year-old self, if I could:
Maybe A Sad Device by Roo Borson? I feel like a lot of helpful books were given to my seventeen-year-old self: Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses both did me a lot of good, as did D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow, which I read by porch-light in an evening rain shower. This kind of prose set me on the road to poetry, which makes me think that I might have been glad to read an actual poetry book a little sooner.
A book I feel strongly influenced me as a writer and why:
Jan Zwicky’s Songs for Relinquishing the Earth has certainly left its mark. I read it in 1997, and I’m still thinking and writing about the “truth in nostalgia” she proposes. The idea that entering grief, walking right into the heart of it, could stand as an alternative to ironic distance from the ills of the world also struck me hard. It helped me to see the worth of being as earnest and feeling-ful as I tend to be by temperament. Which means it helped me to be unapologetic for my own work — in an irony-heavy culture, often aesthetically driven by the energy of fracture and collision rather than lyricism, that hasn’t always been easy… though I expect most writers feel reproached by whatever it is they aren’t.
The best book I read in the past six months:
I’m not a fan of “bests” when it comes to literature, but a recent book that engaged me deeply was Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby. I had one of those yes-that’s-what-I’ve-been-trying-to-say moments; she’d articulated something I was groping my way toward: the idea that although pathetic fallacy is indeed a fallacy, there is something nevertheless marvellous about the fact that the natural world is rich in metaphor for so many facets of human experience, that those metaphors exist! The moth that drinks the tears of birds isn’t actually healing any sorrow, but the correspondence between moth and sorrow remains. Marvellous.
The book I plan on reading next:
Ben Ladouceur’s Otter. It’s in my bag.
A possible title for my autobiography:
Are You Ready to Play Outside? would work for me! I’m always ready to play outside.
Sue Sinclair is the author of four previous collections, all of them nominated for regional and/or national awards. She also recently completed a PhD in philosophy at the University of Toronto on the subject of beauty and ethics. In 2012 she was Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick, and in 2013 she served as the inaugural Critic-in-Residence for CWILA. Sue was raised in Newfoundland and is now based in Montreal, where she writes, edits and teaches.