Poet Sarah Venart dives deep into love, family, need, and grief in her powerful new collection I Am the Big Heart (Brick Books). But what is the big heart? In these poems, big-heartedness means being big enough for everyone—children, spouse, colleagues, even yourself. It's the patience you didn't know you had, the wild love bigger than you knew you could feel. But the need to be the big heart can be heavy, especially for women and mothers.
Juxtaposing wise examinations of emotional depth with the quotidian pressures of family life, Venart turns a keen eye on the power of desire, especially in those who are supposed to put the desires of others ahead of their own.
Tender, savage, loving, and unapologetic, I Am the Big Heart is a witty and wise addition to Venart's acclaimed body of work. We're excited to welcome her to Open Book today as part of our Poets in Profile series to discuss the collection and how she first came to poetry.
She tells us about some poetic dirty socks that made a lasting impression, what "everyone's favourite state" of mind is (we agree!), and about the 14-year process of writing the collection, with all its ups and downs.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
"Buckingham Palace" by A.A. Milne? It stuck with me, a poem about a little boy walking with his nanny, Alice, past the Queen’s palace. Alice sees the guards and she’s like, who washes their socks? And we know it isn’t the Queen washing socks. I love Alice. When I was little, I was just into the detail and catchy rhythm and the pause before each "says Alice" (if you know the poem) and now I see that Alice is a terrific teacher and caregiver, walking this kid around London, showing him the underbelly, pointing out that socks need washing, and that the queen is not up to that job.
Another "poem" I was affected by was the song "Sara the Whale" by Burl Ives. It begins: "In San Francisco town there lived a whale / She ate porkchops by the pail / By the pill box, by the suitcase, by the bathtub, by the schooner. / Her name was Sara, and she’s a peach, / but you can’t leave food within her reach; / Nor nursemaids, nor Airedales, nor chocolate ice cream sodas." Sara, so happily violent with her surroundings and her appetite. I respect that.
What one poem—from any time period—do you wish you had been the one to write?
Wouldn’t it be great to have written "Pleasures" by Denise Levertov? Her digressions! The outstretched mamie line! It’s such a reach that she asks of us and we follow her there, to that rough mamie and the breathtaking core. Who doesn’t love to find what’s not found at once? Who doesn’t indeed, Denise?
I’ve had an eight-year crush on Dorothea Lasky’s "Ars Poetica"— and Lasky’s pedagogy, and her personality. Right now, I’m doing her series of online poetry workshops with Lou Florez, #witchcraft999999999. I’ve never seen poems like hers; they touch me deeply and if you asked me to explain why I can’t. It’s a mystery, it’s witchcraft, and I can’t stop reading. Everyone’s favourite state is astonishment and a Lasky poem gives you that. If someone feeds me wonder, they have my heart. There’s probably something wrong with me.
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Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?
I write in my head to begin with. Then I write in stops and starts. I drop into writing, it’s like I’m under a spell, and then I climb out and it’s bedtime. I remind my children to wash, or I feed someone some oatmeal, I teach a class, and then I’m good enough to get permission to drop myself back down into writing again.
I AM THE BIG HEART was written this way, over fourteen years. At times, it felt really desperate. I thought maybe I might give up for good. I’d tell myself that being an okay mother and an okay teacher and an okay partner and an okay runner was enough. And I would say things like that until it felt like it might be true. My poor father, of all people, said "Don’t be ridiculous" in this exasperated way (because he KNEW me, and I had no idea). When he died, I gathered all those poems I’d dropped into and slowly it dawned on me that I was exploring my own strong feelings and my own (mostly poor) reactions to circumstances around me—my own upbringing, my mother’s illness, my mother’s very rough upbringing (and how she dealt with that or didn’t), and my mother’s death which was devastating. My own conflicted feelings about mothering came into the collection, and then my father (both my friend and my warden), died and that was another blow to the heart. There are other subjects in the book, but the pieces fit under that umbrella of feelings— or thoughts as feelings, as Denise Riley says.
What do you do with a poem that just isn’t working?
So much of my writing is warm up. Most drafts don’t work, so I throw them in a folder and forget about them or I just toss them— Killing my babies, as I say to my (horrified) students in my poetry workshops.
What is the best thing about being a poet… and what is the worst?
What some call the craft— what I call play— is a best thing. After I’ve taken the poem in my head and sloshed it over the paper and looked at it, then I take myself to the edges and rein in the damage. And then I pull at the word choices, or I fill in the moment—if there is one. Into the spots where I’m most frustrated some surprising meaning materializes sometimes. It’s magic. It makes me happy.
And I love working with other poets on poems. I like collaboration. There is nothing like a great connection to warm the heart.
The worst thing is feeling inadequate, not knowing enough, feeling like an outsider to poetry— I don’t get the allusions, I don’t get the in-jokes, I don’t love HD or Ginsberg enough— I do relate to Alden Nowlan, who also came to poetry from elsewhere and from poverty too. If I’d had the nerve, I could have asked him how to do this. I could have maybe asked him if I am a viable candidate, even. Where we came from, poetry was there, but it was embarrassing. It was brought out, maybe, on a special occasion. At the very least it was thought of once the cows were milked and the ewes were wormed. In my family— and I expect in many New Brunswick families— we glossed over moments of deep thought and attention and feeling with crude humour. Alternately, we were expected to, as one of my sisters put it, read the silence. I’m not as learned as I should be, but my wit is on point. Imposter syndrome is real or I’m the genuine imposter article.
Deserted island poetry book? You can only take one.
You didn’t actually ask me this question, but I wanted you to ask me this question. Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here or his This Way to the Sugar or maybe I can also slip (these books are so slim! C’mon!) Dorothea Lasky’s Rome into my t-shirt or bathing suit. There’s some room here at the front, by my heart.
Sarah Venart’s poetry has been published in Numero Cinq, Concrete and River, The New Quarterly, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, This Magazine, Prism International, and on CBC Radio. She is the author of Woodshedding (Brick Books, 2007) and Neither Apple Nor Pear. Sarah lives in Montreal and teaches writing at John Abbott College.