"Poetry Changes the Way I Think" Sarah Burgoyne on Exit Poems, Trashing Drafts, & Why Humour Belongs in Poetry
Sometimes an unexpected combination can create a perfect, alchemical kind of reaction. Sarah Burgoyne,
whose out-of-the-box literary creativity was beautifully displayed in her acclaimed debut collection Saint Twin, knows just how to bring together seemingly disparate elements to spark something fascinating and unique. And so we arrive at her sophomore collection, Because the Sun (Coach House Books), where Camus's Stranger (Meursault) meets none other than fellow outlaws Thelma and Louise under an unforgiving sun.
It's not a combination of characters anyone expected, but that's the beauty of Burgoyne's work – her ability to see connections that wouldn't occur to most of us, and to make them powerful, wise, and even darkly funny at times. The baking, titular sun is present throughout, with heat and violence running through the poems.
Today, we're speaking with Sarah about her evolution as a poet, from early reads to her writing process now, as part of our Poets in Profile series. She tells us about the significance of "exit poetry" in her writing life, why she is always willing to start over from scratch if a poem isn't working, and how poetry lets her stay "light on [her] toes."
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
This goes back to early, early days of my encounters with poetry, in other words, what I encountered at school in the suburbs, which was a small sample size of poetry and hardly radical. I remember being struck by Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” I had it pinned above my desk in my bedroom during high school. There was just something about the ending— “…for the world, which seems / To lie before us like a land of dreams, / So various, so beautiful, so new, / Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light, / Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain…” The power of the list all of a sudden came clear for me. And rhythm. Also, I guess I was around the age where you realize the world isn’t exactly what you thought it was, so I’m sure there was some thematic resonance as well. Also, “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas, which my dad read to me. I think it was his favourite poem. “Time let me hail and climb / Golden in the heydays of his eyes, / And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns…” In a way that poem also feels like an exit poem. I became interested in poetry as I exited childhood. Poems that affect me now still feel like they have to do with some sort of exit (and therefore of course also an entrance). Exit from language as we normally use it, from time, from the anxiety of a specific type of ‘meaning making’…
What one poem—from any time period—do you wish you had been the one to write?
Even if they love or hate the poem, everyone wishes they had written “Howl”. I don’t think this even has to do with the poem itself, impressive as it is, so much as what happened and was happening around that poem. It was presented in an environment in which poetry mattered on a political scale, where people would gather and read it to each other—for fun!—, and get drunk and break rules. And I remember hearing Ginsberg had no idea his poem would become famous at all—so I just picture everyone listening to him read it and getting hypnotized by its movement. It’s so rare to become entranced at a poetry reading anymore. I remember falling into a trance at a reading at Banff in 2016. Lisa Robertson was reading “On Form” from her book 3 Summers and I just went under its spell: “The helix of the ear is a bracelet / the ear is also a hive it produces / wax which is a humour it is the nest / of a swallow as well as the eye sockets / are basins for washing grain the eye is / carnival artifice intrigue…” I’ve had that experience at concerts before (most recently in 2019 at a performance of Bach’s Mass in B Minor in Montreal and at a Joanna Newsom concert in New York) but so rarely does it happen with poetry. I also hear it when Erin Robinsong reads her poetry. It’s a hypnotic experience.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
Probably really long songs or symphonies. I try to imitate their arcs. Joanna Newsom’s album Ys has always been a big influence on my poetry. Also, a lot of classical music (mostly Bach) for the reasons above.
What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?
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Trash it, baby. I’m not a big fan of the “poetry is in the revision” mindset. It just doesn’t work for me. I kill the poem if I spend too much time on it. If it doesn’t have some sort of electrical current in its first iteration, it won’t ever get there. It’s like trying to resuscitate the dead. You can’t so you might as well start over. I also don’t save little bits and pieces of a dead poem. They lose all their energy when they’re extracted, like taking out an organ and trying to clumsily put it in a new body. You only need to make that mistake a couple times to realize it’s just not how poetry works, for me at least. I also feel like a poem often needs to be written in a ‘body of time’—if you take too long to finish it, you lose it. Everyone works differently but that’s how I work.
What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?
The way the opening ends and the ending opens. Especially the latter. I hate a poem that clicks shut too tidily.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
Aisha Sasha John’s Thou. I read it (and reread it and reread it) years ago but it’s still with me as a book of poems unlike any other and one that makes me really excited about contemporary poetry. And there’s humour! And so many poets don’t know how to be funny—or are afraid that humour will somehow detract from the poem or the collection but John’s book is a testament to that not being the case. It is profound with a levity that is really affective. It’s one of the smartest books I’ve read.
How would you describe the poetry community in Canada? What strengths and weaknesses do you observe within the community?
In the words of Melville’s Bartleby, “I would prefer not to.”
What is the best thing about being a poet... and what is the worst?
That the brooding personality is not a stereotype? Just kidding (but not really). I love that with poetry so long as you have a pen and a paper you can write anywhere. As an artist I always get to be light on my toes. There’s a certain sense of freedom in knowing you can go anywhere and live anywhere and bring your art with you. I also like how poetry changes the way I think. It gives me new thoughts, and I’ve learned to appreciate that so much. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut of thoughts and ways of thinking and the banality of all that is actually quite dangerous. I think it is Donna Haraway quoting Virginia Woolf when she writes, “Think we must. We must think.” Good poetry gets you to think without having to come to conclusions. It edges you towards unanswerable questions.
Sarah Burgoyne’s first collection Saint Twin (Mansfield, 2016) was a finalist for the A. M. Klein Prize in Poetry, awarded a prize from l'Académie de la vie littéraire, and shortlisted for the ReLit Award. Other works have appeared in journals across Canada and the U.S., have been featured in scores by American composer J.P. Merz, and have appeared within or alongside the visual art of Susanna Barlow, Jamie Macaulay, and Joani Tremblay. She currently lives and writes in Montreal.