Interview with Robyn Sarah
by Jaime Forsythe


JF: To start, I was wondering if you could speak a bit to your process. Your poems contain so many closely observed, immediate details of daily life. This quality, paired with the theme of looking back on the past that particularly concerns My Shoes Are Killing Me, made me curious as to what degree journalling played a part in this book (or in your process in general). How do you go about gathering and remembering these subtle moments? Photographs are referenced several times in the book, too – are visual records something you refer to while putting together poems?

RS: I’ve always had a very good memory – it has astonished my family ever since I was a child – particularly for the kind of detail you mention.  While I hate the word “journalling,” you’re right that I’ve kept journals most of my adult life.  Yet at any given time, there’s a lot more in my memory bank than I ever recorded (if I go back through the journals to verify something I remember, I’m often surprised at what is not there). Occasionally a journal entry will consist of a memory from years earlier, rather than something happening currently (though of course the remembering is happening currently). “Breach” did begin as such a journal entry.  But my writing process centres much more on a second set of dated notebooks that are really just scratch pads for discontinuous fragmentary scribblings:  random thoughts and observations, descriptions of the view out the window, stray phrases or word combinations I like the sound of.  That’s where the poems usually germinate.  As for photographs – I have never used a physical photograph as a prompt to write a poem. The references you mention are all to remembered photographs – to a memory of looking at a photograph (I see them quite clearly in my mind) rather than to the actual photograph.  In the same way, certain remembered moments can be “photographic” for me, in the sense that they encapsulate something of an era.  I don’t consciously gather such moments.  They pop up unbidden and tug at me, sometimes recurrently over years.  A few such moments found form as poems in this collection.

JF: That’s really interesting, that you have often been surprised at what is not there, when going back through old journals.  I feel like the book contains several of these kinds of moments: ones that might not seem significant on the surface, or to warrant recording at the time of occurring, but resurface later and tug at the memory, as you describe. I’m thinking here of, for example, “Breach” and “Cameo.”  Do you think of poetry at all as a way to give form to moments or details that might otherwise be discarded, lost, or forgotten?

RS: People often say my poems trigger memories of things they had long forgotten, but that isn’t what I think of myself as doing when I write. I do recognize that as a poet, I’m (among other things) a documenter of detail and a documenter of moments, whether I’m writing about the present or the past remembered – but the mere giving form to “what might otherwise be lost or forgotten”, no matter how beautifully one records or describes it, is not enough to make a poem.  The real question is why do these “seemingly insignificant” moments or details from the past come back to us? Or, if we are talking about present time, why do we notice the particular little things we do?  I believe the details that catch our attention, or the moments that come back to us unbidden and insistently, do so because they are not insignificant. They have a metaphoric weight for us. They signify, in a language that the unconscious knows, though the conscious mind may not. What haunts us is not the moment but the metaphor in the moment.

JF: Yes, thank you – this is a lovely description of what poems like “Breach” and “Cameo” (and “Timeless”, and of course others) are doing – exploring this “metaphoric weight” and significance.  I am thinking now of the title poem, which holds many striking images and juxtapositions: the movie of trees, the museum of dead sounds, the burnt gazebo. It felt particularly musical to me, not only with its division into ‘movements’, but also with the way lines like “it was the beginning of dwindle” and “where is my trampoline?” repeat like refrains and tie the varied scenes and images together. I was wondering if you could speak a bit to how this poem evolved for you?

RS: The nine sections got written over a three-month period, early April to late June 2010, but for a year or more preceding the writing, my notebooks kept coming back to the idea that summers weren’t what they used to be; that summer wasn’t enough anymore, or that there wasn’t enough summer.  And every section of the poem contains lines and even whole stanzas that preceded the writing period, often by years. The title itself predates the poem by nearly a decade (I knew I would one day use it as a title, but it wasn’t attached to any clear idea for a story or poem.)  When I completed the first section, ‘You Could Almost Understand’, at first thinking of it as an independent poem, I had the sense it could go on, but I had no idea how much longer it should be or where it was headed. I just kept going, each section growing out of the one before, bringing in and developing new material sometimes in the form of those pre-existing fragments, but also picking up imagery, thematic material, and echoes of lines and phrases from the sections that came before – in very much the way that a piece of music in several movements may do..

JF: Thanks, Robyn – I was wondering how you feel your study of music (and/or your return to studying piano in 2009) has influenced your writing, whether consciously or unconsciously? As a reader, I see it in your use of repetition and variation and also your sense of timing, sound, and placing silences/rests.

RS: There’s no question that my background in music has had a large impact on how I compose poetry, at both conscious and unconscious levels. I write with my ear, and the patterns and nuances of musical phrasing are part of my aural vocabulary. So my poems are full of musical effect – serial repetition, repetition with variation, sound-play, rhythmic cadence, loose iambics and sometimes concealed metre – even when I am ostensibly writing free verse. You’re absolutely right that timing, and placement of silences and rests, is an important part of my art as a poet. Line breaks, stanza breaks, indents, and punctuation are never arbitrary; they are fine-tuned to signal how the lines should be spoken/heard – differentiating between pauses of different lengths, full stops that are hard or soft (for example, ending on a dash or an ellipsis rather than a period). The right syllables have to be accented for the poem to read smoothly; if the accent is in the wrong place, I may have to find a different word to convey my desired meaning.  When drafting, I continually read aloud from the beginning of the stanza or section I’m working on. My ear has to be satisfied with each newly added line or segment before I can go on.

JF: Finally, while it seems that all of your work reckons with the past to some degree, this collection is particularly occupied with time. It also pauses to take in the present moment (“Keep Off the Grass”) and gestures towards the future, asking what we keep, what gets passed along. Can you describe briefly where you see this collection falling in time, in terms of the rest of your writing career – where you situate it in terms of what you have written, and what you will still write?

RS: The passage of time has been the underlying subject of my poetry almost from the start. The present moment (what we also call the “passing moment”) has always interested me – the wish to occupy it fully, to write from inside of it.  When I do, an awareness of layers of time infuses it.  This hasn’t changed. Perhaps in this collection, there are more remembered moments than immediate ones, but I occupy them in the same way: I re-experience them as immediate, yet part of a continuum. As to what I may still write, I have no predictions. Very little about my writing has ever been planned.

This unpublished email interview with Robyn Sarah was conducted by Jaime Forsythe, in preparation for her feature review of My Shoes Are Killing Me (Montreal Review of Books, Issue #27, Summer 2015.)  Here is a link to the review:


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