Sandy Shreve has published four poetry collections: Suddenly, So Much (Exile Editions, 2005); Belonging (Sono Nis, 1997); Bewildered Rituals (Polestar, 1992); and The Speed of the Wheel is Up to the Potter (Quarry Press, 1990). She co-edited, with Kate Braid, the groundbreaking anthology In Fine Form—The Canadian Book of Form Poetry (Polestar, 2005), and she edited Working For A Living, a collection of poems and stories by women about their work (Room of One’s Own, 1988). Sandy also founded Poetry in Transit, the program that displays poems in SkyTrain cars and buses throughout BC. Her work has won the Earle Birney Prize for Poetry and been short listed for the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award and the National Magazine Awards for poetry. Born in Quebec and raised in Sackville, New Brunswick, she now lives in Vancouver. She has also lived in Fredericton and, ever so briefly, in Halifax, Victoria and a tiny village called Bardou in France. Now retired, she has worked as a communications manager, student advisor and conference organiser, secretary, library assistant and reporter.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
I’ve always loved playing with words. I was about six years old when I wrote my first ‘poem’—four lines, two beats each, all on one rhyme, inspired by the sudden realisation that our family doctor’s name rhymed with “turtle”…
Also, when I turned six, I was given A. A. Milne’s And Now We Are Six—and I was convinced the book must have been written for me. I think this planted some kind of seed, some connection I felt with poetry… Another early influence was Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. I remember adoring that book, returning to it over and over again. As I recall, I associated the children in its whimsical, delightful, pictures with the writing of the poems – and I wanted to join in! (Though now, I do shudder at of the content of some of those poems, “Foreign Children” for example.)
How/where do you find inspiration today?
It varies. It might, for example, be a new experience, or a phrase that pops into my head, or a work of art that grabs my imagination. I don’t keep a journal as such, but I always have a notebook on hand so I can record things as they occur to me, and I go back through those notes regularly. If something I’ve jotted down still has a spark to it, that will often ignite a poem (this can happen days or even years later). One thing that’s absolutely essential for me is reading. And reading widely—novels, stories, non-fiction, and most important of all, poetry—lots and lots of poetry.
What is your writing process?
I can’t force poems—if I try doing that, I usually wind up writing something awful. So, while most of the ‘how to’ books say to write every day, I don’t do that—I find it’s not remotely helpful for me to write badly; that just whittles away at my confidence and my enthusiasm. A key part of the writing (and editing) process for me is having lots of space and silence, time in nature (especially walking) and time to think. Also, I write first drafts and do most of my editing by hand, then put the work into the computer. Beyond that, my process is a bit hard to pin down, as it varies according to whether I’m working in free verse or a traditional form; a narrative or lyric style, etc. Sometimes I’ll write a poem in one sitting; other times I’ll write a sequence two or three lines at a time, day after day, over a period of many months. In the future, my process could be like either of those extremes or it could be something entirely different… part of the fun of writing, for me, is the surprises and the constant learning.
What is your revision/editing process?
I revise extensively. I usually memorise the poem I’m working on, and mull it over while I’m walking or on the bus or doing the dishes—then once I’ve got some ideas to work with, I settle into my study and continue the process on paper. This works especially well when I’m struggling over a particular problem in the work such as an awkward transition or a spot where I’ve yet to find the right word. I’ve also learned to put ‘finished’ poems aside for awhile, and then come back to them to see if the work really is done, or needs more tinkering. And to be honest, that took a lot of practice, because patience doesn’t come easily to me. But patience in writing, I’ve learned, is crucial.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
I did—a lot! But as I said earlier, I started writing much younger, so there was nothing particular in high school that got me going–writing poetry, for me, was just doing what I’d always done. While most of my early writing was just dreadful, I think the high school period was important training, especially for my ear. I was heavily influenced both by the traditional literature we were learning in school (Dylan Thomas, Robert Burns, Charles G. D. Roberts and Earle Birney were among my favourites) and by all the exciting musicians of the day—especially Bob Dylan, whose rhythms I shamelessly tried over and over again to copy.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
One reason why Kate Braid and I put together the book In Fine Form—The Canadian Book of Form Poetry was our frustration at the lack of a text that collected Canadian poems written in traditional forms, explained those forms, and discussed some key elements of poetic craft. Even though it sounds self-serving, I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to write poetry.
I still frequently refer to In Fine Form myself—but also to various other reference books about poetic craft. Just two very good and extensive ones are The Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, by J. A. Cuddon and The New Princeton Handbook of Literary Terms, edited by T.V.F. Brogan. These and a number of other very useful reference books are listed at the back of In Fine Form.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
I was in high school during the ‘60s, and just discovering free verse. For the life of me, I couldn’t pin down what made it work; what made it a poem if there was no regular metre, no end rhyme. I tried it out, but I was flying blind—it would have been enormously helpful if someone had been able to give me some guidance on how to apply the craft of poetry to this new form.
Something that was hugely important to me in high school was the discovery of not just Canadian, but local poets. So having both Birney and Roberts (I’m a Maritimer) on the curriculum was essential. It told me, as an aspiring poet, that I could do this. Some years ago, when I was collecting poems for In Fine Form, I put together a chapbook of some of what I’d found for a friend’s daughter, as a high school graduation present. When I gave it to her at a small party, she and her friends poured over it with great enthusiasm, remarking with regret that all through school, they’d hardly ever seen any Canadian poetry. Clearly, we need more—much more—early and contemporary Canadian poetry in all our school curricula.