Sue Goyette was born in Sherbrooke, Quebec. When she was in high school, she loved the work of Hector de Saint-Denys Garneau. She has won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, the Atlantic Poetry Prize, the CBC Literary Prize for Poetry, the Earle Birney Prize, and the Bliss Carman Award. Her fourth book, Ocean, was shortlisted for the 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize. She teaches creative writing at Dalhousie University and works part-time at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia.
Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
Yes, poetry saved me in high school. Seriously. I’d always read like a fiend but when I encountered poetry, its potency, its verve, I felt like I had found my people. What a relief, what a homecoming. Poetry somehow soothed my burn. I remember first reading the Quebec poet Saint-Denys Garneau and being so caught off guard, so bamboozled, not just by his poetry but by how his poems thought, how they moved, how their thinking and moving were inexplicably joined the way a fish is joined to its swim. His poetry changed how I thoughts or maybe redeemed my way of thinking. His poem Bird Cage was the first I read and I still think about it, how it works, the contraption and velocity of it.
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
I started writing poetry when it felt like I had too much in me and I desperately needed a chimney or a window: something to open, a way to express myself. My house wasn’t a great place to live, there was a lot of yelling, a lot of fighting. Reading and writing, for me, was a secret fort, an escape, things I could do to keep busy while I had to be in my house. I kept a diary but the way I wrote in my notebook changed in grade eight. I remember considering the words I was choosing and how those words collided with other words, the weirdness they made, the oddness that wasn’t like a story but more like a first-time spell or a flock of words that moved like a bird. I wrote a lot of pretty bad poems filled with big feelings, and morose. I wrote a lot of dramatic heartbreak.
I didn’t call myself a poet for a long time. It felt like a dare when I finally did. Saying poet out loud felt important, formal, and then, as I do, I felt ridicules and scared. Who was I to call myself a poet?
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
It really is a vocation more than a job, I think. One task is to stay open to poetry. Poetry is the most crucial part of a poem for me. I think it resides in a poem’s silence, where its reader meets the words with their own experience and imaginings. The poem is like the wharf to that connection, the path to it. So staying curious is important and staying open to where the poem needs to go to get as close to poetry as it can is essential.
We’re living in pretty challenging times. When I think of climate change and our environment, the wars that are happening, racism, poverty, equality issues, our murdered and missing Indigenous women, it would be easy to say not challenging but dark times. I think poetry, all art, can revive our best selves when we encounter it. Often, when we read a poem, we give up the firm ground of knowing where we stand and have to trust it knows what it’s doing. We’re mostly generous, alert, and using all of our senses to make sense of it. Giving up the firm ground of knowing is an easy thing to do with something as non-threatening as a poem so it gives us a good opportunity to practice that and all the other good skills I mentioned.
Staying open and curious, vulnerable, authentic is hard. Making something that has nothing to do with money is hard. I think poets need to take good care of themselves, surround themselves with good company, good music, good food. Keep their spirits nourished. We need artists now more than ever and maybe our only “job” is to be keep being ourselves.
What inspired you to write “eight”?
I wrote “eight” because I was thinking about how wild the ocean is and how close Halifax is to it. I was thinking about how we build around the water, how we expect it to behave itself and then how shocked we are when it shows itself, when it washes out a road or starts encroaching our houses. In a way, the ocean is a great metaphor for a lot of the things we don’t like to deal with, how we don’t think about those things until we’re forced to. I also wrote “eight” as a way of exploring how we live with anything unknown, how we make bargains with it to keep it happy so it will leave us alone or be gentle with us.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
What a great collection of poems. They’re all so good for their own reasons, it’s really hard to choose just one. Today, I’d pick C.D. Wright’s “Re: Happiness, in pursuit thereof” because I’m still so sad that she died and I want to say her words out loud knowing that a part of her is still in them, and in saying them, memorizing them, taking them in, that part of her would still breeze of this world. Also because it’s a really fine poem.