25th Trillium Award

The Dirty Dozen, with Sarah Tsiang

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Sarah Tsiang

Kingston poet and children's author Sarah Tsiang has had a busy year. Her newest picture book with illustrator Qin Leng, The Stone Hatchlings, (Annick Press) has just been released to great acclaim. This whimsical and richly imaginative book — about a girl who takes two stone "eggs" into her care — follows on the heels of three other unforgettable children's books and her collection of poetry, Sweet Devilry (Oolichan Press), which was awarded the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award.

In the midst of all this writing, Sarah found time to blog as Open Book: Toronto's Writer in Residence this past spring. Still, there are many things left to know about Sarah...so read on for her take on the Open Book Dirty Dozen. Especially you, Aunt Jan, because this writer needs a fresh batch of pickles to keep the juices flowing!

Sarah will be reading at the Kingston WritersFest on Saturday, September 29th. Visit their website for details.

Sarah Tsiang's Dirty Dozen

1. When I sit down to write I often have no idea what to write. I eat when I don?t know what to write and I write just so I won?t end up being 300 pounds. It?s a vicious cycle. My favourite I-don?t-know-what-to-write snacks are salami, pickles, and Clamato juice with Tabasco sauce. Not writing will eventually clog all my arteries and give me a heart attack, so I really do have that urgency to write to save my life.

2. Many of my poems are based on writing exercises, and Sweet Devilry contains a ton of writing exercises given out by Susan Musgrave. My favorite of these were:

  1. Write a ten line poem in which every line is a lie
  2. Write a poem which starts and ends with the line ?I know you will make your own way in the world?

When I ran out of writing exercises I started turning more and more to formal poetry. My favorite is the glosa, which I feel is the perfect balance of freedom and restraint. I also love the idea of dialoguing with other poets, and bringing to light poets I love. In case you?re wondering, here are the rules for the glosa: The first part is called the texte or cabeza. It consists of the first few lines (usually four) or the first stanza (usually a quatrain) from another poet. The second part is the glose or glosa proper. This is a ?gloss on,? an expansion, interpretation or explanation of the texte. The formal rule describes the glosa as consisting of four ten-line stanzas, with the consecutive lines of the texte being used as the tenth line (called the glossing) of each stanza. Furthermore, lines six and nine must rhyme with the borrowed tenth.

3. I rarely follow my own advice. When I work with students I tell them all sorts of good stuff that I never do myself. Here?s an example:

  • Write every day
  • Don?t take critiques personally
  • Send out your work as often as you can
  • Take a walk when you feel frustrated
  • Allow yourself to write badly without feeling badly

I still think it?s good advice. Maybe I?ll start following it one day.

4. I am ruined for pickles. My aunt on my husband?s side (Aunt Jan) makes these dill pickles that I would give up writing for. I can?t eat another pickle because when I do it tastes like ashes in my mouth compared to Aunt Jan?s pickles. I don?t think she understands how much I covet them. In fact, I think I?ll send her the link to OpenBookOntario.com just so she sends me more pickles. Thanks Open Book, for providing me this venue.

5. I?m a Frinese (otherwise known as French Canadian-Chinese). My parents were all into interracial love before it was trendy. Helen Humphreys once told me her theory that all writers have had experiences which put them on the outside and forced them to become observers. It?s possible that being the only half-Chinese atheist in my all-white Catholic school influenced my life path.

6. I have a reoccurring nightmare in which I am chewing a ridiculously large wad of bubblegum and when someone speaks to me I can?t take out enough of the bubble gum to respond. It?s so vivid that I can no longer chew Hubba Bubba, both because I?m in my mid-thirties and because it triggers that dream-feeling all over again.

7. I spend hours on the phone with the brilliant poet Sheri Benning, my mentor and inspiration, and yet somehow we hardly ever talk poetry. Approximately 90% of our conversations revolve around roast beef and bacon.

8. When I was unemployed I could only write poems that involved the apocalypse or murder. Strange. Here?s one for your enjoyment:

The soup halls are filled with November
and every night is Sunday night, closing down.
it wanders the sleeping streets,
follows me like a beggar,
its empty stomach clanging
like church bells, calling on God
and mercy and Sunday hats to deliver it.

The whole city sings it;
prisoners stumble out of jail and
fall in love with the concrete legs
of street lamps, their blonde light soiled
and desperate, heels grinding into the pavement.

We are all shamefaced, hooded
and I take notes on the grief of a friend,
as I lust after her trembling mouth,
the way it opens
like an oven, words tumbling like
hot, crusty rolls, the yeast smell
of her rising despair.

My eyes have become cut glass, they
dissect the splayed bodies of frogs,
strangers, the broken men by the river.
The laundry keeps sending back my shirts,
full of the stink of formaldehyde.

9. I am a very cheerful person, despite all my poems about the apocalypse and/or murder. When I answer the phone I sound like an 11-year-old.

10. I find it harder to write children?s books than poetry. I find poetry is something you can chip away it until you find its core. With kids books it?s more like the story either has it or it doesn?t. This is both liberating and very frustrating.

11. I live in this strange and fantastic neighbourhood in Kingston, where I eat dinner with my neighbours at least once a week and all our children are like siblings. It?s basically a commune without a creepy religion or partner-swapping. We have backyard movie nights, communal toys, and on-a-whim potlucks. I won?t say anything more because I do believe in the power of dramatic irony and I don?t want to jinx myself.

12. I can only work creatively when I feel tremendous pressure and a time-crunch. Apparently my brain is hardwired differently. Instead of ?fight or flight? it?s ?write and write? for me. Which is a terrible survival instinct in the wild. Which is why I don?t go camping.

Sarah Tsiang has an MFA from UBC and she is also an award-winning poet who publishes poetry under the name of Yi-Mei Tsiang. Sarah?s book A Flock of Shoes (2010) was inspired by a line from the last poem in her collection of poetry, Sweet Devilry (Oolichan Books, 2011), which won the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for best first book of poetry. She is also the author of Dogs Don?t Eat Jam and Other Things Big Kids Know (2011) and Warriors and Wailers: 100 Ancient Chinese Jobs You Might Have Relished or Reviled (2012).

Sarah and her daughter spend a lot of time at the Kingston Frontenac Public Library, where they are trying to read every picture book in the building.

For more information about The Stone Hatchlings, please visit the Annick Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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