Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Poets in Profile: Robyn Sarah

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Open Book is celebrating National Poetry Month with daily profiles of today's "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Find out what inspires, confounds and delights the poets behind this spring's new releases by following our series.

Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry, published this spring by Cormorant Books, is a unique collection of work by 11 poets who have not yet published their own books but whose poems have been gaining recognition in Canada and across the world. Carefully selected by esteemed poet Robyn Sarah, the poems in Undercurrents explore the human condition in surprising, original ways that reflect the diverse styles, concerns and experiences of the poets themselves.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Robyn Sarah:

When I was fourteen or fifteen, my mother (without asking) sent a sheaf of my high school poems to F. R. Scott, whom she had known during her McGill years. At the time I was writing passable imitations of A. E. Housman. Scott wrote back that I should be encouraged to “immerse myself in the moderns,” so my step-father went out and bought what must have been half the poetry stock in Classics Bookstore. I went on a reading binge that was mind-altering. But I had already been writing poetry since the age of nine, and even in elementary school my poems had been recited in school assembly and published in the school board’s newsletter, so it seems I was already a poet.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


Too many to single anything out, really. A few milestones:

  • At age 11: translations of Chinese poems from the T’ang Dynasty period
  • At age 12: Shelley’s “Ozymandias.”
  • At age 13: A. E. Housman (all)
  • At age 14: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (FitzGerald)
  • At age 15: T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”


What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?


Oh, so many! But Frost’s “Reluctance” and “Acquainted with the Night” are high on the list.


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


My own bad handwriting. Sometimes I will misread something I scribbled yesterday, and my misreading will yield something much more interesting to work with than what I had actually written.


What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?


I abandon it for the time being. I don’t throw it away. It often happens that months or years later, I will see how to finish it — or I may cannibalize it for spare parts to use as starter for new poems.


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


Probably Yehuda Amichai’s Open Closed Open (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001, English translation by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld).


What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?


Best: the feeling I get when I have finished a new poem.
Worst: finding myself unable to repeat the trick the next day.

Robyn Sarah was born in New York but has lived in Montreal since early childhood. Her poetry has appeared in Canadian literary magazines and anthologies since the early 1970s. In 1976 she co-founded Villeneuve Publications and was co-editor of its chapbook series. Sarah is the author of several poetry collections, two short story collections and a book of essays on poetry. She is currently poetry editor for Cormorant Books.

For more information about Undercurrents: New Voices in Canadian Poetry please visit the Cormorant Books website.

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

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