25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Sandra Ridley

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Sandra Ridley

Last month Sandra Ridley joined 20 other Canadian poets at the Harbourfront Centre for Poetry NOW's 4th Annual Battle of the Bards. Her reading of poems from her remarkable second collection, Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press), earned her the title of Top Bard. She will return to the Harbourfront to read at the 2012 International Festival of Authors this October.

She talks to Open Book about the haunting history of medical and apothecarian treatments, the research that found her wandering the halls of a Saskatchewan psychiatric institution and her continued fascination with "the sleeping mind’s disordered attempt for escape."

Sandra will be reading with Dani Couture at the Cobourg Poetry Workshop on Tuesday, April 17. Visit our Events Page for details.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new collection, Post-Apothecary.

Sandra Ridley:

The book is built with four sections of linked poems, each based on an unnamed illness or state of mind, and various apothecarian and experimental treatments. There are two figures, protagonists of sorts, who move through a loose narrative. The overall poem cycle attaches and detaches from a relatively non-linear timeline, from the Victorian era to present day.

It’s non-linear in that the narrative arcs with a trajectory of fever. I was thinking about the different kinds of fever — as a condition of illness, as a symptom of therapeutic intervention, as a characteristic of emotional drive. I wanted to look at the effects of fever, especially how it can shape delirium, dream and the real, and to see if I could embody those effects on the page.


What inspired you to delve into the subjects of illness and medicine that you explore in this book?


With terms like angelica, blood-let and burr hole, the word hoard of apothecarian and modern clinical medicine seems made for poetry. And each treatment or cure, both experimental and established, holds lived and troubled history. I wanted to salvage some of that, if I could. Also, institutions for both tuberculosis and mental illness were haunting for me; the architectural design of sanatoria and their location of remoteness.

In a way, the sanatoria represented to me a borderland, or liminal space, for those living inside them. What would it have been like to be within the various surgical and patient rooms, caught between darkness and light?


The imagery and the language you use in many of these poems suggest an undercurrent of sexual violence in the patient/physician interactions. Can you tell us more about how these poems work to challenge our notions of medical treatments and "cure"?


There was a point in history when tuberculosis was considered a sexualized disease, even romanticized, and that idea is still manifestly apparent in literature, film and music. Think of the dying heroines in La Traviata and La Bohème.

But back to answer your actual question. Keeping the medical interventions in mind, in many of the poems, I tried to capture a feeling of seclusion and constraint. Coming from that, there is, in some of those poems, an element of brutality — both within and outside of the clinical environment. My focus was centered more on resistance, recovery, transcendence and assertion of the strength of the main protagonist.

In the past that I was looking at, the medical system was often a source of trauma. Patients of sanatoria for the mentally ill had diagnoses assigned (warranted or not) and procedures were administered as experiments to perfect an imperfect science, and not necessarily for the well-being of the individual.


Each section of Post-Apothecary begins with an epigraph by a notable feminist writer. How do you see these epigraphs contributing to the structure of the book?


The words of Levertov, Brossard, Rich, Marlatt and Brand are a sort of a salvo, a clarion call — these women signal a strength and clarity, and I thought it important to have that presence in the book.


Tell us about your research for Post-Apothecary. What sorts of things did you uncover while you were working on it?


I spent much of one winter in the Library and Archives Canada, working through as many original documents from tuberculosis and psychiatric sanatoria as I could find: admittance forms, permissible activity plans, medical files and physician notes, photos, patients’ letters home, a few biographies.

I was also given a private tour of the Saskatchewan Hospital, a long-term stay psychiatric institution, and spent a lot of time in their archival museum examining early instruments for procedures like lobotomies and shock therapy. They also house documentation on LSD therapy; at their peak, this was the lead institution on experimentation with that.

The riverbank of the North Saskatchewan River, just below the hospital, is the site of over a thousand unnamed numbered graves. If you’d been admitted to Saskatchewan Hospital before diagnostic approaches and treatment capacities shifted in the 1950s and 60s — if you had been taken there — you likely weren’t going to leave.


Which writers have had the greatest influence on your work?


My first influences were nature writers like Annie Dillard and Seamus Heaney. Then I found books by Beckett and Stein. And then, alongside those who wrote the epigraphs, I found the work of Robert Kroetsch. All great influences but they’ve changed over time.


What is the best advice you've been given as a writer?


To remain curious.


What are you working on now?


Mostly I’ve been writing poems in response to art — extending one series framed by Pedro Isztin’s photo installation, Study of Structure and Form, at Ottawa’s Red Wall Gallery and linking it to three of Michèle Provost’s art exhibitions (ABSTrACTS/RéSuMÉS, playlist and vocabulaire) where I tethered poems to my reading of Jeremy Bentham’s letters home to England about his proposed "panopticon" penitentiary.

I’ve been thinking on the idea of the confined being constantly under the gaze, which, I guess, follows a theme from Post-Apothecary. These poems seem to be stalking or circling around the beastly nature latent in ourselves, surveillance and unsubstantiated evidence, and the sleeping mind’s disordered attempt for escape.

Sandra Ridley has received the bpNichol Chapbook Award and the Alfred G. Bailey Prize, and was a finalist for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. Her first book of poetry, Fallout (Hagios Press) won the 2010 Saskatchewan Book Award for Publishing and was shortlisted for the Ottawa Book Award. Post-Apothecary (Pedlar Press) was released in September 2011. Ridley lives in Ottawa.

For more information about Post-Apothecary please visit the Pedlar Press website.

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

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