Why Griffin Poetry Prize finalist Sandra Ridley cuts up her poems

Sandra Ridley is a finalist for the $60,000 Griffin Poetry Prize, the richest prize for poetry in Canada, for her collection Silvija. The judges described Silvija, which explores love and loss through five elegies, as "potent and beguiling." 

The winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize will be announced on June 8, 2017.

We asked Ridley to take the CBC Books Magic 8 Q&A and answer eight randomly selected questions from eight different writers.

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1. Marie-Claire Blais asks, "What is, for you, the spiritual aspect of writing?"

Tough question! Maybe it's when I feel that the poem I'm working on has started to develop harmonics with the atmosphere that its content is sourced from, when the words begin to find their own frequency, resonate and vibrate into a feeling. It gives me a sense of the universal hum. I think that's tethered to sacredness and sacredness is fundamentally spiritual.

2. Jo Walton asks, "What's the thing you've written that has most affected other people? And how do you feel about that?"

The inner critic in me about my own work is vocal and constant so I have a hard time believing someone when they've said my writing affected them. One comment that I've taken to heart came from a woman who heard me read from Silvija and claimed the work validated her own traumatic experiences in ways that years of PTSD therapy had not. Her courage and willingness to talk about the darkness of her past enriched me.

3. Madeleine Thien asks, "When does talking to oneself become a problem? Or, when does not talking to oneself become a problem?"

I swear out loud to myself and about myself - lots and loudly - too much and with horrible profanity! It's unrestrained and shows to me, at the time, that I'm stressed, anxious and not coping well. When I swear outside of the house, it worries me.

4. Mariko Tamaki asks, "How much of your writing process involves actual physical writing these days? Do you go write to the computer or do you work things out with pen and ink first?"

The books I read become filled with pencil marks. When the work affects me, I chicken-scratch snippets of my own lines in margins and endpapers, which I erase after transcribing them to a Word doc. In the summer months, I take a laptop down to a dock, along with a pile of books. I edit on paper, which I eventually print out, cut up and reorganize, ad nauseam.

5. Gary Barwin asks, "How or where does a piece of writing begin for you?"

I'm smitten with archaic and abandoned words - the more obscure, the more I'm smitten, especially if I've never encountered them before or if they're made with complex sounds. I compile lists of them, often pages long, and eventually they begin to speak to each other.

6. Phil Hall asks, "Do certain words give you the pip? Why can't you stand them? If it isn't about what they mean, what's it about?"

Yes - pip and provocation! Not the words themselves, but their incongruous use, especially in poetry. If the word (its sound or its meaning) creates a feeling that doesn't fit with the arcing tone, deviates from the work's atmosphere, it pushes me out. Why was it used? Maybe it's a disjuncture with a purpose and I'm insensitive to that, but other times the word seems utterly incompatible.

7. Padma Viswanathan asks, "How do others' books figure in your own writing or process?"

Other people's work is nourishment - particularly when a writer opens up the possibilities for language and when they are fearless in taking risk.

8. Michael Winter asks, "Do you have a writer's outfit? A costume you put on before you write?"

When editing in the cold months, I go part wolf.

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