8 random questions, crowdsourced from Canadian authors.
Griffin Prize finalist Sue Goyette on literary prize culture, emojis and rehearsed comebacks
The Griffin Prize-shortlisted author of Ocean fields questions from the Canadian literati, including what keeps her writing, how she feels about bestsellers, and her interest in dance.
1. Drew Hayden Taylor asks: Other than writing poetry, what other art form (i.e. plays, movies, music, visual art) do you wish you possessed or had a better grasp of?
I like watching dance. It intrigues me to think of the systems of movement someone like Pina Bausch created to articulate ideas or feelings that almost defy articulation. There’s a kind of physical narration that is at once startling and original, familiar but entirely beneath words while defying being defined. I like the muscularity and flow of dance, the body being the body. And the way dancers’ bodies don’t just translate concept into movement, into groove and reach but how dance reinvigorates the idea of body, of what it’s capable of, the beauty of its machinery, the contraption of it. It makes me incredibly aware of my own body, the simple movements it’s used to making, the reaching, the bending. And the (many, many) movements it can’t pull off. Compagnie Marie Chouinard has come to Halifax a couple of times and it’s astounding how the audience responded. Our reaction was primal, we sat and watched dancers using the same bodies we had, and by proxy, by extension and imagination, their strength soared in us, we shared the leaps, the landings and when it was done, we howled. It was really fortifying and I want to know more about it.
2. Kate Pullinger asks: Is there anything in your own life that you would never write about?
Yes. And no. There’s a generosity to making art and I’m willing to use my experiences but I’m careful not to trespass by making something public that isn’t mine to do so. Having said that, there’s an essence to any experience that may not belong to me but is transferable into material and isn’t directly linked, autobiographically, to the person the experience belongs to. When it’s used in a poem, that essence widens into a more functional truth/authenticity that deepens the work, I think.
3. Andrew Pyper asks: Do you ever worry that the whole practice of writing and reading, while enjoyable and perhaps gratifying, simply doesn't matter very much?
Daily. But I also think about how writing and reading defies the nine-to-five schedule, how a writing practice invites a presence and vigour that keeps me awake, curious. How could that be a bad thing? And reading is such a valuable mirror, such a hospitable way to encounter ourselves and get nudged back into the right direction while heightening our imaginative skills and a wider sense of self. It’s not so much about my work but more about my writing practice and how it’s become who I am, in my home, in my city. I think artists are an important spice in our communities by making something that defies commercial value, that challenges a system that mainly uses commerce as a way of defining success and I think our contribution invites a kind of thinking that suggests there’s more to it than that. So there’s that but, yes, sometimes daily.
4. Pasha Malla asks: Please quote one egregiously stupid criticism—either specific or general—of your writing, and address, refute or mock it.
Okay, this question freaked me out because I went there. I know, by heart, the line I’d quote and have rehearsed, practiced how I’d refute and, yes, mock it. I’ve always imagined this confrontation happening in an elevator of all places and, for once, I’d say the right thing, in the right tone with just the right amount of confidence, decorum and badassery. And while fantasizing about this, the scene, inevitably, would progress into something closer to a weird public meltdown (what are you all looking at??) with me, red-faced, sputtering ineffectually and too loudly. So I did think about this question and then I thought: f@#$! that.
5. Cordelia Strube asks: What keeps you writing?
I don’t know what to call it. It’s what I’m wired to do. I feel pale when I don’t write, not quite myself and so invigorated when I do. It’s righteous and proper work and I’m glad for it.
6. William Deverell asks: How much faith do you put in bestseller lists?
None. They’re outside noise. I like how I hear about really good books, I like the lean in, the: have you read? the: I’ll lend you mine. It’s great when a good book makes the bestseller list but that’s not where I go to find them.
7. Timothy Taylor asks: Can you comment on prize culture in literature and what it’s done for good (and ill?) in the life of a typical writer?
Any money in a writer's hand equates to time and I’m all for that. And recognition is always affirming and fills our tank so we can go a little further, so that’s a good thing as well. Prizes, I think, can challenge our relationship to our idea of public and to our work. I think we have to treat any kind of disruption as disruption. Of course, we are grateful and gracious but then we get back to work. The appetite that prizes instigate, the need for that level of affirmation has to be treated for what it is: a distraction to the real work. It also creates a sense of competition that I don’t think is necessarily helpful for our karass, especially in these times when there’s not a lot of meat on the bone. Instead of being happy for our peers, we sometimes feel slighted and overlooked. Prize culture also sets up an erroneous value system. While good writers are taking their turn winning a prize, there’s a herd of good writers out there writing. Prizes narrow the big picture and it’s helpful to remember that.
8. Drew Hayden Taylor asks: Do you think you or your books would have been successful, say... fifty or a hundred years ago? Or has the style of writing changed too much in the passing decades?
It’s astounding to think how much our planet has changed in just twenty years, let alone fifty. And how our language reflects this change, sprawling like hot lava into emojis and LOLs. I can only write of my time, in the vernacular of my time. I have no idea what anyone would think of my work fifty or a hundred years ago. Except family members who I hope would smile that I-don’t-have-a-clue-but-you’re-one-of-us smiles and tell me they loved it which I wouldn’t believe for a minute but, still, would be grateful which is kind of what happens now.
Sue Goyette lives in Halifax. She's published a novel and four books of poems. Her most recent collection is Ocean (Gaspereau Press, April 2013).