Glen Sorestad on Writing in Nature and the Nature of Writing: an Interview

By: frans
December 11, 2010

Back in October, WONK had the privilege of hosting a poetry reading with two fantastic poets and orators, Jenna Butler and Glen Sorestad. The night of poetry was well attended and all were glowing with the embers thrown by Jenna and Glen’s reading. Shortly before the event, WONK’s Jonathan Meakin gave us an in depth interview with Jenna Butler where we learned about Jenna’s processes, as both a writer and a publisher. Recently, WONK caught up with Glen Sorestad with hopes of learning a bit about the things that impact his poetry and how, in turn, his  poetry impacts the world.

Glen Sorestad is a Saskatoon based poet with a large body of work, spanning several decades. His poetry has been translated widely and is enjoyed in many languages, throughout the world. Glen has been a recipient of many awards for his poetry, the most recent being his investment in the Order of Canada. Like Butler, Sorestad has been engaged in both the writing and publishing end of poetry, the latter through his establishment of Thistledown Press, which he and his wife, Sonia, ran until about ten years ago when they passed on a  twenty-five year legacy of ground-breaking  publishing, one that continues today. WONK caught up with Glen via email and he was kind enough to provide insightful answers to the following questions.

WONK: As I was reading What We Miss (Thistledown Press), I often found myself  feeling as though I was taking a long walk through the seasons of a year, each interval with its own unique sense of description. Does your poetry move with the seasons? Is it inclined, like many northern dwellers, to undergo mood swings from season to season? How do seasonal changes affect your writing and habits, are they part of the process of writing or are they, as for many of us, simply obstacles in the way of getting on with life?

GS: Yes, in many respects my poetry is definitely in tune with the seasons and that is because the natural world has always been a very important part of my life, especially since I grew up from age ten in a rural area of east-central Saskatchewan.  Being attuned to nature has always been important to me and I would imagine that anyone who reads through the entirety of my poetry would very likely suggest that the mood or tone of the writing is often affected by the seasons. I am not at all convinced that my writing habits change greatly during certain seasons, but I do know that I find writing comes more easily and more frequently whenever I am away from home and especially if I am in a more natural setting – in the mountains, at the seashore, at a lake writing colony. In the dead of winter, I seldom write very much new work (unless I’m somewhere else), but instead choose to work on the rewriting and revising process. Winter, it seems, is for hibernation. Or escape.

WONK: Your latest collection of poems, What We Miss, is one of over twenty that you have had published. With so much writing experience, is there anything about writing poetry that still surprises you? Does anything ever leap onto the page and catch you off guard? If so, what types of ideas or images are they, and what do you do with them?

GS: One of the joys of the writing process for me is that the element of surprise is never very far away.  Sometimes I think it is a genuine surprise, right at the beginning, that the poems still come up from that mysterious well of remembered images, voices, tales, impressions. The unexpected word or phrase that leaps onto the page and catches me entirely off-guard, the suddenly remembered image (now where did that come from?), the phrase that reaches back to childhood, anything that seems to appear as if by some mysterious and unheard calling, something unbidden that offers itself to the poem and finds its way into the flow of the lines. Surprise keeps me writing. If the day should come when I am no longer surprised by things I write, then I expect that will be the signal to quit writing altogether. When I write something new, I want and expect to be surprised by the unexpected. I anticipate it and I’m disappointed if it doesn’t happen.

WONK: As we are — beautifully and sometimes hilariously– reminded in Road Apples (Rubicon Press), you and your wife travel extensively. During those trips, have you ever come upon a place that threatens to pull you from Saskatoon permanently? If such a place exists, what type of place is it? What is it about it that beckons you? What is it about home that makes you stay?

GS: I love to travel and explore different places with their different landscapes and features and there are times when I am in another land when I can very well believe for a moment that I could live happily in that very different place. Besides, I am of Nordic stock and people of my heritage seem to be able to make their homes quite happily anywhere – and do. But this feeling doesn’t last very long for me. The prairies have been my home now for over 60 years and I need this particular landscape to nourish me and to keep me on an even keel.  In the end, I can’t imagine leaving Saskatoon, other than winter reprieves, for it has grown around me like a comfortable jacket or sweater. It holds me. Friends, long established relationships – they hold me, too.

Having said that, I find New Mexico an intriguing place because in so many ways it feels comfortable to me when I’m there and I’ve been visiting it on an almost yearly basis for close to 30 years. It is part of the Great Plains and may have many geographical differences, but it has a familiar feel like an old glove. When I am among New Mexicans, it feels very close to being among prairie folk from Saskatchewan or Alberta. It seems to me that we share similar worldviews and attitudes influenced by the great openness and the distances, that huge sky, the incredible play of light and landscape.

WONK: Your poetry has been translated into several different languages and is enjoyed all over the world. Does this international readership surprise you in any way? What do you think draws a reader in Norway or Slovenia to poems that were conceived, born, and raised on the Canadian prairies?

GS: No, I cannot say I am surprised to have an international readership because most of my poetry is about people and place, along with the natural world — something to which all readers can relate. Walking my morning round through the seasons in Lakewood Park is not much different from someone walking a familiar neighbourhood route through the seasons anywhere else in the world, be it across the heathered hills of Scotland, or along a fjord-side path in Norway, or through Central Park in New York.

Of course, there will be a few things that would clearly identify my poems as Canadian, but some purely Canadian or localized references are not going to stand in the way of a reader’s enjoyment of the poem. Part of our understanding of the landscapes and features of other countries has come to us through our reading of poems by poets like Burns or Wordsworth or Yeats or Yevtushenko. We have often carried our “imagined” visuals of certain places before we ever come to visit them

WONK: In June you were appointed to and in November invested in the Order of Canada. Although this is far from the first award you have received, how does, if at all, such an award affect the way you write? Do you feel any added pressure to be more or less of anything in your writing when you are given such a formal reminder of the impact that your writing has?

GS: While any form of award is always appreciated by any writer as a form of recognition and affirmation, I don’t believe that it has, nor should it have, any effect whatsoever on one’s writing. Awards have to do with the public individual and writing has to do with the private individual. The Order of Canada will not change the way I write or what I write in any way, shape or form, nor should it cause me to second-guess anything that I choose to write, or that chooses to be written. It is strictly a public designation that has nothing to do with the creative process.

WONK: Over the years of your literary career, what has changed the most about your writing? On the other hand, what has stayed constant throughout this same time, what are the things you have been unwilling to let go of or to revise? What would you like to change, but have been unable to.

GS: I am probably not the best judge of how my poetry may have changed over the forty-some years I have been writing. I’m sure there are many obvious changes, such as my tendency to use more traditional stanzaic forms more often now than the free-flowing and loose line structures that were part of my earliest writing. I also have tended to take a more traditional approach to the punctuating of poems, as well as the use of capitalization, as I wrote more and learned more about my craft. I would hope that an objective reader would see the changes as being for the better.

What has stayed constant for me are the main themes or concerns of my writing. I am still writing about what interests me and that is people — the always-fascinating interactions of humans trying to understand one another and themselves. I am still responding to the natural world as I did in my earliest poems and have been doing ever since because that world of nature and the turn of the seasons continues to seize my attention and my interest.

I don’t know how to answer the rather intriguing question of what I may have been unwilling to let go of or to revise. I am a tireless reviser and rewriter and so I just accept that anything I write will have to go through the process of assiduous, ongoing revision until I’m satisfied. I won’t let go of a poem until I’m ready, but I haven’t held anything back for a reason other than that I didn’t think it was good enough. Some poems just aren’t meant to be – and I accept that. I just move on to another poem.

What would I like to change? There are many published poems that I have been sorely tempted to rewrite entirely and in my last Selected Poems (Leaving Holds Me Here) I did make some changes in earlier poems. But I am beginning to feel that perhaps earlier poems ought to stand as a measure of what and how I wrote at that time because I am afraid that to alter poems after 40 years is to impose an entirely different set of poetic values on the earlier me. I think I’ll just let them be whatever they are.

WONK: Thank you

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