Gillian Sze is a Montreal-based poet who studied creative writing at Concordia University and who has already achieved numerous accolades for two books of poetry, Fish Bones and The Anatomy of Clay (recommended here in the Voice). Recently she took some time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about childhood, sensitivity, and feeding the muse.
Poetry: “Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”
– Marianne Moore
What in your childhood pointed you to poetry?
So many things: the plum tree in my backyard, the small space between the garage and the fence that I pretended was a secret passageway, the mishmash of dialects in my family, the stacks of scrap paper I was given to draw on, the library down the street, the dinners I skipped as I sat in my room reading, the typewriter I broke, the record player I broke, etc.
On Sensitivity: “The Glint of Light on Broken Glass”
There’s that memorable line from Chekhov: “don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” I delight in tiny, unassuming but meaningful details. I’ve always been an observer, an eavesdropper, a snooper. I wrote this book at a time when I was commuting two hours a day, working a job I didn’t enjoy, and feeling particularly estranged from everything around me. So I’m sure all those things played a part in my process.
An Electrifying Place
In my first year of university, I transferred over credits from my high school calculus class, which allowed me to drop my math course. I replaced math with a full-year creative writing class taught by David Bergen. What an electrifying place to be for a young writer! David was a brilliant teacher (and still is, for me) and his class changed my academic trajectory. After that year, I moved to Montreal and continued university at Concordia in English literature and creative writing.
If I remember correctly, one of the first poems that started the project of The Anatomy of Clay is “Floral.” My kitchen window at the time faced a parking lot, and I would spy on my neighbour and watch him water his plants in the evening. His window of green was a nice break from the concrete dinginess of what divided us. That’s when I started to observe obsessively the people around me.
A Mythic Montréal
Nicole Brossard writes the best passages about Montreal in She Would Be the First Sentence of My Next Novel:
“She would have liked Montréal to glitter like a northern jewel in the consciousness of restless minds which, the world over, dream of somewhere else. She dreamed of a mythic Montréal, infinitely desirable, like Buenos Aires had become for her. She said that in order for a city to enter the imagination, it must enter literature.”
I like the idea of a “mythic Montréal.” While I’ve been here for ten years now, and it feels like “home,” it isn’t really. I don’t know it all; I don’t always understand its politics, its construction work, or its people. I think that because I’m not from here, I can let Montreal remain suspended in my imagination, in fantasy. I don’t want to be embedded in the city, but sit on it, like dew on grass. I want to remain confused, intrigued, and uncomfortable. From a distance, I can keep it a space of invention and story.
How do you feed your creative self?
I like getting my hands into everything. It’s easiest to reach out to good literature, good films, good art, but It’s important to stay open to the world in general. So I try to do other things like compost, conjugate verbs, write letters, and study the movements of tennis players. I want to be learning. I need space and quiet for that, but I want there always to be something new at my fingertips.
On the Horizon
My latest book, Peeling Rambutan, came out this spring with Gaspereau Press. I also finished up a collaborative manuscript with friend and writer Alison Strumberger. What else? I’m trying to decide what colour to paint my walls. I’m stuck between “heavy sugar” and “spun cotton.”