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A Q&A with Gillian Sze

GILLIAN SZE is a writer and teacher. She is the author of nine poetry collections, including Peeling Rambutan (Gaspereau Press, 2014), Redrafting Winter (BuschekBooks, 2015), and Panicle (ECW Press, 2017), which were finalists for the QWF's A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. Her first picture book, The Night is Deep and Wide, is forthcoming from Orca Book in Spring 2021. Sze's work has been supported by the Canada Council of the Arts and the Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, and has received awards such as the University of Winnipeg Writers' Circle Prize and the 3Macs carte blanche Prize. She studied Creative Writing and English Literature at Concordia University and received a Ph.D. in Études anglaises from Université de Montréal. Gillian currently teaches creative writing at Concordia University. You can find her here.

Who is your favorite author?

I have too many—and they’re always changing as I change. But to name a few constant friends: Anne Carson, William Carlos Williams, Yehuda Amichai, Fred Wah, Lydia Davis, Dionne Brand, and Sappho.

Did you always prefer writing poetry?

I began with short fiction—at least what I thought was veryshort fiction. I see now that they were more like prose poems. As I continued to write, I discovered the line break, the stanza, and the spaces between words. Poetry is the genre I gravitate to, but there are still days when I like to play with sentences.

Tell me about your writing process. Do you have a favorite location to write? Do you prefer writing by hand or typing? (If by hand: Pen or pencil?) Do you need silence? Some kind of background noise?

Nowadays I write when I can. I’m a mother of two kids under 5 so there isn’t a lot of opportunity for long periods of quiet. I carry a notebook with me. Fine point black ink pens are my favourite. I type in my Notes app when I need to get something down quickly. Whether I’m in the dark breastfeeding or riding the bus, I’m usually thinking about the next line, the next poem.

Often in Creative Writing we do exercises like eavesdropping on conversations, paying attention in the metro, etc. Where do you seek inspiration to write? Do you constantly pay attention to your surroundings?

I think being acutely attentive is an early sign (or symptom!) of a curious and creative mind. Poetry is how I process events, emotions, history, struggle. It’s also how I celebrate the mundane and the miraculous. I pay attention to the trees, the afternoon light, the way pencil sounds on paper, the songs my son makes up, and the first words of my daughter now that she is starting to speak.

How do you decide where and what to submit? Do you often send works you already have or do you write them to fit the submission requirements?

I think submitting work is best when the call finds me. If an upcoming themed issue fits something I already have lying around, I’m encouraged to return to it and whip it into shape. To have an expectant audience is revitalizing.

Sometimes I work the other way around. One year, my writing resolution was to send poems out somewhere once a month. That gave me a regular deadline. Journal guidelines and themes gave me necessary constraints. This goal kept up my rhythm of writing. Even if nobody accepted the poems, at least I was writing.

How has a degree in English and Creative Writing helped your writing process?

A degree in creative writing and literature has trained me to be a close and critical reader as well as a more precise writer. The right teachers and peers can be invaluable during the early stages when one is developing a voice and a style. I learned how to receive and handle feedback, as well as how and when to make editorial decisions for myself. More importantly, I learned that—as with any art—not everybody will like what you do. But when readers connect with your words … that is always a good feeling.

Do you have any tips for emerging writers on how to deal with rejections? It can be frustrating and discouraging, especially when we don't know what to fix, as rejection letters rarely come with an explanation.

I read something recently that my friend, poet Ani Gjika, wrote about rejection:

“Literary rejections are a reminder that our words have their own journey, too. We don't get to decide where they go. Which can be liberating because it directs us back to what matters: writing on. Literary rejection is an opportunity to meet our words again, ask them what they want.”

I think this is a gracious and humbling attitude to have. After a rejection, put the poem aside and forget about it. Look at it again later with new eyes. See if, after some emotional and temporal distance, you can better determine the text’s weak spots. And, as Gjika says, ask the words what they want. Also, know that while your poem may not fit one journal, another one may very happily house it.

"Insomniac Conjectures", from your collection of poetry The Anatomy of Clay, is one of my favorite poems. You came up with beautiful and impacting similes. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Thank you! I wrote that book when I lived in the village and had to commute an hour to my office job in the west island. I spent a lot of time observing the urban subject—a process that is both objective as well as reflective. “Insomniac Conjectures” is an example of the latter, where I select external details in order to reveal the interiority of the speaker.

Of the poems you've written, do you have a favorite?

More and more, I think I’m only writing different versions of the same poem. Or maybe different parts to one larger poem. Perhaps my favourite part of the process is when I write through something difficult and come out of it with more clarity.

Interviewed by Marcia Ramos


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