Sue Goyette mostly tries to swim
Sue Goyette is a Halifax-based poet. Her most recent collection, Ocean, was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry prize in 2014.
André Forget: You grew up in Montreal, but currently live in Nova Scotia and are quite involved in the literature scene there. How have those two very different places shaped your sensibilities as a writer?
Sue Goyette: I grew up on the South Shore of Montreal when there was still a fair-sized English community. Many people, including my parents, didn’t have the cultural wherewithal, insight, or adaptability to understand the language politics in Quebec, and I grew up Anglophone at a time when many English families were moving out of the province. Consequently, I remember feeling on the outside of the very rich and vital French culture, one that I still feel a deep connection to, that is an essential part of my home, but that wasn’t part of growing up. I think being on the outskirts, or the outside, is one way I still orientate myself when I write.
When I left Quebec over 25 years ago, I found myself responding, first, to the geography of Nova Scotia. Seeing the expanse of ocean, that indelible horizon line, realigned me physically. I remember feeling my body slowing down. And I remember the humility I felt at that expanse and the reckoning that came with that humility. The vibrant and diverse people of Halifax were an unexpected and delightful bonus. Both the expanse of wildness at the edge of my city and the wildness contained in the great community I live in serve how I come to poetry now, I think. That solid and reliable source of company keeps me grounded while I explore further afield from that reliability into the unknown and the silent.
André Forget: There is a mythic quality to a lot of the poems in Ocean, and in part this seems to be inspired by the landscape, the mysterious and unpredictable quality of the ocean itself. The ocean is many things in this collection, but it never seems to be only a body of water. Where does that come from, for you, that sense of the mythic, or magical landscape?
Sue Goyette: It’s been an interesting process for me to open my perspective to include and welcome the mysterious and unpredictable qualities I find in my life. When I started thinking about the ocean, it seemed a natural way to respond to something we actually know very little about. I think mythology is a way we can name or map that unknowing. We create narratives that help with our understanding of how things happen or work or simply posit possibility and a new way to consider these things. This understanding creates connection, relationship, and this connection, this acknowledgement that we are in the company of such an extraordinary and complex ecosystem as the Atlantic, seemed an important position from which to write.
I was also interested in writing about the ocean in a way that would make readers pause and reflect on their own relationship to it. This is key for me. I think our time on the planet is going to involve a lot of this kind of reflection, this kind of shift or readdress. One of the tasks of a poet, I think, is to begin that investigation in an imaginative and, therefore, hospitable way, by way of invitation.
Haligonians still speak fondly of the medieval fog trade’s halcyon days.
André Forget: There is a long tradition of writing about the sea—you might say that insofar as The Odyssey is a struggle between Odysseus and Neptune, it is one of the founding themes in the Western canon. What was it like writing from within that tradition? Did you feel any pressure to conform to certain tropes, or use certain images?
Sue Goyette: I didn’t feel any pressure while I was writing. Foolishly, perhaps. But feeling pressure invites the outside world and its opinion into a space I try to keep unpolluted of that company while I write. In order to create, to jump into the deep end, I try and stay disciplined and true to the creative impulse by tending to the necessary silence I need. I try to uninvite the worry that instigates the tendency or habit to conform and the fear that I will somehow fail. If any of that gets through the door, then I may as well call it a day. There’s no real moving forward in that company. There’s plenty of time for that fear and pressure once the writing is done, and I come out of my room thinking, oh god, what have I done? Then it’s a Fearfest, a terror that I’ve somehow really messed it up. I think this is more about the vulnerability it takes to write in an open and open-hearted way than anything else.
André Forget: Canada, in particular, has a long history of literary regionalism. You might say, in fact, that Canada’s literary history is regional. As a transplant to the Maritimes, did this affect your approach to writing? Did it cause you any difficulties?
Sue Goyette: Not really. Not my approach to writing. I suppose it would have if I thought about it too much. I think those types of classifications are to define and corral writing after the writing’s been done which, by then, is out of my hands.
André Forget: Poem number three begins with the line, “Halifax, once the capital of the medieval fog trade, / still has its ancient fog-making bellows.” The rest of the poem tells us about the decline, fall, and fallout of the fog trade. It’s a conceit both whimsical and haunting, and that mood of sadness and tongue-in-cheek humour continues throughout the book. Where did that come from, that sense of playful seriousness?
Sue Goyette: I think that playful seriousness is the way I’ve always responded to challenge. Thankfully. A serious “sink or swim” reflex developed at an early age in my emotional evolution. So, mostly, I try to swim.
Generally, when I think of the state of the world, I feel grief, deep sadness, and also, paradoxically, a playfulness, a curiosity for how we can make our part of it better. This, I think, is an essential resiliency and it keeps me getting out of bed in the morning as a willing participant in how all of our challenges will unfold. I’m a big fan of the human spirit and our basic goodness, I’m a big fan of how we adapt and persevere. I try to build those fires in my writing and still honour the very real sadness we experience when we read or experience poverty, racism, inequality, the loss of habitats and entire species, the effect of climate change, and business/industry/politics’ relentless refusal of accountability. If I wrote from just that perspective, it would seriously be hard to keep moving, so I try to keep it balanced, I try to invite engagement.