Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with Sue Chenette

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Sue Chenette

Sue Chenette's second full length poetry collection is The Bones of His Being, new this season from Guernica Editions as part of their Essential Poets series.

You can catch Sue reading at the Guernica Editions Poetry Launch, this Sunday, April 29, 2012. Check out all the event details here.

Sue talks to Open Book about her father, who inspired the collection, a poetic centre of gravity and some of her favourite recent reads.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, The Bones of His Being.

Sue Chenette:

Its beginnings were conversational musings with a Paris poet friend on the idea of a “memory box” composed of poetry. I have mementos — my dad’s wrist watch, a wallet, a square nail he carried in a pocket. Sitting at my desk, I’d take one out and finger it, turn it over until it offered up some sense of his life. I was trying to call him back. Or trying to find who he was: this father, whom I loved and was sure I knew so well, but who deepened, in death, into the mystery of his own being. The poems were my search for him. In the end, they were also about a daughter’s relationship with her father.


Writing this book must have been an intense experience, given the personal nature of your subject matter. What did you find to be most difficult and most rewarding during the writing process?


My dad fought depression, on and off, throughout his life; eventually he succumbed to it. The heart of the book is a sequence about his death; about pain, need, and blame, family grudges and love, moments of solace, grief and loss. It might seem that re-entering those last days would be the most difficult thing, but the need to make grief into its own song was greater than any reluctance.

One challenge, though, was finding the space in which to begin. I knew these poems belonged together, and would require a sustained involvement in painful memories. It wasn’t something I could undertake in odd moments. In the autumn of 2004 at Banff, in the Wired Writing Programme, I wrote in the long quiet mornings in my room, with Mt. Rundel outside my window. In the fall of 2008 I returned to Banff for a second Wired Writing session, and in that surrounding — one part mountain, firs, and aspen, one part solitude, one part the companionship of fellow writers and one part the support of astute and generous mentors (Sue Wheeler in 2004 and Barry Dempster in 2008) — I wrote a second difficult group of poems, remembering a hospital stay near the end of my dad’s life.

Most rewarding were the moments when the lines found my dad, caught him as he’d been in his plaid wool shirt, or helping a farmer blast out a ditch. Better than photographs — because the sense of him hovered between the lines, and couldn’t be used up the way a picture can by repeated viewing. When the book was finished, there was a kind of settling of the grief. Not a cancelling of it. But as if the poems put their hands on grief’s shoulders and said there, there.


What themes or images do you notice turning up repeatedly in your writing?


Images of trees, and also birds, found their way into The Bones of His Being. It could hardly have been otherwise, since all of nature, and especially trees, had an importance for my dad that was spiritual. He kept logs on our family trips, and in one of them I found this quote, copied from a plaque in the University of Minnesota Arboretum: “‘About you is Nature’s book open to all who are willing to search and read … leaves are living pages on which may be found the cryptic answers to many mysteries.’ E. P. Felt.”

The images of nature — grosbeak on a pine branch, a patch of Joe Pyeweed, an ovenbird trailing its wing — are a counterpoint to the images of the gaunt body and stubborn gestures of a man nearing death. Alongside themes of depression and loss, and the conflicting and overlapping emotions encompassed in family love, they speak to the idea that life’s inevitable grief is balanced, at least in part, by moments of happiness — of grace — when we find ourselves attuned to the colour and movement of the natural world.

Other recurring images, both here and in Slender Human Weight, are the small material artifacts of our lives, which seem to me to be porous: absorbing random moments, releasing something like memory, not quite graspable, which asks to be dreamed back into being.


You've written a collection and several chapbooks prior to this. Have you found your
writing process changing from book to book or do you approach projects the same way
each time?


I think it was Carl Dennis who said in a TV interview that he wrote poems as they occurred to him, and then, eventually, one came along that formed a center of gravity, and others, already written, clustered around it. I remember feeling relieved that someone who had won the Pulitzer worked this way, as it describes my usual non-method. The Bones of His Being was different; I knew early on that it would be a book of poems about my father.


Is there a book you=ve read recently that knocked your socks off?


Some happy intuition led me to pick up Hilary Clark’s The Dwelling of Weather, waiting on my shelf ever since it was published in 2003. Her poems are full of luminous particulars that feel like stepping stones through suspended time. I’m also engrossed in The Art of Syntax, by Ellen Bryant Voigt: a technical, but wonderfully lucid, examination of the interplay between poetry’s line and syntax. Her close readings of poems by Stanley Kunitz and Elizabeth Bishop, among others, are worth the price of admission.


What are you working on now?


I seem to be back to my non-method, letting the poems come as they will. Several have begun to cluster, though, around two that I inadvertently gave the same title, “Deferred Maintenance.”

Sue Chenetteis the author of three chapbooks: The Time Between Us, A Transport of Grief and Solitude in Cloud and Sun as well as the full length poetry collections Slender Human Weight and The Bones of His Being.

For more information about The Bones of His Being please visit the Guernica Editions website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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