Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On the idea of a secret (Part 1)

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On the idea of a secret (Part 1)

“The idea of a secret that will be revealed always results in one of two scenarios: death and destruction, or self-discovery and recovery beyond our wildest dreams of unification. And in the greatest of sagas, both at the same time.” Mary Ruefle


My brother came home from school to find all but one of his angelfish floating, belly up, in his aquarium. I killed his fish—it’s taken me over thirty-five years to say it. Truth has a way of surfacing. Of course, I didn’t mean to kill them, but lack of intention didn’t mean I wouldn’t feel shame when his fish drifted up. I still feel badly about it.

To my four-year-old-mind, his angelfish needed a bath. We wheat farm children, pariahs, Ridley turkeys of southeast Saskatchewan, bathed once every week, every Sunday, in a tin tub hauled up from the basement, filled with hand-pumped water boiled in stove top pots; the youngest in first (me) and the father last. (Eight siblings.) I remember this.

If we were given baths, why not my brother’s fish? I remember taking them out of the tank, one by one, and washing them carefully, methodically, by hand.

This history isn’t material I’d include in my poems, and it’s not even the most pivotal of experiences or the darkest, but here I am writing about it in this post. What compels us to integrate moments like this into our work? Why in one form and not another? Or why do we care not to include it at all? The absence of this kind of real, lived substance in my work speaks to my need for compartmentalization and feeling necessity to keep secrets, especially the dark ones, the appalling ones, the life-altering ones, private. But isn’t that what the space of poetry can be for?

But keeping secrets sometimes keeps us alive. It’s true. I do shy away from putting my history into my poems. I shy away from many things. I do negotiate how much of my own experience I’m willing to bring to my work. I’m wary of my own experience. If I include any truth, I obfuscate it. And maybe I’m no different than anyone else. There’s always something lost and something new that’s generated in transference.

Dickinson says, tell it slant. And for the most part, I agree with her. I’m concerned about protecting the emotions that I associate with pivotal moments, and I’m protective of the others with whom I share these moments. There are always secrets. The possibility of betrayal (if that’s the right word) gives me pause. The closest I came to writing intimate, autobiographically based poems, was in my first book, Fallout—though much of its narrative belongs to my mother. Years later, I still feel remorse for exposing elements of her life that she worked hard at keeping secret. Her unspoken things: isolation on the prairie, vicious domestic abuse, and the death of her first-born daughter. I never asked if I could convey her experiences or my impressions of them. Here again, in the present, my words are a betrayal. I betray. But in a way, my mother’s experience, her story, her secret is also mine.

For every writer—for every one of us—truth surfaces. I recognize that in this post I fail Dickinson, but this post is far from poetry. For comfort, I’ll end with words from Louise Glück. “The secrets we choose to betray lose power over us.”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Sandra Ridley

Sandra Ridley’s first full-length collection of poetry, Fallout, won the 2010 Saskatchewan Book Award for publishing, the Alfred G. Bailey prize, and was a finalist for the Ottawa Book Award. Her second book, Post-Apothecary, was short-listed for the 2012 ReLit and Archibald Lampman Awards. Also in 2012, Ridley won the international festival Of Authors’ Battle of the Bards and was featured in The University of Toronto’s Influency Salon. Twice a finalist for the Robert Kroetsch Award for innovative poetry, Ridley is the author of two chapbooks: Rest Cure, and Lift, for which she was co-recipient of the bpNichol Chapbook Award. Her latest book is The Counting House (BookThug 2013). She lives in Ottawa.

You can contact Sandra throughout the month of September with questions and comments at

Go to Sandra Ridley’s Author Page