“This is an hour to be in conversation with these two writers, and find out, How on earth do you make beautiful collections of poetry?”
Gabe Foreman of Montreal, and Sandra Ridley of Ottawa, are here to help us find out.
Foreman’s anthology, entitled An Encyclopedia of Different Types of People, doesn’t disappoint in the hilarity department, beginning with the title. Foreman named the poems after various types of people, and tried to make the book more like a typical encyclopedia by including pictures. Foreman randomly selects a poem by which to introduce the audience to his opus: “Perverts,” he announces to gales of laughter, and then reads a poem that is ordinary and at the same time sharply observant.
Ridley’s book also exists on an edge. Called Post-Apothecary, it explores illness and healing, isolation and reintegration. Ridley describes how the book grew from her fascination with the body’s experience of various types of fevers. The first poem she reads is “Rest Cure,” in which a patient of a sanatorium is supposed to be relaxing, but in which the exhausting treatment leaves “nothing left hidden in her body.”
The first question for our poets is, Where did you find the collection’s structure, and how do you fit the poems into that structure?
Ridley answers first, saying that she became fascinated by isolated communities of vibrant people with a devastating disease. Traditional herbal medicines and their names – belladonna, nightshade – also fascinated her, but what, she wondered, were the side effects of taking such medicines? She did her research, falling in love with not only the medical language but the places where it was used. She toured Fort San, a sanatorium in Saskatchewan, on the sly, and a former groundskeeper gave her a private tour of another old hospital near North Battleford. “Once you have your word-hoard,” Ridley says, “one thing leads to another and it just goes and goes and goes.”
Foreman thought that the encyclopedia format would bring his poems together, and then he realized he was fond of the idea and began to include diagrams (some drawn by himself) and cross-references. “Working Stiffs – see Zombies.” “Blind Dates – see Optimists.” “Navel-gazers – see Woolgatherers.” He was once cornered by a reader who wanted to know: “What are all the different types? Which type am I? Which type are you?” Foreman is adamant that this is not the purpose of the book: he wants his book to poke fun at the idea that you can type or stereotype a person, and the poems’ titles aren’t always indicative of what you will find. Looking for “Little Bundles of Joy”? See “Ankle-Biters”, but not before a pitchfork and a run-over pet have made appearances.
“It’s not like a field guide,” Foreman says.
Both poets struggle to explain how they wrote their poems. Ridley’s terms evoke almost a magical process, distilling an essence of thought and feeling into word-pictures to make them accessible to others – for her, poetry writing seems to be like alchemy, where her knowledge of medicine and the written word guide her through unfamiliar substances of thought and experience. Foreman talks about finding sounds that he likes, and find/replacing words in his poems to create a more pleasing overall sound – for him, poetry writing is an exercise in both musical composition and found poetry (taking a piece already written and removing/substituting/adding to the piece according to a set of predetermined rules).
The act of creating is different for every artist, across all media, and when the floor is opened for questions, specific questions are asked rather than simply, “How?” Both poets answer questions about working chronologically; about the difficulties of deciding which poems go in what order for an anthology; about choosing (or creating) illustrations; about inventing new forms of poetry to communicate one’s ideas; and about when their identities as writers began and who encouraged them.
To the last question, Foreman replies that a high school Writer’s Craft course got him started on poetry; Ridley explains that an Environmental Studies course in university gave her a new perspective on writing and brought out her own creative side. Foreman is encouraged by a close group of peer editors to which he belongs; Ridley finds encouragement in a peer circle of her own.
As audience members join the poets for one-on-one chats, it seems clear that THIN AIR is yet another circle of peers, strengthening readers and writers. What will tonight bring?