An Interview with Sue Goyette
This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.
Hannah Green: It sounds like myth and poetry are perhaps more closely related than I had thought. They certainly do perform in the same way—as a means of understanding. You mention you are inspired to create new myths. I find that so interesting! Would you like to share what myths you have created and what the impact has been?
Sue Goyette: I think one of the ways poetry is so vital and, by proximity or extension, myth, is how it can witness and then respond to our times with a metaphorical translation. I’m really interested in how poetry can assert another species of narrative into the conversation with its imaginative design and construction. And how it asserts wildness back into language. Poetry reminds words of their fur and their hoofs, of their seaweed and their hurricanes and, in the same way, reminds us of the more complete version of ourselves. In this way, it’s a crucial lifeline and energy source for a variety of kinds of languages: visual, sensual, emotional, political, animal, botanical, aquatic, astronomical. The list is endless and poetry is the host inviting us to a collective conversation where anything is possible. To that end, there’s a vulnerability involved in being in the proximity of poetry, of being comfortable not knowing the lay of the land but going forward anyway, whether it’s reading poems or writing them. These are good things to practice right now, I think. Crucial, even.
I launched a book about a year ago called The Brief Reincarnation of a Girl. It’s a book-length poem about a young girl who had been diagnosed with a whole slew of mental health disorders when she was two. She was strongly medicated for those disorders and, consequently, died about eighteen months later of an overdose. The poem engages as an imaginative protest with the trial transcripts of the case against the doctor who was acquitted because she physically never gave the medication to the girl. The girl’s parents were later convicted. I was interested in recasting the story in a way that would invite a reconsideration or revision of our thinking about mental health and how much we know about the relationship between treatment and the pharmaceutical business it supports. It’s an important and timely issue, especially in regards to how children are being treated.
In order to retell the story, which was tragic, I wrote a kind of parallel logic that travels alongside the real story. My version involves the girl’s ghost, a bear, a unicorn. Poverty is a character that turns up as well. It was so satisfying to construct and sustain that system and I’m still surprised by it.
HG: In Ocean, the community seeks the poets for advice—and it is comedic! Who would think to ask a poet? Do you think this comedy is problematic? I don’t mean the comedy in your poems, but more so the fact that it is comedy. Poets are tackling many landscapes in their work, as you do in your work. Do you think poetry is able to converse with current events and be taken seriously?
SG: I think the events we’re dealing with currently have become so problematic because they weren’t taken seriously to begin with. So now I don’t trust the people in charge. I don’t trust the systems that are in place to make good decisions because, at some point, we came to a fork in the road and the direction towards money and adapting a corporate approach to everything was chosen over communities. I think we’re famished now for humanity, for dignity, for preservation, for restitution, restoration and for care. Our planet is famished for the same things. As a poet, one of my roles is to point out the inadequacy of those systems and to continually challenge the direction we’re headed in, while trying to warm our hands and hearts so we stay strong and feel worthy. Comedy is one way. We’re all working hard and we’re tired. Comedy is hospitable and it covers a lot of ground quickly. We don’t have to get up and do anything for comedy, we sit and we laugh. But then we’re left to think in the smoke it has left, which helps define why we’re so tired. We begin to feel a shift in our thinking. We begin to wonder about another way of doing things. I think that’s one way for real change to happen, but first we have to actually see what needs changing and we listen more openly to comedy, we listen when we feel we’re being understood and when we’re being seen and welcomed. Shit is getting real for a lot of people. Can poetry save us? No, but it can keep us company, it can help us endure and persevere. I’m thinking of those great photos of the Spanish poet Miguel Hernández reading his poems to the soldiers on the front during the Spanish Civil War. It can’t save us but it can revive us, it can help us endure and help articulate the anger, frustration, exhaustion and grief we’re all feeling collectively and individually and that’s a pretty important thing to be able to do.
Published online August 23 2016.
Sue Goyette lives in Halifax and has published five collections of poems and a novel. She currently teaches in the creative writing program at Dalhousie University.
Hannah Green is a Winnipeg poet. It is her dream to one day win the editor’s mom’s choice category in CV2’s 2 day poem contest. Her poetry is forthcoming in Arc.