canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


This past winter, Geoff Cook, an English teacher at John Abbott College in Ste-Anne-du-Bellevue outside Montreal, asked his students to find a poem in The Danforth Review and to write about it. Most chose Anne Simpson's Small Bones of Time. Geoff then asked all of them to read Simpson's poem and write down any questions they had for her. Those questions were emailed to Ms. Simpson, who happily responded.

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Photo by Bernice Macdonald

I. INSPIRATION: (by far the most common question concerned Simpson's inspiration and the biographical connection between the scene described in the poem and her own life. Here is one such question, which can stand for all):

Q: Is this poem based on an experience that occurred to you and if so would you mind sharing that experience with the readers so that they may better understand the meaning that seems to be in the poem?

Anne Simpson (A.S.): I'm not sure how the ideas got in there, but I have a favourite place not far from my home in northeastern NS -- I live in a small town -- where there is a headland and a lighthouse. There's a path leading down to the ocean which is quite steep. I wrote the poem after visiting this place in July, on one of those exceptional summer days. I could see from where I was -- at Cape George -- clear across to Cape Breton, which isn't terribly far, really. Not much happened to me there; I was just hiking. But during that summer I had been thinking a lot about the sonnet and reading sonnets. I'd never tried one. So shortly after that I tried one or two and this poem came out of that experience of being at Cape George.


Q: What influenced you in writing this poem?

A.S.: Well, I'd been looking at Shakespeare's sonnets, because I needed a way to learn the sonnet. So I guess I would have to say that Shakespeare influenced me.

Q: At what age did you start writing poetry?

A.S.: I started in my teens or maybe before. A lot of what I wrote was sort of obscure, in the sense that only I really knew what I was talking about. But I didn't necessarily know that then. I just wrote and kept writing. And then, in my early twenties, I was lucky to work with Bronwen Wallace in Kingston -- not for very long -- when she was alive. I still didn't have a lot of confidence in what I was writing, but it came gradually, as I continued to write. And then I began to send thing to literary magazines and got lots of rejections (I figured that it was about 90% rejections and 10% acceptances), but I just kept on writing and sending things out for years, until I felt ready to try to get things published in the form of a book. I had to feel that I was ready and that process took me a long, long time.

Q: Do you have another job, or is poetry your only source of income?

A.S.: Yes, I work part-time. I'm trying to reduce it each year, but I need to make some income from another -- dependable -- source.


Q: How long does it take you to write a poem (for example, "Small Bones of Time")?

A.S.: "Small Bones of Time" took me longer to write than usual. I might spend a couple of hours on the first draft of a poem, but that's just to make the skeleton of it. Then I go back for an hour here, an hour there, and revise it. "Small Bones of Time" took longer during the revision stage because it's a sonnet, so I had to keep tapping out the "beats". I was trying to do it in iambic pentameter, so I wanted to see if I could get the stresses right. I'm not sure I succeeded, but it was a bit like making music and getting the words to fit with the rhythm, the music of the poem. I also had to rhyme the lines (in the way of a Shakespearean, as opposed to a Petrarchan, sonnet -- the rhyme schemes are different), and that took me more time than usual. The couplet at the end was important too, because from what I saw in Shakespeare's sonnets, the couplet wraps things up or sums them up, in a way that makes the reader see it all clearly, as if for the first time.

Q: Is there a specific place where you feel most inspired, or comfortable or productive writing?

A.S.: I need a room with a door that closes. I also need a computer, because I'm happiest writing poems (or fiction) on one. I don't need much else in order to write. I take notes (bits of conversation, etc..) everywhere I go, but I write in this little room, which is pretty simple, like a monastic cell.

Q: Why and how did you become a poet?

A.S.: I didn't necessarily know that I would become a poet. It took a long time before I would actually say "I'm a poet" or "I'm a writer." I think maybe you give yourself permission, in effect, to be a writer.

IV. THEMES AND METAPHORS: (a few questions about the central ideas/images of the poem):

Questions: What are the "small crimes"? Why does the "buoy repeat the sound of blame"? What do you mean by "... except what we invent, or what we feel/ we've always known in this..."? What is the guilt (or what lies behind the guilt), which is mentioned or implied throughout the poem? What themes did you wish to convey in this poem?

A.S. (taking on all the above questions at once): I don't want to go too deeply into this because I think readers often understand poems better than authors, but I would say that the poem has to do with our common guilt in the way that we have desecrated, and continue to desecrate, the world around us. I had in mind the notion that even if we create, we may destroy things in order to make that creation possible. It's just the human way: we want to change things, put our stamp on them. And so the human world and the natural world may be divided by this thing that we do, which is to attempt to refashion the world. This is probably the theme of the poem, and the metaphors arise out of it. There is a sadness in this, I think, and so the tone of the poem is what I would call elegiac, which is appropriate in responding to loss... The loss is really the loss of the natural world, the ongoing loss...


Q: Why did you write your poem using a sonnet form?

A.S.: I just really wanted to try a sonnet. It's simply that the two things came together at the same time -- being at Cape George and considering the sonnet -- and so they emerged in the form of a sonnet. I wrote about three sonnets at this time. I think that I was trying to learn about the sonnet by doing it. 

Anne Simpson's first book of poetry, Light Falls Through You, was published by McClelland & Stewart in 2000. It won the Atlantic Poetry Award. Her novel, Canterbury Beach, was published by Penguin in February 2001.







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