In 2004, The Danforth Review (TDR) interviewed Canadian poets Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve. The Danforth Review is now defunct and the interview below is reproduced from its archived contents.
Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve are Canadian poets and are editing In Fine Form, an anthology of form poetry due out with Polestar in 2005. Shane Neilson interviewed Braid and Shreve by email in winter 2004.
Kate Braid has published three poetry collections: Covering Rough Ground (1991); To This Cedar Fountain (1995); and Inward to the Bones: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Journey with Emily Carr (1998), all published by Polestar. She has also published numerous essays and two books of non-fiction: Red Bait! co-authored with Al King (Kingbird, 1998); and Emily Carr: Rebel Artist (XYZ Publishing, 2000). Her poetry and non-fiction have been widely anthologized. Most recently she edited The Fish Come in Dancing: Stories from the West-Coast Fishery (Strawberry Hill, 2002). Her books have won the Pat Lowther and the VanCity Book Prizes, and been short-listed for the Dorothy Livesay Prize (BC Book Prizes), the Pat Lowther Prize and the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award.
Sandy Shreve has published three poetry collections: The Speed of the Wheel is Up to the Potter (Quarry, 1990), Bewildered Rituals (Polestar, 1992) and Belonging (Sono Nis, 1997,) short listed for the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award). She edited the anthology Working For A Living (published in 1988 as a double issue of Room of One’s Own and used as a text in several BC and Alberta Women’s Studies courses for a number of years). Shreve founded Poetry in Transit in BC and for three years co-ordinated the project. In addition to sitting on four selection committees for Poetry in Transit, she has been a juror for the BC Book Prizes (poetry) and the Burnaby Writers’ Contest (poetry). She has won the Earle Birney Prize for Poetry and received a National Magazine Awards honourable mention (for poetry).
TDR: Why did you choose to focus on poetry that is ‘formal?’
Sandy: I’ve been interested in form poetry for a long time. So for me, the main incentive for this anthology is to show off some of the great form poems written by Canadians – not just in the distant past, but right up to today.
Over the past few years more and more of this work has been appearing in journals and individual books. With the growing interest in the area, the time is ripe for a collection like this – there’s nothing out there like it as far as we know.
Kate: My interest in form poetry started in the late ’80s when Sandy brought some of her own form poems to be workshopped at a writer’s group we belonged to, the Vancouver Industrial Writer’s Union (VIWU). Although I’d read my share of Shakespeare, Pope, etc. I’d never heard the term “form poem” and found the idea fascinating. When I tried to write a triolet, it was immediately obvious the old guys had a lot of talent and the exercise wasn’t as easy as it looked, but I was hooked. I now find myself writing in form whenever free verse isn’t working.
The “formal” initiative for this book was the result of two events: first, I was asked to teach a course on writing in form at Malaspina, the University-College where I teach. And second, I couldn’t find a text with any Canadian content. Even the best (in my opinion) and most recent anthology of formal writing out of the US, Finch and Varne’s An Exaltation of Forms includes only one Canadian poet: Lisa Robertson. I like Lisa’s work, but “formalist,” she is not. In ranting about the lack of Canadian content, Sandy and I came up with the idea of doing the book ourselves.
Sandy: Yes, and it also came out of the inspired discussions among a small group of women Kate brought together to look at various aspects of prosody. This was sometime around late 1999 or early 2000, before she started teaching the course on form. At the time, I was reading Michael Schmidt’s Lives of the Poets – a fabulous book, except for the fact that he talks about poets writing in English from almost everywhere except Canada. At any rate, over a period of about eight or nine months, we took turns looking into an element of prosody, and then giving a presentation on it. Afterwards, several of us continued on as a poetry circle, which meets four times a year. We quite often choose books that contain formal work, and our interest in this area has continued to grow over the years.
TDR: What is your experience of ‘form poetry’ in Canada? Is it a vigorous mode or, in your opinion, does ‘free verse’ have dominance? Who is really a master of forms in this country?
Kate: Before I was looking for it, form poetry seemed fairly invisible. It was the odd sestina or glosa or sonnet published in the odd book or literary journal (and sometimes they really did feel “odd”, up against all that free verse. Free verse seems a given in this poetic culture.) Many form poems were even harder to find because the poet didn’t note that they were a given form.
Once I began looking, they still weren’t many but they were definitely on the rise. Before Sandy and I sent out the call for this anthology I wouldn’t have said form was a “vigorous” choice for Canadian poets, but after the deluge of submissions, I think I’ve changed my mind.
In terms of a “master” of forms, I’m delighted to say I’ve discovered several. I already knew and respected the work of poets who regularly wrote in form, like P.K. Page, Winona Baker, Barbara Nickel and John Thompson, and I love Sandy’s work. But in the process of research for the anthology, which – for me – involved going through every one of the Canadian poetry books in the Vancouver Public Library – I discovered other treasures, wonderful form writers I hadn’t been familiar with before. These included (among others) Anne Wilkinson, Phyllis Gotlieb, John Reibetanz, Phyllis Webb and Richard Outram.
Sandy: For a long time my main experience of Canadian form poetry was the historical work I was introduced to in school – the Confederation poets, for example. Certainly, free verse has dominated poetry in this country since the mid 20th century – but over the years, the more I read Canadian poetry, the more I noticed that many modern poets were including anywhere from a few to a significant number of form poems in their collections. Milton Acorn, Gwendolyn MacEwen, F.R. Scott, Dennis Lee, Patrick Lane, Earle Birney, A.F. Moritz, Lorna Crozier, Stephen Heighton, Susan Glickman, Hérménegilde Chiasson, John Pass … I could go on and on. So, while I don’t think there’s a ‘movement’ like the American New Formalists in Canada – at least not yet – it’s dawned on me that here, a lot of us never entirely abandoned formal poetry.
And, as Kate said, we’ve been inundated with submissions. Between the two of us, in the ‘research phase’ of this project we collected almost 1,300 poems written in Canada from the early 1800s to today. We thought we’d get maybe two or three hundred poems from our call for submissions, to fill the inevitable gaps in our research. Instead, we received more than 900 poems from 185 poets – and this includes high quality work from beginning, mid-career, and senior writers. So, if these are anything to go by, I think it’s safe to say there’s a growing interest in form poetry.
As for ‘masters’ – I think we have plenty. In addition to those Kate mentioned, some who come to mind are Stephen Scobie, whose acrostics using Bob Dylan song lyrics are marvellous; Raymond Souster, whose epigrams I love; brilliant practitioners of sonnets and stanzas all through our history – including Sir Charles G.D. Roberts, Marjorie Pickthall, Emile Nelligan, Robert Finch, Jay Macpherson (who also wrote wonderful sapphics), Charles Bruce, George Johnston, Margaret Avison…
Making the selections for this anthology is going to be a huge challenge – I’ve now had the chance to go through all the poems, and, at last count, I had more than 700 on my initial ‘long’ list – far more than the number we can include!
TDR: I participate on a message board that has recently debated the relative merits of form poetry versus free verse. The consensus opinion was that ‘free’ verse was superior because of its greater freedom, that form poetry was staid and limiting. What would your response be to this?
Sandy: I don’t think about form and free verse in those terms – as one being better or worse, more or less flexible, than the other. Both have their challenges and delights. In many ways, ‘free’ verse is a misnomer, since to write it well requires mastery of the craft of poetry, just as writing in form does. So in that sense it doesn’t really give the poet more freedom.
I see the difference between the two more in terms of structure – what kind of frame, or scaffolding, is right for a given poem. To me, matching form and content is critical – and usually, if I make the right choice, regardless of whether it’s a set form – a triolet or pantoum for example – or free verse, the structure offers opportunities, not limitations. One trick particular to writing in form, though, is to keep the rules at the back of your mind – way back – so you’re writing from within them, rather than against them. Once I find that space, the demands of the structure open more doors than they close.
Another thing about writing in form is that nothing says you have to adhere strictly to all of the rules all of the time. Consider, for instance, the numerous varieties of the sonnet that have been developed over the centuries. Part of the fun of writing in form for me is discovering which elements enhance the poem and which (if any) detract from it – it’s all part of the creative process, of invention. To get back for a moment to the anthology Kate and I are editing – one of the things that’s fascinating to me is the ways many other poets are playing with the rules.
Kate: In his 1942 essay, “The Music of Poetry,” T.S. Eliot said, “No verse is free for the man [sic] who wants to do a good job.” He also said free verse was “a revolt against dead form, and a preparation for new form or for the renewal of the old.” I think that’s what’s happening here. Poets in Canada are rediscovering form and what’s emerging feels fresh and exciting. It’s also important to remember that all poetry has a form, especially if you take “form” in its basic meaning of “shape.” So most free verse, for example, follows the form of a regular left hand margin and irregular right, irregular stanza breaks, etc.. I agree with Sandy, it’s definitely not a question of either free verse or given forms being “superior” (though in the US, it seems to have devolved into that kind of debate.) The pleasure of form is that it gives additional options to a writer: it’s a “both/and” situation, not “either/or.”
If I wanted to start an argument, I’d remind people that free verse came into prominence at about the same time capitalism was giving us infinite choices, like 500 brands of shampoo; free verse said that, like shampoo, you could have any brand of poem you wanted – forget rhyme, forget metre, forget pattern.
There were certainly some good things about this (if you had bad dandruff for example, or a need to scratch) but like shampoo, sometimes the range of choices in a free verse line could be – if not terrifying – at least overwhelming. In those cases, a traditional form – when you have the content that fits it, as Sandy points out – can actually be a relief.
And startling things can happen to a poem when you write it in a given form. My experience is that established as well as newer poets are trying form poems because they’re amazed at how a poem can turn. Perhaps while the conscious mind is preoccupied with finding a rhyme for “vivacious,” the sub-conscious is left free to do surprising and wonderful things. Who knows exactly why it works, but it does. It’s another of those delicious contradictions that poetry thrives on.
TDR: Perhaps you can give us a taste of the anthology and at the same time illustrate your points in the previous question. Would each of you mind naming one poet in your anthology who has struck you as particularly skilled at reinventing forms? Can you parse their technique? It would be nice if we could include the text of their poems in full…
Sandy: Shane, as we’re still in the process of making final selections for the anthology, it’s premature to say what will or won’t be included in it. That being said, certainly there are examples of poets who are reinventing forms. One that comes to mind for me is Steven Michael Berzensky’s (aka Mick Burrs) “liberated sonnet,” which he describes in the January/February 2002 issue of Freelance.
Basically, Mick’s developed new rules for the sonnet. The overriding one is to retain the 14 line tradition. As he says, “The sonnet’s essence has always been to compress and compare or contrast the idea of opposing forces within a fortress of 14 lines.” At the risk of being far too brief, I’d summarize his four other rules as: 1) rhyme wherever you want in the poem, rather than in a set pattern of end-rhymes; 2) use whatever metre is best for the poem rather than restrict it to iambic pentameter; 3) place the turn anywhere in the poem rather than necessarily between the octave and sestet; and 4) abandon end-rhyme entirely if you want, as long as you use other sound devices. You can find some of his liberated sonnets in his chapbook: Twelve Sonnets (Waking Image Press, Yorkton: 2002) and in his selected poems: The Names Leave the Stones: Poems New and Selected (Coteau: 2001).
By way of flushing out some of the other points we were making in response to your previous question – in particular, how form can offer freedom and opportunity – I feel on somewhat surer ground talking about my own experience. Since the poem – and what I have to say about the process of writing it – is fairly brief, I’ll use one of my triolets as an example.
In the spring or summer of 1989, someone in VIWU (I think it was Kirsten Emmott) suggested we all write an erotic poem. I was terrified, having never done anything like that before. I decided I might be able to write a love poem, and wound up doing one in free verse. Then I realized it was maybe, a little bit, sort of, erotic; that maybe the idea wasn’t so scary after all. As I was particularly interested in writing in form at the time, I started looking for one to spur me on. What I found was the triolet, a French fixed form of eight lines, with one repeating twice, and another repeating three times. Here’s the poem I wound up with:
my body wrap around the earth
a warm cocoon, content long after
making love with you. I feel
at home with everyone all day
cannot imagine indifference after
making love. With you, I feel
my body wrap around the earth
Initially, I thought the phrase “making love with you” might work for the line used three times in this form, since making love is something we definitely want to keep repeating. As I tinkered with the considerable constraints of this little poem, I found that by extending the phrase by adding ‘I feel’ I could emphasize the first two, middle, and last two words differently each time I used the line, hopefully making the repetition less tedious. Also, once I was working with different emphases in the repeated lines, doors opened to ideas for the unrepeated ones. (By the way, I think of this as more of a love poem than an erotic one – while I wrote it, the intent to do something erotic was overtaken by what the poem wanted to be.)
The rhyme scheme for a triolet is abaaabab – but I ignored it, because just two rhymes in such a short poem seemed like overkill to me, especially given the amount of required line repetition. Which isn’t to imply I dislike or avoid end-rhyme – on the contrary, I love the challenge of it, how to make it non-intrusive as well as integral to the content of a poem. But I think I’m getting a bit long-winded here, so rather than drum up another example, I’ll turn this over to Kate.
Kate: One of the major reasons Sandy and I wanted to do this book was to see what (Canadian) poets were doing with form. With 2200 poems to look at, the question very quickly arose, “When is a form not a form?” How far would we watch people bend, fold, staple the tradition before we called it “not formal.” That question particularly arose for the sonnet, the largest number of any single form we received. Perhaps this isn’t surprising – it’s a form that’s endured, even flourished, since Giacomo da Lentini first added six rhyming lines to an eight line Sicilian farm song and called it a sonetto (“little song”). Very quickly, “sonneting” became a radical act. It was written in the local vernacular rather than Latin (which meant anybody could write or read one), and the first whose form encouraged its practitioners to actually ponder an important issue for themselves (in the first eight lines) and come up with a resolution (in the last six). You could think in a sonnet. The Roman Catholic Church considered it so dangerous, they tried to ban it, yet – therefore? – it became wildly popular and spread all over the world. Sonnets were the Rap of their day.
That flexibility and ability to speak radically, seem to continue. In addition to Mick’s “liberated” sonnets, we received sonnet variations called “slender” sonnets, “loose” sonnets, “free verse” sonnets, “eclectically rhymed” sonnets and “anti” sonnets. Seymour Mayne, to name just one other of the experimenters, has developed what he calls a “word” sonnet: fourteen words written in a single column. It creates a whole new stress on language, as each word bears the power of an entire line. (To read a short review of his chapbook, “Hail: Word Sonnets,” check the Arc website at www.cyberus.ca/~arc.poetry/selections/steck_mayne.shtml.)
Overall, we’ve sought a balance between old and new, and yes, we’ve picked a place beyond which we’re prepared to say “given form” does not go.
In the meantime, we’ve learned the exploration of form goes on in many exciting ways across the country. Lorna Crozier, for example, has written a wonderful essay on her exploration of the ghazal form in her new book, Bones in Their Wings (Hagios Press, 2003). And a student of mine at Malaspina University-College, Aaron Pope, is experimenting with what he calls “neo-ghazals.” When he found the repetitive rhyme and refrain of the traditional Middle-Eastern form too heavy in English, he began to do some intriguing experiments with homonyms (bear and bare) and varieties of a word (a cross and across) in order to stay as close as possible to the tradition while creating the sonic variety an English ear seems to prefer.
By the way, that Arc magazine website I mentioned in connection with Mayne’s chapbook, also has a feature called “How Poems Work.” At Sandy’s suggestion they “resurrected” that excellent column that the Toronto Globe and Mail dropped. It’s a wonderful forum, as they say, “for the discussion of poetics in Canada.” (And they’re looking for contributors.) The web site is www.cyberus.ca/~arc.poetry/about_hpw.shtml.
TDR: In your view, is there any form that is particularly difficult to master, a form that’s inherently prone to hackneyed rhythms and rhyme? What is the most infrequent form found among your many submissions?
Kate: Overall, I was astonished at the high quality – as well as the quantity – of the poems we received. However, if there was one form I found myself cringing at a bit, it was the sonnet. High school guarantees all of us a generous exposure to sonnets written before the 20th century and maybe that’s why many people’s ears are used to the ancient diction and twisted syntax of the “behold yon golden orb” variety. And especially if people are writing in the Italian form of sonnet that allows less variety of rhyme (five as opposed to the seven possibilities of the English form), rhyme can also be a problem. And finally, there’s something about the sonnet that seems to call forth thoughts of death. It certainly is a meditative form. But as I mentioned earlier, even with its challenges the sonnet is clearly alive and well and being “renewed” as Eliot put it, in Canada.
Oddly, the form we expected most of – and received least of – was the limerick.
The one form I was especially thrilled to see submitted in healthy numbers, was the palindrome. This form works both forward and backward, a common example being the sentence, “Madam, I’m Adam.” As a poetic form, you can reverse letters (as in the “Adam” example), words or – most often – whole lines. It’s a delicate form that can carry a heavy punch but apart from Sandy’s “Dance,” a poem I’ve loved for a long time, I hadn’t seen another published palindrome until Robin Skelton’s book, The Shapes of Our Singing: A Comprehensive Guide to Verse Forms and Metres for Around the World (Eastern Washington University Press) was posthumously published in 2002. In his palindrome, Robin reverses whole words, and Sandy’s “Dance” reverses lines, but none of my American-authored anthologies on form even have a reference to palindrome. It’s a greatly under-explored form, yet among the several palindromes submitted to us for this anthology were some wonderful examples.
Sandy: Among the many pleasures of this project has been reading the letters people sent. A number of people who submitted poems were moved to write to us about their views on form. One poet, for instance, wondered whether there was much chance that we’d get enough good villanelles to publish, and suggested it was the hardest form to write well. Another sent us a published interview with P. K. Page, who suggested that perhaps the most difficult form is the pantoum. So which is the hardest to master probably depends on who you ask.
For myself, the most appealing forms are those that call for frequent line repetition – and I also find these the most challenging. I suspect this is because there’s such a great danger that the form will call too much attention to itself, that the poem will sink under the weight of so much repetition. Then again, when I think about it, a form as seemingly simple as rhymed and metred quatrains has its own challenges. Very likely most poets start out trying their hand at these – because they’ve read a fair number of them in school, and the rules seem simple enough. But the simplicity is deceptive – you have to have a very good ear, writing in this form, to avoid – as you say, Shane – falling into hackneyed rhythm and rhyme.
As for which are the less common forms written in Canada – if what we gathered and received in submissions is any indication, I’d say they include the palindrome, as Kate mentioned, as well as Anglo-Saxon, anagram, lipogram, madrigal, kyrielle, rondeau and roundel, and triolet. My guess is that the renewed interest in form means we’ll start to see more poets reaching father afield, not only to try these out, but also to find others I haven’t even heard of yet. I really look forward to that.
Kate: It was Sandy who first introduced me to the fun of writing in given forms and I’ve been deeply moved by how they have affected my own work and my sensitivity to sound, and by how they improve student work. It is my hope that with this anthology, other people will get curious, too, and share our delight.
Interviewed by Shane Neilson, a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.