There is sun all through the car driving on Hwy 118 West an hour still from Bracebridge and the bus further north: contrast of steep bright granite, deep blue sky, blur of new yellow in ash trees and birches, smell of peaches, cheese, sweat along my back.
From the unpublished works of Sasha Tate-Howarth.
Alex Custodio in Conversation with Sasha Tate-Howarth
Alex Custodio: You have been living in Montreal for the past few years, but you’re originally from Toronto. Your poems “Spring Tide” and “Caught”, both published in Issue 19.2 of Soliloquies Anthology, make explicit reference to Ontario. How important is geographical location to the larger body of your work, and does your present location play much of a role in your poetry?
Sasha Tate-Howarth: I think geographical location is super important to my work. While I was writing all these poems, I was realizing that they were all located around Ontario, and specifically around bodies of water that were important to me or that had struck me in a certain way. I’ve always been drawn to the way that writers are able to describe place, how one feels in a certain place, and how one’s body reacts not just to the physical placeness but also to the feeling and the emotion attached to it. Displacing feeling onto landscape or surroundings is also something I was interested in last year, and still am.
To answer the other part of that question, I definitely always write about places when I’m not in them. I didn’t spend much time writing about Toronto when I lived there, and I have a feeling that when I leave Montreal it will start showing up in my writing. There are some poems I have that I can say are geographically set in Montreal, but they're less specific than those ones were about Northern Ontario lakes. That was kind of a way of tracking the places I’d been to and the places that I wanted to write about.
AC: Last year, you had three poems published in Soliloquies Anthology, over two issues. Given that Soliloquies Anthology publishes such a wide array of voices from across Canada and around the world, can you speak a little about how you see your work in relation to that of other writers in those or previous issues?
STH: This is something I’d love to look into more, because I have this specific experience of the reading events and how I felt in combination with the other people who were reading. But I hadn’t thought about how Soliloquies Anthology, as a book, actually receives submissions from all around the world. I think that’s an exciting thing about Soliloquies Anthology, that it can be so locally based and have a place for students, especially in the live events, but that it also puts you alongside people from far away and all over the place.
AC: Four months might not seem like a lot of time to most people, but for those in the middle of a degree a great deal of development can occur between December and April. Did you find that there was a big difference in your creative process between writing “The Thaw” and writing “Spring Tide” and “Caught”?
STH: “The Thaw” was the first poem I wrote back in class towards the end of September, and “Caught” kind of mirrored some of the processes I had used. I’d enjoyed writing “The Thaw” so much, the way it was little couplets that were then collected together. With “Caught”, written in January, I didn’t replicate the form entirely, but I was trying to do the same thing. “Spring Tide” was part of my last poetry package, so I wrote it around March, and it’s probably the most different. It was one moment I was feeling very strongly ,and I wanted to represent it somehow, instead of trying to collect little images and put things together side by side. It’s almost less complex in a way.
AC: And yet it’s very compelling, despite the fact that it might be less complex.
STH: I kind of get drawn towards and then repelled by more complex work. Sometimes, I just think, “I want a real simple poem. I want to say the thing in a simple way and have it be clear,” and other times, I think, “I want to build this up and explore an idea and wrap around it and try to collect things into it and build it.” I love poems that have layers and layers, but I also love poems that give you a moment. “Spring Tide” definitely felt like the latter, and was also faster to write because of it.
AC: On the topic of the creative process, can you tell us about yours in some detail? Are you a poet who plans out the writing ahead of time, or do you have a more spontaneous manner of writing? Do you carry a notebook around to jot down thoughts or ideas or do you record everything on a Smartphone?
STH: Do I plan things out? No, I don’t think so. I write things as they come to me, and I make sure that if I’m drawn to something,I write it down, even if it doesn’t seem like a poem at the time. When I’m writing poems, I often go back through pages and pages of writing and try to pull things out. Many of the poems I wrote most successfully last year were really spontaneous. For one of my poems, I just sat down on my couch, wrote it in fifteen minutes, and handed it in to my workshop. A lot of people said, “yeah this is good and really different from the rest of your work,” and I think that it showed in spontaneous writing. I’m the same with fiction. I’ve never been someone who is able to structure something ahead of time, but I love editing. One of my favourite things is writing a poem spontaneously and going back to structure it afterwards. It’s one of the best things the Creative Writing program has done for me.
AC: Are there any particular poets or authors who stand out as strong sources of inspiration for your own work? Do you find yourself returning to the same writer over and over again?
STH: Certain Michael Ondaatje poems, especially when I was ending high school and starting university. I was so excited by his work to the extent that I tired myself of it. I try not to do that with writers now. There can be too much of one thing in poetry; you need to read a wide range. But he was definitely someone I would go back to again and again. and ask, “how is this working? How is he doing that?” A recent real amazing inspiration is Dionne Brand. I read Inventory in February and was like, “why has no one given me this book before?” I read it three times in one week. I loved it. I love the way she uses poetry to interrogate what this world looks like. That book is probably one of the most devastating, but also beautiful and transformative and uplifting books I’ve ever read. I’m so thrilled that she’s coming to Concordia. Another author who I love the work of is W.G. Sebald. He’s definitely a huge inspiration in my fiction. I like returning to his work and figuring out the way he deals with landscape and memory, and the way his characters are always witnessing and not part of the action necessarily. He has such a specific type of writing that is so inspiring to me.
AC: On a related note, have there been any non-writers who have had a large impact on your poetry or on your writing process?
STH: Definitely theatre, music, and visual arts. I have a friend who is a painter and an illustrator who does these amazing drawings. She did one last year and showed it to me and I couldn't get the specific feeling of it out of my head. I ended up writing a story to figure out why I was so drawn to that feeling. That was a moment of really finding one medium and trying to transfer it to another. I also see a lot of theatre and a lot of it affects how I write and how I think about writing. Going through Theatre of the Unimpressed before the Jordan Tanahil reading, I was realizing that I have such high expectations for theatre and such high hopes for it. I don’t have those for writing in the same way. I was wondering why that was, and whether I can transfer those expectations that I have for theatre and the possibility that I've seen in that art form to how I feel about writing.
AC: Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now?
STH: I’m a poetry editor and part of the organizing collective for Spectra, which is the queer arts, lit, and resources/nonfiction journal run through Concordia. It’s been around for two years, so it’s still getting on its feet in many ways. We’re launching our journal at the end of this month or the beginning of next month so that’s really exciting. We’re trying to work on what Spectra can become and what it’s going to be in the Concordia community and the wider queer Montreal community.
Another thing I’m working on is with the artist friend I mentioned before. We’ve talked a lot about our overlapping artistic practice and interest in certain themes.; she’s also really interested in the idea of collecting images and putting them together in a different way. She had someone in an art class tell her that she made drawings the way people write poems and we were both really excited about that. We’re working on something that will essentially be my poems and her responding to them through images, but not in a way that the images are illustrating the poems. And then I might change the poems again as a response. We’re hoping to put together a zine of our work responding to each other, which hopefully will be ready for Expozine.
I’m also interested in graphic novels and comics but I don’t really know how to draw, so one of my friends is working on creating a 20 page comic of a poem I wrote last year. She consulted with me for the layout of the pages to figure out how to make it seem like a comic that is also a poem. What do you do about line breaks in a comic? Do you want the stanza all on one page? How many pages can you have without any text? Does it stop being a poem if it doesn’t have any text for several pages at a time? I love visual elements in poetry and I’m lucky because I have a lot of friends who like my poetry enough to take the time to do art based on it.
Sasha Tate-Howarth is a writer and community artist based in Toronto and Montreal. She is somewhere close to finishing a degree in Creative Writing and English Literature at Concordia University in Montreal, where she edits for Spectra, Concordia’s queer journal of literature, arts and nonfiction. In Toronto, Sasha works with community-engaged arts organization, Jumblies Theatre as a workshop facilitator, organizer, editor, and puppeteer. Her recent publications include Soliloquies Anthology (April, 2015) and Integrated Journal (August, 2015).
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
For more content from Soliloquies Anthology, visit soliloquies.ca.