Interview with Sara Jane Strickland
Sara Jane Strickland is a poet and fiction writer living in Toronto. Her work has appeared in places such as Room, The Puritan, Occasus and Joyland. She is currently pursuing an MFA in creative writing through The University of Guelph. She is the creator and editor of the website petaljournal.com, an online poetry journal of female perspectives.
Cira: When did you begin writing poetry?
Sara: I started when I was really young. I started a diary and I’ve kept it up until now. I have like forty diaries in boxes at my parents’ house. One of them is a wine box. Stuffed in a closet somewhere.
Cira: So you still journal?
Cira: Every day?
Sara: Yes. But now it usually translates into poetry and fiction. I guess I’ve stopped seeing a difference between journaling and fiction. Lately, I journal with the idea of creating a narrative. It’s a way of making sense of things, I suppose. I guess that’s the main reason I’ve always kept a diary.
Cira: You’re working on an MFA in Creative Writing at Guelph right now. Can you speak to how the process of doing an MFA has evolved your writing practice?
Sara: I’ve learned a lot about what works for me in terms of my own writing practice. I’ve learned to be more structured in terms of writing on a schedule. It’s also opened me up to opportunities like grants, jobs. All of the instructors in the program are very encouraging. It’s also nice to be able to talk to others in the program about their own processes. We learn from each other. It’s nice to have a community to write among.
Cira: Describe your creative process. Do you sit down and think to yourself, Now I’m going to write some poetry. Or, do poems come to you sporadically?
Sara: I just kind of free write or journal. I’ll often write twenty or so random, unconnected lines. I do that for a couple days and when I come back to those lines, I usually see how they fit together. I used to put a lot of pressure on myself to write with a certain theme or end goal in mind. I don’t do that anymore. The MFA program has made me more structured with my time, but it’s given me the freedom and guidance to come up with my own process as a writer. Things always come up in my poetry that I hadn’t planned to write, things I hadn’t been previously aware of. And that’s great because it’s always the things you don’t intend on doing that end up being the most magical.
I tried to write a pantoum last week. It was the first time in a while I've read my work out loud to myself and then said out loud, "Wow, this fucking sucks." A poet in Halifax, my mentor, Sue Goyette, said to me, "When we read something that we wrote and think it's bad, is it because it's a bad poem or because we don't understand it yet?" And so, I think that's part of being a poet. Just writing things even if you don't understand them immediately. It's important to let it happen and not be afraid of it.
Cira: What genres of creative writing have you explored? What is your favourite genre to write in?
Sara: I’ve written screenplays, personal essays and fiction. I think my favourite genre, though, is poetry because it offers the most freedom – for me at least. It allows me to say more without saying it all. I like scripts for that reason, too. When I write a script, I’m thinking in images and I have to tell a story with no internal dialogue. I can’t say what’s going on straightforwardly; things have to be insinuated with images and body language. I think scripts and poetry are closely related in that way.
Cira: What do you find yourself writing about? What themes pervade your body of work? And can you describe your style of writing? Do you find yourself trying on new styles?
Sara: I write about womanhood, being a woman, being in my body. There is a lot of body imagery in my poems. They’re very visceral to me. There are reoccurring themes that come up in my work that I sometimes don’t even notice right away. When I have a batch of new poems, I like to print them and lay them out in front of me and then look at things that come up. Sometimes I take scissors and cut lines out and rearrange them. I don’t like editing on the computer. Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of themes coming up around the throat and the mouth. I’ve always been a little obsessed with teeth. When I was younger living in Ottawa, I spent a lot of time with my aunt, who is a dentist. I wanted to be dentist at the time.
Cira: Can you speak further to your obsession with teeth and the presence of teeth in your poems?
Sara: Permanence. Teeth are permanent. They don’t regenerate. They’re with you forever. They’re not like other body parts, like bones, that are constantly regenerating.
Cira: Did you grow up in Toronto? Is Toronto, in any sense, a character or theme in your work?
Sara: No, I was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland. I grew up there and also in Ottawa, moving back and forth between the two for a while. And then eventually I moved to London, Ontario. I consider St. John’s to be my home.
Cira: How do you see Toronto or urban life in general affecting or inspiring your poetry?
Cira: Go on.
Sara: Toronto has affected my poetry in that, through my poetic practice, I navigate myself in a city that’s so busy and frantic and isolating. Writing helps me maintain a sense of composure. The loneliness, in a way, is good. It urges me to write.
Cira: What do you hope to achieve as a writer? Do you have plans to put out a book, for instance?
Sara: I would love to publish a book of poetry. And one day, hopefully, a novel. And I would like to do a chapbook soon, too. I want to do it all. I hope to one day live off my writing. I don’t know how realistic that is.
Cira: What are some of the challenges you see facing emerging female writers?
Sara: I think making money is an ongoing challenge for any emerging writer, regardless of gender.
Cira: Let’s talk books and writers. What are you reading right now? Who inspires you to write?
Sara: Right now I’m reading Thunderbird by Dorothea Lasky. She’s an American writer. I come back to Mary Reufle again and again. I recently read Toronto writer Sara Peters’ collection of poetry, 1996. It was very raw and dark and strange. I like to see that kind of writing from female writers coming out of Canada. It inspires me to see people I know being published, especially females. A friend of mine, Liz Howard, who graduated from the program at Guelph last year, recently published her first book of poetry —Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent.
Cira: What prompted you to start Petal Journal?
Sara: I wanted to see or create an environment where women can support and empower each other through poetry. I wanted to find a way to connect all these women in one space. That’s why it’s a website without issues. It’s an archive, really. It will be there until the server explodes, I guess. I want to eventually get the women I’ve published physically together in one space for a reading. That would be the next step towards building this community for female writers.
Cira: Who submits to Petal?
Sara: I get submissions from all over the country, from Vancouver to the Maritimes. They are all very beautiful poems. And the women I publish read one another’s work, which is cool. They can connect with each other in what I see as a safe place. They can all be in awe of one another’s work.
Cira: Why an online platform? Would you ever print?
Sara: I’d love to one day, when I’m not so busy and can perhaps apply for funding. I’m also pretty focused on my MFA right now.
Cira: Let’s talk about the blog on Petals’s website. It’s this really cool space where you celebrate poetry but also photography and fashion. It’s all very fragmented and structureless, which I like. What’s going on there? How do you see poetry, photography, fashion and other art forms coming together/overlapping?
Sara: I guess I just kind of post whatever appeals to me because I want to create this sense of freedom on the blog. It’s true that the blog doesn’t really have a structure. I think the people looking at it can impose their own narrative onto it. I also use the blog to promote new poets in Petal and poets that I like. I share quotes I find inspirational. I guess the blog is part of an effort to having a less formal or conventional journal.
Yes, the blog celebrates fashion. I’m into fashion and I’m assuming some other women are, too. I guess not all women are. But we all, at the very least, think about what we wear.
I really just want it to be a space where women can say, “Holy shit, I can do this!” and want to be a part of it and the literary community in general. I don’t want women to feel held captive by their gender. Petal is about empowering women.
Cira Nickel is from Vancouver, BC and now resides in Toronto. She is a graduate of a Masters of Arts program in English Literature, a former editorial assistant for the White Wall Review and a founding editor of Canthius. Follow her on Twitter @ciranickel.