Interview with Sharon Thesen


Sharon Thesen was born in 1946 and grew up in small towns across western Canada, mostly in B.C.  She is currently Professor Emerita of Creative Writing at UBC’s Okanagan campus.  Prior to 2005, when she began teaching at UBC Okanagan, she taught English and Creative Writing at Capilano College (now University) in North Vancouver, where she was also an editor of The Capilano Review. She has published many books of poetry, most recently A Pair of Scissors, The Good Bacteria, and Oyama Pink Shale (all from House of Anansi Press); and among other editing work, including an edition of Phyllis Webb’s poetry, The Vision Tree,  has edited two editions of The New Long Poem Anthology (Coach House and Talonbooks).

Canthius: When did you begin writing poetry? What other genres, if any, have you explored?

Sharon: I started writing in my late teens, inspired by T.S. Eliot, Allen Ginsberg, and John Newlove. Then at 20 I stopped writing, and began once more about a decade and a half later.  I haven’t seriously explored other genres, but I have done a fair amount of critical writing—essays, introductions, editing, and so forth.

Canthius: What have been some of the highlights of your poetic career thus far?

Sharon: The best highlight is a new and exciting writing experience, a poem that feels like it’s breaking barriers within me.  

Canthius: What inspires your poetry?  Describe your writing process and how it has changed throughout the course of your writing career.

Sharon: I write when I feel a sort of hunger to write, but I have become so self-censoring in the past years that this hunger or inspiration gets worried or fretted away before I even get started.   I’m often fighting a feeling that I should be writing in some other way than the way I do.  At a certain point you really do tire of your own predilections and tone and mental habits; at the same time it’s worth remembering that those are exactly the reasons your readers enjoy your work (those that do, that is.)   That’s not to say you must stay stuck—you can’t, anyway—only that it gets harder, not easier, as you get older, and much to your chagrin the eternal verities (love, death, beauty, etc.) start presenting themselves as subject-matter.  

Canthius: Who are your favourite female poets? How have they inspired your work?

Sharon: My favorite living female poets these days are Alice Oswald, Alice Notley, Joanne Kyger, Chus Pato, and Diane di Prima.

Canthius: How do you see your poetry exploring female experience?

Sharon: I’m not sure how, exactly, it does, except that I have been writing about women—women’s lives, women’s experience, women’s writing from the beginning.  And I have done a lot of critical, curatorial, editing, and mentoring work with women writers and poets.   

Canthius: Oyama Pink Shale was your last publication. There are various female voices, characters and allusions to female writers (ie. Dickinson and Anais Nin) in this text. Can you speak to the significance of these various  figures and voices? "Dogfish Woman" is a female figure that recurs throughout this collection. Can you specifically speak to her significance to this work.

Sharon: “Dogfish Woman” is a figure in Haida mythology whose image was carved on a silver bracelet that was given to me as a young teenager by my mother’s uncle, who lived on Haida G’Waii (then Queen Charlotte Islands).  The more I learned about Dogfish Woman (mostly from Robert Bringhurst’s translations of Haida epic poetry) the more she became a kind of force in my life and imagination.  I’m unable to properly describe Dogfish Woman except as I have appropriated her image as belonging with certain aspects of my own experience.   As far as the other references to female characters/persons in Oyama Pink Shale, as well as in all my other books, these are the figures that come to mind when I’m writing or are revealed to be present in the poem unfolding—perhaps they are the small-m muses of my writing.

Canthius: Canthius is a Canadian journal founded in eastern Canada, but we want to represent west coast voices as well. Can you speak to how physical space and and west-coast geography affect and inspire your poetry?

Sharon: As far as the west coast goes,  I am discovering these days just how much my experience and perception are molded by living almost my whole life in the part of the world now being called “Cascadia” by geographers and poets.  We are edge-of-the-world types, unstable, belonging to mountains and rivers, seas and archipelagos, islands and volcanoes, earthquakes and wildfires.  Our cities seem to be sort of accidental and perishable.   We have no architecture and we dress like crap.  I think west coast writers are distracted to some degree, distracted away from the concerns of mainstream culture.  We don’t take it as seriously.  We are sort of oblique and ironic about it.

Canthius: What themes or ideas are you currently exploring through poetry (or other genres)?

Sharon: I’ve just written two papers for panel discussions, one on “rewilding poetry,” (with Rita Wong, Steve Collis, and Christine LeClerc) from the recent Cascadia poetry festival in Nanaimo, and another (with Kate Braid and Cornelia Hoogland) on the long poem for the League of Canadian Poets AGM in Winnipeg.   I am an eclectic reader, and I love following my own interests and inclinations as they present themselves—I have a huge pile of books and periodicals I’m going through at any given time—and I run ideas and thoughts past a fairly large number of e-mail correspondents.  I love talk.  I love reading.  Earlier today, for example, I ordered two volumes of Max Beerbohm essays from the library, and from Amazon, a book of short stories, called Seiobo, by the Hungarian writer who recently won the Booker Prize.  And I have been reading Dante, in the John Sinclair prose translation, and Lisa Moore’s fiction.  Meantime, a gorgeous print by Wayne Young of “Dog Fish Mother” keeps me company on my study wall.

Canthius: Are you working on another poetry collection right now?

Sharon: I’m in a sort of blank spot on the map these days, as far as poetry goes, which is actually an exciting place to be.

Canthius: What advice can you offer emerging writers?

Sharon: Advice to emerging writers?  Write the truth.  Failing that, try to write the truth.

Canthius: Can you briefly outline your history with The Capilano Review? As an Editor for the journal, do you have any advice for those launching new literary journals?

Sharon: I started out as the poetry editor of The Capilano Review in the late 70’s, early 80’s, first as Daphne Marlatt’s assistant, then on my own.  If I wasn’t on the editorial board at any given time, I was involved in organizing the readings series, the launches, the special issues, the festschrifts, etc.  I became the editor in the late 90’s, at a very dynamic time in my own life, which made for some administrative difficulties.  Jenny Penberthy took over from me and the magazine has really been thriving, despite institutional cutbacks and so on.  I’m very proud to have been associated with TCR for so long.  My advice to those launching new literary journals is not to underestimate the amount of work involved, and to remember at all times that the work you’re doing is caring about, nurturing, dignifying, and promoting the poetry of women in this country, and what could be more wonderful than that?

Claire FarleyComment