Monday, February 25, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Glen Sorestad

Glen Sorestad was born in Vancouver in 1937. His parents moved back to Saskatchewan in 1947 and he went to a rural school in east-central Saskatchewan near Buchanan and graduated from Sturgis Composite High School. After a year working in a bank, he spent a year as a study-supervisor in a one-roomed school near the Alberta border and the following year attended Saskatoon Teachers College. He began his teaching career in Yorkton in 1957. In 1960 he married Sonia Talpash and he taught school in Brooks, Alberta for a year. The following year he entered the University of Saskatchewan, graduating with his B.Ed(with honors) in 1963. He taught once again in Yorkton from 1963 until 1967 when he and his family moved to Saskatoon. There he taught at Alvin Buckwold School for two years before joining the English Department of Evan Hardy Collegiate in 1969. He served as English Program Co-ordinator for a number of years at Evan Hardy and established the Creative Writing program there. He was a key figure in organizing the ground-breaking Prairie Writers Conference at Evan Hardy Collegiate and during his teaching career was responsible for bringing many notable Canadian writers into Evan Hardy classrooms.

In 1981 Sorestad decided to quit teaching in order to devote more time to his writing career which had, over the years, seen him establish a national reputation as a poet, fiction writer, editor and publisher. He continues to live in Saskatoon and earn his living as a writer, editor, anthologist and public speaker. His career has taken him all over North America and to various countries of Europe. He is the author of over a dozen books of poetry, many short stories, and he is the co-editor of many well known anthologies. He has given well over three hundred public readings of his poetry in every province of Canada, in many parts of the United States, and in Europe (including at a reception held in his honour at the residence of the Canadian Ambassador in Oslo and broadcast on Norway’s public radio network). In 2001 he was one of a small number of poets invited to read at an international poetry reading in Lahti, Finland. In September of 2002 he was the only Canadian poet invited to the Vilenica Writers’ festival in Slovenia and read his poetry before the President of that country in Ljubljana Castle.

Sorestad has been an active member of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild since it was formed in 1970 and was given a Founders' Award by the Guild in 1990. He is also an active member of the Writers Union of Canada and in 1998 was honoured with Life Member status in the League of Canadian Poets.

In 1975 Sorestad and his wife, Sonia, co-founded the literary publishing house, Thistledown Press, in Saskatoon. Over the years Thistledown became known as one of the finest literary publishers in Canada. Sorestad retired as President in January 2000 after 25 years and over 200 literary titles published, many of which were translated and published in different foreign countries.

In November of 2000 Sorestad was appointed the first Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan at the Sask. Book Awards gala evening in Regina.

In November of 2001 he received the Saskatoon Book Award for his poetry book, Leaving Holds Me Here.

In February 2003 Sorestad was awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Commemorative Medal at Government House in Regina.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

My first book was a chapbook of poems and I think just seeing it with my name on it was enough to convince me that this was what I wanted to do with my life, perhaps what I was intended to do with my life. I knew I was a poet and there was no escaping.

2 - How long have you lived in Saskatoon, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I've lived in Saskatoon over 40 years now, but interestingly, the urban geography does not seem as significant to my writing as the overall rural geography, and more specifically the geography of east-central Saskatchewan which was the geography of childhood for me. The landscape and geography of the Saskatchewan prairies is so much a part of who I am, of what has formed me and my view of things, that my writing must necessarily reflect this in many different ways, no doubt some of which I do not even see. I never think of race or gender in connection with my writing, but since every writer brings to that writing his/her own background and experiences, I should imagine that some of my poems will inevitably reflect aspects of my ethnicity and my gender. How can we escape who we are? And why would we want to?

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

A poem for me may begin with a single word, a sound or combination of sounds, an image, a line that forms in the subconscious, an overheard fragment of story, a photo, someone else's poem, an e-mail, a memory, a dream. Sometimes I quite frankly have no idea where the poem has come from. It just emerges from somewhere in the inner consciousness and wants out. Mostly I work on individual poems, each poem being its own whole or unit. But sometimes, one poem leads naturally to another and a sequence like the poems of Language of Horse, an online chapbook, or The Grass at Batoche, may emerge over a relatively short period of time during which little else is written. Occasionally, as with Some Things of Your Father, a manuscript I'm still working on, I knew from the outset that it would be a book in and of itself. I began writing with that expectation. Many books of poems of mine are "gatherings". But I have learned that even "gatherings" can take their own shape and become organic wholes.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Yes, even if I know that reading is a performance act and that it involvesanother part of my creative psyche - being in front of people and trying to communicate with an audience - I still think of the actual reading as an opportunity to test new work on listeners to gauge the poem's impact as much as I can assess it. I often discover, in public reading, revisions that need to be done - unnecessary words, flabby expressions, discordant sound combinations - and in that sense, the resultant rewriting is part of my creative process. However, some poems don't lend themselves at all to being read aloud, so public readings can only be part of my own ongoing creative process for those poems I choose to read in public.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kindsof questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Essentially I leave the theoretical concerns about poetry to the poetry theorists and academics. I try to keep the aforementioned Adrian Mitchell's view in mind as I write and rewrite. I would hope that what all of my poetry is concerned with is what it is like to be a Canadian born towards the latter part of the 20th century's Great Depression, living through the last half of the century and into the new millennium, responding to his chaotic and teetering world as intelligently as he can.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I enjoy working with editors - at least so far - and every editor I've had has made positive contributions to my writing. A few very good editors have even provided me with insights into my own work and I've learned by working with every editor. Every book of mine that has had an editor is the better for it.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, doyou find the process of book-making harder or easier?

I usually don't think "book" until some point in the writing or the gathering that a book concept begins to form. For me, the hardest part of the process seems to be the switch from writing individual poems to the mode of thinking in terms of book. I love the process of just writing individual poems and for me, that is where my primary satisfaction as a writer comes. I can't really say that book-making has become harder with the accumulation of books published, but I can't say that it has become any easier. I can say that I don't spend much time worrying about it and I don't lose any sleep over it. My natural optimism governs my writing life by assuring me that eventually a book will emerge.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

Last Thursday I poached several Bosc pears in a lovely Okanagan white wine and served the poached pear pieces on a banana nut loaf slices, drizzled with a hot chocolate sauce and topped with some whipped cream. It was a sensory cornucopia, decadent and sensuous as all hell.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

I don't know where the saying originated, maybe in China, but "Life is a journey, not a destination" has always appealed to me as a life theme worth hanging one's hat on; and Adrian Mitchell's words about poetry have always appealed to me: "Most people ignore poetry because most poetry ignores most people."

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I began writing short fiction and then became attracted to poetry, but over the years I have felt the need at various times to move between poetry and prose forms like fiction, familiar essay and memoir/essay. Some stories, some ideas, need a different shape and voice than poetry can give them.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I've always been a morning person, so my working day typically begins with coffee, breakfast, a brisk 30 to 40 minute walk, then getting cleaned up and ready for work. I write (poetry, prose, correspondence) from 8:30 or 9:00 until sometime in the early afternoon usually.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I've been fortunate in never having had to endure extended periods of writers' block, so I can only sympathize with those who have to deal with it as a regular affliction. I tend to be a "streak" writer, like a streak hitter in baseball. When I'm "seeing the ball really good", I write a great deal in a relatively short period of time. Then I may go for a period of time when I am not writing much new work at all, but instead am rewriting and reworking my accumulated writing, shaping manuscripts, reading, corresponding, rooting through my journals for ideas and the like.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

My last two published works were chapbooks, one traditional print and the other online. Halo of Morning came out of the immediacy of my regular morning walks in the neighbourhood where I live; on the other hand, Language of Horse is more reflective and concerns childhood memories. Both chapbooks feel like extended poem sequences.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

My writing is influenced by whatever form I may be particularly taken with at any period of my life, but music and art have always informed my work, quite regularly and at various stages of my writing life. However, the natural world has been a constant in my writing life from my first book to my most recent. If there is one dominant shaping influence for my life's work, then the natural world would be it. I may have written more bird poems than Don McKay or Allan Safarik.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

Frost and Sandburg among early American poets were important at the outset. Then Canadian poets like Nowlan and Newlove and Purdy, all for different reasons. William Stafford became a mentor, friend and important influence. Contemporary Norwegian poet Arne Ruste has been a friend and mentor.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

The whole notion of writing a novel just scares hell out of me; yet that same notion, much as I attempt to stifle it in its infancy, is still there somewhere in the back of my consciousness and unless I find a way to kill it for good, I may be forced to take it on. If it just sweeps me away for the ride, I'll go with the flow and see where it takes me.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I think I would have liked, at some time earlier in my life, to have studied to become a wine maker. If I had not ended up a writer, I may very well have ended up a "burn-out case" in the high school system. I walked away from teaching before it could do me irreparable harm.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

It may have been the desire, or perhaps the need, or both, to tell a story. All I knew is that I had to do it and that I would not be satisfied until I had unburdened myself of the stories. I believe this still drives me. From the time I was in grade twelve in high school and through my university years I had various people tell me I should consider creative writing. It took me quite a long time to accept this counsel.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Ian McEwan's Atonement is a beautifully written and mesmerizing novel and Cormac McCarthy's The Road is gruesome and shocking in its apocalyptic vision while at the same time telling a powerful emotional father/son story with such achingly beautiful prose. Both are my most memorable reads in recent years. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada surprised hell out of me as a movie because it was so under-rated, yet proved to be a powerful story told with an exquisite film touch. Tommy Lee Jones both directed and starred in Jones' directorial debut and somehow the movie was overlooked - I know not why.

20 - What are you currently working on?

True to my usual practice, I am working on four or five different manuscripts, or potential manuscripts. One is the aforementioned poem/prose Some Things of Your Father; another is a manuscript of essay/memoirs; a third is a collection of narrative poems entitled The Story Never Ends; another is a manuscript called Walleye Meditations, another prose/poetry combination.

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