Sandra Alland

August 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Interview with Sandra Alland by Emma Beal.

Sandra’s website.

1. Why and how did you start writing and performing poetry?

I’m not really sure why or how I started. I read constantly as a child; my mother taught me to read at three. I remember being inspired by the bizarre children’s poetry of Canadian Dennis Lee, and writing a collection that was somewhat similar (but much less good) when I was twelve. I even sent it to a publisher. So if you count your first rejection as proof of being a professional artist, then I’ve really been writing professionally for 27 years, ha!

I remember writing to cope with sadness, and also to amuse myself during the long and often boring summers of my childhood. I wrote plays with my best friends the Sumi sisters, I wrote terrible fantasy novels imitating The Lord of the Rings, I wrote sad rhyming poems about friends growing apart, unrequited love and racism. My mother worked from home and had a typewriter I used to steal whenever I could.

2.  Which other poets/artists inspire and/or influence your writing?

Every time someone asks me this question I give a new list. My inspirations and influences are endless, and many of them are not at all famous. Today, though, I’m going to talk instead about the power of the image and representation.

I saw Alien in 70mm at the Film House in Edinburgh a couple of weeks ago, thanks to a friend. It was brilliant to see a horror movie where the women and black guy don’t die first, and it was made in the 70s! The only character to make it out alive is a woman, and she’s brave and smart and told them not to let the bloody alien on the ship in the first place! Powerful images like that are important in art because they get stored in the audience’s subconscious. Women heroes are still rare, and that’s a huge problem.

I also saw Women! Art! Revolution! at the Belmont in Aberdeen, a film by Lynn Hershman that documents a group of feminist artists from the 70s to the present. The film is flawed, mainly because it’s missing representation from women of colour, indigenous women, trans women and disabled women. But to see a film about any women artists was such a strange and wonderful thing on some level, even in 2012. That says a lot about the power of the image.

One of my favourite films is a short by Taika Waititi called Two Cars, One Night. It presents a gorgeous and funny story of three strong indigenous children, and watching it made me aware of how few images there are like that out there. And of course there’s the problem of finding the images even if they exist – most don’t have distribution because they’re independent. Millions of people have seen Alien, a few thousands have seen WAR!, and I doubt many people at all have seen Two Cars, One Night. Waititi is an inspiration, for sure.

3. How has your work changed or developed since you started writing?

Well, I no longer write fantasy novels or rhyming poems! I hope that in general my writing has improved. I think I write with less angst now, and more confidence. For a while, I had a hard time writing new work because I was thinking too much of my potential audience and of impressing certain people. In a way, I’ve recently returned to the joyful parts of my childhood writing – which is to say that I write what I want to write or feel compelled to write, and with much less care as to whether others will like it or not.

I also focus less on myself in my writing. I have fewer introspective, lyrical poems, and I experiment with form a lot more. I could never have written my second book, Blissful Times, in my twenties. Back then I would have thought experimental poetic translation and constraint writing were inherently apolitical and unemotional – which of course they aren’t. And my new chapbook, Naturally Speaking, which comes out of disability poetics, would also not have been possible for me earlier in my life. It’s a collaboration of sorts with artificial intelligence, and abandons the idea of the Solo Genius Writer.

I’m also writing really bizarre short stories now. I started in 2006. I hadn’t written any fictional prose since I was about 15, so it was a big leap from poetry. Much more wordy, to begin with! I was accidentally forced into it, because I joined a novel-writing course at this amazing bookshop (This Ain’t the Rosedale Library) I worked at in Toronto, just to get the registration numbers up. I ended up hanging out with the writers from that class for years, and finally felt too guilty for always bringing poems to the meetings.

4. I listened to Ouch (After the Phone Call), which is in Blissful Times and on your CD with Zorras, We Apologize for Any Inconvenience, and found it mesmerising. Can you retrace your thought process when writing and/or editing this piece?

Thank you! With “After the Phone Call”, I was trying to capture the range of emotions we go through when we get a really bad phone call. I wrote the word “ouch” over and over again on a piece of paper because it seemed to best capture the pain. It’s a bit of a silly word in some ways, a children’s word, but it works. Sometimes when you suffer some sort of trauma, there are few words, just pure feeling – like a child’s reaction. I arranged the ouches on the page in a box around the word “please”, which shows the  vulnerable and trapped feeling you get when your life is suddenly and irrevocably changed.

When I first read the piece aloud at a poetry reading, I realised that with so much repetition the word became physically painful to say; it hurt my mouth. This echoed the pain of the bad news, and also opened up for me the more abstract effects poetry can have. With repetition the sound of the word also changed; first the “ow” sound was prominent, then the “ch”. My focus shifted to the sound of the letters, not just what the word meant. The “ch” was a stabbing, harsh sound – perfect for the piece.


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