"I think with a poem, you always want to have something at stake that you just are not going to be able to answer, but you keep trying to get at it in this way, in that way, in this way."
Sheryda Warrener (00:00):
I think with a poem, you always want to have something at stake that you just are not going to be able to answer, but you keep trying to get at it in this way, in that way, in this way and that way. When I do finally find that form, it's almost this huge relief like crying—so excited.
Like, oh my gosh—that was a struggle! Why? I'm the only one in my own way.
Claire Tacon (00:18):
You're listening to Parallel Careers where writers who also teach to the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
Sheryda Warrener (00:36):
My name is Sheryda Warrener. I'm a poet and I teach in the School of Creative Writing at UBC. I teach undergrad lectures, undergrad seminars and workshops, and I teach graduate workshops. After I graduated from the BFA program at U Vic, I applied to work in Japan, teaching English. It was a real like coming of age time. It was in my early twenties. It was the first time I had really traveled. And the only time I had ever lived somewhere totally independently like this. And it was my first experience with a culture other than a North American culture.
So through Japanese poetry and through living in Japan, I learned to pay attention. I had this really wonderful student once where I told her that I wrote poems and she was like, “Hmm, that must be nice. It would be lovely to be able to spend time writing poems.”
There was this idea for her that if you're going to learn something, you had better master it. This was her experience with art and art making or any kind of craft that you would take time to develop your sensibility. And that was so humbling that like I was like, but I've written some poems. And I was like, Oh no, I haven't. I haven't yet written any poems. You're right. You're right.
And I think it's beautiful to be walking down the street in a Japanese city and there's space for ritual or for ritualized experiences. And if you're paying a heightened enough attention, there's always things to notice that are so surprising. It's like that repetition. Like you're going to the grocery store and you're just want to pick up some rice and some eggplant and some chicken for dinner. And then you take the wrong turn and you end up on a little bridge, like a little trestle bridge and suddenly you're in nature and you didn't even realize it was there.
Like it's just full of those moments where you're taken aback and you really are reminded where you are in the world. You're really situated in that moment. So I think that is in my work still all the time, the way that I attend, uh, this heightened form of observational detail, getting it all down, taking note of it is a huge part of who I am as a writer.
I've been thinking a lot about the verbs that poets that I admire use to describe poems. So one of my favorite poets, Mary Ruefle says a poem is an experience. And there's lots of poets who have also described it or defined it in this way. So a poem is not just a description of an experience. It is an experience. And so all these verbs started to kind of show up in these podcasts that I was listening to these conversations with writers.
I was listening to. Like a poem isn't just read, it's activated. And a metaphor isn't just two words, put side-by-side, it's an exchange of energy. So I was thinking about, you know, where does this energy of words or of language come from? I think it really comes from our sensory experiences in the world. So it's super important for me to build a material or a sensory experience into learning when I'm in the, when I'm in the classroom or also get students outside of the classroom.
So I do do a lot of field trips. I do ask students to go on self-directed field trips. I asked students to visit art galleries or museums. Within those experiences, they don't even realize that they are having an experience and then they're translating that experience into language. They're taking notes, they're gathering material or sensory information, and it really anchors them or roots them in the world. And I think that's what poems do—they anchor us or they root us in the world. They share an experience of this kind of humanity or this life that we have.
[I look into the faces of women coming now toward me]
I look into the faces of women coming now toward me up the sidewalk in citrus tones, crushed velvet.
Put myself in their way as they brush past.
Desire a material time turns outside-in.
White flowers whorl on vines like sheets through dryer portholes.
I drift through propped doors.
It’s strongly suggested by the handmade sign in the changeroom that the fine mesh bag be pulled over my head to safeguard the blouse from the makeup I’m not wearing.
In the mirror, a young tree wrapped in burlap in winter against the backdrop of the velvet curtain.
I think I’m smaller than I actually am.
When I remove the gauzey layer, it’s spring again and I’ve doubled in age.
At the apothecary, I let the consultant test samples.
Day’s touchlessness reversed.
She rinses me under lukewarm water, makes a tidy package with the towel.
Unwraps the gift of my own hand.
In my hybrid forms class that I teach, I asked the students to design their own field trips in small groups. The hybrid forms class came directly out of my experience working with kids in Sweden and in Japan, because when I was faced with those five-year-olds—particularly in Stockholm—where they were like, I can't sit through another circle time with you, lady. I was like, okay, I got to do something. And so our school that I was working within had this idea that we would play around and learn about community. And I thought, well, what does community mean to these children? And I thought, well, why not ask them? So we started to do field trips in and around the vicinity of the school. So I asked the nearby bakery where I bought a lot of cinnamon buns and I had a rapport. I asked them if I could come with these kids and show them the back end of bakery and how everything works within the bakery.
And they were very happy to have us as long as we did not dip our hands into the dough vat. And the children were able to ask questions about this bakery that was, you know, near their school. And then we went to the grocery store and someone said, where does the money go? And then we went to the library and we had a conversation with the librarian. So we started to just ask the question, what is community? And through that inquiry, we learned so much more. It just made so much that is invisible to us visible. And so that is really where the idea for the hybrid forms class came from, that maybe all of us could gather around a question about form. And so really, I don't know the answer to that question. I don't know the answer to what is form, but I want to make it as possible for students to imagine what form might be.
Some of the more meaningful experiences that my students have had? I asked the students actually to design their own experiences. And one of the small groups took us to Home Hardware and we wandered the aisles of Home Hardware. And we collected like little paint samples and little tile samples. And we played around with these materials and we wrote in the outdoor furniture section. We all grabbed a chair, sat under one of the big umbrellas. And we all just sat there and kind of tried to look at form as it exists in the world. So how Home Hardware has all these forms inside of it, and could some of these forms be borrowed for writing? That's really our main focus.
I spend a lot of time at the beginning of every class contextualizing in some way each other's preoccupations and desires, needs, experiences. So for example, one of the things I did this semester is I had I paired up students and I had them share a story about a lost childhood object.
And this is a really lovely assignment from the Art of the Art Assignment book (*correction: Lost Childhood Object prompt is from You Are An Artist by Sarah Urist Green). They shared in pairs a lost childhood object, and without writing anything down, they just had to kind of remember the details of these objects. And then they had to use materials from around their home to recreate these objects for each other. So there was this lovely, inherent story about their childhood and their childhood experience, but then there was also this process of making that brought them, I think, closer to one another. So I built in a lot of those kinds of prompts so that we can actually experience connection later in the term, that is a little bit more, uh, risky.
Excerpt from Floating is Everything
Accustomed to the kayutka
(size of a phonebox, tethered
sleeping bag, fold-out
desk, my own private
porthole) I prefer the cramped space
between radiator and kitchen table,
rely on my place here, a stake-out
over apartment rooves, scaffolding, wires.
Across the way, two men shunt
shoulders of ice and snow
down to the walkway below
with a wallop. My senses
disabled, I tune in
to the dishes drying, suspended
in their rack. Winter stew
like licking a battery. My hollow
shoes in the front hall smuggle
in a darkness. I kick them
out of sight. Eavesdrop on
the furniture: Ottoman, what do you have
to say for yourself? Dark by 15:04,
the city’s a giant
pinball game, moon a captive
ball in the playfield, and I haven’t
a single shot to take. I feel
my internal organs shrinking by .0008%,
bone density disintegrate under constant
strike of gravity. Decrease in plasma
volume, calcification of soft tissue,
disruption of taste.
Muscle atrophy. I maintain,
from a professional standpoint, humans
are more than capable of withstanding
unearthly pressures. I’m living
proof. I could have stayed a million
more days and a million more days
were never possible. Even
the sugar bowl here at my elbow
laughs and laughs.
When I work with students, I don't think I use the word persona, but I do use the word speaker. In my second book, I wrote a long poem and it took on the persona of a cosmonaut, a Russian cosmonaut and a male Russian cosmonaut. I think mainly what I was trying to do there, through that persona, was to see what the world was like through the eyes of someone who had left the Earth and had come back. So, I mean, I love shifts in perspective, but imagine that like, just imagine for a minute that you have been away from the earth for an extended period of time and then you get back here. Like, boom! Everything must be so elevated and vivid and alive. So that excited me. And, I was listening to a podcast the other day with George Saunders talking about process and he was saying, you know, one of the things that I want to make sure that I do in future books is write a little bit about the joy of living in this world right now.
I want, I don't know if I've done that in my writing, he said. And I feel the same way. Like I care about the joy that I feel living this life. And so the persona gave me access to joy and delight because of this huge shift in perspective and, and proximity to living. When I think about delight, I think about delight as fueled by a kind, by our own mortality, like by loss and sadness and deep understanding that we're not here for a long time, just for a good time, you know? If we're lucky, if we're lucky. So I feel like on the coin flip side of this, of delight, is this sadness or this deep sense that ah, it's impermanent. And I think that's what I wanted to show with that particular person.
I tried right away to separate the actual human being that that speaker in “Long Distance” is built on to the speaker that I was creating because really that speaker was also me. So it didn't really have anything to do with this historical figure. It's like writing a poem about a headline in a newspaper. You take that as your inspiration, but then you use it as a kind of jumping off point to explore and imagine new things that you might not have, had you not seen that headline. It was the same about this historical figure. He, he was someone that I was interested in up to a point and then, you know, that's all I needed to get going and imagine from there. I also think that, that male figure in that poem is of course my dad too. And so I was writing a poem about a bit of a distance from my dad and his own experience in life. So I think there are these moments of deep intimacy and interiority, I tried to imagine because I wasn't quite privy to it.
So I, I think it's one of my preoccupations, one of my obsessions to ride that line between the intimate and the public.
[Sky chart, apertif glass, plaster head, tempera, cork ball, metal rods, brad nails, painted glass]
Sky chart, apertif glass, plaster head, tempera, cork ball, metal rods, brad nails, painted glass.
I’m layered in like light.
Or heavier, glue.
Tinted blue film on loop, blue silk skirt belonging now to the chlorinated lambent glow.
Projector overhead sighs through its gills.
The desire to last finds a material place in the loop the artist makes.
A rose, a pattern of roses.
Part of the resounding dark, I play out my role as any good actor would.
To the average passerby, I look alive.
When I turn to go, the face pinned inside the spliced frame flashes across my chest, spectral trace.
I sweep my arms out in front of me, searching.
I have a new manuscript that I'm working on and it's three long poems. And then these little interstices, which are monostitch poems. Kind of like prose poems, but broken into single lines. And it is right now, seemingly coming together as a kind of exploration or interrogation of the self through visual art. There's this lovely quote from Cole Swensen that is, you know, not writing about art, but finding ways to live with it. And I think that I love living with art around me. It's one of the delights of my life to experience art by made by other people. I think for one, it was a way to get away from the autobiographical piece. So I got sort of tired of writing about myself and I was having these wonderful encounters with art that were really having a huge impact on me in so many ways.
For one, I was looking at art as a practice and a process and it was, it does, and it continues to feed my practice and process. For another, I'm looking at these extraordinary works and I'm thinking about the people who made them. And I'm thinking about myself as a maker and it's trying to see myself in that a little bit. There's this moment in the poem, in my first book, Hard Feelings where the speaker encounters a Georgia O'Keeffe painting and she has had this whole experience trying to get to see Georgia O'Keeffe’s work and it's just failed and failed and failed. But then she sees this beautiful painting “My Last Door,” and she's able to get close enough to the painting that she sees, that the frame even the frame has had, has been painted.
So there's this expression that O'Keeffe's work went beyond the frame. It was always, it was her whole life. And I just loved that so much. And it spoke to me about process and how these things just encompass us and our love for making things. How we're drawn to it and how we couldn't not do it. We just couldn't.
I think I also think it is, of course, one of those things that's impossible. You can't, you can't possibly describe that experience, but you can try to get some of that unsayable element down.
Finding my footing in the, in the 200 person classroom took a lot of work. It took a lot of time trying to make that same intimate experience that I have with 12 people. How can I do that in this big space with these people who are sort of like, some of them are into it and some of them are just not, and that's totally fine.
They're just kind of like, well, what is this? Okay, I'll give it a shot. So it's really, for me, about trying to anticipate what might be relevant to them, bringing in poems that are exciting and, and use a similar language that they might in their lives. And it is also kind of getting at these, I wouldn't want to say universal, but these potential for connection across all of us. So ideas about attention, ideas about connection, how we connect with one another through poetry, how we attend to the world through poetry, these kinds of ideas can be shared across a lot of human beings. So I think that's how I try to build in as much intimacy as possible. One of the sort of main goals for me in that course is to get them to sort of situate their poems in a time and space in a very particular moment, and there can be a lot of resistance to that.
You know, like, Oh no, but poems are ambiguous and you don't know where the speaker is and everything. And I love that, but I also think it's worth, it's worth trying to, to anchor your poem in a specific moment. So usually I will do that by, uh, getting us outside and, and writing in observation with nature or something like that. But we didn't get to do that this year.
Through my friend, Claire Battershill, actually, I discovered this really wonderful website called Window Swap. People send in short recordings of a view out a window and there's sound as well. So you could be in Bali, you could be in Spain, you could be in Australia, you could be in Mexico and with a click of a button, you see a new view out of a window. I think poems are like that. Poems are made up of a back and forth between windows.
So I opened up Window Swap in Zoom and shared it with the class. And I would get them in timed increments to write about exactly what they were seeing. Describe it in the most specific and sensory detail they could. So I would open up Windows Swap, we'd be in Bulgaria and it would be snowing. And there'd be a shuh shuh—you could hear the snow falling. I would try to get them to write all of those observations down. And then I would have them switch to their interior spaces. So it could be a desire, a want, a secret, something emotional that's happening as they're looking. To write that down as well, and to alternate between these physical truths and these emotional truths that they're experiencing here. I think that prompt works on so many levels, but for us in the Zoom room that day, we were connected by this experience of travel in a time where we aren't able—you know, some of my students can't leave their homes, right? They're stuck in their, in their spaces. So it was one of those wonderful moments where we were gathered around something. And it, it did seem to elevate the material for the students. They started to get a sense of what a poem can be made of and how those visual or sensory observations anchored the poem in a time and place making it possible for them then to associate outwards from there or in inside themselves.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Sheryda’s work, including her most recent collection Floating Is Everything. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Sheryda Warrener explores how poems anchor us in the world, the importance of making space for ritual, and how her students build material from sensory experience. She discusses:
00:50 | Teaching English to children and adults in Japan and Sweden, and how the experiences shaped her as a writer and educator
06:13 | Wandering the aisles of Home Hardware looking at form in the world and other student-led field trips in her Hybrid Forms class
12:03 | Using the voice of a Russian cosmonaut in her collection Floating is Everything to explore shifts in perspective and the tension between delight and grief
16:52 | Looking at visual art as a practice and a process and how it informs her new manuscript
19:40 | Finding her footing in the 200-person lecture hall and using Window Swap as a way to explore outer and inner landscapes
Remember the first musical device that you ever listened to music on. What was your experience with manipulating that device?
Extending learning beyond the confines of a semester
I've been trying to find ways across all of my classes for my students, both to meet the learning objectives of the course, but also create something that's not just a throwaway at the end of the term, or it lives away from their life. I want them to have something that they feel excited by and they're proud of. So I often get students to create chaplets or chapbooks within the time of our course. Within the 13 weeks we have together, they work towards creating a chaplet, but I also want it to be bigger than that. So often when we have the chaplets all assembled at the end of the term, we'll go to a local bookstore and have a reading together and they can share and swap chaplet. And they can, they can share with one another in that way. That becomes more authentic to what all poets do, you know, on a, on the regular. I don't want it to be so far away from the actual process of writing, which is really important to experience with these.
Another exciting thing that happened, uh, in my grad course, was something I did not design for or plan at all that was really remarkable. We did a little collage in the class and everyone brought materials to create this collage, because I think this, you know, this mode or this approach borrowed from visual arts is an appropriate way to think about poem making—that sometimes we're pastiching or pulling together a lot of fragments into one poem, and then they settle in and they become, they cohere in this way. So everyone brought materials and we created this beautiful collage.
And then all semester long, they had been doing these presentations about a practice outside of writing. So something that is not writing, but we could potentially borrow practices or processes from. So someone shared their archery. Someone did some archery, we got to hold the bow and kind of feel the tension in the bow. Someone talked about wandering and mapping and psycho-geography. And so we started to look at the verbs that were sort of active within these processes or these words that could be borrowed and, and considered as poetic words as well. So tension, wander, wonder these kinds of words. So we took these words and we created from that collage, a tarot deck of creative prompts. So each student chose a word and then got a section of the collage and then they would create, they created a prompt in relationship to that word.
And now, um, at first it was just a PDF. I couldn't figure out how to make it into a proper tarot deck, I’m not a design wizard, but now this deck lives on Instagram and it's shared with a larger community, and they're just these beautiful prompts that could activate or enlive in your own practice. So that was something that came out of a course that I never planned for, but actually really became the heart of our time together and became something in the world that was authentic and real and can be used over it.
Bonus Writing Exercise
Another one that was really wonderful this semester in this same big lecture course, undergraduate lecture course, is an adaptation by a prompt by Todd Colby in this really wonderful book called Spellbound, The art of Teaching Poetry.
With this prompt, I asked students to remember the very first musical device they ever listened to music on. And I, in this case, I shared a slide of the very first musical devices I listen to music on—which was very vulnerable of me (no, just kidding). And I remembered so keenly the experience of manipulating that device, right? So I had one of those Fisher-Price with the microphone, like Fisher-Price tape cassettes with the microphone and the really big colorful buttons. That was one of my first. And then I also had, uh, another one that I remember playing books on tape with. So we were able to generate so many memories, so many sensory memories ‘cause these devices, we hold them in our hands or we carry them around. They have a weight to them. They have a feel to them. The buttons have a kind of tension to them when you press them.
And that was the most sort of amazing class in terms of people really wanting to share. And normally in these big, these big classes, people are shy to share. And in this case talking about, you know, Oh, I remembered my Nano iPod and Oh, I had one of those micro, those little Fisher-Price things. And I, I remember my tape that I had, and I remember what I listened to. So people were so open to sharing that. And then we could translate that experience and pull details from those memories into a poem. And so that was just one of those really nice heightened experiences in the room.