An Interview with Sue Sinclair, CWILA Critic-in-Residence

By Brecken Hancock

When CWILA first launched, you mentioned (in an interview with Gillian Jerome) Nehamas’s proposal that beauty invites us into a relationship—and that, if there is judgment, it might offer a beginning rather than an end. In that interview, you seem to position your own critical philosophy in relation to this possibility: “I like the idea of relationship because it implies an unfolding rather than a declaration; it also implies trust and respect—and at its best, love.” Might you expand somewhat on how a critic’s role rests on responsibility to a relationship? Even perhaps: what’s love got to do with it?

Thank you, Tina Turner! Seriously, I’m attracted to the notion of relationship as central to criticism partly because it does imply responsibility. What else does an artwork do but ask us to be somehow responsive? As critic, I answer that call, and in doing so accept the obligation to respond as attentively as I can.

An emphasis on relationship—on involvement, commitment—also works against the paradigm of the distanced, impartial observer who stands back and appreciates (or depreciates!) the artwork. Not only is that purely objective view unattainable, but it also seems to run contrary to what an artwork asks for: a putting of oneself at stake somehow in the vision offered by the work. As a reader I’m interested in a criticism that reveals that engagement. My influence here is Hans-Georg Gadamer: “the actual occurrence [of textual interpretation] is made possible only because the word that has come down to us¼ really encounters us and does so as if it addresses us and is concerned with us.”[1] When I pick up a critical essay or review, I want to know about the experience of that address. Something like judgment of an artwork’s successes or failures can colour the story: “it seemed to work in this way; it puzzled me here; I was left cold here because¼.” A critical response would be lacking something without this dimension. But I’m wary of laying too much emphasis on judgment because there’s a shade of hypostatization in it; a poem or narrative is essentially active, and it starts to look inert when it’s approached primarily as an object of judgment.

Getting back to Tina’s question, it’s obvious that love isn’t always possible: we don’t love everyone and everything. But I gesture toward love because as lover I am vulnerable, vulnerable in the sense of letting the beloved close enough to change me—for better or for worse, as Nehamas points out. I look for that vulnerability from the critic, signs that she has at least tried to let the work speak to her. And it’s what I hope for in my reading: to love, to be opened up somehow, to be changed. Sachiko Murakami describes this vividly in a recent interview I did with her: “When I’m willing to lay my head on the chopping block to be cracked open by poetry, you’ll find me walking from room to room with the book in my hands, shaking with joy at what is happening in me.”[2] Writing a critical essay that emerges from that kind of “happening” is the best-case scenario. But even in other cases, the gesture of being willing to lay one’s head down is one I prize, in both reader and critic.

In your recent “Philosophy of Criticism” for CWILA, you say that you’ve had a complicated relationship with the role of the critic in poetry, admitting, “It’s partly because of the tradition of critic as authoritarian tastemaker or as literary enforcer that I’ve had ambivalent feelings about taking on the role of critic.” Now that you’re in the position of Critic-in-Residence for CWILA, I’m wondering if there are critical traditions and positions that you draw on. Do you have mentors in criticism?

I’d be lost without Robert Hass’s critical essays, which exhibit the kind of engagement I’ve described above. Consider his opening to the essay “Reading Milosz”: “It might be useful to begin by invoking a time when one might turn to the work of Czeslaw Milosz.”[3] We are immediately asked to situate ourselves such that Milosz’s poems might speak to us; we are thinking about how best to open ourselves to their address, under which circumstances. The title itself points to the attitude I have in mind. And I’d be remiss not to mention Jan Zwicky—I consider Zwicky a mentor in general, and I pay close attention to what she has to say about criticism, although her critical studies are few. I think, though, of her discussion of “Bringhurst’s Presocratics” and the fine, fine detail she goes into there as something I aspire to.

With regard to my peers, I’ve been reading and admiring Stewart Cole’s poetry criticism on his blog The Urge. Sonnet L’Abbé has a fine-grained sensibility and is always judicious. Zoe Whittall also springs to mind because of a review of Juno Díaz’s short story collection This Is How You Lose Her, which she wrote partly in the second person, in imitation of Díaz’s style. Whittall wrote a series of mini-reviews of each story, but given the small space she had to work with, I don’t know that it was entirely successful; I admire it nevertheless as a reminder of the formal possibilities of the review (not to mention the need for long-format reviews). I’m also interested in anything Mark Dickinson has to say. There are lots of others out there doing good work.

You’re in the process of asking poets about beauty for Lemon Hound. In an interview with Kayla Geitzler for The Fiddlehead, you discuss some of your own ideas about beauty, including expanding on the Kantian distinction between perfection and beauty. In particular, you posit that it is “possible for a thing to be perfectly itself,” while not meeting a set of abstract criteria, and “in that sense, even with its imperfections, it’s perfect.” Does this discussion of perfection and beauty apply in a critical context? Does the critic seek a kind of perfection in the object of analysis?

An interesting question! To be absolutely clear, Kant does distinguish perfection and beauty, but the notion of a thing’s being perfectly itself is not his. It owes more to John Duns Scotus’s notion of “haecceity,” or thisness, which I think was initially introduced to me through Tim Lilburn’s work. The idea is that haecceity is what makes this thing this and not something else: it’s what makes this sheet of white paper not that sheet of white paper. That’s the technical side of things, but when I think of the experience of haecceity, I think of being struck by something’s sheer, irreplaceable presence. There’s a connection between this sense of a thing’s irreplaceability and beauty—which actually does take us back to Kant: he insisted that there’s no concept or set of concepts that adequately accounts for something’s beauty; beauty defies concepts; it won’t be generalized. I can say the tulip is richly red, has delicately curved petals etc., but none of these descriptions quite encompasses its beauty. Something about its beauty seems to be irreducibly particular. Speaking very personally now, I can say that when I feel an irreducible, irreplaceable presence as precious, I’m inclined to describe it as beautiful. And sometimes it’s the supposed imperfection that alerts me to something’s irreducible particularity: the dropped stitch is part of the preciousness of the hand-knitted scarf. It’s part of what makes it perfectly itself.

I haven’t thought about this in relation to criticism, but as I do now, the suggestion would seem to be that there’s room to praise a poem for its near-perfect coherence, and that there is a kind of beauty in this, the beauty of the flawless crystal. But there’s also room for a poem to bear flaws/incoherencies that mark it as this poem and beautiful on that account. So which flaws are okay and which aren’t? I don’t have a clear answer for this, partly because I agree with Kant that beauty can’t be adequately accounted for in generalities; we’d need to talk in terms of a particular poem or book. My instinct, though, is that it has something to do with the integrity of the thing. Going back to the scarf, there are the flaws that remind you of its precious, irreplaceable presence. Then there are the flaws that impair its being a scarf. There’s a difference between tangled and knitted wool. But the difference can be a fine one, I think—and not every scarf/poem aspires to be knitted rather than tangled, so that has to taken into consideration as well.

You’ve worked extensively as an editor and as a writer-in-residence, most recently at the University of New Brunswick. Do you see an editor’s role and a critic’s role as compatible or mutually nurturing?

Both editing and criticism depend on being the most attentive reader you can be and on communicating that readerly experience as clearly as possible. In that way they’re twins. But in editing there’s a problem-solving approach that makes it different in spirit from criticism. I confess to feeling more comfortable as editor than critic; this year is partly an exercise in learning to practice criticism in a way that suits me. If a poem seems to be going awry, as editor I can offer that feedback while the author is still in a position to rework it. Pointing out a weakness after its publication seems a little like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted—there’s a way in which it doesn’t do the poem a lot of good (assuming that the poem isn’t reworked post-publication). On the other hand, what’s the point of a “published” work but to participate in “public” life, to invite readers, to ask them to respond somehow? So even if as a reader I find that something’s awry in the published poem, to respond is to honour that request. But if we pursue the metaphor of invitation, it’s also true that no one sane invites another person to respond by kicking her in the teeth. As critic, I’m trying to speak the truth of my response in a way that bears in mind the nature of invitation. Ideally, when I issue an invitation to others in any dimension of my life, I want responses that are honest, compassionate, and allow me my dignity. That’s what I’m aiming for as critic.

After a reading at Fanshawe College, during the audience’s questions, you mentioned, “I’m not always convinced that writing poetry is doing enough in the world. So with that reservation, I do think that one of the things it does do is—if you read or write poetry—it’s taking time to slow things down. It’s taking time to reflect on things.” Do you think criticism has the potential to broaden the political power of reflection that you see as embedded in poetry?

Yes. I think that, at its best, reading criticism enriches my reading of the primary work, encourages attentiveness. It extends my readerly experience by asking me to attend to aspects of the work that I may have overlooked: it may ask me to listen more closely to a line than perhaps I had, or to consider a novel in a context that hadn’t occurred to me. Encouraging that kind of reflection is to work against the prevailing pace of life in Western culture, a pace that puts us in danger of failing to pay adequate attention to the world we live in, not giving the people, things, and places we encounter the careful consideration they deserve. Too much talk can, of course, contribute to the problem, taking away from valuable silences; it has a time and a place. I also have a worry about contributing to the sheer volume of words that is accumulating with the advent of the web, which is increasingly putting us in the position of sorting and organizing material rather than engaging with it. On the other hand, I don’t want to disengage from public conversation and leave that space to the advertisers. So the worry about volume functions primarily as an exhortation to make my words as considered and meaningful as possible.

Continuing to wonder about the political role of poetry and poetry criticism, I’m particularly interested in what drew you to apply for the role of CIR for CWILA. You’ve said that “the establishment of the Critic-in-Residence position is a boon for both Canadian women and Canadian literary culture in general.” And, in your earlier interview with Gillian Jerome, you said, “I haven’t felt this hopeful in a long time.” What is it about CWILA’s mandate that generates hope for you? And in what way does a position like this expand Canadian literary culture?

What I like about CWILA and the residency is that, not only has the group done the hard (unpaid) work of describing a problem with the representation of women in Canadian literary culture, but also it has taken a practical, concrete step to help remedy the imbalance it found. The position expands literary culture simply by bringing more voices into the discussion. I admit that I wasn’t particularly interested in criticism before the CWILA discussions took off, nor did I feel that most other writers I knew were deeply engaged in criticism. Not only did newspaper reviews seem thin due to lack of space, but I was also put off by the amount of ego that seemed to be at work in the hard-to-miss literary battles that occurred. I found it alienating. But part of what I found so heartening about the initial CWILA email discussions was the general tone of the interactions: an open, listening spirit, a generosity that wasn’t in lieu of conviction. It made me think that criticism could reflect this tone. And I got interested in trying.

I’m also curious to know what kinds of activities you’ll be undertaking as CIR. If I’m correct, you want to review first books by women and books in translation. Why are you drawn to these endeavours and what other things would you like to achieve over the course of this year?

Addressing first books by women came from the thought that if women’s work in general is not getting sufficient critical attention, first books are even less likely than others to receive such attention. I was thinking that it can take time for a literary community to register the existence of new voices and for interest to develop. I’m not entirely sure that this is the case, because excitement about the newness of a voice can generate a lot of “buzz,” but it is at least true that where I might last year have been reading more work by authors I already know that I love, I’m now reading books that I might not have picked up otherwise simply because I didn’t know anything about them. If I can encourage others to do likewise, so much the better.

As to works in translation, I’m specifically interested in reading books by French Canadian writers. I’ve just moved to Montréal, and although I was always vaguely aware of being out of touch with the work of francophone poets, being here has brought that ignorance into sharp relief. There are a few authors whose work is hard to miss—Nicole Brossard springs to mind—but I didn’t know any of this year’s French language nominees for the Governor General’s poetry award, for instance. I know I’m not the only Anglophone with this gap in my reading, and I hope I can help others as I help myself.

Can you tell me more about the community-based project that you’ve undertaken in partnership with the Atwater Reading Series?

I’m quite excited about this. As critic, I’m generally aiming to facilitate other readers’/listeners’ experiences of a work. That dimension of my role is nowhere more obvious than in the work I’m doing with the Atwater Library’s Poetry Project. Before each reading, I’m hosting a discussion of one poem by each of that night’s readers—a kind of poetry study group. I believe Poetry London does something like this at their readings, at least they used to. Poems can go by pretty fast at a reading, and this is a chance to slow down and consider one poem in a little more depth, taking more time with it (see your earlier question about criticism and slowing down). It also helps listeners to get acclimatized to the writer’s voice/style prior to the reading. In this context I’m not so much offering my take on the poems as I am creating space for others’ critical responses. Like the residency itself, it’s a small scale, concrete effort to foster critical community.

In doing the research for this interview, I’ve found that your politics are quite thoughtfully grounded in ethics. Elsewhere, you’ve expressed a deep appreciation for Lévinasian ethics, particularly the infinite responsibility each of us bears the other. Interestingly to me, however, you also struggle with the full implications of this tenet. Most relevant to CWILA’s focus on gender and Canadian literary culture, you say, “Women have traditionally been in this role where their job is to nurture everyone else and we’ve collectively tried to step out of that…. [Lévinas’s philosophy of infinite responsibility] seems an invitation to step back into it if you’re not careful.” Considering that you see the critical community as one that bares responsibility, I’m wondering if a tension arises. Is a critical approach that privileges relationships a gendered approach? In your “Philosophy of Criticism,” you mention that “[n]ot everyone thinks that truthfulness and kindness can coexist.” Do you think that seeking a criticism that nurtures is a female thing?

I do feel tension as a woman who is sometimes caught between what Levinas describes as an infinite responsibility to the other and resistance to an oppressive ideal of womanly self-sacrifice. (It is, by the way, semi-resolvable by way of the thought that when I’m at least moderately happy and healthy I’m best able to respond to others in a way that at least approaches adequacy—though Levinas’s point is that only infinite responsiveness is adequate, hence the “semi” resolution.) I don’t feel a similar tension in the realm of criticism because engagement with the artwork nourishes me; it’s not a question of self vs. other. It requires of me but it also gives to me. That being said, it takes time and is usually poorly paid, so on the roof-over-the-head level, criticism does require of the critic more than it gives. That’s part of why the CWILA position is so helpful—but even with CWILA’s support, the work I do this year isn’t going to come close to providing a decent hourly wage. We haven’t yet, as a country, decided that we value literary criticism enough to pay for it.

As to the question of relationship and gender, it’s true that women have traditionally been associated with relationship and men dissociated from it. Women are often thought of as the keepers and sustainers of relationship, our lives having tended to centre on the family and on the role of nurturer. Roles are shifting, but that tradition remains pronounced. So yes, it doesn’t seem an accident that I, a woman, am approaching criticism from a point of view that emphasizes relationship. Not an accident that I’m interested in responding both truthfully and kindly. Which is not to say that there aren’t many men out there who think likewise and many women who don’t.

Brecken Hancock’s poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared in CV2GrainArcThe Fiddlehead, and Studies in Canadian Literature. Her chapbook, The Art of Plumbing, recently came out with above/ground press and her first full-length manuscript of poems, Broom Broom, is forthcoming with Coach House Books.

Sue SinclairSue Sinclair is the author of four books of poems; her latest collection is Breaker, published by Brick Books in 2008 and finalist for the Pat Lowther Award and the Atlantic Poetry Prize. Sue has just finished as writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick and is currently completing her PhD in philosophy at the University of Toronto.

[1] Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. Trans. W. Glen-Doepel, revised trans. by Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. London & New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 2004. 457.

[2] Murakami, Sachiko. Interview with Sue Sinclair. Lemon Hound. February 14, 2013.

[3] Hass, Robert. Twentieth Century Pleasures. New Jersey: The Ecco Press, 1984. 172.

Published March 5, 2013

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