An Interview with Sue Sinclair

1. Does the topic of gender representation in reviews matter to you? Have you noticed a gap in the number of books reviewed that are written by men versus women? Or a gap in the numbers of reviews written by women versus men?

Yes! I feel like I’ve had these concerns bottled up for a while. Why were they bottled up? That’s something worth thinking about…

Because the issue was supposed to be a dead horse? Because it’s a struggle to find time for the work of poetry without also engaging in public discourse about reception? Because my voice felt too small? Because I didn’t want to attract the attention of warfarers, then waste energy dealing with them? Because I didn’t want to hurt people who have good intentions?

I’d like to say something about this last suggestion, as a reminder to myself that I hope will be useful to others. It’s hard not to see the COUNT as a reproach and to worry about hurting or even hobbling hard-working, well-intentioned people. But I’m hoping the count can be approached less as a slap-on-the-fingers and more as an invitation to take stock. I speak here as someone who has caught herself in the act of neglecting women’s writing: I put a Poem-of-the-Week on my office door every week this year, with copies for passersby to take away with them if they wanted to. Halfway through the year, I took a look at what I’d posted and saw that I’d heavily favoured men. I consider myself to be someone fairly aware of gender equity. It was sobering.

2. Do you write reviews? If yes, where? And why? If not, why not?

I have written reviews in the past; stopped for a while; then, wrote a couple again recently.

…I’ve just done a quick count, and my ratio of women to men is pretty good: 10:7. This wasn’t conscious. Perhaps it should have been? Ideally we wouldn’t need to be conscious, but.

About the stopping: I don’t feel very comfortable writing reviews. In our current culture, the reviewer is largely expected to pass judgement—to say whether this book is of value—and to do so publicly. It’s hard for me not to feel alienated from the work under those circumstances, even if I’m praising it. I’m much more comfortable in an editorial role, working to help poems be the best versions of themselves they can be. Then I feel close to the poems. And I feel I do both author and book most good on that plane.

The fact that reviews are poorly paid also contributed to the stopping. It hardly needs saying, but the writing and editing of poetry is poorly paid, if paid at all, and time to spend on one more poorly paying endeavour is hard to find in light of the need to keep a roof over my head and bread on the table.

I started reviewing again because I was asked to do so by The Fiddlehead, which works its butt off to serve Canadian literature. And because I’m eternally ambivalent about reviews. I don’t like the flavour of judgement from on high that reviews so easily acquire—especially when they are short, as so many of them are these days. But signs that we hear each other are necessary. (I mean that ‘we’ to be very broad, to extend beyond the literary community; we need such signs in all kinds of contexts.)

Margaret Christakos’ “Influency” classes were a brilliant, brilliant way of inviting participants to listen to one another in a different kind of forum. Briefly, each week the class discussed the work of a different local poet; each poet read his or her work and participated in a lengthy discussion that included a presentation on the work by one of the other poets. Something about our mutual vulnerability and the face-to-face made criticism feel much less imperious than it tends to in print. Something about Margaret, too.

Obviously the issue that crops up, as it does over and over again with regard to critical work, is money: such a class is a lot of work, and it’s hard to find the money to pay everyone involved.

Since I started reviewing again, I’ve been thinking about Alexander Nehamas, who takes Immanuel Kant to task for approaching beauty exclusively as a matter of judgement: I say something is or isn’t beautiful, then I move on. Nehamas proposes that we rather think of beauty as an invitation to enter into relationship. If there is a judgement, it’s a beginning rather than an end. ‘Beauty’ is a much disputed term, but the contrast between judgment as an end and judgment as a beginning is helpful to me. And I like the idea of relationship because it implies an unfolding rather that a declaration; it also implies trust and respect—and at its best, love. So I’ve been trying to approach the reviews as a chance to tell the story of a relationship. It helps. But I still find editing the much more natural and attractive route for supporting what is ultimately our collective work.

Mention has been made on the CWILA listserv of an observed tendency of women to work behind the scenes. Looking at what I’ve said, I seem to fall into that category. Is this indeed a general tendency? Is there something about the nature of on-stage public discourse that is uninviting to many women?

3. What are your thoughts on fixing the numbers we know of (i.e. VIDA and Zed) by forming stronger critical communities among women that support women’s books, careers, etc.?

Like I said, Margaret’s course was amazing on this front. It wasn’t woman-focused, but it was a kind of critical community that was more appealing to me than anything I’ve encountered before or since; if public discourse is currently uninviting to women, her course is the kind of thing I expect will help to change that. I hope it runs again, and I’d be curious to know if anyone has tried running their own version outside of Toronto.

Awards have been discussed on the CWILA listserv as a way of helping, but I’m not sure about awards as a health-giving measure. I understand that they can bring attention to an issue, but I don’t like the way that awards seem to focus us on stature and take us away from mutual support and, indeed, from the work itself. I don’t like that winning entails that someone else loses. I don’t think that being called a loser, even implicitly, helps anyone to become a better writer. I’m not even sure that being called a winner does.

The CWILA listserv itself is enormously helpful. I’ll say more about that below.

…There’s been a lot of discussion since I first answered this question, and, as I write, CWILA is in the process of establishing a residency to promote woman-related criticism (at this point the exact nature of the residency has yet to be determined). I’m thrilled by this development; it seems to be exactly the right measure: visible; supportive in principle as well as in practice; helpful with the time and money restrictions many women critics or would-be critics face. I’m in favour of a position for a woman writing about work she loves by a writer of any gender. I think that if we offer women support to do criticism, more women’s work will be addressed; I expect this will happen quite naturally. But however things turn out, it will be a step in the right direction.

4. You were at the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference.  What are your thoughts on the active participation of women in critical discussions at the V125PC? Did you perceive a gender balance in terms of discussion, participation and representation? Any thoughts at all about your experience of this conference in terms of representation would be very, very welcome. 

I’m glad to be asked this question, which seems yet another sign of the care and thoroughness Brad & Gillian took with the conference. I thought that most of the weekend was quite balanced, except for the one peculiar all-male panel—I say “peculiar” because it really was the exception, and I couldn’t figure out how it had come about. It has been observed on the listserv that the summing-it-up session was run by a pair of men, which is true. Jen Currin was a strong voice on that last panel, though; I was grateful for her voice.

What has this on-going conversation on the CWILA listserv meant to you? Where does it fit into your experience as a Canadian female writer in terms of a politic or a public? How has your thinking about representation in a national public (reviews, essays, the literature itself) shifted? Or, has it? 

I think my other answers make it obvious that the listserv has influenced me, is influencing me. Adding to my thoughts and enlarging them. Almost more important than what’s being said, however, is that participants are generous with each other in their agreements and disagreements. This is exactly the tone that I would like to see translated into our general critical literary culture. The listserv makes me think it’s possible. I haven’t felt this hopeful in a long time. I’ve said that I’m more comfortable editing than reviewing; if the approach to, and tone of, the larger conversation changes, that may no longer be the case.


Sue 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.

Published on June 2, 2012

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