1291 Interview with Ellie Sawatzky
INTERVIEW: Ellie Sawatzky with The Ormsby Review
Ellie Sawatzky is a writer originally from Kenora, ON. A finalist for the 2019 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers, and the recipient of CV2’s 2017 Foster Poetry Prize, her work has been published widely in literary journals and anthologies such as Grain, The Fiddlehead, PRISM International, Best Canadian Poetry, The Matador Review, The Puritan, and Room. She works as an editor for Friesen Press, and is the curator of the Instagram account IMPROMPTU (@impromptuprompts), a hub for writing prompts and literary inspiration. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia and lives in Vancouver with her partner and a cat named Camus. None of This Belongs to Me is her debut poetry collection — Ed.
The Ormsby Review: This is the fourth publishing season in a row under Covid-19. If you can recall yourself in March 2020, where were you in terms of your debut collection of poetry, None of this Belongs to Me?
Ellie Sawatzky: January 1, 2020, I sent out my manuscript. New Year, new opportunities. March 1, 2020, I signed a contract with Nightwood Editions for None of This Belongs to Me. Covid-19 was barely on my radar yet.
The Ormsby Review: The poem “NouNou” contains the title within its framework. I was struck by the Safeway reference, mainly because I wondered what a discussion of a Safeway bouquet of flowers (I’m assuming) would entail. Does the title poem imply a sort of dissociative approach to the modern world? Are we in a state of reassessing our narrative on the planet?
Ellie Sawatzky: My first job was in the Safeway Floral Department, in Kenora, Ontario, when I was fifteen. My subliminal brain made the connection between the two jobs — Safeway florist to nanny. Childhood to adulthood. Kenora to Vancouver. Feelings of displacement, trying to understand my life as mine within the framework of late stage capitalism. Working as a nanny really threw that feeling into stark relief — parenting someone else’s child, the blurred lines between family member/friend/employee, the fact of my leaving and the child’s forgetting. The commercialism of flowers, to me, represents a sort of dissociation from nature, from the earth. Not even the flowers belong to themselves. Yes, I would say we are in a state of reassessment in the modern era, with regards to the sustainability of our systems, our lifestyles, our relationships, our homes, our planet.
The Ormsby Review: In that same poem, the end shifts to an honest revelation: that the memories being created in the poem itself will not be recalled by all who experienced it. And that is a bit of a manifesto about art and life itself. Can you talk about personal history – the poetry of one’s own memory within a larger and more expansive world of opportunity?
Ellie Sawatzky: Some people take photographs, some people keep journals, or tell the same stories over and over again — we’re all engaged in some kind of memory-keeping, and poetry is the most available and most relevant way for me to track time. It’s more subjective than a photograph (“You did have bangs, see?”) and maybe that’s what I like about it. The exposure of the layers of memory-making, its faults and obscurities. There are the facts, and then what our brains do with the facts, how we absorb and integrate them.
I consume poetry as a way of understanding the world around me. I take in the information of the world through art. I don’t, for instance, find myself particularly drawn to reading or watching the News. I want to know what’s going on in the world, of course, but it’s not my preferred medium. I prefer to absorb information in a more indirect way, more subtle, more abstract. By reading poems on Instagram, for example. (Oh hey, @poetryisnotaluxury.)
The Ormsby Review: This is a question about voice. Many of these poems are like small whispers. I don’t know why I feel that way but it’s how some of them sounded to me. What would you suggest to a group of poets wanting to hone their skills at being as direct as possible in their work?
Ellie Sawatzky: I think this is a question about vulnerability. To me, the best poetry comes when you are able to clear aside pretext, lay down walls, and find content in the quiet, tender stuff. Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know something, or that you’re scared. Lucille Clifton said, “Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing.” Questions in poems are a great way of expressing vulnerability, closing the distance between writer and reader, creating a conversational tone, an honest dialogue.
The Ormsby Review: In “Crystals,” the poem examines emotional and literal distance in relation to mother and daughter, from disease and safety, from BC to Ontario, from nanny to employer. Can you talk a bit about the process, evolution, or making of this poem?
Ellie Sawatzky: “Crystals” comes from a suite of poems I started writing about my experiences working as a nanny, after I read Ken Babstock’s poem “Carrying Someone Else’s Infant Past a Cow in a Field Near Marmora, Ont.” In nature, crystals form when the molecules in cooling liquid gather together in repeating patterns, attempting to become stable. This is “the body’s crystal arithmetic.” I was pondering childhood learning, girlhood learning, what “sets in,” what begins to take shape, what patterns are established. Also lineage. What trickles down through the line, what do we give and take from each other? What brings us close, and what keeps us distant? Zoom out on this scene, a little girl holding an abandoned rabbit kit, and there’s a larger social question being posed, a comment on human impact on the earth. The poem itself takes shape through a continuous repeating pattern that’s left unfinished, in this tender moment where a little girl is feeling a baby rabbit’s heartbeat.
I have this memory of playing with baby mice when I was about three; my dad found them in the garage and gave them to me. I put them in the pocket of my hoodie and carried them around for a few hours. What happened after that? I don’t like to think about it. But it was an early experience that taught me something about the power and responsibility of being human, and maybe there was some gendered lesson in there too, about the feminization of care. Something was embodied. Something sparked in me when the little girl I was nannying told me about the baby rabbit she found. I think of nesting dolls, or “the girl on the box / of Borax with a girl on it holding / a box of Borax,” to reference another poem about the same little girl.
The Ormsby Review: What is the oldest poem in the collection? What poems are you excited to share in public?
Ellie Sawatzky: The oldest poem is “The Boy Next Door”, about a northwestern Ontario childhood romance. I wrote this poem for Rhea Tregebov’s undergrad poetry workshop at UBC in 2012. This is a poem I’d be excited to share in public, as it feels like a bit of a time capsule, a nod to the book’s origins, and also my origins, as a human and as a poet, and as a member of a writing community for the first time in my life. I can still remember the earliest feedback I got on this poem, from Rhea, and from my writing peers in that workshop, many of whom are still my closest friends and most trusted editors.
Another poem I’d be excited to read is the newest poem in the collection, written nearly a decade later. “Blessings Upon U and Ur Bullshit” was written earlier this year; it’s also about a neighbour, but it has a very different vibe (read: a pissed-off one). I wrote it after my Kitsilano neighbour asked my landlady to ask me not to park my car in front of her house, and I needed to express my righteous indignation. Angry poems are fun to read out loud. It’s also a bit of a silly poem, and I think anyone who’s ever been a renter will find it relatable. Audi people (you know the type) might be offended. So be it.
The Ormsby Review: Nothing is predictable in poetry — but your collection is one full of surprises. In “Matrilineal,” you write of an ancestor, “Helena, who died of milk fever one month after the birth of her twentieth child.” Your poems show timelines, show the stretchable realities all around us, the consequence of knowledge, of feeling, of being able to connect events of the past with the fury of the present. Humour is sort of conditional these days, and subject to many pressures. In “Poetry Wants My Imaginary Boyfriends” you evenly present innocence, the terror of inescapable fate, the exhaustion of regret and the fact that you can’t outsmart the truth. Can you talk about the role poetry plays in this?
Ellie Sawatzky: For me, poetry is a space that grants a lot of permission. The opening line of “Poetry Wants My Imaginary Boyfriends” is “Truth rambles some moorish in-between, / but that’s poetry.” Poetry embraces ambiguity, allows for multiple contradictory truths, a certain fluidity of being. Loneliness is good and bad. The child is mine and not mine. It’s almost comforting to admit my regrets or wishes in a poem, almost a way of bringing them to life, or making them a part of my reality. In this space, hard truths feel softer. I like how you’ve described “stretchable realities.” That’s what it feels like. When I was writing “Matrilineal” it felt like I was transcending time and space; my great-grandma Mary and I, past and present, were living inside the same moment. That’s magic.
The Ormsby Review: What advice would you give a new poet wanting to connect to their community? What magazines or reading series would you suggest they pay attention to?
Ellie Sawatzky: Reach out to other poets. Just do it! Send each other new work, and give each other feedback. I would never have been able to write this book without the help of my peers.
I would also recommend connecting with/getting involved with the annual Verses Festival of Words, Canada’s largest alternative literary festival, based in Vancouver, whose mission is to bring “more poetry to more people in more places.”
Contemporary Verse 2 is a favourite lit mag; check out their Foster Poetry Prize. Their annual 2-Day Poem Contest is also a lot of fun.
I would also suggest paying attention to Room Magazine, and the Growing Room Collective.
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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors in all genres. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC
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