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Write On Ottawa: Interview with the very talented (and award winning) local poet Sandra Ridley

By Alejandro Bustos on August 18, 2013

Ottawa-based author Sandra Ridley is a fantastic poet.  Her writings have earned her numerous awards, including the Saskatchewan Book Award for Publishing, the bpNichol Chapbook Poetry Award, and the Alfred G. Bailey Prize.  She has also facilitated poetry workshops at Carleton University and the Ottawa Public Library.

Apartment613 caught up with the talented wordsmith to discuss her second poetry collection, Post-Apothecary, which looks at the process of being institutionalized, as well as her upcoming work, The Counting House, set to be released next month.  Below is a transcript of an email interview edited for length and style.

Apartment613:   How did you come up with the idea of writing a poetry book about being institutionalized?

Sandra Ridley: Institutionalization (via the sanatorium) was at the crossroads of my curiosity about ideas of isolated confinement and fever.  From the outset, I was interested in how fever manifests in the body and mind, and how I might be able to represent that on the page – fever in all of its various forms: as a symptom of illness, as an effect induced by medical treatment or intervention, as an embodiment of desire, etc.  The kinds of fevers associated with tuberculosis, both physical and metaphorical, led me to the sanatorium.  (TB was, at one point, a very sexualized/romanticized disease.)  I wondered how these remote, secluded facilities worked, and what it might be like to live (and to heal or not heal) inside one of them.  What led an individual to being “institutionalized” there?  What was the experience like?

Apt613:  Before writing the book, did you have an overall idea of where you wanted to go, or did the poems (and direction) reveal themselves as you wrote them?

SR: When I begin to write something, what concerns me is the arc of mood or atmosphere. The writing process for Post-Apothecary, the construction of the narrative line, was somewhat like the retelling of a delirious dream.  You can’t really do that linearly – but a little bit, maybe.  You have a beginning point (falling into the delirium) and an end-point (waking up), but the piece in between is very fluid and untetherable.  So I suppose I had an idea of where I would begin and where I would end with the manuscript as a whole, but I didn’t know, exactly, how I would traverse between poems.

The tricky part for me, was – how could I shift the timeline?  How could a text move from the Victorian Era to present day, charting the shifts of medical conventions?  Would I be able to shift pronouns/personas?  Someone is able to do that in a delirium — but how could I do that, or represent that, in text?

Photo by John W. MacDonald

Photo by John W. MacDonald

Apt613: Did you engage in any research before writing?

SR: Yes, for sure.  Lots of research.  Extensive investigation and treasure hunting for data – that’s my favourite part of the writing process.  It’s impossible to exactly predict what will be dug up.

For about six months, I spent most of my days at the National Library and Archives in Ottawa researching treatments for tuberculosis and various mental illnesses and about daily life at sanatoria (both types of facilities: for TB and for mental illness).  I found primary material written by patients, physicians and researchers concerning the daily functioning of a sanatorium itself, and about the administration of leading edge/experimental and traditional/folkloric treatments.  Things like diaries and medical reports.

Apt613: When writing poetry, what do you focus on more: rhythm, cadence, word play, images and/or something else?

SR: Each book has a different focus. I don’t mean just mine; I mean every book, every poem. Each has its own way of working its way through the world. Or it should, or it would be the same poem, same book. And that would get predictably boring after a while, for the reader and the writer….

Apt613: After finishing Post-Apothecary, it occurred to me that you had “drawn” an anti-butterfly.  The butterfly is an image of awakening, of being born into the world. Your poems left me with the opposition sensation, namely, that the “cure” administered in the hospital killed the humanity in the patient.  Any thoughts on this?

Your notion of the anti-butterfly is lovely.  There’s a line at the beginning of the book that goes something like: in a cocoon of luna moth or star-shroud, she lies there, or swings there, tenter-hoooked and breathless…  There’s a degree of confinement and isolation associated with many medical interventions, especially in decades past where patients were experimental grounds.  With this in mind and regarding humanity, you’ve got it exactly.

Apt613: What literary projects are you currently working on?

SR: I’m working on a serial poem with short sections — a kind of dirge.  Also, I’m in the final phase of tinkering a new poetry manuscript.  It’s called The Counting House and it will be coming out this September with BookThug.  I’ll be reading from it at The Manx with the Ottawa International Writers Festival this October, alongside Michael Blouin and André Alexis.