Sheryda Warrener

Interviewed by Olivia Scarlet Hoffman

Sheryda Warrener is poet and professor currently teaching at UBC’s Creative Writing BFA program in Vancouver. She is the author of two books of poetry, Hard Feelings (Invisible, 2010) and Floating is Everything (Nightwood, 2015). She has been shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry, the Arc Magazine Poem of the Year, the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize and was awarded runner up for Lemon Hound’s inaugural poetry contest. Sheryda received her BFA in Creative Wrting at University of Victoria in 2001, and her MFA from University of British Columbia in 2008.

I’ve had the personal pleasure of being Sheryda’s student throughout my years as a UBC student. Sheryda’s workshops depict the dedication she gives to poetry; it is both a serious responsibility to create poems, but also, something that must be done with a loose hand. Her workshop styles focuses on the play that can be done once there is a foundational understanding of form. Exploration is intrinsic to the type of poetry Sheryda both writes and teaches.

Sheryda Warrener

 What is your background, and how do you feel it shows up in your writing?

I’m from a small town in southern Ontario. I have a big extended family, I received lots of love as a kid. I think this has left a meaningful impression not just on my character, but also my art. I have written lots of poems about my family, travel, visual art. The speaker of my poems doesn’t stray too far from my personal experiences.

What do you think led you to be a writer?

There are lots of things in my childhood that likely inspired me, but I think it was the fact that my family was encouraging and supportive that allowed me to really pursue poetry in a serious way.

Are there certain image sets and themes that reoccur throughout your writing? Or do these develop as time goes on?

Objects, collections of oddities. The speaker of my poems always seems to be at a market, putting things in baskets. Visual art, portraits. A speaker moving around her environment alone.

I know you are a big fan of the revision process, can you walk through what you feel is important to be present in a poem to know that it is finished? Or, do you think a poem can ever be fully finished?

I take the poem as far as I can, which means it’s alive but uses no unnecessary language. After that, it’s up to the reader to activate the poem; the poem becomes alive in a new way I can’t know or anticipate. So, I think the answer to this question is yes and no.

How has teaching influenced your writing, if it has?

Teaching gets me thinking about poems on two levels, as someone who can just wonder at poems for her own personal pleasure, and as someone who is required to articulate answers to questions like: What’s up with diction? Or, Why did that poet turn the line there? Learning how to articulate in meaningful ways how poems work while sharing my huge passion for poetry takes a particular form of attention, and it’s this attentiveness that makes my own work stronger.

Why do you write? Is it something you have ever tried to go without doing? How do you think being a writer enriches your life, or conversely, do you think writing inhibits you in anyway?

It’s not that I have to keep writing to feel fulfilled, it’s that my life without poem-making would be unbearable. Poem-making makes the world come alive for me. There are lots of times I haven’t written; those breaks here and there are good for my poems, they offer a chance to gain perspective on the work. Or, I just get excited about something else for a while, like swimming in a lake every day, or binge-watching Fargo or Top Chef. Getting too far away from poems is never good, but a little respite keeps the language and ideas fresh.

How do you use form to influence your writing? Do you find yourself choosing a form first and then writing to fit that certain mode? Or do you find the poem you are writing demands a certain form?

The content demands the form, but it takes my making many versions to know for sure exactly what’s best. And that takes researching all the possible ways a poem might move. I get really excited by the formal possibilities of poems, I think there’s no end to what a poem can be and do.

Do you have any projects you are currently working on? Either actively or something stowed away in your brain for the future?

Yes! I’m working on a book of poems about how it feels to be a woman who is, as they say, “in her prime.”

How do you try to approach truth in your writing? Do you find it something concrete or as more illusive?

I try to create an intimacy between speaker and listener, and while it’s not necessarily truth I’m after, there is an authenticity to that voice I hope to achieve. Creating vulnerability in a piece of work is, I think, the greatest struggle any writer faces.

How do you feed yourself, as a writer? (As in, what kind of art do you consume and how do you incorporate it into your writing? How do you find inspiration?)

I incorporate visual art and whatever I’m reading into my writing all the time. I start the day out with a book, a cup of tea. At some point without really noticing, I’ve put the book down and started taking notes. Sometimes I include direct quotes, sometimes I’m just borrowing a rhythm or a structure. Sometimes an image has prompted a memory, and I freewrite into that space. At the art gallery, I’ll sit and write in front of a painting or photograph or weaving or sculpture. And while it doesn’t directly influence my writing, I love television!

What is your writing process? Does your writing come to you all at once, or do you plan it out carefully?

My process has changed over the years, and I imagine it will continue to change as different priorities take precedence in my life. I’m not a planner, I never know what I might write about at any given time, but I do have a morning ritual on those days I know I’ll have some time to myself to spend making poems. Reading is a big part of my process, reading drives the work.

What advice do you have for young writers, either those just starting to delve into their voice or ones who are beginning the publishing process?

Hold yourself to as high a standard as your favourite writers or artists. Find your people! That is, the writers & thinkers your own work might be in conversation with, those voices who make it possible for you to write in the first place.

Olivia Scarlet Hoffman is currently pursuing her BFA in Creative Writing at University of British Columbia. She is primarily a poet and a non-fiction writer. Her work has been published in Barzakh’s spring issue and Poetry for Breakfast’s online site.

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