Gillian Sze is a writer and teacher. She is the author of multiple poetry collections, including Peeling Rambutan (Gaspereau Press, 2014), Redrafting Winter (Buschek Books, 2015), and Panicle (ECW Press, 2017), which were finalists for the QWF’s A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. She has also published creative nonfiction, articles, interviews, and book reviews and 3 children’s books.
What draws me to the writer: I had the good fortune to share a reading and conversation with her many years ago. Her unique radiant joy from then remains intact. She has an optimism and careful poetic step. I have since particularly enjoyed her Redrafting Winter which I’ve re-read a couple times. The collaborative dialogue shines. It hooked me that the point of entry is Li Bai and Wang Wei, Tang poets who I also admire. A book of poetry taking the slow path of reflective time is appealing.
Book: Quiet Night Think: Poems & Essays (a misFit book, ECW, 2022) by Gillian Sze.
About the Book:
During the remarkable period of early parenthood, Sze’s new maternal role urges her to contemplate her own origins, both familial and artistic. Comprised of six personal essays, poems, and a concluding long poem, Quiet Night Think takes its title from a direct translation of an eighth-century Chinese poem by Li Bai, the subject of the opening essay. Sze’s memory of reading Li Bai’s poem as a child marks the beginning of an unshakable encounter with poetry. What follows is an intimate anatomization of her particular entanglement with languages and cultures.
Sze invites readers to meditate with her on questions of emergence and transformation: What are you trying to be? Where does a word break off? What calls to us throughout the night?
Trimmed baby hairs tossed in the backyard now curl in a nest.p.8
Moss limes the bark.
Beneath the sudden rays, ice laces the heads of hedges.
The glaucous leaves of the carnations are fringed with melting snow.
When did they find the time to survive?
It’s almost May and we’re still lamenting the languid spell of winter.
When panicked, grant me
the unshakable calm of flowers.
PP: Your opening essays starts with all the paradoxes of translation, what is literally said, what is implied, what is embedded. It strikes me that poetry in the translation from life to words has some of the same challenges. In your work you mention letting work set until it has clarity and heft. Do you find that way in time alone or do you have a set of readers who help you see what is distilled enough?
GS: I think one of the best things to do with a draft is to forget about it and return to it afterwards. That little spell of amnesia allows me to, for a moment, pretend that the work isn’t even mine to begin with, and I can examine, edit, and revise it more effectively. Only when I feel like I have moved the work to a less vulnerable space do I seek out my trusted first readers.
PP: In its weaving in of life and what you read, art you saw, it seems similar to Borealis by Aisha Sabatini Sloan (Coffee House Press, 2021) In your essays you write of family memories. Although you don’t express scathing shocking reports, did you run it past family? Did you navigate “whose story”?
GS: I found myself at the nexus of so many stories this last while when writing this book. It was through the stories of my family that I could make out the leaps and overlaps of my own. I showed the manuscript to family for accuracy, and I’m fortunate that it was met with their encouragement and blessings. I was conscious when writing to be as honest, empathetic, and generous as possible.
PP: What I admire about your work is your diligent belief in beauty, in that there is a rock-solid real. In Prayer you say, “When panicked grant me/the unshakeable calm of flowers”. Your poems have a striking lack of cynicism and irony: “how common the unexpected. How elusive both luck and mishap” yet are not prosiac. You manage frankness with grace. What keeps you grounded, connected and hopeful?
GS: I’m grateful for this magnanimous reading of my work, Pearl! This belief or connection is perhaps just a stubborn insistence on finding states of wonderment. Or, at the very least, a state of boredom from which wonder can emerge.