Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Sandra Alland

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Sandra Alland

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Dear Ms Alland,

I would like to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions that I have for you, as I have been studying your work for the past few weeks. I really appreciate the time that you are taking from your busy schedule to help me in my Writer’s Craft class. Here are the six questions that I have formed about your poetry and life.

Thanks again,
Sara Rolfe-Hughes

Sara Rolfe-Hughes:

Your collection of works is very diverse: Here, your film about migrants to Scotland, Slippery, and more of your short films are shown at major galleries in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh. You also work with many other artists on works such as the Silent Slam, and publish, edit and translate for your publishing company, sandraslittlebookshop. Are there ever times when you are overwhelmed with all the work you’re involved in, and feel like it’s too much? What inspires your to push through challenging moments?

Sandra Alland:

I currently curate and host a migrant- and queer-focused multimedia event (“Cachín Cachán Cachunga!: Queer and Trans Cabaret”). Sometimes organizing all the musicians, poets, dancers and filmmakers does feel like it will be the end of me. But I suppose the only truly overwhelming part is that much of this work — especially filmmaking, publishing and events organizing — is not only unpaid but also expensive. Like many artists, I have several jobs and am often tired.

There’s a lot of invisible work and costs that go into promoting and putting on arts events (and producing books, CDs etc.). Contacting the media for listings and interviews, liaising with the venue and the artists and getting information out to the gazillion different social networking sites that people use now… it’s a full-time job right there.

What inspires me is the end result, the artwork that I get to present, publish or participate in. The harsh reality is that a lot of potentially brilliant art doesn’t get made or shown because people can’t afford it or don’t have the time. It keeps me going to think that I’m giving something back to communities that I love, and that I’m maybe helping to push something exciting or hopeful into the world.


Have you ever felt as though there were no more original topics for you, as well as other poets, to write about?


Yes and no. It’s rare to think of something absolutely no one has thought of before. Yet people are so diverse that there are always new angles to look at a topic from, slightly different lenses to look through. That’s usually when the magic occurs.

Overall, I don’t put much value on the idea of the original or the new. I’m drawn to experimental and avant-garde work, and I’m excited by the possibilities that technology gives us. But the idea of “undiscovered territory” can be rather tired and colonial. And it’s creepy how often it’s used to sell us crap: a new way to talk to your friends! a new purple mini-computer that also makes toast! new shoes that will help you lose weight!

Artists have always recycled concepts and reacted to each other’s work. Good art generally can’t occur in a bubble; it knows where it came from, what’s around it and who it wants to have a conversation with. What’s original or meaningful is what conversations we have in our particular artistic interactions.

It’s not that I need a new topic, but I do sometimes question the “why” of publishing another book. I think my writing needs to justify itself a bit before getting to be a book. It doesn’t need to justify its originality, but maybe its relevance to a bigger conversation — be that artistic or political. In some ways, I also want to wait and see what “book” means in a few years....


When I read your poem “The Terrifying Nature of Intimacy (Blissful Times),” my mind read it in a whisper, as well as with a mournful tone. When you perform your poems, do you put your own emotions into the performance and act it out, or do you prefer to read the poem in a calm voice and allow the audience to form their own opinion about the poem? Do you have multiple performance methods?


Thanks for asking this question!

One of my pet peeves is being called a “spoken word artist”. There’s nothing wrong with that genre; some of what I do overlaps with work that identifies as “spoken word.” What bothers me is the tendency in many writing circles to dismiss writers that engage in performance, to put them in a space “over there.” Also I get irked by the general tendency to ignore intermedia or multimedia work (or focus solely on one aspect of it).

On the other hand, there can be a pressure to perform your writing these days, often because it’s more crowd-pleasing. It’s popular for young people to try to memorize their work because they feel pressure to do it that way. “Personality” is very big on the book-touring circuit, too, so writers are encouraged to Read With Verve. But not all people, and not all poems or stories, are well-suited to this. Sometimes silence, or quiet, is exactly what we need.

Likewise, some poets will just ask a random guy to play drums behind their words, or they’ll play some random video or computer beats, without really working with the drummer or video-maker in a true collaboration. In those cases, I’d rather just read the poem. Or listen to the drummer. Or watch the film.

I would never call what I do “acting”, though there are certainly poems that demand a more physical approach (movement or minimal dance), and some poems I memorize and/or read with more dramatic intonation. Some of my poems involve music, photographs, film and other artists. Other poems, like you say, call for a more neutral reading.

My work for the page and the stage sometimes overlaps, and sometimes is quite separate. I’ve done “performances” where I didn’t even appear onstage. There are also poems from both of my books that I have never read aloud at a poetry reading, and probably never will.


In your first book, Proof of a Tongue, you write about Scarborough being “a town of serial killers and suicide vistas.” You seem to have drawn much of your poems from your own experience; how difficult was the writing process for you, especially as this was your first book?


The writing process for Proof of a Tongue wasn’t particularly difficult, though it was quite long. Those poems were written over a period of nine years, without the thought of putting them together until the last year. Whereas Blissful Times was written, filmed, recorded, photographed and published in just over three years — always with the idea that is was a book. Proof of a Tongue is more of a collection of poems, and Blissful Times is more of a project. The hardest thing about Proof of a Tongue was learning to edit, and learning what makes a book hang together when you don’t have an overall topic or concept.

In terms of personal work, some of my writing is deeply personal and some of it has nothing to do with my life whatsoever. I don’t find it particularly difficult to write about personal topics, though the experience itself might have been painful. Sometimes I fictionalize the event, sometimes I try to turn something that was rather shite into a funny piece. I often don’t realize that something I’ve written is personal or maybe “revealing” (or maybe just really weird) until it’s published and my parents read it. Then I do a bit of a double-take. I like this about my writing process, because if I thought it through from the beginning I might not take risks. I might be scared about what my potential audience would think.


It seems as though you’ve had a very successful career, loved by critics for your “drolly funny and sweetly strange” poems. But all successful people have faced challenges at their beginnings; what do you think is the largest obstacle facing poets today?


Success is a strange, deceptive concept. I have been lucky, in that I’ve published two books and several chapbooks, and had some “major” art shows and screenings of my videos. My work gets some attention.

Yet in 2011 attention doesn’t equal success, and success doesn’t equal financial stability. Most successful poetry books in Canada sell only several hundred copies, for example.

And a poet sees about 10 percent of the price of their book in profits. Once in a blue blue moon we receive grants. I will probably find more money in the street in my lifetime than I’ll make from poetry. That’s an exaggeration, but not as not much of one as I’d like.

There are a lot of different obstacles for different people, but class is certainly one of the biggest. My experience of poverty is mild in comparison to many, but I’m still struggling to come up with enough money to eat properly, pay rent and not have to limp 45 minutes into town (I have fibromyalgia) instead of taking the bus.

Sadly, there are also still major obstacles in terms of race, ability, gender and sexuality. For example, women get published much less than men, still, in 2011. They win fewer awards, control fewer publishing houses. People of colour and aboriginal people also face these barriers. Many of the communities I belong to or work with continue to be included as an afterthought. Disabled, black or queer artists are often are shoved into a special one-class lesson for university courses, for example.


Your last book of poetry was published in 2007, although you blog often about your personal musings and ideas. Do you have any plans or hopes for another book to come out anytime soon?


Forest Publications here in Edinburgh published a chapbook of my short stories (Here’s To Wang) in 2009. My poetry-music-video ensemble, Zorras, also released a CD and two hand-made zines that year (We Apologise For Any Inconvenience, and Maricón 1 and 2).

I’m writing new stories and poetry, but to be honest I find that writing isn’t always meant to become a full-length book. I also like small things, short things, limited-edition things. Most people don’t place as much value on them, but some of my favourite works are tiny.

There’s a lot of pressure to publish, but I want to wait until my next book (or maybe it’s only a chapbook) really demands my attention. I recently finished a book of poetry, and burned most of it. I’m also a slower writer than many, so I tend to get to things later. My next book will probably be available on a file you transfer directly to your brain via Bluetooth ;-)

Sandra Alland is a Scottish-Canadian writer, multimedia artist and performer. She currently collaborates with the multimedia performance troupe, Zorras.

Sandra has published two books of poetry: Proof of a Tongue (McGilligan, 2004) and Blissful Times (BookThug, 2007). Her short story chapbook, Here’s To Wang, was published by Edinburgh’s Forest Publications in 2009, and recently went into its second printing.

Sandra has been artist-in-residence at Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art, Trongate 103 (Glasgow), The Banff Centre and FONCA (Mexico). Her film, photography and zine exhibition, A Spot of b)other, was on display at GoMA in 2009-10. She screened her documentary, Here, at Berlin’s Entzaubert Film Festival 2010 and her short, Slippery, at G-Fest 2009 in London.

Sandra has also featured at Edinburgh Festival, Museum of London, Soho Theatre (with Oxford Playhouse), Neu! Reekie! (Scottish Book Trust), The Eruption of Kilauea (Edinburgh Filmhouse/Screen Bandita), Aye! Write Festival, Scratch (The Arches), Bar Wotever and Noisy Nights (Traverse Theatre).

In Canada, Sandra’s work has been featured at The Scream Festival, The Banff Centre, Test Reading Series, The Queen West Art Crawl, The Theatre Centre, Harbourfront Centre, Pivot, Contact Photography Festival, Hillside Festival, Mayworks Festival and Word on the Street.

Sara Rolfe-Hughes is a Toronto born and bred student who acquired a love of words at the ripe age of two. Although her love of all things written is passionate, she finds writing herself as easy as climbing Mt. Everest, but has convinced herself that this is an usual form of writers block. She pushed through this writers block a few times in order to pursue achievement; her most profound writing accomplishments have been the publishing of her third grade poem “Courage” in a TDSB student anthology, as well as having a short story featured on the website When Sara is not working or reading she is preparing for the wild and exciting world of university, which she will be entering next year. Until Sara acquires the independence she will soon be granted, she currently resides in her parents' basement in a residential neighbourhood of Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page