Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Special Feature: An Interview with Sandy Pool by Sheniz JanMohamed

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Undark by Sandy Pool

In this interview with Sheniz Janmohamed, Sandy Pool speaks about her second poetry collection, Undark: An Oratorio (Nightwood Editions). Undark is about the "radium women," women in the early 1900s who worked in factories across North America painting watch faces with radium-based paint to make the watches glow in the dark.

Sheniz Janmohamed:

In both your first book and Undark, you seem to take on the voices of women who have died disturbing deaths — what is it about writing these women into "existence" again that motivates your creative work?

Sandy Pool:

Well, both works are compelled by questions that I have around voice and voiceless-ness. The theoretical concerns in Undark are focused around what happens to time and history, specifically female history, when that history is perpetually being erased. In the case of radium women, they ingested radium via their mouths and literally lost their voices, and then their lives. While they were dying, they were also misdiagnosed as having syphilis, and many women died ashamed and without compensation. I want to ask these women what happened, but I can’t. I guess there is a kind of imaginary dialogue with them that happens in my head. I wanted to elegize these women, but also allow for gaps in the narrative, spaces for the existence I don’t know. This kind of uncertainty is certainly a motivational force in my work.

SJ:

What is, if any, the responsibility of carrying these women's voices?

SP:

I think it’s a huge responsibility. I spent a great deal of time thinking about how to do it in a respectful way. I actually started with a single voice — the voice of a single radium dial painter, but it didn’t seem to encapsulate the story I was trying to tell. I realized that it had to do with solidarity. The women worked as a group to tackle the legal system, and ultimately change labour laws. I wanted to show how strongly they worked together to take on the Radium Luminous Materials Corporation. (You’ll note that all of the voices in the book use personal pronouns that reflect their characters.) I think there is a responsibility not only to the women in the book, but also to the story. And the larger story of history’s unfortunate repetitions. (Just watch the documentary Bananas!, and you will see a scary number of similarities to radium women.) Many people still have not heard of the radium dial painters, and I think it’s a story well-worth knowing.

SJ:

How did you research the lives of these women? Did you meet with/speak to any of their family members/children? If so, what was that process like for you? At what point did you have to abandon the facts/research and move into the writing of the book?

SP:

I was lucky to do a series of interviews with survivors and children of survivors of the radium dial plants, which gave me an understanding of their personal stories. I then turned to radium dial painting experts Ross Mullner and Claudia Clark, who were extremely encouraging and helpful for my work. I kept these individuals in mind throughout the process, and I felt like there was no need to abandon the facts. I felt a historical resonance with Sappho and Hashepsut also, so their voices started to penetrate the text, and I moved forward from there.

SJ:

How did you balance your poetic voice with the voice of the women you were "representing" in a sense?

SP:

That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure exactly. I think, in this context, I allowed the characters in the book to determine the poetic voice used. Interestingly, I noticed the line length changed when different characters were speaking. I like the idea of taking on "vocal masks" in poetry, so I allowed that to influence my natural poetic breath.

SJ:

Why did you choose the format of poetry you chose? Was it an organic process for you or was it laborious? (Explain the various approaches in terms of formatting/style.)

SP:

It was truly an organic process. I know with other works, I have suffered over how the poetry looks on the page, and whether it conveys something that is integral to the text. With Undark it seemed to be the only way to convey my concepts of time, and women’s history. I was interested in what Bakhtin said about chronotopes, and how time in a work of art time “thickens, takes on flesh, becomes artistically visible; likewise space becomes charged and responsive to the movements of time, plot and history.” This idea encapsulates exactly what I was trying to do visually with the text. I am interested in the space/time connection, and how it works in a long narrative poem. You’ll also note the absence of page numbers in my work, and in its place, a kind of countdown. This is the actual amount of time it takes for me to read the book from start to finish. It is a visual representation of one of the chronotopes to be found in the work. These women were painting watch dials and, at the same time, waiting on so many things, including death. The irony is absolutely terrifying. And I wanted this waiting to show up on the page, to be made to take on flesh.

SJ:

When you were writing the collection, did you envision how it would work as a visual statement? Or was the writing the first priority and then the edits/formatting came at a later time?

SP:

I think it took me a long time to write my way in to this project. Some of the voices had a natural physical presence on the page, and others needed time to develop. Mostly I wrote in a way that seemed natural, and then began to find a visual space for the voices later on. I’m not an intensely visual writer, but I do think, with certain projects, that the two can be complimentary. Something about the ideas of time/space and history in this book begged for a visual element.

SJ:

Often we only focus on the voices of victims — why did you choose to give a voice to those who created Undark and radium? What was it about giving a voice to the scientific geniuses who may or may not have known that their discoveries would kill so many?

SP:

I certainly struggled with it. I think it’s important to understand the history of radium, and how amazed people were with it. Many women thought working with radium was a glamorous job. At the time, radium was not a "scary" word. It was being marketed as a miracle product. One could even buy their own in-home water radiator. It was crucial to the book that there was a context for the word. And I think incorporating Sabin was a kind of context. He was certainly a dreamer and a fascinating human. He truly believed that people would paint their rooms in radium and no longer need electricity. I don’t think he was a monster. He also died as a victim of radium poisoning, and so did other members of his family. For me, he was misguided, but he represents an attitude towards radium, an attitude that was shared by many others of his time. It was a way of making radium sublime, which in turn, makes it even more frightening.

SJ:

How did Sappho and Hatshepsut come into your vision of the book?

SP:

Sappho and Hatshepsut were characters that contextualized the kind of time and historical erasure I wanted to explore. In the case of Sappho, her words were erased by time, while Hashepsut’s image was literally chipped off Egyptian pyramids, leaving very obvious "Hatshepsut" shaped holes. I think for me, they are a kind of nod to a history that was erased. And they speak with the wisdom of generations of time. It is a kind of discussion between the reader, the radium women, and the long history of historical erasure.

Sheniz Janmohamed is a spoken word artist, author and graduate of the MFA in Creative Writing program at the University of Guelph. She has been mentored by Dionne Brand, Kuldip Gill and Janice Kulyk Keefer. She is also is the founder of Ignite Poets, a youth spoken word initiative with an emphasis on social awareness. She has been performing for over seven years and has been featured at the TedXYouth Conference (Toronto, 2010) and This is not a Reading Series to name a few. Her work has been published in the Hart House Review, South Asian Ensemble and a number of anthologies.

Her first book, Bleeding Light (TSAR) a collection of sufi-inspired English ghazals, was published in 2010. Sheniz will be traveling to India in January 2013 to read at the prestigious Jaipur Literature Festival

Sandy Pool is a writer, editor and creative writing instructor based in Toronto. Sandy holds a degree in Theatre Performance and English from the University of Toronto, as well as a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University Guelph. Currently, she is a holder of the prestigious Killam scholarship in poetics at the University of Calgary, where she is completing her Phd. Sandy has been published in various literary journals and was most recently anthologized in The Best Canadian Poems in 2011, published by Tightrope Books.

Her first book, Exploding Into Night published by Guernica Editions, was long-listed for the 2010 re-lit award and short-listed for the 2010 Governor General’s Award for poetry. Undark: An Oratorio was recently published this fall with Nightwood Editions.

For more information about Undark please visit the Nightwood Editions website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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