1. In your collection Naming the Shadows the first story, A Violet Light is based on Edouard Manet’s wife, Suzanne. The story is located in 1870s Paris and is written in the third person. Could you share how you went about researching for this piece? What was your most important concern in writing this piece?
My first live-in partner was a painter. I was his model. When we first got together, he used egg tempera, then oils. His vision for his development as an artist was to reach back in time, using previous artistic mediums and methods to discover their limitations for himself. We studied early painters, reading their biographies. I developed the idea to write about women in the lives of painters because biographies in that time never portrayed painters’ models as full-fledged people. I knew about painting myself, from the model’s perspective. I knew how much I had influenced each painting he created during our partnership. I also learned how invisible being his model made me. Models, like wives, think, feel, and respond to the world around them. They’re also aware of the world their partners engage with. I wanted to illustrate the strength of the feminine mind through Suzanne as a model.
2. The Name Unspoken: Wandering Spirit Survival School is often described as a cross-genre history and it includes poetry, memoir, notes, appendixes, and scenes. In the book, you write “it came to me in pieces, over several decades, like a jig-saw puzzle that is far too large and complex to complete in one go.” Can you share the process of the book and the collaboration process with Elder Pauline Shirt (Nimkiiquay of the Bird Clan, Plains Cree)?
I lived in the Bain Housing Co-op when I met my neighbour, Pauline. She asked me to write the history of her school. I told her no, at first, feeling unworthy of the task. Then I immersed myself in the culture as her student. It was almost 10 years before I began the project. Pauline took me under her wing, teaching me the ontology she was raised with, ceremonies, the use of various ‘medicines’, and the way First Nations conduct their research through dreams, the Sweat Lodge, and Fasts. I fasted for that story, earning my pipe. During my M.Ed project, Pauline was my research partner, reviewing every word I wrote in my thesis. In The Name Unspoken, I’ve attempted to translate the experience I had by offering poems, dreams, and expanding upon the vignettes in the thesis to include later developments in the history of Wandering Spirit Survival School.
3. In 1979 you released To a Young Horse (Borealis Press), in 1984 The Body Labyrinth (Coach House Press), and in 2020 Stars in the Junkyard (Cyberwit). Purely from a craft point of view, how do these collections differ? How does your current poetry relate to the craft in your previous collections, particularly in the context of your recent in-school work “wherein art, geometry, and poetry are combined on one geometric shape, such as an illustrated haiku on a tetrahedron (or triangle-based pyramid)”?
I began as a confessional poet. I simply processed my life experiences in To a Young Horse. With The Body Labyrinth I explored various poetic forms and developed an insight into my own experiences and human nature as a quirky theme for the book. In Stars in the Junkyard I hit my stride, speaking confidently because I knew I’d developed both my awareness of various human conditions and my voice in speaking about them. That book covers 30 years of my poetry. In all my books, I am speaking to an audience that is aware of injustice and inequity. But my work with children draws on my experience as a teacher and my opposition to dividing what is learned into strict subjects. I invented 3D Poetry as a way of combining Mathematics, Visual Art, and Language Studies, allowing children to find the path to self-expression that best suits them.
4. In pushing your work beyond your first title what were you most conscious of? What were/are you trying to achieve?
My first book practically burst out of me, almost unbidden. I was a single mother fighting to find time to read or write. My work welled up inside, only to be released while my baby napped. I’d known from an early age I was different. I knew I was a writer. Yet, in my childhood home, the only books allowed were Bibles and How To manuals. The only music allowed was marching bands and hymns. I’ve always worked to voice who I am in a contrary world. As I matured, I voiced human truths, exploring what’s hidden and little-talked-about in our society. That includes protesting the subjugation of Indigenous peoples, people of colour, and all women through an invisible system. Art nurtures us, but poverty controls us. Artists are like canaries in the mine. The 3% are our evil overlords and the end of humane existence. We must protest!
5. Can you reflect on any social contexts that might have been inspiring or generative (or conversely harmful, or inhibitive) to your writing practice at some point?
It may be a ridiculous parallel, but I equate my upbringing to the awareness others have that they’re born in the wrong body, must find a way to endure, and eventually ‘come out’ as who they actually are. My mother had married the poet Al Purdy, father of my half-brother, Brian. He abandoned her with 10-month-old Brian. She ended up with my father who was religiously fundamental. Artists were labelled the enemy. Books, visual art, even music were forbidden in our home. I’ve always worked to voice who I am, and my perspective, in a contrary world. My ‘coming out’ with my first book felt revolutionary. Ironically, my employment as a teacher was all-consuming, squeezing out the opportunity to be who I truly was. That’s why I started Big ‘Pond Rumours Literary E-Zine’, as a way of staying in touch with writing at a time when I couldn’t write myself.
6. Can you name a source of inspiration from your pre-teen years that impacted your writing in some way?
I’ve always felt closest to visual and audio imagery. As mentioned earlier, my first live-in experience was with a visual artist. Words can express visual and audio images. Whenever I read or write, I see the characters interacting and hear their voices. I remember reading Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, John Wyndham, Diane Wakowski, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath in high school, and being immensely moved by all of their books. I also read Black Elk Speaks, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and Diary of Anne Frank at age sixteen, crying as I turned each page because I saw and heard the massacre of so many people. In addition, my brother and I united with a friend as singer/songwriters, creating a three-person band. We rebelled against everything we were raised to, neither one of us taking our parent’s views to heart. We explored to understand what was denied to us.
7. Do you remember any experience around learning to write that became formative for you in the later years?
My brother introduced me to Bohemian Poets Embassy Workshop in the 1970s. I was pregnant and just beginning to write. They accepted me for who I was, one of my first experiences of acceptance as a writer. When Queen’s Quay was renovated, we lost both the space and the name of our workshop. It caused us to think deeply about our goals. We renamed ourselves Phoenix, rising from those flames, found a place, and founded AxleTree Coffee House. We believed poetry should be heard as well as read. That workshop and coffee house became institutions in Toronto’s writing scene back then. They’d accepted me, and were so accommodating I took my newborn to both. My daughter grew up on the laps of poets, and I grew as a writer with their critical voices in my head. I think writers thrive when more than one head is looking at their work.
8. Do you train your subconscious in certain ways to deal with success or rejection?
I guess I learned early to pick myself up after a fall. It isn’t quite that simple though. In 1976, I hired myself out as an agent for three men in my poetry workshop. I submitted their work to various magazines, only reporting the good news to them. It wasn’t a very long career as two of them soon took up the task themselves, but I was able to compare my own success with theirs. I found that I did alright. I set a goal to always have three poems in a submission, and twelve poems in total out seeking publication. I calculated I received one or two acceptances for every ten poems in those early years. That seemed like a pretty good ratio to me. You can’t expect everything you write to succeed. I accepted the nays as well as the yays, and learned over time what works.
9. Outside of plot or character what primary or external engines do you usually end up choosing for your stories?
With poetry, I used to say I felt I was gifted and just channeled each piece. Story writing is different. There are several ways to approach writing them. Some authors make meticulous outlines with strong plots. Let’s call them a plotter. They know before they begin how their story will end. Others proceed with a general idea of what will happen but no predetermined plot. The story and characters guide them as they proceed. I’ve heard authors who use that method called pantsers. I am more of a pantser than a plotter, even when I know the direction of the tale because I allow things that happen in the story to decide what happens next. In rewriting, I often shift the order of events. Something I thought happened later on will suddenly need to happen now, and the rest of the narrative needs to adjust to deal with that change.
10. What is new in the world that you need to capture in your writing?
There have always been people who incorporate the environment in their writing, setting beautiful scenes drawing us into nature. However, there’s been a social shift in awareness. We must now deal with the repercussions of climate change. People are finally owning up to their individual impact upon the environment at large. It’s front of mind for more of us, and that means the characters in books, and TV shows, or on stage will often need to deal with climate change as a front of mind activity. The same is true of women’s rights, child labour, and gender issues. Society as a whole has begun to address them, to develop laws, so they are more front of mind. We need to bring racism and financial inequity to the front of mind in our plot lines and suggest solutions in just the same way. Art can guide the morality of a society.
Sharon Berg writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She founded the International Literary E-Zine, Big Pond Rumours (January 2006 to September 2019) which ran contests and published chapbooks for Canadian authors. Sharon has published three poetry books: To A Young Horse (Borealis Press, 1979), The Body Labyrinth (Coach House Press, 1984), and Stars in the Junkyard (Cyberwit, 2020); as well as three chapbooks (2006, 2016, 2017). She also released a debut short fiction collection, Naming the Shadows (Porcupine’s Quill, 2019) and a cross genre history, The Name Unspoken: Wandering Spirit Survival School (Big Pond Rumours Press, 2019): She lives in Charlottetown, NL (Terra Nova National Park) where she runs Oceanview Writers Retreat.