Chantel Lavoie talks to Sachi Nag

1. In his review of your previous title (“Where the Terror Lies”) Michael Dennis summarised it as an “amalgam of children’s fairy tales skewered with purpose, cautionary whimsies and folk tales that we thought we knew.” I noticed similar leanings and pre-occupations in several poems included in this title “a fugitive and a vagabond” “Sentenced”, “Interrogation”, “Witches”, “Honeymoon”, “La Pieta”, “Christ’s death…”, “Deaths I have read to my Son”). What draws you to this theme?

CL: The theme comes from a combination of being an obsessive reader and being raised Roman Catholic. All the stories are myths—an amalgam (good word) of fiction and reality, with blurred lines in-between, and they’re important. Those archetypes—the fallen son, for instance, the body raised from the dead, the mother whose heart breaks apart when her child dies—they’re everywhere. Some of these I’ve reconsidered, too, since I started teaching at the Royal Military College, where youth, however energetic and hopeful, must contemplate the dark more urgently and unavoidably than it might elsewhere. 

2. In her summary of your previous title Jenna Mann said “it examines the ideas and beliefs we are taught as children and explores how they influence what we become afraid of. It plays off folktales of the past to reflect upon the fascination and allure of being terrified.” Several poems in this present collection (“Carillon”, “Holmes”, “Interrogation”, “Shallot”, and “Witches”) are in some way retellings. Is this book a continuation of the previous in some ways? Did you deliberately want to chart a new course after paying homage to where you left off …or was it unconscious gravitation to an idea that’s central to your sensibility?

CL: We talk about retellings and adaptations as post-modern, but of course they’re not—and back to being haunted (and blessed) by stories. With “Carillon”, for example, I again revisited a nursery rhyme or song I heard (or half-heard) as a child. I read that song (“Au clair de la lune”) completely differently now. Someone pointed out to me that twice in Where the Terror Lies I used the phrase “I am sore afraid.”  That was unintentional, but it’s certainly biblical. I like your questions about charting a new course. I guess my answer is the title of your new book, Sachi: uncharted. But that doesn’t mean there’s no pattern, or unconscious intent.  The poems came as they came, like raindrops. Then, lo and behold, there was a small pond. Well, I prefer that to puddle, anyway.

3. What was your motivation behind the sectioning of the book into “Brothers”, “Sisters”, “Consorts”, “Offspring” and “Refuse” rather than say: Love, Faith, Curiosities, War and Waste…as an example? Or indeed in the manner of your previous title something with greater interiority?

CL: It seemed to me when I looked at these poems, they hinged on relationships. More of them seemed to have a speaker speaking to someone. Now, I also see life more in terms of what we build up and acquire, and what we lose and get rid of, than I did with the last book. Our interiority has an impact on that: we “binge”, we “purge”, we “cull”.  What we lack, or imagine we do, and how we act on that, writes the future. Rather than “Waste”, which I did light on at first for the last section, I liked “Refuse” because of how that word serves as both noun and verb.

4. The Waste Poems appear to be distinctly different from the rest of the title, in terms of subject, syntax, voice and poetic devices. What was your inspiration for the Waste Poems? What prompted the formal strategy (why sonnet)? What was your inspiration and what did you want to achieve with it?

CL: A couple of years ago I became aware of World Toilet Day (November 19) listening to a documentary on CBC radio.  It was both upsetting and enlightening (two experiences that often go together). I had always wanted to write a corona of sonnets and this issue seemed to have so many aspects that it lent itself to the genre. Odd, because sonnets tend to be love poems, but it also seemed fitting because sanitation is about loving ourselves and others, including bodies and vulnerabilities. I like that we can talk about these things more freely than we once could, but I also wanted to push that openness—as does World Toilet Day itself.

5. How did the collection come into being…did you write a section before the others or did the poems accumulate and accrete over time in a more organic manner without design?

CL: Without design, definitely. They fell into sections afterward, with a lot being obviously a response to parenthood (in “Offspring”) and to losing things, and people, with time (“Refuse”). 

6. The poems ‘Laundry” (p. 25) and “Laundered” (p. 43) “Tangled” (p.94) (all delightful) follow a different lineation but are thematically and syntactically similar; are of varying lengths; and follow a pattern of erasure …what was your intent in having the poems apart and in different sections?

CL: In 1993 I won the Books in Canada student writing awards with two poems, one of which was indeed the erasure piece comprised of all three sections of “Laundry”. It was Stuart Ross who suggested separating these and scattering them through the book this time round, as surprises to the reader. I like that idea. He’s a great editor and writer; Mansfield is lucky to have him, as was I.

7. One could argue “Between Blades” (p.38) “The pain on your back…it’s a knife” thematically belongs to the “Consorts” section? What promoted the creative choice for it to be included in the “Sisters” section?

CL: It could belong there. I suppose it’s because in that piece, the speaker is one woman speaking to another, and it’s imperative in a way that pieces in “Consorts” are not. 

8. In “Insurance” and other poems I notice a willingness to language making “untaking”; “milderness” –what inspired this?

CL: Wordplay is just plain fun—although as I say that I admit that new (apparently!) words like “impact” as a verb are fingernails on a chalkboard to me, so I guess I like new words to know their place.

9. In several poems I notice the narrator pausing to reflect – “we are only soft and hard pieces, joined (p. 13) “And we want in.” (p. 27) “We tell so many lies about the sun” (p. 40) … this ‘we’ is not ‘we’ in (p.42) “We will always be babes” (side note: what a delightful poem!) …I understand the latter ‘we’ in (p. 42) …what about the other ‘We” …who’s included in that?

CL: We human animals—we are such a remarkable, beautiful, dangerous and endangered species. I’m more willing to entertain this “we”, and acknowledge I’m part of it. Of course, time makes us aware of how many rough things can and do happen to everyone, and every one of us.

10. I found the voice in “Saskatchewan’ much different…are the poems arranged in any chronology? Is that an earlier poem or a latter poem?

CL: It is a later poem, although they aren’t arranged chronologically. I’m partial to endings that pack a quiet punch, and I hope that one does. The “you” at the beginning of that piece is the unspecified reader, implicated in interpreting the world (and in the arbitrary words we use to talk about it). I hope there’s a kind of comfort in the reminder of seeds that will keep seeding themselves, and that will endure beyond what we’ve constructed, and our very bodies. I liked finishing the book by acknowledging it too is as “puny” and inadequate as any other words, yet words are what we have

Chantel Lavoie, originally from Saskatchewan, is associate professor in the Department of English, Culture, and Communication at the Royal Military College. Her first book of verse was Where the Terror Lies (Quattro, 2012), and her second This is about Angels, Women, and Men (Mansfield, 2021). She lives with her two sons, two cats, two dogs, and her poetry-loving (and long-suffering) husband. She finds Kingston to be a nurturing community for poetry and the arts. The most important part of her writing practice is reading. The other, of late, has become observing—and listening—with gratitude.