On I Am the Big Heart: An Interview with Sarah Venart
January 13, 2021
In her latest collection
I Am the Big Heart(Brick Books) poet Sarah Venart wonders at the capacity of the heart: what does it really mean to be big-hearted, to be big enough for your children, your partner, and yourself? At turns tender and biting, these poems dig at the power of wild desire, reveal feelings that a mother, in particular, is not supposed to admit, and considers the heaviness that comes with the big heart. Below, Sarah tells us about her collection (14 years in the making!), the silent work of caring for others, and how writing is like a nap dream.
All Lit Up: Congratulations on your new collection I Am the Big Heart. Can you tell us a little about how it came to be?
Sarah Venart: Hi! Thank you so much!
The book took close to fourteen years to write. For a lot of that time, writing was secondary to the life events my family was going through. But even though I wasn’t writing, the heart records everything, doesn’t it? Mine is like a little telegraph machine or a seismographic needle and while I changed diapers and administered medication into my mother’s chest port or cancelled the scams on my father’s credit cards, I had this method of memorizing what I wanted to get down and I’d just repeat bits of the poems to myself until I had a moment to write down a note and stick it in my pocket. Inch by inch, sometimes for just a few minutes a week, I gathered the poems. The poetry could only be done when the mothering and caring was put aside. The voice of my own mother, in her journals and in my head, told me to fight for my time. I only included a few of her poems in the manuscript; believe me, she has much more to say. I plan to help her say it.
ALU: Now that your book is out in the world, is there anything around the narrative of the collection that you feel is not being said? Is there anything you wish readers knew that they might not?
SV: I wrote this for people who’ve maybe put aside something that is personally meaningful to do the mostly silent work of caring for others. This is of course meaningful as well, but it is not always easy to put aside what you want to do to be of service to others. My mother did this kind of silent service her entire life. I only really understood how much she put aside after I’d lost her. All women do this—to some degree in isolation—these commitments of enormous love. I hope readers feel less alone reading the book.
Someone asked me, “Aren’t you worried about how your family will react to your poems?” And the answer is that I wouldn’t want my daughters to not know the real me. And I love my children to hell and back, I’d die for them, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had moments when I’ve resented having lost something because of them. I want them to know I’m a human being. And that’s okay for others to know. If you write confessional poetry, if you love it, like I do, you have to be prepared to show this messiness. There is shame associated with confessional writing; some critics dismiss it as too broken or unstable or fragile—I think of Lowell’s line about watching “for love-cars” in “Skunk Hour,” that instability of not being able to look away from what we should not admit an interest in, that’s exactly what I don’t resist. I love what is incongruous and wrong. I don’t resist the poetics of what happens off camera, in the less Instagram-able moments. I make it my home. Anyone who wants to join me, I’m happy to be your den mother.
ALU: What were some considerations that went into ordering the poems in I Am the Big Heart?
SV: I need to physically see the poems and the order to get clarity, so I printed it out and three-hole-punched the whole thing and put it in a binder, with little coloured tabs to separate each section and then I read it out loud to my husband. He knows very little about poetry, but he is logical and intelligent, so he is the ideal presence. He doesn’t even need to listen. I just need to think that someone I love might hear the order of the poems and think, this isn't awful. It’s the risk of being heard in some rough, weird shape that helps the order become clear to me. Suddenly I see what goes with what, I move some poems forward and some back and eventually some kind of magic occurs.
ALU: In 2003 you published your first collection of poetry. Has your idea of poetry changed since then? What have you learned about writing between your first book and I Am the Big Heart?
SV: Oh, god! I’m a different person. There was no way for me to know about deep unconditional love or real loss back then. I look at that young woman and I think, what a player! The young woman who wrote Neither Apple nor Pear was rich with time and wow, did she waste it. And when I wrote Woodshedding, I was dog-sitting in a cottage in New Brunswick. I see a lot of ennui in those poems, a sense of musicality and word play. I was a little floaty back then, I looked like I was listening, but maybe I wasn’t really. I kind of see an evasion. By contrast, in I am the Big Heart, everything is changed by what I’ve gone through; the writing is humbled, and much more certain. And I understand craft much more, though I still have so much to learn.
ALU: Do you have a stand-out moment or an experience that helped you realize you wanted to be a writer?
SV: I was in love with a terrible person, a narcissist who liked to drop his pants and walk around at parties—maybe everyone has a version of this guy in their past. But this privileged young gentleman fancied himself a poet and I thought he was everything. So I have to begrudgingly give him some props. When he naturally broke my heart, it was conducive to writing poems, so that was what I did. Around the same time, I took a history course with Douglas Lochhead and he saw some of my writing and gave me poetry prompts instead of essay assignments for the rest of the semester. What else fell into place? I was given an old typewriter and I used that to submit my first awful poems to journals. Also, I was looking for voices that understood my condition (what else do we feel but longing when we’re twenty?) and I spent hours using a silly quill pen and ink and transcribing Alden Nowlan, Sylvia Plath, Galway Kinnell, Anne Sexton, Elizabeth Bishop into my journal. Now of course I see my mother’s inability to write was behind everything. Long before the terrible young narcissist, she was showing me how to not be a writer and I was learning from her begrudgingly and resisting.
ALU: What do you find most difficult about writing poetry? What do you love about it?
SV: While writing isn’t painful itself, extracting yourself from writing can be. But I don’t let that stop me and nor should you, especially if you don’t have time, especially if you feel side-lined and you have something to say. I can compare my own experiences with writing to dreams I have when I take a nap; you dream you’ve woken up and you’re walking down hallway to the staircase and descending it to make lunch for someone you need to make lunch for, or going to the bathroom to pee or whatever? And then, still dreaming, you realize, "Oh, I haven’t really woken, I still have to go down the hallway, and pee and make someone’s lunch." And so you get up again (it feels like again) to go towards the stairs and below you can hear a child asking for soup or whatever, and then it happens again; it’s a dream still and you’ve really woken up now and nothing is done yet, not even the stairs—have you had that feeling? That is how I feel when I have to leave the writing of a poem and return to life. And that is the most difficult thing for me. I resent it, but I have to leave the poem unfinished. I think that a lot of people know that life where what you love isn’t available to you until the dishes are done or whatever.
I love when a poem comes first thing in the morning. Both “The Visitation” and “Stun Guns” came like that. Which is not to say I didn’t edit them, but they came in one piece. Everything else is the work of word after word, line after line, and a thousand edits, which I also enjoy.
I think the poems that I love most are the ones that still hold a great mystery to me. I wrote “The News” and “Joy in the Cloisters” knowing what I wanted to say, but the writing went in a different direction emotionally and even though I am finished with them, I don’t quite understand them. I circle back, reading them again, feeling the urge to return to the scene of the mystery.
It’s the same for other poets’ poems.
Dorothea Lasky’s “The Green Lake” is like that for me. Each time I read it, I feel like I’m learning from her magic, her breathlessness, her minimal punctuation.
Jean Valentine’s “April” blows my mind every single time. I wish I’d written and told her that.
ALU: What was the last great book you read?
SV: This is a question that makes me feel inadequate because I rarely read books these days. I read my Twitter feed—which I should be embarrassed to say, but I’m not. I love the New Yorker’s “Table for Two” restaurant reviews (I’d argue Hannah Goldsmith writes food poetry). I also do a lot of reading for my job as a teacher. Because I just had a bit of time off, I listened to an audiobook of Kiese Laymon’s HEAVY. And you should read it or listen to it too. We all should. Laymon’s book is a memoir officially, but I heard it as poetry. Speaking of which, I don’t read poetry books in any conventional chronological sense. I dip into them. In this way, I’ve been reading Hieu Minh Nguyen’s Not Here and, on the laptop, I have some Bernadette Mayer poems open, studying line breaks. I have so much to learn about line breaks.
ALU: What was the last TV show or movie that affected you?
SV: I loved How to With John Wilson. Have you seen it? It’s a comedy in which he explores how to survive this life right now in a series of lessons. He narrates from behind his camera, and his voiceovers and the images he captures with his lens are revealing and beautiful and darkly comedic. Slowly Wilson himself comes into focus despite his attempt to hide behind his lens. I admire this slow trickle of revelation. I can relate to it, although I’m not so good at hiding.
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Sarah Venarts’s poetry has been published in Numero Cinq, Concrete and River, The New Quarterly, The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, This Magazine, Prism International, and on CBC Radio. She is the author of Woodshedding (Brick Books, 2007) and Neither Apple Nor Pear. Sarah lives in Montreal and teaches writing at John Abbott College.
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