There’s a Poem for That: Sue Sorensen + Acutely Life

We talk to poet, writer, and professor Sue Sorensen about her new collection of poems Acutely Life (At Bay Press), poetic portraits of real-life figures and characters in art or literature. She tells us about the inspiration behind her collection and shares the James Bond-inspired poem “Unsuitable Role Model” below.

A graphic reading: "There's a poem for...guilty pleasures" with an image of the cover of Acutely Life by Sue Sorensen and an inset photo of the poet.


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There's a poem for that... NPM on All Lit Up.

An interview with poet Sue Sorensen

All Lit Up: Can you tell us a bit about Acutely Life and how it came to be?

The cover of Acutely Life by Sue Sorensen.

Sue Sorensen: This is my first poetry collection, although I’ve been writing poems for 50 years. The first few decades were the usual free-verse explorations of my very special intense feelings and the misery of being me – and unsurprisingly my poetry career didn’t go anywhere fast. (I did other stuff – became a professor, wrote a novel. I wasn’t just moping and prodding my feelings.)

So then I decided to write a bunch of poems about characters instead of about my own life. It was revelatory. Sometimes I chose real people (Sigmund Freud, Noam Chomsky, jazz pianist Bill Evans), and sometimes characters in artworks or literature. Occasionally I would riff on lines of someone else’s work, or mess around with found poetry (in a gardening book, for instance). Writing these character poems or art-work poems has been a great experience. And some of these poems, ultimately, end up being a commentary on my own life anyway, so my younger, self-absorbed self is vindicated.

ALU: What has been your most unlikely source of writing inspiration?

Sue Sorensen: I was surprised to find myself writing a series of poems that were initiated by a few lines from a book (Versions of Pygmalion) by J. Hillis Miller, an American academic and deconstructionist. This is definitely not my usual sort of inspiration, but there was a mesmerizing beauty to some of the utterances in his essay and I couldn’t help building on top of them. Similarly, I can’t begin to tell you why I was suddenly writing a series of poems about Freud. I’ve never studied psychology and I’m not particularly keen on many of Freud’s theories. But I visited his home in London a few years ago, and it was an absurdly evocative place. And I just became fascinated despite myself.

ALU: Are there poetry collections you can’t get out of your head years later? Tell us about them.

Sue Sorensen: I love anything by Gerard Manley Hopkins and my suite of poems about Mary, the mother of Jesus, uses a fantastic Hopkins poem about her as a kind of skeleton that I make into a new body. Of recent Canadian collections I like Catherine Hunter’s St. Boniface Elegies and Margaret Atwood’s Morning in the Burned House a lot. Also Kayla Czaga’s For Your Safety Please Hold On. But possibly my favourite Canadian poet is John K. Samson, who is mostly a lyricist, and a very fine one.

ALU: What did you learn while writing your collection?

Sue Sorensen: I learned a lot of things. I learned that it’s probably better to consider the lives and works of others than obsess about yourself – and you’ll encounter enough wisdom about yourself along the way. I learned (or relearned) that when I’m torn up inside, poems have to come out, and I may not feel better afterward, but I might be able to get some sleep. I learned to trust the poem, to tell me if it wanted to be a prose poem or an unrhymed sonnet, or to tell me when it was finished. I try not to boss my poems around, but as much as possible to let them be.

ALU: If you were to set your collection to a soundtrack, what song is at the top of the listing?

Sue Sorensen: Music was significant in the composition of Acutely Life. The writing of my longest suite of poems, about Bill Evans, was accompanied by many, many albums of his jazz compositions. There are other jazz influences here – I love Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker. I probably listened to a lot of Radiohead and Talking Heads during the time of writing the book, and also my punk heroes like Bob Mould and X. I have a poem about Mick Jagger that is scored with the Rolling Stones song “Wild Horses” and my James Bond poem, “Unsuitable Role Model,” should of course be accompanied by one of those famous Bond theme tunes. (I’m particularly fond of “Skyfall” and “Live and Let Die.”)

There’s a poem for guilty pleasures…
“Unsuitable Role Model” from Acutely Life

The tunes are too appealing, themes
that still eject all my good sense.
Those sexist title sequence things
appall: they are embedded in

my poetics, despite intel
stating I ought to know better.
When he shoots his cuffs stalking through
the rubble, mutters some murderous

motto, I swap happy glances
with my kid, not til later
wondering: what is wrong with me?
Killer operative having drinks

and showers with gilded females who
die, soon after, expendable.
Why am I here, in this movie?
Possibly the way M’s blue eyes

lock onto his. This plot is cut-
rate nonsense but I am willing
to pay sterling for it. Seeing
him weep, M dead in his arms,

a Bond pieta: reversal.
Some cleansing grief then propels him
back to active service, where I
wish to be stirred. I find my brief

classified here in the tension
of want: do I long to expire
in his arms? old, fulfilled, one last
mission? I can’t seem to escape

taking turns: mourner? or the one
who is mourned? So the file is still
open, bottle still pouring, house
still burning, wound still bleeding.

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A black and white photo of poet Sue Sorensen. She is a light-skin toned woman with a chin-length bob.

Sue Sorensen was born in Saskatchewan, the youngest of seven children, and moved to Winnipeg in 2000. She is the author of the poetry collection Acutely Life, the non-fiction study The Collar: Reading Christian Ministry in Fiction, Television, and Film, and the novel A Large Harmonium; she is also the editor of West of Eden: Essays on Canadian Prairie Literature. Her poem “Blue: Three Sonnets to Mary” won Best Poem in Exile’s 2017 Gwendolyn MacEwen Poetry Competition. Her PhD is from University of British Columbia and research interests include detective fiction, rock lyricists, British modernism, and film. She teaches English at Canadian Mennonite University and serves as Director of CMU Press.

* * *

Thanks to Sue Sorensen for answering our questions, and to At Bay Press for the text of “Unsuitable Role Model” from Acutely Life, which is available to order now (and get 15% off with the code THERESAPROMO4THAT until April 30!).

For more poetry month, catch up on our “there’s a poem for that” series here, and visit our poetry shop here.