Try Poetry: Way to Go + Richard Sanger

Our next Try Poetry feature is the late Richard Sanger, a celebrated poet, playwright, and translator. His final book Way to Go (published posthumously by Biblioasis) is a tender, playful, and courageous collection that represents the full spectrum of Sanger’s thoughts and feelings when contending with his illness. Biblioasis Managing Editor Vanessa Stauffer shares a few words on the “bittersweet occasion” of publishing a work from a talent no longer with us.


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A comment from Biblioasis Managing Editor Vanessa Stauffer on “Way to Go”

A posthumously published book is a bittersweet occasion, and Richard Sanger’s fourth collection Way to Go is no exception. Completed during the poet’s two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, these are poems that confront the experience of terminal illness head on, beginning, in the book’s opening section, with the shock of diagnosis (“So quickly it comes to an end, the film, / you can hardly remember the start”) and the brutality of treatment (“Haul out the artillery, hook me up / and chemo carpet-bomb the rebel zones”). Grave circumstances, to be sure, but for Sanger, a poet of urbane wit and earthly delights, the tone quickly shifts from shock to celebration, with poems invigorated by the urgency of their writer’s situation.For Sanger, a scholar and translator of Spanish literature, the felt presence of death in his life becomes duende in his poems—indeed, “Spanish Songs,” a three-poem cycle paying homage to some of Sanger’s favourite singers of Spanish music, employs epigraphs from the work of Federico García Lorca, for whom duende was a kind of artistic double vision that sees, in life, the presence of death, and vice versa. In Sanger’s poems, the result is tender nostalgia sharpened by irreverence, often of a self-deprecating bent. A pair of soccer poems evoke the youthful exuberance of rooting for the national team (“When I grow up, I want to play for Holland. / I’ll wear bright orange, / my hair a shock of bottle blond / or seaweed-dark and tangled”) and the middle-aged acceptance of having been turned, by time’s calculating draft ranking, into the pick-up game’s last choice (“It’s just a moment before the game begins / but already you see the rusted-out old beater / on the used-car lot”).But accompanying the late poet’s intelligence and playfulness is a deeply felt, deeply serious, celebration of every moment of the life he was clearly astonished to have been given. “Valentine” considers the satin-smooth linen of a lifelong love (“this sheet I spread / for us to start again, anew / our story in the dumbstruck dark”) while the gently interrogative “Exit Interview”—“Have you done what you came here to do?”—invites the reader to share in what, for Sanger, was nothing short of a gift, the sort of gift that poetry offers us again and again: the felt reminder of what it means, in all its complications and contradictions, to be gloriously alive on a day in April.


From Richard Sanger’s collection Way to Go.
So our punk Juliet from down the street
has gone and washed her clothes—
I watch her string out t-shirts, panties, jeans,
torn, skimpy things, and, last of all, a sheet
against the twilit city sky.
I watch her, and I think of you
in a laundromat, in wet Scotland,
reading a Spanish play I would also read
as the first sheet we tumbled on
spun round and round; you, twenty-one,
all legs and vocab lists and woolly jumpers,
scribbling in the margins of your book
as the strangers came and went:
what were you thinking then,
were you erasing or underlining this guy
you’d let into your life? The machine stops.
You check inside; heads turn; no, it’s not dry.
You add another 50p. I think of all the sheets we’ve shared,
sheets we’ve slept and sweated and wept on since,
sheets left in hotels, sheets washed, hung and dried
over and over, and in the mornings,
sheets of newspaper we’ve read,
and new snow outside scribbled with stories
of birdseed and squirrels, the sheets of our bed
creased and rumpled, and the life we’ve spilled.
The things I’ve tried to put down on paper,
sheets and sheets, never enough, never dry,
and then, in spring, the rain,
coming down in sheets …
I think of them, and this sheet I spread
for us to start again, anew,
our story in the dumbstruck dark,
two stick figures, a blank slate, me, you …
The lines on this sheet, the sheet I hang on this line:
it’s dry, it’s wet, it’s yours, my Valentine.
“Valentine” is excerpted from Way to Go by Richard Sanger, copyright © 2023 by Richard Sanger. Reprinted with the permission of Biblioasis.

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Richard Sanger
(1960–2022) grew up in Ottawa and lived in Toronto. He published three poetry collections and a chapbook, Fathers at Hockey (2020); Dark Woods, was named one of the top ten poetry books of 2018 by the New York Times. His plays included Not Spain, Two Words for Snow, Hannah’s Turn, and Dive as well as translations of Calderon, Lorca, and Lope de Vega. He also published essays, reviews, and poetry translations.

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Many thanks to the team at Biblioasis and especially Vanessa for sharing this touching tribute to Richard Sanger.Remember, if you purchase a copy of Way to Go or any of the other featured Try Poetry collections, you’ll receive a free digital sampler containing all of our featured poems. (Purchase from All Lit Up or from your local independent bookseller; send proof of payment to if you purchase from your local!)