5 Questions with Poet Sarah Klassen

Sarah Klassen lives, reads and writes poetry and fiction in Winnipeg. She has just launched her eighth poetry collection: The Tree of Life.

1. As a writer of both fiction and poetry, do you find that one medium works better for certain themes and ideas than the other?

Maybe not ‘better’ but ‘differently’. In fiction there is more space to explore and develop a theme through a series of scenes, incidents and exposition that are presented sequentially. Or not. There is more opportunity to linger with characters.
When I write a series of poems about a subject or theme that’s caught my interest, each poem is a fresh start, like taking a new look. Maybe it’s like taking several pictures of a subject each from a slightly different angle.
(If the theme is the standard ‘coming of age’ I’d probably prefer to read a fictional treatment of it.)

2. When did you know you wanted to become a writer?

In high school (MBCI) we had few choices and I chose physics instead of history because I wasn’t likely to be required to write an essay in physics. That’s how much I avoided writing. But I loved reading. By the time I entered university I knew enough to register for arts courses. I remember sitting on the floor on a pre-computer day, surrounded by papers with scraps of research that I was trying to shape into an essay on Canadian history. For a brief moment I felt satisfaction, even pleasure, in the process. As a teacher, I became expert in telling my high school students how to write a proper essay, while I wrote nothing but grocery lists and occasional letters. This irony slowly caught up with me. I was inspired by the stories and poetry I taught my students and those I read on my own. But also scared, convinced that I could never write like that. But I wanted to and eventually I did. I wanted to write short stories but I started with poetry because a poem was short and could fit on one page. (I still didn’t have a computer.) Once I started I was hooked. (I’m glad you didn’t ask “When did your first think of yourself as a writer?”)

3. In your latest work, did you find it challenging to weave both allusions to Shakespeare and the Old Testament?

My head seems to be crammed with words and phrases and images from the Bible and from William Shakespeare. They often come helpfully to mind just when I need them and I’m grateful for that. The wisdom, examples and imagery contained in these old writings come uncannily close to contemporary life. So, though writing is always a challenge, texts from Hebrew scriptures, the Bible, Shakespeare, various mythologies are a resource I wouldn’t want to be without.

4. Would you rather eat from the Tree of Life of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil?

What a great question!
I grew up in a bush in Manitoba’s interlake region where the only fruit came from scrawny chokecherry, wild plum, saskatoon and pincherry trees that were forced to compete with oak and poplar trees for sunlight. I believe the trees you mention would be large, so I must ask:
Will I need a ladder?
Should a person my age be climbing ladders?
Will someone be available to hold the ladder steady?

5. What has been the highlight of your literary career?

My writing life has chugged along steadily and any highlights have been modest. The publication and launch of my first book–Journey to Yalta–was a thrill, as first books always are, and getting the Gerald Lampert Award enhanced that. Subsequent publication and occasional awards were highlights too. A great pleasure was finding kinship with other writers and participating in the writing community. This also brought opportunities for teaching creative writing and doing workshops and writing courses.