Anna Marie Sewell is no stranger to residency programs. During her time as Edmonton's Poet Laureate (2011-13), she developed a "poem catcher" (a public art installation that asked people passing through city hall "what's poetic about your life?"). She said the responses were amazing.
"If you provide a place for people to write down their heart, then they will," she says, describing over 1,000 pages of heartfelt contributions from around the world. “We all really want connection."
As she gets into her role as MacEwan University's new writer in residence, Anna Marie (a multi-discipline/multi-genre writer, author of poetry collections Fifth World Drum and For the Changing Moon: Poems & Songs) wants to help people make connections in their own writing and with others. Here she explains her inspiration, process, and what it means to her to make connections.
Q. What inspires your writing?
Pretty much everything does. I look for the connections between things. I like the unexpected links between people and other kinds of fellow travellers in our world. What I like to write about is the ways we get it right. I like to write about moments of ecstatic beauty and the things that get us to them. And I just like to celebrate and acknowledge the way we get through things, because that to me is astonishing — the grace that people can show in really difficult situations. It's always exciting to me, always amazing and inspiring.
Q. How do you take an idea and make it into something bigger?
It's all about connections. Say you're writing a poem about masonry — you likely want to do that because you see how it reveals connections. Maybe it's the story of the workman who made that masonry, who if you think about it, worked to develop that skill in this life, and that process is a story; and they follow a tradition of hundreds of generations of masons who have lived in different circumstances, and maybe our mason feels some kind of soul connection to someone who built Notre Dame, but he's building a modern campus in Edmonton, on land that is also amiswaciy, a world away from Paris. That's a story. Or maybe it's a story of how a corner of masonry provides shelter to someone who finds themselves alone on these streets. Or maybe it's bees who look at that masonry and they think about building their own little addition. All these are stories of connection.
I believe that if I'm always looking to see what the connection is, then I'll find a connection. That's the basis of my process. You're always looking for how does one moment connect to the next? That is a very healthy creative process and it's an exciting way to work as a writer.
I don't want to fall into the trap of thinking of myself alone and isolated in my glorious frickin' splendor. Because I'm not. I'm just uncovering some little connections about things and trying to bring a perspective to them so that other people can hear or read it and go, "Oh, yeah, that! And this too! Did you ever think of this?" I like when people react to my work by bringing in their own ideas. That fires me up because then I know it's doing to them what art does to me.
Q. What is your process?
I'm always writing poetry in my head. There is always something rolling around in there. It helps to have a deadline — the words come out faster.
Q. Why is poetry important?
Poetry lets your heart speak. It's the song we're born to sing. If birds don't sing, the sun doesn't rise. That's the old way of looking at it, and it's very quaint and metaphorical. But if you think about it really deeply, if the birds don't sing, it's because they're not there, and if they're not there, then the whole web of interconnection of life has broken down. The planet goes dead and literally the sun doesn't rise on her. So to say, birds sing up the sun, this is a way of expressing the importance of caring for every living thing and caring, as every living thing, to be connected to the cycle of the earth and the sun.
Fish sing at dawn too — something I discovered through a Youtube video a little while ago. I was just so delighted to find out that someone had gone out to an Indonesian archipelago and recorded the songs of fish at dawn. Well, those rascals (the fish, I mean)! As it is on the land so it might be in the sea, and how would we know if we're not out there? And fish songs sound weird, to my human ear, but I think that's kind of great. If it's important to the fish to sing, it should be important to us too, to lift up a song, and affirm that we're here. We made the team, we're in the game! This is the big ceremony! That's why poetry. Poetry expresses a presence in the ceremony of life.
Q. What's your advice for aspiring writers?
Live a life. I'm far from the first writer to say that, but I really think it's true. The idea that a writer mopes around solitary is ridiculous. You always need people who see you as a person. You can offer that for other people too — that you see them, that you acknowledge them, that you let them unroll what they have to unroll in the world. That's really what I would want to do with anyone who comes to see me as the writer in residence, is to try to see them in their writing and say, "What is it you want to say? What's the song you want to sing? And let's get you there."
Interested in getting feedback on your writing?
The writer in residence is available for discussion, consultation or editorial comment. Appointments are free and open to everyone — new and seasoned writers, members of the MacEwan community and the general public.
We acknowledge that the land on which we gather in Treaty Six Territory is the traditional gathering place for many Indigenous people. We honour and respect the history, languages, ceremonies and culture of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit who call this territory home.