Sarah, Robyn 1949–
SARAH, Robyn 1949–
PERSONAL: Born October 6, 1949, in New York, NY; daughter of Leon Lipson and Toby (Palker) Belkin; married Fred Louder (a graphic designer and printer), 1970 (divorced); married D. R. Cowles (a photographer), 1991; children: (first marriage) two. Education: McGill University, B.A., 1970, M.A., 1974; Conservatoire de Musique du Quebec, Concours Diploma in clarinet, 1972.
ADDRESSES: Home—Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
CAREER: Villeneuve Publications, Montreal, Quebec, co-founder, 1976, publisher, 1976–87. Member of English faculty at Champlain Regional College, 1975–2000.
Shadowplay, Fiddlehead Poetry Books (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada), 1978.
The Space between Sleep and Waking, Villeneuve Publications (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 1981.
Three Sestinas, Villeneuve Publications (Montreal, Quebec, Canda), 1984.
Anyone Skating on That Middle Ground, Vehicule Press (Montreal, Quebec, Canada), 1984.
Becoming Light, Cormorant Books (Dunvegan, Ontario, Canada), 1987.
The Touchstone: Poems New and Selected, Anansi (Concord, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
Questions about the Stars, Brick Books (London, Ontario, Canada), 1998.
A Day's Grace, Porcupine's Quill (Erin, Ontario, Canada), 2003.
A Nice Gazebo, Véhicule Press (Montreal, Quebec, Canda), 1992.
Promise of Shelter, Porcupine's Quill (Erin, Ontario, Canada), 1997.
Contributor to anthologies, including, Canadian Poetry Now: Twenty Poets of the '80s, edited by Ken Norris, Anansi, 1984; The New Canadian Poets, 1970–1985, edited by Dennis Lee, McClelland & Stewart, 1985; Best Canadian Stories '86, edited by Helwig and Martin, Oberon, 1986; More Stories by Canadian Women, edited by Sullivan, Oxford University Press, 1987; Fifteen Canadian Poets X 2, edited by Geddes, Oxford University Press, 1988; Poetry by Canadian Women, edited by Sullivan, Oxford University Press, 1989; The Journey Prize Anthology 6, McClelland & Stewart, 1993; Fifteen Canadian Poets X 3, edited by Gary Geddes, Oxford University Press, 2001; Poetry: An Introduction, edited by Michael Meyer, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001; The Bedford Introduction to Literature: Reading, Thinking, Writing, edited by Michael Meyer, Bedford/St. Martin's, 2002; Contemporary Jewish Writing in Canada, edited by Michael Greenstein, University of Nebraska Press, 2004; and The Norton Anthology of Poetry, edited by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy, W. W. Norton, 2005. Contributor to periodicals, including Books in Canada, Canadian Forum, Malahat Review, Threepenny Review, Poetry, New England Review, Hudson Review, North American Review, and New Quarterly. Columnist for Gazette Books, 2000–01.
SIDELIGHTS: Although writer Robyn Sarah was born in New York, her parents were Canadian, and shortly after she was born, the family returned to Canada. Sarah—her name is a pseudonym—has lived in Montreal since 1953, and she began publishing her poetry in periodicals while finishing her studies at McGill University. According to Literary Montreal Online, Sarah is "considered one of Canada's finest poets." She was the co-founder of a small press, Villeneuve Publications, based in Montreal, which published some of her own titles, as well as books by August Kleinzahler and A. F. Moritz, among others. She has written articles on education and literacy for Canadian newspapers, as well as book reviews and a regular column, "Poetic License" for Gazette Books from 2000 through 2001.
In an online interview with Stephen Brockwell for Poetics.ca, Sarah discussed the changes her poetry has made over the years. "I am almost entirely a creature of impulse," the poet explained of her varied output, "and my artistic choices are most often intuitive, unconscious, or stumbled-on, always very much 'of the moment.'" In discussing her themes with Brockwell, Sarah commented, "The passage of time has been my primary theme, as a poet, ever since The Space between Sleep and Waking." In a review of A Day's Grace for the Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec Web site, Bert Almon commented that "Sarah's poems heft some weighty emotions…. Such poems, disconsolate or joyful, are indeed little machines that move the heart."
Sarah once told CA: "I think the music of words, the sound and rhythm of them, is above all what informs my writing, whether it is poetry or fiction. My poems most often germinate from a combination of words—a phrase, maybe a line or two—with a sound that pleases me. I call these 'tinder words.' The rest of the poem evolves from them, sometimes at once, sometimes months or years later."
AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY: Robyn Sarah contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
A WRITER IN THE MAKING
How does one tell the story of one's life? Where does one begin? "I was born" would seem the obvious point of departure, but is it the real beginning? I was born in New York City on October 6, 1949. But that blunt fact conceals more than it reveals about who I am.
A few years ago, I came across a quote from the writings of Hannah Arendt which struck me forcefully and has continued to resonate as I contemplate my life. It was this: "The history of any given personality is far older than the individual as a product of nature, begins long before the individual's life, and can foster or destroy the elements of nature in his heritage. Whoever wants aid and protection from History, in which our insignificant birth is almost lost, must be able to know and understand it."
I have come to understand that historical forces are, to a much greater degree than I could ever have guessed as a young woman, responsible for who I am. History, "in which our insignificant birth is almost lost", engineered the coming-together of forbears whose genetic material I would inherit; forces of history directed the passage of those individuals through geography; histories determined the cultural environment of the communities that received me (one more post-war Baby Boom baby) in my allotted place and time. The language I speak, the language whose literature provided my inspiration as a writer, the attitudes, beliefs, habits and assumptions—even some of the quirks of character that I call my own—are all to a greater or lesser degree accidents of history. As my New York City birth was an accident of history, during what was only a brief sojourn there for my Canadian parents.
My mother was several months pregnant with me when my father was accepted into graduate school at Columbia University. Before I turned three they were back in Canada, but I brought with me the advantage of dual citizenship. This may well have been at the back of my parents' minds in choosing an American university. Both of them children of immigrants, first in their families to attend university at all, they were keenly aware of their own life advantages. Children of the Depression, young Jews whose high-school years were marked by watching the world go to war with Hitler, they might have had the thought that if one New World citizenship was good for a Jew, two would be even better.
Another of my life advantages—namely, that my mother tongue is English, the world's dominant language—I owe not only to my grandparents' having emigrated (in the wake of the First World War) from eastern Europe to Canada in the 1920s, but to a particular phase in Quebec history. In bicultural Montreal where my mother's parents settled, there were two main linguistic communities and two school boards: a French Catholic one that did not admit Jew-ish students, and an English Protestant one that welcomed them. So my mother was educated and socialized in English and assimilated, as a first new-generation Canadian, to Quebec's smaller but then-dominant Anglo community. But times and agendas change. Since the late 1970s, Quebec's protectionist language laws have obliged new immigrants (except those who were themselves educated in English) to send their children to French schools, thereby ensuring that the new generation assimilates to the province's French-language community (a majority in Quebec, a minority in Canada). In Montreal in the 1980s, even as a longstanding Quebec resident, I had to produce documentation to prove I had been educated in English in order for my own children to be permitted to attend English schools.
I have few and hazy memories of my earliest childhood, the not quite three years when, with my young parents, I lived in New York City. We were domiciled at first on an island in the East River called North Brother, in apartment housing reserved for married WWII veterans who were pursuing higher education in the city. My father took a ferry to get to school, and one of my earliest memories is of watching tugboats on the river, which we could see from our windows. I remember the roof of our later apartment building at the corner of 119th and Amsterdam, where I used to play while my mother hung the washing; I remember being carried down stone steps from the street into the subway, where it seemed suddenly to be nighttime, and some while later emerging up similar stairs to the surprise of sunshine and day again. Strange to say, after we returned to Canada I was not to visit New York again until well into my fourth decade, but whenever I go there, I see things that look hauntingly familiar. I have tried to find where we lived—the building near campus was called Laureate Hall—but it apparently no longer exists. And North Brother Island, which became a rehab center for drug addicts after we left, eluded me for years; no New Yorker I asked could tell me which island it was. A recent Internet search explained why: apparently the island was abandoned in the mid-1950s and allowed to revert to wilderness. I have learned that the building complex we lived in once formed part of a hospital for contagious diseases, that the island also housed a tuberculosis sanatorium (vacant when we lived there), and that for thirty years it was the enforced home of Typhoid Mary, who died there.
My parents met in Montreal on the McGill Daily, early in 1946. My mother, two years ahead of my father in her undergraduate program, was night editor of the university paper while he, in her words, was "just a lowly cub reporter." A latecomer to university, he was fresh out of the Royal Canadian Air Force; a monthly allowance from the Department of Veterans' Affairs allowed him to study full time. His parents, like my mother's, had come to Canada in the 1920s—his from the Ukraine (he was born in Kiev) and hers from Galicia (Poland). His had settled in Ottawa, where his mother had relatives and his father set up shop as a tailor.
Does everyone romanticize their parents' courtship? I always thought my parents' story so romantic. They were, from all I have gathered, deeply in love; they were thwarted in their wish to marry when my mother graduated. Her parents were strongly opposed, had hoped for better for their only daughter than a tailor's son, and believed in any case that they were too young, that they would not be able to manage financially on his Veterans' Allowance and should wait at least until he finished school. In deference, my mother broke off the engagement, but the unhappy pair soon got secretly re-engaged. My father applied for a transfer to the University of British Columbia to finish his B.A., and the two of them hatched a new plan. He would hitchhike to Vancouver in July, scout out work, put things in order for his school year, and find them a place to live. My mother meanwhile would take shorthand courses, work, and save money toward a train ticket to join him in the fall. She would tell her parents she wanted to take a trip to get over him. They would marry as soon as she arrived: essentially, it was elopement in installments. To conceal the fact that they were still in contact, she rented a post office box where she could receive his letters in secret.
And wonderful letters he wrote her, almost daily for a period of nearly five months, all the way across Canada and then from Vancouver as he established himself. He wrote about his rides, about Canada's spectacular changing scenery as he traveled west, about people he met, about his dreams and high hopes for their shared future. His letters were filled with post-war optimism, with the excitement of the road and of embarking on a new life, as they were filled, too, with love and longing and impatience to have her with him. En route across the country, he would stop in towns and cities, check in at the local Y to shower, shave, do laundry, catch up on sleep, and write to my mother. And the whole while, he was also scribbling away at short stories (whose plots he described in his letters), for my father had literary ambitions, and was hoping to write some stories he could sell while waiting to resume his studies. On arrival in Vancouver, he found lodging in the Veterans' residence area of UBC, took on a job as carpenter's assistant, and immediately checked his first two books out of the university library: The Contemporary Short Story and Breaking into Print.
By the time my mother joined him in late November, their secret was out: shortly before her departure, they agreed to break the news to their families. My mother's parents, days before they were to see their only child off on a solo journey to the far end of the continent, were so relieved to know someone was waiting for her in Vancouver that, tardily, they gave the marriage their blessing. After a four-day train ride, my mother was reunited with her impatient fiancé, and on November 24, 1947, the two were married at Hillel House on the campus of UBC. As UBC's first-ever campus wedding, it was covered by the local press as well as by the university paper, the Ubyssey.
If I linger on the subject of this courtship and of my father's letters, it is because those letters, now in my possession, are most of what I know of my father. The cruel ending to my parents' idyll came not even six years later, when he was killed in a car crash while homeward bound to Ottawa after a short trip to Toronto. He was thirty, working for the Canadian government, and close to completing his Ph.D. in international law at Columbia. My mother was twenty-seven. I was a few months short of my fourth birthday, and my brother, born in Ottawa, was not yet three months old.
The impact of my father's death on all of our lives is something I can hardly measure. My parents had just bought a home in Ottawa, a semi-detached cottage, jointly with my father's brother and his wife who had already moved into their half. When my Ottawa grandmother, devastated by the death of her firstborn, said she did not feel she could take on daytime care of two small children at her age, my mother, with some bitterness, sold her half of the new house and moved back to Montreal. Her parents gave up their apartment, and together they found and rented, on Côte Ste. Catherine Road, an upper duplex large enough to share. There they set up house and my mother went out to work. My Montreal grandmother, "Granny," became primary caregiver to my brother and me, and we lived as one family until shortly after my mother remarried, four years later.
Those childhood years when my grandparents lived with us—the "Silverman years" we called them, after the landlord couple who lived in the lower duplex—are where my remembered childhood begins, and they remain extraordinarily vivid in memory to this day. I would not have thought this to be the case for my brother, who was three and a half years younger than I. But in 1990, at my grandmother's funeral, when I asked him if he could remember those years at all, he said, "Those years are the only part of my childhood that I do remember."
In my fifties at this writing, I'm amazed that my grandmother, fifty-three at the time of my father's death, found the stamina to take on the job. Not only was she past the half-century mark: she was frail. A survivor of tuberculosis (TB) in the 1930s, she had undergone several operations to collapse portions of both lungs, and the slightest exertion left her short of breath; the single flight of stairs to our upper was taxing, she had to take the steps a few at a time. But take on the job she did, with vigor and finesse, as though it were the most natural thing in the world. In the last year of her life she once remarked to me, "Do you know, all those years at Silverman's, I took only one vacation? Once only, I went away for two weeks; to the country, to a friend. Not a weekend, not a day off, in nearly five years! And it was I who did everything. When your mother came home from work, she wanted you children to be finished with your supper, bathed, already in pajamas—everything done, so she could relax with her dinner and then play with you, read to you before bed. So I made two suppers, I cleaned up twice, first for you and your brother, then for your mother and my husband." It startled me to hear she had taken a two-week vacation: I could not remember her ever being away. And it startled me more, all those decades later, to realize that she might have longed for a day off, might have had other wants, other relationships. Her life had seemed to exist, with her blessing, entirely for our service.
Just as cataclysms of history send their shock waves through the life of a generation, so cataclysms of personal history send shock waves through individual lives. I was born in the wake of two world wars, waves that had quieted, yet still brushed my life in ways I would not understand until much older. Our three-generation household, our little ark, carried that baggage as well as the baggage of personal cataclysm. My father's death, a childhood given for me and my brother, was the central trauma of my life though I did not know it as such then; its aftershocks would hit me later, in waves, through all succeeding phases of my life, sometimes recognized for what they were, sometimes not. But more immediate for me in those years were past traumas in the lives of my mother and grandmother.
For my mother, to be suddenly widowed so early in her marriage must have echoed the central trauma of her own early childhood: namely, having her mother suddenly taken from her life, not to return for a full eight years. That is the length of time my grandmother spent incarcerated in the Mount Sinai Sanatorium in the Laurentians. For my grandmother, the trauma was to be stricken with TB at age thirty-one: losing the best years of life, as she used to put it, to a deadly (and stigmatized) disease. But the worst of it was the forced separation from her only child, five years old at the time she got sick. There was, for my grandmother, a bittersweet irony to the burden of childcare that my father's death thrust upon her later years. The childhood years she missed out on with her own child were in a sense given back to her in me, the granddaughter who came to live with her at almost the same age as the daughter she had to leave. And my infant brother was given to her keeping as if in lieu of the son she had been denied.
My grandfather was a shy and laconic man who worked long hours (at that time, a six-day week) as a cutter in a clothing factory. When home, he disappeared behind the Yiddish newspapers. He was not a strong presence in my life. But my grandmother ran a tight ship and was in many ways the perfect parent to my brother and me: more patient than any young mother could have been, supremely gentle and tender, watchful and responsive, cajoling our compliance rather than commanding it. Not only did she never raise her voice or lift a hand to us, she made it clear that she valued and enjoyed our company. The three of us were a little society. Through the myriad small daily rituals and ministrations, she talked to us, told us stories, asked us questions, encouraged us to express ourselves. She shared whatever she saw, whatever she loved: she would call us to the window to see the sunset, or the moon rising, or Jack Frost patterns on the glass; would show us how every snowflake was six-sided and each one was different; would point out to us the beauties of the deep red Indian rug on the floor in her room, in whose intricate design she said she could find something new every day.
My knowledge of the world expanded its borders as I took in the stories of my Granny's life—above all stories of her blissful early childhood in what she called the Old Country, where she was the middle child with two older brothers and two younger sisters, loving parents, and a grandfather she adored. But stories about her adult life in Canada often came to an abrupt end with the words, "Then I got sick." As if a giant's foot had come down upon her life. I heard about the terrible sickness called TB, and about The San, the big hospital in the mountains where she had to live, "like being in jail," for eight years. Health, I heard over and over again, was the only thing worth wishing for in life, "because without our health, it's no good to have anything else."
Every childhood is full of mystery, and every childhood has a dark underside, sensed in spite of all efforts to make nice. The dark underside of my childhood was threefold. There was the TB, whose impact was still palpable in that household. There was the death of my father, whose name was almost never spoken; a silence about my father. And there was the Nazi Holocaust, which had not yet been given that name and was never mentioned around me, but which had claimed the lives of one of my grandmother's sisters and at least one brother. This was a second silence, the silence about the war and my grandmother's family. Perhaps I should not say it was a silence. The language of our little home was primarily English, but between themselves, the grownups often spoke in Yiddish, a language I did not learn. No effort was made to teach it to me, and I believe I must have sensed that whatever it was they were talking about in that language, it was something I did not want to know.
In 1953, when we moved in to Silverman's, my grandmother still had hopes that one brother might be alive. There were sometimes phone calls from strangers, people who had the same last name and had somehow tracked her down. I remember the tense excitement when she was called to the phone, then how in the course of a brief conversation in Yiddish her face would fall, her voice would change. "Another Hirschhorn," she would say, putting the telephone down, "not related. Well. That's that."
Though I could not have understood it at the time, it must have been the war, not just time and distance, that gave my grandmother's stories of her early childhood their glow and intensity, the feeling of a paradise lost and unrecoverable. I knew from an early age that I was named Sarah after her sister, Sarah Leah (affectionately called Salah) who was now dead. But my grandmother never spoke of the adult Sarah who died; she spoke of the childhood Sarah, the younger sister who was fair-haired in a family all dark-haired, whose long hair she used to braid. It was not until I was seventeen, standing in Yad VaShem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem, that it first dawned on me, with a shock, that Sarah must have died in the Holocaust.
My grandmother's youngest sister, Ruzha, was alive. She had gone to Palestine in 1936, with her Zionist husband who had come back to Poland to visit his parents and find himself a bride. Every few weeks, a crackly airmail envelope arrived from Ruzha in the reborn state of Israel—a letter in Polish, sometimes containing snapshots of her children, my second cousins, the youngest of whom, a boy, was my own age. The letters were always an occasion. My grandmother would show me the pictures, tell me all about the family, and talk glowingly of Israel, "our own country," which to me sounded as unimaginably far away and unattainable as that other place, "the Old Country." My grandparents were Labour Zionists, had met as landsleit in a Montreal Labour Zionist organization, and had hoped in the twenties to go to Palestine themselves, but were thwarted by the TB.
Meanwhile, in Montreal, Canada, somewhere between these two mythical (to me) countries, I began my schooling and socialization as a Jewish Canadian in an English Protestant school in a French Catholic province of an English-speaking country. I was a minority within a minority within a minority, and my evolving consciousness was a minority consciousness—confused and ambivalent. It was heightened by having a working mother and no father. Even though most of the children in my class were, like me, Jews of the second generation to be born in Canada, I was different and felt it. Maybe I wasn't as different as Renata, who arrived mid-year in our third-grade class speaking only German, and had to sit at a special desk at the front, under the teacher's watchful eye, but I was different enough.
In the 1950s the Protestant schools of Montreal provided an education that was, vestigially, still heavily British Empire. Day began with reciting the Lord's Prayer, followed by saluting the flag and singing the anthem. In kindergarten we were still saluting the Union Jack and singing "God Save the Queen." Later it was the Red Ensign and "O Canada," but morning exercises always finished with "God Save the Queen," and Queen Elizabeth II's coronation picture graced our classroom walls in grade school. Some of our textbooks—our spellers, grammar books, and later, in high school, our Latin books—were published in England.
When I came home from school, my grandmother always asked me, "What did you learn today?" I remember, in kindergarten, singing a song for her—it was "Away in a Manger," about the Little Lord Jesus with no crib for a bed. I was chagrined to see her face darken in dismay; Granny who always loved to hear me sing! What was the matter? "This isn't ours," was all she would say.
Out on the street, as I began learning to read, I sounded out strange words: what was an "Arrêt Stop"? What was an "École School"? Those were French words, I was told. So I inferred yet another world in proximity to which I did not belong. In third grade we began studying French. But when I proudly tried out my first simple sentence on the one little French girl on our block, she did not understand me, and when I asked her to say in French what I thought I had said, I scarcely recognized the words she spoke. Our English-speaking teachers taught us the language in an accent that was incomprehensible to our French fellow citizens.
My mother worked full time as press officer for the Canadian Jewish Congress, also serving as editor for its monthly bulletin. But she went out of her way to maximize the little time she had with her children; she wanted me to have every opportunity she had missed during her own childhood. She read to me nightly, taught me to read phonetically before I could be taught at school by new methods she did not trust, signed me up at the local children's library. When she saw that I would come home from school and pick out songs by ear on my toy piano, she bought an apartment-sized upright piano on the installment plan, and after a couple of false starts with unsuitable teachers, I began lessons with a high school friend of hers who had studied at the Quebec Conservatory. My mother, like my grandmother, told me stories of her childhood, but most of them centered around her happy times at summer camp, a Labour Zionist camp she attended from the age of five as a charity camper. Those were her only good childhood memories. When I was older, I heard the sadder stories: about various foster families she lived with, about the frightening once-a-year visits to her mother in The San, and the stigma she felt about not having a real home or parents to look after her. Camp was the one place where she felt like everybody else, because there, nobody else had their parents either. She longed for family life, for siblings and normalcy, but learned to play the happy-go-lucky, because she did not like people to feel sorry for her.
It was my mother who put the writing bee in my bonnet. She came home from work one day toward the end of my first-grade year with a strange gift: a bright orange scribbler, unsuitable for crayoning because the pages were lined. She explained it was a book for writing stories in. I wrote my first story that night, and on her prompting, brought it to school next day. The teacher read it to the class and encouraged others to write their own stories. Practically from that time, a writer was what I wanted to be when I grew up, though that ambition was to jockey with other enthusiasms. I did not then know it had also been one of my father's dreams.
To her credit, my mother made sure my brother and I stayed in contact with our father's family. Twice a year, over Christmas holidays and in the summer, we were taken by train to Ottawa (if not by her, then by our Granny, until we were old enough to travel by ourselves) for a visit to the other grandparents, who occupied the lower flat of a triplex they owned on Arlington Avenue near Bank Street.
We loved these visits and everything that went with them: the train trip, the grandeur of the old CPR train stations, the old-world atmosphere of our Ottawa grandparents' home: full of crystal and knick-knacks, a Russian-alphabet perpetual calendar on the telephone stand, the phone always ringing, and relatives we didn't remember from year to year (there were so many!) dropping in at all hours to see the children, or gathering around our Bobeh's generous table. Our father's mother was one of nine children, several of whom ended up in Ottawa with families of their own. Our grandfather had his tailor shop in the front room, and we loved to play there, going through his buckets of brass military buttons, battle ribbons, and crests; marvelling at how, in an idle hour, he could make a stuffed animal or a pinwheel cushion out of scraps of fabric; fascinated by his strong horseshoe magnet which, held under a cardboard tray, would drag straight pins into clusters and move them magically about; watching him roll a giant cigarette on his wooden guillotine cigarette machine which then chopped it into five to add to his round tobacco tin. This Zayda could not have been more different from the one in Montreal: he would get down on his hands and knees and play horsie with us, hide and jump out at us from behind the stuffed chairs, tickle us until we howled. He used to take us on long walks, through Paterson Creek Park to Ottawa's Museum of Natural History, where we were awestruck by the dioramas and where he—an avid fisherman—would spend what seemed to us an inordinate amount of time gazing raptly at the rows of glazed specimen fish mounted on a panel over the stairs.
Another highlight of our Ottawa visits was being taken by our uncle to the CKOY radio station where, in those years, he was the voice of the six o'clock news. Most exciting was to watch the teletype machine in its cubicle, the latest news tapped out as if by an invisible typist, on a continuous roll of paper cascading onto the floor. This uncle was the only one who ever spoke to us about our father, saying his name out loud, reminiscing about the wonderful brother he had been. Inarticulately, how we loved him for that! For, in Ottawa as in Montreal, there was otherwise a silence about our father, his name spoken in hushed tones, by grownups whispering in Yiddish over our heads. I remember creeping into our grandparents' bedroom all by myself, sometimes, to steal a look at his picture on the bureau. I had my own picture of him in a little wallet my mother had given me, but this was a big framed picture and different. But I did not want my grandmother to catch me looking at it.
At the end of my first-grade year, my mother remarried. At first her parents stayed on in the house and she continued to work, but tensions built, and it was decided the cohabitation should end. My grandparents took an apartment of their own, a block away, and for the next year or so my brother and I came home from school to their house, and waited for my mother to collect us on her way home from work. I was grieved to have my grandmother move out, even though I still saw her nearly every day. My relationship with my stepfather was distant. He was divorced—a rarity in those days—and had left a five-year-old son; he carried a burden of guilt that interfered with his ease in assuming the role of father to my brother and me.
But soon there was a new baby sister at home, and my mother stopped working. Hard on the heels of these huge changes, my parents bought a bungalow in a raw new housing development, and we moved to suburban Côte St. Luc. Visits to my grandmother were now only once a week. I did not greatly like my new school, though I distinguished myself academically and was encouraged in my writing by a couple of fine teachers. I missed close friends from my old school and neighborhood, and did not easily make new ones. The trade-off was an expanding family: in short order, a second baby sister, then a baby brother. It made for a lively household. There was always plenty of noise and activity, providing diversion and a smokescreen for my general unhappiness.
A melancholy, introverted child, I preferred my friendships one-to-one, was uncomfortable in groups. I was a bookworm, devouring eight to ten books weekly. I still wanted to be a writer—of children's books, I thought then—and I still scribbled, periodically beginning novels in a burst of enthusiasm, but tiring of them after a chapter or two. At this time I also began writing poetry—for the most part, absolutely undistinguished and cliché-ridden rhyming verse—which nonetheless won admiration from grownups. I continued playing piano, changing teachers at eleven when my mother's friend stopped giving lessons. My new teacher was an unusual man: a consummate musician and eclectic thinker, a profound influence on me. Among other things he introduced me to tenets of Eastern philosophy, Zen and Taoist, which he incorporated into his teaching; and he gave me unusual things to read, such as Chinese poetry of the Tang Dynasty in English translation, which I began at once to imitate.
High school began a happier chapter in my life. By sheer luck, Montreal West High School had a superb music program; its concert bands regularly took top prizes in city and inter-city competitions. Since my piano teacher did not think it a bad idea for me to take up a second instrument, I enrolled in this program, choosing clarinet as my instrument. The school band was soon the center of my life. I loved the music, the camaraderie, and the teacher, who quickly became confidant and mentor. Like my piano teacher, he took a paternal interest in my intellectual development and introduced me to some of his favorite writers, notably A. E. Housman, whose stamp is heavy on poems I wrote at that age. One of them ("To the Memory of My Father") I included on the dedication page of my 2003 poetry collection, A Day's Grace, published in the fiftieth anniversary year of my father's death.
My progress on clarinet was such that within a year I was playing in the senior as well as the junior band, and successfully auditioned for the full-scholarship program of Quebec's Conservatoire de Musique et d'Art Dramatique. There, after school and on weekends, I embarked on a full musical education, all of it free: private lessons on clarinet, mandatory classes in theory, solfege and musical dictation, plus classes in ensemble playing, both orchestra and chamber music. My teacher was then first-chair clarinetist in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. At age fifteen, I entered the Orchestre du Conservatoire as one of its youngest members, assuming the chair of first clarinetist myself. I still remember the sink-or-swim feeling of my first rehearsal (at which the orchestra sight-read Beethoven's Fourth) as I nervously counted bars toward my solo entries.
Playing in an orchestra thrilled me, and I now believed this was the career I wanted. But at the same time I became more serious about the piano, embarking on some of the more challenging repertory. Musical collectivities (band, orchestra, chamber groups) fostered new friendships and, for the first time, a social setting in which I felt I belonged. At Conservatoire, it was an extremely diverse one: students ranged in age from about thirteen to thirty, came from both language groups, and represented many nationalities (as did the teachers.) Instruction was primarily in French, as were all communications from la Direction. Standards were high (a passing grade was 80%) and we were expected to conduct ourselves with the seriousness of professionals.
At this juncture my stepfather, whose restlessness had driven him through several career changes, entered the Canadian Civil Service and was appointed to a post in Ottawa. To say that I was upset at the idea of moving—of being torn from my new life at Conservatoire, from my high school class in our graduating year, from my friends and beloved music teachers—would be to understate the case. My grandparents came to the rescue, offering to take me in so I could remain in Montreal to finish high school. Since it was understood I would then apply to McGill, it amounted to leaving home at fifteen, though I felt it was home that was leaving me. My mother fretted that I was too young for this separation. I felt a great wrench at the thought of leaving her, leaving the comfortable pandemonium of our household and especially my little sisters and baby brother, but there was never any doubt how I would decide.
I think it must have been while packing for the move to Ottawa that my mother unearthed my father's 1947 letters and gave them to me to read. She had told me the story of her unusual elopement, but the letters were a revelation. To read them was to hear my father's inner voice. I spent a weekend immersed in them, amazed at the ways in which I was similar to him. Most surprising to me was his dream of becoming a published writer. Though it appeared to have taken a back seat to music, writing was still a vital interest for me; I harbored a quiet certainty that whatever else I might become or do in my life, I would always write. I was not to see my father's letters again for twenty-five years. Then, unexpectedly, on a rare visit to my brother, they passed into my keeping. Unbeknownst to me, my brother had had them in his possession since late adolescence, and he thought it was my turn. Among the letters were some papers I did not remember having seen before, including drafts of stories my father had written for Earle Birney's writing course at UBC, with Birney's comments on them.
From April of 1965 until I graduated from high school a year and a half later, I lived once again with my grandparents. And again, in retrospect, their selflessness amazes me. To share their small apartment with a teenager (I slept on a folding cot in their living room) was already a sacrifice of privacy; to share it with one who practiced two hours of clarinet and at least one hour of piano daily (they borrowed a piano for me) was saintly. Though initially nervous about the arrangement, I felt immediately at home under their roof, and became much closer to my grandmother as we again shared talk and daily routines. Much as I missed the brouhaha of family life, it was sweet to be center of attention in that simple, peaceful, rather Spartan household where I could focus with great concentration on my music and studies. It was during this period that I discovered a writer who was to become a major influence: Katherine Mansfield. Her short story, "Miss Brill," in our school English anthology, electrified me, and the school librarian directed me to her Collected Stories and a biography. My grandmother read the biography too. Just I was fascinated to learn that Mansfield had started out as a classical musician, so my grandmother could relate to her struggles with TB and repeated separations from her husband in search of treatment.
In the fall of 1966 I entered McGill University as a full-scholarship student in the music faculty, and moved into Royal Victoria College, the women's residence. A miserable summer in Ottawa had confirmed me in my love for Montreal, which I claimed as my city. Once I had adjusted to the traffic noise, it was intoxicating to live downtown and to have a room of my own, even if the washroom facilities were shared with thirty-nine other women. For my first year only, the old pre-Sixties codes of RVC were still in force: skirts and nylons in the Dining Room, strict curfews, boys allowed only in the ground-floor Common Rooms, an elaborate sign-out and sign-in Leaves system. I found this cloistered life more quaint than irritating (others were less enchanted, and a fair amount of cheating went on), but the Victorian regulations were tossed out in my second year.
Rather to my surprise, I loved residence life. But within a year I knew it had been a mistake for me to enroll in the bachelor of music program. Hearing my dorm-mates discussing their courses in psychology, anthropology, art history, and philosophy, I felt envious: my program was too specialized, too narrow. I was still attending Conservatoire (using transfer credits, in order to stay with certain teachers). Could I manage a double program at the university level, as I had done through high school? I effected a switch to Arts and began my second year as a B.A. student, majoring in philosophy, while continuing my musical studies at Conservatoire.
The summer between—the summer of 1967—was a landmark in my life. At my technique exam that spring, the Conservatoire's Directeur-Général extended an unexpected invitation. He was assembling a choir to represent French Canada at Israel's Zimriya, a triennial international choral festival to be held in July. Knowing I was Jewish, he asked if I would like to join the choir and come along to see Israel. My parents consented, some funds were found toward my fare, and I worked for six weeks in the Civil Service's student summer employment program to earn the rest. What a summer that was, the summer of '67, a summer that brought together all the diverse threads of my identity. This was the summer that Montreal hosted the World's Fair, Expo '67; it was Canada's Centennial Year. On the fairground, Canada's brand-new Maple Leaf flag flew side by side with Quebec's Fleurde-Lys. Quebec nationalism was stirring, but for the moment a shared pride in our country's bicultural heritage prevailed.
Even as I read up on Jewish history and the story of Israel in preparation for our trip, the fate of that young nation hung in the balance as it went to preemptive war against a coalition of Arab neighbour-states pledged to its annihilation. Briefly it looked as if our trip would be called off, but Israel prevailed in a miraculous six-day campaign applauded by the Western world. In that heady atmosphere, a mere ten days after the reunification of Jerusalem, our choral group landed at Lodd Airport and began a three-week singing tour. I experienced Israel not only through my own eyes as a young diaspora Jew, but vicariously through the eyes of the French-language fellow Canadians with whom I was living and travelling: their wholehearted enthusiasm was deeply warming to me. During this visit I also had the opportunity, albeit briefly, to meet my grandmother's surviving sister and her three children. The trip powerfully affected me, and I wanted very much to find a way to go back and to stay longer, but on returning to Canada the whole episode gradually faded and became dreamlike. I was not to see Israel again until 1998.
Summer of '68 was the summer I refused to go home to Ottawa. I was eighteen. Having decided to move out of residence into an apartment of my own in the fall, I found a summer job as a typist, and (to maximize my savings) took a small, cheap furnished room—the cheaper for being shared with an old high school friend—in the area just off-campus known as the McGill Ghetto, an enclave of decaying Victorian mansions long since converted to rooming-houses. This was a blissful summer. Despite my nine-to-five workday, I managed to write three short stories and a sheaf of new poems—the first serious writing I had done since high school—and I and my roommate made the city's downtown our playground in the evenings. When fall came and school resumed, we moved to a small apartment, the first of several I was to occupy in the same neighborhood over the next few years.
The McGill Ghetto was home not only to students from out of town, but also to a growing number of Americans living in Canada to dodge the draft, as well as to a motley collection of elderly ne'er-do-wells, artist-bohemians, counterculture types, and foreign political refugees. Far more than my classes at McGill, it was this diverse and fascinating milieu that nurtured me. For the first time, I found myself among aspiring writers, painters, and musicians who were self-directed. Dropping out was cool, being in school was not. Many of my peers quit university to travel or simply to "do their thing," whatever it happened to be—living hand to mouth on odd jobs, unemployment insurance, or whatever other sources of income they could find. On campus, it was a time of political foment. The Vietnam War did not have the same immediacy to us in Canada, but there were enough Americans at and around McGill to make the anti-war movement felt. Marxist-Leninists, Maoists, radical feminists, and anarchists were all in evidence on campus. Quebec nationalism was in ascendancy and the radical FLQ (Front de Libération du Québec) whose first isolated terrorist acts had shocked Montreal even before I started high school, was becoming more of a presence. (This group would, in October of 1970, stun the country with the kidnapping of British High Commissioner James Cross and the kidnapping-murder of provincial Justice Minister Pierre Laporte, prompting Prime Minister Trudeau to suspend civil liberties with passage of the War Measures Act.)
I took little interest in the political activity that swirled around me in those years; something in me mistrusted politicos of all stripes. But I was deeply drawn to the artists and bohemians. In July of 1970 I married Fred Louder, an American who had spent his high school years on the U.S. naval base at Ar gentia, Newfoundland, and had come to study classics at McGill though his real passion was writing poetry. His twin brother was a self-taught classical guitarist. Among our friends and close neighbours were Philadelphia-born pianist (later harpsichordist, harpsichord builder, and organist) Robert Sigmund, whom we helped to build his first harpsichord in a basement apartment on Prince Arthur Street; Dutch-born poet Peter Van Toorn; Polish-born painter Leopold Plotek; and Dublin-born theater director (later, radio producer and writer) Philip Coulter. As urban development encroached on the McGill Ghetto in the early 1970s, we all moved several blocks uptown to the Plateau Mont Royal neighborhood known as Mile End, an area—once Jewish, by then largely Greek and Chinese—that was beginning to be discovered by students and counterculture types willing to pool resources to share its large, wonderfully affordable flats.
How and when did I become a writer? On one level, I felt myself to be one from earliest childhood. It was an inner sureness I had, whether or not I was actively writing. Recognition for my writing came both at home and at school: poems and essays printed in school publications, read or recited at assemblies; occasional prizes in youth writing contests. Before I entered university, my mother sent a manuscript of my high school poetry to Canadian poet-lawyer F. R. Scott, whom she'd known in her own McGill years, and he wrote back encouragingly, with the suggestion that I immerse myself in the moderns. (My stepdad, in a gesture that touched me deeply, went out quietly and bought most of the poetry section of Classics Bookstore, the basis of my permanent poetry library.) But the inner sureness was something else. It had more to do with the fact that, given an idle moment, there was never anything I wanted to do so much as scribble; and it had to do with recognizing myself when I read biographies of writers. So it was a small shock to me, in those McGill Ghetto years, to find myself among other scribblers my age who not only thought of themselves privately as writers, but took themselves seriously enough to go public with it. They did not hesitate to show their work to writer-professors on campus; they gave poetry readings; some, like Van Toorn, had already begun to publish in magazines. What was I waiting for?
Around this time I was beginning to admit to qualms about a career in music. I had come to find rehearsal and performance schedules a straitjacket, and the company of professional-track musicians lacking in stimulation, compared to the eclectic amateurs I had been meeting. I made a private vow to commit myself more seriously to my writing, but in the meantime I was still enrolled in two school programs that had nothing to do with it and that took up vast amounts of my time and energy.
Unhappy in these inner divisions, I somehow managed to complete my B.A. with first-class honors in philosophy, and accepted a teaching assistantship in the expectation that I would work toward an M.A. in philosophy. But my heart wasn't in it. Nor was it, any more, in my formal musical studies. Seduced by scholarship money, I continued to go through the motions of both, but this was a period of deep confusion and anxiety for me, exacerbated by the fact that my husband and most of our friends had dropped out of university and were working here and there in theater and other creative ventures. In the end I was to maneuver a transfer to English, persuading the department to let me exercise its rarely invoked creative option of handing in a fiction or poetry manuscript in lieu of an M.A. thesis. And I was to graduate from Conservatoire, but not with the standing I'd hoped for.
In 1972 I applied and was hired to teach music and humanities at Champlain Regional College, a brand-new community college on Montreal's South Shore. It was not a full-time post, a good thing, because I was still finishing McGill and because I found teaching, initially at least, enormously stressful. Particularly shocking to me was the decline in literacy, as evidenced by the writing of my students, in the years since I had graduated from high school. But even part time, the pay was better than any I'd seen before, and it left my summers free. For my M.A. I prepared a manuscript of poems, many of which I had actually written during my years in the philosophy department. I found the courage to show some of these to poet-professor Louis Dudek, whose good opinion was deeply validating, and in spring of 1973 I took the big step of shipping out my first poems to magazines. Braced to paper my wall with rejection slips, I got lucky with one of my first tries: Prism International accepted two poems, publishing them under my adopted pseudonym of Robyn Sarah.
Why a nom de plume? It was not so much that I wanted anonymity as that I felt ambivalent about my surnames. My mother had felt it best for me to assume my stepfather's name when she remarried, so that all her children would have the same last name. On marrying I took my husband's name. But I did not want publish my poetry under a name shared with a poet-husband. I would have liked to revert to my father's name, which was no longer my legal name and which I had not used since the age of six, but to do so now might hurt my stepdad's feelings. Yet I felt that publishing under my stepfather's name would be an affront to my father's memory. It was a happy thought that I could drop all three names and simply use my two given ones.
Many years later, visiting the newly opened Holocaust memorial museum in Montreal, I learned that one of the early laws enacted against the Jews in Nazi Germany was the requirement that every citizen of Jewish extraction assume an added name: Israel for a man, Sarah for a woman. I felt this added a dimension to my pseudonym. Just as it stood in memory of the Sarah for whom I was named—my grandmother's sister, last heard from in Lvov in 1941—so it could also stand in memory of all the other Sarahs.
In June of 1974, Fred and I packed up the contents of our flat, storing most of our belongings with friends, and took off for Vancouver Island on the West Coast. I left my job, giving up two years' accumulated seniority without a second thought. The idea was to live cheaply on savings and unemployment insurance till our money ran out: maybe buy an old truck we could live in and travel around, maybe rent a fisherman's cabin, maybe grow our own food…. After that it was open-ended; maybe we would stay on. My immediate plan was to write a book; Fred had, on principle, no plan. Planlessness, like going out west, was part of the ethos of the times; you were supposed to "go with the flow," you were supposed to "be here now." Psychedelic drug culture and Eastern religions had permeated the thinking of our generation. We ourselves were not hippies—we were both too cautious by nature, and too intellectual—but these ideas were the air we breathed, and they were seductive. For me, there was the need to break with academia and years of rigorous musical discipline. There may also have been a wish to retrace my parents' footsteps westward, and there was certainly a desire to spend time by the sea, something I had never done.
We weren't good candidates for the plunge we'd taken. Quickly we found that we fit nowhere: the locals dismissed us as hippies based on our dress and transient status, but the hippies didn't know what to make of us either. (You went out west with a knapsack, not with a trunk full of books and an antiquated manual typewriter. You spent your evenings smoking grass and banging on bongoes, not re-reading War and Peace.) After a few misadventures with derelict vehicles, and some time spent in East Sooke with friends who were squatting in an abandoned farmhouse (where we witnessed the home birth of their child), we rented a small, equipped beach cabin with a view across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. There we settled into a daily routine of reading and writing. It should have been a dream, but I was culture-shocked, and more homesick for Montreal and our friends than I could have anticipated.
I was working on an autobiographical novel at the time, a lyrical memoir of early childhood, begun in Montreal just prior to our departure. I was also writing poems and stories and shipping them out to magazines—collecting rejection slips to be sure, but also some acceptances. For petty cash, both of us freelanced for the local weekly, the Sooke Mirror. Once a week we drove in to Victoria to plunder the library. Through that long, rainy winter I immersed myself in Katherine Mansfield and D. H. Lawrence, reading not only their fiction but journals and letters, finding it instructive (if sobering) to realize that by the time they were our age, Mansfield and her husband Middleton Murry were seasoned book reviewers and had edited two literary journals. In the end, our western sojourn did not last even a full year. But it was during those ten months on Vancouver Island, a period sliced exactly in half by my twenty-fifth birthday, that I would say my writer's life began.
The novel I had thought I was embarked on came to naught. Having completed the first section, I was forced to conclude that I had written a fifty-page prose poem, richly musical, but completely lacking in narrative drive. It was painful to shelve it, but I pulled myself together, now determined to expand my McGill manuscript into a publishable poetry collection. I also undertook regular book reviewing for the Daily Colonist in Victoria, under the byline R. S. Louder. But the fulcrum event of this period was probably our meeting an amateur letterpress printer (a transplanted Californian, owner of the local health food store) who had begun to produce limited editions on an 1890s-model Chandler & Price platen press. He offered to give us a demonstration lesson in typesetting and printing, and it was in his rustic print shop (next to the goat shed, behind the organic vegetable garden) that we met August Kleinzahler, another itinerant poet, whose first chapbook we were destined to publish in Montreal two years later.
We returned to Montreal at the end of April, 1975, a little torn to leave the Island just as we were beginning to find our footing, but low on cash and weary of the west-coast mentality. We hungered for talk that was about books and ideas, rather than boats, building, gardens, and fish. (Edward Ward-Harris, British-born books editor of the Daily Colonist, put it succinctly when he told us, "The only culture we have out here is yogurt." Disappointed that we were leaving, though he understood why, he continued to send me books to review in Montreal.) We now had a plan: we wanted to find jobs and save up to buy a letterpress of our own. We would publish limited-edition chapbooks and support ourselves with commercial printing. It wasn't very realistic, but who is realistic at age twenty-five? We would also start a literary magazine, something we could do even before we had the press. And why stop there? I also wanted to get a book of my own published and have a baby—preferably in that order, but whichever happened first. It all seemed quite possible, even if for the moment we were flat broke and had nowhere to live.
And it all did, eventually, materialize—all except the income from the press, which was never adequate and was to keep me, more or less unhappily, in the teaching harness for many years to come. On arrival in Montreal, I reapplied to Champlain—this time to teach English—and squeaked in for September with a partial course load. After rooming with friends for a few months, we found a cheap third-floor walkup on Villeneuve (the street that was to give its name to our imprint), and in that modest five-room flat we started Versus, the first of two literary magazines we were to co-edit, and acquired the printing press we could afford: a tabletop, hand-cranked platen similar to the one that once served Leonard and Virginia Woolf for their Hogarth Press. Fred taught himself typography and presswork out of books; I learned typesetting only. Kleinzahler, with whom we'd kept in touch and who contributed poems to Versus, showed up in Montreal with a manuscript of poems which we decided to make our debut publication; and my own manuscript of poems got finished and duly shipped off to a small press, which accepted it for publication in the coming year. In June of 1977, two years after our return to Montreal, we launched Villeneuve's first chapbook, Kleinzahler's The Sausage Master of Minsk, just days before our first child, a son, was born. And January 1978 saw the publication (if to no fanfare) of my own first poetry collection, Shadowplay.
Divisions of energy have characterized my life. Through high school I was obliged to balance music with academics; in university, I opted for a double program of music and philosophy. For whatever reason—a subconscious fear of commitment, reluctance to put all eggs in one basket, maybe just a restless need for variety—my focus was always split: artistically, between writing and music; as a musician, between piano and clarinet; as a writer, between poetry and fiction. Villeneuve Publications, a separate if related interest that operated on a moonlight basis as we found time for it, became yet another diversion. But financial necessity meant that a chunk of my time had also to go into a whole new vocation, teaching, about which I was profoundly ambivalent, enjoying the classroom, but resenting the work taken home nightly, the pressure of preparation and the drudgery of marking. To this brew, I was about to add the classic woman's dilemma and greatest division of them all: that of balancing family and career. Again, the ethos of the times was my guide: feminism said that I had the right to both, that it could be done, that the institution of marriage had to remake itself to allow for both. But family and two careers? Pregnant for the first time, I wrote in my journal, "I can be a teacher/writer/editor and I'm sure I could be a mother/writer/editor, but don't see how I can possibly be a teacher/mother/writer/editor."
The next two decades of my life can be summed up as a quest for solutions to that "how," a great juggling act, the strain of which would eventually end the marriage. By 1979 we had a second child, a daughter, born at home. I stayed on extended unpaid maternity leave from Champlain for as long as we could afford it—eighteen months—but still found little time to write, between the demands of house and children, and our slow push to keep Villeneuve operational (we followed Kleinzahler's book with chapbooks by A. F. Moritz, Brian Bartlett, and Jack Hannan.) Thirteen new poems of my own were my total output between 1976 and 1981. Yet these poems, many of which record the struggle of a would-be writer-turned-mother, are the beginnings of my mature work; they are where I found my voice. In 1981 we gathered them into a chapbook, The Space between Sleep and Waking, and printed it under our own imprint in an edition of 300 copies. For such a tiny publication, it garnered a surprising amount of attention: the poems struck a timely chord, especially with women. The opening poem, "Maintenance," which begins, "Sometimes the best I can do/ is homemade soup, or a patch on the knee/ of the baby's overalls./ Things you couldn't call poems …" was to be anthologized seven times in the next eight years.
All frustrations aside, the children brought me enormous joy and I resigned myself to a vastly slowed-down pace as a writer in the interest of being with them as much as possible. But I resented more and more that I had to continue teaching for us to make ends meet. I did not teach a full load (the college accommodated my requests for partial leaves, while teachers scrambling for seniority were glad to pick up the sections I dropped) yet Parkinson's Law prevailed: even when there was less of it, the work I brought home seemed to take just as much time. By the time I had published enough to be eligible for the Canada Council's arts grants program, our expenses had gone up just enough so that the extra money (when I was lucky in the competition) only allowed me to continue my pattern of partial leaves; it was never enough for me to stop teaching altogether, even for a semester.
In similar fashion, printing technology undermined the progress of our little shop. The advent of computer graphics and desktop publishing made equal mockery of our hopes for a commercially viable letterpress shop and of our labor-of-love literary productions. The commercial work brought in less and less money for more and more expenditure of time; Villeneuve Publications slowed to a trickle. Neither of us was practical or worldly enough to re-vision our enterprise and forge a workable game plan. The press faltered along on a mixture of denial and good intentions until the summer of 1987, when a flash flood inundated our basement print shop and brought an end to any remaining illusions. The marriage ended not long after.
What did all of this mean to me as a writer? It meant frustration and fragmentation, writing in little bursts as time permitted (and if inspiration favored me at those moments); it meant, for many years, writing mostly poetry because I could hope to finish a poem in such stolen pockets of time, but found it much harder to sustain the energy of a short story through endless interruptions and shelvings; a novel was unthinkable. It meant that, even if I was lucky enough to get a few poems or the odd story written, it might be weeks or months before I could snatch the time to type up clean copy, write a cover letter, and submit the work for publication. My free summers were not free at all, because the children were home from school and I could not afford child care. For years, the ongoing and largely thankless job of being my own agent was what tended to go by the boards: a little writing I could manage, a little typesetting for Villeneuve now and then, but there was no time to nurture a career. It added up to tortoise-style progress as a writer; often I felt like a fraud.
But little successes sustained me: a magazine acceptance here, an invitation to read there, a request to reprint a poem or broadcast a story. Heartening response to The Space between Sleep and Waking came from one writer for whom I had deepest regard, Adele Wiseman. Respected poet-editors Gary Geddes and Dennis Lee anthologized my poems; Québecois poet Michel Beaulieu approached me to translate The Space between Sleep and Waking into French (a project aborted by his untimely death of a heart attack in 1985, at the age of forty-three.) Taken together, there was just enough encouragement to keep me going through two more small-press poetry collections: Anyone Skating on That Middle Ground (1984) and Becoming Light (1987). It was not until 1992, when my New and Selected Poems, The Touchstone, was being readied for publication, that it occurred to me I finally had enough stories to consider bringing out a slim volume of those as well. My fiction debut, A Nice Gazebo, saw publication that same year, its earliest story ("Première Arabesque") having been written on Vancouver Island in the fall of 1974, eighteen years earlier.
The trajectory of a life often makes more sense in retrospect. What felt piecemeal, irrational, and chaotic at the time was actually surprisingly directional: amid digression and necessary compromise, I now discern slow but steady progress along a chosen path. I was not prolific, and I did not achieve major recognition at an early age, but looking back, I feel that nothing was wasted. My years as a musician honed my ear and shaped my formal aesthetic as a writer. My studies in philosophy lent thoughtful substance to my poetry and fiction. Teaching forced me to conquer shyness and evolve a public persona as speaker and reader; it also gave me, for many years, a sense of legitimacy in the world, something that painfully eludes an obscure artist. Hand typesetting and letterpress publishing taught me to appreciate the integrity of a book and made me a stringent self-editor. Finally, having children put me in touch with universal, elemental emotions and pulled me into the mainstream of human life.
Today, in my sixth decade, I am remarried, sharing my life with a visual artist, a photographer whose work has opened whole new vistas to me; I have left teaching for full-time writing, have published a second collection of short stories and two more books of poetry, have added two genres (personal essay and journalism) to my writer's repertory—and can only wait to see what sense the future will make of my now.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
ARC, Volume 36, 1996, Kathleen O'Donnell, "Interweaving Voices: An Interview with Robyn Sarah," pp. 23-32; Volume 42, 1999, Kenneth Sherman, review of Questions about the Stars, pp. 68-74.
Books in Canada, Volume 16, issue 9, 1987, Marc Côte, review of Becoming Light, p. 31; Volume 27, 1998, review of Promise of Shelter, p. 7; Volume 28, issue 2, 1999, Eric Ormsby, review of Questions about the Stars, pp. 11-12; Volume 30, issue 4, 2001, "Talking Poetry in Letters: Robyn Sarah and John Unrau on Free Verse vs. Chopped Prose," pp. 34-35.
Canadian Jewish News, August 6, 1998; February 26, 2004, review of A Day's Grace.
Canadian Literature, Volume 122-123, 1989, Robert J. Merrett, review of Becoming Light, pp. 223-226; Volume 134, 1992, D. G. Jones, "Maintenance Music: The Poetry of Robyn Sarah," pp. 191-198.
Canadian Materials, Volume 14, issue 2, 1986, review of Anyone Skating on That Middle Ground, p. 89.
Canadian Woman Studies, Volume 6, issue 4, Margaret Avison, review of Anyone Skating on That Middle Ground; Volume 13, issue 3, 1993, Deborah Jurdjevic, review of The Touchstone: Poems New and Selected, pp. 108-109.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), March 30, 1985; June 18, 1988; May 29, 1992, review of A Nice Gazebo; January 24, 2004, review of A Day's Grace.
Hudson Review, Volume 57, issue 2, 2004, review of A Day's Grace, pp. 325-334.
Matrix, Volume 51, 1998, pp. 10-11.
Paragraph, Volume 19, issue 2, 1997, Debra Martens, "In Concert with Robyn Sarah," pp. 15-18.
Poetry Canada Review, Volume 7, issue 2, 1985–86, review of Anyone Skating on That Middle Ground, pp. 38-39.
Quill & Quire, Volume 58, issue 11, Rhea Tregebov, review of The Touchstone: Poems New and Selected, p. 28; Volume 64, issue 8, Ruth Panofsky, review of Questions about the Stars, p. 31.
Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec Web site, http://www.aelaq.org/ (March 5, 2005), Bert Almon, review of A Day's Grace.
Poetics.ca, http://www.poetics.ca/ (March, 2003), Stephen Brockwell, interview with Sarah.
University of Toronto Library's Canadian Poetry Index Online, http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/ (March 15, 2005), "Robyn Sarah."