A Conversation with Sandy Pool: Poetry and the Politics of Place

(or An Introduction to Dandelion’s Assistant Editor Sandy Pool)

It’s hard to forget this line from Sandy Pool’s Exploding into Night:  “In a dream I’d made love to a bear and enjoyed it.” Pool laughs when I asked if she had read Marian Engel’s Bear before writing it.  (Engel’s novella is about a woman who disappears into the northern Ontario wilderness and ends up having sex with a bear.)  In fact, Pool read the book after she wrote her own, but both writers revel in language that is startling and animalistic.

At 28, Pool is enjoying a 2010 Governor General’s Award nomination for her first book of poetry. I am interviewing her by telephone, but her disembodied voice manages to convey warmth and energy – even when we tackle the troubling subject of her work.

Exploding into Night is the true story of a woman murdered by her common-law husband in Parkdale, a Toronto neighbourhood that has transformed into a wilderness fraught with fear and failure.  The inhabitants have to push “through the difficult topography of the day” as they assess this unfamiliar world.

The plural perspectives contribute to this disorientation as the victim, the perpetrator – and the city itself – learn to metabolize loss and adapt to a new reality.

The epigraph to Exploding into Night is from poet Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World and informs the entire book:

“I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural

then yes let it be     these are small distinctions

where do you see it from is the question”

Place is determined by perception rather than a location on a map and includes people’s lives and shared histories.  Pool’s narrative poem provides an atlas for the reader who inhabits multiple narrators to examine the murder from their perspectives.

At the heart of Pool’s book is the politics of terrible things: human beings are tethered together by their vulnerability to violence, which dictates everything about their relationship to a place.  In this interview, Pool shares her thoughts on poetry and the politics of place.

1. On the epigraph from Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World:
I think there is a real kinship between our two books: her book is about mapping, but it’s also about the politics of terrible things.

The quote is really important: not only is it pointing to the fact that this book has a political tone to it–as Adrienne Rich has in her work as well–but it’s also talking about looking at the actual piece of work I had written.

In other words, what’s important about it is that it’s not about what happened, it’s about perspective and what I did with the story. By no means did I intend for this to be a factual account of what happened in Parkdale. I’m more interested in where we see these events from–for me, this book is an account of what I brought to what I had witnessed.

2. On why the reader can map their own storyline:
The other day someone compared the book to a “Choose your own adventure”–which I really like–because depending on what order you read that book in, it’s a completely different book.

Most people don’t read poetry from the beginning of the book to the end of the book; you read one poem and put the book down and then you read another poem–this book definitely has that sense about it.

3. On why writing your own back-cover blurb can be treacherous:
A lot of poets have to write their own back-cover blurbs. You struggle to say something that encapsulates your book, but that doesn’t encapsulate it in a way that minimizes it. The reason I described the book as “a stark reappraisal of urban existence” is because place, specifically Toronto, is very important to the book.

4. On rural and urban influences for Exploding into Night:
I grew up in the country in a really small town called Erin, between Orangeville and Guelph–it’s tiny! When I moved to the city I found it overwhelming and scary in some ways and of course I had been watching the news for many years before that–all I heard about were stabbings. That’s what happens when you watch the news. You can make any place sound intimidating–especially an urban space like Toronto. Then I adapted.

But you’ll notice there is a lot of nature imagery, references to animals and plants and cottages and natural materials. Because I come from two very different backgrounds, going between the city and the country was really important to me.

5. On navigating the new realities of living in Parkdale:
I was living in Parkdale when the murder occurred so I had a sense of the way the community, the real Parkdale community, was feeling about this. I think it did make me feel very lonely–and lonely in a way that I had not felt lonely before and I think that’s significant.

I suddenly felt unsafe. It’s an experience that you only understand once you’ve been through it, once that thing happens that reminds me, ‘you might be unsafe’. For me, this event was one of those things and that is where that little bit of text came from.

On how “found” and non-literary texts found their way into the book:
I go mining through other people’s language a lot. I love finding old science textbooks, things that haven’t been looked at for a while and just strip-mining all of that language.

I love all sorts of non-literary texts. When I was teaching at Humber College, I had a group of students who were embalmers in funeral services. They gave me these embalming magazines; only people in the industry get to see these magazines and I’ve been using them.

One of the interesting things about Exploding into Night is how much it changed from its original format: they were not originally prose poems and every single poem had a title. Each of the titles was actually taken from a Canadian survival handbook from the ’80s, a little brown book called “Wilderness Survival”. And later all of that “scaffolding” was removed.

If you look closely, there are little bits and pieces throughout this book that come from a survival handbook. The most indicative poem is on page 44: it says you should have “nine tea bags, iodine, elastic bandages, pocket full of breadcrumbs just in case.” Those lines are straight from the wilderness survival handbook discussing how cramped your kit should be and exactly what should be in it. There were other items, but they didn’t make the cut in my survival handbook.

7. On how her background in theatre affects her writing:
It certainly comes up in my work in all sorts of ways. You probably noticed that Exploding into Night is written in many different voices although there is a consistent tone in the book. There were many characters that started to pop up and I started to employ them to tell the story.

And perhaps the thing about being in multidisciplinary art and incorporating other disciplines is that you can’t make theatre about yourself. It makes you open to the idea of having other people intrude on your artistic process and that’s something I try to incorporate in my poetry.

8. On why Exploding into Night may be a more accessible kind of poetry:
There is a sense that the book will be of interest to people, because you can access it from a political point of view. And it’s a story that is a true story. Our obsession with the truth is definitely something that is not going away–it’s just being reinvented all the time. I think there is a certain accessibility by virtue of the fact that the book is based on a real experience and I’m writing in a voice that is, I think, fairly accessible.

9. On why some people may need a map to follow it:
But then people have told me the opposite; some people get very frustrated, because they don’t understand who is talking at what time; they want to be able to differentiate voices.

10. On why poetry can provide a new geography of the mind:
Often what you can do is you can create a truth people can access, but you’re doing it in a way that fiction cannot. I like to think it’s the job of poetry to access that kind of thinking.


  1. Interview with Sandy Pool – Thursday, 3 November, 2010 at 7pm EST
  2. Exploding into Night by Sandy Pool
  3. The Dream and the Dialogue: Adrienne Rich’s Feminist Poetics by Alice Templeton