“Anyone who has ever felt a vocation for something, pursued it, misplaced it, then tried to summon it again is apt to identify with Sarah’s story.” Ian McGillis in The Montreal Gazette
Poet Robyn Sarah’s memoir, Music, Late and Soon (Biblioasis, 2021) is one of the five nominees for the 2022 J.I. Segal Award for the Best Quebec Book on a Jewish Theme. Congratulations, Robyn! The prize is accompanied by an award of $5,000. Music, Late and Soon recounts her return to studying piano with the mentor of her youth. In relating this experience, she reflects on her years spent at Le Conservatoire de musique de Québec studying the clarinet where it seemed clear that her career as an orchestral musician was set. But Sarah was already a writer at heart and this fascinating memoir shows a portrait of an extraordinary piano teacher and of a relationship remembered and renewed.
Congratulations, Robyn, on your work to bring this experience into your writing. It shows us an insight into how creativity is a whole jumble of disciplines, practices, inspirations and experiences. And in order to dive deeper into that question, we asked Robyn the Three Questions and her answers were very thoughtful, detailed and informative.
Three Questions with Robyn Sarah
Question One: What part of the writing process is the most exciting? Starting a project? Finishing it? Editing? Or some other part of the process? Why?
What we call “the writing process” may not divide up into such tidy parts. When exactly does a project start? An idea can germinate at the back of the mind for weeks, months or years before the first sentences get written — and those sentences may prove to be a dead end, or grow into an opening chapter that will ultimately be scrapped. When is a book finished? Months of rewriting (prompted by an editor) can follow delivery of a “final” manuscript that the writer has already put through multiple versions Much of this process is less than exciting. Challenging, yes; compulsively engaging; but also implacably demanding and laborious. Books don’t write themselves; you have to write every word. You are in the grip of something. And all along the way there are self-doubts and misgivings, stalls, wrong turns, detours, patches of fog, impasses.
So where does excitement come in? It, too, can come at any point along the way, but it tends to come in flashes, mini-revelations, moments when something falls magically into place. You are handed a little gift by your subconscious, which has clearly been working on it. Suddenly you see where your story must begin. Suddenly you realize you can connect two images or scenes so each sheds light on the other. Suddenly you hit upon the exact word to describe the expression on somebody’s face, a word you’ve looked for in vain — or you see how to fix an inelegant sentence that has several times defied your efforts to rephrase it to better effect. A seemingly impossible structural problem solves itself when you change the order of a few chapters. Maybe you recognize with a small electric shock that the sentence you’ve just written should be the last sentence in your book — a perfect ending that came to you prematurely. You’re nowhere near the end of the book, but you cut/paste and copy that sentence onto a clean page and save it like treasure. Now you just have to figure out how to get to it.
Question Two: What under-appreciated book or write are you a fan of and why?
Adele Wiseman was not a prolific writer, but she left a small body of highly original work. These days I rarely hear mention of her novels, The Sacrifice (1956) or Crackpot (1974), though the first won a Governor General’s Award when the author was only 28, and the second was a J.I. Segal award winner. Much less known is a book of hers I’ve placed on the “one-of-a-kind” shelf of my bookcase. Published in 1978, a mere 148 pages, Old Woman at Play defies categorization. Its focus is on Wiseman’s mother Chaika in her late years – in particular, on Chaika’s decades-long passion for making dolls out of scraps of fabric and junk, giving each a name, a bit of a history, even a doll companion.
Part memoir, part dialogue, part meditation on creative process, the book is an intimate portrait of an multigenerational family, told largely through scraps of conversation (both remembered and current) between Wiseman and her Ukrainian Jewish parents, living out their last years under their daughter’s roof in Toronto. Her parents reminisce about their old country childhood in Russian villages, their immigration to North America in the 1920s, the long years working day and night as tailor and dressmaker to feed their family in Winnipeg during the Depression. All the while, amid the daily life of her grown daughter’s household, Chaika Waisman’s hands are busy making dolls, and her writer-daughter, fascinated by the profusion and variety of these playful personae, keeps trying to coax out of her mother some explanation of why she makes them and what the activity means to her.
Why do I value this book? I think it’s because it gets at the heart of human creativity better than anything else I’ve read — honouring it without glorifying or falsifying, recognizing it as something not set apart from the rest of life but intrinsically bound up with it. In her mother’s “naive” art, Wiseman finds confirmation “that art, uncapitalized … is our human birthright, the extraordinary right and privilege to share, both as givers and receivers, in the work of continuous creation.”
Question Three: If you weren’t a writer and could do a totally different creative profession, what would it be and why?
From childhood I’ve had two creative passions, writing and music, and all my life I have practiced both. In my early twenties I felt pulled between them. I did not become a professional musician, and for the most part, I have no regrets about that choice. My memoir, Music, Late and Soon, was my attempt to explain to myself why I turned away from music as a career path — why I stopped studying music at twenty-four, and why I returned to it seriously (for its own sake) at nearly sixty.
If I were not a writer and could have a completely different profession, it might not be a creative one at all. I find the whole idea of being a creative “professional’ a thorny one. But if I had to name a third creative art I could study and practice seriously, it would be visual — painting, drawing, or sculpture. I would love to be able to represent the world in visual terms, working with colours, lines, and shapes, and with physical materials, rather than with words, sentences and paragraphs. Words take us into ourselves, into our heads, because we think in words. One thing I love about music is that it’s non-verbal; it takes me out of myself. I think it would be the same with visual art.
Robyn Sarah was born in New York City to Canadian parents and grew up in Montreal, where she still lives. A poet, writer, literary editor, and musician, she is the author of nine poetry collections as well as two collections of short stories and a book of essays on poetry. Her poems have been anthologized in Fifteen Canadian Poets x 2 and x 3, The Best Canadian Poetry in English (2009 and 2010), The Bedford Introduction to Literature, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems for Hard Times, and Modern Canadian Poets: An Anthology (UK). She edited The Essential George Johnston, The Essential Don Coles, and The Essential Margaret Avison, and is currently poetry editor for Cormorant Books in Ontario.
There are a total of five short-listed works this year in contention for the 2022 J.I. Segal Award for the Best Quebec Book on a Jewish Theme. The other nominees are:
- Pierre Anctil, nominated for Antijudaïsme et influence nazie au Québec | Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 2021
- Pinchas Blitt, nominated for A Promise of Sweet Tea | 2021, Azrieli Foundation
- Anne Élaine Cliche, nominated for Le danseur de la Macaza | Le Quartanier, 2021
- David Homel, nominated for Lunging Into the Underbrush | Linda Leith Publishing, 2021
The winner of the prize will be announced on Thursday, December 22 at 10am. The other prizes will also be announced next week:
- and the Rosa and David Z”L Finestone Translation Award for a Book on a Jewish Theme (with a $1,000 award). The winner will be announced on Wednesday, December 21 at 10am.
- the Dr Hirsh and Dvora Rosenfeld Award for Yiddish Literature (with a $1,000 award). The winner will be announced on Friday, December 23 at 10am.
Congratulations, Robyn, and all the nominees and winners!