Unique, intricate and intimate, Sensorial brings us through the three preliminary stages of perspective: Navigation, Exploration, and Connection. Like a black belt in conscientious observation in poetry, Sensorial takes the reader down familiar paths with sudden unexpected turns—again and again. This makes a startling and engaging read. Minimalist style, eloquent, a quicksilver of emotion.
I met with Carolyne in May, just prior to Sensorial’s release. We talked about sensory perspective in all its forms, creative process, poetry, death and family, and so much more.
Kayla Geitzler: Like many poets, you open your most recent poetry collection, Sensorial, with a quote. Except, you chose to include an entire poem “The Peace of Learning,” by Jacqueline Suskin. Can you tell us why?
Carolyne Van Der Meer: Sure. I know Jacqueline—I did one of her workshops called “Every Day is a Poem,” through which there was a chapbook contest. She ended up selecting one of my poems out of 1600 submissions. So that started an ongoing conversation.
Jacqueline’s whole life is in service to poets. She opened “Poem Store” as a full-time venture, supporting herself by writing spontaneous poetry at a farmers’ market in California. I think that is pretty fascinating. Through her website version of Poem Store, I commissioned the poem, giving her some context about my relationship with my father and his recent death. When I received it and it was spot on, I asked her if I could include it on the dedication page. It’s quite a thing to have a poem written for you—and for it to be just right.
I wanted to have something on the dedication page that contextualized the place from which I was writing about my dad, which was a place of tenderness, not a place of conflict.
KG: A place of tenderness, not conflict, which is interesting considering the honest expression in Sensorial. But I think tender just might be born out of truth, possibly. A recognition of difference or acceptance. You know—how relationships are, how that relationship was, as opposed to letting it continue unresolved.
CVDM: Yes, I think that’s what I mean by truth.
KG: I love to discuss process with writers, and part of the process when assembling a manuscript is arranging or ordering poems, and then naming the organization. Can you tell us why you chose to arrange Sensorial in three sections under the themes of Navigation, Exploration and Connection?
CVDM: I wanted to give the reader a little bit of guidance on where I was going. So, Navigation is about travel, about being in different places, and seeing unexpected things which might be where homelessness comes in. Once again, the importance of place for me runs through the whole collection.
In the second section, Exploration, you’ll notice that most of those poems are not at home. Not my home. Exploration was more about observing other people’s stories. As opposed to telling a story that I was a part of. There’s the poem “Let Her sleep” about Ruth Priscilla Colbath. And the “Strength of Dragons” is about Grace Gifford and her husband, Joseph Mary Plunkett, who was executed for being a revolutionary leader of the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland. So, the notion of Exploration was about documenting other people’s stories, as opposed to only using poetry to tell my own stories. One can argue that Sensorial is also personal because there’s a lot of poetry about my dad. But I wanted to play with the idea of telling other stories and using poetry as a way of documenting them.
KG: Distance, as literal and figurative in narrative?
CVDM: Yes, thanks for unpacking that for me.
KG: I find it so interesting! When I was re-reading Sensorial, I was thinking a lot of my own travels and what it is to see and be seen, and how do you respectfully engage with someone else on the page? And what does separation from our familiar place and being in someone else’s do for us as poets? I think a lot of writers try to reconcile what’s strange or what’s unknown to them through narrative by bringing it back to themselves. So, to me, it’s always interesting when I’m reading a poet if they’re not doing that, not bringing their experiences back to themselves, but finding another route altogether. How does that change a reader’s perception? What does that mean for the author? I think that tells a lot about how we engage with the world.
CVDM: Well, we should write from where we are in our writing journey, so maybe a process in which we are central. Let’s say, for example, that the poem “New Skin at Pentecost” is about me, but I’m suddenly pulling back and seeing how I’m just like everybody else. So that story isn’t necessarily about me. It’s about something we share as a collective, a kind of humanity. It doesn’t have to be me; it could be anybody.
KG: You use yourself as a literary device to reach a higher aim.
CVDM: I know exactly what you’re getting at. It’s just a way of forcing distance. And I was interested in that experiment. For example, “Finding Atlantis” in the first section came out of a series of paintings by Ariane Côté, who painted the cover (as well as the cover of my second book, Journeywoman) and the story of the person in “Finding Atlantis” is a mix of our stories.
Ariane had been away at an artist retreat in Mexico, and (in “Finding Atlantis”) what happened in Mexico happened to her; somebody injected her with something, maybe a drug. Now, in the poem, I’ve added a woman who came to her rescue. But as a matter of fact, it wasn’t so easy for her to get out of that situation, she was just lucky her boyfriend was waiting for her at the other end of her trip. We speculated about what could have happened—she could have been kidnapped or trafficked—God knows, right? When she told me that story, I asked myself, should I step back a little bit here?
A couple of months before, we had been asked to participate in a show curated by artist/poet Carolyn Boll, of 60 artists and 60 poets, collaborating. Ariane showed me this series of her paintings and said, do any of these inspire you? We decided that I would respond to the art as opposed to her painting to respond to something I had already written. So I wrote “Finding Atlantis.”
All of these things worked together. It was really a process of all these inputs and I really didn’t know how it was going to come out. Maybe that’s the way it is for all writers. But when you ask the question, ‘Why did I divide things as I divided them?’ that is a really good example of the notion of navigation, right? I’m navigating all of these sensory inputs. And what comes out is this poem called “Finding Atlantis,” which has some truth to it, but is, in another way, entirely imagined. And I think that in general, in this collection, I made a departure from writing about things that actually happened. How much can you bring to your poem that is imagined? In my earlier years as a poet, I felt like I had to be entirely inspired by one thing, and I had to write about that one thing. Whereas now I’m learning that it doesn’t have to be “true”—we all know intuitively that it doesn’t have to be true. But some part of me was always trying to write from a place of fact. And in Sensorial, I’m navigating, in general, through these three sections, I’m making this up as I go, navigating, exploring and connecting the dots between what’s really true, and what’s not, and realizing that it doesn’t matter what’s true. It all comes together to be a sensory experience in the reader’s reading.
KG: I agree. I think it all comes together to be, individually and as a whole, a profound sense of story. And when you use your imagination, you go out on a limb—there’s no guidance there. Right? You’re adrift. You don’t have any navigation. So, you have to build it for yourself, your collections. Yes, I think that to become a more advanced writer, you have to take those risks. And if you’re using imagination, it’s a higher tool. That’s what Einstein claimed. If you don’t have imagination, you can’t envision anything, you can’t create something new, you can’t rethink the world.
CVDM: That’s kind of what this book is about, not that I had ever articulated it in that way before. But I think that when it comes down to the sections, that’s what I’m doing. And I’m doing it across different subject areas. In the first section, I’m navigating other histories, such as in “Dominican Pantoum” and “Falls Road Pub, Belfast.” And the whole notion of homelessness, which requires a navigation from the place of privilege. Most of us don’t want to speak to the homeless person we’re walking past, we want to look the other way, look down. And some of these poems are written from that place, or where I was an observer and I saw people looking away, like in my poem “Stanley Street Café,” the one that you liked so much. That is a pure example of people just not engaging with the guy who’s in his living room, because they don’t know what to do. I volunteered at a homeless shelter and that very much changed how I relate to the homeless because I see them, they’re all around all Montreal, and I usually engage in some kind of conversation if I can. And you know, some of them, if you offered to get them a way off the street, they wouldn’t take it. They want to live on the street for whatever their reasons may be. They just don’t fit and some of them don’t want to fit. And I think that we as a society don’t think about that. We think that everybody wants to be the way we are. But we’re forgetting a few things; we’re just not seeing the whole picture, the ensemble of circumstances—we’re only looking at it from where we sit.
I was trying to navigate all of that because when I first started volunteering at the shelter, I was very uncomfortable. And I wanted to not be uncomfortable anymore. So you talked about going out on a limb when you’re writing? That’s what I did. And how do you write about homelessness so that you’re not being judgmental? I wanted to juxtapose the notion of the place of privilege versus non-privilege and show that we’re not seeing everything we think we are. We need to look a little more carefully at what’s really going on.
KG: You have such an original way of engaging with the quotidian, the everyday, and you make it really exceptional, like in your poem “At Van Speyk, Amsterdam.” Your poems examining the quotidian seem like a macro photo of the intimate self gleaned from common events. Can you tell us a bit about how you create this sharp depth in your poetry?
CVDM: I’ll tell you something that happened at a recent reading in Montreal that might be a good entry point into my answer. At the end, two people came up to me and one said, “The thing about your poetry is that I always think I know where you’re going. And I get really wound up about where you’re going. And then by the end, you’ve gone somewhere else.” And then she said, “I’ve now become accustomed to waiting for the surprise.” I thought that was very interesting and it made me happy too, because it is a conscious choice on my part to change direction. That it’s working is a delight for me to hear, because as a poet you might want to do something, but it doesn’t mean that you’re going to succeed.
KG: Is it because you’re really engaged with the subject matter?
CVDM: I’m kind of fascinated with the idea that there’s always a different way of seeing—as in John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. And the way that we see is not always the way it is, right? It’s all about perception. And you know, my perception of a thing is different than your perception of a thing, and so on and so on. I’m trying to get at how perception differs, even in a miniscule way, and that that miniscule difference can in fact be huge. When you’re in a situation, sometimes it’s good to think of how you appear, as opposed to looking at how other people appear. How would you be perceived from their point of view, instead of thinking about it from your point of view.
KG: That’s really interesting, to flip perspective that way. And that changes the reading of Sensorial. I didn’t read it as strictly autobiographical, but I felt you all the way through. A kind of presence on the journey.
CVDM: This goes right back to what we were talking about before, the three sections, navigation, and wanting to document other stories as opposed to my own. Poetry is a form of storytelling, it does not directly imply that we are telling stories about ourselves, we can be telling all kinds of stories. Sensorial is truly an exploration of stories—I don’t want to be the speaker, I am not always the speaker, even in the poems about my father. Some of those poems take elements that have nothing to do with my dad, that I made up.
KG: It was a unique experience, reading Sensorial, because I didn’t feel like I was being strongly directed. It was more like I had a compass, but I didn’t need, or want, to use it; I had no idea where I was going, which I really enjoyed. I like it when I can’t guess what’s on the next page. But I think even when we do write an autobiographical poem, it’s worth looking at how is the story being told, why is this technique being used? What is the author saying about himself or herself when they’re doing this? You know?
CVDM: There’s a whole lot we can pull in here, such as “The Death of the Author,” for example. Once I’ve written it, how much do I matter? It becomes an independent story that I don’t have to be part of. You know me, so maybe that affects your perception of how you read these pieces. But for somebody who doesn’t know me, I might be dead. Again, it’s not black and white; I’m just thinking about all the possibilities. And they play into the idea that the speaker isn’t always the poet.
KG: Like other talented writers, you’re very particular about your word choice. So, it appears that there are clues to bring a reader, I think, to a more pointed conclusion. It’s like you said, you have an intent, you’re guiding someone, but you want them to see differently, to use their perception. You want them to be surprised by that different direction.
CVDM: Yes, and I might think that I’m leading them down a certain path but when I switch direction, they might not like that direction. A reader might not take out of it what I want them to take out of it. Really, there’s no guarantee.
KG: Still, I was surprised by quite a few of your poems. I enjoy it when poems stand as little witnesses, as small truths about life. Like life, I found that you don’t let us get away with much. You don’t shock but, for example, you are direct and precise, you use blood and pus in a poem that may be about your grandmother. Those kinds of things can evoke resistance. And in your “Harvard Yard” poem, a woman observes university students and overcomes the impulse to interfere with them, walking on with the wise knowing of “They too will/ find their way.” You have to live for a while, perhaps off and on the page, to articulate that seeing, that wisdom. In Sensorial, I feel there is a sense of experience, the truthfulness learned from overcoming life’s universal and inevitable challenges. What does Tom Waits say? “I like beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.”
CVDM: I hadn’t thought about it like that. You see this sort of bluntness to it. I see myself as somebody who’s very measured and careful.
KG: Absolutely. Sensorial is very careful. It is measured. It’s just that it’s real. Nothing’s really painted into more than it is. From a narrative perspective, it’s very beautiful, perhaps because there’s a lot of “living” in it.
CVDM: I’ve been thinking how “Chasing Poetics in Manhattan” goes back to what we’re talking about, how this person, Eden, she’s looking for something. And she’s trying to find it in all kinds of things. So, she’s looking at Jackson Pollock’s Number 31, at the randomness of the splatters, or she’s looking at Monet’s Water Lilies. Yet, all through the 90s, everybody had a Water Lilies lamination on their office wall that took away from the multiple dimensions of the art of Monet. For Eden, it’s about scribbling the bones of the poem. But in a way, it’s kind of all of us, isn’t it? My point is that this poem is an example, or a summation, of looking at things, everywhere, and trying to make sense of them, and not knowing what we’re finding. So, we keep looking. Perhaps, this sums up the whole book.
KG: Yes. I really enjoyed “Chasing Poetics in Manhattan.” I think it’s something many poets can relate to. Reading it, I was stunned to find that the poem was just suddenly done. I felt like I was just getting into the story, and it ends there. And I thought, Oh, she’s off to herself, or maybe we don’t have the privilege of going into her space, because the way most of us are taught to write, the poem would begin there, we’d continue her story. But “Chasing Poetics in Manhattan” stays true to your idea of perspective and how we see. Also, what’s unsearchable. I’ve often thought that those energies that carry us along like that are indefinable without language, they defy being distilled into one simple thing.
CVDM: I’m making a generalization that can sum up the whole collection. But you know, there are so many elements of exactly what we’ve been talking about all through it. A sensory exploration, all about feeling and perception. And what does this mean? There are different ways of entering that question. And I’m pitting privilege against non-privilege.
KG: Next question. Can we talk about “His Coriolis Force”?
CVDM: Yes–I know you liked this one. That poem was written later, and it was based on a dream. I actually started the poem in my dream, that I showed up at my dad’s funeral in ripped shorts. What is that about? You know, it’s almost like I was trying to piss him off. So, let’s explore that, why is that an issue? Then I remembered the whole business about these low-slung shorts that I had worn to my sister’s wedding rehearsal, years before. So, that one is not so fictional.
KG: I think I’ve mentioned that the poems in Sensorial capture, and command, a great deal of beauty. Maybe some of that symmetry and loveliness came from a sense of turbulence, arising perhaps from an emotional honesty. Vulnerability moves like a pulse through much of Sensorial.
CVDM: I don’t think we can talk about the death of a loved one without opening wounds, without exposing parts of ourselves. Whether that’s beautiful or not depends on who’s reading. But I don’t think there was any choice. If I was going to talk about the death of my dad in any way, it was going to expose something.
KG: You felt you needed to write about him?
CVDM: It was a processing thing, and some of these poems were written before his death. “My Father Came in Many Colours” was written while he was alive, for example. But a lot of them I wrote after, or even during that horrible week while he was in palliative care. So, there was a lot of processing of our relationship during that time, because it was a turbulent relationship.
But I am convinced that it’s me wanting to not gloss things over. He wasn’t an easy dad, I’ll be very frank about that. But I also think that we don’t get a course on how to be a dad or a mom.
KG: I’ve had my own family struggles and I discovered that it was easier to process and accept things if I could learn to understand them. And write them.
CVDM: Yes, I think that there has to be an acceptance: my dad was who he was. He did what he did. He said the things he said, there’s no erasing any of that. Like it or not, I’m a product of that. And there’s some good in it. And he’s given me some really exhaustive material to work with.
KG: Can you offer any advice in writing about family members?
CVDM: Well, you have to do it with carefulness. You really do. My siblings were aware of these poems before the book was published.
But this is one of the reasons I want to hammer home the idea that the speaker is not always the poet. There’s so much that goes into writing a poem that you can’t separate fact and fiction anymore. “His Coriolis Force” was based on a dream. In the poem “Gratitude,” about the birds, my dad didn’t have an aviary—my mother’s father had an aviary—and I was very small, so am I really remembering those from there? But it doesn’t matter because that’s not what the poem is about. The poem is about connection and how across all this distance, my father is still there somewhere. I have this encounter with pigeons, that for whatever reason, makes me think of my dad. Isn’t that the point? Or does it matter that it’s my dad or not?
KG: I think that’s true and offers us more as poets. It’s similar to how children have two memories that, over time, have converged. When you realize you’re writing, consciously or unconsciously, about two memories, you usually ask yourself, do I ruin the poem if I try to separate them, to write the more “truthful” poem? Also, if I lose my thread, will the poem make sense to me as the writer?
CVDM: And it doesn’t make sense. It’s the same with the poem you mentioned about the grandmother’s story—that’s not really my grandmother but maybe a bit of my mother. And the story of the hangnail, that actually did happen to my son, when he was nine. It’s a braiding of all of these things, the baggage that we carry; what’s true, and what’s not true at the end of the day, doesn’t really matter. We pull it from wherever. And we might pull it completely from our imaginations. It’s a tool.
KG: That’s pretty cool, though. There’s a lot of material in these poems, and it seemed to me, like a natural gravitation. Which is even more interesting, as I feel like the book loops, the ending feeding into the beginning. Without imagination and braiding, I don’t think that sensory looping would be possible.
CVDM: You said that.
KG: Yes, and I am aware it doesn’t necessarily make sense if you think about Sensorial from a logical or, you know, an academic standpoint, but it does from a sensory standpoint, it makes absolute sense, because the ending poems feel like you’re lifting from a dream. The poems capturing the palliative care section, which in itself is like suspension of time, translates or shifts easily into the altered consciousness quality of “Finding Atlantis.” If we reread Sensorial, we release ourselves to navigate from that perspective you spoke of.
CVDM: Yes. Part of the whole process was release. That’s how I want to see it.
KG: I think there’s a lot of healthy releasing in Sensorial. Is it instinctive to resist that? Culture can trap us in this idea of accumulation. I think in searching a kind of releasing happens—or can.
CVDM: I think it’s healthy to allow that release. Because how unhealthy is it to just carry it around with us? I don’t want to be that person.
KG: Let’s talk about the omission of punctuation in Sensorial.
CVDM: I feel that it gets in the way, it crowds. But you’ll notice there are a number of poems in Sensorial that have full punctuation. So, not all of them omit it. Over time, I’ve come to the notion that I don’t want punctuation. If we use line breaks the way we’re supposed to, and if we use spacing the way we’re supposed to, capital letters the way that we’re supposed to, that tells us what we need to do in the cadence of our reading. So why do I need to be in a reader’s face with a comma or a period? I have a mentor who doesn’t use a lot of punctuation and he’s shown me how to do it. And I like it better. Also, maybe because it doesn’t allow you to get away with anything. You have to read it the way it is. It’s there. It’s stark.
KG: Yes. I think that’s why I like the omission of punctuation too.
CVDM: So, again, you’ve unpacked that for me, because we don’t know why we do things until somebody asks us the question and we’re forced to articulate it. But back to your question on advice about writing of family, I would say be respectful. If you need to check it out with a family member, do it because you don’t want the regret of publishing something that’s hurtful. Those things can be undoable.
For me, poetry is not a place to be hurtful. I don’t want to use poetry as a weapon. For me, it’s a place of compassion.
KG: Carolyne, as always, it has been a pleasure. I love our talks generally, but especially about writing and poetry. Thank you for taking the time to share your writing experiences and your incredible poetry collection Sensorial with The Miramichi Reader and our readers.
CVDM: Kayla, thank you for reading my work so carefully and attentively—the most significant compliment any writer can receive—as you well know. I look forward to our next poetry talk.
(Photo credit: Bryan Gagnon Photography)
KAYLA GEITZLER, MA, is from Moncton, within Siknikt of the Mi’kma’ki. “A Rad Woman of Canadian Poetry” & Attic Owl Reading Series host, she was Moncton’s first Anglophone Poet Laureate. Her first poetry collection was a finalist for two awards. Kayla is co-editor of the multilingual anthology Cadence Voix Feminines Female Voices. She was a technical editor on pipeline projects & designed ATC courseware. As an editor, writing consultant & instructor, Kayla's affordable expertise helps writers & organizations achieve success.