Monday, January 30, 2017

Amanda Earl on Sandra Ridley

My Poetic (M)Other

I admit to you that I have an uneasy relationship with (s)(m)otherhood. I am more comfortable with otherhood and othering: the support, care and nurturing of those who are outside of convention, who feel like outsiders. Not to get them to become more conventional, but to help them achieve what they need to achieve and to embrace their otherness.

When I moved into my first apartment with my boyfriend at twenty-one, it was out of a need to escape from the constant strife and drama of living with my father, and my mother’s ineffectualness. Even though I was fleeing their home, my mother snuck out to see me in the basement bachelor apartment on Old Dundas, near the motorcycle bar and the ravines. She gave us oxtail soup and creosote. The soup kept us going through lean months. I used the creosote to scrub the baseboards. It kept away the roaches. I loved its smell, which reminded me of old railway ties.  I slept a lot that winter, secure behind a locked door of my own. I missed a lot of school. I was in a cocoon, learning to deal with my otherness alone.

On this journey toward otherness, there have been numerous writers and artists who have helped me on my path and perhaps I have nurtured and cared for a few others as well. (M)otherhood isn’t always a one-way, parent-child relationship.

Sandra Ridley is a fierce and bad-ass poetesse. When she reads her poems, I can imagine her standing on a railway track, in defiance, beside a sudden field of purple phlox. 

I met Sandra around 2005 when she read poems at a reading I’d set up for The reading was at Chapters in downtown Ottawa, at the top of an escalator, near the kids’ section. I believe it was her first public reading. I was captivated by her poetry, by her stillness, and still am. I could tell it wasn’t easy for her to share her work in public. I admired her bravery.

Over the years we became friends. She gave me advice about my spikey, quirky poetry. I read hers with awe and offered the occasional suggestion. We (m)othered each other. Sandra was there when I lay dying in intensive care. She kept my husband company, bought him a roast chicken and a butternut squash. She drove me home from the hospital.

At a recent reading in 2016 at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, Sandra read from her latest book, Silvja (BookThug, 2016). She whispered as if the poem was private, a secret, like it was forbidden and she was being disobedient.

Sandra dares to play with narrative: starting in the middle or at the end, doing away with the beginning all together, to write sharp, short, staccato sentences as crying jags, as litanies, to sprawl across the page, to leave space for breath.

Poets such as Sandra ,have dared to create despite societal pressures to be the quiet angel of the house, and continue to make me feel it’s ok to create and it’s ok, in fact, even necessary, to work from a place of uncertainty.  Further writers and artists on this list would include Christine McNair, Brecken Hancock, Anne Carson, Beatrice Wood, Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Djuna Barnes, Hélène Cixous, Betsy Warland and Daphne Marlatt.

When I first read Sandra’s work it was a relief. A relief because of the way she dipped in and out of narrative in ways I hadn’t seen before. She left places, spaces for the reader’s imagination or places for the reader to think, to feel. A relief because her work was feisty and rebellious. “She wears navy blue to spite him.” (Fallout, Hagios Press, 2010). 

Fallout included a section called “Lift, Ghazals for C.” which was published as a chapbook by Jack Pine Press (2008). I believe this was the first time I’d ever heard about contemporary ghazals and I loved these. They were an interesting mix of medical terminology and compassion for a child’s sickness.  I ended up writing ghazals for over a year after being introduced to hers, and talking to her about other ghazal writers, such as John Thompson and Adrienne Rich.

I have read and reread each of her four books, finding satisfaction and inspiration in the meticulous language, the themes of survival despite or in spite of, the dark connections to nursery rhymes and children’s songs, particularly in The Counting House (Book Thug, 2013), her sense of the macabre in the everyday, her brilliance.

I relate especially to the unidyllic portrait of childhood so often present in Sandra’s poetry, particularly in Silvja: “Each child dragged by its hair across the linoleum / Given lip / good for nothing / illicit / dust / dusk-lit / Let those bygones / cease holding on to me” in “Farther / Father.”

In 2009, Sandra and I decided to attempt a collaborative long poem: “Eve, a mere roar.” Our styles were complementary; both of us were drawn to the apocalypse. It was a joyful and enriching experience, the most successful collaboration I’ve ever been part of. One of us would write, the next would follow along, expanding on or drawing out the inherent or subtle metaphor the other had established. It was natural and not forced. I learned a lot from the collaboration.

I see Sandra not so much as a mother but a fellow other, a twin sister, separated at birth by ten years, I, being the elder. She has been here for me during terrible times of crisis and she has always been interested in my writing. I look to her poetry when I need to be reminded that there are myriad playful ways to engage with text, when I need to feel that it is a good thing to defy the status quo.

I always say that my three reasons for writing and sharing my work with others are whimsy, exploration and connection. I derive all three of these elements from Sandra’s poetry and from our friendship.

Amanda Earl tries to (m)other fellow poets on their journey toward otherness via the AngelHousePress Close Reading Service for New Women Poets. She’s the managing editor of and the fallen angel of AngelHousePress, and the author of Kiki (Chaudiere Books, 2014), I Owe Saint Hildegard The Light (unarmed, 2016), Queen Christina (Ghost City Press, 2016) and firstwalks of the year (In/Words Press, 2016). Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Arc Poetry Magazine, Canthius, Canadian Literature,,, Vallum and The Windsor Review. Amanda lives in Ottawa with her husband, a massive new shelving unit named Bertha, Mona, the refrigerator and a coffee-maker known simply as the Diva. For more information, please visit or connect with Amanda on Twitter @KikiFolle.

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