Status Update featured in the Whig Standard

Here’s a lovely article written by Merilyn Simmonds on my new book Status Update.  Or, you can read it below:

Finding poetry in Facebook

By Merilyn Simonds, Kingston Whig-Standard

Thursday, November 28, 2013 9:40:38 EST PM

Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang has done the seemingly impossible: she has stopped the tsunami of Facebook with a poem.

Status Update, her second collection of poems and her seventh book in three years, is grounded in the tell-all culture that we call Facebook, where a couple hundred of your closest friends, at any given moment, are updating you on what they are doing: diapering the baby, having drinks with friends, mourning a mother’s death.

“It’s this weird kind of public announcement,” Sarah explains. “A huge cross-section of people sharing really different things, some very personal, some promotional. It’s such a weird form of communication: it seems like a conversation, but it is more of a running monologue. What are we supposed to do with it?”

Sarah joined Facebook while she was getting her MFA at the University of British Columbia. After her last class with Susan Musgrave, an important influence in her poetic life, Sarah joined Facebook and Susan signed on as her first friend.

“Susan was always giving us these great writing exercises, and suddenly I had nothing. Then I joined Facebook and saw this endless ticker-tape of Status Updates. I decided to use them as jumping-off points for poems.”

“Susan Musgrave has an unrequited urge to be lonely.” Thus begins the second poem in the collection. Although Sarah knows Susan and worked with her throughout her MFA, the poem is more of a personal response to Susan’s status update than an effort to discover what Susan meant by her posting.

Remember what it is to walk

along the crest of a cold ocean,

pebbles underfoot, water that reaches

for you, before it pulls back,

finds itself.

“The poems were a way of trying to stop that endless ticker-tape, and to imagine what was going on,” explains Sarah. “The poems became a strange compilation of what was happening in my life against what was going on in another person’s life. That’s what we’re all doing on Facebook, trying to imagine. I think that’s why Facebook is so exhausting: it shows the disconnect between what we know of people and we think we know.”

She is also exploring the universal in these snippets of personal information. When Julie Bruck posted “P.K. Page has died at 93. I think they broke the mold,” Sarah plucked lines from a P.K. Page poem — ‘The whole world is a cup’ — then followed with her own pungent lines: ‘all of us move in the spheres of our grief,/our private joys.”

Writing Status Updates changed how Sarah relates to Facebook.

“Before, I posted anything. Now I think about what I am sending out into the world,” she admits. “Facebook is incredibly skewed. We trust it too much and not enough. We put out so much, but a lot of it is a kind of self-conscious representation that says everything is fine, everything is good.”

The last poem in the book riffs on this idea. When Michael Leary “wonders whether Facebook attracts the most spirited, happy and truly blessed or that they are made so by virtue of simply being on Facebook. How do you squeeze in so many parties, so many concerts, art openings, barbecues, picnics, and so much love and so many pictures?” Sarah responds with a darker, un-Facebook-like view.

Unfold the picnic basket,

and set out the watermelon,

The adults are planning murder suicide

and the children are drowning in the lake.

When she read this poem at her launch at Novel Idea last Saturday, she couldn’t help but burst out laughing. “There!” she exclaimed, “A cheery note to send you all on your way!”

As dark as some of these poems are, there is something irrepressible in them, too. And something irrepressible in Sarah. Since graduating in 2010, she has published four children’s picture books, including A Flock of Shoes and The Stone Hatchlings; two poetry collections, the first of which won the Gerald Lampert Award for best debut book of poems; and an anthology called Desperately Seeking Susans, which featured the work of Canadian poets named Susan. In 2015, she will launch a YA novel, Breathing Fire, another picture book, and a new anthology called Tag: Canadian Poets at Play.

As if that isn’t enough, she teaches full-time at Sheridan College, commuting from Kingston to the Brampton campus every week. As well as leading courses on fairy-tales, creative nonfiction, and other forms of writing, she is part of a team developing a BA in Creative Writing program set to launch in 2016. (Sheridan College is set to become a university in 2020.)

And in her spare time she continues to write poetry. With Status Updates now in print, she doesn’t feel she can use this writing exercise that kept her going for three years. She needs a new inspiration, and is finding it in the work of other poets, taking lines she loves and letting them blossom into poems of her own.

“Even if you try to copy someone else, you will never succeed. Your own voice will come through,” she says. “But it changes you a little to work with the words of another writer. You can’t fall back on the same old crutches, the same old techniques. It helps keep me from getting stale.”

“Stale” is not a word that you can imagine ever applying to Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang. After she finished reading at her launch, she passed around a tray of chunky chocolate chip cookies she’d baked. Her daughter was perusing the kids’ books at the back of the bookstore. When she got home, she’d start packing for another week on the road. The minute her 10 o’clock class lets out, she hits the 401, pulling into her driveway around 1 am. And if the line of a poem occurs to her along the way, she’ll likely take a minute to scratch it into her notebook before falling into bed. All of which seems as impossible as stopping a tsunami.

Merilyn Simonds grapples with storm surges of her own in Athens, Ontario.

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