Here, she shares her excitement, her fears and explains why all this sitting around isn't an act of waiting, but "another form of doing, that gooey phase of caterpillar before butterfly."
The Coast: Congratulations! How does it feel knowing you're officially the new Poet Laureate?
Sue Goyette: I'm really grateful the municipality is continuing its support for the program during this time—they could have easily said 'ah, that's too much,' but I think it's really important.
Especially since the city recently announced all summer programming would be cancelled.
That's what I mean! When I heard that I thought, ooh, this might be on the chopping block. But it's such a good move. It just shows how important this way of being—art and culture and all of it—is so important right now.
One thing that's interesting about the Poet Laureate position is that it's kind of like being a First Lady or something because it changes so much based on who is in the role. For instance, Rebecca Thomas's time as Poet Laureate was very different from Afua Cooper's. Is it too soon to ask what you'll be bringing to the role, or what being Poet Laureate will look like for you?
I think that's a really apt way of thinking about it: How different and singular everyone is, because it speaks to the strength of those poets. They're singular in their voice and I really appreciate them.
I'm at the edge of this and I'm not sure what it's gonna look like, but it will be different because of all the social distancing. I know that I don't see this role as being so much about me as about being a way to facilitate the way poetry invites us to be and think a different way. I see more myself as facilitating on behalf of poetry, not on behalf of Sue Goyette.
It's an opportunity to have a more expansive conversation about how important thinking differently, thinking wider, thinking more laterally and more imaginatively can be. Especially in times when we don't know what's happening—which is essentially always—but right now we're getting a real masterclass in being vulnerable and not knowing. And check, check, check: Poetry understands all these feelings and poetry is a great genre and way of thinking into the unknowable.
"Right now we're getting a real masterclass in being vulnerable and not knowing. And check, check, check: Poetry understands all these feelings and poetry is a great genre and way of thinking into the unknowable."
When you talk about poetry helping you view the world differently, can you expand on that?
Poetry is a genre that reckons with silence because it gets us to the edge of what is sayable, or what is legible, or what can be contained in words.
So, when you're reading poetry and you're actively listening and actively participating and being O with not getting it or not really cognitively understanding it but understanding it at a different level—or even understanding that there might be a different level—then you're expanding somehow. And I think participating in that way, engaging in that way, can be turned into a cultural, social justice type of engagement because it's an opportunity to understand the silences that we live in.
We hear a lot of people—and by hearing a lot of people we're also not hearing a lot of people. So it gets us into a mind frame that's more generous and inclusive and isn't so much concerned with finding the right answer, but as listening as actively as we can.
What could poetry bring to people's lives? What case would you make for its importance?
Once people get over their fear or trepidation about poetry, and not getting it or not understanding it—accepting the limitations of play and to go along with it nonetheless—something opens in people. I think it's more about that opening and the acquiescing to play: To be willing to engage with the same words we use to order our coffee, to play with words, and in playing with them, expand into some way of thinking and saying things that aren't expected. I think in that way we surprise ourselves.
It's about just being engrossed in something that has got our attention and is inviting us to be alert in the most vital way we can as a human being. And then, what poetry does, once that activation is extended and has been accepted, it doesn't stay there. That person goes out into the world—even in social distancing—with that alertness, that vitality and it changes how we engage with each other and the planet. That's my secret hope, Poetry Changing The World 101.
"Once people get over their fear or trepidation about poetry and not getting it or not understanding it, accepting the limitations of play and to go along with it none the less, something opens in people."
What's the thing you're most scared of, in regards to being Poet Laureate?
I'm such a private person! I'm one of those people who gets on the dance floor and then I wake up in the night and think oh my god, did I do that? So the Poet Laureate is public in a way that I think will be really good for me.
I guess my biggest fear is I miss opportunities. It's such an honour and I hope I manage to stay active in the role and continue to use it in a hospitable way that goes through me and back into the community. Keeping an active vortex around the thinking of poetry for my tenure, if that makes sense.
But I'm excited to connect with people! I'm seeing all the art people are making and I can't wait to connect with my people.
COVID-19—with us all stuck indoors for an indefinite timeframe—seems like the perfect time to revisit your last book, Penelope in the First Person, which imagined what it was like for the Queen of Ithica as she waited for her husband's 20-year return in the epic poem The Odyssey.
But I don't know if we are waiting. I think this is another form of doing that's just kind of anti-capitalist, not productive in the way we've been lead to believe real production is. It feels to me, if anything, we're getting ready and we're transforming. It feels like that chrysalises, we're in that gooey phase of caterpillar before butterfly. And I'm recognizing I am privileged, so my experience is different than a lot of people and I just want to leave that out there. But also, I think we're reckoning with ourselves. I am thinking of ways I can be different and better, and I'm aligning way more with those ways of thinking because I have time to. I'm really doing the work of me.
I notice when people come too close, my first response is kind of bark-y and now I'm working on trying to sugar it a little bit—like, 'hey, how's it going? I'm just gonna back up a bit' and not make it a big bad thing. And I think that kind of work is the work we're all gonna have to do before we start thinking about the climate, about white supremacy, about misogyny—all the things we're gonna have to dismantle.
Let's do this: Let's take as much as we can right now to shift. To think about the things that are important. What I do miss is having these kinds of conversations that fortify and actively create plans that make things better, like where can people sleep who don't have places to sleep. We have all these good ideas but I'm not sure how we're connecting yet.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.