An Interview with Richard-Yves Sitoski

Richard-Yves Sitoski (he/him) is a songwriter, performance poet, and the 2019-2023 Poet Laureate of Owen Sound, Ontario, on the territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. His work has appeared in Prairie FireTrainThe Fiddlehead,, and elsewhere. He has given performances in industrial ruins, has read poems to earth worms, and has written verse on snow with biodegradable dye. 2021 John Newlove Award winner. No Sleep ‘til Eden (Ginger Press, 2020). Co-editor, with Penn Kemp, of Poems in Response to Peril: An Anthology in Support of Ukraine (Pendas Productions/ Laughing Raven Press, 2021)

You can read his poem Snow Angels in the October 2022 issue of Pinhole Poetry.

Do you have a collection of poetry or even a single poem that acts as a touchstone or a lodestar? 

Kevin Connolly’s 2008 collection Revolver came along at a propitious moment. I was in the process of divorcing and had just left a job I hated. It was time to start fresh and do what I wanted, which was to write. Initially I took this to mean coming up with the Great Canadian Novel, but I soon realized that I couldn’t handle extended narrative. I fell into a funk. Then, one sunblind day, I just happened to be browsing through the tiny poetry section of a tiny cottage country library, not so much killing time as leaving it to fend for itself in the woods, when I stumbled upon Revolver. It hit me like a ton of feathers: delicate and crushing at the same time. I didn’t know you could do so much with so few words. I was hooked. Sure, I’d read my share of poetry before, but Connolly opened me up to the possibilities of poetic voice.

How do you revise your work?

I’m an absolute weirdo. I do a lot of revision on the fly, as I hammer out my first drafts. Sometimes I revise parts of one stanza before I even get started writing the one that follows. Editing to me is very much a part of initial composition. It’s almost a sort of structured automatism or guided improvisation. Mind you, that’s only the beginning. That just gets the first draft out. To work on further drafts I usually come back after a fallow period that can last months and start an endless process of tinkering and fiddling, or even wholesale demolition and rebuilding. The poem is never complete. It just gets to the point where enough of the edges have been smoothed and corners rounded that when I present it to the public they don’t bark their shins on it.

What are you working on now?

I’m also a songwriter and performance poet, and I have an interest in theatre. I have just put all these modalities together and completed the third draft of a piece for the stage called Butterfly Tongue. It’s multivalent in that it’s a one-hour show consisting of a 30-minute spoken word poem, with a continuous narrative broken up into 5-minute chapters introduced by some of my songs. I hope to trot it around to fringe festivals this upcoming summer. Now I’m neck-deep in the process of memorization and getting coaching from actual theatre professionals.

How or where or with what does a poem begin, and are there other art forms that inspire or inform your poetry? 

I have the hardest time with the types of writing prompts that show up in books or blogs. The poems that result always come out dressed for church in a prickly wool cardigan and too-tight Oxfords. Likewise, I suck at ekphrasis, even though I am an intensely visual person. So most of my poems begin out of poems that I’m reading, and I think that’s only fitting. Most of us agree that poetry is as much craft as art, but for this to hold true, we have to acknowledge and respect the fact that the only way to truly learn a craft is to soak up the influence of the masters. We have to interrogate ourselves and what we read: How does Elizabeth Bishop handle line breaks? How does Mary Ruefle skewer irony? Does Don Domanski’s diction work for me? I’d rather write poems than poetry, and the way I write a poem is to take someone else’s poem out for a test drive, then pop the hood and reverse engineer it. 

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