Untangling the “complicated feelings”

By Wanda Praamsma

An interview with Kingston poet Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang

Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang doesn’t see herself as the kind of writer who needs to write, who must write each day. Instead, she comes to the blank page when she can find the time, usually driven and panicked by a deadline with her local writing group, to sort through what’s on her mind, what she has “complicated feelings” about.

Sarah Tsiang

Most days, these feelings circle around her three children, their continual and ever-evolving needs and desires, and the shape of their family life together, nestled in a cozy, book-filled home in Kingston’s Inner Harbour neighbourhood.

“Parenting is all-consuming and is always just right there. I am usually trying to figure out what the need is at a particular moment and why I can’t meet this need,” says Tsiang, an award-winning poet, editor, teacher, and children’s/young adult author. “I’m always evaluating where my kids are at and what I need to be doing to help them and push them in the right direction.

“My husband has also joked that I’m dead inside, that I have no connection to my feelings. And so I think writing poems helps me to untangle what’s going on inside.”

Tsiang released her third book of poetry, Grappling Hook (Palimpsest Press), earlier this year, and will head to Kingston WritersFest this week to join a panel of poets dissecting the “intimate and messy realities of motherhood, femininity, desire, and identity.” She will also host another event, exploring the writing life with renowned local writer Helen Humphreys.

In Grappling Hook, Tsiang delicately examines both the small details and the vast questions that arise amidst the sweep of daily life. She roots the reader, and then swiftly leads them to expansion and contemplation, as in the poem “Globe,” which begins with her son waking from a bad dream, soon crawling into her bed:

“What infinites. What magnitudes / are the reach of your questions / between our interlaced hands. / Read the equator of our lifelines, the latitudes / of fingers accustomed to the triangle, longitudes / of our limited reach.”

Tsiang easily manoeuvres from the personal to the universal, connecting to larger truths through her own openness and vulnerability. She doesn’t hesitate to examine complex societal questions, patriarchy and the #MeToo movement for example, or struggles and shifts happening within her own neighbourhood and community. Place – her home in Kingston – infuses itself naturally into her work, and is also a central focus of certain poems, such as “Kingston Pen” and “The Cataraqui Street Verses” in her debut collection, Sweet Devilry (Oolichan Books).

“A large part of what I write about is place, and I don’t think you can write without place. You can’t separate it from what’s happening,” says Tsiang, who grew up in Peterborough and has now lived in the same Kingston house for 16 years.


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She and her husband initially thought it would be a starter home and they would move on. But they quickly became rooted, finding close connections with neighbours, and for Sarah, within the writing community. “We are now embedded like ticks,” she jokes. “Even when we were both working out of the city in Toronto, we didn’t want to leave. I often say now that I want to die in this house and haunt it.”

A large part of the pull to Kingston is Tsiang’s involvement in The Villanelles, a group of local poets she founded in her early days in the city (by putting up posters inviting local writers to join). Dubbed the “Kingston poetry pack,” the group has evolved over the years and now includes Nancy Jo Cullen, Sadiqa de Meijer, Ashley-Elizabeth Best, Susan Olding, Y.S. Lee, Kirsteen MacLeod, and Tsiang. They meet each week (online since the pandemic began) and workshop each other’s writing – providing a supportive and encouraging environment, and the weekly deadline Tsiang loves and needs.

Tsiang also credits the City of Kingston’s child-care subsidy for helping her build time early in her career to write, and she feels deeply connected to the arts community through Kingston WritersFest, which has supported all of her books and often gave her that boost of professionalism she needed at critical moments, of feeling valued as a writer.


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“As poets, we’re all in the trenches together. We know we will never be well-known, so when people come up to you at WritersFest and tell you how much they enjoyed your book, it’s an amazing feeling. The festival makes me feel connected in a way I don’t while writing.”

A rare outgoing poet, Tsiang is a natural networker, it seems, and she extends her extensive knowledge of the craft of writing to her teaching (she has taught at Sheridan College, UBC, and Queen’s) and to her work as an editor (of other books and at Arc Poetry magazine) and creative director of Poetry in Voice, a non-profit organization that promotes poetry and brings poets to Canadian classrooms.

“It is an exciting organization to be a part of – to see poets in classrooms, and kids learning about poetry. Every single child is converted,” Tsiang says. “And Kingston has so many poets – we should all be in the schools sharing our stories and our knowledge.”


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See Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang at Kingston WritersFest on September 29 – Dogs and the Writing Life, and on September 30 – Mother Tongue: Identities in Verse. Follow Tsiang on Instagram, where she posts 10-minute poems along with artwork by Natasha and Victoria Tsiang.