Sharon Caseburg: Congratulations on your most recent award nomination. You’ve had such a wonderful reception to Tell Them It Was Mozart, having won both the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry and the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for best first book. Now you’ve been nominated for the ReLit Award for Poetry. How does it feel to have so much attention placed on such a personal body of work?
Angeline Schellenberg: Thank you. It feels a bit like being on stage in my PJs. Thankfully, they’re my good set!
I’m OK with people seeing my weaknesses, but I’m uncomfortable with being misunderstood. (One reviewer told the world I had amniocentesis because they misread “The Test” about my genetic testing for Fragile X when I was a teen.) Which begs the question, “Why write in poetry?” doesn’t it? Poetry allowed me to maintain some mystery and play with the details, while laying bare the emotion.
SC: Tell Them It Was Mozart acts like an album of your family’s life. How did you set about collecting and organizing the various “snapshots?” What was the process like? Were you nervous to present so much personal information to a reading audience or was it liberating?
AS: The process included a lot of advice from others.
In the 2012 Sheldon Oberman Mentorship Program, Méira Cook helped me with my first Manitoba Arts Council proposal. That exercise helped me think through what I wanted to include: birth, assessments, drug trials, close calls in traffic, echolalia, Star Wars, public criticisms, private successes.
I didn’t so much collect snapshots as create them. I started the 2012–2013 grant period with 18 and the goal of writing 60, and by the end I had 120.
It was enjoyable. Cathartic. Every day gave me new material. I could come home from a difficult school meeting or therapy appointment and write about it.
In 2013, I attended the Sage Hill Poetry Colloquium led by Don McKay, where my focus was on arranging the poems within three sections (loosely about premonition, diagnosis, and acceptance) by writing poem titles on post-its and moving them around. I tried to juxtapose emotions in jarring ways. I took out nearly 30 poems before submitting it to Brick.
Over the year and a half that I worked with Brick editor Alayna Munce, we rethought everything. I added many—most of them new compositions—to fill in gaps in the diagnosis story, clarify the role of faith in my life, and up the joy factor. I like the way we broke up some poems (such as “Autism for Dummies”) into series and scattered them, rather than keeping like poems together.
The process involved a lot of difficult decisions, but looking at the collection now, I wouldn’t change anything.
SC: While working on Mozart did you find that you wrote only about your chosen subject, or did you venture into different territories outside of the project?
AS: I wrote my second manuscript concurrently with my first. At the time, I was processing both my children’s autism diagnosis and the death of my last grandparent. Poetry helped me do that. Stylistically, the two collections are similar: confessional lyric, with some of the same forms (free verse, prose poems, found poems).
For the poems about my grandparents, I dug into old love letters and memoirs, genealogies and immigration stories, my childhood memories and their final moments. The working title is Field of Light/Field of Stone. The images are more agricultural and liturgical—fewer toilets and dirty socks than my first collection.
SC: Tell Them It Was Mozart is now being recommended to educators as well as families whose members might face various disabilities, despite poetry’s “difficult” reputation. What are your thoughts on poetry being a form that can reach a wider audience?
AS: In my grant proposal, I said my goal was “to foster understanding among those not touched by disability, and a sense of community for those who are.” I’m grateful that is happening.
The fact that my book has been recognized in poetry circles is affirming, but the greatest praise I’ve received has been “I’m on the spectrum, and I think the way you present autism is very encouraging,” followed closely by “I don’t read poetry, but I loved your book.”
Poetry is still mostly marketed to poets. But what would the world be like if only musicians listened to music? Or only bakers got cake? We don’t all have to love jazz or red velvet or sonnet, but there’s a kind of music and dessert — and poetry — for everyone.
It’s unfortunate when poetry is presented as an escape room for which few of us can find the key.
Poetry is music simplified. It’s a seed that could have grown into a story, but instead compressed itself into pure energy. You don’t get poetry; it gets you.