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An Interview with Blair Trewartha

Editorial Assistant Rosie Leggott's Interview with Blair Trewartha whose poems "Sifto" and "Equal Temperament" were published in Issue 298 (Winter 2024)

Rosie Leggott: I have friends who worked in the mines in Goderich. They described how their tools would rust absurdly fast down there. When they cut their hands they would instantly burn because of the salt in the air and seem to never heal. These images and the ones similarly described in your poem have never left me. I wondered if you were like me, and had heard these stories and held onto them, or if you experienced something similar yourself and used poetry to describe those experiences. In either instance, did you find that writing about it helped you come to terms with your feelings about the situation?

Blair Trewartha: I never worked in the mine, but a good friend and a few family members have worked there for years. Much like yourself, I’ve always been pulled into their stories and those vivid images have burned into my memory even though I never actually experienced it directly. The lake, the salt mine, the town square, all of it was a backdrop to my childhood even though I was raised on a farm just outside of Clinton, which is about a 20-minute drive from Goderich. I think that’s the amazing thing about growing up in Huron County; the entire area feels like your hometown. I can think of at least 7 towns in Huron County that immediately feel like home any time I step foot in them, and I haven’t lived in Huron County in nearly two decades and technically never lived in any of those towns. I think this is why I was compelled to write "Sifto." It was a fascination with mining, yes, but also the culture, and the impact a single industry can have on a community. It was also an attempt to better understand what it’s like to make a living underground, to go to work in a place where tragedy can occur at any point, a place we on some level associate with death by default. It’s hard not to be drawn in by it all.

I don’t know if I’ve come to terms with any feelings about this, but it’s certainly made me more aware of the significance of an industry like this, what it means for the town and the people who go underground each day and spend their lifetime doing so. Growing up in the area, you take all of that for granted. It’s just part of the backdrop, like the lake or the endless acres of farmland stenciled in by trees.

RL: I can not fail to address the fact that you listed the date under the title of "Sifto." The tragedy of 2009 is a horror that you encapsulated well in your poem. I have no questions related to this, but I did not want to discuss the poem without mentioning the loss of life that you vividly described. This poem pays a kind of respect that only poetry is capable of doing.

The first-person narrative in "Sifto" greatly enhances the effect that the poem has on the reader. As a writer, what was your process for embodying this perspective?

BT: Since I never worked in the mine myself, the process of embodying this first-person perspective was equal parts reading and listening. I listened intently to those who actually worked there long before I ever thought to write about it. The poem finally came about after a discussion with a good friend who moved back home in his late twenties and started working at Sifto. I was fascinated when he described his first few days working there, which involved an accident and rescue crews descending, which is depicted at the end of the poem. He described it with such

significance, such weight, that it felt like much more than a person describing his first day at a new job. I don’t want to claim to know his emotions at the time, but listening to his story, imagining myself in that situation, it felt like a mixture of hope and resignation, perhaps a bit of fear. Jobs at the salt mine are unionized, pay well, and offer an endless amount of work in a town with limited career options for younger generations, so when you get a job at the salt mine, it’s often for life. You can imagine the sense of security and excitement one might feel at landing a lucrative job with a stable future, ensuring your ability to buy a home or start a family. That must also come with the realization that you’re committing yourself to spending most of your daily life 1800 feet underground void of natural light while the rest of the world moves on above you, not to mention the very real risk of harm inherent in that line of work.

The second part of the process for this poem was reading about mining and the Goderich salt mine specifically. I read poetry, news articles, history books, holding on to bits and pieces along the way. Interestingly, this poem started as a Glosa using a quatrain from the poem Repose by Autumn Getty, (the final line of "Sifto" is borrowed from that poem and cited in my forthcoming book) but after some workshopping with my London writer’s group, I took their suggestion and dismantled the Glosa and the poem became a narrative of its own, one I became deeply invested in.

RL: Moving on to your poem "Equal Temperament." The quote “Sometimes love is making adjustments that no one else sees” seems like one of those things that people say in our youth that we don’t fully grasp until we’re adults. Why do you believe that this quote is something that you have held on to? Why did you choose to pass it on to your reader?

BT: In keeping with the spirit of unnamed but assumed identities, I won’t disclose the origin of this quote, but it’s significant for two reasons. One, it shows the tireless and unending commitment that spouses often make when caring for partners who live with mental illness. The poem uses piano tuning as a metaphor for managing the male character’s mental illness and anxiety. The people in this poem come from a generation and cultural upbringing where mental health issues were stigmatized, especially for rural men, and women often had to bear the brunt of their husband’s unchecked and untreated mental health issues. That’s also the intention of the quote, to show that unjust burden placed on women, the expectation that rather than seeking professional help through therapy or medication or even talking with a close friend, men could unburden themselves on their wives. Hence the final line of the poem: the silencing of one string, to free another.

RL: Lastly, both of these poems have an elegant way of alluding to the point that leaves them open to your reader’s interpretation. Have you ever written a poem that completely went over a reader’s head? If so, what was your response to this as a writer?

BT: Yes, I definitely have, and although my first response is often worrying that I’ve failed, I usually also want to know, does that matter? Does it ruin your enjoyment of the poem or lessen its emotional impact because you don’t necessarily understand it? If the answer is yes, then it’s obviously time for a rewrite, but some readers are more comfortable than others with ambiguity, so I like to ask for a second or third opinion before doing any major reconstruction.

If the answer is no, I might not change anything at all. Poems can be ambiguous and strange and difficult to understand, but still effective. Fiction too. As a reader, I love the weird and abstract, the hard-to-understand metaphors and hallucinatory imagery, even if I can’t always articulate why or decipher its meaning with surety or even begin to understand the writer’s intent.


Blair Trewartha’s first collection of poetry, Easy Fix (Palimpsest, 2014) was shortlisted for the Relit Award. He is the author of three chapbooks: Break In (Cactus Press, 2010), Porcupine Burning (Baseline Press, 2012), and human energy (Anstruther Press, 2022). His poetry has appeared in several journals.