An interview with Renée Sarojini Saklikar: Poetry, editing, and the path to finding a true passion

Interview by Marta Orellana; copy edited by Paige Shaw

This November, Renée Sarojini Saklikar will be presenting at our November 17, 2021, monthly meeting, “The nuance of poetry editing: A talk with Renée Sarojini Saklikar.

Editors BC is thrilled to welcome Renée—a poet, author, lawyer, and teacher—as she shares her insight into the world of editing poetry.

Her poetry book, children of air indiawon the Canadian Authors Association Poetry Prize, and she is co-author of the poetry and essay collection, Listening to the Bees, which won the 2019 Gold Medal Independent Publishers Book Award, Environment/Ecology

Renée answers questions about the qualities and skills that are important for a poetry editor, her journey from lawyer to editor, and the projects that have brought her success and fulfillment in her career.

Hello, Renée! Can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

I’m a poet, author of four books, and a lawyer by training. I also teach creative writing, as well as law and ethics for writers and editors. 

If you could spend an entire weekend doing anything you want, what would you do? Where would you go? 

Right now, during the pandemic, the ideal is staying close to home, with time for walks and long stretches of creative time for working on my epic fantasy in verse, The Heart of This Journey Bears All Patterns or THOT J BAP. 

This is a huge project that I’ve been working on for over 10 years. The themes of accelerated climate change, the eternal battle between good and evil, and female-centred mythology are highlighted in this blend of high fantasy fiction and epic poetry. 

You were trained as a lawyer and later became a writer and poet. The two professions seem so separate from one another, and the transition from one to the next must have been an important decision. How did you find your way from one career to the other?

It wasn’t easy, to be honest. I’m proud of being a lawyer and the training it gave me.

At some point, I also realized, in part due to grief and loss, that I had a story to tell. One of the hardest decisions in finding a new path is that moment when we have to let go, believe in our hearts, and take risks.

My path led me to The Writer’s Studio at SFU.

I was and am also deeply grateful to my husband, whose generous and constant support made it all possible.

Poetry represents such a vast genre of literary work with distinctive styles, rhythm, and language. How did you find your place as a poet? Was it a process to find your style?

It’s been a journey of discovery, sometimes lonely and challenging, always rich with promise and fulfillment. The thing I’ve tried to stay close to is this quote I found years ago: “There is more truth in the act of writing than what is written.” 

I read a lot of different materials in many genres, and I’m fascinated by the creative processes of artists and scientists. This curiosity has fed my own development as a writer.

Were there poets and writers who had a profound impact on your writing?

Indeed. Too many to list here, as to do so would give an incomplete picture.

At the back of all my four published books are lists, clues, citations, and acknowledgements. For example, here’s what I’ve written about influences in my current work, Bramah and The Beggar Boy:

  • Don DeLillo’s The Names
  • Frank Herbert’s Dune
  • Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower
  • Ursula K. Le Guin’s tales from Earthsea
  • Doris Lessing’s The Fifth ChildShikasta, and her Canopus in Argus series
  • Dante’s Divine Comedy
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost
  • The Bible
  • The Vedic epic, The Mahabharata

Understanding the poet’s writing process from the inside, what is one important thing for editors to remember if they are working with poetry?

I think the single most important thing is mutual respect, followed by compassionate curiosity.

As a poet, I try to see the text from the point of view of an outside reader. I try to imagine what questions might crop up for an editor.

As an editor, the first thing I try to do is enter the world view of the poet and the poet’s work. 

What’s been beneficial in each role is an understanding of the difference between copy editing, proofreading, and structural/editorial comments. In my experience, beginning writers and editors confuse these very distinct processes.

If you are an editor working on a poetry manuscript, it’s most helpful to have read widely in poetry. If you are a poet, I’ve learned to stay true to my original vision and to also stay open to suggestions.

It’s finding that balance that is so important.

You are an award-winning author with books that touch on significant and timely events and issues. Do you have a favourite work of your own? And if so, can you share what the writing process was like for you? 

Oh, that’s a hard one!

Certainly, right now, all my creative energy is poured into this huge project—the epic and its poetry. (thotjbap.comThe Heart of This Journey Bears All Patterns).

I wake each morning, before all the other work demands, and try to find time to read, write, reflect, and create. 

The process is complex, as the epic is multi-layered and involves research into science and news stories for world-building; background notes on characters; and then, of course, staying open to sounds and images for the creation of poems, paying attention to the rhythm of language…

At the November Editors BC meeting, what kind of conversations about poetry and editing do you hope will evolve?

I hope that we can explore the different kinds of editing that help support the creation of a book of poetry.

Structure, content, style, technical aspects of poetry making, and copy editing are all processes that must be attended to in the context of staying true to the poet’s voice and intention.

Thank you, Renée, for your honesty and for sharing these details about yourself, your work, and your journey. We look forward to hearing you speak at our upcoming meeting.

Marta Orellana lives in North Vancouver, BC. She is a copy editor, translator, and proofreader, specializing in Web writing and editing as well as academic and technical writing. Marta is also a French Immersion teacher and a polyglot, whose love of language is what has driven her appreciation for the written word.

Paige Shaw is a recent graduate of SFU’s Master of Publishing program living in Victoria, BC. She also holds an Editing Certificate from SFU Continuing Studies and a BA in Japanese Language and Culture from UBC. In her spare time, Paige can be found trying new food and coffee spots or staying in with a good book.

Image provided by Renée Sarojini Saklikar

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