In the Spotlight: Soraya Peerbaye


I met Soraya Peerbaye years ago when I was still hosting Writers' Soup in my living room - remember Writers' Soup? Soraya and I worked one on one after that. She's one of the only poets I've ever worked with. As a general rule, I dislike poetry. But Soraya's work intrigued me despite my rule, so I said yes when she asked for some private sessions.

Soraya's writing reminds me how the intellect and the heart work together when they try to comprehend impossible-to-describe events or heightened states of emotion. It is rare and beautiful to meet a writer who rises to this challenge the way Soraya does. She negotiates very complicated knots of emotion with language and form. Respect.

Soraya Peerbaye's first book, Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names, was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award. She holds an MFA from the University of Guelph. Aside from writing, she works with dance artists as an animator for community development projects in the field. She lives in Toronto with her husband and daughter.

Meet Soraya

Handwriting or computer?

Handwriting. I need to write to feel like I'm writing, to feel like I'm a writer! At the end of the day, if nothing comes of it, this saves me from feeling like a fraud...

Page count or time count?

Until concentration comes.

First drafts or revision?

Revision - though the process of revising often feels like writing further into first drafts, what I was trying to say, what I failed to say.

Writing solo, writing partner, or writing group?


Earplugs/quiet or headphones/music?

I need quiet, though sometimes listening to music before helps.

How do you make time for your writing practice? How do you handle resistance?

I have been blessed with a supportive partner, part-time employment until recently, and access to daycare, so I've been able to make time. Finding concentrated periods of time has been more difficult; I can't go away from the project and drop back into it; I need a few days to be able to reconnect and find a rhythm. In the past two years, I've negotiated with my husband to occasionally go on retreats.

I've found that working through material as "pastiches" of other poems that I love to be a great release from old patterns - patterns of logic, of expression, syntax, voice, my sense of time...One of the ways I've worked with a deep-seated block was to return to other forms of physical practice: flamenco, a dance form which I've studied on and off since my early twenties, and now flamenco song, and voice technique. I tend to be very much in my head, but even though I often feel awkward in my body, I really connect to principles of bodily and vocal expression. Ideas of presence, breath, sending your energy into the space, even something like "resistance", pushing through it, through exhaustion, to one's second wind - these make sense to me in the physical world, and I sometimes need to be reminded of that to bring it into mind and spirit and heart.

Who are you reading these days for influence, and why?

I am reading Anne Carson, whose writing always stuns me. This time it's Nox, her elegy to her brother. It comes resting in a box like an accordion; to read it I've had to wait until my daughter has gone to bed so I can unfold it in the living room, like a wedding sari or maybe a dorsal skeleton from an archaeological find, and kneel beside it and inch my way along the pages. The arrangement of the material is reminiscent of archaeology - definitions of ancient Greek, the examples of usage, accretive in their nuances, until it's devastating. I just finished reading Tomas Transtromer, too - Robert Bly's translation - I just returned it to the library, so I can't quote it, but I loved Bly's description of his imagery, as trains that come from many distant places, to rest for a moment in the station. Also Gerry Shikatani's Port's Seasonal Rental - he is a mentor for me, and his writing teaches me to honour noticing, to honour one's attempt to become intimate with one's material, no matter how fraught.

Tell us about the excerpt you're sharing today.

I have long (very long, as Sarah can attest) been at work on a project about the murder of Reena Virk in 1997 in Saanich, British Columbia. I completed a first draft of a manuscript for my thesis, but have always felt that it was too orderly, logical, and I have been trying to break it apart so I can get at the heart of its mystery, its sorrow. This excerpt is a recent attempt, and the closest I feel I've come to what I want to do: it's an elegy to the Gorge Waterway, where Reena was drowned, and which is a place of deep ecological, archaeological and mythological importance.

Excerpt by Soraya Peerbaye

“What happened then?”
    “She started mumbling words.”

Seven years after her death, he brings back this moment
from the water’s edge.

An in-between place. The thin littoral
of consciousness that remained to her.

Wanting something to catch those words. Wanting
the intertidal lives, the ones

that gather what they can by feel:
feather, fan, siphon; tentacle and spine.

Lives whose sentience is disbelieved. Lives
that shudder and withdraw, as he does not.

“Is this possible?” the prosecution asked the pathologist. She spoke
of the scalp, "soft and boggy”. The brain, delicate coral of self.

The swelling cortex. Seizure, speech. Time-stretched terror
of starfish.

What happened? In the boy’s telling, she drowns face-up, so that
she sees her assailant through a skin of water. Molten glass. Face

blurred, but the hands

Two girls. One standing, water up to her pelvis. The other
supine, her feet trying to find purchase.

The girl standing raised her arm and brought her hand down.
“Open hand,” said the boy who stood on shore. The edge of her palm.

What the throat tells. Scalpel peeling back skin, tendon, muscle,
down to the bone below the tongue. An archaeology of throat.

“The hyoid, the delicate, horseshoe-shaped bone in the throat,”
bruised. Son refus m’est resté dans la gorge, her refusal stuck in my craw.

What oysters tell, shells marking the periphery of their silence. Year
after year. Rough grey rings of secretions without. Smooth ligament scars 

Be with her. Through the involuntary inhalation. Water
flooding her mouth, her nostrils. A torrent.

Breath, blood, brackish water. Moonlight like dye
dropped in the water. Pearl and black.

In that other telling, the one which must be true. Her face
pressed to the estuary floor, her throat in spasm. Thrush

of sand and pebbles and crushed shells. Exhibit 18, the envelope
of small stones taken from her throat. “A teaspoon, maybe,”

said the pathologist. As though speaking of sugar, salt.

Saltwater, sweetwater, a whirlpool in her throat. A blasted tributary.

The seaweed clutched in the hand.
A document of seaweed. An archive of pebbles.

Je lui enfoncerai les mots dans la gorge, I’ll make her eat her words.

In the half-light of the museum, an Aboriginal fishing tool, in a glass case.
The fish swallows the baited gorge then tries to spit it out. The gorge

turns, wedging in the throat of the fish, preventing its escape...

Gorge: devour.

Later, then, the ecstatic telling –

“There was a white piece of wood – Kelly said she’d messed up
her face with a stick, a white stick, a – what’s it called –"

the witness, a girl, grasps for a way to make us see it –

“ – and hit her in the face with it, or – I don’t – cut her – I can’t
remember what exactly – but I know that she hurt Reena’s face

with it –"
(The boy says nothing, nor the woman in the white coat.)

It could almost be fantasia, except for the uniformed man
who walked the tideline until he found “the white stake”,

made a hieroglyph in his notebook. That, and the girl’s
dazzling recollection:

“ – a white piece of wood like what surveyors – surveyors use to –
like – mark boundaries or whatever –"


What remains with you after reading Soraya's work?

Can you articulate what's working in this excerpt - and more importantly, why it's working?

How is your own writing practice like Soraya's? How is it different?

Please leave a comment below.

And thank you, Soraya Peerbaye!

Should you get an MFA?
How do you find your mentor?


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