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Sina Queryas has a life that's been much cooler than yours.
Cam Cotton-O'Brien/The Gauntlet

The U of C's roamin' resident poet

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It would be interesting to know, so many years later, what exactly prompted Sina Queyras' high school creative writing teacher to advise her to drop out of school. Probably it was his recognition that this young woman was to lead a different path--he was the one who originally told her she was a poet.

"That seemed like a death sentence to me," said Queyras. "You know, obscurity, no audience, poverty, also irrelevance. I've never wanted to be a poet, but clearly he was right."

It was no simple path that got her from high school drop-out to where she is now, the 2007-08 Markin-Flanagan Canadian writer in residence. Rather, a period of vocational nomadism--from working for a private investigator, to a stint in the fashion industry, to a position as a bartender, among other things--ensued. A period that was marked by very little writing.

"[I] didn't write very much from the time I was 19 till the time I was 26," said Queyras. "When I was 26, that's when I decided that this is what I was going to do, no matter what it cost."

Having lived in a Chrysler with her mother for a number of years, Queyras has had the dubious privilege of being a student at 22 different schools. Though this gave her an interesting perspective as both an outsider and an insider, this experience also meant that she hadn't had the time and proper instruction to learn to write. Thus, at 26 when she decided it was time to pursue a career as a writer, she resolved to go to college. Her initial interest in journalism was crushed when she saw that the professor for the course was none other than the editor she had worked for as a teen-employee of a paper in northern BC.

"I decided it was kind of a been there, done that scenario," said Queyras. "[Instead] I took creative writing in Malaspina, Nanaimo. That was it. I never looked back after that."

After a year at Malaspina, Queyras transferred to the University of Victoria and then to the University of British Columbia, where she received a BFA. Then, it was on to Concordia in Montreal where she received an MA. Degrees finished, Queyras needed to find an occupation. She started a theatre company with some friends. This kept her in Toronto for a few years until she was faced with the reality of making a living, which drove her and her partner to the United States. Six years of teaching at Rutgers in New Jersey were greatly enjoyed by Queyras, who during that period lived in Brooklyn. New York, it turned out, was the ideal spot for the writer.

"That sounds like a cliche," said Queyras. "People say, 'what are you doing here? You should be in New York.' It's true."

Her six-year tenure at Rutgers ended, Queyras took a post at Haverford College in Philadelphia. It was while teaching at Haverford that Queyras applied and was accepted as the U of C writer in residence (incidentally, she does not actually live in residence).

Before coming to town this past fall, Queyras had published three collections of poetry, the most recent called Lemon Hound. She has also been a contributing editor for Drunken Boat, an online Canadian literary journal for which she has compiled the folio, "Mis-Translations," that went up last week.

Queyras duties as the writer in residence involve spending 50 per cent of her time working on her own material and 50 per cent of her time participating with Calgary's literary community. One of these community activities is manuscript consultation. Writers, both from inside the university and out, can bring 10 pages for Queyras to look over. She noted that you can tell a lot from even a single paragraph of someone's writing.

As an instructor, Queyras advises students to operate, as she does, outside of their element to force themselves to engage in new creative ideas and projects.

"I tell my students, if you want to write, study philosophy or political science or entomology, the wildest thing you can think of," said Queyras. "Early on I realised that as a student it was my job to make everything I did relevant to my project."

Queyras is working on four different projects of her own in Calgary. One of these is a novel that she has spent more than a decade on.

"I actually spent 10 years writing that novel," said Queyras. "Then, when I was done, I realised I hated it, so I largely threw it out. Now I'm rewriting it."

The novel, which Queyras hopes to have completed in May, has inspired a collection of poems dealing with subject matter uncovered during research for the novel, but which will not appear in its text.

When her tenure as the writer in residence ends this summer, Queyras, who mentioned that she has spent a lot of her life trying to get off the grid, will resume her nomadic poet lifestyle--spending the hot season in New York before heading back to Montreal for the fall. Though not yet sure what she will be doing there, it can only be assumed that Queyras will continue to lead an exceptional life, that of an individual capable of becoming a talented literary force despite having failed English in high school.

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