Sarah Cooper and John Flood were sitting in the publisher’s home in Prince Edward Island in July, sifting through Cooper’s poetry. They went poem by poem, line by line and word by word through 25 full pages of the 21-year-old’s work. It took them five hours.
Then Flood looked at Cooper and simply said, “So I’d like to publish you.”
The only reply Cooper could come up with in this moment was, “OK.”
“My sister is still teasing me about that. She says, ‘You wrote a book of poetry with all the words. All the words! And your response was two letters!’”
With her first book out, Of Feathers and Fire: Fragments from a Fractured Mind, the St. Thomas University creative writing student is busy with classes, reading her poetry at locations in Fredericton and preparing for a book launch at St. Thomas in March.
At 15, the Saint John-area native started having seizures. By the time she was 16, she was diagnosed with major depressive disorder and psychogenic non-epileptic seizure disorder. Dealing with these physical and mental health issues is a focus in Cooper’s book.
“It’s not something you fix, it’s something you accept and it doesn’t have to be what defines you but it’s a part of it. It’s not the whole thing but it’s OK for it to be a piece.”
After high school, she moved to P.E.I. to study sciences at the University of Prince Edward Island and soon she fell in love with the Island. But Cooper describes her first year of university as brutal. She said she was basically a zombie.
“There was four weeks I don’t even really remember because I was on an anti-depressant, anti-anxiety, sleep medication and they were also trying me on a seizure medication.”
After taking a year off of school, Cooper realized a few months into another semester sciences weren’t for her. But this was when she really got into her poetry.
“At that time I was going to class and doing university but I wasn’t really invested in it. So I had a lot of time … and a lot of thinking … and a lot of poetry.”
Now, after transferring to St. Thomas this year to study her true passion, creative writing, and only a few short months after being introduced to her publisher and P.E.I. Poet Laureate, Deidre Kessler, Cooper held a copy of her own soft-cover, 72-page book.
The phoenix depicted on the cover art was created by her sister, Heather. The girl on the front is based on Cooper. She has wings but she’s bent over so she needs something to set herself back on fire. The image of the fox jumping through the girl’s wings is meant to represent the “catalyst” that sets the girl on fire again.
On the inside, Of Feathers and Fire: Fragments from a Fractured Mind, are the poems that are the “fragments” of Cooper’s story.
“It’s not that the pieces themselves are fragmented, it’s that they are fragments of the bigger piece. So you can sit down and read one of them and get something from it. It will have an idea there. But when put with the rest of the collection it gives you more, it tells you the whole thing.”
Throughout the detailed publishing process, Cooper has learned a lot as a young poet. By reading her work over and over, she realized how her poems had taken on a whole new meaning.
“Once you write something down, it ceases to be so specific. Once it’s out there, once it’s a bigger idea, it takes on all these new meanings. And that’s why I love poetry. You can constantly get something new out of it when you’re writing and also when you’re reading.”
Cooper says the book follows a linear progression from depressive to angry to hopeful. It also includes plenty of phoenix imagery. She uses the phoenix as a metaphor for her seizures throughout the book.
“Because of my seizure disorder, I feel a connection to the phoenix because there’s a flaming out, burning out and then you rise again.”
To aspiring young writers like herself, Cooper says, “Write whatever you want and the rest of yourself will find it’s way in there naturally.”
Cooper will officially launch, Of Feathers and Fire: Fragments from a Fractured Mind in Fredericton on March 24 in the Brian Mulroney Hall rotunda on St. Thomas University’s campus at 2:30 p.m.