Susan Musgrave published her first book, Songs of the Sea Witch, in 1970, when she was only nineteen years old. She has written steadily since then, producing thirteen more books of poetry, including Grave-Dirt and Selected Strawberries (1973), Cocktails at the Mausoleum (1985), and Forcing the Narcissus (1994), as well as three novels, two collections of humorous essays, and a children's book. Robin Skelton has praised her poetry's "combination of the oracular and the colloquial, the magical and the sardonic", and George Woodcock wrote that it had a "musky magic... heavy with myth and sexuality, often densely obscure, nihilistic, but witty". Her most recent volume of poetry is entitled, Things that Keep and Do Not Change (McClelland & Stewart).
I spoke with Susan Musgrave in April, when she visited Toronto to participate in M&S's Spring Poetry Launch.
NH: Here's a quote from a review of Songs of the Sea Witch that appeared in The Canadian Forum in 1971: "Her youth requires no apology; she is very much her own girl, stylistically and qualitatively."
SM: Still am, I hope! Not so sure about the girl part...
NH: Are you still writing poetry for the same reasons as you did in 1971?
SM: I think I am. Poetry is still, for me, a way of dredging up the confusion and the chaos and trying to articulate it through transforming language. I don't write as much poetry because there are parts of me that have figured themselves out. Of course, new ones come along that haven't! Once the novel I'm working on is finished, I may spend six months immersing myself in poetry. I felt a lot happier when I wrote poetry. It was a way of keeping some kind of balance in my life. It's a reminder of where I am psychically. Looking back over my different books, different poems, I can say, "Oh, I remember that state of mind", and remember how the poem helped me deal with it.
NH: Garrison Keillor has said that a writer is someone who doesn't really know what they think until they've written it down.
SM: That's true. Often your poems will predict things or tell you things about your life that you didn't know. Especially about relationships. Often in a poem, I can very clearly see the outcome of something long before it happens. They're eerie in that way. That may be one reason I've pushed poetry away: it's the clairvoyant part of me that I want to put a blindfold around!
NH: It sounds like the way a dream or nightmare dredges things up from your subconscious. Dreams figure prominently in your work-you even wrote a children's book with your daughter called, Dreams are More Real than Bathtubs. Do you draw inspiration from your dreams?
SM: I used to, much more than I do now. But I dreamt more then, because I slept more. Now that I have children, I have to get up earlier. I've been writing a novel for seven years, and my subconscious is always working away at it; it is saturated with the world of this book. As soon as that's over with, it'll make room for something else.
NH: The voice in your first book, Songs of the Sea Witch, is very solitary, isolated. It's in a landscape that's inhabited by archetypes as opposed to real, specific people. That seems to be the biggest contrast between your early and your current work. Now there's a very strong sense of community: there are many references to real friends, people you know. How important is it to you, as a poet, to have a community of other poets?
SM: It's become more important. Until I was about thirty-five or forty, I didn't have that community because I lived in places like the west of Ireland, in South America, without speaking Spanish, and on the Queen Charlottes. I was very cut off. I didn't have writer friends. And then, suddenly, in the last ten years, a lot of people have moved to Vancouver Island, where I live now.
I didn't want writers as friends because I write all day, and the last thing I want to do when I'm with friends is talk about writing. My friends were gardeners and criminals and all sorts of other things that interested me. And now I have writer friends by default. Also, having children forces you into the community of school and of other parents. So I guess my poetry has become more socially aware-I wouldn't say political yet, although it's more political than it used to be. The private mythologies have fused with the personal mythologies, and formed a more sociable mythology.
NH: It sounds like you've had the best of both worlds. If you're living in, for example, downtown Toronto, you can become surrounded by other writers. You can find that the only people you know are writers, who write books about writers who are writing books about writers-it becomes a hall of mirrors. If you're off hanging around with outlaws and farmers, you get different perspectives that you can bring into your work.
SM: Each time I write a novel, it seems to be about a previous period in my life. I wrote The Charcoal Burners, which is very much a northern novel, after I left the Queen Charlottes. The Dancing Chicken is a novel about the world of lawyers, and I had been married to a criminal lawyer. The novel I'm working on now is set on an imaginary island off the coast of South America. A woman becomes a hostage of narco-terrorists and winds up on Death Row for the murder of a child, as a result of trying to smuggle the child out of the country. It doesn't draw specifically on my life, but definitely it's taken from the world where I've lived.
NH: Your early period was a time when a lot of young people were converging on the cities and forming communities, and yet you seemed to be "very much your own girl", going off somewhere else, being by yourself, developing your own style.
SM: It wasn't a conscious choice. It was the way things happened. That was how I understood the protagonist of my first novel: things happened to her; she found herself drawn into situations. My editor then said, "Well, it doesn't make sense that she'd just find herself in this commune of vegetarians, with cannibals up the road. I mean, why wouldn't she have left?" I thought, that would be me! I would find myself there and I wouldn't want to be impolite and say that I'm leaving now. In the new novel, I really resisted making passive heroines. All the terrorists are women. In my life, even though it seems that I might be drawn into situations, I do extricate myself when it becomes necessary. I'm not a victim. So why make the characters victims?
NH: When The Charcoal Burners came out, some reviewers thought it was just great and very sardonic; others just didn't get it. Do you find that people not getting your sense of humour has been a problem?
SM: Yeah! Even in my poetry, they don't get it. Especially in my poetry. When I write, I always assume everybody has a sense of humour, but I know that's not true. Reviewers often don't. Irony is a difficult thing. Sometimes irony doesn't come across. But once people have heard me read, they often say, "Oh... I see!"
I think that my media image has been so serious, it's hard for people to see that I have a sense of humour, even though I've twice been shortlisted for the Leacock award. My aim was to win that, so people would know I was funny.
NH: You're The Prophetess. You can't be funny.
SM: Prophetesses usually don't have a sense of humour. Like revolutionaries, they aren't known for their great sense of fun.
NH: Will your female terrorist have a sense of humour?
SM: The terrorist doesn't but the protagonist does. I'd read a lot of accounts by people who'd been taken hostage in South America and they never really got to know the hostage-takers. The hostage-takers seem to be one-dimensional as a result: they are usually young-thirteen- or fourteen-year-old kids-and not terribly bright because they are working for a Cause. One guy [who was taken hostage] was working for the CIAT-Centro Internationale Agriculture Teatro-and the terrorists assumed he was with the CIA. They held him for eleven months and demanded six million dollars for him. And he was growing new strains of rice! As a writer, it's hard to give these terrorists a human flaw that the reader will identify with.
NH: Structurally, Things That Keep and Do Not Change is similar to Forcing the Narcissus in that it's divided into three, thematically different sections; but it seems to me that there's been a shift in tone. It's gotten... gentler, perhaps. The dark parts aren't so much horrifying as they are sad, elegiac. Where there's fear, it's often fear of loss-parents being afraid that their children will be taken away from them. In the last book, there was a terror of assault; it was more confrontational. Does that have to do with being a parent?
SM: I was a parent when the last book was written, too. This new book has a lot to do with living through an addiction-my partner's addiction-and the effect that had on the children. It wasn't until I saw my kids affected strongly that those poems came out. It was the effect on them, more than on me-through me, of course, through my reaction to it.
My books are often sectioned because I don't have a consistent voice. There are usually two or three voices in my poems. There are some occasional poems in that book. "Do Not Make Loon Soup" was written for The Toronto Star. They said, "We're going to try running poetry on our Op-Ed page. Would you write a poem on Canadian unity?" I thought that was a real challenge. And then there are the poems about children, and about the fear of loss, because the worst thing that can happen to a parent is to lose a child. Also when someone's addicted, you lose them in a way, your children lose them. They're gone. They're alive still, but they're not there, in a very sad way.
I tend to externalize and make physical images out of a lot of emotional turmoil. Like the fact that I've been abused-well, it depends on what you view as abuse; there's been no incest in my family. And the dreadful stories people tell me. As a poet, the stories become your own: it's not just my own feelings now; it's other people's I have to process. When somebody tells you some terrible secret that you're not allowed to pass on, you're left with it, like one of the Carrier Indians with the bones of their dead husbands on their backs. You've got to find some way of shedding it.
NH: There's always a lot of shape-shifting in your work. In the first book, you used quotations from a poem by Robert Graves in which the speaker describes the process of turning into a mouse, into a bee. Then, in the later books, the process seems to have been accelerated. In one poem, someone will go through three or four different shifts. First you think, "Oh, this is the daughter", and then suddenly she's the ex-wife, and then the mother. It's very fluid.
SM: I never thought of that-it's interesting. I think in my own family, on a very literal level, my daughters are often the mother. They mother me; then sometimes they need mothering. I think it's that way in all human relationships. We tend to think: there's the mother; there's the father. But certainly there are times when I need the hug; I need to be the daughter. My kids are both really tuned in, and if I'm upset, they always come with great concern: "Are you okay? Are you all right?" And that must be because I've done that to them. As a mother, you hear back what you give. I like that. If anyone's ever crying, both of them go. Even to very little kids they're very comforting. I think that's good. It means I've done something right.
NH: The addiction, too, perhaps contributes to the shifting of persona and voice. I haven't lived with someone with an addiction myself, but I gather it's almost like you're living with two people: the addict and the person you know. And it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.
SM: The worst thing that happens is my own behaviour changes. I become a person that I don't like. How do I find a way to not be cruel, to not be harassing and haranguing, when it's something that's very threatening to the family? And sometimes you just get physically and psychically worn out. That's scary too.
NH: In Forcing the Narcissus, you write: "Nearly everything we call art is the spiritualization of cruelty." Who does the spiritualizing? The victim or the aggressor? Which one of these people is the artist? Or is it both?
SM: I think it might be both. Nietzsche wrote, "Everything we call culture is the spiritualization of cruelty", which is where I got that line from. I wrote an essay about how people, like my dad, are always saying, "Why isn't your poetry beautiful?" Shelley's poetry is beautiful; Keats wrote about beautiful things. But contemporary poetry often isn't about beautiful things. It's bothered me for years.
There's an essay-I can't remember who wrote it-that says that what we as modern poets do is write about an ugly subject using beautiful words. There's a friction and a juxtaposition that gives a poem its energy. To just write about a nightingale using beautiful language-first of all, it just isn't done right now, it's not in fashion; but secondly, there isn't the tension that we would need and expect in a modern poem.
If you can take something that's really ugly-like a woman sitting in a beer parlour with blood coming out of the corner of her mouth, as Patrick Lane did-and end the poem, "But she is still beautiful", it may be a romanticization of violence; but it also takes it into another realm where you have actually made beautiful or spiritual something that is physically repugnant or violent. That's what I'm trying to talk about: through poetry we can find some sort of, not redemption, but a way of transforming it so that it's palatable, so that the violence we're living through in this century and the ugliness don't have to remain. The question is, how do you live with those images? How do you get them out of you?
NH: You use language that's very direct, very brutal and graphic in its depiction of violence and sexuality. Is shock an effect that you're deliberately trying to achieve?
SM: No, it isn't, and it often shocks me that what I write is shocking. I remember after The Charcoal Burners came out, people would come up to me and say, "I couldn't read past this image of the girl with the mosquito on her arm pulling the skin tight." For me, the problem is always: How can I make this sentence work? By the time you've rewritten a sentence fifty-five times, or a paragraph twenty times, any shock value in that image has disappeared. Sometimes I'll read a book over, five or six years after it's come out, and I'll get more of a sense, then, of the power of the images. But when I write, I'm on the inside of the words. It's like being the recipient of a violent blow. At the moment of the blow you don't feel it, but you do a little bit later.
Some of the most shocking images are not written shockingly. I think of [Toni Morrison's] Beloved, which is one of my favourite novels. The way some of the most shocking scenes are written, you have to read them two or three times to fully grasp what's happening. I'd love to be able to write that way, where it's so artful that what's left in your mind is shocking but the words aren't. You try to figure out how a writer does that-how does a writer achieve that effect in you? W. P. Kinsella says you read a book one time for pleasure, then ten times for business, to see how a writer does something, how they make you laugh and cry. Then you try and do the same thing. I can't be that conscious about it; I'm much more of an intuitive writer.
I don't believe the writer's job is to make people's lives more horrific. John Gardner writes in On Moral Fiction that we have a responsibility to make art life-affirming, that the modern reader has so many problems of his or her own that it's not up to the writer to add to those problems. There are people who argue against that, but I agree with the spirit of it. Wouldn't it be wonderful to be a poet who can be life-affirming and offer hope? I think Lorna Crozier does in her poems. Even when there's darkness, she's aiming at light. Sharon Olds also offers hope. I tend to go into the darkness, and I'm not sure that I come out.
I found a remedy, a self-heal herb, for very deep hopelessness. Turns out it was gorse. Maybe that's why I love Ireland-it's covered in gorse! Maybe I feel less hopeless there. I can also laugh at my hopelessness. I'd hate to be a person who couldn't.
NH: You try to find the hope and the light in these incredibly dark situations, and yet if you write them in a certain way and people are shocked, often they shut down and they're not listening any more to what you have to say. They're just thinking, "Oh my god, I can't believe you said that!"
SM: That's why readings work, because in between the poems, I can undercut the heaviness with a light anecdote. It gives the audience a chance to recover and breathe.
NH: You've also drawn a lot on Native spirituality in your work.
SM: I grew up on the West Coast, so the totemic birds, like the raven and the eagle, were always part of my life. As were the cedar tree and the salmon. The cedar and salmon are what kept the West Coast culture from being as demoralized as other ones because they had their food and they could clothe themselves, and they had a warm climate. I'm building a house on the Queen Charlottes now. It's fabulous-three joined seven-sided structures. If I had a past life, it was there. I feel so connected to the Haida culture.
NH: Besides the novel, what other projects are you working on right now?
SM: I got involved in a prison reader, Sentences and Paroles, published by New Star Books, through being married to Stephen [Reid]. The editor, Peter Murphy, was teaching something like medieval English at Kent Prison, where Stephen was at the time and where we got married. He collected the work from all the people he'd known then.
I'm also editing a book of letters that Stephen and I wrote to each other while he was in prison, for ECW Press. And I'm on the advisory board of In 2 Print, which is a magazine for creative Canadians ages twelve to twenty. The publisher wants me to write a hands-on guidebook for teachers, showing what you can do in a class to stimulate the discussion and appreciation of poetry.
I've got a Selected Poems coming out next spring. Lorna Crozier is choosing the poems. She's also editing an anthology for Douglas and McIntyre, for which I have to write a 4,000-word essay on desire.
A company called Back Alley Productions has just bought the film rights to a chapter of my new novel that was in Best American Erotica-it's a scene under a table in a prison. It'll be on Bravo. And I did two scripts for the NFB for a Teenagers at Risk series. One was on kids who get into the sex trade, and the other was on truth and betrayal. They wanted it done in poetic images-not any kind of moralistic text, because kids are not going to watch that. They needed something to catch kids' attention for fifteen minutes in the classroom. On a low budget. That was quite a challenge. I really enjoyed that process.
NH: Thank you for speaking with us.
Nadia Halim is a Toronto freelance writer and editor.