Susan Briscoe Interviewby Beth Carswell
Canadian poet Susan Briscoe has birds on the brain. This is not to say she's a birdbrain - the depth, intelligence and emotional resonance of her first published book of poetry proves quite the opposite - but the birds found throughout the pages of her slim volume of poetry number in the double digits. Even the book's title - The Crow's Vow pays homage to our feathered friends, as does the cover.
It was the cover, as minimalist as they come - one small, black bird in an otherwise uninterrupted sea of pink - that first got our attention, so a tip of the hat must go to cover designer David Drummond. Throughout the month of March, we ran a competition called March Madness, which featured a head-to-head bout of two beautiful books pitted against each other each day. We began with 32 covers, of which 16 moved on to round two, of which eight moved on, until a small, unassuming pink book adorned with a crow remained the only beautiful book left standing.
The cover is arresting, understated and very effectively appealing. But there is much more here than the cover. The words inside are bursting and bristling, burning and longing, and a sensual experience to read, full of delicious, perfectly apt metaphor, like the gorgeous line "A bloated, belly-up frog of a moon".
The poems are segmented by season, but the transition is gradual - a slow thaw giving way to new green buds of life. The sounds and songs of nature are the ever-present soundtrack behind the longing, sorrow, joy and discomfort in the book. It hints at the story of a foundering relationship trying to find its footing. There is a delicacy of word choice, and a tentative promise of the new, even in the lines so clearly mourning the old. It's an excellent offering and well worth savoring. Briscoe agreed to an interview, to let us know more about where the words come from. Read on.
AbeBooks: How did you find David Drummond? How did the cover-selection process work?
Susan Briscoe: I actually had nothing whatsoever to do with the cover design. With no prior consultation, I was sent the proofs for the cover just a few weeks before publication. To be honest, I was initially taken aback: the cover was so different from every other poetry book I had ever seen that I was concerned it wouldn’t be taken seriously in the literary world. Plus pink is one of my least favourite colours! But I didn’t protest, and soon I came to appreciate not only the cover’s originality but its eloquence. Now I feel very lucky to have a cover that gets the book so much extra attention!
My understanding of the process is that my publisher, Véhicule Press, hired designer David Drummond, giving him the manuscript and full creative freedom. The cover is entirely his interpretation of the text, and I think he did an amazing job capturing not only the poetry’s formal sparseness and prioritising of the image, but also the conflict in the subject matter. Now it’s hard for me to imagine the book without this cover.
Abe: How do you think writing predominantly in English in a largely Francophone environment impacts you as a poet?
Susan Briscoe: I’m not sure it does much. There is an active and excellent anglophone writing community in Montreal. With some notable exceptions, it mostly doesn’t mix that much with the French literary world—not because of any animosity, but perhaps because so many of us are not sufficiently bilingual to fully appreciate each other’s work. And really, we are just another scattered part of the larger Canadian writing community, like the Atlantic writers or the prairie poets are. But being marginalised does bring with it a certain liberty, I think; the forces of conformity are perhaps weaker here than they might be in Toronto. We have a wonderfully wide range of poets: Erin Mouré, David McGimpsey, Sina Queyras, Robyn Sarah… and such a rich poetic history too. Linguistically I think there is less of an influence than one might imagine.
Abe: What inspires you, and drives you?
Susan Briscoe: Everything inspires me, but not much drives me, it would seem by how little writing I get done! I could really use some more ambition. But I’d have to say my passion for literature and the possibility of being part of a larger literary continuum are my main motivators.
Abe: What Canadian poets and authors have influenced your work?
Susan Briscoe: I was very fortunate to study creative writing at Concordia University under Stephanie Bolster. In the MA program I was in workshops with some very fine young poets, including Kate Hall, Sachiko Murakami, Moez Surani, and Suzanne Buffam, and they all inspired and influenced me. But there are so many others, and I’m afraid to even try to name them for fear of leaving too many out.
Abe: What are some of your favourite books of all-time (poetry or other)?
Susan Briscoe: Alice Munro’s collections absolutely humble me. I also keep rereading Thomas King’s Green Grass Running Water; I love First Nations fiction.
Abe: What do you do when you’re not writing?
Susan Briscoe: After this book came out, I started teaching English at Dawson College. I have yet to find any time to write. I also have two teenaged boys, and the younger one requires much more parenting than I’d hoped he would by this age! I spend a lot of time exercising (which I need to balance my sedentary work), being overwhelmed by my garden in the summer, and procrastinating in the usual ways.
Abe: Your book is segmented by season – Winter into Spring, Spring into Summer, etc – how does your writing change according to the season?
Susan Briscoe: I wish I were regular enough in my work habits to have a seasonal pattern, but I’m not. And my life has always gone through quite significant changes every year or two, so a yearly routine hasn’t been possible. I’m hoping that now that I have a regular teaching job I might get to devote my summers to writing. But when it’s nice out I just like to be outside. I’ll have to work on some discipline.
Abe: What is it about birds, for you? This slim book of poems is full to bursting with them - chickadees, cardinals, jays, finches, sparrow, blackbird, grackle, nuthatch, robin, geese, hummingbirds, and of course, the crows. What attracts you so to birds?
Susan Briscoe: That is quite a list! Partly it’s just that they were there. I used to write at dawn, which happens to be when birds are most active, so much of this book comes simply from what I saw out the window at that time. The previous owners of my house had designed the garden especially to attract birds. So these creatures were the actors in the scene, and I came to observe how their behaviours changed through the seasons. Also, because I was writing about my marriage, I was fascinated by the coupling habits of birds: some mate for life, others are single parents, some are unfaithful, others will grieve a lost mate for years.
Abe: What bird are you most like and why?
Susan Briscoe: It is hard not to say the crow because, as I note in one poem, it seems to talk rather than sing (though I have always wished I could sing!). Crows are such complex, observant creatures with quite involved relationships. I don’t, however, feel reviled by society (despite being a poet!) as the crow often is, especially for its opportunistic carrion-eating. Though I suppose I feed on the dead metaphorically, now that I think of it, by writing about them.
In my youth I went through an extended period when I wore only black and would have identified more directly with the crow or the raven. While that dark side is still a part of me, I’m much more cheerful and sociable now. So maybe a cross between the crow and a more approachable bird like the chickadee.
Abe: If you were going to live somewhere besides Montreal, where would it be and why?
Susan Briscoe: I already live in two places, Montreal and Sutton in the Eastern Townships. I’m always a bit torn between them. Both are home for me, and I’m not sure anywhere else could be. But I would very much like to live short-term (say several months) in all sorts of other places, just to get to know them. I feel I don’t know Canada nearly well enough, so perhaps I’d start here.