One cannot easily pigeonhole Susan Musgrave. The Canadian poet is a fascinating contradiction of everything that came before, and doesn't fit easily into any convenient packaging. By turns cheerful and grim, funny and sombre, the 60-year-old writer has been publishing poetry since she was 19 (her first collection, Songs of the Sea-Witch was published in 1970).
Since then, she has published over a dozen more books of poetry, three novels, three works of non-fiction (including the 2005 You're in Canada Now - A Memoir of Sorts), four children's books, and more. She spends much of her time at the home she shares with her husband Stephen Reid on Haida Gwaii, British Columbia.
Musgrave will be performing with fellow poet bill bissett on Tuesday, April 19th as part of the inaugural Vancouver International Poetry Festival, of which AbeBooks is a proud sponsor, and she was generous enough to answer our questions.
Read on as Susan Musgrave lets us in on her creative process, regrets and hopes, what changes with growing up, and what stays the same no matter our age.
AbeBooks: You published your first collection of poetry in 1970. How has your creative process changed?
Susan Musgrave: "I donít think Iím the best person to judge what changes have occurred in my work over so many years Ė I'm probably too much "inside the process" to be aware of how much has changed. There are obvious things: I pay much more attention to line breaks (I used to be wholly concerned with breath, and my poems were skeletal entities, hovering close to the right hand side of the page.) I write fewer poems than I used to. I think of John Berrymanís lines: "I sat by fires when I was young/now Iím old I do the same/only now/ I do it more slowly." I guess I can say one big change is less focus on the "selfí, the "I". At some point I became interested in something other than, "Does he love me today?"! I am also less possessed by spirits and ghosts, or perhaps they have given up on me? I hate to say it, but I seem to have developed a social consciousness over the years."
AbeBooks: When the words donít come, what are some of your methods and tricks to get them flowing again?
Susan Musgrave: "I read other poets. And I donít worry much. As Stevie Smith said, "Sometimes the thought of there being so many other poets writing can make one feel rather shrill. I would rather be sad than shrillÖ" and so on. Poetry is such hard work. And it comes from a place (in me) of such deep grief, most of the time now I donít want to go there."
Susan Musgrave: "Grief. Iím not sure anywhere feels like home, though. The title poem of my new collection, Origami Dove, ends with the lines:
our fragile lives are like the knife edge
of the wind scraping away the sky. I see how true
loneliness has become when he takes up with me
and walks me through the world I have always
called my home. Only in darkness I see now
it has never been my home.
"I can also laugh at the absurdity of life. As Camus said, itís a farce and in dubious taste. But poetry, like a vampire, feeds on the blood of grief. (I confess, I am hooked on Trueblood (the HBO series from the books by Charlaine Harris) right now. But Iíve been an aspiring vampire ever since I was 14 and asked my dentist to file my teeth into fangs. He said I was too young to be a vampire. Ah, but I was so much older then (I'm younger than that now)."
AbeBooks: Parts of your life story read like exciting fiction Ė adolescent mental hospital stays, older lovers, suicide attempts, love and life with a convicted bank robber and more. Any regrets of things done or not done?
Susan Musgrave: "Most days I regret being born. Does that count? Seriously – I did not live my life then for what I have "become". I fish, pick wild berries on Haida Gwaii, own and run a Guest House (www.copperbeechhouse.com) and have the most interesting and eclectic guests in the world. Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson stayed with me recently; David Suzuki and his family, also. Doug Coupland is a regular guest, and finished one of his recent novels in The Secret’s room upstairs.
"This morning I woke up wishing I was flying first class from Cali to Bogota snorting lines off the back of the toilet...as a friend of mine writes about doing. (I didn’t think toilets on airplanes had backs to them, but maybe first class Colombian planes have all the comforts of home.) As they say in Ireland, "I have known the days." Seen the needle and the damage done.
"I also regret, having been born, that I cannot live forever. I blame the dentist who refused to file my teeth."
AbeBooks: You have one of the most extraordinary and memorable vehicles Iíve ever seen. How did that come to be?
Susan Musgrave: "It started with a single yellow duck, as a hood ornament. I told my daughter, Sophie, to paint my car Ė it looked like a grey briefcase going down the road Ė and then it just became another obsession. At the end of a writing day it felt good to work with colours and shapes. I would move things around, edit the car, if you will. My neighbours knew spring had arrived when I appeared in the driveway with a box of toys collected over the winter Ė and started gluing. I would be lost in the process Ė much the way you get lost in a poem Ė so if a person stopped to ask a question, such as "What kind of glue do you use?" I wouldnít even hear them unless I snapped myself out of the trance."
AbeBooks: What are some of your favourite collections of poetry by Canadian poets?
Susan Musgrave: "I donít think of poets as having gender or nationality. One of my favourite collections, though, is Stilt Jack by John Thompson. Itís a collection of ghazals Ė I think they were the first ghazals I ever read. (A ghazal is an ancient Persian form of five to 15 couplets. The name rhymes with "guzzle. There is an epigrammatic terseness in the ghazal, but with immense lyricism, evocation, sorrow, heartbreak, wit. What defines the ghazal is a constant longing.) Next month, the CBC and the National Post are teaming-up to present a month-long poetry initiative called Canada Reads Poetry, inspired by the popular Canada Reads. CRP will play out online on the National Postís books blog The Afterword, the week of April 11th, coinciding with National Poetry Month, and on CBC Books. I will be one of the panelists. I donít think I am supposed to divulge which Canadian book I have chosen."
AbeBooks: And non-Canadian poets?
Susan Musgrave: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Norman Dubie, John Berryman, Randall Jarrell, Ted Hughes, Paul Durcan, Stevie Smith, George MacBeth, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan. These were all early influences. Sharon Olds. Tess Gallagher. I could go on forever.
AbeBooks: This may be asking a parent to name his/her favourite child, but do you have a poem of your own that feels closest to perfect for you (and from what collection)?
Susan Musgrave: I have two. "You Didnít Fit" and "Conversation During the Omelette Aux Fines Herbes". Both were originally published in Cocktails at the Mausoleum, I believe. But are now in What the Small Day Cannot Hold: Collected Poems 1970-1985.
AbeBooks: What's next for you?
Susan Musgrave: This question always reminds me of one of John Callahanís cartoons. A condemned man sits tied to an electric chair, awaiting the end. Next to him, behind a desk, is a talk-show host. "So," the host asks, "where do you go from here?"
AbeBooks: Whatís something youíve always wanted to be asked in an interview, and havenít been?
Susan Musgrave: The question is - What is your recipe for Red Pepper Jam? And the answer is Ė Itís a secret.
Susan Musgrave will be performing with fellow poet bill bissett on Tuesday, April 19th as part of the inaugural Vancouver International Poetry Festival. Her latest collection of poetry, Origami Dove was published March 29th.