Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Profile of Suzannah Showler, with a few questions

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Profile of Suzannah Showler, with a few questions

In May 2013, Toronto writer Suzannah Showler was announced as a finalist for the 2013 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada, alongside Laura Clarke (who won for her “Mule Variations”) and Laura Matwichuk (for “Here Comes The Future”). As part of the award, her submission, The Reason and Other Poems, was produced by the Writers’ Trust of Canada as an ebook. The jury citation for Showler’s "The Reason and Other Poems" reads:

These poems distinguish themselves by the quality of their poetic intelligence. They are astute, linguistically and syntactically adept, and full of sonic energy. Often startlingly precise in their descriptions, they lead us from the bodily to the metaphysical. Sometimes they flare up like fireworks; sometimes they sound a quiet sorrowing over human distances and dilemmas.

Originally from Ottawa, Showler’s writing has appeared in The Walrus, ottawater, Hazlitt, The Puritan, CV2, The Dalhousie Review, The Bull Calf and Joyland, as well as the anthology Desperately Seeking Susans (ed. Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang; Oolichan, 2012). She was the winner of the 2012 Matrix LitPOP Award for Poetry and is the poetry editor for Dragnet Magazine and the curator of the website Art of Losing. Her first trade collection of poetry, Failure to Thrive, is forthcoming from ECW Press in the Spring of 2014.

Recently on his blog, Ottawa poet Michael Dennis referred to Showler’s new chapbook, Sucks to Be You and Other True Taunts (Odourless Press, May 2013) as “snap your fingers tight,” “short and sweet” and “witty and quicksilver true.”

Her recently-created website is at http://www.suzannahshowler.com/

rm: When I first encountered you at the tender age of 16, a participant in one of my early poetry workshops at Ottawa’s Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar, I was impressed at the level of polish your work already had. I know you mentioned a particular reading by Ken Babstock at the ottawa international writers festival. What had you been reading up to that point?

Suzannah Showler: I read lots of fiction. Poetry? Almost nothing. Only what they served up in school. Like, Robert Frost and a bunch of poems about cats.

When I took your class, I had only recently discovered that writing poems was something actual, modern people could do for a living. I saw Ken Babstock read at the writer's fest in 20001. I was going-on-14, and I was like what is even happening right now this is amazing. He read a poem about a bear in a nature program where the speaker keeps changing the channel and these soundbites about tennis flicker in. It was really playful, and I was just, like, wait, can you do that? I also liked that it was funny. Though it didn't occur to me for about another decade that I, personally, had funny in my repertoire.

Naturally, I'm embarrassed to think about the work I brought to your class, rob. But anyone who's not at least a bit embarrassed by their teenaged writing probably has something wrong with them.

rm: You recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. Who were you working with, and how has it altered the way you approach your work? I’ve heard various opinions on Creative Writing degrees, including the suggestion that writing is the last thing a writer should study, otherwise, what will one write about but writing itself? Now that you’ve gone through the process, what are your thoughts on the experience?

SS: You're probably going to regret asking me this! I have a lot of things to say. First of all: I worked with Kevin Connolly, and it was the best. He's the best. In equal measures intelligent and humane. That mentorship altered my work in a lot of ways. Among other things, Kevin got me reading a bunch of American poets whose work I'm always copy-catting now.

As for your other questions, I don't know that I can speak to Creative Writing degrees in general — the particular programs are all really different. I did an MA rather than an MFA, so for better or worse, there was a large academic component. That meant I qualified for scholarships from the feds and the province, which, to be real, makes a huge difference when you're tallying up the value of an experience. If this degree had put me $20,000 into debt, it's hard to say how I would feel now, despite the many opportunities it's offered. As it stands, getting a Creative Writing degree was the best “job” I've ever had.

The U of T program basically offered time to write, a community of brilliant people to make friends and fall in love with, and the attention of an amazing mentor. It was more about providing the conditions for a writing career than it was about teaching writing, per se. That said, I don't understand this thing where people neg out on creative writing programs with the idea that “You can't really teach someone to write.” You never hear that about any other art. Have you ever heard, “You can't teach painting”? People might think one approach is better than another, but no one ever insists it's a fundamentally unlearnable skill.

We consent unproblematically to the idea that you can teach things all kinds of things that are much harder than writing. No one says “You just can't teach neurosurgery.” You can't teach someone's hands to stop shaking, but I sure as shit hope you can teach them how to slice open a skull. Being a writer seems to involve some cocktail of talent, craft and luck. You obviously can't give a person talent or luck, but it's insane to think you can't teach craft.

As for your suggestion about content: most people came into the program I did having lived their lives outside the academy for a while. Sure, I suppose that if you studied nothing but writing technique you might not have a lot to write about, but that kind of gets back to the 'talent' part of the triumvirate. Part of talent might be knowing how to use what you know as writing fodder, but another part of it is probably having an imagination and not being limited by your own knowledge.

rm: Between the Bronwen Wallace Award nomination, the chapbook with Odourless and the forthcoming trade collection with ECW Press, you’ve had a pretty impressive year so far. The summer 2013 issue of The Walrus even included you in their list of “the six best writers you’ve never heard of.” What is it you’re working on currently, and where do you see your writing a year from now?

SS: Man, yeah, May was a crazy month! I just knock on wood all the time. It's been a great few weeks in other ways, too: I moved into a new place with my partner, Andrew, two of my best friends had a baby, and I made some pretty good cornbread.

I'm currently working on a poem. My writing process is really slow and ugly, so that could be a while. I've also been commissioned to write a very short play, and I'm excited because I have no idea what I'm doing. I've got some non-fiction for magazines that I'm looking forward to getting into. I often say I'm going to tackle fiction for real, but I always wind up back in poem territory. Maybe I'll make it to the other side this time.

A year from how? If I'm lucky, it'll be more of the same. I've had some nice things happen lately that make me feel like I'm not totally out to lunch, and that's been really nice, but it's no guarantee of anything. Not everyone who wants to do this for their life is going to get to. If I'm one of the people who does, I'll be thankful all the time.

rm: You’ve been “collecting narratives about lost objects” for the website The Art of Losing. How did your relationship with The Art of Losing begin, and what is it about lost objects that appeal?

SS: The Art of Losing started with my own occupation as a serial loser. I was on a self-improvement kick and going over all the things I've lost trying to figure out what my problem is. Instead I just became fascinated with the way that stories about lost things are naturally incomplete — they always end on an ellipsis. But there's this impulse to force a conclusion anyway, to impose meaning that is probably not really there at all. It's a particularly strong example of the gap between what it feels like to live something and what it feels like to tell it. Left to their own devices, these are incredibly boring stories: “I had something, and then I didn't, and then....” There's something really cathartic and cool about turning that symbolic. That is probably not actually cool. I'm not very cool.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). A new work of fiction, The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books) will be out sometime this winter. An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

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