Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Susan, a lesson in awesomeness (part 9,10,11 &12)

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How in the world did April go by so quickly? I have to admit I was a little flummoxed at the beginning of this writer in residency by the number of posts I was supposed to put up. And now I feel like it's not enough! I've barely managed to squeeze in a dozen of my favorite Susans.

Dear readers, so you won't miss me terribly I've included the formidable Sue Chenette, Susan Briscoe, Susan Andrews Grace and Susan McMaster in this, my last posting.

I hope you've found my suggestions (steal stuff, eat KFC when depressed, refuse to teach your children to read, stalk a poet, read some Susans) will prove to be helpful in your own writing career.

And now, on to the main show:

Sue Chenette

1)What makes you so awesome?

My naturally curly hair and my stash of dark chocolate. (Okay, maybe my hair isn’t all that curly.)

2) What inspires you to write when you're feeling stuck?

The trick for me when I’m feeling stuck is to make my way back to where inspiration can find me. Cooking is good for this – a big pot of soup. Or a walk by the river. And of course, reading, but without any strong sense of purpose, letting myself be surprised by a phrase or sentence that triggers my imagination. Sometimes the best thing is a trip to a gallery, where I can sit and stare at a painting or sculpture, let it suggest its inner world and lead me into mine.

3) What fascinates you?

Right now, as I shift my attention from laptop screen to window – the sun gleaming on the phone cables strung at the back of the garden, the calligraphic shadows of my neighbor’s maple on her garage roof, the disappearance of a robin from bright grass into the tree’s shadow.

4) What poem do you wish you had written? Why?

“Elegy for N.N.” by Czeslaw Milosz. (The translation I have is by Lawrence Davis.) Because it both names a sad human truth and acknowledges its inescapability. The poem is written to a friend, or perhaps a lover, from many years ago. It calls up the richness of their time together in Lithuania, before the narrator moved, eventually to California. (“The bath cabin where you used to leave your dress/ has changed forever into an abstract crystal./ Honey-like darkness is there, near the veranda,/ and comic young owls, and the scent of leather.//) It describes the path N.N. might have taken to find the narrator. (“over blue-black, melting waters, with tracks of deer and caribou”). And it ends with a stanza that is searing for anyone old enough to have let old friendships fall by the wayside: “No, it was not because it was too far/ you failed to visit me that day or night./ From year to year it grows in us until it takes hold,/ I understood it as you did: indifference.”

5) What do you wish you had known when you started writing?

That you can begin anywhere. Saul Bellow talks about this in a 1975 self-interview that he did for Ontario Review: “Somewhere in his journals,” he writes, “Dostoyevsky remarks that a writer can begin anywhere, at the most commonplace thing, scratch around in it long enough, pry and dig away long enough, and, lo! soon he will hit upon the marvelous. I tend to believe that, at least most of the time.”

6) What’s your best joke?

Hmm. The thing with jokes is, it’s all in the telling – the way one person’s joke gets people laughing and reminds someone else of another. And then, all my best jokes are at least somewhat risqué. After a couple of beers I might remember the quite long one about the wrestler whose specialty was the Bulgarian pretzel hold.

Sue Chenette’s new collection, The Bones of His Being, will be launched by Guernica Editions on Sunday afternoon, April 29, at Supermarket, 268 Augusta Avenue in Toronto’s Kensington Market. Sue is a poet and classical pianist who grew up in northern Wisconsin and has made her home in Toronto since 1972. She is the author of Slender Human Weight and of three chapbooks: A Transport of Grief, Solitude in Cloud and Sun, and The Time Between Us, which won the Canadian Poetry Association's Shaunt Basmajian Award in 2001.

Susan Briscoe:

1) What makes you so awesome?

What I am most pleased about these days is that, more often than not, I am genuinely cheerful. This has not always been the case.

2) What inspires you to write when you’re feeling stuck?

I hadn’t realised it before this moment, possibly because it seems too obvious, but reading inspires me. I’ve never thought to use it as a strategy for getting unstuck, however, because it also tends to get in the way of writing.

3) What fascinates you?

Nature and human nature. The aesthetics of colour and form and texture—art in all its aspects. How music conveys emotion.

4) What poem do you wish you had written? Why?

To have written the poems that Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, and others I admire wrote, I would have had to have lived their lives, and that’s not so appealing. But when I was doing my MA in creative writing at Concordia, I remember being in a workshop with Suzanne Buffam (another Susan!) and thinking that I wished I could write poems like hers. And she never seemed at all dark or tormented like those poets of previous generations.

5) What do you wish you had known when you started writing?

That I shouldn’t wait for validation. What a waste of valuable writing time that has been! Years, decades even.

6) What’s your best joke?

I appreciate humour immensely, but sadly I lack the oral storytelling skills to tell jokes. And even if I could tell them, I can never remember any. But I see irony everywhere, and I love dark, quirky humour. In a certain light, everything seems a joke.

Susan Briscoe's first book, published by Vehicule Press in 2010, is The Crow's Vow. Her work has also appeared in various literary journals. She has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award and the CBC Literary Awards, and won the Lina Chartrand Award. She received her MA in creative writing from Concordia University in 2005. Now she teaches English at Dawson College in Montreal and divides her time between the city and Quebec's Eastern Townships.

Susan Andrews Grace

1)What makes you so awesome?

See answer to question 6: I know a good joke when I hear it!

2) What inspires you to write when you’re feeling stuck?

Sometimes reading philosophy like Merleau-Ponty's The Visible and the Invisible or Plotinus's The Enneads. And if that doesn't help I either revise some old work and hope for better the next day or just give up and go work in my studio, fooling around with some cloth. (I'm dually afflicted, also a visual artist.)

3) What fascinates you?

The way little kids learn language and listening to them make sense of the world. How ideas survive through history, morph and change, and the way words and languages change over time. Birth and death and what comes before and after each. The fact that nothing on earth is really solid. (I still can't get over that!). For the last few years I've been fascinated by worms as well and am making an installation of visual work about worms and clouds.

4) What poem do you wish you had written? Why?

There are many poems I wish I'd written. Right now I'm reading Geoffrey Hill's The Orchards of Syon, a book length poem and I'm very impressed with his use of language(s) in a historical sense and every other way. I'm amazed at the erudition behind it and spend a lot of time reading to try to understand the poem, running out of breath trying to catch up to it. I love that in poems. When I first read Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson I wished that I had thought of approaching the poem as book/essay the way she does. I feel so glad that she has written what she has and that I will always be able to learn from her about writing from/about the margins and gaps of archives.

5) What do you wish you had known when you started writing?

It's probably best that I was so ignorant of how little money I would make because I couldn't stop wanting to write.

6) What’s your best joke?

I'm so glad you asked this question! It's a Grade Two kind of joke but I still can't stop laughing enough to tell it in person so this is perfect.

A piece of string goes into a bar and asks for a drink. The bartender says You're a piece of string - get out of here, we don't serve your kind here. He goes to the next bar and gets the same reception when he asks for a drink. Out on the street he has an idea, ties his top end in a knot, fluffs it up, and goes into the third bar. When the bar tender asks Are you a piece of string? he says No, I'm a frayed knot!

Susan Andrews Grace lives in Nelson, British Columbia where she writes and teaches creative writing and also maintains a visual art practice. Her latest books of poems are Flesh, A Naked Dress (Hagios Press, 2006) and Love & Tribal Baseball (BuschekBooks, 2007). Ferry Woman's History of the World (Coteau Books 1998) won the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award and was short-listed for three other Saskatchewan literary awards. Other books published are Water is the First World (Coteau Books 1991) and Wearing My Father, a chapbook, (Underwhich Editions 1990).

Susan McMaster:

1)What makes you so awesome?

The fact that my family and friends and partner scribblers still love me, even though I'm me -- me! How did that happen?

2) What inspires you to write when you’re feeling stuck?

Restlessness. I am so out of sorts when I'm not writing, so appeased when I am...

3) What fascinates you?

woods woads weirds wards wrecks whistles wavers whithers worries wearies whittles whips words words words!

4) What poem do you wish you had written? Why?

everything passes, and everything changes
just do what you think you should do...
and someday, maybe, who knows, baby,
I'll come and be crying to you...
-- Bob Dylan

Why? Because all these years, decades, ups and downs of living that I've struggled and bounced through up to now have led me back to this -- change is what we have, and when it (constantly) occurs in my life, these are the words that (constantly) recur in my mind.

5) What do you wish you had known when you started writing?

Everyone's first drafts are lousy -- just get the pencil moving and don't stop. Write! write! write! -- and then -- cut! cut! cut!

6) What's your best joke?

I'm a lousy joke teller, so the only joke I can remember is a poetry joke (well, a limerick, anyway).

I wish that my room had a floor,
I don't mind no walls and no door,
but this walking around
without touching the ground
is getting to be quite a bore.

Okay, okay, it's lame.... but it is a poem

Susan McMaster is the President of the League of Canadian Poets and author or editor of some two dozen books, magazines, and anthologies, including recordings with First Draft, SugarBeat, and Geode Music & Poetry.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Sarah Tsiang

Sarah Tsiang is the author of A Flock of Shoes (Annick Press, 2010), Sweet Devilry (Oolichan Books, 2011), Dogs Don’t Eat Jam and Other Things Big Kids Know (Annick Press, 2011) and Warriors and Wailers: 100 Ancient Chinese Jobs You Might Have Relished or Reviled (Annick Press, 2012). Her latest picture book, Stone Hatchlings, will be released in fall, 2012.

Go to Sarah Tsiang’s Author Page