Susan Musgrave. Writing Philosophy and Answers to Students' Questions
PROFILE: SUSAN MUSGRAVE
Susan Musgrave's career as a social misfit began early in life. She was
kicked out of kindergarten class for laughing, and sent to the library to
contemplate her heinous crime while seated on the "Thinking Chair". She
understood, then, that books and thinking must be considered dangerous, and
they became her favourite forms of escape. Not long afterwards she dropped
out of kindergarten for good.
In Grade 8 she won her first poetry competition, with a poem about Jackie
Kennedy visiting her husband's grave by moonlight in rhyming couplets. Her
prize was a copy of Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing.
Apart from her mother burning her security blanket when she was four her
childhood was not a particularly unhappy one. She has struggled all her
life to overcome this handicap.
Questions and Answers
The problem is I could spend all my time answering questions about writing,
instead of actually doing any. So here are some answers to frequently asked
I started writing in Grade 4 - horse stories with tragic endings - and
then, when I was a bit older - Grade 7 or 8 - started listening to Bob
Dylan and reading Tennyson. I started writing poetry then, partly because I
was so bored at school, and mad at my parents. Poetry was a kind of
rebellious act. It was a way for me to channel anger and frustration, and
still is. But I never thought "I'm going to be an author one day." I have
just kept on writing, and my work has been published. But I still think,
"What am I going to do next year. I am going to have to get a *real* job
one of these years!!!"
I've never practised any type of Occult Arts, formally. I dabbled in
black magic when I was about 18 or 19, saw that it worked but that it took
too much energy away from me and was too destructive. I have made amulets
and healing spells, and have read a lot about magic. The images used in
magic interest me. They have a power and intensity and a darkness to them
that draws me in.
My first book, Songs of the Sea Witch was published in 1970 by Sono Nis
Press. I was 19. I have changed publishers many times, though McClelland &
Stewart in Toronto have been my main publisher of poetry since 1972. Most
writers change publishers. Certain books are not suited to certain
publishers, so it's a case of having to find a publisher who is interested,
say, in children's books, one that likes your fiction, one that may want
I have never reached a point where I felt I was "good enough to be
published". I have just always written. When I was 16 I met Robin Skelton,
a poet and witch, who edited The Malahat Review. He took some of my poems
for the magazine and told me to start sending my work out, which I did. He
said as a writer one must get used to rejection. Five of the seven
magazines I submitted to accepted poems. This seemed to me like some kind
I still question whether my poems are "good enough". I hope I always do. (I
can only make each one as good as it can be for what it is. I try not to
compare myself to other writers, but often when I find a poet I think is
"great", I am intimidated enough to stop writing poetry for a while. If I
were a wholly strong, secure person, I probably wouldn't write!)
The poem or novel I am working on at the moment is what means most to
me. The one I'm struggling with. Books that are published, strangely, have
very little meaning to me. I check to see if my name was spelled right on
the cover (Isaac Asimov didn't check when his first book came out, and they
did get it wrong...), how many typos there are. I like the feel and the
look of a book that's been produced well. But the content? It's almost as
if someone else had written it.
After I finish a novel I don't usually read it for four or five years. Then
I can be objective about it. I read The Dancing Chicken or parts of it the
other day and actually laughed out loud. Is this a good sign? I felt
My favourite book of poetry is A Man to Marry, a Man to Bury. I also like
Great Musgrave, a collection of my columns. And my favourite novel, other
than one I'm struggling with at any given moment, is my most recently
published: Cargo of Orchids.
Poetry doesn't sell as well, usually. A publisher feels they are taking
a risk with it. It's like certain types of music. Not for everyone.
My inspirations change all the time. I've loved and been influenced by
Sylvia Plath, Allen Ginsberg, Randall Jarrell, John Berryman, Stevie Smith,
Tom Wayman, Al Purdy, Patrick Lane, Stephen Dobyns, Sharon Olds, George
MacBeth, Brian Patten, to name a few. Paul Durcan, Tell Gallagher, Ai,
Norman Dubie, Lorna Crozier, Anne Sexton.......
I draw my inspiration from what I read, from my personal experiences, from
my dreams, from travelling, from other peoples' experiences, from love,
death, loss, grief, my kids - you name it.
Characters evolve the longer you live with them. They may start out based
on real people but they turn into their own selves with their own lives
after awhile. I get ideas from stories people tell me, things I overhear on
a crowded streetcar. From everything all around me.
Sure, I enjoy reading my work out loud at public events, But most of all
I like being alone, writing. I think it's good to have the contrast. If I
never left my office I'd get bored, and if I was always appearing in public
I'd hate it.
Born March 12, 1951, Santa Cruz, California (of Canadian parents.) I am
a fourth generation Vancouver Islander. I grew up near Victoria in a
cottage we called The Vinegar Jug, after the Grimm's fairy tale.
I have lived in Hawaii (as a child), Ireland, England, Panama, Colombia
S.A. and the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii)
What did I enjoy doing as a child? Being alone. Reading. Playing with
my imaginary friends and my imaginary horses. Collecting stamps, shells.
Did my parents encourage me to write? Yes and no. My father read to me
every night, but when I got older and started writing poetry it was seen as
a subversive act and I felt highly disapproved of. Which is why I kept
doing it, of course.
Favourite books (as a child)? The POOKIE books - about a rabbit with
wings who is kicked out of the bunny warren because he is different. I
identified. My father read Arthur Ransom's SWALLOWS AND AMAZONS, and of
course all the usual children's books, and some unusual ones.
I live on Vancouver Island, in The Treehouse. That is, a house with a
400-year-old, 200-foot-tall Douglas fir tree growing through the middle of
it. I am married to Stephen Reid, who is also (among other things) a
writer. I have two kids, Charlotte 18 and Sophie 12. Charlotte moved to
Whistler Mountain in February so she can snow board (and get a job there);
Sophie writes to her friends on MSN and writes books with me. We've written
one together called DREAMS ARE MORE REAL THAN BATHTUBS.
How do I work? Preferably I need a whole house to myself, and to know I
will have no interruptions. I can't stand any noise - clock ticking or dog
barking next door. I have an office that is separate from the house (you
have to go outside to get into it). I have to be alone, yes.
I write poems longhand in pen or pencil. I type second drafts (I do up to
100 drafts sometimes) on a computer. Journalism and fiction I often type
directly onto the computer.
I have no goals as a writer. I hope each book I write is a little
better than the last, that I have learned something in the process of
reading and writing over the years. I write because I love the process, not
for fame or money. I would like to be able to make enough money from
writing that I don't have to do any other job. For about 20 years I've been
My real name is Susan Musgrave, yes.
Some of my poems are "autobiographical" and in others the "I" is a
personae. Most of them have parts that are "made up". By the time I finish
a poem it has become more real than the event, situation or person that
sparked it! That is, the poem is a truth in itself, despite the "real"
I make a good living from writing but I have to do about ten jobs -
editing, writing radio essays, giving readings and speeches, judging
contests, etc. My actual income from the writing itself is very small.
Other Interests: GUM. (I had to put that because I saw a young girl filling
out a form about her life and that's what she put.)
FUTURE PLANS: I can't imagine ever not writing. I don't make plans, but
tend to take each day as "the future".
TO POETS WHO SEND ME THEIR POETRY ASKING, "IS THIS ANY GOOD?"
Is it any good? That is NOT the question to ask!
The question is, to yourself, or whoever wrote the poem: did it mean
something to you to write this? Did it make the world start making more
sense? Did it make you feel a) good b) better c) less lonely d) less
That's what poetry, for me, is all about. Not making judgments (which, by
the way, anyone can do. Our culture teaches us to judge. To compete.) "You
ask what life is," Chekhov said, "that's like asking what a carrot is. A
carrot is a carrot, there's nothing more to say."
Except perhaps to quote the Irish proverb: Never bolt your door with a
boiled carrot. The same applies to writing."
TO THE STUDENT WHO WROTE ASKING....."WHY POEMS?"
Good question. Poems are not for everyone (just as life isn't) (There's a
joke: a psychiatrist saying to his client, "Face it, Bill. Life may not be
A lot of our society's resistance to poetry starts at school: we study
"great" poems of tradition and sense the immortal poet's superiority to us
ordinary folk; we are taught that poetry is lofty and full of hidden
meaning, and often feel inadequate for being unable to break the secret
code. But the really important thing is to find poems that matter to us -
good, great, bad or ugly. Poems that bring us into the "common fold", even
if the common fold is a place where we may not feel comfortable or secure.
Not long ago the editor of the Op-Ed page of a Toronto newspaper
commissioned me to write a poem. I wrote a parody of Wallace Steven's
"Thirteen Ways of looking at a Blackbird" and called it "Thirteen Ways of
Looking at Canadian Unity." The editor got back to me on Friday, asking for
the weekend "to think it over." I'm not a very poetic kind of guy," he
The word "poetic" is one we all use; I'm not really sure what it means,
though often it has a pejorative sense. Why is it that so many people seem
to feel apologetic when the subject of poetry is raised? It's as if the
mere mention of the word makes them feel inferior.
"The majority of civilized mankind do not possess the organ by which poetry
is perceived," A.E. Housman wrote, in his inspirational essay, THE NAME
AND NATURE OF POETRY. "Can you hear the shriek of the bat? Probably not, but do
you think less of yourself on that account? Why be unwilling to admit that
perhaps you cannot perceive poetry? Is it an unbearable thing, and
crushing to self-conceit, to be in the majority?"
Frequently I am confronted by people who say they do not understand, the
*meaning* of a poem. Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it
may be inadvisable to draw it out. "Poetry," said Coleridge, "gives most
pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood. Perfect
understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure."
Meaning is of the intellect; poetry is more physical. Most of us have read
a poem that has made the hair on the back of our necks stand up: we may
have asked ourselves, "Why have mere words had such a physical effect?"
The answer, wrote Housman, "is because these words are poetry, and find
their way to something in us which is obscure and latent, something older
than the present organization of our nature."
SOME OF MY POEMS HAVE BEEN ANTHOLOGIZED. OFTEN I AM ASKED TO HELP STUDENTS
WHO ARE IN THE UNENVIABLE POSITION OF HAVING TO WRITE PAPERS FOR EXAMS ON
"WHAT MY POETRY MEANS", OR TO DO A PROJECT ON MY WORK.
HERE ARE SOME OF MY RESPONSES:
I AM NOT A CONSPIRACY, EVERYTHING IS NOT PARANOID, THE DRUG ENFORCEMENT
ADMINISTRATION IS NOT EVERYWHERE
I gave a reading at a school and got one of my best "reviews" ever from a
student: "Your poems made me hate poetry a whole lot less!"
When I was at school we used to have to memorize poems for punishments
(detentions). It's amazing that *anyone* graduated caring anything about
poetry at all. (I quit school in Grade 10). There's nothing more killing
than having a subject (like poetry) "forced" upon you. I believe poetry
should *matter* to you, to your life, make you feel less alone and less
confused by the enormous tragedies of twentieth century life.
Okay, my poem. In the early 80s I ran off with a marijuana smuggler and
lived in South America (he is now retired, a Born Again Christian living in
Los Angeles) On our way back to Canada we spent time in Mexico City, where
I really *did* see purses in the market made of unborn calf skin. I also
bought a pair of cobra high heels shoes, which I thought (at the time) very
We had also been in Costa Rica where there are many Drug Enforcement Agents
- they are easily recognizable because they wear Mickey Mouse T-shirts,
blue jeans, Levis belts with big silver buckles, mirrored sunglasses, and
guns in shoulder holsters.
In 1983 I took a job as Writer in Residence at the University of Waterloo.
I rented a 50-acre farm near Elora, Ontario. Cornfields, cows, etc. Paul
Orenstein, a Toronto photographer, came to take my picture for a show of
Canadian Authors he was putting together. I was used to being photographed
on the west coast - with solid rock walls behind me - so to stand in a
cornfield and hear all that rustling! - was a bit scary. That's how "corn"
came in to the poem.
You can see how all these images came together - a lot of them drawn from
my own experience and then used to create a kind of fantasy.
I had also been doing a lot of "border crossings" and of course these are
fraught with peril. Even when you are an innocent citizen (in South
America) you can be interrogated, or X-rayed, or anything they like. My
husband (former) always seemed to be under surveillance, which is probably
why *I* felt I was being followed.
I don't go out of my way to be symbolic in poems, but words are often
symbolic of their own accord (such as the word "corn", which reminds us of