Susan McCaslin is the author of eleven volumes of poetry, including her new one, The Disarmed Heart (The St. Thomas Poetry Series, May 2014), poems on the roots of violence and of peace-making. She is Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College in Westminster, BC, where she taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-three years.
Her previous volume, Demeter Goes Skydiving (2012) was short-listed for the BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award) and the first-place winner of the Alberta Book Publishing Award (Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award) in 2012. Susan has published a volume of essays, Arousing the Spirit: Provocative Writings (Wood Lake Books, 2011), and edited two anthologies on poetry and spirituality. Her memoir, Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga, is forthcoming from Inanna Press (Toronto, Fall 2014). In addition, she is on the editorial board of Event: the Douglas College Review.
Susan says she is nourished by wilderness and by the world’s mystical traditions. She lives in Fort Langley, British Columbia, with her husband. Recently, she initiated the Han Shan Poetry Project as part of a successful campaign to protect an endangered rainforest along the Fraser River.
Interview with Susan McCaslin
by Canadian Literature: A Quarterly of Criticism and Review
CL: Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
SM: Poetry had haunted me since I was a child reading Mother Goose and Robert Lewis Stevenson, but in Grade 7, my English teacher, Mr. Don Lemieux, after reading a little rhymed poem I'd written about my cat, took me aside and asked me if I'd copied it from a book. Taken aback, I shook my head and told the truth: it was mine and mine alone. Believing me, he asked at once if I'd like to be literary editor of the school newspaper "The Pipesqueak" and I said yes. Lest you think I'm boasting of my early accomplishments, the poem was mostly rhymed doggerel with a few promising images and turns of phrase, Mr. Lemieux badly wanted a literary section, and he was a very gracious and generous man. I soon realized I was literary editor over no staff at all and a small column of space wherein to put a few monthly offerings. There I included some of my first efforts and those of my schoolmates, who mostly thought poetry was a bore and I most certainly teacher's pet. Yet the faith in my embryonic talent expressed by a single teacher gave me an identity as a language person, and the hope that someday, just possibly, I might be a real poet. Later, as a graduate student at Simon Fraser University, while studying under Robin Blaser (not just an academic, but a real live scholar-poet of the mythopoetic, cosmological imagination with a capital "I"), I had an epiphany where I dedicated myself entirely to poetry as to a religious call or vocation. Admittedly, I was and remain a dreadful Romantic, but only in the best sense of the word.
CL: How/where do you find inspiration today?
SM: Inspiration for me is as multifiolate as Dante's rose of heaven: it issues from the natural world, small things like slugs and bugs, and big things like constellations. Putting interior worlds and manifest worlds together is especially numinous. I'm an omnivorous reader of poetry, mystical and esoteric spiritualites of the globe, novels, and almost anything I can get my hands on; so I can certainly say the images and alternative worlds created by words have inspired my writing. Lately I'm rereading Denise Levertov and Emily Dickinson. Alternating back and forth between community and solitude is essential; so I'm fortunate to have a family that understands and supports my almost Rilkean need to be alone. Often it takes me at least three days at a retreat center or cabin to get back into the image flow.
CL: What is your writing process?
SM: I don't think of myself as a disciplined person, but I'm always working at poetry in one way or another. Unlike some novelists who have a grand architectural scheme and sit down at the computer each day from 9-3, I work more sporadically. Poetry is like that because it can slip into the margins of life. "I learn by going where I have to go," as Roethke said, and find, miraculously, that things I didn't think fit in the nexus actually fit. In fact, for me the waiting, dreaming, sitting in hypnogogic states, doing nothing, and just puttering about is a big part of the process. All the while something is stirring, and at unpredictable times, maybe while I'm walking or sitting in a café, a grand burst of energy will take hold and I can't stop writing. Poetry for me is somewhat like supervising a volcano. I'd say waiting and mulling and ruminating takes up about 50% of the time, the actual eruption 2% or less, and the painstaking revision (something like surveying and cleaning up the terrain after the volcano has hit), takes up whatever is leftover. Yet the mulling, stirring and cleanup are all part of the process. (Too bad poets don't get paid for the whole shebang.) Mostly my revisions move toward greater clarity and concision. Recently, I was unprepared for a poem, so had to improvise. Hiking up Mount Norman on Pender Island, I realized all of a sudden a poem had decided to emerge. I found myself "penless" before the great utterance, and with only a tube of lipstick on my person. Crazily, I inscribed the poem all over my body with the plum shade, and on reaching my accommodation, proceeded to copy down the fragmentary strokes which, most unfortunately, had faded. Like Coleridge's vast dream that would have constituted the longer version of "Kubla Khan," the whole had fled, and alas, only fragments remained. This is the story of my poetic life, so my motto for young writers is, "Be prepared."
CL: What is your revision/editing process?
SM: The short answer to the question is: "lengthy and convoluted." Poems and fragments of poems, images, lines show their tantalizing outlines. The rest of the time is an effort at finding the context or gestalt in which these fragments belong. Sometimes the process is play and sometimes slavery. Sometimes it can take a hour, sometimes days, months, even years. Until a book of poems is published, I am endlessly tweaking, fiddling with line breaks, figuring whether to punctuate or not to punctuate and where. Once a gathering of poems is "out there" in a book, my perfectionist tendencies can be laid to rest and I am able to move on. So I am fortunate to have published quite a few books. Otherwise, I would be tweaking and tormenting thousands of resentful, overworked poems and driving myself to distraction. In the end, I believe the little fellows are much better for all the attention, as I have a tendency to overwrite. "Oh, you didn't get it. Let me say it again or in another way!" Very rarely, a poem will rise like Venus from the sea and not need anything but adoration from something passing through that is bigger than me. That's when I am able to get out of the way.
CL: Did you write poetry in high school?
SM: If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?I think I answered that question in my story about Mr. Lemieux. But that's only part of the story. More than anything, a few excellent high school English teachers who loved poetry got me started. The more I saw a few shining role models caught up in the astonishment of great poetry, the more I wanted to read; and the more I read, the more I wanted to emulate what I read. Of course, I couldn't do it in high school and probably can't now, but studying the masters of craft greatly accelerated my progress as a young writer. I started then keeping a diary and writing down little dreams, longings, anxieties, some of which started to constellate as more than random jottings.
CL: Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
SM: Other than a good dictionary like the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) that includes etymologies so you can get the origins and histories of words, I would suggest The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (ed. Alex Preminger). Paul Fussell's Poetic Meter & Poetic Form, Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write, Jane Hirshfield's Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, and Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Sandy Shreve and Kate Braid's In Fine Form is excellent if you are interested in the history and use of poetic forms. Other than that, I would say, read as much great poetry as you can get your hands on. Read the classics, the moderns, the postmoderns; read metrical poetry, free verse, and experimental forms. Range widely, variously, deeply. Read and reread what you love and push yourself to read some things you aren't sure about. Read aloud. Looks for synchronicities and pleasures, what the French call jouissance or boundless, erotic (in the largest sense of the word) joy.
CL: When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
SM: I sweat for too many years over whether I would get published; then, when I got published, whether I would get published again; then when published several times, whether I would get reviewed; then, when I got reviewed, whether I would win a prize and be taken seriously; then, after winning a few small prizes, whether on not in mid-life my work would be ignored; then, with whether or not I should keep writing if someday I am not getting published. In the end, all this doesn't matter. Do you love writing and do you have to do it? Is it an intrinsic pleasure, a delight? Do you feel when you are doing it you are fully alive and rolling with the cosmos despite all the difficulty of getting to that place? Once you know you are a poet you can no more stop writing than stop breathing. If you know you have the poet's spark, then it doesn't matter what kind of recognition you receive or do not receive. You are in the great dream that is dreaming you and all your many words.
Copyright* ©1995-2014 Canadian Literature. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission prohibited.
McCaslin, Susan. CanLit Poets: Susan McCaslin. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 21 Apr. 2010. Web. 23 Apr. 2014.
Poems by Susan McCaslin
All from The Disarmed Heart (The St. Thomas Poetry Series, 2014)
pirouetting on a streetlamp
for Cirque de Soleil manoeuvres,
casting your flecked eye streetward
pitching us street slang, noir song
we interpret as a “caw” or “cackle”
actually less a grate or rasp
than a finessed blast:
What I do is me: for that I came
Such a solitary iamb
ta-dumming against cumulous
Don Juan Castaneda hipster--
Pitch Black zero--
Dark Night of the Stroll
The line “What I do is me: for that I came” is from Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “As Kingfishers Catch Fire, Dragonflies Draw Flame.”
O Lovers’ Tree
I fell in love with a forest
and became an activist
but first there was you
one, no, two, two cedars twinned
around the heartwood of a tree husk
a realm—two torsos attuned
stretched limb to limb
two root systems’ wet entangling
two of you ascending
like Plato’s round being
against the gods of progress
against those who would chainsaw
your wide open hearts
And, yes, you pant toward union
under the sky canopy
bride-ing the soar of day
palm to palm like holy palmers’ kiss
blessed jointure each to each
pressed each into the other’s ahhhh
So, silenced at your lichened knees
I surrender all
to the forest which makes
and remakes your lust and breath
your aching stately pavane
“holy palmers’ kiss: Juliet to Romeo in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Act I, scene v, lines 101-102): "For saints have hands that pilgrims hands do touch, / And palm to palm is holy palmers' kiss." Palmers are pilgrims who journey to a sacred site.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Kahn
A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph the sacred river ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Turning love’s planetary sphere
within your palm you feel its heat
from cataclysmic tumults past
Human contaminates rise up
searing the earth’s protecting rim
where silent greenhouse gases brew
till science geeks and Oxford dons
cry out again, “Beware, beware”
and corporate kings, egoic crew
new Kubla Kahns, build Xanadu
In a vision once I saw
that sunless sea, now sunny bright
piled skeletons of polar bears
new northwest passage gaping wide
and malls with walls of Plexiglas
where elites stroll endangered breeds
rare lynx on a designer leash
huge freighters nuzzling to and fro
to tweak, not sate an endless greed
and stately pleasure domes decreed
Some lands flooding, others too dry
fragments vaulting low and high
the have nots suffering the most
from western cars choking the skies
Capital the central measure
private enterprise the span
of every heartbeat, value, pleasure
until the cavernous waking heart
draws the bardic woman, man
where Alph the sacred river ran
Pine beetles, apocalyptic
infect once-thriving Cariboo trees
Tar sands’ rank emissions hover
in a landscape’s angry howl
Prophecies of war continue
glaciers peeling back new land
ripe for further exploitation
of our mother Gaia’s house
guarding ice’s treasury that ran
through caverns measureless to man
If we could revive within us
shamanic ice song’s flow
pass into being when passing
constrain the human maw
the pulse of evolution
might move through us and be
a spiralling interspecies dance
that tethers arrogance
our alphas and omegas free
within that ancient sunless sea
When the Saints Go Marching In
Let’s have them galloping, skipping, bounding
let’s have them rung in with tympani or sung with bel canto
or dancing like ladies or leaping lords
Let’s have them chanting om or halleluiah
feasted or fasted, lumbering or still
or creeping in like fog on little cat feet
Rough golden codgers or slick newborns dropped
trailing clouds of gaiety, or glory
amazing themselves that there are so many ways to be
Let’s have them ululating or rumbaing
shaking their glorious boodies
gleefully naked or clad in gold tissue
but please, please, don’t let them be marching
marching, marching, goose-stepping and proud
as to jihad, crusade, or war
Let those feet ripple, trip, tinkle or caper
A Chant for the Opening of the Third Eye
“If your eye is single, then your whole body shall be full of light.”
Open the portal just above the eyes’ yes
where nothing is withheld
you who know
this weary fluttering mind
Play on the double-fretted board of the forehead
where two solid vertical bars embed themselves
Fill in the trenches where war’s worries
march their forced march through sand
Neither Botox, nor surgery, nor peels appeal
but only old stirrings, fiery tinglings
just behind the centerpoint of the brow
past the portal where angels post
and nothing holds itself apart
WHERE: The Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, covered terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60 poetry lovers. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. Except for the coldest months, the terrace is open to the parking lot behind. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: May 7th, the first Wednesday of the month.
LIVE MUSIC: Singer/songwriter Carly Thomas will open the event, at least by 6:30. She will also perform during the intermission and at the end of the event.
THE FEATURED POETS, first Lee Johnson, followed by Susan McCaslin, open the poetry portion of the event at 7:00, followed by a Q&A.
OPEN MIC: Following the featured poet, there is about 1.5 hours of open mic, ending about 9:00 pm. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). Sign up on the reader`s list, which is on the book table at the back. It's first come, first served.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates to London Open Mic Poetry Night receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked after the intermission. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by Brick Books and The Ontario Poetry Society. Donations are our only source of income. We still haven't paid off our initial debt!