Susan McCaslin is a poet, educator, scholar, workshop facilitator, and author of twelve volumes of poetry, including her most recent, Lifting the Stone (Seraphim Editions, 2007). She has edited two anthologies of sacred poetry (Poetry and Spiritual Practice and A Matter of Spirit), is on the editorial board of Event: the Douglas College Review, and an editorial consultant for The Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion (Harvard Divinity School). Susan lives in Fort Langley, British Columbia with her husband, and has a daughter in university. She completed her M.A. in English at Simon Fraser University and her Ph.D. in English at the University of British Columbia. After twenty-three years as a professor of English and Creative Writing at Douglas College in New Westminster, B.C., Susan is now a full-time writer, giving poetry workshops and readings. She is currently working on a new poetry cycle calledDemeter Goes Skydiving and developing workshops on the mystics and the poetics of mystical experience.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
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.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
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.
What is your writing process?
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.”
What is your revision/editing process?
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.
Did you write poetry in high school? 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.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
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.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
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.