- Children’s Books
- A Note on Teaching Poetry
- Other Writing
“Artful flight.” That’s critical writing at its best. And it’s creativity.
It’s what Susan Glickman brings together in her collection of essays and reviews spanning decades of thinking, writing and being in the Canadian literary landscape and the wider world.
In a clear-sighted introduction to this collection Glickman – a poet and novelist in her own right -is surprised at the “fugitive prose” she has accumulated over her professional life and poured into essays, a flexible form allowing her questing mind free flow. Fulfilling the promise of creative criticism, Glickman enters the imagination of her writers with sensitivity and knowledge. She participates in conversations that approach, at their most effective, a kind of co-creation, enlightening both author and reader and often the critic herself.
Artful Flight provides a deep dive into Canadian poetry and the poetry makers who shaped where we are as poets and readers today. Glickman gets inside how they did it. Through her combination of critical intelligence and poetic instinct, we are invited into process, a sharing of how (selectively) modern Canadian poetry means, articulated by someone who understands and appreciates it as well as practising it. Glickman’s poets are not just remembered but dynamically acknowledged, their fine lines of influence traced and refreshed with critical integrity, with immediacy and excitement.
Not only is Glickman clear she is courageous, contradicting that ‘eminence gris’ of CanLit, Northrop Frye on his early relegating of our literature to a ‘garrison mentality’ “because detached from European culture.” Nor does she shrink from clearly indicating throughout her reviews and essays where a poem soars and where, occasionally, it fails to fly. And often why she eagerly anticipates this or that poet’s next work. Glickman is seriously encouraging.
In sharp essays about craft, she sheds light on such topics as the use of the second person impersonal, illustrated in poems by Kim Maltman and Roo Borson. The technique, often “a sidelong wooing of the reader to enter into the experience of the poem as the fictional persona” is intriguingly slippery. Her discussion of the poetic line typifies Glickman’s incisive analysis: “The poetic line is where feeling and syntax meet” and “it is important to look at the way lines and sentences differ…in the way that they are articulated by the voice.” And although poetry must pay some deference to grammar, it “is always testing the limits of syntax to achieve more freedom for itself.” She speaks of “the accurate scoring of poetry,” that renders “the poem on the page an exact guide to reading.” Further, “poetry is never speech” but “the result of aesthetic design.” After an adroit dance through William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow,” she states simply that his language is not so much a function of the American Idiom as the way the poem insists Williams design the language it needs.
Glickman gets to the heart of her poets quickly. Robyn Sarah’s “aural symbolism.” Anne Szumigalski’s “mystical bent,” her Celtic narrative. Diana Hartog’s accessible personality comes through the “state of attentive wonder in which she composes her poems.” The consistently political poetry of Gary Geddes typically adopts the persona of a figure in an historic situation, skillfully balancing metaphor with exposition. In her assessment of the poet’s Selected Poems (1970-1995) Glickman urges him towards a freer exploration of this blending in his future work, citing how lyric and political have been powerfully fused by such poetic giants as Neruda and Forché.
She explores the politics of poetry found in Peter Dale Scott. “Coming to Jakarta: A Poem About Terror,” his many-canto’d epic is propelled by outrage at the CIA intervention in the politics of both Indonesia (with Sukarno) and Chile (with Allende) that ousted those leftist leaders. The poem’s political roots are also personal. Scott’s diplomatic and legal background (the “hidden agenda” behind his public face) propels his insistence, like Pound, on ‘a twentieth century poem that includes history.’
With her synthesizing vision, Glickman’s reviews generate literary ideas that reward scrutiny. She illustrates how “the Canadian use of documentary sources in Canadian poetry,” when not “transformed by the imagination,” fails, as opposed to the success of such sources in the seminal works of Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie or Ondaatje’s The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. Glickman takes us on a lively romp through the love poetry of Don Coles (K. in Love) and David Solway (Modern Marriage) both of which, in defining “the extremes of masculine psychology” are “books for grownups.” Coles is “all quivering adoration and breathless deferral” while Solway “makes no pretense of being nice.”
Glickman’s discussion of Michael Ondaatje’s “new and selected,” The Cinnamon Peeler (1993) begins with her disappointment that it contains only one new poem. Her explanation makes us look again at the value and function of any ‘Selected.’ “Ondaatje not only culls poems and reorganizes them to tell a new story…he does some serious editing of individual poems.” Further, “each time a poet selects from his or her works to compose a new representative whole, we have the pleasure of seeing literary autobiography being (re)-made.” This is the kind of critical thinking that enlarges our perception of the literary culture we think we know, reminds us of the substantial work it requires and how it changes.
Glickman investigates in great depth and detail the poets she feels have changed the landscape, articulating patterns over a range of work. In her essay on Don Coles’ Landslides: Selected Poems (1986) she remarks how his situations centre on “visual memory, usually provoked by an image,” how the speaker is a sort of Everyman exploring archetypal roles in a domestic narrative with an educated diction that is also quietly self-deprecating. Glickman characterizes the new poems in this Selected as beginning with “shivers of mortality” then transforming into “dream and fable. By contrast, Coles’ The Prinzhorn Collection freezes time and preserves a moment in history. These poems grant “the unmailed letters and drawings of the forgotten inmates in an insane asylum the serious audience of which they were originally deprived.” Always the conscientious guide, she suggests future direction: either towards a surrealism that continues to transcend the “narrowly personal” or the kind of “collective experience of history” represented by ‘The Prinzhorn Collection.’
Glickman is often a phrase-maker. Her detailed discussion of the Persian ghazal in the poetry of Phyllis Webb leads to such revelations as the “aesthetic androgyny” Webb discovered in the form and how it freed this metaphysical poet into a wilder flow of images, into process. Characterizing John Newlove as a “bruised idealist lurking under [a] nihilist’s spiky armour,” she spends a thoughtful essay comparing the strain apparent in poems that represent experience to the hypnotic strength of poems that become the experience. She distils the wide-ranging complications of Erin Moure: “a convergence of mysticism, feminism and socialism in an ethic of personal transcendence and an aesthetic of subversion,” a poet who deconstructs and reconstructs language (sensually, spiritually, politically) “allowing the individual to speak her particular truth and still be understood.” Glickman recognizes how Bronwen Wallace, whose poetic voice closely imitates ordinary speech is drawn instinctively to a narrative form that “accommodate[s] many voices” because “the truth is polyphonic and experiential rather than monophonic and absolute.”
In her final section, The Self in the World, Glickman shares personal and professional reflections revealing many selves. The fearless wanderer, the frustrated academic, the overextended mother, the ecstatic lover of music and the visual, all held in wrapt suspension by her joyful addiction to language. The range of lived experience – both difficult and enriching – and the embrace of art “as a form of attention” expressed in this book make for the best writers and critics.
Responding to another poet, I found myself saying “I work very hard to make things look simple.” This aesthetic governs everything I do in every medium, but I think it was instilled into me during the years I studied dance. It isn’t so popular in poetry — or in dance — these days, when conspicuous difficulty is prized above almost everything else. But I am too old to change my ways, and still find my heart singing when a poem sounds completely natural and unforced and yet has resonances and complexities that become increasingly evident upon rereading. After all, there are few lyrics out there that strike the heart as purely as:
Westron wynde when wyll thow blow
the smalle rayne downe can Rayne
Cryst yf my love were in my Armys
And I yn my bed Agayne.
Susan Glickman is an artist of words and brush. She paints, edits, teaches and writes many genres: fiction, essays of literary history, non-fiction, children’s books and poetry. She has won a whack of awards for her writing. (I can’t believe her fabulous collection from Vehicule The Smooth Yarrow is already a decade ago. Time to reread.)
PP: Susan, what have you read lately that lit you up?
SG: In addition to my typical diet of poetry (recently a lot of Jane Hirshfield as well as Dionne Brand, Dorianne Lux, and John Steffler), and historical fiction such as Lauren Groff’s magnificent novel Matrix, I have been reading a fair bit of sci-fi and sci-fact. The former includes a deep dive into Ursula Le Guin as well as more contemporary stuff like Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, the fabulous time-travel novels of Connie Willis, and Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, the latter inspiring books such as Sy Montgomery’s The Soul of an Octopus, Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, and Carl Safina’s Becoming Wild.
PP: Well, my reading list just got a longer. Those last two in particular. I’ve heard very good things about Sea of Tranquility and The Soul of an Octopus was great. Can you add a why or how for the shoutout?
SG: I’m overcome with grief at how humanity has abused this planet. I am seeking a better understanding of other creatures as well as paradigms of alternate ways to live.
PP: That makes sense. That consciousness is in your poetry. More need to feel that desire to learn and change. What’s life’s focus these days, literary or otherwise?
SG: In February of 2022, a book of my selected essays entitled Artful Flight came out with Porcupine’s Quill.
PP: Congratulations! That’s fabulous.
SG: I was amazed that they would want to publish such a thing and then rendered speechless at its exquisite production. Putting it together required me to review a lifetime of fugitive prose and reduce over 500 pages to around 225.
PP: Wow. That’s a job! How did that go?
SG: Editing the book inspired me to return to essay form by writing appreciations of things that I love; a good way to survive a dark time! Subjects range from pencils to lichen to tea to octopuses. The working title of the project is The Sweet Particulars. It is really a kind of exploded autobiography since nobody else would like the same weird collection of stuff as I do and there are random personal anecdotes scattered throughout.
I should add that I am illustrating all the essays myself. Before the pandemic I attended three years of full-time art classes at Central Technical school in Toronto, so my focus these days is split between writing and visual art. Here are a couple of oil paintings for your blog, in case you want examples: one still life, and a portrait of my son Jesse in his music studio (sorry the latter is tilted; used my camera phone in the studio).
PP: Congratulations again. Are there other things underway or forthcoming? Anything you can tell?
SG: I have a new book of poetry coming out from Signal Editions of Véhicule Press, in 2023. Cathedral/Grove will be my eighth book with them, coming out forty years after my first, Complicity.
PP: Wow, awesome. What is it like?
SG: It is by far my longest and most ambitious collection of poems, addressing the tension between culture and nature in the West as seen from the outsider perspective of an Ashkenazi Jewish woman.
In a similar vein, I was recently interviewed about Esther Brandeau, the protagonist of my novel The Tale-Teller (Cormorant, 2012), for a forthcoming film by director Len Pearl about the history of the Jews in Canada.
PP: That’s an exciting development. Could you point to where there’s work can people grab now?
PP: In addition to my seven books of poetry with Véhicule, the most recent being What We Carry (2019), I have also published four novels for adults including The Tale-Teller, the “Lunch Bunch” trilogy of early chapter books for children, Artful Flight (the book of essays I mentioned above) and The Picturesque and the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape.
One section of Cathedral/Grove, “Survival Kit” – a group of prose poems about tools, with accompanying drawings – came out in The New Quarterly issue 153 (Winter 2020), and lots of other poems are scattered all over the place in publications from Riddle Fence to Prairie Fire to The Malahat Review. Several essays from the work in progress have been published as well; one that might interest your readers, about my relationship with American poet Denise Levertov, is coming out in the autumn 2022 Queen’s Quarterly.
PP: That’s wonderful to hear. One last question: Is there any author site, social media urls or things you’d like to plug?
SG: I maintain a website, as one is encouraged to do these days, at www.susanglickman.com. I have been having a bit of trouble with it since the WordPress theme I composed it in has expired and the font has gotten weird and unpredictable. Maybe one day I will redo it properly, but for now that’s where you can find more stuff about me than you will ever need to know.
PP: That’s the best kind of site. Thank you for your time and for your work. Folks, you can buy her poetry books at Vehicule.
I have been organizing my archives and oh my! It is astounding how much stuff I have written over this lifetime. Even after throwing out over 30 bags of paper for recycling, I have 16 bankers’ boxes of journals, and notes, and drafts, and correspondence, publicity photos and promotional materials. Sorry, trees.
Autobiographical Notes for Turning Points Conference (2002)
I am a third-generation Jewish Anglophone Montrealer. In other words, a minority (Jewish among Christians) of a minority (English among French) among a minority (Quebec within Canada). This sense of being an outsider seems to be typical of most people who become writers; writers tend to be observers rather than participants, and are aware of a certain detachment even in the thick of things. Nobody in my extended family was – or is – interested in literature; no one is even a serious reader. But everyone loves to talk and to tell jokes and stories, and maybe that general chattiness had an influence on my work. I was an insatiable reader as a child (and I still am; no one has ever become a good writer without being a dedicated reader). I think that the fact I had such a big loud emotional familydrove me to read more just for privacy!
Reading is one kind of travelling, of course, and the best way of travelling through time. But nothing beats actual physical experience of the world for a sense of place and of the differences in society and culture that go with it. I left Montreal at seventeen to go to university in Boston, in Greece, and then in England, doing a lot of travelling as well across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. And that’s another typical writerly path, I have found: we tend to be extremely curious about the world, and therefore avid travellers.
I think it is very helpful for young writers to see a bit of the world so they don’t get too complacent about their values or their interpretations of things. I know that my writing was strongly influenced by Greek literature, which I never would have read had I not spent ten months studying archaeology and art in Athens. Like everyone else, I’d done a lot of creative writing as a child, but poetry first became a serious vocation when was introduced to Modern Greek poetry (Seferis, Cavafy, Elytis, Ritsos, Sikelyanos, and so on). These writers seemed less preoccupied with formalism and more politically and emotionally engaged than the Modern English and American poets I was familiar with. Their work opened new doors for me and started to close the gap between what I wrote in my private journal and the rather precious myth-and-metaphor laden poems I’d been working on in creative writing workshops.
SO: what drew me to writing in the beginning was
1) a sense of being an outsider
2) a love of oral language: jokes, stories, and conversation
3) a love of books
3) curiosity about the world
Another big influence on my career was the American poet Denise Levertov, whom I met back in Boston after I came back from Greece. I took a poetry workshop with her and she became my mentor, and later my friend. Besides having the literary equivalent of perfect pitch, she also had one of the fiercest consciences of anybody I’ve ever met. Her example taught me that being a poet didn’t mean you had to cower in your garret, or even lurk in an ivory tower. You could be out there, actively, in the world, and your poetry could speak to any issue that moved you. My first book, Complicity, published in 1983, was dedicated to her. It was more explicitly political than any I’ve written since, but I think my definition of what constitutes a “political” issue has broadened since those early days. Nonetheless, that title sums up an important theme in all my work: individual responsibility and communal affiliation.
After changing my major every five minutes, I finally decided I wanted to study English literature and went, for that purpose, to Oxford (it being about the most “English” place I could think of). Subsequently I worked at publishing house in London and then at another in Toronto. I got my Ph.D. in 1983, the same year as I published my first book of poems; by then I was teaching English at U. of T. where I worked, off and on, for many years.
My second book, The Power to Move, was published in 1986; it can best be described as poems of love and travel, and of love as a journey. Several of the poems in it were written during the time my husband and I lived in Mexico. Henry Moore’s Sheep and Other Poems was published in 1990. The long title poem is feminist, satirical art criticism, and other poems in the book tackle the experience of growing up female. My fourth collection, about the female body in sickness, health, pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood, entitled Hide & Seek, came out in 1995, a year after the birth of my second child. The best poems from these four titles, as well as about twenty new pieces, were included in Running in Prospect Cemetery: New & Selected Poems, published in 2004. I’ve also written a couple of unpublished books of kids’ poems.
In 1998, a book of essays, The Picturesque & the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape, was published by McGill-Queen’s University Press, and won two major awards: the Gabrielle Roy prize for the best book of English-Canadian literary criticism, and the Raymond Klibansky, for the best work in the Humanities. This book was the fruit of a research fellowship I held at the University of Toronto for many years. Ironically, I won the prizes after my teaching career had ended! But writing a long work in prose gave me the confidence to undertake my first novel, The Violin Lover (Goose Lane Editions, 2006),which was set in London between the wars in a community of classical musicians, and hence required a lot of research itself. So, although I’ve gone back and forth between academic and creative writing the collaboration has always been a fruitful one. I did almost as much research for The Violin Lover and for my second work of fiction, Esther, Star of the Sea (set in 1738) as for my scholarly book; it just came out in a different form.
If there’s anything I have to teach you, then, it is probably that writing doesn’t come from nowhere – it comes out of a lifetime of learning. You can learn many ways: from books, and art, and all the things people make; from your family, friends, and people you encounter, from travel to different countries, from doing different jobs. But you have to pay attention. I often find that young writers think they have to be “original” and believe that they will be inspired without working hard at their craft; that they shouldn’t read too much or they will be influenced by other people’s books. This is the single biggest mistake you can make.