- Children’s Books
- A Note on Teaching Poetry
- Other Writing
It begins like a tiny pebble in a shoe or a grain of sand in an oyster. An almost imperceptible but persistent irritant. Until it isn’t. Until it’s rubbed me so raw that I find myself asking Why is this damn thing still here? To answer that question, the question of why I am snagged on something I am not consciously thinking about, I must write a poem.
By writing a poem, I discover what significance that thing holds for me and how it is linked to many other events, objects, feelings, dreams, ideas, and so forth – a deep and wide network of associations. Was that network built prior to my paying attention or does it arise during the process of writing a poem? I don’t know. But paying attention to one’s obsessions is its own reward, whether or not the poem that evolves proves to be a pearl or remains a dull and lumpy grain of sand
Susan Glickman grew up in Montréal, but after many travels landed up in Toronto with a husband, two children, a dog, and an old house that always needs fixing. Formerly an academic, she now works as a freelance editor and is learning to paint. She is the author of seven books of poetry from Montreal’s Véhicule Press, most recently What We Carry (2019). She has also published four novels, three children’s books, and an award-winning work of literary criticism: The Picturesque and the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape (1998). The children’s books and her novel The Tale-Teller (2012) have all been translated by Christiane Duchesne for Les Éditions du Boréal, the novel appearing as Les aventures étranges et surprenantes d’Esther Brandeau, moussaillon (2014).
Photo credit: Toan Klein.
How did you first engage with poetry?
I was enchanted with poetry from the moment my parents began reading Mother Goose to me, and I started making up rhymes before I could read or write. I loved the sounds of words as much as I loved their meaning and I loved their rhythm as much as I loved their sounds. I don’t think we read much contemporary – or even modern — poetry in high school, but I bought a copy of Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems 1956–1968 at a school bookfair when I was sixteen, and my head exploded.
Then, in university, I had the great good fortune of studying with Denise Levertov, who became my mentor and my friend. Everything I understand about open form — about writing to express the inner rhythms of thought and feeling, about the line break and the breath — I owe to her, and to the practice that began with her. Living in Greece the next year, when I was nineteen, introduced me to modern Greek poetry and that also made me more interested in experimenting outside closed forms. I sometimes go back to those forms, however. I especially love the knotty logic of sonnets, because they help me tame big emotions
In the last two years I taught eleven courses, edited nine books and the liner notes for one CD, and mentored three students privately. I also wrote the first draft of YA novel and started a new manuscript of poems and revised another novel that has not been published yet.
I had four books come out during that same period — My latest novel, The Tale-Teller, my sixth book of poems, The Smooth Yarrow, and the final two titles in my “Lunch Bunch trilogy of children’s books, Bernadette in the Doghouse and Bernadette to the Rescue. This meant I had to do final edits and a lot of promotion for them as well — which wasn’t as much fun as it ought to have been because it was so hard to juggle everything.
For example, when I went to Ottawa for a poetry festival a week after my husband had major surgery, I had to set up a schedule of friends visiting daily to help him with things because I felt so bad about going away and then, on that trip, I lost the power cord to my laptop so was not able to correct my students’ work as I needed to before teaching the following day. This is the kind of stuff that happens when you try to do everything!
The only way to survive as a freelancer who wants to do her own writing is to be brutally efficient — which means you will have no social life. You should, however, get a gym membership and use it, because you will need to keep your energy level up. In addition, if you keep fit, you can look good in inexpensive clothing, which is all that you will be able to afford. The only thing you shouldn’t skimp on is getting a decent haircut from time to time. Having a good haircut makes you look like you’re competent and in control of your life even when you are not. That and a watch. Always wear a watch. Only teenagers use their cell-phones to check the time.
Besides getting a good haircut and wearing a watch, here is what I always tell my creative writing students at U of T and Ryerson when they ask me for advice. I tell them a writer only needs a few things:
Ideally you get a room of your own to work in, even if it’s tucked away in a corner of the basement, somewhere you can leave ongoing projects spread out and no one will mess with them, but if you are forced to work at the kitchen or dining room table, make sure everyone else clears away their stuff after every meal so you have space to work. (You may need to get a bunch of bins or baskets for them to sweep everything into).
including this little bit published online in Open Book Toronto some years back:
Q: When you are writing fiction, is there an audience you are thinking of?
A: It took me a while to realize why this question made me so uncomfortable. Finally I realized that the problem was that I write for a reader, singular, who is actively making my work come alive in their imagination through a process of engagement, and not an audience, plural, sitting there listening while I perform the work for them. Although I always read my writing out loud to get the rhythms and sounds right and prune any syntactical awkwardness, although I do care hugely that it lend itself to live presentation, there’s really only one reader I’m writing for: highly intelligent, empathetic, curious, witty, and easily bored (though not irritably critical). This reader has impeccable taste, has read widely and with great discrimination, and demands that I revise ruthlessly. I’ve never actually met this reader, but we have a tacit agreement that I will do my best to write something worth reading and they will do their best to provide generous attention.
Interview with Pearl Luke (2007)
What is your favourite thing about writing?
My favourite thing about writing fiction is the sensation, when it’s going well, of inhabiting another world and other bodies; of living more than one life. It’s exhilarating and terrifying because you have no idea where you are going or how long it will last. My favourite thing about writing poetry is the sensation, when it’s going well, of making something fine; finer than I’d ever hoped I could. In the best of all possible worlds, both these sensations happen simultaneously and that, right there, is my reason for living.
But there are lots of other things I love about writing that keep me going even when I’m not in the zone. I love sharpening pencils, for example. I love having an excuse to make endless cups of tea. I love going for walks with my dog Toby because we both need a break from sitting, for God’s sake, and then finding that the impasse is resolved after about a half an hour of chasing squirrels and admiring my neighbours’ gardens. I love not needing an excuse to buy more books. I love not having to dress up to go to work. I love having articulate friends. I love writing on napkins in cafés and on in little notebooks on trains. I love doing cryptic crossword puzzles and playing Scrabble and reading Roget’s Thesaurus and calling such activities “research.”
Good thing you didn’t ask me what I don’t like about writing however, because there are just as many things I could list there! For instance, I don’t love that look on people’s faces when they ask you what you do and you say you’re a writer and they want to know if you’re famous because of course any good writer would be famous, right? I don’t like the loneliness, and the endless waiting when you send stuff out, and the lack of money. But you didn’t ask, so I won’t answer.
What do you think readers would be most surprised to learn about you?
I’m really funny! But so far that hasn’t made it into my books. I don’t know why. It may be that my humour is a defence against feeling the kinds of things I let myself feel in my writing. Or it may be that my humour is just too improvisational to merit transcription.
What We Carry explores the human condition and its impact on identity, culture and our physical environs. Glickman’s lyric poems traverse the Earth — commemorating disappearing species and exploring the ruins of Mycenae — and gracefully poses keen questions on time and mortality. Glickman is a poet, novelist, nonfiction writer and teacher based in Toronto.
and in the process purged a lifetime of paper – fifteen large recycling bags full. I got up at 6 am to scurry up and down the street, stuffing grad school essays, teaching notes, drafts of old poems, every journal I’d ever been published in, and who knows what else into the neighbours’ blue bins.
I am not precious about my work; I reckoned the world already had more than enough of it. I also assumed that I had copies of anything worth keeping on my hard drive or in my archives.
This proved to be quite wrong! Many poems, stories, and essays didn’t make the long migration from my first computer and the large floppy discs to a later, smaller generation of floppy discs to the hard drive of my current machine. Of course, it took me quite a while to realize how much I’d mislaid – only when I tried to gather together all my prose for a potential book did I understand how reckless I’d been.
I was able to recover some lost essays online; others at the library. But what I will never ever recover are the poems – poems in all those little magazines that no longer exist anywhere, magazines I had copies of that I tossed so casually into my neighbours’ bins. Poems that never made it into my books for one reason or another. I had assumed that this was because they were dreadful but some were really not that bad, they just didn’t fit in with whatever the overarching theme or style of my current book was, or they needed revision I wasn’t inclined to do just then but might have done another time IF I STILL HAD THEM.
But I don’t.
Periodically something turns up, waving “Remember me?” Like today, when I went on Google to see if there was any mention of What We Carry, just published this week, and in the process stumbled on the following poem, and some questions I answered about it in Canadian Literature! Here they are now, before I lose them again.
I’m a passionate gardener, so horticultural imagery frequently finds its way into my work. I think here what happened is that Shakespeare’s characterization of envy as “The Green-Eyed Monster” in Othello conflicted with my sense of green being a positive force, so I imagined a way in which the “greenness” of envy could be seen as not such a bad thing, but—as all green things are—“natural.” “Perennial” in the sense of happening all the time, everywhere, and therefore perhaps not to be seen as a deadly sin but an ordinary aspect of human nature, since everyone feels overlooked and under-appreciated from time to time.
At the time I wrote it, I had dropped out of academic and literary life to raise children. So I often felt this way, and was ashamed of my feelings.
The poem is built up of a series of negative statements which are highly concrete images of something abstract. It’s a kind of a game. If you didn’t have the title to guide you, you would have no idea what the speaker is trying (and ultimately failing) to describe.
I’ve always loved Shakespeare’s sonnet 116, which generates tremendous psychic tension by the use of negative statements. After all, anyone who has to declare “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ admit impediments” had already admitted that he is well aware that impediments exist! In the same way, the speaker of this poem manages to suggest a great deal of ambivalence about what she’s saying.
As well, by using the strongest language to say what it is not, rather than what it is, the speaker ensures that we are likely to carry away an image of envy as “screwed,” “stagnant,” “root-bound,” “swamp scum,” “parasitic,” “a clinging vine,” “excessive,” and “trying too hard.”
Finally, the poem pretends to reach a conclusion but doesn’t—there is no final period.
What We Carry by Susan Glickman Véhicule Press, 92 pages, $17.95
A keen awareness of mortality underlies the poems in Susan Glickman’s vibrant seventh collection. It’s expressed not as dread but as a bittersweet cherishing of what she holds dear, from memories to music to nature. As the Toronto poet and novelist puts it in one poem, “with more time behind you than ahead,/the world grows larger, pregnant with wonder.” The world’s losses grow larger, too: “Elegies for the 21st Century” is a series of sonnets addressed to various extinct species, including the river otter of Japan “once abundant as reeds in the waters.” These lyric poems have an unassuming grace and clarity, and an eclectic range: Glickman “translates” a number of Chopin’s 24 Preludes, Opus 28, into poems that mirror the mood of the music; elsewhere, she muses wittily on the travails of urban life, such as being “hemmed in … by backpacks and hockey bags,/groceries and gifts” on a crowded streetcar.
-Barb Carey, The Toronto Star, April 6 2019