A womb without a view until the ’50s

In From Right to Left: Maternalism and Women’s Political Activism in Postwar Canada, Brian Thorn profiles women in the 1940s and ’50s who were active at all points along the political spectrum. FULL STORY

Trading bread for eggs: A poet’s life

"I still don’t know, after 40 years of being here, what it is about the place that changes your life." -- Susan Musgrave

February 06th, 2014

"Margaret Atwood told me I had to be on Twitter." -- Susan Musgrave, now living on Haida Gwaii

Unheralded Joseph Planta has been conducting interviews for his website The Commentary for ten years. Here follows his conversation with Victoria-born, Haida Gwaii resident Susan Musgrave, editor of  Force Field: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia (Mother Tongue Publishing) during which Planta exhibits one of the most important skills for any interviewer: knowing how to listen.

Although she lives in a seven-sided house near Masset, Susan Musgrave now teaches in the University of British Columbia’s optional-residency MFA program in Creative Writing. Her most recent poetry collection, Origami Dove, was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award. Her most recent novel is Alone. Visit www.susanmusgrave.com. This conversation primarily concerns her landmark anthology that exclusively pertains to living female poets of B.C.

“I was worried,” Planta recalls, “because Musgrave knew little of me, and I’d only read this one recent collection before phoning her up. Prior to the interview, Shelagh Rogers kindly reassured me I’d enjoy talking to Musgrave, that I’d have fun. She was right. We talked about poetry, the women poets of British Columbia, her life and career, her views on education, and more. I told her we’d speak for about twenty minutes, and she said that was just fine; her sourdough bread needed to bake for just that amount of time. When we got to the twenty-minute-mark, she had to put the phone down and turn her baking pans around.”

Susan Musgrave: Good morning.

Joseph Planta: Good morning. Are you at the bed and breakfast you own?

S.M.: No, I’m out at my house out in the Sangam Rive. I’m making sourdough bread, which is like a 36-hour production. It’s a great bartering place up here. People have chickens and they want a loaf of bread. So I’ll trade eggs for bread. I’m getting more famous for my bread than I am for my writing.

J.P.: [laughter]

S.M.: In a small place, you’re always more famous for what you can do. You know, the jam you make, or the relish you make or the bread you make. I like it that way.

J.P.: How long does it take to get up there?

S.M.: To Masset? Well, you can fly from Vancouver on Pacific Coastal. It’s two hours from the South Terminal to Masset. Or take Air Canada to Sandspit. If you take the ferry, it’s two days and two nights, so that gives you an idea of how far it is. If you go over land, it’s an amazing trip from Port Hardy to Rupert to Skidegate. It’s a long, long trip, which I love doing, because you’ve got the Inside Passage.

J.P.: Do you remember the first time you went to Haida Gwaii?

S.M.: Oh, I do! I was living in Cambridge, in England. We’d moved from the west of Ireland and we weren’t very happy in Cambridge. My publisher, Michael Yates—who had Sono Nis Press, who published my first book—was working in Port Clements as a logger. I had spent a lot of time feeling homesick for the coast, visiting the Ethnology Museum in Cambridge. It was full of stolen artefacts like totem poles from Tanu, and I felt so at home in this museum.  I kind of lived there. A lot of the things there made me really want to come here. So when I found out that Mike Yates was here, I came up. It was when I came home for Christmas o on sort of a holiday. As people do, they either fall in love with this place and they want to live here, or they don’t like it. Mostly people say, you know, “There’s something mystical about this place,’”and “It’s a very healing place.” And now my guests at Copper Beech House will say, “It’s changed my life.” I hear that over and over again, which is a pretty amazing thing. I still don’t know, after 40 years of being here, what it is about the place that changes your life.

It takes me about two weeks to decompress after I’ve been down south. When I lived here in the ’70s, it was really like having a love affair. When I would go back down to Victoria, I would go through withdrawal—I would just be wretched. It has that effect; it has as much of a pull as a person you’re in love with. So, if you came here for just four days, you would just get the tip of the affair [laughter]. You’d get…‘Oh, I need more of this!’ And then you’d be back I would guess. Four days. That’s how long Shelagh Rogers was here. They were up here for the Peter Gzowski Golf Tournament. And Linda Cullen and Bob Robertson.

J.P.: It makes me want to go there now.

S.M.: If you only have three or four days, it’s still better than never having been here, right?

J.P: How did you get involved with editing Force Field?

S.M.: Mona Fertig and her husband Peter were guests at Copper Beech House the year I took over. It was a pretty rough year. My daughter was sort of running the place before she got back into her addictive cycle, and so, there were a lot of things going wrong. Anyway, I survived the worst six months of my life, and during that time Peter and Mona came. And Mona proposed this anthology and said, “How would you like to edit it?” I’ll say yes to everything at first until I step back, and then what have I done? So at some point, I said, “No, Mona, I just can’t do this; I think it should be ten poets. I can’t do a hundred and fifty, or seventy, I’d have to leave people out and I don’t want to leave people out. But if we do 75, there’s going to be another 75.” And sure enough, the poet who won the BC Book Award this year, Sarah de Leeuw—she wasn’t in the book. We just had to drop so many people. I thought, whatever you do, somebody will be missed and it’s unfortunate. I want to do a second volume—but I don’t think Mona does. She’s worn out from all the good work she does.

J.P.: And how did you arrive at number 77?

S.M.: [laughter] Well, I really like the number seven. My house is seven-sided. I have three seven-sided modules, and a seven-sided table. I don’t know. We had 75 and then we found three more that we’d forgotten that we needed to include. It was really tricky and that’s the part I don’t like. I don’t like having to say to people, we can’t include you. That’s why I chickened out and said, “I don’t think I want to do this.” She [Mona] said, “Well, you can put me down as an editor.” She has not done that yet [laughter]. I’m going to blame all the omissions on her—”It was Mona! She’s so mean! She can just cut people out!” I would have had 157! Or 177. [laughter]

J.P.: Did you know all of the poets that are in this book?

S.M.: No.

J.P.: But did you know of their work?

S.M.: Yeah, it’s hard not to. I think there may be one or two who are really new who I didn’t teach. I teach now at UBC.  I say to my friends Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier, “When we were starting out, there were no writing workshops.” I think there was one out at UBC. Earl Birney used to teach creative writing [when he was in the UBC English Department]. But now we’re teaching all these people how to write, all our trade secrets, and they’re all winning prizes, and getting published and it’s hard as you get older. People want the new voices. And it’s like, “What are you doing? Maybe we should just shut up and not be teaching people.” But there are always amazing writers coming along.

J.P.: Poets of the past like Page, Lowther, Livesey, they’re not in this collection.

S.M.: Right. If you die, you don’t get to be in this anthology. If you just had 77 dead women poets in B.C., there’d be a whole other anthology.

J.P.: Do you find that you run into people that are surprised that there are this many women poets in the province?

S.M.: I haven’t had that reaction.  But I was really shocked that there were that many. There’s that old saying if you throw a stone…oh no…that’s different. Well, if you throw a stone in any mental hospital, you hit a poet.

J.P.: [laughter]

S.M.: But that doesn’t apply here. [laughter] All the poets here have pretty good reputations, that’s what’s really astounding. I wonder if it would be the same in Alberta and all the other provinces, if you could come up with 77? Maybe that’s another project for Mona. She could do 77 Manitoba women poets; spend the rest of her life doing this.

J.P.: What do you think this collection says about British Columbia?

S.M.: I don’t think that way. I mean, I don’t know what anything says about anything quite honestly. I read individual poems and lines of poems, and they either affect me or they don’t. I don’t look in the general way. It’s too hard. It’s like being in the forest and trying to see the trees—I suppose I’m trying to use some pathetic analogy. But when there’s that much poetry it becomes overwhelming. I’m on a lot of juries and I find that this is the worst way to read poetry, when you have 100 books of poems because, well, pretty well everything starts kind of blending into one. It’s very hard to come up with something that stands out. So there’s a risk of that when I had ten poems from each poet to read, that how am I going to see what really jumps out at me. There was something quite difficult to do; how to pick the best. So I ended up asking the poets to please list your top four—what you would like to see represent you. Some said they didn’t want to do that, they wanted me to choose, and others did. And then we had some longer poems. I think Anne Cameron has a longer poem. I wanted a balance. I wanted different kinds of poetry, what they call language poetry, which is more sort of conceptual. And I wanted some concrete poetry, Judith Copithorne and a couple of other people. So I wanted to show that there are many different kinds of voices and form being written here. I think poetry’s individual—it’s a collection. It’s overwhelming. I look at the book, I pick it up: It’s such an amazing object. And then I dip into it, but I don’t read it from cover to cover. I read bits. I read bits of poems and sometimes I read them backwards. I may not be the ideal reader [laughter].

J.P.: Do you think there’s anything that can be done to make people more poetry savvy?

Musgrave in 2013

Susan Musgrave in 2013

S.M.: I think having poets in schools has changed a lot. It’s true that school ruins you for poetry. Well, we were taught the romantics when I was 14, and I was worried about the atom bomb falling on me, we would have ‘Daffodils,’ and I would think, who is this person? ‘Daffodils’ is taught in more countries that are colonies of Britain in places like Africa where nobody’s seen a daffodil, and they still have to memorize that poem. It’s done a lot of damage in the world. [laughter] So you get people learning things or studying things that doesn’t have any bearing on their life. What you need to do in schools is be teaching rap lyrics,  or just expose people to poetry and say, “If this appeals to you, great. Go and listen to more of this, or read more of this.” In any anthology, you might find one or two poets you like, and then you go and look for more of their work.

What I always say to people who want to write, “Start with an anthology like this one, read through it, find what appeals to you, and then read more of that. But a lot of it’s not going to appeal to you.” Quite honestly, that’s how poetry works. You can show your best friend your favourite poem and they’ll go, “Oh that’s great.” But they don’t have that same emotional reaction you do because it’s triggering all sorts of things from your life in you. They may show you their favourite poem and you’re… “oh, whatever!” [laughter]. The problem with poetry is that you don’t get the same poem appealing to lots of people. You get the odd poem that does and that’s pretty much a miracle when that happens. There are probably lots of poems in history that have affected people but school is where it starts being ruined because we feel self-conscious, we feel that we don’t get it; it’s too lofty for us. It’s a language we don’t speak. I prefer plain language in poetry. Lew Welch, an American poet says, “Rinse your ear, language is speech.’” I love Tom Wayman’s poetry because he wrote about work and people’s jobs. He’s not in this, of course, he’s not transgendered or a woman.

J.P.: [laughter] Who else is like that?

S.M.:  Kate Braid writes poems about her work as a carpenter. So, I like poems that speak directly. I like Lorna Crozier’s poetry a lot. Tons of poems in this anthology. But there’s something for everybody and I think that’s the thing. I tried not to just inflict my taste on the world here. The job as an editor is not just to say that these are my favourite poems. These are the poems that, you know, in this book, you might find something that appeal to you. That was my attitude.

J.P.:  Elizabeth Bachinsky is in this collection. In her latest collection she has a transcript of an instant message conversation she had with someone. I asked her if there can be poetry in a Tweet or a Facebook update. And if if that’s the case, anybody can be a poet.

S.M.: Well, there’s poetry in it, but it doesn’t mean everybody’s a poet. I find poetry everywhere.  I teach my students about rhyme and repetition. I say, just look around your community. Like, “Be wise, immunize.” There’s signs everywhere that use poetry. Rhyming poetry because it catches your attention. If it said, “Be wise, get your inoculation,” it wouldn’t have the same ring, right?

J.P.:  [laughter]

S.M.:  So there is poetry everywhere, which is perhaps why people think it is easy to write. I certainly think there is poetry in Tweets. I just got my first cell phone on Saturday so I’m quite new to this, but I do Twitter. Margaret Atwood told me I had to be on Twitter. After two years, I am just kind of getting it. You get your news through Twitter. You find out that Osama Bin Laden’s dead before anybody else does.

J.P.: Right.

S.M.: He’s allegedly dead.

J.P.:  [laughter]

S.M.: And there are some wonderful mistakes and malapropisms that can be like poetry. One of my guests asked for an ensuite bath, and it came out ‘Einstein’s bath.’

BOTH: [laughter]

Musgrave decompresses

Susan Musgrave decompresses

S.M.: Oh yes, we definitely have a room with Einstein’s bath! So who knows what poetry is? I think there’s a quotation that says something like, “The world is made so very much poetry but not so very many poets.”  It’s hard not to be elitist about it. I think it’s great that anybody writes whatever they want to write if it makes them feel better. But it’s difficult when people come to me saying, “Why am I not getting this published?” I can tell by the first two lines why they’re not. If you try to explain to them, “Have you read any contemporary poetry?”, they’ll say, “‘Well no, I don’t want to be influenced.” I hear that a lot. Well, you need to be influenced because if you’re not influenced you don’t know the market, you don’t know what’s trendy. Gerard Manley Hopkins: if you wrote like him now, you wouldn’t get published. So, that’s the problem. That was a phase in time where people wrote poetry that illuminated…

My theory is that you need beautiful language with ugly subject matter so there’s a friction. The romantics had beautiful subject matter with beautiful language, like ‘Ode to the Nightingale,’ and we just don’t go for that. We know that’s sort of being fairly, you know, head in the clouds. But you can write about something that’s like you know, rape and murder and war, but your language is elevating it. What is it Nietzsche says? “Everything we call higher culture is a spiritualization of cruelty.” I don’t like the word ‘higher culture.’ I think everything we call art could be seen as a spiritualization of cruelty. So if you can make cruelty and unpleasantness palatable to people through poetry, or make them feel something about a situation that they may have become immune to, I mean, we hear so much about war and violence, who feels anything? We go: Yeah, another 50 people dead in Syria today. Oh well… Gotta take my bread out of the oven.

J.P.: Do you want to check your bread? And we can pause.

S.M.: 16, 15, 14… I just need to take the lids off and let it cook for another 20 minutes.

J.P.: We can pause.

S.M.:  Sure. Let’s just pause. I’m just going to put the phone down.

J.P.: Sure, sure.

[rattling of pans; timer beeping]

S.M.: There! Okay!

J.P.: I once interviewed Robert Bateman and he was painting while we were chatting.

S.M.: Did you get the sound effects? [laughter] The little beeper going off, and yeah. It’s amazing bread. The recipe is from a bakery in San Francisco; the method: Tartine Bakery. You don’t knead it. You turn it. So, for four hours, every half hour, you have to get up and turn this bread. And it’s great when I’m writing or teaching because it makes me get up. Otherwise I would just be sedentary.

J.P.: I read somewhere that someone had read a poem of yours and kept it with them for six months because they were so moved by it. Yet you told Shelagh Rogers in an interview recently that process excites you rather than the final product. You obviously have a different relationship to your writing than readers do.


Susan Musgrave living in Sidney

S.M.:  Well, I hope so. I mean, if I was absolutely moved by all my poems, I’d be a quivering mass of protoplasm [laughter] weeping over my poems. I think you’re struggling with lines and where to break the line and you get the first draft and hope to retain whatever the emotional thing going on there was, but then you start rewriting. The rewriting is where the craft enters it. And so you become a little bit detached. I can read some older poems and go back to the place I was in my head when I wrote them…but the poems I wrote for my daughter were still really raw. When I read them I have to pinch myself. Like when I’m at the dentist I don’t want to show that I’m terrified, so I pinch myself.  I come out of the dentist with these marks, like claw-marks all over my arms.

I read a couple of the poems for my daughter when I was in London and did that to stop crying. So they’re still pretty raw. I suspect that that will diminish, but I’m afraid to read them really because they have that effect on me still. But they’re a year old. The situation is one of her being on the street so I’m still always worried about her. It doesn’t go away. And I know that there are an awful lot of people who are experiencing the same thing which is, I think, what made me decide to write the poems. People come up afterwards and sort of whisper their story about their daughter or their son and it’s so much pain in people that they’re ashamed. They don’t know who to talk to about it. And I want people to know they’re not alone.

That’s what poetry does too, it makes me feel not so alone when I read a poem that speaks to me in some way. And that makes me say, “Oh, other people feel the same grief and the same loss.” And so, I think it’s all about connecting, writing poetry. But I kind of like it when the emotion dissipates, if the poem has a life of its own. Poets talk about that. It’s born and then you’re just the person giving birth to it. I mean it sounds really hokey, just like a child. It goes out into the world and has its own life and other people, as you say, carry it around and it means a lot to them. There are poems I’ve carried around with me. There are some on the wall in front of me that really mean a lot, and if I were to meet the poet, it doesn’t really matter. It’s the poem that matters.

J.P.: Do you find solace or wisdom in what you’ve written yourself?

S.M.:  Sometimes I find wisdom. It certainly seems beyond me. Poems always seem to know more than I do and to be wiser than I am, as far as I can see. That’s also what’s magical about writing. Where do these things come from? Because I don’t feel like I’m all that. I’m definitely wiser than I was, but I don’t feel like an oracle, that people come and sit at my feet and expect me to say wise things. I don’t feel like that, I feel like just a lost, I don’t know…I dream about being lost…I dreamt I was lost on the BC Ferry and couldn’t find my cabin…My life is a series of being lost. Everybody I know who’s in the arts and maybe every human being at some level feels unworthy. And where does that come from?

J.P.: I think that’s what people relate to.

S.M.: But people are afraid to say it. You’re not supposed to say it. You’re supposed to say, “Oh, everything’s great! I feel wonderful! I’m on top of the world!” I look at people like that and then I’m envious of them. How can they be so happy? But then, it turns out, scratch the surface…

J.P.: And they’re lying to you.

S.M.: They are lying. They’re lying because people will like you better if you lie. Who wants to really hear the truth about when you say, “How are you?” I love the Irish: “It’s never better.” I say that all the time now. “How are you doing” “Never better!”

BOTH: [laughter]

S.M.: The ultimate lie! I saw this wonderful psychiatrist who I call Shabby the Rasby, who’s a Buddhist and he’s Persian. He says, “Well, Susan, just small talk when people say, ‘How’s your day going so far?”’ But, like, my dad just died, and you know my husband’s just gone to prison. My daughter’s just got addicted. How can I just say, “Great!” [laughter] If you tell them the truth, people just look stunned. So I haven’t mastered small talk. I’m better at it, but I still take those questions really seriously. “How are you?”

J.P.: laughter] But people do sit at your feet and view you as some sort of oracle, don’t they?

S.M.:  Right now I’m looking down and there’s cat hair all over the carpet. My cat certainly does. It’s nice in this community because Wendy Riley and me are sort of the older women. Like, we’re in our Sixties. And it’s not a sort of ageist community, people of all ages mix here. And so people do come, not for advice, but just to come and talk. I don’t think they’re looking for anything. They don’t come to me as a poet, they come to me as a person, which again, is why I like it here. I don’t know how Margaret Atwood feels, but when you become an icon—that’s something made of wood, isn’t it? It’s not living anymore.  David Phillips, who had Copper Beech House before I did said, “Masset forces you to be honest.” There’s not a lot of pretence here. It’s pretty real. You need other people in order to survive because the weather gets stormy, and it’s small. Nine hundred people. Another nine hundred in the village of Old Masset. So, I don’t think they come and sit at my feet at all. They come and drink my wine [laughs]. I tend to order cases of wine because my brother in Victoria knows about good wine.  I have good wine. The liquor store here, you can just buy Yellow Tail, that’s about it.

J.P.: [laughter]

S.M.:  So they come and sit at my table and drink wine. Last night, we processed all the sea spinach… I volunteer at the thrift shop here, that’s a big deal in Masset. There’s nowhere else to donate anything, so it’s one of the best thrift shops in the world. A friend of mine across the road, who’s just been hired as an archaeologist, donated her Blackberry by mistake, or her iPad thing. It was in an basket full of clothes. So we found it, and she came over to get it and I was processing sea spinach. So we ended up eating all the sea spinach and drinking a bottle of wine. That’s kind of how life is here. It unfolds, and I like that. People drop in a lot. They don’t do that in the city because you don’t dare, right?

J.P.:  Are there used bookstores in Masset?

S.M.: Nope. Just the thrift shop. And everything’s fifty cents. I was at Value Village last week in Victoria and I was appalled that used books were $4.95. I’m going, “What?’” In Masset we pay less and they’re really good books because people up here read like crazy. Just so many readers. I think there’s may be a bookstore in Charlotte, on Queen Charlotte. There is, Isabel Creek, it’s a health food store downstairs and a bookstore upstairs.

J.P.:  When you were starting out as a writer, you got to know people like Al Purdy. What did that mean to you as a writer?

Susan Musgrave in 1994

Susan Musgrave in 1994

S.M.: No, I didn’t many meet writers. I didn’t really know what I was doing. When I was about 18, I’d read The White Goddess, because the man I was living with, Sean Virgo, was a great fan of Robert Graves. I think he’d gone back to his wife and I had to do something in Europe, and that was my first trip to Europe, so I went to Mallorca. And I went to lost luggage because I was lost again and a young man called Rodrigo—he was a stamp collector and offered to be my guide of the island, and he drove me to Deyá and I took a pensionné, which was like a dollar a day. And I just went to Robert Graves’ house and knocked on the door! [laughs] I can’t believe I did that! And he sort of took me under his wing for about a week while I was there and that was interesting. And I met Al Purdy in Mexico.

I was down there seeing as my house had burned down up here. So I sort of fled to Mexico and met another poet in Mexico City. And then we went up to Mérida and met Al [Purdy] and Eurithe. So I knew them as people, and as people first rather than writers. Al loved talking about poetry, he was bored talking about anything else. But we had some great adventures down in Mexico together and then I stayed in touch with him up here. The poets I liked best are the people I know as friends. And I do like their work, but they don’t sort of sit down and talk to me about my poetry or anything. I was quite a young poet and I think Al didn’t really take women poets very seriously. He’d edited a book called Fifteen Winds, it had two female poets, and forty-nine male. And at one point, just before he died, he gave me this huge anthology called 500 Women Poets, like from 10 B.C. to the present day. And he said, ‘Here.’ And I think it was his way of saying he accepted me as a poet. A poetess rather.

J.P.:  A poetess.

S.M.: He was pretty old school. It was sweet. And the fact that he would even talk to me about poetry was, I suppose, a compliment.

J.P.:  Now reflecting on this life and career of yours. You know, there have been good times, great critical success over the years, and there’s some less than pleasant times. Are there regrets at all?

S.M.:  About what?

J.P.: About life in general, about the career, or anything like that.

S.M.:  Well, like regretting being born? That kind of thing? Because, yeah.

J.P.: Or the choices that you made…

S.M.: No. What’s the point? School put me off being interested in everything. I thought everything was boring. Learning was boring because I was at school. And it wasn’t till about forty that I thought, “I want to learn something every day.” And if I learned something, that makes life not so depressing. And then I’m interested in linguistics; I’m interested in criminology. I’m interested in all these things, and what if I’d gone to university and, you know, maybe studied those things. Even archaeology. Lots of things. I just didn’t. And maybe I wasn’t meant to. I’m pretty fatalistic about things. I don’t regret my life. I wish I had not been discouraged at school. Like I used to win medals for coming first in elementary school. You know three times, top of my class. And then I got bored. So my marks dropped, and then I dropped out and that’s the story of a lot of people’s lives actually. Patrick Lane just got an honorary doctorate in Kelowna this weekend and he said, “Goodbye the high school diploma I didn’t get!”

J.P.:  [laughter]

S.M.:  I wish somebody would give me an honorary doctorate so I could be Dr. Musgrave. I could say to my mum, “See! It didn’t matter that I didn’t finish grade twelve [laughter] Because there’s still that parental: “Finish grade twelve and the world is your oyster,” as my dad used to say. I’m allergic to oysters though.

J.P.: Are you?

S.M.: Well, I think I am.

J.P.:  In terms of your view on education, id your children have the same experience that you did?

S.M.:  Yeah, it turns out that people unfortunately do follow their parents—like Charlotte, I think, went and finished grade twelve on her own, when she was working at a little coffee shop in Sydney. She got everything but one credit. Sophie was sort of involved in racial tension things so she would always side with the Native people, and then she got kicked out for intimidating a girl. You know, long story, but I just couldn’t send her back. I was just so pissed off at the school system. I was not one to force my kids to go to school because I knew how damaging it had been to me.

Force Field: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia

Force Field: 77 Women Poets of British Columbia

I’m told it’s a different world now and they need this and they need that, unless they’re musical or artistic in some way and can make it, you pretty well have to do something. I see my brother has both his kids at university and that’s because every day he made them get up, and he made them go to school, and they did. But I would just sort of give up and think, “Ugh. Why would I be sending them to this place?” And it’s really hard for me to be positive to anybody about high school and middle school. I try to, like I see people’s parents. But I see kids suffering. There’s an amazing book by Grace Llewellyn called A Teenage Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School, and Get a Real Life, and an Education. She talks about how education is so important, but schooling is absolutely not. And this school system began in Prussia and it was to make factory workers, and people who could work nine to five. Not for people who want to think outside that kind of life. And now especially, you can’t just get a job and work at that one job until you die. Now people don’t do that. They change careers all the time.

Teachers are part of the whole thing. They start out being really positive, like prison guards, and then they get jaded because they’re up against so much that they can’t do. There’s a system there in place. And maybe it’s changed. Maybe it’s not quite as bad as when I was at school. At least poetry isn’t taught as punishment as it was when I was at school. We had to memorize poems for punishment, for detention.

J.P.:  And now what do you when you’re the teacher?

S.M.:  I rail against the system. I tell them, if you want to write, I don’t know what you’re doing in university. Well, I know what they’re doing, they’re getting another degree so they can get paid more. And some of them want to learn to write, I shouldn’t malign everybody. Everybody I’ve taught poetry to at UBC, they’re really great, and they’re good writers. But I don’t know why they want an MFA? I guess I shouldn’t be saying that as somebody who teaches in the program.

J.P.: [laughter]

S.M.:  I think more people should have MFAs! The real writers are going to write no matter what, and they do. I see my job as helping people overcome their fear of poetry and, not only that, but liking it. One of my best reviews was a student who said, “Susan Musgrave has made me hate poetry a little less.” So, if I can do that, I think I’ve succeeded. What I get over and over again is, “Oh, thank you for taking away my fear of poetry and making me actually love it, and be a better reader of it.” But I have students who already have two Ph.Ds, who’ve published 13 books, this kind of thing. So one wonders what it is they have to learn from me, probably nothing. But they get something from the whole group; you know, it’s pretty stimulating. And to have feedback for your work is really excellent, too, because that’s hard to find in the community. People who will be honest and also incredibly sensitive.

I’m amazed at the kind of feedback these kids give each other. So that’s what you do get in this program at UBC and generally in workshops. But these people have really learned how to be good critics and editors and they’ve learned to be even better in the program. I love it actually, but I still feel that within the system—those of us who teach in the optional residency–we’re still rebels you know. There’s Brian Brett, who teaches in the program, Terry Glavin, Wayne Grady, a bunch of us who, not all of us have degrees. In fact, a lot of us don’t. We were hired because we were kind of hands-on writers. And who worked in the field… [laughs] So…

J.P.:  I really appreciate your time. It’s been such a pleasure talking to you.

S.M.:  You too! This has been great. You ask great questions. I’m usually quite reticent, as you know [laughter]. My bread’s about to come out of the oven and I’ve got to go to the thrift shop…

Susan Musgrave with Alan Twigg in 1980. Twigg interviewed her 30 years ago for his book "For openers: Conversations with 24 Canadian writers."

Susan Musgrave with Alan Twigg in 1980. Twigg interviewed her 34 years ago for his book “For Openers: Conversations with 24 Canadian Writers.”

“This past fall, when I was arranging an interview with Alan Twigg, he mentioned that he’d had this interview with Musgrave transcribed, in rough draft, and offered me a copy. I was flattered that Alan found the interview interesting enough to commission a transcription. The interviewer can bring some of their skills and abilities to bear in an interview to make it lively, fun or comfortable, but it’s really all about the guest, the interviewee. Looking back, I was grateful to talk to Susan Musgrave about everything she talked about. She’s a gifted writer and artist, and generous. It’s an interview like this, that makes this avocation of mine enriching and rewarding.” — Joseph Planta, January 31, 2014

Vancouver-born Joseph Planta’s interview program, On the Line, has featured hundreds of conversations with a wide variety of authors, journalists, artists, and notable people. It remains a hobby, even after ten years.
Recorded: 06 June 2013
Posted: 11 June 2013
Printed transcript edited by A.T., Feb. 5, 2014.
To hear the original:

One Response to “Trading bread for eggs: A poet’s life”

  1. Gumboot says:

    Musgrave gives good chat. I’d rather listen to her ramble like this than read her book. And Planta deserves a medal for all the writers he interviews. Isn’t there an award for the guy who does the most to promote writing in BC? Joe gets my vote.

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