April 07th, 2008
SUSAN MUSGRAVE was born in California of Canadian parents in 1951. She grew up in Victoria. In her earlier work she is not unlike the foreign correspondent on the evening news who reassures us that the rest of the world is indeed in chaos, medications Subjective poems as precious and desperate as notes in bottles have brought notoriety in Canada and abroad. Her books of poetry include Songs of the Sea- Witch (1970), symptoms Entrance of the Celebrant (1972), Grave Dirt and Selected Strawberries (1973), Gull-band (1974, children), The Imp stone (1976), Becky Swann's Book (1977), Selected Strawberries and Other Poems (1977), Kiskatinaw Songs (1978, with Sean Virgo) and A Man to Marry, A Man to Bury (1979), The Charcoal Burners (1980) was her first novel, a dream-like vision of rituals in a primeval society, It was followed by a comedy of manners, The Dancing Chicken (1987), Susan Musgrave lives in Victoria, She was interviewed in 1980.
T: What are the types of poems that get the most response from people?
MUSGRAVE: The love poems. I met a woman recently who had carried around one of my love poems for six months.
T: Yet you can still question writing as a profession for yourself.
MUSGRAVE: Well, it's hard for me to get any vicarious enjoyment out of what I've written. Once I've written it, that's it. It's just there to be found for someone else. It doesn't have much to do with me any more. My problem, being the creator, is that if a poem is really strong, it doesn't need me any more. It's like giving birth constantly, and constantly weaning.
That's not to say I'm only some sort of medium. But I don't feel I can take the credit very long for something that I have written. People quote great lines of poetry without even knowing who the poet was. That's how poetry works.
T: Does that mean you would write to create those special lines as much as special poems?
MUSGRAVE: I think so. It's the line. Individual lines stick in my head. Every poem usually has a couple of lines in it that are better than the rest. Once, around New Year's, I wrote a poem about looking back at what had happened in the last ten years. Ten years before, I had been in hospital on New Year's Eve. "My father rocked in his chair, unable to share his last breath with anyone. That was years ago when we didn't think he would live much longer. He still drives down the highway to see me." When I showed the poem to a friend, what stuck out for her was the line about my father driving down the highway to see me. For me, that is the whole poem. But I can't figure out why. That is what is so great and so tricky about poetry. To get that to happen. You can't really try. It just has to fall into place.
T: When you publish a book, do you wonder what people are going to say about it because you're wondering yourself about it?
MUSGRAVE: Oh yes, I never really know. I put a book together but I don't have much idea what I'm attempting it to be. One of my problems has always been this approach. If it works, then it's great. If it doesn't work, it's not so great.
T: But art requires form. My E.M. Forster guide to novel writing says so, so it must be true.
MUSGRAVE: Yes. I'm sure that's right. I can see there's a lot more for me to learn about prose than poetry. These days I'm thinking more and more in terms of prose. Even the poems I'm writing are becoming more narrative. I want to be accessible, at least to myself. I figure if I am accessible to myself, then I will be accessible to other people. I admire writers who are accessible.
T: Would you agree much of your poetry functions basically on the level of dream?
MUSGRAVE: Yes. A lot of poems come right out of dreams. Lately I've been especially interested in how being in love with someone is very much like being on a dream level. It attacks the same areas of my head as a poem. It's a kind of vague hit of something, of adrenalin, of psychic energy. I just don't know what it is. But it's all connected. In my work I use dreams and being in love the same way. I get the same kind of inspiration from it. It's quite unconscious.
T: The talent of your poetry then is trusting your instincts to such a pure extent that whatever you write cannot be dishonest.
MUSGRAVE: A lot of my early poems I don't even understand any more. I get quite embarrassed when people come up to me and ask what's this poem all about. I just haven't a clue. In fact, I end up thinking that they're badly written and I obviously missed the point. I trusted the vision, the spirit and the mood and all those things, but I missed what I was really trying to communicate.
T: Maybe you didn't know enough about how to properly shape a poem.
MUSGRAVE: Yes. Eliot, when he was older, said he didn't understand The Wasteland any more. He thought it was a case of having had too much to say and the not the understanding of how to say it. I think that really applies to me when I was nineteen or twenty. I had an amazing amount in me to write about but I wasn't ever sure really how to do it.
T: Nevertheless, the level of maturity of your first book is really quite exceptional. If you hadn't gone through that exceptional experience of spending time in a psychiatric ward, would that maturity have come so quickly?
MUSGRAVE: I don't know. I feel that I was more mature then than I am now. I had some sort of wisdom but I couldn't cope with it very well. Obviously- because I kept going mad all the time. Which may have meant I was very wise but I wasn't quite sure how to handle that!
T: Do you get hostile reactions from people because of your witch persona?
MUSGRAVE: Oh, I think so. Yes. People try to make it hokey. They try to make it nonsense. More blood and darkness. More preoccupation with morbidity and death. They try to attach words to it that lessen the impact of what I'm trying to talk about. They don't tackle the essential ideas of, I suppose, spirituality.
T: Because we have so little training for that.
MUSGRAVE: Yes. Even people who respond positively cannot articulate why they like my poems. It's like the pioneer mentality, all hard work, make money and get ourselves set. We don't want anybody saying there's more to it than just that. Maybe you should just sit and look at the mountains for a day. People can't be told that. It upsets what they've come here to do. So people walk out of a bill bissett poetry reading shaking their heads.
T: Yes. There ought to be a book analyzing Canadian literature from a spiritual poverty angle.
MUSGRAVE: Canadian Literature: A Christian Interpretation.
The theory I'm developing now is that the writer should be slightly afraid of what he's writing about. When the writer is in too much control, that excess will get communicated. For instance, I think Atwood was too much in control in Life Before Man. I actually liked the book. It was extremely well written. But people couldn't like the characters because of her control over them. Whereas in Surfacing, I felt the author was afraid. Perhaps a really successful book will have both elements. It will have fear and control.
T: You're talking about fishing into the subconscious.
MUSGRAVE: Yes. Writing can be likened to fishing. Except I hate fishing. Things never surface for me. I've never once caught a fish that carne to the top. The rod bends double. Something's down there that never comes up. I think how can people go out there and idly catch fish? As if they're not doing some mystical thing? People always think I'm crazy, but that's how I feel. You hook the darkness.
T: A novel gives you another world to go into.
MUSGRAVE: Yes. Where The Charcoal Burners fails is that I didn't come to grips with my fear. The fear overcame me in the end. I didn't have enough control. I was so anxious to get it over with because I was so frightened. It could have been a novel of nine hundred pages. But I was too terrified. Next time I'd like to get more balance between control and fear.
T: Maybe if you learn more control in your writing, you'll eventually learn more control over your life. You won't get possessed by people and things.
MUSGRAVE: Yes. When I'm writing, I'm very calm and happy. I don't need a quarter as much from the world as when I'm not writing. When I feel those outside attractions happening, I'm not nearly as strong.
T: When you feel that state of being possessed coming on, are you frightened? Or are you expectant? Or do you merely find it intriguing?
MUSGRAVE: A bit of all those things. I get incredibly energetic and ecstatic. That usually is accompanied by a total loss of appetite. And I don't sleep very much. There's some sort of overload going on. It's usually a person I feel I'm possessed by, but it's very hard to tell somebody, "I am possessed by something in you that you mayor may not recognize or see or know."
T: So that attraction can be highly impersonal.
MUSGRAVE: Yes. Of course a lot of people are confused by that. Not many people are going to be interested in return. I mean, if somebody does that to me, I don't think I'm going to be impressed! Matt Cohen, who has known me for a long time, says I don't fall in love with personalities, I fall in love with what is invisible.
T: That fits, because your poetry is trying to come in contact with what is unrealized, too.
MUSGRAVE: But maybe I'm just projecting onto someone else something that is mine. I attach it to someone else in order to lose it. If I project it hard enough, it can become real. Then when I see that, actually, that special quality in someone else isn't really there, that I've invented it, it's very disappointing. The magic wears off.
I'm at the stage of wondering what it is I'm doing, what it is I need, why do I keep doing this to people? I was reading something by Jung about poets; he said when poets aren't writing, they regress. They become children. They become criminals. That describes a lot of my behaviour pretty well.
T: Certainly our image of a poet is someone who is outside society in some way. The falling-down-drunk poet is outside society because society expects self-control. Maybe poets are people who are willing to relinquish control more easily.
MUSGRAVE: I don't think it's a case of willingness, though.
T: That shows you how [look at behaviour.
MUSGRAVE: Yes, I don't believe in words like willingness. I don't believe, to use your analogy, that people set out to get drunk. I believe that drunkenness happens by accident. Suddenly there you are, drunk. There are men I know who will say, "Let's go out and get drunk tonight." I don't know how to do that. I don't set out to behave any certain way. Behaviour creeps up and takes over.
T: You get psychologically drunk by accident.
MUSGRAVE: Yes. I don't like giving up control. My reaction to finding myself in a position of having given up control is usually an extreme one. That reaction causes huge difficulties in my life, and the lives of people around me. I don't like things to be utterly mysterious to me. Yet at the same time, I suspect there are whole areas of our lives that should remain mysterious. There's a line in Fowles' Daniel Martin where he is talking
about his wife and he says that his wife didn't appeal to the unconscious in him enough to make the relationship work.
T: That's a heavy one.
MUSGRAVE: Right. You can't live with someone day after day and have that happen. It has to be a mysterious process. "You can't catch the glory on a hook and hold onto it."
T: That has rather depressing implications.
MUSGRAVE: It does. I always want to know, I want to own, I want to keep. Yet there's that line, "Every time a thing is owned, every time a thing is possessed, every time a thing is loved, it vanishes." Knowing that, I still want to do those things. I still want to own and possess and control. That's killing something but it's also a way of getting on top of something and not being dragged down. Not becoming its victim.
T: Is this why you collect talismans? To get power on your side and have control?
MUSGRAVE: I don't know. I've always had huge collections of things. I found a dried-out lizard on Pender Island just the other day. For years I've been collecting these objects, but lately I'm beginning to see that I should trust them more. I'm believing again in power objects.
T: Why do you think people collect things?
MUSGRAVE: To build a little net around themselves. To make external something that is internal. Collected objects reassure people that there is something tangible about life. What's odd about me is that I collect things that are pieces of bodies that once had life, bones and dried-out things. The reassurance there is that it's all ephemeral.
T: If you don't have a body, you can't be hurt. You might simply be seeking the sanctity of spirituality. Have you ever been religious? Or does that word mean anything to you?
MUSGRAVE: I suppose I am religious. Yes, it does. I went through a phase of being a born-again Christian. I was converted through Bob Dylan! People got incredibly upset. They thought I was a write-off. They thought I was going to start handing them pamphlets. They didn't understand what it means to be born again. When the light shines on you, it shines on you. It can also stop shining on you.
I used to think of religious people as weak people. I thought it was a weakness to believe in anything. But it doesn't mean you're a fanatic to be religious. For instance, Catholicism makes sense to me. One day maybe I'll become a born-again Catholic for a while. It's a very powerful force. I don't believe there are answers. I don't believe that Christ is the answer. But I believe in all gods. How can I believe in the power of a bone or a lizard skin without believing in Christ?
T: When you were a teenager, did you have any career ambitions to be a writer?
T: Did you have any ambitions at all?
MUSGRAVE: There are two things I've always wanted to be. A ventriloquist and a tap dancer. I remember Shirley Temple did some great tap dancing in a film I saw once.
T: Aha. Now this interview is finally getting somewhere.
MUSGRAVE: Yes, I want to die in my ruby red tap shoes! Also I remember I once wanted to be a spy.
T: This is all highly significant. Now tell me, what is common to all these professions?
MUSGRAVE: They're all disguises, I guess.
T: So being a poet allows you to do all three things at once.
MUSGRAVE: Yes. Projecting the voice, performing, spying. I never thought of that. Here I am, everything I ever wanted to be. I've made it.
Essay Date: 1980