Books & Anthologies (editor)
Wordmusic Books & Recordings
General Reviews and Interviews
SHORT QUOTES [see HOME for more short quotes on Paper Affair and Crossing Arcs]
Pith & Wry: Canadian Poetry (Scrivener, 2010)
See interview in Rattle Magazine (April 3011).
"The poems range through subject and voice in a way that makes it a treat to dip into the book at random. What is especially striking... is that most of these poems are either new works or pieces that have never been anthologized, so the reader can be assured that they are not re-collecting poems already on their bookshelves.The voices, emerging and mature alike, are strong, full of compassion, insight, intelligence. Everywhere I find words that stop me in my tracks, small moments between writer and reader. I delight to think how many others... will be pulled from the ordinary tasks of their day into the clock-stopping mesmeric call of these voices... this collection gives us is a fresh sense of what it is to be Canadian, expressed in codes that are unique but easy to unlock... echoing in theme and voice the diversity that is Canada... And they do it without... a bumper sticker in sight." M.E. Csamer, Antigonish Review
"An anthology full of variety, bite, and hard-hitting imagery. You will not sate your appetite if you dip in again and again." Rob McLeod, Canadian Bookseller
Until the Light Bends (Black Moss, 2004, finalist 2010 Ottawa Book Awards, Archibald Lampman Award)
“The breath is... a force to be reckoned with.... kept rapturously float by McMaster's deliberately intense manipulation of line breaks and her unwavering eye for compassionate detail ... an unusual quality of ceremony combined with a sense of swift strokes... her intelligence and willingness to take risks create a sense of size and occasion around each poem, the courage to have le coeur de rage." Tanis MacDonald, Arc Magazine
“A fearless and passionate shaper of thought and feeling, and of the poetic language that animates.” Joseph Sherman
“Through a startling, disjunctive syntax, her distinctive voice rises from the page and guides us through deaths, arguments, dreams, desires, to where we can see ‘wild green plums deepening to blue’.” Stephanie Bolster
“A green and gorgeous keening, a testament to the solace of nature and of poetry.” Penn Kemp
Uncommon Prayer (Quarry, 1997)
“Multi-talented writer at her best ... deepens her quest for affirmation... some of her best poetic music leaps from the prose poem.” Canadian Bookseller
“Takes risks and enters into new poetic territories... speaks with earthy sensuality.” Room of One’s Own
“McMaster’s poetry is like prayer: it centres, calms, and encourages contemplation in a busy world that usually doesn’t wait for anyone.” Canadian Booksellers Review Annual
“Attains a level of craft and empathy that all poets strive for.” Canadian Bookseller
Learning to Ride (Quarry, 1994)
“Pulsing, muscular... the energy and discipline that McMaster praises in the act of riding she also displays in her lines... exultant sensuality.” Books in Canada
The Hummingbird Murders (Quarry, 1992)
“A metaphor for the difficult examination of the facts of marriage: the hurts, illusions, false assumptions, the regrets, but also the intimacies achieved within the mess of reality, the regenerative power of a pair of whirring wings... dark, powerful and moving.” Margaret Dyment, Ottawa Citizen
“Eminently accessible poems.” Canadian Authors Association Judge's comments
Dark Galaxies (Ouroboros, 1987)
“Strips away the wrapping from human relationships... displays intelligence and integrity... gets at essences while maintaining an optimistic energy.” Toronto Star
“A lovely combination of high seriousness and cheap jokes, the way the profound and the banal confuse and illuminate our lives... the fullness of that voice is magnificent and worth listening for and to.” bpNichol
“Intelligent, quirky, energetic... poetry with verve and imagination.” Diana Brebner, Ottawa Citizen
First Draft, SugarBeat, Geode Music & Poetry (recordings, performances, wordmusic publications from Underwhich Editions 1983 and 1987)
“A relaxed spell-maker, she communicates a relish for experience.” Ottawa Citizen
“Playful, provocative, contemplative...innovative.” Canadian Literature.
“Stride and breadth... a meditative repose, a red-hot sprint...” Noah Leznoff, League of Canadian Poets review
"Highly recommended . . . makes poetry leap, pivot, gyrate, and boogie!" Dean Verger, Rasputin's Music Café Newsletter
“Glows with intelligence and the collaborative spirit; heartily recommended.” Doug Barbour, Canadian Poetry Chronicle
“Rich and intriguing work... unexpected monumentality... clings to the mind hauntingly." Pat Cardy, Ottawa Citizen
BOOKS & ANTHOLOGIES (editor)
Pith & Wry: Canadian Poetry (Scrivener Press, 2010), editor
M.E. Csamer, Antigonish Review (forthcoming)
There is a celebratory feel to Pith & Wry: Canadian Poetry that begins with Susan McMaster’s editorial preface. The poems were originally collected for a Canadian issue of the American literary magazine, Sugar Mule. By way of introducing these forty-five poets to a potentially new audience, McMaster speaks of the society in which the writers developed, identifying Canada as a rich venue for poetry, citing many factors including the CBC, public lending rights and a ‘culturally savvy media.’
Many of our best and best known poets are showcased here, from Don McKay – delightfully at it with the birds again ("Slow Spring on Vancouver Island") to Margaret Atwood with two poems never before anthologized, to Erin Mouré’s "Executive Suite", written when she and Bronwyn Wallace (1945-1989) were engaged in a rich discussion, through letters, of feminism and poetry. Being more familiar with the kitchen table than the lecture hall, I find my heart with Wallace. Still, Mouré, as always, stuns me with the clarity of her passion:
Where does the surface go when we are speaking, the anti-
surface, the “below”
I have to watch her when I use words, her boss chuckles,
she stands holding the page, ready to burn it
literally because it will not light
By ignoring it
By showing it has no content
By deconstruction which certain poets claim has no use in reality
The real world
This is it, Bronwen
The page is on fire, now
Though loosely gathered into thematic sections, the poems range through subject and voice in a way that makes it a treat to dip into the book at random. What is especially striking in this anthology is that most of these poems are either new works or pieces that have never been anthologized, so the reader can be assured that they are not re-collecting poems already on their bookshelves.
The voices, emerging and mature alike, are strong, full of compassion, insight, intelligence. Everywhere I find words that stop me in my tracks, small moments between writer and reader. I delight to think how many others, reading this anthology, will be pulled from the ordinary tasks of their day into the clock-stopping mesmeric call of these voices. Here’s Heather Spears, turning the precision lens of her eye to war:
a child’s face
flat to the ground
a perfect fit
the earth and bricks and bits of cement
pressed around it
not even her hair
just the entire face
Jan Conn, turning hers to an approaching storm:
Despite migraine the nightingale attempts to please
the burgeoning, erratic winds,
lurid in crepuscular light.
And Roger Nash, to winter:
Snow falls. By mid-day,
a single snowman has built
dozens of children.
These moments are everywhere, quenching a thirst for poetic variety I didn’t know I had until, like cool water, the words flowed into me every time I dipped a finger between the pages. The book travelled in my backpack for weeks, coming out in my doctor’s waiting room, during bus rides to Toronto, on the treadmill at the gym.
Those who prefer books in their entirety and reading start to finish, will not be disappointed either. From Dave Margoshes' "Worm’s Eye View" right through to Jeremy Hanson-Finger’s "Passover", what this collection gives us is a fresh sense of what it is to be Canadian, expressed in codes that are unique but easy to unlock. These works continue the celebration begun in the preface. The poems bless our mosaic, echoing in theme and voice the diversity that is Canada. And they do it without ever using the “P” word. There’s not a bumper sticker in sight here.
Books are organic, evolving with each act of reading, The receptive eye and ear, drawing on individual experience, adds that reader’s hue to the overall colour of the work. I don’t know why Lorna Crozier’s "The Ambiguity of Clouds" and Marilyn Gear Pilling’s "Four Days Before Christmas" are my favourite pieces in this collection. I only know I’m drawn to them again and again. With Crozier it’s the subject, clouds connecting childhood summers to adult meditations: collecting images, letting them go. With Pilling, it’s visual, an image for memory that is startling and beautiful:
hundreds of feathery snow poles stretching
from heaven to earth, and as dusk thickens
into dark, I can just make out
the dead, sliding down, sliding down, one after another.
I find myself standing by the window with her watching the snow, the ghosts. Her dead become my dead. I think that’s why I read poetry, for these images that stay with me, give me words when I don’t have my own.
In the end, what all of these poets have in common, what brings this collection together into a cohesive whole is that, in essence, they are all story tellers. To be Canadian is to belong to an enormous place, to mountains you could roll the moon in (Birney’s not here, but his influence is). If in fact we find ourselves a little more tolerant than other nations it is because we have the room to step back and take a second look at what seems different, threatening; to find the humanity in it, to voice that finding. But also to voice the land without us, its colossal indifference, as Katia Grubisic does in "Landing", with another of my favourite moments:
The light leans
into the clearing in the wrong shape,
its patterns not its own. Nowhere is properly barren,
doesn’t work that way. Don’t flatter yourself
into thinking that you’ll have been longed for,
Our land is vast, our stories, myriad. And breath is spare. When we call across such distances, we need always use our best words. Pith & Wry does just that.
M. E. Csamer is widely published in literary magazines. Her books include Paper Moon (watershedBooks, 1998), Light Is What We Live In (Artful Codger Press, 2005), and A Month Without Snow (Hidden Brook Press, 2007). She is a Past President of the League of Canadian Poets.
Rob McLeod, Canadian Bookseller (Spring 2011), p. 39
"The poets in this anthology range from young, newly published writers to elders of the muse...[The poems] deftly demonstrate the pithy wonder-logic of a well-made haiku... [offer] animalizations and personifications [that] leap out at the reader and grab hold of the gut... deal, in an incredibly poignant and close to the bone way, with physical, impending, or psychic loss... An anthology full of variety, bite, and hard-hitting imagery. You will not sate your appetite if you dip in again and again."
Paper Affair: Poems Selected & New (Black Moss 2010), 112 pp.
From the press release: Susan McMaster’s passionate affair with words on paper distills a quarter century of intense living into poetry that springs off the page and speaks directly to the reader. Paper Affair draws together 90 of McMaster’s poems from such out-of-print publications as: Dark Galaxies, The Hummingbird Murders, Dangerous Graces: Women's Poetry on Stage, Learning to Ride, Uncommon Prayer: A book of dedications, and Until the Light Bends, as well as new work.
Included are lighthearted romps like “Today I turned everything around”, works of “uncommon” spirituality such as “How God sees”; explorations into philosophy, science, and the human heart like “Supersymmetry” and “The pleasure of lusting”; and evocations of love, grief, and unexpected comfort in such series as “Voyageur” and “Ordinary.”
While written for the page, these poems are also the source of much of McMaster’s unique wordmusic with First Draft, SugarBeat, and Geode Music & Poetry; this is an important companion volume for readers interested in her performance poetry and recordings.
Paper Affair: Poems Selected & New provides a comprehensive overview of Susan McMaster’s best work between 1986 and 2007. It is a volume that everyone who already appreciates her work will want to own and an excellent introduction to her poetry for all those who love Canadian literature.
Some comments on Paper Affair
Heather Spears, writer, GG award winner: "Winsome, muscular, candid, intimate yet universal. Susan McMaster has an open, seemingly effortless control of her craft and the genius to bring each poem to a startling, inevitable (and beautiful) conclusion."
Janice Kennedy, Ottawa Citizen: "Whether exploring love and loss, navigating the passages of time, or singing in the sensuous joy of the moment, Susan McMaster seduces with a juggler's grace, a sorcerer's dazzle and a stubborn passion's sweet and insistent throb."
Robert Priest, writer: "McMaster’s lyric eye spots the poetry that was right under our noses us and delivers it to us with seeming ease. These poems written over a three decade span are remarkably consistent, fresh, wise and sexy. Great to have them all gathered here at last in one book."
Carolyn Smart, writer, editor McGill-Queen's: "Susan McMaster's purview is the world entire, with all its mystery, heartbreak and magic. This extensive and revealing volume displays her range and her heart, in equal measure. Brava!"
Dave Margoshes, writer: " These are deceptively simple poems, but there’s nothing deceptive about their craftsmanship or their honesty. The best ones ease up to you, then sting."
Jeanette Lynes, writer: "Penned with a sure hand, there's receptivity in these poems to the world and the word. Both heart and mind soar in McMaster's paper affair."
Jan Conn, writer: "These deeply felt poems embrace domestic scenes and the dense, complex weave of human relationships, then whirl us away to the quantum world, where they 'admit the draw of starlight'. There is rhythm and verve in every dimension Susan McMaster explores."Crossing Arcs: Alzheimer's, My Mother, and Me (Black Moss 2009, 2d ed. 2010), 108 pp., ISBN 978-0-88753-462-1
Robert Sealey, Open Minds Quarterly, 12:3 (fall 2010), p. 25
This unusual book has three sets of heartfelt poems by Susan McMaster, who hails from Ottawa, Ontario, with brief comments by Betty Page, her mother. From the afterword, we learn the author “began writing these poems when [she] first became aware of a change in [her] mother’s relationship with the world … about seven years ago. Since then, [her mother] has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and has moved to a retirement residence.”
The title of this book makes us curious. The poem ‘Crossing Arcs’ explains.
Somehow we’ve slipped
along crossing arcs
as I curve into middle age,
she slides into old.
Family members can share their observations about loved ones who are ill, but how can any author know what goes on in another person’s brain? Poem by poem, Susan McMaster gently shows us her mother’s world. Susan recalls visits with her mother, a retired teacher whose brain has been transformed by Alzheimer’s. Each set of poems has its own theme – the family’s summer home, the mother’s retirement residence and Betty’s golden years.
Susan’s respectful poems come with her ‘Apology’:
I tell these stories,
look at her from the outside,
hold her up to the cold grey light
. . . evaluate, analyze, label
what she is, make notes
on her life closing in,
on her brain lobes shrivelling,
on confusion tying her tighter
and tighter into its tangle,
keyboard the details
of her intimate decay.
In short bursts, beside each poem, we read Betty’s responses. Maybe Alzheimer’s does complicate her life, but she can still offer pithy, powerful and poignant insights:
So they finally put a fancy name onto something that we considered to be just getting old. Nuts to this.
My mind is not going to play games with me. Who does it think it is?
If I must live husked like a nut, dammit, you’ll hear me rattle and shake in my shell!
Don’t we all wonder how our nerves will perform when we get older? How will we relate to our parents if their failing neurons cause them to say or do things inconsistent with our memories of the mothers and fathers we grew up with? How will we respond if they don’t recognize us as their children? Unsettled by unanswerable questions, we quickly think about something else.
Susan McMaster’s poems and Betty’s insights give us information, inspiration and hope. They teach us that if our aging parents develop Alzheimer’s, we can still enjoy visiting them. We can respect their realities and we can care for our parents as they cared for us.
Rushes her down
And yet, she’s still here.
Still behind the windows
lit by gas lamps and firelight,
still leading the beat
in family songs,
still at the centre
pumping on the organ,
with her laugh-tooled skin
and quartz-blue eyes
and hair like a silver mop,
still here, as she burnishes
from grey to glow
and her words fly away like
tossing in wind –
memories spray and tangle like
ribbons of mist
steaming from the bay –
thoughts come and go like
flames in the stove, like
the wiver of a candle, like
the breath that blows back
into the crowded room –
as I slip away
into salt and damp,
into darkness by the shore,
look back through the glass –
as my mother,
small and gold,
slips into my hands
and I close my palms
as the current
rushes her down.
What I put in at the end is the window, as if you could get through to the other side.
Lara Henerson, "A Taste of Susan McMaster’s Poetry: Listening to one’s own thoughts in Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me"
The Campus: Bishop's University Student Newspaper, 24 November 2010
It certainly sounds depressing at first, but in fact, Susan McMaster’s latest book of poetry actually manages to portray a wide variety of emotions despite the grim subject. At the reading, which took place on November 19th in the bookstore, McMaster exposed her audience to a diverse selection of her works, with topics ranging from dealing with her mother’s disease to philosophy from the point of view of an outhouse. Needless to say, McMaster’s poetry is full of surprises.
The reading consisted of sections from a selection of her books, including “Pith and Wry: Canadian Poetry”, which is a collection of poems by Canadian authors which she edited, “Paper Affair: Poems Selected and New” which consists of her own work, and “Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and Me”.
This latest book was never intended for publication. McMaster wrote each poem as a way to clear her mind from the chaos of grief she was dealing with. Writing down images or details helped her organize her emotions. Each poem is accompanied by an actual quote by her mother. Although these quotes were initially random fragments of thought, as one might expect from an Alzheimer’s patient, they seem as connected to the poems as if that was their intended purpose. Indeed, these quotes give the book a wider perspective, by sprinkling almost light-hearted wisdom among the poems.
McMaster herself tells us that this collection of poetry is the least edited of any of her books, and oddly enough, this is one of its strengths. McMaster is able to put a voice to difficult experiences by fracturing it into small observations, which convey emotion without overwhelming the reader. For this reason, her poetry seems both straightforward and honest. One unique aspect of her work is that she avoids using conventional poetic form, which might otherwise give her work too much structure, making it feel less organic, or less real.
To read a poem by Susan McMaster is rather like listening to one’s own thoughts, which are fragmented and disorderly but somehow make an incredible amount of sense.
Some comments from readers
— Reading these poems... how can heartbreak be so lovely? I think it’s the tenderness of each word...
— This is a tour de force.
— A lovely piece of work it is, and oh, can I relate!
— I'm re-reading your haunting poems in Crossing Arcs and finding them to be very real and in some ways "a sentinel" for those of us "on the path" to old age. I just re-read "leaving summer behind", and it's startling to me — winter is coming, in many ways, and all of us have built very careful nests! This book is so current, so true!
— Congratulations on selling out the first print. It is no surprise given how excellent it is, how simple and yet evocative the scenes you portray in it, and how the scenes build one upon the other and interact with each other. I find it almost like an intimate play, with fragmented scenes which tell a funny and yet so sad story. The book kind of works for all of us who have parents. I very much like the design of the book too.
— I just finished reading it and am very much impressed. This is a wonderful combination of poetry, photos, your mother's quotes, that will touch people deeply.
— Thank you for Crossing Arcs — I think this is your best work. It is the right complex of sorrow, anger, and even joy. I particularly liked how you conjured images of the year's end in "Leaving Summer Behind," and juxtaposed them against your mother's ruminations and situation. I admire the care and patience you have shown, so clearly evident in your poetic account, a balance of gentle pathos and wry humour.
— I read your book in one go last night... I couldn't put it down... it is so relevant to anyone who has a family member or friend suffering from dementia... which is most of us.
— We all ooooed and awwwed over your book. I would like to use it as a kind of model to write about living with a family member who has been diagnosed with a different but equally awful mental disorder. I find your book totally inspiring... and rather a reprieve. Thank you.
— It is thoughtful, honest, funny, eye-opening. And besides all that, really great poetry!!! And thank you, again, for writing it. Your reach is more than you can know!
— I really enjoyed Susan McMaster's reading in class today... My grandmother passed away this Monday and had Alzheimer's and dementia. I was very moved by Susan's poem this morning.
— Crossing Arcs must have been both painful and a release to write. My mother did not have Alzheimer's, but for the last few years of her life, she was not herself. You describe so many believable incidents. I am particularly taken with your words, "I am lost in the space you leave." The work will touch many.
— Last night I sat down with Crossing Arcs and want to tell you what a moving experience it is to read it. I would say that you had the gift of your mother before her mind started to disappear and, in a sense, a gift now. My own mother and her dementia occurred off stage, so to speak. I was thousands of miles away, though I would call often, and listen to her falter, forget. Her last years, well, they were difficult... This book will do very well, there is a whole generation, mine and yours who have to go through this with their parents, and then our own last years... You've done a remarkable job.
— Congratulations, Susan, for the success of your book and the wonderful poetic way you can bring this issue into people’s minds.
— [The second printing] is no surprise given how excellent it is, how simple and yet evocative the scenes you portray in it, and how the scenes build one upon the other and interact with each other. I find it almost like an intimate play, with fragmented scenes which tell a funny and yet so sad story. The book kind of works for all of us who have parents. I very much like the design of the book too.
— My husband is in terminal stages of Alzheimer's... has not been able to speak or to be "present" for several years... as I read your poems I simply could not put the book down! You use such glorious images... heartbreaking but so compellingly true! I have recommended it to support groups and others... and go back to read it again quite often — not anything I can say about my other reading. Thank you — it is a great gift. — Areta Crowell, PhD, Los Angeles, CA
I have read and reread Crossing Arcs. Oh, god, it is such a healing book, a work of depth and love and truth. Thank you for this 'opening' into a reality we are all slowly moving towards, even if it is not Alzheimer's per se, it is the loss of who we once knew ourselves to be. My mother turns 90 this summer. She has been locked away inside of herself in ways that none of us have ever been able to reach her — not through loss of faculties but through her own resistance to relationship. As I read your poems to/with/for/about your mom, I was so struck by the love between you, the channels open to touch, console, help each other, despite the pain or anger or frustration. Everything was right there, out in the open, alive and kicking. How wonderful to be invited into this struggle. My sisters and I wonder if ever our mother will 'come to' in time to allow us to love her. Bless you, Sue, for honouring this "skeletoning down" with such compassion and truth-telling. — M.E. Csamer, poet, past president League of Canadian Poets
— It's so true — we're all in this together, thank you for casting a lifeline out into the darkness for us to grasp hold of. — Catherine Joyce, novelist
— What a magnificent, heartfelt book, which elicits the whole emotional spectrum. I was there with you with all your doubts, fears, grief, above all love for such a plucky, feisty marvel of a mother! What a beautiful, enduring tribute to Betty... And the pictures of her surrounded by her felt markers, crosswords, etc. are so rich, evocative. Her brilliantly apt comments alongside your poignant poems are unforgettable and so potent. Crossing Arcs moved me more than many poetry books in many years. — Katerina Fretwell, poet and artist
— I have just finished your recent book. I know that I have never opened a book of poems and felt compelled to read to the end. Really, words fail me, but I was deeply moved by the entire work. It is brilliant and beautiful.
— I've been reading Crossing Arcs. It's wonderful. Very moving.
Extract from LUminaries reading introduction by Roger Nash, Poet Laureate, Sudbury, Past President, League of Canadian Poets — "A poet with an inner moral compass...her poetry is a form of love or caring about things and people...as in her extended reflections on what her mother's Alzheimer's means for her...And it does this in a finely-balanced way, which can deepen the responses of a wide range of readers, steering well clear of the extremes of doctrinaire preaching and sentimentalization."
– From an interview for Lambda, Laurentian University, Sudbury, before LUminaries reading, 26 February 2009
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself both personally and as a poet?
I have two daughters at university, one finishing her fine arts degree at Concordia and the other teaching Classics here at Thornelow; her husband teaches some courses for the English Department at Laurentian. They have one son and another on the way, so you can guess that I’ve been publishing poetry for a few years now, starting in the eighties. I’ve just published my tenth poetry book, and I also really enjoy working with jazz and improv musicians to perform and record my poetry, mostly with the performance groups . So far I’ve got four recordings with the groups First Draft, Geode Music & Poetry, and SugarBeat, and am working on the next one.
What sorts of things do you find inspiring?
Nature – loons and lakes and rock and trees – all the great Canadian stuff. And people – the heart of people. How they struggle to find their way among all the mess and complexities of love and life and growing up and growing old and facing the dark... Poetry touches on the dark more than most art forms. Like the blues, it takes pain and fear and anger and somehow changes them into something bearable, even transcendent. Poems link us together in being human, in hope in the face of terror and despair and loss. And a poem, like a song, is an intimate way to take someone in your arms and show how deeply you love them.
Have you done much book touring in the past? If not, what has made you, in this instance, decide to hit the road?
One thing about poetry books: they don’t leap off the shelf and into the hands of readers like a Harry Potter. In fact, poetry’s hard to find on the shelves, even when very fine poets are living just down the street from you – like Roger Nash, right here in Sudbury. But what I’ve discovered is that poetry meets some very deep and powerful need in people, and if they have a chance to hear a poet whose work reaches right down inside and touches that need, they will drink it up as if it was water in a desert. Not always, not everyone, of course. But for those who do respond, it’s irreplaceable.
So I tour whenever I can. Whenever there’s interest and a way to get there. I’ve been to Toronto and Montreal and Ottawa and Halifax and St. John’s and Edmonton and Saskatoon and Winnipeg and Vancouver and Peterborough and Windsor and Italy – three tours there – and Camden East and Hudson and... Can’t remember them all. Having connections in a place helps of course, and one of the biggest reasons for me and my husband to be here, of course, is family. But Sudbury is also a welcoming centre for writers, with some great poets and prose writers, its own press – Scrivener Press – a fine reading series, a poet laureate – Roger Nash... I could easily imagine living and writing here very happily, and look forward to reading here for the first time.
Your new book deals with themes of Alzheimer’s. What sorts of difficulties did you have in representing a disease that affects the continuity of thought and temporality on the page?
It’s interesting, I never set out to write about Alzheimer’s. I just set out to write about losing my mother as she began to change – for my own comfort in my own grief. That ability of poetry to ease and integrate pain applies also to the writer. I could have written journal entries, or a novel, or essays, or gone to counselling or some such, but I chose poetry not just because it’s my medium, but because the brevity of line and thought, the tightness, the implied emotion and visual and sensory story-telling fits naturally into the voice of both a person with Alzheimer’s and a caretaker who’s living with that person. You can’t have a long philosophical conversation with a person with Alzheimer’s, you can’t tell an allusive, complicated story about your feelings and and experiences and expect comprehension, you can’t argue with the person and explain that they “should” be remembering your name, the plans for the day, what happened on the birthday you went to such trouble to celebrate for them. But you can use a few words, spaces, silence, plus the rhythms and repetitions and lyrical music of poetry to reach through the fog to the sympathetic heart and suffering human who is still there. Love or sorrow or anger captured in a beautiful, concise handful of words has an extraordinary power, even as we descend into the shadows.
One other thing to note: at one point, I realized that my poems in this collection were ragged and wandering, emotional and outspoken, not like a traditional sonnet or ode or vilanelle at all. They jump all over the page, run from long lines to short, leap in seeming haphazard from thought to thought. I decided to “poeticize” them – to turn them into “real” poems that sat quietly within a pre-ordained structure, a known form, thinking to tame the strong emotion that kept leaking and spouting out of them. So I did this, and sent the revisions to a friend who is also an excellent poet (Ronnie R. Brown) and whose mother died some years ago after a long hard bout with Alzheimer’s. She sent them back saying that the revisions didn’t work because the disease is not pre-ordained, structured, neat and known. She felt the original unedited poems were very much better and stronger – exactly because the progress of the illness and the condition itself are themselves ragged and unpredictable and chaotic, and so are the reactions of both the sufferers and those who love them. So I returned to tracing the internal voice in its confusions and wanderings, and she’s right, this works best.
Crossing Arcs has an interesting structure/concept. Could you explain it? How will your reading on the 26th reflect it?
As I said, I wrote these poems originally just for myself, for my own comfort, without intending to publish them for years, if at all, certainly not till my mother was either dead or completely incapable of understanding them. But I did mention them to my publisher, Marty Gervais of Black Moss Press – who rejected all my other book suggestions and insisted that this was the book he wanted. I agreed to try, but even as I worked on the manuscript, couldn’t imagine publishing the book without my mother’s knowledge and consent. It kept me awake nights. Eventually, I did what I always do, and asked my mother for advice. She immediately said, “Publish! You’re a good poet and there a lot of old people around. This will show them they’re not alone!” Over the next months I kept repeating my question, and receiving the same enthusiastic support – go ahead, do it!
So, I started to read the poems to her, ready at any point to cut any poems or lines she didn’t like. That never happened, not even once (although she did tell me to change “I’m healthy as a pig in mud!”, which I’d softened, thinking she might be embarrassed, back to her original, “...a pig in rut!”). What she did do, however, was make comments after hearing the poems – on the piece itself, on her life, on aging, on illness, on death and optimism and what was next to come... These comments were so captivating and powerful that I began to write them down, and before I knew it had as many quotes from her as poems. It was like a counterpoint, a dialogue. Without planning it at all, I suddenly had something that looked like a kind of mini-play. A conversation between my created and polished poems, and her straight-from-the-gut, absolutely unedited commentary. As I put the book together, the quotes became a necessary part of the story.
So, now, the book is in two columns, and two voices – the poems, and beside them, the person the poems are about, speaking directly in real words. So when I read from Crossing Arcs, I do it almost like a play. I say my poem, and then her comment, and so on. An example would be a poem that begins “I am lost, Mother / in the spaces you leave behind...” paired with “I don’t think I have Alzheimer’s. My memory is my own, and I’m going to keep it!” Audience members tell me my tone, my body language, everything changes as I go from voice to voice. One good thing is that my mother is a very vigorous character, and there’s a lot of humour, even sexiness, in the book – unexpectedly, perhaps. So it’s not simply an anguished experience to listen to a reading from it, though listeners do often cry; however, they seem to come away moved, but somehow comforted, eased, sometimes even laughing. I’ve launched almost twenty books and recordings through the years, but this is the first one where audience members hardly mention my poems when they come up after a reading. “What a wonderful mother you have,” they say instead. “What a character, what a strong and interesting person! You’re lucky to have her!”The Gargoyle’s Left Ear: Writing in Ottawa (Black Moss 2007)
“In lyrical prose, this midlife memoir by Ottawa poet Susan McMaster offers memories of the Glebe and Old Ottawa South, of Lisgar Collegiate and Carleton, of the Gatineau Hills and the Ottawa Valley. It also give insight into her poetry, which aims to 'soften the stony heart of the gargoyle that lurks inside us all.'” (Ottawa Citizen) Until the Light Bends (Black Moss 2004 [bk], Pendas [CD], 2004)
ARC Poetry Magazine, Winter 2005, Until the Light Bends
From "Feature Review: Fruitflies ricochet off imaginary light: Nominees for the 2004 Archibald Lampman Award" by Tanis MacDonald, pp. 77–83
The breath is a force to be reckoned with in Susan McMaster's Until the Light Bends. Beginning with a sequence titled 'Hanging Transparent,' in which a jittery and fractured subject moves in and out of panic, McMaster shows the reader the violence of a shocked pause turned tender, trapped in dream scapes that are less surreal than painfully parallel to the perceivable world. She follows this opening sequence with the resonant and melodious 'Sonata for Watcher and Shades,' a narrative in five poetic 'movements' which gracefully performs up to the challenge of rendering music in poetry.
'This Question of the Mouth' (written for the late Kingston poet Bronwen Wallace) and the devastating 'Courage/Coeur de rage' lay the groundwork for the elegiac long poem that anchors the collection. 'Ordinary,' a lyric inquiry into a friend's illness and eventual death, is kept rapturously afloat by McMaster's deliberately intense manipulation of line breaks and her unwavering eye for compassionate detail. Love and death are the fundamental subjects for poetry, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to explore the snarl of grief with freshness, but McMaster's repetition of her strongest lines, as though a refrain in the music of dying, takes on the beat of accusation and constant self-scrutiny that sharpens the sympathetic gaze of the poem. Invoking the imagery of fecundity, she notes the dying woman's love for 'buttons of green silk' on the chaise that becomes her bed, her jade earrings, and the 'green glass bowl on the table' filled with 'apricots, pears' that, in their turn, become a memento mori: 'It is pear worm. / It is death date... / She knows her end.' Working with the fruit metaphor so often used by medical personnel to refer to tumour size, McMaster uses the simile 'as large as a pear' as an ironic pairing of the moribund and the vivacious. Her strategy works to familiarize the dying body to the reader while estranging the speaker from the 'ordinariness' of the death. Also excellent is McMaster's depiction of the mourning friend tumbling into grief like a waterfall with a 'mouth full / of roar.'
"Until the Light Bends has an unusual quality of ceremony combined with a sense of swift strokes...McMaster's work is strongest when she experiments; her intelligence and willingness to take risks create a sense of size and occasion around each poem, the courage to have le coeur de rage.
Uncommon Prayer (Quarry 1997)
“Attains a level of craft and empathy that all poets strive for” (Canadian Bookseller).
“Takes risks and enters into new poetic territories...McMaster speaks with earthy sensuality...All the poems are moving, but the trilogy, in particular, is truly exquisite” (Room of One’s Own).
“McMaster’s poetry is like prayer: it centres, calms, and encourages contemplation in a busy world that usually doesn’t wait for anyone” (Canadian Booksellers Review Annual)Learning to Ride (Quarry 1994)
“Pulsing, muscular...the energy and discipline that McMaster praises in the act of riding she also displays in her lines...exultant sensuality” (Mary Dalton, Books in Canada).
The Hummingbird Murders (Quarry 1992)
“A metaphor for the difficult examination of the facts of marriage: the hurts, illusions, false assumptions, the regrets, but also the intimacies achieved within the mess of reality, the regenerative power of a pair of whirring wings...dark, powerful and moving” (Diana Brebner, Ottawa Citizen).
Dark Galaxies (Ouroboros 1986)
“Strips away the wrapping from human relationships...displays intelligence and integrity...gets at essences while maintaining an optimistic energy” (Toronto Star). RECORDINGS
Until the Light Bends: GEODE Music & Poetry (Pendas Poets Series, 2005)
Vincent Tinguely, litlive.ca: Canadian Review of Literature in Performance, no. 2 (2011),
"GEODE MUSIC & POETRY: Review of Until the Light Bends" (Pendas Poets Series/Black Moss 09a)
This recording comes from Susan McMaster, an Ontario-based poet who has been working with the live and recorded performance of her poems since at least 1980. It was then that she became involved with the intermedia group First Draft, which worked with composer Andrew McClure on ‘wordmusic’, ‘a system of musical notation and performance for multiple spoken voice.’ Since then, McMaster has recorded and released a number of audio cassettes and CDs, and also published a series of wordmusic scores, sometimes with the editorial overview of bpNichol.
Her most recent recording, Until The Light Bends (2004), is performed with Geode, a group made up of McMaster, and composer / musicians David Broscoe, Jennifer Giles, Jamie Gullikson, John Higney, Alrick Huebener and Mark Molnar. The various musicians are each credited with individual compositions on the CD, and on tracks like ‘Sonata for Watcher and Shades: A Poem in 5 Movements’ the musicians improvise to McMaster’s reading of her text.
The poems (the texts of many of which were published in a matching ‘Palm Poets’ edition by Black Moss Press) concern themselves with the inevitability and comfort of passing seasons, with nature's omnipresence, with the often rocky relationships between men and women, and in the closing track, ‘Ordinary: A Poem in 14 Parts’, with the passing away of two loved ones in too short a space of time. This piece in particular becomes deeply involving, with echoes of the dying person’s voice coming through the lines of the poem, as well as the narrator's at times overwhelming undercurrent of grief, and glimpses of daily life carrying on despite the presence of death.
The style is jazz improvisation and ‘new music’ – often irregular, fractured, intermittent, as the musicians structure their playing around the poet’s cadence and the mood of her pieces. Sonically, it’s a long way from the current crop of rhythmic recordings by slam-seasoned performers or hiphop-cultured spoken word artists. There's plenty of crash and spark in tracks like 'Sonata For Watcher and Shadows', but for every jagged edge there's a track more reminiscent of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s quiet observations, or even of John Cage’s spoken word recordings. A sort of formal, distanced melancholy, bringing rural winter landscapes to mind.
Richard Stevenson, PoetryReviews.ca (15 March 2006)
From "Pendas Productions"
Until the Light Bends offers poet Susan McMaster and her sound troupe Geode in studio performance of pieces mostly taken from her Palm Poets series book of the same name (Black Moss Press, 2004). Other pieces from Uncommon Prayer (Quarry Press), and Dark Galaxies (Ouroboros) are also performed. The music ranges from avant classicism to blues, folk, and free jazz and primarily provides rhythm, tone colour, and mood backdrop to the straightforward lyric/narrative recitation. Instrumentalists include David Broscoe on clarinet, bassoon, effects; Jennifer Giles on piano; Jamie Gullikson on percussion; John Higney on lap steel guitar; Alrick Huebener on acoustic bass and guitar; and Mark Molner on cello and violin. Voice and instrumental production values are exemplary. Best of all, the music and the poetry both stand close scrutiny and invite multiple listening.
SugarBeat Music & Poetry
"A riveting expression of spacey sensuality!” (MP3 review of “Entropic Eyes,” Featured Poetry Song and number 7 on the poetry hit parade).
“A fast-paced, melodious nugget...[that] stays off the soapbox. The lyrics have a dramatic urban sensibility but are also playful...using a combination of jazz, blues, and even folk sounds with the take-a-bite-out-of-life poetry to create a high-energy performance” (Capital City).Geode Music & Poetry
“Attends closely to the rhythmic connections between sound and content...us[ing] gradations of rhythm to climb through a series of poems sometimes connected, sometimes disconnected by considerations of mortality” (Monday Magazine).
“It’s dusk in the park. The sultry strains of jazz are echoing on the summer wind as a sultry voice intones, ‘the pleasure of lusting after you...’ SugarBeat has been wowing audiences since 1995...With a growing following...[and the] silky voice that makes the performances so compelling.” (Ronnie R. Brown, Capital City).
“McMaster’s poetry mixes it up with the piano and accordion of Giles and the electric and acoustic basses of Huebener to produce spoken-word pieces that are stormy, quirky, otherworldly, contemplative, tender, sensual, foot-tapping...a synchronistic blending of the classical, contemporary, and popular that even threatens to convert a few diehard poemophobes” (Sylvia Adams, Ottawa Citizen).
First Draft: Wordmusic 1981-2007
“Glows with intelligence and the collaborative spirit; heartily recommended” (Canadian Poetry Chronicle).
“Rich and intriguing work... unexpected monumentality... clings to the mind hauntingly" (Pat Cardy, Ottawa Citizen).Siolence: Poets on Women, Violence and Silence, Susan McMaster, ed. Art work Marie Elyse St. George & Heather Spears (Quarry Press, 1998).
Reviewed by Terry Vatrt, CM magazine, VI/21, 23 June 2000.
"Siolence: Poets on Women, Violence and Silence is a collection of essays and poems by various members of the Feminist Caucus of the League of Canadian Poets. The contents originated in several years of presentations, readings and discussions held at the League's annual meetings. The texts were gathered into a trilogy of chapbooks, "The Living Archives" series. Siolence is the first of three books, to be published by Quarry Women's Books, that record and organize the wealth of ideas and words springing from the gathering of some of Canada's best poets.
"On a concrete level, the book is very appealing. It is user-friendly: well organized in a simple, clear, and attractive package. The book is divided into fourteen sections, each devoted to a different poet. One of the most striking features of the book is the graphite sketch of each writer, contributed by the award-winning writer, Heather Spears. A brief biography of each contributor is printed alongside the sketches. An essay and poem by each writer completes the section.
"The essays discussing peace/violence and silence [-siolence] range from philosophical to practical in nature. They are well informed, insightful and thought provoking. Several cite other resources. The poems are wonderful; they beautifully and strikingly illuminate the ideas presented in the essays.
"I highly recommend this book to teachers, teacher-librarians and resource professionals. Obviously, it would be a worthy addition to any Women's Studies classes. As well, it would be an invaluable resource in any class or group dealing with peace/conflict resolutions issues.
"Finally, Siolence is a 'must-have' resource for any Canadian Literature course, as well as any poetry class. It provides a brief, intense introduction to excellent contemporary Canadian poetry in an attractive, easily accessible format. Highly Recommended."
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission. Published by The Manitoba Library Association ISSN 1201-9364 COLLABORATIONS
Two Lips, recording, Penn Kemp (Toronto: Pendas Productions & PsychoSpace Sound, 2001)
Reviewed by Katerina Fretwell
"Penn Kemp, a fusion and performance poet, is also innovative in her combining books with CDs. Her performance piece, Two Lips, poems 1 to 9 performed with Susan McMaster, another noteworthy sound poet, and 10 to 16 with Anne Anglin, a joyful discovery for me, includes 'Ancient Egypt: On the Other Side of Time,' which is a distillation of her poetry book, Suite Ancient Egypt...Her two-voices poetic arrangement, backed by Alrick Huebener's upright bass and Jennifer Giles' accordion and pump organ, breaks with the linear mindset of Western conventional poetry...Like Miles Davis, she repeats titles with different arrangements, first with Susan and then with Anne.The repetition and interconnection (an idea central to Ancient Egypt's goddess-based culture), deepens the listener's awareness and delight while receiving the serious message.
"'Berlin 1945', Penn's collaboration with Susan, packs a wallop. In under five minutes, their apt metaphors and onomatopoetic phrases recreate the holocaust, especially in their vocal slide through h-bomb sounds: 'Helga, Holga, Helmut, Heidi ... so pretty to be raised as porkers pink for slaughter' as Alrick's bow scrapes the bass to mimic sirens. Word, sound, and music coalesce into a piece of major impact. Tonal differences in Susan's and Anne's voices intensify the emotional impact. With Susan's crone-wise, velvet-steel voice, Penn softly invites the listener in. Then, Anne's sharp-lyric, angular-heraldic tone brings the theme home. Since the pieces are not logically structured, the mounting effect is one of dawning clarity rather than boredom...[and]...infuse poetry with fresh possibilities...GENERAL REVIEWS & INTERVIEWS
Diana Schmolka, "VIVA!", in Women on Top Ezine, extract from article on Susan McMaster, 2011
"Susan McMaster, Canadian performance poet, has managed to synthesize the two arts [of music and poetry] into one production. She insists on calling herself a 'performance poet', rather than a multi-disciplinary artist, but, in my opinion, has demonstrated a true return to the Greek definition of 'poetry' (or music)..." Note: this biographical article starts with First Draft and wordmusic work from the 1970s, tracks SugarBeat and Geode music & poetry, and ends with the three poetry collections from 2009/10, Pith & Wry, Paper Affair, and Crossing Arcs.
Pearl Pirie, pearlformance, extract from description of presentation at TREE Reading Series, 2009
"[In] a retrospective of her voice and focus as it developed and changes, [Susan McMaster] said that as she goes on her sense of poetics gets briefer and simpler. It has always been truth-oriented. She gave examples with each phase. She characterized her earlier work as a tangled venting, self-absorbed and harder to enter. She still values it because it speaks to some people who are a comparable place. At a later phase she moved to expressions that aimed to be accessible with a language that would admit as many as who would be willing to enter. The wider world entered the content of the poem. The most recent works try to engage with those necessary, difficult things. Subjects connect her life to other lives to sort out sense of truths."
Roger Nash, Poet Laureate, Sudbury, Past President, League of Canadian Poets, extract from introduction to LUminaries Reading Series, 2009
"Susan' s poetry so often reveals her as a poet with an inner moral compass. Her poetry comes from what she values in life, is a form of love or caring about things and people. As in her extended reflections on what her mother's Alzheimer's means for her, in her just published (but already into a second edition) crossing arcs. And it does this in a finely-balanced way, which can deepen the responses of a wide range of readers, steering well clear of the extremes of doctrinaire preaching and sentimentalization. It comes as no surprise that she's grown up in the Quaker tradition.
"For Susan, poetry is at the centre of life. It isn't some sugar-puff, decorative and non-nutritious addition to it. She's narrowed the gap between poetry and politics in organizing projects like Convergence: Poems for Peace, which gave poetry a public voice on Parliament Hill, when, in 2001, poems met all MPs and Senators, on a daily basis.
"Out of the rich oral culture of poetry, where poetry and song are often inseparable, she has long worked, in what, today, some may call a "mixed-media" way, with word-music explorations in groups like SugarBeat, recording CDs in addition to publishing an extensive number of poetry books.
"Susan is hugely valued, nation-wide, among several generations of poets, both for her poetry and for how central she has been, for so many of us, in building and sustaining a real sense of poetic community. She has guided and encouraged so many emerging writers, putting them in touch with each other; and given well-judged and kindly criticism to many established writers. She's been the driving force behind many important reading series, literary events, poetic collections and series. When you're trying to organize something literary - as I found as President of the League of Canadian Poets - and it seems more like trying to herd exotic wildcats, she unfailingly gives wise practical advice, and always comes through for you.
"Lastly, but not least, you'll find, in her poetry and prose, that Susan writes out of a very rooted sense of place and human community, whether it be in Ottawa or on the Bay of Fundy. She's an important figure in the ongoing task of creating and sustaining a poetic sense of the land we live in - and of being a voice for it. And the land we live in isn't pure geography. It's the celebratory, sometimes anguished, sense we make of our lives."
This page last updated 9 February 2011 by SM.