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November 7, 2012

Desperately Seeking Susans

When I heard about Desperately Seeking Susans, an anthology of Canadian poets called Susan, I was instantly delighted and knew this would be a book I’d have to get, and not least of all because it would probably include a poem by Susan Holbrook. So you can imagine my excitement when it all came together and I learned keeping Holbrook company would be Susans Briscoe, (Suzette) Mayr, Telfer, Olding, and Sorensen (oh yes, she of the A Large Harmonium fame!). The anthology (so reads its jacket copy) “brings together Canada’s most eminent Susans… paired with Canada’s emerging Susans”. It’s also edited by Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang, who wrote the wonderful Sweet Devilry (which won the Gerald Lampert Prize in 2012) and is author of a few of our favourite picture books.

Now I have very good intentions when it comes to poetry; unlike many people, I even buy the stuff. But I find sitting down to read it altogether challenging sometimes, because I’m a book devourer, and poetry doesn’t always lend itself to being digested in such a manner. And so it says something about Desperately Seeking Susans that I read it over the weekend, and that reading was such a pleasure. Not that many of these poems could be read in one go– I had to read most of them twice or three times but the nice thing about the anthology was the range of poems, that each one would require a different kind of mental muscle, and so I never got exhausted. Every time I turned the page, I would discover something different and new.

Discovery is the key here. Not being the most avid poetry reader, here is where I’ve discovered some of those “eminent” poetic Susans for the very first time– Goyette, Elmslie, Ioannou. I loved the range of subject matter, from “The Coroner at the Taverna” by Susan Musgrave and “9 Liner” by Suzanne M. Steele about the war in Afghanistan, to poems about children, about elderly mothers and fathers. I love that the book’s epigraph is a poem called “Susan” by Lorna Crozier, and that the book has been blurbed by Susan Swan. I loved the first poem, “First Apology to My Daughter” by Susan Elmslie, which ends with the tremendous last line, “I taught you the ferocity of hunger,”  Sue Goyette’s heartbreaking, beautiful poems about grief, Susan Holbrook’s “Good Egg Bad Seed”, which I had to read in its entirety to my husband before we went to bed on Saturday night (“You subscribe to Gourmet magazine or you don’t want fruit in your soup./ You get Gloria Steinem and Gertrude Stein mixed up or you get the Bangles and the Go-Go’s mixed up.”).

I loved Susan Glickman’s “On Finding a Copy of [Karen Solie’s] Pigeon in the Hospital Bookstore”, imagine a poem like Suzannah Showler’s with the fantastic title, “A Short and Useful Guide to Living in the World”. I was always going to love Susan Olding’s poems, which are “What We Thought About the Chinese Mothers” and “What the Chinese Mothers Seemed to Think of Us”.  I could go on and on; there is everything here.

I love this is a book founded on such a fun premise, and how the  richness and quality of the work did not have to suffer for that fun. It is an essential addition to the library of any Susan, or to anybody who loves poetry, or anyone who doesn’t know yet how much she really does.

June 26, 2014

Status Update by Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang

status-updateWith Status Update (which was nominated for the 2014 Pat Lowther Award), Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang employs a clever device both for the purposes of her own literary inspiration and to provide her reader with a gateway to the collection. Tsiang used status updates by her Facebook friends as writing prompts for each poem, sometimes adhering to the narrative implied in the update, other times using the words or ideas therein as imaginative points of departure, Tsiang embodying the voice of the status updater in some poems and using the material of her own life in others, every time showing that social media conversation is worthy of literary concern, that Facebook statuses are just another example of the art which can be located in the corners of ordinary life.

I found this conceit really useful. A challenge I’ve encountered in reading poetry is how to grasp a collection without a theme or overarching narrative, and while the poems in Status Update are wildly disparate in approach and tone, their connections are implicit and results in compelling readability. The original status updates, which are included with each poem, also offer points of familiarity and access–many of these are memes I’ve encountered on my own Facebook feed, I recognize the names of the updaters too, who range from prominent Canadian literary figures to a boy I was in a play with in grade 8. (Tsiang and I grew up in the same town, and probably have a few Facebook friends in common. Further disclosure: she was also one of the writers in The M Word, and her essays refers to this collection, to the complicated considerations she must make in writing about and being inspired by her daughter.)

The poems themselves? They’re rarely what you would expect from the figments that inspired them. The final poem stems from a question about whether the world of Facebook can possibly be as sunny and wondrous as status updates and vacation photos would suggest, and Tsiang concludes her resulting poem with the disturbing and wonderful, “Unfold the picnic basket, / and set out the watermelon. / The adults are planning murder-suicide/ and the children are drowning in the lake.” Some poems are glosas, such as one inspired by an update by Carolyn Smart, “thinking of Bronwen Wallace and the 21 years gone by.” which is followed by four lines from Wallace’s “Coming Through”, and Tsiang’s resulting piece, which concludes with, “Lessons you have taught me by example:/ there are some people/ you could have trusted your life to/ and their death displaces you.” What a marvellous knot of literary homage–I love this.

I’m moving through the collection backwards (and note: there is an index at the end of authors of the updates that inspired each poem–I love this too) and picking out my favourites from this book which I read in order at the time. “Dave Hickey wonders if his tv misses him”, which is written in the voice of the television, each stanza imploring, “Look.” Particularly striking: “Look: the sun will kill you. So will/ fish, plastics and cell phones. I will tell you/ the cause of SIDS at five o’clock. Don’t/ put your baby down before that.”

And incredible poem is “Break Into Blossom”, which is inspired by a line from the poem “Blessing” by James Wright, in which Tsiang’s narrator contemplates the enormity of the love and loss implied by being a parent: “When she was born, the colours shifted in her eyes:/ dust to earth, as if she were becoming more solid/ within my gaze. How carelessly I held her,/ like the earth shouldering the skies./ Suddenly I realize/ all the thousands of ways I will lose/ her, and I am overcome, as by a death/ with her still sitting there, singing quietly/ to her stuffed monkey. The world is astonishing/ in this small room….”

There is lots of humour too, as well as poignance. One update inspires Tsiang to write a rejection letter to herself: “Dear Sarah, While we read your manuscript with interest, it doesn’t fit with our publishing mandate. Maybe if it had more tomatoes, ripening on the vine…” Or another  poem (perhaps not funny, depending on your point of view), which begins, “The dog knows when you lie…”

Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang is a writer doing remarkable things. She’s author of some wonderful picture books (including A Flock of Shoes), non-fiction kids’ books, YA books, and editor of an anthology of Susans. (I also loved her previous collection, Sweet Devilry.) With Status Update, she shows that she’s got even more tricks in her back pocket, but also such a talent for turning words into vivid moments, and a refreshing viewpoint on the world.

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