All Lit Up: Tell us about your collection.
Susan Elmslie: No brick-and-mortar museum of kindness exists in the world. Museum of Kindness is a collection of poems that register that symbolic lack in various ways, sometimes by offering as counterpoint the vulnerability that is at some level kin to kindness. The book is structured in four sections — sort of like four connecting rooms in a museum of lived experience and imaginative dwelling. The opening section, “Material,” contains poems of childhood, adolescence, and “crossing over,” which together trace the narrative trajectory of the Künstlerroman or artist’s novel. These are followed by the poems in “Trigger Warning,” which reflect on my experience of a school shooting (Dawson College, 2006) and on the conventions of the genre that we have all come to know too well from watching it rehearsed in the media over the last twenty years or so. The poems in the third section, “Threshold,” cross over into really unpredictable territory: birthing and parenting, in particular when a child has various challenges that eventually might be called autism. The last, titular, section moves outwards as well as circles back, exploring other subject positions through found poetry and dramatic monologues.
ALU: Do you read poetry as a self-care technique? What books in particular have helped you?
SE: I do read poetry as a self-care technique. When I was writing my doctoral dissertation at McGill, I’d allow myself an hour or two a day to delve into the rows on rows of bound poetry periodicals, reading whatever caught my eye and copying by hand poems that I liked. It was my reward — discovering those poems like sea glass on a beach and keeping them to hold and admire again later. What solace and delight I got from something so freely available, largely overlooked, and potent precisely because of its relatively marginal status.
Some poems or collections of poems have helped me process complicated feelings and experience a sense of connectedness during a challenging time. Some have been a life vest in rough seas. For example, when my father was sick with a terminal illness, a friend gave to me Sharon Olds’ book The Father, in which Olds writes about her father’s life, illness, and death. I couldn’t look at this book for a long time — it was too visceral. But a year after my father died, I plucked that book out and read it, cover to cover, deep into the wee hours. It was deeply cathartic. Another book that has been both lashing and balm to me is Maria Hummel’s House and Fire, which is described as on the back cover as “a mother's love song to her stricken young son, written over the years of his hospitalizations for an acute immune disorder.” That is a devastatingly beautiful book that renewed my strength to confront my family’s own experience of the pediatric ward. And I don’t know how it works, but I’ve found that reciting a Robert Frost poem a few times can stave off a migraine.
ALU: What’s the best piece of advice anyone has given you about writing, or life?
SE: Don’t be afraid. It wasn’t exactly advice—more of an observation or outlook—but the poet Robert Hass said to me, “Sometimes it’s good to risk too much.” This echoes something that Czeslaw Milosz said to Hass: “Sometimes it is better to be a little ashamed rather than silent.”
ALU: If you had one superpower, what would it be?
SE: If I had one superpower, I’d probably choose invisibility (to be more invisible than I already am now as a middle-aged woman). I could listen in on conversations and stare as long as I like, really study people and animals. See the off-limits parts of the tour. Go backstage. What poet doesn’t like to really look? But having Hermione Granger’s Time-Turner might also be great; I need to find more hours in the day.
The cup too full, tired experiment in surface tension.
The latch stuck, stuck, stuck and then the gate
lurches open. Luxury of hot tears.
Constellation of crumpled Kleenex
on the quilted bedspread.
You awaken from a wine-induced sleep
to Cardinal’s song and warm floorboards,
a sliding screen door, the patched
overturned boat someone hoisted to the cove.
The blousy, stooped hedge after rain.
You’ve seen those lists of words
with no English translation: saudade, litost, toska.
To awaken, dream-
bruised, to your own life.
–From Museum of Kindness by Susan Elmslie (Brick Books, 2017)
Susan Elmslie's first trade collection of poetry, I, Nadja, and Other Poems (Brick, 2006), won the A.M. Klein Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the McAuslan First Book Prize, the Pat Lowther Award, and a ReLit Award. Her poems have also appeared in several journals and anthologies – including the Best Canadian Poetry in English (2008, 2015) – and were collected in a prize-winning chapbook, When Your Body Takes to Trembling (Cranberry Tree, 1996). She lives in Montreal and teaches English literature and creative writing at Dawson College.