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Poet Susan Gillis!

Susan Gillis has lived on either side of the country (in Halifax and Victoria). She now calls Montreal home, where she writes poetry, teaches English and explores! Gillis’ previous published works include Swimming Among the Ruins (Signature Editions, 2000), Volta (Signature Editions, 2002, winner of the A.M Klein Prize for Poetry in 2003) and Twenty Views of the Lachine Rapids (Gaspereau Press, 2012). Below, Gillis shares some internal musings pertaining to another recently released book of poetry, The Rapids (Brick Books, 2012) and some profoundly open words for aspiring poets or lovers of poetry.

AE: What inspired you to put this collection together?
SG: I’d been thinking about how, and what, we see when we look at
 things—so much depends on what’s going on around us and within us–and I wanted to slow down my looking, observe it. I haven’t always thought of myself as being especially visually oriented, so the choice to look at the river, at buildings, at whatever, was deliberate. The river—the rapids—astonished me: I couldn’t not write about them. And Habitat 67 is compelling. The things we build and the things we build around: that’s how this grouping of poems gathered. [Habitat 67 is the name of a Montreal housing complex built next to a standing wave—also dubbed ‘Habitat 67’—that is part of the Lachine Rapids and where people can actually go to surf and whitewater kayak!]

AE: Did the work come together quickly or did you really need to work at it?
SG: Both. The poems about the Lachine Rapids started slowly, then gathered momentum as I learned more about the geophysics of them. The poems about Habitat 67 developed over quite a long time, and the other poems grew up as I was working on those two series.

AE: What was the most challenging aspect of the process?
SG: Ordering the poems…There are so many ways they might be gathered. My editor John Barton was an excellent guide.

AE: What was the most rewarding part of the experience?
SG: Apart from the writing, which is always the most rewarding, I think seeing the poems grow into a collection that has something of the force and identity I’d hoped it would is very satisfying.

“That poems are like steam—they have a force and are both substantial and evanescent … They can make you shiver and can make your heart beat faster.”

AEWhat did you learn during the process?
SGThat poems are like steam—they have a force and are both substantial and evanescent. They are transformations of something. They can make you shiver and can make your heart beat faster.  I think I knew that before, but with these poems I really discovered it.

AE: How did you feel when the book was completed?
SG: Elated! And worried I wouldn’t ever be able to write a poem again.

 What has the response been like so far from critics and family?
SG: I’m happy. People seem to get something from the book. I hope so!

AE: What’s next on your creative agenda?
SG: My collaborative group, Yoko’s Dogs, is releasing a book of poems this spring (Whisk, Pedlar Press). It will be interesting to see what happens with that. Our work together began for me as simply a discipline, a practice, in letting myself step back from what I was writing, letting language and image speak almost without me. Each of us (in addition to me, there’s Mary di Michele, Jane Munro, and Jan Conn) probably has her own reasons for and experiences of the work we do; those are mine. When we started in 2006 it wasn’t my intention to make a collection, but here it is, and that’s wonderful! I’m curious to see where we go next in our practice. And of course, I’m writing new poems, these days often about my neighbourhood in Montreal, the decidedly un-lovely Pointe St Charles—full of history and life, and certain challenges.

AEWhat made you want to be a writer?
SGLanguage—the sounds it could make and effects it could produce through them, first; then an internal pressure to make language do something, to speak the air and people and thoughts and feelings and strangenesses around me.

AE: What makes a good book?
SG: Something gripping, whether it’s story, idea, language, or any other part of writing—something that sticks, that makes a reader care to keep the book close… something surprising, something true. (And good design, if we’re talking about covers and paper. A good book should be a pleasure to hold and use.)

“It’s as though all the things that make us more than robots, all the human connective tissue of experience and feeling and ritual and change, as though those things are frills, decoration, extras in so many people’s lives.”

AE: What are your thoughts on the state of poetry in Canada today?
SG: I have to confess I don’t think much about that. There’s lots of good poetry out there, more than I could ever truly keep up with, and it seems to be finding readers and making itself present. I do wish people on the whole were more comfortable with poetry in the day-to-day run of things, but that’s a different issue. I wish our society were not so neglectful and dismissive of poetry’s way of seeing and thinking and feeling. It’s as though all the things that make us more than robots, all the human connective tissue of experience and feeling and ritual and change, as though those things are frills, decoration, extras in so many people’s lives. That’s sad. Of course it isn’t true of everyone, and maybe isn’t even generally true. I pick it up from our current sad federal politics. In the classroom (I teach for a living) there are as many kids who are excited by the resources and possibilities of poetry as there are kids who dismiss it. More, maybe. Sometimes I’m surprised by that, when I start thinking gloomily about our Orwellian 1984ish world. It’s proof to me that the thing that makes people poets can’t be killed off. Hey, I guess I think about it more than I thought I did!

AEDo you have any advice for aspiring poets?
SG: Read read read, be true, be fearless. Imitate the ones that came before you. Then break all the rules you learned from that. Then break your own habits. Guard your writing self against forces that repress or silence or destroy it, whether those forces are in you or outside of you.

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