Susan McCaslin

SMcCaslinInterviewed by Michael Cole Klassen

Susan McCaslin, an established Canadian poet and Faculty Emeritus of English and Creative Writing at Douglas College, New Westminster, BC, has published fifteen volumes of poetry, including her most recent, Into the Open: Poems New and Selected (Inanna, Sept. 2017). Susan has also published a memoir, Into the Mystic: My Years with Olga (Inanna, 2014) and a volume of essays, Arousing the Spirit (Wood Lake, 2011). Her Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011) was short-listed for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (BC Poetry Book Prize) and first-place winner of the Alberta Book Publishing Award. Susan currently resides in Fort Langley, BC, where she initiated the Han Shan Poetry Project as part of a successful campaign to protect an endangered rainforest along the Fraser River.

Susan and her husband are friends of my parents. I saw her books around the house as I grew up, but I didn’t read them—too busy playing videogames and reading fantasy. Recently, I’ve sunk into her lovely mysticism and nature-filled poetry and nonfiction. Eager to absorb the stories and strategies behind her writing and career, I emailed her and we arranged to meet at my parents’ house in Langley.

It’s perfect that you published Into the Open right before this interview: it’s your whole poetry career in one book!

Yes, it was hard to choose! It’s good to see enough of my work in one place that a person—a reader—or even I, can get a sense of patterns of development and recurrent images. Russell Thornton, who wrote the introduction, noticed a recurring image of the magnolia. Though I knew we’d always had a magnolia tree in our front yard, I hadn’t realized it was a pattern, and didn’t know that the magnolia is one of the oldest flowering plants on the planet. So an astute reader gave me back my poems in a new way, which is a rewarding part of putting your work out into the world.

Has talking to your readers about how they experience your work been important to you?

Oh yes. Someone ended up with a volume of my poetry—I forget which one it was—a woman from Australia. She had cancer and would read a poem a night, keeping my book by her bedside. She said it gave her hope. I had no idea the impact it might have on someone so far afield. She later sent me a volume she had written, and we corresponded for a while. Occasions like this come as surprises. I think writers write because we wish to share. When we connect with the beauty of nature, for instance, we want to share it with others. It’s that simple.

How important to you are writing groups and feedback? Has this changed over time?

When I was younger I was much more introverted than I am now. For instance, I didn’t gravitate toward groups or events going on in Vancouver—like the Literary Storefront series that my friend Mona Fertig initiated. And I was never enrolled in a Creative Writing program, since when I began writing in the 60’s and 70’s such programs were relatively new. Then in the 90’s, when invited to teach creative writing at Douglas College, I began to understand the value of receiving feedback from peers. So, I began to participate in the occasional workshop. My husband Mark is one of my best editors. He’s an environmental activist, a nature lover, and has written some poetry as well. He’s excellent at concision, and I would say that now much of my revision process moves in the direction of compression.

Reading your poems, I noticed concision. Personally, I can find so much time and thought into so few words frustrating. Do you ever get frustrated working with concision?

To me, it’s become a pleasure rather than a pain to pare some of my poems down. Sometimes, you can feel you’re losing what you see as your babies or whatever. But a poem can be more powerful when it allows silences in which the words can breathe. You see something—you’re chiseling it—something is emerging that you didn’t previously sense. I feel like, overall, I’ve produced a lot of words. When you add them up, there are perhaps too many, but there they are.

I’m 70 now and I don’t write every day. I don’t try to force the process. There will be months when I’m not writing and then suddenly something will catch my attention. It will take me in deeper till I somehow find myself within a more profound gestalt. In that flow, I’m about the happiest person one could be. Being taken into something larger and more whole is one of the highest states I know. Being part of a larger field, ecology, or web of interconnections feels like something is moving through you. The publicity side, though—what I’m doing right now—is my least favourite piece. Once I’m reading and sharing, I’m fine. But figuring out how to get places and advertising events on Facebook is something I do because I want to stand by my books and interact with readers.

I have a question regarding the publicity stuff—sort of. You wrote in Into the Mystic about how your niche can be isolating. You write many pieces around Christian themes, but in the arts Christianity can be a red flag. At the same time, I can assume that most churchgoers wouldn’t be into your mystic, holistic Christianity. On top of that, poetry is already super niche. So that’s like triple niche.

Exactly.

How has that affected marketing and finding a publisher? Also, how have you coped with the isolation?

I would say that, in some ways, the isolation has been good for me. I had to delve deeply into what really mattered and go with my deepest intuitions. There was a phase where I was afraid people would lump me together with fundamentalist Christians or forms of institutional Christianity that weren’t me. And I did try to distance myself from what to me seem aberrations or distortions of the deepest levels of Christian tradition. When putting my Selected Poems together, I decided not to avoid using the “Christ word” or “Jesus word.” I know that the holistic side of a spiritual tradition, as you called it, is much more inclusive than the rigid forms to which thinking people rightly react negatively. I didn’t want to minimize the uniqueness of the Christian tradition, but also I felt a need to divorce myself from anything that would say “Oh, you have to believe this or that to be saved.”

When I was choosing the poems for this volume, I was tempted to omit some more Christian poems, especially if they use language that could be interpreted as patriarchal or doctrinaire. In one originally titled “Hymn to the Father,” I explored how divinity can be expressed metaphorically as masculine, feminine, and beyond gender categories. In the dream experience that was the basis for that particular poem, the figure sitting on a humble chair was androgynous. So I renamed the poem, “Hymn to the Holy One.” If people read carefully, they’ll see I’m moving toward what the title of my Selected Poems suggests—”into the open.” I feel life has moved me into a more open, mysterious, and experiential form of spirituality. But, you know, I can understand why some readers bristle at religiosity. I have friends who had very bad experiences of Christianity growing up, and rightly rejected it. Probably, if I’d been through what they had, I would have rejected it too.

Do you think you would have ended up doing a Ph.D. and teaching if you didn’t need work? Or did you start teaching mostly out of a love for teaching?

Absolutely. I was drawn to becoming an educator out of an admiration for some of my teachers in elementary school, higher education, and so on. I remember doing a report in grade 8 where the instructions were: “Choose a career that you want to research.” I chose being a teacher. When I was a kid, my biological family called me “Suzy head in the clouds” because I always had a book in hand. So, I guess I was a bookish type from an early age. And never very adept at practical things. Yet, even if I could have made more money at another profession, I would’ve said no. I would have been a fish out of water. The first time I lectured at a university a student approached me after class and said, “was this your first lecture?” I had my notes almost written out word for word. But, as I moved into it, I gained more confidence. Truly, if I had it to do all over again, I’d become a teacher.

So, for you, it wasn’t so much a difficult balance between working and writing—two different things—like how many writers experience it?

Well, in some ways balancing the two things was hard because of the heavy marking load. I started to develop back and neck problems from the marking. It was the marking load and the administrative duties that compelled me to retire at 60. I received a lesser pension, but the decade between turning 60 and now 70 has been the most rich and prolific time in my life as a writer. If I’d continued teaching, I would have had to compress all that energy for my poetry into the summers. That’s what I always did. When you’re a mother—there are a lot of things going on. I had my daughter when I was nearly 40 and I was teaching full time. She was born in April and I returned to teach in September. I had a semi-nervous breakdown when she was about 2, finding myself shaking as I was driving to work. So I managed to keep working, but chose to step down to half time and then back to three-quarter time—in order to restore some kind of work/life balance.

Earlier, we were talking about the lovely flow writing can get you into. In your really busy years, did you feel like sometimes the flow came to you, but you didn’t have time for it?

Yes, I did sometimes. During those periods I would keep notes (journals) and think about projects I might do in the summer. But I also found that—now that I look back on it—I began to write more out of my daily life, rather than just about ancient myths or figures like William Blake. I do have this whole lineage of literary ancestors, and still find myself engaging in dialogues or conversations with dead poets, saints, visual artists, and mystics. My busyness forced me to turn to everyday life more, which I think enriched my work.

You just mentioned this lineage of people from history that you draw from. Like, Demeter Goes Skydiving is about Demeter living now, experiencing modern life. What draws you to mine the present through the eyes of the past?

It started with my reading. I was into fairy tales, myths from an early age. The figures and worlds created though books were real places and presences. Alice in Wonderland was one of my main source books as a child. I remember I’d go to a park with my dad, and he would say “Well, this is wonderland right here”. And I’d say: “No, how do I get to Wonderland? Where’s Wonderland?” It drove him crazy. He was right in a way—this world is wonderland if you see it through the eyes of childlike perception. But I was always looking for alternative realities.

As I matured and read writers like William Blake or the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila, they became for me what George Steiner calls “real presences.” I felt like I was communing with their souls or their spirits, to put it bluntly. I had dreams about William Blake and even wrote a poem where I encounter Blake in the afterlife saying “Well, my old stuff was good in its way, but look what I’m doing now!” Such presences come upon me. I enter their work and get swept away. So, I’m glad when that happens. I think anyone can participate actively with anything they truly love. Most writers agree reading widely and well is good for your writing. You’re not going to become so influenced by others that it that it takes away from your voice. Some people might find my subject matter somewhat literary. I mean, they might wonder “who’s Demeter” and feel put off by not being acquainted with the myth. So I try to provide enough context that the poems make sense viscerally, whether or not one knows the myth intimately. Working with ancient materials is part of who I am: as natural as eating peas and carrots.

You write in Into the Mystic about your mother’s schizophrenia in relation to your experiences with Olga—your mystic-teacher. Having these experiences growing up with your mother—how do you think that changed your growth toward being into visions and mysticism?

I would say there’s a double side. One is that my mother’s experiences were traumatic for her and I wouldn’t want anyone to have to go through them. Yet, she also had a visionary side. As a teenager I was troubled by this duality. Sometimes she would think devils were telling her she couldn’t drink out of the black straw, but she could use the white straw. This form of religious symbolism, apocalyptic and fundamentalist, is something I find limiting and scary. My mother endured horrific experiences when she was in a mental institution at a university hospital and observed by doctors in a padded cell. Yet at the time she also had a visionary experience where she was taken up to heaven. She told me later that Jesus came to her and said “Phyllis, you can come now to heaven and your parents and relatives are here, but if you want to go back to your family—your earth family—it’s your choice.” She said, right out of her heart: “I want to go back and be with my family.” Within three days, she was dramatically improved. Within about two weeks, she was home. Things like that are quite remarkable and have a certain authenticity.

Yet, after returning home, my mother continued to hallucinate: sometimes seeing serpents whirling in the air, being terrified by her “voices.” These things made her anxious and depressed. Olga, however, embodied for me both the visionary and the rational mind. She could mediate between this world and her other worlds, distinguishing without confusing them. She didn’t lose her equanimity or do inappropriate things, and she wasn’t afraid. My mother was full of fear. So Olga, I believe, became a sort of spiritual mother for me in many  ways—having the visionary side of my mother, but with her rationality intact.

Your work makes it obvious that nature is important to you. In his great introduction to Into the Open, Russell Thornton mentions the poetry protest you started in Fort Langley. Was that the first time you initiated that kind of action?

Yes, I would say so. When I was an undergraduate at the University of Washington, I protested against the Vietnam war, and I’ve been concerned with peacemaking and justice since I came of age. Later, it was my husband Mark who opened me to environmental activism, something to which he has devoted his life. Back in the early nineties, he got involved in a campaign to save Pinecone Burke Provincial Park. And that was successful. I was always the literary person—the teacher—and he was the activist in the family. So, when I retired, our mutual desire to help save a forest in Glen Valley, near our Langley home, compelled us to join forces. I learned from Mark that there are times when the beauty of a natural area you love compels you to make every effort you can to see it protected.

I was involved in organizing grassroots arts events to bring attention to the plight of the forest, and a poem I wrote at the time contained the line, “I fell in love with a forest and became and activist.” And to me that was it—the connection with beauty linked to the feeling you don’t have any choice but to act. It’s like, you see someone being nearly hit by a car and you’re going to try and save them. So I thought, well, let’s have an art in the park day, and then Mark and the group WOLF—Watchers of Langley Forests—jumped in and helped. Next, I came up with the idea of the Han Shan poetry initiative, whereby a group of us strung up poems solicited from all over Canada and beyond in the forest and invited the community to stroll through. I named the project after a Buddhist monk from the 8th or 9th century AD who was said to have scrawled poems on rocks and trees. Gary Snyder—an ecological poet from the States—named one of his sequences the “Cold Mountain” poems because Cold Mountain in China is where Han Shan was said to have lived. So, I saw the Chinese monk as a Pacific Rim figure because of Snyder. I envisioned the old poet leaping to 21st century BC to help save a west coast forest.

Mark and I were totally conjoined as activists. We had an incredible energy I’d never experienced. We were lucky that the Township came around and that a woman who read the press on the issue donated to make the area an eco-reserve. I think the politicians were embarrassed by all the publicity. And it didn’t hurt that Robert Bateman got onboard. Looking back—I think it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done because saving a small piece of land may serve as a legacy to future generations. Growing up, I was often told that poetry was not practical. The experience allowed me to prove to myself that poetry can be practical, that poetry matters and has power.

Do you think it’s important for art to be connected to activism?


I think when an artist feels called to action from the heart, she should act. But I don’t think artists should feel compelled to be explicitly political every minute. Especially if their muse is taking them elsewhere. If I got to the point where I felt every poem had to make an overt political point, I would feel trapped or narrowed. It just depends on what is presented to you and what you need to write about. The political, after all, isn’t disassociated from everything else. And the personal is political—as the feminists have said. So I think poetry in the largest sense is by definition political, a contribution to what the Greeks called the polis, or public domain. However, it’s also important to avoid the merely didactic or polemical in art.  For me, poems need to sing, not merely teach, and certainly not preach.

Any advice for all us angry writers and artists during a politically erratic time?

Well, anger can be compelling, and be an authentic part of your poetic voice, but it’s only one tonal range. I don’t want to lose the sense of beauty and celebration. I think our innate attraction to beauty and interconnection is what makes us want to be a better species. The current devastation of the natural world, the ecosystems to which we belong and on which we depend, are maybe calling us first to lamentation. Before we can begin to repair and restore the world, I think we need to lament what is lost and being lost, such as extinct and endangered species. Grieving doesn’t preclude action, but sometimes it has to precede it. We need to act and celebrate, but I think we need to grieve too.

Michael Cole Klassen is a writer/musician/performer who lives near UBC and is at the moment finishing his BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in philosophy, focusing mostly on fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and lyricwriting. He also attends the Jennings Institute for Performing Artists and helps students with writing at UBC’s Centre for Writing and Scholarly Communication.

 

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Catherine Vale

 

Catherine ValeInterviewed by Alyssa Brazeau

Originally from Nova Scotia, Catherine Vale is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling urban fantasy and paranormal romance novelist. Catherine’s novels are self-published on Amazon.com. She began this in 2011 when Amazon unveiled their Kindle Publishing Platform, and has received success ever since.

Her first novel Curve Crazy debuted in 2011 under her pen Adriana Hunter. In 2014, she made the New York Times Book Review E-Book Bestsellers list with Fated Mates, a box set of paranormal and shifter romance novels by various writers. Then in 2017, the urban fantasy and paranormal romance box set Haunted By Magic made the USA Today Best-Selling list.

I wanted to interview Catherine because I was fascinated by her ability to thrive in the unpredictable economy of e-books.

Catherine graciously took time away from her busy work and family life in Ontario, to email with me.

What is your background, work and education wise?

I started out writing poetry, filling countless binders with edgy, emotionally-charged poems that were based on whatever was going on in my life at the time.

Later, I turned to songwriting and finally, fiction writing in my late teens. I had my first poem published in a book distributed by Scholastic Canada in the late 80’s titled Windows of the World. After that, I was hooked.

My first job was working at a bookstore which nurtured my love for literature. Though my paychecks went right back to the store in the form of book purchases!

When I bought my first computer in 1997, I carved out a career in writing copy for budding entrepreneurs and new businesses.

 Do you have an idol that influences your work?

As a teen, I read every mystery novel under the sun and everything ever released by Judy Blume. I was also a huge fan of V.C Andrews and have a full collection of every single book she has ever written. Today, I read a lot of books by Philippa Gregory as I’m drawn to the Tudor era. I hope to one day write a historical fiction novel when the time is right.

What is your daily writing routine?

A routine? What’s that? (wink). I write when I feel inspired to write, and thankfully I’ve managed to stay consistent over the years. I don’t force the process though. There are times where I’m able to write 10,000 words a day for 3-4 days straight, and then I take a week off to recharge.

I do find “sprinting” works best. This is where I literally shut everything else down and focus on writing for just one hour in the morning, one hour in the afternoon and one hour at night. When that timer goes off, I stop, even if I’m in the middle of a scene.

Breaking up sessions keeps my mind fresh and that way, I don’t suffer burn out. And if I stop in the middle of a scene, even better, because it’ll stay at the forefront of my mind all day until my next sprint and then my fingers fly! It seems to have worked well for me for the last few years because I’ve never missed a deadline!

Is Vale your only pen name?

No, Vale is one of many. I came up with Catherine Vale based on my name, Catherine Valerie. I started writing as Adriana Hunter, and have recently launched a pen name, Kate Nova, in reverence to my home province, Nova Scotia.

Do you use different pen names for different genres?

Yes, I do. I was told early on not to confuse readers and so I segment my books based on genre. Recently I’ve decided to test the waters and publish books from different genres under my main pen, Catherine Vale. I’m hoping it works out because it’s a lot easier to manage just one pen name. We’ll see how it goes!

Which genre is your favorite to work in?

Urban fantasy is currently my favorite genre to write in. I wrote a lot of books in paranormal romance before I ventured into urban fantasy, but there’s nothing more fun than writing about magic and mayhem!

Do you think there’s a particular genre that’s more lucrative?

The popularity of genres changes with the wind. I started out writing erotic romance for BBW readers, and then ventured into paranormal romance when vampires and werewolves were suddenly popular. If you write to market, you need to stay on top of the changes and demands, which isn’t always easy to do. Recently, military romance and cozy mysteries have become popular again, but in a few months it could be something entirely new.

What are some rookie mistakes that new authors should look out for?

Not investing in themselves. If you want to maximize exposure and build an audience, you need to invest in your craft and treat it like a business. Hire professional book designers, editors and set up a beta team of readers as well as an ARC (Advanced Review Copy) group. Don’t try to do it all yourself just because you’re trying to save money. If you can’t afford to properly package and launch your book, wait until you’re able to save enough money to give it the attention it deserves.

What motivates you to keep writing despite an unstable industry?

I write for the pure love of writing. It has never been about sales or distribution for me, though I’ve been very fortunate to have had success with both. I do work in other writing fields as well, including as a copywriter for a very successful marketing company. I also create content for several companies in nonfiction markets, and am currently working on content for www.WritersHustle.com, a website I plan to launch in 2018 that will provide tips and resources for budding writers who want to break into the fiction market.

What advice would you give others that are struggling?

My best advice is that if you are writing for the pure joy of it, write what you are most passionate about. If you are writing with the hope of earning a full-time income, then write to market.

If you are lacking motivation, join an online writers group and network with other new writers. Join a box set. Not only will that allow you to form valuable relationships with other authors, but it’ll provide you with a front row seat into the entire marketing and book launch process. And you never know, you might even hit a bestsellers list!

Alyssa Brazeau is in her final year of the BFA Creative Writing Program at the University of British Columbia. She is currently juggling projects, including a children’s paranormal/sci-fi novel, and a television crime drama.