Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Betsy Struthers

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Betsy Struthers

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Alice Prendergast:

First off, thank you for taking time out of your schedule to do this interview. Your poetry is inspiring, creative and interesting to read. I’ve come up with a few questions on your work, inspirations and future and I look forward to seeing your responses!

Betsy Struthers

Hi Alice. Great questions, making me think!

AP:

On one of your book sleeves I noticed that you have worked in a library, as an editor and in a publishing company. Since all of these jobs circulate around books and writing, did they influence you in wanting to become a poet? If not, was there anything that drove you to this career or did it just sort of happen?

BS:

I always wanted to write, especially to write poetry, but had a very bad experience in my first year of university where an older (male) poet told me I had no talent and shouldn’t write. As you can image, this rather devastated me, and it took quite a long time (about six years) for me to get the courage to study and write poetry again. In the meantime, I wanted to work with books and was lucky to get a job working for a publishing company in their promotion department. Through a number of job changes (working as advertising manager for a department store and then as a freelance editor for a couple of journals), I settled into working as a freelance editor for a publishing house and have done that ever since. I did work part-time in a library and in a bookstore when I first moved to Peterborough as I was just beginning to write seriously and wanted time for my writing but needed a job to manage that.

AP:

I read in your interview on rob mclennan’s blog that you are influenced by nature, the weather, the sky, travelling, etc., but I have not found any references to poets you are influenced by. Are there any poets (living or dead) that have influenced your work or you as a writer?

BS:

As a young child I loved the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson and A.A. Milne for their play of words, sound and sense. Alfred Noyes’s “The Highwayman” showed how a romantic story can be told in hypnotic rhythm with vivid imagery. The first poet who influenced me as a writer, though, was Dylan Thomas, especially “Fern Hill” and “Do Not Go Gentle” — the sounds he created in those poems marry the sense so beautifully that I was (still am) entranced with his work. Then I read Margaret Atwood and the power and conciseness of her imagery bowled me over; for instance, the first poem in her early book (one of the first books of poetry I bought) Power Politics (Anansi 1971): “You fit into me/like a hook into an eye// a fish hook/ an open eye” — that still wows me. The venerable Canadian poet Dorothy Livesay was my first mentor; she encouraged me not just to write but to read many contemporary poets such as Lorna Crozier, Don McKay, Robert Bringhurst, Gwendolyn MacEwen… I still read a lot of Canadian poetry, but my favourite poets at the moment are the Americans Sharon Olds (for her incisive and imagistic writing about family) and Mary Oliver (for her poems of love and nature).

AP:

I’m biased because it’s about my mother, but my favourite poem of yours is “Driving With Catherine.” I understand that you had gone for a drive with my mother and she had been talking about trying to decide what career choices to make, but after reading it I wouldn’t have guessed that you were talking about that. Did you purposefully make the inspiration of this poem hidden so that its message could relate to more people or was it unplanned? Do a lot of your poems have underlying messages your readers aren’t aware of?

BS:

It would be interesting to know what you thought I was talking about in that poem! One of the problems with poetry is that it’s almost always considered to be autobiographical; part of that is the old saw that one must “write what you know,” but poetry has also been used too much as a therapeutic tool, a kind of verbal, emotional “vomit it all out on the page,” as Denise Levertov puts it. The situation in the poem is universal: two people talking, one in turmoil over something — does it matter if it’s questions about career choices or a relationship with a lover or a family member? The details are important: they’re in a car pulled over on a shoulder (and the shoulder is not just the road’s shoulder but the shoulder on which one in trouble can lean); in other words, the driver is stalled, both literally in the stopped car and emotionally in the confusion about want and need, desire and practicality. There’s no solution to the dilemma except going forward, driving on… I don’t think this is hidden, that there’s an underlying message. Clearly the poem is talking about friendship, about helping someone deal with a dilemma. What that dilemma is isn’t important; we all face dilemmas of one kind or another, we all need someone at times to lean on. The personal becomes the universal in the telling, in the careful choice of image (the car parked on the side of the road) to reveal the emotional without overloading the poem with “big” emotional words. That’s what I try to do in all my poems. I don’t worry too much about fact (did we stop at the side of the road? Was the car a Honda?), I just want the truth to reveal itself.

AP:

Your book Censored Letters is kind of like a novel made out of poems. Did you find it easier to create these poems because they all connect, or did you find it harder to create a number of diverse poems limited to one topic? Why?

BS:

One of my passionate literary interests is the period between the two world wars, and one of my favourite writers of that period is Christopher Isherwood. When I read his book Kathleen and Frank, about his parents — his father a career soldier who was killed in World War I — I began writing what I thought would be a 4-5 poem serial. I met the poet Kenneth Sherman at a workshop he gave at Trent University when he was working on his long serial poem, Words for Elephant Man. (Note: I was the only person to turn up at the workshop with the result that Ken and I became good friends. So if you ever see a workshop advertised on a subject you’re interested in, go to it, you never know where it might lead!) He suggested I develop my short serial into a longer work. I did quite a bit of research in local archives and in memoirs, histories and novels written about World War I. I also had the letters my parents had exchanged when my father was overseas in World War II — I used the earlier war because I wanted the communication to be more difficult between the two separated lovers and because I wanted to avoid the autobiographical.

The more I read and thought about that distance ‐ how I would feel if separated for years from my husband not knowing if (or in what shape) he would return — the more I wrote. Thoughts of a man I knew well who came back from two tours of duty in Vietnam and my own feelings about that war also played a part … I was also playing with the Penelope and Ulysses myth, wanting the wife to be actively, not passively waiting — so she works in a factory and on a farm, knits, takes care of her son (I wrote these poems long before my own son was born, but in the myth Penelope and Ulysses have a child, Telemachus, so I invented “Toby” for the couple) and her parents, and even having an unconsummated affair (“The Artifice of Desire”). I also experimented a bit with form, including a couple of sonnets and a sestina about peace — that was a self-conscious rebuttal to Ezra Pound’s sestina on war. So, once I really got into the research, I became almost possessed with the voice and the poems just wrote themselves (with a lot of revision). As it turns out, Ken became poetry editor for Mosaic Press and when I sent him the finished manuscript, he accepted it for publication — on November 11, 1973, Remembrance Day. Very fitting.

I do have a strong narrative streak in all my poems — I like to tell a story since I think story is fundamental to the human condition (Thomas King: “The truth about stories is that that’s all that we are”) and have written several long serials since Censored Letters, though none quite as long as that.

AP:

I think it’s interesting (not to mention impressive) that you write murder mysteries and short stories as well as poems. Do you enjoy writing a particular genre more than the others? Do you find one more challenging to write?

BS:

Ah well, that thing about story again… In 1989, I got a Canada Council grant to work on my third collection of poems. It gave me enough money to buy a computer and rent an office downtown to work in and hire a caregiver for my son. Once I was all set up — I couldn’t write. Total block. I’ve always been an avid fan of murder mysteries and had often said to myself after reading a poorly written one, “I can write better than that!” As an experiment and to learn how to use a computer, I started writing a mystery with a character much like myself, who lived in my house with my dog and a version of my husband (“write what you know”) and who finds a body in the river on one of her dog walks — that really happened to a neighbour of mine, though the body was the result of accident, not murder. That novel went through seven major rewrites before it found a publisher — and the publisher assumed that it was the beginning of a series and contracted for two more novels which then, of course, I had to write…

I had a lot of fun writing them, especially the discipline, so different from poetry. Every morning I could get up, review what I’d written the day before, revise and push forward. I tried to write a scene a day (but was not always successful and sometimes wrote more). When I finished the third one though, I was exhausted — in five years I wrote the three novels and two more books of poetry, raised my son, continued to edit, and worked as a volunteer on the board of the League of Canadian Poets (co-editing a book on teaching poetry as the Education Chair; organizing events and workshops as the Feminist Caucus Chair; overseeing membership as the Vice-President; then serving as President for two years). I lost faith in my character who was just an ordinary woman who somehow kept stumbling into murder and mayhem. So I turned back to writing poetry… What I’m writing now I think of as a hybrid of prose and poetry: more narrative than most poems (they tell a story) in language that is more concise and imagistic than most prose (they sing). Again, they are a mix of fact and fiction: rooted in events I’ve experienced or read about or someone has told me but shaded to make them less autobiographical and more universal in the telling.

To go back briefly to the end of Question 3: choosing to name the kind of car the conversation is taking place in — a Honda — says a lot about the driver and passenger without having to say much at all. Whether or not we really were in a Honda is not important. What driving a Honda says about “us” is….

AP:

I’ve noticed that in each of your poetry books there is a portion dedicated to what is going on in your life. Throughout your work it is clear to see the ups and downs as well as the changes you’ve faced. Can we expect to see more of this in Family Matters, the book you’re currently writing? Is there a moment you’ve already transformed into a poem that you’d care to share?

BS:

In a way, all my poems are engaged with what is going on in my life: what I’m reading, watching (movies), listening to, seeing on walks, being told, as well as the ordinary events of day-to-day living, family events, and of course travel. But, you’re right, some are very autobiographical without the trappings of fiction. Though let me tell you one quick story: the poem “Interlude” in Saying So Out Loud, situates the “I” as lying in bed listening to someone talking to her on the phone. “The phone bursts into the dozing house / like a challenge / like an intruder / like a gossip gone half-mad / to see the sky falling. You say / it’s been three weeks now. You say, / how long the waiting?” “I” — who lies on an “unmade bed” (suggesting either bad housekeeping or recent love-making) listen to this and notice a shirt hanging on the back of the closet door. In the first version, it was “your shirt left empty and hung / on the hook of the closet door.” This gave the poem two protagonists, the listening “I” and the haranguing “you.” But then I thought, what if I changed the pronoun: all of a sudden “his shirt … on the back of the closet door” opens a whole world of possibility about what is going on between these three people and elevates the poem from something very prosaic into a bit of a tantalizing mystery, a hint of scandal. In fact, when it was published in a literary magazine, a colleague of my husband’s commiserated about the troubles in our marriage…. In fact, what I was writing about was waiting to hear the results of a pregnancy test. Neither of these things are in the poem. Neither are false nor true. The poem, on the other hand, is true to itself…

So, what I’m writing now are mostly the prose/poem hybrids I talked about earlier, and the book Family Matters has been a bit shelved. I’ve been working mostly these past few months on putting together a manuscript of New and Selected poems from my nine books of poetry and “short fictions.” The manuscript is divided into thematic sections, not chronological. I’ve written what I think of as “preface poems,” which elucidate or illuminate the content of each section by linking them directly to my life. The titles for these preface poems are taken from “rules” for creative writing. Here is the preface for the section “Rumours of War” that contains poems about wars, personal and political. It is a true story of what happened to me on 9/11, transformed into a meditation on writing and relationships.
I hope you like the poem, it’s very new…

There are no rules

It’s an ordinary Tuesday, the kind of Tuesday
I wake up knowing I’ve got a certain job to do,
walk the dog, read the paper, butter toast.
Skip headlines for the entertainment news, go
upstairs, turn the computer on. I don’t want
to do the job I have to do, a boring job, moving
words around, editing a book on World War II
and Vietnam. Instead, phone friends to plan
a dinner out, old friends we’ve known thirty years.
He answers for a change, says “Turn on CNN,”
stays on the line as the second tower falls.
Sorry, he says, their marriage is over, she’s gone.
I hadn’t guessed a thing. Over and over I watch
the planes, the people. Some jump holding hands.

— Betsy Struthers


Winner of the 2004 Pat Lowther Memorial Award for the best book of poetry by a Canadian woman for Still (Black Moss Press), Betsy Struthers has published eight books of poetry, three novels and a book of short fiction, as well as co-edited an anthology of essays about teaching poetry. Struthers received the Silver Medal as runner-up for the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award in 1994 and was short-listed for the Arthur Ellis Best First Novel Award in 1993 and the CBC Literary Awards in 1996 and 2006. A past president of the League of Canadian Poets, she has read her work from coast to coast in Canada, in Australia and in North Carolina. Her poems and fiction have been published in many anthologies (most recently, In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry and Going Top Shelf: An Anthology of Canadian Hockey Poetry) and literary journals; she has taught workshops in both poetry and fiction to students of all ages, from kindergarten to adults. Resident of Peterborough since 1977, Struthers works as a freelance editor of academic texts.


Porter Louisa Alice Prendergast, despite the grandeur of her name, is a simple creature. Defying her two more unusual titles, she prefers to go by Alice. Born and raised in the city which prides itself on having the largest lightening rod, she finds it difficult to blend in quiet rural areas. Unpublished, Alice strives to define her writing talent in different ways, most prominently through mandatory blogging and Facebook status updates. Though her accolades are few, she is hoping to achieve greatness in her next endeavour of attending Ryerson University. Today, Alice resides in the east wing of her untidy palace with her loving family and obnoxious parrot.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page