Desperately seeking Susans

A quirky anthology of Canadian poetry by a gang of sues exploits a new trend

Desperately seeking Susans

Getty Images; iStock; Photo Illustration by Lauren Cattermole; Todd-Bingham picture collection/Yale University

Wanted: Submissions for a Canadian poetry anthology. Poets must be Susans. Sue, Susie, Suzanne—all are welcome.

With tongue in cheek, B.C.-based Oolichan Books is editing this ode to our most poetic Susans, offering $15 per published submission and a great story to dine out on. “It’s impossible to ignore this bizarre coincidence of having so many great Canadian poets named Susan,” said anthology editor Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang, a poet who studied under Susan Musgrave. “I’m just glad someone else noticed,” laughed Fredericton-based poet Sue Sinclair. “It’s a postwar, generational thing. We’re all of a certain age.”

The anthology, Desperately Seeking Susans, is part of a new trend where publishers rely on quirky anthology themes to lure readers. “But I have never seen one quite so quirky as this in Canada,” notes poet Susan Goyette, who was one of four Susans who first noticed the “literary Susan” phenomena while at the Banff Centre in 1997. After a few bottles of wine, they were declaring other people honorary Susans. “It’ll help us break down the tired old reputation of poetry being inaccessible. The spine of what’s connecting us—our name—isn’t heavy, but the work is serious. Who would’ve figured being named Sue would get me in an anthology with such great company?”

That company includes Susan Elmslie (“I’m a Sue-in for this”), Susan Gillis (who says Susan is the Hebrew word for lily, which she uses in her poems), screenwriter Sioux Browning (who modified her given name like British rocker Siouxsie Sioux), Susan Ioannou (who sighs at the memory of a dear friend calling her Susanchka), Susan Glickman (who once shared a dorm telephone with six other Susans), Susan McMaster (“I feel sorry for everyone who isn’t Susan”) and Susan Musgrave (“I’m a combination of Susanville, the prison town where my husband did time, and my great-great aunt or somebody called Suzanna who went down on the Titanic.”) Someone even tried to crash the party. “I wrote an anonymous poem about the name Susan,” Lorna Crozier said from North Saanich, B.C. “They didn’t let me get away with it. It was all Susan Musgrave’s fault. She put me up to it.”

When asked if such a light-hearted project could damage their reputations in serious poetry circles, the Susans roared. “We don’t really know who those people are,” said Musgrave. “I’ve already been written off by everyone anyway!” laughed Susan Holbrook. Poet George Bowering, the first parliamentary poet laureate, said they need not worry. “Academics won’t even read it. They don’t go to poetry readings and they don’t buy poetry magazines.”

A Susan was behind one of the first Canadian anthologies of poetry. “It was The Canadian Birthday Book, edited by Susie Francis Harrison, in 1887,” said McGill professor Robert Lecker, whose upcoming book is Keepers of the Code: English-Canadian Literary Anthologies and the Representation of Nation. “Previously, Canadian poetry anthologies were grouped primarily around region, nature, gender and sometimes hockey, but the Susan project is part of the tradition of weird and wonderful themes.”

While some might call it a gimmick, some see it as smart marketing. “You need an edge, something unique,” said Marty Gervais, editor and publisher at Black Moss Press, which released its own quirky title, The White Collar Book: Poetry and Prose of Canadian Business Life, with a foreword by Conrad Black, in January. Tightrope Books is currently collecting poems about the movies for publication in 2013, on the heels of their anthology about Paris launched last May. “Deliberately idiosyncratic anthologies, like the Susans, help people get over any bad high school experience they might’ve had with a poetry book,” said Noelle Allen, publisher at Wolsak & Wynn. “Canadians have the wrong idea about Canadian poetry—that it’s boring and old-fashioned.”

Desperately Seeking Susans will do its part to disabuse Canadians of that notion. In the meantime, Tsiang says submissions keep arriving. “I’m sure we’ll get a boy named Sue by the end.”

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