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October 24, 2002 Poet Susan Gillis: Turns of thought



Susan Gillis

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj

Kitchen Floor
(From Volta, by Susan Gillis)

These past six days have been equatorial,
We eat outside. Tonight it seemed the sun
bugled across the sky, draping Crow Hill
and the Blomidons in satin, rimming the inlets and
of Humber Arm with brass and scarlet, gold
at the day’s last call and the sly falling in
of the humdrum. Creatures slide away to their night
hideouts and watchtowers; we come in reluctantly
dragging plates and cutlery and leftover potatoes,
to the fridge grinding on, and on the floor a dark
shock where a wind has come in and blown over
the vase of peonies, the wet petals wine-dark
in the gloam before you turn on the light; weather
gathering over the hills where we’d hoped for stars.

An excerpt from Postcards from London

by Scott McRae

A volta is the eighth line of a sonnet where the turn of thought occurs. For Concordia graduate Susan Gillis, a volta occurred in 1995. She sold her share in a successful vintage-clothing business and chose to pursue poetry.

It was a big decision. Business had been booming and her work had taken her around the world. “I made a down payment for a house from the sales of Hawaiian shirts,” she says. However, she explains that she no longer felt joy in her job. What had started out as a creative venture had become an obsession with practicality and profit. “It was draining my creativity.”

Gillis, who has written ever since she can remember and still has the childhood stories of fairies and elves to prove it, decided to get serious about her writing. She moved from Victoria to Montreal, enrolled in the master’s program in English and Creative Writing at Concordia, and published her first book of poems, Swimming Among the Ruins, in 2000. It made the shortlist for several literary awards.

Following this success, she wrote a second book of poems entitled Volta. The poems originate in a class exercise for English professor Eve Sanders, to translate any 16th-century text into modern English. As she searched for a work, Gillis came across a sonnet by Henry Howard, the Earl of Surrey.

“It bothered me,” she said. “I didn’t like it much. I didn’t think it was saying much.” In fact, she found the surface of his poem to be so smooth and devoid of general feeling that she wondered why we still read him, but the more she examined his sonnet, the more she discovered what lay within it.

“I used the translation exercise as a microscope.” This, in turn, prompted a phenomenal outburst of creativity. She took each of Surrey’s 15 sonnets and translated them into free verse and modern language. Other poems would jump to the page as she laboured over the translation. Her first book had taken 10 years to write; the bulk of Volta took only two months.

Although many have described her poetry as sensuous, Gillis explains that her poems always begin as questions. It is only in the process of gathering together the nebulous threads of her thought that she recreates her questions in concrete form.

“I’m exploring the limits of how we know through the senses,” she said. She is also exploring how we come to know things in the first place.

While undertaking her translation project, Gillis discovered that delving into old works forces the reader to accept a different conception of the world. The disjunction between our reality and the author’s reality prompts us to evaluate the extent to which our actions, rituals and beliefs are defined by the time in which we live.

Expressing such complex ideas is no easy task. According to Gillis, poetry is the best medium for such philosophical inquiry. “Without constructs of form, those ideas can get amorphous and difficult to control.”

The constraints of poetry, whether they be the formalized structure of the sonnet or the internal rules of free verse, create an ideal container.

She added candidly, “I don’t feel competent in any other kind of writing. I haven’t found a voice or a form in any other type of writing.” The voice she has found in her poetry, though, is clear and distinct.

Volta and Swimming Among the Ruins, both by Susan Gillis, are published by Signature Press (each, $12.95, paperback, 96 pp)

From Swimming Among the Ruins by Susan Gillis

Your silence would not survive the current that is
passage, spices frying, bells, work crews knocking at
Dust, and the greasy residue of morning’s market trek
under the bridge.
There are eyes in the street that avert like yours,
lane, into chinks in brick. Others are bold - What am I
doing here?
Sir. I am doing
exactly as you: I eat, I work at my trade, I long.
Excerpt from slip
(from Resume Drowning by Jon Paul Fiorentino)
i had to become an academic
[i don’t like people, only words or dreams]
so dream you sickly academic
implode some codes or simply implode
because there are too many of you
asserting your worth
and slipping
poor slip
invoking dormant diction
claiming truth in fiction
dream or sedate yourself permanently
you might be missed
but only in theory