War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

For Canada

the last Canadian flag in Kabul has come down.
the longest war.
is over.

— smsteele

Back from StAnza - Saint Andrews (Scotland) International Poetry Festival

Dan O’Brien, Richie McCaffery, SMS, David Constantine

SMSteele, whose poetry on the subject of soldiering, delivered with astonishing verve and charisma ~Helena Nelson, HappenStance, 9 March 2014

Just back from 5 days at StAnza, the international poetry festival hosted by the incredible Eleanor Livingstone and her amazing, amazing team (a shout out to the lovely Calum who was so patient and kind, and to so many others). It was my great pleasure to be a part of a panel on war and poetry, do a reading in a medieval undercroft made of amber-coloured, honey-warm rock (a truly sheltering place), and to show my latest installation Poet’s Road to War with the Patricias in the gallery at the Byre.

If I had my way, I’d make it a requirement of every creative writing department in the land that students be mandated to attend StAnza. At StAnza one can learn more about poetry, past, present, and future, in 5 days than over years of classes, workshops etc. Truly international in scope, there simply was something for everyone – acrobats, a stone letterman, digital images, tweets, slam, performance, sonnets, beat, handwritten poetry, master classes, the work of poets from extreme youth to senior stateswoman/man to the poet laureate of these sceptres isles … the latter, the great queen poet Duffy sailing into my wee hotel, the lovely, lovely Albany like a galleon, her wonderful hair a great sail winning the battle resolutely with the brisk Scottish wind!

Much more to say, but still so much to do today. But here is an article in today’s Scotsman. Mr. Constantine and I did not agree!

— smsteele

To Contact SMSteele

SMSteele may be contacted for a list of publications, interviews, commissions, installations, projects etc., directly through this website, or through her agent:

Ian Arnold
Artist Representative, Catalyst TCM Inc.
#310 – 100 Broadview Avenue
Toronto, ON M4M 3H3
416-645-0935 ph.
416-645-0936 fx.

— smsteele

StAnza - Saint Andrews (Scotland) International Poetry Festival

I’ll be appearing at StAnza International Poetry Festival this week, appearing twice. The first time I will be part of a panel including Dan O’Brien, David Constantine, and Richie McCaffery at a Poetry Cafe, discussing war and remembrance. On Saturday I’ll be doing a reading with Diana Hendry. I’m hoping to be able to stay up late enough to go to some of the open mics to hear what folk are up to.

And tho I’m very, very, pleased to be speaking and reading, what I’m really excited about is my video triptych, Witness: A Poet’s Road To War. It’s pretty interesting sending my film off to folk with instructions of how it should be played. In this case a triptych of video screens.

— smsteele

A note on this diary

This diary was begun in the autumn of 2008 as a digital calling card. I needed to be able to present something to the infantrymen who were landed with the task of looking after me, feeding me, sheltering me, protecting me, teaching me, and who were totally bewildered as to why a poet was in their midst instead of a real artist, one with brushes and pencils and sketchpads!

Thanks to my genius web designer, Michael Gravel, we had the site up and running by the time I hit Shilo and my first military exercise. It was at Shilo, the first stop on my long road to war and back, that I was able to say to the boys, “check out my website and you’ll see what I’m up to.” Inevitably, they’d run to a blue rocket or a tent and google me and be able to read my online diary and see I wasn’t being an asshole journalist” to use the vernacular – they didn’t like journalists because they’d been taken out of context too often I suppose.

My promise to them and to myself was to be as transparent as possible. I decided early on to show all my rough sketches, my really bad work, my failures, my dead-ends. I then wanted to record and post audio because I believe they liked to hear my words. As for photographs. I have thousands of them and slowly will show some. I wanted to wait until the boys were a long time home before I published any.

My number one consideration was not to judge them. I think that’s why they felt comfortable with me. They knew I wouldn’t judge them. And I sure the hell hope they don’t judge me.

Well it’s been 5 years of writing this. I’ve quit a few times but I’ve been urged by readers to keep writing. To date I’ve had over 126,000 visits, and thousands of emails. I can’t believe that many people would drop by. Of the thousands of emails, I’ve only had a few squirrelly ones. One from a crazy, jealous woman who wrote to me not once but eleven times (I only read one!). One from a religious fiend, and I quit reading once I got to the ‘evil one’. And one from a really angry medical officer with PTSD who accused me of being a war tourist and for appropriating the soldier voice. One thing I’ve always said is that I could not, nor would not speak for soldiers. In the end, the officer and I became friends, and last time I heard from him, he’s doing much, much better, having participated along the way, in our poetry project.

99.9999% of the emails and messages that I have received (a few thousand) have thanked me for acting as a translator of sorts, a voyageur, into this other land known as war and army. It’s been, to quote that Dickens fella, ‘the best of times’ and ‘the worst of times’. This work has led me to receive big awards, travel to incredible places, meet amazing people, most notably the next of kin with whom I’ve had the profound experience of standing shoulder to shoulder with, and now, hopefully, to complete a long-held dream, my PhD.

Thanks boys (which includes women of course), it’s been a hell of a ride.

— smsteele

hockey (from the diary)

thought I’d reprint this diary entry in honour of Canada’s Gold Medal in Sochi today. I remember this hockey game in 2008 between the officers and the men like it was just yesterday. I was amused and amazed at how the enlisted men jeered at the CO and the officers’ team and boo’ed when their hero Sgt. Joseph got put into the penalty box! hockey, the great leveller. I’ll post some pics of that game. more than a few of those players are gone, including Lt. Andrew Nuttall killed in A’stan. others could not come back and chose not to go on and took their own lives… the tragedy of this makes me at times, wordless, and grateful for all those like the folks at OSSIS who are there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to offer help… even checking in on a poet from time to time… bless them… anyway, here’s another exciting hockey game played with as much intensity as the Gold medal game today in Russia

the prairie on the cusp of winter, I flew in at dusk over its gorgeous fields, lit farmhouses, everything perfect, miniature, looking every bit like the Friendly Giant’s undersized world that I loved so much as a child (I date myself)… “and here’s a chair for two to curl up in… I’ll call Rusty”… then into Edmonton, a city resigning itself to winter, to attend some Christmas events at garrison.

one bright day, Cpl. picks me up at my hotel to drive to garrison, a great favour as I don’t want to drive the streets as everyone puts on snow-driving goggles again – some clearly need stronger prescriptions judging from the crazy driving. up through the city, across the North Saskatchewan, itself bracing for ice, and north through big box land to garrison. and while all bases are different, they are strangely similar and under a layer of snow, for a minute I think I’m in Shilo again.

we roll round a corner, turn into an icy parking lot jammed with cars and trucks, park, walk past cadres of smokers outside every door. they are in army maroon sweats, jackets, some in jeans, some with toques, caps, a huge diversity of clothing which makes them unrecognizable to me, I’m used to seeing them in their greens, their temperate CADPAT. it’s a funny thing about uniforms, somehow the individual stands out more in them… maybe it’s that we see the face clearer and aren’t distracted by the clothing…

into the hockey arena where the Officers versus the NCOs game has started. first period and the NCOs lead. rumour has it that the teams actually practiced this year. when I ask which side I should cheer for, someone says to me, well the NCOs of course.

hockey. the great leveler. the CO, wearing number 9 hockey shirt (what else would he wear?) as likely to get checked heavily as the WO, the Sgt… I sit in the stands with the companies. D Coy. are loud and laughing. they keep trying to get a wave going, but it dies somewhere 3/4 down the stands. I look at the young faces and think about this time next year. Afghanistan. far from hockey and snow and ice. a different world, a different set of rules. am I imagining or is this crowd a little subdued. maybe just getting ready to go home for Christmas in two days time. I watch the game again.

I see a Sgt. skate out from the benches. cheers. he’s clearly one of the best players, plays to win. the junior ranks chant his name over and over and over. I remember him from Shilo. I remember thinking, “that’s a soldier’s soldier,” one with whom I’d trust my life. competent. smart. wears his experience like a great coat.

the game goes as hockey games go. timeless. each one different, yet so alike. the slash of blades against ice, the clack of stick and puck, that delicious crunch of body check against the boards, the whistle of the refs as they dart like swallows up and down the ice, wave hands, point.

Sgt. goes into the penalty box. not happy. the crowd shouts, “let him play, let him play”…an officer goes down, cheers, a WO goes down, more cheers… this is the one hour of the year when it’s okay to overtly laugh at, cheer the downfall of, a superior… the gloves are off for this one hour, and as the game edges towards the final minutes, the checking gets a bit rougher… the score says 46 to 6 for the NCOs… someone’s playing with the scoreboard… the officers put their “duffer” line on for the last few minutes, the less experienced skaters, but they also put their CO on and he is a fierce athlete, a fierce skater… the cheering and booing gets louder from the stands, I notice that Tim’s coffee has been replaced with Pilsner… 10, 9, 8, 7… the buzzer and the officers claim the trophy this year… final score 8 – 6

the NCOs leave the ice fast, the officers ask me to take their photo in front of the net. they grin. know that just as easily the game could have gone the other way.

— smsteele

lazarus 54 (naiads after war)

with sniper’s sight you watch us step
from flowery dresses, slip naked
into cool green, a spring-fed lake.

through water-lilies bobbing
lemon-white with each breast stroke
lily palms wave in our swimmer’s wake

you watch, you watch,
stealth and stalk your normal trade,
as water weeds tickle-tangle creep

from the sludge and scum beneath,
pull at Annie’s and my feet,
but our legs, our bodies are strong

(besides, we can see the bottom
the fallen logs, slimy brown
nesting place of leeches, frog spawn)

onto our backs we laugh at scum,
stretch girl/mother bodies out,
heads back. Annie’s hair, a water halo.

there is atmosphere here, a sky
filled with dragon-flies gossy gold
blue snaps of thundering light

into the water,
after us, you, sniper,
reccie done, you slide.

— smsteele

Road To War Video Installation

My first video installation Road To War With The Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry can be seen at the art exhibit Forging a Nation: Canada Goes to War that just opened in Calgary, AB at the Museum of the Regiments. It will travel to St Andrews Scotland for StAnza, the international poetry festival where I will also be appearing, then will return this summer to Canada, to Edmonton, for the centenary of the founding of the Battalion.

Here are photos from the exhibit curated by Lindsay Sherman

The installation is a video triptych (in horseshoe formation) of raw film footage I shot over a period of a year and a half while I tracked the battalion on their road to A’stan. One screen shows the film (silent) overlaid with text of the major battles from the Great War to A’stan – in a font that looks as if carved into a memorial stone. The second screen has film and ambient sound (e.g. LAVs or helicopters), and the third has low level ambient sound and professional actors reading some of my work and film footage. While the images are the same on all three screens, I have added some frames to two of the three, which means that the films all start at the same place then slowly go out of sync, only to sync again maybe five or six hours later, then they slip out of sync again. The “viewer” has a choice of how to see and hear the piece by listening with headphones to either of the two films with soundtracks or not at all. I wanted to convey the collective, yet singular experience of war. I present simply, and without judgement. I prefer to let people make up their own minds about how they see the world!

My thanks goes out to my wonderful actors and to Jon Primrose of the University of Exeter Drama Dept. who helped me edit the film.

Here is a review of the exhibit

— smsteele


Suzanne Steele

WarPoet.ca is one of smsteele's Canadian Forces Artist Program projects. Through text, audio, images, video and contributions by Canada's military personnel, warpoet.ca examines and records the contemporary Canadian war experience. More →


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