War Poet.ca - A CFAP Project by Suzanne Steele

Artist's Statement

The other day I was interviewed by a Majorcan newspaper. I am here for the 12th Robert Graves Conference and the lovely and kind William Graves (RG’s son) tipped off the local newshound that I might make interesting copy. I am very used to being an interesting story – emphasis on the story rather than the poetry (!) – but as always a little cautious. I have been misquoted, or facts been askew so often – more often than not. But this reporter was very good, and other than some clangers, e.g. that I was in Afghanistan for 2 years (!!!), he got 99.9% of the story right. To clarify, I was on the road to war and back with the 1st Battalion Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, over a period of two years, but in Afghanistan at the front only very, very briefly. I would have loved to have been with them the whole time, but I was at that time a good wife and mother and could only take a few weeks away from those duties at a time! Still, I managed to spend thousands of hours with them. I ate with them, slept on the rough prairie ground amongst them, got sick with them, celebrated their personal and collective successes – or rather, observed them – I stood amongst their next-of-kin when they came home, and yes, wept with them. But lest one accuse me of Stockholm syndrome, I say no, human syndrome.

This site was begun in 2008 as a de facto calling card that I could present to the troops when I landed in their training camps as they prepared for the war in Afghanistan. As my country’s first poet to be chosen as an official war artist, I was a slightly suspicious enigma to these soldiers who had had painters amongst them, photographers, sculptors and journalists, but never a poet. What was I doing? What was I writing in that ever-present notebook and why was I taking photographs of everything? Then, what the hell does a poet do, and more to the point, how the hell should they behave in front of this person the Commanding Officer had ordered be given access to anything she wanted, and at the same time, to be kept safe and alive?

This website provided the boys (and this term, unapologetically, includes all the women) with a means for them to understand what I was trying to do. I wanted to be as transparent as possible, and unable to sit with each and every one of the troops and let them see my notebook, the website provided a convenient method of doing so. Whenever I arrived into a camp, or platoon, or section, or Light Armoured Vehicle, the boys were able to run to the blue rockets and google my site and check me out. Once they realized I wasn’t a journalist, that I wasn’t interested in salacious detail, or in getting them jacked up, they felt comfortable with me. I respected them if they did not wish to speak to me, and I never probed deeply for personal information. Perhaps that’s why they told me so much. As the chaplains said to me once, “You are like one of us Suzanne”. But I am not. I have made no pact with God nor the military about the secrets I have been told – only with myself.

What I never expected when I first began this site was that I would continue with it. To date over 130,000 visits have been made. A low number in this googly age, but a HUGE number for a poet of any age – well of a low ranking poet anyway. Thousands and thousands of visitors have been soldiers and their families. Apparently for one father I was a primary source of int on what his son was experiencing, and he thanked me for it. I have had thousands of letters, emails, messages from people – military and otherwise, from around the world. Of all the thousands only a few have been negative, and only one has been profoundly unkind, but this was from a jealous wife of one of the soldiers I accompanied to war, and she was far, far, out of line. I worked hard to keep a professional distance from the soldiers on their road to war. I never called them by their first names, only by their official ranks, and did not fraternize in any way (though a Warrant Officer, very young, very handsome, and very inebriated, once propositioned me – clearly a case of beer goggles!). Once, however, I did stay for two nights at a woman officer’s apartment. She gave me her bedroom while she slept crumpled up on the sofa – but this sort of behaviour is typical of those I encountered – selflessness.

One of the common accusations I have received is that of propagandist. To this I respond by saying that I respect my readers to make their own minds up about the war, about war. I am only a tiny dot on the landscape and my opinion is meaningless. If anyone wants to know what I feel about the war they should listen to Jeffrey Ryan and my Afghanistan: Requiem for a Generation. I believe the children’s choir singing in Pashto, “I’m so cold” says it all. Further, Canada’s official war artist program is unique in the world. My colleague Dick Averns has made a comparative study of 7 war artist programs and has concluded the same. We are not told what to write or paint or sculpt, or choreograph, or film, where to publish, show etc. The committee that choses us has only one member of the military on it – the rest are academics, curators, senators etc.

To illustrate the uniqueness of this program I always refer to my fellow artist Gertrude Kearn’s startling painting that sits in the middle of the National War Museum’s gallery in Ottawa. It depicts one of our country’s most shameful moments – the torturing to death of a young Somalian teenager in the 1990’s. This painting is uneasy to view, and when I brought a catalogue to the Front in Afghanistan, in which the painting was reproduced, Sgt. Major was upset with it and said it was a bad painting. He did not mean aesthetically. I queried him on his values, and when he said, “Freedom of speech” I responded, “Exactly” and said to him that in my opinion, a grownup country airs its most shameful moments in public. One is, after all, only as sick as one’s secrets, or so they say.

On aesthetics, a criticism I have received often (and it doesn’t bother me), is that my language, my grammar, my use of punctuation etc. on this website, even my poetry, is lousy. I agree. But this is part of the ethos of this website. It is my diary. Few people punctuate, write well etc. in one’s diary. What was important was to “Publish while the boys are still dying” as the great Scottish poet Tom Bryant counselled me at the time. But more to the point, I wanted to publish while the boys were still living.

I am asked all the time if I have published a book, and if so, where can it be bought. I have yet to do so. I have been too busy writing a requiem, a play, (both performed), a doctorate (2/3rds done), two video installations, moving continents, including this Great War project I am leading, and this Great War project I am very, very, proud to say that I am a part of.

Re: a book. I have a wonderful undergraduate student who has collated my work and is beginning to organize it. I have an agent, Ian Arnold who is willing to shop it. But part of me thinks I need it all to simmer for awhile as I struggle to find the form. I am unhappy with the paper and ink solution in many ways, as I prefer to be multimedia. Still, there is something lovely about an artifact called a book. To that end I do have a chapbook of the requiem that can be had. It is handmade, hand sewn by my colleagues from eXegesis, Dr. Jaime Robles and Mike Rose-Steel and is lovely, and I am grateful to them for that.

There are so many I need to thank for the support of this work I have done, and the work I am presently doing as a doctoral researcher at the University of Exeter with Professor Tim Kendall and Dr. Joe Crawford (in these two I am most lucky). Most of all I need to thank my daughter, Ella Speckeen, and my aged mother, Eilleen Steele, both of whom encouraged me to continue this work even when circumstances presented that made it at times unendurable. Both had so much to lose should anything happen to me, and yet both said “Finish what you began”, and this includes the doctorate which means I must be far, far away from them both. Of course I thank John MacFarlane, the director of the Canadian Forces Artist program, Col. Jerry Walsh for inviting me on the entire road to war, my beloveds forever Ann and Zola, family (Pam, Poppy, Don, John… it’s a long, long list) and friends across the country, Phil, my guardian angel from OSSIS etc. etc. etc. and of course those who kept me alive. I will name you all elsewhere I promise.

On a final note, Michael Gravel, a fellow poet, amazing colleague, and web designer, made this website for me. At first it was titled Canada’s War Poet, but I asked him to change it as though I am one of Canada’s official war artists, to be called my country’s war poet seems hubristic. I am just a poet whose subject is, among many other things, war.

— smsteele


this dream, again

Christ, this dream has come again
I thought it past, long, the winter sun
long, the winter wood, the crack, the axe
the axe outside my door, you split the
wood, the winter wood, you left it so
undone, you left it so undone, your
cowardice, your faithlessness, o Christ
this dream has come again
I thought it past, long, past the winter sun.

— smsteele


Mametz Wood 2014

for J

‘the shelling and weathering have “cultivated the land”’
~‘The Flora of the Somme Battlefield’. Bulletin of Miscellaneous Information, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. v. 1917, No. 9/10, pp. 297-300

at Mametz Wood I lay under the canopy of ash
and oak, tangle of rose-bay willow undergrowth
upon the prickly bed, no moss, yet softness
still, still, but for birds and hunters’ gunfire
across the valley called the Somme.

at Mametz Wood I lay & filmed the green and earthy
sky, hives of wild bees, tiny flies, still, I lay,
the arms of undergrowth cradled me, so I could listen,
hear, those bantering birds, the dragonfly, and thunder sky
of gunfire across the valley called the Somme.

later, in Peronne I lay, in my hotel bed and your arms
so far away cradled memory soft and green and new
as undergrowth of Mametz Wood, not mossy, still,
clean and sweet, as your voice, your body naked next to me,
and I was ​safe from hunters’ gunfire thundering
across the valley called the Somme.

— smsteele


D-Day

they were the greatest generation. raised in the Depression, they left home to fight the good fight. two of our elders among them. one in transport for the airforce, he was always rather ashamed and didn’t consider himself a real airman. he drove ambulances and had a good war in the Queen Charlottes as Haida Gwai was once named. he used to say his medal was awarded just for leaving his mother!

the other installed radar on the old Lanks. he was part of the cutting edge technology that accompanies war. and they’re both gone from us now.

how I’d love to be in Normandy today, but maybe not too. maybe it’s just for them to remember, and for us to be grateful.

— smsteele


Open Letter to Romeo Daillaire on Announcing His Retirement

Sir,

I met you in 2008 before I began my own journey into a different kind of heart of darkness – dark, though nothing, nothing, compared to yours, nor restricted to a theatre of war. We met when you came to speak of saving children from becoming soldiers. What a merciless, beating, task for you. After hearing your story I marvelled that every day you were able to get up, tie your shoelaces, and face those images of children killing each other, or being killed, and I just don’t know how you did it. Your ruck of memory, sensorial, so heavy. You said you had a lot of help – family, medical, your faith.

Thank you General for that day and for all your days. And say thank you to your wife Elisabeth. For returning to Rawanda to set up Montessori preschools. Montessori, an outcome of another war, such a beautiful, peaceable way to help children begin their lives. But she would know, being a Montessori teacher herself. How lovely.

Thank you too for telling us about your PTSD and for showing us your humanity. There is only strength in this. All I can hope for you is to find some balance in it. I know you wrote your narrative, but maybe you could write the poetry it calls out to be had.

Thank you so much for encouraging people to call for help. When I met you I also met one of OSSIS’s very best, Phil Quenelle, who has been a guardian angel to thousands of veterans and also to me… he simply won’t let us fall through the cracks.

And thank you for telling me to look deeply into the eyes of all the thousands I would meet along the way. You said to me that I could learn a lot from this. I did. Every time I was with the army I tried to serve food to them alongside the cooks. It gave me a chance to see the soldiers, really see them.

I wrote this poem which you can listen to, General (ret’d) Romeo Daillaire because I was struck by your tie with its bright rainbows, and how it contrasted with your stories and images of children killing and being killed, and how your eyes were so weary and grey, and because I will never forget you telling us that in Rawanda, bullets were too expensive to use on children, and the machete was the weapon of choice.

Thank you Gen. Daillaire, may the grey ghosts become sweet angels for you. And remember,

you are not alone. We are here.

sincerely,

SMSteele

— smsteele


Speaking in Toronto on 18 June at the Royal Canadian Military Institue

For those of you who live in the Toronto area, I will be the inaugural speaker of the Royal Canadian Military Institute’s First World War Commemorative speaker’s series. The title of my speech will be Bearing Witness to War and I will be talking about the Canadian tradition of the artist witness in the theatre of war with a focus on the Great War, the subject of my doctoral thesis, but also including my own.

For more information contact: susan.cook@rcmi.org or call and make a reservation at 416 – 597-0286

In September I will be speaking twice in Oxford, first, on the American VAD Mary Borden and ‘re-facing’ the war through her book The Forbidden Zone, then later I will be speaking on David Jones and his influence on my work as a poet and video installation artist, especially in the context of his Catholicism and his use of form. Dates and locations tba.

For general enquiries about my availability as a dinner or keynote speaker, lecturer, or presenter, please contact me at: ss534@ex.ac.uk

or through my agent:

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

— smsteele


death on ex redux

it was at Suffield that I first knew a death amongst the troops. it had stealthed, slowly, slowly, insidiously into camp in the early hours. through the cracks of a broken heart.
and I’ll never forget that day’s sunrise was the colour of lightly steeped tea. it spread across the early spring prairie. and I remember the crisp intake and exhale of our breaths. the frost covered stalks of new grass. pasque flowers. prairie crocus. and hot water steaming from our metal bowls where we took the morning ablutions under canvas. o it was such a silent, perfect morning. but death had rolled in and across the field and the flags were pulled earthward to half-mast and an ambulance bumped silently across the field to the engineers’ bivouac.

now I read today about another death on ex … this, an accident, the other suicide. it happens. it happens. a man can walk across mined roads for half a lifetime and then, home, safe, the LAV rolls. four men injured, another dead.

Lt. Col. Bobbitt, rest in peace soldier. rest. in. peace.

— smsteele


The Long Goodbye: a conversation across a century

I am lead on a major Great War centenary project titled The Long Goodbye: a conversation across a century, a series of letters and postcards written from us/you the public in 2014 to those in 1914. This project is international in scope, and inclusive (all ages, all nationalities), and we are inviting you to submit your writing which will be transcribed with old-fashioned dip pens onto thousands of postcards and letters and unveiled on 4 August, 2014, at the University of Exeter campus. For more details read here about The Long Goodbye​​ and write, write, write! What we are commemorating is the lives of those who contributed.

Today in the Forum at the university, we set up a table and we had all kinds of folk come and write. These included nurses, military officers from the Middle East, an entire family from Italy, a young French man who wrote to his great grandfather, and many, many more, who all sat down and wrote postcards and emails to the past. Many, many people said they really loved the pens and ink and the opportunity to write and imagine back a century.

I was very touched in particular by the postcard from a Canadian who wrote something like this… ‘Dear Great-Grandfather, I know Paschendaele will be really tough, but you should know that your family will be proud of you for generations’. So heartfelt, a letter of encouragement of love from a Great-Grandson one hundred years back. Another letter was from an accessibility tutor at the university who wrote to her Grandmother who age 18 joined the Army Massage Corps, and then went on to become a pioneering physiotherapist.

Join us in The Long Goodbye, open the conversation up across a century. Or join us on FBook https://www.facebook.com/thelonggoodbye

— smsteele

Welcome

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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