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Susan Ioannou. A PATCHWORK QUILT OF IMAGINATION: WHAT POETRY MEANS TO ME Published in Canadian Author, Fall 1995.


For me writing poetry means many things.

It means listening amid the daily hubbub for small resonant silences -- rather like skulking about a mushroom farm where thousands of delicious secrets hide in the aromatic darkness. But when a particularly large and unpleasant fungus is unearthed, often by the media, it also means daring to inhale.

Writing poetry means looking at surfaces too, whether the intricate black lace of branches on a winter sky, or the concrete roughness of a cat's tongue, for their own intriguing sakes as well as for what is revealed through them.

Writing poetry also means pulling together fragments. William Butler Yeats wrote of his "foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart"¹ where images began from "Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can, / Old iron, old bones, old rags . . . ". Not all my scraps are this bleak. Many are quieter, more domesticated: lights and shadows, bits of sensation and unravelled feeling, stray thoughts, and imagination's stuffing patched together with a shape and texture of their own. They want to become a quilt, past threaded to present, layer stitched upon layer.

Sometimes I start my writing from the patchwork pieces themselves, from an image, or from a vowel, a rhythm, threaded on the spool of sound. I sniff and taste and poke. Each scrap is more than red polka dots or blue plaid on a white square. I dig between the fibres, find the secret life within the weave. I move the pieces around this way and that, lay one beside another. What surprises will these combinations free? What asymmetrical order underlies them all? I know they are the answer, but what is the question? How shall I name their jigsaw?

Sometimes, a poem begins the other way round. Out of nowhere, a question tugs: How can evil and good coexist? What happens when we die? My job as poet is to find the scraps -- the colours, odours, tastes, textures, and sounds -- not just to suggest, but to embody an answer. I close my eyes and imagine my toes pinched or wiggling in someone else's shoes: what would I see, hear, taste, smell, feel, scrubbing clean hundreds of birds along an oil-thick coast, or crouching one blood-drenched night in a Rwandan church?

A third kind of poem is more sociable. These poems I create as gifts for friends: to amuse, to comfort, to celebrate. However, because many tap into common experiences -- a child's baptism, the death of a parent, confusion in love -- these poems sometimes speak to a wider audience too.

My poetry has not always been the same. Over the years, like a pendulum it has swung from inner to outer and back. Predictably, the early poems were lyrics, mostly about love and personal identity. However, once busy raising children, that lyric "I" felt narcissistic and confining. With the publication of Spare Words (1984), Motherpoems (1985), and Familiar Faces/Private Griefs (1986), my focus shifted toward narrative poems about a small, domestic world of friends, neighbours, and family. In Clarity Between Clouds (1991), the narrative continued in poems like "Eileen and Jean" and "Old Black Cat", but the lyric crept back in personal records like "Small Comforts", one part describing a nap with my cat, the other, a summer evening listening at the top of the stairs as my neighbour played Chopin on the basement piano. Poems like "Last Photos" and "Pink and Indigo" were something new: meditations struggling with deeper issues: What gives life meaning? How to live spiritually well? Can permanence and flux be reconciled? These poems were more ambitious and reached (with how much success I don't know) through the "I" toward universality.

Now over 50, my poetic psyche has split. One part is preoccupied with the dark underside of life: war, pollution, human evil. I am learning to write poems like "North of Capricorn" that are political in the broadest sense, as well as those specific to world events, like "Srebrenica Suite and "Can We Imagine" (about the civil war in Rwanda). The other part of my brain, perhaps to keep a balance, needs the innocence of a child's wonder. Writing for young people is teaching me again how to use rhythm and rhyme to achieve simplicity and light.

Where my poetry will turn in the next decade I don't know. However, this winding road is the very fascination of poetry for me as a writer. It leads me, not the other way round. There is no clear destination, other than the pleasures, insights -- and artistic frustrations -- of the journey itself.

Whatever I write, I am relentlessly dissatisfied. Poem after poem, I try (and fail) to reach one ideal: in the largest meaning of the word, to be true. I want my patchwork colours, scents, and textures to be as accurate to violets and a cedar fence post as to oil spills, steel beams, and the raw edge of feeling. I want the overall pattern, whether violently zigzagged or serenely striped, to tell a story, but as it feels against bare skin.

I admire any poet who can teach me more: how to give words a nugget's solid brilliance, how to make lines stretch or snap through exquisite breaks, how to let rhythms march, dance, or run uphill and down, how to lift a poem on a shout or a song. Like a vampire thirsting to suck new mysteries from language, I scour literary magazines and books looking for the poem that can instruct and amaze me.

For the same reason, over the years I have taught the craft of writing poetry in workshops for the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, the Toronto Board of Education, and the Ryerson Literary Society, as well as to my private Wordwrights Canada clients, and I have also run The Poetry Tutorial correspondence course. It's not that I know so much. On the contrary, by trying to figure out for others how the words work, I have always learned more than I gave.

The world is astonishing in its opposites: beauty and violence, profusion and simplicity, order and chance. Through poetry I glimpse the wonders, brutality, and contradictions, and try in my own writing to catch hold for a moment, to stitch on another patch or two.

¹William Butler Yeats, "The Circus Animals' Desertion", W.B. Yeats: Selected Poetry, ed. A. Norman Jeffares (London, Macmillan & Col. Ltd., 1963), p. 202.

Susan Ioannou's works copyright © to the author.

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