I am sitting with the poet and painter Susan Manchester in Java Joe’s in Bloor West Village. The walls of the coffee shop are lined with her paintings, some of which appear in her most recent book of poetry, To Stop Time. As we chat, a customer gets up to take a closer look at her art. Susan introduces herself and thanks the gentleman for his interest. Watching the exchange I think about the courage required to to put your art out in the world for all to see and comment on. I ask her if it is difficult to sit with a coffee, knowing people might be discussing your work. She says “no.” She wants her paintings to be seen and is flattered when customers take the time to look and to comment. Recently she has posted some of her work on Facebook in order to reach an even larger audience.
Our talk turns to poetry and the more difficult task of determining whether anyone is reading your work. She agrees that painting produces a more accessible result in terms of audience, but poetry is her first love. She tells me that one reason she writes is so that others can know her better; can come to a clearer understanding of who she is. Writing as a means of connection.
Poetry, intense and intimate by nature, can allow us a very personal glimpse into a poet’s life. When Susan was teaching high school English, she didn’t introduce her poetry to her students at the beginning of the term. She waited until they knew each other better; until they were ready for the personal revelations in the poems. It changed the classroom dynamic. Poetry bridged the gap between teacher and student.
Her three published collections, a chapbook, Water Voices, her first book, Pouring Small Fire, and her latest, To Stop Time, if read chronologically, paint a portrait of a woman discovering a creative voice that can tell her story. It’s a story we can relate to for it encompasses, childhood memories, family relationships, the natural world, joy, loss and always change. This is a poem from Water Voices:
My Mother’s Feet
Too often, I cry
into a basin that holds
my mother’s feet.
It’s not that they are five times
their natural size that bothers me
or that they are black and blue and red.
It is that they once belonged to her
that they carried her successfully
for seventy years
and that now they only float.
I hide as much of my face as I can.
It would hurt her to know that I can’t look
at her feet and bear the sight of them.
She wouldn’t understand that I am not crying
for her or for my father who has already died
but for myself because I am not who I say I am.
And from “Pouring Small Fire”:
Long Ago Today
The past changes when parents die:
it questions and blames me
for unfinished snowsuit Sundays
when I could have lingered longer
in a five o’clock kitchen-
when I might have loved more completely
the coal-stove heat in the Camden cold-
when I should have been more grateful
for the tingling journey back from numbness,
crisp cheeks sizzling
lead toes soaking
in a warm water basin.
I sat, toboggan-weary
on paisley tile, beaded snow clinging
to Belva’s mittens,
matted hair smelling
like the woods.
I was not thankful enough
for returning from the clump of trees
Reading Susan’s poems I feel like a traveller allowed a chance to share a journey with a trusted friend. This is the gift bestowed by intimate and honest writing. In To Stop Time, Susan is at her most vulnerable, describing the feelings around the loss of her husband:
I Thought I Was Alive When You Were Dying
when I pretended to garden-
alive when I was teaching,
when I went shopping and
over-bought that boiled wool coat
which you never said you noticed,
alive when I bought the budgie-
dear little winged Skye-who you
hated but cried over when I said
I would give him away; you stood
on the curb weeping the afternoon
I returned from offering him to a
friend. I loved you more at that
moment than I thought I could.
And I have only now
stopped holding my breath my breath
my breath my god I wish I could hear
your laugh again.
Reading these lines of raw emotion, it is hard to imagine Susan writing anything tense and buttoned up but she tells me that she was writing from that place years ago as a beginning writer and it was poet Michael Burkard who helped her to “open up.” She says he was instrumental in giving her the push she needed to uncover that true, vulnerable voice which resided within. When she moved to Toronto from New York in 1993, to marry Mike Glicksohn, she joined a writing community, The Algonquin Square Table. She acknowledges that without their support and fellowship she “…could not have kept writing…” after Mike’s death.
Although loss permeates the pages of To Stop Time, there are poems in the collection which speak to that long, slow process of recovery; to the tiny steps taken that are full of hope:
Dining Room Wall
It is morning and 9:10,
the glow from the corner
unmistakable in its joy.
By 3:00 the entire north wall
will exhale fire, proud in its
ability to awe the sun.
Near the floor phalo green
stands firm in its commitment
to new growth, strength in the
shaft of each plant. Each brush
stroke inhales the future from
And I hope I am not painting you
out of the wall. That the fresh
new life here is to sustain what
will be resuscitated from what
was, that you will see
how your blood fills each stem
as you hover just above me
watching each completion.
Who knew that bamboo could
breathe so deeply.
As I reread my favourites from Susan’s published works, I think about the tightrope we walk as artists, balancing our need to be alone to create and our human need to connect with others. When we can write from our heart, as she does, we forge a bond with our readers. In a recent obituary for William Zinisser, author of the bestselling book, On Writing Well, he is quoted as saying:
“Ultimately, the product any writer has to sell is not the subject being written about, but who he or she is.”
Susan Manchester, poet and painter, has embraced vulnerability and allowed us a glimpse into a woman’s life. We bear witness to the loss and to the heartbreak but also see the beauty and richness that comes from living with an open heart.