News and Interviews

Poet Susan Gillis on Landscapes, Ecologies of the Heart, and Czeslaw Milosz

Susan Gillis

Partly inspired by a memorable line in a Czeslaw Milosz poem, Susan Gillis' new collection Yellow Crane (Brick Books) is sharply observed and lovingly rendered, casting an observant and incisive eye on a Montreal neighbourhood, fields, and quarries. Contemporary and engaged, the poems in Gillis' fourth collection delve into questions of art, the environment, politics, and grief. 

We're excited to welcome Susan to Open Book today to talk about Yellow Crane as part of our Lucky Seven series. She tells us about the titular yellow crane, the surprising, extensive changes the manuscript went through before it was done, and that Milosz line that first sparked her imagination. 

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.

Susan Gillis:

Yellow Crane tracks changing landscapes in the places I inhabit most often. By ‘landscapes’ I mean actual place and also inner states of being. It came to be through conundrum and compulsion: conundrum, in the form of an unanswerable question I found in a poem by Czeslaw Milosz (“If you have a nail in your shoe, what then? Do you love that nail? Same with me.” Does he love the nail or not? And what does he mean, “same”? How does he know? What does he know?); and compulsion, in the form of a yellow construction crane I couldn’t stop looking at outside my Montreal apartment window. Even once it was gone I couldn’t...


Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?


If there is a central question, it concerns how to live in a world we’re simultaneously supported by and are destroying. From the physical environment to social, cultural, political ecologies – not to mention ecologies of the heart. I had a hunch I was writing about this kind of thing when I started talking back to Milosz (as a result of that question), and when I thought about what the crane was changing, how it was a visible signal, above rooftops and treetops, of major disruption to land I could walk right up to that’s now a pleasant-seeming building with landscaping and occupants with dogs and planters and barbecues. As the book developed, I realized it was talking about marks we leave on land, evidence of our occupation of it.


Did this project change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?


Change? Oh, yes, did it ever, in form and range and everything, both before and after I sent it to Brick. At first I thought of it as ‘readings and misreadings in art and nature.’ It grew, it shrank; it sprouted hair; it shed skins. I winnowed it for short poems; long poems grew up in their places. Like a magical cabbage from some half-remembered fairy tale, the more it was eaten, the more it grew. But I didn’t know this during the writing. It wasn’t till very near the end – several years – that I understood what it was. As always; I reach a point where I feel the writing is going to break me, I’m going to throw it all away, and I know now that’s the turning point: the moment it resolves into itself and says Hi there, I’m your next book!


What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?


I don’t need much in terms of physical set-up or special accoutrements, but quiet is essential, and freedom from worry about my immediate circumstances: food and shelter, time and energy. The part of that freedom that is luck, and it’s a large part, I am deeply grateful for. Doing what I can to support the value of imaginative work in the culture at large seems to be something else I need; teaching is part of that, as is my sporadic blog. I also work in collaboration with three other poets (our name is Yoko’s Dogs); laughter is an essential component of that.


What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?


The difficult times: I cry, I wail, I pull my cuticles out, I go for walks or run or swim, I beg the earth to swallow me, I thank the earth for so far not swallowing me, I sit, I turn away. I’m not sure these are methods, but gradually, stealthily, slantwise, things somehow resolve. In practical terms, I print out pages, shuffle them, scribble all over them, mess them up, print more, throw them away, repeat. And when I’m really stuck I try to parse out what I’ve written, in writing, in my notebook. By hand.


What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.


A great book for me keeps delivering new things in familiar forms. It de- and re-familiarizes worlds. Or is it the other way around? Does it de- and re-familiarize me? In any case, I have no idea why but I keep going back to Austen’s Persuasion and Emma, to Glück’s A Village Life, to Tolstoy’s War and Peace.  I re-read Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending the instant I finished it (in one go, one Saturday morning years ago now).


What are you working on now?


I’m not sure, but I think I’m working on where Yellow Crane leaves off: what our times do to the human heart. I’m working – as always after finishing something – on letting language percolate, resisting the temptation to pin it, to fit it to something too soon, before it has a chance to fully unfurl. I’m working on letting it find me again. It’s a kind of cultivation, and also a kind of re-wilding.


Susan Gillis is a Montreal-based poet, teacher, and editor who has also lived on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Canada. A member of the collective Yoko’s Dogs, she is the author of Swimming Among the Ruins (Signature Editions, 2000), Volta (Signature Editions, 2002), which won the A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry, The Rapids (Brick Books, 2012), Whisk (with Yoko’s Dogs, Pedlar Press, 2013), and several chapbooks with Gaspereau Press. Susan spends a lot of time in rural Ontario, near Perth, where she does most of her writing. Yellow Crane is her fourth poetry collection. 

Buy the Book

Yellow Crane

Inviting, human, capacious poems that grapple with ideas while also lightly grieving our capacity for ruin.

Yellow Crane, Susan Gillis’s fourth collection of poetry, is a book of many views, many voices. A long look at the changing landscape of a Montreal neighbourhood becomes at once a lament and a love poem. A sequence of poems inspired by Japanese tanka take on the cultural weather, core-drilling into the contradictions and uncertainties of the everyday. Writers, artists, thinkers, cooks, and others congregate in a hammock on the edge of a hayfield to compare notes on what we value. A bear turns up on a path near a quarry.

The poems of Yellow Crane study, with a lover’s tender yet critical eye, the world we occupy and the way we occupy it: art, industry, environments both built and natural; the simultaneous flux and agelessness of our daily habits; the long human story of appropriation of wilderness; the fragility, resilience, and questionable worth of what we make, especially under political, economic, and social pressures; concern about our changing times; grief over what we leave behind.

This is a book that argues with itself, then rests. At once precise and loose, wise and nimble, it will make you both feel and think—and care about the world along with it.