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.

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The page you're reading contains a single diary entry entitled Artist's Statement. It was posted here on February 08, 2015.


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