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Meet Canada's Official War Poet

Suzanne Steele says she's off to Afghanistan to write verse, not propaganda.

By Sid Tafler, 24 Oct 2008, TheTyee.ca

Afghan soldiers

Canadian forces in Kandahar. Photo by Master Cpl. Bruno Turcotte. (Poet Steele preferred not to have her picture run with this story.)

After thousands of articles written by journalists, Canada still can't make up its mind about Afghanistan. It's time we turned it over to a poet.

Suzanne Steele of Metchosin, a leafy community west of Victoria, is Canada's first official war poet. She's in training this week to do the job, along with 2,000 soldiers at Canadian Forces Base Shilo near Brandon, Manitoba, and you can read as she blogs that experience at www.warpoet.ca.

Next week, she gets as close to Afghanistan as you can without leaving this country, as she moves to a second base, CFB Wainwright in eastern Alberta, where soldiers carry out training in simulated Afghan villages, complete with Pashto-speaking actors posing as suicide bombers attacking the troops.

Then, some time in the New Year, she's off to see the real thing, deployed to Afghanistan with soldiers of the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, both at Kandahar Air Field and at strategic bases deep in the hostile countryside.

Sifting war's grains of sand

It's hard to imagine a greater contrast between Steele's peaceful cottage in Metchosin, with sea views through fluttering broad-leaf maples, a white fish-net hammock in the front yard and a hot tub on the back deck, and the hot, dusty mountainous and perilous terrain of southern Afghanistan.

A few days before she left for Manitoba, we shared bowls of hearty soup in her living room, her husband Fred and 12-year-old daughter Ella busy in the back rooms, her two dogs Lassie and Frej romping in the yard, Rosie the cat drowsing on the couch.

Steele's adventure began last year when, moved to write a memorial poem about a Canadian soldier killed in Afghanistan, she got stuck on the specific colour of the fine Afghan sand that seems to drift into everything, as if to irritate and confound foreign invaders.

An army officer suggested she examine the sand herself by applying to the Canadian Forces Artists Program, which sends artists around the world to portray the work of our soldiers in the field.

A few months later, she was accepted as the country's first war poet, an expansion of the program from visual arts to a written form. "I'm a nobody," she says. "I was surprisingly chosen. I was very excited." (A sampling of Steele's war poetry runs at the end of this article.)

Low profile on CanLit scene

We can assume the surprise, if not the excitement, will spread among the legions of the literary establishment, the lettered CanLit poets who have never heard of Suzanne Steele (a genderless, unpunctuated SMSteele in her writing) and will wonder how she leapfrogged over them and, potentially, into this country's history pages.

You won't find Steele's name on the roster of the League of Canadian Poets or on her own poetry books, although she's been published in anthologies and journals.

But she's a woman of intense curiosity, passion and empathy, with a flame of creativity that seems to smolder and burst into expression in music, dance and now, poetry. She's an accomplished jazz singer, a Flamenco dancer -- she has the black hair, deep dark eyes and thin, lithe body -- and gained more recognition for her poetry in Scotland, where she lived for a year in 2005, than in Canada. To put bread on the table, she's a telecommunications analyst, her most recent project a report for the World Bank.

This eclectic combination of skills and talents, plus Steele's compelling ongoing poetry project called May Day, a series of letters from a woman to her lover in Afghanistan (also on warpoet.ca), may help explain her selection to the program.

In John McCrae's footsteps

She joins a venerable tradition of war artists, dating back thousands of years to ancient Egyptian tomb painters, to artists of the caliber of A.Y. Jackson and Frederick Varley who portrayed scenes of the First World War, and of course Canadian poet/soldier John McCrae who wrote "In Flanders Fields," the most famous war memorial poem of the 20th century.

In these giant footsteps walks Steele in her Helly Hansen sneakers, which give her great credibility among infantrymen because she wore the light-weight walking shoes when she trekked 800 km across Spain's Camino de Santiago trail with her family last year.

She's already visited several armed forces bases, attended a private funeral for a Canadian soldier, and spent many hours with officers and enlisted men, in training or recently back from Afghanistan. "I can spot an Afghan vet within minutes. They're really tight and their eyes are focused. They have that infantry twitch."

She's encouraged that most soldiers seem to accept her as a war poet without question. "They really understand the role of an artist, someone who is interested in their work and doesn't judge them."

'Not a propagandist'

The position of war artist is unpaid, the military providing access to bases and transportation to Afghanistan, plus food, lodging and protection when she's there, but exerting no control over what she writes. "I have to be careful not to drink the Kool-Aid," she says. "I'm not a propagandist. They're not choosing a safe artist."

It seems everyone in this country has an opinion about Canada's role in Afghanistan, ranging from "we're helping a struggling democracy achieve freedom from tyranny" to "we have no business occupying a foreign country and waging war." Everyone except Suzanne Steele, who must maintain neutrality in the domestic war of words, as she shares life in training and in the field of battle with the men at arms.

Instead of opinions, she has questions like: Is war a natural human phenomenon? Does Afghanistan signal a redefinition for our country, from a nation of peacekeepers to something else?

As Canada's first war poet from the peaceful village of Metchosin, she seems like the ideal "nobody" to help answer these questions.

Fragments of poetry from the MayDay series by SMSteele:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008 -- Poppy Harvest
maybe it's the rain. or the phone that's gone dead. or maybe it's the email you didn't send. or maybe it's this spring that's so damned quiet.
J. txted me. said you'd taken your men out. again. outside. the ring of razor wire. multi-nation flags. big guns.
to poppy fields. opium bellies. you once said they stink like fetid rhubarb. you drive straight through them. mow them. your leaguer a metal ring, knuckle duster, "we're here you fuckers".
and all night on hilltops, watchers watch watchers. your cigarettes, lit laser. tag.

Acanthus Leaves
a cup of mint tea fresh poured in a cracked cup cradled in your left hand.
talking wells. and schools. and the bridge you want to build. and a new fire truck.
then a boy comes through the door. jacket buttoned. mid-day. 41celcius.
beware the absence of normal, the presence of the abnormal. your mantra ticks. (you repeat it when you skirt mud puddles, bunches of sticks, rock piles, even though you know damn well there are no IEDs planted on west coast trails. couldn't help yourself when we hiked the Juan de Fuca last year).

Rawa Tander
Pashmul. AK-47s. rocket-propelled grenade. launchers. suicide bomber (s). Hellfire missiles. (did the americans bomb the right guys this time M.?)
and you were there weren't you? C Company. doing your job. you've trained for. all these years. loving. every. minute. fighting season. just like the NHL playoffs. your teams. fresh-pressed rookies. old men. and you. sharp point of spear. infantryman.
while we're left here. drinking beer. trying not to think about it. we pack camping gear. burn steaks on bbqs. try not to look out the window. to see who's coming to the door.

You can find more at Suzanne Steele's MayDay Poem Project.

 [Tyee]

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