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Column by Susan McCaslin
(in the Spring 2017 issue of Dialogue Magazine, p.41)

Haunting the Stacks

by Susan McCaslin, Fort Langley BC

Many writers I most love were avid readers as children or became so at some point in their lives. For me as a child, reading was my central refuge and bliss. It remains so. At a certain point after tasting the salt and tang of poetry and story on my tongue and letting them slip into my body, I wanted in my own way to emulate what I so much admired.  So I started scribbling down poems at about the age of six. I remember writing one about ghosts in grade four which my mother kindly preserved for me. My path to writing began with nursery rhymes and fairy tales. My friend J.S. Porter recently pointed out that this was the case with the Romantic poet S.T. Coleridge as well. “That’s how he habituated his mind to the vast,” John wrote.

Once, when I was too young to read university-level books, my parents visited a large university library where they had met. I recall hauling a dense tome off a shelf, setting myself up at a table with the adults, pretending to read seriously and understand every complicated sentence. I longed desperately to be part of the worlds books could open. Later, in my twenties, I had a recurrent dream of getting lost in the stacks. Miraculously, an entire row of books fell back, opening into a world beyond the books themselves. I felt I had entered “the library of the world” where books are not a means of escape, but entrances into alternative realities.

More recently, I found myself haunting the stacks at the SFU (Simon Fraser) library where the ghosts of my old friends and professors were still hanging around. I did my Master’s degree at SFU from 1969-1973 and worked both as a Teaching Assistant and in the SFU library to pay for my education. On a recent expedition to the stacks, I found a compelling book, Reading John Keats by Susan J. Wolfson. She talks about Keats’ enormous love of reading. He wasn’t socially advantaged like Wordsworth, who went to Cambridge, but ingested words like honey or a secular sacrament. To my mind, Keats’ extraordinary letters are among the best ever written.

Wolfson writes: What if this talented young man had had the means to attend a university? He would have been a star student: vigorously underlining and annotating, eager to talk about his reading, rereading constantly and probably petitioning for an interdisciplinary program in literature, philosophy, and medicine. Keats was a voracious reader, lived in books he said, had read Hamlet forty times (from his ease of reference it’s clear he had much of Shakespeare by heart). His letters bristle with his reading, not only in reports but in their very metaphors, figured as books, passages, and reading itself (“dark passages”; the heart as a “horn-book”).  (Wolfson, Reading John Keats, University of Cambridge Press, 2015, Intro. x)

When haunting the stacks I sometimes wonder what will happen to many in this new generation who aren’t so much into reading, who skim abbreviated texts on their cell phones, tweet, and may not be able to concentrate as previous generations did? I am on board with valuing and resurrecting the oral traditions, and know in my bones how literature arose from oral traditions, performance, and ceremony. However, I can’t call myself a performance poet, though I listen deeply to the musicality of poetry and speak my poems aloud or in the silent voice within while composing, feeling each syllable and the rhythms of the lines on tongue, pulse, and in my entire body. Some of my favourite poets self-identify as sound and performance poets, like my friend Penn Kemp, who is a craftsperson par excellence, accomplished in both written and spoken word. I love how many sound poets take pains to memorize and perform their poems. I’ve improved enormously since my shy days when I could barely look up from the page, much less chant or passionately beat out the words on the drum of my tongue. Deep down I’m an introvert who enjoys snuggling in with a book, touching and turning the pages.

Yet I would insist there is not a clear distinction between written word and spoken word, and that all poetry is deeply rooted in the body, in dance, movement, and oral tradition.  Yet still I remain a creature of the book. I’m not a Kindle reader because I love the feel of a book in my hands, the smell or mustiness of its pages, and in my own writing I still enjoy the connection between pen and paper. Inspired by books, I often begin my poems in a notebook, then transfer them to the computer screen for multiple edits.

As Marshall McLuhan predicted, libraries have been transformed by the electronic revolution, and transmission and accessibility of information increases daily. Yet I don’t think books will die or become obsolete. The only problem for my relatives will be what to do with my heavily annotated and musty volumes of “forgotten lore” (Edgar Allan Poe). My substantial book collection began when I was a student, housed then between stacks of bricks and boards, but now residing in hand-made bookcases my husband built for me. Though I cull my collection about once every ten years, I’m not ready to part with many of my companions. Even my old collections of Anderson’s and Grimm’s fairy tales reside on the shelves as dear old friends.

One hazard of being a book worm is that I love to annotate in the margins my books. My confession goes further, as recently at SFU I checked out some posthumously published volumes by my deceased friend, feminist philosopher Grace Jantzen. Then I pulled from the shelf another of her books published in the ‘90s whose title sounded familiar. When I returned home and leafed through the book, I discovered my own pencilled-in marginalia covering some of its pages from over a decade ago. I observed that no one had checked out the book since that time and found in the scribbles my younger self revealed with what now seemed naiveté coupled with enthusiasm. 

Recently, when I was checking out a heap of Keats’ and Jantzen’s books at the SFU library, I chatted with a young man at the desk who noted that my alumni card indicated I had started attending SFU in 1969. “Wow,” he said, “I’ve never seen a vintage library card like this one!” “Well,” I retorted, “Guess that makes me pretty vintage too.” Then he asked me about Keats and Jantzen (it must have been a slow afternoon in the library). Next he noted my name on the card, scrutinized me again, and said, “Hey, I took your first-year English class on poetry way back in the 90’s at Douglas College, and you were into Keats then.” Next he disclosed that he had gone on to become a library assistant and a musician.

Libraries remain places of mystical synchronicity for me and always have been. Nearly four decades ago, I bumped into my husband to be, Mark, on the stairs to the SFU library. Back then, I had known him only as my colleague Grace Jantzen’s “best philosophy student.” Now we laugh at how, when he was briefly in my first-year English class, he transferred out because the class met too early in the morning on a day when he preferred to go skiing.  We both perceive that moment on the stairs at SFU as an island-in-time epiphany, since we both felt unaccountable elation in the reconnection, but didn’t quite know why. I was at SFU that day to research Coleridge, and he to look up a philosopher he had studied, as he had gone on to become a philosophy major. He later said he was impressed that I didn’t only care about poetry and research during the teaching semester, but haunted the library in the middle of the summer. I had the same reaction to his bookish quest.

Reading and writing have been and remain lifelong passions for me. When I review the many selves I have been, those are the consistent threads. Sometimes I feel as if I was “born that way.” No one in my family was a reader or had literary instincts. Yet my engineer father read to me as a child. I think my first book was Beatrix Potter’s Tales of Peter Rabbit, which I learned to read by following the mysterious words as his finger trailed underneath both them and the charming illustrations. Reading was a trick I simply had to do myself, and the writing followed in due course. Reading and writing still fit together for me like oatmeal and brown sugar, strawberries and ice cream, red wine and dark chocolate.                 

                                                           Susan McCaslin 

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Read this column in Dialogue, the Spring Edition (at issuu.com, p.41)


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