Sutherland, (Roderick) Fraser
SUTHERLAND, (Roderick) Fraser
Nationality: Canadian. Born: Pictou, Nova Scotia, 5 December 1946. Education: University of King's College, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1965–66; Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, 1966–69, Bachelor of Journalism 1969. Family: Married Alison Sutherland in 1978; one son. Career: Columnist and Ottawa correspondent, Pictou Advocate, 1965–69; reporter, Halifax Chronicle-Herald, 1966, Wall Street Journal- Canadian Dow Jones News Service, Ottawa, 1967, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 1968, The Toronto Daily Star, 1969; staff writer, Maclean-Hunter Business Publications and Canadian Travel Courier, Toronto, 1969–70; instructor, Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia Students' Summer Workshop, 1978, 1979; editorial board member, Writing magazine, Nelson, British Columbia, 1982–83; instructor, School of Writing, David Thompson University Centre, Nelson, British Columbia, 1982–83; managing editor, Books in Canada, Toronto, 1984–86; Canadian poetry reviewer, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, 1984–88 and since 1993; literary editor, The Idler, Toronto, 1986; editor, Funk & Wagnalls Canadian College Dictionary, 1992–96; contributing editor, Fitzhenry & Whiteside Canadian Thesaurus, 1995–98; editor, Nelson Canadian Dictionary, 1996; revising editor, Random House College Thesaurus, 1996; lexicographer, Encarta World English Dicttionary, 1996–99; contributing editor, Gage Intermediate Dictionary, 1997; Canadian editor, Collins Pocket Reference Canadian Dictionary, 1997; senior contributing editor, Webster's American Family Dictionary, 1997–98; contributing editor, Gage Canadian School Dictionary, 1998–99. Since 1974 freelance editor. Awards: The Canada Council writing grant, 1973, 1975, 1979, 1988; Ontario Arts Council writing grant, 1975, 1986, 1987, 1988; guest, Spanish Association for Canadian Studies, Madrid, and meeting of the Italian Association for Canadian Studies, Acireale, Italy, 1988. Address: 39 Helena Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M66 2H3, Canada.
Strange Ironies. Fredericton, Fiddlehead, 1972.
In the Wake Of. Ottawa and Kingston, Northern Journey, 1974.
Within the Wound. Ottawa and Montreal, Northern Journey, 1976.
Madwomen. Windsor, Black Moss, 1978.
Whitefaces. Windsor, Black Moss, 1986.
Jonestown. Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1996.
Peace and War, with Goran Simic. Toronto, Privately printed, 1998.
In the Village of Alias. Porters Lake, Nova Scotia, Pottersfield, 1986.
The Monthly Epic: A History of Canadian Magazines. Toronto, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, 1989.
John Glassco: An Essay and Bibliography. Toronto, ECW, 1996.*
Fraser Sutherland comments:
Whether I have written them or not, the poems I would like to write would have the beauty, autonomy, and otherness of a bird, beast, or tree. When I review what I have done, however, it is like reading the work of an eccentric, half-familiar stranger. He has satirical and documentary impulses. He is lugubrious, with flashes of levity, and is obsessed with illness and wounds. Although usually rejecting end rhymes, he is technically conservative. He is, or was, profoundly hung up on women in a quasi-Freudian or Jungian sort of way. He is attracted to psychopaths, not so much by their way of life as by their language. He cannot abide to live where he came from, rural Nova Scotia, and cannot stop writing about it.
In the course of a life I suppose that all the writing I have admired, and some I did not, has influenced me. But here are the twentieth-century poets whose work, whole or in part, I most favor: Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Constantine Cavafy, Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Paul Éluard, Robert Graves, Ted Hughes, Irving Layton, Philip Larkin, Les A. Murray, Alden Nowlan, Fernando Pessoa, Ezra Pound, Al Purdy, Jules Supervielle, W.B. Yeats. Some composite of these, I like to imagine, might yield the greatest modern poem, though probably a macaronic one.* * *
These days the notion that the poet could be or should be a man of letters is unfashionable. When it is revived, Fraser Sutherland will be described as a man of letters. At a time when poets are writing in hypertext, Sutherland finds employment as a book publisher's editor and consultant on lexicography. While academic critics are subverting the text, his desire is to establish it in the context of his life and society. When internationalists and globalists abound, he is concerned to describe the qualities and contradictions of life in the rural Maritimes, where he spent his early years, and to draw attention to the literature of Canada as an autonomous country in the world. With poets singing or performing their works on television and making them available on Internet cafés, Sutherland is happy muttering his lines, giving poetry readings to poetry lovers, printing his poems in small press publications, and expressing deeply held convictions in the face of a compromising and corrupting society.
The title of Sutherland's first book expresses some of the contradictions in the character of the poet specifically and in human nature generally. Called Strange Ironies (1972), it includes a number of strong poems, notably "The Matuschka Case." The title Within the Wound (1976) suggests a descent into personal pain; the poet is driven to depths not always apparent. His poem "Auden's Face" is interesting in that it stays on the surface yet surmises the depths, saying, "Much of the poetry's dispensable, but observe his face." Sutherland wrote about the pain and suffering of Frida Kahlo in a poem that preceded popular interest in her painting. He is not above having a bit of fun in the poem "On Foreign Women," finding an ironic contrast between the feminine reality and the stereotypical responses to it.
As the poet Al Purdy noted about the poems in Madwomen (1978), "There seem to be several people industriously scribbling away at these examples of literary genesis." There is the commentator on art who is not really urbane, the observer of women who is no Don Juan, the traveler who refuses to be the tourist, and the observer of the world who sees its foibles and failures through dry eyes that once held tears and may yet again.
Many poets burst into bloom in their youth and then droop with age. Other poets cautiously but resolutely push out their buds from the earth and head for the sun. Sutherland is one of the latter, and his poems have increased in subtlety and depth. Whitefaces (1986), his strongest collection, finds him writing poems that seem not at all as grimy and grumpy as the early poems, although no less honest and direct. In the title poem he writes,
If I, a whiteface, am bored,
think of the depthless boredom a blackface
feels enveloped by white.
"Forms of Loss" is philosophic about life's shortcomings: "Loss is given us, and we take it." There is about Sutherland's work the sense of something unfulfilled, a feeling held in common with fellow Maritime poet Alden Nowlan. This can be seen, for example, in "Insofar as Weather":
I am somewhere in the mist.
You find me, you take me home.
What happens then? We decide.
go, you stay. Unsaid …
The sense of the unfulfilled is an inevitable feeling: "But afterward, / each of us is different." Our own and other peoples' lives may be difficult, but experiences leave more than simple scars. Communication itself is chancy. Here are four lines from "Loyalty to an Old Idea":
Though you are years, a continent away,
though these lines are written
in a language you cannot understand,
they're written for you, a moment's utterance...
What is interesting about the conceit of this poem is the poet's commitment to continue to write lines, even though they may not be read or, if they are read, not understood or, if understood, disregarded. It is a very human response and the one that impelled him to write the book-length poem Jonestown (1996) to place in the context of everyday life the unbelievable events surrounding the mass suicide of nine hundred followers of the Reverend Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978. The gruesome story of mass obsession is presented in the present tense through snatches of prose, free verse, documentary-like description, and the direct speech of some of its seventy-one characters. It is Sutherland's epic, and like the epic it focuses on events and stands apart from any overt moral condemnation of the hubris that led to the human tragedy.
Peace and War (1998) is a joint collection of fifty-four poems written by Sutherland and the Toronto-based Bosnian writer Goran Simić (in the translations of Amela Simić). These are among Sutherland's finest works. Some of the poems, like the extended comparison titled "Myself & Napoleon Bonaparte" ("His family was long established in Corsica. / Mine in Nova Scotia."), are straightforward and playful. Yet I think it is true to say that, if Simić is war-weary, Sutherland is world-weary. As he writes in "Beginning,"
To feel that lonely-aching hotel room
until I come to myself and strangely then
am grasped by others. To find new streets,
cafés, restaurants, and parks, a different soil,
to say, it's me, I'm here as indifference shatters.
Then, far from myself, I can tell you:
You don't know about me I'm more than you think.
The poet is right. He is an underestimated poet of subtlety and depth, the most humane of the poets of English Canada.
—John Robert Colombo