Amanda Jernigan in conversation with Suzanne Nussey on her poem “For My Husband on Our Anniversary,” one of the winners in The Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest for 2018. The poem appears in Issue 148 of The New Quarterly.
I met Suzanne Nussey first over e-mail, after she won the Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest in 2013 with her beautiful, austere “Poem for the First Sunday of Advent”—a poem that still speaks to me (if anything, more deeply, more richly) these five years later. (Both the poem and my interview with Suzanne from that year are published here). Since then I’ve several times met Suzanne in person, and I’ve learned that, in addition to being thoughtful and articulate, she is kind. She once entertained my squawling infant for an hour so that I could go out with her daughter for a skate on the canal, in Ottawa, near Suzanne’s house: a midwinter gift.
Poems submitted to the Nick Blatchford Contest are judged anonymously, so we don’t recognize repeat submitters until the “envelope” moment. But I was not surprised to learn that our runner-up poem “For My Husband on Our Anniversary” was Suzanne’s. Like “Poem for the First Sunday of Advent,” it finds not only hope but astonishing renewal in a season of apparent decline. It is both warm and elegantly austere. It is well crafted. And it is kind.
I interviewed Suzanne over e-mail, in early fall of 2018—not long before the anniversary her poem mentions.
—Amanda Jernigan; Wood Point, New Brunswick
For My Husband on Our Anniversary
by Suzanne Nussey
The devouring work of age begun, the long-
awaited daughter of our forties gone
four thousand miles away;
friends’ and neighbours’ places filled
by strangers who build
gated homes of glass and stone.
One morning they will read
about the lives we led
and observe with faintest praise:
“Who would have known?”
Milk and sugar at the bottom
of the breakfast bowl,
our meal’s substance almost done.
The richest work of love is yet to come.
Amanda Jernigan: The original version of this poem included a small postscript, after the title, presumably addressed to your husband, the poem’s dedicatee. “Because you hate greeting cards,” it read. When we launched this contest, in 2006, we ran alongside the announcement an essay by the poet Peter Sanger in which he wrote: “It could be argued that a mass, technologically driven society has made … occasional verse obsolete. But the greeting card sections in our drugstores show otherwise—so do the verse and prose in newspaper obituary entries. In other words, human beings still need to praise and lament regardless of whatever social structure they find themselves alive in. The question is whether modern literature is able to accommodate that need.” Do you ever avail yourself of greeting cards? Do you make your own? Have you ever discovered, in a greeting card, a great and memorable verse?
Susan Nussey: I often purchase greeting cards to observe significant events in the lives of friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues. As much as the verse inside, the artwork on the outside determines my choice of card, though the verse must at least pass muster. At Christmas, when I have the inspiration and time to do so, I have made cards using my own photography or bits of antique greeting cards and seasonal literary quotations. I keep an eye out for unusual, blank “art” cards to inscribe with prose or poems by favourite authors. At times I include my own verse.
I haven’t come across many mass-produced cards that contain a great or memorable verse, though I once received a birthday card that quoted Thoreau: “The stately beauty of the withered vegetation which had withstood the winter—life-everlasting, goldenrods, pinwheels and graceful wild grasses—[was] more obvious and interesting frequently than in summer even, as if [its] beauty was not ripe till then.” Though I haven’t fact-checked this, if it isn’t Henry, it’s a decent fake, and I liked it enough to put the quote above my desk.
I’m not sure if there are copyright issues involved, but it seems to me that a line of literary greeting cards (do they already exist?) would find an eager audience and clientele.
AJ: Karen Schindler at Baseline Press, in London, Ontario, does a lovely greeting-card series, with lines from the work of poets on her list. There must be other such series. And yes, one would think they’d find an eager audience. I love that Thoreau quotation—even if it is a wee bit double-edged, qua birthday greeting!
Your poem is written on an occasion—it meditates on the occasion of your and your husband’s anniversary—but it’s also written for an occasion: to be given, or read, to your husband. I realize I’m prying here, but would you tell me something of that latter occasion? Did you present this poem to your husband on the day in question? Write it out for him? Read it aloud to him? What was his reaction (if such may be shared).
SN: I wrote the poem for my husband for the occasion of our 25th wedding anniversary, October 16, 2018. So it was written in advance of the day and (confession) with the intention of submitting it to the Occasional Verse contest at TNQ. Of course, he has already seen the poem and is thrilled that it’s being recognized with a prize and publication. What he doesn’t know is that I have asked the staff at TNQ to write their own anniversary greetings to him on the printed poem in my contributor’s copy, which will come out close to the actual anniversary. How’s that for a substantial, very impressive, very public-yet-personal greeting for a guy who doesn’t like greeting cards?
AJ: A number of the poets on our shortlist this year—yourself included—are returnees to our contest, and this makes me wonder if the contest is revealing not just some fine occasional poems, but some fine occasional poets. Would you describe yourself as a poet-of-occasion? Is occasional poetry central to your practice, or to your sense of what poetry is, or what it can be?
SN: While I haven’t always thought of myself as a poet-of-occasion, I now have that reputation among my neighbours, ever since one of them asked me to write and read a poem for her husband’s funeral.
I wrote my first occasional verse for my best friend’s wedding in 1976. Since then I have composed more than twenty poems, some upon request, for specific occasions, among them wedding anniversaries, birthdays, funerals, special days in the Anglican liturgical calendar, the death of my first writing instructor, the first day of gardening, moving (house) day, my cancer surgery, my first day of radiation, my daughter’s leaving home, a professor’s retirement, the first day of the school year, and a poetry reading (a poem about a poem). Because significant events in my own life and the lives of friends, neighbours, my faith community, and my family evoked these poems, they share something in common with memoir, another genre I find compelling, both to read and study, and to write.
I like the functional, oral, public nature of good occasional verse for its ability to connect with folks who would rarely read a poem. Occasional verse brings poetry back into the wider community where it began long ago. Related to this, I suppose I developed an affinity with writing and delivering occasional verse because of my own background as the daughter, granddaughter, niece, and sister of a family of preachers. While I work hard to avoid the didacticism and pomposity of some sermonizing, I recognize and use the rhythms and rich language of good homilies in my occasional verse: they are healthy ear worms and I am grateful that they help me communicate with readers and with an audience beyond the printed word.
Suzanne Nussey graduated with a B.A. from Houghton College, majoring in English and Writing. She received an M.A. in English Literature and Creative Writing from Syracuse University, and an M.A. in Counselling from St. Paul University in Ottawa, Canada, where she now resides. She currently works as a freelance writer and editor, focusing on texts in religion, spirituality and psychology, and helping folks write memoirs, children’s books, and effective CVs. She also teaches a popular six-week workshop in memoir writing. Her poetry has appeared in The Fiddlehead and in The New Quarterly, where she has published essays as well. She has won EVENT magazine’s and Prairie Fire’s creative non-fiction contests, as well as the Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest, and she has been nominated for a National Magazine Award for poetry.
Amanda Jernigan is the author of three books of poems—Groundwork; All the Daylight Hours; and, most recently, Years, Months, and Days—and of the chapbook The Temple. She is a former consulting editor of TNQ, and has served as a co-adjudicator for the Nick Blatchford Occasional Verse Contest since the contest’s inception.
Interviews with Past Contest Winners:
2017: Fiona Tinwei Lam for “Test”
2016: Ruth Daniell for “Wedding Anniversary”
2015: Cori Martin for “Quilters”
2013: Suzanne Nussey for “Poem for the First Sunday of Advent”
2012: Anne Marie Todkill for “Non sequitur”
2011: Kerry-Lee Powell for “The Lifeboat”
2010: Jeanette Lynes for “The Day John Clare Fell in Love (1818)”