WHERE IS God? Who is S/He? Does such a being even exist? What happens after we die? As long as people have walked the earth there have been and will continue to be these questions.
The American born, Galway based poet Susan Millar DuMars takes on these enormous themes in her new poetry collection The God Thing, but looks at them through the prism of the small things in life, the everyday events, and turbulent emotions produced by a loved one succumbing to illness, yet throughout there is compassion and humour.
From Philly to Galway
Susan was born and reared in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, known variously as ‘The Cradle of Liberty’ and the ‘City of Brotherly Love’.
“We were blue collar, lower middle class, and a lot of the time there was struggle and feeling small in a big city,” Susan tells me during our Tuesday afternoon interview, “but Philadelphia also has great cultural amenities and my parents deserve great credit for instilling a love of culture in me and my brother. We didn’t have a lot of money but dad took me to the ballet every week.”
Susan cites her mother as giving her the courage to become a writer and attributes her approach to writing and her mode of expression to her father.
“Neither of my parents went to college so there was no academic push to go there,” she says. “My mum was more about ‘follow your dreams’ and not about pushing us in a certain direction, so I had the freedom to keep going with my writing.
“My father is a photographer and a very good one. He views things in an off-centre way and has a way of notices things. It’s about capturing an unusual moment. I like writing poetry and short stories as they are snapshots.
“A good poem should capture what was happening in a particular moment for a particular person. I like to try and be fully present in the moment and I like to write stories based on something that actually happened, so I guess there is a link back from that to what my dad does.”
For Susan writing is a not just a creative outlet. It is possibly even more than a way of life.
“I wrote my first poem at eight when a teacher at school asked the class to write a poem about their favourite colour,” she says. “I wrote about ‘red’ and enjoyed that so much I wrote poems about blue and orange. It’s something I did throughout school and I’ve always kept a journal. I’m always writing. If I’m not writing I don’t feel like me. It’s part of my identity, it proves I’m alive and in the world.”
Susan has been living in Ireland for the past 12 years. She originally came over on a visit but meeting the poet Kevin Higgins changed that and today they are husband and wife. The pace of life in Ireland as opposed to the States was also an attraction.
“I liked the slower pace of life although it has since speeded up in the years since I’ve been here,” she says. “I love to visit America and at times I miss it, but it’s a bit full on at times. Ireland is gentler and it values the arts in a way the US doesn’t, which is huge. How I live wouldn’t be possible if that was not the case.”
The God Thing
The God Thing is Susan’s third collection of poetry and is both a reaction to very recent, very personal events, the culmination of a lifelong struggle and engagement with belief in God.
“I’m an agnostic,” she says. “I go back and forth, back and forth. When someone I know dies I find myself asking ‘Where is God? Why has God let this happen?’ The reason this collection has appeared now is because of Kevin’s mum, Mary, who was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and died in 2011. During that time Kevin and I looked after her and I also kept a journal and many of the poems came out of that.”
The title The God Thing came about as a ‘happy accident’ but one that has already provoked a response among those looking forward to the collection.
“The God Thing was just a shorthand title in my head while trying to come up with one,” says Susan. “I told my publisher, Jessie Lendennie at Salmon, that The God Thing was the title on my computer and she said ‘That’s it! That’s what you should call it!’
“Some people have asked if the book is a response to Richard Dawkins The God Delusion and I found out that Gene Roddenberry, who created Star Trek, wrote a book called The God Thing. The title seems to conjure up a lot of ideas and responses in people.”
While the collection is not actually a riposte to Dawkins, the aggressive intolerance of New Atheism and religious bigotry get short shrift from Susan in ‘Leaving Coldbath Street’: You mock me for searching/for God in people./Even if I don’t find Him/what better way to love them?/You only sit in a pew/so people will approve.”
“I don’t mind if a person is a believer or an atheist but what does frustrate me are those who are so closed off and will not look beyond what they can’t see, feel, touch. I believe that faith is important. It doesn’t have to be faith in religion, it can be faith in science, family, art, people, history, but having it in something bigger than yourself, I think is a very human need.
“It shows an openness to knowledge and that you can admit to not knowing everything. It shows you can handle the fact that life is not black and white but that there is a lot of grey.”
One of the collection’s most striking poems is ‘Wallace Hartley’s Last Moments
Aboard The Titanic’ inspired by the musician who led and encouraged his band to continue playing even as the ship went down, and the late Town Hall Theatre manager Mike Diskin.
“I didn’t know Mike well but I had worked with him on a number of committees and respected him a lot,” says Susan. “I was also stuck by the story of the musicians on board the Titanic. I thought there was something very beautiful about continuing to do the thing you loved even in the face of the end. Mike Diskin was very similar. He kept programming and organising events and shows even though he knew he would not be around to see them. On his death bed he was still programming. It was important to him. He felt most alive when working.”
Patrick Kavanagh once noted that “God is in the bits and pieces of everyday” and another of the collection’s most notable poems, ‘Aspects Of God’, where God is imagined as a kindly elevator attendant:
“God shows them to glass elevators,/pushes buttons for them,/shrugs off their thanks./Lift load by lift load He brings them upstairs,/tells them stand back from the doors,/and don’t be scared.”
“I was in the Radisson one day, sitting in the lobby,” recalls Susan, “and I was looking at the big glass elevators in the lobby and I thought, ‘What if God was an elevator operator?’ which I though kind of appropriate, given that a way of seeing God is someone who will bring us up and to the beyond.”
Susan believes The God Thing to be the most important work she has done thus far. “I know all writers say that when the latest book comes out,” she says, “but this is the first book I felt I really needed to write and I’ve never worked harder on one, I’ve never worked deeper on.”
The God Thing, published by Salmon Poetry, will be launched in the Galway City Museum this Saturday at 2pm by Rev Maureen Ryan, Canon in the National Cathedral of St. Patrick’s, Dublin. See www.salmonpoetry.com