Ask Suzanne Steele about the meaning of war, and her response might have a specific pentameter to it, or it might just come back as free verse.
The B.C.-based writer was the first poet ever chosen for the Canadian Forces Artist Program, a near decade-long opportunity for Canadian artists to observe the country’s soldiers in action here and abroad. She was in town last week to visit members of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry (PPCLI) at the Edmonton Garrison.
Steele said that she was fortunate enough to spend 18 months with the PPCLI, including some time last November on exercises both inside and outside the wire at Kandahar Air Field. Those experiences — along with the many hundreds of hours she spent interviewing personnel — have formed the basis for War Poet, her website that has become the chronicle of her journeys.
“What I’m trying to do in my work is give a voice to the voiceless,” Steele said, speaking of the soldiers who can’t always talk freely about their work. “But war isn’t an entirely negative experience.”
Steele has been updating this diary and posting the poetry that she and others have written, even since her time with the program ended in 2009. She said she would also write a book about the art of war as seen from the inside.
Steele called her role a vital one because she is looking for the humanity in the inhumane, or in her words, “to witness what this war means.”
“I always try and say that to understand this war, you need many points of light. I’m hoping that I’ll just be one of those points of light.”
The only way to really do that, she added, was to be as objective as possible. What she learned was how much is really riding on the battle.
“I think that war is the making or breaking of us. What I witnessed is the opportunity for service, the making of people. It can bring out the very best in us and it can bring out the challenging in us as well.”
At the same time, she is collecting poetry from active personnel and their families for a project called In Arms that she is working on with Edmonton’s former poet laureate, Alice Major.
Apart from the website (www.inarms.ca) that acts as the major venue for those works, the collection will culminate with a spoken word performance at the Royal Alberta Museum during the upcoming Edmonton Poetry Festival coinciding with Remembrance Day. The project team also hopes to hold workshops this summer.