Susan Musgrave has been labelled everything from eco-feminist to anti-feminist, from stand-up comedian to poet of doom and gloom, from social and political commentator to wild sea-witch of Canada's northwest coast.
Susan Musgrave’s career as a social misfit began when she was kicked out of kindergarten class for laughing, and sent to the library to contemplate her heinous crime while seated on the “Thinking Chair”. She understood, then, that books and thinking must be considered dangerous, and they became her favourite forms of escape.
In Grade 8 she won her first poetry competition, with a poem about Jackie Kennedy visiting her husband’s grave by moonlight, in rhyming couplets. Her prize was a copy of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.
At 14, Susan Musgrave rose up out of high school and ran away from home to gain life experience. She got as far as the railway tracks in Ladysmith, on Vancouver Island, where she wrote poetry about cigarettes drowning in cold cups of coffee, and on the eternal shortness of existence.
Next we have the missing years (months, actually). Committed to the local psychiatric ward, assigned to Room 0, she met most of the University of Victoria’s English Department. While she was plotting her eventual escape from the mental hospital, the poet Robin Skelton came to visit her. “You’re not mad,” he said, after reading her poetry, “you’re a poet.” She and an older professor escaped together, and spent the next years living in Berkeley, California.
Her first book of poetry was published when she was 19. Of Songs of the Sea Witch, her grandfather said, “Even Shakespeare had to write a lot of rubbish to begin with.”
In 1969 she received a short term Canada Council Grant of $1500 and spent the next two years living on the remote west coast of Ireland. In 1972 she returned to Canada, to Haida Gwaii, until 1975 when she married a criminal lawyer, Jeffrey Green, at St. Albans Cathedral in England.
The marriage lasted four years. During the trial of five Americans and 23 Colombians accused of attempting to smuggle 30 tonnes of marijuana into Canada (her husband was one of five defense lawyers) she fell in love (from across the courtroom) with one of the accused smugglers, Paul Oscar Nelson. When he was acquitted she left with him for Mexico. They lived for two years in Colombia and Panama, until the birth of their daughter, Charlotte, in 1982.
While Susan was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Waterloo, 1983-85, Paul Nelson was sentenced to four years in prison in California on a previous smuggling charge. While in prison he gave his life to the Lord, and Susan and Paul were divorced shortly afterwards. Around the same time 1983, Susan received a manuscript from a convicted bank-robber, Stephen Reid, serving a twenty-year sentence at Millhaven Penitentiary, in Ontario. She read the manuscript, fell in love with the protagonist, and married the author on October 12, 1986, while he was still in prison. His novel, Jackrabbit Parole was released the same year.
On June 1, 1987, Stephen Reid was granted full parole, and the couple moved into a seaside cottage on Vancouver Island, with a 190′ Douglas fir tree growing through the middle of it. In 1989 their daughter Sophie was born; in 1997 Stephen burned his warrant and Susan burned her mortgage papers in a party attended by a diverse group of family, friends and writers including a Supreme Court judge and two paroled members of the Squamish Five.
During their thirteen year marriage Stephen battled heroin and cocaine addiction. In 1997, the couple began building a house on Haida Gwaii and their lives were the subject of a CBC Life and Times documentary, The Poet and the Bandit, which aired in January 1999. On June 9, 1999, after a two year clean-and-dry period that had ended roughly around the time the documentary aired, Stephen was arrested for bank robbery in Victoria, following a shootout and car chase through Beacon Hill Park. He was sentenced to eighteen years in prison on December 22, 1999.
Stephen died on June 12, 2018, aged 68, in Masset. Their daughter, Sophie, aged 32, died of an overdose of Fentanyl and Benzos on September 8, 2021.
Susan’s daughter, Charlotte Nelson Musgrave, and Charlotte’s twin daughters, born in 2009, Lucca Musgrave and Beatrice Musgrave, live on Vancouver Island.