Guy Simser’s poetic homecoming

Alumnus’ book includes snapshots of Queen’s in the 50s 

Guy Simser
Swing Night —  1956

After a globetrotting career with stints in the military, journalism and diplomacy, it was time for Guy Simser to come home. 

His 2016 book, She Don’t Mean A Thing If She Ain’t Got That Swing, presents a memoir and poetry collection both dedicated to his wife and the wide-ranging life they spent together. This also includes poignant snapshots of Queen’s in the ‘50s.  

In an interview with The Journal, Simser said the work stemmed from the reflective nostalgia he began to feel as he got older. 

“I was closing in on 80 and [when] you go to sleep at night, you look back over things. Because I had a wide variety of experiences over three continents, I thought I’d just write something about it,” he said. 

Growing up in then-Fort William, Ontario, Simser first explored the world through magazines— periodicals like Life, Weekend and Liberty were staples of his childhood. 

It wasn’t until he came to Queen’s for a general arts degree that he felt himself begin to really grow, despite not being a “top student.” Simser added his Queen’s career was like his professional one — “a little bit of everything.”

“That’s the great thing about university,” he said. “Particularly when you’re from a small town in northern Ontario, the world suddenly opens in front of your eyes.”

Break from war games, Germany. Supplied by Guy Simser.

He remembers the “raucous” football trains that would go to Montreal and Toronto, where he “got to meet a lot of people up and down the train.”

More than that, attending Queen’s proved to be a formative period of Simser’s life that would go on to influence his later works as a writer. 

Simser reminisced about watching Professor George Wally’s poetry readings held at the school, rapt by the professor’s Oxford-inflected English accent that lent the poetry added effect. 

He said the readings had “something that echoes right into you. Not academic stuff — that’s the feeling.”

As Simser calls it, this “feeling” is a recurring theme in his work. While his books tend to draw on history and cultural observation over the course of his wide-ranging travels, he said his poetry captures something other styles of writing just can’t quite satisfy. 

More than the recitation of events, it’s the feeling and reactions to them that count in his poetry. 

“I just write what comes to me. And if it pleases the listener or reader and if it creates an emotional impact, whether it’s humour or reverence or sadness, I’m happy with that,” Simser said. 

He carries that philosophy over into his other 2016 book, Shaking the Basho Tree, a work of short poetry that draws on Japanese aesthetics. 

In addition to his spending five years in Japan, Simser said he cultivated this style of short poetry forms while he travelled.

He described writing five line poems on train, plane and bus seats and redoing them 10 times over, improving them each time. Unsurprisingly, he simply didn’t have the space or time for short stories. 

These trips, jotting down poetry in his seat, took him across North America and overseas, totaling three continents, all while raising four children with his wife. 

“These things kept accumulating,” Simser said, explaining why he released his two books in the same year. It came out “like a burp” in 2016, he added.

This compiled work becomes a warm, human conclusion to his career, his voice as relevant today as it was when he arrived at Queen’s decades ago. 

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