Lise Downe grew up in London, Ontario, where she experienced the art of Londoners Greg Curnoe, Jack Chambers, and Patterson Ewen, among others. After completing a major in printmaking at the Beal Art Annex, she then spent a year in England studying sculpture. On her return to Canada she painted for many years before turning her hand to writing, and later, to studying jewellery at George Brown College and OCAD. Her most recent title is This Way (BookThug, 2011), and she has three previously published books of poetry - A Velvet Increase of Curiosity, The Soft Signature, and Disturbances of Progress. She has exhibited her art and jewellery in Toronto and across Canada. Lise lives in Toronto, where she continues to write and make jewellery and other small sculptures.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The first book put my work into the public realm. Until then I’d attended readings and read the work of others; being published made me a more active participant.
With previous work, especially the first couple of books, the writing was a new exploration for me. The challenge is to sidestep familiar paths and keep the process new, to stay with the unfamiliar.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
The contemporary poets I was initially exposed to embodied an exciting and revolutionary relationship to language.
For many years the majority of what I read was poetry and non-fiction, but in the last 5 years or so I’ve started to read fiction and have developed an interest and appreciation for some of the writers who use that form.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It varies. Some work develops quickly and doesn’t require much modification. In other situations, I’ve taken a longer period of time away from the original writing, coming back to it later and doing some serious re-working.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem begins with a few words, a phrase or a line; what follows is a composition of response and propulsion. I don’t write with a specific idea or subject in mind.
To date, all my books are collections of pieces that coalesce into a book. I’ll become aware of qualities in a body of poems that have a variety of different but related concerns, and they are then gathered together under one cover.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I have enjoyed giving readings. It’s been energizing to realize that others are interested in what I’m doing and to get their responses. In recent years I’ve pulled back, preferring to be in the audience for awhile. But, that may be changing.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I don’t read and then write from theory. I am inevitably influenced by what I have read and the inherent theoretical concerns that poets address.
The angle of thinking about writing as answering questions doesn’t really fit what I do; I think that working with language as a malleable medium is crucial and interesting.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Ideally the writer breaks boundaries and shows the possibility for freedom in seemingly restricted forms. The writer takes risks (as does any artist); risk-taking as play is something most people don’t have past childhood. Poetry is a terrific place to demonstrate the subversive possibilities that are available – subversive as a positive thing, as a way of demonstrating ‘how else’ language can be, that it strikes a hidden chord in the reader and enlivens the world.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve had good experiences working with editors who have seen my books through publication. It has never been difficult.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
This isn’t his exact phrasing, but I remember reading an interview with bp Nichol in which he said that a writer “should never sit down to be wise.”
10 - Do you see a connection between writing and sculpture? What do you see as the appeal?
Sculpture can be a process of accumulation, deletion, or one of interacting with existing spaces and objects, and so on. Writing can share these approaches.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
Years ago I spent time every day with my writing, but the ‘day job’ I now have pretty much eats up my energy during the week. Now my routine isn’t really a routine; I write intermittently.
A typical day begins with splashing my face with water before making coffee. I need at least an hour or more before I head out the door.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I find inspiration in poetry, but it can come from looking at or listening to anything that is interesting. It could be from simply spending time outside the city – from greenery, water, a clear night sky.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
There isn’t one.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
See answer to #12. All of the things mentioned in question 14 influence my work. Any great art is inspiring, regardless of the medium.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
It depends on the year you ask me. I’ve always had an interest in mythology and psychology, for example, and in the last 6 months I’ve been re-reading Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and The Masks of God. I look at journals on fine craft and have re-visited some essays in The Culture of Craft, which is edited by Peter Dormer.
I recently read Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America for the first time, and Mark Truscott’s Nature, which is remarkable.
Figural poets include John Ashbery, Michael Palmer, Elizabeth Bishop. Impossible to list them all.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to travel more and to have a life that allowed me to spend 3 consecutive months of each year in a quiet, green place far from the city. I’d also like to reforest the earth.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I’ve been a visual artist for a long time, so if I didn’t write I expect that I’d do more object making.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I painted for years before stopping that and starting to write. Writing was a much-needed liberation from an old way of working. It was a new way of navigating in the world.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
This is pretty much impossible to answer, but here are 2 highlights:
Book: Lisa Robertson’s Office for Soft Architecture
Film: The Secret in Their Eyes by the Argentinian director Juan Jose Campanella
20 - What are you currently working on?
I’ve started some new poems and will see how they develop.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;