Susan Alexander is
the author of two collections of poems, Nothing You Can Carry, 2020 and The Dance Floor Tilts, 2017, Thistledown Press. Her work received the 2019 Mitchell
Prize for Faith and Poetry as well as the Vancouver Writers Fest and Short Grain awards. Writer Chelene Knight describes this new book as a “luxurious, melodic dance to the loudest
sounds that come in the quietest of moments.” Susan’s poems have appeared in
anthologies and literary magazines in Canada and the U.K., ridden Vancouver
busses as part of Poetry in Transit
and shown up in the woods around Whistler. She lives and works on Nexwlélexm/Bowen
Island which is the traditional and unceded territory of the Squamish people.
1 - How did your first book
change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How
does it feel different?
When my first book of poems The
Dance Floor Tilts came out, I had to admit to myself that I might be a
writer because I’d just had a book published. I was 60 years old. All my life, I’d
wanted to write, but had never given myself focused time to finish the projects
This new book Nothing You
Can Carry comes out of a more dedicated writing practice.
2 - How did you come to
poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I came to writing poems by writing prayers. I was studying
theology at the time, just for my own interest and education. I’d grown up as a
pantheist, but was drawn to Anglicanism. My friend Herbert O’Driscoll is an
Irish-Canadian priest. We were making a Celtic pilgrimage in Ireland when he stood
up on the bus and read “The Bright Field” by R.S. Thomas. I was bowled over by
the poem and thought “I want to do that.” I went on to read everything by
Thomas and also by George Herbert, both poet priests.
Poetry aside, I have a terrible first draft of a novel in a drawer
that I think about at times. I also would very much like to try my hand at a
play – I love the theatre.
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?
Part of a poem may come quickly, but it can take me a long time to
finish. I’ll work away on a new poem until I can’t do anything else with it.
Then I usually have to leave it alone for days or months, like a fallow field.
When I come back to it, if I am lucky, I see the poem fresh and it reveals more
to me. I can see if something needs to be taken away or added. Another trusted set of eyes really helps.
Some poems require significant research and I get to practice the skills I
learned as a journalist. Often what I learn changes the direction of the poem.
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
Definitely an author of short pieces. I spread my work over the
dining room table or floor and see how and if poems relate to each other. This
makes creating a book length collection more challenging, but themes do emerge.
Sometimes I write chapbook length thematic sequences – I have written dozens of
fairytale poems and Echo and Narcissus poems, but many end up in the recycle
bin. The best ones appear in my books.
5 - Are public readings
part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys
It is a real privilege to have an audience listen to my work. But
my first public readings were out of body experiences – not a good thing when I
am wanting to be present with people and with my poems. I didn’t expect to be
so nervous because, in general, I am pretty outgoing and enjoy conversations
and meeting new folks. It is starting to feel more like sharing and less like
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
The most urgent concern I have is for the planet. I see the
environmental crisis partly as an inability to delay gratification. We practice
short term thinking even though our species is skilled at long term planning. I
often ruminate about who and what humans are and why we are trashing the earth,
our home. I fully include myself in this – I see daily how addicted I am to
comfort and convenience. For our survival, we must find meaning in life outside
of consumerism. What are the limits of human intelligence? We are capable of
wisdom but choose expedience. How does this show up in my poetry? Well, the
natural world is where I go to restore my sense of the sacred and that comes
out in almost every poem I write.
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?
I’d like to say that the role of the poet is to speak truth to
power, but that is actually the role of the prophet and a poem that successfully
achieves the prophetic is a rare and beautiful thing. Jan Zwicky achieves this
in The Long Walk and other books.
Writers also can open aspects of culture that I’ve never been a
part of and to me that feels like an action of extreme generosity. I’m thinking
of fiction writers like Eden Robinson or Bernardine Evaristo.
A good writer can woo me away from nihilism, give me hope, help me
to become a better person by ushering me into a world beyond the small sphere
of my own experience.
8 - Do you find the process
of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’ve been so lucky with Seán Virgo, my editor for both books.
Working with him is like taking a master class in revision with someone who
sees poetry as serious play. He is brilliant and fun and generous, with an
amazing ear for cadence. I see working with an editor as an opportunity to
become a better poet.
9 - What is the best piece
of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The late poet Patrick Lane said that a poet is a catcher, not a
pitcher. My friend, playwright Michele Riml told me something I’ve taken to
heart – she said it is always more fun to start something new than to finish what
you are already working on, but essentially all writing is rewriting.
10 - What kind of writing
routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day
(for you) begin?
I’m a morning person. If I don’t arrive at my desk early, my writing
day is over. I tend to lose focus afternoons and evenings.
11 - When your writing gets
stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word)
I not only get stalled, but I get stale. Sometime I get so sick of
my voice that I worry I am writing the same poem again and again. One of the
best things I can do is take a generative writing retreat with a wonderful poet
like Lorna Crozier. I get introduced to new work and have the opportunity to
concentrate on the craft of poetry. I have so much to learn from the wise poets
who have dedicated their lives to this art form. They teach me how to read
others’ poetry more carefully and deeply, and that in turn inspires me to take
more risks. I like trying out new things even while knowing that most of poems
that I will write may not be any good and that’s okay. I try not to take myself
12 - What fragrance reminds
you of home?
That sweet summertime scent you get in the west coast woods when
everything is dry – blackberries? or conifer needles? It’s a most enchanting
fragrance, reminding me of childhood, of heat, freedom, running with bare feet.
Also, anything that smells of the ocean.
13 - 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?
Nature especially and science. And mythology, theology and history.
14 - What other writers or
writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Following on my early obsession with fairytales, I moved into world
mythology and legend. As a child and a teenager, I read and reread Tolkien and
C.S. Lewis multiple times. As an adult, I began to study the Bible – I didn’t
grow up with that multi-genred book, or more accurately, that library, and came
to it late. Shakespeare was a big influence as were the Metaphysical and
Romantic poets. I was captivated by Blake and Virginia Woolf.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would love to write a book of poetry where I am writing to a
theme, something like Lorna Crozier’s God
of Shadows. I am also thinking of Louise Glück’s book Averno, her interweaving of myth and ordinary life. Some thematic
collections aren’t able to achieve this kind of integrity.
16 - 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 would have loved to be a set designer for theatre. You’d get to read
the plays, visualize them onstage and you’d create the spaces for the actors
and the action to move, be part of that huge collaboration. I think that would
be a dynamic, aesthetically rewarding job.
17 - What made you write,
as opposed to doing something else?
I don’t know. When I was ten years old and the teacher asked us
“what do you want to be when you grow up?” and I answered that I wanted to be a
writer and then I did “something else.” I didn’t write for decades except in my
journal. Today, I don’t feel comfortable in my skin if I’m not working away at
a poem. I think it’s the way I process the world.
18 - What was the last
great book you read? What was the last great film?
The Innocents by Michael Crummy –
breathtaking. I kind of loved the movie Knives
Out – just so much fun! My daughter gave me Normal People by the young Irish novelist Sally Rooney and I’ve
just finished it – a fresh and perceptive page-turner about young fraught love.
I’m starting to watch the TV series too, which is astonishingly close to the
19 - What are you currently
Random short pieces. I just completed an online class on the craft
of poetry with American poet Ellen Bass and
I’m doing some of the writing exercises she suggested. In one talk, she
suggested inserting metaphors into a lacklustre poem like you’d put cloves in a
holiday ham. I am planning on trying that on some of my “finished” poems.
12or 20 (second series) questions;