Tuesday, December 29, 2020

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Susan Alexander

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 I started.

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 beginning?

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 doing readings?

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 performance.

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?

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) inspiration?

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 too seriously.

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 book.

19 - What are you currently working on?

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;

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