Poetry Express: Susan Alexander + Nothing You Can Carry
April 29, 2021
With a balanced mix of humour and emotion, Susan Alexander'sNothing You Can Carry (Thistledown Press) expresses the holiness of place, obscured by the dark cloud that is the future, looming over every aspect of the human life as a result of the climate crisis we are facing.
Susan Alexander joins us for another Poetry Express Q&A, sharing more about building this collection piece by piece, finding unlikely inspiration within feelings of guilt and grief at the threat of planetary catastrophe, and finding a connection to writers like William Blake and Olga Tokarczuk. Plus, read the poem "CLAMAVI" from the collection, below.
During the month of April, you can buy any of our featured Poetry Express books for 15% off + free shipping in Canada. Just use promo code NPMexpress at checkout. Or you can find it at your
local independent bookstore.
All Lit Up: Can you tell us a bit about your collection and how it came to be?
Susan Alexander: I built Nothing You Can Carry around the opening sequence, Vigil, a series of poems that won the Mitchell Prize for Faith and Poetry in 2019. Once I had that key, I was able to put the other poems in an order that intuitively made sense to me. I envisioned the book as a reckoning, a long, dark night of the soul. The collection moves through environmental grief into self-reflection, stories, loves, and circles back to the earlier theme, with a change in tone that comes with the morning.
When I say I built this collection – I mean it. I am one of those poets who, for the most part, writes one poem at a time rather than a thematic series. I think it might be lazy of me, writing whatever comes to me without consciously referring to what came before. To create this book,
I had to spread out my poems on the table and the floor and look at how they related to each other, if they did. Finding the through line meant searching for it among dozens upon dozens of finished poems, many of which didn’t make it into the collection. The process was something like writing a book length poem with poems. In the end, the decisions became more collaborative. I had the great privilege to work with the superb editor Seán Virgo, thanks to Thistledown Press.
Photo of Susan Alexander
[Image Description: An image of the author sitting, cropped at the upper leg. She sits in a taupe, velvet chair and turns to face the camera with one elbow propped on the back of the chair. She is wearing a button up, light-blue jean shirt with darker blue jeans. She wears a watch with a black band on her left wrist. She has light skin, blonde-brown shoulder length hair with a slight wave and wears black, rectangular framed glasses. She smiles with lips parted. In the background is a blurred second chair and a white wall in the distance.]
ALU: What has been your most unlikely source of writing inspiration?
SA: My most unlikely source of inspiration for this collection is the guilt and grief I feel around the climate crisis; an unlikely source because these feelings can trigger paralysis. I had to find ways of moving through stasis into writing. It was and is a puzzle how to write about human-caused planetary catastrophe, to own my complicity in the crisis, and not fall into either a self-righteous, argumentative tone or a falsely optimistic one. Yet I can’t and don’t live 24/7 in that space of considering calamity. Many of the poems in the book are personal and quotidian, about life, relationships and the hunt for meaning, all under the shadow of the bigger threat.
ALU: Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
I remember discovering William Blake in my late teens. I was obsessed with his circular poem “The Mental Traveller” which I recently re-read and it still astounds me. When I started out, I wanted to write poems of moral outrage and mystical experience. BIG poems. Later on, I wanted to write devotional poetry like George Herbert. But that is rarely what my pen captures on the page. I write out of my experience of family, love and life, about the deep solace and generosity of nature. Maybe those other poems are still to come.
ALU: What are you most in the mood to read these days? Any poets you’re especially enjoying?
SA: I am definitely in the mood for escape these days and reading prose does it for me. I absolutely adored Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk which has deeply serious themes about social justice, environment and meaning delivered in a wonderfully madcap comic voice, complete with a tribute to William Blake. I also enjoyed Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller which explores a short history of taxonomy and the shifting fashions of science. And talking about escape, I’ve just picked up Return of the Trickster, the last instalment of Eden Robinson’s trilogy.
As for poetry, I am re-reading a couple of books: Lorna Crozier’s GG winning Inventing the Hawk and Chelene Knight’s Braided Skin. I have Ellen Bass’ Indigo, and I’m looking forward to Neil Surkan’s collection coming out this fall, Unbecoming. I heard him read some new work recently and was reminded me of another favourite writer, the late Patrick Lane. I am also ransacking the house for my favourite Don Domanski, Bite Down Little Whisper, looking forward to a quiet memorial read when I find it.
ALU: Describe your ideal escape.
SA: I’ve been dreaming of a renting cottage in a quiet French village with my husband Ross. But closer to home, my ideal escape would be borrowing our friends’ cabin on Cortes Island with my daughter Libby in the summertime. It would involve reading and writing, swimming and hiking, and begging her to play Scrabble with me.
God, I am praying to you the morning after
nineteen of the hottest years on record
in the history of Your created earth where I am walking through the valley of the shadow.
God, I am praying to You to take Your people back because we like sheep have gone astray.
Take us back to 1839. Make us listen
to Edmond Becquerel when he built the first solar fuel cell.
Take us back to 1888, those first wind turbines
which for decades would power remote ranches and farms.
Take us back to 1892 when Boise, Idaho
used hot springs to heat its homes,
built the huge geothermal swimming pool on Warm Springs Avenue.
And since I am already on my knees praying, could You also,
while You’re tinkering with dates, delay
a century or two that January explosion in 1901
when Spindletop shot black gold into the blue Texas sky and the new century found its idol and its engine?
I know that time means nothing to You
up there in eternity, but down here
where our days are like the withering grass, we are running out of it.
I lift up to You not only our petroleum sins, but also by-product spinoffs and our plastic iniquities of
polyester, spandex, hearing aids, heart valves,
fishing rods, milk jugs, cortisone, crayons,
hot tubs, fertilizer, shampoo, paraffin,
bike tires, car tires, insecticide, aspirin,
ballpoint pens, cling wrap, wax paper, shaving cream,
eye glasses, contact lenses, tennis rackets, ink,
artificial turf, artificial limbs,
Vaseline and Maybelline, shoe polish, paint,
vitamin capsules, water pipes, toothpaste,
pillows, detergent, life jackets, lipstick, combs, yoga mats, garden hoses and golf balls.
Save us O Lord
from our sins of omission
and consumption and commission.
Take us back O God and save Your sheep
if this time we promise to give thanks
for free wind and free water and free sunshine
that blows and shines and rains on the rich and the poor, the just and the unjust.
Lead us not into temptation,
but make us to calm down,
to lie down, at last, in your green pastures.
Susan Alexander is the author of two collections of poems,
The Dance Floor Tilts, 2017, and Nothing You Can Carry, 2020, Thistledown Press. Her poems have won multiple awards, appeared in anthologies and literary magazines in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. and ridden Vancouver buses as part of Poetry in Transit and even shown up in the woods around Whistler. She lives with gratitude on Nexwlélexm/Bowen Island, B.C., Canada, which is the traditional and unceded territory of the Squamish people.
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During the month of April, you can buy
Nothing You Can Carry and any one of our other featured Poetry Express books for 15% off + free shipping in Canada with promo code NPMexpress.Or find them at your local independent bookstore with our Shop Local option.
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