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On poetry and hosting In/Verse: A Q&A with Susan Alexander

9 Jan 2023 9:47 AM | Megan Cole

In December, poet Susan Alexander handed hosting duties for our monthly In/Verse events over to Neil Surkan. Susan had taken over hosting duties from Fiona Tinwei Lam. We at the Federation of BC Writers wanted to take time to look back on all the hard work that both Susan and Fiona had done as hosts, and invited them to participate in a special online Q&A. Here are Susan's answers.

FBCW: What character from a book or movie do you most identify with?

Susan Alexander: One of our family games is: who would you be in a Jane Austen novel? I would (of course) most like to be Miss Elizabeth Bennett, for all her faults. But I think I may be more Emma Woodhouse – oh God, maybe I am Emma Woodhouse?

What book has lingered with you the longest?

I love reading novels to relax – a few that really got inside me were The Door by Magda Szabo, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien, Drive your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk and pretty much anything by Kazuo Ishiguro.

What was it about poetry that originally drew you in?

I’ve loved poetry since I was a kid. I memorized “Jabberwocky” and then as a teenager became engrossed with the epics – the Iliad and the Odyssey. In university, I was drawn to the Romantic poets, mostly because of a shared love of the natural world and the transcendent. I was obsessed by William Blake. The metaphysical poets intrigued and captivated me and still do, particularly George Herbert.

What do you enjoy most about listening to poetry being read?

I love a human reading a poem. The poem lifts of the page and rolls around a mouth and opens itself in a very special way. One of my In/Verse readers, Seán Virgo, said that each poet writes for his, her or their own voice. I love hearing their timbre and rhythm, especially when I have read their poems already and “heard” them in my head. I always get something different when the poem is delivered to my ears.

How do poetry readings inspire your own work?

Now I love a solitary read – just me and the book of poems and a cup of tea and a couch. But I feel like there is a soulful exchange that happens between the poet and the audience at a reading. Also, poetry readings get me in touch a beautiful community of poetry lovers who truly are special people.

How did you approach curating the In/Verse events?

I am a random and disorganized person and sadly I bring that with me to every task. Luckily my predecessor, Fiona Tin Wei Lam, who created In/Verse, offered me an elegant and efficient structure as well as great ideas for readers. I do like to be surprised so I often invited onto the programme someone whose work I didn’t know at all (but came recommended). I wanted to mix up ages and gender and location. Oftentimes that meant inviting a new poets who might just have a first chapbook out and balancing that with a  more “senior” poet. I also tried to include poets from under-represented groups.

What were some of the biggest lessons you learned in hosting and curating the In/Verse readings?

It wasn’t so much a lesson but an opportunity to get familiar with the poets’ work ahead of the reading, especially their latest books. I wanted to have a real connection with the poet. I love to be well-prepared (as opposed to winging it) because truthfully I can’t think on my feet unless I’ve done the groundwork. I do not have the best sense of time in the sense of chronos, so I needed to write down time cues to keep the programme kept clipping along. The two rounds of readings format that Fiona created lends a sense of movement to the reading. Yet poetry needs silence around it, so it was always a balance of movement and stillness. All the work that I did ahead of time helped me to relax and be present for the reading.

What were some of the most memorable readings?

Gosh that is really hard!! I was so impressed with the professionalism of the all the poets who read for In/Verse during my tenure as host. One great moment was when Molly Cross-Blanchard did her reading from her car, framed by her steering wheel and did a wonderful job! It showed me how to just relax and roll with what is happening in the moment. Things don’t have to be “perfect” to work. Another favourite was Nancy Lee, Selina Boan and Neil Surkan because they interacted so well with each other as well as with me. That when I thought Neil wold be a great next host and I am so glad he said YES! But I think the most memorable reading was the tribute to the late Patrick Lane. I invited Lorna Crozier, Rhonda Ganz and Seán Virgo to read poems from Patrick’s posthumous collection The Quiet in Me as well as to read some of their own poems inspired by Patrick and his life and work. I just had to step out of the way and let the readers speak. I was blown away by their eloquence, their love and their brilliant poetry.

What do you/will you miss about hosting In/Verse?

I will definitely miss the direct participation with poets and their poetry. But truly, I am also excited to tune in and sit back and watch and listen to Neil Surkan introduce me to poets whose work I don’t know. I am so happy the FBCW is continuing In/Verse and I like the idea of a rotation of hosts. Hosting is a privilege as well as is a service to the BC poetry community.

What advice would you give poets when it comes to doing readings?

My advice for poets is very practical – good lighting and sound for the Zoom room. Time yourself, including your preamble to the poems, so you don’t go overtime and don’t read too quickly. I like it when a poet offers a few words of context or detail before they read without giving away the poem. The best is when a poet makes a little space around their poem, a tiny pause before speaking or reading the next poem.

What’s inspiring the work you’re doing these days?

I wish I could say I am on a roll, but right now life is very challenging. What I am reading right is the work of the late Don Domanski. I adore a mystic. I am uplifted by his work – his ability with language to touch the ephemeral and his feeling for the non-human life of the planet. I don’t understand how he does it.

For more information about In/Verse click here.

Supported by the British Columbia Arts Council

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