Susan Downe has been published in many poetry journals and anthologies. She has had two previous books of poetry published, her first being centred around her father’s death and how her mother dealt with it, and the second, ‘Little Horse’ (Brick Books, 2004), which was shortlisted for the 2005 Gerald Lampert Award and is still in print, having to do with her experience with breast cancer. Also she has just launched ‘Juanita Wildrose: My True Life’, a slightly fictionalized account of her mother`s life, which includes mixes poetry with the prose, some of which she will read Nov. 6th.
Susan Downe is a mother of four, stepmother of four, grandmother of eight, and “apprentice to two large gardens”.
Six Poems by Susan Downe.
Downe reading from ‘Little Horse’: a Brick Books podcast.
INTERVIEW, PART 1 (posted earlier)
The interviewer is Stan Burfield, organizer of London Open Mic Poetry Night.
Burfield: Could you tell us about the book you're launching Oct. 23rd at Landon Library?
Downe: Juanita Wildrose: My True Life (published by Pedlar Press, 2013) is pretty much what the title says, the worldly and soul life of a young girl and woman. Her life interweaves and intersects with those of her Maryland forebears at the time of the Civil War in the U.S. Scenes are set in contemporary Ontario, early 20th Century United States, and the Civil War years in the U.S.
Burfield: When and why did you start writing poetry?
Downe: Whenever I was heartbroken in high school, I wrote a poem. Sometimes I would ‘answer’ a poet I read in school or in the New Yorker. More recently (1992), retired from my practice of psychotherapy, I travelled to Mexico to paint, and accidentally met a painter/poet named Jim Tobin, who challenged me to write five poems by Friday (it was Wednesday), I did, and my fate was sealed.
Burfield: What have been the biggest influences on your poetry throughout your life?
Downe: I like what P.K.Page has to say on the matter. She speaks of affinities rather than influences. She cites an ornithologist’s experiment, in which he raised birds in solitary. Each grew and produced a sound sort of like the usual sound of, for instance, a cardinal flying free. Then each was put in an environment with other species; that bird’s song grew into its full range. In hearing many voices, we develop our own. I have savoured many voices: early on, Maxine Kumin, Galway Kinnel, Sufi poet Rumi, Jane Kenyon.
Burfield: Can you say something about how your poetic style has evolved, and what you generally try to accomplish in your?
Downe: I have learned something about omitting extraneous words, inserting enriching words. Poems are longer.
Burfield: Are there any themes you return to again and again?
Downe: Love and Death and bees in the backyard.
Burfield: ‘Juanita Wildrose: My True Life’ is a slightly fictionalized account of your mother`s life, based on memorabilia and stories your mother told you. How did you weave your own poetry into it? Did your mother write poetry?
Downe: My mother would never say that she wrote poetry, and she enjoyed rhyming. *See attached copy (reproduced immediately below this interview), which refers to a birthday note she sent to her mother. It was doubtless accompanied by dried plant material.
Burfield: In ‘We Move the Beauty Around, Dig’ (see poem 4), at the end of the poem, which honours a dying hundred-year-old chestnut tree by planting ferns with wide-waving arms around it, you refer to William Blake’s Glad Day, a Blake painting of a man representing humanity dancing with his arms wide. Even though I didn’t know anything about Blake or his paintings until I did a Google search, just the term Glad Day seemed to be enough. Did this poem start with the painting, or the chestnut tree, or someone’s death? Or all three?
Downe: This poem begins with the cutting-down of a well-loved tree and our subsequent desire to honor her. The image of Glad Day came spontaneously upon seeing the waving of the ostrich ferns. Others have said "William Blake's" was not needed, but I went ahead with it anyway, didactically, I admit.
Burfield: Many of your poems are full of imagery from nature, which, on the face of it, seems surprising for someone who has practiced psychotherapy a good share of her life. Can you say something about how nature is related to our humanity, at least in terms of poetry?
Downe: The chestnut tree flowers, the earth peoples. Say thanks to every tree you see, and inhale. That's where your oxygen comes from, and we give back carbon dioxide.
Burfield: How has your lifelong career in psychotherapy effected your poetry? Or is it difficult to tell?
Downe: People's lives are poetry, or attempts, however desperate or misguided, to do so.
Burfield: I have read the short poem ‘Could We Know’ (see poem 3) at least ten times and am fascinated by it, by the wisdom in it and the power the words you used give it. I Keep coming back to the last line of the middle stanza. The stanza reads, 'Don’t be ashamed/Take pity on us all/for mercy draws courage to it’. Could you expand on that?
Downe: This poem appears in my Little Horse, Brick Books, 2004, and therein I give full credit to Tim Lilburn and his essay, Two Books About Love, Fiddlehead, Spring, 1999, for these words. Those words resonated in me then, and do so now. I can only sense their validity, I think, and, in retrospect, affirm them. I think of a certain law, that the greater of two energies will draw a lesser to it, in this case mercy being (could we know?) a greater energy than courage. To be proven by experiences.
Burfield: When I read ‘Via Negativa’ (see poem 6), the poem had such an impact on me I was walking around with it in me all day and the next, and hadn’t even gotten back to the title yet, which I hadn’t understood. When I did, it brought the idea of ‘God’ into the poem, something that hadn’t occurred to me at all the first time around. Now I want to know more about your spiritual/religious feelings in relation to nature and humanity.
Downe: Now we enter the realm of the inarticulate. To be most brief, I can say that god, or God, is immanent in our full humanity, or could I say, Humanity. Read Christian Wiman, for example, Wendell Berry, others who find beauty and ultimate truth in dailiness.
Burfield: What can we expect from you in the future?
Downe: Most of my poems begin with a lift in my head and chest, and an intense focus; these events take place in response to a sight, the cast of the light, a sudden feeling of aha!, this last not necessarily in response to a fully-ripened thought. I am not able to predict when these happen, but most often they arise when I am past the 20-minute mark of a walk outdoors, but sometimes in response to something I am reading.
*In her book, ‘Juanita Wildrose: My True Life’ (just published by Brick Books), Susan tells the slightly fictionalized story of her mother's life (her name being Juanita Wildrose Downe). Susan says all three generations of women were very into gardening, her grandmother out of necessity, growing plants for food. Her mother wrote this poem in honor of her mother's ninety-second birthday. The words you see in brackets were, in the original hand-written version, written just below the words they refer to. Susan says the final version of the poem would probably have been written large enough that pressed flowers could be glued in the appropriate spaces. The three women loved plants so much that Susan remembers seeing her mother walking outside with her grandmother, who took forever getting only a few yards because she had to discuss each plant they passed. Juanita`s poem to her mother is as follows:
Remembrance of things past (forget-me-not)
brings phlox of ways to state
the laurels we present you
on this most important date (?) - (meaning not sure if she can attach a real date)
In primrose days you taught (cherry) us
of prudence (ash), perseverence (dogwood);
with strength (fennel), with honesty (honesty), and love (honeysuckle or strawberry)
you make us your ad herents. (grape leaves entwined with tendrils)
Discretion (maidenhair) is your virtue (mint),
Fidelity (veronica) your balsam. (touch-me-not or impatiens)
I know one shouldn't envy, (cranehill) (or, as Susan told me, 'Bloody Cranehill': SB)
But you're really quite a mom!
Your fer-n child must take her cue (Susan says 'fer-n' is a contraction of 'foreign': adopted)
anchusa rhyme to close; ('And choose a' is not a plant. 'Anchusa' is.)
Huzzas!!! for birthday ninety-two,
with love, Nita (space for wild rose) wild-rose.
(A personal note: It was unusually hard to get this email interview going. The problem partly turned out to be that Susan doesn’t have a computer and writes with an electric typewriter! I finally read my email to her over the phone, and the next day she brought the interview answers to me by car (for Part 1). Then, a few days later, I drove to her book launch, and handed her the next five questions, then, later again, drove to her house and dug an envelope with the answers to Part 2 out of the mail box where she had left them when she had to leave town to promote her book. Her old-fashioned ways (normal just a few years ago) were definitely having a pleasant effect on me. If I could have, I would have done all the driving back and forth with a horse and buggy. Because, really, why rush? .... In just our few minutes together and on the phone, Susan’s influence on me has been ... well, for lack of better words, she makes me smile: She is a very relaxed, empathetic and easily sociable woman, and all that feels just right for the mother and grandmother of a large family. SB)
WHERE: The Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, covered terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60 poetry lovers. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: November 6th, the first Wednesday of the month, as with most of our events.
LIVE MUSIC, courtesy of Celtic harpist and vocalist Jennifer White and percussionist Robert McMaster, will begin at least by 6:30. There is also an intermission with live music and (usually) more at the end of the event. This month we have a surprise, to be announced soon.
THE FEATURED POET: Susan Downe will begin reading shortly after 7:00, followed by a Q&A.
OPEN MIC: Following the featured poet, there is about 1.5 hours of open mic, ending about 9:00 pm. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). NOTE: FOR THE FIRST TIME, WE WILL NOT BE SELECTING NAMES AT RANDOM, BUT, AS IS TRADITIONAL AT MOST POETRY OPEN MICS, POETS WILL WRITE THEIR NAMES IN A SPOT OF THEIR CHOOSING ON A LIST AT THE DOOR. They will also be asked for their email addresses and whether or not we can photograph and videotape them reading.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates to London Open Mic Poetry Night receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by Brick Books and The Ontario Poetry Society. Donations are our only source of income. We still haven't paid off our initial debt.
EBOOK ANTHOLOGY: Our annual ebook is an anthology of the poets who have read during the year, including both the featured poets, with one or two poems by each, and the open mic readers, with from one to a few, depending on length, from each of those who wish to participate, no matter how many times they read. The ebook will then be available on Amazon at the end of the season, at a few dollars each, used to help offset expenses. If anyone gives us more than several poems, we will select from them. All poems that are included must have been read at the events during the season. The ebook will include a short biography (up to seven lines) of each poet. This must be included with the poems. We may also add a photo of the poet reading at the event. This hasn’t been decided yet. To keep transcription errors from creeping into the poems, the preferred way to get them to us is by email. Those who don’t use email can give us a copy at the events. A cautionary note: Some poets may not want certain poems to be included in the ebook because it would make them unacceptable for later publication in certain poetry journals. Erik Martinez Richards will edit and publish the anthology. His email address is email@example.com