“Writing is a process of unfolding possibilities.” —Lise Downe
Our conversation continues with multidisciplinary artist Lise Downe, whose poetry collection, Propositions and Prayers, celebrates its official publication today; congratulations! Downe’s first book of poetry in nine years is a collection in two parts: “Propositions” is a series of short poems-as-possibilities, structured by the compression of images and voices to convey an urgency through degrees of incoherence; “Prayers” explores living and language as acts of devotion. Margaret Christakos, author of Her Paraphernalia, writes that “this collection is enormously perfect for both three a.m. staring into catastrophe and seven a.m. rising to the glinting secular benediction of getting-on-with-it.” (We agree wholeheartedly with this assessment.) Downe’s visual arts background—she studied painting, printmaking, and jewellery design for many years—infuses her writing with a singular style, scope, and brilliance of expression. We talked to her about how and why she began to write, twentieth-century poetry, and the dual importance of movement and flat surfaces.
What are you currently writing?
I have started a few short pieces, a “testing of the waters,” but I don’t yet know what direction the writing will take.
Given current circumstances—the pandemic, working from home and health concerns with a few family members—my attention is not on my creative work. I expect and hope that will change for the better!
What book—or books—would you recommend to a new friend?
If this is a new friend who is unfamiliar with 20th century poetry, for example, I would suggest they start by reading anything by Frank O’Hara, Elizabeth Bishop or Ted Berrigan. After that, the list would be long.
Why do you write?
That’s a good question. I never thought that I would write. My background is in the visual arts, but an interest in contemporary poetry led me to try my hand at it. Writing is a process of unfolding possibilities. I begin with words and phrases, sound and rhythm, and build on that, rather than having an initial, specific intention or subject.
Who, where, when, and what influences your writing?
My initial interest in poetry was part of a general immersion in art and music. I grew up in London, Ontario at a time when there was a tremendous amount of artistic activity. It looked to me like the adults who were the most vivacious and having the best time were artists, and I wanted that for myself. As far as influences go, it’s wide open. I’m inspired by any kind of art, whether it is writing or a beautifully conceived and crafted object.
Where do you write?
It varies, depending on what flat surfaces aren’t cluttered or depending on my mood. It’s interesting to notice how one location is conducive to writing for a while, but after a time, new ideas can only happen if the location changes. I’m talking about moving from one chair or room to another, not travelling any great distance.
What do you write with?
I begin with pen and paper, and when the piece is taking shape, I type it into a Word document and work on that with a pencil.
Do you have a preference for fiction, nonfiction, or poetry in your reading or writing?
For years I mainly read poetry and non-fiction, but in the last 5 years or so I’ve been reading a lot of fiction. There is so much good writing.
Lise Downe is the author of four previous collections of poetry: A Velvet Increase of Curiosity (1993), The Soft Signature (1997), Disturbances of Progress (2002), and This Way (2011). Lise also studied painting, printmaking, and jewellery design for many years. Originally from London, Ontario, Lise lives and works in Toronto.