As we approach Mother’s Day, I am struck by the myriad of ways to celebrate, honor and remember mothers and mothering. Motherhood is not without complexity and neither is the loss of one’s mother to death, illness or estrangement. Today’s featured poet, Susan Paddon takes on the task of writing about such grief in her book of poetry Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths.
The collections is shortlisted for The Raymond Souster Award which is given for a book of poetry by a League of Canadian Poets member published in the preceding year. The award honours the late Raymond Souster, an early founder of the League of Canadian Poets. The award carries a $1,000 prize and its winner will be announced at the LCP Annual Poetry Festival and Conference in Winnipeg on May 30th, 2015.
This year’s jury describes commended Two Tragedies in 429 Breaths for offering a strong and original interplay between two narratives: her mother’s final months of pulmonary illness, and Anton Chekhov’s death from tuberculosis. Threaded with letters and voices of those around them, including characters from Chekhov’s plays, Two Tragedies exemplifies how literary forebears can live within us as solace and illumination. The language is allusive, restrained, intensified by the startling juxtapositions of the story. This is poetry without fireworks, entirely convincing.
What inspired this book of poetry?
After having lived away for several years, I was living with my mother, who was ill. I was reading a lot of Chekhov and Carver and watching films by Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson. I was noticing threads from one work to another, and I started to feel connected to these threads in my own experience of death; I was living with someone who knew she was going to die imminently. In his story “Two Tragedies” Chekhov asks, “Can one life be more important than another? One loss greater?” The summer I spent with my mother, Farrah Fawcett was also ill. I remember standing in the grocery store line watching my mother read the headline, “Just weeks to live!” Some months after my mother died, I heard that Fawcett had died a few weeks previously. I thought it was strange I hadn’t realized when it happened, but then I found out Fawcett and Michael Jackson died the same day.
Can you describe your writing process for us?
I walk, I read, I listen to music and daydream in order to think and feel myself into a story. I make copious notes on whatever is available when I get a line in my head. Usually I will have one line that allows me in, and from there I write, often by hand, until I am ready to transfer it into a file that makes it begin to feel real. For this book, I listened to Philip Glass’s “Metamorphosis II” on repeat for months.
The theme for this year’s National Poetry Month is food. If your book were a meal, what would it be?
I don’t know. It would probably be a little all over the place. For some reason I keep wanting to say baklava, which isn’t a meal, but it keeps coming to mind. Baklava and coffee, after a green smoothie.
You are this century’s Rilke composing your Letters to a Young Poet. What is your advice?
I really don’t feel like I could give advice – I know I have so much to learn. But what has helped me is to drop the idea that I should have accomplished a particular thing by a certain age. I think this would be a destructive way of living for me. I also believe strongly in celebrating your contemporaries and to not feel like a failure when someone else has success. There is no joy in that.
A couple of rapid-fire ones:
Favorite food? Watermelon
Favorite poet? Anne Carson
Susan Paddon’s poetry has appeared in The Antigonish Review, Arc Poetry Magazine, Desperately Seeking Susans, Eleven Eleven, Sifted, CV2 and Geist Magazine, among others. After attending McGill University, she moved to London, England, for several years before moving to Paris, France, where she met her husband. She writes poetry, short fiction and screenplays, and is currently working on a novel. She now lives with her husband in Margaree, Cape Breton.