A Fevers of the Mind Quick-9 Interview with Lisa Alletson

with Lisa Alletson:

Q1: When did you start writing and first influences?


My Grade 3 teacher gave me a cage of seven white rats she won gambling. The male rat, Whiskey, impregnated the rest. Their babies escaped and got into my father’s hand-built, painstakingly-painted model train set– which had grown over the years to take up most of our living room. We’d see the rats’ red eyes flashing as they ran through tunnels, over paper mache mountains, and hid behind glue-waterfalls avoiding shocks from the rails. Around that time, I wrote a metered poem about dirt and pollution, which I remember word for word. Causation, I think. I stopped writing when I started a busy career in my early 20s and didn’t write again until two years ago in May 2019. (Thank you, Twitter).

(Dad’s Model Train Set, Johannesburg and Toronto)

First influences were: Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, e.e. Cummings. Anyone with two initials and a last name, apparently. Collections from the Brothers Grimm. Jean M. Auel, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury in my early teens. South African anti-apartheid writers Alan Paton, Andre Brink, Chris Van Wyk.

Q2: Who is your biggest influences today?

Lisa: It changes daily. My poetry books by Plath, Cummings, and Neruda have the most coffee and wine stains.

Q3: Where did you grow up and how did that influence your writing?

Lisa: I was born during apartheid in Paarl, a vineyard village near Cape Town- where two oceans meet. Paarl means “pearl” – after its granite mountain rocks that glem in the rain.

(photo of Paarl: WinePath)

We moved to the UK when I was three. Most weekends, my parents put us four kids and our tent in the car and explored, eating at pubs on the way. We’d wake in farmers’ fields with cows peering into the tent, and sometimes a bull. It was a great way to see places connected with writing; Shakespeare’s birthplace – Stratford-upon-Avon, Robin Hood’s Sherwood Forest, Stonehenge, the Cotswolds, Loch Ness, and our ancestor’s roots in Wales.

My parents would recite Wordsworth or Keats while we drove, or we’d break into a group version of Jabberwocky. I owe my love of writing to them and their fascination with writers like Beatrix Potter, Dr. Seuss, Lewis Caroll. They told us stories about the published writers in our family: my grandfather, a Cambridge mathematician and persuasive writer who wrote the curriculum books for South Africa, reforming a broken system, and our ancestor, the beheaded Sir Thomas More. Lots of rich fodder to inspire me. These moments gave me a life-long appreciation for writing.

(Dad’s Photo: Changing of the Guard, London)

A few years later we moved to Johannesburg. During apartheid, we lived in a segregated world. Violence on the news was the backdrop to life. My mother volunteered for race relations and raised us fiercely to be anti-apartheid activists. This political activity increased when I went to Rhodes university to study journalism. The ANC, banned at the time, would meet in our Great Hall. Students and professors alike would protest the apartheid government’s activities, which brought the police in with tear-gas. Chris Van Wyk’s poem “In Detention” opened my teenage eyes to the lessons from political poetry in the fight against apartheid. He wrote about the political prisoners dying in prison. The reasons given for their deaths were obviously false. https://drunkenlibrary.com/2017/12/11/in-detention-chris-van-wyk/ or more in depth https://gimmenotes.co.za/wp-content/uploads/2018/08/ENG2602-POEM-In-detention.pdf

(Photo by my Dad on a hike in KwaZulu Natal.)

I moved to Canada in my late teens. The imagery and subject matter of my poetry often draws from political, geographic and cultural features of my years in South Africa, the UK and Canada.

Q3 (cont): Have any travels away from home influence your work?

Lisa: Spending a few months living in both New York and San Francisco broadened my perspective. The first Pride parade I attended was in San Francisco and it had a huge impact on me.

Q4: What do you consider the most meaningful work you’ve done creatively so far?

Lisa: Writing about my daughter, who has autism, in a way that helps readers appreciate the complex beauty of neurodiversity.

Q5: Any pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a writer?

Lisa: I don’t think of myself as a poet, just a human. But there was a day when I decided to take it more seriously and work on poems and stories outside of Twitter. It was my writing-friend Deb Ewing’s birthday, which is also Sylvia Plath’s birthday. She never lets me forget it!

Q6: Favorite activities to relax?

Lisa: I play chess every day, which both relaxes and stimulates me. Walking through the forests and ravines near my house. Spending time alone at a lake that I write of often and carry in my veins.

Q7: Any recent or forthcoming projects that you’d like to promote?

Lisa: This Fall I have have a poem about my sister coming out in New Ohio Review, along with writing in The Lumiere Review, League of Canadian Poets, and Anti-Heroin Chic.

Q8: What is a favorite line/stanza from a poem of yours or others?


The first stanza of “The Donkey” by G.K. Chesterton. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47918/the-donkey
“When fishes flew and forests walked
And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
Then surely I was born.”

From one of mine, “Spectrum”
“My daughter wears my DNA like a casualty”

Q9: Who has helped you most with writing?


I’m part of several Twitter writing groups that offer a positive, safe space to read poems aloud, dig deeper and write about what I can barely think about. Sometimes, along with another Twitter-writer Paul Corbeil, I’ll take writing workshops. It’s great to do a workshop with a friend so you can discuss it afterwards. Paul encourages me and gives me confidence in my writing. Get yourself a writing group/partner if you don’t have one!

On the publishing side Barlow Adams, one of my favourite fiction and CNF writers, convinced me to submit poetry I didn’t think think anyone would publish. Turns out he was right. He’s insightful about the publishing world, in which I’m a newbie, and I appreciate how he pushes me.

Avalanches in Poetry 2 entry: Poetry by Lisa Alletson

Twitter: @Lotustongue