Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"ducks, cottonwood trees, soap opera ladies, storms and lost yelps" in conversation with Winterkill author, Catherine Graham

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"ducks, cottonwood trees, soap opera ladies, storms and lost yelps" in conversation with Winterkill author, Catherine Graham

Catherine Graham is the author of four acclaimed poetry collections: The Watch and the poetry trilogy Pupa, The Red Element and Winterkill Vice President of Project Bookmark Canada and Marketing Coordinator for the Rowers Pub Reading Series, she holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University (UK) and teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies.

Troll Was No Monster
after the painting by Kate Domina

My body’s thin like an icicle
but my fur warms, the rug of me.
I feel good in this suit. My tie,
a material icicle. It wears me well
like the mouse I wear that wears me.
See past my wolfish eyes, the wildness
that makes the menace race
down the knucklebones of your back.
It’s only the feet of my little mouse.

-From the collection Winterkill Insomniac Press 2010

AH: I would imagine mixed feelings of both loss and freedom in ending a trilogy that was over 7 years in the making (Pupa, 2003; The Red Element, 2008; Winterkill, 2010)? Could you talk about what the ending of such a long project has been like for you?

CG: Loss and freedom. Yes, both are embedded in the experience of ending the poetry trilogy even though a trilogy was never planned, it grew organically. Paul Vermeersch, poetry editor of 4 A.M. Books, the poetry imprint for Insomniac Press, was the one who noticed what my creative mind was doing, working with certain themes with a certain style—short, spiky imagistic meditations. Much of the work circles around the image of a water-filled limestone quarry. I’ve since written about this image progression in various interviews. Given your question, it seems fitting to repeat it here:

In the beginning of my poetic journey, in my book Pupa, the quarry was in the physical world, a place outside of me. This journey took a turn in the second book, The Red Element, where began my creative detachment from the quarry as a physical place. Now, with Winterkill, the quarry lives inside me. It is my imagination. Grief and nostalgia have been transformed into ducks, cottonwood trees, soap opera ladies, storms and lost yelps.

Having now finished the trilogy, my exploration with shorter poems feels somewhat complete. I have for some time been engaged with writing fiction and was recently picked up by the Beverley Slopen Agency. It is a departure for me but a welcome one and provides a respite from my poetry writing while at the same time providing me with a new canvas.

AH: You have been working in the glosa form of late. The glosa, an early renaissance form, gives the poet a chance to engage with another writer's work in a kind of praise, but also to harness the language into another direction. The (rather pedestrian) image of a sandwich comes to mind, in which the lines taken from another writer are the bread and you offer new contents to make a new sandwich. Can you talk about what the glosa has come to mean for you and what it offers that appeals to you? It's quite intimate, isn't it, borrowing another writer's lines?

CG: Energy and harness—two appropriate words when describing the process of writing the glosa. A kind of praise and a sandwich—–nicely put, Angela! I’ve always enjoyed reading the form and like most readers was introduced to the glosa through the work of the P.K. Page. In Hologram I love the way Page tied her imagination to the work of writers she loved. Writers I too admire like Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop, Rainer Marie Rilke, T. S. Eliot, Leonard Cohen...basically, all the poets in the book. And of course she did this in Coal and Roses too. I’ve written about meeting P.K in The Malahat Review website P.K. Page: A Tribute.

In Winterkill my poem “The Buried” works like a kind of glosa as I weave in a quote by Tilda Swinton at the end of each stanza, her stunning answer when asked what she’d want done with her body when she dies. When I came across her response I immediately wrote it down in my notebook. I wanted to do something with it but what exactly? When I shared the quote with Paul, he suggested that I try writing it like a glosa. Because the quote had six lines (my arrangement on the page) the poem has six stanzas instead of four so I call it a “super” glosa.

When I finished writing Winterkill there was excitement and relief but also worry: What poems will I write next? One day, while re-reading Gethsemane Day, a posthumous collection of poetry by the Irish poet Dorothy Molloy, I pulled four lines from her poem “Barbie” and wrote my first glosa. I enjoyed the experience so much I pulled another four lines from a different Molloy poem and began another one.

AH: Another question about working with the Glosa form: brevity is a strong trait of your previous writing, how does it feel, writing in longer forms? is it more exposing? more freeing? I always found the brevity of your poems so brave, in that the poet exercises a lot of certainty to say that the reader will get enough to go on from four or five lines (for instance). However, it seems to me that when you are used to shorter forms, there is a lot of courage in writing something longer, where there is more to manage, and the punch of a short piece may not be available, or at least not in the same way. How have the demands been different and how do you feel your skill-set growing?

CG: Thank you for the kind words about brevity in my work. I’ve always been a fan of short poems, the punch they bring, the sharp impact. And I like the way the gap, the white space, brings in the reader. Longer poems do this as well but I like the smaller stage. For me, the challenge when writing a short poem is how brief can it be and still make an impact? The shortest poem I’ve written is one line, four words.

The glosa, a form with four stanzas, ten lines for each stanza, made new demands on my imagery, my music and to my surprise I found writing a longer form freeing. Exciting too, for it pushed me to places inside my imagination that I hadn’t mined before, material and ideas that required a bigger platform, a lengthier music. It even brought out my aggressive side.

AH: Could you talk about Dorothy Molloy? She is themain author you are taking lines from for your Glosas. What draws you to her work? Have you tried writing multiple glosas with the same four lines?

CG: Having lived and studied poetry in Northern Ireland I was familiar with contemporary Northern Irish/Irish/UK poets. From Heaney to Kennelly to Duffy. Their work fed my work and became the feeding ground for my imagination. Knowing my reading background, Paul told me about a “new” Irish poet he thought I should read. He believed I would find an affinity with her poetry. So I ordered Hare’s Gap and Gethsemane Day, two posthumous collections by the Irish poet Dorothy Molloy. (I’ve since discovered there’s a third collection, one I still have to get my hands on.) Molloy died ten days before her first book was published with Faber and Faber. I was moved and saddened by this.

Molloy’s collections were books I would often go back to. I loved the biting freshness, the tense imagery, the linguistic feats, her rhythms and wordplay. I found it natural, not forced or showy and beautifully crafted.

Why Gethsemane Day for my first glosa? I don’t know. It just happened. Once I finished the first glosa I began another and another...

All my current glosas weave in her words. And yes, I’ve written a few multiple glosas too.

AH: How has your teaching life enhanced your writing life?

CG: As a natural introvert, teaching forces me out of my shell. And because I’m passionate about writing, once immersed in the teaching moment, my love for writing, for words, and for the creative process, conquers any shyness. The classroom itself is a container for creativity – the sharing of thoughts and ideas as they organically surface, connections and synchronicities. Writing is a solitary act but teaching isn’t. It brings forth community.

I’ve taught creative writing at many venues – McMaster University, Sheridan College, Centauri Arts, Diaspora Dialogues, Descant’s NowHearThis. I currently teach at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and The Haliburton School of the Arts and I also mentor students privately.

Many of my students have gone on to see publication—literary journals and websites, high school English textbooks, contests and books. A joy to see!


The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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