Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions with Catherine Black

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Ten Questions with Catherine Black

Open Book talks to Catherine Black about reading, writing and her book, Lessons of Chaos and Disaster (Guernica Editions).

Open Book: Toronto:

Tell us about your book, Lessons of Chaos and Disaster.

Catherine Black:

Lessons of Chaos and Disaster (Guernica Editions) is a book of prose poetry all about moving through the world with skin that is perhaps a little too thin—what that experience is all about, and how to survive it. It starts in childhood with the loss of my brother who died of brain cancer at the age of sixteen. The book then chronicles losses and loves of other varieties in a series of poetic vignettes. In its most intense moments, it goes to some pretty dark places, traverses some difficult territory (anxiety, depression, addiction, loss of faith), but ultimately I think the protagonist (let’s call her that) emerges new and hopeful, a little battle-weary maybe, but whole nonetheless.

OBT:

Did you have a specific readership in mind when you wrote your book?

CB:

I think so. I wanted to speak to those who have struggled to figure out a way to live authentically and sensitively despite admonishments that they should ‘toughen up.’ I have always loved and deeply related to broken people, and I think this is written for them.

OBT:

Describe your ideal writing environment.

CB:

A shed I decorated when I was seventeen years old. It was a woodshed up in Muskoka, and I decided to trick-it-out for writing. I painted the floor plum purple, threw down a rag rug, strung up a hammock down at one end, and lined the shelves with books and found objects. I could hear the water under the dock cribs from in there and the whole place smelled of plywood. I had a typewriter and was happy. I’d like to have a little room in the woods like that again someday. For now the ideal is a big table and my back to the wall, quiet and coffee. That’s plenty.

OBT:

What was your first publication?

CB:

Scrivener Magazine at McGill University. They published a bunch of my poems in a supplement, and I was totally floored. I remember I had no money to buy a copy, so I ended up going to this little used bookstore on the plateau in Montreal and sold one of my school books so I could get a copy of it. What an incredible feeling: the first time you see your stuff for sale in a bookstore, sitting right there on the shelf. I will never forget that.

OBT:

Describe a recent Canadian cultural experience that influenced your writing.

CB:

I can’t think of one particular cultural event that’s had an impact on my writing, but I can say that the experience of various Canadian environments certainly makes its way into my writing. I’ve written about summers up north on the lake and winters in Montreal apartments, the horse farm I worked on as a teenager, the neighbourhood I grew up in, the town my parents moved to, Kensington Market in Toronto, the CNE midway -- now that I’m living in the suburbs I’m beginning to chronicle that experience as well.

OBT:

If you had to choose three books as a “Welcome to Canada” gift, what would those books be?

CB:

Anything by P.K. Page, The Glass Air maybe. There is a Season by Patrick Lane, The Favourite Game by Leonard Cohen.

OBT:

What are you reading right now?

CB:

From A to X by John Berger. His writing is so spare and succinct and emotionally loaded, I just love it. I’ve been reading From A to X in little bites, piecemeal.

OBT:

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received as a writer?

CB:

It’s your job to be curious about the world, even if it makes you look peculiar to strangers (asking too many questions, staring at details too long). I think that’s useful advice. That, and write every day like you’re practicing scales.

OBT:

What advice do you have for writers who are trying to get published?

CB:

Read literary journals to see what’s going on. Then get brave and get your work out in batches — send it to journals you really like. Have the next round of submissions ready to send out and keep it going in a steady stream. Don’t be discouraged by rejection. Keep writing because you love to write. Oh, and before sending your stuff out, find a sympathetic reader who will ask the right questions about your work.

OBT:

What is your next project?

CB:

I’m working on two things right now: edits on an experimental memoir written in poetic prose, and a new work of long fiction about a woman who tries to piece together an enigmatic (and deceased) lover through the people who have loved and loathed him. The memoir is a meditation on the trickery of memory, and is especially interested in why certain moments resonate more than others — also how those moments change over time. The novel is pure play, a break from the largely personal/confessional mode I’ve been working in for the past few years.


Catherine Black is a Toronto-born writer and graduate of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s M.F.A. writing program. Her poetry has appeared in several Canadian and American literary journals including The Fiddlehead, The Harpweaver, Scrivener Creative Review, Rhino and Preling. Her first book of prose poetry, Lessons of Chaos and Disaster, was published as part of Guernica Editions’ “First Poet Series” and her second book is forthcoming with Guernica Editions in 2010. Catherine has lived variously in the United States, Mexico, and France, and despite bouts of wanderlust she presently resides in Toronto where she teaches writing at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Visit her website at cat-black.com.

Review of Lessons of Chaos and Disaster
“Her work in this debut collection is intense, imagistic and often inward looking. Black vividly evokes the sensation of being "trapped / alive in skin," as she puts it. [...] Black tends to write in direct, declarative sentences, but she achieves an incantatory urgency through repetition and a build-up of expressive images.”—Barbara Carey, Toronto Star

For more information about Lessons of Chaos and Disaster please visit the Guernica Editions Website.


Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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