Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Catherine Graham

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Catherine Graham

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Catherine Graham lives in Toronto and is the author of four critically acclaimed poetry collections: The Watch (Abbey Press, Northern Ireland) and the poetry trilogy Pupa (Insomniac Press, 2003), The Red Element (Insomniac Press, 2008) and Winterkill (Insomniac Press, 2010).

She is Vice President of Project Bookmark Canada and Marketing Coordinator for the Rowers Pub Reading Series, holds an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University (UK) and teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and the Haliburton School of the Arts. Graham also mentors students one-on-one and her work as poetry coach has been featured in Poet’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books, USA).

Her writing has appeared in such literary journals as Joyland: A Hub for Short Fiction, The New Quarterly, Descant, The Fiddlehead and Poetry Ireland Review, anthologized in The White Page / An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets and showcased in Poetry is Public is Poetry and Nuit Blanche’s Words Travel Fast.

For more information, visit Catherine Graham at her website.

Catherine Graham’s new collection Winterkill completes the trilogy that includes her critically acclaimed previous books Pupa (2003) and The Red Element (2008). Winterkill has received praise from the likes of George Elliott Clarke and Molly Peacock, who remarks that Graham continues to prove herself to be one of Canada’s premier younger poets. Her poems are filled with wide ranging emotions and memories as Graham confronts personal loss head on; she is indeed a poet to be reckoned with. The following poem, "Boy and Lawn," is from Winterkill.

Boy and Lawn

When I close my eyes, I see
the weeds through his head.

Clover. Dandelion. Wild carrot.
Daisy. I wanted every day

to be Saturday, for the grass
to grow high like the waiting

inside me. Dad paid the boy
to mow. I watched him

turn aisles through my
bedroom window. His glasses

thick and black. I saw
those eyes close up. Green

hovered between us
like the spears on his grave.


TTQ- Your latest collection of poetry, Winterkill, (Insomniac Press, 2010) is the third and final book in a trilogy. (The first of the trilogy was published in 2003). What inspired the trilogy? Could you tell us more about the process of writing Winterkill, and would you agree it's your most powerful and most affirming works to date?

CG- The trilogy developed organically, there was no initial plan. The loss of my parents turned me to the writing life. I was studying psychology as an undergraduate at McMaster University when my parents died (mother first year, father last year), and it was through grief that I found poetry — or perhaps I should say poetry found me. Since making this profound connection, whether through reading or writing or teaching poetry, poetry continues to be the creative core of my life, my vital grounding.

The trilogy begins with poems about a daughter’s attempts to come to terms with the deaths of both parents. Loss, childhood memories and visceral image fragments weave through the three collections along with the image of a water-filled limestone quarry, the place I grew up beside. My poems kept circling this central image, so I guess my creative mind had a plan all along. 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 my 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. The real has become the imaginary. Grief and nostalgia have been transformed into ducks, cottonwood trees, soap opera ladies, storms and lost yelps.

My editor, Paul Vermeersch, identified the work as a trilogy. He’s been the editor for all three collections so knows my poetry well. Working with one editor has been beneficial to my process and Paul is an outstanding editor. It’s Paul who believes the poems in Winterkill are my “most powerful and most affirming works to date.” I’m too close up to make such claims, but as a writer who wants to continue to grow this is comforting to hear.

TTQ- Many of your poems are short and to the point, three lines or less in many cases, and have been described as claustrophobic and intense. For example, "I Almost Laughed At Mother's Funeral" is simply one line which reads She's not in there. Tell us about your unique style of writing poetry and its directness. Who are some of the poets who have inspired you over the years and influenced your writing?

CG- I never thought of my style as unique, it’s how the poems emerged in draft form — short, imagistic, spiky meditations. As short as they are as drafts, they often become shorter through the editing process. I love the editing process, the craft involved; the creativity. By rearranging and cutting lines, new energies often appear in the poem, fresh discoveries. In addition to these new energies, twists in perception also emerge which open the poem up in new and exciting directions. I’m interested in white space, the presence of absence, and with having the reader participate with putting in the missing pieces. What’s not there can be just as important as what is there. Deletions can have a lingering presence and add complexity to a seemingly simple poem.

As for poets who’ve inspired me over the years, the list is a long one. My writing journey began while living in Northern Ireland, so while writing my first poems I was reading Irish, UK and Northern Irish poets. Poets like Heaney, Mahon, MacNeice, Duffy, Muldoon, Smith, Durcan, Hughes, Boland, Longley and Yeats. I was also reading American poets such as Stevens, Dickinson, Frost, Bishop and Plath. This was pre-internet so the only Canadian poets I could find in Belfast bookstores were Atwood and Ondaatje. I was unaware of what was exciting in Canada beyond their work.

TTQ- What was your experience like editing Ian Burgham's collection of poetry The Grammar of Distance (Tightrope Books, 2010), and what do you like most about Burgham's style of poetry? To what degree did Burgham help you with Winterkill?

CG- My experience editing Ian’s book The Grammar of Distance was nothing but positive. Our styles are quite different — I contract where Ian expands — but our poetic aesthetics are similar. Ian lived overseas for many years (Edinburgh, Scotland) and this too shaped his poetic sensibility, so we have that in common as well.

I’m a big fan of Ian’s work — strong lyrical lines, sensual imagery, robust voice. While editing Ian’s poetry I’d often show him what I was working on at the time. We have a terrific ongoing interactive critiquing process through which our poems improve. His keen eye and ear were instrumental in the development of the manuscript that eventually became Winterkill.

TTQ- Your workshops have been described as both well-reasoned and imaginative in their approach and intent on linking our left brain (analytical) with our right brain (imagistic) which transfers more insightful and practical information. What are some of the techniques you use in order to teach poets to think more through the box and incorporate both sides of their brains to improve their writing?

CG- I do conduct creativity workshops (through CMG Creativity) aimed at linking the two sides of the brain. Although the workshops are open to anyone, they are designed primarily for the business community. Past clients have included GlaxoSmithKline, the Ontario Government, Environics Communications and York University. Words and images are linked through visualizations and writing exercises to help clients find right brain solutions to challenging situations they face in the workplace and in their personal lives. The engagement with both sides of the brain, the analytical side with the imagistic, is part of the poetic process, so these tools are also helpful while teaching creative writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies or while mentoring writers privately.

TTQ- What's your opinion of the current state of poetry in Canada? Do you find that poetry today is inspiring more and more of our youth, and is there enough poetry being taught in our schools?

CG- Poetry is a big part of people’s lives in Northern Ireland, Ireland and the UK where my journey as a writer began. It isn’t confined to the backs of bookshelves or to no shelves at all, it’s at the front of the bookstore, the latest publication. Poetry is reviewed regularly in national newspapers and heard on national radio, and contemporary poets are often seen on TV. People from all walks of life attend poetry readings, not just poets and emerging poets. It’s alive and vibrant and embedded in the culture. This was over ten years ago, so I’m assuming (and hoping!) it’s still that way.

Given this vibrancy, it was somewhat unsettling when I came back to Canada in 2000 to see poetry so sidelined. And yet, if you do look for poetry you will find it here, you just have to put more effort into finding it. As a lover of poetry I believe this effort is worthwhile, but because more work is involved, the chasm between those who connect with poetry and those who don’t is bigger here. Despite many great teachers and youth programs in schools like Poets in Schools, Diaspora Dialogues, Now Hear This! and Poetry In Voice, teachers often avoid teaching poetry, so again poetry is sidelined. But poetry will always be found by those who need to find it. It’s the essence of language and the essence always lasts.

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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