Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Kate Marshall Flaherty

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Kate Marshall Flaherty

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.

Kate Marshall Flaherty has published three books of poetry: Tilted Equilibrium (Hidden Brook Press, 2006), String of Mysteries (Hidden Brook Press, 2008) and Where We Are Going (Piquant Press, 2009). She was also a part of the three-poet anthology From O to Snow (Hidden Brook Press, 2008) and the anthology Not A Muse: Woman's Poetry Around the World.

Her work has appeared in many literary journals, such as Descant, CV2, Quills, Other Voices, Freefall, The Toronto Quarterly and the Windsor Review. She has won the Shaunt Basmajian Chapbook Award and Canadian Church Press Poetry Prize, and was short-listed for Nimrod's Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize, the Malahat Review Best Poem and Descant's Best Canadian Poem. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three spirited children, where she teaches yoga, meditation and mindfulness, guides teen retreats on the Golden Rule and leads "Writing as a Spiritual Practice" workshops. Poetry is her life line.

Where We Are Going is Flaherty’s latest collection of poetry, currently in its second printing through Piquant Press. It can best be described as a poignant and emotion-filled collection that tugs on your heartstrings. Flaherty reminds us that, at times, life is filled with turbulence and obstacles that seem insurmountable, but with grace and acceptance, we can overcome. Her poem “Silver Bridge” no better describes Where We Are Going:

Silver Bridge

You remember seeing the Danforth bridge —
strung with threads —
an angel harp with you inside it
like an astounded moth
in a spider’s web,
or a bead in a dream catcher.

You travel inside this threaded instrument
on your way to violin lessons
like you might be Jonah
inspecting the whale’s intercostals,
or Noah’s offspring
revisiting the ribs of the arc.

You ponder the workmanship
of this half-mile of elaborate lines,
taut on the frets of the bridge,
and recall a Buddhist poem
about a musician who spent his life
stringing and un-stringing his lute,

But never played.

And you realize that this weave of silver filaments,
this enticing spun silk
glinting in the September sunlight

Is a trap, a cage, a publicly-funded skein

To prevent you
from leaping to your death.


TTQ - When was it that you first started writing poetry, and who were some of your early influences poetically? Was there a passage in time that reconfirmed to you that poetry would indeed be your primary genre of writing?

KMF - I first started writing poetry when I was about eight years old — I remember still the first poem I ever read aloud in the classroom, in Grade 4, about fall leaves. I even think I used to make up poems in my head and pretend to be writing cursive ... just making big ink loops and then saying whatever came into my head and saying that I was "writing" it out. I remember my Mom had a Dylan Thomas record that I listened to, and I loved some of those. I loved her reading me e. e. cummings's “balloon man” somewhere along the way, and I remember being really moved by Earle Birney's "David" in grade school. In high school. I loved T. S. Eliot, especially "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". I have that book Canadian Poets Plus Five, and I read the Margaret Avison, Margaret Atwood and Dorothy Livesay chapters over and over.

I feel that as far back as Grade 5 I was affirmed as a poet by my teacher and in Grade 6 I won the vote for my poem. In high school I had quite a few poems accepted for journals and contests, etc. I think these events really affirmed me as a writer at a young age. Several teachers particularly believed in me, so here's a shout out for Ms. Tynan, Mr. Barry, Ms. Bourden-King and Sr. Marie Sheila in grade– and high school.

Even as a nerdy kid with glasses and being too tall, I think I was invited to birthday parties mostly to tell stories at sleepovers, or maybe because I might write an occasional poem for the birthday girl. I think Grade 9 was the most powerful year, as my Drama and English teacher offered to read some of my writing outside of school. It was she who sent my stuff in to contests and journals. By then some of the mean girls teased me about being a poet, but Ms. Bourden-King was so cool, it was amazing to have her support.

TTQ- When did you first start working on the poems that comprise Where We Are Going? Was there particular theme or message you intentionally wanted to convey to your readers?

KMF - Some of those poems were written several years before, and some were completed only months before being published. I think some of the themes I had been exploring in the six or so years that led up to that book were the breaking away of my teenage son as he grew into his own skin, the death of my friend Bev after a ten-year period of remission and struggle with cancer, memories of my childhood and perhaps a sort of fascination with interconnectedness and quantum-ness, if there is such a thing. James Dewar, the publisher at Piquant Press, asked me to give him EVERYTHING — so he astounded me by choosing poems from all over the place — past chapbooks, things I workshopped in Banff, brand new poems I had just written at Sue Reynold's writing workshops…he even blended a few poems that didn't seem to be working on their own. I was amazed and honoured by the way he chose the poems, ordered them, told a sort of story in their progress, then tied it all together with that beautiful introduction. I was so moved when I read it. So I have to give him credit for pulling things together. He must have plowed through 400 poems, and I so enjoyed playing around with some of them after his suggestions.

TTQ - I believe you were diagnosed with MS and lost your best friend to cancer during the writing of this collection. How painful has that journey been for you, and to what extent has your journey affected both your spiritual faith and your writing?

KMF -Wow, what a wonderful question. Yes, I actually became much closer to my friend Bev when her cancer came back at just about the same time as my MS diagnosis knocked me off my feet. So, she and I began what I would consider a very spiritual journey that blessed me with the invitation to accompany her until the very end of her life. I think she allowed herself to be vulnerable with me, and she was a very strong and proud person, and that opened me up incredibly.

I feel I got to see through her moments when the earthly and divine intersect — when she seemed to be seeing angels near the end. It was very life-giving for me, and sure taught me to live in the moment. Also, it made having MS seem less of a burden, because it is not a death sentence, but an invitation to let go of some things and try to live in the moment. She taught me that, and so many poems came out of that intense time. I think also that being in the presence of someone who is dying made my own life seem so bright and it made me grateful for so many things.

TTQ - Tell us about some of the writing workshops you have been and are currently involved with. How much of an asset can writing workshops be to up-and-coming writers/poets, and what are your best words of advice for young writers?

KMF - I love all the workshops I have been lucky enough to be a part of, and there have been many. As I think about it, workshops are the single most important way to share our work and develop our craft through the insights of other poets.

I go monthly to a wonderful writing prompt workshop with Sue Reynolds. I meet a few Mondays a month with my wonderful "Muse Group" of poets, and with another newly forming group. I have been a part of the Art Bar workshops and am part of the Plasticine Poetry workshops as well, although I have a clash right now with that, as I teach a yoga class at that time. I also was fortunate enough to have been a part of the Banff Centre's Writing with Style and Wired Writing workshops, with the life-changing support of Tim Lilburn, Anne Simpson and Liz Philips.

I have had incredible feedback from my Renaissance Conspiracy group, and from the most amazing editor, Allan Briesmaster, who is also a member of that group. I also have learned so much from Mic Burrs, who has edited my work in the past. And the insights of one-on-ones with people like Donna Langevin, Deb Panko, Allan, Mick, and of course James and Sue have really helped me to "separate the wheat from the chaff" in my poems.

I can say with my heart that workshops are so important, and that I would probably not have the confidence to read at readings, or to have been blessed with five books, if it hadn't been for the inspiration, support, connections and challenges of being in workshops. I think my advice to young writers would be — come to readings, get into a group, ask someone you trust to look at your work and come on up to an open mic. Most poets and workshoppers are so affirming and supportive, as we all stated out somewhere too, and we all need the boost of someone who thinks our work is good.

TTQ - And now for our Ten-Part Question, The Pivot Questionnaire. What is your favourite word?

KMF - Hobbeldehoy! It is not a battle cry, or a turning toy or a chunky cookie. It is "a tall, gangly youth."

TTQ - What is your least favourite word?

KMF - Impossible.

TTQ - What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?

KMF - Creatively, hearing other poet's read, reading great words, music and life events inspire me. Spiritually, I find those moments when the earthly and divine intersect have astounding power — rites of passage like birth and death, the amazement in nature, paradoxes like being lonely in a crowd or fulfilled in solitude. I guess I might be categorized as a metaphysical poet because everything is spiritual to me, and I see the divine light in just about everything. Emotionally, I can cry and laugh many times in a day. I guess everything moves me. I think I am very sensitive, but I hope I am also empathetic — some deeply feeling poems I have written have been from someone else's perspective. I am moved just imagining what it may have been like to be in their shoes or situation.

TTQ - What turns you off?

KMF - Bullies; people with closed minds or big egos; big institutions that have long outlived their purpose, yet still cling to power and pretense.

TTQ - What is your favourite curse word?

KMF - Butt nugget! Or maybe turd-burgler! My youngest son calls me those when he's enraged and I just have to laugh and the trouble dissolves.

TTQ - What sound or noise do you love?

KMF - I love the sound of the eternal ohm, or any "warm pad" of music that soothes the senses and quiets the mind.

TTQ - What sound or noise do you hate?

KMF - The answer is the end of the joke. What did the grape say when the elephant stepped on him? Oh, he just let out a little whine. I hate the sound of incessant whining, and of any weaponry being fired.

TTQ - What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?

KMF - I'd love to be a theatre director, or to work in a bookstore or to run a yoga/writing/therapy retreat house somewhere in nature. Some may say I should have been a clown, the happy kind.

TTQ - What profession would you not like to do?

KMF - A Chartered Accountant, judge, or anything in the military.

TTQ - If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

KMF - Welcome! You may have fumbled here and there, but you tried to live the golden rule, and you wrote poetry, so come on in! Wine's in the fountain.

* * *

This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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