The Monthly interviews Canadian poet, Catherine Graham

What are you earliest memories you have regarding being attracted to writing generally and poetry specifically as forms of artistic expression?

I actually don’t have early memories of writing creatively other than at school. My artistic practice as a child was to draw and make things. It was the loss of my parents during my undergraduate years at university that led me to the writing life. My mother died of breast cancer during my first year and my father died the beginning of my last year in a late night car accident.

Needless to say I was overwhelmed with grief. A worried friend suggested I see a therapist. The therapist suggested I keep a journal “to write out your feelings.” This helped but it wasn’t a cure. One day I started playing with words through image and memory—the water-filled limestone quarry I grew up beside. Time disappeared as I immersed myself further into this activity and when I stopped I knew something pivotal had happened.

I worked up the courage to share what I’d written with that family friend and she said, “These are poems.” Now I knew what poetry was, I’d encountered poems in high school, but they were written by dead men with long beards, not young women steeped in grief. This connection to poetry became the turning point in my life. I couldn’t live without it.

How did you develop your craft and were there any influences on your poetic writing?

Reading poetry helps me to develop my craft. Not just reading for enjoyment but reading as a writer. Spending time with a poem to “see” what’s there—the elements that make the poem leap off the page such as rhythm, rhyme, image, metaphor, simile, silence and so on. I try to somehow slip inside the poem. I’m not looking for an answer but a way in—what is the poem pulling out of me to make me see/feel/connect so deeply? Poems won’t give this mystery away but they might provide glimpses into the “how” through close readings. I add what I’ve discovered to my “poetry tool box” and let this knowledge settle into my subconscious. Then when it comes time to write, my mind (hopefully!) can access what it needs to create the poem that wants to be written. Once the draft appears then the revising begins.

When you work on a collection, is it an instinctive process, an accumulation of work over time, or do you work thematically with a more precise orientation in mind?

Since the beginning of my writing journey I’ve found that my subject matter chooses me. This was grief initially—a daughter coming to terms with the deaths of both parents—plus the water-filled limestone quarry I grew up beside. This need to write about my parents has continued with each passing year. And when I was diagnosed with breast cancer I was the exact age my mother was when she died from the disease. Mary Ellen Graham (Rusty) accompanied me on my cancer journey through dreams, visions, memories and visitations. This experience fueled my most recent poetry book, a hybrid really, Æther: An Out-of-Body Lyric.

In some ways I feel each book has been an outgrowth from the one before it. There’s a poem in each collection that serves as a portal to the next. I just have to “listen” to “see” what’s there for me to discover. Then I follow that energy line into the next book.

The Celery Forest, however, arose in a different way. I had received the cancer diagnosis and was between surgeries, waiting for a date, that intense time of uncertainty. We were out for Nuit Blanche, the annual all-night art celebration, and wandered into Toronto’s Abbozzo Gallery. I was captivated by one of the displayed works there—an image of a girl in a red dress holding up an owl at the entryway to a giant celery forest. To my delight my partner bought me the mixed media piece. “With an Owl in a Celery Forest” by Cora Brittan hangs in our bedroom.
Who was the girl in the red dress and why was she holding an owl? Or was the owl holding her? This led me to write the poem “Cancer in the Celery Forest.” The book, The Celery Forest, was the result.

During the Pandemic there seemed to be a substantial upsurge in the reading and writing of poetry. Do you have any thoughts on this development?

The Pandemic brought us to a standstill. We had to learn how to navigate our lives in isolation. As an introvert this wasn’t too challenging. And I have a wonderful, supportive partner whom I love spending time with. During this time I found myself connecting more deeply with my dream world. these lines of poetry that would suddenly appear, dreamlines I call them. I keep a notebook by my bed and scribble them down in the sleeping dark, hope that I’m able to decipher my words come morning.

It doesn’t surprise me that there’s been an upsurge in the reading and writing of poetry. Poetry is an intimate art form. Poems rip your heart out with their word-force and aural energy and then slip it back in before you know what happened. They invite us to pause and lead us to profound places. They connect us to ourselves and to each other. They embrace ambiguity and silence and allow for a knowing only silence brings. They hold what it means to live in an ever-changing world. They help us tap into mystery.

It was an honour to share some of these new poems—“Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We’re Dead” and “Sleep Patterns for Seamus Heaney” at the Imagine Belfast, as part of the International Page and Stage event.

What are you working on now?

I recently finished my second novel, The Most Cunning Heart. It launches this May. I’m working on poems for my forthcoming poetry book, Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We’re Dead. It comes out next spring. I’m also teaching creative writing at the University of Toronto, leading the Toronto International Festival of Authors’ Book Club and co-hosting The Hummingbird Podcast with Jessica Outram.

Catherine Graham is the author of seven books including the award-winning novel Quarry. Her latest, Æther: An Out-of-Body Lyric, was a finalist for the Toronto Book Award. A previous collection, The Celery Forest, was named a CBC Best Book of the Year; Michael Longley praised it as “a work of great fortitude and invention, full of jewel-like moments and dark gnomic utterance.” She leads Toronto International Festival of Authors’ book club, co-hosts The Hummingbird Podcast and teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto. Her second novel, The Most Cunning Heart, launches this May. Her forthcoming poetry collection, Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We’re Dead, appears Spring, 2023. @catgrahampoet

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