Home > Interviews > An interview with Catherine Graham: “I never planned on becoming a writer, especially a poet.”

by Esther Griffin

Catherine Graham

Photo by Prosopon Photography

Catherine Graham is an award-winning creative writing instructor at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Her most recent collection, Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, is the winner of the IFOA’s Poetry NOW competition and a finalist for the Raymond Souster Poetry Award and the CAA Poetry Award. Her work is anthologized in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol IV & V, The White Page / An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets and has appeared or is forthcoming in such journals as The Fiddlehead, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, The Humber Literary Review,Ulster Tatler, Poetry Ireland Review, Prairie Fire and The Malahat Review.

I first discovered Catherine Graham’s poetry when I was reading through the University of Toronto Libraries’ Canadian Poetry Online website. I was so struck by her poem, “The Watch,” that I sought out all of her collections, and later, was fortunate to work with Catherine as my poetry mentor through the U of T Creative Writing Program.

In the forward of your new collection, “Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects,” you mention how you began the collection by experimenting with glosas, but after a time “it felt like the format was getting in the way.” Can you describe your process of “listening” to these poems as you revised?

Returning to the manuscript after a period of distance helped me see the glosas (here is a link to the definition) with fresh eyes. I was able to locate the weak spots in lines and stanzas: poor language choices, chunky music, etc. My first reaction was to keep the revisions within the form. But after talking it over with fellow poet, Ian Burgham and my long-time editor, Paul Vermeersch, I saw that greater innovations could be made by dropping the glosa structure. I realized that in addition to creating restraints, I could also break them, and the process of “listening” began. Once I got into this new rhythm—rearranging words, deleting lines or dropping the form entirely—the revisions became easy, inevitable and exhilarating. Where Molloy’s words do remain, they are italicized in the book. I think of them as fossils of the original form.

A thread through much of your body of work is loss: of loved ones, of innocence, of moments, and in “The Fix,” a mother’s womb as a home.

I’m teenaged
and forever homeless. You must enter the ache
When I say you, I mean I. There is no language for this.
Just clocks that tick and tick, too straight to be a pulse.

But I find that within each poem of loss, there is discovery. What do you discover as you re-visit these losses through your writing?

I discover again and again there’s life in loss by engaging with the imagination. I never planned on becoming a writer, especially a poet. It was my parents’ deaths during my undergraduate years at university that turned me towards the writing life. Consumed by grief, I began seeing a counselor on the advice of a family friend. The counselor suggested I keep a journal to “write out my feelings.” While doing this I began playing with words—sounds, images and rhythms—based on childhood memories with my parents and the music inside me. I had no idea I was writing poems. Only when I showed them to that same family friend did I come to this realization.

During the act of writing I lost myself and the situation I was in, the intense pain of grief, as my existence was temporarily suspended. Engaged with the poetic source I’d entered into, what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow,” I was connecting to the creator inside me; life not death, ironically through death (as subject matter). Writing poetry became my act of survival.

Would I have become a poet had my parents not died? I’ll never know, but I doubt it. As you know from my work I write about them still. In some ways my parents are entwined with the creative source inside me, their lives along with their deaths.

Throughout your collections, the quarry has a presence. As I read, the quarry feels like a touchstone, a comfort. I look forward to each encounter with it. Does the memory/image of the quarry continue to inspire you? Are there other recurring images or places in your work that you enjoy re-visiting?

I’m delighted that the quarry became something meaningful to you through my writing. Located near Ridgeway, a small Ontario town, it opened for operation in 1895 and supplied stone for Buffalo’s breakwater. When the dynamite broke through to an underground spring the pit filled with water. The quarry continues to inspire me as both place and image and has been an influence in all my books. In some ways I feel I am the quarry: a vessel of absence as well as a container for form. I see the landscape vividly in my mind’s eye; the water-filled limestone quarry along with the bungalow in which we once lived as a family. It appears in my dreams as well, though often it’s accompanied with the recurring image of an approaching tornado. I see the sky blackening and feel an immediate panic to find a safe place to hide. Not an enjoyable revisiting! But I try to harness that intensity into my work, the edge between beauty and terror, by casting that Yeatsian “cold eye.” 

Her_Red_Hair_with_borderAs my poetry mentor and teacher, you were supportive, yet honest – always giving me that necessary push when I needed to go deeper or revisit and image or line. Can you describe your teaching philosophy?

My goal is to both encourage and challenge students with their work; to highlight strengths and to push, through suggestions and possibilities, further avenues they may encounter while reworking drafts. I try to follow the poem’s agenda rather than direct the writing towards my own vision.

Much of writing is re-writing; following hunches or capturing synchronicities or even embracing errors and randomness. It’s about being open and not being tied to that first draft or trying too hard to capture what “really happened.” The poem always knows more.

Whether it is the length of a poem, or playing with form and technique, how would you describe the evolution of your own work from your first collection, “The Watch” (1998), to your latest, “Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects” (2013)?

Using the glosa form forced me to write longer poems with longer lines by tapping into a deeper music. Having said that, I still love the short lyric, the form I used in my three books with Insomniac Press, the quarry trilogy. I love the compact intensity of that spiky energy. The poems I’m working on now seem to be a blend of these approaches.

The writers I first studied while completing my MA in creative writing in poetry (while living in Northern Ireland) continue to inspire me, poets such as Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley and Carol Ann Duffy to name a few, and my subject matter still seems to surface organically. My life as a writer feels like one long chain of growth. Hopefully my work reflects a greater richness and complexity because of it.

What other projects are you currently working on?

In addition to my classes at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and Haliburton School of the Arts, I’m looking forward to teaching at the Creative Book Publishing program at Humber College this spring. In between teaching, mentoring privately, and editing, I’m working on poems for my next book.

For more information on Catherine Graham, to register in her creative writing classes, or to order her books, please visit her website: www.catherinegraham.com

Esther Griffin teaches English Literature and Creative Writing at Georgian College in Barrie, Ontario. Her poetry and fiction have been published in various anthologies, and she is currently pursuing her Optional Residency MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia. Visit her website at www.esthergriffin.ca