An Interview with Catherine Graham

Catherine Graham’s most recent book, Æther: An Out-of-Body Lyric, was a finalist for the Toronto Book Award and The Celery Forest was named a CBC Best Book of the Year and was a finalist for the Fred Cogswell Award. A previous winner of TIFA’s Poetry NOW, she leads their monthly Book Club. Author of the award-winning debut novel Quarry, her second novel, The Most Cunning Heart, appears Spring 2022. She co-hosts The Hummingbird Podcast: Conversation & Inspiration and teaches creative writing at University of Toronto SCS. Her next poetry book appears Spring 2023. Visit: @catgrahampoet

Catherine’s poem, Pluck a Raindrop Before its Fall appears in Pinhole Poetry’s launch issue.

Would you like to tell us a little bit more about your poem? For instance, how or why you wrote it, or perhaps provide some extra context? 

At night they come but I don’t always see them. Snow as words, flakes form into phrases. They join as they fall. They land in my dreams. Between the point of wake and sleep, they glimmer, melt, recede. It’s then I trap them down. Push my pen in the sleeping dark across the notebook page. Hope I’m able to decipher my attempts come morning. They’ve been happening for years, these dreamlines, nudging me to bring them into day mind, into poem. This is my mission: to make them matter. To weave them into shape. How to determine order? Length? Beginning? End? I trust intuition and accede to image, music, voice—to energy leading the way—what edges us closer to mystery. By pushing into the liminal of myself, I let a poem appear from lines that make. This is how “Pluck a Raindrop Before its Fall” came into being.

Do you have a collection of poetry or even a single poem that acts as a touchstone or a lodestar? 

So many poems inspire me. A constant favourite is “Snow” by Louis MacNeice. Also, “Dark Pines Under Water” by Gwendolyn MacEwen and “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. Oh, and then there’s “Postscript” by Seamus Heaney, “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. I could go on and on.

If you didn’t write poetry, how do you think you might access the same fulfillments that poetry offers in your life? 

I loved to draw as a child. Now as an adult I reconnect to this love by visiting art galleries—the stimulation creation brings, much like a poem, the absorption into another world where the real/unreal meet. Engaging with art in a more active way would offer me some kind of fulfillment. And if I had a musical voice I would sing too. 

What are you working on now? 

I recently finished my second novel The Most Cunning Heart. It appears this May with Palimpsest Press. My next poetry book, Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We’re Dead, appears Spring 2023 with Wolsak and Wynn / Buckrider Books. I’m working on poems from that collection at the moment. I’m also teaching creative writing at the University of Toronto SCS, leading the Toronto International Festival of Authors’ Virtual Book Club, mentoring creative writing students and co-hosting The Hummingbird Podcast with Jessica Outram. 

How or where or with what does a poem begin? 

A poem begins with a stirring—through image, voice, word, music, emotion. Sometimes a combination of these things. And when I haven’t written in a while due to outside commitments a prickly urge grows inside me, an irritability that signals: make time to write, your body and mind need it.

How do you make space for poetry in your daily routine? 

Mornings work best for me. I find my mind is closer to the dream world then too. 

Have you ever received advice (or has there been something you’ve learned on your own) about writing or revising poems that has made you a better poet? What was it? 

One of the gifts of being a creative writing teacher is the relationship you build with your students. They bring things out of you, a knowing you didn’t know you had until the moment arises to verbalize something to help them further their understanding of poetic process. 

Recently one of my University of Toronto SCS students kindly sent me a list of what she called Catherine-isms—things I said during class. Here are a few: The poem has its own agency. Even misunderstandings can be valuable. Cut words and open up the mystery. Allow the strangeness.

I am grateful that my knowledge arises when needed as I continue to learn the art and craft of writing poetry.

In terms of poetic style or craft, is there a big question you are trying to find an answer for?

I can answer this question in a different way. Instead of finding an answer I try to follow the answer. It’s the mystery that inspires me—where the knowing/not knowing meet and hover. A poem takes us closer to mystery. It heightens our understanding and appreciation of the complexities in life through glimpses and shivers, the almost reach. 

Poems don’t want to be pinned down, much like the butterfly or any winged creature. They need our eyes, voices and hearts to bring them to life. 

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