canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Catherine Graham

After years of living and studying creative writing in Northern Ireland, Catherine Graham has returned to her native Ontario to publish her first collection of poetry. The collection entitled Pupa follows her recently published chapbook The Watch. Catherineís poetry has been broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster and included in The White Page/An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets. Catherine teaches writing at McMaster University and communications at Sheridan College. She also puts her creative talents in to running a problem-solving workshop called Words@work. 

TDRís poetry reviews editor Erin Gouthro chats via email with Catherine about Pupa in fall 2003. More information:

TDR has twice published Catherine's poetry: Snails & Trilobites and Doll-Soul.

Pupa Ė as suggested by the title Ė is a collection of poems about personal growth and transcendence. Does this work parallel your own growth as a poet and a person?

Absolutely. The poems are intensely personal and the book carries within it the theme of transformation. From childhood to adolescence, adolescence to adulthood, the stages of grief and falling in and out of love - life changes and how they transform you. The butterfly theme is not coincidental. I realize pupa isnít a subtle metaphor, but after choosing and discarding several working titles, my editor Paul Vermeersch suggested it. Pupa is also the Latin word for doll, and the collection includes a series of doll poems. Paul wasnít aware of the Latin connection, but as soon as I shared this with him we both knew the word pupa captured the spirit of the book.

Many of the poems within the first section entitled "Larva" deal with the experiences of loss, in particular the loss of your parents. How does this work expand on your chapbook The Watch, where you also explore this loss?

Many of the poems from The Watch or versions of them, reappear in the "Larva" section. And yes, these poems deal with my attempts to come to terms with the deaths of my parents. My mother died of cancer Christmas Day when I was a first year student at McMaster University and then during my thesis year, my father died in a late night car accident. I was devastated. As an only child my family unit was no more. The experience of losing my parents however, began to act as a tender catalyst Ė it opened the door to poetry. This happened intuitively, independent of mentor or guide. Something was pulling me in a creative direction. As simple as it sounds, one day I picked up a pen and started writing, playing with words, rhythm and language. This act immediately took me to a lighter meditative space, one away from the heavy bricks of grief. By sculpting my feelings, images and experiences into words, I was able to distance myself emotionally and channel those intense emotions. If my parents hadnít died, I often wonder if I would have become a poet.

How has your experience of living in Northern Ireland and participating in the literary culture of Ireland shaped you as a writer? What role did this experience play in shaping this collection?

The experience of living in Northern Ireland shaped my writing enormously. Being in a new land was really important to me as a developing poet. It somehow made it easier for me to write about death. In a strange way it allowed me to escape from the reality of it. Although it was true Ė my parents were dead Ė living outside of Canada and writing about them, it was as if a different Ďmeí was coming to the forefront. Living abroad forces you to become a different version of yourself; you almost have to take on a new identity. You become helpless Ė you donít know the landscape, the cultural rules, the overall map, youíre Ďblindí so to speak, so youíre dealing with things at a close-up level. You are missing the big picture. Even though the language was English, it was new in terms of dialect, vocabulary, expressions, etc. So youíre taking all of this in and as a poet you have this antenna, you are receiving and processing all of these different stimuli in a creative way. Youíre not dealing with familiar sights, sounds and smells to trigger a certain memory so youíd think it would be more challenging to write about the past. But the absence of the familiar becomes liberating - your emotions, memories and images distil. Things come up to the surface and the other bits melt away. In absence of reminders what comes up? A lot. One poem after another. First poems about my mother (as she died first) and then my father. I had no idea this would happen but once this process started, there was so much material to explore. Many of these poems were published in The Watch. It seemed fitting to include versions of them in my first book.

The literary culture in Northern Ireland and Ireland is vast and rich. Literary festivals, conferences, summer schools, the Irish know their poets, the living and the dead. I remember meeting up with the poet Brendan Kennelly in a Dublin teashop before the launch of his collection The Singing Tree. On the wall was a plaque engraved with "Kennellyís Corner" in honour of his frequent visits. After leaving the teashop to walk across the street to the bookstore Waterstones, people came running up to Kennelly asking for autographs. One woman said, "I donít have any paper. Here, would you sign my napkin?"

I am thankful to have gone through my formative years as a poet in such an amazing environment. An environment where poetry is encouraged, understood and widely appreciated. Itís a little bit like going to Venice to learn the art of glass blowing.

Shortly after The Watch was published I received a letter from the poet/editor Joan McBreen. She wanted to include me in The White Page/An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets. As a Canadian poet living in Northern Ireland, I was honoured to be included with so many writers I admire - Eavan Boland, Medbh McGuckian, Paula Meehan and Iris Murdoch.

As for the role this experience played in shaping Pupa, to write about losing my parents I had to leave home. To write about Northern Ireland I had to come home.

The poems throughout Pupa tend to be quite short and written with great economy. The technique is effective in giving the reader great space to wander around. It seems the poetry is not only in the written word, but also in what is not written. Did you purposely set out to write shorter poems?

Iím delighted that my poems give the reader this wandering freedom. As a poet and as a reader of poetry, my taste tends to lean towards poems that are short. I find it aesthetically pleasing when a poem fits on one page. In my opinion, poetry is about the economical use of language, getting the most impact with the fewest of carefully chosen words.

Once the poem is published and given to new eyes that poem is no longer mine, it belongs to the reader. We all know the expression Ďreading between the linesí. I trust my reader will be able to do this - will want to do this. As a poet my job is to guide the reader into the space I have createdóI like to think of words as signposts and I strongly believe silence has its own energy. It may be beautiful and engaging, it may be disturbing and nasty. I want the readerís energy to mix with the energy behind the words and the silence.

You use rhyme and word wordplay to create levity Ė it feels almost as if you are playing with the reader. For example in the poem "Paper Dolls"Ö

Mute paper cut-outs
birthed from books.

Envious wardrobe
fastened by hooks.

Teeny torso.
Side-view sick.

Torn. Tattered. Tatooed. Trick.

When Iím writing a poem, Iím honestly not thinking about the reader. Iím concentrating on the creative act. What Iím doing is responding to the Ďpoemí that is developing before my eyes. Iím trying to make it what it wants to be, like the way a sculptor chisels away at stone to uncover the hidden figure. Because I am attracted to wordplay, I think it appears naturally in my work. Itís pretty much an unconscious process. When I revise I uncover these humorous layers. I tend to think too much levity leads to tastelessness. Thatís where balance comes in. Good poetry walks that razorís edge between comedy/tragedy, understanding/ambiguity. The yin and the yang.

In titling the second section "pupa", which is also the name of the collection, you have written a series of poems about dolls. This is curious. Particularly, since the first and the third sections are more about documenting personal experiences. What is the fascination with dolls? Why are they important to you creatively?

Years ago, before I left for Northern Ireland, I took a creative writing course with Barbara Gowdy. During her class, I became aware of how your subject matter chooses you. While the subject of grief stays with me still, following the completion of The Watch I found myself becoming very intrigued by the subject of dolls. One doll poem followed anotherÖ Clearly, another subject matter had chosen me. Like so many children, dolls played an enormous role when I was growing up. Dolls become receptors. They are there for us when we skin a knee, overhear our parents fighting, or are called a nasty name. Itís as if they share in these childhood hurts. They arenít trying to break away; itís the child that eventually does the breaking (à la Velveteen Rabbit). Until that breakaway happens, the doll is constant.

Idris Parry once said, "Dolls, those emissaries between dead and living bodies." Dolls seemed a natural subject to follow after grief and it ties in with the theme of transformation. Through poetry I am able, creatively, to give them a voice.

You also experiment with both rhyme and poetic form. In the poem "Japanese Doll Festival Haikus" you use haiku. How important is poetic form to you as a writer?

In my writing, strict poetic form doesnít normally enter into my work. The number of poems Iíve written in a pre-set form is extremely limited, aside from some haikus and one sestina ("The Sweater" from The Watch). However, I love reading formal poetry: terza rima, ghazal, villanelle and the sonnet.

I do like to experiment with rhyme and half rhyme. Living in Northern Ireland had a tremendous impact on me. The Ulster poets, Paul Muldoon, Seamus Heaney, Derek Mahon and Michael Longley are all rhyming masters. They make it look effortless and of course itís not. These poets take rhyme and half rhyme to the highest level.

Pupa seems a very complete work Ė you have clearly come full circle working through the experiences of grief and loss, reconciling childhood, working through experiences as an adult. Whatís next?

Currently, I am doing a lot of readings to promote the book. Iím also making time between teaching assignments to facilitate my Words@work workshops for clients in the business community. This summer Iím looking forward to teaching a creative writing course at Centauri Arts. In the meantime, Iím also writing more poetry and a series of short prose pieces that may stitch together to form a novel. Either way, I hope to publish my second book within a few years.

Erin Gouthro is the poetry reviews editor for The Danforth Review. She lives at the edge of the world (or outside the GTA), with her husband, a cat, and a border-collie. Erin is currently attending journalism school at Ryerson University.






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