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Poetry Cure: The Celery Forest by Catherine Graham
In today’s poetry cure, we talk with Catherine Graham about the cancer-healing story that bookends her collection The Celery Forest (Wolsak & Wynn), the story behind the illustration on its cover, and what she’d use her powers for, if she had them (hint: definitely for good). Keep scrolling to read “Fireflies” from the collection, too.
An Interview with CatherineAll Lit Up: Tell Us About Your Collection.Catherine Graham: My sixth poetry collection The Celery Forest explores the topsy-turvy world one enters when given an unexpected health diagnosis. Just as my fifth poetry collection Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings ofInsects was going to print I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The red hair in the title refers to my mother. I received the diagnosis the exact age she was when she died from the disease. This connection was both unsettling and strangely comforting. Through dreams and memories she accompanied me during my cancer journey. Experiencing what she went through so many years ago brought me closer to her. It gave me strength.I had no plans to write about the illness. My partner John and I were out for Nuit Blanche, the annual all-night citywide art celebration, and we found ourselves in 401 Richmond where resident galleries were hosting events. We were at the beginning of the cancer journey then and dealing with the stress of unknowns.At the Abbozzo Gallery I was captivated by one of the displayed works, 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 now hangs in our bedroom.Who is the girl in the red dress and why is she holding an owl? Or is the owl holding her? This exploration grew into the poem “Cancer in the Celery Forest.” It sparked the journey of the manuscript which eventually became the finished book.Four years later as The Celery Forest was going to print, my oncologist released me from his care. I’d come full circle both as poet and cancer patient. ALU: Do you read poetry as a self-care technique? What books in particular have helped you?CG: I couldn’t live without poetry. Reading, writing and teaching it are essential to my well-being. Poetry helps me make sense of my inner life, grounds my emotions, fills me with wonder and purpose, and strengthens my imagination. I’m grateful that I can share this passion in the classroom at the various institutions where I teach at: University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, Haliburton School of Art and Design, and other venues.It was through loss that I found poetry or perhaps poetry found me. I was studying psychology as an undergraduate at McMaster University when I lost my parents. My mother died Christmas day of my first year, my father in September of my last. As a shy introvert I kept things inside. To help me cope with the overwhelming grief a therapist suggested I keep a journal. Writing things down allowed me to frame and understand the wild range of emotions that accompany bereavement. Though it wasn’t a cure, it helped me move forward.One day I started playing with the words: images, phrases, memories of my parents, and the water-filled quarry I grew up beside. I was so absorbed with the activity I entered time and time went away. This was different from letting things out on the page. I was energized and excited by the experience. I worked up the courage to share some of these word creations with a family friend and she told me I was writing poetry. Until that moment I had no idea. This awareness changed my life. Since then poetry has been my creative centre.The word “quarry” derives from the Latin cor: “heart.” It’s the central image of all my writing and the title of my debut novel. A quarry is a man-made landscape that’s blasted into being to become something else, much like how grief blasts a hole into us, an absence we’re forced to cope with. An altered landscape, we are never the same.I was completing an M.A. in creative writing in poetry while living in Northern Ireland and certain poets and poetry books were crucial to my development as a fledgling poet. They were important then and that impact continues: Elizabeth Bishop’s The Complete Poems 1927-1979, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, Seamus Heaney’s Death of a Naturalist, Michael Longley’s Gorse Fires, Sharon Olds’ The Sign of Saturn, Paula Meehan’s The Man Who Was Marked by Winter, and Louise Glück’s The Wild Iris. I could go on and on …ALU: What’s the best piece of advice anyone has given you about writing, or life?CG: The best piece of advice I’ve received came from my mother. She excelled at racquet sports, especially tennis. Our shelves were stacked with gold trophies, tiny figures frozen in mid-serve. To beat an opponent she had to keep her eye on the ball. I think about this while writing: keep your eye on the ball (the page) and aim for the sweet spot (best words in the best order). ALU: If you had one superpower, what would it be?My superpower would be to travel back in time to when my parents were still alive but with the knowledge I have now so I could ask them all the questions I didn’t know to ask back then. I was barely out of my teens when they died, so although I knew them as parents, I never got to know them as people, the fascinating and mysterious individuals they were.To have one more day with them: heartbreaking magic.