Writer’s Block: Catherine Graham

We interview award-winning author Catherine Graham about what led her to writing and about her most rewarding experience of being a writer. Check out Graham’s latest release, Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We’re Dead(Wolsak & Wynn).


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Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We’re Dead: New and Selected Poems.

Is there one stand-out moment or experience you had that helped you realize you wanted to become a writer?Grief led me to writing. My parents died during my undergraduate years—my mother to cancer during my first year at McMaster, my father in my last year. Alone and consumed with grief, a worried friend urged me to seek therapy. The therapist suggested I keep a journal to write out what I was feeling. Journaling one day, while thinking about the water-filled limestone quarry I grew up beside, I started playing with words—images, rhythms and silence. When I stopped writing, I knew something transformative had happened. I wasn’t just venting or getting things out, I was energized by the experience. I worked up the courage to share what I’d written with the same friend and she told me I’d written poetry. At first it didn’t seem possible. The poetry I remembered from English class had all been written long ago by bearded men, not young women steeped in grief. But after this encounter, I knew I wanted to learn all I could about the art and craft of writing poetry. This journey took me to Northern Ireland, where I completed an M.A. in creative writing. I can’t imagine life without poetry.Which writers have influenced you or had the most impact on your own writing?
Many come to mind but I will say Elizabeth Bishop. My love for Bishop began with her stunning poem “One Art.” I first encountered it on a piece of paper resting on a chair at Harbourfront. I was about to take my seat for a lecture by one of Bishop’s biographers. I found the poem intensely profound. Here was a voice that knew loss—from the smallest to the largest. And those bracketed words in the last line (Write it!), that life-affirming exclamation point, said yes to me. I was honoured
to share my love of Bishop on CBC’s The Next Chapter with Shelagh Rogers.
Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times? A book I go back to is Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. “Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.” During some of those dark, early days as a budding writer, these words provided light, hope and reassurance. Going inward is always what matters most to me. I co-host The Hummingbird Podcast with Jessica Outram and in our last episode of Season 4 (to be posted in June) we share our passion for Letters to a Young Poet.Do you have any rituals that you abide by when you’re writing?I do. At night, I keep a notebook sitting on my bedside table. When lines of poetry appear in my dreams—visual and/or auditory—I write them down in my half-asleep state. Come morning I hope I’m able to decipher my nocturnal scribbles. Later while writing, I see if I’m able to follow them into a poem. The title of my latest book, the new and selected—Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We’re Dead—came from one of these dreamlines.
What’s the most surprising thing about being a writer?The more tools you add to your tool box, the more unknowing slips in. Oh, and the poem knows more than you do.What was your most rewarding moment as a writer? There are many moments that stand out: from seeing one of my first poems “Black Kettles” appear in The Fiddlehead while I was living in Northern Ireland; to holding my first book Pupa; and most recently, having 20 years of poetry plus new work published in Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We’re Dead: New and Selected Poems. But alongside the joy and gratitude that surface with each rewarding moment, there is bittersweetness because my parents are not here to share it with me. They never saw me become a writer. During a recent CBC Radio interview when I spoke about poetry, being a judge for the CBC Poetry Prize and my new and selected, Kelowna afternoon host Sarah Penton asked me: “What would your Mom and Dad think about the work you are doing and the journey you are on now with poetry?” No one had asked me that before. I could feel tears welling up. An avid CBC radio listener, my father would be proud. Heck, he’d be jumping up and down hearing his daughter’s voice on the airwaves. And my mother, in her strong, quiet way, would smile.Why do you write?To help me make sense of my life. To connect to myself and others, including the dead. To hover in the liminal—where the real and the imagined meet. To be. To breathe. 

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Catherine Graham is an award-winning poet, novelist and creative writing instructor based in Toronto. Her eighth book, Æther: An Out-of-Body Lyric, was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award, Toronto Book Award, and won the Fred Kerner Book Award. The Celery Forest was named a CBC Best Book of the Year and was a finalist for the Fred Cogswell Award for Poetry. Her debut novel Quarry won The Miramichi Reader Award for Best Fiction, an IPPY Gold Medal for Fiction and was a finalist for the Sarton Women’s Book Award and Fred Kerner Book Award. The Most Cunning Heart is included in The Miramichi Reader’s Best Fiction Book of the Year list. She teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto where she won an Excellence in Teaching Award, leads the Toronto International Festival of Authors’ Book Club, co-hosts The Hummingbird Podcast—part of the WNED PBS Amplify app, and is a judge for the CBC Poetry Prize. Put Flowers Around Us and Pretend We’re Dead: New and Selected Poems is her latest book. Visit her online at www.catherinegraham.com and @catgrahampoem