Author & Mentor: An Interview with Catherine Graham
Catherine Graham is the author of Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects and four previous poetry collections. Her poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies around the world. Graham teaches creative writing in the classroom and online. She recently received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto. Visit http://www.catherinegraham.com/.
Q: You mentor writers in the classroom and privately through online sessions. What advice can you offer aspiring writers?
A: If poetry is important to you then make the time for it. Read as much poetry as you can – different styles, time periods, nationalities – and pay attention to which poems make you feel, as Emily Dickinson so vividly put it, as if the top of my head were taken off. Listen to your intuition to help hone your aesthetic. And if a poem doesn’t work for you, consider why you don’t like it. Then write many, many poems without thinking about publication. Poetry is both an art form and a craft. You need to put the hours in to learn the mechanics: metaphor, simile, line breaks, assonance, alliteration, allusion, symbol, and so on. Wanting to be a poet is not enough.
Q: When did you start writing, creatively? What advice did you receive from your first mentors that you still follow today?
A: I started writing creatively in my mid to late twenties. I came to poetry through grief. I lost both of my parents during my undergraduate years at McMaster University – my mother during my first year, my father during my last year. A therapist I was seeing at the time suggested that I keep a journal to “let my feelings out” and while writing, I began playing with words and images. Without really knowing it, I was writing poems. Once I realized what I was doing, I wanted to know more about poetry – how it was done, who was doing it. Thus began my journey as a poet. Since that realization, I haven’t stopped reading and writing poetry. It has been the creative centre of my life.
My first creative writing instructor was Barbara Gowdy at the University of Toronto (where I now teach). One of the things she told us during that class has never left me: your subject matter chooses you. I have always found this to be true.
Q: You’ve just published a new book of poetry, Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, with Wolsak & Wynn. It is in memory of Dorothy Molloy and P.K. Page and is a bit of a departure from your earlier books of poetry: Winterkill; The Red Element; Pupa; and The Watch. Can you speak to the dedication to poets Molloy and Page and the new direction?
A: Both of these poets were integral to the creation of my fifth collection, Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects. P.K. Page for her work with a form called the glosa and Dorothy Molloy for her words (the lines that formed the backbone of each glosa, the cabeza). There was no initial plan to write a series of glosas, but when I pulled Molloy’s second posthumous book, Gethsemane Day, off my study shelf, it unleashed a torrent of poems.
It was during the revision process, however, that it felt like the form was getting in the way. So I began to let go of the initial structure to let the poems emerge organically. I am indebted to the work of P.K. Page and Dorothy Molloy, my two spirit mentors. The book is my tribute to them.
Interviewer: Heidi Stock
Heidi Stock is Founder of the Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest, http://www.aspiringpoetscontest.org/, for which Catherine Graham was the Inaugural Judge & Mentor. Aspiring Canadian Writers Contests is currently running the 2014 Singer-Songwriter Mentor Experience, http://www.songwritermentorexperience.org/, accepting entries from unsigned singer-songwriters until December 22.