Friday, November 12, 2010


The conventional take on poets is that their principal enterprise is to trade in personal feeling, something that took on a deeper, some would say too close and lugubrious cast in the poetry that followed Lowell and Bishop. This week I asked Toronto poet Catherine Graham about the personal pitch she strikes in a poem about her father.

The Watch

Six foot three, basking in tawny heat,
sunk in his lounger, spring to September.
His face bakes like earth.
Chest hairs slice the sweat beads.
The black leather watch (he never forgot
to unstrap) ticks beside his ghetto blaster.
Cobalt eyes, silver thick hair, dentured smile,
arms folded under the crest of his chest,
he poses for fall's final mould.


Later, after the black skid, spin and deep
tip of the freshly polished blue Caddy;
after the crunch of skull on the dashboard;
even after the front page photo and headline:
my father's watch, still ticking,
unzipped from the O.P.P.'s plastic.
No cracks, glass smooth to touch.
Dry mud flakes sprinkle like ashes
on to my opening hand.

The poem is obviously a very personal poem, which raises the question: How personal should our poems be? Can you talk a little about what the process was like for you writing this poem?

“The Watch” was originally two poems about my father. I was living in Northern Ireland at the time, completing an MA in creative writing in poetry, when I realized the two poems were stronger as one: “watch” as verb and “watch” as noun. The “I” in the poem, the daughter, is watching her father sunbathe. The pose of a sunbather is the pose of death, the coffin stance, arms folded under the crest of his chest, / he poses for fall’s final mould. And his face bakes like earth is the body, the flesh and blood, returning to earth, the elements. And yet this body is very much alive, producing water –sweat –as opposed to a dead body, a stiff dry corpse. I wanted certain details to bring this resting image to life— chest hairs slice the sweat beads— a somewhat violent image (though understated) to hint/connect to the poem’s foreboding nature.

My father loved to suntan and worked hard to get the “George Hamilton” look. He was virtually guaranteed this look as he used QT (Quick Tan) to become a bronze Adonis. Yet my father wasn’t six foot three. He was six foot six. But in my mind six foot three, basking in tawny heat made for a stronger lyrical line than six foot six, basking in tawny heat so sound overruled fact.

The detail “dentured smile” is based on fact. I’ve since discovered this particular word often leads readers to believe that the father in “The Watch” is a much older man, more like a grandfather. My father was fifty seven when he died. He didn’t have his teeth anymore and hadn’t since his mid-twenties. Not until I shared this poem with high school students in Northern Ireland did I realize how this would affect the reading of the poem, connecting the image to a much older man.

The asterisk works as a bridge between then and now, before and after –what death does—and like the chest hairs slicing the sweat beads there’s no going back.
My father died in a late night car accident the last year of my undergraduate degree at McMaster University. His “polished blue Caddy” swerved and tipped and landed in the ditch while I was in bed fast asleep, home for the weekend. A three a.m. knock on my bedroom door became the sound that would change my life. I opened that door and the police officer standing there told me what had happened.

A few days later that same police officer returned to our house with a Ziploc bag. It contained my father’s watch. I couldn’t believe it was still ticking. I remember thinking of that Timex commercial – it takes a licking but keeps on ticking – so I guess my grieving mind had room for black humour.

How personal should poems be? I don’t think “should” has to come into it. Every poet has their own unique journey – what they write, why they write, how they write. In my case, death served as a catalyst to the creative life. I’d recently lost my mother. She died of cancer on Christmas Day during my first year as an undergraduate at McMaster University, so my grieving doubled when my father died.

I was not a child who grew up knowing she wanted to be a writer. A therapist I was seeing after my father’s death suggested I keep a journal to help me deal with the overwhelming grief. I started to write about my life, my parents’ lives, my feelings, and this journal writing gradually turned into little poems. After making this profound connection –yes, you are writing poems – I haven’t stopped writing poetry, reading poetry, teaching poetry. Poetry is my lifeline.

As mentioned earlier, this poem was written in Northern Ireland. Writing about loss and grief in another country, one far away from the familiars of home, helped free my creativity. Time away in a new place distilled memory and emotion enabling me to craft personal poems like “The Watch” which ends: Dry mud-flakes sprinkle like ashes / onto my opening hand, that “opening hand” the small hope of promise.

This poem, like others you’ve written, unfolds in a spare, almost perfunctory or phlegmatic manner. Is this a deliberate strategy on your part, i.e. as a way of withholding information from the reader? If that is so, why?

Many years ago I took a writing course with Barbara Gowdy at the University Of Toronto School Of Continuing Studies where I now teach. One of the things Barbara said that has stuck with me through the years was that your subject matter chooses you. I think this is also true of style. Your style chooses you—your word rhythms and word choices and line lengths. What feels right? What doesn’t feel right? All choices, intuitive or deliberate, help a writer find and connect with their unique voice.

I’m quiet by nature like my mother (my father was the talker in the family) and like my mother I enjoy listening. I’m comfortable with silence and love to spend time on my own. Perhaps this is the result of growing up as an only child. Using spare language doesn’t feel like a deliberate strategy, it feels like home to me.

The “almost perfunctory or phlegmatic manner” you make note of in my work is, upon reflection, a way of avoiding sentimentality. I don’t think I realized this at the time of writing these first poems— poems about a daughter’s attempts to come to terms with the deaths of both parents – which then became the poems in my first collection The Watch (published in Northern Ireland) and Pupa here in Canada. Incidentally Pupa is also the beginning of a trilogy. In addition to Pupa there’s The Red Element and most recently Winterkill, all published with Insomniac Press.

I remember reading a great quote by Chekhov: The more objective you are, the stronger will be the impression you make. By giving the cold hard facts you let the reader decide how to “feel”. A bit like the classic creative-writing nugget “show, don’t tell”. There’s great power in this advice, I think, especially when the subject matter – death/grief– is so loaded with emotion.

You mention withholding information. Again I believe less is more. As a reader I’m comfortable with filling in the spaces left by the writer, becoming involved with the white space of the text, so I guess it makes sense that I would do this as a writer. I enjoy ambiguity and playing around with “what if”.

Who are your principal influences? Am I wrong in hearing Emily Dickinson’s influence on your poems, in particular your selection of images, rhythm etc.?

I’m wary of the word “influences”. I think the best way to answer this question is to share some of my reading journey while I was living in Northern Ireland and writing my first poems. Such poets included Northern Irish poets like Heaney, MacNeice and Muldoon and Irish poets like Yeats and Kavanagh. UK poets too –Hughes, Duffy and Selima Hill, plus European poets living in America like Brodsky and Milosz. American poets included Frost, Plath, Stevens, Bishop and yes, Dickinson. I love the miniature aspect of her work for I loved miniatures as a child – tiny dolls and doll houses, little figurines. For awhile I even collected miniature furniture. Tiny things appeal to me so I guess that’s part of my poetic aesthetic which is why Dickinson also appeals. And her love of nature, for I too love the outdoors and grew up beside a water-filled limestone quarry, kind of like a big blue secret as most of the locals didn’t even know it was there, a little lake hidden from view in the woods.

I lost the quarry when I lost my parents, but like an underground spring the quarry has fed my imagination. It’s part of each book in the Insomniac trilogy.

Now the quarry is my imagination. Paul Vermeersch, poetry editor of Insomniac Press, recently pointed this out to me. A comforting thought that the quarry lives inside me. I thank Paul for this healing insight.

Catherine Graham is the author of four poetry collections: The Watch, Pupa, The Red Element and Winterkill. Vice President of Project Bookmark Canada and Marketing Coordinator for the Rowers Pub Reading Series, she teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Her work has appeared in such literary journals as The New Quarterly, Descant, The Fiddlehead, The Literary Review of Canada, Web del Sol, Poetry Ireland Review, anthologized in The White Page / An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets and showcased in Poetry is Public is Poetry and Nuit Blanche Words Travel Fast.


Sheila Stewart said...

Thank you, David, for this discussion with Catherine Graham. I'm very interested in Catherine's sparse style and feel gripped by it. Her work is a complex exploration of grief, which this conversation helps to illuminate.

David Godkin said...

Thanks, Sheila. Glad you liked it. Getting some nice off-line comments, too.


Anonymous said...

Excellent interview!

daniela elza said...

thanks for the interview, David. I love these intimate conversations.

David Godkin said...

You're welcome, Daniela. Yes, it's fascinating to follow the inner workings of a poet...and humbling.



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