After addiction claimed the life of her spouse in 2010, poet Catherine Owen packed up and moved into an apartment on Vancouver's Fraser River. During her morning walks along the shore, she found in its murky, ever-flowing body an unexpected path to healing.
The experience is detailed in her newest book, Riven (ECW), a collection of "dawn poems" tracking her journey of grief and metamorphosis. A study on the ravaging effects of time and neglect on both man and environment, Riven is also a celebration of resilience and rebirth in the wake of tragedy.
We're very excited to have Catherine at Open Book today, where she discusses how reading Tennyson as a child led to an early love of poetry, why trusting in the Muse is essential, and a certain "thread of anxiety" she's noticed among the Canadian poetry community.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
I was a fortunate child in that I was gifted with the Illustrated Poems for Children anthology when I was three and the initial poem was Tennyson’s “The Eagle”. Its two triplet stanzas affected me instantly with triadic rhymes, energetic bombast, the beat of language, and its evocation of fierce nature. I was irredeemable from that point on.
What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?
As a huge proponent of the Muse (by this meaning a mysterious source of language, music and obsession that finds you and doesn’t let you go until it is done with you), I have been ravaged by bridges, living men, dead female photographers, the Langue d’Oc trobairitzes, deceased male artists, ancient Persian forms, and now, a 1905 house. But I’d have to say the unlikeliest source of poems came from the berm behind my home in Edmonton when I lived there from 06 to 09. A mere tract of dirt that divided the suburb from the highway, it served as a locus of poetry in its role as passageway, nexus, alien landscape, thread of loss. I have often found the Muse, whether human or not, has an emptiness at its core that begins a channel, usually somewhat inexplicable, and you don’t question; you just make poems.
Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?
Every book is different. Some, like Dear Ghost (Buckrider Books, 2017), were assembled over years, singular pieces eventually finding themselves in sequences and the whole collection strung together more by its lunacies, eavesdropping, and humour than anything thematic. The one I’m working on now, “Moving to Delilah”, is a hope of a collection based on poems written about my home in Edmonton, built in 1905. But one never knows. Usually, manuscripts metamorphose many times along the way. A source seizes up, or what you thought might be a whole book is only now a sequence or is discarded, and what you imagined could be a few love poems becomes a monster of adoration you should likely burn.
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What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
I read a ton of poetry, both to review and for its joys and intrigues. I am constantly sock-knocked by John Ashbery. But I would say being recently sent a copy of JH Prynne’s The White Stones from 1968 was a rupturous experience of weird and erudite haunting. I’m always anticipating my next kapow to the heart.
How would you describe the poetry community in Canada? What strengths and weaknesses do you observe within the community?
I truly don’t want to say we are a fearful community, but I think there is a dangerous thread of anxiety that runs through the poetry world. This is mostly relating to the clinging to degrees, awards, and other “gold star shortcuts” we seek to define us in the constantly shifting pseudo-canonizing that goes on, which I find indubitably damaging to why we write in the first place. Sure, we all want to be published and get our work out there, but the core is the creating and I find this central ache often becomes submerged in “what happens after” and how this enacts us as “poet” in the community. I feel increasingly bored by all the dashing after this and that assurance, and by the homogenizing force of the university system on our art. Our strengths are grounded in how we can feel at home in particular regional communities, and take this sense of place, in our ecologically threatened times, into urban areas to expand definitions of citizenship, the future, and so forth. How we are now exploring more senses of form again. We need to root in these musics and not in the extraneous blah blah that seeks to lift a politically correct name out of the crowd for a moment, then, mostly, indifferently, ditch it. Poetry has nothing to do with anything but composing aural scores for existence.
Catherine Owen was raised in Vancouver and lives in Edmonton. She has published 15 collections of poetry and prose. Dear Ghost was nominated for the Pat Lowther Award and won the Alcuin Prize. Locations of Grief, her memoir anthology, is also forthcoming.