Writer in Residence

Onwards, to poetic noir

By Lisa de Nikolits



This evening we move from noir horror to poetic noir and we are chatting with tremendously talented Catherine Graham. Catherine is Winner of IFOA’s Poetry NOW, the author of six poetry collections including The Celery Forest and Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award and CAA Award for Poetry. Her work is anthologized in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, Vol IV & V and The White Page/An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets, and has appeared in Poetry Daily, The Fiddlehead, Poetry Ireland Review, CBC Books and more.Author of the debut novel Quarry, she teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto SCS where she won an Excellence in Teaching Award and at Humber’s Creative Book Publishing Program. 

Welcome, Catherine! You are having such a great year! A novel, Quarry, and a new collection of poetry, The Celery Forest, both so extremely well-received. This year must have felt like a whirlwind for you!

LdN: The first question I’d like to ask is how the experience of writing, publishing (and promoting) a novel has differed from that of writing, publishing and promoting a collection of poetry?

CG: Thank you, Lisa for your kind words and for your interest in my work. To answer your question it has been both similar and different with regards to publishing a novel versus a poetry collection. Having my work move from private to public realm is always exciting and unsettling no matter the genre. One of the differences I’ve found with publishing a novel is that more people seem to be more interested in reading it, including family and friends. This makes the experience somewhat unnerving. Quarry is fiction but it holds autobiographical elements. For example, I did live beside a water-filled limestone quarry. This past summer I was reading in the UK at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival along with other venues in London and Manchester and I came across a display at Waterstones labelled Autofiction. I think that category is quite apt for Quarry.

I’m grateful for all the attention my poetry collections have had. It’s been a slow and steady process. Quarry is only a few months old and already it’s received positive reviews in the Toronto Star, Hamilton Spectator, Owen Sound Sun Times and Hamilton Review of Books plus Amazon and Goodreads. Readers are connecting to the story of Caitlin Maharg. That’s a gratifying experience. It’s been great working with two fabulous editors for both genres—Alexandra Leggat for the novel and Paul Vermeersch for my poetry.

LdN: I’m interested in what I’m calling your poetic or literary noir and by noir in this instance, I mean your unflinching courage at exploring themes of death, cancer and loss, in both your novel and poetry. Would you say it’s cathartic or healing to write about these things, or is that beside the point? Is the point simply to write about them, regardless?

 It is somewhat cathartic and healing writing about these subjects but it’s also more than that. I had no plans to be a writer. It was only after losing both of my parents at a tender age—on the cusp of adulthood—that writing found me. I was extremely shy and introverted and overwhelmed by the weight of grief. The counsellor I was seeing at the time suggested that I keep a journal to write out my feelings. So I did. Writing was helpful, a kind of release, but then I began playing with words—images and memories of my parents. This was an energizing experience and it took me away from grief despite, ironically, the subject matter. Eventually writing became my way of working through things—processing hard emotions, distilling loss by shaping it into art. I was able to keep the memory of my parents alive through the written word. It was a way of trapping time. The water-filled limestone quarry I grew up beside has become the central metaphor for my work and my parents continue to be a source of inspiration.

LdN: There is so much powerful imagery in your poetry. The images speak to me so vividly but I’m sure I’m projecting my own meaning into them. I’m interested to hear what your thoughts were, as you were writing the poems – what made these particular images important and relevant to you?

CG: Thank you for the compliment. I’m delighted to hear that the images speak so vividly to you and that you’re projecting your own meaning into them. Once the poem is published it isn’t mine anymore. The images are there for the reader to encounter. My hope is that if they impacted me, they will impact the reader.

I truly believe in the unconscious when it comes to imagery. I pay attention to my dreams and intuitions and make note of any synchronicities. I try to make a conscious effort to connect with the sensory world around me and write observations down in my notebook. I love the imagery I experience through nature and art. It feeds my inner world. 

LdN: What does the celery forest symbolize and where did the idea of cancer as a celery forest come from?

CG: The celery forest is based on a piece of artwork by Cora Brittan. Just as my last book Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects was going to print I was diagnosed with breast cancer. (It’s my mother’s red hair that the title refers to.) I happened to be the exact age she was when she died from the disease. This coincidence was both unsettling and comforting. I was going through what she went through so many years ago. She accompanied me during my cancer journey, in my dreams and inner life. It brought us closer.

One evening I was out with my partner for Nuit Blanche and we wandered into the 401 Richmond building. We were at the beginning of the cancer journey at that point and dealing with so many unknowns. I was fatigued and ready to go home but we headed into the Abbozzo Gallery. Immediately I gravitated towards the back, to a painting called “With an owl in a celery forest.”  I couldn’t stop staring at it. It was tiny and magical and eerie and the glistening image of a girl in a red dress holding an owl while standing at the entryway of a giant shimmering celery forest enchanted me. I was about to turn away from it when my partner came by with the owner and surprised me by putting a red dot next to the mixed media piece. “With an owl in a celery forest” now hangs in our bedroom. It’s the first image I see before falling asleep and after waking up.

One day I started playing with the phrase ‘the celery forest’. What would that place be? Who is the girl in the red dress holding the owl in her open hand? Or is the owl holding her? What kind of owl is it? (Turns out it’s a saw-whet owl.) Out of this playing came my first poem, “Cancer in the Celery Forest”. This kicked off the journey of the manuscript.

When you are given an unexpected health diagnosis the world as you know it turns topsy-turvy. Big is small and small is big. The celery forest gave me that, an imaginary world to hold onto as I went through the cancer experience. I am grateful to Cora Brittan for giving me permission to use her image for the cover.

LdN: There is a lot of bird and water imagery in the collection – you connect viscerally with the earth and nature. As humans, we have a finite time alive and sometimes we forget that but you draw our awareness to ourselves as being part of the ecosystem – we are made of flesh and blood and bone. Was this a conscious theme you set out to explore?

CG: Birds became a talisman for me during the cancer journey as well as feathers. During my walks to and from Princess Margaret Hospital for radiation treatments I began noticing feathers on the ground. Suddenly they were everywhere—on sidewalks, streets, patches of grass. Why hadn’t I noticed this before? What else had I been missing? For years I’d been walking the streets of Toronto and only now was I seeing them. Each time I spotted one lying there I felt a visceral connection to my mother—this feeling that I was on the right track, that things would be okay. Cancer brought me closer to the threshold of life and death. It sharpened my senses. Thankfully, this is a good thing for a writer—to see what’s there and connect it to the ‘more’ of life, the mystery, the multifaceted.

LdN: When did you start writing these poems and when did you finish the collection?

CG: I started writing them after “With an owl in a celery forest” became part of my life although my cancer journey began just as Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects was going to the printers.

Four years later, upon my return from a month long reading tour in the UK, I had an appointment to see my oncologist. He informed me that my tests were perfect and as a result he was releasing me as a patient. No more visits to Princess Margaret Hospital. The journey had ended. At that point The Celery Forest was going to the printers. I had come full circle as a cancer patient and as a poet completing another book.

LdN: While I know your poems are about cancer, they also speak to me so much about life, about getting older and trying to come to terms with old ghosts that we thought we had long since wrestled to the ground but which still rise up to try and pull us into quicksand. Would you agree? 

CG: Old ghosts, yes. My mother’s cancer journey definitely ghosted mine. But hers was a helpful ghost. Witnessing her tough journey and early death made me aware of the importance of monthly self-examinations. That was how I found the lump.

This past summer I returned to Northern Ireland after a seventeen year absence. As much as I loved living there for close to a decade, Northern Ireland became a painful place for me after the end of a relationship. But I was invited back to read as part of a poetry collective, The Shaken and the Stirred, so it was time to deal with old ghosts. The Seamus Heaney HomePlace, Linen Hall Library in Belfast, and Bangor’s Open House Festival were the venues we read at during the end of a month long UK reading tour that was sponsored by the Centre for Creative Learning.

 Northern Ireland was the pivotal place for my development as a poet. It’s where my journey began. My first publication The Watch was published there and I was honoured to be included in The White Page / An Bhileog Bhan: Twentieth Century Irish Women Poets as well as The Field Day of Irish Writing, Vol IV & V. Seamus Heaney was a poet I admired greatly. His poetry was a big influence on my work, especially my early poems about the loss of my parents. He helped me connect to the importance of place, the limestone water-filled quarry I grew up beside. Before our reading at the Seamus Heaney HomePlace we were given a private tour, thanks to the Arts Organizer Cathy Brown and our lovely tour guide Whitney McIlfatrick. Seeing the books Heaney kept on his study shelves, viewing the photos from his life, the people and poets that mattered to him, was deeply moving.

 That night at our event I was thrilled when two poets I hadn’t seen since leaving Northern Ireland joined the audience—mother and daughter, Joan and Kate Newmann. Joan and I launched our collections together (Thin Ice and The Watch). Dan Heaney, Seamus’ youngest brother, also attended. The resemblance was definitely there.

Me and Michael Longley Linen Hall Library 2017

 To be invited to read at a library where I once studied as a young MA student, the Linen Hall Library in Belfast, was another full circle experience. It was an honour to have the Canadian High Commissioner Janice Charette and the Canada Consul Ken Brundle attend our event and we were treated so warmly by our hosts, Samantha McCombe and Deborah Douglas. Then at the last minute who should walk in but Michael Longley (pictured). I knew Michael from my time in Northern Ireland and like Seamus Heaney his work influenced me greatly. Michael and I were reacquainted in 2015 when he was here in Toronto for his Griffin Poetry Prize nomination in the international category which he subsequently won (as fate would have it I’d been invited to interview some of the Griffin nominees). Having Michael attend our Linen Hall Library event meant the world to me.

Our last event was in Bangor for the Open House Festival. Ian Burgham, Jeanette Lynes and I had a blast reading with two talented local musicians, David Lennon and Stephen Macartney, thanks to festival director, Kieran Gilmore. There was some whiskey tasting too. It was a great way to end our month long tour which started at the University of East London then Manchester University (thanks to organizer, Jonathan Mann) followed by five readings at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (thanks to Kathy Crawford Hay and Nola Meikle) and finally, Northern Ireland. The generosity and kindness of all the organizers and audiences helped put old ghosts to rest.

Quarry Cover from Natalie jpeg

LdN: What creative project will you be working on next?

CG: Many readers of Quarry have asked me—What’s next for Caitlin Maharg?—so I’ll be looking into her journey for the next novel. I’m also working on a non-fiction piece. And poems. Always poems.

LdN: Congratulations on all your fine work this year, you are an inspiration and a truly gifted writer and poet. I look forward to rereading your work and to future endeavours!

CG: You are an inspiration, Lisa! But thank you, it’s been a pleasure answering these questions. Congrats on your latest book!

www.catherinegraham.com @catgrahampoet





The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Originally from South Africa, Lisa de Nikolits has been a Canadian citizen since 2003. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Philosophy and has lived in the U.S.A., Australia, and Britain. She is the author of seven acclaimed novels, including her most recent novel, No Fury Like That (Inanna Publications). She has won the IPPY Gold Medal for Women's Issues Fiction and was long-listed for the ReLit Award. Lisa has a short story in Postscripts To Darkness (2015), a short story in the anthology Thirteen O'Clock by the Mesdames of Mayhem, and flash fiction and a short story in the debut issue of Maud.Lin House.