Five Questions with … Laurie D. Graham

Laurie D. Graham, author of Settler Education and a Toronto Lit Up participant, answered our five questions!

IFOA: When did you first start writing poetry and why?

Graham: When I was in the fourth grade my school allowed art projects into the science fair, so I wrote a poem about my brother as a baby and how incorrigible he was, I constructed a little diorama out of an apple box, and I stood there beside my exhibit as people walked by and read my poem and expressed either appreciation or confusion. I remember quite liking that.
Flash forward fifteen years and I’m walking down Whyte Avenue in Edmonton on a really sunny day with my best friend Amy. I admit to her, out loud for the first time, that I want to try to be a writer. I had been filling up notebooks—sometimes making it all the way to the right margin, and sometimes not; I wasn’t really paying attention—and it was becoming clear that this compulsion could possibly (or more likely had to) coalesce into a vocation.

A few years later I was living in Toronto and taking Saturday morning poetry workshops with Rhea Tregebov at Ryerson. Out of those workshops came what I now think of as some of my first okay poems, and they were all about my family.

IFOA: You said in an interview with CBC Books that you love “how writing poetry is somewhat like playing a musical instrument.” Continuing with this beautiful analogy, where then do you find your music (or inspiration)?

Graham: For me all the music is out in the world, and I have to leave my desk and go outside and stare at things for the poems to happen. For Settler Education that included standing at the cairn and long-dead town site at Frog Lake, at the grave near Fort Battleford where victims of the largest mass hanging in Canada’s history are buried, at the foot of the Northwest Rebellion memorial in the southeast quadrant of Queen’s Park in Toronto, on the receding banks at Batoche, on a boat on the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton, between the Legion and the fire tower in Millbrook, Ontario, at Riel’s grave site in Winnipeg, and a bunch of other places.

IFOA: What challenges (if any) did you encounter when writing this collection of poems?

Graham: Settler Education is about zeroing in on the colonial structures designed to negate the first inhabitants of this continent. It’s about obliterating blind spots and immoral national inheritances and learning some of the stories of this place, which often still don’t get taught to a settler unless she teaches them to herself. This was and remains the main challenge of this book.

And secondly, my first book, Rove, was rejected eight times before it was published, and this second book was accepted by M&S before it was finished. So the slow work of writing this process of unlearning and re-learning had now to be balanced with an externally imposed deadline. That was a challenge, and I hope I’ve succeeded.

IFOA: Where is your ideal place to write?

Graham: I’m not really picky when it comes to location. I don’t require a certain set-up—I’ve written poems at bus stops, in waiting rooms, in front of the TV, on downtown sidewalks, while invigilating exams, during staff meetings, in public parks, in my dad’s warehouse, in some of the most anti-poetic cubicles and carrels in the country, beside oceans and highways and farmers’ fields—but my favourite place to write is in a window seat on a train or a bus.

IFOA: What’s next for you?

Graham: I’ve got a kernel of an idea for more poems that I’m trying to grow in the midst of wage-earning. I’m slowly sorting out this novel I’ve been sitting on forever. I have a few book reviews in mind that need writing. I’m starting to wade back into short fiction. All this to say I don’t rightly know.

Five Questions with… Madhur Anand

Madhur Anand, author of A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets her event April 9. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your debut poetry collection, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes.

Anand, Madhur (c) Karen Whylie, Coyote Photos

Madhur Anand: The title refers to critical transitions from complex systems theory. These occur when a small perturbation causes a big change and leads a system to a different place, a surprising place or a catastrophe. They are also known as tipping points.

Scientists are developing indices to predict when a system is about to undergo such a transition. Some are concerned that critical transitions are difficult to adapt to. But in many systems with nonlinear feedbacks, these kinds of transitions are inevitable. My book examines transitions in human-environment systems at many levels (e.g. individuals, families, societies). These may be represented by surprising changes in, for example, identity, displacement or relationships.

Recent research suggests that a “critical slowing down” in dynamics can be an early warning for such transitions.The system takes longer and longer to recover from small perturbations. This critical slowing down, these expanding moments, weeks, months or years, might be an opportunity for closer and closer observation of a recovery process and for learning. Poetry can emerge from this.

This is just one way to read my debut book of poems. Other descriptions are on the back cover. And that’s Doryanthes excelsa (‘exceptional spear-like flower’) on the front cover.

Anand, A New Index for Predicting CatastrophesIFOA: You hold a PhD in theoretical ecology and currently work at the University of Guelph as a Professor in the School of Environmental Sciences. How does your poetry tear down the dichotomy between science and art?

Anand: That there is science in art and art in science we’ve known for a long time. The fact that my title refers to a scientific phenomenon is one way to combine art and science, but that’s just the beginning. To “tear down” (or as I would put it more subtly, dissolve) the dichotomy, science and art must be shown to have a dual nature, to be bistable (to borrow again from complex systems science terminology).

Here is one example of how I think science and art co-exist in my book. Thirteen poems are composed from the text of 13 of my scientific articles. These poems take on new lifebecome seemingly independent entities (though they are not)and a surprising thing happens. I am an environmental scientist but not always an environmentalist; an ecologist but not an eco-warrior. Yet the process of extracting poems from my science (ranging from evolutionary biology, to theoretical ecology, to biodiversity and conservation) led in every instance to sociopolitical poems I did not realize were in me.

I invite the reader to think about other ways in which art and science co-exist in my book and in general. Please let me know what you think.

When did you first start writing poetry and why?

The Key to the Fields

Figure 1: “The Key to the Fields” by René Magritte

Anand: I wrote my first poem during the last year of my PhD work some time in 1996. I was immersed in equations and complexity theory and computer simulations of old-field succession. I spent entire days, sometimes weeks, alone in a lab. One summer day I walked over to the window and stared at the framed horse-chestnut tree surrounded by lawn. When I returned to my computer, I wrote my first poem. You’ll find seven of those (unpublishable) poems actually appearing as the preface to seven chapters of bound thesis. My supervisor encouraged me to put them there when I told him what was happening.

At the time, and still today, poetry is a way in which I am able to inject a perfectly perpendicular mode of being and thinking into my life’s dominant (scientific), and sometimes predictable, course. Maybe poems are my little critical transitions (see Figure 1). Maybe I do it to practice dealing with catastrophes, maybe to avoid burnout. But then I think poetry is more than just therapy. Maybe it’s simply to perceive the world in other dimensions, to experience the full richness of human experience.

IFOA: What inspires your writing?

Anand: Great writing. The right mentor. A phrase, memory or idea that doesn’t go away. Human-environment systems. Children. Plants. Travel. Beauty. Games. Heritage. Discovery. Loss. Symmetry. Asymmetry. Congruence. Incongruence. Freedom. Constraint.

IFOA: What are you reading right now that you can recommend to our readers?

Anand: Your readers should probably read poetry. Right now I am reading prose: The Book of Nature by Ruskin Bond (Penguin Books India). I’ve been wanting to read more work by Indian writers lately. He writes fiction and non-fiction (memoir) based on the small town (now the big city) of Dehra Dun, where my mother lived from adolescence to marriage. Here are some lines from his introductory remarks: “Nature doesn’t promise you anythingan after life, rewards for good behaviour, protection from enemies, wealth, happiness, progeny, all the things that humans desire and pray for. No, nature does not promise these things. Nature is a reward in itself.”

Madhur Anand’s poetry has appeared in literary magazines across North America and in the anthology The Shape of Content: Creative Writing in Mathematics and Science. She completed her PhD in theoretical ecology at Western University and is currently a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph. Anand presents a reading from her debut collection, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, as part of the McClelland & Stewart Poetry Night on April 9.

Five Questions with… Liz Howard

Liz Howard, author of Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets her event April 9. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your debut poetry collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent.Liz Howard

Liz Howard: It is a riot of interconnected poems bound in one book. It has no gods or masters and yet simultaneously so many appear. It is about beauty, pleasure, horror, Anishinaabe cosmology, ecology, neuroscience, feminism, Western philosophy, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath and John Keats. It is my profound gift to anyone who chooses to entertain it.

IFOA: How has your upbringing in Northern Ontario influenced your work?

Howard: During my undergraduate studies in cognitive neuroscience, I was always fascinated by the fact that the same brain structure, the hippocampus, is in some way responsible both for a person’s ability to navigate spatially and for the creation and recollection of memories. I have always had this sense that the shape of my interior, memory-based world is that of the boreal forest. It is a filter through which everything passes. It is the framework of my childhood, my adolescence, my absence. The geography, the jack pine, the cedar, the wildlife, the rivers, the lakes are so intricately a part of me even though I now live in Toronto. The work I do is frequently written through the ecology of Northern Ontario but also with an eye to the experience of urbanization. What I have always found compelling is the fact that part of the genetic information within me was also carried within the bodies of ancestors who lived in Ontario well before European contact. Via the machinations of politics and industry I was very nearly a person of First Nations heritage entirely assimilated. My poetry is gesture against being erased.

Howard, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking TentIFOA: What do you love most about poetry as a literary form?

Howard: Its blissful danger.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Howard: Indigena Awry by Marie Annharte Baker, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Titanic by Cecilia Corrigan, Strangeland by Tracey Emin and The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. I’m also enjoying rereading Lisa Robertson’s prose work in Nilling and Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture.

IFOA: What’s next for you?

Howard: I’m continuing work on a book-length poetic project that aims to rewrite Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (there is a preview of this work in the current book). I’m writing a catalogue essay for Vasiliki Sifostratoudaki, an exceptional visual and text-based artist working in Europe. There is also a presence forming in my notes and thoughts that may become a larger prose work. I look forward to reigniting the reading series AvantGarden and welcoming you all to our exquisite, peculiar and stimulating evenings.

Liz Howard’s poetry has appeared in Canadian literary journals such as The Capilano Review, The Puritan and Matrix Magazine. Her chapbook Skullambient was a finalist for the 2012 bpNichol Chapbook Award. Howard presents a reading from her debut collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, as part of the McClelland & Stewart Poetry Night on April 9.

Five Questions with… Lorna Crozier

Lorna Crozier, author of The Wrong Cat and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets her event April 9! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your latest poetry collection, The Wrong Cat.Crozier, Lorna (c) U of Victoria Photo Services

Lorna Crozier: The Wrong Cat is an eclectic mix of the poetry I’ve been working on for the last five years. I’ve always been fascinated by the influence of place on character. How does the sea influence an individual’s personality and outlook as opposed to a desert? One of the sections deals with the relationship between love and landscape. A woman in each poem looks back on an affair with a particular man, one from Hades, another from the Sargasso Sea, another from the North. As in my other books, I’m also inspired by animals and how they enrich our lives. Slipping through the lines are cats, otters, raccoons, deer and beetles, and from a high bough of sassiness and knowing, a crow comments on everything. There are also several poems that involve a man and woman talking, a man and woman who have lived together for a long time and who delight and sadden one another.

IFOA: Where is your ideal place to write?

Crozier: My ideal place to write is on a gravel road in the Saskatchewan countryside. By the time I’ve completed a four-mile grid that cuts through wheat and canola fields, I’ve often composed a poem and revised it several times. My other ideal place is my working room in my house on Vancouver Island. I had a big sliding glass door cut into one wall so that I can look out onto our back garden pond and chase away the visiting hungry kingfisher and heron.

IFOA: What is it about poetry as a form that you like most?Crozier, The Wrong Cat

Crozier: Poetry is based on surprises. I never know how a poem is going to end when I begin. It speaks to the unconscious more than any other genre and its brevity pushes the words together and makes them zing. Even “the” is a crucial word in a poem.

IFOA: Describe your process. How does your poetry come alive, from conception to completion?

Crozier: Each poem comes about differently from the one before, but more often than not, poems arrive as an animal would arrive, stepping tentatively from the dusk. An animal without a name, one that looks vaguely familiar but is different. One that stirs the blood. I know I can never capture it with language, but I am driven to try. That’s the conception, I guess. Then I work on the music, on making the lines sing with the clarity of a bell on the collar of a cat, a bell that the cat has learned not to ring.

IFOA: What’s the best thing you’ve read in the past six months?

Crozier: The best thing I’ve read in the last six months is Anne-Marie Turza’s book of poems The Quiet and Andrew O’Hagan’s first novel, Our Fathers.

Lorna Crozier is the award-winning author of 16 previous books of poetry. She is a Professor Emeritus at the University of Victoria and an Officer of the Order of Canada, and has received three honorary doctorates for her contributions to Canadian Literature. Crozier presents a reading from The Wrong Cat as part of the McClelland & Stewart Poetry Night on April 9.