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.