“(K)nowing what to expect from a poem might bring comfort or security in the midst of the overwhelming ideas a poem can raise” | Q&A with Poet/Editor/Teacher Laurie D Graham

No doubt, there is probably nobody busier than Laurie D Graham. Writing, teaching, editing and reviewing is all in her list of things she does. (Link to my review of her poetry book Rove.) But somewhere between all thing, she managed to sit down and answer a few questions for me, and gave some insight to her brilliant thoughts.

1) So it has been a few months since Rove was published. How has it been received by the reading public? Have there been any memorable comments about it you care to share?

The book has been well received, and it seems to prompt readers to think about their own homes and “origin” stories, which I especially appreciate and certainly didn’t expect. My favourite response to the book comes from my great uncle Emil though. He knows very well the places that make up much of Rove, and he said this after he read it:

“Of course, I’ve never read much poetry. But if you spend time with it and you read it carefully, it gives you a picture. The words give you a picture.”

That sums up my whole aim perfectly. Uncle Emil read the book and saw his home in it, and that equals success to me.

2) Are you working on anything new right now? If yes, can you share details?

I’m working on a second poetry collection that will be out with McClelland & Stewart in 2016. It orbits around the events of the Northwest Resistance, but it’s anchored in the present, trying to engender more context and connection and history and knowledge about how Canada came to be. So far, it’s titled Settler Education.

3) What are you reading right now? Who are you favourite writers?

I tend to have a bunch of books on the go at once. Right now I’m reading Voices of the Plains Cree by Edward Ahenakew, Indigenous Poetics in Canada, an anthology edited by Neal McLeod and published last year by Wilfred Laurier University Press, and a favourite book from my childhood called There’s a Rainbow in my Closet by Patti Stren, published in 1979. I’ve just started re-reading Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion as well.

Favourite writers include Jan Zwicky, Dionne Brand, Dennis Lee, Andrew Suknaski, Ondaatje, Tim Lilburn, Thomas King, Adrienne Rich, Annie Proulx, Myrna Kostash. I could keep going…

4) Do you do many public readings of your works? If yes, is that something you enjoy doing?

I’ve done a quite a few readings, yeah. I think it’s a useful thing to do, especially when it comes to poetry, which needs to be heard as well as read. In fact, I’ll be reading at Fanshawe College at the end of March and at the Landon library as part of the Poetry London reading series at the end of April, and you can find all the details here.

5) You teach writing at Fanshawe College and you help edit Brick magazine. Does doing those jobs help you with your writing at all?

I think so. Being on all sides of the task of bringing a piece of writing to fruition has taught me a lot, but it’s hard to tell if teaching and editing influence my writing in any overt way. I know it has improved my eye. I’m more rigorous, more ruthless, more self-aware.

On the other hand, editing and teaching can keep me from writing, which ends up doing the opposite of helping… I teach out of necessity and I help put together Brick out of love, but I have to make sure these things keep to their “compartments” or else there’ll be no writing, and it’s writing that gave me these two gigs in the first place.

6) I recently met a poet who lamented that many people are disappointed that her work “doesn’t rhyme.” Do you find that poetry has a stereotypical image that may be keeping readers away?

Maybe. That’s a tough one. Why do people insist that poetry fall into lockstep with their perception of what it is? Is it about familiarity? Uncertainty? Unwillingness? Unexamined cultural bias? Resistance to emotion or idea? Is it about control, or the need to legitimize one’s knowledge or tastes? People do still turn to poetry at crucial moments in their lives, and knowing what to expect from a poem might bring comfort or security in the midst of the overwhelming ideas a poem can raise: ideas about death, birth, love, loss, injustice, reconciliation, commemoration, or just living as a human in the world. These are difficult things to work through, and poetry helps us work through them, and some people might disdain the route a poet takes simply because they would’ve taken a different one.

Then again, why shouldn’t someone want poetry to rhyme? Why can’t someone assert a preference? I think liking or wanting certain things from poetry is perfectly okay, and in fact normal. The catch, though, is that you have absolutely no grounds for demanding the poetry you want from a poet. Being a listener or a reader of poetry is a passive role, and some people can’t handle that or don’t realize it. It feels active—you’re experiencing, you’re feeling, you’re working things out, you’re taking part—but you don’t have a say in how that poem gets told. Poetry can take many, many forms, and it needs to be better understood that one’s definition isn’t the definition, nor has it ever been.

7) You seem to have some presence on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Does using those platforms help you with your writing at all?

It’s a different way of hearing, for me. It has made me hear perspectives that aren’t given proper voice in other print or journalistic mediums. I’m thinking mostly of Twitter here. There are legions of First Nations people doing essential work on Twitter. That has definitely informed my writing, and I owe a debt to Paul Seesequasis and âpihtawikosisân and Hayden King and Christi Belcourt, to name just a few.

8) I’ve encountered a lot of people who are writing poetry not necessarily to be published but in order to better understand themselves. Do you have any advice for that part-time poet who scribbles in a cherished notebook when the mood moves them?

Oh just keep doing it. You’re doing swell. Don’t worry too much. It’s the thinking through things that’s most important.

*****

Link to Laurie D Graham blog

Link to Hagios Press’ page for Rove

Link to Brick Literary Magazine

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