Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

“The book essentially tells me when it's done” In conversation with Catherine Owen

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Catherine Owen is the author of Seeing Lessons (Wolsak & Wynn, 2010), Frenzy (Anvil Press, 2009), Somatic: The Life and Work of Egon Schiele (Exile Editions, 1998), Cusp/detritus: An Experiment In Alleyways (Anvil Press, 2006). The Wrecks of Eden (Wolsak & Wynn, 2002) was shortlisted for the BC Book Prize. "Geologos" from Seeing Lessons was nominated for ARC's Poem of the Year. A collection of essays and memoirs called Catalysts (Wolsak & Wynn) is due out this year. Her writing is diverse, passionate and often startling.

See a recent interview with Owen at:

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AH: Your books have been project oriented, to summarize in broad strokes: “Somatic: The Life and Work of Egon Schiele” (Exile Editions, 1998) which would be a thematic or subject-related project; to “Shall: Ghazals” (Wolsak & Wynn, 2006), which are formally related; “Cusp/detritus” (Anvil Press, 2006), which engages with lives of itinerant men in Vancouver and Montreal; to “Seeing Lessons” (Wolsak and Wynn, 2010) which deals with the life of Mattie Gunterman (1872-1945), a photographer, mother and camp cook. What attracts to you about this type of "project oriented work", how do you keep the inspiration flowing for the length of a whole collection (or is the problem limiting the inspiration to the length of a single collection?) And what is it like to end a book length project, i.e. to stop writing ghazals, or to let go of Schiele or Gunterman, once you've spent an extended period of time working on them? Is "project-oriented" a fair and/ or useful description of your practice? Do you usually have material started for your next book when you finish one, as a general rule?

CO: Yes, I would say that my poems tend to flow into particular channels, focused nodes of subject matter. Many of my books stem from sudden research fascinations that often expand from their initial sequence into a lengthier collection. I don't just want to write about my own life, though of course, what I write about is informed by my own perspective; I love learning about whatever it may be, a new form, an historical character; and I think that the organic nature of poems can surge out more intensely within an envisioned structure.

The book essentially tells me when it's done, the material runs out or the voice ceases to speak so tangibly or overtly. I work on several projects at a time with one predominating so research preoccupations often overlap. Those whom I write book-length works from become part of my psyche; they are my muses and as such never wholly leave me.

AH: How anchored are your books in time and space of creation. For instance, could you see yourself writing “Somatic” now?

CO: It's hard to say. I think that if you look at the contrast between Egon Schiele and Mattie Gunterman you can infer that different aspects of existence preoccupied me during the composition of those books. Say, the presence of sexuality in art and the problems of censorship versus the need for endurance in art creation despite economic and environmental challenges. But there is more of a continuum between my books than anything else in relation to themes of endangerment, liminality, death I believe than true distinctions in relation to changes in myself.

AH: The second section of Seeing Lessons is made up of diary entries. The entries have figures of speech that seem appropriate to the time, the late 19th century, such as, "Perhaps Will thinks I'm a bit of a loon" (May 5, 1897). Am I right in thinking that there is no record of her voice or diary that you referred to? How did you form Gunterman's voice?

CO: There is no real record of Mattie's voice apart from a few scattered postcards. I think I gained a sense of her vocal patterns and lexicon from reading her biography, some memoirs of the era and from spending much time absorbing her photographs. Poets, like novelists, can be given characters and their modes of speech through research and a kind of magic.

AH: A book that came to mind when reading Seeing Lessons is The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, in that both use a variety of formal tactics to create a pastiche in which the character is communicated. Were there texts you found yourself referring to, other than those specifically about Gunterman such as biographical texts that were useful in laying frameworks for Seeing Lessons? Or, on the contrary, would these types of books be distractions? Also, could you talk about the way that prose pieces and lineated poems work to heighten each other's strengths when juxtaposed?

CO: Along with the text on Mattie, I read, as I noted, some books about BC in the early 20th century and the History of Women's Photography as well. I don't find books distractions at all in preparing for writing, in fact, it's quite the opposite, texts are often my sources and guides to poems, along with my own lived experience.

Others have noted the similarity of Seeing Lessons to Billy the Kid, a book I hadn't read in over 15 years and so was not directly conscious of imitating to a certain extent, at least method-wise. However, I think that a variety of forms serve as diverse channels for accessing character and voice, the prose poems including more detail, the lyric pieces perhaps more emotional texture. Subject matter can be absorbed at greater depth by the reader when a range of techniques are utilized, thus keeping the mind alert.

AH: Ecology is a recurring issue in the diaries, Gunterman mentions the trees becoming fewer and fewer, silver ore slipping into the stream, there being fewer salmon as years pass. Was this one of the things that drew you to Gunterman as a subject, maybe not consciously at first, but in retrospect?

CO: Yes. Even back then, it was the poisoned environment that made Mattie's health tenuous and that sent her to Beaton where, although her health improved, she continued to be aware of human depredations that affected the stability of the forests and waterways. The lyrics at the beginning of the book, Coastlines, aim to establish a contemporary relationship to the ecology of BC as a way of framing Mattie's past sense of the fragility of the natural world amid economic rapaciousness.

AH: In Cusp/detritus, there is a disclaimer at the beginning about the book being a work of " both non-fiction and the imagination- all names of those still living have been changed". The preface expresses anxiety at being "a
cannibal of unhappiness", and has an image of "guilt smashing against my mind's breakwaters." Could you talk about the transformation of lived experience into poetry with reference to Cusp/detritus, as well as in your
work in general? (A huge topic, I know!)

CO: I think the relationship between the muse or lived experience and the transformations of it into art can't help but be complex. I believe I must write about what I'm given, which sometimes includes people who are still alive or individuals who have suffered addiction or other hells. Although at times there is guilt, because I feel that I may be speaking for them, thus potentially eliding their own voices, or because art cannot save, still, I continue to believe that if the artist stifles themselves and refuses to create from the channels they are provided with, then their artistic talents and eventually they themselves will be destroyed. Strong language, I know, but there are risks involved, and at times dark ones, in making art, a facet of this pact that few creative writing workshops or programs articulate. Anxiety, terror, all those difficult emotions, can't be avoided, they can only be re-created & transcended somehow.

AH: Formally, a lot of Cusp/detritus uses disjointedness. Could you talk about how that strategy worked to present the characters that were disjointed in terms of either being schizophrenic, or being hard to locate and so were disjointed as presences, weaving in and out of the speakers life more or less unpredictably?

CO: Cusp/detritus, due to the erratic, fragmented states of consciousness that it presents, had to attempt to mirror that mood and tone with forms that shaped equivalent rhythms. There is nothing smoothly flowing in these characters' lives and thus how could there be in the material and cadences I draw from? The organic connection between content and form is crucial and enables the work to both emerge and attain its eventual fruition. Whatever that (mysteriously) may be.

AH: You have a book coming out with Wolsak and Wynn in the Fall, could you tell us a bit about what that book is about?

CO: It's called Catalysts: Essays, Memoirs, Reviews and it's essentially a compilation of prose texts that relate to poetry and to the development of a poet that I’ve written over the past 12 years. A mish-mash of everything from childhood memoirs to musings on muses to book-guided travelogues to meditations on the collaborative process between artists. What made me, what drives me, what I take a stand on as a poet. More or less, that.

Spangle & suicides, San Francisco, 1905

See       there       Mattie
in the spot the Golden Gate Bridge
will later arch its spangle
& suicides
Will's skipping rope of fish
marks the holes
where the pylons would be sunk
and       there       Mattie
there on the flat backs of Market Street
its carpets & oranges
is the place
where the earthquake
will raze
commerce to rubble
there             where your gaze gathers
on the spire of the clock tower
pricking the clouds
the three of you pose
with the surreal calm of de Chirico
your clothes dark outcroppings
against that Californian blanch
of wood & stone
knowing nothing of the fire           later
always exiles       from the future.

- From the collection "Seeing Lessons" by Catherine Owen (Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd, 2010)

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: Toronto.

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