Laurie D Graham was raised in Sherwood Park, Alberta, and now lives in London, where she writes, reviews, teaches, and helps edit Brick magazine. Rove, her first book of poetry, was published by Regina’s Hagios Press in 2013 and was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her second book of poetry is due out with McClelland & Stewart in 2016. Work from that forthcoming collection recently won The Puritan’s Thomas Morton Memorial Prize, was shortlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize and Arc’s Poem of the Year contest, and is forthcoming in Prairie Fire.
Four Poems by Laurie
Two excerpts from Rove
Say my father is sitting on the roof.
Every childhood dog, every car he ever had, looking.
And say I’m three, crouched in the yard like someone
trying to peel reason from above.
Say the big spruce came down before
or after the picture, or say it’s still there,
upwardly-assertive, sap-starved and churning up the sewer pipes,
shading my brother’s bedroom window.
Now say It was a different big tree that left.
Maybe the poplar by the garage.
Maybe in some groove of needle or spawn of cone
my brother is still five and home
from kindergarten with the flu, sweet-speaking,
cherub-rough, puffy eyes and a cowlick,
for once not smarter than me. Maybe
just five and tucked in to read Harry the Dirty Dog.
Maybe our house on Fir Street,
someone’s fifth of an acre, someone’s protective thicket
is where I’m three and crouching,
looking up at Dad while he smiles out at his wife and the camera
and the grass is softer than grass between my toes.
Could we find that place, that slough at the curve of what road
that we’d visit in the van in the summer,
with its weeping branches like the walls of a top-lit room,
the sky like a skylight, the red-winged blackbirds
as present as peacocks and the insects deafening?
Where Dad would quiet the engine so we could watch
and we could listen and let the scene press into our memory.
Not the name or place. There’d be nothing
for the computer when we are older
and want to find it.
Lady of Attiwandaron
Ground fizzing and what sounds like cannon fire in the distance, three echoes.
Corn stalks and chunks of cob skittered into the ravine, over the infill, over the boundary precipice.
Surface water fizzing, trapped in sod, pooling in bootprints, adding static
to the Star Trek whirring of a lone bird to the northwest.
The fizzing, the moving grass and the wind moving the grass,
and a fly, and the whirring of a far stand of trees to the Northwest, trees cold and encircling,
graffitied, human knives, these sisters, one smooth-skinned, one rough-skinned, one half-smooth
and half-rough standing inside the 500-year-old barricade, earthen, two-souled.
Branch snap in the woods and cannon fire, wind in my ears and retreating bootprints,
that single whirr to the north now, behind me.
At the gate the biggest tree, old sister carved up, grown out of earthworks’ hump,
roots let down all around, seed accidental, singular, dead branches poised above.
Her canopy. AF&JM carved 20 ft up. Cannon-fire, cannon-fire, whirr.
Her roots a ground-seep fizzing, her roots water rolling in each direction,
toward the ghosts of trees nearest Iona Road—small, hollow stumps leading you out,
walking sticks propped against, pointing back to the corn field, to corn, to cannon.
John Graves Simcoe
Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada 1791–1796
We walked over a rich meadow, and at its extremity came to the forks of the river.
The Governor wished to examine this situation and its environs;
and we therefore remained here all day.
He judged it to be a situation eminently calculated for the metropolis of all Canada.
— Major Edward Baker Littlehales, Simcoe’s adjutant and secretary, March 1793
I’ve passed a few seasons in London, a few more anyway than you.
Human to think a capital onto this spot, I suppose,
your paths now turned to concrete at the fork of Askunessippi, the antlered river,
La Tranche, your Thames.
Through the walls of the forest, the darkened pineries, the gnarl of walnut,
primeval, your staff etching into their diaries, their years of marching through shrub and swamp,
hacking into the frail, impossible, dense Carolinian forest.
You were human after all.
Primeval is a mouthful folks here don’t know how to swallow
so we live toothless, razed, this city like ringworm, the joke of green sod, the jonesing mainstreets.
Did you calculate on your day beside the river the factory plumes, coffee cups in the runoff,
an army of sleeping bags decaying along these banks,
the geese sinking like rocks into the riverbed?
(Interview by Kevin Heslop for London Open Mic Poetry Night)
KH: I guess one of the first things someone might notice is the sentence, that a voice more akin to prose in “Lady of Attiwandaron” sharpens into poetry; dispersive language focuses into punctuated knots and a tighter succession of images. I wonder if in the writing you feel a certain sense of incantation or a kind of Homeric supplication to the muses? A kind of seatbelt, headlights, try the wipers, put it in gear, reverse out of the driveway before the necessity of obstacles or byways determine your path. A kind of lubricate the subconscious with descriptive scene-setting before the going. In the context of being spoken through rather than speaking, to what degree do you feel at the helm of your work?
LG: A fair bit, ultimately. That move, in “Lady of Attiwandaron,” from prose sentences to image-litany is a deliberate one, to show the senses intensifying in that place (the Southwold Earthworks), the sounds and images revealing themselves and piling up and humming ever louder. But you might be right about getting into the mode of poetry, into the cockpit. I try to start with an image or an idea, and I try to start in an unassuming way—sort of surprising the reader into the poem—but I am indeed the one doing the sensing, the perspective is mine, and to claim that there is something speaking through me assumes that what I say contains some sort of unadulterated objectivity, some sort of truth, which I can’t (and mustn’t) claim.
KH: Who or which works would you cite as early influences, and from whom or what or which place or what kind of experience do you continue to draw inspiration?
LG: I count as earliest influences Shel Silverstein, Dennis Lee, Maya Angelou, Charles Bukowski, Diane Di Prima, and Allen Ginsberg, among others. While I was writing Rove, I had a handful of books acting as totems: Andrew Suknaski’s Wood Mountain Poems, Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies, Jan Zwicky’sRobinson’s Crossing, Fred Wah’s Diamond Grill, and Myrna Kostash’s All of Baba’s Children. These days it’s the story of these lands and the colonial history of this place that’s driving the work.
KH: And then the question of sod. The word comes up in “John Graves Simcoe” as “the joke of sod” and in “Lady of Attiwandaron” as “trapped in sod”. Is lament for the maimed natural world, for you, an essential place for the contemporary poet? If the mammal in the lifting and the sipping from the plastic bottle remains a mammal, what is lost? Or, more precisely, what is found? Do you feel your work to be necessitated by or born out of a post-industrial ethos? Getting and spending, to what degree do we lay waste our powers, and wherein may those powers be reclaimed?
LG: I find certain words/phrases/images coming up again and again in my work, and sod is one of them. My poems are outside often, out trying to say the names of things. And they take the form or tone of elegy quite a lot—a mode of grief that ends up being creative—so yes, I think you’re on to something there. That’s where I go in my work, but contemporary poets can (and must!) shoot off in all sorts of directions.
KH: You continue to be an active member of the London poetry community: you’ll be reading at Poetry London on Wednesday April 22, at Central Library the following Saturday, and at Mykonos in May. You’ve agreed to serve as one of three judges this year, along with Ola Nowosad and Ron Stewart, for the Alfred Poynt Award in Poetry. I wonder if you might share a few words about your impression of the London literary community, about, in your capacity as an editor for several literary journals cited as the finest in the country, the Canadian literary landscape, and a principle difference or two between what may be achieved through a public reading in contrast to the written word on paper.
LG: Hard to put in a few words! Regarding the literary community in London: it was so welcoming to me when I moved here in 2013, and that continues to be the case. Small but vigorous and dedicated is how I’d describe it. I’ve found more support here than I could have anticipated.
Secondly, I feel the same way about the Canadian literary landscape as I do about Canada itself: I am skeptical of the designation. I think literature is more local than that, just like I think sovereignty and identity is more local than that. But I think there’s a lot going on in the literary community in Canada, and things are dire and robust and cash-starved and invigorating and challenging and adversarial and ever-changing. And always the boundaries need to be pushed out. The voices we hear need to more accurately reflect our “country” and who’s in it and the things they see and know.
On reading to an audience versus having people read your work in a magazine or a book: these are two parts of a whole when it comes to poetry, or the type of poetry I make anyway. It needs to be both heard and read. So doing both just completes the circuit. The differences between the two are big, the most significant of which being that you can see or sense your audience’s reaction to the work at a reading, whereas on the page your “audience” can read your work however they want. This modulation between “active” reading and “passive” listening has the potential to create significantly different understandings of the very same groupings of words, which I find not only fascinating but vital to the craft.
KH: You mentioned that the colonial history of this place drives your work these days. I wonder if you’d be willing to expand on what it means to you to live in a colony, and how this understanding shapes the perspective of your work and daily thought.
LG: That’s a hard thing for me to express well in anything other than poetry. It hits on deep identity issues and ongoing injustice, bigotry, violence. The destructiveness of forcing a colonial statehood model onto societal structures that have existed here for tens of thousands of years is something that so many people are still in full-on denial about, and that propels the poetry for me. And so, as I started to address in Rove, I come from homesteaders that farmed land on the last parts of the prairie that Macdonald ignored into submission so he could ship goods from Ontario by train. And now I live in a place from which those goods originated, and that age of manufacturing seems over. As is the train, largely. That trips me into poetry. What was—what is—all that violence for?
KH: On the question of early influences: Bukowski, Angelou and Ginsberg in particular seem distinct, if not contrasting, voices. I wonder if you might say a word or two on what it was in these writers and their approach to poetry that impelled your early writing, and whether anything in particular to which you responded bonds them.
LG: With Bukowski it was a baseness, a rawness, making not just the colloquial but the fucked up belong to something as “put together” as poetry can be. Plus all the swearing, which always draws in the young. With Angelou it was strength, a welcoming strength. I read her work as a young adolescent and she had a big effect on me. She also taught me about race at a time when I was starting to form ideas about what the world was. And with Ginsberg it was a hugeness, a willingness to include—or rather an insistence on including—the whole of his world in his poetry. So maybe the three of them have boundary-pushing in common, trying to make poetry more accurately reflect what’s in the world.
The Pivot Questionnaire
What is your favourite word?
What is your least favourite word?
Pant, singular. “A khaki pant” is the most disgusting phrase in existence.
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Movement. Going for a walk or a bike ride. Looking out the window of a bus or a train. These things stir the mind and the senses for me.
What turns you off?
What is your favourite curse word?
Fuck. I’m a traditionalist. Sorry, Dad.
What sound or noise do you love?
The bird sanctuary that is my backyard at sunrise.
What sound or noise do you hate?
The drone of road traffic.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I’d become an arborist in half a heartbeat.
What profession would you definitely not like to attempt?
I’d never want to be a cop or a security guard.
If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
I got a few people I want you to meet.
WHERE: The Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, enclosed terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60 poetry lovers. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. Except for the coldest months, the terrace is open to the parking lot behind. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: Doors: 6:00 to 6:30 (It's a restaurant.) Event begins at 7:00
OPEN MIC: Following the two featured poets in the first hour and the intermission, open mic poets will read until 10:30. There may be a second intermission after the first 15 have read. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). Sign up on the reader`s list, which is on the book table at the back. It's first come, first served.
COVER: By donation (in donation jar on back table, or use Donate Button on website Donate Page). Donations are our only source of income to cover expenses.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates at the event receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked after the intermission. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by Brick Books and The Ontario Poetry Society.