Sarah Ens interviews Laurie D. Graham
Laurie D. Graham is a writer, an editor, and the publisher of Brick magazine. Her debut book, Rove (Hagios Press, 2013), was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and her second book, Settler Education (McClelland & Stewart, 2016), was nominated for Ontario’s Trillium Award for Poetry. A third book, a long poem tentatively titled The Larger Forgetting, will be published by McClelland & Stewart in 2022. Winner of the Thomas Morton Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, Laurie currently lives and writes in Treaty 20 territory (Peterborough, Ontario).
Sarah Ens: What draws you to the long poem form? How do you find the process of writing a long poem different from writing a collection of poetry?
Laurie D. Graham: I tend to start out thinking I’m writing these manageable little poem-things that are about their own discrete subjects and have little to do with one another. But then those poem-things multiply, and I begin to see that the terrible titles I’ve put at the tops of all the pages are nothing but a ruse, and what I’m really doing is writing toward a larger concern. To see the pages acting together, to see them having an aim or a project that they’re moving toward by showing something in concert and at length, gives the work a different sort of momentum, one that I don’t know exactly how to describe, except to say that it breathes more slowly. I think this is part of what draws me to the form. The silence of the page break, followed by a continuation of thought not interrupted by a new title, is something that just works with the way I work. It might be that this has something to do with where I’m from—I am ever aware of writing in response to Robert Kroetsch when I write a long poem, for example—but I also just have an interest in what can be made with this kind of sustained attention. You can talk about the whole damn world in a long poem.
At other points though, and especially lately, I have words or lines appearing in small scraps, and they don’t seem to exist as part of any clean whole whatsoever: their order is interchangeable, they don’t hint at having anything more to show beyond what’s contained in them, and they seem rather like signposts on a long walk. So, I’ve just been loosely collecting those scraps, letting them be, and giving them lots of space to do their thing together.
SE: Your book Settler Education, nominated for Ontario’s Trillium Award for Poetry, challenges Canada’s master narrative by re-examining the stories that continue to impact contemporary settler-Indigenous relationships. Why do you reach to poetry to confront powerful systems of thought? What about poetry allows for reckoning?
LDG: I wondered at first if I ought to write prose, write essays, in order to write about what I was learning (much too late and largely on my own) about the Frog Lake “Massacre” and the Northwest Resistance, these events that are evoked any time anyone utters the words “coast to coast to coast.” But I could see how simply adding to the written record, which is already quite extensive, would render many of my aims impossible. I wanted to show what is profoundly not present in non-Indigenous understandings of what happened at Frog Lake and Batoche and elsewhere. I also wanted to connect seemingly disparate things that didn’t seem to me so disparate: to connect what happened in 1885 to the present moment, to reveal remnants of “prairie history” in southern Ontario, where the monuments to the soldiers who went West to “put down the Rebellion” still stand. Poetry felt like the medium that could best handle this long look at erasure and absence, to make these broad but crucial connections. I would argue though that the poems in that book are uncomfortable as poems. I was very careful about how they were situated, how they spoke, the tenor and cadence and rhythm of them.
SE: Can you speak further to the idea of the poems in Settler Education being “uncomfortable as poems”? What were the rhythms and cadences you were listening for, and how did they connect to the meanings you were trying to evoke?
LDG: I was cautious of their getting too concerned with their own language, their own sound. They needed to always be looking out at where they were writing, and to be aware of the written record that preceded, and aware of the monuments, which meant at times showing what I was reading and seeing—meaning the poems would sometimes fall into prose or telling or quoting or mapping. I find certain passages from the book tricky to read out loud because they don’t “sound” like what I understand poems ought to sound like. But it was important to make sure poetic cadence was doing justice, was cutting right to it, which meant at times eschewing what is understood as a successful poem.
SE: In his session at Writing North this past January, Tim Lilburn asked us to think about our preoccupations, our lasting puzzlements, suggesting that as writers, we must be faithful to these ideas. What are the preoccupations of your writing life? What are the ongoing pursuits of your poetry?
LDG: I love this question. It’s Tim who started me onto understanding and articulating my own preoccupations. And he read my rickety first attempts!
The concern that stretches over all my work is, to put it bluntly, how to not be a blight upon this continent, upon this place I think of as my home. I’m trying to better understand the obliterating nature of the colonial project, and how or whether innateness might be possible for the non-Indigenous North American.
SE: Describe your revision process. What guides you as you make editorial decisions, both for your own work and the work of others?
LDG: Revision is so hard to describe. When I write, I sometimes hear the rhythm of a line before the words arrive, or it’s the sound of a group of arrived words that moves me to write them down, so when I’m revising, I’m trying to be more widely attentive to what’s on the page: the sense of the words, their patterns and imagery, the way the poems are thinking, what they’re drawing on. Revision is a long, slow attempt to get the poem closer to the thing it’s after, and most frequently for me that involves stripping away anything that’s not serving that aim or is instead trying to report that aim to the reader.
When I’m editing the work of others, I am trying to be a very close reader and a very close listener, to try to help bring out what the piece seems to want to say or be. I am also trying to be an astute and helpful outside eye, asking as many questions as I can about a piece and the things it’s doing. The stakes are different, but no less important: they involve staying out of the way of the work, not imposing notions of “what’s good” that don’t come from the text itself, and always working from a place of respect for the writer’s intentions.
SE: As editor and publisher of Brick magazine, what do you look for in submissions? And, more broadly, what excites you about working in Canadian publishing?
When I’m reading for Brick—and Brick publishes mainly non-fiction—I’m looking for lively and well-construed writing, a compelling idea or subject, and/or an approach grounded in love and care. I have been doing stuff for literary journals pretty steadily since 2005, and by some miracle I now get a bit of money to do this work. It can sometimes be very hectic, and the plate often becomes way overfull because lit mags do such a great deal without adequate resources. But I have learned that I am happiest when the wage-earning I do doesn’t feel like work, and helping to make Brick, kind of like writing, doesn’t feel much like work to me. It feels more like vocation.
Interview by Sarah Ens, co-editor of the RVRB. A poet and essayist, her work has appeared in Poetry Is Dead, Sad Mag, Room Magazine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, is forthcoming with Turnstone Press this spring.