Saturday, 18 February 2012
Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series - Kateri Lanthier
Kateri Lanthier was born in Toronto and has lived in St. Catharines, Sudbury and Kingston. She has a BA and MA in English from the University of Toronto. After working as an editor in educational publishing, she became a freelance writer for magazines, television, and the web, specializing in design, architecture, decorative arts and fine art. Her poetry has been published in literary journals and magazines in Canada, the United States, and England, including Descant, Grain, Matrix, The Antigonish Review, Acta Victoriana, The U.C. Review, The Greenfield Review, Saturday Night, Quarry, The Toronto Quarterly, Writing Women and London Magazine. Her first collection of poetry, Reporting from Night, was published by Iguana Books in December 2011. She lives in Toronto’s Beach neighborhood with her husband and three children.
Lanthier's life has come full circle. With many of her poems having appeared in numerous literary journals and magazines during her teens and 20's, one would have first thought Reporting from Night would be just another on a long list of literary accomplishments, but marriage and the responsibility of raising three children compromised the publishing of this exquisite debut collection. As the title suggests, many of the poems refer to the surreal night flowering of memory and imagination. That's quite a mouthful, but Lanthier's poetry also possesses a unique clarity that is not only inventive and precise, but also suggests that she was indeed in full control of her faculties, even though much of this collection was apparently written while sleep-deprived and in the dead of night.
Oscar Wilde at the City Auditorium
(Belleville, Ontario, 1882)
The next night, she swung an orange lamp
of lilies in flared-lip circles through the garden.
Her tortoiseshell comb
barely held on by the teeth.
Gossiping near the bonfire, green leaves,
scorched, censored themselves.
She won't go in.
She will wear a porcupine quill
behind one ear, or prick a finger to let fall
a red drop on the red floor of pine.
Her secrets are scrolled in birchbark,
posted in the rose bed to an underground province.
An emerald moth has flattened itself on the window
like a set of poisoned lungs.
A woman weary of such parlour tricks,
she has brought in his head, once again,
on a silver salver:
She will permit
his fortune-teller's palm on her breast
but this evening she sees his fingers
curved and lined, a scallop shell,
a platform for Beauty.
The Victorian houses in Toronto's Annex
were long ago redeemed. Bought for a folk song
they now rent out at cruel rates.
The dandelions on the lawn
are not long for this uprooting world.
Like a field of philosophers
their bright ideas have gone up in smoke,
the only consolation of their art
the thought of their thoughts seeding abroad,
up, up and away...
Where are the radical summers?
The fashions are back.
Platform shoes raise the idealistic
a few inches above the pavement.
Shoulders and hair slump
in eco gloom.
I recall the thunder of Riders on the Storm
in the submarine-schoolbus of hippie camp.
Felt pens for never-finished mandala posters,
paper sunbursts, fingers implicated
by indigo tie-dye.
The agit-prop of story-book theatre.
Et in Arcadio ego.
Circling the campfire, we held hands,
sending a ring pulse, swaying in a trance
to melt down selfish private thoughts.
Singing against fears of bears, mosquitoes, lightning,
the military-industrial complex.
A muddle of flower children
in a split-stem chain.
One harsh day, we spray-painted stones
in orange and silver, like makeup in Seventeen.
We daydreamed about hurling them
through the black-out curtains of our old-school
school, beneath the heavily framed queen
who reigned over our class.
The focal point of the photograph
was her narrow waist. The garden of her dress
stood corrected by her wasp-nest hair.
She offered pale, empty hands.
TTQ - When did you decide to start writing poetry and who were some of your early influences and mentors?
Kateri Lanthier - I began writing poems when I was a child. I was reading at age two, which apparently distressed my mother, who worried I’d be some sort of prodigy. Determined to keep her fretting, I started writing poems when I was in grade school in northern Ontario and won a few prizes in a regional poetry contest. To my amazement, after we moved to Kingston, some poems were accepted by Quarry Magazine—my supportive Grade 8 teacher had sent them in. The editor invited me to become a member of the Kingston Writers’ Association, where I met Bronwen Wallace, among other writers. They used to introduce me at readings by saying, “Not only is she under the drinking age, she’s under the driving age.” A few more of my poems were accepted by Quarry, and then, when I was 17, Poetry Canada Review published nine poems and an interview with me—by that time we had moved to Toronto. While I was an undergrad and grad student at the University of Toronto, my poems were published in the U.C. Review and Acta Victoriana, and over the following years my poems were accepted by many journals, including Grain, The Antigonish Review, Saturday Night and Descant (where I was also on the editorial board for a time—I’m grateful to the editor, Karen Mulhallen, for that opportunity). I was delighted when Alan Ross accepted one of my poems for London Magazine. A manuscript was emerging—I had a Works-in-Progress grant from the Ontario Arts Council, which helped and encouraged me. But, in retrospect, that manuscript was nebulous, not quite a book.
After I got married, in my early ‘30s, I gradually stopped writing poetry and began earning a living by writing for magazines, newspapers and television about design, decorative arts and architecture. I felt the loss of privacy acutely. The solitude that seemed essential for writing poetry was gone—I couldn’t seem to retreat into my own thoughts. Lines of poetry started to flow again after I gave birth to my first and then second child, and then to cascade after I had my third. Perhaps it’s just that I was half-mad with exhaustion, but my brainwaves seemed to change. I read poetry in the middle of the night while nursing the baby, and wrote lines on scraps of paper while I perched on the edge of a sandbox or stopped pushing the stroller in order to scribble in a notebook. That’s often what I must do now, still—write around the children. At the same time, though, their words and perspectives, their creative energy, inspire me. My first collection has finally been published, and absolutely no-one would call me a prodigy now. A late bloomer, if I’m lucky.
My early literary influences included Stevens, Bishop, Lowell, Plath, Strand, Beckett, Joyce, Heaney, Muldoon, Auden, Larkin, Ondaatje, MacEwan. I still read them, along with many others (I have very diverse tastes): Notley, Szymborska, Carson, Mouré, the newer generation of poets publishing in England and the U.S, in particular, Hofmann, Greenlaw and Maxwell, and, recently, Equi, Robbins and Harvey, and the usual suspects I’ve read since university--Shakespeare, Donne, Blake, Yeats. (To return to childhood for a moment, I treasured the copy my grandparents gave me, when I was about 10, of The New Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1950--a formal anthology, not really meant for children, but I adored it.) I read as much new work by Canadian poets, novelists and short-story writers as I can. I fell behind when it came to reading my contemporaries around the time I stopped writing poetry. I’m trying to catch up now but it’s a huge undertaking, given the blossoming of small-press publishing.
TTQ - How would you best describe your debut collection of poetry Reporting from Night and would it be safe to assume that most of the poems were written while you were suffering from sleep deprivation?
Kateri Lanthier - It’s hard to characterize one’s own work—and mine is only one interpretation, after all--but I’d say that the poems in Reporting from Night are playful and imagistic, some bit teasing, some obliquely political, many with an undercurrent of sadness. Some have a sharp twist. Most engage with surrealism. There is a mix of forms—most of the newer poems are short and somewhat fragmented, while the older ones have clearer narrative structures. There’s one sonnet. The natural and the urban are wriggling around each other and challenging each other all through it. And the voices and views of children inform many of the poems.
For the most part, because of my family responsibilities, I write late at night. My children are still quite young, so, yes, I’m often somewhat sleep-deprived when I’m working on a poem. (The title of the book is, in part, a wry reference to that.) But I edit the poems when I’m more alert. Night air seeped into this book, I think. I’m still exploring the topic—these days, I’m writing poems about night workers and the 24-hour cycle.
TTQ - Reporting from Night is formatted in two sections, Earth's Familiar Objects and Who Is Us. What is the primary theme of each section? I've also selected one poem from each section that stood out to me and I'm wondering if you could talk about what inspired each of them. The first poem is "Oscar Wilde at the City Auditorium" and the second is "In Arcadia."
Kateri Lanthier - The poems in the first part, Earth’s Familiar Objects, deal with natural elements and urban grit, try to tackle nostalgia and its hazards, and revolve around the epigraph from a wonderful poem by Piotr Sommer: “All memory we owe to objects.” The poems in the second part, Who is Us, are mainly about childhood—my own and my observations of my children’s experiences—about definitions of self in early adulthood, and, somewhat indirectly, about marriage. The book contains poems written over two decades. They’re intermingled in both parts. I edited some of the early ones considerably—it was almost as if they’d been written by someone else. I gave them stern looks, even those that had been published—if I felt no connection to them, either they didn’t make it in or they had to be overhauled. It could have been a longer book if I’d included more of the earlier poems, but I wanted the collection to reflect my current style.
You’ve chosen two of the older poems to discuss. I wrote “Oscar Wilde at the City Auditorium” after reading Ellmann’s biography. I was thinking about Wilde and various other writers who went on speaking tours of “the colonies”—the precursor of the modern book tour, in some ways—and of how moved or startled an audience member might be after attending such a lecture. There’s the dawning sense of emancipation, the reference to Salome, certainly the influence of the Aesthetic Movement. I wanted to bring those elements into a small-town Canadian setting to see how they’d play out in a poem.
After the Arab Spring and the emergence of the Occupy Movement, the poem “In Arcadia” seems even more of a period piece to me—I wrote it during the ‘90s recession, when the “radical summers” seemed distant and almost quaint. I attended a couple of day camps in Sudbury much like the one in the poem—vaguely hippy camps at which the teenage counselors, who were either blasé or bright-eyed and idealistic, had us tie-dye t-shirts and spray-paint rocks (neither activity being particularly eco-friendly—and the rocks were absurd). I remember the summers fondly, though—we were out in “the bush” and it was beautiful, that scrubby, rocky wilderness, with teenagers blasting rock music from their transistor radios. And when I was at U of T, the Annex was in transition from the post-Rochdale years of multiple apartments crammed into dilapidated Victorian houses to the new wave of renovations and rising rents. The gentrification even then was starting to make it harder for students to get by, but the tuition was still quite low. I was dismayed by the rise of the neo-con movement. And look at it now…The poem takes a fairly light approach, but I do bring it back to the monarchy at the end (much as I do in the poem “Royal Icing”) and lay some of the blame right in those pale empty hands.
TTQ - Who helped you with the editing process for Reporting from Night and what has your relationship been like with your publisher Iguana Books?
Kateri Lanthier - My editor is a poet and novelist whose work I admire and for whom I have great respect. He prefers to remain anonymous (it’s always his preference when performing the role of editor), so I can’t disclose his name. I was thrilled to work with him and couldn’t have asked for a better editor.
The poet Gary Barwin helped me in the early stages of preparing the book—he read some of the newer poems and gave me some helpful feedback. His encouragement came at a crucial stage for me. The poets Catherine Graham and Mark Truscott both read the manuscript and offered insightful comments and much-appreciated encouragement, too. I’m grateful as well to the artist Douglas Walker for giving me permission to use one of his paintings on the cover. We met when I interviewed him for a magazine. I’m in awe of his work.
Iguana Books is a start-up, a brand-new entity launched at the end of November 2011. A first book from a new, unknown publishing house faces some unique challenges, but I’ve been especially pleased with how widely the book appears on the websites of booksellers around the world—the big names and many smaller ones. The publisher, Greg Ioannou, has decades of experience as an editor, working on both fiction and non-fiction. He launched Iguana as an e-publishing house, primarily, although he has produced print versions of some of the titles. The e-book version of Reporting from Night was actually available before the print version. As everyone in publishing knows, this is a time of enormous change. One thing I like is that my book can be ordered from pretty much any bookshop, small or large. (The distributor is Ingram.) You can get a copy of it and still support your favourite local shop.
TTQ - How important is reading your new poetry first in front of a live audience and is that a key component of your writing process?
Kateri Lanthier - I love reading other people’s poetry silently, on my own—I crave that private experience. Once I’m familiar with a poem, I like to hear the poet read it—whether at a live reading or in a recording—the audio resources available online now are stunning. Sometimes it’s a revelation to encounter a really good poem first at a reading—to hear it unfold with no sense (unless the poet has tipped you off beforehand) of how long it will be, of where it might be going. It can be breathtaking. I recently heard my friend Nyla Matuk read one of her new poems and the audience was enthralled—I was, too—it built in such a stealthy yet steady way that the experience of hearing it read aloud first was one I’ll long remember. When I’m editing one of my own poems, I always read it aloud—first to myself (making changes as I hear the need for them) and then, often, reading it to my children—mainly because they’re a convenient captive audience!—and occasionally to my husband. Reading aloud seems an essential step in making sure that the rhythms are progressing properly and that there aren’t any unintended tongue-twisters. I’m not a performance poet, and, for the most part, I want the work to be able to reach someone who is simply reading it silently, although I also hope it will reach people when read aloud. I used to give readings frequently when I was at university and afterwards, but have only just started giving some again—there are a few coming up this year, which I’m excited about. It’s a privilege to read to people. I’ve been accumulating new work that I hope is both more daring and more complex, and I’m eager to see what an audience thinks of it.