Cobourg Poetry Workshop
feature poet



observing the images
of my heart’s
labyrinth of arteries,
two ninety-percent blocked
I saw
for the very first time
which you captured.


Question 1:
We hear a lot about "the death of the book." There is some irony in the fact that when I use the word 'hear,' what I literally mean is 'read.' In a nutshell, the argument is that the Internet has created such a powerful new medium that, as Marshall McLuhan might put it, "The new medium is the new message." Turning a deaf-ear to the foreboding of this weepy Greek chorus, you prepared a manuscript, worked with Ink Bottle Press and released, "Rural Reflections." If so many esteemed intellectuals posit the death of the 'old' paper-medium, do you think you took a huge leap of faith in 2011 by releasing a printed book?

No, not at all. "Rural Reflections" is just like self-publishing a book of poetry, a kind of limited edition, which we thought would have a readership pretty well confined to Northumberland county, because its theme is centred on a farm in Cramahe township and is very "local." But, in fact, it's gone as far as England and Vancouver Island with very positive reactions - because, I think, it deals with universal themes.

But, no, I don't think people will ever abandon "the book," the tactile experience. In the recording industry, Long-Playing records are making a comeback, and with them the old-fashioned turn table.

Having said that though, I imagine, in a few years, there will be far fewer books. The present pre-teen and teen generations, weaned on keyboards, iPhones, iPads etc, reading books on screens will be the norm for them. Remember quill pens, fountain pens, typewriters, film cameras? We move on.
Question 2:
I always presume that one person who is likely to love any book the most is the person who authored it, the person who poured heart and soul into creating a manuscript of their own words. What framed your decisions about which pieces should be 'in' and what writing should be left sitting on your desk, only dreaming about being 'in'?

I'd had the advantage of a "test readership." In 2005, I'd written a short series of articles for the then Cobourg Daily Star titled, yes, Morganston Reflections, which turned out to be a dry run for the book. I received a lot of positive feedback from readers and, also, from a friend in Warkworth, Eila Belton, who phoned me and said, "You should turn the articles into a book." I explored the idea but, at that time, it was too expensive.

Then, a year ago, following the November 18, 2010 Reading I did at the Cobourg Poetry Workshop's 3rd Thursday Reading Series, the guest poet, Karen Shenfeld, took me aside and suggested I publish some of my poems. I hadn't been writing poetry for very long, maybe 4 years or so, and really didn't have enough good poems for a book. It was great for my ego though.

But then I had an "Ah, ah" moment, "Why not combine the two ideas and put them into a book?"

So "Rural Reflections" has both rural-themed poems as well as short prose pieces tracing my wife Glorya's and my years on our farm in Morganston.

But none of this would have happened without Mark Clement and Ink Bottle Press. It was a poetic perfect storm, with Mark producing a really handsome book. The good news is that it's selling very well.
Question 3:

Was creation of the manuscript a solo endeavour or did you have help with editing the various parts, polishing your words and so on?

From the get-go of my writing career, Glorya has been my Muse, my first-to-go-to editor. When I was writing television plays for the CBC, Glorya was the one who read my daily output. Her reactions were very important to me, her comments and suggestions. She saw it well before the CBC story-editor I was working with. Even now, she is the first person to read my columns for Northumberland Today, before I send them. And, 99% of the time, I heed her suggestions. When I was writing my novel, I would give Glorya a week's worth of chapters to read.

[ Interviewer's note: Grahame had a novel Titled "Bloody Harvest" published in both hard-cover and paperback editions by McClelland & Stewart in 1977. ]

This was in the olden days of typewriters and carbon paper and any changes meant having to retype an entire page. It was a long process but, by the time I had my first meeting with the editor from M&S - a memorable meeting, lunch at the Courtyard Café at the Windsor Arms in Toronto (M&S picking up the tab), a far cry from a meeting in a cramped CBC office - the book was in good shape. Remarkably, the editor only made one suggestion, but a brilliant one, concerning moving one small section to the opening of the novel.

With "Rural Reflections," Mark also made suggestions for minor tweaks. His prime, invaluable, contribution was the design of the book. It was a great working experience.

For my poetry though, I do it alone. Writing poetry is so different and, I think, a far more personal form of creativity. So the first people to hear what I have written are members of the CPW at the monthly meeting at The Cat & The Fiddle.

[ Interviewer's note: the CPW (Cobourg Poetry Workshop) is a group that has more than 20 poets as members who pay annual dues. Having been formed by interested people, including Eric Winter, Cobourg's first Poet Laureate, this group has been in existence for more than 11 years. Besides putting on the monthly "3rd Thursday Poetry Reading Series" that is open to the public at "Meet at 66 King East," the CPW gathers its group member-poets each month upstairs at a local pub called "The Cat & The Fiddle," or "The Cat." These gatherings have occurred continuously since the Summer of 2000 and the "3rd Thursday Series" has run uninterrupted for close to 9 ½ years. For 5 years in a row now, the CPW has published an annual anthology called "The Local Lot," each of which has contained poetry by Grahame. ]
Question 4:
Do you know that poets in and around Cobourg hate you? When I use the word 'hate,' I am employing hyperbole as a device to grab attention but if I substituted the word 'envy,' there would be no exaggeration in my statement at all. Are you aware that other poets view you as a very good poet?

That's very complimentary and really appreciated. I've felt very good about my last two readings at the 3rd Thursday Series, the audience reaction was positive. And, yes, I've had very good reactions from members of the CPW, and that's very important in trying to sense whether what I'm writing is engaging the listener.

One really appreciated moment, following my November 2011 reading, was a congratulatory email sent later that night by a CPW member. Having said that, I'm very aware that what poets write isn't necessarily going to strike a chord with everyone.

And reading at "The Cat" I'm far more nervous than at a 3rd Thursday Reading because I'm reading in front of a group of terrific poets, far more steeped in the form than I will ever be, so their reaction is very important to me. The exception would be the first time I gave a 3rd Thursday Reading: I was a bundle of nerves, throat drying up on me.
Question 5:
It is only a couple of years since you wrote your first poem. People like your poems: do you have any didactic understanding of the why and the how, the way your poetry attained a high level of accessibility, likeability and craft in such a relatively short time after you took up this form of writing?

I think, possibly, because I often tend to write about day-to-day things in society that people can identify with. This probably goes all the way back to my first career as an apprentice news photographer, then, later, as a cinematographer shooting documentaries, getting into the nitty-gritty of the lives of people and the situations they were in. This spilled over into my career as a television playwright. Some of my most successful scripts dealt with social situations and, possibly, that seeped into my poetry, even though it is a shorter form.
Question 6:
For the purposes of my next question, I want you to simply take as 'a given' that a lot of emotion gets recorded permanently in written form by a lot of people and the people doing it have an irritating habit of labelling the result as "poetry" but, in actual fact, it isn't. It is writing. It may well be writing that is worthy of a readership. However, those tenets alone do not constitute poetry. So, leave that type of writing out of consideration when you answer: does any person have to know even one darned thing about poetry in order to write a good poem?

You've touched on something that I've wrestled with since I started writing poetry. And I don't have an answer.

When does prose crossover to become poetry? Or does it? Is prose, on the page, simply prose, but read to an audience, and taken to another level by the reader, it is converted from prose to poetry?

Like most art forms, poetry has stretched boundaries, and there will always be audiences for the various forms - Slam, Spoken Word (is that a form of prose?) and the myriad others - and there will always be purists, as there have been in music, film, theatre, who frown on new directions. When I hear poems using language, fine word-play, I question if what I write is really poetry. Mind you, there is a danger of getting too clever by half with word play.

What is the yardstick? Applause, or lack of it, at a reading? The selling of books of poetry? The approval of one's peers?

I guess one answer is, does the poem touch the reader, the member of the audience and, so much of the time, the poet will never know because the individual reaction is a very personal thing.
Question 7:
You came to poetry from a background of years (and years and years) of just about every other kind of writing. You had a novel published 34 years ago - by McClelland & Stewart, no less! You have written scripts for T.V. shows, for documentary films as well as plays for the stage and librettos for musicals. You've written a newspaper column for many years. And there are some forms of writing you've done that I have not listed. More, a lot of this writing won big awards, got great reviews and received wonderful audience acclaim. How did all of that lend itself to your efforts when you began composing poetry?

I touched on that earlier, but, thinking about it more, it played a huge role. It gave me discipline - nothing focuses the creative juices more than a deadline and, when you are freelance, a cheque on delivery. And, there was that truism that you're only as good as your last script.

Are there deadlines for me in poetry? Yes. Reading at "The Cat" and, later, at a 3rd Thursday Reading. Because I'm fairly new to writing poetry, I don't have that much of a backlog to draw on if I dry up. So, often, in the days before "The Cat" meeting, an idea that's been percolating in my head gets my full attention and I settle down to write.

Another thing - my first poetry efforts tended to be far too long but, fairly quickly, I think, hope, I saw the need, as in writing dialogue for a play, that much of the time, less is more. So I'm learning to edit more.

And, I hope, my experiences in rehearsals, particularly in the theatre, watching and listening to actors working on my dialogue, has helped my in reading in front of an audience, helped in my delivery, which is a work in progress. My throat doesn't dry up as much, so maybe there's some improvement.
Question 8:
You came to writing poetry from a background of being relatively unversed (pun fully intended) in reading poetry. Many people who write poetry know the names of many poets currently writing, some dead poets and some long dead. They know the poetry these people are writing, have written. You are open about the fact that you do not have a similar depth in that area. As writing poetry has become an on-going activity for you, as you've attended more and more poetry readings, as you've participated actively in the CPW, have you developed the opinion that if a person is going to compose poetry, he should read poetry? Or is that of benefit to some but not necessarily to everyone?

I would say it's critically important to read poetry, in my case to broaden my knowledge of styles, not to copy but to absorb and, to a point, to get "permission" to try something that might not be the norm. That's one of the great things about listening at the CPW sessions at "The Cat" ... hearing all the different approaches to writing poetry, the different deliveries, and learning from them.
Question 9:
Is there a "big bang" involved in the creation of every poem you write? For you, what is that mover of all movers that gets a new poem started?

It's evolved. When Eric Winter asked me, as he has done several people in the past, to join the CPW ("Just try it, see what you think.") and I realized I had write something, write a poem, from square-one, it was a jumping-into-the-deep-end moment. I don't think most poetry writing careers start at a given moment in time - "get ready, set, go!" But mine did. My second meeting at "The Cat" was due and I wanted to have something to read. Talk of a double-whammy - first poem, first reading in public (a small group constitutes a public when one is starting). What was I saying about deadlines? "Where to begin?" It was instinctual, unplanned - back to very early childhood and the war, a time in my life well buried and undisturbed. Which was when I thought, for the first time, "Is that really poetry?" But I went with it anyway. No "big bang." And, looking back, it's a pretty good poem.

But, at my last reading in November, I read a poem "Two Days in Niagara."

Earlier, Glorya and I had been in Niagara-on-the-Lake to go to the Shaw Festival. We were having a picnic lunch looking out over the Niagara River - a beautiful day - and suddenly I recalled that, three days earlier, a young, Japanese tourist had fallen into the river above The Falls, and had been swept down to her death, her body not recovered. It hit me forcibly - here I was enjoying this fantastic day, and she was out there, somewhere, in that swirling mass of water. And that was the beginning of the poem. I became really aware of everything around me, storing it, making notes back at the hotel. It was a powerful moment.
Question 10:
And so, you bring this new thing into a world that is not all that welcoming to its kind (some people take the same view towards poetry as Churchill did to communism, "We should have smothered it at birth"), what do you do to nurture it from that raw-red, wail of loose skin into one of those magnificently-built Atlas-type poems we, your fan-base, hear from you?

Having finished a poem, I go back to it, revise, tweak it here and there, put stuff back, take it out again, read it out loud, try to find the right cadence. Interestingly, the most critical editing comes when I'm preparing for a 3rd Thursday Reading. All the poems are new, some maybe a year old, but only heard at "The Cat." And as I prepare in the days before the reading, I become very focused, "hearing" the poems in a new way, making minor changes.

But, you know, I'm discovering really good poems don't come down the pike that often, but it feels good when they do. It was the same in my television-writing career - I would say I only wrote, maybe four, five tops, really, excellent scripts, that I look back on and say to myself, "Yep, you did it."
Question 11:
Long rides on your bicycle, the view from Monk's Cove on those rides, the rolling hills of Northumberland County, experiences such as these figure in your writing. When you realize that your muse has become a tandem rider on one of these outings, do you panic that the words that come to you as inspiration will be lost before you get home? I guess what I am asking is: is the idea of 'The Muse' empty romantic nonsense? What is the role of inspiration in the process of you creating a poem?

If it is romantic nonsense, being very much a romantic, I like it. But, yes, I have started some poems on my bike rides and, yes, I often forget the brilliant words I'd composed by the time I get home.

Inspiration? It's that terrific, emotional boost that comes, when an idea hits and it seems to fall into place, like an adrenalin rush.

But then, there are the long droughts. I'm not absorbed by writing poetry - it's one of many layers in my life. I have to say, though, that Eric inviting me to join the CPW, opened up a large, new, area in my life; created an opportunity to meet new people, develop new friendships, and a way to enjoy a new form of writing.
Question 12:
Many poets tell me that once initial spark for the poem has played its part fully, the thing that must be brought into play is hard work. Should everyone who writes poetry adopt the attitude that they are not simply satisfied with getting the poem down, and satisfied with that enjoyable rush of creativity inherent in that act? Is editing not only recommended but also required if the work is going to be good?

I think, possibly, there's a danger of over-editing, being too critical, to the point the original intention might get lost. If it becomes hard work ... I don't know, I suspect too much oversight might diminish a poem. Second-guessing can be a risky thing.

Perhaps, writing at a level where poets are considered for major awards, or for being published by a major house, then I can see the need for other opinions. But I think, also, there can be a danger in having an Editor. An Editor's job is to edit, earn his or her fee, so, perhaps, an Editor can divert a writer from his or her concept. I'm really not the person to ask about that - too new.
Question 13:
Oh, that's interesting: you took a different meaning from the word "edit" than I intended. I agree that having another person intrude into a personal creative process has the potential to be most unnerving even if under the guise of a loving and benevolent Editor. The question meant to explore the process of the poet himself in revising, polishing. Some people take the view that what flows from the pen at first gush should be left exactly as it spilled out, that any reworking of it will rob it of its true creative spark. Others revise many times, entertaining multiple drafts of the same poem. Which of those are you? If you do revise, let us know what that process looks like.

My editing occurs over time. If I happen to scroll past an old poem, stop and read it, I almost certainly make minor tweaks. And, in some cases, say, "My god, did I write that?" and scrap it. Mostly though, it's to remove - what suddenly stand out as - unnecessary words - a "the" or "a" - words that interfere with the flow when read aloud, or to change a word for a stronger word.

In answering this, I realize my poems are written mainly to be heard, because no one else gets to read them, except in "The Local Lot" or in "Rural Reflections." Interestingly, in putting "Rural Reflections" together, I found I was fine-tuning the poems, some for the umpteenth time, and realize now that perhaps, unconsciously, I was aware that they would be under closer scrutiny on the printed page.

So editing, in that sense, is an ongoing occurrence.
Question 14:
Is that actually 'hard work'? A fellow rising at 4:30 a.m. to begin a day's work on a dairy farm might be sceptical. Is it actually work that is just that hard but just in a different way? Or is that just a matter of poets trying to justify to the public those big salaries they receive?

Well, of course, the big salaries poets earn are the reason we have the Occupy movement! I would think it would be tough working as a professional poet - "having" to produce work to meet deadlines, as opposed to the spontaneity of the kind of poetry we hear in Cobourg. And having had one successful book, then having to follow that up with another. Then it might be hard work - very tough.
Question 15:
Some people think that poetry is not to their tastes. I would say a good number of them are wrong and the problem is they have never really tried really remarkable poetry, which goes down smooth and nourishes for days. Whatever the answer to that is, people do exist who love a regular hit of poetry to feed this addiction they have coursing like an undercurrent in their veins. Why? What is it about poetry that creates that hit, that jolt at the bottom of the spine that so often makes its lovers exclaim, "Ouch" and "Wow" more or less simultaneously?

It can be many things; the beauty of the words, the delivery ... and we've seen that at some 3rd Thursday Readings. I'm thinking of Robyn Sarah and Lara Bozabalian who really grabbed the audience in their opening moments and didn't let go until the end; or perhaps it's a theme the listener can identify with, that perhaps reflects their own experience, that perhaps forces the listener to confront a personal, emotional block. Which is why reading to an audience is so important, not only to elicit a reaction, but to lift the words off the page, to complete the poet's intention. Sometimes words on the page don't have the same power as a Reading.
Question 16:
You do that to people. You do it through your poetry. When I have experienced one of your public readings, I get the sense that you might be up at the microphone thinking, "Well, this one will work with the audience. I have confidence in it" but then when you read it aloud, it really works, it goes over in a really big way, and, you are a little taken aback by being there to witness the poem have that effect. Without resorting to being politely-humble, answer me this: do you think you underestimate the power your poetry has with listeners / readers?

That's a really tough question.

What has been gratifying is, yes, the response to what I write and read aloud. Do I underestimate the power you say my poetry has with listeners? Probably. I'm not being "politely-humble" but, for me, standing up there reading, I'm in a kind of bubble - my brain is focused on the next poem, not stumbling, not going off-mic, hoping I'm engaging the audience. When I get positive feedback afterward, and the adrenalin rush has subsided, it's a good feeling.
Question 17:
You mentioned Glorya. Tell us something about this wonderful wife of yours because she is also part of "Rural Reflections" not solely in the sense of you taking her as the inspiration for - and the subject of - some of your writing but in a very real sense because her work is featured in the book, too.

She is a remarkable person. She had a great career at the CBC, where our paths crossed, first as a unit manager, a writer for television drama, eventually head of television drama. When we moved to the farm in Morganston, she became the engine that ran it. She could have been an interior designer, landscape designer, you name it - she's multi-talented. She became the first women ever elected to Cramahe council in its entire history, going back to the late 1700s, was a real estate wiz ... a remarkable lady. And, of course, she did the photographs for "Rural Reflections." I've been very lucky to have her.
Question 18:
You mentioned that you were born in England. You immigrated to Canada as a young adult. What about the notion of English reserve, that something that makes these Anglais grow aloof whenever emotion shows up and rings the doorbell hoping to party. Do you think composing poetry is a method of channelling emotion that you are otherwise somewhat uncomfortable displaying?

No. That "reserve" probably reflects uncertainty in coming into a poetry group as a newbie - surrounded, in so many instances, by people who are, as you mentioned earlier, immersed in poetry, both with its history and with their own writing skills.

Emotion and I are very comfortable with each other and have a good understanding of when to let it flow. I guess I've always had a certain caution about life, its uncertainties, never taking it for granted. My early years were in England, but I "grew up" in Canada, discovered myself here - but that sense of caution has never left me. And, certainly, there's no reserve in the columns I write for Northumberland Today.

There was a remarkable moment in my life in 2002, which, I think, changed me for all time. I had a heart attack and subsequent bypass surgery and, although it wasn't a conscious thing, it freed me from some of life's constraints. I had no qualms about taking on whatever crossed my path - creating a cardiac support group at Northumberland Hills Hospital, a heart-recovery website, creating a Classical Star competition to raise money for Aids orphans in Malawi, get an idea, do it! ... taking Eric Winter up on his offer to come to a session of the CPW and to try my hand at writing poetry. No "reserve" there. "Rural Reflections?" ... why not?

Take sensible risks, yes. But, if there is a sense of reserve there - just below the surface, there's a lot going on.

And I have that feeling - if my body would allow it, I could do any number of cartwheels - that I can do anything.
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