observing the images
of my hearts
labyrinth of arteries,
for the very first time
which you captured.
WITH GRAHAME WOODS:
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.
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
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.
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
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. ]
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.