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Poetry Prize

The Shortlist: Q&A with Catherine Greenwood

There are five names on the shortlist for this year’s CBC Poetry Prize. But before we announce the winner, we want to let you know a little about the poets whose creations rose to the top. 

Catherine Greenwood's poem, “The Texada Queen," is shortlisted for the 2011-2012 CBC Poetry Prize. We talk to this British Columbia-based poet about bagpipes, poetry gods, and the teachers who made her take poetry seriously.

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1. Tell us about yourself
I live in Victoria with my husband, Steve Noyes, a poet and novelist, and our cat Prudence, whom I brought home from St. Peter’s monastery thirteen years ago. Our house is situated in a magical nexus between the naval base and the Songhees lands, overlooking Esquimalt Harbour. We are sometimes visited by deer, osprey, hummingbirds, and traveling poets. Lately I’ve been trying my hand at drought resistant landscaping.

The day jobs in recent years have included working for a community services organization, adjudicating government benefits programs, teaching in China, and administering student loans at a university. At present I work in a publications department, engaged primarily with text rather than people.

2. What do you usually write?
For several years I was working on fiction—a gothic novel and longish short stories. I set the fiction aside to finish a poetry book, but now those manuscripts are waking from hibernation and urging me to finish them.

3. Have you submitted to the competition before?
Yes, a number of times, always in the poetry category. I consider the entry fee an annual tithe to the poetry gods. Some years I have nothing suitable to send.

4. What themes did you choose to explore in your poetry entry?
I see themes of communication, conflict, passage, aging, and inheritance. None of that was intentional during the writing, however. Another reader might identify different themes.

5. What inspired you to write this poem?
One evening having dinner with my father, I saw how difficult communication was becoming for him. I realized how isolating it was for him, a former marine engineer who has studied Japanese and written books, to be deserted by the reliability of language, everyday words we summon so easily and take for granted. “The Texada Queen” is more reality-based than usual for me; the personae in my poems are often historical figures, for example, but here the speaker has no such veneer.

6. How long did you work on the poem? How many drafts did you write?
One draft, with minor tweaks, composed over three or four days, thanks to a literary couple who support other writers by lending their cabin as work space. I arrived with scraps of yellow legal paper, lines I jot down but don’t have time to develop. I don’t remember what image, phrase or feeling I started with, or why I picked this idea from the pile to try and revivify. A form emerged which I wrestled with until I reached the end, which came to me before the middle.  

7.  Your poem, “The Texada Queen”, starts by recounting a particular Christmas or New Year’s. What is your favourite holiday and why?
I used to love Hogmenay, the Scottish version of New Year. My parents and their friends and relations took turns having the party each year, with guitars, bagpipes, the singing of "Auld Lang Syne," the first-footer’s symbolic knock after midnight, and a big feast to revive everyone for another round of singing. Robbie Burn’s "Night" was another, with my father reciting the address to the Haggis; sometimes there was a pipe band if the event was in a community hall. These events were about celebrants recreating a transplanted culture, which my cousins and I felt privileged to be part of.  

8. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
When I was a little kid I wanted to be an artist or writer or cowgirl. I recall writing a musical play set in a hayloft which was never staged. Poems and song lyrics through junior high, of course, but it wasn’t until my late twenties and a writing course at Camosun College with the right teacher, Bill Jensen, that I felt encouraged to pursue poetry as a valid activity.

9. What other poets inspire you?
After reading Molly Peacock’s book The Second Blush, which struck me as intimate and loosely formal, I was inspired to write a poem after a hiatus of several years. Past teachers, editors and mentors continue to inspire me—the late, great Robert Kroetsch comes instantly to mind, the passion and enthusiasm he so generously offered his students. I have a few standby poets, including Rilke and Amy Gerstler, that I return to. I admire many contemporary Canadian poets, too many to list here, but I will say my constant inspiration is my husband, Steve, who extends his repertoire with every new book.

10. How does it feel to be shortlisted for this prize? 
Sweet, very sweet! I’ve made the longlist before, which was buoying, but never the shortlist with a prize and publication attached to the recognition. It’s gratifying, if slightly unnerving, to know that this particular poem will be available to a broader readership than I’m used to. The best part is that little kick from the universe saying, yes, it’s worth it, catching those random lines and trying to make something.

Catherine Greenwood holds a BA in English and Writing from the University of Victoria, and an MA in English from the University of New Brunswick. Her first book, The Pearl King and Other Poems, was a Kiriyama Prize notable book, and she’s received the Bliss Carmen Prize and the National Magazine Gold Award for poetry. A new collection, The Lost Letters, is forthcoming with Brick Books in 2013.

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