Catherine Owen: The title, Dear Ghost,, comes from the John Ashbery quote at the start of the book: "Dear ghost, what shelter in the noonday crowd?" I found the line compelling as obviously addressing a spectre about undead concerns is a bit odd, but something one does when grieving. I actually had multiple titles for this book and only settled on this one long after the poems in the collection were written.
Wnuk: On the subject of Ashbery, one of your poems states that he is what you “resisted as a younger poet but who now [you] embrace”. Do you think your view on poetry is constantly evolving today, and how would you say your outlook on poetry has changed since your younger years?
Owen: Absolutely my views on poetry are regularly evolving and shifting, growing deeper as I continue to expand my circle of texts and experiences. When I was a younger poet, I loved the simple lyric more than anything. It provided me with a sense of possibility I think, control and resolution. Then, likely through my work on the poet Robinson Jeffers throughout my second book, The Wrecks of Eden, and my Masters thesis, I became hungry for epics. But I still wasn't ready for Ashbery's surreal ironies or non-sequiturial leaps. Eventually, I had a breakthrough and not only began to relish his work but to see him as a poetic muse, one who I can absorb daily and who releases me to write in any wild way I choose.
Wnuk: In Dear Ghost,, you dedicate a section to “Poems that work in the TV World”. What are your experiences with film, and how would you say poetry and film relate, if at all?
Owen: I have worked in film for 5 years now. First as a PA and then in Props. For me the film life has enabled me to work part time and make sufficient money that I can live alone. That has been its primary influence as artists are always struggling to figure out how to create their art and survive at the same time as one cannot subsist on poetic income! As a poet I am more often "in my head" and working in film has also increased the tangibility in my life as well as my need to be physically fit and endure long crazy hours. Pros and cons to every choice but fusing writing poetry with making a living in film has come the closest to providing balance in my existence so far.
Wnuk: Some of your poems touch upon the artifice in film and the distance between art and life. Do you think the tensions in the film world (between artifice and reality) play out in the poetry world in the same way?
Owen: Certainly not in the same way. In the film world we are always trying to create illusion. In poetry one uses language and craft to attempt to arrive at a truth. I take poetry as an art form very seriously while in film there is more of a slap-dash feel often as one rushes to toss something together to make it "look like" a war scene or a fancy party. But then most of the film work I have done is with Warner Bros shows so that may have skewed my vision of that realm.
Wnuk: You write on many modern and current topics while using more traditional forms of poetry, such as the sonnet and glosa. What takes you back to these traditional forms as a way into addressing modern topics?
Owen: I firmly believe that to write you need to know ALL the tools and approaches to the art. And form is a HUGE part of this kit. I don't see them as traditional containers vs modern content but as means through which what I experience in the present can be conveyed most compellingly. The content usually "asks" for a particular form or structure. For instance, material that addresses grief loves to fill a villanelle form as it is both circular and advancing in its hauntings and eventual movements toward resolutions. And forms are music. Which is the core of poetry.
Owen: Born and raised in Vancouver, the landscape inevitably enters my art, inflicts it, echoes it. I am particularly drawn to bodies of water like the Fraser River and such landmarks as the Pattullo Bridge. I think it's crucial to attend to your immediate environment but not to be limited or narrowed by regionality. I have toured this whole country 10 times now and so feel at home in many places. You bring your audience to you when you are performing, whether that's in forms or in geography. You consider them capable of traveling with you where your work is going.
Wnuk: How much do you take the reader into consideration when writing? Would you say that you write for yourself first and foremost?
Owen: I just write. I am also a performer. But again, as I said above, I draw the audience to me. I certainly don't write for anyone else. Though I compose within a social nexus threaded by multiple influences. I always say that I write for the page and then take it to the stage.
Wnuk: I appreciate how vocal and opinionated you have been when it comes to reviewing poetry on your Marrow Reviews website. Many times a reviewer might be afraid to give a negative opinion on a poetry book. What would you say to someone who says that “negative” reviews are harmful?
Owen: Negative is not a word that makes sense to me when it comes to giving a critical opinion. None of us are perfect and if an educated reader is able to say "your line breaks don't work here or there" or "here's where you got lazy and fell into clichés" then we are all better for it. I want all writers to compose reviews because that increases their own and others' critical vocabulary, depth of reading and respect for the art. I grow very tired of the gushy blurb-style overviews or poets refusing to review because they think it will harm their chances of getting prizes or jobs. We really need to be braver for the art!
Wnuk: Lastly, in Dear Ghost,, you use found text in many of your poems, whether it be from a letter found on the street or conversations overheard. What inspired you to take up this form?
Owen: The first poem was, yes, a letter recovered in the street and it struck me as so ideal in its unwitting evocations of the conflictual relationship we can all have with the bonds of "art". I like to walk and to take transit and thus to listen to the world flowing around me in all its idioms and tonalities. Often a bit of a conversation sparks a poem or allows an alternate rhythm to enter the piece. And again, such a technique was inspired by Ashbery's willing openness, looseness, swerves and detours and its attending entrees into magic.
Brandon Wnuk is a recent grad of the UFV English program.
Catherine Owen is the author of ten collections of poetry and three collections of prose, including her compilation of interviews on writing called The Other 23 & a Half Hours: Or Everything You Wanted to Know that Your MFA Didn’t Teach You (Wolsak & Wynn, 2015) and her short story collection, The Day of the Dead (Caitlin Press, 2016).
You can pick up a copy of Dear Ghost, from the Wolsak and Wynn website. or from your local bookstore.