Disquiet and Experimentation: Interview with writer Chloë Catán, first-prize winner in the 2015 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest

 

Chloë Catán

 

 

Chloë Catán’s poem “Uprush” (read it here) received first prize in the 2015 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest. She received private online mentoring sessions with contest judge Stuart Ross, who had this to say about her submission:

“It was wonderful to award the first prize in a contest for unpublished poets to a poem that begins with an epigraph by Fernando Pessoa, the great Portuguese writer who published very little during his lifetime. With few words that stretch beyond a syllable or two, ‘Uprush,’ a beautifully paced, economically crafted poem, is rich in sound, language, and image. Like a dream, this poem tumbles disorientingly down the page, both celebrating itself and at war with itself: it exalts; it contradicts. There is tension between the stuff of nature and the stuff with which we have burdened nature. Each reading of ‘Uprush’ reveals new nuances, new phrasings, new possibilities.”

 

Here, Heidi Stock, the contest’s founder, interviews Chloë about her poetry, and what it means to her to have had “Uprush” chosen and study with Stuart Ross.

 

HS: Chloë, why did you decide to submit this particular poem to the contest? 

CC: I wrote this poem for a class, and wasn’t sure how it was going to be received. Would it be too cryptic? Too disjointed? Too surreal? I knew these would be probable critiques, and yet every time I tried to change it before the reading, inserting perhaps a more obvious narrative, or somehow explaining the images, I decided I didn’t want to change one word. This usually works to my detriment, but this time, when I finally read it out in class, most of my colleagues reacted favorably. It was a huge boost, knowing that for once, trusting my instincts worked. Never has a poem been so little tinkered with after the first draft. I decided to submit it to the contest on the strength of these reactions.

 

HS: What’s the backstory to this poem?

CC: It started as an exercise given by instructor Ken Babstock. He told us to write six lines or so, and somewhere in the middle make it obvious where the narrator is situated. So I wrote the first stanza (without the first line referring to Pessoa), thinking of a particular place where I grew up, the chalk cliffs in the South of England. It stayed like that until I decided to expand on it. At the time I was reading Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet, and the idea came to me to list other images that were lodged in my own “book of disquiet.” Because they were disjointed, I linked each stanza by referring to the poem’s first line. Of course what I was writing, in a very organic way, was an anaphora. I won’t explain the genesis of all the images, because I think part of the effect has to do with their strangeness. But I will say that each one is rooted in experience: a memory, or a dream, or something between the two. Each one, for its own reasons, stuck over the years and haunted me. Perhaps because, in one way or another, they all deal with loss.

 

HS: When did you start writing poetry?

CC: I began taking creative writing classes about four years ago, enrolling in poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction. I liked them all, but I keep gravitating back to poetry. It’s not that I find it “easier” (they’re all horribly difficult), but perhaps I tend to see things in moments. There’s nothing like nailing a particular feeling or image or scene in a few lines, because when you nail it, you understand it.

I started taking classes a year after my father died, very suddenly and very young. His death prompted me to explore all sorts of difficult questions, and writing was part of this. It’s not that I thought I’d “try out something different” or even that I wanted to write specifically about his death. It was a case of not being able to see a way forward after such devastation. Put it this way: being faced with one of my worst fears made the fear of succumbing to my creativity shrink in comparison. I wish it had been something less terrible that made me put pen to paper, but something positive has come out of it.

 

HS: Do you remember your first poem? Care to share a couple of lines? What inspired that first poem or your first piece of creative writing?

CC: I’m not sure it’s worth sharing my first poem from those classes, but funnily enough, there’s a line from it in “Uprush”: “a slap and its sting.” I do this quite often. Go back to my boneyard of “failed” poems and salvage one line, or a couple of words. It’s rewarding to know that all that work wasn’t wasted, and that saving discarded poems can sometimes come in handy when writing new ones.

 

HS: Was poetry your first creative outlet, or was it another style of writing? Or another art form? 

CC: As a girl I was always making things: drawings, paintings, jewellery, clothes, furniture. At the same time, I was always reading. I’ll never forget the sense of relief and excitement when my mother replenished the stack of books on my shelf. I felt that life was somehow safe if I had that alternative world to escape to. When the pile dwindled, I would feel anxious. I have the same feeling even now. I wasn’t a huge writer, but I had notebooks as a teenager where I’d doodle or draw or paint or stick things in, and I’d also scribble down words or phrases. I don’t think I distinguished much between words and images.

 

HS: Do other forms of artistic expression and/or life experience influence your writing? 

CC: I’m an art historian, so I am always going to exhibitions and reading about art. I’m a big fan of modern dance and theatre. Film is also part of my weekly staple. I don’t think any of these find their way directly into my poems. I wish they did. But they make me think, and feel, and experience the world in ways that are inspiring, and this probably rubs off in the writing, if only to get me in a particular mood.

As a child and young adult, I moved around a lot and lived in numerous cities and countries. I’m also bicultural (half British, half Mexican). For better or for worse, this instilled in me the vision of an outsider, which sometimes comes in handy when observing and writing. Perhaps not so much for living, although it does make one adaptive!

 

HS: Who has influenced or encouraged your writing — which writers/authors, other artists, teachers or mentors, loved ones? 

CC: My teachers at the University of Toronto Creative Writing Program have been amazing: Michael Winter, Ken Babstock, Catherine Graham, Paul Vermeersch, Christine Pountney, Pasha Malla, Shyam Selvadurai, David Layton, Allyson Latta, Alexandra Leggat. They are all inspiring and supportive, always inviting students to readings and literary events. Being included in these things is a big part of the encouragement. A class I took with Ken Babstock was co-taught with Jeff Latosik. He was the first one to say the words “Send these out.” If he hadn’t said them, I probably wouldn’t have done it. I’m grateful he believed in my work. Also, I have a great writing group. They are always encouraging and very fun.

There are too many influences to list. Poetry-wise, here’s what’s currently on my bedside table: Jorie Graham, Paul Ceylan, Anne Carson, Shane Book, Cassidy McFadzean, Matt Rader, Tracy K. Smith, Robert Haas, August Kleinzahler, Sina Queyras, Erin Mouré, Karen Solie, Ken Babstock… Yes, my poor little table is creaking under the weight. I’m not even going to get into fiction! But it’s important to note that there’s a mixture of established poets and younger poets.

 

HS: What do you do to develop your craft? 

CC: Read, read, read, write. Read, read, read, write. That seems to be the pattern. Perhaps I’d be more prolific if it were the other way round, but I just can’t stop reading! It’s inspiring to see so many different voices out there, and I learn from all of them.

Classes keep me writing. Sharing work with colleagues makes all the difference. If the dynamic is good, it can make a solitary and often difficult process really fun. There are deadlines, of course, but also stimulating discussions that push me to look in places I haven’t seen, or haven’t seen in a particular light. The teachers — all incredible writers and editors themselves — always have insightful thoughts on the writing process, from inspiration to revision. They also make invaluable reading recommendations. This has expanded and enriched my knowledge, particularly of poetry, despite its unfortunate lack of visibility in bookstores.

 

HS: Tell us about your mentoring experience with Stuart Ross.

CC: One-on-one sessions with Stuart have been an incredible opportunity to get feedback on my work. It’s a luxury, having the time to ask questions about the details: Does this word work? This comma? This image or line break? And also to talk about broader questions such as submitting, feeling blocked, or expanding my style. It’s a pleasure to talk about reading as well, and he always comes up with great recommendations based on my interests and leanings. What I like most about my sessions with Stuart is that he’s open, encouraging, and respectful, and this creates an excellent creative environment. I will always be grateful for him telling me that I could send him anything, meaning pieces that aren’t finished or polished, or even just experiments. It takes the pressure off. I always feel I have to hand in something perfect, which of course is nonsense.

 

HS: How will Stuart’s guidance inform your future writing? 

CC: Stuart told me that he prefers the word “experiment” to “exercise.” This is a wonderful way of looking at it, because it means that nothing is just a preliminary warm-up to writing a poem. Instead, the whole process of writing a poem is about experimentation. It’s a liberating thought, not distinguishing between learning and actual composition, and the more poets I talk to, the more I hear them say that they are continuously learning through the process. It also softens the barrier between poems that are working and those that aren’t. It means you’re not racking your brain for a good one from the start. That tends to shut me down completely!

 

CHLOË CATÁN is an art historian and translator living in Toronto. She is pursuing her Certificate in Creative Writing from the University of Toronto.

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In the 2015 Aspiring Canadian Poets Contest, Basia Gilas’s poem “Negative Curvature” won second prize and Marina Black’s “Forget the Colour of Wheat” won third. Congratulations to all three winners.

This year’s contest judge and mentor will be announced in the spring. Entries will be accepted starting April 1, 2016. April is National Poetry Month.

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