Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Clara Blackwood

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TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Clara Blackwood

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets – 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Clara Blackwood is a Toronto-based poet and professional Tarot reader. Her first poetry collection, Subway Medusa (2007), was the inaugural book in Guernica Editions’ First Poets Series, which features first books by poets thirty-five and under. Her poetry has appeared in such journals as the Hart House Review, Misunderstandings Magazine, Quills, Rampike, Carousel, and the UK magazine Dream Catcher. She holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto.

Her chapbook Arcana is scheduled for publication in 2011 with Aeolus House. Arcana will feature Tarot artwork alongside poems. She is currently completing a second book of poetry.

For more information about Clara Blackwood visit her blog. Copies of Subway Medusa can be purchased through the Guernica Editions website.

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TTQ- It has been said that poetry predates literacy, and many ancient works, like the Epic of Gilgamesh from the third millennium BC, were composed in poetic verse to better aid memorization and oral transmission of thought in prehistoric societies. What are your thoughts on the importance of communicating in poetic verse in today's modern and technology driven society?

CB- I see poetry as carrying on an oral tradition into our visual, technological age. Poetic styles change, but there is always that tie with the past and the magic of the word that poetry keeps alive. For me, poetry is a relief and a refuge. It’s an antidote to our fast-paced world. Part of poetry’s appeal is that it isn’t disposable. It offers sustenance, which you can go back to again and again. In that way, poetry speaks to what is most fundamental within us.

TTQ- Tell us about the evolution of your first book of poetry, Subway Medusa (Guernica Editions, 2007). What inspired many of the poems in the book, and do you have a couple of favourite poems from Subway Medusa you would like to talk about?

CB- Subway Medusa underwent a slow evolution. A number of the poems were written from many years back, to what feels like another era of my life. I suspect this is common nowadays for a poet’s first book. I write from experience and imagination — the balance shifts depending on the poem. Some of the poems in Subway Medusa are more realist; others more mythic. As the book title suggests, I would classify the work in two words as “urban mythic.” For favourite poems, right now my choices are “A Medieval Life” and “Visitation, University College.” I wrote “A Medieval Life” while I was a student at U of T. I was taking a course on Chaucer and became enamoured with the Canterbury Tales, and subsequently got the inspiration to write a narrative poem set in medieval times. I take some real liberties, and the poem is more warped fairy-tale, but I enjoy the bent humour of the poem. “Visitation, University College” is a favourite because it brings back the experience of seeing a ghost. Ivan Reznikoff, murdered stone mason, is Toronto’s most famous ghost. Thankfully I was not alone when the sighting occurred.

TTQ- How important is reading your poetry in front of a live audience to you? Do you have a favourite venue or reading series you enjoy reading at most, and any crazy or funny anecdotes from a reading you might like to talk about?

CB- Reading poetry in front of a live audience is incredibly important to me. Again, this ties back to oral tradition. Reading to a live audience also has that double-edged quality — you never know what poems will resonate with someone or cause an unpredictable reaction. I’ve been at various readings over the years where certain individuals were forcibly removed from the premises.
When I tell people outside of the literary community some of the dramatic things that have happened at poetry readings, they are pretty surprised. I think they always expected poetry readings to be super-quiet with everyone stuffy and well behaved. My favourite reading series is the Art Bar Poetry Series. I’ve been there through many of its incarnations including the Imperial Pub, Victory Cafe and now Clinton’s on Bloor Street. I appreciate how eclectic the Art Bar is, and how different the features are on any given night.

TTQ- Do you think poets should take a more socio-political stance (i.e. the G20 protests in Toronto) with their writing today, or is an apathetic point of view in regard to socio-political issues more acceptable these days? What is the job of the modern-day poet?

CB- - I don’t believe poetry and politics are mutually exclusive. Political poetry or poetry with a political edge can be done well or poorly like anything else. The challenge of writing politically-charged poetry is to have passion and conviction without becoming self-righteous. I also feel that just writing poetry, no matter the subject, is a political act itself. Poetry is a way of life, and can be a source of identity and strength in this 21st century struggle where one can feel powerless amid global forces, be they G20 leaders making decisions that affect us all, or the trend towards the retrogressive and reactionary. The modern-day poet could be writing about anything from the G20 protests to camping, but what matters most is authenticity and being truly invested in your subject.

TTQ- When did you become interested in reading Tarot cards? Tell us about how your fascination with Tarot has influenced the new collection of poetry you're working on. When can we expect the new collection to be in print?

CB- I became interested in Tarot cards in high school. Back then I would do readings for myself and study the symbols in the cards. Gradually I started doing readings for friends and this grew into doing readings professionally. A few years ago I worked for a psychic hotline from home, and between calls I started writing the Arcana poems. I find the imagery in the cards so evocative and natural material for poetry. The Arcana poems will be a section in my next book, and a limited-edition chapbook with images from the Tarot is also forthcoming in Spring 2011.

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

1 comment

Yes: "just writing poetry, no matter the subject, is a political act itself."
A "warped fairy tale" narrative like “A Medieval Life”-- inspired by a course on Chaucer, or a piece like “Visitation, University College”-- based in the experience of seeing a ghost, are no less political than poems that overtly invoke socio-political agendas. The personal is political, as is any and all writing.

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