In honour of National Poetry Month, Katie Vautour and Tom Dawe share stories about what attracted them to writing poetry, their artistic inspirations, and more.
Join Tom and Katie on Thursday, May 9 for the launch of their books An Unorthodox Guide to Wildlife and New and Collected Poems. The launch will be held at the Breakwater Books shop on 1 Stamp’s Lane, St. John’s, starting at 4:30 p.m. Tom and Katie will be joined by Agnes Walsh and event host, and Poet Laureate of St. John’s, Mary Dalton for an evening of poetry.
When did you start writing and what attracted you to poetry specifically?
Katie Vautour: Well, to be honest, I was always “that nerdy kid” who liked books more than socializing, but I received some free tuition certificates from a previous job years ago. And I wanted to get my Master’s in English, so I thought, “Okay, poetry is optional, but it should be interesting for one class!” Now it’s three years later and I never stopped studying or reading or writing poetry, and I somehow have a book.
Tom Dawe: From a small child I’ve always been attracted to poetry and verse. In school I was lucky to have teachers who were fond of reading aloud to us in the lower grades where there were lots of concerts with dramatic reading and music. In Sunday School I fell in love with the magnificent free verse of the King James Bible. Ursula LeGuin once said that style is a very simple matter, it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. Ideas sometimes have to wait on the right rhythm to express them.
Do you or have you ever belonged to a writing group? If so, how did belonging to the group affect your writing?
KV: I have been in several groups, and all the people are fantastic and offer good input, but mostly I like working on my own.
TD: Years ago I attended sessions of the Writers’ Guild at the Arts and Culture Centre which was very beneficial to me, meeting established writers such as Helen Porter, Bernice Morgan, Harold Horwood and others. This got me interested in entering the annual Newfoundland Arts and Letters Competitions where various adjudications were very helpful.
Do you have a favourite poetic form?
KV: I am a bit of a fan of the echo verse– I think I managed to pull off one version of it in my book, called, “The Aquarium.” But it’s so interesting visually and verbally, because the last word of each line in structured in a way that it creates its own sentence if read vertically.
TD: I write mainly in free verse, though I’ve used other forms from time to time. My poem “If Sonnets Were In Fashion,” among other things, has something to say about poetic forms being in and out, depending on the times. Sometimes I’ve written light or humorous verse in more traditional rhyme schemes, for example, “Cat Poem” and “Frog Prince.”
Do you have a favourite word? What is it?
KV: That’s tricky, but if I had to pick, it would be “bamboozled,” or “onomatopoeia,” because they are both slightly onomatopoetic.
TD: I’m in love with words and could never isolate one as my favourite. We have many beautiful Newfoundland and Labrador words. If I had a favourite it might be “tuckamore” because this gnarled, stunted tree saved my life one time when I was a helpless child sliding over a cliff into the ocean, reaching out and grabbing it.
Name one poet whose work you consider similar to yours. In what ways is your work similar?
KV: Wow, this is tricky, because I don’t like comparing my own work to better people. But if I have to choose, I’d say Anne Compton, mostly because she writes about Atlantic Canadian regional landscapes, life, and animals, so I can relate to it.
TD: I’m hesitant to name a poet whose work is similar to mine. We are all such a bunch of one-of-a-kind creatures.
Name one poet whose work you consider dissimilar to yours, but whose work you greatly admire.
KV: Pablo Neruda? That might be too pretentious to say, but I do love his work.
TD: Robert Bly.
What’s your favourite under-appreciated poetry collection?
KV: By T.S. Elliot, it’s called The Old Book of Practical Cats. Throughout the 1930’s, he composed the now famous poems about Macavity, Old Deuteronomy, Mr. Mistoffelees and many other cats, from the longest-running Broadway musical of all time, “Cats.” Most people don’t realize this credit. Also, I played in that musical for several years in high school, and grew up listening to it.
TD: In my opinion, The Edge of Beulah by David Elliott, published by Breakwater in 1988, could be more appreciated.
I think it’s safe to say you are both influenced by art. Can you expand on how, if at all, visual art has inspired your poetry? Are there any specific poems that were directly inspired by an artwork or artist?
KV: Actually, this is a funny story. When I moved to Newfoundland, I attended a life-drawing session at the Arts & Culture Centre, just to keep up my sketching skills. My first encounter with Gerald Squires happened that day–I didn’t know who he was, at that point. But when I took out my pencil sharpener, he grabbed it and threw it into the garbage and said, “That’s trash. This is how you do it with a real knife. Especially if you’re a good artist, which you seem to be.”
He definitely had some influence on me keeping up with art, and believing in the work I do in general. So I am extremely grateful to have met him, and I am sure he had trust in everyone who’s ever tried to make anything.
TD: Being an artist myself, I thoroughly enjoyed working with my friend, Gerry Squires, on Where Genesis Begins. We had many conversations about confronting the blank canvas or the blank page, one of the most difficult things in creativity. We both preferred strong visual imagery. As Martina Seifert writes in her introduction to our book: “Dawe’s strong sense of sight, his precision in observing detail, his painterly, highly imagistic style and use of evocative tactile imagery connect him to Squires, who not only loves poetry and is inspired in his artworks, but who actively engages in the poetic process with both the lyricism of his visual art and the poetry he writes himself.” A number of my poems have been inspired by art and artists; for example, “Daedalus,” “Lot’s Wife” and “In Picasso’s Madman.”
What, if anything, do you hope a reader takes from your poetry?
KV: I don’t start a poem with an agenda, but looking back on it, I suppose I hope it makes poetry seem less scary, and more accessible. Most people I know who enjoy reading mostly studied Shakespeare in school (whom in my opinion is cool), but they found poetry intimidating, so they kind of ran away from it. Aside from that, I love animals, and I think creatures can tell us a lot about our own existence and culture, more than what people expect.
TD: I never think about what someone is going to get from my poetry; all that depends upon what the reader or listener brings to the poem.