Katharine Beeman is a Montreal poet, translator, and activist.
Beeman is the writer of the chapbooks A Swamp And Forest Inlander Meets The Sea and Direct and Devious Ways. Her poetry has been featured in many magazines and poetry anthologies.
Beeman has read at International Poetry Festivals in Montreal, Trois-Rivieres, Havana, and most recently the International Festival of Poetry of Resistance Festival #4 in Toronto.
BCP: Why poetry?
KB: Because the only character I have in my head is me. Unlike novelists or story writers I don’t have other characters clamoring to be heard. I’ve tried to write short stories and I can begin but after that their “atomic structure,” which is how I see I in my head, escapes me. When I experience something in life, the way I can express it to others, which hopefully touches something in their experience, is by writing a poem.
BCP: What is your process?
KB: It can start with a visual image, a turn of phrase that comes into my head or is picked up in the street or an idea I want to express. My first version is almost always handwritten or scribbled on whatever piece of paper is handy. I keep pencils and fountain pens by every chair in the house, and with me, of course. If it’s really scribbly and the whole poem doesn’t flow immediately, I usually transfer it to my book of “field notes,” a term that comes from my archeological experiences, to work on later. The second and later versions I usually do on the computer. I revise a lot, many times. I participate in a writers’ group we call Le salon rouge-la sala roja-the red saloon, and I use a lot of the suggestions made by others. I like working collectively. Also, the poem has to look right on the page and sound right, so the final version comes after I’ve read it aloud to myself or others. I finished a poem this year that I started in 1983…
BCP: Do you have a favorite book that inspired you to be a writer?
KB: I think it was the startling event of discovering I could read that started me writing. I didn’t learn to read until I was 8 because it never occurred to me I could, adults read, not children. Then one bedtime my mother said why don’t you try, maybe you can now. And I read the book right through and wanted to start on all the others. Soon after, I wrote my first poem and a few stories. Then at 17, it was Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” and Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving that really influenced me. And I’d have to add Ernest Hemingway, later John Berger, Carolyn Forché, Milton Acorn…
BCP: There is a big First Nations influence in your poetry. How did that come to be?
KB: From inside, since the 1980’s, as little by little I realized how much First Nations’ inheritance I’d grown up with and was surrounded by without anybody ever voicing it, the drum my paternal grandmother made and gave me, the path to the Potowatami brickyard that ran along my other grandparents’ front yard and had a mysterious feel to it. And then my great-grandfather, who had disappeared and was found dying of tuberculous in a jail, long before I was born, came and danced through me, that is he danced in my body, at a powwow and that evening the poem expressing that basically wrote itself.
BCP: Many of your poems are in solidarity with Cuba and it’s revolutionary heroes. Why do you feel such a strong connection to Cuba and it’s revolutionary past?
KB: Because its revolutionary past is so deep and so ongoing, and encompasses both the individual’s personal responsibility – and capacity –to both fully become themselves and participate, in José Martí’s words, “with all for the good of all.” Or as I say in another poem, it’s a place of infinite possibility, offered to the world to take up:
where everything is done with small cups of hot black coffee and never an expected time but always getting there always getting there country of endless questions it’s ok to ask as are dreams not an answer but a possibility, a direction, a path.
BCP: Love is a big theme in your chapbook A Swamp and Forest Inlander Meets The Sea. Can you tell us about how your love poems came about?
KB: By being in love, of course. And wanting the beloved to be a participant, reflected, in the woof and warp of who I am, of my work. And I think it matters not so much or not only who the beloved is – but the feeling, the process of love and respect one feels and shares.
BCP: Why did you name your chapbook A Swamp and Forest Inlander Meets The Sea?
KB: Because I’ve grown up and always lived in what I think of as the middle of the north of North America, where nature’s rooms are small, her tree walls only allowing small glimpses of sky, maybe one star, and though I live on an island (Montreal) and have been on her Great Lakes, they have a feeling of shore about them. It took me several years of visiting the sea before I could get a handle on her, a glimpse of understanding the relationship of land to water. Which actually, I want to do a whole series of poems on – having visited the Southwest where also the sky is huge, the relationship of land to water very sharp, but completely different than an island. Rivers, lakes, sea, are all water but feel differently. The closeness of the swamp and forest are what’s most familiar to me.
BCP: You recently read at the International Festival of Poetry of Resistance #4 in Toronto. After the reading you commented on the small crowd of 15 people being a “decent crowd” for poetry. Has this alway been the case? Or have the numbers gone down over the years as poetry is not as popular as other genres?
KB: I haven’t counted up the participants over the 4 years of the Festival, but what I meant was it’s comfortable to read to 15 people, you feel appreciated but not overwhelmed. I actually think, from this Festival and others I’ve attended this year, that more people are reading their poetry in public. A session in an event may not be so large but there are more of them. Another thing I learned from Cubans, both singers and poets, is that even if there’s only a handful of people and you brought them yourself, perform as if it’s a crowd of 1000’s – this does honour to yourself, to them, to your work, and it’s enjoyable.
BCP: What are you reading now?
KB: I’m usually reading 4-5 different books. Right now, in poetry, it’s Milton Acorn, In a Springtime Instant, Selected Poems, edited by James Deahl. In Spanish, José María Heredia, La patria y la vida, by Leonardo Padura Fuentes, a Cuban author whose work I adore, and since I’m studying Reike and other traditional healing, books on meridians and acupressure points. For relaxation I read murder mysteries, not the bloody or violent ones, but those where there’s an emphasis on a time, a culture, a place, I want to learn more about – like the Brother Cadfael series in the 12th century – and human relationships.
BCP: What advice do you have for young poets putting together a chapbook?
KB: Read lots of chapbooks and see what you like and don’t like, in terms of what you want to do with yours – how many poems, how they relate – are they a microcosm of the author’s work or variations on a theme, how are they organized? But also, how they look on the page, do you like the layout, the typeface, the spacing? Do you want to use drawings or photos? Even how the table of contents – if you want one – looks, is important. And the paper, for the cover and the pages. Because it is small, a chapbook should be a complete, perfect whole, like a crystal you can hold in your hand. I’ve seen ones published by mainstream presses that didn’t do this, and ones published in Word on xerox paper that did.
BCP: Thanks for your time.
KB: A pleasure!
Tune into Black Coffee Poet Friday November 2, 2012 for a video of Katharine Beeman reading her poetry.
Kathrane is a powerful poet who was part a poetry series I organized way back in the mid-80s The Buda Books Poetry Series. She was great! But the poem I will always remember by is one she wrote about my cat, Hannah. I had a New Year’s Eve party one year and invited her. I also warned her and her guests not to touch the cat. Unfortunately her guests did not listen. Hannah trashed them. Her poem was entitled “Never pat a cat you have not been formally introduced to”. I framed the poem. I trust her guests recovered from their meeting with my cat..
Thanks for your awesome email. It is great to find out a little background on the poets I feature.
I would have liked to hear that poem. It sounds funn!
Do you still organize poetry readings in Montreal?
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Black Coffee Poet
I really enjoyed reading the thoughts behind the title choice: gorgeous. And of course I always enjoy hearing about what others are reading, especially when they’re reading multiple books at once (which makes the rest of us feel less crazy if we do the same thing!).
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