In Conversation with Catherine Owen & Nikki Reimer: On Elegies


Daniel Zomparelli: We have all gone through/or are going through varied stages of grief and each of us have relied on poetry in some form/manner to deal artistically with that grief and loss. I personally was unable to write for a long time after my Mother’s death. I, instead, recorded my nightmares as suggested by my counselor, and those became the main focus of the elegy I continue to write/rewrite for my mother. At what stage did writing come into play for your grief? And, what of your writing became focused on the one you lost, or the grief you were dealing with?

Catherine Owen: Time is so much a part of grief. And writing’s role in it. I think as I am a compulsive writer I was only incapable of writing for about three weeks following my spouse’s untimely death. I had started a novella called WAKE before he died and his loss became part of the narrative almost immediately. Alongside this flood of dark words though was guilt  that I was able to write about his death so rapidly and incessantly. And that this wasn’t the first death I had written about as my muse Frank died of addiction/suicide in 2003 and of course, I had also composed elegies for extinct species too so perhaps it felt like a form I fell too easily into. It’s been almost three years  now and still, though the elegiac flood is less, poems about his life and loss continue. How else does one honour the lost one as an artist than through the rituals of one’s art? I’m currently interested though in the form that the elegiac content takes. Elegy is a very fluid mode of writing in – how does it change when it’s lyrics, or a narrative, or a long poem like the one you are engaged in re-composing, Daniel?

Nikki Reimer: My brother’s death was sudden and completely unexpected, and I immediately began to write phrases of thought and emotion in my notebook as I moved through the initial shock. Initially I just wrote things like “My brother. My brother. My brother. My brother.” over and over, and WHAT THE FUCK and Where are you?, as well as observations of what was happening. People talk about numbness, but I experienced a heightened hyperreality for weeks, and I felt a responsibility to him to record it. As if I could somehow mitigate the awfulness by faithfully inscribing it all.

My writing practice has always cycled between long periods of stagnation and shorter periods of binge-writing, largely because I am highly self-critical and anxious, and had developed many sophisticated methods of self-blocking. But following the rupture I have been unable to stop writing. It is a bittersweet parting gift.

I’ve written an elegy which I am continuing to revise, and I have also written at length (on Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and an unpublished in-process essay) about the devastating effects of my grief. I have also felt guilt that I have been able to write so freely, while he is no longer able to do anything in the physical world. And I have and continue to write about my brother specifically, though I’ve wondered if there are things I should not write or not make public, because he was a very private person, in contrast to his big sister’s exhibitionism, and I would never want to dishonor him.

Flood is a good word for it, Catherine. I am still very much within the flood of grief and grief-writing. It hasn’t yet been a year – he died on February 21.

DZ: The elegy feels fluid because, for me, it’s about consistent failure. Failure to relive moments, failure to understand the emotions, the inability to talk to the dead, and so I return to it, over and over again. When I think of how elegy changes between the lyric, the narrative and the long poem I am working on, I think of different forms. Surrealism free-verse, lyrical narrative and sound poetry. I couldn’t quite figure out how to process any of what I was writing when I began, so I just kept writing different snippets of material. This also became how I wrote the long poem partly because I had previously read Nox by Anne Carson, and it stuck with me. Writing an elegy felt like archiving a human being through memories and experiences, because that’s all I had left of her. I went through all of my Mother’s things (text messages, emails, notes) trying to piece together a story. She didn’t lead a secret life, like I had hoped, so that also felt like a failure. I then went through all of her medical documents and began archiving those in a sense, which became the basis for some of the sound poems within the long poem.

In both of your writings, how much of the elegy comes from found material, if any?

CO: Well I have written a novella, songs, essays, status updates (collecting them in a chapbook of grief months two-six called “What is on your mind?”), a blog, and tons of lyric poems, some a bit longer. I love how the elegiac impulse, amid the starvations of loss, can provide this generosity, this feast of forms into which the hell can flow. I think it’s interesting Nikki, what you say about wanting to represent your brother the way he was, a private person, and not to transgress against this. My Chris was also private though extreme at the same time and so I have found it challenging to know what to release and not. This dilemma also connects to your query about found material, Daniel. I have drawn a little from letters and written poems about articles of his clothing for instance, but there is much I keep to myself. I didn’t really like the feeling I had when reading Nox that Carson was itemizing her brother, whom she scarcely knew as an adult, it seemed cold, clinical, but I do understand this impulse and in the end, this evidence, decontextualized, is all we have left to say “see see they lived, they mattered!” What do we DO with these forms, genres, materials though? Do we publish them, recite them, tear them up?

DZ: I think I might take a look at Nox again and see if I get that same feeling of cold/clinical quality. I read it before my mother was really sick, so I wonder how it will read after this. My sister passed away when I was very young and I never knew her, but I was constantly told we had similar qualities. So I read Nox in the same vain that I read through my sister’s old material. Which is a different experience of death, since she passed when I was so young.

CO: Yes so much of textual response, especially about a subject as charged as grief, changes based on the temporal space of the reading. My psyche must be roused by these questions as I had a nightmare about Chris being alive again, but for the first time it wasn’t joyous as he remained addicted, and oddly happily, or at least defiantly. Perhaps the worst part of the dream though was thinking to myself “Damn, now all those poems I wrote of his death are a sham & I’m a fraud!” The art always a primary consideration, wanting to represent honestly within the craft, the imagined spaces. I was wondering if guilt plays into either of your written responses to your loved one’s death as it does in mine – the feeling one could have saved, things might have been different if, and maybe this is entwined with the needed but at times problematic solipsisms of making art.

NR: I like your earlier comment Catherine, “How else does one honour the lost one as an artist than through the rituals of one’s art?” as we think about our responses to Carson.

I had a similar reaction when I read Nox, which was after my had brother passed. I came to see my own archiving of Chris’ effects and materials as grotesque, and it gave me pause. (Not that I have stopped; I have merely tried to be very clear with myself every time I made a choice to do so or to not.) What was I actually doing in my attempts to itemize my brother (whom I knew well but who I did not live near during the past eight years of his life, a time which constituted his entire adulthood)?

And I think to answer your question, What do we DO with these forms, genres, materials though? Do we publish them, recite them, tear them up?; We do all of these things. Publish them, recite them, tear them up, store them away. There is no correct response to loss and absence. We could psychoanalytically read the desire to write elegiacally as akin to the desire to wear the loved one’s clothes after a death: it is an attempt to retain a physical attachment to that which is no longer physical. But there’s nothing morally wrong about that. It is a healthy method of processing grief. We can, however, make artistic and aesthetic judgments about these choices, which is maybe the difference between writing that is art and writing that is therapy. I haven’t and won’t publish everything I’ve written about Chris and everything belonging to Chris which I have itemized. But I also need to honour him as a person and a brother and an artist, and I need to honour my grief and mourning and sorrow, by attempting to alchemize some of these materials and emotions into art.

Thus far, I’ve translated and performed erasure upon some of (translations of) the Catallus dead brother poems, incorporating lyrics of songs that I listened to while mourning and songs that were on CDs I found in his car. I’ve snatched bits of emails and conversations that we had, and things that his friends have said to me afterwards. The work is still a work in progress, much as the grief is still a work in progress.

CO: So true, the endless cycles of grief, lightening but still revolving … no progress as we think of it typically … as the work circles, delves, retreats but doesn’t attain an end, cannot, we don’t want it to perhaps or it presents another death layered on the actual loss. I wonder how this mode of composition affects us as artists when we work on poems or other texts not directly (we think) inflected by grieving?

DZ: I struggled and still struggle with this. Rewriting and writing the elegy, depending on my state, can feel very awkward to me. Or if I ignore the elegy too long, I feel I’m letting go, and then go back to reread it and work on it further (which is my affirmative response to Catherine’s question of guilt in producing the elegy). I sometimes catch myself thinking, “this is a piece of shit” and then rewriting it, and knowing very well I could never perfect it. I also keep in mind that my mother didn’t like poetry, so whenever I get too anxious about the work, I laugh it off knowing full well she would have wished I started a business rather than write another poem.

What elegies have stuck with or inspired either of you that were written by other authors?

Also, can you each give me some examples of your elegiac work, Nikki you had something online, and in the PID digital issue, and Catherine, you have scores of work.

CO: Well occasionally I memorize poems and ironically enough I had memorized the Edna St Vincent Millay sonnet “Time does not Bring Relief” two days before Chris died. It was tremendous solace for me. Though now I disagree – time in fact does bring SOME relief! Other books of elegies that have meant something to me are Mary Jo Bang’s ELEGY on the loss of her son, Donald Hall’s Without: Poems on his wife Jane Kenyon’s death and others more on the loss of love such as John Thompson’s ghazals or further back, John Donne’s elegiac sequence or Shakespeare’s sonnets. And then there’s elegies for the planet/society such as WS Merwin’s The Lice or Dionne Brand’s Inventory.

My own titles that tend to the elegiac are The Wrecks of Eden (2002) on extinct species, Cusp/detritus (2006) on the tragedy of the mentally ill/addicted and loss through suicide, and the manuscript I continue to write, now called Designated Mourner on Chris’s life and death.

NR: Yup, my long poem in the PID digital issue comprises part of my elegiac work, although I’ve already done some massive edits to it and will likely do more. There are some pieces up on Joyland from a work in progress titled “the limits of nostalgia” and I am going to be attending a residency at the Banff Centre in two weeks where I will work on “Improvise a Bone Graft,” which will be a book-length piece on my Chris’s life and death.

Stephen Crane’s “In The Desert” is not explicitly about grief but it speaks to me of the howling beastly isolation of grief.  T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” “Advice from La Llorona” by Deborah A. Miranda. Daniel I love your “He Drags Her Body or Working Backwards” so, so much. Frank O’Hara’s “Animals“: “O you/were the best of all my days.” Many pop songs which when written out are actually terrible as poetry. “Arbutus” by Steven Price: “as if grief as if grief as if/grief, engorged, grappled its roots below. No it has no/choice. It outstrips itself as it grows.” I’ve been collecting, and can’t stop.

DZ: I’d like to go back to something Catherine said earlier and repose the question: “I was wondering if guilt plays into either of your written responses to your loved one’s death as it does in mine – the feeling one could have saved, things might have been different if, and maybe this is entwined with the needed but at times problematic solipsisms of making art.” I know that there are moments of guilt that drive certain sections of the long poem I’m working on, but then I also think the poem is driven by the selfish desire to explain the flood, to use your word. I guess I could have just called the poem, “Hey, I’m a bag of shit right now, sorry.” Nikki, your thoughts on guilt?

NR: Absolutely guilt, yes, and failure. Failure to have prevented the loved one’s death (whether or not such a thing were possible, the sense of guilt and failure remains). The failure of the poem (to be anything more than a gush of anguish) / the poem as failure. Guilt at being able to make art while the loved one cannot do anything in the physical realm. Did I say this already? Guilt about moving forward. Guilt about not moving forward. Catholic guilt. Ukrainian guilt. Survivor guilt. Grief binge-eating guilt. I have a blog where I just write about the fact that I’m a bag of shit, and that I’m sorry. I guess I try to keep it out of the poem that way but it still creeps in. Sorry. Sorry for my sorrow. Sorry. When I say sorry too much, my partner sings “O Canada” at me. I still say it. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry.

Also that the grief writing is a way to hang on to the departed, and once the grief writing has stopped, does that mean the departed has finally stopped as well?

DZ: Now I’m just imagining Jonathan Wilcke singing “O Canada” in his cut-off jeans … and now I’m thinking about my Catholic guilt. So then, back to that question of what do we do with these elegies, how do we know what is worthwhile to publish, when the grief can sometimes blind us aesthetically? Or does that not matter? Does the act of producing the artwork matter, and the emotion, and the pain? I wonder because sometimes I read the poem at readings and it feels like what I’m reading is worthwhile, and then sometimes I feel like I’m at an open mic night reading from my feelings journal.

NR: I don’t know! This is what I’m wrestling with. Catherine, you’ve perhaps created and published more elegiac poetry than Daniel or I have. I’m curious to hear your response to this.

CO: Guilt. Publication. Well they are also entwined. One publishes because one is an active-in-the-world poet but when’s it’s elegies there’s often the adjunct feeling of “o am I elaborating my vocation out of his suffering?” even though there’s very little money/fame in it.  I am so glad I don’t make elegiac car commercials!

And then there’s this quote from Linda Gregerson I read yesterday in the Best American Poetry 1991: “I’m not sure it’s possible to write an elegy … without wronging the dead. Grief is shamefully self-absorbed. And grief in verse has a thousand ways of turning exploitative … elegy tries to console us with a failed rescue attempt.”

I must say this reaction to the elegy pissed me off, especially the part about wronging the dead as first of all, can the dead be wronged by tribute? and secondly, what else is one to do as a poet, shut up? Thoughts about this?

NR: I don’t think the dead can be wronged by tribute, and I don’t think grief is self-absorbed either. I mean, grief is self-absorbed, of course it is, but the self-absorbed suffering is born out of love; often the more you loved someone and the more entwined their life was with yours, the harder and longer and larger you will grieve. I am speaking only from my own experience of course. Elegy does try to console us and it fails as it must, but I disagree that it is exploitative. I often think of what my brother would say to me now, or of what he would do if it were me and not him who had died. If it were me who had died, he would drink himself into a stupor. And he might write also songs about it. I hope that he would. If he were here next to me, he would be slightly embarrassed in his humble way, but also touched and honoured that I was writing poems for him. And if he knew that I was doing what I needed to do in order to cope with my grief, he would be ok with it. Maybe it comes down to intent: what is the intention behind the elegy?

CO: The intentions can be complex of course. And also not be foregrounded. We are poets so that’s what we do. Write. Intentions or not. And of course we loved these people, they impacted deeply on our lives and we want to announce traces of them and their connection to us in a beautiful  way that draws others to perhaps an acknowledgment and honouring of their existences. How can that be wrong? I mean are funerals/memorials a blaspheming of the dead? This is all we have.

DZ: I’d say I agree with you both. I understand her statement though. That idea runs through my mind a lot, the idea that it is exploitative or that it will ultimately fail to properly honour the dead. But then I go into a spiral of thinking based on that statement isn’t every attempt to write a failure to honour some specific idea, thing, or person? All of this is a general anxiety I have around writing that I already have to ignore, so I will continue to work on the elegy, knowing it will never bring her back from the dead, knowing it is self-absorbed, knowing it will fail.

Is there any last statements you two have, before we close this interview out?

CO: I wish he was alive and I didn’t have to write elegies for him. But with this form as trace, remaining, I have some way to hold him still.

NR: I just want to co-sign what Catherine last said. And that I think maybe the elegy is the best way to keep living through the grief.

DZ: It reminds me of a dark day I had recently, and the only words going through my mind were: hold on to that grief, it’s all that is left.

Catherine Owen is a Vancouver poet, writer & metal bassist. She is the author of nine collections of poetry and one of prose essays/memoirs called Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse (Wolsak & Wynn, 2012). Her 2009 book, Frenzy, won the Alberta Book Award. Trobairitz is her latest book of poems (Anvil Press, 2012). Currently she is writing Designated Mourner, poems for her deceased spouse Chris Matzigkeit (1981-2010) and Riven, on the Fraser River.

Nikki Reimer is a Calgary-based freelance writer and editor, creative writer and creative problem solver who is available for contract assignments, speaking engagements and manuscript consultation. Nikki holds a BA Hons. from the University of Calgary and has completed numerous writing and editing courses through Simon Fraser University’s Writing & Publishing Program. She is currently working her way towards completion of a certificate in Publishing and Web Design from Mount Royal University. Nikki’s first book of poetry [sic] (Frontenac House, 2010) was shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. She is the former managing editor of EVENT Magazine and a contributing editor to Poetry Is Dead. Nikki returned to Calgary in June 2012 after having lived in Vancouver for the past eight years. She has recently joined the board of the M:ST Performance Festival.


Daniel Zomparelli is the editor-in-chief of Poetry Is Dead magazine. His first book of poems Davie Street Translations was recently published by Talonbooks.

Author: D Zomp