Writing From a Very Dark Place: A Conversation with Katerina Canyon

Interview by Risa Denenberg

Recently, I received a review copy of Surviving Home, by Katerina Canyon. I knew of Katerina from a weekly virtual poetry reading series that she runs, called “Canyon Poets.” She is a self-made poet, community activist, and poetry agitator. Surviving Home is a series of narrated poems describing surviving an abusive childhood, being raised in an abusive home, and sometimes being homeless. I found that I couldn’t review the book in good faith; although I felt compassion for her story, its overwhelming darkness felt too dense for me to penetrate. In particular, I worried that my review might reinforce a stereotype of a black family afflicted with poverty and drug dependence. I approached Katerina with my thoughts and we met on Zoom to get comfortable with each other. We then engaged in the following conversation by email. 

Risa Denenberg: Describe your personal poetry journey: e.g., When/how did you first come to love poetry? When did you first begin to write poems? When did you first think of yourself as a poet? Who are the poets that influenced you as you began to write? I noticed, in Surviving Home, a reference to “blades of grass” and in several poems you quote from Blake.

Katerina Canyon: I have loved poetry for as long as I can remember. When I was about five years old, my mother gave me a collection of works by Poe that I carried around with me well into my young adulthood. I loved nursery rhymes. I also had a collection of Childcraft Books. My favorite volume was the “Poems & Rhymes” volume. In junior high, I took to writing limericks after a substitute English teacher taught us how to write them. In high school, I fell in love with the work of William Blake. The Tyger was my favorite poem through 11th grade. From there, I started reading TS Eliot. I recently revisited “The Hollow Men.”

After high school, it was a landslide of poets from Shakespeare to Paul Laurence Dunbar to Langston Hughes and onward to my now favorite Audre Lorde. Right now, I’m reading Desiree C. Bailey’s What Noise Against the Cane. I think I pick up something from every poet I read. I can often see reflections of my own story in their work. 

I started writing poems when I was about eight years old. I had journals that I kept off and on as a child. I would write about the abuse I experienced. One day my father discovered what I had written, and I got in trouble for it, so afterwards I wrote my experiences as poetry to hide what I had to say from him.

I was in my late 20s when I thought of myself as a poet. I felt at a loss. I did not like the work I was doing at the time. I was trying to find meaning in my existence. I read a book that told me to start from the beginning. Think of what I loved as a child. Think about things that bring me joy, and only one thing came to mind, poetry. It was a revelation for me, a spark. I said, “I’m a poet.” I never looked back.

Denenberg: Surviving Home was very hard for me to read with its unrelenting theme of childhood abuse. The initial poem, “Involuntary Endurance,” sets the stage for the poems that follow relentlessly. The book begins with these lines, 

My story is not one revealed with chapter
And verse. It is expressed in blood and bone.
It is fingernails thrust into back muscles.
It is razorblades pressed against flesh. 

As I read these poems, unbroken into sections, I was looking for some disruption of these scenes of abuse, some emotional movement, other than a rare tender gesture when you write about your mother. I began to feel that this very personal experience might give way to negative stereotypes of African American families. I don’t know if others may experience it in that way, and I’m sure that was not your intention. Still, I have to wonder how you feel about my sharing these reactions with you.

Canyon: I understand how this could be a concern, and I have had a few people express that sentiment, but I have had more people, mostly Black women, tell me that this speaks to their lives, and they thank me for giving voice to these experiences. 

When I wrote Surviving Home, I was in a very dark place. A lot of this book was written in a psychiatric facility in New York. I was feeling pretty hopeless at the time, and it comes across in this work.

I cannot help where the poems lead people. Stereotypes or not, this was my life, and I cannot change it. I wish I could, but I cannot. In many ways, my family was a stereotype. In other ways we fought those stereotypes. My parents were drug addicts. We were homeless. My father abused us severely practically every day. That may be stereotypical, but it’s true.

You don’t see a disruption because there wasn’t one. Our brothers and I lived in a constant state of fear and insecurity. This book was dark, but trust me, it could have gotten a lot darker.

I attempted to demonstrate a spark of hope in the poem “After Landing in Lisbon.” I wrote this one after I got out of the hospital. It was meant to say that even though the earth crumbles, you can still see life along the shore.

Denenberg: The poem, “After Landing in Lisbon” ends with these lines: 

In respect of the stairways
a harsh climb is incapable of
reaching heaven’s hem. 

In Fado music, all hope is done.
The fish are often swimming
Along the smile of the shore.

How do you protect yourself from the negative impact of working with disturbing material such as childhood abuse? 

Canyon: When I write about disturbing things, it is like I’m releasing them from my mind, and I’m free of them. Writing Surviving Home felt like a fever dream. I was just trying to write the pain away.

Denenberg: In the poem, “Witness,” you say “Now I am just / a broken woman / with memories

that will not fade.” This is clearly written from a very low point in your life. Are you able to refute those sentiments these days? 

Canyon: I have had a lot of therapy since I wrote that poem. I used to have these horrible nightmares every night. My husband would often wake me up because I was screaming in my sleep. That happens less often now. I had to learn that the past is a place where I no longer live.

Denenberg: Can you compare your experience and process in writing Surviving Home with your book, Changing the Lines? This book has your poems and is illustrated by your daughter, Aja Canyon. Can you tell me what the experience was like working on this project with your daughter? 

Canyon: I wrote Changing the Lines at Saint Louis University as part of my honors’ capstone. My mentor Georgia Johnstone helped me with topics. I did quite a bit of research on Modernist Poetry and themes, and I wrote a number of the poems in Changing the Lines based on those themes and styles. My daughter Aja reads every book I write. When she read Changing the Lines, she said she felt like it was a conversation I was having with her. She was so moved; she developed the art you see in the book.

Denenberg: Regarding working with her mom, Aja sent me this note:

Aja Canyon: When I read the manuscript for Changing the Lines, I was on a flight back to California from the East Coast. I loved the book so much, I finished it on that flight. While I was reading, I could see the images that I eventually ended up drawing for the book. I immediately called her and told her, “I’m illustrating this book.” It was my first time illustrating a book and it took almost two years but we did it!

Denenberg: What is your writing process these days?

Canyon: I am a compulsive person, and that’s how I write. I have writing implements and material all around my house. There’s a notebook in every room. I also write on my note app on my phone. Sometimes, I will use Siri to write a poem. Most times, an image will come to me, and I will write down something about that image. Recently, a friend asked me to write a poem about reproductive rights. Initially, I didn’t think I could come up with something, but then a chastity belt came to mind. I then thought about how that was one of the first ways men tried to control a woman’s sexuality. From there, I ended up writing a poem about reproductive rights.

Sometimes, I will see something, and it will move me such that I have to write about it. You will see a lot of that in Changing the Lines. There are two poems: one poem is about a gum ball from the sweet gum tree, and the other is about Romanesco cauliflower. When I saw both items, I was so moved, I had to write a poem then and there. With “Gum ball” I actually said to my professor, “I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to pay attention in class today. I have to write a poem about this,” and I showed him the seed pod I had in my hand. He responded, “Fine. So long as you read the poem to the class when you’re done.”

Denenberg: I think of you as a poetry activist, involved with a community of poets. Other than your writing, what are the other poetry activities that you are doing right now? How do they impact on your writing? 

Canyon: I host a weekly poetry reading on Thursdays. I’m developing a literary journal for writers of color with a friend of mine, James Evert Jones. I just taught a poetry workshop at Meadowbrook Teen Center, and I hope to have a regular series there.

I started the weekly poetry reading at the start of the pandemic stay at home period, and I have hosted it practically every Thursday for over two years. We invite guest poets and we write. That group has been an inspiration. Every week, we come up with different themes to write about. Those poets have been my salvation, and I’m certain I am a better and more prolific poet because of them.

Denenberg: What gets you through the hard times, and what is currently bringing you the most joy?

Canyon: When I was in the hospital, my daughter Aja came to visit me. She said that she missed my mother even though she never met her. She said that she wanted me to be there for her children. I think of that moment whenever I want to give up. I think about how my children need me, and now and now, nothing gives me more joy than to see my grandson’s smile.

 

Katerina Canyon has a B.A. from Saint Louis University and an M.A.L.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She grew up in Los Angeles, and has three children. From 2000 to 2004, she served two terms as the Poet Laureate of Sunland-Tujunga. During that time, she started a poetry festival and hosted poetry readings. She was featured in the Los Angeles Times and was awarded the Montesi Award from Saint Louis University in 2011, 2012, and 2013. She currently lives in Seattle.

Aja Minson is from Los Angeles, CA and is Katerina‘s daughter. She’s a marketer by day and illustrator by night. She received her BS in engineering with a minor in art at USC.

Risa Denenberg lives in Sequim, WA where she works as a nurse practitioner. She is a co-founder of Headmistress Press; curator at The Poetry Café Online; and an avid reviewer of poetry. Her most recent publication is Posthuman, finalist in the Floating Bridge 2020 chapbook competition. 

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