October 4, 2007
Neile Graham: Adviser, administrator, poet, novelist
Neile Graham leads a double life. For 18 years she has served as a counseling services coordinator for several programs in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, but in that same time she’s published three volumes of poetry and has finished a novel.
You might say she works at the University to finance her true love, but Graham says it isn’t quite that simple. “I had no idea when I started here that I would stay so long, but it’s a wonderful place,” she said. “There are great people here. I love the faculty and the things that interest them. And I really love my co-workers too.”
Graham works 25 hours a week doing administration and advising students enrolled in the doctoral program in the built environment and two certificate programs — historic preservation and urban design. “They’re pretty exciting things to see students learn about,” she said.
When she’s not at work, however, she’s often writing — both poetry and prose. But it was poetry that entered her life first. She was just a typical teenage girl writing poems in her diary, Graham said, but then she tried to take her work into creative writing classes and learned there was more to it than she’d supposed.
“Then I started reading. And I was lucky to get into a very structured and strong undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Victoria. It was an amazing experience for me,” she said.
She went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts at the University of Montana, where she studied with Richard Hugo. She succeeded in getting a book published before she finished the program.
But of course, it’s rare to actually make a living writing poetry, so Graham fell back on the administrative work she’d always done to support herself. When she and her husband decided to settle in Seattle, she made her way to the University to look for a job.
She’s been here ever since. And sometimes her two lives come together, like when she wrote an essay called “Urban Designs” and presented it at a meeting of the League of Canadian Poets. The essay, Graham said, was about how there is a stronger tradition of pastoral poetry in Canada. Based on her urban design experience, she talked about “what there is in urban settings that poets tend to ignore.”
Another of her essays, called “Poetry as DNA,” is about memory and has a strong historical connection. That came out of her work with the historic preservation program and, more broadly, all she’s experienced in the college.
“I’ve actually learned a lot about place and the whole sense of place,” Graham said. “There’s a big focus in the college on placemaking and building environments. That’s had a really strong effect. It’s given me a way of looking at my relationship to the places in my world and making some sense of it.”
One of the places that’s played a big role in Graham’s life is Scotland. Her grandparents actually met on the boat to Canada from Scotland, and at one time she inherited a share of a house in Glasgow (which she couldn’t afford to keep). So she’s traveled a lot to Scotland, and wound up producing a whole volume of poems based on her travels. It’s called The Walk She Takes, and the title poem (see below) is about the reivers — small-time bandits who kept carrying out raids along the border between Scotland and England. The poem is typical of her work, which she describes as being about place and about folklore and myth.
Graham recently received a grant from the Canada Council (that country’s version of the National Endowment for the Arts) to write a book of poetry centering on the interactions of artifacts and folklore between Scotland and the west coast of Canada. She has a year to complete that project, and in the meantime she’s trying to sell her first novel.
“It’s about a young abused woman who’s learning how to create her own life and get past that,” Graham said. “Oh, and she travels in Scotland.”
Another first coming up for Graham is a CD of her reading her poetry — something she’s done live and enjoyed very much.
In the meantime she’ll continue in her job at the college, which she says works better for her than the usual job of a poet — teaching. “I taught composition for two years and loved it,” she said, “but I found it took a lot of energy — the same energy I use for my writing. I love working with students, so this kind of job is perfect for me. I work with students but I don’t have to perform in front of a class three times a week.”
The Walk She Takes
–Smailholm Tower, the Border Country–
Slow in the weight of the fog
on the rolling lands of the Merse–green, green
old hills–she hears the steps of ghost horses,
echoing hooves and rain.
In this distance where there is no distance
all horses are ghosts,
all wind the lament of the border widow,
“I took his body on my back and whiles I gaed,
and whiles I sat, I digged a grave and laid him in
And happ’d him up with sod sae green.”
Walking she traces the furrowed line
of a runrig–lines
that disappear underfoot. Lines
of cottage walls
leaning up against the laird’s protection.
She can step right over the barmkin now, so little
of its height remains,
step in and out of strangers’ lives: the old lord
who lost three brothers and a son at Flodden,
then the years after staggered by the reivers
stealing first 600 cattle then 123 then 60 then 6,
100 prisoners taken then 4.
It’s here she finds her man leaning against a wall
of this tower brittle-patched with memories
patterned with blood and fear rising above the earth
into fog woven with wraiths and lamentations
crumbling alone. She’s walking the borders,
she’s out ghosting. She’s getting used to harm.
Tomb of the Eagles
–South Ronaldsay, Orkney–
for Ronald and Morgan Simison
I’m left-handed like her–the child
who made this shard, who shaping a pot
marked its rim with her thumbnail,
the etch etch etch of her hand on red clay
then the vessel shattered with her grandparents’
clean bones, and with her own. Her knife fits
my fingers. She carried it close;
her hands fit where my fingers rub
the notched edge.
Morgan Simison’s palms slide over
5,000 years of burial,
her hands trace the furrow where
the skull bowed under the slow press of a strap
slung with the weight of fuel, food, child.
A life of hard work for a simple meal.
But among the bones no sign of violence–
Survival enough toil for them all.
The blunt affection of her hands on the bone.
She loves what she knows of these long dead,
who worked the lands her family tills.
The tomb her husband uncovered built by generations
of hands that knew these cliffs, this soil.
The stories we can’t guess, why the bones
of sea-eagles mix with their dead.
I want to shape the child’s name, whatever words
she had for bowl and knife and the ragged sea
below the cliffs of her tribe’s tomb,
the seal swimming alone among the rocks,
whatever words she would use for the way my thumb
fits into the prints left by her own.
Autumn rain scrubs the forest and its
dusk with dirty, dripping stars. Mother
drifts over dank nurse logs, she-bears, watching.
She bears watching.
rouse the strangled undergrowth around her
stirring the rank smell of nettles and rotting wood
pricked with lush green. Might
they grow her a blanket, something to cover
her red cedar skin with redness yet more red?
To cover the fierce eagle heads her breasts now are
with russet leaves?
She has come all this way from where she began
the mask about to take off her mask
to stay the rustling of the hemlock night’s unseen things,
its starkness borne and born.
No blanket. She’s the mask, the very O of her breath
looking for the children that we are. She
would eat us as soon as embrace
and birth us in the forest afterwards
better, bigger, more beloved.
Better, bigger, O Beloved.