A Conversation with Catherine Graham and Ian Burgham, by Ivy Reiss

August 16, 2016

As a writer and the host and coordinator of the Oakville Lit Café for the past four years, I have known poets Catherine Graham and Ian Burgham on the Toronto poetry circuit for a long time. In late July, I sat down with them over a pint of craft beer at Harbord House to talk about art, culture, and what it’s like to represent Canada abroad as they are going back to the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe – this time with an official invite. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Ivy Reiss: Toronto’s Fringe festival just wrapped up. Is Toronto’s Fringe Festival similar to the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe, with the city of Edinburgh as a symbolic center for the arts? Is it related to the Toronto Fringe festival in any way?

Ian Burgham: No, not at all. The Edinburgh Fringe was the first fringe festival ever as far as I know. What happened was that the core Edinburgh International Festival invited the greatest performers in the world to perform at their shows over a three week period. Legend has it that Luciano Pavarotti was there back in the day. Ben Keaton and Gabriel Byrne have been there, and many other household names from around the world, but there were a lot of people who were doing innovative, revolutionary, even subversive, or comedic art who were never part of that core – it was the festival that grew around the fringes of the main festival. That’s why it is called the Fringe festival.

Ivy: So it seems that these artists who were on the fringes of the mainstream art scene were drawn to this festival to perform?

Ian: Yes, exactly.

Ivy: Now you and Catherine are poets. Is the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe just poetry-based or is it representative of all arts?

Ian: It’s all performance arts. From drama, to spoken word and poetry, music, cabaret, street performers, interpretive dance, the list goes on.

Ivy: Was it international from the start?

Ian: Yes, it was this whole idea; let’s bring the world to Edinburgh, this will be a centre for the arts. They had innovative arts and performers, people who aren’t even on the art scene yet, people like Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, the British satiric actors who were absolutely brilliant in the late 50’s and 60’s. They did incredible stuff, and later they went on to make films in Hollywood. The concept of the fringe was to be a part of this alternate festivalaround the festival. If there’s a festival, there must be a fringe, these will be fringe performances. And actors and performers started booking church basements, high school gyms, even alleyways from anybody who would rent or even give them space. Street performers would show up, and it became a lively fringe festival. It got to the point where there had to be an organization to run it. So the organization was formed from the outskirts, from the fringes of the festival.

Catherine Graham: Yes, the thinking was, if we aren’t in the club we’ll make our own club. Art on the fringe took a life of its own.

Ivy: And it became the biggest in the world?

Ian: Yes. In fact, there are many more performers on the fringes then there are in the festival. In an odd way it’s a much bigger deal. Which is ironic because that’s not where the big names are. But it is where the new names begin.

Ivy: You were there on the fringes in 2012 and 2015. Obviously it’s not easy to receive an official invitation into the festival?

Catherine: That’s right. It’s not easy to receive an invitation to perform at the festival. We are honoured to be part of the official Fringe.  

Ian: It’s because you have to be accepted by managers of venues, and then by committees of the organizers who often comprise managers, actors, writers, playwrights, dancers, street performers.

Ivy: So, you’ve got to be good?

Ian: You’ve got to be good. Somebody has to say, “you’re up to standard.” And now that there are venues, even if a venue says we want that person, a performer still has to go through the Fringe organization to be accepted.

Ivy: When something is international, would you say the stakes are higher?

Ian: Very high. The Fringe supports itself and supports Edinburgh and Scotland in some manner. It encourages tourism, it is exposure. One million people pour into Edinburgh for those three weeks. Edinburgh more than doubles in population. Audiences then pay to see the performers. The Fringe organization supports its year-long staffing with a percentage of the revenue that each act brings in; so you have to be good.

Ivy: Now, to zero in on Canada, how big a percentage of that represents Canada?

Catherine: Tiny, because we are just one nation in the world. And the festival comprises acts from around the world. For those few weeks it feels as though it is the world.

Ivy: How big of that chunk of the arts is dedicated to poetry?

Ian: Even tinier. We’re the first poets that we know of that have been invited to the International Edinburgh Fringe Festival to do a Canadian Poetry Pavilion. So it was unsettling to be turned down by the Ontario Arts Council for any funding whatsoever.

Catherine: When we were there in the past, we funded ourselves.

Ian: We weren’t an official part of the Fringe. We, including Griffin Poetry Prize Winner A.F. Moritz, were invited to perform at the Summerhall Arts Centre, which is the largest independent arts centre in the world. And we read with Douglas Dunn, the celebrated Scottish poet. That was our first time there.

Ivy: You clearly left an impression?

Catherine: We did and we are thankful for that. I think we also left an impression during our UK tour in 2015.

Ian: We read at the Scottish Arts Club to a packed house. We read with Mike Garry, who is one of the biggest names in spoken word today. Poetry and poets are celebrated there. It’s part of the culture, and audiences know what good poetry is – no matter what its form and style.

Ivy: But this time is different because you’re an official part of the event?

Catherine: Yes, and we’ve been invited to the University of Glasgow as well and will be publishing in a national Scottish literary journal called Gutter.

Ivy: Tell me about the other four Canadian artists that are part of your entourage on the Fringe tour this August.

Catherine: Steven Heighton and Jeanette Lynes are the other two poets. Steven hasbeen nominated for the Governor General's Award, the Trillium Award, and Britain's W.H. Smith Award to name a few, and Jeanette was long-listed for a Giller prize (2009), and nominated for the ReLit Award (2010). She’s just won the Saskatchewan Book Award for poetry. The musicians are Ron Davis and Daniela Nardi. They’ve toured the world, and Daniela won Smooth Jazz Vocalist of the Year Award in 2009. They were turned down for funding by the OAC as well.

Ian: The fact that we’ve all been turned down doesn’t make sense to me. We have received more money from a private Scotland Foundation for the trip this year then from our own provincial government. Though I must say that many in the arts community and our good friends have contributed to our fundraising campaigns. We are grateful to them.

It makes me wonder though, what about Canadian presence on a global scale? Do we not care about our global image and reputation? Here we are as ambassadors of art, forging new pathways for Canadian artists around the world because we are getting such attention. What I feel is that arts communities are hungry for Canadian artists because we disappeared off the global scene during the Harper years. Now the world wants to know what is happening in Canadian art. Poetry is at the bottom of the heap in terms of funding. And our government agencies seem to be proving it to us. The rest of the world is interested in poetry. When we are abroad, we get full houses for our readings. It’s a Canadian problem. It’s certainly an Ontario problem. We are concerned with building these art alliances for all Canadian artists, for everybody, for all kinds of art. And at a time when people are seeing the importance of having a worldwide connection among people is crucial.

Catherine: Art is universal. It is an essential part of humanity. The more specific, the more universal the impact is.

Ian: Art goes beyond politics and borders, beyond gender, race, and religion. Art goes beyond all the labels. We are presenting an opportunity to connect people, communities and countries. We are not about division and walls.
Catherine: In a way, poetry is pure. It’s been around for centuries as one of our earliest art forms, and it’s still around. It’s not about the bottom line and the dollar, it’s an artistic representation that’s intrinsic to humankind. There’s freedom in that. Poetry isn’t bureaucratic policy. It won’t fit into a box.

Catherine Graham, Ian Burgham, Jeanette Lynes and Stephen Heighton, along with musicians Ron Davis and Daniela Nardiwill have five performances at the EdFringe between Aug 15th and 23rd at the Scottish Arts Club in the center of Edinburgh at 24 Rutland Square.

Following the EdFringe, Catherine and Ian will be published in the upcoming Fall Edition of the UK literary magazine Gutter, with performances at the launch in Scotland. They will be special guests at the University of Glasgow, where they will host a writers workshop and perform their work. In October, Catherine and Ian will be Canadian participants at the 4th International Congress of Language and Literature in Linares, Mexico.

Catherine Graham is the author of five poetry collections. Her most recent collection, Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, (Wolsak & Wynn, 2013) was a finalist for the Raymond Souster Poetry Award and the CAA Poetry Award. She has been a winner of the IFOA’s Poetry NOW competition, and has appeared in numerous anthologies in Canada, the UK, and Ireland. She teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies where she won an Excellence in Teaching Award. This fall, Catherine will be reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City and the 4th International Congress of Language & Literature in Linares, Mexico. Her next poetry book will appear fall 2017. Her first novel, Quarry, will also be published in 2017. Visit: www.catherinegraham.com

Ian Burgham is a part-time instructor for creative writing at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. He is the author of fourcollections of poetry, two chapbooks, and been published in literary and poetry journals in Canada, Australia, and the UK. His work has been performed throughout Canada, and he has toured the UK in 2012, 2013, and 2015. This year Ian’s work will appear in Gutter Magazine in the UK where he will help launch the Fall Edition of the literary journal. In August, he will give 5 performances at the International Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as host a workshop and give performances at the University of Glasgow. In October, Ian will be a participant in the 4th International Congress of Language and Literature in Linares Mexico. Ian has won the Queen’s Well-versed Award and has been a nominee for the Relit Award. He is also a member of the League of Canadian Poets.

Ivy Reiss is a Writer, Poet, Event-Coordinator and Host of Poetry and Literary Events in the GTA. You can follow her on Twitter @Ivy_Reiss, or contact her at ivy_reiss@hotmail.com.


On August 17 2016 at 3%:23 AM Zohra Zoberi said:

Thanks for sharing this article about the 'fringe festival' in general with specifics about Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The involvement and accomplishments of our Canadian representatives Ian Burgham and Catherine ................is admirable.
It's good to know that in other countries poetry attracts great number of audience...here in Toronto Ivy..you would be surprised how large are the poetry gatherings of our Urdu poets -- mostly Canadians of Pakistani origin. 350-4/500 audience where I have recited.
Some organizations even made exception and included my English poem along with the recital in Urdu.
On November 2nd I shall miss you at the 10th Annual Poetry event by Bridging the Gap Productions (zohra z) and Women's Federation at the Rogers Theatre, Living Arts Centre in Mississauga.
Your conversation with the two 'celebrity poets is enlightening...wish them even more success, it's evident that the Canadians have to take poetry more seriously.
...We miss you here Ivy...

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