April 23, 2013
by Natalie Zina Walschots
If Catherine Owen’s work had to be reduced, distilled to a single part of speech, it would not be the carefully sculpted completeness of a noun or the bright spray of an adjective; it would be a verb. Throughout Owen’s oeuvre, it is action, movement and drive that consistently come to the forefront. Eschewing neatness and perfection (though she can also be meticulous in her craft), Owen captures the vital energy of the process. She elevates the sweat, gristle, blood and bone of her art, and is willing to scry within her entrails when necessary. It is not a fear of death or stillness that drives her forward, but an insatiable appetite for living. As she writes in the poem “The Last Canadian Poet?” (from her 2001 collection The Wrecks of Eden), she reveres writing that remains vital, and has thanks for “the ivory thought in…words/ever-warm, unextinct.” Catherine Owen’s work wouldn’t be stuffed in a natural history museum, but may be glimpsed, bright furred, as it hunts in a sprawling nature preserve.
Based in Vancouver, BC, Catherine Owen has been publishing full-length books since 1998 (and chapbooks for far longer than that). She is the author of nine volumes of poetry, a book of epistles and a collection of essays. As much as she is defined by her active, even frenetic output, what sets Owen apart is the fact that she creates in several mediums, including photography and music. Owen has played bass (and occasionally contributed vocals) to several heavy metal projects, including her current band, Medea. In exploring other forms, Owen believes that “multiplicity strengthens the energy I put into my writing.” All of her other artistic pursuits feed back into her writing; she sees “poetry as the core and other genres and disciplines as raying out from that source.”
The dovetailing of artistic forms is perceived particularly clearly in her most recent collection, Trobairitz (Anvil Press, 2012), wherein she positions the female equivalent of the medieval troubadour as analogous to contemporary metalheads. Owen’s obsession with the historical and archaic forms and use of poetic language is interwoven with her love for aggressive music in poems that alternate between impassioned, lute-accompanied pleads and blistering, distorted riffs (and sometimes a little of both). “Why The Trobairitz Picks Up Men At A Metal Festival” is as lascivious as any 12th-century balladeer entreating a lady, but from the reversed gender perspective and an entirely different context. And, again, it is the sweaty, the raw, the visceral that draws Owen and haunts her language: “elaborate hair and symbolic skin, shirtless and moist…string-worn fingers sweet.”
Caught up in the physical, passionate and often wild, Owen is a writer unafraid to reveal the underbelly of her work, the sometimes dark and flailing process through which she creates. Her latest effort is a collection of essays, entitled Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse (Wolsak & Wynn, 2012), a direct engagement with her thought, and writing, process. The book captures the broadest sense of Owen’s aesthetic and character, with the pieces being written between 1999 and 2011. Typically in the literary tradition, the muse – the spirit of inspiration – is to be entreated, seduced and gently convinced to share its (often her) gifts with the (usually male) writer. Owen’s muse is entirely different, and she approaches it as something to be challenged, confronted, wrestled with and even beaten into submission. Owen believes “the muse isn’t a passive entity, thus it can and should be wrangled with,” which is fitting for a writer so enamoured with activity. She also adds that she felt a new relationship precedent needed to be set for female artists, for whom having a muse “is pretty strange, as there isn’t much of a historical precedent.” She felt the need to “question who these forces are that are seducing us to compose, [and] lure them with our fully alive psyches.”
As well as charging into battle with, and against, the spirit of creative inspiration, Catalysts also offers a glimpse into Owen’s more intimate creative process. Many of the essays and rants are directly related to her work, detailing the thoughts, notes and obsessions she dealt with during particular projects. “Trobairitzes in the Pit,” for instance, chronicles her process of drawing parallels between medieval and heavy metal cultures. Other pieces explore her collaborative projects, like “Engaging Space: Collaborations on the Berm with Sydney Lancaster.” While many are sophisticated intellectual engagements, others are brutally raw and painful. In “'time does not bring relief': Poetry & Healing,” Owen speaks about her spouse’s death in 2010 after a battle with addiction. She discusses how, during the awful process of mourning and beginning to write about what happened, “if healing resides at all in poems, it does so in their ability to speak beyond the writer-sufferer themselves.” Owen is unafraid to look at art as a possibility for reaching out, building community and dispelling the “terrible loneliness” of grief.
Owen is a poet of the raw throat and bloody knuckle. Free from guile and affectation, she speaks from a place of authenticity, passion and genuine urgency. Even during her most sophisticated attempts at essay or exegesis, Owen remains unafraid to leap into the pit at a moment’s notice and throw herself against the muse, a personal demon or any other spectre that may emerge. Her work is as steely-eyed as it is steel-toed.
Natalie Zina Walschots is a promiscuous wordsmith, working as a music writer, poet and editor based in Toronto, Ontario. She is the author of DOOM: Love Poems For Supervillains (Insomniac Press, Spring 2012) and Thumbscrews (Snare Books, Fall 2007) which won the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. She writes about comic books, video games, combat sports, sadomasochism, feminism and difficult music.