Minor earthquake moves local poet

Not only does Kateri Lanthier’s first book of poetry get top shelf at the Great Escape Bookstore, last week a proud strip of masking tape on the front cover read, “Prize winning local poet!”

Lanthier, who lives a short walk away from the Kingston Road bookshop, won the Walrus Poetry Prize in December. Reading “blind,” three poet-judges awarded Lanthier the magazine’s $2,500 prize for her poem, The Coin Under the Leftmost Sliding Cup.

Based on a Persian form called a ghazal, it is a love poem that opens with lines Lanthier says were inspired by the small tremor that shook Toronto last spring:

Did you feel the Earth move? That was our Tectonic Dance Party.
The world is a crowded club with all the exits blocked.

As metaphors go, a small earthquake is a pretty good way to describe Lanthier’s recent life as a poet, which is shaking up after a long quiet spell.

Her first book, Reporting From Night, is only two years old, but there is a 20-year gap between some of the poems inside.

“I call it the poetry coma,” says Lanthier, laughing.

Poet Kateri Lanthier took a long break after publishing her first book of poetry, but re-emerged with a bang, winning the Walrus Poetry Prize late last year.
Poet Kateri Lanthier took a long break after publishing her first book of poetry, but re-emerged with a bang, winning the Walrus Poetry Prize late last year.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

The first rumblings of Lanthier’s poetic career came very early.

She was reading at two, and won her first poetry prize as a Grade 6 student in Sudbury, where her father, formerly a high school English teacher, worked for the Ministry of Education.

Sudbury was great place to be a kid, she said, and a kid poet.

“I just wandered around like the Canadian version of a Lake poet,” she said. She remembers skiing straight out her back door in winter, and summers marked by “the furtive ink of blueberry stains.”

Asked about her first prize-winner, Lanthier laughed and said it actually holds up, but it’s an awfully world-weary poem for a 10 year-old.

“My ideas splash on the page like the drops on a hopeless dry plain,” she recited.

“Oh, rainy day blues, clouds in my head, I feel like my work, like the world is recycled.”

Later, in Kingston, an enthusiastic teacher sent some of Lanthier’s poems to Quarry, a literary magazine.

Not only were they published, but Lanthier was invited by the poet Bronwen Wallace to do readings at a local writers’ group.

“I remember when they introduced me at a reading once, they said, ‘Not only is she under the drinking age, she’s under the driving age!”

Lanthier went on to do a Master’s degree in English literature, as her father did, and work in publishing. She had poems in several journals, and even worked on the other side, picking gems from the submissions “slush pile” at Descant.

But after she married and settled into a home in the Beach in 2003, Lanthier gradually stopped writing poetry. Mostly, she had less time alone, she said, and was busy writing freelance pieces for art and design magazines.

Lanthier was also raising her three children, Nicholas, Julia, and William.

“People might think that would interrupt it, but in fact I’d stopped for a while,” she said. “I would go so far to say that having children brought me back to writing poetry.”

Lanthier always carries a notebook. After Nicholas was born, she started writing poetry again while perched on the edge of sandboxes and park benches, watching him and then her other children play.

Once, when Julia was four, they were crossing Queen Street when she asked her mother, “How do the new days and days become the old times?”

That question made its way into Reporting from Night, which is peppered with more quotes from Lanthier’s little philosophers. She said she owes the title to her children, too, since especially when they were younger she did most of her writing and editing at night.

Today, they are getting used to their mother going out for poetry readings, and Lanthier said she is happy to let them keep their best lines for themselves.

And besides the Walrus prize, Lanthier has been busy with requests for poems, though she is quick to say that she still submits things to the slush pile.

She and Dan Chelotti, a young American poet, will have a long-form co-interview published soon in the emerging poets series of Boxcar Poetry Review. Between emailed poem exchanges, even Facebook and Twitter posts, Lanthier is connecting with many of the contemporary poets, Canadian and American, that she had no time to read in her “coma” years.

Lanthier said a second book of poems is well underway, and in fact threatening to swamp her other project – a three-part novel set in the Beach of the 19th century, 20th century and the present day.

“My joke-y, elevator pitch line about it is, ‘Three women, three centuries, one Great Lake,” she said.

That great lake has already inspired several of Lanthier’s poems, including “Sun, stroke,” the first part of her poem, Beached:

1. Sun, stroke

What we prized on Lake Ontario shores:
dinosaur jaw, shark teeth, quartz orbs
and goblin ore. Cobalt slivers
of Blue Willow, the crockery smashed
by scullery maids
and washed, washed,
washed to the bone.

Rocks balanced en pointe
by beach-stone technicians.
Couples in jean shorts danced to recorded salsa.
Our stroller did the boardwalk wobble.
Dazed on the sand,
daylight stargazers felt the slow burn.
Rochester obliged as the near horizon.

Waves sent a foaming bottle-message.
Clouds chest-pumped mountain impressions.
The beach walked home in our sandals.

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