25th Trillium Award

At the Desk: Catherine Greenwood

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Catherine Greenwood

Poet Catherine Greenwood has leaned her elbows against many desks during her writing career (and rested her forehead against a few more in the offices of various day jobs). In today's At The Desk feature, she tells us about trusty "Tundra," the expansive white IKEA desk that has seen her through more than 25 years of writing and studying.

Catherine's new book, The Lost Letters (Brick Books), finds inspiration in the lives of 12th-century lovers Heloise and Abelard, recasting these lives in the context of our 21st-century foibles. The Lost Letters arrives eagerly awaited after her memorable debut collection The Pearl King and Other Poems.


Desks are a big part of my personal landscape. Most of my day-jobs have taken place at desks, typically of the government-issue grey or beige cubicle variety, though I recall that once 20 of us set up shop in a boardroom at tables lined against the walls. I recently worked in an open-concept office administering student loans at a university, and because I was situated in a corridor, my documents would get knocked askew and students would wander right up behind me — somewhat distracting! My director ordered me a custom desk with partitions, but it arrived after I had moved on to another position. In my current job, I have a very nice desk, beside huge windows overlooking the street, a parkade and a steeple.

My first desk ever was a kid-sized maple double-pedestal that matched my bunk beds, where I learned to read and did my homework, and stowed my diaries inside the locking drawer. I left it behind when I moved away from home and I think my younger brother inherited it.

I bought this large white writing desk from Ikea a very long time ago — I?ve had it for over 25 years. It has seen me through two finished books, three diplomas, four residences and five writing machines, the first of which was an electronic typewriter — remember those? Basically a typewriter with a little window displaying a few lines of text you could revise before saving and scrolling down, no going back to rewrite your first paragraph. Then came the personal computers, the first of which took 5-inch floppies and had a clunky monitor with orange writing on a black screen, and so on, as I?ve lagged along behind technology. The constant has been notebooks and yellow lined pads, which is where the writing usually begins, in scraps and scribbles. I now have a middle-aged MacBook, set on a riser and with a peripheral keyboard on a pullout tray, ergonomic adjustments perfected during the writing of my thesis, when I temporarily developed a numb arm and wrecked neck.

In recognition of its long and faithful service, I should give the desk a name, like Silver or Snowball, the way some people name their cars. Maybe Tundra. The Ikea name is lost in time; I don?t think they make this model anymore. The top came with screw-fasteners to anchor it to the pedestals, which luckily I never go around to doing, as the weight of my second PC monitor bowed the desktop in the middle, which I remedied by flipping the top and letting the computer?s weight press it back into shape.

In this home, the desk fits perfectly under the eaves in my upstairs office. There?s a great view of Esquimalt Harbour behind me, which is not distracting, since I have to stand up and go over to the window to see it. Instead, I face the bulletin board, which is pinned with pictures of people I love, postcards and other inspirations: a ?prize? ribbon my friend made me, a card from a group of co-workers reading ?Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers, ?Grow, grow??, and a message in Mandarin from my husband that he?s translated as ?To retouch a literary effort and turn it to gold.? There?s a glittery purple pen-jar nabbed in an office Christmas gift exchange, and little toys atop the finicky cheapo printer, including a panda that poops chocolate-covered raisins, another present from a co-worker.

At least two other people have used this desk, one of the students who sublet my apartment when I went to grad school in New Brunswick for a year, and another from a different group of students who rented our home when my husband and I went to China for a year to teach. Not like letting someone else ride your horse, no bad habits were acquired by the desk, or the chair.

The desks I used during these intervals abroad were less serviceable — the one in my semi-furnished suite in Fredericton looked like it had been hammered together from orange crates, and was propped up one side with folded cardboard to mitigate the badly sloping floors of the old house. I have, however, enjoyed setting myself up at temporary desks on the few occasions when I have gone on writing retreats to cabins. I usually have to move the furniture around, steal a lamp from the living room, and find some object, like a feather or lacy autumn leaves, to decorate the workspace (sometimes a kitchen table). A bit of ritualistic procrastination, but a way of preparing. I have discovered I am most productive alone, and not with other writers around — the sound of keyboards clacking down an echoing residence hallway can unnerve me, and I am sometimes too easily tempted to socialize.

I admit I tidied up my desk for the photo, which is a good thing, because notes and research related to the book I?ve just finished were cluttering the surface, reminding me of a poem for the project I had planned to write but abandoned. Now there are a couple of clippings on the bulletin board related to the next piece I will be revising and finishing, a story featuring tigers (tiger-skin screen-saver on my desktop). Time to start afresh. Hi-ho Tundra, away!

Catherine Greenwood?s poetry has been widely published in journals and anthologies; her first book, The Pearl King and Other Poems (Brick Books, 2004), was a Kiriyama Prize notable book. She works for British Columbia?s Ministry of Justice in Victoria, where she lives with her husband, the writer Steve Noyes.

For more information about The Lost Letters please visit the Brick Books website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore, online from the publisher or at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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