A poet in place

Spillimacheen-raised poet Catherine Stewart presents poetry June 13th at Invermere library

Spillimacheen native Catherine Stewart is coming home, a box of books in her trunk, to share her poetry with a local audience.

She has not lived in Spillimacheen for 30 years. But her childhood spent outdoors, making root-houses and caves for her troll dolls, drinking water fetched by her mother from a creek a driving distance from her house, the draught of the outhouse through the winter chill, have stuck with her through three decades of living on Vancouver Island. Her childhood was framed by the Rockies and Purcell Mountains, where she roamed the Valley with her siblings and friends, or lay amongst the reeds, listening and studying the clouds. She had a small garden patch, where she remembers growing strawberries and radishes. She went to school in Spillimacheen, then Edgewater, then on to David Thompson Secondary School.

Snow Melts First in the Middle of the Slough, Ms. Stewart’s debut book of poetry, is firmly planted in the roots of her childhood home.

“I live so far away from Spillimacheen,” she explained. “Once you move away, everything is nostalgia. So I wrote without even thinking ‘am I going to publish this at the end’. I just wrote it to release everything that was dammed up inside of me I had to say.”

Ms. Stewart took a meandering, lifelong journey to becoming a published poet. She first found a love for poetry as a child.

“The first poem that ever made me feel good about writing was in grade 5,” Ms. Stewart said. Her grandmother was a big fan of literature, and one of her grandmother’s friends was an English teacher. They read a poem Ms. Stewart had written about school.

“This friend of hers said ‘oh, that’s such a good poem’. It was so nice to hear something like that, it inspired me to keep writing.”

At 18, Ms. Stewart left Spillimacheen to pursue an education and career in science. She landed on Vancouver Island, where she has lived ever since. But at the age of 50, she returned to the classroom, earning a Bachelor of Arts in writing at the University of Victoria, followed by a Masters program at UBC. There she accumulated education, advisement, and validation. Before the university program, she said she would write, but “never be quite happy with what I’d written.”

Going to university connected her with other writers, gave her a boost as an artist, and immersed her in the world of poetry.

“The trajectory of my life is what gives me stuff to write about,” Ms. Stewart reflected. “I remember my grandmother saying to me once, ‘you’ve got to write what you know’. Yes, you can do research. But there’s a kernel of what’s inside of you that ends up in everything you write.”

The choices she made have led Ms. Stewart to a life she absolutely loves. She talks of kayaking alongside orcas and camping on wild empty beaches. Her daughters have grown up with the sea salt in their hair.

“I like the life I’ve lived and the experiences I’ve had, and I recognize it’s probably what I needed, to learn the lessons I had to learn in this lifetime,” she said. “I think that wisdom is something that is gleaned from the path we’ve taken. A different path, a different person.”

Poetry to Ms. Stewart is like painting a picture.

“I create this image so everyone else can see what it is. That’s what I like about poetry, you can create a whole story,” she said.

One of her favourite poems in this debut book is called “The Moth”.

“I’ve pulled together my knowledge of the entomological world – my biotech is deeply involved with entomology, and family story. It’s a poem about my mother; she was a very special, beautiful person.”

Ms. Stewart will be presenting Snow Melts First in the Middle of the Slough Thursday, June 13th at the Invermere library, 6 p.m. She will have a stack of books available for sale ($12.95) at the event and encourages everyone to come out. Don’t be intimated that it is a book of poetry, she concludes. They are simply little stories that she would love to share.

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