Brockton Writers Series 09.09.20

Wednesday, September 9, 2020 – 6:30pm

Brockton Writers Series presents readings by

Fereshteh Molavi

Cyn Rozeboom

Brian Francis

Cassidy McFadzean

Special note: As we adapt to current social distancing regulations, we’re happy to announce our event will be hosted by the wonderful Ephemera Series! They have already done their show online multiple times, so we are thrilled to benefit from their technical expertise, while also increasing collaboration within the literary community and growing connections between organizers, authors, and audience. You can attend the event by watching on the Ephemera Series Youtube channel. Please log in at 6:15

The reading is PWYC (suggested $3-$5) and features a Q&A with the writers afterward. Books are available for sale.

 If you’d like to donate, please do so here.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.

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GUEST SPEAKER

“Attracting Audiences: Getting the Most Out of Digital Events”

ElhamAli

Elham Ali is a writer and publishing professional based in Toronto. She graduated from the University of Toronto in 2014, and since completing the Humber College publishing program in 2015 she has worked in marketing and publicity at Canada’s Ballet Jörgen, Penguin Random House Canada, and Dundurn Press.

READERS

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Born in Tehran in 1953, Fereshteh Molavi lived and worked there until 1998 when she immigrated to Canada. She worked and taught at Yale University, University of Toronto, York University, and Seneca College. A fellow at Massey College and a writer-in-residence at George Brown College, Molavi has published many works of fiction and non-fiction in Persian in Iran and Europe. She has been the recipient of awards for novel and translation. Her most recent novel, Thirty Shadow Birds, was published by Inanna Publications in 2019. She lives in Toronto.

 

CRozeboomElephant

Cyn Rozeboom has worked in the arts sector for over 30 years, as a fundraiser, communications specialist, artist, and administrator. In her current role as Executive Director of Tangled Art + Disability, she delights in working with her team to subvert the status quo with joy and love.

 

Brian Francis WEB RES

Brian Francis’s most recent work, Box 4901, premiered at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in 2020 to sold-out audiences. His YA novel, Break in Case of Emergency, was a finalist for the 2019 Governor General’s Literary Awards. His previous novels are Natural Order and Fruit. The book version of Box 4901 will be published by McClelland & Stewart in 2021.

 

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Cassidy McFadzean is the author of two books of poetry: Hacker Packer (McClelland & Stewart 2015), which won two Saskatchewan Book Awards and was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and Drolleries (M&S 2019), a finalist for the Raymond Souster Award. She lives in Toronto.

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BWS 08.07.20: Waubgeshig Rice

Waubgeshig Rice

Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay. He has written three fiction titles, and his short stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published in 2018 and became a national bestseller. He spent the bulk of his journalism career at CBC, most recently as host of Up North, the afternoon radio program for northern Ontario. He lives in Sudbury with his wife and sons.

A few weeks ago Waub celebrated the birth of his second son, Ayaabehns. In a letter to his newborn son, Waub introduces him to the world he now inhabits and the hopes he has for the future.

 

Dear Ayaabehns,

The first month of your life has been historic, my son. You entered a world in the midst of great upheaval. A worldwide sickness has ravaged communities and sent societies into isolation. A social revolution to support Black lives and end racism has mobilized people around the world into action. And your birth into a healthy and happy Anishinaabe family is a triumph for your people and your culture.

When your mother and I first learned about you, we couldn’t have imagined what the world would become by the time you finally arrived. We lived a peaceful and comfortable life with your big brother in our Anishinaabe homelands of what’s otherwise called northern Ontario. We were thrilled that you’d be joining us, and we prepared our family and home with love and care. You and your mother hit all the important milestones in a healthy way, and it seemed as routine as it could possibly be.

But with just three months before your anticipated birth, a global pandemic was declared. We didn’t know what that would mean for your arrival. We isolated with your brother at home as best as we could. We became a little frightened. Still, you brought us hope and joy just by making your way to us. We knew you would be a wonderful blessing to our family, just as your brother was. 

Many people responded to the pandemic by finding ways to make their communities better. They talked about how they could better grow food and share it with everyone. Some took initiative to teach themselves better skills to help their families and the people around them. It became a hopeful era of renewal, all while staring down the end of the world as we know it. You became a new beginning for our family in so many ways.

And then, tragically, a man named George Floyd was murdered by police in a city far from us. He was yet another Black person to die at the hands of police. It was the latest heartbreak for a collective community that has been historically brutalized by authorities on this land. I’m sorry to tell you this is the reality for Black and Indigenous people like you in the world you are entering. You’ll eventually learn of the injustices your own Anishinaabe ancestors have survived.

But the response to this senseless death has been nothing short of revolutionary. The Black Lives Matter movement has swept the globe and prompted widespread social change, from institutional overhaul to address systemic racism, to the toppling of statues of historic racist figures. You will still experience racism in your childhood, but it will thankfully pale compared to what I endured growing up in the 1980s and 90s. 

You will also learn that Black and Indigenous people walk parallel paths and survive similar struggles. And in the moments that our tracks do converge, we are much stronger together. That spirit of unity is growing already powerful in your young life, and it’s an example for communities and nations everywhere. Whether we’re collectively facing deadly forces like a pandemic or racism, coming together is the ultimate expression of resilience and survival.

And your name in your people’s language is survival, too. So are the few Anishinaabemowin words and phrases I share with you every day. I promise to be a fluent speaker before you become a young man. This language wasn’t supposed to survive, nor was your culture or history because of what Canada did to us. But here you are, already resisting and thriving. You are our light, our inspiration, and along with your generation and each that follows, this land’s great hope.

G’zaagin! I love you!

G’dehdeh (your dad)

 

Waubgeshig Rice visits Brockton Writers Series via GDTV on Wednesday, July 8, 2020 starting at 8:30pm alongside Kamila Rina, Ryanne Kap, and Marlo K. Shaw.

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BWS 08.07.20: Ryanne Kap

RyanneKap

Ryanne Kap is a Chinese-Canadian writer from Strathroy, Ontario. Her work has been featured in Grain MagazineScarborough FairRicepaper MagazineFeelszine, and The Unpublished City Volume II. Following her BA in English and creative writing at the University of Toronto Scarborough, she will be pursuing an MA in English at Western University.

 

Last Times

Shortly after the world shut down, I moved out of my basement apartment in Scarborough. I’d been planning to stay right until the end of my lease to make the most of the remaining time, but obviously those plansalong with everyone else’swere derailed.

So instead of having a small get-together with champagne and Papa John’s, my mom drove up and we packed my undergrad existence into her Subaru Crosstrek and my Honda Fit. A couple weeks later, I drove back to the apartment to gather the leftovers.

Before leaving, I took pictures of my room, the bathroom, and the kitchen. Just in case I forgot what they looked like. Or what it had been like, living away from home for the first time. With someone I could call a best friend. With a couch we always ate dinner on, and posters from Fan Expo, and a dark spot of mold on the wall, and those multi-legged bugs that show up when you least want them to.

I tried not to make it a moment, standing in that bare space like in the series finale of Fresh Prince or Friends, but there’s something about an emptied-out apartment that really gets to you. It felt like the end of everything. I was graduating from UTSC, moving back home, saying goodbye to the first chapter of my life that felt like it really mattered.

I left Scarborough in the dark, like I was on the run. When I arrived home two and a half hours and 246 kilometers later, the soft sorrow of never living there again sank in.

Since then, I’ve spent much of my ample free time thinking about what I would’ve done in that last few weeks, if I’d had all of April to stay.

I would’ve gotten a day pass and gotten off at every station between Kennedy and Yonge, just to see what was there. I was never able to avoid the cliché of a small-town girl in the big city; subways were still magic to me. I loved the pigeons flitting in and out of the stations, the rats staring up from the tracks.

I would’ve spent less caffeine-fueled nights on campus. I would’ve stayed home in the apartment. I still wouldn’t have slept, but I would’ve stayed up with my roommate debating Marvel movies and which celebrities we implicitly trusted instead of working on endless assignments.

I would’ve cooked more. I would’ve made dumplings, a dish I was so proud to have learned the recipe for. I would’ve stocked up at the Asian grocery store after a lifetime of never knowing there was such a thing.

I would’ve walked through every building on campus. Past my favourite professors’ offices, to the secret levels and study spaces I’d never explored before. I would’ve even paid one last visit to the cramped bathroom at the end of the humanities’ wing, the one I hated more than anything.

I would’ve stopped by north residence, glanced nostalgically at the window where my room was in first year. Remembered late-night treks for gas station slushies, the first time getting lost downtown, crying on my way to a 9 a.m. class after getting dumped the night before.

I would’ve taken the person I loved on one last proper date. I would’ve thanked him for everything, knowing that even that all-encompassing word wasn’t sufficient.

I would’ve gotten another berry lemonade Jones from the convenience store across the street. Stopped by the library branch that was always closed when I needed it to be open. Gone to Pickering just for pizza at Lamanna’s. There’s a whole subsection in my head for all the food I would’ve had one last time.

But even if I’d had all these goodbyes, it wouldn’t have given me any more closure. I’m not the kind of person who can easily cope with last times.

Exhibit A: my Opa’s been dying of cancer since 2016, and over the last four years every visit has had the threat of being the last time we see him, the last time I tell him I love him. It’s always the last time, until it isn’t. The inevitable keeps getting postponed, but my gratitude has long been overshadowed by stress. I cry when I don’t mean to and panic in the bathroom when I go to see him. It’s like a Groundhog Day of goodbyes, and I’m just waiting for the cycle to finally end.

Even as I left Scarborough, I knew it wasn’t really the last time either. I have people there I plan to visit, alumni events I’ll probably show up for.

But the problem with an ending that never comes is that it makes it more difficult to accept the endings that have already come true.

Going back to Scarborough won’t change the fact that my life as I knew it there is over. I’ll never walk through that campus as a bright-eyed/burned-out undergrad. I’ll never wake up in that basement apartment to the sounds of the neighbours fighting upstairs.

Not all of it needs to be mourned. My life has changed and reformed plenty of times before this. There are next chapters, and all that.

But in this, a time of uncertainty and collective grieving, I find myself holding on to those hypothetical last times, to that hypothetical closure. If I can imagine all the things I would’ve done, then it makes them that much closer to being real.

In this alternate timeline, some parallel version of April, I stay in Scarborough. I say goodbye to all the places, experiences, and people I need to. It still feels like a loss, but one I have time to come to terms with.

And then, when I’m finally ready, I come home.

 

Ryanne Kap visits Brockton Writers Series via GDTV on Wednesday, July 8, 2020 starting at 8:30pm alongside Kamila Rina, Waubgeshig Rice, and Marlo K. Shaw.

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BWS 08.07.20: Kamila Rina

Kamila Rina - headshot 1

Kamila Rina is an autistic and multi-disabled immigrant Jewish non-binary bi poet, a sexuality/gender/disability educator, and a survivor of long-term violence. They have been published internationally, including in Room MagazineBreath & ShadowMonsteringDeaf Poets SocietyWe Have Come FarCarouselAugurFrondMary, and Queer Out There. Find them at KamilaRina.com.

 

My friend, the award-winning writer Jade Wallace interviewed me this week while scrupulously observing social distancing precautions (so, via email).

Jade: Describe your ideal writing space, real, fantastical, or otherwise.

Kamila: Oh I love this question! I always want to write among plants. Many many plants. Sooooo many. Occasionally I’ve perused Writer Instagram (a very different animal from Writer Twitter) to satiate my hunger for seeing writing spaces that I would like to inhabit but don’t (yet). I think my 1st place for Writing Spot Envy goes to a garden in the English countryside, with a laptop on a large wooden table, some climbing vines on trellises, and fields of No People Just More Plants stretching out around the writer. Lucky lucky writer.

But I would also accept:
a park with trees all around, or at least a lot of edible plants;
a hammock hanging between large-crowned trees (though that one is definitely a fantasy, as my disabled body requires both a laptop and more physical support than found there, to be able to write);
a large plant-filled room;
a balcony with a plethora of planters and climbing plants (I have some excellent memories of my childhood balcony with a curtain of fragrant sweet peas climbing up thin fishing lines on all three sides); or
a back deck overlooking fruit trees and a vegetable garden.

In reality, I write wherever I can, which is often on the subway between errands, or on my couch, with a side view of a shelf of some hardy succulents I haven’t neglected to death yet.

Jade: Reading spaces are important as well. You have written about, and worked toward, increasing the accessibility of various public events. What are some common hindrances to accessibility that you have noticed at literary readings in particular and how might they be addressed?

Kamila: Oh gosh, so many — and I know the (queer) literary communities I hang out in are currently putting in work toward disability inclusion, but accessibility is not yet nearly as much a cornerstone of our event organising as it needs to be.

…You know, I’m just going to focus on the second half of the question; otherwise this answer will be an essay in itself.

So in my plans for a Literary Community That’s All Accessible All The Time, I see a mandate for spaces with level entry, wide doorways, power entry buttons, strictly enforced wide aisles, designated wheelchair and walker spots, and large single-stall washrooms with grab bars, levered taps, and lap space under the sinks. ASL interpretation would be provided at all readings; it is expensive but what if we just considered it a necessary part of holding a reading? Events would have live captioners and/or project the reading texts on a screen. (Providing a text script is crucial for folks with audio-processing issues.) And would have attendant care and child care as a matter of course. Any books sold at a reading would be available in multiple formats. All folks intending to attend a literary reading would be mindful of the need to arrive stringently scent-free, the way most of us are currently mindful to keep 2m away from the nearest person not living in our household. Event spaces would make arrangements around their cleaning and renovations practices, when scheduling readings. And would make a plan for bringing down sensory loads in the space the day of.

Some of these objectives heavily depend on extra funding, of course. I hope/believe we will find ways to build that in over time? Passing around a hat for ASL donations? PWYC (including all the way down to $0 of course) entry to events, with proceeds going to the accessibility budget? Applying for grants?

But there are also things we can do right now, without much extra capital. Scent-free awareness and policies, enforced. Designated accessibility greeters/problem-solvers. Providing or projecting the text for all material read. Wide aisles. Priority spots at the front for mobility device users, lip-readers, and scent-disabled folks. At least a few solid comfortable chairs, reserved for disabled folks. Sensory load decrease reorganising, done at the same time as putting out the chairs. Finding out about availability of alternate formats (audio, PDF, eBook, braille, large print) for the featured books, and pestering publishers to provide those formats.

Anyway, I guess this is my Soapbox Moment, asking that all of us who work in or visit literary spaces prioritise access and agitate/plan for at least some accessibility features at every event we’re part of.

Jade: How do you conceptualize the relationship between poetry and personal identity?

Kamila: I know it’s different for everyone, and I am not prescribing this for all other poets, there is a lot of amazing poetry out there that achieves different yet also valuable aims, but: I feel like I pour all of who I am into poems. All the anguish, all the joy, all the hard and impossible and not-yet-resolved and weird and sharp and soft and squirmy. At its best, my work shows all of me, imagines who I still want to become, creates a bridge or a way to accept parts of me that are hard or inconvenient, plainly provides representation/reflection for other folks with the same marginalised identity labels, and wrestles with privilege and witnessing. At its best, I hope it does for others what my favourite poets have done for me over time: holds up a mirror, says: here’s a hard thing, and/but you are not alone, says: here’s a way forward.

Jade: Of the many available creative literary genres—fiction, playwriting, etc.—why do you find yourself reliably drawn to poetry?

Kamila: The first thing I think of is this line from Audre Lorde “…even the form our creativity takes is often a class issue. Of all the art forms, poetry is the most economical. It is the one which is the most secret, which requires the least physical labor, the least material, and the one which can be done between shifts, in the hospital pantry, on the subway, and on scraps of surplus paper.”

I first read it as a queer teenage poetry-scribbler, in one of the very first feminist/radical books I got to access in the tiny town where I attended high school after immigrating to Canada. I’ve never forgotten it. As a young adult I used to write poems on scraps or reused paper — back when I was even poorer but also somewhat less disabled. I wrote on the backs of various flyers or handouts (I was so poor, that affording a fresh package of writing paper was a challenge; back then I took home every single handout from everywhere, and book excerpts and helping materials given out in my trauma support groups, just to be able to write), in (donated at said support groups) notebooks on transit, on the backs of receipts.

Then the disability that affects my arms kicked in, and I needed to write using voice recognition software, or on a laptop with a really gentle keyboard. When I got my first laptop (it was a hand-me-down with a cracked screen, but it had the nice kind of keyboard and I LOVED it), I was giddy to once again be able to write on the subway, on the bus, while waiting in a doctor’s office, while eating lunch in a park. Time stolen from dreary errands. A way to process or capture something beautiful or distressing.

The first time I got a publication accepted into an Important Literary Journal, it was a poem I had originally furtively scribbled on reused paper on the subway, as the event I was describing was happening. Poetry is the most immediate of writing forms. As a poor and disabled person, I’ve never had the time and stamina to be able to write longer, more focused items, like novels or short stories.

And as an autistic, I find poetry most conducive to translating the pictures that my brain makes whenever it’s processing an experience or an idea. Sometimes all I have to do is describe my internal landscape vividly enough, and voilà! a way of making sense of my experience, but also Art.

Jade: Which foods do you find most conducive to writing creatively?

Kamila: Ooooh. Well, definitely edible flowers! Nasturtiums and pansies alone can be responsible for entire poems. But also anything else that makes my brain light up in happiness/is stimmy. Vegan cheese. (I recommend the Nuts for Cheese Artichoke and Herb cashew cheese.) Chocolate-chip or lemon-coconut cookies. Green beans. WILD BLUEBERRIES. Anything that makes my brain happy opens up my (metaphorical) metaphor veins, and makes the writing flow.

Otherwise, something proteinated and not too messy that can be eaten with one hand while 90% of my eyes’ and neurons’ attention is on the computer screen. Pre-seasoned tofu chunks. Almond butter eaten from the jar with a large spoon. Cinnamon-pecan Simply bars.

 

Kamila Rina visits Brockton Writers Series via GDTV on Wednesday, July 8, 2020 starting at 8:30pm alongside Ryanne Kap, Waubgeshig Rice, and Marlo K. Shaw.

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Brockton Writers Series 08.07.20

Wednesday, July 8, 2020 – 8:30pm

Brockton Writers Series presents readings by

Kamila Rina

Ryanne Kap

Waubgeshig Rice

Marlo K. Shaw

Glad Day Bookshop via online at GDTV:

Here’s how to join:
Just add us on ZOOM: https://zoom.us/my/gladday
Meeting ID: 619-763-5308
Password is: 1970
(you can also phone in and listen: 647 558 0588)
And you can pick your own Glad Day Zoom background HERE

 

499 Church Street, Toronto

The reading is PWYC (suggested $3-$5) and features a Q&A with the writers afterward. Books are available for sale.

 If you’d like to donate, please do so here.

 

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.

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Special note: As we adapt to current social distancing regulations, we have decided to move our July 8th event online! Glad Day Bookstore will host our event on its GDTV Zoom channel. We encourage you to download the Zoom app to your computers, a cell phone will suffice but some of the functionalities of the app will be limited. In the next couple of weeks, watch this space to learn more about our readers and for more information on how you can participate with us online.

READERS

Kamila Rina - headshot 1

Kamila Rina is an autistic and multi-disabled immigrant Jewish non-binary bi poet, a sexuality/gender/disability educator, and a survivor of long-term violence. They have been published internationally, including in Room Magazine, Breath & Shadow, Monstering, Deaf Poets Society, We Have Come Far, Carousel, Augur, Frond, Mary, and Queer Out There. Find them at KamilaRina.com.

RyanneKap

Ryanne Kap is a Chinese-Canadian writer from Strathroy, Ontario. Her work has been featured in Grain Magazine, Scarborough Fair, Ricepaper Magazine, Feelszine, and The Unpublished City Volume II. Following her BA in English and creative writing at the University of Toronto Scarborough, she will be pursuing an MA in English at Western University.

Waubgeshig Rice

Waubgeshig Rice is an author and journalist from Wasauksing First Nation on Georgian Bay. He has written three fiction titles, and his short stories and essays have been published in numerous anthologies. His most recent novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was published in 2018 and became a national bestseller. He spent the bulk of his journalism career at CBC, most recently as host of Up North, the afternoon radio program for northern Ontario. He lives in Sudbury with his wife and sons.

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Marlo K. Shaw (She/Her) is a Toronto writer, child protection lawyer and Mom. She writes memoir, personal essays and poetry. Her work has appeared in Through, Not Around: Stories of Infertility and Pregnancy Loss, published in 2019 by Dundurn Press. Her short play, “Introducing My Crazy”, was selected to be a part of Stage Write Burlington’s Virtually Yours 2.0 play festival. She has read at the Emerging Writers Series, Bedpost Sex and Sexuality Show, Spoken Lives, and at VoicED: an Event for Eating Disorders Awareness Week.  She blogs about writing and her creative process at mkshaw.ca, and you can follow her on Instagram @marlo.k.shaw

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BWS 13.05.20: Cancelled

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Because of the Covid-19 lockdown, our May 13, 2020 event at Toronto’s Glad Day Booskshop has been cancelled. Check back with us for updates about our July event. In the interim, we invite all Brockton Writers Series alumni to to send us news of publications, book launches, online readings and events and we’ll do our best to get the word out. Send us an email with your news or write a post for our facebook group.

Til we meet again, our best wishes for a healthy spring.

— BWS volunteers Emily, Dorianne, Nancy, Hannah, and Sonia

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BWS 11.03.20: Nora Gold

Nora Gold - photo (in Jpeg) (392 x 339) (69.5 KB)

Nora Gold is a prize-winning author, an activist, and the editor of the prestigious online literary journal, JewishFiction.net. Her three fiction books have been highly praised, including by Alice Munro, and have won two Canadian Jewish Book Awards. Gold’s also the creator and coordinator of Toronto’s Wonderful Women Writers Series.

 

The book I’ll be reading from on March 11 at Brockton is my latest novel, The Dead Man. Its main character, Eve, is a composer of sacred music and a music therapist who is obsessed with her ex-lover, a world-famous music critic named Jake. Eve, generally a sensible and intelligent woman, for some reason cannot recover from this brief relationship. The mystery at the heart of this novel is, Why?

When I began writing this novel, I was acutely conscious of the many books, films, and plays on the theme of a woman who can’t get over a man,” and also how, in popular culture (like Harlequin romances), theres often the tacit assumption that there is something almost natural about these women’s stuckness. The thinking goes: A woman requires a man to be an acceptable and valid human being, so of course a woman would make desperate efforts to gain, or regain, a man. This is not my perspective at all – either in life or in this novel. I decided, in The Dead Man, to explore Eve and her struggle through a feminist lens. I also made Eve herself a feminist, someone who considers her obsession with Jake to be not only unnatural and unhealthy but also (because shes a feminist) embarrassing. In contrast to the stereotypical portrayals of women who can’t move on after a relationship, Eve is a complex and introspective character who is analytical about her situation. Determined to overcome her obsession, she often studies herself closely. The opening sentences of this novel are classic Eve:

“She’s never been obsessed before. This is her first time and it’s kind of interesting. It’s like watching some psychopath in a movie, stalking someone, plotting to kill them, except that the psychopath is her.”

So part of The Dead Man is the profound tension between one’s mind (which is rational and ideological) and one’s heart (which has an inner logic all its own). Something I think all of us have experienced at some point or another.

Here, to illustrate this dichotomy between what Eve knows intellectually and what she feels, is an excerpt from near the beginning of the book. Eve is sitting on a plane that has just started its descent into Israel, where she and Jake first fell in love and where Jake still lives. She has spent the past ninety minutes thinking non-stop about him and talking to him in her head, as she has been doing for the past five and a half years (ever since their relationship ended) – a habit she is trying hard to break. It is just a habit, though. It is clear from her thoughts over the past hour and a half that she understands perfectly that she will never again see Jake. Their relationship is over. He’ll never call or write to her again.

The Dead Man 

The pilot’s voice booms over the loudspeaker: “This is your captain speaking. We are now beginning our descent into Israel. Please place all your hand luggage below the seat in front of you, switch off all electronic devices, and fasten your seat belts.”

She obeys. But as she is shoving her carry-on under the seat in front of her, some of those phrases return that she’s been thinking for the past ninety minutes.

I don’t love you anymore. I don’t. I haven’t loved you for years.

Then: Do you love me?

There’s a pause.

No. Of course you don’t. You don’t care if I’m alive or dead.

She straightens up in her seat and looks out the window: blackness dotted with yellow lights.

Not You don’t care, she corrects herself: He. He doesn’t care. Third person. Stop talking to him like he’s still your eternal I-Thou after all this time. It’s been five and a half years.

The plane plummets and she feels her stomach plummet, too. She clutches both armrests, her eyes shut tight. The plane drops again; it feels like it’s diving, and she thinks she is going to vomit. Then the plane steadies itself. She opens her eyes. Gradually her stomach settles down. This thing with Jake, apart from everything else, is embarrassing. First of all because of its banality. The powerful older man at the peak of his career, and the young woman just starting out as a musician (or anyway the younger woman – fifty to his sixty-five). It’s such a cliché. Secondly, it’s embarrassing because she can’t get over it. She’s not a fool. She knew from the beginning that this relationship couldn’t last. But even so, here she is, stuck in this state, and unable to move forward. It doesn’t make any sense that she should be so fucked-up over what was, after all, just a five-month affair. She wasn’t like this even after Brian died, and he was her husband and she’d loved him for over fifteen years. She did suffer terribly at first after Brian’s death, but then she quickly recovered. She had no choice, in a way, ten years ago: Michael was ten and Ethan was eight; she couldn’t just fall apart. Yet here it is five and a half years since she and Jake parted ways, and she’s still obsessed with him day and night. There’s something here she doesn’t understand. Some mystery she can’t solve.

Now the plane lands in a series of three rough bumps. Loud clapping erupts. Right. Israelis always clap whenever a plane lands. Celebrating survival implicitly reminding you of all the possible disasters you have just narrowly escaped. The plane is still coasting along the runway, but already people are standing up, taking down coats and parcels from overhead compartments, phoning relatives and friends to say they’ve arrived, and squinting at hand-held devices to check their email. Good idea, thinks Eve. I should see what I’ve missed while up in the air. Probably ten or fifteen emails. Still sitting in her seat (practically the only person on the plane not yet standing up), she turns on her phone. Maybe, she thinks, I’ll have an email from Jake.

 

* Here is a podcast of my most recent interview about The Dead Man, in conversation with the New Books Network in Chicago.

** There is a special sale on now for The Dead Man, with a 40% discount (until March 31) in honour of International Women’s Day. You can purchase The Dead Man here using the coupon code iwd2020.

 

Nora Gold visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Armand Garnet Ruffo, Cristina Rizzuto, Anuja Varghese, and guest speaker Marina Ferreira, who will give us tips on “How to Independently Publish your Book Using Kobo Writing Life.”

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BWS 11.03.20: Anuja Varghese

Anuja Headshot

Anuja Varghese is a Pushcart-nominated QWOC writer based in Hamilton, ON. Her work appears in The Malahat Review, Humber Literary Review, Corvid Queen: A Journal of Feminist Folklore & Fairy Tales, Dirty Girls Magazine, Hamilton Review of Books and others. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Pigeon Pages Fiction Contest and took third prize in the Alice Munro Festival Short Story Competition. Anuja holds a degree in English Literature from McGill University and is currently pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate from the University of Toronto while working on a collection of short stories. She can be found on Instagram (@anuja_v) and Twitter (@Anuja_V) or by visiting her website www.anujavarghese.com.

 

Ahead of her appearance at our next event on March 11, Anuja shares an excerpt from her short story “A Very Small Woman & A Silver Looking Glass.” This piece was first published in Corvid Queen: A Journal of Feminist Fairy Tales, Folklore & Myths in May 2019. Click here to see Anuja’s reading.

About this piece, Anuja says, “This was a departure from the fiction I usually write which tends to be based in realistic, contemporary settings. Even though I have always been drawn to fantasy and fairy tale, and there are the occasional elements of magical realism in my work, the collection I’m currently working on is very much set in realworld Toronto. This piece sort of poured out in response to a writing prompt at a workshop I attended, and instead of shutting it down because it wasn’t what I had planned to write, I followed the thread and ended up knitting together something I really love.”

Want to read the whole story? Find it here!

Last fall, Anuja spoke to Kelsie Tan at The Malahat Review about the value of writing workshops and other learning opportunities outside of the university setting. Here, she shares an excerpt from that interview.

Kelsie: You hold a BA in English Literature from McGill University and you’re currently pursuing Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. How has your educational journey shaped your current writing interests?

Anuja: When I came out of McGill, I could write the hell out of a critical essay on Chaucer, but I had become extremely self-conscious of writing creatively. As a young Anglophone woman of colour, either I wasn’t ready for the Montreal literary scene, or it wasn’t ready for me. That being said, I still have great affection for the city and I’m sure things have changed considerably since I was at McGill. More than my academic pursuits, it was my experience of the city itself and the relationships I developed during my time there that have most directly shaped my current writing.

My day job in the non-profit sector has always required me to write, but it wasn’t until I moved to Toronto that the ideas for the collection I’m currently working on started to percolate. And it was almost a full decade later, after moving to Hamilton, that I actually started writing it! Between the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto, where I have found wonderful, supportive instructors like Grace O’Connell, and the wider, diverse community of Toronto writers and literary events, I still feel connected to Toronto in many ways and am so grateful for the learning opportunities that the city continues to offer.

I also recognize that universities are privileged spaces and that there is much to be learned from perspectives and experiences outside of academia. In Hamilton, I have discovered a thriving literary community, and whether through festivals like gritLIT or groups like Jaclyn Desforges’ writing workshops, there are a great many meaningful ways to continue my education outside of a school setting. As I continue growing as a writer and a mother and a feminist and a human, my hope is that my personal journey and my educational journey will work in tandem to reveal the stories I need to tell and help me hone the voice in which I can make them heard.

For more of this interview, click here

A note from Anuja: I’m so excited to return to Glad Day Bookshop for the March 2020 Brockton Writers Reading Series event! I will be reading from her short story “Bhupati” which took third place in the 2019 Alice Munro Short Story Festival Competition. It’s a story about good intentions, bad weather, and a marriage (literally) going down in flames. I hope to see you there!

 

Anuja Varghese visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Armand Garnet Ruffo, Cristina Rizzuto, Nora Gold, and guest speaker Marina Ferreira, who will give us tips on “How to Independently Publish your Book Using Kobo Writing Life.”

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BWS 11.03.20: Cristina Rizzuto

CR

Cristina Rizzuto is the author of poetry collection, The Music Makers (Blaurock Press, 2012). Writing credits include The Florentine; Lantern Magazine; Ottawa Arts Review; Wattpad; Best Ultra Short Poems, an anthology published by the Ontario Poetry Society; Love, Anonymous, an anthology published by CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts); Dragnet Magazine; FEMMELDEHYDE; and CBC Canada Writes. For more information, visit www.crisrizz.com.

 

Cristina shares an excerpt from her short story The Elegant Complexity of Oranges.

“Did you like Toronto when you first arrived here?”
“Never,” she replies in her broken English, the r trilled. “I like nothing when I come here. The people, the food, the cold, the city…veramente niente.”

Veramente niente. Truly nothing.
“Nothing?”
“Nothing,” she repeats quietly, looking away.

Her face sags, wrinkles delicately folding into one another. The corners of her mouth curve downwards, two parallel roads that break apart at the chin, splitting into thousands of purple capillary rivers and alleyways, snaking downwards to her neck, her chest, her failing heart.

“I never like it, and I never will. I miss my life, my friends. My house. My Italy.”
My grandmother can’t speak English in the past or future tenses, only present. I wonder for a second if she meant that she missed Italy, or that she still does. If it matters.

I nod after she says this, slowly twirling an overly-ripe orange around in my hands, prodding and caressing its scaly skin, searching for a soft spot to peel into. An unassuming fruit of tricky, elegant complexity, oranges are wrought together by a diaphanous network of gooey, satisfying pulp. If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up tediously tearing out chunks, one at a time, the coarse rind sinking under your fingernails. It’s never the same. But with patience, the whole thing unwraps in one long, elaborate motion, beautifully.

Every Sunday, I visit my grandmother. We drink espresso and eat fresh fruits, soft cheese, hard homemade bread studded with black olives, and hot pickled vegetables soaked in olive oil, everything garnished with sea salt, garlic, cracked pepper, oregano. This is how my nonna Franca’s tiny fifth-floor apartment smells on Sundays, like garlic and oily red peppers. Her tongue clucks in disapproval when I decline the plate of prosciutto that she offers me, reminding her that I’m a vegetarian. Delicately, she lowers a thin, curly slice of pink flesh into her mouth, licking salt and a plump white string of fat from her lips.

“Come, Cristina. We sit outside on the balcony, no? It’s a beautiful day,” she says, approaching the heavy glass sliding door.

“Here, let me help you,” I say, quickly getting up.

“No, no! I do it,” she grunts, swatting my arm away. “Get the cheese.”

She opens the door.

My grandmother’s balcony overlooks rows upon rows of other balconies decorated with makeshift laundry lines, potted flowers, and old Christmas lights. She lives in an apartment building with mostly elderly Italian-Canadians, others whose families have long since grown and left them. It’s not a seniors’ home by definition, but they somehow managed to find each other and make this place their own, in the same way that they made Toronto home after the war.

I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, passing her room on the way. A photograph of her five children adorns the back wall, next to an imposing, heavy wooden rosary. Her bedside table has been fashioned into a makeshift shrine. Tiny dust particles collect on a painting of the Mother Mary in her long blue gown, a golden halo around her head. My grandfather’s young, handsome face flickers in the soft red candlelight, his war medals shining on his chest.

A memory stands out in my mind, fleetingly, of my grandmother calling me into her bedroom one night, as a child, to teach me the words to her song: Ave Maria, piena di grazia, Il Signore è con te…Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.

I still remember the words, even after my eventual falling out with faith.

When I return to the table, she pulls a circular loaf of bread out of a brown paper bag and begins to methodically slice it, her thick, knobbly fingers, tightly strung with about ten heavy gold rings, shaking slightly. A small glass of limoncello, a strong lemon liqueur, sweats in the sun beside a nearly empty pack of Marlboro cigarettes. A single cigarette stub still burns in the ashtray. She picks it up and inhales deeply, closing her eyes. She sucks in her cheeks, until her face looks weirdly skeletal.

“Always I am bored here. Look,” she continues, gesturing to the subdivision of homes nearby. She pokes a cloud with her index finger. “Everything is flat. And all the houses, they are the same. There is no colour, no personality. Who are these houses? Nobody.”

I say nothing for a moment, saddened by this thought, that someone could live for over forty years in a country eternally unhappy, disconnected.

“Tell me about your first few years here.”
“No, no,” she sighs, shaking her head, with a sigh of resignation. “Nothing to say. This is your grandfather, his wish. Back then, what choice do I have? I don’t like to talk about this. Basta.”

Basta. Enough.

It’s easy for my grandmother to talk to me about Italy, to divulge all of her stories. I know how she secretly smoked cigarettes with her girlfriends by Castello Manforte, the night sky broken by the Matese mountains; how she would put on garish red lipstick and dangly earrings and long necklaces once she was out of the house; how she skipped school for a week to play soccer with her friends; how she stole her brother’s motorcycle to go for rides; how she met my grandfather before the war, and fell in love. How she chopped off her long black hair at eighteen years old, telling the hairdresser to make her look “like Sofia Loren”. Her father, my great-grandfather, was so angry that he punished her with laborious yard work, and she had to wear a hat in his presence. Whenever nonna tells this story, at the “like Sofia Loren” part, she slides her hands under her breasts to push them up and down alternately, like a juggling ringmaster, singing and swaying. And while she talks, I feel a strange feeling come over me, this inexplicable sense of nostalgia for a time I have never even known.

 

Cristina Rizzuto visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Armand Garnet Ruffo, Anuja Varghese, Nora Gold, and guest speaker Marina Ferreira, who will give us tips on “How to Independently Publish your Book Using Kobo Writing Life.”

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BWS 11.03.20: Armand Garnet Ruffo

Ruffo reading by Pearl Pirie_3 (1)

Armand Garnet Ruffo is a member of the Chapleau Fox Lake First Nation in northern Ontario.  He is recognized as a major contributor to both contemporary Indigenous literature and Indigenous scholarship in Canada. His books include Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird, a finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award in 2015, and Treaty #, a finalist in 2019. 

Ahead of his appearance at our next event on March 11, Armand shares some of his recent works which include a musical, an excerpt from his book Treaty #, and an interview from What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation.

Sounding Thunder – The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow

A musical based on the life of Francis Pegahamagabow, a member of the Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ontario, who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Belgium and France for nearly the entire duration of the First World War. As a sniper, who lived through some of the most horrific battles of the war, and saw trench warfare, he earned three decorations for bravery and was highly regarded by the Canadian military. Physically and emotionally scarred he returned to his home on Parry Island after the war and soon began to organize politically.

Story by Armand Garnet Ruffo Music by Tim Corlis with co-compositional contributions by Jody Baker and Jennifer Kreisberg. Written in consultation with Dr. Brian McInnis, great-great grandson of Francis Pegahmagabow. Click here to see the trailer.

 

Below is an excerpt from Treaty # (Wolsak & Wynn, 2019), poetry, finalist for a 2019 Governor General’s Literary Award.

“A treaty is a contract. A treaty is enduring. A treaty is an act of faith.”

 

On The Day The World Begins Again

On the day the world begins again

will it be the strongest animal

the swiftest bird

or the tiniest insect

that carries the news to humankind

announces rebirth in a roar

in a squeak, or maybe in silence?

On the day the world begins again

will luminous light

rise from parting clouds

in unquestionable power

and refract a miraculous prism of colour

              while the tallest white pine announces peace

and in a sprinkling of communion?

On the day the world begins again

will those suspended behind bars

in and between grey ugliness

in their deadened shouts of protest

float beyond their circle of cigarette burns

and crude tattoos,

beyond their sharp thoughts of where

they are and wish they were?

On the day the world begins again

will their re/imagined selves

the shape of thought

the shape of prayer

bend like molten steel

in the fire at the centre of the human heart

Will they rise beyond themselves

and find their way home

On the day the world begins again

will the cages open for them?

 

Poetry, Place, and Indigenous Identity

Armand Garnet Ruffo and Liz Howard discuss poetry, place and Indigenous Identity.

Excerpted from What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation, edited by Rob Taylor. Copyright © 2018. Reprinted by permission of Nightwood Editions

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St. John’s Residential School graveyard, Chapleau, On

Liz Howard: As a way of beginning, I want to acknowledge our shared connection of place. We both grew up in the small town of Chapleau, Ontario, a former fur-trading outpost tucked just inside the Arctic watershed. It is a very complicated place: geographically isolated with anglophone, francophone, and First Nations communities and also an often-ignored residential-school past. It always seemed to me a pretty unlikely place to have produced a poet, let alone two. I want to tell the story of how I’m pretty sure I first came across your work, again in such an unlikely place: on the Toronto subway. At the time, I was a psychology student and had been writing poetry in secret for years, and one day on my way to class, I saw a poem in place of what would have been an ad in the subway car I was riding.

The Fallout
Armand Garnet Ruffo

I never asked my auntie what she learned
in Residential School. What comes to mind
is her beading and sewing, the moccasins
she made for us, the precision.
What I don’t recall are any hugs or kisses
like my European relatives lavished on us.
As though the heirs of Columbus has a special
claim to affection for those like us
caught in between.

Even more surprising was the bio beneath it that told me the poem was written by an Armand Garnet Ruffo, a poet of Ojibwe descent originally from Chapleau, Ontario. I was absolutely stunned. I, of course, immediately looked up your work after class and was thrilled to get to finally meet you years later. 

I tell this story by way of opening up a conversation around how our poetics are tied to place and the different ways we have used them to explore complicated identity. For example, in this poem that appeared on the TTC, taken from your book At Geronimo’s Grave (2001), you speak directly of family members on both sides of your family, European and First Nations, and reference that your auntie attended residential school. In my own writing, my First Nations heritage always emerged as a troubled, occluded, coded presence very much as it was in life, as I was estranged from that side of my family. Did you always write about family and/or “identity,” “Nativeness,” or “mixedness” in poetry? Is it something that always came through your work, something you sought to explore through the medium, or was it something that was born out of your poetic practice itself? Can you talk about how the medium and subject came about for you and how it has evolved?

Armand Garnet Ruffo: First, I need to say that I’m equally thrilled to meet another poet from Chapleau—an award-winning one at that. I suppose the best way to begin is to point out that we are a generation apart. To put it another way, I could be your father. I say this because growing up in the sixties and coming of age in the seventies, there were still a lot of Indigenous people around who spoke their language and literally lived in the bush. For example, when I was about twelve, I started working for a Cree outfitter who hosted American tourists at the camps he had built on a few lakes near Chapleau. All the other guides who worked for him were older than me, and though some of them likely went to the St. John’s Residential School in Chapleau and experienced trauma (nobody talked about it), to me they seemed secure in their identities. And, since I was at an impressionable age, this experience had a profound effect on me. I also need to point out that my own grandmother spoke Ojibwemowin as did my mother, though not as fluently. My grandmother—Wawatasie—was also our family historian, and the one who told me about our family and Grey Owl in and around Biscotasing, hence my book about him. And, of course, I can’t forget my auntie who made us new moccasins every year. Although I didn’t have an intimate relationship with my white father, what I can say about him is that he began his working life as a bush guide and later got a job on the CPR when he started to raise a family (not with my mother). To give you a sense of the times, he was raised in Mettagama, a village that doesn’t even exist any longer, and started working on steam engines! When I look back on my early years, it is clear to me that the land—the boreal forest, hunting, fishing, and guiding—was all central to my life and shaped who I am today.

As for poetry itself, in my formative years in Chapleau, I didn’t have any Indigenous literary models, as there were precious few Indigenous writers getting published at the time. In fact, the only living poet I knew was Leonard Cohen, because my sister had gone south to study nursing and brought back his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, which eventually led me to his books. Aside from him, my models were singer-songwriters like Johnny Cash, Gordon Lightfoot, and Bob Dylan. When I started writing a little in high school, I naturally gravitated to their work. Then in the seventies, I attended York University, and one weekend, I went to visit my grandmother who was living with an aunt in Toronto. I can’t recall exactly how it happened, but my grandmother and I started to talk about poetry—maybe she asked me about my classes—and she recited some of her poetry to me. Yes, recited! While her poems were very much in the style of Pauline Johnson, a form that I couldn’t appreciate, I was blown away by the content. I still recall one of her poems, which begins with “Lost am I in my Native Land.” Something clicked, and from that moment I had my material: I started to write about my life in the north and explored my Indigenous roots, which led to my first book, Opening in the Sky, the title coming from the English translation of my great-great-grandfather’s name. 

As for the specific poem you saw on the Toronto subway, one thing I remember about my grandmother and aunties is how little physical contact there was between us. Certainly they showed their affection in other ways, like making me moccasins, but for whatever reason—sociologists, among others, now trace it to residential school and colonization—they rarely expressed emotion. This was very different from my father’s family. I guess the poem arises then from both experience and observation. In referring to the heirs of Columbus, I’m referencing my European relatives and, of course, the claiming of the land and colonization in general.

As for how my subject matter has “evolved,” I think it’s become more expansive and complicated as I’ve experienced more and have come under various artistic and personal influences. That said, I think the themes have remained much the same. I’m still writing about colonization and its repercussions, identity, relationships, nature, language, et cetera, but it’s how I’m saying these things that continues to evolve. I’m thinking of The Thunderbird Poems, which includes elements of Ojibwe ontology—spirituality, the mythic. When I was in my twenties, Wilfred Peltier, an Odawa “wiseman”—he didn’t use the term elder—told me that you cannot be half of anything. Even if you are mixed blood, uprooted or whatever, you have to be a whole human being, and I suppose that’s what I’ve strived to be both in my writing and in my life. I think one of the things people need to realize is that in Indigenous culture—at least in Ojibwe—it is the women who pass on culture to the children, especially in the early years, and I happened to grow up with some strong Ojibwe women (Anishinaabekwe), meaning that they survived against incredible odds, and so I guess that’s where my writing (mostly) comes from.

Howard: I think it is crucial to point out as you have that we are a generation apart because I feel, or at least I’ve come to know it to be the case in my own experience, that so much can happen in one generation, especially since our work is connected in its drawing upon this tension between a so-called dominant culture and one that is under the threat of erasure or assimilation. Within a generation, so much can be lost. It is so moving for me to hear you speak of growing up with these Indigenous role models: in the outfitter men you worked for and also your own grandmother who spoke the language. It has always been a source of sadness and difficulty for me (but also a part of my own journey of discovering who I am and who my relations are) that I was completely estranged from my father’s side of the family. It is through his mother’s family that I have my most direct Ojibwe ancestry. She spoke the language and was raised in the culture. Her mother and father came from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek (formerly Whitefish Lake First Nation) just outside of Sudbury, Ontario. My father unfortunately suffered badly from substance-abuse issues and was actually a missing person for years. 

As an aside, I almost started crying when you said (just as fact of age difference, I know) that you could be my father. I just got back from this whirlwind Maritime tour. I spent the first night in Halifax during an intense nor’easter. My father ended up in Halifax at the end of his life as a bottle picker. He surfaced when his liver started failing and had to reach out to family to get documents for a health card. My aunt eventually reached out to me when he was dying, and I flew out there in January of 2015. I think he held on for me because he only lasted about twenty minutes after I arrived at the hospital. That was the first and last time I ever met him. I was stuck there a week in storms helping my aunt arrange things afterward. It was so strange because technically I was next of kin, so was asked all the questions (what prayers at the funeral, where to cast ashes, et cetera) but had never met the man. His partner eventually gave me his effects, papers and the like, that told his story. He’d tried to get help, get clean. He had pictures of me and family-payment statements he’d kept pristine. He just couldn’t shake drinking, and it killed him at fifty-one. 

When I started writing emotionally propulsive poetry as a young person, I found myself addressing my father, my grandmother, my ancestors. Somehow, it was a natural conduit for me. When I moved to the city, I used to study the faces of every man begging on the street to see if I could recognize something of myself in him, to see if he was my father. It wasn’t until years later, through my own research, that I learned about the sacred rite of the shaking tent. How it was used as a vehicle of prophesy or communication at a distance. I realized I had been using poetry in the same way. To try and reach my father, my relatives. 

Have you ever had an experience of the sacred in your writing? Or perhaps you can talk about writing through the shamanic works of Norval Morrisseau and not only writing a biography about him but also writing poems in response to his paintings?

Ruffo: Sorry for making you cry. What I find interesting is how much our poetry is linked, whether directly or indirectly, to our Indigenous heritage and our connection to place. In other words, we cannot talk about our work separated from our life experience. I was recently reading about Elizabeth Bishop, and learned that she drank heavily all her life and had been separated from her Nova Scotian grandparents, whom she apparently loved dearly, at an early age. I’m mentioning this because from her poetry you would never know it. And yet, while she was writing her observational kind of poetry, a whole school of confessional style poetry came into prominence. In fact, Robert Lowell, one of the foremost proponents of confessional poetry, was a friend of Bishop’s. There we have it, the impact of the confessional and yet the urge to do something else: to move either behind language or deep into the mechanics of it. This is something that Indigenous poets are not immune to. For example, would I be wrong to say that in Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent you bury—is that the correct word?—much of what you said about your father and your relationship to your mixed heritage within a kind of labyrinthine language fixed in science? In contrast to direct confessional poetry, there’s usually something else going on in your work that deviates from stating things directly. A poem like “Thinktent” comes to mind. There’s just so many references moving tangentially outward from direct familial, Indigenous experience.

While you mention that you were using the poetry in that collection to try to reach your father, I wonder if you were actually writing for your father. It seems to me the kind of poetic incantation you conceptualize is extremely personal in its concern for language and Western epistemology. That those Canadian poets who foreground linguistic and textual process over content, language over experience, received your book so enthusiastically speaks volumes about the tension that exists in contemporary poetry. Like I said, this tension also exists in the work of Indigenous poets, more so now than ever before, but because of our political reality, it’s just not as pervasive. In fact, it seems to me the Indigenous poets concerned about this kind of thing try to combine these disparate strands. The poets working with Indigenous languages come to mind here. I would go so far as to say that the scientific language you choose intentionally complicates direct experience, probably because the experiences you write about are so painful for you and because you find yourself “outside of the shaking tent looking in.” Is that a fair assessment?

As for my biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing into Thunderbird, I initially assumed it would be completely prose, but as I got into his life and art, I found that poems started to appear, and I just let them come. A tap had been opened, and the few poems in the biography grew into a book of their own, The Thunderbird Poems. I realized in the process that poetry can handle things that prose can’t, or at least, poetry can do it much more succinctly. It was then that I started to think of the form of the poetry I was writing, and I knew that I wanted it to engage with a particular kind of experience; it had to be grounded in the world of the Anishinaabek Manidoog or Manitous.

I was concerned about employing the world of shamanism in the work because that was Norval’s world, and he always said that his paintings came directly out of it. (Norval’s grandfather Potan Nanakonagos was a shaman and his greatest influence.) I was also leaning toward direct confession because Norval himself had told me “not to leave anything out.” Furthermore, because Norval believed his art had the power to guide Indigenous people back to our traditions, I wanted Indigenous people to be the first audience, above all, to identify with the work. So while the tension between observation and confession is there, the majority of the poems are grounded in narrative, which serves to anchor them in a particular Anishinaabek experience and meaning. 

All this makes me wonder about the responsibility and the role of poets, Indigenous poets in particular. Can we as literary artists do our own thing above all else, or are we compelled by our histories and reality as colonized peoples? To put this another way, are we writing for the children who were beaten and starved to death in the residential schools? I’m thinking here of the tiny graves hidden in the bush near the old St. John’s Residential School in Chapleau. Is writing as artists with no responsibility but to ourselves and our art a luxury we can afford?

Howard: Your response is sending me off into so many possible nodes that I want to explore and that I feel are all equally necessary, valid, and interesting, and that is exactly the point, really, of the concatenating, transgressive, paradoxical excess you speak of in my work. What can come off as a burying, concealment, occlusion is really an attempt to render on the page what is happening in my mind. My ultimate confession, as you have got so right, is a disaster of language as a result of trauma. There is the fear of revealing too much. There is the fear of not getting it right. There is the fear of it not really being my right to speak, even if it is my own experience. 

The poems in Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent were for the most part composed in 2010–2014, and during that time, what I knew of my Indigenous heritage was conveyed to me by my mother, who I love and respect dearly but who has suffered from mental-health issues and has therefore been very much the unreliable narrator of my life. Growing up as I did (experiencing abuse as a young adult while writing and also working through depression, anxiety, PTSD, as well as substance issues), there was very much for me an issue of not trusting my own mind, my own narrative, and my own stories enough to tell them “straight.” When I was writing my book, the chaos I was feeling in my mind, my soul, and my emotions came through in the language I was using. Just as the land is contaminated by industry, so too, in a way, is my own “story” “contaminated” by Western ideology, right? All these complications are pulled through the book. If you read and reread the book, you will see the larger themes start to come into relief, stories pop out. I think my future work will be largely more “accessible” in style. But I loved experimenting in this way. It felt true to me. To how I was feeling at the time. There was, as you said, a sense of being outside the tent. But I also identified with the figure of Mikanaak (or Mikkinnuk as you write it in The Thunderbird Poems), the turtle spirit in the tent. The one who receives Manidoog knowledge in their disparate languages and translates them into Anishinaabemowin for the conjuror of the tent rite, as I came to understand it in my research. Sometimes one doesn’t always get the translation right, you know what I mean? 

When I was allowing myself to attune to the paradoxical linguistic crosscurrents in my mind I caught and translated onto the page what I found there. Sometimes, it was a story from my childhood I felt brave enough to share. Sometimes, it was a bit of the Ojibway language I taught myself, a reference to a Nanabush story or a memory of being blessed by an elder in Chapleau. Other times, it was an anatomical term or philosophical theory I learned in university, big words I learned in books, stories I heard of the things people did to hurt each other or to help each other, things that made me laugh. All of it toward a kind of prophesy, a question I asked myself: Am I worth it to continue? Are my people out there? Am I alone in this?

Of course, everything was different when I wrote the elegy for my father. That was after I met him for the first and last time. That was the answer to the big question. Seeing my father, there was no question what my ancestry was, although I know it’s not the same as having a community that recognizes you. But I met my aunty too, and she told me the family story. A veil was lifted. In grief, there is just the force of the immediate over and over and over. And I think that’s what comes through in my poem. It’s been the most impactful thing I’ve written. It’s the thing that scared me the most to share, because it’s so close to me. So I’ve become more open to writing in this way. It still scares me. I truly think there’s room for both ways, the chaos and the personal. That’s what I identify with. 

And so, as you have said in writing about Norval and his life and work and referencing in particular his painting “Ancestors Performing the Ritual of the Shaking Tent, c. 1958-61” and his shaman grandfather, you must know the story. The story I’m thinking of is the one he’s told of witnessing the shaking tent in a neighbour’s house because it was outlawed at the time. Practitioners were actually imprisoned if caught. So it was being done in a house, and he recounts how he couldn’t believe it. When I read Norval’s account, I had such a feeling in my chest. This is the strange horror of assimilation that I know. What is a room? A cell? A containment? A collection of lines in poetry is called a stanza. Stanza means room in Italian. Poetry is often about compression. What of this moment of secreting away an oracular practice? My ancestors did this too in the open. I never will. What do I accomplish in my little rooms of chaos? As you have asked, What is the larger responsibility?

Ruffo: What immediately comes to my mind from your response is a history of silence and lies that is the foundation upon which this country is built—meaning a history of racism, violence, and displacement—and this is the foundation upon which Canadians have built their homes (and families). Generations of Indigenous people, including members of both our families, have lived and died tragically, and for us, it’s the norm! On the literary front, these experiences are finally being documented. As I said earlier, when I started writing, I was hard pressed to find a role model. Today, any aspiring Indigenous writer only has to walk into a library or bookstore and there’s a shelf of Indigenous writers. That’s nothing less than amazing. I think a large part of it has to do with what you are getting at. In the past, we tended to conceal and sublimate our Indigenous identities just as the colonizer wanted and expected us to do. I remember my mother telling me that when she was young she and a friend went to Toronto and worked as waitresses in a restaurant. My mother passed herself off as Spanish, and her girlfriend passed herself off as Asian. Had they said they were “Indian,” they wouldn’t have gotten the jobs. At the time my mother told me this, I was fairly young and I didn’t realize the pain that must have surfaced for her in telling me. That’s what we went through, a whole people! Most Canadians don’t want to know this stuff. Reconciliation to them is something out there, something intangible that really has nothing to do with them. “It happened before I was born.” We hear that a lot. But who benefited? So, yes, something positive is currently happening in the country, and I’m happy to be alive to witness it.

To complicate matters, is the notion of “responsibility” leading to a circumscription of what Indigenous poetry, and Indigenous literature in general, is supposed to be? There currently seems to be a trend to emphasize the aforementioned traumas I was talking about with little consideration given to the positive aspects of having Indigenous heritage. And what about aesthetics? It is as though Indigenous people never had an interest in such questions, when one only has to turn to our traditional storytelling strategies or our sense of design, our totems or basketry, to see the truth. Take the current field of Indigenous literary studies; it seems to be almost solely focused on a literature of trauma and resistance. I guess what I’m getting at: Is our literature at risk of becoming a literature of issues? 

While you refer to your book Infinite Citizen as “a disaster of language” with all kinds of “complications…pulled through the book,” it nevertheless employs language in inventive ways to explore another potential aesthetic for Indigenous poets. In this way, one could consider your text as providing an alternative to this circumscription, this pigeonholing. I’m also thinking here of other young Indigenous writers who are pushing the aesthetic button while dealing with their own issues—yikes, there’s that word again.

Howard: I think you’re exactly right that there is this all-too-steady gaze on the traumatic Indigenous experience. I also often wonder about what might be called Indigenous “futurisms,” or futures or possibilities, aesthetic potentials as you have said. I think I have made a way toward that in my work. At least that was the intention, the necessity. The fracturing, the hardship, the wound, whether within oneself and/or within one’s lineage as an Indigenous person is a fact. The question is, What to do? Ultimately, for myself as a writer, I discovered the figure of the infinite citizen of the shaking tent. Perhaps I am a kind of slippery, in-between, trickster spirit. I suppose this is the figure of myself as a writer that could compose in so many formally inventive and generative ways, pulling in neuroscience, the bush, Western philosophy, Nanabozho, dreams, calling down the sky, Toronto streets, ecological concerns, and so on and compressing them all together into my account, my gift, my book. The trauma, the silence, the absence is there too. But I think it is an ultimately joyful text. I see your work on Norval as being along the same lines. You don’t leave him with us as either a tragic or revelatory figure. He’s deeply human. I see the possibilities for Indigenous work as being as open and variegated as each of our stories.

Ruffo: I agree wholeheartedly. Futurisms, healing, regeneration: that’s where we have to go with our writing and, above all, our lives. As it stands, the more tragically we present ourselves, the more the mainstream public laps it up when indeed we should be focusing on alternatives. Granta recently published a poem of mine called “The Reckoning” in their Canada issue, and although it may appear at first reading to be tragic, what I’m saying is that the health of the planet and the very survival of humankind is contingent on Western society realizing that in attempting to destroy Indigenous cultures, they have come a breath away from destroying themselves and the planet. Case in point: microplastics have now infected the whole ecosystem. Their society is simply unsustainable. I suppose many people realize this, and that’s why Western culture is generally so nihilistic. And, yes, Norval Morrisseau for all his trauma and addictions was a remarkable visionary who recognized this and set out to do something about it through his art. He always said that his paintings were icons meant to heal the world, and that’s where the next generation, your generation, needs to go: less pain, more gain. As a science major, you’re probably familiar with the word biophilia. It means a love of life and the living world—an affinity—though I prefer to think of it as kinship between humans and other life forms; it’s that kind of mindset that will save this planet! Indigenous poets lead the way! I’ll leave it at that. 

 

Armand Garnet Ruffo visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Cristina Rizzuto, Anuja Varghese, Nora Gold, and guest speaker Marina Ferreira, who will give us tips on “How to Independently Publish your Book Using Kobo Writing Life.”

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