BWS 08.03.17: Breaking with Form, with Teva Harrison

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Teva Harrison is an artist, writer and cartoonist. She is the author of the bestselling, critically-acclaimed hybrid graphic memoir, In-Between Dayspublished by House of Anansi Press. The book was a national bestseller, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and named a best book of the year by The Globe and Mail, The National Post, CBC, iBooks, KOBO, The Walrus and Quill & Quire. Numerous health organizations have invited her to speak publicly on behalf of the metastatic cancer community. She lives in Toronto.

Teva adapted the guest post below from her March 11 talk at Brockton Writers Series, entitled “Breaking the Constraints of Form: There Are Many Ways to Tell a Story”. Thanks, Teva!

Breaking with Form

I draw and paint. That’s the primary form my work has taken in the past, but I had an idea that required a different form. Rather than try to shoehorn my idea into big narrative paintings, I listened to the idea and allowed it to take the form that best suited it: a book.

So, I’d like to challenge you to do the same.

Do you usually write short stories, but an idea just won’t take form? Maybe it’s actually a poem, and rather than build it up, you need to pare it down.

Or are words both too much and not enough for a feeling you hope to convey? This can be exactly where pictures can say more than words alone. Pictures add a visceral quality, and we react to images differently than words. This can be a useful tool for a creator.

These questions can lead us to break form, to step outside of our comfort zone, to reach and stretch and find the form that will, with the most truth we can muster, tell a story that only we can tell.

How do you think of yourself? Are you a poet? A novelist? A journalist? Have you ever had an idea that you couldn’t wrestle into shape? Have you ever considered going back to that idea and asking it, what are you? What are you trying to be?

It might be that your poem is really a short story, that your essay is really a poem, or that your short story is the fifth chapter of a novel. It might be that you’re actually writing a play and you need audio to allow your idea to reach its potential. To answer these questions, you have to trust and listen to the work, to allow form to follow function, not the other way around.

I mean, I’m an artist who found herself writing a book because once begun, that was the only form that made sense, and I had to nurture it into being. I had to let go of what I thought I was (an artist) in the interest of being true to the idea and the form it needed to take shape.

So I invite you to open your heart to other forms of writing, to invite in visual collaboration if drawing isn’t a thing you do, to allow your ideas to dictate form to you, whether it’s letting illustrations into your margins or up-ending your entire practice.

Even if the experimentation doesn’t make the final cut, even if it comes out precious and you have to cut it, that paring down will make your final piece more clear, incisive, delicious. Most of writing is invisible, so is most of drawing. But it’s the foundation that lifts a few choice words or images up and into the reader’s reach.

Check back in May for more tips from our next Brockton Writers Series guest speaker–-and before that, see you at our next event: May 10, 2017, 6:30pm,  at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto!

 

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BWS 08.03.17: It’s Tonight!

WEDNESDAY, MAR. 8, 2017 – 6:30pm

In honour of International Women’s Day, Brockton Writers Series presents:

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm
Manasi Nene
Casey Plett
Giovanna Riccio

and special guest speaker

Teva Harrison

AT

Glad Day Bookshop

499 Church St., Toronto

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

The venue, including its bathroom, is fully accessible. Please refrain from wearing scents.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.

OAC_REVISED_NEWCOLOURS_1805c

And to the Canada Council for the Arts for travel funding!

GUEST SPEAKER

“Breaking the Constraints of Form: There Are
Many Ways to Tell a Story”

harrison_teva_portrait-c-david-p-leonard

Teva Harrison is an artist, writer and cartoonist. She is the author of the bestselling, critically-acclaimed hybrid graphic memoir, In-Between Days, published by House of Anansi Press. The book was a national bestseller, shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and named a best book of the year by The Globe and Mail, The National Post, CBC, iBooks, KOBO, The Walrus and Quill & Quire. Numerous health organizations have invited her to speak publicly on behalf of the metastatic cancer community. She lives in Toronto.

READERS

img_0054Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm is Anishinaabek from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, Saugeen Ojibway Nation, in Ontario. Kateri is an internationally acclaimed writer, spoken word poet, Indigenous arts activist, publisher and communications consultant. She and her sons live in their community at Neyaashiinigmiing on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. Kateri has two collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, and two CDs of spoken word poetry. Her CD “A Constellation of Bones” was nominated for an Aboriginal Music Award. She is the founder and Managing Editor of award-winning publisher Kegedonce Press, which publishes and promotes some of the most beautiful, challenging, celebrated Indigenous literature in the world. Kateri’s first collection of short stories, The Stone Collection was recently shortlisted for a Sarton Literary Award.

259408_10200167724741825_2025039434_oManasi Nene is a writer and performance poet from Pune, India. She founded the Pune Poetry Slam at 17, and it has emerged as one of the leading literary communities and spaces in the country. Her work deals with sexuality, power politics, anxiety and what it is to be a young adult today. Halfway through a degree in Literary and Cultural Studies, she is currently in Toronto on an exchange program. Hopefully, you’ll be reading more of her work soon.

casey-plett-headshot-1-1500pxCasey Plett wrote the short story collection A Safe Girl To Love and is the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction & Fantasy From Transgender Writers. She lives in Windsor, Ontario.

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Giovanna Riccio is a graduate of the University of Toronto, where she studied Philosophy and English Literature. Her poems and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and anthologies. Her work has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Slovenian, French and Romanian. She is the author of Vittorio (Lyricalmyrical Press, 2010) and Strong Bread (Quattro Books, 2011).  An Italian anthology that includes translations of her poems will be published in Italy this year. Giovanna co-organized the Toronto reading series, Not So Nice Italian Girls, for three years and is now part of the team that organizes  Shab-e She’r, Toronto’s most diverse monthly reading series.

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BWS 08.03.17: Manasi Nene

259408_10200167724741825_2025039434_o

Manasi Nene is a writer and performance poet from Pune, India. She founded the Pune Poetry Slam at 17, and it has emerged as one of the leading literary communities and spaces in the country. Her work deals with sexuality, power politics, anxiety and what it is to be a young adult today. Halfway through a degree in Literary and Cultural Studies, she is currently in Toronto on an exchange program.

Ahead of her Mar. 8 appearance, Manasi submitted some microfiction to the blog. Enjoy!

Elemental

I was one of those child prodigies who was expected to take over the world. It started off as incredible skill at maths and engineering; I had built three models of a solar-powered car with my father by the time I turned 8, an ice-cream machine by the time I was 10, and reconfigured a laptop at 15 into something that the military has made me promise not to talk about. Then it dried up.

At 16, I found punk rock. At 17, vodka. At 18, love. At 19, heartbreak. At 19.5, vodka again. At 20, art. Now I wouldn’t know where to drive my solar cars, even if I could rebuild one.

Sculpture is just a less fancy form of engineering, I’d say. You still need just as much of your processing power; just not the most conventional parts of it. Not everyone will understand what you’re trying to do; sometimes not even yourself, until you look back with surprise that you managed to make something beautiful and not just find it, that you could be happy with something you made for yourself, that it’s alright not to have someone pat you on the back for something you’re already quite okay with.

Unlike my child prodigy days, I taught myself sculpture. Of course, there were books and videos by the best, but I wasn’t sitting in class 8 hours a day, paying attention for only 4. I started with the mud from my backyard, and then clay, and then cookie dough. I moved on to gluing bongs on top of each other and then wine bottles and then broke it all and remade it into ground-glass flowers and ground-glass flowervases. And then stained glass, and then blown glass, and somehow I managed never to cut myself. Then I moved to something more impermanent. Snowglobes made out of barbed wire and soda cans; tea sets made out of thrash metal records. I’d never really fallen out of love with my old engineering habits though, and the now indie art paparazzi decided that I was a cultural icon.

I’m not all that; I still don’t know how to handle certain materials. I’ve been trying to capture icemelt forever. I’ve never made windchimes because they just sound pretty–but they have nothing to do with wind, something that can make you feel glad to be alive but you can’t even describe what it is like to touch. I’m too scared to plant trees. If you gave me fire, I wouldn’t know what to do with it.

Mostly, I just want to know how to work with love. How to hold it. How to sew it inside a blanket so it can still keep someone warm at night. How to use it to power fairy-lights that won’t die. How to keep it safe. How to use it to fly a kite to the moon and back. Sometimes I feel like there is no point to a solar-powered car if you can’t drive away with the person you love, no point to an ice-cream machine if you can’t discuss secrets and swap dreams with this person on days the sun has decided not to be kind to anyone. Then again, it is the impermanent that drives us.

You can’t record a windchime and have it sound like it’s supposed to; you can’t really tell anyone what icemelt tastes like. If you do end up planting a tree, it will die, yes; but not before all the children that tried to make treehouses. If you gave me fire I could trace you fireworks; I’d be able to sculpt the person I love; I might even make art out of it. If you gave me love I wouldn’t know what to do with it but if you gave me something more understandable, even slightly, I think we could figure out how to make magic.

Manasi Nene visits Brockton Writers Series on International Women’s Day, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Casey Plett, Giovanna Riccio and a special guest talk, “Breaking the Constraints of Form: There Are Many Ways to Tell a Story” by Teva Harrison!

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BWs 08.03.17: Giovanna Riccio

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Giovanna Riccio is a graduate of the University of Toronto, where she studied Philosophy and English Literature. Her poems and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and anthologies. Her work has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Slovenian, French and Romanian. She is the author of Vittorio (Lyricalmyrical Press, 2010) and Strong Bread (Quattro Books, 2011).  An Italian anthology that includes translations of her poems will be published in Italy this year. Giovanna co-organized the Toronto reading series, Not So Nice Italian Girls, for three years and is now part of the team that organizes  Shab-e She’r, Toronto’s most diverse monthly reading series.

Her latest poems confront Barbie, the doll that, depending whom you ask, sits among both the world’s most beloved toys and its most loathed cultural icons. In the interview below, Giovanna tells the BWS Blog more about the project.

BWS: When and how did you start thinking about writing poems from multiple perspectives about Barbie? Was there a particular incident, conversation, work of art (etc.) that it sprung from?

Giovanna: Let me begin by saying that I have a conflicted relationship with dolls. I grew up with few toys and without any dolls. I experienced this as a loaded deprivation and have written about their personal psychological weight in an essay titled “Life’s Hard Play”.

Culturally, I consider fashion dolls as vehicles for transmitting stereotypical images of female beauty and roles. Physically, they affirm (and embody) what Simone de Beauvoir recognized as female essence being relegated to matter; in a patriarchal society, the body as physical beauty is a woman’s social capital–her power. When Barbie turned 50 in 2009, I heard an interview on CBC Radio and the interviewee outlined the history of Barbie’s development at Mattel. At the same time I was reading Randall Maggs’s book Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems, a collection written in multiple voices. The two resonated for me. I am interested in history and enjoy researching any topic I decide to write about, and I began reading both historical books and theoretical essays written about this complex cultural icon. My first poem, “Always Barbie”, comes from my reading and my research on the Mattel website and allows Barbie to introduce herself with her full name and as a malleable narrative and market diva.

BWS: At least some people have found Barbie objectionable for a long time, be it for her unrealistic body or for the arguably superficial themes (glamping, pet care sets, car wash) or stereotypically “female” careers (teacher, nurse, ballerina, etc.) that are sold alongside/instead of sets in which Barbie has an aspirational profession that girls haven’t always been encouraged to pursue (doctor, astronaut, etc.) and a slogan like “I can be anything”. Do you see any trends in our current moment that make engaging with Barbie (and the opposition to Barbie) more urgent than it might have been in the past?

Giovanna: At present, a number of socio-political issues have surfaced that pertain to what Barbie signifies when her history and message are decoded; let me express two important ones here.

A) The rise of radical conservatism in the U. S. (with rumblings in Canada and Europe) facilitates an attack on laws that protect a woman’s right to have control of her body in all contexts. Yet, conservative women like Ivanka Trump call themselves feminist because they are successful in business while promoting a conventional and confining image of female beauty. Engaging with Barbie allows for discussion of the parallel deception/conflict she has always embodied: Barbie touts a conservative, reactionary agenda through her look, yet her careers and lifestyle grant her modernity, independence and freedom. Her beauty, however, and the male-pleasing aesthetic of powerful women like Ivanka Trump serve as a social balm calming the threat to patriarchy and the status-quo. This is feminism reduced to economics.

B) The trending plasticity of the “made-over” female body also demands attention and reflection.  As I wrote in my poem on the original Barbie prototype, Barbie (who is a world celebrity in her own right) expresses no “cult of the original”.  Her essence is as plastic as the material that shaped decades of victory in the doll wars and gave her a body and identity that can morph into whatever the times and market require. In the human world, witness Barbie’s nature in the rise of reality show celebrities such as Kylie Jenner whose body obviously proclaims the use of invasive and non-invasive surgical procedures and who bears the plastic “rich face” of status and wealth.  Follow on social media, the digital plastic surgery provided by Photoshop–the dissemination of  the face as a sculpted, blank, wrinkle-free surface. Today, women (and especially young women) are bombarded with representations of female beauty that point to a plastic, unstable body always capable of being manipulated and disseminated. Our Western obsession with youth culture produces an ongoing “girlification” of womanhood. Fashion magazines and other media consent to promulgate and venerate unnatural (also termed inorganic) and unrealistic ideals and many women consent to consuming periodicals whose main content is advertising masquerading as journalism. One positive reaction to the emaciated model critiques is the recent appearance of full-figure models in some fashion magazines.

BWS: Barbie finally did what some thought unthinkable a couple of years ago and released dolls with different, “more realistic” body types and even some with flat feet–meaning that some consumers reported frustration with the inconvenience of having to make sure they bought the correct shoe type, the right-sized clothes, etc. What do you make of the collision between the practical reality of changing a product and the seeming increase in attention to a product’s social responsibility? And does the recent change figure in your work (if so, how)?

Giovanna: So newsworthy was the announcement of Fashionista Barbie(s) parading a variety of body types, skin tones, heights , hair styles and footwear possibilities that it was reported in The New York Times. In the past, Mattel has tried to deal with difference by marketing their “Barbie Dolls of the World” line that reduces race and nation to colour and costume. The Fashionista line is a further movement, but if you look at the faces, there is no escaping the pretty Barbie look and hair on overload. It is questionable whether a corporation whose primary motive is to maximize profit can produce dolls that truly reflect difference; that they must design a prototype makes this self-evident.

For 56 years, Barbie had been 11 inches tall with the same body measurements, but now consumers can buy a Barbie that may reflect their own body types and look but also take home the wrong sized outfit and faulty footwear. I suspect that the allure of Barbie as tall, thin and voluptuous was as much a surface for fantasy and projection as she was a projection of female objectification. In the Middle East, Barbie outsold the competing doll she spawned: the more modest, less glamourous doll named Fulla. My cynicism regarding “the  good corporate citizen” opines that this line of dolls  was not the product of social responsibility but of market reality. Barbie’s sales have seen a steady decline since 2009, when Mattel claimed that, globally, a Barbie was sold every three seconds. I think this development is consistent with other Barbie changes that I have written poems about which reveal a response to social pressures to keep Barbie “relevant” and selling. I have not written about the Fashionista Barbie(s) yet, but intend to have them manifest in my Plastications section.

BWS: Do you think there might be something about girls/women/the world in general today that’s incompatible with Barbie? And might we ever see a world without Barbie? Do you and your new poems imagine where Barbie will be in ten years? Fifty years? (If not: hazard a guess?)

Giovanna: What great questions! Grist for the poet’s mill. Let’s begin with a travel story:  I was in Rome last September, immersed in the Forum’s ancient ruins, surrounded by old stone and imperial majesty when, across the street, at the entrance to a large museum, I spied  a hefty, hot-pink banner floating a sizable portrait of a blonde, blue-eyed Barbie. And on exhibit, about 500 Barbie dolls. Inside I met a professor from England who was interviewing Italian girls for an article on “girlhood”.

Whether Barbie’s popularity continues to decline, I cannot foretell; I’m sure Mattel’s marketing and research department is on the job and will not let Barbie go gently into that good night. I see young women in North America as a very mixed group. Some are very politically aware and conscious of female objectification and stereotyping but equally at play are conservative and traditional values. I am astonished at the feminization and sexualization of girls from infancy that I sometimes still observe and note the popularity of “princess merchandise” riding on Disney culture.

As for a world without Barbie, perhaps her manifestation as a toy will pass, but she has left her legacy. While researching my Human Barbie poems, I discovered the Barbification of real women, her echo in our flesh. Barbie collectors proliferate and Barbie fairs take place on a regular basis. A world without Barbie is not really an option: if she passes in her present form, she will appear in human editions and as obsessive nostalgia.  Like a totemic mother she will endure as an artifact and as the yielding subject of numerous theses and works of art.

BWS: We look forward to hearing more on the topic in your poems on March 8! Thanks, Giovanna.

Giovanna Riccio visits Brockton Writers Series on International Women’s Day, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Manasi Nene, Casey Plett and a special guest talk, “Breaking the Constraints of Form: There Are Many Ways to Tell a Story” by Teva Harrison!

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BWS 08.03.17: Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm

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Kateri Akiwenzie Damm is Anishinaabek from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, Saugeen Ojibway Nation, in Ontario. Kateri is an internationally acclaimed writer, spoken word poet, Indigenous arts activist, publisher and communications consultant. She and her sons live in their community at Neyaashiinigmiing on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. Kateri has two collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, and two CDs of spoken word poetry. Her CD “A Constellation of Bones” was nominated for an Aboriginal Music Award. She is the founder and Managing Editor of award-winning publisher Kegedonce Press, which publishes and promotes some of the most beautiful, challenging, celebrated Indigenous literature in the world. Kateri’s first collection of short stories, The Stone Collection was recently shortlisted for a Sarton Literary Award.

Get to know Kateri before her March 8 appearance at Brockton Writers Series in
this interview on CBC Radio

…and check out the starred review The Stone Collection received in Publishers Weekly here!

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm visits Brockton Writers Series on International Women’s Day, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Manasi Nene, Casey Plett, Giovanna Riccio and a special guest talk, “Breaking the Constraints of Form: There Are Many Ways to Tell a Story” by Teva Harrison!

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BWS 08.03.17: Casey Plett

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Casey Plett wrote the short story collection A Safe Girl To Love and is the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction & Fantasy From Transgender Writers. She lives in Windsor, Ontario, and submitted the guest blog post below.

Memories

For like a good seven years through my high school and college years in Oregon, I was best friends and mutual close confidantes with a lady I’m gonna call Alice. We broke apart around the time I transitioned at 23, for unrelated, stupid reasons.

Last year, we made up and re-connected, both of us re-encountering each other as adults and very different humans. During one phone call, she said, “I have to tell you something I’ve always felt guilty about…”

One day, Alice and I were out in Portland and riding the MAX. I still called myself a boy back then and I wasn’t on hormones but I was in girl clothes all the time. Some guys on the train were pointing at me and laughing and calling me a fag etc. I just stood up and quietly told her hey, let’s move over here. She wordlessly and meekly followed me to the other end of the car and all was fine.

Or so I heard. I don’t remember this. Alice did. I’ve always felt so bad I didn’t say anything, she said. But I’d forgotten, I don’t think it even made it out of my short-term memory, it didn’t jog anything when Alice told me. In a certain sense, this is weird–I guess at that time in my life it was so common I just didn’t really register it as notable. Back then (and it wasn’t that damn long ago), I took every transphobic whatever that was not physical violence or the explicit threat thereof as solace, as luck that such threats or violence weren’t coming. I felt that way though (at the time) I had not experienced violence since middle school.

Two days ago, I heard Kellyanne Conway on CBC talking about how she hated feminism. (I tuned in midway through and thought she was Kellie Leitch, but I digress). She said:

“My mother didn’t feel sorry for herself, she was left with no child support, no alimony at a very young age, with a child to raise, a high school education and she just figured it out. She didn’t complain, she didn’t rely upon government, she relied upon her own skill set, her own self confidence, her own drive and moxie and her own duty to me and her and she relied upon her family and her faith.”

Moxie.

Her own skill set.

I think very much about the necessity for writers to draw from memory the things that aren’t being remembered, to resist our personal and cultural amnesias that flow graceful and sinister as wind. Troubles aren’t forgotten but the memories of troubles do get warped. That is always in the nature of things, but we tend to think we can trust our recollections of past difficulties. What I’m trying to say is: when I hear someone with the ear of evil like Kellyanne Conway make these claims of not relying on anybody and I wonder what she and her mom aren’t remembering, I too, as a writer, wonder what all I’m not remembering.

Casey Plett visits Brockton Writers Series on International Women’s Day, Wednesday, March 8, 2017, in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto, at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Manasi Nene, Giovanna Riccio and a special guest talk, “Breaking the Constraints of Form: There Are Many Ways to Tell a Story” by Teva Harrison!

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Brockton Writers Series 08.03.17

WEDNESDAY, MAR. 8, 2017 – 6:30pm

In honour of International Women’s Day, Brockton Writers Series presents:

Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm
Manasi Nene
Casey Plett
Giovanna Riccio

and special guest speaker

Teva Harrison

AT

Glad Day Bookshop

499 Church St., Toronto

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

The venue, including its bathroom, is fully accessible. Please refrain from wearing scents.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.

OAC_REVISED_NEWCOLOURS_1805c

And to the Canada Council for the Arts for travel funding!

GUEST SPEAKER

“Breaking the Constraints of Form: There Are Many Ways to Tell a Story”

harrison_teva_portrait-c-david-p-leonard

Teva Harrison is an artist, writer and cartoonist. She is the author of the
bestselling, critically-acclaimed hybrid graphic memoir, In-Between Days,
published by House of Anansi Press. The book was a national bestseller,
shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction and
named a best book of the year by The Globe and Mail, The National Post, CBC, iBooks, KOBO, The Walrus and Quill & Quire. Numerous health organizations have invited her to speak publicly on behalf of the metastatic cancer community. She lives in Toronto.

READERS

img_0054Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm is Anishinaabek from the Chippewas of Nawash First Nation, Saugeen Ojibway Nation, in Ontario. Kateri is an internationally acclaimed writer, spoken word poet, Indigenous arts activist, publisher and communications consultant. She and her sons live in their community at Neyaashiinigmiing on the traditional territory of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation. Kateri has two collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, and two CDs of spoken word poetry. Her CD “A Constellation of Bones” was nominated for an Aboriginal Music Award. She is the founder and Managing Editor of award-winning publisher Kegedonce Press, which publishes and promotes some of the most beautiful, challenging, celebrated Indigenous literature in the world. Kateri’s first collection of short stories, The Stone Collection was recently shortlisted for a Sarton Literary Award.

259408_10200167724741825_2025039434_oManasi Nene is a writer and performance poet from Pune, India. She founded the Pune Poetry Slam at 17, and it has emerged as one of the leading literary communities and spaces in the country. Her work deals with sexuality, power politics, anxiety and what it is to be a young adult today. Halfway through a degree in Literary and Cultural Studies, she is currently in Toronto on an exchange program. Hopefully, you’ll be reading more of her work soon.

casey-plett-headshot-1-1500pxCasey Plett wrote the short story collection A Safe Girl To Love and is the co-editor of the forthcoming anthology Meanwhile, Elsewhere: Science Fiction & Fantasy From Transgender Writers. She lives in Windsor, Ontario.

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Giovanna Riccio is a graduate of the University of Toronto, where she studied Philosophy and English Literature. Her poems and essays have appeared in newspapers, magazines, journals and anthologies. Her work has been translated into Italian, Spanish, Slovenian, French and Romanian. She is the author of Vittorio (Lyricalmyrical Press, 2010) and Strong Bread (Quattro Books, 2011).  An Italian anthology that includes translations of her poems will be published in Italy this year. Giovanna co-organized the Toronto reading series, Not So Nice Italian Girls, for three years and is now part of the team that organizes  Shab-e She’r, Toronto’s most diverse monthly reading series.

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BWS 11.01.17: Soraya Peerbaye

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Soraya Peerbaye’s most recent collection of poetry, Tell: Poems for a Girlhood (Pedlar Press, 2015), won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry in English and was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry prize. Her first collection, Poems for the Advisory Committee on Antarctic Names (Goose Lane Editions, 2009) was short-listed for the Gerald Lampert Award. Her poems have appeared in Red Silk: An Anthology of South Asian Women Poets, and the chapbook anthology Translating Horses. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph.

Ahead of her visit on Jan. 11, Soraya sent us a guest post for us about her “other life”.

My other life – in truth, most of my life these days – is in the field of dance. I currently work with Anandam Dancetheatre, under the artistic direction of Brandy Leary, as the company’s programming and curatorial co-director. I’ve been active in dance now for more than 15 years, in different capacities, supporting diverse genres of contemporary dance.

I came to writing through theatre and performance; I was less interested in playwriting, and more so in collaboration and physical theatre. After university I connected with a company called Primus Theatre. At the heart of their training were “plastiques”, an exercise of moving through space with one part of the body leading, being mindful of certain principles: keep your body moving, keep your eyes alive in the space, keep your feet light on the floor. The idea was for concentration on the task to cut through one’s mental/physical/emotional resistance, so that one could be wholly present; to activate a certain state of awareness – open, receptive, responsive, generative. I began studying flamenco around the same time, first with Esmeralda Enrique then Carmen Romero, and I found something similar; the rigour of form and rhythm requiring your whole attention, so that you often didn’t notice that another self had emerged from you. Later, when I discovered Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing (cliché, I know, but key for me), I was struck by the echo of my theatre training in her instruction: keep your hand moving. It’s significant to me that my first understanding of practice was neither in words nor even in mind, but in body. I am not always aware of music in my own poetry, but I always hear its rightness in relation to breath and voice. 

I think there’s a close kinship between dance and poetry; dance has been deeply instructive to me in the writing of both my collections. I think of dance and poetic language as an energetic state; a concentration that alters the quality of our awareness. Both Brandy and I have described our respective practices as ways of moving alongside “not knowing”, alongside wanting to know, the mind, or body, listening to what it wants from knowing. They are practices that estrange something we believe we know, intimately – body/language. They open towards a multiplicity of meanings, not through the daily body, daily language, our rational understanding of those things; but instead in that transaction of energy between the artist and the reader/watcher; where meaning becomes charged by sensory experience, association, feeling, intuition and imagination. Where meaning is charged but changing, moment to moment. Brandy has introduced me to the term “state work”, and I think, in a way, poetry is state work, too. 

I think there’s often a likeness in the way poems and choreographies can be structured, musically, kinetically. I remember when I first began watching dance, sensing that choreographies often closed with an ambivalence I experienced in poetry; something that left me suspended within myself. I guess I experience both dance and poetry (as a writer, a reader and a watcher) as an interior experience – one that is both empathetic and very private – where I find myself within another body or mind and at the same time still separate within my own.

Soraya Peerbaye visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 11, 2017 – in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Danila Botha, John Calabro, Dane Swan and special guest speaker Jack Illingworth, Literature Officer at the Ontario Arts Council, about grant applications!

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BWS 11.01.17: John Calabro

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John Calabro is a fiction writer. His novella, Bellecour, published in 2005 was named by The Globe and Mail as one of the Top Five First Fiction in 2005. The Cousin was published in 2009, and its French translation, Le Cousin, was shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award.
An Imperfect Man is his third novella.

John sat down for an interview with the blog this week.
Also, it’s his birthday today. Happy birthday, John!

BWS: An Imperfect Man tells largely of a middle-aged man who makes a sudden decision to reject his left arm, first refusing to use it or wash it then escalating its mistreatment from there. Where does such an idea for a story come from?

John: While writing my second novella, I came upon a newspaper article relating to an individual’s anguish over a medical condition called Body Image Integrity Disorder (BIID). I was intrigued, but being in the middle of writing I put the article away with the idea that I may use some elements of it in the future. Years later, I began writing what would become An Imperfect Man. My original idea was to weave a story around the theme of getting rid/letting go of toxicity whether it was a psychological or emotional toxin and how best to deal with the process and possible aftermath. I remembered the article, went back to it, and decided to add the element of real/perceived physical toxicity to the plot line and blur the lines between them. I did more research and made sure that I accurately portrayed the issues around BIID. Slowly, that plot line grew to become the central issue in the novella.

BWS: Your previous novella, The Cousin, drew comparisons in The Globe and Mail to Luigi Pirandello’s work. Would you count him as an influence? Some of the trouble Jack goes to in order to thoroughly reject his arm, for example, could be said to echo Mattia Pascal’s comically thorough “Adriano Meis” disguise.

John: Pirandello was a great influence; the fact that I am also Sicilian, and was born an hour away from where he was born and spent his childhood, was another pleasant connection that led me to explore his literary works. The way he uses the mask that people knowingly or unknowingly wear/create, and the consequences for individuals and society – some humourous, some tragic – has always fascinated me. He often used Sicilian behaviours as his model but his observations are universal. Having lived in France for 10 years, when I was younger, I was also greatly influenced by French writers such as [Albert] Camus, [André] Gide, and Henri Barbusse who wrote L’Enfer, to name a few. My writing is influenced by 20th-century existential authors and is often, subconsciously at times, an homage to them.

BWS: Do you think An Imperfect Man could have been set anywhere, or did you feel that the story had to take place in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood? What about Parkdale was most important to this story when you chose its setting?

John: It could take place anywhere as long as it included certain elements. I wanted a neighbourhood that for Torontonians would be easily recognized while at the same time it also had to produce a particular atmosphere. I sought to create the setting of a confining village within an urban environment, a space that could be both a comforting home and a claustrophobic one as well. Parkdale with its English heritage, neighbouring ethnic communities, and its location close to highways and seaways, offering the possibility of escape, seemed the most appropriate place to use as a setting. I also enjoyed walking the neighbourhood following the footsteps of imaginary characters and seeing what they would have been seeing and thinking. On those outings, I would make written notes that I later incorporated into the story.

BWS: This is your third novella, and until recently, you were president and co-publisher at Quattro Books, Canada’s “home of the novella”. What draws you to the novella form? Did you know from the beginning with each (or some, or none) of your novellas that they would end up as novella-length books (20,000-40,000 words, says Quattro)? Can a successful novella result from projects one imagines as short stories “running long” or as novels “coming up short”, or is there something different about the novella that has to be considered if setting out to write one?

John: The novella is a curious and often maligned genre. Stephen King, who has written many, called it, “an ill-defined and disreputable literary Banana Republic,” and that is by far not the worst thing people have said about the genre. Personally, I have always loved reading novellas. Most of the best contemporary authors, and many that have influenced me, have written successful novellas, often unknown to reader; it is only when you start naming some of the most famous ones that people realize that they have read and enjoyed one. Novellas such as L’Étranger, Death in Venice, Of Mice and Men, Heart of Darkness, The Old Man and the Sea, Billy Budd and great Canadian novellas like Bear, Contre Dieu, The Invention of Death, to name a few. It is one of my most cherished accomplishments that with Quattro Books, as a small independent press, we were able to spotlight the novella. In the seven years I was with them (and that mandate still continues), Quattro published more contemporary novellas by Canadians than any other independent press in Canada. Through our workshops and contests we were able to tutor and mentor people on how to write a novella. We received and published some great submissions.

My books are novellas (except for the first one that was an accidental novella) because I love writing stories that lend themselves to the genre. I write books in the genre that I prefer reading. I like the literary ingredients that create the novella: very few characters, one main setting, a short time frame, one strong, if at times nuanced, theme and an arc that leads to a conclusion. Of course, you can play with those elements so that they are not readily distinguishable, but they must be there. So to answer your question, a novella has its own unique structure.

The novella, among other things is well suited for both reader and author. For the reader, at its very essence, it’s a short read, up to a six-hour read, and fits in quite well with the lifestyle of the modern reader who wants compact literature of great quality. It allows the reader to get maximum exposure to great literary prose. Because a literary novella is thematically driven to explore serious and often dark and difficult issues, a longer read might be too depressing and/or lose its impact. An overlong humorous and/or satirical work would also tend to wear thin after a while – imagine Animal Farm at 300 pages. As well, novellas in translation allow readers to get a bite-size introduction to a foreign author, a foreign literary sensibility. The novella affords the author the opportunity to experiment with style and content without investing too much time on any one project. It takes much less time to finish and edit a novella than a full-length novel. It creates the opportunity for quicker publication. Filmmakers like to mine novellas for film ideas which can be another incentive for an author. I tend to agree with the literary critic [Judith] Leibowitz, who said that the primary feature of the novella is “its unique ability to combine the economy of the short story,” which she calls intensity, “with the openness of the novel,” which she calls expansion. Walter Sitz, another critic, with whom I also agree, says, “The novella’s flexibility, amenability to innovation and ability to accommodate dramatic development with compactness,” is its strength.

John Calabro visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 11, 2017 – in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Danila Botha, Soraya Peerbaye, Dane Swan and special guest speaker Jack Illingworth, Literature Officer at the Ontario Arts Council, about grant applications!

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BWS 11.01.17: Dane Swan

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Dane Swan’s second poetry collection, A Mingus Lullaby, was published by Guernica Editions in Spring 2016. Inspired by the life and music of Charles Mingus, the collection explores themes that permeate the life of his subject and Dane’s personal life. A past writer-in-residence for Open Book Toronto, former slam poet, and self-taught author, Dane Swan regularly collaborates with poets, performance artists and musicians as a founding member of MXTP_CLTRS (Mixtape Cultures), a small artist collective.

Dane dropped by the blog this week to chat Mingus, Toronto and more ahead of
his January 11 appearance.

BWS: Some of the reasons may come through in the book, but can you tell us why you built this collection around Charles Mingus, and why the theme of his famous Epitaph concert runs through the book? What drew you to him as an artist (or a person, even), and what about his work speaks to the kind of work you do in prose and poetry?

Dane: The original manuscript that Mingus comes from is over a decade old. However, it didn’t have an anchoring idea that tied the project together. So, when Guernica Editions first approached me about submitting a manuscript, I put it aside and finished off the first draft of what became Bending the Continuum.

I wrote “Lullaby” from Mingus in 2010, while I was writing the final draft of Bending the Continuum. As soon as I wrote it, I knew that I wanted to make Charles Mingus the person who centered the manuscript I had given up on. I’ve always seen a lot of parallels between Mingus and myself; my battles with mental health have never been that extreme, I’ve never had kids, but Mingus is a person who can be described equally by his failures as much as his successes — that’s something I can relate with.

The Epitaph concert is the epitome of that idea. As a concert, it was a failure, but when you step back, when you listen to the results, not only was it successful, it may also demonstrate his genius more than his Monterey Jazz Festival performance. The Monterey performance is obviously a more perfected delivery of his ideas, but in the early sixties, here’s a jazz composer attempting to deconstruct performance. I love that idea. Of course deconstruction in art is common place now. Heck, chefs play with the idea. But a Black musician with a high school diploma, who learned his trade by shadowing great musicians a generation ahead, experimenting with this idea then was brave, and brilliant.

I attempt to take his lead in A Mingus Lullaby. If you delve deeply into the manuscript there’s a lot inferred. Sometimes, I simply tell the reader, “This is what happened to me, or, here are my motivations.”

How does Mingus’s influence speak to my writing in general? I like to think my work is at least brave. Writing for me isn’t an escape, or therapy. It can be something uncomfortable, scary to do. Is my work brilliant like his work is? No clue.

BWS: Several poems in Mingus talk about racist perceptions in Toronto–average people on the street, the subway, etc., as well as staff at Blue Jays games and, notably, the police. In the time between your first and second books, have you seen the conversation about our
city change in light of events here or perhaps south of the border? And/or: do you find what you’ve wanted/needed to say in your work about these themes or this city is changing?

Dane: First, the police:

Back when I lived in Ottawa, I hosted one of Canada’s first all-Canadian hip-hop shows on campus radio. I used to occasionally visit Toronto to pick up records. There was a time when every other rap record coming out of Toronto talked about paying off cops, police brutality, you name it. One record, that’s fiction. Two, coincidence. When hundreds of rappers are saying, “The police here are racist and corrupt,” only a fool doesn’t listen.

What has saved Toronto from violence is a movement of talented artists, athletes and social workers who do amazing things. What the media proclaims, is that the police save us. That’s patently false. Police brutality happens so frequently in Toronto, it isn’t news. If you are a POC, or poor, or queer and outspoken the police do not work for you. Those are the facts. By all means, don’t believe me. Speak to victims yourself.

As far as the civilian population and racism:

The rise of Trump has made it worse. I don’t feel safe walking home at night. I often go to events where I may be the only Black person there. I’ve been approached by people trying to instigate things. What can I do? If I stay inside, if I change my personal habits to avoid racists, they win.

When I lived in Ottawa I was egged for walking down a street at night. I had a white man run up to me and scream, “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE!” I remember the look in his eyes. I thought he was going to kill me.

For most of my time in Toronto things have been more subtle. You know, being asked for drugs even though I’m nearly 40 years old. Going to job interviews and knowing that I have no chance by looking at the “diversity” of a potential employer. I could live with that in relative silence. Right now is not the time to be silent.

I guess we can’t talk about Toronto and racism without talking about the Black Lives Matter Toronto kids. I disagree with them, but I think they’re doing God’s work — if there is a God. There’s a real anger festering within the younger members of the black community in Toronto. Many of them have been harassed and assaulted by police from infancy. They were born into this insane random search program. They’ve never had a day in their lives where police have seen them as human beings capable of not being criminals. Without BLM creating a peaceful platform for these kids to vent, it would be chaos. I don’t think regular people in Toronto understand how close we are to real, significant race riots. Again, it’s organizations like BLM, social workers, athletes and artists who are doing yeomen’s work keeping these kids from exploding. Yes, it’s better here than the U.S., but that’s not enough to be proud of. That doesn’t mean that our society is perfect.

Has the conversation changed since I wrote Bending the Continuum? No. Black/POC creative people have been talking about these issues since I moved to Canada 20 years ago. Social media allows us to have a louder voice. More of us have figured out how to navigate the publishing world and traditional media, but none of this is new.

Maybe people are finally listening, but that means nothing without action.

BWS: Some of the pieces in the book might be said to more similar to prose. How do you understand the tension between prose and poetry? Do you think of the pieces as “prose poems”? Do you see a difference between what a “prose poem” does and what some pieces called “flash” or “microfiction” might do?

Dane: I don’t believe in genre, so answering this is pretty tough. Genre isn’t real. Most of us come from a lineage of either Troubadours or Griots. I’m fairly confident Troubadours in Europe and Griots in Africa didn’t think in terms of genre. Such tensions never existed for them. Music, poetry, storytelling were essentially seen as the same thing. Even when the Church began to record oral tradition as text they didn’t speak about genre. Even in cultures where literacy was a central tenet, genre didn’t matter. Chinese calligraphy isn’t in some sort of tension with literature and visual art. Chinese calligraphy is both literature and visual art. We can say the same about ancient Egypt, heck, all the way back to cavemen.

People codify things to exploit them. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if you are a creative person and you’re oblivious to your behavior being exploitative, how can one truly create? Genre codification is for academics. It’s for those whose sole goal is to exploit creative expression. It is used for cultural erasure. It shouldn’t be how creators think. Creators should read everything they can, listen to everything they can, look at everything they can. They should dive head first into the idea of seeking questions, not rationalizing an academic philosophy.

What I can say, is that when I write something that I want people to read, rather than hear, I consider how each word falls on the page. The blank space of a page. The lack of blank space on the page. I attempt to force the reader to read words at a pace that I dictate. After writing something, I may look at the page and search for the focal point. Is it a word? A punctuation? Is the eye drawn to the part of the page that I want? There’s always something stated and something inferred in my writing. If all I cared about was surface, I would be a rapper. Again, genre does not exist. The medium is the message, not the genre. If you dream to be a creative person, throw that dated idea away.

BWS: In another interview, around the time of your first book’s release, you said you think of yourself as a writer rather than a “poet”. A Mingus Lullaby is your second book of poems. Will you call yourself a poet yet?

Dane: [jokingly] NEVER!!! I’ve collaborated on music projects and with performance artists, I’ve had short stories published, had a novella reach the finals of a literary competition, etc. The only thing that ties all of my creative work is writing. Plus, if a person goes around saying that genre doesn’t exist, it would be weird if they allowed themself to be defined by a genre.

BWS: Thanks, Dane. We’re looking forward to your visit!

Dane Swan visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 11, 2017 – in our new home, Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Danila Botha, John Calabro, Soraya Peerbaye, and a special guest speaker!

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