Monthly Archives: October 2013

BWS 13.11.13: Josh Smith

joshsmithauthorphoto

Josh Smith of Buffalo has been a fixture on the Toronto poetry scene since his first appearance at the Art Bar Poetry Series in 2010. He has since joined the series’s board of directors, and in 2012, he was named Buffalo’s best poet and best spoken word artist. I sat down (at my computer, and exchanged emails) with Josh before his November 13 visit to the Brockton Writers Series. 

BWS: Around this time last year, you celebrated your 500th performance, a mere six years after your first. That’s at least one reading per week — and we can’t ignore your fabled adventures on the QEW, either. Talk to us about your performance schedule. Are you always presenting new work? Do you ever sleep?

Josh: Like anything, my performance schedule ebbs and flows. This year, my focus has shifted, and with the Art Bar board we’ve been making scouting trips, keeping ears to the ground, scheduling, booking, promoting, so on and so forth to keep the series its strongest. That comes at the expense of a performance schedule. I’ve also gone back to school this Autumn, taking online courses at Harvard. It’s a demanding program. So, Des Moines, IA isn’t at the top of my list at this moment, but 2014 holds a lot of promise for getting back on the road.

BWS: You promote your shows using YouTube videos that you make yourself, and in some of these videos, you talk about wanting poetry to be the Super Bowl halftime show — to be in the hands and hearts of the average person, not just other poets, university English departments, etc. Tell us more about popular appeal and poetry and what it means to you to get in front of — or get in the faces of? — the non-typical audience for poetry.

Josh: There are three groups of people in poetry and in life: those who are always going to like what you do, those who will never like what you do, and then there’s the ninety percent in the middle. As an artist, you have to ignore those first two groups, because you cannot change their opinions. And if only five percent of that ten is head over heels for you, it’s extremely unlikely that they will support you enough to pay your bills. Not everybody wants to make a living at poetry, and most poets I know are convinced it’s not possible; it is, but not without that mainstream, non-poetry audience.

BWS: Maybe it’s just me, but I thought your work, your web presence and the readings I saw online exuded a very strong D.I.Y. ethos — “underground” poetry, of a kind. You even made your own DVD! How do you see the relationship between the “mainstream” you hope your poetry (and all poetry) will again enter and independent performers like yourself?

Josh: I’m not in love with the term “underground.” I’m a main event talent, anywhere in the world; that’s the attitude that I, and anyone trying to break through, needs to have. I don’t think terms like “underground” and “indie” have negative connotations, but I think that projection and perception are reality. If I tell CTV that I’m an underground, D.I.Y., indie poet, and they should put me on their network, I expect them to say, “Thanks, but no.” I’m of the mind that it’s in my best interest to say, “Hey, you need me on your network. I’m a star. Somebody is going to figure out what to do with me, and together we’re going to make lots of success. You’ve got a chance right now to be that somebody.”

BWS: You’ve performed all over North America, but your home is never far from your work or your persona, and you were named Buffalo’s best poet and best spoken word artist last year. What does Buffalo mean to you, and to your poetry? What did it teach you about the kind of poet you wanted to be?

Josh: I gave a speech last year in Toronto, professing my love for Canada. In that speech I said, “I am proud to be from Buffalo, but I am not proud of Buffalo.” If I was content to be an auto mechanic, I’d never leave home. Buffalo’s a great city; it’s just not great to be a poet there. No matter where I go, though, I carry Buffalo with me. My logo is a modified Buffalo flag, it’s in my introductions. I’ll never hide it. I try to represent what’s right about Buffalo poetry.

BWS: What about Buffalo today helps/encourages/inspires you to write? What might the future hold for your hometown, and what might that future give to your work?

Josh: I believe Buffalo’s future will come from transplants. Most of the people I see making progress at home are those who came from other cities, with different backgrounds and ideas.

BWS: What keeps you coming back to Toronto?

Josh: I first read in Toronto on September 10th, 2010, so I’ve been coming a little over three years at this point. I’d say Toronto accounts for at least a third of my appearances since then. I could write a book on my love for the Toronto poetry scene, but simply put: Toronto brings together the world’s best poets with the world’s best poetry fans. And it’s funny, because I hear Torontonians complain about their scene, but it’s the greatest one I’ve ever known. Food for thought.

BWS: Is reading in Toronto similar to reading in any particular American city?

Josh: Putting Toronto side-by-side with other cities, I’d say that the crowd size is similar in Washington, D.C., but the attitudes are total opposites.

BWS: Do you have any favourite Canadian poets? Does the work of any contemporary Canadian poet(s) speak to you or seem like it would read well alongside yours?

Josh: I have new favourite Canadian poets every time I make the drive! I’m a huge mark (carney term) for new guys on the rise such as Will Kemp, someone who started open micing at Art Bar every week and who has made crazy progress in the last year. I’m also part of this strange class of newbies in Toronto; I’m more experienced than a guy like John Nyman, but we broke in Toronto around the same time, so I see a lot of him on the circuit, and I’m always thrilled with how he’s progressing. Jessica Bebenek is in that same group. And that same experience that I kind of check at the border still allows me to hang with some more seasoned performers, your Sonia DiPlacido(s) and your Clara Blackwood(s). I’m in great company with the crew at Art Bar. Ritallin is one of the top guys not just in Toronto, but in Canada. Stephen Humphrey has become a mentor of sorts. Then there’s Liz Worth. At all times she’s both the poet that I think I would be if I was a Toronto woman, and the poet that I want to be now!

All of those people have a different style than me and than each other, but I think the tie that binds is that, all of those people I mentioned, truly are having fun out there night after night. I had a great reading in September at the Underdog Poets Academy — you couldn’t have assembled four more different writers, but we all had so much fun, it just clicked. I believe that if you throw me on any show, whether it’s Brockton Writers, or AvantGarden, or Rochdale Rhymes and Readings, or Pivot, or Nice Italian Girls, no one will go home disappointed with the giant American in the room.

BWS: Thanks so much, Josh. We’ll hold you to that!

Josh Smith visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 13, 2013 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Daniel Perry, Emily Pohl-Weary and Richard Scarsbrook. Come early (6:30) for a talk by Michael Callaghan about Exile Editions and their publishing program, including the $15,000 Carter V. Cooper/Exile Short Fiction Competition.

Watch this space for more with each of our readers in the month leading up to the event!

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BWS 13.11.13: Richard Scarsbrook

6weeksMCK3At C’est What last night, November BWS guest Richard Scarsbrook launched Six Weeks, his long-anticipated first poetry collection (and second book released this fall!).

Six Weeks (Turnstone Press) brings together Richard’s best poems from the last 15 years, including the 2013 Winston Collins/Descant Poetry Prize finalist “Fortune,” the 2013 Fish Poetry Prize-longlisted “Exit Interview” and “Rule of Three,” four poems from Guessing at Madeleine — winner of the Cranberry Tree Poetry Press Chapbook Competition, all the way back in 1997 — and others that have graced the pages of Prairie Fire, CarouselExistere, VerbicideThe Fieldstone Review and more.

Between poems, Richard paused to thank a number of people for supporting the book; “Poetry,” he said, “is a lot closer to my heart than prose writing — I expose a lot more of myself than in my fiction,” noting that poetry was where his writing journey began. In fact, he said he “fell away from poetry for a long time” but rediscovered his voice upon receiving Pablo Neruda’s 20 Love Poems and a Song of Despair as a gift, keying in on the closing line of “Every day you play”:

“I want to do with you what spring does with the cherry trees.”

It’s a tall order he’s given himself , but Jeanette Lynes hails the collection as a success: “Don’t let the spareness of Richard Scarsbrook’s writing fool you,” she writes. “The poems in Six Weeks are lush, layered, and rich with wit and imagination. Longing and desire are frequent subjects here, and Scarsbrook doesn’t shy away from vulnerability or — uncool as it might sound — romance. There’s a big imagination at work and play in these poems, a sharp intelligence, and a resonant ear.”

Sounds good to us… and so do the poems. What? You missed the launch? Well, we just might know where you can hear Richard read again…Rich

Richard Scarsbrook visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 13, 2013 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Daniel Perry, Emily Pohl-Weary and Josh Smith. Come early (6:30) for a talk by Michael Callaghan about Exile Editions and their publishing program, including the $15,000 Carter V. Cooper/Exile Short Fiction Competition.

Watch this space for more with each of our readers in the month leading up to the event!

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BWS 13.11.13: Daniel Perry

IMG_7456Yes, your friendly neighbourhood BWS blogger is also a fiction writer — since 2011, I’ve published short fiction in more than 20 print and online magazines including Exile Literary Quarterly, The Dalhousie Review, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, Little Fiction, Maple Tree Literary Supplement and the Stone Skin Press anthology The Lion and the Aardvark. I moved to Toronto for my girlfriend graduate school in 2006, and my own blog feature is a reflection on the Ph. D. thesis I didn’t write. 

I’d have met Seamus Heaney, probably

This Labour Day weekend, my one-year hiatus from graduate school entered its sixth year, and the familiar chill of what-might-have-been rushed in on the cool breeze. It blew colder yet with the news of Seamus Heaney’s passing.

I discovered Heaney’s long poem “Station Island” late in the 2006-07 academic year, my first at the Centre for Comparative Literature at the University of Toronto, where I was pre-admitted to the Ph. D. program. And while my exact thesis topic was still hazy, I was extending some undergraduate work on the French writer Hervé Guibert and echoes of Dante’s Divine Comedy in his work.

A doctorate in Comparative Literature requires you to study works in at least three languages. My B.A. was a double-major in English and French, and I had taken — was still taking — courses in Italian; Guibert and Dante covered my second and third languages, but I was still looking for a text in my mother tongue.

After one read of “Station Island,” I quickly worked it into my project description.

Station Island is a real island, in Lough Derg, County Donegal, Ireland, and legend has it that this is where God showed St. Patrick a cave that was the entrance to Hell and called it “Purgatory”; by showing converts the cave, St. Patrick was to convince them of the existence of Heaven and Hell.

(“Purgatory,” of course, is from the same root as “purge”: to empty, to cleanse. In the Catholic understanding from which Dante worked, a soul in Purgatory, with adequate support from the prayers of the living, could eventually be cleansed of sin and be saved from damnation.)

In “Station Island,” the speaker visits St. Patrick’s Purgatory and encounters 12 shades, including Simon Sweeney, the protagonist of a medieval poem; William Carleton, a 19th-century writer associated with the Irish peasantry; friends, lovers, priests and monks from Heaney’s own life; victims of sectarianism, and finally, James Joyce. In so doing, Heaney simultaneously portrays an entire, if personal, Ireland, while cathartically purging it of its tumultuous history. 

But where Heaney’s poem fit into my thesis, I never found out. In addition to my courses, I worked full-time at a call centre to make ends meet, and in April, after several breakdowns and too many all-nighters, I limped across the finish line. I had earned my M.A., but I was exhausted. And when an email that summer asked me to phone the professor for whom I would be a T.A., my curt reply was, “I won’t be back in the fall. Let me know if I have to do any paperwork.”

The present model of scholarship could be called monastic; ask my girlfriend, who somehow didn’t move out despite countless nights where my corner desk, lamp, pile of 20-30 books and yet another term paper couldn’t tolerate a single interruption from our other 600 square feet. The quest to avoid plagiarism can take hours of reading — quiet devotionals in a different cloister, the library.

It wasn’t for me, but let’s say it had been… or let’s say I had at least taken (even more of) the self-destructive actions required to get me through. Let’s say I got Heaney into my thesis, and like the keen Ph. D. student I should have been, I bankrupted myself to travel to the many conferences at which he spoke, or even ambushed him at Toronto’s own International Festival of Authors. I don’t know yet what I’d have asked him, but this fall I felt the loss of the opportunity. The only just response seemed to be a re-reading of his masterwork, but all an internet search turned up was a blog featuring a typo-laden reproduction of the Joyce scene. I corrected it as best I could and posted it to my Facebook page

His voice eddying with the vowels of all rivers
came back to me, though he did not speak yet,
a voice like a prosecutor’s or a singer’s,  

cunning, narcotic, mimic, definite
as a steel nib’s downstroke, quick and clean,
and suddenly he hit a litter basket

with his stick, saying ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you must do must be done on your own

so get back in harness. The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You have listened long enough. Now strike your note.’

It was as if I had stepped free into space
alone with nothing that I had not known
already. […]

Yeah. Writing fiction instead of pursuing doctoral studies feels a lot like that.

—–

We moved out of that tiny apartment this October, which meant finding all the boxes and under-furniture storage solutions and purging much of what was inside. Coincidentally, my girlfriend had been reading Joseph Campbell. She stumbled across this meditation and passed it on to me:

We must be willing to get rid of
the life we’ve planned, so as to have
the life that is waiting for us.

The old skin has to be shed
before the new one can come.

If we fix on the old, we get stuck.
When we hang on to any form,
we are in danger of putrefaction.

Hell is life drying up.

The Hoarder,
the one in us that wants to keep,
to hold on, must be killed.

If we are hanging onto the form now,
We’re not going to have the form next.

You can’t make an omelet
without breaking eggs.

Destruction before creation.

The relative lack of style notwithstanding, Campbell’s lines aren’t so different than Heaney’s “Let go, let fly, forget,” so out the door went almost everything in my file cabinet’s bottom drawer; six years of potentially useful course notes became two bundles of trash secured with string the cat insisted on chewing.

I threw out almost everything. The papers didn’t go without a final sorting, and sure enough, buried in them was my heavily annotated photocopy of the entire “Station Island,” in all its richness and beauty and power. Yes, I’ve let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes, and I’ve even gotten rid of the life I had planned, but I didn’t do it without the rueful thought: I’d have met Seamus Heaney, probably.

Daniel Perry visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 13, 2013 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Emily Pohl-Weary, Richard Scarsbrook and Josh Smith. Come early (6:30) for a talk by Michael Callaghan about Exile Editions and their publishing program, including the $15,000 Carter V. Cooper/Exile Short Fiction Competition.

Watch this space for more with each of our readers in the month leading up to the event!

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Brockton Writers Series 13.11.13

Our last event of 2013 marks four amazing years of Brockton Writers Series, so come celebrate with us Wednesday, November 13 at full of beans Coffee House & Roastery (1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto) and enjoy readings by:

Emily Pohl-Weary, Richard Scarsbrook, Josh Smith and Daniel Perry!

(Let the awkward self-referential blogging begin…)

Plus, come early — 6:30pm — to hear special guest Michael Callaghan, publisher at Exile Editions, speak about Exile’s publishing program, the $15,000 Vanderbilt/Exile Short Fiction Competition and the long-running Exile Literary Quarterly.

PWYC (suggested $3-$5). Q&A. Books and treats available for sale. Please note that while the venue is wheelchair accessible, washroom facilities are not.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.

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As always, watch this space for more with each of our writers in the month to come!

Daniel Perry grew up in Glencoe, Ontario, and has lived in Toronto since 2006. His stories have been short-listed in the Vanderbilt/Exile Competition and have appeared in more than 20 publications including The Dalhousie Review, Exile Literary Quarterly, The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, The Nashwaak Review, Maple Tree Literary SupplementLittle Fiction, and the Stone Skin Press anthology, The Lion and the Aardvark.

Emily Pohl-Weary is an award-winning author, arts educator and editor. Her latest teen novel, Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl, is forthcoming in September 2013 from Skyscape in the U.S. and Penguin in Canada.

Richard Scarsbrook is the prize-winning author of Cheeseburger Subversive, Featherless Bipeds, Destiny’s Telescope, and The Monkeyface Chronicles, which won the 2011 Ontario Library Association White Pine Award.  His books have also been shortlisted for the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year Award, the Stellar Book Prize, and the ReLit Award.  Richard’s most recent novel, Nothing Man and The Purple Zero, was released in September, and his first poetry collection, Six Weeks, launches later this month.

Josh Smith isn’t supposed to be here. Buffalo born and bred, he’s supposed to be wasting the best parts of his life in bars, rooting for awful sports teams. None of that ever appealed to him. What appealed to Josh was becoming one of the hosts of the Art Bar Poetry Series, earning three Best of Buffalo literary awards, and gaining a Harvard education. His work has been published in the United States and Canada, where he has also traveled, reading everywhere from Montreal to Missouri.

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