Monthly Archives: February 2014

BWS 05.03.14: Michael Fraser

Michael Fraser Michael Fraser is a high school teacher, poet, and writer who has been published in anthologies and journals including Literary Review of CanadaThe Paris Atlantic, and Caribbean Writer. His first poetry collection, The Serenity of Stone, won the 2007 Canadian Aid Literary Award manuscript contest and was published in 2008 by Bookland Press.  He also won Arc’s 2012 Readers’ Choice Poem of the Year, and his poem, “Going to Cape,” is included in The Best Canadian Poetry in English, 2013. Michael is the creator and director of the Plasticine Poetry Series. He answered a few questions for us this week — enjoy!

BWS: In The Serenity of Stone, the poems range from Toronto, (where you live), to Edmonton, (where you grew up), and Grenada, (where you born), as well as to France and Cuba, among other places. All are rendered in beautiful detail. How/Why is sense of place so important to your work? What role does a poem’s setting play when you write one?

Michael: My fascination with sense of place derives from my childhood obsession with geography, and more specifically, maps. I used to draw maps constantly. I was so accurate, teachers would ask me to draw maps on the board. I’d create little cities out of everything. My father collected beer bottles and I’d keep the caps and create cities out of them (each cap was a house or building). I’d then draw maps of my room, with my bed centered as the mountainous plateau. I’d spend hours immersed in atlases envisioning the various cities, vegetation, and topography. I also believe living in three distinct climactic regions propelled me to observe and appreciate the uniqueness of each environment.

BWS: Your Grenada poems strike a balance between fondness and fear; the food and weather are inviting, but there is violence, too. At what age did you leave Grenada, and to what degree (if any) would you say nostalgia figures in your work?

Michael: I left Grenada when I had just turned five.

I’d say there’s a nostalgic and psychological digging within the childhood poems. I write the childhood poems to uncover various blocks from childhood. There’s also the ubiquitous Caribbean migrational experience of rejoining your absent parents in Canada and having a deep sense the time rift apart has fundamentally altered your relationship. The immigrating child is often the son or daughter of someone who is now a stranger.

I also grew up in a violent household. I’ll try to make this short. The violence commenced long before I was born. My father apparently kicked my mother, while she was pregnant with me. My mother secured an opportunity to immigrate to Canada and left me in the care of her cousins when I was a year old. I didn’t see her again until I turned five. The family matriarch, Ms. Agnes King, was a great role-model. She has since passed away and I devoted The Serenity of Stone to her. She owned her own hair salon in downtown St. George’s, Grenada. I spent most of my early years in this hair salon. Most importantly, I thought Ms. King was my mother and her daughter, Jean, my sister.

Eventually, my biological mother arrived and whisked me off to Toronto. In the interim, she had sponsored and married my father. The environment was violent and my mother was constantly belittled. Not surprisingly, I was distraught and enraged in school.

We then moved to Edmonton when I was seven. Edmonton saved my life. It’s a long story, but had I stayed in Toronto, I’m certain I’d be either dead or in jail.

A summer trip to Alberta in 1997 was the genesis of my childhood poems. A lengthy conversation with my aunt revealed the alcoholism, violence, and verbal abuse was far more profound than I had recalled. She recounted many events I had psychologically blocked. Thus, I began the childhood poems as a form of therapy and understanding. I think all my childhood poems are infused with both fondness and violence due to this history.

BWS: Your book’s third section, “Neon Adam & Eve,” moves from poems about attraction to ones about loss, and even the acceptance of lost love. It seems almost to build a narrative. Were they written together in such an order, or arranged afterward? And in general, do you know how you will order your poems in advance? Or do groups form based on given themes, preoccupations, etc., that emerge from steady work?

Michael: My poems emerge from various sources. However, since they’re mainly autobiographical, the two most dominant sources are observation and recollection. Thematic groups will gradually emanate from all the poems I write. The poems were not written in any particular order. I have Molly Peacock to thank for editing and arranging the poems.

BWS: A few of your poems (“Dog Days,” “When Night Time Comes…,” and “Because”) employ refrains. What does this device mean to your style?

Michael: I haven’t thought of the refrains, but I assume the practice evolved from belonging to an initially oral-based culture. I’m fond of early calypsonians and their mastery of penning brilliant ambiguous lyrics. For example, The Mighty Sparrow has a song, “Saltfish,” about the Caribbean dish made with salted cod. It operates magnificently as a simple song about the dish. However, once one realizes “saltfish” is a euphemism for a particular body part, the song’s brilliance and humour shoots to the stratosphere! I’ve also been addicted to Brazilian music for as long as I can recall, and the same ambiguous lyrics dominate their early sambas and burgeoned during the Vargas dictatorship. The refrain is often where both or all three meanings meet in the song.

BWS: Speaking of style, you don’t use a single punctuation mark in your first book. Was this a choice made just for these poems, (and if so, why?), or is it a style you naturally tend toward? And do you write poems with punctuation, too? How do you feel about the difference?

Michael: I honestly don’t know why I initially omitted punctuation. I presently view it as juvenile eccentricity. I think I believed it was liberating, but in retrospect, punctuation provides far more freedom. I find it easier now to incorporate natural line breaks, and my poems aren’t as cryptic. I find my biographical style is emboldened with punctuation.

BWS: What are you working on now/next?

Michael: I’ve almost completed a collection of poems centered around historically important African Diasporic figures in the Americas. I’ve also been working on the next regular collection after The Serenity of Stone. Finally, I’m trying to find time for short stories. I’ve only puMichael Fraser - book coverblished one. 

BWS: Thanks so much for dropping by, Michael!

Michael Fraser visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Angie Abdou, John Degen and Veena Gokhale. Come early, too (6:30) for Veena’s talk, “Writers as Publicists: Saying Yes to Selling Your Book!”.

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BWS 05.03.14: Angie Abdou

Angie Abdou Arsenal 2

Angie Abdou’s first novel, The Bone Cage, was the inaugural One Book One Kootenay selection, a Canada Reads 2011 finalist, and the 2012 MacEwan Book of the Year. Her second novel, The Canterbury Trail, is a tragicomedy about mountain life, small-town identity politics, and our relationship with the environment. It won a 2012 IPPY gold medal for Canada West and was a finalist for the Banff Mountain Book of the Year. Angie’s newest novel, Between, forthcoming from Arsenal Pulp Press in September, is a satire about international nannies and hot yoga… which, as she explains in this guest post, might not be as scary as it sounds.

Pre-Publication Jitters and Frozen Vomit

My fourth book is about to be released, and something weird is happening: I am doing what my kids call “freaking out.” I wake up in the middle of the night having changed my mind about being a writer.

Maybe the impetus for this rush of nerves is that the material in my new book is riskier than in my previous ones. Maybe it is simply that four books into this nutty writing thing, I finally realize that I should be nervous. Weird—and sometimes unpleasant – things happen when one releases a book into the world.

For example, last fall Amanda Leduc visited my hometown library to talk about her novel The Miracles of Ordinary Men. It was the perfect event. Amanda was smart, honest, insightful, and charming, and the conversation was intelligent, intense, probing, and real. The audience was rapt. Amanda sold out of books.

Buzzing afterwards with the excitement of hosting a successful event for a deserving author, I reached towards a woman who was leaving. I recognized her from a book club talk I’d given years ago on my novel The Bone Cage. I touched her arm and said, “Thank you for coming, and thanks for reading Amanda’s book beforehand. You asked a great question. I’m glad you liked Amanda’s novel.”

That’s where things went horribly wrong. Instead of continuing out the door with a polite wave, she squared her shoulders to me, opened her eyes wide and said, “I liked hers, but I hated yours.”

I took a deep breath. The Canterbury Trail is about a fictional place called Coalton, a small mountain town not unlike Fernie, B.C., where I live. Some readers, though certainly not all, have taken exception to my portrayal of our home. Fine. I decided I would let this angry reader say her piece, and then I would carry on in my happy-book-loving-perfect-evening. I put a far-away look in my eyes and let her words roll over me.

Unfortunately, “her piece” was not what one would call succinct. She started by calling me disrespectful and nasty and saying that my portrayal of Fernie was hateful. She went on to say that her friends were characters in the book, and they had no opportunity for recourse.  “What are they supposed to do??!!” There is a sheep farmer in Fernie and there is a sheep farmer in my novel, she complained; clearly, they must be the same person. (“Two sheep farmers,” I wanted to say. “What are the chances?!).

She went on, at great length, about how my representation of mountain culture is completely misinformed. I braced myself, figuring that after this tirade, she would wind down. But no. “Now, after this awful book,” she snapped, “I don’t even want to read the books you review and recommend. I don’t trust your opinion about anything. When I saw your name in the acknowledgments of The Miracles of Ordinary Men, I didn’t even want to read it!”

Here my initial conviction that I could simply wait her out started to wane.  So, I smiled – I’ve been reading a lot of Buddhist philosophy lately, it calms me – and I spoke in as slow and even a voice as I could muster.

“You are hurting my feelings. Imagine if you made something, and then someone cornered you in public and said, ‘I hate the thing you made. It’s ugly. Not only do I hate that one specific thing, but I hate everything you do, and I no longer respect your professional opinion, which you worked very hard to develop.’ How would that make you feel?”

That gave her pause, for a moment. “Oh,” she said, looking as though it had struck her only then that there was a human being on the opposite end of her attack. “That would be awful. I’m an artist. It would be terrible if someone came into a gallery and told me they didn’t like my work. I can see I’ve made you sad. I’m afraid you don’t like me. I’ve made an enemy. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings, but it’s just… your book… I really despised your book…”

And then, she forgot about that human being and geared into Stage Two of her attack! (This one was about light and dark, and how I don’t know how to balance them. I should try, she suggested, to learn from writers like Amanda or Gordon Sombrowski, who manage to have dark but also light.)

This tutorial on how I should write my fiction went on much longer than I should have let it, but eventually I interrupted her and excused myself. “I’m not mad at you,” I said. “I don’t hate you. To be honest, I think I might cry, and I don’t want to cause a scene. I’m going to go in the backroom and get a Kleenex.  Again, thank you for coming.” I touched her arm as I had in the first place, smiled, and left. (Thank you, Buddha.)

I scurried into the staff bathroom and bawled my eyes out. By the time I returned, everyone knew I’d been crying.

I didn’t cry because of what the woman said about my book. I don’t care what she thinks about my book (and that is very nearly almost completely true). Rather, I cried because I felt like I said, “Thank you for coming,” and she turned around and slugged me.

The unexpected assault disrupted the pleasant – if delusional – feeling I happened to be having just then: that the world is a nice place and that people are, for the most part, kind and generous and predictable.

Now I have a new book coming out. It’s bound to offend some people. After experiencing reader encounters like this one, I’m understandably freaking out.

I know all the right things to tell myself: a book that pleases everyone would not be very interesting; a novel that makes people uncomfortable and angry is a worthwhile one; written work is a success if it provokes any kind of reaction.

It’s all true, but the reality is this: the encounter sucked. It made me feel awful. I cried like a child, and I hope it never happens again. (It probably will.)

Surprisingly, though, the evening was not ruined. It was saved by one thing: the room was filled with good people.

First, my husband came to my rescue. When this typically mild-mannered man heard what happened, he referred to the woman with terrible, vulgar names that made me realize I wasn’t nearly as upset as all that. Next, Amanda, the librarians, and the other good book-loving friends in attendance rallied around me. They pretended not to notice I’d been crying. Someone handed me a mug of tea. Someone else laughed: “Nothing light?! Is she crazy?! Did she even read the book? WHAT could possibly be lighter than frozen vomit?!”

Exactly! Finally – a reader who understands!

Laughing is good. That is what writers can do: surround themselves with good, supportive people who “get” them and who know how to make them laugh when laughter is needed most. With my fourth publication, I finally promise myself that I will pay more attention to the readers who get me than to those who don’t. I like dark books that throw me off-kilter and make me uncomfortable.  Sometimes I even like books that make me angry. I will keep trying to write those kinds of books. And when I meet a reader who doesn’t share that preference and who insists on delivering a monologue rather than engaging in a dialogue, I will smile and say, “I look forward to your book on the topic.”

Then, I will politely excuse myself to find a friend, and we will laugh.

Angie Abdou visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with John Degen, Michael Fraser and Veena Gokhale. Come early, too (6:30) for Veena’s talk, “Writers as Publicists: Saying Yes to Selling Your Book!”.

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

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BWS 05.03.14: John Degen

John Degen is executive director of The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) and has published three books. His debut novel, The Uninvited Guest (Nightwood Editions), was shortlisted for the 2006 Amazon.ca First Novel Award and has been translated into Croatian. He has also published two acclaimed collections of poetry.

Ahead of his March 5 visit, check out his latest:

John also writes a popular blog on writing and publishing with a particular focus on copyright, and hosts an occasional audio podcast, The Book Room, archived here. BWS especially recommends the April 26, 2012 episode.

John Degen visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Angie Abdou, Michael Fraser and Veena Gokhale. Come early, too (6:30) for Veena’s talk, “Writers as Publicists: Saying Yes to Selling Your Book!”.

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

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BWS 05.03.14: Veena Gokhale

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Before moving to Canada in 1992, where she’s currently working on her first novel, Veena Gokhale was a journalist in Bombay in the 1980s, an era she captures in her debut short fiction collection, Bombay Wali and Other Stories (Guernica Editions, 2013). Re-blogged from the independent arts and culture review Rover  and online South Asian arts, entertainment and lifestyle magazine mybindi, here is her reflection on her first launch.

She’s Havin’ a Book Baby

Publishing a book is like having a baby. We’ve all heard that one, right? Do you recall where? I don’t. It’s an omniscient statement like don’t get wet in the rain, you’ll catch a chill. Or, don’t get involved with a married man, he’ll never leave his wife (not sure what they say for married women, hmmm). Don’t become an artist, you’ll starve to death.

When I first came upon that book-equals-baby pearl, my immediate reaction was, “What a silly exaggeration.” Though not a mom, I have always felt that I know exactly what it is to have a baby. I was 10 when my busy, doctor mother brought forth my baby brother, and everyone’s life went for a toss. (This was small-town India.) I think I had the most fun because of his arrival, but I certainly learned that a baby makes incredible demands even as it brings leaping joy.

When I found a publisher, Guernica Editions, for my first fiction collection – Bombay Wali and Other Stories – after about eight months of marketing and as many rejections, I felt I had fared not too badly. My near and dear ones were thrilled and hearty with their congratulations. The book (baby) would squirm its way into a cruel, indifferent world in Spring 2013. This pregnancy was going to be almost as long as an elephant’s, so I decided to put the end result out of my mind.

The bleak and bleary November of 2012 arrived and brought with it the proofs for The Book. What! Already? By the end of the month a heavy cardboard box containing 50 shiny copies had arrived at my door. Having already contributed in innumerable ways, my long-suffering partner lugged it up the stairs.

This baby was a premie. Great – I could take copies to India for my mother, brother and my artist friend who had done the lovely cover. We were visiting that December. Wait! – I had put a website address on Bombay Wali’s jacket. My partner and I quickly added a section to my existing site before catching the plane.

“Hope your book becomes a bestseller,” e-mailed an innocent friend. “When will it come to India?” asked another one. Unfortunately, people, who will hopefully buy your book if they are so fortunate as to lay their hands on it, don’t know the difference between small and big publishers. For most, publishing is Penguin, Random House (ed. note: now, “Penguin Random House”) and HarperCollins; books travel far and wide, their authors taken on grand tours by their multinational masters with huge promo budgets. I had no such delusions for myself.

Instead, I went overnight from glowing new mom to a neurotic mess. The book was here, but so what? When would it get to the stores? Would it even get there? What about Amazon, which was already slashing the pre-order price and had the number of pages wrong? Given the zillion books – prize-winning fiction by new and established authors, non-fiction about Climate Change! Economic Meltdowns! War in Afghanistan! and all kinds of trendy stuff that appeals to the average North American reader – who the heck will care about Bombay what and Veena who? (Incidentally, “Bombay walli” means a woman from Bombay.)

Why wasn’t my style post-modern, I bemoaned. And with so many bookstores closing down, would I even get to read anywhere? Even if it got reviewed and somehow arrived in the stores and I got to read in public, no one was interested in short stories, right?

Worried sick about my baby’s survival, it seemed to me that infant mortality rates for books by first-time authors were as bad as those for sub-Saharan Africa. It’s only a book, Veena. Chill. I tried various tones of voice. Standing before a mirror. While doing Downward Dog. No good. I was as nervous as the proverbial Nellie.

PS: I have become a zealous promoter. Bombay Wali must live, thrive even! Friends and acquaintances are buying and commenting favourably. Reviews and interviews have been promised and readings scheduled. Communities I belong to are taking it on. (It’s not my sole responsibility, it seems. Phew!) The book is on Amazon.

I am not sleeping like a baby yet, but one of these days hope to.

Veena Gokhale visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 5, 2014 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) – along with Angie Abdou, John Degen and Michael Fraser. Come early, too (6:30) for Veena’s talk, “Writers as Publicists: Saying Yes to Selling Your Book!”.

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

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