Monthly Archives: August 2016

BWS 14.09.16: Phoebe Wang

phoebeonrooftop

Phoebe Wang writes and teaches in Toronto. She recently edited a supplement issue on the theme of inheritances for The Puritan, and her chapbook, Hanging Exhibits appeared with The Emergency Response Unit this spring. Her debut collection of poetry, Admission Requirements will appear with McClelland and Stewart in Spring 2017.

Phoebe talks with BWS this week ahead of her Sept. 14 visit to the series, about the poems
in Hanging Exhibits and some of their subjects: the paintings in her mother’s collection.

BWS: In “Still Life with Dream Interpretation”, what can you tell us about choosing the shape of the poem vis-à-vis the shape of the image in the painting?

Phoebe: It’s one of the modest joys of poetry, to be able to play with white space. For me, constantly using a flush-left margin and tidy little stanzas can become monotonous. Lu Shou Kun’s painting is so perfectly balanced with the whimsy of the pink butterfly floating above this heavy, dark mood that I wanted in some way to evoke that tension with more than just words. The element that ties the two together—shape and image—is the story. Without the story of my mother’s struggle to “rise above” the ignominy of being born a girl, and of working in a factory from the age of thirteen—the poem’s shape is little more than a fanciful conceit.

Phoebe poem

“Still Life with Dream Interpretation”

Zhuangzi

“Zhuangzi is Free”, by Li Shou Kun

BWS: What else can you tell us about the relationship between the painting and the poem? Are you able to translate the words down the right-hand side, for example?

Phoebe: The characters on the side are his name and the year, which is a common practice in Chinese painting. However he did it in a somewhat quirky way. The first two characters are his nickname, followed by two characters that basically mean “here is me”, then the date then his formal family name.

My mom also told me the story of the painting: the painter dreamed he became a butterfly, then he woke up and he wasn’t sure whether the butterfly was dreaming to become him. This directly became a part of the poem in its closing lines.

BWS: You’ve called the poems in this chapbook ekphrastic–they describe works of art–and though they’re not at all like explanations you’d get in a museum, you did title the collection Hanging Exhibits. Can you talk a little more about how your chapbook and a museum might resemble each other, or how poetry is (or isn’t) well-suited to the explanation or interpretation of art?

Phoebe: Museums are curated spaces, in that the works of art on display are removed from their original contexts and placed in a space that is, ostensibly, clutter and context free. However, viewers bring their own frames of reference—their moods, the time of day they visit, etc. I don’t necessarily think poetry is like this, because poetry is a container, like the empty frame. But I do think childhood and memory are like museums, in that they’re selective. My images of my mother and how I was raised by her are on display in this chapbook, they’ve been selectively arranged, and like paintings, they aren’t accurate representations. I wanted the reader to be just as aware of what’s missing from the frame of these poems as they are of what’s being tenuously held within it.

BWS: There’s clearly a personal element to the artwork you chose, too–many were in your home growing up. What’s it like bringing the personal, the almost memoir-like, into ekphrastic poetry?

Phoebe: It was immensely scary. I’ve never done anything like it before. Essentially I’m a lyric landscape poet, if I really wanted to put labels on myself. I like to write about things as a distance, and I tend to have an abstract, impersonal view of the world. But I think the most thrilling poems come out when I feel like I’m being backed into a corner. When I finished this series, this experiment, I did see that the “ekphrastic” label didn’t really fit. I had been writing in a very personal way all along, but suffered from a kind of myopia. So now when I’m writing a poem about fog or about a long walk in the neighborhood, I’m conscious of it being a very internal, private poem and not something separate from my psyche. Conversely, the harder I tried to represent my family as who they really are, they more archetypal they became.

BWS: Looking forward to hearing these poems live! Thanks, Phoebe.

Phoebe Wang visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Madhur Anand, Jeremy Hanson-Finger, Shane Joseph and a special guest talk, “Best Practices for Grant Writing”, by Toronto Arts Council Interim Dance & Literary Officer Natasha Powell.

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BWS 14.09.16: Jeremy Hanson-Finger

Jeremy Hanson-Finger-3

Jeremy Hanson-Finger‘s first novel, Death and the Intern, a mystery/black comedy set in the Ottawa Hospital, will be published by Invisible Publishing in April 2017. Born in Victoria, Jeremy co-founded the literary magazine Dragnet while living in Toronto. He now lives in Ottawa. His website is http://hanson-finger.com.

Jeremy told us a little about his upcoming book and his influences in the interview below, ahead of his Sept. 14 visit to Brockton Writers Series.

BWS: Have you ever worked in a hospital, or do you have any medical training/education? What’s it like to write about the technical side of an anesthesiologist’s life?

Jeremy: I’ve never worked in a hospital, but the novel is very much inspired by what I’ve learned about anaesthesiology from my friend Navraj. He was a medical student intern at the time I started writing Death and the Intern and is now a medical resident in Vancouver. The novel started from the premise “Navraj stars in a neurotic Fistful of Dollars set in a hospital”, but the character (Janwar) quickly grew to have a life of his own and the plot moved away from western and toward hard-boiled detective fiction. Navraj and I both loved biology in high school but he continued with it in university on the path towards his MD, and I pursued English and communications instead. As a result, whenever we connected, our lives were so different that things that seemed mundane to him were fascinating to me. When I told him I was writing this novel, he was more than happy to help advise me on what anaesthesiology and surgery were really like and even on drug interactions and dosages.

BWS: One echo a premise about an anesthesiologist might create: T.S. Eliot’s “patient etherized upon a table” (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”). Is it just this intereviewer? Or is there a connection you could draw between that famous image and Death and the Intern? Is there something about such a metaphor that strikes you as especially relevant to our time/our literary moment?

Jeremy:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

I hadn’t thought about that, but now that you mention it there are a ton of parallels between Janwar’s anxiety in Death and the Intern and Prufrock’s feelings of isolation and the burden of his undefined “overwhelming question”.

I read the “evening […] spread out against the sky / Like a patient etherized upon a table” as Prufrock’s conception of his environment—everything outside of his subjective self—pinned in place, star-distant, and immovable. That’s been part of my experience with anxiety, which I gave (cruelly) to Janwar. When I feel really anxious I feel like there are no actors other than myself. Everything else, including people I love, makes up a monolithic terrifying other, and I’m falling into an endless tunnel of stars.

The more I reread “Prufrock”, the more parallels I see. Maybe I should add it to the epigraph. Geez, Janwar’s even got a “bald spot in the middle of his hair” and his “arms and legs are thin.”

BWS: It may be that more attention than ever is being paid to the need for diverse voices in Canadian Literature: the hashtags #ThisIsCanLit and #DiverseCanLit, for example, or the recent, wildly successful Festival of Literary Diversity in Brampton. The opening chapters of Death and the Intern were striking in that the cast of characters was incredibly diverse, which some might say isn’t so common in works by white, cisgendered, male authors. What does it mean to you to write diverse characters?

Jeremy: One reason for the diversity is that in urban Canada there are a lot of professionals of varying backgrounds in hospitals, including first-generation immigrants who worked in medicine in the country they left as well as second-generation immigrants whose parents worked really hard so that their kids could have good careers in Canada. So that part of it is verisimilitude. Another reason is just that I’d rather live in a diverse world, and writing about a diverse world for four years is kind of living in it.

I guess there are at least a couple of ways to write progressively about diversity as a cisgendered white man. One is to take the James Ellroy approach and show a bunch of cisgendered white men saying awful things about and doing awful things to minorities of all kinds, because that’s still a large part of how the world works. The other is to write a world where people of many races and orientations interact and it isn’t a big deal. Like, I love how the premier of Ontario is a homosexual woman and nobody cares about her gender or her sexual orientation; they care about the gas plant fiasco. They take issue with her character and behaviour, not the labels “queer” and “woman” which is a lot more egalitarian and how people should be judged.

I did worry that when I was writing minority characters, I was taking stories that didn’t belong to me, but in the end I feel comfortable with the way I have handled it because I don’t think my characters’ races or orientations define them.

BWS: I had a hunch you couldn’t get through an interview without saying “Ellroy”. But you also wrote your master’s thesis about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. What draws a writer with a literary formation like yours to crime fiction? What have you learned about the genre from Ellroy or other crime fiction masters, and what might writers working in any other genre learn from reading him/them?

Jeremy: I’ve always loved detective fiction. I even turned my walk-in closet in my childhood room into a detective’s office at one point, possibly inspired by this Calvin and Hobbes cartoon:

JHF-Calvin and Hobbes

Whether that’s true or not, I do remember loving that cartoon. I also got the Collected Cases of Dick Tracy out from the library over and over again. I recently bought a copy. I was into other genres too besides mystery—my favourite authors for a long time were Douglas Adams (sci-fi) and Terry Pratchett (fantasy). I didn’t really start reading contemporary lit until Grade 11, when I took a writing class with Terence Young and he introduced me to literary writers like Ann Patchett. So I think I’ve just always brought a genre sensibility to my writing—and specifically crime. It’s fun to play with an existing set of rules that people recognize, because you can break them in interesting ways.

As for James Ellroy, he is amazing at plot and world-building. I believe I read somewhere that the plot notes Ellroy took before writing The Cold Six Thousand were significantly longer than the book itself. Anyone can learn from him in terms of plotting.

What he writes can be labelled “crime fiction,” and you can look at each individual book as having some sort of revelation and resolution, but his major achievement is the way that all of his work fits into the same world.

Ellroy’s books take place in a semi-fictionalized version of history that follows cruel men with cruel dreams throughout L.A. in the 1950s, across America, Cuba, Vietnam, and Haiti in the 1960s, and, in his newest book, L.A. during World War II. Ellroy’s lifelong project fits into the same encyclopedic tradition as Moby Dick and Gravity’s Rainbow—they attempt to document the essence of an era. And it seems like what Ellroy is saying about our era is that every aspect of contemporary America is built on some form of dehumanization (credit for that idea goes to Andrew Battershill).

BWS: Thanks so much for this, Jeremy!

Jeremy Hanson-Finger visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Madhur Anand, Shane Joseph, Phoebe Wang and a special guest talk, “Best Practices for Grant Writing”, by Toronto Arts Council Interim Dance & Literary Officer Natasha Powell.

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BWS 14.09.16: Shane Joseph

Shane Joseph - high res - cropped

Shane Joseph is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories, and was the winner of the best fantasy novel award at the Canadian Christian Writing Awards in 2010. His short fiction has appeared in international literary journals and anthologies. His latest novel, In the Shadow of the Conquistador, was released in November 2015. For details visit www.shanejoseph.com.

Shane dropped by the blog this week with the guest post below. Enjoy!

My Writer’s Story: Different to the One I Imagined

Our times are generating many more writers than demand can bear. This is due to better education, improved health, technology, inflated egos in an age of “me first,” and our eternal quest for immortality. The ambition to be a writer usually begins in our formative years and is inspired by our favourite writers. As a teenager, I was greatly influenced by Graham Greene, John Steinbeck and Hemingway. I dreamt of sending manuscripts out into the world, where they would become best-sellers and make me a reclusive millionaire; I would hide out in some remote island and submit more manuscripts and continue to dazzle the world with my brilliance until I was invited to a cold capital in Europe to accept the Nobel Prize. And I would refuse that honour, making me an enigmatic figure like Jean-Paul Sartre, Boris Pasternak or J.D. Salinger. It was nice to dream!

The reality, even back then, was different. I had chosen to gloss over the private demons my literary heroes had faced in order to achieve their fame: dual lives, alcoholism, drug addiction, persecution, shell-shock (called PTSD today), hypertension, depression, divorce, estrangement, chronic pain, and suicide staring into the barrel of a gun—not forgetting the early struggles with rejection and penury, either. These trials gave impetus to their work and are mentioned only in discreet biographies, not on the glossy covers of their books.

My writer’s story turned out differently to my idealized dream. For instance, I didn’t imagine that after hacking away at this craft in my early twenties in a developing country where English was a second language, and after having a handful of stories published, I would pack up my authorly tools and try something easier to earn a living—Greene, Steinbeck et al, be damned! I never realized that the “other living,” at a corporate job, would come so easily and earn such a handsome income that I wouldn’t bother with the writing game again for another twenty years. I didn’t realize that it would be the curse of “guilt” that would bring me back to reopen the dusty toolbox and start to catch up to the literary world’s evolution in the intervening years.

Once “Take Two” started, however, the stories and novels came easily, and they are likely to continue into the future, health permitting. It was like a dam had burst and all that had been stored for years came gushing out. But the publishing landscape had changed, drastically. Prizes sold books now. And the prize money was cornered among the “1% of the 1%” in the literary hierarchy. There was no middle class in publishing anymore—there was a huge gulf between the self-published and the best-seller, and a huge stroke of luck seemed the only way to bridge it.

But with every closing door, others were opening. There were now many ways in which to be published, I discovered, thanks to evolving technology that had finally disrupted the dominant publishing model of eons, which was: publish a large quantity of paper books on ancient printing presses until unit costs became affordable, ship them across the land in trucks into stores that couldn’t keep track of them, receive most of them back after awhile to be shredded, then start the cycle again and hope like hell that governments or private donors supported this inefficiency in the interest of promoting the arts. My heroes had thrived in this model, but now it was dying, supplanted by DIY publishing, print-on-demand, electronic media, subscriptions services, free story sites, social media, and blogs like the one you are reading. And my heroes were dead too.

I enthusiastically tried all the models available, traditional and new, and discovered that all had their pros and cons. But as their readerships were distinct, this lack of homogeneity helped plaster me all over the map, assuaging my guilt for having neglected “the gift.” There was also no way I could hide out on a remote island, I realized; I had to be front and centre in the global public domain, a.k.a., the Internet (which also didn’t exist in the time of my literary heroes), selling my wares like a shoe salesman. I even started a publishing house, using the new technology, and have helped bring other writers into print, ones who might otherwise have been sitting for years in the slush piles of the Big Five (or is it Four, now—hard to keep track!). The joy of bringing others’ work into the world, watching them at the podium reading from their debut novel at their book’s launch, gives me immense satisfaction. I was doing my bit to restore the middle class in publishing. And I finally faced the darker side, too: the rejection, the shrunken revenue streams, the even further shrunken attention spans, and the need for that other source of income to fuel this one. None of this had been part of my teenage dream.

And so I have accepted that my writer’s story is different from the one I visualized in my youth. Creative visualizers, take note: it doesn’t always turn out the way you paint it in your mind. But it can be a damned sight more interesting and surprising. Why go on a trip where every stopover is carefully laid out, predictable and boring? Where would the thrill of the unexpected lie? Isn’t that what we try to create in our work—the unexpected?

Shane Joseph visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 14, 2016 – full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC) – along with Madhur Anand, Jeremy Hanson-Finger, Phoebe Wang and a special guest talk, “Best Practices for Grant Writing”, by Toronto Arts Council Interim Dance & Literary Officer Natasha Powell.

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Brockton Writers Series 14.09.16

WEDNESDAY, SEPT. 14, 2016 – 6:30pm

Fall into another fantastic literary soirée, featuring readers:

Madhur Anand
Jeremy Hanson-Finger
Shane Joseph
Phoebe Wang

and special guest speaker

Natasha Powell

AT

full of beans Coffee House & Roastery

1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto

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

Accessibility Information
The venue is wheelchair accessible (no step up at door), but washroom facilities are down a flight of stairs. Street parking. Accessible by 505 Dundas streetcar (Lisgar stop). Please contact Farzana Doctor if you need to reserve a seat as the venue can get full.
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

Best Practices in Grant Writing

Natasha Powell Headshot

Natasha Powell is a Toronto-based dancer, choreographer, producer, and the Interim Dance & Literary Officer at the Toronto Arts Council.  A Toronto native, Natasha is a dedicated member of the local performing arts community and has worked for a number of arts organizations including the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, ManifesTO Festival for Community and Culture, Peggy Baker Dance Projects, and Volcano Theatre. As an independent dance artist, Natasha has successfully produced and choreographed shows in the Toronto Fringe Festival, TD Bank’s Then and Now Series, and Harbourfront Centre’s NextSteps series. Most recently she was the Manager of Producing and Administration at the Dance Umbrella of Ontario, working with a number of dance organizations where her portfolio included event producing, marketing, fundraising and communications for companies including Dusk Dances and MOonhORsE Dance Theatre.

READERS


Anand_Madhur_cr_Karen WhylieMadhur Anand
‘s debut collection of poems is A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes (McClelland & Stewart/ Random House Canada, 2015), a finalist for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry. According to Publisher’s Weekly,  “Anand’s attention to and ability to evoke explicit, exponential beauty in scientific and natural form are simply stunning.” Recent work appears The Walrus.

Jeremy Hanson-Finger-3Jeremy Hanson-Finger‘s first novel, Death and the Intern, a mystery/black comedy set in the Ottawa Hospital, will be published by Invisible Publishing in April 2017. Born in Victoria, Jeremy co-founded the literary magazine Dragnet while living in Toronto. He now lives in Ottawa. His website is http://hanson-finger.com.

Shane Joseph - high res
Shane Joseph
is the author of four novels and two collections of short stories, and was the winner of the best fantasy novel award at the Canadian Christian Writing Awards in 2010. His short fiction has appeared in international literary journals and anthologies. His latest novel, In the Shadow of the Conquistador, was released in November 2015. For details visit www.shanejoseph.com.

phoebeonrooftopPhoebe Wang
 writes and teaches in Toronto. She recently edited a supplement issue on the theme of inheritances for The Puritan, and her chapbook, Hanging Exhibits appeared with The Emergency Response Unit this spring. Her debut collection of poetry, Admission Requirements will appear with McClelland and Stewart in Spring 2017.

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