Monthly Archives: December 2016

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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BWS 11.01.17: Danila Botha

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Danila Botha is the author of the novel Too Much on the Inside (Quattro, 2015), which recently won a Book Excellence Award in the Contemporary Novel category, and the short story collections For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known (Tightrope, 2016) and Got No Secrets (Tightrope, 2010). She just started writing a column interviewing writers for The Puritan’s Town Crier. Danila is currently writing a new novel and working on her MFA in Creative Writing through the University of Guelph. She will be teaching at the Humber School for Writers, in the correspondence writing program, this spring. She lives in Toronto with her family.

Danila stopped by the blog this week for an interview ahead of her Jan. 11 visit, and told us, among other things, just how well she came to know at least one man and one woman in her latest book.

BWS: One of the recurring characters For All the Men, Elliot, is revealed to have insomnia, depression, and difficulty with emotions (he “shuts down” when he and his partner, Melanie, have conflict), which are all to some extent a function of having been abused by a parent, as is his subsequent teenage pain-killer addiction – plus, there’s something of a hoarding disorder, too. All in one character! What draws you to characters who are in pain? And is there a limit to how much pain you can inflict on your characters?

Danila: Wow, what an interesting question. Those are really fascinating observations. Initially, when I was writing Elliot, I wasn’t sure what his issues would be, and I tried out a few options before finding ones that suited him and fit with and against the dynamic of the relationship with Melanie. I actually wrote the stories chronologically (first “My Second Family”, then “The Keeper of Your Secrets”, then “Start Being More Independent”), even though they appear in a different order in the collection.

It was important to me that Elliot be capable of coming from a place of compassion and empathy, but because he hadn’t really dealt with his own issues, also be uncomfortable with being in a relationship that involved openness. I thought of him as a very intelligent and sensitive character who was not ready to process the effects of his past.

The nuances of his history (his home life, and the depression he suffered from, for example) and the effect on his choices was so important in terms of his relationship. The tension between his good intentions versus the distant and sometimes cruel way that he treated Melanie, for example, and her own unarticulated needs versus her impatience with him, was so interesting to me.

I always thought, also, that his and Melanie’s issues were actually similar – there was a lot of shame, fear and missed opportunity in both of their lives. What was also similar was both of their inability to really talk about their feelings and needs and expectations beyond their initial confession.

I knew early on that I wanted addictive behavior to be in some way part of the calculus, too – they both wanted to plunge in very quickly into commitment, desperately seeking stability, but actually both being incapable of real intimacy.

I did a lot of research on the issues, and their effects. I’m glad they read as authentic. Hoarding is a really interesting one.

To answer the second part of this question (and I love this question, too), I’m interested, in everything I write, in trying to understand people’s compulsions and feelings, motivations and behaviour. I always want to know how people feel, why they want what they want, why they can be their own biggest obstacle to having it, for example. My goal is to always find new ways of empathizing and understanding people.

I read an interview recently with Lisa Moore where she said: “Character is desire… [and] whatever it is they want… they want it badly. No matter how big or small, they want it with all their might. And that desire is luminous and has made them alive and indelible. It doesn’t matter if… they are worthy of what they want. What matters is if we are caught up in the sweeping spotlight of that desire.” I was so excited, because I thought, yes, that’s exactly where I approach things from, too.

There is a limit. I do actually always wonder how much is too much to put a character through. I try to approach every character (and their relationship dynamics and choices) from a place of compassion, love and empathy. I think about it all the time.

BWS: It would be one thing to tell about Elliot (or Melanie, or any character in any work of fiction) from two different people’s perspectives – say, one “pro” person and one “con”– but two of these stories are in the third person and presumably told by the same narrator. It’s a remarkable reversal. How did you go about constructing the same character twice for two different effects?

Danila: Thank you so much. This question is so great.

As part of my research for this book, aside from reading, I interviewed people about their relationship experiences and histories. What I heard overwhelmingly was, “I got involved with someone who seemed to be [attentive, loving, etc.], but then they hurt me [in varying terrible ways] and now I can’t figure out, [or, now I really don’t know] which part of them or my experience and perception is real.”

That confusion, and that fear of deception and inability to trust one’s one instincts after the fact is totally understandable, but I thought: there must a way that people can feel conflicting emotions, and maybe both are appropriate. Maybe someone can be deeply loving, is capable of being patient, generous and kind, and that can be true, and they can also be distant, and cruel and cause great pain, and that also can be accurate.

So I became consumed with wanting to write the story in two parts. I wanted to write the falling in love part as romantically and as bursting-with-hope as possible, and I wanted to write the falling out part with all the devastation one can imagine – but also with the reasons why on both sides. I really wanted readers to feel for both characters, and to understand the limitations of not fully processing or dealing with one’s issues, for example.

I hope that by writing “The Keeper of Your Secrets” in the second person, I set up the romantic feelings in a universal enough way that they can apply to a lot of early relationships. The second person can provide an interesting amount of both intimacy and distance. And initially, “Start Being More Independent” was written in the first person (I actually tried writing it from both characters’ points of view) before landing on the third person, which let me switch between them.

The main goal was to humanize both Elliot and Melanie, to make their actions and motivations, and the dynamic between them seem as realistic and relatable as possible.

BWS: Many of your stories shatter expectations just shy of their endings, often in a single “gut-punch” sentence or paragraph. When you’re writing toward this moment in a story, how do you know when to take that swing?

Danila: I love this question, too. The “gut punch” is a great term. I usually know it before I write the story. I often write that last paragraph first and then build the story around it. Or I write the early paragraphs and then before I’ve written the middle, before I know how to get there, I have the line, or paragraph that ends it all.

It often gets fixed to be even more impactful through drafts or in the editing process. It’s my favourite to write, I have to say: that moment of emotional impact, of revelation or realization is usually the most fun to write (and I really love writing short stories in general).

BWS: On that note: between your first collection, Got No Secrets, and this one, you wrote a novel (Too Much on the Inside). Did you learn anything from the longer form that changed the way you write short stories?

Danila: I’m finishing a new novel right now, but every time I get a break, or hit some kind of wall, I go back to the new short story collection I’m also working on. I absolutely love writing short stories. I love the specificity and the economy of the form. I love reading short stories, too.

I find everything about the form completely a pleasure and a joy.

The thing I realized, especially with Too Much on the Inside, is that you have room to write a lot of backstory and go into a lot of depth and detail that you just don’t have room for in a short story. I learned not to be afraid of seemingly irrelevant details – you never know when knowing something about a character that seems small could be useful in the story later.

Thank you so much for these wonderful questions! I’m so looking forward to reading at Brockton.

BWS: Thank you, Danila! We can’t wait.

Danila Botha 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 John Calabro, Soraya Peerbaye, Dane Swan and a special guest speaker!

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We have a big announcement!

Over the last few months, the BWS volunteers have been discussing the need for us to have an accessible venue (this was prompted by feedback from Dorothy Palmer—thanks Dorothy!). While we love being at Full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, we also feel that it’s necessary for us to be at a venue that has an accessible washroom.

We searched the Brockton neighbourhood, but had trouble finding a place that met our requirements. When Glad Day Bookshop opened their new, fully accessible location at 499 Church Street, we approached Michael Erickson (who has been BWS’s bookseller for the last year) to see if they could accommodate us. And so…we’re moving!

We’d like to express our gratitude to Lori Nytko and her staff at Full of beans for their wonderful support over the last few years. We’ll miss the Brockton neighbourhood, where we started 7 years ago, but we are looking forward to this change. Glad Day is a wonderful indie bookstore, bar, coffee shop and event venue. We hope that our community of friends will enjoy it too, and we can’t wait to welcome you on January 11.

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Brockton Writers Series 11.01.17

WEDNESDAY, JAN. 11, 2017 – 6:30pm

Brockton Writers Series rings in another amazing year! Join us for readings by:

Danila Botha
John Calabro
Soraya Peerbaye
Dane Swan

and special guest speaker

Jack Illingworth

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.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.

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

GUEST SPEAKER

“Changes to the Ontario Arts Council
Grants for Writers”

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Jack Illingworth is the Literature Officer for the Ontario Arts Council. He has previously worked with a number of book publishers, magazines, and literary organizations, most recently the Literary Press Group of Canada.

READERS

img_8307Danila Botha is the author of the novel Too Much on the Inside (Quattro, 2015), which recently won a Book Excellence Award for Contemporary Novel, and the short story collections For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known (Tightrope, 2016) and Got No Secrets (Tightrope, 2010). She just started writing a column interviewing writers for the Puritan’s Town Crier. Danila is currently writing a new novel and working on her MFA in Creative Writing through the University of Guelph. She will be teaching at the Humber School for Writers, in the correspondence writing program this spring. Danila lives in Toronto with her family.

john-calabro-photoJohn Calabro is a fiction writer. His novella, Bellecour, published in 2005 was named by the Globe and Mail as one of the top 5 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.

soraya_guenther-1Soraya 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.

dsc00426Dane 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.

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