Author Archives: all words on me

BWS 11.03.20: Nora Gold

Nora Gold - photo (in Jpeg) (392 x 339) (69.5 KB)

Nora Gold is a prize-winning author, an activist, and the editor of the prestigious online literary journal, JewishFiction.net. Her three fiction books have been highly praised, including by Alice Munro, and have won two Canadian Jewish Book Awards. Gold’s also the creator and coordinator of Toronto’s Wonderful Women Writers Series.

 

The book I’ll be reading from on March 11 at Brockton is my latest novel, The Dead Man. Its main character, Eve, is a composer of sacred music and a music therapist who is obsessed with her ex-lover, a world-famous music critic named Jake. Eve, generally a sensible and intelligent woman, for some reason cannot recover from this brief relationship. The mystery at the heart of this novel is, Why?

When I began writing this novel, I was acutely conscious of the many books, films, and plays on the theme of a woman who can’t get over a man,” and also how, in popular culture (like Harlequin romances), theres often the tacit assumption that there is something almost natural about these women’s stuckness. The thinking goes: A woman requires a man to be an acceptable and valid human being, so of course a woman would make desperate efforts to gain, or regain, a man. This is not my perspective at all – either in life or in this novel. I decided, in The Dead Man, to explore Eve and her struggle through a feminist lens. I also made Eve herself a feminist, someone who considers her obsession with Jake to be not only unnatural and unhealthy but also (because shes a feminist) embarrassing. In contrast to the stereotypical portrayals of women who can’t move on after a relationship, Eve is a complex and introspective character who is analytical about her situation. Determined to overcome her obsession, she often studies herself closely. The opening sentences of this novel are classic Eve:

“She’s never been obsessed before. This is her first time and it’s kind of interesting. It’s like watching some psychopath in a movie, stalking someone, plotting to kill them, except that the psychopath is her.”

So part of The Dead Man is the profound tension between one’s mind (which is rational and ideological) and one’s heart (which has an inner logic all its own). Something I think all of us have experienced at some point or another.

Here, to illustrate this dichotomy between what Eve knows intellectually and what she feels, is an excerpt from near the beginning of the book. Eve is sitting on a plane that has just started its descent into Israel, where she and Jake first fell in love and where Jake still lives. She has spent the past ninety minutes thinking non-stop about him and talking to him in her head, as she has been doing for the past five and a half years (ever since their relationship ended) – a habit she is trying hard to break. It is just a habit, though. It is clear from her thoughts over the past hour and a half that she understands perfectly that she will never again see Jake. Their relationship is over. He’ll never call or write to her again.

The Dead Man 

The pilot’s voice booms over the loudspeaker: “This is your captain speaking. We are now beginning our descent into Israel. Please place all your hand luggage below the seat in front of you, switch off all electronic devices, and fasten your seat belts.”

She obeys. But as she is shoving her carry-on under the seat in front of her, some of those phrases return that she’s been thinking for the past ninety minutes.

I don’t love you anymore. I don’t. I haven’t loved you for years.

Then: Do you love me?

There’s a pause.

No. Of course you don’t. You don’t care if I’m alive or dead.

She straightens up in her seat and looks out the window: blackness dotted with yellow lights.

Not You don’t care, she corrects herself: He. He doesn’t care. Third person. Stop talking to him like he’s still your eternal I-Thou after all this time. It’s been five and a half years.

The plane plummets and she feels her stomach plummet, too. She clutches both armrests, her eyes shut tight. The plane drops again; it feels like it’s diving, and she thinks she is going to vomit. Then the plane steadies itself. She opens her eyes. Gradually her stomach settles down. This thing with Jake, apart from everything else, is embarrassing. First of all because of its banality. The powerful older man at the peak of his career, and the young woman just starting out as a musician (or anyway the younger woman – fifty to his sixty-five). It’s such a cliché. Secondly, it’s embarrassing because she can’t get over it. She’s not a fool. She knew from the beginning that this relationship couldn’t last. But even so, here she is, stuck in this state, and unable to move forward. It doesn’t make any sense that she should be so fucked-up over what was, after all, just a five-month affair. She wasn’t like this even after Brian died, and he was her husband and she’d loved him for over fifteen years. She did suffer terribly at first after Brian’s death, but then she quickly recovered. She had no choice, in a way, ten years ago: Michael was ten and Ethan was eight; she couldn’t just fall apart. Yet here it is five and a half years since she and Jake parted ways, and she’s still obsessed with him day and night. There’s something here she doesn’t understand. Some mystery she can’t solve.

Now the plane lands in a series of three rough bumps. Loud clapping erupts. Right. Israelis always clap whenever a plane lands. Celebrating survival implicitly reminding you of all the possible disasters you have just narrowly escaped. The plane is still coasting along the runway, but already people are standing up, taking down coats and parcels from overhead compartments, phoning relatives and friends to say they’ve arrived, and squinting at hand-held devices to check their email. Good idea, thinks Eve. I should see what I’ve missed while up in the air. Probably ten or fifteen emails. Still sitting in her seat (practically the only person on the plane not yet standing up), she turns on her phone. Maybe, she thinks, I’ll have an email from Jake.

 

* Here is a podcast of my most recent interview about The Dead Man, in conversation with the New Books Network in Chicago.

** There is a special sale on now for The Dead Man, with a 40% discount (until March 31) in honour of International Women’s Day. You can purchase The Dead Man here using the coupon code iwd2020.

 

Nora Gold visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Armand Garnet Ruffo, Cristina Rizzuto, Anuja Varghese, and guest speaker Marina Ferreira, who will give us tips on “How to Independently Publish your Book Using Kobo Writing Life.”

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BWS 11.03.20: Anuja Varghese

Anuja Headshot

Anuja Varghese is a Pushcart-nominated QWOC writer based in Hamilton, ON. Her work appears in The Malahat Review, Humber Literary Review, Corvid Queen: A Journal of Feminist Folklore & Fairy Tales, Dirty Girls Magazine, Hamilton Review of Books and others. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Pigeon Pages Fiction Contest and took third prize in the Alice Munro Festival Short Story Competition. Anuja holds a degree in English Literature from McGill University and is currently pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate from the University of Toronto while working on a collection of short stories. She can be found on Instagram (@anuja_v) and Twitter (@Anuja_V) or by visiting her website www.anujavarghese.com.

 

Ahead of her appearance at our next event on March 11, Anuja shares an excerpt from her short story “A Very Small Woman & A Silver Looking Glass.” This piece was first published in Corvid Queen: A Journal of Feminist Fairy Tales, Folklore & Myths in May 2019. Click here to see Anuja’s reading.

About this piece, Anuja says, “This was a departure from the fiction I usually write which tends to be based in realistic, contemporary settings. Even though I have always been drawn to fantasy and fairy tale, and there are the occasional elements of magical realism in my work, the collection I’m currently working on is very much set in realworld Toronto. This piece sort of poured out in response to a writing prompt at a workshop I attended, and instead of shutting it down because it wasn’t what I had planned to write, I followed the thread and ended up knitting together something I really love.”

Want to read the whole story? Find it here!

Last fall, Anuja spoke to Kelsie Tan at The Malahat Review about the value of writing workshops and other learning opportunities outside of the university setting. Here, she shares an excerpt from that interview.

Kelsie: You hold a BA in English Literature from McGill University and you’re currently pursuing Creative Writing at the University of Toronto. How has your educational journey shaped your current writing interests?

Anuja: When I came out of McGill, I could write the hell out of a critical essay on Chaucer, but I had become extremely self-conscious of writing creatively. As a young Anglophone woman of colour, either I wasn’t ready for the Montreal literary scene, or it wasn’t ready for me. That being said, I still have great affection for the city and I’m sure things have changed considerably since I was at McGill. More than my academic pursuits, it was my experience of the city itself and the relationships I developed during my time there that have most directly shaped my current writing.

My day job in the non-profit sector has always required me to write, but it wasn’t until I moved to Toronto that the ideas for the collection I’m currently working on started to percolate. And it was almost a full decade later, after moving to Hamilton, that I actually started writing it! Between the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto, where I have found wonderful, supportive instructors like Grace O’Connell, and the wider, diverse community of Toronto writers and literary events, I still feel connected to Toronto in many ways and am so grateful for the learning opportunities that the city continues to offer.

I also recognize that universities are privileged spaces and that there is much to be learned from perspectives and experiences outside of academia. In Hamilton, I have discovered a thriving literary community, and whether through festivals like gritLIT or groups like Jaclyn Desforges’ writing workshops, there are a great many meaningful ways to continue my education outside of a school setting. As I continue growing as a writer and a mother and a feminist and a human, my hope is that my personal journey and my educational journey will work in tandem to reveal the stories I need to tell and help me hone the voice in which I can make them heard.

For more of this interview, click here

A note from Anuja: I’m so excited to return to Glad Day Bookshop for the March 2020 Brockton Writers Reading Series event! I will be reading from her short story “Bhupati” which took third place in the 2019 Alice Munro Short Story Festival Competition. It’s a story about good intentions, bad weather, and a marriage (literally) going down in flames. I hope to see you there!

 

Anuja Varghese visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Armand Garnet Ruffo, Cristina Rizzuto, Nora Gold, and guest speaker Marina Ferreira, who will give us tips on “How to Independently Publish your Book Using Kobo Writing Life.”

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BWS 11.03.20: Cristina Rizzuto

CR

Cristina Rizzuto is the author of poetry collection, The Music Makers (Blaurock Press, 2012). Writing credits include The Florentine; Lantern Magazine; Ottawa Arts Review; Wattpad; Best Ultra Short Poems, an anthology published by the Ontario Poetry Society; Love, Anonymous, an anthology published by CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts); Dragnet Magazine; FEMMELDEHYDE; and CBC Canada Writes. For more information, visit www.crisrizz.com.

 

Cristina shares an excerpt from her short story The Elegant Complexity of Oranges.

“Did you like Toronto when you first arrived here?”
“Never,” she replies in her broken English, the r trilled. “I like nothing when I come here. The people, the food, the cold, the city…veramente niente.”

Veramente niente. Truly nothing.
“Nothing?”
“Nothing,” she repeats quietly, looking away.

Her face sags, wrinkles delicately folding into one another. The corners of her mouth curve downwards, two parallel roads that break apart at the chin, splitting into thousands of purple capillary rivers and alleyways, snaking downwards to her neck, her chest, her failing heart.

“I never like it, and I never will. I miss my life, my friends. My house. My Italy.”
My grandmother can’t speak English in the past or future tenses, only present. I wonder for a second if she meant that she missed Italy, or that she still does. If it matters.

I nod after she says this, slowly twirling an overly-ripe orange around in my hands, prodding and caressing its scaly skin, searching for a soft spot to peel into. An unassuming fruit of tricky, elegant complexity, oranges are wrought together by a diaphanous network of gooey, satisfying pulp. If you aren’t careful, you’ll end up tediously tearing out chunks, one at a time, the coarse rind sinking under your fingernails. It’s never the same. But with patience, the whole thing unwraps in one long, elaborate motion, beautifully.

Every Sunday, I visit my grandmother. We drink espresso and eat fresh fruits, soft cheese, hard homemade bread studded with black olives, and hot pickled vegetables soaked in olive oil, everything garnished with sea salt, garlic, cracked pepper, oregano. This is how my nonna Franca’s tiny fifth-floor apartment smells on Sundays, like garlic and oily red peppers. Her tongue clucks in disapproval when I decline the plate of prosciutto that she offers me, reminding her that I’m a vegetarian. Delicately, she lowers a thin, curly slice of pink flesh into her mouth, licking salt and a plump white string of fat from her lips.

“Come, Cristina. We sit outside on the balcony, no? It’s a beautiful day,” she says, approaching the heavy glass sliding door.

“Here, let me help you,” I say, quickly getting up.

“No, no! I do it,” she grunts, swatting my arm away. “Get the cheese.”

She opens the door.

My grandmother’s balcony overlooks rows upon rows of other balconies decorated with makeshift laundry lines, potted flowers, and old Christmas lights. She lives in an apartment building with mostly elderly Italian-Canadians, others whose families have long since grown and left them. It’s not a seniors’ home by definition, but they somehow managed to find each other and make this place their own, in the same way that they made Toronto home after the war.

I excuse myself to go to the bathroom, passing her room on the way. A photograph of her five children adorns the back wall, next to an imposing, heavy wooden rosary. Her bedside table has been fashioned into a makeshift shrine. Tiny dust particles collect on a painting of the Mother Mary in her long blue gown, a golden halo around her head. My grandfather’s young, handsome face flickers in the soft red candlelight, his war medals shining on his chest.

A memory stands out in my mind, fleetingly, of my grandmother calling me into her bedroom one night, as a child, to teach me the words to her song: Ave Maria, piena di grazia, Il Signore è con te…Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.

I still remember the words, even after my eventual falling out with faith.

When I return to the table, she pulls a circular loaf of bread out of a brown paper bag and begins to methodically slice it, her thick, knobbly fingers, tightly strung with about ten heavy gold rings, shaking slightly. A small glass of limoncello, a strong lemon liqueur, sweats in the sun beside a nearly empty pack of Marlboro cigarettes. A single cigarette stub still burns in the ashtray. She picks it up and inhales deeply, closing her eyes. She sucks in her cheeks, until her face looks weirdly skeletal.

“Always I am bored here. Look,” she continues, gesturing to the subdivision of homes nearby. She pokes a cloud with her index finger. “Everything is flat. And all the houses, they are the same. There is no colour, no personality. Who are these houses? Nobody.”

I say nothing for a moment, saddened by this thought, that someone could live for over forty years in a country eternally unhappy, disconnected.

“Tell me about your first few years here.”
“No, no,” she sighs, shaking her head, with a sigh of resignation. “Nothing to say. This is your grandfather, his wish. Back then, what choice do I have? I don’t like to talk about this. Basta.”

Basta. Enough.

It’s easy for my grandmother to talk to me about Italy, to divulge all of her stories. I know how she secretly smoked cigarettes with her girlfriends by Castello Manforte, the night sky broken by the Matese mountains; how she would put on garish red lipstick and dangly earrings and long necklaces once she was out of the house; how she skipped school for a week to play soccer with her friends; how she stole her brother’s motorcycle to go for rides; how she met my grandfather before the war, and fell in love. How she chopped off her long black hair at eighteen years old, telling the hairdresser to make her look “like Sofia Loren”. Her father, my great-grandfather, was so angry that he punished her with laborious yard work, and she had to wear a hat in his presence. Whenever nonna tells this story, at the “like Sofia Loren” part, she slides her hands under her breasts to push them up and down alternately, like a juggling ringmaster, singing and swaying. And while she talks, I feel a strange feeling come over me, this inexplicable sense of nostalgia for a time I have never even known.

 

Cristina Rizzuto visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Armand Garnet Ruffo, Anuja Varghese, Nora Gold, and guest speaker Marina Ferreira, who will give us tips on “How to Independently Publish your Book Using Kobo Writing Life.”

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BWS 11.03.20: Armand Garnet Ruffo

Ruffo reading by Pearl Pirie_3 (1)

Armand Garnet Ruffo is a member of the Chapleau Fox Lake First Nation in northern Ontario.  He is recognized as a major contributor to both contemporary Indigenous literature and Indigenous scholarship in Canada. His books include Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird, a finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award in 2015, and Treaty #, a finalist in 2019. 

Ahead of his appearance at our next event on March 11, Armand shares some of his recent works which include a musical, an excerpt from his book Treaty #, and an interview from What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation.

Sounding Thunder – The Song of Francis Pegahmagabow

A musical based on the life of Francis Pegahamagabow, a member of the Wasauksing First Nation near Parry Sound, Ontario, who served with the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Belgium and France for nearly the entire duration of the First World War. As a sniper, who lived through some of the most horrific battles of the war, and saw trench warfare, he earned three decorations for bravery and was highly regarded by the Canadian military. Physically and emotionally scarred he returned to his home on Parry Island after the war and soon began to organize politically.

Story by Armand Garnet Ruffo Music by Tim Corlis with co-compositional contributions by Jody Baker and Jennifer Kreisberg. Written in consultation with Dr. Brian McInnis, great-great grandson of Francis Pegahmagabow. Click here to see the trailer.

 

Below is an excerpt from Treaty # (Wolsak & Wynn, 2019), poetry, finalist for a 2019 Governor General’s Literary Award.

“A treaty is a contract. A treaty is enduring. A treaty is an act of faith.”

 

On The Day The World Begins Again

On the day the world begins again

will it be the strongest animal

the swiftest bird

or the tiniest insect

that carries the news to humankind

announces rebirth in a roar

in a squeak, or maybe in silence?

On the day the world begins again

will luminous light

rise from parting clouds

in unquestionable power

and refract a miraculous prism of colour

              while the tallest white pine announces peace

and in a sprinkling of communion?

On the day the world begins again

will those suspended behind bars

in and between grey ugliness

in their deadened shouts of protest

float beyond their circle of cigarette burns

and crude tattoos,

beyond their sharp thoughts of where

they are and wish they were?

On the day the world begins again

will their re/imagined selves

the shape of thought

the shape of prayer

bend like molten steel

in the fire at the centre of the human heart

Will they rise beyond themselves

and find their way home

On the day the world begins again

will the cages open for them?

 

Poetry, Place, and Indigenous Identity

Armand Garnet Ruffo and Liz Howard discuss poetry, place and Indigenous Identity.

Excerpted from What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation, edited by Rob Taylor. Copyright © 2018. Reprinted by permission of Nightwood Editions

Screenshot_20200212-154731_Word

St. John’s Residential School graveyard, Chapleau, On

Liz Howard: As a way of beginning, I want to acknowledge our shared connection of place. We both grew up in the small town of Chapleau, Ontario, a former fur-trading outpost tucked just inside the Arctic watershed. It is a very complicated place: geographically isolated with anglophone, francophone, and First Nations communities and also an often-ignored residential-school past. It always seemed to me a pretty unlikely place to have produced a poet, let alone two. I want to tell the story of how I’m pretty sure I first came across your work, again in such an unlikely place: on the Toronto subway. At the time, I was a psychology student and had been writing poetry in secret for years, and one day on my way to class, I saw a poem in place of what would have been an ad in the subway car I was riding.

The Fallout
Armand Garnet Ruffo

I never asked my auntie what she learned
in Residential School. What comes to mind
is her beading and sewing, the moccasins
she made for us, the precision.
What I don’t recall are any hugs or kisses
like my European relatives lavished on us.
As though the heirs of Columbus has a special
claim to affection for those like us
caught in between.

Even more surprising was the bio beneath it that told me the poem was written by an Armand Garnet Ruffo, a poet of Ojibwe descent originally from Chapleau, Ontario. I was absolutely stunned. I, of course, immediately looked up your work after class and was thrilled to get to finally meet you years later. 

I tell this story by way of opening up a conversation around how our poetics are tied to place and the different ways we have used them to explore complicated identity. For example, in this poem that appeared on the TTC, taken from your book At Geronimo’s Grave (2001), you speak directly of family members on both sides of your family, European and First Nations, and reference that your auntie attended residential school. In my own writing, my First Nations heritage always emerged as a troubled, occluded, coded presence very much as it was in life, as I was estranged from that side of my family. Did you always write about family and/or “identity,” “Nativeness,” or “mixedness” in poetry? Is it something that always came through your work, something you sought to explore through the medium, or was it something that was born out of your poetic practice itself? Can you talk about how the medium and subject came about for you and how it has evolved?

Armand Garnet Ruffo: First, I need to say that I’m equally thrilled to meet another poet from Chapleau—an award-winning one at that. I suppose the best way to begin is to point out that we are a generation apart. To put it another way, I could be your father. I say this because growing up in the sixties and coming of age in the seventies, there were still a lot of Indigenous people around who spoke their language and literally lived in the bush. For example, when I was about twelve, I started working for a Cree outfitter who hosted American tourists at the camps he had built on a few lakes near Chapleau. All the other guides who worked for him were older than me, and though some of them likely went to the St. John’s Residential School in Chapleau and experienced trauma (nobody talked about it), to me they seemed secure in their identities. And, since I was at an impressionable age, this experience had a profound effect on me. I also need to point out that my own grandmother spoke Ojibwemowin as did my mother, though not as fluently. My grandmother—Wawatasie—was also our family historian, and the one who told me about our family and Grey Owl in and around Biscotasing, hence my book about him. And, of course, I can’t forget my auntie who made us new moccasins every year. Although I didn’t have an intimate relationship with my white father, what I can say about him is that he began his working life as a bush guide and later got a job on the CPR when he started to raise a family (not with my mother). To give you a sense of the times, he was raised in Mettagama, a village that doesn’t even exist any longer, and started working on steam engines! When I look back on my early years, it is clear to me that the land—the boreal forest, hunting, fishing, and guiding—was all central to my life and shaped who I am today.

As for poetry itself, in my formative years in Chapleau, I didn’t have any Indigenous literary models, as there were precious few Indigenous writers getting published at the time. In fact, the only living poet I knew was Leonard Cohen, because my sister had gone south to study nursing and brought back his first album, Songs of Leonard Cohen, which eventually led me to his books. Aside from him, my models were singer-songwriters like Johnny Cash, Gordon Lightfoot, and Bob Dylan. When I started writing a little in high school, I naturally gravitated to their work. Then in the seventies, I attended York University, and one weekend, I went to visit my grandmother who was living with an aunt in Toronto. I can’t recall exactly how it happened, but my grandmother and I started to talk about poetry—maybe she asked me about my classes—and she recited some of her poetry to me. Yes, recited! While her poems were very much in the style of Pauline Johnson, a form that I couldn’t appreciate, I was blown away by the content. I still recall one of her poems, which begins with “Lost am I in my Native Land.” Something clicked, and from that moment I had my material: I started to write about my life in the north and explored my Indigenous roots, which led to my first book, Opening in the Sky, the title coming from the English translation of my great-great-grandfather’s name. 

As for the specific poem you saw on the Toronto subway, one thing I remember about my grandmother and aunties is how little physical contact there was between us. Certainly they showed their affection in other ways, like making me moccasins, but for whatever reason—sociologists, among others, now trace it to residential school and colonization—they rarely expressed emotion. This was very different from my father’s family. I guess the poem arises then from both experience and observation. In referring to the heirs of Columbus, I’m referencing my European relatives and, of course, the claiming of the land and colonization in general.

As for how my subject matter has “evolved,” I think it’s become more expansive and complicated as I’ve experienced more and have come under various artistic and personal influences. That said, I think the themes have remained much the same. I’m still writing about colonization and its repercussions, identity, relationships, nature, language, et cetera, but it’s how I’m saying these things that continues to evolve. I’m thinking of The Thunderbird Poems, which includes elements of Ojibwe ontology—spirituality, the mythic. When I was in my twenties, Wilfred Peltier, an Odawa “wiseman”—he didn’t use the term elder—told me that you cannot be half of anything. Even if you are mixed blood, uprooted or whatever, you have to be a whole human being, and I suppose that’s what I’ve strived to be both in my writing and in my life. I think one of the things people need to realize is that in Indigenous culture—at least in Ojibwe—it is the women who pass on culture to the children, especially in the early years, and I happened to grow up with some strong Ojibwe women (Anishinaabekwe), meaning that they survived against incredible odds, and so I guess that’s where my writing (mostly) comes from.

Howard: I think it is crucial to point out as you have that we are a generation apart because I feel, or at least I’ve come to know it to be the case in my own experience, that so much can happen in one generation, especially since our work is connected in its drawing upon this tension between a so-called dominant culture and one that is under the threat of erasure or assimilation. Within a generation, so much can be lost. It is so moving for me to hear you speak of growing up with these Indigenous role models: in the outfitter men you worked for and also your own grandmother who spoke the language. It has always been a source of sadness and difficulty for me (but also a part of my own journey of discovering who I am and who my relations are) that I was completely estranged from my father’s side of the family. It is through his mother’s family that I have my most direct Ojibwe ancestry. She spoke the language and was raised in the culture. Her mother and father came from Atikameksheng Anishnawbek (formerly Whitefish Lake First Nation) just outside of Sudbury, Ontario. My father unfortunately suffered badly from substance-abuse issues and was actually a missing person for years. 

As an aside, I almost started crying when you said (just as fact of age difference, I know) that you could be my father. I just got back from this whirlwind Maritime tour. I spent the first night in Halifax during an intense nor’easter. My father ended up in Halifax at the end of his life as a bottle picker. He surfaced when his liver started failing and had to reach out to family to get documents for a health card. My aunt eventually reached out to me when he was dying, and I flew out there in January of 2015. I think he held on for me because he only lasted about twenty minutes after I arrived at the hospital. That was the first and last time I ever met him. I was stuck there a week in storms helping my aunt arrange things afterward. It was so strange because technically I was next of kin, so was asked all the questions (what prayers at the funeral, where to cast ashes, et cetera) but had never met the man. His partner eventually gave me his effects, papers and the like, that told his story. He’d tried to get help, get clean. He had pictures of me and family-payment statements he’d kept pristine. He just couldn’t shake drinking, and it killed him at fifty-one. 

When I started writing emotionally propulsive poetry as a young person, I found myself addressing my father, my grandmother, my ancestors. Somehow, it was a natural conduit for me. When I moved to the city, I used to study the faces of every man begging on the street to see if I could recognize something of myself in him, to see if he was my father. It wasn’t until years later, through my own research, that I learned about the sacred rite of the shaking tent. How it was used as a vehicle of prophesy or communication at a distance. I realized I had been using poetry in the same way. To try and reach my father, my relatives. 

Have you ever had an experience of the sacred in your writing? Or perhaps you can talk about writing through the shamanic works of Norval Morrisseau and not only writing a biography about him but also writing poems in response to his paintings?

Ruffo: Sorry for making you cry. What I find interesting is how much our poetry is linked, whether directly or indirectly, to our Indigenous heritage and our connection to place. In other words, we cannot talk about our work separated from our life experience. I was recently reading about Elizabeth Bishop, and learned that she drank heavily all her life and had been separated from her Nova Scotian grandparents, whom she apparently loved dearly, at an early age. I’m mentioning this because from her poetry you would never know it. And yet, while she was writing her observational kind of poetry, a whole school of confessional style poetry came into prominence. In fact, Robert Lowell, one of the foremost proponents of confessional poetry, was a friend of Bishop’s. There we have it, the impact of the confessional and yet the urge to do something else: to move either behind language or deep into the mechanics of it. This is something that Indigenous poets are not immune to. For example, would I be wrong to say that in Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent you bury—is that the correct word?—much of what you said about your father and your relationship to your mixed heritage within a kind of labyrinthine language fixed in science? In contrast to direct confessional poetry, there’s usually something else going on in your work that deviates from stating things directly. A poem like “Thinktent” comes to mind. There’s just so many references moving tangentially outward from direct familial, Indigenous experience.

While you mention that you were using the poetry in that collection to try to reach your father, I wonder if you were actually writing for your father. It seems to me the kind of poetic incantation you conceptualize is extremely personal in its concern for language and Western epistemology. That those Canadian poets who foreground linguistic and textual process over content, language over experience, received your book so enthusiastically speaks volumes about the tension that exists in contemporary poetry. Like I said, this tension also exists in the work of Indigenous poets, more so now than ever before, but because of our political reality, it’s just not as pervasive. In fact, it seems to me the Indigenous poets concerned about this kind of thing try to combine these disparate strands. The poets working with Indigenous languages come to mind here. I would go so far as to say that the scientific language you choose intentionally complicates direct experience, probably because the experiences you write about are so painful for you and because you find yourself “outside of the shaking tent looking in.” Is that a fair assessment?

As for my biography Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing into Thunderbird, I initially assumed it would be completely prose, but as I got into his life and art, I found that poems started to appear, and I just let them come. A tap had been opened, and the few poems in the biography grew into a book of their own, The Thunderbird Poems. I realized in the process that poetry can handle things that prose can’t, or at least, poetry can do it much more succinctly. It was then that I started to think of the form of the poetry I was writing, and I knew that I wanted it to engage with a particular kind of experience; it had to be grounded in the world of the Anishinaabek Manidoog or Manitous.

I was concerned about employing the world of shamanism in the work because that was Norval’s world, and he always said that his paintings came directly out of it. (Norval’s grandfather Potan Nanakonagos was a shaman and his greatest influence.) I was also leaning toward direct confession because Norval himself had told me “not to leave anything out.” Furthermore, because Norval believed his art had the power to guide Indigenous people back to our traditions, I wanted Indigenous people to be the first audience, above all, to identify with the work. So while the tension between observation and confession is there, the majority of the poems are grounded in narrative, which serves to anchor them in a particular Anishinaabek experience and meaning. 

All this makes me wonder about the responsibility and the role of poets, Indigenous poets in particular. Can we as literary artists do our own thing above all else, or are we compelled by our histories and reality as colonized peoples? To put this another way, are we writing for the children who were beaten and starved to death in the residential schools? I’m thinking here of the tiny graves hidden in the bush near the old St. John’s Residential School in Chapleau. Is writing as artists with no responsibility but to ourselves and our art a luxury we can afford?

Howard: Your response is sending me off into so many possible nodes that I want to explore and that I feel are all equally necessary, valid, and interesting, and that is exactly the point, really, of the concatenating, transgressive, paradoxical excess you speak of in my work. What can come off as a burying, concealment, occlusion is really an attempt to render on the page what is happening in my mind. My ultimate confession, as you have got so right, is a disaster of language as a result of trauma. There is the fear of revealing too much. There is the fear of not getting it right. There is the fear of it not really being my right to speak, even if it is my own experience. 

The poems in Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent were for the most part composed in 2010–2014, and during that time, what I knew of my Indigenous heritage was conveyed to me by my mother, who I love and respect dearly but who has suffered from mental-health issues and has therefore been very much the unreliable narrator of my life. Growing up as I did (experiencing abuse as a young adult while writing and also working through depression, anxiety, PTSD, as well as substance issues), there was very much for me an issue of not trusting my own mind, my own narrative, and my own stories enough to tell them “straight.” When I was writing my book, the chaos I was feeling in my mind, my soul, and my emotions came through in the language I was using. Just as the land is contaminated by industry, so too, in a way, is my own “story” “contaminated” by Western ideology, right? All these complications are pulled through the book. If you read and reread the book, you will see the larger themes start to come into relief, stories pop out. I think my future work will be largely more “accessible” in style. But I loved experimenting in this way. It felt true to me. To how I was feeling at the time. There was, as you said, a sense of being outside the tent. But I also identified with the figure of Mikanaak (or Mikkinnuk as you write it in The Thunderbird Poems), the turtle spirit in the tent. The one who receives Manidoog knowledge in their disparate languages and translates them into Anishinaabemowin for the conjuror of the tent rite, as I came to understand it in my research. Sometimes one doesn’t always get the translation right, you know what I mean? 

When I was allowing myself to attune to the paradoxical linguistic crosscurrents in my mind I caught and translated onto the page what I found there. Sometimes, it was a story from my childhood I felt brave enough to share. Sometimes, it was a bit of the Ojibway language I taught myself, a reference to a Nanabush story or a memory of being blessed by an elder in Chapleau. Other times, it was an anatomical term or philosophical theory I learned in university, big words I learned in books, stories I heard of the things people did to hurt each other or to help each other, things that made me laugh. All of it toward a kind of prophesy, a question I asked myself: Am I worth it to continue? Are my people out there? Am I alone in this?

Of course, everything was different when I wrote the elegy for my father. That was after I met him for the first and last time. That was the answer to the big question. Seeing my father, there was no question what my ancestry was, although I know it’s not the same as having a community that recognizes you. But I met my aunty too, and she told me the family story. A veil was lifted. In grief, there is just the force of the immediate over and over and over. And I think that’s what comes through in my poem. It’s been the most impactful thing I’ve written. It’s the thing that scared me the most to share, because it’s so close to me. So I’ve become more open to writing in this way. It still scares me. I truly think there’s room for both ways, the chaos and the personal. That’s what I identify with. 

And so, as you have said in writing about Norval and his life and work and referencing in particular his painting “Ancestors Performing the Ritual of the Shaking Tent, c. 1958-61” and his shaman grandfather, you must know the story. The story I’m thinking of is the one he’s told of witnessing the shaking tent in a neighbour’s house because it was outlawed at the time. Practitioners were actually imprisoned if caught. So it was being done in a house, and he recounts how he couldn’t believe it. When I read Norval’s account, I had such a feeling in my chest. This is the strange horror of assimilation that I know. What is a room? A cell? A containment? A collection of lines in poetry is called a stanza. Stanza means room in Italian. Poetry is often about compression. What of this moment of secreting away an oracular practice? My ancestors did this too in the open. I never will. What do I accomplish in my little rooms of chaos? As you have asked, What is the larger responsibility?

Ruffo: What immediately comes to my mind from your response is a history of silence and lies that is the foundation upon which this country is built—meaning a history of racism, violence, and displacement—and this is the foundation upon which Canadians have built their homes (and families). Generations of Indigenous people, including members of both our families, have lived and died tragically, and for us, it’s the norm! On the literary front, these experiences are finally being documented. As I said earlier, when I started writing, I was hard pressed to find a role model. Today, any aspiring Indigenous writer only has to walk into a library or bookstore and there’s a shelf of Indigenous writers. That’s nothing less than amazing. I think a large part of it has to do with what you are getting at. In the past, we tended to conceal and sublimate our Indigenous identities just as the colonizer wanted and expected us to do. I remember my mother telling me that when she was young she and a friend went to Toronto and worked as waitresses in a restaurant. My mother passed herself off as Spanish, and her girlfriend passed herself off as Asian. Had they said they were “Indian,” they wouldn’t have gotten the jobs. At the time my mother told me this, I was fairly young and I didn’t realize the pain that must have surfaced for her in telling me. That’s what we went through, a whole people! Most Canadians don’t want to know this stuff. Reconciliation to them is something out there, something intangible that really has nothing to do with them. “It happened before I was born.” We hear that a lot. But who benefited? So, yes, something positive is currently happening in the country, and I’m happy to be alive to witness it.

To complicate matters, is the notion of “responsibility” leading to a circumscription of what Indigenous poetry, and Indigenous literature in general, is supposed to be? There currently seems to be a trend to emphasize the aforementioned traumas I was talking about with little consideration given to the positive aspects of having Indigenous heritage. And what about aesthetics? It is as though Indigenous people never had an interest in such questions, when one only has to turn to our traditional storytelling strategies or our sense of design, our totems or basketry, to see the truth. Take the current field of Indigenous literary studies; it seems to be almost solely focused on a literature of trauma and resistance. I guess what I’m getting at: Is our literature at risk of becoming a literature of issues? 

While you refer to your book Infinite Citizen as “a disaster of language” with all kinds of “complications…pulled through the book,” it nevertheless employs language in inventive ways to explore another potential aesthetic for Indigenous poets. In this way, one could consider your text as providing an alternative to this circumscription, this pigeonholing. I’m also thinking here of other young Indigenous writers who are pushing the aesthetic button while dealing with their own issues—yikes, there’s that word again.

Howard: I think you’re exactly right that there is this all-too-steady gaze on the traumatic Indigenous experience. I also often wonder about what might be called Indigenous “futurisms,” or futures or possibilities, aesthetic potentials as you have said. I think I have made a way toward that in my work. At least that was the intention, the necessity. The fracturing, the hardship, the wound, whether within oneself and/or within one’s lineage as an Indigenous person is a fact. The question is, What to do? Ultimately, for myself as a writer, I discovered the figure of the infinite citizen of the shaking tent. Perhaps I am a kind of slippery, in-between, trickster spirit. I suppose this is the figure of myself as a writer that could compose in so many formally inventive and generative ways, pulling in neuroscience, the bush, Western philosophy, Nanabozho, dreams, calling down the sky, Toronto streets, ecological concerns, and so on and compressing them all together into my account, my gift, my book. The trauma, the silence, the absence is there too. But I think it is an ultimately joyful text. I see your work on Norval as being along the same lines. You don’t leave him with us as either a tragic or revelatory figure. He’s deeply human. I see the possibilities for Indigenous work as being as open and variegated as each of our stories.

Ruffo: I agree wholeheartedly. Futurisms, healing, regeneration: that’s where we have to go with our writing and, above all, our lives. As it stands, the more tragically we present ourselves, the more the mainstream public laps it up when indeed we should be focusing on alternatives. Granta recently published a poem of mine called “The Reckoning” in their Canada issue, and although it may appear at first reading to be tragic, what I’m saying is that the health of the planet and the very survival of humankind is contingent on Western society realizing that in attempting to destroy Indigenous cultures, they have come a breath away from destroying themselves and the planet. Case in point: microplastics have now infected the whole ecosystem. Their society is simply unsustainable. I suppose many people realize this, and that’s why Western culture is generally so nihilistic. And, yes, Norval Morrisseau for all his trauma and addictions was a remarkable visionary who recognized this and set out to do something about it through his art. He always said that his paintings were icons meant to heal the world, and that’s where the next generation, your generation, needs to go: less pain, more gain. As a science major, you’re probably familiar with the word biophilia. It means a love of life and the living world—an affinity—though I prefer to think of it as kinship between humans and other life forms; it’s that kind of mindset that will save this planet! Indigenous poets lead the way! I’ll leave it at that. 

 

Armand Garnet Ruffo visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Cristina Rizzuto, Anuja Varghese, Nora Gold, and guest speaker Marina Ferreira, who will give us tips on “How to Independently Publish your Book Using Kobo Writing Life.”

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Brockton Writers Series 11.03.20

Wednesday, March 11, 2020 – 6:30pm

Brockton Writers Series presents readings by

Armand Garnet Ruffo

Cristina Rizzuto

Anuja Varghese

Nora Gold

Glad Day Bookshop

499 Church Street, Toronto

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

ACCESSIBILITY INFO
The venue is accessible. Please refrain from wearing scents.

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

“How to Independently Publish your Book Using Kobo Writing Life”

 

Have you ever wanted to publish your very own book? If you’re a great writer with an entrepreneurial streak, then you might want to consider independent publishing. Learn how Kobo Writing Life makes it simple for indie authors to publish and promote their books, how indie publishing allows authors to retain control over their stories, and how to build a successful business!

Marina Ferreira is Kobo Writing Life’s Publisher Operations Coordinator, working with title approvals and ensuring everything from files to the metadata are ready for publication. She also provides support with the KWL blog and podcast. Her favourite part of the job is discovering new authors and KWL books to read. She studied Journalism at Ryerson University and International Business at Sheridan College, and is now finishing the Publishing program at Ryerson University’s Chang School. She has worked as a bookseller, publishing publicity, and as a content creator within the literary world. You can find her on Twitter @amakeshiftlib talking about everything from books to the newest binge-worthy TV show releases.

READERS

Ruffo reading by Pearl Pirie_3 (1)

Armand Garnet Ruffo is a member of the Chapleau Fox Lake First Nation in northern Ontario.  He is recognized as a major contributor to both contemporary Indigenous literature and Indigenous scholarship in Canada. His books include Norval Morrisseau: Man Changing Into Thunderbird, a finalist for a Governor General’s Literary Award in 2015, and Treaty #, a finalist in 2019. 

 

CR

Cristina Rizzuto is the author of poetry collection, The Music Makers (Blaurock Press, 2012). Writing credits include The Florentine; Lantern Magazine; Ottawa Arts Review; Wattpad; Best Ultra Short Poems, an anthology published by the Ontario Poetry Society; Love, Anonymous, an anthology published by CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts); Dragnet Magazine; FEMMELDEHYDE; and CBC Canada Writes. For more information, visit www.crisrizz.com.

 

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Anuja Varghese is a Pushcart-nominated QWOC writer based in Hamilton, ON. Her work appears in The Malahat Review, Humber Literary Review, Corvid Queen: A Journal of Feminist Folklore & Fairy Tales, Dirty Girls Magazine, Hamilton Review of Books and others. In 2019, she was shortlisted for the Pigeon Pages Fiction Contest and took third prize in the Alice Munro Festival Short Story Competition. Anuja holds a degree in English Literature from McGill University and is currently pursuing a Creative Writing Certificate from the University of Toronto while working on a collection of short stories. She can be found on Instagram (@anuja_v) and Twitter (@Anuja_V) or by visiting her website www.anujavarghese.com.

 

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Nora Gold is a prize-winning author, an activist, and the editor of the prestigious online literary journal, JewishFiction.net. Her three fiction books have been highly praised, including by Alice Munro, and have won two Canadian Jewish Book Awards. Gold’s also the creator and coordinator of Toronto’s Wonderful Women Writers Series.

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BWS 08.01.20 report: “Meditation and Writing” with Ranjini George

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Ranjini George holds a PhD and MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. As an Associate Professor of English at Zayed University, Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, she ran the Teaching with the Mind of Mindfulness series. A Mindfulness Meditation Instructor, she currently teaches courses such as Meditation & Writing, Food, Breath & Words, Stoicism and the Good Life and Pilgrimage to the Sacred Feminine at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto. She received the 2019 Excellence in Teaching Award. Her book, Through My Mother’s Window was published in Dubai in December 2016. She can be contacted at ranjinigeorge@yahoo.com; through her Facebook page; or through wordpress.

 

Meditation and Writing: An Invitation to Practice Deep Compassionate Listening

January 8th, we enjoyed a wonderful evening at Glad Day bookstore. As I began my session on Meditation and Writing, I used the bell to invite participants to engage in a brief mindfulness practice and recited the words of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, “Listen, listen to the sound of the bell that calls you back to your true home.”

Often, we resist returning home. We distract ourselves and hurry through life: we are human doings, not human beings. We fear what will rise to the surface if we slow down and listen to ourselves. But as Thich Nhat Hanh says, we can choose to be present to our suffering. We can cradle our jealousy, our pain, our anxieties, like a mother cradles a child and bring to that moment the energy of mindfulness. And as we listen to ourselves, encounter our shadows, we bring them to the light to be healed. We encounter our true self. We make friends with ourselves. We begin to live our lives with purpose and intention and compassion. No more are we sleep walking through our lives. We are awake to who we are and how we wish to be in this world. We make good use of our precious human life.

Natalie Goldberg in Writing down the Bones says that Writing is 90% listening: “Listening is receptivity. The deeper you can listen, the better you can write… if you want to become a good writer, you need to do three things. Read a lot, listen well and deeply, and write a lot. And don’t think too much. Just enter the heat of words and sounds and colored sensations and keep your pen moving on the page…Enter poetry with your whole body. Dogen, a great Zen master, said, ‘If you walk in the mist, you will get wet.’”

At a retreat with Natalie in Santa Fe in May 2018, I remember her saying, “Step out of the way and let the words come through.” This stepping aside of the ego, this stepping away from the mind that censors, worries if this writing is any good, if it will be published, is jealous, envious and insecure, fearful of what other people will say, blocks creativity.

In meditation practice, we slow down and follow our breath. We listen to ourselves: we are awake to ourselves, the world around us, the present moment—after all, the present moment is the only moment that we really have. As we practice meditation, meditation like writing, becomes our best friend.

To quote Natalie again,

“In Zen meditation you sit on a cushion called a zafu with your legs crossed, back straight, hands at your knees or in front of you in a gesture called a mudra. You face a white wall and watch your breath. No matter what you feel—great tornadoes of anger and resistance, thunderstorms of joy and grief—you continue to sit, back straight, legs crossed, facing the wall. You learn not to be tossed away no matter how great the thought or emotion. That is the discipline to continue to sit.

The same is true in writing. You must be a great warrior when you contact first thoughts and write from them. Especially at the beginning you may feel great emotions and energy that will sweep you away, but you don’t stop writing. You continue to use your pen and record the details of your life and penetrate into the heart of them” (Writing Down the Bones).

You extend this same deep compassionate listening to those around you. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Listen, so that the other person suffers less.” You train yourself to move away from fixed mind, to a more awake, open, state of mind. Fixed mind, wanting things to be one way—a relationship, a situation, one’s past, one’s present—resisting imperfection, is often a cause of suffering. You listen to others and then the world of your story becomes more textured, peopled with others, not just you. The world of your story becomes more spacious, even vast.

Discipline is an important quality to embody in the path of meditation and writing. Discipline is not repressive: it is true freedom. Discipline becomes a container from which we manifest our dreams. We learn not to be “tossed away.” We learn to stay. Stay with our suffering. Stay with whatever is happening right now. Stay with our story, our poem, our play. We learn to stay when we may feel like giving up.

If you are interested in learning to embody the paramita of discipline, please join me for a four-day intensive “The Path of the Tiger: Discipline in Your Writing” offered on 20&21 and 23&24 of January, at St. George campus, Toronto. This annual retreat is offered by the Creative Writing Program, School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto.

If next week feels like too soon, please consider my Meditation & Writing Retreat, a one-week intensive at the University of Toronto Summer Writing School in July.

Your meditation practice can be as short as 5 minutes. Begin small. You can do the same with writing. I wish you joy and courage on your journey. Happy New Year! May you be well.

Note: Books that may be of interest:

Natalie Goldberg, Writing Down the Bones. Shambhala, 2016. (30th Anniversary Edition)

Pema Chodron.  Practicing Peace in Times of War. Shambhala, 2007.  

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness. Beacon Press, 1992.

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BWS 08.01.20: Nikki Sheppy

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Nikki Sheppy is a poet, editor, and educator with a background in literary scholarship. She is also past managing editor of filling Station magazine, and an organizer for the new East Loft Reading Series, a Leslieville literary salon launched in November. Her book, Fail Safe (University of Calgary Press), won the 2018 Robert Kroetsch Award for Poetry Book of the Year, and her chapbook, Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite (Kalamalka Press), won the 2013 John Lent Poetry-Prose Award. She loves dogs. Also puppies. And more dogs. And she volunteers at the Toronto Humane Society.

 

Over the years, talking with other poets whose works foreground exploratory or unfamiliar modes, I’ve heard a similar theme: not a complaint, but certainly a bewilderment. Poetry deemed ‘experimental’ in some way is sometimes dismissed as merely programmatic or, by contrast, arbitrary. But I’ve found that there’s pretty much always some bona fide subject of interest and poetic mandate in these works, and when writers actively address or acknowledge their poetics–even in brief–they stimulate engagement, whether or not readers ultimately enjoy the work. Although we expect poems to “speak for themselves,” it’s my experience that listeners appreciate hearing stories about process, creation, and sources of inspiration.

Reflecting on Poetics of Mouthfeel

I’ve become increasingly interested in what I’m calling a poetics of mouthfeel. Because I’ve begun to write more poems governed by the textures of speaking them, I decided this summer to reflect on what this exploration means to me—and how it might signify as an expression of both politics and agency. At public readings, I noticed that people were particularly interested in this focus and requested more context for thinking about it, so I share some of my reflections here.

In my 2017 book Fail Safe, I included a sequence of poems that explored the mouthfeel of its poetic language. Broadly used, the term “mouthfeel” refers to so-called “rheological properties: the consistency, flow and feel of something—typically food—inside the mouth. Rheology (the study of the flow of matter) & tribology (the science of friction and lubrication) are topics of study in food science and food marketing. My poems were intended to explore the mouthfeel of language itself: what felt ‘sticky’ or ‘wet’ or ‘chewy’ to say. I prioritized over considerations of sense or meaning what language I wanted to put in my mouth: what worded tactility I wanted to feel as saying.

These poems emphasized dimensions of mouthfeel like density, roughness, graininess and moisture, apparently proceeding as if the pieces were merely a linguistic exercise. This despite the truth that the conceptual underpinnings were both deeply personal and deeply political. I was interested in how language felt in my mouth as I spoke it because the saying was an embodied recovery of my mouth as a site of agency—not of occupation or silence. I could speak what had occupied me:

decipher the sleeping hot

spliff a dexterous smoke

half aspirated ghost                                       (from “Moisture Release”)

In Lexicon of the Mouth, Brandon LaBelle describes language as emanating from within its spatiality, its material dimensions within what Georges Bataille calls “the chief aperture”: “The mouth wraps the voice, and all such wording, in its wet and impressionable envelope, its paralanguages. […] It captures and figures the somatic, the alimentary, the resonant, and the viscous as always already surrounding language, ‘cutting and augmenting meaning’” (LaBelle 7). He experiences performed orality as akin to feeling “the mouth as a fleshy, wet lining around each syllable, as well as a texturing orifice” (1). Never is LaBelle’s mouth separate from the sounds, sensations, pleasures, and meanings of its linguistic or other activities.

Even LaBelle’s chapter headings resonate with my ongoing exploration into the poetics of mouthfeel. They include: Bite. Chew. Eat. Burp. Choke. Gag. Spit. Vomit. Cry. Scream. Shout. Sing. Gasp. Growl. Grunt. Sigh. Yawn. Kiss. Lick. Suck. Mumble. Mute. Pause. Stutter. Murmur. Whisper. Recite. Vow. These titles could summarize much of what my poetic project aspires to do: not to write but to growl, to spit and slurp, to whisper. I’m not sure I entirely succeed, but it is an ongoing exploration, with new works always in the works.

In “Cavity,” LaBelle writes into the symbolic terrain of precisely the oral imaginary that invigorated (and haunted) my initial poems, and the pieces that I later wrote: “The mouth as a collection of surfaces—of lips and teeth, tongue and cheek, and from the roof down to the throat—is […] an open space, an oral cavity. It is a small cavern in which resonances proliferate, where matter is held and ingested […]—the gap wherein one is entered to give space for the other. […] While the buccal surfaces channel a plethora of tastes and textures, the oral cavity gives room—for breaths and couplings, words and their shaping.” This oral complex is the site of my poetics.

We could pause to introduce biographical notes now, and they would resemble the tossing thoughts of a three-year-old who dreamt repeatedly of a terrifying dentist in whose haunting house every room could sprout a dental chair, and a plate of instruments to be introduced into the new young speaker’s oral cavity. We could detail the year-long silence that ensued, and the ongoing trouble through schools, where talking too little—and then, correctively, too much—was used to justify the decision not to accelerate the young speaker.

But the symbolic far outstrips this infancy. Anyway, who knows how to parse the knowledge and un-knowledge, the sound & the fugue, of a three-year-old?

In Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them, Mary Capello writes: “All acts of swallowing are psychosocial at the core. […] We test the body by putting things into its orifices, and we test our relations with others by projecting onto the body’s surface an idea of those relations” (35). So, swallowing is a form of breaching that relates. And the mouth is a site of spoken creativity “inflected with the powers of horror” (44). How then does the agency of sounding militate with, against, and within such states of impingement…?

What do I ask of the language with which I speak my true and created selves?

would it be possible to describe

the shape of the deformation?

the friction and relative lubrication of the word?

its filminess & afterfeel?

is the word brittle? does it gag?

what are its shear, fracture mechanics, tensions?

how does the sound respond when squeezed

or bitten? is it adhesive or elastic, viscous or crisp,

foamy or granular? is language a bolus

held in suspension? what is the word’s moisture content, its saliva secretion?

does it emulsify? is it fissile?

what single word or sound is most readily

swallowed? & what is the mouthfeel

of its regurgitation?

 

{{choke-point}}

 

wools, blushing mosses, hairnets

the velvet naps

that antagonize my tongue

everything shafts wolverine

just shy of light

fallowing the blue ether

folding the unfold sign

of thistles & pencil-shavings

the glossy curling hair

that now threads

the moment I learned to speak

around it

 

**This piece excerpts some parts of my conference paper, “Mouthfeel: Please Witness Me by Feeling It as Saying It Out Loud to an Audience on my Behalf (A Rheological Poetry Presentation with Critical Contexts)” at SpokenWeb in Vancouver, May 2019, with thanks to Ryan Fitzpatrick who performed it. Quotations of LaBelle and Cappello are from Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and The Oral Imaginary by Brandon LaBelle (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). The poem “Moisture Release” appears in Fail Safe (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2017). “{{chokepoint}}” is an excerpt from one of my new poems.

 

Nikki Sheppy visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Leanne Toshiko Simpson, Manahil Bandukwala, Terese Mason Pierre, and guest speaker Ranjini George, who will guide us through “Meditation and Writing.”

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BWS 08.01.20: Terese Mason Pierre

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Terese Mason Pierre is a writer and poet whose work has appeared in CanthiusThe Temz Review, the Longleaf Review, and elsewhere online and in print. She is the poetry editor of Augur Magazine and volunteers with Shab-e She’r reading series. Her chapbook, “Surface Area,” was recently published with Anstruther Press. Terese lives in Toronto.

 

Like a lot of people, I gravely dislike the sound of my own voice. But I don’t count this reading among the detested. Not because of my actual voice, but because of where I’m reading it. Here, I’m reading an excerpt from my short story, “Leapt,” which was published in the preview issue of Augur magazine. The piece is an urban fantasy story about a pair of shapeshifters, a young girl and her mother, who try to build a new life in Toronto.

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Click here to see Terese’s reading of “Leapt”

I was excited that my work was chosen for publication. I knew two of the three founding editors back in university, and was still a bit insecure about my writing. When the reading was over, they approached me and told me they loved my work, that they felt so much for the characters. I looked up to them, and their validation was meaningful. If you want to read the whole story, click here. It’s also been published in podcast form, at this link.

Currently, I’m the poetry editor of Augur magazine, which means I help select and mainly edit the poems that we publish. Although I edit speculative poetry, I have only recently begun writing speculative poetry, and I find it exciting and freeing in many ways. My work at Augur has been some of the most rewarding volunteer work that I have done. I often get very excited to introduce people to Augur magazine, and to hear about the speculative work they’ve published, especially poets. I feel honored to be a part of a community that believes in creating space not only for marginalized and underrepresented writers, but Canadian writers in general, and more diversity and inclusion within the speculative literature genre. Augur’s issue 2.3 was published in early December, and we reopen for submissions in the spring.

 

Terese Mason Pierre visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Leanne Toshiko Simpson, Manahil Bandukwala, Nikki Sheppy, and guest speaker Ranjini George, who will guide us through “Meditation and Writing.”

 

 

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BWS 08.01.20: Manahil Bandukwala

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Manahil Bandukwala is a Pakistani writer and artist currently living in Ottawa. She is the author of two chapbooks, Paper Doll (Anstruther Press, 2019) and Pipe Rose (battleaxe press, 2018). She was longlisted for the 2019 CBC Poetry Prize, and was the 2019 winner of Room magazine’s Emerging Writer Award.

 

Context, context, context. Where to give it and where to let others do the work to find out?

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen a rising movement on Twitter to steer away from explaining references to content that falls out of western “common knowledge.” This includes not giving translations of non-English words, and not stating each allusion. It gives way to rhythm and flow without the bulky footnotes that accompany each translation or definition.

But recent projects I’ve been involved with have forced me to think about when and why context is necessary. Sure, people could do the work on their own time, but will they? And if they don’t do the work, what broader message is lost? What context does the reader need to know? What can they figure out on their own?

I wanted to talk about the space of giving context versus content, with examples of two culturally and politically heavy projects I’ve been working on in the past few months.

1. Reth aur Reghistan

Reth aur Reghistan is a literary and sculptural interpretation of folklore from the city of Karachi and the province of Sindh in Pakistan. It’s a collaborative project between my sister, Nimra Bandukwala, and myself. We started this project out of our interest in exploring the stories from the city we grew up in, and our path has led us to thinking about how stories are passed down and how they evolve in cultural memory.

As part of our research, Nimra and I conducted interviews with cultural and creative workers. Through our interviews, we learned a lot about the archaeological evidence that traces a story’s origin, what these stories mean to communities, and the contemporary modes in which they continue to grow. Most of the content I gathered was things that I had little to no prior knowledge of. If I learned about these stories through grant-funded research, how could a prospective audience easily know or find this folklore?

Although the final product we envision for Reth aur Reghistan is a book of poetry and sculpture that interprets themes and specific scenes of folklore, we also want to share the interesting and sometimes hilarious stories we draw inspiration from. The way the manuscript is currently evolving includes both tellings of the folklore as well as poetic interpretation. The credit for this layout fully goes to Nimra. It’s been interesting working with someone who isn’t steeped in the literary world, because she brings a different perspective into this tension of context versus not.

By working in this way, I’ve felt like I have a lot more creative freedom to sprawl into abstract territory without worrying about a reader getting lost. I can focus my poem on how Sasui journeyed across the desert twice instead of telling the reader why she did that. A reader will have the context they need right there (told in an artistic way of course).

2. “Border”, forthcoming in Briarpatch

“Border” is a collaborative long poem between myself and Toronto-based poet Sanna Wani. We started “Border” in July 2019, after finding out that we would be in close physical proximity to each other but on different sides of a militarized border. Sanna was in Srinagar, in Indian Occupied Kashmir, and I was going to be visiting Gilgit Baltistan, which borders Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

On August 5th, the Indian government scrapped Article 370 that gave Kashmir autonomous status, and the exchange between Sanna and I turned into a real-time reaction to an international crisis. We didn’t start “Border” with this intention, but this is what happens when your existence is inherently political. We’re both incredibly proud of what we’ve produced, but this poem of crisis was not a choice but circumstance. This context is something we want readers to know.

“Border” is now forthcoming in Briarpatch, a magazine committed to anticolonial perspectives on politics. When we were working with editor Saima Desai, we had conversations about what context to provide to readers. Many readers likely didn’t know what happened on August 5th, nor do they know that Kashmir is still under curfew. They probably don’t know what the line of control is, or why India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir since 1947.

I made the artwork that accompanies the poem, and had a long conversation with Saima as we figured out how to visually represent the piece. One of the things we talked about was showing a map of borders: the borders between Pakistan and India; the division of Kashmir along the line of control, and the places Sanna and I were writing from. How could I represent this accurately while also making clear the borders are a result of colonial legacy? How could I show the military presence of the region without reducing Kashmir to a warzone, or on the other end, romanticizing the mountain landscape?

There’s a lot of questions here. And I reached answers to them through conversations with creative collaborators and editors who shared the knowledge I had on the topic. In “Border,” for example, something that helped bridge the space between context and content was working with an editor from the same cultural context as us. We knew we could trust Saima with editing our work, and that her suggestions to provide context came from a perspective of making the piece as impactful as possible.

To some extent, an overarching backgrounder of a piece frees up space within the piece to just write. Just to talk about why context matters sometimes in this blog post, I had to give a summary of the projects and what they aimed to do. A lot of my recent writing draws on politics, history, religion, and culture – the work I’m going to read at Brockton Writer’s Series attests to that – and I want an audience to know the deeper political and cultural implications that run through my poetics.

 

Manahil Bandukwala visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Leanne Toshiko Simpson, Terese Mason Pierre, Nikki Sheppy, and guest speaker Ranjini George, who will guide us through “Meditation and Writing.”

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BWS 08.01.20: Leanne Toshiko Simpson

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Photo credit: Soko Negash

Leanne Toshiko Simpson is a Yonsei writer living with bipolar disorder. She was named Scarborough’s Emerging Writer of 2016 and recently finished her MFA at the University of Guelph. You can find her work in The 2019 Journey Prize StoriesRoom MagazineContemporary Verse 2, and Unpublished City II.

 

I had coffee with a friend I made many years ago, in a Scarborough psychiatric ward, and we got to talking about how difficult the holiday season is for people with mood disorders (and other chronic illnesses, for that matter). We jokingly came up with the idea for this carol – The Twelve Manic Days of Christmas – and I’ve written it in his honour. I think a common theme of our survival has been laughing through the impossible, and I hope that this piece resonates with some folks who are in the same boat this holiday season.

The Twelve Manic Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

A manic shopping spree

[Always start with things you need: socks, holiday pajamas for your sister, greeting cards for everyone who touched your life this year. Get overwhelmed by the amount of people you’d like to thank and slide to the floor, contemplate your good fortune. Get up and overcompensate with novelty mugs and fuzzy throws. Buy a dress you can’t afford for your family dinner, because it’s not just about presents but presenting, and you wouldn’t want anyone to think you were less than perfect. Look at your watch and wonder where five hours have flown. Feel guilty for your absence, buy chocolate-dipped strawberries as a “surprise” for your partner and let them melt on your dashboard on your way home]

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Two sleepless nights and

A manic shopping spree

 

On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights – please, no more pills – and

A manic shopping spree

 

On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Four grand ideas (a brief summary: a YA novel, Christmas cookies for the entire street – or perhaps, a winter carnival for the neighbourhood, with trussed up ponies and sleigh bells – breaking a three-month silence with my father, becoming a cyclist)

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights and

A manic shopping spree (this time, a bike!)

 

On the fifth day of Christmas, my partner gave to me:

The Goldberg Mania Inventory!

After four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree

 

On the sixth day of Christmas, we tried to go to a holiday party but Mariah Carey’s voice was like a dog whistle, alerting me to a danger I couldn’t see but felt reverberating inside the cage of my lungs. I couldn’t hold conversations, couldn’t look people in the eye. I was afraid to eat. Everything was cardboard – the food, the people, the thoughts in my head. We left early, and I counted the seconds between sentences on the drive home. One, two, three, four, five–

Six awkward silences

The Goldberg Mania Inventory!

Four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree

 

On the seventh day of Christmas, my therapist gave to me:

Seven CBT charts

Six awkward silences

And the Goldberg Mania Inventory!

For my four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree

 

[After he goes to bed, count out your medication into your palm, over and over and over again, until chalky dust settles in your lifelines]

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Eight missed pills

Seven (untouched) CBT charts

Six awkward silences

The Goldberg Mania Inventory!

Four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree

 

On the ninth day of Christmas, my mom told me to try yoga, so I had:

Nine downward dogs (plus seething resentment)

Eight missed pills

Seven CBT charts

Six awkward silences

The Goldberg Mania Inventory!

Four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree

 

On the tenth day of Christmas, my eyes were changing colours in their sockets and I told everyone it was great, but if I’m being honest here, I was getting a little worried about my:

Ten unverified sick days

Nine downward dogs

Eight missed pills

Seven CBT charts

Six awkward silences

Fuck the Goldberg Mania Inventory!

Four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree

 

On the eleventh day of Christmas, my partner called my psychiatrist, but she was on

ELEVEN DAYS OF VACATION

Which left me with:

Ten unverified sick days

Nine downward dogs

Eight missed pills

Seven CBT charts

Six awkward silences

The Goldberg Mania Inventory!

Four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree

 

On the twelfth day of Christmas, they asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital. I gave it some thought, reader – really, I did. I thought about all the other folks who might be there on Christmas, who could maybe use a little caroling, maybe a touch of comradery. I thought about titrating my meds for the hundredth time. I had so many little orange canisters in my bathroom cabinet that I could have invented psychiatric Jenga. Again, they asked me what I wanted, and I stared into the galaxies of my ceiling before telling them I wanted to talk to someone, anyone, who lived in this kaleidoscope with me. They all looked at each other and one of them nodded and then the glass shifted, again, to that incandescent heat before the end of the world.

 

Leanne Toshiko Simpson visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Manahil Bandukwala, Terese Mason Pierre, Nikki Sheppy, and guest speaker Ranjini George, who will guide us through “Meditation and Writing.”

 

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