Category Archives: Writers & Performers

BWS 07.08.15: Amber Dawn

Amber Dawn

Amber Dawn is the author of the poetry collection Where The Words End And My Body Begins, novel Sub Rosa and memoir How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir. Her writing traverses themes of sex work, queer identity and survivor pride. She lives on unceded Coast Salish territory (incorporated Vancouver).

Amber dropped by the BWS blog with this guest post ahead of her July 8 appearance. 

Poetry: Queer and Connectional

The first poetry collection I purchased was P.K. Page’s Hologram: A Book of Glosas. I was in my early twenties and had already written a couple of dog-eared notebooks worth of poetry, and had even discovered a few scrappy open mics around East Vancouver to read my newly penned poems to audiences, but it had never occurred to me that I could walk into a bookstore and buy a published book of poetry.

It was summer of 1998 and I had secured myself a sugar daddy—a client who picked me up from my regular street corner in a champagne-coloured Mercedes-Benz, and who paid me enough to send me to my first creative writing class at University of British Columbia. I decided to enroll in Introduction to Writing Poetry.

Poet Kate Braid was UBC’s summer poetry instructor. My first realization about my inaugural university experience was that I was treated exactly the same as the other students. Whereas, my customary cuts and bruises and “fuck the world” attitude received exasperation or pity at the doctor or social worker’s office, in the creative writing classroom, as long as I was participating, I was a valued peer.

The next thing I remember thinking was that if I was to be treated like other students, then I’d better level up my dedication and determination. I needed to take poetry seriously, to deepen my understanding of the craft. Kate Braid told her students that if we wanted to know poetry we must read poetry books cover-to-cover, hopefully many books. This is what poets do, they read. So I set off to the People’s Co-op Bookstore on Commercial Drive in my quest to seriously know poetry.

It could have been the pleasing kaleidoscope image on the cover that drew me to Hologram. I read the foreword, in which P.K. Page likens her process of writing the glosa form to birds that learn to sing by blending the notes and cadences of other birds into their own call. “We have a song – of a kind. But it’s not until we have heard many other songs that we are able to put together our own specific song.” This alone was compelling enough for me to buy the book.

First used in 13th century Spain, the glosa typically opens with a source quatrain from an existing poem by another writer, followed by four stanzas of ten lines each; the last line of each stanza is taken sequentially from the opening quatrain, and lines six and nine rhyme with the borrowed tenth. P.K. Page’s enactment of this form is gobsmackingly fine as she works quatrains by canonical poets like Rainer Maria Rilke, Sappho, Elizabeth Bishop, Dylan Thomas, and Pablo Neruda. I had never read any of these poets before. My experience with poetry was slam and spoken word, not textbook. (Well, I actually had heard of Sappho, that she was a lesbian, which is what I was calling myself at the time.) In this way, P.K. Page introduced me not only to her own writing, but she gave me an “in” to experience the writing of other poets from a canon that previously eluded me.

I’ve re-read P.K. Pages glosas so many times that the poems have become even more immersive than song. I’ll call the feeling I get when reading Hologram consanguineous: connected by blood. Nearly 20 years later, I’ve become acclimatized to English-language canonical poetry, and Hologram now allows me to feel the very pulse of Rilke’s concentrated incantations or Sappho’s longing vestigial verse.

Inspired, I wrote my own collection of glosa poems, Where the words end and my body begins (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2015). When I began the book, I looked well outside the canon that P.K. Page drew from. “Glossing” quotes from Rilke, Thomas and other mostly white men of systemic esteem does not fit with my values or lived experiences. I looked to queer women, women of colour, and/or survivor justice-minded poets for my source quatrains; poets like Lucille Clifton, Lydia Kwa, Trish Salah, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Ritz Chow, Leah Horlick, Chandra Mayor and Jillian Christmas.

Through glossing these (and eleven other) poets, I aimed to do three things:

First, to venerate and observe the remarkable and unique lyrical verse of each: some are widely published, while others have yet to release a first book. Here I must mention the barriers to publishing for queers, women, and most especially women of colour. Again and again, I see Can Lit publish and recognize white authors (like myself). I am a learner in anti-racism work, and what I’m learning is that poetry can and should play a role in disrupting white privileged/Eurocentric narratives and in honouring diverse voices.

Second, I simply wanted to share the work of the poets I admire the most. Several of the poets I glossed are friends, mentors and chosen family. What can I say; I love the talented folks I know! It brings me joy to quote them and to respond to them in verse. And I can always use more joy.

Last, I chose source poets that would allow me to continue my own exploration of survivorship, sex work, and creative queer healing. I desire companionship when writing through pain and recovery. I need solidarity because writing lived experiences can be isolating. I’m always looking for kin. I will always be seeking that bloodline of language and craft and healing and resistance. I am deeply indebted to all the poets who reminded me just how connectional poetry can be.

Amber Dawn visits the Brockton Writers Series on our annual Queer Night, Wednesday, July 8, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Trish Salah, Vivek Shraya, and Syrus Marcus Ware, and special guest speaker Michael Erickson of Glad Day Bookshop.

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BWS 08.07.15: Vivek Shraya

VivekShraya-SOTM-Promo1

Vivek Shraya’s body of work includes ten albums, four short films, and three books that have been used as textbooks at several post-secondary institutions. His debut novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s Best Books of 2014. A three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, Vivek was the 2014 recipient of the Steinert & Ferreiro Award for leadership in Toronto’s LGBTQ community, the recipient of Anokhi Media’s inaugural Most Promising LGBTQ Community Crusader Award in 2015, and a 2015 Toronto Arts Foundation Emerging Artist Award finalist.

Vivek stopped by the blog for an interview ahead of his July 8 appearance.

BWS: In She of the Mountains, we see the protagonist first embrace his sexual identity, and later, his ethnic one. The descriptions of the former, “transitioning from you’re gay into I’m gay had also allowed him to stop having to think about, question, and sometimes be ashamed of his desires,” even seems to echo the latter, “In the absence of white, he could see colour [and difference between shades of brown]. Falling in love with her brown had unexpectedly given his own skin new value, a new sheen.” Did you intend for there to be a similarity in these two moments?

Vivek: I love this question. Honestly, for the narrator to embrace both his sexual identity and ethnicity was never the original intention. But She of the Mountains grew into a story that is ultimately about a man and his relationship to his body, which of course includes his desire and his skin colour, so it makes sense that self-love in both areas had to be explored.

BWS: You’ve stated elsewhere that the main character’s experiences are based on some of your own, and that the book was written as a challenge to biphobia, which, the book shows, exists both within and outside the queer community. How do you see this persistent opinion–that no one is actually bisexual, that people should “pick a side”–affect the community and bisexual people, and why do you think it persists?

Vivek: The hard truth is gay people are just as attached to binaries and boxes as straight people. Boxes keep us safe. If you can put me in a box, you can figure out how to interact with me. Without boxes, there is chaos and danger.

Except this is a lie. Because what is actually so threatening about desiring across genders? This is the kind of question that we must ask ourselves to eradicate biphobia, but unfortunately this questioning doesn’t often accompany the snap judgements we make.

BWS: Do you have any anxieties about writing such a personal book? How do you manage the tension between fact and fiction?

Vivek: In regards to the tension between fact and fiction, my job as a writer is to tell a story. The best possible story I can tell is not one that is based solely on fact, and the best story I can possibly tell is always the priority.

Consequently, my main anxiety about being inspired by the personal is that the work won’t be taken as seriously, on the assumption that no craft is involved in writing based on true events.

BWS: In the first part of the book, you write an outstanding sex scene: it’s descriptive and erotic, but it’s also barely a page long. How do you approach writing sex scenes? And would you care to engage with Russell Smith and Lynn Coady’s (staged) debate about the inclusion of sex in fiction? Would it even have been possible to tell this story without sex scenes?

Vivek: I appreciate the compliment! I was once advised by a publisher never to write sex scenes because “no one can do it well.” I had those words in my head when I was writing this scene, largely because I found it hard to write sex without sounding cheesy. But no, this book wouldn’t have been possible without sex, for the reason you pointed out. Furthermore, being queer, I do feel a responsibility to write about sex because our sexuality continues to discomfort conservatives, and therefore be invisibilized. So often I hear queerness being connected to the choice to love whomever we want. This is true, but queerness is also inextricably linked to sex. We can’t forget this. In the words of Canada’s first openly gay senator, the late Laurier LaPierre:

“We’ve come a long way since Trudeau partially decriminalized gay sex 40 years ago. We have built community, come out in droves, connected with each other, demanded and obtained equal rights. We even won the right to marry. But we are still not totally free. We are still limited in the expression of our sexuality. If our society is to truly liberate sexuality, gay and straight, we have to talk about sex. We need to discuss the essential value of expressing the totality of our bodies, of our attractions and desires.”

BWS: Thanks so much, Vivek–see you on July 8!

Vivek Shraya visits the Brockton Writers Series on our annual Queer Night, Wednesday, July 8, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Amber Dawn, Trish Salah and Syrus Marcus Ware, and special guest speaker Michael Erickson of Glad Day Bookshop.

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BWS 06.05.15: Mark Silverberg

Mark Silverberg-headshot

 Mark Silverberg is a poet, educator, and critic who has taught in Ethiopia, Malaysia, The Gambia, and across Canada. He is the author of Believing the Line: The Jack Siegel Poems (Breton Books; Eric Hoffer Book Award, 2013) and The New York School Poets and the Neo-Avant Garde (Ashgate, 2010), and editor of New York School Collaborations: The Color of Vowels (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013). Mark is also an Associate Professor of English at Cape Breton University, where he specializes in poetry, visual arts, and poetic collaborations.

Ahead of his March 6 appearance at Brockton Writers Series, he drops by the blog today with some samples from Believing the Line, in which he wrote poetic responses to Siegel’s drawings and painting.

Click here to find out more about Believing the Line

(Click the images to see them in larger format!)

Mark Silverberg-Sample 1

Mark Silverberg-Sample2

Mark Silverberg-Sample3

Mark Silverberg visits the Brockton Writers Series Wednesday, May 6, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Zainab Amadahy, Ghadeer Malek and Jane Woods. The event begins with a special guest talk, “Getting Started in Book Reviewing,” by Emily M. Keeler of the National Post.

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BWS 10.09.14: It’s Tonight!

BWS Sept 10

From left: Ray Robertson, Nora Gold, Cathy Petch & Shaista Latif.

 

TONIGHT

TONIGHT

TONIGHT AT 7PM,

AT FULL OF BEANS COFFEE HOUSE & ROASTERY,

1348 DUNDAS ST. W., TORONTO,

Join us for readings/performances by:

Nora Gold

Shaista Latif

Cathy Petch

& Ray Robertson!

PLUS

come early (6:30) for our networking portion,

which features a talk by special guest,

Matt Huether

writer and producer for Degrassi: The Next Generation:

“Anyone Can Be a Screenwriter: Here’s How”!

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BWS 10.09.14: Nora Gold

Nora Gold - photo (in Jpeg) (482 x 546) (2)

 

Nora Gold is the Writer-in-Residence at the Centre for Women’s Studies, OISE/University of Toronto; the editor of the online literary journal, Jewish Fiction.net; the organizer of the Wonderful Women Writers Series, and an activist. Her recently-published Fields of Exile received enthusiastic praise and excellent reviews in Canada, the U.S.A., the U.K., and Israel, and her first book, Marrow and Other Stories, won a Canadian Jewish Book Award as well as praise from Alice Munro.

Here’s an excerpt of recent interview Nora did with Tracy Kyncl of The Puritan, (reprinted with permission). Opinions expressed are the interview participants’ own.

Interviewer’s Note: Nora Gold’s debut novel Fields of Exile, published by Dundurn in April, 2014, looks at the preponderance of anti-Semitism, in the form of anti-Israelism, in academia. Dr. Gold’s novel artfully examines the necessary costs and risks of activism.

Tracy Kyncl: Your novel Fields of Exile outwardly critiques anti-Israelism in academia, and there are many professional similarities between you and your protagonist (working in Israel with developmentally challenged youth and returning to Canada to complete a master’s degree). Could you elaborate on the motivations behind writing this book?

Nora: In the early stages of this book, if you’d asked me what it was about, I would have said I was writing a satire about academic life. It was only as this novel evolved that the hypocrisy and intellectual sloth I was describing became increasingly focused on the issue of anti-Israelism. Let me define straight off what I mean by anti-Israelism. Anti-Israelism is not just criticizing Israel. As I make clear in Fields of Exile, it is obviously entirely legitimate to criticize Israel’s government or policies, just as one would critique the government or policies of any other country. But anti-Israelism is something else. Anti-Israelism (otherwise known as “the new anti-Semitism”) is a form of anti-Semitism where hatred of Jews masquerades as legitimate criticism of Israel. One can see examples of this wherever criticisms of Israel are interlaced with classic anti-Semitic stereotypes and tropes, such as, “All Jews are rich and powerful, they control the banks and the media, they’re plotting world dominion, etc.”

Anyway, as I said, I didn’t set out to write a novel about anti-Israelism in academia. But in retrospect, it probably wasn’t surprising that this is what I ended up doing. For over a decade before starting this novel, I—like many Jews—had been very disturbed by the increasing anti-Israelism in both academia and the world at large. I was concerned about the most overt manifestations of anti-Israelism, like the rallies that later morphed into Israel Apartheid Week, but also about the gradual normalization of Israel-bashing in classes, in faculty meetings, and at conferences.

I responded to this phenomenon, in the years before beginning this novel, by conducting academic research on anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism and by engaging in pro-Israel activism (one part of which ultimately resulted in a new Toronto-based organization, JSpaceCanada). At a certain point, though, because I was so distressed about anti-Israelism, I also began writing a novel about it. The pain I felt because of what was happening around me was like having a fishhook in my stomach. I tried moving this way and that, but whatever I did, it was still there. So at some stage, I figured that the only way to get it out of me was to write it out.

TK: In light of recent debates surrounding the lack of minority representation in Canadian publishing, do you think that writers could do more to stay politically informed and motivated when writing?

NG: Yes, definitely. I recently had a very surprising experience. An intelligent and quite well-known Canadian writer told me that until reading Fields of Exile, he hadn’t known about either anti-oppression or anti-Israelism. I could hardly believe it. To not know about anti-Israelism is one thing, but to not even know about anti-oppression seemed extreme.

From my point of view, I feel obligated, even though I am white, heterosexual, middle class, and able-bodied—or maybe because I am white, heterosexual, middle class, and able-bodied—to educate myself about racism, homophobia, classism, ableism, and more. I see it as the responsibility of all Canadians—including writers—to do the same, and as part of this, to educate themselves about anti-Semitism in all its forms, including anti-Israelism. It really isn’t difficult. One can make serious headway on this in just one day of reading. One place to start is my novel, Fields of Exile, which lays out all the main issues. Alternatively, there are hundreds of essays and articles on this topic.

In terms of writers being well-informed politically, I can always tell, when reading a book, whether or not the writer who wrote it has political/social awareness. It’s like that saying about love in a marriage: If it’s there you can’t hide it, and if it’s not there, you can’t fake it so it looks like it is. When a writer has social/political consciousness, it’s palpable in her or his work. And when it’s absent, this is just as palpable. I hope that in the next few years we will all see much more of the first kind of writing from our Canadian writers.

TK: Do you believe that writers have an obligation to engage with political discourse?

NG: Yes I do, if you mean “political discourse” in the broadest sense. I think that writers have an obligation to engage with the issues of their time and place, and to be aware of—and struggle against—the injustices and oppressions in their society. This obligation applies, of course, to all Canadians, but I think there is a particular onus on Canadian writers. We are privileged. Unlike writers in many other parts of the world, we are free to write whatever we want, safe from the risk of imprisonment or worse. As such, we have the potential, as public intellectuals, to help shape both Canadian society and the world around us. We must use, and not waste, this power.

TK: I often get the nagging feeling that our culture suffers from unwillingness or a lack of desire to engage. Do you think writers and readers have stopped believing in the power of literature to inspire real social change?

NG: I think many have. One of the responses to my novel, from the well-known American Jewish writer, Thane Rosenbaum, was very flattering but also surprising to me. He wrote that Fields of Exile restored his faith in the possibilities of the novel. I think this implies that he and many others have lost faith in the possibilities of the novel. They no longer believe that literature can accomplish anything in the real world. In fact, many writers actually believe that literature shouldn’t try to accomplish anything in the real world. They take the Oscar Wilde quotation, “All art is quite useless,” as a kind of credo. I don’t agree with that, of course.

TK: It seems like the definition of “engagement” has somehow been consumed by the idea of engaging somebody’s interest.

NG: Yes. You’re told to get a good opening for your story because that is what “engages” readers. Engagement as seduction, rather than participation or involvement. I think social engagement is very important. This isn’t surprising, since I’m both a writer and a social worker. I have one foot in each world. I enjoy many different kinds of writing, but I definitely respond deeply to fiction that has, at its core, some kind of social vision.

This interview is available in full in the latest issue of The Puritan, click here to read more!

Nora Gold visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 10, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Ghadeer Malek, Cathy Petch and Ray Robertson. Come early, too (6:30) for Degrassi: The Next Generation writer and producer Matt Huether’s special talk, “Anyone Can Be a Screenwriter: Here’s How”!

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BWS 10.09.14: Cathy Petch

Cathy Petch-musical saw

Today on the blog, a guest post by Cathy Petch  playwright, spoken word artist, haiku deathmaster and musical saw player for The Silver Hearts. Cathy has several handsome chapbooks and most recently published her poetry book Late Night Knife Fights with LyricalMyrical Press. Her work has also appeared in Descant, The Toronto Quarterly and Joypuke. Cathy is part of The Dildettes, a queer spoken word/comedy troupe along with Regie Cabico and David Bateman, and was a member of the 2011 and 2012 Toronto Poetry Slam Teams. She is happiest onstage.

So I play a musical saw during some of my poetry pieces.

A what?

A musical saw: literally a handsaw played with a bow. The sound has been called “ghost-like,” “eerie” and “like that other weird instrument,” a.k.a. the theremin.

Both the theremin and the musical saw are often mistaken for novelty instruments, and though I’m currently wracking my brain to say what a “novelty instrument” is, in reality I have appreciation for anything that can make a sound or a beat, no matter if it’s for your toddler or the London Philharmonic.

The saw is a heart-breaker of an instrument. Sometimes when I’m playing a solo — (I play in a band, The Silver Hearts) — my soul seems to dance down the tines. It becomes my tears, my love and all the sweet things I’ve ever heard whispered in my ear. Like any instrument, it is an extension of emotion. It is poetry, and it is brain waves and history revisited.

The origins of the musical saw predate World War I. It started in farmers’ kitchens and was said to have started its slow climb to recognition as a classical instrument before the war effort hit. You cannot cut wood with your musical saw, for this ruins the tone. And in a time when every inch of metal was being enlisted for the Great War, for a household to have two saws — one to play, and one to use as, well, a saw — playing the instrument was considered treason. The saw only found its way back through Vaudeville and thank goodness it did.

My first saw was bought at Home Depot. A 26-inch Stanley Sawtooth, it joined my band and travelled all over Canada reminding the world of its beauty. Currently I have a 33-inch Stravaridis from Long and McQuade, as I was determined to play “Un Bel Trombador” from Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and lacked the extra octave. At the 10th annual Musical Saw Festival in New York City last year I saw 40 different saw players from all over the world playing 40 different saws in 40 different ways.

Like poetry, most musical saw learning happens in solitude. You must have an ear and a total love for your instrument. When you play it, you use your feet, your legs, your arms, your ears; it is a dance, it is magnificent.

I cannot wait to play some saw poems for you all. See you in September! xo

Cathy Petch visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 10, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Nora Gold and Ray Robertson. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by Degrassi: The Next Generation writer and producer Matt Huether on getting started in screenwriting!

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BWS 10.09.14: Ray Robertson

Ray Robertson

Ray Robertson is the author of the novels Home Movies, Heroes, Moody Food, Gently Down the Stream, What Happened Later, and David, as well as two collections of non-fiction: Mental Hygiene: Essays on Writers and Writing and Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, which was short-listed for the Hillary Weston Prize for non-fiction and long-listed for the Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction. His most recent book, the novel I Was There the Night He Died (Biblioasis), has just been published. Born and raised in Southwestern Ontario, he lives in Toronto.

The Q&A below is courtesy of Biblioasis.

More Alive Than When He Started

Biblioasis: I Was There the Night He Died reads like a battleground of addictions: it’s strewn with weed, booze, sugar, caffeine, speed, gambling, writing, self-mutilation, music. Some addictions are positive, others clearly not. Yet of them all, music seems to be the drug that heals more than it hurts. Do you believe that? What is it you think music can do?

Ray: “It’s the best drug I know—alternatively uplifting and pacifying, always there when you need it, and you never feel like dying in the morning. On the contrary, you feel more alive. Berthold Auerbach wrote, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” We all need our daily musical dousing.”

B: Speaking of music: I think it’s time to let the cat out of the bag. The character of Sam Samson isn’t the only one working on a book called Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), is he? What’s it about? When can we expect it?

Ray: “In I Was There the Night He Died, Sam is, yes, writing a book called Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), a collection of twelve biographical/critical essays that takes its inspiration from 18th-century prefaces to the selected works of what were then viewed as the greatest English poets (a project that Samuel Johnson agreed to undertake in 1777 at the urging of three British booksellers, the result of which we know today as his Lives of the Poets). Except instead of 17th-century and 18th-century English poets, in his essays Sam is writing about some of the 20th century’s most underappreciated musical geniuses (popular music division), people like country-folksinger Townes Van Zandt, gospel singer Sister Rosetta Sharpe, and bluegrass visionary John Hartford.

And, yes, coincidentally, I’ve also written a book called Lives of the Poets (with Guitars) that is remarkably similar. It should be out in the fall of 2015.

B: A follow-up, going back to I Was There: why write a book that’s partly about writing a book that you’re already writing?

Ray: Although Sam is a well-established Canadian novelist, he’s also a musical fanatic. Also, and what’s important to the plot of the novel, the above-mentioned music book he’s writing is in place of the novel he doesn’t want to write—not yet, anyway—about his wife’s relatively recent death in an automobile accident. In other words, he’s writing to avoid writing. One of the things I Was There is about is the interplay between creativity and psychic release.

B: You’ve had a couple invitations to read from I Was There the Night He Died at high schools and colleges, even though the novel could be said to support a teenage girl’s decision to smoke pot. Were you surprised that teachers wanted to present it? Why or why not?

Ray: The book never advocates pot smoking; in fact, Sam doesn’t even like it and is pretty convincing about why. Not that I’m necessarily anti-drugs (or pro-drugs for that matter). The bottom line is that Samantha, the 18-year old girl you refer to, is a pot smoker as well as a “cutter.” These are her choices and her life. I respect my characters’ individuality. They are who they are, just like people in everyday life. Smart teachers know that kids are too smart to believe that real people don’t struggle with real problems. And one of the ways to survive those problems is to face them honestly.

B: In the background of your novel is Sam’s father, who, in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, has forgotten most of who he was. The rest of your characters have had more than their share of loss and rotten luck, and seem to be trying to forget who they are as hard as they can. How does Sam’s father’s Alzheimer’s help him come to terms with the other kinds of grief he feels?

Ray: Death—and the loss of personality that comes with Alzheimer’s is psychic death—is the ultimate philosophical starting point. As terrible as it can be, it can also be the ground zero for serious contemplation for what’s really important and what isn’t.

B: Most of your readers will never have been to Chatham, Ontario, and I think it’s safe to say your novel won’t have them lining up at the tourist bureau. Would Sam have felt the same about any city under those conditions?

Ray: Everyone’s hometown is filled with ghosts—“James Joyce” were dirty words for generations of proud Dubliners. I’m no harder on my birthplace than most people are.

That said, I was born and raised in Chatham, Ontario, my parents still live here, and many of my novels are set there either wholly or partially; if it and Southwestern Ontario didn’t continue to confound and captivate me, that wouldn’t be the case.

B: Let’s talk about names for a minute. We’ve got Sam, his last name is Samson, and his new smoke-up buddy is Samantha. What’s up with that?

Ray: I think, beneath their various, very obvious differences, they’ve got a lot in common : for example, their pain, their attempts to deal with it, and their potential for positive change. Other than that, you’d have to ask them.

B: Imagine a reader just as he or she is finishing I Was There the Night He Died. He reads the last sentence, closes the book, puts it down. What do you like to think he’ll do next?

Ray: Feel more alive than when he started it.

Ray Robertson visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, September 10, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Nora Gold and Cathy Petch. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by Degrassi: The Next Generation writer and producer Matt Huether on getting started in screenwriting!

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BWS 09.07.14: It’s Tonight!

BWS July composite

It’s finally here! Brockton Writers Series’s annual Queer Night!

TONIGHT AT 7PM,

AT FULL OF BEANS COFFEE HOUSE & ROASTERY,

1348 DUNDAS ST. W.

Join us for readings/performances by:

S. Bear Bergman

Kirk DeMatas

Dorianne Emmerton

Tamai Kobayashi!

Plus, come early (6:30) for our networking portion,

which features a talk by special guest,

MONICA PACHECO,

literary agent with Anne McDermid & Associates, Ltd.:

“Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literary Agents

*But Were Afraid to Ask”!

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BWS 09.07.14: S. Bear Bergman

Bear Bergman

S. Bear Bergman is an author, storyteller, and educator working to create positive, celebratory representations of trans lives. Recent and current projects include children’s storybooks featuring trans-identified kid characters, a performance about loving and living in a queer/ed Jewish family titled Gathering Light, teaching pleasure-positive trans/genderqueer sex ed, and his sixth book Blood, Marriage, Wine & Glitter (Arsenal Pulp, 2013). Bear answered a couple of questions for the blog this week, enjoy!

BWS: Your latest book, the essay collection Blood, Marriage, Wine & Glitter, opens with “The Really True Story, Once and for All, of How We Got Stanley (with Footnotes)” and “Starting a Family,” two pieces in which you consistently address encounters with privilege and normativity with humour. How do you understand the power of humour in such situations, and how does humour help you write about the topics that you do (in these two essays, queer parenting)?

Bear: Talking about privilege and normativity and how they work is always kind of a minefield, really, no matter which side of any of the questions you’re on or have ever been on. It makes people uncomfortable at best, and hostile at worst. What’s most interesting for me is that now that people read me as a relatively gender-normative white man all the time, I can speak about racism and sexism and homophobia and gender policing to other white men and they seem to really…listen, which was totally not the case when I was a white gender-nonconforming person people usually read as a woman. So I have a lot more opportunities to practice now, than I used to. As someone who works to be a co-resistor against oppression, the most useful thing I can do is often trying to get the other white guys to do better. Adding a little humor to the call-out helps it get heard just like the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.

But also, when I started doing gender and sexuality education, I was often booked into things like 8 a.m. Abnormal Psychology. There I would be, standing in front of three hundred hungover twenty-year-olds in pajama bottoms and flip-flops, trying to get them to listen to me while I talked for an hour. What I figured out in the first thirty seconds was that if the students are laughing, they’re listening (and in the second thirty seconds I learned that one bawdy remark can earn you the next five minutes of serious talking). As time passed and I figured out what worked, my talks developed into what one professor referred to as “either the funniest academic lecture or the smartest stand-up comedy routine I’ve ever seen.” And that, ultimately, is what I’m aiming for – I want to achieve an Eddie Izzard level of erudition combined with humor combined with insight. (I would also like a beach house, and a plastic rocket, and a pony, in case any genies are reading along.)

I can’t always find the funny. Sometimes I get really angry or scared or sad about what’s happening around me, and I fly into a rage or get in a protracted brawl on social media or have to just stop interacting with the awful thing and watch Veronica Mars on Netflix until I calm down a little. I recently had this around Bill C-36, the brutal and dehumanizing new proposed legislation about sex work. I patiently busted myths and offered perspectives, relying frequently on the work of friends associated with the Bedford case or with Maggie’s Toronto (a sex workers rights and advocacy organization), but then at some stage someone was just too horrible and I went TILT like a pinball machine and spent the next two hours shopping for vintage linens on eBay while sipping ice-cold chocolate milk. It happens. I try to be funny and positive and even-tempered and to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but let’s not kid ourselves — there are days that all I want to do is go over to someone’s house with a rusty pail of rabid ferrets and make them see reason.

BWS: The essays “Get Up Everybody and Sing” and “Machatunim” talk sincerely of the strength of family-of-friends bonds, and don’t shy away from putting your real friends/family on the page. How do you deal with writing about real people that you care about? Do you seek their permission before publishing? Though what you’re saying is nothing but positive, do you feel the trepidation so many other writers feel about using real people?

Bear: As a queer and transsexual writer and performer, it has long been my habit to draw heavily on my personal life for inspiration and illustration. Because the experiences of people like me have so long been erased from media culture, it’s an artistic choice that seems both educational and, well, interesting. This has come, of course, with some very delicate balancing about who gets written into the stories and who is left out, what I feel I can speak about and what is better left unsaid. In my head, therefore, I have a complicated set of rules (and their attendant exceptions) about the personal — which accounts for so much of my subject matter — and the private; what I don’t write about. There is, however, a guiding principle: Don’t leave anyone feeling exposed.

That’s not a difficult principle to uphold, for me. On the one hand, discourse about transsexual experiences in particular continues to shade so strongly toward hard, bad, left out, cast out, betrayed, unwanted. Modern literary fashion strongly rewards the author for delving into the nakedly awful. But on the other hand, as both a storyteller and a Jew I am acutely aware of how important cultural transmission of our stories can be. I’m tender-hearted and optimistic in both my work and my personal life, and therefore enjoy writing uplifting stories and positive reflections. I don’t very often even consider writing my upset or frustrations with a particular person into my work. Far more likely is a description of some intimacy of friendship, or the recounting of an experience or adventure undertaken with someone I love, or have come to love. I really want to show warm places where a specific and real queer or transsexual person is known, and seen, to be well and happy.

Fortunately, my friends don’t feel any great need for privacy and my relatives are mostly used to my shenanigans. So, the principle against exposing people in my life is relatively easy to follow — at least, most of the time. But sometimes, I’m surprised. For example, I wrote into my show Machatunim/Gathering Light a line from my mother when she heard that my husband and I intended to have an entirely vegetarian wedding: “People are going to expect a real meal.” She later gave me permission to keep it in the show — in no small part because it’s just a really funny line. Though I offered to remove that bit if she felt ridiculed, I wouldn’t agree to remove the discussion of my parents’ long-past bad behavior concerning my gender expression or sexual orientation (though I did contextualize it) from other work. Those chapters give a sense of how far we’ve all come, together. I judge that to be essential to the narrative, and it trumps even my desire to protect my loved ones.

We will see in a decade, I suppose, how my now-four-year-old feels about being written about at such length in his relative smallness. Where other children only have to worry about that embarrassing toddler photo in which they’re wearing only a pair of red socks, my son’s early life is in the library – his journey of having long hair, his feelings about air travel, and so on. While I try to tell only the stories that show him in his better moments, he may feel otherwise and I can’t really predict. Ultimately, I feel the weight of responsibility to him. And yet, I also feel an equally strong and equally protective obligation to tell my full story to an audience that might not otherwise have imagined that a queer trans man could marry, have children, and riff about all this after a performance with his parents — who are still, after all these years, coming to the show.

S. Bear Bergman visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, July 9, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Kirk DeMatas, Dorianne Emmerton and Tamai Kobayashi. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by literary agent Monica Pacheco, entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literary Agents *But Were Afraid to Ask”!

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BWS 09.07.14: Kirk DeMatas

Kirk DeMatas headshot

Kirk DeMatas is a Toronto-born poet and the author of two poetry collections, Wordspeak and Conversations with Skeletons. He has performed on television, radio and in various venues across Toronto, and frequently collaborates with fellow artists on music, video, film and dance projects. Kirk took time out from his current project — a third book — to talk to the BWS Blog about his work.

 

BWS: You often perform your poetry with musical accompaniment, (as you will at BWS on July 9!). Do you still read it unaccompanied? How do you find the approaches compare? What do you find the music brings to the poems? And what are the biggest challenges that come with reading poems to musical accompaniment?

Kirk: I like to mix things up when I read for an audience, so I tend to read a few pieces unaccompanied and then have a few pieces with musical accompaniment. I enjoy the variety and I especially enjoy seeing the reactions in the crowd when I call up Scott Taylor and Jeff Beaudoin of The Blackwater Project. My voice is naturally soft, so when I read my poetry without accompaniment, there is a vulnerability that comes through easily, but when I am accompanied by music, I find that my voice takes on a harder, rougher edge. The music adds another layer of feeling and tone to the pieces. I grew up watching a lot of big entertainers put on full shows with lights, dancers, background singers, and video clips, so I try to incorporate a super-compact version of that showmanship. The biggest challenge for me is timing. I can’t rush ahead or slow down to a crawl when I recite because I have to listen to the music and go with the flow — otherwise all those rehearsals in the studio were for nothing!

BWS: You work in many different media and forms: poetry and music, obviously, but also dance, dramatic arts, film, video and more. How do you pick your projects? And do you find it hard to choose which material goes into which medium? Do you experiment much, or do you always know which form will best fit which idea?

Kirk: The ideas usually pick the medium right from the start. I like to experiment and try new methods to express myself or to express an idea. I enjoy the challenge and rarely, if ever, does a project “fail,” because if I express what I need or want to, and everything turns out as I envisioned, then that is success to me.

BWS: One striking thing about your poetry is its focus on personal identity – “Witness Me” and “I,” for instance, talk about the struggle to know, to have, to protect one’s identity, not to mention one’s right to it. Tell us more about how and why identity figures so prominently in your work.

Kirk: I was raised in a Catholic household and though my parents did not groom me to become a priest, I did consider travelling up the ranks of the Church, even so far as taking my first steps by becoming a Eucharist Minister. However, my true identity had been suffering in silence (in the closet) like so many before. We are all complex individuals and I was frustrated that I was unable to exist openly and completely as a full person. I was frustrated that even though many around me openly expressed their disgust toward “modern-day” racism, some of those same individuals became extremely quiet when the topic of homophobia was brought up. When I finally came out to friends, I felt that sense of euphoria that I had heard my older gay male friends talk about. Not that this feeling of happiness and relief was directly related to whether or not friends accepted me, but moreso, that I was able to verbally express my identity, regardless of the opinions of others. Knowing who I am has given me so much power to not just exist, but to actually create my life. I think it is important that each and every one of us embarks upon a personal journey to discovering or clarifying identity.

BWS: Is there a difference in your poetry between “a” personal identity and “your” personal identity? Would you say your work largely comes from your own personal experience, self-discovery, etc.? If so, do you find it intimidating to put so much of yourself out there?

Kirk: I have written poetry that comments on the experiences of others, as well as social issues, but the bulk of my poetry is still autobiographical. When I was younger, if I was upset about something, sometimes the only way for me to feel better was to exorcise those negative feelings by writing them down. The more I wrote about my feelings, the better I understood myself. So even now, if I feel that urge to get a particular feeling out of my system, I have to comply. It can be intimidating to be naked on the page for others to see, but it can also be liberating. I have always been inspired by artists, singers and musicians who turned to their crafts to express their feelings, because at times, those pieces moved and comforted me. I would feel honoured if even one of my poems was able to connect with another person in a meaningful way.

BWS: And what about the identity you performed for Conversations with Skeletons? What is the image or character you’re portraying on the book cover, and what does it mean?

Kirk: Conversations with Skeletons was probably my most artistically fulfilling, emotionally exhausting, exhilarating, terrifying and cathartic project to date. The bird that is painted over my right eye is the sankofa, a West African symbol that states that before one can move forward successfully in the present and the future, one must look back to the past, to learn and make peace with it. I looked at 30 experiences that I considered self-defining or life-defining for me and I wrote each piece imagining that I was still in the moment. This was my catharsis. I travelled to the darkest places I could imagine in the hope that I would learn and make peace, and then come out at the other end of the tunnel and walk right into the light. Ironically, that is exactly what happened. I wrote this for my nephews so that when they grow older and experience the pain of heartbreak or other life lessons, they can look at me and see that I made it and find this same strength within themselves. If this book helps my nephews, my own future kids or anyone else to recognize their self-worth and power to take control of life, then my job is done.

Kirk DeMatas visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, July 9, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with S. Bear Bergman, Dorianne Emmerton and Tamai Kobayashi. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by literary agent Monica Pacheco, entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literary Agents *But Were Afraid to Ask”!

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