Five Questions with Nathan Storring

IFOA: Why is Jane Jacobs work so important today?Storring Nathan

Nathan Storring: In a world that is increasingly urbanized, and in a time of rising inequality and environmental crisis, Jane Jacobs still has plenty to tell us. As we note in the book, her vision of the city was not only one of lively streets, but of a place where any ordinary person can make and carry out their own “vital little plans.” In the social realm, this is what keeps our cities interesting, safe, and functional. In the economic realm, this microscopic, often marginal activity is what continues to create an urban middle class, and what produces the genuinely groundbreaking innovations that upset the status quo. Without that flow of new plans by ordinary people, she argued, the rich would grow richer, the poor would grow in number, and our problems would pile up unsolved—a claim that sounds eerily familiar today.

IFOA: How can we use her ideas to make our cities better?

Nathan Storring: There are so many fresh, concrete ideas and strategies in Vital Little Plans that people could try out in their own community. Fundamentally, though, I think the most important thing Jane Jacobs has to teach us isn’t what she thought about the city, but how she thought about it. She encourages us readers to observe real places, talk to real people, and come to our own conclusions based on what we see and hear, rather than relying on conventional wisdom—including hers.

IFOA: Tell us about editing this book.

Nathan Storring: This book had steeped for several years before we really started working on it in early 2014. My first job after graduating from OCAD University in Toronto was actually working on a graphic novel compilation of short stories about Jane Jacobs with some of her colleagues. It never came to fruition, but in the process, I read all of her books and got a second education on cities from those wonderful people. It was around that time that I started noticing a few obscure articles by Jane Jacobs and tucking them away in a folder on my computer. A few years later, I met Sandy as a Masters student at Brown University, and he first raised the idea of publishing these articles as a collection, especially given her centennial this year.

The actual editing process was quite difficult. We have a massive spreadsheet of every article, speech and interview we found, and what made it into the book is less than a quarter of that spreadsheet. We narrowed it down by focusing on Jacobs’s own words, avoiding things she wrote collaboratively and including interviews only sparingly. We also narrowed the field to works that offers both fresh, new material and connections to her major books. For example, many speeches build upon her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), but address things she never talked about there, like infill construction or new kinds of zoning. And of course, we tried to avoid too much overlap between the works, since many ideas and examples recur throughout her career.

In terms of organization, we decided to present the works chronologically rather than thematically to dispel the idea that you can really understand any part of Jacobs’s thought in isolation. The city building intertwines with the economics which intertwines with the ethics. Instead, the works are divided into periods that reflect important moments in her writing career: when she moved to New York; when she began writing at Architectural Forum; when she decided to become an author rather than continue her career as a journalist, and so on. Each part adds a new layer of themes to the last, but the prior themes never disappear.

IFOA: What will this work teach the new architects, urban planners and policy makers?

Nathan Storring: People often talk about how Jane Jacobs has already been incorporated into the work of city planners and architects and urban politicians, but I hope this book will challenge urbanists to reexamine how deeply they really make use of her ideas. The physical city she described in Death and Life—dense and mixed-use with short blocks and old buildings—has become conventional wisdom. But the thinking behind those qualities is lost. We preserve plenty of old buildings, but we’re terrible at preserving the affordability of housing and workspace, which is why Jacobs advocated for saving old buildings in the first place. So hopefully this collection will help professionals think through Jacobs’s ideas about the social and economic city in greater depth, and if they disagree with her reasoning, I hope it spurs some passionate, thoughtful rebuttals.

IFOA: How would you describe Jane Jacobs’ ideal neighborhood or community?

Nathan Storring: I think I accidentally already have: a place where any ordinary person can make and carry out their own “vital little plans.” In other words, a place that is not only pleasant and lively, but a place that serves the greater potential of cities as Jacobs saw it: problem solving, prosperity, and social mobility.

Nathan Storring @ IFOA:

Robert Kanigel, Nathan Storring, and Samuel Zipp discuss Jane Jacobs’ legacy and how she changed our perception of the neighborhood and the city with David Miller on Saturday, October 29 at 12pm. For tickets click here!

Happiness Is Always Somewhere Else

Guest post by visiting Spanish author, Luisgé Martín.

The 9-11 attacks against the Twin Towers is one of those happenings that will remain in the memory of mankind even when mankind does not remember anymore its sociopolitical causes, nor is there any trace left of its aftermath. It will remain because it has, adapted to modernity, a Shakespearian-theatre art. This is because it is the perfect stage on which to represent all human passions, all tragedies, all the substance of life.

In The Same City I don’t talk about the attacks. The attacks are the set and the driving force of what happens to the main character, Brandon Moy, but they are not the core of the story. In 2004 or 2005, whilst reading some books on the 9-11 attacks, I came upon terrible stories, with an extraordinary literary symbolism. One of them—I don’t know if true or not—was about a mother and a son who died at the same time during the attacks: she in the plane and he in the tower.

There were also many stories of those who had saved their lives just by chance: the one who had lost his flight because he had woken up late, the one who had changed his flight in the last minute due to an unexpected and arbitrary work trip, the woman who had been fired from her job at the towers just the day before the attacks. All of them were lives on the wire, on the edge of the abyss. And in that storm of dreadful trifles there always was a literary feel which I liked.

That is how I came up with the story told in The Same City. Or rather, that is how I found the setting for a story that had been haunting my novelist mind: that of a man who has everything that might be needed to be happy—a wife he loves, a son, a valued job, money, freedom—and yet he isn’t happy because he yearns for the dreams he had when he was young.  

The Same City is a novel about human dissatisfaction, about that curious feel we have all had many times that it is only others who have managed to make their dreams come true. We need to be born again, we wish to start anew, but we are not able to do so because we are trapped by life. Brandon Moy, suddenly, gets that second chance: when everybody takes for granted he has been killed in the attacks, he decides to run away.

The 9-11 attacks were not the only element with an excellent narrative drive, New York also had it. New York is the city everyone wants to live in, it is the world’s capital. My character, who lives there, on the contrary, wants to leave. Many people think they could be happy in New York; he believes he can only be happy away from it.

Dissatisfaction, the urge to change, to be reborn, to live one thousand lives. That is one of the main themes of human nature, I believe, and I have talked about it in many of my books. In The Same City it becomes the core subject. When I sat down to write it, I didn’t know where Brandon Moy and I would end up. I traveled with him to Boston, to Latin America, to Spain and I searched next to him those dreams of youth that he believed he had lost and that he believed he would achieve far away from the routines of his life. Would he be able to do it? Would he really be reborn? Would he have another life better than the one he was leaving behind while New York was in flames? That is what I wanted to know, perhaps to follow his steps if his attempt was successful. And that is what I try to get the reader to do.

Luisgé Martín @ IFOA:

Darren Greer, Luisgé Martin and Nathan Whitlock reinvent the Man and propose a more fluid and ever changing identity that breaks rules and assumptions on Wednesday, October 26 at 8pm. For tickets click here!

Join international authors Luisgé Martin and Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir as they read from their latest works in Found In Translation on Thursday, October 27 at 6pm. For tickets click here!



Martin Luisge

Five questions with Miguel Ángel Hernández

Hernandez Miguel AngelIFOA: Why did you choose to write a novel to talk about contemporary art?

Miguel Ángel Hernández: I work as an art critic and historian and I had written a huge number of texts on contemporary art from an analytical point of view. But I felt myself doing art autopsies, like forensics, feeling that something was missing in my approach to art. I needed to introduce emotions, intensity, the real experience of art. I needed to make art works in real life. And I needed to move the discussion about some problems of contemporary art (the body, the self, social engagement, pain, death…) out from the world of art, to connect with a larger audience beyond the world of art experts and amateurs. So I decided to write a novel in which contemporary art could act and have a seminal role in real life. Because, in the end, art is always about life, even if sometimes art criticism makes us believe that it is just about art.


IFOA: Is your character, Marcos, an artist after all?

Miguel Ángel Hernández: He is a student of Fine Arts, so even if he wants to escape from the idea of being an artist he can’t avoid it. His research about migration looks like a work of art, his own action in Escape Attempt could be considered a performance. He decides in the end to choose life instead of art, but this decision, if you think of it carefully, is also an artistic decision: contemporary art is full of those kind of acts of rejection. Conceptual Art is sometimes about that. So in a certain way Marcos is close to being a conceptual artist. Maybe he can’t escape from art.


IFOA: Why did you choose to focus on invisibility & immigration?

Miguel Ángel Hernández: I was interested as an art critic in both subjects, but they were separated in my work. I wrote a PhD on “Antivisual Art”, the forms in which contemporary art avoid visibility fighting against the pleasure and domination of sight. And I curated an exhibition on Migratory Aesthetics and the ways in which contemporary art embodies the experience of migration. When I started writing my novel I realized that both interests were close. For one of the central issues in immigration is precisely invisibility. And I decided to work about how we perceive immigration in visual terms, how something can be invisible even if it is in front of our eyes, or how sometimes you need to hide, to erase, to efface in order to make the absence visible.


IFOA: Should art have boundaries? Is there unethical art?

Miguel Ángel Hernández: I think the limits of art are the legal limits. Art is not different from other jobs. It is not a state of exception. An artist is a worker, not someone that can do everything she/he wants. When you think of art as a separate world with no boundaries at all in the end you are thinking of an art without political agency. I prefer to think of an art engaged in social reality, that’s to say, an art that plays a role in the realm of politics. And that is an art that has social and legal boundaries and only then can it try to expand, subvert or reform them. But an art without boundaries is a non-effective art.

The question of ethics also has another answer, because art and ethics are separate domains, at least on what refers to modern art. From Courbet on, modern art is free from ethics as a coercive force. This means that an artist can do a good work of art that is not a good ethical action. That’s exactly what happens with Jacobo Montes, the artist in Escape Attempt. His works are valuable and full of potency as works of art, but they are problematic in ethical terms. The whole novel is about the tension between these two things. Because sometimes you have to choose: to be in the side art or to be in the side of ethics. And that decision, of course, is complicated.


IFOA: What’s next for you?

Miguel Ángel Hernández: I published my second novel last year, The Moment of Danger (El instante de peligro). It is a reflection about the memory of images, polyamory and the necessity of slow time. The novel remains in the realm of contemporary art and in a certain way could be considered a sort of second part of Escape Attempt, in the sense that the main character is close to Marcos, but in his forties and with the feeling that all the dreams of his youth have been shattered.

And now I am writing a non-fiction novel about a hard moment in my life twenty years ago. It is a true-crime novel in which art for the first time has nothing to do. I am entering an absolutely new and dangerous territory for me. And I must confess that I am not exactly enjoying the process. Sometimes literature is painful, but necessary.

Miguel Ángel Hernández @ IFOA:

Miguel Ángel Hernández, Suzana Tratnik and Ruth Ware discuss the journeys of their characters with the Toronto Star’s Deborah Dundas on Tuesday, October 25 at 6:30pm. For tickets click here!

From Spain to New York and Canada, from painting to performance art and music, Miguel Ángel Hernández, Molly Prentiss, and Eric Beck Rubin explore the lives of artists and their surroundings on Saturday, October 29 at 8pm. For tickets click here!




IFOA 2016 Blog Tour


This year to continue to spread the word about the great authors and books at the Festival we reached out to Toronto-based bloggers to review some of this year’s lineup. Check them out!

photo-kerry-c-blog-tour-ifoa2016KERRY CLARE is a failed pickler who has been writing about books and reading at Pickle Me This for more than 10 years now. Her debut novel, Mitzi Bytes, will be published in the spring. Read Kerry’s review of Lola Lafon’s The Little Communist Who Never Smiled here.





photo-teena-d-blog-tour-ifoa2016TEENA DAWSON is originally from Nova Scotia and has lived in Toronto for almost thirty years. Her love of culture is broad and she writes about her experiences at Teena in Toronto. Though she has always enjoyed reading, she has a particular fondness for Canadian authors and she has been writing about their works for many years. Teena reviewed Advocate by Darren Greer. You can read her review here.






illus-christine-n-blog-tour-ifoa2016-credit-kelly-duncanCHRISTINE NGUYEN is a 26-year-old bookish blogger, student and occasional-cupcake-eater, who posts about reading and book hauls and other bookish things at Padfoot’s Library. Christine Nguyen reviewed Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat. You can find her review here.





photo-jaclyn-q-blog-tour-ifoa2016JACLYN QUA-HIANSEN is a Filipino-Canadian book blogger passionate about advocating for greater diversity in art and literature. Her work has been published in The Puritan’s Town Crier, Canada Arts Connect Magazine, Spirit of the City Mississauga Life Magazine, Drain Magazine and Blog TO. Find her on Twitter @jacqua83 and at her book blog Literary Treats. Jaclyn reviewed The Parcel by Anosh Irani. You can read it here.




Blog Tour was coordinated by long-time IFOA attendee and book blogger Marcie McCauley.illus-marcie-bip-blog-tour-ifoa2016-credit-greg-hill

MARCIE MCCAULEY lives and writes in Toronto. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Other Voices, Five Fingers Review (US) and Mslexia (UK) and she writes about books and bookishness at Buried In Print.

Granny, Will Your Dog Bite? An Interview with Phil Hall


Photo credit: Mark Goldstein

IFOA: The balance and rhythm between the words and pauses is a big part of your poems. How does music influence your writing?

Phil Hall: I like jazz (Charlie Mingus/David Murray) & old time fiddle tunes (Smiley Bates/Jarvis Benoit).

Against these authenticities, the philosophy of nostalgia crowds its tin-ear into poetry wherever it can.

Louis Zukofsky set the upper limit of language in poetry at music, and the lower limit at talk. It sounds obvious, but isn’t, because words leaving the world and entering poems from high or low become notes.

Following Zukofsky’s A, my tinkering inside poems is increasingly about ways to design my talk as music.

Punctuation is a prose tool—a tool kit for making a manual surface clear & smooth in its argument. But in music, punctuation is timing. So, on my page I now use caesurae to pace the talk. Caesurae as visible scars.

Some of this isn’t Zukofsky; it is Doc Watson. I apprentice to both masters.  Bottom (Zuk) & Deep Water Blues (Doc).

Theory comes down to a hand-skill each day when I play my banjo. Right now I am learning a tune called “Granny, Will Yr Dog Bite?”

Prose logic is so slow the poem falls asleep.  How to make the words bite? Pick up the pace (as Tom Raworth has taught us) by getting the rhetoric out. Dream logic is a better singer.

As Olson says about the musical phrase:  One perception…must MOVE, INSTANTER, ON ANOTHER!

Or as Blossom Dearie says, in her little girl’s voice, Get in there & bash!

IFOA: We read that you once walked Santiago. How did this, and other journeys – physical, mental, emotional – contribute to your creative work?

Phil Hall: Oregano, Lightning, Olive…

Walking the Camino, I wrote only one word a day. I gave each day a name.

Then when I got home, I stamped the names onto 30 cards. A Deck of Days. To look through the deck at each name sets a little pace of its own…

I liked hiking in Spain because the 15 to 20 K a day knocked my chatter-mind out. I became a donkey. Platero!

Predicating this, when I was 15, I ran away to Florida. Eventually, I had to hitch-hike home up the American east coast in February 1968. It took me 2 weeks to get back.  

I remember the pace of hitch-hiking as a discipline of accident akin to writing poems: wait a long time, ride with what stops for you as far as it goes, then wait a long time again…

Fog, Wind, Cathedral…

I love a good walking city too—Vancouver, Lisbon: the inexhaustible abundance, the naming details.

(George Stanley’s Vancouver: A Poem, and Meredith Quartermain’s Walking Vancouver, are both tremendous book-long poetic journeys in that city.)

I work in lengthy forms, so Time becomes almost a character in my poems—they take longer & longer to abandon!

I like the going, which is process, more than I like the arrival, which is death or the published book…

I guess I like being a writer more than I like being an author.

Windmill, Toreador, Blister…


IFOA: Conjugation consists of poems written in the early morning. Are there creative benefits to this?

Phil Hall: Yes, much of Conjugation is about getting up early to write just before or at dawn.

The Spanish word for that early zone, that morning mood, is madrugar. So I call these poems madrugars.

Half asleep writing is pre-logic, dream damp melody, grey, creaking. That’s my littoral.

That’s where the stump of language is. I stand on that stump, with my eyes shut…

I don’t like myself well enough to trust my first thoughts. So I am not all jazz; I revise. Though I wish I didn’t have to…

In my revision, I try to compose an atmosphere of spontaneity by inclusion. It is trickery, but a welcoming trickery.

I think of Ginsberg’s “first thought” (he famously says “first thought, best thought”) as primal not chronological. I like my first thoughts more when I get up early. I like myself best before I’m fully—cognate.

My best words are usually buried under layers of surface crap, which means I have to return again and again to the same page, and wait out the false arrogances lyric is prone to (prose to), until the poem starts to say its own say—and then I have to let it.

Sometimes, a poem will set its own internal rules without me at first noticing. The poem might pick a stanza scheme that is familiar (I’ve used it before) or imitative (even worse) or easy (lazy). My job is to watch for those cheap rules or patterns and destroy them. By this process, the language might get somewhere surprising.

To surprise one’s self—to Pied Piper one’s self out of the Known into the mountainside of doubt. Why else bother?

As I say in one of the poems in Conjugation: “In the morning the poem solves everything / in the afternoon it stinks & I stink too.” (I’ve left out the caesurae.)

Or another metaphor: I used to like being up late, writing, as if I were the lighthouse keeper. But now I like to get up early and swim from the wreck I am. Word as shore…


IFOA: What’s your next creative project?Hall Phil

Phil Hall: Let’s not say “project.” It makes us poets sound like architects.

I am more like a guy who has snuck into a haberdashery at night and can’t get out. But keeps yelling.

The crime of sustaining a voice has brought many half-door-knobs and gizmos and whiz-bangs with it. I’m sorting them.

I am nurturing the amateur impulse however I can—against the times, but not willingly. I can’t help it. This is how I have found to not go silent.

Except for my miraculous kids—and except for a few assemblage art-things I’ve made—my books of poems, despite their failings (or maybe because of them) are the best whole-hog evidence of me attempting citizenry as song…

So I’m working on another book, another wallow: a grab-sing / a vow-try.


Phil Hall @ IFOA:

Re-awaken your love of poetry as you hear celebrated poets Phil Hall, Maureen Hynes, Sylvia Legris and Mark Wagenaar read from their new collections on Wednesday, October 26 at 8pm. For tickets click here!

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