Kevin Hardcastle looks back on an interview with John Metcalf at IFOA 2016

On the final day of the festival, I got to sit in on a conversation between acclaimed writer and professor Randy Boyagoda, and renowned writer, editor, and literary critic, John Metcalf. John edited my collection of stories for Biblioasis (Debris), and I managed to hand him the last loose pages for the novel we are working on for next fall. Nonetheless, I would’ve advised any serious writers and readers to get to that event and hear the truth from a man who has given his entire life to Canadian literature, and who doesn’t shy away from sharing his opinions on the strengths and shortcomings of CanLit.

John Metcalf has quietly been shaping part of Canada’s literary scene for the better part of forty years now. Working with dozens of writers, especially emerging writers with a distinct voice and a focus on craft. His emphasis on quality over shine has created entire generations of excellent writers and prose stylists. Though Metcalf has no bones about telling people what books he thinks are terrible, he has undeniably contributed to our national literature by focusing intensely on what he thinks is good writing, with no concern for CanLit trends or the market at large.Metcalf John

“If you think what you’re writing is sellable, you’re demented,” said Metcalf from the stage at his IFOA event. If this seemed like a disconcerting statement, I would suggest that you think of it as a very Metcalfian way to say that a great deal of fine literature, and art, does not always land in whatever sweet spot the market is turned toward at that time. To bend to the market could spoil the very thing that makes the writing interesting, and, in some cases, difficult to sell.

What Metcalf’s approach dictates, as evidenced by his own career, is the belief that marketing and promotion should be a secondary concern when you are trying to produce the best literary work. That the focus necessary for the best kind of lines, and books, should not be polluted by the bigger picture thinking that comes with trying to eat and make it in the industry. That success may somehow come, but if you are doing something interesting, and breaking new ground, you’d be best not to hold your breath. Metcalf as editor and critic would tell a writer that they should not let “success,” or the promise of it, change their approach and efforts to the actual work. But if they stick to their craft, however unsexy that may be, they might just reshape our national literature in a much more substantial way than the pursuit of sales and casual readers. Nonetheless, even with Metcalf’s editorial focus entirely on the quality of the writing, the weight of the work, wider success has been found by many of books and authors he has worked on.

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You need only look at the writers that have had a real, sustained literary impact during or after working with Metcalf to see that he knows how to spot and develop the very best writing, and that readers will support it. A shortlist would include: Russell Smith, Kathy Page, Caroline Adderson, Steven Heighton, Andrew Pyper, Annabel Lyon, K.D. Miller, Michael Winter, Amy Jones, Anakana Schofield, Rebecca Rosenblum and so on. He worked for eighteen years as editor for Porcupine’s Quill, without pay, before bringing his skills to Biblioasis (his memoir, An Aesthetic Underground, had a considerable impact on publisher Dan Wells). Metcalf’s approach has helped Biblioasis build a groundswell of success over the past few years, with a focus on quality above all, and the fruits of their labour are plain. Few Canadian publishing houses have produced such a wide range of unique and interesting titles in recent years, with all of them linked by the fact that they are damn well written, and have real literary weight and staying power. Since landing on the Giller Prize shortlist in 2010 with Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod, Biblioasis has had books in contention for various major Canadian prizes. Anakana Schofield won the Amazon First Novel Award for Malarky, and was later shortlisted for the Giller for Martin John, sharing that space with Samuel Archibald’s translated collection, Arvida. Kathy Page has been on the Giller longlist twice in the past three years, and the translation of Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall was shortlisted this year. Even lowly writer, Kevin Hardcastle, won the Trillium Book Award for his Metcalf-edited title, Debris.

The interviewer at IFOA, Randy Boyagoda, was clearly very familiar with the work Metcalf has done, and Boyagoda zeroed in on one of the most overlooked things about John Metcalf. That he is a gifted writer and prose stylist, praised by the likes of Alice Munro, and that comes to bear on his editorial and critical eye. This event came on the heels of the publication of his first book in twenty-six years, The Museum at the End of the World. His skill as a writer is often overlooked amidst all of the focus on his editorial and critical volume, but it is that skill and eye that allows him to edit and critique so surgically. Metcalf spoke at length about how he brings a level of precision to his own writing, to each line, and to each word. He said that good lines “change to reader to an active participant in the story,” with the work provoking a “deliberate emotional response” from the reader. He also stated the he tries for a natural flow that borders on the poetic, and thinks that it should tend toward that in aesthetic and sound. He even told Mr. Boyagoda that he thinks about the rhythm and cadence of his writing as “being part of music.”

A highlight of the event came when Boyagoda brought up an exchange that he’d had with Metcalf before the talk. In that conversation, he has suggested that Metcalf’s latest work could have been a novel, instead of a collection of stories and novellas, and for this he apparently received a “stern warning from John” about such ideas. “If you did (suggest it should be a novel), you would be misreading,” said Metcalf. He went on to clarify that he chose the form that suited the writing, and said that “if (The Museum at the End of the World) was a novel, there would have to be a lot of padding,” and that he hoped, by writing it as needed, that there was not “a single bit of wadding” in the book. If anyone knows about Metcalf’s work in writing and developing short fiction in Canada, none of this will come as a surprise.

Above all, Metcalf has championed the short story in Canada, a form that most of his writers have excelled in. It is how he has discovered so many talented writers throughout the country, and how he often measures them against some of their peers or predecessors. The short story collection is something that is produced in Canada regularly, often the first book for a writer. But Metcalf’s short story writers are those who value the form as integral and essential, regardless of the opinions of most publishers and readers, and other foreign markets, and so it is no surprise that they are on board with his philosophies on writing, and that this has often been channelled into novels and other works that have put them more squarely in the spotlight of CanLit.

It was plain from the conversation that Metcalf has not wavered on his aesthetic approach to writing, and that he hasn’t softened on some of the lesser points of the writing life. Especially with regards to the lives and sometimes hilarious experiences of being a noted Canadian author. In his own writing, the character Robert Forde often traverses the space that a “Canadian author” occupies, a mix of inflated solemnity, genuine appreciation, achievements simultaneously celebrated and rendered invisible. Still, his dedication to those writers that strive for greatness on the page cannot be questioned. If he might brush off his impact on Canadian literature as his job, something that deserves no public praise, there are many others in the community that will not let him skate on that. Metcalf once plainly told me that I must have “sweated blood” to do some work that seemed straightforward enough on the page. I would say that the man has done the same for the most of his professional life, without public fanfare, but so many significant members of the literary community have seen that blood colour countless pages of essential Canadian literature. Irreversibly so. And they are glad for it.

 

By guest blogger Kevin Hardcastle. Follow Kevin on Twitter @KHardcase

IFOA 2016: A Commonplace Book by Andy McGuire

What follows is a selection from the commonplace book I kept during my time at the 37th edition of the International Festival of Authors. A compilation of happenings, musings and quotations, turns of mind that attracted my attention, and things I found delightful, struck me as true, or at least pretty wise.

When you have no cash at a cash bar.

When a good book ends, I get sad because I have to say goodbye.

Heike Steinweg

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We didn’t know it was the eighties at the time. Nobody told us until about 1987, and by then it was almost over.

Jay McInerney

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The best advice I ever received was from my mentor and teacher, Raymond Carver. He said,You have to write every day. You can’t just wait for the muse to visit you. You have to be there at your desk, in position. It’s like learning a second language, or an instrument—you have to practice every day.

Jay McInerney

 

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Where are we supposed to go, is something that I think is increasingly true for people. It’s not, I’ve immigrated from one place to another and have the option of going back—there is no back to go to. It can be a sad and unsettling thing, but I think it also allows you to redefine home in the way you want to. My friends make fun of me because I say, I want to go home, meaning I want to go back to the hotel room, or, actually, I want to go back to the place where I can be by myself and pull stupid faces and no one will know. That’s usually what I mean when I say home.

Rowan Hisayo Buchanan

When you go away from a place—and I’ve found this with London in the last six or seven years—the place changes as well. You go away, you change, you have a life somewhere else, but you go back and the place has also moved on. The place is not a fixed thing. The more time you spend away from a place, the more your relationship with it changes, and a gap does inevitably open up. Everything is sort of in motion all the time. When I go back to London now, I feel like we’ve drifted apart, and that’s quite dismaying in a way, because if you think of a place as your bedrock home, as your anchor, and then you find that you have a different relationship with it, that can be quite unsettling.

David Szalay

Through all the years we are expected not to look at one another, I looked.

Alexander Maksik

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Ranting with a translator and a fellow poet about the luxurious idiocy of leaf blowers.

In 1886, the federal government took away the dower rights of women in the Northwest Territories, that is, the Western Canadian women. That was a big part of why the Famous Five—Nelly McClung, Emily Murphy, and so on—wanted so much to change the constitution. The other thing was that when the Dominion Lands Act was instituted in Western Canada in 1872, women could virtually not get free land, only men could. But in 1862, in the American West, women could get free land on the same basis as men. So if you draw that a little further on, you come to the suffragettes. In Western Canada, that’s where all the suffragettes were. They were all Western Prairie women. We were the ones who got you guys the vote, you know. Whereas in the United States the suffragettes were all on the Eastern Seaboard. There was no great suffragette movement in the western United States, and feminist historians think that it’s because Western American women could get free land.

Sharon Butala

Part of the condition of being a writer, of being an artist of any kind, is the expectation that no one wants what you’ve produced.

Alexander Maksik

The gummies at the Penguin Random House party were the freshest gummies I ever did chew.

You cannot discover Shakespeare. Shakespeare is everywhere in our society.

Marcos Giralt Torrente

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Shakespeare finds you. One is confronted by his work.

My earliest experiences of books were not due to reading, but due to being read to. I remember laying my head on my uncle’s chest and feeling the reverberation of the words.

Hisham Matar

Thinking is not very useful in writing.

Something we rarely speak about when we speak about writing is silence. Language itself, prose, includes silence. A certain quality of silence. If you think back on a reading experience that was particularly powerful, in your youth perhaps, you might remember the bench you were sitting on, or the colour of the light, but you also remember the quality of the silence that the book has shaped—that quality bleeds into our lives. Literature is not language; that’s the paradox. Literature is something else, something unnamable that is outside of language, and the whole history of literature, in all of the languages, is an attempt to respond to that.

Hisham Matar

Nina Bunjevac: I would read any comics, except for those Italian editions—Zagor—which had country and western kind of themes. One of them was this superhero who lives in the woods in Canada, and has a beaver hat and a raccoon hat. Only grown-up men read those.

Seth: You get to a certain age as a man, and that’s the kind of stuff you like to read.

What draws me to any material is first and foremost language. I spent many years reading about anatomy, to the point of studying medical Latin. It’s just such a wonderful, rich, layered, historical language for a poet—it’s irresistible. And, you know, writing about blood and guts has its appeal, too.

Sylvia Legris

The Japanese language allows for an entire sentence to be created without a subject.

Takashi Hiraide

I never read a book until I was fourteen. This guy gave me a book for Christmas—I’m sure his mother got it for him to give to me—and it was called Oliver Twist. I immediately flipped through it to see if it had any pictures. It had no pictures, so I said I’m not reading this, and put it on my night stand. About four months later I was frigging around and it fell down, and I picked it up and started reading it. I read it in three days. There were two things I realized: that Charles Dickens was a great writer, and I wanted to be a writer, too.

David Adams Richards

Poetry is a slow business. One gets used to moving very gradually, if at all, through the world. The sense that nothing is going to get done is the norm for the versifier. But of course the world does move at a pace, and one would never ever be able to live at that speed directly from one’s poetry earnings. One of the things that a poet needs is a job. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not a bad thing. I can’t imagine anything worse than being able to write poetry twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. It would be dreadful. I mean, it would be dreadful anyway, even if one gets to do it once a week or once a month.

Paul Muldoon

When Ciaran O’Rourke said, I think if you have an interest in poetry, you have a special relationship with misery, we laughed.

Six years is a long time to continue neither living nor dying.

Sunila Galappatti

I could never settle for half a freedom.

Madeleine Thien

The dead do not always lie quietly.

Guy Gavriel Kay

I cannot imagine reading a book about my life and not wanting to change a thing. A paraphrase of a lovely thing Sunila Galappatti said. I would want to delete some years altogether. Probably spend a disproportionate number of pages focusing on my being a failed falconer.

People who use the word Luddite sound like Luddites.

 

By guest blogger Andy McGuire. Follow Andy on Twitter @ajdmcguire

 

Nancy Jo Cullen looks back on Ireland @ IFOA

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My people have been in Canada since famine forced them out of Ireland in the late 1840s. When my family piled into the yellow station wagon for our summer vacation it was our habit to sing on the long road trip to our destination. One of our favourite family sing alongs was, Dublin in the Green. I have a clear memory of belting out the chorus: We’re off to Dublin in the green in the green/ with our helmets glittering in the sun/ where the bayonets flash and the rifles clash/ to the rattle of a Thompson gun.

Our dad told us the story of our Irish ancestor who was forced to flee Ireland as a rebel. And it may be that after the failed rebellion of 1848 this actually happened although I suspect it’s more likely that my ancestors were tenant farmers forced off their land by starvation or evicted by British land speculators. Nevertheless, when I was five years old I knew a good portion of the words of a rebel marching song. Whatever the facts may have been, my ancestors had been in Canada for a few generations when the violent struggle for Irish independence began and it was easy to romanticize armed struggle when one was safely planted in a new country that provided a safer and wealthier home than the one that had been left.

Catriona Crowe’s talk on Ireland’s decade of revolutionary violence from the 1913 Lockout to Independence in 1923 made short work of the romantic embellishments of my Irish Canadian origin story. As she discussed Ireland’s centenary commemorations of her country’s violent beginnings she painted a stark picture of the toll the brutal decade of insurrection and civil war took on the Irish people. There is abundant documentation and events, from books to digital archives, exhibitions, immersive theatre productions to post cards, cakes and knitted replicas of the General Post Office, and through all this Ireland has tried to memorialize its difficult beginnings in a way that honours the lives lost and allows the Irish to look frankly at their difficult beginning as a nation state. As she neared the end of her talk Catriona Crowe said, “There are things to be proud of and things to be ashamed of in our history and in that we are no different than any other country.”

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Irish people paid a great cost in the years leading up to independence; part of that price was the migration of millions of Irish,including my ancestors, to the so-called New World. As Canada engages in our own peace and reconciliation process I can’t help but get stuck on the irony that my ancestors were forced by the colonial actions of a more powerful state out of their homeland, then we, in turn, benefited from a colonial system that oppressed the original peoples of North America. Perhaps as Canada moves into its bi-centenary we will have managed to produce a kind of reconciliation that allows us, like the people of Ireland, to look back frankly at our history and also to move positively into a future that embraces all people who are living in this land.

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By guest blogger Nancy Jo Cullen. Follow Nancy on Twitter @nancyjocullen

Looking back at Five Artists, Five Ways with Ania Szado

Visual art and writing—when obsessions collide

By Ania Szado

Some 30-odd years ago, cartoonist Seth and I were both students at Ontario College of Art. At the time, I was familiar with him by reputation of his talent, and impressed by his dashing personal style. I was less memorable as a visual presence, as was my student art. A few years later, when I stopped painting to focus on writing, I felt I’d finally found my medium.

And yet. All these years later, I still yearn to paint. My social media feeds are proof that many of my writer friends have been feeling the same desire. We’re picking up sketchbooks, acrylics, oils. Why?

I attended IFOA’s Five Artists, Five Ways: The Modern Graphic Novel round table hoping for clues. Seth brought together Nina Bunjevac, Jon McNaught, Chris Oliveros, Michael DeForge, and Nick Drnaso. Like me, these artists had started by making visual works without text.graphicnovellists2

 

“Drawing an image is powerful,” noted Seth.

It is. I had a piece in a self-portrait show recently. It made my mother weep—and not in pride or joy. “This is how you see yourself? It’s so dark.” It prompted my boyfriend and the show’s curator to ponder why someone who always seems so happy would convey such a picture of despair.

I brushed it off as an issue of style, not an unveiling of the soul. Seth asked about drawing styles. He said that many comic book artists are reluctant to discuss style. But for me, style is a far more comfortable subject to address than the emotional basis of a creative work, inasmuch as style often has a functional basis and role.

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One panelist said his style came from a love of linocut. Another, from a scarcity of time (“no crosshatching”). Michael DeForge’s style came out of making band gig posters, whose purpose “is not to invite people in, but to keep them out.” That struck a chord. It’s like showing artwork in public for the first time in 30 years, and choosing a piece that pushes away the gaze.

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If ever I explore that dichotomy, it will be in fiction. I’m less exposed in my fiction than in my paintings. That gives me the courage to write. But for Nina Bunjevac, personal exposure drives creativity. Seth asked why she made a book about her family. “How could I not?” she replied. “Who else has a father for a terrorist?!”

Why make art of any kind? “It’s not logical to want to do it,” said Chris Oliveros. “It’s an obsession.” Jon McNaught said making art “is a way of holding onto something.”

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There is an obsession to capture and create. Sometimes we start with the image and feel compelled to begin working with words. Sometimes, like many of my writer friends these days, it’s the opposite. Either way, as Seth said, “At some point, you want to tell something. Drawing an image is powerful, but there’s something about telling a story.”

 

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!

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