Reading for a Poet

By Ania Szado

There’s a good crowd gathering in the Brigantine Room as the event’s featured writers and I convene in the green room. I’m here to host, with an added twist: I’ve been asked to read an English translation on behalf of one of the featured writers.

I agreed enthusiastically. I love doing readings. But now, receiving my instructions backstage, I hear, “He’ll read the first poem in his own language…” and two things hit me: reality, and nerves.

I’m a novelist, not a poet. It’s been years since I’ve written poetry, never mind read it to a discerning audience. And who could be more discerning than the poems’ creator? The last time I read an internationally renowned poet’s work to a packed house while he stood beside me listening was…

I can’t do this.

The poet comes into the green room. The book he holds is layered with numbered sticky tags. He has a friendly face and handshake. He walks me through the order of the poems he has chosen. His English is heavily accented, but excellent—he’ll definitely know if I mess up. Six poems. He’ll read the first one, then I’ll read them all. Maybe he’ll take the mic back at the end for a few lines. He looks concerned. I am concerned.

“It will be fine,” I say. He hands me his book.

When his turn comes, I introduce him, and step aside while he reads. Standing two feet from the spotlight, I’m far enough from the poet to be audience, yet close enough to feel the gathering power of the aura that seems to coalesce around him as he introduces his collection. I feel the energy that connects him to the listeners below us. I share their sense of anticipation, their focus, as the poet begins reading. I don’t understand his words, but I understand his commitment to them. A lump starts to form in my throat.

By the time he finishes that first poem, I don’t feel nervous; I feel privileged to help him present his work here.

I step into the light. I sense rather than see him beside me. I want him not to worry. This is his first English translation. I want to not disappoint him. I do my best. I take my time with the words, and they take me through. My best is not perfect, but it’s fine; I can feel it. The poet’s words and presence have made me a better reader.

When I finish, he extends his hand, but I gesture toward the podium, asking if he will read a few more lines in his language. He does so, adds a warm tribute to his translator, and exits the stage.

When the final author has read and the event is over, I approach the poet. I say, “I’m sorry—I didn’t take your hand.” He looks perplexed. I explain, “Onstage, after your reading. You offered your hand, and I didn’t take it.” It has been gnawing at me, this disrespectful thing.

But he says, “You didn’t? I don’t remember.”

I’m relieved. More than this, I realize that we were in all of this together—the pull of the written words, the audience’s attention, the slight logistical confusion.

He thanks me for my contribution, and I tell him it was an honour. I put my hand on my heart. It truly felt like an honour.

He tells me that he likes when his poems are read in a straightforward way. I suffer one last pang of anxiety. Had I been I too dramatic, swept up as I had been in the emotion of connection? He smiles. “So I appreciate how you read them.”

In 2014, CBC called Ania Szado one of “Ten Canadian Women You Need to Read.” Her short fiction has been nominated for the Journey Prize and National Magazine Awards, and her bestselling novel Studio Saint-Ex has received international acclaim. Szado’s debut novel, Beginning of Was, was regionally shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

Writers’ Writers

By Janet Somerville

writers' writersCanadian novelist Catherine Bush moderated this engaging panel featuring Marina Endicott, Anne Enright and Patrick Gale and began the conversation by asking, “How did you come to shape your novel?” Endicott “wanted to compress time and look at things closely and squeezed the narrative into one week” in Close to Hugh. Confessing to her modernist impulse to put things side by side, Enright said, “I spent a year improvising and working on characters. I want each to have the book, so it’s like four little novels in the first half” of The Green Road. And, Gale admitted that for A Place Called Winter, “I feel no one character can know everything. I wanted to be self-consciously Edwardian by channeling E.M. Forster. And, also like Elena Ferrante, who said, I publish to be read, so I make the pages as dense as possible, but easy to turn.”

Bush wondered if any of them were aware of their reader as they write. For Enright, “there’s no excuse for a dull page. I don’t indulge anne enrightthe reader at all, but I hope I pleasure them in the sentences. Each paragraph has to end someplace unexpected.” Endicott added, “I want the reader to know my characters and to enjoy being with them even if it’s painful.” Gale insisted he wanted readers “to forget they are reading.” As for writers, they read in an envious or passionate way, Gale was quick to note “Anne Tyler and Colm Toibin write books I wish I’d written and Middlemarch was the first time I read a novel that was a world.” Enright praised Edward St. Aubyn and Marilynne Robinson and Henry James and slagged Joyce’s Dubliners because when she was Young. It “felt like I was reading about my relatives and how boring they were,” though she later grew to admire the beauty of the prose. Endicott re-reads Penelope Fitzgerald because “her novels are so perfect, especially The Blue Flower.”

All three were ebullient about the editing process, Enright noting she had a copy editor who “rinses out the commas and semi-colons. It’s like sending your punctuation to a spa,” and also insisted that, “you want an editor to serve the book on its own terms. Their notes should be obvious.” Gale confessed he had “a secret editor that my main editor doesn’t know about.” And, Endicott admitted she loved, loved, loved editing because “the first draft is so difficult for me.” The audience full of readers nodded in understanding when Enright closed by saying, “When I was young, my interior life was all I had.” And, that Canadians were “lucky to have Alice Munro and Alistair Macleod in letters and in life.” We are. We are, indeed.

Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.

Reportage: Norway

By Janet Somerville

asneWar correspondent Åsne Seierstad, who has covered atrocities in Baghdad and Chechnya, turns her unflinching, candid eye to the July 2011 targeted killing of 69 Norwegian youth in her book One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway. She appeared in conversation with Susan G. Cole at the Lakeside Terrace on Wednesday evening and spoke to a full house.

Cole set up the evening by suggesting that Seierstad tries “to get to the heart and soul and mind of the killer, while honouring the victims” and wondered why she chose to name him, when, as Canadians, we go out of our way to name the victims and deprive the killer of any infamy as in the case of the murder of the 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in December 1989. Seierstad said, “We can’t put things under the carpet. Wherever there is darkness or a lack of knowledge there will be a conspiracy theory. Breivik was a political terrorist. His victims [adolescents at Labour Party Youth summer camp] were killed for what they believed in.”

There are three victims on whom Seierstad focused, “to get readers to know some of them deeply.” Like the two Iraq-born sisters, who received asylum in Oslo with their family and hoped for a better life, free from persecution: “one of them worked all summer to buy a Norwegian national costume to wear on May 17th and said to her sister, ‘whoever has a daughter first will inherit this dress.’” Another one, Simon, was killed as he tried to save others who had been shot. On the anniversary of his death, his parents took flowers to lay in the place he was executed.asne2

Cole asked where Seierstad began her research. She “got accredited for the trial for Newsweek and was knocked sideways by being there. The courtroom was so small. One row of journalists, one row of Labour Party Youth, one row of parents.” Seierstad stayed for 10 weeks of the trial, witnessing 100 victims “speaking about what happened on the island for the first time. They hadn’t spoken to each other because they’d been so traumatized.”

At first she didn’t think she’d write much about Breivik, but it became clear to her that she could write about him using neutral language. She read childhood reports of his “bad start that was not bad enough, even though social workers were brought in because his mother was a borderline personality who would tell her son, ‘I hate you. I wish I had aborted you.’” Psychiatric assessments noted no eye contact, no smiling and he could never make a human, empathic connection. The only diagnosis he received was narcissism. Seierstad suggested Breivik “turned, when he went to his room for 5 years to play World of Warcraft for 16 hours each day. He started making connections online and sent letters to leaders of fascist extremes. He received letters of rejection in January 2010, started buying weapons, bullets, uniforms the next month, and in late 2010, learned how to build bombs.” He wrote a 1500 page manifesto, one-third of it his own thinking, and later said in court that “the massacre on the island was his book launch and the trial was his stage.” If those details are not horrifying enough, there is also the “police odyssey of incompetence,” which Seierstad attributed to the failure in police culture to listen or communicate. It is so painful to learn of those failures that could have prevented more than fifty deaths of teenagers that July day in 2011.

Cole wondered how Norway has changed. Seierstad’s response: “Not much. A solid society is not changed by one terrorist act. Our response is more love, more community. If one man can show so much hatred, think of all the love we can show together.” In the end what stays with her is the knowledge that “the parents and siblings of the victims are able to continue living. It is a chapter I can never close about losing a child.” Powerful. And, enormously sad.

 Follow Janet Somerville on Twitter @janetsomerville.



The Public Author

By Cathy Marie Buchanan

I’ve given numerous author talks, participated in dozens of panels and joined several hundred book clubs, either in person or via Skype. Much as expected, there are questions about inspiration, character and plot, and a great deal of curiosity about how I write a book: Do you write longhand? Every day? When you began, did you know how the story would end? What’s been a surprise are the questions about me: Do you have sisters? What’s your experience with suicide? Alcoholism? Do you believe in God? I answer honestly and haven’t minded (except perhaps once, when a reader, asking why I chose to pollute my novel The Painted Girls with so much vulgarity, preceded the question with a lecture worthy of an evangelist). I sometimes wonder, though, if there is anything to the argument that books ought to stand on their own merit, that authors ought not to exist beyond the printed page.It would be a notion I pondered as I lapped up the International Festival of Authors this year.

The reclusive author—one who would almost certainly decline an invitation to the IFOA—is nothing new. In the case of American poet Emily Dickinson, it was likely some form of agoraphobia, rather than a decision not to meet her reading public, that kept her housebound for 20 years. For J.D. Salinger, it was an intense desire for privacy that drove him to request his photo be removed from the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye soon after publication, and then two years later, to move from midtown Manhattan to rural New Hampshire to take up the life of a recluse in earnest. For Cormac McCarthy, his near absence from public life seems to be linked to a dislike for the literary world. In the only interview he would grant in 15 years, he explained to Oprah his preference for the company of scientists over writers.

Italian writer Elena Ferrante famously keeps her identity private and does not tour to promote her books. The decision appears not to have arisen so much from the practical considerations of Salinger and McCarthy as from the idea that to know an author as a living, breathing entity dilutes the experience of reading her work. She told Vanity Fair “For those who love literature, the books are enough” and further explained herself in The Paris Review: “If the author doesn’t exist outside the text, inside the text she offers herself, consciously adds herself to the story, exerting herself to be truer than she could be in the photos of a Sunday supplement, at a book launch, at a literary festival, in some television broadcast, receiving a literary prize.”

Hmm. Has my extensive public blathering about, say, the profound love I have for my three sisters, despite some pretty alarming teenage rows, negatively impacted the experience of readingThe Painted Girls?

Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Aleksandar Hemon and Eleanor Wachtel at IFOA 2015 © / Tom Bilenkey

Caryl Phillips, Zadie Smith, Aleksandar Hemon and Eleanor Wachtel at IFOA 2015 © / Tom Bilenkey

At this year’s Festival I listened with rapt attention as Miriam Toews mentioned tracing a thought she didn’t want to lose into the dusty surface of her car at a stoplight and as Anne Michaels described how indispensable self-doubt is to writing, how she always feels she is striving, and was moved by the absolute care and persistenceof such seasoned, accomplished writers in creating their art. Guy Vanderhaeghe spoke (comfortingly for me and, I expect, any writer) about knowing the imperfections, the places where he failed to do what he set out to do in Daddy Lenin and Other Stories, a book that had just won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. Meg Wolitzer said every novel that works has an imperative, a reason to be, and I found myself contemplating that imperative for my novel in progress and know I will go on to consider it for the books I read. While this is only a smattering of all I’ve gleaned at this year’s Festival, I can’t quite imagine how any of it can lessen the experience of reading the contributing writer’s work. In fact, how could it be anything but enriching to me as both a reader and a writer?

On Wednesday night, I attended the 25th anniversary of CBC Radio’s Writers & Company at the Festival, and as though on cue, Zadie Smith settled any lingering doubt. She told the audience how she loved meeting writers through reading their work, how she felt she was experiencing their way of being in the world. Then she went on to describe how, when she was on tour with White Teeth, she made a point of seeking out a writer in each place she visited. In Chicago that writer was Aleksandar Hemon, who was also part of the evening’s anniversary panel. She turned to him and described how his knee bounced up and down as he spoke at their initial meeting, how very struck she was by his kinetic energy. “It brought so much to reading your work,” she said.

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s The Painted Girls is a #1 National Bestseller in Canada, a New York Times bestseller and has garnered rave reviews and been showered with special attention. Her debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, is a New York Times bestseller and a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection. Her stories have appeared in many of Canada’s most respected literary journals, and she has received awards from both the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from Western University. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, she now resides in Toronto.

Connect with Buchanan on Facebook or Twitter.

Meat in Mittel Europa

We’ve got an excerpt of a new story by #IFOA36 author Mark Anthony Jarman, courtesy of our friends at Gooselane! Catch Mark at this year’s Festival in both a round table (Keep it Short) and a reading!

In a new city, nervous after the police and train, I walk Zagreb’s jostling streets, more aware of being in the Balkans than when I was in Ljubljana. Ljubljana is so close to Italy, but in Zagreb a greater sense of Soviet ghosts and Slavic voices, big faces arguing over outdoor chessboards, venerable Czech streetcars rumbling past stucco facades that crack to reveal ancient brick beneath and high over the city a watchtower, high on a hill over Zagreb a cool Steampunk tower.

I wander the Museum of Failed Relationships, and the rooms are funny at first, but then it turns spooky and exhausting and I want out. Luckily, Jason’s friend Vanja looks after me, she takes me to eat at a Zagreb club called, and we sample an excellent Bosnian dish of onions, grated cheese, mustard, and two kinds of sausage held in a large pita pouch. Vanja has baklava afterward, she gives me a taste and it is very good, not too sweet. Vanja says baklava is perfect after meat. Vanja says the outdoor chessboards are like someone working on a car: men must come over to watch and comment.

Vanja gives me a great tour of the hills of Zagreb and Vanja introduces me to Vinko who knows local music and Vinko illuminates, Vinko tells me of underground bands which sing in Croatian, and have Croatian-sounding names. He translates. “Muka” (“Anguish”), “Drama” (um, “Drama”), and “Pogavranjen” (“EnRavened, I guess,” he says. “It’s not a word in Croatian either.) Bear in mind, says Vinko, that these are pretty harsh, musically and lyrically speaking.

I ask Vinko about Johann Wolfgang Pozoj, a band I have heard of.

“That’s pretty underground,” he says, “you’ll get extra cool points for that reference, that’s a little bit grimmer and off the radar. I once went to a generator party on top of a mountain in the woods where they performed at midnight to promote their album. It was pretty surreal, it was memorable.”

I ask about bars and clubs and Vinko says Zagreb’s most popular place is Močvara (The Swamp). “It’s by the river and well-established and sort of “mainstream/alternative”, if that makes any sense. Attack! is part of the Medika squat complex, where anti-globalists, artists, activists and students congregate. It’s filthy and grimy as hell, and I absolutely love it. You also have a couple of attempts at biker bars (“Bikers Beer Factory” and “Hard place”), but to me they’ve always appeared like simulacra, something someone saw in a movie and decided to open a similar bar, and didn’t get it quite right.”

This summer Zagreb also hosts the bands Hammersmith, Franz Kakfa Ensemble, New Wave Syria, Goulash Disko, and Stiff Little Fingers, old punkers from Belfast, Northern Ireland. The parallels are not obvious, but Croatia reminds me Ireland. The locals are very friendly, concerned about hospitality, and there is strong pride in the idea of their own homeland, and a pitched awareness of long centuries of persecution and war. Croatia has been in this spot forever. In 1322 Croatia had its own currency, they traded in salt, but over centuries they have been a colony to so many empires, slaves to foreign flags, trading masters so many times; Ireland is a new kid in comparison. It is staggering to think of all the combined wars ancient and wars recent, all the bloody ravines and blood avenues, all the butchers old and new. Over and over we unravel, we unlearn. War is the great unlearning, the great un-doer of all.

Excerpted from “Meat in Mittel Europa” by Mark Anthony Jarman. “Meat in Mittel Europa” was written after Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, Jarman’s latest short story collection, published by Goose Lane Editions in 2015.

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