Five Questions with… George Elliott Clarke

George Elliott Clarke, contributor to The Great Black North and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win a copy of The Great Black North! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

george-elliott-clarkeIFOA: What are some of your responsibilities as Poet Laureate?

George Elliott Clarke: Annual address to city council; establishing a Poets’ Corner at City Hall, striking a medal and printing business cards, establishing an e-mail account; trying to work with other City Departments (success with Toronto libraries, no-can-do from Toronto Police and the TTC); establishing contacts with other arts organizations (success with the AGO and IFOA, nil from TIFF); trying to widen venues for poetry (Remembrance Day ceremony, Toronto International Book Fair, etc.); commemorating poets (plaque erected for Ray Souster, new plaque for Gwen MacEwen and Milton Acorn in progress); and speaking to organizations and penning poems for civic occasions, upon request. Also, I’ve launched the East End Poetry Festival, running annually in September.

IFOA: How did you select which poem of yours would be included in The Great Black North?

Clarke: My poem is from my epic-in-progress, “The Canticles.” It’s taken from Part 2, which rewrites Judeo-Christian scripture from “a Black perspective.”Mason John, The Great Black North

IFOA: Having written in a number of formspoetry, prose, playsdo you have a preference for one kind of writing?

Clarke: Poetry.

IFOA: You’ve enjoyed great success throughout your writing career. Is there one aspect you’re particularly proud of?

Clarke: That I’ve inspired others to take up poetry.

IFOA: What’s the best thing you’ve read in the past six months?

Clarke: HARD question. Setting aside classroom texts such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the most resonant work has been Thomas Hardy’s 800-page epic poem, The Dynasts, dealing with the Napoleonic wars.

George Elliott Clarke is Poet Laureate of Toronto and one of Canada’s most beloved poets. Join him and fellow contributors on February 8 for the launch of the anthology of contemporary African Canadian poetry The Great Black North.

Poetry NOW: 7th annual Battle of the Bards

1 stage. 20 poets. 1 winner.

The popular poetry competition returns in 2015 to feature 20 of Canada’s upcoming and established poets! One poet will receive an automatic invitation to read at the 36th edition of the International Festival of Authors AND an ad for their book in NOW!

Poetry NOW is presented in partnership with NOW Magazine.11 Poetry NOW logo

Poetry NOW FAQ

IFOA is inviting submissions for Poetry NOW: 7th annual Battle of the Bards. However, with a special event comes some special rules. Even if you’ve submitted/presented work here before, please read on to find out what’s what:


So what’s this all about, anyway?

In 2009, IFOA posted its first-ever open call for submissions. Poets 35 and younger were invited to be part of a celebration of our 35 years in the reading series business. The standard of entries was astonishing, and the resulting event was one of the highlights of our year. The event returned in 2010, but was opened up to published poets of all ages. 2010 also saw a new partnership with our friends at NOW Magazine, and that collaboration continues again this year!

I’m pretty good, y’know. Will there be any sort of prize?

Oh yes. One reader will win an automatic invitation to appear at the 35th annual International Festival of Authors (October 23–November 2, 2014) AND an ad for their most recent book of poetry in NOW Magazine! Not bad, eh?!

Who is eligible for Poetry NOW?

You must be published by a trade publisher in a collection that is all your own work (so anthologies, literary journals and magazines aren’t eligible, sorry). Your book must have been published within the last five years, and it must be currently in print.

This one seems kind of obvious, but you must also be in Toronto on March 25 and available between 5pm and 10pm. (Sorry, we are unable to cover car/train/boat/plane or accommodation expenses.)

I was a part of last year’s event, can I still enter for the 2015 event?

Absolutely. We’d love to have you back. Besides, maybe you have a new book out since last year’s event…?

What sets Poetry NOW apart from your regular weekly literary events?

We’ll be featuring 20 readers in one event, instead of our usual two or three. And we won’t be making a judgment call about who gets an invite. If you fit the criteria and your name gets pulled out of the hat, you’re in!

Do I need to pre-register? Or can I just sign up on the night?

Although we’re throwing open the call for submissions, we will be confirming the line-up several weeks in advance and liaising with publishers to promote the event according to our usual procedures. Submissions must be made by your publisher by Friday, February 28 at 4pm.

(See our submission guidelines for publishers below.)

What’s the closing date for submissions?

Friday, February 28 at 4pm.

How many authors will get to read at the event? And for how long?

20 authors will read for up to five minutes each.

How will you choose the readers?

Submissions that fit the above criteria will go into a draw. You have as much chance of being selected as the next person.

Who picks the winner?

Judges to be announced shortly.

When will I find out if I’m in?

Publishers will be notified and details confirmed by March 7. We’ll announce the line-up March 10.

What if I have more than one publisher? Can they both submit my work?

By all means, but we will only put your name in the draw once. (Also, see below re: books being for sale on the night of the event.)

Will my books be for sale at the event?

Yes, but we will require each presenting poet or their publishing representative to bring the books on a consignment basis. Your publisher can arrange these details with us once we have the line-up confirmed.

I have lots of friends/family/groupies. How can they all come and support me?

Tickets are $10 (free to our supporters, students with valid ID and youth 25 & under) and can be purchased online soon. Stay tuned!

Don’t forget that we offer a 50% discount to all our events to members of the League of Canadian Poets (and also the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Playwrights Guild of Canada).

Will there be a bar?

You betcha!


Please submit eligible titles by email to by Friday, February 28 at 4pm.

You must include the following information:

  • Name of Author
  • Brief bio
  • Eligible title(s) and their year(s) of publications

Please write “Poetry NOW” in the subject line.

And please let us know if we already have the book under consideration for our regular weekly event series.

Once the 20 authors have been picked, we will contact the relevant publishers to confirm details.

At that point, you will be required to send:

  • 3 copies of the book(s) the author will be presenting
  • An author bio and brief synopsis of the book
  • An author photo and book cover image (both as high res. jpegs)

Five Questions with…Valerie Mason-John

Valerie Mason-John, co-editor of The Great Black North and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win a copy of The Great Black North! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: As an editor of The Great Black North, can you tell us a bit about how and why the anthology came together?

Valerie Mason JohnValerie Mason-John: As a new African Canadian, I was curious about the history and culture of black people in Canada. I was unaware of the long history, and that my ancestral lineage of slave stock from Sierra Leone was connected to the Nova Scotian Experience. That freed black loyalists were the founding fathers of Freetown, where many freed slaves were settled after 1792. My ancestors would have been some of those people who were settled back at some point after this date. I went in search of an anthology by Black Canadians and could not find a national one. I was delighted to find Harold Head’s anthology Canada In Us Now, which documented Black voices mainly  from the province of Ontario. I was fortunate to meet Kevan Cameron at an event where we were both performing. Inspired by his work with Black poets in Vancouver, it seemed obvious that I should ask him to co-edit with me. There is another anthology to come, perhaps in 50 years, and hopefully those co-editors will have every province and territory represented and published in English and French.

IFOA: Your anthology is divided into two sections: “page” and “stage”. What is the importance of performance/oral poetry for you?

Mason-John: Black people come from an oral tradition. It is the way we have expressed ourselves for centuries. Unfortunately the establishment has often called us Protest Poets, and not given us the credit we deserve. Ironically one of the world’s best poets ever is Sappho. She was a performance poet: her work was written to be performed with music. The stage for many of us has become the page, because few publishing houses will take the risk to  publish the black aesthetic. The assumption is that there is not enough interest in our work. Black Canadians are part of the African Diaspora, and part of the history of slavery, and this needs to be remembered.  Performance poetry, the oral tradition, is an important part of our culture. Something that will continue long after the age of the book, or the ebook or the cyberworld. We have been smart not to compromise this part of our rich culture, despite the fact that our work is often not given the recognition it deserves.
Mason John, The Great Black North
IFOA:. Why did you decide to bring performance-based pieces to print, and what difficulties did you face in doing so?

Mason-John: Sadly, we have only had recognition in the poetry world by mainly page poets. Dionne Brande, George Elliott Clarke and Wayde Compton are some of the few who have helped to put our words on the page. However, there are many performance poets who have contributed to the Black Canadian Aesthetic and not shared the same recognition. It would be criminal to edit an anthology of Black poetry and not include performance; but yes, there were issues. The spoken word does not always translate well on the page. Similarly, the written word doesn’t always translate well on the stage. They become different poems. While working with performance poets, we had to suggest edits and creative ways to make it work on the page. This was exciting. I had to rediscover my page poem on the stage, when I came to perform it. Just like the performance poet has to rediscover their poem on the page.

IFOA: Why is biography important to your writing?

Mason-John: Who is writing biography? We as Black people have to write the biographies of our people. If we don’t we will be missing from the history books or only a one-sided story told.

IFOA: What’s the best compliment a reader or fan can give you?

Mason-John: Thank you for your work. What more can an author expect? Anything else is icing on the cake.

Valerie Mason-John is a co-editor of The Great Black North, alongside Kevan Anthony Cameron. Join her and fellow contributors on February 8 for the launch of the anthology of contemporary African Canadian poetry, The Great Black North.

Five Questions with… Ayelet Tsabari

Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Best Place on Earth and an upcoming IFOA Weekly participant, answered our five questions!

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IFOA: The Best Place on Earth is a collection of stories set in Israel. Did you always want to write from the Israeli perspective, and do you feel the Israeli perspective needs more of a voice in literature?

Tsabari, Ayelet (c) Elsin Davidi

Ayelet Tsabari © Elsin Davidi

Ayelet Tsabari: I started out NOT wanting to write about Israel at all! Israel is such a contentious place and it felt too risky, too volatile, too controversial. I didn’t want anything to do with it. My first stories in English took place elsewhere, and my characters were often from other countries, or, if they were Israelis, their nationality was incidental to the plot. But these stories felt untrue and as time passed I felt a growing urge to write about my homeland, to evoke the smells and sights and sounds of it. Israel inspires me like no other place. It’s the setting of my childhood, where my family lives, and I still think of it as home. So at the end I gave in, stopped worrying about potentially pissing people off, and my writing began to flow.

I definitely think we need a more diverse perspective on Israel in English literature. Most books about Israel tell stories by and about Ashkenazi (European) Jews. My family immigrated to Israel from Yemen so I chose to write about Mizrahi characters whose stories are rarely told in literature: Jews who descended from the Middle East and North Africa, Jews who spoke Arabic and not Yiddish, ate pita and not gefilte fish. It was also a chance to rectify my childhood experience of not finding my family or myself in the books that I read.

IFOA: You’ve served in the Israeli army, and your story “Casualties” deals with a female solider. How much of The Best Place on Earth is informed by your own life?

The Best Place on Earth stories by Ayelet Tsabari

Tsabari: A lot of the book is informed by my experiences, yet it isn’t autobiographical. I write about Mizrahi Jews, mostly of Yemeni descent, because this is my background. I write about the army, because serving in the IDF shaped me as a young woman, and I am fascinated by how Israeli society is influenced by the mandatory service. I write stories set against the backdrop of war and conflict because that was how I grew up, and I am interested in how entwined the political and the personal are in Israel. There are also details and anecdotes from my own life woven in. The themes of displacement, identity and belonging abound in my life, as they do in the book.

IFOA: You’ve written a lot of short stories and essays. Have you ever given thought to taking on a longer piece of fictional work, such as a novel?

Tsabari: Currently, I am finishing a memoir in essays. I also started working on a novel that takes place in the Yemeni community in Israel’s early days. I’ve done a fair amount of research over the last few years, and I recently received a Chalmers Arts Fellowship to travel to Israel for further research. I will be looking into the oral traditions, folklore and rituals of Jewish Yemeni women.

IFOA: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Tsabari: I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I can remember. I used to draw comic strips before I knew the alphabet. By grade one I was writing stories and poems, and moved on to novels the size of school notebooks by grade three. At some point in elementary school I created a library from all my books. I drew covers for them and glued a pocket for a library card and convinced the neighbourhood kids and my million cousins to come borrow books during my mother’s afternoon naps.

IFOA: What are some of your favourite books from the last six months that you can recommend to our readers?

Tsabari: In the beginning of 2014, I made a public pledge on my blog to read only writers of colour for a year. Some of the books I enjoyed these past six months are The Outer Harbour by Wayde Compton, which is an inventive and original book of linked short stories, Where the Air is Sweet by Tasneem Jamal, a family saga that takes place in the Ismaili community in Uganda, and Ru by Kim Thuy. I also devoured The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King.

Ayelet Tsabari is the author of The Best Place on Earth. Join her on February 3 at Ben McNally Books, where she will read from and discuss her collection. This is a FREE event.

Writing is a Dialogue

By Sheniz Janmohamed

IFOA and I have a long history. When I was a bright-eyed student in the University of Guelph’s MFA in Creative Writing programme, students had the fortune of attending master classes, readings and round tables at IFOA. I remembered thinking, “This is where the professionals come to play.” I shook hands with Wole Soyinka (and swore to never wash mine again), interviewed Mohsin Hamid and sat in a master class with Mark Strand. It was an enriching and inspiring experience for all of us, and the words of mentors and literary idols come to mind when I’m faced with a writing roadblock.

Back then, I was in love with the idea of writing (I still am) and the perks that come with it—meeting the greats, dining with publishers and writing for a living. Almost eight years later, I have come up against the hard truth of being a writer. The uncomfortable truth that being a writer is rarely glamourous, often tedious and mostly fulfilling.


Lee Maracle at IFOA by © Lobb

And so, returning to IFOA as a Delegate, I had difficult questions to ask. Questions about survival, appropriation and labelling. I wasn’t sure if I’d get the answers I was looking for. Part of me already knew that asking those questions would require action, not words.

I found myself in an IFOA van with the gloriously funny Lee Maracle, en route to the Woodland Cultural Centre for IFOA Branford. As we left Toronto, she pointed out where the wild rice fields used to grow, the meaning of Toronto (“Gathering Place”) and reminded us that water remembers. It was a fascinating conversation—a conversation that did not separate the political from the personal, the communal from the individual. She listed off the vegetables she grows in her garden with the same passion she listed off her favourite poets: “Dionne Brand is Canada’s greatest poet—elegant, direct, simple. Every poem is a feast.”

The length of the journey and the casualness of our conversation allowed us to jump from storytelling to our traveling experiences in a matter of minutes. I learned that Maracle travelled to India for a conference and theatrical collaboration. We spoke of the politics of class and the caste system as well as our disdain and love for Indian-style bucket baths.Maracle reminisced about the days when she set up her living room with mats and blankets for her children and children’s friends—and they’d spend the weekend reading an entire book aloud.

We laughed, paused to reflect and returned to the discussion with thoughtful questions. It was fulfilling because I was speaking to Lee Maracle, not the literary idea of Lee Maracle. We talked about writing that is deemed “too ethnic,” the fine balance between tradition and evolution, and the challenges of writers who do not speak in their mother tongue. Maracle spoke of storytelling as an interwoven web that is linear and simultaneously spirals in/out. Characters’ names have positions, not just meanings.

Maracle reminded me that writing is a dialogue with your community, not just yourself. And that’s what IFOA is really about—bringing together writers who have never met, who haven’t seen each other in a long time, who have nothing to say to each other, who have too much to say. It raises questions that require contemplation, action, change. It provides answers that are sometimes unexpected, often understood and at times, complicated.

It doesn’t end when the curtain closes. It has just begun.

Let’s continue the dialogue.

Sheniz Janmohamed is an author, artist educator, spoken word artist and the Artistic Director of Sufi Poets Series. She has been published in a variety of journals, including West Coast Line, Catamaran Literary Reader and SUFI Journal. She has published two collections of poetry: Bleeding Light and Firesmoke. Janmohamed is also an IFOA Delegate.

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