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 Cordelia Strube

IFOA: What inspired you to write On the Shores of Darkness There is Light?
Cordelia Strube: I was sitting in a Tim Horton’s, people-watching through the window, and noticed a small boy with an over-sized head. He was gripping his mother’s hand as they walked, both of them ignoring the stares of passersby.  In the mother’s expression I recognized a look all too familiar to mothers a.k.a. if you hurt my child, I will kill you.  There was a grace and nobility about these two seemingly frail people, pushing courageously through their daily grind despite disability.  Once home I googled causes for skull enlargement in children and Irwin was born.  Then I started what if-ing, which I do constantly while writing novels.  What if the sick child has a well sibling?  What love and tenderness is left for the well sibling who will always, in the eyes of the mother devoted to the sick child, get better?  How do the well and sick children feel about one another?  I wanted to reveal this complex sibling connection from both points of view, which resulted in two protagonists in a two part novel.

IFOA: Why did you choose this title?
Cordelia Strube:
It’s a line from the Keats poem dedicated to Homer who is thought to have been blind.  We are blind to many things, and rarely see what we have.  We fear the dark and crave the light, not understanding that we can’t see the light unless we’ve been in the dark.  As Harriet, my eleven year-old protagonist who paints by observing how light interrupts her subject and curves into shadow, puts it, “It seems to her people rarely understand shadows; they forget that they are part of the light.”

IFOA: Tom Thompson is an inspiring figure to Harriet. Who is your favorite visual artist and why?
Cordelia Strube:
I don’t have a favourite, although it’s hard not to love Tom Thompson or Van Gogh 24/7.  But I also need Francis Bacon and Hieronymus Bosch who did not paint pretty.  I have Munch days and Monet days, Picasso days, Henry Moore days, Turner days, Rodin days, it goes on and on.  I made Thompson Harriet’s guiding light because he leads her to Algonquin Park.

IFOA: What amazes you about the work of the aspiring writers you teach at Ryerson?
Cordelia Strube:
Young people who tear themselves away from the endless attractions and distractions of cyber space to construct a strong narrative amaze me.  Writing well does not come easy for most of us.  Students who show the necessary commitment dazzle.

IFOA: What are you currently reading?
Cordelia Strube:
I have got two on the go: Redeployment by Phil Klay, a vet of the Iraq war. His multi-pronged stories jab at that cooked up disaster of a war with humour and clarity.  I’m also loving Nicholson Baker’s Substitute about his year substitute teaching in the Maine public school system. As with Klay, the darkness of Nicholson’s prose is laced with sneaky humour. I need sly wit in what I read and write.


Cordelia Stube @ IFOA:

Peter Geye, Ben Sanders and Cordelia Strube will read from their latest novels and inspire you to discover new narratives. A Taste of Fiction takes place Thursday, October 27 at 8pm. For tickets click here!

Darren Greer, Anosh Irani, and Cordelia Strube present multifaceted and diverse stories about redemption and returning to face the past and/or the truth on Sunday, October 30 at 3:30pm. For tickets click here!

 

 

 

 

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.

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 Jazz.ba, 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.

FLORIDA ORIGINS: How Country Club Met Its Mother

By Andy McGuire

We put Alabama behind us.The first palms flicker along the highway. “Suddenly I am on a balcony,” Elaine Scarry writes, “and its huge swaying leaves are before me at eye level, arcing, arching, waving, cresting and breaking in the soft air.” She was in Spain. We are following the migratory route of the Canadian snowbird, bound for Estero, Southwest Florida, land of ample parking, the Sunshine State, where even the shadows have some colour. So begins my love affair with the palm, the international symbol for hold my calls.

Who among us can resist the propaganda of palm trees? To do so would be unnatural. This winter Estero is seeking to incorporate as a village. Hard to say what distinguishes the local palms. Golf course communities, malls, liquor stores, car dealerships and gas stations run the length of the Gulf Coast like a sentence loving itself out loud, spreading a rash of Matisse palms made for TV. Sprinkler systems run like veins under a skin of sod. For the fairways, flowers and lawns, city water is just as good as real rain. Safer, even.McGuire, Country Club

Southwest Florida is a translation of nature so wonderfully bad it’s beautiful. Stingrays, manatees, birds with scimitar beaks and dolphins all punch in for their morning shift. Stock footage of sunshine loops. Everyone calls the place paradise and pretends to know what to do with the excess beauty. Between Corkscrew Road and Split Oak Way sits our street, Butchers Holler. I love the sense of celebratory menace in our return address. I send more letters than ever.

We quit reality cold turkey. Spanish moss and beamers and banyans and dentures galore. The same old couple reassert themselves every afternoon in a red corvette, desperate as a pop star duet clawing at the charts. The palms tick away all the while. Repetition regulates, and quality control, it seems, is job number one. Someone hung fresh citrus on the tree across the street. Here, the source state of seventy percent of American oranges, it’s almost impossible to find a glass of fresh orange juice. You squeeze it yourself.

A heart needs a part to play. I give myself over to the things they don’t show in the brochure. Snakes as long as hockey sticks. The fucking gators—Kevlar beasts straight from the cretaceous with the teeth to prove it. We drive through the Everglades, down Alligator Alley. Alligator, you point out the passenger window. Alligator, I point. Alligator. Alligator. Everglades. Alligator. Fuck that alligator, that determined young swimmer in Texas said, seconds before he was eaten alive. Thank God for the gators. One must mind them, indeed.

Repetition. Lifeblood of regimen and mission. I write, every day, all winter. At noon I go to the pool and call it research. And it is. The shortsightedness of a tan, I write. I monitor the weather back home. Ontario moans under the weight of an old-fashioned winter. In the evening I stride nowhere on an elliptical. Stock prices tick across CNN. Terror alerts rise and fall. Ukraine catches fire while we sleep. I repeat Southwest Florida to myself so often it comes true.

Legislation passes and Estero becomes a village. The first elected officials are Missourians, Ohioans, Ontarians. I leave part of my heart in the Coupon State and come home with a pile of poems. The palms follow us to the farm. The extremity of wealth, privilege, leisure, acquisitive lust and conspicuous carnality linger. Ukraine loses limbs, ablaze. Planes go missing. Poem. The palms and eagle and river run as one through the back field. The palms follow us to Toronto. Happy Hour. Poem. Everglades. Poem. And the violent spirit of formative times. And the last palm left. The footling breach of Country Club. Something has gone off.

Andy McGuire is from Grand Bend and currently resides in Toronto. He is pursuing an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph. McGuire’s poems have appeared in Riddle Fence, Hazlitt and The Walrus.

You can hear Andy read from his debut poetry collection, Country Club, at two events at this year’s International Festival of Authors, one on October 25 and another on October 29.

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