Five Questions with… Mark Raynes Roberts

Crystal artist, designer and photographer Mark Raynes Roberts answered our five questions! His author portraits will be projected at Harbourfront Centre during the International Festival of Authors this fall (October 22 to November 1, 2015). Be sure to check them out, along with his engraved crystal sculptures exhibit, which is on at the Gardiner Museum October 26 through November 11!

IFOA: What first attracted you to glass engraving?

Mark Raynes RobertsMark Raynes Robert: I grew up in England, always wanting to be an artist, and so, for practical reasons, I initially trained as a goldsmith at the prestigious Birmingham School of Jewellery & Silversmithing. It was during this time that I was taught engraving by Ronald Pennell, who is considered one of the world’s top glass engravers, and so my love affair with the medium of crystal began. It’s an art and skill that requires many years of training. I was enraptured from the very beginning by the way the images I created could reflect, reveal or distort depending on the angle you viewed the crystal from. Unlike painting or bronze sculpture, working with prismatic optical crystal creates a fifth dimension that no other medium does. The two ancient engraving techniques I employ (intaglio and stippling) create the potential for both a carved three-dimensional impression, as well as a delicate stippled “mezzotint” effect upon the surface. The narrative messages of all my engraved art combine and reflect the dark and light, which is why black-and-white photography has also played an important role in my creative art.

IFOA: How has your style and technique changed over the years?

Raynes Roberts: I had a traditional training in England in which drawing was an integral part of learning to design, and I know this helped me in building a strong foundation for my craft. Over the past 33 years, I have experimented with various styles in my work and feel this has been an important evolution as an artist. In my view, it has only been in the last few years that I feel I have truly found my own voice as an artist, which is very exciting, as I still have a lot of passion for my work. I think this has come from my willingness to experiment, which in turn has built confidence when working with material that’s very expensive.

IFOA: On your website, you describe the refractive qualities of crystal as “dreamscapes of our collective conscience.” Can you elaborate on this?

Raynes Roberts: Not many people are aware, but it is crystal, a man-made material (invented in 1675) that continues to change our technological world through the use of prismatic light and fibre optics. So, in many ways, it is the perfect canvas for me to interpret the human condition through my narrative engravings. As I alluded to earlier, the refractive properties of the material provide a unique way to convey an alchemy that no other material can. With my ILLUMINATION project, there is also an obvious connection to early photography where photographic slides were made of glass. The ILLUMINATION crystal art sculptures reverse this process by visually presenting an interpretation of the authors’ words of beauty written about light and illumination.

IFOA: What inspired the ILLUMINATION: Portraits of Canadian Literature + Authors? Can we expect to see another artist series (musicians, dancers) in the future?

Raynes Roberts: In the fall of 2013, my wife Sarah Hampson and I traveled to London, England, as I had been invited to exhibit my crystal art in a gallery in Mayfair. During our stay, I was asked by The Globe and Mail if I would like to photograph the British authors, to accompany Sarah’s interview columns. This enjoyable experience of photographing each author in their home environments appealed to me, and so I began to think about photographing Canadian authors when I returned home. I had no idea how long the ILLUMINATION project would take, or how many authors I would end up photographing. But the basis of the idea was to celebrate the literary treasury and to be as “inclusive” as possible of both emerging and established writers. I would like to thank the Writers Trust of Canada, and the many publishers, agents and publicists who helped me reach out to the literary community. Charles Foran, who had won the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction, which I create, was the first author I photographed for ILLUMINATION, and Michael Ondaatje was the last author. The project has been a “labour of love” and in a way is my gift to Canada, which will turn 150 in 2017. I greatly appreciate all of the warm support I have received from the participating authors and hope the exhibition resonates with Canadians across the country, because we do have an amazing wealth of writers who I felt needed to be illuminated. Somehow, I managed to travel over 20,000 kilometres and take over 22,500 photographs in the process, and as you can probably imagine, I have no plans for a similar project in the near future.

IFOA: When you are not working on your art, how do you like to spend your time?

Raynes Roberts: Together with my wife as we search for beauty in some form or another.

Mark Raynes Roberts is a multimedia artist who celebrates the literary treasury of Canada through glass engraving and the photographic lens. You can view Mark’s work at both Harbourfront Centre and the Gardiner Museum this October.

Five Questions with… Connie Gault

Connie Gault, author of A Beauty and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

IFOA: Along with your novels, you have also published short stories and stage dramas. Does your creative process change between mediums?

Connie Gault: I’ve found that my creative process remains almost the samethe story, novel or play begins with characters in a particular setting, a girl standing under an old metal arch, for example, or a couple sitting on an unmoving train, or in the case of A Beauty, a young woman stepping out of a car onto the dusty verge of a gravel road, and then expands outwards as the characters’ worlds come alivebut the different genres require different approaches, almost different mental muscles. In switching from one to another, I’ve had to learn their techniques all over again. I believe, though, that the effort enriches the results.

IFOA: A Beauty is set in Depression-era Saskatchewan. What about this particular time appealed to you?

Gault: The Depression is iconic Saskatchewan. Drought, dust, failing crops and vanishing towns are part of our inheritance. I grew up hearing about those years; they affected my grandparents, parents, me and my children. Two factors made the era perfect for this novel: I wanted to explore ways in which the past haunts people, and my central character is a young woman who incites a yearning for romance in those she meets. There is probably no time in our history when people had a greater need for a little excitement and glamour in their lives.

IFOA: Can you tell us where the title of your novel, A Beauty, came from?

Gault, A BeautyGault: The title refers to Elena Huhtala, the enigmatic central character of the novel, whose beauty is examined and remarked upon by almost everyone she meets. I like the old-fashioned sound of it; we don’t often call a woman a beauty anymore, and for good reasons. Maybe we are beginning (just barely beginning?) to see how labelling women this way objectifies and diminishes them. But there is also a great, sad beauty in the landscape of the prairies at this time in their history, and in the striving of the people to endure.

IFOA: What has the experience of promoting your new book around Canada been like?

Gault: I’ve enjoyed promoting A Beauty, especially the two fantastic launches of the novel, in Toronto and in Saskatoon, the latter with a Madison flashdance (the last third of the novel is set in the 60s). The best reward is hearing from readers across the country that they have appreciated the book.

IFOA: What’s next for you?

Gault: I’m working on a new novel and finishing a collection of short stories.

Connie Gault is the author of two collections of short stories, several plays for stage and radio and the novel Euphoria, winner of the Saskatchewan Book Award for Fiction and shortlisted for the High Plains Fiction Award and the Commonwealth Prize for Best Book of Canada and the Caribbean. She will present A Beauty on June 24 at IFOA Weekly’s Where the Heart Is alongside Sabrina Ramnanan. This event is FREE.



Five Questions with… Madhur Anand

Madhur Anand, author of A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets her event April 9. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your debut poetry collection, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes.

Anand, Madhur (c) Karen Whylie, Coyote Photos

Madhur Anand: The title refers to critical transitions from complex systems theory. These occur when a small perturbation causes a big change and leads a system to a different place, a surprising place or a catastrophe. They are also known as tipping points.

Scientists are developing indices to predict when a system is about to undergo such a transition. Some are concerned that critical transitions are difficult to adapt to. But in many systems with nonlinear feedbacks, these kinds of transitions are inevitable. My book examines transitions in human-environment systems at many levels (e.g. individuals, families, societies). These may be represented by surprising changes in, for example, identity, displacement or relationships.

Recent research suggests that a “critical slowing down” in dynamics can be an early warning for such transitions.The system takes longer and longer to recover from small perturbations. This critical slowing down, these expanding moments, weeks, months or years, might be an opportunity for closer and closer observation of a recovery process and for learning. Poetry can emerge from this.

This is just one way to read my debut book of poems. Other descriptions are on the back cover. And that’s Doryanthes excelsa (‘exceptional spear-like flower’) on the front cover.

Anand, A New Index for Predicting CatastrophesIFOA: You hold a PhD in theoretical ecology and currently work at the University of Guelph as a Professor in the School of Environmental Sciences. How does your poetry tear down the dichotomy between science and art?

Anand: That there is science in art and art in science we’ve known for a long time. The fact that my title refers to a scientific phenomenon is one way to combine art and science, but that’s just the beginning. To “tear down” (or as I would put it more subtly, dissolve) the dichotomy, science and art must be shown to have a dual nature, to be bistable (to borrow again from complex systems science terminology).

Here is one example of how I think science and art co-exist in my book. Thirteen poems are composed from the text of 13 of my scientific articles. These poems take on new lifebecome seemingly independent entities (though they are not)and a surprising thing happens. I am an environmental scientist but not always an environmentalist; an ecologist but not an eco-warrior. Yet the process of extracting poems from my science (ranging from evolutionary biology, to theoretical ecology, to biodiversity and conservation) led in every instance to sociopolitical poems I did not realize were in me.

I invite the reader to think about other ways in which art and science co-exist in my book and in general. Please let me know what you think.

When did you first start writing poetry and why?

The Key to the Fields

Figure 1: “The Key to the Fields” by René Magritte

Anand: I wrote my first poem during the last year of my PhD work some time in 1996. I was immersed in equations and complexity theory and computer simulations of old-field succession. I spent entire days, sometimes weeks, alone in a lab. One summer day I walked over to the window and stared at the framed horse-chestnut tree surrounded by lawn. When I returned to my computer, I wrote my first poem. You’ll find seven of those (unpublishable) poems actually appearing as the preface to seven chapters of bound thesis. My supervisor encouraged me to put them there when I told him what was happening.

At the time, and still today, poetry is a way in which I am able to inject a perfectly perpendicular mode of being and thinking into my life’s dominant (scientific), and sometimes predictable, course. Maybe poems are my little critical transitions (see Figure 1). Maybe I do it to practice dealing with catastrophes, maybe to avoid burnout. But then I think poetry is more than just therapy. Maybe it’s simply to perceive the world in other dimensions, to experience the full richness of human experience.

IFOA: What inspires your writing?

Anand: Great writing. The right mentor. A phrase, memory or idea that doesn’t go away. Human-environment systems. Children. Plants. Travel. Beauty. Games. Heritage. Discovery. Loss. Symmetry. Asymmetry. Congruence. Incongruence. Freedom. Constraint.

IFOA: What are you reading right now that you can recommend to our readers?

Anand: Your readers should probably read poetry. Right now I am reading prose: The Book of Nature by Ruskin Bond (Penguin Books India). I’ve been wanting to read more work by Indian writers lately. He writes fiction and non-fiction (memoir) based on the small town (now the big city) of Dehra Dun, where my mother lived from adolescence to marriage. Here are some lines from his introductory remarks: “Nature doesn’t promise you anythingan after life, rewards for good behaviour, protection from enemies, wealth, happiness, progeny, all the things that humans desire and pray for. No, nature does not promise these things. Nature is a reward in itself.”

Madhur Anand’s poetry has appeared in literary magazines across North America and in the anthology The Shape of Content: Creative Writing in Mathematics and Science. She completed her PhD in theoretical ecology at Western University and is currently a professor in the School of Environmental Sciences at the University of Guelph. Anand presents a reading from her debut collection, A New Index for Predicting Catastrophes, as part of the McClelland & Stewart Poetry Night on April 9.

Five Questions with… Liz Howard

Liz Howard, author of Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets her event April 9. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your debut poetry collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent.Liz Howard

Liz Howard: It is a riot of interconnected poems bound in one book. It has no gods or masters and yet simultaneously so many appear. It is about beauty, pleasure, horror, Anishinaabe cosmology, ecology, neuroscience, feminism, Western philosophy, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Plath and John Keats. It is my profound gift to anyone who chooses to entertain it.

IFOA: How has your upbringing in Northern Ontario influenced your work?

Howard: During my undergraduate studies in cognitive neuroscience, I was always fascinated by the fact that the same brain structure, the hippocampus, is in some way responsible both for a person’s ability to navigate spatially and for the creation and recollection of memories. I have always had this sense that the shape of my interior, memory-based world is that of the boreal forest. It is a filter through which everything passes. It is the framework of my childhood, my adolescence, my absence. The geography, the jack pine, the cedar, the wildlife, the rivers, the lakes are so intricately a part of me even though I now live in Toronto. The work I do is frequently written through the ecology of Northern Ontario but also with an eye to the experience of urbanization. What I have always found compelling is the fact that part of the genetic information within me was also carried within the bodies of ancestors who lived in Ontario well before European contact. Via the machinations of politics and industry I was very nearly a person of First Nations heritage entirely assimilated. My poetry is gesture against being erased.

Howard, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking TentIFOA: What do you love most about poetry as a literary form?

Howard: Its blissful danger.

IFOA: What are you reading right now?

Howard: Indigena Awry by Marie Annharte Baker, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Titanic by Cecilia Corrigan, Strangeland by Tracey Emin and The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt. I’m also enjoying rereading Lisa Robertson’s prose work in Nilling and Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office of Soft Architecture.

IFOA: What’s next for you?

Howard: I’m continuing work on a book-length poetic project that aims to rewrite Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha (there is a preview of this work in the current book). I’m writing a catalogue essay for Vasiliki Sifostratoudaki, an exceptional visual and text-based artist working in Europe. There is also a presence forming in my notes and thoughts that may become a larger prose work. I look forward to reigniting the reading series AvantGarden and welcoming you all to our exquisite, peculiar and stimulating evenings.

Liz Howard’s poetry has appeared in Canadian literary journals such as The Capilano Review, The Puritan and Matrix Magazine. Her chapbook Skullambient was a finalist for the 2012 bpNichol Chapbook Award. Howard presents a reading from her debut collection, Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent, as part of the McClelland & Stewart Poetry Night on April 9.

Five Questions with… Cassidy McFadzean

Cassidy McFadzean, author of Hacker Packer and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets her event April 9. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your debut poetry collection, Hacker Packer.McFadzean, Cassidy (c) Credence McFadzean

Cassidy McFadzean: Hacker Packer is a collection of lyric poems written from 2010 or so up until last summer. Through the formal elements of these poems, I’m interested in exploring sound and structure, and the book includes sonnets, rhyming couplets, mock Old English riddles, as well as poems written in persona. Many of these poems are concerned with the strangeness of being in a world where I feel ancient mythology is yoked together with contemporary pop culture. I’m very interested in using humour in my poems, as well as thinking about the spaces that women inhabit, and the appropriating lens of a poet writing about the visual arts.

IFOA: Where do you find inspiration for your poetry?

McFadzean: I write a lot about places I’ve travelled, as well as works of art I’ve encountered either firsthand or online. Visiting Europe for the first time in 2012 was hugely important to my poetry. I’m still not completely over the experience of taking iPad pictures of ancient Greek artifacts, or viewing the sculptures of Rodin while construction workers used machinery outside. When I’m not travelling, I find inspiration in the everyday experiences of living in inner-city Regina, hiking in “nature” or reading a bizarre Wikipedia page.

IFOA: You studied at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What was that experience like?

McFadzean, Hacker PackerMcFadzean: Being at Iowa is like living in a community of funny, brilliant people all working toward similar artistic goals. I’m just finishing up my last semester, and it still feels very surreal to live in a place where I can’t leave the apartment without running into another poet. Sometimes as an artist I find myself having to justify decisions in my life, but at Iowa, people instantly understand why you might work a low-paying job so you’ll have more time to write, or why you might stay indoors all weekend to finish a poem. The workshop has also exposed me to a lot of great writers I might have not otherwise encountered—either through poetry readings, seminars I’ve taken, or just word of mouth— and for that I’ll always be grateful.

IFOA: Who are some of your favourite poets whose work you’d recommend to our readers?

McFadzean: I’m amazed by the recent debuts of several Canadian poets who are doing compelling work with form and voice. I would strongly recommend Stevie Howell’s [sharps], Brecken Hancock’s Broom Broom, Kerry-Lee Powell’s Inheritance and Suzannah Showler’s Failure To Thrive.

IFOA: What are you working on now?

McFadzean: I’m working on my second collection of poems, Drolleries, which includes work written during my last year at Iowa, my experiences travelling and camping in Iceland in the summer of 2014 and aswath ofekphrastic poems, including a four-page piece written about the medieval Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters in New York.

Cassidy McFadzean’s poems have appeared in magazines across Canada. In 2012, she published a chapbook, Farwell, and in 2013 she was a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize and the Walrus Poetry Prize. McFadzean presents a reading from her debut collection, Hacker Packer, as part of the McClelland & Stewart Poetry Night on April 9.

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