Danila Botha remembers Recklessness: The Art of Writing

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This past September I had the pleasure of starting my MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph. So far, I’ve taken an incredible poetry workshop with Dionne Brand, who’s been one of my literary heroes for years, an amazing plenary class with Michael Winter, and I’ve heard amazing guest speakers, lectures and performances.

This is also the year the program was celebrating its ten- year anniversary at IFOA, called Recklessness: the Art of Writing. Program coordinator and author Catherine Bush introduced the theme by explaining that “the energy of reckless abandonment is heedless and endlessly hopeful”.

The selection of readers, all former graduates of the program, ranged from spoken word to poetry, memoir, novels, music and plays. Each reading was unique, and intensely powerful. I was overcome by the privilege of being part of the program, and by the experience of hearing so much incredible talent on stage.

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The evening began with a rousing spoken word performance by poet and novelist Andrea Thompson. Andrea was one of the pioneers of slam poetry in Canada, and her performance referenced some of our “ancestors of verse” including Lillian Allen. Her poems also addressed issues of race, and community “God they asked for strength/each other they asked for direction” with the line, “still our history will not be undone” resonating in my mind and heart for hours.

The second reader was Liz Howard, who read from her wonderful, Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent. There’s really something special about hearing one of your favourite poems read out loud, hearing the emotion and cadence and rhythms as the poet intended them. Hearing Liz read from Look Book, with its precise everyday imagery juxtaposed with heartbreak was one of the most moving readings I’ve ever heard. “I go back into our clapboard/house to look at the Sears/catalogue and dream I am a girl posed into happiness… somewhere my birth father is drunk and homeless/half mad when/the cops ask him for his name/he’ll say December”

Ayelet Tsabari, author of the incredible Sami Rohr Prize winning short story collection, The Best Place on Earth, read from her forthcoming memoir. With beautiful honesty and openness, Ayelet read about her travels to India in her twenties, and the journey to giving herself permission to write. She wrote about the struggle to write in English after growing up in Israel, describing her fear that the language was like a “lost genre.” Her desire to write, “to introduce chance into my life, to coax the stories into the open” was inspiring to every writer in the room.

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Mark and Marichka Marczyk met and fell in love during Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests in Novemeber 2013. Together they created Counting Sheep, a “guerilla folk opera” a performance that retells the Maidan revolution with spirited punk and haunting folk music, with vocals by both Mark and Marichka. Behind them were screens that projected poignant war visuals, that were made more disturbing when juxtaposed with cartoon montages, nature and children.

Multi award winning author Shani Mootoo read from her new novel in progress. It brimmed with intelligent characterization and the type of sharp humour that made her last novel, the Giller shortlisted Moving Forward Sideways Like a Crab such a pleasure to read.

Poet and librettist David James Brock read from an opera designed with composer Gareth Williams as part of Breath Cycle, a concept community opera project for people with cystic fibrosis. In his sensitive and funny reading, he perfectly captured the tender and sweet experience of a teenage girl with cystic fibrosis, sneaking out to meet a boy she has a crush on.

Playwright and poet Motion performed some dynamic and compelling spoken word. Her poem, For Maya, spoke profoundly to the experience of every writer: “when Maya wrote me notes of hope/ Toni threw me rope/ and Alice covered my shoulders with a violet cloak… I found the words to bring me home… I can still write/I can still save my life”

Current MFA student and winner of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Award Adnan Khan read a potent scene from his debut novel in progress. As in his National Magazine Award nominated essay, Our Brownness Does Not Belong Here, he addresses issues of racism with intelligence and sensitivity. His character Omar’s experiences developing feelings for a friend (whose family then treats him with mistrust and hostility) invests the audience emotionally and makes everyone want to read the rest.

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Playwright Judith Thompson wholly transformed herself into an Iraqi mother, the protagonist of the third monologue in her brilliant and chilling play, Palace of the End. Set before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the audience sat transfixed, moved to tears as the character described being tortured in front of her children.

The evening ended with a wonderful reading by the amazing Zoe Whittall, whose latest novel, The Best Kind of People was recently short listed for the Giller Prize. Zoe is one of my favourite writers, and her work has inspired me tremendously. She read a scene from the point of view of Kevin, a writer who has decided to exploit the scandal that is erupting in his town. Full of brilliant social observations, and winking references to the struggles of all writers, it was the perfect ending to an incredibly inspiring and remarkable evening.

By guest blogger Danila Botha. You can follow Dinal on Twitter @DanilaBotha

Managing Darkness by Sheniz Janmohamed

“My heart is a wave, blue and breaking on the shore” -Ciaran O’Rourke

It will take more than poetry to come to terms with the many issues facing us today, but it can certainly help ” -Paul Muldoon

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This year at IFOA, I had the formidable task of hosting four events and attending various panels. When I wasn’t hosting or attending events, I spent my time in the Author’s Lounge: snacking on cookies, laughing with authors and enjoying the view of planes coming in over the lake to land at Billy Bishop Airport. It was in the moments between readings, panels and discussions that I was able to make connections between what I was hearing and what I was feeling. In all the events I attended and participated in, I listened closely for links between writing and the writing process. What I uncovered were ways in which authors managed grief and darkness—from Ciaran O’Rourke claiming that poets and poetry lovers have a special relationship to misery to Paul Muldoon writing elegies as a way to come to terms with the loss of people in his life.

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I had the pleasure of hosting Pushing the Boundaries, a panel discussion with authors Amy Jones, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, Suzana Tratnik and Charlotte Wood, which was moderated by Susan G. Cole. The topic turned to exploring ways in which fiction writers use landscape and humour as a way to hold space for darkness. Charlotte Wood spoke to the slippage of reality as vital to her story, counterpointing darkness with humour and the beauty of landscape. Amy Jones confessed that she used humour as a coping mechanism in both writing about darkness and her own experiences of darkness, and that a sense of place rooted her writing. When she was writing Sarong Party Girls, Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan reminded herself that it was important to balance darkness with humour, particularly while exploring the suppression of Singlish in Singapore. Suzana Tratnik tackled darkness head-on by creating unlikeable characters, as a nod to the fact that LGBTQ+ people are not two-dimensional.

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In Stories of Redemption, another panel I was pleased to host, Darren Greer spoke to writing as redemptive, Cornelia Strube explored the ways in which children manage darkness, and Anosh Irani admitted that he had to mentally prepare himself, as a human and a writer, to write The Parcel. Irani begins his writing process by asking, “What is the wound of this character?”, and then works to expose the wound as a means to bring about healing. Maybe we need to ask ourselves what our wounds are.

It was Ayelet Tsabari, author of The Best Place on Earth, who captured the writer’s condition best, “Is it weird that when things go wrong, I imagine writing about it?”

No, it’s not weird at all.

It’s what we do.

 

By guest blogger Sheniz Janmohamed. You can follow Sheniz on Twitter @ShenizJ

Adam Nayman looks back on Jay McInerney at IFOA

The opening passages of Jay McInerney’s new novel Bright, Precious Days describe a book lover’s fantasy version of New York as a “shining island of letters” – an overture to rival the love-letter opening voice-over of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. For McInerney’s narrator, the city is a maze of “haunted libraries and bookstores,” with phantoms ranging from Norman Mailer to Truman Capote, who can be counted on to materialize at the end of the bar (or else snort coke in the bathroom). The picture he paints is seductive, enthralling, and somehow familiar: scanning through the first chapter, a reader could be forgiven for thinking than a more appropriate title for the book would be Bright Lights, Big City.

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In town for IFOA and onstage in conversation with cultural critic Linda Barnard, McInerney –now sixty-two years old and four decades removed from the excitement and what-does-it-mean-for-American-letters topicality of his early 80s output– acknowledged the difficulties of a career cast in the shadow of an auspicious debut; if he talked a fair amount about J.D. Salinger, whose hero, Holden Caulfield, is evoked in Bright, Precious Days via a throwaway line about “the ducks in winter,” it may be because he identifies with the older author’s lopsidedly mythological reputation.

Writers and rock stars – and rock-star writers, of which McInerney was surely one circa 1984 – are often pilloried for just going out and playing the old hits, the irony being that when they present their new material, their fans often head to the concession stands. As a cool and collected veteran of a thousand reading-slash-Q-and-A events, McInerney parried questions about the impact, salutary and not, of Bright Lights, Big City on his career and its influence on the series of novels (including also Brightness Falls and The Good Life) that Bright, Precious Days concludes: a so-called “Yuppie Trilogy” (though McInerey insisted that he hates that word) following a married couple through their lives in New York, starting in the Reagan 80s and culminating in the election of Barack Obama in 2008. “It’s still tied to the dream of Bright Lights, Big City,” he said, although he added that as he’s gotten older, he’s tried to widen the scope and implications of his work to become more “inclusive.”

In Bright, Precious Days, that means generating a his-and-hers narration split between book editor Russell and ex-stockbroker Corinne, whose point of view is more fully developed than before. This question of duelling subjectivities occasioned a query from moderator Emily M. Keeler about whether or not McInerney felt as if he was being somehow presumptuous about trying to write outside his own experience, which he shrugged off quickly enough to suggest that it didn’t bother him overmuch. A more fertile line of questioning came from an audience member who wondered how he felt about having his friend and fellow former “brat packer” Bret Easton Ellis borrow certain of his characters for American Psycho and also putting McInerney in Lunar Park as a drunken, equivocating, out of control version of himself; he admitted that it was by turns alarming and flattering, and suggested that he and Ellis were still friends (and that Lunar Park was a great novel, which it is).

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As usual for events like this, McInerney was asked about his process and about any tips he had for aspiring writers, which remained safely on the short side of profundity while also ultimately being fair enough: “you have to write every day, and you can’t wait for the muse to visit you.” It’s fun to note that this advice was delivered in the same pushy, second-person voice that distinguished Bright Lights, Big City and became, in a way, its enduring gimmick – a means of address that collapsed the distance not only between author and character, but also between both parties and the reader, which in turn accounts for the close, passionate hold it retains on its audience nearly thirty-five years later.

 

By guest blogger Adam Nayman. Follow Adam on Twitter @brofromanother

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

 

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