Five Questions with… Assaf Gavron

Assaf Gavron, author of The Hilltop and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to his event on October 25. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about The Hilltop.

Assaf Gavron: The Hilltop is my fifth novel and seventh book (there is a short story collection and a falafel review collection too). I consider it my best and most ambitious work, it is a “big” novel in many aspectssize, depth, subject matter, plot and more. I spent five years working on it, during which I traveled extensively across the West Bank (normally a foreign territory for me, as a left-wing Tel-Avivi) trying to get the right “feel” of the place and the settlers who occupy it. I hope I managed to capture and convey something of that feel, in all its complex madness of violence, passion and absurdities. It is nice to see it received so warmly and intelligently around the world, despite its explosive subject matter. Gavron, Assaf (c) Fana Feng

IFOA: How closely does the novel reflect your own upbringing in a small village near Jerusalem?

Gavron: Not much, actually. The village I grew up in is on the other side of Jerusalem, to its west, which is very different to the settlements of the West Bank to its East, North and South. My upbringing was very far from the religious and political zeal of the settlements. Having said that, the landscape is not unfamiliar, and the small village mentality is not too far removed. However, the kibbutz section of the novel is more closely based on my personal experiences as a teenager who visited a kibbutz in Galilee frequently.

IFOA: Was there a book that made you want to be a writer? Gavron, The Hilltop

Gavron: My favourite book growing up was Huckleberry Finn, but I am not sure I was thinking much about writing when I read it. It was probably more in my early 20s, when I read contemporary novels like Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho and Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, that I thought about having a go at it myself.

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

Gavron: I am currently two-thirds into The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, which I find totally compelling. Before that I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland, which I thought was brilliant.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: “When I’m not writing, you can find me…”

Gavron: Tinkering with my English Fantasy Soccer team, which I play in a league with a few other writers, when I should be really taking care of my two daughters screaming at each other behind my back.

Assaf Gavron is the author of seven books, and his fiction has been translated into 10 languages. He has won the Israeli Prime Minister’s Creative Award for Authors, the Buch für die Stadt in Germany and the Prix Courrier International in France. The son of English immigrants, he grew up in a small village near Jerusalem and currently lives in Tel Aviv. Gavron presents his Bernstein Prizewinning novel, The Hilltop, which grapples with one of the most charged geo-political issues of our time and skewers the complex, often absurd reality of life in Israel.


Five Questions with… Brecken Hancock

Brecken Hancock, author of Broom Broom and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to her event on October 24. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: You described the development of Broom Broom, your debut collection of poetry, as mysterious. Now that the book is complete, can you reflect on the process for us?SONY DSC

Brecken Hancock: I wrote bad poems for years before settling into the rhythm of what would become Broom Broom. At the time that I was stuck working on weak pieces, there was no guarantee that I would ever emerge on the professional side of apprenticeship. I wasn’t certain that the work would ever move beyond imitation, sentimentality, tedium. A kind of madness drove me—and so I kept on. I wrote bad poems until finally I wrote some poems that didn’t seem so terrible. It’s still mysterious. I don’t think it could ever be anything but. The most miraculous part is that, after I decided I liked the work enough to share it, readers validated that decision and the work resonated beyond myself. That’s been an immense gift.

IFOA: Broom Broom includes many different poetic forms (haiku, sonnet, etc.). Is there a form you prefer over the others?

Hancock: Form, in general, excites me. I like working with traditional forms and I also appreciate poetry’s invitation to invent form. My attraction to poetry stems from its power to shape shift, but the wide-open possibilities can be intimidating too. Sometimes playing with form is fun (that’s usually when I know things are coming together in a productive way) and it can also be exhausting and overwhelming (that’s usually when I know I’m forcing the issue and need to leave the piece for a while). Sometimes a poem’s form announces itself immediately, in those initial stages when I’m experimenting with an idea. And sometimes work sits on my computer in various shapes for months or even years, waiting to settle into a comfortable container. For me, poetry-as-practice looks a lot like wrestling with form—there isn’t one form I prefer over the others because each poem’s shape is integral to its being and each piece flourishes on its own terms.

IFOA: Name a writer who has had a significant influence on your work.Hancock, Broom Broom

Hancock: Elsewhere I’ve mentioned writers whose aesthetics inspire me: Ilove Susan Holbrook’s comedic genius, C.D. Wright’s laser attention, Brenda Shaughnessy’s heartbreaking self-analysis, Lisa Jarnot’s blinding rhymes, Suzanne Buffam’s philosophical levers, Kay Ryan’s precision and Inger Christensen’s blow-the-doors-off excess. But I haven’t talked much about the importance of real-world relationships and friendships. It was crucial to have other poets in my life who pushed me to do better and gave frank responses to the pieces I was producing over the years. Jeramy Dodds is especially indispensable, and we often work really closely together, editing each others work as it progresses. It was important to have a voice I trust responding in real time. I both harnessed his opinion and pushed back against it—moments of accord and resistance playing equally vital roles in the final shape of the poems and of the book.

IFOA: You are the interviews editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts and the reviews editor for Arc Poetry Magazine. Would you say working these full-time jobs help or hinder your writing?

Hancock: Community is vital to writing for me. Both CWILA and Arc were valuable to my practice and I cultivated relationships in those communities that continue to be important to me as a writer and as a human being. That said, I’ve had to step away from both editorial roles this year because I had a baby and time necessarily became more limited. I see more volunteer work in my future when I learn the balance necessary to manage writing life, parenthood and the 95 job where I earn money to live.

IFOA: You did incredibly well at the Trillium awards, winning the English-language poetry prize. What’s next for you?

Hancock: My policy has always been to say yes to everything. Sometimes this means life is pretty hectic when things cluster into a flurry of tight deadlines. Since the Trillium—which has been life-changing, humbling, exciting, thrilling, incredible—I’ve continued to say yes to almost everything. Perhaps that will have to change if time management becomes impossible, but I love traveling, classroom visits, readings and service work, including writing reviews, so I’m going to continue to try to do as much as I can while also being a mom and working on my next book, which is a collection of creative essays.

Brecken Hancock’s poetry, essays, interviews and reviews have appeared in Lemon Hound, The Globe & Mail, Hazlitt, Studies in Canadian Literature, and the website Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Hancock presents her first book of poems, Broom Broom, a collection that perverts the rational, safe parts of the world to extoll and absorb the sweep of human history. Broom Broom is the 2015 Trillium Book Award for Poetry winner.

Five Questions with… Tim Conley

Tim Conley, author of Dance Moves of the Near Future and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to his event on October 24. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your new collection of 24 short stories, Dance Moves of the Near Future.Conley, Tim (c) TK

Tim Conley: I’m never entirely comfortable using the word “stories” to characterize much of what’s in Dance Moves, and generally find “fiction” a more elastic term, but readers may and will call these things what they like. However, I am interested in storytelling, and at least a few of the items in Dance Moves are, I think, studies of how stories get shaped and transmitted. Apart from that I can say the book has a commencement address to a graduating class, an inter-dimensional abduction, a security guard who likes to pass his nights naked before the paintings in the art gallery where he works, some questionable flame rites and a levitating egg.

IFOA: The stories in this collection all share a sense of dark humour. Where does this come from?

Conley: At the time of this writing, the Doomsday Clock (created and maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) is set at three minutes to midnight. Party hats on, everybody, and noise-makers at the ready.

IFOA: Where do you find inspiration for your writing?

Conley: If I felt unqualified to answer the previous question, at this one I must declare outright incompetence. And too there is the magician’s wariness at the possibility of revealing the rabbit’s pedigree. But another way of not exactly answering this question is to say I write because I have to, I write because the voices at night keep talking and I don’t know what else to do at this point but write it all down.

IFOA: How do your collections first take shape?

Conley: Slowly. Individual fictions may come very quickly indeed but a collection, as an architecture, always very gradually. Variety and variation (not at all the same thing) are my point and counterpoint. And I have to surprise myself, on some level, otherwise it’s no fun.

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

Conley: “Best” is too hard to determine. Ali Smith’s How to Be Both and Graham Greene’s In Search of a Character were both memorable, each in their own way. Recently I’ve been reading The Tale of the Heike, in Helen McCullough’s translation. As dense with historical detail (especially matters of royal lineage) as it is with those glancing metaphors of so much Japanese song and poetry, it is told in discreet sections, tasty little scenes and vignettes. A yet longer reading pleasure that I have just begun: Count Harry Kessler’s diaries. Well read and well travelled, this cosmopolitan sans pareil does not merely have a social circle but a wildly unconfined social vector, whose trajectory manages to connect with just about anybody one might dream about knowing from the late 19th century through the rise of modernism. Cocteau, Rilke, Matisse, Sarah Bernhardt, Nietzsche, Degas, Josephine Baker, Ravel, Granville-Barker, Virginia Woolf, Renoir, Stravinsky, Thomas Mann, holy smokes already, holy smokes! And his prose, his perceptions are both acute, both delightful.

Tim Conley is the author of the poetry collections One False Move and Burning City: Poems of Metropolitan Modernity and the short story collection Nothing Could be Further: Thirty Stories. He has also published widely on Joyce, Nabokov and other topics in 20th-century literature. He teaches English at Brock University. Conley presents his latest collection,Dance Moves of the Near Future, with stories marked by precise and engaging prose, dark humour and a demented imagination.

Christian Bök on The Xenotext

Share this post via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to Christian Bök’s IFOA event on October 25. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

The Xenotext is a kind of experiment—a literary exercise that explores the aesthetic potential of genetics in the modern milieu, doing so in order to make literal the renowned aphorism of William S. Burroughs, who has declared that “the word is now a virus.” Such an experiment strives to address some of the sociological implications of biotechnology by manufacturing a “xenotext”—a beautiful, anomalous poem, whose “alien words” might subsist, like a harmless parasite, inside the cell of another life form. Bök, Christian

Futurists have already begun to speculate that even now we might store data by encoding textual information into genetic nucleotides, thereby creating “messages” made from DNA, messages that we can implant, like genes, inside cells, where such data might persist, undamaged and unaltered through myriad cycles of mitosis, all the while preserved for recovery and decoding. Genetics has thus endowed biology with a possible literary use, granting every geneticist the power to become a poet in the medium of life.

I have composed my own example of “living poetry” so that, when translated into a gene and then integrated into the cell, the text nevertheless gets “expressed” by the organism, which, in response to this grafted, genetic sequence, begins to manufacture a viable, benign protein—one that, according to the original, chemical alphabet, is itself yet another text. I am thus engineering a primitive bacterium so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing a poem.

I have selected a microbe called Deinococcus radiodurans to be the proposed symbiote for my “xenotext,” since this extremophile resists mutation (scorch it, freeze it, wither it—and still the microbe endures). It can survive exposure to the vacuum of outer space. It can even withstand dosages of gamma rays, 1000 times more lethal than the dosage needed to obliterate a human being. A group of biologists have even gone so far as to suggest that the ancestor of this organism might, in fact, be extraterrestrial in origin.Bok, Xenotext

I believe that such a poem might begin to demonstrate that, through the use of nanoscopic, biological emissaries, we might begin to transmit messages across stellar distances or even epochal intervals—so that, unlike any other cultural artifact so far produced (except perhaps for the Pioneer probes or the Voyager probes), such a poem, stored inside the genome of a bacterium, might conceivably outlast terrestrial civilization itself, persisting like a secret message in a bottle flung at random into a giant ocean.

Even though poets may pay due homage to the “immortality” of their heritage, few have ever imagined that we might actually create a literary artifact capable of outliving the existence of our species—an artifact that might testify to our cultural presence upon the planet until the very hour when the Sun itself explodes. I hope that, by fulfilling this experiment, we might encourage other poets to consider the long-term timeline of our aesthetic evolution—to think beyond the formal limits of our own inevitable extinction.

Christian Bök is a poet, conceptual artist and professor of English at the University of Calgary. He is the author of Crystallography, a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia, a bestselling work of experimental literature awarded the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. He has also earned many accolades for his virtuoso performances of sound poetry, particularly the Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters. Bök presents The Xenotext, a scientific and literary study that combines the principles of DNA mutation and poetry.

Five Questions with… Oana Avasilichioaei

Oana Avasilichioaei, author of Limbinal and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to her event on October 25. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Can you tell us a bit about Limbinal?
Avasilichioaei, Oana

Oana Avasilichioaei: Limbinal is a hybrid poetic book that intersects prose fragments with incantatory dialogues, poetic footnotes with photographic phrases, rebellious translations with liquid transpositions. In it, I explore various possibilities of what a “border” might mean, whether geographically, linguistically, culturally, nationally, bodily, textually, etc. As ultimately I believe that a border is a space rather than a line, the book spills out of itself and cannot be contained within one form or within its covers. One of its overflows is THRESHOLDS (2015), an audio-visual performance I have composed out of it, and which I’ll be performing at the Festival.

IFOA: In the book, you place yourself in dialogue with poet Paul Celan and Nobel Laureate Nelly Sachs. How did you get into their heads?

Avasilichioaei: I wouldn’t say that I got into their heads, but rather that I dove into their published words. I’ve admired the work of Celan for a long time, and had read works by some of his interlocutors as well, such as Sachs and Bachman, but had always read the work in translation until I came across Celan’s Romanian poems. It was so exciting to read his words in the original that I felt compelled to translate them into English poems (only one previous translation into English existed), and then to take this work even further in various ways in Limbinal. In part, I crossed the borders of translation and language, and created dialogues between my work and Sachs and Celan’s work, because some of Celan’s personal borders approximate my own: he was a German Jew born in Romania, who survived the war and eventually settled in France to write mostly in German, and was a man of linguistic and cultural borders, borders that kept shifting around him and which he had to cross and re-cross. I was born in Romania, spent my adolescence in Western Canada in English and now inhabit Montreal in French, English and Romanian.

IFOA: How does your translation work inform your poetry?

Avasilichioaei: Translation constantly teaches me a great deal about languages and expands the possibilities of my English. Because I switch back and forth between at least two languages when translating, this has also encouraged me to explore a bilingual and multilingual approach to writing poetry. I am curious about how the syntax, structure, sound, rhythm of one language can impact the syntax, structure, etc. of another language. I am also fascinated by the following questions: When faced with a word or phrase in a language we don’t understand, at least not its denotational meaning, what happens to understanding? What other ways do we find to “understand”?Avasilichioaei, Limbinal

In THRESHOLDS, for instance, I read across the frontiers of my translations of Paul Celan’s early Romanian poems, looking at the translations as a “territory” of vocabulary. I then composed new lines across their English territory, infiltrating them with other phrases and sounds, imagining various definitions of political, linguistic and bodily borders, both within his lexicon and moving beyond it. In composing poems out of a limited lexicon, the poems themselves become sites with more permeable boundaries, as some phrases or vocabulary move across various poems, yet take on different meanings because of their shifting contexts.

IFOA: Can you tell us about the visual text-works you created for galleries in Montreal and Vancouver?

Avasilichioaei: Some of the textual installations I have created came out of my writings and books, especially feria: a poempark (2008) and We, Beasts (2012). For instance, Gallerypark (2008), which was part of the exhibition Less is More: The Poetics of Erasure, Simon Fraser University Gallery, Vancouver, was an installation of several texts in vinyl lettering throughout the gallery space. The texts transformed to follow the contours of this new terrain, from the park’s wild industry to the gallery’s constructed nature. On exhibit, the texts became a sculptural landscape.

THRESHOLDS also involves the transformation of text into image, this time through video projection. The poems, which act like scores, were transformed from the architectural spatial environment of the page into the aural and visual architecture of a room’s environment. I collaborated with multimedia artist Jessie Altura to create a textual visual projection that accompanies and interacts with the performance. By simultaneously offering a contrasting, competing and sparse projection of the poem’s textual score (consisting of white text that is manipulated in various ways and is in constant movement against a blue-black screen), audiences can be in a space of in-between, immersed in the spatialized words and sounds.

IFOA: Which author do you most hope to bump into at the IFOA?

Avasilichioaei: Anne Carson.

Oana Avasilichioaei is a poet, translator and editor whose poetry collections include We, Beasts (winner of the Quebec Writers’ Federation’s A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry) and feria: a poempark. In recent years, Avasilichioaei has also been mapping poetry into performative sound work ( and translates poetry and prose from Romanian and French. She has also edited several magazine issues, including Poetry in Translation. Avasilichiaei presents the collection Limbinal, which intersects prose fragments with incantatory dialogues, poetic footnotes with photographic phrases and rebellious translations with liquid transpositions.

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