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.

Trusting the Reader

By Mathew Henderson The first event I attended as an IFOA Delegate this year was an Artist Talk with John Boyne. Boyne, who writes young adult fiction and literary novels, read an excerpt from his upcoming novel, A History of Loneliness. It was Boyne’s account of his YA writing that most resonated with me. Having enjoyed my […]

Connecting at IFOA 35

By Ania Szado

At IFOA 35, several industry folk have been invited to participate as Delegates. We’ve promised to attend events and contribute our thoughts via discussion, social media, blogging and so on.

Julie Joosten at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

Poet Julie Joosten at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

Me, I think of it as making connections. I’m not talking about networking, though that’s almost inevitable at a festival that brings together so many industry peeps, both on stage and off. The connections I’m referring to are the unexpected kind. The ones that remind you that being a writer need not be isolating or lonely. The ones that come of being open to possibilities. Serendipitous encounters that prove that—as in the pursuit of writing—the first and most important act is to show up.

Sometimes the click comes when tossing 140 characters into the Twittersphere. In the dark of the Studio Theatre yesterday, thumbing away, I broke into a grin at seeing the #IFOA35 hashtagged tweets of Delegates and pals Anthony De Sa (@antiole) and Amanda Leduc (@AmandaLeduc) pop up in my feed. I couldn’t spot the tweeters in the audience, but the real-time awareness of our shared enthusiasm for author John Boyne‘s forthright, thoughtful comments on writing and religion added a certain energy to the experience—the zing of connectivity.

Jacob Scheier at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

Jacob Scheier at the IFOA 35 Poet Summit

One hour later, one step beyond. As Mary Ito introduced a half dozen amazing poets, I posted a plea: “Tweeting as an #IFOA35 Delegate…with a raging toothache. Take me outa my pain, poets! Root canal is Monday.” From somewhere in the room, blogger Vicki Zeigler (@bookgaga) picked up the signal, sending condolences—which alerted me to the chance to retweet her play-by-play while my nerve endings went into high buzz.

And then, suddenly, I was okay. The poets’ voices took hold of me. Their bold, beautiful, mesmerizing words sent me out of myself, made me forget about pain, made me think about possibilities—for writing, for living, for learning. Sitting in the dark, ears alert and thumbs poised, I savoured the gifts I’d been given: a kaleidoscope glimpse into other worlds and other minds. Inspiration. The pain-busting thrill of connection.

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 the 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. Szado is an IFOA Delegate.

Five Questions with… Ania Szado

Szado, Ania (c) Joyce RavidAnia Szado, author of Studio Saint-Ex, answered our five questions.

IFOA: What initially drew you to the story of Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupery?

Szado: I’d always loved The Little Prince. Then I came upon Stacy Schiff’s Saint-Exupéry: A Biography and became completely enamoured of its subject. Saint-Exupéry was charismatic, charming, infuriating and complicated—he was an aviator, inventor, magician and mathematician as well as a great writer. I was amazed to learn that he was living in New York when he wrote The Little Prince.

IFOA: How much time did you spend researching your historical characters and settings—and how did you know when you had the material you needed?

Szado: I spent several years researching Saint-Exupéry—while writing early drafts that had almost no resemblance to what eventually became Studio Saint-Ex. When I finally figured out what I had to write, I wrote and researched simultaneously, letting the demands of the story send me searching for the information and understanding I needed. I found it in numerous Saint-Exupery biographies; his own writings; material on WWII New York, the history of American fashion design, the Garment District, Manhattan’s French expat community, and other topics; and by drawing heavily on the knowledge of an incredibly generous Saint-Exupery scholar in New York, as well as querying Stacy Schiff at a critical juncture.

IFOA: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Szado: I picked up Lonesome Dove recently and was quite surprised to find myself loving it. It’s an epic American cowboy story—not something I thought I’d particularly like. But I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t want to stop turning the pages—looking, in particular, for more of Augustus McCrae. I still keep catching myself thinking about the book’s characters and landscapes, and wondering how Larry McMurtry managed to do so much with such barebones material: dust, thirst, desire. Of course, the story is in the desire.

IFOA: What’s one thing you wished you’d known when starting out as a writer?

Szado: I wish I’d realized a long time ago that I need to spend occasional blocks of time writing in complete isolation. As long as I can take a week or a month for myself now and then, thinking only of my story night and day, writing for at least 15 hours daily, I can remain balanced and optimistic in my interactions with the world.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: It really doesn’t matter if…

Szado: It really doesn’t matter if I write a paragraph, a page, or a chapter—just the act of having written makes me feel complete.

Szado will read at Authors at Harbourfront Centre on May 1.