Through smoke

By Ayesha Chatterjee

from bottles and bones by ayesha chatterjee

People often ask me if my new collection, Bottles and Bones, has a theme running through it, and I was surprised the first time I found myself saying that it does. I usually have the attention span of a fruit fly and can’t stick to a topic for longer than three poems (if you read my poems, you’ll see how very short they generally are, so that should give you an indication). But a few years ago, I stumbled across a term used in perfumery, fougère, which is a class of fragrances and is also French for ‘fern’. Think Drakkar Noir or Brut. Think oakmoss (a species of lichen. It’s all right, I had to look it up too) and sharp and spicy. But also soundless and green and soft and new. I was hooked.

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Five Questions with… George Elliott Clarke

George Elliott Clarke, contributor to The Great Black North and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win a copy of The Great Black North! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

george-elliott-clarkeIFOA: What are some of your responsibilities as Poet Laureate?

George Elliott Clarke: Annual address to city council; establishing a Poets’ Corner at City Hall, striking a medal and printing business cards, establishing an e-mail account; trying to work with other City Departments (success with Toronto libraries, no-can-do from Toronto Police and the TTC); establishing contacts with other arts organizations (success with the AGO and IFOA, nil from TIFF); trying to widen venues for poetry (Remembrance Day ceremony, Toronto International Book Fair, etc.); commemorating poets (plaque erected for Ray Souster, new plaque for Gwen MacEwen and Milton Acorn in progress); and speaking to organizations and penning poems for civic occasions, upon request. Also, I’ve launched the East End Poetry Festival, running annually in September.

IFOA: How did you select which poem of yours would be included in The Great Black North?

Clarke: My poem is from my epic-in-progress, “The Canticles.” It’s taken from Part 2, which rewrites Judeo-Christian scripture from “a Black perspective.”Mason John, The Great Black North

IFOA: Having written in a number of formspoetry, prose, playsdo you have a preference for one kind of writing?

Clarke: Poetry.

IFOA: You’ve enjoyed great success throughout your writing career. Is there one aspect you’re particularly proud of?

Clarke: That I’ve inspired others to take up poetry.

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

Clarke: HARD question. Setting aside classroom texts such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the most resonant work has been Thomas Hardy’s 800-page epic poem, The Dynasts, dealing with the Napoleonic wars.


George Elliott Clarke is Poet Laureate of Toronto and one of Canada’s most beloved poets. Join him and fellow contributors on February 8 for the launch of the anthology of contemporary African Canadian poetry The Great Black North.

Five Questions with… Joseph Kertes

Joseph Kertes, author of The Afterlife of Stars and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see Joseph on November 2, as well as a copy of The Afterlife of Stars! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: What kind of research did you undertake to write about the Hungarian revolution?

Joseph Kertes: Certainly I did quite a bit of reading about the period and what led up to the period, but The Afterlife of Stars was inspired by personal experience. My family did flee the Russians in the fall of 1956, when I was just four, so I have a few vivid memories of that time. One was that my grandmother came to get me out of playschool, though we had just started our day. We made our way to a central square in Budapest, where I looked up to see a Hungarian soldier hanging from each of the lampposts. I remember being horrified and fascinated by the sight of these men, especially the one nearest us who looked down at me but with eyes that were no longer taking in what they saw.

I remember, too, that we fled on foot by night across the border into Austria and bombs kept going off. My older brother Bela would stop to look up to see who was dropping the bombs and anxiously asking, but it was not until we got to the other side that our grandmother told us that we’d been running (along with hundreds of other Hungarians) across a minefield.

Joseph Kertes

© Horst Herget

IFOA: You mention that you narrate the story from a relatively innocent point of view, though you occasionally temper it with adult reflections. Does this retrospective inclusion speak to your own creative process writing the novel, and how we may approach and understand significant events belatedly (even if we lived through them)? You yourself were very young when your family fled Hungary.

Kertes: I was not yet five when we fled Hungary, but I wanted to tell the story from an older boy’s perspective (just under 10) and yet “cheat” by throwing in mature observations about the world. Certainly, the conceit of most novels written in the past tense is that we are beyond the time of the novel, so we are looking back with the added wisdom of hindsight. What I love about the boy’s perspective is that it combines horror with wonder, innocence with the surprise and shock of experience. My character uses a tongue-in-cheek method by looking out at the reader occasionally and saying, “the baby psychologist already growing inside of me could tell that this was not going to turn out well.” The comic technique allows me to tell the story from the boy’s perspective but with the adult’s ability to reflect added in.

IFOA: What compels you to write historical fiction?

Kertes: I love the thought of gazing back over a period that is already locked away in time simply to ask what it all meant. The reason I write at all is to slow down experience or relive memory or to see experience from another person’s vantage point altogether. It deepens and enriches my understanding of the present.

IFOA: How do you manage between administrative duties as the Dean of Creative and Performing Arts and your own creative writing?

Kertes, The Afterlife of StarsKertes: Being an administrator full time is the best thing for a writer to do because the writing becomes a place to flee the bureaucratic and mundane activities of my life—not that they all are. I got to create the creative writing and comedy programmes at Humber, so I can be creative at work too. But having a novel going becomes an oasis to travel to in the wee hours. It is a kind of wonderful refuge, actually, one that I know is always waiting.

IFOA: Was there a book or author that made you want to be a writer?

Kertes: I’ll cheat and say that the two books that showed me what literature was capable of were Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and the 20th century’s answer to that same book: J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Mark Twain said he did not write Huck Finn until it was ready to write itself. I didn’t know what he meant until now—until I wrote The Afterlife of Stars, which wrote itself too. What an experience!

Joseph Kertes founded Humber College’s distinguished creative writing and comedy programmes, and is currently the Dean of Creative and Performing Arts. See Joseph on November 2 as he discusses, with other authors ,the ways in we’re shaped not only by our contemporary lives, but by the past of our country.

Five Questions with… David Bergen

David Bergen, author of Leaving Tomorrow and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see David on November 2, as well as a copy of Leaving Tomorrow! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: In an interview with Mark Medley of the National Post, you said, “I always have a book that I use that somehow inspires my novels.” What book inspired Leaving Tomorrow?
Bergen, David

David Bergen: For this novel, there was no one specific book, though The Red and the Black and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man were humming in the background. And Ecclesiastes. And Flaubert.

IFOA: Leaving Tomorrow focuses on young Arthur finding his place in his family and the world. How did you go about creating such a psychologically compelling character?

Bergen: I try to figure out what the character is pushing against. That is my starting point, and usually that leads to other discoveries. Nothing is obvious, and usually the little moments are the ones in which the character reveals himself.

IFOA: What was it like having one of your novels (The Age of Hope) selected to be part of CBC’s Canada Reads in 2013?

Bergen: Strange. Canada Reads is geared towards discussions of “issues” or “relevance,” and certain novels are not inclined that way. That said, I was pleased to have attention paid to The Age of Hope. Good people at Canada Reads, and I got to meet Ron MacLean.Bergen, Leaving Tomorrow

IFOA: Do you have a writing regiment?

Bergen: When I am writing and lucky enough to be in the midst of a novel, I write five days a week, six hours a day, at my office in the Exchange in Winnipeg. I aim for five hundred words a day.

IFOA: What was the best piece of writing you read in the past year?

Bergen: Traveler of the Century by Andrés Neuman.

David Bergen is the award-winning author of eight novels, including The Time in Between, winner of the 2005 Scotiabank Giller Prize. See David on November 2 as he reads from his latest, Leaving Tomorrow, an emotionally powerful story about a hopeful young man who yearns for a larger life outside of his small town in Alberta.

Five Questions with… George Fetherling

George Fetherling, author of Travels by Night and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to see George on November 2! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: You’re presenting the 20th anniversary edition of your memoir Travels by Night at IFOA. How does it feel to revisit a memoir 20 years later?Fetherling, George

George Fetherling: Re-reading (and expanding and revising) the text was an odd experience for someone in his mid-60s looking back at what he wrote in his mid-40s about his first 21 years. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because I scarcely recognize the narrator today except in some matters of diction. So the effect is a little like shaking hands with one’s ghost.

IFOA: How has the Canadian publishing industry changed since your early involvement in it?

Fetherling: Pretty well everything about Canadian publishing has changed in my time, sometimes for the better, but mostly not. On the plus side, the industry is certainly much more cosmopolitan and diverse than it used to be. But is it any more stable? Old publishers are always folding up, shutting down or being sold off as new and unexpected ones spring up and graduate from small- to middle-sized.

IFOA: Your literary output is extraordinary. Which of your own projects are you most fond of?

Fetherling: Travels by Night is my best-known book, I guess, but two others that people seem to like are the novel Walt Whitman’s Secret (already made into a play in the US, with a Canadian production now in the works) and The Sylvia Hotel Poems. My own favourite of my books—but no one else’s evidently—is my biography of the late George Woodcock.

Fetherling, Travels by NightIFOA: What project is next for you?

Fetherling: I’ve been working on a novel, a kind of noir, because after all I was raised noir. It will probably be called The Carpenter from Montreal.

IFOA: Finish this sentence: I often wonder…

Fetherling: I often wonder how I have survived against the odds—and how long I might continue to do so.

George Fetherling is a prolific poet, novelist, cultural commentator and memoirist. He presents the expanded 20th anniversary edition of his memoir Travels by Night, which discusses literary life in the 1960s. On November 2, he discusses writing and real-life inspiration alongside four other authors.

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