5 Questions with Doyali Islam

We asked Doyali Islam five questions about writing as we gear up for the launch of The Unpublished City collection on June 22.

Doyali Islam. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA.IFOA: Where do you draw inspiration from?

Doyali Islam: As a poet, lived experience—my own and that of others—is crucial to my work, but language is the mat to which I return.

To return to language is to resist in the most deft, complex and powerful way that I can. I like to think about existing language and its potential for poetic yield. I also like to invent words such as ‘geesturing’. (To ‘geesture’ is to gesture at geese!).

As a human seeking to become ever more human, I am moved by friends who are both fantastic poets/writers as well as gentle-fierce, curious and intentional beings: Geffrey Davis, Stevie Howell, Sheniz Janmohamed, Sylvia Legris, Tanya Lukin Linklater, Roger Nash, Soraya Peerbaye, Pearl Pirie, Sanchari Sur, Kim Trainor, Phoebe Wang and Chuqiao Yang come to mind immediately, but there are more.

As for my home life, I take inspiration from minimalism. ‘Minimalism’ is a trendy word these days, but I don’t mean the term in a narrow way. It’s basically an intentional approach to living in which one clears away physical, mental and emotional clutter to distill that which is essential. Poetry-making is not so different.

IFOA: What’s the story that you have to write no matter what (at some point in your life)?

Islam: I don’t believe in having to write anything; only that which arises as urgent, and compelling enough to invest time, attention and energy into for the sake of intrinsic reward.

Furthermore, I only publish—make public—poems that I think are working and that might have value to others. (I say ‘working poems’ instead of ‘good poems’ because I am trying to avoid the pernicious language of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.)

IFOA: Where do you write? Is there a specific place you do your writing?

Islam: I can’t generate new material in a café or public space. It’s my cat-nature. I need a cozy and familiar environment to be able to work. I wear my bathrobe when I write at home; the stereotypical poet! Clothing irritates me and makes it hard to focus.

These days, I most often work on drafts at my desk which was gifted to me by a friend—thanks, Sue!—during my time in North Bay (summer 2012 – spring 2015). The desk is longer than my height and takes two strong people to move it anywhere. I have been minimizing my possessions over the past two years ever since undergoing marital separation and subsequent divorce, but I kept this functional and handsome object.

Today, as I was dusting it, I felt an unexpected joy—sense of epiphany—in the maintenance work. So now I think that maintenance can offer up its own kind of pleasure and reward – what it might mean to polish a cherished kettle until it shines. Then again, perhaps, my perspective reveals a certain amount of privilege.

I sometimes revise by hand. I can print and carry a draft in my purse and work on it while I wait for an appointment, or when I’m on the subway. (I never revise on the bus. I look out the window or listen to the street sounds.) However, I still save and number all of my drafts in Microsoft Word – for example, “site draft52”. For me, a poem usually requires between 25 to 100 drafts.

IFOA: If you could ask your favourite author a question, what would it be?

Islam: I don’t know. I do think it’s important to contribute to the literary landscape beyond one’s own poems whether it be through interviewing/moderating (asking direct questions), curating, reviewing, adjudicating, or editing. Also, I think we all need to be asking, “What is the most important question I can ask myself right now?”

IFOA: What are you writing now?

Islam: My current full-length poetry manuscript is heft and sing. I have been working on it since 2010 and the manuscript is almost complete.

As a collection, heft and sing is formally innovative and lyrical. It contains a section of ‘parallel poems’ – a poetic form that I invented in the summer of 2010 and have been working in since then. One of these ‘parallel poems’ is my contribution to The Unpublished City collection, “43rd parallel”.

The manuscript of heft and sing also contains my innovations on the traditional Shakespearean sonnet, in the form of my self-termed ‘split sonnets’ and ‘double sonnets’. The poem bhater mondo, which was nominated for the 2017 National Magazine Awards, is an example of my ‘split sonnets’.

As for my ‘double sonnets’, the poem susiya, published in Kenyon Review Online, is still one of my favourites as is the poem two burials which won Contemporary Verse 2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize for writers under 35.

Doyali Islam is the winner of Arc Poetry Magazine’s 2016 Poem of the Year Contest, and other poems can be found through CBC’s Sunday Edition, Kenyon Review Online and The Fiddlehead. Her current poetry manuscript is the formally-innovative and lyrical heft and sing, which contains her ‘split sonnets’, ‘double sonnets’, and ‘parallel poems’.

Islam is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

5 Questions with Simone Dalton

We asked Simone Dalton five questions about writing as we gear up for the launch of The Unpublished City collection on June 22.

Simone Dalton. Author. The Unpublished City. BookThug. IFOA.IFOA: Why do you write?

Simone Dalton: I always feel somewhat exposed when I’m asked to answer questions like this one. Not because I don’t think the “why” is important—I believe there is power in pinpointing your passion for, or the impetus to do what ever the thing is that you do—but I cannot say in the definite terms that I often hear other writers express that I was born to write, or I’ve been writing my whole life and have the journals to prove it.

I do have journals, but not one of them is complete. I will say this: I’m passionate about people and the stories that they want to share or the ones that they unknowingly unravel as they move through life.

The oral tradition of storytelling has also been a cornerstone in my life. I come from an extended family of storytellers and theatre performers. One of whom is Trinidadian-Grenadian poet and short story writer, Paul Keens-Douglas.

His poems were the first I ever memorized and performed as monologues. My mother’s sister, Gloria Keens-Douglas, was an educator who wrote allegorical Caribbean folktales for all ages. And my mother made sure my appetite for books was satiated in my youth. These influences shaped who I became as a reader and have helped shape who I’m becoming as a writer.

IFOA: What are some of the themes that you explore in your writing? Why?

Dalton: Inherited histories or cultural inheritance within families is one of my theme obsessions at the moment. It’s about how we echo the lives that started before our own, how imprints from our parents are left within us, and what triggers those parts of ourselves to come forward.

I’m currently exploring my own inheritance from my once absentee father.

IFOA: What are some of the genres that you explore in your work?

Dalton: Creative non-fiction and fiction are two of the genres I currently explore in my work; however, I’m intrigued by writing for stage and screen. I sometimes dream of characters in words, but at times, those characters are sharper and more compelling as people beyond the two-dimensional page.

IFOA: Who is your favourite author, poet or writer?

Dalton: Three women stand out for me, Jamaica Kincaid, Edwidge Danticat and Toni Morrison, but I will tell you about the first author in my list and her book: Annie John. Before reading Annie John, I was starved for voices that sounded like my own—like the people in my life—which always sounds absurd to me since I was born and raised on an island not far from Kincaid’s.

It was the first “ah-ha” moment that gave an example of people like me who could write—and do so successfully—in the way that Kincaid did. It was also a powerful portrait of motherhood and one that I identified with immediately.

IFOA: What inspires you?

Dalton: The words of people who have fallen six or seven times and still got up to succeed on their eighth try.

As a writer, Simone Dalton is grappling with the chaos of her relatively new ‘wokeness’. She is learning how to bring this reality forth on the page as a student in the University of Guelph’s Creative Writing MFA program. Simone was born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago.

Dalton is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

5 Questions with Nicole Chin

We asked Nicole Chin five questions about writing as we gear up for the launch of The Unpublished City collection on June 22.

Nicole Chin. Author. The Unpublished City. Shooting the Bitch. BookThug. IFOA. House of Anansi.IFOA: Where do you draw inspiration from?

Nicole Chin: Writing that completely takes me by surprise. I usually feel the most inspired to write when I’m reading something new that I really love and that’s just supremely special.

It can be poetry or prose, it doesn’t really matter, there’s just a magical kind of cosmic zap that happens when something grabs you.

IFOA: What’s the story that you have to write no matter what (at some point in your life)?

Chin: I’m not sure about that one. That’s a question I really have to think about. I’m not sure what story I have to write no matter what, but I do know that no matter what, in the near future, I want to write something that feels like an honest expression of myself where I don’t feel like I’m self-censoring in any way.

Sometimes my fears can be my biggest saboteur.

IFOA: Where do you write? Is there a specific place you do your writing?

Chin: I usually write on my couch, but in the last while, I’ve been writing a lot on my phone during my commutes on the train.

IFOA: If you could ask your favourite author a question, what would it be?

Chin: “What made you realize that writing is what you wanted to stick with for the rest of your life?” I really like hearing those kinds of stories, not necessarily from writers only, but from artists across the board. Stories like that are always so interesting and life-affirming. They make you feel like you’re not alone.

IFOA: What are you writing now?

Chin: I’m working on a novel. I realized I wasn’t writing the kind of thing that I love reading, so I made a change. I feel at home with my project now! It’s cozy but not too cozy.

Nicole Chin is the author of the House of Anansi Press Digital Short, Shooting the Bitch, which received the Mcllquham Foundation Prize for best original short story. Her work has appeared in Joyland Magazine, Room Magazine, The Puritan, Found Press and others. She has been long-listed for the House of Anansi Broken Social Scene Short Story Contest and was the recipient of the Helen Richards Campbell Memorial Award.

Chin is one of the authors featured in The Unpublished City: a collection of works by Toronto’s emerging literary talents. IFOA and BookThug invite you to the collection’s release on June 22 at 7:30 PM as part of the Toronto Lit Up book launch series.

For more information, click here!

5 Questions with Rebecca Rosenblum

IFOA: What are some of the main themes you explore in So Much Love?

Rosenblum: Stories and how they change depending on who is telling them, from where in time they are being told—present tense, recent past, long in the past. And love, in all its variations, from parent-child to friendship to romantic, from poisonous and violent to pure and tender. Love is a lot more various and complex than we give it credit for, much more than just the embrace at the end of the romantic comedy. So even though this is a book with two acts of violence at its centre, it is also truly about love and how it goes both right and wrong.

IFOA: In an interview with Kerry Clare you said that “So Much Love was born from undergraduate discussions about poet Gwendolyn MacEwen“.  Can you tell us more about that?

rosenblum-rebecca-credit-mark-raynes-robertsRosenblum: MacEwen was the spark for me because the way we talked about her life in an undergraduate poetry class seemed just really close to how we talk about her poetry, as if her personal tragedies were another kind of art we could explore and evaluate. Of course, biography is always part of the picture when we study artists—you can’t really avoid it—but I felt like this was somewhat different than how we talked about male writers, and I wanted to explore that difference and my discomfort with it. That exploration followed a really long and circuitous path to get to the character of Julianna Ohlin in  So Much Love, but MacEwen was the originating spark. The second thread—of a young woman who goes missing and what happens to her—came from a similar place of wondering how life stories get put together and by who, who gets to tell that story.

How does So Much Love differ from anything you have written before?

Rosenblum: It’s a novel, as opposed to a collection of short stories. My first book, Once, was mainly unlinked stories and my second, The Big Dream, followed a loose arc, but both were made up of stories written as stand alone pieces and intended to be read either by themselves or in the context of each other, whatever the reader chose. There was a version of So Much Love that was written that way too, but linked short stories is a very elliptical form, with a lot of gaps for the reader, skips in time, and less of a solid arc or build in action, much less a resolution or ending—and the stories in So Much Love really needed to take a reader through a plotline with these characters and arrive at a conclusion. I just didn’t know how to do that It was really my editor, Anita Chong, who helped me take my linked collection and build a structure and fill in the gaps in plot until it became a real novel, which it truly always should have been. That was a very steep learning curve for me, and I needed a lot of help from Anita, but it was really gratifying to see the book grow into itself.

IFOA: What have you learned about yourself by writing this book?

rosenblum-so-much-loveRosenblum: That I’m better than I thought, but still no where near good enough. I had attempted to write the stories in So Much Love a couple times over the 15 years prior to it actually being published, and I wasn’t able to even properly envision the project until about 2011. That history of failure made me really humble going in a third time to try again. Which is good, because even though this third try was successful in the sense that I wrote the book I wanted to in the end, there was so much failure over the six years it took to get there, so much getting things wrong and throwing them out, so much going back to the voices of women who had been through experiences like Catherine did and trying again to honour them and not feeling I was getting it right. It was a devastating process in many ways, but a story like this was never one I was going to feel completely comfortable with, and that’s fine—no writer should feel comfortable or confident writing about trauma. There’s always more to say—in another few months, I’ll probably think of another angle I could have taken, another chapter to add that would have been illuminating.I accept that I wrote the best book I could, and I’m proud of it, but I know it isn’t perfect. Cracks are how the light gets in.

IFOA: Do you feel there are now more female voices in Canadian literature than there were when you started writing?

Rosenblum: I have had the great advantage of always being surrounded by wonderful and inspiring female writers—in my classes at the University of Toronto Creative Writing Masters, in the Toronto Women’s Writing Salon, in the online sphere, every time I walk into a bookstore. I’m not sure if there are more than there used to be, because I’ve always been so attuned to what the women are saying and writing. There are plenty of male writers I admire as well, of course, but I do seem to have encountered a lot of women so far, and they have been a great and generous community for me.

Rebecca Rosenblum and Kerry Clare talk about love, loss and what it means to bear witness with Amy Jones on May 10 at IFOA Weekly. Join them as they discuss the lives of women looking for the truth. Sheniz Janmohamed will host.

Information and tickets, here!

Book Club Notes: April


For the month of April we are delighted to welcome author Cordelia Strube to lead our Book Club! She invites us to read Kate Caley’s How You Were Born. Here is why she chose this book.

I hadn’t read Kate Caley’s work before pulling How You Were Born from a box, one of ten or so boxes delivered to me as a juror for the Trillium Book Award.  Jury duty in the literary world expands the margins of writers’ minds because we are forced to read books that we might not otherwise have noticed, not because the books aren’t good but because we haven’t heard about them.  An independent publisher as outstanding as Pedlar Press does not have a publicity punch equal to that of corporate-powered Random House.  Jurors are given the opportunity to see beyond the packaging and promo and assess books from all publishers, large and small, that meet the award’s submission guidelines. get-to-know-them-first-how-you-were-born-short-stories-by-kate-cayley_alu_blogfeatured

Testing the pulse of each literary work, we diligently wend our way through the big name authors, best sellers and award winners as well as the emerging or lesser known ones.  Occasionally we are gobsmacked by a book so masterful that we write it down immediately in felt marker, alongside the penciled titles.  Kate Caley’s collection How You Were Born was such a marvel for me.  Two years later, her stories Boys and The Fetch continue to linger in my imagination.  Her skill as a playwright is richly evident in her use of dialogue.  Characters are revealed through behaviours and their use of settings, enabling us to learn about Caley’s worlds as her characters move through them.  Her use of specific, animate detail never slows the narrative and eases us into the complexity of the human condition.  With grace and pathos, Caley teases out unexpected insights, connections, dark secrets and moments of transcendence.

How You Were Born well deserved the Trillium Book Award.

Strube, Cordelia _by Mark Raynes RobertsCordelia Strube is an accomplished playwright and the author of nine critically acclaimed novels, including Alex & Zee, Teaching Pigs to Sing, and Lemon. Winner of the CBC literary competition and a Toronto Arts Foundation Award, she has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Book Award, the WH Smith/Books in Canada First Novel Award, and long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. A two-time finalist for ACTRA’s Nellie Award celebrating excellence in Canadian broadcasting, she is also a three-time nominee for the ReLit Award. Her latest work On The Shores Of Darkness, There Is Light won the City of Toronto Book Award.

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