Author Spotlight

Author Spotlight: Shauntay Grant

Shauntay Grant is a spoken word artist, poet, children’s writer, playwright, musician and choir director. Everything she does is centred on African Nova Scotian history and experience. Everything she does is done with passion and purpose.

For example, her first children’s book, Up Home (Nimbus Publishing, 2008) was written as a thank you to the Black community of North Preston, where Grant spent many happy years of her childhood. Africville (Groundwood Books, 2018), nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for Young People’s Literature, is a joyful exploration of historic Africville from a child’s perspective. The delightful board book My Hair is Beautiful (Nimbus Publishing, 2019) carries an “empowering message for families and children of colour, for whom wearing natural hair is both culturally significant and vital to forming a positive sense of self.” (Quill & Quire). There are more children’s books to come, proving that Grant continues to be an author to watch.

In recent years, Grant has turned her attention to drama. Her first play The Bridge (Playwrights Canada Press, 2021) was completed while Grant did a residency with 2b Theatre Company. The play is set in a rural Black Nova Scotia community and explores the complex relationship between two brothers strained over 20 years of secrecy, sin, and shame. It debuted at Neptune Theatre in early 2019 and received 11 2020 Robert Merritt Award nominations, winning four, including Outstanding New Play by a Nova Scotian.

Grant has two new plays in progress. Reunited with 2b Theatre, she is working on Maridzambira, set in modern day Halifax and ripe with notes of African Nova Scotian and Zimbabwean music and culture. The play is a collaboration with Zimbabwe’s musical treasure, Hope Masike. As well, Against the Grain Theatre (AtG) has commissioned Grant to write Identity: a Song Cycle for baritone Elliot Madore; Grant will collaborate this time with composer Dinuk Wijeratne.

I was lucky enough to catch a performance of your play, The Bridge, at Neptune Theatre back in 2019. What was it like to see your play move from script to stage production?

It was really interesting to see the production. To see words that were written for performance come alive onstage. To hear the music of the play woven into the fabric of the spoken text.

In addition to being a playwright, you’re also an accomplished poet, spoken word artist, musician, and picture book author. How does the way you tell a story shift between these different genres? 

The root of all my writing is poetry. My spoken word performance pieces are essentially poems spoken out loud. Almost all of my picture books have poetic text. And my plays have strong poetic elements. The Bridge, for example, adapts the lyrical poetry of The Song of Solomon as a conversation between a preacher and his lover. And there’s also the gospel and blues song lyrics that are, in a way, folk poems set to music. So with poetry as my grounding place, the shift happens when deciding which audience I’m writing for, or in which genre I want to write. If it’s a picture book, I’ll often lean on repetition or rhyme or other playful devices. With playwriting and spoken word I’ll often invite musical elements to explore the interplay between music and text. And with prose I’ll usually go for succinct, rhythmic lines that feel like poetry.

Speaking of your award-winning children’s books, do any interactions with young readers of your work stand out for you?

I remember sharing Africville with a group of third graders in Toronto shortly after the book’s release. The school was located near several residential buildings, one of which had recently suffered a fire that left hundreds of people without a home. In my visit with the students we explored themes of community and displacement. And when I shared with them how Africville was razed in the ’60s, a young boy raised his hand and said, “This sounds a lot like what happened to First Nations people in this country.” And I so appreciated how—at just 8 years old—he and his classmates were already having meaningful discussion around these challenging parts of our history as Canadians.

 You served as Halifax’s third Poet Laureate from 2009-2011. What was your personal approach to taking on this role?

I really wanted to create spaces for conversation between poets and other creatives. Part of that was collaborating with the Halifax Jazz Festival and other venues to create spaces for poets to collaborate with musicians in a performance setting. I also organized a national gathering of Canadian poets laureate—a first for the country at the time. And of course creating poems rooted in my experiences living on the east coast; for example my second children’s book The City Speaks In Drums is about two kids exploring the sights and sounds of Halifax, and it was published during my term as poet laureate.

You’ve had many students as a professor at Dalhousie and WFNS workshop instructor. What do you enjoy most about teaching creative writing to emerging voices?

I love those moments when a new writer starts to really own their story, and to trust their voice as an artist.

You’ve mentioned before that site-based writing is an important part of your creative process. What was it like do this for Africville, a site that looks very different today from the vibrant and deeply rooted African Nova Scotian community that the City of Halifax demolished in the 1960s?

For me, site-based writing is about deep listening on the physical land. The spaces I visit are often visually different from the historical moment I’m trying to access. But the land has stayed. And sometimes just planting my feet in the soil and trying to remember (or to imagine, or dream) is all it takes to begin to access that moment, and for stories to coming rushing in.

Can you talk about the importance of telling this story through the eyes of a young Black protagonist from the present day, rather than as a purely historical narrative?

Research is a key part of my creative process and while I love learning about history, I think it’s important for readers to encounter Black characters and Black culture in present-day contexts. Approaching this story from the perspective of a young Africville descendant taking in the annual reunion festival and reflecting on the community’s history was a way of honoring Africville’s past while also emphasizing that the community is still very much alive today.

A French edition of Africville was released last year with Moncton-based publisher Bouton d’or Acadie. What kinds of discussions did you have with translator Josephine Watson as she brought this latest iteration of the project to life?

Josephine and I didn’t interact during the development of the translated text, but I was in touch with the publisher at the time, and pleased with the translation. I had the privilege of giving a virtual author reading alongside Josephine during Black History Month this year, and was pleased to learn that she also has a background in poetry and spoken word. It definitely shines through her translation work—she did a great job.

Would it be fair to say collaboration is a cornerstone of your overall creative practice? In your experience, what are some of the hallmarks of a strong artistic partnership?

I’d say collaboration is pretty important. Right now I’m writing the poetry for a song cycle that Against The Grain Theatre will premiere in 2022—a collaboration with composer Dinuk Wijeratne and baritone Elliot Madore. In book publishing I’ve worked with illustrators and editors. In theatre I work with actors, musicians, directors, producers. With collaboration, I think having respect for what each person brings to the table is key. We may not always agree with each other—or even have conflicting visions for the project—but the respect for each other’s work is what keeps the collaboration strong, and helps guide us through those moments where we may have creative differences.

What achievement are you most proud of in your writing career thus far?

I’m not sure I could name one thing that I’m ‘most’ proud of but you wouldn’t believe my excitement when I saw Africville among the books listed in a Scholastic Reading Club flyer. I lived for those flyers when I was in elementary school and regularly pestered my parents to order new books every time the flyer came out. And it never occurred to me at the time that some day I’d have a book listed there. So I was pretty excited about the reading club edition of Africville making its way into the world.

How would you define a “successful” day of writing for yourself these days?

Any day that I get to write feels satisfying. Whether it’s just jotting down a few lines here and there, editing a work-in-progress, digging into research materials, listening and observing on the land… it’s all part of the process. And no matter how big or small the activity, it’s helping me to develop as a writer. So I’m grateful for any time—no matter how big or small—that I get to write.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

 

 

 

Author spotlight: John Graham-Pole

John Graham-Pole graduated from University of London College of Medicine in 1966 and was a clinician, teacher, and researcher in the field of childhood cancer and palliative care for forty years. He co-founded the University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine in the 1970s. In 2007, he moved to Antigonish after marrying Dorothy Lander, a professor of adult education at StFX. In 2018, John and Dorothy co-founded HARP: The People’s Press, dedicated to publications on art and health. You can find many of HARP’s books at The Curious Cat bookstore and teashop on Antigonish’s Main Street. John has written eleven books of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, and you can learn more about his work by visiting his website.

After living and working in cities across the UK and US for many decades, what drew you to the Antigonish area?

I fell in love with a Canadian woman, Dorothy Lander. She’s lived in Antigonish for 35 years and was attending a course on arts and healing I was helping to run at University of Florida, where I was working. We share many interests and we were both approaching what’s laughingly called retirement age, she as a prof of adult education at StFX and I as a prof of pediatric oncology and palliative care at UF. So we got married here in our kitchen fifteen years ago, and I’ve been blissed out ever since.  

You’ve released two YA novels over the past few years, Blood Work and A Boy and His Soul, that feature young protagonists with cancer. Why did you want to explore this topic through a fictional lens?

(And I’m just wrapping up my third – Songlines – this time about two Dalhousie students, told from the viewpoint of the girlfriend of a senior who develops a brain cancer.)

I’ve written a large number of articles, both academic and non-academic, about young people with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses. And I’ve also written two medical memoirs, one to be published soon, and the other – “Journeys with a Thousand Heroes” – published in 2018 by Wising Up Press. Both these books are full of stories of my patients, and it struck me that to write novels inspired by those “thousand heroes” was a much more appealing way to attract – and to educate – readers among young people and that huge population of grown-ups who also read YA novels. And I think writing good fiction is mostly more challenging than writing non-fiction.

Blood Work and A Boy and His Soul were both released through your company HARP Publishing. What led you to found HARP and share your work with readers in this way?

Both Dorothy and I have a long time interest in the healing arts, and we realized there was a niche that ought to be filled. HARP Publishing, The People’s Press is a multi-media publisher focusing on the healing arts and the arts for health equity. Our focus is a popular readership of caregivers and care receivers (which means all of us!), in both electronic and print media. The acronym, HARP, stands for Healing Arts, Reconciling People. Our name represents both art and cooperation amongst all communities for our greater personal and collective health. We were drawn from the start to the harp’s healing symbolism in creating a publisher with a particular stress on the healing power of art, especially through telling stories. 

What has it been like to set up shop as a small press in Nova Scotia?

The steepest learning curve I’ve been on since medical school – and that was almost 60 years ago! If we’d realized what we were getting into at the age of 76 and 71 respectively I suspect we’d never have embarked on this journey. We started out in 2018 planning to publish mostly our own writing, starting out with The People’s Photo Album, a pictorial genealogy of the Antigonish Movement. We launched it on Parliament Hill with three senators present. Then word got out and our own books had to quickly take a backseat to publishing authors from all over Canada and America with compelling work that fit right into our niche and we felt needed to be published. Among our 14 publications so far are three focused on healing from war and genocide (Indigenous, Guatemalan, Armenian), three books of poetry, and a book and online audio flipbook for young ones—Hmmm – M the Humdinger—about difference (the heroine communicates only by humming).

You’ve also looked back over your career through poetry, essays, and memoir. Do you have a favourite mode of creative expression?

Play in all forms. I happened to go to primary school with John Cleese and to medical school with Graham Chapman (both Monty Python luminaries), and later became friendly with Patch Adams. So I became aware of the healing power of laughter very early on and used to do a lot of what I called “playshops” with adult colleagues. Children of course know the value of play instinctively, but sadly this gets suppressed somewhere along with the emergence of adolescent angst.

Overall, what role do you think art and creativity have to play in the healthcare system?

There’s been so much written in the past thirty years since we started our Arts in Medicine program and the Center for Arts in Medicine back in the seventies. Patch Adams wrote a foreword to the book I wrote in 2000 entitled Illness and the Art of Creative Self-Expression. His opening lines were: “Art is an essential nutrient for human culture. Every society has used art to create a social glue, to express its faith and ideas, and to interpret the world…Our current economic system has disconnected art from the general public…The consequence of this social disconnection from the arts is the malaise we physicians see as so pervasive in our society.” I certainly couldn’t say it better, but I’ll just add that I spent almost my whole 40-year career hanging out with children. Children don’t lurch—the way we adults so often do from past regret to future anxiety, totally missing the bit in the middle: our precious gift of the present. They are artists in life—so let them be our leaders and our teachers.

Are there other writers with a medical background that you admire?

Another tough question—there are so many. Here’s a short alphabetical list:

Rafael Campo, Larry Dossey, Atul Gawande, Jerome Groopman, Paul Kalanthi, Perri Klas, Vincent Lam, Siddhartha Mukherjee, Jock Murray, Sherwin Nuland, Danielle Ofri, Oliver Sachs, Richard Selzer, Lewis Thomas, and Abraham Verghese. And that’s not even to mention all those wonderful nurse-writers, and…and…and…

During the summer months, how do you enjoy spending your time when not writing?

When I read that question to Dorothy, she burst out laughing—something to do with the ridiculous and probably unhealthy time we spent at our computers all year round… But we do have a wonderful 1.8 acres of land in which we grow lots of fruits and veggies, as well as planting many new trees every year. We have no lawn to mow, because we are doing our best to attract all the pollinators. We have some important daily, rituals—walking our “forest”, reading aloud to each other, riding our e-bikes, weekend trips around the province, yoga, vegetarian cooking…

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

Author spotlight: Louise Michalos

Born in Musquodoboit Harbour and raised in Halifax, Louise Michalos brings an authentic voice to Marilla Cuthbert’s story. The second youngest of a family of nine, whose mother was raised in a lighthouse and whose father was raised in a home that housed the post office, Louise’s life was infused with the stories of love and loss that are held within small communities throughout Atlantic Canada. Louise currently lives in Bedford with her husband, Trifon. Marilla Before Anne is her first novel. (Photo Credit: Nicola Davison)

Out of all the characters in fiction, why Marilla?

I was looking for an east coast story and a character that people would be familiar with. Many people know the story of Anne Shirley but there wasn’t much written about Marilla Cuthbert, the woman who adopts her. As a woman, a mother and grandmother, I wanted to know more about her life and what brought her to that decision at age 52.

What clues in the Anne books did you have to work from in fleshing out the younger Marilla?

When Anne first arrives at Green Gables, and as much as Marilla remains stern and practical in her approach to the perceived mistake of her not being a boy, there are moments when she is described as mellow. “Something like a reluctant smile, rather rusty from long disuse, mellowed Marilla’s grim expression.” Snippets of these types of reactions by Marilla throughout the Anne of Green Gables novel show a warmth that existed within her but had little opportunity to surface. I wanted to explore why.

What were some challenges / favorite things of writing historical fiction?

 The challenge was in making sure that the actions taken by the characters (for example, a train ride, ferry boat to Halifax, graduation from Veterinary College) could actually happen in that time period. And to make sure the timelines of all the characters from three different novels all lined up, including the birth dates of Marilla (from Marilla before Anne) Bertha (from Before Green Gables) and Anne and Gilbert Blythe (from Anne of Green Gables). 

One of my favourite things is immersing myself in the time period and hearing the various voices, dialects and expressions come to life.

I know that you’ve taken writing workshops and participated in Nova Writes … would you recommend things like these for a writer getting started?

Absolutely! One of the first things I did was join WFNS. I kept up to date on events and workshops and contests that were being promoted or announced. I attended the Word on the Street author readings and “Pitch to the publisher” events, I attended author book launches at the Dartmouth and Central library. I attended workshops conducted by Donna Morrissey and most recently by Carol Bruneau. I participated in the first Sherbrooke Village writer’s camp in 2018. I entered the Nova Writes competition and various other short story and poetry competitions.

What other pieces of advice would you have for a writer getting published for the first time?

Follow manuscript submission instructions for each specific publisher and present yourself (and your manuscript) as professional and as polished as possible. Help the publisher understand the audience you’re trying to reach and suggestions on how to reach them.

Fiction inspired by other earlier works of fiction – I’m thinking of Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and Longbourn by Jo Baker – come with a built-in audience. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that?

The advantage, especially for an unknown author, is to have the book noticed on the book shelf, not for the author’s name but for the character that readers already know. The disadvantage is that readers can’t or won’t accept your version of the story you’ve created around their beloved character.

Were you ever able to speak to Budge Wilson, who also did a book inspired by Anne of Green Gables, Before Green Gables?

No. Unfortunately I didn’t. I had hoped to have a copy of my book sent to her and meet her once the book was released. When she passed away I was so upset. She inspired me as a writer because she wrote Before Green Gables when she was 80 years old, which made my idea, that starting writing at 60 was way too late, seem silly. 

What kind of reaction have you got from Anne fans so far?

I’ve only had two or three negative reviews from Anne fans. They simply can’t accept my version. Other reviewers expressed that they really enjoyed the story and welcomed the opportunity to get to know Marilla better…which warms my heart.

Did you need to get permission from LM Montgomery’s heirs?

I wrote and asked for permission, but it was not required. Because the characters of Marilla (and Matthew and others) belong within the public domain of Canada, LM Montgomery Inc. doesn’t have the authority to impede the freedom of expression of authors wanting to use those characters in their creative pursuits. They of course want it made clear that they have not provided an endorsement or approval of any kind but wished me well with my work.

If there were other characters in the Anne canon to flesh out, who would they be?

I think I’d like to know more about Violet, the love interest of Matthew. There’s a whole story behind that story and I think I’d like to know more!

What’s your position on puff sleeves?

Well Marilla wouldn’t be caught dead in them, but being a bit of a fashion buff, if they go back in style I just might have to try them! After all we did the padded shoulders in the ’80s, so why not?

What’s next for you?

I want to revise my original manuscript for Out of the Ashes, which is a love story set between 1917 and 1945 and describes the connection between Boston and Halifax during and post Halifax Explosion. I want to get it as polished as I can (it’s the one I cut my teeth on!) and then submit, first to Nimbus of course, but also publishers in Boston who may be interested as well. Aside from historical fiction, I started a third novel set in Halifax in present day which is either a murder mystery or a psychological thriller. I’ll know better when I get back into it. Needless to say my retirement hobby has now turned into real work… and I love it!

Questions by Marilyn Smulders

Author spotlight: Angela Bowden

TEDx speaker, writer, and activist, Angela Bowden is a descendent of the stolen Africans sold through the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Angela’s roots were preserved through the Black Loyalists arriving in Birchtown, migrating to Guysborough County, and later moving to New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, where she was born and raised.

In the introduction to UnSpoken Truth, you say that “[t]he pieces contained in this book are intended to identify and acknowledge the generational trauma and pain of Black people living in the African Diaspora and create an understanding of the trauma suffered.” As a poet and a journalist, there are several ways you could have approached this important project. What drew you to poetry in particular?

When I began writing UnSpoken Truth I originally set out to write a combination of short stories and poems but somewhere along the way it became clear to me how deeply the poetry was working in this project alone. I would create a piece and it didn’t matter the length or structure, it was doing some pretty powerful work in a way that seemed natural and moving. The poetry travelled like water, filling in some of the historical trauma crevices and seeping past the walls of opposition landing in a place that I refer to as innerstanding; the place where pain resonates and motivates us to do something. Poetry that is created deliberately and consciously moves energy much like music. Each poem became a lesson filled with lived experience and created an atmosphere that moved readers beyond the words and into the trauma. Capturing this topic via poetry provided a necessary break for the reader; there is an in and an out of this daunting material. When engaging with traumatic material like UnSpoken Truth that’s important. Each poem provides bite size pieces of these complex trauma stories without losing meaning or momentum. Poetry is personal. Each reader receives it and is able to have an intimate conversation with themselves privately over what each piece is conveying. There’s no room for argument in poetry. I chose poetry because it evokes emotions that are easier to penetrate past the mind and into the heart. That part, the innerstanding, I hope motivates individuals alone and in family and peer circles to examine our histories and change.

You also mention in the book that storytelling played an important role in your family while growing up in New Glasgow. How has that influenced your writing career?

Storytelling is a cultural and historical part of the African community’s identity; we preserve our stories, history and other events and pass them down orally intergenerationally. As a young girl I enjoyed the stories told in my family and community and now I have the maturity and wisdom to process and analyze them. I pass these stories on in the art of storytelling, spoken word, poetry and nonfiction works. I think it’s critically important that some of these stories be captured in the art and story form in an effort to document our historical and ongoing experiences and existence in the diaspora. I have learned the bulk of my education through this wisdom and storytelling and I never wanted our rich cultural histories and legacies to be forgotten. This has had a profound effect on my writing and is the reason I listen and carefully store these memory archives that later translate into poetry or spoken word. Our survival has been one of a tragedy inside a tragedy, so much substance and beauty intertwined in our histories, coping and pain.

What has your family’s response been to UnSpoken Truth?

Complete pride. From my mother to my sons, aunties, siblings, cousins and friends the feedback has been complete pride. Much like the elder response, UnSpoken Truth has opened another door and gives permission for us as individuals, families and communities to validate and engage in some of the deep conversations we were never permitted to acknowledge let alone speak about. Unspoken Truth validates these experiences and gives permission to acknowledge, speak, feel and heal; the experiences contained in the book resonate beyond my family.

When writing about topics that require a lot of emotional labour, do you follow any self-care rituals?

Oh absolutely! These topics require pre care and after care. It is critical to my own survival and thrival to invest in me first before I travel to those tough spaces and use deep energy. I spend a lot of time outside in nature or beside water, connecting, smudging and pouring libations to ground me in my purpose and provide me with support. After I write from and in these trauma spaces I face physical and emotional consequences, which lend a hand to more good writing.

I find my center again by going back outside and tuning in to me, with nature and my soul, reminding myself of who I am and giving myself permission to release and rest. Breathing, observing, grounding and being grateful and mindful of the little things keeps me in the present, this is so important. Spending time with my family and friends reminiscing and laughing, bubble baths, music and dancing is also part of my follow up care but connecting with children and the elderly offers a healing unparalleled. Basking in pure love, vulnerability, good energy and counting my blessings is the key to continuing this journey I am on.

In a recent CBC article, you spoke about how the title of this book reflects your efforts to unmute the voices and stories of your elders. You’ve also dedicated the collection in part to Black youth. Who are some young Black voices that excite you today?

Yes, it is important the youth understand their location in all of this as they lead us to change. There are so many public and behind the scene youth voices that excite me provincially, too many to name and I would not want to leave any voices out!

Personally, I’d have to say the voices of my sons Roger and Roemyn excite me the most, especially as a Black mother because we dialogue regularly about these complex topics. They have a profound understanding of the issues we are facing and use their gifts, experiences, trauma and healing to generate solutions. From researching, developing and sharing financial literacy and investment information and support to the psychological understandings and experiences of Black trauma and mental health they put in the work both academically and personally. As young Black men with complex lived experiences and perspectives, I am excited to see what contributions they will both continue to make in the development of and as Black men as well as in the literary and academia world. It’s exciting to envision where our youth and their critical thinking will lead them as they venture into their individual journeys, rejecting Black Toxic Masculinity and perhaps engaging in future joint projects.

When it comes to the voices of the youth in this province, let me assert that they are speaking up and out in many different ways in every crevice of rural and urban Nova Scotia. From articles, public speaking, activism, poetry, spoken word, music, art, peer conversations and modelling, personal growth and self investment, these youth are making a difference. They are the change and it is incumbent upon all of us to continue to be the steady shoulders they stand on.

How did your manuscript evolve from the earliest drafts in 2018 to your time in the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship Program in 2020 and its publication this year?

The evolution of UnSpoken Truth went from inspiration to perspiration. The beginning stages in 2018 were driven by inspiration but that was not going to be enough to complete the project. Writing requires discipline and that is what the Alistair MacLeod Mentorship program provided me with – discipline. Through the program I learned to sweat a little when I write, this was a new discipline for me, writing from perspiration. And as I began to settle into the ebb and flow of writer’s block and woes I learned valuable insight regarding the writing process; I learned that both chaos and the clarity inform the writing process so I let my guard down and accepted whatever thoughts, words or stories entered my space. As publication drew near I had evolved so much as a writer through the entire process that the manuscript that I thought was finished became a working and open document again that saw multiple edits and additions which eventually led to the finish line; the evolution and completion of UnSpoken Truth: Unmuted and Unfiltered.

Do you enjoy writing anywhere, or is there a particular space or set-up that works best for you?

I love writing anywhere and everywhere as each location creates its own writing atmosphere and encourages diverse angles and parallels. I can be writing in my room and not even be in my room writing as I am present in the story, not the location. I love writing outside in the sun and at evening time. I also enjoy writing while travelling because my mind is constantly analyzing, processing and filtering new content in new spaces. I can return to write in those spaces when I return back to my home as well because I was present in those stories ans spaces mindfully so I can recreate them in my mind and spirit when I write. Whether I am capturing experiences from Ghana, the Dominican, Jamaica or the US I can literally feel my way back into those places I experienced to write. For me, the message meets me where I am and transcends all moods.

I understand there’s now an UnSpoken Truth audio book in the works. How do the publishing and recording processes compare for this project?

Well everything has been delayed because of COVID, but I suspect the audio for UnSpoken Truth will be more impactful based on the feedback I receive after a reading or presentation. The project will be more emotional labour and more intensive self care as there is something about speaking the trauma out loud and hearing it that triggers deeper for everyone including the author. I am also excited to be offering an alternate format that is more accessible to our elders, visually impaired and persons struggling with literacy.

Speaking of recording, there’s a great video available on YouTube in which you perform two poems from your time in the WFNS mentorship program. As a seasoned spoken word artist and public speaker, do you have any advice for writers who might be nervous about sharing their own words in public?

Yes! Dear beautiful talented writers, poets and speakers YOU got this, you had it all along! Dig deep and then deeper. You are on this journey for a reason and the good news is you have all of the answers you seek tucked deep inside of you. Have fun with your gift. Unwrap it, play with it, and discover your power! Stand tall and proud in your gifts and talents and turn up your volume and you will naturally present and feel a righteous responsibility to share your gift with confidence and grace unapologetically once you remember who YOU are. Don’t question it. Accept that the gifts you’ve been given are for you to use; it is protected and abundant so hop to it.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

Author spotlight: Philip Moscovitch

Philip Moscovitch is a writer and audio producer living in Glen Margaret, Nova Scotia. He is the author of the book Adventures in Bubbles and Brine, producer of the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21’s French-language podcast D’innombrables voyages, and co-host of the books podcast Dog-eared and Cracked. He is a regular contributor to Saltscapes and the Halifax Examiner. While his focus is mainly non-fiction, he occasionally publishes short fiction and poetry as well. Several of his pandemic-related poems will appear in 2020: An Anthology of Poetry with Drawings by Bill Liebeskind from Black Dog & One-Eyed Press this fall. (Photo Credit: Nicola Davison)

You recently graduated from the University of King’s College with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction. What was your experience of the program?

The program was great. I know several people who have done it, but I had not considered it myself until I had lunch one day with Kim Pittaway, who is the program’s executive director, and also a former WFNS board chair. We got to talking, and I shared some ideas with her for a book I was contemplating writing, and she said, “Have you ever thought about doing the MFA?”

I wrote Adventures in Bubbles and Brine while I was an MFA student, but it wasn’t my MFA project. So I was writing two books at once – I actually got a contract for the book very early on in the process of doing the program. That was stressful and exhausting, but the program itself was great. I learned so much, and I’m happy to recommend it to others. You know I’ve been in this business a long time, but the MFA experience helped me fully realize the kind of writer I want to be.

How does your background as a journalist inform your creative writing practice?

One of the ways I’ve survived as a full-time freelance writer for some 25 years is by doing many different types of work. I’ve done journalism, communications work (of course, I make sure I don’t have any ethical conflicts between these two) French-English translation, documentary film marketing—and on and on and on. And I find in some ways everything informs everything else. Right now I’m working on a draft of a novel, and there is a real exhilaration in just making things up. At the same time, I’ve kept a running list of things I’ve researched in the course of writing it. So far they include measuring moisture levels in firewood, when Plenty of Fish launched, features of hydraulic lifts for service stations, and the popularity of the name Walter by decade. I value insight, accuracy, and paying attention to details, no matter what I’m writing.

One of the things I love about your book, Adventures in Bubbles and Brine, is how it incorporates so many different elements—interviews, recipes, history—to tell the story of fermentation in Nova Scotia. Did you ever consider tackling this subject another way, or was a multi-genre approach always the plan?

This question made me laugh, because honestly, there was no plan. Kara Turner from Formac approached me about the possibility of writing a book about fermentation in Nova Scotia. I jumped at the chance, but after my first meeting with her went home and realized I had no idea how to go about it. Kara was clear she didn’t just want a cookbook. She wanted a narrative approach, and she gave me the freedom to tackle that however I wanted. I outlined the book, but the approach didn’t really gel until I’d done most of the research on my cider chapter. It’s not the first chapter in the book, but it’s the first I wrote.

I have a friend named Brian Braganza who would throw an annual cider party, where people bring their own apples to press. I’d been meaning to go for years, so this seemed like a good opportunity. After that, I visited cider-makers, dug into the history of cider, talked to people who remembered their first and worst hangover coming from Golden Glow cider — even brought in a reference to a character called Captain Glow from the 1970s Old Trout Funnies comics series.

I quickly realized my role in this book was not to be a food expert or reporter discussing the subject at a distance. It was to be an enthusiastic companion, taking the reader along on this fun journey of discovery with me. Instead of submitting the whole manuscript to Kara when it was done, I wrote the cider chapter and sent it to her to see what she’d think. She was completely on board with the way I approached it, so that set the tone for the rest of the book.

What was the research process like for this book?

Early on, I drew up a detailed outline, and that really made life easier. I did go through a period of kind of ignoring the outline, and then I realized that it was good and comprehensive, and all I had to do was follow it – while staying open to anything that might come along that I should add.

The research was a mix of travel and in-person interviews with practitioners and experts, reading a lot of archival materials, local histories and community cookbooks, and developing and testing recipes. Some events were really helpful, like the Upskilling food festival in Sydney, which gave me the opportunity to sit in on workshops on subjects like fermenting vegetables and making kombucha. So that gave me colour for the story, but also an opportunity to visit other folks in the area, like someone with a thriving home cheese-making practice. Fermenters also tend to be really enthusiastic and have different practices (eg, a professional cider maker who also makes sourdough bread and ginger beer for fun), and so each person I interviewed would give me more leads and ideas to follow.

My longstanding interest in fermentation and my obsessive note-taking came in handy too. For instance, a cheese-making workshop I went to several years ago wound up providing some of the narrative for my cheese chapter.

When writing about food, is it difficult to translate taste into words?

Many fermented foods have a particular kind of oomf to them, and I tried to capture that. I used words like “earthy,” “bite,” “bitter tang,” “edgy,” “rich,” and “funky” a lot. 

You thank your mother and grandmother in the acknowledgements for sharing their own fermentation traditions with you. Growing up, what was the relationship between food and storytelling in their kitchens?

My Greek grandmother was an incredible storyteller. She could talk for hours, and you had to pay close attention, because she could be telling you about something that happened last week, 50 years earlier during the Second World War or the Greek civil war, or during the early 1800s, or under the Ottoman occupation – or even farther back to stories of Greek Orthodox saints.  I grew up on the West Island in Montreal, and I definitely had a sense we were somehow different. The other kids I knew did not have mums who made bread and yogourt, and who picked and cooked greens growing by the side of the road. I did not grow up knowing how to cook. My mother ran the kitchen (my dad could fry eggs, but that was about it), and I was generally not involved. At the same time, I do remember enjoying listening to my mum and other relatives who had come from to Canada from Greece sitting around in the kitchen, smoking (they’ve all quit since then) and telling stories.

What do you hope readers of Adventures in Bubbles and Brine will take away from this book?

Fermented foods and drinks have a long and fascinating history, and are fun to make at home. I encourage experimenting and recognizing that your results won’t be the same every time – and that’s part of the fun.

How do you keep distractions at bay while writing?

I don’t really have a good answer for this, because I am very much prone to distraction. The best thing I’ve found is the Pomodoro technique, which involves setting goals, breaking tasks down into 25-minute segments, focusing during those segments, and then taking short breaks. I don’t always use it, but I should. It’s a great technique. I use an app called Pomodoro Timer. It costs $2.99, I think, but there are free ones out there too, and the original Pomodoro Technique book, by Francisco Cirillo, is worth reading also.

I was delighted to learn from your website that you also wrote for the Daisy Dreamer comic, which appeared in the popular children’s magazine Chickadee. I have fond memories of following Daisy’s adventures as a kid. What was it like to take on this long-running series and make it your own?

I’m glad you liked the comics! I was fortunate enough to write Daisy for 14 years, until the magazine decided to bring the comic to a close. That’s an incredibly long run, and I’m grateful for it. For those not familiar with it, Daisy Dreamer was a two-page comic featuring an active and adventurous girl with a magic ballcap that allowed her to transform into any animal she thought of. When the comic launched in the 1980s, Daisy was younger and didn’t have any magic powers – just an active imagination. When Mark Shainblum and Gabriel Morrissette were brought on as the creative team in the 90s, they updated Daisy and gave her a new origin story. I knew Mark, and we were chatting about comics writing opportunities one day, when he told me he was planning to step aside from Daisy. I approached the editor at the time, and wound up getting the gig.

In the early going, the writing was challenging because I didn’t really get the characters. All my dialogue felt generic, and like any of them could have said it. But over time, I got to know them better and to figure out which types of stories worked well and which I wanted to avoid. I can’t say I ever thought of it as my own though – and that’s a good thing. It was always a collaborative effort among myself, Gabriel, who is a creative genius and brings so much to the table, and the editorial team.

What are you fermenting right now in your writing space and kitchen?

I’ve spent a lot of my career focusing on the short term: the next article I need to write, the next short project I want to pitch. One of the benefits of having written a book is realizing I can think more long term. Gabriel and I have been talking about putting together a creator-owned comics series, I’ve got a solid chunk of the draft of my novel done, and two potential new non-fiction projects in the works. We’ll see what happens.

In terms of the kitchen, my partner, Sara, has been making kefir and is brilliant at coming up with flavours for our kombucha. I regularly make bread, and as the summer goes on and the harvest starts to roll in I’ll do up some batches of various types of fermented vegetable pickles. Kosher dills are a perennial favourite. My attempt at fermented hot sauce fell flat last year, but I’ll try again with a different recipe when the peppers are ready.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

Author spotlight: Michelle Sylliboy

Michelle Sylliboy is a Two-Spirited L’nu (Mi’kmaw) artist, and Assistant Professor at St.FX University in N.S. in three departments: Modern Language, Education and Fine Arts. Sylliboy was born in Boston, MA, and raised on unceded Mi’kmaw territory in the community of We’koqmaq, Cape Breton. She gathers much of her inspiration from personal tales, the environment, and her L’nuk (Mi’kmaq) culture. Her interdisciplinary art practice has led her to work with emerging and professional artists from all over Turtle Island. Sylliboy is currently pursuing a Doctor of Philosophy in Education from Simon Fraser University. Her dissertation combines her artistic background and education by writing about her Mi’kmaq Komqwejwi’kasikl living curriculum. Her recently launched Komqwejwi’kasikl clothing line is now available at legaleriste.com/en/artist.5.

Kiskajeyi – I AM READY is the first Komqwejwi’kasikl (Mi’kmaq hieroglyphic) poetry book ever to be published. What was your initial spark for this collection?

The initial spark happened a number of years ago. For many years I had wanted to publish a L’nuk (Mi’kmaq) poetry book written in the alphabet we adopted from English. And then, I started to do more and more work with the Komqwejwi’kasikl symbols, and I realized during my research and time with my community that I should do what I do best, which is use these symbols to write poetry. Initially, I had asked some people if they wanted to co-write the Komqwejwi’kasikl poetry with me, but there was this hesitancy and fear to do that. So I realized that I needed to write an example of what we can do with these symbols first. Poetry is something I’ve been writing since my early twenties, and I just love it. It’s how I see the world, it’s how I think about things, so it was natural for me to just use that as my medium to explore the Komqwejwi’kasikl language.

What else inspires you to write poetry?

With my regular poetry, I usually write about current events. If something really touches my heart or pulls my heartstrings, I will write about it. In the L’nuk language, you’re constantly describing what’s going on at that very moment, like a newscast. And I look at poetry in the same way. It’s a way to tell what’s going on in my life, or what’s going on in the world at that very moment. As First Nations Peoples, our own narrative has always been replaced by someone who never spent time with us, or by someone who decided to write about us but never asked us what we felt. And so as a poet, and as an interdisciplinary artist, it’s important for me to tell my own story about how I’m seeing things right then and there, whether I’m writing about COVID or the 215 children that were found at the Kamloops residential school.

In addition to that immediacy, your poetry has a holistic quality to it. For example, in your Author’s Note for Kiskajeyi – I AM READY, you talk about how the act of writing connects you to your ancestors, the land, and future generations all at the same time. Can you tell me more about the interconnectivity that’s present in your work?

Culturally speaking, as a L’nu person, I was brought up with this knowledge, this worldview, that we are interconnected with all life that exists. And so I communicate to Spirits and my Ancestors as if they’re sitting right here beside me. For example, there’s no word for goodbye in my language. We say Nm’ultes, which means “see you later,” whether I see you in person or I see you in spirit. So Nm’ultes has an infinite timeline, I’m going to see you regardless, because the dream world and the physical world are interconnected according to my L’nuk worldview. I often write poems where I’ll go back in time and I’ll connect it to the present, or I’ll connect it to the future. My poetry is quite layered. It’s connected to the way history was told and how I see history and what I think is going to happen next.

What was the editing process like for a book that incorporates Mi’kmaq and English text, Komqwejwi’kasikl symbols, and photographic images within its pages?

Michael Calvert is a very good editor and it was really nice to work with him. He was so gentle and generous.

I originally worked with another publisher, a children’s publisher. They approached me and asked me to write a book for young people, which was a challenging request because I’ve never written for children. But I’ve worked in education for many years and always felt it was important for me to leave something for the next generation. So when I was writing the Komqwejwi’kasikl poems, my target audience was youth, but when I sent in my manuscript to that publisher they said they thought my poetry was more for adults. They didn’t understand that I was writing for youth.

I remember sitting in my vehicle thinking that I really wanted this book to be done. I had just submitted some poems for an anthology with Rebel Mountain Press, and I thought, I’m just going to call them. It doesn’t hurt to ask. And it turns out they were already fans of my work! So I told them, listen, I’m doing my PhD and my dissertation is to create a Komqwejwi’kasikl curriculum. And I have this body of work, thirty years of poetry, and now this new Komqwejwi’kasikl poetry. Would you be interested in publishing it? And they were thrilled by the idea and because they’d already been following my career they asked if they could add my photography into the book as well. And I said yes, of course. So they took my poetry from the last thirty years and my new Komqwejwi’kasikl poetry and my photography and blended it really well into one book. I was really pleased with the end result.

The only thing was, I had a major art exhibition coming up, and I said I kind of needed this book completely finished before that exhibition, which was only a few seasons away. The publisher was able to negotiate with the printers to have it done on time, and my book launch and my art exhibition happened the same day. It was amazing! It was also two years ahead of schedule, normally books usually take that long to publish. When I think about it now, I think the Creator and the Ancestors knew this pandemic was coming. This is why I work with my Ancestors in my artistic practice and as my spiritual guides. They knew I couldn’t wait two years. I got it out there just in time.

I really love the self-portrait that accompanies your bio in the book. Your personality—and your styling fashion sense—really shine through! As a photographer, what do you think makes for a good author photo?

It’s so funny, I actually took that photo in my parents’ bathroom! I’m always playing around with light, looking for ways to focus or change an image with light. I didn’t have any fancy equipment at the time because I was a poor student, so I decided to just work with existing indoor lighting instead. And I’m a hat person, that’s my signature look, so I thought I’ll play with the light and I’ll wear a hat and I’ll show the camera lens because I’m a photographer. That’s my personality, that’s me. I was very strategic about that photo because I wanted it to represent who I was.

In addition to your poetry collection, you’ve recently launched a Komqwejwi’kasikl clothing line as well. How did that project come about?

I used to silkscreen clothes back in 1988 in Toronto, and that was the first time I started to look at the Komqwejwi’kasikl symbols. I decided to silkscreen the language onto clothing and I sold them as a twenty-year-old street vendor. So I guess I have been preparing myself since 1988, or since childhood really, to do something with this language that my Ancestors left behind for us. I remember seeing Elders reading from Komqwejwi’kasikl prayer books, and there was a scroll of the lord’s prayer on my parents’ wall growing up written with the symbols as well. It wasn’t translated, it was just there. I remember seeing that and wondering, why don’t I know this? So the seeds were planted at a very young age. I think each generation does something to ensure that the language lives on. Growing up, my own Elders put on workshops. Rita Joe put the symbols on her book cover. Marie Baptiste did her dissertation on the Komqwejwi’kasikl. And as an artist, I use my art as the medium to share it. I hope my book and the clothing line will plant some seeds in the next generation, to inspire them to use it as an everyday language. Even if not everybody gets poetry, that’s fine. These symbols are infinite, they can inspire people on different levels, to help you say, okay, I can do that too. I can explore this language in my own way.

Several of my artist friends were selling clothes online, but they were based in the US. I decided to wait until I found this company based in Montreal using sustainable materials, which was important to me, and I partnered with them to make the clothes. But then the line launched the same week that the children were found in Kamloops. That really broke my heart, it broke everybody’s heart. It was very heavy news. At first I thought, maybe it’s not the right time to launch this. But in the end I decided to launch it anyway to change the online narrative and spread some good news, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. The symbols look great on the clothes, they’re quite stunning.

June is both National Indigenous History Month and Pride Month. As a Two-Spirit L’nu (Mi’kmaw) woman, who are some Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer writers you appreciate?

Chrystos is my favourite Two-Spirit writer. She wrote the forward to my book. And Beth Brant, as well, who was a Mohawk poet and writer. I think I first met Beth around 1990 when she launched a book in Vancouver. I was very intrigued because there weren’t many Two-Spirit writers at the time that I knew about. I met other queer poets, but within the Native community, Beth and Chrystos were the first women that I followed, and I really admired the work that they were doing. At that time, a lot of the Native writers across North America like Chrystos and Beth were speaking out to say we can tell our own stories. We can write our own poetry, we can write our own plays, we can write our own movie scripts. We have the knowledge and the education to write our own stories, you don’t need to write about us. And that was really important for me to hear as a young person because it activated my social justice buttons and validated what I always wanted to say and wanted to do within my own artwork.

But to be honest, I wish that the queer community would showcase my work more. I don’t know why they haven’t. I’m Two-Spirited and my publisher is a queer press, but I haven’t been invited into queer bookstores and queer communities to read. In my poetry, I write about the women that I fell in love with, that broke my heart, who inspired me, but it’s not always about my sexuality. Because as a Two-Spirit person, the focus isn’t on your sexuality, it’s about your gifts. So maybe that doesn’t line up with the queer community? I don’t know. Maybe after people read this they’ll invite me into these spaces to read and perform!

Speaking of Chrystos, you ended up with some really great blurbs for your book. What was it like to approach authors that you admire and ask them to publicly review your work?

Chrystos and I have been friends for many years, since the early 90s. When I chose writers to review my book, I asked Chrystos, Lee Maracle, Janet Rogers, and Jónína Kirton. With the two Elders, Chrystos and Lee Maracle, I trust their opinions. I knew that if this book was horrible they would tell me straight up. They’d be like “Go back to your editor and work on this some more!” So I felt very blessed when they wrote such positive reviews. It didn’t matter after that who liked the book or who didn’t, because two of the most incredible writers that I know of loved it. If anybody else wanted to review it after that, great. But I had the best reviews already. And I think that’s something that young writers or any writer should do. Approach the ones that will give you the most honest, critical feedback. Because I think that advice allows you to nurture your writing and hone it to a different level.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

Author spotlight: Nolan Natasha

Nolan Natasha is a queer and trans writer, performer, and filmmaker. Of Faroese and English ancestry, Nolan is a settler living on unceded Mi’Kmaw territory in Kjipuktuk/Halifax, Canada. Nolan has been a finalist for the CBC poetry prize, the Ralph Gustafson poetry prize, the Geist postcard contest, and was the runner-up for the Thomas Morton fiction prize. His debut poetry collection, I Can Hear You, Can You Hear Me? was released in the fall of 2019 with Invisible Publishing. Nolan is currently working on a collection of short stories and a series of video poems.

You’ve lived on both sides of the Atlantic. How do the Faroe Islands compare with Nova Scotia?

I spent multiple summers in the Faroes as a kid. I never lived on the islands full time, but that time in the Faroes was a huge influence on my growing up. I don’t think there is a place where I feel more “at home.” When I’m lucky enough to go back to the Faroes, I always catch myself saying, “I’m going home.” I think that my connection to the Faroes is part of what made Nova Scotia instantly comfortable. I like the grey, the smell of the ocean. There are small overlaps in architecture. Don’t get me wrong, the differences are also stark, but there is a kind of connective tissue that seems to link places on the ocean that also have climates often demanding a good sweater. I don’t doubt that these links are part of what made me feel at home when I first moved here.

Some of the poems in your debut collection I Can Hear You, Can You Hear Me? first appeared in Canadian literary magazines such as Plenitude and CV2. Did you always have this project in mind while submitting individual pieces to journals, or did you reach a critical mass of published work and say “hey, I think I’ve got a book here?”

I think it was more of a critical mass thing. I knew I wanted to have a collection eventually, but at the time of my first journal publication in Event, I was far from having enough material for a book. As I kept writing, themes emerged early on, and I started to have a sense of where the collection was going. That help provide momentum for sure.

Your book is divided into four sections: Signals, Souvenirs, Phenomena, and Devotions. Was it fairly easy to group the pieces together, or were there any poems that you struggled to categorize?

There were a few tricky poems that bounced between sections. But the categories emerged out of themes that occurred naturally as I was writing the work so placing the poems within the collection happened pretty organically for the most part.

Your inclusion of (presumably) autobiographical poetry in this collection is highly engaging. In particular, I was struck by the way you so effectively drop your readers into single moments with each poem, utilizing crisp language and a clear voice to create vivid pictures we can step into alongside you. Can you talk about the role that memory plays in your poetry?

Sure. As for the poems being autobiographical, I won’t deny that in places this is true, but it isn’t always. It’s interesting the way that many of us assume that events in poems are being rendered more-or-less as they happened. I am frequently guilty of this myself, but of course, this isn’t always the case and I do write poems that are entirely works of fiction even if it isn’t my most common mode.

Memory has always played a really central role in what I make and write. I have always been fascinated by the way certain moments of our lives seem to have a kind of resonate glow no matter how much time goes by. These moments often wind up in my work. In a way, this is practical, because it gives you material to work with even if there is nothing in the present moment inspiring you to write. But also, I find these moments create a kind of itch in my life and writing about them is a way of scratching that itch. Many of the poems in this collection reach back, but a good chunk of it was also written very much about the present and I’m also fascinated by the way that writing creates these resonate moments as well, or perhaps captures is a better word. Poetry is at times a bit of a net for me—a way of holding on to bits of resonance that might otherwise slip away or be transformed by time. I recently read somewhere that the first step of making art is to wonder about something, and the second step is to invite other people to wonder with you. I loved that and I think it’s true of where my poetry comes from. I start writing because there is something provoking wonder, the poem is an attempt to hold that wonder out for others to engage with.

Like you, the publisher of I Can Hear You, Can You Hear Me? has roots in both Ontario and Nova Scotia. What was your experience like with the team at Invisible?

I have nothing but wonderful things to say about my experience with Invisible. I felt very supported through the process and was of course thrilled that they were interested it publishing my work.

Recently, you taught a free WFNS workshop series for 2SLGBTQ+ writers that focussed on developing a specific and intentional writing practice. What is one piece of advice that you shared with the participants, and was there anything you took away from the experience as well?

I think I almost certainly got more out of it than the participants, but teaching is like that in my experience. I was so paranoid about not having enough to say that over the weeks of the course I read every note I had ever taken in a writing class or workshop. I also became hyper aware of my own slightly stagnant writing practice. While attempting to help the participants energize their own writing practice, I felt obligated to energize mine and I’m writing more than I have in a long while. I feel like a owe a great deal of this to one piece of advice I encountered. It wasn’t about writing, but was about habit formation generally. The advice was to “lower your standards”. Make the thing you want to be doing as easy as possible and start there. I set a goal to write 300 words a day. That’s the number that is so low and easy to hit that I can literally do it even if it’s 11pm and I’m already half asleep. I’m really happy with the results of the experiment, while there have been a few days that I’ve only written 300 words, there have been many that I’ve written well over a thousand. Writing a tiny bit everyday has completely changed how I feel about writing and those small numbers add up. It really got me unstuck.

You’ve been a finalist for several prestigious writing competitions, including the 2017 CBC Poetry Prize. What do you think makes for a good contest piece in particular?

Ah, the great mystery. I really don’t know, but I feel like these days I just trust my gut. If I feel like I have a piece that I’m truly proud of, then I’ll submit it to contests. If I just really like it, I don’t bother. Every now and then I write something that I’m very excited about and my gut tells me that it has contest potential. If I feel like that then I go with my gut. But sometimes pieces I really love don’t feel like contest winners. Maybe they are too short. Maybe they feel to out there in terms of my voice and style. I feel like you get a feel for this from reading the work that wins contests. Certain trends emerge and you start to get a sense of which of your pieces has the best shot. I also think that if you know who is judging and you know their work and have a feeling they might love your stuff, that is also probably a good time to enter. At the end of the day though, I don’t think contest results are a good metric to judge your own work. Lots of great work is never going to win a contest. I try to just focus on the work and then if something feels like it has a shot I figure, you can’t win if you don’t play, and I submit.

During the pandemic you launched a YouTube channel which you’ve described as a series of “music videos for poems.” I love that! What’s it been like to translate your work into a visual format for a social media audience?

It has been something that I’ve want to do for a long time. I used to do a lot of video work and I had been missing it. I’m often struck by how frustrated young aspiring filmmaker me would be with how little present me takes advance of all the technology I have at my disposal. When I was 17 I would have given anything for the worst camcorder money could buy. Now I carry a shockingly capable camera with me everywhere on my phone and I rarely use it. It has been great to work on the video poems and get back into that visual practice. I have more videos coming soon, both video poems and other short project that I’m working on. 

When you’re not writing, what do you do to relax?

Reading in a hammock is up there for sure. I love to surf despite being worse at it than any other human being alive. I always love a good country drive. And I’m really looking forward to being able to sit around and laugh with more of my favourite people soon.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

Author spotlight: Virginia Konchan

Virginia Konchan is the author of three poetry collections, Hallelujah Time (Véhicule Press, 2021), Any God Will Do and The End of Spectacle (Carnegie Mellon UP, 2020 and 2018); a collection of short stories, Anatomical Gift (Noctuary Press, 2017); and four chapbooks, as well as co-editor (with Sarah Giragosian) of Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems (University of Akron Press, 2022). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Best New Poets, and The New Republic.

Your academic and publishing background is largely American. How did you find your way to Nova Scotia?

Serendipitously! I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and I moved to Montreal in 2014 after having lived in Chicago for five years. Prior to Chicago, I lived, worked, or went to school in Austin, Virginia, Wisconsin, Phoenix, Hawaii, Paris, and Prague.

After finishing the last year of my PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago remotely in 2015, I remained in Montreal until 2019, when I met my partner Kourosh who was visiting from Halifax, and I decided to move to Nova Scotia to live with him.

Has your time on the East Coast influenced your writing in any way?

Living in the same province where my favorite 20th century poet Elizabeth Bishop spent her early years, in Great Village, has inspired me deeply. I return to her work often for its perceptual acuity, and as a reminder that the best poetry supersedes the categories imposed on writers (confessional/formalist, for her), and also because I relate to her more than any other American poet, for having been educated in America yet living elsewhere for much of her adult life (contributing to a charged sense of apartness, exile, and home).

I moved here just before the pandemic began, and I am writing this a day before our third lockdown ends, so though I haven’t really been able to explore Halifax or the province yet, I’m greatly looking forward to it, and to putting down roots in this magical place.

But on the molecular level, I think my writing has also been influenced by living on a peninsula where there is no given spatial coordinate less than 50 kilometers from the ocean, the fresh produce and seafood, clean air, and lack of sound and light pollution. It’s also difficult to travel to Nova Scotia by car, and, during the pandemic, by plane. I haven’t seen Canadian or American friends or family since 2019, and I think the relative solitude I have experienced since I moved here has also opened up space in my thinking and being, altered my relationship to music and silence, and helped me better appreciate what it means to listen, to observe, and to be comfortable with not speaking, not writing.

Your website lists an impressive number of recent publishing credits, including three poetry collections between 2018-2021. Did you find that a continuum or through line developed among these three books, or did you consciously try to differentiate them and cover new creative ground each time?

Both. They’re definitely each their own collection in terms of questions and concerns (writing women into art and literary history, critique of spectacle culture, metaphysical questioning, and phenomenological and epistemological meditations), but united in the establishment and development of a poetic consciousness and aesthetic (intertextuality, ekphrasis, metapoetics, aporia, ellipsis, rupture, and a mix of high and low registers). The tonal through line, if there is one, is bathos: I delight in thwarting expectations, undercutting assumptions, creating moments of levity, and trying to deconstruct what I believe to be an extremely difficult period of history for artists, writers, and poets.

If artists were artisans in the Renaissance, bohemians in the nineteenth century, and professionals in the twentieth, a new paradigm is emerging in the digital age, that of the multiplatform, entrepreneurial artist, as cultural critic William Deresiewicz writes. Lyric subjectivity is under siege in our brave new hypermediated technocracy, like much else. My poems in all three collections are about trying to survive with soul and mind intact.

A reviewer of The End of Spectacle said that the collection asks the reader to assume responsibility for their own role as a spectator, and seeks to dismantle romantic/Romantic conceits, which historically draw power from the separation between subject and object, and a reviewer of Any God Will Do said it is essentially a book about betrayal. The book description for Hallelujah Time says the speaker’s fast-moving monologues confronts the contemporary need to constantly adjust our masks to appease impossible standards, and our desperate fear of having our true selves be seen and understood. I am grateful for all these readings, too, and think they are true and equally valid as any answer I could give.

In addition to your publishing projects, you’re also a teacher, freelance editor, and co-founder of Matter journal. What’s your secret to managing your time and conflicting priorities?

I taught time- and stress-management workshops to fellow students in undergrad, which remains one of the greatest ironies of my life. A decade of data collected by researchers at Stanford University reveals that heavy multitaskers have reduced memory capacity, among other cognitive deficits. No one can have, be, or do it all, but the expectation that you can are fierce, as Anne-Marie Slaughter argued in The Atlantic. I’ve found that the external and internal pressures to fractalize my time and energy into smaller pieces only results in mediocrity and shortchanging the people and projects I’ve committed to. Jia Tolentino’s essay collection Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion also speaks brilliantly to optimization culture in the West, and its impact on women specifically.

I will say, however, that setting an egg timer when grading papers helps enormously, and that it’s never too late to learn to say no, or to “fail better,” as Samuel Beckett quipped.

Have I even mentioned your short story collection yet? Anatomical Gift was published by Noctuary Press in 2017, so I’m sure you were probably working on these stories alongside your poetry collections. How has fiction writing influenced your poetic practice, and vice versa?

I think of my fiction and poetry as parallel worlds, but when they collide, I would hope that a heightened sensitivity to language and rhythm in poetry lyricizes my prose, and that a sense of pacing, plot, and dialogue expands the rhetorical possibilities for verse.

I also tend to think of poetry theatrically, in terms of personae, staging and performance. A poem is a dramatic situation with a volta, and I’m most interested in character-driven stories and psychological fiction. I also favor poetry collections that have a lyric or narrative arc: not Freytag’s Pyramid per se, but inner coherence, an architecture.

When working with emerging writers, are there any common issues you’ve come across that can hamper their ability to tell a compelling story?

Fear of not knowing enough in The Information Age, conformism, and timidity.

Technique can always be learned. Confidence, vision, and voice comes from within, even if it’s by imitating other writers one thinks are more confident and visionary. Don’t underestimate the power of mining your own self, life, and life experiences for material, and resist second-guessing yourself into abstraction or silence. Even the most theoretical, archival, historical subjects are filtered through the lens and perspective of the self. Fortune favors the bold, which in this political climate can mean speaking your truth.

Zoom readings: do you think they’re here to stay, or should they go away?

Hopefully stay—they provide an intimate, albeit virtual space to readers and listeners who otherwise often wouldn’t be able to gather. The Eve of Poetry reading series I started in 2020 went virtual, actually, and our fifth reading is on July 10th, with poets Heather Treseler, Sarah Giragosian, Alyse Knorr, and Kate Partridge. All are welcome!

If you could go back in time to a point when you had not yet published any work, what would you want to tell your younger self about the writing process?

Haters gonna hate, digital footprints will follow you forever, and when in doubt, READ. Even neuroscience proves that learning how to read like a writer has enormous benefits. Also, try to accept failure and rejection gracefully, and use it to spur yourself forward.

What’s next for you? Are there any upcoming projects you can give us a glimpse into?

Hallelujah Time, my first full-length poetry collection in Canada, is forthcoming this September from Véhicule Press’ Signal Editions poetry series, alongside new poetry collections by Erik Lindner and Jenny Boychuk. I’m thrilled, honored, and excited.

In early 2022, the craft anthology Marbles on the Floor: How to Assemble a Book of Poems I co-edited with Sarah Giragosian will be published with University of Akron Press, featuring 12 stellar essays that demystify the undertheorized process of manuscript assembly and explore the manifold, complex considerations of this idiosyncratic process.

And I’m working on an autobiography from a generational perspective, as an Xennial who grew up on the cusp of the Generation X and Millennial demographic cohorts.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

Author spotlight: Jane Doucet

Jane Doucet is a journalist whose articles have appeared in myriad national magazines, including Chatelaine and Canadian Living. In 2017 she self-published her debut novel, The Pregnant Pause, which was shortlisted for a 2018 Whistler Independent Book Award. Jane lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with her husband. To learn more, visit janedoucet.com.

As your bio mentions, your first novel was self-published. How did that process compare to working with the team at Nimbus on your latest book, Fishnets & Fantasies?

Self-publishing was an incredible learning experience—and a lot of hard work. But I didn’t do it alone. I hired a talented team of professionals: editor, proofreader, book designer, website designer and launch publicist. Still, I wore several hats; I was the author, project manager, production co-ordinator, distributor and promoter, all on top of a full-time day job in communications. With Fishnets & Fantasies, I was able to focus on just being the author. Huge relief!

Do you have any advice for other writers who are considering the self-publishing route?

Don’t do it. No, I’m kidding! My advice is to thoroughly research self-publishing before you fully commit to it. There are many online resources, so investigate them to see if you’re up for the challenge. Then just go for it.

Did your background as a reporter and professional editor make it any easier to revise your own books and “kill your darlings” when needed?  

Absolutely. After I finished the manuscript for The Pregnant Pause and fired my literary agent in London, England (long story for another Q&A), I stuck it in a drawer for 14 years before deciding to self-publish. When I returned to the manuscript with fresh eyes, I cut 20,000 words. But it’s always best to have an editor with an objective lens on the job (I hired one). As for being a reporter, I interviewed several people to help flesh out story lines in Fishnets & Fantasies, including two sex shop owners, a waitress and a seniors’ safety program co-ordinator. Their input helped make my fictional story more believable.

Fishnets & Fantasies is hot off the press just this month. What’s your favourite part about launching a new book?

The fame! The fortune! The adulation! But seriously, after being holed up in my home office staring at my iMac over the course of three and a half years—from the moment I started writing to when I held a printed book in my hand—it’s now thrilling to start hearing from readers who are enjoying what I’ve written. I will float all day when someone comments that one of my novels made them laugh, or feel seen, heard and empowered. There’s nothing better. Well, I guess it’d be nice to make some money, too.

Right from the first paragraph, Fishnets & Fantasies is both very funny and very Nova Scotian. How would you describe a quintessentially Bluenoser sense of humour?

First, thanks for your kind words and your well-placed italics. As for describing a quintessentially Bluenoser sense of humour, I’m not sure I can. I suppose Nova Scotians—and Atlantic Canadians generally, those living in the so-called “have-not” provinces—are pretty good at laughing at themselves in the face of adversity. Which is what many of my characters do.

Who are some other Nova Scotian writers who make you laugh out loud?

Top three: Lesley Crewe, Morgan Murray and Amy Spurway.

Fishnets & Fantasies comes on the heels of Ellen Denny’s play Pleasureville—which inspires one of your characters Wendy to open a sex shop in Lunenburg—and the popular Netflix series Grace and Frankie. Are you hoping this book will help spark a larger conversation around sex and aging in our society?

I first heard of Pleasureville six months after I finished writing Fishnets & Fantasies, and I had a mild coronary event. I was worried the playwright would think I had “borrowed” her idea, when in fact I had started writing three years earlier, long before she launched her show, so it was a total coincidence. I added the Pleasureville reference to my manuscript during revisions last year, after I saw the play at Neptune Theatre in the fall of 2019. In it, a millennial opens a sex shop in a small fictional town. While it has some similar themes, it’s very different from my novel, because it’s from a twentysomething’s perspective, and there are only three characters. As for Grace and Frankie, I loved every episode! I’m describing Fishnets & Fantasies as a cross between The Beachcombers and Grace and Frankie. If my novel sparks conversations around aging and sex (and it already is), I think that’s great. 

I understand your next novel will combine elements from your first two books. How exciting! Are there any other details about that project you can share?

It is exciting—and terrifying! I hope I can pull it off. In my third novel, I’m bringing back Rose Ainsworth, The Pregnant Pause’s protagonist, at age 50 (she was 37 in The Pregnant Pause), and she’ll move to Lunenburg to take over the sex shop from her friend Wendy Hebb from Fishnets & Fantasies. I’ll be combining some characters and story lines from both of my novels to create a “sort-of” series. I’ve started writing it, and it’s great fun so far.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

Author spotlight: Becca Babcock

Becca Babcock grew up in Alberta, but since 2005, she’s lived just outside of Halifax with her husband Trent, and now with their almost-five-year-old son Thorin. Becca is a writer, writing instructor, and sometimes an actor and a filmmaker, as well. She teaches writing and English at Dalhousie University in Halifax, and occasionally at other universities in the region. (Photo Credit: Claire Fraser)

You originally came to Halifax to complete a PhD in English. What’s kept you here?

We fell in love with life here. Originally, we’d planned to stay no more than 4 years, but both my husband and I realized very quickly that we were very happy here, and it would take a pretty attractive opportunity elsewhere to make us consider moving.

You’ve said your debut novel One Who Has Been Here Before was inspired by Nova Scotia’s real-life Goler clan. Why did you want to approach these historical events through the lens of fiction?

I’m a fiction writer. I tell stories. Marianne Moore said that “Good stealers are ipso facto good inventors,” and this idea feels very true to me. The line between stealing and inventing, truth and fiction, is actually more of a smudge for me.

Also, this family has been through a lot. The more I learned about them, the less I wanted to add scrutiny to them and what they’ve lived. I hope my book makes readers consider families like the Golers more gently. I didn’t want to turn a hard spotlight back on them.

This book is part of a long tradition of East Coast gothic literature and, as the Toronto Star notes, women writers have been at the forefront of the genre’s recent resurgence. Why do you think gothic tales have such staying power in Atlantic Canada?

I think it’s because we have a longer settler history than most of Canada. Gothic fiction is about reckoning with the most uncomfortable parts of our past. The legacy of colonialism is one of the hardest things for us to really come to terms with. It makes sense that a region that has a long colonial legacy is going to have the most to work through, in terms of the horrors of the past.

You published a collection of short stories with Blaurock Press in 2011. Did you learn anything from writing that book that helped with the development of this one?

Patience. I learned patience, and to manage my expectations. Especially as someone who studied literature, I had a very unrealistic idea of the reach and potential of a book. My first publishing experience made me realize just how many books are out there, competing for readers’ attention, and what a challenge it is to woo readers into choosing yours to spend a weekend with.

What’s it been like to do podcasts and press for One Who Has Been Here Before?

Honestly, it’s been really scary. The past year, with COVID and restrictions, has actually made me realize how much more comfortable I am in relative solitude. Certainly, I love teaching and I love performing, but when I do either of those things, I’m not centering myself—I’m centering either the concepts and texts for my students, or I’m entering the character and the story on the stage. I love sharing the story that I’ve written with readers, but sharing myself with the public has been a very uncomfortable experience. I’ve been trying to keep the focus on the book, and what I think readers will find most interesting about it. But my book is very different from someone else’s character, or someone else’s novel. It’s part of me. It takes a lot more energy and effort to make the book the story, to figure out what people might want to know about it.

In addition to being a writer and academic, you’re also an actor. Has that experience influenced your writing style in any way?

Yes, I think so. When I act, I look for the character. It’s a quest—find out what you know about them, and unfold it. That’s essential for both writing and acting.

As a reader, I found the quiet, contemplative moments your protagonist Emma experiences while exploring the ruins of the Gaugin family property particularly compelling. How did the landscape of the South Shore influence the way you told this story?

The landscape of Nova Scotia in general, and the South Shore in particular were absolutely central to the story and the characters, and the way they developed. Since I moved here, I’ve spent a lot of time out walking and hiking and really appreciating the landscape, the environment. It used to be something I did a lot on my own (with my dog for company), and now my son and I share the experience of going for long walks in the forest or along the shore. It’s something we both love.

A few years after my husband and I moved to Nova Scotia, my mom moved out here, too. She lives in the Hubbards area, and I’ve really loved the experience of getting to know both the community and the landscape where she lives. In a lot of ways, my book is a love letter to that place. I wanted Emma to feel the same way about the place that I did.

Do you have any favourite spots to visit along the South Shore?

Hubbards is such a lovely community. My mom lives there, and folks have been really welcoming to both her and us. And I love going for day trips to Mahone Bay. It has to be the prettiest town in Canada.

I was intrigued by your choice to include both first- and third-person sections for Emma. What led you to introduce these shifts in perspective?

I wanted the book to be a bit of a pastiche, to reflect Emma’s research quest. So there’s a central, unifying narrative that tells the story from a third-person perspective, but then there’s also Emma’s research material—the first-person passages are her own reflections, what she writes down for her thesis (maybe), as she digs into the story. And there are other letters and journals, and even newspaper articles. Originally, I’d planned to include photos as well, but they felt clumsy and intrusive. It felt more natural to stick to written storytelling.

Along with the letters, journal entries, and articles, there are also chapters that present the viewpoints of other characters. Why was it important for you to incorporate a multiplicity of voices in One Who Has Been Here Before?

I felt that was the best way to center my protagonist, Emma, and her quest—to include both her story (the story about her), and the story she’s telling as she gathers her research.

Questions by K.R. Byggdin

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