Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Helen Walsh & TOK 4

Share |
Helen Walsh & TOK 4

Nathaniel G. Moore's Conflict of Interest column appears bi-weekly.

An interview with Helen Walsh, former editor of McGill Street Magazine, a literary quarterly, and current co-publisher of the Literary Review of Canada. Helen edited the 4th volume of TOK, an exciting literary anthology series.

NGM:

This is the fourth book in the series, how did you approach editing this collection? What attracted you to the project?

HW:

I love working on the TOK anthology — it brings to life, in such complex and sometimes disturbing ways, this city I call home. We have such a breadth and depth of writers in the books it's a joy to work with writers like Rawi Hage or Antanas Sileika who have published to critical acclaim and, at the same time, to discover promising new voices.

The poems, stories and drama in the collection come out of the work generated in the Diaspora Dialogues commissioning/mentoring program. Each year seven established writers are commissioned to create an original story, poetry cycle or play exploring the Canadian city in which they live. We then put out an open call for submissions for promising new voices who are either completely unpublished or who've been published but not yet in book form.

The entries are read blind by a jury, and between fifteen and twenty emerging writers are chosen. They enter a four month long mentoring program (free of cost) with the established writers and out of this large pool of work, the stories, poems and/or plays are chosen for the anthology.

We look foremost for artistic quality — an originality in the writing, something that grabs and holds the readers attention. Given our mandate of encouraging writers from a wide diversity of backgrounds, some of our writers have first languages other than English. So our initial focus isn't on selecting stories that have the most polished language per se, but rather those which have something alive about them, that challenges you, that may have a character or point of view you can't forget - something that differentiates them. And then we have a strong editing and copyediting process that all stories go through. Both the copyeditor, Madeline Koch, and I are experienced in working with writers whose first language is not English.

NGM:

How do you find balancing poetry and fiction in an anthology?

HW:

I find editing poetry tricky. I've edited it over the years, but prefer to work in fiction. The poems by the emerging writers in TOK are always edited by their mentor — in this case Ken Babstock, not only a widely published poet himself but also poetry editor for House of Anansi Press. So I'm lucky to essentially have the editing done by him; which just leaves editing his work! Ken's poems were so clean and tightly written, I think I made few suggestions.

One of the strengths of the collection, and of the fifteen plus multidisciplinary events that Diaspora Dialogues produces each year, is the blending of art forms, and the introduction it gives people (or forces upon them!) to an art form or artist they might not otherwise have encountered.

NGM:

Tell us a bit about your background in publishing....

HW:

In my twenties, I launched and ran McGill Street Magazine, a literary quarterly, for a number of years. We also ran a monthly reading series at the Little Vic. I worked during that time also as a freelance writer and editor. I segued into film as a writer/producer for a couple years, and then into new media in New York as a producer, before coming back to Canada full-time in 2003, and then launching Diaspora Dialogues in 2005. I am also the co-publisher of the Literary Review of Canada, which I helped re-launch in 1998 and have been running ever since.

NGM:

How does TOK 4 approach the urban complex? Is it the writers who affect urbania, or vice versa?

HW:

I think it's both in some aspects. Obviously, the built environment of a city impacts on writers dramatically. The confluence of peoples, ideas, beliefs, experiences in a constrained urban space. In the intro to TOK 3, I was thinking about that point, and wrote: "These stories, poems and drama also show that dealing with other human beings-whether in the personal or the public realm-requires accommodation. A crowded urban space, and one as diverse as Toronto, requires a daily give-and-take with people who may look and sound differently than we do but who share many of the same hopes and frustrations. And what a gift: there may be comfort in similarity but there can be startling energy in difference-if we are open to it."

As to how the writers impact a city…one of the things we were very conscious of when launching Diaspora Dialogues was to contribute to a literature of the city as it is evolves. History is important, of course, but history is created continually and we wanted to encourage the publishing of literature that would truly reflect the diversity of Canadian cities as they are being lived now. In doing so, the writers are creating what becomes the record of place.

In more pragmatic terms, in Toronto for example, the Mayor, his office and TO Live with Culture have been incredibly supportive of Diaspora Dialogues. They include us in official events (i.e, the recent 175th anniversary of incorporation); they come to our events (i.e., the Mayor opened Nuit Blanche in 2007 at our installation); they help us secure city venues (i.e., we are taking over Union Station May 23/24 for Doors Open Toronto). So our writers/artists are having an impact on the city in which they live, not only through the literature they create but also through connections to civic leaders, to audiences, to partner organizations, etc...all of which form the public sphere.

We also have a program, growing pretty rapidly, of producing artist-run workshops for youth. In these workshops, the youth are encouraged to write about their experiences in their communities and as part of the larger city. In that regard, our writers are helping inform the next generation of writers, of audiences and of citizens.

NGM:

What are some of the promotional plans for this book? You have a breadth of talent to choose from.

HW:

Yes, we are so lucky to work with the writers and artists part of our network. Their talent and generosity of spirit inspires us continually and makes working with them a great deal of fun.

We launch TOK Book 4 at the Gladstone Hotel on Wed, April 8th at 7 p.m. with a great line-up of readings and conversations, hosted by CBC's Matt Galloway. We have upcoming bookstore reading events in May and June. In April/May, as part of Keep Toronto Reading, we're hosting three Friday nights at Palmerston Library. (April 17, 24 and May 1st, all at 7 p.m.). On May 23/24th, we'll be doing readings and performances throughout the day at Union Station. And June 10th is our Luminato event. Information available about all these events are on our website.

Related item from our archives