Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Interview: "Why (?) Poetry" at Indigo

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CEO Heather Reisman of Indigo Books invited poet Shaista Justin to host and pick her favorite poets for Indigo’s first ever poetry reading series for National Poetry Month. Shaista talks to Open Book about the series, "Why (?) Poetry."

The first readings were held on April 18th and featured Barry Dempster (Ivan's Birches, Pedlar Press), Jim Smith (Back Off! Assassin, Mansfield Press) and Pricilla Uppal (Traumatology, Exile Editions). Click on one of the pictures below to start an image gallery of photos from the April 18th readings.

The second and final readings will feature Pier Giorgio Di Cicco (The Visible World, Mansfield Press), Susan Holbrook (Joy Is So Exhausting, Coach House Books), Shaista Justin (Winter, the Unwelcome Visitor, TSAR Publications), Olive Senior (Gardening in the Tropics, McClelland & Stewart) and Gillian Sze (Fish Bones, DC Books). The readings are on April 25th at 2:30 p.m. at Indigo Manulife. See Open Book's Events Page for details.

Open Book: Toronto:

When did you decide to have readings at Indigo for National Poetry Month?

Shaista Justin:

I met Heather Reisman unexpectedly one evening at an Indigo reading for Grant McCracken's Chief Culture Officer> (he's a long-time friend). After the reading, Heather and I began discussing my unorthodox approach to the launch of my poetry book in 2009, Winter, the Unwelcome Visitor. I had asked actors, musicians, painters etc. to each take a poem from my book and realize it within their own artistic genre. I wanted to make the poems accessible to the audience in genres they might be more familiar or comfortable with (readings do not accomplish this alone) and also to invite the audience to examine the roots and influence of poetry historically. Music does not exist without the heritage of poetry for example, and in contemporary times this is especially realized through rap – poetry spoken in syncopation to music. Heather was intrigued by the idea and suggested that I bring some actors and musicians with me to Indigo to celebrate Poetry Month in April. She also asked me to choose some of my favourite current poets and invite them to read with me. That is how the reading series was born!


How did the readings develop?


I met with Jeremy Cammy (National Event Planner) of Indigo Books and we agreed that the readings should be structured thematically. (I have to thank Cynthia Grant, Kathy Lim and Sabine Milz for their help and feedback on the themes and structure of the readings). A weighty task, but, once I had a list of poets, I began grouping them into themes – ie, poets who write about love, poets who are rebellious in form or content, poets with an internationalism to their work etc. Perhaps Jeremy and I were too ambitious because we had initially decided on four readings, but through the process, we decided to narrow them down to two. It's one thing to have a list of poets you adore, it's quite another to book them! I was delightfully surprised to find that many poets were busy with other readings during poetry month. I'm hoping it's because poets are becoming popular? So, I would say that only about half the poets I wanted were able to attend.

Furthermore, we had to make sure that the poets I wanted had books in stock, which narrowed my initial list further. Naomi Kato, the Poetry Manager at Indigo was a great help in providing me with lists of books in stock. Finally, I was limited by who lived close enough to Toronto to make it here! So, I'm sorry I couldn't extend the invitations further afield. Perhaps other events in the future will rectify this?


What is the structure for the readings?


For the first reading on April 18th: “A Poet's Perspective,” These poets have been invited particularly to read in this session because they have an inside track into the poetry publishing world, either as editors, publishers for presses, or because they have self-published. Each poet will have 7.5 minutes to read, divided by an interview portion where I will be asking questions about the status of poetry in Canada – this is where the audience will also have a chance to participate by posing their own questions. After the last poet reads, the audience will be invited to a book signing with the poets (and get a chance to chat with them a bit more).

April 25th: "Rebel Poets without Borders:" In this session, I have invited actors and a musician to perform poems from my book. They will be sprinkled between the readings of the other poets in the session. The interview portion will be focused on where their work stands in the literary landscape and what their voices bring to the genre of Canadian poetry as a whole. I'm interested in exploring the differences that these books have from the mainstream. A signing will follow.


How did you select the poets?


Honestly, it was terrifying! I had to narrow down hundreds of possible books to under 20, and I've ended up with eight poets actually reading. I wanted to make sure to give every poet out there a fair shake. So, I hit all the bookstores around and began reading through every book I could find. The Metro Reference Library was the best place to look for poetry, because bookstores have tiny collections of only the most current or “classic” poetry books. (Obviously, as a poet, I try to keep up with what is happening in the poetry world, and with my former academic training, I was able to read four to five poems from each book to get a sense of its quality right away). But, I also asked friends, academics, other poets, publishers and complete strangers in bars, and the subway etc. to recommend their favourite poets so that I could follow up on poets whose work I didn't know.

Some of the answers from the public were quite surprising. For example, most people didn't know that Margaret Atwood started out as a poet or that Michael Ondaatje is not just a novelist. Most were able to name some American or dead English/Irish poets, but almost no one could name a contemporary Canadian poet. Why in our own country have our poets been overshadowed by the work of others? The response of the public is what made me decide to title the series: “Why (?) Poetry.” Poetry is out there in almost every other artistic discipline, especially in music, and I really want everyone to know that they are consuming poetry whether or not they read it from a book. There is a vast reading public which is completely missing out on the pleasures of poetry, and I hope this series will help get the word out there. I would like people to think about the question... why should they read poetry? Or, why don't they? Or, what is the relevance of poetry to their lives? You'll have to come to the readings to find out the other questions our expert panel will be answering!

Otherwise, how did I choose? Well, I believe that all good poetry has elements in common: 1) a balance between style and form, 2) interesting subject matter, 3) excellence in the field (ie executes number 1 and 2 well), 4) uniqueness and stature. That being said, the poets I have chosen have a range of voices and themes. Some are light-hearted and humorous, or weighty and humorous... or just weighty. I made sure to balance out some well-known poets with some lesser known, but excellent poets, to really give Canadians a sense of the landscape of poetry.


Do you have plans to organize more readings with Indigo, after National Poetry Month is over?


It would be delightful if poetry readings in whatever shape or form became commonplace or ongoing with Indigo, and I would enjoy being a part of them. However, there are no specific plans in place at this time for more readings.


Shaista Justin emigrated to Canada at the age of six and grew up in Toronto where she currently lives with her husband and two children. Extensive travel has contributed to her fascination with colonization and the contemporary manifestations of historical tragedies. Her dominant passions are writing fiction, producing theatre and academic research in the fields of Post-Colonial Literature & Theory, Eco-criticism, Feminist Theory and the 18th-Century. She has published in The Fiddlehead and New Contrast and works freelance as a writer and editor.

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