Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Must-read interview: Martha Baillie & Ronna Bloom & Beth Follett, and TORONTO

Share |

In April 2009, Pedlar Press will release new works by two Toronto writers, novelist Martha Baillie [The Incident Report] and poet Ronna Bloom [Permiso]. You won’t want to miss these events, mark the details in your calendar:

The launch for Permiso by Ronna Bloom is on April 16 at Hart House. Please click here for full details.

The launch for The Incident Report by Martha Baillie is on April 28 at The Gladstone. Please click here for full details.

The following e-interviews were conducted on March 22 and 23, 2009, by Pedlar Press publisher Beth Follett, who was curious to hear from the two writers as to why they have located much of their new work in Toronto.

BF:

There is a civic fiction that states that Toronto has an inferiority complex. This week [March 19, 2009], Shaun Micallef 's column in Eye Weekly explores this idea. How long have you lived in Toronto? Were you born in Toronto? Do you agree that Toronto does not think well enough of itself?

MB & RB:

MB: I was born in Toronto in 1960. My impression is that Toronto has a quite positive self-image, but of course it all depends on whom you ask. Air quality, public transit, how we’ve failed to protect our waterfront, the rise in violent crime, widespread lack of architectural beauty — there’s plenty to gripe about. But just as importantly, this is a city very much alive culturally speaking, a place where the unexpected can happen, where there’s a lot of diversity and plenty to discover on a small, very human scale, as well as within some of the larger institutions; and I find I’m growing increasingly appreciative of Toronto, not the opposite.

RB: I was born in Montreal, and came to Toronto in 1989. I think Toronto actually thinks well of itself, but it thinks so quietly.

BF:

As a writer, what is your relationship to the disdain other Canadians reportedly carry toward the City of Toronto?

MB & RB:

MB: People are welcome to feel however they like about Toronto. When choosing how to portray the city, I’m not influenced by any conscious desire to alter anyone’s opinion of it. I describe it as I’ve experienced it. If I did want to respond to someone’s disdain I’d have to know more about their particular objections.

RB: Mixed. (A good Canadian response, eh?) As a Quebecer, I carry all kinds of shame about having left Montreal, not speaking French well enough to stay, skulking off to where I could feel more comfortable in English. As a result, when I'm in Montreal, I never know how to respond to the question "where are you from?" I know both responses will yield awkwardness. To say "I'm from Montreal" immediately lays me bare to the questions of my heritage and why I left. To say Toronto, leaves me exposed to eye rolling. Of course, this could all be projection. In truth, I came to Toronto because the word that came to mind when I first visited was 'possible.' It seemed that whatever I might want to do was possible here. I didn't know what that would be, or how, but there was ease, something that made me feel less intimidated, more able to try. I know it might not be true for everyone, but it has been true for me: I get to do what I love here. And for that I love Toronto.

BF:

Ronna Bloom says in her new poem "World Cup," "We take anything as permission to walk into the street and blow our whistles." Have you ever been caught up in a great surging energy occurring on the streets of Toronto? Please describe one such incident, if so.

MB & RB:

MB: "Surging energy" is not something I equate with Toronto. I have been caught up in spontaneous, small-scale outbreaks of celebration in the streets. Once, a large group of about 60 cyclists, many in costume, out of nowhere filled a stretch of College Street, and I found myself riding along with them, and the mood was quite exultant and without apparent cause or aim. I’ve attended political demonstrations where the energy felt solid. And at Nuit Blanche there was definitely a flow of people and an excitement, but never a feeling of something welling up, building in force to the point of overwhelming everything in its path. Ramadan in Calcutta, or bicycle traffic in Beijing in the early 80s — would be more what I think of as surging, and irrepressible.

RB: Well, I was in my car when the inspiration for that poem came to me, so I didn't actually get out and join them. Though it felt great to inch along behind. I have a bit of a hard time in crowds. I tend to go out when the city is especially quiet. I love the streets on long weekends when people are away, or early in the morning, before, say, "The Taste of the Danforth" or the Santa Claus parade begin, when the streets are roped off but no one is there. I ride my bicycle all over the road then. It's kind of the opposite to being caught up in a great surge of energy. And at the same time it feels like an acute consciousness of the city's moment.

BF:

Why have you chosen to locate much or all of your new writing in downtown Toronto?

MB & RB:

MB: I work in Regent Park, in a public library, where people of all ages, from a wide variety of social backgrounds and geographical regions of the globe, turn up, and my preconceptions are constantly being challenged. It’s a pace where the present is often bursting at the seams. I didn’t feel I needed to look any further for material to write about. It took me a long time to decide on what approach to take, how to handle such fragmented human variety without becoming superficial or disrespectful, but everything I needed was right on hand.

RB: I think where a person lives is bound up with what a person experiences. In my collection entitled Public Works, I wrote about how street corners become associated with memories, our own and other people's, associated with things we've read and been told. Everything mingles. If you were kissed at the corner of Yonge and Dundas, then that corner lives in you in a different way than if you were mugged there. How to write that into a work so people can feel it.

BF:

Hot dog vendors. Homeless citizens. Tim Horton coffee cups. Raccoons & squirrels. Streetcar tracks. Coyotes. Bicycles and scooters. Little Italy Portugal Greece Korea. Back lanes and alleyways. Graffiti. ROM. AGO. OCAD. Please comment.

MB & RB:

MB: Back lanes and alleys for sure. "The shy back end of things," as Banville would say. Toronto’s alleys lead you on; there’s a feeling of having slipped in through the back door. There’s a great tour you can take in the summer, of art installations all created in garages. You receive a passport, and wander up and down the back lanes, and at each garage your travel document is stamped. This all takes place near Trinity Bellwoods Park. It’s delightful. And of course streetcars and trees, and front porches, and spring never lasting long enough, and the grotesque, humid blankets of smog in the summer. The new AGO is a triumph, as is the opera house. Good food. Lots of good food from all over; and outdoor cafes. Kensington Market somehow managing to be itself. And kudos to the independent bookstores and small theatres that refuse to die. And on a complete tangent: hats off to the street nurses of Regent Park.

RB: OH, bicycles and alleys. My old green bike has taken me through the city, to Greg's for ice cream, to work at the University of Toronto and then back home, first in the Annex and now over the Bloor Street Viaduct to Greenwood and Danforth. My bike was stolen once, and walking along Christie Street, I thought I saw it in an alley. I headed down, drawn forward by some crazed instinct, not thinking about the men I'd just seen; and it was mine. It was not locked up. I jumped on and stole it back.

BF:

How often do you consider your relationship to the place where you live: a) Never? b) From time to time? c) Very often? Please elaborate.

MB & RB:

MB: I consider it very often. When your main mode of transportation is a bicycle, you have to be constantly aware of your surroundings. That’s part of it. And the fact that I’m working all the time with people who have just arrived from somewhere else — this underlines the fact that where we find ourselves is never secure, or a given, and could change at any moment.

RB: A lot. When I go into a room for the first time, I look out the window. I'm pretty sensitive to the environment, visually, aurally, gut-wise, the whole thing. I moved to a house that sits over the subway, and I had no idea how infiltrating that would be. It made me nuts for a while. But you can get used to almost anything and can stop hearing/seeing it. Still, if I want to go for a cup of tea, there's a real fussiness that goes on inside me about the particular location — do I want the gossipy whir of old Greek men in the Tim Hortons on Danforth, or the aqua quiet of Annapurna Vegetarian Restaurant? I am extremely lucky to be able to decide most days where I want to be, and I think about this.

BF:

Do you own and drive a car in Toronto?

MB & RB:

MB: I do own a car but use it mainly to leave the city. In the city I mostly ride a bicycle or walk or take the TTC.

RB: Yes.

BF:

Do you often think about "getting away" from Toronto to write? What aspects of Toronto do you find most conducive to writing? Do you write in public places?

MB & RB:

MB: I almost never think about getting away from Toronto to write. I think about getting away to hike or canoe or wander through foreign cities, but not to write. I go away and do the writing after I come back; sometimes years afterwards. If given the choice, I write in a neutral, quiet space with nobody else in it and possibly a small window looking out on something not too interesting. The only aspect of Toronto that makes writing hard is that I know wonderful people; it’s easy to think of someone I absolutely have to get together with rather than work. But if I were somewhere new, it would be worse. I’d be out exploring even more. The hard part is starting. Once I’m deeply engaged in a writing project I become lost inside the work, and where I happen to be becomes pretty irrelevant. So long as there’s a degree of quiet, I can’t be budged.

RB: I do what I call my "three days." I go somewhere where there are trees I can see from my room and write. I like that it's away from the city because I can unplug from even those I love. I have taken to roping off three days and doing this at home, too. I tell people I won't be answering the phone and put the auto-reply on my e-mail. Then whatever I do in those three days has a different quality, whether I stay home or write in restaurants. This makes me feel almost like a visitor to the city, makes me adopt a kind of spacious stance toward what I at other times take for granted. I realize several of the poems in the new book, Permiso, were written in these times.

BF:

Name two things you have not done in Toronto that you would like to do.

MB & RB:

MB: I’ve never herded sheep along Bloor Street, or ridden an elephant up University Avenue.

RB: I have never been to the Ex. Since I don't like crowds, I've avoided this, but I want to taste a Funnel Cake. I would also like to go to the Winter Fair to see the horses and the butter sculptures. And I'd like to go on retreat at the Gibraltar Point Artists Centre. And to go to Caribana. (Yeah, I know that's four.)

BF:

You have a new book soon to be released, in April 2009. Congratulations. Your Toronto launch will be open to the public. Is there anything you would like to say about the launch venue? Some little known fact about the venue, for example?

MB & RB:

MB: The launch will be at the Gladstone Hotel, and this is a bit ironic, I suppose, given how many long-term inhabitants of the hotel lost the closest thing they had to a home when the hotel was renovated. My new novel certainly touches on homelessness. But do come all the same. The music will be great.

RB: The venue is Hart House Library at the University of Toronto. Hart House, with its impressive presence, can, I think, be daunting. Although I went to U of T, and have worked there for many years, I kind of thought Hart House was for other people. Only recently I realized that while it looks grand, no one minds you roaming around, or lying on the couches that fill up those old rooms. It's fabulously comfortable. While Hart House is set up for the university community, it also hosts masses of arts events open to the public. The library, where the launch will be held, feels like the essence of leaded-window university library: cozy, old, rumpled, elegant, beautiful. Come, you'll see.

For more information about Martha Baillie and The Incident Report, please visit marthabaillie.ca
For more information about Ronna Bloom and Permiso, please visit ronnabloom.com

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications

Dundurn

Open Book App Ad