Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Amanda Earl : Letter from Ottawa in the Form of A Roundtable Interview

Letter from Ottawa in the Form of A Roundtable Interview with Manahil Bandukwala, Ellen Chang-Richardson, Sanita Fejzić, Avonlea Fotheringham, Margo LaPierre, Leah MacLean-Evans, Mia Morgan, Namitha Rathinappillai and Helen Robertson.

The interview began just before the Covid-19 shutdown in March and I left the Google doc open until June 30.

Amanda: Thank you for joining me to discuss your writing, challenges and achievements as a young poet and event organizer/editor in Ottawa. I’m interested in taking the pulse of the literary and spoken word communities of both Canada and Ottawa, of talking about where these communities stand, how they need to improve. I’d also like our discussion to inspire other young women and gender nonconforming poets who are beginning to share their work and would like to know about the experiences of their peers.

I sent out numerous invitations and many are joining the part. Welcome! This is the first time I’m conducting a group interview, so please feel free to make suggestions or steer the conversation in a direction that works for you. We’re all in this together!

Part 1: Writing and Mentorship

Amanda: In the early aughts, when I first shared my writing publicly, I was already in my mid-thirties. I was taking creative writing workshops at the University of Ottawa with Professor Seymour Mayne. I had a group of other emerging poets to share my work with and a professor to offer advice. It was a great help to me and established my early connections with the literary community.

When did you first send out work for publication or perform/read your first work to an audience and why? For submissions, how did you find out about where to send the work and how was the work received? What advice do you have for young women considering sharing their work publicly whether through submissions or performances/readings?

Leah: I started submitting work in high school, but was never accepted anywhere except to youth anthologies/contests. The internet was already a thing by then so I mostly learned about journals online, or by searching the literary section of magazine stores. Teachers sometimes brought in journals to show us or told us about opportunities that might interest us (again, youth contests and things). It was also “highly encouraged” (a.k.a. mandatory but they couldn’t actually make you) in my Lit program to read your work at the literary coffeehouses that Lit students had to organize four times per year. The audience was mostly Lit kids, our friends, and our parents. At the time I wasn’t always eager to  read at these but now I’m grateful for that initial experience in a protected environment.

In terms of advice for young women entering literary spaces, I have a lot! I hope that is okay! Here goes:

Be wary of feedback – not all of it is on point, especially from cis men who can’t always understand how different your experience of the world is from theirs (e.g. the two men on my defense committee thought it was unrealistic that my young female protagonist would have an intense instinctive dislike of a man she had just met – an experience that I think many women recognize). As a young woman I wanted to prove myself as a “serious writer” by implementing as much feedback as I could, but some people are just not a good judge of your work, for a variety of reasons (sometimes including, but not limited to, gender). Look for whether people are engaging directly with what your work is trying to do (not what they think it should be doing or how they think it should be more relatable). Through time and repetition, you will learn which people are your best readers and whose feedback to take most seriously.

Also, you will probably get rejected for a long time before you start being published. You will be reading journals and thinking that your pieces are at least as good as some of the pieces that are published. This sucks, but just keep going and workshopping and trying new things in your writing. Seymour Mayne told us once and it has proven to be true: effort over the long-term will trump natural talent every time (paraphrasing).

Also, just do it! Take up the space! It can be scary, so here are two approaches you can pick from: 1. Fake it till you make it (sometimes I think to myself – what does that dude know that I don’t, really? It honestly probably isn’t much, and then I just pretend to feel as entitled to that space (but not in a rude way, hopefully)). 2. Specifically tell the audience that you’re new at this and you’re nervous. This takes the pressure off and usually the audience gives you extra encouragement. Also, go with other friends who are willing to try reading too so you feel less alone/nervous. Those friends don’t even have to be writers per se, just more extraverted than you. You can also just dip your toe in by reading something written by someone else at an open mic, just make sure it’s clear who the author is.

Most importantly, be careful of people, but especially cis men, who seem to want to ‘collect’ authors (think Horace Slughorn) as soon as they perceive that author as having something valuable (e.g. talent, contacts, a platform, etc.). It’s difficult to explain how this looks different from positive networking or welcoming new community members. Maybe it’s a case of them showing either too much or too little interest in the person themselves, not just their work? I’m not sure. It can also be flattering and difficult to resist. But community relationships should ebb and flow naturally, like other friendships. Sometimes this collecting is a benign (albeit weird) ego thing (“I am an important writer because I know all these people I think are important”), but sometimes it’s a sign of a toxic or predatory person who uses their relationships to maintain some kind of community status and/or avoid accountability. I have seen this in multiple different literary communities, in writers that are old and young, new and established. It sucks, but like all communities, you still have to protect yourself from exploitation in literary communities.

I know that sounds a little bleak, but also you will gradually find people that you REALLY resonate with, and you will feel so fulfilled and validated and affirmed when you share your work with them, so there are definitely wonderful things to be found.

Helen: I remember those coffee houses at Canterbury I wasn't a huge fan of them at the time either.  I actually often would go with nothing to read and instead write something while sitting in the audience.  Not the best thing to do but it certainly helped with my skill at banging or rough drafts quickly.
I honestly kinda got to where I am in a weird order.  I mostly stopped writing poetry after high school because I wanted to be a fiction author.  Even at the time I was a better poet but just didn't recognize it.  But after a few novels abandoned after like 15k words I went back to poetry.  I, very occasionally, would submit but I always got rejected, which honestly was the right move.

To be a bit of a cliche, my serious poems, I was doing a series of comedy couplets on my blog, only started getting better after I started my transition.  Advice I often see is to not be afraid of writing mundane poems; that you can write about anything.  While I definitely agree with this I'd also say that you shouldn't be afraid of writing about something.  Honesty will come through and not being worried about being too raw will make all your poems better whether they're about something "important" or not.

I'd also just like to echo the point of being careful of the feedback you receive.  I've definitely had times where I was worried something wasn't working in my writing—people kept making similar comments—only to then realize that all the criticisms were coming from cis het people and that fellow queers enjoyed it.  (Also side note: they thought a visceral dislike of a man she just met was unrealistic?  Have they ever talked to their female friends?)

I really had one huge advantage when starting it though.  My mother is a poet.  So we often get each other's help with editing and she's often my first reader.  She was also a great help with advice about submitting (and how to deal with rejection.)  So I got together some that I thought were okay and submitted.  It was actually months after starting sending poems off that I went to my first, non high school, open mic. 
Going to open mics is what really helped me build my confidence.  I grew as a reader and got to be comfortable enough to start stepping into the community, eventually volunteering and hosting.  But these are things you have to do in your own time and if you start but then need to back off, back off.  Don't ever let yourself be in a position where you're doing something—be it submitting, reading, or volunteering—because you've convinced yourself that you're obligated.  And damn anytime who tries to make you feel bad about it.

In the end though I couldn't agree with Leah more.  Once you find your community it's such a great feeling but you do have to find your own people within the greater literary community.  Don't expect to be friends with, or even like, everyone just because they share an artistic form.

Also, easier said than done, but don't let your past make you feel inadequate.  I don't have an mfa and never actually followed through with getting my undergrad degree, for various personal reasons (though I should really follow up on that,) and at times my relative lack of education can… make me feel out of place I guess.  Thing is, it doesn't matter.  It doesn't change what I'm doing and what I've done.  So try to remember that it's your work that matters not your past.

Ellen: On point, Leah and Helen. How do I follow this?! #latetotheparty. I think I’ll backtrack and talk about where things started. For this, I’m going to second Helen’s comment about not letting your past make you feel inadequate. I started writing in April 2019. Prior to that, I studied Art History & Visual Studies at the University of Toronto, graduated in 2013 and set my sights on working in the contemporary art industry. I wanted to be a curator at the AGO or director of a commercial art gallery, or something like that. Turns out Plan A didn’t really work out as planned. I fell into the luxury sales industry - selling (gorgeous) cashmeres for Max Mara and diamonds for Tiffany & Co while working part time as the Assistant Curator & Events Manager at Barbara Edwards Contemporary, a contemporary art gallery in Toronto. I was an active fundraising member for the McMichael Canadian Art Collection for two years, and while I was good at all the various things I was doing, I was never happy doing it.

It took my mum getting sick for me to realize this. It was then I realized that life was too short to be busting your ass fulfilling someone else’s dream. Since then, my writing has taken off. I second Leah and Helen here again by saying get your butt out to open mics and submit your work! With the launch of Riverbed Reading Series and House Party Poetry Series, Ottawa will soon have at least four places for you to hop on an open mic In Our Tongues & Tree Reading Series being the other two mainstays. Do it up! It’ll be scary at first, but suck in that fear and channel it into your performance.

I started on the ArtBar Poetry Readings’ open mic stage. I was scared sh*tless but I did it anyway. My roommate helped with that - she shoved me out the door just as I was second-guessing going at all. Through ArtBar, I met Terry Trowbridge, Hana Shafi, Khashayar Mohammadi, Joshua P’ng, Stedmond Pardy, Terese Mason Pierre, Phoebe Wang, Puneet Dutt, Manahil Bandukwala and ChuQiao Yang - all of whom are now dear friends of mine and colleagues whose work I genuinely admire.
I moved to Ottawa in August 2019. Through ChuQiao Yang who also moved back here around the same time, I met nina jane drystek, Conyer Clayton and Leah MacLean-Evans. Through nina jane drystek, I met Chris Johnson and Helen Robertson. Through Chris Johnson, I met Mia Morgan. Through event listings on Bywords.ca and interactions on Twitter, I met even more awesome literary folks! See this pattern?

Back to submitting your work. Like Leah and Helen both mention, get your pieces read - my first reader is my best friend. She’s not a poet but she’s a reader with a love for literature, art and poetry, and a wealth of cultural knowledge. Also valuable. Edit your work! Edit without mercy. Submit to contests! Don’t be afraid of rejection. 
This is where past lives have value. In my experience for example, sales is all about doing everything you can and setting up perfectly to close a sale. You either get rejected or you hit it home. That last step is entirely outside of your immediate control. It’s the same with submissions. Do the research, do the work, be diligent and track everything. Submit to the right places and leave the rest up to fate. I received numerous rejections when I first started. Too many to count, don’t make me go back there. I still receive rejections. It’s part of the process.

Invest in yourself. When I first began writing, I signed up for Rachel Thompson’s Lit Mag Love course on Emily Kellogg’s suggestion. Best decision I could have made at that point in my career. It helped me hone my submissions strategy while also opening me up to a community of incredible writers from around the world.

One last piece of advice, again a repeat but here we go: get to know your peers. Some might double-cross you and give you terrible advice (see Leah and Helen’s comments here), but many others will support you wholeheartedly and celebrate you when you succeed. Keep in mind though, that this goes both ways. Karma is as karma does. If you’re shy - come out to one of my Little Birds Poetry workshops, I’ll introduce you.

Manahil: Leah, Helen, and Ellen have answered a lot of your questions, Amanda, and I echo what they say. Leah’s reference to Horace Slughorn and “collecting” writers makes me laugh but it also rings very true. I want to start with the advice for young women considering sharing their work based on my own experience.

From the very beginning, it was, for the most part, women who passed their knowledge on to me. One of the first reviews I wrote was for Bywords, and Amanda, your editing was so helpful in how I approach reviews up to this day. The grant I acquired from Canada Council in the summer of 2019 was hugely supported by Sanita Fejzić  and Phoebe Wang. Sheniz Janmohamed has extended her advice and circle to foster young women of colour writers. And generally, collaborating with writers and artists such as Conyer Clayton, Sanna Wani, and my sister, Nimra Bandukwala, or with women-led presses like Coven Editions has formed the creative work of mine that I am proudest of. This is the kind of support that is compassionate and caring. It takes time to sift through those trophy-collecting writers and find this, so be gentle with yourself.

And it takes time to work through the hows and whys and wheres of submitting and sharing work. There’s a huge amount of lit mags out there and it can get confusing figuring out what to submit where and how to submit. That’s something that comes with time - the first step is submitting.

Volunteering with a literary magazine was a huge help for me in overcoming imposter syndrome. I was pretty shy when I first started out and had little confidence in my work, but I like to think I’ve built that over time. I could see what was going on behind the scenes of submitting, understand how editors vetted submissions, and gained experience organizing a reading series. I started reading at open mics because that’s what other writers were doing and they seemed to have fun doing it.

I kind of answered this backwards, but I hope you can sift through these answers and find something that rings true for you.

Sanita: I entered the literary arena in my late twenties, after almost a decade-long career in corporate public affairs and communications. I always knew I was an artist, that I wanted to express myself creatively, but I was too afraid or perhaps too cautious to study literature in university because my parents--who, along with my sibling and me, experienced the Balkan War in the 90s, the Siege of Sarajevo and five years as refugees across three countries in Europe--my parents were economically crippled by the experience and wanted me to study something that could earn me a living. I chose a degree in Commerce at Carleton because it offered a year abroad and I had always dreamed of living in Paris. This was perhaps my first truly poetic act: to choose a future career based on vacation dreams.

I worked as an editor and communications manager for the Canadian Museums Association and then later as a senior English editor for the Canadian Museum of Civilization Corporation, today consisting of two sister Crown corporations: the Canadian History Museum and the Canadian War Museum. I had a big and beautiful office with a view of Parliament; a job that many dreamed of in a cultural powerhouse; and I was miserable.

After my son’s birth, in 2010, at the still somewhat tender age of 26, I decided to go back to university and study English Language and Literature at Carleton University. I completed a second undergrad with a concentration in Creative Writing under the direction of the sharp and talented Nadia Bozak. It was there that I was introduced to In/Words and invited to be a co-editor in 2015. I read my first poem in public at the In/Words reading series in a dark and beautiful basement in front of a crowd of friends and I remember trembling with fear. I was dizzy and couldn’t eat for hours afterwards. In/Words is also the magazine that first published me, followed by several others over the years, including Bywords. That’s how I began my literary adventures, after a decade of trying to be someone I wasn’t. A pattern that had its roots, no doubt, in living as a closeted lesbian for far too long.

Mia:  My first forays into sharing work publicly were in Ottawa’s spoken word venues when I was in my late teens. Joan Strong, my high school English teacher (to whom I inadvertently owe so much of myself), invited spoken word poet and musician extraordinaire Nathanael Larochette to do a workshop in our 12th grade creative writing class. At the time, I was adamantly anti-poetry and pro-fiction in my writing habits, and found nothing more mortifying than reading my work aloud for my classmates to critique. To my own surprise (not Dr. Strong’s, however) I was immediately hooked on spoken word-- I loved the flexibility of the form and the performative aspect of it. That summer, I dragged a gaggle of other high school girls to Ottawa’s Capital Slam semi-finals and finals; at one of the following bi-weekly summer slams, I finally got the nerve to slam against seasoned competitors. Capital Slam was absolutely my first poetry home, and where I met so many artists and friends who would shape my ideas about what poetry was and could do (including Rusty Priske, Sean O’Gorman, Khaleefa Hamdan, Baraa Arar, Kevin Matthews, and so, so many more).

My love for written poetry didn’t come until I started taking English at uOttawa, and got involved in editing OAR Magazine and curating the blUe mOndays reading series. I met Chris Johnson and Matt Jones at the first ever VerseFest, and started reading at the In\Words open mic, and haven’t looked back since. The first time I submitted work for publication was also with the encouragement of Seymour Mayne (in whose workshops I met Leah, ChuQiao Yang, Emily Stewart, and Rachel Fernandes, among other wonderful friends). Seymour seemed like THE be-all-end-all of Canadian literary knowledge throughout my undergrad, and his workshops were so crucial in developing my love for editing and collaborative writing. On more than one occasion, I left a workshop or office appointment with an armful of Canadian poetry and magazine back issues.

Even now, as an active and avid small-press publisher, I am so tender about sending my written work out for publication. As Manahil said, the imposter syndrome can be so oppressive when you’re starting out, and a lot of times it doesn’t go away but only recedes into the background.

A good piece of advice for young women getting into writing, performing, publishing, or any other literary avenue is to act with the confidence of every guy you’ve ever had in your creative writing workshops. Be as audacious as That Guy who believes himself to be the Leonard Cohen of your drop-in class, and submit your work everywhere. Practice reading your poems out loud, LOUDLY and bring them to the open mic with the confidence of Man Whose Rhymed Couplets Make No Sense.

Ultimately, surround yourself with people whose work inspires you to innovate, whose work differs from your own in meaningful and interesting ways, and who make you feel like tackling your poems head-on. The best thing about being a writer-- to me-- is the community. This was the case with Capital Slam when I first began, and continued to be with uOttawa’s writers, and now with the communities we continue to cultivate around Coven Editions, &co. Collective, and all of our numerous projects.

Margo: Such a treasure trove of advice here. I’d imagine if you’re here reading this interview, that you’re already on the right track, since you’ve either sought out this conversation or you’ve connected with Amanda, Bywords, and/or other local literary online spaces in such a way that you’ve been able to access these thoughts on your screen. And that seems to be a common thread here, and one I echo: find your community.

I first started submitting in 11th Grade, and my poem “The Moon for Barefoot People” was accepted by a literary journal for authors aged 13–19, The Claremont Review, which is now, sadly, defunct. In the same year, my English teacher invited me to read at an open mic in the basement of a Royal Oak. It was my first ever public performance. This was in the time before Submittable, when all submissions had to go through snail mail. I researched Canadian literary magazines online, bought large envelopes and small ones (for the requisite SASE—self-addressed stamped envelope), spread out all the submission packages on my bedroom floor.

Malahat, Fiddlehead, CV2, Grain, Arc Poetry — you can imagine how that went. Those venerable, internationally known Canadian magazines, with the biggest pools of submissions, were the easiest to find online and the hardest to get into; fifteen years later, I still haven’t had work published in their pages, though I now sit on the Arc Poetry board. But I was lucky enough to also find smaller, independent journals that were more accessible to an emerging writer like myself. Bywords.ca published my second poem. Then, I think, Feathertale, my third.

While I do encourage emerging writers to submit to the “big guys” (especially Arc, since the magazine has a Poet-in-Residence program specifically designed to help emerging poets hone their craft), I’d advise you to seek out the online journals, the start-up journals, the journals that speak to your quirks and submit to those as well. Also, send me a direct message on Twitter @margolapierre and I’ll send you a list (updated monthly) of 150+ literary journals accepting poetry.

Others have mentioned the phenomenon of the older cis man approaching after an open mic reading with unsolicited critique and that is 100% a thing. I had this happen to me at Art Bar in Toronto and if I remember correctly, I was actually featuring that night, my name on the sandwich board and everything, but that didn’t stop him.

The flip side of that, though, is that critique is actually a really good thing when it comes from someone you respect, whose work you admire. Read local, contemporary poetry widely, follow poets and literary magazines on social media, attend the virtual readings, and if there’s a poet whose work and/or online presence you really connect with, consider reaching out to see if they’d be open to doing a manuscript assessment or editing your poetry. The money you spend on paying a poet to assess/edit your work will most likely be 1000x better spent than on any contest submission fee.

Avonlea: Like other folks here, I also got started with poetry at Canterbury. But I remember having a strong preference for fiction at the time, so didn’t get back into poetry until I found Capital Slam around 2012, and that was when I really started to focus on it. I sort of re-entered poetry through performing, with a strong emphasis on poetry-as-event, which was huge in shaping my engagement with it now.

I started submitting in 2013-2014 and got published in a few small print/online magazines, self-published a chapbook and then got a couple others published, but even now I have yet to pursue publishing as much as I would like. I mainly ended up focusing on organizing/publishing, and I always talk about circling back to prioritizing writing and submitting.

That said, I have a terrible writing ethic – mostly I just write when I have the impulse for it and take it from there. I would absolutely not recommend this approach if your priority is to publish – it’s really important to have a good work ethic and write consistently if your priority is publication. I joke that I’m too fragile to face my own shitty first drafts, and lack the commitment to overcome that – but it’s important to understand that both of those things are skills, and you can and will learn them if you stick with it.

There is a ton of great advice here already, but if I could throw in some of my own, it would be to cultivate a small group of fellow writers whose work you admire and who you trust, so that when you have work you’re ready to share, you have people ready and willing to engage with it meaningfully. I think it’s easy for people to overlook the editing process, but it’s so important to 1. get some distance from your work (it’s always easy to love a first draft) and 2. get some outside perspective from other writers to see how well what’s in your head is coming across on the page/stage.

I prefer having a small group of friends who can look at my work compared to bringing it to an open workshop or writing group only because (in my experience, anyway) people who are familiar with not just poetry, but you as a poet, will be able to parse out how a piece fits in to your style and ambitions (and what it’s trying to do) better than strangers. But this is a personal preference and isn’t going to be true for everyone. I think this ties into Leah’s point about how you respond to feedback – the way I address that is being extremely selective of the people I ask for it. That said, open workshops and writing groups are undeniably a great way to meet other poets, which is especially invaluable when you’re just starting out.

Part II: Community Outreach

Amanda: I was still green at sharing my work in public when my husband and I took up the reigns of Bywords.ca (2003 to present). The first iteration of Bywords (1990 to 2001) was a free monthly magazine with poetry and a calendar of events. It could be found around Ottawa and I started to pick it up in the 90s. A group from the University of Ottawa, including Seymour Mayne, were involved. It ended in 2001, just as I was taking my creative writing classes with Seymour. He asked if anyone was interested in taking it on. Charles created a site and, together with a group of volunteers we began Bywords.ca in 2003. It was a great experience for me, even though I pretty much had no idea what I was doing. I learned a lot and made a lot of friends in the literary community.

What was your motivation for getting involved in the literary community through organizing, publishing or editing and what are some of the challenges and obstacles involved? What are some of the joys?

Helen: To be honest, my biggest obstacle is definitely my own time management and organizational skills.  (Something I just need to work on in general.)  I try not to let my own nature stop me though.  I didn't, however, end up seeking out community involvement.  For both Tree and Bywords I was asked if I wanted to become involved.

Since I'm still quite new to the community I think I might have been seen as a bit of an untapped resource.  (Not the best phrasing but it gets the point across.) I was that woman going to events and getting involved on the periphery but still only reading at open mics.  I was very lucky that both Ben Ladouceur and you, Amanda, saw that I was interested in getting more involved but didn't really know how to step in.  Avonlea Fotheringham also said, last Versefest, that I should be going to the after reading drinks with the poets.  I unfortunately didn't take her advice though—both due to exhaustion and a sense of unworthiness.

I must admit that while a sense of community and belonging was part of the reason I joined Tree and Bywords it may also have for a sense of validation.  It made me feel more like a "real" poet.  (Ha! Then again I have the bad habit of reducing a lot of my life to a desire for validation.  Big surprise there.)  I suppose my advice here is, again, to not let any feelings of inadequacy stop you and that while it can actually be a motivation in the end you should do it for the joy.

That being said the biggest joy is definitely seeing something you worked on come together.  Hosting that transfemme takeover for Tree's pride event is still something I get the warm and fuzzys over.  I was anticipating the same with co-hosting the Tree Versefest event later this month but, well, that's been (understandably) postponed.
Honestly I think I was once again lucky.  By living in Ottawa where there is currently such a strong community of queer and woman poets who want to encourage those in that segment of the community who are just getting started.  I can only hope that I get to the point where I can help woman, queers, and, in particular, trans and non binary folk in the community when they feel ready to get more involved.

Ellen: Creating community, for me, came from a place of profound necessity. When I first started, I didn’t have a broad writing community like what you would gain through a Masters program in Creative Writing. What I did have was a small, small literary network (i.e. two people) and the gumption to forge a few new connections as I navigated my way into this world. I jumped at opportunities and introduced myself to contemporary poets I admire. I asked for advice, for insight, and really listened to the ones who were willing to connect and share.

Little Birds Poetry came into being because I wanted to create a space that was welcoming and warm. A space that was open to all poets and creative writers, no matter who they were before they became who they are today. 
Sure the challenges and obstacles are there - both within and without - but to move forward you must focus on your purpose and on the people who will lift you up. You have to give back as much as you ask. Approach each connection with light, love, and an open heart and the possibilities are endless. 
The biggest joy for me are the people I have met since I started Little Birds Poetry. Across two cities and multiple industries, each one of them is an incredible addition to this little corner of the literary world. I say it a lot but I truly mean it: I may create the space, but it’s the people who fill it that create the community.

Manahil: Echoing Helen, I was kind of thrown into it, which in retrospect is a good thing. I probably wouldn’t have sought out a leadership role with In/Words by choice, but having to take it on allowed me to build a lot of skills in a very short period of time. The biggest one I can identify is confidence.

I started out with In/Words interested in the design aspect of publishing, and subsequently got into the everything-else of it. From there, Claire Farley and Sarah MacDonnell approached me about joining the Canthius team (I believe this was in 2018). This is where I felt at a bit of a crossroads - I was already feeling a bit overwhelmed with In/Words, and to take on another simultaneous editorial position would only add to that. Ultimately, I said yes, because I wanted my own encounters with publishing/editing to move in a different direction.

Being part of Canthius is full of joy, but it also sits in certain precariarity. Less than a year ago the Doug Ford government slashed its literary arts organization funding, so that made the future of Canthius uncertain. We’ve made it to here so far, though. Funding, I’ve noticed, is always an obstacle, and it sits in tension with the joy of being part of this creative ecosystem.

Claire gives the editorial team a lot of freedom to move in different creative directions. I’ve had a wonderful time conducting interviews with writers like Karen Schindler, Isabella Wang, and Terese Mason Pierre around the loose theme of community building. The editorial board and the writers we publish really does feel like this interconnected ecosystem that supports each other. And of course, this idealistic fantasy is complicated by the unpaid labour put in under a precarious funding situation.

There are definitely a lot of stresses involved with the future of publishing, which includes reading series as well, across most literary endeavours I’ve been involved in. There’s only so much unpaid labour someone can put in when they have other priorities in their life. We come to this with a love of creating, and sometimes the pressures of capitalist productivity make us forget that. I find the Canthius team is fairly conscious of these pressures as we work through the questions of where to go next. Sometimes, you just need to breathe and remember why you’re doing this.

To circle back to a semi-happy note, the joys are very prominent in this specific moment in time. In self-isolation, being creative is difficult, despite there seeming to be more time to create. The only times I’ve been creative is when I’ve been creatively collaborating with others, whether it’s the collaborative poem I’ve been writing with Conyer Clayton or sitting together and painting with my sisters. Community, even through distance, brings out creativity even when it feels as though it has run dry.

Sanita: My first experience editing was at the Canadian Museums Association where I was responsible for a bilingual quarterly magazine targeted at museum professionals in Canada and abroad. Muse, it was called. I took on the role of Communications Manager and editor-in-chief of Muse at 23 years of age, and learned on the go. I had to manage a team of three people, one of whom played video games in front of me all day long. It was extremely difficult. I was responsible for a six figure budget including our salaries, which at the time stressed me out. I worked 10 hour days and burned out routinely.

Later, when I took on the role of co-editor at In/Words, I could only dream of having a budget like that. I went from the corporate art world, including the Canadian Museum of History, where we had the resources necessary to make projects happen, to a student-run, grassroots, independent, volunteer-based magazine where money and resources were very scarce. I found that challenging but also liberating. I loved the lack of pressure and the easy-going vibe. I was ‘productive,’ because that’s what I had learned to be in the Corporate Art world, and found several new sources of revenue for the magazine, including funding from the City of Ottawa and a major Kickstarter campaign for Dis(s)ent, an anthology featuring 50 Canadian and international writers and artists.

What I learned from these experiences is great respect for independent and volunteer-run literary magazines. It’s about community and connection, and I do my best to support small presses as much as I can, knowing how hard the labour to make their chapbooks, magazines and events happen.

Mia: As soon as I hosted my first iteration of blUe mOndays reading series at Cafe Nostalgica, I knew I wanted to be involved in the literary community in a more directorial way. Soon after, due to a series of strange circumstances, I began acting as editor of OAR Magazine with absolutely no training, and no idea what I was doing. Editorial meetings where we would sift through submissions for hours on end sounded torturous to some, but I loved them and had a passion for the editing and publishing side of things. Like Manahil and Helen, I’m glad I was thrown right into the middle of things, because at the time I certainly wouldn’t have thought myself capable of the projects I ended up overseeing.

Unfortunately, by the time I left OAR and dropped out of my undergrad, I was struggling with my mental health as well as a serious creative block, which left me very isolated from the writing community. Stephanie Meloche was a dear friend from university, and was living in Germany at the time (feeling similarly lonely and despondent), but we had been committed to staying in touch.

I don’t remember how exactly Coven Editions was conceptualized, but we had bought the domain name, designed a logo, and were buzzing with ideas long before we had any clue as to what projects we wanted to undertake. It was another year before Steph moved back to Canada and we started actually considering starting this press together. Since our first run of broadsides in 2017 (featuring work from excellent friends Conyer Clayton, Ian Martin, and Dorian Bell), we’ve just been more and more inspired by the incredible writers we are able to work with. The challenges are many and various, from finding a good print shop (thanks LoudMouth print house! And now, thanks My Living Room) to the ongoing challenge of ordering fine paper, every time we solve a problem two more crop up.

In some ways, the joys and challenges are linked, since many of the challenges stem from the type of work we aspire to make and the standard to which we hold our publications. For example, I’ve been committed to sourcing our materials as close to home as possible but that means a huge increase in printing and paper costs. We want to make everything by hand, and outsource as little as possible, which means our print runs have to be quite small (especially now that I am a one-woman print shop, with Steph in the UK). However, we wouldn’t want to concede on any of these things that make our publications unique.

Again, the greatest joy of Coven Editions-- and of being a literary organizer in general-- is the sense of forging community.

Leah: Everything everyone has written is so true and so insightful. I’m struck that so many of us have said that we struggle(d) with imposter syndrome and feeling worthy in the literary community, even though we are all creating the spaces that allow the community to thrive. I have definitely felt this way. It makes me wonder whether cis men feel this to the same degree.

I’ve had different reasons for doing this work at different times in my life. Some of them have been: school requirements, resume building, collaborating with friends, employment, gaining skills and experience, giving back to the community, and shaping the community in a positive way (I hope). One thing that I want to talk about is networking. In our current system, most literary labour is unpaid or under-paid, and writers are expected to have more and more credentials of all kinds in order to access paying literary work, or larger platforms like commercial publishers.

Of course, those credentials require investment of time and/or money to get, so we have a closed system that can be difficult to break into, and networking matters more than it should. I don’t think we talk about this enough in our literary communities. I want to acknowledge that one of the reasons (even if it isn’t the most important) I do this work is that it allows me to network.

I agree with others that resources of all kinds are a challenge (money, time, energy, space, etc). Even though resources are a struggle, the fact that I am able to participate in this work also means that I have a level of privilege, which I try to keep in mind.
I also want every space I’m involved in creating to be as inclusive and safe as possible. When I began getting involved, I did not anticipate having to consider the legal ramifications of the way literary events are run, or of what writing of my own I choose to publish, or of the discussions I might have in public literary spaces. I don’t hear much about #UBCAccountable any more, but I feel the damage it has left in our communities all the time, and how it has silenced writers and limited organizers’ abilities to take certain approaches to creating safer spaces. This is another discussion I think our community needs to continue to have.

I also agree that the joys and challenges are linked. Hopefully, each time we confront a challenge, we make progress in a way that will create a positive impact. That is fulfilling. Also, I think of how I felt so excited and supported by those first literary organizers who took a chance on me as a writer. Mia actually gave me my first featured reading at blUe mOndays, and I’m so grateful for it. Knowing that I might be a part of providing something like that for a writer is a joy and a privilege.
I want to echo everything Manahil has said about Canthius. I love being a part of this journal, even through all the logistical difficulties. Claire Farley has built a collective that is so collaborative, insightful, creative, and compassionate. I learn so much as a writer and as a human from working with this group. I love being able to publish writing that I love, even though I love much more writing than we are able to publish.

Claire has also created a culture within Canthius that really values balance, and it’s always okay and supported for someone to say no to a task that would be too much to take on. Because of the editorial freedom that Manahil mentioned (and because of many of Manahil’s interviews), I always feel that Canthius is taking on important conversations in a way that adds to them. I am so grateful and honoured to be a part of it all. I guess for me the real joy of organizing is both being part of a project that I feel is truly excellent, and doing it alongside this amazing and powerful group of friends and colleagues.

Namitha: My motivation deeply stems from my desire to throw myself into things. I have never been someone who likes half-assing things, and poetry followed that pattern. As I became more and more involved in the poetry scene, I grounded my performances in Urban Legends. I attended the biweekly shows, performing at almost every one. This consistency that I had developed in the scene had allowed me to make connections with other poets, particularly the past director, Khaleefa “Apollo the Child” Hamdan. We became friends, competing in the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (CFSW) together in both 2018 and 2019, and had become a peer with this extremely decorated poet who had given so much of himself to the slam poetry community. It was really with his vote of confidence that I put my name in for the Urban Legends Director at the time that Khaleefa and his co-director, Panos had stepped down. I had the opportunity to shadow the co-directors, and gradually take on more autonomy and responsibility in the collective. Once I received the directorship, it was definitely a mental challenge. Being comparatively younger than most organizers in the poetry community, the Imposter Syndrome had set in and I began to lose confidence in my abilities.

However, with the support of my community, which included other local organizers such as Danielle Gregoire, I grew into myself and the role that I had been given. And a fruitful role it has been. Though there are deep moments of burnout, the moments of joy are genuine and invigorating. It is often from other women, and young women of colour, specifically, when they find out that a young woman of colour, like themself, is directing a poetry collective, that the expression of joy burns the brightest. Representation does wonders, and it is validating to see that excitement in others that look just like me. To know there is space for them, too.

Margo: Much of my involvement in the literary scene has happened by me just being “around.” In all but one occasion (Bywords, Ottawa Literary Review, Editors Canada) I was asked to volunteer, which was a result of me simply showing up to events and talking to people. That one occasion (Arc), I emailed to inquire about the Poet-in-Residence program and at the same time offered my time if it might be needed in any way.

The biggest struggle is the considerable time commitment, especially when I wasn’t in a position to give it so freely. But as Leah said, volunteering is a HUGE privilege, as it provides access to knowledge, community, and resources, not to mention a life-changing, validating feeling of belonging.

One of the things I’ve been attempting to do recently is bridge the gap between two of my volunteer communities: editing and poetry. I’d planned an event, the first in what was supposed to be an intimate living room series, House Party Poetry, so that editors and poets could mingle together and enjoy poetry. It was scheduled for March 12 and was for many the first poetry to be cancelled due to Covid-19. It will now be held (for the foreseeable future) virtually, with the first event happening on Zoom June 12. There’s certainly been a few sticks in my spokes in planning it but I’m looking forward to it finally happening.

Aside from the joy of encountering breathtaking poems, there’s also the joy of connecting with those from my communities outside of the structured interactions and seeing friendships blossom there.

Avonlea: I got into organizing when I was studying English and Linguistics at Carleton. I was co-president of the English Lit Society at Carleton, which hosted literary events on campus, and through that I met Dave Currie, who brought me on to Literary Landscapes in 2013 to talk about one of our events, and the following year Dave recommended me to Collett Tracey as a potential co-editor for In/Words Magazine and Press.

With the In/Words team I worked on publishing the (quarterly? tri-annual? when we felt like it?) magazine, as well as a bunch of chapbooks, including debuts like Army Arrangement from Ikenna Onyegbula, Mia Morgan’s Suburbia, Liam Burke’s Dry Right Up, and others. I loved working on chapbooks because I was involved in the whole process, from soliciting work from poets, to editing, to design, to production, and I loved that feeling of being able to take a concept, approach a poet with it, and see it through to publication. It was really important to me that the books had a format that really honoured the poetry – even if that meant expensive materials and high production labour. I remember finishing the first assembled copy of Marilyn Irwin’s chapbook tiny and thinking, “Yes, okay, this is 100% worth the time and effort”. I still operate under that balance of form and content with Hussy.

We also ran a writers’ circle with In/Words, and a reading series that was really magical because it was so loose and so wild - definitely an ‘of the students, by the students, for the students’ type of situation. Normally we didn’t even start the show until 9:30pm or later, which, looking back, sort of horrifies me, but it worked – people showed up in droves, and it remains one of the most vibrant literary events I’ve witnessed to date.

During the transition between In/Words editing teams, when I was coming on board, I worked pretty closely with outgoing co-editor Matt Jones, and he and I later joined VerseFest in 2015. I had an incredible experience that first year, and just never left. Organizing a festival is a LOT harder than organizing a reading series, and there have definitely been challenges – especially as we grow the festival. At this point we’re featuring around 80 poets each year, many of whom are coming from out of town, so there are definitely headaches when it comes to managing logistics. But seeing it all come together year after year is beyond gratifying.

One of the biggest challenges of organizing, for me, is that arts communities are not like workplaces in their ability to offer basic protection. In a workplace, you have an HR department with strict policies on harmful behaviours, and you have processes for how to address them. But when you’re talking about spaces where participation is overwhelmingly voluntary, it becomes so much harder. You can’t vet every individual who walks in the door, and it’s happened so many times that someone steps over a line with someone else. I think a lot of people are tempted to put the onus of personal responsibility on the “offendee” to decide whether they are comfortable in a space, but the inevitable result of that is that you lose valuable members of a community because addressing their concerns without a robust, enforceable policy (that also won’t get you sued) is often so complex and risky that it’s not feasible. I really think there needs to be more accountability for community safety at an organizational level, but it is shockingly difficult to implement and enforce in essentially volunteer-based organizations.

Human resources especially are stretched so thin to begin with that losing people because you can’t provide basic protection is just infuriating – to say nothing of the incidents themselves. I’ve fielded or witnessed so, so many complaints over the years. I’ve watched so many valuable contributors to the community walk away because they can’t keep putting themselves in unhealthy or dangerous situations, and the line between the personal and the political is too blurred in spaces like this to take any meaningful action.

In most cases, the best you can do is withhold a specific invitation to participate — for anything beyond that, you risk embroiling already fragile organizations in legal disputes that could break them (financially or socially, or both), as we’ve seen happen across the country over the past few years. I can think of over 20 incidents off the top of my head just over the past 5-10 years that have adversely affected lit communities across the country (some of those right here in Ottawa – and these are just the ones I know about). Addressing them in a constructive, active way is the kind of labour organizers need to do, but we just don’t have a proper framework yet for addressing these issues at their roots. And I don’t claim to know what that framework would look like, but I absolutely know that without one, our communities suffer. I have to believe there are better options than the ones we have right now (instigate legal action, leave the community, or suck it up and deal with it). I have to believe we can do better than that.

This is a major source of feelings of helplessness for me, so I spend a lot of time stressing and being watchful and making sure that people know I’m here for them to come to on a case-by-case basis — but I really want to be able to provide those basic protections that you would find in literally any workplace. The best I’ve been able to do without that framework, without major infrastructural change, (as in, on the level of a huge administrative paradigm shift) is to position myself as an ally and make sure people know I’m on their side and there to support them. And I haven’t even always been successful in that, but it’s something I’m always trying to get better at. Jesslyn Smith, a local poet/anarchist recently transplanted to BC, has really ingrained in me the concept of community as a space that inherently demands accountability, because that’s the only way that you can really organize and build together. That’s what I want for our community.

As for why we should be trying to protect our community as much as possible – the joys of organizing. There are so many. Seeing someone’s first ever feature reading is amazing - the excitement is completely contagious. Celebrating exceptional work by giving poets a platform to share it is extremely rewarding (not to mention being able to pay poets money for their work). The biggest joy for me though is the feeling of being in a room where you know that every single person is completely attuned to the reader. One of my favourite sensations is that shift in energy at an event when it feels like every single person in the audience is on the exact same wavelength. I’ve seen too many to name, but a few standouts from VerseFest are Jordan Abel’s performance of Injun in 2017; Tanya Evanson’s Bothism in 2019; Caroline Bergvall’s Drift in 2016.

One of my first experiences of this was at an In/Words reading – a typical long night of hosting with an open mic reaching into the very late hours before wrapping up, and at some point after the show ended and people were just drinking and talking, Carmel Purkis and Sandra Ridley (our feature that evening) got up to perform an impromptu poem together. They just got up unannounced and started. And watching a packed room go, in a matter of seconds, from raucous conversation to complete, captivated silence filled by poetry was like magic. That is exactly the kind of energy that keeps me organizing.

Manahil Bandukwala is a Pakistani writer and visual artist currently living in Ottawa. She is the co-lead of Reth aur Reghistan, a literary-visual exploration of folklore from Pakistan in collaboration with her sister, Nimra. She is the Coordinating Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine, and is on the editorial board of Canthius. In 2019, she was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize and won Room magazine’s Emerging Writer Award. She has authored and illustrated two chapbooks, Paper Doll (Anstruther Press, 2019) and Pipe Rose (battleaxe press, 2018). Her work has appeared in the Puritan, Room, PRISM, carte blanche, and other places. She is completing her undergraduate degree in English at Carleton University. See more work at manahils.com.

Ellen Chang-Richardson (she/her) is a poet, writer and editor of Taiwanese and Cambodian-Chinese descent. Winner of the 2020 POWER OF THE POETS Contest and the 2019 Vallum Award for Poetry, her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Watch Your Head, third coast magazine, Anti-Heroin Chic, long con magazine and more. Her debut chapbook Unlucky Fours (2020) is published by Anstruther Press, and her second Assimilation Tactics is forthcoming this fall. In addition to her writing, Ellen is the founder of Little Birds Poetry, the co-curator of Riverbed Reading Series, a reader for Bywords and a member of the poetry collection VII. Find out more at www.ehjchang.com.

Amanda Earl is a polyamorous pansexual writer, visual poet, editor, publisher, doodler, and list-maker. She lives in Ottawa with her husband Charles. She’s the managing editor of Bywords.ca and the fallen angel of AngelHousePress. She’s written and published three books: Kiki (Chaudiere Books, 2014 now available from Invisible Publishing), A World of Yes (DevilHouse, 2015) and Coming Together Presents Amanda Earl (Coming Together, 2014). Her chapbook, En Fer, a long poem about a love affair is online as part of Ghost City Press’s summer microchapbook series as of August, 2020. Her creative and life goals are love, whimsy, connection and exploration. Find her on Twitter @KikiFolle or read more at AmandaEarl.com.

Sanita Fejzić is a PhD Candidate in Cultural Studies at Queen's University (Canada). Her interdisciplinary work investigates the relationship between cultural production and environmental ethics. She has co-edited two anthologies with Carleton University's In/Words Press including Refuge(e) in 2016 and Dis(s)ent in 2018.  Psychomachia, Latin for “battle of the soul,” Fejzićs first book of fiction, was shortlisted for the Ken Klonsky Novella contest (2015) and the Canada ReLit Awards (2017). (M)other, a CBC Poetry Prize shortlisted poem, has been converted into a children’s story by Bouton d'or Acadie, illustrated by Alisa Arsenault and translated by Sylvie Nicolas under the title Mère(s) et monde. Find out more at sanitafejzic.com.

Avonlea Fotheringham is an Ottawa poet, publisher and organizer. A former co-editor and organizer of In/Words Magazine and Press and its associated reading series, she joined VerseFest as Festival Administrator in 2015, and recently joined the board at Tree Reading Series. She competed with Capital Slam to place in semi-finals at the 2014 Canadian Festival of Spoken Word, and her work has since appeared in dusie, BAD DOG, (parenthetical), Ottawater and other places. She founded her micropress, Hussy, in 2015.

Margo LaPierre (www.margolapierreeditor.com) is a queer, bipolar Canadian poet and editor. Her debut collection, Washing Off the Raccoon Eyes, was published by Guernica Editions in 2017. She is newsletter editor of Arc Poetry Magazine, membership chair of the Editors Canada Ottawa-Gatineau branch, member of poetry collective VII, and a poetry selector for Bywords.ca. Her work has been published in filling Station, CAROUSEL, Train Journal, and others. She/her. @margolapierre

Leah MacLean-Evans grew up in Ottawa, attended Canterbury High School’s public Literary Arts program, and workshopped with Seymour Mayne during her undergrad. She completed her MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan, co-ran the River Volta Reading Series in Saskatoon, and was a Program Assistant at the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild in Regina. Now back in Ottawa, she is on the editorial board of Canthius. Find more about her and her writing at macleanevans.ca.

Mia Morgan is a Palestinian-Canadian writer and co-founder of Coven Editions small press. Her long poem Suburbia was published as a tiny book in by In/Words press, and her work has appeared in Bywords, Battleaxe, and some other places. She is a member of & co. collective and the Arc Poetry Magazine board.

Namitha Rathinappillai (she/her) is a Tamil-Canadian spoken word poet, artist, and writer who has entered the poetry community in 2017. She has been involved with Urban Legends Poetry Collective (ULPC) ever since her engagement with the Ottawa arts community, and made ULPC history as the first female and youngest director.  She is a two-time Canadian Festival of Spoken Word (CFSW) team member with Urban Legends Poetry Collective, and she published her first chapbook titled Dirty Laundry with Battleaxe Press in November of 2019. She has been involved as a performer and a workshop facilitator within the Ottawa community at spaces such as Tell em Girl, Youth Ottawa, the Artistic Mentorship Program, Carleton Art Collective, The Fembassy, Youth Services Bureau, and more.

Helen Robertson is a genderqueer trans woman moving through the lifelong process of accepting how lucky they've been; using poetry to excise their ire and sorrow — hopefully turning it into something worthwhile. Their work has appeared or is upcoming in CV2, The New Quarterly, The Puritan, as well as others; they were longlisted for the 2019 Vallum Award for Poetry.  They serve on Tree Reading Series' board of directors and the Bywords Selection Committee.

Thanks to all the participants for taking part in my first ever attempt at a round-table interview. You inspire me! Thanks to rob mclennan for inviting me way back in March to do some kind of letter from Ottawa for Periodicities, and for publishing this interview. I hope this to be the first in a series of interviews I conduct with women, gender nonconforming, D/deaf and disabled, BIPOC, and queer poets who also run or help organize events, series and small presses and any other ways that they mentor poets new to their community and make them feel welcome. Contact me at amanda at amandaearl.com if you’d like to participate. 

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