The League of Canadian Poets – the Raymond Souster Award, the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the Pat Lowther Award. Today’s feature is Toronto journalist, young adult writer and poet Vancy Kasper, whose book Rebel Women (Toronto ON: Inanna Publications, 2013) is on the shortlist for the 2014 Raymond Souster Award. See my previous Raymond Souster Award shortlist interviews with Anne Compton and Jenna Butler. The winners to all three awards will be announced on Saturday, June 7, 2014 at The League of Canadian Poets 2014 Annual General Meeting in Toronto.
Poet, novelist and journalist, Vancy Kasper was born and grew up in Toronto. She received her B.A. from the University of Toronto and joined the Toronto Star as reporter, feature writer and columnist. Her articles appeared in magazines from Japan to Germany. An early member of the Women’s Writing Collective, she is the author of a poetry collection, Mother I’m So Glad You Taught Me How to Dance and award-winning Young Adult Fiction, Always Ask for A Transfer, Street of Three Directions and Escape to Freedom. Her poems have been published in Fireweed, Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme, Quarry, Poetry Toronto, Waves, and Landscape and broadcast on Canadian televison and radio. She has been a feminist for over 30 years.
1. Rebel Women is your second trade collection of poetry, after Mother I’m So Glad You Taught Me How To Dance (Toronto ON: Williams-Wallace, 1986). After two trade books over the space of three decades, how do you feel your concerns as a writer have developed? How do you feel the work, and even the process of writing, has evolved?
My concerns as a writer have deepened. I'm now writing poetry books with a central theme (two more here half done) as opposed to collecting enough individual poems to meet Canada Council requirements to submit as a book, as I did for Mother. I find I'm more concerned with the why of people and events, than the what.
The process of writing for me is slow and frustrating. I ned toknow more andmore about words, their roots and how far I can go in using them and still say what I'm trying to say. Scribbled words in margins of mags and papers and lines using them are all oveer floors of my office and bedroom. A lot of my research is here and there on the backs of envalopes, anything handy to write on,all eventually stuffed into transparent freezer bags, so I won't lose them. I'd also like to get more humour into my work. Laughter is so much more important than crying.
I nearly died of cancer in January, 1980. Not nearly as much was known about the disease and the sophistocated machinery for diagnosis/treatment was not in place.(I was a single parent at the time). I finally checked myself out of the hospital and found I had to husband my energy very, very carefully. I have managed successfully. Many people cope with situations that interfere. My work evolves around this.
It's true Rebel Women is my second poetry book, but I've actually written five trade books. My first Y.A. novel sold over 250,000 copies. My fourth Y.A. trade book Escape to Freedom was awarded First Honourable Mention by the Canadian Library Association. All of them were short-listed for the now defunct Max and Greta Ebel Award. This resulted in my being able to work as poet in residence in schools and libraries. I'm very grateful to poet Sonja Dunn, who smoothed the way so I would be hired to work for different school boards. Of course I'd done poetry Readings prior to this in galleries, restaurants, libraries, bars etc.
2. Who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
To re-energize my work I return to Phyllis Webb, Leonard Cohen, Karen Connelly, Patrick Lane, George Bowering, Don McKay, Katerina Fretwell, Renee Norman, Bob Dylan, Alison Pick, Tess Gallagher, Susan Griffin, Michael Ondaatje.I grew up listening to my grandmother, aunt and father quote whole passages from Shakespeare's plays and sonnets, over the dinner table, so I occasionally go back to him.
I can't help but return to E. Alex Pierce, Barry Dempster, bp nichol, Tennessee Williams, Audrey Lorde, Flannery O'Connor, and Barbara Kingsolver.
3. You’ve lived in Toronto for quite some time, and I’m curious as to how the community of writers around you, as well as the landscape of Toronto, have contributed to your work. Do you think you might have been a different kind of writer had you lived in another part of the country?
I was born and brought up in Toronto. As a child, through adolescence and into adulthood, I was taken (being baby-sat) or invited to parties given by members of the small artistic community in Toronto. My aunt, Claire Gordon McMaster, a concert pianist, was close friends with sculptors Wyle and Loring, actress Jane Mallett, and artists Dorothy Stevens (deBruno-Austin) and Fred Varley. I was immersed in the importance of the arts, knew the pitfalls and poverty of writing.
After I left the Star, Globe and Mail reporter Jocelyn Fulford told me about a group being formed for women writers only. I feel the founding of the Women's Writing Collective with it's various poetry and fiction groups by Betsy Warland, Charlene Sheard and Gay Allison (founding editor of Fireweed) opened wide the doors to publication for women poets and writers.
Their efforts, determination and originality, especially with that of Ayanna Black who joined a short while later, saw that women poets voices were heard equally alongside men's at unique events: (Harper's posh restaurant; Jelly and Jam, in an empty factory; Nervous Breakdown coffee house; Underground Railroad restaurant; and especially new elegant art galleries. Prior to this, even today, most poetry readings take place in noisy (but welcoming) pubs, upstairs as a secondary event. Gay Allison in particular succeeded in moving poetry Readings into a more elegant environment other than libraries. I believe Landscape (Coach House) which the Women's Writing Collective published was the first multicultural collection of women's poetry published in Canada. I belonged to a poetry group and a children's fiction group, until members eventually moved on. I meet today with a differnt writing group and find the support and encouragement woman to woman, invaluable.
It's interesting to think I might have been a different kind of writer had I lived in another part of the country. I don't know. My father was born and brought up in Nanaimo, B.C. I'm named after the city of Vancouver--my uncle's signature was Vancouver Camden Gordon (Van C. Gordon) I was supposed to be a boy, named after him.
I love Island life. I lived on the Toronto Island nine months of every year for thirteen years. One of my children was born there. If I'd lived on Vancouver Island would my work have been different? I appreciate the Prairies--no one could crowd me there. I could always smell the ocean if I moved to Halifax where one son lives. Maybe my work might have been different. I don't spend a lot of time musing about what might have been.
4. Rebel Women explores the women – specifically your grandmother and great-grandmother – who were part of the 1837 Rebellion, and your author biography specifically mentions that it was in your great-grandfather Joseph Shepard’s parlour where William Lyon Mackenzie planned his 1837 Rebellion. Obviously this period of Canadian history is deeply personal, and I’m curious how much research went into the collection, or if you approached the project more as a memoir of family recollection?
The 1837 Rebellion was planned in my great grandfather's parlour, along with it being planned in many other rebel parlours including the Lount parlour, the Matthews parlour, the Anderson's parlour and in fields, pubs and so on. The Shepards were just one of the leading Reform families who became Rebels, willing to give their lives to bring in fair voting laws. One of my publishers thought this was interesting and should be included in my bio.
I had been writing poems about my parents and decided to write one about my grandmother. I suddenly became aware that very little had been written about the indignities and suffering of women in the aftermath of the Rebellion. My grandmother was an intelligent, informed woman. Her first husband was an MP--her second, a Judge. Her father had spent time in jail, simply because he founght for an honest vote. She was reduced to living in one room in our house and I never heard her complain. Family lore has it that she built Toronto's Isabella Hotel and lost all her money running it. I grew up listening to her stories.
My research is detailed at the back of Rebel Women, but I am enormously lucky that a Shepard cousin, Paul Litt, whom I had never met, telephoned me one day to say he'd like to meet me for lunch. I discovered that he is a graduate historian (Victoria College, U. of T.), former President of the York Pioneer and Historical Society, and who is now a Board Member of Heritage Toronto. If I floundered in my facts, I contacted Paul. He often telephoned me from North Bay, Sudbury, Yellowknife and once somewhere out in the mid-west to claify and talk about our family. Of course I dedicated the book to him along with my husband and children. I walk every day in Wilket Creek Park (part of Sunnybrook, named after my great great Aunt Nancy's family) and i could hear the women's voices urging me on.
5. What do you feel your years in journalism brought to your writing and writing life? Or are the two entirely separate?
My years of journalism at the Toronto Star (Family section) brought me discipline and an enormous range of experience. It gave me a platform for my work and taught me to listen very very carefully, under the guidance of two wonderful editors: Betty Stapleton and Helen Palmer. I interviewed anthropologist Margaret Mead, spent a morning with author Ayn Rand (The Fountainhead), interviewed Ben Gurion (Israel's P.M.)'s daughter; flew up to the Arctic to tour the now defunct DEW (Distant Early Warding) line; had dinner with actor Gregory Peck and his wife Veronique (former Paris Match reporter); wrote a sewing column; attended a premier of one of his ballet's with famous Broadway impressario Sol Hurok; attended a Liberace party, a Danny Kaye party and turned down Elvis Presley's invitation to dinner after his press conference at Maple Leaf Gardens (I married two months previously). I also wrote up a lot of weddings and proofread the paper every day. I freelanced at night.
I feel my writing life now still contains the always aiming for perfection and must meet the deadline, mentality, connected to my years as a reporter. At Neil McCarl's death last year (Sports writer for the Star--his wife was a dear friend), I lost my last connection to reporters I had worked and partied with.
6. Literary awards have been known to shine spotlights on individual works and authors, as well as writing generally, but has also sometimes brought with it a particular kind of pressure, and a frustration for those works overlooked by awards. As a writer, reader and, now, shortlisted writer, what are your feelings on literary award culture generally?
Any literary awards are enormously important in bringing writers work to the attention of the reading and buying public. It does bring pressure, but it's very hard to publicize one's own work effectively. A spotlight on the short-listed helps, I feel, with memoirs and novels. Whether it helps with poetry, I don't know. My first poetry book, Mother I'm So Glad You Taught Me How To Dance is still being read in the libraries after 25 years, but was never short-listed for anything. My other books were all short-listed.
Different writers have advanced much further than others and have different tastes in poetry and literature. This applies to judges. But judges are presumably respected by their peers, for their own body of work, whether I myself happen to read their own books or not. For their willingness to spend time doing an often thankless and criticized job, I thank them.