Tag Archives: poetry

How to Build Community

In today’s contribution to the University Press Week Blog Tour (November 4-8), our Awards and Events Coordinator, Vannessa Barnier, talks about her role at UTP and in the Toronto poetry community – and why participating in community building is both rewarding and beneficial.


By Vannessa Barnier

Writing is a singular activity, which allows for isolation. This is especially true for those working and writing within academic institutions: outside of seminars, there are not many opportunities to engage with peers or other academics. Lectures – though everyone shares space – are often spent alone, attended alone, dismissed alone, to go off to work… alone. The nature of this work – writing, researching, reading – involves primarily isolated activities.

Being an events coordinator, both at University of Toronto Press and within the Toronto poetry community, I think a lot about how to facilitate growth and comradery, and the situations and physical spaces necessary for these things to transpire. In my experience, building community is easiest when folks are exposed to and understand how they can benefit from participating. Whether you’re dealing with professors or poets, these benefits include both inspiration and output.

Communities make competition possible, which can, in turn, inspire output. When you’re aware of what others in your field are doing, you are inspired to keep up to date, to challenge ideas, and to improve your own work. In addition, being part of a community includes shared deadlines, which help to encourage output. Publishing and conference deadlines force writers to work towards a goal and to produce material they otherwise would not be so driven to complete. When considering what it means to be part of a community, deadlines in this case are a perceived benefit.

In my role at UTP, I coordinate all of the events that the press attends, including exhibiting at conferences. Academic conferences are meeting places of shared, specific interests. They allow for people with hyper-specific interests to come together to discuss, disagree, and grow. These connections and conversations are integral to knowledge sharing and allow for ideas to be workshopped, new perspectives to be added, and arguments to be challenged. It is only through this process that disciplines can be strengthened. Things do not exist in silos, and when they do, they are not productive, current, or valuable.

These ideas extend to all communities, including creative writing communities. In Toronto especially, there is a lively poetry community, with regular events and outings. It is through community that there is such productive growth, both collectively and individually. With submission deadlines to journals, poetry readings, and writing groups, folks are held accountable to their writing, motivated to produce new material, and inspired to explore new ideas. There is both praise and confidence, in the form of verbal affirmations and monetary encouragement. Through book or chapbook purchases, awards and grants, or GoFundMe campaigns, writers are supported and encouraged in ways that isolation does not allow for.

All this is to say that participating in community building is nothing but beneficial. Joining and contributing to communities – academic or otherwise – is a very powerful, exciting decision. To build community is to be open and desiring of more, from yourself and your work. To be open to community requires presence, passion, and the desire to share ideas and to provide platforms for others to grow.

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To continue on Day Four of the University Press Week Blog Tour, check out posts by these other fine university presses:

Columbia University Press
Blog: https://www.cupblog.org/
Twitter: @ColumbiaUP

Temple University Press
Blog: https://templepress.wordpress.com/
Twitter: @TempleUnivPress

University of Michigan Press
Blog: https://blog.press.umich.edu/
Twitter: @UofMPress

Syracuse University Press
Blog: https://syracusepress.wordpress.com/
Twitter: @SUPress

GeorgetownUniversity Press
Twitter: @GUPress

University Press of Kansas
Blog: http://universitypressblog.dept.ku.edu/
Twitter: @Kansas_press

University of Nebraska Press/Potomac Books
Blog: https://unpblog.com/category/potomac-books/
Twitter: @UnivNebPress; @PotomacBooks

Athabasca University Press
Blog: http://www.aupressblog.ca/
Twitter: @au_press

John Hopkins University Press
Blog: https://www.press.jhu.edu/news/blog
Twitter: @jhupress

PrincetonUniversity Press
Blog: https://press.princeton.edu/ideas
Twitter: @PrincetonUPress

MIT University Press
Blog: https://mitpress.mit.edu/blog
Twitter: @mitpress

University of Toronto Press Journals
Blog: http://blog.utpjournals.com
Twitter: @utpjournals

Vanderbelt University Press
Blog: https://my.vanderbilt.edu/universitypress/
Twitter: @vanderbiltup

University of North Carolina Press
Blog: https://uncpressblog.com/
Twitter: @uncpressblog

 

My Odd Case of Writer’s Block, Or, How I Spent Six Months Writing One Paragraph

Sharing the Past is an unprecedentedly detailed account of the intertwining discourses of Canadian history and creative literature. In this post, author of the book J.A. Weingarten discusses his own personal experience with writer’s block, and why it took him the best part of six months to complete his book.


By J.A Weingarten

By Fall 2016, I had finished nearly all of the writing for my recently released book, Sharing the Past. One thing remained: I had to complete a paragraph that I’d been agonizing over for nearly six months. It was a deceptively simple statement: I needed only to admit to my reader that I didn’t know everything. Let me explain.

The primary point of Sharing the Past is to show that creative writers – freer and typically more willing than academics to write experimental and deeply personal histories – have found the means to write histories that are (as I say in the book) both “intellectual” (based on factual events and sources) and “felt” (made emotionally powerful by the sharing of intimate, often familial, connections to those events). David Zieroth writes about his grandfather’s experience in Canadian internment camps, Louise Halfe writes about the devastation wrought by residential schools on her family, and Andrew Suknaski writes about the struggle his family faced as it joined the massive waves of Eastern European immigrants during the early twentieth century. The stories are big and small: focused on large historical events, but seen through the affective lens of a familial experience. Many readers have connected to these “big and small” histories in ways that they have not connected to the scholarship of conventional historians focused on “big picture” stories (e.g. tales of the political elite, memorable policy, large-scale events). I make that distinction with greater care and context in my book, but, for now, let that basic contrast suffice.

One thing many of the writers in my book have in common is that their personal approach to history compels them to acknowledge, in one way or another, that their histories are, by virtue of their subjectivity, open to corrections and/or expansions. “My family’s story,” these writers often seem to say, “is just one of many possible perspectives on history.” In other words, no one can really claim to know everything about the past. It is brave to write as passionately as creative writers do about history and then to acknowledge, simultaneously, one’s limited ability to write the past fully and accurately. There are, I say throughout the book, so many ways to tell a story, and each author I discuss acknowledges that plurality of approaches.

So here was my conundrum in Fall 2016. I was writing a scholarly history of history infused with my own feelings and beliefs, and so it became clear that I was trapping myself in a corner: I was praising authors in my study for their candid admissions that their knowledge about history has limits, but I was not sharing with my reader that same humility. The issue became more complicated as I began to write about experiences far removed from my own: I was writing about leading Canadian authors of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s like Margaret Atwood and Lorna Crozier and about Indigenous authors publishing since the 1980s like Louise Halfe and Joan Crate. The broader the reach of my book (eras, cultures, figures, et cetera), the more I felt it was necessary to say something about my own limits as a scholar. I began to feel hypocritical because of my omission. Every one of my authors happily celebrated that they could not know everything about the past … why was it so hard for me to write a paragraph that said something so obviously true of my own historical writing? Of course I don’t know everything! Of course my book is open to correction! Of course more could be said than I say! So why couldn’t I just say that?

The cover of Peter Steven’s Family Feelings & Other Poems makes an implied connection between photography and family.

It took me six months to find the words. And during those six months, I thought incessantly about my odd case of writer’s block. I gradually found some clarity … partly by rereading the poetry on which my study focuses and partly by reading eye-opening scholarship that unpacks questions about different systems of knowledge in and outside of Canada (I was especially influenced, for instance, by Deanna Reder and Linda Morra’s Learn, Teach, Challenge).

Here is what I realized by Fall 2016: as a young scholar I felt I needed, at all times, to wear a veil of certainty. Whether I put that pressure on myself or whether it was put on me by others (or both) I do not know. I have always been a bit of a perfectionist (flashback: my first day of kindergarten, trying desperately to cut a perfect circle, and looking angrily, crying and disappointed, at the splintery oval I’d cut out of construction paper). Having the answers – as many of them as possible – seemed important during my time as a student, both before and during grad school. It was my own failing that I came to believe, consciously or unconsciously, that having answers was the key to earning respect for my writing. Perhaps that was something deep-seated that had grown unchecked over the years, fed by the uncertainty, stress, and confusion of pursuing a grad degree.

The end result was, in my early 30s and finishing my first book, I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of claiming expertise and then admitting, in the same breath, that I was fully capable of being wrong. That admission became something over which I obsessed. The time I shared with that one paragraph was no longer just about finishing my book; it was about taking a step forward as a writer, professor, friend, son, husband – now a father – and all-around human being.

Those six months spent writing one paragraph changed my relationship to my book. They changed my relationship to my knowledge and self. I look back at the process of writing Sharing the Past and, as proud as I am of the book, I think of it now as a learning process for me. Not a crowning achievement, but the process through which I learned (with the help of poets, novelists, and scholars) to speak more honestly about my writing and learning. That paragraph entered the text without anyone ever realizing (minus those reading this blog) how much time went into it or how significant it was for me to write it. It surreptitiously snuck in line, joining the row of paragraphs ahead and behind it, the way I used to bud into the movie theatre line as a kid. It blends in unnoticed. Just another example of many things I wrote and will write.

The paragraph, for those interested, has been reproduced below:

“When I began this book about ten years ago, it had not occurred to me – at least not with the same force it now does – that every scholar, including myself, has limits to and gaps in their knowledge. I draw attention to this point because Indigenous scholars have often outlined the danger of holding firmly onto knowledge without questioning or recognizing one’s own position. While writing this book, a colleague had advised me to emphasize my expertise over my openness to correction, but I felt then – as I do now – that such an addition would be disingenuous in a study so concerned with the value and limits of individual knowledge. Intelligence, like compassion, is not achieved through assertions, but rather by making a genuine effort to reach a deeper understanding of a time, place, or perspective. While it may be necessary in a scholarly study to assert expertise, it seems equally important to acknowledge that a persistent problem in settler-authored studies is the deployment of uncontested, imperialistic interpretations. It would be irresponsible to pretend that I, as a third-generation Canadian and as a scholar entrenched in settler traditions of language and literature, could fully step back from those personal and academic positions. Hence, my discussion here – informed by years of research, interviews, and thought – will still surely invite expansion and possibly correction. Those outcomes seem to me ideal, because my critical efforts in this chapter, and in this book, are determined encouragements of further conversations, not assertions of rigid conclusions.” (Sharing the Past, page 205)


J.A. Weingarten is a professor in the School of Language and Liberal Studies at Fanshawe College.

2013 Humanities Poetry and Prose Contest!

Are you in the medical profession and looking for a creative outlet? Are you a med student whose notebooks are filled with thoughtful poetry about your future career endeavours? We have the contest for you!

Ars Medica and CMAJ are pleased to co-sponsor “The 2013 Humanities Poetry and Prose Contest

Open to all health profession students, researchers, residents, fellows, health care practitioners and faculty working or studying in Canada.

1. Deadline: Monday March 18, 2013.
2. Parameters: All works must be previously unpublished and relate to medical humanities in the broadest sense. Poetry, limited to two submissions per person. Prose works, limited to 1 per person, can be any style (e.g., creative nonfiction, fiction, essay etc.).
3. Length:
a. Poetry – Maximum to 52 lines in length.
b. Prose – Maximum 1500 words.
4. Send your submission electronically to: ccme.contest@gmail.com
In the subject line, state whether your piece is poetry or prose. Include in your covering note your full name, mailing address, telephone number and name of the school or organization you are affiliated with. Please state that your work is original, previously unpublished and that you authorize its publication in Ars Medica or CMAJ. Also please specify if you are a student/resident.
5. Judge: The Ars Medica/Massey College Barbara Moon Fellow.
6. Prizes: The three winners (first, second and third) in each category will receive a one-year subscription to Ars Medica . Winning submissions will be published in either Ars Medica or the CMAJ.
7. Only the winners will be contacted. Winners will be announced at the Creating Spaces III Symposium, held in conjunction with the Canadian Conference on Medical Education in April 20-23, 2013 in Québec City.

For more information on this contest, please visit the post on the CMAJ website.