Monday 7 June 2021

Joe Fiorito celebrates his hometown, journalism and poetry

In May, Joe Fiorito was the recipient of the 2021 Kouhi Award which recognizes a writer who has contributed significantly to the literature of Northwestern Ontario. 


 I am delighted to accept this award named to honour Elizabeth Kouhi, and I’m proud to stand with those who have accepted it before me. I want to acknowledge a couple of previous honourees:

Dorothy Colby, whose son Scott was my colleague when I worked at the Toronto Star – we understood some of the same things – small town, big city, two ways of seeing

 Charlie Wilkins – I forget where we met because as soon as I met him, I felt as if I’d known him forever.

And of course my friend Joan Baril, who has done more for northern Ontario writing than anyone I know.

 But let me be specific.

I’m from Fort William.

And in Fort William, I’m from Westfort.

 Westfort is where I learned to keep my eyes open and my mouth shut; as it happens, those are the first tools of a writer.

Westfort is where I learned that nothing is ever what it seems, and that is a tool of journalism; look -  look deep -  and then look deeper.

Westfort is also where I learned not to pick a fight and not to back down from one, and somehow that is the basis for my poetry.

 I learned two quite opposite things on Christina St.: how not to draw attention to myself, and how to tell a story. Both those things valuable in an Italian family; know when to duck, and when to entertain.

 I learned that art could be made from the matter at hand, and this was an accidental lesson: the first time I saw the panels painted in the bush by the group of seven  – hey, look, I used to go fishing there – I realized that the raw material for art is what’s at hand.

The local is universal if you know what to make of it.

 I learned to read early – that is how I learned to write – but a trip down the block to the Mary J. L. Black  Library was not an escape, it was an entry into the world beyond. When I was growing up, I needed to know there was a world beyond; still do, during the Covid times.

 But everywhere I’ve been over the past 40 years I have been guided by the sound of the train rocking past our little stucco house on Christina St. at night, the sulphur smell of the mill on Monday mornings, the sweet smell of the dust from the grain elevators, and the sharp smell of creosote.

Yeah, I still crush a cedar frond between my thumb and forefinger whenever I can, because the fragrance reminds me of home.

Blue lake, blue mountain, blue sky.

 Now, after 35 years of journalism, I have returned to my first love, poetry.  I am self-taught in this way of saying –  but I was led to poetry by three teachers in high school: Jeanie Rigato at St. Pat’s, George Spentzos and above all by Al Jack at Westgate.

I don’t receive this without them.

 Journalism took me away from Northern Ontario. This honour brings me back.

Thank you.


The author of eight books, Joe Fiorito won the National Newspaper Award for Columns in 1995; the Brassani Prize for Short Fiction in 2000; and the City of Toronto Book Award in 2003. City Poems, his first book of poetry, was published in 2018, and most recently his poetry collection, All I Have Learned is Where I Have Been (2021), was published by Signal Editions. He lives in Toronto.

Saturday 6 March 2021

Meeting Mortality with Heady Images: Rahat Kurd on Kateri Lanthier

Rahat Kurd introducing Kateri Lanthier at the The Rhizomatic reading series, Thursday, October 15

I’d like to highlight the personally curated nature of The Rhizomatic—that it comes out of a shared passion for attentive reading. The goal of our series is to expand an audience for the poetry that we’ve had time to reflect on, draw meaning from, and form a real attachment to. I read Kateri Lanthier’s Siren last spring, while adjusting to life under quarantine.

Before the official public health emergency was declared, I think a deep survival instinct compelled me to order a coffee grinder, a French press, and several recent poetry titles by women in Canada. Having come through a difficult winter, I had really looked forward to being able to make travel plans in the springtime. Instead I had to accept that in the foreseeable future, my feet would not be leaving the ground. Filling my head with the voices of women poets seemed pretty much medically indicated.

Emergency, necessity, contingency, constraint. Conditions under which women have always made enduring art. Siren, Kateri Lanthier’s second collection of poems, insists on meeting the edge of her own mortality with heady images: cracked amethyst, silver and diamonds; crocuses, peonies and magnolias in full bloom—and comes as close to swooning lyricism as the contemporary register of a made-in Toronto English will allow.

To come to these poems on the page as a solitary reader is to be pulled into a sensibility both cerebral and playful—cerebral, in fact, because playful—making rich use of  allusion, internal rhyme, double entendres, among other forms of word play.

“The Year of La Jetée” was the first poem I read. From the first line—“Three fingers of moon in the glass”—I was struck by the power of mystery. The voice in this poem knows how much to conceal, and how much and when to reveal. The cadence of this mysterious voice pulls the reader in to consider the language more closely (as opposed to deliberate obfuscation, which can repel a reader’s desire to understand). I shared this poem with another friend over the summer, the poet Judith Penner, who wrote, “I love the poem as it reveals itself through re-readings, a slow emerging like the photo, surface light suggesting what’s below.”

Lanthier takes a frank, sensual pleasure in her prerogative as a poet: to structure thought in the marvellous ways that transform the prosaic and the quotidien.

I’m not sure whether it’s the vivid moments of retrospect in her work—remembering a younger self as a “waif in a snowbank”—or her acute consciousness of how closely life is always breathing next to death—that deepens her evocations of eros with a knowingness which is never weary or cynical—in fact, I would call it a lovely wisdom:

“our every kiss a power surge that sparked a rolling blackout”

It’s in both of these moods, particularly in her work with the ghazal form, that Lanthier’s musicality shines in a way that seems to channel the spirit of 19th century Urdu poet, Mirza Ghalib.

I do not say this lightly, or only because Lanthier quotes Ghalib in translation in one of the epigraphs to her collection. In the ten years that I have been reading Ghalib, mostly in Urdu with a very grateful dependence on Urdu-English dictionaries, the help of my mother, and on the learned commentaries that span over 150 years on Frances Pritchett’s encyclopedic Ghalib website at Columbia, I’ve been made constantly aware of the many challenges that translation cannot overcome.

While only a few incorporate a radif or refrain, several poems in Siren embrace two major elements of the ghazal: the stand-alone couplet, and the thematic leap between couplets in a single poem, in a way that expands the lyrical capacities of English. We are living in a rich time of ghazal practitioners in English—Natasha Trethewey and Amit Majmudar come to mind, while my personal Ustad is the late Agha Shahid Ali. But even dispensing with the classical qafia/radif (rhyme/refrain) pattern, I suspect that it’s Lanthier who’s been struck by Ghalib’s particular lightning.

I’m going to ask Kateri to tell us, later on, about her experience of reading Ghalib in translation, which she wrote about in a wonderful and moving personal essay, “Lifelines: Of Heart, Lungs, Blood, and Ghazals." You can read it in the anthology
Against Death: 35 Essays On Living, published by Anvil Press in 2019, edited by Vancouver’s own Elee Kraljii Gardiner

Kateri, welcome to The Rhizomatic.

Sunday 20 December 2020

Sunday Poem



For David Rothberg

Ice by chance, by fate or divine grace,
Ice as a prayer answered or seasonal necessity… We approve.
But ice by any means possible? Ice, a commodity
manufactured, apportioned, rented, sold by the hour?

No: the end, no matter how smooth and immutable,
cannot justify the means: ammonia, compressors, chain-link fences,
the whole rotten professional petrochemical sports industry…
They just want to make us skate—and drive—round in circles.

Hear, hear. But the kids do need to run some drills:
We have no power play and a pathetic penalty kill.
Can we not just have a practice, like other teams?
There’s the rub: we buy into it and the kids will as well.

A-ha the purist shows his true colours!
Next you’ll want to ban rubber pucks and plastic helmets.
How about refusing to consume? I’m coach. I decide.
Tomorrow it is. To Dave, my fellow Ottawan, this aside:

Seen the pond? I caught a glimpse as I drove by.
Minus twenty tonight. Imagine it all sheer and black.
Let’s skip practise, grab our skates, rope and sticks,
And ride our bikes down there first thing to tiptoe out

and test our convictions. Tap-tap. Give us a faith
sufficient to withstand, though free to crack,
a surface that inspires awe and dread.
What love does not tremble at the touch and quake?
How can it be ice if it doesn’t break?


By Richard Sanger, from Fathers at Hockey (Signal Editions Chapbook, 2020) 

Sunday 9 August 2020

Get Them By Heart

Matthew Schneier mulls the importance of reciting poetry:

I have always found the place for the genuine in poetry to be unlocked not by just reading it but by memorizing it. And it’s a good exercise, in the midst of chaos, to give yourself over to a sound and a rhythm that is not your own. It takes time—you probably have plenty—and effort. But you feel poems differently when you get them by heart and say them out loud. You have to chew them, and their rhythms overpower yours. It frees you up, to submit to them: It’s self-abnegation by incantation, your very own ventriloquist’s act.

Saturday 1 August 2020

Speaking The Old Dialect

In an online interview for the Librissimi Toronto Italian Book Festival, Nino Ricci touches on how immigration can shape identity.
Part of what I was exploring in Lives of the Saints were the kinds of stories we tell ourselves, how we structure our own imagination as a way of making sense of our lives. People talked about America from the perspective of the old country and, even though they often had access to accurate information—they had relatives who had gone over and were writing back and were telling them what things were like—there was always that kind of mythical side to it of a promised land they were hoping to reach. One of the things that I found in my research and in interviewing immigrants is that often that dynamic ended up getting reversed through immigration. Once they had established themselves, say, in Canada, and been relatively prosperous, they then began to romanticize the land they left behind. It became a sort of lost paradise, the lost place of wholeness: “Yes, we were poor, but we had enough to eat, we were well.” I found it very poignant, that very strong sense I got from speaking with immigrants of that lost wholeness that can never be recaptured. And even when they travelled back, they couldn’t recapture it because they had become Canadianized. Their Italian was now mixed with English words that they weren’t even aware of. People saw them as old-fashioned because they were speaking the old dialect, or they saw them as no longer real residents. There’s a very poignant element to the immigrant experience in that regard that you never really wholly integrate into the new country, but you can never really go back to the old one, and that was part of what I was exploring in that first trilogy. By the time I get to Sleep, when I think of identity I think of this very complex thing, that is something we put together haphazardly with whatever materials are given to us over time. For example, I was raised in a small Southern Ontario town where the Catholicism in my head was not the Catholicism in Italy. It was post-Vatican II and it was much more streamlined and demystified. The Latin was gone, we didn’t talk about the Saints, there was no emphasis on the miracles, I lived close to the border, the TV I watched was American, the music I listened to was American. I had all these American influences which informed me, this panoply of different cultural influences that made me what I am. So, my Italianness took shape within the framework of all these other things. So, we need to think of identity in those terms, not as singular, not as defining or even as determined, but something that is shaped from what is available, from the sources that are available. I made a conscious decision to travel to Italy and re-own my culture that my parents never had access to. I spent years studying in Florence. What did my parents know of Florentine culture growing up in the villages that they grew up in? But I had access to it through them. So that’s how I think of identity now, as something that is multi-faceted, something that to a certain extent we can choose and enhance.

Thursday 16 July 2020

Open Letters Are A Graveyard of Prose

Graeme Wood enumerates the sins of the open letter. My favourite? They are badly written.
Open letters tend to be composed inclusively, so as many people as possible will sign them. They can bear no traces of their individual authors, and the easiest way to scrub those traces is to write in a numbing, anonymized style, free of idiosyncrasy and wit. (If you seek idiosyncrasy and wit, read the articles that my Atlantic colleagues who signed the letter write under their own names.) This process deadens the language, and the result in the case of the Harper’s letter is a graveyard of prose, without a single pungent phrase or sentence worthy of quotation. Humor is especially forbidden. Martin Amis signed the letter, but I have read enough Amis to know he would never have written that letter if he thought that on some literary Judgment Day he would be called before God to answer alone for its style.

The Hyper-Ambitious Miniaturist

In a review of Lydia Davis' Essays, James Ley places the U.S. writer's rise inside a period when "hyper-ambitious male novelists" were trapped "in a creative arms race to see who could write the mightiest, brainiest, zeitgeistiest tome." Davis, he argues, went hard in the opposite direction.
She excels as a miniaturist. Though she has published one novel, The End of the Story (1995), she betrays not the slightest interest in making any kind of grand statement. Her stories rarely extend beyond a few pages. Many consist of a single paragraph. Some are no more than a line or two. There is no striving for cultural definitiveness, no panoramic vision or flaunting of intellectual pretensions. Davis’ fiction is narrow in focus and precise in execution, written with an eye for the unusual angle. She is a major writer who produces almost exclusively ‘minor’ work.