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.