Solidifying Occupations

Like a wheel, a writer’s career turns and rotates back on itself from years of incubation, to its publication and reception, slowing back down to a new period of gestation. I have felt the past few years pulling me up towards the public, towards the highest point of my first book’s success, though it was relief when the months cycled me away from that hecticness and back towards the quiet and depths of new manuscripts and projects.

In 2019, two years since Admission Requirements was launched, my book has gone into its third printing, sold just under 1500 copies (from what I can understand on Penguin Random House’s author portal stats), and been taught in university literature classes. This year saw my first international publication, in the Danish-based Sindroms magazine. In February, I received a commission from Diaspora Dialogues to write a Toronto-specific poem based on the text of an emerging writer, for Hello, Neighbour, and the podcast of the event, hosted by Hana aha Duncan, can be heard here.

As well, my poem, ‘Two Tea Bowls’ was set to a music by composer Tawnie Olsen and performed by the Orpheus Choir for a Diaspora Dialogues’ concert on International Women’s Day. Raising Her Voice commissioned four new choral works by four female composers, all of which used a text by a female Canadian poet. I also wrote and recorded some food-specific poems as a part of a light-hearted CBC podcast, Personal BestPersonal Best, on an episode titled “How to fall in love with the culinary arts.”

In the spring, I attended MagsWest 2019 to moderate a panel on Supporting Asian Canadian Writers with Yilin Wang, Anna Ling Kaye and Shazia Hafiz Ramji, and also to give a talk on Building Good Working Relationships with Emerging BIPOC Writers, and my invitations and participation at MagsWest wouldn’t have been possible without the support of both Yilin and Sylvia Skene, MagsWest’s Executive Director.

Also in March, I visited UNB in Fredericton and Dalhousie University in Halifax to give readings– many thanks to the efforts of Rebecca Salazar, Triny Finlay, Ross Leckie, Annick MacAskill and Erin Wunker for organizing, finding funding, and marshalling warm bodies into seats on my behalf. Annick and I were at last able to read together, along with local poets Nanci Lee and Katie Clarke, and despite a last minute venue cancellation we gathered for an amazing evening at the Nova Scotia Writers Federation and collected funds in support of a local youth arts association, iMove.

Later in spring brought some events to promote the two anthologies I appeared in last year, Refuse: CanLit in Ruins and What the Poets are Doing, and local readings at Art Bar, Tartan Turban, the U of T alumni reunion, and a panel on the role of the writer in radical times in Hamilton.

Throughout the fall and spring, I visited fifteen elementary and high schools to run Poetry in Voice workshops, working with approximately 300 students and 20 teachers in Toronto, Thornhill, North York, Markham, Richmond Hill, Georgetown, Brampton, Holland’s Landing, Oakville, Hamilton, and Owen Sound via Skype. The long treks on regional buses definitely added to my back strain (not to mention the numerous books and rolls of poster paper I hauled with me), but for these school districts it was really meaningful to have a guest visitor from the city, and I was able to improve my classroom projecting voice at the same time (though some teachers took pity on me and hung a portable mike around my neck during really rowdy times. If you think students don’t get rowdy over poetry, you’ve not seen them reciting Wayde Compton or Rita Joe or Walt Whitman’s ‘Beat, Beat Drums.’)

It’s very easy for me to forget what I have been doing, maybe it’s a kind of survival instinct to not look back. Summarizing it here, I’m overwhelmed, as if seeing myself moving in a blur, like a roadrunner cuckoo. Yet I’m also grateful for the clouds of dust, or in this year, papers, emails, invoices, calendar notifications and new faces that sweep across the vista of days with a flurry that leaves me without any thoughts except where I might find my next coffee, bathroom break, repose.

In the spaces in between, I have found the blank pages and tentative lines of new poems, stories and essays, and also the outline and shape of my now permanent role at OCAD U. This fall with bring more travel and rushing about, but also I hope, stillness, as in when a force lifts the body away from the earth in a few moments of suspension before it returns it back to its berth.


A Slow Harvest


Predictably, the bits and morsels of writing that I did over this year are appearing at once this fall like a belated harvest, giving me the appearance of productivity that is far from the reality. In actuality, it amounts to about 25 pages of prose which I siphoned from spare minutes on trains and airport lounges, from class visits and traveling. People kept asking for prose from me, and I was too taken aback to refuse. Maybe I needed a break from the concentration of poetry, even if writing prose for me is like telling someone who makes pressed flower bouquets under glass to take a “break” by digging ditches.

The first project which required a lot of heavy lifting, and which is available for order, is the second volume of The Unpublished City, which I co-curated and edited with the great Canisia Lubrin and Dionne Brand. The anthology was conceived over take-out Thai food and Dionne’s big dining table, arranged and laid out on her floor, and edited as I struggled to get a wifi signal on a train through Yorkshire. Here is the catalogue copy:

Orient yourself in the city with these nineteen works of creative non-fiction that offer a different, more multifarious wayfinding. In this second volume of The Unpublished City, imagination is the means by which these writers find detours, shortcuts and convergences. Even as they are inventing and imagining the city, these emerging Toronto-based writers find themselves marked through tender and violent encounters. For them, the city is more than backdrop, but a witness, an accomplice and a lover.

Also from Book*hug is the anthology of essays Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak and Erin Wunker. It’s now available for order and in bookstores. I was honoured by Erin and Hannah’s request to contribute to this timely volume after presenting a talk on the role of mentoring in marginalized communities, specifically the Asian-Canadian writing community at a closed workshop in Vancouver last spring. I expanded the notes from my talk into an essay entitled “Visions and Versions of Resilience: Mentoring as a Means of Survival”.

The table of contents alone has me leaping out of my seat (or at least, grinning and nodding emphatically.) I mean, Laura Moss! Alicia Elliott! Kai Cheng Thom! Fazeela Jiwa! Gwen Benaway! Joshua Whitehead! I also look forward to reading the contributions of Zoe Todd, Keith Maillard, Jane Eaton Hamilton, kim goldberg, Tanis MacDonald,  Lucia Lorenzi, Alicia Elliott, Sonnet l’Abbé, Marie Carrière, Dorothy Ellen Palmer, Natalee Caple, Nikki Reimer, Lorraine York, Chelsea Vowel, A.H. Reaume, Jennifer Andrews, Kristen Darch and Erika Thorkelson. I’m hopeful that the anthology will reframe the toxic dynamics of this country’s literary institutions and into exchanges that may be difficult, but are more productive and nuanced because of that very difficulty. I like difficult things; but then I have a penchant for suffering.

Recently from from Nightwood Editions is an anthology of interviews, What the Poets Are Doing, edited by Rob Taylor. It’s a revisiting of a 2002 title, when similarly, Nightwood published an anthology of interviews pairing emerging poets with established poets. Those terms themselves become diffused in this 2018 collection of interviews. I was paired up with Russell Thornton, whose Governor General Award winning collection, Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain I reviewed years ago. Despite our different ages, we had a lot in common: incredibly busy schedules, difficult fathers, approaches to craft, a tendency to apologize when our email answers were overdue, an aversion to bullshit, and a “take the money and run” attitude to prizes & grants.

Finally (thank goodness) I have an essay and translation in the forthcoming issue of Brickwhich will be launched at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto on December 3rd. It’s an essay on my mother’s 12 years as a columnist for the Chinese community newspaper in Ottawa when I was growing up, and a loose translation of one of her pieces– the first time her work has appeared in English in a literary journal, and so extremely meaningful to me. This could also could not have happened if not for Dionne Brand, who asked me to contribute a piece to Brick and who I feared disappointing nearly as much as my mom. Nothing quite like the anxiety of letting down two very important women in your life to spur on one’s word count.

Given that this represents about a year’s worth of plantings from me, it’s likely that I will be sinking out of sight for another long fallow period. I’m looking forward to it.

An adjustment of belief

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I have always told myself not to expect too much. I can’t remember how or why I struck upon this repentant logic (I have a few hypotheses) but this modesty of expectation has served well through the dry years, the months and weeks and days of scarcity.

My restrained expectations, however, have not prepared me for outcomes that exceeded anything I could’ve imagined for my first book of poems. My book is a year old, and it’s been a year unlike any other, a year that has nearly unraveled me. I’ve visited nine cities across Canada, had my book on three university course reading lists, been asked to speak on panels and conferences, was shortlisted and nominated for awards, and most amazingly, joined Poetry in Voice as a poet-in-residence where I workshopped with around 1000 students in high schools around Toronto.

Looking back on this year I feel as though someone has played an enormous joke on me. I didn’t expect to perform. I didn’t expect to go on tour. My sense of disbelief at each invitation combines with an almost crippling sense of gratitude and a stunned confusion that festival and conference organizers, academics, writers and editors think me fit to put in front of an audience. It’s easy to imagine that they expect someone even physically bigger, taller, funnier, more charming, articulate and informed. I know these trepidations are common, but this knowledge, like knowing there’s a virus going around, doesn’t prevent one from succumbing.

What saved me was that I had agreed to so many obligations that there was no time for doubt. I could sit and stare in panic at my calendar but there were emails to respond to, activities to plan, workshops to teach, students to tutor, and class visits to schedule. Now was the chance to jettison some unproductive habits and ways of thinking. Exiting the depression, paralysis and perfectionism of my twenties, my notion of adulthood meant being prepared, prompt, helpful, respectful and agreeable to any and all requests. These were good notions at the time. Yet they are also gendered and a result of acculturation, a part of a bundle of expectations I saw modelled by other Asian women and women of colour and that I held myself to as if they were strictures, as if they were an antique costume I eagerly assumed.

It sounds simple-minded now to say that I can’t help everyone, I can’t be everywhere, I can’t do everything. I also saw this year that neither is it necessary, nor expected. In fact it’s counterproductive for me to try to be as helpful as possible, resulting in guilt, exhaustion, my voice giving out and my health in pieces. The more good fortune I received, the more I felt I deserved, somehow, to suffer, to give away my time and energy away in handfuls. Should they ever offer an entry-level course on Martyrdom, I would be overqualified to teach it. (Intermediate and Advanced Martyrdom, though, should be taught by parents/editors/volunteer medics/after-school programs staff/living saints).

It was also counterproductive to assume upon my own lack of preparation, resulting in lack of sleep and endless hours making powerpoint and worksheets and activities when I had improvised entire poetry lessons. I had done it before, so what was I afraid of? Fear itself became a time-consuming self-indulgence. If others believed that I was suitable for the roles they saw me in, it would be irresponsible not to appreciate the very great privilege of that position and to focus on my imagined inadequacies. That is, my own notions of success or failure are beside the point.

What helped was not to think of Phoebe Wang as an instance of the author as an performance, but rather my symbolic presence as an Asian-Canadian of my generation placed in front of students many of whom are themselves first generation. It’s a historic reversal, where those writers whose identities, experiences and contribution to Canadian culture have been previously undervalued and invisible are now given an attentive audience. It will take some time for these switching priorities and moves towards a diverse literary landscape to catch up with writers of colour, even though these have been changes we have been pushing for for decades. The suddenness is causing me a sense of whiplash, like riding in a fast car suddenly changing directions. Quite understandably the surge of validation will evoke suspicion or a tentative attitude, as often the motives for this upswing in interest in Indigenous, Black, Brown, Asian and mixed-race perspectives may lack transparency and clarity.

Out of my tiredness and weakened health, my packed calendar and inboxes, my doubt and my gratitude, I began to see the shape of a life that would sustain me. I had been feeling for the shape of it for a decade, and now that it’s outline was clear and unwavering, I could hardly believe it. Doubtless I’ll still have mornings where every limb feels undeserving. Yet if I am continue to stand in front of a group of young people to shift their ideas about who poetry belongs to and who gets to create it, I had better start with adjusting my own expectations.




No. 6 County Road, Picton

If you could bottle up a storm, what would it look like? Would it be cloudy white, with swirls of purple? Or ink-black, with raw seams of lightning that would shock your hands if you touched the surface? This image is rather dire, but I welcome it because I depleted my stock of images last year when I finished my book. What would keep this storm in? A wax seal? A cork? There is something plugging up the top of my head. Otherwise, why these headaches, these surges of resentment? Usually I’m not capped tight. But what is usual for me? My life has not been usual for a long time.

It’s the end of summer and J. calls me. He’s applying for non-teaching jobs, even though he’s one of the most caring teachers I know. I’m in Picton and go out onto the front lawn and sit in the dry grass. We’ve both just finished a 2-month teaching contract for international ESL students where we rolled around campus like marbles on high speed, flicked here and there by long hours and endless prep. But it has ended, and I’m staring out at fields of snowpea shoots where I’ve come to write for a week. We’re exhausted in a way that sleep can’t solve. J. has been teaching for longer than I have, 5, 6, maybe 7 years. There is impatience in his voice, prickling up like the sun-bristled grass. We make enough to pay bills, but it’s not enough. When we hang up, I seethe from room to room, from the studio to the front living room of this lovely farmhouse, carrying the rough drafts of the first new poems I’ve written in months. They’re full of sheds and dirt roads and it feels fake because I didn’t grow up in the country. What’s with all the fucking fields? I write at the top of the page. If I’m not from here, then where am I from, and didn’t I try to answer that in my last book? But the question has shifted. If I’m not from here, then what do I love? 

I don’t sleep well when I’m not in my own bed, but I think it’ll be different when I go to visit my parents later in September. After all, I used to live there, used to have mountains pinned to my back. I slept in the upper floor of the one-bedroom loft-like apartment my parents still live in. They bring down a single mattress from storage and set it up next to my dad’s workbenches and easels. The apartment has no doors, no privacy, yet I’m comforted to be there. I’d forgotten my family’s penchant for old wood furniture and their makeshift, minimal ways. In the bathroom, my mom has suspended two antique frames over the bathroom mirror, draped green ivy over it so it feels tropical. I remember we’ve always been a family that has cobbled our living from odds and ends, things other people discarded.

I wonder who this ‘Phoebe Wang’ is whose name is on the cover of my book, who gets invitations asking her to read at festivals. I must go in her stead. It has never been a name that as felt like it fit properly. It’s an amalgamation– the first name Greek and abstract, the surname an approximation, often mispronounced. My Chinese middle name I never use, wouldn’t recognize it if someone did. I make up a personality for this Phoebe Wang– cheerful, helpful, respectful. I see her clothes hanging in my closet, navy lace and sheath dresses, and when I do a reading I alternate each dress like costumes. Performance anxiety is the best diet– I’ve lost close to 10lb this year thanks to sleeplessness and hyperactivity. I didn’t even know I had 10lbs to lose. I buy dresses at consignment shops, because all year, clothes don’t fit the same way. I feel like a life-size doll, applying lipstick and wearing another woman’s clothing. I move my limbs onto the stage, smoothly, like I’ve had lots of practice.

When I still lived with my parents, I’d visit houses my friends rented, crashed on couches after parties, envied their mismatched furniture and the bric-a-brac texture of their lives. They were fully immersed in it, while I was hovering somewhere between land and the upper stratosphere, waiting to land. I couldn’t accept my long walks, looking into lighted windows, as any kind of practice. Now I buy two, large smoky black Japanese bowls. My apartment sat mostly empty for the first year I lived in it until I found the kind of old wooden tables and shelves I wanted. My parents took us to galleries and they’re still the spaces I’m most comfortable. Seeing my parents’ white walls, I realize they curated my childhood, down to the typefaces. Aspiring to minimalism, though, is like aspiring to a vanishing point. No wonder I wonder about whether or not I’ve disappeared. Viewed from a certain angle, even the longest strand of noodle is a mere dot. I must be careful not to view my life this way. I must turn my head.


A temporary workspace

My alma mater has asked me to visit and do a reading. I can’t believe how much they are paying me to do this. They want me to speak for 45 mins but there’s no way I’m going to read poems for 45mins because I’m not Anne Carson or Bishop or Plath returned from the dead. I make a Powerpoint presentation of pictures of my parents when they’re young and my sister and me in the backyard holding vegetables and the island my mom grew up on. Memory is a strange thing– the more you spend looking back, the faster the time goes. Afterwards, the students ask me incredibly intelligent questions for almost an hour. One of them says she notices that the predominant colour in my book is white and asks what this could mean. When the visit is over, the two profs and the TA take me to dinner in a French restaurant. I want to be good company, worth their time– not the shy woman I usually am, but one that tells funny stories about their publisher or bizarre anecdotes about other writers’ eating habits. My mom has stories– she told one of my boyfriends about seeing the Jackson 5 on the subway in 1971. I’d never heard it before. Then I realize that my mom’s stories are my stories, that all I have to do is to keep talking about my family, which is easy to do because they are always flipping through me, squares of coloured light against a white background.

In Calgary, S. drives down to see me. This is the first time I’ve been put up in a big hotel. A young concierge with a lilting voice informs me I need to put down a $100 deposit for the keycard, preferably on a credit card that won’t be charged, otherwise, it’s $200 cash. I don’t own a credit card and am almost cashless, because of Picton and the Vancouver trip and barely having worked since August. If I go to the festival office, I can pick up my reading fee, but in order to get to the office, I need the keycard to get up the elevator, and before I can have my keycard, I need to pay the deposit. This is one of those income stalemate situations that writers are frequently in. Thankfully, S. texts me that he’s arrived and has parked outside. Thankfully, he has a credit card and the stalemate with the uptalking concierge ends.

With S. here, I feel more like myself, but I’m a poor festival attendee with him around because we’ve known each other forever and instead of drinking late with writers at the hospitality suite or going to other events, we roam around downtown Calgary glimpsing our friends’ art in the big office atriums, we get tired of eating out for every meal and drive back to his arts co-op in Edmonton. The drive is a long relief, and I realize the reason why people don’t feel landlocked in the Prairies is because the eye can travel across fields for 100 miles and it’s like an ocean, an ocean of cadmium yellow and lemon yellow and ochre, as if Van Gogh had mixed his palette here.


White is the colour of a blank piece of paper and of canvas. It’s the colour of snow and to me, comfort, as I’m a winter child. Though it’s also a menacing colour, as the poet David Harsent claims. It’s the colour that is the absence of history, the erasure of specific ethnicities so that a dominant culture can rush in to fill the void with white pom-pom hats, white latte foam, white sugar, white plastic bags. Here, it says, you can be a part of something new so long as if you give that up, that looking backward, that nostalgia for land that was never yours, that vanishing point of blame.

Others, I know, share my design aesthetic. While taking our students to an outing to Kensington Market, J. & I walk along a beautiful, tree-lined street and play that old game of which-house-would-you-live-in? Both of us point to the white painted bay-and-gable house with black trim. Severe. Meticulous. Orderly.

I’ve worked three different colleges this year. Sometimes people mistake me for a student, other times for faculty. Sometimes I get complimented on my English, my lack of accent. Last week, I watch the picketers circling the building, thinking, that might’ve been me. One of my favourite students, an older Spanish woman who has returned to school for social work says, “Phoebe, I’m losing momentum.” She comes to see me every week. She says the problem with Canadians is that they’re too passive, too uncomplaining. She wonders why capitalism has co-opted us. Usually I’m helping her with syntax, or research, or even her résumé, but today we look at OPSEU bulletins and I show her how to find updates about the strike. Next week I’m going to show her how much our college president makes. Reading his whitewashed emails every few days makes me so furious I can hardly swallow. I’m part of a generation of teachers that has come to accept that full-time work will be nearly impossible until I’m at least 40, and even then… when did we accept this? How did our bones and our bodies accept it? Like sleepwalkers laying down in a fallow field, or like small animals falling into ditches?


Belleville VIA station

My first royalty statement arrives in the mail, in a big 8 1/2″ by 11″ envelope as though uncreaseable. I’m still a couple of hundred in debt to my publisher, but I can fold up this information, tuck it away. I’ve made tremendous gains in the months of the book’s existence but having moved backwards for so long, it’ll take some time to be in the clear. In another six months, it’ll be my turn to be owed something.

There is something excessive about flying someone in from across the country to read for 15 minutes, but I find most things excessive, too much salt, too much sugar. By the end of this year, I’ll have visited nine different cities, including my hometown. I have set my clock forward, then backwards, while my career, after long years of stalling, now leaps ahead of me. All of the festival and event organizers whirl about whiteboards with pick-up times and have thought through every one of our needs. They hold the flaps of book covers open when I sign them. An older, award-winning poet tells me to go to everything, go everywhere, go to all the free dinners because “you’ll sit beside someone different every night.” I cannot even picture this. At the small party I had before I left, how I had just enough seating for everyone. When someone wanted to get up, they had to switch places with someone else.

With my festival gig money, I buy a new pair of Levi’s 501s and order a t-shirt from a band who stopped making albums in 2001. This was my uniform in my 20s, along with regulation black Converses and a black corduroy jacket, which I still own and which has holey pockets because my sister kept her drawing pencils in it when she borrowed it. This itself was a kind of costume that allowed me to pass among the crowd at hundreds of shows and concerts. In another of her long attempts to turn me into another version of herself, my mom has foisted upon me two black-and-white silk blouses, a striped t-shirt and a camel cashmere coat she found at Value Village. Wearing one of the blouses with the high-waisted Levis, I don’t look like my mom even though this is exactly her uniform, and I feel her lack of self-consciousness cloak me like a warm, wool hug. Don’t worry about that, she’d say, There’s bigger things to think about.

And another time, as I’m washing the dishes, she asks me: Where did you come from? You, yourself?

As if I could make something up to tell her.

Writing a book emptied me out. I’m like a raided vault, my bank of images empty except for the most dire– two lovers buried in ash, a crumbling aqueduct, a deranged leader. We came out of a debt, and we’ll go back into it, bandaged hand-in-hand. I hold that hand up and wait for the drops to form, for memory to condense. When I turn to a new page, white as a curtain, it isn’t completely vacant.


Self-portrait with antique frame

High Tide

Heaps of thanks are due, feathery piles of thanks to those who have thought Admission Requirements worth their attention and time. To Terry Abrahams for his lucent Sunday Review (the first review of my book to appear) in The Wilds in May. To Klara Du Plessis for her lithe response poem in Debutantesa new and very necessary space edited by Plessis and Aaron Boothby for reviewing debut books of poetry in Canada. To Stevie Howell for her stacked attention in her review in The Globe and Mail in June (who is now bestowed upon the citizens of NYC and who I greatly miss striding through Bloordale with as we get up in arms and lay into the maddening schisms of #CanLit).

Lately, thanks to Tamara Jong for her energy and her #litmaglove on the Room Magazine site (don’t miss other interviews with Rachel Thompson, Sierra Skye Gemma,Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and more). To the rising star poet and organizer Tess Liem for sharing “Yard Work” on the triumphantly reincarnated Lemonhound 3.0. And to Susan Gillis and her seamless, tireless Concrete & River blog, where she shared my address from/to Hélène de Champlain, “The Child-Bride: A Letter” as well as thought my answers worth having to her wide-reaching questions.

A high tide of awe and gratitude nearly overwhelms me. Conversations, reflections, the watery looseness of words that paradoxically, bears me up. And suddenly, we are afloat and in our natural element.

Tough Acts

After a spring that included co-hosting Ontario Arts Council’s Fuel for Fire, launching my book in Toronto and Montreal, and attending over a dozen festivals and events, I no longer recognize my life.  I don’t know if this is a normal or abnormal number of invitations for a debut poet. I don’t know if this is normal for a poet with a major press. I don’t know if this is normal for someone whose first book appeared after the age of 35. All I know is the warmth and interest that Admission Requirements has received has me dazed with gratitude. 

I know what my life is supposed to look like: head-rolling commutes to teaching or tutoring across the splayed-out city and hours milled under lamplight with line-edits. Equal measures of discipline and obscurity, with teaspoons of socializing and success. I find routine sustaining, because of how long it’s taken me to be independent and to write on my own terms. Though my small taste of being in the spotlight, AirBnb stays and book signings has been modest compared to that of more established authors, I found myself quickly drained by the logistics of book promotion, socializing, travel and the anxiety of reading poems about personal family matters to a curious, expectant audience. “Why didn’t you warn me it was so exhausting!” I cried half-accusingly, half-seriously to my writer-friends. There was no way they could have– every writer is treated differently by the book promotion machinery, and every writer views doing events differently. Some thrive on public performers, others wilt without constant snacks intervals of solitude. 

Early on I realized I couldn’t let myself, my editor or my publisher down– they had invested in me, so to speak, and I owed it to them and to myself to become a strong performer of my work. I couldn’t read the way I had before my book was published, lightly, without a sense of lastingness or consequences. I had to deliver. I had to reach into the emotional heart of a poem. Which meant that even after a 10 or 15 minute reading, I could be shaking, close to tears. It was especially strange to be explaining Chinese ancestor worship, or the Hong Kong democracy protests, or telling the story of my parents’ immigration to Canada. I don’t know if this added to my underlying paranoia, but no matter what, insomnia struck in the night before a reading, the anxiety doubled if I needed to catch a flight or train. I’d have trouble sleeping the night after too because conversations swirled in my brain hours afterwards. The lack of sleep led to headaches and difficulty eating. As the weeks progressed, I became even more anxious, knowing how little rest I’d get before and after the event. I Skyped a close friend who had worked hard to promote his book widely. I asked him how long it took him to recover from his slew of cross-country festivals and events: “I’m still recovering,” he said ruefully.

At the same time, I’ve been able to let go of some vestiges of fear and dread around the book, fears that it was not what I’d wanted to be, or that it was too muted and polite, or that my publisher and editors would be disappointed in me. Amidst the hectic weeks, they always managed to find me in the crowd to press their warm hands on me and to whisper their encouragement. Their pride in me and the warm reception of my work is slowly eradicating the three decades of believing that I was somehow not enough, not doing enough, not good enough, the way a flaming knife or pure alcohol gradually sears a crawling wound.

I was still puzzled at why I was often the only writer of colour on the bill. Even as I saw and heard assurances that I was invited for my work, of course I couldn’t help thinking I checked off an awful lot of boxes: female, of colour, with a big-name publisher, a U of T MA grad, with work that’s for the most part, accessible in its lyric mode. In my insistence that I had been asked for other reasons than the quality or impact of my poetry, I could give everyone the benefit of the doubt except myself. If I couldn’t push away this self-destructive negativity, I wouldn’t benefit from all the opportunities I was being given by those in the position to manifest change and who are determined to bring more diversity to local festivals, reading series, events and communities of readers, even if that spectre of diversity is still illusory or flawed. I’ve been buoyed up by the energy, activity, and dedication I’ve seen in those communities I’ve been lucky enough to visit, while there’s still work to be done. At the very least, I can do my job, which is to be present, thankful, and a tough act to follow.


Declarations of Bookselling Independence

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the amazing independent booksellers who have sold books on my behalf and also to receive support from local booksellers. With Author for Indies Day coming up on April 29th, if you’re looking for copies of Admission Requirements, please do buy it from your local independent bookstore.

Here are some of the independent bookstores across Canada that are carrying Admission Requirements:

Ottawa– Perfect Books, 258A Elgin Street

Hamilton– Bryan Prince Booksellers,  1060 King St West

Toronto–Ben McNally Books, 366 Bay Street

BookCity, 2354 Bloor Street West, 1430 Yonge Street and 348 Danforth Avenue.

Glad Day Bookstore, 499 Church Street

Type Books, 883 Queen Street West & 427 Spadina Road in Toronto (Thanks to Type Books for their recent write-up of Admission Requirements in their April 2017 reading list. I will be reading at Type Books on May 24th.)

Vancouver– The Paper Hound Bookshop, 344 W Pender Street

If you see copies of Admissions at your local independent bookstore, please do let me know. In the meantime, visit your neighborhood brick-and-mortar booksellers and make the trip even more worthwhile by asking the owners how they came to run a bookstore in the age of Amazon. There’s some fascinating stories, from one owner who after a career in teaching was retired and bored out of his mind, to another who worked over a decade in used bookstores around Vancouver’s vanishing ‘book row’. I’ll leave you to uncover the rest.