Interview: Dane Swan and Cynthia Good

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The Word On The Street festival was conceived by a group of publishing industry executives from the Book and Periodical Development Council’s communications committee in 1989 who thought that Toronto, as Canada’s publishing centre, should have a large-scale, free public celebration of our national literature in keeping with other international publishing centers. The festival continued to grow over the years, and operated out of Queen’s Park this year for the festival’s twenty-second year. Dozens of publishers, authors, editors and others spoke at the festival, including influential Toronto-based slam poet Dane Swan.

I watched Swan do a reading from his new book, Bending the Continuum, and then sat down with him afterwards for an illuminating interview.

Dane Swan explains his process of writing, his inspiration, and has a few choice words for Rob Ford. His book is currently available on Amazon.ca and at your local booksellers.

BALLnROLL.com : Tell me about how your background has influenced your choice to be a poet; and when did you first discover the power of spoken word?
 
Dane Swan : I was born around spoken word. Just being in a Caribbean household, speaking and telling stories are a very important part of it. I knew the power of storytelling immediately. I imagined poetry to be what everyone imagines poetry to be – boring and dry, maybe some old dude wearing glasses speaking monotonously. I went to my twin brother’s place in Ottawa when I was doing my Bachelor of Arts. I went to support my brother who was doing a DJ showcase at an urban fest at Ottawa EX. Right before the event, I thought, “Oh God it’s going to be poetry? By my brother? I have to sit and watch this?” They went on and they blew my mind. I’d been rapping a bit, and had a college radio show; but I started to hear what my brother was doing and thought, “Oh I’m supposed to be rapping, but it’s not my main thing. My main thing should be that.” I gravitated towards spoken word and that started me down this route.
 
What was the process of writing “Bending the Continuum” like? Did you utilize poems from your performances or write strictly with the collection in mind?
 
It’s a long story! I had a master-plan that begins three years ago. There is an editor who goes by the name of Alan Breezemaster, and I have another manuscript I’m working on now that I wrote mainly when I was 28-29. Somehow he got his hands on it and he sat me down and we had a 3 hour conversation. For the first hour he told me how great I was, how great my writing was; and for the next two hours he told me how horrible I was, and what I needed to improve. I took in all that information and decided to fix the manuscript. I put it aside and began to write another manuscript with his advice in mind. I wrote a third of it, I was promoting it and my editor heard me at a reading and she told me that she saw an improvement in my writing. A week later she called me up and told me to send in my book now. I did a year’s worth of writing to fill up the other two thirds of the book within about a month. I didn’t have much time. It was a month of editing; it was complete panic, a total gong-show!
 
“Bending the Continuum” has been described as a mixture of Can-Lit, Harlem Renaissance and Griotism. What about these things combined attracted you to write about them? And can you explain Griotism to our readership?
 
A west-African oral tradition is Griotism – it’s very African in roots, but there are Griots in the Caribbean, for example, yet it all comes from the same lineage. My grandfather used to tell us tales, basically skillful rhythmic story-telling with African oral tradition in mind. As for the Can-Lit part – there are certain things happening in Canadian Lit that I am technically interested in. I’m not necessarily interested in the scenes of Canadian Lit. As wonderful as I’m sure the plains are, it doesn’t resonate with me. Most Can-Lit writers live in big cities and write about places they’ve never been or places they have driven through. I think that insults the reader. I live in a city; I like that rural thing so I don’t want to insult that, so I write about where I am now. I like the technical and mathematical side of language. That fascinates me.
 
I watched some of your YouTube videos. In “World is a Ghetto” you show how enslavement is not explicit to only one gender, race or financial bracket. You explain how enslavement can occur from Trenchtown to middle class students lacking the financial resources to leave home. How do you think poetry can help your audience break free?
 
It’s not necessarily about breaking free of these things; it’s being knowledgeable of what’s going on. We live in a society where you’re caught up in The Matrix; people live in this environment and are oblivious to it. You have no real choice then. My goal isn’t about getting out. You want to find stability so you can have children? I’m down with that. You have to be knowledgeable about what system you’re in so you can make an educated decision to see if you want to be part of that system or not. And so that’s what I’m about – just letting you know what we are all doing. If we decide to live in this environment, this is what we’re dealing with.
How do you feel about the threat to Toronto Public Libraries, and what do you suggest writers do to assist in saving them?
 
It’s a tough thing to talk about. For me, I look at it as obviously you need libraries. We need to realize the importance of certain things. A city without art is not a city. You have artists in the city that fled other places because they were being killed for being artists. We are so nonchalant about them that they’re taken for granted. It is an insult to what art represents and is. I can respect a Conservative person saying that libraries and art have a cost. I’d point out what is the cost of not having this outlet? The cost is the kids who gravitate towards these cultural centers are finding something else to gravitate towards, which can certainly be negative.
 
Politicians examine it from such a small micro selfish level, not looking at macro-economic effect of what they’re talking about. If I have a question I don’t have to go somewhere and pay someone. I can go to the library. They offer free tutoring services, and all of these simple programs that cost money but have a direct impact on society and how society runs. If they weren’t there, what would happen? Rob Ford really believes he’s doing the right thing, unfortunately this is what happens when you have uneducated people. I believe that he truly believes his heart in the right place, but he doesn’t have reasoning skills to think these things through.
 

What advice would you have to other men who are seeking a method or vehicle to voice their experiences through slam poetry, writing or the creative arts in general?

 
If you’re a writer, number one job is to read. If you’re a performer, read first and study all the performers second. If your local scene is mediocre, study the best people. Don’t imitate them, pick up cues, reflect on those cues and see if they link in with whom you are and maybe take a snip there or a snip here. We’re all samplers, we borrow from other ideas. If you’re a painter, you can’t take photos of graffiti and copy that – go to the library or try to speak to the artists themselves.
  

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Keeping with the theme of publishing, I had the chance to sit down with Cynthia Good, former president and publisher of Penguin Books, one of the most respected and successful publishing groups in the world, to talk about the ever-changing industry and her advice for writers.

BALLnROLL.com : You’ve been fortunate to work with many writers from Canada, from Munro, to Richler, to Findley. What were some of your favourite authors to work with and why?
 
Cynthia Good : I love all my children! It is true that there are people you really hit it off with. I was very close with Timothy Findley, he was a remarkable man. One of the writers whom I loved working with was Donna Morrissey because we were so simpatico and she was kind of crazy! And it was fun! I had so many writers that were stimulating to work with. The fiction side has the creative pull and really artist element, and non-fiction side there is the stimulation of knowledge and learning. If you do a book on basketball, you learn all about that. It was all learning. I was back in school when I worked with Bob Rae, Michael Ignatieff and John Rauston Saul.
 
What made you decide to enter into publishing?
 
How I entered into publishing was by chance. I was working on my Ph.D. in 19th century British fiction, and was working as a receptionist at a law firm to pay for it. One of the lawyers had a friend who owned a one-person publishing house, and asked if I was interested. I said “Why not?!” and went from Ph.D. candidate into publishing in a minute.
Did you ever complete your thesis?
 

No!

 
Although you have been in the industry for over twenty-five years, many people now critique publishing, stating that print is dying to make way for new technologies (kobos and kindles, for example). How would you respond to the comment that publishing is dying?
 
Publishing is entering into a new era, and it is such an exciting era. There is so much more we can do with this technology, so many more kinds of books we can create. Publishers are about helping writers create content. There’s a format, but the content is what is important, and then translating it into the format whether it’s an e-book, a paperback, or hardcover.
 

What advice do you have for persons interested in working in the publishing industry? And also for writers who are interested in becoming published?

 
If you want to work in publishing at this time, pretty well everyone needs a certificate or degree in publishing because it is the route. I’d suggest you go into an internship and then get a job. It is always been hard to break into publishing, but that’s the route to get there. Writers need to be better educated to the process of getting published, and they must understand the industry and how it works. You can learn by taking some of our workshops at Humber or reading about publishing. Canadians should all read Quill and Quire – it’s how you can learn who the players are. I’d also suggest you be at the places where writers and publishers are, like book launches, readings and festivals.
 
How do you feel about the threat to Toronto Public Libraries, and what do you suggest writers do to assist in saving them?
 
Our current mayor needs an education altogether. The last thing to threaten is the community hub that is the public library. I believe so much in the library, and they’re learning very well to adjust to e-books. What they’ve been doing at the Toronto Public Library is at the forefront around the world, making it the community hub. We also need to encourage reading, writing, and communicating in every way. Everybody needs to keep letting the mayor know we are mad as hell when he threatens such things, and that we are not going to take it!
 
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