In/Words magazine takes a look in the mirror at our post-truth world

From left to right: Natalie Hanna, Sarah  Waisvisz, Sarah Kabamba, Manahil Bandukwala, Sanita Fejsic. Photo: Marie-Pierre Daigle

George Elliot Clarke says the upcoming issue of In/Words magazine should do what bricks do “which is occasionally go through windows, and thereby blast open some of those glass houses of hypocrisy and... let fresh air in!” 

In his original video calling for submissions to the magazine Clarke says he asked for writers to send their “most intemperate... most seditious pieces of art and writing -- treasonous too, I should add.” 

The Ottawa-based literary magazine’s new special issue, Dis(s)ent, promises to be “a collection of poetry, fiction, essays & art worrying definitions of truth and the truth-teller in our ‘post-truth’ era.” This is the first issue of In/Words to be funded through Kickstarter. A panel discussion of writers hosted by Clarke will be held at A Different Booklist Cultural Centre in Toronto on August 8 at 7 p.m. -- the final hour of the final day of the kickstarter.  Dis(s)ent will be officially launched at the Ottawa Writer’s Festival on October 25. 

Edited by Ottawa writer Sanita Fejzićand guest edited by Clarke, who is the exiting parliamentary poet laureate, this issue will feature poets and writers from across Canada and beyond. Clarke says the issue will include contributors from several continents, and will feature pieces in multiple languages including French, English, and Korean. 

He explains that the style decision to put parentheses around the second “s” of Dis(s)ent is a conscious attempt to include the Francophone writing community “because then in French it’s ‘dis’ which also has the sense of dissent -- to say, to speak out.”

The magazine has started a Kickstarter with the goal of $4,000 -- this will help with the initial expenses of printing and remunerating writers. Fejzićsays she is hoping to exceed this amount -- her ultimate goalfor the issue is $10,000. If they reach this larger goal, they will be able to pay travel expenses for various far away writers to attend the launch, and Fejzićherself will receive an honorarium for work that will otherwise go uncompensated. 

On June 30, In/Words Magazine held a free panel discussion of female Ottawa writers whose work is included in Dis(s)ent. All of the writers on the panel read excerpts of their work before the discussion. Poet and lawyer Natalie Hanna commanded the room with an excerpt from her poem about jury selection and the Colten Boushie trial. 

The writers discussed the emotional labour often demanded of female artists in male-dominated spaces, and the idea of poetry as a form of protest. Poet Sarah Kabambanoted that creating art can be transformative and empowering to the individual regardless of its larger impact. Poetry, Kabamba said, can be an alternate way of having a conversation.

Clarke says he admires the “gusto and style” of In/Words magazine. The submissions he edited for Dis(s)entexpress progressive anti-establishment viewpoints “with energy, with style, with pungent, powerful, persuasive imagery and rhetoric.”

“The art is ironic and playful commenting on the Western tradition as well as on Canadian politics ,especially vis-a-vis Indigenous peoples,” he says. “We’re hoping to appeal to everyone who disagrees with the way our society is currently ordered and who sees potential visionary change”. 

Fejzićsays the Kickstarter model works for In/Words because the press is a grassroots organization without the kind of governance model that allows for public funding; In/Words editors change from year to year, and there’s no board of directors. 

Micropresses can benefit significantly from online funding models; however, Fejzićnotes that organizing a Kickstarter requires a great deal of unpaid labour: reaching out to community members, arranging awards for donors, and creating promotional videos. 

Fejzićis familiar with the struggle of generating interest and income through a literary magazine. She edited In/Words first special issue Refuge, Refugeein 2016. “Having been a refugee for five years across four countries as a child I felt deeply moved to be part of that conversation.”

However, while participation in that project was deeply meaningful for her it also involved a tremendous amount of unpaid work she says. While the launch of Refuge, Refugeeat the Ottawa Writer’s Festival pulled a large audience, Fejzićherself didn’t receive compensation for her efforts and had to pay out of pocket for the designer and guest editor. 

“It’s a very rewarding process because it’s makes me realize how many people are willing to contribute to a mission that really resonates with them,” Fejzićsays. However, she says the frequent pro bono work done by artists is “not sustainable, and it’s just not fair that our work is not valued.” 

Fejzićsays after Refuge, Refugeeshe thought she’d never edit another issue of In/Words magazine. And yet here she is. “I keep coming back because I keep being moved by these topics,” she says. “Every time we have these conversations it’s journalists, it’s specialists, and the Prime Minister, but … there’s never an artist who’s part of these public discussions. I keep labouring … to position intellectuals, scholars, writers, poets, and artists as sites of truth telling. We do it through a different medium but a medium that’s extremely important because it can solicit empathy.”

However,  Fejzićacknowledges that in Canada today poetry and small presses in general do not have a wide reach. Even a bestseller might only sell 700 copies. 

“So poetry in this traditional circuit is being read by your friends and family and other poets, other writers. That’s a very limited reach. That’s why I love Instagram,” she says, “I think it’s a democratic tool. I think it’s doing for literature what street art did for art.” 

Why then, given the significant expense, unpaid labour, and lack of audience, is In/Words still working towards the publication of a traditional print journal?

Fejzićnotes that certain kinds of writing, particularly longer essays and stories, simply do not translate well on social media platforms. More crucially though, she still believes in the power of a carefully curated literary collection; she says the selection process an editor goes through to present “difficult knowledge” allows for nuance and style that might be lost online.  “We’re telling a story by bringing things together in a very choreographed way, which I do not think we can have online.” She also notes the issue will be available in PDF form. 

Clarke adds that a published book is a physical object that like-minded members of a community can gather around, making it a powerful tool for social movements. 

“I think that as our potential audiences have maxed into the millions … there’s also been a tremendous fragmentation of potential community,” he says. 

“I think that the commitment to print here with In/Words is a commitment also to trying to reconstruct or belong to a committed, dedicated community.”

That community was present on the evening of the panel discussion. Fejzićsays she’s pleased with the turnout and hopes it gave audiences an engaging preview of what’s to come. “We can’t do this work on our own anymore.” she says. “We need people to start caring with us, to start being as passionate as we are.”

Guest editor George Elliot Clark will be hosting a panel discussion on Speaking Truth Back to Power in our "Post-Truth," Fake News Era with contributors, Nicole Crozier, MP Daigle and Giovanna Riccio at  A Different Bookliston, 777 Bathurst Ave., Toronto.

Photo: Marie-Pierre Daigle

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