Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. We recently spoke with writer Selina Boan, who won the Gold medal for Poetry last year for her poems (Good) “Girls Don’t Hitchhike”, Half/Brother and Meet Cree: A Practical Guide to the Cree Language published in The New Quarterly. Her work has also appeared in Room and CV2, among others, and she was shortlisted for the CBC poetry prize in 2016. Boan currently lives on the traditional, ancestral, unceded territories of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples in British-Columbia, and is the Circulation Editor at PRISM international.
Where and when did you write these three poems?
I wrote these poems over the course of several years. I carried them with me on walks, at vigils, washing dishes, visiting family. For me, an initial draft of a poem begins to take shape when I have time to be in a quiet space (or in a coffee shop with headphones!). It gives me the chance to revisit observations and thoughts I’ve been combing through. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly where the initial drafts of each of these poems were written since they came together slowly and in various iterations. I moved several times in the years these poems began to take shape and was very fortunate to have a number of peers and teachers, whose work I deeply respect, offer their suggestions and insights.
Did you set out to write them together?
I didn’t actually! The poems grew from my experience connecting with family and learning more about my Cree heritage, trying to teach myself the Cree language from the internet, wrestling with how to write about everything I was learning. I didn’t grow up with the Cree side of my family and so much of my writing circles in on identity; what it means to contribute to a community, how to negotiate my position as both a settler and an urban indigenous person, how to be mindful of where I come from, how I was raised, and how I am learning.
I am interested in the way languages shape our worldviews and the knowledge and power language contains. The poem “Waȟpániča” by Layli Long Soldier comes to mind. That poem was electric for me. She captures the complexities of loss, hope and identity in relation to language. For me, poetry provides a space to ask questions, to imagine new futures.
You’ve spoken before about changing details in your poetry to protect your own and other identities. How do you decide what to mask and what not?
Poetry, in many ways, provides me space to work through the messiness of life. I don’t live in a vacuum, and so changing certain details in my work is often done out of respect for the people in my life. I will sometimes blur time, I will shift details. It’s something that I think about quite a lot; how much do I share? Who am I really writing for? How vulnerable do I actually want to be on the page?
You’re currently working on a book of poems that addresses your Cree and European heritage. How did you decide to focus your energy here?
It was not so much a choice to focus my energy there as it informs who I am, my experiences, and the things I am compelled or interested in writing about. I can’t imagine writing a book of poems that negated or erased that, it would be an erasure of myself. In my work, I keep returning to and circling ideas around identity, around settler responsibility, around womanhood, and language learning.
I am slowly working on a manuscript of poems, a section of which will make up my creative writing thesis at UBC.
What did it mean to you to be recognized at the NMAs last year?
I was so surprised! It was such an honour to be published and nominated by The New Quarterly, let alone win. I can think of so many incredible writers, including the other nominees, who deserve that award. I am so grateful to so many writers: Jordan Abel, Gregory Scofield, Leanne Simpsons, Lee Maracle, Louise Bernice Halfe, Liz Howard (to name only a few!) whose work has paved the way and carved out space for indigenous voices within the literary community.
Can you describe when you first began to identify as a poet?
My mother has had a huge influence on my creative life. She was always very encouraging and even from a young age, she took the poem-like things I was writing or speaking aloud to myself and identified them as poetry. That said, it’s taken most of my life to gain the confidence to call myself a poet. I can recall someone asking me, do you write? Then you’re a poet. I loved that. I love the idea of poetry being something that is accessible.
What makes poetry your preferred form?
Poetry renders language to its most crucial elements. In the world of a poem, every word has the potential to carry multiple meanings. It asks you to listen, to uncover, to consider the complexity of a moment, a single word, a comma, a breath between lines. Poetry demands your attention and has the power to reveal what may or may not always be obvious. It reveals what is possible. I find that so exciting and empowering!
What’s it like for you to live and work as a poet today?
I feel very lucky to be surrounded by a strong, thoughtful community of people who work and publish with a deep consideration of their positionality in the world, who are advocating and writing towards an inclusive, decolonial future. There is a lot of hope and energy present. There is also a lot of work to be done.
Reading and hearing the incredible work of other indigenous writers like Jessica Johns, Carleigh Baker, Joshua Whitehead, Gwen Benaway, Samantha Nock, and Arielle Twist, (to name only a few!) inspires me, teaches me, moves me. I feel really lucky to be able to work at something I love so much.
Interview conducted by Stephanie Philp.
The call for entries for the 2018 National Magazine Awards is open now until January 22. The gold medal winner in the poetry category receives a $1,000 cash prize.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. In this interview, we chat with Montreal-based writer and photographer Terence Byrnes. Last year at the NMAs, Terence was awarded the gold medal in the category of Photography: Photojournalism & Photo Essay for “South of Buck Creek.” Byrnes succinctly captures the premise of the photo essay by way of a subheading: “A Canadian memoir of black and white in America’s unhappiest city.” Read on for Terence’s thoughts on maintaining sympathetic neutrality towards the residents of Springfield, Ohio; smart phones and the democratization of photography; and his advice for emerging photographers.
First, congratulations on winning gold at the NMAs for “South of Buck Creek,” published in Geist. Your photo essay describes Buck Creek as a “cabinet of wonders.” In your career as a photographer, have you found other subjects, or places, that could be described as such?
I shot for a while in Buffalo when that city was among the rustiest of rust-belt towns. The industrial desolation, abandonment, and sense of fallen empire were awe-inspiring. In a residential area, I saw a man, wearing only dirty white briefs, roasting a wiener in a hubcap where he had built a fire with twigs. This was at the end of a street of McMansions protected with black iron grillwork over every door and window. Is that a wonder? I don’t know.
The essay portion of your piece notes that you took approximately 10,000 photos of Buck Creek, over a span of 45 years. How do you organize all of your photos?
Ten thousand was a guess. It’s more than that. Many are negatives, with some chromes. I worked from proof sheets to produce scans on a Nikon scanner. I moved to digital capture in 2003. Lightroom keeps track of it for me.
Do you have an absolute favourite from those 10,000 photos?
One day, I was photographing an oddly shaped building—it may even have been a skinny parallelogram—that housed a bar. “Bob City” was painted on one end of it. Railroad tracks, a sidewalk, and several streets converged and diverged behind the building, and dandelions had popped up in a patch of grass in front of it. I spent about 45 minutes finding the right position and height to put these elements into proper relation with each other. When I processed the film (this was probably 30 years ago) air bubbles had stuck to the best frame in the series, rendering it unusable. Wanting to salvage that frame eventually led me to early digital scanning of negatives and moved me out of the darkroom to the screen, where I patched the bubbles. I can’t say if this image was an “absolute favourite,” but it’s got a lot of history stored in it.
Within the first few pages of the photo essay, we jump from the sixties with “Terria (1966)” to the early 2000s with “South of Buck Creek” (2001), then to the 90s, with “Joy (1999).” What were your intentions behind the non-chronological organization of this photo essay?
“Intuitions” is probably a better word that “intentions.” When you establish an order for a photographic series, some arrangements just look better. I suppose I want the eye to re-orient itself to the formal elements of each image so the photograph is actually seen. Also, ordering by year suggests development of some sort, or it implies a narrative. As it was, the images themselves were my first priority.
Very early on in the photo essay, you state that your role in Buck Creek shifted from spectator to participant. Certainly, that theme—of your enmeshment in the Buck Creek community—runs throughout: there’s the “crazy moment” when you “fantasized about adopting” one of the boys from the Vision for Youth residence; you carried the “Friends (1977)” photo around for years, hoping to eventually deliver it to one of the photo’s subjects, “scary guy.” What challenges came along with crossing that line from spectator to participant?
Great question. I had to maintain sympathetic neutrality toward everyone and to learn—more than once— that folks who looked down-and-out could be as smart, respectful, and as deserving of respect, as anyone else. Honesty and openness were crucially important. A subject might say, “Take my picture, but don’t ever use it,” and my agreement would have to be as good as gold. People were blown away when I would come back a year later with free photographs. That’s how the street cred developed. Of course, there were rough spots and challenges that were both emotional and physical. I saw families living in misery and stripped of dignity thanks to bad luck, fear of gang activity, and profound physical and emotional disability (with no health care or institutional support). You want to help, but you can’t.
“Marriage (1998)” features a woman in her bikini, with her two twin daughters. The narrative portion states, “In the later years of this project, women wouldn’t so easily agree to have their pictures taken. They were afraid, as one told me, that their faces would appear atop a nude body on the Internet.” It seems that while the Internet has encouraged people to document their lives—via Facebook, YouTube, Instagram—it’s also made it more difficult for photographers to act as the documentarian. Are there other ways in which the growth of social media and the shift to digital have impacted your career as a photographer?
Camera phones have, in a sense, radically democratized photography and, for many people, have done away with the cachet of the physical print. Academic criticism and identity politics have also had a less than salutary effect on the documentary form. Some months ago, I glanced outside my window here in the Point-Saint-Charles district of Montreal and saw an 11-year-old boy got up in a home-made superhero costume, holding a garbage can lid as a shield. I knew it was pure Arbus, but couldn’t resist. When I asked the boy if I could take a photograph, a teenage girl ran up and began shouting at me. Her assumption—thanks to her familiarity with internet images—was that I was about to do something that was immoral as well as illegal.
Your first camera was an Agfa Ambi Silette loaded with Tri-X film. These days, what’s your camera of choice?
Actually, before the Agfa, there was a Kodak “Pony,” which I had forgotten. You’ve caught me at a crossroads now, though. Should I move up from my Nikon D810 to the new D850 or switch to the mirrorless Sony A7R III? Probably the new Nikon.
In 2008, you published Closer to Home: The Author and the Author Portrait, which you had worked on for 10 years. That means that there was some crossover between the literary portraits and Buck Creek. What similarities were there between these two seemingly very different projects?
Both were closer to the subjects’ homes than to the studio. I tend to shoot on-site and to make it up as I go along. This can produce really banal results, but also great surprises in lighting, posture, expression, and mood.
What was the impact—personally and/or professionally—of winning a National Magazine Award?
I think it makes me an easier sell to editors who don’t know me. And if I pitch an idea, I’m more likely to be listened to.
What advice would you offer to a young photographer?
The advice I give myself is often so disastrous that I should keep my own counsel. That said, I think of current work that catches my eye. I love the work of Tamas Deszo, Sebastián Liste, and Ruth Kaplan. Or Michel Huneault’s photographs of Lac Mégantic after the train disaster. There are some wonderful documentarians out there who do far more than record event. I would have been interested in photographing the refugees/migrants who streamed across the border in Quebec’s Eastern Townships in the belief they would find a home in Canada. Good projects don’t have to be topical, but they do have to be fresh.
Previous to Byrnes’ NMA gold award, he received two NMA honourable mentions. The first was in 2009, for “The Imagined Portrait” published in Queen’s Quarterly. The second was in 2012 for “The Missing Piece,” published in The Walrus. For more information on Byrnes’ photography and writing projects, please visit his website.
Interview conducted by Leah Edwards.
The call for entries for the 2018 National Magazine Awards is open now until January 22.
Off the Page is a regular interview series featuring National Magazine Award winners. Recently we caught up with Daniel Fish, the senior editor of Precedent, a quarterly magazine curated for Toronto lawyers. Fish won the Gold medal for best professional article for his exclusive feature on former attorney general Michael Bryant. Precedent last won gold in 2014 for Raymond Biesinger’s illustration A Well-Oiled Machine.
Can you tell me a bit about how your first got the Bryant story?
Sure! I guess that’s going back to the winter of 2015. Sean Robichaud, a criminal lawyer who runs his own law chambers, had mentioned to Melissa Kluger (editor and publisher of Precedent) that she might be interested to know that a high profile person just joined his new chambers—it was Michael Bryant. When she told me, I didn’t immediately know the story was going to have the kind of richness that would be required for a long cover story. But it was interesting enough, even just the fact that he was getting back into the game after people hadn’t seen him in so long would’ve at least justified a short front of book news piece.
The feedback was fairly positive, which was also gratifying. Overall both readers and people from outside of the legal world seemed to be inspired, which wasn’t necessarily the goal of the piece, but they were inspired nonetheless by him trying to make the most meaningful second half of his career as he could. I think people read it and were pleased to hear someone who once perched atop the justice system speak candidly about its flaws. I think people who are in the trenches (so to speak) of defense law—prosecutors and crowns—they know that the system has its problems and so to hear someone like Michael Bryant give voice to that was somewhat satisfying. And I think people just enjoyed the yarn. We don’t write that many 4500 word single profiles.
Interview conducted by Stephanie Philp.
The call for entries for the 2018 National Magazine Awards is open now until January 22.
(1) Bryant was charged with dangerous driving causing death and criminal negligence causing the death of cyclist Darcy Sheppard in 2009. The charges were eventually dropped.
Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. In today’s conversation we chat with Emily Urquhart, folklorist, mother and winner at last year’s National Magazine Awards gala. Her incredible memoir on raising a daughter with albinism, “The Meaning of White,” published in The Walrus, won Silver in the Personal Journalism category.
Two years after being published in The Walrus, her story is being revisited with her upcoming, debut book Beyond The Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes (HarperCollins), which will be in bookstores on March 31.
NMAF: Your background in folklore brought an interesting perspective to understanding human differences in your story “The Meaning of White.” How would you describe the creative process of writing this piece, in which you combined your study of folklore, experience as a mother and passion as a writer into a single story?
Emily: I knew right away that I wanted to document the early stages of my daughter’s life as we went through the process of discovering that she has a rare genetic condition. She was three months old when she was diagnosed with albinism—which is a lack of pigment in the hair, skin and eyes, and causes low vision. I started taking notes shortly after she was born. Back then, it was a way to process and understand what was happening.
I recorded the details of events and encounters, as well as my feelings and observations, on lined recipe cards that I stashed in my purse and around my house. I had a newborn, so sometimes I could only manage a few words, or a list, but as I found more quiet moments, the words became sentences and eventually paragraphs.
At that time I was in the final stages of my PhD in folklore at Memorial University in St. John’s, NL. I’d been studying folk tales, legends, beliefs, rumours, ballads and tall tales — the stories people tell to explain and illustrate their world. I realized that human differences were at the heart of many of these genres. I looked specifically at albinism and discovered worldwide beliefs and stories about this condition. Some were beautiful and I wanted to relate these tales to my own. Some were terrible and I wanted to turn away. Ultimately, exploring both good and evil helped me to come to terms with my own feelings about disability and difference, and what it means to be a parent. I wanted to write about how I came to this conclusion, both through my research and the story of our life.
After a year passed I pitched the idea to John Macfarlane at The Walrus. We worked on the idea together through a series of emails. He accepted the story and gave me far more space than I’d originally asked for. I’ll never forget receiving that message. I was so excited I couldn’t tell my husband, Andrew. I just handed him my phone so he could read it himself.
NMAF: Due to be released at the end of March is your debut non-fiction book, Beyond The Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes. Your name appears on countless lists for books to look forward to in 2015 (alongside your mother and celebrated novelist, Jane Urquhart). Did you always intend to write a book, or was this something that came after publishing your story in The Walrus? What was the process in turning a 5,600-word memoir into a full-length book?
Emily: By the time I turned in my first draft of “The Meaning of White” I’d cut it by one third and it was still over my allotted 5,000 words. That was in June 2012. The next month we travelled to St. Louis to attend a National Organization of Albinism and Hypopigmentation (NOAH) conference. I’d never seen another person with albinism besides my daughter. Suddenly I was surrounded by hundreds of white-haired people of all ages and everyone had a story to tell. I also learned a lot more about the discrimination and violence against people with albinism in East Africa, particularly Tanzania.
We arrived home and I sat down with my husband and told him two things: I’m going to Tanzania, and I’m going to write a book. Either statement didn’t surprise him. He said, “OK, I’m coming with you.”
The book follows the first three years of my daughter’s life, so the narrative expands on the article published in The Walrus and also picks up where it left off.
NMAF: Your memoir certainly received international attention. It was featured in Reader’s Digest, Longform, Byliner and The Dish, and was even translated for an Italian magazine. How has recognition, such as your award from the NMAF, helped to propel your writing career and bring this story to a larger audience?
Emily: The National Magazine Award was a huge thrill. I’d finished writing the book based on the magazine memoir by the time I attended the award ceremony. Getting that kind of recognition at that point in the creative process was extremely validating. Winning a National Magazine award is up there with defending my PhD as one of my major career highlights, and I can only see it helping my career going forward.
When “The Meaning of White” went online I started receiving several emails a day. Some of the messages came from people with albinism, but a lot were from parents who related to the story and shared stories of their own with me. I’ve heard from people across North America, as well as Europe, Africa and Asia. Messages continue to trickle in now, almost two years after the memoir first appeared in The Walrus. My community expanded after publishing this story. I’ve met a lot of great people and received a lot of support. It’s been amazing. I see all of this as having a positive impact on my daughter’s future.
NMAF: You’ve written for many other award-winning Canadian magazines, such as Azure, Flare and The New Quarterly. Did you always have aspirations of being a magazine writer, perhaps during your days as an undergraduate student at the Ryerson School of Journalism? Or was this a career path that came as a result of your passion for writing?
Emily: Magazines are definitely my first love. When I was a teenager I read an article in Sassy magazine where the journalist wrote about touring with a heavy metal band. I wasn’t into heavy metal, but the writer crafted such an engaging tale that it didn’t matter. The story was fascinating, but so was the journalist’s career choice. She was paid to go on tour with these guys and write about her experience. I wrote a story about this experience in 2009 for The New Quarterly.
My mom is a writer so I understood that you could be a novelist, but I hadn’t seen non-fiction as a career choice until reading that piece.
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing and it was during my two years in the graduate program at the Ryerson School of Journalism that I saw a professional outlet for this passion. I also loved—still love—the act of reporting. It gives me a rush to approach a stranger and then ask them to tell me their story. I’m still nervous before every interview and I still feel a sense of elation afterwards.
NMAF: Undoubtedly, 2015 will be a milestone in your career with the release of your debut book. As a Canadian writer, what else is on your list of things you hope to accomplish? What might readers expect to see from you in the future? Do you want to write more novels, continue with magazine writing or pursue any other creative endeavours?
Emily: I wrote a memoir ten years ago, but shelved it because the material was too difficult for me to revisit at that time. It concerns a period in my mid-twenties following the death of my oldest brother. I went to great lengths to escape my life—a reporting internship amidst the chaos of post 9/11 New York City, a soggy winter in Vancouver, and nine months at an English language newspaper in Kyiv, Ukraine during the lead-up to the Orange Revolution. Some of the material is dark, but revisiting it from a safe distance I can see that there’s also a lot of potential for humour. Transforming the original memoir into a more cohesive narrative is my next project. At the same time I hope to keep writing for magazines. There are a few ideas that have been waiting in the wings while I finished my book and it’s time to set those stories free.
Emily Urquhart is a National Magazine Award-winning writer and author of the forthcoming non-fiction book Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes. Find out more at emilyurquhart.ca and on Twitter @emilyjurquhart.
This interview was produced by Leah Jensen for the National Magazine Awards Foundation.
To read the full text of “The Meaning of White” and hundreds of other National Magazine Award-winning stories, visit our online archive at magazine-awards.com/archive.
To read other Off the Page interviews–with writers including Sierra Skye Gemma, Heather O’Neill, Arno Kopecky and Byron Eggenscwhiler, who illustrated Emily’s Walrus story–visit blog.magazine-awards.com/off-the-page.
Off the Page is a regular interview series produced by the National Magazine Awards Foundation. Today we chat with Judith Pereira, senior editor of Report on Business magazine, winner of 5 National Magazine Awards last year and one of Canada’s leading business and investigative publications.
NMAF: It probably isn’t surprising to your readers that Report on Business is a juggernaut of magazine journalism (gold medals for Business journalism at six of the last eight National Magazine Awards; also gold medals for Investigative Reporting, Science, Technology & the Environment and Magazine Covers, to name just a few). How would you describe the mandate of ROB to its readers, and its commitment to editorial excellence?
Judith: Our mandate at Report on Business magazine is simple: We engage the best journalistic talent in the business to report on the successes and failures, the breakthroughs and breakdowns of the most intriguing players in Canadian business at home and around the world.
Our experienced team of writers, photographers, illustrators, editors and designers focus on three main audiences: firstly, business leaders across the country—that’s why you’ll find a copy of Report on Business magazine in almost every executive office in Canada; secondly, the new-generation superstars who love an aspirational read; and finally, all those who are interested in the people, trends and brands that shape the way we work and live—as part of The Globe and Mail, we are attached to a well-respected brand that can open doors to a general-interest audience.
NMAF: How does winning a National Magazine Award help raise the profile of the magazine, with respect to your readers, your journalists or your bottom line?
Judith: When Report on Business wins awards, it shows that the magazine is one of the best, if not the best, in its field of business journalism. This kind of acknowledgement is a big boost for the sales team when they explain to advertisers why Report on Business magazine is a good buy.
Winning magazine awards in a variety of fields also gives the magazine a cachet among award-winning journalists, who want to see their pieces published in a respected publication that consistently garners nominations not just in business, but also in categories like science and technology, humour, arts and more. Similarly, Report on Business magazine attracts top photographers from around the world—names like Neil Wilder, Chris Buck and Matthu Placek—because our design and photography awards signal that we take those areas seriously.
NMAF: Are there any particular ROB stories in the past couple of years that you’ve been especially proud to see recognized by the National Magazine Awards judges, and why?
Judith: We were really pleased to see Greg McArthur and Graeme Smith get recognized for their investigative work on SNC-Lavalin [“Building with the Brigadier”; Gold Medals in Investigative Reporting and Business, Silver Medal in Politics & Public Interest, 2012]. Staffer Ted Mumford also deserves credit for his editing of it. They spent a lot of time and energy getting to the bottom of that story, and it paid off.
Eric Reguly’s piece about the insurance industry’s decision to tackle climate change [“The smartest guys on the planet“; Silver Medal in Politics & Public Interest, 2013] was a good example of the magazine’s determination to cover important international stories even if they aren’t specifically Canadian.
We were also thrilled to receive recognition for our coverage of asbestos—a joint effort between John Gray in Canada, Stephanie Nolen in India and photographer Louie Palu [“Where Asbestos is just a fact of life“; Gold Medal, Business, Silver Medal, Politics & Public Interest, 2011]. Our magazine is one of few Canadian publications still covering international stories with any depth, and these nominations show that we need to continue putting them out there.
Our Larry Fink cover, photographed in black and white by Anya Chibis, was one of our most unusual covers. Most top executives balk at the idea of getting playful in front of the camera, and Fink, who runs a $3.7-trillion fund, is no different. But the talented Chibis pulled off what is arguably one of our best covers of all time. The photograph of Fink crossing a Toronto street as he gestures to himself was an off-the-cuff moment that Chibis captured and it not only ended up on the cover–and winning the National Magazine Awards for Magazine Covers and Portrait Photography–but also graced Fink’s 50th birthday cake.
[Editor’s Note: Read our previous interview with ROB Art Director Domenic Macri about the Larry Fink cover.]
To discover more about Report on Business and many other great Canadian magazines, browse the NMA Archive for full-text articles and images of nominated and winning work from past years.
Read more Off the Page interview with National Magazine Award-winning editors, writers, illustrators, photographers and art directors.
The final deadline to enter this year’s National Magazine Awards is Monday, January 19. Enter online at magazine-awards.com.
Update: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified the awards and year of the story “Where Asbestos is just a fact of life.” The post has been updated.]