The Year So Far

by Leigh Matthews on June 26, 2015

community creative collaboration paper people holding handsBack in January, I decided that I would make 2015 a significant year in terms of personal and professional development. I would force myself to make hard choices, push myself out of my comfort zone and really try to put myself out in the world as a writer and in general. How am I doing halfway through the year? Pretty well, I think!

Things started out rather splendidly in January with my acceptance into Art Song Lab 2015. This Vancouver-based collaborative project pairs 12 poets and 12 composers and challenges them to work together to create 12 new art songs. These are then performed at a concert and recorded for posterity. Earlier this month I wrote about my collaborative experience, and now the week of workshops is over and the concert done, I can say that ASL was one of the most creatively fulfilling, motivating and professionally catalysing things I’ve done in a long time.

Despite (or perhaps because of) our differences, my composer and I produced what I think is a beautiful art song that was well received at the Playing With Fire concert on June 5th. So much so that it may be performed again! Listen to the art song below.

It was absolutely wonderful working with pianist Rachel Iwaasa and soprano Heather Pawsey, who were exuberant and enthusiastic about the art song, Arrhythmia, from the outset. These talented artists were also incredibly kind and patient, taking time to explain a whole host of musical terminology to me, helping to open my eyes and ears so I learnt a whole new way to appreciate both music and poetry. I’m also confident that next time I write poetry for an art song (or attempt to write a libretto for opera!), I’ll have a much clearer idea of how to write for voice.

One of the most wonderful parts of ASL was meeting all the local poets and composers, and those who travelled from across North America to be in Vancouver for the week. I met the talented Jordan Alexander Key, a composer about to begin his Phd. in Florida, and who I hope to work with in the near future. Jordan and I spent the week eating vegan doughnuts and sharing life stories and creative influences, with Jordan also facilitating my musical education as his pedagogy skills are finely honed.

Connections I made at and through Art Song Lab have already led me to submit work for consideration as part of Vancouver’s Queer Art Festival this summer, something I’ve been meaning to do for the last few years. Thanks for the push, ASL! I was also inspired by poet Eve MacGregor and her work with the Plays vs. Pipelines collective. Finding a productive way to marry my writing and my activist leanings is something I’ve been working on for a while, and now I’m on the hunt (no pun intended) for a local vegan composer to work with on a new project (if you are, or you know a vegan composer in Vancouver or nearby environs, get in touch!).

In other news, I’ve had three new poems appear in Hobart Pulp this week, and I’ve submitted work to a range of other publications in Canada, the US, and in the UK. One new literary journal I’m especially excited by is Canthius, which promises to be a Room-like magazine with a mandate of publishing new work by women writers.

I’m also currently working with the editors of Driftwood, a magazine for the graduated vegan, on a commissioned piece about what it means to be a vegan writer. This was a great opportunity to really think long and hard about how the last ten years (since I turned vegan) have sculpted my creative and professional practice, and how my veganism intersects with my feminism, queerness, immigrant status and a whole host of other aspects of my identity. I’m excited to see this piece in print!

Another thing I’ve been working on this year is committing to long-term creative projects. I’ve done quite well the past few years at completing National Novel Writing Month, the 3-Day Novel Challenge, and other short-term projects that require intense bouts of creativity with little, if any, forethought. While this has led to the creation of several novels, the latest being Don’t Bang the Barista!, I’m interested in seeing how my work benefits from a longer lead-in, with time for real research, planning, collaboration and refinement of an idea.

One project I’ve been dreaming up has necessitated considerable reading on urban planning, architecture, and social justice, and I was lucky enough to attend a wonderful talk at the Museum of Vancouver that popped up shortly after I started considering the scope and direction of this new endeavour. Happy Future – Imagination and Sustainability featured a diverse panel of talented people working at the intersections of art, social justice, community development and urban planning, and was absolutely fascinating and inspiring. One of the most important things I got out of this event was an appreciation of how powerful it can be when artists present a positive, realistic vision of the future. In contrast to the current spate of dystopian narratives that encourage a defeatist air and sense of apocalyptic doom, positive, pragmatic creativity appears more likely to encourage engagement in building a better, brighter future, and I know which kind of world I’d rather live in!

The idea of writing futuristic fiction in a more positive light really appeals to me as it seems that a significant amount of speculative fiction presents a pretty bleak vision of the future, which leaves me feeling rather drained and unmotivated. Dreaming up ideas of how we can all do better to create and maintain a more inclusive, happier world is a heck of a lot more inspiring than focusing on the slow and painful demise of humanity.

Looking at future-building in a more inclusive and positive light was also a feature of the fantastic Reverb reading for the launch of Octavia’s Brood, a collection of stories by people working in the social justice sphere. This collection is awesome, and I don’t use that word lightly. It was an absolute pleasure to hear readers including one of the editors of the book, Adrienne Maree Brown, a truly passionate individual! I was also enchanted by the work of Lindsey Catherine Cornum, described as a diasporic DinĂ© and student of Indigenous futurisms.

Adrienne made sure to note that the anthology is intended as a starting point, a workbook of sorts, to get people thinking about futuristic fiction with a social justice bent. There was also mention of workshops to be held in fall, hopefully with some in Vancouver, where writers, artists and people within the social justice and community building spheres will have an opportunity to come together for facilitated creative collaboration. I am beyond excited for these workshops! Happily, one of the other authors at this event, Daniel Heath Justice, expressed an interest in helping bring these workshops to Vancouver with the help of UBC where he works as a faculty member in First Nations and Indigenous Studies.

The Happy Futures event and Reverb’s launch of Octavia’s Brood got me thinking more about alternative ways to collaborate on creative projects, especially with people who aren’t necessarily fellow writers. I’ve spent many years working in isolation, honing my craft to a point where I felt confident enough to put some words out into the world. Now, I’m keen to engage with other creative professionals and to get better at taking risks with my writing. 2015 is definitely proving to be a great year for making those connections and thinking big, and we’re only halfway through, so who knows what the rest of the year will bring!

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