York grad student to read at International Festival of Authors

Poet and York alumnus Jason Guriel (BA Hons. ’02, MA ’04) says writing poetry is like a string of one-night stands – there’s nothing to wake up to in the morning. With a novel, there is always the next chapter. Guriel, the author of two books of poetry, will be reading at the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) at the Harbourfront Centre on Oct. 24 and 29.

A York teaching assistant and student pursuing a PhD in English, Guriel’s most recent poetry collection, Pure Product (Véhicule Press, 2009), is billed as a celebration of the purity of complicated feelings which reveals the true impurities of life through a whip-smart, charismatic and mischievous style. His first collection, Technicolored (Exile Editions, 2006), reflects on the film icons of the 20th century, legends such as Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth and Bela Lugosi.

Right: Jason Guriel

Despite publishing two poetry collections, Guriel is reluctant to call himself a poet. “I don’t really think of myself as a poet, I think of myself as someone who tries to write poems,” he says, with the initial draft written mentally. “I write in my head when I’m walking. With poetry you can do that, you can write a poem in your head.” When he’s ready to commit something to paper, he writes wherever he is, whether on the subway or in a coffee shop. That’s where York’s remoteness comes in handy. Most of what Guriel writes is while commuting to and from York on the TTC.

Like his latest collection, Guriel is a bit of a purist. He believes in writing in longhand, before plugging it into a computer. “I have a hunch people write a better sentence when they write it in longhand,” he says. “I think there’s something debilitating about the blank computer screen.”

There was one point, however, when having graduated from the Creative Writing Program at York, Guriel was contemplating giving up writing altogether. But, as fate, or luck would have it, York humanities Professor Richard Teleky passed some of Guriel’s poems on to York English Professor Priscila Uppal, who passed them on to Barry Callaghan, editor-in-chief of Exile: The Literary Quarterly. Callaghan, it turned out, was interested in publishing some of Guriel’s pieces in Exile. And so it began.

It became imperative for Guriel to keep the momentum going. He wrote and sent work out to journals in the hopes of being published, again. The Creative Writing Program was a nurturing space, but once outside of the program, it takes hard work to stay motivated, he says. Sending work out to journals, trying to attract the attention of editors, was not an easy process.

“It toughens you up in a sort of American way. It’s a very puritanical process. It’s competitive and Darwinian,” says Guriel. “I thought a lot about how I was going to get the attention of an editor, when they get a thousand poems a week.” His goal became to entertain in a succinct, economical way by playing with language to develop novel ways of describing something or by making interesting connections. “Out of the desire to be published came an interest in entertainng readers,” he says. "I think the reader’s delight should be one of a writer’s main priorities."

His work has now been published in American, British and Canadian magazines, and anthologized in The Best Canadian Poetry in English (Tightrope Books, 2008). In 2007, he received the Frederick Bock Prize from Chicago’s Poetry magazine. He is the former the assistant editor, and now on the board of directors, for Studio, York’s online international poetry journal. Guriel says it wasn’t all hard work, though. “I’ve had a weird mixture of luck and perseverance.”

Guriel’s opportunity to read at the IFOA came about through Open Stage Night hosted by the Authors at Harbourfront Centre in March, a poetry idol competition for poets aged 35 and younger. Guriel was one of 20 poets drawn randomly (luck) to compete and, although he didn’t win first place, he was one of five runners-up invited to read (perseverance) at the IFOA’s 30th anniversary.

His first reading will take place beside an all-Canadian lineup, including Giller Prize winner Bonnie Burnard and Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award winner Miriam Toews. His second reading will be alongside authors from around the world – Tash Aw of Malaysia, Andrea De Carlo of Italy and Colm Tóibín of Ireland – and will be hosted by John Macfarlane, editor and co-publisher of The Walrus.

For more information about the readings, visit the IFOA Web site.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer