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Local poet Amal El-Mohtar performs at VERSeFEST Opening Night

By Kabriya Coghlan on March 13, 2016


Local poet and short story author Amal El-Mohtar will be performing at VERSeFEST on Tuesday, March 15. El-Mohtar’s writing often explores fantastical and supernatural concepts. She’s won the Rhysling Award for short poetry three times, and is currently nominated for a Nebula Award for her short story Madeleine. She is also the editor of The Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly poetry journal.

El-Mohtar grew up just outside Ottawa, in Aylmer, Quebec, but she spent two years living in Lebanon between the age of seven and nine, and it was then that she decided she wanted to be a writer.

In the impossibility of actually speaking about something, poetry is kind of what’s left. It’s that you speak your way around a thing.

Her family was originally from Lebanon, and when she lived there she learned about her grandfather, a poet who had been imprisoned for his political views during a time of upheavals in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“While he was in prison, he would write poetry mocking the guards,” El-Mohtar explained. “He was very much a spoken poet and while he would speak this poetry, there was someone in the cell over who was writing everything down on a sheet of toilet paper with a pencil stub.” Her family still has that long sheet of toilet paper in a frame at home.

“So basically I grew up in Lebanon with this sense that to be a poet was something really important,” she said.

Her parents were very supportive of her when she told them she wanted to be a writer. She began writing poetry in Lebanon and brought that passion back to Canada with her, where she also began writing short stories with a friend.

El-Mohtar made her first professional sale of a short story, “The Crow’s Caw,” to the magazine Shimmer when she was 19 years old. By then, she had already started publishing her poetry as well.

“Poetry is what I reach for when I don’t have the words to say something,” she explained. “In the impossibility of actually speaking about something, poetry is kind of what’s left. It’s that you speak your way around a thing.”

Writing short stories is a more structured process for her, El-Mohtar said. “I always feel like there’s more architecture involved. There’s a thing that I want to do, and I think about how I want to do it, and I end up approaching it in a more planned way.”

She has an upcoming short story, “Seasons of Glass and Iron,” that will be published in the anthology The Starlit Wood, coming out in October. It will include works from other fantasy authors such as Garth Nix, Catherynne M. Valente, and Naomi Novik.

At her VerseFest set, El-Mohtar said she will likely perform poems from her book The Honey Month, a collection of short works about different flavours of honey she tasted each day for a month, as well as more serious poems such as “Pieces,” which she wrote about the conflict in Syria in 2011.

“The parameters in which I was introduced to the idea of writing was one of taking a stand, you know, speaking truth to power,” El-Mohtar said. “I think writing is just inherently political…and very much political in the sense that the person is political.”

She wants her writing to represent the world around her, which means including diverse characters and writing about relationships that don’t usually get as much attention, such as female friendships, she explained.

“There are so many stories about romance…but friendship as something that is valuable and important in and of itself I don’t see a lot of, so I try to write that into my stories,” El-Mohtar said.

“I like writing stories where women rescue each other and where women take care of each other…That’s a real thing that happens in the world that we don’t ever see in fiction,” she said. “I think there’s a wide gap that’s grown between fiction that represents the world and the world itself, so I like to address that disparity.”

El-Mohtar is currently writing an episode of Book Burners, a serialized story about a team of people working from The Vatican to track down and capture dangerous magical books. Book Burners is published as a series of short story “episodes,” similar in structure to a television show. The episodes are available to download online in ebook format, and the first one is free.

The characters will be coming to Ottawa in her episode to investigate the fire that burned down the Parliament Hill library 100 years ago.

“There will be a lot of jokes at Toronto’s expense,” she laughed.

Amal El-Mohtar will be at the Knox Presbyterian Church (120 Lisgar St) on Tuesday, March 15, 2016 at 7pm as part of VERSeFEST. Evening passes are $15,  festival passes are $50 and can be purchased here. VerseFest runs from March 15 – 20, 2016. Click here for a complete schedule of events.