Valerie Mason-John, co-editor of The Great Black North and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!
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IFOA: As an editor of The Great Black North, can you tell us a bit about how and why the anthology came together?
Valerie Mason-John: As a new African Canadian, I was curious about the history and culture of black people in Canada. I was unaware of the long history, and that my ancestral lineage of slave stock from Sierra Leone was connected to the Nova Scotian Experience. That freed black loyalists were the founding fathers of Freetown, where many freed slaves were settled after 1792. My ancestors would have been some of those people who were settled back at some point after this date. I went in search of an anthology by Black Canadians and could not find a national one. I was delighted to find Harold Head’s anthology Canada In Us Now, which documented Black voices mainly from the province of Ontario. I was fortunate to meet Kevan Cameron at an event where we were both performing. Inspired by his work with Black poets in Vancouver, it seemed obvious that I should ask him to co-edit with me. There is another anthology to come, perhaps in 50 years, and hopefully those co-editors will have every province and territory represented and published in English and French.
IFOA: Your anthology is divided into two sections: “page” and “stage”. What is the importance of performance/oral poetry for you?
Mason-John: Black people come from an oral tradition. It is the way we have expressed ourselves for centuries. Unfortunately the establishment has often called us Protest Poets, and not given us the credit we deserve. Ironically one of the world’s best poets ever is Sappho. She was a performance poet: her work was written to be performed with music. The stage for many of us has become the page, because few publishing houses will take the risk to publish the black aesthetic. The assumption is that there is not enough interest in our work. Black Canadians are part of the African Diaspora, and part of the history of slavery, and this needs to be remembered. Performance poetry, the oral tradition, is an important part of our culture. Something that will continue long after the age of the book, or the ebook or the cyberworld. We have been smart not to compromise this part of our rich culture, despite the fact that our work is often not given the recognition it deserves.
IFOA:. Why did you decide to bring performance-based pieces to print, and what difficulties did you face in doing so?
Mason-John: Sadly, we have only had recognition in the poetry world by mainly page poets. Dionne Brande, George Elliott Clarke and Wayde Compton are some of the few who have helped to put our words on the page. However, there are many performance poets who have contributed to the Black Canadian Aesthetic and not shared the same recognition. It would be criminal to edit an anthology of Black poetry and not include performance; but yes, there were issues. The spoken word does not always translate well on the page. Similarly, the written word doesn’t always translate well on the stage. They become different poems. While working with performance poets, we had to suggest edits and creative ways to make it work on the page. This was exciting. I had to rediscover my page poem on the stage, when I came to perform it. Just like the performance poet has to rediscover their poem on the page.
IFOA: Why is biography important to your writing?
Mason-John: Who is writing biography? We as Black people have to write the biographies of our people. If we don’t we will be missing from the history books or only a one-sided story told.
IFOA: What’s the best compliment a reader or fan can give you?
Mason-John: Thank you for your work. What more can an author expect? Anything else is icing on the cake.
Valerie Mason-John is a co-editor of The Great Black North, alongside Kevan Anthony Cameron. Join her and fellow contributors on February 8 for the launch of the anthology of contemporary African Canadian poetry, The Great Black North.