Our Beautiful Reward Mini-Interviews: Leah Bobet

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To celebrate the official print release of Our Beautiful Reward on March 16th (virtual release party Sunday the 19th, you’re invited!), I asked some of the contributors a few of the questions foremost on my mind. It’s been too long since we’ve run many interviews here, and I’ve missed it; getting to know writers and how they think and feel has been one of the most rewarding aspects of Reckoning for me since the beginning. I hope their answers prove as englightening to you as they have been to me.

We’ve been posting one mini-interview a day. This one is the last—at least for now….

Leah Bobet’s devastating poem “fertile week” is online here. She was also poetry editor for the award-winning Reckoning 5.

 
Michael: How do the tools of speculative writing help you to think and communicate about what’s being done to personal freedoms around our bodies?

Leah: In some ways, speculative fiction is the literature of consequences: it’s not much of a jump from what if? to if-then. And the question of personal freedoms, of bodily autonomy, strikes me as being fully a question about consequences. When you make the decision to restrict people’s intimate physical choices, what happens to their lives? What happens to their world as those individual consequences silt up and impact each other?

One of my favourite (and most frustrated!) questions in the past few years is: “And what did you think would happen five minutes after that?” and speculative fiction is sincerely a good place to play that consequence-modeling out. Not to scare people, not to go “it could happen to you!” but to think well. To show each other, in digestible format, what and how we’ve been thinking.

 
Michael: What are you reading and thinking about that helps put this issue in perspective for you?

Leah: This month, Maude Barlow’s Still Hopeful: Lessons From a Lifetime of Activism. Barlow is a climate organizer who started in the 1970s Canadian women’s movement—at quite a high profile—and moved through that into free trade and water sovereignty issues; the book is a small condensation of what she knows about going the distance for a cause.

I was born just after women’s lives changed massively in Canada—higher awareness around domestic violence, wage gap legislation, and women having our own bank accounts—and I always find a lot of perspective in reading about the 1970s women’s movement, especially from people who didn’t stop there, but expanded their work from it. It helps me peel apart always from the world that had just started to happen when I was born, and see attitudes I’d assume were static as the result of motion—and deliberate action.

That reading helps me think about the rollback of rights happening now as the result of kinetic—and moveable—forces, too. Things that moved once can be moved again. It’s a way to rotate the problem: to look at the flood of daily horror stories as not inevitabilities, but calls to organize around each other’s needs and show up for each other.

I’m also keeping up with One Million Experiments, which is one of the million ideas Mariame Kaba’s involved in: a place to profile community-based projects that rethink what it means to keep each other safe. It’s a great space for looking up a model, seeing what you can get involved in, or feeling less alone with the work, because people are out there doing it. We’re doing it every day. There’s a reproductive justice section, and if anyone’s feeling stuck when it comes to community work, organizing, or just how to show up and do the thing with your colleagues, their podcast is excellent. It’s all you need to know about trying, failing, adjusting, and getting back up.

 
Michael: Tell us, if you’d like, about something you’re doing, outside of writing, to make the world a less hostile and dystopian place for human beings with bodies to exist in?

Leah: The project that’s getting most of my time right now is a 300-person mutual aid network that’s delivering home-cooked food to unhoused and underhoused people in downtown Toronto.

It’s pretty simple: in early 2021, a few people found out what hot or nourishing food unhoused and underhoused Torontonians actually want, and told a few friends, and so forth. We cook it at home on a weekly signup roster, and a small network of volunteer drivers brings it to the Seeds of Hope resource centre. People who need nourishing, hot food get fed—but more importantly, they get that weekly, persistent reminder that hello, we are here, we are a community, we care about them. They are not discarded. And those of us doing the cooking get that weekly, persistent reminder that we are a community too, and we aren’t helpless in the face of any of this. We can take care of each other. We are being constant for and with each other.

I’ve moved from cooking once every other week to being one of a core group of volunteers that’s come together to make this thing sustainable. We redesigned our backend and dropoff/delivery system this fall, cross-trained each other to share more responsibility together, and relaunched this winter. We’re looking at how we can work better with other mutual aid groups now.

I knew no one involved in this project before we started. They’re amazing people. I’m so glad I signed up.

 
Michael: That’s awesome! Thank you very much for these answers—and for doing that work.

fertile week

the peas are in the ground and maybe it’ll work

this time. I kiss your shoulders and crack jokes,

one day on, one day off, just like our doctor said,

and when the clock reads 11:11

our fingers twine, and we hold on so tight.

 

downborder, they’re stealing bodies: put her in the dirt

and chant the words, she’ll do your furtive will. a million

Murder Legendre brides reduced to flickering black and white

haunted house inspections; a million colonial possessions.

downborder, they shackle women by the waist in case we miss the point.

 

it took us so long to be ready for this.

to feel it turn to bullets under my lips.

when i took your hand, my hand was mine.

 

it’s been a greyling spring, all rain, no relief in sight:

one day on and one day off. this year I’ll build a trellis

so the soft green leaves can climb, pea tendrils curious

as new fingers stretching wide. this year I build walls

that are secretly ladders, designed to overcome,

strategically constructed to let in the sun. to let you in,

chin high, arms wide, precaution circumspection set aside,

 

all of us waiting through the blood-daubed protest signs,

craning necks over knees to the flickering screens

waiting breath-held as the baton moves inside

to be cracked across the face with an open-handed joy.

From the Editors: a scribbled note in a water-damaged notebook

The call for submissions for Reckoning 5’s poetry started as a scribbled note in a water-damaged notebook I lost years ago. It was Toronto labour rights activist and scholar Dr. Winnie Ng’s answer to a 2013 panel question on what she’d tell young organizers: that we can organize from rage, but where it was possible, you could go the long haul if you organized from joy. I lost the notebook, so I’m not going to get that quote right.

Living in a busy urban downtown sharpens your vision for the natural world living alongside and around you. You start relationships: with the raccoon that topples over your compost bin to eat tomato scraps; with the ash tree whose lowest leaves are low enough to, on the days you wear high heels to work, brush the top of your head like a benediction. You learn to truly value that ecosystem threaded through the cracks, and realize that busy spaces are full of half-visible mitzvot. You can think nobody is and then your vision sharpens to those little signs, and you realize: somebody is. That public native species garden didn’t grow itself, and those squirrels aren’t fat and happy on their own account. Someone planted chestnut trees. Someone is, just outside your frame of reference, doing the work.

Our call for poetry was about those intimacies: the seed waiting in your pocket, cupped handfuls of gorgeous things in motion, little gods. What work you were doing, and why you did it. Maybe we could all sharpen our vision, together.

We had no idea what was coming.

In Toronto, I have spent this pandemic year uneasily hibernating as part of a high-risk household. I stepped outside in May and the trees were leafing outward; the next time, in mid-June, the flowers were already going to fruit. It has been hard to know whose precautions to trust, where the future was leading.

Meanwhile, submissions poured in from every continent except Antarctica, and built a paper spine to keep my head up as the case counts fluctuated. Every week this year, I’ve spent a few hours reading poetry and essays about those little flecks of possibility: vivid, loving descriptions of the ground as wrinkled wise skin; laughing lines about coral; how far you can travel on patched-up sails; “we breathe and breathe and / breathe”. Ambivalent, pragmatic, realistic, joyous, fierce, those carefully nurtured loves started to feel like sonar, describing the shape of a world latticed with somebody is. Everything was most-beautiful. Webbed between chat servers, databases, and international video calls scheduled delicately to link three time zones—systems that felt like they should be so tenuous—what’s emerged is so solidly real.

Doing this project in a disrupted, unsettled year meant no matter what I could find to fear, somebody is. The process of putting this volume together gave us the proof. I can close my eyes and see a constellation: hundreds of people who believe in the limitless potential of being for something fiercely enough to write about it during a global pandemic.

That’s what I hope this offers you: a volume that holds the proof, that shakes with the force of that jotted-down note seven years ago, organize from joy. Even though the notebook got soaked until it was unreadable, was lost in a move, and I had to dig through old websites and event listings to find the conference and rediscover Dr. Ng’s name to properly credit her for the impact, I remembered the important part all the way through: If I love things and work from that love, my strength will not fail me.

So, here we are—not all of us, and not in equal circumstances: on our balconies, in wide-open spaces, in overcrowded housing with a half-dozen people we love, doing the work with our hands, doing the work with our mouths, holding ourselves or other people together, failing for today to do it, following instinct, following best practice, fumbling, planting, advocating, pushing back, pushing forward. Tending tiny miracles until they split the pavement.

Reckoning 5 Submission Call – Poetry

For Reckoning 5, I’m looking for poems which move in concert with fiction editor Cécile Cristofari’s call for work that spotlights the moments of environmental beauty we’re living in right now, holding close to our hearts, or carefully cultivating in the back corner lot twice a day, on the way to and from the streetcar.

The little seed you’re carrying around, waiting to replant. The spaces cupped full of joy in motion. Something holy in your pocket; a little-god reminder of why we do the work and what’s worth working for. That which is coming. That which has been quietly growing all along. That which is beautiful amidst the noise—all seen through the lens of environmental justice.

I have a soft spot for formal poetry done in a way where your voice slips free, but would love to see your free verse, translations, little epics, concrete poetry, speculative poetry, all the things I couldn’t even think up right now to list, and most importantly, the unique texture of your own voice.

If you’re working in a form or tradition you aren’t sure I’ll culturally grasp: please, tell me about it in your cover letter. I’ll ask the followup questions necessary to meet you halfway.

I will consider exceptional work that falls slightly outside of the theme or spins it in unexpected ways as long as it stays firmly centred on the topic of environmental justice.

Up to five poems per submission welcomed, and thank you in advance for your work.

Read the full guidelines and submit here. And Cécile Cristofari’s call for fiction and nonfiction is here.

The Dream of the Wood

the night of the windstorm

the city swayed

 

steel branches wrapped in old concrete

 

the leaves fall in strict equations:

material tolerance plus environmental

pressure plus the work of builders’ hands.

 

in the morning, we count cracks:

birch lines in the drywall laid bare

for the deer. the corner panhandler lost

his hat in the night. spare change, a nickel

a quarter a dollar? I put palms to the sidewalk

and feel for roots, crouched, bent small,

parting rush-hour rivers of feet.

 

in the valley, the river wound round the birch, half in,

half out of water. the squirrels crept back to their nests

lean and loud, whistling as they gathered new twigs.

the muskrats drained burrows below, mirroring:

one crown wide, and one buried.

 

there are cracks in the city. we all feel it:

the thin drafts blowing through. in the wind,

I spread hands rootlike through the soil

and dream of changing: from our rusted degradation

point to tough green wood, flexed, bowed, unbreaking.

 

I can feel it coming, love, like the first

of spring: smoother, softer, here I go,

stretching hands-first into something

that bends, and then stands.