As both a poet and a filmmaker, Shane Book is an artist with two distinctly different disciplines in his arsenal. But the University of Calgary’s incoming 2016-17 Writer-in-Residence with the long-running Calgary Distinguished Writers Program (CDWP) finds common ground between the two practices.
“I think there’s a lot of overlap between the two art forms,” says Book, cracking wise. “It’s just that poetry is a lot cheaper because you only need a pencil, rather than thousands upon thousands of dollars and actors.”
Book — a Griffin Poetry Prize nominee, among his many accomplishments in the world of literature and film — will be teaching a master class called Translating Poetry to Film during the CDWP’s Writer-in-Residence Reunion Festival, running from Sept. 15 to 17. He will also be reading his poetry and showing film clips at CDWP’s annual Hello/Goodbye event on Sept. 16.
Powerful imagery exists in both poetry and film
“Poetry has a lot in common with film,” says Book. “Poetry is all about compression and being very succinct; writing in crisp, beautiful images. And of course filmmaking is all about the images. When you’re directing and shooting, it helps to think like a poet, using images as metaphors for other things.”
He adds, “Even something like a simple line break in a poem — isn’t that sort of like the way a filmmaker edits? You have a clip and then you decide to cut it at a specific point and follow it up with another very specific clip. I find a similarity in the construction of both forms.”
Career arc included political science to poetry and Ghana to Canada
It is, perhaps, a unique perspective, keeping with Book’s unique life and career arc.
Born in Peru to a Canadian father and a Trinidadian mother who were doing aid work in the country with Canadian University Students Overseas, Book went on to live his childhood years in Ottawa, Vancouver and Ghana.
Though he caught the writing bug at a young age, he didn’t fully commit to his craft until he was in his early 20s. As a political science major at the University of Western Ontario then, he suffered a serious back injury while weight training.
“Suddenly, I could barely walk and it was painful to sit down,” Book recalls. “It changed my life and my outlook. It made me focus on what I wanted to do.”
Inspired by his girlfriend at the time, who was also an aspiring poet, Book moved to the University of Victoria, earning his Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts and dedicating himself to his poetry. New York University (MA in English and American Literature), Temple University (MFA in Film and Media Arts), the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop (MFA in Creative Writing) and Stanford University, where he was a Wallace Stegner Fellow, followed.
Poetry collection influenced by African diaspora opened doors
Book’s first full-length poetry collection, Ceiling of Sticks (2010) won a number of literary awards as well as a National Magazine Award for a published excerpt. But it was his second collection, the experimental Congotronic (2014) that really began opening doors for him. The elite 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize nomination was among the many distinctions Book earned for it.
“That was life-changing and very unexpected,” says Book. “I wondered if Congotronic would just disappear into the ether, because it’s a strange book, what some would call avant-garde, and I thought people might find it alienating. But the Griffin nomination really gave it a lot of exposure. I began to get a lot more attention for my work.”
Praised for its bold blend of voices, dictions and rhythms, incorporating styles ranging from Romanticism to hip hop, Congotronic was heavily influenced by the cultures of the African diaspora, says Book.
“People think of Africa as an undeveloped continent, but there’s a lot of cutting-edge cultural fusions that have always come from there,” he says. “I’m thinking of the people who went to North America and the Caribbean, who were displaced for generations, and wound up synthesizing African culture with the sounds of the new world. That’s how we wound up with blues and jazz and rock and hip hop. That’s what I’m exploring.”
'I'm really looking forward to getting to know Calgary'
Book has also begun to experience much success with his comparatively shorter film career. His first short film, Dust (2013), based on a poem from his first book, has screened at 23 film festivals around the world, winning numerous jury prizes and screenwriting awards. His next film, the comedic Praise and Blame is set to premiere on the festival circuit in the fall. Meanwhile, he is also in the process of developing a comedy series for television.
During his time as CDWP’s Writer-in-Residence, Book plans to complete a new book of poems. It is tentatively titled Doom Patois, which will focus on language in pop music. He will also be developing two feature-length screenplays.
“I’m really looking forward to getting to know Calgary and I’m grateful for this opportunity,” Book says. “To write really great poetry, I believe you have to be open to possibilities, and I’m open to all possibilities coming here.”