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Finding the loners before they break

Toronto writer Emily Pohl-Weary is this summer's Pierre Berton writer-in-residence, and in that role she joined a panel discussion about the future of books, held at the Dawson City Print and Publishing Symposium in August.

Toronto writer Emily Pohl-Weary is this summer’s Pierre Berton writer-in-residence, and in that role she joined a panel discussion about the future of books, held at the Dawson City Print and Publishing Symposium in August. One of her comments stayed with me after the weekend. “If I had to choose only one medium to read in, I’d want to read the blog of an eighteen-year-old girl,” she said.

Pohl-Weary has a strong background in independent magazine publishing, typically called zine culture. Many young writers make their own zines to avoid the narrowness of traditional publishing routes, and Pohl-Weary had a long editorial position with Canada’s longest-running alt-culture magazine, Broken Pencil. Initially I thought those projects provided the context for her interest in teen writing. But during our recent interview, she described the more focused set of reasons behind her genuine interest in helping young people write.

Pohl-Weary is that rare kind of wordsmith who can work fluidly in many genres, including poetry, young adult fiction, adult fiction, indie-pop writing and biography. A look at her two most recent books reveals a little about her wide-ranging skills.

Not Your Ordinary Wolf Girl (2013) is a smart and entertaining young adult novel about a talented teenage musician, Sam Lee. After a dog attack in Central Park, Lee transforms from vegetarian introvert into a meat-ravenous werewolf who is quite capable of heroic actions. Anyone who loves a good mystery will be sucked into the story, whatever age they are.

Then this past spring, Pohl-Weary released Ghost Sick. It is a nuanced, wrenching and ultimately heart-opening poetry collection that she took eight years to write - nearly a decade of trying to grapple with the shooting death of a young man in her Parkdale neighbourhood. It was Christmas Eve 2006, and a young man she had known a little, and who was very close to her youngest brother, shot another boy they both knew. The murder shook her whole community, where she’s lived her entire life.

That shooting triggered a turning point in Pohl-Weary’s career, she says. She was deeply shaken by the event.

Pohl-Weary has always nurtured a gift for making space for other people’s voices. Her first book-length publication was co-written with her grandmother, the popular science-fiction writer Judith Merril. In Merril’s last years, the two women would sit together once a week, with a cassette tape recording Merril’s stories. After Merril’s death, Pohl-Weary used boxes of letters and transcripts of the tapes to complete Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril. It won a 2003 Hugo Award.

Surging ahead, Pohl-Weary published a literary novel, a poetry collection, a young adult novel, and dozens of short pieces in Kiss Machine - an independent zine that she co-created with Paola Poletto. To create the 2004 anthology Girls Who Bite Back: Witches, Mutants, Slayers and Freaks, she commissioned 35 contributors to reimagine female superheroes in as many directions as possible.

After 2006, she reassessed her whole career path. “I had been on a certain path with my writing,” she reflects. “I was always writing for girls, and I began to turn around and look at the boys in the neighbourhood, and realized that there was a kind of crisis.

“I’d always focused on the girls and how difficult things can be, but looking at boys I began seeing that they quite literally were dying, because they didn’t have those kinds of outlets for processing the sometimes horrific things happening around them. I saw their reactions would come out in certain ways.”

Reading and writing has always been a way of processing things for Pohl-Weary, especially during her teen years. That is why, in the last few years, she has channelled impressive amounts of energy into leading writing workshops for youth who have experienced trauma. “It made sense to me to find those kids who were loners or who, like me, needed reading and writing to be a bit of an escape, and to help them find other people like them,” she says. With support from the Toronto Public Library, the Toronto Street Writers program was born.

Staff at Na-Me-Res, a transition home in Toronto for First Nation men, noticed what Pohl-Weary was doing with the Toronto Street Writers. They asked her to come and give a six-session workshop with men in their Sagatay Program, then another six, then another six ... for about two years.

Pohl-Weary is now taking her passion for community development work to an academic level by working on her PhD at the University of Toronto. Her research? Seeing how community writing workshops can be a form of community development.

“I’m trying to figure out what benefits these writing groups provide to participants, how they give voice to people who have been historically silenced, and whether they truly put the means of production into a community’s hands,” she says. “I’m curious about how writing together and sharing our stories can challenge prejudice and divisive assumptions about one another.

Pohl-Weary spent her time at the Berton House working on another novel, this time set in Parkdale. Whatever genre she chooses to read from as she wraps up her first Yukon visit, you can expect a rich range of images and emotions at her Yukon Public Library readings, in Dawson City on Sept. 3 and Whitehorse on Sept. 17.

Meg Walker is a Dawson City visual artist and writer.