Interview with Growing Room Special Issue 44.1 Editors

Interview by 
Jessica Johns
Image is a drawing of an Indigenous femme's side profile and two antlers around her head

We are so excited to announce our upcoming special “Growing Room” issue of Room magazine, which will be an issue dedicated entirely to the writers and artists intended to feature at the 2020 Growing Room Literary & Arts Festival. 

This issue will be an homage to the festival as we intended it to be: a place to come together and celebrate one another as writers, artists, and creatives. It will be a home for all of the energy, love, and labour that the organizers, artists, volunteers, and anticipated attendees invested into a dream that suddenly didn’t have anywhere to go. 

This issue will feature commissioned work from our keynote speaker Kai Cheng Thom, brilliant cover art commissioned from award-winning writer and visual artist Arielle Twist, internal artwork from artists and vendors intended to appear in our first ever festival marketplace, and mini-interviews from some of our most anticipated panels. We will also feature online content on our website to be published in tandem with the print issue, as some forms of storytelling simply do not translate onto paper, and we want to showcase and honour that.

Thank you all for sticking with us through this journey. We hope you love this issue as much as we’ve loved putting it together. Below is an interview between the issue’s editors, Jessica Johns, Selina Boan, and Mica Lemiski, who were all intimately involved in organizing the festival as well.

ROOM: What was your role in the festival and how did it allow you to connect with the community?

Jessica Johns: I was the 2020 Festival Director. So in addition to organizing the program committee who were dedicated to curating the panels, workshops, and additional festival events, I communicated directly with the invited artists and was their main point of contact for resources, materials, and updates on the festival. In addition to artistic direction, I also organized the logistical aspects of the festival, such as the venues, festival dates, and general timelines. 

This meant that my connections to the community were multi-faceted. I was simultaneously communicating with venue managers, publicists, artists, hosts and moderators for events, as well as the general public whenever necessary. For about eight months, I was completely immersed in nothing but this festival and the people in it. 

Mica Lemiski: I was the Hospitality Coordinator for Growing Room, meaning I organized hotel accommodation and made travel arrangements for out-of-town authors. Part of my job would have also been to drive authors to and from events, which, in previous years, was a real joy because it meant getting to know authors and artists beyond their on-page work. Putting a face and an IRL personality to writing you’ve long-respected is always deeply gratifying. 

I was also Head of Snacks (not an official title). I sought out food and drink donations to have at our backstage green rooms, so a lot of my pre-festival work involved contacting local cafes and shops to see if they wanted to give us free treats. To see some of our fave local businesses excited to donate to Growing Room was super buoying because it was like, “we love your business, you love our festival, let’s work together and build something great.”

Selina Boan: I joined the festival team this year as the Volunteer Coordinator. I worked closely with Meagan Black, our Logistics Manager, to recruit and onboard volunteers, photographers, and volunteer managers. In my role, I was responsible for all communication with our incredible volunteers including outreach, training, volunteer appreciation, and scheduling. 

I was immensely lucky in my role and got to connect with so many incredible people. The heart, passion, and genuine care that our volunteers shared with us and the festival was vibrant and invigorating. I got so much energy from correspondence with volunteers. Volunteers are the heart of a festival like this that has limited resources. It is a lot of work to volunteer and I have so much appreciation for the folks who lent their skills, care, and perspective. A highlight of my role was getting to hold volunteer training where we had the privilege of being led through anti-oppression training by Cicily Blain Consulting. Growing Room’s two volunteer training days were when the work our team had done up until then really felt like it came together. There was an energy and excitement present for the upcoming festival that was hard to let go of. 

ROOM: What do you hope this special themed issue will do?

JJ: Originally, as the cancellation of the festival meant that we were no longer able to pay many of the artists for their time and involvement, I really wanted this issue to be a way for us to still create a space for artists to get paid for their work. The pandemic really financially affected artists and folks working within a gig economy. Fuck capitalism and all that, but at the end of the day we still need to pay our bills and survive. And with readings, tours, events, and festivals getting cancelled, I was trying to think of ways we could still ensure artists could get paid.

Also, I feel like there was this festival energy that was just left hanging in the air. We spent almost a year planning this festival. The time, energy, and love that went into it feels like it’s still stagnant in the festival office, packed away in all the boxes with our merch, posters, volunteer schedules, and other things that we never got to use. I want all that energy to go somewhere, I want to lay it to rest in a good way. And it just feels like this is the way to make that happen.

ML: All of what Jess is saying—yes! I’m also thinking of this issue as an outlet. For rage, for joy, for grief, for anxiety. Whatever our writers and artists need to set free, we want to hold it. And so there’s definitely a degree of uncertainty with this issue—we don’t totally know what to expect. We just know we’ve got a very magical team ready to do magical things. Ultimately, our artists are the ones in charge of what this issue does. I can’t wait to be surprised.

SB: Absolutely agree with what Jess and Mica have expressed. I love imagining this issue as an alternative space to hold and re-imagine within a different form the brilliance of the artists that were/are going to be involved in Growing Room this year. There was a feeling of grief following the cancellation of the festival and when Jess proposed giving artists space to share their work in an issue of Room as a way to get paid and promote them, I began to feel re-energized and wanted to be involved with making that vision come to life. 

My hope is this issue will introduce some readers to artists whose work they may not yet be familiar with, in the way a literary panel or reading is capable of doing. There was so much heart and care put into the line-up for the festival and so many of those artists have books, albums, and artwork in the world that the festival wanted to celebrate. This issue will be a celebration of their incredible work and contributions to the artistic community. 

ROOM: What’s different about this issue compared to regular Room issues?

JJ: Every one of our issues is so incredibly unique. They are all edited by different editorial teams in our collective, so we have different experiences, editorial experience, and unique insights for every single issue. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of with this magazine.

The issues do, however, all have similar elements and structure in order to maintain consistency in our content. For this issue, we’re throwing all of those structures out the window and making this into what feels right, without restriction. There were so many aspects of the festival we still want to be able to showcase, so that means taking creative liberties that haven’t been taken before.

ML: You could call this issue... unprecedented? We all hate that word now, but it’s true! This will probably be the most loosely-structured issue of Room ever. Expect to see poetry, CNF, fiction, artwork, interviews, as well as work that lives in between and outside these genres. 

SB: I am really excited to see this issue come together. This issue is being built and re-imagined within a very different climate than the festival. I am curious to see what work and conversations emerge within that context and the world we are now inhabiting. It is going to be an issue that celebrates the diversity of forms and work we would have originally seen/heard at the festival. I’m looking forward to seeing how the content from festival artists shapes the issues direction and overall feel. There are no boundaries when it comes to form for this issue.

ROOM: What does it mean to reimagine something as big as a festival into something else?

JJ: It means letting go of all your initial expectations, because something built for a specific outlet will not be the same once translated to something else. For example, if you’re a writer (I’m sorry non-writers, this is the only metaphor I got!), imagine writing a short story. And then when it’s finished, polished, and ready to go to print, you change it into a poem. There are things we’re losing by turning a four-day festival into a magazine issue. But there’s also things we’re adding to the experience that we could have never expected with an in-person festival. So this shift has necessitated letting go of a lot, and has allowed us to appreciate what it will be in its new form.

ML: Having to cancel and then reimagine the literary festival feels kind of symbolic of a writer/artist/creator’s life generally (strap in, here comes another metaphor). What I mean is that we are constantly putting a ton of time and energy into projects without knowing whether or not they’ll ever be something (at least in a visible, public sense). In the case of the festival, the pandemic was kind of like some gross editor saying, “look I know we said we’d publish your novel but whoops nevermind haha BYE.” It really stings, but we’re tough folks. The fact that our literary festival is shape-shifting into a magazine issue means that our artists have something urgent and meaningful to say. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t be putting in the time to make this happen. 

SB: Before reimagining the festival as something else became possible, we had to take a necessary (and difficult) step back to process that loss and reckon with what that meant for our artist communities and the festival itself. Given the impact of COVID on how we gather as artist communities, I have observed an immense amount of energy, care, and innovation put into re-thinking how we gather, how we celebrate each other’s work, and the various forms that can take. Reimagining this festival has involved tapping into that energy and looking for new ways to support each other. It makes me feel immensely grateful to be involved in this community and though this certainly wasn’t ideal, and wasn’t what we had initially imagined, we are trying to do what we can to celebrate and make space for the artists involved. 

Jessica Johns is a Nehiyaw-English-Irish aunty and member of Sucker Creek First Nation in Treaty 8 territory in Northern Alberta. She is the Managing Editor for Room Magazine and a co-organizer of the Indigenous Brilliance reading series. 

“It's Canadian, feminist, and one of my favourite things ever.”

—bucketofrhymes, "29 Amazing Literary Magazines You Need To Be Reading", Buzzfeed Books

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