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Chapbook Review: Jasmin Gui’s 'boke' and Canadian Futures

By Terry Trowbridge

Jasmine Gui's chapbook, boke was launched on Thursday, 19 October, 2017, by words(on)pages press. In the moment immediately before the pandemic, the years 2017-2019, words(on)pages press was a remarkable publisher. The WoP team, William Kemp and Nicole Brewer (with distro help from Michael Brewer), published some of the most regionally diverse Canadian writers. The journal, words(on)pages and various chapbooks were exquisitely handbound artwork.

Photo: Jasmine Gui, Words(on)pages cover - a pair of broken glasses against a pink background
Photo: Jasmine Gui, Words(on)pages

Their Toronto launch parties were held in a small tavern adjacent to Toronto’s internationally acclaimed landmark store Honest Ed’s, named for the performing arts producer and renowned philanthropist Honest Ed Mirvish. Now, Honest Ed’s has been demolished, along with the bar, and the public reminders of Honest Ed’s philanthropy, to build yet another indistinguishable glass and cladding condominium tower. words(on)pages has gone silent, but their launch parties set a standard for literary events in Toronto. Kemp and Brewer knew how to launch chapbooks, and new authors, in events that kept audiences lingering into the night; meeting the writers, dancing, laughing, and scribbling on receipts or notepads at the far table. Many people who attended WoP literary events were college-aged writers who were learning how to run poetry and prose literary series under the guidance of more experienced writers (some of whom also attended WoP events and were part of the laughing and intense listening). The energy from WoP sustained Toronto’s new literary generation (even though Kemp and Brewer did not personally identify themselves with Toronto per se).

Whoever WoP published in chapbook form (writers from across Canada), must be remembered because of their role at the center of an important publisher’s community-building. Their chapbooks must also be remembered because of how unique and diverse their design was. The chapbooks are examples of book art that inspired the uplifting, excited feelings of motion that lasted all night. The role of book art as inspiration for a good party was solidified at WoP and carried over into other all-night parties by writer-publishers like Alec Emery, Karel Cespiva, Martine Romero and Shima Raeesi from Death Cookie Soup, and Kirby from Kinfe/Fork/Book. All of Toronto’s poets – all of them – have participated in traditions of downtown carousing. Since the Covid pandemic, Toronto has been losing literary venues and audiences at an alarming rate. WoP and their authors made literary arts successful on small scales that made huge waves emanate throughout the Greater Toronto Area megacity. We must return to those authors and their chapbooks now, as we look toward the end of the pandemic. Poets like Jasmine Gui are our immediate literary precursors, who are establishing our aesthetic principles. Canadians should read and respond to them now, in order to organize ourselves as audiences, poets, publishers.

Gui is a Canadian poet who was born in Singapore, who identifies herself with the Singaporean-Chinese diaspora in Canada, and whose family is well-traveled in Hong Kong, Australia, and eastern China. Southeast Asian women writers have been writing poetry in Canada for decades, but only in 2004 did Mansfield Press release the first collection of poetry by multiple Southeast Asian women authors, along with brief biographies, Red Silk. There has not been a follow-up anthology from any publisher, although an editor at Mansfield once told me they believed a new collection is overdue. Gui is one of the few poets from what is a marginalized demographic of writers in Canadian literature, which makes her chapbook one of the more important publications from Toronto in 2017.

Her own website, of course, pushes back against reading her book through an ethnographic lens, "I would like to cultivate a habit of self-affirmation that does not rely on comparison," and I take the point. However, as a reviewer and scholar who combines literary writing and social science, I think it is worthwhile to point out that Gui is a vanguard of the next generation of Southeast Asian writers. She is part of a twenty-first century immigrant migration into the Greater Toronto Area, along with a migration outward of second-generation Asian-Canadians who move to the cities around Lake Ontario. Gui does not pretend to represent this demographic. Her family travels, though, are a commonality throughout the Southeast Asian diaspora. Her poems are part of a rising demographic that exercises strong influences over the overall flavour of central Canada’s culture.

The next few decades of governance in Canada will rely on the literacy of our leaders. Without drawing on the literary imagination of newcomer families as a starting point for social context, Ontario’s community leaders’ sociological imaginations (Mills, 1959), will be vague and inaccurate, impersonally algorithmic (see: O’Neil, 2016). boke is only 18 very short pages (about 3" by 3" sq.), situates the poet's imagination in urban environments on the cusp of water and aqueous metaphors suitable to the reality of the Great Lakes region. Gui invokes questions about how we share experiences of our bodies in close quarters, like the new, smaller, condominium housing and automobile geographies of the Greater Toronto Area. This is poetry that can be read quickly, pocketed easily. Fast and portable are assets if you want to either be overly serious and give the book to somebody in charge of arts and culture funding; or if you want be fun and drop it into a birthday card. There is a low time commitment and a high reward in Gui’s clear images.

Although boke is a book of images of urban Canadian shorelines, Gui sets a tone by quoting Singaporean poet Cyril Wong, "And whose heart is not a hungry fish?" Wong is considered to be Singapore's primary "Confessional" poet (Lee, 2016), and Wong's tender but greedy fish tells us two things: this book is going to be love poems for the poet instead of the beloved; this book is a new paradigm in CanLit - the Singaporean-confessional poem reconstituted from the Singapore Strait, here on the Great Lakes. This chapbook ought to be considered the tiny seed of a geographically new intercultural genre.

boke is punctuated by black and white drawings by Jaqueline Lai, which succeed in turning the small size of the page into an aesthetic picture frame. Each picture contains the word “blink:” and a single line; example: "the reservoir rises in my mouth. a rupture" contained in a scene of water creatures or shoreline architecture.

Lai’s images are accessible, and appear in the media of Lake Ontario residents. Looking up from among some lake weeds. A tsunami in a city. Ducks! Big carp. The pictures (or blinks, as they are labeled), divide the book instead of poem titles. This in itself might be the genre innovation that Gui/Lai's book gives us. The collaboration with the artist, who gives a kind of added substance to the poet's water imagery, offers a heft to the sounds and touches in the text. Will Gui or Lai continue with this innovation? Will other poets? On an aesthetic level, the artwork is a requirement, because “blink:” on a blank page would evoke blankness; but underwater “blink” evokes weight as well as sound, carp evoke cold as well as movement. Jaqueline Lai has produced artwork that all but guarantees her illustration (or graphic design) in future literature.

I've probably written three times the words that are in the actual book by now, so I will discuss only two pages of the book, that stand out to me as indicative of Canada’s literature about-to-come. A tsunami is washing in multistorey waves over a cityscape. A woman pokes her head out of her upper-storey window, her hair is in the wind. The poem next to this picture is about a sudden flood "the line of this city is erased/but I blink/and the harbour washes into my eye..." The flood could be real or could be imaginary, but maybe the point is that Gui is observing this complex of psychology and ecological catastrophe. The poem is coastal rather than freshwater, "I have heard it will dye the salt of my hair black,/rim the sweat on the edge of my lip" but then again, humans are themselves bags of salt water, so the experience she creates may work on the Great Lakes shoreline.

This is a scene of climate change and urban design, "where nobody pays attention until right after." Gui critiques flaws in governance that choose, consciously, to forego preparation in order to build the future, not out of care and living spaces, but out of insurance deductibles and disposable architectures. This is the imagery visible from urban islands like Muggs Island, Like Cootes Paradise (Terpstra, 2018), like Vancouver, and like Pulau Ujong. It is the shared literary future that will either advise wise cities or lament their disintegration. Meanwhile, a woman who once considered a flooded neighbourhood in anxiety, will inevitably look over a real disaster and recall the poems of Gui, or maybe of her successors.

boke is one of the most prescient chapbooks from the Greater Toronto Area in 2017. Thank you to Jasmine Gui and Jacqueline Lai for producing it, and words(on)pages for publishing it.

Works cited

Dunlop, Rishma, and Uppa, Priscila, Eds. (2004). Red Silk: An Anthology of South Asian Women

Poets. Toronto: Mansfield Press.

Gui, Jasmine. (2017). boke. Toronto: words(on)pages press.

Lee, Shyen. (December 26, 2016). An Introduction to Cyril Wong, Singapore's Most Lauded

Contemporary Writer. Culture Trip. Web.

Mill, C. Wright. (1959). The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

O’Neil, Cathy. (2016). Weapons of Math Destruction. New York: Penguin Random House.

Tersptra, John. (2018). Daylighting Chedoke: Exploring Hamilton’s Hidden Creek. Hamilton:

Wolsak and Wynn.


About the Writer:

Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, and a book reviewer. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.


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