Oct. 13, 2022
Calgary Distinguished Writers Program welcomes poet Leah Horlick
In 2017, poet Leah Horlick took a trip to Romania, to retrace the steps of her Jewish ancestors who had fled persecution at the hands of both Nazi and Soviet regimes.
The trip inspired her third poetry collection, Moldovan Hotel (2021), an ambitious work informed by the history Horlick uncovered, but also packed with cutting contemporary insights connecting the past to the present. With searing clarity and craft, her poems ran the gamut from revolution and genocide to cultural politics and gender.
It was a marked departure for Horlick, the 2022-23 Canadian Writer-in-Residence for UCalgary’s esteemed, long-running Calgary Distinguished Writers Program (CDWP). Her previous book, For Your Own Good (2015), was a collection of semi-autobiographical poems centred around a violent lesbian relationship and it put Horlick on the literary map in a major way, earning her the prestigious Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Canada’s top emerging LGBTQ2S+ writers. It was also named a Stonewall Honor Title by the American Library Association.
Horlick — who will be appearing at the CDWP’s annual Hello/Goodbye event Oct. 17 at cSpace King Edward Studio Theatre — plans to explore her ancestry even further during her residency. She is planning to develop her debut novel, a work of experimental literary fiction based on a famous Yiddish play by S. Ansky called The Dybbuk, which debuted in 1920.
“It’s about a woman who is hoping to marry for love — which was very unusual at the time — and she is not able to, due to the various designs of her family,” says Horlick. “The man she’s hoping to marry dies and becomes a dybbuk, which is a malicious spirit, and to be with her, he possesses her.
“Of course, it doesn’t work out and they both die,” Horlick adds with a laugh. “Yiddish theatre tends to be a bit dark.”
Horlick says she’s drawn to the story by its themes of bodily autonomy and “the lengths that people in love are willing to go to.”
She admits that she’s nervous, pursuing her first work of fiction and she’s grateful that her CDWP residency will afford her the time and resources she needs to take this literary risk.
Horlick also intends to work on her fourth collection of poetry during her residency, tentatively titled Night, which will touch on themes of betrayal, intimacy, and mental illness. “I am uniquely situated to explore these themes based on my years of work in the anti-violence field, and my own recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder,” she says.
Horlick was sexually assaulted at the age of 19 by her partner in her lesbian relationship. Attending the University of Saskatchewan at the time, and active in the queer and feminist communities, where she felt empowered, she struggled mightily to process what had happened. She eventually sought out stories of other lesbians who had similar experiences.
While she found no shortage of records documenting domestic assaults in the community — often referred to as “lesbian battering” — her research turned up almost no sexual assaults.
“I think that’s largely because of the systemic barriers in reporting woman-on-woman incidents,” Horlick says. “How are you going to explain this to a doctor? If you were looking for legal or police support, how might this go for you? Especially when you are a part of a community that has struggled for decades to convince society that being gay is not the same as being a sex predator. So, there was a lot of silence.”
And there was certainly a dearth of literature on the topic, a factor that inspired the writing of For Your Own Good.
The book’s success led to led Horlick’s involvement in several advocacy initiatives and workshops focused on education around lesbian intimate partner violence and sexual assault prevention. Parts of the text have even been cited in training for obstetricians and gynaecologists at the B.C. Women’s Hospital and for crisis line volunteers at a Vancouver rape crisis centre.
It’s the sort of community outreach that Horlick plans to continue in Calgary during her residency. “The Calgary Distinguished Writers Program is beautiful in that the residency isn’t about being a writer in an ivory tower,” she says. “It’s amazing to have this funded opportunity to really intersect with different community groups. I can tell you that I am doing some community outreach to related organizations in Calgary.”
A major aspect of the CDWP program is that the writer-in-residence acts as a mentor within the local literary community, providing guidance and manuscript consultations with fledgling writers. This is something near and dear to Horlick’s heart, and she’s had plenty of experience as a mentor. This has included literary programs she’s led with high-risk groups, including newly arrived immigrant populations, people with disabilities, the homeless, and queer and transgender communities.
“I’m keen to continue this work in Calgary, in so far as it’s possible,” Horlick says. “I think the CDWP already eliminates a major barrier in this regard, because manuscript consultations are free, the events prioritized are free and open to the public. Financial barriers can be huge in the literary community, so it’s exciting that they’re not a factor in this amazing program.”
Hear from incoming Canadian Writer-in-Residence Leah Horlick and outgoing Writer-in-Residence graphic novelist Teresa Wong at CDWP’s annual Hello/Goodbye event on Monday, Oct. 17 at cSpace King Edward Studio Theatre. The event is free, and registration is required for in-person attendance.
If you have been impacted by sexual violence, there are resources to support you.