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Creative writing professor makes history for her fantastical poems

Photo courtesy of Professor Amal El-Mohtar

Success comes in many forms. For Amal El-Mohtar, it’s come in the form of her favourite food.

The new University of Ottawa professor followed up her most recent book, an accidental creation called The Honey Month, with a record-breaking award win for her poem, “Turning the Leaves.”

El-Mohtar is the first woman to be a three-time winner of the Rhysling Award for Best Short Poem presented by the Science Fiction Poetry Association.

“Turning the Leaves” appeared in Apex Magazine, a monthly science fiction, fantasy, and horror publication. It was the last issue with former editor-in-chief Lynne A. Thomas at the helm, and she had specially requested El-Mohtar to write a poem for it.

“There was something in the way she made the request that made me feel that I wanted to be writing a poem for her, in close of her tenure with the magazine which I thought she had done really spectacularly,” El-Mohtar recalls.

She says she was astounded to learn of her third win, since it helps break the mould of the award’s historical gravitation toward male poets.

“The membership (of the association) is quite balanced, but there is apparently quite a tendency for men to win. There are a few names that just keep cropping up and those happen to be men’s names.”

She hopes her success will encourage more women to submit their work and prompt organizations to put more focus on women’s work.

El-Mohtar edits her own publication called Goblin Fruit, an online quarterly she co-founded in 2006.

“With Goblin Fruit I’m able to put more of women’s voices out there,” she says. “I can highlight them and showcase them by encouraging (them) to keep sending out their work.”

Goblin Fruit focuses more on genre and fantasy poetry rather than what she has seen in other science fiction poetry publications. “Spaceships, space elevators … that’s cool, but we wanted to be doing something completely different.” Fantastical poetry treats history with an unusual perspective using mythic and surreal folkloric themes.

She’s not all about fiction and fantasy, though.

El-Mohtar published The Honey Month in 2010, the unintended result of a gripe with a sore throat while at a writer’s convention in New Jersey. She and another conference attendee bonded over their love for the sweet and sticky food and decided to swap gourmet honey samplings through the mail, comparing tasting notes for 28 consecutive days. The authors then assembled their notes into a book whose initial limited edition release was packaged with a special gift: a vial of honey, of course.

El-Mohtar says this winter will be an incredibly busy season. She’ll be writing literature reviews for NPR, editing Goblin Fruit, dabbling in podcasting, and collecting all of her work in hopes of publishing it in a single volume. She’ll be doing this during her first semester teaching creative writing to third-year U of O students.

“I’ve chosen to teach a course that has a fairly strong fantasy focus because there are all sorts of reasons (that) genre literature is just fantastic, and has so much to offer in terms of both reading and writing it. So I’m really keen to get started on that.”

As for her sweet obsession with honey? “I can never get sick of it,” she says.