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Nasser HussainUWindsor grad Nasser Hussain (MFA 2003) has returned to his alma mater as writer-in-residence.

Constraints spark creativity for writer-in-residence

Writer Nasser Hussain slaps on figurative handcuffs, then puts pen to paper.

UWindsor’s current writer-in-residence, he recently published SKY WRI TEI NGS, a book of poems written entirely from the three-letter international codes for airports. One day last week, he began working on poems that would be easy to carve into a desk because the words contain no letters with curved lines. His working title: “Poems I can Write with a Knife.”

Dr. Hussain is a master of constraint-based writing. “It’s fun,” he said. “I don’t ever want my poetry to be hard to understand or stuffy.”

Hussain is in Windsor for the month of January while Leeds Beckett University in England — where he teaches — is on break. In addition to doing a reading Jan. 16 at 4 p.m. in Vanier Hall’s Katzman Lounge, he is sitting in on classes in the English department, and is available to students as a writing coach.

“We in the English department wanted to bring Nasser Hussain here not only because of the calibre of his work but because he is a generous and enthusiastic mentor,” said professor Susan Holbrook. “We knew that his work would inspire and that he would dedicate his thoughtful editing skills to all the writers who wish to submit work and consult with him.”

Dr. Holbrook said SKY WRI TEI NGS is her favourite book of 2018. She introduced it to her own students and had them try their hands at Hussain’s style of conceptual writing.

“The students really took to that assignment,” Holbrook said. “His work is innovative.”

The University has long maintained a writer-in-residence program, with visitors staying for as little as two weeks to as long as an entire academic year. Early writers-in-residence here included CanLit icons Morley Callaghan and W.O. Mitchell; the program has represented all genres.

Hussain graduated from the University of Windsor with a master’s degree in creative writing in 2003 before going on to earn a PhD in literature from the University of York in England.

While Hussain was a student here, renowned Canadian novelist Alistair MacLeod was a faculty member. Hussain said MacLeod’s corner office on the second floor of Chrysler Hall North is hallowed ground. “Now it’s like, ‘Wait. What? I get sit in here?’”

Sitting in that office, Hussain tells the story of the former captain of England’s cricket team, also named Nasser Hussain, who wrote a book called Playing with Fire. Hussain said his amused friends routinely send him photos of themselves posing with the autobiography. Hussain will get the last laugh: he is writing his take on the book, calling it “Playing with Playing with Fire by Nasser Hussain by Nasser Hussain.”

His quirky, accessible approach to literature is a far cry from the critical analyses he did in his doctoral studies, he admits. He finds what he’s doing now much more rewarding. Take his favourite poem from his latest book — the one based on airport codes.

EVA AND BOB
(HER MAD COW BOY TOY)
ATE ALL THE PIE.
CUT AND RUN, KID.
THE LAD LAY LOW
BUT HIS MRS
MRS HIM.

Passengers waiting in airport lounges could devise their own poems from the arrival and departure boards.

“It’s such a tedious space,” said Hussain. “This would bring some joy to it.”

A stranger having a beer in a train station gave him the idea for one poem. Fans write to him using the same form.

“That’s what’s fun about it. It’s malleable, democratic, open.”

Hussain can be found until Jan. 28 by chance or by phoning to make an appointment at 519-253-3000, ext. 2288.

His reading Wednesday is free and open to the public.

—Sarah Sacheli