August 9, 2023 | Alumni

Poet Laboni Islam on how her literary passion was sparked by U of T

By Megan Mueller

Laboni Islam smiling

As an undergrad majoring in English and Visual Studies at the University of Toronto, Laboni Islam (BA 2002 UC, BEd 2003 OISE), was an active member of the Hart House Student Literary and Library Committee. She went on to earn a teaching degree at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) from 2002 to 2003. During this time, she continued on the Committee as Secretary. As an alumna (2003-2004), she served as a senior member of this Committee.

The literary passion stemming from this Hart House Committee clearly took root: In 2010, Laboni joined the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing Program, with a focus on poetry. “Here, I dug deeply into my writing, and my skills as a poet began to flourish,” she explains.

a passion for poetry

Today, this successful alumna is an emerging poet who has been in the spotlight for several years. She was the recipient of the Janice Colbert Poetry Award (2014) and the Marina Nemat Award (2016) ‒ accolades that are part of U of T’s School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing Program.

Her poem “Lunar Landing, 1966” was shortlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize (2017).  Her poetry has been anthologized in The Unpublished City (Book*hug, 2017), which was curated by Dionne Brand and shortlisted for the Toronto Book Awards in 2018. Laboni is also the author of the chapbook Light Years (Baseline Press, 2022). Her second chapbook is coming out this summer. It will be published by ignitionpress.

Printed pamphlets spread on a table
Laboni’s 2022 chapbook "Light Years." Photo by Baseline Press. 

Additionally, she works as an Art Educator at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) where she provides virtual school programs ‒ daily, guided curriculum-based art explorations for students.

the years of experimentation

Laboni notes the role of Hart House in her evolution as a writer and poet. “The House was part of my journey, and I was a part of its story. As a member of the Literary and Library Committee, I was happy to work with dedicated teams on six issues of the Hart House Review, twice as co-editor.” The Hart House Review is a literary and art magazine published by Hart House since 1991 and printed at Coach House Press in Toronto. 

Laboni particularly enjoyed the variety of creative ventures. “Ours were the years of experimentation with different papers, themes and student art wrapped right around the cover of the Hart House Review. We began expanding the publication, interviewing established writers and including excerpts from those writers, such as Rohinton Mistry, whose literary careers began at Hart House,” she says, adding, “The Hart House Review has enjoyed national distribution, thanks to the vision and stewardship of generations after my time there.”

The library at Hart House
Committee meetings took place in the Hart House Library.

Laboni’s family was also a major source of inspiration. Her maternal grandfather, Syed Rafiquddin Ahmad, was a professor of English at Dhaka College. Her maternal grandmother, Nurun Nahar, was a poet, translator, novelist and writer of short stories in what is now Bangladesh.

Her younger sister, Doyali Islam, is a published poet whose work was shortlisted for the esteemed Griffin Poetry Prize and Ontario's Trillium Book Award for Poetry in 2020. Laboni says her sister showed her the way. “When the author is someone you know intimately, who goes through that process, it’s huge. My sister’s journey and writing were a huge inspiration to me.”

She adds, “Seeing behind the scenes of writing, makes it seem more possible because when you go to a bookstore or library to pick up a published work, you don't see the head, heart and labour that went into it."

Creative connections on campus

Looking back on her U of T years, she says, “Hart House was home on campus. It’s where I felt most connected to a curious and creative learning community.  It’s a place I’ve returned to with friends and family, to visit the gallery [the Art Museum at the University of Toronto], attend the annual lecture and enjoy performances in the Hart House Theatre and meals in the Arbor Room.”

Laboni was also a member of the Hart House Board of Stewards, and she served as a Hart House Mentor in 2017/2018. Last November, she had a chance to return to the House when the Committee hosted Baseline Press’ Fall launch of four chapbooks, one of which was hers – every copy hand-sewn beautifully by publisher Karen Schindler.

“Family and friends from Hart House days past gathered for the occasion. The openness and generosity of Day Milman [Manager, Integrated Arts Education]; Zoe Dille [Manager, Dialogue & Expression]; Aayu Pandey and Allison Zhao, Co-Chairs of the Committee; and Subhi Jha, one of the Committee's equity and diversity officers and event organizers, made that full-circle moment possible,” Laboni says.

Laboni has wonderful memories of working with the Committee, “being in the Hart House Library, gathering for Committee meetings on red couches (now located elsewhere in the House), surrounded by very enthusiastic [loud, clunking] old radiators …” she says. “I remember making book displays, sorting, labelling, cataloguing, shelving and re-shelving books with friends. I still feel connected to the collection and the space.”

Laboni has two tips for students, the first being to explore. “Hart House is a wonderful, multidisciplinary space. Chances are you’ll find a club, committee, event or activity that resonates and puts you in touch with kindred spirits,” she says.

Her second tip is to listen. “Listen to the writer inside you. Know that writer can emerge at any age and the literary ecosystem needs many voices and narratives.”

Originally published by Hart House

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