By Elizabeth Sargeant
Toronto hasn’t always been the magical place that Ryerson alumnus and Ukrainian-Canadian author Michael Warenycia now knows and loves. Born and raised in Scarborough, Warenycia dropped out of high school early to live in Sint Maarten in the Netherlands after realizing the 9-to-5 that life the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) had to offer just wasn’t for him.
But after a two-and-a-half year stint on the Caribbean island, Warenycia decided he needed a change of scenery and wanted to pursue a post-secondary degree.
In 2008, he flew back to Toronto but soon realized that the city he once knew had changed, and what he perceived as “the Canadian dream” no longer existed. “I saw that ‘work hard, buy a house, buy a car’…didn’t exist anymore. It embittered me to the system I see around me,” he said. “It made me pay attention to certain things in a different way.”
Despite his disenchantment with Toronto, Warenycia enrolled in Ryerson University’s criminology program at 25-years-old. He quickly became transfixed by the good, the bad and the ugly of the area that he had grown up in.
Noticing these aspects of downtown life inspired him to write. “I felt an urgent need to just capture [what I noticed] and in the dignity of the written word, I made a book,” he said.
“I saw that ‘work hard, buy a house, buy a car’…didn’t exist anymore”
Thus began Warenycia’s journey as a writer and poet, creating Cities of the Plain: Poems and Stories from Modern Toronto, a book of short stories and poems about the GTA.
The 165-page book combines the modern aspects of the simple life of a Ryerson student in Toronto with the whimsical old English language of the 1800s.
“The styles of my poetry, they come from the BMV by Ryerson,” said Warenycia. The BMV is a discounted book store located at the intersection of Yonge and Edward streets. “They have a lot of used books, like the British romantics Lord Byron and William Wordsworth. It’s a really old-fashioned style that I heavily borrowed from.”
Cities of the Plain is illustrated by Warenciya’s twin brother Steven, whose experience at the University of Toronto also heavily influenced Warenycia’s writing. Juxtaposed with the melancholic tone of the poetry, the bright pictures his brother illustrated for the book feel contradictory. However, Warenycia said that’s exactly what he wanted.
“[Steven’s] style is sort of cartoonish. We figured it really balanced the dialogue in a lot of the poems and stories. They have very dark themes, maybe a little bit depressing. The art serves as sort of a humourous balance.”
Although many poems and stories featured in the book romanticize experiences like a trip to Kensington Market or a bustling grocery store on Yonge and Finch, Warenycia doesn’t shy away from the darker sides of the city that Ryerson students are also exposed to.
“There’s this wonderful, really interesting, fascinating picture of life”
“I am sort of looking at all the nasty sides of life, but not necessarily with a sense of judgment, just ‘this is interesting.’ That’s something I try to incorporate to a certain extent in my poems and also my stories.”
In his book, Warenycia details aspects of living in the city that some choose to not think about, like the life of a struggling barista or having no choice but to take public transit in the wintertime. Warenycia said that throughout his time at Ryerson, about a third of the people he knew worked as baristas, which percolated into many of his poems and stories.
“They’re not traditional poetic subjects,” said Warenycia. “They’re not the things that are going to get into the history books. I felt this especially after I’d left [Toronto]. There’s this wonderful, really interesting, fascinating picture of life.”
However, it wasn’t just the subtle moments of the surrounding downtown area that inspired his writing. Warenycia said a certain professor, Terry Roswell, who taught Caribbean studies courses at Ryerson, motivated him to create this work.
“He was an influential fellow. He really encouraged discussion and debate. It was a really positive experience [being in his classroom] and he encouraged me that you don’t have to be a factory worker for all your life.”
Now, Warenycia has left the city and moved to Jamaica, where he previously worked for the country’s Chamber of Commerce and is currently finishing his law degree. He said he misses the magic of Toronto that inspired him to write in the first place.
“It’s the environment of the city. The shopping, even if you’re not necessarily buying stuff, just going and seeing people, talking to people. The sights, the sounds, the smells,” said Warenycia.
“People, I miss people.”