A photo of Adrian De Leon.
Adrian De Leon spent his fourth year as a creative writing student at U of T Scarborough writing a poem at every subway stop on the TTC, from west to east, for his first book, "Rouge." (Photo by Alexa Battler)
Friday, October 26 - 2018
Alexa Battler

Adrian De Leon was living a block away from Danzig Street when one of the worst mass shootings in the city’s history took place in Scarborough.

“I think we all felt a shift in how we wanted to reclaim how to represent our neighbourhood, our community,” De Leon says. “We wanted to show we can work through this collective community trauma in really productive ways.”

For De Leon, a U of T Scarborough alum finishing his PhD in the Department of History, Scarborough’s recovery manifested in a book of poetry, called Rouge. The book, which De Leon first wrote for a creative writing class, was released on Oct. 26. It is the first full-length book published by a former creative writing student at U of T Scarborough.

“When you talk about a particular event, they specify the intersection if it’s in Toronto. If it’s in Scarborough, they just say Scarborough,” he says. “I think we’re still kind of reeling from that moment, we’re still generating as that which is not consumed by Toronto.”

From 2013 to 2014, De Leon travelled to every subway stop on the TTC, researching and observing as he went. He wrote each of the book’s poems at the subway stop it is named for, starting at the end of the four lines and moving eastward.

No matter how tired or dilapidated the station stop he found a “poetic moment.” He says his most traditionally beautiful poem was written at Bessarion Station, one of the most underused stops on the subway system. It’s a sonnet about the station, which was built in anticipation of a condo boom that never happened.

The book traverses across poetic forms, points of view, history and community, from playful odes to somber reflections.

“Maybe the genre itself is the city,” he says. “The city becomes the poem.”

For Broadview and Castle Frank stations, De Leon wrote about the brief moment of cell service riders get when travelling across an outdoor section of the track. Dundas is a set of haikus on how to make the TTC operator hate you. Rosedale is written in crude computer code.

The book culminates in a pair of poems, both titled Rouge. The first takes media responses, tweets, songs and text messages from during and after the Danzig Street shooting and deconstructs them into a poem. The second is a lyrical response to the event.

The poems, and book, were named for the Rouge Valley. Rouge is also French for the iconic colour of the TTC. Red, De Leon says, is also a complex colour — one that is “a very visceral, bloody colour, but also the colour of resistance, or of love.”

“It also draws attention to the Rouge Valley itself,” De Leon says. “Even as I’m writing about the infrastructure of the city, I’m not just locating it in Scarborough, it’s right here, the Rouge Valley area. This is where it all happens.”

Growing up in Scarborough, De Leon spent his time hiking the Rouge Valley, exploring the Scarborough Bluffs and frequenting community areas, like parks and strip malls. But he rarely went to downtown Toronto.

While transit is now a medium and muse, it was often a barrier for De Leon. He regularly took the “dizzying” trip on the 116 bus, and would often get carsick as the bus hit potholes on the road. As he grew up, he watched families wake up earlier and earlier when bus routes were changed or made less frequent.

“I drew that connection with this book, behind the kind of othering of Scarborough as that which is at the east, but is infrastructurally made inaccessible,” De Leon says, mentioning the gradual movement of funding away from Scarborough.

His favourite poem was written at Warden station, about the Jamaican patties and cocoa bread sold in the upper level. This is where his work in food studies, which he entered his PhD for, comes in. His PhD research also incorporates his background in history.

Last year, De Leon was awarded a prestigious Fulbright Scholarship for his research, and travelled to Seattle and Hawaii to gather data. His research focuses on rethinking Philippine ethnic history in the U.S., by exploring how migrant workers and Indigenous people have been racialized through history.

“I’m really interested in how everyday people try to make life and try to make sense of life, wherever they are.”

A book launch for “Rouge” will be held on Oct. 30 at U of T Scarborough’s Doris McCarthy Gallery.