a cliché by any other name… & an announcement ;)

I couldn’t get past the fifth page of a crime novel I’d borrowed from a friend when I read, “a tear rolled down his cheek.” I reported this to my friend who told me to get over myself (this is why she is my friend). But I couldn’t.

What’s wrong with “a tear rolled down his cheek”? For one, where else is a tear going to roll, unless the crier is hanging upside down, which he was not in this case. It was just the knowing that I’ve read about single tears rolling down sad cheeks so many times I ardently refused to care for one more of them. Why the hell should I? On page five, the investment just wasn’t there.

Intelligent, arrogant, British novelist Martin Amis said that, “literature is a war against clichés.” In an interview with Charlie Rose, Amis added that, “whenever you write ‘the heat was stifling,’ or ‘she rummaged in her handbag,’ – this is dead freight.” He calls novelty expressions (“been there, done that, got the T-shirt”; “hellooo” etc.) herd words. “Cliché,” he says, “is herd writing, herd thinking, and even herd feeling.”

Single words have become clichéd, particularly “suddenly.” If we write that “suddenly” main character X jumped off the roof or was hit in the face with a club, we have robbed our readers of the shock we no doubt intended. “Suddenly” has the effect of softening the blow by warning readers. Better to just start with the sound of the cracked head. If that’s your thing. Using “suddenly” is a good example of Hannah Arendt’s warning that “clichés, stock phrases, adherence to conventional, standardized codes of expression and conduct have the socially recognized function of protecting us against reality.” It may facilitate ease in social situations (“Lovely day, isn’t it?” “Cold enough for you?” is much less awkward than “I don’t know about you but my existential angst is ruining my life despite meds, therapy and regular exercise”), but it ruins otherwise good writing.

I know writing instructors who forbid their poetry students the use of certain words: sunrise, sunset, heartfelt, heart, ocean, tree, cloud, sky and even the word love. This is unreasonable, you say, these are just words. But they are not ‘just’ words anymore. We’ve heard or read them too often. Please never put me in an old folks’ home called Sunset Manor. I will just hire a teenager to graffiti its anagram on the outside wall: “Anus Monster.” That’ll teach my kids.

It’s not that we can’t use these words, and writing instructors know this; they are simply tired of reading the hackneyed phrases that signal lazy, unimaginative writing. Of course you can write about clouds and sky — if you can write about them like E. Annie Proulx does in The Shipping News (1992):

A few torn pieces of early morning cloud the shape and color of salmon fillets. The tender greenish sky hardening as they drove between high snowbanks. A rim of light flooded up, drenched the car. Quoyle’s yellow hands with bronze hairs, holding the wheel, Wavey’s maroon serge suit like cloth of gold. Then it was ordinary daylight, the black and white landscape of ice, snow, rock and sky (p. 294).

“Torn pieces” of cloud, “the shape and color of salmon fillets.” And not a blue sky, but a “tender greenish sky.” Light flooding can be a cliché, but here the water metaphor is extended:  ”light flooded up, drenched the car.” Light that drenches. Beautiful. And at the end of this section, E. Annie Proulx writes an ordinary sentence, because it was, after all, “ordinary daylight, the black and white landscape of ice, snow, rock and sky.”

In his 1954 nobel prize acceptance speech, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “It is because we have had such great writers in the past that a writer is driven far out past where he can go, out to where no one can help him.” He wasn’t writing about clichés (or women!), necessarily, but his point encompasses the problem of clichés. When we write, we write after Shakespeare, Milton, George Eliot, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin, Alice Munro… We shouldn’t think about this too much, but we should think about it. The more writers stacked up in the decades and centuries behind us, the more difficult it is to write something original, even just something good. Just now I had to stop myself from starting a sentence about how we are “swimming in a sea of…”

Good luck writing about the sea. Or the shore in particular. Many waves before ours have lapped the shore, or crashed on the beach. And please don’t make your characters have sex on a deserted beach. Especially under moonlight. Or complain about the sand in their groins later, coyly or otherwise.

This is the problem: clichés roll off our tongues. I didn’t intend that one but perversely, it helps make my point. They are easy because they are neatly tucked away in our overworked and under-slept brains. They confer meaning quickly. They are friendly, really; they mean well. But in a piece of writing, they don’t mean, well, anything really.

Clichés in literature are not just a problem of the amateur or early-career writer. American author Donna Tartt’s immensely popular novel The Goldfinch (2013) was slammed for, among other things, the clichés on its bestselling pages. In an article in Vanity Fair, (July 2014), Evgenia Peretz writes:

In The New York Review of Books, novelist and critic Francine Prose wrote that, for all the frequent descriptions of the book as “Dickensian,” Tartt demonstrates little of Dickens’s remarkable powers of description and graceful language. She culled both what she considered lazy clichés (“Theo’s high school friend Tom’s cigarette is ‘only the tip of the iceberg.’ … The bomb site is a ‘madhouse’ ”) and passages that were “bombastic, overwritten, marred by baffling turns of phrase.” “Reading The Goldfinch,” Prose concluded, “I found myself wondering, ‘Doesn’t anyone care how something is written anymore?’”… A book like The Goldfinch doesn’t undo any clichés—it deals in them,” says Lorin Stein, editor of The Paris Review, perhaps the most prestigious literary journal in America. “It coats everything in a cozy patina of ‘literary’ gentility.”

Ouch. I’m sure that annoyed Tartt all the way to the, well, you know.

As well as single words and expressions, there are also clichéd beginnings to stories (short or novel length), clichéd characters and character traits, plots, twists, endings and titles. You can find good advice about all of these on a number of sites, but I recommend editor Ellen Brock’s videos on the subject.

We shouldn’t start a story with a person in bed, just getting up, or sitting in a plane/train/car/jail cell thinking about her or his life. True, Kafka wrote a story about a man waking up and realizing he was a bug, but that was “The Metamorphosis” and he wrote it first and best.

A detective story shouldn’t start with a hungover, bleary-eyed detective, especially if his wife has left him. There have been too many. Drunk and lonely detectives, I mean. Yes, you will rightly argue, it works in Hollywood, over and over. True, but the big money behind Hollywood relies on the success of formula writing and millions of dollars of visual effects. Most publishers won’t even let you use a second font.

Now I am fighting the suburban urge to end this on a lighter note. A cliché in itself. Some writers advise that, for your first draft, advice be damned — just write like a demon until “the end” and only worry about the sentences/images/themes/characters later. I think this is good advice, particularly for those of us who get tied up in the fear and anxiety brought on by perfectionism. But perhaps we could start to worry just a bit during that first draft, in order to train ourselves out of habits we didn’t even know we had. The best advice is to read more, and more widely (am I the only one who worries that there are more aspiring writers than readers anymore?).

Consider Kafka’s wonderful image: “every word first looks around in every direction before letting itself be written down by me.”


Announcing… DescantOnline.com

In February, a few people noticed that the Descant.ca website and blog vanished for a couple of weeks. While the descant.ca site is temporarily back up, it will be coming down soon.

Next week, the new descantonline.com will go live. The new site will host this blog and a wide variety of resources for writers. As well as serving as an online archive for Descant magazine, which folded in 2015, the new site will post previously-published Descant submissions (including some funky stuff going back to the less-conservative 70s). And… who knows what else will happen there ;)

I’ll send a link in this blog when it’s up and ready. Heads up, it works best if you are using the latest Chrome browser. Safari will work ok. Firefox, not so much.





David Bowie continues –>

Like you, I awoke today to the news of the death of David Bowie, one of the greatest musicians and creative forces of the 20th century. Last week, in a career spanning 50 years, his 25th album, Blackstar, was released, just two days before he died, at age 69.

“I’m just an individual who doesn’t feel that I need to have somebody qualify my work in any particular way. I’m working for me.” 60 Minutes, 2002.

In November, 2013, I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario’s exhibit, David Bowie Is. It’s fair to say I was literally stunned as I walked around the rooms trying to take in the enormity of his creative force.

Here’s the blog I wrote after that experience, about how David Bowie’s life and art will inspire you as a writer. At the time, we were planning the launch of our Berlin issue (guest edited by Katie Franklin), so the chipper tone of the blog reflects this, as well as my still-awestruck fangirly response to the AGO’s exhibit.

“I don’t know where I’m going from here but I promise it won’t be boring.” Madison Square Gardens on his 50th birthday.

RIP David Bowie.

Photo by Jimmy King for Rolling Stone.

Photo by Jimmy King for Rolling Stone.

Literistic gives you more time to write: exclusive buy-1-get-1 offer for Descant blog readers

I know, I know – this year you didn’t write as much as you’d promised yourself you would. Writing more, and getting published, will be the first thing on your list of New Year’s resolutions. Again. Don’t lose heart, help is on the way. We have a birthday/Christmas/seasonal gift for you, dear reader, that will recharge and reward your writing life for all of 2016.

Sign up for a year of Literistic and get a second subscription for a friend, for free. Exclusive to Descant blog readers, until December 26, 2015. Details below.


Literistic doesn’t accept advertising or sponsored listings. Website Illustrations by George Bletsis.

Literistic is a literary submissions service that replaces all the work you do on that spreadsheet you’ve carefully developed over the years. The one for which you spend hours painstakingly combing the internet for cool new journals and respected lit mags that cater to your particular genre and style of writing. On the first of each month, Literistic emails you a customized, curated list of Canadian, UK and US publications in the genres you request, as well as contests, fellowships and residency opportunities. Literistic is the writing assistant you desperately need.

A sample list (from February, 2015), looks like this.

Victoria, BC-based Founding Editors Liam Sarsfield and Jessie Jones officially launched Literistic in June, 2015, and now receive hundreds of new subscribers each month. I had a phone chat with Liam who told me that 70% of their subscribers are American fiction writers and about 25% are Canadian writers. Liam says they started out focusing on listings relevant to young, ambitious writers fresh out of MFA programs, but, says Liam, “I was wrong about who it’s for. It turns out that career writers are Literistic’s biggest proponents.” Liam, a freelance tech designer for software start-ups, says that one in twenty subscribers takes the time to email a thank you. “It’s amazing,” he told me, “because I’ve helped develop platforms that millions of people end up using, but I never heard from any of them!”

Follow Literistic on Twitter @literistic.

Follow Literistic on Twitter @literistic.

Liam and partner Jessie Jones, who also works full-time outside of her work on Literistic, now have the curation down to a fine art. It’s still mostly compiled manually. Liam says that Jessie does the lion’s share of the work to find new publications for the lists: “Jessie is the kind of person who is up on everything literary. Like last year when I mentioned a new book I was going to read, it turned out she’d read it the year before.”

The last week and a half of each month Jessie and Liam spend their nights and weekends updating their massive database. What subscribers receive is a chronological list of upcoming deadlines, according to requested genres. This not only leaves you with more hours to write, but provides clear incentives. Especially if you tick off “paid submissions” for your list.


“The list is elegant, simple and immaculately organized. Its listings are diverse but thoughtful, comprehensive but not overwhelming. Best of all, the listings that you’ll receive are based on your subscriber preferences.”

Literistic is offering a buy-one-get-one deal to Descant blog readers. Subscribe to a year of Literistic and you will also get a year’s subscription for a friend, at no charge. It will cost you $38 for a year of personally curated lists (about a dime a day). In the new year the cost is going up to $48, so subscribing now is a good idea anyway.

Sign up here, then send Literistic an email (editors@literistic.com) to say you read about the deal on the Descant blog, and give them the name and email of the friend you’d like to sign up for free.

This offer ends December 26th, 2015, so, writers, don’t procrastinate (heh heh).

Let Literistic help you find relevant publications, manage deadlines and begin each month with an inspirational email that will nip at your heels while holding your hand. Writing well is hard enough. Do what successful business people do: hire good help.


“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” Kurt Vonnegut, advice to writers.



Get Published in 90+ Canadian Literary Magazines: lists, links & advice

Literary magazines are the source and resource for writers of poetry and prose. It’s where important conversations are sparked and sustained, reputations made and deliberated.

Whether you’re a dissident or member of the faithful, as a writer, literary magazines are a necessary and enduring part of our culture. Even as venerable oldies, like Descant, close up shop, new lit mags emerge. (We’re winking at you, untethered and Sewer Lid).

Warning: this post is for analyzers and  procrastinators. Taxonomically quirky. Possibly pedantic. Almost no math skills required. Bookmark under “crazy valuable.” Or “tl;dr.”

I’ve checked the current status of 90+ Canadian literary magazines (by verifying that info on their websites is up-to-date). I started out using this very good list from the National Magazine Awards blog, then added to it. I cringe to think of the stench of link rot within a year, but for this week I’m going out on a literary limb to say that what follows is the most current and comprehensive list of Canadian online and print literary magazines in the galaxy (where “most” means many-many-but-not-all).


Grain, unlike most magazines, has a specific reading period, currently from September 1, 2015 to May 31, 2016. Like Prairie Fire, The Fiddlehead and a few others, they accept only snail mail submissions.

The literary magazines listed in this blog include the long-respected and established, run by editorial boards and foundations, as well as the newer, mostly online magazines, run by dedicated and like-minded friends. My inclusion criteria was broad. I excluded only those whose websites looked more like they’re trying to sell something than publish your work, those that did not seem current by a few months, or those whose “contact” information was not listed (yep).

Below, the magazines are divided by: founding decade (to give you a sense of the longer-term and the newer players), supporting university/college (because these represent about 30% of Canadian lit mags), and province (I like to have a sense of who’s doing what, where). I’ve included what I thought was an interesting find from the National Magazine Awards blog about magazine nomination and contributor awards (because who doesn’t dream of winning one?). Most relevant to you, overwhelmed writer, some submission suggestions by genre.

These lists aren’t annotated so I’ll leave it to you to familiarize yourself with the magazines’ publication mandates on their “about” web pages. The good folks at Lexical.ca are working on such a listing so follow them for updates.

(some) Canadian literary magazines by decade

Canadian literary magazines can be traced back to the late 1700s, but most of the ones we have on our shelves now are a result of a boom that started in the 1960s when university-supported literary quarterlies became popular. Some of the most respected lit mags have been around even longer. Acta Victoriana was founded in 1878, the Dalhousie Review in 1921, The Fiddlehead in 1945, and Canadian Literature and PRISM both in 1959.


The Fiddlehead. One of Canada’s oldest lit mags (New Brunswick).

From the 1960s, including: Canadian Notes & Queries, The Malahat Review, THIS Magazine, and The Windsor Review.

From the 1970s, including: The Antigonish Review, Arc Poetry, Brick, CV2, The Capilano Review, Descant [ceased publication 2015], Event, Exile, Existere, Grain, Prairie Fire, Rampike and Room.

From the ’80s and ’90s, including: Broken Pencil, Carousel, The Danforth ReviewExit, revue des poesie, Filling Station, Freefall, Geist, The Hart House Review, The Literary Review of Canada, The Nashwaak Review, The New Quarterly, On Spec, QWERTY, Ricepaper, Scarborough Fair, Sub-Terrain, Taddle Creek, and XYZ.

Since 2000, including: Carte Blanche, The Dorchester Review, Echolocation, Eighteen Bridges, The Feathertale Review, Geez, Glass Buffalo, Guts, Hamilton Arts & Letters, Hazlitt, The Humber Literary Review, Little Brother, Maisonneuve, (parenthetical), The Maynard, Plenitude, Poetry is Dead, The Puritan, Riddle Fence, The Rusty Toque, Shameless, text, untethered, and Vallum.

In 2015, including: Canthius, Cede, MacroMicroCosm, Petal Journal, Polymath, and Sewer Lid.

university- and college-based Canadian literary magazines

About 30% of Canadian literary magazines are university- or college-based. Some of these magazines are run by students, but not all. Being supported by an institute of higher learning no longer ensures longevity. Just ask The Capilano Review. In alphabetical order, they are:

Acta Victoriana (University of Toronto), The Antigonish Review (St. Francis Xavier University, Nova Scotia), Canadian Literature (University of British Columbia), Carousel (University of Guelph), The Dalhousie Review (Dalhousie University, Halifax), Echolocation (University of Toronto), Eighteen Bridges (University of Alberta), Event (Douglas College, BC), Existere (York University, Toronto), The Fiddlehead (University of New Brunswick), The Fieldstone Review (U of Saskatchewan), Glass Buffalo (University of Alberta), The Hart House Review (University of Toronto), The Humber Literary Review (Humber College), Joypuke (Mt. Allison, New Brunswick), The Malahat Review (University of Victoria), Matrix (Concordia University), The Nashwaak Review (St. Thomas University, New Brunswick), The New Quarterly (St. Jerome’s University, Waterloo), NōD (University of Calgary), PRISM (University of British Columbia), Queen’s Quarterly (Queen’s University, Kingston), QWERTY (University of New Brunswick), Rampike (University of Windsor), Soliloquies (Concordia, Montreal), and Windsor Review (University of Windsor).

list of Canadian literary magazines by province & territory

Maybe you’re deeply loyal to the geographical terra firma of your writing youth and want to support the literary magazines that first inspired or supported you. Or perhaps you’d like to be able to say you’ve had pieces published in each region (whatever motivation works, people!). Otherwise, sorting Canadian literary magazines by region isn’t particularly helpful for your publication purposes, but it does help with the mental map of knowing who is where. Let’s face it, if a company exists “online,” isn’t your first thought still, “but online where?”

Ontario has the largest population, so you’d expect the most literary magazines to come from there (36 in list below). But the smaller east coast boasts nine literary magazines, two of which are the oldest literary magazines in Canada (Dalhousie Review and Fiddlehead). Only one listed below for Saskatchewan, but it’s Grain, a well-respected journal. [Two! - just added The Fieldstone Review -- thanks for the intel, Nicole Haldoupis.]

British Columbia: Ascent Aspirations Magazine (Victoria), baldhip (Victoria), Canadian Literature (UBC, Vancouver), The Capilano Review (Vancouver), Cede Poetry (Vancouver), Event (Douglas College, New Westminster), Forget (Vancouver),  Geist (Vancouver), MacroMicroCosm, The Malahat Review (UVic), The Maynard, Plenitude (Victoria), OK Magpie (Okanagan), Poetry is Dead (Vancouver), Polymath, PRISM International (UBC, Vancouver), Ricepaper (Vancouver), Room (Vancouver), Sad Mag (Vancouver), sub-Terrain (Vancouver), and text (Nanaimo).

Yukon: One Throne (Dawson City).

Alberta, Saskatchewan and ManitobaCV2 (Winnipeg), Eighteen Bridges (U of A, Edmonton), The Fieldstone Review (U of Saskatchewan), Filling station (Calgary), Freefall (Calgary), Geez (Winnipeg), Glass Buffalo (U of A, Edmonton), Grain (Saskatoon), NōD (U of Calgary), On Spec (Edmonton), Prairie Fire (Winnipeg), The Prairie Journal (Calgary),  Rhubarb (Winnipeg), and The Winnipeg Review (Winnipeg).

Ontario: Acta Victoriana (Toronto), Arc Poetry Mazazine (Ottawa), Brick (Toronto), Bywords (Ottawa), Canadian Notes & Queries (Windsor), Canadian Poetry (London), Carousel (Guelph), The Danforth Review (Toronto), The Dorchester Review (Ottawa), Echolocation (Toronto), Existere (Toronto), Exile (Toronto), The Feathertale Review (Ottawa), Guts (Toronto), Hamilton Arts & Letters (Hamilton), The Humber Literary Review (Toronto), The Literary Review of Canada (Toronto), The New Quarterly (Waterloo), Ottawater (Ottawa), Petal Journal (Toronto), Pictures & Portraits (Toronto), The Puritan (Toronto), Queen’s Quarterly (Kingston), The Quilliad (Toronto), Rampike (Windsor), The Rusty Toque (Toronto and London), Scarborough Fair (Toronto), Seventeen Seconds (Ottawa), Sewer Lid (Toronto), Shameless (Toronto),  The Steel Chisel (Ottawa), Taddle Creek (Toronto), THIS Magazine, untethered (Toronto), Tracer (Toronto), and Windsor Review (Windsor).

Quebec: Carte Blanche (Montreal), Exit, revue des poesie (Montreal), Lettres quebecoises (Montreal), Maisonneuve (Montreal), Matrix (Concordia U, Montreal), Nouveau Projet (Montreal), Soliloquies (Concordia, Montreal), Vallum (Montreal), and XYZ (Ville Saint-Laurent).

East Coast: The Antigonish Review (Nova Scotia), The Dalhousie Review (Nova Scotia), The Fiddlehead (New Brunswick), The Impressment Gang (Halifax), Joypuke (Mt. Allison, New Brunswick), The Nashwaak Review (New Brunswick), QWERTY (New Brunswick), Riddle Fence (Newfoundland & Labrador), Understorey Magazine (Nova Scotia).

Canada/US: The Mackinac (one editor lives in Canada, one in the US)

( a few) Canadian literary magazines by genre

To find the most appropriate home for your work it’s advisable to read back issues of literary magazines. But, it’s also true, IMHO, that many (the majority?) of mainstream Canadian lit mags don’t distinguish themselves that sharply from one another. If your short story or creative non-fiction essay or poem is good, it could potentially be published in one of dozens of magazines.

An increasing number of new magazines are hybrid (available on paper and online) or online only, making it easier to access and assess their content. Still think print is (more) prestigious? Consider this: Canadian print magazines have astonishingly small circulation numbers (usually in the hundreds or low thousands; very low) while online publication has the potential to reach … a gajillion more. That wasn’t the math part of the blog.

Some, like The Puritan, exist only online but will occasionally publish a print anthology. More literary magazines are moving toward publishing at least some of their print content online, or publishing different content online than in their print version, like The Humber Literary Review does.

Join THLR to celebrate their latest launch on Nov.30th at The Steady in Toronto.

Join THLR to celebrate the launch of issue #4, on Nov. 30th at The Steady in Toronto.

If your work fits into a specific genre, then the good and bad news is that there are a limited number of Canadian lit mags to which you can submit. It’s typically hard to find a good home for your work if you’re a sci-fi/horror/fantasy or speculative fiction writer. But you might consider new mags MacroMicroCosm,  and Polymath or the established and respected On Spec.

On Spec, the Canadian magazine of the fantastic.

On Spec, the Canadian magazine of the fantastic.

Not quite fantasy or spec fiction? Toronto-based online mag Tracer is looking for stories from you: “the weirder, wilder, and more dream-like the better.”

Most literary magazines accept poetry, but a few are more exclusively poetry-focused, such as ArcCede, CV2, The Mackinac, and Vallum. If you’re a young poet living on the west coast, Poetry is Dead is made for you.

Speaking of the wet coast, Sad Mag wants submissions from Vancouver-based “creatives” who are “ded­i­cated to cov­er­ing Vancouver’s inde­pen­dent arts and cul­ture.”

based in montreal...

Montreal-based Vallum.

If you’re an Ottawatian (Ottawater?) poet, check out Bywords and Ottawater, and send your interviews and essays to Seventeen Seconds (all edited by rob mclennan).

Plenitude looks for submissions from LGBTTQI writers, filmmakers, and artists. Some feminist/women’s journals include Room (the oldest), Petal Journal (the newest), Guts, and Understorey. Voicings publishes Aboriginal writing and art in Canada (though I’m not certain from their website that they’re still going and I haven’t heard back from them yet).

Shameless is a “voice for smart, strong, sassy young women and trans youth.” You can get involved by joining their writers’ database, or pitching them on a series of blogs.

There’s Geez for the “over-churched, out-churched, un-churched and maybe even the un-churchable,” and Rhubarb, for Menonites, “genetic, practicing, lapsed, declined, and resistant.”

I don’t know that The Fuck of the Century technically belongs on this list as a lit mag but the problem with lists is always who gets left out. So I’m including The Fuck of the Century for those of you who need it. I mean, for those of you who write about film and television culture. (Not that I could find the “submissions” link on their page).

Send BareBack your dark, humourous and gritty. And keep it short. Got something funny, highbrow or low? Try The Feathertale Review.

If game fiction is your genre, try Gold Shader. As I write this, their “about” link doesn’t work but they seem to be alive according to their YouTube channel and Twitter.

Leaning toward the academic with a piece of cultural or literary criticism? Try Canadian Literature, and Canadian Notes and Queries. See the submissions page of Hazlitt (Random House Canada’s online magazine) for how to pitch them your ideas for investigative research and cultural criticism. Edmonton’s Eighteen Bridges publishes “narrative journalism” as well as poetry and fiction.

Lynn Coady and xxx started Eighteen Bridges in xxxx. They publish narrative journalism as well as poetry and fiction.

Edmonton-based, Eighteen Bridges.

Wherefore art thou book reviewers? Send your much-needed literary book reviews to The Winnipeg Review, and The Literary Review of Canada. Try Broken Pencil for reviews of indie books and presses (as well as all things alternative). The Ottawa Review of Books accepts book reviews, though not poetry or fiction (which is why it’s not in any of the lists above). Many other magazines also accept book reviews along with poetry and fiction. Lemon Hound (2005-2015) has this list of interviews with writers on book reviewing. Much has been written in recent years lamenting the loss of the literary book review. Possibly there are now more writers than readers. This can’t end well.

Among other genres, Riddle Fence publishes fakelore (did you really need to look that up?).

get nominated –> get prizes –> get serious

A writer’s first award is a big confidence booster. Many say it’s the first award that makes you take your work (more) seriously. If you check out the National Magazine Awards blog you can see which literary magazines submitted the most nominations to, and received awards from, this annual competition: THIS Magazine (nominated 84 of their contributors), The Malahat Review (83), The New Quarterly (50), Prairie Fire (45) and so on.

By far the most number of nominations, 126, comes from Montreal-based Maisonneuve. Not surprisingly, their nominated writers have also received the most awards (34 of those 126 nominated).


Montreal-based Maisonneuve.

If your work is nominated by Geist, Hazlitt, The Malahat Review, or PRISM, you have at least a one-in-three chance of winning a national magazine award.

PRISM has the highest success ratio with their nominations, where 46% of the writers they nominate go on to win a National Magazine Award. Geist also has an impressive success rate for awards (40%). Okay, that was the math part. It’s over now.

Remember that it costs magazines between $95 and $120 for each nomination to the National Magazine Awards.

The Writers’ Trust awards the Writers’ Trust/McLelland & Stewart Journey Prize, the most prestigious prize in Canada for short story writers. This year’s winner is Deirdre Dore, for her story “Wise Baby” published in Geist. Prize winners receive $10,000 and, “in recognition of the vital role literary print and online magazines play in discovering new writers, McClelland & Stewart makes its own award of $2,000 to the publication that originally published and submitted the winning entry.

Canada's most prestigious prize for short story writers.

Canada’s most prestigious prize for short story writers. This year is No. 27.

Journey Prize shortlisted and winning stories are gathered in the annual Journey Prize Anthology. This year is number 27. You can buy it online or in  bookstores that carry literary magazines.

herein ends the primer… almost

Your homework is to examine the mastheads of Canadian literary magazines (look, if you got this far I know the kind of person you are so don’t roll your eyes). If you read these masthead names closely you can discern who is sleeping with whom and which assistant editors are the biggest drinkers. No, you can’t. But you should definitely try.

Now go back to that short story/poem/novel draft. You just read this blog post to procrastinate. It’s the reason I wrote it. But it’s a good kind of procrastination, isn’t it? It has fortified and inspired us.

For everything you need to know about how to get published in these magazines, download Toronto-based writer Ayelet Tsabari’s 50 page manual on the subject (free! if you thank her, which you should do by buying her award-winning book, The Best Place on Earth), and read BuzzFeed contributor Lincoln Michel’s, “The Ultimate Guide to Getting Published in a Literary Magazine.”

More magazines are leaning towards accepting multiple submissions (when you submit your story/poem to more than one lit mag at a time). Which is good because most of us do this anyway. Just make sure to inform the other magazines immediately upon acceptance of your piece elsewhere.

Subscribe to some of the above magazines’ blogs and follow your favourites on Twitter. It’s all part of the job.

It’s a lonely galaxy, lit peeps. Submit.


introducing InkWell: get your zombie on for their Halloween coming out fundraiser

When co-founders Eufemia Fantetti and Kathy Friedman tell people the idea behind InkWell Workshops, the reaction is often (unintentionally) anticlimactic:

“You mean that isn’t a thing already?”

inkwelllogocircleprelimlogoblackStarting in February 2016, InkWell Workshops will host creative writing classes for people with mental health challenges. I sat down with Eufemia to find out more about InkWell. Their first official event is a Halloween dance party fundraiser this Saturday, October 31, at The Steady Cafe and Bar in Toronto, MCd by Terri Favro. You’re invited to come dressed as a literary figure, zombified. Kathy’s going as a Gregor Samsa zombie. “Kathy is the cool one,” explains Eufemia. “She’s the reason we got Chandler Levack as our DJ.”

You are encouraged to come as a zombified (is that a word?) literary figure. Or as your bad-ass self.

You are encouraged to come as a zombified (is that a word?) literary figure. Or as your bad-ass self. Author Terri Favro will MC. (Poster designed by Kilby Smith-McGregor)

“The whole point of InkWell Workshops is to offer free creative writing classes for people with mental health issues, taught by instructors with lived experience of mental health issues,” Eufemia tells me over coffee. In 2010 she met Kathy Friedman when they were both MFA creative writing students at the University of Guelph. Eufemia had just moved to Toronto from the west coast: “In less than a year, I moved, my cat died and I lost five people in six months. Here I was in a new city with few friends and no work. I talked to Kathy at school one day and she was so kind to me. And I really needed her kindness at that moment.”

Eufemia, an English instructor at Humber College, has written about her family’s struggles with serious mental illness. “Writing is how I’ve been able to deal with it,” she says. She and Kathy became friends and eventually collaborators on InkWell Workshops. “We just thought, wouldn’t it be great to provide a respectful and safe space for people who know the words are in them — even if things get so tough they find they can barely read,” Eufemia told me. “There’s so much stigma still associated with mental illness. I see these workshops as a slap in the face to stigma, a chance for people who haven’t had a voice or been empowered, to be encouraged and supported that way.”


Eufemia Fantetti is an English instructor at Humber College. She is the author of A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love (Mother Tongue, 2014; reviewed by Descant here), winner of the F.G. Bressani Prize and runner up for the Writers’ Union Danuta Gleed Award. (Photo credit Ayelet Tsabari)

Kathy Friedman is...

Kathy Friedman teaches creative writing at the University of Guelph. Her writing has appeared in such publications as Grain, Geist, Room, Poetry is Dead, PRISM and The New Quarterly. She was a recent finalist for the Writers’ Trust of Canada Brownwen Wallace award. (Photo credit Edwin Chiu).

InkWell’s first community partner is the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Toronto. Eufemia, who has worked there in an administrative capacity, says she and Kathy have had great support from the CMHA’s Amy Wakelin, Manager of Peer Initiatives. The first InkWell classes will be held in the national organization’s new Toronto digs, in their social resource centre. As well as Kathy and Eufemia, other instructors are poet Jeff Latosik, writer and graphic designer Kilby Smith-McGregor, and novelist Andrea Thompson. Workshop participants will be people who access CMHA services.

For those of you who have ever attended a writing class where the teacher humiliated a participant (maybe you? you never forget that, do you?) you know first-hand how debilitating that can be. InkWell Workshops instructors are inspired and guided by the principles of the Amherst Writing Method, where kindness and insight trump ego and power-tripping. Instructors will focus on a learning environment that, according to Eufemia, minimizes stress and empowers participants: “It’s important to us to build a sense of safety in the room.”

InkWell’s mission is to run writing workshops for people with mental-health and addictions issues led by professional artists with lived experience of mental illness. We envision a vibrant community of writers and readers in which all live free from stigma. We are guided by values of Respect, Empowerment, Equity, Access, and Diversity.  ~ inkwellworkshops.com

If, while you’re reading this blog, you or someone you know is struggling with depression (BTW, 20% of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, according to the CMHA), we hope no one, not even the well-meaning, tries any of this on you. I prefer Rilke’s, “Just keep going. No feeling is final.” Not cheery, but not annoying either (a highly underrated quality, n’est-ce pas?).

Operating as a collective for now, Eufemia tells me that she and Kathy are working towards making InkWell Workshops a non-profit. The big dream is to get it up and running in communities across Canada, but for now their energies are directed to securing grants and getting the word out.

You can show your support by buying a ticket to their Halloween party fundraiser. Come as your favourite literary zombie or just stuff wads of discarded story drafts into your pockets and come as you are, as we all are: a work in progress.

Even if you can’t attend, you could show your support and buy a ticket anyway. Check out this list of prizes — you can bid on these, online, before Saturday. And, ssh, I’ve heard there will also be a little something-something from the Lemon Bucket Orkestra and Paul Vermeersch.

When: Saturday, October 31, 2015, 7:30 pm

Where: The Steady Cafe and Bar 1051 Bloor Street West (twixt Ossington and Dufferin)

Tickets are $10 in advance or $15 at the door

Facebook event page here.

The always charming and witty Terri Favro, author of The Proxy Bride, will MC the event. After a few short readings, the dancing starts.

Help spread the word and the goodwill. Send your congratulations and support via Twitter to @KathyFriedman7, @EufemiaFantetti and @InkWellW, or send them an email.

If “the moment of change is the only poem” (Adrienne Rich), then this is the moment and Inkwell Workshops is now a thing.


Code Orange: process & perils of poetry translation

Last month I was talking to that rare bird, the Canadian literary agent, as you do, and she said to me, “why do people think that children’s picture books have to be written in rhyme? It doesn’t translate. There go all the international translation rights!” A frog on a log is one thing, but une grenouille sur un rondin?

Just: no.

Funny how a casual comment can hook the brain into making all kinds of connections. I got to thinking about the translation of poetry. The grown-up kind.

For my 30th birthday, a good friend gave me Rilke’s Ahead of All Parting (Random House, Modern Library Edition, 1995, translated by Stephen Mitchell), the edition in which the original German is published alongside the English on facing pages. I don’t speak German but I liked having the original there. I asked a well-read German-speaking friend to tell me what he thought of the translation and he said it was very good and we had a long conversation about the nature of the translated poem. Is it a shadow of the original? A reflection? A referent? A new poem in its own right? I dimly recall there were poetic amounts of wine involved, so I can’t tell you what we decided. But he did read me Rilke in German and I swooned.

Wieviele von diesen Stellen der Räume waren schon/innen in mir. Manche Winde/sind wie mein Sohn.

How many regions in space have already been/inside me. There are winds that seem like/my wandering son.

(from The Sonnets to Orpheus, Second Part)

Black Moss Press, 2015

“Poetry is the sound one language makes when it escapes into another.” Elaine Equi

Every year at the Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist readings, I end up surreptitiously wiping away a tear after hearing a beautiful line in a poem read by the poet, in a language I know not a word of. I love that moment: it takes me by surprise, is ineffable and makes no rational sense. It is an exquisitely poetic moment.

According to a translator friend of mine, “The average person assumes that the process is an easy task as the translator is working with a finished text that only needs literal translation from one language to another. However, a literal translation does a disservice to the author of the text as each language has its own sentence structure, cadence, colour, idioms and culturally-based references which may be meaningless in another language.” Translators are not magical word changers; they are artists and writers in their own right.

Translation is as old as writing. Ancient Greek and Roman texts were translated and the Bible was translated from Classical Hebrew, first into Greek, and now in full in over 500 languages. How many languages are there? … No. Not even close. There are 6, 909 different planetary ways of saying “it’s not you it’s me.”

Some idioms simply can’t be translated literally.

Thankfully, poetry can be translated. Descant‘s former Editor-in-Chief, Karen Mulhallen, has just published her 16th book of poetry, Code Orange: An Emblazoned Suite (Black Moss Press, 2015) and she and I got to talking about the process of translation. Code Orange is the first book of her poetry in which she has been “intimately involved” with the translation; the poems are published in English and French, translated by Nancy Huston.

Karen has known Nancy Huston since the early 1990s. Nancy was born in Calgary but moved to France at 20 and has lived and worked there as a writer and translator for more than 40 years. She won the Governor General’s award for fiction in French for her book Cantique des Plaines (1993) and has won The Prix Goncourt des Lycéens.

I asked Karen about the process of working with a translator, the how-to of it. She said that she and Nancy met on Skype to discuss the poems and that it took them about 10 months to get through 12 poems. Nancy suggested the poems be published on facing pages, English and French, which meant issues with length as French translations tend to run longer than the English. More Skype calls and emails. “There was a lot of fact checking back-and-forth. It was a process for sure,” Karen told me.

“I began to write the Code Orange poems as a response to the invasions of Afghanistan and the media flurry of photographs. These are poems about states of war – within family, nation and culture.”

There were questions around syntax, word order and the shape of a line: “For example, in a section where there was a repetition, psalmic structure, Nancy would say to me,  ‘you would never do that in French in that way.’”

Similarly, sometimes Nancy, an acclaimed writer but not a poet, would ask Karen a technical question about the verb or subject of a longer poem. Karen was sometimes surprised because, for her, “it’s second nature for a poet to always know what’s running in apposition, even if it’s three or four stanzas apart.”

I had to ask: why did you ask a non-poet to translate your poems?

“I asked Nancy to do it because I admire her as a writer and we’re close friends and I knew she would be able to enter into the mental space of the text. I knew she would want to know why a certain thing was the way it was. That was for me the most important thing. Poetry, unlike expository prose, is a very intimate form, so I wanted to work with somebody I was intimate with. This was not an attempt at a colloquial equivalent. Nancy’s French is impeccable and she has the mental sympathy to enter into my poems.”

I like this idea of mental sympathy. It suggests a kind of intellectual simpatico, imbued with an ethic of care. And how else could a poem be made to live in another language? After all, Ar vienu valodu nekad nepietiek.

If you’ll be in Toronto, you are invited to attended the launch of Karen Mulhallen’s Code Orange: An Emblazoned Suite. In Descant-launch style, appetizers will be served. George Sawa will play his kanun, an instrument that is itself a kind of translation.

Sept 14, 2015

Café Pamenar, 7 pm

307 Augusta Avenue, in Kensington Market

Music by George Sawa, on the kanun.

If you will be in Paris two weeks later, as you do, you will be warmly welcomed into the most famous of literary launch spots, Shakespeare and Company, 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, Paris V. The left bank, n’est-ce pas.

We borrowed this montage from our friends at Lexical.ca.

We borrowed this montage from our friends at Lexical.ca.


Canada’s online resource for writers: introducing Lexical.ca

Barely a year before the magazine closed its doors, Justin Lauzon joined the Descant team of submissions readers in the cold winter months of 2014.  Eighteen months later, Justin’s literary life is heating up and his new project promises to do the same for you. Lexical.ca, “Canada’s Word on Writing,” went live on Canada Day and the word is spreading.

Toronto launch party Wednesday, July 15, 7pm, Dora Keogh pub.

Toronto launch party Wednesday, July 15, 7pm, Dora Keogh pub.

I sat down with Justin to get the details. He’s a great chat, as the Irish would say, and in between our many tangents, I got the scoop on Lexical.ca. Full disclosure, I am listed along with the rest of the team on the Lexical “About” page.

 I want to ask you about Lexical.ca, but first can you tell us how you got there, from Descant? Because, you know, we assume it’s all about us!

[Laughs. A lot.] Of course it is! I got so much valuable experience even in the short time I was there. I wrote book and event reviews for the blog, assessed dozens of submissions and attended a bunch of literary events I otherwise might not have heard of. But the best part of course were the people I met, at Descant, but also because of my involvement there.

While I was volunteering at Descant I got a job as the literary coordinator at the Windup Bird Café and through that met more people and got involved in starting Hear Here, a biannual literary salon in Toronto. And most recently I started a full-time position for WOTS [Word on the Street] as their Digital Marketing Intern. And it’s paid!

I met some of the most important people in my literary life at Descant. A lot of whom are helping me on a few projects, including Lexical.ca. Can we talk about Lexical now?

I guess. What exactly is Lexical.ca?

It’s a website designed to help make the general reader/writer more informed about the Canadian writing and publishing industry. The hope is that once people browse through our site and become familiar with its content, they can decide for themselves the value of being published in a certain magazine, or they might learn new things about certain publishers. Eventually, we hope that by spending a few minutes on our site, people will get a better sense of the Canadian publishing landscape.

The goal is that Lexical.ca will be the most comprehensive online resource for writers and publishers in Canada. It’s a central hub for all book lovers in the country to find the resources they need to find new work to read, to get published in magazines around the world, or find a writing job across the country. Lexical.ca features only Canadian listings information. International publications will only be listed so Canadian writers can take advantage of opportunities to share their work more widely.

If Lexical.ca is a resource for writers and publishers, are you also promoting them?

Yes, definitely. We’ll promote events nation-wide, as well as job opportunities and calls for submissions from around the world. But right now the focus is on Toronto because we had to start somewhere and that’s where we live.

How did you get the idea for Lexical.ca?

It came to me as most ideas do, by stealing them from other people. Akimbo.ca, the visual arts promotion hub for Canadian artists, was a huge inspiration, and I still talk about it as the paradigm I’m aiming for. Kim Fullerton [Director of Akimbo] was incredibly generous with me and really helped me see how Lexical.ca can work.

Sign up for their newsletter and come to the launch party to tell them what you'd like to see on Lexical.ca.

Sign up for their newsletter and come to the launch party to tell them what you’d like to see on Lexical.ca.

As you know there are other sites dedicated to writers, so what distinguishes Lexical.ca?

Lexical.ca is composed of two parts. First of all, we’re currently building the listings toward being the most comprehensive resource on Canadian writing in the country. We have the most detailed information on a number of aspects of the community and industry, much more than just a quick blurb and a link. Yes, some sections are like this for now, but eventually, every entry on the site will have a dynamic profile and detailed information.

Second, Lexical.ca is a free online resource for the promotion of Canadian literary arts. Through our services, independent authors can promote their books, magazines can submit calls for general submissions or contests, publishers can promote events and the user can get all of this information by simply signing up for our free newsletter.

We’ve compiled what we hope is the most pertinent information including listings of publishers, magazines, creative writing courses, literary agents, and venues, as well as –

Literary agents? How many are on your list?

I think there’s just over 30. And we double-checked them all so, as of today, it’s the most up-to-date listing of Canadian literary agents. Sadly, with only about 30, it wasn’t that hard to do. And of those, only about a dozen accept literary fiction and some of those through referral only. But people will have to check out the site to see the whole breakdown.

What kind of responses have you had to Lexical.ca?

We’ve had overwhelming support from family and friends, members of the writing community like authors and publishers – you name it.

But, I mean, seriously? Anything surprising?

Okay, honestly, just between us?


We’ve had a wide range of responses from ecstasy to the cold shoulder but –

People gave you ecstasy? Who? Can you name names?

No! I meant ecstatic, happy, delighted.

Oh. What about the cold shoulders?

Some places didn’t want to be listed on the site because they thought Lexical.ca  is intended only for writers, but after we got better at explaining the project they often decided to list with us. If I’ve been surprised by anything, it’s the tremendous help many people working in the industry are willing to give, all because they believe in the idea. When supporters of the site offer so many amazing suggestions and references, I realize how much encouragement there really is in the industry.

Do you intend to make money?

We do, but only if we’re making others money. The site is designed to help Canadian’s spread the word about their writing.

Our promotion services are designed for independent authors, event organizers, publishers, magazines, retailers – really anyone who wants an appealing vehicle for spreading the word about Canadian writing.

You know from your experience at Descant (back to us now), that new projects need a great launch. When’s the party to launch Lexical.ca?

Party for sure! Our launch party is set for next Wednesday, July 15,  7pm at the Dora Keogh Irish Pub in Toronto. We’re expecting a lot of writers and billing the event as a great summer networking opportunity. The writer and publisher at Guernica, Michael Mirolla, will be there to say a few launching words about Lexical and he’ll hang around to answer questions writers have for him about the Canadian publishing scene. His new book, Lessons in Relationship Dyads, is one of our first ads on the site.

At Descant launches, we always provided our guests with free appies. Just sayin’.

[Eye-rolling; his.] Yes, we’re going to have complimentary bites at our launch!

What’s next?

We’re moving forward building the content of the site, adding more publishers and magazines every day, so you’ll be able to watch that expand. Think of us as the literary hub you get to have a hand in as well. We welcome emails about missing content or out-of-date information. You can just email me, justin[at]lexical.ca. The last thing we want is a reference to a resource that doesn’t help writers. If there’s a publisher you know is missing, a venue that no longer hosts literary events, or any resource you’d like to see represented, please let us know. No one person is going to know everything, but with the community’s help, Lexical.ca can make it easier for writers and readers to get the information they want.

The weekly newsletter will start this Friday, and continue every Friday. People can sign up for it on the website.

I did. My confirmation said I’d get a free pint if I came to the launch party on the 15th.

Hmm. Must be a coding error. I’ll have to fix that.




Facebook launch party: https://www.facebook.com/events/1639040112975476/

on Twitter: @lexicalca



Why you (sometimes) can’t write: the thin old man in a bespoke suit

Disequilibrium is a potent, if pernicious, force.

My recent bout with vertigo — not the Hitchcock thriller but actual dizziness –  lasted a few days until Dr. Google diagnosed a mild case of dehydration. A glass or two of Gatorade before each carafe of wine seems to have done the trick. My brain’s not spinning anymore but still, I’m thinking about vertigo. Not just the vertigo associated with heights. I’m also thinking about the vertiginous aspects of thought, particularly for artists.

Inert yet volatile, the capacity to represent our thoughts and ideas in literary or physical form is fraught with its own peculiar unsteadiness and the agony that we will never get it exactly right. There is a reason Samuel Beckett’s words are scrawled across the notebooks, Post-its and desktop memos of frustrated artists across the cosmos: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Read out loud, on the right day, Maya Angelou’s “a bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song,” will guarantee your return to the page and a triumphal feeling of artistic entitlement. This will pass. It’s one thing to have the courage and confidence to tell stories, but it’s quite another to sculpt the language and form through endless revisions.

One of my favourite quotations about the struggle to write is a bitchy one, by Alexei Tolstoy (Leo’s distant cousin): “writing comes easily only to those lacking in self-criticism: in other words, the ungifted.” I’ll wait for you to read that again. I know you want to.

Those of us who struggle to write well (or paint, or draw or …), who want our work to be recognized and appreciated by other good writers and critical readers, are never content with the gulf between ideas and our sincerest efforts at representation. The inner critic is a thin old man in a bespoke suit with the power to crush new thoughts with one raised eyebrow.

Thanks to untethered for permission to ...

Thanks to the editors of untethered for permission to republish this piece in abridged form. “Staggering,” the original title, was first published in the inaugural issue of untethered, in August, 2014. You’re invited to their next launch! Cover art above by Lorette C. Luzajic.

But it doesn’t have to be an inner critic who leaves you winded. When I first discovered Letters to a Young Poet, I gasped when I came across Rilke’s line that goes something like, “unless you’d rather die than never write again, you are not a serious writer.” That’s a paraphrase. I refuse to look it up online and give that egomaniac any more hits.

Kafka said that writing is a form of prayer, but he also said, “every word first looks around in every direction before letting itself be written down by me.”

Getting a story or painting right is hard because it’s almost impossible. Or maybe it is impossible. Alice Munro said, “the writer always fails to get as close as you intend to in the beginning – and maybe this is a good thing because if you could get all the way you would demolish something.” She says that the point of writing fiction is “not to dissect people but to come as close as you can and to celebrate… the essential mystery of people.”

I like this idea and I think it’s an important one – that writing and art is a celebration of the mystery of what it means to be human (yes, a cliché, but I can be forgiven because it is the original cliché and therefore always fresh, or something like that). It helps explain the artist’s anguish: when we sit down to write or paint or compose, we are trying to express the mystery within us, that dwells among the mystery that surrounds us, that is borne of the mystery that is us. It’s enough to give anyone vertigo.

We do sometimes reach the dizzying heights of satisfaction – in that moment before we kill our darlings. Less often, but the reason we keep going, we achieve a felicity of mystery and representation; a transport of delight. Those are the moments we are full of discovery and the urge to share it with others, rather than the ego-tied belief that we have accomplished something that proves our tiny talent. Of her long writing career, Brenda Ueland said, “at last I understood that writing was this: an impulse to share with other people a feeling or truth that I myself had.”

The biblical expression, “there’s nothing new under the sun,” was probably written in the third century, BCE. Now factor in four more centuries and the Internet. This realization will either help you feel more integrated into the genuine awesome mystery of it all, or, if you’re young, it will inspire you to prove it wrong. You can’t, but you will try. And why the hell not? Kurt Vonnegut said, “we have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” If you don’t run off what you think is the edge, then you’ll never earn your wings.

There is something profoundly comforting in the knowledge that everything has been said before. It suggests our struggles are historical, ancestral, inherited: innate. That we are still compelled to tell stories and make paintings, in an attempt to reveal what is precious, suggests that we haven’t quite got the hang of these struggles and we’re trying – gawd how we’re trying – to understand.

No wonder we’re anxious, uncertain, fickle and preposterous. We are the story still being written, the one that may never be accepted. We are the magnificent painting that will sit, alone, in an attic.

We are the writer, the painter and the cracked carafe of wine.

We are the delicious wine.

Marvellous we are.

Wobbly, dazed and freefalling.






For C.K.



Stalin’s Daughter: Descant congratulates Rosemary Sullivan on the international success of her new biography

Joseph Stalin’s monstrous regime was responsible for the deaths of millions in the first half of the nasty twentieth century. His own son tried to commit suicide to escape his father’s cruelties and his second wife shot herself in the heart. Then there was red-haired, blue-eyed Svetlana: Stalin’s daughter.

HarperCollins Canada, June 2015.

HarperCollins, May 2015.

On June 1, Ben McNally Books hosted the Toronto launch of Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva. Rosemary Sullivan confessed to the (demographically mature) crowd that before embarking on her biography writing career, 30 years ago, “I had that typical academic snob reaction to biography writing. But then I read one about Oscar Wilde and thought – wow, I could do that?”

She’s written a biography of Elizabeth Smart (1991) and her 1995 biography, Shadow maker: The life of Gwendolyn MacEwen won a Governor General’s award. In 1998 she wrote a biography on the early years of Margaret Atwood, obtusely referenced later by Atwood herself as erring on the too-nice side.

Biographer, poet, professor, Rosemary Sullivan.

Rosemary Sullivan: biographer, poet, professor and long-time Descant contributing editor.

Stalin’s Daughter begins in 1967, detailing the defection of 41 year old Svetlana Alliluyeva to the US (after her father died she took her mother’s name because — her father was Stalin). According to a review in Newsweek, “Sullivan’s account of the defection reads like the climax of a spy thriller, which in a way it was. And over the next 600 or so pages, the pace rarely lets up.”

But before her defection, a public relations coup the cold-war era US could not have dreamed, Svetlana suffered the loss, at age six, of her mother, to suicide; lost her first love (daddy Stalin sentenced her much older Jewish filmmaker boyfriend to a labour camp in the Arctic Circle); was married and divorced twice; had a child from each marriage; and experienced a number of disappeared relatives and friends. Her half brother (the one who attempted suicide as a young man), died in a Nazi prisoner of war camp and her 40 year old brother had died of alcoholism. And yet, according to The Telegraph, “This material is presented with a plainness bordering on understatement. ‘It was all very sad,’ Sullivan says of a situation the rest of us would find unendurable.”

Several of Stalin’s Daughter reviewers quote Philip Larkin’s “They fuck you up, your mum and dad.” In the case of Stalin’s daughter, this is perhaps the most egregious understatement when home-sweet-home was Stalin’s Kremlin.

When she defected while on a trip to India (that’s another story; Svetlana’s life is full of these), Svetlana’s son was 21 and her daughter was 16. They were waiting for her at the Moscow airport but she never arrived. Not surprisingly, the grown children later shunned their mother, except for a brief Russian-goverment sponsored reunion with mother and son, many years later.

Svetlana Alliluyeva published two volumes of memoirs after her defection, earning her $1.5 million in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She married American architect Wes Peters, former son-in-law of Frank Lloyd Wright and his crazy widow, Olgivanna, and at the age of 45 she had a daughter, Olga, with Peters. But this marriage was also to end in divorce and much of the money Svetlana had earned from her memoirs went to paying off her husband’s debts.

Svetlana and Olga spent the next few years moving around the US before they  returned to Russia (Svetlana denounced her US citizenship), and came back to Wisconsin in 1986. Svetlana then moved to England in 1990 and returned to the US in 1997. When she died of colon cancer in 2011, age 85, Lana Peters was living on welfare in a Wisconsin seniors’ home.

Critical reviews of Stalin’s Daughter have been positive. While they agree on the page-turning thriller aspect of the book, there is some disagreement about Rosemary Sullivan’s treatment of her mercurial, peripatetic subject.

In The New York Times review, Stalin’s Daughter is described as “not a highly opinionated book. It paints a strong but slightly distant portrait of the headstrong Svetlana.” According to their Sunday Book Review, “Sullivan tells a nuanced story that, while invariably sympathetic, nonetheless allows readers the freedom of their own interpretations.” From the Los Angeles Times: “Sullivan does a nice job of conveying her subject’s point of view without accepting it as the last word. She recognizes the neediness that fueled Alliluyeva’s love affairs and ill-judged final marriage.” Closer to home, a Globe and Mail reviewer says that Rosemary Sullivan “displays palpable sympathy for her subject.”

Is Sullivan too easy on Svetlana Alliluyeva? Do her 40 interviews and years of research pay off in this doorstopper of a biographical-historical thriller?

There’s only one way for you to find out: the book is everywhere, including your local independent bookstore.

Margaret Atwood is reading it. I know this because on Tuesday she tweeted: “Reading Rosemary Sullivan’s bio Stalin’s Daughter. Closeup of a paranoid autocrat. Stifling scientists+ press, enemies list, reign of fear.” Not a review, just a description. From @MargaretAtwood.

Rosemary Sullivan reading from Stalin's Daughter, at Descant's grande farewell party in March. Rosemary has the best reading voice I have ever heard. (Photo credit Vera DeWaard-Toole)

Rosemary Sullivan reading from Stalin’s Daughter at Descant‘s grande farewell party in March. Rosemary has the best reading voice I have ever heard. (Photo credit Vera DeWaard-Toole)

And what about Svetlana’s daughter? Olga, now Chrese Evans, sells vintage clothing and Tibetan artifacts out of her Portland, Oregon shop. She’s performed stand-up comedy (when Rosemary Sullivan mentioned this at her Toronto book launch, people gasp-laughed, trying to assimilate the information that Stalin’s granddaughter was, among other things, a comic). She and her mom used to talk often on the phone, each with a glass of wine in hand, and Olga/Chrese would send her mom herbs when she was ill, knowing her mother’s distrust of the medical establishment. They were close.

Reminds me of another Philip Larkin line: “What will survive of us is love.” Eventually.

$24,700: Canadian lit mag contests you can win before December 31, 2015! (yes –> you)

You can’t have all $24,700 but if you win first place in each of the following contest categories you’ll be $18,750 closer to feeling like a respectable adult. Not that we do it for the money, I hasten to add. Just sayin’.

Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer. ~ Barbara Kingsolver

“Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer.” ~ Barbara Kingsolver

Last year I posted a longer piece on contests and deadlines so if you want to read about why you should bother submitting, you can check that out (Lifelines for Deadlines: 10 Reasons Writers Don’t Take Summers Off). Otherwise, here’s the updated list for 2015, organized chronologically. The first deadline is July 15, 2015.

Submission costs are in brackets. Remember, this fee also gets you a subscription to the magazine. Some of the prize monies have doubled since last year (I’m looking at you, Prism and Room). There’s a new literary contest on the theme of Canadian time zones (from the folks at Geist who brought you the first Tobacco Lit Contest last year) and Room has its first cover art competition.

Nota bene: no two magazines share the same rules (as far as I can tell). I’ve done my best to double-check, but hey, it’s the internets, so make sure you’ve got the right contest year page.

Good luck!

July, 2015

Room magazine’s fiction and poetry competition deadline is July 15, 2015 ($35). First prize is $1,000 (last year it was $500), second is $250 and honourable mentions get $50 in each category.

Montreal-based Vallum magazine of contemporary poetry also has a July 15, 2015 contest deadline. They’re accepting up to three of your poems ($25). First place winner gets $750, second place $250.

August, 2015

UVic’s The Malahat Review has several contests. The first deadline ahead is August 1, 2015 ($35), for their Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. One winner is awarded $1,000.

Geists short long-distance writing contest deadline is August 1, 2015 ($20): “Send us a story, 500 words or less, fiction or non-fiction, that unfolds in two or more Canadian time zones. This could mean a physical unfolding (like a road trip) or an implied or non-physical unfolding (like a phone call). The details are up to you!” First prize $500, second prize $250 and a third prize of $150.

September, 2015

The Capilano Review‘s fifth annual Robin Blaser Poetry Award ($35) accepts a maximum eight pages per entry. First prize is $750, runner up takes home $250. The deadline is September 15, 2015.

A few esteemed Canadian lit mags from my own collection though not necessarily the latest.

A few of my esteemed Canadian lit mags — though not necessarily the latest issues.  I like to think of them as part of my vast collection of Canadian literature, not symbols of failed contest submissions.

November, 2015

The Malahat Review‘s 2015 Open Season Awards deadline  for poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction is November 1, 2015 ($35). Winners in each category receive $1,000. $1,500 (thanks for the update, @Malahatreview!).

UBC’s Prism also holds three contests but only one remaining with a deadline this year. Their creative non-fiction contest deadline is November 2o, 2015 ($35). First prize is $1,500, runner up gets $600 (up from $300 last year) and second runner up takes home a generous $400 (up from $200 last year). Prism also has a fiction and poetry contest (deadlines are January 15, 2016). Note: this information is not yet posted on their website as of June 16, 2015. We got the scoop thanks to the old fashioned method of making a telephone call. Thanks to Prism‘s Claire Matthews, executive editor, promotions.

Prairie Fire‘s contest deadline is November 30, 2015 ($32), for prizes in fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. In all three categories, first prize is $1,250, second prize is $500 and third place winners receive $250.

Room magazine’s first cover art contest deadline is November 30, 2015 (contest opens in September, 2015). First prize is $500, second is $50.

December, 2015

Atlantic Canada’s The Fiddlehead‘s 25th annual fiction and poetry contest deadline is December 1, 2015 ($30). First place winners each receive $2,000  and honourable mentions each receive $250.

Freefall’s annual poetry and prose contest deadline is December 31, 2015 ($25). If you don’t celebrate Christmas, for reasons of religion or reluctance, then this deadline will keep you busy the last two weeks of the year. For each category, first prize is $500, second is $250 and third prize winners each receive $75.


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