Important Notice From Karen Mulhallen, Editor in Chief of Descant Magazine

After long and painful negotiations and deliberations for four years, with the literary and arts community, with the arts councils and donors, with our co-editors, and our foundation directors, we have jointly decided that Descant magazine in its present form is no longer sustainable.

In A Cabinet of Curiosities, Descant 167, Winter 2014, will be our final issue.

This has been a very hard decision to make. For the last three years Descant has been in a deficit position, and as head of the Descant foundation and Editor in Chief of the magazine, I carry all the debts.

Our vigorous fund-raising campaign this fall was very successful and I want to thank all of you who donated to the magazine. Unfortunately, we did not raise enough money to offset the shortfall. Grants have been in decline for more than five years, although other revenues such as sales and subscriptions have held steady or increased. We have cut costs everywhere we could, but many expenses over which we have no control have continued to spiral up.

I have personally searched for a solution, but have been unable to find either a patronage base or an editor (or editorial collective) to replace myself and take over the magazine, and be responsible for its publication and its foundation.

Descant has an enormous community. It is an international magazine with a strong focus on Canada and on emerging artists. We have trained dozens of interns, hundreds of editors have worked with us over the years, and thousands of writers and visual artists and musicians and dancers have been published in our pages.

Our issues have examined cities, like Venice and Berlin, countries like China and Latvia, regions like North Africa, artistic practices like music. We have published special issues on writers, Michael Ondaatje, Dennis Lee, Barbara Gowdy, and composers, R. Murray Schafer, themes like History of the Book, Romantic Love, Hotels, Fashion.

We couldn’t have done it without all of you.

We are now in production with our Winter issue, number 167, and the launch date will likely be late January 2015. We are also planning a huge celebration on the cusp of Spring. Check our website for news or send the office an email to get on our email list.

The co-editors and I are proud to have been able to publish for so many decades. It has been a pleasure and a privilege. We thank you all.

Karen

Passion and Persistence: Carrie Snyder on Writing and Girl Runner

Carrie Snyder sets herself a new challenge with each book.

“I’m most naturally a literary writer,” she told me by phone from her home in Guelph. “I like to write beautiful, lyrical, poetical sentences. And that’s a good skill to have. But for this book, I wanted to try to write a plot-based page turner where every word was in service to the plot.”

Published by Anansi, 2014, 363 pages. Shortlisted for the Writers Trust fiction award.

Published by Anansi, 2014, 376 pages. Shortlisted for the 2014 Writers’ Trust fiction award.

When the voice of old Aggie Smart came to her, she told me, “I didn’t feel I had to develop a voice for her. I just heard her.” She started to write about Aggie, and kept writing with relative ease, then thought, “this is too easy.” In record time, Carrie Snyder found herself with 30,000 words of a novel but it wasn’t quite coming together. Something was missing. She left it for six months and in a flash of insight she figured out the identities of two strangers who became key to the plot of Girl Runner. Five months later she sent the finished draft to her agent. This fall it was shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Award for fiction.

Whether you are a new or experienced writer, you know that good writing rarely comes this easily. When it does, you do what you are told and you write like a maniac, worried that the ideas will dry up, the characters stop talking to you and your capacity to prevent comma splices is snuffed out.

For Carrie Snyder, writing a plot-driven novel “really forced me to be clear. I just knew exactly where I was going… I knew the scenes I needed to write. I was in a kind of frantic state, a desperate feeling that I had to clear things out of my head. I was holding too much for one brain!” It wasn’t as though she was a magical conduit for her characters, taking dictation from their parallel universe: “It was more a process of discovery. I’d plot out a scene but then realize that a certain character couldn’t or wouldn’t do X. It’s in that sense that they tell me who they are.” None of the characters in Girl Runner is based on people that Carrie Snyder knows, “but they seemed very real to me. I knew how Glad moved, for example.”

The missing piece for Girl Runner turned out to be the real-life story of Canadian women athletes. In 1928, Canada sent its first women’s team to the Olympics and the women on the track and field team at these Amsterdam games did so well they were dubbed “the matchless six.” Aganetha Smart, the protagonist of Girl Runner, is loosely based on this story. Aganetha, or Aggie, discovers early, on her rural Ontario homestead, that her passion for running supercedes everything else. She runs barefooted around the family property, sees things she shouldn’t and runs away. Eventually, she makes it to the Olympics.

Carrie Snyder was careful to purposely limit the amount of research she conducted for Girl Runner: “I looked at microfilm newspapers from the time, studied the photographs of Toronto and rural Ontario from the early twentieth century, and even ads and other news stories in order to tap into the culture of the time, but I wanted to be careful not to do too much research. I was writing a novel, a fictionalized version of a time and historical events.”

Carrie recalled Carol Shields’ story about the time a reader wrote to correct Carol on the description of a particular Winnipeg street (whether it was a one or two-way). Carol Shields (whose Pulitzer/Governor General’s award-winning The Stone Diaries is another Canadian story about an old woman reflecting back on a century of life), responded to the criticism of her urban inaccuracy with the observation that she was writing about her own version of a fictionalized Winnipeg. Carrie Snyder is quick to point out that she herself has written a fictionalized version of a Canadian Olympian.

“I run strong. I run fine. I can feel my sadness running out behind me, like it’s being spilled on the ground, and I figure that will be that… I have a sense of impermeability, of elasticity, of bouncing off of something hard, and believing in the first instant that I’d been hurt, then understanding the pain is superficial. It is already gone. This is called recovery.” ~Aggie

There are some scenes that I saw cinematographically (mark my words, this book is  headed for the screen although I have no doubt it was not written with that intent; it reads like a book, not a book wanting to be a movie). In particular, there’s the scene where the young Aggie dances on the family’s barn roof, defying gravity, mortality and her pleading mother below.

“The appearance of perfection does not interest me. It is the illumination of near-disaster beside which we all teeter, at all times, that interests me. It is laughing in the face of what might have been, and what is not.” ~Aggie

But the scene that has stuck with me most is rather small and insignificant. I won’t even bother to look it up now because I can describe it from the image in my memory: Aggie, in her late 80s or 90s, is by the front door of the family house she now shares with her sister Cora. I think Aggie is wearing a velour track suit, but I might have added that part. She is bent down and tying up the laces on a pair of plain, worn sneakers because she is going out for a run. She doesn’t run like she used to, she tells us in the reflection of this scene, but she still has the desire, the passion. The will. Of all the gender politics that affected women athletes in the early part of the twentieth century evident in Girl Runner (for example, women were forbidden to run in certain Olympic events when some watchers claimed they saw the women swoon with exhaustion at the finish lines, and there was concern about the jostling of their baby-making organs), it is this scene of an almost-century-old woman bending down to lace up her runners to head out for a run that stuck with me most. There are politics and there are law makers. But there are always people who persist, within or without a spotlight; people who bend down, lace up and get on with it.

“I never ran because I was strong… It wasn’t strength that made me a runner, it was the desire to be strong. I ran for courage.” ~Aggie

This is a book about many things, as good books are, and one of them is the bond between women: mothers and daughters, sisters, and close friends. Aggie’s close-knit family is held together by a mother who is the local midwife but also provides a necessary, if secret, service, for young women. Her relationship with her daughters is tender and wise. Aggie’s closeness with her older sister Fannie leads to the heartbreak of her life, and her relationship with her cantankerous sister Cora punctuates the near-end of her life with a tragedy whose guilt she cannot outrun.

Whether or not you are a runner (I’m not; not even when my bus is early), the relationship between Aggie and her best friend Glad, a runner with whom Aggie trains and competes, is compelling. Their life together in downtown urban Toronto is rather bohemian, particularly about men and sex. There’s definitely something more than friendly competition going on between the two women, at least from Aggie’s perspective.

But there’s nothing other than rigorous training going on between Aggie and her coach:

“I almost hate him. How can I hate someone I’ve only just met? I haven’t learned to recognize the subtleties of his trade, the way a good coach directs onto himself his athlete’s frustration with her own limitations, distracts her from doubt, and gives her that extra flare of necessary rage, that compulsion to continue.” ~Aggie

I should say that at the heart of the book is also the relationship between Aggie and her brother, George. Despite his drinking and gambling, and the squalid circumstances of his secret home life, he does what he can to support his sister’s Olympic dreams but in the end, she misses her opportunity to repay him and … well, just keep the Kleenex nearby for that part.

Visit Carrie Snyder's Obscure CanLit Mama blog and learn when in life she herself became a runner. Also, you'll see some lovely pictures of her four kids (yeah redheads!). Follow her on Twitter @carrieasnyder.

Visit Carrie Snyder’s Obscure CanLit Mama blog and learn when in life she herself became a runner. Also, you’ll see some lovely pictures of her four kids (yeah redheads!). Follow her on Twitter @carrieasnyder.

I can hardly summarize or explain such an intricately plot-driven story, with more twists and turns than an Olympic bobsled course (does that make sense? I don’t bobsled either; not even when my bus is late). It covers the span of two world wars, the Great Depression, the Spanish ‘flu and, near the end, a rather modern kidnapping. So how did Carrie Snyder manage to keep track of it all and finish it in record time? “I highly recommend Scrivener,” she told me, referring to the software. “Not as something that will make you a better writer, but as a tool to help you organize and keep track of things. I used to use a word doc and several excel spreadsheets but Scrivener is a much more efficient organizational device.”

Carrie Snyder teaches a third-year Creative Writing course in the University of Waterloo’s English Department so I asked her what other advice she might have for our writer readers. She said that she tells her students to “turn off the judging part of your brain and follow what’s interesting to you.” She told me she writes this way, unselfconsciously, passionately: “When I’m choosing the subject for a major project, like a book, I want to write about something that matters to me deeply, something that I want to spend a lot of time thinking about. I think it has to be a kind of personal obsession, something that’s morally or ethically important to you.” I’m guessing that when she gets going on a new writing project, Carrie Snyder, like Aggie Smart, prides herself “on being impossible to cajole.”

For readers of this blog post, Girl Runner publisher Anansi will give you an additional 15% off the book’s already discounted-for-Christmas price. Go to the Anansi website and type in the secret passcode (“Descant” … shhh!) on the third and final checkout screen. This offer is good until Wednesday, December 10, 2014 (and thanks, Anansi!).

Carrie Snyder’s first short fiction collection, Hair Hat, was nominated for the Danuta Gleed Award and her second, The Juliet Stories was a 2012 GG finalist.

I’m giving Girl Runner to a runner friend for Christmas, but not because she’s a runner. I’m giving it to her for a particular scene in the book that I know will blow her expensive sneakers off and leave her gasping for breath.

 

 

Literary Salons: made in Italy, here in Toronto

The literary salon is un altro cultural institution for which we can thank the Italians. About the same time Italians created the newspaper (after they invented ballet and long before they organized the first film festival), educated and well-to-do sixteenth century Italian women began hosting these indoor conversational gatherings. Attendance was by invitation only so the women played gatekeeper as well as host and were often expected to direct and  moderate conversations about the arts and socio-political events of the day.

These salons (from the Italian salone, “large hall”) spread to France and grew in popularity with the chatting classes. Their effect on French history and the Enlightenment has been noted by scholars. The organized salon spread throughout continental Europe, England (e.g., the Blue Stockings Society) and Latin America; to read its history is to understand how women influenced the politics and culture of the day, despite, or perhaps because of, the sharp divide between the public and private spheres.

My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.

~ Jane Austen

More recently, in 1930s and ’40s North America, Gertrude Stein hosted some of the great artistic minds of her time, including Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mildred Aldrich, Élisabeth de Gramont, Ezra Pound and Henri Matisse in what became known as the Stein Salon. Fast forward eighty years and it’s easy to see why the literary salon in particular is no longer the event it once was. So much of our so-called public conversation about the arts now happens online which is, and is not, an actual place. Like our homes are, and are no longer, part of the private sphere.

And yet — still we gather. In each other’s kitchens, living rooms, the local pub, a favourite restaurant. The cleverest blog post, or carefully worded comment, lacks the incantatory power of in-person conversation, the back-and-forth, interrupted, built-upon, rebuffed, ridiculed and sometimes alarmingly incisive ideas of others. Always often entertaining.

Writer and Descant volunteer Trevor Abes, production editor for our now-sold-out comics issue, Cartooning Degree Zero, attended the first in a new pop-up literary salon series in Toronto last week. I asked if he’d let us know how it went. It’s a pop-up in that the location is only published the day of the event and the venue will change each time. It’s pricey, at $30 a ticket, so if you’re interested in attending the next one, you’ve got a few months to save. But if your work is chosen for the event, your talent is your ticket.

Here’s Trevor to tell you about his experience.

**

Hear, Hear for Hear Here, Toronto’s Newest Arts Salon

by Trevor Abes

Hear, hear for Hear Here, a quarterly series of salons, each held at a secret venue revealed only on the day of. The series features poets, novelists, visual artists, singers and musicians both handpicked and curated through submissions. Its creator, Toronto businessman Alfonso Licata, wants to contribute to Toronto’s arts community by putting the revered in the same room as burgeoning amateurs. He also set himself a synesthetic challenge in terms of the changing venues. Think of the name, Hear Here. It poses several questions: not only, how do we optimize the act of listening in a given space, but also, how do we listen to a space to ensure we make the most out of it?

Courtesy Gillian Foster, Gillian Foster Photography.

Courtesy Gillian Foster, Gillian Foster Photography.

The atmosphere at the first installment—held on November 20th in the airy lobby of Toronto’s Metro Centre, and delightfully hosted by standup comic and professional clown Anna Sapershteyn—was not what might be expected from an event in the touristy section of King Street West, where dinner and a live show will run you a few hundred bucks. What could have been a pretentious affair, with unapproachable cliques talking in corners, turned out to be an effective remedy for the nervousness we feel when introducing ourselves to strangers. There were multiple stages, areas for quiet thought, and room for aimless strolling and casual encounters. Attendees weren’t forced to listen to any reader or musician; rather, they were invited to and had the option to stand up close, sit on a nearby bench or hang back at the bar to chat out of earshot.

The visual art at Hear Here no doubt inspired spiritual commutes with Sara Mozafari’s “A Woman on the Subway,” self-discoveries behind Bryan Belanger’s Manufactured Masks exhibit, and unplanned romps through Dante Guthrie’s psychogeographies, to name only three.

Justin Lauzon, Literary Events coordinator for the Windup Bird Café, the caterers for the evening.

Justin Lauzon, Literary Events coordinator for the Windup Bird Cafe, the fabulous caterers for the evening. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

First up was Claudio Gaudio reading from his novel Texas (Quattro Books), about a U.S. diplomat kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists. The book’s stream-of-consciousness style— which crosses continents and centuries from one line to the next—was a proper intro to a diverse lineup including dub poet Lillian Allen, digital media artist Bryan Belanger, and the stunning vocalist Yvette Coleman.

Claudio Gaudio. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Claudio Gaudio, reading from his novel Texas (Quattro, 2012).  Read our review of Texas here. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Composer Jason Nett, armed with guitar and loop pedals, told us his career was about “taking the spontaneity of what I play in my living room and sharing it without too much refinement.” He made beats in real-time, layering riffs into the order he wanted, then soloed over them with all the flair of Slash mixed with Bill Frisell. He played with abandon, eyes closed, swaying back and forth as if lost and loving it. I felt lifted, as you do when the song you need happens to come on the radio.

Jason Nett. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Jason Nett. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

After Julie Joosten read from her Governor General’s Award-nominated poetry collection Light Light (BookThug), I spotted poet and novelist Barry Callaghan eating a slice of pizza with his wife Claire. If he were in a restaurant or on the street, I may not have approached him to say hello. But this was a salon, after all. We were here to meet fellow artists, mingle and make connections, spurred on and comforted by the knowledge that everyone was here for that same reason. I shook Mr. Callaghan’s hand and asked him how he was carrying on. He said, “All right, though I wish people would’ve been quieter so I could’ve heard the poetry.”

Barry Callaghan. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Barry Callaghan. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Novelist Richard Scarsbrook received the most laughs for his theatrical reading about the ontology of oral sex from The Indifference League (Dundurn). He began with one of his poems, and was the lone performer to call the crowd toward him saying, “I’m moving on to the prose now, you can come closer.”

Richard Scarsbrook. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Richard Scarsbrook. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

The surprise of the night was writer Emily Halliwell-MacDonald, a recent Master’s recipient from Queen’s University whose short fiction submission to event organizers earned her a headlining spot. She counts Hear Here as one of her first readings. Imagine that. Reading on the same night as Lillian Allen and Barry Callaghan, and not as an opening act, but in between them. And she didn’t break a sweat.

Emily Halliwell-MacDonald. Photo courtesy of Gillian Foster.

Emily Halliwell-MacDonald. Photo courtesy Gillian Foster.

Hear Here returns February 2015 with a theme: revolution.

Submit your work here.

**

Trevor Abes is a writer with a penchant for hip hop and conceptual art. His work has been published in Torontoist, The Toronto Review of Books, Sequential: Canadian Comix News and Culture, and untethered magazine. Trevor was the production editor for Descant’s (sold out!) comics issue, Cartooning Degree Zero. Please visit trevorabes.com and follow him on Twitter @TrevorAbes

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How to Disappear Completely: Sophie McCreesh reviews Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear

Writers are divided on the MFA should-I-or-shouldn’t-I question.

Lorna Crozier herself, once head of UVic’s MFA program, has said that writers don’t need to do an MFA to become good writers. Margaret Atwood, author of literary and speculative fiction, poetry, children’s literature and short stories, says that being forced into specializing in particular genres is something that she never had to do and so never felt she had to limit herself. But Julia Leggett entered her MFA program a poet and ended up publishing her thesis, the short fiction collection Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear. As she says in this interview with the Coastal Spectator, writing programs force … writing. This seems to me always the greatest advantage of writing courses of any kind, the trump card in any should-I-or-shouldn’t-I argument.

When I spoke to Julia Leggett she said, ”I come down heavily on the side of the argument that if you get the opportunity, you should do an MFA. It gives you the space and structure to work, and you benefit hugely from the input of other writers and people in your field. It’s a great way to network too. [laughs] That sounds callous!” Julia Leggett’s University of British Columbia supervisor for her MFA thesis was none other than Annabel Lyon. So, yeah, connections.

I asked her if she has any advice for our writer readers and without a pause she said:

“Don’t get bogged down in the rules for writing. You need to be honest with yourself about whether it’s working or not, but ultimately you should write what you like. Of course be open to people telling you they don’t get something but trying to follow ‘the rules’ can hamstring you and make it hard to get started.”

Mother Tongue Publishing, 2014, pp 186.

Mother Tongue Publishing, 2014, pp 186.

Julia Leggett was born in Canada but moved with her family to Zimbabwe when she was just a year old. She returned to Canada in 2000, when she was 18. She told me that she has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support for her book from her friends and family still in Zimbabwe: “It really reconnected me with my Zimbabwean roots which was such a nice surprise, especially as none of the stories in Gone South are set in or about Zimbabwe.”

The Victoria-based writer recently tweeted: “At least on Facebook, my friends laughed at my jokes. The twitterverse is cold and lonely. It’s like leaving junior school for high school.” Help her feel less lonely: @ozonedrum

Here’s Descant’s Sophie McCreesh with a review of Julia Leggett’s Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear.

**

How to Disappear Completely

by Sophie McCreesh

I read Julia Leggett’s Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear in one sitting, absorbing the satire, drama and the dissolution of relationships like a piece of salacious gossip I was trying not to overhear. The eight sharply perceptive stories in this collection give us a diverse community of women and their relationships with their partners, their bodies and their troubled selves.

The characters in Gone South are wounded, sometimes without realizing. Through their internal and external dialogue Julia Leggett evokes our sense of empathy, kinship and community. The reader abandons her own preconceived notions of women’s behaviour as social structures are challenged and ridiculed through true-to-life encounters and experiences. We are invited to see why certain lives unfold the way they do and the complex decisions that lead there.

Zimbabwe-born, Victoria writer Julia Leggett. Courtesy Rhordon Wikkramatileke.

Julia Leggett. Photo courtesy Rhordon Wikkramatileke.

This is a book of challenges in terms of women’s identity and self-actualization. The men in the stories are given power, over the women’s thoughts, dress-sense and social behaviour. Julia Leggett doesn’t hold back when she describes what we don’t want to talk about. For example, we read about a domineering man who abuses his spouse, as well as a failed sexual encounter leading to a man’s outcry about social class. Many of the women characters look to men for validation. For example, in “Snow Bunny” an older woman looks for a sense of meaning in a one-night encounter with a man who works at her hotel resort. A mother loses all sense of self when her husband divorces her, in “Lena Reynolds Gets Divorced.” However, the title story, at the end of the book, dismisses the need for a man’s attention. “Gone South” gives the reader a lasting impression of a dying woman reaching out to her childhood friend.

The story “Thin” verges on magic realism when we meet an overweight woman who eats potato chips, drinks soda and loses 60 pounds in 8 hours. As soon as Chelsey loses weight because of her new diet pills, the reader is slowly pulled from the character’s internal, neurotic self-consciousness to a subtle, perceptive, and even petty judgment of other women:

“I can feel people watching me, and I lap up their looks. I imagine every woman in the bar is comparing herself to me; I hope they feel cowed by the angles of my hips and humiliated by the effortless plane of my stomach.”

In “Thin,” women’s weight and thinness become equated with morality in cubicle worker Chelsey’s mind. Julia Leggett’s masterful pacing highlights the slow reversal of the internal psychology of a woman with very low self-esteem: we see Chelsey switch from negative self-talk to the projection of narcissism onto her peers. This slow, internal change is juxtaposed with the rapid speed of her weight loss. This story’s commentary on the lacerating judgment women can place on themselves and one another reminds me of certain stories in Jennifer Egan’s collection, Emerald City. Julia Leggett shows how the mind can be warped, based on the influence of societal perceptions of beauty.

Julia Leggett draws satire out of Chelsey’s frivolous conceit. She has turned the once self-lacerating internal dialogue into a banal projection of judgment of the physical appearances of other women. The protagonist feels she has physical and moral leverage over other women because she is now considered attractive:

“I hated talking to men before; I felt like a bag of wet flour, I felt sorry for them, stuck talking to the fat girl. Now I feel like I’m fly-fishing, as though I’m nymphing for trout.”

As the reader can guess, various health complications come with this miraculous weight loss. Chelsey’s new relationship with herself is challenged by her attractive best friend who warns her that she must value what comes from within. Compared to Chelsey’s troubling internal dialogue, her friend’s pleas to stop the pills serve as a principle of morality in the story.

I want to draw attention to Julia Leggett’s portrayal of women’s bodies. The majority of these stories centre on bodies as a construct of a patriarchal society. In the epistolary title story “Gone South,we see a woman pleading with her own body, a woman pleading to live:

“Most days I can’t believe I have Cancer. It must be a mistake, I think. How could everything remain so ordinary? Standing in line at the bank to pay the Hydro bill, spilling coffee on my jeans, the way the sunlight strikes the cherry trees and transforms the view from my window into Polaroid picture.”

Each letter begins with an address to her dear friend, Sashi. With each Dear Sashi we experience a new pang of sympathy for the character and her suffering. Throughout each letter, Julia Leggett introduces themes and clues into the narrator (Ruth’s) relationship with Sashi: “I’d forgotten all about my teenage love for Pinky and the Brain.” The fact that the letters are never answered renders Ruth’s deteriorating narrative more poignant. We are given a series of one-sided epistolary vignettes where the banal chores of life are juxtaposed with anxieties about surgery, drug testing and imminent death.

As readers we want to see a world outside ourselves. We also want other readers to understand our subjective world. Gone South and Other Ways to Disappear is a book for daughters, mothers, partners, sons and fathers. The book is not just about women; it is about the human struggle for solace and the insights gained through painful experience.

**

Sophie McCreesh is completing her MFA in Creative Writing (UGuelph). She is a co-founder and editor for the magazine untethered and a volunteer reader for Descant. She lives in Toronto.

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In Writers We Trust: an evening at the 2014 Writers’ Trust Awards

In a week filled with (yet more) talk about how little Canadian writers earn, prompted this time by articles in The Globe and Mail by Elizabeth Renzetti and Camilla Gibb, it felt good, so good, to sit in an audience and watch a total of $139,000 be awarded to Canadian writers.

At last night’s 2014 Writers’ Trust Awards, hosted by Globe and Mail Arts Editor Jared Bland, six writers won prizes of either $10,000 (Journey Prize), $20,000 (Matt Cohen and Vicky Metcalf Awards) or $25,000 (Latner Poetry Prize, Engel/Findley Award, Rogers Fiction Prize). I think Vicky Metcalf Award winner Cary Fagan summed up the bittersweet moment when he showed us his new boots from the stage and said that the next morning he’d be running to the bank to deposit his cheque to pay off some bills. There is really nothing at all glamorous about being a Canadian writer. Except the award ceremonies.

2014 Writers' Trust Award winners:    Cary Fagan (Vicky Metcalf    ), Miriam Toews (Rogers Fiction Writing), Ken Babstock (Latner Poetry Award), Susan Musgrave (Matt Cohen Lifetime Achievement) and Tyler Weevil (Journey Prize)

2014 Writers’ Trust Award winners: Joan Thomas (Engel/Findley Award for mid-career); Cary Fagan (Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People), Miriam Toews (Rogers Fiction Writing), Ken Babstock (Latner Writer’s Trust Poetry Prize), Susan Musgrave (Matt Cohen Celebration of a Writing Life Award) and Tyler Weevil (Journey Prize)

If you’ve never been to an event like this I can assure you that it’s pretty much what you covet and fear most. It’s fun to see the people you recognize from book jackets and television interviews in the flesh. Last night there was free wine and beer and fancy appetizers, all delivered around the room by good looking servers wielding silver trays. The place seemed full of very tall and slim and beautifully dressed people who have the keen and skilled eye to look past you if they don’t know you. Even the people you do know will look past you to find someone more… connected. It’s the kind of event that most writers would hate, were it not for the public recognition and the big fat cheque.

Three hundred guests filled the Glenn Gould Studio of the CBC building for the event. It’s the perfect size venue to encourage a sense of celebration but also neighbourliness. Although I was not in reserved seating, Miriam Toews was sitting in front of me and I easily spotted many writers, both well-known and emerging, sitting around me. There was even a woman sitting on an aisle seat who spent the time knitting. The occasional flash of her knitting needles was no more distracting than the glow of mad tweeting that was going on in a room full of family, friends and publicists. The stage was filled with a stunning set decoration of stylized book spines, by Kalpna Patel  (if you live in Toronto you may be familiar with her work in the windows of Type Books). I would suggest to the organizers that next year they crank up the music that accompanies each winner to the stage. The faraway strains of The Lemon Bucket Orkestra sounded more like someone in the front row was trying helpfully to play something on their phone.

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The Writers’ Trust was founded in 1976 by Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Pierre Berton, David Young and Margaret Laurence and has since given almost $4,000,000 to Canadian writers. No other NGOs or foundation give as much financial support to Canadian writers. Each year, The Writers’ Trust gives almost 100 writers a total of more than $400,000. Through their Woodcock Fund, they have helped “writers in crisis” with a total of more than $1 million.

“The Woodcock Fund is a quick-access emergency resource that aids established Canadian writers who face an unforeseen financial crisis. Help is given to writers in many different situations providing them momentary relief, a period of financial stability, and the opportunity to complete their current writing projects.

It is the only program of its kind available to writers in Canada, and is often the last place authors can turn for help.”

I know people who have benefitted from this program. I have writer friends who are struggling to hold down several jobs (by “several” I mean three in one case, and four in another), or to get off social assistance (two national award-winning authors in this case). So yes, we need an office of Writers In Crisis. When a writer is awarded ten or twenty thousand dollars, it goes to plugging holes, not exotic trips, new cars and fancy clothes. Cary Fagan‘s boots looked very serviceable to me. Probably chosen to last him another 10 years. Or more.

Susan Musgrave was awarded the Matt Cohen Prize for “living a writing life,” a life supported by the income generated through one’s writing, something not possible anymore, noted her prize-giver. The award-winning BC poet told us the story of how she came to choose her outfit for the evening. Though she’s normally a jeans-and-t-shirt person who wears “two left-foot gumboots I found years ago, although one has a rip in it now,” she explained that her silk patterned shirt and black blouse were bought while shopping with Matt Cohen, many years ago in Yorkville (yes, they cost a fortune even then, I overheard her say later). She said that when she knew Matt (he died in 1999), they joked that if they ever won lifetime achievement awards, they’d know the jurors had been talking to their doctors. And there she was, standing on the stage accepting her lifetime achievement award, named after her friend Matt, with whom she went shopping forty years ago and bought a swanky outfit… just in case.

A big cheer went up for the inaugural Latner Poetry Prize winner, Ken Babstock and I know why. I’ve met him at a couple of literary events and he’s unpretentious, warm and funny. Okay, and talented. Like the other award recipients, his voice cracked when he thanked his partner (and young son, Samuel). The Latner Poetry Prize is awarded “to a Canadian poet in recognition of a remarkable body of work [at least three collections] and in hope of future contributions to Canadian poetry.” Ken joked that his wife might indeed be glad if the award was for lifetime achievement (versus mid-career), alluding again to the difficulties of trying to make a writing life, especially with a family.

Ken Babstock, talking to a journalist after winning the inaugural Latner Writers Trust Poetry Prize ($25K!)

Ken Babstock, talking to a journalist after winning the inaugural Latner Writers Trust Poetry Prize ($25K). In 2012 he won the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize for his collection Methodist Hatchett.

My personal interest in attending the ceremony had to do with the Journey Prize. Lori McNulty’s short story “Monsoon Season” was published in Descant 163 earlier this year and was one of the three shortlisted stories for the Journey Prize, along with Tyler Keevil (“Sealskin” in The New Orphic Review) and Clea Young (“Juvenile” in The Fiddlehead). The Wales-based Tyler Keevil won the $10K prize coveted by short story writers.

I was struck by the eloquence of Jennifer Lambert’s introduction of Joan Thomas for her mid-career Engel/Findley Award. Moments before the writer took her place at the podium, the chair of the Writers’ Trust Board of Directors and editorial director at HarperCollins Canada described the winning prose as “lightning-bright” and full of  “those small vanities that undo us, those veins of bravery that sustain us.”

Miriam Toews‘ acceptance and thank yous required another kind of bravery. Her winning novel, All My Puny Sorrows, is based on the real-life fact that her sister committed suicide in 2010. Evidently struggling to maintain her composure, she said that her book is in part a testament to her beloved sister’s long struggle with mental illness and the love they had for one another. It never bothers me at all when people are emotional in front of an audience even though it’s often horrifying for the person on the stage, under the bright lights. When Miriam Toews thanked her family (clearly the loud cheering section seated in front of me), she informed us that, sadly, her mother “couldn’t be with us tonight because… she’s at a Raptor’s game!” Biggest laugh of the night, within seconds of the most tears shed, just like All My Puny Sorrows. Miriam Toews‘ words to her publicist, a woman without whom she “would be curled up at home in the fetal position,” were as moving as the thanks given to family members that night. She said her publicist “is my lighthouse… my pal.”

Tyler Keevil, 2014 Journey Prize winner, talking to a new fan after the ceremony.

Tyler Keevil, 2014 Journey Prize winner, talking to a new fan after the ceremony. Kalpna Patel’s work in the background, right.

After the ceremony the room emptied quickly for the post-reception (there was one before and one after the ceremony). I stayed near the stage to take some photographs and talk to the winners (I was honestly surprised at how few guests took this opportunity; was it the free booze?). To my delight, when I congratulated Cary Fagan, he asked me my name and when I said I’m a Descant co-editor his face lit up and he told me that Descant published his first story back in 1977. How nice was that?

Joan Thomas‘ acceptance speech was memorable in its big picture and political scope and I took the opportunity to tell her this. She looked relieved and said she felt badly that she wasn’t as funny in her thank yous as the other winners. So you see, writers? The self doubt and recriminations apparently never end. It’s god-awful normal.

On my way out of the auditorium there was this moment when the din of the reception hit me; a cacophony of unintelligible chatter. I was so stunned by the suddenness of it that I stepped back into the auditorium for a second in order to brace myself. There’s no point in attending these events unless one is willing to participate, meet new people, chat up famous faces (or try). But for many of us, it does take some bracing. Maybe in fact for all of us. After all, we were there to celebrate, honour and award the work of people who make something beautiful of our miseries.

Congratulations to all the nominees, jurors (a stunning list of CanLit who’s who), and winners of the 2014 Writers’ Trust Awards. As Elizabeth Renzetti says in her Globe article, it’s not true that no one ‘has to’ write books. Without works of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, children and young people’s fiction, we would have no culture: no shared expression for all our puny sorrows.

In writers, we trust.

 

Goosebumps at Goose Lane’s 60th Birthday Bash!

It’s book-launch season and I’ve been to about a dozen already this fall. On Tuesday I attended an extra special launch that celebrated the 60th birthday of Canada’s oldest independent publisher, Goose Lane Editions.

At the party I met Mark Anthony Jarman who’s in the latest issue of Descant, The Berlin Project, and whom we’ve published several times over the years. I sat and chatted with poet Don McKay (a rare opportunity indeed), I heard Stevie Howell read from her unpronounceable debut poetry colletion, and I got a wee hug and kiss from a handsome man in a kilt. But more on that later. Maybe.

Much like Descant, Goose Lane Editions started off as a mimeographed publication. In its early days it was connected to the University of New Brunswick and their literary magazine, The Fiddlehead. So it was fitting that Mark Anthony Jarman, current fiction editor of The Fiddlehead, read at the party on Tuesday. But only after he played us some harmonica, in e minor. I like this black and white photo of him, but it doesn’t show the funny in his performance. Like many writers I know, his funny is on the inside.

Mark Anthony Jarman reading from his story "Knife Party" at Goose Lane's 60th celebration launch party.

Mark Anthony Jarman reading from his story “Knife Party” at Goose Lane’s 60th celebration launch party.

When Publisher Susanne Alexander and Creative Director Julie Scriver read aloud some of the names of the 900 authors Goose Lane has published, I got goose bumps. People like poets Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, Gary Geddes and Roo Borsen. Fiction writers Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields, Alistair MacLeod and Alberto Manguel.

Susanne Alexander, publisher of Goose Lane Editions.

Susanne Alexander, publisher and president of Goose Lane Editions. If you’re in Toronto and plan on seeing the Alex Colville exhibition at the AGO, look for Goose Lane’s Colville.

Goose Lane, located in Fredericton, New Brunswick, publishes 25 new books a year. At the 60th birthday party this week, they launched their newest four: Stevie Howell’s debut poetry collection called, um… let me get back to that; Paul Kennedy’s The Next Big Thing: The Dalton Camp Lectures in Journalism, Margaret Sweatman’s historical fiction, Mr. Jones, and Don McKay’s long awaited collected works, Angular Nonconformity.

I shouldn’t be so mysterious about the title of Stevie Howell’s debut poetry collection. It’s ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^. The problem for the rest of us is how to pronounce this title when describing it to friends or, say, in blog posts. Thankfully, Stevie Howell agreed that it could reasonably be translated into [Sharps]. But for a fuller explanation, see her website and the necessary video clip. Turn up your volume first, for the full effect.

Stevie Howell reading from her debut poetry collection, [Sharps].

Stevie Howell reading from her debut poetry collection, [Sharps].

Margaret Sweatman gave a sexy reading of a sexy section of her historical fiction novel, Mr. Jones which is getting some great reviews.

Margaret Sweatman gave a sexy reading of a sexy section of her historical fiction novel, Mr. Jones which is getting some great reviews.

One of the highlights of my evening was talking to poet Don McKay. Onstage, he looked at his new book, Angular Conformity, and remarked how surprised he was at the size of it (more than 500 pages). Like most poets, he’s used to publishing much slimmer volumes. He let me take a photograph of him for my poet friends Catherine Stewart and Natalie Rice, former students of his, but first I had to assure him I wasn’t posting it willy-nilly online. He told the crowd that he’s been accused of being “perversely offline.” I am respecting his wishes here although I hope to interview him soon and get his permission to post a photo or two. I think it’s fair to say that if you are going to buy one major work of poetry this season, Don McKay’s Angular Nonconformity would be the one.

What's a birthday bash without a cake? And what a cake! Technically, I can now scratch "eat a book" from my bucket list. And now you know what the top book title is.

What’s a birthday bash without a cake? And what a cake. Technically, I can now scratch “eat a book” from my bucket list. And now you know what the top book title is.

Through some shenanigans on Twitter, I got a stranger to promise party goers free hugs. When I got there and asked around for the face behind the tweets, I got my hug and a kiss from handsome, kilted poet and the evening’s MC, David Seymour. David is on the editorial board of Icehouse Poetry, an imprint of Goose Lane Editions. He did a great job of keeping things moving and his admiration for Don McKay was, well, moving.

David Seymour, rocking the kilt as MC of Goose Lane's 60th anniversary party in Toronto.

David Seymour, rocking the kilt as MC of Goose Lane’s 60th anniversary party in Toronto.

Descant congratulates Goose Lane Editions on the occasion of their 60th birthday. A table-full of us attended the Toronto party. We hope Descant readers will join the party in Fredericton at the Convention Centre, 7:00pm tonight (October 3, 2014), where the hometown celebration will no doubt be a roof-raiser. Sixty years of publishing books in Canada is no small feat. Any one of the books launched this week by Goose Lane would make someone a great birthday or Christmas gift. Maybe you. Definitely me.

Come to Berlin: no baggage required

Over our 44 year history, Descant has sometimes produced themed issues about particular places, like Boznia and Herzegovina (2012), Sicily (2011) and Cuba (2006). To this list we now add Berlin. Planned years in advance by Guest Editor Katie Franklin to coincide with the 25th commemorative events of the fall of 1989, our Berlin issue is scheduled for launch at the Goethe Institut in Toronto on September 19th.

Jutta Brendemuehl, Program Curator for the Goethe Institut Toronto, our gracious co-host for the launch of Berlin 166.

Jutta Brendemuehl, Program Curator for the Goethe Institut Toronto, our gracious co-host for the launch of Berlin 166.

Berlin 166 is a hefty issue, as befits a city that divided the 20th century when it was itself divided. And everyone old enough to remember can tell you where they were when the news broke on November 9th, 1989. Twenty five years later, the capital of Germany is a powerhouse of arts and culture, high-tech industry, research and… night life!

Here’s Production Editor Jack Hostrawser to give you the tour and the details of Berlin 166.

***

The 166th issue of Descant is better than a trip to Germany. That’s because, in our pages, you get to swim in a wash of beautiful scenery and experience the flavours of history and culture but you won’t get sunburned or have to deal with sweaty crowds or discover that Air Canada has shipped your luggage to a research station in Antarctica by mistake. So, forget the cramped airline seats and the screaming babies and come with us as we venture into Berlin through the imaginations and memories of our contributors. Here’s a preview.

One of our featured memoirs, “Still Life With Potatoes” by Barbara Ponomareff, poignantly explores the difficult years after the war through the eyes of the author as a child. Memory haunts the daily tableau of mundane objects, such as the vegetables we buy without thinking at supermarkets, and doorways open through them to the cluttered streets of our past.

Barbara Ponomareff. Photo credit xxxx.

Short story writer, poet and retired child psychotherapist, Barbara Ponomareff.

Two different portfolios of artwork digest the experience of living in Berlin and its culture. “Berlin Burlesque” by Anja Nolte reminds me of the sensuous but dangerous animations Gerald Scarfe created for Pink Floyd The Wall, distorting and enhancing our view of the city’s characters. Trevor Corkum takes us into the living city with “When We Die,” to discover the ghosts that haunt it and the ways history shapes the present. “Iron Gall” by Mark Dudiak explores our distracted attention and the psychic layering of sights and sensations we experience as we move through the Strassen of Berlin.

Humourist, celebrity DJ and best-selling author Wladimir Kaminer opens up with wit and charm in an interview with Amy Stupavsky. Kaminer talks about how his writing has changed over time, the cultural experience of a Russian immigrant living in Berlin and the relationship between fiction and reality.

Elsewhere in the issue, the poetry of Carson Butts takes us into the pounding tempest of a Berlin Marilyn Manson concert, Matt Santateresa rushes us along a German Autobahn as our minds begin to wander to dark and sexy places and Gisela Argyle introduces us to the poetry of Kito Lorenc and Friedrich Ani in newly published translations. Contributing editor Alberto Manguel muses on the death and life of Heinrich Heine and co-editor Larissa Kostoff discovers the German words we might wish English had, and the transformative power that an intersection of language can hold.

Even after that, there’s still a fount of vibrant new poetry, fiction and thought. Our list of other contributors includes: George Elliott Clarke, Stephanie Warner, Rebecca Gould, Mark Anthony Jarman, Susan Ingram, Ellen Shearer, Barry Dempster, Karen Mulhallen, Robert Lake and more.

Barry Dempster. Photo credit xxxx

Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Award for literature. Photo credit Francesca Aceti.

Want to get your hands on a copy of the issue? Descant’s Wanderung through Berlin will soon be available from booksellers across the country and at our exciting launch event in the stylish, expansive library of the Goethe-Institut Toronto. Here are the details:

Friday, September 19th, 2014

7:00pm

100 University Avenue, Toronto

Second Floor, North Tower

(No cover!)

Our four talented readers will perform pieces of their writings, with memoir, fiction and poetry on tap. Come see lively performances by Barbara Ponomareff, Barry Dempster, Ophelia John and George Elliott Clarke!

Thanks to our generous donors, there will also be an exciting raffle of prizes from a variety of journals and publishing houses, including New Star Books, Tightrope Books, Koyama Press, Harbour Publishing, Echolocation and Existere.

Also: by special arrangement, we will be offering new subscribers an exclusive, launch-only discount. Discover a full year’s worth of all the agile writing and excellent design in Descant for only $20. Single copies of the latest issue will be available at the launch at a savings of over thirty percent off the newsstand price.

For more information about the readers, the magazine, the launch and to RSVP your attendance, please visit our Facebook page today.

Vielen Dank and we hope to see you there!

—Jack Hostrawser, production editor for Berlin 166

 

Your Literary Community Needs You to Get Untethered!

On Wednesday night I attended the inaugural launch for untethered, a new (paper!) literary magazine. It was, in Toronto Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke’s words, “off the hook.”

Stephanie McKechnie, prose editor, Nicole Haldoupis, editor-in-chief, and Sophie McCreesh, poetry editor of untethered.

Stephanie McKechnie, prose editor, Nicole Haldoupis, editor-in-chief, and Sophie McCreesh, poetry editor of untethered.

Rule number one for a great launch: pack the place. By the time Descant’s Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen introduced the editors of untethered, the Monarch Tavern’s upstairs pub was jumping with family and friends ready to hoot and holler and welcome Nicole Haldoupis, Sophie McCreesh and Stephanie McKechnie, co-creators of untethered. But who are all these people, you ask, and what have they got to do with you?

Everything, if you are a writer and reader in Canada.

When Descan't Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen puts her hands on her hips, people pay attention!

When Descant‘s Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen puts her hands on her hips, people pay attention!

The evening began and ended with pointed comments from Karen Mulhallen and George Elliott Clarke about the sorry state of dwindling government support for the arts and culture in Canada. There are clear, demonstrable reasons why a culture that wants to remain democratic needs to support its arts culture; there is no dearth of research here. There is no evidence whatsoever that we need to build mega-jails. None.

We are not the only western democratic country that is constantly having to fight for its arts and culture sector. The UK has a similar history. Why fund the arts? The short answer: because the arts challenge the status quo and breathe new life into wheezing democracies.

At the launch, I spoke with Diana Manole who read some poems she had translated. She read one in English and then in Romanian — I always like when poets do this and I’m surprised at how much of it I seem to get, intuitively, when I hear the reading in the original language. I told Diana how much I enjoyed her reading and she said, “I just loved tonight. You know, we don’t really have readings like this where I’m from.” Really? “No,” she said, “in Romania anything like this tended to just be all about Ceaușescu.” Ah, right. I rest my case.

The great thing about supporting your right to a democratic and open society is that you don’t always have to risk your safety at a protest; to support the arts, you just need to, well, support the arts. Attend events, buy stuff, spend your birthday and Christmas money on subscriptions and tickets. In the fall especially, there are so many literary events going on because it’s book launch season. Many writers get up at 5 am, five days a week to squeeze in a couple of hours of writing before leaving for their day jobs. They will be celebrating the results of years of labour this fall and they’d like you there for the party. Consider this an official invite. From all of them.

Andrew ably staffed the busy untethered table. This guest bought up three of the last copies of the inaugural run of the new magazine.

Andrew Thomas ably staffed the busy untethered table. This guest bought up three of the last copies of the inaugural run of the new magazine.

Michael Mirolla, VP of Guernica Editions, brought an armload of new books to donate to the raffle table for the launch of untethered. He said to me later that it was good to “soak in all that energy.” Especially if you’re a writer, launches are great events to attend — that energy Michael talked about keeps you going in your own work. Meeting and talking to new and established writers is the heart of these events. You may not know any of the names in this blog post, and my point is not to sound clubby or exclusive: it’s to encourage you to get out and get to know your own local lit peeps.

Ian Malczewski, a poetry contributor to untethered, won a pile of books in the raffle, including Terri Favro's The Proxy Bride.

Ian Malczewski, a poetry contributor to untethered, won a pile of books in the raffle, including Terri Favro‘s The Proxy Bride. Terri was at the launch and was happy to autograph his copy.

Quite a few of the guests at the launch for untethered did already know each other — parents, brothers, sisters and best friends hooted and cheered when their person took the stage. And when it was announced that the issue sold out its first run, the place exploded.

I started to take a picture of Justin Lauzon reading from his short story in untethered, but then saw that the better picture was this one, of Justin's best friend Iza carefully filming his reading.

I started to take a picture of Justin Lauzon reading from his short story in untethered, but then saw that the better picture was this one, of Justin’s best friend Iza Wozniak carefully filming his reading.

Author and University of York Prof Priscila Uppal came out to support her former students, the editors of untethered, pictured here with Sophie McCreesh, untethered's poetry editor.

Author and York University Prof Priscila Uppal came out to support her former students, the editors of untethered, pictured here with Sophie McCreesh, untethered‘s poetry editor.

Everyone I talked to — and I did talk to almost everyone as I tried to extract a toonie or a fiver from them for the raffle — said that this was one of the best, and even the best launch they had attended all year. Yes, for all the fuzzy feel-good reasons that are hard to quantify, but also that the readings were so damn good. And there were eight of them. Everyone respected their time limit (key at all readings, people!) and read so well. Okay, George Elliott Clarke may have gone a bit over his allotted five minutes. The man can make the rudest words sound musical. He is, dare I say it, untethered.

There are some solid practical reasons for attending literary events in your community: you’ll find out what’s going on and what’s new. I found out from Justin Lauzon, Descant volunteer and contributor to untethered, that he has a new job with a great title: Literary Events Coordinator for a local restaurant. The Windup Bird Café, which hosts, among other things, a monthly Best Canadian Poetry series, has a program called Birds of a Feather. According to Justin, “we’re reaching out to people in the community to tell their stories on stage – just regular people, no need to be a writer. The admission process to perform is basically, ‘Do you have a good story about this topic?’ and if we think you do, then you’re on!’” I know — you don’t live in Toronto, right? So start up one of these where you live. Approach a restaurant, café or pub and pitch the idea.

No one really cares about the political benefits of attending a literary event when we’re there – we just want to meet up with friends, meet new people, have some fun and talk about books and writing. Or how we have no money or time for books and writing. We came to Wednesday’s launch primarily to support the three co-creators whose imagination, experience, talent and optimism brought a new magazine and about a hundred happy people together.

The untethered editors have all volunteered at Descant. Nicole Haldoupis was  production editor for our issue The Brink and the Break (another great launch night, come to think of it). All of us at Descant, one of the oldest literary magazines in Canada, wish them well in their new literary endeavour. And I know that they would join me in encouraging you to get out to literary events this fall. Support one another, support people you don’t know (why not?), buy books and tickets and — let’s keep our arts culture…

SOLD OUT! But still available by order. Cover art by BC's PSYCHELATION.

SOLD OUT! But still available by order. Cover art by BC’s PSYCHELATION.

Boredom in life, literature & some very bad videos

A funny thing about boredom: it’s interesting.

There’s a lot that boredom can do to a person. You can be bored silly, bored out of your mind, bored to distraction, bored to tears (this has actually happened to me), bored stiff and mind-numbingly bored. It is a thorough moral indictment of one’s character to be described as a boring person or one who induces boredom in others. The public outcry that greeted the publication of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) may well have had as much to do with Madame Bovary’s statement that her adulterous affairs were too much like her boring marriage, as the (fictional) facts of her extra-marital liaisons.

There’s a scene in the movie The Guard where Brendan Gleeson turns to his partner and says in his Irish accent, “You bore the whole of me.” I don’t think you have to be Irish to appreciate the world of humour in that one simple line, but it helps.

We all avoid the crashing bore. Dickens, according to my research, may have coined the expression “bored to death” in Bleak House (1852-’53), an expression which now exists in many languages. I like the Dutch version: Ik verveel me dood (it bores me dead). Boredom, it seems, is universal.

A cutout stage and paper vegetable actors! What was I thinking?!!

A cutout stage and paper vegetable actors! What was I thinking?!!

Some of the greatest writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries not only wrote about boredom, directly or indirectly, but also used it for mood as part of their writing style. In his volume of poems Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) Charles Baudelaire writes of “this bored world,” “the boredom… of our foggy lives,” “the black boredom of snowy evenings,” and “the boredom of the vulgar herd.” The poems in this book are, in general, suffused with an air of languid boredom, the disdain of the new modern “man” struggling with the changing values brought into sharp relief by the speedy evolution from what sociologists (especially German ones) would call a Gemeinschaft to a Gessellschaft existence.

Taking ourselves – and others — too seriously  is usually boring too.

Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1952), a two-volume doorstopper of a novel, depicts bourgeois life in the pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian capital and asks what kind of relationship is possible to our experience in modernity? Unfortunately I cannot tell you his answer both because the novel was never finished, and because I have never been able to finish the novel.

In Alberto Moravio’s novel Boredom (1960), a prolonged, everyday boredom is the source of the internal struggle that leads the wealthy, failed artist, Dino, to fall obsessively in love with a young woman. Dino treats us to no less than a 14 page discussion of boredom. It reminds me of Goncharov’s novel Oblamov (1859), whose eponymous main character takes the first 50 pages to get himself out of bed. I must confess, it has some days taken me 51.

Eartha Kitt, famous for her voice and not her choreography, remember, singing “Monotonous” (1954). I want one of those lime green chaise lounges:

Samuel Beckett deals with themes of existential despair, alienation, meaning and boredom, perhaps most famously in his play Waiting for Godot. I had an opportunity to see this play the way Beckett recommended: in a jail, performed by inmates. The waiting of their own lives, as a result of the punishment meted out to them through the courts, underscored all their lines as characters in the play. The idea of boredom as a punitive measure of social control was not simply metaphorical there; it was palpable. And the ushers were armed, so that was weird.

Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s 1967 cult classic album, Gorilla, “I’m Bored” (“like mortar, bored!”):

Henry James said he was bored reading Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu (1871-1922). Yes, that Henry James. Ironic, I know (unless you are a James’ fan, in which case I beg your pardon… though my fingers are crossed behind my back). The charge of boring has also been levelled at James Joyce’s experimental novel, Ulysses, considered by many (especially those who have not read it) to be one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

In Against Interpretation Susan Sontag, argues against the charge that difficult-to-read books are boring and says that “there is no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration.” She challenges readers (and moviegoers) to work through or rise above their frustration with a particularly difficult narrative or film, implying that boredom is only a first-level response.

Academic advice-giving is often boring. Mansplaining is always boring.

Iggy Pop, in one of the worst videos ever made, “I’m Bored.” I include it here because sometimes bad is interesting. Though not always.

But Sontag is right that boredom is not just the “are we there yet?” whine of backseat toddlers. It isn’t a feeling; it’s more an absence of feeling, or, more precisely, an absence of meaning and the ability to make meaning. Since humans are meaning-makers (this is how we get, and why we cling to, culture, religion and so on), the threat of the absence of meaning is – dehumanizing? Think of Kafka’s hunger artist and his refusal to eat, “because I couldn’t find the food I liked.” Like Kierkegaard’s jaded aesthete who said, “my eyes are surfeited and bored with everything and yet I hunger.”

“Is it possible that despite our discoveries and advances, despite our culture, religion, and science, we have remained on the surface of life? Is it possible that even this surface, which might still have been something, has been covered with an incredibly tedious material, which makes it look like living-room furniture during the summer vacation?” ~ Rilke

The word boredom doesn’t have a clear etymology, and first appears in the mid 1700s. Before “bored,” writers used words like tedium, vacuity and monotony to describe their indifference, disinterest, weariness and the apparently slow passage of time. Historically it can be linked to the acedia (the spiritual blahs) experienced by early monks in the deserts of Egypt, the ones who lived in caves, had no phones, intermittent wi-fi (with God) and had a hard time living on only dread and water. Acedia was considered the gateway sin for more serious, venal wrongdoings: “the devil makes work of idle hands.”

The French word ennui goes further back, to the twelfth century, and was used in a similar way as acedia. Ennui is often considered to be a deeper state of boredom, a malaise of meaning, rather than the temporary state we call boredom.

Calgary-based poet Christian Bök, contributor to Descant 125: Sub/Urbia (2004), wrote in that issue:

“ENNUI IS THE EXHAUSTION of the mind caught in the riot cell of its own thoughts. While poets always strive in vain to escape this oubliette, their tedium forces them to find in the workings of the padlocks, evidence of a more beautiful reasoning—a kind of eunoia. Never forget that which makes us weary also makes us
dream.”

This reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s words, another nod to the often productive nature of everyday boredom and perhaps some inspiration for the writers and artists who long to harness its strange powers:

“Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.”

 

***
Note: To lessen the boredom effects of this blog post for some, I didn’t include  specific reference information. If you’re interested in the academic sources I used, let me know via the comment section below.

 

Berlin #166: under cover of light

Berlin is coming!

Our weighty issue is scheduled to launch on Friday, September 19th, at the Goethe Institute in Toronto. Production Editor Jack Hostrawser obviously had the big picture in mind when he snagged us this incredible cover image, a point of view known to only a handful of earthlings:

detail berlin lights

Berlin from space. Taken in 2013 from the International Space Station. Photo courtesy Commander Chris Hadfield, used with permission.

Up close, Berlin’s street lamps contribute to the nostalgia in this once-divided city. Seen from space, they outline the twenty-first century metropolis in a crystal web.

You’ll notice in the image that some of the lights glow yellow and others, quite distinctly, shed a blue-ish light. Of all the gas-fueled street lamps still in existence, Berlin, with 43,000, has more than half of the world’s total. When Commander Hadfield took the above photograph in 2013, not quite half of the gas-lights had been switched to LEDs giving the city a still-divided look from space.

Berlin by night, 2006, photo courtesy of Dan Strange

Berlin by night, 2006, photo credit Dan Strange.

If it wasn’t for the invention of the street lamp, there would be no night life, as German-Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin pointed out. Without enough light with which to see others, and feel safe, there was little point in making a spectacle of evenings. Today, Berlin’s citizens and visitors from across the world are drawn out into its extraordinary and vibrant night life.

We invite you to join us for our night to celebrate this special Descant issue, long-planned to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, one of the most stunning political, social and cultural events of the twentieth century.

We’re positive that you’ll find our launch event … illuminating.

For more launch information, please visit our Facebook event listing.

Berlin streetlamps from space. The cover of our Berlin issue. Photo credit Commander Chris Hadfield.

The cover of our Berlin issue. Our thanks to Commander Chris Hadfield.