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

We borrowed this montage from our friends at


Canada’s online resource for writers: introducing

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., “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 Full disclosure, I am listed along with the rest of the team on the Lexical “About” page.

 I want to ask you about, 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 Can we talk about Lexical now?

I guess. What exactly is

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 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. 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 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

It came to me as most ideas do, by stealing them from other people., 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 can work.

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

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

As you know there are other sites dedicated to writers, so what distinguishes 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, 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

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  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

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] 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, 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:

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.


In case you’re wondering, Descant maintains a limited social media presence through our website, blog, Facebook and Twitter. The magazine itself is no longer in production. If you’d like us to help spread your literary news please tweet us the info: @DescantMagazine.

Is your name here? A joy-filled send-off, a reverse mullett & the perfect gift to mark Descant’s 45 years

It’s not that we’re still hungover from our grand farewell party, but we are in a way still recovering.

On March 25th, 2015, about 300 people crowded in to Toronto’s Revival Bar to celebrate and honour 45 years of Descant magazine. When Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen announced the imminent close of the magazine in December, plans were soon underway to mark the occasion. Associate Editor-in-Chief Jason Paradiso took on the new title of chief party organizer and three months later there we were, in a room packed with friends, well-wishers and performers. Forty-five years of Descant had come to an end. There was plenty of vodka.

A packed house for Descant's farewell bash at Revival Bar in Toronto, March 25, 2015.

A packed house for Descant‘s farewell bash at Revival Bar in Toronto, March 25, 2015.


Between sets we yakked and drank, which we are good at given our experience at Descant launches. Some of us are, ahem, more experienced than others ;-) .

A total of 14 writers and musicians performed for the crowd (see list at end of post), ably coordinated by MC Antanas Sileika, writer, director of the Humber School for Writers and a Descant co-editor in the 1980s. In the co-editor’s diary for Bibliomania, Issue #133 (2006), Antanas writes: “I continue to measure stories which I read, wondering if I would have published them in Descant.”

Antanas Sileika...

Writer and Director of the Humber School for Writers, Antanas Sileika.

Cathy Petch played her saw for us and recited her poem "Chewbacca" which we published in the winter 2014 issue and she performed...

Descant contributor Cathy Petch played her saw for us and recited her raunchy love poem, “Wookie Love,” a crowd favourite you can should watch her perform here.

Between performances and trips to the bar, we gave away $3,000 worth of raffle prizes including a $500 scholarship for the Humber School for Writers fall course and a box of books worth $450 donated by House of Anansi Press and Coach House Books. In a room of hundreds, one lucky person managed to win two of the nine prizes.

Jacob Scheier and Whitney French....

Poets Jacob Scheier and Whitney French wrote something for the evening that they performed together.

The long narrow space at Revival was conducive to a reverse mullett effect: party at the front, business at the back. More than one performer commented on the chatting nearest the front doors, while those seated in front of the stage were quieter and focused on the performers. I admit that I sometimes found the loud chatting distracting until I realized it was exactly the kind of event we’d hoped for: compelling performances as well as a place to catch up with old friends and tell loud funny stories. And then Anne Michaels was introduced.

I’m not the least bit embarrassed to say that I am an unabashed admirer of Anne Michaels’ giant talent. So when she stepped onto the stage I hoped I would be able to hear every word of her reading. Karen had asked her to read her poem “Above Lake Superior.” In 1995, the AGO commissioned Anne Michaels, one of 10 Canadian writers, to write about a painting in the AGO collection for their Reading Pictures project. Anne Michaels chose Lawren Harris’ Above Lake Superior and Descant published the poem in issue #92/93 in 1996 (to our knowledge, it is not published anywhere else).

“Above Lake Superior” is a few pages long and begins, “Unless you’re really enlightened,/you need a height to see where you are.” Within about a dozen lines, the entire room at Revival was quiet and the silence seemed to deepen with each stanza (except for a few comic lines, especially “‘Many are cold,’ he said,/ ‘but few are frozen’…” which struck a chord for us Torontonians, this year especially). A few partygoers tweeted her last lines, “Because/what are we? Bones and light.” Anne Michaels got rockstar applause.

All the readers and musicians that night are part of Descant‘s extended family and we were moved and honoured by their performances.

Sam Cash...

Sam Cash closed the last set with a ballad and a shout out of thanks to Karen Mulhallen.

Although Jason Paradiso organized the bash, with help from me, Matt Carrington, Michelle Ferreira, Rebecca Payne and Paul Fowler, our long-time Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen designed the evening and was involved in every step.

Except one.

Larissa Kostoff, longest-serving Descant co-editor and friend of Karen’s, secretly proposed a wonderful idea for a group gift for Karen. With the help of graphic designer Ansel Schmidt, a framed image was created using all the Descant covers and names of contributors since 1970. All 147 covers (this accounts for several double issues) were reproduced on a 60″ by 27″ poster. More than 2,500 names of Descant contributors were laser-etched onto transparent acrylic panes which were then mounted in front of the poster. From a distance of a few feet it looks like a colourful image of Descant covers, but up close you can read the names of all the people that Descant has published in almost 45 years. Simple and elegant. And very heavy. To Karen’s surprise, Larissa presented it to her on stage, with the help of former Descant Managing Editors Maria Meindl and Mary Newberry.

A fitting farewell gift for Karen Mulhallen, now installed in her home. But what you want to know is: where is my name?!

A fitting farewell gift for Karen Mulhallen, now installed in her Toronto home. The oak frame was handmade by Chatham sculptor Mark Jeffrey.

When Descant board member and party benefactor Andrew Smith had a chance to see the gift up close, he commented on the power of a simple list of names. For one, it has a stunningly democratic effect. All literary magazines like to trot out the names of the more and most famous writers published in their pages and we are certainly no different. But within this oak frame, alongside the heavyweight names like Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels and Margaret Atwood, are the names of many other hardworking writers: yours, perhaps? I took a few closeups (including the one with my name, ‘natch) so let me know if you’d like a picture of the panel with your name. Then you can play the “who am I beside?” game.

Is your name on the same panel with Mordecai Richler?

Is your name on the same panel with Mordecai Richler?

On behalf of Descant‘s Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen and the rest of the Descant family, heartfelt thanks to all of you who came out to support us at our grand finale. Friends came from across Canada, the US and England to say goodbye. The hundreds of back issues we brought to give away that night were indeed all taken to new homes.

Mounted on the wall in Karen Mulhallen’s home is a list of names against a grid of colourful covers representing 45 years of hard work, joy-filled moments and an enduring legacy to the Canadian literary community.


The wall beside the piano turned out to be the perfect place.



We are grateful for the support of all the marvellous performers at our party. In order of appearance they were: Alex Maeve Campbell & Rory “Gus” Sinclair, John B. Lee, Michael Helm, Cathy Petch, Joseph Maviglia, Marilyn Gear Piling, Anne Michaels, Robert Priest and band, Paul Dutton, Whitney French and Jacob Scheier, Rosemary Sullivan and Sam Cash.

Big generous thanks to our generous raffle prize donators: Maia-Marie Sutnick (AGO tour), The Door Store ($250 gift certificate), Coach House and House of Anansi Press ($450 worth of books), Urbanfitt ($250 gift certificate), Jennifer Toews (tour of Thomas Fisher Rare Books library at UofT), Humber School for Writers ($500 scholarship), Sphinx Pilates/Eldoa ($170 gift certificate), Canadian Opera Company ($250 gift certificate), and Dr. Alexandra Palmer (tour of ROM’s textile collection).

Last but never least in our hearts, thank you to all our volunteers that night: Trevor Abes, Michael Chen, Vera DeWaard-Toole (programme design), Jann Everard, Michelle Ferreira, Jules Goss, Kim Griffiths, Greg House, Justin Lauzon, Sophie McCreesh, Stephanie McKechnie, Maria Meindl, Mary Newberry, Joshua P’ng and Rhiannon Wong. Artist Shannon Gerrard granted us permission to use her work on our programme cover.


Saying goodbye: Karen Mulhallen prepares for Descant’s grand finale

When I email Descant Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen to confirm our interview appointment the next day, she responds with the news she has slipped on the ice that morning and hurt her arm. Of course I say we should reschedule at her convenience. But Karen is a self-admitted workhorse and powering through is one of her greatest strengths. It’s what helped get Descant through four decades of publishing in an increasingly precarious industry.

“I hope you’re not going to ask me that question,” she says to me when we first set up the interview. Since December, when she announced the news of the magazine’s closing, friends, colleagues and complete strangers have been asking her: How do you feel about this? How does it feel to say goodbye to Descant after all these years?

“What am I supposed to tell them?”

I promise I won’t ask her.

Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen

I meet Karen at her home near Kensington Market in Toronto. Over a pot of tea — or bottle of Prosecco, I can’t remember now — we talk about the magazine that has been her full-time labour of love for more than forty years. Before we start the interview we discuss plans for the big party, Descant‘s grand finale, on March 25th. While editing the programme for the final bash, Karen updates me on what still has to be filed and sorted in the office. It’s been like this for three months — dealing with the end while planning the literary celebration of the season.

Those of us involved with the magazine are familiar with its origin story: that Descant began in 1970 when a group of University of Toronto graduate students produced mimeographed copies of the first issue. Karen Mulhallen was not the first editor of the magazine; she was the assistant editor of issues three and four, and became the editor shortly thereafter. From 1972 until the last issue printed earlier this year, the magazine has been perfect bound (sections sewn or glued together with a cover, like paperback books). There are about 25 contributors per issue, in poetry, fiction and non-fiction, as well as visual artists, in photography, painting and mixed media. A number of issues include a full-colour gatefold (the literary version of a centrefold) and since issue 133, the magazine includes colour in the text as well.

There’s no question that Descant is a beautiful magazine and one of the most respected literary journals in Canada.

Descant's third issue, in 1971. The cover image is from a photograph taken by Karen Mulhallen.

Descant’s third issue, in 1971. The cover image is from a photograph taken by then-Assistant-Editor, Karen Mulhallen.

For the first six years after she became editor, the magazine was housed on the lower level of Karen’s home. She explains, “it just became a part of how the house functioned.” In the 1980s, Karen hired Maria Gould Meindl to be Descant‘s first managing editor. Maria sold subscriptions to help cover her salary and was, according to Karen, a quick study and committed apprentice and colleague. Recalling those early years and her work with Karen, Maria says:

“She was brilliant, gorgeous and fiercely committed to the magazine. I was a little scared of her, to be honest. I knew I had a lot to learn, fast. She also put a lot of faith in me.”

It’s still true — Karen has a directness that, combined with a quick mind and an unflinching aesthetic, can intimidate those who don’t know her well. It’s also true that putting her faith in people and their nascent talent are what has made the magazine such a success, in Canada and abroad. In 1983, several years before his novel The English Patient catapulted him into international literary stardom, Descant published an entire issue on Michael Ondaatje. “I was just dazzled by his writing” Karen tells me.

Descant's winter and summer magazines are typically miscellaneous issues. The other two are organized thematically. Over the years themes have included places (North Africa, Latvia, Turkey, Venice and more),

Over the years themes and special issues have included places (North Africa, Latvia, Turkey, Venice, India, Berlin …), people (like Michael Ondaatje, above, and Dennis Lee), and topics such as music, gardening, dance, comedy, sports, birth, memory, war, writers in prison, space, fashion, hotels, comics and the search for happiness.

I have no idea how to describe Karen’s literary or artistic tastes because she is impressed by such a wide variety of styles. In one of the many emails of condolence she has received since the announcement of Descant‘s closing, a longtime friend points out that Karen is unusual in this way: her personal style and tastes have not dictated what gets published in the magazine. Karen is also known for cutting writers and artists a lot of slack when others find them … challenging.

Alongside established and well-known authors, Descant has always published new and emerging writers, many of whom have gone on to successful writing careers. You would be hard-pressed to name a successful Canadian writer who has not been published in Descant. I can say that honestly as I have recently been going through the entire list of our contributors.

I ask Karen to estimate how much time she has put into Descant and before I can finish my sentence she says “forty hours a week.” I clarify, “no, I mean you personally, how many hours?” She repeats her answer with the tinge of impatience that determined people get when faced with mundane questions. “Even when you were working, full-time?” She nods and I cannot resist the urge to blurt out, “but how is that possible when you worked as a Ryerson prof and have published so many books over the years?” (Later, I ask her if it’s 14 or 16 books and she says with a shrug, “more than 16 now. But why do people need to count these things?”). She tells me, “I didn’t think about it. I just did. If you think too much about it you go crazy.” She says that without children and not much time spent in front of the television or radio (“I don’t like things projected at me”), she incorporated the work of the magazine into her daily life: “If I couldn’t sleep for some reason, I’d just get up and work on the magazine.”

Karen Mulhallen at a launch party for Descant.

Karen Mulhallen speaks at a launch party for Descant.

I have seen this dogged determination recently in the labour of closing the magazine. The infrastructure that supported Descant and helped it grow for more than forty years is now almost completely dismantled. Karen has single-handedly, and with some help, sorted through decades of financial information, materials for the archives, and that middle ground that all of us dread: files marked “miscellaneous.”

One afternoon someone dropped by to see about buying one of the office computers. I was busy trying to sort through one of the filing cabinet drawers but eventually I became aware that there was some kind of problem with the way the computers were wired in to the table. Before I could even offer to help, Karen had found a screwdriver and crawled under the table where she could better survey the problem. Then, pink cashmere sweater and skirt notwithstanding, she lay on her back and went to work. In our interview she tells me that her basic operating principle has always been, “we can make it work.”

As well as the 167 issues of the magazine, Karen says she is proud of the outreach programmes Descant has spearheaded, including SWAT (students, writers and teachers workshops), Operation Springboard (writing workshops with young people in conflict with the law), Now Hear This! (literary workshops and support for at-risk youth), and grief-writing workshops. Descant‘s quarterly launches, often standing-room-only, are another kind of literary outreach and Karen’s eyes light up when she talks about them. Although she does often make some introductory remarks at the launches, it’s the production editor’s night and she defers to their plans for the evening, including the choice of readers.

In response to the question Why is the magazine closing? her answer is characteristically unequivocal: “It’s really simple, it’s not complicated at all. As arts funding diminishes and costs rise, we can’t meet the deficit.” But she did try. Since 2010, when she announced she would retire in 2014, she has tried to find some one, or some organization, to take over the magazine. While there were a few nibbles, no one came through with the time and money that it would require. At the last hour, the current group of co-editors discussed the possibilities of taking over the magazine but, like others Karen had approached, we just couldn’t see how to make it work without the linchpin who has held it together for almost 45 years.

"Descant": noun; a discourse on a theme or subject

“Descant”: noun; a discourse on a theme or subject

Even as core funding has dwindled, Descant reader subscriptions have steadily increased. I asked Karen when the magazine’s volunteer ranks got so big and she said she really noticed an increase at the monthly editorial board meetings about five years ago. She is clearly proud that these meetings have always been open to anyone who wanted to participate, no questions asked. You could just walk in, pick up a submission, read it and turn to the person next to you to discuss it.

I ask her the inevitable question about the legacy of the magazine:

Descant has published important writing and art that comes out of a particular time and place … we’ve made a permanent record and helped people grow in their craft and provided a sense of community. Magazines have to be committed to be a record of the thinking of an era and to the artists who make that thinking available to our era … we need to make this available to other people. No one goes anywhere alone. We go there together.”

Karen refutes the perception that if you’re around long, you’re necessarily staid. She says that the goals of a literary magazine are no different than when she started: “to publish people and help them grow and be better at their craft.” What does she make of factionalism in the literary world? “I pay no attention to that. You have to acknowledge development of the culture … you have to help grow the culture and support the whole prospectus.” Maria Meindl notes that:

Descant kept changing, reflecting Karen’s endless curiosity and willingness to reach out to new artists and new communities. It kept growing and reaching out into the world, thinking of new ways to reinvent itself. Just the idea that a magazine CAN do that, for as long as Descant did is incredible.”

Descant‘s last launch was this past January, for issue 167. It was a packed house and I heard more than one person say it was the best launch they’d been to. There was a joie de vivre despite, or perhaps because of, the bittersweet celebrations. Karen was surrounded by old friends and several generations of managing editors. But at one point, when I looked across the room to find her, she was standing alone and I saw her wipe her eyes. In our interview she explained that it was contributor Jim Nason’s comments that really got to her. Before he read that night at the launch, he told the audience how he’d submitted a poem to Descant in the 1980s and got a note back (from Maria Meindl) asking him if he could rewrite it. “Now he’s an author and owns Tightrope Books. There was 30 years in front of me,” Karen says softly. “That’s when I started crying. You know, 30 years? There it was, in that moment, in Kensington Market.”

Near the end of our interview, Karen pulls back a sleeve and we stare at the nasty looking purple mark on her arm from her fall the previous morning. She runs a finger over it and I ask her how it feels. She stares at me for a moment then says, “It hurts. You always know it could happen, but when it does it’s such a shock. It hurts. It hurts a lot.”


1970 - 2015

1970 – 2015


Please join us to celebrate Descant‘s 45 years of publishing new and established writers and visual artists. Antanas Sileika is the MC for our big bash. We’ll be giving away back issues of the magazine so if you or a friend were published in one, now’s your last chance to pick up another copy. We have some crazy-big raffle prizes as well, including a $500 scholarship for the Humber School for Writers.

When: March 25th, 7pm

Where: Revival Bar, 783 College Street, Toronto

Catered appetizers and cash bar. Visit our Facebook page for more information.




Curious about our last launch? Come, dressed as you were!

In a Cabinet of Curiosities, issue #167, marks the end of 45 years for Descant. This means Nikolina Likarevic is our last production editor in a long line of talented, hardworking and energetic PEs. We appreciate Nikolina’s commitment to this issue, her quiet and swift way of jumping in to help (everyone) when there’s a question or problem, and her continued enthusiasm at a difficult time for many Descanters. Here she is to tell you about our next, and last, launch. And do take Nikolina’s fashion advice for the occasion!

Note: Mark your calendars as well for our Grande Finale farewell party, on Wednesday, March 25, at Revival. Yes, Revival. We are indomitable… in spirit.


Leaving you with a Bang … and Some Curiosity

by Nikolina Likarevic

“The work of your team has been so vital to Canadian literature, and to the emerging voices of new writers.” ~Georgia Wilder, contributor to issue #167

Cover for issue #167. Installation by William Fussner.

Cover for issue #167, by William Fussner.

In a Cabinet of Curiosities, issue #167, will be the last issue of Descant magazine. It is sad and strange saying goodbye to Descant, but it is also an honour to be a part of it and the outpouring of love and support has kept us all  going. Thank you!

In [our] Cabinet of Curiosities, humanities fragments – memories and mementoes burdened by technology, time, human nature, the drive for equality – erupt in art, poetry, prose and criticism. Josh Stewart feels the apocalypse is near. Narrating from a child’s view of the world, John Lofranco ponders the delicate and painful putting away of childish things. Generations divide and characters search for equality in Georgia Wilder’s short story. Mark Kingwell leads us into the heart of evil, challenging language in mental health and crime. Jim Nason explores personal loss, the death of a father, and national trauma. Kay Armatage explores the neglected history of women through films and film festivals. In A Cabinet of Curiosities tells us there is always a place for nostalgia, a time to live in the moment and a need to think of the future.

There are still memories to be made. Find out what lurks In [our] Cabinet of Curiosities at our launch:

When: January 29th, 2015, at 7 PM

Where: Supermarket Restaurant and Bar

We’re going to create our own memory theatre. Bring your stories, mementoes or wackiest outfit from the back of your closet. Come and share in old and new memories: Descant’s, yours and the ones in our new issue.

There is no entrance fee and, as always, there will be great raffle prizes and delicious nibblies. Our talented line-up of readers includes:

Kay Armatage reading from “The Geopolitics of Women’s Film Festivals: Fem-Cine, Santiago.”

Josh Stewart reading from “A Song of Empty Aisles.”

John Lofranco reading from “Thorsteinn.”

Georgia Wilder reading from “Coco Divine and the Lightning Police.”

Mark Kingwell reading from “Can’t we Talk about Evil?”

 Jim Nason reading from “All the Manure.”

Jim Nason, owner of Tightrope Books and contributor to Descant #167.

Jim Nason, owner of Tightrope Books and contributor to Descant #167.

There are plenty of raffle prizes for you to win thanks to generous donors like Brick, Brokenpencil, Hart House Review, White Wall Review, Tightrope Books, ChiZine Publications, Inanna Publications, Black Moss Press, The University of Alberta Press, and more.

For more information about our launch and to RSVP, visit our Facebook event page. Or, tweet us @DescantMagazine.

I hope to see you there!

- Nikolina


Nikolina Likarevic joined the Descant team through a practicum for the MA in Literatures of Modernity program at Ryerson University. Currently, she is working on a science fiction novel and on creating a career out of writing and her other interests (cultural studies, new media, political science, etc.). Contact her on her personal blog here or on Twitter (@NLikare).


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.


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.