Alistair MacLeod: an appreciation

Alistair MacLeod’s death, on Sunday, has deeply saddened readers and writers across Canada. I can’t be the only one who was struck that the man who wrote so beautifully about family, was a father to six, and a quietly faithful Catholic and thoroughly decent man, died on the weekend that so many of us were celebrating Easter and Passover, with our own family and friends.

The landscape-as-literature style of Alistair MacLeod’s stories, most of which are set in or near Cape Breton where he grew up from the age of 10, is so superbly local, specific, and particular, that the stories are transcendent, universal and haunting. I once heard him read aloud his story, “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun.” It was nothing short of astounding. Since then I can only read his stories with the sound of his own voice in my head. It is the sound of an old storyteller, sitting on a rock by the side of the road, his dog at his feet, his eyes looking out to sea. A seanchaidh.

Island contains the stories from X and Y and aslkfjsklfj

Island contains the stories from The Lost Salt Gift of Blood (1976) and As Birds Bring Forth the Sun (1986).

Alistair MacLeod's only novel won Ontario's Trillium Prize and the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (1999, McClelland & Stewart).

Alistair MacLeod’s only novel won Ontario’s Trillium Prize and the prestigious IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (1999, McClelland & Stewart).

He was not a prolific writer. If you read his novel No Great Mischief (1999) and his collected stories in Island (2000), you will have read all but two of his stories. MacLeod’s publisher, Douglas Gibson, has told the story about how hard it was to pry a manuscript out of Alistair MacLeod’s hands and how one time he gave up on phone calls and simply dropped in on the MacLeods. Expectantly. After some chat he put an envelope on the table in between them and said there was a cheque in there, did Alistair have anything for him? Gibson left with the manuscript. To hear him tell the story, you get the sense that he ran to his car with it in case MacLeod changed his mind and started to chase it down for one more edit.

I once heard someone ask Alistair MacLeod for writing advice. The question was phrased something like, “How do you do it?” The answer was given in Alistair MacLeod’s quiet, drole voice: “Well, first I write one sentence. Then I write another one…” Everyone laughed. After all, ha ha, everyone knows that the only secret to writing is the getting down to it, the stringing together of sentences, one after the other. But I’ve since realized this is probably not exactly what Alistair MacLeod meant. The man who was loathe to give up his manuscript was a perfectionist who did not (absolutely not) write according to the advice which goes something like: for your first draft, just write a lot of awful stuff and when it’s done, it will of course be terrible, but that’s where the craft comes in, that’s when you go back and rewrite it. Or, as Hemingway said, more succinctly, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Not so for Alistair MacLeod. Each sentence was carefully and thoughtfully written (and rewritten) before the next. There was nothing casual or exploratory or “let’s just see where this takes us,” the method vaunted by a much younger generation of writers. Alistair MacLeod had things to say and wanted to say them well, so they would stand, and withstand:

“When I’m halfway through all of my stories, I write down the last sentence. That’s how certain I am. Because I like to think that this last sentence will be the last chance I have at their ear, and I think it’s important to say something strongly to the reader before you say goodbye.”

But this seriousness as a writer belies a mischievous sense of humour, evident in his eyes and when he gave talks. Antanas Sileika, author and Director of the Humber School for Writers, where, for the past 10 years Alistair MacLeod taught in the summer workshop, tells a funny story about the two of them playing a prank on author Wayson Choy. The three writers were in Siena, Italy. Wayson Choy said that he would consider himself officially Famous if he were to happen upon a person reading one of his books in the Piazza del Campo. Like a couple of kids, Sileika and MacLeod made their plan (oh, the nerdish joy!) and soon after, Wayson Choy happened upon a man reading a copy of his The Jade Peony in the piazza. I’ve always meant to ask Antanas if Alistair took off his tweed cap for the occasion and whether or not he was reading the book aloud.

Your local bookstore either has, or will order copies of Alistair MacLeod’s books for you. There may not be a lot to read, but there’s an awful lot to chew on. Savor and enjoy his storytelling. And if you are a writer, read them again and again to study and learn. The last time I reread some of his stories I was struck by the elegance of his mastery of rhythm. A friend I consider very well read, wrote to me yesterday and said: “I feel very sad about Alistair MacLeod. No Great Mischief is one of the best Canadian books I have read.” It is a long, fierce wail of a book, and it ends in a simple line that encapsulates the centuries-long struggles of a family, of family.

Alistair MacLeod with a sljfsljfsjfd

Alistair MacLeod with an unabashed and beaming fan, clutching her autographed copy of Island, in 2012.

When I met Alistair MacLeod I told him I’d heard that his son Alexander MacLeod was getting good reviews for his debut story collection, Light Lifting (2010). He looked genuinely pleased I knew this and he said he was proud of his son. I think it would be fitting to honour the memory of Alistair MacLeod by also reading his son’s work. A very different voice, and another very good one.

Enjoy this lecture (2011) by Dr. MacLeod, where you may be surprised to learn who gets credit for the first Canadian novel (technically, not quite yet “Canada”). Just a gentle warning, his opening line will catch your breath.

On behalf of all of us at Descant, I wish to extend our condolences to the MacLeod family and friends, and to the students (University of Windsor, Banff Centre for the Arts, The Humber School for Writers) whose academic, intellectual and personal lives Alistair MacLeod touched as a teacher, for more than 40 years. For here, he was prolific beyond measure.

“He looked up at the sun. It had reached its zenith and was about to decline. He looked down at his dog as it trembled beside him. ‘Neither of us was born for this,’ he thought, and then, from a great distance, across the ocean and across the years, he heard the voice of his friend the shepherd. He lowered his right hand until his fingertips touched the bristling hair on the dog’s neck. A small gesture to give each other courage. And then they both took a step forward at the same time. As the blood roared in his ears, he heard the voice again, ‘They will be with you until the end.’”

~ Alistair MacLeod, from “Clearances”

Rove: Descant’s Jack Hostrawser and Justin Lauzon in twoview conversation with Laurie D Graham

At a recent Descant editorial meeting, I asked if anyone would like to review Laurie D Graham’s debut book of poetry, Rove. Descant’s volunteers are busy people and I expected to have to wait a few seconds while folks considered their schedules and whether or not they could fit in another — No, wait, there’s a hand! No, wait, that’s… two hands? Two hands waved back at me. Justin Lauzon and Jack Hostrawser, two of our newest volunteers, offered to review Rove. The boisterous meeting conversation that ensued resulted in what I’m going to call a “twoview,” a review of one book, by two people, in conversation with each other.

Here’s how they did it, according to Jack:

“We both took the book and read it separately, gathering notes and things like that. Then we started discussing it by email. Justin (for example) would raise a few points and give his reasons and I would respond. I think doing it by email was a helpful choice because it gave each of us the space to develop our argument before the other would see it, so we were able to be very clear and thoughtful. By the end we realized that what we had written could actually be pretty easily massaged into the format you see now.”

I know Justin a little bit from school. He is the friend of a friend. On my end, at least, I just took a chance on trusting him and I assume it was the same on his. He seems trustworthy. It looks like my gamble paid off.

Jack: “I know Justin [left] a little bit from school. He is the friend of a friend. On my end, at least, I just took a chance on trusting him and I assume it was the same on his. He seems trustworthy. It looks like my gamble paid off.”

Why stop there? I asked Laurie D Graham, author of Rove, if she would like to respond to the twoview conversation and she agreed, despite the fact that it was end-of-term mayhem for her, as an instructor. One of the twoview fellas did look online to find out more about Laurie (of course, who wouldn’t?). I’m not going to say he was intimidated by her credentials, but he was impressed. But what Justin and Jack didn’t know, and couldn’t (easily) find out online is that Laurie D Graham has volunteered with Descant. She was the Production Editor for our Dance issue (#147), and was Guest Editor for The Hidden City issue (#160). Her twoviewers didn’t know any of this when they reviewed Rove, which I think was appropriate.

Nor have they seen her responses. They will be reading this for the first time, with you. As we’ve never done this before, your comments, at the end of the credits below, are appreciated.

All of us at Descant would like to congratulate Laurie, whose debut poetry collection was recently shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award.

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Rove published 2014 by xxx

Rove published 2013, Hagios Press, 88 pages.

Laurie D Graham’s Rove traces the heartbeat of Canadian prairie life as it is experienced across generations. The family farm is balanced against suburban growth in this lyrical long-poem as both are challenged by monotony, tradition, and mortality. With strikingly poignant, affecting images, Rove investigates the memory of a young woman, a family, and ultimately a town, all marked by the changing rural domestic landscape of Canada. [Justin]

Jack: Graham’s voice was strong throughout. What spoke to me was the need behind it. She figures us in the creation of this world with her imperatives–commanding us to say the lines and speak the places into existence. We become complicit in the world’s existence and I think that comes with a responsibility–or maybe the book is trying to figure it out.

Justin: She asks us to do more than just “say,” though. She tells us to see, remember, swear, look. From the first page, I found out right away that Graham writes poetry that doesn’t allow you to take the backseat. Reading her work, you’re always there, hip to hip with the speaker. It’s all in her elegant, constantly measured language. I love it.

Jack: Yeah, me too.

Laurie: Those commands you mention—“say,” “see,” “remember”— were an idea that came from my editor, Harold Rhenisch. He detected a pattern of imperatives when we were editing, and he saw that mode as a way of unifying the text. I like how it turned out: complicity is the result, and the reader becomes quite active in the space of the book. To turn towards the reader so often was a new move for me, but soon I could see that it was cutting the tone of uncertainty a bit, and helping to carry the loss that gets so big and heavy in places.

Justin: I know we’re both fiction readers, but while Rove comes close to a narrative poem, I wouldn’t classify it as that. It seems to balance between a collection of poems and a poem-cycle, something like a short story cycle, where most of the poems stand on their own, while being part of a larger picture.

Laurie: Funny you should say that: the book started out as a series of separate, titled poems, and it transformed into a long poem or a cycle of poems during editing, so it makes sense that you’d catch moments of autonomy from page to page, or traces of a former separateness.

I feel as if Graham acts as a guide in a museum, taking a tour group through a gallery of linked exhibits. Each poem feels like a new exhibit in a larger show, presenting a different piece of a small Canadian town.

Jack: I had an idea like that. It’s like, going home. Or, better, going Home. The ideal of home. Going back after fleeing the nest when you’re young, you notice how run down (metaphorically, maybe) it has become since you were a kid. And part of growing up is realizing that just as a parent can die (how? it seems so impossible) a land can die too. You wonder if it can be changed back and the answer’s always no.

Justin: I got that feeling of returning Home as well. Graham writes it almost as a memory, or a dream of a memory, where we all get to go back somewhere we once knew, but we don’t really know it anymore, and those two forces are clashing, trying to reconcile.

Laurie: I think I was putting things like memory, desire, and “Home” up against time and a system of thought that says Destroy everything if it makes you a buck. The loss that results might yield that dream-like quality or that sense of reeling you picked up.

Jack: It’s as old as Odysseus, at least – you can’t go home. It won’t be there when you arrive, even if the building still stands. The prairies are a lonely place – it’s been said over and over, but in Rove it’s clearly true. It’s… I’d call it post-apocalyptic, in the biblical sense (as in, a revelation).

Laurie: The prairie is also, overwhelmingly, a gigantic industrial complex. It has its pockets of nature and it’s sparsely peopled, but the grand colonial idea was to alter the land so that it can be a means of survival for people from elsewhere. And now, even more so, it’s a means of population management, furnishing a fair chunk of the globe with its couple of food groups. (Enter Loss, once more… And boy, don’t get me started on the prairies, eh.)

Justin: She exposes this theme as a universal experience. By the end, I actually had that feeling of missing something now lost.

Jack: Is it just me getting the Bible-allusion sense from it?

Justin: Actually, yeah. I didn’t get a sense of that.

Jack: It all seems like a post-Eden narrative. The way Graham interrogates memory, that desire for “home” and the lonely desolation of the plains. Or maybe the plains today versus some imagined ancient version. There is this theme of mortality, like the town is an Eden that has fallen – a lot of sublime prairie imagery marred by dealerships and plastic bags.

Justin: It’s amazing, though, that despite all these expansive, old-as-literature themes, she still writes in such an elegant way that has me turning the page, always excited about the next poem.

Jack: Yeah, I know. The narrative thread that binds each little movement is strong and I like that a lot. But it’s still very much poetry and she develops it beautifully into an important revelation: by the end, as the speaker’s father (I couldn’t figure that out) is dying, it begins to seem like there was never a fall at all, but only our denial of death and the end of things.

Justin: As far as I can tell, it’s the speaker’s mother who is in the hospital – there are poems with ‘Dad’ in the hospital scenes, and I’m quite sure it’s a parent that has fallen ill.

Jack: Okay. That sounds right. Either way, the point is still the same. The speaker is beginning to discover that death can be (and is) a beautiful thing. Sublime is the word; death smacks us around and forces us to admit we are only deceiving ourselves by pretending we are in control.

Laurie: Funny that you saw the father and death. That’s a reading I wouldn’t have predicted. In my head, it’s actually the mother suffering amnesia, but one by no means has to read it that way. I think I was trying to frame it as a sort of potential death or near-death, anyway. My hope through the last third of the book is that one can perceive things variously and interpret what one needs to interpret, at will.

Justin: There is so much to learn from Graham’s writing, both as a reader and a writer. It’s baffling how she is able to use so few words to create such vast meaning. From the miniscule idiosyncrasies of prairie life to learning how to grapple with mortality, her writing captures that sublime force you mentioned before, and that I think we’re all trying to find.

Jack: I really felt that the book came together with this piece, near the middle where the book shifts:

If there’s calm in belonging.
Like when there’s a storm and the power goes out:

if there’s a thinning, nothing to do but look out your window,
the trees that make you,

bending. Cacophony of throat and ribcage; the lodged
song out of tune.

Something about need and order. And loss can behave like blessing,
but it’s always loss.

It’s hard to explain it without trying to explain everything, at least how I’m reading it, but the enjambment and the wording are great. “The trees that make you, / bending…” is so kinetic and unnerving. You get used to trees as solemn and massive things. Then you see them being thrashed around in a storm and it just seems wrong. A “song out of tune,” for sure.

Justin: I enjoyed how she describes the land against the changing times, always in tight, specific lines: “See the grass-green, the oil refinery, the tight grey brickwork of a city/shamed to forgetfulness. Big Bear, look, these brick lanes/are the reason you were starved off.” The memory of the land – just wonderful.

Jack: Definitely. Remembering becomes an act of loyalty. [Laurie:That’s a great line. I’m writing that one down.] These memories are your inheritances, it seems to say, and you don’t get to negotiate. A lonesome prairie highway comes with trash and old grocery bags. There is a dead magpie in the ditch. See, the book says. This is the truth, look at it. What are we remembering for—is it for those gone, or to pacify ourselves? Cafeteria workers smoke behind the school. People buy suburban homes. A few, spare trees are left around a Pontiac dealership. The book explains that these things must also be remembered.

Justin: She’s a wonderful wordsmith, but I found at times she may have pushed the poetic language a little farther than it was willing to stretch. There’s a line I’m still trying to understand: “And an ache like the poverty of old juice on a store-shelf/ for a moment. Then it’s not.” There were a few of these moments in the book, and it brought me out of the narrative to puzzle over how a beautiful combination of words could confuse me so.

Jack: I remember that line. You’re right. Looking back, yeah, you could make that argument. There are points where it felt as if the book reached just like you’re saying and the mystery verged on just being vague. It might be intentional, though, playing on that interrogation of memory we talked about earlier.

Justin: Definitely. But that’s one of the problems I have with the text – there’s sometimes a lack of clarity. Very rarely, but it happens. Some poems seem superfluous to the meaning of the rest. They are not always as focused as I’d like them to be. Near the middle of the book, Graham starts a poem with “Whistling,” taking us through a variety of images that are seemingly unrelated to the place or subject in the poems that surround them. The few instances like this one are slightly jarring for the reader. That said, I’m still astonished that this is her first book. On the whole, it doesn’t feel like it at all.

 Laurie: I know what you’re talking about here. I think you’re right: there were some groups of moments and images that simply refused to come clear. They wouldn’t wash in any way that led to sense. The section that starts with “Whistling” is a good example. We’re aimless through there, in my head at least: in the bush, then in a parking lot, wandering against traffic, then beside water, in the childhood backyard. Or rather than aimless, we’re concerned with things other than what’s picked up by the senses. It has something to do with those “trees that make you / bending.” I too felt, and still feel, frustrated through the places you mention, come to think of it.

Jack: I am inclined to overlook those problematic moments just on account of how powerfully her speaker carried me along. Right up to the excellent ending, I was turning page after page. A child points out the window at the scenery going by. “Look,” it says, but we don’t look at the prairie. We can’t go home, but perhaps we can make another. If more poetry like this fell into my lap, I would read a lot more poetry.

***

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Justin Lauzon is a writer and teacher from Oakville, deeply interested in magic realism. He studied fiction at York University and the Humber School for Writers, and is currently working on his first novel. Check out his film blog, The Alternate Take, here.

Jack Hostrawser is an award-winning writer of mostly realist fiction who has begun exploring the world of poetry. His writing has been featured in The Fieldstone Review, Steel Bananas, Existere and In The Hills Magazine (read that story here).

Laurie D Graham grew up in Sherwood Park, Alberta, and now lives in London, Ontario, where she is a poet, book reviewer, teacher, and editor of Brick, A Literary Journal. Her work has appeared in numerous Canadian journals and anthologies, and her first book, Rove, has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award.

Laurie D Graham

Laurie D Graham

 

 

 

Literature for Life: Read and Believe

Our neighbours are throwing a party and you’re invited.

On Thursday, May 15th, Literature for Life hosts their annual Read and Believe gala. No well-meaning speeches, no history lessons. Just a big, boisterous, party. Clubbing for a cause is the latest trend in raising money for philanthropic organizations. A trend that puts the “fun” back in fundraising, especially, in this case, if you like award-winning music and a thronging dance floor.

Montreal-based, internationally renowned DJ, Jojoflores, and Juno-nominated singer, Vita Chambers, promise to shake up party goers with their high-powered live performances at the fabulous Product Nightclub in Toronto (the only one, to my knowledge, with an award-winning bathroom; reason enough to go, as far as I’m concerned. To the gala, I mean).

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So go! Get your $30 tickets now (because they will be $40 later). Enjoy the fancy appies while you bid on something at the silent auction, like the 5-class pass to the Toronto School of Burlesque, or Blue Jays’ tickets (if you get both, just don’t get your dates mixed up). Dance until the hours are wee and your feet are swollen, then head home and feel good that you contributed to such a worthy organization.

Or do this:

Buy a ticket for someone else to go. Not just anybody else, but one of the young women that Literature for Life works with to help foster a love of reading — which helps foster a desire for more education, which supports future employment, which supports the young women and their children, all of which supports their community. Your community.

Literature for Life supports and facilitates weekly reading circles. It's like a book club, except that it raises self esteem.

Literature for Life supports and facilitates weekly Reading Circles. It’s like a book club, except that it raises self esteem. (Photo credit Literature for Life)

Increased literacy is linked to all kinds of crucial components for a socially just and thriving society: physical and mental health, relationship satisfaction, parenting skills, economic independence, entrepreneurial talent, voting. Life expectancy! Any number of international agencies will tell you that women’s literacy, in particular, has positive effects on a country’s GDP. According to the OECD, a 1% increase in literacy levels, translates to an $18B increase in annual economic growth. Women who read, learn things. They pass these along to their families, neighbours and friends. Although progress has been made, worldwide, about two-thirds of those who cannot read are women: literacy is also a struggle for equality.

People who say that reading is its own reward, would be stunned by the actual rewards gained by the young women who participate in Literature for Life's Reading Circles.

People who say that reading is its own reward, would be stunned by the endless rewards gained and shared by the young women who participate in Literature for Life’s weekly Reading Circles. (Photo credit above and below, Literature for Life)

The young women that Literature for Life works with, ages 13 to 29, live in the GTA. When they join a weekly Reading Circle, the main program offered by Literature for Life, their average reading level is about grade 8. After they complete the program, led by paid, trained and deeply committed facilitators, the women feel better, read better, read more, return to school, read to their children, do homework with their children, and in one case, so far, join the board of Literature for Life.

Since 2000, Literature for Life has served more than 2200 young women with children. They run a lean and committed operation. Their two, full-time paid employees are supported by more than 45 active volunteers. Manager of Communication and Operations, Lydia Parent, told me, “we function as well as we do, due to the dedication of our volunteers.”

You’ve been to lots of parties. You’ll go to lots more. These young women have probably never been to one like the Read and Believe gala, and if you are, or know, a single parent, you know one thing: they need a night off.

I once bought my mother one of those engraved, stone plaques. It said, “Richer than I you can never be, for I had a mother that read to me.” Each time I visited my mother I noticed it was in a different place in her house. I finally asked her about this and she looked sheepish. She said, “Well dear, I am pleased you think this about me, and that you remember that I read to you. But there are two grammar errors on this plaque and I confess they bother me and I see them every time I look at it.”

My well-read, highly literate mother was right of course. We put the stone in the garden where it looked pretty but did not offend her. Richer than me you may well be, but I am indeed very lucky, for I had a mother who read to me.

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Image 11Click here to help Literature for Life help the ambitious young women they care about so passionately.

Then join the party!

 

Cartooning Degree Zero: Descant Production Editor Trevor Abes Gives Us a Taste

We’ve done it. Our latest issue, Cartooning Degree Zero, is our first graphics issue. Comics, people, comics. Sequential art. In colour and in style. Quite a few styles actually. But I’ll let Trevor Abes tell you about that.

Cartooning Degree Zero....

Cartooning Degree Zero. Production Editor, Trevor Abes. Guest-edited by Sean Rogers. Weighing in at a whopping 272 pages, many of them in full colour.

Trevor Abes is the Production Editor of Cartooning Degree Zero.

Trevor: A production editor collects, formats and edits every piece in a given issue with some promotion and launch-planning duties once it’s printed and bound. In the case of Cartooning Degree Zero, the artists had to edit their strips themselves, since the changes called for expertise in graphic design few of us in the office have recourse to.

Although Trevor is not an illustrator himself, he says that his shelves are full of $1.99 comics, “from Avengers to Wonder Woman. Sean Howe’s Marvel Comics: The Untold Story is important to me as well.”

Trevor Abes (right) with Chris Claremont, who wrote Uncanny X-Men from 1975-1991. Photo taken at a signing at Dr. Comics in Kensington Market, 2013. (Photo credit Adam McNeill).

Trevor Abes (right) with Chris Claremont, who wrote Uncanny X-Men from 1975-1991. Photo taken at a signing at Dr. Comics in Kensington Market, 2013. (Photo credit Adam McNeill).

It’s always an event when our latest issue arrives fresh from the printers. This past weekend, Descant co-editors and volunteers had a chance to see (and smell) the new issue for the first time. The colour! The styles! We predict a sellout issue. Thought bubble: It wouldn’t be our first.

Here’s the unflappable Trevor Abes to tell you more about Cartooning Degree Zero and our upcoming launch, Tuesday, April 29th, at The Handlebar, in Toronto.

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Canadian Comics: Reporting Live and in Colour from

Cartooning Degree Zero

by Trevor Abes, Production Editor

Cartooning Degree Zero, our first graphics issue, embraces the ever-evolving nature of comics with pieces that highlight the medium’s uncanny knack for polyphonic stories. To that end, the issue’s emotional heft is of Hulk-like proportions.

Who hasn’t shed a tear over a little too much confectionery, as in Betty Liang’s “Tales From the Candy Boudoir”? Haven’t we all been so in love that we break apart from the world toward our very own hemispheres for two? The narrator in Shannon Gerard’s “AND/OR” certainly has. As technology treads on society and replaces face-to-face time with FaceTime, how sure can any of us be of our own zombification? Fiona Smyth’s “The Maul” attempts to bring us back from the undead. These are but the zip ribbons of Cartooning Degree Zero.

See how friends can become strangers with only traces of their former selves in “New Friend” by Ethan Rilly. Follow two young ‘uns on an outing in search of mice where they meet some sensual spirits in David Lapp’s “Intersections.” Toronto-based artist John Martz fractions, excises, alters and reforms his Ultron-like protagonist until it decides to try and put itself back together again in a strip that stands in as the comic’s version of Paul Gauguin’s 1897 painting: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

A sneak peak at Cartooning Degree Zero. Too bad you can't scratch-and-sniff.

A sneak peak at Cartooning Degree Zero. Here, Shannon Gerard’s AND/OR. Too bad you can’t scratch-and-sniff your screen.

Mariko Tamaki and Gillian Goerz offer us “Christie’s Smile,” a dark comedy about beauty as defined by the masses, and Chris Kuzma’s “S.O.S.” looks into the future and speculates about the fallout from a world ruled by trendy notions. Slowing things down and giving a rose or two a sniff, Julie Delporte “Lists” life’s blessings and finds a few moments of inner peace, while Mark Kingwell details how comics shaped his childhood and pays tribute to Seth — one of Canada’s groundbreaking cartoonists — by revisiting the fruits of their collaborations.

Cartooning Degree Zero is now available from fine booksellers across the country and at our launch party, Tuesday, April 29th, 7pm, amid a deluge of food and drink. Our six scheduled readers represent new, established and, in every case, valiant presences in Canadian comics:

Shannon Gerard provides us with a layered picture of love and its sweet uncertainties.

Chris Kuzma journeys into space for a thinly-veiled cautionary tale.

Rachel Richey schools us on Canuck comics history with her essay, “Canadian Comics: An Unknown Literature,” in part a tribute to John Bell, Canada’s preeminent comics historian.

Gillian Goerz presents “Christie’s Smile,” which she illustrated with a story by Mariko Tamaki.

Mark Connery drops an “Offbeat Coupla Thoughts on Canadian Comix,” setting the stage for the venerable Maurice Vellekoop and his strip “The Best of Everything: My New York Romance.”

Our launch raffle has swag for all seasons: prizes include issues and subscriptions from literary magazines filling Station, Glass Buffalo, The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, The Quilliad and Taddle Creek, book prize packs from Koyama Press, kuš! comics anthology, Conundrum Press and Inanna Publications, and a chapbook prize pack from a burgeoning micropress called Grow and Grow Press. Tickets are $3 each or $5 for three.

As always, our subscriptions are a launch-price-only $20.

Come early to what promises to be a fantastic foray into Canada’s comics community. We’ll be using two projectors at the launch for Cartooning Degree Zero, one at the back, and one through The Handlebar’s front window, so everyone can follow along with the readers and their strips.

Cartooning Degree Zero: Launch

Tuesday, April 29th, 2014, 7pm

The Handlebar, 159 Augusta Avenue TO

Trevor Abes, Production Editor for Cartooning Degree Zero.

Trevor Abes, Production Editor for Descant issue #164, Cartooning Degree Zero.

 

Rotten to the Core: Nicole Haldoupis Reviews George F. Walker’s “The Ravine”

Former Production Editor, now Descant volunteer, Nicole Haldoupis, was taken by Governor General award winning and internationally acclaimed playwright George F. Walker’s latest play, “The Ravine.” More than once. She’s written her review and submitted great photos, below, in time to help fill up more theatre seats before the April 13th closing night.

Read it and weep, fellow citizens. Er, I mean, laugh. Nicole did.

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Rotten to the Core: Review of “The Ravine” by George F. Walker, Playing Until April 13th at the Seneca Queen Theatre

By Nicole Haldoupis

Last week I saw the world premiere of “The Ravine” by George F. Walker, twice, in two days. It opened at the historic Seneca Queen Theatre. Historic and haunted. The Niagara Falls theatre was opened in the 1940s and after being closed and reopened a number of times, it was, for a short time, converted to a nightclub. Now it hosts Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects, as well as the ghosts of the original owners, who’ve hung around to watch over the place, plus a few sparkling dead clubbers and a glowing child or two.

The historic Seneca Queen Theatre in its early days. Still going strong in Niagara Falls, Ontario.

The historic Seneca Queen Theatre in its early days. Still holding its own in Niagara Falls, Ontario, thanks to Lyndesfarne Theatre Projects which produces three plays a year there.

Most of the ghost sightings happen in the dressing room, which is where I saw a ghost after a few glasses of wine, although I really don’t think that had anything to do with it. I was visiting my friend Julia Heximer a “Civic Worker” in the play, and a hardworking intern at the theatre. She has a walk-on where she moves a bench and a garbage can with some crumpled papers and an empty bottle of vodka in it, then she swings around a lamp post – all while wearing fishnets and overalls.

“The Ravine” is about a big Canadian city not unlike Toronto, home to a mayoral candidate with a tiny bit of a drug problem and a sketchy past (played by the charming Bruce Gooch – whose charm nearly succeeded at making this conniving character likeable), kind of like our… own… well, you know. He and his short-tempered campaign manager (played by the versatile Sarah Murphy-Dyson, who nailed it) struggle with what to do next, while still trying to convince the city that he is the man for the job. This presents its challenges after they find out that his ex-wife, now a homeless woman, wants him dead (played by the talented Karen Wood, who, despite the costume and makeup could not manage to make her beautiful bob look all that messy).

Karen Wood plays a homeless ex wife of...

Karen Wood plays the homeless ex-wife of a big-city mayoral candidate. She wants him dead.
 (Photo credit Eric Baloga).

The mayor grovels at the knees of his lah blahb

The mayoral candidate (Bruch Gooch) with his pants down. (Photo credit Eric Baloga).

This play is host to a slew of other characters who carry the story along. There’s a fake assassin who gets caught in the middle, but also kind of puts himself there (played by the calm and cool Wes Berger), a homeless replacement assassin who absolutely cannot make up his mind about who his victim is (played by the delightful William Vickers) and the campaign manager’s charming pregnant partner who loves to get in the middle of everything (played by the very much not pregnant Dana Puddicombe, who’s probably got a lot more buff after wearing that baby suit around).

so and so and ...

The mayoral candidate’s campaign manager (Sarah Murphy-Dyson) in a tense moment with her pregnant partner (Dana Puddicombe). (Photo credit Eric Baloga).

The play hit close to home for this Torontonian and made me laugh both times I saw it although more of Walker’s witty jabs came through the second time for me. It’s filled with clever lines and moments as well as death, desperation, love, treachery and opportunity. Without the humour, it would be a very, very dark play.

The mayor holds a knife to the throat of his homeles exwife...

An aspiring homeless assassin (William Vickers) holds a knife to the throat of the mayoral candidate’s homeles ex-wife (Karen Wood, she of the immaculate bob). (Photo credit Eric Baloga).

“The Ravine” is a comment on modern, urban, western politics and not as much of a spoof as we’d like it to be (the crack part was added later, apparently).

bill bissett: a national fuckan treasure

Amidst a bougie gathering at Ben McNally Books in Toronto on Tuesday, The League of Canadian Poets announced that the 2014 winner of the Sheri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award – for spoken word poetry – is the beloved and befuddling bill bissett.

The uncategorizable bill bissett, winner of this year's Sheri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award, at Ben McNally Books on Monday.

The uncategorizable bill bissett, winner of this year’s Sheri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award, at Ben McNally Books on Tuesday.

The official presentation of the $1,000 award is not until June. When I congratulated bill bissett, I joked that I hoped the amount would still be $1,000, by then, given rates of inflation and the dystopic economic climate for poetry in general. The 74 year old poet and painter said, “I hope I’m still breathing by then to collect it!”

The Sheri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award for spoken word poetry may be the only category that bill bissett fits into without any argument. Since the 1960s, his performances have defied description, as has the man himself. While he did turn on (he’s talked about his LSD experiences) and tune in, he never did fully drop out. He’s carved a space for himself and his 70 odd books outside the literary mainstream patrolled by the more conservative and establishment literati. The same ones who now buy his paintings, and attend his performances (“readings” doesn’t quite cut it) and award ceremonies.

bill bissett was post-modern before there was a “post-modern.” His poetry is visual, aural, aural-visceral, thrum-hummingly his. He has been criticized as naïve and suffering from either a misplaced or a put-on wide-eyed wonder. He up-speaks – that trait so annoying and frightening in young girls and women where they end their sentences in an inflection of question, even when they make a statement (“I am pleased to be your leader?”), as if questioning their own right to speak and even exist. But bill bissett hasn’t always spoken this way so I wonder if he adopted it, quite naturally, as a political strategy, a way of questioning everything and making it clear that he stands firmly in the margins, not in full agreement, the quintessential poetic passive resistor. When a white, male, university educated son of a judge upspeaks, it has a very different effect.

I recommend the following videos, the first one from the CBC archives, in the 1960s. Here, bill bissett and a very conservative looking Barrie Nichol are interviewed, through a haze of cigarette smoke, by Phyllis Webb (who won the Governor General’s award for poetry in 1982). Watch this first one and then part two. Watch that one at least until the end when you see bill bissett sitting cross-legged on the floor performing one of his poems. Then remember this was on the CBC.

In this video below, from a Book Thug Launch in 2012, bill bissett performs from his book of criticism, Rush: What Fuckan Theory, first published in 1972 and reissued in 2012.

And here’s a treat — David Eso’s walking interview with bill bissett, in Contemporary Verse 2, fall 2011. It’s just an excerpt but a subscription to CV2 might just get you a look at the full interview. But don’t tell them I said that.

He’s done okay for himself. bill bissett keeps a small place in Vancouver, where he lived for many years, and one in Toronto. If you see him, congratulate him on his Sheri-D Wilson Golden Beret Award, and for a lifetime of making a life on the margins, still uncategorizable.

I am struck by something he said to me when I met him on Monday. I’m so struck that I can’t remember the context, but I remember how he began: “I woke up nervous. You know how when you wake up you can be nervous? You know that feeling? You just wake up nervous?…”

I’d never thought of it that way, but yes, of course, I think many of us wake up nervous even though we don’t realize it. It seems it’s the ontological condition of the 21st century. There is so much to be nervous about so why wouldn’t we wake up already nervous?

But who says that? Who starts a conversation that way?

Me and bill bissett. "All magic and rainbows."

Me and bill bissett. “All magic and rainbows.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Rewording Life: Sheryl Gordon Needs Your Word

A few years after her mom died, Sheryl Gordon had an epiphany. Sitting outside on a bright summer day she looked at the pile of inspirational books beside her and asked herself, “What makes me really happy? How can I live a more rewarding life?” The answer came to her in the form of a clear, if quirky, sentence:

“A rewording life.”

Sheryl saw the pun immediately and was pleased because she considers herself a word nerd. Slowly the idea took form and she began to envision a book, written collaboratively with as many other inspiring (and aspiring) Canadian word nerds as she could convince. A book of what we used to call 10 cent words — sumptuous, splendiferous words.

In other words (ahem), a book of big beautiful words, each one used by a contributor in an accessibly clear sentence in order to make its meaning obvious and unforgettable.

Sheryl’s purpose is to make these words accessible and clear: “I’m a minimalist myself and I don’t go around talking in fancy words just because. I know that a well-placed word can bring people together, but they can also sometimes create barriers and separate us.”

When I met with Sheryl to talk about her project, I sat down directly across the small coffee-shop table. She pointed to the chair between us, clearly wondering why I hadn’t sat there, and as she moved herself and her papers to sit beside me she explained, “Well, I’m from the Maritimes and this just won’t do!” So we talked, close-up, for almost two hours. When someone has an epiphany and is doing something about it, you listen. Closely.

Sheryl Gordon, founder and curator of A Rewording Life. Contact Sheryl to get your word.

Sheryl Gordon, founder and curator of A Rewording Life. Contact Sheryl to get your word in. Follow her on twitter to get a few delicious new words each week. @ARewordingLife

Sheryl began to see that her rewording new life idea held the possibilities to combine her passion not only for words, but arts and culture in general, as well as education, literacy (she has been an ESL teacher) and contributing to a good cause. Four years after her mom’s death, like many of us, Sheryl still felt a tug, a need to do something else, to memorialize her mother. Yolande Gordon, a down-to-earth Acadian home-ec teacher from Moncton, New Brunswick, had spent her last few years losing her own words until finally she lost them all. Sheryl admits, “it was harrowing.”

She is adamant that “part of living a rewarding life means giving back.” Sheryl plans to donate a portion of the royalties from A Rewording Life to a cause that supports families coping with Alzheimer’s/dementia, in memory of her mother.

By education and experience, Sheryl Gordon is a technical writer and trainer in the IT field. After a few years and job changes, she grew deeply unsatisfied with the lack of creativity involved in her work. She had that niggling feeling many of us get after too many years behind a desk: there’s got to be more than this. But — as is the case for most of us — it took a few more knocks to get her started on her project. When she lost her job and her relationship ended, Sheryl finally launched project A Rewording Life.

Friends were supportive of her idea but it wasn’t until she approached the first writer, with a request for a sentence, that she got that sense of ‘okay, this is really going to work’ (what’s the word for that, anyway?). Jane Urquhart’s enthusiastic reaction — “What a great idea!” – gave Sheryl Gordon the confidence boost she needed. Shortly after that, when she noticed Ron Sexsmith in a coffee shop, she said she “bolted out of my chair and asked him. He was so approachable and amenable to the idea.”

Since then, Sheryl has approached hundreds of Canadians. Her years in the IT field have stood her well in organizing her database and keeping track of contributors. So far she has collected delectable sentences from various CBC hosts, including Jian Ghomeshi (“whose volubility I admire so much”), Matt Galloway, Andy Barrie and Paul Kennedy; writers such as Yann Martel, Terry Fallis, Charlotte Gray, Christian Bok, Maureen Hynes and Kathleen Winter; and numerous musicians and bands, including Ben Caplan, July Talk, Samantha Savage Smith, Measha Brueggergosman, Jenn Grant, Sloan, The Fugitives, and The Strumbellas.

She thought that she might have a slim volume of 100 clear sentences by the end of last summer, but the project took off and her new goal, which she is quickly approaching, is 1,000 sentences: she has 650 to date, and 300 more contributors are still perfecting their sentences. The list of people she’s approached has grown to include chefs, comedians, environmentalists and other social activists: “Really anyone who helps make my life, and the lives of others, more rewarding.”

If you think her project is pompous and elitist, your argument may well be specious. Sheryl herself often struggles to find the right word; she says she admires articulate speakers and although she’s never been diagnosed with a learning disability, she suspects she suffers from lethologica, She has long delighted in coming across new words in whatever novel or magazine she’s reading. But unlike the rest of us, who often skip over these words, Sheryl has kept a list of them, to learn and relish in their sounds and meaning. I suspect that Sheryl is that rare person who will politely interrupt you to ask the meaning of a word you just used, rather than nod and pretend to understand it (a “skill” many of us honed during our college and university years).

A Rewording Life needs a few more sentences and this is where YOU come in. If you can contribute a sentence to this project, contact Sheryl and she’ll send you instructions and a list of words from which to choose. You may also suggest a favourite word.

Robert Hough’s contribution is a good example of the kind of clarity she is looking for: “I eschew the cashew; I’m allergic, and it makes me ah-chooo.”

Sheryl is also looking for illustrators. Twenty-six to be exact.

I think she has tapped into something. Our appreciation for plain language, clear writing and 140 character communiqués does not mean we need to forego the pleasures of the more esoteric and recondite. And if your sentence is accepted – Sheryl will hire an editor to assess the veracity of each submission — just imagine the many ways you could spin that collaborative publication on your resumé: “Co-authored with … .”

Sheryl Gordon, who paused a few times during our chat to search for just the right word, says that she hopes A Rewording Life will not only help to raise money and awareness for Alzheimer’s/dementia, but that it will “help bring clarity to all its readers, even if it’s just one word.” Maybe it will be an important and needed word, one that will bring insight and expand understanding.

Maybe it will be one of the words lost by someone you love.

***

Sheryl Gordon, contact information:

 https://twitter.com/ARewordingLife
www.facebook.com/ARewordingLife
ca.linkedin.com/in/sherylg

The Zinsser: Decluttering for Writers

The last thing I need is another book on how to write. I’ll die before I get through the ones I already have. But last week I couldn’t help myself when I found a clean, second edition copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well at a used bookstore. For more than 20 years, journalists across North America often referred to this classic text for nonfiction as “the Zinsser,” as in, “hand me the Zinsser.”

And you do have to hand it to him: On Writing Well, first published in 1976, is in its 30th edition, and remains one of the most recommended and respected books for writers. William Zinsser himself, now blind, still consults with and mentors writers from his office in New York, where he lives with Caroline Zinsser, his wife of 60 years.

It was Caroline’s idea to write such a book in the first place. After four years of teaching writing at Yale, William Zinsser, a journalist, was casting about for writing ideas of his own when Caroline suggested a text book on writing. He spent that summer in the office shed, working on the first draft.

William Zinsser in 2010. (Flickr Creative Commons)

William Zinsser in 2010. (Courtesy Deerfield Academy, Flickr Creative Commons)

The edition I have is dated in ways that are both charming (talking about his typewriter) and annoying (all the pronouns referring to writers are he and him), both of which have been changed in subsequent editions. But something that struck me, not as dated in the general no-longer-as-valid sense of the word, but dated as in referencing another socio-political time, are his musings about why writers were not willing to write openly, to share their personal opinions with readers. It’s hard to remember, never mind believe, that we were once the least bit reticent to be candid, now that we’re so eager to broadcast the details of what we have for breakfast, or our unsolicited thoughts on sex, religion and politics; often in 140 characters or less. With an accompanying photograph.

Zinsser’s tone, particularly in the older editions, is old-school, in-your-face pedagogical, patriarchal and sometimes pedantic. But I have to say — it’s still a worthwhile read.

The first sentence of Chapter Two is the essence of the book: “Clutter is the disease of American writing.” The rest of the book addresses various means and methods for decluttering our writing, though I hasten to add that Zinsser would no doubt decry the word decluttering (see his chapter on “Usage” to appreciate this). This is a man who was invited to be on a panel to discuss revisions to The American Heritage Dictionary in the 1960s. He voted on whether or not particular words should be added to the official lexicon. For the record, he voted yes to “escalate” (made popular during the Vietnam war), and “dropout,” and no to “author” used as a verb, and the expression “senior citizen,” which he found pretentious and patronizing. He also believes that computer jargon should only be used when it’s relevant to the technology itself; so “printout” is okay, when referring to the paper that comes out of a printer, but “input” is not okay in the context of gathering information. I’d say he has a lot of support on this last point.

Even if you have learned how to write well, without clichés or jargon, and you can strip your sentences down to their shameless and most forceful, like a Norwegian grandpa in a red Speedo, a brush-up can’t hurt. We get lazy and ego gets in the way. It may even help those of you feeling mired in a particular spot in your story or manuscript. In the images below, Zinsser shows us the final changes he made to the last 2 pages of that very chapter, even after many previous revisions. Listen to your reaction when you study the following and see how you really, really want to argue with him here and there. We have gotten so used to writing in a casual manner and style that paring back, or pruning, as he calls it, goes against the grain:

Page 10 in On Writing Well, in my 1980 edition, Harper & Row.

Page 10 in On Writing Well, by William Zinsser, from my 1980 edition, Harper & Row.

Page 11, as above.

Page 11, as above.

Unlike the well-intentioned but wishy-washy advice of some contemporary writing teachers, Zinsser is blunt:

Few people realize how badly they write.

His advice – cut. Cut your eight pages to four. Then down to three. In particular, cut out your introductory paragraphs entirely because,

Not only are the first few paragraphs hopelessly impersonal and ornate; they also don’t really say anything.

But his bluntness can also be reassuring:

In terms of craft, there is no excuse for losing the reader through sloppy workmanship. If he drowses off in the middle of your article because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is entirely yours. But on the larger issue of whether the reader likes you, or likes what you are saying, or how you are saying it, or agrees with it, or feels an affinity for your sense of humor or your vision of life, don’t give him a moment’s worry. You are who you are, he is who he is, and either you will get along or you won’t. (1980, p. 27)

I’ve probably been the most self-conscious while writing this post, than the previous 60+ for the obvious reason that I can see what it could well live without. The words “obvious” and “well” in the previous sentence, for a start. While most people agree that blog posts are meant to be written in a more casual style than journalism or literature, I worry that 21st century “casual” has come a long way, baby, and the output we will have authored by the time we are senior citizens may turn out to be something up with which we should not have put.

For more information about William Zinsser and his many books, you can visit his website here. He will be 92 in October.

 

 

Is What, “Book”? More Post-Pages Festival Musings

So frustrating. I have wasted virtual kegs of blog ink trying to write the introduction to this post. In the end, it will say something like this: the book as you and I know it, is evolving beyond our imagination, and the combined forces of our misplaced nostalgia won’t stand in its way.

People, the book is taking off. Again.

I went to the Future of the Book all-day conference at the Pages Festival last week in Toronto. I learned two major things. One, the book does indeed have a secure future and two, the term “book” is becoming, dare I say it, a useful symbolic reference for the, um, book. (I suddenly feel trapped in a Baudrillard-type matrix; or maybe I’m just confused because I hear him yelling at the fringes of the horizon, “I told you so, people.” But in French).

Festival organizer Marc Glassman, owner of Pages Books on Queen Street in Toronto, before it closed in 2009, began more than one of his panel introductions with the comment that maybe we should let go of our nostalgia for the (made-of-paper-fits-in-your-hands) book and open up to the possibilities that book now offers. Kindle-schmindle. I mean beyond that.

This: the book has and is evolving from a private place of escape, something you enjoy by yourself, to an interactive space of community participation. I tried to say that without the word “interactive” but I can’t. We’re there now anyway. From being a vehicle humans use to move ideas through time and space, the book will also be a space wherein we develop new ideas, and possibly even new spaces.

Stay with me.

Bob Stein said that, “reading as something you do by yourself will be outmoded for our children’s children.” The book will remain a user driven medium, to impose the new vernacular, but the big difference is that it will involve multiple mediums. We are already there with what’s been termed the “second screen,” whereby our eyes flit back and forth between our TV screens or computer monitors and our phones, watching for texts, tweets and email. Many e-readers have these built-in capacities, so even they are not limited to a place of storytelling escape.

The text-based, made-of-paper book. In this case, The Book of Hours.

The text-based, made-of-paper book. In this case, The Book of Hours. (photo credit Second Story, Flickr Creative Commons).

What I’m about to write will make some of you grin smugly and, my guess is, quite a few more of you grimace:

The future of the book is being developed in the gamer world.

I would have grimaced, except that after this conference, I feel genuinely more interested in, and enthusiastic about, what’s coming. This is quite possibly just a knee-jerk I-drank-the-kool-aid reaction to an enjoyable weekend, I’ll give you that. But bear in mind I have never played an online game, barely know what an avatar is, and still read only paper-made books.

Stein said that when his little granddaughter grows up and reads The Hunger Games, she will be able to read (on a screen) the notes he’s made there, recently, presumably with her in mind. There are school “books” where classes of students write their thoughts about what they’ve read online – they read each other’s reactions to the same text before they even get to class. Teachers say that the ensuing conversations are immensely more interesting and productive than with traditional reading-alone assignments.

(Okay, but: when I was in high school and assigned Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, my Irish-born mother took it upon herself to write notes in the margin for me, notes that did indeed help my 17 year old self better understand what I was reading. Notes that of course I still have and treasure. So there’s that…)

Caitlin Fisher talked about Augmented Reality, the pop-up worlds they are working on in her lab at York University, again, similar to spatialized games. For these new “hybrid books,”

the writers are thinking now more about space and how the stories inhabit space.

While hybrid books are a combination of what we now call e-books and p-books (physical books; you know, a book!), there are book games which don’t necessarily defy description, they just don’t yet seem to have a catchy one. The example at the conference was the Emmy-nominated Time Tremors. Time Tremors is a story driven by game play. This is something kids can 1) watch on television (the characters in the school are dressed remarkably like Harry Potter’s friends I noticed in the clip we saw); then, 2) using a mobile phone, get secret clues embedded at local participating arts institutions, like a museum or art gallery and 3) using this information, go online (desktop, laptop, pad, tablet, phone, take your pick) and read up about the clue and decide how it should affect the story. We can be nostalgic all we want for “A is for Apple” but come on — if you could have done this when you were a kid… wouldn’t you have loved it? (As long as you could still read your “real” book, under the covers at night, I hear you).

The other book: http://secondstory.com/project/book-of-hours

The other book.

Some new studies, according to panel members, suggest that children are reading more now (“Nothing about quality though,” you and I both comment, a tad snidely), and predict that the next generation will read even more than this TV-watching generation.

Then there’s the possibility of wearing gear that gathers biometric data from your pores, heart and breathing rate, etc., and use these data to bend and change the story you are reading to suit your unique excitement level. This technology is still in the research stage. I was too shy to ask, “How do you get into the tub with all that gear on?”

However I did line up to ask my one burning question: With all these computerized changes to the book, what will readers be called in the not-that-distant future? Will we be referred to as “end users”? Will we call ourselves audience members? Various answers from the panel members made it clear that we have not yet been defined and, I’m very glad to say, more than one of them made a vomiting gesture at “end users.” So that was encouraging.

“Curation” was a word that came up a few times. These hybrid books involve so many talents and, unlike the books now on our shelves, a hybrid book doesn’t ever have to be finished; its purpose is indeed to always evolve in response to the, uh, reader-users participation. This is good news for editors! According to Bob Stein,

We’re entering the age of the celebrity editor… a kind of saloniste.

That got some applause from an otherwise rather quiet audience at that point.

Marshall McLuhan was quoted a fair bit at the conference, including, “There is absolutely no inevitability.” But after this festival, I’m inclined to think that although the traditional “text-based” book most of us know and love is not going to disappear either ever, or any time soon (did I not say that yet?), these computer-linked forms are indeed increasing in labs, if not in popularity… yet.

It turns out that even with sophisticated and compelling book (book-like?) technology like Time Tremors, some reader/players prefer the game aspect, and others the story. The two diverse experiences, are too diverse experiences to stitch together elegantly enough to maintain the prolonged interest of both groups.

Perhaps the very good news here is for writers, the people most talented at storytelling, scene-stitching and elegant plot arcs. The people who expect and want to have readers (and call them “readers” without hesitation).

But none of this is going so fast that our heads will fall off. All through the day-long conference there were minor technical problems with microphones, power-point slides, laptops. We’re still fidgeting with late 20th century technology while we talk about augmented reality and biometric data sensors.

Most interesting and troublesome, to me, was one of the responses about the future of the writer in all this. That books are becoming more game-driven means that — according to this panel — the skills required of writers will change: writers “will have to learn how to relate to their readers.”  This demands a separate blog. I can’t see that introduction being any easier.

 

 

 

Three cartoonists on a panel (get it?): Seth, Fiona Smyth and Michael DeForge

This weekend I hung out at the inaugural, and, I would say, very successful Pages Festival in Toronto. I want to (and will) tell you more about what I heard there, but my brain is still in overload. For today, I’m going to stick with the tried and true and tell you about the last event I attended. They say recency is everything (or is that “decency”?).

On the “Graphic Novel” panel, arts and culture journalist Jeet Heer moderated discussions with Seth (like Cher, he has no last name; otherwise, he is not at all like her), Fiona Smyth and Michael DeForge.

Yes, the same Seth, Fiona Smyth and Michael DeForge who are all contributors to our new Descant graphics issue, set to launch April 29, 2014.  Have we mentioned that it’s the first of it’s kind in the Canadian literary world? Until someone tells us otherwise, that’s what we’re going with.

Fiona Smyth, Seth, moderator Jeet Heer, and Michael DeForge at the Pages Festival panel on the graphic novel.

Fiona Smyth, Seth, moderator Jeet Heer, and Michael DeForge at the Pages Festival panel on the graphic novel.

If you know cartooning, you already know about Seth. I first saw him a few years ago at the IFOA here in Toronto. I’d wandered into the book-buying-and-autographing room and I saw a few tables set up with an author at each one, drink at their elbow, pen in hand. Two or three readers began to form lines at each of the tables except for Seth’s. The line in front of him had already snaked around the room at least once. And it didn’t move that quickly as Seth’s idea of an autograph included a personalized cartoon for each fan, for heaven’s sake.

At the Pages Festival panel on Saturday night,the OCAD graduate, dressed in a dapper film noire outfit — fedora, and 50s style suit — talked about cartooning while the screen behind him lit up with his drawings. Of all the things he talked about, the thing that grabbed me most was what he said about charm. He said that he would describe his own cartooning style as charming, and that this is what he intends and aims for. He said,

Charm is an essential element of what I’m trying to do in my work. It has an ineffable appeal. It’s not bombastic, like covers of the New Yorker… Cool is the opposite of charm. Charm pulls you in; cool pushes you away.

The dapper and charming Seth, at the Pages Festival. It seemed to me that his pocket protector contents were always about to spill out, looking for a blank page.

The dapper and charming Seth, at the Pages Festival. It seemed to me that his pocket protector contents were always about to spill out, looking for a blank page.

You’ve seen Fiona Smyth’s work if you live in Toronto — she’s the one who designed the signage for Sneaky Dees on College Street. Fiona has had a long career and is now also teaching at Ryerson. Cartooning tends to be a dude’s purview, so as well as being ahead of the curve, she was one of the few with curves who also drew them. She said that one of her first publishers said, “we really like your work but we don’t want the flaming vaginas!” Fiona told the rapt audience on Saturday night that her themes have always been about women, identity, bodies and empowerment. Her illustrated sex-talk book for children, What Makes a Baby, with Cory Silverberg (2013), never once mentions gender. Think about that.

Fiona Smyth, at Pages Festival. Her new book is

The influential Fiona Smyth, at Pages Festival. Her new book, with Cory Silverberg, is What Makes a Baby (2013).

When he introduced Michael DeForge, moderator Jeet Heer noted that Michael is probably young enough to be his grandson. I wouldn’t go that far, but DeForge is young — and candid. He said that when he was a kid he wasn’t very social and didn’t have a lot of friends. He got into poster making and realized,

I didn’t have to talk to anyone, but [by putting them up around town] I felt part of something.

Unlike the curvy, colourful, filled-in panels of Fiona Smyth, and the charming, clean drawings of Seth, Michael DeForge’s cartooning is dense, “sometimes too dense,” he admitted. He nodded at a slide of one of his cartoons on the screen behind him and said, “Like there — why did I add that?” But his discussion of the number of panels and the pace of a comic made it clear that Michael DeForge  knows what he’s doing.

One of Michael DeForge's cartoon guys has a disease that turns his body into bondage outfits. Ok, then.

One of Michael DeForge’s cartoon guys has a disease that turns his body into bondage outfits. Ok, then.

A panel moderator can be a neutral, non-memorable player, can take over, or, in the case of Jeet Heer, can add to the conversation and draw out interesting discussion from the panelists. The two guys sitting beside me at this event admitted before it started that they were just there for a night out and knew nothing of the subject nor the guests. When it was over I turned to them and one of them mouthed, “Wow!”

These guys were the living example of what I wanted to write about in another blog about this weekend. But to that “wow” I would just be elaborating on “Get Out To More Arts and Culture Events, People!” Even though I always enjoy them and get something out of them (an idea, or in one case a couple of  years ago, what turned out to be a good friend), I sometimes have to push myself out the door. Too tired, too cold (that was this weekend), too much work to do, too introverted, too blah blah blah. Leave the blah blah blah at home. Trust me, it will be there when you get back.

More on the Pages Festival venues in the next few blogs. It was a lot to absorb, so now I must distil.