Category Archives: Authors

Seamus Heaney: a sunlit absence

Seamus Heaney, 2008. Photo courtesy of Tom Szustek.

Close your eyes and imagine living in a culture where the death of a respected poet commands a standing ovation from a stadium full of sports fans.

Do this even if you haven’t read a poem in years.

Ireland, North and South, is in deep mourning for the loss of Nobel Prize winning poet, playwright, translator and teacher, Seamus Heaney, who died in Dublin on Friday, at age 74. But they are not alone, as admirers from around the world continue to express their sympathies and sense of loss. The number of obituaries is staggering.

Poetry itself isn’t about numbers; but listen to these. On Sunday, two days after Heaney’s death, 80,000 football fans stood and cheered in his honour for three minutes at the All Ireland Gaelic football final. At his funeral in Dublin yesterday, 1,000 people attended. Amongst family and friends were actors, rockers, politicians of various stripes, presidents and prime ministers.

Heaney in a 2012 interview. I chose this photo because of how very Irish he looks here! Photo courtesy of The Royal Irish Academy.

In a tweet for Descant on Friday, longtime co-editor Paul Fowler reminded us of Heaney’s revered translation of Beowulf. Here’s Heaney reading from this translation. Put your feet up and close your eyes:

Heaney wrote about universal themes of family and faith and obligation and death. But he also wrote about what is still euphemistically referred to as “the troubles” in Northern Ireland, where he was born. Even in his books that do not directly address this uncivil war, readers can often feel him grappling with the political, religious, social and cultural divisions that are still working themselves out today.

Tragedy, of course, breeds comedy, especially in the Irish. After his stroke in 2006, Heaney was fitted with a pacemaker. His friend and fellow poet Paul Muldoon tells the story that Heaney loved to quip, “Blessed be the pacemakers.”

Heaney, with family members, at a party in his home in Dublin, 1979. Photo courtesy of Burns Library.

According to his son, Michael, just minutes before he died, Heaney sent his wife, Marie Heaney, a text, in Latin: “noli timere.” Do not be afraid. A moving and reassuring message for his wife, indeed. But the second Irish poet to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1995) since W.B. Yeats (1923) may have also meant to leave a statement of courage for other poets and thinkers. Speak up; be not afraid.

In June 2012, Seamus Heaney was awarded the Griffin prize for Lifetime Achievement at Koerner Hall in Toronto. It was possibly one of the best-kept literary secrets because as far as I could tell, everyone in the room was surprised when it was announced and Heaney walked onto the stage.

I was there, and I can tell you that we got to our feet almost as fast as those football fans, and we clapped and cheered and stood like that for almost 3 minutes. Later, when I lined up to get his autograph, I saw that he looked tired  so I didn’t try to chat him up. I thanked him for all his years of work and he nodded quietly and signed my poster.


Seamus Heaney was buried yesterday, in Bellaghy, County (London)Derry, Northern Ireland, beneath the kind of turf that his father and grandfather worked, but Heaney never did. Instead, as he explains in this 1994 interview for the Paris Review, “The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself—as a vocation and an elevation almost.”

For Mary Heaney


There was a sunlit absence.
The helmeted pump in the yard
heated its iron,
water honeyed

in the slung bucket
and the sun stood
like a griddle cooling
against the wall

of each long afternoon.
So, her hands scuffled
over the bakeboard,
the reddening stove

sent its plaque of heat
against her where she stood
in a floury apron
by the window.

Now she dusts the board
with a goose’s wing,
now sits, broad-lapped,
with whitened nails

and measling shins:
here is a space
again, the scone rising
to the tick of two clocks.

And here is love
like a tinsmith’s scoop
sunk past its gleam
in the meal-bin.

(Seamus Heaney, from North, 1975, Faber and Faber, p. ix)

Confessions of an OAC Juror

Dickens did not take critique very well either.

The e-mail appeared in my inbox along with the usual make-money-from- home spam. It seemed I had been chosen to be a juror for the Ontario Arts Council. All I had to do was read a few manuscripts and give my opinion about the relative literary merits of each application. For this simple task I would be financially compensated.

Naturally, I did not believe the legitimacy of this e-mail. Why me? I was hardly a famous author, just someone who had published in a few literary magazines. I goggled googled the name of the e-mail’s sender, John Degen, and he was indeed the Literature Officer at the Ontario Arts Council. Perhaps this really was a genuine request to adjudicate this year’s grant applicants.

I eagerly accepted the assignment, and soon two boxes of manuscripts were delivered to my door, each box stuffed with the aspirations and sweat of some one- hundred- thirty-five struggling writers. Just how many hours of collective gazing-into-a- monitor did these stacks represent? How many agonizing rewrites and how much head banging for just the correct word? Each deadline the OAC Works in Progress program only ever has enough money to dispense less than two-dozen grants. Thus the statistical reality is that the majority of these submissions would receive a rejection letter, and although we writers are accustomed to rejection, no one finds it painless. I was beginning to regret having accepted this responsibility.

There were four jurors assigned to adjudicate the literature category, which consisted of short-fiction, novels, non-fiction, young adult (both fiction and non-fiction) and graphic novels. The competition is anonymous; each entry is marked only with its title. Each juror was asked to read every word of all the manuscripts, making notes on each entry on a special form sent to us, along with our vote of either, a yes, a no, or a maybe. A meeting had been set up at the end of September where all four jurors, along with the Literature Officer, would gather to reach a consensus upon which few would receive a grant this year.

The manuscripts had arrived in late July (delayed by a postal strike) and that meant there was less than two months to read all the manuscripts and still do them justice. And as luck would have it, I was flying to the UK for three weeks smack in the middle of this intense reading period. This is where a writer’s discipline is useful. I worked out that if I could read six manuscripts a day, I should be in good shape before the scheduled meeting with the other jurors. Submissions are allowed to be forty pages, plus up to three pages of bridging material and a one page summary. However, the majority of submissions seemed to be over forty pages. A few even attempted to pack in more pages by shrinking the font (most were disqualified by OAC but a couple did slip through). The jurors, just like publishers and literary mags, are inundated with submissions they need to read before a deadline. Any writer who adds stress to that process does do himself any favors. Personally, I made a conscious decision to not read anything past page forty of any manuscript sample: there is nothing in the remaining four pages that is going to alter my opinion about the writer’s clarity with structure, the prose, the dialogue, the plot and characters that he has not demonstrated in the previous forty.

The OAC also allows writers to include a summary of the book they are attempting. Although this page is not mandatory, I discovered that many of the entries included two or three pages of summary, much of it full of hyperbole, as though these pages were a pitch meant to make me want to read the sample. Jurors are obliged to read all samples. A hyped up summary, to me at least, served as a wish list for what the writer hoped to achieve in this book. The attached sample then, spoke of the writer’s ability (or inability) to reach that goal. I later found out that some of the jurors did not read the summaries at all. My advice would be to not include a summary of the book. I know from picking up books at libraries and book stores that by reading the first page I have a pretty clear idea of what the theme of this book is and whether or not I will find it engaging. Your sample writing is there to speak to the juror about the themes and conflicts in your book, as well your style.

The adjudication meeting itself turned out to be the most enjoyable part of the whole process. The OAC has been doing this a long time and they have honed it to an art. As the title of each submission was called out, the jurors gave their vote of either yes, no, or maybe. Any manuscript with four yeses (about 10%) needed no further discussion. These entries were brilliantly skillful. They had rhythmic sentences, which flowed effortlessly into concise paragraphs. Such manuscripts were notably free of grammatical and spelling errors (perhaps proofed by a professional editor?). Similarly, any manuscript that garnered four nos was destined for a rejection letter (about 40% in our batch). A few of these were clearly amateur, more a demonstration of vanity than talent. Others were bizarre derivatives of au courant fiction (think teen vampire superhero who attends wizard school), or they were so experimental as to be abstract and indecipherable. It was the remaining 50% that we the jury spent the day discussing. Each of these entries had potential that was cluttered by clumsy writing. Some manuscripts had passionate champions among the jurors (both for and against) attempting to persuade the other jurors to change their votes. The debates were lively, but respectful to both the writers and to the fellow jurors. It was interesting to hear the different viewpoints and all the jurors benefited from having his or her biases and justifications challenged. Often the writers were very close to having a winning manuscript but were making one or two fatal mistakes in the writing process. It is unfortunate that at present the OAC does not have a mechanism for submitters to benefit from that discussion (they are working to rectify that).

After listening to this insightful discussion, we were given a chance to review our votes for the remaining undecided entries. By 5 o’clock we had narrowed down the 50% into a consensus of yeses small enough to match the available funds from the OAC.

John Degen mentioned at the end our session that in his time at the OAC he had not encountered a jury which had discussed the manuscripts with such depth as we had and he felt we had given each writer his just due. I believe he meant it. I too was impressed by my fellow jurors. Despite the sometimes arduous reading schedule, all the jurors agreed that we would accept to adjudicate should we be asked again.

Pradeep Solanki

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REVIEW: ‘The Third Reich’ by Roberto Bolãno

There is perhaps no better testimony to the current widespread appeal of Roberto Bolãno than The Paris Review’s recent decision to serialize the Chilean author’s most recent release, The Third Reich (according to The New Yorker website, it is the first time the magazine has serialized a work of fiction in over forty years). From the inventive The Savage Detectives to the epochal 2666, Bolãno’s body of work has created a sensation over the last decade and made Bolãno himself a posthumous icon. As The Third Reich reminds readers, there is substance to the hype.

Written in 1989 and allegedly unearthed amongst the Chilean author’s notes, The Third Reich is centred on the first-person account of Udo Berger, a renowned German war games expert vacationing in Costa Brava with his girlfriend, Inebord. Rather than basking in the hot sun of coastal Spain, Udo—a man driven by rules, motives and strategy—opts instead to spend his time indoors perfecting a “variant” of his favourite war game, The Third Reich.

Soon Udo and Ingebord befriend another vacationing German couple, Charly and Hanna, who in turn introduce them to an enigmatic collection of local characters, including a shadowy beach dweller named El Quemado (literally “The Burned One”). When tragedy strikes (or at least appears to), Udo’s perception of the world around him begins to adopt a darker, more bizarre hue. His waking life slips seamlessly in and out of dreams and he begins to suspect those around him of deceiving him.

What results is a quietly brilliant novel that unfurls steadily like a mystery in search of a crime. Clues abound as do suspects, but the object of investigation remains hopelessly elusive—both to readers and to Udo. It is this ever-looming abysm of unknowability, however, that truly interests Bolãno. At one point, Udo, upon discovering the inconsequential factoid that El Quemado is not in fact Spanish but South American, comments: “I didn’t feel deceived. I felt observed. (Not by El Quemado; actually by nobody in particular: observed by a void, an absence).” The novel equates this “void” with a sort of ominous evil lurking in the negative spaces between a cause and is effect, a person and his or her motives. For Bolãno, it seems, existence itself is tantamount to deception. It’s esoteric stuff, but that’s why Bolãno remains such a force: His books coextensively compel and confound.

As expected, The Third Reich doesn’t carry the weight of The Savage Detectives or 2666, but it serves as a fitting and elucidating prelude to both works, providing hardcore Bolãno disciples with what may be the most direct entry to date into the author’s thematic, philosophic and aesthetic interests.

The Third Reich is published by Penguin Canada. Translated from the original Spanish by Natasha Wimmer.

DESCANT 151/Winter Reader Launch — February 8


Come join us for the Descant 151/Winter Reader Launch!

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011/ 7:30pm


268 Augusta Ave., Toronto

Descant is proud to announce the arrival of its winter 2010 issue, Descant 151/ Winter Reader, an eclectic ensemble of intriguing memoirs, a discerning essay, witty poetry, captivating fiction, and amazing artwork from some new and established talent in and outside of Canada.  Held at Supermarket in Kensington Market, the night will be filled with food and drink, as well as readings from our D151 contributors:  Giovanna Riccio, Linda Woolven, R. Brian Rigg and Elisabeth de Mariaffi.

Winter is a mixed season. Themes tend to vary from happy holidays with the warmth of loved ones gathered and fires roaring, to snow and ice, short days and long nights, and death. Poems like “Christmas Cacti” by Joan Crate and “Night” by Linda Woolven explore the various colours of winter, from the grays and silvers outside to the reds and golds inside. This season is also a time to reflect. With the lack of sunlight and warmth, it is only natural we are reminded of death. Touching memoirs by Brian Fawcett and William Kaplan reflect on Decembers past, the people they have lost, and what those people meant to them. But not all is dark and dreary: the approaching New Year brings hope for the future and the feeling of a fresh start. In this issue of Descant, we are reminded that it is just as important to look back as it is to look forward.

Don’t miss this important event!

You can catch a sneak preview of D151: Winter Reader, on our website.



It’s been a full year for Descant Managing Editor and Designer Mark Laliberte.

Earlier in the year, his book project BRICKBRICKBRICK was released by BookThug (click HERE for info); and now, Koyama Press has just released GREY SUPREME 1, the first issue in his new series. A full-colour, print-based “project platform”, GREY SUPREME is a way to collect Laliberte’s various experiments with image, text and hybrid forms. Exploration is a key to the series, which is intended to appear on a yearly basis: a different visual strategy will be employed for every new work — roughly 2 per issue — presented as open-ended studies.

For a sneak peek, click HERE

To visit his personal website, click HERE

Ian Brown wins the Trillium Book Award


Ian Brown — writer, journalist, and past Descant contributor — has been awarded the 23rd Annual Trillium Book Award for his stunning memoir, The Boy in the Moon.

The Boy in the Moon explores the challenges of parenting a child with a severe disability. With a bare and loving sense of honesty, the book “slices through ignorance and trite consolation, leaving the eviscerated skins of relationships, social policy and medical expertise flapping in the wind” (Paula Todd, from The Globe and Mail Books).

Ian joins such writers as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro as a winner of this prestigious literary prize. And this is not the first award for The Boy in the Moon; the book was also recently honoured with the Charles Taylor Prize in literary non-fiction. Descant is thrilled to see Ian’s success with this incredibly deserving work and wish him much more to come!

Congratulations, Ian!

Myna Wallin launches her new book on Wednesday, June 23!

WHAT: The launch of Confessions of a Reluctant Cougar by Myna Wallin
WHEN: Wednesday, June 23 at 8:00 pm
WHERE: Proof Vodka Bar, 220 Bloor Street West

This Wednesday, join Myna Wallin in celebrating the launch of her new book!

Confessions of a Reluctant Cougar is a boisterous collection of short stories that puts a hilarious, postmodern twist on our ideas of sex and relationships. It’s been called “frank, rollicking Sex and the City adventures told in prose that reads like a memoir” — and it’s definitely an entertaining work that is not to be missed!

When not working in prose, Myna is also an accomplished poet who achieved an honourable mention in Descant‘s 2009 Winston Collins Poetry Prize. The judges called Myna’s poem, “Death, Wildlife and Taxes,” “a poignant incantatory poem that draws together the speaker’s worries, weaving a spell around her fears.” The work will be appearing in Descant’s upcoming issue, D149: Summer and Smoke (click here to preview the issue now!).

The launch will be taking place this Wednesday, June 23 at 8:00 PM, at Proof Vodka Bar on 220 Bloor Street West. Come out for food, drink, excellent prose — and to hear jazz singer Fern Lindzon!

Naturally, cougar attire is recommended.

DESCANT Fiction wins Silver at the 2010 National Magazine Awards!


We are happy to announce that Adam Lindsay Honsinger‘s short story, “Silence,” has earned a Silver award in the Fiction category at the 33rd annual National Magazine Awards — held last Friday at the Carlu in Toronto.

Steven Heighton’s “Shared Room on Union” won the Gold prize for Fiddlehead journal, while Honsinger’s “Silence” earned a respectable Silver position, beating out other nominated entries from Event, Malahat Review, Matrix Magazine, Prairie Fire and Vancouver Review (you can preview all the nominated works, including “Silence,” here).

“Silence” first appeared in Descant 145: Private Worlds, Public Exigencies, our Summer 2009 issue, an exploration of the boundary between the self and the other. To order a copy of D145, visit our website here.

To download a pdf file of all the 2010 winners and nominations given by the National Magazine Awards Foundation (NMAF), click here.

HEAR/HEAR Reading Series – Wed Jun 09!


HEAR/HEAR Reading Series

Wednesday, June 09 (doors at 6:30pm, readings at 7pm)

@ The Free Times Cafe (320 College St.)

Featured Readings by:
Elisabeth de Mariaffi
Angela Szczepaniak
Natalie Zina Walschots

Next week, join Descant and NOW HEAR THIS! for a celebration of literacy and fantastic writing!

This year’s second installment of the HEAR/HEAR Reading Series is happening on Wednesday, June 09 at the Free Times Cafe (320 College St). This FREE, ALL AGES event will showcase talented local authors who have been working to promote literacy and creativity to the youth of Toronto through their involvement with NOW HEAR THIS!

Featured readers at this event will be Elisabeth de Mariaffi, Angela Szczepaniak and Natalie Zina Walschots. All three of these talented writers served as Writers-in-Residence with NOW HEAR THIS!’s Students, Writers and Teaches (S.W.A.T.) program; you can learn more about them and their experiences with S.W.A.T. by clicking on their names!

These writers have worked hard to make S.W.A.T. a success — help us to support them back by coming out to hear them read from their fantastic new works! Show up early for dinner and drinks from the Free Times Cafe’s menu — and stay for a special door prize give-away sponsored by This Ain’t the Rosedale Library.


You’ve heard us talk about NOW HEAR THIS!, the literacy outreach program administered by the Descant Arts & Letters Foundation, before. The program connects professional authors with community groups, students and aspiring writers in order to promote Canadian literature and encourage self-expression, critical thinking and empowerment through literacy education.

All throughout the fourth year of the S.W.A.T. (Students, Writers and Teachers) Creative Residencies Program (which has been running in TCDSB classrooms from February to May), NHT! has been interviewing their writers-in-residence team to give us a chance to get to know their talented writers.

Below, we’ve pulled the interview links from the NHT! blog to share with you here: just click on the names to read up on the inspirations and events that led these writers to NHT! today:

Devon Code

Desi Di Nardo

Colin Frizzell

Larry Frolick

Adrienne Gruber

Nic Labriola

Elisabeth de Mariaffi

Rebecca Rosenblum

Angela Szczepaniak

Julia Tausch

Aaron Tucker

Natalie Zina Walschots

To find out more information on Now Hear This! The official website is linked here —