Launch of a New Lit Mag: Welcome Humber Literary Review

At the launch party on Wednesday, hooting and hollering accompanied publisher Vera Beletzan’s announcement of the birth of The Humber Literary Review. At a time when every other self-appointed arts pundit proclaims the death of the book/magazine/reader, the enthusiasm in the packed Gladstone Hotel venue was heartening.

A year ago, Vera Beletzan and her colleagues in Humber College’s English Department floated the idea and asked: (1) Does Canada need another literary magazine? and, after the resounding Yes, (2) How hard can this be?

Issue 1, Volume 1. Designed by Kilby Smith-McGregor. Featured artist Kirsten McCrea.

Issue 1, Volume 1 of The Humber Literary Review. Designed by writer and Descant contributor, Kilby Smith-McGregor. Featured artist Kirsten McCrea.

If you’ve ever tried to design and run even your own blog, you can perhaps imagine the answer to their second question. But one year later, Issue 1, Volume 1 of The Humber Literary Review is hot off the press. Which may help explain the heat in that second floor gallery venue. (Let’s just say that women of a certain age were willing to bare arms).

This is not a bad photo of a crowd. It is a photo of the distant door that I really wanted someone to open!

This is not a bad photo of a crowd. It is a photo of the distant door that I really wanted someone to open.

The first issue is a real looker, thanks to the design work of Kilby Smith-McGregor and featured artist Kirsten McCrea. Vera Beletzan joked that, for a Department of English faculty, they were surprisingly unable to articulate a vision for how the magazine should look. A good designer is first an excellent listener, so kudos to writer Kilby Smith-McGregor for turning catatonic academic-itis into an appealing format — one with a wee bit of an intro textbook look to me, but not in a bad way.

I’m pleased to see Kirsten McCrea’s work on the cover and throughout the magazine. I discovered her at church about a year ago. The annual arts and crafts sale at Trinity United, that is. In fact, I bought and framed one of her colourful ampersand prints and it hangs above my desk; there’s one on page 33 of the HLR that I’m sure she wouldn’t mind if you tore out and stuck to your bulletin board. I think of it as a sign-of-encouragement-and-prompt-rolled-into-one, for writers: “& then what?… .” I hope the HLR folks keep her patterned designs as part of the regular layout.

Micah Toub and Bryony Halpin(+), talking to Christopher Doda who has two poems in the new magazine. Micah told me that his own first-in-print work in the inaugural issue is a bit dirty. But we agreed that I should call his story "edgy" instead.

Micah Toub and Bryony Halpin(+), talking to Christopher Doda who has two poems in the new magazine. Micah told me that his own first-in-print work in the inaugural issue is a bit dirty. But we agreed that I should call his story “edgy” instead.

Russell Smith and Eufemia Fantetti were acting very normally -- until I pulled out my camera.

Russell Smith and Eufemia Fantetti were acting very normally — until I pulled out my camera. It’s a recipe for disaster, especially if you’re girl crazy.

The Humber Literary Review will be published twice a year, with spring and fall launch parties. They’re also online which is where you’ll find interviews with:

  • Eufemia Fantetti, recently shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed award for her debut collection of short stories, A Recipe for Disaster;
  • Beverley Cooper, playwright and Governor General’s literary award nominee for “Innocence Lost: A Play About Steven Truscott,” and
  • Krista Bridge, author of The Eliot Girls, and Rogers Writers’ Trust and Danuta Gleed nominee for The Virgin Spy.
Eufemia Fantetti, Jael Richardson and Beverley Cooper...

Eufemia Fantetti, CBC award-winning author Jael Richardson, and Beverley Cooper.

Becky Blake and Ayelet Tsabari...

Becky Blake, 2012 CBC short story prize winner, and Ayelet Tsabari, author of the short story collection, The Best Place on Earth

But you weren’t at the HLR launch and you don’t know all these people walking around waving $9 glasses of wine and bottles of beer, hoping no one hugs them in that stifling heat. You are not an adept schmoozer, a wearer of fancies, or an award-winning/nominated author. But… you’d like to have the chance. Maybe at all three. So here’s the scoop. And it is a scoop. I cornered Managing Editor Hillary Rexe and asked her for something for our Descant readers. She started to tell me about the new magazine and I stopped her (ever so politely) and said no, I want something I can’t find online.

Online! Here’s the scoop: The Humber Literary Review, published in its colourful inky glory twice a year, will also publish (other) poetry and non/fiction online, throughout the year. Things may change, so keep your eye on their website, but the policy Hillary Rexe told me is that you must first submit a query email. (Let me just say here, as someone who reads a lot of cover letters, do yourself a favour and brush up on the skill of the well-written, succinct query letter).

Meaghan Strimas and Hillary Rexe, the "scarily capable" Managing Editors of The Humber Literary Review, according to publisher Vera Beletzan.

Meaghan Strimas and Hillary Rexe, the “scarily capable” Managing Editors of The Humber Literary Review, according to publisher Vera Beletzan.

In the main venue space for the launch of the HLR, most people wore black, nibbled from artfully arranged appetizer plates and listened to a musical trio. But off to the side I spotted a table of bright orange- and blue-iced cupcakes, topped with sprinkles and decorations. Naturally, I had to ask. It turns out that Meaghan Strimas and Hillary Rexe made all 200 of the cupcakes themselves for the launch.

Cupcake code!

Cupcake code!

Now you have all the information you need. You know there’s a new literary magazine looking for work, both for print and online, and you know a thing or three about the managing editors. Yes, you do. Look at those cupcakes. They are detailed, individual, a tad ironic; whimsical, but warmhearted. Open to the alternative perspective (there was a separate, gluten-free tray). And amongst the sweaty and schmoozing literati — a breath of fresh air.

Now get to work. It’s Friday already! The day to send out congratulations emails. You can count it towards your daily word count. Writing Tip #67: the worse your writing week, the more supportive/congratulations emails you should send to other writerly people. When you build up your community, you build up yourself. And … it’s a great way to have your cake and eat it too.

The Madman in the Palace: Descant’s Justin Lauzon reviews Texas

If “CanLit” refers to relatively conventional storytelling, often with regional themes and characters with pioneering spirits befitting their age/geographical location/occupation, then Claudio Gaudio’s Texas perches awkwardly on this shelf.

Texas is a post-structuralist novel (first clue: the opening words are “My exit”). Nothing is as it seems; seams reveal nothing and nothing itself is a character. It is rife with comma splices — a trick with a knife that few can pull off (Beckett can) — and deconstructionist strategies, including an impressively unreliable narrator who sees everything from a locked room wherein he awaits his death (“From this room I resist the words that will remake the world”). Or the death of American military and cultural imperialism (“I have consented to the fall, but not the splat!”).

The narrator of Texas is trapped, in almost every possible way, including the ways we are all complicit, er, trapped: “The people of the world are the same and the other… host and hostage.”

The debt to European, particularly French, intellectuals (bonjour Derrida) is apparent in Texas, but while reading it I was reminded of the American writer David Markson and his brilliant, experimental novel, Wittgenstein’s Mistress (1988). I honestly can’t think of a Canadian comparison, but if you can, let us know.

Reading Texas will make you want to be a better writer. Regardless of your own style and voice. Reading it might even make you a better writer. Exceptional books have that power. It is not a “difficult book”; it is a thoroughly engaging book.

(A word of advice if you plan on a trip to the US this summer: don’t bring this book with you. In this post “9/11″ world, border guards, er, customs officials, have detained people for much less: “… freedom, or free enterprise… both are worth killing for.”)

You can listen to Claudio Gaudio reading from Texas here.

Enough of my blather. Here’s Justin Lauzon with his review of Texas.


The Madman in the Palace

A Review of Texas, by Claudio Gaudio


Texas, by Claudio Gaudio. Published by Quattro Books, 2012, 198 pages.

Texas, by Claudio Gaudio. Published by Quattro Books, 2012, 198 pages. On the cover, the unmistakable shape of a certain middle-east country.

Claudio Gaudio’s writing takes a degree of dedication to read, but it is a commitment that yields a rewarding return. He writes in a tradition of prose-poets, where there are never easy answers, while wielding a particularly distinct voice.

In Texas, Italian-born and Toronto-based writer Gaudio presents a layered narrative in this style, discussing global politics, madness, philosophy, and above all, language. The novel primarily explores the conflict between the U.S. and the Middle East through reflective poetic-prose, yet it is difficult to know whether we are in the hands of a poet or a storyteller. Whatever the author may be, it’s clear that Texas is balanced precariously on the line between the two. This balance is not always maintained, and at times there is straying and stumbling, but Gaudio is always able to return to his exquisite writing, a style packed with stimulating wisdom.

Texas is one of those unique books that can be approached at any page to experience the beauty of its writing. Since the plot is thin (an American diplomat, unnamed throughout, is captured by Middle Eastern insurgents where he awaits death in a plain, unadorned room – yes, that’s all) it’s Gaudio’s meticulous focus on language, his intimate knowledge of global politics, his use of philosophy as art that lifts from every page, every paragraph, every sentence. He makes precise philosophical assertions with an acute ear: “The condemned man is the opposite of the king. Things are because they do not belong to him, and that includes the sun and the wind.”

Even the title is layered. The “Texas” the diplomat so often addresses throughout his imprisonment is really only a substitute-name for the United States as a whole, possibly even a euphemism for all political empires. It is a place larger than itself; even the diplomat comments on how, when he travels, he lives “in New York. New York is in Texas.” This same largeness extends to its influence, which is as complicated as the United States’, and just as unreliable. Gaudio’s “Texas” is a hodgepodge of an entire country with a longstanding tradition of questionable political values – it is imperial.

Since the narrative doesn’t rely on the story as much as it does on the diplomat’s global introspection, there isn’t a moment in the novel when something innovative isn’t presented. We are constantly jumping from one desultory thought to another as he drags “random pieces laughing and screaming onto an incredulous page.” Trying to absorb so much in such a short space, without the structure of a shifting plot, can be daunting. The struggle pays off, however, through a reflection of the writing, and the frequent emergence of breathtaking imagery:

“Night follows day, not as foil but another light before the day breaking. The sacred sleeps on broken glass, eyes open and opening with each and every scar.”

The key word of the novel is invent. As Gaudio actually uses it a number of times, no word is a greater representation of what the author is attempting (and often achieving) in this work. Gaudio is an inventor of new ways to approach the English language. As the diplomat says:

“I am writing in English, a distance separated by commas and an ocean that whispers of a stream where I am still weeping. Waiting to be born. Then this will end, better for having tried, or worse.”

This could easily be formatted into a poem, as much of the novel could be, and is the beauty of its invention. Every moment of the story we are in two worlds. The diplomat thinks in poetry, and so as a proper response, Gaudio’s poetry “thinks” in politics.

Through this process, much of the novel becomes comprised of expanding symbols. The diplomat is a fluid character, a representation of global relations throughout history – he’s there in the Middle East, he was there “to take in the ocean” when the Titanic sank, he was there when “Moses tried to escape in a basket,” he served the presidents of the last 100 years – and he comments on these events with a singularly insightful perspective. Yet his views are so various, at times he contradicts himself. The diplomat is political history, therefore he is increasingly irrational.

Toronto-based writer, Claudio Gaudio.

Toronto-based writer, Claudio Gaudio.

Gaudio’s careful balancing of insanity and reason is one of the book’s strongest features. He shows us how poetry, politics, and philosophy all originate from the same puddle of madness. Two of the novels most interesting characters are a pair of cryptic-speaking animals, an opposing dead bird and a mouse, who visit the diplomat in his cell. They converse with him about his ever-forthcoming liberation, or his pending death, or his relations with Texas, or even whether they are real or not. He develops relationships with these figments, trades information with them. And as the diplomat deepens in his insanity, he begins to produce exquisite visions:

“With Sisyphus I stood at the top of the hill, he smiled as we watched his boulder roll to the bottom. Kings perish but my work goes on, he said, I am learning what I have already done.”

It’s clear that Texas is a novel that must be digested slowly. It is just shy of 200 pages but reading it will certainly take you the time of more. Fortunately, Gaudio knows how to properly feed you this dish. Every chapter comes in bite sizes (no less than four pages, no more than six) and is often comprised of only twelve paragraphs.

It is this simple detail of construction that pays dividends to enjoying the reading process as a whole, preventing us from thinking, “Oh no, he must mean to kill me with this seventeen page chapter of prose-poetry political philosophy! Damn you, Gaudio!”

He keeps the form simple to allow for a complex subject. But like any piece of complex work, there are evident snags. Gaudio sometimes participates in what I like to call the “Woody Allen Dialectic,” wherein a sentence or phrase is constructed by taking two obviously unrelated ideas and thrusting them together to share the same space. With Allen, the effect was always comedic:

“I ran into my brother today at a funeral. We had not seen one another for fifteen years, but as usual he produced a pig bladder from his pocket and began hitting me on the head with it.” ~ Woody Allen, Without Feathers

There is little (if any) meaning to these words, but their jocularity emerges from their ridiculousness, their clear incompatibility within our frame of references. This, too, happens in Texas, but toned down and with a much more serious, poetic twist:

“Hope is a little bit of thread, a patch of wheat, a peach, things a geologist cannot find. Men with scarred lungs stumble out of mountains, sometimes it’s called Egypt and sometimes it’s Wyoming. It’s just people making things, mostly from dust or dry rot.”

The WA Dialectic often works in Texas, wherein Gaudio acts as a veritable poetic chef, serving up dishes of new flavour and wondrous un-tasted combinations, but there are times when it doesn’t work, and we are asked to digest a sentence of disagreeable quality, one that doesn’t sit well in the mind’s digestive tracts:

“There’s no difference between breasts and the Himalayas except the mountains have been speechless for longer.”

Or, my favourite -

“If I could draw, there would be a cat on the bed and blood in the Whitehouse.”

I’m not sure what these sentences mean exactly, and even looking at their context within the paragraphs, I’m reasonably lost. Texas is a book closer to poetry than prose, but that doesn’t excuse it from avoiding lines which slow down rather than progress the reading. The good thing is that these illogical phrases occur far less frequently than the lines of eloquence for which Gaudio should no doubt be lauded.

And it’s in those perfectly executed lines that we see Gaudio at his best. Texas may waver at points, but it comes in a package teeming with political and philosophical wisdom, with unusual word combinations and phrases which elevate the novel as an important Canadian text, poignant and insightful, willing to push boundaries. I will leave you with his narrator’s wise words, a moving comment on art:

“I’m hoping to meet myself again in the future. In an invention perhaps, an idea without a blueprint, I’m tired of the replication. Art is the smoke, the vestige, not the thing, an explanation that explains nothing. But where or what could nothing be? All through history it’s been a mystery, and sometimes it rhymes.”

By Justin Lauzon


Justin Lauzon is one of Descant’s newest volunteers. Last week he reviewed Kafka’s Hat and, with Jack Hostrawser, co-authored this review of Rove for us. Justin is a writer and teacher from Oakville, 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 and follow him on twitter, @JLauzonwrites.

The M Word: life in (part of) the ‘hood

If you’ve ever looked into the small earnest face of a young child and felt that it was sucking the life out of you, your guilt exceeded only by months of exhaustion, you probably didn’t tell anyone. We don’t have casual conversational starters for those moments: “My child is a wrecking ball come through the fortress of my marriage. I can tuck my breasts into my jeans and I haven’t gone to the bathroom alone in two years. Please pass the salt.”

In The M-Word: Conversations About Motherhood, Kerry Clare, Toronto-based writer and mother of two, has gathered the stories of 25 women writers, hers included, about their experiences of motherhood. While it should come as no surprise that life in the ‘hood isn’t all snug-fitting onesies and bath time bubbles, this anthology lays waste to any remaining doubt. Writers, after all, like specifics.

“Regardless of the fact that I’ve been at it for sixteen years now, it still feels like I’m not ready for motherhood.”

~ Nancy Jo Cullen

Gooselane 2014...

Goose Lane, 2014, 314 pages.

The M Word is organized alphabetically, by writers’ surnames. Clare said she tried to organize it by theme but found “it just didn’t seem to work that way, there were no ‘themes’ that made more sense than the women’s individual stories.” So, unless you are a stepmother, who will easily recognize the chapter title “Wicked” (Susan Olding), you will just need to put your feet up (on your kids, if you have any) and go for the ride:

pregnant the old fashioned way, as planned; not planned; home birth; home made; successful infertility treatments; unsuccessful treatments; accidental pregnancy continued; abortion; giving baby up; family adoption; foreign adoption; no kids; never kids; only one, thanks; four, please; oh crap, twins; miscarriage; death of baby; stepmom; person not wanted to be called “stepmom”; parenting toddlers; teens; hanging on; letting go; grandmothering; and every possible bodily fluid, in many improbable ways.

Given the A-to-Z order of the anthology, it is incredibly fortuitous that the first chapter, “Truth, Dare, Double Dare,” by Heather Birrell, is one of the strongest and would have made an excellent first choice had the book been organized any other way. She writes plainly and eloquently about the difficult birth of her first child, the subsequent strain on her self, her husband and her marriage, an unexpected second pregnancy, the contemplation of an abortion, the everyday grind of it all, and she manages to make a clear political statement about women’s reproductive rights. She also has the funniest one-liner about breastfeeding but it absolutely cannot be told out of context.

“… it’s hard to put your finger on the glint of joy in the dirty dishwater of drudgery. It slips away, seems a trick of light…”

~ Heather Birrell

Like Kerry Clare, I tried to map out these stories so I could write about them within the boundaries of a review. And, like her, I could not make anything fit neatly. I cannot even tell you how many of these women have children, without further explanation. In fact, having just taken a few minutes to do some counting and considering, I cannot even tell you how many of them are mothers. Surely an adoptive mother is a mother, a stepmother is a mother (“adoptive” and “step” being but adjectives) – but what is an aunt who raised two nephews and a dog, almost full-time? Diana Fitzgerald Bryden’s description of their relationship reads as though she is in fact the boys’ mother, although she is respectful of the fact that she is not, actually.

Because women are still defined by whether or not they are mothers (and, as mothers know, there is another pecking order inherent in that one), it was a wise editorial choice to include the stories of women who have decided not to have children. I don’t think, however, that a book about motherhood needs to devote (almost) a third of the space to these stories. But it does need some of them, for here, too, is complexity. Some of these women made a very clear decision; others left it until the decision was taken out of their hands for medical reasons and one woman is still decidedly undecided. I can’t help but wonder if reading the other 24 stories in The M Word will sway her, either way.

“… the irony is that we harm our planet by having babies. The hope we put into our own children can and does eliminate the hope of other children around the world.”

~ Nicole Dixon

Instead of themes and categories bumping alongside each other, these stories of motherhood speak to each other. Myrl Coulter’s compelling account of giving her baby up for adoption in the late 1960s (a memoir excerpt that makes me want to buy the book), is echoed in Kerry Clare’s chapter about her own abortion. Thirty five years after Coulter feels forced to give up the son she was forbidden to even hold, Clare uses the same language of stigma, shame and being “in trouble” to describe her own unwanted pregnancy at the beginning of the 21st century. Our bodies are still very political grounds. More than one of the contributors to The M Word reminds us we need to remain vigilant.

Three of the women, Ariel Gordon, Sarah Yi-Mei Tsiang and Fiona Tinwei Lam, each decided to have only one child (in Lam’s case, as a single parent) in order that they could better manage their writing lives. Award-winning writer Carrie Snyder has four children and yes, your shock, horror and sort-of-envy secretly motivates and delights her.

“A bomb had exploded in the centre of my identity.”

~ Heidi Reimer

All the women delight in their children, or the children in their lives, some of the time. I think that’s the only fair statement I can say after reading all 25 stories. You might be put off if you start with Heidi Reimer’s story. She writes unabashedly about her love for her newborn, her powerful mothering instinct and all the things that make our knees buckle when it comes to that stage of our (and their) lives, but doesn’t, years later. But then she talks about her other daughter, their complicated relationship and ongoing struggles. I found this chapter to be one of the most intimate portraits of motherhood, in its range of feeling and Reimer’s candid expression of agony.

And there is a lot of agony and loss in The M Word. Alison Pick realizes she first came to see herself as a mother not after the birth of her first child but during her first pregnancy, which resulted in a miscarriage. Christa Couture is a mother of two sons and she wears a locket with their photographs, even though, unimaginably, they are now both dead. While most women complain about the long term physical effects of pregnancy, Couture likes to rub her hand along the stretch marks on her belly, her closest physical connection to her sons, the place wherein there is “this feeling that I’m a lighthouse that searches and beckons.”

“I worry my heart isn’t big enough to give them what they need, what they deserve, that my love for them doesn’t have the room to be at peace with the possibility of letting go, doesn’t have the room to face their deaths. You need a whole hell of a lot of love to be open to that, and I simply don’t have enough of it.”

~ Marita Dachsel

There is another kind of loss, the one we associate with our lives “before” children. Julie Booker’s pre-twins life was enviable. Her life now, with toddler twins in her mid-40s? Shining moments in a sea of smelly diapers and pawing needs. (But better her than Ariel Gordon, who writes, “If I had had twins, I would have eaten one.”) Deanna McFadden’s pregnancy almost killed her and a few years into her son’s life she is still recovering, physically and emotionally. Does she adore him and is she glad he’s here? Well of course. Most of the time.

“But where is the space where I can resent him a little bit for plowing me over just by coming into this world? It’s not practical; I don’t resent him, I don’t even dislike him, I revel in him, but it’s not enough – it’s not enough, this being a mother.”

~Deanna McFadden

Perhaps the only thing that ties these stories together is an echo. Whether conspicuously absent, mentioned in passing with disdain, regret or remorse, it is the mothers of these women writers who lurk between the lines and beyond the pages. In her (uncategorizable) story, I am left with the sense that it is Maria Meindl’s own mother that is laid into her waiting arms. It is a nice touch that the book ends with a chapter by Michelle Landsberg, written from her point of view as a mother and now a very involved grandmother, though she, too, is wary of the role and the often impossibly awkward dance between a mother and her grown children.

“It is a cliché to say that I came to understand my own mother better when I became a mother myself, but it is very true.” 

~ Fiona Tinwei Lam

The strength of an anthology — that it gathers different perspectives, written in different voices — is also its Achilles’ heel. The range of mothering experiences in The M Word is wide, but the range of mothers is not. The vast majority (trans: not all!) of its contributors are straight, white, and/or middle-class women. They live in houses and can afford to stay at home, or they have professional day jobs; they have cars (or can afford the choice not to), helpful partners and daycare. This won’t be a problem for most readers because, let’s face it, that’s who will buy this book. But I couldn’t help think of all the women whose struggles are magnified many times over because of limited financial resources, as well as the infuriating and heartbreaking complications of negotiating racism — among other systems of social disenfranchisement — for themselves, and their children. I’m sure none of the women who contributed to The M Word would disagree with this (that so many mothers have these added burdens) and a couple do speak to their privilege directly. I also know that one person’s story does not and cannot represent one particular group of people. My point is that there was room for some of these stories in The M Word and their absence feels like a significant omission. Perhaps it is a part of the motherhood conversation we are still not ready to have.

Kerry Clare, far left,....

Kerry Clare, far left, with The M Word contributors Heidi Reimer, Julia Zarankin, Maria Meindl, Heather Birrell, Nicole Dixon, Julie Booker, Deanna McFadden, Patricia Storms, and Diana Fitzgerald Bryden, for the Toronto launch at Ben McNally Books.

When a friend tells you she is pregnant and “I’m thrilled!” what you say is, “Congratulations! You will make such a wonderful mother!” This cultural imperative to somehow morph into Wonderful Mother in nine months plus one instant, is the stuff of little girls’ dreams and grown women’s nightmares. The stories in The M Word are the often searingly candid tales of the reality behind the pressure to be a wonderful mother, or even a mother at all. If I was a publicist for Goose Lane, I’d get this book into high schools (optional reading for girls, compulsory for boys?!), university courses, midwives’ and doctors’ offices, community centres and political offices of all stripes (okay, maybe not all). I’d also cancel the “Are you Mom Enough?” PR posters. Just sayin’.

I did not find my own motherhood story in the chapters I thought I might. Instead, I found it woven throughout the stories in The M Word, throughout the lives of the women who, like me, find that there are no easy answers and that the promise of love is not all-sustaining. Our many, many ways of mothering – each other and each other’s children, included — are as indignant as they are forbearing: as intricate as the rivers of our stretch marks, unfathomable as the oceans of our loss.

A Hat Trick: Descant’s Justin Lauzon reviews Kafka’s Hat

Franz Kafka worked for an insurance company even though he’d studied to be a lawyer. He hated being financially dependent on his day job but the labyrinthine bureaucracies he pilloried as a writer, and his descriptions of psychological torture, gave rise to the term Kafkaesque. Let’s face it — Kafkaesque, used to handily describe all manner of existential confusion, became a very useful word in (and for) the 20th century. I don’t see it going out of fashion any time soon.

Kafka’s brilliant stories, like “The Hunger Artist,” “The Trial,” “The Castle,” and, the bad-day of all bad-day stories, The Metamorphosis, are hard stones of profound alienation that often begin on a note of wide-eyed fairy tale:

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

Like Franz Kafka, Québec author Patrice Martin has worked behind a desk within the labyrinth of government — as clerk for the House of Commons, and as a municipal councillor. Kafka’s Hat, his debut novel, is translated by Chantal Bilodeau, an award-winning New York-based playwright and translator, and is published by Talonbooks. Their almost-50 year longevity makes Talonbooks one of the oldest surviving Canadian book publishers which they attribute to an unbroken chain of mentoring and a commitment to new literary fiction. From their website:

“We are Canada’s largest independent publisher of drama; do more translations from Québec than anyone else; and publish more Native voices than any other Canadian publisher with the exception of First Nations publisher Theytus Books.”

For information about manuscript submission, see their Submission Guidelines.

And now, here’s Justin Lauzon with his review of Kafka’s Hat.


Space, Time and Text

A Review of Kafka’s Hat, by Patrice Martin (trans. by Chantal Bilodeau)

Trans by ... Pub'd by... 20##.

By Patrice Martin. Translated by Chantal Bilodeau. Talonbooks, 2012. 144 pages.

Kafka’s Hat is a book of narrative freedom. Darkly humorous, inventive, and insightful, Patrice Martin’s imaginative tale is a story that extends beyond the possibilities of reality and enters the realm of magic. Beware: this short novel is layered and entwined, and may cause a deep sensation of tickled ribs and a strained mind.

The novel follows the adventure of P., the succinctly named main character, as he is sent on a personal errand for his boss to search for and acquire the famed hat of Franz Kafka. The majority of the action occurs in a single building, eventually incorporating two other storylines, which detail other characters entirely. These three sections, divided very clearly, each have a separate function in the novel as a whole.

It’s impossible to accurately describe the novel without noting Martin’s influences, which he does not shy away from revealing to us. He includes Franz Kafka, Paul Auster, Jorge Luis Borges, and Italo Calvino in a variety of ways in the narrative. Each has a large bearing on the story itself in terms of style, voice, and narrative direction, but eventually the latter three become characters themselves in the narrative, hinting at our need to know who these guys are. Fortunately, you don’t need to have read these writers to enjoy the novel, but it helps. Although not explicitly stated, each author seems to belong to one of the three sections of the novel, bearing their acute influence, which Martin executes extraordinarily well at most times.

First up to bat: Italo Calvino. The main narrative, following the principal character P., reads much like Calvino’s Mr. Palomar, which is about a similar character – introverted and over analytical – although to a much more dark and humorous effect. Martin steps away from the deep philosophical analysis that Calvino engaged in and embraces the neurosis of everyday life, deconstructing the most mundane tasks as complex, infinitely regressing actions.

In his search for the hat, P. finds himself in horrendously playful situations, like carefully reasoning where to hide a dead man, or lying to the blind. Martin’s approach is so effective, we are left in chuckling bewilderment that such a character could even get up in the morning, let alone have a job. It becomes obvious that while Martin is certainly paying homage to his literary influences, he is quite obviously poking fun at them too, revealing how a thoroughly analytical mind like Palomar’s can be debilitating. He has created a laughable, relatable character with P. through this contrast.

Whereas insightful Palomar casually cranes his neck to philosophize about the heavenly bodies, for pages, P. doesn’t even think to look up when stuck in an elevator, which, he is informed, 99.4 percent of people do. Immediately he “wonders why he didn’t react like everyone else,” and is shocked to know he is “now in the camp of people he loathes – irrational, unthinking, unpredictable people!” He wants to be Mr. Palomar, but he can’t quite make it. He’s only P., a strange character, set against the backdrop of literature’s most insightful minds. This is what makes him so singular and endearing.

A young Franz Kafka. With that hat.

A young Franz Kafka. With that hat.

Next up: Paul Auster. The second section, far less humorous than the first, follows the character Max in his quest to publish his manuscript about P. (revealing that the first section is only part of a manuscript – er – sort of), by presenting it to Auster, the main influence of this section and a character later in the novel. Yes, Martin’s short narrative does become increasingly layered, but that only adds to the fun of the book later.

This section is written well enough, but is marked by a lack of what makes the rest of the book truly interesting. It stands with the same clear and clever writing, but most of it seems to be used just as a vehicle to complete the novel later. Martin presents new characters but doesn’t give them much depth, and so this section falls slightly flat, finishing rather undeveloped.

Last to the plate: Jorge Luis Borges. The third section is where meta-fiction lovers (myself included) get their real treat. This one has Borges written all over it. Here, Martin sets the three principal writers, Auster, Borges, and Calvino, on a drive from New York to Montreal to participate as the guests of honour in a conference called The Writer as Character (not too subtle there, Martin). The three authors, who clearly never carpooled together in real life, engage in a conversation of ideologies, of philosophy, and of storytelling.

Take, for instance, Auster-as-character’s analysis:

“For them, life only makes sense insofar as it can be broken into increasingly smaller, observable parts, or viewed through increasingly larger, universal principles. Life is here, in the countless details of day-to-day experience, in all that is unpredictable and incomprehensible about the very act of living.”

You can decide with whom to throw your hat.

Despite the distance of time and space which limited this conversation in the real world, which Martin refers to in the text, he presents the impossibility with such clarity and measured pacing, the reader might be persuaded to think this event actually did happen, and Martin sat there with these great masters writing it all down. It’s a clear tip of the hat to Borges’ surpassing of the space-time continuum in stories such as “The Other” and “August 25, 1983,” while carrying elements of Auster’s writing like City of Glass to really give it a punch.

It’s the conclusion of the final section (no, I will not reveal to you what happens), bringing together the other two narratives about P. and Max, that leave the reader (that would be me, and eventually you) thinking for days. Although it ends rather abruptly, these three stories intersect, becoming endlessly layered atop one another like a fictive-labyrinth. In fact, it becomes so delightfully complicated that you may be compelled to use some scrap paper to figure it all out (take a lesson from P. and use numbers to keep everything straight – I did), as Martin suggests: “the reader should immediately take out the notebook in which he writes his thoughts, because in a few lines, it might be too late.” Martin knows the immense task he’s giving us, and even if you still have difficulty, the conclusion is too playfully inventive to be frustrated with it.

The one major misstep of the novel is length. As if still trying to pay homage to his heroes, Martin keeps the book strikingly brief at less than 150 pages. While there is a tradition in French Québec literature of these concise novella-length novels, I find this form restricts Martin’s complex work rather than tightening it up. P.’s narrative could have been at least 20 – 30 pages longer, as could Max’s, allowing the space to flesh out the characters, or even vary the emotional range. At the length it is now, issues with repetition, character depth, and the ending’s abruptness become rather glaring. On that note, I would have enjoyed spending more time in conversation with the characters as well. They all had so much to say, but they didn’t get the chance.

That said, this novel is endlessly interesting to discuss, map out, and timeline with a few good friends. Just as the way many of the three authors’ stories looped and fell back on themselves, Kafka’s Hat successfully does the same. Anything is possible in fiction, Martin seems to be telling us. Literature incorporates the mundane with the infinite, the laughable with the grim, and for his first novel, Patrice Martin achieves this through the singular axiom of the masters: “words are all we have to describe the world and create it. Everything else is trivial.”

By Justin Lauzon


Justin Lauzon is one of Descant’s newest volunteers. He recently co-authored, with Jack Hostrawser, this review for us. Justin is a writer and teacher from Oakville, 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 and follow him on twitter, @JLauzonwrites.

A Literary Wake: saying goodbye to Alistair MacLeod

If, as John Donne observed, each person’s death diminishes us, I think it also makes us feel more lonely. When I heard of Alistair MacLeod’s death on Sunday, April 20th, I was shocked, and saddened of course. But over the next two days I began to feel something else, something more like loneliness. After I’d written an obituary post, and read other ones, the loneliness felt like something I wanted and needed to share with others.

I sent out a few tweets and emails, suggesting that, across Canada, friends and admirers of Alistair MacLeod meet at their local pub or café that Friday and raise a glass and tell stories in his memory. Shelagh Rogers, long time friend of Alistair’s, supported the idea on social media and as it gathered steam I picked a spot here in Toronto. That Friday, about 50 of us gathered at the Dora Keogh pub to honour the life and work of the talented and beloved Alistair MacLeod.

Carolyn Tanner, Mary Sutherland and Theresa Fawcett came to the Toronto literary wake for Alistair MacLeod. In the background, Greg House gathers guests' names.

Carolyn Tanner, Mary Sutherland and Theresa Fawcett came to the Toronto literary wake for Alistair MacLeod. In the background, Greg House gathers guests’ names.

Many came alone or knew only one or two other people. Despite this, it quickly became an intimate evening as we asked each other about our favourite MacLeod stories and how it was we came to be there. Because of that intimacy, I didn’t think I would write a post about it. I like that some things are left as memories, as shared experiences that remain private and accessible only to those in attendance. But enough people have asked me what happened that I thought I would try to share the sense of the evening. For some, the wake lasted into the very wee hours, and the conversation never veered from Alistair MacLeod, his writing, and discussions about writing and literary culture.

Although it wasn’t a formal event, I stood by the door and greeted each person to explain what we were doing. I asked people why they’d come and everyone said the same kind of thing: “I just felt that I should do something, that we should be together.” Whether biological, cultural, or both, we have an impulse to reach out to one another when we have lost one of “the tribe,” as Margaret Laurence would say.

There were a few writers in attendance, like novelist Trevor Cole, 2012 Journey Prize finalist Kevin Hardcastle and 2013 Gloria Vanderbilt-Exile short story prize winner Sang Kim. Toronto writer Claudio Gaudio read us an excerpt from Alistair MacLeod’s short story, “Clearances.” A number of other people I talked to were, let’s say, shy writers, those not quite ready to declare themselves (hi Shawne and Sara). A handful of new Descant volunteers showed up as well as some people in book publishing. One woman, Diane, said she was in the neighbourhood to meet her daughter for dinner but when she heard about the wake she told her daughter to meet her there instead. John, the quiet guy at the bar that we later teased for looking more like he was with the hockey team in earlier, is a truck driver with a degree in English, and a devoted Alistair MacLeod reader.

Cristina was there, a friend of the MacLeod family. She offered to help us get the book of condolences we all signed, to the MacLeods. Among the comments are: “an incredible influence on Canadian writers,” “our best writer,” “we needed this,” “an honour to be part of this,” “your sentences, every sentence, goes straight to my heart,” “a great loss for Canada, but he gave us so much,” “Thank you Alistair for your gift to us all.”

Everyone I talked to was there because they had read and loved Alistair MacLeod’s work. And some, like geologist and writer David Burga, were also there because they had studied with him. David has written this post about his experience being a student of MacLeod’s. It’s the kind of story often told about the man who taught and generously supported so many writers over his career.

At such short notice, many people who wanted to come, could not. Instead, they sent me their stories — of how mischievous Alistair MacLeod could be, how proud he was of his writer son, Alexander, how he was the friendliest face at any literary gathering. Antanas Sileika, writer and Director of the Humber School for Writers, was kind enough to let me read some of his Alistair stories at our gathering.

Douglas Gibson and his wife Jane Gibson came. Doug Gibson was Alistair MacLeod’s publisher and friend. As he explained in one of his funny stories, he was actually MacLeod’s friend first, which made things rather awkward when he became his publisher and had the job of trying to pry manuscripts out of the writer’s hands. Gibson called him “the stone carver” because of how carefully and slowly he wrote. If you’re aware of the list of internationally acclaimed Canadian writers that Douglas Gibson has published, and if you have heard him speak, you know he is an accomplished and self-assured professional. But at the literary wake, Doug was a friend of Alistair’s, a friend who was clearly heartbroken and who choked up a few times as he tried to read us the last two pages of No Great Mischief. While his stories had us laughing, about the lengths he would go to retrieve a manuscript, and about nights of Cape Breton dancing and drinking, it was his sadness and his love for his friend that touched us.

Douglas Gibson, wearing his family Buchanan plaid, under his Alistair MacLeod 'No Great Mischief' t-shirt.

Douglas Gibson, wearing his Buchanan family plaid, under his Alistair MacLeod No Great Mischief t-shirt.

It is my observation that we are sometimes a bit too quick to jump to “but he/she left us so much” when someone dies. We skip to the happy-ever-after by skipping over our sadness. I wanted to start the evening with what had brought us all together: our grief and sense of loss. In a funeral scene from No Great Mischief (page 128 in my copy), a violinist plays Niel Gow’s Lament. I had asked Toronto musician Stephanie Cadman if she could join us and play the lament and she agreed immediately (despite the fact that she was having a dinner party that night).

With kind permission from Stephanie Cadman, Trevor Cole posted his video of her moving performance for us. I will leave you with Niel Gow’s Lament, so that in our shared loss, in the death of Alistair MacLeod, and in our other losses, you will feel less alone.

 2012-07-13 12.58.44


Cartooning Degree Zero: the launch

What started out as a chat between a couple of friends at a pub, two years ago, became one of the most stunning issues we have ever produced. Tomorrow night we celebrate the launch of Cartooning Degree Zero, Descant #164.

Cartooning Degree Zero: the launch

Tuesday, April 29th, 7-10pm

The Handlebar, 159 Augusta Avenue in Kensington Market, Toronto

Come for the snacks, stay to hear and meet the contributors!

A mix of comics and essays, about comics.

A mix of comics and essays, about comics.

Production Editor Trevor Abes has taken Guest Editor Sean Rogers’ vision and produced the first Canadian literary magazine graphics issue in over a decade. Cartooning Degree Zero weighs in at a colourful and hefty 272 pages. The list of contributors includes well-known veterans of the art, as well as some newer comics artists. See for yourself:

Image 2

Here’s just a tiny sneak of a peek (with kind permission from artist Shannon Gerard):

We chose one of Shannon Gerard's images for the cover of Cartooning Degree Zero.

We chose one of Shannon Gerard’s images for the cover of Cartooning Degree Zero.



Join us tomorrow night for the launch. There will be comics – everywhere. And we do mean every.where.

And, just for the record, we are confident that we’ve settled the old question of whether or not comics belong in the world of the literary arts. When you get your copy of Cartooning Degree Zero, you’ll see what we mean.


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 seven (he and his wife Anita lost a young son), 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.


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.


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.