Category Archives: Authors

Surveillance from a Magic Carpet: Yusuf Saadi reviews Fire in the Unnameable Country

Not everyone at Penguin Canada liked Ghalib Islam’s manuscript, with its long, unpunctuated sentences, “unwieldy” cast of characters and unconventional use of time and structure. Maybe this is why Hamish Hamilton (an imprint of Penguin Random House) published Fire in the Unnameable Country. The book drew discussion and controversy even before it was published. Not your conventional CanLit read.

Ghalib Islam himself seems to pose challenges. In his interview with Kelli Korducki for Quill and Quire, he “pulls out a notebook and pen. ‘What is your domain?’ he asks, referring to my area of journalistic focus, and doing away with any pretense of a casual chat.” When Anupa Mistry asks him about his long unpunctuated sentences in their interview for Hazlitt, he responds with, “What do you mean?” This reminded me of the early interviews with Margaret Atwood, long before she became the social media darling-savante we know now. For the record, I miss the crusty young Margaret Atwood, the one who would pause for uncomfortably long after a radio interviewer’s question and then respond with terse and often caustic replies. By the way, Margaret Atwood was Ghalib Islam’s MFA thesis supervisor and probably for that reason (because she has otherwise stopped doing it), she has blurbed his book.

Ghalib Islam, 32, was born in Bangladesh and moved to Toronto with his family when he was seven. He grew up in the densely populated and underserved area of Jane and Finch. According to Ghalib Islam, Fire in the Unnameable Country is in part a response to growing up amongst the imposed categories of race, religion and socioeconomic class.

Former Descant editorial intern Yusuf Saadi reviews Fire in the Unnameable Country. According to Yusuf, he and Ghalib “are family friends whose parents have known each other since immigrating to Canada from Bangladesh … Pretty much everyone in Bengali culture is related somehow.”

Hamish Hamilton pages

Hamish Hamilton, 2014, 448 pages.

Language and Imagination: A Review of Fire in the Unnameable Country

by Yusuf Saadi

Early in his debut novel Fire in the Unnameable Country, Ghalib Islam presents a scene in which the narrator dreams of roaming the landscapes of an unnameable country “naked as Adam,” the first namer. Hedayat, who addresses himself as “your humble narrator,” then assigns names to things in the world that language hasn’t yet claimed. A tension emerges that haunts the novel between what can be named, controlled and monitored and what is beyond language’s ability to classify in any straightforward sense. The history of the unnameable country is “as precise as the wind;” to try and contort it into a realist narrative is impossible. Thus, the narrative moves in and out of time, switches languages, playfully disregards punctuation and changes tenses and points of view, often within a few sentences. For example:

immediate lightningflashes/  sounds climbed dendrites in my father’s skull, sounds that flecks of wind, pushed words, and my father could catch them, though most jagged syntax were sliced metal to the ears as nerves grow leaf and sepals from the bones in his hand.

When the roaming narrative works, and it mostly works, it’s almost vertiginous because it shapes itself from multiple angles simultaneously. Although there are moments when it feels unnecessarily wordy, the truths told slant defamiliarize the world, presenting it as frequently terrifying and often quite beautiful.

The unnameable country’s constantly changing borderlines are initially occupied by the Soviets and later invaded by the Americans, and embody the colonial histories of various countries. Hedayat decides to wait in his mother’s womb for several years for the wars to end before “passing endocrine signals to mother wanna get born now.” The novel follows Hedayat’s recursive genealogy with a postmodern self-consciousness that revises itself even as it is narrates. Several clever dystopic elements are utilized: the government is able to read and record the thoughts of its citizens onto magnetic thoughtreels. The thoughtreel department is called Department 6119, echoing Orwell’s infamous room 101 in 1984. The novel frequently feels like a contemporary version of 1984, drawing upon Orwellian elements and updating them for our political climate. The unnameable country is also converted into a giant Hollywood film set covered in cameras and mirrors for an endless reality show. The novel captures the sense of living through the War on Terror and our contemporary surveillance culture.

There are other clear influences, including Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude and Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. While Fire in the Unnameable Country possesses characteristics of magic realism, it forges its own niche by combining folkloric magic with technological dystopia. The book’s strength is that whereas the plot, events and characters certainly feel absurd, they also possess  an authenticity that rings strangely true. Having a reality show that runs 24/7 by turning the country into a film set feels eerily real to me as someone who has grown up watching the occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq on television and computer screens. There are other allusions embedded in the text, including a paragraph that mimics Ginsberg’s “Howl” and an allusion to Paul Celan’s image of “black milk,” echoing canonical political literature of the past in order to build on them.

Ghalid Islam

Ghalib Islam

The narrator’s grandfather is a poet, and describes himself as “a writer in the style of certain modernists for whom poetry is a description of the effects of war on language.” Similarly, the novel examines war and culture’s effects on a language whose speakers are aware that the government spies on its own citizens. Thus, it is necessary for Islam to invent the fragmented syntax he employs. Punctuation is sparse, images impressionistic, words compounded, nouns turned into verbs and articles like ‘a’ and ‘the’ frequently absent, as when the narrator recounts his own birth: “my mother continues cursing, as another big push and something greymucus and pink is emerges emerging from inside her until finally my owl’s screech ear-rending howl.” The text will not be particularly difficult to readers familiar with postmodern fiction, although it does require a bit of patience while it teaches you how to read its sinuous sentences and internal logic. There are numerous standout lines and images, such as the narrator’s grandfather walking through the Ministry of Radio and Communications “clutching his tie, which fluttered like a disembodied tongue” and the man “who was still so modest that he did not leave footsteps when he walked.”

Ghosts roam the unnameable country, drinking blood boiled on stoves and are enlivened by being remembered. The occupying Americans decide on a leader for the unnameable country by testing to see who can scream the loudest and for one stretch of time the narrator is imprisoned in his own house as the occupying army will not let family members travel between rooms without identification. I found a haunting beauty in the rhythmic paragraph that begins, “Today I saw a man murdered in the street. How did they kill the man. This is how they killed the man. A bullet kicked up his hair and he bit the grey asphalt as if it was his bread.”

Another strength is that, as it threads the delicate balance between named, nameless and unnameable, Fire in the Unnameable Country maintains an openness to interpretation. For example, there is mystery in the government setting up mirrors throughout the city for the endless Hollywood film. The city’s name itself, La Maga, almost an anagram for ‘game’ or ‘image,’ hints at how to read the mirrors without telling us explicitly. Are they meant to show how Western colonialism and occupation distort people’s sense of their own identities? Do they imply the ‘hyperreality’ of the war? Are they meant to show how war is trivialized into entertainment for corporate profit? This also entails the question of how the novel addresses itself as an artifact of potential distortion and entertainment. The story feels rich enough to be interpreted in multiple ways, and for the most part the elements are described well enough to exist as things in themselves rather than as literary symbols.

However, there are scenes that rely too heavily on symbolism. At one point, Hedayat visits the Warren animals, people who were displaced from their homes by fires and have become animals precariously living underground. The animals — rabbits, frog, spaniels — function as metaphors for dehumanization caused by occupation and displacement, and suggest the importnace of memory to the understanding of “human” itself. Yet, they are not described vividly enough to first exist as breathing characters in a living world. We are never provided with any of their particular stories, which would perhaps be expected on a medium like television news, but doesn’t live up to the fiction’s duty to tell individual stories, and particularly the task the novel sets for itself of reviving their ghosts through memory.

While it is full of philosophical and literary concerns, Fire in the Unnameable Country is mainly a political novel. It recalls not only the history of occupation, but its extrapolation into the colonizations of the collective imagination and of history. Islam writes: “Fear, he decided, was their chief governing principle. It was meant to make you want less, to efface the past and to tether the imagination so no future but theirs could be loosened into the world.” The implication being that political change cannot be accomplished without the ability to first imagine it, without the language necessary to describe it.  Thus, the narrator, whose hand is blown into grotesque talons by a bomb that kills his best friend, slowly becomes an owl capable of turning its head 180 degrees into the past while keeping his body oriented toward the future, not unlike Walter Benjamin’s angel of history. In Marquez’s style, images are patterned throughout and lines are frequently repeated in different contexts and epochs within the novel. At one point Islam writes, “out of nothing there bloomed the story of a little boy who kicked his soccer ball across the mirror-walls and found it several alleyways later, extending from the arms of a man with two weeping glass eyes who claimed to be his grandson.” The narrative resuscitates the past simply by storytelling and tries to reclaim history through a postmodern lens, void of objective truths. With its imaginative flair, Fire in the Unnameable Country can be read as a celebration of art, particularly fiction with its narrative force, as one of the primary ways of trying to re-imagine a world where dominant narratives try to separate people from their genealogies — their ‘once upon a times’ — and say this is all the world is and can be. Islam writes that:

To know Hedayat requires us to know his father, to understand the father means we travel labyrinth streets to the grandfather, to understand whom requires us to move back still to great-grandfather unto mist and the origin of things: to once upon a time.


Yusuf Saadi has a BA in creative writing and philosophy from York University. He is beginning his MA in English with a concentration in cultural, social and political thought at the University of Victoria in September. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in PRISM International, Vallum and The Quilliad. He also recently finished a stint as an editorial intern at Descant, where he did cool things like copy edit, proofread and read submissions.




An Interview with Gillian Wigmore: on what it really takes to write a novella

Gillian Wigmore has dried food all over her house. She and her husband are taking their two children, 11 and 12, on a kayak trip through the Broken Islands. As well as being a poet and fiction writer, a wife and mom, and her job as a full-time coordinator at the Prince George Public Library, she’s helping to organize dried meals for the family’s two-week holiday. Partway through our interview she mentions something in passing and I have to ask her to repeat it to make sure I heard correctly: she’s also working on her MFA through UBC. So, yes, she’s busy. But she is also gracious and gives up a half-hour lunch to talk to me about her new book Grayling, which we reviewed here.

Gillian Wigmore grew up near the small town of Vanderhoof in central BC and the largely rural and agricultural setting shows up in her writing. She has been described as a poet of place and noted as someone who pays careful attention to the specific plants and animals that inhabit her landscapes. In her 20s, Gillian spent some time as a guide for river rafting and ocean kayaking (“but canoes are the best!”) out of which grew her lifelong passion for such trips.

I asked her if she had any hobbies and immediately regretted the ridiculous question. When would this woman have a minute for anything else? And why, in such a full life, would she need a hobby?

Then she said, “Playmobil.”

Playmobil? She laughed and said, “Yes, I’m addicted to those little things. I say I buy them for my kids, but really I think they’re for me!” Did not see that one coming. But it makes sense — that a busy writer would enjoy an excuse to play with colourful little characters, that, as a mom, she must be constantly picking up.

In a telephone interview, a person’s voice is all you have to get a sense of who she is and what she’s like. Gillian Wigmore’s conversational speech is articulate and thoughtful. I got the sense that she takes everything she does seriously, but in a practical way. She’s a woman who gets things done but doesn’t make a big deal about it; competent, not overweening. I am left with the impression that I could talk to her about anything, from intellectual and  spiritual matters to the best type of manure for my garden (not that that isn’t a spiritual matter, I hasten to add). In short, Gillian Wigmore is the kind of person who would make a great companion on a long kayak trip.

Gillian Wigmore on Kalamalka Lake, near Vernon, BC. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore on Kalamalka Lake, near Vernon, BC. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

What has it been like to have your first novella published?

GW: It’s been wonderful. We had a great launch here in Prince George and all my friends and family came out to support me. Then I had a wee mini tour of Vancouver and Victoria, for my publisher [Mother Tongue].

Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages.

Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages.

Are you pleased with the attention Grayling is getting?

Yes! The thing about fiction writing is that you actually get reviews, sometimes even before the book is out. But with poetry you’re lucky if you get even one review, two years after the book is published. It’s such a shame.

What was your inspiration for Grayling?

GW: I wanted to go back to the landscape around the Dease River because of a trip I took there with my family in 2007. My son was three and my daughter was four then and it was the beginning of our life on the water. It was a very important trip for our family. It was so beautiful there and I hadn’t seen that landscape in literature before. It just seemed a privilege to get to try and do that myself.

I know you’re going on a two-week kayak trip soon –

GW: We leave this weekend! We’ve been busy dehydrating dinners this week and we still have to get my son a new life jacket. You should see our house, there’s stuff everywhere!

Do you bring a notebook with you on those trips?

GW: I do take a notebook but it’s more of a journal, to record the events. But I did go back and mine old journals for landscape details for Grayling.

What about the story itself, where did the inspiration come from?

GW: I let the characters introduce themselves to me and let them take me on the journey.

Oh dear. You do realize that at least half of our followers will stop reading at this point? Jealousy is ugly that way.

GW: [laughs] But it’s true! I just started typing. I knew if I put a fellow on the river, eventually he’d have to get off that river.

That reminds me of that Kurt Vonnegut quote, “somebody gets into trouble, then gets out of it again. People love that story. They never get tired of it.”

GW: Exactly!

How long did it take you to write Grayling?

GW: It took three months to write and then years to edit. The three months was so much fun. Every night was a journey. I’d head down to my desk in the basement and it was like, “here you go, Jay.” I read every sentence out loud, many times, to make sure I got the sound just right. I rewrote the whole book a few times myself then I worked with an editor for Mother Tongue, Jack Hodgins, for at least seven more drafts. Jack is such a great teacher and I am so grateful for the experience but it was hard work. After I sent him my first revised draft, he sent me back 30 pages of single-spaced notes. And then I cried! The next time he said “Great draft” and sent back 20 pages of single-spaced notes. And for each draft I wept – at  how hard it was. But after we’d whittled it down to four pages of notes, we knew we were close.

You are a published poet – why the move to fiction?

GW: I am first and foremost a reader and I read a ton of novels. I just wanted to try, to see if I could do it. I like a challenge! But it’s quite different in that I had to approach the writing of fiction more like a job and make myself do it every night. I had to be meticulous about sitting down and doing it. Whereas with poetry, I never force it. I just let them come – then of course I do a lot of editing. But that initial poem just has to arrive. And novellas are addictive, they’re so much fun to write. There’s more room to move around in a novella than in a short story. Short stories require a certain kind of succinctness, an epiphany that leads to a particular ending. I don’t think I can write anything with any answer already set. Grayling felt like a question I didn’t know the answer to.

You have published two books of poetry and you have one coming out in the fall. How would you say that Grayling, as a work of fiction, is different from your poetry?

GW: My poetry is really effusive, it doesn’t hold back at all, but Grayling is spare. I wanted it to be a spare story. The landscape seemed to call for it, a judicious use of language and small sentences. I didn’t want to editorialize at all. I wanted the place to speak for itself. This was part of the difficulty with all those drafts, trying to strike some kind of balance between fleshing out the characters and describing the landscape, but staying true to my vision.

When I read your interview with poet Ariel Gordon, I couldn’t understand how it was that you could write at all, your life seemed so full and busy.

GW: [laughs] Well it was very busy then and for a while I just didn’t get much writing done. But now I’m really trying to fit it in. I’m finishing up my MFA right now through UBC and I work full time. In the next six weeks, after I get back from the kayak trip, I’ll get up really early and write for an hour in the morning. I’ve usually been a nighttime writer. When you start your day writing, it turns you into such a dreamy person for the rest of the day. It’s hard to come back to reality.

Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore, at home on the water. Photo credit Travis Sillence.

Gillian Wigmore is a BC-based poet and fiction writer. She has published two books of poetry, home when it moves you (2005) and Soft Geography (2007), for which she won the ReLit Award and was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Her third collection, Orient, will be available this fall with Brick Books.


Between the Shores of the Sacred and the Profane: Descant’s Jack Hostrawser Reviews Grayling

Grayling, Gillian Wigmore’s debut novella, follows a man on a canoe trip and personal journey through a dark night of the soul. There’s not a lot more I want to or can tell you about it, specifically, and this is what Descant reviewer Jack Hostrawser and I debated before agreeing on a suitable style for his review, below. Like the northwestern British Columbia landscape in which it is set, Grayling often camouflages more than it reveals.

number of pages, MotherTongue Publishing...

Grayling, by Gillian Wigmore, Mother Tongue Publishing, April 2014, 118 pages. Cover painting by Annerose Georgeson.

But there are two scenes I will tell you about. One involves Leonard Cohen. No, not in a sleeping bag (sorry to interrupt your fantasy). The main characters in Grayling have a protracted conversation about the academic and existential meaning of Cohen’s poem-turned-song, “Suzanne.” The scene sticks out and I wondered: What was this long discussion doing there? Why “Suzanne”? Then I remembered — it’s exactly the kind of conversation friends have on a long camping or canoe trip like the one in Grayling. Someone starts something, apropos of nothing, and suddenly everyone’s an expert and wants to weigh in; as though we crave intellectual stimulation but nothing too serious. These are conversations that feel tinged with a sagacious quality simply because they are happening on water, or under stars; they mean everything and nothing. (You know that they’re half crazy, but that’s why you want to be there). But there is another reason why this scene does in fact fit in so well, but I didn’t see that until I’d finished the book. And then it took a while again, until the book was finished with me. Grayling echoes like that.

There’s another scene that I understood immediately and profoundly. The main protagonist bathes a woman in a makeshift bath he has invented for her near the shore. He washes her body carefully, methodically. If you have ever washed the body of a parent or an ailing spouse, you will understand the attention that Gillian Wigmore pays to the gestures in this scene to evoke this deliberate act of devotion. And yes, it’s even more powerful because it is a man washing a woman.

I like how Jack has quoted longer passages of Grayling in his review, rather than excise a sentence here and there. Gillian Wigmore is a published poet but I agree with Jack that Grayling isn’t self-consciously poetic. Like the river landscape in which it’s set, Grayling winds an enigmatic story between the rocky shores of the sacred and the profane.


Chaos Theory: A Review of Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling

by Jack Hostrawser

In Grayling, Jay sets out in a canoe on the Dease River, trying to make a clean break from his past. A mysterious woman, Julie, saves him from hypothermia then talks her way into the canoe, interrupting his isolation and sending the trip in new directions. Throughout their voyage the book tries to navigate our relationships with intimacy, meaning and the wilderness itself.

“He thought of deer leaping over bushes, out of the path of the fire. Animals too small or slow to get away from the flames occurred to him: beaver and rabbits, their twisted forms vivid, black and red, in his mind. He shivered and paddled on, away from the burn.”

Gillian Wigmore moves from the big questions to focus on detail and character, and she has a poet’s eye for details: her real-life outdoors experience is evident immediately, as well as her talent as a writer. The book is built of a focussed prose that sets to work with energy and draws the meandering river patiently. Her writing has a patience that allows the novella to feel fuller than its few pages suggest.

As the active, observant prose accumulates you realize that the novella is managing, in only one hundred and eleven pages, to carve out a multi-levelled parable that addresses our relationship with sexuality, nature and existentialist fears. Gillian Wigmore crafts a two-person story with depth and convincing, hard-earned humanity, whose characters’ individual needs and desires tangle compellingly. Jay lives a bitter coping strategy that evolves quietly across the narrative in a frustrating and poignant way. Julie begins as an enigma but reveals herself as the two grow closer. These are two people as stubborn, hopeful and frustrating as any of us.

“He looked at her and wondered if she’d decided something while he was sleeping. She didn’t look decided, she just seemed tired and a little dirty. Her hair under her bandana was tangled in clumps. She had soot in the crease of her nose. He saw her small hands around her mug, no rings of dirt under her nails, and he saw her lashes against her skin as she watched the fire, and he felt like there wasn’t a time before he knew her. His world had shrunk to the state of her body and their minds and the particular gravel bar they’d beached upon.”

Gillian Wigmore seems to be a visual writer more than she is a musical one and I think her sentences sometimes miss the mark, overplayed by narration that momentarily loses faith in its ability to enact the emotions it describes. But it was never the individual sentences that made me like this book; it was her reach. The ideas are big — so big I missed some the first time I read it (a certain blog editor had to enlighten me) and I had to reread it immediately to see everything I had missed.

Grayling aligns the minutia of fumbling human relationships with a wilderness that has been both predator and muse since we first tried to lift our heroes into the stars. It takes courage to risk an ambition like that. Gillian Wigmore stands fast and determines to do things I didn’t think could be done in the short space of a novella. And despite the size of the task, she pulls it off.

The final scene enacts a twist that puts everything before it into question. Her conclusion opens new possibilities as it steals away our expected ones; there is never a perfect, clear answer to our questions or our demands. Instead it is simultaneously sun-baked granite, dark pine trees, rough water and the “cold contracting muscle” of a glimmering grayling. You have to leave your calculations and preconceptions at the shore. In the chaotic rush of the Dease, even the pearlescence of a common fish could be sacred.

 “Another him, one from even a year ago, would have exclaimed at the sight, would have even appreciated exclamations from others, but he stayed quiet, trying to soak the sight in: the swath the river cut into the earth, inarguable, ageless, so enormous and unapologetic he felt as dwarfed and bent as the trees. He couldn’t hold his eyes open wide enough to see it all: the scooped expanse of sand stretching skyward, the small birds swooping out from holes in the cliffs and soaring. The sound of rocks breaking off and crumbling into the river echoed down the valley. In the bow, she was still and silent, too.”

Grayling is a careful but slippery, quiet but brash and ultimately beautiful novella.


Jack Hostrawser received the York University President’s Prize in short fiction and is published in Existere, Steel Bananas and The Quilliad. He sometimes chases tornadoes and is being taught patience by an old motorcycle. He is currently production editor at Descant (for the fall 2014 Berlin issue), when not working on his first novel.

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[And now this, because you know you need it.]



Griffin Shortlist Evening: straight to the heart of poetry

I had a most extraordinary experience of silence last Wednesday night at the Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlist Reading, here in Toronto. In a packed theatre you expect a certain amount of noise — a cough, shoes shuffling, program pages turning — even where there should be none. But it seemed to me there was indeed actual silence between the words and the lines of Anne Michael’s poetry. She read to us with a seriousness and intensity that both dared and demanded our complete devotion.

The Griffin Poetry Prize, the most generous poetry prize in the world, awards $65,000 each to a Canadian and an International poet. Each of the finalists gets a cheque for $10,000. And everyone gets a night of hearing some of the best poets in print today (for only $17.50!). Brenda Hillman, this year’s winner in the international category was, like the other finalists, emphatic in her thanks to the audience: “Thank you for coming, thank you for reading poetry.” Brazilian poet Adélia Prado received the Lifetime Achievement Award. I’d never heard of her before but this weekend will search for translations of her work.

“The smallest of poems is a servant of hope.”

~Adélia Prado

All of us at Descant send our congratulations to each of the finalists and especially to Canadian winner Anne Carson, whose “Short Talks” we published in 1991 (Descant 74). On Wednesday night, the tall and regal-looking 63 year-old told the audience that a friend of hers said he liked her (first) book by the same title, but he admitted he thought it was called “Small Cocks.” Through the surprised laughter I heard her say, “I thought I’d called it that, too!”

Of the many beautiful, funny and moving words I heard that night (and Sue Goyette’s line, “the ocean is the original mood ring” is all three), it was that sudden and profound silence that I keep thinking about; a silence borne of words, in between words — made of words. It brought me, in Brenda Hillman’s words, “straight to the heart of poetry.”

Griffin Logo_0As it was Descant volunteer Justin Lauzon’s first time at the event, I’ll let him tell you about it in more detail.


Griffin Poetry Prize 2014

As poetry lovers young and old walked across the second storey bridges in Koerner Hall, we were ushered in by the sound of trumpets playing from one of the balconies of the original brick building. If this sounds pretentious, don’t be fooled. A night at the Griffin Poetry Prize Shortlist Reading is both intimate and humble, even if sprinkled with a few brass instruments. I was taken aback by the elegant modern design of the Koerner building, which merges the old brick façade of the Royal Conservatory with so much light coming in through the three-storey windows.

The evening began with an introduction by Scott Griffin, the big cheese, during which he announced Margaret Atwood’s retirement from the Griffin’s Trustees. Atwood has been on the board since its inception in 2000, but now, after voluntarily stepping down, has been succeeded by poet Karen Solie and prolific Irish novelist (and poet) Cólm Toibín.

Each writer was introduced by one of the judges, all of whom praised the tough competition this year, which amounted to a whopping 539 book entries, from 40 countries, in 25 languages. Scott Griffin thanked the immense, if not herculean effort of the judges. On stage, there was one less chair than there were people, forcing the writers to play a strategic game of switcheroo musical chairs, each speaker taking the seat of the following one, shifting positions throughout the night, constantly gaining a new perspective.

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The international poets kicked off the readings, beginning with English poet Rachael Boast (Pilgrim’s Flower, 2013) who said “it’s lovely to see so many people here this evening. The last poetry reading I gave was to six people. Six of my students. In a disreputable pub.” It was a great introduction into the intimacy of the rest of the event; though 1000 people were in attendance, the whole thing seemed very personal. American poet and social activist Brenda Hillman (Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire, 2013) told a moving story of her father in intensive care, who, as a farm boy, chose a pig’s valve instead of a plastic one for his heart surgery. After a few stumbled lines of thank yous, American poet Carl Phillips (Silverchest,2013) stood at the podium and commented, “I don’t say a lot during readings because it usually comes out…stupid.” The audience chuckled as he went on to read the first of four poems that clearly spoke on their own.

Brenda Hillman....

Brenda Hillman, poet and social activist, won in the international category.

But no one sounded stupid, and it was refreshing to hear experienced poets talk about, and read their own work. Hillman spoke of poetry as “an investigation of the mystery of existence.” Canadian poet Sue Goyette (Ocean, 2013) commented on how the environment in the theatre had changed over the course of a couple of hours: “I can feel the air is different now. When we first sat down it was just plain old air, but now it’s fortified with all these poems. I’d be doing a lot of inhaling if I were you.” And when Toronto’s own Anne Michaels finished off the night with an interweaving selection from Correspondences (2013), she closed with a beautiful line that summed up the elusive nature of poetry: “the line break forever [changes] the word above and the word below, altered by breath.”

Anne Michaels was shortlisted for Correspondences.

Descant contributor Anne Michaels was shortlisted for Correspondences. Our evening program was constructed like her beautiful book — accordion architecture that circled back on itself.

As a welcome change, the writers didn’t take themselves too seriously, and some really had fun. After Carl Phillips read one of his solemn final lines, “why do we love at all,” he paused to grab his water, then added wryly, “because it’s actually quite rewarding.” The audience howled. He said that the final line was good at the time, but now seemed a little dramatic. Anne Carson (Red Doc>, 2013) read from Short Talks, and got the audience to participate with a word or line which we recited on cue (“deciduous?” a thousand voices queried enthusiastically).

Anne Carson won the Canadian prize this year and...

Anne Carson won the Canadian prize this year. She also won the inaugural prize in 2001.

A highlight of the evening was the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award. Griffin Trustee and former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass presented the award to Brazilian poet Adélia Prado, “a sexy, mystical, Catholic poet.” She came on stage with a translator and read her speech in Portuguese, and at the end gracefully thanked the audience herself with both “thank you,” and “merci,” a simple touch that spoke volumes of her charm.

Brazilian poet Adelio Prado, reading her acceptance speech with the help of her translator.

Brazilian poet Adelio Prado, reading her acceptance speech with the help of her translator.

Maria Rosenthal, who translated Tomasz Rozycki’s Kolonie (2006), did a joint reading with the Polish poet. Four poems were read, in both English and the original Polish, the latter elegantly read by Rozycki, in a near duplicated cadence from the English translation. Rosenthal thanked the Griffin Trust for including translations in the competition because “not everyone understands the art that goes into it.”

To close, Scott Griffin presented each writer with a leather-bound copy of their own book. The final prize was given out the following evening and the poets seemed to enjoy the low pressure of the shortlist reading night. And it’s precisely that atmosphere that will bring me back next year, whoever the nominees may be, for this much needed celebration of poetry.

By Justin Lauzon


Justin Lauzon is one of Descant’s newest volunteers. He has reviewed Texas, 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.

Descant feature volunteer interview: Jann Everard

One Sunday afternoon each month, Descant volunteers, interns, co-editors and staff meet to read submissions and discuss the business of running a literary magazine. Sometimes people ask me about the kinds of people at these meetings (I know what they’re really asking is: what kind of people are judging my writing?!). There have been up to 30 of us at these meetings although generally it’s closer to 20. Some have degrees in English, though certainly not all. Some are interns, and come from a publishing program at Ryerson or York University. And some, like Jann Everard, come in off the street — Word On The Street, that is.

Michael XXXX, Descant's Editorial Intern, organizing our glamorous WOTS spot.

Michael Chen, Descant‘s summer 2013 Editorial Intern, organizing our glamorous Word On The Street spot, September 2013.

When we set up our tent for the annual event last fall, in Toronto, I grabbed a bunch of colourful flyers and started pacing our allotted 12 feet, looking for a friendly face to accost, in a literary manner. One of those faces turned out to be Jann’s and soon enough she and I and Michelle Alfano, now our Assistant-Editor-in-Chief (Administration), were chatting about writing and mutual friends and, of course, Descant. Jann came to our next launch and then editorial meeting and has come to each one since.

Jann Everard is well published — that is, she has been published often and in good places. She has had three essays published in The Globe and Mail, “Facts and Arguments,” she’s had short stories published in Grain and The Antigonish Review (this spring), as well as Room, The Fiddlehead, The Dalhousie Review, and at least a dozen other publications. In fact, reading her writing resumé could be considered a good introduction to Canadian journals! Here is just a selection of her publications.

Her answers to the following questions about being a writer are candid, useful and funny. While she admits in this interview that she struggles with getting to the page, in the eight months I’ve known her, I’ve come to regard Jann as a serious and dedicated writer. She is also, as other serious writers are, a great support to all her writing friends.

And of course, she’s a great addition to our Descant family.


Jann Everard: writes in Toronto, imagines elsewhere.

Jann Everard: writes in Toronto, imagines elsewhere.

When (or how) did you first know you wanted to write?

JE: I suspect that every avid reader has a moment when they are inspired to give writing a try. I took a break from employment to be with my kids when they were young so I tried my hand at writing children’s books first. I took a course with Sharon Jennings, author of some of the Franklin’s First Readers. All those early efforts still sit in my files. Children’s books are harder to write (and get published) than people think.

Can you tell us a little about your writing process?

JE: I don’t have much discipline. I don’t get up a 5:00 a.m. to write. I don’t write every day. I fit writing around the rest of my life. But years ago I went to a CANSCAIP event and the keynote speaker said something that resonated. I don’t remember her name but she had four young kids, a full-time job and had published five or more books. She said it was important for her to see herself as “a writer who is a mother” not “a mother who writes.” I still fall into the latter camp. But I see a time, very soon, when I will finally be a writer first.

What do you find easiest and hardest about the writing life?

JE:  I didn’t start writing seriously until after a 14-year career in the Ontario Ministry of Health and a few years at home. I have an MHA, not an MFA. At work, I spent a lot of time writing briefing notes and policy papers. So I had a steep learning curve when it came to creative writing. I took some courses and went to workshops to help me get started but, for the most part, I learned through trial and error. It was hard to figure out who I was as a writer. After children’s writing, I explored travel writing and poetry. I sent a couple of personal essays to the Globe and Mail’s “Facts and Arguments” and they were accepted. So then I looked into creative nonfiction. It wasn’t until writer/editor Deb Loughead rejected a piece I’d submitted for an anthology, with a kind note suggesting I submit it to Room Magazine, that I started to look closely at the adult short story as a form. It took me a long time to get to that point. Others may be surer from the start.

The easiest part of being a writer? What’s better than sitting in the local pub listening to other writers read to you?

What do you know now that you wish your first teacher or mentor had told you, but didn’t?

I’m sure my early writing teachers told me everything I needed to know. But did I listen?

One of those early teachers was Sarah Selecky. I told Sarah I had trouble revising my work. So Sarah developed a course on Deep Revision. She was very gentle. We sat in her living room with soft lighting and herbal tea. She guided us through various techniques to help see our work with fresh eyes. At one point she suggested we cut our MS into pieces and physically rearrange it. I couldn’t do it. I was still in love with my imperfect draft. I wish she’d beaten me over the head and forced me to hack at it with scissors! I still find revision hard.

(Btw, Sarah has been offering much of that instruction free on her website as part of the run-up to her contest deadline.)

What are 3 things you think a new writer should know?


1) Your work will be rejected.

2) Your work will be rejected, even though it is good work.

3) You will rarely be given a reason why your work has been rejected.

Corollary: I can’t overemphasize the importance of finding a group of people who will provide constructive criticism. Treasure those people. Buy them drinks. Return the favour when they need feedback. Analyzing someone else’s work hones your own skills. It forces you to ask what’s working and what’s not working.

It’s also important to recognize that the kind of feedback you will need (or can give) will change and evolve with time. In my early career, all the people in my critique circle were women. I purposely sought out some male writers to help me later on. I needed to know that my male characters rang true. Some of my original writing friends are now working on, or finishing, novels. I feel less equipped to help them with structure, but I can still offer them copy editing.

What do you enjoy most about being a writer?

JE: Meeting other writers. They are a diverse and interesting group, for sure! I’ve made some close friends in writing classes. I obtained my current part-time job (totally unrelated to writing) through a connection I made in a writing class.

What is the thing that (negatively) surprised you most about being a writer?

JE: That what I spend on paper, ink, postage, journal subscriptions and books is always so much more than what I am paid as a writer. While I was flattered to discover recently that a college in NYC had used a story of mine in a workshop, I was disturbed to find out that 1) it was available to them online through an academic listserve without my knowledge, and 2) creators are not compensated when universities make these arrangements.

Have your parents ever read your stories and what do they think/say?

JE: They have read a few. By the time a story makes it to print, I’ve moved on. It seems anticlimactic and I’m not good at self-promotion. If it’s near Christmas, I’ll slip a journal with my writing into my father’s stocking. He has written several military history books and, at 87, is still a prodigious reader. He thinks my short stories lack proper endings.

What’s the longest you’ve waited to hear back from a magazine?

JE: Up to a year. I’ve also had stories rejected that I’d previously withdrawn. And one journal rejected the same story twice, even though I hadn’t resubmitted it. That felt harsh! But these moments have to be laughed off. Journals are often volunteer-run. We all make mistakes.

What’s your advice to new writers about handling rejection?

JE: Have lots of dark chocolate on hand. I mean lots.


Jann Everard is new to Twitter! You can find and follow @JannEverard.


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