Goosebumps at Goose Lane’s 60th Birthday Bash!

It’s book-launch season and I’ve been to about a dozen already this fall. On Tuesday I attended an extra special launch that celebrated the 60th birthday of Canada’s oldest independent publisher, Goose Lane Editions.

At the party I met Mark Anthony Jarman who’s in the latest issue of Descant, The Berlin Project, and whom we’ve published several times over the years. I sat and chatted with poet Don McKay (a rare opportunity indeed), I heard Stevie Howell read from her unpronounceable debut poetry colletion, and I got a wee hug and kiss from a handsome man in a kilt. But more on that later. Maybe.

Much like Descant, Goose Lane Editions started off as a mimeographed publication. In its early days it was connected to the University of New Brunswick and their literary magazine, The Fiddlehead. So it was fitting that Mark Anthony Jarman, current fiction editor of The Fiddlehead, read at the party on Tuesday. But only after he played us some harmonica, in e minor. I like this black and white photo of him, but it doesn’t show the funny in his performance. Like many writers I know, his funny is on the inside.

Mark Anthony Jarman reading from his story "Knife Party" at Goose Lane's 60th celebration launch party.

Mark Anthony Jarman reading from his story “Knife Party” at Goose Lane’s 60th celebration launch party.

When Publisher Susanne Alexander and Creative Director Julie Scriver read aloud some of the names of the 900 authors Goose Lane has published, I got goose bumps. People like poets Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, Gary Geddes and Roo Borsen. Fiction writers Mordecai Richler, Carol Shields, Alistair MacLeod and Alberto Manguel.

Susanne Alexander, publisher of Goose Lane Editions.

Susanne Alexander, publisher and president of Goose Lane Editions. If you’re in Toronto and plan on seeing the Alex Colville exhibition at the AGO, look for Goose Lane’s Colville.

Goose Lane, located in Fredericton, New Brunswick, publishes 25 new books a year. At the 60th birthday party this week, they launched their newest four: Stevie Howell’s debut poetry collection called, um… let me get back to that; Paul Kennedy’s The Next Big Thing: The Dalton Camp Lectures in Journalism, Margaret Sweatman’s historical fiction, Mr. Jones, and Don McKay’s long awaited collected works, Angular Nonconformity.

I shouldn’t be so mysterious about the title of Stevie Howell’s debut poetry collection. It’s ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^ ^^^^^^. The problem for the rest of us is how to pronounce this title when describing it to friends or, say, in blog posts. Thankfully, Stevie Howell agreed that it could reasonably be translated into [Sharps]. But for a fuller explanation, see her website and the necessary video clip. Turn up your volume first, for the full effect.

Stevie Howell reading from her debut poetry collection, [Sharps].

Stevie Howell reading from her debut poetry collection, [Sharps].

Margaret Sweatman gave a sexy reading of a sexy section of her historical fiction novel, Mr. Jones which is getting some great reviews.

Margaret Sweatman gave a sexy reading of a sexy section of her historical fiction novel, Mr. Jones which is getting some great reviews.

One of the highlights of my evening was talking to poet Don McKay. Onstage, he looked at his new book, Angular Conformity, and remarked how surprised he was at the size of it (more than 500 pages). Like most poets, he’s used to publishing much slimmer volumes. He let me take a photograph of him for my poet friends Catherine Stewart and Natalie Rice, former students of his, but first I had to assure him I wasn’t posting it willy-nilly online. He told the crowd that he’s been accused of being “perversely offline.” I am respecting his wishes here although I hope to interview him soon and get his permission to post a photo or two. I think it’s fair to say that if you are going to buy one major work of poetry this season, Don McKay’s Angular Nonconformity would be the one.

What's a birthday bash without a cake? And what a cake! Technically, I can now scratch "eat a book" from my bucket list. And now you know what the top book title is.

What’s a birthday bash without a cake? And what a cake. Technically, I can now scratch “eat a book” from my bucket list. And now you know what the top book title is.

Through some shenanigans on Twitter, I got a stranger to promise party goers free hugs. When I got there and asked around for the face behind the tweets, I got my hug and a kiss from handsome, kilted poet and the evening’s MC, David Seymour. David is on the editorial board of Icehouse Poetry, an imprint of Goose Lane Editions. He did a great job of keeping things moving and his admiration for Don McKay was, well, moving.

David Seymour, rocking the kilt as MC of Goose Lane's 60th anniversary party in Toronto.

David Seymour, rocking the kilt as MC of Goose Lane’s 60th anniversary party in Toronto.

Descant congratulates Goose Lane Editions on the occasion of their 60th birthday. A table-full of us attended the Toronto party. We hope Descant readers will join the party in Fredericton at the Convention Centre, 7:00pm tonight (October 3, 2014), where the hometown celebration will no doubt be a roof-raiser. Sixty years of publishing books in Canada is no small feat. Any one of the books launched this week by Goose Lane would make someone a great birthday or Christmas gift. Maybe you. Definitely me.

Come to Berlin: no baggage required

Over our 44 year history, Descant has sometimes produced themed issues about particular places, like Boznia and Herzegovina (2012), Sicily (2011) and Cuba (2006). To this list we now add Berlin. Planned years in advance by Guest Editor Katie Franklin to coincide with the 25th commemorative events of the fall of 1989, our Berlin issue is scheduled for launch at the Goethe Institut in Toronto on September 19th.

Jutta Brendemuehl, Program Curator for the Goethe Institut Toronto, our gracious co-host for the launch of Berlin 166.

Jutta Brendemuehl, Program Curator for the Goethe Institut Toronto, our gracious co-host for the launch of Berlin 166.

Berlin 166 is a hefty issue, as befits a city that divided the 20th century when it was itself divided. And everyone old enough to remember can tell you where they were when the news broke on November 9th, 1989. Twenty five years later, the capital of Germany is a powerhouse of arts and culture, high-tech industry, research and… night life!

Here’s Production Editor Jack Hostrawser to give you the tour and the details of Berlin 166.


The 166th issue of Descant is better than a trip to Germany. That’s because, in our pages, you get to swim in a wash of beautiful scenery and experience the flavours of history and culture but you won’t get sunburned or have to deal with sweaty crowds or discover that Air Canada has shipped your luggage to a research station in Antarctica by mistake. So, forget the cramped airline seats and the screaming babies and come with us as we venture into Berlin through the imaginations and memories of our contributors. Here’s a preview.

One of our featured memoirs, “Still Life With Potatoes” by Barbara Ponomareff, poignantly explores the difficult years after the war through the eyes of the author as a child. Memory haunts the daily tableau of mundane objects, such as the vegetables we buy without thinking at supermarkets, and doorways open through them to the cluttered streets of our past.

Barbara Ponomareff. Photo credit xxxx.

Short story writer, poet and retired child psychotherapist, Barbara Ponomareff.

Two different portfolios of artwork digest the experience of living in Berlin and its culture. “Berlin Burlesque” by Anja Nolte reminds me of the sensuous but dangerous animations Gerald Scarfe created for Pink Floyd The Wall, distorting and enhancing our view of the city’s characters. Trevor Corkum takes us into the living city with “When We Die,” to discover the ghosts that haunt it and the ways history shapes the present. “Iron Gall” by Mark Dudiak explores our distracted attention and the psychic layering of sights and sensations we experience as we move through the Strassen of Berlin.

Humourist, celebrity DJ and best-selling author Wladimir Kaminer opens up with wit and charm in an interview with Amy Stupavsky. Kaminer talks about how his writing has changed over time, the cultural experience of a Russian immigrant living in Berlin and the relationship between fiction and reality.

Elsewhere in the issue, the poetry of Carson Butts takes us into the pounding tempest of a Berlin Marilyn Manson concert, Matt Santateresa rushes us along a German Autobahn as our minds begin to wander to dark and sexy places and Gisela Argyle introduces us to the poetry of Kito Lorenc and Friedrich Ani in newly published translations. Contributing editor Alberto Manguel muses on the death and life of Heinrich Heine and co-editor Larissa Kostoff discovers the German words we might wish English had, and the transformative power that an intersection of language can hold.

Even after that, there’s still a fount of vibrant new poetry, fiction and thought. Our list of other contributors includes: George Elliott Clarke, Stephanie Warner, Rebecca Gould, Mark Anthony Jarman, Susan Ingram, Ellen Shearer, Barry Dempster, Karen Mulhallen, Robert Lake and more.

Barry Dempster. Photo credit xxxx

Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Award for literature. Photo credit Francesca Aceti.

Want to get your hands on a copy of the issue? Descant’s Wanderung through Berlin will soon be available from booksellers across the country and at our exciting launch event in the stylish, expansive library of the Goethe-Institut Toronto. Here are the details:

Friday, September 19th, 2014


100 University Avenue, Toronto

Second Floor, North Tower

(No cover!)

Our four talented readers will perform pieces of their writings, with memoir, fiction and poetry on tap. Come see lively performances by Barbara Ponomareff, Barry Dempster, Ophelia John and George Elliott Clarke!

Thanks to our generous donors, there will also be an exciting raffle of prizes from a variety of journals and publishing houses, including New Star Books, Tightrope Books, Koyama Press, Harbour Publishing, Echolocation and Existere.

Also: by special arrangement, we will be offering new subscribers an exclusive, launch-only discount. Discover a full year’s worth of all the agile writing and excellent design in Descant for only $20. Single copies of the latest issue will be available at the launch at a savings of over thirty percent off the newsstand price.

For more information about the readers, the magazine, the launch and to RSVP your attendance, please visit our Facebook page today.

Vielen Dank and we hope to see you there!

—Jack Hostrawser, production editor for Berlin 166


Your Literary Community Needs You to Get Untethered!

On Wednesday night I attended the inaugural launch for untethered, a new (paper!) literary magazine. It was, in Toronto Poet Laureate George Elliott Clarke’s words, “off the hook.”

Stephanie McKechnie, prose editor, Nicole Haldoupis, editor-in-chief, and Sophie McCreesh, poetry editor of untethered.

Stephanie McKechnie, prose editor, Nicole Haldoupis, editor-in-chief, and Sophie McCreesh, poetry editor of untethered.

Rule number one for a great launch: pack the place. By the time Descant’s Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen introduced the editors of untethered, the Monarch Tavern’s upstairs pub was jumping with family and friends ready to hoot and holler and welcome Nicole Haldoupis, Sophie McCreesh and Stephanie McKechnie, co-creators of untethered. But who are all these people, you ask, and what have they got to do with you?

Everything, if you are a writer and reader in Canada.

When Descan't Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen puts her hands on her hips, people pay attention!

When Descant‘s Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen puts her hands on her hips, people pay attention!

The evening began and ended with pointed comments from Karen Mulhallen and George Elliott Clarke about the sorry state of dwindling government support for the arts and culture in Canada. There are clear, demonstrable reasons why a culture that wants to remain democratic needs to support its arts culture; there is no dearth of research here. There is no evidence whatsoever that we need to build mega-jails. None.

We are not the only western democratic country that is constantly having to fight for its arts and culture sector. The UK has a similar history. Why fund the arts? The short answer: because the arts challenge the status quo and breathe new life into wheezing democracies.

At the launch, I spoke with Diana Manole who read some poems she had translated. She read one in English and then in Romanian — I always like when poets do this and I’m surprised at how much of it I seem to get, intuitively, when I hear the reading in the original language. I told Diana how much I enjoyed her reading and she said, “I just loved tonight. You know, we don’t really have readings like this where I’m from.” Really? “No,” she said, “in Romania anything like this tended to just be all about Ceaușescu.” Ah, right. I rest my case.

The great thing about supporting your right to a democratic and open society is that you don’t always have to risk your safety at a protest; to support the arts, you just need to, well, support the arts. Attend events, buy stuff, spend your birthday and Christmas money on subscriptions and tickets. In the fall especially, there are so many literary events going on because it’s book launch season. Many writers get up at 5 am, five days a week to squeeze in a couple of hours of writing before leaving for their day jobs. They will be celebrating the results of years of labour this fall and they’d like you there for the party. Consider this an official invite. From all of them.

Andrew ably staffed the busy untethered table. This guest bought up three of the last copies of the inaugural run of the new magazine.

Andrew Thomas ably staffed the busy untethered table. This guest bought up three of the last copies of the inaugural run of the new magazine.

Michael Mirolla, VP of Guernica Editions, brought an armload of new books to donate to the raffle table for the launch of untethered. He said to me later that it was good to “soak in all that energy.” Especially if you’re a writer, launches are great events to attend — that energy Michael talked about keeps you going in your own work. Meeting and talking to new and established writers is the heart of these events. You may not know any of the names in this blog post, and my point is not to sound clubby or exclusive: it’s to encourage you to get out and get to know your own local lit peeps.

Ian Malczewski, a poetry contributor to untethered, won a pile of books in the raffle, including Terri Favro's The Proxy Bride.

Ian Malczewski, a poetry contributor to untethered, won a pile of books in the raffle, including Terri Favro‘s The Proxy Bride. Terri was at the launch and was happy to autograph his copy.

Quite a few of the guests at the launch for untethered did already know each other — parents, brothers, sisters and best friends hooted and cheered when their person took the stage. And when it was announced that the issue sold out its first run, the place exploded.

I started to take a picture of Justin Lauzon reading from his short story in untethered, but then saw that the better picture was this one, of Justin's best friend Iza carefully filming his reading.

I started to take a picture of Justin Lauzon reading from his short story in untethered, but then saw that the better picture was this one, of Justin’s best friend Iza Wozniak carefully filming his reading.

Author and University of York Prof Priscila Uppal came out to support her former students, the editors of untethered, pictured here with Sophie McCreesh, untethered's poetry editor.

Author and York University Prof Priscila Uppal came out to support her former students, the editors of untethered, pictured here with Sophie McCreesh, untethered‘s poetry editor.

Everyone I talked to — and I did talk to almost everyone as I tried to extract a toonie or a fiver from them for the raffle — said that this was one of the best, and even the best launch they had attended all year. Yes, for all the fuzzy feel-good reasons that are hard to quantify, but also that the readings were so damn good. And there were eight of them. Everyone respected their time limit (key at all readings, people!) and read so well. Okay, George Elliott Clarke may have gone a bit over his allotted five minutes. The man can make the rudest words sound musical. He is, dare I say it, untethered.

There are some solid practical reasons for attending literary events in your community: you’ll find out what’s going on and what’s new. I found out from Justin Lauzon, Descant volunteer and contributor to untethered, that he has a new job with a great title: Literary Events Coordinator for a local restaurant. The Windup Bird Café, which hosts, among other things, a monthly Best Canadian Poetry series, has a program called Birds of a Feather. According to Justin, “we’re reaching out to people in the community to tell their stories on stage – just regular people, no need to be a writer. The admission process to perform is basically, ‘Do you have a good story about this topic?’ and if we think you do, then you’re on!'” I know — you don’t live in Toronto, right? So start up one of these where you live. Approach a restaurant, café or pub and pitch the idea.

No one really cares about the political benefits of attending a literary event when we’re there – we just want to meet up with friends, meet new people, have some fun and talk about books and writing. Or how we have no money or time for books and writing. We came to Wednesday’s launch primarily to support the three co-creators whose imagination, experience, talent and optimism brought a new magazine and about a hundred happy people together.

The untethered editors have all volunteered at Descant. Nicole Haldoupis was  production editor for our issue The Brink and the Break (another great launch night, come to think of it). All of us at Descant, one of the oldest literary magazines in Canada, wish them well in their new literary endeavour. And I know that they would join me in encouraging you to get out to literary events this fall. Support one another, support people you don’t know (why not?), buy books and tickets and — let’s keep our arts culture…

SOLD OUT! But still available by order. Cover art by BC's PSYCHELATION.

SOLD OUT! But still available by order. Cover art by BC’s PSYCHELATION.

Boredom in life, literature & some very bad videos

A funny thing about boredom: it’s interesting.

There’s a lot that boredom can do to a person. You can be bored silly, bored out of your mind, bored to distraction, bored to tears (this has actually happened to me), bored stiff and mind-numbingly bored. It is a thorough moral indictment of one’s character to be described as a boring person or one who induces boredom in others. The public outcry that greeted the publication of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) may well have had as much to do with Madame Bovary’s statement that her adulterous affairs were too much like her boring marriage, as the (fictional) facts of her extra-marital liaisons.

There’s a scene in the movie The Guard where Brendan Gleeson turns to his partner and says in his Irish accent, “You bore the whole of me.” I don’t think you have to be Irish to appreciate the world of humour in that one simple line, but it helps.

We all avoid the crashing bore. Dickens, according to my research, may have coined the expression “bored to death” in Bleak House (1852-’53), an expression which now exists in many languages. I like the Dutch version: Ik verveel me dood (it bores me dead). Boredom, it seems, is universal.

A cutout stage and paper vegetable actors! What was I thinking?!!

A cutout stage and paper vegetable actors! What was I thinking?!!

Some of the greatest writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries not only wrote about boredom, directly or indirectly, but also used it for mood as part of their writing style. In his volume of poems Les Fleurs du Mal (1857) Charles Baudelaire writes of “this bored world,” “the boredom… of our foggy lives,” “the black boredom of snowy evenings,” and “the boredom of the vulgar herd.” The poems in this book are, in general, suffused with an air of languid boredom, the disdain of the new modern “man” struggling with the changing values brought into sharp relief by the speedy evolution from what sociologists (especially German ones) would call a Gemeinschaft to a Gessellschaft existence.

Taking ourselves – and others — too seriously  is usually boring too.

Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities (1952), a two-volume doorstopper of a novel, depicts bourgeois life in the pre-WWI Austro-Hungarian capital and asks what kind of relationship is possible to our experience in modernity? Unfortunately I cannot tell you his answer both because the novel was never finished, and because I have never been able to finish the novel.

In Alberto Moravio’s novel Boredom (1960), a prolonged, everyday boredom is the source of the internal struggle that leads the wealthy, failed artist, Dino, to fall obsessively in love with a young woman. Dino treats us to no less than a 14 page discussion of boredom. It reminds me of Goncharov’s novel Oblamov (1859), whose eponymous main character takes the first 50 pages to get himself out of bed. I must confess, it has some days taken me 51.

Eartha Kitt, famous for her voice and not her choreography, remember, singing “Monotonous” (1954). I want one of those lime green chaise lounges:

Samuel Beckett deals with themes of existential despair, alienation, meaning and boredom, perhaps most famously in his play Waiting for Godot. I had an opportunity to see this play the way Beckett recommended: in a jail, performed by inmates. The waiting of their own lives, as a result of the punishment meted out to them through the courts, underscored all their lines as characters in the play. The idea of boredom as a punitive measure of social control was not simply metaphorical there; it was palpable. And the ushers were armed, so that was weird.

Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band’s 1967 cult classic album, Gorilla, “I’m Bored” (“like mortar, bored!”):

Henry James said he was bored reading Proust’s La Recherche du Temps Perdu (1871-1922). Yes, that Henry James. Ironic, I know (unless you are a James’ fan, in which case I beg your pardon… though my fingers are crossed behind my back). The charge of boring has also been levelled at James Joyce’s experimental novel, Ulysses, considered by many (especially those who have not read it) to be one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century.

In Against Interpretation Susan Sontag, argues against the charge that difficult-to-read books are boring and says that “there is no such thing as boredom. Boredom is only another name for a certain species of frustration.” She challenges readers (and moviegoers) to work through or rise above their frustration with a particularly difficult narrative or film, implying that boredom is only a first-level response.

Academic advice-giving is often boring. Mansplaining is always boring.

Iggy Pop, in one of the worst videos ever made, “I’m Bored.” I include it here because sometimes bad is interesting. Though not always.

But Sontag is right that boredom is not just the “are we there yet?” whine of backseat toddlers. It isn’t a feeling; it’s more an absence of feeling, or, more precisely, an absence of meaning and the ability to make meaning. Since humans are meaning-makers (this is how we get, and why we cling to, culture, religion and so on), the threat of the absence of meaning is – dehumanizing? Think of Kafka’s hunger artist and his refusal to eat, “because I couldn’t find the food I liked.” Like Kierkegaard’s jaded aesthete who said, “my eyes are surfeited and bored with everything and yet I hunger.”

“Is it possible that despite our discoveries and advances, despite our culture, religion, and science, we have remained on the surface of life? Is it possible that even this surface, which might still have been something, has been covered with an incredibly tedious material, which makes it look like living-room furniture during the summer vacation?” ~ Rilke

The word boredom doesn’t have a clear etymology, and first appears in the mid 1700s. Before “bored,” writers used words like tedium, vacuity and monotony to describe their indifference, disinterest, weariness and the apparently slow passage of time. Historically it can be linked to the acedia (the spiritual blahs) experienced by early monks in the deserts of Egypt, the ones who lived in caves, had no phones, intermittent wi-fi (with God) and had a hard time living on only dread and water. Acedia was considered the gateway sin for more serious, venal wrongdoings: “the devil makes work of idle hands.”

The French word ennui goes further back, to the twelfth century, and was used in a similar way as acedia. Ennui is often considered to be a deeper state of boredom, a malaise of meaning, rather than the temporary state we call boredom.

Calgary-based poet Christian Bök, contributor to Descant 125: Sub/Urbia (2004), wrote in that issue:

“ENNUI IS THE EXHAUSTION of the mind caught in the riot cell of its own thoughts. While poets always strive in vain to escape this oubliette, their tedium forces them to find in the workings of the padlocks, evidence of a more beautiful reasoning—a kind of eunoia. Never forget that which makes us weary also makes us

This reminds me of Walter Benjamin’s words, another nod to the often productive nature of everyday boredom and perhaps some inspiration for the writers and artists who long to harness its strange powers:

“Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.”


Note: To lessen the boredom effects of this blog post for some, I didn’t include  specific reference information. If you’re interested in the academic sources I used, let me know via the comment section below.


Berlin #166: under cover of light

Berlin is coming!

Our weighty issue is scheduled to launch on Friday, September 19th, at the Goethe Institute in Toronto. Production Editor Jack Hostrawser obviously had the big picture in mind when he snagged us this incredible cover image, a point of view known to only a handful of earthlings:

detail berlin lights

Berlin from space. Taken in 2013 from the International Space Station. Photo courtesy Commander Chris Hadfield, used with permission.

Up close, Berlin’s street lamps contribute to the nostalgia in this once-divided city. Seen from space, they outline the twenty-first century metropolis in a crystal web.

You’ll notice in the image that some of the lights glow yellow and others, quite distinctly, shed a blue-ish light. Of all the gas-fueled street lamps still in existence, Berlin, with 43,000, has more than half of the world’s total. When Commander Hadfield took the above photograph in 2013, not quite half of the gas-lights had been switched to LEDs giving the city a still-divided look from space.

Berlin by night, 2006, photo courtesy of Dan Strange

Berlin by night, 2006, photo credit Dan Strange.

If it wasn’t for the invention of the street lamp, there would be no night life, as German-Jewish intellectual Walter Benjamin pointed out. Without enough light with which to see others, and feel safe, there was little point in making a spectacle of evenings. Today, Berlin’s citizens and visitors from across the world are drawn out into its extraordinary and vibrant night life.

We invite you to join us for our night to celebrate this special Descant issue, long-planned to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, one of the most stunning political, social and cultural events of the twentieth century.

We’re positive that you’ll find our launch event … illuminating.

For more launch information, please visit our Facebook event listing.

Berlin streetlamps from space. The cover of our Berlin issue. Photo credit Commander Chris Hadfield.

The cover of our Berlin issue. Our thanks to Commander Chris Hadfield.

MOOC! You could be taking this Iowa University poetry course… free!

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course. Emphasis on “massive.” More than 3,000 people from across the world registered in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program’s first poetry MOOC (see a sampling of course videos below). According to their website about it, theirs is the first MOOC to workshop students’ poetry, online.

The course started June 28th and runs to August 9, 2014; they’re still accepting new students. There are no prerequisites and it’s free to join. You can do all the assignments and chat in forums, or you can do what you did in university the first time around: sleep in, goof off, come to every second lecture hung over and borrow the notes from… no one. Ever.

My favourite ambigram.

My favourite ambigram.

The first MOOC came out of the University of Manitoba, in 2008. Since then some American universities copied us and MOOCs have become increasingly popular. The evolution from correspondence, to continuing studies to Open Learning universities to MOOCs is obvious, in the way all things are when you look back lo these many six years. The advantages to taking a MOOC are the same as previous distance-learning courses — do it at your own pace, in your jammies, with no annoying students wasting class time with their whining or see-how-smart-I-am “questions” — and MOOCs go one better: they’re free.

For free you get lectures, assignments, class forums and sometimes faculty feedback. What you don’t get is a formal credit towards a recognized degree program. You are welcome, however, to type “M.O.O.C. Star” after your signature, upon completion of your first MOOC. Or just go ahead and start doing it now, no one will check. Because no one can.

Does this mean that the end of formal college and university education is within (laser-enhanced) sight? Maybe. Probably. I’m going to say Yes, for sure. Let the cerebrations begin.

If you’re curious about what’s available, check out Coursera. The short answer is: just about anything. In many languages. From their website:

Coursera is an education platform that partners with top universities and organizations worldwide, to offer courses online for anyone to take, for free.

We envision a future where everyone has access to a world-class education. We aim to empower people with education that will improve their lives, the lives of their families, and the communities they live in.

But back to the Iowa poetry MOOC. There are two videos uploaded to the site each week, on Tuesday and Saturday – you could call these talks, or mini-lectures. Each video, which you can watch at any time that week or thereafter (in your jimjams, at the cottage or while fake-listening to your boring date), runs from 20 to 40 minutes. Experienced poets will appreciate some of the talks as brush-ups, and new poets will stop and start the videos, madly taking notes. Or you could just go to that one woman’s website who told everyone she’d take good notes for her classmates. All 3,000 of them.

You are encouraged to give feedback to other students’ poetic offerings (with the strict proviso that you play fair and keep your mean-spirited ego in check, which, incredulously, the vast majority are managing to do). You can converse with each other about specific poems or about poetry in general. A lucky 10 are chosen by moderators to have their poem “workshopped” (constructive critique) online each week. Moderators, all Iowa University Writing Program graduates themselves, take turns moderating discussions and workshops and, because MOOCs aren’t limited to a particular time zone, something is always happening on the course site, 24/7.

They’re still taking registration, so if you are interested, sign up. Meanwhile, here are links to some of the course videos. If you watch only one, I recommend the first one, for Robert Hass’ idea about the writer’s notebook.

And when you’re looking at their site, note their next MOOC venture!

1. Sketching Techniques (Robert Hass)

2. Collecting and Repurposing Lines (Kate Greenstreet and Lucy Ives)

3. Building a Poem (Daniel Khalastchi)

5. Prosody (Richard Kenney and William Trowbridge)

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” ~ Dr. Seuss

Moon Struck

I’ve been thinking a lot about the moon – in literature, poetry and music. Between the full moon last week and our monthly editorial meeting which, this month, falls on the 45th anniversary of the first moon landing, you could say that I’m being followed by a moon shadow.


Perhaps most famously for fiction writers, Anton Chekhov — Russia’s Munro — said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Less well-known is that he promised “to be an excellent husband, but give me a wife who, like the moon, will not appear every day in my sky.”

You can promise the moon, or howl at it, but Shakespeare advised you “swear not by the moon, the fickle moon, the inconstant moon.” And why would you? It’s made of cheese, inhabited by a strange man, it waxes and wanes, sometimes – though not often –  it’s blue. And it’s famous for its dark side: lunacy, or periodic insanity, was said to depend on the changes of the moon as far back as the 13th century.


Photo courtesy Artie, Flickr Creative Commons.

The gravitational pull of the moon is responsible for the bulging of planet Earth, as the oceans’ tides rise and fall. But, to set the lunar record straight, it has nothing to do with women and the rise and fall of their exasperation. Women are maddened by earthly politics.

Men (just men; a biblical 12 of them) have walked on the moon and Michael Jackson made millions off “his” moon walk. One man is said to have urinated on the moon — Buzz Aldrin, but in his moonsuit (and why do we even know this?). This reminds me of Philip Larkin’s poem “Sad Steps,” which begins:

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon’s cleanliness.

As well as moon walking, there’s a Moondance and Moonlight Serenade. Let’s (moon)face it, the moon makes us sentimental (when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore). You can moon over a first love or moon that first love years later, from the back of your mini-van, when the kids aren’t looking.

Farmers talk about a Harvest Moon, lovers dance to a Blue Moon and what you do while listening to Moon River, my huckleberry friend, is up to you, but may I recommend you simply close your eyes.

(Do people ever close their eyes when making love under a full moon?)

We bask in moonlight, moon glow, moonbeams and moonshine, We are moonlit in the moonrise and marvel at the glowing moonscape. We gaze upon the full moon, gawk at the lunar eclipse and are in awe of the Moons of Jupiter.

Many moons ago, a mother and daughter I knew  — down a country lane, beside a small barn and a creek that froze in winter — danced naked beneath every full moon.

Super Moon, courtesy

Super Moon, July 12, 2014, courtesy Marie-Marthe Gagnon, Flickr Creative Commons.

You can be over the moon with happiness or sad, like the moon. A woman in a prairie village once gave me a horse-drawn sleigh ride under a grieving moon, when I was very tired.

Whether you are making a night-time dash for milk at the convenience store in small town Australia, or you are sitting in a laundromat in downtown Toronto, if you look up you will see the same side of the moon; the same side everyone has looked at since the first kid shouted with glee and pointed, “Moon! Moon!”

After more than 4.5 billion years, our largest natural satellite has been the astronomical target of a galaxy of emotions. Still, it manages to dwarf seven billion egos despite how many try to shoot the moon.

Crescent moon,

Crescent moon, October 2011, Marzelo Sforzim, Flickr Creative Commons.

If the moon is a harsh mistress, she does not in fact have a dark side, as much as writers are gravitationally pulled to this melancholy idea. The dark side of the moon is only the side we cannot — ever — see, due to its rotational orbit, its attentive waltz with the earth. The dark side of the moon is not dark at all; it has a day and night thanks to the sun. That’s nice, too, isn’t it? Knowing that the dark side is regularly bathed in sunlight, even though we’ll never see it.

Which is perhaps why:

“The sun sees your body, the moon sees your soul.”

~ Anonymous


We appreciate you, dear readers, to the moon and back.



Poems linked to in this post:

Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”; Amy Lowell’s “The Garden By Moonlight”; Yusef Komunyakaa’s “Moonshine”; Ted Hughes’ “The Moon and Frieda”; Baudelaire’s “Tristesses de la lune.”


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.




Lifelines for Deadlines: 10 reasons writers don’t take summers off

It’s just up to you and your flabby and flagging motivation. Nobody makes you enter a contest and nobody waits for you at the deadline, jumping up and down calling your name and spraying you with champagne as you cross the finish line. So why bother? For three reasons – at least.

quotation about beginnings

“The secret to getting ahead is getting started.” ~ Mark Twain

Contests provide writers with the dreaded and necessary deadline. Sure, you can make all the promises you want to yourself about how many words you will write each day, each week. You can keep that list beside your desk, on the fridge, in your head. But lists get lost, forgotten, spilled on. Nothing motivates like a real-life deadline to start or finish a piece of good writing.

Secondly, Canadian literary magazines work mostly on volunteer labour and it takes them (us!) a long time to get through all the submissions we receive from around the world. It can take up to a year to hear back about your regular submission, although we all strive for a quicker response rate. Contest deadlines work both ways — the magazine you submit to will have to choose their winners shortly after the deadline and so you will know much sooner than with a regular submission if you have won, or can submit your piece elsewhere. By the way, you can always resubmit that piece to the same magazine that held the contest, as a regular submission.

Third, you can win money. Not a life-changing amount, but $500 or $1,500 is nothing to shake a stick at. And it’s better than a poke in the eye with a wooden stick. Which reminds me: root out all the tired clichés in your submissions.

But wait, there’s more! As well as the smug self-satisfaction that comes with being able to say, in mock-casual tones — “Why, yes, I did win a highly prestigious literary contest, gosh, how did you know?” — there’s the knowledge that your writing will be published and read and, bonus, everyone knows that winning one contest can open the door to future publication. A win looks nice in a cover letter, after all.

The following annotated contest list is based on information available online as of today. I have included the links to each magazine’s contest information. Check those for more details and to keep track of any changes to the contests. As far as I could tell, no two magazines have the same entry formats, so do read their instructions carefully. Some are email-only submissions, others are mail-only. A really easy way to whittle down a pile of contest submissions is for staff or judges to weed out the entries that don’t meet the explicit criteria regarding maximum word count, or page formatting etc. You want them to read you, not weed you.

Don’t be easily weedable!

Contest entry fees are in brackets. Most are around the $30 mark. The numbers I have cited are for Canadian submissions only. International fees are more and are listed on each site. Entry fees usually include a one-year subscription to the magazine. In this way, you can’t actually lose. Okay, you can not win the contest, but you will get a Canadian literary magazine delivered to your home (or nearby postal station) for a year. Some of these magazines have been going for decades and all of them are judiciously produced by talented and enthusiastic readers and writers: your kin.

Winning booty varies considerably, but all winners are also published in an issue of the magazine.

The following are listed in order of urgency. I wasn’t going to include the faraway contests — the ones with deadlines in months like “November.” Then I counted on my fingers (I did) and realized that “November” is in fact only four months away from July and probably always has been. Four months is a realistic goal for a short story started this week.

Here’s how to increase your chances of winning: submit only your best. This is the piece (pieces) that you have rewritten many times. If you belong to a writing group, they have ‘workshopped’ your story or poem. You have read it aloud to actual living humans, more than once (kids and spouses count; stuffies, not so much). You have put it away for a month and edited it again. Yes, again. And again. Then you have given it to a writer as good or better than you (they exist) and have considered their feedback. Then you have rewritten it. Again. No one has heard of your neighbour who diligently bangs out a poem a day. But the names Munro and Ondaatje are synonymous with excellent writing, two writers who have said time and again how long and labourious their writing process is. Michael Ondaatje (a Descant contributor) says that writing is in fact re-writing. And Alice Munro reminds us that yes, good writing is hard, very hard, “but no one is making you do it.” I think she means that we shouldn’t whine, that there are much more difficult things people have to do.

Deadlines require lifelines and that’s what writer friends and the broader literary community are all about.

Get your writer friends involved. Set goals as a group, a team. Afraid a particular friend might win and steal your place? Good. Make sure those people are in your group. They will give you great feedback on your own work and raise everybody’s game.

 Canadian Literary Magazine Contest Deadlines: July 15 – December 31, 2014

Room magazine has a fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry competition ($35 each). All contest deadlines are July 15. The fiction and creative non-fiction entries can be up to 3,500 words. The poetry can be up to three poems OR 150 lines of poetry. First prize is $500 and second is $250.

Montreal-based Vallum magazine of contemporary poetry has a July 15th deadline ($25). They are accepting up to three of your poems “on any theme or subject,” maximum 60 lines each. First place winner gets $750, second place $250.

The Capilano Review has a Bowering Contest: “The Capilano Review invites critical discussion — in essay or other format — of any of George Bowering’s many works” (2,000 word maximum). Contest deadline is August 15th ($35) and the winner gets $500.

UVic’s The Malahat Review has several contests: “With a contest for every taste and stage of career, it’s easy to find one that matches your ambition and abilities.” The first deadline ahead is August 1st ($35) for their Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. Entries should be a maximum of 3,000 words. First prize is $1,000. The deadline for their 2015 Open Season Awards (poetry, short fiction and creative non-fiction) is November 1st ($35). You can submit three poems, maximum 100 lines each, and a story of up to 2,500 words. Winners in each category receive $1,000 each.

Geist’s inaugural Tobacco Lit Contest is the most unusual contest in this list. They want your 500 word story about, well, tobacco. First prize is $500. That’s a buck a word! Deadline is September 1st ($20). Second prize is $250, third is $150 and even an honourable mention prize of $100. What is tobacco lit? According to their website: “Tobacco lit can be any collection of words that are (in some way) directly or tangentially about tobacco—whether it’s about those who smoke it, roll it or grow it; detailed instructions on how to use it or how to avoid it like the plague; a scathing review of its sociocultural impact on the modern world; or poetry written from an ashtray’s point of view, it’s tobacco lit.”

UBC’s Prism holds three contests. Their creative non-fiction contest deadline is November 21 ($35). Each entry must be a maximum of 6,000 words. First prize is $1,500, runner up is $300 and second runner up is $200. Prism also has a  short fiction and poetry contest (deadlines are January 23, 2015).

Prairie Fire accepts longer pieces for their contest, deadline November 30 ($32). They are looking for short stories up to 10,000 words, poems up to 150 lines, and creative non-fiction up to 5,000 words. First place $1,250, second place $500, third place $250.

Atlantic Canada’s The Fiddlehead contest deadline is December 1 ($30). That’s 150 days from today! They accept short stories up to 6,000 words and up to three poems, 100 lines each. Winners do not receive any money, but they are published in the issue and interviewed on their blog site as well. Correction! Winners receive $2,000 (one in poetry one in fiction) and runners up each receive $250 (two in each of those categories). Sorry, Fiddlehead and thanks for the correction.

Freefall’s annual poetry and prose contest deadline is December 31st ($25). If you don’t celebrate Christmas, for reasons of religion or reluctance, then this deadline will keep you busy the last two weeks of December. Who am I kidding — it’ll keep you busy the last few days of that month! Prose entries must be a maximum of 3,000 words, and they accept up to five poems per entry. For each category, first prize is $500, second is $250 and third prize is $75.

Good luck!

caption about finished

“A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.” ~ Annie Dillard

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.