An interview with Emily McGiffin

Emily McGiffin photoBy Rhonda Collis

Ten years ago I shared a poetry workshop with Emily McGiffin at the University of Victoria and immediately fell in love with her work. It was consistently clever and artful. The language was sharp, the observations and subject matter, fresh. She took us to places most of us had never been, yet we felt an immediate intimacy via her words.

So you can imagine my delight when I learned that she was a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize not once, but three times, in 2004, 2005 and 2012, and then won the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers in 2008.

Emily’s first collection, between dusk and night, was published by Brick Books in 2012. She studied biology, geography and writing at UVIC, then went on to get an MSc in rural development from the University of London. Currently, she is working on her PhD in environmental studies at York University in Toronto and has a second book of poetry, Subduction Zone, forthcoming from Pedlar Press.

I re-connected with Emily just before she was due to set off on a trip to South Africa.

You’ve said that after you won the Bronwen Wallace award in 2009, you decided to “pull up (your) socks and put together a book.” How many drafts did you write before your collection, between dusk and night was published?

It’s hard to say. The collection as a whole was written poem by poem over more than a decade and each of the poems might have gone through a handful of drafts, or dozens. The compilation that I first submitted to Brick Books is vastly different from the book that emerged. I have about ten drafts on my computer and twice that many files with versions of various poems. Then there are handwritten notes that preceded the typed versions, the notes on each copy that I printed, editor’s comments, proofs—it was a process.

between dusk and night has been described as a personal journey. Did you set out with that in mind as an organizing structure for the book?

No. Frankly, I had no idea what I was doing when it came structuring a book and deciding on a sequence for the poems. It takes both a knack and practice to do this well, and the book would not have been what it is without the talent of my amazing editor Elizabeth Philips. Originally I had arranged the poems more or less chronologically, which made sense to me, but Liz suggested that the sequence didn’t have quite the logic that I thought it did. Later my friend Tadzio Richards read a near-final draft of the manuscript and noticed that if I pulled “Wokkpash” out of the main sequence and put it at the front, it set up the atmosphere and tone I was looking for. It also resulted in the collection unfurling between the words “dusk” and “night”–a journey through the liminal dreamspace of the twilight hours. Brilliant, Tadzio. Thanks.

Much of your work centres around the human being moving through the world of nature, whether here in Canada or overseas. In most poems we have a very intimate sense of the natural world. What do you think first drew you to this subject matter? Did you have a close relationship with the outdoors growing up? Did you have exposure to poetry as well?

I did an important part of my growing up on a small acreage a few kilometers from Lake Cowichan, a small logging town on Vancouver Island. We were mostly surrounded by Crown land so there was plenty of bush to explore. As I remember it, I spent most of the time that I wasn’t in school reading books or playing outside. By the time I was eight or nine I was pretty much free to go where I wanted, though I had instructions to watch out for cougars and bears.

I started writing things at around the same time, but I came to poetry as a teenager via theatre. My interest in literature and then poetry grew out of the time I spent preparing for plays and performing arts festivals. At the time, it wasn’t poetry specifically that captured my interest but the arts in general. The high school I went to had outstanding visual arts and theatre programs. Eventually life became too full for it all—but writing stuck.

You’ve compared the themes of third world poverty with the decimation of wilderness areas in the developed world. I love how both ideas inhabit your work. Do you see a future where these issues will be resolved? Do you think you will continue to explore these themes or move on to something slightly different?

Poverty and environmental degradation are vast, complex and urgent challenges. They are some of the most important things that we can invest our time and attention in. I wouldn’t say that I compare them so much as I am occupied with both of them and they often go hand in hand. They co-habit the same spaces. This is part of the injustice of the world; environmental degradation disproportionately burdens the poor.

A future where these issues are resolved? As a Canadian, I find it hard to be optimistic these days. We’re harnessing ourselves politically and economically to devastating industries with no future. We’re allowing the public institutions and legislation that have helped maintain human equality and environmental health in this country to be systematically dismantled. But I recently had the good fortune of visiting old friends in Germany. One of them, an expert in renewable energy, had just returned from a conference where there was much discussion around planning a renewable energy future in Europe. Hearing that major political figures in the European Union fully support new technology and innovation in this direction made me more optimistic than I’d felt in a long time. Germany has committed to becoming 100% powered by renewable sources by 2035 and the move is revitalizing their economy. They appear to be on track to become a global energy superpower. Maybe we can follow their example.

The final four lines of your collection (in the poem, “Swadeshi”) really resonated with me: “you kissed the inside of each wrist. / There where the skin is thinnest. // You took your gift. / It held you all night.” I could’ve sworn I’d read about those wrists before! There was such a delicious strong poetic echo for me, a delight in the imagery and the power of sparse but delicately placed words. Are there lines of poems you’ve read that have especially resonated with you, that have remained with you for a long time?

I love reading the work of Chinese poets in the rivers and mountains tradition—Li Po, Tu Fu, Hsieh Ling Yun. They write of nature so clearly and joyously, with such careful and precise images. Mostly I read David Hinton’s translations. He has a simple, transparent style that lets their mastery shine through and draw you into their world. They always stay with me long after I’ve put down the book.

Cover_Subduction_ZoneYou’re living in Toronto now and working on a PhD in Environmental Studies. You’ve mentioned a current manuscript. Is that linked to your PhD or have you been working on an unrelated new writing project?

Nothing is unrelated. My writing and studies have always been closely linked and they feed into one another more and more as I go along. One reason for doing a PhD is the opportunity to bring together three strands of thinking that have been part of the furniture of my life over the past twenty years: environmental justice, rural culture and literature. In my current manuscript, Subduction Zone, which is coming out this October from Pedlar Press, I’ve begun thinking about these things in new ways, prying into different layers.

You’ve said in previous interviews that you admire the work of poets such as Jack Gilbert, Melanie Siebert, Warren Heiti, Jan Zwicky, Don McKay, Tim Lilburn, Jamella Hagen, Gillian Wigmore and Sarah De Leeuw. Who are you reading right now, whether poetry or otherwise?

Most of the names on that list are part of an incredible tribe of Canadian poets grappling for ways to express our experience of this country—its present, its histories, its land. Many of these writers are my contemporaries and many are writing about the northern BC landscapes that I love so much. I read their work whenever I can.

The current stack of poetry on my coffee table includes Maleea Acker’s Air Proof Green, Souvankham Thammavongsa’s Light, Dionne Brand’s Land to Light On, Tim Lilburn’s Assiniboia, Anne Carson’s Red. But these days I’ve mainly been reading authors from other countries. For the past few months I’ve been completely immersed in a list of postcolonial readings: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, Edward Said, Bessie Head, Zakes Mda, Gcina Mhlophe, Aimé Césaire. The cumulative experiences of these writers spans poverty, violence, apartheid, decades in exile and the struggle for political freedom and human dignity. Reading their words has been revelatory, a necessary step in understanding a little better the world’s colonial heritage.

What advice would you give to poets just starting out?

What makes the best writing? Flood, fire, free fall. Let your heart go to these places and your words grow out of them.


Rhonda Collis is on the editorial board of PRISM international. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from UBC. Her short fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in Room, On Spec, The Antigonish Review, The Vancouver Review, The Bridport Anthology, Smartish Pace, ARC, Fiddlehead, subTerrain, and others. She lives on Vancouver Island with her husband and two daughters.

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Our Favourite Writing from Canadian Lit Mags (Fall 2014 Edition – Part I)

Here at PRISM, we love reading the great writing published by lit mags across the country and the world. Though it’s always difficult to choose favourites, here are a few pieces that stood out for us this spring and summer, chosen for you by our avid lit mag readers, Nicole Boyce and Clara Kumagai.

Nicole Boyce, Prose Editor

TNQ131 Cover Front_1The New Quarterly – Issue 131

“Soldiers” by Ayelet Tsabari.

In the first of her two excellent non-fiction pieces in the TNQ issue titled War: An Uphill Battle, Ayelet Tsabari recounts a romantically charged friendship with an Iraqi immigrant that took place when she was living in Vancouver during her late twenties. The piece explores Jewish and Arab cultural identities while creating a vivid portrait of two people and their relationship. An absorbing and memorable read.

“Learning to Stand Still” by Ayelet Tsabari.

A powerful essay about risk, restlessness, and identity. The piece moves seamlessly through years of memories—from Tsabari’s childhood in Israel, to her years spent travelling after her army service, to her present-day reflections—all in the service of the question: what does it mean to live in harm’s way? Beautiful, honest, and intimate.

“Krasnagorsk-2” by Tamas Dobozy.

After discovering his deceased uncle’s collection of homemade pornographic movies, a man tries to understand his uncle’s secret life. A complex story subtly told.

The Malahat Review – Issue 187

“Mask” by Dora Dueck.

The winner of The Malahat Review’s 2014 novella prize tells the story of a daughter’s relationship with her father following his disfiguring injury in the Second World War. Rich characterization and slow-building tension make this novella a compelling read.

“Dead Ewes” by Madeline Sonik.

In this non-fiction piece, Sonik recalls an unusual encounter: searching for snow-buried sheep with Ted Hughes at a writers’ residence in England (“Dead Ewes”…get it?). Sonik contemplates the encounter in graceful, thought-provoking prose, focusing on Hughes’ relationship with Sylvia Plath.

frontcover431_webhires-273x410Event – Issue 43.1

“Braces” by Hilary Dean.

Orthodontics meet romance in this hilarious story told from the perspective of a teenage girl. Fantastic voice, memorable characters, and unique details make this piece a must-read.

“My Mother’s Breasts” by Dave Margoshes.

A man contemplates beauty, fame and mortality when his mother—an actress famous for her breasts—is diagnosed with breast cancer. This is the kind of fluid, well-paced prose that you can lose yourself in. The piece is poignant but never melodramatic.

Plus, check out these pieces from members of the PRISM family:

“A Different Kind of Life” by 2013 – 14 Prose Editor Jane Campbell in Grain 41.3.

“Homecoming” by Prose Editorial Board member Christopher Evans in TNQ 130.

Clara Kumagai, Executive Editor, Promotions

RP191webcover-344x450Ricepaper, 19.1 Summer Issue 2014

“I Miss You Too” by Sherry Wong.

I may be biased but I always look forward to the next issue of Ricepaper, a magazine that often provides a platform for creative non-fiction, and particularly memoir or autobiography. In the Summer Issue, Sherry Wong’s “I Miss You Too” is such a piece, centered around the author’s relationship with her elderly mother as she decides to “learn computer”. Often funny—and recognizable to anybody with a computer-illiterate parent—it illustrates Wong’s Mom as a determined and demanding woman, and how Wong herself negotiates what it is to be a ‘good’ daughter.

The Antigonish Review, 178 Summer Issue 2014

“How to Survive” by Hollie Adams.

There are many narratives that tackle the subject of living with, or surviving, cancer, but Hollie Adams’ story stood out to me with its freshness and narrative voice. Written in the second person—which can sometimes be a gamble—this reads like advice from the protagonist to the reader. And it’s not comforting or cloying advice, either, but coming from a woman who is angry, frightened, regretful and honest.

geist cover-93Geist, 93 Summer Issue 2014

“Hibakusha” by Myles Wirth.

This short comic was one I made other people read after finding it in Geist. It tells the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, the only person recognized by the Japanese government as surviving both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs. Wirth’s writing and illustration are simple, effective and poignant.

“Do You Have a Lighter?” by Erin Kirsh

Kirsh’s story came second in Geist’s 10th Annual Literal Literary Postcard Story Contest. Like all good flash or micro fiction, this story is more than the sum of its parts. Funny and sad, this is a moment in the protagonist’s life that allows the reader to see and imagine much more than what is on the page.

Room, 37.2 Summer Issue

“Writing, In Transit” by Najwa Ali

Najwa Ali won Room’s 2013 Creative Non-Fiction contest, and rightly so. Told in vignettes, memories, and poetic prose, it’s an exploration of native and foreign languages and what it means to grapple with both.

“Under the Skin”, by Nicola Harwood

“Under the Piece” was awarded second place in Room’s Creative Non-Fiction Contest, and though they are both unique and distinctive, there is in both a searching-and-finding theme. Harwood’s piece is also an exploration of identity, in this case the transgendered experience, and of questioning what that means, and how one can discover, reclaim and change it.

Of course, there are lots of other fantastic pieces out there, and fantastic literary magazines publishing them! Look for more in Part II of our post.

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Prompt: Did I Ever Tell You About The Time…?

Family-StoriesFamily-memoriesDo you have a family story that you’ve heard a thousand times? One that you hear at family dinners or an embarrassing incident from your childhood that your mother/father/siblings tells at every opportunity? Every family has at least one.

My family has many, and the ones I remember best are ones from my childhood, or from my siblings’—even though I was too young to remember, or wasn’t even present at the time. The interesting thing about these stories is that, after enough tellings, your mind paints in details until you begin to think you were there.

Think of one of these anecdotes and then write it down, as close to the oral rendition as possible (if the same person has told you the story then this is much easier than you may think). Then begin to write the story from a more objective point of view—first person may be a little too close for this one. Try and make this story as accurate as you can, as stories are often told with a certain amount of hyperbole. Include the small details, the dialogue, the setting, and remember that the anecdote is a starting point; fictionalising it is required if you want to create a fuller scene or piece, though if you want to write a creative non-fiction piece then this is the perfect time to ask the storyteller for these details.

(And remember, you don’t have to use that really embarrassing one…)

Good luck!

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Announcing PRISM international’s 2014/15 Contest Judges!

Did you know that PRISM international has three annual writing contests? Because we do! And they’re open!

With over $6,000 in prizes, the chance to be published in PRISM international and fame, we’re sure you don’t need any more reasons to enter – but if you do, then just take a look at the wonderful judges we have for our Creative Non-Fiction, Fiction and Poetry contests.

We are pleased to announce our amazing judges for our 2014/15 contests – drumroll, please…

Judging our Creative Non-Fiction Contest is… Charles Demers.

charlesdemersCharles Demers was born and raised in Vancouver. He is an activist and comedian, a regular performer on CBC Radio One’s The Debaters, and former co-host of Citytv’s comedic panel show “The Citynews List” in Vancouver. In 2005, he was the judges’ choice for Vancouver’s funniest new comic; since then he has been featured on national radio, in print, as well as in festivals and live venues across Canada and the Pacific Northwest and with Paul Bae as the sketch duo “Bucket”―the act Robin Williams called “the future of comedy.” His book Vancouver Special was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2009, and was shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize at the BC Book Prizes. His first novel, The Prescription Errors, was published in 2009 by Insomniac Press. His hit web series Will Power came out in June 2014 with CBC’s Punchline.

The deadline for the Creative Non-Fiction Contest is November 21st, 2014. For more details on how to enter, see our contests page. 

Judging our Fiction Contest is… Marina Endicott.

Marina Endicott 2014BMarina Endicott’s Good to a Fault was a finalist for the 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize, and won the 2009 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Canada/Caribbean region. Her next, The Little Shadows, was long-listed for the Giller and short-listed for the Governor General’s award. Her new novel, Close to Hugh, is out in May 2015. She teaches creative writing at the Banff Centre and at the University of Alberta. You can visit Marina’s website at

The deadline for the Fiction Contest is January 23rd, 2015. For more details on how to enter, see our contests page.


And judging our Poetry Contest is… Ken Babstock.

ken babstockKen Babstock is the author of Airstream Land Yacht, which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award, won the Trillium Book Award, and was a Globe and Mail Top 100 book; Days into Flatspin, which was shortlisted for the Winterset Award for Excellence in Newfoundland Writing; and Mean, which won the Atlantic Poetry Prize and the Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Award. His most recent collection, Methodist Hatchet, won the 2012 Canadian Griffin Poetry PrizeKen Babstock lives in Toronto, Ontario.

The deadline for the Poetry Contest is January 23rd, 2015. For more details on how to enter, see our contests page.


Entry fee: $35 Canadian entries; $40 US entries; $45 Int’l entries (up to three poems may be submitted with each entry, each entry includes a one-year subscription or extension to PRISM international). 

Additional entry: $5 each poem, story or creative non-fiction piece.
You can enter our contests online through Submittable at

You can also mail entries or queries to:
PRISM international
Creative Writing Program, UBC
Buch. E462 – 1866 Main Mall
Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z1

If you have any questions, please contact

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Review: “Running the Whale’s Back: Stories of Faith and Doubt from Atlantic Canada”

Review by Matt Snell

913-6_Cover.inddRunning the Whale’s Back: Stories of Faith and Doubt from Atlantic Canada
Ed. Andrew Atkinson and Mark Harris
2013, Goose Lane Editions

The title of the collection, Running the Whale’s Back, taken from the story by Samuel Thomas Martin, is a reference to jumping between ice floes in the spring thaw. It’s an apt metaphor for the steely intensity of its stories, written by Atlantic Canadian authors that include Michael Crummey, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Alistair MacLeod, and Kathleen Winter. All nineteen stories revolve around faith, but that’s faith in the Flannery O’Connor sense—strange and challenging—as opposed to anything reductive or moralizing. Secular and religious readers alike will find plenty to contemplate.

The usual trappings of East Coast fiction are present—strong and silent lobster fishermen, storms brewing over the bay, a collapsed mineshaft—but to each writer’s credit, no one is leaning on clichés. Instead, the depictions feel like natural reflections of the setting and culture. Kathleen Winter does a terrific job of capturing some site-specific quirks in her story “French Doors,” when an out-of-work man invites a friend over to a shack in his mother’s backyard. The room features an old truck seat raised up on a pair of tires, an unusable but highly ornate woodstove, and a red lamp nailed to the ceiling he calls his “ruby chandelier.” Most stories have a similarly rural bent, but urban settings are also well-drawn.

Alistair MacLeod’s “Vision” is the centerpiece of the collection, and the story that best conveys a sense of mysticism along with the weight of history. The world MacLeod describes seems so distant and archaic, it’s invigorating to realize he’s writing about Cape Breton as it was only a few generations ago. In one the story’s best moments, a barfight erupts between rival families. Before the narrator can worry about his blind father, two members of the opposing family pick up the father’s chair and carry him “as carefully as if he were eggs or perhaps an object of religious veneration, and the men who were smashing their fists into one another’s mouths moved out of their when they saw them coming.” They place him safely out of harm’s way against the far wall before leaping back into the fray, in a moment that perfectly captures the oddly chivalrous traditions of the place. Like the best fiction, the theme manifests itself here as something deeply felt rather than as a philosophical discourse.

Unfortunately, almost every story has a reflective, elegiac quality, which when taken together has the cumulative effect of making the collection a little airless. The mood remains consistently sombre throughout, meaning this might be better read in short bursts than cover to cover. That’s not to say there aren’t comic moments—Lynn Coady’s “Batter My Heart” and Clive Doucet’s “Miracle Potatoes” are standouts precisely because of their wry humour.

The last story in Running the Whale’s Back is Ann Copeland’s “Rupture,” the story of a former nun who appears on a daytime television to defend her old faith. The story gives due respect to the dual worlds the main character inhabits, and is particularly engaging for the way it attacks the stereotype of the sexually repressed nun. It brings the collection to a very satisfying close, even if readers will probably be ready to tackle a different theme by the time they’ve set the book down.

Matt Snell is a fiction and non-fiction writer based in Peterborough, Ontario. His work has appeared in Existere and Punchnel’s. Also a musician, he has performed throughout Quebec and Ontario, accompanying his original songs on guitar, banjo, and musical saw. He is currently completing his Creative Writing MFA at UBC.

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Theatre review: “The School for Scandal”

By Clara Kumagai

Photo by Nancy Caldwell

Photo by Nancy Caldwell

The School for Scandal
United Players of Vancouver
Directed by Matthew Bissett

The School for Scandal was first performed in Drury Lane Theatre in 1777, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant. The cream—that is, the rich and thick—of London society open each scene by reading the scandal headlines in the newspaper, in a way that is very reminiscent of both social media and gossip magazines.

In fact, director Matthew Bissett wanted to draw on just that, and how those you read the newspapers ”suddenly discovered that they could be in the newspaper as well as reading it”, linking it to how “YouTube suddenly made it so easy for anyone to go from watching the screen to being on the screen…” Gossip and rumour certainly rule in School for Scandal, with stories travelling almost at tweet-speed.

The plot is one made of sub-plots, plans and hidden agendas, but it centers on Sir Peter Teazle (Linden Banks) and his new wife Lady Teazle (Caitlin Clugston), with whom we see the well-worn ‘battle’ of matrimony playing out. The brothers Joseph (Michael Wild) and Charles Surface (Matt Loop) are the subject of the majority of the convoluted schemes and scandals, however, with their characters being tested, lovers lost and gained, and large amounts of flirtation.

School for Scandal is a predecessor to Wildean society humor, with playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s zinging one-liners and witty retorts. ‘High’ society is ridiculed, with Sheridan laying bare the malice and hypocrisy behind good manners and reputations. But this play is most certainly a comedy, and Bissett’s direction often pushes this farther into farce. The cast hams it up enjoyably, playing up to the affectations of the time with much head-tossing, fan-fluttering, simpering and peals of vindictive titters. Sir Peter Teazle, played by Linden Banks, is a hapless but still hopeful hero, and his physical comedy is flailing and funny.

Catherine E. Carr’s costume design is fittingly ornate for a play in which appearance in everything, with the ladies’ decadent gowns doing much to set the scene. Matthew Bissett’s set design is equally effective, simply consisted of large wooden frames. These serve variously as doors, portraits, frames for tableaux and an infamous window screen, .

School for Scandal may not be contemporary, but it is undoubtedly pertinent. Sheridan’s writing is quick, funny, and sharp, and it’s one of the few ways that one can truly enjoy scandal.

The School for Scandal runs until September 28th, 2014 at Jericho Arts Centre and tickets can be purchased here.

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