Theatre: Arts Club Theatre Company presents “4000 Miles”

Nicola Cavendish and Nathan Barrett. Photo by David Cooper

Nicola Cavendish and Nathan Barrett. Photo by David Cooper.

by Sarah Higgins

4000 Miles
Written by Amy Herzog
Directed by Roy Surette
Arts Club Theatre Company
Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage 

If you’re a cross-country cyclist, a sassy Manhattan grandma, or simply someone who’s interacted with a generation different than your own, then this play is for you. Amy Herzog’s engaging family drama 4000 Miles, directed for the Arts Club by Roy Surette, explores what happens when Leo (Nathan Barrett), cycling from Seattle, ends up at the door of his grandmother, Vera (Nicola Cavendish) in New York. With help from Leo’s girlfriend Bec (Ella Simon) and a one-night stand, Amanda (Agnes Tong), emotional baggage is unpacked and aired—and cycle-dirty clothes are laundered—as grandson and grandmother figure each other out.

The world onstage is effectively and beautifully built—Vera’s living room, by set designer Barbra Matis, becomes a home for the audience, too, as the characters relax into it. Verisimilitude is high—there is enough set surrounding the entrances and exits (furnished hallways, for example) that the full apartment space, even off-stage, is aesthetically defined. The lighting by designers Luc Prairie and Conor Moore, is well-executed: a welcoming warm hue to start, it transitions smoothly to cool evening glow throughout and includes effectively sharp and dramatic spotlights. Peter Cerone’s sound design, particularly the onstage Skype conversation, is well done, effectively subtle. The one exception to this is the use of sound in the kitchen—the mix of onstage cutlery clatter and recorded water can be unnecessarily distracting.

The acting from the three young actors is solid—particularly the emotional revelation from Nathan Barrett’s Leo at the climax which feels surprisingly intimate for the size of venue, addressed to the audience as well as himself and his grandma—but it’s the strong acting of Nicola Cavendish that stands out. Cavendish brings a fast-paced honesty to Vera. She infuses her words with a compelling speed that, when it falters, serves well to highlight the wandering of age. Cavendish also wholly embodies the physicality of growing old—the true, long moments she spends rising from and returning to the couch while folding laundry are hilariously contrasted with the quick, light steps she takes to throw aside an offending backpack, or kick away ill-placed shoes.

The script is beautiful, rife with moments of such truth that it had the audience audibly responding to it. Leo’s story about his friend Micah is heartbreaking, and Surette directs it with complimentary, bare-bones staging that highlights the emotion. The timeline of the story may become confusing, as it is difficult to tell how many days are passing, at what speed. However, the story ultimately rises above such small distractions, pulling at the heartstrings and tickling the funny bones of the audience.

It may have taken Leo 4000 miles to get to Vera, but the theatre isn’t that far—so why not travel a little to take in a beautiful production that has a lot to say about the young, the old and everything in between.

4000 Miles is playing at The Arts Club’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through October 12, and tickets can be purchased here.

Sarah Higgins is into her second year of her Creative Writing Masters of Fine Arts at UBC. She’s foremost a playwright, and has had work produced at both edges of the country—from Little Mountain Lion Productions in Vancouver to a recent show in the Halifax Fringe festival. This is her first foray into theatre reviews, and she is excited to work with the talented writers at PRISM international.

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A Welcome Interruption

Screen Shot 2014-09-17 at 6.24.08 PM Hate being interrupted? Or are you an interrupter? Either way, here’s something for both the interrupted and the interuptee…

The rather wonderful 49th Shelf and Books on the Radio have come together to present The Interruption, a podcast hosted by Sean Cranbury and sponsored by UBC’s Creative Writing Program.

BOTR_MARCH_2014_SQUARE_smallThe project started in March 2014, so there’s some good listening to catch up on – Sean Cranbury interviews Nancy Lee, Dina Del Bucchia, Michael Crummey and Zsuzsi Gartner, to name a few.

Get started by listening to the inaugural Interruption with Jordan Abel, former PRISM international editor and author of The Place of Scrapswhich won the 2014 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.

So here’s a treat for your ears: an interview with Jordan Abel and his reading from The Place of Scraps.

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Prompt: Turn The Music Up

Best-Music-for-Writing-Photo-by-foreverdigital_medI usually need to listen to music while I write, while other writers may need absolute quiet; I even have a friend who needs two different radio stations playing at the same time. Everybody has their method and requirements. But today’s prompt is going to make you try my way (sort of).

This is an aural prompt, so it involves listening to music. You may want to use some songs you already know, but I recommend ones that you don’t, because something new will inspire more ideas. So I have included some songs that I’ve used as starting points for stories, or that lend themselves well to this particular exercise, and if you don’t want to use them then turn on the radio or put your iTunes on shuffle.

It’s straightforward: get some headphones or make sure that you’re in a quiet place (by yourself, for those of you who may be reading this in a library). Listen to the song once all the way through without writing anything, just allow yourself to experience the music. The reflect on it: what did it make you feel? What was the story being told? What was the tone or atmosphere that the music created? What did it make you think of? Write these down, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Then listen to the song one more time, taking notes if you need to.

And now for the interesting part! You are going to write a story inspired by the song in three different forms: poetry, fiction and play/screenwriting. Just write one page in each, and remember that this is to pull out different perspectives, and explore what these genres bring up. You may find one really works, or that elements of all three can be pulled together to create a fuller piece.

And now do the same with the next song… and the next. You may just want to do one more, or a whole album’s worth.

Good luck!

Fionn Regan – Snowy Atlas Mountains

Blood Orange – Never Good Enough

Joan as Policewoman – I Was Everyone

Joanna Newsom – Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie

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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 Doc>. 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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