PRISM 53:3 Spring 2015

533_storeThe pug has landed. And it’s brought pizza!

PRISM 53:3 was officially launched last weekend at AWP 2015 in Minneapolis. You can view a few pictures of the cardboard cut-out madness by checking out the Twitter hashtag #pizzapug. But oh, discerning reader, we know you are never one to judge a book by its cover, so let’s discuss the content a bit:

Issue 53:3 opens with the three winners of our 2015 Non-fiction Contest, all of which explore family, identity, and place. In the grand-prize winning piece “Doughnut Eaters,” Diane Bracuk examines her relationship with her father by taking us back to a foggy German town in the 1960s. First runner-up Sarah Mitchell writes about her brother, autism, and life by the ocean in the heartfelt memoir “Sea Salt.” Finally, Ann Cavlovic’s “The Generation After” details her quest to obtain Polish citizenship, and the discoveries she made about her mother along the way.

The fiction selections in 53:3 capture a range of tones and timelines. “Four Nocturnes for Left Hand” by Scott Nadelson offers a window into step-parenting, taking a close look at four evenings in a stepfather’s life over the course of fourteen years. “Plus One” by Greg Rhyno, in contrast, takes place during a single night, when a man attends his high school girlfriend’s wedding. The issue closes with “I Thought I’d Get More” by Richard Kelly Kemick, in which a teenager comes across a surprising item during his stint as a pawnshop employee.

After an all-Canadian-poetry Winter issue, PRISM 53:3 brings you the work of three excellent American poets: Todd Boss, Derek Sheffield and Katy E. Ellis. All three bring poems filled with rhythm and play and good, deep thought. Joining them are Canadians both well-established (Evelyn Lau, Patrick Warner) and new (Angela Rebrec, Margo Wheaton). Highlights include suites of poems on illness and grief by Nora Gould and Daniela Elza, and knockout (in some cases literally) poems by Nicholas Bradley and Michelle Brown, including Michelle’s “Something Funny.”

All together, you’ve got one delicious (and slightly furry) issue. Pick up a copy at your favourite newsstand, or grab one in our online store today!

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The Everyday Spaces of Life: An Interview with Wanda Praamsma

Interview by Alison Braid

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a thin line between (BookThug, 2014) is Wanda Praamsma’s much anticipated first collection of poetry. Praamsma’s poetry has been published in ottawater, 17 seconds, and The Feathertale Review. Several of her literary non-fiction pieces have appeared in the Toronto Star, where she worked for several years as an editor. She recently completed her MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia. a thin line between is a lyrical, multi-layered long poem that paints a portrait of a highly creative Dutch-Canadian family, spending time with both Praamsma’s poet-grandfather and sculptor-uncle. As a family narrative is woven, the poem explores language, creativity, and memory, probing the everyday spaces of life that too often go unnoticed.

                                                         *         *         *

a thin line between covers quite a vast family history and unfolds like a novel in the way the reader experiences the characters. What kind of family research did the poem entail? Did you find yourself learning more about your own family and ancestry throughout the writing of the poem?

I don’t know if I’d call it research, although my husband likes to remind me that he was my ‘research assistant’ while we were living in Amsterdam and while I was writing this book. I thought before I got into it that I would do research, go to the archives and such, but I think it was more haphazard than that. My ‘research’ was primarily my uncle’s words, occasionally the words of my mother, and others in Holland who know/knew my family. Craig (my husband) and I spent a lot of time with my uncle and his partner, both in Amsterdam and in France, and that’s how I began piecing together a lot of the history. I certainly did learn a lot about my family. The writing of this poem brought up a lot for me, in that I wasn’t sure how to digest some of what I was learning, and I think a lot of that questioning is in the book.

 

The poem connects many of your family members and explores the spaces between them. How did you find the process of writing about family? What was their involvement like in the writing of the poem? And what was their response to the finished product?

I found the process pretty easy (I say this now, 4 years later!), because at the time I wasn’t thinking about people’s reactions. I was just writing. Putting things down in notebooks and then piecing it together on the computer. I don’t think I would have written what I did if I’d thought too much about what the family would think. I did think about their reactions later in the process, when it was going to press, and I sent it to the people who come up most in the book. My uncle read an early version of the poem, and he liked it, and that gave me enough gumption to keep on with the publication process. I didn’t show the poem to many other people while I was still writing. A couple of good friends who visited me while in Amsterdam read what I had been working on, but that was about it. I showed the manuscript to my parents a few months before it was published. I wanted them to read it, but I also talked with them about how it is my perspective of the family, and how I sifted through what I heard while living in Amsterdam. I wasn’t going to change anything at that point. At times I found this hard. There is a lot in the book about my mother’s family, some of it about difficult relationships and parenting, and my mother doesn’t necessarily share all the views of her brother. She had different relationships with her mother and father, as we all do. But my mom is an artist, comes from a family of artists and writers, and she understood that this is my view of our family. I do hope it didn’t hurt her in any way. If anything, I think it’s made our whole family examine a little more what’s happened in the past, and what’s happening now. I think it’s also important to remember that while a lot of this reads as non-fiction, a sort of biographical poem, it is also fiction, in the same way many novels are semi-autobiographical.

 

While reading and rereading the poem, I was typing many Dutch words into Google and trying to find translations that fit. For any readers who are not fluent in both Dutch and English, this can provide a reading experience that emphasizes the liminal qualities of language. Throughout, I felt myself pulled in and out of the poem because of this, which was a very powerful and compelling aspect of my experience of the poem. At the end, the question, “is there really only one language in all of us?” seems unanswerable. What has your relationship with Dutch been like? Did it change at all while writing the poem?

Dutch has always been in my life, with my parents speaking it while I was growing up, and still speaking it now. There has always been a mix of English and Dutch—a junction between the two. They collide. I think many children of immigrants grow up like this, in the liminal space between two languages. There is comfort there, in a way. An ability to see the world through different lenses, words, phrases.

I think my relationship did change with Dutch while I was writing. I understood it better, living in Amsterdam and taking Dutch lessons. I wasn’t fluent, am not fluent, but I was more directly entwined with the language, and that’s how it easily made its way into the poem.

You’re right, maybe that question is unanswerable. Or maybe just so different for all of us. And it makes me think, what is language? Is it only words?

 

I believe you also studied Spanish at university? Are you fluent in Spanish as well? How do you find different languages change the way you approach writing or reading? 

I did study Spanish. I was almost fluent but I haven’t spoken it much in the past few years so I’ve lost quite a bit. It’s hard to say how different languages change my approach to reading and writing. Hard to quantify, or qualify, I guess. I think, once all these languages are in you, embedded, then you are just subconsciously bringing them into all aspects of your life. How you interpret the world changes because you have different languages and cultures guiding your impressions. Things coalesce, converge, as you remember a certain word in Dutch or Spanish, how that word seems to better suit an idea, or ideal. It all gels together.

 

You look at editing language in the poem, as well as how we edit many aspects of our lives. How do you feel your editing and journalism background has influenced your poetry?

This is a big one! I think the editing is really important in my poetry. I love shaping, and tinkering, and moving things about, shaving a word here, a letter there—all of this comes from editing, I think, especially from my work as a layout editor at The Star. You were always shifting things—photos, words, text boxes. Slight adjustments. This all works into my poetry work. Not on first write, but later.

I’m also always a listener, a watcher, a questioner, and this all comes from journalism, too. Skepticism. But also intrigue, being intrigued by the world.

 


 

Alison Braid is a student at the University of British Columbia, where she is pursuing a BFA in Creative Writing. Her poetry has been published in The Claremont Review and shortlisted for the Winston Collins/Descant Prize for Best Canadian Poem.

 

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The Tuesday Prompt: If You’re Happy and You Know it (or Don’t), Write a Poem!

602598_4349018928700_1626124274_nIn almost all of my poetry classes, I’ve heard at least one person say, “I can not write a funny poem.” These people have always said that they’ve tried, that when they do, the humour falls flat or isn’t that funny at all. And yet, when I think about the poets who have said this, I’d consider all of them funny, except maybe one because, let’s face it, there’s always that one poet who takes the craft a little too seriously (kidding…not kidding?). After this epidemic swept through my latest poetry class—to be fair, glimmers of fun popped up here and there—I went in search of playful and humourous poetry. There are very few collections completely filled with funny poems, that I know of, and even fewer with a handful of humourous poems in them. Billeh Nickerson, Dina Del Buccia, and David McGimpsey all immediately came to mind. I know there are more. There have to be, right?

But what remains with me is that we poets seem to be drawn to aspects of our lives, the world that are not inherently funny. It’s the same for happy poems. When was the last time you read a happy poem? Okay, if it was yesterday or within the last month, stop trolling this prompt. I think it’s fair to say that there are more emotionally wrought poems out there than there are happy ones. It makes sense: poetry is deeply connected to intense emotions and memories, and negative emotions tend to resonate with us more. But so does happiness! So does humour!

If you frequent literary readings, either as an audience member and/or participant reader, you’ll notice that people are often more engaged when the reader has a compelling voice, unexpected language, and/or is funny. It’s such a pleasure to have these moments of laughter!

Have I convinced you yet that the literary world needs more humour? Especially in poetry?

The prompt is “simply”: write a poem/short story/cnf piece that’s funny. Think about what makes you laugh, because chances are, ten other people think that’s funny too. Maybe make a list of what you find amusing, what are some of the last things you’ve seen that have made you laugh. Write about them. Focusing on language is so important in getting laughs—chances are, the more colloquial the better. 

If being too funny is too much pressure, go for happy. Write down some happy moments of yours, what made you smile today, what you’re looking forward to. If you’re having trouble with this as well, hopefully the T Rex meme will have made you chuckle a little.

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“A healthy dose of cats”: Review of Heather O’Neill’s “Daydreams of Angels”

By Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt

Daydreams of Angels9781554684519
Heather O’Neill
HarperCollins, 2015

Welcome to the world of Heather O’Neill, where ancient sea turtles give lessons in philosophy and trumpet-toting cherubs are seduced by human girls. Where a twelve-year-old Jesus gets freaked out by his Ouija board and well-read heroin addicts stand in for missing fathers. The writing of Daydreams of Angels, O’Neill’s first short story collection, dates back a decade, with one of the stories appearing as early as 2005 in The This American Life Holiday Spectacular—well before O’Neill published Lullabies for Little Criminals (2006, HarperCollins) and The Girl Who Was Saturday Night (2014, HarperCollins) and became a Giller Prize-nominated CanLit darling.

For readers who are familiar with O’Neill’s bold, metaphor-rich writing style, Daydreams is not a departure. The setting—Montreal’s most renowned streets, the seediest of apartments, and parks overrun with drug dealers and spacy hippies—is also familiar. And, as in her earlier works, this book novel contains a healthy dose of cats. Where this collection diverges from O’Neill’s previous work is in the inclusion of stories that take place outside of the author’s lifespan, particularly in France during the Second World War. According to O’Neill, the book is meant to typify the set of stories that a single child might carry into adulthood, including personal memories, fables starring animals and toys, and tales told aloud by parents and grandparents.

Among the best of this collection are those from the grandparent contingent, who mesmerize grandchildren and readers alike with their larger-than-life experiences and rare nuggets of wisdom. For instance, in “Where Babies Come From,” a grandmother explains to her grandchildren that babies come from the beach, but some babies end up spending too much time out to sea before prospective mothers caught them. Like the children’s mother, so-called “night babies” are the ones that turn into artists, musicians, and dreamers—all of this to reassure the children that their poetry-writing mother can’t be expected to be as reliable as regular parents. “The Story of the Rose Bush” is decidedly darker, narrated by a grandmother who was orphaned during the Second World War and had to sleep with German soldiers for money in order to buy presents for the friend she fell in love with. It has that hilarious-but-simultaneously-heartbreaking quality that made Lullabies such a consuming read.  

O’Neill’s protagonists are marginalized in some way or another: poverty or orphanhood, or the way they dress, think, or act. Many are artists trying to find their place in society, such as the twin writers in “Messages in Bottles” who escape seclusion on a desert island only to long for it again when they find their work has garnered worldwide recognition. Some of the protagonists are loosely based on historical or literary figures, such Mary Magdalene in “The Gospel According to Mary M.” and Marquis de Sade in “The Story of Little O.”

While O’Neill’s prose is always readable and often laugh-out-loud funny, there were a few stories that might have been realized more economically. For instance, in “Swan Lake for Beginners,” a Soviet-born scientist spends millions trying to clone and raise a Rudolf Nureyev that can dance as well as the real Rudolf Nureyev, one of the most celebrated ballet dancers of the twentieth century. Although the scientist has the genetic part down, he never succeeds in simulating the exact living conditions that prompted Nureyev’s intensity. Not surprisingly, the scientists never succeed in raising a Nureyev clone who can dance as well as the original and it’s a little Quebecois boy who ends up out-dancing the whole clan of clones. It’s a thought-provoking fable, but the message that artistic genius cannot be replicated seems quite obvious from early on, making the various efforts of the scientists seem to drag on for longer than necessary.

With that said, those who already know and enjoy O’Neill’s prose probably won’t mind lingering for awhile. Flip this book open to any page and you’re likely to find at least one brilliant metaphor—if not several, along the lines of this one, which was my personal favourite: “They tossed him out of the plane, his parachute burst above him like a single piece of popcorn in the night.” (299) O’Neill has this inimitable way of summing up people and places with quippy one-liners, “Lots of writers grew in New York City. And, for reasons that weren’t always entirely obvious, boxers grew in Quebec.” (233) Her writing is contemporary and sharp, a mish-mash of links between images and ideas that truly excite. Released only one year after her second novel, Daydreams of Angels is proof that Heather O’Neill’s here to stay.


 

Carly Rosalie Vandergriendt is a Montreal-based writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Her work has appeared in Riddle Fence, Verge Magazine, and Arbitrage.Visit her at carlyrosalie.com

PRISM international Ed Board member Matthew Walsh recently interviewed Heather O’Neill. You can read it here.

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The Tuesday Prompt: Spring Cleaning

early-spring-cleaning-300x224It’s the time of year that I secretly love: Spring Cleaning. Okay, maybe I’m a little late seeing as summer is just over a month away, but it’s still spring, I like cleaning and procrastinating. Searching through my closet where everything seems to end up, I found so many items I completely forget that I had and a narrative started to pop up for each one. I found a stack of plastic baseball caps that Nat Bailey used to serve ice cream out of. I collected them as child, stuck them between the wall and bulletin board covered in pins that read Girl Power! and Save the Whales. My dad used to take my brother and I to Seattle Mariners games and the highlight was collecting a new cap for my wall. Anyway, childhood memory rehashing aside, you get the idea.

Look around your room, your office, whatever space you inhabit while writing. Are there any items that you see that have a narrative that resonates with you? If you’re truly ambitious, dig through your closet, find your old childhood toys, well-loved nicknacks, and write their story. How did you acquire this item? Did somebody give it to you? Were you a kleptomaniac child like me and stole it? How does the holding it make you feel now? How did you feel then?

This works for non-fiction, but could also turn into fiction or even a poem as well.

Happy writing (and if it turns into cleaning out your closet, good luck!).

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A Review of Soulpepper Theatre’s “Bedroom Farce”

Review by Robert Colman

Bedroom Farce
Written by Alan Ayckbourn

Directed by Ted Dykstra
Soulpepper Theatre.

English playwright Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce was first performed in 1975 at the National Theatre, and it offers up what one might expect from such a period piece— the romantic confusions of 20-something boomers trying to sort out the new sexual freedoms of their age, alongside pre-boomer parents, equally befuddled by their place in this supposed sexual revolution.

The play is centered on the rocky young marriage of Trevor and Susannah—two people utterly unsuitable for one another—and the effect that their interplay has on everyone around them. The shenanigans are set in motion when Trevor and Susannah arrive— separately—for a party at the new home of Kate and Malcolm. Also at the party is Trevor’s ex-girlfriend Jan, whose husband Nick is laid up in bed with a bad back. You know where this is going. In the course of one night, the actions of Trevor and Susannah open up old and new wounds in each of these young relationships.

As with every production staged at Soulpepper, the set designs are a part of the performance. In this case, three bedrooms are on show at all times—Malcolm and Kate’s pre-fab starter bedroom centre-stage, with mismatched sheets and threadbare dresser; Jan and Nick’s 70s swish chrome-and-beanbag bedroom set, stage right; and the bedroom of Trevor’s parents, Ernest and Delia, who play the role of a comparatively calming foil to the rest of cast—matching bedside lamps and patterned bedspread in a mute green, stage left.

The real standout performance of the evening is Delia, played by Corinne Koslo. There is much subtlety in the way in which she leans in for some touch of physical affection from her husband without ever saying anything outright on the topic. Derek Boyes as Ernest ably meets her, but hers is the meatier role, with great lines she knows exactly how to treat.

Alex McCooeye is occasionally pitch-perfect as the bedridden and taciturn Nick. An attempt to retrieve a paperback from the floor without actually getting out of bed is wonderful physical comedy. The attempt by wife Jan, played by Caitlin Driscoll, to retrieve both husband and book from the floor on her return from the party is equally successful slapstick.

The three young couples in the play, however, rarely find the subtleties between manic shouting and simpering betrayal. In the case of Trevor and Susannah, played by Rod Pederson and Amy Marysio, that middle ground doesn’t really exist—their characters are caricatures, really, so Trevor’s cluelessness and Susannah’s shrill madness can be tolerated. But around that madness I thought there were opportunities for some signs of depth, or at least certain gradations away from the manic feel of the central couple. The character of Jan, for instance, seemed to ask for a touch more than Driscoll gave to the part. Her obvious disappointment in her husband and the lack of romantic connection between them, and her doting on the hapless Trevor, could have been fleshed out a bit more in small physical ways during the performance. And McCooeye’s disdain throughout seemed to have only gradations of angry. I get a sense there is something a bit more to the character that could have been given room—a real sadness.

Katherine Gauthier is charming as the rather bubble-headed Kate. It’s Gordon Hecht as her equally bubble-headed partner Malcolm that struggles to find definition in this pair. Again, the character comes across as either wounded and silent or screaming in anger. I’m sure part of the challenge is the script—the conflict between the two is her finding porn magazines in his sock drawer, and the fact that her mind turns to floor finishes occasionally when they are making love. The moment where there is a place for a resolution of their conflict, it doesn’t quite hit the mark.

If you are a fan of vintage 70s British sitcoms, you will find much to enjoy in this performance. It’s broad comedy, with an occasional brush with real reflections on love and affection. Boyes and Koslo’s masterful performance alone make it a memorable play.

Bedroom Farce is on stage now at the Youth Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, Ontario. Find tickets and more information here.


Robert Colman is a Newmarket, Ontario-based writer and editor. He is the author of two collections of poetry, Little Empires (Quattro Books 2012) and The Delicate Line (Exile Editions 2008). His new chapbook, Factory, is now available from Frog Hollow Press. He is currently pursuing his MFA through UBC’s Optional Residency program. 

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A Necessary Re-telling: a Review of J. Caesar

J. Caesar credit Emily Cooper

The Cast of J. Caesar (Left to Right): Medina Hahn, Caroline Cave, Tracey Power, Erin Moon, Amanda Lisman, Susinn McFarlen, Pippa Mackie. Photo by Emily Cooper.

Review by Sarah Higgins

J. Caesar
Written by Tracey Power
Directed by James MacDonald
Musical Direction: Steve Charles
The Escape Artists

J. Caesar is a story of women—onstage, of course, but also in the audience, in the theatrical arts, in the world at large. And this story is strong.

The set, designed by Cory Sincennes, is evocative in its simplicity. With Sincennes’ bold lights, the space embodies a dark, dream-like quality. The only hiccup was with the edges of the lights—occasionally an actor, facing offstage, would be in darkness when her face needed to be more clearly seen. Barbara Clayden’s costumes are simple, striking, of the same world but distinct. And having hairpiece daggers as swords? Genius.

The sound, designed by Steve Charles and orchestrated by Bonnie Northgraves, was commanding. Created in and of the moment by Northgraves—who was visible onstage, part of the performance—the piano music lent an emotional underscoring to the powerful words. Charles’ sound effects, manipulated by Northgraves onstage, were immersive. The soothsayer’s voice is a mechanical droning, which has great impact—removing her words makes them more powerful. In terms of organic sound, Caesar (played by Amanda Lisman) and Brutus (Caroline Cave) are vocal powerhouses. In comparison, the voice of Antonia (Tracey Power) is not as strong, particularly in her rallying “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. However, her emotion was translated well through her body.

The use of movement in J. Caesar is elegant. The fluidity of the entrances and exits is beautiful. Brutus’ rising guilt and the fight scenes, choreographed by Paul Gelineau, are clean and powerful, the emotion of those moments augmented by the physicality of them.

J. Caesar is a powerfully theatrical production, especially in its use of sound and movement. Some of the theatrics overwhelm the story, however. In particular, the fabric blood was perhaps too far out of the audience’s world to have the desired effect. And the impact of the prophetic dreams is muddled because the dream sequences are not as distinct as they could be, perhaps with the help of lights or sound.

But Shakespeare has been deftly adapted by The Escape Artists. The story they present flows succinctly, growing almost organically from the original into something strong and altogether different. Although the world-building was not immediately clear, the futuristic setting not defined at the top or integral to the story, the language these characters speak is world-changing. The power of hearing “women” replace “men” in all the lines is unmistakeable. These women’s words have an effect beyond the story they’re in. They speak to a shift in the usual power dynamics—a shift that needs to happen outside the theatre as well.

As director James MacDonald said, it shouldn’t be as noteworthy as it is for a theatre production to involve all women. So a sincere thank you, The Escape Artists, for a powerful, beautiful, eminently strong piece of storytelling…but still, I wish I didn’t have to applaud you so vigorously.

J. Caesar is at Performance Works May 5 – 17, 2015 and May 21 – 29, 2015 at The Kay Meek Centre in repertory with Tracy Power’s musical Miss Shakespeare


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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