PRISM’s Digitization Project of Archives is Now Available!

PRISM international is excited to announce that our archives have been digitized! That’s right: fifty-six years of western Canada’s oldest literary journal is now available online. You can check our early works by writers such as recently GG-nominated Robyn Sarah whose work first appeared in PRISM 13:1 or Seamus Heaney, who published two poems in issue 12:1. In 1996, PRISM also managed to publish a translation by Seamus Heaney of the Irish poem “The Yellow Bittern,” originally written by the 17th-18th century poet Cathal Buí Mac Giolla Ghunna. In a brief interview, Sarah O’Leary, author of When You Were Small (Simply Read Books, 2008), divulges how she was able to get her hands on work while she editor of PRISM international. 

PRISM’s Creative Non-fiction Contest deadline looms closer (November 20, 2015) and what better way to prepare your submission than to read two pieces by Russell Wangersky, who’s our 2015 contest judge and was winner of the 2003 and 2004 Creative Non-fiction Contests.

Our very own Poetry Editor Dominique Bernier-Cormier worked closely with the UBC Library’s Digitalization Centre during the four-month process. When asked about the importance of such a project, Bernier-Cormier said, “The digitization of PRISM international’s archives is an important step in preserving and promoting influential literature, both Canadian and international.” 

We’ve got 194 from 1959 to 2015 available for your viewing pleasure. Be sure to check them out! Did we mention it’s free?

If you are a former PRISM contributor, and you would like to have your work removed from the digital archive, please contact us at to opt out.

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The Tuesday Prompt: “Know Thyself” by Amber Dawn

HEADSHOT_cropped_FULL-REZ-copyWith Nonfic November slowly coming to a close and the 2015 Creative Non-fiction Contest extended deadline approaching (Nov. 30!), it feels appropriate to have our final November Tuesday Prompt from Amber Dawn, who was PRISM international’s 2011 Creative Non-fiction Contest JudgeAmber Dawn is a writer living on unceded territory of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations (incorporated Vancouver, Canada). Her memoir How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir won the 2013 Vancouver Book Award. She is the author of the Lambda Award-winning novel Sub Rosa, and editor of the anthologies Fist of the Spider Women: Fear and Queer Desire and With A Rough Tongue. Amber Dawn was 2012 winner of the Writers’ Trust of Canada Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT writers. She currently teaches creative writing at Douglas College and the University of British Columbia, as well as volunteer mentors at several community-driven art and healing spaces. 

During a recent internet procrastination jaunt I found a meme of a cartoon stick figure masturbating. The figure’s genital area was drawn as a coil of heavy black scribbles. The meme’s text: Know Thyself.

I’d say this is an apt representation of writing memoir. Take this metaphor wherever you wish. It’s my gift to you. You’re welcome.

I’ve given this advice to hundreds of students and I will offer it to hundreds more: you must make self-love a part of your writing practice. Certainly, I have tried to write while in a punishing mood, a state of cruel detachment. Certainly, I have scratched and picked at memoir (and at myself) with cool, objective hand—the writing I produced was flimsy and I felt like crap. I’d much rather view that coil of heavy black scribbles—that is my psyche, vulnerabilities, values and memory—as a place of pleasure. Finding pleasure (in memoir writing and in getting off) requires forming intimate relationship with ourselves. The following writing prompt was inspired by a workbook exercise found in Ecstasy is Necessary: A Practical Guideby sex expert Barbara Carrellas.

1. Forget the publishing industry trends. Sure, we all tell ourselves “just write.” Let’s be honest, we embraced the long-running surge in memoir sales, and perhaps are now suffering from the post-memoir boom anxiety. Here’s one way the aphorism “know thyself” can be observed. Don’t boast. Don’t try to charm a market trend—know thyself and pay no heed to the attention of the multitudes.

2.  Now let’s get our hands moving. Imagine yourself back in the specific time period that you are (or hope to be) writing about. Go for “flashback” vision, not hindsight thinking.

3. Make a list of who or what things were important to you at the time. Treat this like a freewrite; don’t overthink it.  How did you spend your time, your money or resources? What choices were you making? What objects were found in your home? What places did you frequent? What were your goals? Who did you love? Be real, if buck-a-beer night at the corner pub was where you spent your hard-earned dollars, write it down on your list. If that toxic romance sucked up all your sweet time, write it down. Here I’ll point to Aristophanes take on “know thyself” in his comedy The Clouds—know thyself, how ignorant and stupid you are (or were).

4. Rank the top four to six on your list in order of importance. For example, i. my boyfriend, ii. that green Norco Kokanee mountain bike I rode everywhere, iii. the old sick cat Mittens I adopted in my 20s, etc.

5.  Evaluate your top four to six for deeper meaning. Ask “why” were these people or things important until you hit what feels like the ultimately true and final answer. For example, if I picked “boyfriend” then I must ask “why boyfriend?” what did this boyfriend give me? “Love?” Well, sure, but why did I need “love”? Was “physical satisfaction” important? Or “adoration?” Or was “building trust with someone after my trust had previously been broken in a previous relationship” important at the time?  Oh, yes, my emotional temperature rose slightly when I arrived at “trust.” I’ve discovered a truth. And most likely, I’ve also found a theme that will run through my memoir. This doesn’t mean I can’t still write those hot sex scenes that feature my then-boyfriend, however, I now understand these scenes are less about physical satisfaction and more about exploring trust. I’ll need to find a way to show my reader this theme—this ultimate truth—in my memoir too.

I’m going to leave you with one more usage of “know thyself” from neo-noir film The Matrix. The Wachowskis use Emet Nosce (the Latin) as inscription over the Oracle’s door in their movies. The Oracle explains to the hero, Neo, “It means know thy self. I wanna tell you a little secret, no one needs to tell you you are in love, you just know it, through and through.” This reference is to say that you don’t really need me to remind you to make self-love part of your writing practice, or to nudge you towards finding your ultimate truths. If you are writing memoir, you are already doing this work. I’m rooting for you. Keep going!





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Love In The Time of iPhones: A Review of Twenty Something Theatre’s “52 Pick-Up”

Photo Credit: Charlotte Labelle

52 Pick-Up
Twenty Something Theatre
Havana Theatre
November 13-29, 2015
Tickets available through

Review by K.C. Novak

The recorded pre-show intro for Twenty Something Theatre’s production of 52 Pick-Up is funny in the way the show itself is funny: it’s meta, it’s charming, it’s hip.  The voice instructs us to answer our phones if they happen to ring, to tell the caller to come down to see 52 Pick-Up immediately, and to know that we were wrong if we were one of those people who thought a pre-recorded intro for the show wasn’t going to work.

The premise of Canadian co-playwrights TJ Dawe and Rita Bozi’s 52 Pick-Up is simple: a man and a woman enter to start the show, toss a deck of cards into the air, and proceed to act out 52 vignettes from their failed relationship, one randomly recovered card at a time.

Director Brian Cochrane’s staging in Havana Theatre is equally clear and simple to strong effect. In the theatre nestled in the back corner of Havana Restaurant, two chairs and an Oriental rug sit on the black box stage. Internal monologues, phone calls, post-coital pillow talk, café scenes, and soliloquies of singledom are performed within the definitive boundaries of the stage, creating a consistent story structure despite chance.

It’s here where credit is due to both actors Sara Andrina Brown and Dan Willows.  Their playful, charismatic stage personas are equal to the charm of 52 Pick-Up and also its inherent game.  Both actors manage with ease the memory-recall of 52 starting points and also 52 new ways to allow the previous scene to inform the next.  Brown and Willows delightfully move within this framework as two skilled comedians would through an improv show.  A small gaff in reading the next scene’s card included Brown laughing at herself, turning her mistake into brief commentary on the play, then feeding her laughter into her character for the next scene, which had the audience laughing at her inside jokes (very meta, much charming, so hip).

But while the success of 52 Pick-Up is the novelty of how the story is being told, not much is provided to give a sense as to why.  The script itself is lacking: while the opening suggests two former lovers are reconvening to go through the past for one another’s sake, interior scenes address the audience head-on, as if a public trial is the actual reason for ruining a deck of cards.  And why a deck of cards?  Outside the pun, there is no relationship between the play’s structure and story.

This leaves too much of a gap for director and performers to amend.  The best attempts are made by Brown’s willingness to realize the honesty of the relationship in her performance.  Her soft-eyed vulnerability, in contrast to Willows’ presentational and sketch-like approach, give 52 Pick-Up a depth it often loses to the necessity of quickly establishing character arcs with clichés and inside jokes.  It would be a more fulfilling evolution to see the heartbreak, rather than just the breakneck (and very impressive) speed of reassembling 52 moments of these two lovers’ lives in 65 minutes..

Twenty Something Theatre’s mission includes “producing contemporary theatre that is provocative, edgy and relevant to our generation.”  They are spot-on with mounting 52 Pick-Up in Havana Theatre, the low din of restaurant chitchat just audible beyond the closed theatre doors.  It’s everything a twenty-something night out should have: comedy, pot jokes, locally produced art, and a bar waiting nearby.  “I would totally swipe right on this show,” said this reviewer.  “I found it to be meta and charming and hip.”

K.C. Novak is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing and Theatre at UBC.

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2015 Creative Non-fiction Contest Deadline EXTENDED!

We’re pleased to announce that PRISM international’s 2015 Creative Non-fiction Contest has been extended for another ten days. You have until November 30th 2015 to submit your best creative non-fiction.

What does this mean? Everything! If you didn’t get a chance to submit, here’s a little extra time to do so. Already submitted? You can always submit again for an additional $5 (that’s one Starbucks coffee right there). If you’re undecided about submitting, here’s an interview with our 2015 judge Russell Wangersky that will hopefully get you excited. Still not convinced? Our grand prize is $1500 along with publication credit and a subscription. First runner-up receives $600, a subscription, and publication considered. Second runner-up receives $400, a subscription, and publication considered.

Your entry fee also gets you a one-year subscription to PRISM international or an extension of an existing subscription. And spread the word! Please tell other writers about our contests or share via social media. 

For information on the contest please click hereand to enter via Submittable, click right hereIf you have any questions, please contact

We’re looking forward to reading your work!

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The Tuesday Prompt: “A story is instead to me more like a rabbit hole. You don’t know you’re in one until you’re falling, in the dark.” by Timothy Taylor

timothyWe’re just over halfway through our Nonfic November and UBC Creative Writing Associate Professor Timothy Taylor shares a writing prompt about character development and desire. Taylor’s first novel Stanley Park was released to critical acclaim in 2001 and was nominated for a Giller Prize, a Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize as well as both a Vancouver and BC Book Award. His second novel, The Blue Light Project, was a bestseller in Canada and went on to win the CBC Bookie Prize in fiction. Taylor’s most recent book is Foodville, a nonfiction account of his life as a food writer and self-identified non-foodie who is nevertheless a passionate eater.

Like Linda Svendsen, who wrote brilliantly in these pages this past June, I don’t typically make use of so-called “writers’ prompts”. A story is instead to me more like a rabbit hole. You don’t know you’re in one until you’re falling, in the dark.

That said, French cultural anthropologist and linguist Rene Girard died November 4th, just a couple days before I sat down to write this prompt. And reflecting on the life of that great man–Stanford Professor Emeritus, member of the French Academy, author of over 30 books–it occurred to me that he has embodied a kind of permanent prompt in my own writing life since first reading him 15 years ago.

I can only explain that by unpacking a bit of Girard’s first and most famous theory. In his early book Deceit, Desire & the Novel, Girard makes a mesmerizing and persuasive case that all human desire (beyond basic needs or appetites) is mimetic. That is, desires as we experience them are akin to infections we have caught from others. The implication is that the relationship between subject and desired object is not direct. It is triangular, with the third corner occupied by a model, called a mediator, who is perceived by the subject to have and hold the same object.

And that’s where it gets interesting for writers. Because in Girardian thought, it is in fact the mediator–distant or intimately close as they may be to the subject–who is the source and loci of desire. It’s the mediator themselves, due to their possession of the object in question, whose essence is desired. “All desire is a desire to be,” Girard wrote. And so we can then think of desire then as a yearning for completeness, a completeness that the subject perceives the mediator to have attained already.

How is this useful, in shaping characters? Well, first, because the structure described, when sensed by the character, is deeply distressing. Far from proving us autonomous actors, mimetic desire suggests we are puppets, with strings to be pulled, chains to be yanked. “Oh hell to love by another’s eyes”, says Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

But second, and arguably more important, mimetic desire has the unswerving tendency to put our characters into competition with their mediators. Our characters want what their mediators are perceived to possess (their status, their clothes, their friends, their self-assurance) and in their failure to similarly attain, our characters come to perceive the mediator, that metaphysical, inspiring, tormenting presence, as the obstacle to their satisfaction. (The Fan, The King of Comedy, anyone?)

Girard writes: “In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare emphasized the strength and stability of unfulfilled desire…”

What our characters desire is inspired. And while unattained, it is all consuming. It possesses. It marks the days.

“…In A Midsummer Night’s Dream this emphasis remains, but it is supplemented by an equal emphasis on the instability of fulfilled desire.”

And then the desire is attained. The dudes get the money, the girl gets the boy, or the new iWatch, or the new plum job. And the eye drifts onwards, ahead of what has been attained, instinctively, hungrily, to the next thing that has not, to the next mediator whose superior essence might be perceived and then desired.

Girard isn’t exactly a breezy read. Nobody who writes in this penetrating and implicating way can be. You might squirm. You might object. You might say: hey, not me! But in thinking about our characters–we God-like authors, insulated from the spreading world of our own pages–we can afford to consider what might be the Hermian Hell for each.

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Clarity of Spirit: Meditative Music and Dance Meets Stunning Visuals in The Cultch’s Presentation of “Sunya”

Photo Credit: Michael Slobidian

Review by K.C. Novak

The Cultch in partnership with Diwali Fest
A Sinha Danse and Constantinople Collaboration (Montréal)
The Historic Theatre
November 10-14, 2015

In partnership with Diwali Festival, The Cultch’s presentation of Sunya, a hybrid dance/music/visual collaboration between Montréal’s Sinha Danse and music trio Constantinople, shakes free the didactic burden of a “cultural event” and manifests as a fresh exploration of movement, music, and spiritual energy.

Aligning with the spirit of the Diwali Fest, noted by organizers Rohit Chokhani and Vineeta Minhas, to “bring together people of all backgrounds in a celebration of ‘the universal light that exists in everyone,’” Sunya is an accessible “cultural collision” of East and West. The rich traditions of Indian dance and Persian music are playfully put into modern experimentation with a performance that defies time or place.

Sinha Danse founder Roger Sinha’s choreography is an organic and efficient narrator. Once Sinha himself exits the prologue, he leaves the space to his four dancers, returning only for the final scene. The dancers, surprisingly all Caucasian, does bring up the question of what expectations a production that is part of a South Asian cultural arts festival needs to serve? Perhaps an answer is suggested in Sunya’s scene structure: while the dancer’s relationships are left undefined, the impression remains Sinha is the teacher passing on a physical life for his students to explore.

This physical life is earthy and anti-intellectual, a hybrid of Sinha’s Indo-Armenian roots and contemporary dance. The result is a trance-like transmission of the dancer’s energy to the audience; a long meditation on the nature of presence, taking up space, yearning, self-doubt, and freedom.

A deep narrative command of music performed by Constantinople connects the stunning visual life of Sunya to an otherworldly plane. Artistic Director Kiya Tabassian’s soulful voice and graceful setar playing fills the auditorium with a haunting folk resonance. Pierre-Yves Martel and Patrick Graham join on viola da gamba and perscussions respectively, adding to the delicate orchestration, physically weaving itself through the dancer’s choreography. The internationally acclaimed artistry of Constantinople is met with a masterful sound design, which gives the music its proper integrity in The Cultch’s intimate venue, the Historic Theatre.

Accomplished video art by visual designer Jerôme Delapierre brings Sunya into the fourth dimension. A standout visual sequence, which normally would be met by impressed applause, leaves the audience in contemplative silence: a black blanket patterned with white script gives way to waves, the performers moving through its surreal illusion of motion speeding up in the dark and slowing down as if under water. A visual lullaby to the chattering of the mind, it asks the mind to hush, be quiet, and be here now.

The sum total of Sunya is an invitation to leave the pedestrian world for an hour and enter a lush dreamlike space of spiritual energy. My inner monologue, trained to search for a savvy, modern insight to chew on, was silenced by the feeling of being close to this energy; it just felt good to be in the same space as the performance. An impressive piece of theatre which will no doubt inspire Diwali Fest to continue to invite theatrical artistry of Sunya’s caliber into its program for future years.

K.C. Novak is pursuing her MFA in Creative Writing and Theatre at UBC.

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Risk the Essence of Good Theatre: A Review of “Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama”

Review by Bryce Doersamtheatreoftheunimpressed-220

Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama
Jordan Tannahill
Coach House Books, 2015

When a particular art form loses its place in the cultural hierarchy, sliding down towards irrelevance, those who still hold it dear generally fall into one of two camps in explaining its lost prominence: those who blame the audience and those who blame the artists. Fortunately, in Theatre of the Unimpressed, playwright and theatre director Jordan Tannahill lays the blame for live theatre’s declining cultural position squarely at the feet of the artists, making for a more productive conversation. The question facing theatre artists today is, as he puts it, “what elements [make] an invitation to the theatre feel more like a trip to the dentist and less like scoring Beyoncé tickets?” (10)

For those who prefer dental work to live theatre, the idea of reading an entire book about contemporary theatre practice in Canada may seem about as appealing as a high school production of Death of a Salesman. Tannahill, however, makes the subject matter accessible even to those without much interest in dramaturgy. He avoids the bad habits that plague much of arts writing–prolixity, abstraction, and unnecessary jargon–and instead, investigates his central question through lively interviews and stories from his own career, all told with wry humour and an infectious sense of enthusiasm. The book is as much autobiography as analysis, as much an investigation into Tannahill’s own passion as the public’s seeming lack thereof. A chapter on what makes a dull play, for example, begins with the author discussing audience participation with a man at an orgy in a Montréal hotel room, before segueing into a comparison between boring orgies and boring plays: “People go through the motions, they do what’s expected, they make the sounds they’re supposed to make, but it’s not really as surprising or exhilarating as you hope or imagine it will be.” (21)

Tannahill’s account of producing Sheila Heti’s play All Our Happy Days Are Stupid at his own cinema and performance lab, Videofag (co-founded with William Ellis in 2012), is a high point, and nowhere does he better capture the thrill of the shared risk between artist and audience than in his description of the staging of this “sprawling, disorienting” (45) play with non-professional actors.

“The spectre of failure loomed pleasurably over the whole event, with the audience delighted to watch these unlikely performers working in the impossibly small confines of Videofag, sincerely committed to the task of mounting this supposedly unstageable play. There was a thrill and a tension in the possibility that the whole house of cards could come cascading down at any moment.” (50)

This is really the central argument of the book. For Tannahill, risk is the essence of good theatre, and without it, we’re left with warmed-over rehashings of well-trodden classics and new work that has been workshopped to bloodless perfection. “What I am advocating for,” he says, “is a little more impulse and mystery in place of reason and structure.” (38) In addition to this central thesis, he addresses a range of more specific issues, including the benefits and drawbacks of the subscription model for theatres, the role of imperfections in creating compelling performances, the impact of the internet and cinema on live theatre, and the origin of today’s common play structure.

The book has its imperfections. Its reliance on anecdotal evidence could have been better balanced by actual data and research. Tannahill gets lost in tales from his own career and spends longer than necessary relaying stories that contribute little to the arguments he sets forth. Still, in these passages, it’s easy to be forgiving as his excitement for the medium shines through, and his evocative descriptions and wicked humour keep the reader engaged. Like a good play, Tannahill’s book is flawed but personal, imperfect but captivating.

Bryce Doersam is a writer of fiction, non-fiction, and theatre, currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at UBC. His non-fiction has been published online by the Terry Project and the Georgia Straight. His short play, Carl Williams, was produced for the 2014 Brave New Play Rites festival. Visit him online at, or follow him on twitter @brycedoe.

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