Issue 53.4 is Here and It’s a Handful!

11223743_1156727874354093_3361821410850414474_nOkay, okay: you try to think of crab puns that don’t involve the obvious! The pressure of nailing puns aside, PRISM’s Summer issue 53.4 is here and will be in your mailboxes very soon!

Our affectionately named issue, “Crab Hands”, contains so many great pieces we’re really excited about. We’ve got the winners and runner-ups for the 2015 Poetry and Fiction Contests, judged by Ken Babstock and Marina Endicott. Four poems by Aislinn Hunter about her time as the resident poet at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, four poems by Trillium Award Finalist Steven Heighton from his forthcoming issue with House of Anansi, and poems by four more poets: Chris Banks, Suzannah Showler, Sandry Shreve, and Laura Matwichuk. Orlando Hernández translates two poems by Dionisio Cañas from Spanish, poems with deceptively simple language: “I slept with a future hanged man./ It wasn’t my intention to make love/ to Death, but such is life.” (71)

Toronto writer Trevor Corkum’s stuns with his powerful memoir about his turbulent time in Turkey while Zach VandeZande  imagines Henry David Thoreau as a questionable boyfriend. Marcia Walker’s “Meditation on Dresses” tracks a woman’s relationship with her mother through the purchase of dresses.

Now we can’t forget about the cover! As soon as we saw Davide Luciano’s “Knitting a Stitch”, we were all in agreement. We had to have it! We love the colours, the composition, the crab hands! Yes, we know that’s not what they’re called, but it’s stuck.

We hope you enjoy our latest issue! If you don’t have subscription yet, you can sign up here! If you want to get your pinchers on this issue, you can get it here. Better hurry! With all the fantastic content, we don’t expect them to be around for long!



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An Interview with “Shakespeare’s Rebel” writer, C.C. Humphreys

image-2 (1)Interview by Sarah Higgins

C.C. Humphreys is an award-winning author of thirteen novels and several plays, and an established actor of screen and stage. He originally met the Bard on the Beach festival when he joined the acting company for the 1991 season–his first acting gig in Canada. Now, Bard is putting on a world premiere of Humphreys’ play Shakespeare’s Rebel, which he has adapted from his novel of the same name. Directed by Christopher Gaze and dramaturged by Martin Kinch, the play is the thesis of Humphreys’ MFA in Creative Writing.

What’s it like adapting your own work into a different format (i.e., novel into stageplay)?

Unsurprisingly, quite hard. They have different dynamics. A novel is far more expansive, you can tell story and develop character using interior monologue, describe scenes and people. With a play it all has to be done with words and actions. I tend to use a lot of ‘character in action’ in my novels so it’s not as hard as it would be for, say, Jane Austen (is she still alive?). But how a character conducts himself, what he reveals and conceals, how he reacts, can only be done in dialogue and the odd scripted move. Of course, you are also aware that the script is a blueprint for other talents, that director, designers, actors will all bring their talents to bear. As an actor myself perhaps I am more aware and find less need to spell everything out. But what works on the novel’s page doesn’t necessarily on the stage. New action must be created to make the same point. And scenes I love have to go, because a play has a momentum that cannot pause too long. Darlings lie slaughtered all over my hut! So, yes, hard.

You write a lot of historical drama. What’s one hard thing about writing historical fiction? What’s one good thing–challenge, satisfaction–that only historical drama brings you?

A hard thing–keeping the right balance between the actual ‘history’ and the story’s imperatives. I am a storyteller, not a historian, though I love history and you have to try and get it right, otherwise you’ll get letters (or emails these days!). But taking a real person from history and giving them voice, making them do things they may not have done, ignoring things they did – it can be hard.

A good thing–feedback from readers who love that I got the balance between story and history right. I think we historical novelists have a place in telling the tales from the past, getting more into character than an historian feels able to do perhaps. Of course we get it wrong. But we also turn people onto a person, or an era. And the more we study history the better, as far as I am concerned.

What’s your favourite part of novel-writing? And does it translate to the stage, when that novel becomes a play?

My favourite time is fairly rare–those first draft moments when you are making it all up and appear to be channelling character or action. And yes, those inventions can make it to the stage. When I see the play–or indeed read parts of the book again–I relive the moment when that synapse fired and that connection was made.

To my understanding, this is the first non-Bard show at the festival. Congrats! How did that happen?

Actually, they have done modern plays before, though always with a Shakespearian theme. They’ve just never done a completely new play, a world premiere. It came about because I’d known Christopher Gaze, the Artistic Director, ever since I acted at Bard in 1991. We were friends and he wanted to do the book launch for Rebel at the theatre. We partnered with Academie Duello, Vancouver amazing medieval martial arts school, and did a night of swords and words. We packed the tent and both Christopher and I thought: Hmm! Meeting for a beer, he asked me to adapt just before I asked him. No guarantees but… They were involved in readings and feedback as I worked through the script. Of course, I had the brilliant UBC Prof Martin Kinch on my side as I did the play as my thesis for my MFA. With his help, and after many drafts, Bard decided to go for it.

How involved were you in the production of Shakespeare’s Rebel? Or, how much change did the script go through (from the time it was accepted as part of the Bard on the Beach season to opening night)?

Quite involved. We workshopped the accepted script for two days with the full company and I rewrote based on that. I attended some rehearsals and was always available for questions. Martin Kinch was taken on as dramaturge, so he was in rehearsal, taking feedback from actors and I rewrote some based on their problems and comments. I also had to insist that some stuff went back in when actors changed things without thinking the change or its repercussions through. So, yes, quite a lot of reworking, right into preview week.

It’s a very meta play, referring to the theatre on multiple occasions (which, of course, Shakespearean theatre does). I find it’s rare, on the other hand, for novels to be self-referential. How do you find novels and stage plays to be different, on this account, and how do they inform that tendency towards self-awareness?

Some novelists write with a heavy authorial voice–i.e. you are always aware of someone telling you the story. I don’t do that, letting my characters tell it as much as possible. This play felt that it needed to refer to itself, to theatre. One director friend described it as ‘a love letter to the theatre and to actors’ and I think that’s accurate. I’ve always felt the theatre is strange and magical at its best, and its practitioners part of a mystery. It’s nice for them (and me) to reflect on that within a play.

There are a lot of Shakespearean lines deftly woven into this play, along with a very well-balanced blend of modern and Shakespearean-era language and colloquialisms. Can you speak for a bit on writing in someone else’s voice (in this case, the Bard), and how you adapt it to your own?

Thank you. It’s a balancing act, to be honest. Write too ‘olde-worldy’ and people would retch. Write too modern and you lose the sense of another time. The novelist, David Mitchell, talks of the language you find as ‘bygonese’–inaccurate, but plausible. Giving a sense of a period without tipping into parody. But I am also aware, as I am as a novelist, that I am writing for today’s audience. So I throw in the odd modernism, carefully and for effect. (For example, Burbage, urging Shakespeare to write a massive hit otherwise the company’s broke adds, ‘No pressure’). As for having the character Shakespeare on stage and putting words into his mouth, all I can say is: he’s been doing it to me for years!

“Shakespeare’s Rebel” runs to September 19 at the Howard Family Stage (Bard on the Beach).

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. 

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Be Honest on the Page: an Interview with Alison MacLeod

Interview by Jennifer Gryzenhout


I met Alison MacLeod a few years ago during a weeklong writer’s retreat in England. It was a week tucked away in an old house in the English countryside, completely focused on writing with other writers. Alison is one of the regular writers in residence for fiction. When I attended, she gave morning workshops around various matters of technique and one-on-one manuscript consultations. I couldn’t help but be struck by her enthusiasm for writing and drawn in by the eloquence with which she expressed it. Not only was she inspiring to work with, and not only is she a writer committed to beautiful and fresh forms of expression while getting at the heart of human truth, but she was also my fellow Canadian. Alison spoke with me about moving from her home in Nova Scotia to the UK, becoming a writer, and writing.    


Did you always know that you wanted to write? At what point were you comfortable describing yourself as a writer?

Well, thinking back to when I was small, I used to tell people, oddly enough, that I wanted either to be a writer or a teacher for the blind. Of course when I mentioned the latter, most adults seemed to think I was a selfless little girl who wanted nothing more than to help others; I can still feel how they beamed at me. But in reality, Braille (which I taught myself in a rudimentary way) fascinated me because it seemed to me to be like a secret code, a mysterious form of human communication. All language on the page seemed to me like a secret code or a kind of magic or telepathy, a way of sending your thoughts and imaginings into the minds of others. I wanted to do that. In time, my ambitions towards Braille fell away but my love of stories grew as I grew. I suppose I wanted to be able to transfix others with stories in the way that stories had transfixed me.

In school, I wrote poems, stories and mini-newspapers. I had two wonderful English teachers who encouraged me; I still have the stories I wrote for their classes and their comments on each. Those comments were probably as precious to me as the first good reviews of my debut novel. I’ve always held onto encouraging wordsteachers’ words, positive lines from editors, and so on. They’ve sustained me when the work was hard, often without an end in sight. Criticism is essential, too, of coursebut I tend not to collect it for re-reading. It lives on in most writers’ memories, burned on with a blow-torch, and I’m no different.

I think I began calling myself a writer when I went off, at the age off 22, to the UK to join the university of Lancaster’s M.A. programme in Creative Writing. The M.A. gave me a kind of permission to call myself a writer. I’d made sacrifices to get there. I’d been writing what I hoped were real stories for many months – which seemed like a long time at that age. I’d saved long and hard. I’d taken on a student loan. I then travelled far from my home in Nova Scotia, with a heavy electric typewriter, a suitcase with a year’s worth of clothing, and hardly a shred of information about Lancaster in those pre-internet days. When I finally arrived, I was very homesick. I thought, what have I done? Where am I? So my writing became my ‘home’, the familiar place I could go in my mind. It’s still that for me. But in Lancaster, in time I found othersa special few on the M.A. They became my friends, my fellow writers, my tribe.

When you are working on a writing project, what does an average day look like for you?

My writing mind usuallyand perversely!hopes for bad weather so I’m less distracted by the views from my living room, where I write. On bright sunny dayswhen half of Brighton streams past looking like they’re on a permanent holiday, I sometimes leave my curtains closed. For the space of that day or those few uninterrupted days, I need to be able to forget the world in order to enter it more deeply, more intensively. In the morning of a writing day, I’ll try to stay in bed for ten minutes after I wake, when I’m still at the borders of sleep. In that short burst of time, I turn over the particulars of the current story or chapter in my head. That can be a lovely, fruitful time. It gives me a sense of something growing; of something I’m longing to get at again, and usually fresh images or small but important connections come to me. Times when the creative mind can ‘idle’ are vitalas vital as the intense marathon of it all at the desk.

In the last six months of the writing of Unexploded, I was so desperate to ‘be delivered’ of my book that I was increasingly staying up to 4:00, 5:00 and even, on a few occasions, 8 am. In other words, I was gradually becoming nocturnalnot something I recommend but, if I wasn’t teaching the next day, I longed simply to stay with my writing and to ‘inhabit’ the work. I love it when three hours pass like fifteen minutes. It’s a great thing to be so deeply absorbed.

Unexploded is a beautifully written story about love and prejudice set during World War II in Brighton, England. What motivated you to write a story set in this period and place?

Any novel springs from, let’s say, a hundred ideas, images and things you want to explore. Above all, with Unexploded, although it’s set in 1940-41, I was in fact trying to think about the experience of war and terror today, and a few lines from a Margaret Atwood short story came back to me. The story is called “Poppies: Three Variations”. It’s a meditation on the poem “In Flanders Fields”, and at the end, she conveys very powerfully the truth that a warwhether far away or not, whether we’re particularly aware of it or notbecomes a part of the intimate fabric of our lives.

Perhaps the first inspiration for Unexploded came as I walked through London very early on the day after the bombings on July 7, 2005. Everything that morning had come to a complete and ghostly standstill. There wasn’t a single person (except me) on the tube at that early hour. The entire city was still in the silent but deadly grip of terror.

Later, at home in Brighton, I wondered what it would be like to live with that sort of fear—with that dreadfor weeks or months or years on end. What would that do to a person? What did it do? It occurred to me that Brightonians had lived with that fear over a single significant year (1940-41) when the town waited daily for a major German force to land on its beaches.

The invasion on England’s south coast didn’t come. Hitler decided to turn east and invade Russia instead. But at the time, it was felt to be inevitable by both sides, and that singular yearnow all but forgottenseemed to me to be a strange, surreal and important story.

Not only would it allow me to ‘lift up’ the lost stories of what many people along the English coast had actually endured, but perhaps more crucially, it would allow me to explore our modern-day fears of ‘terror’: how we live with threats that are seemingly ever-present even when there is no visible enemy.

As a novelist, I wanted to re-create the pressure-cooker of life in the town over those 13 months. I wanted to explore the effects of fear on our most personal or intimate lives. Unexploded is the portrait of a marriage that is, in a sense, about to detonate under the pressures of that year; it is also an examination of the surprise of love; of how we lose it and how we find it.

I wanted, too, to explore the question of who and how we scapegoat at times of national crisis. Prejudice is perhaps most deeply troubling because it is so completely random. We know that people can be both decent and caring in some contexts and racist in others. I wanted to probe that human contradiction. While acknowledging the great courage and sacrifice of the era, I wanted to avoid sentimentality. That seemed crucial.

The novel was long-listed for the 2013 Man-Booker prize. What was your reaction to that? Has it had an impact on your writing career?

Absolutely. Two years of events, talks and interviews both in the UK and internationally are only now coming to an end, and as wonderful as that recognition has been, I’m ready now for things to quieten. My new novel-in-progress is also ready for things to quieten!

In your role as judge for various literary awards such as the International Frank O’Connor award for short fiction, what kinds of things stand out for you when you read a story?  

The power of the voice of the pagethe sense of being compelled to listen. That power comes from all sorts of things on the page, but perhaps, above all, it’s the precise use of language, an ear for the natural rhythm of a line of prose, a daring freshness in the telling of a story, and a sense of the work springing from a place that is utterly human. A great story or novel surprises us with honesty. It might be realist, absurd or experimental, but it delivers a vision that we recognisephysically, imaginatively and intellectuallyas ‘true to life’, and it makes itself urgent, or so ‘whole’ you don’t want to break its spell by putting it down.

I recall that you are passionate about the short story form. You founded ‘Thresholds International Online Short Story Forum’ for the University of Chichester and you are soon to deliver your second short story collection. Can you tell us what it is you love most about the short story form?

Its intensity, its intimacy and the sense of mystery that its characters often possessas in Chekhov’s stories where his characters don’t feel as if they’ve been written but rather that they exist mysteriously beyond the 20 pages of the story, beyond the author’s control, and beyond our reading of them. There’s something uncanny about the short story form, and I love that too.

What are the challenges in writing short stories? In writing novels? What are the rewards of each form?

The short story form is beautifully mutable. It’s so plastic. With each short story you write, you have to find its unique and natural shape; you have to discover the form every time. That’s unnerving and it can be exhausting but it’s also exhilarating. There’s such a sense of imaginative freedom. It’s wet clay on the wheel and you’re trying to hold on; you’re trying to capture the flux and mess of life in motion in very precise language and observation. Short fiction evolves from a very organic process of creation.

A novel, by comparison, is like architecture. Some things just work, some things never will. You need buttresses and keystones, plot, sub-plot and perhaps 4 to 5 turning points. I’m never someone who plots a novel before I write itI need to discover it much as the reader needs to discover itbut, unlike a short story (where you might simply trust in a single image in order to begin), a novel requires at least a strong foundation as you start and a sense of a few supporting walls, idea-wise. It demands a lot. It’s epic labour. It’s orchestral. It’s a big singing space. But when you feel that you have perhaps made something big that is also, in some way, beautiful or powerful or moving, it’s a joyous thing. You can only give thanks to the writing gods.

What is your advice for fiction writers who are just starting out?

Be honest on the pagenot as easy as it sounds of course. Take risks. Never rest with the skills you have; push them on and on, if only a little at a time. Be ambitious but not clever-clever. Remember that good writing is the work of a lifetime; it doesn’t follow neat learning curves. We all surge ahead, fall backward and move forward again. Read all the time. Mark up your books, underline great lines. Keep a notebookit’s a larder of images and ideas when times are lean.

Jennifer Gryzenhout writes fiction and creative non-fiction. She has short stories published in Ink Tears and The Avalon Literary Review, and is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination. She is a teacher of English literature and creative writing, and is working on her MFA in Creative Writing in UBC’s optional residency program. She is currently working on short fiction and a novel. From Calgary, she now lives in Amsterdam, The Netherlands.


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“Writing may be a means of self-expression, but that self is also defined by social factors outside of my control”: An Interview with PRISM’s 2015 Poetry Contest Winner Phoebe Wang

phoebewangPRISM’s Poetry Editor Dominique Bernier-Cormier talks with PRISM’s 2015 Poetry Contest winner Phoebe Wang about her winning poem, ethnic representation in Canadian poetry, and the importance of literary criticism in Canada. Wang also sheds some light on her writing process and what inspires her work. 

Wang’s winning poem, “Regional Transit”, appears in PRISM’s Summer Issue 53.4. To read her poem, get your copy here.

First of all, congratulations again on winning PRISM’s 2015 Poetry Contest, judged by Ken Babstock, with your poem “Regional Transit”. Can you tell us a bit about the poem? Where did it come from? Did it go through an extensive editorial process, or was it mostly formed from the start? 

After a year of job hunting, I began working at a tutoring centre in Richmond Hill. It was an hour and half commute, and everyday I passed the same Metrolinx billboard on Bayview and HWY 7 for the VIVA Purple line that had already been built. It contained a dangling modifier that I couldn’t help correcting every time I saw it, and it became the first line of “Regional Transit.” Despite the new bus lines, I was often late which made me wonder why it was taking me so long to get where I wanted to go, both physically and symbolically (everything physical is also symbolic to a poet). Every evening I showed students how to jump through the same academic hoops I had. I was helping them with paragraph transitions though my own transition into teaching wasn’t smooth at all. Out these contradictions came “Regional Transit.” Many of its lines were culled out of “The Hydro Men,” its sister poem, also about connections. “The Hydro Men” was the one that almost impossible to write. It was trying to do too much—talk about power and transit and the ice storm and the history of place. But “Regional Transit” was my reward for that effort. It came together like those little track pieces, the kind that come with a toy train so the toy train has something to ride on.

I’m always curious about the “starting points” of poems. For some, it’s an image, for others, a line, an argument, a landscape, a character. How do your poems usually begin?

I’m almost constantly in a state of confusion. I feel as though everything I know is based on loose associations and unreliable facts, yet life decisions are made based on that knowledge. I write poems as an attempt to sort out what things mean. Like am I really helping students or just depressing them? Or why do we need GPS trackers for children? Where does the sidewalk end? So poems for me begin with a problem or a question, but the poem itself is a “starting point” for a larger, ongoing dialogue that hopefully also shifts some of my confusion onto the reader.

“Regional Transit” deals with questions of locality, or “local-ness”, and legacy. Could you touch on these two concepts and how they appear in the poem, and in your work in general?

I always wanted to write about suburbs because I didn’t grow up in a suburb, so they fascinate me. Their locality is defined by their relation to the city, and that’s especially true of municipalities like Richmond Hill, Vaughan and North York. However this wasn’t the case 100 years ago, when these farming communities were more self-reliant. That legacy is of course colonial history, but if it’s lost or obscured, so is the sense of locality. Developers and governments are prone to selectively remembering that history. As long as it’s on a plaque, it’s worth remembering. Immigrant groups who bring in their own legacies add more layers to the place, even as they erase previous legacies. It’s those shifting layers that I want to explore in “Regional Transit” and in my other work. “Regional Transit” came out of asking what kind of children come out of these weird landscapes with their ghostly fences and maze-like subdivisions. It’s no wonder they keep looking at their phones for answers.

You recently wrote a fascinating post on your website discussing issues of ethnic representation in Canadian poetry, which I encourage everyone to go read. In what ways do these issues, and larger issues of ethnic relations, affect your writing process and the content of your poetry?

Thank you for saying that. I’ve never had a response like that to anything I’ve written, and I worried that it might seem ungrateful. Full disclosure: I received arts council funding this year to write reviews and criticism, and it gave me both the time and the motivation to address questions of ethnicity and identity that have been on my mind for 15 years, since I began writing as an adult. For a long time I hit a mental pause button on the subject because it was too painful. But I think I was recording all along.

Writing may be a means of self-expression, but that self is also defined by social factors outside of my control. Every facet of writing is predetermined by historicity, beginning from the very language we write in. To write in English means something different for every ethnic body. My writing process is also a process of reflecting on my self-position in the time and place; that’s not unique to me. So I write poems as a Canadian, as a child of immigrants, as female, as heteronormative, as an environmentalist, as an educated person, as a first-world citizen and as a consumer, while at the same time my poems speak back to those identity markers and attempt not to treat them as opaque.

I understand you have an MA in Creative Writing from U of T, where you worked closely with A.F. Moritz. What are some of the things you’ve learned from the program, or A.F. Moritz himself?

I entered the program when I was 29, after several years of writing without any acknowledgement. Those years are important too. After entering the MA program, I learned what it meant to feel like to have the backing of this powerful, generous yet capricious institution. And I learned how to be a part of a cohort or emerging writers who are becoming more self-sufficient and inclusive with every debut and launch season.

I owe so much to Professor Moritz (I can’t call him anything else!) He’s an extremely generous teacher. He often had 2-3 undergrads sitting in a row outside his office like cormorants. My lines were more natural and less stilted after our year of mentorship. He also referred to my miscellany of poems from the beginning as a book and so I had to start thinking of it as such.

You regularly write poetry reviews for publications. What importance does critical work have for you? Do you think it’s essential for poets to engage critically with their contemporaries’ work? What effects do you think an engaged critical community has on writers and writing?

These are huge questions and I can only answer briefly here. I began writing reviews in 2012 after becoming aware of VIDA’s and CWILA’s annual reports on the low percentages of female-authored books reviewed by major literary publications. It’s not the reviews themselves that matter as much as the fact that so many young women, myself included, fear misreading work or becoming entangled in a literary feud or simply don’t find writing criticism appealing. But criticism and reviewing in Canada is tied up in whole apparatus of validation: anthologizing, prize-giving, popular consensus, university curriculums and canon-formation. I feel I have no choice but to participate in whose poems gets read, reviewed, included, studied and taught, if I want to see literary criticism in Canada reflect the enormous range of human experiences contained by its borders.

It’s not essential for every poet to write criticism, but some sort of engagement is important. Even silence is a form of engagement; a poet who publicly declines to give any opinions about poetry whatsoever implies that in Canada, things are too fraught or too partisan or too intimate for them to speak without consequences. I spoke to Anita Lahey who was the review editor at Arc for years, and she reminded me that directors aren’t asked to review films or musicians to review albums. She said, “It’s a much more fraught enterprise when you have poets reviewing poets for a lot of obvious reasons, but it’s worth pointing out….And I think that’s part of why it was hard to extract really honest responses from people, and I don’t know if it’s a conscious thing that’s happening, or if it’s something that sort of instinctively happens.”

I hear a lot of writers my age saying that they’re tired of the cliquey-ness, online squabbles and feuds that have come before us. I believe that every poet finds the level of engagement they’re comfortable but the end should be to widen poetry circles and not to create more divisiveness, even if it’s less entertaining.

Can you tell us about your current projects? Any big writing plans in the near-future?

I have a nearly completed poetry MS titled “Admission Requirements.” Partially thanks to the Prism prize, a few editors have shown interest in it, so I feel extremely fortunate. It was my MA thesis and I’ve been revising it for about 3 years. I‘ve also begun another manuscript of ekphrastic poems, and I’d like to write more criticism too, maybe a monograph. Still looking for a willing subject. Someone should host a new reality TV show: Keeping Up With the Critics. No, never mind, that’s a terrible idea.


Phoebe Wang is a writer and educator whose work has appeared in numerous journals. She holds an MA in Creative Writing from U of T, and her chapbook, Occasional Emergencies, appeared with Odourless Press.

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Using the Tools at Hand: An Interview with Elena Johnson

Interview by Rob Taylor

Spines - Elena Johnson

spine of the sky
 spine of the sparrow

   spine of the sheep’s horn
    spine of the antler

       spine of footsteps over tundra
        spine of white plastic

          spine of unknowing

           spine of modern research
           spine of the lilting shack

           spine of the black spruce
          spine of the pika

         spine of the 21st-century human

     spine of a caribou 
    settling into the scree  

from Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra
(Gaspereau Press, 2015).
Reprinted with permission.

Elena Johnson’s Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is to the Canadian poetry world as a marmot is to the Alpine Tundra. I don’t think I need to explain how the world of CanPo is like a barren tundra, do I? But Field Notes being a marmot might take a minute.

Ok, so you’ve got a big empty expanse, right? Lots of scrub plants and stubby trees clinging to the sides of rocks and such, the wind howling. And occasionally there’s a big, flashy animal making itself known: some proud caribou or robust mountain sheep or a grizzly bear taking swipes at its neighbours. They insist on being the stars of the show. But then you hear this little sound every once and a while, this little whistle, and you know something else is busy at work, too. You just can’t see it yet.

Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is that marmot hiding in the rocks while all the bigger creatures lumber by. It has been living in the CanPo tundra for years (originally composed in 2008), and you’ve heard or spotted it from time to time, as when excerpts or earlier versions of the book were longlisted for a CBC Literary Award in 2010 and shortlisted for the Alfred G. Bailey Poetry Prize in 2012 and 2013. But it took until Spring 2015 for you to spot it in all its glory, when it was published by Gaspereau Press.

Slight in stature (48 pages with all the paratextual padding), narrow in scope (exclusively focused on Elena’s short visit to a field research project in the Yukon), and composed using stripped-down language to match its subject, the book could easily slip your attention. Don’t let it. An attentive, meditative look at wildness and how we can and cannot lasso it (in words; in graphs and charts), it’s a book to read and return to, to dip into when you need a refreshing jolt, like stepping into a cold stream.

I hiked into the Alpine Tundra and waited for Elena and her little marmot to arrive. It took many months of waiting, but Elena had taught me to be patient. When they finally appeared, I asked Elena a few questions about Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra, and the results are below. I hope you enjoy!

- Rob Taylor

Elena Johnson, in her blue period.

Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra is a series of poems composed in 2008 during your time as writer-in-residence with a field research project in the Yukon. Could you speak a little about the residency? How did you find out about it?

I had applied for a job back in 2006 to work as a field ecology researcher at the Kluane Alpine Ecosystem Project’s field camp in the Yukon’s Ruby Range. I ended up taking another job that summer instead, but I kept wondering about this remote mountain range in the Yukon. It occupied my imagination for several years. In 2008, after the first year of my master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia, I had the great luck of having some free time to travel in the summer, and wrote a proposal asking to visit the camp as their writer-in-residence, in exchange for assisting with some field research (and doing my share of cooking, etc.). A close friend of mine who had worked at the camp for many years vouched for my abilities as a backpacker, researcher, writer, and generally likeable human being. The proposal was accepted. I was helicoptered in with the food supplies, and I hiked out at the end of my stay.

Did you have any hesitations about taking on the project? Was there ever a point during those weeks when you found yourself questioning or regretting your choice to attend?

On the day I was supposed to hike down toward the treeline and head home, I got lost. It was a foggy day, and I was with someone who knew the way. But because there was a dead sheep on the usual trail, which meant the grizzly that had killed it was likely still in the area, we had to take an alternate route. No one would lend us a map. (There were only two topographic maps at the camp, so they were valuable.) So we ended up on a mountainside, in a dense fog, not sure where or how we’d taken a wrong turn. I had a compass, notebook and pencil in my pocket, so we drew a rough map of where we’d come from and marked the last place we were certain we’d been. Then we attempted to retrace our steps back to that area. Luckily, we found our way. When the fog cleared a bit, we had already made our way – roughly – back toward camp. At that point, we were very close to the trail with the dead sheep – exactly the area we were supposed to be avoiding! All that to say that on that particular day I imagined a helicopter search and hoped they’d find us alive. But even during that incident, I didn’t regret being there. I did attempt a poem about this experience of being lost in the fog, but it simply wasn’t a good poem. There are hints of this experience in the book, though – a line or stanza here and there. And there is a poem about the dead sheep.

I’m someone who loves to camp and travel, so I’m accustomed to roughing it. A more precious person would have had a hard time in these conditions – no bathing, unless you could jump into an icy creek or get the cook-tent to yourself for a half hour and heat a pot of water; cold temperatures; sleeping in a shared tent; etc. But I loved it. Well, I guess a bath or shower would have been nice.

Hoary MarmotYes, I remember that poem – the “Dead Sheep Valley”. The way that image of the dead sheep (“Bear-marks / in its flank”) jumps out of the poem, leads me to think about one of the most arresting qualities of the poems in Field Notes. The language is so spare and stripped down, mirroring the landscape. But then one flashy word suddenly appears in a poem and it shines like it never would in a different collection – like wild flowers, or a small mammal springing up among the stones, or a dead sheep out of nowhere with a claw slash through its side.

I wonder if you chose this sparse, stripped down writing style consciously when writing these poems, or if it came about naturally, in response to the landscape?

Thanks for this insightful description of the poems. Nearly all of the poems were written in the mountains (the Ruby Range), and I think the setting – the terrain itself – did have a big influence on the shape and style of the poems. But it wasn’t a conscious decision – as always, I just picked up a pencil and scrawled some lines into a notebook. I’ve noticed, over time, that the size of the pages of the notebooks I’m writing in affects the forms of the poems in both subtle and direct ways, and I think that principle was at work here, too – I had tiny notebooks that fit into my pockets, and one wider notebook. As for the language, I think I was just using the tools at hand – the vocabulary of the people around me, and the phrases my brain put together as I observed what was around me.

I’ve noticed that for myself, too – that the size of notebook can affect the shape of the final poem. How do your non-Field Notes poems, written (I assume) in notebooks of all shapes and sizes, differ from these? Is your stylistic approach the same?

I don’t have a consistent stylistic approach. My approach to poetry is always evolving. So my non-Field Notes poems are very varied – in theme, style, tone, voice, diction…. Some are quite sparse and small, like these, some are lists, like some of these, but others are very narrative and some are experimental. Found poems pop up now and then in the other collections I’m working on, as they do in this one. I’ve also been writing haiku and tanka for many years, and people have pointed out that there is a haiku-like feel to some of my other work. Another ongoing influence is my interest/background in ecology. I suppose a consistent element in my work is that it’s often a response to a geographic environment, whether urban or rural; the poems tend to have a clear setting, rather than being abstract or language-based. (And yet I enjoy reading work that is abstract and language-based.)

In reading Field Notes, I was reminded of a number of other books in which the poet reports from a remote part of Canada, such as Al Purdy’s North of Summer (especially poems like “Trees at the Arctic Circle”) or Anna Swanson’s The Night Also and its suite of poems about her time in an Alberta fire lookout. Did any books (poetry or otherwise), or particular poems, serve as inspirations or guides for you in writing these poems? Did you look to any titles in particular when considering how to compile the poems as a book?

I did bring a few books with me on this trip, and I remember that one of them was by Charles Simic. But I don’t think you can comb through and find any Simic influences in here. I don’t remember which other books I brought along, but I know that none of them were Northern-themed. When I camp and travel, I like to photocopy a few pages from many different books and bring those – it’s a mini collection that is light to carry and can be put to other uses (scrap paper, tinder, etc.) if necessary.

When I got back home, it took a while to type up what was in my notebooks and see what was working. As I started to shape the poems into a series, I did look to some other collections. I remember that I read much of Gary Snyder’s Rip Rap and Cold Mountain Poems. While Snyder’s poems didn’t resonate directly with my own work, his translations of Han Shan (Cold Mountain Poems) did. There was one passage I copied down and tacked to my wall, and I included that passage as the postscript in Field Notes.

I also looked to some other poets’ collections to see how they had incorporated a long series of poems into a more assorted collection. (I originally thought Field Notes would be just one section of book, so was trying to figure out how to structure a collection around it.) While I was in the final editing stages this fall, I read some of Paulette Jiles’ writing on her time in Northern Ontario, including the poetry collection Celestial Navigation; I loved a lot of it, but I don’t think it had an influence on these poems, especially because the locale – and community – she was writing about were so different from where I was. And several writers have noticed that there might be a Kroetsch influence in these poems, but I hadn’t read his work at all until these poems were finished.

I should mention that one of these poems was included in Arc Poetry Magazine’s North-themed issue in the winter of 2013. If anyone reading this interview is interested in poetry about – or from – the North, that issue contains a lot of incredible work. There are so many amazing poets in it, many of whom live in Northern communities. The issue’s out of print now, but available in libraries.

I love that idea of reading poems and then using them to start fires! The poems in Field Notes… prepare yourself… really “caught fire” themselves – they were longlisted for the CBC Literary Awards in 2010, and were part of larger manuscripts that were shortlisted for the Alfred G. Bailey Prize in 2012 and 2013. In other words, these poems have been garnering acclaim, and bouncing around from one arrangement/manuscript to another for quite some time now. Can you speak a little about the journey the poems took from original composition to the final product as a full-length collection?

This series of poems remained fairly unchanged between 2010 and its publication date (2015). But it took me a while to gather my confidence and start sending it around to publishers. The changes that were made to these poems were fairly minor: deleting a word here or there, or taking out unnecessary passages – mostly whittling and reordering.

Connected to the above, Field Notes is just barely long enough (48 pages with all its paratexts and a good amount of white space) to qualify as a full length “book” by Canada Council standards. How do you feel about that? Did you have any desire to add poems to the series to pad it out?

I’ll admit I did feel a bit shy about putting a smallish book out into the world, especially for my first collection. This work was originally part of a longer collection that included a variety of other poems not related to this series – travel poems and urban poems, for example. It was my editor at Gaspereau Press, Andrew Steeves, who suggested that we try splitting the collection in two and giving the Alpine Tundra poems their own book. When I put my ego aside, I could see that he was right – I had basically folded two books into one, and the Alpine Tundra series was really distinct from my other work. And, deep down, I had always wanted these poems to have their own book – I just didn’t realize that there were enough poems. 48 pages seemed the right size for this collection; in the end, I actually had a few extra alpine tundra poems that we just didn’t have room for.

Do you have a general preference when you’re reading towards shorter or longer collections?

As a reader, I enjoy both short and long collections. But I do find that 70 or 90 pages can feel a bit long if the book is exploring just one main theme. Friends of mine (poets and non-poets) have mentioned that the small size of this collection appeals to them – they feel that they can potentially read it in one sitting, or that they’re not overwhelmed/intimidated by the idea of reading a whole book of poetry, cover to cover.

I’m glad you mentioned Andrew Steeves and Gaspereau. As I read your book, which includes some charts and tables from the scientific research the project was undertaking, I was struck by how it seemed perfectly suited to Gaspereau, who are known for not just publishing great writing, but making physical books that are works of art in themselves. Were all of the graphs and maps in the book already a part of it when you submitted it to Gaspereau, or were some of them added later?

All but two of the graphs, maps and other visuals were already in the manuscript when I first sent it to Gaspereau. Two of them were added in later, during the year between signing the contract and beginning the final edits. I had some time that year to take a new look at the manuscript, and wrote to the camp’s head researcher to see if he had any graphs that illustrated certain ideas/findings I was hoping to incorporate into the text. He sent a few, and two of them fit in quite perfectly.

One of the things I’ve really appreciated about working with Gaspereau, and specifically with Andrew Steeves, the editor, is that he sees, in the same way I do, that these visuals are poems in themselves. I think he sees the true beauty in, say, the illustrations of the cross-sections of willow stems. Not all editors would be open to including these scientific charts and illustrations.

More generally, how, if at all, did working with Gaspereau change your expectations for what the book was, and what it could be?

As I mentioned above, the biggest change the book underwent (and this was just a few months before publication), was being split in two. I’m so glad to have been working with an editor who could see that these poems needed a book of their own. The other change was that I sent Andrew some of my photographs from my time in the Yukon, with the thought that perhaps he’d like to base a line-drawing on one of them for the cover of the book. Instead, he chose to use two of the photos in the book itself – one as the cover, and one as a two-page spread at the front of the book.

I felt the book was in good hands, and that was a great comfort during the editing and production processes. Gary Dunfield and Andrew did such a beautiful job with the book. Even the typeface was so thoughtfully chosen. I feel pretty honoured to have worked with them.

Have you shown these poems to members of the research team you accompanied? If so, did you have any trepidation doing so, and what was their response? If not, do you plan on sending them a copy of the book?

I sent an early draft to one of the head researchers a few years ago, to make sure it all made sense from a scientific standpoint. And I sent a copy last summer to the professor in charge of the field camp, with the same intention: to make sure it made sense, and that I hadn’t misrepresented any of the science.

At this point, they’ve both received their copies of the finished book, and have sent words of delight my way. It means so much to me that they love the poems, and the book. They were open to having a poet at their camp, having no idea what would come of it. It goes without saying that I couldn’t have written this book without their support.

Self Portrait Alpine Tundra 2Researchers – mostly biologists and ecologists – were coming and going from the camp during the weeks that I was there. We had a group of 6-8 people at any point in time. Because the group kept changing, I wasn’t able to thank them all by name in the acknowledgements at the back of the book. But I am so thankful to each one of them: they cooked for me and ate what I cooked, they made sure I knew where to watch out for bears, they took me along on their field studies (including marmot-trapping and plant-counting), they made good coffee, and they reminded me to spend time writing poems. They even made me a card when I left – a crayon drawing on a folded sheet of printer paper. While the poems have an alone-in-the-wilds feeling, there was definitely a social element to my time in the mountains. Even if I spent the day alone, I was happy to have supper with these folks at the end of the day.

In one of the nearly-final versions of the book, I made a sweeping dedication: to all the scientists who dedicate their lives to the study and protection of northern ecosystems. The dedication was perhaps a little much, and was edited out; I simply thanked this specific research team in my acknowledgements. But I do feel this work is dedicated, more broadly, to field scientists in general, and especially those who focus on northern ecosystems.

Make sure you corner a copy of Field Notes for the Alpine Tundra and pluck it from the scree. You can do so from your local bookstore, or from the Gaspereau Press website, or, if you wish to gut the book industry as a grizzly does a sheep, via Amazon.

Rob Taylor is a former Poetry Editor at PRISM international. You can read more of his interviews here.

All photos © Elena Johnson.

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A Review of “Les misérables” by Sasha Singer-Wilson

Review by Sasha Singer-Wilson

Les Mis

The cast of Les Misérables. Photo by Ross den Otter.

Les Misérables
Music by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg
Lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer
Directed by Bill Millerd
Arts Club Theatre Company
Stanley Industrial Stage

Most of us know something of the story of Victor Hugo’s celebrated novel, Les Misérables. Or, we know a song or two from its musical adaptation, which premiered in London in 1985. “There is a castle in the clouds/ I like to go there in my sleep”, or “On my own/ pretending he’s beside me”. Les Misérables is one of the most famous musicals, having been produced in over three hundred and twenty cities around the world, not to mention turned into a Hollywood blockbuster in 2012.  The London production is the world’s longest running musical. While some of the themes are still resonant, it seems that the most powerful connection is that of nostalgia. The Arts Club brings back their 2009 hit production, and fills the Stanley with lots of melancholy and a little bit of marvel.

The operatic song cycle is about Jean Valjean (Kieran Martin Murphy), a misjudged man who has served almost two decades in a prison labour camp for stealing bread for his starving niece. The antagonist, Inspector Javert (Warren Kimmel), releases him from prison, but Valjean must carry a card that marks him as an ex-convict. In hopes of a fresh start, Valjean shreds the card and takes on a new identity, allowing him to become a prosperous businessman. When one of his workers, the beautiful Fantine (Rebecca Talbot), dies in his arms, he adopts her daughter, Cosette (played by nine-year-old Jaime Olivia MacLean and then by Kaylee Harwood). They become involved in the uprising of the French Revolution and the melodrama continues until the final curtain.

Boubil and Schönberg’s musical is over-the-top and favourite melodies are repeated over and over. Kretzmer’s English translation is in one moment cringe-worthily cheesy and then poignant the next. Of particular note is the boisterous number Master of the House in which Nicola Lipman and Andrew Wheeler shine as sinister innkeepers M. and Mme. Thenardier. Jennie Neumann nails the spirited Éponine, and her song, On My Own, is a real treat.

As Valjean, Kieran Martin Murphy brings stoic tenderness but, in this particular matinee performance, struggled with the vocal demands of the role. Bruce Kellett’s re-orchestration shaves the musicians down to six. My companion and I wondered, at intermission, if the tracks had been pre-recorded. “It sounds like they are singing karaoke,” I said. Unfortunately the score was no match for the vocal prowess of the company and cheapened the experience. After a quick bit of research when I got home, I learned that half of the band is on keyboards. That’s why it sounded like a DJ from the 80’s was involved.

Scenically, Millerd’s production is sparser than a Broadway touring production. While the wow factor is diminished, the intimacy of the Stanley lends itself well to a simpler staging. The design team of Ted Roberts (set), Marsha Sibthorpe (lights), and Alison Green (costumes) bring the kaleidoscope world to life, with shifting archways, morose shadows and the disparity between the rich and the poor illustrated through characters dressed in both tattered rags and shining silk.

I was struck by the fact that, in a show with a cast of nineteen multi-talented performers, all of them were white. While this may be historically accurate, in a 2015 production taking place in a diverse city, this casting choice strikes me as not only dated, but bordering on distasteful.

An entertaining Saturday afternoon at the theatre, the Vancouver audience clearly enjoyed Les Misérables. Why don’t you see for yourself–can this classic endure the tests of time? Or, are we in need of present-day stories that reflect the complexities of our times with a new tune?

Les Misérables plays at The Stanley until August 16th. For tickets, click here.

Sasha Singer-Wilson is a Vancouver based and Toronto bred theatre maker and writer. She has worked with over a dozen award-winning theatre companies. She makes theatrical things with the immersive company the blood projects and tiny literary things with these five minutes. Sasha is an Associate Producer of Brave New Play Rites and is an MFA candidate in Playwriting at The University of British Columbia.


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