Transmissions: A Review of Leontia Flynn’s The Radio

Trust a poet to come along and to do a better job than most at articulating my thoughts and anxieties. Leontia Flynn is a poet that I’ve been following for years, exploring with her the pressures of inner life through her intimate portraits of Northern Ireland. Flynn’s poetic skill lies in her astute power of observation, wit, humour, allusion, and superb mastery of form. Her fourth book of poetry, The Radio, continues where she left off in her third collection, Profit and Loss, where marriage, motherhood, and her father’s Alzheimer’s took centre stage before the backdrop of the banking crisis.  In her fourth book family life remains central to the collection, only this time it’s set against the “Age of Interruption” (“Third Dialogue” 65), a life of relentless technologies, transmissions and “mobile phones beside our plates: our shiny black talisman” (“Malone Hoard” 48).

The Radio, originally published by Cape Poetry (2017), republished by Wake Forest University Press (2018)

The first section, “The Child, the Family . . .”, focuses on Flynn’s personal life—in particular motherhood. The sonnet, “Yellow Lullaby”, captures motherhood, with the fabulous image of the poet “barrelling out like some semi-deranged / trainee barista” towards her crying baby (4). She describes herself at her child’s cot with “the limb that moved, the light that shone, / the hand that soothed her and the flesh that fed” (4). In Flynn’s hands, the act of soothing a child becomes much more, speculating through its cries that the baby communes “with the unborn and the dead” (4). This chilling description could allude to the idea that if she does not see to her child, it will be lost to the spirit-world. Alternatively, it could refer to real-world dangers that she needs to keep away from her infant. These real-world dangers are pervasive within the technological world of “updates. High alerts / the BUZZ BUZZ BUZZ of following information” (“Third Dialogue” 64).

The long, title poem, “The Radio”, begins with a radio as it “hoots and mutters, hoots and mutters / out of dark, each morning of my childhood” (11). The aural imagery brings back childhood memories of listening to the crackling radio at breakfast and yet such a line suggests a threat. While Flynn uses the radio as a portal through which “the outside world / comes streaming, like a magic lantern show, / into our bewildered solitude” the radio acts as a device for violence (11). Rural Irish life is depicted through the “Charolais cow”, “the marvellous bungalow” and “birdsong in chimneys” (12) But it is overshadowed by the “the half-ignited powder keg of Belfast” that lurks just beyond the radio (12). However, the mother of the household, who is “small, freaked out, pragmatic, vigilant;”, stands guard “like a sentential, by the sink” trying to resist the “harrowing radio” and keep her children safe from the violence that exists outside their peaceful world (11, 12).

In the second section, “…And the Outside World”, while the Troubles may be over, there are other troubles. I remain suspicious with Flynn, aware of the intrusion of the “glazed God’s-eye / of the transmitter” in Flynn’s fabulous poem, “The Mast” (51). This eye of the transmitter takes me back to the radio in the title poem that keeps watch over the poet’s mother, now this eye keeps watch over Flynn and the “glittering urban scree”, the city, “parks and back bars”, and the inhabitants that “stroke like pets / familiar devices” (50, 51).

A stand out poem for me in the third section, “Poems Conceived as Dialogues Between Two Antagonistic Voices”, is the third dialogue between “Mother of Older Child, Imploded”, with “The Awesome Voice of the Internet” (63). Here Flynn’s pressure of raising a child against the backdrop of the internet mirrors the mother who “stands, like a sentinel, by the sink” protecting her children from “the outside world” that “comes streaming in” (“The Radio” 11).

The Radio is an exceptional collection of poetry. Leontia Flynn’s powerful observations on motherhood and family life contrasted with the Troubles and technology makes for an unforgettable read. Clearly Flynn is a poet with “an ethics: which instructs” in this “Age of Interruption” (“August 30th 2013” 24, “Third Dialogue” 65) In the end I wonder what hope I have in resisting the external pressures that exist as the Internet proclaims, “I’m the Bright, White Spirit of the Age” (“Third Dialogue” 65). Flynn’s “Mother Imploded” has an answer, one which seems almost a revolutionary one, and that is to take a breather from the external pressures by “sitting down” (“Third Dialogue” 65).

Review by Taidgh Lynch, a poet from the South-West of Ireland. His chapbook, First Lift Here, is forthcoming from Jack Pine Press.

Note: all citations refer to the original print version from Cape Poetry, 2017.

Interview with Arthur Slade

Jaclyn Morken interviews Arthur Slade


Arthur Slade, mentor for the MFA in Writing program and prolific genre writer

Jaclyn Morken: Why do you choose to write YA books? What is it about the genre that attracts you?

Arthur Slade: Simplicity. And by that I don’t mean YA books are easy reads, with nice characters and a perfectly unfolding moral. YA is none of those things! YA novels can and should have a great depth to them and be just as challenging as “adult” books. But the simplicity comes in the whittling away of all the extras. In an adult novel you’re allowed to disappear into the prose and descriptions whereas in YA (at least the way I write) my goal is to streamline all of that and find the most effective way to tell the story without anything extraneous. It’s a challenge. Often the shorter something is the harder it can be to write. The same with the idea of writing a “simple” story that gets to its core parts without wandering.

JM: 2019 has been a busy year for you already! Your new novel Death by Airship, and the first two instalments of your monthly Dragon Assassins series have already been published, with the third to be released in March. How do you balance your projects?

AS: I put each project on a plate and then attach a pole to each plate and turn them into a magic show. Joking aside, there are several different contracts and projects on my desk and the only way I can balance them is by being very consistent with my writing time. I write in the mornings, so I never book appointments or look at Facebook in the morning (well, I try not to). I find I accomplish quite a bit more if stick to this pattern. My brain realizes that 6AM is writing time. And it also realizes that 1PM is the time to do less tiring work like checking which ads are working, clicking “like” on Facebook, and reading my research material. The monthly instalments project (where I release an 120-page “episode” of my Dragon Assassin series every month on Amazon) means that I really, really, really have to stick to those deadlines. I like the challenge of that. Though I may have double the grey hair by the time the year is up.

JM: Which of your works thus far have you found the most challenging, or the most enjoyable? Why?

AS: My most challenging novel was Flickers. Instead of my usual 8 or so drafts and a year of work, that book stretched out to at least two years work and far too many drafts (and a cavalcade of edit letters). It was an example to me of how you can get that “great” idea (a 1920s Hollywood director who makes such a perfect horror movie that it opens up a new dimension and something walks through) but not be able to find the right way to execute the idea. Even though I had plotted out the book (which I rarely do) it kept on sprouting different tangents and, generally, the tone of the book was off (tone is so important in horror novels because you’re attempting to get people to believe in the unbelievable and you don’t want the “scary” parts to be laughable). The fix was to rewrite it down to the bones, throw away the extras, and focus in on that original idea. It worked in the end. People who read it say it’s genuinely terrifying. It was terrifying for me, but in a different way. Compare that to my most enjoyable novel, in terms of creation: Dust. The idea of a rainmaker coming to a drought stricken town and bringing rain (but the children disappear) was perfect. And from the moment I wrote the first chapter (with no outline of the rest of the book) to when I reached the final chapter, everything fell into place. The tone. The prose. The story itself. It’s what I would call a moonshot. It only happens once in awhile that a work unfolds so easily. I wrote Dust in 2000 and Flickers in 2015. You’d think I’d get better at writing in those fifteen years. But sometimes your skill doesn’t matter. The book just needs work.

JM: During our mentorship, we discussed the changing writing industry, and the new platforms authors are now able to explore. What is one new development in the writing industry that you find particularly exciting?

AS: Self-publishing. It is both a horrible black hole that we writers can disappear into and manna from heaven. Or maybe ebooks are from heaven. What it allows us to do is explore our creativity in different ways (be it ebooks on Amazon or poems on Instagram or a YouTube channel about punctuation) and earn income from a variety of sources (and I’m all about being paid for work). The self-publishing world is especially lucrative for genre writers, but open to anyone who can find their niche. For me I make income from publishers, but also from my self-published ebooks, print on demand books, audiobooks and associate fees from Amazon. Having success in that part of the publishing sphere means you have a bit more leverage with traditional publishers. The dark side is how much time it takes to figure out how to self-publish (which involves learning advertising and trying to read the minds of the various algorithms).

Interview by Jaclyn Morken, a fantasy and speculative fiction writer from Outlook Saskatchewan. She has a BA Honours in English, and is currently in her second year of the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. Her first published works can be found in the inaugural issue of The Anti-Languorous Project’s antilang, with which she currently serves as guest editor.

Examining Structure in Tiana Clark’s “Nashville” From I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood

In the poem “Nashville” the narrator is walking down Second Avenue in Nashville with their white husband when a racial slur is yelled at them from an unknown source (Clark xiii-xv). The poem hinges on this moment. The “four violent syllables stabbing my skin” sets Tiana Clark on an investigation into the legacy of Nashville that is gentrified by people who “don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s / Half Acre” (xv, xiii). The narrator also examines their own history—“my mother’s mother’s mother—Freelove was her name, / a slave from Warrior, North Carolina” (xiv). Clark uses sound, rhythm, and concrete imagery to great effect in “Nashville.” Further to this, the author’s structural choices strengthen and unify themes of place, public and private histories, memories, race, family, and mythology.

Tiana Clark’s most recent book of poetry, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, 2018

In the poem “Nashville” the narrator is walking down Second Avenue in Nashville with their white husband when a racial slur is yelled at them from an unknown source (Clark xiii-xv). The poem hinges on this moment. The “four violent syllables stabbing my skin” sets Tiana Clark on an investigation into the legacy of Nashville that is gentrified by people who “don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s / Half Acre” (xv, xiii). The narrator also examines their own history—“my mother’s mother’s mother—Freelove was her name, / a slave from Warrior, North Carolina” (xiv). Clark uses sound, rhythm, and concrete imagery to great effect in “Nashville.” Further to this, the author’s structural choices strengthen and unify themes of place, public and private histories, memories, race, family, and mythology.

“Nashville” consists of fourteen quatrains with equal line length, except in the last stanza. The poem is sectioned into two parts with the racial epithet used as a bridge and a barrier to connect and contrast two histories. The first section refers to the city of Nashville and the second is a personal reflection. The structure of the poem’s stanzas can be looked at in a 6,1,6,1 formation.

The first six stanzas investigate the legacy of Nashville by comparing it to “hot chicken on sopping white bread with green pickle / chips—sour to balance prismatic, flame covered spice / for white people” (xiii). Here the enjambment is such that the stanzas merge into each other: “or maybe // they’ve hungered” and “where freed slaves lived // on the fringe of Union camps” (xiii). What is interesting is that the lines have freedom to move into the next stanzas. Contrast this with the social divide of the South where their own food— “hot chicken” is now curated by white people and their economic resources taken from them with the “I-40 that bisected the black community / like a tourniquet of concrete” (xiii).

The seventh stanza is where the racial slur occurs and in the same stanza: “Again. Walking down / Second Avenue, I thought I heard someone yelling at the back / of my husband” (xiv). This stanza acts as a link to the next section of the poem, triggering the narrator to reflect on their personal history. Had the racial slur been placed at the start of the poem, the bridging and contrasting of the two legacies as well as the poem’s shift towards a personal response would have made less of an emotional and intellectual impact because the racial slur would be decontextualised.

It is worth noting that while the seventh stanza acts as a bridge to the poet’s personal history it also acts as a barrier between the gentrified people in the first six stanzas who “don’t know about the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s / Half Acre”(xiii). In Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder states, “life is mirrored in…our use of language: we start forgetting the true significance of words and using them quickly, thoughtlessly, to function socially, and to stand in for certain experiences” (42).

But Clark’s refusal to not “give a damn”, embodied by the narrator asking “Who said it?” shows the responsibility that a poet has in not forgetting the importance of language and how it is used (xiv). Clark says: “there is always a word I’m chasing inside / and outside of my body” (xiv). Not only is Clark chasing a word and its importance but she’s also in control. Clark is doing the chasing and the questioning.

The next six stanzas continue to flow into each other as Clark searches for definitions and histories of words, “scanning // the O.E.D. for soot-covered roots” (xiv). However, the thirteenth stanza ends with a full-stop— “four violent syllables stabbing my skin, enamoured with pain” (xv). This throws the structure off kilter, offering no exit.

The last stanza’s first line is of similar length to the rest of the poem but the last three lines are shorter and repetitive referencing the “breath…panting at the back of Daphne’s wild hair” in stanza thirteen (xv). “I am kissing all the trees—searching the mob, mumbling to myself: /Who said it? / Who said it? / Who said it?” (xv)

While the seventh stanza is significant because this is where the racial slur occurs, it is in the final stanza that the structure shifts. The formation of 6,1,6 offers a barrier with the structure mirroring the experience of Clark, who is outnumbered by the mob. In the last stanza there is no circling back as the structure has made this impossible. However, the structure of 6,1,6,1 offers the poet a way through the mob to get to meaning, no matter the pain that her search for “Who said it” causes herself (xv).

Works Cited:

Clark, Tiana. “Nashville.” I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood. University of Pittsburgh Press, September 18, 2018, pp xiii-xv. (You can read or listen to her poem “Nashville” on The New Yorker)

Zaprudur, Matthew. Why Poetry. Harper Collins Publishers, 2017, pp 42.

Essay by Taidgh Lynch, a poet from the South-West of Ireland. His chapbook, First Lift Here, is forthcoming from Jack Pine Press

Millennial Musings: On High’s Wry Critique of Individualism

Neil Surkan’s debut poetry collection, On High, grows out of his chapbook Super, Natural (Anstruther Press 2017). Surkan’s wry wit combines cutting criticism of consumer culture and a deep respect for natural environments. However, this criticism is tempered by a desire to understand and create community; Surkan memorialises the attempts of a teenage boy to impress a girl at the mall (“Opportunistic Mystic” 56) alongside the death of a spider under a hiking boot (“Decreation” 80) and in doing so, gives each moment equal weight. Divided into four parts, On High begins at a surface-level documentary of the quotidian and gets deeper into the political and the personal with each section.

Opening on a path between a house and a beach, the first poem, “Directive,” does as its title suggests, ending with the missive and reassurance to “think less/ of your destination, more on where/ you’re bound to go. Or try walking at night. You won’t see what I mean, but you’ll know” (Surkan 3). In this poem, the speaker takes us down to the beach, through the summer sun and into the snow, getting distracted by cacti and other trails, and encouraging the reader to both put aside personal worries and to allow themselves to get lost within the following poems. “Directive” invites the reader to momentarily step into the speaker’s footsteps, to test out the intense attention to mundane details, before committing to the entire book. What follows in the first section are intimate descriptions of human environments: city streets, a bar with live music, a dilapidated strip mall, a family kitchen.

The fastidious recounting of a subject is maintained throughout On High, and the speaker’s voice emerges as a Canada-traversing-earnest-but-disillusioned companion incapable of failing to note human peculiarities. In “The Branch-Breaker,” the speaker documents the lewd conversation of a group of teens as they walk by. Instead of critiquing the boys, the speaker reflects that he does not have access to their inner lives, and turns his focus away from the boys: “May the look I gave the branch-breaker,/ mostly hatred, grow every day a little more/ compassion. Tonight I’ll raise a growler/ to Angela, to skin that breaks but persists/ and to goodness—the kind that’s wordless” (5). The position of this poem as the second in the collection sets the tone for the book; though intent on observing all details, the speaker refuses to fill in gaps and insists on believing in the best of people.

Bridging the first two parts, the last poems of part one follow the speaker to spaces between the human/natural: the ferry from Vancouver to Vancouver Island, a hiking trail in Kananaskis, and on an unnamed mountain. “On High,” the first of two title poems, sets the speaker on a mountaintop as he considers the landscape as a “room” for the natural; a “room” inseparable from what it contains (21). Part two lunges into the relationships between humans and animals, focusing on how humans interact with non-humans and setting the tone with “Pelt”: “We hurl rocks/ while he’s stretched in the sun, the weasel./ He killed our entire coop/ but now has nostrils for eyes” (25). Again, the speaker avoids condemnation, but this time inserts himself into the action with “we,” acknowledging his complicity in the action that killed the weasel, regardless of whether the speaker was present (25). Instead of a harsh criticism of people who use or harm animals, the speaker shows the social and cultural milieu that results in these interactions. While the title of the book suggests a bird’s eye view—an amount of distance, or the separation of the speaker and subjects—Surkan’s speaker rejects this role by continually stating his presence and place within the subjects.

Parts three and four further the earlier themes by peopleing the spaces explored in the first half of the book: a white, suburban church goer is caught stealing funds because he feels owed (“Teardown” 54-5); a Serbian Uber driver heckles his passengers (“The Opposite” 45-7); the Penticton Reserve stands in contrast to tourists, businesses, and the celebratory First Nations statues (untitled 66-70); a mayor urges tourists to ignore the smoke from nearby wildfires (untitled 71); and, the speaker drives home to the Okanagan Valley, then leaves (“Verges, Now and Forever” 88-98). Throughout these sections, the speaker shows the failed interactions of humans with each other and nature as equal, and himself not an immune bystander, but an active participant. The poems become neither explanation nor justification, but an acknowledgement of human folly and apology. And yet, the book refuses to fall into melancholy. The metaphors and juxtapositions are fresh and playful, as in “Fawn” when the speaker notes that the hoof of a deer recently turned to roadkill is “black and sticky as bong resin” (82). This comparison is not irreverent, but the opposite, as it provides a new lens with which to view the interconnectivity of human and non-human life.

Surkan’s attention to poetics (rhythm, rhyme, line breaks, etc.) throughout On High serves to communicate these themes of human and non-human interactions and reciprocal responsibilities, while providing a tangible connection to the ‘real world’ through writing-back. A list of notes at the end of the book cites a range of sources from Keats’ canonical poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to a YouTube video from 2016 of a group of men attempting to ride/hunt a moose while on a raft (101). Surkan draws inspiration from these sources, but also allows those perspectives into his work in the form of titles.

At turns witty, sarcastic, and blunt, On High contains stark observations from a speaker who loves humanity but recognises that “shame runs deeper than love” (“Apology” 74). Surkan’s speaker desires to observe interactions truthfully, though does so with an eye toward compassion and self-improvement, and through this mindset, asks readers to reconsider their own behaviours in the context of community.

Review by Allie McFarland, editor of the RVRB. Allie is a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, which publishes antilang. and soundbite. Her chapbook Marianne’s Daughters, was published by Loft on EIGHTH in 2018.

Placemeant: The Impact of Form on Content in Aritha van Herk’s “In Visible Ink”

At its most basic, Aritha van Herk’s 1991 essay, “In Visible Ink,” is about her trip to the Arctic. She presents us with facts of this trip: she went in May; she drinks hot tea and eats bannock; she wears caribou skin and Kamik boots “of Inuit design” to protect against the cold; she rides a komatik pulled by a snowmobile (3). At one point, a runner blade on the komatik breaks, and her guide, Pijamini, repairs it with plywood and nails (6). A simple story, and yet the narrator agonises over not being able to accurately convey the story, the true experience of being in the Arctic.

Aritha van Herk’s In Visible Ink, 1991

How can we write an experience beyond words? Where does the writer belong in a wordless world? And, what if that world turns out to be not wordless, after all, but written, spoken, understood, in a language the writer cannot possess? How does the writer reconfigure herself in a world where ‘possession’ is not a concept? I will address these concerns in my breakdown of “In Visible Ink’s” narrative arc, showing how, where, and why the narrator comes to certain conclusions about the practice of writing within the space of the Arctic as contained by text. What van Herk’s essay wants to talk about is writing, and the invisible limits of writers.

“In Visible Ink” opens with a view of the landscape as text, as van Herk (the narrator) considers the land and sea “both consummate empagements, intagli in the white” (2). The land and sea seem equivalent to words and the snow that covers both becomes a blank page, as if the Arctic itself is written in invisible ink, waiting to be read. A clever gesture to the title that tells us much about the narrator as the consummate writer—this landscape of Arctic is interpreted as she would a text, in a writerly fashion.

After these initial descriptions, the narrator muses about the questions she will be asked of her journey when she returns home: “how long did the trip take? how far did you go? how cold was it?” (3). And in these questions is the echo of familiar questions asked of writers: how many words did you write? how long did it take you to write that book? how many rejection letters have you received? van Herk decides these questions—and here we can assume she means the direct questions about her trip and those pesky questions all writers face—are not without meaning, but beside the point. These questions accept only quantifiable measurements and cannot possibly convey the experience of either the Arctic or writing. And in this acknowledgement of the similarities between experience and writing, the narrator confesses a desire for temporary escape from words and writing, to have the same experience as writing without the act of it, which she finds in the Arctic (4-5). This newfound experience leads her to realise the impossibility of rendering the Arctic in words when she asks: “how to describe or even begin to evoke this landscape?” (5). And the reader asks back: but haven’t you done so? She may have described a setting, but she claims failure at evoking the Arctic (a failure of writing, a failure as a writer committed to render a truth).

After the narrator acknowledges her inability to write the Arctic, she continues with her description of the place, presented now as a reading, not a writing. She ‘reads’ the tracks of polar bears and foxes and the komatik in the snow (6). Treating the Arctic as text, as a being to be read, is the highest level of praise from a woman who has made reading her career. But, again, she finds her limitation: “I cannot read these reaches” (8). She presses on. If writing and reading fail her, then what of speech? This is where van Herk realises that the failure is her own language: English is not sufficient. Inuktitut (the language of the Inuit) has the capacity, is as expansive as the Arctic, and can therefore encapsulate the landscape and experience as one, simultaneously. And as she has been absorbed by the experience, she finds herself only describable by and in those same Inuktitut words. Words that she refuses to repeat because they are not hers. She can borrow some, a small handful, while she is in the Arctic, but otherwise they stay with the Inuit, with her guide Pijamini, who gets the last laugh (did he know the Arctic would foil Southern attempts at articulation all along? Of course).

Throughout “In Visible Ink” we are confronted by the limitations of writing, and yet this essay is beautifully written. How can the form honour/uphold the content if the form is the essay and the content the inability to write it? If form and content were to truly mesh, wouldn’t that necessitate the essay to never have been written, to only remain a distant thought, an anxiety in the writer’s mind? Perhaps, if she were a poet.

As shown in my breakdown of the narrative arc, the essay moves back and forth from landscape and Arctic to ruminations on the Arctic that are ruminations on the practice of writing. This constant movement enacts a continual erasure and re/placement of the previous text with its forward progression.

Consider the words (those vessels van Herk finds so faulty). “In Visible Ink” is written with high-level diction—academic, and fearlessly inaccessible. As writers, we’ve been told to write simply, to invite our readers in. But van Herk breaks this rule, purposefully, to emphasise her point that the Arctic is not accessible, not for Southern readers. Journeying through the Arctic is a commitment that requires experience and a guide, so reading this essay needs the practice of reading academic / theoretical texts. And yet she maintains that the words fail.

The words are suspect (to the writer, the narrator, the reader), but readers tend to trust the narrator. We believe her struggles of articulation, and we know van Herk has been to the Arctic. The doubts she voices about her abilities regarding her portrayal of the Arctic seem genuine, rather than falsely self-deprecating. We believe that if she has failed at conveying the Arctic, she has not failed as a writer because she voices the anxieties associated with writing more generally. And she acknowledges the unwriteability of landscape, of Arctic.

The problem is in the multiplicity of Arctic. van Herk gestures to these versions of place (of self) with the tension between the present-tense narration and the second person addresses. Present tense exemplifies the act of continual erasure and points to the endurance of writing. The trying/erasing/trying/attempting to understand something/anything/erasing/trying, until, finally, some words remain on the page. This has the multiplied effect of mirroring the Arctic’s endurance and seeming timelessness, of amplifying the essay itself in its efforts to press forward, to rewrite what has already been written, and to speak to the practice of writing. The present tense keeps the narrator, forever, within the Arctic. In her state of wordlessness.

The second person addresses to “the reader” complicate this. The essay has already been written. It has been read. What is writing without a reader? The use of second person implies van Herk’s experience of the Arctic must be relegated to the past, along with the essay’s words as she writes them.

The Arctic exists outside of the boundaries we writers come up against and transgress—the Arctic has no need for boundaries, except where the snow melts. The Arctic is not a blank page on which to write, or which will reveal its invisible ink. The Arctic is not a book to be read. The Arctic is itself a writer, and it speaks a language other than English. Inuktitut. The Arctic is a writer in that English fails, has no better word for a landscape contiguous to our practice of writing. The Arctic wrote van Herk while she occupied that landscape, and in doing so reveals a writer’s reflection in the ice.

Works Cited:
van Herk, Aritha. “In Visible Ink.” In Visible Ink: The Writer as Critic: III. NeWest Press, 1991. pp. 1-11.

Essay by Allie McFarland, RVRB Editor and co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project. Allie writes novel(la)s—concise, women-centred blends of prose and poetry.

No Second Breakfasts: A Review of Black Leopard, Red Wolf

“You know what? Keep your damn hobbit.” Marlon James, author of the newly released Black Leopard, Red Wolf (Penguin Random House), was “sick and tired of arguing about whether there should be a black hobbit in Lord of the Rings.” He claims, “African folklore is just as rich, and just as perverse as that shit. We have witches, we have demons, we have goblins, and mad kings.” That was 2015, and as late as 2017 he still imagined the novel-in-progress as something for 12-year-olds to read, something “more Middle Earth than say, Mogadishu.”

Ah, yes. The best laid plans of mice and Man Booker prize winners. The story must have taken over. Black Leopard, Red Wolf is decidedly not for children. There are too many faces being ripped off and too many children being violently sodomized for the book to stay on school library shelves. In most fantasy novels the violence is epic and vague. Here it is graphic and specific. When a child—alive but not whole—hangs in a tree, James describes exactly which limbs have been severed and by how much (the right leg to the thigh, the left leg to the knee, his left arm to the shoulder). The novel’s dark world—nobody loves nobody—resembles more closely the Jamaican neighbourhoods of his award-winning A Brief History of Seven Killings than, say, Lord of the Rings. Set in a mythical land, Black Leopard describes a fellowship of nine characters (some with special powers) going on a quest. See? Nothing like Tolkien. Another comparison (the tag was first teased by James himself) has been made by hyping the novel as the “African Game of Thrones.” Don’t be fooled. The game here is fought at a different level. These players hope only for escape from traumatic pasts. Or less. Perhaps only an occasional diversion: sex and violence as a respite from the trauma of sex and violence.

James grew up reading genre-defining fantasy novels, but Black Leopard is genre-busting. The Tolkien canon seems to exert on James both a push and a pull, acting as both touchstone and erratic lodestone. Speaking to Pembroke College (Oxford) at the annual Tolkien Lecture on Fantasy Literature, he confessed that his research into African mythology led to “almost a complete inversion of everything that I knew as storytelling.” For example. the African midnight, “noon of the dead… was a joyous time when ancestors would come out.” Unlike their “wussy” counterparts, African vampires can kill you in broad daylight. “That inversion forced me to rethink everything I hold. And I still hold on to them because I’m still a Western kid.”

But in Black Leopard James has subverted the fantasy story itself. It is one thing to replace the Celtic/Nordic/Germanic monsters, and a different thing entirely to replace the worldview—that crusade premise that underpins much fantasy fiction. Heroes normally come from safe places—known, comforting, populated by good people—and venture out to battle evil that is categorically the “other.” Hobbits (read: middle-class Englishmen) are used to their six meals a day and comfortable hobbit holes. Their squabbles are few and petty. Sauron’s (read: foreign) evil approaches, but the stalwart hobbits will muster their finest hobbit hour.

Tracker, the protagonist of Black Leopard, Red Wolf, leaves a home that bears no resemblance to Hobbiton. The violent father who rapes Tracker’s mother is actually Tracker’s violent grandfather. Or he may be both. Chew on that for a bit. There are no second breakfasts or afternoon teas here. In Lord of the Rings, the travelling companions are noble and good. Boromir becomes untrustworthy only because of the corruption of the Ring—that ultimate symbol of the otherness that must be destroyed. But in Black Leopard the entire world is corrupted, with nobility and grace making anomalous appearances. When Tracker helps to save certain deformed children (the Mingi, who are usually destroyed at birth) it is Tracker himself that becomes the foreigner, becoming other. The same command of language that earned Marlon James his Booker prize is on display here. But because Tracker has preternatural olfactory powers, the author’s skills are now turned to finding different ways to describe the smell of ass sweat or a girl’s “koo.” If the world is rank and disheartening, the narrative arc is yet compelling. Tracker searches for a stolen boy, and we readers hope that—along the way—he finds what is missing, what was stolen from himself.

Review by Cameron G. Muir, a writer of contemporary and historical fiction. Previously he was employed as a lawyer, disc jockey, zoo keeper, brick worker, house painter, landman, piano mover, boiler deslagger, surveyor, radio columnist, clothier, oil tycoon, and short order chef (many of which occupations he left of his own accord, but not all).

Interview with Barbara Langhorst

Allie McFarland interviews Barbara Langhorst

Barbara Langhorst, mentor for the MFA in Writing program and award-winning author

Allie McFarland: The USask MFA mentorship program is (as you know) unique in Canada, but what do you think it brings to the program? Or, what do you think about the practice of mentorship more broadly in relation to writing and emerging writers? What does mentorship entail in your mind (both for giving and receiving)?

Barbara Langhorst: The mentorship program in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan is first-rate, in my experience. The mentors bring professional experience as working writers to the students, revealing another dimension of the writing life as it exists outside academia. This year, this is especially obvious, as the Director of the MFA Program (Jeanette Lynes) and several of the mentors in the program have been shortlisted for a variety of Saskatchewan Book Awards.
One of the strongest aspects of mentorship is the connection between generations of writers—the construction of a network of writers and writing that supports both mentors and emerging writers. The mentors have a wide variety of approaches and interests, and help the students develop individualized reading lists that broaden the experience for both parties. As a mentor, I draw on my own experience with my supervisors in grad school, both of whom were very supportive but practical—they advised me to expect a lot from myself, especially about the amount of reading and writing that needed to be done in a limited time, and so I have high expectations for my students, too. However, the relationship in the MFA at the U of S is also beneficial to the mentors, who revisit problems they have dealt with (and some they have not), and learn from their students, as much as the other way around. I have had the great opportunity to work with two brilliant students, and learning how to help them has helped my own writing. 
I have had the enormous good fortune to be mentored by fantastic writers, such as Robert Kroetsch, dennis cooley, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Sandra Birdsell, and Guy Vanderhaeghe, and in all cases the experience was extremely helpful in developing a sense of myself as a writer. Kroetsch and cooley, in particular, tended to say, “You’re the poet,” and give support with relatively little technical advice. As a mentor myself, when some practical advice about craft is expected, I try to leave the work in the writer’s hands as much as possible, only identifying areas that need to be rethought or worked through, rather than offering my own solutions. 

AM: Thinking about the advice from your mentors and your approach to mentoring, what do you consider ‘writing’—the physical act of sitting down and putting new words to page, or do you include the revises / redrafting / editing processes as ‘writing’? And what is the most exciting part about writing to you?

BL: All acts of putting words on the page and moving them around is “writing” to me. Composing the first draft is the most exciting, dangerous type of writing, I find. It jolts the adrenaline like nothing else, especially when I feel like I’m channeling a story that is begging to be told, but it can also be terrifying, because pursuing the wrong intuition, following the wrong choice in plot or character, can mean months of rewriting.
I try to keep the joy of composing when I revise by looking at scenes (or even the novel as a whole) and seeing whether the piece needs to be retold from another perspective or a different point in the action, and by looking at the entire novel as a poem, where pieces can be moved around as I do words in writing poetry. Sometimes I go back, as I did in Want, and completely rewrite several chapters right at the beginning. I also use a headset to dictate sometimes, if I want a new perspective on the work. With Want, when I wasn’t sure about the structure, I wrote out the plot, cut it into scenes, drew the paper slips of scenes from a hat, taped them down in that order, and then cut and pasted the novel into that order, smoothing as I went. In the end, I reordered the book again, but that randomization helped me to see which scenes were necessary and where they needed to be. I also changed the point of view to first person on the third draft of Want, and moved it from present tense to the past. In my current novel, I think I am working much more confidently with the structure—but I do hope that confidence is justified. Time will tell.
Perhaps the form of writing that seems least like real writing is the synopsis, yet I wrote three synopses for Want, and the process showed me the characters’ motivations in ways that I hadn’t realized before. I enjoy responding to editorial suggestions, as they, too, show me the novel in ways that are new. Time at the keyboard is happy time for me—all of it—even when I can’t write as well as I’d like. The goal is to become better, and that only happens by doing.  

AM: Your novel Want was shortlisted for a Saskatchewan Book Award. And your collection of poetry, Restless White Fields, won both the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book award and the Saskatchewan Arts Board Poetry Book award. These are amazing accomplishments, and I’m curious what you think about the role of these types of awards / recognitions in relation to the community aspect of writing that your mentioned earlier? 

BL: I am tremendously grateful for the awards offered in SK and AB…as Doug Barbour at NeWest has often said, being nominated is as much an affirmation as winning. Many good or even great books miss being nominated simply because there are so many good books published, and thus being nominated is a truly heart-lifting gift. I always enjoy attending the awards, and am really looking forward to seeing old friends and meeting new ones. Many of those nominated this year for the Saskatchewan Book Awards are writers I’ve known and admired for almost twenty years—and many of them are part of the MFA in Writing program at the U of S. It’s fabulous to be among them. SK writers are so generous with their time, energy, humour, and friendship. I would never have written if I hadn’t come to SK, I know that. It’s a phenomenally supportive community.

Interview by Allie McFarland, RVRB editor, co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, and reluctant poet.