In 2018, Nick Laird and his partner Zadie Smith each released a book titled Feel Free. While his collection was comprised of poems, and hers of essays, the shared title seemed, if not intentional, then at least conspicuous. At their joint reading at Shakespeare and Company Bookshop in Paris—meant to launch Laird’s collection and promote Smith’s—Laird offered a simple, accidental explanation: he had titled a poem “Feel Free” in 2014, and Smith had liked it too much not to use it for herself.
The anecdote seems relevant because, despite its title, Laird’s collection explores the ways in which we’re tethered—to our environment, society, or in this case family—and the desire for freedom that might engender in us. In the collection’s first poem, “Glitch,” the speaker recovers from fainting, “risen of a sudden like a bubble / to the surface,” but longs for the reprieve of that liminal, unconscious space: “and all // particulars of my other life fled except the sense / that lasts for hours of being wanted somewhere else” (5).
But as much as freedom calls to Laird, so too do the demands of domestic and parental life. In “Fathers” he reassures one of his children: “There’s no use getting all het / up: I give you a bed for your tiredness: I give you / some bread I have toasted and buttered: I give you // a stretch of the earth” (8). The repeated short “e” vowel sound finds comfort in this routine of reassurance, but the enjambment, which breaks the line twice on “I give you,” perhaps betrays a sense of weariness.
Laird isn’t merely interested in exploring fatherhood, but also in his identity as a son. Feel Free is split into three sections, but each section features a poem titled, “The Good Son,” a triad thematically linked in their exploration of violence and obligation, featuring fathers who float above as ghost or memory. In “Silk Cut,” Laird recounts a childhood experience of reaching for his father’s hand and finding instead “the red end of a cigarette” (20). The poem then leaps forward, finding Laird and his father powerless and bereaved after the death of Laird’s mother. The poem, a single sentence spread across four breathless quatrains and absent of a final period, ends, “we are going home, waiting / at the turn for the traffic, when I find / I have to stop my hand from taking his” (20).
Despite Feel Free’s preoccupation with restrictions and familial obligations, its title shouldn’t be read as purely ironic; there’s a levity of language, voice, and form that buoys the collection’s tone and demonstrates Laird’s desire to follow his title’s directive. Both “Grenfell” and “Manners” invoke a corporate, bureaucratic voice to comic and a surprisingly earnest effect, while “The Vehicle and the Tenor,” “Parable of the Arrow,” and “Cinna the Poet” feel contemporary but esoteric, told by distant, almost oracular speakers.
Laird’s formal range is wide, too, playing with monostiches, couplets, tercets, quatrains, quintains, or, like “Watermelon Seed,” a half-page stanza to distill a domestic moment: “I like watching you at work: one dangles / from a tine, expelled and slickly black, / suspended by a tendril of thin pink pulp till / you flick it with your index finger / expertly at the sink. Plink” (37). The scene is acutely observed, but also conveys the speaker’s wonder with euphonic “e” and “l” sounds, and repeats a short “i” sound that finds a satisfying resolution in the poem’s rhymed ending.
And perhaps this scene is precisely what Feel Free is attempting to get at: the ways in which we’re tethered to others, and the sort of precious, ubiquitous moments we become privy to as a result. The titular poem ends with the speaker soothing his daughter to sleep and remembering loci of freedom, emphasizing the feel part of the title: “Tickling your back, Katherine, to get you to sleep, I like to lie here / with my eyes closed and think about my schoolfriends’ houses before / choosing one to walk through slowly, room by sunlit room” (15).
Laird’s collection beautifully captures the sense of claustrophobia that can attend a settled life, but ultimately celebrates it, suggesting that life is best lived in the messy, restrictive web of community and family—even if this might mean having to share the occasional title.
Laird, Nick. Feel Free: Poems. 1st American edition, W.W. Norton and Company, 2019.
Josiah Nelson is a second year MFA in Writing student at the University of Saskatchewan. He’s currently writing a collection of short stories exploring precarity, coming-of-age, and iconoclasm. His work has appeared in Exclaim!, the Culture Crush, spring magazine, Fractured Lit, and the Rumpus, among others. He lives in Saskatoon.
Kristine Scarrow: What was the impetus for TheSlow Reveal? How did it come to be?
Chelsea Coupal:The Slow Reveal is a chapbook – it’s a small sample of work from my second poetry manuscript. I’ve been looking for a publisher for that second manuscript, and in the process, Anstruther Press offered to publish a selection of the manuscript’s poems as a chapbook.
KS: Your 2018 release Sedley is a favourite of poetry collection of mine; there is an honesty and rawness in the poems about growing up in rural Saskatchewan. How was writing this collection different for you from Sedley? What can readers expect from The Slow Reveal?
CC: In a lot of ways, the work in The Slow Reveal isn’t a huge departure from the work in Sedley. If you like Sedley, I think – hope! – you’ll enjoy The Slow Reveal. I still write about rural Saskatchewan. I still write what might be considered coming-of-age poems. I still like the constraints of form poetry. Maybe I always will?
I’m sometimes concerned that I return too often to the same sort of subject matter, but fellow writers have reminded me that even if we revisit certain topics, we’re not the same people we were when we wrote those earlier poems, so the work won’t be the same either. It’s impossible for it to be the same. I’ve also been reassured that this is a common concern among writers – that our work isn’t growing and evolving as it should if we continue to explore the same themes.
I read some writing advice somewhere – and I can’t remember who wrote or said this – but the line was: “Write what haunts you, not what interests you.” And that stuck with me. I feel like that advice is often in the back of my mind somewhere when I’m writing. If it haunts me, it’s probably worth getting down on paper. Some other advice I return to was given to me by Sandra Ridley at Sage Hill a couple of years ago. She challenged us to ask ourselves, as we drafted and reread our work: “What’s at stake?”
The main difference between drafting this collection and drafting Sedley is that I drafted the majority of the poems for Sedley as a grad student, so I had a lot of structure while writing that manuscript. I had thesis advisors I met with regularly. I had deadlines. It was a great environment to draft the manuscript in. It forced me to write regularly.
This manuscript, I wrote with a lot less oversight, so I hope it’s decent. Nobody’s asking where the poems are. There are no deadlines. I’ve found it a bit harder to stay focused and productive working mostly on my own, but I’ve had lots of generous readers along the way, even outside of a classroom setting, so I’ve been lucky.
KS: Tell us about the process of curating your work into a collection. How did you decide what poems to include in The Slow Reveal?
There are only eight poems in the chapbook, so I chose a few of my favourites from the larger manuscript. I also chose some that hadn’t been previously published – I wanted to make sure the chapbook contained poems that people wouldn’t have had the opportunity to read anywhere else.
KS: Have you always been drawn to poetry?
CC: Honestly, no. I didn’t really get interested in poetry until I was an undergrad in university and started reading contemporary poetry and trying to write it in some of my early creative writing classes.
I knew I was interested in writing in high school. When I started university, I was a pre-journalism major. I thought of writing in practical terms only: “Writing is a skill I have. Maybe I could get paid to write. Maybe I could be a journalist.” It didn’t even occur to me that there were people living and working in Saskatchewan who also published their own creative writing. I assumed you had to live in Toronto or New York to publish anything.
I also didn’t expect to end up writing poetry. In high school, I read novels, mostly. And even my first year of university – before I discovered contemporary poetry – I thought of poetry as this challenging, mysterious form of writing. I don’t think I even realized that people were still writing poetry. Overall, I didn’t give poetry a whole lot of thought until I was studying creative writing.
With poetry, you don’t have to worry about plot. I like that. Whenever I tried writing short stories, people would ask me: “What was the point of that?” And I’d be like: “Oh, does there have to be a point?”
KS: Who or what influences your work?
CC: My own experiences, what I’m reading, what I’m watching and the music I’m listening to.
KS: What would you like readers to take away from your writing?
CC: Good question. It’s not really something I think about that much. Should I? Ha, ha. Other than – I hope they like it? I just want them to enjoy it! I hope they feel something when they read it.
Chelsea Coupal’s first poetry collection, Sedley (Coteau, 2018), was selected by Chapters Indigo for an Indigo Exclusive edition and shortlisted for three Saskatchewan Book Awards; her work has won the City of Regina Writing Award; been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and appeared in more than a dozen Canadian literary journals and anthologies, including Arc, EVENT, Grain, Literary Review of Canada and Best Canadian Poetry.
Kristine Scarrow is the author of four young adult novels, all published by Dundurn Press. Her work has also appeared in several literary journals and anthologies. This past year, Kristine completed a short story collection Only Human through the MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. She is currently working on another YA novel and an adult fiction medical novel. She is currently serving as the Saskatoon Public Library Writer in Residence.
Walker Pityn: You’ve written novels, plays, a collection of poems, short stories, and non-fiction. With such an expansive and experienced body of creative work, how do you find your writing ambitions have shifted through time and experience? Are you more inclined to write in a particular form of literature now than you were before?
Bill Gaston: I’ve had a long career, and have been blessed, or cursed, with some degree of skill in all the forms—I used to think of the “jack of all, master of none” expression, and wince—so, yes, I’ve done a lot of shifting. My first book was a collection of poems, but somewhere along the way I learned that any poetic word-spasm I suffered could be put to good use in a sentence in a story I was writing. So I suspect I was never a poet to begin with. Similarly, I started writing plays and screenplays, I think mostly because I love writing dialogue, but then I became frustrated by the collaboration required in both those forms. I’m enough of a control freak that that degree of collaboration was painful. But it wasn’t just that—with fiction, I was able to sit back and imagine that anyone reading my work was experiencing exactly what I intended them to experience—they got all my jokes, they understood the objective correlatives, they were intrigued by my characters just as I was intrigued by them—which is all a delusion on my part, of course, but one I continue to enjoy. So fiction was it. Over the years I’ve published seven novels and seven collections of stories, with two more novels in my bottom drawer that will never see the light of day. And that might be it for novels. A short story needs only a seed to get it going but a novel needs a whole garden plot, and I just may have run out of those. So, it’s stories now. I still love writing stories, and apparently I’m better at them—three collections have been up for national awards, but no such accolades for the novels. Finally (I’m sorry for such a long answer to this question but, again, this has been a long career), I’ve turned to non-fiction, which in my case means memoir. I’m currently framing up a third. By “framing” I mean plotting, and voice. While memoir, and non-fiction in general, is in some sense easier to write because all you need to do is write what happened, but you do have to work very hard to make what happened interesting.
WP: In our previous discussions, you’ve mentioned that you both plot out your stories as well as write as you go. Could you speak on this process a bit more and why this process is effective for you? Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers struggling to find what works for them in their creative process?
BG: First I’ll just say that every writer needs to find the process that best works for them, because there isn’t any right or wrong. It’s all about setting a stage for inspiration. For instance, some need a special room, time of day, type of beverage, etc., and some need a more chaotic opposite of all that. I had one phase where words would come most easily if I was in a noisy, crowded, clattering cafeteria where I worked at my day job, a university. It’s the same with process itself, and whether it’s best to plot the whole thing out or just plunge blindly in and hope for the best, because again there’s no right or wrong. There’s an upside and a downside to both the planned and the spontaneous approaches. If the whole idea is plotted out and the dramatic and emotional movements well-conceived, it’ll probably get written and be good but, in the writing of it, how many opportunities were missed? How good could it have been, artistically? Then, the other way, just plunging in and going line by line, is exhilarating and by definition open to all and every opportunity, but will it find a good shape? This method can be doubly scary if it’s a novel, because you might give years of your life to it and it goes nowhere. Not that writing is ever a waste, but. In any case, I’ve found that a combination of both ways can be best. I often come up with a “bendable structure,” meaning that, once I have an interesting character who’s in an interesting dilemma, it’s a solid enough foundation to proceed with. Just like a reader, I sit there and see this interesting person with their interesting problem and I wonder how they might solve it. I have to say that maybe the biggest joy I take from writing is the surprise of a good sentence, but also the surprise of your character doing something you never imagined, or planned.
WP: As writers, so much of our writing—if not all of it—comes from our own experiences and engagements with the world. From our conversations this past summer and from snooping around the internet a bit, it really does seem like you’ve had a plethora of life experiences to help shape and guide your writing. What I’m particularly interested in now is how those experiences are utilized in writing over time. Does your attention lie more in the subtle details or scenes from perhaps a memory, or do you abstract larger themes from your experiences? Or both?
BG: It’s true that I have done a lot of different things in my life, and I suppose because of that I have many colours to paint with, but let me say that this is just background, and no life is any better than any other in terms of what might be called “material.” I encountered a saying, which I half believe, which is, by the time you’re twelve you have enough experience to write for the rest of your life. Again I only half-believe that, because at twelve you don’t have much experience with such things as sex or failure or wine pairing. But every life has its own plethora of detail, and its own core of confidence and suffering. Life is hard, and a person who is alone their entire life simply has a different reservoir of material, and palette, than someone who lives surrounded by children and friends. It’s all about finding the interesting dilemma, and those are everywhere. Then it tests your ability to see deeply and vividly, and then translate what you’ve seen into words. And then it depends on whether readers understand your particular translation. You don’t have much control over that, other than that both seeing and translating can and must be practiced, and learned. Some can fling open those two doors with genius, but most of us have to keep knocking, and hunting for those keys under the mat.
WP: Your writing has been described as humorous, gentle, zany, spiritual, absurd and many other descriptors. As a writer (me) who struggles with getting out of the confines of the world that I live in, I wonder if you could share how you tap into an ‘otherness’ or the ‘unconventional’? Is it a morphing of something concrete and grounded?
BG: “Morphing” is a good word for what I sometimes do, or did. When I lead workshops in creative thinking I refer to it as “artful exaggeration,” and sometimes its sibling, “artful incongruity.” Artful exaggeration is simply taking something ordinary, or even deadly-ordinary, like a cliché, and nudging it back into the light. Many of the details of my first novel, Tall Lives, were pretty much driven—or morphed—with this technique. I wanted to write a love story, but the romantic story had been told a billion times, so I ventured into a story of two brothers, twins, identical twins, which is itself a cliché. So I decided to magnify, or exaggerate, the cliché. One twin was good—so good that he might thank an elevator when it opened its doors to him, so good and fair that he became a Canadian Football League referee—and the other was bad, so bad that he stole whatever he could steal, treated people badly just because, and sabotaged his brother whenever he could. Not only that, but they were born conjoined, or “Siamese” twins, but joined, impossibly, at the big toe. Not only that, but their horrible father, a vet who wanted to be a doctor, believes it was his fault they were joined, blaming his hubris after demanding that he, a lowly vet, deliver his own children (even though they weren’t) in his backyard clinic. Then he saws them apart. Since he’s drunk, one toe ends up a bit longer and the other a bit shorter, resulting in their respective goodness and badness. And on it goes. Like all identical twins, they share emotions telepathically, but in their case through their severed toes. Havoc, marriage, adultery, and prison ensues. Now, since those early days when I didn’t care much for realism, I’ve dialed this technique back, towards not only realism but subtlety, or less garishness anyway. Back then, a childhood bully might have all molars in his mouth. These days, I might create a bully with teeth that are noticeably yellowed, and uniformly very small.
WP: Finally, is there anything you would like to share with the writing world about any upcoming work?
BG: As it happens, just this morning I sent my new collection of linked stories to my agent. Who knows how long before it’s in stores? In any case, it’s called Gavel Island.
Bill Gaston taught Creative Writing at the U of New Brunswick (and edited The Fiddlehead, Canada’s oldest literary journal) then at the U of Victoria, where he retired as Professor Emeritus in 2020. His eighteen books have garnered nominations for the Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award and Charles Taylor Prize, and won the Ethel Wilson Prize, Relit Award, a CBC Prize and the inaugural Timothy Findley Prize for a body of work. He lives with writer Dede Crane on Gabriola Island in the Salish Sea.
Walker Pityn is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan, where he writes poetry and realistic fiction. His stories explore coming of age, codependency, and anticipatory anxiety. His work has been published in in medias res. He is a contributing editor at ARC Poetry magazine.
Dawn Muenchrath: How does your work in literary criticism and analysis translate into your own creative practice? Do you see these two kinds of writing as complementary, or, possibly, in tension with one another?
Joanne Leow: Definitely complementary in many ways because when you are doing literary criticism, you have the great honour of being immersed in other people’s amazing and brilliant work. So, you have poetry, for example, from someone like Dionne Brand, but you also have a lot of critical theory, and, in my line of research, archival materials and artist statements too, and this vocabulary and diction influences what goes into my creative work.
I think there is a lot that cannot be said in academic writing, because, in part, there are inherent limitations due to the way it is expected to perform a certain kind of knowledge and power. Also, as a Singaporean academic critiquing a lot of stuff [about my country], I sometimes find myself holding back––I try not to do that––but taking my body and positionality out of the writing. When I write poetry then, I feel a lot freer to express the things that can’t be said, and the emotions that I carry when I am confronted with ecological devastation, or hyper-planning and authoritarian power.
DM: Your new poetry collection Seas Move Away (Turnstone Press 2022), explores questions about displacement, loss and belonging on an intimate, personal scale, and then on a national and even transnational scale––ideas that are linked together with images of water and tides. I’m wondering, did you always know these pieces were going to come together in this way, or, at what moment you decide that?
JL: As I started putting together all this poetry that I was writing in Saskatoon, in the States, in Vancouver, and in Singapore, I started thinking about the metaphor of seas moving away. But then, one of my editors, Joanne Arnott, said, “You know, you are very critical about Singapore, and you’re not as critical of Saskatchewan.” She told me that Saskatchewan used to be an inland sea, and I thought this is too perfect. I did some geological research and found that this used to be the Western Interior Seaway, which is why we have so much oil––why Alberta and Saskatchewan have all these deposits. Literally, seas move away.
I have the poem, “Western Interior Seaway,” and I was thinking, how is this different than the crude oil, the refineries, and the barges that come into Singapore? Both places are essentially petrostates. So, there was that ecological thread, and then I’m always wondering, what does that do to people’s bodies? My grandfather was an employee of Shell and he moved around Southeast Asia to support the drilling, and so there is this familial history there. So much of my life, then, is shaped by travel, diaspora, migration, and extraction.
When I think of the colonization of continents or archipelagos, I also think about the colonization of my own body––my voice, my language, and everything else.
DM: In the third section of your book, “All Submerged Lands,” you are repurposing words and phrases from the statutes of the Republic of Singapore. I’m wondering how the process of using “found language” to write poetry is different from writing other types of poems, and how do you know when that’s the right avenue?
JL: I find that protest poetry or dissident poetry is very hard to write. I spent a long time working as a journalist in Singapore, and when you’re a journalist in Singapore, you’re really a state mouthpiece, and there’s no room to question what’s being said. I was very fascinated with this language [in the statutes] that could be instrumentalized to produce a particular kind of culture and obedience from the population. I was fascinated by the laws themselves because they try to contain everything, to account for every possibility of what could happen in this land. I think that kind of totality needs to be challenged through the language.
Sometimes when you are writing a poem, you are just trying to describe some insight you had, but with these poems, I felt like I was actively fighting with this language that was attempting to reshape reality. I had an adversary. I was very angry when I wrote these poems, but it was very empowering in many ways. It was very creatively productive.
DM: You have a poem titled, “How Not to Settle,” and I was thinking how that idea runs throughout a lot of the book, and I was wondering if you could speak to what that phrase means?
JL: We battled with that poem because I wanted to retain the line length, but it’s hard to retain line length when you have the constraint of book format, so I asked my editor, “Can we turn it on its side?” It’s the only poem in the collection that’s turned on its side. I thought, what will that do? It will unsettle the reader––and that’s exactly what I wanted to do. Visually, the form will speak to its content.
[When I wrote the poem] I had just bought this house that I’m living in, and I wondered, what does it really mean to live here, on Treaty land, on Indigenous land, in this house that was constructed in the 1960s, and is so thoroughly suburban? The previous owner’s point of pride was his immaculate lawn, and I can’t stand grass. I was thinking, what violence do we do to this land? What kind of omissions and lesions are unnecessary for us to settle? I don’t want to settle. I want to be unsettled. Even as a migrant, they talk about settlement when you come here, but if you want to strain, bristle against that, how do you do that? Do you have to listen really carefully? Do you have to be really conscious of what is going on? When I garden and work the land, what are the implications?
DM: Are you working on anything new, and is it related to this collection, or is it something different?
JL: I just wrote a long poem that interrogates settler ownership and naming. It was inspired by a wedding I attended at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise. The Stoney Peoples were kicked off this beautiful land and here we are dancing and partying on it. What does that even mean?
Then I’m working on a hybrid creative/critical memoir about my time as a journalist in Singapore, and my uneasy relationship with it. So, it’s related to the poetry, but in a more narrative form.
Joanne Leow grew up in Singapore and lives as an uninvited guest on Treaty Six Territory and the homeland of the Métis. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Saskatchewan. Her writing has been published in Brick, Catapult, Evergreen Review, The Goose, Isle, The Kindling, The Town Crier, and Ricepaper Magazine.Seas Move Away (Turnstone, 2022) is her debut collection of poetry.
Dawn Muenchrath is a writer originally from a farm in rural Alberta. She currently lives in Saskatoon where she is completing her MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. Her work has been published by Arc Poetry Magazine, Every Day Fiction, and Grain (forthcoming). She has two cats.
It’s the end of the world and Catherine Pierce knows it. Her most recent poetry collection, Danger Days (2020), provides an unflinching reckoning on the fraught relationship between humanity and nature and how war between the two ensures the eventual destruction of both. At times bitter, sardonic, nostalgic, and fiery, Pierce uses both the past and present to paint a future in which humanity must suffer the repercussions of their material excesses. It is a bitter prophetic pill, sweetened with dry wit, conversant form, and tender thoughts on motherhood.
Exploring the origins of apocalyptic endings, Pierce’s poems often investigate the contradictory qualities of beginnings. “Anthropocene Pastoral,” a ruminative and oddly romantic account of a natural disaster finally realized, claims: “In the beginning, the ending was beautiful” (3). Rather than fearful, the poem’s speaker appears almost entranced by all the wondrous symptoms of their failing world: deserts blooming with flowers, air overcome with flora (3). “At least / it’s starting gentle,” they note (3). Envisioning a somewhat different kind of catastrophe, “Fable for the Final Days” opens with a similar statement: “In the end, it was an asteroid” (71). Alongside the horrific details provided is a tragic denial made domestic, humans playing board games like “Clue, Battleship, Sorry,” as outside “streets [are] humped with bodies” (71) and “the soil [is] still sizzling with roaches and earwigs” (72). Perhaps no poem better argues the complexity of beginnings than “All 21 of Mississippi’s Beaches Are Closed Because of Toxic Algae,” which borrows its title from an actual CNN headline. Arranged in couplets that almost look like journalistic subheads, the poem repeats many of its sentences with the phrase “it begins” (“It begins with a sister’s / call from a car,” “It begins with a gone / jetty”) until the words become an almost anaphoric chant, culminating in, “It begins and keeps beginning. / With a sidebar headline and a bummer” (29).
Pierce examines many of her fears through the lens of motherhood, adding a deeper layer to her collection that is at once compassionate, witty, distressed, and intensely personal. “Strategies for Motherhood in the Age of This Age,” a sardonic tongue-in-cheek survival guide on how to be a mom when disaster feels imminent, campaigns for resiliency even as it notes the prevalent sadness of its world: “Now with that starving polar bear / now with the ‘Gun-Free Zone’ signs on the doors / of the kindergarten… So what if we recite state capitals / in the shower’s echo chamber, or avoid the sad / billboard eyes of the boat donation girl?” (18-19). In “Instructive Fable for the Daughter I Don’t Have,” a speaker pleads with their child to appreciate nature in all its gritty glory as long as she can, urging her to “wear your hair uncovered. / Wear your mouth unset. You may not find / the jewels, the mirror, the stag. But you may find / a bare possum skull… You entered the woods lost. Leave that way” (47). “Inheritance” is an epistolary poem to Pierce’s children that acts as both apology and warning, ironically noting that “when we were children… we understood that the future / was a country our parents would have / to navigate but had nothing to do with us” (15). Pierce’s maternal poetry does little to soothe the anxiety wrought by the rest of her collection; rather, the poems act as a reminder of the complications of becoming a mother in a world that seems to hold such little regard for life.
Despite the gravity of its themes, the collection is not entirely devoid of playfulness. A series of four poems is written in the style of encyclopedia entries from a fictional “Compendium of Romantic Words.” Other poems engage in conversational play with their titles: “I Spend My Days Putting Away,” begins with the line “the small blue car here” (33), while “I Kept Getting Books About Birds” starts with “as if recognizing the yellow-winged one / at the feeder… might somehow / become enough” (65). “Poem for Quicksand” employs the formal romanticism of an ode, complete with its archaic opener: “O you gorgeous torture” (64). The result is a masterclass in balancing horror and humour, a demonstration of Pierce’s ability to cover a broad range of emotions that ultimately makes her poems feel complete and completely human.
Brief moments of levity aside, there is little hope for future happiness in this grim collection. Pierce warns us that dangerous days exist and will continue to exist so long as they are ignored. Effective and explosive, Danger Days covers the death of this world from a variety of nuanced angles. But while the subjects of the poems often change, one sentiment remains unaltered: it’s the end of the world as we know it, and Catherine Pierce does not feel fine.
Pierce, Catherine. Danger Days. Saturnalia, 2020.
Review by Gunnar Ohberg. Gunnar Ohbergis a member of the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program. His poems and short stories have recently been featured in The Racket, The Mark Literary Review, and in media res. He is currently working on a dystopian novel set in South Carolina. Sometimes he plays in rock bands.
*Please note: due to constrictions of WordPress, the excerpts from the text may not be formatted as they appear in the text. We did our best to format excerpts as close to the original as possible.
Sarah Ens’s debut poetry book, The World is Mostly Sky (2020) is a stunning collection full of vibrancy and teeming with tenderness. Each poem, like each tooth in the first poem, “By the Skin,” is a “hard little [dream]” given to readers in the “square white envelopes’’ of each page (Ens 3). The World is Mostly Sky is composed of three sections: “Silos,”“Wuthering: A Comprehensive Guide,” and “Powerful Millennials on The California Freeway.” In these three sections, Ens’s poetry first soars through childhood nostalgia and anguish, dives through thick waters of heartbreak and longing, and finally crashes up through clouds of young adulthood with ice coffees raised like chalices to the sky.
The first section, “Silos,” orbits around themes of change, loss of innocence, and growing up. In “World We Rise,” three children witness a teen destroying a bird’s nest, resulting in the death of the baby chicks. In this moment, the children witness death and loss simultaneously. The mother bird “frantic / at the hydro / wire… shrieks” (10) at the loss of her babies while the poem’s speaker reflects, “did she / think she / could still / save them / & us” (11). “Silos” moves into a meditation on growing older in “Choreography of Bounding,” wherein the play of two sisters concludes with the elder sister, the poem’s speaker, stating “the choreography / of our bounding / too obvious, / & none of it real” (15). This moment, while saddening to the sister, whose face “slump[s]” (15), is also a moment of growth and maturing as the poem’s last words “before flight” (16) signify reaching for the outer world of adulthood. “Straddled” and “The Sacredness of Sleepovers” portray a darker side to growing older: the imposition of sexuality on young girls. In “Straddled,” the speaker sees girls that “straddled everything” in posters “leaning over bikes” (17) while in “The Sacredness of Sleepovers” the speaker becomes the confidant of a friend who was “touched… when [she was] just a kid” (18). “Silos” concludes with “I Promised No More Poems About the Moon,” a poem of softness and vulnerability and searching for meaning in “footprints in the field… & the faded moon” (28).
The middle section, “Wuthering: A Comprehensive Guide,” deals with love and loss, heartbreak, and longing. In “Early February & He Built Her a Nest,” a gannet falls in love with a stone bird, evoking Ovid’s Pygmalion myth in a fresh way. The bird “shape[s] her beds of seaweed, twigs & dirt” (31) despite her inanimacy. The poem “Wuthering: A Comprehensive Guide” captures falling in and out of love through bodily and disembodied movement and response. This long poem begins with capturing the movements of love:
The body burns
red in triangles, maps
Circles from your collarbone
to your chest, pokes breath to
your inner ear,
seeks sun, craves water
& also you.
The body unfurls. (53)
The breaking apart of the relationship is then embodied by “huge / & heavy silence, the inevitable / sinking” (58) followed by the eventual recovering and resilience of the body in the final stanza:
the body learns to dance whole
Routines, cook soups & stews,
sleep soundly. (61)
This poem exemplifies the primary message of this section: the coexistence of love, heartbreak, and resiliency.
In the final section, Ens showcases the beauty and power of millennial friendships. The prose poem, “Communion,” turns the mundane to spiritual, highlighting the sacred in moments of quiet friendship. Here, “ritual” is “dyeing each other’s hair in the bathroom… [searching] the carpet for claws the cat has shed” and “[sitting] around on the kitchen floor” drinking wine (75). In these moments, bonds are formed in the “telling[s]” and “teachings” between friends, and in the ritualistic chanting of “me too, me too” (75). The power in these friendships peaks in the second to last poem of the collection, “Powerful Millennials on The California Freeway,” which evokes the freedom of becoming lost in a moment, screaming to songs on the highway, and “waving iced coffees / to the sun” (89). With details like this, Ens reminds the reader of the title, The World is Mostly Sky, giving a final salute to hope and the serendipity of everyday life. Moving through memory to heartbreak to resilience, this is a debut collection you won’t want to miss.
Ens, Sarah. The World is Mostly Sky. Turnstone Press, 2020.
Review by Delane Just. Delane Just (she/her) lives in Saskatoon and is a current graduate student in the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan. She has had work appear in In Medias Res and The University of Saskatchewan Undergraduate Research Journal.
*Please not: due to constrictions of WordPress, the excerpts from the text may not be formatted as they appear in the text. We did our best to format excerpts as close to the original as possible.
Engaging heart, mind, and body, Jan Zwicky’s collection of poems, The Long Walk (2016), invites readers on a journey through a lifetime of memories, intimate moments of personal loss, grief and joy fused with images of environmental and cultural devastation. Throughout, the poet skillfully weaves metaphor with detailed descriptions of nature and difficult subject matter to tell a story of strength and returning home. This is stated with elegant simplicity in “Haydn: The Unpublished Sonatas,” the last poem of the collection:
A winter night after snow,
the long walk home, faint smudge of moon
And climbing the stairs at last, then,
and lighting the fire,
and slowly, gently, taking off your coat (75)
The poem “Courage,” offered as a prelude to the four sections that comprise the collection, reminds the reader that there is much yet to be done: “And now you know that it won’t turn out as it should, / that what you did was not enough” (8). The reader is urged to witness a world that enables environmental devastation and social injustice, and to have the courage to take action, however weary they might be: “Come, step closer to the edge then. You must look, heart. You must look” (8). The line foreshadows the need for the reader to brace themselves for the difficult subject matter that follows.
The first section of the collection opens with “Into the Gap,”a poem that, along with the last poem in the collection, describes a return home through childhood memories detailed with images of an altered landscape. This poem flows like a song with a rhythm that captures the wind:
To set out west, into the windbreak’s gap,
and through the memory of the poplars roaring on the night
your father died, the memory of the bench, not house,
he built high in their branches – you could look out
to the first rise of the foothills – and the tunnels
in the caraganas underneath, dog-
haunted, their dry and scented shade. (15)
The land is explored through memories of ice-clotted mitts, mushrooms, fallen logs, wild strawberries and events that took place years earlier. The last few lines of this poem incorporate a theme that is woven throughout the collection: “The body / knows before the mind collects itself: what held you / is what held you up, at every step, / to set out then / into the walk that keeps on walking. Coming home / without a roof” (17). The experience of coming home as a sense of completion is embodied through memories of the land despite, or perhaps because of, painful losses along the way.
The second section uses the language of machinery, nature, and contamination to enable readers to feel in their bodies, in the way physical relationships are felt, the impacts of environmental destruction. The brutality of progress is captured through a powerful use of defamiliarization, exemplified in the poem “Near”:“that put the steel in our forearms… the axle of our will is seized” (30). The individual body is conflated with culture and nature; bodies, machines, even child soldiers are implicated as labour-saving practices that promote progress. At the end of the poem, Zwicky urge the reader to take action, to speak up, “Louder. Louder” (31).
The third section continues the journey, incorporating sorrow and joy, personal and environmental transition, departure and violation. The poem that strikes me most in the collection is “No,” in memoriam to Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, a young Somalian girl who had been raped and subsequently stoned to death to pay for the sin of being raped and reporting it. This poem again calls on the reader to witness the politicization of women’s bodies through the repetition of the words, “Because she was a woman”:
Because she was a woman
she’d been raped.
Because she was a woman
there was no excuse. (50)
As in the first three sections, the fourth has moments of beauty and joy that intersect with science, geographical distance, and environmental destruction. The world expands and contracts simultaneously and seamlessly, rendering inherent contradictions visible.
This collection of beautifully written, pragmatic yet theoretical poems invites readers of diverse backgrounds and interests into a world of pain and joy, despair and hope. It invites them to open their hearts and join the writer on a journey home along life’s streams, gullies, and roadways.
Zwicky, Jan. The Long Walk. University of Regina Press, 2016.
Review by Karen Wood. With roots in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, Karen’s writing is fueled by a deeply held commitment to addressing gendered violence, informed by years of working in the community and conducting research in social work, education and health. New to the world of creative writing, she continues to be delighted by the extraordinary capacity of artistic activities to create space for social and political engagement, activism and change.
The phrase “climate change” refers most obviously to global warming, the melting of polar ice caps, the erosion of the ozone layer, the impact of human industry on the environment. It makes sense to title a poem about catastrophe “Climate Change,” and Barbara Langhorst does not disappoint, though the environment is the family, and the catastrophe is the problem of motherhood.
“Climate Change” opens with the speaker addressing her daughter, then parallels her self-perceived failings as a mother to her own “radiant” mother (27). The parallel is quite literal—the past and present exist simultaneously on the page, with the speaker’s present on the left and her memory on the right, curving outwards and foreshadowing the later shapes and melding of present and memory into grief.
On the following page, these two parallels are brought together through an italicised stanza that describes and enacts what the speaker is doing: reading. The italics indicate quotations from other written works (citations located at the back of Langhorst’s book), so that the poem shows us what the speaker reads even as she writes the poem. The tension between memory and the speaker distracting herself through reading is realized with the mention of “at her funeral,” when the reader sees that the memory of summer lake visits is overwhelmed by the presence of mosquitos at the mother’s funeral (28). The reluctance to face this other memory—or the desire to hold onto the happier memories—is indicated through word-spacing. A small stanza on the left could read “the last day / the inevitable / soggy three-day / holiday week / end—” and be talking about the speaker’s desire to remain at the lake as a child, or the desire to remain inside that memory (28). However, the lines “[the mosquitos overwhelming / at her funeral]” interrupt this stanza, claim space beside the end lines, so that the end of the holiday weekend becomes the funeral weekend (28). The square brackets around those lines further indicate the intrusion of thoughts the speaker would rather keep at bay. The poem then focuses on describing the mother as she was, but this is overrun by the mention of the speaker’s father, and the poem abruptly reverts to quoted lines; the speaker turns off her thoughts by returning to reading.
However, the thoughts return and the speaker soon tells us—hesitantly, haltingly, with many interruptions from other texts—that her mother was murdered, and that “three days the bodies lay,” with no other hint of her father (29). The following page retreats into quotes and memory, with the speaker berating herself and her family for forgetting their mother’s birthday, and the accompanying quotes relaying a mother-daughter experience that could have been shared by the speaker and her own mother (30). The layout of this page positions the speaker’s memory inside a cocoon of borrowed memories (quotes) that insulate the speaker’s regret. This regret is tied to how her mother died, and that it took so long to discover her death, but ensconced inside the mundane quotation-memories, this specific instance of disappointment speaks to the larger regret without facing it head-on.
Conversely, the next page is displayed in a circle, with quotes and the speaker’s thoughts interspersed together and a void left in the middle of the page (31). On this page, the poem can be read as italics, then non-italics, across the lines, or down either side and then the next, or even jumping between stanzas, so that the eye crosses over at each extra space between lines. The lack of direction in how to read this embodies the lack of direction experienced by the speaker, regarding both processing her grief and reconciling her ‘failures’ as a mother with her ‘failures’ as a daughter. The circle implies the cyclical nature of grief and trauma, while existing as a gaping hole, but the poem leads out of this in a descending line that continues straight down the page, offering a path out of grief and depression, while still allowing for that grief to be revisited and explored from other angles upon (re)readings.
While the end of the poem tells the reader that the speaker’s father is responsible for her mother’s murder, and that afterwards he killed himself too, the poem refuses to be defeated. The end circles back to the beginning, and returns to food and notions of nutrition, allowing room for her family climate to change again, for the better, while recognizing that that change has not occurred by the end of the poem.
Langhorst, Barbara. Restless White Fields. NeWest Press, 2012.
Essay by Allie McFarland, a bi, white settler originally from Calgary, AB on Treaty 7 territory. She holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of English, where her thesis, a manuscript on eating disorders currently under consideration with multiple presses, was nominated for the College of Arts & Sciences Thesis Award. She is a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, which publishes antilang. magazine, soundbite, Good Short Reviews, and the On Editing blog series. Her poetic suite “Lullaby” won the 2015 Dr. MacEwan Literary Arts Scholarship. She is also the author of the chapbook Marianne’s Daughters (Loft on EIGHTH, 2018). Allie currently runs a not-for-profit used bookstore on the unceded territories of the Lekwungen people of Vancouver Island. Disappearing in Reverse is her full-length debut.
* Please note: Quotes are formatted as closely as possible to the original text. There may be some discrepancies.
Natasha Ramoutar’s debut poetry collection, Bittersweet (2020), reflects on a “reconstructed homeland” of the Indo-Guyanese diaspora and Scarborough, Ontario (Cover copy). Playful, inventive, and poignant, the artfully titled Bittersweet asserts poetic creation as a tool to explore the persistent aftertaste of racism, colonialism, and the self, while asking: “How do you unravel a history of trauma, that which is woven / within you?” (Ramoutar 72).
In answering this question, Ramoutar is like a cartographer, drawing maps from “home to home, from Toronto to Guyana to South Asia” (Cover copy). Meanwhile, Scarborough remains omnipresent as a “city of travellers” (32) within which Ramoutar weighs her life against history, like tea leaves, shifting “back and forth, / reading for the past instead of the future” (5):
Ask me where I come from and I will tell you: from the remnants of melted sugar cubes, from the rough grains ripped from stalks, from spices and saccharine scents, from a sweetness that mixes with cardamom hanging in the air. I come from a line of bittersweet women, women shrewd enough to empty pockets, to upturn kingdoms, to launch ships to war. On a journey long ago, I witnessed the origin point: fields of cane standing tall like soldiers on patrol. But cane is raw, just long stalks, unbridled and wild and free. (2)
What is striking in this poem, “Cartography I,” is the associative imagery between “remnants of melted sugar” and women. Both are “rough grains ripped from stalks,” reduced from “fields of cane standing tall like soldiers” to something bittersweet (2); pleasure tinged with suffering. This layering effect underscores Bittersweet as Ramoutar returns to different “origin points” to collect pieces of her homeland and explore her third-culture identity (2).
The back cover states that when writing Bittersweet, Ramoutar meditated on “memory—[personal and collective]—prompted by photographs, maps, language, and folklore.” The collection draws from these sources to evoke metaphor and renovate form. For instance, “All Inclusive” mimics an advertisement for an all-inclusive vacation package (34). The poem parallels “white-sand beaches, / places we can dub nirvana” with colonialism: “six days of escaping, / six days of imposing” (34). Ramoutar’s inventiveness with form, such as creating an all-inclusive vacation, a fire-starting guide (9), and recipe (67), subverts the positive multi-cultural identity of Scarborough, revealing it as problematic. She does this by taking familiar markers in western culture and defamiliarizing them to show their harmful nature. Most importantly, Ramoutar confronts readers from outside the Indo-Guyanese community with challenging subject matter, asking them to reflect inward and create something positive in the process.
Whether it raises awareness of systemic racism or begins unravelling readers’ relationship with trauma, Bittersweet has something for everyone. While the audience for some poems is primarily those outside the Indo-Guyanese community, others speak directly to “diaspora babies” (13) who “walk on eggshells” (69) and are made to suppress their identities: “never add your own flavours. They’re not a good fit” (67). These poems share stories of resilience in marginalized communities by celebrating the parts of language, dance, cuisine, and history that are retained and reclaimed. These bits of collected memory blend with a constant yearning to know a home that was stolen, as exemplified in “Us Diaspora Babies, We Do Not Sleep”:
This boat, it rocks back and forth like a cradle on the Essequibo
us diaspora babies swathed in red life jackets,
the steady shifting trying to lull us to dream.
This boat tries to comfort,
but us diaspora babies,
we do not sleep —
only dream with eyes wide open,
grasping at the water of our homelands,
droplets slipping through our fingers with each midsummer
Us diaspora daughters,
listening to our parents’ stories of the golden era
of a far off youth.
We know of home through photographs and UN reports,
but what of seeing with our own eyes?
What of divided states of being?
What of us diaspora babies,
Us diaspora daughters,
exiled before birth? (13)
Bittersweet by Natasha Ramoutar is a “sugary syrup” (61) of sensory details with an aftertaste of racism and colonial violence. The poetics are clever, the form and content engaging, but the real reason to read Bittersweet is that it validates Indo-Guyanese diasporic experiences as being as true and important as any other. As Ramoutar unravels internalized trauma and explores her identity, readers are invited into a space where they can safely do the same. One must read the collection to reach Ramoutar’s conclusions, but rest assured, “it comes together / slowly” (72).
Ramoutar, Natasha. Bittersweet. Mawenzi House Publishers Ltd., 2020.
Cover copy. Ramoutar, Natasha. Bittersweet. Mawenzi House Publishers Ltd., 2020.
Review by Aliza Prodaniuk. Aliza graduated from McMaster University with an honours BA in English and Cultural Studies. She secretly enjoys sci-fi and fantasy but will tell you she only reads literary fiction. She is currently creating and exploring in Dundas, Ontario, where her work dabbles in murder mystery, eco-fiction, and realistic fiction. Her writing has been published in various business, science and travel magazines/journals, with her most recent work appearing in the Canadian Journal for Medical Laboratory Sciences. She’s currently happy to have time to focus on her work while learning alongside other writers at the U of S.
Özten Shebahkeget:When did you begin to take writing seriously? And what motivated you to start?
Lenard Monkman: I didn’t take writing seriously until around March of 2015. I set it as one of my goals that year to become a better writer. That month, I started a personal blog just to get used to having a space for my writing, but also just to get into the habit of writing all of the time. Another thing that I started doing was putting out long Facebook statuses. I wanted to get into the habit of writing every day and getting used to having feedback from my online Facebook community. It was a good practice for me, and those long-winded Facebook statuses eventually became newspaper op-eds, which eventually became a job as a journalist. Truth is, I have always been a journalism nerd, I just needed to get used to writing every single day.
ÖS: What obstacles have you encountered as a writer?
LM: If you take it from 2015, I would say that there haven’t been too many obstacles. At the beginning of that year, I went from barely being able to write a properly formatted email and typing very slowly, to being able to write 500 words in 5 minutes by August. Although now, when I look at the things that I was writing five years ago, it is hard to read because I can see how much I have improved since then. The best advice that I ever got from anyone was: if you want to become a writer then you need to pen to paper every day. I always thought about that and recognized that every single time that I write, it’s an opportunity to improve with each story and each sentence.
ÖS: You are a co-founder of Red Rising Magazine. Why was creating a literary magazine for and by Indigenous people important to you?
LM: I wanted to get into producing media before we started Red Rising Magazine. It was definitely a collective effort to get it off the ground with a bunch of energetic, intelligent folks from Winnipeg. We went from not having a whole bunch of skills, to having all sorts of publishing related skills in just the first year. I think the main idea behind everything that we did was to give Indigenous writers and artists an unfiltered platform that existed outside of the traditional forms of media. The magazine became a place where many people that I know had their first opportunity to be published and it is something that I am proud of. Although I haven’t been with the collective for a couple of years now, I still believe there is a space for that type of work and would like to see it continue in one form or another.
ÖS: You have been a journalist with CBC since 2016. The Canadian media has always had such a profound impact in framing Indigenous stories, and storytelling is an integral aspect of Indigenous cultures. What do you feel are your responsibilities as an Indigenous journalist, and what have you learned from telling the stories of a vast array of Indigenous peoples in Canada?
LM: I think the biggest responsibility is to make sure that what I am doing is truthful and that people feel like they were accurately represented in the work that I have done. I haven’t done as much “accountability” type of journalism as much as I have done the “here are some Native people doing really cool things” type of journalism. I really want to use the mainstream media platform to try and boost our people’s presence and to highlight their successes. But I also strive to make sure that the reality of what our people go through is being heard in newsrooms like the CBC. What I have learned from talking to so many Indigenous peoples across the country over the years is that we are brilliant and that our cultures are diverse. I’ve also come to realize that so many of our struggles are similar from coast to coast. There are a lot of things that I continue to learn as the years go by, but getting a chance to talk to Indigenous people all over the country is easily the most enjoyable thing about my job.
ÖS: What are some of the books that have influenced you?
LM: I always give credit to Indians Wear Red. The book spoke to my reality of what it was like growing up in Winnipeg’s inner-city in the 90’s-00’s. It really was a “light bulb moment” for me to understand that what I was seeing in my life was happening not just in my life, but everyone else in my community as well. The last chapter “What Can Be Done?” was also a call to action for me. I think that the more we are able to try and create changes within our communities, the less healing the next generation will have to do. Another book that I really like is Franz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks. There are a lot of really good psychological gems inside that book that are applicable to the Indigenous community.
ÖS: What do you write outside of journalism?
LM: I still love Facebook more than the other apps. It allows me to joke without feeling like I’m being judged. It allows me to write in long-form if I ever need to get a thought out. I also really just practiced everything that I could in terms of writing on that app. I also like to use Twitter, although it’s more of a professional space. Twitter has made me a better writer because I put a little bit of thought into trying to make those sentences a bit stronger.
ÖS: Where would you like your writing to go next?
LM: I feel like I have been thinking about this question for a couple years now. I try to improve with each story that I write. I also try to improve with each radio script, TV script and everything else that is journalism related. I have thought for a long time about whether or not I would like to write children’s books, graphic novels, fiction or nonfiction. I guess the biggest thing that stops me is feeling like I need to be an incredible writer before I actually start writing. Eventually I will settle on a subject, and hopefully I can dedicate enough time to sit down and hammer out something that is loosely based on some of the things that I have seen in my life.
Lenard Monkman is Anishinaabe from Lake Manitoba First Nation, Treaty 2 territory. He has been an associate producer with CBC Indigenous since 2016. In 2021, he received the Manitowapow Award from the Manitoba Book Awards for his contributions to the Indigenous writing community.
Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation and an MFA candidate at the University of Saskatchewan. She grew up in Winnipeg’s North End and holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg. Her poetry has appeared recently in CV2, Prairie Fire and The Winnipeg Free Press.