Interview with Nicole Haldoupis

Tea Gerbeza interviews Nicole Haldoupis

A woman, author Nicole Haldoupis, stands in front of a white, planked wall for a portrait.
Nicole Haldoupis, MFA in Writing alumnus and author of the upcoming novel Tiny Ruins

Nicole Haldoupis is the editor of Grain magazine and untethered, the co-founder of Applebeard Editions, the author of Tiny Ruins forthcoming with Radiant Press, and a University of Saskatchewan MFA in Writing alumnus. 

Tea Gerbeza: Your forthcoming book, Tiny Ruins, is a novel comprised of linked flash fiction stories. What about the genre of flash fiction do you find delightful? What do you find most challenging?

Nicole Haldoupis: Flash fiction—which has many names, such as microfiction, sudden fiction, postcard fiction, and short-shorts, among others—allows you to zero in on brief moments. You can do so much in a really small space, and it’s fun to see how much you can pack into a micro story of, say, 200 to 500 words. I love how satisfying it is to go from writing a first draft—which may or may not be awful—to chipping away and polishing it up to make a shiny little story. At a certain point, you realize that you really don’t need as much as you think you do—which is true for any form, but is particularly important in flash fiction—and that you don’t need to spell everything out for the reader. Much of what you cut and erase remains between what’s left on the page and what can still be felt in the blank spaces, if you leave just enough. 

Plot can be challenging in flash fiction, as you essentially have to fit a full story with a beginning, middle, and end in a page or two. I started working on Tiny Ruins in 2014 as my MFA in Writing thesis project, and my mentor for the project was the amazing Dave Margoshes, who would occasionally give me feedback such as, “Nicole, this story doesn’t have an ending.” Succeeding at creating a plot in this small space is a really good feeling. Not every single story in Tiny Ruins has a beginning, middle, and end, but I think most of them do. A micro story without a plot is sometimes referred to as a vignette, and these often work as literary portraits of a moment or image that don’t necessarily need to have much movement. 

Some of the pieces in Tiny Ruins cross over into prose poetry territory, as the line between the two forms is blurred. Sometimes it’s obvious which is which—for example, visually, if a piece has dialogue and paragraph breaks, it’s probably a flash story—but sometimes if you’re looking at a block of text that kind of seems like a story but also reads like it could be a poem, how can you possibly tell if it’s a prose poem or a flash fiction story? I like to think I know the answer, but I’m not sure if anyone really does. I’ve had a lot of fun experimenting and pushing the boundaries and blending the forms and seeing what I could do with them. 

TG: How does your job as an editor inspire your writing and impact your writing practice? Does the way you approach ordering the pieces for a magazine help you in structuring your own book? Or do you have a whole different approach?

NH: I think it’s really valuable to read what is being created and submitted to publications in CanLit today as a way of helping you see things you like and don’t like in your own work (and in the way you approach submitting to magazines and anthologies). My experience with ordering magazine pieces definitely helped with the initial ordering of pieces in Tiny Ruins. Trying to figure out what works together thematically, what creates a nice contrast when placed next to other pieces, what flows well and what doesn’t is a fun puzzle to solve. I usually do this in collaboration with others, but for Tiny Ruins it was just me, and I’m really bad at making decisions, so it was quite hard. I’ve since changed the order entirely and decided to structure the manuscript chronologically, as the story follows two sisters growing up, and I think it makes more sense this way. This is of course an entirely different process than ordering pieces in an issue of Grain, for example, as the pieces in a literary magazine aren’t part of the same story (but can, and often do, still link thematically to others in the issue). 

TG: What part of the MFA in Writing program was the most beneficial for you? Is there something you learned while completing the program that still influences the way you approach your writing practice? Did talking about your work critically in the defence change the way you view your writing now? 

NH: Defending my MFA thesis was an eye-opening experience for me. I’m an anxious person and going into the defence was terrifying. However, I am also one of those people who left their defence saying, “Actually, that was pretty fun”—because it was! I don’t know if I did a good job or anything like that, as defending a creative thesis is complicated in the first place, but talking about Tiny Ruins with my defence committee (a roomful of people who read my manuscript closely and came up with thoughtful comments and questions) helped me in many ways. It helped me realize that the defence and the whole MFA program itself was a rare and valuable experience that I was extremely privileged to have. It helped me acknowledge that I made this thing and it’s not “wrong” because I made it and it can be whatever I want it to be. I needed to learn to be able to talk about the manuscript from an academic perspective. People gave suggestions to help me improve it, but overall everyone involved was there to support me and was on my team. They wanted to help me to make my manuscript better and for it to succeed. I learned that I really didn’t have that much to be afraid of after all.

TG: From my understanding of the genre, flash fiction preoccupies itself with moments. Is there a specific place you draw inspiration from for your stories? Any obsessions that you just can’t shake? Where does the story start for you?  

NH: A lot of my flash stories take place in a schoolyard, and for me it is a specific schoolyard—the one behind my elementary school in the east end of Toronto. I find if I sit down to write but don’t know where to start, that schoolyard is often a good place to go back to as it’s a setting rich in stories for me. Some specific spots that appear in Tiny Ruins are inspired by this place, such as the mulberry bush (which was the go-to schoolyard wedding venue), the dumpsters by the far end of the tracks, the grass hill/ice slide, the portables, the sandbox, etc. 

There are several instances of poop in the book—kids pooping their pants, falling in poop, getting poop in their hair. I guess I’m also preoccupied with cats—there is a cat named Sean who appears throughout the collection—and weird and funny things kids do and say and how they experience life. 

During the more recent phases of writing and editing Tiny Ruins, I’ve also been interested in queerness and bi/pansexuality, bi-erasure, suppressing queerness, heteronormativity, and queerphobia, the microaggressions that stem from them, and the effect all this has on young girls. As someone who didn’t take the opportunity to embrace my queerness for a big portion of my life, these ideas have been preoccupations for me lately! 

Interview by Tea Gerbeza, current MFA in Writing candidate, poet, and paper quilling artist. Tea also holds an MA in English and Creative Writing from the University of Regina. You can find Tea’s work in The Society, Spring, and Poetry Is Dead, among others. Her poems won an Honourable Mention in the 2019 Short Grain Contest.

Interview with Beverley Brenna

Hope Houston interviews Beverley Brenna

A woman, author Beverley Brenna, poses for a portrait.
Beverley Brenna, mentor for the MFA in Writing and prolific author of children’s literature (Photo courtesy of David Stobbe/StobbePhoto.ca)

Beverley Brenna has previously published over a dozen titles for young people, including her “Wild Orchid” series that placed on the 2015 Governor General’s shortlist for children’s literature, won a Dolly Gray award, and earned a Printz Honor. She has two new titles coming out this spring with Red Deer Press—one creative non-fiction picture book called The Girl with the Cat and one middle-grade novel dealing with grief and loss called Because of That Crow. For more information, visit Beverley’s website.

Hope Houston: You’ve said that you began your writing journey as a poet and later transitioned to writing for children and younger readerships. What inspired this transition?

Beverley Brenna: I had been writing poetry since I was seven, and I enjoyed the process of creation. Finding an audience for my early poetry wasn’t easy, however, so when I was a child, and into my teens, writing for myself was my primary purpose. As I grew older, I published a few single poems for adults and received some audience opportunities through radio broadcasting, but the publications weren’t constant. As part of my B.Ed. program, I took a children’s literature class where I read some brilliant literary work for young people, and I began to wonder if perhaps I might try my hand in that direction. The books I admired most were presented for middle-years or young-adult age groups, and they inspired me to move towards this kind of narrative writing as a potential target. 

HH: There is sometimes an assumption that writing for children is easy or at least easier than writing for adults. What is your response to this? Do you find parallels between writing for either readerships? Does either offer unique challenges?

BB: I suggest that writing for any audience involves a similar process and a similar kind of workmanship—with equal expectations for quality. Bad writing for children is easier than good writing… but then, bad writing for any age group is probably similarly breezy. One of the particular challenges in writing for younger readers is that we need to occupy a kind of split perspective: adult writers rendering children and the experience of childhood—we are not just looking back; we’re avoiding any kind of long-distance, sentimental, or didactic lens, and actually going into the authentic landscape of childhood through our characters. 

HH: You are currently auditing Sheri Benning’s class on creative nonfiction, and you are in the midst of exploring an interesting history on a particular candy. Would you mind telling us more about that project? 

BB: I’m so grateful to be experiencing this class! Writers learn so much from every course, workshop, presentation, and conversation we have about writing, as well as from additional reading and extended writing practice in any form and genres. My draft picture book emerging from this class is currently called A Chocolate Love Letter: The Story of the New Cuban Lunch Chocolate Bar. When I drafted it for one of Sheri’s assignments, I’d been editing a creative non-fiction picture book by Kathy Stinson called The Girl Who Loved Giraffes, about the world’s first giraffologist (Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 2020). As part of editing Stinson’s work, I began thinking about how interesting these sorts of biographies can be, and wondering why we don’t have more child-friendly biographies of prairie people. My husband brought home some of the “revived” Cuban Lunch bars, and I began wondering about who’d bought the trademark… and then realizing that this could be an interesting project for someone. And then I thought that perhaps that someone could be me! So, I cold-called a phone number I found on a website and was suddenly on the line with Crystal Westergaard! She was very receptive to my questions and the idea of the picture book. And the story has evolved from there!

Here’s a quick synopsis: This is the true story of the Cuban Lunch chocolate bar and the contemporary Canadian entrepreneur who now owns the trademark. Becoming a chocolatier isn’t easy, but Crystal Westergaard thinks there’s no problem that can’t be solved. She’s faced almost insurmountable challenges with prairie strength, and she’s now delighted to be inspiring Western Canada with millions of chocolate bars and the memories that accompany them. Reminiscent of other narrative non-fiction picture books such as Kathy Stinson’s two picture books based on the life of Joshua Bell, Helaine Becker’s Lines, Bars and Circles: How William Playfair Invented Graphs (Kids Can Press) and Andrew Larsen’s The Man Who Loved Libraries: The Story of Andrew Carnegie (Owlkids Books), this 32-page picture book manuscript highlights Canadian history through a story contextualized in our food industry. 

HH: You’ve mentioned you are interviewing individuals for this project. Sharing a story and working collaboratively to get that story can require a unique negotiation not always present in other genres. Can you describe your experience with this? 

BB: I think it’s true that any writing based in reality involves some sort of negotiation with “the truth” in order to make a story reader-worthy. This results in the importance of research for telling any story not fully our own, and, even when delineating the context for rendering our own experiences, good research is key. 

Research for biography involving real people adds another dimension when these people are available for conversations that heighten our understanding (where subjects say, for example, “That’s not the way it really happened”) alongside activating our critical consciousness of what makes a good story (“Too much detail will slow us down or bury the theme”). It seems to me that when I write fiction, I’m often writing my way in to a situation or scene—adding events and character traits in order to create a desired effect. It seems to me that when I write non-fiction, I’m actually doing the opposite—writing my way out of a cacophony of possibilities, carving away from a compilation of accumulated facts in order to see the actual story emerge. 

HH: You’ve worked as a mentor and/or a supervisor on a variety of creative theses with the University of Saskatchewan’s MFA in Writing program. What has your experience been with the program? Has mentoring/supervising impacted your own writing?

BB: I’m delighted with the opportunities offered to graduate students through the MFA program and admire the way it assists developing writers through a wide-angle on a variety of genres, and then a close-up regarding a thesis choice. 

I think that any kind of teaching expands creative possibilities through preparation and delivery. As graduate students in the MFA program bump up against challenges and related questions about craft, my own investigative work is catalysed to seek answers. As I suggest some of those ideas to students, I am constantly calibrating this learning with my own writing—how might a particular practice work for me? In a way, my writing is in the petri dish alongside my student’s—and I think both should see a reaction over the course of a mentorship or supervision. 

HH: What does your typical writing routine look like? Do you have a particular writing space? 

BB: When I’m involved in a new book-length project, I tend to spend a lot of time on it initially, until a complete first draft is done. This might mean four months of three- to four-hour daily entries for a children’s novel, during a term in which I’m not teaching. Once I have a finished draft, I’m able to step back, take it up in parts, and revise my way through on a less-obsessive schedule. Probably because I don’t have a great memory for details, I need to work fast at first, much like doing watercolour when the advice to a painter might be, “Plan like a tortoise, paint like a hare.” Except in my case, I’m essentially painting like a hare first, and then doing the planning (What’s the plot? What’s the theme?) and doing a lot of the heavy lifting in that regard through revision. I don’t generally plan the components of longer works in any great detail ahead of time—I need to write my way in, and I do that by becoming engaged in a key character and writing from their perspective. 

I’ve been working lately on middle-grade novels, and my typical output on a new manuscript is five to eight good pages a day, conceptualized as short, individual chapters in a book where the end product could involve twenty-five to thirty-five chapters. Before I leave my desk, I write the first paragraph of the next chapter, so that it can sit in my subconscious until tomorrow and brew a little bit before I actually get to writing it. 

HH: What other practices (artistic, culinary, athletic) feed your writing practice?

BB: Introductory painting classes have helped me begin to conceptualize the creative process through the lens of a different art form. They’ve also heightened my visual memory—although this is still one of my weakest skills. I don’t generally “see” any images when I read, and when I write, I need to locate the action on landscapes/in houses that I know well, because if it’s an invented setting, I won’t remember it by the next chapter. Walking, biking, Zumba classes are fabulous for clearing the mind but also for nourishing epiphanies. I can enter a Zumba class with a literary challenge in mind, and then—presto—a solution comes to me (sometimes in mid-air). 

HH: What consideration are important when writing children’s literature?

BB: I think that stories really can change the world. It’s important to me that children’s authors take this seriously, and think about how books can become windows and mirrors where children see themselves and others… otherwise, why read? It’s also important to me that writers take seriously the challenge to “get it right.” This means, “Do the research.” This also means recognizing our individual limitations, as in, “Am I the best one to be telling this story?” And, finally, it means conducting some market research. “What’s out there? Am I re-inventing the wheel?”

 My research into children’s literature shows some serious gaps in the kinds of offerings available, and I hope that the promise of what Eliza Dresang calls Radical Change in children’s literature evolves into even better opportunities in years to come for enriching children’s connections to self, the world, and other texts, through deep responses to great, dynamic characters and current, captivating themes. 

I encourage anyone interested in writing picture books (or books for children in any other form) to go and read some—read a lot! And, in particular, read contemporary ones. There’s a cart of 135 picture books, all published in Canada in 2017, sitting just inside the Education Library, purchased, thanks to a SSHRC Insight Grant, as part of one of my ongoing research studies. Feel free to come by and enjoy! But as you read, make sure you’re “reading them like a writer!” Think about how the author and illustrator are achieving the effects they achieve! 

HH: Writing can be a solitary practice. In what ways do you foster community in your own writing projects or process?

BB: As a University of Saskatchewan faculty member, I’m part of the U of S Speakers’ Bureau, and this assists me in doing school visits where I can share aspects of my work and see children’s responses. My husband is also a writer, and I share much of my work with him for his feedback (always incredibly wise). I’ve been fortunate in doing a couple of Canadian book tours, sponsored by the Canadian Children’s Book Centre and the TD Bank, and in this way try to keep in touch with the sensibilities of my intended audiences. Every time I meet a new audience, I think to myself, “Oh! So that’s what they’re like!” and it totally changes the content of what I’m working on. 

HH: What element of craft do you feel most challenged by in your work?

BB: Plot. If someone installed me into an office where the only way out was to create a feasible plot chart, in advance of any preliminary writing or character study, I would be lost forever.

HH: Which of your works to date has been the most challenging to write? Why?

BB: All of the rejected manuscripts that aren’t yet published. They sit in a big, green plastic bin and taunt me with memories of the number of hours I’ve spent on them. But I’m not finished with them! Not yet! 

Interview by Hope Houston, co-editor of the RVRB and American transplant to the Canadian prairie. Hope writes short literary fiction, as well as speculative fiction for middle grade and young adult readers. You can find Hope on Twitter

Interview with Alissa York

Kate O’Gorman interviews Alissa York

A woman, novelist Alissa York, stands beside a field of grain and an empty road.
Alissa York, mentor for the MFA in Writing and instructor at the Humber School for Writers

Novelist Alissa York teaches creative writing at the Humber School for Writers in Toronto, and recently became Program Coordinator of the well-respected program. Alissa has been a long-time mentor, inspiring and guiding emerging writers at The Banff Centre, Sage Hill Writing Experience, and most recently at the University of Saskatchewan. In 2019, she was paired with MFA in Writing student Kate O’Gorman in a mentorship experience that Kate describes as “foundational and beyond expectation.”

Kate O’Gorman: How does being a mentor influence or impact your own writing?

Alissa York: It’s extremely helpful for my own writing. I’m constantly reading work that keeps me alive to the process. It reminds me how important process is. It also requires that I articulate what I know [about craft] much more clearly than I would otherwise. It’s all beneficial to my own writing and it has the built-in bonus of spending time, either virtually or actually, with people who are deeply engaged with writing and reading. They are my people. There’s a good symbiotic relationship between the two.

KO: In a nutshell, what is your advice to emerging writers?

AY: My nutshell advice:Don’t expect the apple pie when you’ve just planted the seed. I see so many people shut themselves down, looking for perfection, when it’s not yet time for perfection. Imagine an Olympic gymnast trying to do that final routine while she’s still developing. Writing well is as hard as Olympic gymnastics. Value every step of the learning. And read. Read, read, read.

KO: Who are some of your own mentors? Which authors inspire you?

AY: Toni Morrison. I love Sebastian Barry, an Irish novelist. Tim Winton—I love his work. Who else…? Oh, Flannery O’Connor. I think they show tremendous originality and boldness in their writing, as well as courage and liveliness.

KO: Who are you reading now?

AY: I recently read Warlight by Michael Ondaatje, which is an incredible novel. Marina Endicott’s new novel, The Difference, is so good. Rawi Hage’s most recent novel, Beirut Hellfire Society, is great too. They’re all very different. I also loved A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey.

KO: What is your writing practice?

AY: I usually write early in the morning for about three or four hours. I do my first draft writing in longhand—it’s how I started to write, and I’ve always preferred it. Then, in the afternoon, I might transfer the first draft onto the page. That’s when I’ll do my first edits.

KO: Why do you write? What keeps you writing?

AY: For the work itself. Early on I would have characterized it as story ideas, ideas that come to me that seem to want to be put on the page. Now, over many years of writing practice, I would stay it’s still that. Novels come in pieces. They present themselves and request to be shared. But it’s also become one of the main ways that I find, and make, meaning in life. Writing is more interesting that almost anything, and more difficult.

KO: Of all your characters, do you have a favourite? Why?

AY: Maybe Dorrie from Effigy. Probably because, in some ways, she’s the most mysterious to me. I love how completely consumed and sustained she is by her work.

Alissa York is the author of Any Given Power, Mercy, Effigy (shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller prize), Fauna, and The Naturalist. In 2018, she received the Rogers Trust Engel Findley Award in recognition of her contribution to Canadian literature.

Interview by Kate O’Gorman. Kate lives and writes on the Canadian prairies, where she is currently completing an MFA in Writing at the University of Saskatchewan. Her work has appeared in Qwerty, untethered, and Release Any Words Stuck Inside of You II.

Examining Allusion and Apparition in Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin

Terrance Hayes’s poetry collection, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, is a compendium of America’s ghosts. Published in 2018, the collection contends with America’s past, present, and future selves from the vantages of racism (on micro and macro levels), systemic oppression, and toxic masculinity in the age of the Trump presidency. 

Book cover of American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by American poet Terrance Hayes
Terrance Hayes’s collection American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, 2018.

Hayes takes inspiration from Wanda Coleman’s work on defining the American Sonnet (Hayes 91); throughout the collection, Hayes’s seventy poems then critically resist and embrace the traditional form, seeking to forge his own American definition. The sonnet, pioneered by the likes of Petrarch and Shakespeare, typically contains fourteen lines; a set, regular rhyme scheme; the volta (or turn); and a thematic emphasis on love or romanticization. Here, Hayes mostly conforms, writing each sonnet with fourteen lines and many with identifiable turns. In the collection’s entirety, however, he abandons rhyme, opting instead for free verse. Each poem bears the same name—“American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin—and through this recurring title and form, Hayes’s poems immediately challenge their reader: “How do you even begin to write love poems to your once and future killer?” 

Additionally, once you are killed, what do you become? Ghosts are a recurrent motif in American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Hayes channels ghosts in both literal and figurative, direct and indirect, meta and intertextual levels; often, Hayes’s ghosts work on all planes simultaneously. In one sonnet, for example, he writes of ghosts directly: “After blackness was invented/ People began seeing ghosts. When my father/ Told me I was one of God’s chosen ones,/ He was only half bullshiting. Probably each twilight/ Is as different as a father is from his son” (39). Here, Hayes reflects on the hysteria of racism and othering, as white Americans turn black Americans into bogeymen, or “ghosts.” Hayes then draws a parallel to his father, both men of twilight, both half bullshitting, both not God’s chosen, but both certainly bogeyman to fear, bogeymen that haunt. 

Moreover, this example of Hayes’s ghosts works indirectly as an allusion, as well. In American media, ghosts are a common image in referring to the Ku Klux Klan, given their white hoods and robes. The subject, “people,” can alternatively be understood as black victims experiencing “ghosts,” or racial hatred and extremism, for the first time, as race became a permanent social construct in American society with the invention of blackness (39). Here, the “ghost” is figurative and invoked indirectly. 

Truly, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin is a trove of allusion, a device that is the collection’s driving force. Hayes’s reliance on allusion builds the collection’s compendium of specters—where politicians, poets, protests, and history are evoked (some named and others not) as apparitions, left to repeatedly echo within the confines of Hayes’s sonnets and across their pages. 

At times, when celebrating protest and/or blackness, Hayes embraces the sonnet’s traditional romantic intentions. In one poem, Hayes shapes the sonnet into an ode as he proclaims his love for U.S. Representative Maxine Waters. Hayes writes:

“Maxine Waters, being of fire, being of sword/ Shaped like a silver tongue. Cauldron, siren,/ Black as tarnation, black as the consciousness/ Of a black president’s wife, black as his black tie/ Tuxedo beside his black wife in room after room/ Of whiteness. My grandmother’s name had water/ In it too, Water maker” (23). 

Later, Hayes intertwines a second allusion, writing to Waters, “I love your mouth,/ Flood gate, storm door, you are black as the gap/ In Baldwin’s teeth, you are black as a Baldwin speech” (23). Like other black thinkers, writer James Baldwin is a figure returned to again and again throughout the collection. Baldwin is even given an ode of his own, where Hayes admires Baldwin’s wrinkles like “the feel and color of wet driftwood in the mud” (16). 

From Ginuwine to James Baldwin, from Langston Hughes to Odysseus, Hayes’s use of allusion also alters the very form he has chosen by resisting the romanticization of the sonnet and invoking more angry or even somber voices. In some poems, he namelessly references Donald Trump. In one instance, he writes, “Are you not the color of this country’s current threat/ Advisory? And of pompoms at a school whose mascot/ Is the clementine” (10); later, the sonnet turns: “You are the color of a sucker punch/ […] a contusion before it swells & darkens” (10). 

In other poems, Hayes transforms the sonnet into elegy. “Suppose we cannot/ Forget about what happened in Money. Suppose/ You’re someone who celebrates Thomas Jefferson’s/ Birthday. Suppose he was someone whose love/ For a black woman was blinded by blackness,/ Hers & his, yours & mine. I ain’t mad at you,/ Assassin. It’s not the bad people who are brave/ I fear, it’s the good people who are afraid” (63). In this example, Thomas Jefferson sits at the forefront of the sonnet; however, the poem has tragedy deeply embedded within its lines. First, tragedy is buried within the allusion of Money, the town in Mississippi where fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, one of America’s worst hate crimes. Second, the poem alludes to Sally Hemings, a woman enslaved by Jefferson and later discovered to be the mother of six of his children. Till and Hemings emerge here as unnamed apparitions, echoing at the edges of the piece, their memories distant and their experiences haunting—echoes which Hayes reiterates throughout the collection. 

Taken together, Hayes’s allusions beg the question: who is his assassin? Between his father, Waters, Trump, and so many others, Hayes’s assassin is a shapeshifter. Sometimes, when Hayes writes conversationally, “I ain’t mad at you,/ Assassin,” the antagonist becomes the reader herself (63). Ultimately, Hayes’s assassin is not one person or one thing but again the collection’s compendium of ghosts. Hayes’s assassin is America: her history; her hate; her culture; her love; her past, present, and future zeitgeist (a word which translates literally from German as “time ghost,” by the way). The collection’s assassin is framed by the work’s recurrent title, “American Sonnet for My Past and Future Assassin,” where the present is disregarded and the past and future are regarded as one in the same. In the sonnets’ titles, time is rendered simultaneous, even absurd. Be it Trump or Till’s murderers, America’s toxicity and racial inequity constant; they, too, are merely shapeshifters. Or maybe time travelers.

In fact, Hayes bolsters this greater theme with yet another allusion: the television show Doctor Who. In one of the collection’s final poems, Hayes declares, “In a parallel world where all Dr. Who’s/ Are black, I’m the doctor who knows no god/ Is more powerful than Time. […]/ A brother has to know how to time travel & doctor/ Himself when a knee or shoe stalls against his neck” (77). In America, black men must always be prepared to return to a Jim Crow, pre-Civil Rights era, where violence is imminent, because, despite illusions of progress, violence still is. 

With his clever artistry of allusion, Hayes manages to craft an ultimate, meta allusion, which is used as the very scaffolding and premise for his entire collection. In his evocation of Baldwin and his usage of the love-addled sonnet, Hayes enacts Baldwin’s own poem, “A Lover’s Question.” Himself alluding to “America” by Samuel Francis Smith, Baldwin cries to America, his unrequited, even abusive lover: “I have endured your fire/ and your whip,/ your rope,/ and the panic from your hip,/ […]/ yet, my love:/ you do not know/ how desperately I hope/ that you would grow/ not so much to love me/ as to know/ that what you do to me/ you do to you” (Baldwin 60-1). Just as Baldwin questions America’s torrid affair with its black citizens, Hayes writes America love poems—some unrequited, some hurt, some scornful, some mournful, some even celebratory. Hayes begs Baldwin’s question: how can you, a black man, love a country that derides you? How can you forgive a country that can’t (or won’t) reckon with its ghosts? How can you serenade your home that is also sometimes your Hell? Nearing the end of the collection, Hayes concludes, “This country is mine as much as an orphan’s house is his” (71).

Works Cited:
Baldwin, James. Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems. Beacon Press, 2014. eBook.
Hayes, Terrance. American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. Penguin Poets, 2018. Print.

Essay by Hope Houston, co-editor of the RVRB. Hope writes short literary fiction, as well as speculative fiction for middle grade and young adult readers. Her work has appeared in Mystery Tribune and the Nexus Lit Journal. You can find Hope on Twitter.

Interview with Laurie D. Graham

Sarah Ens interviews Laurie D. Graham

Laurie D. Graham, MFA in Writing mentor, award-winning writer, and editor

Laurie D. Graham is a writer, an editor, and the publisher of Brick magazine. Her debut book, Rove (Hagios Press, 2013), was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and her second book, Settler Education (McClelland & Stewart, 2016), was nominated for Ontario’s Trillium Award for Poetry. A third book, a long poem tentatively titled The Larger Forgetting, will be published by McClelland & Stewart in 2022. Winner of the Thomas Morton Poetry Prize and shortlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, Laurie currently lives and writes in Treaty 20 territory (Peterborough, Ontario).

Sarah Ens: What draws you to the long poem form? How do you find the process of writing a long poem different from writing a collection of poetry?

Laurie D. Graham: I tend to start out thinking I’m writing these manageable little poem-things that are about their own discrete subjects and have little to do with one another. But then those poem-things multiply, and I begin to see that the terrible titles I’ve put at the tops of all the pages are nothing but a ruse, and what I’m really doing is writing toward a larger concern. To see the pages acting together, to see them having an aim or a project that they’re moving toward by showing something in concert and at length, gives the work a different sort of momentum, one that I don’t know exactly how to describe, except to say that it breathes more slowly. I think this is part of what draws me to the form. The silence of the page break, followed by a continuation of thought not interrupted by a new title, is something that just works with the way I work. It might be that this has something to do with where I’m from—I am ever aware of writing in response to Robert Kroetsch when I write a long poem, for example—but I also just have an interest in what can be made with this kind of sustained attention. You can talk about the whole damn world in a long poem.

At other points though, and especially lately, I have words or lines appearing in small scraps, and they don’t seem to exist as part of any clean whole whatsoever: their order is interchangeable, they don’t hint at having anything more to show beyond what’s contained in them, and they seem rather like signposts on a long walk. So, I’ve just been loosely collecting those scraps, letting them be, and giving them lots of space to do their thing together.

SE: Your book Settler Education, nominated for Ontario’s Trillium Award for Poetry, challenges Canada’s master narrative by re-examining the stories that continue to impact contemporary settler-Indigenous relationships. Why do you reach to poetry to confront powerful systems of thought? What about poetry allows for reckoning?

LDG: I wondered at first if I ought to write prose, write essays, in order to write about what I was learning (much too late and largely on my own) about the Frog Lake “Massacre” and the Northwest Resistance, these events that are evoked any time anyone utters the words “coast to coast to coast.” But I could see how simply adding to the written record, which is already quite extensive, would render many of my aims impossible. I wanted to show what is profoundly not present in non-Indigenous understandings of what happened at Frog Lake and Batoche and elsewhere. I also wanted to connect seemingly disparate things that didn’t seem to me so disparate: to connect what happened in 1885 to the present moment, to reveal remnants of “prairie history” in southern Ontario, where the monuments to the soldiers who went West to “put down the Rebellion” still stand. Poetry felt like the medium that could best handle this long look at erasure and absence, to make these broad but crucial connections. I would argue though that the poems in that book are uncomfortable as poems. I was very careful about how they were situated, how they spoke, the tenor and cadence and rhythm of them.

SE: Can you speak further to the idea of the poems in Settler Education being “uncomfortable as poems”? What were the rhythms and cadences you were listening for, and how did they connect to the meanings you were trying to evoke?

LDG: I was cautious of their getting too concerned with their own language, their own sound. They needed to always be looking out at where they were writing, and to be aware of the written record that preceded, and aware of the monuments, which meant at times showing what I was reading and seeing—meaning the poems would sometimes fall into prose or telling or quoting or mapping. I find certain passages from the book tricky to read out loud because they don’t “sound” like what I understand poems ought to sound like. But it was important to make sure poetic cadence was doing justice, was cutting right to it, which meant at times eschewing what is understood as a successful poem.

SE: In his session at Writing North this past January, Tim Lilburn asked us to think about our preoccupations, our lasting puzzlements, suggesting that as writers, we must be faithful to these ideas. What are the preoccupations of your writing life? What are the ongoing pursuits of your poetry?

LDG: I love this question. It’s Tim who started me onto understanding and articulating my own preoccupations. And he read my rickety first attempts!

The concern that stretches over all my work is, to put it bluntly, how to not be a blight upon this continent, upon this place I think of as my home. I’m trying to better understand the obliterating nature of the colonial project, and how or whether innateness might be possible for the non-Indigenous North American.

SE: Describe your revision process. What guides you as you make editorial decisions, both for your own work and the work of others?

LDG: Revision is so hard to describe. When I write, I sometimes hear the rhythm of a line before the words arrive, or it’s the sound of a group of arrived words that moves me to write them down, so when I’m revising, I’m trying to be more widely attentive to what’s on the page: the sense of the words, their patterns and imagery, the way the poems are thinking, what they’re drawing on. Revision is a long, slow attempt to get the poem closer to the thing it’s after, and most frequently for me that involves stripping away anything that’s not serving that aim or is instead trying to report that aim to the reader.

When I’m editing the work of others, I am trying to be a very close reader and a very close listener, to try to help bring out what the piece seems to want to say or be. I am also trying to be an astute and helpful outside eye, asking as many questions as I can about a piece and the things it’s doing. The stakes are different, but no less important: they involve staying out of the way of the work, not imposing notions of “what’s good” that don’t come from the text itself, and always working from a place of respect for the writer’s intentions.

SE: As editor and publisher of Brick magazine, what do you look for in submissions? And, more broadly, what excites you about working in Canadian publishing?

When I’m reading for Brick—and Brick publishes mainly non-fiction—I’m looking for lively and well-construed writing, a compelling idea or subject, and/or an approach grounded in love and care. I have been doing stuff for literary journals pretty steadily since 2005, and by some miracle I now get a bit of money to do this work. It can sometimes be very hectic, and the plate often becomes way overfull because lit mags do such a great deal without adequate resources. But I have learned that I am happiest when the wage-earning I do doesn’t feel like work, and helping to make Brick, kind of like writing, doesn’t feel much like work to me. It feels more like vocation.  

Interview by Sarah Ens, co-editor of the RVRB. A poet and essayist, her work has appeared in Poetry Is Dead, Sad Mag, Room Magazine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, is forthcoming with Turnstone Press this spring. 

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

“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

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.