Author Archives: grutter

How to flunk out of gender into something better

Gender Failure

Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon

Arsenal Pulp Press

265 pages, $17.95

Reviewed by Julian Gunn

And what a gorgeous failure it is.

Gender Failure is the new book by performers, authors and musicians Ivan E. Coyote and Rae Spoon. Under its wry title, it succeeds on any terms you care to apply: as a work of art, a collection of autobiographical essays, the record of a stage show, and a gentle but firm declaration that if we do not honour each other’s authentic, struggling, and contradictory relationships to gender, then we fail each other.

Is this a brave book? Sure it is, but I don’t like using that word brave. We mean something good by it, but we also sometimes mean, “Brave, not like me.” We use it to create a little bit of distance between the brave person and our ordinary selves. When people called me “brave” after my own transition, I thought, “That’s not what it felt like at all.” Instead, I want to say that this is a powerfully vulnerable book, and that the more vulnerable the book gets, the more powerful it becomes, because it invites readers to take the same risk.

Fittingly, Gender Failure is a book that can’t be reduced to simple categories. It is based on the collaborators’ live show, and incorporates photos, illustrations, and song lyrics. There are no simple, fixed narratives of gender identity here. There are stories about gender transitions, yes, in the sense of transitions in how each author felt and thought about living gender. Yet Gender Failure is about transition in all kinds of other senses, too. A big part of Rae Spoon’s story is their transition from folk/country to electronic/indie musician, and beyond. Ivan Coyote transitions out of writing a long-term newspaper column. The authors describe physical and social transformations, transformations of wardrobes and pronouns, but ultimately the transition that matters is the one towards self-determination and self-celebration. It’s not a complete journey. How could it be, especially while gendered norms are violently enforced, even in spaces where we expect better? Spoon writes wrenchingly of finding that “the freedom that is part of the rhetoric about indie music . . .  is reserved only for certain people.”

In a section entitled “Do I Still Call Myself a Butch?” Coyote writes, simply: “Yes. Of course I still do.” It’s a reminder that these words—Butch, trans*, Spoon’s playful-yet-serious coining “gender-retired” – are supposed to make space in the world for people to live as their whole selves, not create new ways to exclude and shame each other’s difference. Part of what’s inspiring about this book is the way these two, as collaborators and friends, make loving mirrors of themselves for each other.

Here’s what I hope most of all: that Gender Failure marks the beginning of a new wave of declarations from gender dropouts and gender retirees, gender inventors and gender artists. May we all fail at everything that is wounding and constricting us. May we fail together into something better.

Reviewer’s Note: As good as Gender Failure is, it’s not the same as a live show with Spoon and Coyote. If you get a chance to see one or both of them, go. Meanwhile, clips are available on YouTube.

Julian Gunn is a Victoria poet and essayist.  

Axiatrix can’t escape genre

Blackbirds, 225 pages, $19.95

Blackbirds Two, 226 pages, $19.95

By Garry Ryan

NeWest Press

Reviewed by Judy LeBlanc

Garry Ryan has eight novels to his name, a following for his Detective Lane series, a Lambda award and a great premise in Blackbirds and Blackbirds Two. In these first two of the trilogy he draws attention to women pilots in the Second World War, and unearths little known historical facts such as the eleven black POWs who were tortured and murdered by the SS in Wereth, Belgium.

Sharon Lacey, a young Canadian who goes to England in 1940 to fly for the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA), is also looking for her estranged father and soon becomes entangled in sordid family dynamics. Much happens to her in the first book, including brawls with Messerschmitts and discovering she has a half brother. Blackbird Two follows her through war, where she evolves into a hard-nosed senior commander with a passion for social justice. Like all fictional war heroes, she kills, suffers moral conflict, and amidst the carnage performs good deeds. Sharon is a woman tucked squarely into the war story canon. The ATA, not typically engaged in combat, served without fighting– a dichotomy that might be explored in a more literary book. However, such story telling would require a nuance that is not demonstrated in these books.

Not hours before reading myself into the cockpit of a spitfire with Sharon, I raced across the Nevada salt flats with a female motorcyclist in Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers. Though both books involve women engaged in high-speed atypical behavior, the irresistible comparison settles more on genre than gender. Ryan’s books are about an aviatrix while Kushner’s is not about a female motorcyclist, though on that bike, you get how “nothing mattered except the milliseconds of life at that speed.” There are no lines so fine in the Blackbird trilogy, and this makes The Flamethrowers a work of literary fiction while the two Blackbirds are fair to middling plot-gobblers.

Graduate school teaches that it matters less what a book is about than how it is written. The formula is simple: there is good writing and bad writing, and plot-driven writing is bad. Furthermore, one should avoid the “expected.” I see little in Blackbirds that is unexpected other than gender and a sprinkling of historical facts.

When I think of the genre wars I want to lie down, and though I’m over MFA school, I grow even more weary when, while happily fantasizing myself into the character of a Second World War pilot, I encounter yet another head of  “slicked back” hair, or I’m meant to feel the character’s “tingling thrill.” This ejects me out of my fictional dream.

And yet, there were brief moments while reading Ryan’s books when I was able to slide into the cockpit of a spitfire face to face with the firmament and nothing stopping me, neither gender nor Nazi plane. Maybe at the end of the genre wars there’s only this, the simple pleasure of an image.

Judy LeBlanc is a writer who lives in Fanny Bay and organizes the Fat Oyster Reading Series.

Simpson’s spirited stories shift perceptions

Islands of Decolonial Love

By Leanne Simpson

ARP, 143 pp., $14.95

Reviewed by Tyler Gabrysh

Leanne Simpson’s latest work, Islands of Decolonial Love, is an impressive collection of short stories. Simpson’s book includes poems and brief vignettes, as well as audio downloads for select stories to round out the reader’s experience.

Simpson’s writing concerns Indigenous Peoples– particularly those of her own Nishnaabeg nation.  Her work conveys heartache, sensitivity, and innocence, sometimes at odds with circumstance, blemished truth, and awkwardness.  Readers are introduced to this collection through the narrator’s unsettling (and implied) account of a relationship incident.

Throughout the book, many words (and chapter titles) replicate the language of the Nishnaabeg with an according translation given at each chapter’s end. While this is admirable, a single index would have been helpful.

“waaseyaaban” opens with the narrator describing the single shower all four family members take as mother “instructed us to wash ourselves and our five pairs of dirty underwear.” Then, “binesiwag” tells of an eight-year-old’s resistance to staying with relatives for the first time. Next, “it takes an ocean not to break” reveals disdain for an ignorant white therapist who uses the word “aboriginal” too frequently.

Simpson jolts us with jarring content, including the following from the narrator’s friend: “lucy says that i made a critical mistake on my first day of therapy. ‘you have to lay all of your indian shit out on the first day, drug abuse, suicide attempts, all the times you got beat up, all of that shit. then you sit back and watch how they react. then you’ll know if they can deal or not.’ ”

As effectively as Simpson jolts us here, she finesses elsewhere. “Caged” concerns a spotted lynx and a male bear, along with  “nozhem,” a female bear spirit. The tone is warm, reaching for compassion. “She told him 10,000 years of everything” is rich in atmosphere as a thirty-something waits at a music gig to interview the lead singer before a timely romantic encounter. “For asinykwe” is tender prose about a woman healer. Although not a central focus, humour pops up now and again, too.

Overall, Simpson provides a host of rarely heard characters and various means of travel and experience. The language is woven with spirit, symbolism and metaphor. Phrases strike a chord and readers are made to re-examine presuppositions they may have held about Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

Tyler Gabrysh ( is a writer who lives in Victoria.

Ruzesky treks for beauty, obsession

In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage

By Jay Ruzesky

Nightwood Editions

239 pp, $24.95

Reviewed by Bonnie Way

“A map reveals through silence and quiet white space; monsters fill the places that have never been seen. When the earth was a plate there were gorgeous waterfalls at the edges and serpents all around. In the Antarctic, the empty landscape on maps is not snow or lack of geographical character. Those thousands of square kilometers are blank because they have still never been visited.”

In Antarctica: An Amundsen Pilgrimage captures Jay Ruzesky’s fascination with Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole on December 14, 1911. In 2011, Ruzesky set out on his own expedition to Antarctica, wanting to see and experience just a bit of what Amundsen had seen and experienced a century earlier.  The story moves between Ruzesky’s contemporary voyage from Vancouver, BC, down through South America to Antarctica and Amundsen’s historic expedition from Christiana (Oslo), Norway, down the globe to the South Pole. Ruzesky brings alive the historical men (and dogs) who made up Amundsen’s expedition and contrasts travel in 1911 with travel in 2011.

Ruzesky can be forgiven for his obsession with Amundsen, who is one of his ancestors. His experience in Antarctica is deeply emotional and his poetic language enlivens the beauty of this far-away place. He says of his trip, “What I am looking for is not icebergs and penguins and humpback whales; I am looking to travel through a myth that is my own, a story of ice that is mine to dream and to know.”

That desire to make the story our own is, I believe, what each of us seeks as we pick up a book. As I read, I found myself comparing this story to that of Ernest Shackleton, another Antarctica explorer whose journey has been told in books and IMAX movies. I also thought of my own trip to Glacier Bay, Alaska, a place of ice and rock and cold and water that only hints at the vast beauty contained in Antarctica.

Ruzesky extols the beauty of Antarctica but also comments on what this hard-to-reach place means to our modern world: “Much in the way Christmas reminds us to want to be our best selves, the Antarctic reminds us to want to change our lives. Here is the world before we messed it up. No cigarette butts on the beaches, no graffiti carved into the glaciers. Pristine is a word I keep hearing.”

In Antarctica is a beautiful melding of the personal and the public, the past and the present, research and emotion. Ruzesky presents the facts of Amundsen’s life and work, yet also captures Amundsen’s dreams and despairs. Just as Amundsen was foiled in his goal of being the first man to reach the North Pole and had to change plans, so Ruzesky also failed follow exactly in Amundsen’s footsteps and reach the Pole. Both men adapted, doing what they were able to do, and creating compelling stories in the process.

Bonnie Way has a BA in English (2006) and a BA in Creative Writing (2014). She blogs as The Koala Bear Writer.

Brick’s GM multi-tasks for poetry

Coastal Spectator contributor Julian Gunn recently sat down over coffee to chat with Kitty Lewis, the general manager of poetry publisher Brick Books. At this year’s League of Canadian Poets gala, Lewis received the League’s Honorary Life Membership Award. She insists that her contribution is to support the artistic vision of Brick founders Don McKay and Stan Dragland. Still, it’s obvious how much the poetry community appreciates that contribution. Gunn’s interview encompassed a discussion of Brick’s current projects, the history of the publisher, and its commitment to Canadian poetry.

Can you tell me a little bit about your history with Brick Books?

The press started 39 years ago, and I’ve been around something like 25. I always forget how long. Don McKay, who’s a poet, and Stan Dragland, who’s a poet, novelist, and essayist, were both teaching at Western University (the University of Western Ontario in those days). They kept coming across students who were writing poetry, and they said, “We should publish some of this.” They started with chapbooks, and then, as people started sending in longer manuscripts, we got into applying for grants for full-length books.

I don’t do the choosing. I don’t do the editing. I don’t do production. I do everything else. I’m the administration. You need someone practical. There are artistic people who are running presses who can do it all. They can write, they can edit, but that’s not one of my talents. What’s great is that I get to run a business but I’m not risking my own money. (She laughs.)

So what’s it like in the Brick Books office? Are there people always coming and going? Interns?

No, no.  It’s in my house. I work strange hours. I tend to stay up really late at night. I maybe start working in the morning at 10 or 11. At 8 o’clock I might watch some TV, and then I might do a couple more hours of work. I go away in the summer. I have a cottage and I just move Brick Books there. As long as I have the Internet, I can run the business.

It never worked out to get an intern. I love to impart what I know, and I’m always happy to meet with people. If anybody writes asking about Brick Books, I will usually meet with them, because they’re interested in publishing. I’ll just sit them down, and we’ll have a chat so I can give them an idea of what it’s all about.

I’ve found through the years that the more you do, the more there is to do. We didn’t have Facebook and Twitter years ago. We didn’t have the Internet.

Speaking of which, Brick Books has a broad-based Internet presence. You seem to have ventured into all available social media. I’m assuming that’s a deliberate strategy?

I started on Facebook because my older son said “Hey! My friends are on here. Lots of people would like to be friends with you.” Then I started looking around, and I saw that other publishers were on the Internet. I just started building that up.

There’s a grant called the OMDC Book Fund – that stands for the Ontario Media Development Corporation. There are grants for film and television and books, all under the same umbrella. In the past, the grant was more for something over and above what you would normally do. In 2008 we had two poets laureate on our list: Agnes Walsh from St John’s, Newfoundland, and Lorri Neilsen Glenn from Halifax. I said, “Are you interested in visiting other poets laureate across the country?” Because you know, I network. I had met these people or at least been in touch with them. So we got the grant, and then the poets said “You don’t suppose we could go up north, do you?” Well, I had no contacts up there, but one of our authors had been to the Whitehorse Poetry Festival (, so I got that person’s contact and we went north. We went to Edmonton, Yellowknife, Whitehorse – I went with them to those three – then Saskatoon, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria. So that was the kind of thing we were proposing in those days.

Then the OMDC grant added funding for digital projects. I wanted a project that was going to raise our visibility and discoverability. I knew someone in Toronto who was really good at social media, Julie Wilson. I told her “I’d like to talk to you sometime, but I don’t want to just talk to you and get advice and then buzz off and do it. I want to talk to you, and then I want to hire you.”

We’re a poetry publisher. We’re not looking for fireworks. We’re solid, we believe in what we do, and we believe in quality. I felt that she would understand who we were. And what she came up with is podcasts. We’ve done the whole history of Brick Books. We have books that we published in 1975, and I’ve now got three of the books from Fall 2014 already recorded. We’ve got almost a thousand poems recorded now.

We launched the podcast in Poetry Month one year, then created the YouTube channel. We do about six poems from each book, just to give a taste. On the YouTube channel we put those together and that’s a single podcast. I think the authors really like it. We’re including everybody. We’re not excluding you just because we published you in the 1990s – you’re still part of it.

Of all the things you do to connect readers to the poetry, which do you think are the most effective?

We just keep chugging away. Every year when you’re doing a new grant, you trot out your numbers. So the views on the YouTube channel are increasing, the number of podcast poems is increasing. We have more followers on Twitter. Facebook has become really hard now because they’re only showing 30 per cent of your people. That’s unfortunate, because that was a really good method. We’re still using it.

The Literary Press Group is creating an online bookstore which will be launched in the next few months, so that’s going to be the Canadian place to go. It includes Canadian literary presses – I think there are 35 publishers on board now. We do sell books from our own website, but people are looking for the author, not Brick Books.

I’m constantly networking with reading series . . . Then you have something like Victoria’s Planet Earth Poetry reading series. They do that too, but there are more spaces, so that flexibility is great. Planet Earth is definitely my go-to place.

I know Brick Books is interested in emerging poets as well. Is that a policy?

Don and Stan were teachers, right? If we wanted to publish just established authors, we could, but that’s not where their hearts are. We do seven books a year, so we don’t say “Okay, three need to be first books.” It just happens. We don’t publish a first book just because. We read submissions between the first of January and the end of April every year. We get an average of a hundred submissions, and we have enough money to do seven books. So the manuscript kind of has to sparkle to rise above the others. Those ones will go into the finals. There might be anywhere from eight to 15 that we have to choose those seven out of and that’s hard because there’s not a lot of difference of quality between them. They’ll be strong in different ways. We do about 60 per cent first and second books and then 40 per cent third and up. I’ve been keeping the statistics.

The thing that’s nice about Brick Books is that we only do poetry, so it’s very easy to treat everybody the same way. If you do fiction, you’re probably going to devote a little more time to the fiction because it might make more money and help you afford to do the poetry. We do seven books and everybody gets treated the same way. It suits my temperament, like being inclusive with the podcasts and the ebooks – we just include everybody.

We are trying to run a business and we are trying to be fiscally responsible. But – as Don says – we have the hearts of peasants. We believe in people. We believe in writing. We believe in treating people with respect. Once you’re a Brick author you’re always a Brick author.

(In addition to Lewis’ recent award, on February 23rd Brick Books received the first Publishers’ Award from the Galiano Literary Festival.)

Marjorie Simmins’ coastal life

Former West Coast freelance journalist Marjorie Simmins now lives on the East Coast of Canada, in Halifax, and has become a teacher and writer of memoir. Coastal Spectator Editor Lynne Van Luven recently emailed Simmins some questions about her latest book, Coastal Lives: A Memoir.  The book is now available in bookstores, and to order directly from the publisher:

Marjorie, this is such a down-to-earth and heart-warming memoir; it talks about mature people living real lives.  Can you talk about the process of creating Coastal Lives?

Sometimes it seems as though we live in a world where the tough realities people live, with great courage and dignity, are not a part of the larger conversation. Mature or otherwise, most of us don’t have Hallmark Card lives. There are hard times and good times – and extraordinary, funny and delightful times, too. I like to think I cover a wide emotional spectrum in the book – with an undercurrent of optimism, because that is who I am. If you show up for your life with verve and energy, sooner or later, good things happen.

The process of creating Coastal Lives was a surprisingly natural one, which came from a lifetime of daily writing. I can actually pinpoint the day I started on the path of becoming a writer. It was — here’s a surprise! — a dark and rainy day in Vancouver. I was around eight years old, and my mother suggested I write a letter to my grandmother, who we called “Minnie.” I was bored and cranky – and not quite willing to give that up. “What do I write about?” I petulantly asked my mother. “Oh,” she mused, looking around the room for inspiration, and, seeing the family cat asleep on a cushion, suggested, “why don’t you write about George? Your grandmother likes cats.” And down went the pen to paper, starting a lifetime of letters between myself and all my family members. I continue to write a letter almost every day of my life.

Part II of the equation is journals. When I was 15, my father bought me my first hard-bound journal, from a lovely arts store on Robson Street. That gift initiated 20 years of journal keeping.

Part III of the equation is my journalism career. By age 30, I had started writing as a freelance journalist. One of the first articles I had published was what I have always called a “personal essay.” I graduated from UBC in 1984, and my first job after that was slinging beer at Jerry’s Cove Pub, on Alma and 4th Avenue. I wasn’t thrilled with the job, but I was doing all right until my manager told me that part of my “side duties” included cleaning the women’s and men’s bathrooms. “Don’t forget to pick out the cigarette butts from the urinals,” she announced brightly, handing me a mop, bucket and rubber gloves. I walked in the men’s bathroom, dressed in a pretty summer dress, my hair pulled up into a jaunty pony tail, looked at the urine-soaked butts in the urinals – and cried my eyes out for half an hour. “Post BA Blues” was published in the then-UBC Alumni Magazine, now called TREK. My career publishing life essays had begun.

As you know, there are 22 previously published essays in Coastal Lives. I use them almost as photographs along the storyline. And so, the writer in the book is a letter writer, a journal writer, a journalist and an essayist. That’s where the voice – voices, really – come from.

The first iteration of the book was in my Master’s thesis, which was a research degree, focusing on memoir studies, from Mount Saint Vincent University, here in Halifax. I called the thesis “Memoir: An Examination of a Renegade Memoir From the Inside Out.” Essentially, I studied memoirs past and present, and then wrote my own, as part of the thesis. The book is substantially different from the thesis, primarily because of the brilliant editor at Pottersfield Press, Julia Swan, who asked for more of the previously published essays to be included, and more detail to the memoir storyline, because she sensed I’d left some large bits out . . . . I hasten to say that I also use humour to describe this process! (I keep waiting for a reviewer to say that he/she laughed when they read some of the essays – they were sold as a humour pieces, first time round, in newspapers!)

Not many Canadians can truly claim “bi-coastal lives.” Is that how you think of yourself now?

Mostly, yes. I know darn well I don’t have the full understanding of the West Coast that I once had – and that distresses me to think about at times. I go to my hometown as a visitor now – and that also distresses me. I couldn’t even afford to live in Vancouver any more – and that distresses me beyond measure . . . When I go to Vancouver, I may well be a visitor, but I am blessed to stay with various great family members on both sides of our families, and in their homes I am welcomed and feted. They ask me, What would you like to eat? And I answer, Salmon, every kind and every meal. They spoil me with this, and with other treats like spot prawns and halibut. (On the East Coast, it’s all about lobster, scallops and haddock.) I also do all sorts of funny rituals that make me feel re-connected to the West Coast world. For example, I can’t get to the banks of the Fraser River fast enough. The Pacific Ocean, too, but it is the Fraser I was raised closest to, and that I love with all my heart. Near the Fraser is Southlands, where I rode for over 20 years. When I go to Vancouver now, I have the huge pleasure of taking my great-niece Leila for pony rides, as I used to take her mother, Jocelyn, my niece. And best of all, this is at the same barn, and with the same barn owner! I am comfortable and happy on both coasts – and grateful for this.

Many of my former journalistic colleagues still seem to have an inborn resistance to the memoir; a few of them, I am certain, even think of it as an inferior form of nonfiction – not as muscular perhaps as first-person reportage that strips out the self. What would you say to such a colleague?

I find this stance — by journalists, academics or even the general reading public — quaint and outdated. I would also suggest people with that view simply haven’t kept up to date with memoir. Some of the finest writers in the world are memoirists – always have been, always will be. Joan Didion, Vladamir Nabokov, Ernest Hemingway, Maya Angelou, George Orwell and Mary Karr. Canadian memoirists are equally dazzling: Farley Mowat, Evelyn Lau, David Adams Richards and Wayson Choy. Other recent and stunning Canadian memoirs include Bog Tender by George Santos, Confessions of a Fairy’s Daughter by Alison Wearing, How Linda Died by Frank Davy, The Danger Tree by David MacFarlane and Notes from the Hyena’s Belly by Nega Mezlekia . . .

Of course there are badly written memoirs. There are badly written novels, and books of poetry and non-fiction . . .  Somehow memoir is held to a higher standard – and so must, on occasion, fall the farthest and most cripplingly . . . There are literary memoirs and trash memoirs. There are beautiful, hybrid memoirs, which include maps, photos, recipes — whatever best illustrates a life. . .  Anyone bored or lofty about memoir needs to go back to the bookstore and look a little longer.

You have a master’s degree in arts research specializing in Memoir Studies and you now teach memoir-writing courses around the Maritimes. Do you find a hunger for telling personal stories among your students?

The hunger is huge. Young, middle-aged and older — the lives people lead are astonishing. I adore learning about other people’s lives, especially when I am taken to worlds I’d never gain access to ordinarily. Fascinating details aside, the job is to craft a story, and the prettiest, most dynamic one you can. I have no problem whatsoever teaching memoirists who simply want a self-published life story to hand down to children or grandchildren. I believe this is laudable. That said, I get as excited as any other writer and teacher when I read a memoir-in-progress that is of high literary quality and may well find a traditional publisher once it’s done. The most uneventful lives can still be led by those who can write like angels. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. I just do my best to give the people who come to my seminars whatever it is they want and need, to start and finish a memoir — and perhaps, to understand better the scope of their choice regarding content and structure. After that, they’re on their own.

You and author Silver Donald Cameron (whom you call simply Don) now have two dogs.  Muriel Spark once said that owning a cat is conducive to a writer’s concentration. What do canines bring to the writing world, besides the chance to go walkies when your work is not going well?

Don and I walk the dogs every day, whether our work goes well or not. We spend endless hours at our desks – seven days a week, mostly – and the chance to get outside and breathe fresh air and see what the rest of the world is up to, is so necessary to our well-being. Seeing the world through a dog’s eyes is also a revitalizing experience. Let’s get excited about wind! Birds overhead! Sailboats on the North West Arm! A rotten fish on the shore! Eliminating like mad! Other dogs!! Dogs spread happiness and excitement all around them, even on the end of a leash. The pleasure we take in our dogs’ company is immense. For me, the presence of animals in my life — dogs and horses particularly — is non-negotiable: I simply must have them around me to live my best and happiest life.

PGC Issues a Call for Action

By Joy Fisher

The Playwrights Guild of Canada announced a new initiative at its annual general meeting in Montreal recently aimed at redressing the chronic underrepresentation of women in key creative positions in Canadian theatre.

The Equity in Theatre (EIT) initiative will call on the theatre community as a whole to respond to gender inequities in the industry, according to Rebecca Burton, PGC’s Membership and Contracts Manager, who is coordinating the initiative.

“Although approximately 70 per cent of theatre audiences are women, and women make up 50 per cent of PGC’s membership, only 22 per cent of plays produced in Canadian Theatres in 2013/14 were by women playwrights,” Burton said. PGC’s Theatre Production Survey revealed that percentage varied by province, with Manitoba scoring highest at 44 percent and British Columbia dragging the bottom with only 18 percent of produced plays by women.

The percentage of productions by women playwrights reached a record high between 2000 and 2005 when 28 per cent of productions were plays by women according to an Equity Study published in 2006. “The figures demonstrate an actual regression since then,” Burton noted.

A key component of the initiative will be a Symposium to be held in Toronto in April 2015 facilitated by an equity and diversity consultant funded by Canada Council’s Leadership and Change program. Participants will include partners from industry organizations such as Professional Association of Canadian Theatres, Canadian Actors Equity Association, Associated Designers of Canada, and Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas as well as associations of the underrepresented, such as Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Movement Ontario, the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance and Artists Driving Holistic Organization Change. The end result will be the development of a first draft of a strategic plan for improved equity in the theatre industry as a whole.

In the year following the Symposium, a series of monthly play reading events will be held across Canada in partnership with Play Development Centres and other organizations. Other events and community actions will also be developed. Women patrons, for example, could exercise their consumer power by demanding more plays by women (reflective of their own reality and age demographics) from the theatres they support.

A research project will seek to identify successes in the industry and to establish best practices. A website will be created as an informational hub to facilitate meet-up groups and provide advice on how to create social actions. It will also house a searchable database of Canadian women artists, including playwrights, to serve as a resource to communities.

The desired outcome is to see representation rates rise to 50 percent, which would not only provide increased opportunities for women but would also produce a more balanced and inclusive vision of Canadian society for audiences to enjoy. “We’ve studied this problem for years,” Burton said. “Now it’s time to act.”

The official public launch of the initiative will be in September 2014.

The link below will take you to the PGC website and Valerie Sing Turner’s lyrical and compelling article Redefining Normal: A Challenge to Canadian Theatres & Artistswhich explores equality and redefining the norm in Canadian theatre.

Joy Fisher is a UVic writing graduate and a member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. 

Author captures slacker heroes

David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide and Other Stories

By D.D Miller

A Buckrider Book

246 pages, $20

Reviewed by Adam Hayman

Here is the easiest way I can summarize this book: if someone made a collection of short films out of D.D Miller’s stories, the director would have to be Louis C.K. However, if you’ve never seen the show Louie, that won’t make much sense, so let me put it this way: if a close examination of the “post-millennial” man is what you’re after, then Miller is able to deliver that, and he does so from a handful of angles.

A dozen stories in this book all paint many men in, what I’m afraid to call, an honest light. Men who think about porn, fantasize about waitresses, and fail to act at times they know they should.  These guys are held back by what they think of as laziness, but any undergrad in a first year psych class would call fear: fear of failure, being alone, or commitment. It certainly isn’t a flattering light, but somewhere in this collage of characters many men could share a sentiment. Miller doesn’t give the impression that he’s writing these characters out of humour. They seem to come from an understanding of their humanity.

The stories’ premises vary from something as simple as two couples on a beach, to an untethered, pig-blimp flying over a city in the midst of a city-worker strike. There are men in every stage of modern relationship; the women they all long for vary. The stories to watch out for:; Son of a Son of a Flying Pig; David Foster Wallace Ruined My Suicide; and My Summer With Seth. The last story piqued my interest because it is written in the form of a letter, and more importantly, it features a character that is likened to Seth Rogan. What gen-y-guy hasn’t laughed at the odd Rogan flick?

Reading several stories of different men pining over the sexual image of a woman, and enjoying the feeling of a cold beer can, however, loose its attraction. The Tudor, a story in the collection, is a prime example of this. The main character describes vivid sexual fantasies involving one of the university students he is tutoring. It is at times a little uncomfortable to read, especially for those not interested in such subject material. It is, however, well written. The main characters’ thoughts and actions are what make it uncomfortable, but if the author had left them out the story would’ve fallen flat.

This collection is a great tool for anyone looking to study the “slacker hero,” or for anyone simply looking to find great examples of characterization. This is Miller’s first book, and I am all too excited to see a full novel come from his desk. The chance to read Miller explore every aspect of a character would be hard to pass up.

Adam Hayman is a writer and student journalist.

Poet illuminates fragmented life

Poet Chris Hutchinson’s new book, Jonas in Frames: An Epic (Goose Lane), is brilliant, funny, challenging, a hybrid form for our times.  Born in Montreal in 1972, Hutchinson has published three books of poetry: Unfamiliar Weather, Other Peoples’ Lives and A Brief History of the Short Lived. He has a BFA from the University of Victoria and an MFA from Arizona State University. He recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions about his life and work.

 Chris, I found myself both chuckling and laughing out loud in Jonas in Frames, mainly because of all the usual suspects that you skewer so skillfully. Can you talk a bit about the origins of this book within your writing practice as a poet?

Firstly, I’m glad you chuckled and laughed as you read. Even though many of the raw materials I excavated for the book came from a younger, more cynical version of myself—someone more prone to rages and depression who took himself much too seriously—I hoped to transform these materials into something else, worthy of a reader’s attention. In many ways Jonas is the artsy book about suffering I wanted to write when I was in my early twenties, but I had to wait until I was in my early forties before I could make any attempt that didn’t indulge in explicit autobiography or morbid confession. It’s hard to write black humour when the darkness surrounds you. Fortunately, time allows for new perspectives, and maybe even room for some levity and light.

Also, my so-called practice as a poet you mention—which has included the whole gamut of trials and errors, from subsisting as a self-styled poète maudit, to publishing flarf under various pseudonyms, to studying Old English and translating Beowulf in academia—this poetry habit, this “craft so long to learne,” along with its requisite discipline, has gradually taught me not only how to think more cautiously, critically and even technically about my own experiences, feelings and ideas, but also how to then move beyond them in order to make (the word “poet” coming to us from the Greek, poiētḗs, or “maker”) something I might refer to (while suffering a relapse of grandiosity) as art. I’m also much better read in poetry than in other genres, and so this might have something to do with how I conceived of Jonas in Frames as a epic poem (tongue planted firmly in cheek) disguised as a (picaresque?) novel.

Some readers may characterize Jonas as anti-social, but I found him to be wonderfully observant. In the segment called “The Good Life,” Jonas visits “long-lost friends” and observes that “Now all of them have babies.” His descriptions of the infants as “pink-headed babies with slobbery jowls,” “toothless sponge-cake-faced babies with sea anemones for hands,” struck me as terrific images.  In fact, that whole segment reminded me of Barbara Ehrenreich’s recent comment that parents today regard their children as “artisanal projects.” Did Chris the Author worry that Jonas the Observer was going to cost him a lot of sensitive friends when this book was published?

Artisanal projects! I wish I had thought of that. But neither Chris the Author nor his creation, Jonas the Observer, holds anything against young well-to-do parents or the products of their adventures in procreation. God bless anyone who can provide a safe home for their children. And Chris the Author has enough sensitive friends that he can afford to lose a few if their sensitivity overwhelms their ability to discern between literary fiction and so-called real life.

My sense is that Jonas isn’t as much anti-social as he is socially incapable and embarrassed—a subtle but significant difference, I think. Most of us can probably recall something like this from childhood, or we can be reminded visiting a busy playground: some kid who gets left out is still hovering around the edge of the circle, desperately wanting to join in, but for some reason he can’t. Maybe he’s shy, afraid, or he doesn’t understand the correct playground protocols. Or maybe there’s some nameless thing about the child, some slight difference or sensitivity, which the other kids sniff out and feel gives them permission to be cruel. This dilemma can extend into adult life where social estrangement might broaden to include cultural, political, and economic estrangement.

So it is with Jonas, who isn’t necessarily repulsed by these bourgeois parents or their babies; rather he’s flummoxed, fascinated, somewhat envious, and hurt by a larger and more general feeling of exclusion. As a hovering outsider Jonas is in a sort of double bind. He can enjoy a remarkable independence of consciousness and a unique perspective from which to observe, yet his enjoyment is short-lived as time and time again he runs up against a failure of communication. Put another way, he can watch but he can’t participate; consequently his vision turns inward and involutes. I think this is also one of the tragic letdowns of Romanticism: when our language becomes too private, too subjectively saturated, it ultimately betrays us.

Another idea I’ll float out there is that this predicament, this feeling of being isolated or “left out,” might be a generational soul-sickness born as the wave of prosperity of the baby-boomers crashed amidst their children’s expectations for upward mobility, success, or even riches and fame. In this light, Jonas can be seen as having been barred from participating in a certain cozy vision of the future based on the hippie fallacy that each of us is somehow inherently ‘special’ and thereby entitled to certain first-world privileges.

A colleague of mine recently observed that we live in discontinuous times because we are so often being assailed by floating “hits” of information and image.  It seems to me Jonas’s take on the world reflects that somewhat.  Has the electronic invasion of our lives affected you as a writer?

I recently joined Twitter. I am now a part of the problem. Although it seems to me that the latest tool for the dissemination of information is nothing new under the sun, and that we’ve been living in a “discontinuous” state for a while now. The world, as always, is too much with us. I have no doubt that I am a product of my specific historical moment in more ways than I can ever consciously know—even as I’m left wondering whether Twitter and Facebook are just the most recent symptoms of the kind of mind-body dualism that goes back beyond Postmodernism and Modernism to at least the 17th century of René Descartes…

At any rate, yes, Jonas’s world is jumbled and fragmentary, and his experience of reality is one where “it appears that something or someone is removing segments from (his life) and now only frames—isolate, disjointed—remain” (JIF). And while the world of Jonas in Frames doesn’t deal directly with online culture (an oxymoron?) per se, it’s true that many of Jonas’s identity issues and relationship crises seem to stem from his fear that he is trapped inside an existence where his thoughts and actions are being monitored and controlled by a power beyond his ability to perceive or comprehend.

Maybe his fear is unfounded, irrational. Maybe it’s not. We might ask: what does it mean that we voluntarily modify our identities so that they fit snugly into little boxes to be stored inside some digital database whose contents now belong to the highest bidder on the open market? What does it portend when we do this so cheerfully? These are the kinds of questions that might drive Jonas mad, although his head never stops buzzing long enough for him to be able to ask them coherently.

Content without form is meaningless, and alas, Jonas’s thoughts are all sprawling content, tangents without origins, signs without stable referents, broken links, broken mirror shards of self-reflection. Therefore Jonas doesn’t have much of a “take on the world” as he is himself taken by the world: its forms are imposed on him and so he is like Jonah swallowed down by the whale. As such, I’m not sure he’s so very different from the rest of us.

You and Jonas share a certain kind of peripatetic rootlessness.  I see from your bio that you’ve lived in six or seven wildly different cities — Montreal, Victoria, Vancouver, Dawson City, New York City, Houston, not to mention Kelowna — so I am wondering, is a writer truly the sum of all the places he has resided?

Don’t forget Nelson, Gibsons, Toronto, and Phoenix! If nothing else, moving and living around in North America has given me the chance to survey certain recurring features of the socio-economic landscape, so to speak. Issues of gentrification, for example, are not unique to any one particular city. What’s happened in Williamsburg, NY, has also happened or is happening to every other blue-collar neighbourhood I’ve tried to live in: working class families and whole communities with historical ties to specific regions are being forced to move. Artists (like Jonas) are getting priced out of urban centres. None of this is news (and it’s not as shocking as factory workers beating their CEO to death, which happened recently in West Bengal), but witnessing and to some degree participating in these reiterating first-world class-tremors gives you a sense of the scope of what is certainly a burgeoning North American crisis. Perhaps writing Jonas into being was, in part at least, my attempt to illustrate, via the pathos of tragicomedy, some of the spiritual fallout of all this.

Again I’d like to note that I wasn’t as interested in documenting my own mazy meanderings and personal catastrophes (like regrets, I’ve had a few) as I was in embodying certain aspects of our collective psychosis (what else to call it?). Jonas might be my shadow-persona, but he’s also a parodic, down-on-his-luck everyman. Whereas I have roots in the Pacific Northwest and I’m lucky enough to have been somewhat stabilized by my colleagues and loved-ones, and the occasional teaching gig, Jonas is dangerously adrift, somewhere between Scylla and Charybdis. His parents are dead, he is next to unemployable, and he is quite possibly incapable of sustaining a meaningful relationship with another human being. Travel may have broadened my horizons and extended my parameters, but Jonas is diminished by travel, driven as he is by a desire to flee and to hide himself away. Perhaps he is the sum of all the places he’s been, but to me this is a recipe for mental illness. I’d say it is folly to believe, as Jonas wants to believe, that “enough information, once gathered and incorporated, might one day crystallize into wisdom” (JIF).

What has the audience response been as you tour with your book? Do readers “get” Jonas?  Do they “get” you?

The book is still very new, but already there have been a few positive echoes, including a brilliant spinoff comic called Born Stumbling by Sunshine Coast artist, Alex Cieslik, and a Jonas-inspired spoken word/sound piece by Joel T. Springsteen of the London, UK-based band, Giant Burger. I can’t think of better responses than these. But, as one reviewer has already plainly stated about the book, “By no means is it for everybody.”

Andrew’s CD starts strong

Jeff Andrew, Tunnels, Treehouses & Trainsmoke
Produced by Jeff Andrew, Tyrone Shoe and Corwin Fox ($7 Digital)

Reviewed by Noah Cebuliak 

Jeff Andrew’s sandpaper drawl is the first thing that draws the ear on his newest release, Tunnels, Treehouses & Trainsmoke. He really doesn’t sound like many other singers, but he isn’t really singing as much as spouting stories picked up from his myriad travels across the nation.

Many of his songs, such as “Reasonable Doubt,” are testimonies to Canada’s shadier tales of injustice — this one in particular about the debated conviction of Nicole Kish, a woman who allegedly murdered a panhandler in Toronto in 2007. Although Andrew makes it interesting, his delivery is a bit graceless. Compared to a song about a similar situation, such as Bob Dylan’s “Percy’s Song,” it’s clear there’s probably a more refined way to act as champion for the wrongly convicted.

The next song, “Professional Asshole” takes an even stronger punk-rock-pass at police forces in general, but loses credibility on account of its crudeness. The ethics of authorities has indeed become a more prominent issue in Canadian society recently, but Andrew’s delivery weakens the case he’s trying to promote. It’s nice to hear someone thinking rationally, but there are far more eloquent ways of raising a point.

These quibbles notwithstanding, the first seven songs feature excellent acoustics and atmosphere, given by sessions done in a giant tunnel underneath East Hastings street in Vancouver. The ubiquitous producer-engineer Corwin Fox lends his signature sound as well, resulting in a clean, pleasant listen — good for whether you’re tidying up the house on a Sunday, or a few hours into your spring road trip.

Strange instrumentation lights up the mostly traditional arrangements on TT&T – Andrew, a former University of Victoria student, notably plays both the five-stringed fiddle and the antiquated Stroh violin, which boasts a resonator and a phonograph horn. These fit very well in the reverb-drenched tunnel tracks, especially “The Graveyard Downtown.” Perhaps Andrew was inspired by fellow violinist, the late Oliver Schroer, who famously played in the grand churches of northern Spain on his album Camino. Either way, the choice of recording space is effective.

The back half of the record, which liner notes identify as a set songs previously recorded in 2010 as The Treehouses & Trainsmoke EP, is unfortunately less polished than the first half (named as simply Tunnels, from 2013). I heard some weird vocal fluffs and flats, and basic rhythmic discrepancies between drum and guitar tracks. Having two  different producing engineers involved, over two sessions three years apart,  creates incoherence.  Perhaps Andrew simply should have separately released the best four cuts from each session. Nova Scotia balladeer Joel Plaskett, who himself is not particularly known for being concise (see his triple album, Three), once said “Putting out a 3 or 4 song EP is as good, if not better, than a full length.”

Jeff Andrew presents us with some interesting stories, some rambling arrangements, one or two truly sublime bright spots (mostly punctuated by his violin and fiddle playing) and lots of political, road-weary angst. That’s cool, for a little while. We all need a reality check. But what we really need is a concise, clear statement; for that, Andrew needs to head back to his drawing board.

Noah Cebuliak is a Montreal poet, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who leads a lyrical jazz-pop conspiracy called Ghost Lights.