Author Archives: smharrin

Wong’s Undercurrent gives water a voice


By Rita Wong

Nightwood Editions

96 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Cole Mash

In her poem “The Wonders of Being Several,” Rita Wong quotes Louis Pasteur, writing, “the role of the infinitely small, is infinitely large.” This quotation rings especially true of Wong’s new collection undercurrent. Though it spans only 96 pages, make no mistake—the book is immense.

Wong turns her socially conscious verse to defending the water which shaped her life. Wong writes that the Bow River—which runs through Calgary where she grew up—“taught [her] the power of water from an early age.” Since then, Wong has published three books of poetry including the critically acclaimed forage (2007) which won the 2008 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and Canada Reads Poetry 2011. Wong now teaches at Emily Carr in the unceded Coast Salish lands known as Vancouver.

undercurrent is a lament for the “mostly unseen” strife of the water, and an exploration of its complexity. We do not look out our bedroom window and see the waste in The Kettle River or the great Pacific garbage patch, and their devastating effects, but it does not mean it isn’t there. Though she admits, ironically, that she never learned to swim, the water has taught Wong wisdoms which she graciously extends to us via the page: in “Declaration of Intent,” she writes, “i hereby honour what the flow of water teaches us/the beauty of enough.” Wong has learned what she wants us all to know: that we need to stop taking from something that gives so much; we must take care of the world’s most precious asset, fresh and salt alike.

undercurrent comes out of Wong’s community work in Vancouver, and her collaboration with The Downstream Project, an organization dedicated to preserving natural resources and raising awareness through the arts and technology. Wong’s undercurrent gives that water a voice through poetry, both subtly and forthright, throughout the book. She does so through smaller gestures such as referring to the ocean as simply “ocean” (a proper name with the Marlattian lower case Wong almost exclusively employs) as though it were a person that the beach sleeps beside. Often poems in the book are dedicated to bodies of water such as “Unsung Service,” which is dedicated to the Fraser River, also known as Sto:lo in the Indigenous language Halkomelem. Many of her poems, including the first poem in the book “Pacific Flow,” take on the shape of water, and often have two currents of stanzas running down the page. The poem “Fresh Ancient Ground” reminds us not to forget that global change is possible and that “we are capable of it, if we care to try.” Wong recounts the long history of the water before us, and how someday it will again outlast us in “The Sea Around us, The Sea Within Us,” writing that “both the ferned & the furry, the herbaceous & the human, can call the ocean our ancestor.”

Wong continues to work in a variety of forms, which is in part what has always made her work so fresh. Much like in forage, there are relevant quotations running along the bottom and in the margins of many poems in undercurrent. Wong continues to mix English with Cantonese and Indigenous languages, bringing the book to life through an untranslated cultural confluence. Wong employs structural idiosyncrasies as simple as right alignment rather than left, or, like in the poem “Detritus,” having the text run perpendicular to the right and left margins. Perhaps the most interesting formal innovation is the addition of italic prose embedded in a number of poems, telling self-reflexive anecdotes that allow us to think through and about water alongside Wong.

I found Wong’s book to be the perfect balance of ethical philosophy and poignant lyrics, reminding us of our duty to protect the primordial soup from which we came, and doing so with words that delight and dance on our tongue. The point of Wong’s book is not to wag fingers—and make no mistake, fingers should be wagged—but to inform and illuminate, and instill hope. The book seeks to remind us that there is still time to save the planet, and that “what you cannot do alone, you will do together.”

Cole Mash holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from UBC’s Okanagan campus, and his poetry has previously been published in UBC Okanagan’s Papershell Anthology and The Eunoia Review.

Lorna Crozier talks about love, art and the dead

Lorna Crozier is the award-winning author of 15 previous books of poetry, including Small Mechanics, The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems, and Whetstone. She is also the author of The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things and the memoir Small Beneath the Sky. Crozier is a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria and an Officer of the Order of Canada, and she has received four honorary doctorates for her contributions to Canadian literature. Born in Swift Current, she now lives on Vancouver Island. Crozier recently discussed her new book of poems, The Wrong Cat (McLelland & Stewart), with Cornelia Hoogland for The Coastal Spectator.

In a recent interview with Doug Dirks on CBC’s The Homestretch you recounted the story of the poem that became the title poem of the book. Your radio account of a personal event is written in third person in your book, as are most of the poems in The Wrong Cat. What does third person enable, and why not first person?

I chose to write many of the poems in The Wrong Cat in third person because I saw those particular pieces as mini-novels. There are characters, a narrative arc, conflict, dialogue, a setting and a resolution. Although some of the details are autobiographical such as the ending of the title poem, which comes from something my husband Patrick said out loud at a dinner party, the man and woman featured in the poems are fictionalized versions of “real” people. I had a lot of fun writing these and when someone asks me why I don’t write a novel, I’m now going to reply, “I already have.”

Alternately, “Man From Elsewhere,” written in first person, reads like fiction (in the sense of imaginative narration or myth), and packs an emotional and sensual wallop. Such seeming contrasts make me want to understand how you approach “person” as a tool to create, intensify, sustain, and/or subvert the content of your poems.

I started the “Man from Elsewhere” sequence in order to challenge myself. The inspiring question was “How do you write a love poem in a new way?” Before Shakespeare, let alone after, the English language is rich with poems about adoration, heartbreak and loss. What I tried to do was marry my interest in the topic and the form with my fascination with how place influences character. If I’d been born in a landscape different from the dry, light-bombarded grasslands of southwest Saskatchewan, I’d be a different person than I am now, even though I’ve lived on the Rain Coast for over 25 years. The geography, the light, the weather has shaped who I am, how I love and how I deal with loss. Those concerns feel lyrical to me, though the story insists on being there, particularly in the poems that allude to myths, as a kind of undercurrent. The poems are a cry from the heart.

A number of the poems use long line lengths without (I think) becoming prose poems. It’s very hard to resist a compelling enjambment, or is something else at work here?

I explored the prose poem in both my memoir, Small Beneath the Sky, where they work as a kind of punctuation between the prose chapters, and in my last book, The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things. In the latter, what I was interested in was the possibilities of the short, lyrical essay. The pieces with long lines in this new book are definitely not prose poems. The structural unit is not the sentence, but the line. The problem for me was not resisting enjambment but maintaining an extended line that doesn’t go slack, that doesn’t sag near the middle. I think I chose this longer reach, which I hope retains its tension and its music, because of the fictional nature of the poems. They come close to prose but they aren’t, that is, if I succeeded. They do a dance between prose and the lyric line.

Lorna, since 1981 and your book, No Longer Two People, co-written with Patrick Lane, your books have included poems that can be read as a celebration of your relationship with Patrick. While you are praised for your animal and vegetable imagery, it’s your playful, sexy, perennial love that I’ve counted on over the course of many books. What is it like to unearth relational uncertainties and foibles, and then shape them into craft? How would you talk about the art of writing one’s intimate relationship?

So much of what I write comes out of my life, my day-to-day experiences with the person who is closest to me, my husband Patrick, whom I’ve been with since 1978. My poems plot a relationship that began when I was thirty and will continue, with any luck, until one of us dies of old age. Even then, for the one who is left, the “marriage” will not end. My poems come from my imaginings, my suppositions, my desires for a better world, but they also come from autobiography, the deepest kind, the daily being-here that sends a tap root from the ground I stand upon into the subconscious stream that flows through our lives and connects us. I have in my mind, too, Evan Boland’s quote, “I want a poem I can grow old in.” How does love change, what does it mean as we age into bodies that betray us in strange, sometimes sad, sometimes funny ways. I’d like to find poems that can hold how we move through life and love, the everyday and the eternal. What remains of desire and passion as we get closer and closer to death? A lot, I hope. How do we find words for it, then?

The dead have always inhabited your poetry, and in poems such as “The Pony” in The Wrong Cat, death appears as an external character. James Hillman has said the dead want us to complete the unfinished aspects of their lives. Do you agree? What do your dead want from you?

Especially for poets, the dead still inhabit the earth. Perhaps they’re the silence where poems begin; perhaps they’re the pause between the lines, the stutter, the lost words. It’s not that the dead want to talk to us, but we want to talk with them. People like my mother and father are rare in literature. Something in me wants to find a place for them in language between the covers of a book. They will live there, then, as they live in me. Poems become prayers to the invisible, to the lost. They’re one way of keeping that near.

Hornby Island poet Cornelia Hoogland‘s sixth book, Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Relit Award. Hoogland’s new long poem, “Incident Light/Incident Dark,” is written in response to her brother’s sudden death. 


Tannahill examines theatre’s malaise

Theatre of the Unimpressed: 

In Search of Vital Drama

By Jordan Tannahill

Coach House Books

160 pages, $14.95

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

At 26, Jordan Tannahill was one of the youngest Governor General’s Award recipients ever when he won in the drama category in 2014 for Age of Minority, a collection of plays for young audiences exploring aspects of queer identity. With Theatre of the Unimpressed, his book-length critical essay probing malaise in English-language theatre, he demonstrates he is as talented at research and organization as at the art of playwriting.

The Toronto-based theatre practitioner spent a year interviewing theatregoers and non-theatregoers prior to writing Theatre of the Unimpressed. He divided his book into three main sections: Boredom, Liveness and Failure. In the first, Tannahill explores factors contributing to theatrical malaise. The second reports theatrical trends that signal vitality. The last Tannahill sees, along with risk-taking, as necessary to a vital theatre.

Tannahill’s basic premise is that theatre, at its best, develops our capacity for empathy and provides transformative experiences. In his view, complexity, specificity and relevance – a play’s “rigour of thinking” – are the fundamental hallmarks of resonant theatre. Boring plays lack this rigour. They: 1) “underestimate an audience’s capacity for complex argument” (play it safe); 2) lack “specificity of creative choices” (are lazy); or 3) are “unaware of context” (feel irrelevant).

Tannahill attacks, in particular, the model of the Well-Made Play which he asserts has dominated Western theatre since the nineteenth century. Well-made plays are based on psychological realism and explore conflicts “through conversation on the battlegrounds of middleclass parlours.” Well-made Canadian plays come in for a particular drubbing: too often they are “multi-generational narratives in which someone is finding their identity and in which Canada is also finding its identity.” Reverence for the well-made play, Tannahill believes, has also contributed to a dramaturgical system that attempts to “fix” scripts that don’t fit into the mold of the well-made play, with the result that “the life is sucked out of them.”

Classics also suffer, though for other reasons. Their difficult questions disguised by geographical and temporal distance, costumes and production values, they become what Tannahill calls Museum Theatre: mere relics from the past, “harmless effigies of their once fierce and mighty selves.”

Money is also a factor. (Anyone familiar with the City of Victoria’s recent complaints over the costs of upkeep for the McPherson Playhouse will recognize this economic reality.) Artistic directors, in need of money to pay for upkeep on the imposing physical structures of large regional theatres, stick to traditional well-made plays because they trust their audiences to support them. Ironically, audiences hungry for transformative experiences develop a taste for well-made plays because that’s what artistic directors give them as a steady diet.

The problem is complicated, Tannahill argues, by a system of arts councils that have bought into the model of perpetual growth upon which free market capitalism is based. One of my friends, an artistic director trying to buck this trend by keeping ticket prices low to attract a younger, less well-heeled crowd, has confided his frustrations on this score. Because he can’t demonstrate his theatre is increasingly profitable, he risks losing continued art council funding.

While I agreed with Tannahill’s clear elucidation of the problems that interfere with achieving transformational theatre, I sometimes found his proffered solutions alarming.

For example, Tannahill embraces the auteur theory of directing, common in the film industry, which allows directors to subvert the scriptwriter’s intentions. In traditional theatre, the playwright is regarded as the creative mother of the play, and the director as its midwife. Together, they give birth to new life. Directors who deliberately subvert the meaning of a play can turn the newborn into a deformed thing. I saw that happen not long ago when a male director intentionally subverted the meaning of a feminist play from the 1980s because he thought it would not resonate with the audience in what he considered to be a post-feminist world. It was like watching an abortion.

Furthermore, although Tannahill concedes that the well-made play can contain the spark of liveness that produces a transformational experience, he tends to look to the experimental for that result. He also extols the strange notion of constructed failure—incorporating into the performance something that deliberately fails in order to startle the audience into response. While admitting that could be considered cynical, Tannahill considers it to be a powerful antidote to a mass-mediated culture in which “polish, poise and conventional aptitude are rewarded.” To me, the notion of constructed failure smacks of disrespect for the audience, an attempt to trick them into responsiveness.

Tannahill has written a well-researched analysis of what ails contemporary English-language theatre that will inform anyone who loves live theatre and wants to see it thrive. Just remember to don your critical thinking cap when you consider his proposed solutions.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.

Twin sisters’ country album springs from love

Twin Kennedy

It’s a Love Thing

Twin Kennedy Entertainment


Reviewed by Emmett Robinson Smith

Twin Kennedy have a lot to say. The UVic School of Music twin sister graduates have been touring extensively throughout Canada in support of their new country album It’s a Love Thing, an album that tackles universal topics such as persistence, breakups, youthful exuberance, mortality and the power of love.

The title track can be seen as the mantra for Twin Kennedy’s work ethic. The lyrics describe a man and a woman going to work day after day, (simultaneously reinforcing controversial gender stereotypes – the man “firing up his rig” for his job, and the woman working as a nurse) because “it’s a love thing.” One gets the feeling that this refrain mirrors Twin Kennedy’s passion for music: while the song’s characters perform more colloquial jobs, Twin Kennedy’s music is their job. And, from their passionate tone of voice, it’s easy to tell that their work is indeed “a love thing” for them.

Musically, It’s a Love Thing’s arrangements are familiar and conventional. Produced by known Canadian country musician George Canyon and producer Graham Sharkey, the music fits into the conservative musical mold of most of Canyon’s repertory: echoing snare drum rim shots, “ooooh” vocal accompaniment, strummed acoustic guitar, fluttering piano touches, as well as orthodox song structure – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus.

Graduating from UVic with a performance degree requires a high degree of musical ability, and it’s a shame that the twins don’t use these considerable skills more on the album. The collection’s strongest moments occur when they show off their instrumental abilities. Carli Kennedy’s guitar-driven solo cut, “Interlude,” which lasts a mere 44 seconds, is probably the best track on the album. Julie’s violin chops shine through briefly on the closing track, “I Never Will.” In order to stand out from their country peers, Carli and Julie Kennedy need to bring their instrumental skills to the forefront of their music.

Instead, the focus here is on lyrical content. “Feels Like Freedom” stands out lyrically because it’s vivid: “One hand on the window, one hand on the wheel / Seventeen is feelin’ too good to be real,” one of them sings. Though this concept has been used so much it verges on cliché, these lyrics seem to come from a real place – one that has a foundation in the Kennedys’ experiences.

Twin Kennedy are enthusiastic musicians. The inner sleeve of their album goes to lengths to express gratitude to those who helped create It’s a Love Thing. This warmth and energy provides good context for their music, as it presents them as real people who struggle with the same things that we all do. Twin Kennedy are honest and direct, with the chops to back them up – even if their skill goes underused.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.

Book launch celebrates life and work of late Elise Partridge

Tonight is the Vancouver book launch for Elise Partridge’s The Exiles’ Gallery, published by the House of Anansi. The launch will take place at 7 p.m. (Thursday, May 21), at the Heartwood Café. Rob Taylor will be among writers reading Elise Partridge’s work. Here he shares a personal tribute to the late, and beloved, Vancouver-based poet.

I was a fan of Elise Partridge the Poet before I was a fan of Elise Partridge the Person. Sometimes I need to remind myself of that. Not because her poems prove lacking—far from it—but because she was perhaps the most generous and encouraging poet around. Following Elise’s death from colon cancer at the end of January, proof of her giving spirit came pouring in from just about every corner of the Canadian poetry world (from The Globe and Mail and Quill and Quire, to writers’ personal blogs). Christopher Patton noted that Elise was “warm loving acute witty skeptical wry and humane,” Elizabeth Bachinsky added that she was “gracious and self-effacing,” and Stephanie Bolster praised “the generosity of spirit, the deep humanity, the ability to see each person or thing clearly and for its own qualities” in Elise’s life and work. In my own piece remembering Elise, I wrote that she taught me “that the generous heart and spirit that go into the page need to be the same heart and spirit that travel out into the world every day.”

Serifs ascending, descending,
I want to recognize all of you

– Chemo Side Effects: Vision

9781770899797_1024x1024But before all that, for me, Elise Partridge was the name on the byline above two poems: “Chemo Side Effects: Memory” and “Chemo Side Effects: Vision.” The year must have been 2008, or soon after, when both poems were published in Elise’s sophomore collection Chameleon Hours (Anansi). At the time, as today, I was in part drawn to poetry for its compactness and care for detail: the best poetry serving as an antidote against the big, noisy, chaotic world we live in. But the moments when poets really did this—really stopped and looked, and became small and free and powerful through that looking—were rare. Then I opened Chameleon Hours and there was Elise, in the middle of chemotherapy—a particularly awful type of industrialized chaos which denied her full access to her basic faculties—saying “No” to the disease and the distraction. Saying, “I’m sorry if you’d rather I worry about the ‘big picture,’ but I have this small thing to look at: a word, a letter, the serif on the tip of an f, this fiddlehead fern.” Saying this even if she couldn’t quite see them any more. What a bold statement it seemed to me then, and even more now, against death. “Death,” it was as if she was saying, “you can do many things, but you cannot stop me from relishing the world.”

In Babel, they also lay down and wept.

– The Alphabet

And death didn’t. Testament to that is Elise’s third collection, The Exiles’ Gallery (Anansi, 2015), which will be launched in Vancouver today. At that event, a group of poets and writers who knew and loved Elise will try our best to replicate her presence. We will fail, of course, but hopefully we will fail well. I will be reading two poems which to me are the new book’s strongest inheritors of the defiant looking of the “Chemo Side Effect” poems: “X, a CV” and “The Alphabet.” In “X, a CV”, the author lists the twenty-fourth letter’s finest accomplishments and most famous roles, including “bowling strike,” “kiss,” and “default sci-fi planet.” She drills down and down into a letter most of us think little about (“in Pirahã the glottal stop; / a fricative in Somali”) and in the process elevates and enriches the final image: “the name of millions: / those never granted an alphabet’s power.” I’ve read this poem aloud and listened as that last line’s simple observation resonated through the room, generating a depth of meaning it never would have accomplished had it been placed at the end of any other poem. More proof that Elise’s particular form of persistence paid off. “The Alphabet” functions similarly, with perhaps a more devastating conclusion.

And each crop a loyal perennial.
That infinite stash of pippins,
cores shied over a wall!

– Before the Fall

Elise’s attention to words and letters is not limited to their shapes and serifs—it’s clear in an Elise Partridge poem that all of a word’s meanings were considered, too, before it was pressed into the page. Many poets ask their reader, via the density of their poems, to pick up the dictionary in order to fully understand the poet’s work—few, though, succeed in making that process pleasurable. But with Elise’s rigour and intention, I always know the extra work will be worth it. Take, for example, the last sentence of the short poem “Before the Fall” (which opens a section of The Exiles’ Gallery). A poem about Adam and Eve in the garden, it closes: “That infinite stash of pippins, / cores shied over a wall!” Look up “pippins” in the dictionary and you’ll see it’s the word both for the apple and the seed (such a vital distinction in the Garden of Eden!). Look up “shy” and you’ll find a great number of meanings (eleven in the dictionary I’m using) from “throw” to “reserved” to “startle” to “distrustful” to “insufficient” – all of which seem to have a home in the poem.

The gate that won’t quite shut
with its scruff of lichen
invites us into the orchard

– Invitation

As playful and powerful as the above poems are, the most affecting suite of poems in The Exiles’ Gallery comes, as with the “Chemo Side Effect” poems in Chameleon Hours, when Elise applies her determined attention to her battle with cancer (Abigail Deutch, in her review of The Exiles’ Gallery, pulls out a line from “Chameleon Hours” and suitably dubs Elise “The Virtuoso of Upheaval”). In poems like “Gifts”, “The If Borderlands”, and “Invitation” (which will be read at the launch by host Christopher Patton), we see the rich benefits of all of Elise’s looking and insisting: “the bursting plums” in the orchard, which we are invited “to pick ‘till time and times are done’”; the globe in our hands that we linger and long for, “tender as a peach.”

With your labour of double love
you will give us hundreds,
and all you ask is two loaves.

– Range

Today we will gather in Vancouver and try to bring together Elise the Poet and Elise the Person. It shouldn’t be too hard, as she lived the two, in union, so seemingly effortlessly. Like Klaus, the repairman in her poem, “Range,” Elise came into our lives both in person and on the page, and fixed what needed fixing. As Barbara Nickel, who will be reading “Range,” puts it: “Like Klaus… Elise gave and gave and gave careful, meticulous, loving attention—to her poems, to others’ poems, to friends and family, strangers, anyone she met.” In talking with Elise’s husband, Steve, he used the phrase “scrap-yard rescue” to describe a theme that runs through Elise’s poems like “Range” and “A Late Writer’s Desk”— poems focused on “preserving what others have given up on.”

My friend, you didn’t lie down.

– Last Days

Sometimes it feels like poetry itself is what we, as a society, have given up on. Or simple, generous attention. Or, simply, generosity. But all of these things feel preserved, and redeemed, when you have a book of Elise Partridge’s poetry in your hands. So please, join us tonight. In Vancouver, if you can, and if not, in a comfortable chair with one of her books or a few printouts of poems. Read with the focus and wonder under which the poems were created. And wherever you are, you won’t be alone or unseen.

Rob Taylor is a Vancouver poet. 



Memoir probes domestic life after adoption

Maurice Mierau’s most recent book, Detachment: An Adoption Memoir (Freehand Books), won the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Nonfiction in April. In the memoir, the author probes his domestic life after he and his wife adopt two Ukrainian brothers, aged three and five. The book is both unsentimental and passionate, sparked with moments of humour–a must-read. Mierau’s new poetry collection, Autobiographical Fictions, will be published this fall by Palimpsest. His last book of poems, Fear Not, won the ReLit Award in 2009. Mierau is founding editor of The Winnipeg Review, and lives in Winnipeg with his family. He talked recently to Lynne Van Luven about his memoir.

Maurice, I just read Detachment, and I found it to be a really brave book. You are fearless about revealing your own fears and doubts as an adoptive father. What sort of reaction have other parents had to your book?

The reactions have been universally positive. Many people have commended me on my bravery, making me wonder if that isn’t a euphemism for foolishness—though I know they (and you) are sincere! As a poet, I have never had personal feedback from readers other than a few fellow poets coming up to me after events. With Detachment I’ve had emails from all over the country, phone calls, comments at readings, and much of that has come from parents both adoptive and otherwise. Often people tell me stories about how they discovered a family member was adopted, or, if they are adoptive parents, they tell me stories about their own struggle to form a family. The things people reveal to me are frequently intimate family secrets, and I find myself moved by this connection with readers that I’ve never had before.

Most of your readers will know you as a poet. Did you find writing a memoir vastly different from writing poetry, or did you find that certain commonalities pervade both forms?

It was quite a different experience from writing poems for me. I wanted to construct a narrative that would keep people engaged in a story moving forward, rather than a more static, highly literary kind of memoir like Nabokov’s famous one. And since I’m not an epic poet or a novelist, I had no experience writing a book-length narrative, and that was really the challenge. The other challenge was integrating my father’s story of childhood trauma fleeing from Soviet Ukraine with the story of adopting my sons Peter and Bohdan in Ukraine in 2005. Nothing in poetry prepared me for these storytelling problems.

My background as a poet was helpful to me in terms of constructing individual scenes. Lorca said that the poet is the professor of the senses, and while I don’t have tenure the way he did, I do have some notion of how to make a scene vivid. Another thing you learn from poetry is how to bring thematic, imagistic, and other forms of deliberate repetition into a book, so that these elements rhyme in the reader’s mind, not always consciously.

You have now been a father three times over. What has the experience taught you about children’s essential personalities, their differences as unique human beings?

It’s taught me that children, like adults, don’t have essential personalities: they are all different. Without being flippant, children need love and empathy in order to become loving, empathetic adults. Empathy involves the intelligence and the imagination as well as emotion, and I have often failed to enter imaginatively into the lives of my children; Detachment shows me struggling to make that entrance. I feel my failure most keenly with my oldest son, Jeremy. Perhaps that means I’m a better father now, at least on some days.

There is a growing list of books about adoption, which is wonderful because it provides a fine resource and because it has moved “being adopted” out of the closet to a certain extent.  Do you think adopted children still face the same stigmas they did 30 or 40 years ago?

Absolutely not. No one, at least in my experience, questions adoption as a way to form a family now, not in a school context and certainly not in the community where we live. I think that’s a normal Canadian experience. There has been a generational shift that probably accompanies the increased acceptance of non-traditional families, including same-sex ones, and also books and media exposure that show adoptive families as part of mainstream society.

One of the most moving parts of the memoir is the way your Ukraine-born sons’ trauma echoes that of your own father’s past. Has that history, and the unfolding of recent events in Ukraine, further strengthened your extended family’s bonds?  

Yes, I think it has with my father in particular. My dad, as the book describes, struggles to articulate his own feelings about being a war refugee and an orphan early in his life, but he does see the parallels between his life and my sons’.

As for recent events, they are depressing and a testimony to the unwillingness of Russia to allow Ukrainians to live in a country with a healthy economy and the rule of law in place. Fortunately the boys are from western Ukraine, near Lviv, and far from the war in the east. We plan to visit soon, so they can meet at least part of their birth families.

Sexual identity takes centre stage in Cock


By Mike Bartlett

Directed by David MacPherson

Theatre Inconnu

May 5 – May 23

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

What do you think of when you hear the word “cock?” English playwright Mike Bartlett had at least three meanings in mind when he wrote the play Cock, which premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2009 and opened at Theatre Inconnu on May 7.

First, and perhaps not surprisingly for a young man still in his twenties when he wrote his play, Bartlett was thinking of that part of human anatomy found exclusively on the male of the species.

John, the main character (played by Robert Conway), has left his long-term gay lover, “M”, (John is the only character with a name) and has unexpectedly fallen in love with a woman, “W”, but he hasn’t lost his fascination, it seems, for that special part of the male body. As he is making love to W for the first time, he confesses: “I’m worried is there going to come a moment when I’m missing his cock.” And when he gets scared and runs back to M, he tries to assure him of his sincere desire to reconcile by saying: “I still whack off to you every night.” Charming fellow, this John!

For some inexplicable reason, both of John’s lovers want him and are prepared to fight for him. When M (played by Cam Culham) convinces John to invite W (played with delightful spunk by Melissa Blank) to dinner at their home so that they can all sit down and “talk things over,” the scene is set for the second meaning of “cock.” Bartlett explained in a published interview that, during a visit to Mexico, he discovered they still have cockfights there—“an activity where you come together for a ritualized killing of an animal—where you come because they’re going to suffer, and you’re like a mob surrounding this fight to the death.”

And that’s how this play is staged: the audience, cast as the mob, seated on four sides surrounding the action, as if to watch a fight to the death.

No one dies, as it turns out, but there is a considerable amount of suffering on all sides. John has led each of his lovers to believe he has decided in their favour and is just waiting for dessert to reveal his choice to the other. M, who knows John well, has his doubts, and has invited M’s father (“F,” played by Eric Grace) to dinner for emotional support. It soon becomes clear that John hasn’t made a choice, and despite pressure from all sides, is incapable of making one. Out of this emerges the third meaning of “cock:” “[I]n Britain, if someone’s really irritating,” the playwright explained, “you think ‘Oh, he’s a complete cock.’” John is a complete cock.

John isn’t the only irritating thing about this play. It breaks with many conventions of stage plays. For example, the playwright has dictated that it should be played without scenery, furniture or props. Even worse, it’s played without “mime,” that is, without actions that suit the dialogue. At one point, John demands that M take off his clothes. The dialogue seems to indicate that M has complied, but the actors remain clothed. At another point, the dialogue indicates that John and W are making love, but the actors aren’t even touching. According to the playwright, the intent is to place the focus entirely on the drama of the scene, but I found the discontinuity between the dialogue and the action shattered my focus and took me out of the drama of the scene.

Bartlett claims Cock is intended to be an examination of how rigid definitions of sexual identity can interfere with making a choice based on the person one is drawn to. I can think of scenarios that would explore this dilemma dramatically, but this isn’t one of them. John doesn’t experience any character development in Cock; he’s much too passive for that. As a result, the play was as frustrating for some of its viewers as John was for both M and W.

Sometimes, though, frustration can lead to passionate involvement. When I was walking back to my car after the performance, I came upon two women standing on the sidewalk talking about the play. I joined them, and the three of us hashed it over, rewrote the ending, made the choices John refused to make. We were so caught up in our heated discussion it was a long time before we noticed the chill of the cool night air.

Maybe that’s why Cock won an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in 2010.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.  

Specimen dissects unquiet mysteries of the heart


By Irina Kovalyova

House of Anansi

256 pages; $19.95

Reviewed by Traci Skuce

Not long ago, I met a surgeon at a friend’s wedding. I asked him if, in opening the human body, he was ever inspired to write down insights about such revealed mystery. Not everyone, after all, gets to examine the dark spaces of the abdomen, say, or the heart. But he only shifted from foot to foot and scrunched his brow. “It’s all just routine procedure,” he said. Needless to say, his answer disappointed me.

There are, however, a legion of physicians and scientists who have felt compelled to marry the disciplines of science and literary art. And now Irina Kovalyova joins their ranks. Kovalyova has an impressive, science-heavy resume: a master’s degree in chemistry from Brown University, a doctoral degree in microbiology from Queen’s, and she is currently a professor of molecular biology at Simon Fraser. She also holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC and has written Specimen, a collection of eight short stories and one novella.

In each of her short stories, Kovalyova investigates how science impacts human relationships. The daughter who discovers her biological dad is a sperm donor and sets out to meet him, the woman whose post-divorce grief is assuaged through Botox injections, and the Russion biology professor who must reconcile his son’s desire to transition to female.

Kovalyova approaches her work like a scientist. And by that I mean, she’s willing to experiment. Almost every story in this collection plays with form and I imagined Kovalyova entering her stories with a science-curious mind: What if I write a story like a clinical trial report? Or a story that splits, dividing the narrative into two physical columns? Or a story that harkens back to strange, nineteenth century experiments, but then twists into a modern email epistle? Or reads like a list and circles back on itself?

I was particularly delighted by the experimental “list” story. The story is entitled “Gdansk” and it begins with a school group crossing the Soviet border in November, 1989, the Berlin wall barely down (the psychological walls still there), and the borders just beginning to open. The story stays close to Katya, her observations of her host family, her crush and her love of science. Because this story is all about concision—each section is numbered and limited to two or three sentences (sometimes only a word), I felt a life sketched out and contained within tiny borders, filled in by the silence and white spaces between.

At other points in Kovalyova’s collection, the narrative experiments seem too contrived. Too controlled. This happens mildly in some of the other stories, but overtly in “The Big One.” A mother and her young daughter are driving up three underground parking stories. She has this thought: “What if, I think, the Big One happens today? The One everyone keeps talking about.” She meditates on her fear and then, lo and behold, the Big One strikes! It’s too bad, really, because the story is otherwise interesting and descriptive. The physical page split in two, just like the ground, with simultaneous text on either side of the line.

The final story, “The Blood Keeper,” a novella, is an intriguing read. Kovalyova does well with this longer form, fleshing out a complex narrative about a young Russian woman who travels to North Korea to work in the Botanical Gardens in Pyongyang. There are all the ingredients to drive a good plot forward: forbidden love, espionage and closed political borders. And yet it doesn’t read like a thriller, but instead of a young woman willing to probe the unquiet mysteries of the heart. Throughout Specimen, Kovalyova pushes boundaries, going beyond “routine procedures.” She offers readers a glimpse through a literary microscope, and into our own dark spaces.

Traci Skuce lives in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

Jazz vocalist and pianist explores new pop sound

House of Many Rooms

By Laila Biali and The Radiance Project


By Emmett Robinson Smith

Laila Biali took a risk. The Vancouver-born, Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter has received many accolades and awards for her work as a jazz pianist and singer. Her album Live in Concert was recorded at the renowned Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto in 2012, she has recorded with Sting, and she won SOCAN Composer of the Year and Keyboardist of the Year at Canada’s National Jazz Awards. However, her new album, House of Many Rooms, is not a jazz album at all. Thanks to her teaming up with the band The Radiance Project, it’s indie pop.

Biali’s extensive acclaim, though impressive, must be something of a burden: critics have high expectations of her work. It’s remarkable, then, that on her latest collection, she sounds so carefree. “Look ahead / With your eyes upon the breaking dawn,” she sings on the opening track “Shadowlands,” over a backdrop of triumphant horns, a peppy syncopated piano loop and up-tempo percussion. There’s even a gospel choir featured to drive home the song’s joyous nature, which can be attributed to The Radiance Project.

Biali’s strongest asset is her singing. Her knack for adding warmth and subtle colours to her voice is a skill largely missing from the current pop landscape. Her voice as she sings, “The sparks between us / They glow like fireflies at night,” on the track “Come Anything” is nuanced, welcoming and comforting. You can almost see her smiling as she delivers the lines. Indeed, light and love are prevalent motifs throughout the album.

“Come Anything” is also representative of an unfortunate, and probably inadvertent, quirk that many of the album’s eleven tracks carry: it sounds weirdly Christmasy. On this track, the choice to raise the key by a semitone in the middle of every verse contributes to the Christmas vibe, as well as the ebbing piano arpeggios and grandiose string arrangement.

This baffling holiday ambiance subsides as the album reaches its peak with the back-to-back songs “You” and “Upside Down.” Biali is at her most aggressive on “You,” delivering slights such as, “I bet you feel weak / Like a man who stopped trying,” over a heavy waltz arrangement. This is one of the album’s more abrasive tracks, and by the time the listener reaches it, it’s welcome, considering that the three songs leading up to it utilized more conventional melodies paired with pastoral depictions of birds, life and starlight.

The following “Upside Down,” the unmistakable peak of House of Many Rooms, is an epic work beginning with a complex, rhythmically ambiguous drum pattern. Biali rides this groove with ease as she sings. The song then evolves into an heroic chorus that evokes space exploration and planetary discovery. “You turn me upside down,” she sings, which cleverly mirrors the unexpected transition of grooves between the verse and the chorus. The song ends with a blistering minute-and-a-half saxophone solo.

Ultimately, Biali is a songwriter with a lot to offer as she enters the pop genre. The Radiance Project adds valuable instrumentation to create a full, energetic sound. Though a couple tracks come up short – “Shine” would have been an easy deletion from the album as it prioritizes prettiness over substance – Biali’s potential as a pop songwriter is apparent on more than half the album. Given her success in the jazz world, it would have been a lot easier for her to stay rooted in that genre. Her choice to experiment is commendable. And with the varied sonic palette Biali chose on House of Many Rooms, one gets the feeling that she’s on the path to a refined, distinct pop sound.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.

Planet Earth continues to bolster local poetry scene

What better way to mark April as Poetry Month than to talk about Planet Earth Poetry? Known to its devotees as PEP, the series is one of the most influential poetry-reading successes in Canada. Planet Earth sponsors a wide range of established and emerging poets. It has bolstered many a flagging poetic spirit and fostered a number of lyrical spin-off events in Victoria. PEP’s roots lie in the Mocambopo reading series started in 1995; the irrepressible Wendy Morton was its third host/organizer. In 2007, the series moved to its current location at 1633 Hillside Avenue, just across the street from Bolen Books. Except for a summer hiatus, you can find poets and listeners gathered at 7:30 p.m. every Friday, where “words are most important.” Famous for its well-run open mic, Planet Earth functions as “a launching pad for the energies of writers and poets established and not.” In September, Daniel G. Scott will take over as host and artistic director for the series from new Victoria Poet Laureate Yvonne Blomer, who has directed the series since 2009.  Scott, who will soon be retiring as a professor in the School of Child & Youth Care at the University of Victoria, has long been involved in the arts and has published two books of poetry (Black Onion and Terrains). Blomer has three published poetry books: As if a Raven, The Book of Places and a broken mirror, fallen leaf. She is also co-editor of Poems from Planet Earth. Both recently talked with Lynne Van Luven about their aspirations for Planet Earth and poetry in general. 

Yvonne and Daniel, you are both community-engaged poets, if I can put it that way. Yvonne, can you comment on the coffee/poetry scene in Victoria over the past few years?

I think over the past three years or so, more cafes have been opening their doors to readings. Tongues of Fire is celebrating its tenth year in 2015, so spoken word has gained a lot of energy. Think of the literary events happening on Vancouver Island just in the past four months: WordsThaw in March, The Creative Nonfiction Collective’s conference April 24 through 26, the Cascadia Poetry Festival in Nanaimo April 30 to May 3  . . . The youth poetry slam Victorious Voices was just held, not to mention Planet Earth Poetry every week, and we have readings at Munro’s and Russell Books.  Cafes are plugging into the enthusiasm of writers to launch their books or do readings. Hillside Coffee and Tea’s owners Nataliya Kapitanova  and Michael Kowalewich are superb supporters of PEP.

Daniel, can you talk about your area of academic focus and how you got to publishing poetry from there? (I know your sister is Quebec author Gail Scott.)

Actually, academics are the accident. I got an 8.8 GPA in my master’s work and somebody said I should go on to do a PhD.  I thought, “That sounds interesting,” and studied the work of narrative in our lives. I came up with the word “narraturgy,” that never really went anywhere. But before I came back to academic studies in 1991, I spent over a decade in professional theatre, including three years as theatre artist-in-residence and summer youth theatre at the University of New Brunswick. I also worked for over a decade for the Anglican Diocese of British Columbia, leading and developing youth programs and training youth workers. I’ve been an actor, done radio and print journalism, and written poetry for years.  It’s all congruent for me.

Yvonne, you have been engaged with the writing community since you were a student. You have carried on that work through motherhood, further education (an MA in creative writing from the University of East Anglia), and now you are engaged in your own teaching career and have a four-year stint as poet laureate. Does all this seem like “part of the same thing” to you?

Yes, I do think it is all within the same field, as say, a family GP might see patients, work with student doctors, have hospital hours, look over records and assign follow-up appointments. The key thing for me is the writing, and then all the other things just go with it. Teaching certainly does–you learn from the engagement from different writers’ works but also from your students. It’s just a part of me to support everything. I always say yes to students, tell them to keep on writing. I sometimes long to be like PD James’s Scotland Yard poet Adam Dalgliesh, who writes poetry between solving crimes, but does not feel the need to promote himself  [Here, Scott interjects, to remind Blomer that “Dalgleish is a fictional character.”] I long for quiet time . . .  but I also feel it is important to support literary arts in any way that I can. My work is a flow of something larger that moves towards readers and thinkers.

The world is filled with violence and disaster.  Many people’s lives are chaotic. How do you answer philistines who say, “How can poetry help us?”

Daniel:  One of the pluses of poetry is that it gives you a way to draw near to things indirectly. There is such uncertainly and confusion in the world, we need voices prepared to go into emotional territory, but to make sense of it intellectually. That’s why I am so drawn to Jan Zwicky’s combination of poetry with philosophy.

Yvonne: Engaging those afraid of poetry, and helping them feel something shows how poetry connects us . . . as a new poet laureate, I feel less sure of how poetry can measurably help, but I want poetry to change the path we are on by making us all think, by drawing action from thought.

Talk a bit more, both of you, about your hopes and dreams for poetry in Victoria.

Yvonne:  Through Planet Earth and other public events, I hope that poetry will reach more people, change their relationship to it, that they can move from feeling lost and confused or even scared when they hear a poem to being engaged emotionally. I held an event at the Art Gallery of Victoria last week . . . and for the first time some of the regular gallery visitors experienced how poetry gave an alternate way of engaging with art. At Victorious Voices this month, someone commented on how important it is to come out and LISTEN. If no one is listening, then communication fails. I just want to draw more people into the intimate conversations poetry creates.

Daniel and Yvonne: And we would like the Planet Earth website to become more of a hub. We’ve applied for a B.C. Arts Council grant for the first time this year, so we can professionalize and pay some of our workers a small stipend, and pay the poets a standard rate of $125 an appearance. I think we are starting to build a listening audience. It’s exciting that people are starting to realize that hearing poetry read aloud changes what it is. People have forgotten it comes from an oral tradition.