Category Archives: Reviews of the written word

Emphasis on facts hampers book about inequality in B.C.

A Better Place on Earth:

The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia

By Andrew MacLeod

Harbour Publishing

256 pages; $22.95

Reviewed by Erin Anderson

In A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia, journalist Andrew MacLeod presents a case for our province as one with the greatest divide between rich and poor, a divide that has grown because of the policies of our government over the past several years.

MacLeod makes a strong argument for why B.C. is in last place in Canada in terms of inequality, dismantling both the fallacy that creating jobs and strengthening our economy can solve our poverty problem and the idea that inequality is a natural occurrence, based on hard work and talent, rather than something created through policy and privilege.

He also presents our situation in B.C. within the context of inequality as a global issue, one that even business leaders and economists are beginning to warn us about. MacLeod draws on several recent books on uneven wealth distribution, including The Price of Inequality. He quotes its author Joseph Stiglitz as saying that inequality is fuelled by the government, “both what the government does and what it does not do.”

Though our government is taken to task for skewing success rates and dodging questions with rhetoric, MacLeod stays relatively nonpartisan, pointing out that no singular party or politician holds all the responsibility for our current situation. While the B.C. Liberals under Christy Clark do not come off particularly well, federal NDP head Tom Mulcair is also scrutinized for not supporting an inheritance tax, despite the success of and benefit to such a policy in the United States.

In laying out the case for existing inequality, McLeod is thorough to the point of redundancy. Using reports and data from as late as 2014, he looks at not only how we track and measure poverty but how inequality plays out in a range of contexts, from a person unable to pay for prescription medicine to an underfed child in one of the 50 per cent of one-parent homes living in poverty.

Inequality hits those with the least wealth the hardest, MacLeod points out, but it also has longterm effects: unchecked disparity would likely weaken if not collapse our economy as we know it.

The economy may not tug on many people’s heartstrings, but MacLeod seems determined within the pages of A Better Place on Earth to make his appeal for change reach as broad an audience as possible. He compiles shocking statistics and quotes from experts but even as his personal view becomes apparent in the way such facts and experiences are strung together, he maintains a detachment and impartiality.

It’s admirable that MacLeod has produced a book tackling a traditionally leftist topic – inequality and poverty – that doesn’t immediately alienate or offend those whose politics may not overlap. However, the book’s even keel approach leaves it reading more like a series of editorial pieces than a compelling non-fiction read. A Better Place on Earth lacks the fire to act as a rallying cry for supporters and the transparency of its objective makes it an unlikely choice for anyone unaware of or unconvinced by the evidence of inequality around us.

Beyond the statistics, MacLeod includes snippets from people living close to the poverty line: people on welfare, disability or minimum wage. A fair number of these inside sources comment anonymously out of fear of retribution, to the discredit of our social services and to the detriment of the book itself. Acknowledging his own inherent advantages, MacLeod speaks to people whose lives are most impacted today by policies that he believes will damage our future and, in doing so, some explanation for why those most in need and most affected by government have lost faith in politics.

Crucially, MacLeod devotes the final third of his book to solutions to these issues, noting that some policy changes wouldn’t cost the government a dime (important, as a lack of funds is often cited as a reason changes can’t be made) and others would pay for themselves with savings in emergency care, health, economy and more income-earning (and thus tax-paying) citizens.

While we all have an obligation to combat inequality, our government carries the most weight in that fight. To create a government willing to change the status quo, MacLeod argues we need to accept a certain amount of ideological compromise and to stay active and involved even when the results don’t go our way.

The information contained in A Better Place on Earth is both alarming and important and MacLeod deserves commendation for his diligence in pulling together all the facts and arguments we need to begin addressing a very real and serious issue. While his argument is compelling, this book might have a larger impact if it had a less impassive voice to make it a more engaging, persuasive read.

Erin Anderson is a marketing and communications professional who reviews books, music and theatre in her spare time.

Autistic character well-illuminated

Do you think this is strange?

By Aaron Cully Drake

Brindle & Glass Publishing Ltd.

272pp; $17.95

Reviewed by Chris Ho

Told from the perspective of Freddy, a 17-year-old boy who struggles with autism, Aaron Cully Drake’s debut novel offers a unique narrative collage.

Vancouver-based writer/editor Drake has written for newspapers and magazines. He has a wife, a son, and an autistic daughter. Not surprisingly, the novel is dedicated to his daughter, with an inscription that reads: “For Natalie. How could it be any other way?”

Despite a certain degree of linearity, Cully doesn’t present his narrative in an orderly progression. Instead, just as Freddy’s thoughts and memories are scattered, each chapter is named after whatever thought or memory that Freddy is revisiting. In that sense, the overall collection creates a beautiful mosaic that gives the reader an overall impression of the main character, and his tendency to become stuck inside of his mind and disconnected from reality.

As Annie Dillard wrote in Living by fiction, “The use of narrative collage . . . enables a writer to recreate . . . a world shattered, and perhaps senseless, and certainly strange.” Do you think this is strange? is an illustration of the world in all its chaotic, imperfect glory: there isn’t always a reason for things, and tragedy is unavoidable.

Drake’s own sympathies and first-hand understanding of autism, I think, bring his already humorous prose and poignant dialogue to a new level. No matter how strange Freddy may be to the outside world – no matter how dissimilar his mind map may be from mine or yours – he is still one-hundred-percent believable and human. Freddy is not a stereotype or archetype of the autistic; he is a teenager who happens to be autistic. Freddy, is uniquely, just Freddy.

Drake’s approach allows the reader to think about or at least acknowledge some grey areas concerning the treatment of autism. For example, to what extent should autism be celebrated as a different, rather than stigmatized as a disability? And do public schools need to be more accommodating toward autism?

I also appreciate how Drake doesn’t attempt to answer these questions, or force-feed readers his own beliefs. He simply focuses on the story, and allows the deeper questions and themes to grow organically. Moreover, the main focus of the novel is at the heart of Freddy himself, and in the challenges he faces when trying to understand a world that seems foreign to him – a chaotic world that his overly analytical mind attempts to understand and rationalize.

Freddy’s unconventional friendship with his long-lost friend Saskia, who suffers from a different sort of autism, not only adds a unique romantic element to the story, but also illuminates Freddy’s narrative web and ignites a renewed understanding of his own life: There is a web between people. The strands are the bonds that they make with each other. The stronger the love for another, the stronger the bond and the stronger the thread.”

Do you think this is strange? is a worthwhile read. Its style is colloquial and, but it is also infused with just the right amount of poetic depth to give it authority as a truly heartwarming work of art.

Chris Ho is a Victoria-based musician and writer.

Poetry springs from everyday life in East Vancouver

By Bren Simmers
Nightwood Editions
96 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Cole Mash

East Vancouver, like the rest of the capitalist world, is an area in a state of constant decay and repair. Parking lots are paved for the condos beside them, followed by people and their cars to fill those parking lots. Hastings- Sunrise, the second collection of poetry from Bren Simmers, gives us one full year of the everyday in the growing and crumbling neighbourhood of East Vancouver, a place Simmers once called home. She has previously published one book of poetry, Night Gears (Wolsak and Wynn, 2010) and won the 2006 Arc Poetry Magazine Poem of the Year Award. Though she muses on Vancouver, like so many Canadian poets before her, Simmers resides in the more rural Squamish, B.C.

Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle states that one cannot measure an object’s speed and position at the same time. A moving object cannot have a fixed position. Simmers recognizes the fluidity of the urban place and proves the exception to this principle. Distilling East Vancouver into letters, Simmers gives us a concrete world that, while fixed on a map, is in constant motion. The book moves through the year beginning in March, and each section is marked with dates alerting the reader to the season, each date accompanied by a beautifully packed sentence (moment): “Petals strung like popcorn/March 21.” Sunrise runs, crosses crosswalks and changes lanes, but it rarely sits. The book cultivates this velocity through rapid imagery describing the amassing and oscillating stimuli of a growing city, “Hong Kong Bakery, Pies 2 for $7, Keys Cut Here.” In this quotation from the unnamed first poem we have a number of signs which move the reader down the street, each sign and location packed with a narrative of their own in only one sentence.

Simmers maps the city carefully, appealing to all of our senses with crisp vignettes and a diversity of form and language. “What’ll it be today, Henry,” a barista asks among the roar of steaming espresso machines and the smell of chai and Scrabble. Most of the poems are titleless, which allows every poem to be about the time spent between two sunrises on Hastings. Many of the poems appear to sprawl across the page in a formless free-verse structure, but the enjambment of sound and step propel the reader forward over each crack in the sidewalk that Simmers brings to life. There are visual poems in the form of maps, like the table of contents which represents the streets of east Vancouver, though “not to scale” as Simmers playfully reminds us; footnotes; fill in the blanks for an hours log; and even a Venn Diagram illustrating the contrast of the busy Vancouver and the pastoral constitution of the fictional “Saska-Wollup.”

Most prominently, among the delight in form, Simmers has a lyric eye that poignantly and carefully captures and illuminates the everydayness of life. Despite being a book about a specific place, in this way Sunrise becomes universal. Simmers writes, “I still covet a fireplace, a hammock/doors we can close.” It is due to this combination of specificity and universality that I found Simmers book so engrossing. Often when I read poetry, I find myself reading a poem or two and then putting the book down to let the poems settle; however, with Sunrise, I read it almost straight through. I wanted to feel a year go by in an afternoon and be guided by Simmers through a part of Vancouver I didn’t know very well. Now, after reading the book, I feel like I’ve spent a whole life there, and it was a good one.

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

Story collection grapples with loss and grief

What Can’t Be Undone

By dee Hobsbawn-Smith

Thistledown Press

200 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Traci Skuce

The cover picture on dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s new collection of stories, What Can’t Be Undone, is of a rope pulled taut. The plies of the rope are severed and frayed, and only a single strand holds it together. And this is exactly where we meet the narrators of these stories: along that one, tenuous strand, grappling with grief or loss.

dee Hobsbawn-Smith lives in Saskatchewan, where undoubtedly the landscape inspires her work. Her poetry, essays, fiction, and journalism, have appeared in Canadian, American, and international literary journals, newspapers, magazines and anthologies including The Malahat Review, Gastronomica and Western Living. Her first book of poetry, Wildness Rushing In, was published in 2014. What Can’t Be Undone is her first collection of short stories.

These 13 stories all deal with relationships and what is lost within them. The careful, textured prose reveals Hobsbawn-Smith compassion for her characters. None come off as two-dimensional stand-ins for the questions she explores. They’re deeply imagined people, honest and true.

“Monroe’s Mandolin” depicts a woman who owns a bar. She runs the bar, the Foundry, bought it for her brother, a man who’s life is lost to addiction. “I told myself it would give Cory a refuge if he ever reclaims himself. That it had nothing to do with me, or what I want. But my life is locked into these bricks and boards. Cory’s has gone to waste. I don’t know anymore if I am looking for hope in my twin’s life or in my own.”

In “The Quinzhee,” a woman recounts the winter her brother, then 14, became obsessed building a quinzhee, a shelter made by hollowing out a pile of settled snow. He died and, decades later, she still feels responsible. On the other hand, is “Still Life with Birds”, a story of sisters. Ariana, the younger of the two, runs a restaurant and tends to the convalescent Violetta. We learn Ariana has donated a kidney to Violetta, who still lives. But it’s expected she’ll die within 15 years, and Ariana treats her with kid gloves, terrified of that impending loss.

I appreciated how place permeates Hobsbawn-Smith’s work, the landscape always varied—Vancouver streets, rural Alberta and Saskatchewan, coastal Vancouver Island—and always rendered with a poetic sensibility. Hobsbawn-Smith’s sentences read in a sorrowful cadence which echo, not only the characters’ grief, but the expansive landscape.

In “Other Mothers’ Sons,” Joanna drives along southern B.C. toward Calgary, picks up a hitch-hiker, a boy the age her son was when he died. As she drives, he sleeps: “She glanced at the boy, wondering if he looked like his mother. If she missed him. Surely. The borealis leaped from sky to windshield, the sky baroque and wild and beautiful. The boy slept on, his head rolling, unaware of Joanna beside him, her head thrown back, looking and weeping for what she could never hold again.”

While Hobsbawn-Smith’s strength is in description and character, her dialogue, I felt, often faltered. Sometimes she uses dialect, dropped g‘s, and twangy ain’ts that grated my reading ear. Other times, it didn’t feel like enough was bubbling beneath the speech, the dialogue an exchange of little more than information.

In the end, though, this collection offers an honest exploration of what keeps us in this world after we’ve endured monumental loss. How it is through our unmendable, human heartbreak that we somehow find the strength to carry on.

Traci Skuce is a writer based in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

Cop-author tells it like it is

Vancouver Blue

By Wayne Cope

Harbour Publishing

223 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Adam Hayman

If you like crime procedurals on TV, Vancouver Blue will entertain you. If you are like me, with a case of police phobia, it helps reveal cops as real humans. Wayne Cope’s stories sound like he’s sharing them over a beer, and he pursues a good tale the way he did his police work – with a sharp eye for detail and a measured attention span.

Cope divides his book into sections: his stint on the dog squad, as a beat cop, a detective, a motorcycle cop with the traffic division, in the major crimes division, and the historical homicide unit (a handful of years on each section speaks in part to his measured attention span). His book time on the force begins in 1975 and ends in 2009. Each section is packed with fully fleshed-out anecdotes and Cope’s theories on policing. “I developed my own rule about writing tickets: leave the humans alone. So regular taxpayers got warnings. Scrotes, drunks, criminals and gangsters got tickets. And I’ve maintained that rule for more than 34 years of policing.”

Within the first 50 pages, Cope sets himself up as that overly honest uncle we all have (or wish we did), laying down the world in a black and white fashion. He frequently makes clear delineations – with little wiggle room – between a good person and a bad person with. “We have the most liberal judges in the civilized world, judges who are incapable of dealing with these repeat offenders who, in a sane world, would never be released from prison.” He also paints all drug users with the same brush and never offers any sympathy, but after reading Cope’s stories, and learning how he thinks, I’m sure he would respond, “Why should I?”

Cope’s bar-talk style of writing affects his transitions between anecdotes. In a bar, gulps of beer can be enough of a transition into the next tale, but in Vancouver Blue Cope frequently will just start a new paragraph with a sentence like, “And now for the fastest confession ever obtained.” However, while I’m not sure in what order Cope wrote his stories, the writing seemed to improve as the book progressed. By the end of the book, Cope is sharing with us his time on the historical homicide unit, cracking cold cases and organizing long undercover stings on crooked criminals. This section of the book was a highlight for me, and is perfect fodder for anyone who binge-watches crime procedurals.

For a book that is amusing, easy to read and truly honest about police work, I would look no further than Vancouver Blue. I only wish I could have heard the stories directly from Cope himself. Perhaps he should record an audiobook.

Adam Hayman is a Victoria journalist and reviewer.

Anthology reflects indigenous concerns

Me Artsy

Edited by Drew Hayden Taylor

Douglas & McIntyre

266 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Annabel Howard                                                                     

Me Artsy, the third in a series of anthologies (Me Funny in 2006 and Me Sexy in 2008) edited by Drew Hayden Taylor, seeks to illuminate the practice of indigenous artists. Fourteen artists, whose mediums range from film, painting and dance, to drum-making, writing, cooking, and anime, write essays as various as the art forms they represent. As editor, Haden Taylor brings his own breadth as a playwright, novelist and script writer to the collection. Its range includes the highly academic (cultural theorist Karyn Recollet’s “For Sisters”), the personal (Zacharias Kunuk’s “The Story of my Life” and Maxine Noel’s “My Grandmother’s Eyes”), and even the practical (Uncle Richard Van Camp’s “Storytelling Tips”).

Despite this diversity, strong themes emerge as a reader pores over the articles. Hayden Taylor’s introduction focuses on identity, stating that art: “shows who we are, and what is important to us.” The theme of identity is picked up by many of the authors. For example, actor and playwright Monique Mojica believes it is her responsibility to recover both a personal and a cultural identity, and to proactively transform her people’s rage and sorrow into something positive for her community. Rose Stella, actor, singer and artistic director, places the arts at the centre of the “prevailing resurgence of Indigenous confidence, health, knowledge, identity and culture.” As she says in “Let’s Get Artsy – Yes, Let’s!”

“Identity is more than where you are from, your colour or a status card. Self-identity is about a calm self-confidence, a pride and belief in who you are and who your ancestors were.”

Art, Stella suggests, offers a portal to this identity, a chance for rediscovery and rebuilding.

A parallel, although separate theme, is that of the personal journey. It is unsurprising that many of the authors take this opportunity to situate their artistic practice not only within their discipline but within their community – many placing emphasis on how their work stems from and affects local, indigenous audiences, as well as how it speaks to North America as a whole. Many of the essays begin with biographical accounts: some shed light on what life was or is like on a reserve or – in the case of Zacharias Kunuk – to describe childhood on Baffin Island, with its experiences of seal hunting from a sod house in a community where nobody owned a television. Equally interesting is drum-maker Steve Teekens discussion of what it was like to encounter his own culture as a young adult, having grown up outside his first nation. A prevailing narrative within these autobiographical accounts is the importance of local support and native role-models. Many authors give thanks to people who paved their way – that is, made a future as a native artist seem a viable possibility. It was a pleasant surprise to encounter a divergence from the typical Western artist’s account of “personal struggle.” The struggles here are big enough to overwhelm the personal: something that should give pause for thought to today’s artists who are lucky enough to practice within the mainstream.

Through its 14 voices, Me Artsy does an admirable job of throwing light on the diversity of contemporary indigenous art production, as well as conveying how important the arts are for a sense of identity in the wider indigenous community. The book incites curiosity about the work of its artists, whilst allowing the authors some agency over how their work is received and evaluated. Although many authors acknowledge the injustices of the past, their voices cohere in a book that delivers more of a sense of celebration and maturity than agenda. “Uncle Richard” Van Camp perhaps best encapsulates the book’s overall message, with the following words: “No race has a monopoly on a better way of life. Every nation has something to offer us in the circle of life.”

Annabel Howard is a writer and critic with a background in art history.


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.

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.

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. 



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.