Friday, May 15, 2015

On Writing #60 : Priscila Uppal

On Creative Health
Priscila Uppal

Many of us know how to keep our bodies fit, even our minds fit, but…How do we keep our creative selves fit? What does it mean to let our creative muscles atrophy?
            I’ve been interested, for some time, in the connections between physical and creative activity. This interest took me straight to the Vancouver and London Olympics where I competed in my own marathon poetry event, writing and publishing two poems per day. The goal was to bridge the gap between the artsies and the jocks and to encourage participation in both worlds. We have a great deal in common, from discipline to passion to pushing boundaries and taking risks. Afterwards, I led workshops for Canadian Tire Jumpstart. Many kids left camp saying their favourite sport was Poetry.
            Just as our metabolisms slow down, so too are we at risk of letting our spirits down by ignoring our creative lives.
            I was recently shockingly diagnosed with a very rare type of cancer called synovial sarcoma. This cancer has no known risk factors, but tends to strike young, fit and healthy people who are not at risk for other cancers. I call it the Kick in Your Face Cancer. On Sept 11th, I underwent an extensive operation: 8 hours, 3 surgeons. Much of my abdominal wall was removed, replaced with a biologic mesh and my right thigh; and then because my runner’s thighs apparently had no fat, grafts were needed from my backside.
            My incredible medical team, led by the aptly named Dr. Wunder, thankfully believe the surgery was a success, and although one must expect a very long recovery period, I’ve been told that my healing process is “astonishing.” I went from a walker to crutches to a cane in two days instead of weeks and months. They attribute this to my very high level of fitness before the surgery.
            But I wonder if this is the entire story. In fact, I wonder about stories. I’ve written about illness and health for much of my life. I’ve read non-fiction, fiction, poetry, plays, about various illnesses, including cancer. I’ve watched dozens of movies on the subject too.
            Post-surgery surgeons, psychologists, social workers and researchers asked me endless questions—everything from pain and appetite levels to questions about family or work support. All were obsessed with my bowel movements. I am even part of a study where I spend hours recognizing shape patterns and repeating lines of numbers interspersed with  hundreds of questions, asking everything from: Do you feel your life is unfolding as it is meant to unfold? To Do you say sexually inappropriate things? (Of course I do, I’m a writer, that’s my job.) Questions about physical and mental health—extremely important—but I was never asked any questions relating to my creative health. (Have you read any books that are helping you understand what you are going through? Are you keeping a journal? Can I suggest an interesting novel or funny film?)
            Much more than medical articles, art has helped me understand that I am not the only person suffering in the world and that there are many ways one can approach, understand, combat, or be comforted through an illness. And expressing myself through art has been as an effective painkiller as morphine (in my case more so, since morphine just made me nauseous). Why is our creative health virtually ignored by our medical system when it can be such a strong factor in how we deal with illness?
            Just as many doctors are now empowered with prescription pads to prescribe physical activity to make patients more accountable—I would like to see what changes could be made in people’s lives if they were given prescriptions for their creative health too. For instance, read one poem three times per week. Or, as part of your follow-up, bring in a poem that you’ve written about what you’re going through.
            I’m still in the process of recovery, but I know that what I’ve experienced will show up in all kinds of ways in my future creative works because creative health is integral to my healing process and could be to others. I would like to see a medical system and an educational system that understands the vital role literature and art can play in this process.
Another Dysfunctional Cancer Poem

My body and I have now entered that phase
of relationship where all the quirks and ticks
that used to tug at your heart are sources
of irritation and argument. The monotony of being
with you, day in and day out, going through the motions.
We are now that couple no one wants to
see in public, whose shopping bags hang like broken
promises. We blame each other’s childhoods and
draft unacceptable separation agreements.
The hot tears and intermittent flowers are
the worst, the notes of distant affection,
the vague plans for future holidays. I am no
longer the love of your life. I have the black
eyes to prove it. Our pleas for forgiveness
are hollow. We live for the possibility of thrashing
it all out for the umpteenth time, falling asleep
exhausted and sore, but side by side.

Priscila Uppal is a Toronto poet, fiction writer, memoirist, essayist, playwright, and a Professor of English at York University. Among her critically acclaimed publications are ten collections of poetry, most recently, Sabotage, Traumatology, & Ontological Necessities (Griffin Poetry Prize finalist); the novels The Divine Economy of Salvation and To Whom It May Concern ; the study We Are What We Mourn: The Contemporary English-Canadian Elegy; the memoir Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother (Writers’ Trust Hilary Weston Prize and Governor General’s Award finalist); and the collection of short stories Cover Before Striking. Her work has been published internationally and translated into Croatian, Dutch, French, Greek, Hungarian, Italian, Korean and Latvian. She was the first-ever poet-in-residence for Canadian Athletes Now during the 2010 Vancouver and 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic games as well as the Roger’s Cup Tennis Tournament in 2011. 6 Essential Questions, her first play, had its World Premiere as part of the Factory Theatre 2013-2014 season and will be published by Playwrights Canada Press in 2015. Time Out London dubbed her “Canada’s coolest poet.” For more information visit

Monday, May 04, 2015

On Writing #59 : Sky Gilbert

Yes, They Live
Sky Gilbert

            As I write this, I think of the way in which writing is so much like life, in that it is too soon over.
            I have aired so many of my secrets publicly. But this one I tend to keep to myself.
            I love writing.
            If you tell people that you love writing then they think you are not a ‘real’ writer. (Writers are supposed to find writing difficult, even torturous, tough, an ordeal.) Real writers have writer’s block. I have logorrhea. If I had my way I would write all the time, and sometimes do (at least once a day). The problem is that I was brought up a puritan, and I don’t believe that I should write unless there is the possibility someone might read it (Puritans Must Be Productive!). This is my personal tragedy. Yes, I have been published, and produced, but I am never published or produced enough. Because my work is often about gay subjects few people read it (the straights think it’s not for them, the gays are not reading gay stuff anymore). And so there is no demand for my work. And if no one wants to publish it (novels, poetry) or direct it (plays) then I don’t write it.
            Why do I like writing so much?
            Because writing is taking a vacation in another world.
            This is not to say that writing is always about pleasant things; unpleasant worlds can be as great an escape as pleasant ones.
            It’s all about getting out of here.
            Life is not fun; as one gets older this is increasingly true.
            At the moment my greatest solace is now and then just thinking about the worlds I have created; re-visiting the things I have just written. I had to rewrite the ending of my new novel and it was heaven going back there just for a bit and entering his world. My latest play — which is a description of an nightmarishly and entertainingly sadistic family — is a world that gives me enormous pleasure to remember; I can’t wait to direct the play.
            I don’t think I am alone my addiction to fictional worlds.
            I often mention Scaliger in this respect; he is the Roman philosopher who suggested that the characters in Virgil actually existed.
            I believe this.
            Or basically I should say that I believe that all of our favourite characters actually do exist. Elyot and Amanda in Noel Coward’s Private Lives are very real to me; they are the parents I never had (or I should say my mother would have been Amanda if she had been happier!). I know them, and become reacquainted with them every time I re-read Coward’s beautiful play.  It is very important for me, you see,  to know that people as brilliant and sexual and vitally alive as Elyot and Amanda actually exist somewhere. After all, the world is overpopulated with boring, dumb, repressed dolts, is it not? Right now I am reading every novel by Simone de Beauvoir. All of the leading characters in her novels seem to be the same woman; a smart, independent, melancholy, sexual being, very much in love with a man who is very much like Jean Paul Sartre. I can’t get enough of this woman. We are so close. Her moods are my moods, her doubts my doubts, her whims, fears, fancies, fantasies, depressions, all mine. And she’s actually interested in ideas! So am I. Let’s talk. Simone and I do, now and then — virtually — when I read her novels.
            I don’t know what to say really, except that my writing is often actually about the melancholy I feel about entering fictional worlds and then being forced to leave them (Sigh! The book is over!). And the question I love to ask is this.
            Is a place really fictional if it’s where you live?

Sky Gilbert is a writer, director, teacher, and drag queen extraordinaire. He was co-founder and artistic director of Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre for 17 years. He has had nearly 40 plays produced, and written 6 critically acclaimed novels, and three award winning poetry collections. He has received three Dora Mavor Moore Awards and the Pauline McGibbon Award for theatre directing. He was also the recipient of The Margo Bindhardt Award (from the Toronto Arts Foundation), The Silver Ticket Award (from the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts), and the ReLit Award (for his fourth novel AN ENGLISH GENTLEMAN). Dr. Gilbert is an Associate Professor and holds a University Research Chair in Creative Writing and Theatre Studies at The School of English and Theatre Studies at the University of Guelph. His recent play St. Francis of Millbrook was published by Playwrights Canada Press in November 2014. His new play My Dinner with Casey Donovan opened at  the Theatre Passe Muraille Backspace in late March, and in April he went off to London, England to ask the artistic question: “What is the relationship between art and criminality?” as his contribution to the Theatre Centre’s Tracy Wright Archive.

Colin Browne & Pearl Pirie - A B Series Presents - May 14, 2015

A B Series Presents

Colin Browne & Pearl Pirie

Featuring the Ottawa launch for Browne's new poetry collection, The Hatch.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Ottawa Art Gallery
Arts Court 
2 Daly Ave.
Ottawa, Ont.
More info:
Colin Browne is a poet, filmmaker and writer whose books of poetry include AbrahamGround Water (nominated for a Governor General’s Award and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize), The Shovel (nominated for the ReLit Award), The Properties (a Dorothy Livesay nominee), and, most recently, The Hatch, published in the spring of 2015 by Talonbooks. He was an editor of Writing magazine and a co-founder of the Kootenay School of Writing, the Praxis Centre for Screenwriters and the Art of Documentary workshops. He currently serves on the board and is a frequent contributor to The Capilano Review. His documentary films include Linton Garner: I Never Said GoodbyeFather and Son and White Lake, nominated for a Canadian Film Award as Best Feature Length Documentary. He participated in the restoration of Edward Curtis’s 1914 film, In the Land of the Head Hunters and his current project explores the history and legacy of the Surrealist fascination with Pacific Northwest coast art in a forthcoming book, Scavengers of Paradise. Until recently, Colin taught filmmaking, film history and critical writing in the SFU School for the Contemporary Arts.

Pearl Pirie’s 3rd collection, the pet radish, shrunken (BookThug, 2015) was described in Maisonneuve as "a radiant union of contemporary situations and classic themes." Pirie has over a dozen chapbooks, most recently Writing Sparks (phafours, 2015), today's woods (above/ground, 2014) and polyphonic choral of civet tongues and manna (unarmed, 2014). Host of Literary Landscape on CKCU FM, she gives workshops and talks on poetry for various organizations. She blogs and photographs Ottawa’s rich, amazing literary scene.

Friday, May 01, 2015

We Who Are About To Die : Amanda Earl

Amanda Earl is an Ottawa writer, publisher and visual poet. Her poetry book, Kiki, came out with Chaudiere Books in 2014. Her collection of filthy tales came out in 2014 also and is entitled Coming Together Presents Amanda Earl. All money from sales of the smut goes to GMHC, a global organization trying to help people with AIDS/HIV. Amanda gratefully acknowledges the support of the City of Ottawa for Saint Ursula's Commonplace Book. More info can be found at

Where are you now?
Ottawa, in my office, having just returned from a long solo evening meander that involved red wine & eavesdropping.

What are you reading?
Flow Chart by John Ashbery;

Glass-From the First Mirror to Fiber Optics, the Story of the Substance that Changed the World by William S. Ellis;

The Daydreams of Angels by Heather O’Neill;

Master of O, the other side of the story, by Ernest Greene;

Long poem manuscripts for the AngelHousePress call for submission for long poems;

People, clouds, minds and hearts.

What have you discovered lately?
that a few crocuses still bloom in the spring on Parliament Hill;

Terrence Maalik’s Days of Heaven;

The Lazarus Corporation’s Text Remixing Desk V. 2.0 ;

colourfield art;

Judas Priest.

Where do you write?
In a little yellow notebook I carry around in my purse;

On the red couch with a view of 19 stories;

At my desk in my office on my computer;

In bars and cafes.

What are you working on?
a long poem about regret under a pseudonym;

a long poem entitled Ceremony under the influence of Ashbery’s Flow Chart.

Have you anything forthcoming?
a poem in Arc Poetry Magazine this summer.

What would you rather be doing?
At the moment, I’m content with what I’m doing, if I wasn't I'd figure out how to do it.

POEM (excerpt from Saint Ursula’s Commonplace Book)

The journal is warped, soaked with rain or snow,
I don’t know. I am prone to wandering.

My prize is this book by a woman who is prone to wandering.
I can’t always read her handwriting. wild loops

and tight script in all directions. Pages ripped out.
There are fragments. Words scratched out

She writes her dreams and visions
of a saint with her name, Ursula.

Some pages are dotted with blood. Filled with nightmare art,
demons crouched in dark trees, a ship on a stormy sea, a tangle

of green waves tossing people over the bow. A sharp sword, its blade
covered in the blood of angels. An arrow lodged in a broken heart.

I walk because I need to escape. I walk the city streets 
in the early mornings with commuters.

I discover untended gardens in the backyards of strangers. I walk
across the river over metal bridges covered in ice. I stand in cold groves

packed with pure white snow, surrounded by branches as black as crows’ wings,
the ground reddened by the stain of chokecherries.

My favourite spot is beneath the bridge.
Where I find this journal, Saint Ursula’s Commonplace Book.

A gust of wind blows the book open to the first page.
I shiver in the cold and begin to read.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

On Writing #58 : Peter Richardson

Cellar Posting
Peter Richardson

            Every morning before breakfast, I descend two half-flights of stairs to one of those venerable pine secretaries with a folding top which you sometimes see at auctions.
There, on a rickety cane-seated chair, I jot in a spiral notebook, using blue pencils with smudge-proof erasers. A stylus and clay tablet would do as well. I write on one side of a page because I like to return to old notebooks and cull through them. When I go back to them many months later, I want those tomes legible.

The desk is a hand-me-down. My mother used it as the platform for her letter-writing campaigns of the Fifties and Sixties. Often coming home from school, I would hear her Smith-Corona clacking away in the study off her bedroom. The fact that we lived on a decommissioned farmstead six miles from the nearest town may have nourished her need to write to The New York Times or Commonweal on issues of utmost importance. Yet I think if we had stayed in southern Connecticut rather than decamp to northern Vermont in 1960, she would still have found time to correspond with a grab-bag of different people.

            Sitting at the same desk, I record thoughts about a book I’ve been reading, scraps of dreams, or observations of clouds, and by that, I mean, what weather front is sweeping towards me across the spine of Gatineau Park. Living on a ridge above the Alonzo Wright Bridge not far from Cantley, Quebec, I find we get our share of blustery hill country days. With snow whipping against two transom windows to my left, I suppose that I hope to find myself riffing on a subject I won’t know I’m writing about till I’m about three sentences into it.

This business of moving into unknown subject matter doesn’t happen till I’ve exhausted the more obvious journaling subjects. Once the dream is recorded, the cold snap mentioned, the passing of yet another poet I’ve revered for thirty years—Galway Kinnell comes to mind—I may veer off into a persona. How else to try on the orotund style of an old coot issuing biblical-sounding warnings?

            Writing even for a couple of paragraphs within a persona—let’s call him Herbert Knopscotch—makes for a surprising break from the conscious filtering voice that kicks in when I start my day. Seeing things from Herbert’s point of view—okay, he’s a bit of a finger-waving milksop who wears argyle socks and sweater vests over button-down shirts but nonetheless—his perspective breaks the monotony of talking about my poor night’s sleep. Why? Well, beyond the obvious fact that I don’t have to be responsible for everything he says, there’s the latitude of exploring a curious personality. It turns out Herb is more complex than the advice-giving Rotarian boob I had pegged him to be.
He sometimes does little variations on Lear’s Fool, tossing up admonitory gems of introspection I wouldn’t otherwise hear.


My efforts to get out of the way of myself may lead to a decent sentence or two after three pages of writing. This is enough to cheer me. (I ought to emphasize here the physical act of writing longhand which I don’t do enough of. It’s a base-touching thing with the small muscles of the hand and lower arm, a tonic before returning to a keyboard at a separate desk in the same room after breakfast.)

Twenty minutes later, I’m upstairs washing dishes, starting a load of laundry, and driving my daughter to school. By ten o’clock, I’m back down cellar looking at whatever drafts are under review. A rich writing period is something I have to build up to over weeks and months. I am always starting from scratch as a complete ignoramus.

If I find myself with three or four poems on the go, pieces that I can leapfrog back and forth between while revising some old sow’s ear of a poem I had thought worthless, then I consider myself lucky. That is not the usual drill. The quotidian is stumbling, cleaning gutters, cording wood, and reading favorite authors, which I suppose are all metaphors for having nothing “hot” on the go.

            A routine that amounts to twenty minutes in the morning, then three hours during the day, appears to be enough. And some of that three-hour block may be put into a book review, or culling through old drafts, or looking at someone else’s work. Peeks at another author’s poems-in-progress are a privilege. They are what I’d call fruitful procrastination.

Back in the days when I used to unload airplanes, it would not have occurred to me to author a piece about writing. I wrote between flights at a card table in the locker room, or I would write at the car dealership when my ancient Datsun was being patched together, which was far too much of the time, or in the comfortable shack I rented for ten years above the North river in Piedmont, Quebec. It was an odd life, socially speaking, in that I was one of a handful of Anglos in an all-francophone workforce. I learned French quickly in order to understand the jokes. In addition to being an outsider, I had almost no weekends off, so it was difficult to nurture friendships with people beyond the airport world. However my afternoon shift at Mirabel Airport meant that I had my morning clear-headedness to devote to writing.

            With hindsight, I see that I’ve been lucky in this and other respects. My day job didn’t grind me down to the point where I could only write on days off, and since taking early retirement in 2003, I’ve had eleven years to pursue this crazy involvement with seeing just where a sentence may lead me. The cellar is really not a bad place for a writer. Nobody expects anything from you in the way that nobody expects anything from a woodchuck during the winter months but to lend his or her body heat to the burrow. And if you are in a quiet period, or experiencing a series of bottlenecks with your work, as I often do, then life in its varied richness can be counted on to jerk you around in such a way as to make things interesting way again.

Peter Richardson has published four collections of poetry, the most recent of which, Bit Parts for Fools, was a finalist for the 2014 Archibald Lampman Award. An earlier collection, Sympathyfor the Couriers, won the 2008 QWF’s A.M. Klein Award. His poems have appeared in The Malahat Review, The Fiddlehead, Poetry Magazine (Chicago) and Poetry Ireland Review among others. He lives in Gatineau, Quebec.