Monday, May 25, 2015

On Writing #61 : Carolyn Marie Souaid

Lawyers, Liars & Writers
Carolyn Marie Souaid

I come from a family of lawyers. Successful lawyers. Movers and shakers with an extraordinary list of accomplishments. Having graduated first in my class, it’s no wonder I was expected to follow in their footsteps. Join “the firm,” as it were. I applied and landed a scholarship. But something was niggling at me, making me feel uneasy. Even before starting I was ready to quit.

One afternoon, while I was still wavering, the lot of them sat me down in my grandmother’s dining room, at the far end of her long, intimidating, mahogany table to urge me to continue the family tradition. The summer heat was oppressive. “Law will open doors and guarantee you a decent future,” they explained. I glanced up at the crystal chandelier. “Get the degree. Then you can do whatever you want.”

That fall, I entered the Faculty of Law at McGill University.

At the welcome orientation, the Dean told us to have a look at the people sitting to our left and right. Eyes aglitter, she announced that one of us would be gone by the following year. When I blinked, it was already midterms and everyone but me was ensconced in a study group. As my classmates worked toward their bright futures in corporate, tax and international law, whatever would make them briefcase-loads of money, I pondered a somewhat less glamorous (but more meaningful) career in Legal Aid. I envisioned talking to my disheveled, down-and-out clients through protective glass, eyed by a pair of surly prison guards.

“What do you want to do that for?” asked the other students. They screwed up their noses. In their eyes I could see they had handed down their verdict: mine would be a waste of a good education. 

My heart was elsewhere, of course. While the rest tucked themselves away in the library, cramming, ripping pages out of reference books – yes, they actually did that – to keep rivals (like me) from the answers to the assignments, I was in the Leacock Building attending lectures by renowned playwrights and novelists. (Waiting for coffee in the cafeteria line, who but I could boast having Edward Albee’s signature on the inside cover of my Property Law textbook?) 

All my life I had dreamed of being a writer. I wrote constantly. In the early 70s, after watching an earlier generation of kids turn on, tune in and drop out, I began writing an ongoing saga for my neighbourhood friends, a soap opera style novel about a group of rebellious teens living together on a commune. I filled my story with all the juicy things that a budding writer, all of twelve, thought readers would go for: drugs, romance, suicide, a smattering of F-words. Once a week, the kids would join me on my front lawn while I read out a new installment. I was in my element. Their attentiveness to my words, characters and plots gave me a glowing sense of accomplishment.

My other joy, poetry, I kept private. Nature poetry, love poetry. The poetry of dark despair. I was an unhappy adolescent. It was the perfect outlet.

Just before I graduated from high school, I was doing a little spring-cleaning in my bedroom and ran across all my old writing, the soap opera, the poetry of angst. Suddenly, it was a source of embarrassment. I decided that it had to go. All of it. There could be no living record of it. My ego puffed up, I might have imagined scholars a hundred years from now rummaging through my unpublished works, discovering all that mediocre juvenilia. Maybe I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to be remembered by. With a clear head, I piled all my notebooks on the sidewalk, lit a match and watched the lot go up in flames. I threw the ashes down the sewer and decided that I would wait until I had something better to write about. Even if it took years.

Three months into law school, I couldn’t stand it anymore: To my writer’s ears, the word “lawyer” sounded too close to another word. Lawyers are liars, I concluded. They lie to win their cases. (Or at least to manipulate the facts in their favour.)

In December, I got up my courage. I didn’t forewarn my parents: I didn’t want the counsel of our family lawyers. I didn’t want to be talked out of it. Just like that, I marched into the Dean’s office and announced that I was quitting. My gaze was already fixed ahead— looking to all the books I would write. I imagined the burgeoning joy of watching a poem take root and then blossom into something of beauty. Out of the corner of my eye, I glimpsed the hardship, too, the romantic image of the poet toiling in a cold, dark garret. The rest was still veiled, of course: the unavoidable, constant struggle to make ends meet.

Now that I have experienced it, now that I know what it is to live on a shoestring while I create art for a small – almost negligible – readership, I take comfort in the knowledge that I’m not the first writer whose path veered from law to this difficult, less-travelled one. Victor Hugo studied but never practiced law. I think it’s fair to say he wielded more justice in Les Misérables than he would have in the courtroom. Back in the 14th century, Petrarch went against his father’s wishes and abandoned the profession too. His sonnets have freed more hearts and minds than his courtroom pleas ever could have. And after ditching law and heading off to Madrid in 1919 to pursue his dream of being a writer, Federico Garcia Lorca wrote poems and plays that speak more powerfully and eloquently than any summation he might have penned.

Others have had the discipline and good fortune to do both. Here in Montreal, in my own backyard, F.R. Scott and A.M. Klein did it, although Klein, as a lawyer, made a good poet. Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, dropped law altogether. It turned out to be a good decision.

In my own case, I believe I did the right thing as well, though it’s too soon to know whether there will be a literary payoff, meaning posterity. I prefer to remain humble. And hopeful.

Lawyers. Writers. We are as close and as far away as we can possibly be from one another. Like lawyers, writers are liars too.

But we lie to better weave a story, to tell the truth about the world we live in. Or at least to manipulate the facts in Truth’s favour.

Carolyn Marie Souaid is a Montreal-based poet and the co-author of Blood is Blood, which was awarded a prize at the 2012 Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. Her seventh book, This World We Invented, recently appeared with Brick Books. She has just completed her first novel.

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.