Erin Wunker

In her brilliant book of autotheory The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson charts a lineage of her thinking, citing the feminist, anti-racist, queer writers and theorists who have influenced and inspired her work. Borrowing from the poet Dana Ward, Nelson calls these thinkers "the many-gendered mothers of [her] heart." Erin Wunker, in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, does something similarly beautiful and powerful. In this interview, conducted after a summer of berry-picking with friends and family and ahead of the publication of Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, co-edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and Wunker, Erin shares with me her thoughts on writing, public feminist work, risk, collaboration, and the many-gendered mothers who she looks to during these tumultuous and divisive times. 

 Photo by Zach Faye.

Photo by Zach Faye.

Jason Purcell: I want to begin by talking about your writing practice. You’re trained as an academic, are co-founder, writer, and managing editor of Hook & Eye: Fast Feminism, Slow Academe, and yet, early in Notes from a Feminist Killjoy, you remark that despite all of this writing training and experience, you were “just not a writer.” As the reader makes their way through the book, as we “body forth” with you, as you unpack all the conditions and forces that make it difficult for those of us who embody identities other than that of the white, straight, cisgender man to claim space, I think we see you settling in to another conclusion about yourself as a writer. What has writing Notes meant to you? What has it offered you?

Erin Wunker: Writing that book was in some ways catharsis and in other ways literally a bodying forth of myself into an identity that I always wanted to have. Somewhere along the way I lost sight of the fact that writing was a thing that, if you put your mind to it, you could do it to more or less success, depending on what success means to you. But you can have a writing practice.

Writing this book really was a bullshit call on myself. I thought that I wasn’t a writer and then there was a book, and so indeed clearly I was. My partner pointed out to me that it took me a better part of a year to refer to myself as a writer and to refer to the book as a book, as opposed to I wrote a thing. It took a while to take myself seriously. I think in great part that has nothing to do with humility and everything to do with vulnerability and a fear of failure. I’m thinking of the incredibly unrealistic and perhaps even fabricated or fabulous notion of what a writer is. I’m thinking about on Twitter or Maria Popova’s site Brain Pickings, there are all sorts of people sharing their rejection letters. I saw the wonderful Cherie Dimaline sharing a rejection note she got saying, “You shouldn’t submit, you don’t know how to write,” and she was like, “My latest novel won a few awards. It’s at the top of the bestseller list.” You see these big-deal writers, writers who experience external affirmation for their writing in the form of best-seller lists and prizes, when you see these writers talking about the quotidian experiences of failure in their writing and you somehow forget that can be you too. Success doesn’t have to look like, and indeed for most of us will not look like, a Governor General’s Award-winning novel. But we can think about “success” differently. We can know that writing regularly, that developing a writing practice is a real form of “success.”

Writing the book required me to own up to something that I was already doing and to give it a name and let it take some space. I have to shrug off that imposter syndrome which looms fairly large. Writing the book put some value into and clarified for me the way that I actually think and work. I’m around so many people who are linear thinkers, who are logical thinkers, who are outline writers. I’m not that kind of thinker at all. I had to move away from this notion that abstract thinking is messy and not rigorous, and to realize that in fact, feeling your way to a thesis or feeling your way to the point of your essay and having a kinetic magpie mind that gets distracted by a shiny idea is a kind of a rigorous practice.

The last thing I would say about it is that when I was writing that particular book the material constraints of my time were pretty intense. Though it allowed me to realize—which is so useful for anyone of us who don’t live fully funded lives of leisure, for any of us who have to work in any capacity—that not working, not being at your desk, is actually a completely necessary part of my writing practice. When I am out going for a run or reading some sort of ridiculous book about a Gruffalo to my toddler, in fact there are things happening there that come through elsewhere.

JP: I would like to circle back to this idea of imposter syndrome, as it is something I have been thinking a lot about and talking about with my own communities in and out of the academy. I think Notes offers a way to look at it not only as something that exists on the personal level, as a fear of failure, but also as a symptom of these systems, such as patriarchy and capitalism. Have you developed any strategies or hopes for how we can resist this in our thinking and writing?

EW: Yes. The answer is yes. There are many strategies that I practise with friends, within care networks, but also with those people who you couldn’t quite call friends and aren’t exactly colleagues, but they’re there in that network seeing you and responding. Some of these strategies were in practice prior to writing that book and some of them have been sharpened through the process of encountering and weathering resistance to the things that you write about, which in various ways I have experienced very acutely in recent months.

First, it’s like what any good therapist will tell you: you need to ask for help. So, one of the things I started doing with my partner is to remind each other that there is a lot to life that is not just this particular job or this particular piece of writing. There are a lot of deliberate attempts at laughter and humour and silliness. As a very serious only child of serious Baptist folk, I am not prone to the silly, so I resist it. But it turns out I’m very good at it. There’s a lot of “Get the fuck over yourself. This is not every defining part of who you are.” Whatever “this” is. This thing that you’re writing. It’s said with this jocularity that is very much is couched in, “If you need to sit down and have me remind you of all the things you’re good at, we can do that too, but for now, put a record on and let’s dance.” There’s a lot of kitchen dancing. Indeed, this morning, before we took our toddler to her first day back to daycare after four months, she was feeling a bit nervous and so we had a big living room dance party at 8 a.m. to Neil Young’s “Don’t Be Denied,” her favourite song. I need someone else in my life to remind me to laugh because left to my own devices I can be dour and navel-gazing in the extreme.

I also have friends and colleagues—I have a careful handful—who, when I am doing something, or something has been done that has really got me questioning my self-worth, I have learned and am still practicing and it’s always hard to say: “Can you remind me what it is that I’m good at?” Citational practice is one of my favourite things: Hannah McGregor is very good at doing that reminding. My friend Melissa Dalgleish, who I work with on Hook & Eye, is very good at doing that. I have a few people who I just really need to reach out to and say: “Can you remind me what it is that I do?”

JP: Notes from a Feminist Killjoy is also a wonderful archive of feminist thought, of the feminist writers who have influenced you, and I think the ways that you put your ideas in conversation with theirs is so generative. The two I think of immediately are Sara Ahmed, whose figure of the Feminist Killjoy and her open-access blog of ideas-in-progress inform this book, and Maggie Nelson, who authored The Argonauts, a brilliant example of autotheory. What did it mean for you to write in a similar mode, to move between the academic and the personal?

EW: It was both a really long journey and a very short move to actually doing it. When I was a graduate student in Calgary I was working on a dissertation that was about difficult writing by women—experimental, avant-garde—and I wanted to be writing in a particular way that did not work for the structure of the dissertation at the time. I suspect that things might have changed a little bit since then. But I was thinking about it and it was some of the people I was reading for this particular dissertation—I’m thinking especially of Nicole Brossard’s work—and I was thinking about the conversational thing that was happening. I was thinking about the ways in which there are communities of writers who get made mythic, their conversations with each other get anthologized—things that come out of the Modernist period, things that come out of major events like the Writing Through Race conference in 1990—and thinking about how to have conversations with people when you’re by yourself with your computer. There’s lots of ways to do it, obviously, but I was thinking of this for a long time.

My style of reading Notes is to respond to particular passages and try to figure out and articulate what it is that I understand to be reading. I started doing that when I was reading a lot of the French theorists when I was in graduate school, trying to figure out, “Do I actually understand what semiotics are? Maybe not, but it makes me think about this…” And then when I was actually behind the due date for the manuscript for Notes to be submitted, I had to start writing conversationally so that I would not be completely paralyzed by the blankness of the page. It became a writing exercise which was incredibly useful for me. I’m starting to think now and work toward another collection of essays that is entirely me returning to and thinking through critical essays that were important to me. It’s been a writing prompt that I’m not tired of yet.

JP: Early on in Notes, you talk about risk, about the risk that appends itself to writing a book like this, in the first person. You also talk about the ways in which having a marginalized person writing autobiographically, writing that I, poses a risk for the status quo. I’m wondering if you can talk more about that idea of risk, perhaps in the context of the public feminist work of this book and your other projects?

EW: One of the things that I did not expect or could have ever fully understood is that a book that I was writing would ever get read. As we know, academic writing on the whole does not circulate widely. One imagines ten, maybe fifteen people reading it, and that’s a big readership. If you write an article that fifteen people read, I mean, that’s big-time academic readership right there! Because I was that combination of sleep-deprived and naïve when writing my first non-academic book, I didn’t think that much about risk in the ways that I have thought about it since then. I also didn’t think about the kinds of risk that would come of writing autobiographically, even with the distance of academic criticism, which very much undergirds everything I’ve written in that book.

When writing autobiographically, by virtue of that genre, anything I say pulls in other people in my life. It’s about me, or it’s from my perspective, but I naïvely thought that exonerated any responsibility for anybody else. But I clearly remember that my partner, who is an incredible editor and writer themselves, didn’t read it until it was fully finished. The one suggestion that was made was, “Throughout the whole book you refer to our child in veiled diminutives, but there is one point that you spell her name out. I think you should think twice whether you really want her name out there.” And I was like, “Right. Right, right, right.”

Another example is that my parents sent me a photo of themselves each with a copy, sitting and reading my book. A couple of days later I got a letter from my dad saying, “I’m writing a rebuttal,” and I got a phone call from my mom saying, “You’ve got it wrong.” Having them really take exception to the way in which my memory remembers some of my childhood. And I get it. When writing about yourself and in any way implicating anybody else in your life story, there is the possibility, regardless of your best intentions—nowhere in this book was my attempt or my desire to be like, “Shame on you, parents.” Rather I am trying to think systemically about how people grow up in certainly systems like patriarchy or white supremacy—and the risk is that it was quite upsetting to them.

I guess the other kind of risk is that people who have critiqued the book in ways that feel risky have clearly not read it. There have been really great book reviews that take issue with certain things that I’ve done and certain things that I’ve said, and they do so in an intellectually engaged way, and I actually think most of them are right. Regardless, if it’s clear that someone has read it and is thinking through what I’ve done, then spending time on a book review and being critical is, I think, part of the scholarly and literary culture that we live in. But the critiques that have come from this book or about me personally that have been just harsh, verging on slanderous, are from people who have clearly not read the book and are affronted by the use of the word feminism, or seeing that I in any way want to critique or question certain kinds of status quos. That is probably the hardest one that I’ve dealt with so far because it recapitulates me into that imposter syndrome, where I feel like, “Maybe I did get it wrong, maybe I am just a bitch.” The truth is, I’m a smart bitch who has useful things to say and a relative position of power from which to say them, and that ruffling feathers in that way is not easy but can be useful and is certainly part of the responsibility of the position that I find myself in, which is a tenure-track position in an institution that has a faculty association. When you start asking questions about patriarchy, about upholding unequal systems of power, and people get upset, it feels terrible, but it’s also very useful to have those networks of care in place to remind you that ruffling feathers in those sorts of cases probably means that you’re asking the right questions, or at least questions that need to be asked. But the risk has not come from the places I would have expected it to come from.

JP: I want to shift gears now and talk a bit about your upcoming publication Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, a volume co-edited by Hannah McGregor, Julie Rak, and yourself. This volume gathers pieces of writing about the state of Canadian literature, in this moment when the institution does seem to be in ruins. I’m thinking about the emotional cost of public feminist work—particularly that which you, Hannah, and Julie have faced over this year for troubling CanLit publicly—and I’m wondering how we can turn to collaboration to weather the emotional and psychic toll of this kind of work? What does it mean to gather together—an editorial collective, a group of writers and academics—to talk about these topics?

EW: There are 25 contributors, three editors, and a publisher, and what we’re trying to do in this collection is not, in any way, give the final word on something, but rather to do, as I see it, two things: first, to attempt to archive some of the ephemeral ways in which discourse happens now, to try to put in a differently material form—of course the digital is material too—things like Twitter essays, blog posts, that are responding to rupture events. Second, Julie and Hannah and I are three very different writers from one another who wrote lengthy introductions trying to contextualize in the longer literary history of Canada—which is a settler-colonial literary history—some of the issues that we see making mainstream media these days. These are questions of power, accessibility in a variety of forms, the assumption that whiteness is a normative baseline; put differently, this system of white supremacy that is an institutional system that seeps into people in different ways and affects them differently. We also want to think about what it means to have a signifier—CanLit—in a country that has people who do and do not relate to the nation of Canada or see themselves reflected in it or see themselves accepted in it. What we’re trying to do as literary scholars and editors is to provide a context for thinking not just in the short recent term but in a longer literary history.

Having the trust of the contributors to let us hold their work and put it in conversation just by being in proximity with each other is an incredible gift. There are so many exciting contributions in this piece, and it’s not encompassing of every voice that could or should or might be in the collection at all, but gosh, we’re grateful for the ones that are there, and very mindful of some of the reasons why people may not feel safe or even feel interested in contributing to this volume. Working with one another has been an incredible act of trust and it has been, for me, transformative in terms of how mentorship works. We are two assistant professors and one full professor, we’re working in really different departments in really different parts of the country and relying on and recognizing each other’s expertise in various ways, and also learning how to trust one another. This kind of collaboration, with the external pressures that we’ve experienced, of criticisms before the book has even been turned into galleys, has meant that we’ve had to talk with each other differently. That’s pretty exciting.

JP: I was struck by the title of the new collection: Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, and immediately thought of the final passage of Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: “Refusal is a feminist act when you are acting in solidarity. Refusal is a feminist act when you are acting against the oppression of others. Refusal is a feminist act when you kill the so-called joys of patriarchal culture. Refusal is a feminist act when you forge new lines of flight—away from what is into what might be.” Can you talk to me about what refusal means in the context of this collection?

EW: At the time of this interview, the book is structured in three sections in which we are playing around, perhaps a little heavy-handedly, with the different inflections of refuse. So, of course, refuse, as in garbage, as in things that have been thrown out. Those are not all the same things, but they are connected. And then we are thinking about refuse as the way in which I was writing about it and thinking about it at the end of my own book, and that is that a refusal in the way that the signatories of Refus Global in Montréal were refusing to participate in what was in order to imagine what might be. There’s that sense of refusal. And then, finally, we’re thinking about refusal as in re-fusing something. Rewiring. Reanimating or animating otherwise, these other possibilities, these other lines of flight. In that section, the book does not end with us speaking. The book ends with one of the contributors, and aside from the necessary publication details after that, that refusing is structurally designed in such a way that it is another person’s voice moving things elsewhere. Not ours, not the publisher’s, not somebody who has that power of editorial gatekeeping. Those are the ways we’re playing around with it.

My understanding, to speak to the second part of the title, is that there has been some concern around the entire title, which is Refuse: CanLit in Ruins, and a sense, without anyone having any opportunity to read the book because it’s not yet published, a lot of critique and misunderstanding about what that title is doing. There’s been this suggestion that concern from different arenas that we are suggesting somehow that all publication history in Canada is garbage and needs to be tossed out, which is so antithetical to what we’re actually trying to discuss in the collection as to be kind of heartbreaking. It’s also brought home to me the divide or the schism in shared cultural knowledge between people working in the academy, in Canadian literature, the Canadian academy, and the people working outside it, because as we discuss at length in the introduction, the second part of that title, “CanLit in Ruins,” is an homage to Bill Reading’s indispensable text University in Ruins, in which he’s thinking about the effects of neoliberalism in the university, the creative process, the imagination and curiosity, and asking how can we live within the ruins without being subsumed by the very forces that are bringing them down on our heads.

JP: To close, I want to think about the public work you have been doing to evince the violences, injustices, and abuses of power that have structured Canadian literature, and thank you for it. I want to return to Sara Ahmed, to think about her belief that “to narrate unhappiness can be affirmative; it can gesture toward another world.” In this spirit of hope among the ruins, I’m wondering if you can point us to writers who are also making possible this other world? Who can we be reading for more hope and care in our lives?

EW: I’m looking at the books on my desk as I get ready for teaching. So many people who have contributed to this volume are at various stages of their career and are doing such incredible work. I’m thinking of the work of Joshua Whitehead, whose generosity of structure and voice and language is staggering to me, what he is able to do in his writing. I’m thinking also of Phoebe Wang’s work. I’m thinking of the work of Kai Cheng Thom, of my friend Vivek Shraya, whose new book has just come out. I’m thinking also about established writers who, for reasons that I don’t totally understand, have not circulated, are not household names, in ways that I think they should be. I’m thinking specifically of M. NourbeSe Philip. Kate Siklosi just wrote a really brilliant article of Philip’s work in The Puritan. Last year Book*hug published Blank: Essays and Interview by M. NourbeSe Philip and to date it still hasn’t been reviewed in a major publication site in Canada. It’s shocking to me. I’m thinking of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s work that she does both as a storyteller in person and in her textual work. I will always sing the praises of Sina Queyras, a teacher and a writer and someone who uses her institutional affiliation to make space for students and early-career, mid-career, established-career writers on Lemonhound. I had the opportunity to meet Cherie Dimaline recently, and the generosity which her storyline structure espouses is so incredible. I think that Sachiko Murakami is always doing really thoughtful, really interesting work. And Johanna Skibsrud’s collection of short stories is quietly working against established power structures and is really questioning a kind of human capacity for knowledge and empathy that I think is so incredible. There’s so many people at all stages and phases of their career who are doing incredible work. It’s a hopeful time, I think.

Apply to be our winter intern!

Editorial Intern — Glass Buffalo Magazine

Location: Edmonton

Deadline to Apply: Friday, November 23, 2018 (all applications must be received by 11:59 p.m. MST)

Job Description: We are looking for a creative, self-motivated individual to assist the editor in various duties for a four-month term beginning December 1, 2018, and ending March 31, 2019. This is a flex-time internship without a set schedule that will require some evening and weekend work either at home or in other locations in the city. As an editorial intern, you will have the opportunity to learn all of the various duties that go into publishing and promoting a literary magazine and to build connections and relationships with people in the Edmonton publishing community.

About the Company: Glass Buffalo Publishing is a literary publisher in search of mythic power. We publish a magazine three times per year that highlights fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from emerging writers attending the University of Alberta, and we host literary events in the city in partnership with festivals and other arts organizations.

Responsibilities may include:

  • Working as a liaison between the editor and contributors

  • Managing circulation and a subscriber database

  • Evaluating, fact checking, and copyediting submissions

  • Proofreading the magazine in layout

  • Writing a monthly newsletter

  • Researching grants and other funding opportunities

  • Marketing the magazine and events using social media

  • Assisting in planning a launch party


  • Must be a current student or recent graduate (2015 or later graduation date) of a post-secondary education program including journalism, English, digital media, or a related field.

  • Excellent writing, editing, and proofreading skills

  • Organized and can work independently

  • Knowledge of Microsoft Word and Excel

  • Experience with Squarespace and social media are an asset but not a requirement

  • Interest in magazines, Canadian literature, and the arts

Compensation: $600 honorarium, for about 25 hours per month, paid on completion of the internship.

How to Apply

Please email your cover letter, resume, and a sample of writing (a short piece of creative writing up to 1,000 words OR up to 3 poems) to Matthew Stepanic at no later than Friday, November 23, at 11:59 p.m. Please include “Editorial Intern Application” in the subject line. We will acknowledge all applicants, but only those selected for interviews will be personally contacted.

Announcing the 2018 Glass Buffalo Short Fiction and Poetry Contest Shortlist

This year, Glass Buffalo welcomed submissions from writers across Canada in search of the best poem and piece of short fiction. After receiving many incredible entries, we’re very excited to announce the shortlists for our Short Fiction Prize and Poetry Prize!

The short fiction entries were judged by Carleigh Baker, who was a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Award and won the City of Vancouver Book Award for her collection of stories, Bad Endings. And the poetry entries were judged by Alessandra Naccarato, whose poetry has received the Bronwen Wallace Award from the Writer's Trust of Canada and the CBC Poetry Prize. Learn more about the contests and judges here.

Here are the writers and their work chosen by our judges:

Glass Buffalo Short Fiction Prize ($500 sponsored by Priority Printing)
Jean-Pierre Forget, "A Green Lawn"
Jason Lee Norman, "Whale Summer"
Erica Rodrigues de Miranda Queiroz, "Golden Absence"

Glass Buffalo Poetry Prize ($500 sponsored by Glass Buffalo Publishing)
Lana Kouchnir, "In the Season of the Loud Body"
Jordan Mounteer, "Ponderosa Pine (Pinus ponderosa)"
Zara Neukom, "My Mother's Body"

The winners of the prizes will be announced at our Fall 2018 issue launch on Wednesday, September 26, at Yellowhead Brewery. For more information on the event and to buy your tickets now, visit our Eventbrite page.

Gwen Benaway

Gwen Benaway is a Two-Spirited trans poet of Anishinaabe and Métis descent. She is the author of two poetry collections—Ceremonies for the Dead (2013) and Passage (2016), both published by Kegedonce Press—and was a 2016 recipient of the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers Honour of Distinction from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. As 2017 came to a close, Benaway talked with me about poetry, Passage, and the bodily affects she sees in Indigenous poetics.

 Photo by Michael Elliot

Photo by Michael Elliot

Jason Purcell: What calls you to poetry?

Gwen Benaway: For me, poetry is the most immediate and powerful expression of language. It takes everyday language and condenses it into these small acts of beauty and forces you to engage with it instantly. A good poem works very quickly and powerfully and stays with you for a long time, but it’s something that you don’t necessarily spend a lot of time reading. There’s an immediacy and intensity to poetry that I don’t think happens in other types of writing. I’m really drawn to that immediacy and intensity of form I find in poetry.

JP: Do you remember the first encounter with poetry to resonate with you?

GB: I probably started with Shakespeare’s sonnets in school, and, truthfully, probably the Psalms in the Bible, and somehow kept reading it and bridging from that. I think I’m always drawn to queer poets and queer confessional writing, people like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, the people writing in that Beat Generation. And obviously Indigenous poetics, people like Katherena Vermette.

But I think poetry really comes from conversation, so I think my first introduction to poetry was just storytelling, just listening to my gookum, listening to my aunts and family members talk and tell stories. I have always come to poetry to try to replicate those conversations, to try to mirror the way that language happens in our everyday lives. I think when we talk to someone, especially when they are important conversations or there is something we are trying to say, we often make little speech poems and use language in a very complicated way. For me, my instinct when looking at poetry is not necessarily to look at individual poets but really look at the way that language flows around me in my life and the conversations that happen with people. It’s been my policy or framework towards coming to poetry. I find it a more sincere form of poetics.

JP: And what about your introduction to writing poetry?

GB: I started writing poetry when I was thirteen or fourteen. I won a Remembrance Day poetry contest in grade 8 and that was through the local Legion. That was how I started, and then I just kept going. I never really stopped. I wasn’t published until I was twenty-three. My first major publication was Prairie Fire, and then from there I kept getting published in small places, and then I had a book, and then I kept going from there. It doesn’t really matter when you start or how you start. It’s your daily practice and that’s what drives your poetics forward. It’s your daily practice that is going to sustain you throughout your poetic career.

JP: What is your writing practice like?

GB: I read poetry every day. I’m addicted to the Poetry Foundation website. I read it all the time. And obviously literary magazines and any poet that I love, I track down their books, so I always read poetry. I write every day. Some days it’s me writing twenty lines in between meetings or emails, sometimes it’s me writing five or six poems. I always write every day in some form or fashion. I also think about how I use language when I’m talking to people or writing text messages or using Messenger. Every time you engage language, you’re using the same skills and functions. All of that informs your poetic practice. Your poetic practice isn’t just confined to you writing. It happens everywhere you use language.

JP: Your work has been edited by some incredible writers, including Daniel Heath Justice and Katherena Vermette. What is the experience of working with an editor like for you? What surprises you? What delights you?

GB: I love collaboration. I think it’s very enriching to have other people look at your work because they see things from their experiences that you aren’t going to see or don’t have access to. Working with Katherna Vermette was probably the most foundational editorial experience I’ve had because she is the first person who I think really sincerely engaged with my work and said to me, “This is what you’re doing, this is what I see in your work.” Just the act of someone looking and seeing your work and identifying it and witnessing it empowers you to create and develop and trust that you’re actually a poet. I’ve also been working with Canisia Lubrin on my third book, Holy Wild, and that’s been wonderful too because she comes from a completely different poetic tradition than I do. It’s been very enriching. She has pushed me out into waters I wouldn’t have gone on my own and often emails me random poems saying, “This is what I think your work is like.” That process of collaboration is always really rich.

JP: Can you tell me about the genesis of Passage?

GB: I broke up with my long-term partner of five years and I hadn’t been writing much when we were together. I’d published my first book while we were together but I kind of stopped writing after that. When we broke up, I started writing again. Out of those initial break-up poems and writing grew Passage, and then as I was writing Passage I started my transition, so the collection is this kind of bridge between two lives, one in one body and one in another. Two different names. Two different people, really. Passage became this actual passage of who I was as a person. You can see this in the book. There’s a shift not only in how the narrator identifies, but also in the form and structure of the language and what’s being talked about. Passage was this work of finding myself, or moving myself from one point to another and pulling all those threads together.

JP: Passage is a collection that is interested in the embodied relationships Indigenous women have with ancestral land. The collection is broken up into sections, each one named after one of the Great Lakes. Can you tell me what it meant to put that unique relationship between place and history into writing?

GB: That’s all there. That’s definitely what the work is about. I think, in a way, I’m making a complicated argument for a kind of body and gender sovereignty that’s rooted in land and ancestry, an inherent sovereignty around gender and body and connecting it to the land in a very real way. That’s what I’m writing about, but it happens because it’s just a part of who I am. Not that there isn’t consciousness around it, not that I don’t think about those things and they aren’t things that I reflect upon and things that I’ve been taught, but for me in the writing process and creating the work, it just extends outward. It just comes from what’s inside. It’s my instinct. One of the things I like about my poetics—and maybe it’s wrong to like things about your poetry—is that it’s always rooted in land, that it’s always rooted in the body, and that my imagery and my language always comes back to the actual land that I come from and reflects that constantly. That’s a distinctive element of Indigenous poetics. People always have this fight about what Indigenous poetics is and what it means, but there is this central relationship of land that comes through Indigenous poetics and that’s present in my work. It isn’t something I think about, it’s just there. I see that in other Indigenous poets as well.

JP: Something I love about Passage is the way in which you stand in a space of vulnerability: you write about being a trans Two-Spirited Anishinaabe and Métis woman in a way that I think attends to the pain and difficulty but also to the beauty and joy of it. I think of your poem “Trans” in the last section of the collection, where you write: “nothing is more beautiful/than a woman who knows/exactly what she wants/and what I want/is myself.” Not only does this collection grapple with the trauma and violence faced by Indigenous women, but there is a celebration of love, desire—particularly trans femme desire—and survival. Though different, I was thinking a lot about Billy-Ray Belcourt’s collection This Wound is a World while re-reading Passage. Can you talk about the importance of writing about your personal experiences of love, sex, desire, and survival?

GB: I’m a confessional poet and I’m a feminist poet, so I’m very much concerned with the intimate and the body and the sexual. I think that comes from queer poetics as well. I think, for me, the importance of writing about those topics is that the violence and oppression of colonization lives in our bodies and lives in our relationships to other people. It’s through our relationships to other people and the land and the world around us that that violence manifests. We can talk about the big overarching reasons why colonization happened and the ways that it destroys people with legislation, etc. But ultimately, the violence is contained and expressed in the intimate, in the relational bond. Same with transphobia. We can talk about how society presents trans women, how it desexualizes us while fetishizing us, all of those pieces, but the violence of that happens at the individual level. It’s between bodies. It’s between two bodies that violence of both transphobia and colonization is expressed and lives. That’s where I experience oppression: in the intimate space. Obviously there’s systemic and institutional oppression, but the thing that hurts the most is the intimate violence. I focus on the intimate violence, and to do that you have to get close to the body and get into sex. The most painful moments in my transition—I guess in my life—happen with my intimate sexual partners because you’re so vulnerable and all of a sudden you have to deal with the weight of 400 years of colonization, 400 years of transphobia, in this intimate space with someone you love who is saying and doing things that hurt you profoundly, and destroy you, deconstruct you as a woman, as an Indigenous woman. The only way, I think, to repair that or to respond to it is through that intimate space as well, and so we have to return to the moment of violence and deconstruct it, animate it, hold it up, question it, and turn it back on itself. That has to come through the body, through an opening up of that space.

I try to use my writing to show that relational complexity, how violence happens on the relational level, and then problematize it. I hope that by holding it up, by showing it, that it is both visible to those who experience it in similar ways as I do and see themselves in that moment so they recognize it’s not just happening to them—that it’s a collective pain—and also that those who are causing it and doing it see themselves in that moment and understand, hopefully, their implication in that. Not that that works, but that’s what I try to do. I think, in his own way, Billy-Ray Belcourt is trying to do the same thing, showing the same kinds of intimate violence and damage and trauma in the moment between bodies. There are a lot of very complicated things going on, I’m not going to simplify his work, but I think it’s part of his poetic instinct. Partly he gets that from me, because he read Passage. It’s a lineage. It’s Katherena Vermette who started with the micro-intimate storytelling in Indigenous poetics and I picked that up from her, then other queer Indigenous poets picked that up from me, which is really from her and the people who taught her. There’s a line that’s happening in creating space for that. Indigenous poetics didn’t really talk about anal sex and hookups and fucking white boys while their girlfriends were in the trailers until it was people like me and Billy-Ray Belcourt and Joshua Whitehead and Lindsay Nixon. That’s new ground for Indigenous poetics. Queer and confessional poetics have been doing that for a long time, but Indigenous poetics haven’t stepped into that space yet, but they’re starting to. You can see that influence of queer poetics moving in to Indigenous poetics. There’s a conversation happening. My place in that is the middle generation, and I see Belcourt and Whitehead as the next generation.

JP: I’d like to shift gears a little. You’ve talked about Canadian Literature and it’s branded moniker CanLit as an ideological project that is invested in, as you’ve said, “creating Canadianness, … multiculturalism, … diversity, … Canadian markers, and nationalism” in the Rusty Toque. I love your take on CanLit that you shared on carte blanche, that diverse writers don’t need to play by CanLit’s rules, and as you say, that diverse writers have already surpassed the limitations of CanLit. What would you say to emerging writers who don’t see themselves represented in this establishment of CanLit?

GB: Indigenous communities—I’ve seen this in my own family and community—have a long tradition of using tools that have been used to oppress us or harm us for our own benefit and good. We take things that have been violent or are not ours and make them work for us in ways that let us find liberation and freedom and that reflect who we are, our culture and ways of doing things, but we’re using their tools to do it. We’re adaptive in times of crisis, trauma and violence. I see that in other marginalized communities as well. I don’t think that’s unique to us.

I think we have to use CanLit in the ways that are good for us, that are meaningful, and in deliberate ways take what CanLit offers and exploit it for the creation and betterment of ourselves and our communities. I think we can do that. But I think what we need to be careful of is that we don’t drink their Kool-Aid, that we don’t get infected by their nationalism and their nation-state and recognize that they are inherently our enemy. If they bless us, if they give us awards, if they celebrate us, it comes at a price that we have to pay. For emerging writers, be mindful of who you serve, who you’re responsible to, your community, who are the people in your life, what in yourself is your value, how does that reflect where you come from? Take that and bring that into your writing, into the worlds you create and the stories you tell. If you have that responsibility, if you see yourself as a responsible witness, as a responsible advocate and link that to where you come from, that will protect you from the worst of CanLit. I think that will enable you to perform that kind of transformation we need to perform in order to have our own survivance and our own communities of writing and creation which are separate from CanLit. This allows us to be inside their spaces but not be consumed by them. I think it’s an internal work, it’s not something you necessary are doing externally. It’s not about who you retweet. It’s about your own internal relationship to your responsibilities and accountabilities and the values you hold as a person and a writer that you bring with you into CanLit.

JP: I see so much of this resistance happening on social media, and I noticed that you participate in so many of the important conversations I see circulating about CanLit and Indigenous writing today. Do you think social media has a role in unsettling the literary establishment of CanLit?

GB: I think it absolutely does. I think it’s powerful. I think it’s very effective. All the hot takes that have been travelling around about CanLit lately are denigrating Twitter and social media as a rabble of insane people, but actually what it is is community-building and community speaking, dialogue and narrative. It’s very powerful. It allows us to question and challenge and hold people accountable in ways that have never happened before. When Jon Kay writes a racist op-ed like he did very recently, there’s a whole bunch of smart people talking about it and deconstructing it. That kind of active intelligence and challenge to CanLit has never been seen before. It’s also enabling us to build a collective community space that has never existed. Through social media, I think what we’re seeing is a live kind of intelligence and strength and a new form of community-building that’s very powerful for marginalized communities, that’s actually transformative for our histories and our ways of being in the world.

JP: What types of communities have you built through social media?

GB: I really love Native Twitter. There’s this inter-nation, interdisciplinary, intercommunity conversation that happens on Native Twitter that’s wonderful. I love jumping into it. It makes me both more aware of things I wouldn’t know otherwise, but it also lets me have this special kind of conversation. There are moments when I can just talk to other Native people online. I can be in a conversation on Twitter that’s just Native voices. That almost never happens in my life. It’s an opportunity to be selective in the kinds of conversations we’re having. Trans girl community is often social media–based because we’re spread out and isolated from each other and also have anxiety and mood disorders, so all of our interactions are digital. I interact with trans women all across the country and in that there is a kind of community-building and narrative.

But most importantly, I think what social media does is it offers a way to have conversations and dialogue that you have more control about than you usually do in everyday life. When you’re at a conference or you’re on a panel or at a writing event, any idiot can stand up and say whatever, or people can keep talking at you, or people can say horrible racist things that you have to sit and listen to. On social media, if you say a horrible racist thing to me, I don’t ever have to talk to you ever again. I can block you. I can make you disappear. There’s a kind of freedom and safety in these social media spaces that doesn’t happen anywhere else. I have a very sexualized Instagram in part because I can block people who are creepy and send me dick pics. I can’t do that in real life.

Apply to be our summer intern!

Editorial Intern — Glass Buffalo Magazine

Location: Edmonton

Deadline to Apply: Friday, May 11, 2018 (all applications must be received by 11:59 p.m. MST)

Job Description: We are looking for a creative, self-motivated individual to assist the editor in various duties for a four-month term beginning June 1, 2018, and ending September 30, 2018. This is a flex-time internship without a set schedule that will require some evening and weekend work either at home or in other locations in the city. As an editorial intern, you will have the opportunity to learn all of the various duties that go into publishing and promoting a literary magazine and to build connections and relationships with people in the Edmonton publishing community.

About the Company: Glass Buffalo Publishing is a literary publisher in search of mythic power. We publish a magazine three times per year that highlights fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from emerging writers attending the University of Alberta, and we host literary events in the city in partnership with festivals and other arts organizations.

Responsibilities may include:

  • Working as a liaison between the editor and contributors
  • Managing circulation and a subscriber database
  • Evaluating, fact checking, and copyediting submissions
  • Proofreading the magazine in layout
  • Writing a monthly newsletter
  • Researching grants and other funding opportunities
  • Marketing the magazine and events using social media
  • Assisting in planning a launch party


  • Must be a current student or recent graduate (2015 or later graduation date) of a post-secondary education program including journalism, English, digital media, or a related field.
  • Excellent writing, editing, and proofreading skills
  • Organized and can work independently
  • Knowledge of Microsoft Word and Excel
  • Experience with Squarespace and social media are an asset but not a requirement
  • Interested in magazines, Canadian literature, and the arts

Compensation: $600 honorarium, for about 25 hours per month, paid on completion of the internship.

How to Apply
Please email your cover letter, resume, and a sample of writing (a short piece of creative writing up to 1,000 words OR up to 3 poems) to Matthew Stepanic at no later than Friday, May 11, at 11:59 p.m. Please include “Editorial Intern Application” in the subject line. We will acknowledge all applicants, but only those selected for interviews will be personally contacted.

Apply to be our winter intern!

Editorial Intern — Glass Buffalo Magazine

Location: Edmonton

Deadline to Apply: Friday, November 24, 2017 (all applications must be received by 11:59 p.m. MST)

Job Description: We are looking for a creative, self-motivated individual to assist the editor in various duties for a four-month term beginning December 1, 2017, and ending March 31, 2017. This is a flex-time internship without a set schedule that will require some evening and weekend work either at home or in other locations in the city. As an editorial intern, you will have the opportunity to learn all of the various duties that go into publishing and promoting a literary magazine and to build connections and relationships with people in the Edmonton publishing community.

About the Company: Glass Buffalo Publishing is a literary publisher in search of mythic power. We publish a magazine three times per year that highlights fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from emerging writers attending the University of Alberta, and we host literary events in the city in partnership with festivals and other arts organizations.

Responsibilities may include:

  • Working as a liaison between the editor and contributors
  • Managing circulation and a subscriber database
  • Evaluating, fact checking, and copyediting submissions
  • Proofreading the magazine in layout
  • Writing a monthly newsletter
  • Researching grants and other funding opportunities
  • Marketing the magazine and events using social media
  • Assisting in planning a launch party


  • Must be a current student or recent graduate (2014 or later graduation date) of a post-secondary education program including journalism, English, digital media, or a related field.
  • Excellent writing, editing, and proofreading skills
  • Organized and can work independently
  • Knowledge of Microsoft Word and Excel
  • Experience with Squarespace and social media are an asset but not a requirement
  • Interested in magazines, Canadian literature, and the arts

Compensation: $600 honorarium, for about 25 hours per month, paid on completion of the internship.

How to Apply
Please email your cover letter, resume, and a sample of writing (a short piece of creative writing up to 1,000 words OR up to 3 poems) to Matthew Stepanic at no later than Friday, November 24, at 11:59 p.m. Please include “Editorial Intern Application” in the subject line. We will acknowledge all applicants, but only those selected for interviews will be personally contacted.

2-for-1 Subscription Deal with Eighteen Bridges

It's a match made in literary heaven! We've partnered with fellow Edmonton literary magazine Eighteen Bridges to offer you a fantastic subscription deal: two great award-winning magazines for one great award-worthy rate. Subscribe for one year to Eighteen Bridges (two issues) and Glass Buffalo (three issues) for only $30!

Eighteen Bridges publishes award-winning narrative journalism, essays, and profiles. Glass Buffalo publishes the rising stars of Canadian literature and insightful interviews with successful writers. These two magazines are shepherds of emerging voices and will surprise and engage you with stories and poems in every issue.

Take advantage of this offer now! This offer ends November 15, 2017.

Daniel Zomparelli

Daniel Zomparelli is a poet, fiction writer, podcaster, and editor whose latest book, Everything is Awful and You’re a Terrible Person, was published earlier this year by Arsenal Pulp Press. I spoke with Daniel to discuss the collection, what he gains from collaborative work, and the lasting influence of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

 Photo by Luke Fontana

Photo by Luke Fontana

Jason Purcell: Your first short story collection is about young gay men in the digital age seeking various types of connections and often failing. Despite seeming to be in constant connection thanks to our attachment to phones and technology, I also sense that there is a degree to which technology in these stories operates as a way of blocking connection and intimacy. Some of the stories in this collection are arranged as transcripts of online conversations; all dialogue, no narrative context to cushion these direct and sometimes abrasive exchanges. I know you’re coming to these stories as someone who wrote and published poetry first and I’m interested if you could talk about these formal qualities. Is there an interest in what might be lost through these types of connections?

Daniel Zomparelli: In the story, you specifically follow a guy named Ryan and those are all his conversations. You’re seeing those conversations with his dates. I wanted to reveal a character only through dates and reveal that he wasn’t a bad guy but that he wasn’t the best. How he interacts online is important. Everyone thinks they’re in the right on a Grindr chat or wherever. People screengrab them all the time and post them to show how right they are in every situation. I wanted to show that we never know the background of what’s happening and we all bring our own personal baggage to a simple app. This app is very loaded because it’s about sex, dating, or relationships. All you get is a small bio that’s usually a falsified notion of self. It’s impossible to know yourself enough and also explain yourself.

You don’t get to know people very well through these very fast versions of dates. It plays into the story “Tongue-Out Smiley Face” where even an emoji creates an inability to read a person’s feelings or emotions or anything beyond because it’s the most vague. Emojis are supposed to help create an additional way of knowing what a person is feeling when they’re writing something. There’s a character who’s an online troll and I wanted to show that there’s an inability to see what’s happening in a small conversation, but it’s how we all see each other, on Twitter messages and Facebook posts and Instagram posts. We’re all quite judgmental about those things, and I wanted to show the person behind it, and say, yeah, maybe they’re a bit of a fuck-up, but there’s also a reason why they’re a bit of a fuck-up.

JP: I’m thinking of the ways in which some of the characters are identified only by usernames and handles. It’s as though this is another way of making sure one isn’t truly seen by another, a way of warding off identification, intimacy, and vulnerability. Do you think there is a fear of being seen by oneself and by others that’s present within the gay community? And if so, is this collection looking for a way out of this?

DZ: I do believe everyone is engaging in this. Tinder and online dating, Twitter, you’re producing a brand, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes consciously. On Tinder, you’re putting your best foot forward in a way you want to be perceived. Within the gay community, you can see a lot of it is very catfishy. People have talked about being catfished. They say they’re one person and they meet someone else. I’m not saying the gay community is entirely focused on that, but there is a bit of what we give in to with masculinity. That’s why mascmusc exists. A lot of us so desperately are trying to achieve this quality of maleness that we all fail by and I wanted to highlight that.

JP: This collection is cynical with a dark humour, and many of the characters are caught in this place where they might be read as “terrible people,” But I had this sense as a reader that these are people who might be approaching a turning point, a space where whatever situations are bearing down on them might let up and give them space to be another type of person. Some of these stories and these characters felt—or I hoped—to be represented in the moment or moments before change, and that by wondering if they were terrible people, they were giving themselves permission to imagine other ways of being. Is there a thread of hope or optimism running through this collection?

DZ: I think it’s really easy to read this as a cynical book and I was hoping people wouldn’t. I think the point of highlighting cynical characters was for the reader to look at it and say, “Whenever I see an asshole, there’s a reason for it, and there’s hope for change.” I wanted to highlight mental-health issues that were unchecked, unchecked privilege, unchecked oppression, unchecked anxiety. It’s very hard to get through those or to even know they exist, so the characters come across as terrible, but at each point I purposefully end the stories before you see change. I wanted to show everyone at their breaking point. I didn’t want to give everyone a happy ending, because some people don’t change. Some people reach that break and keep going and get worse, and some people reach that break and recover. It seemed more sincere to stop there and let the reader create their own version of the ending. You can create your own happy ending or your own sad ending[...]. It’s up to the reader if it’s hopeful or not.

JP: This collection is populated by ghosts. I can think of a number of metaphors, but I’d be interested to hear from you what it meant to look to ghosts in a collection that is about trying for but missing connections. Ghosts are so interesting because of the lack of boundaries. What’s on the other side, haunting this collection?

DZ: Ghosts are an important thing to me because they represent someone’s psychology. Whether you believe in ghosts or not or the way you imagine ghosts is interesting because you have your own personal ghosts—maybe people have passed in your life—and the way you imagine those ghosts is how you interact with other people. The character in the ghost story has this struggle to let go of a ghost who happens to be an ex. It becomes a really obvious metaphor about baggage from a previous relationship and can you manage it or not. Do you have to let that ghost go and fuck up a bit to move on, or does that ghost follow you wherever you go?

There’s also this way in which ghosts represent otherness. Ghosts, if you take as real, in the history of human existence have never harmed a human, so a fear of ghost is just a fear of otherness. This is how I tried to interlay ghosts and ghosting throughout the book.

JP: While we’re on the top of the supernatural, I’d hate myself if I didn’t ask you about this: your story “Like Buffy.” The line, “Sometimes I feel like maybe I’m Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I’m like, walking around fighting demons in leather suits, and like, no one gets me.” I can’t overstate this show’s importance to me growing up queer, and I’m just now showing it to my boyfriend who has never seen it before, and I was wondering if you could speak to what you think made that show important, and that identification with someone not quite ordinary going through the world, slaying these demons but not always having someone to share that with, someone who really understood?

DZ: There are two episodes that you might see weave through the book because I’m obsessed with the show. There’s the episode where Buffy is in a psychiatric hospital and she’s actually made up her whole life. I remember seeing that episode and because I have an anxiety disorder being like, “Oh no! Is that what this is?” I’ll have random moments in my life, every two weeks or so, where I think, “What if whenever I’m doing something, I’m actually doing something completely different in another realm?” There is a story where I don’t explicitly say who the character is talking to. They may be in a different realm or don’t exist or ghosted them or are dead. These are the options I give the reader because I’m an asshole. I wanted to show how a character could create an idea of a person and become obsessed with that idea, but then also pull it away and ask, what if none of this is real?

There’s also an episode where a first-year university psychology student who has become a vampire interacts with Buffy and he has this moment where he diagnoses her with a superiority complex but with an inferiority complex about it. I kept imagining this as how we interact on dating sites. We think we’re better than everyone else but we also think we’re shit.

JP: I’d like to move on to talk about a few of your other projects beginning with Poetry Is Dead magazine, of which you’re Editor-in-Chief. Can you tell me how Poetry Is Dead came to be?

DZ: I started it in 2009 in response to not liking some of the poetry events I was seeing. I was very young and it was a different age group at the time. I was a young partier who wanted to have fun boozefest reading events. I wanted to read a lot more of what young people were doing. And young is definitely not about age but stylistically what was new, because the age range in the first Poetry Is Dead went up to 60. I created that to make sure I had fun with poetry. It was sometimes a bit of a boring scene. I was already working in magazines at Adbusters and I was looking at the other literary magazines, which were great, but there was something that I thought was missing for Canadian literary magazines. I took my savings that I was meant to invest in an apartment and started printing the magazine with zero subscriber base and zero guarantee there would be newsstand sales. I printed 1,500 copies. Luckily it all got picked up quickly. It was definitely a gamble.

JP: What has it meant to work in that capacity, to not only be a writer but also someone who contributes to literary production as an editor and, in a sense, a curator?

DZ: If I’m investing in my writing, it feels very selfish. With writing, I try to balance with what I want to create and what will help others create. When I was working in poetry, I wanted to create a space that I thought would be fun and that would help newer writers. Whenever I go on some writing venture, I’m usually trying to also give back. Even with this fiction book, I’ve started offering free mentorships for writers and editing manuscripts for free. Writing feels so selfish, but it probably isn’t. It’s probably my Catholic guilt.

JP: What type of work do you find really exciting right now?

DZ: Beni Xiao, David Ly, and Megan Jones. I’m still waiting for Gillian Christmas to have her book out. She’s already a hyper-successful spoken-word artist but she has a book that I know she’s working on and I just want to see that.

JP: While being a writer and editor-in-chief of an important literary magazine would be more than enough work for many people, you haven’t stopped there; you’re also a podcaster, working with Dina Del Bucchia on Can’t Lit. What has the podcast medium offered you in terms of engaging with Canada’s literary scene?

DZ: Once again, it’s always about fun. I love books and I love reading but I’m not very good with self-seriousness. It’s always a shutdown mechanism for me. I wanted to see a space where we could talk about books but it didn’t have to be so direct and so serious. Authors have such huge personalities that you can figure out how they came to their books if you have a conversation with them about their favourite things or their least favourite things and that, to me, is the most fun way to get at a book. There’s so much space already for seriousness and I wanted to have some outlet where writers can finally just say a bunch of jokes if they want.

JP: There is such a strong sense of celebration around the idea of collaboration and conversation that I feel when I listen to the podcast, and I really see that sense of community among Canada’s young writers. I have seen collaboration dismissed in particular writing communities, particularly academic ones, but you engage in collaborative work often. Can you talk about what collaboration and community has meant to you?

DZ: I love collaboration. I love writing and having my personal control on a project, but my husband’s in TV writing and that’s always collaborative and some of the best writing we have right now is on TV. That’s twelve to fourteen people. I wonder about how much weight we put on books to have one author and whether that’s just ego. Or maybe it’s just easier. Maybe writers get into writing because they don’t want to interact with other people. People ask if I’d start to write for TV because of my husband, and I say that if there was a way for me to do it without having to interact with fourteen people, I would. But I also find writing very lonely. If someone wants to collaborate and I like their idea, I’m always very into it. Everything that I’ve created in collaboration has been so much fun. I love Rom Com. I think it’s such a weirdo book and I don’t think anything is taken away from it because there are two authors.

I did a project with a programmer and a visual artist and we had to find a way to get a program to produce poetry. The results were incredible. They were truly bonkers and wonderful. It’s also so damn fun. Everyone who was there at the show enjoyed the pieces. I’m very pro-collaboration.

JP: I’d be interested to hear about your relationship to writing and to work. You’re someone who wears a number of hats: poet, short story writer, editor, podcaster, etc. How do you work? How do you stay motivated?

DZ: I constantly approach everything as a project. If I have a book idea, I have to think of it as a project. I have to research X, Y, Z, then I have to write it. I do this with every project. I allow myself to be focused on one thing and then I can move on. I’m not very good at doing multiple projects at once. I’m a very slow writer. I have to force myself to write. I can always think of something else to do. It’s always a matter of treating each thing as its own special project that I’m going to work on and giving myself lots of time and also giving myself permission not to start it right away. When I finish a book, I give myself six months to a year off. I’ll keep notes but I won’t write.

JP: How do you care for yourself when you feel burnt out? Is time off the answer?

DZ: My anxiety gets very high after releasing a project. This last project was the worst anxiety because it was doing well. Getting a New York Times review made me frantic and I had a very bad moment like Buffy, where I thought I made it all up. I was getting so many reviews. Goodreads and Amazon were doing well. I can’t help but check constantly, so it throws me off very hard.

JP: What’s next for Daniel Zomparelli?

DZ: My husband is going to help me produce a weirdo radio show podcast on fears. It’s selfishly the research for my next book idea. I’ll be reading and studying a lot about fear and fear anxiety.

Announcing the 2017 Glass Buffalo Writing Contest Shortlists

This year, Glass Buffalo welcomed submissions from writers across Canada in search of the best poem and piece of short fiction in English. After receiving many incredible entries, we’re very excited to announce the shortlists for our Short Fiction Prize and Poetry Prize!

The short fiction entries were judged by Heather O’Neill, who’s been twice shortlisted for the Giller Prize for her books, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night and Daydreams of Angels. And the poetry entries were judged by Kayla Czaga, winner of the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and a nominee for the Governor General’s Award for her collection, For Your Safety Please Hold OnLearn more about the contests and judges here.

Here are the writers and their work chosen by our judges:

Glass Buffalo Short Fiction Prize ($500 sponsored by Priority Printing)
Elizabeth Ball, “Poverty Hill”
Sarah Bennett, “Wanting”
Michelle Kelm, “Carnival”

Glass Buffalo Poetry Prize ($500 sponsored by Glass Buffalo Publishing)
Chelsea Comeau, “Downtown Victoria, Summer” & “Rocket Pops”
Jessica Johns, “Can you imagine my love for banana facts?”

The winners of the prizes will be announced at our Fall 2017 issue launch on Wednesday, September 27, at Yellowhead Brewery. For more information on the event and to buy your tickets now, visit our Eventbrite page.

Zoe Whittall

Zoe Whittall is a poet and fiction and television writer whose latest novel, The Best Kind of People, published in 2016 by House of Anansi, was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Bottle Rocket Hearts, her first novel, was published in 2007 by Cormorant Books. Holding Still for as Long as Possible, her 2009 novel published by House of Anansi, went on to win the Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction in 2011, as well as Earla Dunbar Memorial Award in 2010. She is the author of three books of poetry: The Best Ten Minutes of Your Life (McGilligan Books, 2001), The Emily Valentine Poems (Snare Books, 2006; Invisible Publishing, 2016), and Precordial Thump (Exile Editions, 2008); a novella titled The Middle Ground (Orca Books, 2010); and edited a collection of short fiction, Geeks, Misfits & Outlaws (McGilligan Books, 2003). In an email correspondence taking place in February 2017, Whittall answered my questions about rape culture, the role of the writer, and writing for television.

 Photo supplied

Photo supplied

Jason Purcell: I’d like to begin by talking about your most recent novel, The Best Kind of People. The novel opens with an epigraph from Kate Harding’s Asking For It, which reads: “[Rape culture’s] most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime….” Many critics have commented on the timeliness of this novel, especially in the wake of the Ghomeshi trial, the current discussion surrounding the Galloway affair, and the subsequent #UBCaccountable letter. How do you notice the discourse surrounding issues of consent and rape culture changing?

Zoe Whittall: I’ve noticed it isn’t just something that feminists are discussing among ourselves anymore, and I really like seeing that. I’ve noticed that young women are doing incredible work, just not taking any shit anymore, the way my generation did and continues to do. I’ve noticed younger men in the literary world—in their twenties and thirties, I mean—are stepping up in ways that wouldn’t have been imaginable ten or twenty years ago. I’m thinking of Sean Michaels saying “believe women” in his Giller acceptance speech, or writers like Andrew Sullivan, Kevin Hardcastle speaking out against the #UBCaccountable letter on social media. I’m also seeing the ways that women of colour and queer/trans writers of all ages are the ones who haven’t been afraid to rock the boat re: UBC discussions, which isn’t surprising. And in general, I’ve learned a lot reading what younger writers have to say about rape culture these last few years, and it feels awesome to witness.

JP: In the days following the #UBCaccountable letter, we saw some of Canada’s best known writers publicly align themselves with a position that doesn’t attend to victims, and we’ve also seen many prominent writers voicing support for complainants. This conversation is happening largely on social media. Do you think social media is changing the role of the writer and asking them to take on the mantle of the public cultural critic, or do you feel this has always been the writer’s responsibility?

ZW: I think social media is great for writers who like to have conversations online, be it cultural commentary of live-tweeting The Bachelor. I love Twitter because I write alone most days and it functions like a co-worker. Every weird thing I’d normally turn and say to my cubicle mate, I now say to all these little people in my computer. And I’m an introvert, but chit-chat online doesn’t make me feel drained the way it does in real life. I think that it can help poster friendships and provoke interesting debate sometimes.

I think the writer as social critic has always been a role some writers are offered or enjoy taking on, and some writers prefer to just work quietly and then offer their stories and poetry without speaking on any other issues. The question of a writer’s responsibility is a tricky one. I think our first responsibility is to write and that’s always going to be more important than social media or being a public intellectual, but it’s possible to be the kind of novelist or poet who enjoys both roles. I’m never sure how comfortable I am in this capacity. I quit writing book reviews because I know too many people; it’s impossible to be a responsible critic of novels and also be a working novelist in such a small country. I remember touring in France with Neil Bissoondath who invited me on a tour for established and emerging writers. I’d never been anywhere before and had one novel out at the time. I was totally unprepared to meet the expectations of the French audiences who consider all novelists to be public intellectuals. I was far too shy to answer weighty political questions on stage without any preparation. I remember wishing so hard to be asked about where I wrote, how many hours a day, even publishing questions—the ones I hate being asked about here. It felt like a lot of pressure. That said, I’ve always been a feminist and a queer rights activist, since I was seventeen, and that background is partially what drew me to writing fiction.

JP: Something that really interests me about The Best Kind of People is the language of surveillance in the novel. Early in the novel, we are told that “nothing, not even a revolving camera of omniscience, a floating momentary opportunity to narrate, would allow anyone to truly understand the truth about George.” Not only is George placed in prison, itself a site of surveillance, but this quotation highlights a narrative distance; we, as readers, are not given access to George’s thoughts or experience, yet there is some acknowledgement that the reader, as a force positioned on the outside looking in, may be both witness and judge to these events. Can you speak to this at all?

ZW: I wanted George to be unknowable, and I wanted the reader to feel the same frustration that characters were feeling—who is this guy? I didn’t want to go inside his head, I didn’t want to see the world from his perspective, mostly because that story has been told before.

JP: This also has me thinking about the ways that those of us who are spectators talk about cases like this one, and perhaps we can return to the Kate Harding epigraph. These types of events take on a public life of their own, to which many people feel entitled to comment. Is this why this novel also seems interested in the experiences of Joan and Sadie, and also to the different types of reactions the public has to George’s arrest? I’m thinking here of the violence Joan and Sadie are subjected to as well as pockets of support, such as Joan’s support group?

ZW: Yes, the first question or obsession at the heart of the book, that propelled me to keep writing and exploring, was what do you do with the love once you uncover something like this about your loved one? Or even just the possibility of it? And I was very interested in the associated stigma. The entire book was somewhat inspired by the feelings people voiced about Russell Williams’ wife—how could she not have known, etc.? I was interested in the hell she must have gone through, the violence people face when their loved ones are publicly accused, shamed, and shunned.

JP: I noticed a few Gilmore Girls references while reading The Best Kind of People. I know you also write for television, and I’m wondering about the relationship you have to TV. In a conversation I had with Lynn Coady, who is also a prose writer turned television writer, she mentioned that TV has always been incredibly important to her as a storyteller. Is it the same for you?

ZW: Yes, I did that on purpose. I’m a crazy cultish fan of that show. TV was always somewhat magical to me as a kid, mostly because I didn’t have a ton of access to it and that made it amazing, of course. And it’s always been a great way for me to relax, and the past decade or so of television has really been fantastic. It’s a cliché to say that TV has surpassed film for its artistry these days—it’s just an accepted fact at this point. Even when I was an obnoxious activist who didn’t have a TV, I was still secretly really into watching it whenever I could. And though I started trying to write for TV in order to make money—it’s probably one of the only ways to make money as a writer in a city as expensive as Toronto and not be struggling all the time—I’ve ended up really loving the form and the people I’ve met in the industry. It’s a really exciting milieu.

JP: How and when did you enter the world of television writing? What is that process like for you? Was it an adjustment to write so collaboratively?

ZW: I optioned an originally sitcom script to CTV in 2013, and it was in development for a few years. I wrote the pilot in a comedy writing class at the Comedy Bar, on how to turn your stand-up material into a sitcom. It was a terrific class and I ended up loving my series idea. From there I got hired at Degrassi as a story editor, and then Schitt’s Creek, Baroness Von Sketch, and I’ve worked on some CBC shows in development. Writing collaboratively was really hard—I was amazed that a writing room really means a talking room. It’s like a never-ending meeting where all the stories get broken out loud—that was super hard! The other story editors’ brains worked so fast. I ended up loving it, though, even when it was difficult.

JP: Are you watching anything interesting right now?

ZW: I’m obsessed with Atlanta, Insecure, The People v. O.J., the new season of Girls looks like it’s going to be aces, and the only thing getting me through the Trump era is political satire—Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, The Daily Show, even SNL.

JP: I noticed that, in The Best Kind of People, there are these moments of humour among an otherwise dark and intense sequence of events. What does comedy make space for, particularly in the context of difficult and serious subject matter?

ZW: I think it’s a great way to actually get into the dirt and horror of life without falling into a hole and dying.

JP: I’ve read that writing The Best Kind of People was a long process of drafting and redrafting. How did you find your way through that?

ZW: I almost gave it up several times. The second to last draft I gave to my agent, she read and said it wasn’t ready, and we agreed I’d try one more change before I just threw it out. We had a conversation about how some projects just don’t work and there’s nothing we can do to change that. I really thought it would fail. I’m shocked it didn’t.

JP: Who are the writers who you find are doing exciting and important work right now?

ZW: Oh, I love this question! I’ve had the pleasure of blurbing some great writers later: Eva Crocker, Daniel Zomparelli, Zoey Leigh Peterson. I’m obsessed with Sarah Manguso and Maggie Nelson. I’ve been writing a short novella-length essay-poem hybrid in fragments so I basically just buy everything Graywolf Press publishes.

We're hiring an intern!

Editorial Intern — Glass Buffalo Magazine

Location: Edmonton

Deadline to Apply: Friday, November 25, 2016 (all applications must be received by 11:59 p.m. MST)

Job Description: We are looking for a creative, self-motivated individual to assist the editor in various duties for a four-month term beginning December 5, 2016, and ending March 31, 2017. This is a flex-time internship without a set schedule that will require some evening and weekend work either at home or in other locations in the city. As an editorial intern, you will have the opportunity to learn all of the various duties that go into publishing and promoting a literary magazine and to build connections and relationships with people in the Edmonton publishing community.

About the Company: Glass Buffalo Publishing is a literary publisher in search of mythic power. We publish a magazine three times per year that highlights fiction, nonfiction, and poetry from emerging writers attending the University of Alberta, and we host literary events in the city in partnership with festivals and other arts organizations.

Responsibilities may include:

  • Working as a liaison between the editor and contributors
  • Managing circulation and a subscriber database
  • Evaluating, fact checking, and copyediting submissions
  • Proofreading the magazine in layout
  • Writing a monthly newsletter
  • Researching grants and other funding opportunities
  • Marketing the magazine and events using social media
  • Assisting in planning a launch party


  • Must be a current student or recent graduate (2013 or later graduation date) of a post-secondary education program including journalism, English, digital media, or a related field.
  • Excellent writing, editing, and proofreading skills
  • Organized and can work independently
  • Knowledge of Microsoft Word and Excel
  • Experience with Squarespace and social media are an asset but not a requirement
  • Interested in magazines, Canadian literature, and the arts

Compensation: $600 honorarium, for about 25 hours per month, paid on completion of the internship.

How to Apply
Please email your cover letter, resume, and a sample of writing (a short piece of creative writing up to 1,000 words OR up to 3 poems) to Matthew Stepanic at no later than Friday, November 25, at 11:59 p.m. Please include “Editorial Intern Application” in the subject line. We will acknowledge all applicants, but only those selected for interviews will be personally contacted.

Vivek Shraya

Vivek Shraya: My creative writing teacher told me I was the worst writer in the class. It was my first creative writing class and I was excited about it, but he gave my first assignment a very low grade. We had to do a photo assignment where we had to find a photo and write an analysis about it, just our opinion, and I chose a photo of Madonna because I was very into her. She was in the street and surrounded by people of colour. In fairness I wasn’t very politicized at the time—I didn’t have a rhetoric—and I would probably read that photo very differently now. But he graded me a five out of nine because I didn’t talk about Madonna appropriating brown or Black culture. Appropriation is such a hard conversation because, as a brown kid growing up in Edmonton, seeing Madonna wear a bindi, that was representation back then, you know? Now, looking back, I’m like, “Oh, that’s appropriation,” but where else was I going to see someone in popular culture celebrating Indian culture?

What was frustrating about this conversation was that it was a white guy getting upset with me about not being upset about a white person appropriating my culture. I stopped going to his class because I didn’t like his vibe and his instruction and I thought, “You know what, fuck it, I’m just going to submit these assignments under your door.” One day, he ran into me in HUB Mall and said, “I noticed you’ve stopped coming to my class. Honestly, if there’s one student in my class who needs my help, it’s you.” He then proceeded to lecture me for an hour.

 Photo by Alejandro Santiago

Photo by Alejandro Santiago

Vivek Shraya is a Toronto-based multidisciplinary artist whose body of work spans music, film, and literature. Her first book, God Loves Hair, was published by Arsenal Pulp Press in 2014. Her first novel, She of the Mountains, was named one of The Globe and Mail’s best books of 2014, and her recent collection of poetry, even this page is white, has been praised by George Elliot Clarke and Shani Mootoo. Her most recent book, The Boy and the Bindi, will be published in the fall of 2016. Shraya is a three-time Lambda Literary Award finalist and was the recipient of Writers’ Trust of Canada’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize Honour of Distinction. As a musician, Shraya has shared the stage with Tegan & Sara and will join them on their fall 2016 Canadian tour as one half of Too Attached. In early July, just after she was honoured as Grand Marshal of 2016 Pride Toronto, Shraya and I spoke about her music, her writing, and race in Canada.

Jason Purcell: You began your artistic career as a musician. When did your career as a musician transition into a writing career?

VS: I moved to Toronto from Edmonton in 2003. I had just recorded my first album and somehow it had gotten into the hands of John Wozniak of Marcy Playground—they had that huge song “Sex and Candy”—and I got this call saying, “Come to Toronto, we’ll make shit happen for you.” As a brown queer kid in Edmonton, I wanted to leave the city, so I ended up leaving three weeks later, having never been to Toronto in my life.

My music career has consistently felt like it was accelerating and then completely dissipating. I showcased for different record labels and there seemed to be interest and then it kind of fizzled, then I got a backup band and then it fizzled.  In 2007, via Myspace, I was approached by a brand new boutique label in Paris, which sounds fancier than it was. They heard If We’re Not Talking, my first electro-pop album, and they really liked it and they signed me. It was a really exciting moment in my career. I had been chasing the record deal. Back then the record deal was seen as the goal for a musician and I had finally gotten signed.

Then the unfortunate thing that happens to many signed artists started happening to me. They really liked If We’re Not Talking and wanted me to recreate that album. I kept sending them demos that were still electro-pop but had also evolved from that sound, and they said, “No, no, we want you to sound like this. We want you to sound like MGMT.” That was the “it” band at the time. I was getting really frustrated. I had sent them thirty demos and they had made so many contractual obligations to me and hadn’t delivered on any of them. When they signed me, they were like, “We’re going to make you the next Mika.” They had so many ambitions for me and it was hard not to buy into that.

During this period, I started writing again for the first time in years. Not songwriting, because that felt too painful, but these diary entries. I eventually showed them to friends and they were like, “Wow, you should develop these. These could be short stories. These could become something.” What I was writing developed into what would become God Loves Hair, which I self-published in 2010. In a roundabout way, my record company dicking me around was kind of what pushed me in a different artistic direction. I saw myself only as a musician and writing God Loves Hair really opened me up. I realized, “Oh, wow, actually, there’s a lot I want to say and I want to try different mediums. What can I say in the medium of short film? What can I say in the medium of visual art?” This was a pivotal moment for me, but it didn’t happen for me until eight or nine years into my career.

JP: You are now based in Toronto, but you grew up in Edmonton and received your Bachelor of Arts from the University of Alberta. In what ways did growing up in Edmonton shape your artistry?

 VS: Being queer and brown in a smaller city is very hard, and I have a lot of admiration for people who do stay. The landscape of Edmonton has changed so much since I’ve left. It’s a very different city now. For me, I felt like I had to move, but that said, one of the things that Edmonton really did is that it really nurtured me. It gave me a strong sense of artistic community that I often feel like I’m lacking here. People are so excited and supportive in Edmonton. You tell someone you have a CD release and people are like, “Whoa, when is it?” and everyone comes out; you have a book launch and people are very excited and they’re very supportive. In Toronto, it’s so saturated—like, my best friend’s dog has a CD release party tomorrow, you know? Being an artist in Toronto is almost disposable because there’s so many of us and we’re all doing it and a lot of people have their hands in a lot of different pots. That sense of community feels harder to find, and it can feel a lot more competitive, it can feel a lot more insular.

I feel especially grateful to the religious community I grew up in, because that’s where I first started to sing, that’s where I first started to write little speeches. They would have me talk about love and I would get up and I would talk and use these religious principles but I would also include excerpts from TLC or R.E.M.  Someone came up to me after and said, “That song you wrote was beautiful!” and I was like, “That song I wrote? Oh, I can write a song? That’s a thing?” And that’s what prompted me to start writing my own songs.

Edmonton really nurtured me and gave me a sense of artistic community, and when you’re developing and emerging as an artist, and even now, it is so crucial and I always look forward to sharing new work when I come back home.

JP: I see you returning to Edmonton often in your work. God Loves Hair, She of the Mountains, The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton and even this page is white all consider Edmonton in one way or another. Do you still feel a sense of “home” when you think of Edmonton?

VS: Most people are shaped by the city they grew up in. Being a child of immigrants, there is this whole idea of being caught between two cultures that follows first-generation people and artists, and that comes across in my work. But in some ways I feel also between two cities. I have spent more than half of my life in Edmonton. When I’m forty, it’ll be 50/50.

I’m constantly thinking about Edmonton and am inspired by Edmonton, and as I age my relationship to Edmonton changes. I did an interview with someone who said, “You’re really hard on Edmonton sometimes,” and that’s true, but then I think about last year editing The Magnificent Malls of Edmonton, which to me was a really giant step in my relationship with the city. I see that project as a tribute to the city. I said this in the introduction of the zine, but in a lot of ways, I feel like the malls are a metaphor for the way that people feel about Edmonton. It’s very easy to be hard on, it’s very easy to trash—“Deadmonton”—and malls are that way too, but at the end of the day, that’s where we grow up.

I’m really grateful to the city. The more I make art, the older I grow, the more time and space I have from the city, the more I’m able to find the beauty in it in ways that I wasn’t able to while I lived there, in large part because of the homophobia and genderphobia I faced.

JP: You’ve talked about the ways your music career led you to your literary one. Can you comment on the ways that your work in one medium might interact with your other projects? I’m thinking here of “White Dreams,” the single that accompanies even this page is white.

VS: Yesterday I met with a young artist and he had a giant list of ideas but was feeling stuck, and I said to him, “What excites you?” The older I get, that is what is really important. I am very grateful for the interest in my literary work and other art but there are moments that I wish that I could make music happen. Sometimes music feels like “fetch,” and it’s like, “Quit trying to make music happen.” Music is what makes me happiest, so for me, part of what I have tried to do is to find ways to integrate music into whatever project I’m doing so that it feels exciting to me too and that it has that element of my heart. That’s not to say I’m not passionate about the writing or the filmmaking, but I love music so much and I try to find ways to incorporate it. Having “White Dreams” as a bonus single for the book felt like a nice add-on. If the book can introduce people to my music, wonderful. Maybe music won’t happen and that’s fine, but I still want to find ways to incorporate it. So with even this page is white, I’ve been closing the readings with an homage to Black female musicians, or with Your Cloud, an installation in Toronto, I also released a cover of the Tori Amos song “Your Cloud,” which I named the project after.

Part of it is also thinking of the audience. For me, I want to find ways to surprise an audience and engage an audience. I have a short attention span as an artist, so I have always been drawn to artists that are doing a multiplicity of things and have really big visions.

JP: You recently received national and international attention for a photography project called Trisha, in which you recreate photographs of your mother taken when she was a young woman. Elsewhere in your work, your mother is a presence that you orbit around. Can you talk about your relationship with your mother?

VS: I have a complicated relationship with my mom. One of the reasons I return to her as a theme, not unlike Edmonton, is because of that complexity. First and foremost, her gender and her femininity have always been inspiring to me, especially as a kid watching her, and I reference this in God Loves Hair. She was also one of the few people during my formative years to be very supportive of my gender creativity. Again in God Loves Hair, the last story is she and I going to buy my first pair of tweezers, and this being a symbol of acceptance, a quiet symbol of acceptance.

As I’ve gotten older, maybe my obsession with my mom has increased. There’s this line in Trisha: “You worked full-time, went to school part-time, managed a home, raised two children who complained about frozen food and made fun of your accent, and cared for your family in India. Most days in my adult life, I can barely care for myself.” I often think about my mom and how hard she worked to raise a family in a new country and I have so much respect for her, and I’m so in awe of her.

I’m also fascinated by her perspective. Holy Mother My Mother was an opportunity to hear her perspective and have her talk about what motherhood has meant to her. My interest in my mom comes is tied to femininity. As I’ve grown comfortable in my femininity, I return to my mom a prime symbol of femininity.

JP: You self-published your first book, God Loves Hair. What was the experience of self-publishing like for you?

VS: Sometimes I look back and I think, “What the hell was I doing?” I have boxes of CDs that I never sold. The most I’ve ever sold from an album is 100 copies. When I self-published God Loves Hair, I worked with the printer, and as with any printing, the more you print, the cheaper it is. I printed 1,000 books and I had no reason to believe that I was going to sell those because I had no track record of selling that much “product.” But I really believed in the project and I think, in some ways, that things going downhill with the label left me feeling passionately about DIY culture again. After experiencing the ways that the record deal was stalling me and holding me back, I didn’t want someone telling me, “No, you can’t do this. You don’t look masculine enough here. No, we don’t want to do a full-colour book.” I wanted to have the full control that I had as a musician prior to the label, so I self-published this book and it had a life of its own, which is incredible.

JP: And then it was picked up by Arsenal Pulp Press. I think many publishers would be wary of publishing a book that has already been self-published and had press coverage and seen a lot of success. I think God Loves Hair is exceptional for this reason.

VS: Six months before I self-published it, I had asked Brian Francis, the author of Fruit and an amazing, wonderful human, to blurb God Loves Hair and he said to me, “Listen, I know you want to self-publish it, but I think it’s worth sending it to publishers. You never know, you’d be surprised,” which was interesting because everybody else had said to me, “No publisher is going to pick up a full-colour book by a newbie writer.” So my compromise was to submit it to four or five publishers, and if I heard back positively before I went to press, great, and if not I was going to carry on. So I had actually submitted it to Arsenal then and they turned it down.

I had also contacted them when the first edition had sold out. One thousand copies sold in a year and I contacted them and sent a message saying that this book was nominated for a Lambda Award and has been selling as a textbook in institutions and again they turned it down. So I self-published it again.

They ended up reaching out to me around the time when the second edition was almost sold out, saying they’d love to do a new edition of God Loves Hair. I was really anxious that they’d want to rebrand it somehow. I wanted to preserve the feel of the design because I think that’s partly what makes the book so special, and they were like, “Great, yes.” So there are some minor changes: the spine colour is different and the font is a little bit different, but they really honoured the original project, and I feel very lucky. It was wild to see the kinds of reach that having a publisher offered the book. I feel like I was able to do a lot with the book on my own, but once it was with Arsenal, suddenly it was in Publisher’s Weekly and getting featured in Out Magazine.

JP: You seem to have a very close relationship with Arsenal Pulp Press and I wonder what other types of support they have offered you as a writer?

VS: I’ve been very fortunate. I’m putting out my fourth book with them this fall and I started working with them in 2014, so that’s four books in two years, which is pretty ridiculous. If anything, that really speaks to how much they believe in me. And I’m not one of their best-selling authors, either. They have a chart on their website of best-selling titles and I’m not often on that chart. With even this page is white and The Boy & the Bindi, their website is very clear that they aren’t accepting poetry submissions or children’s book submissions and this year they’re doing both with me. Poetry, as you know, is not as lucrative as a novel, so I feel very lucky to have a publisher that’s willing to take those risks with me because they believe in what I want to do.

JP: I am struck by the threads that run between your first publication, God Loves Hair and your other books, notably She of the Mountains and even this page is white. I find there to be an extremely nuanced exploration of the performativity of gender throughout your work. From being mistaken for a baby girl in “God Loves Hair,” experimenting with makeup in “Lipstick,” coaxing relatives to dress you up in saris in “Dress Up,” to your concern with the poetics of queer masculinity in She of the Mountains. Can you talk about your concern with gender and gender performance and how they may have changed and evolved throughout your work? 

VS: What’s really exciting and bizarre is to look at the ways that the art was sometimes ahead of me. I remember one of the first pieces of feedback I got from God Loves Hair is someone said they had read it as a trans narrative. That was a huge compliment, obviously, but I was not identifying as trans at the time, I wasn’t even identifying as genderqueer at the time. I would say I was barely identifying as queer at the time!

What I’m so grateful to art for is that sometimes art has revealed truth to me which has made me seek it further with every project. The continual revelation of truth in art has then revealed those truths in me as a person. It sounds cumbersome because I’m the artist and I’m making it, but I think that art has been a safe space for me to explore gender and think about gender in ways that me as a human might not have been ready to do. I’ve heard similar things about She of the Mountains, that many people have read it as a trans narrative, and that wasn’t my intention with the project but I can see how that’s possible and that’s really exciting.

JP: In “God Loves Hair,” you write about the way your mother prayed for you to look like your father. Then, in Trisha, you write, “You had also prayed for me to look like Dad, but you forgot to pray for the rest of me. It is strange that you would overlook this, as you have always said, ‘Be careful what you pray for.’ When I take off my clothes and look in the mirror, I see Dad’s body, as you wished. But the rest of me has always wished to be you.” Can you talk more about this?

VS: While I’ve been transitioning, even though my mom has been a consistent inspiration to me in regards to my gender, especially while I’ve been transitioning I’ve noted in photographs the way I have started to look like her. That was a large part of the impetus for doing Trisha. It’s interesting talking to you about the project because you’re familiar with God Loves Hair. For me, I see Trisha and God Loves Hair as being a communication, especially that first story. As an artist, I’m always hesitant to repeat myself. I’m always hoping to show new angles. This is one moment for me when I felt like I couldn’t talk about the photo series without going back to that story and that’s why that essay begins with, “My story has always been bound to your prayer.”

JP: And you are addressing Trisha to your mother, speaking directly to her. You’ve joked in other interviews about not necessarily being able to share your books with your parents. What does Trisha mean in terms of communication with your mother?

VS: I would love to share the project with her at some point. I haven’t wanted to weigh down the artistic side of the project with my mother’s response. If she doesn’t like it, if she’s unhappy with it, then it would taint the project for me. I want the project to have a life of its own before I have this conversation.

It is bizarre. I’ve done this homage to my mom, which features a letter to her, and ostensibly hundreds of people have engaged with it in ways my mom hasn’t. But that’s art!

JP: So you’re saying your mom hasn’t seen the photos at all?

VS: My mom doesn’t use the internet a lot and thank goddess! I deliberately didn’t use her name to protect her privacy.

JP: You have been vocal about issues of representation in the publishing industry, particularly in terms of race, gender, and sexuality. You adapted the keynote you presented to the Association of Canadian Publishers in early 2016 into an article on All Lit Up that included thirteen recommendations for presses that need to diversify. Can you share your experience?

VS: The experience was surreal on many levels because even though I see myself as fourteen years into my artistic career, I’m only four years into my literary career. I started out self-publishing and I couldn’t even get some bookstores in Toronto to stock my book. So four years later to be standing in a room with publishers from small presses across the country where I’m giving a keynote was a surreal experience. It was an honour that people would be interested in what I have to say, but what was particularly hard about that talk was here I was doing a talk about diversity in publishing and there were about fifty people in that room and I’m, again, one of the only brown people in the room.

It’s hard to be a brown person—let alone a brown trans person—and stand up and talk about racism. What was really interesting about that talk was I certainly felt a type of defensiveness at times during the Q&A, which is to be expected, but largely I got the sense that people want to do better but they don’t know how. I am sure that this is a genuine feeling, but I also think that it is also tied to complacency. Conversations about diversity in publishing have happened long before I was born. People who I respect and admire who are ten, fifteen years older than me, people like Farzana Doctor, have been doing amazing work and have had these very same conversations. When publishers say they don’t know what to do or how to do it, it’s frustrating because these conversations have been taking place for a really long time. That said, I’m very committed to engaging in these conversations at this point in my career, and that’s why I wrote that article, with the intention that, “Okay, if you’re serious about wanting to make change, here are some ideas.”

What’s been amazing is the way that article has been picked up. I have been contacted by several small presses in Canada who have actually changed their submission mandate based on what was in that article, which is incredible. But I have two major concerns. One of the things I hear a lot is that “diversity is trending right now” and that’s a disturbing concept. Diversity is not trending, diversity is real. Diversity is real life, especially in Canada. When people say it’s a hot topic, it’s disturbing, because what happens next year? Will diversity not be a hot topic anymore? What happens to writers like me next year? Is our writing no longer important or valuable? And this brings me to my second concern, which is that what people don’t realize sometimes is that the work around diversification or inclusion is life-long. It’s not a matter of just changing your mandate, it’s not a matter of just saying you’re committed to this for the next six months, it’s about the long haul. Before I wrote the article, I contacted Brian Lam at Arsenal, and I said, “I think you have one of the most diverse book lists in Canada. How did you establish this?” and Brian talked about taking risks in the 80s by publishing things that other people didn’t feel comfortable publishing. Arsenal, as an example, has been doing this work consistently and that’s what’s key. Let’s change our mandates, let’s change our focus, let’s have these conversations, let’s write articles, let’s read articles, let’s share them, but the work needs to be ongoing. You might not get lots of POC submissions right away or your book lists might not change overnight, but it has to be a life-long commitment.

JP: Are you witnessing any exciting interventions into these discussions? Who do you turn to for their work in these areas? 

VS: Whenever I have these conversations, I look to Farzana. Obviously she’s a friend, but she has really mentored me in a lot of ways. She really believed in my future, being published and being part of CanLit, long before I did, even when I was in the self-publishing days. She’s also someone who is constantly championing the importance of diversity and having more marginalized voices represented in CanLit.

JP: You dedicate even this page is white to “anyone who has lost a friend from saying the word race.” In a 2014 presentation called “CWILA and the Challenge of Counting for Race,” Madeleine Thien talked about the difficulty of talking about race in Canada. What has the experience of talking about race in Canada been like for you? 

VS: It’s an interesting moment. Again, diversity as a “hot topic” is challenging, but I think I am very lucky because between the publication of even this page is white and diversity being a “hot topic,” the things that I’m saying or pushing or reading from my book have been mostly met with interest, curiosity, respect, appreciation, gratitude—so mostly positively. That dedication, though, comes from not always being in this position. I realize that I have a privilege of a platform right now, but in the day-to-day life when I’m having conversations with friends or co-workers or on Facebook, talking about race has often been tied to some kind of loss. Usually that means a loss of friendship or loss of trust or loss of hope.

Having a platform doesn’t always makes it easier. I did a reading here at a poetry event in Toronto and it was sixty people, everyone was white, and I almost left before it started. I was like, “I don’t want to do this.” It’s really hard work but I also feel as a non-Black, non-Indigenous person, who doesn’t face the kind of daily violence and scrutiny they face, I have an emotional energy to engage in these conversations. I feel like a small gesture I can make as an ally is to try to use my privilege to talk about these issues.

JP: In reading your work, as well as following your online activist presence, I am struck by your attention to the ways in which you might be complicit in perpetuating particular forms of violence and oppression—I’m thinking here of  your poems “indian” and “amiskwacîwâskahikan,” in which you address the way our presence on this land perpetuates a colonial violence. Can you talk more about that?

VS: For me, that’s the hard work. I can be mad at white people 24/7 and I would be right to be, but the conversations around racism and white supremacy are much more nuanced. There are lots of places where I have privilege. I work at a post-secondary institution, so even though I’m a brown artist, I do have a certain kind of class privilege. I don’t get carded on the streets of Toronto. I’m never worried about that. So for me, writing a book that delved into racism from a personal lens, it didn’t feel adequate just to be angry at whiteness or white people. For me, it was also unpacking the ways I have upheld white supremacy, whether that’s through things like shadeism, appreciating my light skin as opposed to my brother’s dark skin, and how that actually ties to anti-Blackness.

Nobody wants to own their privilege. Everyone wants to say that they have it hardest. This is my big frustration with gay white men. A lot of gay white men feel that they have had it hard, which is not inaccurate, but they are not willing to think about the ways that they have privilege too, and the ways that their experience as opposed to my experience is very different. For example, in regards to Orlando, the way that moment got completely white-washed was hard to watch. I’m not Latinx, either, so I also had to figure out what my place is in connecting to this terrible tragedy. That’s where the work is, in always situating yourself and reminding yourself of what your privileges are and then doing something about it.

JP: You mention Orlando. I saw a great Facebook post yesterday. It was only two lines, and it said, “Orlando reminded us why we need Pride. Black Lives Matter Toronto reminded us how to do Pride right.” You have just come off heels of Toronto Pride where you were Grand Marshal, where there was the very powerful Black Lives Matter protest.

 VS: One of the most succinct things I’ve seen written is by someone I follow on Twitter named Mike Bickerton, and he said, “If you were #OnePulse a week ago and anti-#BLMTO this morning, you’ve misunderstood one of the above.” One of the things we have to think about is the only reason we get to have a big gay parade in 2016 is because of protests by largely Black and Indigenous trans and queer people of colour at events like Stonewall—which aren’t unlike what happened at Pride—and we can’t forget that.

To me, it was such a strange experience, because I was done the parade when that all happened. I was given the impression that all honoured people or groups would be together, but we were all separated, I was at the front and I couldn’t even see where they were, so I was reading on Twitter about what happening in the same parade I was just in. I was in awe. Someone else in my feed said something like, “We invited an activist group to be an honoured group at Pride, and surprise! They took an activist stance!” Their action was a really important reminder of the history of Pride.

What’s been so disturbing has been the backlash from white gay people especially when juxtaposed with how white gay culture appropriates Black culture. Even the language, like adopting “Yaaaas” or “Fierce.” It definitely speaks to anti-Black racism in LGBTQ communities. I think sometimes to the general public, there’s a sense that if you’re marginalized, you don’t oppress other people. I personally know from my own experience how rampant the LGBTQ community is with racism, with biphobia, with transphobia, and this is a visceral example of anti-Black racism in LGBTQ communities and the work that needs to be done there.

JP: In “how to not disappoint you completely,” you ask, “if I write about you is it appropriation / if I don’t write about you is it erasure / if I include you is it tokenizing / if I don’t include you is it invisibilizing?” Do you consider an ethics of writing, and if so, what does yours look like? 

VS: First, to talk about that poem in particular, writing about racism is hard. Wanting to make sure I’m writing from a personal perspective as opposed to making blanket statements about groups I’m not part of was even more challenging, because that expectation was there. When I got feedback from my first draft of the book, people asked, “Are you going to talk about the niqab ban? Are you going to talk about colonization?” I felt so overwhelmed with feeling I needed to check off a lot of these “topical” boxes—“Are you going to talk about the Syrian refugee crisis?”—I felt a lot of pressure to talk about these events in Canada that are tied to race and racism, but I’m not a Syrian refugee, and I’m not Muslim, so how do I do this? How do I use the medium and platform of the book to talk about these complicated issues but not claim them as my own? That, in a lot of ways, became one of the central obsessions for me and central points of anxiety in writing this book. That poem was really inspired by Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel. So much of her book is about process. It’s kind of a book about making a book. I remember being critical of that, like, why am I reading a book about making a book, I just want to read a book. But as I was writing even this page is white her approach actually felt very useful. Writing “how to not disappoint you completely” felt like an important way to talk about the fact that I am struggling with these things.

When you belong to marginalized communities there is a sense of accountability and so consequently there is a sense of failure. I worried about failing Black and brown people with this book.

So yes, absolutely, my work is tied to ethics. My work is also always tied to wanting to push against dominant narratives. For example, in She of the Mountains or even this page is white or even Trisha, is there a way for me to talk about my body without talking about it as the wrong body? With trans narratives, there’s this idea that transness is feeling like you’re born in the wrong body, but often, it’s more that we live in a world that doesn’t know how to receive us as we are. That’s not to dismiss trans people who do feel they are born in the wrong body, that’s their narrative and that’s important, but for me I’m always grappling with how to push against the most pervasive ideas, how can I always tell a complicated story.

JP: Your most recent book, a children’s picture book called The Boy & the Bindi, is another exploration of a new genre for you. Can you talk to me about this project and how it came to be?

VS: It’s a children’s picture book with an illustrator named Rajni Perera who I have collaborated with a couple of times: the artwork for All of the Lights, the Diwali EP I put out, and the bonus artwork for Holy Mother My Mother. The writing style is a cross between Dr. Seuss meets Robert Munsch, both fantastic children’s book authors who have inspired many, including myself.

Essentially, I was on a jury here in Toronto where I was exposed to children’s books and I was heavily disappointed to see how few children of colour were in these books. I had read this New York Times article in 2013 that talked about how that year they had done research and how something like four or five percent, a really small percentage, of children’s books made that year featured people of colour. Increasingly there are more children’s books about gender creativity, but again, a lot of them are white. I felt frustrated, and from frustration comes art. I had a J.K. Rowling moment and wrote The Boy & the Bindi on a napkin—I wish I had kept that napkin.

Announcing the 2016 Glass Buffalo Writing Prize Shortlists

This year, Glass Buffalo was proud to expand our writing contests by opening them to writers across Canada and introducing new prizes: the Glass Buffalo Short Fiction Prize, the Glass Buffalo French Poetry Prize, and the Glass Buffalo English Poetry Prize. After receiving many fantastic entries from across Canada, we're very excited to announce the shortlists for the three prizes!

The short fiction entries were judged by Marina Endicott, who was most recently longlisted for the Giller Prize for her book, Close to Hugh. And the poetry prizes were judged by Pierrette Requier, the current Poet Laureate of Edmonton. Learn more about the contests and judges here.

Here are the seven writers and their work chosen by our judges:

Glass Buffalo Short Fiction Prize ($500 sponsored by Priority Printing)
Kate Black, "Dying Game"
Shawn Ohler, "Mark IV"
Nicola Winstanley, "Invaders"

Glass Buffalo French Poetry Prize ($400)
Sarah-Jeanne Bélec, "Orages"
Ann Josée Thibeault, "Pornomatopée"

Glass Buffalo English Poetry Prize ($400)
Claire Kelly, "Another Failed Anthropologetica"
Gianmarco Visconti, "Tiger's Eye"

The winners of the prizes will be announced at our Fall 2016 issue launch on Wednesday, September 28, at Yellowhead Brewery. For more information on the event and to buy your tickets now, view our Eventbrite page.

Alumni Spotlight: Todd Babiak

What Are We Doing This For?

 Photo supplied

Photo supplied

From a very young age, all of Todd Babiak’s teachers and mentors have encouraged him to write—except one. Every Monday in Grade 6, Babiak would write short stories along with his classmates, and the teacher would take them all in to review. One day, she brought Babiak’s parents in to talk about what their son had been writing, and, as he explains it, “before they even sat down…she started crying and said she was haunted by me and that my stories kept her up at night and she was worried about me and that I either had to go see a psychiatrist or move to another class, because she couldn’t have me in class anymore.”

His parents, obviously concerned, took the story home to see what had frightened the teacher so much. But instead of crying out in terror, his parents laughed as they read it. The story begins with Babiak’s family gathering at their cabin near Skeleton Lake. “Billy Smith the hockey player has escaped from a mental institution after hitting Gretzky too many times,” recounts Babiak. “And he starts murdering my family—gruesomely murdering them. He starts eating them after he kills them—each person was killed in a different way specific to their personality. And the hero, Todd, saves them, punches him in the stomach, and then he saves all the family members and they dance over his corpse.” His parents loved the story so much, they photocopied it and shared it with the rest of the family, who got as big a kick out of it.

Since that moment, Babiak has enjoyed writing stories, but the path to becoming a published writer wasn’t clear to him. At the University of Alberta he majored in Political Science and minored in English. “But I did exactly thirty credits of [my major],” says Babiak. “I had a very, very broad BA, and I did as many things as I could do.”

He was set on going to law school and began asking his favourite professors for letters of recommendation. In a Nonfiction Creative Writing class, his professor Ted Bishop had written only one comment on one of his essays: “You are a writer.” When Babiak asked him for a reference letter, Bishop said, “I don’t think you should be a lawyer. Why don’t you go to a graduate school in Creative Writing and be a writer?” Knowing he’d always wanted to write a book someday and that he may be haunted by his decision if he became a lawyer and couldn’t find time to write, Babiak took Bishop’s advice. Babiak admits, “If it wasn’t for Ted, for sure I’d be a lawyer.” 

He moved to Montreal to earn his Master’s in English Literate at Concordia University. Since then, he’s written several best-selling books, including The Garneau Block, from which this magazine got its name. In the novel, neighbours on a block near the University of Alberta band together to save their neighbourhood from being annexed by the university. To do so, they decide they will build a museum in the shape of a glass buffalo head, and ask the citizens of Edmonton to bring their objects of “mythic power”—anything with a significant story to it—to be stored in the museum. It’s a humourous book, filled with many quirky characters that could only live in Edmonton. These characteristics are common across most of Babiak’s books as he notes one question he always asks is, “What makes a community unique?”

In his other books, the theme of violence comes up a lot, particularly in his most recent ones, the political thriller Come Barbarians and its sequel Son of France. The change in tone in his books—from humour to serious crime—was spurred by what he was reading at the time. “I was reading a lot of John le Carré and more sophisticated European thrillers, and I’m interested in politics too. So I was able to put politics and fatherhood and crime novels and France all together in a book.” The process of writing these fast-paced books has changed how he writes. He explains, “I’d probably have way less patience for scenes that did not turn…for clever dialogue for the sake of dialogue, cuteness for the sake of cuteness. Does this advance the story or not?”

On top of writing popular books, Babiak also runs his own business: Story Engine. “We’re more of a core strategy company,” he explains. “We create a master story for the organization: why they exist in the first place, which involves a lot of research and interviews. So we bring in journalism and we bring in the skills you gain as a fiction writer. We develop this master story and we develop tactics to make it come to life in a very consistent way.” Babiak and his company bring a Liberal Arts way of thinking back into business. “It fits,” he says. “It never feels weird—it’s not like we’re banging drums or playing with crayons.”

Babiak encourages emerging writers to be curious and put themselves out there. Volunteering is one way to do so. “You start to meet people who are outside of your normal sphere,” he says, “and, if you’re bold, you can ask them for a coffee or for a drink and just suck up years of experience and success and failure.” And no matter whether you take on a full-time job or pursue writing as a career, try to carve out time in the morning to write. As Babiak says, “I’m filled with chaos at the end of the day, and in the morning when it’s quite, I can really focus. I’m sure my best thinking happens in the early morning and I get to give it to myself.”

Why does Babiak believe we write? “I’m interested in helping businesses find meaning and individuals find meaning,” says Babiak. “I think meaning is what I’m seeking, more than a mass audience. Not to say I’m not a total whore and I don’t absolutely want millions of people to read my stuff, and I don’t someday want to write that book that everyone reads… [But] I want to move people. What are we doing this for? We want to move people—I really think that’s what we want to do.”

—Matthew Stepanic

Alumni Spotlight: Emma Hooper

Fewer Flying Dolphins

 Photo by Martin Topkins

Photo by Martin Topkins

Emma Hooper, the best-selling first-time novelist of Etta and Otto and Russell and James (E&O&R&J), embodies the whimsy of her plots and characters. When we meet over Skype for this interview (as Hooper resides in Bath, England), she sits cross-legged in her neighbours’ home, her body framed in a compact hallway. She explains that the Internet in her home is down, so she had to rush over to use her neighbours’ after mowing the lawn. Hooper fusses over sweat and grass clippings in her dark hair (accented by a strip of grey), but she looks as put together and effervescent as in her author photo.

Hooper can’t recall a specific moment when she decided she wanted to write, “It was just a thing you do. When you’re a kid and you’re drawing, no one’s like, ‘Oh, why do you draw, Timmy?’” Growing up with a mother who worked as a librarian, Hooper remembers loads of books piled around the house and that she was always reading. On top of her writing, Hooper has other outlets for her creativity, such as playing viola, violin, and other instruments for her string quartet, The Stringbeans, and her solo project, Waitress for the Bees. “I like to think that everybody has some sort of instinct to create at some level. And some people knit and some people play electric guitar and some people kind of tinker with cars—there’s lots of outlets for that.”

Hooper finds it easier to write music than she does stories, “writing’s not ridiculously hard or anything, but it takes more work because words are so specific,” she says. “They mean exactly what they mean. Whereas with music, there’s a lot more fluidity of meaning and you can play around with it a bit more.” Taking a break from one also helps her work on the other;  she mentions that if she ever feels backed into a corner while writing, she leaves it to play the piano. “It’s a nice way to unclog whatever is the problem,” she explains. “Whether it’s for music or writing, they’re like two different languages. If I don’t know the word in this language, I can go use this other one.”

Another trick she has for inspiring her writing is flipping open her copy of Alessandro Baricco’s novel Ocean Sea, which she keeps on her desk. “I open it to a random page and read two or three sentences and that’ll get me kind of in the right tone, the tone of being really careful about word choice,” she explains. “I take it in really small chunks; it’s like really dark chocolate.”

In her writing, Hooper says she likes to add in whimsy and playfulness, and make her characters be good. “I find in literature, often but not always, you get sort of a focus on darkness, which exists and is fine and adds tension,” she says, “but I can get a little bit frustrated by reading about all of these people who are empty and horrible and sad all the time. Even though a lot of those books are great books, I think that actually in real life, people are mostly good. People are mostly trying to do and be the best they can.”

E&O&R&J is a complete mould of her fantastical style. In the novel, Etta, an eighty-three-year-old woman with Alzheimer’s, decides she wants to see the ocean, so she leaves her Saskatchewan home and starts walking east, and soon meets a talking coyote named James. The novel has been incredibly well received—it was a nominee for the First Novel Award, but perhaps most impressively it only took  twelve hours for Penguin Canada to offer her a contract. “People in publishing are crazy; I don’t know how they read it so fast—or skim read it. Four people skim read it in those twelve hours. The first person did and was like, ‘Wow, I really like this,’ so she fired it off to everyone else.” She then received a hearty advance in exchange for not shopping the manuscript around to any other Canadian publishers. When I ask her if she thought about holding out, she responds, “To be honest, I’d been trying to sell my other book—it had been like two, two and a half years of just trying to get someone to pay attention—and so...they could have offered me $20 and I would have been like, ‘Wahoo!’”

E&O&R&J is actually the third novel that Hooper has written. She says of the whole experience, “Writers just have to be prepared to be both really humble—because you’re going to get loads of rejections—and be really self-centred the whole time where you think it’s really worth you writing through all of that.” She doesn’t regret writing the first two novels though, as they helped teach her how to write one. “Some people in my [Master’s] course and some people in general write amazing first novels, but the vast majority write a first novel to learn how to write a novel. And they turn around and look at it and go, well, that’s how it’s done and this is embarrassing. I’m going to throw it away and start again for real.”

Whether it’s a first novel, a third one, or just a short story, Hooper says it’s important to trust yourself and not let the editor and the artist interact. “When you’re working, especially on your own like with solo music or writing, you have to be both things—both the person who’s creating and the person who looks at what’s been created and says, ‘Um, that’s ridiculous. Maybe you should have fewer flying dolphins.’” It’s better, she says, to follow your imagination down whatever crazy path it wants to go—no matter how soppy or happy—and then review it later in your editor role. She says to develop that role, writing classes or groups are very useful. “They teach you, more than how to be that artist person, how to be that editor person because of that whole workshopping process where you bring in your work and everybody critiques it. The first time that happens, it’s like someone punching you in the face, and then you get more and more used to it...and by the time you finish, you step away and you don’t need those people anymore. You’ve sort of learnt how to reflect on your own work and analyze it and make it as good as it can be.”

Most importantly, Hooper recommends writers have friends who are writers, but don’t let yourself be competitive. “It can be easy when it’s such a difficult marketplace to just kind of resent other people’s successes and publications, but writing’s a lonely craft and you definitely want to have other novelists or writer friends to kind of connect with sometimes,” she says. “Don’t live alone in your garret.”

— Matthew Stepanic

The 2015 Glass Buffalo Poetry Prize Shortlist

After receiving so many fantastic entries from young poets across Alberta, we're very excited to announce the shortlist for the first Glass Buffalo Poetry Prize!

An initial longlist of 10 poems were selected by members of the Writers' Guild of Alberta's Youth Council (including Akosua Adasi, Fran Kimmel, Nicole Liesner, Barbori Streibl, and Rena Traxel) and given to our contest judge Peter Midgley, senior editor (acquisitions) at the University of Alberta Press and the author of Counting Teeth: A Namibian Story

"As a judge, I was looking for poems that show a mastery, or at least proficiency, in the use of poetic devices—metaphor, rhythm, line breaks, structure of stanzas, the development of a motif or overarching idea," says Midgley. "Is there a consistency in the poem’s own internal logic? What is this logic and how is it maintained and developed in a way that is clear for the reader? Does the poem remain bound within its own world, or does it push the reader beyond the page and into a consideration of broader social and philosophical issues?"

Listed in alphabetical order, here are the three poets and their poems chosen by Midgley for our shortlist:

  • Benjamin Hertwig, "food habits of coyotes, as determined by examination of stomach contents"
  • Curtis LeBlanc, "Ordinary"
  • Gianmarco Visconti, "Augury"

The winner of the prize will be announced at our Fall 2015 issue launch on Monday, September 28, at Yellowhead Brewery and will receive a $500 cash prize sponsored by the Writers' Guild of Alberta. For more information on the event and to buy your tickets now, view our Eventbrite page.

Alumni Spotlight: Caitlin Crawshaw

Salvage What Works

 Photo supplied

Photo supplied

“Holy Fucking Cats,” says Caitlin Crawshaw when I ask her (after an amusing and insightful conversation about her career as a freelance writer and her work on her MFA in Creative Writing through the University of British Columbia) what the hed of her profile should be. Though she’s given me nothing but writing wisdom throughout the afternoon (and had me laughing at every turn), we both agree it’d be an absurd hed. But as a lede, it has potential….

Ever since she was a kid, Crawshaw remembers that she loved to write. She would sit on her nana’s knee and together they would come up with wild stories. “[Writing’s] a compulsion, honestly. It’s one of the very few activities in which I can lose myself completely and focus for hours on end,” says Crawshaw. Thus, she’d never want to rule out commercial success for herself or anyone with work they love doing.

However, Crawshaw received different advice when she first set out on a full-time freelance career. When her pitches weren’t landing at a magazine in Edmonton, she asked the editor out for coffee to learn what she could do to improve. Crawshaw wasn’t quite expecting the advice she received. “She went on a tirade about how I should get out of the industry now and it wasn’t too late for me to become a lawyer,” says Crawshaw. “She was pulling out every argument for why it was a waste of time: you won’t make more than $50,000 in a year, you won’t be able to retire—it was pretty ridiculous.”

Thankfully, Crawshaw didn’t allow that editor to discourage her, and instead only accepted the advice that allowed her to successfully pitch a story to the magazine. Now, many years later, Crawshaw has established for herself a successful freelance career and never intends to pass on that editor’s advice to any emerging writers. “There’s no point in keeping knowledge to yourself,” says Crawshaw. “It’s served me so much in this world in encouraging people. It makes me sad to hear people who aren’t because it’s hard enough being a writer.”  She is very realistic about what to expect in her writer career, and she’s played hers very wisely. “You can write about arts, and you should write about arts,” Crawshaw explains, “but it shouldn’t be all that you do. It just absolutely can’t. There are better paying niches like writing about science and technology and business, and looking past magazines and newspapers towards different types of communications writing.”

In building her portfolio and client base, Crawshaw balanced it out with all of those different publishing venues. Even if she didn’t think she’d enjoy writing a particular assignment, Crawshaw recommends never saying no—she never knew where it could lead. During her time at The Gateway, Crawshaw wrote the science articles in the newspaper because no one else wanted them, and on top of enjoying writing them, she won an award from the Canadian Science Writers’ Association. Crawshaw says, “I was really excited about that, and it sort of grew from there. After that I was like, I can write about anything!”

Crawshaw admits her freelance writing career can be a bit terrifying at times because there is no formula or manual for how to succeed. “There’s no obvious way to move up,” explains Crawshaw, “but there are way to make more income or to diversify or to change directions of what you’re writing about. You just have to be a little more creative in this economy and in this industry. People create opportunities; industries are always changing.”

A graduate of the butt-in-chair school, Crawshaw says that the only way you’ll become good at writing is by doing it. You can’t always hope to ride a wave of creativity, according to Crawshaw, “If you just let yourself wait until you feel like you’re in the mood to do it, you really hold yourself back. It really sucks because I think we’re all perfectionists as writers to a degree, and it sucks to keep going when you feel like it’s a real dog. Eventually you have to go back to it and salvage what works." If you don’t feel good about a piece of writing, it helps to share it with a workshop group as Crawshaw says that the feedback can help you improve it.

Writing groups are also useful for inspiring you to write if you don’t have any deadlines, Crawshaw says. But that group should contain a very special type of people: “Find yourself some reasonably polite assholes—smart assholes.” She explains, “You really don’t want idiotic feedback. You don’t want people who will say, ‘Well, that reminds me of this thing that happens with my dog.’” If your group cares more about your feelings than offering constructive feedback, she says, you won’t progress in any way.

Currently, Crawshaw is working on her Master’s thesis, which is a collection of essays about motherhood as a queer woman. In writing her own stories, Crawshaw admits she finds it easy to regurgitate personal information, but it’s often hard to find the appropriate creative way to structure an essay. Also, she admits that sometimes her memory’s not that great. Though events and details may not always occur in her essays as they do in real life, Crawshaw says, “the emotional truth is what matters…or what the vulnerable piece of it is. Because you have to be vulnerable or what’s the point?”

One of Crawshaw’s best pieces of advice for emerging writers is, “If it makes you feel uncomfortable, do it.” For her, that’s what’s at the heart of writing, as she explains, “It’s all about going for it when you feel paralyzing anxiety—though obviously, if it’s paralyzing, you can’t go for it. But that’s writing: keep going until you hit a rock. Then stop. Then keep going.”

— Matthew Stepanic

Alumni Spotlight: Mary Pinkoski

Stand in Your Light

 Photo by R Edwards Photography

Photo by R Edwards Photography

Edmonton’s Poet Laureate Mary Pinkoski believes that “no matter what it is, your story is important—so tell it.” “Stand in your light,” she often tells the youth she mentors for YouthWrite (a writing camp for kids), and the expression corresponds to her personality as Pinkoski appears to cast her own warm light. Her bubbly persona is infectious and radiates in her speech as she almost skips across sentences, the speed of her words rising with her enthusiasm as we discuss her passion for poetry.

Her zeal for writing and sharing stories began in Grade 12 during a work experience class for which Pinkoski worked as a freelance reporter at the Sherwood Park News.  “[It was] a way for me to tell the stories that are important to people,” she says, and that aspect of the job has remained a focus in her writing. She continued at the newspaper all through her undergrad at the University of Alberta, writing during the summer and doing some ad features during the winter when the paper needed extra help.

When she had first started her education at the U of A, Pinkoski majored in Physical Education but soon realized it wasn’t for her. She’d taken some Canadian Studies courses during that time, though, and chose to switch her major. “I was drawn to [the program] because of its interdisciplinary nature,” she says. “I didn’t have to focus on one thing: I was able to look at Canadian literature, Canadian history, and Canadian politics.” After her degree, Pinkoski found a job at the University of Missouri through the International Council for Canadian Studies, which sends people around the world to work in places with Canadian Studies programs. While doing research for professors and living in Missouri, Pinkoski happened upon spoken word poetry for the first time. Her appreciation for the art form was immediate: “All these people were telling their story in a way that’s accessible, and it’s like you’re sitting around a campfire listening to a story.”

“With spoken word poetry,” she continues, “I could tell all of these stories that were important to me and I could put it into a format that was accessible to people.” Pinkoski believes that spoken word poetry has a different type of power to it than page poetry because “the writer’s able to actually see those connections actualized” in the audience as she’s performing on stage. A spark had been lit in Pinkoski while she was in Missouri, and she now had this new shape to fit her stories in.

Pinkoski returned to the U of A in 2004 to earn her Education degree because she wasn’t finding many jobs related to Canadian Studies. And it was back in Edmonton where her poetry ignited as she did her first readings with the Stroll of Poets. “And then I would drive once or twice a year to Calgary because we didn’t have a slam scene in Edmonton,” she says. Soon after, she began attending the Raving Poets nights. “That community really helped me grow as a writer,” Pinkoski says, adding that Thomas Trofimuk—Glass Buffalo’s featured alumnus in the Winter 2014 issue—was one of her most encouraging mentors and facilitated many events for her to read at. Pinkoski also lists Sheri-D Wilson, a spoken word artist from Calgary, as another super supportive poet during that time: “I’m so grateful for those two who were mentors to me from an early stage.”

Edmonton’s slam scene picked up with the Breath In Poetry Collective. Pinkoski joined as a member of their slam team in 2010. And in 2011, the team won the national slam competition. “What we did was unique and something the national community hadn’t seen before. We took some risks in how we performed our poems...that was a team and a creative venture that I was really proud to be a part of.” At the competition, Pinkoski also took home the Most Valuable Poet title, which was chosen by a vote from her peers in the competition. “As a writer, I just went in to try and give my most honest poems and the poems that had value to me, and I guess that resonated with people,” she humbly admits as the reason for the win.

Pinkoski’s belief that everyone should tell their story led her to work with YouthWrite. “Ever since Gail [Sobat, its founder and coordinator] invited me to be in the program, it’s been so rewarding for me as a writer and as a teaching artist...I grow every year working with youth.” Through that program, Pinkoski organized Yours: Edmonton Youth Open Mic Series, which was run out of the Untitled Bookshop for a year. Pinskoski says she’s inspired by youth, by “their fearlessness in telling their stories and their willingness to try new things.... They’ll dive into things whether or not they know they’ll be successful at it. They’ll do it without fear; I think that’s very noble and brave.” Those are the qualities, Pinkoski says, you need to be a writer.       

With all of her accolades and experience in the Edmonton poetry community, Pinkoski was chosen as the city’s Poet Laureate in July 2013. “Officially, my role is that I’m supposed to produce three official pieces per year, and that’s pretty much it and then you’re able to make of it what you want. For me, I see the Poet Laureate as someone who makes poetry more accessible to Edmontonians.” She’s made it her goal to expose citizens to poetry in places they wouldn’t expect it. To this purpose, she’s performed poetry at several different events, such as the City of Edmonton’s three-day forum on bike lanes. “I listened to the discussion at the forum and at the end of each night, I performed a poem,” Pinkoski explains. “It provided a new way to engage with the topic and a new way to understand the dialogue.”

Furthermore, Pinkoski sees the laureateship as a bridge for connecting and growing the community, and she plans to continue fulfilling this role in her final year as Poet Laureate. She believes that stories are “fundamental to our existence and more than that, more than in the telling, I believe that actively hearing other people’s stories forms us as a community and is how we grow. So when I hear your story, I grow an understanding of who you are as a person and we grow together because we’ve shared this story and connection.”

— Matthew Stepanic

Alumni Spotlight: Thomas Trofimuk

Thomas Trofimuk invites me to Bistro Praha, a gourmet café in Edmonton, to share his creative writing experience. The spot holds much significance for Trofimuk: he spent many late nights in his early years writing there among a scene of inspiring characters. Trofimuk shares with me stories of that time, including a tale of the late Frantisek Cikanek, who believed that champagne was best enjoyed by guzzling the whole flute at once and appreciating the tingly release of the bubbles with a large belch.

Trofimuk is brimming with stories—a great trait for any writer—but what I need to pass on from our meeting is the advice he offers while we enjoy coffee and wine. (And sadly, I drank the former as, while wine eases the tongue, it fogs the memory.)

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Caitlynn Cummings stands atop a high pile of accomplishments: she’s the managing editor of filling Station (an experimental literary magazine based in Calgary, Alta.), the coordinator for the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program, and the published author of several short fiction pieces and poems in various literary magazines. It’s a long list for someone who, only a few years ago, wasn’t sure what she was going to do with her double major in English and Classics.

Cummings was in her penultimate semester when she chose to take a couple creative writing courses to broaden her degree. She found it “exciting to participate in a community” of authors, with whom she could chat about her writing. She took fiction and poetry classes that broadened her perspective about writing, with profs asking things like, “What is your tactile sense of this word?” Through these courses, Cummings says, “I realized that writing could combine all of my interests into a single career trajectory.” Literature, travel, women’s studies, classics, and art history could all coalesce into a single medium.

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