BWS 08.01.20: Nikki Sheppy

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Nikki Sheppy is a poet, editor, and educator with a background in literary scholarship. She is also past managing editor of filling Station magazine, and an organizer for the new East Loft Reading Series, a Leslieville literary salon launched in November. Her book, Fail Safe (University of Calgary Press), won the 2018 Robert Kroetsch Award for Poetry Book of the Year, and her chapbook, Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite (Kalamalka Press), won the 2013 John Lent Poetry-Prose Award. She loves dogs. Also puppies. And more dogs. And she volunteers at the Toronto Humane Society.


Over the years, talking with other poets whose works foreground exploratory or unfamiliar modes, I’ve heard a similar theme: not a complaint, but certainly a bewilderment. Poetry deemed ‘experimental’ in some way is sometimes dismissed as merely programmatic or, by contrast, arbitrary. But I’ve found that there’s pretty much always some bona fide subject of interest and poetic mandate in these works, and when writers actively address or acknowledge their poetics–even in brief–they stimulate engagement, whether or not readers ultimately enjoy the work. Although we expect poems to “speak for themselves,” it’s my experience that listeners appreciate hearing stories about process, creation, and sources of inspiration.

Reflecting on Poetics of Mouthfeel

I’ve become increasingly interested in what I’m calling a poetics of mouthfeel. Because I’ve begun to write more poems governed by the textures of speaking them, I decided this summer to reflect on what this exploration means to me—and how it might signify as an expression of both politics and agency. At public readings, I noticed that people were particularly interested in this focus and requested more context for thinking about it, so I share some of my reflections here.

In my 2017 book Fail Safe, I included a sequence of poems that explored the mouthfeel of its poetic language. Broadly used, the term “mouthfeel” refers to so-called “rheological properties: the consistency, flow and feel of something—typically food—inside the mouth. Rheology (the study of the flow of matter) & tribology (the science of friction and lubrication) are topics of study in food science and food marketing. My poems were intended to explore the mouthfeel of language itself: what felt ‘sticky’ or ‘wet’ or ‘chewy’ to say. I prioritized over considerations of sense or meaning what language I wanted to put in my mouth: what worded tactility I wanted to feel as saying.

These poems emphasized dimensions of mouthfeel like density, roughness, graininess and moisture, apparently proceeding as if the pieces were merely a linguistic exercise. This despite the truth that the conceptual underpinnings were both deeply personal and deeply political. I was interested in how language felt in my mouth as I spoke it because the saying was an embodied recovery of my mouth as a site of agency—not of occupation or silence. I could speak what had occupied me:

decipher the sleeping hot

spliff a dexterous smoke

half aspirated ghost                                       (from “Moisture Release”)

In Lexicon of the Mouth, Brandon LaBelle describes language as emanating from within its spatiality, its material dimensions within what Georges Bataille calls “the chief aperture”: “The mouth wraps the voice, and all such wording, in its wet and impressionable envelope, its paralanguages. […] It captures and figures the somatic, the alimentary, the resonant, and the viscous as always already surrounding language, ‘cutting and augmenting meaning’” (LaBelle 7). He experiences performed orality as akin to feeling “the mouth as a fleshy, wet lining around each syllable, as well as a texturing orifice” (1). Never is LaBelle’s mouth separate from the sounds, sensations, pleasures, and meanings of its linguistic or other activities.

Even LaBelle’s chapter headings resonate with my ongoing exploration into the poetics of mouthfeel. They include: Bite. Chew. Eat. Burp. Choke. Gag. Spit. Vomit. Cry. Scream. Shout. Sing. Gasp. Growl. Grunt. Sigh. Yawn. Kiss. Lick. Suck. Mumble. Mute. Pause. Stutter. Murmur. Whisper. Recite. Vow. These titles could summarize much of what my poetic project aspires to do: not to write but to growl, to spit and slurp, to whisper. I’m not sure I entirely succeed, but it is an ongoing exploration, with new works always in the works.

In “Cavity,” LaBelle writes into the symbolic terrain of precisely the oral imaginary that invigorated (and haunted) my initial poems, and the pieces that I later wrote: “The mouth as a collection of surfaces—of lips and teeth, tongue and cheek, and from the roof down to the throat—is […] an open space, an oral cavity. It is a small cavern in which resonances proliferate, where matter is held and ingested […]—the gap wherein one is entered to give space for the other. […] While the buccal surfaces channel a plethora of tastes and textures, the oral cavity gives room—for breaths and couplings, words and their shaping.” This oral complex is the site of my poetics.

We could pause to introduce biographical notes now, and they would resemble the tossing thoughts of a three-year-old who dreamt repeatedly of a terrifying dentist in whose haunting house every room could sprout a dental chair, and a plate of instruments to be introduced into the new young speaker’s oral cavity. We could detail the year-long silence that ensued, and the ongoing trouble through schools, where talking too little—and then, correctively, too much—was used to justify the decision not to accelerate the young speaker.

But the symbolic far outstrips this infancy. Anyway, who knows how to parse the knowledge and un-knowledge, the sound & the fugue, of a three-year-old?

In Swallow: Foreign Bodies, Their Ingestion, Inspiration, and the Curious Doctor Who Extracted Them, Mary Capello writes: “All acts of swallowing are psychosocial at the core. […] We test the body by putting things into its orifices, and we test our relations with others by projecting onto the body’s surface an idea of those relations” (35). So, swallowing is a form of breaching that relates. And the mouth is a site of spoken creativity “inflected with the powers of horror” (44). How then does the agency of sounding militate with, against, and within such states of impingement…?

What do I ask of the language with which I speak my true and created selves?

would it be possible to describe

the shape of the deformation?

the friction and relative lubrication of the word?

its filminess & afterfeel?

is the word brittle? does it gag?

what are its shear, fracture mechanics, tensions?

how does the sound respond when squeezed

or bitten? is it adhesive or elastic, viscous or crisp,

foamy or granular? is language a bolus

held in suspension? what is the word’s moisture content, its saliva secretion?

does it emulsify? is it fissile?

what single word or sound is most readily

swallowed? & what is the mouthfeel

of its regurgitation?




wools, blushing mosses, hairnets

the velvet naps

that antagonize my tongue

everything shafts wolverine

just shy of light

fallowing the blue ether

folding the unfold sign

of thistles & pencil-shavings

the glossy curling hair

that now threads

the moment I learned to speak

around it


**This piece excerpts some parts of my conference paper, “Mouthfeel: Please Witness Me by Feeling It as Saying It Out Loud to an Audience on my Behalf (A Rheological Poetry Presentation with Critical Contexts)” at SpokenWeb in Vancouver, May 2019, with thanks to Ryan Fitzpatrick who performed it. Quotations of LaBelle and Cappello are from Lexicon of the Mouth: Poetics and Politics of Voice and The Oral Imaginary by Brandon LaBelle (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). The poem “Moisture Release” appears in Fail Safe (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2017). “{{chokepoint}}” is an excerpt from one of my new poems.


Nikki Sheppy visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Leanne Toshiko Simpson, Manahil Bandukwala, Terese Mason Pierre, and guest speaker Ranjini George, who will guide us through “Meditation and Writing.”

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BWS 08.01.20: Terese Mason Pierre


Terese Mason Pierre is a writer and poet whose work has appeared in CanthiusThe Temz Review, the Longleaf Review, and elsewhere online and in print. She is the poetry editor of Augur Magazine and volunteers with Shab-e She’r reading series. Her chapbook, “Surface Area,” was recently published with Anstruther Press. Terese lives in Toronto.


Like a lot of people, I gravely dislike the sound of my own voice. But I don’t count this reading among the detested. Not because of my actual voice, but because of where I’m reading it. Here, I’m reading an excerpt from my short story, “Leapt,” which was published in the preview issue of Augur magazine. The piece is an urban fantasy story about a pair of shapeshifters, a young girl and her mother, who try to build a new life in Toronto.


Click here to see Terese’s reading of “Leapt”

I was excited that my work was chosen for publication. I knew two of the three founding editors back in university, and was still a bit insecure about my writing. When the reading was over, they approached me and told me they loved my work, that they felt so much for the characters. I looked up to them, and their validation was meaningful. If you want to read the whole story, click here. It’s also been published in podcast form, at this link.

Currently, I’m the poetry editor of Augur magazine, which means I help select and mainly edit the poems that we publish. Although I edit speculative poetry, I have only recently begun writing speculative poetry, and I find it exciting and freeing in many ways. My work at Augur has been some of the most rewarding volunteer work that I have done. I often get very excited to introduce people to Augur magazine, and to hear about the speculative work they’ve published, especially poets. I feel honored to be a part of a community that believes in creating space not only for marginalized and underrepresented writers, but Canadian writers in general, and more diversity and inclusion within the speculative literature genre. Augur’s issue 2.3 was published in early December, and we reopen for submissions in the spring.


Terese Mason Pierre visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Leanne Toshiko Simpson, Manahil Bandukwala, Nikki Sheppy, and guest speaker Ranjini George, who will guide us through “Meditation and Writing.”



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BWS 08.01.20: Manahil Bandukwala


Manahil Bandukwala is a Pakistani writer and artist currently living in Ottawa. She is the author of two chapbooks, Paper Doll (Anstruther Press, 2019) and Pipe Rose (battleaxe press, 2018). She was longlisted for the 2019 CBC Poetry Prize, and was the 2019 winner of Room magazine’s Emerging Writer Award.


Context, context, context. Where to give it and where to let others do the work to find out?

In the last couple of years, I’ve seen a rising movement on Twitter to steer away from explaining references to content that falls out of western “common knowledge.” This includes not giving translations of non-English words, and not stating each allusion. It gives way to rhythm and flow without the bulky footnotes that accompany each translation or definition.

But recent projects I’ve been involved with have forced me to think about when and why context is necessary. Sure, people could do the work on their own time, but will they? And if they don’t do the work, what broader message is lost? What context does the reader need to know? What can they figure out on their own?

I wanted to talk about the space of giving context versus content, with examples of two culturally and politically heavy projects I’ve been working on in the past few months.

1. Reth aur Reghistan

Reth aur Reghistan is a literary and sculptural interpretation of folklore from the city of Karachi and the province of Sindh in Pakistan. It’s a collaborative project between my sister, Nimra Bandukwala, and myself. We started this project out of our interest in exploring the stories from the city we grew up in, and our path has led us to thinking about how stories are passed down and how they evolve in cultural memory.

As part of our research, Nimra and I conducted interviews with cultural and creative workers. Through our interviews, we learned a lot about the archaeological evidence that traces a story’s origin, what these stories mean to communities, and the contemporary modes in which they continue to grow. Most of the content I gathered was things that I had little to no prior knowledge of. If I learned about these stories through grant-funded research, how could a prospective audience easily know or find this folklore?

Although the final product we envision for Reth aur Reghistan is a book of poetry and sculpture that interprets themes and specific scenes of folklore, we also want to share the interesting and sometimes hilarious stories we draw inspiration from. The way the manuscript is currently evolving includes both tellings of the folklore as well as poetic interpretation. The credit for this layout fully goes to Nimra. It’s been interesting working with someone who isn’t steeped in the literary world, because she brings a different perspective into this tension of context versus not.

By working in this way, I’ve felt like I have a lot more creative freedom to sprawl into abstract territory without worrying about a reader getting lost. I can focus my poem on how Sasui journeyed across the desert twice instead of telling the reader why she did that. A reader will have the context they need right there (told in an artistic way of course).

2. “Border”, forthcoming in Briarpatch

“Border” is a collaborative long poem between myself and Toronto-based poet Sanna Wani. We started “Border” in July 2019, after finding out that we would be in close physical proximity to each other but on different sides of a militarized border. Sanna was in Srinagar, in Indian Occupied Kashmir, and I was going to be visiting Gilgit Baltistan, which borders Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.

On August 5th, the Indian government scrapped Article 370 that gave Kashmir autonomous status, and the exchange between Sanna and I turned into a real-time reaction to an international crisis. We didn’t start “Border” with this intention, but this is what happens when your existence is inherently political. We’re both incredibly proud of what we’ve produced, but this poem of crisis was not a choice but circumstance. This context is something we want readers to know.

“Border” is now forthcoming in Briarpatch, a magazine committed to anticolonial perspectives on politics. When we were working with editor Saima Desai, we had conversations about what context to provide to readers. Many readers likely didn’t know what happened on August 5th, nor do they know that Kashmir is still under curfew. They probably don’t know what the line of control is, or why India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir since 1947.

I made the artwork that accompanies the poem, and had a long conversation with Saima as we figured out how to visually represent the piece. One of the things we talked about was showing a map of borders: the borders between Pakistan and India; the division of Kashmir along the line of control, and the places Sanna and I were writing from. How could I represent this accurately while also making clear the borders are a result of colonial legacy? How could I show the military presence of the region without reducing Kashmir to a warzone, or on the other end, romanticizing the mountain landscape?

There’s a lot of questions here. And I reached answers to them through conversations with creative collaborators and editors who shared the knowledge I had on the topic. In “Border,” for example, something that helped bridge the space between context and content was working with an editor from the same cultural context as us. We knew we could trust Saima with editing our work, and that her suggestions to provide context came from a perspective of making the piece as impactful as possible.

To some extent, an overarching backgrounder of a piece frees up space within the piece to just write. Just to talk about why context matters sometimes in this blog post, I had to give a summary of the projects and what they aimed to do. A lot of my recent writing draws on politics, history, religion, and culture – the work I’m going to read at Brockton Writer’s Series attests to that – and I want an audience to know the deeper political and cultural implications that run through my poetics.


Manahil Bandukwala visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Leanne Toshiko Simpson, Terese Mason Pierre, Nikki Sheppy, and guest speaker Ranjini George, who will guide us through “Meditation and Writing.”

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BWS 08.01.20: Leanne Toshiko Simpson

Leanne Toshiko Simpson headshot

Photo credit: Soko Negash

Leanne Toshiko Simpson is a Yonsei writer living with bipolar disorder. She was named Scarborough’s Emerging Writer of 2016 and recently finished her MFA at the University of Guelph. You can find her work in The 2019 Journey Prize StoriesRoom MagazineContemporary Verse 2, and Unpublished City II.


I had coffee with a friend I made many years ago, in a Scarborough psychiatric ward, and we got to talking about how difficult the holiday season is for people with mood disorders (and other chronic illnesses, for that matter). We jokingly came up with the idea for this carol – The Twelve Manic Days of Christmas – and I’ve written it in his honour. I think a common theme of our survival has been laughing through the impossible, and I hope that this piece resonates with some folks who are in the same boat this holiday season.

The Twelve Manic Days of Christmas

On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

A manic shopping spree

[Always start with things you need: socks, holiday pajamas for your sister, greeting cards for everyone who touched your life this year. Get overwhelmed by the amount of people you’d like to thank and slide to the floor, contemplate your good fortune. Get up and overcompensate with novelty mugs and fuzzy throws. Buy a dress you can’t afford for your family dinner, because it’s not just about presents but presenting, and you wouldn’t want anyone to think you were less than perfect. Look at your watch and wonder where five hours have flown. Feel guilty for your absence, buy chocolate-dipped strawberries as a “surprise” for your partner and let them melt on your dashboard on your way home]

On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Two sleepless nights and

A manic shopping spree


On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights – please, no more pills – and

A manic shopping spree


On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Four grand ideas (a brief summary: a YA novel, Christmas cookies for the entire street – or perhaps, a winter carnival for the neighbourhood, with trussed up ponies and sleigh bells – breaking a three-month silence with my father, becoming a cyclist)

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights and

A manic shopping spree (this time, a bike!)


On the fifth day of Christmas, my partner gave to me:

The Goldberg Mania Inventory!

After four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree


On the sixth day of Christmas, we tried to go to a holiday party but Mariah Carey’s voice was like a dog whistle, alerting me to a danger I couldn’t see but felt reverberating inside the cage of my lungs. I couldn’t hold conversations, couldn’t look people in the eye. I was afraid to eat. Everything was cardboard – the food, the people, the thoughts in my head. We left early, and I counted the seconds between sentences on the drive home. One, two, three, four, five–

Six awkward silences

The Goldberg Mania Inventory!

Four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree


On the seventh day of Christmas, my therapist gave to me:

Seven CBT charts

Six awkward silences

And the Goldberg Mania Inventory!

For my four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree


[After he goes to bed, count out your medication into your palm, over and over and over again, until chalky dust settles in your lifelines]

On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Eight missed pills

Seven (untouched) CBT charts

Six awkward silences

The Goldberg Mania Inventory!

Four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree


On the ninth day of Christmas, my mom told me to try yoga, so I had:

Nine downward dogs (plus seething resentment)

Eight missed pills

Seven CBT charts

Six awkward silences

The Goldberg Mania Inventory!

Four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree


On the tenth day of Christmas, my eyes were changing colours in their sockets and I told everyone it was great, but if I’m being honest here, I was getting a little worried about my:

Ten unverified sick days

Nine downward dogs

Eight missed pills

Seven CBT charts

Six awkward silences

Fuck the Goldberg Mania Inventory!

Four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree


On the eleventh day of Christmas, my partner called my psychiatrist, but she was on


Which left me with:

Ten unverified sick days

Nine downward dogs

Eight missed pills

Seven CBT charts

Six awkward silences

The Goldberg Mania Inventory!

Four grand ideas

Three racing thoughts

Two sleepless nights

And a manic shopping spree


On the twelfth day of Christmas, they asked me if I wanted to go to the hospital. I gave it some thought, reader – really, I did. I thought about all the other folks who might be there on Christmas, who could maybe use a little caroling, maybe a touch of comradery. I thought about titrating my meds for the hundredth time. I had so many little orange canisters in my bathroom cabinet that I could have invented psychiatric Jenga. Again, they asked me what I wanted, and I stared into the galaxies of my ceiling before telling them I wanted to talk to someone, anyone, who lived in this kaleidoscope with me. They all looked at each other and one of them nodded and then the glass shifted, again, to that incandescent heat before the end of the world.


Leanne Toshiko Simpson visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, January 8, 2020 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Manahil Bandukwala, Terese Mason Pierre, Nikki Sheppy, and guest speaker Ranjini George, who will guide us through “Meditation and Writing.”


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Brockton Writers Series 08.01.20

Wednesday, January 8, 2020 – 6:30pm

Brockton Writers Series presents readings by

Leanne Toshiko Simpson

Manahil Bandukwala

Terese Mason Pierre

Nikki Sheppy

Glad Day Bookshop

499 Church Street, Toronto

The reading is PWYC (suggested $3-$5) and features a Q&A with the writers afterward. Books and refreshments are available for sale.

The venue is accessible. Please refrain from wearing scents.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.


And to the Canada Council for the Arts for travel funding!



“Meditation and Writing”


Ranjini George holds a PhD and MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing. As an Associate Professor of English at Zayed University, Dubai, the United Arab Emirates, she ran the Teaching with the Mind of Mindfulness series. A Mindfulness Meditation Instructor, she currently teaches courses such as Meditation & Writing, Food, Breath & Words, Stoicism and the Good Life and Pilgrimage to the Sacred Feminine at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto. She received the 2019 Excellence in Teaching Award. Her book, Through My Mother’s Window was published in Dubai in December 2016. She can be contacted at; or, through her Facebook page.


Leanne Toshiko Simpson headshot

Photo credit: Soko Negash

Leanne Toshiko Simpson is a Yonsei writer living with bipolar disorder. She was named Scarborough’s Emerging Writer of 2016 and recently finished her MFA at the University of Guelph. You can find her work in The 2019 Journey Prize Stories, Room Magazine, Contemporary Verse 2, and Unpublished City II.



Manahil Bandukwala is a Pakistani writer and artist currently living in Ottawa. She is the author of two chapbooks, Paper Doll (Anstruther Press, 2019) and Pipe Rose (battleaxe press, 2018). She was longlisted for the 2019 CBC Poetry Prize, and was the 2019 winner of Room magazine’s Emerging Writer Award.



Terese Mason Pierre is a writer and poet whose work has appeared in Canthius, The Temz Review, the Longleaf Review, and elsewhere online and in print. She is the poetry editor of Augur Magazine and volunteers with Shab-e She’r reading series. Her chapbook, “Surface Area,” was recently published with Anstruther Press. Terese lives in Toronto.


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Nikki Sheppy is a poet, editor, and educator with a background in literary scholarship. She is also past managing editor of filling Station magazine, and an organizer for the new East Loft Reading Series, a Leslieville literary salon launched in November. Her book, Fail Safe (University of Calgary Press), won the 2018 Robert Kroetsch Award for Poetry Book of the Year, and her chapbook, Grrrrlhood: a ludic suite (Kalamalka Press), won the 2013 John Lent Poetry-Prose Award. She loves dogs. Also puppies. And more dogs. And she volunteers at the Toronto Humane Society.



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BWS 13.11.19 Special Guest: Maria Meindl


Maria Meindl is the author of The WorkStonehouse Publishing (2019). Her first book, Outside the Box from McGill-Queen’s University Press, won the Alison Prentice Award for Women’s History. Her essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications including The Literary Review of CanadaDescant and Musicworks, as well as in the anthologies, At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die and The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood. She has made two radio series for CBC Ideas. In 2005, Maria founded the Draft Reading Series which specializes in unpublished work by emerging and established writers. She teaches movement in Toronto and is at work on two sequels to The Work, as well as a book-length memoir.


As the surprise guest speaker at our 10th anniversary event on November 13th, Maria gave her first Toronto reading of the her novel The Work. Here she writes a detailed account about how her novel came to be.

Wasting time on The Worka blog entry in which I talk myself out of a curmudgeonly mood

My surprise reading at Brockton was the first time I’d shared my first novel, The Work, with an audience in Toronto. And the experience held a few surprises for me, too.

When it came time to getting dressed for the event, I agonized. What does a surprise guest wear? Something warm enough for a gross, lateautumn evening in Toronto, of course.

Okay. Okay. It wasn’t about the clothes. I had to admit, I wanted to stay home.

After over a decade of working on The Work it seems surreal that the book is finally coming out. I worked on it in the early mornings, and it became a companion, as dependable and delightful as my first coffee of the day. Through years of drafts, I came to believe it would always be there, in endlessly tweakable, manuscript form.

But those days are gone. It’s time to set The Work free.

Expressing doubts about a book I’m launching in a week and a half feels like the worst possible idea – disingenuous at best; at worst, self-defeating, ungrateful, insecure, and just plain sour.

But I still wonder if The Work works. With all the years I took to write it, with all the help I had, it should be a better book. And so much has changed since the idea was conceived. Do my attempts to keep it relevant – for myself, for othersread like afterthoughts?

Most of all … it’s a work of imagination, and this scares me. The imagination has a life of its own. I am no apologist for those writers who make inspiration an excuse for all kinds of narrative crimes, but I do know that parts of my personality I might otherwise disavow might surface in fiction. Where memoir feels like roll-up-my-sleeves, ever-in-control, work-womanly task (in the best way), a novel has the potential of showing my blind spots.

Where do these thoughts belong, on the eve of a book launch? There are lots of good reasons to keep them private. Or banish them altogether. Still, I have found myself spilling my doubts and fears to patient friends over the past couple of weeks. And it’s always a massive relief.

I have no time for temperamental writers who mutter their way through public events, resentful of the very readers who are buying their books and coming out through crappy, late-autumn nights to hear them mutter. But I get it. Or at least, I think I do. Confidence can be exhausting. Better to project, through sloppy clothes and a grumpy manner, that a show of … anything – is just not on the menu.

Sometimes it feels like the angry young men (now old men) trope is being replaced with that of the breathy young woman. I was young, at one point, but I never could get the dewy-eyed thing right. And – to put it delicately – that ship has sailed.

Come to think of it, I entered another coveted state – that of marriage – later than most people, and I was ambivalent about that, too. Not about the person I was marrying or the fact of getting married, but about people’s response to the event. There, too, I bit my tongue. My statistical chances of finding a mate at this advanced age drew comparisons to violence. Why shouldn’t everyone be happy for me?

Because what about all the time I spent on my own, before this? I was forty-three years old. Were all those years of life experience to be overshadowed by what a saleslady at The Bay called The Most Important Day of My Life? By the way, I’m still happily married, but the reason was encapsulated in my answer to that lady: “The wedding is less important than the marriage.

My desire to write fiction came over me in my thirties, right about the time when friends were having babies. Sitting down to do it felt so joyful and powerful that I thought it shouldn’t be allowed. The joy felt positively dangerous. But it also eluded me. It would hide away at the hint of any instability in my life, particularly when it came to the needs of others. It waited in the shadows, appearing – like a dear old friend – whenever I had a break. We’d pick up where we left off, as if no time had passed. And then it would disappear again.

I didn’t start consistently working on a novel until both my parents had died. I didn’t feel I could be who I was for them, and also let go, in the way that was necessary to write an extended work of fiction. I always wrote, but my family generated so much material that writing about anything else felt like a waste of time. Fiction took away energy from a precious and deeply intimidating legacy. But if this was a waste of time, I wanted to waste time, to create something other than the stories that had been left to me to sort and process. The Work grew slowly because it was willing to be deferred, to leave bigger and more important projects to take centre stage.

I hate sliding into the bookasbaby metaphor. (So sue me; I didn’t have them.) But it keeps presenting itself, and it can be useful sometimes.

For instance, what if The Work were a baby?

This book would be a modest and undemanding middle child. Not trumpeting her talents or demanding attention, always cleaning up her mess, helping to look after the other kids. This middle child might not be so keen on taking up space. It would be up to me to make space for her, encourage her to step confidently out into the world. And I would.

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BWS 13.11.19 report: “A Beginners Guide to Toronto Arts Council Literary Grants” with Catalina Fellay-Dunbar

Catalina Fellay-Dunbar

Catalina Fellay-Dunbar joined the Toronto Arts Council after many years as a dancer, writer, educator and arts advocate. Her professional dance experience, although varied, has long focused on a personal lineage in Flamenco and Classical Spanish dance.  Translating the experience of movement into words launched a parallel writing career as a contributor to journals, magazines and anthologies on the topics of dance, identity, and cultural policy. She loves her present role in the arts community as Dance and Literary Grants Manager for the TAC.

Catalina stopped by at our 10th anniversary event last week to share some of her grant writing tips for the Writers Program and the financial resources available to emerging and established writers.

TAC’s Literary Arts programs support the development of writing, reading series, festivals, performances and other literary activities in Toronto.

Through the Literary Program, the TAC provides Project funding to professional, non-profit, Toronto literary organizations and collectives to pursue one-time or time-limited literary projects involving production, presentation and other activities that contribute to the development of the literary arts in Toronto. 

Our Writers Program supports the creation of new literary works or works-in progress in the genres of fiction (including novels, short stories, children’s literature, graphic novels, etc.), literary non-fiction, poetry and oral traditions such as storytelling, dub, rap and spoken-word.

The program provides two levels of support for writers. The following fixed amounts are available:

LEVEL ONE: $5,000 – for writers in the early stages of their career.

LEVEL TWO: $10,000 – for writers with an established writing career.

For more detailed information regarding the Writers Program, please refer to the Writers Program Guidelines which will be made available 3 months before the deadline.

*Please note that the TAC Writers Program has once deadline per calendar year, usually in mid-June*

 The online Writers application consists of three sections:

  1. The applicant’s literary CV or biography uploaded in PDF format – maximum three pages. Please differentiate between items published via print or web. This section of the application will not be reviewed by the jury, but serves as your record of eligibility for TAC staff.
  2. The project description – maximum 500 words, entered into a text box in the online application. This section outlines the format, stage and scope of the project. Anonymity is required in this section.
  3. The writing sample support material – format details below. Anonymity is required in this section.

As the Literary Grants Manager at TAC, here are my 3 Top Grant Writing Tips:

  1.       Read the program guidelines on the TAC website.
  2.       Give yourself adequate time to complete the application before the deadline.
  3.       Follow the application instructions.

Most importantly, however, I encourage you to reach out to your Program Manager before applying if you are a first time applicant or if you have any questions throughout the process.

I promise you, we are all friendly here at TAC!

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BWS 13.11.19: Mary Rykov


Puerto Rican-Canadian María (MaryHelena Auerbach Rykov is a writer, editor, educator, and recovering music therapist. She freelances as a writing mentor in multiple genres and proofreads for Pulp Literature Press. Her poetry collection, some conditions apply, hatches May 2020 with Inanna Publications. See more at


Reflections on Writing: What’s Your Score?

When the late, great writer and poet, David W. McFadden, won the 2014 Giller Prize for Excellence in Poetry for What’s the Score? (Mansfield, 2013), my first poetry manuscript was still out in left field without a literary home.

“David,” I asked, “what advice can you give me?”

“Just keep writing and sending them out.”

David was right. I kept writing and sending them out. Eventually, I scored. Seven years, twelve manuscript submissions (six full manuscripts, six excepts), and three title changes later, my debut poetry collection, some conditions apply, was placed with Inanna Publications for Spring 2020. Thank you, Luciana Ricciutelli, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. What seems like a long wait is the necessary production schedule for most small presses that work with minimal staff on shoestring budgets for the love of literature. After seven long years wafting in the ethers of Submissionland, these three more years will pass quickly.

I share with you what I’ve learned about the submission process.

Know Why You Write

Writers write for many reasons. Reading and writing for me are inextricably linked. I write because I read, and I read because I write.

At the age of two I could recite the entire Tale of Peter Rabbit. By age five I was reciting the metered verse of A. A. Milne and choosing books with the children’s librarian. By age ten I wrote and illustrated my first fiction for my younger cousin on a folded piece of paper. It was about a bunny—a nod, of course, to my beloved Peter Rabbit—although not a plagiarized knock-off. Many writers, after all, learn to write by imitation.

Throughout public school I buried myself in books to avoid bullying from classmates. I was poor, poorly dressed, tiny, and easy to pick on. Mercifully, the children’s books in my piano teacher’s study compensated for the books I didn’t read under the controlling eyes of the wicked-witch-of-all-librarians at my junior public school.

In high school I wrote poetry and songs influenced by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Buffy St. Marie, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Richard Fariña, Ken Kesey, Allen Ginsberg, et. al., back in the early days of Margaret Atwood, CanLit, and CanCon before the internet. Sadly, my English teachers, although an improvement over grade school, were not stellar. Nor was I a diligent student.

In university I wrote research papers. I became a music therapist and wrote reports, proposals, and more research papers. I also wrote songs—many songs—throughout the 35-year tenure of my clinical music therapy practice. But the poetry in these songs was functionally pragmatic, not necessarily artistic.

I often turned to poetry and fiction as an antidote to the dry research I needed to read to keep up with my field. I didn’t write for art’s sake until much later. My first literary poems published in 2010. My first flash fiction and nonfiction prose published in 2016. I’ve snagged some awards for these literary efforts along the way.

But publication and prizes are not why I write. I realize I write because I have always written. And I always write in response to what I experience—what I think, see, read, hear, and feel. As a music therapist I needed to write research, journal articles, think pieces, proposals, and support letters advocating on behalf of patients and clients. Now I write for art’s sake.

Know Where You Submit and Why

Nothing gets accomplished without taking care of business. Much ink has gone into distinguishing between the art of writing and the business of writing [read: submitting]. The art of writing in the absence of the business of submission is equivalent to a story consisting of accumulated events with no plot or resolution.

Submit writing strategically. Know that journal editors and book publishers are people just like writers. Indeed, many are themselves writers and poets. If not writers or poets, they do love reading.

Read the journal and book publications where you plan to submit. Familiarize yourself with their editorial preferences. And pay attention to submission calls and the writing of guest editors. Submit where you want to join the conversation.

Submissions vary, typically comprising a cover letter and the writing content. Submission guidelines matter; read these carefully. Include in the cover letter all information requested, but be concise. Personalize your submission cover letter with positive comments about past issues or books you particularly enjoyed reading. Editors and publishers work slavishly and deserve support. I repeat: be concise.

Do not ask for or expect critique for the writing you submit to literary journals and publishing houses. They are far too busy to routinely provide feedback. Grow your writing skills in workshops and courses designed for this purpose. Be grateful, however, for any unsolicited advice and encouragement you do receive.

Submit writing that is ready for publication. I submitted my first poems and stories as I wrote them, which was premature. Few of these early [read: rudimentary, undeveloped] pieces of writing were published. These submissions did, however, stoke the coffers of Canada Post and some journals for reading fees.

Speaking of fees…

Reading submission fees for journals are increasingly more common. Writers must support the infrastructure of the literary arts by buying books, journals, and tickets to readings. I have bought my weight in books and subscriptions many times over. Sometimes, however, I must rotate subscriptions amongst my favourite journals or cannot afford them at all. Sometimes I cant submit when a reading or contest fee is required. Understandably, I win few prizes. I do the best I can.

But do as I say, not as I do. Do pay reading and contest submission fees if you can. Subscribe and donate to your favourite journals and literary reading series and festivals. They all need your support.

Help other writers by pointing out potential submission opportunities. Help them, and they will help you in kind.

Rejection Happens

Embrace Margaret Atwood’s boast that she could wallpaper her office with the rejection notices she received. Rejection is an inevitable consequence of submitting. Consider your writing submissions as your personal lottery ticket, one that you have a chance of winning only if you submit. Consider rejection as an opportunity to re-submit.

An experiential conference workshop with dance therapist Judith Koltai-Peavy enlightened me. She instructed us to prance around the room to energetic music, greeting everyone we encountered with Hi, do you want to play with me? to which we respond Yes! After an improvised dance, we move on to repeat this interchange with the next person. We were subsequently directed to respond No! when asked if we wanted to play, to which the seeker responds Okay! and gleefully dances to the next person. I realize with this exercise that rejection needn’t be hurtful and that seeking with a playful spirit matters more.

Journal editors carefully curate each issue. Your writing must fit the tenor of the journal generally, as well as be a good fit with the other writing in any single journal issue. Rejection doesn’t mean your submission is unworthy, but it may be a poor fit for a particular editorial vision.

So, what’s a good fit?

Publication is a quirky, whimsical, and mercurial process. Almost nonsensical. Here’s just how capricious this process can be. A journal accepted one poem I sent from amongst a submission of five poems. When marking the acceptance in my records, I noticed the very same poem was amongst another submission of five poems I had sent to the same journal one year earlier. Seriously. The very same poem that was accepted for publication was rejected by the same journal the year before. Go figure.

Don’t give up. Regardless of the writing genre, embrace David McFadden’s advice to “just keep writing and sending them out.” This task is part of the business of writing.

Celebrate Acceptance

Publication, like punctuation, is where writing logically ends.

Acceptance brings credibility, affirmation, and welcome monetary compensation (however small) to offset the high cost of printer ink. Savour each acceptance, but don’t rest on your laurels. Don’t stop writing and submitting.

When publication entails a process of editorial back-and-forth and final page proofs, welcome this opportunity to work with the editor, knowing he or she has experience with many writers. Embrace this close scrutiny of your work. Consider the suggestions offered.

Acknowledge all success without falling prey to jealousy. Celebrate your success and the successes of all the writers you know. We’re all in this together.

What’s Your Score?

Seven years since writing for art’s sake, here’s how my numbers crunched as of June 2017 when my manuscript was finally placed.


67 journals rejected 476 poems (some simultaneous), 1 short story, and 1 essay; 11 publishers rejected various iterations of 1 poetry manuscript

Published or Forthcoming:

23 poems in 3 anthologies and 8 journals; 2 flash fiction in 2 journals; 2 essays in 2 journals; 1 poetry collection

Active Submissions:

35 poems (some simultaneous) to 13 journals; 1 short story to 3 journals; 1 nonfiction book proposal

I invite you to tally your score and embrace the reality check. Better still, Merlin Homer (David’s widow) suggests engaging in friendly competition amongst your writer friends to see who can accumulate the most rejection notices one year from when you begin. Try it.

With a heartfelt thanks to David McFadden, let’s all keep writing and sending them out.


Mary Rykov visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 13, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Andrea Thompson, Deepa Rajagopalan, a special surprise guest, and guest speaker Catalina Fellay-Dunbar who will guide us through, “ A Beginners Guide to Toronto Arts Literary Grants.” 

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BWS 13.11.19: Deepa Rajagopalan

Deepa R

Deepa Rajagopalan writes creative non-fiction and short stories. Her work has appeared in the Dionne Brand anthologyThe Unpublished City II. She’s currently working towards her Creative Writing certificate at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies. She was a finalist of the Penguin Random House Award for Fiction in 2018.

Sometimes the hardest letters you will write are to the ones who will never read them. Deepa tried her best, her very best, not to write this. She scrolled through Instagram, watched baby goat videos and reorganized her bookshelf several times (alphabetical by author’s name, ombre-colour-coded, increasing degree of seriousness) instead of writing this. But it eventually came out of her, like a river swelling during a flood.


Beginnings and Ends

The first time we bring you home, you’re two-weeks-old and I’m fourteen. You can’t sit still in the rickshaw ride home. I hold you tight to keep you safe. The Indian sun burns through the soft-top roof, leaving the insides of the rickshaw parched and muggy. I wipe the incessant beads of sweat on my forehead with my sleeve to keep them from falling on you.

Our home is tucked into a cul-de-sac, backing into an abandoned property. I bring you into my room and you nap and eat and pee there for a whole day. I show you off. I bathe and feed you. I love seeing you grow. You love running up the stairs and into people. You’re fast as light. You seem to be in two places at the same time. Your spirits are always high. Life is a song.

A few months later, on a Sunday afternoon, Mom bakes a chocolate cake that leaves the house smelling like sunshine. She lets it cool on the counter. Later, we find the cake on the floor, half eaten, and you beside it with a guilty face. I suddenly remember that chocolate is toxic for you and start screaming. Mom calls the vet who tells us to give you lots of water and keep an eye on you.

My little sister, Shilpa, asks Mom if she could eat the rest of the cake. I glare at her. Her timing is always flawed. I hold you tight, your beautiful black fur glistening under the sun. Shilpa and Mom fuss over you, too. You love the extra attention. You sleep through the night. We dont. The next morning you are as fresh as a mango in May.

You’re six months old and fully grown. The property behind our home is seething with green after the endless monsoons. Coconut trees, creepers, weeds, moss and more. One sweltering afternoon, Mom hangs damp clothes on the clothesline. I see through the window, a quick slithering flash. I find Mom locked in a gaze with a silver cobra, standing up four feet high. It flares out its hood, in position to release venom. Before I can gather my thoughts, I hear you race to the backyard. With no fanfare, with no racket, you attack. A quick bite on its neck. As it wiggles for its last few breaths, your barks are deafening. You can’t believe the audacity of the creature. I hug Mom and don’t let her go. I wonder what we did to deserve you.


At sixteen, I am groped and attacked by a stranger in an alley. My body heals faster than my soul. I am a different person. I stop loving myself overnight and start looking for people to love me. I spend all my energy trying to cope. I ignore you for boys and exams and insecurities. You just want to play, but I am too busy for you. Mom bathes you and feeds you. I resist your love.

On a monsoon day after I turn eighteen, I forget my umbrella. I come home drenched and cold and realize I forgot my keys, too. I don’t have a cell phone to call Mom. The plants weigh down with the deluge. Where our garden once thrived, the mud water has formed an array of intricate streams, gushing out in search for a lower ground, leaving my legs muddy and cold. I take off my mud-soaked shoes and sit on the porch. I hug my knees into my chest and tears start gushing. I can’t pinpoint one reason for this downpour. You run towards me. You sit on my lap and take in all the cold and make me warm. You keep your paw over my hand and look at me with eyes that tell me, clear like fresh water, “I am here for you. Always.”

One opportunity leads to another, and we move to Toronto. My uncle and aunt agree to care for you back in India. I call my uncle and he says you lay on Dad’s shoes, crying silently, his sock in your mouth for months until all of his smell was gone.

The Canadian winter makes me resentful. All the things I do, I do incorrectly. The way I layer for winter, the way I order a double-double at Timmes, the way I go on the northbound train when I have to go southbound. I don’t get one thing right.

Years pass and I actively avoid thinking of you. On Sundays, I clean a lot. The floors, countertops, stairs, inside drawers and cabinets. One morning, I polish the hardwood floors with floor gloss. Against Dad’s recommendation, I polish the stairs too. In a short few minutes, I fall down the slippery stairs. Dad doesn’t say I told you so and gets me a pain balm.

That evening, I call Uncle and Aunty and they say you got a stomach bug. I have a client presentation, and I am too busy preparing. I don’t think of you. I spend the whole week not thinking of you. That Friday, we receive a call from Uncle.

“She had a surgery yesterday, and it went well.

He pauses, the silence hanging like tiny shards of glass.

“She ate well and seemed okay.” He sighs. But she passed away in her sleep.

I feel like I’m choking. I wail. Years of not thinking bursts out of my consciousness, all at once. I cry so loudly, the neighbours can hear me. Guilt. It runs deep through my veins, the kind that is here to stay.

I can’t believe I left you. I can’t believe I went for months without thinking of you. I can’t believe I did nothing to protect you. I can’t believe I never told you I loved you. I can’t believe that you are gone. I know I hurt you. But I also know that you forgave me and that hurts the most.


Deepa Rajagopalan visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 13, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Andrea Thompson, Mary Rykov, a special surprise guest, and guest speaker Catalina Fellay-Dunbar who will guide us through, “ A Beginners Guide to Toronto Arts Literary Grants.” 

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BWS 13.11.19: Andrea Thompson

In White from FB_Aug19 Black and White

Photo credit: Terri Quinn

Andrea Thompson is the recipient of the League’s 2019 Golden Beret Award, was the Canadian Festival of Spoken Word’s 2009 Poet of Honour, and in 2005 was nominated for a Canadian Urban Music Award. She’s the author of the novel Over Our Heads and the spoken word CDsSoulorations and One. See her website and IG (andreathompsonpoet) for more info.


I first combined poetry and photography back in the 90s. I went to see a Barbara Kruger exhibit in New York and was super inspired. So I took a corrector ribbon (like the love-child of typewriter ribbon and correction tape) typed out my poem, reversed it, cut it up and pasted it with some graphics around a photograph I took of Trout Lake in Vancouver.

1 Bird Watching

Fast forward to this past summer, when my teenage niece, took pity on me and offered to help me figure out how Instagram works. When I told her I wanted to post images, she said I needed to change the settings on my phone to give Instagram access to my camera. I was all like – hey, hold up!I told her how I had a bad habit of taking pictures of ridiculous (and sometimes embarrassing) things by accident – the visual equivalent of a pocket call. We found a way around my concern, and then had a brief but enlightening conversation about the concept of “privacy”. Now, let me say – this girl is unusually bright and well read, yet I could tell from her response that my understanding of “privacy” was pretty much foreign to her. I was a little horrified to find that, as Orwell foresaw and wrote about with such chilling elegance in Nineteen Eighty-Four, some words don’t mean what they used to anymore. 


 So anyway…. after that chat, my brilliant niece taught me how to create collages using an app. I’ve been having a lot of fun with the process, and it’s opened me up creatively in unanticipated ways – I’m writing shorter poems and thinking more about how the world looks. I’m hoping I can also inspire my nephew to start posting some of his stuff too. He’s a wonderful young poet. He kinda blew my mind the first time I read his work. I’m sure he’d be mortified I’m telling you this, so I won’t mention his name here – but I really hope he starts sharing his work with the world…

3 Leaves_Collage

In the meantime… here’s a sample of what I’ve cooked-up. You can check out more on my Instagram page if you’re into it. I’m at @andreathompsonpoet

4 PigeonWoman_Collage




Andrea Thompson visits Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, November 13, 2019 at Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church Street, Toronto, starting at 6:30pm (PWYC) alongside Deepa Rajagopalan, Mary Rykov, a special surprise guest, and guest speaker Catalina Fellay-Dunbar who will guide us through, “ A Beginners Guide to Toronto Arts Literary Grants.” 


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