Literary Festival Lessons on Love, Loss and Craft

Writing is a solitary occupation, so it’s no surprise writers hunger for a chance to hang out, share a glass of wine (or beer) and compare notes. As Canadian poetry icon Susan Musgrave has said, writers have been described as ‘gregarious loners.’ “So when you need people, you really need them, but when you need solitude, you really need that too.”

Esi Edugyan author pic

Esi Edugyan, author of Half Blood Blues. Photo Steven Price.

This year’s Elephant Mountain Literary Festival (July 12–15) brought a stellar cast of authors to the gorgeous lakeside setting of Nelson, BC, including Musgrave, author Esi Edugyan and husband Steven Price. Musgrave gave us all a great gift with her candour, emotional honesty and incisive humour. That she came at all when her husband, author Stephen Reid, only died a month ago is testament to her courage and generosity. Her presence alone was worth the price of entry and, to my mind, both the literary and emotional highlight of this year’s festival. Her Thursday evening workshop at the Nelson Public Library, ‘Literary Cross-Dressing: when poetry, prose and creative non-fiction start slipping into one another,’ kicked off the festival and by all accounts was a big hit with participants.

Friday’s events began with an afternoon pub-crawl of Nelson’s three new microbreweries. The ‘Literary Craft Crawl’ paired Selkirk College writing students Emma Leslie, Callum David Pengelly, and Whitney Rothwell with three locally brewed craft beers, with musical interludes by ubiquitous Kootenay sax player Clint Swanson. Of course, Nelson has had an award-winning microbrewery since the 1980s with the Nelson Brewing Company and it was NBC who sponsored the Friday night gala event pairing three local authors with three specially brewed ales.


Slocan Valley poet Jordan Mounteer.

I was honoured to be chosen alongside Slocan Valley poet Jordan Mounteer and young Nelson writer Rayya Liebich. Author and librarian Anne DeGrace introduced each of us with a clever and poetic tribute comparing our writing and personalities with the unique qualities of each brew. She joked that writing these poetic pairings had required her to spend “way too much time online consulting beer connoisseur websites.” DeGrace paired me with NBC’s Happy Camper Summer Ale, which—among other qualities—contains a “level-headed earthy, weedy, and musky floral verdant hoppiness … and a hint of wayward yeast.” “Sounds like something brewed for a valley palate to me,” DeGrace concluded. The audience was given samples and invited to toast the authors. I opened my reading from my new novel Mountain Blues by noting that, “If I had a Zen master, he’d likely say that the spiritual condition of ‘happy camper’ is a real accomplishment in life.” She then repeated this feat of literary legerdemain for the next two authors, Rayya Liebich and Jordan Mounteer.

Saturday morning’s panel appealed to both morning types and mystery writers, featuring crime writers Judy Toews, Rachel Greenaway, Roz Nay, and Dave Butler. (For author bios, awards and publication credits visit

Creative Couples panel 1

Clint Swanson gets animated at the ‘Creative Couples’ panel discussion. With Antonia Banyard (far left), Esi Edugyan and Steven Price. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce

The theme of this year’s festival was ‘Literary Couples,’ so the second panel Saturday morning, ‘Creative Couples,’ featured question-and-answer sessions with Edugyan and Price, Antonia Banyard and Clint Swanson, and Susan Musgrave and Stephen Reid (in absentia). The focus of the panel was to find out how differing creative personalities manage to balance relationship, family and writing careers. Some, like Edugyan and Price, are personalities cut from the same cloth, while others like Banyard and Swanson are opposites. Musgrave observed that, “When you’re with someone in a relationship, you tend to absorb them into yourself.” Knowing how to stake out one’s individual creative space within the same household can be a challenge, and by their responses, has many possible answers. “Whatever the interests of your partner, in a relationship you show respect for those interests, even if they’re different than yours,” Price observed. And while Swanson as a musician is outgoing and gregarious, Banyard is shy and reserved. Yet they’ve managed to make it work by balancing off these two qualities: if she’s preparing for a presentation, she can bounce ideas off him about what will work for an audience. For him, her quiet calm is a steadying influence in his life. They actually prefer that they work in different disciplines and never critique one another, whereas Edugyan and Price constantly read one another’s manuscript drafts and offer constructive criticism.

The Saturday afternoon panel, ‘Risk and Resilience,’ explored what it takes to earn a living in the arts while still nurturing one’s craft. The panel, moderated by Rayya Liebich, featured musician Brian Kalbfliesch, dancer Slava Doval, poet Jordan Mounteer, and visual artist Genevieve Robertson. Clearly, as a career choice, the arts are high risk. It takes resilience to persevere in the fact of repeated rejection and projects that can take years but with no guarantee of success. Resilience is defined as “the capacity to recover quickly from adversity.” When asked, “What gives you the strength and courage to persevere?” Mounteer joked that “writing earns me just enough to buy the next bottle of wine that will get me through the writing of the next poem,” highlighting the importance of a sense of humour. Doval, one of the most popular dance instructors in Nelson, said it’s important for artists to remember they’re playing the “long game,” which helps with individual rejections, “knowing that the work feeds you, it doesn’t starve you.” Kalbfliesch said it’s important for artists not to pressure themselves constantly to produce saleable work. “If you mess up, recognize that and adjust your process.” Robertson agreed, urging artists to see their studio space as a process for growth, not just production. “And get used to failure; I don’t just mean getting rejection letters, I mean whatever you’re doing.”

The Saturday night gala event featured literary readings coupled with interviews by Globe & Mail Western arts correspondent Marsha Lederman, a gracious, funny and charming interviewer. Edugyan read from her Man Booker and Giller Prize-winning book Half Blood Blues, a rich tale of race and resilience in the jazz scene during World War II era Germany. Her husband Steven Price next read from his new novel By Gaslight, set in Victorian-era London. Edugyan said Saturday night’s reading was the “swan song” for the novel, as she has a new one due out this fall. During her interview of the couple, Lederman asked them if their work sometimes cross-pollinates. Edugyan said that while Price was researching By Gaslight, he had books about ballooning all over their home, a theme that crept into her writing. They reiterated that they find the creative ferment of living in close quarters a source of renewal rather than conflict, even with raising small children.

Susan Musgrave Nelson 1997 1

Susan Musgrave during her last visit to Nelson in 1997 for the Federation of BC Writers conference. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce.

Susan Musgrave read two poems from her most recent collection Origami Dove (2011) and two prose pieces from Stephen Reid’s books Jackrabbit Parole (1986) and A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden: Writing from Prison (2012). It was immediately apparent why publishers were willing to get behind Reid’s work, which renders a poetic, incisive insider’s view of the prison inmate’s life. Musgrave made it clear that her husband wasn’t primarily a criminal but an addict from an early age. Thankfully their marriage enjoyed a 12-year period of sobriety before he relapsed into his addiction and committed the 1999 robbery that sent him to prison for 14 years.

Musgrave was nothing short of a revelation, both in her readings and during the interview. Still in the raw stages of grieving, she said she felt she’d made progress when she discovered “one still unused hanky in my pocket.” At times during her interview with Lederman her composure cracked, yet she recovered quickly, giving openly and freely of herself. It was as much a life lesson as a literary lesson for the audience. Musgrave said she struggled to find poems to read from Origami Dove, realizing that so many of them were about grief. She read two of the book’s funniest, wittiest poems, ‘Al Purdy Took a Bus to the Town Where Herodotus Was Born,’ and ‘Fred Biggar Swims Nude in the Reflecting Pond with Koi.’ The latter poem was inspired by her work teaching creative writing at UBC, when she said to her students one day: “What is it with poets nowadays? You’re all so damn respectable! Why don’t you go out and break some rules for a change?” Or as the late great Gord Downie sang in Poets: “Don’t tell me what the poets are doing / don’t tell me that they’re antisocial / somehow not antisocial enough.”

Musgrave was candid about her relationship with Reid, noting the many ways it nourished her, even though “no one needs an addict in their lives.” She said that while sober he was noted as a kind and generous person known for his small acts of kindness.

For more information visit the festival website:

POSTSCRIPT: EMLF festival volunteers did a superb job under trying circumstances and deserve commendation: Festival Coordinator Natasha Smith, Anne DeGrace, Tom Wayman, Verna Relkoff, Calvin Wharton, Marty Sutmoller, Rayya Liebich, and many others.

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Joyce to tour new novel Mountain Blues

You are invited to join author Sean Arthur Joyce on tour for a reading from his new novel, Mountain Blues. The novel has been compared to Stephen Leacock’s classic Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. Joyce will do a spring tour of the East and West Kootenays, with a featured launch in Calgary May 31. He will also be one of the featured authors at this year’s Elephant Mountain Literary Festival in Nelson, BC, July 12–15 (

MountainBluescover.inddMountain Blues is the story of a small village in the Valhalla Mountains that must struggle to save its emergency ward from government cutbacks. When reporter Roy Breen arrives in the village of Eldorado after 15 years working at a big city newspaper, burnt out and ready for a slower pace of life, he is soon pitched into the town’s crisis. He must decide whether to blur the lines between objective observer and activist, knowing that closure of the village’s ER could mean the end of the community. Along the way he meets the many eccentric yet loveable characters that inhabit Eldorado, each with their own take on how to save the hospital. It’s that rare creature—an activist story that’s fun!

Art profile 2015 A

Sean Arthur Joyce

Joyce drew on nearly 30 years’ experience as a freelance journalist and a lifetime Kootenay resident to craft the story. His experience as a poet also figures strongly in the prose. Canadian poetry icon and author Gary Geddes writes: “Joyce brings a unique toolbox of writing skills to bear in Mountain Blues that makes for crisp, lyrical prose, an engaging narrative, memorable characters, including an emotionally articulate cat, and a lightness of touch that is as surprising as it is delightful.”

Nelson author Brian D’Eon gave Mountain Blues a strongly favourable review. “Joyce cannot hide the love he has for his characters. He loves not just their strengths but their flaws, their best intentions, their sweet humanity.” D’Eon compares the novel to the popular 1990s sitcom Northern Exposure, a great compliment. Read the full review here:

NeWest Press has launched the careers of many prominent Western Canadian authors, including Rudy Wiebe, Angie Abdou, and many others. Founded in 1977, NeWest Press is one of Canada’s first independent literary publishing houses. NeWest publishes literary fiction, literary non-fiction, poetry, and drama, as well as a line of mystery novels, with a particular interest in books by Western Canadian authors.

Joyce will host book launches at the following locations in the West Kootenay: Nelson Public Library, Thursday, May 24, 7 pm; Bosun Hall, New Denver, Friday, May 25, 7 pm; Nakusp Public Library, Saturday, May 26, 7 pm; Slocan Community Library, with author Agnes Toews-Andrews launching her book, A Return to the Divine Feminine: The Goddess, Sunday, May 27, 1 pm. The Langham will host the Kaslo launch on Sunday, June 10, at 3 pm.

The novel will also be launched at Shelf Life Books in Calgary—one of the city’s premier independent bookstores—on May 31 at 7 pm.

This will be followed by an East Kootenay tour at the following locations: Creston Public Library, Monday, June 4, 7 pm: Centre 64, Kimberley, Tuesday, June 5, 7 pm, with an author meet-and-greet at the Kimberley Public Library from 3–5 pm; Invermere Public Library, Wednesday, June 6, 6:30 pm; Golden Public Library, Thursday, June 7, 6:30 pm.

A fall tour is in the works.

Hope to see you at one of these events! The official release date for the novel is May 15. To pre-order the book visit the NeWest Press website at, your local independent bookstore, Chapters, Barnes & Noble or Amazon.

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Poetry Alive and Well During Poetry Month Pt. 2

  1. A Marriage of Form and Theme

onnotlosingmyfathersashesintheflood_jacketaward_360xRichard Harrison, On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood (Buckrider Books). I’ve been a fan of Harrison’s poetry since his 2005 collection Worthy of His Fall, an undeservedly overlooked gem. Unlike the taut lines and more formal metres of that book, the poems of On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood opt for a longer, more looping line somewhat reminiscent of the Beat poets. At first this threw me, because longer lines can be much more difficult to control, and in the hands of lesser poets merely descend into glorified prose. Poetry perhaps more than any other written art is about precision of language. In his essay ‘Modern Poetry is Prose’, Lawrence Ferlinghetti puts it this way: “It is often very well-written, lovely, lively prose… whose syntax is so clear it can be written all over the page, in open forms and open fields.” But to his mind it often falls short of his ideal of “aspiring to poetic highs somewhere between speech and song.” Yet nowhere do Harrison’s lines run out of control. Late in the reading of this book, it dawned on me: his choice of line length was deliberate, given the theme of water that permeates these pages. Water, with its tendency—especially in flood—to spread indiscriminately over everything:

…like the drafts of a poem,

sometimes deliberately torqueing towards the opposite of the desired end

because the poem is a way we give in to a logic that lives within us

but is not our own.

Although given Harrison’s consummate skill, he is being modest here: clearly his theme and method unite with a subtle harmony all too easy to miss at first reading. Another poem whose line structure took me a few reads to comprehend is A Home on Al-Mutanabbi Street, a response to the March 5th, 2007 car bomb attack on Baghdad’s al-Mutanabbi Street—the historic center of the city’s booksellers—wounding more than 100 people and killing more than 30. The opening nine lines of the poem are set in paragraph like a prose poem:

I am a word. I am a word in Arabic, in English and in Farsi. I am a word in Kurdish and German and Hebrew and French. I am a word in the mouths of prophets and hawkers…

But then, “when the bombs go off,” the poem’s structure is exploded across the page just like the shredded pages that terrible day on Al-Mutanabbi Street:

I am scattered

from all that I have known,

and the wind and ashes take me.

It’s a poignant reminder of the pointless, indiscriminate carnage of terrorism. The poem is included in the Al-Mutanabbi Street Starts Here anthology:


Richard Harrison courtesy Wikipedia

A recurring touchstone in Harrison’s work has been his relationship with his father, a British World War II veteran. Given what we now know about epigenetics—in particular the capacity for past family trauma to influence subsequent generations—it’s not surprising that Harrison continues to grapple with the repercussions of this in his newest collection, the 2018 Governor-General’s Award winner for poetry. What our parents don’t finish is generally handed down to us. Avoidance may seem the easiest option but it’s a mirage. We either deal with it ourselves or our children will have to. As Harrison writes in Confessional Poem:

…the person I would have apologized to is dead now…

The poem was like having an argument with someone in a dream,

then going up to them in daylight wanting to make amends.

Given the wall of critical silence that seemed to greet Worthy of His Fall, with its pointed political poems, I was relieved to see that Harrison didn’t abandon the form in this collection. There are several fine examples: Propaganda, Just Who Do You Fuckers Think You Are?, and of course the superb A Home on Al-Mutanabbi Street. Although the political in poetry fell out of fashion during the long dominance of postmodernism, the pendulum seems to be swinging back to a more politically engaged poetry. As George Orwell said: “The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Often the great magic of poetry is that it articulates for us what we can’t for ourselves. Men don’t tend to want to talk about feelings, which makes Harrison’s explorations of the father-son dynamic so touching yet never sentimental. The bulk of the poems here deal with the eviscerating hell of watching a loved one slowly die. Fortunately for Harrison, he shared something of a literary relationship with his father, and the two exchanged verses during his father’s terminal decline. The two men shared a fondness for Dylan Thomas, one of my formative influences:

You haven’t heard

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea

until you’ve heard it from the wizened mouth

of a man in the not-knowing-when before his death.

In Superman, Harrison deftly chooses the miniscule details that make watching his father die so heartbreaking:

There came a time

when my father did not know

when his stomach was full,

and finishing a meal

was the same to his brain

as closing his eyes on the table.

It reminds me of Irving Layton’s great poem, Senile, My Sister Sings. When I saw him perform this poem in Edmonton in 1986, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Yet there isn’t an ounce of sentimentality in that poem. This is what finely honed poetic craft can accomplish.


Jordan Mounteer

Jordan Mounteer, Liminal (Sono Nis Press). Mounteer is one of those rare individuals who seems “sprung fully formed from the head of Zeus,” his poems as well-turned as someone who’s practiced the craft for decades. (Admirable, if a little infuriating to those of us who tend to be late bloomers.) Mounteer was raised in the Slocan Valley, a region known for its civil disobedience. So it’s not surprising there are political and ecological themes in Liminal. After all, while the ‘War in the Woods’ at Clayoquot Sound was over by 1993, it continued well into the late ’90s in the Slocan Valley. And in many ways, it’s a war without end. Valley residents live in a kind of subdued high alert, aware they may be called upon at any moment to protect their community watersheds from destructive logging practices.

In Fugitive Upbringing, Mounteer writes of his mother’s activism in the Slocan Valley, “comprehending protest, like the poems / I would write years later, as a basic form of courage.” Mounteer avoids the strident in favour of the subtle and pithy. Having worked as a treeplanter in BC forests, he’s seen environmental devastation firsthand: “We are agents of small-print conservation, / seeding life in the guts of life taken at softwood prices.” (Wilson Creek)

liminalLike Kelly Shepherd and Ken Belford, Mounteer has a sense of the complexity of our flawed, often destructive relationship with nature. One could hardly grow up in the Slocan Valley without a deep sense of attachment to nature and the need to fight to protect it. “The idea of ‘ecology’ plays heavily into my work, whether we’re talking about dubious logging practices and the diminishing glaciers in the Valhallas or ‘going deep’ into that mental interface between ourselves and the environment, trying to find that ‘holographic puzzle piece’ of ourselves that fits into the rest of the world.” Activists here and everywhere are painfully aware of the inherent contradictions of both action and non-action. As Mounteer writes in Actaeon Sound:

How exposure to the ransack of timber,

ambushed citizenships of old growth,

rubs thin an ache. How a word

repeated often becomes a word only.

Many of Mounteer’s poems explore romantic attachment, but again, in a nuanced, surprisingly mature fashion. At least since Dante’s infatuation with Beatrice, poets have often found a muse in a lover or someone desired from afar, and many of the poems here are addressed to someone called Joslyn:

Joslyn, as if generated out of shadows,

leans in, clumsy, kisses my shoulder once

with wet lips that conceal the weight

of what it means to be a woman

behind them. The silence that follows

is like missing the last step

at the top of the stairs in the dark.

Love poems are among the most difficult to write, and many a poet has foundered on the rocks of that impulse. Emotion can too easily overcome craft, and the ardent poetry of young love too often merely becomes embarrassing later in life. But clearly, Mounteer has the eye for the telling detail that telegraphs the underlying feeling without descending into maudlin yearning.

I’ve run out of space to discuss the many other fine collections of poetry I’ve encountered during the past few years, so I’m just going to list them in the hopes you’ll trust my judgment and go pick them up:

  • Calvin Wharton, The Song Collides (Anvil Press, 2011)
  • Tom Wayman, Winter’s Skin (Oolichan Books, 2013)
  • Timothy Shay, The Dirty Knees of Prayer (Caitlin Press, 2016)
  • Paul Wilson, The Invisible Library (Hagios Press, 2013)
  • Joe Rosenblatt, The Bird in the Stillness (Porcupine’s Quill, 2016)
  • Owain Nicholson, Digsite (Nightwood Editions, 2016)
  • David Brydges, Vagabond Post Office (Brydge Builder Press, 2018)
  • K. Linda Kivi, Unknown Hum (Maa Press, 2015)
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Poetry Alive and Well During Poetry Month Pt. 1

  1. Turning Back to the Earth as Muse

Poetry is indeed alive and well in 2018. Judging by recent books by both established and emerging poets, the art is in fine fettle. There’s evidence of both high craft and relevance to the social and environmental circumstances in which we find ourselves. And finally, the taboo against political poetry seems to have lifted in Canadian poetry.

In one of my first blog posts in 2011, I foolishly announced that “poetry is dead.” Of course, I wasn’t the first to make such a reckless declaration. There’s even a journal now called Poetry is Dead, as if to ironically underscore the point that in fact it still thrives. In my defense I will say that poetry in the early 21st century lives in a strange paradox: more books of poetry being published than at any time in history, yet fewer readers of poetry than ever. Welcome to the age of cognitive dissonance. Just ask a publisher about trying to sell books of poems and you’ll get the exasperated equivalent of an eye-roll. Way back in 1990, in an interview with Tom Wayman for our Selkirk College magazine, he said that Canadian poetry was kept alive on the “artificial life support” of the grant funding system. That, and proliferation of creative writing faculties in the past 30 years. But is anyone outside these faculties actually reading poetry? When I wrote that essay, I was questioning poetry’s role “as a relevant cultural force.”

But of course poetry is perennially, eternally relevant. Poetry was where political leaders often found their most pithy quotes, at least in the pre-Trump, pre-Twitter era. That’s the greatness of the art: its ability to summarize human experience in just a few words or lines. The great poems act as high-energy constructs, densely packed and ready to go off like a Roman candle in your mind. Better yet, its fireworks change both shape and colour every time you read the poem. More subtleties emerge, more shades of meaning.

In this two-part article, I consider four Canadian poets: two established poets and two emerging voices: Richard Harrison, Ken Belford, Kelly Shepherd, and Jordan Mounteer.


Kelly Shepherd

Kelly Shepherd: Shift (Thistledown Press). I discovered Shepherd’s work through a mutual friend who thought our poetics were sympatico, and he was right. In my own poetry I strive to get out of the typical self-absorption of humans and get inside all the other lives—from moths to robins to elephants—with whom we share this planet. After all, in the trajectory toward the universal, contemplation of the self is only going halfway. Most poets writing about ecological concerns aren’t necessarily anxious to be labeled ‘eco poets’ but there’s no denying the theme is present in Shepherd’s work. At times there’s a shamanistic quality to his voice, but its authenticity never succumbs to the faux shamanism of so many New Agers. The poem In Exchange for Flight is an example:

…a bird hollows its bones,

letting the sky enter its body

in exchange for flight.

In Webs Across the Eyes, Shepherd deftly explores the hidden magic of the wild, a magic that animals understand intuitively:

Some spiders know the knots

to tie a cluster of Oregon grape

into one single dusty purple berry. If a


black bear swallows it under the right moon

he or she will become a powerful shaman,

able to speak the language of spiders.

Long before today’s ‘eco poets,’ the Romantic poets and early transcendentalist movement of Thoreau and Emerson attempted to turn us back to a less destructive relationship with the natural world. They saw from the outset of industrial capitalism what a divorce from nature would cost us in spiritual terms. In the 200 years since, our consumer culture and capacity for intellectual abstraction and narcissism has largely divorced us from our innate connection with the planet. The result has been climate chaos and endemic depression. But the best poets don’t sermonize, they create a space within the poem—an Aha! moment of transcendence—akin to the experience of actually being in nature. It’s the transcendence that comes from having our toes in the wet soil of the Earth. We are, after all, Earth animals. And there is indeed a transcendent element to Shepherd’s poems, thanks to his careful attention to craft. Little Thunderstorm Songs deserves quoting in its entirety:


your legs like lightning,

the rain is coming!

Find someplace to hide.



all your work!

The wind is rising,

the pond will burst its seams.

As if schooled in Japanese tanka or haiku, Shepherd pulls off this compact brilliance repeatedly, in poems like A World is Created, Big Lake Poplars, A World is Created, Being Bee and many more.

There are quite a number of ‘found’ poems in Shift. I’ve always been vaguely suspicious of found poems on the same principle that I remain skeptical of electronic music composed entirely of excerpts or ‘samples’ of other artists’ music. Too often it seems like thinly disguised plagiarism or a sheer lack of originality. So I asked Shepherd about it.

51oibwnlqgl-_sx321_bo1204203200_“I understand your point about techno music, simply combining other people’s music and calling it your own. This is hardly a musical skill, at least nowhere near the same category as playing piano or violin etc. However, at the same time (speaking of music) there is the notion of sampling as a way of paying homage, as is done in the best of hip hop music. They’re not claiming credit… they’re situating their music into a broader context. That’s more like what I had in mind with those found poems in Shift: acknowledging the genealogy of other writers in the nature writing / eco-poetry vein. Deliberately placing my own poems in that tradition, and thereby acknowledging my own literary / philosophical roots. The only one that’s different (not simply a direct quote) is the poem The First Metaphor where a passage from Annie Dillard is combined with a passage from John Berger. The direct quotes from the two different authors alternate.”

From this perspective then, the poet is acting as curator rather than originator. And clearly, Shepherd has a keen eye for the bon mot, the gold buried in the dross. To his credit, he provides the sources for his found poems in the notes at the back of the book. As has often been said, no art is ever 100 percent ‘original’ in the sense that everyone is influenced by someone else. Still, I don’t agree with those who go so far as to say there is no originality, only various gradations of ‘stealing.’ Though we all indeed in any craft or art stand on the shoulders of giants, it’s our originality, our genetic recombinations, that set us apart as writers.

Shift is an exciting discovery in Canadian poetry and deserves wide attention.

1550173499I should also note in this context northern BC poet Ken Belford’s 2005 collection Ecologue (Harbour Publishing), something of an updated coinage of ‘eclogue,’ a short pastoral poem that originated with 4th century BC Greek poet Theocritus. But unlike some poets who fall over themselves to avoid appearing strident, Belford is more of a plain speaker in the northern tradition. “Loggers wipe their asses with owls, / a synonym for old growth,” he writes in Weed book drift. “But shit doesn’t stick to feathers and / diversity is a moral responsibility / having to do with the transfer of properties.” In that sense he’s more in the tradition of Peter Trower or Milton Acorn than Don McKay. Yet in Acorn’s classic 1969 collection I’ve Tasted My Blood, he proved that poets can still pack a political punch within a superbly well-wrought poem, as for example in poems like I Shout Love. The danger of subtlety is that it can serve the wrong master. Trower, a former logger himself, had no problem naming the devastation wrought by industrial scale logging, “the land… hammered to stumps and ruin.” (The Ridge Trees)


Ken Belford, courtesy Caitlin Press

Belford seems to have chosen the title of this collection somewhat ironically, positioning himself both within and without the tradition of the eclogue. “The conventional standards of narrative and lyric poetry give me nothing. The intention of the sequences I write is to assemble words that can be messaged to the habituated souls of the city from the land-aware that live outside city limits.” It’s an acknowledgement of the urban/rural divide of modern society, or what I call Canada’s 21st century ‘Two Solitudes,’ to borrow from Hugh Maclennan. With the late 20th century shift toward a primarily urban global population, only about 20 percent of Canada’s population resides in rural communities. Add climate chaos to that and it’s more important than ever that the ‘pastoral’ perspective isn’t lost.

But whether ‘eco poets’ strive simply to emulate the sense of presence in the landscape, as Shepherd does, or call out those responsible for its destruction, both are, to quote Belford in Land schemas, seeking “the return path”:

Away in the burrow out of earshot

the earthworm snuffles toward connexion,

an intentional conductor

zeroing in on the return path.


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Convergence event explores civil discourse

A former chair of the David Suzuki Foundation and a long-time Nelson city councillor will be the two featured speakers at the 5th annual Convergence Writers’ Weekend in Silverton, B.C. June 15 and 16.

The theme of this year’s Convergence weekend is “Keeping a Civil Tongue.” Presentations will focus on how speakers and writers on all sides of controversial issues increasingly regard those who disagree with them as not only wrong-headed but evil. And most importantly, what we can do to return to a state of civil discourse. All Convergence events take place at Silverton’s Memorial Hall, 203 Lake Ave. (Highway 6).

James Hoggan

Author and PR consultant James Hoggan

Speaking at 7 p.m. June 15, at an event open to the public as well as Convergence registrants, will be James Hoggan. Besides his work for the Suzuki Foundation, Hoggan chaired Al Gore’s Climate Project Canada. His most recent book is I’m Right and You’re an Idiot: The Toxic State of Public Discourse and How to Clean It Up. ( Hoggan notes that the demonizing of opponents hampers a community’s ability to solve common problems. His book identifies some approaches to counter this trend, drawing on the work of communications experts around the world.

Also presenting at the June 15 event will be Donna Macdonald, a Nelson city councillor for 19 years before retiring in 2014. Her memoir of life as a civic politician, Surviving City Hall, ( stresses the importance of local government while emphasizing the need for truthfulness, kindness and civility in public life.

D. Macdonald crop

Donna Macdonald, veteran Nelson city councillor.

Registrants for Convergence also have the choice to attend one of two writing workshops offered during the day on June 16, as well as attending an arts performance and discussion that evening. Writing workshop leaders are Macdonald and New Denver author and performer Sean Arthur Joyce. Macdonald’s workshop, ‘Seeking and Keeping Civility,’ will closely follow the event’s theme, drawing on her two decades in public service. Joyce will get down to the nuts and bolts of writing prose in ‘From Mundane to Gripping: Mastering Prose,’ based on his 30 years’ experience as a freelance journalist, historian, poet, and more recently, novelist.

Saturday evening includes performances by Joyce, New Denver musician Noel Fudge, and Silverton/New Denver dancer Koko, as well as a discussion of the weekend’s theme by participants.

Registration is now open, at a cost of $45 plus GST. More information, including how to register, is available at

Deadline for registration is June 1. Deadline for persons wishing feedback on their writing from Joyce in his workshop is May 19. Submit a maximum of 1,000 words from a work in progress or outline for a new work.

Convergence is partially supported by the ProVision fund of the United Church’s B.C. Conference, the Columbia Basin Trust, and the Regional District of Central Kootenay’s Area H director, Walter Popoff.

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The Gothard Sisters Put New Fire into Old Embers

Starting in the 1970s, Celtic traditional music began a resurgence that fully hit its stride on the world stage in the 1980s and ’90s. Though it has since faded somewhat from prominence, some bands—The Chieftains, Planxty, Clannad, Altan and many others—have remained a fixture in world music for decades. Today its echoes continue to be heard globally with superstar acts like Celtic Woman and Riverdance. But the glitz and glamour of such a massive production isn’t for everyone. Just as with the blues, often Celtic music is best appreciated with a ragged group of musicians belting it out in a pub or small concert hall. Promoters tend to want to ‘go big or go home’ but this often leads to over-production that obscures the heart and soul of the music.

Not so with the Gothard Sisters, a trio based in Seattle, Washington, who manage to keep the production values modest while injecting new life into both traditional and original songs. Rather than sequined ball gowns and strobe lights, Greta, Willow and Solana Gothard opt for a more naturalistic image. Many of their music videos are filmed outdoors in the forests and beaches of their Pacific Northwest home, and you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful backdrop. Combined with their effortless physical grace and fluent musicality, the effect is absolutely luminous. It’s a refreshing change from much of the entertainment on offer these days, which seems fixated on the cynical and violent or the crassly commercial.


Solana, Willow and Greta Gothard: a sweet breath of fresh air in Celtic traditional music. Image courtesy the Gothard Sisters.

The Gothard Sisters first began performing in 2006 as a violin trio busking for tips at the local farmer’s market in their hometown of Edmonds, Washington. From there they worked their way onto stages at fairs and festivals, and all the way to the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. They have completed several national concert tours of the United States, regularly perform as guest entertainers on Disney Cruise Line in Europe and South America and are well-known musicians on the national Celtic festival circuit.

The three sisters are all multi-instrumentalists as well as being accomplished Irish stepdancers. Willow plays violin, mandolin, octave mandolin, and bodhran. Greta plays guitar, violin and octave mandolin. Solana, the youngest, plays violin, bodhran, djembe, whistle, and percussion. It’s often been noted that some of the best harmonies come from family bands, with their closely attuned voices, and the Gothard Sisters are no exception. I was fortunate enough to be granted an interview with Greta Gothard about their career and their new album—just released—titled Midnight Sun.

I see from your music video for The Little Things That Make a Difference that you seem to have been involved in music from the time you were all toddlers. Are your parents musicians? Do you come from a long line of musicians or a family tradition of teaching music?

The three of us have been playing music from a very young age, starting violin at the age of 5. Our parents themselves are not musicians, but they were very supportive when I asked for violin lessons as a five-year-old. They each had musical parents and grandparents, so it does run in the family a bit. Our family has a history of being very artistic though, and both of them went to school for art.


The Gothard Sisters use the setting of their Pacific Northwest home for their videos, to gorgeous effect. Image by Zebra Visual Photography, courtesy the Gothard Sisters.

Did you train classically in addition to learning Celtic traditional music? Is classical training at the root of your ability to create such interesting arrangements of traditional songs or is that a natural ability? Who mostly does your arrangements?

Yes, we were all trained in classical violin by the late Larry Fisher, and spent years learning solo concertos, playing in youth symphonies and in various chamber music ensembles. So my approach to music and arrangement initially was very much from a classical perspective. A lot of the arrangement now is intuitive. All along the three of us have had eccentric musical tastes—listening to lots of Celtic folk music, traditional music from the British Isles, along with many genres of world music, soundtrack, new age, pop, rock, indie folk and other genres that probably have also played a role in forming the type of music we like to write and create.

Where does your interest in Celtic music come from—is there a family connection? What first got you interested in it? And where did the Irish step dancing come in?

We became interested in Celtic music through listening to it. We do have Celtic heritage—pretty far back—family that immigrated from Ireland, Scotland and England, as well as the Scandinavian countries, and gradually made their way to the West Coast of America, where we are now. However, my first experiences with the Celtic music that I love to listen to and play were through recordings that we listened to obsessively on road trips through the mountains—a Thistle and Shamrock sampler CD, Dougie MacLean albums, lots of Silly Wizards, Kate Rusby, Natalie MacMaster, and several Celtic rock bands that we loved—Seven Nations, Wolfstone, etc.

We were also constantly listening to traditional tunes by participating in the culture of competitive Irish step dancing—we danced to the recordings, and there were always live musicians playing the tunes from dawn ’til dusk at every competition locally, regionally, nationally, and eventually at the World Championships where we traveled to the UK to compete and to visit Ireland, Scotland and England for the first time. So the tunes sunk in and became very familiar.

When we started playing Celtic music after switching over from classical, it was easier to switch because the tunes felt like they’d always been there, in the back of my head. Still, I think that a lot of classical musicians think that Celtic music and Irish tunes are ‘easy’ and that it’s a fairly easy thing to do—switch to Celtic music. And it is not. Irish and Scottish traditional musicians are seriously underrated and it takes a completely different set of skills to play dance music than it does to play classical pieces, in my opinion.


The Gothard Sisters. Image by Zebra Visual Photography, used with permission.

I notice the repeating theme of nature in your music videos, with some gorgeous videography of Pacific Northwest shores and forests. Are you hoping to create a bit of an environmental message?

We grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and it was also a formative experience to be able to spend my early years in an absolutely beautiful place. Family weekend trips would be to the mountains, or to the beach. Camping or hiking was what we did for ‘field trips.’ I think in a lot of ways our music is influenced by the beauty of the natural world, and that’s why we wanted to set the videos in those places. Because the purpose of the videos was to expand the song for our listeners—give them a little bit of what we’re seeing in our heads when we write the piece.

Is it challenging working with your siblings so closely, given the amount of hours it must take to practice, compose, record and tour together?

I think it is difficult in some ways, but for the most part it makes things easier. We know each other really well after years of playing together (this is our tenth year as a band), plus the years and years of playing together as kids. We were homeschooled, so that allowed for many hours to create stories and performances together. For us, it’s the best-case scenario because we love working together, know when to take breaks and give each other space, and we also share a lot of the same influences and love the same kind of music. Our creative visions really line up with each other. So I would say that while it can be challenging at times, the good definitely outweighs the bad in this case and makes us all stronger together.

Plus, how cool is it to get to share all these stories, experiences and travel memories with your sisters?


The Gothard Sisters’ new album Midnight Sun is their first album of all-original songs.

Is there a theme to the new album that links the songs together? What inspired this theme?

I suppose the theme could be interpreted as going on an adventure and then coming back home. A lot of these songs were written while on the road, so there’s a mixture of songs about traveling, wandering, sailing, adventuring, but then there are also songs about being homesick, missing home, and returning home safely.

In what ways is this a departure from your previous albums and in what ways is it part of a continuity with them?

This is our first all-original album. So that would be a departure from our previous albums, however I think that in some ways this is our most authentic record because of that. Now, not only the arrangements and the musical themes are written by us, but so are the words, the lyrics, the feelings behind the songs. This is a collection of songs that we love and I hope that comes through. It’s a postcard of where we are now, musically.

Are you recording in the same studio or did you have a new team for this record?

Yes, this was recorded by Kent Harrison of Sammamish Sounds recording studio in the Seattle area, who has recorded all of our previous albums. The recording quality is really, really good and we have a finely-tuned system of working together by now. Plus, we all love experimenting with new sounds and new recording techniques in striving to produce the best new album possible.

Are you three sisters still the only musicians, or are you starting to add featured studio musicians?

The three of us played all of the instruments on the album, wrote all the parts, arranged all the songs and put it all together. Phew! It’s a lot of work. But it’s also one of our favorite things to do together. There weren’t any studio musicians on this album besides the three of us. However, we did have a special guest on one of the tracks—Michele McLaughlin, a well-known New Age pianist, who co-wrote one of the songs called When the Rain Falls. It’s a beautiful song, and we were so pleased to get to collaborate with her because we love her music.

Visit their website to order the new album here:

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New Denver Youth Centre news: so much to do!

New Denver shoreline lo-res

The shoreline of Slocan Lake at New Denver. Photo Sean Arthur Joyce.

Behind its sleepy façade, the village of New Denver is a happening place. Small towns can be a particular challenge for youth but thanks to the New Denver and Area Youth Centre Society and the Outlet Youth Centre on mainstreet, there’s lots going on. Now in its seventh year, the society includes youth input during its monthly board meetings. At a time when volunteerism generally is in decline, youth here are given plenty of opportunities to volunteer. During the past year youth have contributed 80 volunteer hours to the community.

“I think the fact that the youth centre is right downtown is something the kids really respond to,” says the society’s coordinator Paula Shandro. “I think they feel valued that we aren’t tucking them away in some corner. And it makes them more accountable. We are very fortunate to have Harriet Richardson and Isaac Carter as our amazing supervisors, holding the space for our youth.”

The latest news? At the society’s April 10 AGM it was announced that after over a dozen meetings with the Village, school and community, plans are in the works to transform the Lucerne school tennis court into a skateboarding area. During the winter, in collaboration with Lucerne School, 25–30 students participated in the four high school ski days at various ski hills throughout the region. In January, 10 youth enjoyed a trip to Nakusp Hot Springs. In February, professional singer Kelly Coubrough started a teen singing group, bringing world-class instruction to our tiny village. In March, 17 local youths enjoyed a field trip to Castlegar for swimming, dinner and a movie. During spring break, a musical theatre camp was held for both teens and pre-teens. And the year isn’t half over yet.

Youth Centre skateboards lo-res

Skateboards at the Outlet Youth Centre in New Denver, BC. 

This followed an even busier year in 2017, when New Denver hosted the Columbia Basin Trust Regional Youth Summit in May. More than 70 young people came together, including 11 from New Denver, for a day-long event of leadership exercises, an amazing race, food and karaoke. In June 2017 a two-day course in Mental Health First Aid for Adults Working with Youth was offered, with five locals receiving the training, a total of 18 adults. In July the kids held a streetside car wash to raise funds for the New Denver preschool and the Anita Dumins cancer treatment fund. A dozen youth volunteered for Hills Garlic Festival staffing the gates. Then in October three young people participated in a full day Kootenay Emergency Response practice. The kids enjoyed having fake blood smeared on themselves to pose as accident victims. During the fall local teens were hired to provide after-school arts and gym programming for children at Lucerne School. A youth survey distributed during the fall received almost a 100 percent response rate.

The regular programming alone is enough to keep young people from being bored. Those wanting to learn how to make their own videos can join the Media Club, with ICandy Films filmmaker Isaac Carter facilitating. Every Tuesday, a homemade dinner is offered at the Outlet Youth Centre. According to Shandro, food programming has always been an important part of the society’s priorities. CBT Basin Youth Network funding has provided funding for fitness centre memberships for youth, school lunch program subsidies, contributions toward sexual health workshops at the school, a Shakespeare Festival field trip, Valhalla Fine Arts Dance bursaries and community stage, high school swim lessons, school passion projects, training courses and more. The recently established Youth Empowerment Fund enables young people to apply for funding to pursue their passions in exchange for a modest volunteer commitment.

“They can do it for music lessons, sports equipment, or out of town recreation events like parkour and soccer,” says Shandro. “They have to reach out and say, this is what I really would like to do.”

Kell skateboarding lo-res

New Denver youth enjoyed a field trip to the skatepark at Castlegar, BC. Plans are afoot for a skateboarding area at New Denver’s Lucerne school. Thanks to amazing volunteers, youth here have plenty to keep them busy outside school hours.

A recent spate of vandalism in New Denver that included graffiti at the Lamarche home and cars being rifled through prompted the society to reach out to a restorative justice counsellor. To their credit, all of the youths involved have come forward to apologize and offer restitution to the offended parties. According to Shandro, the Lamarches and the parents of those involved helped make it happen.

“I’d like to acknowledge Linny and Steve’s position that they were going to be patient and give them time to come forward. Our group offered to clean it up and Tamara Claxton offered to paint it over but they wanted those responsible to come forward. We are grateful that Linny and Steve and other community members offered their understanding while giving our youth the opportunity to take responsibility for their actions.”

Other programs being developed include a youth employment strategy with the goal of supporting youth in developing their skills while building their confidence and their résumés. The CBT Youth Summit will be held in Kimberly again this year the weekend of May 4–6, a weekend of leadership building, arts, music and connecting with over 150 youth from the entire Columbia River Basin. For regular updates, the Outlet Youth Centre maintains a Facebook page, a moderated group for both youth and their parents.

NOTE: This article also appeared in the Valley Voice issue of April 19, 2018. Visit the newspaper at

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