this is not a review: ‘leonard’s flat’, by steven mayoff


Leonard’s Flat , a slim, beautifully made volume of ekphrastic poetry, influenced by the art of the author’s uncle, Len Fligel, who Mayoff credits with being the long ago spark that ignited his own “creative ambitions as a writer”… is a tiny gem.

Ten paintings, nicely reproduced on thick, glossy pages, represent a slice of one family’s history but it could be any family. The subjects are simple and relatable:  bread on a supper table, chickens running in the yard, laundry, musicians, domestic scenes. Add to that Mayoff’s insights and recollections, the adult looking back at pieces of art he first saw when he and his mother lived with the uncle in his Glasgow home for a short time, the meaning of which art eluded him as a child yet never left some deeper place in his memory.

Because isn’t that how art works when it’s working at its best.

These ten poems feel like so much more than an homage… more like a testament to not only how we remember, but how we see, not only the past, but the present. Because art in any form is always about the present, no matter when it’s made, no matter when we find it.

“…Gathering round your
Glasgow table when
I was a boy offered

a haven for the stranger
I was to myself…

—From the poem, ‘Meal’


the (anti) shopping list


Here is my not-quite-but-almost annual list for them wot don’t especially like ‘stuff’… Also, coincidentally, it’s a list of my favourite things to both give and receive… (note for those intent on giving:  the asterisked books? got ’em.
But I’m wide open for all the food items… leave baskets on the porch).

1.   Food. Any form. You can’t go wrong with cheese. If you live in the vicinity of Country Cheese… fill my stocking with the goat brie (coated in ash). It’s absolutely heaven sent, this stuff. Appropriate for the time of year, no?

2.   A book about  food. I’m mad for anything Laurie Colwin, also *The CanLit Foodbook  and most recently, *a Taste of Haida Gwaii,  by Susan Musgrave. And… Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus.  I can’t believe I don’t own this.

3.   Music by Laura Smith.

4.   Gift certificate to a garden centre. My choice would be Richter’s Herbs for the following reasons: the staff know things and are pleasant (this is no longer the case at all garden centres). The selection is amazing and mostly edible. They play classical music to the seedlings. (Also, and not insignificant, the route home goes right by my favourite place for pizza.)

5.   Gift certificate to my favourite place for pizza. (This is an excellent gift and comes with a good chance of being invited to share a slice.)

6.   If you have made anything pickled, I would welcome a jar. (FYI, I’m not much for jam.)

7.  Honey. Unpasteurized of course. Local please. Or a kombucha mother. And who would say no to a bag of Atlantic dulse???

8.  And because we can’t ever have enough… books, books and more books from across this literary land. One from each province/territory — mostly published this year:

YUKON — Ivan Coyote’s *Gender Failure (Arsenal Pulp Press) actually came out in 2014. So sue me.

NWT — Ramshackle: a Yellowknife Story,  by Alison McCreesh (Conundrum Press)  (this review by John Mutford sold me)

NUNAVUT — Made in Nunavut,  by Jack Hicks and Graham White (UBCPress) Because we could stand to know more about this part of the country.

BC — Please don’t think Amber Dawn’s *Where the Words End and My Body Begins  (Arsenal Pulp Press) is only for those in love with poetry. It’s for anyone who loves words. Trust me.

ALBERTA — Rumi and the Red Handbag  (Palimset Press), by Shawna Lemay.

SASKATCHEWAN — *The Education of Augie Merasty  (University of Regina Press), by Augie Merasty and David Carpenter.

MANITOBA — A writer new to me, Katherena Vermette. I want very much to read her North End Love SongsAlso the more recent The Seven Teachings  (Portage & Main Press, 2014/15).

ONTARIO — A Rewording Life,  a fabulous project by Sheryl Gordon to raise funds for the Alzheimers Society of Canada. 1,000 writers from across the country were each given a ‘word’, which they then returned in a sentence. Essentially, it’s an anthology of a thousand sentences. I’m proud to have been invited to join the fun. My word was ‘nettles’.

QUEBEC — Okay. This came out in 2013, not 2105, but I haven’t read it and have always meant to and now it’s long listed for Canada Reads. So it’s time. Bread and Bone  (House of Anansi), by Saleema Nawaz.

NEW BRUNSWICK — *Beatitudes  (Goose Lane Editions),  by Hermenegilde Chiasson. This was published years ago (2007) but I include it because it’s truly one of my favourite books ever and I don’t get to talk about it enough.

NOVA SCOTIA — *These Good Hands  (Cormorant), by Carol Bruneau.

PEI — *Our Lady of Steerage  (Nimbus Publishing), by Steven Mayoff.

NEWFOUNDLAND & LABRADOR — Ditto the Canada Reads argument for Michael Crummey’s 2014 *Sweetland   from Doubleday.

9.  Donations to any number of good causes. And a few more ideas (some repetition, but also not). And this, recently discovered: The Native Women’s Association of Canada.

10.  The gift of art.

11.  The gift of lunch, or a walk, a phone call, an hour to really listen to someone who needs to be heard. A visit to a nursing home. A poem tucked into a card. An invitation, a freshly baked pie for the neighbour who could do with some cheering. The gift of letting someone give to us too. Margaret Visser wrote a wonderful book on that… The Gift of Thanks.

12. The gift of a promise kept.

13.  And never to be overlooked or forgotten: the gift of massage.

You’re welcome.

And thank you.

(at)eleven with steven mayoff — fatted calf blues

“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our conciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.” ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

From the start, food has featured large in my friendship with Steven Mayoff. We met at the inaugural Seawords workshop series on PEI, in 2009. A brilliant experience and a magical place where words and the business of words were the daily focus from early morning til night.

But it’s the food I remember most.

Oysters right off the boat, lobster, patios with beautiful watery views, roadside chip vans selling fresh-from-the-red-dirt spuds, mussels ten thousand ways, a tiny mom and pop diner on a Charlottetown side street that made the kind of perfect toast I haven’t eaten since I was a kid, and the giant bowl of cioppino Steve and I shared at one exceptional place he kept suggesting I try: The Dunes (officially now one of the top ten places I’ve ever eaten; and I’ve eaten a lot).

Food continues to find its way into most of our e-conversations, if only as a closing comment—and due to Steve’s powers of description, I can sometimes almost smell what his foodie-extraordinaire wife, Thelma, is fixing for dinner (especially hard on the days I’m having sauerkraut).

Despite the title, Fatted Calf Blues is not about food. But in my world, all good books inspire culinary thoughts at some level.

The meal inspired by Fatted Calf Blues can be found at the end of the Q&A.


1.  What literary character did you identify with as a kid?

SM:  As a kid the only literary characters I knew came from TV and movies, such as The Wizard of Oz or Winnie the Pooh. I actually walked around with a posse of imaginary cartoon friends (Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, etc.) like we were some kind of street gang. They were my confidants.

I didn’t do very much reading, although I do remember picture books about mythology and dinosaurs. And I remember being fascinated by book spines on our shelf and strange titles like Tropic Of Cancer and Nine Hours To Rama and unpronounceable author names like Kazantzakis. There was also a book about the Holocaust that had gruesome photos of shrunken heads and lampshades made of human skin. That certainly caught my attention.

The first books I remember actually reading were The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Catcher In the Rye in high school. Of those two, I’d say I identified more with Holden Caulfield: the loner, the outsider, someone with a rich interior life. Duddy was more of a go-getter, which is not how I saw myself, although the influence of Richler’s book is still with me. Salinger influenced me more with his short stories.

2.  Can you recall your earliest poem, story or finger-paint-illustrated trilogy?

SM: I remember making a finger painting when I was probably around 5 or 6 years old and having my sister, who was around 19, ask me what it was called. I’m pretty sure I said something like “Snakes of Love.” I knew it was a grown-up thing to say and my sister was both amused and shocked.

I drew a lot as a kid, mostly super heroes and later on rock bands. I didn’t start writing poems until my last year of high school. I had three published in the school literary journal. One was a description of a pair of construction boots “looking at the world through unlaced eye-holes” or something like that. Another was some kind of meditation on the contradictions of labels while trying to figure out my identity. I can’t remember the third. I was also into writing song lyrics as a natural outlet for being a frustrated musician. I didn’t attempt a short story until my late twenties.

3.  Are there recurring themes in your writing that surprise you?

SM: I’m surprised when any kind of recurring theme arises, because I don’t think that way. I’m not even sure what the recurring themes are. Alienation, I guess. Ummm…good hygiene? Seriously, I do notice things in retrospect that, more often than not, don’t surprise me. But I am a great believer in what Wayson Choy said: “I know I am a writer because until I’m writing I don’t know what I know,”

4.  Do you work to a routine, a schedule, a daily word count?

SM: The only real routine I work to is the urgency in my head that I have to get something done. How that happens is anyone’s guess. There’s no particular schedule I follow, except that I try to write every day, usually in the afternoon or evening. The idea of a daily word count makes me want to blow my brains out. I know the professional thing is to see writing as a job, but I’ve always resisted that. I worked at various jobs for most of my adult life, so I’m happy not to have one now. In one way I kind of envy writers who say they wake up and bang out so many pages or words first thing in the morning. Waking up is a long process for me.

5.  What is a favourite passage from any book?

SM: “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” from Slaughterhouse Five. It’s a simple sentence (I suppose I should say “deceptively simple”) that leaves a lot to the imagination. It could be describing the most liberating experience or the most horrifying nightmare. Surprising how often those two things go hand in hand.

I’d have to say that sentence (as well as the book and Vonnegut in general) really influenced my writing. The whole idea of coming unstuck in time is a kind of madness where one discovers that linear time as we understand it doesn’t exist and everything – past, present and future – is happening all at once. That’s what fiction and the writing process is for me: a kind of madness where truth reveals itself, but not in any coherent way, until I begin writing and trying to make some kind of sense of it. I learn things about my characters and the situations they are in (and also about myself and what is important to me) as I slowly organize the events and give shape to the story.

6.  What was the best advice you ever received as a writer?

SM: When I was in high school I asked an English teacher what I needed to do to become a writer. He looked down at me soberly (he was a giant of a man with very blue eyes) and said: “You have to suffer.” That scared the crap out of me and maybe even deterred me a little, because I didn’t know what “suffering” entailed. I thought of that when I published my first book, Fatted Calf Blues, (I even thanked that teacher in the acknowledgements). In retrospect, I like to think he was really telling me to go live my life so that I’d have some experience to enrich my writing. I appreciate the fact that maybe he was just treating me like an adult and giving me the real information, thinking it would either scare me off or inspire me. And it did both.

7.  The opening story, The Most Important Man, sets the tone of ‘displacement’ that runs through the collection, personal discomfort, shown through discomfort with the physical space the characters occupy. This leads me back to the theme question: was this intentional, something you were exploring, the idea of ‘not fitting’… or did you recognize the thread only after the stories were written?

SM: To be honest, I didn’t realize there was a thread until you just mentioned it. While promoting FCB I was asked what the connecting idea of the stories was and I usually tried to bluff my way through and say all the characters were searching for some notion of home. “Displacement” is probably a better answer. Anyway, these things only become evident after the fact. I never or rarely think about them beforehand. But again, in retrospect, the themes of displacement and looking for a home are very personal for me, so it only seems natural that they would creep into my writing. I’m obviously attracted to those kinds of stories, so I have no doubt an unconscious part of my creative process preplans some sort of exploration of those themes.

8.   A couple of the pieces are written in either the voice or POV of a woman; what were the challenges with that, if any?

SM: I can’t think of any real challenges. I invest myself in my characters and try to be a kind of witness to their lives. I never think to myself something like: “what would a woman do here?” because I’m looking for the humanity in the character, although I do believe there are specific differences in the attitudes of men and women. Men might have more difficulty expressing themselves and women might be more open about their feelings, but people as a whole don’t voluntarily give out too much information without some prodding. So discovering any character’s voice or POV entails me searching for the right buttons to push.

9.  If the title story were made into a film, who would you like to see play Mavis Jean? (Any other casting ideas?)

SM: That’s a very timely question as I have just returned from the Screenwriters’ Bootcamp that happens every year in Charlottetown and is sponsored by the Island Media Arts Cooperative (it’s only open to Atlantic Canadian writers). I was in an adaptation workshop with renowned story editor, Ken Chubb (he was involved with the Canadian horror film Ginger Snaps and the CBC mini-series Dragon Boys). I’m trying to adapt the story Fatted Calf Blues into a screenplay and it has been a long process. After this workshop, I now find myself back at square one, although I have a better idea of how to go about it.

Mavis Jean: Hilary Swank, Tara Spencer-Nairn (also, Nancy Roberts, although she is older, would be interesting)

Milo: Michael Cera, Elijah Wood

Two-Gun Billy: Chris Cooper, Nicholas Campbell

Vesta:  I used to think Jackie Burroughs was pefect, but she’s passed away, so my alternative would be Toronto actor, Barbara Gordon. Or even Sissy Spacek.

10. Why short fiction?

SM: It has the expansiveness of prose, but matched with the precision of poetry. It is a kind of postcard portrait that allows you to glimpse life beyond its edges. Every short story should be a kind of map you might find in a mall that says: You Are Here.

11. Choices:

Coffee or tea?  Coffee. I do like a nice caffeine buzz.

Lyrics or prose?  Lyrics. My fantasy job is to be a lyricist in a rock band like Keith Reid in Procol Harum or Pete Sinfield in King Crimson. (I bet you will have to Google these). The next novel I want to write will have a lyricist as its narrator and a series of song lyrics to complement the unfolding story.

Ocean or river?  River. I live right by one and I think a river has more metaphorical mojo.

Pen or keyboard?  Keyboard. I find it more playful. I like tapping things. Also, it placates the frustrated musician in me. I’m the Elton John of hunt-&-peck.

Kundera or Beckett?  Kundera. His quote: “The present moment is unlike the memory of it.  Remembering is not the negative of forgetting.  Remembering is a form of forgetting.” from his book of connected essays, Testaments Betrayed, helped me get a handle on my novel manuscript, Blessing and Song (which I’m currently shopping around).

Scrambled or Poached?  Poached. On toast. I have it rarely, so it’s a treat.

Editor’s Note: Food and Drink inspired by Fatted Calf Blues

Beer Steamed Mussels (aka moules) and frites with an icy cold selection from

The Gahan House Brewery


Steven Mayoff was born and raised in Montreal and now makes his home on
PEI. His fiction and poetry have appeared in magazines across Canada and the
US, as well as in Ireland, Algeria and France. His story collection, Fatted
Calf Blues, won a 2010 PEI Book Award, was shortlisted for a 2010 ReLit
Award and was a Finalist for the (Maritime) 2011 CBC
Cross-Country Bookshelf.

His web site is

From the Re-Run Series: originally posted in April, 2011.

stars, eggs, editors, and other bright lights

Must be the way the stars are lined up. Or something. February’s darkness and promise of light? The way the snow crunched under my boots this morning? A perfectly poached egg?

Whatever it is, I’m full of the joys today.

Could be that I’ve begun serious revisions on the ms with the help of a freelance editor—whose help I should have enlisted moons ago. But one has to be ready, there’s marinating time, other things to be written and (thank god) published in the interim. Other games to play.

‘Games’ as in both politics and pure fun. The first is a given, everyone’s up to their necks in that, but the second, the play, the lightheartedness that allows for pleasure in the ‘process’—that sometimes gets overlooked, shoved aside for later. And when later never comes Jack turns into such a cranky pain in the butt.

And yes, I know, I know, the sky is falling over publishing, and true, the industry may not be perfect and the work may sometimes feel like dancing in cement and no one understands us or treats us with respect…wah wah… but jeezuz, would you really rather be doing anything else?  

Here’s what I’m saying: there’s altogether too much grumbling out there.

My ears and eyes hurt from it. I’m thirsty for positive thinking. Maybe we could look at the problems as opportunity?? A new world to embrace, even be enthusiastic about, rather than cynical and bitchy. Some very novel things happening on this front, as revealed over at Book Madam.  More of that please. Constructive action, not whinging, is what we need.

Let’s talk about what works, celebrate the good stuff—because it’s happening out there. Just maybe not to the naysayers. Or not at the moment. Or maybe it’s happening and they’re just not seeing it because they want what the other kids have. Wah.

So much is perspective and, granted, on another day in another mood, I might not be writing any of this. But today I’m feeling (annoyingly?) perky.

Truth is much of my current perky joyful positivity has to do with good news received by two writerly friends in the space of just a few months. 

No one is more surprised at how their success has added a zing to my own spirits.

The first is Steven Mayoff, whom I met at a workshop a few years ago on the beautiful shores of PEI and whose short story collection Fatted Calf Blues was not only short listed for the ReLit Award, but went on to win the PEI Book Award. The second, a former Humber classmate, Darcie Friesen Hossack, whose (also short story collection) Mennonites Don’t Dance has just been short listed for the Commonwealth Prize.

Egad. I should be knotted up with envy and bitterness, no? Both Darcie and I had work nominated for the 2009 Journey Prize, neither of us made the cut. She went on to make a book. I’m still revising. I should be asking myself: why am I still revising? But oddly, I’m euphoric rather than frustrated. Could be symptoms of a mania, but actually, I think it’s more honest to god joy that maybe the sky isn’t falling. That good things— yes they do!—still happen.

The bonus is that when they happen to really good people, it’s impossible not to be thrilled.

And revelling in the success of others, it seems, is not only good for the soul, but for the writing. An inspiration and a happy reminder that anything is always possible.

As for me, sir, I’ll take my pleasure anyplace I can…


reading canada

I like what the LRC has done in the July/August issue, ie. offering up a list of thirteen books that epitomize each province and territory—as chosen by writers from said locale.

Not saying I’m going to read every one of them (and why exactly not? I ask myself…) but I’ll keep the list handy. I am, however, very intrigued with two of the titles. Joan Thomas’ choice: The Two-Headed Calf, by Sandra Birdsell, representing Manitoba, which interests me because—ever since, a couple of years ago, I was hugely and pleasantly surprised by what Winnipeg has to offer (extraordinary art gallery, especially its collection of Inuit carvings; smoked fish, best eaten with thinly sliced red onions, rye bread, and washed down with ice cold vodka; great restaurants in very funky neighbourhoods; Fringe Festival; fabulous kids’ theatre arts program; annual lit festival: Thin Air; the North End; the downtown library; the freaky and beautiful Masonic architecture of the Legislative Building; the Forks, especially Tall Grass Prairie Bread Co. & Deli)—I’ve been very into that province generally.

Also want to read my friend Steven Mayoff’s PEI choice—My Broken Hero and Other Stories, by Michael Hennessey, about which he says, in part:  

“Hennessey’s prose adopts an easy, anecdotal tone…There are also dark streaks of violence… complex undercurrents thrumming beneath what is widely known as the ‘Gentle Island'”.


And because I also love B.C.—and occasionally spend part of my year there nestled in a small trailer in the woods—I may also have to read Lee Henderson’s choice: The Invention of the World, by Jack Hodgins.

Because how can I resist this—

“…about B.C., but also about the bigger ideas of heaven and earth, earning a living, human nature and the supernatural. It is a portrait of the B.C. way of being and one awesome read.”

Then there’s Denise Chong’s pick: Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion, which I’m embarrassed to say I have never read. Madeleine Thien’s choice for Quebec is also intriguing. And I know nothing about New Brunswick and Saskatchewan and I want to know more about Newfoundland (Lisa Moore suggests Michael Winter’s The Architects are Here) and the Yukon and NWT and Nunavut. And how could I not want to read the definitive book of Nova Scotia? I love NS.

And let’s not forget Alberta, a province I lived in for three years and know practically zippity doo dah about except it’s a 40 minute flight from Edmonton to Calgary.

So, yeah, I’ll keep the list handy.

But I’m not saying I’ll read every book.

I’m really not saying that.

I think.


ode to the power and pleasure of ‘retreat’

I’m depressed.

Okay, I’m not depressed, I’m glum. Or do I mean gloomy? Or is it just that I’m pissed off that I can’t go to Charlottetown next month to attend what I believe may be one of the best-kept-secret writing retreats in the whole blinking country (and why am I even telling you this ‘secret’??).

Two years ago I went to the first ever ‘Seawords’ on lovely red-earthed, bucolic, gorgeously peaceful and truly inspiring Prince Edward Island. A province we don’t think nearly enough about, and probably the islanders like it that way.

The retreat that year was held at Shaw’s Hotel on Brackley Beach where my days began with a short walk from hotel to ocean—an ocean which I was the only person visiting at that time of day. I mean, I had a whole ocean to myself. Sort of.

If the waves were big and the surf noisy, I simply sat and stared, took pictures, wrote I-like-it-even-if-no-one-else-ever-will poetry, made notes on the novel, collected flat red stones in geometric shapes.

If the waves were small, or non-existent, I swam and marvelled at the buoyancy of salt water vs the lake brine I’m used to.

After that it was breakfast in a sunny, large-windowed dining room, sometimes with other ‘retreaters’, sometimes alone with a copy of Geist, or TNQ and a large pot of tea.

The workshop facilitators were two writers I didn’t know: Anne Simpson and Carol Bruneau. What an idiot I must have been for not having known them. Anne is a poet who also writes extraordinary fiction and has won or been shortlisted for too many prizes to mention here. Carol (also of the multiple awards) writes extraordinary fiction, as well as a fabulous blog (in the most poetic of ways). Apart from all that, they are lovely lovely people — something you can’t pretend for a whole week in fairly close quarters. That’s the thing about retreats: if you’re not lovely, everyone soon knows it.

Also present was Jackie Kaiser. Yes, that Jackie Kaiser. From Westwood Creative Artists. (It’s like everyone was screened for loveliness and only the genuinely lovely were allowed.) So generous was she with her industry info and her time, whether in a session or when bumping into one another over dinner, readings, on the way back from the beach. Casual conversations, questions, everything simple and easy. No pressure. No scary stuff.

Ann-Marie MacDonald was also there. As was Lynn Henry (at the time, still with Anansi).

It rained once, maybe twice. Who cares? It was perfect. The beach, the hotel, the workshops, the seminars, the one-on-one time with Anne and Carol. The time alone to think and write in my tiny flowery-papered room; my makeshift desk set up in front of a tiny window overlooking the lawns, where I wrote and re-wrote whole chapters I’d been stuck on for ages, and then later, spending time with some terrific people who’d spent their time thinking and writing and re-writing too.

So, yeah. I’m a little cranky that I can’t go this year. Obligations at home prevent hopping a plane or, even better, a car, and heading east for what I know will be one grand week.

I haven’t even mentioned the oysters. 

Fortunately, I do know someone who’ll be attending– so I have at least the vicarious thing to look forward to.

Are you listening, Steve? 

Please take notes.