Our February pick for the Biblioasis Spotlight Series is Rinaldo Walcott‘s powerfully concise, investigative, and compassionate contribution to our Field Notes series, On Property (Feb 2, 2021). Enjoy a brief note from the author about the book, and don’t miss an excerpt later this month in our online newsletter, The Bibliophile.


Nominated for the Heritage Toronto Book Award • Longlisted for the Toronto Book Awards • A Globe and Mail Book of the Year • A CBC Books Best Canadian Nonfiction of 2021

From plantation rebellion to prison labour’s super-exploitation, Walcott examines the relationship between policing and property.

That a man can lose his life for passing a fake $20 bill when we know our economies are flush with fake money says something damning about the way we’ve organized society. Yet the intensity of the calls to abolish the police after George Floyd’s death surprised almost everyone. What, exactly, does abolition mean? How did we get here? And what does property have to do with it? In On Property, Rinaldo Walcott explores the long shadow cast by slavery’s afterlife and shows how present-day abolitionists continue the work of their forebears in service of an imaginative, creative philosophy that ensures freedom and equality for all. Thoughtful, wide-ranging, compassionate, and profound, On Property makes an urgent plea for a new ethics of care.

“Masterful. A powerful tract … Rinaldo Walcott’s gift is that he makes what seems preposterous to most seem like common sense: abolish property as a completion of abolishing slavery as a means to solving the savagery of modern policing. A mad idea? Perhaps, but I found it hard to argue with his logic. As the Rastafari would say: bun Babylon!”—Globe and Mail

Rinaldo Walcott is a Professor in the Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto. His research is in the area of Black Diaspora Cultural Studies, gender and sexuality.

Get your copy of On Property here!


Community and Change

Photo Credit: Abdi Osman

The publication of On Property has been a wild ride. It has been quite the experience to see the different kinds of communities that have engaged the book. Activists working for the end of policing; lawyers who do civil rights work and want to rethink the terms of their practices; readers generally interested in social issues; students interested in abolition; and many others in-between. How do I know this? People have stopped me in the street, at protests and parades; they have asked me to join their Zoom rooms to engage them in conversations about the book; and they have written to me (including letters disputing my arguments too, not everyone like what I had to say). On Property set out to get at the foundation of what kind of society we have created and why it does not work for many of us. Many readers find it a hopeful book and especially are interested in the ideas about the commons in the book. It is this idea of the commons that now fuels my interests in pursuing further reading, thinking and writing about utopia. My next project will explore utopia not as some set of wild and unachievable ideas but as something necessary for getting us a bit closer to the beloved community we so desperately need. On Property opened up for me the urgency of the political project of transformation.


The Biblioasis Spotlight Series returns for another year! Kicking off 2023 is our January pick, Ray Robertson‘s philosophical and surprisingly heartfelt How to Die: A Book About Being Alive (Jan 28, 2020). Enjoy a brief note from the author on the themes of mortality in his works, and don’t miss an excerpt from the book in our newsletter later this month!


“He who would teach men to die would teach them to live.”—Montaigne

In How to Die: A Book About Being Alive, Ray Robertson meets Montaigne’s challenge, arguing with characteristic candour and wit that if we gain a clearer understanding of death, we’ll also better understand life. Contending that human beings tend to prefer illusion to reality—and so readily flock to the consoling myths of philosophy, religion, and society—Robertson echoes Publius Syrus, the first-century Roman who claimed, “They live ill who expect to live always.”

An absorbing excursion through some of Western literature’s most compelling works on the subject of mortality, How to Die: A Book About Being Alive is an anecdotally-laden appeal for cultivating an honest relationship with death in the belief that, if we do so, we’ll know more about what gives meaning to our lives. Pondering death isn’t morbid or frivolous, Robertson argues—not unless we believe that asking what makes for a meaningful life is as well.

“While How to Die is a slim book, it offers some hefty insights, leavened with frequent, self-effacing humour. There are numerous passages here which, while quick to read (the book is very accessible, despite its philosophical bona fides), nonetheless take hours to fully internalize … Brilliant.”
Toronto Star

Ray Robertson is the author of nine novels, four collections of non-fiction, and a book of poetry. His work has been translated into several languages. Born and raised in Chatham, Ontario, he lives in Toronto.

Grab your copy of How to Die here!

Check out Ray Robertson’s other books here!


Writing and Mortality

Ray Robertson

Writers are often the least likely to know what their own books are about. Or, if they’ve written a bunch of them, what the relationship between them is. That’s not their job—their job is to create worlds, not to analyze or explain them. It was during a conversation with Dan Wells, Biblioasis’ publisher, that I came to appreciate the elemental role mortality has played in my last several books. We were discussing my novel Estates Large and Small, which came out last year and a couple of years after How to Die: A Book About Being Alive, and Dan said something I hadn’t thought of before: among other things, Estates Large and Small was a fictional continuation of the exploration of death I’d embarked upon in the previous, non-fiction book. Basically, I wasn’t done with the topic, even though I thought I was.

I’ve never chosen a subject for a non-fiction book or a theme for a novel—writers don’t pick their obsessions, they pick them—and I’m always pleased when the book I’m working on insists upon going this way or that. I trust my books more than I do me. Estates Large and Small is about a second-hand bookseller who’s forced to shut down his brick-and-mortar bookstore and adapt to a brave new world of e-commerce, but it’s also about death: the death of a way of life, yes, but also about the ephemerality of all things, including ourselves and those we love. As in How to Die: A Book About Being Alive, I believe that contemplating death isn’t morbid or empty navel-gazing, but is a way to reflect upon life, and what death can teach us about living a better, more fulfilled existence. One of the two epigraphs I used for How to Die: A Book About Being Alive is an excerpt from Philip Larkin’s poem “Days,” and, as poets often do, Larkin encapsulates this big idea in the shortest of spaces:

What are days for?
Day are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?

This year Biblioasis will publish All the Years Combine: The Grateful Dead in Fifty Shows, another non-fiction book. It’s about a rock and roll band and what makes their music, and particularly their concerts, so unique. A rock and roll band called the Grateful Dead. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s about more than that.


The Biblioasis Spotlight Series is back! Our November pick is Nancy Jo Cullen‘s queer, weird, and brilliantly messed-up debut collection of short stories, Canary (April 16, 2013). Read on for a brief word from the author on the journey and growing joy of writing, and keep an eye out for an excerpt from the collection in our newsletter later this month!


An ALA 2014 Over the Rainbow Selection • An Best Book of 2013: Top 100/Editors’ Pick • A Vancouver Sun Favourite Read of 2013

What has to die before you force yourself to change? That’s the question facing the always quirky and often-queer characters of Canary. From the communal showers of a hot yoga studio to seedy pubs on Vancouver’s East Side, from Catholic merchandise salesmen to hitchhiking teenage lesbians, the people and places of Nancy Jo Cullen’s debut are asphyxiating slowly on ordinary life. Yet in this joint-smoking urban underground, we also glimpse the families, communities, friends and strangers from whom unexpected kindness comes as a breath of fresh air. Trashy but poignant, comic and profound, Canary hangs luminous above the coal-heap of fiction debuts—and proves Nancy Jo Cullen a writer of astonishing depths.

“Cullen’s prose is volcanic even when she’s describing the most domestic situations possible—the language is full of subterranean rumbles that simultaneously disturb and delight. The writing is always surprising, always bright, even in the most somber moments. Moving and funny, these stories will break your heart in the very best way.”
—Suzette Mayr, Giller Prize-shortlisted author of The Sleeping Car Porter

Nancy Jo Cullen’s poetry and fiction have appeared in The PuritanGrainfilling StationPlenitudePrairie FireArcThis MagazineBest Canadian Poetry 2018RoomThe Journey Prize and Best Canadian Fiction 2012. Nancy is the 2010 recipient for the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ+ Emerging Writers. She’s published three collections of poetry with Frontenac House and a collection of short stories, Canary, with Biblioasis. Her first novel, The Western Alienation Merit Badge, was short-listed for the 2020 Amazon Canada First Novel Award. Her fourth poetry collection, Nothing Will Save Your Life, is available now from Wolsak & Wynn.

Grab your copy of Canary here!


The Biggest Joy in Writing

Photo Credit: Kristen Ritchie

I wrote the stories in Canary as my MFA thesis at the University of Guelph. My story “Ashes” came out of a writing assignment from a workshop with Michael Winter where he asked us to write something in the journalistic style of Norman Levine’s “In Lower Town.” That assignment allowed me to re-visit the eruption of Mount St. Helen’s; the fact that it turned out to be a big metaphor in the story was not something I realized until the story was written. I don’t generally plan when I’m writing (and yes, that means it takes longer, but the heart wants etc.) and I wrote most of the stories the way I write poetry; they grew from a phrase, feeling or image that I wanted to explore further. Writing my thesis was a glorious year of sitting in my room looking out over my Toronto street and down at the monks who came in and out of the Buddhist temple. I’d say to my kids, “I’m doing homework,” and they left me alone. Or maybe they understood I wouldn’t be policing their media consumption and jumped at the opportunity to be unsupervised.

After I wrote Canary I began work on a novel, The Western Alienation Merit Badge. Then, unexpectedly, found myself writing poetry again—something I swore I’d given up as I hadn’t felt the urge to write a poem for close to a decade. Those poems are now a collection titled, Nothing Will Save Your Life. During the pandemic, I thought I should write a fluffy novel and I’m still working my way through that; of course, I had the hubris to believe writing a fluffy novel would be easy. And now again, the siren call of short stories is strong. Notes are being made, and I’m coming to think maybe the biggest joy in writing is working on short pieces, poems and stories that allow me to explore small ideas in big ways and big ideas in small ways. My most recent note includes the words “vintage lesbian vest” and the many ways that turn of phrase may go.


With a change in seasons comes a new featured title in the Biblioasis Spotlight Series! For October, our pick is Patricia Young‘s observant and beautifully responsive poetry collection, Short Takes on the Apocalypse (October 18, 2016). Read on for a short note from the author, and keep an eye out for an excerpt from the collection in our newsletter later this month.


“With her sure hand wielding the knife of understanding, Young cuts not just to the bone, but well beyond into realms that transcend the here, the now and the merely personal.”—Monday Magazine

This twelfth collection from Governor General’s Award nominee Patricia Young features poems built entirely upon the words of others. Originating as a response to Elmore Leonard’s “Ten Rules of Writing,” and expanding to include poetic responses to quotations about writing from other sources—from Leonardo da Vinci to Neil Gaiman, Margaret Atwood to Jimmy Kimmel—the resulting pieces traverse a myriad of themes. Playfully exploring subjects as wide-ranging as veganism, gun violence, sex, parenting, feminism, death, and Coachella, Young bounces off the selected epigraphs with a vital energy and crackling wit.

Patricia Young is the author of twelve books of poetry, four chapbooks and one book of short fiction, Airstream (Biblioasis, 2006). A two-time Governor General’s Award nominee, she has also won the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, the CBC Literary Competition, the British Columbia Book Prize for Poetry and the League of Canadian Poets National Poetry Competition. Her most recent collection of poems is Amateurs at Love (Goose Lane Editions, 2018). She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

Pick up your copy of Short Takes on the Apocalypse here!

Check out Patricia Young’s other works here!


Conversations Across Poems

I remember coming across Elmore Leonard’s ten rules for good writing and thinking how sensible and funny they were. One of his rules is never to begin with the weather. Another is never to use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”. Around the same time, I read a Billy Collins poem in which he uses the word “suddenly” many times, playing off the idea that the word is forbidden, writing against the rule, doing the opposite. His poem is riddled with “suddenlys”. This led to reading interviews of writers in which they often listed their own rules for writing or talked about writing generally. All of this interested me, so I wrote a few poems that spun off Elmore Leonard’s rules and then kept going, more often searching for an appropriate quote after the fact. In this sense, the poems weren’t exercises; they were simply poems I’d written and the attached quotation fit in some loose way. Sometimes the connection between the epigraph and the poem is clear and sometimes it’s oblique. For example, when I was bitten by a beautiful (but frightened) dog I wrote a palindrome. The epigraph for this poem is by Dorothy Hinshaw Paten: “Even the tiniest Poodle or Chihuahua is a wolf at heart.” The poem and the quotation aren’t directly related but they do speak to each other. At least to my mind they do. Another example: Pat Conroy says, “One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family”. I liked this quote, the truth of it, so paired it with a poem I’d written in three parts: “Drinkers”, “Suicides” and “Insomniacs”. I enjoyed the process of seeking out epigraphs for the poems in this book. I felt I was connecting with and responding to other writers, both dead and contemporary.


Summer is ending, and autumn is nearly here! For the month of September, our featured pick for the Biblioasis Spotlight Series highlights award-winning Quebec author Catherine Leroux with her English-language debut, The Party Wall (translated by Lazer Lederhendler). Read on for a deeply insightful note from Catherine, and be sure to keep an eye out later this month for an excerpt in our newsletter!


Winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Translation • Shortlisted for the 2016 Giller Prize • Selected for Indies Introduce Summer/Fall 2016 • Winner of the Prestigious France-Quebec Prize • Nominated for the Quebec Bookseller’s Prize

Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall shifts between and ties together stories about pairs joined in surprising ways. A woman learns that she may not be the biological mother of her own son despite having given birth to him; a brother and sister unite, as their mother dies, to search for their long-lost father; two young sisters take a detour home, unaware of the tragedy that awaits; and a political couple—when the husband accedes to power in a post-apocalyptic future state—is shaken by the revelation of their own shared, if equally unknown, history.

Lyrical, intelligent, and profound, The Party Wall is luminously human, a surreally unforgettable journey through the barriers that can both separate us and bring us together.

“…an intoxicating blend of the familiar and the uncanny, brilliantly executed … The Party Wall has the narrative force of a Hollywood film, while also offering richly executed portraits of the characters’ interior lives.”—Montreal Review of Books

“… superbly crafted … Leroux skillfully reveals the inner worlds of her achingly human characters and the intricate bonds that connect them to each other. Images from this beautiful and moving book will haunt readers.”—Publishers Weekly

Catherine Leroux was born in 1979 in the Northern suburbs of Montreal. Her first novel, Marche en forêt, was published in 2011 by Éditions Alto. The Party Wall, her English-language debut published with Biblioasis in 2016, was selected for Indies Introduce for Summer/Fall, shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and won the Governor General’s Award for Translation. Her subsequent novels, Madame Victoria and L’avenir were shortlisted and won various awards. Catherine lives in Montreal where she devotes her time between writing, translation and editorial work.

Get your copy of The Party Wall here!

Check out Catherine’s third book, Madame Victoria, here!


Photo Credit: Audrée Wilhemy


Canaries in the Coal Mine

I started writing The Party Wall in 2011. At the time, the book felt slightly hyperbolic, especially the chapters situated in the near future: Canada recovering from years of right-wing, divisive, autocratic government; the Prairies’ soil gone sterile due to droughts; the coasts flooded by torrential rains. Political and racist violence permeating every sphere of life.

More than a decade later, it doesn’t quite seem like an exaggeration anymore. Back then, the effects of climate change were akin to the first subtle, almost unreal symptoms of an illness, while today, they are unescapable in their devastating potency. The turbulence of the world in which Ariel and Marie evolved now seems tame compared to the schizophrenic landscape created by social and political leaders, both abroad and at home.

What are we to make of these stories, that could have been read a decade ago as anticipatory literary attempts to define still-hazy outlines on the horizon, now that these shapes have materialized into our new reality? I believe it’s a matter of shifting one’s perspective. Through the crises, the characters still love and fight and dream and fail. They still come to life regardless of the time in which they are read. Because of that, they remain capable of opening spaces in our minds where we can think and feel our present, where we may hold hope.

I’ve always liked the idea of novelists as canaries in the coal mine. I did wonder what they might do once the gas has filled the tunnel. For now, against all odds, they are still singing.



Summer is here and so is another title in our Biblioasis Spotlight Series! Biblioasis is proud to be the first home to several outstanding authors, so for the month of July, we wanted to celebrate the beauty of the debut with Alice Petersen‘s short story collection, All the Voices Cry (May 15, 2012). Don’t miss a brief note from the author below!


Winner of the QWF Concordia University First Book Prize (2012)

An academic’s wife, struggling to keep up with her husband’s quest to find a long-dead author’s Tahitian love-garden, realizes that her own idea of paradise no longer includes her husband. An architect dreams of slender redheads, Champlain’s astrolabe, and a brush with mortality—and finds at least the latter at Danseuses 7 Jours. An elderly man boards a trans-Pacific flight in an attempt to elude the prediction of a psychic, only to understand too late how the prophecy has shaped his actions.

In All the Voices Cry, modern life collides with all the old pushes and pulls: city and country, the global and the local, the ideal and the real. Petersen’s characters chase the mirage of escape, and are brought up hard by reality. This is a book rooted in landscape, tangled in the brambles of personal history, and it introduces in Alice Petersen a wondrous new voice that is yours to discover.

“Finely crafted and pared down to their bare essentials … These are stories that work on multiple levels, and continue to divulge their secrets after several rereadings.”—Quill & Quire

“Alice Petersen’s All the Voices Cry is masterful and potent—incredibly satisfying for a reader.”
—Kathleen Winter, author of Annabel

New Zealander-Canadian Alice Petersen was the 2009 winner of the David Adams Richards Award, offered by the Writers’ Federation of New Brunswick. Her stories have variously been shortlisted for the Journey Prize, the Writers’ Union of Canada competition, the CBC Literary awards, and the Metcalf Rooke Award. All the Voices Cry (Biblioasis, 2012) won the University of Concordia QWF First Book Prize. A second collection of stories, Worldly Goods, was published by Biblioasis in 2016. Petersen lives in Quebec with her husband and two daughters.


The stories in All the Voices Cry were written between 2002 and 2010. During that time, we built and spent most weekends in a small log cabin on the shores of a lake just outside the Parc de la Mauricie in Quebec. I would walk the trails in the Parc, learning about the woods of Eastern Canada. Edible mushrooms, lichen cups, purple lightening weed with matching flower spiders, mosses and bog plants, the changing states of water and ice—all of these things were there to be read and understood as intrinsic parts of Quebec. As a new immigrant I hoped that the process of memorizing this landscape and noting down the details would make that place more familiar, so it all got mulched up and made into stories.

But writing the stories in All the Voices Cry did not make that place mon coin. Although we had that cabin for over a decade, I was still just visiting, even at the end. Perhaps I will always feel this way about living in Canada. I do not know. Other stories in the book span the globe, ending up back on the East Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, where I grew up. Having dual nationality is a kind of emotional waterskiing—I feel lucky to have a foot in two countries, although there also is a precarious, teetering quality to the whole arrangement. The stories are lightly interlinked.

I have always liked the book cover that Gordon Robertson designed for Biblioasis. The image shows young man launching himself off the dock into a chilly looking lake. There is snow on the dock. Looking at the picture, you want to say don’t jump! It’s so cold! But that’s life. We each have to jump, don’t we? We have to, because the lake is there and because swimming is necessary.

Get your copy of All the Voices Cry here!

Check out Alice’s other collection, Worldy Goods, here!


Welcome back to our Biblioasis Spotlight Series! For the month of June, we’re featuring David Huebert‘s vibrant and unflinchingly intimate debut collection of stories, Peninsula Sinking (Oct 24, 2017). Don’t miss a brief note from the author below!


Winner of the 2018 Jim Connors Dartmouth Book Award for Fiction • Runner-Up for the 2017 Danuta Gleed Literary Award • Shortlisted for the 2018 Alistair MacLeod Prize for Short Fiction

In Peninsula Sinking, David Huebert brings readers an assortment of Maritimers caught between the places they love and the siren call of elsewhere. From submarine officers to prison guards, oil refinery workers to academics, each character in these stories struggles to find some balance of spiritual and emotional grace in the world increasingly on the precipice of ruin. Peninsula Sinking offers up eight urgent and electric meditations on the mysteries of death and life, of grief and love, and never shies away from the joy and horror of our submerging world.

David Huebert’s writing has won the CBC Short Story Prize, The Walrus Poetry Prize, and was a finalist for the 2020 Journey Prize. David’s fiction debut, Peninsula Sinking, won a Dartmouth Book Award, was shortlisted for the Alistair MacLeod Short Fiction Prize, and was runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. David’s work has been published in magazines such as The WalrusMaisonneuveenRoute, and Canadian Notes & Queries, and anthologized in Best Canadian Stories and The Journey Prize Stories. David teaches literature and creative writing at The University of New Brunswick.

“A sense of wonderment penetrates the everyday lives of characters from the Maritimes in this well-crafted, compelling collection that displays a mastery of classical short-story structure and technique. Huebert’s vibrant language juxtaposes tough characters with tender preoccupations, creating narratives that are unsettling and mesmerizing, making ordinary moments in relationships thrilling and dangerous.”
—Danuta Gleed Literary Award Jury Statement


Photo Credit: Nicola Davison


Coming Home

When Peninsula Sinking was released, I brought my 3-month-old baby, Rose, on the famous Biblioasis 401 tour, where she attended readings, suckling her mother’s pinkie until it wrinkled and paled and she fell, finally, into stunned sleep. This June Rose turns five, and soon so will Peninsula Sinking, a book that was very much, for me, about my increasingly complex relationship to my home. 

In Peninsula Sinking, I stumbled into ecological writing because it was simply what worked for me. When I wrote about the ocean or an animal—a lonely whale, a stallion sex plane, a beloved dog’s gonadectomy (the euphemism, so appropriately absurd, is “fixed”)—I found that my writing gained a different and new momentum, a lyrical glitter that allowed my prose to rise, raise its hackles, turn around and face me, a strange and sudden creature I scarcely recognized. Eco, the root of ecology and economy comes from the Ancient Greek Oikos, or household. For me, and I think for most, home is very much an environmental concept—home is trees, skies, seas, the particular slump of the mid-morning sun. But I think that home, like the wilderness, is less a place than a psychological state. 

I wrote Peninsula while living in London, Ontario. The stories are mostly set in Nova Scotia, and in some sense I wrote them out of longing for the place where I now sit and write. I live on Chebucto Road, which bears the original name of this place, the Mi’kmaq word Kjipuktuk. Growing up, I never learned that word—a highly tactical obfuscation (I learned plenty about Cartier and Champlain and the Acadian expulsion). From my daughter’s room, I can see the yard of Oxford School, which I attended from primary to grade nine. I regularly walk my daughters past the house I grew up in, just around the corner on Duncan Street. (How strange it is that I can’t go sit in the backyard where I used to pick rhubarb for my mother and let green inch worms swirl through my fingertips). I have come back home, and one might think that I’ve arrived at a resting place. A part of me is deeply soothed by the familiarity of this place I have always loved. In particular, I love the grey, panting days, when it’s not raining but when the air is so salty and dank that an outdoor walk will soak your clothes. I have arrived “back home,” and yet, just as often, I feel ill at ease here. I feel myself a ghost walking through a past life, through the cracked concrete of the school where I wrote my first story (“Big Beard Ben”), where I broke B’s tooth on the wrestling hill and learned about explorers in a transplanted language. 

One layer of my unease, certainly, is an increasing awareness of land theft and genocide and the long, tactical, violent attempt to erase Mi’kmaq culture from this place. But there’s something else too. Something vague and creepy. A malaise. Perhaps it is just a necessary agitation in the feeling of home itself, a longing that refuses to arrive, directed always towards departure or return. I can’t decide, so I suppose I’ll just keep wondering, which is to say wandering, home. 


Pick up your copy of Peninsula Sinking here!

Check out David’s latest short story collection, Chemical Valley here!



With a new month comes another addition to the Biblioasis Spotlight series! For May, we’re weaving through time and place, and history and memory in Rachel Lebowitz’s haunting collection of essays, The Year of No Summer.


“Darkly fascinating…Lebowitz highlights the parables, fables and myths we humans created in order to weave meaning into our lives and to which we return for comfort.” —Atlantic Books Today

On April 10th, 1815, Indonesia’s Mount Tambora erupted. The resulting build-up of ash in the stratosphere altered weather patterns and led, in 1816, to a year without summer. Instead, there were June snowstorms, food shortages, epidemics, inventions, and the proliferation of new cults and religious revivals.

Hauntingly meaningful in today’s climate crisis, Lebowitz’s lyric essay charts the events and effects of that apocalyptic year. Weaving together history, mythology, and memoir, The Year of No Summer ruminates on weather, war, and our search for God and meaning in times of disaster.

Rachel Lebowitz is the author of Hannus (Pedlar Press, 2006), which was shortlisted for the 2007 Roderick Haig-Brown Regional Prize (BC Book Prize) and the Edna Staebler Award for Creative Non-Fiction. She is also the author of Cottonopolis (Pedlar Press, 2013) and the co-author, with Zachariah Wells, of the children’s picture book Anything But Hank! (Biblioasis, 2008, illustrated by Eric Orchard). She lives in Halifax, where she coordinates adult tutoring programs at her neighbourhood library.

Get your copy of The Year of No Summer here!


What does it mean to be human?

Photo Credit: Nancy McCarthy

“What are you writing these days?” In Fall 2019, I took a leave of absence from one of my day jobs, so I could have time to figure out where I needed to go. I was taking a “writing leave,” I told people, but that of course was a mistake, because the expectation from all of us was that I would write, and then not doing so felt like a failure. We need to give permission for writing to encompass walking and thinking and reading and sitting with a mug of tea, watching the crows. As Rebecca Solnit puts it, “Remember, writing is not typing.”

I walked, I thought, I noticed birds and the sound of the wind. I thought about how noticing is an honouring. And I read. I read and read and put sticky notes in books and then typed them up into my ever-growing notes file, and then, five months later, just when I thought maybe I’m ready to write, the pandemic hit, and I homeschooled my kid and read escapist fiction instead because my brain stopped being able to process anything. Then my leave ended and I went back to working almost full-time in a pandemic, which meant moving from online to in-person to online to in-person, and that’s how it’s been for two years. I have written bits and pieces in that time, but nothing that coheres.

Lately, however, I’ve been obsessively thinking about this book-to-be which is always a good sign. So what am I working on these days? Like many artists, I am trying to make sense of the world. With this climate emergency, I asked myself, “How did we get here?” I asked a question that started with The Year of No Summer: “What does it mean to be human?” I wasn’t done with this question and I wasn’t done with fairytales, either. So, from these has come a grappling. I am using the ancient Greek idea of the elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water and linking each with specific fairytales (some of our oldest stories). I am writing—or thinking out—essays that use as a jumping off point a fairytale to then delve deeper into humans and our relationship with the natural world, moving from the Neolithic Revolution to 19th Century mariners. Lately, I have read about the California and Klondike gold rushes, the history of spinning, and the Middle Ages. I am a frail thing, watching the crows in the trees, and the tide coming in.


Spring is here and so is another title for our Biblioasis Spotlight series! To celebrate Poetry Month, we’ve decided to feature a quietly eerie collection of poetry from Alexandra Oliver, taking a trip across the ocean and slipping into homes, movies, and memories in Let the Empire Down (April 12, 2016).

And don’t miss a special note from Alexandra below, on her new collection Hail, the Invisible Watchman, which releases April 5!



In her second book, Alexandra Oliver takes us on a journey of escape from the suburbs of Canada to Glasgow, Scotland. Training her eye on the locals—on the streets, by rivers, in museums, on playgrounds, in their own homes, in the ill-starred town of Lockerbie—Oliver travels back into her past while reflecting on issues of exile, memory and identity.

Excerpt from Let the Empire Down:


There’s the water tank that bears its name.
There’s its purple edge: the shore, the ship
that crossed the lake, beneath a heap of lime.
I went away. I gave the place the slip.

There’s the mall where I would watch and wander;
there’s the bench where I would go and cry;
there’s the Polish deli that went under;
I left it all. It won’t remember me.

There’s the strip of mansions on the lee;
there’s the strap that ravaged my behind.
There’s the corner which they saved for me;
I made it out, and nobody will mind.

There’s the pier where people disappeared;
there’s the field of seven hundred crows.
The wind blows now. Convenient, ill-starred,
there it goes, forever. There it goes.

Alexandra Oliver was born in Vancouver, BC. She is the author of Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway (Biblioasis 2013), winner of the 2014 Pat Lowther Memorial Award, Let the Empire Down (Biblioasis 2016), and the chapbook On the Oven Sits a Maiden (Frog Hollow Press 2018). She is the co-editor (with Annie Finch) of Measure for Measure: An Anthology of Poetic Meters (Penguin Random House/Everyman’s Library 2015). A PhD candidate in the Department of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University, she lives in Burlington, Ontario with her husband and son.

Pick up your copy of Let the Empire Down here!


On Her Latest Collection

Hail, the Invisible Watchman is my third book; I suppose, loosely speaking, you could say it forms a triptych with Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway and Let the Empire Down, in that it deals with the grimmer underside of the suburbs, those elements which puncture the myth of cultivated, middle-class perfection. The fictional town of Sherbet Lake keeps coming up in all three collections, so perhaps you could call the whole lump The Sherbet Lake Trilogy. Just a fanciful thought.

What informed me in writing this particular book (and I suppose what makes it different from its predecessors) was that I found myself thinking specifically about what it is to be haunted—in this case, by loneliness and fear and isolation and what that does to one’s state of mind. The pandemic upped the ante. When it hit, people were driven indoors. There was this initial pot-banging “We’re going to beat this!” performance of enthusiastic resistance that took hold at the beginning, but then it wore off. People become afraid of going out or else went into complete denial. The political divide became a gaping chasm, and public discourse turned vicious, illogical. When I speak of the “Invisible Watchman”, I initially thought of that which watches us—consumerism, social media, the alt-right, the spectre of totalitarianism—but now I think it really means that hidden side of the self that threatens to cannibalize you at every turn if you’re shut away and living with uncertainty. I think being judgmental is one of those toxic threads—that particular theme weaves through the whole book but particularly through the last two sections.

Having mentioned all of this heavy stuff, I wanted the poems in the book to have a cinematic/tableau-like quality to them and an element of humour. I sort of imagine my reader holding up a View Master (remember those?) to the light and clicking through the reel thinking Okay, well that’s weird, I wonder if it’s going to get any … no, I guess not.

Order Hail, the Invisible Watchman here!

Take a look at Alexandra’s other work here!


Ring in the new year with another fantastic title from Biblioasis’ Spotlight series! For January, we’re featuring a collection of poetry from Robyn Sarah, the arresting and beautifully sensory Wherever We Mean to Be: Selected Poems 1975–2015 (November 14, 2017).

This month we’re also including a special reading of several poems from this collection by Robyn herself! Listen in below.



A four-decade retrospective from the winner of the 2015 Governor General’s Literary Award for poetry.

Spanning forty years and ten previously published collections, Wherever We Mean to Be is the first substantial selection of Robyn Sarah’s poems since 1992. Chosen by the author, the 97 poems in this new volume highlight the versatility of a poet who moves easily between free verse, traditional forms, and prose poems. Familiar favourites are here, along with lesser-known poems that collectively round out a retrospective of the themes and concerns that have characterized this poet’s work from the start.

Warm, direct, and intimate, accessible even at their most enigmatic, seemingly effortless in their musicality, the poems are a meditation on the passage of time, transience, and mortality. Natural and seasonal cycles are a backdrop to human hopes and longings, to the mystery and grace to be found in ordinary moments, and the pleasures, sorrows, and puzzlements of being human in the world.

Robyn Sarah is the author of eleven collections of poems, two collections of short stories, a book of essays on poetry, and a memoir, Music, Late and Soon. Her tenth poetry collection, My Shoes Are Killing Me, won the Governor General’s Award in 2015. From 2011 until 2020 she served as poetry editor for Cormorant Books. She has lived for most of her life in Montréal.



Special Reading of Seven Poems

Wherever We Mean to Be is the first selection of my poems since The Touchstone in 1992. A forty-year retrospective of my work as a poet, it is again my own selection, a new winnowing of my first five collections and of four published since. I chose the title because, in revisiting where I’ve been, it struck me that this phrase—the last line of a poem called “Station”—seems to embody something that runs through all of my poetry.

In “Station”, a couple—”two travellers, refugees/ of our own pasts”—contemplate a space ship on the lawn of the science museum. They have not come to visit the museum; they are just passing, here for the day on business. They don’t know why they feel compelled to stop; something inarticulate attends this moment as, hand in hand, they gaze blankly at the “mute ship poised for flight/ it will not take.” The poem ends:

… The thought
that beats, propeller-like
above our heads
is that we’re here—
wherever we were before,
wherever we mean to be.

We’re here.

“Here” is where we are now—a moment in time, a position on the globe. But the present moment is nearly always infused with some awareness of past and future: memory and imagination are part of it. I think this is how humans live: with one foot in the past and one directed towards a future or an elsewhere made of promise and intention. Unlike animals, we live in a present that embodies consciousness of where we’ve been, and hopes/fears/schemes/dreams of where we one day may be.

We are where we are, and it isn’t necessarily where we mean to be. It’s this ambivalence, integral to the human moment, that fascinates me as a poet: the tug between immediate particulars and a mind that can project backward or forward in time. Those same particulars can make time stand still if we’re paying close attention to where we are now. Yet stresses that thwart or divert intention can give a moment its aliveness.

A walk along a beach at dusk leads to a scramble up a cliff face to escape the incoming tide. The search for “something perfect” comes up against the demands of domesticity. A man on a scaffold and a woman below give up trying to have a conversation that way. A woman at the top of a staircase contemplates stairs that “end in mid-air, halfway down” after the man at the bottom has cut off a section he wants to reconfigure. In the mirror on a bureau that once belonged to the father she lost in childhood, a woman sees how her own face has come to resemble his mother’s as she remembers it from when she was a child…

“We are where we are”—for now. In the accompanying sampler of poems I’ve recorded as audio, these are a few living moments caught on the fly.


Get your copy of Wherever We Mean to Be here!

Order her latest work Music, Late and Soon here!

Have a look at Robyn Sarah’s other fantastic titles here!