Forget any preconceived notions about the state of writing today. An exciting group of writers emerged from the literary shadows last Thursday evening with the launch of the poetry and prose anthology Pluto or Spain, featuring the work of 11 UTM students.
Friends, family, and supporters filled the seats of the MiST Theatre and waited for the readings to begin. The organizers coaxed the audience with pizza, cookies, and coffee. Matthew Del Mei, one of the evening’s hosts and credited as the anthology’s editor, stepped onstage at 7:30 p.m. and asked the audience to take their seats.
Alexander Tkachuk took the stage as the first reader. Tkachuk, now an alumnus, was a regular reader at campus literary events and known in particular for his risqué poetry. He delivered a rare PG-rated poem and an excerpt from a comic short story about burnt toast on Jupiter.
Valeria Ryrak followed Tkachuk with an excerpt from a wonderfully detailed short story about a student distracted from her schoolwork by her intricate inner life. She finished with two very eloquent poems.
The contrast between her and the next reader, Chris Laliberte (the other host of the evening), was striking. His towering figure and deep voice lent force to his excerpt from a chilling post-apocalyptic story.
The pace changed again when Del Mei read two selections both hilarious and intense: an excerpt from an absurdist short story called “Life in the Impossible Room after the Documented Disaster”, and an experimental poem about waiting at the doctor’s office consisting mainly of the words “tick tock”, which came alive in his reading.
Ankita Nayar, who is currently completing a master’s program in creative writing in New York, flew in for the evening. She read an excerpt of the excerpt of her fantasy novel that is her contribution to the anthology. The imagination showed in the story surely requires an exceptional personality.
Next was Larissa Fleurette Ho, who captivated the audience with an excerpt from “Manu”, a non-fiction story set in a summer camp. The tone flowed from tense to funny to sad and poetic with ease. The short selection ended on a cliffhanger—I only wish it had gone on longer.
Luke Sawczak read his reserved but lovely poem “St. Lawrence”, divided into six parts with, as he put it, “fancy Roman numerals”.
The four remaining writers couldn’t make it to the book launch for various reasons. Valerie Charun’s urban poetry was read by Tkachuk; an excerpt of Kevin O’Leary’s gripping murder story was read by Laliberte; a short, comic story by Leah Edwards, now in the creative writing master’s program at St. George, was read by Del Mei; and Kelly Semkiw’s direct and stunning poems were read by Sawczak. The night closed most appropriately on her final poem, which runs, “Be so subtle and you won’t notice that it’s poetry.”
The writers who collaborated on Pluto or Spain met in Professor Richard Greene’s third-year creative writing course, ENG389Y, in the 2011/12 year. Near the end of the course, Greene revealed that the university was offering the $1,200 “Launch Pad” grant to support emerging artists and suggested that the group put together a book. Ho volunteered to submit the proposal with a preliminary outline, marketing plan, and budget.
The proposal was approved in the summer, and the classmates met in August and then throughout the year to plan the project, which included selecting, editing, and copy-editing the pieces, designing the cover, interviewing the authors for biographies, and choosing a publisher. Eventually Life Rattle Press, which is strongly associated with the campus’s typically non-fiction professional writing program, agreed to publish the anthology.
All but three of the ENG389Y students participated in the project. The only task not volunteered by members of the group was the typesetting provided by Life Rattle. Del Mei acted as the main editor and coordinator, necessitated not least by the fact that most of the amateur anthologists were still enrolled in full-time studies during the publication process.
Pluto or Spain is an exciting, diverse collection of strong local voices with definite potential. For the time being, physical copies can be purchased at the Medium’s office, and an e-book version is available on Amazon.