Tag Archives: Literary Events

Supporting Sarnia-Lambton’s Literary Scene

“Create community wherever you find yourself.” – Audrey Stringer*

Sarnia-Lambton’s literary community continues to evolve.

Between 2010 and 2018, this southwestern Ontario region has lost seven key and prolific members of its literary community, a few others have moved to other areas, several more have vanished behind closed doors to write, read, or just mourn their loss of friends, family, pets, health, or job.

So many fond memories of Sarnia and area writers sharing their work at The Lawrence House Centre for the Arts.

However, despite the changes, several local writers continue to write and share their words with the public. Some are already well known; others are just making a name for themselves. Some are traditionally published while others have self-published their manuscripts. Over the years, I’ve featured several Sarnia-Lambton writers on my blog.

Today, I’m sharing a compilation of new and familiar writers who are in the literary spotlight this autumn. I hope you will help to celebrate their accomplishments with a loud standing ovation. (My apologies if I’ve missed anyone. Please send me a note in the comment’s section and I will make a note to feature them in an upcoming blog.)

Audrey Stringer’s Fourth Book has Arrived at The Book Keeper

111 Butterfly Moments: Tips to Embrace and Live Life with Joy.

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Gardening Words – A Literary Spring Cleaning

“North wind yanks her long skirt./A hand-knit scarf covers/her tulip-shaped face.”  -Debbie Okun Hill*

Call it a brain freeze or an ice-cream headache: that sensation of eating or drinking an ice cold substance during a hot summer’s day! (Insert laughter here!) Last week, the temperatures soared above 30 degrees Celsius: much too hot for planting seeds!

Lost in Reality TV Snow - Okun Hill - January 9, 2018

This week, the wind off the lake numbs my fingers. Words pile up like snow, like unread books on a shelf, like autumn leaves clogging the eaves trough, like spring cleaning that never gets completed!

Quick, grab me a broom and a rake to smooth out this unruly tangle of rejection slips and word roots gnarled and snarled on my desk and in my yard.

I’m waiting for my garden-gloved fingers to unthaw.

In the meantime, browse through the good news gathered in my in-basket:

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Sarnia’s Open Stage – An Eclectic Experience

I can’t wait!

Even the statue of a woman with long flowing hair tilts her head up as if in song or praise. If she could dance she would, but tonight she holds her enthusiasm inside and stands guard in the floral gardens of the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. We exchange winks.

Statue outside Lawrence House Centre for the Arts June 6, 2009

A warm welcome from the statue in the garden outside the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts.

Behind me, local poet Don Gillatly and his wife Heather follow me up the stairs to the main entrance. It’s the first evening of Open Stage since the summer break and probably my fifth or sixth visit since the event was launched in April 2016.

I’m pleased to see Don and Heather. It means they are happy to return for another season.

Once inside, we sign our names on the roster of performers and scan the Turret Room for empty chairs as we wait our turn for sharing. The excitement builds as evening light shines through the stained glass windows. The serene yellow walls showcase local art headlined by bold white words like Literary Arts, Performing Arts, and Art Matters.

missy burgess supplied by missy

Missy Burgess, hostess of Open Stage at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts, Photo Courtesy of Karen Flanagan McCarthy.

“Has everyone signed up?” Open Stage hostess Missy Burgess, holds up her notebook. Several local musicians and writers nod their heads. “We have nine performers tonight so we’ll do two sets: one of five, one of four, with a break in between…maximum two songs or two stories”.

The atmosphere remains warm and casual. As Missy says, “it’s a safe place to share”.

I wait for the magic to unfold on stage.

For over a decade, this historical building housed a regular Spoken Word event where local writers (and a musician or two) gathered monthly to share their work with like-minded individuals.

Established writers like the late Peggy Fletcher and the late Hope Morritt (the first literary reps for the Lawrence House board), created the event as a way to showcase the work of local authors. As co-hosts, they treated everyone like family and embraced both new and established talent.

Over the years, Spoken Word evolved with each new host or co-host. A few songwriters and musicians stopped by. One year an actor shared skits. Rap artists and comedians and out-of-town guests would pop in too! Then like a ghost, the monthly open mic faded away. The local literary community was aging and changing. It was difficult to find a new emcee and organizer. A fresh start was needed and one day it happened.

You could say, “the stars lined up”. Others might describe it “as a Phoenix rising from the ashes”. In April 2016, local songwriters/musicians (and Lawrence House board reps) John Pilat and Missy Burgess invited and introduced area musicians and writers to a new open mic event. Called Open Stage, it would be held on the second and third Mondays of each month. Statutory holidays were excluded.

The first season proved to be a huge success, attracting a house full of musicians and a handful of curious writers.

The second season appears just as promising.

On this particular night, Monday, September 11, 2017, the number of performers grows from 9 to 12 people, as three more musicians slip in late. Most on this month’s roster are male but there is usually a cross-section of ages and a nice mix of musicians, poets, songwriters, storytellers, and writers. Everyone is welcome.

Open Stage Sept 11, 2017 - Group image

“I come here because I enjoy it,” said Don holding tight to his notebook of poems.

Heather, who prefers to watch versus participate, elaborates, “Don enjoys listening but he also enjoys sharing his own work.”

Tonight’s performances are eclectic: a memoir about worm-picking and selling magazines, a vocal performance of Frank Sinatra songs, a poem influenced by a writers’ retreat in Ireland, another one about letting “the bright light shine”, a poem about art and one about ash trees, a tune on a music box and a story about a moonlit adventure on the lake, several musical performances of original material, and plenty of laughter.

Each musical note and literary word twirls & swirls like autumn leaves.

Open Stage Sept 11, 2017 - Rob

Singer Rob Rooke loves the sound of the Turret Room.

“It’s a nice venue,” said Rob Rooke, one of the regular vocal performers. “It has one of the best sounds….really nice with the turrets….Also I’ve seen people get nervous on stage but Missy calms them down and makes the artists feel comfortable.”

At the end of the evening, Missy thanks Daria (the sound engineer for her help), the performers and those in the audience who stopped by to watch and listen. Everyone helps with putting away the chairs. It’s like a family gathering…a fun night out.

A few days ago, I had a chance to chat with Missy about this relatively new event. Below are her responses:

First of all, thank you for welcoming writers to your open mic. I cannot speak on behalf of the literary community but I am pleased that there is a place in Sarnia for poets and storytellers to share their work in front of an audience. I hope this article will encourage a few more writers to stop by. In your view, why are open mic events so valuable for a community?

Every community needs an Open Stage. Three years ago, I returned to Sarnia from Ottawa where I was used to attending open stage events on a regular basis. It’s an event where musicians and writers from all levels can hone their skills, be heard, and grow confidence in performing in front of an audience. There are open stages in the majority of cities across Ontario and Canada.

Many of the great performing and recording artists started their careers at an open stage. It’s a great training ground whether you decide to pursue a professional career or just do it for fun. When I first started performing, I didn’t even know my guitar was out of tune. It takes time and some people won’t be on the big stage and that’s okay. For some, performing is therapeutic. Everyone comes for their own reasons. Having an audience is crucial. To be able to perform in such a beautiful building and room with all the turrets is a bonus.

When I first started attending Open Stage, most of the performers were musicians. Now, there is an eclectic mix of performers. What dynamics are you seeing when individuals of different creative disciplines gather in one room?

I can only speculate from my point of view but from the reaction I am seeing, no one appears to be objecting to the mix of performers. I see the same response towards a singer as I do towards a writer. For me, I really like the mix. It’s always a grab bag from event to event: a surprise. Some weeks are stronger than others. Sometimes you hear new talent and say “wow”! Some evenings, it all flows together and the energy is there.

Open Stage Sept 11, 2017 - Don

Poet Don Gillatly has been sharing his poetry at the Lawrence House Centre for the Arts for a decade or more.

Think of it as a Greenwich Village (an artist’s haven). People can suck or be great but I run the event as a safe place. Everything goes: keeping in mind this is open to families and people of all ages. Everyone respects each other and if there is a problem or if anyone shows disrespect, I usually remind people about the rules. If people don’t like it, they don’t return.

It would be a loss without the writers. We learn from each other.

This is your second season as MC for the event and I understand this year you’re on your own, as John has decided to pursue other interests. What made you decide to take on this role? And what made you decide to stay for the second season?

First of all, I’m not alone. Daria has replaced John as a co-organizer. She is my sound engineer. Her help is invaluable.

I first took on the role because I’m a singer from Ottawa who went to open stages to keep up my skills. When I came to Sarnia in October 2015, a friend of mine was performing at the Lawrence House and shortly afterwards I was hired to perform as well. The idea for an open stage developed from there and I was happy when it launched in April 2016.

I can’t see not running the event. I have lots of skills and experience from Ottawa and I enjoy hearing and watching the unknown, the new people who no one knows, the people who perform on smaller stages. For that reason, I want people to know that Open Stage is a safe place to share their work or the work of others.

Not everyone who attends Open Stage is a performer. Is an audience composed of non-performers important? Why or why not?

Yes, having an audience who only want to listen is a BONUS! At a bar, people often come to the open mics to drink. At the Lawrence House, people often attend Open Stage to listen. We are starting to draw a regular audience of these listeners and that makes everyone feel good. We are fortunate to have that support from the community.

Open Stage Sept 11, 2017 - Sign - Literary Arts

Open Stage is held on the second and third Monday of each month. It’s an open mic for both the literary and performing arts community including musicians and songwriters.

What plans or goals do you have for this season?

One of my goals is to offer workshops in writing, in handling a mic, and in presenting yourself on stage. The Lawrence House can offer these public workshops at a reasonable price. I’m looking at a mid-November and/or January/February date. People should check the Lawrence House website and/or follow its Facebook page for announcements and/or updates.

Another goal is to continue to support the variety of performers and writers and to thank the audience and the community for their interest.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes, the Lawrence House is doing all that is can to support local artists. Leonard Segall from the board is extremely helpful and supportive and he’s a great leader. He is a huge supporter of creative things.

The Lawrence House is filled with activities including concerts held on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons. Additional information can be found on the website.

Open Stage Sept 11, 2017 - Sign - Performing Arts

Thanks for sharing your comments Missy! I look forward to the next Open Stage.

Missy Burgess is an accomplished singer/musician who recently returned to Sarnia. According to her website, “Missy has performed on stages from The National Arts Centre in Ottawa, Canada to The Angola Prison for Women in Louisiana. She has recorded 3 albums, Pour Me A Song, Lemon Pie and, her most recent, Play Me Sweet.”

The next Open Stage will be held on Monday, October 16, 2017. The event runs from 7 to 9 p.m. Arrive early to sign-up is at the door. Audience members welcome. Admission is free.

According to its website, The Lawrence House Centre for the Arts is “an all-volunteer registered charitable organization in the historic City of Sarnia owned Lawrence House”. Its goals are to promote “the visual, literary and performing arts”.

Filling Your Heart with Love Poems

“All You Need Is Love,” wrote John Lennon. The lyrics to this 1967 Beatles single holds me captive and warms my mood like a lit fireplace on a snowy evening.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if love could soften some of the hatred in this world? Call me an optimist! I’d sooner be hypnotized by cupid’s arrow than lambasted by hurtful words. Are you feeling drained by all the negative news? I know I am.


Mark your calendars for this special Red Valentine event in Chatham, Ontario.

In just eight days (Saturday, February 11), the Thames Art Gallery presents “All Four Love”, a special Red Valentine themed event featuring Black Moss Press* poets Cornelia Hoogland, Vanessa Shields, Kara Ghobhainn Smith, and Debbie Okun Hill (that’s me) plus special musical guest celebrity sing-songwriter Crissi Cochrane. If you’ve never heard Crissi perform, here’s your chance. She has a beautiful voice.


If the idea of poetry frightens you, attend anyway. I dare you. We all have different styles and voices to reach a wide audience. Expect your heart to be filled with poetic words from the sentimental to the sexy to the humourous.

For example:

“What’s your hurry? Don’t be such a schoolgirl.” – from the poem “Red Meets the Wolf in the Woods” by Cornelia Hoogland.

“These days I choose sleep over sex/Fiction over poetry/Movies over dancing” – from the poem “Where Is the Love?” By Vanessa Shields.

“She thought he was/boring, arrogant/even full of it/but he showed her” – from the poem “The night the music ended” by Kara Ghobhainn Smith.

“Remember when…/I first kissed you,” –from the poem “Gentle Devotion” by Debbie Okun Hill

Yes poetry CAN be entertaining! For additional information and performers’ bios, stop by the Thames Art Gallery website. Crissi also has a website.

Will there be food? Of course!


A seven-course fully red tapas menu by William Street Café is included. Expect gazpacho shooters, beet hummus with vegi chips, red pepper bruschetta, phyllo cups with goat cheese pomegranate syrup & pistachios, cranberry glazed chicken wings, tortellini in tomato sauce, and mascarpone tart with raspberries.

Mmmmmm….is your mouth watering yet?

What are you waiting for? Forget your troubles. Bring a date, a friend, a group of friends. Wear something red. And yes, tickets are available here.

Still not convinced!

Below is a short section from my longer poem “Taped Together”.**

  1. iv) Two-sided Tape

They say there are two sides

To a coin, to a story

Sometimes two sides to love

His and her sides of a bed

Two sides to an argument

And two sides to mend.

Love, love, love! May love heal our world, today, tomorrow, and always. Hope to see you in Chatham at the Thames Art Gallery/Chatham Cultural Centre.

Can’t attend? Perhaps you’d prefer to share your own love poems. Check my Ontario 2017 event page for additional love themed readings and open mics such as the Poetry and Roses reading in London on February 9, The Ontario Poetry Society’s The Love of Poetry Gathering in Toronto on February 12, and/or the Art Bar’s Cupid Wins & Wounds All Open Mic Night in Toronto on February 14.

Happy Valentine’s Month Everyone!!!

*Additional information about Black Moss Press can be found on this website.
**The poem ‘Taped Together’ received an Honourable Mention Award from The Ontario Poetry Society’s (TOPS) The Open Heart 10 poetry competition 2015 and was first published in Open Heart 10: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry, Beret Days Press, 2016. Copyright © Debbie Okun Hill

New Fall Season for Sarnia’s Bluewater Reading Series

“I believe that most poets have a moon poem tucked away in a file somewhere”.–Becky Alexander*

If you’re in or within travelling distance to Sarnia, Ontario, Canada mark your literary calendars with two more Bluewater Reading Series offerings planned for September 12 and October 3, 2015. Expect to hear new poetry, prose, and non-fiction by both local and out-of-town writers.

This September 12th reading by local and out-of-town writers represents the 6th event in Sarnia's Bluewater Reading Series.

This September 12th reading by local and out-of-town writers represents the 6th event in Sarnia’s Bluewater Reading Series.

The Saturday, September 12 event showcases an all-female lineup with four out-of-town readers sharing lunar themed work from the recently released anthology Moon Shine: A Canadian Collection (Craigleigh Press). Presenters include the Cambridge, Ontario publisher/editor Becky Alexander plus three other contributors: Barb Day (Paris, Ontario), Elizabeth McCallister (Brantford) and Kathy Robertson (Kitchener).

Moon Shine was edited by Becky Alexander, publisher of Craighleigh Press in Cambridge, Ontario.

Moon Shine was edited by Becky Alexander, publisher of Craigleigh Press in Cambridge, Ontario.

Local readers include Debbie Okun Hill who is back home following a multi-city-multi-province tour of her first book Tarnished Trophies (Black Moss Press) and Phyllis Humby, a First Monday columnist and a crime fiction writer. Both local writers have previously read on the Fringe Stage of the Eden Mills Writers Festival: Okun Hill in 2011 and Humby in 2013.

On Saturday, October 3, Canadian poet Chad Norman will travel from Truro, Nova Scotia to read from his latest book Learning to Settle Down (Black Moss Press). Pat Connors, manager for the Toronto chapter of 100,000 Poets for Change will share poetry from Scarborough Songs (Lyricalmyrical). An additional out-of-town guest is pending confirmation. Local readers include historical fiction writer Bob McCarthy and retired Lambton College Literature Professor Pat Sheridan.

“All of the out-of-town writers have never visited or read in this area of Ontario before,” said Bluewater Reading Series committee member and prolific Canadian poet James Deahl. “This is a great opportunity for guest readers to network with other writers. Local writers, in turn, will hear different voices which can often stimulate ideas and future growth for their own writing.”

Barb Day

Barb Day

Both readings are free, open to the general public, and will start at 2:30 p.m.at John’s Restaurant on the outskirts of Sarnia, Ontario.

To date, the Bluewater Reading Series committee (consisting of emcees Deahl and award-winning poet Lynn Tait) has already organized five other successful readings. Previous out-town guest readers (in alphabetical order) included: Clara Blackwood, Allan Briesmaster, Ronnie R. Brown, Andreas Gripp, David Haskins, Laurence Hutchman, John B. Lee, Carol Malyon, Antonino Mazza, Michael Mirolla, Denis Robillard, Vanessa Shields, and John Wing Jr.

Elizabeth McCallilster

Elizabeth McCallilster

Below is additional information about the anthology Moon Shine and the September featured readers:

Moon Shine: A Canadian Collection: features moon-themed poems by 21 writers including Sarnia’s award-winning poets James Deahl and Norma West Linder. Published by Craigleigh Press, the book was officially launched May 31, 2015 in Cambridge, Ontario. Additional information about the book and a list of contributors can be found on the publisher’s website.

Featured Moon Shine Contributors:

Becky Alexander (Cambridge) is the author of Growing Up in Hespler, a memoir. With her husband Dave Allen she runs Craigleigh Press. Becky is active in the Cambridge Writers Collective.

Kathy Robertson

Kathy Robertson

Barb Day (Paris) is the author of Zanzibar, a children’s book. She is a spoken word performer and the host of The Brant Rant Poetry Slam.

Elizabeth McCallister (Brantford) is the author of Notes from Suburbia. She is active in the Cambridge Writers Collective and the Brant Poetry Group.

Kathy Robertson (Kitchener) has had work in The Cambridge Citizen and other places. She is active in the Cambridge Writers Collective.

Local Writers:

Debbie Okun Hill (Photo: Melissa Upfold for Calculated Coloured Co.)

Debbie Okun Hill (Photo: Melissa Upfold for Calculated Coloured Co.)

Debbie Okun Hill (Lambton County) recently completed a multi-city-multi-province book tour with her first poetry collection Tarnished Trophies (Black Moss Press). She also edited/compiled the recently released MINDSHADOWS (Beret Days Press), a membership anthology for The Ontario Poetry Society. She is a member of numerous local and Canadian writing groups.

Phyllis Humby

Phyllis Humby

Phyllis Humby (Lambton County) Although her passion is writing novels, her short stories, often scheming, twisted, or spooky, appear in anthologies and journals in Canada, the U.S., and the U.K. In addition, she writes a monthly column, “Up Close and Personal” for First Monday magazine. She blogs at her websiteThe Write Break.

Additional information about the October 3rd event will be posted soon.

Follow this blog for future updates on the Bluewater Reading Series and other literary events, reviews and profiles.

*Becky Alexander’s quote first appeared on the Craigleigh Press website.