Tag Archives: The Litter I See Project
I first met Carin Makuz when we were enrolled in the online Humber Creative Writing Program in 2006 and we’ve stayed in contact ever since, and have even met in person a few times! I’ve subscribed to Carin’s blog pretty much since the beginning, and when she began batting around the idea for The Litter I See Project … well, I just had to become involved, and I’ve been helping to promote this great idea all along. Here’s Carin to tell us about this very interesting project that was intended to bring attention to the two problems of Litter and Illiteracy.
When not writing short fiction or essays, Carin Makuz can be found wandering the shores of Lake Ontario muttering about darlings that won’t take a hint. She is a workshop facilitator for abused women and youth at risk. Her work has been published in journals in Canada, the U.K. and the U.S. She has won the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and been nominated for the Journey Prize. Essays and fiction have been broadcast on CBC and BBC Radio. She combines text with photography, reviews books and chats with writers on her blog, Matilda Magtree, and runs The Litter I See Project.
What’s the background to this idea of yours? When did you first think of the concept behind your blog?
The Litter I See Project grew from my interest in bringing attention to both litter and illiteracy. When I walk I pick up litter; I carry bags for this purpose. I’m doing it to tidy up the schmutz but sometimes I find interesting things, notes, lists, etc., and I wonder at their origins: were they dropped by accident or intentionally? I wonder about the kind of person who can be trotting along, having a fine time in a park, at the beach, on a street, anywhere really, and then just toss a can or water bottle on the ground and keep going. I wonder what they think will happen to it and if they’d even notice or care if someone did the same thing on their lawn. I wonder how people learn this behaviour. You could say I’m a wee bit passionate on the subject. As a society we talk a lot about big problems … The Environment, the oceans of plastic, etc., all of which seems so impossible a thing to tackle. And yet, really, change begins with our attitude towards the small stuff. Like litter. Because how we view that reflects how we see our communities, and our environment, in general. I’m equally passionate about literacy, and the two things, litter and illiteracy, have more in common than alliteration; both are pervasive, but only one is visible. With all this in mind I began photographing certain pieces with the idea of writing about them, maybe doing a thin collection and giving any proceeds to a local literacy group. But I wanted the effect to be broader than that. When a friend suggested I do something online, a light went off. That was it!
How are you organizing the material for the blog?
I drafted a plan, figured out a way of offering a small honorarium (am a big believer in paying for the written word), invited a number of writers to participate, created a site and named it The Litter I See Project. It went live in June of 2015. How it works is that I send out a picture of a piece of actual litter from my ‘collection’ and, using that ‘debris’ as a prompt, or inspiration, the writer responds in the form of poetry, prose, memoir, anything at all. As submissions come in I try to keep posts varied, giving consideration to genre and a few other things, but mostly it’s just a happy, trashy party.
Carin has also arranged for donations to be made on behalf of the blog to Frontier College in Toronto, a school dedicated to teaching literacy.
How much longer do you see publishing this particular theme?
No idea how long I’ll keep the party going. Through winter anyway, and probably spring.
Is there anything you have learned through writing this blog that you’d like to share? Any surprises you hadn’t expected?
It’s been more work than I thought but the best kind. I love getting these constant surprises in my inbox. I send out a muddy grocery list and get back poetry; a chocolate bar wrapper in a ditch inspires a childhood memory. I’m in awe of the talent in this country, most of which isn’t celebrated nearly enough. I also like the way the litter conversation has already grown to include larger questions, such as in Betty Jane Hegerat’s piece about homelessness, and Tanis MacDonald’s ‘rabbit litter’.
The lovely thing about a blog is that it’s your own world and if you don’t like something you can change it. I’ve been hanging out in this space for over five years and I’ll keep doing it as long as it’s fun. If that requires adding, changing things, great. When it stops being fun, it stops being.
Blogging is a commitment like any other kind of writing. You get out of it what you put in. I think readers sense the place you’re coming from, the vibe you create. That was a pleasant surprise, the feeling of connection with readers, something you don’t get from traditional forms of writing.
Was there a single post you were particularly proud to have included? And what made it special?
If I had to pick one special post it would be bill bissett’s. I was beyond chuffed to have him kick things off with his fabulous piece, ‘yr littr has arrivd, eet it’.
Overall, what is it you hope your readers will take away after reading your blog?
My hope for readers of The Litter I See Project is that, in addition to the attention and conversation it brings to the problems of litter and illiteracy in communities across the country, it might also serve as a way of introducing readers to new writers. The posts are all intentionally positioned as bite-sized morsels, meant for easy browsing, a few at a time …
Now, in keeping with the Reading Recommendations idea, please name three authors or books you’d like to recommend to readers.
If I had to recommend three books, I would reply with: Egad!! Only three??? I’d have to go with a theme; makes it a little easier to choose. So, let’s say the theme is “writing from a disadvantaged place” … in which case I’d recommend the following:
The Education of Augie Merasty, by Augie Merasty (with David Carpenter)
A Crowbar in a Buddhist Garden, by Stephen Reid
One Hour in Paris, by Karen L. Freedman
How Poetry Saved My Life: a hustler’s memoir, by Amber Dawn
(oh, are we up to four already??) (;
Also, I HAVE to add Anakana Schofield’s Martin John because a) it’s different than any book out there; it’s daring and changes how we think about sexual deviants, harassment and all manner of perverted crimes. Including the ones we pretend aren’t happening. And because, b) it’s brilliant.
I’ve chosen this theme, not because I only read heartbreaking or uncomfortable stuff (far from it!), but because I feel books that express well what it is to be human help us to understand one another and become a more broadly-thinking and compassionate society. Despite the topics covered … residential schools, prostitution, rape, sexual perversion, imprisonment… none of these books are written in the mass market scandalous-to-cause-reaction style. They’re not scandalous at all. They’re written from a real place with real feelings about things that happen all the time whether we like to admit it or not. That’s both the scary part and the part that matters most.
What are you working on now or what do you plan to do when you finish writing this blog?
Currently working on a collection of short prose and, forever it seems, a medium sized novel.
Carin Makuz maintains a main blog, Matilda Magtree, where she publishes regular segments, (at) eleven: chatting with writers (I was once hosted here!), this is not a review, and Wordless Wednesday, featuring her photography.
A number of Reading Recommendations-promoted authors have been featured on The Litter I See Project: Alice Major, Betty Jane Hegerat, Bruce Hunter, Fran Kimmel, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Katherine Govier, Kimmy Beach, Lori Hahnel, Rosemary Nixon, Steven Mayoff.
When Carin Makuz first announced her idea for The Litter I See Project and asked authors to contribute a written piece to be published on the blog, I was in! Anything bringing attention to the problem of litter was important to me. But the combined issues of litter/literacy was a perfect play-on-words (Litter-I-See) that made this project irresistible. I wrote to Carin immediately to ask for a photo of a piece of litter.
The other aspect of this project that attracted my attention is that it was launched to help raise funds, as well as awareness, for Frontier College in Toronto, a literacy organization founded in 1899 that began by sending teachers to far-flung work places, like the railways and mines and even into lumber camps in the bush, to work by day and teach the other workers to read and write in English at night. Maintenant en français aussi.
“Did you know I taught literacy on Bequia under the auspices of Frontier College?” I asked Carin during our correspondence.
“I certainly did NOT know that! I’d like to hear the story sometime,” she replied.
So, to go along with my piece that’s being posted on the blog today, here’s the first part of my Teaching Literacy on Bequia story for Carin and all her readers …
I stopped in my tracks when I heard the statistic broadcast on the radio that more than 40% of the people living in St. Vincent and the Grenadines are illiterate. “How could that be possible?” I wondered. Having been born in a place and at a time when education and reading were valued and encouraged by our parents and society in general, then working all my career in the book business, I had never known people who couldn’t read. (Wouldn’t read, yes, but that’s another problem altogether.) Books and reading have been my life and I wanted to share this love and my knowledge with others. My thought then was that if every one who could read taught every one who couldn’t, we would wipe out illiteracy, at least in SVG, in no time! Yeah, I know. A bit optimistic on my part, but I have always tried to look on the bright side.
My problem was, however, how to get started. I had met at least one man, a gardener working for Dennis, who had expressed an interest in learning to read. So I put out an email-call for help and received a reply from author-pal, Linda Granfield (who has been featured on my blog Reading Recommendations), that I would be wise to contact Frontier College. I did just that, and began a correspondence with one of the women there. She advised me on how to begin, but I was pretty much left to my own devices when it came to developing methods and resource materials. These were pre-eBook days (1998) and it was much too expensive to purchase and ship learning and reading materials to the Caribbean. So I used the same method I’d employed when teaching myself how to use a computer – the by-gosh-and-by-golly method.
What I did discover though was that learners want to tell their own stories (as do we all!) and read about other learners and how they live their lives. So I asked the six men I was teaching to write about themselves and we shared those stories around, as well as keeping in contact with Frontier College and reading what their students were writing.
I stopped teaching on Bequia (for a number of reasons) in 2002, and I had largely forgotten about this time on the island until Carin asked me to contribute to her project. The memories suddenly came flooding back and, when Carin sent me my piece of “litter” to write about, I was inspired to create a short story from the POV of an illiterate Caribbean woman living illegally in Canada. I felt I had enough experience dealing with the men I taught on Bequia to understand how a person might think about their inability to read and write, and how they would feel when taken away from a world where they could live quite comfortably without being literate.
It was coincidental when Carin wrote to say my piece was scheduled for publication soon that I happened to be sorting through books and papers stored in a Calgary locker. I discovered two copies of a booklet Frontier College had published when I was still teaching to which I had submitted stories written by four of my adult students. So I wrote to Carin to say, “Stop the presses!” because I had found a surprise and would pop one of the copies into the mail to her. I contacted Frontier College and asked their permission to create a PDF of the booklet, Reflections From the Inside: A Collection of Student Writing, and they were not only intrigued by my discovery of this long-lost publication but thrilled that I was planning on making it available to Carin’s and my readers. So here you go!
Please do read through all of these stories. You will find many are uplifting, some are heartbreaking, but all are illuminating. To those reading this blog post, I doubt any has ever had to struggle with illiteracy during your lifetime. You may never have known anyone either who is illiterate. (And people can be illiterate for so very many reasons other than just the circumstance of where they were born.) What I discovered while teaching on Bequia is that people who are illiterate do often manage to hide it well, because there is still such a stigma attached to not being able to read. The men who came to me to learn were afraid their secret would get out, so I met with them individually at my house. And it was interesting to me that not one women ever asked to be taught. That spoke volumes in itself about this Caribbean culture I’d chosen to live within.
I had mixed success with my efforts, and I often felt after all was said and done that I learned much more from my students than I ever taught any of them. I’m grateful to have had the experience, and thankful for the help I received from Frontier College and the encouragement they offered my students by publishing their very own stories in book-form. As I said at the time to Glenford, “Hey! Your writing is being published before mine!” They were all quite chuffed about seeing their writing and names in print! That went a long way to make them want to continue learning. And I was certainly proud of having been part of their process towards learning how to read and write.
Frontier College continues to do excellent work! Please consider clicking on the button provided on The Litter I See Project site and donating to help them keep doing what they do in encouraging literacy.
(I’ll be writing a Part 2 to this story of Teaching Literacy on Bequia with specifics as to who I taught and how lessons were conducted. I still have files of everything we did stored away on one of these many memory sticks in my bag of tricks.)