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Conversation with Mahaila Smith

Mahaila explains creating a cyber-feminist speculative space magazine, their debut poetry chapbook with Anstruther Press, and exciting literary theories.

Conversation with Mahaila Smith

Mahaila Smith (any pronouns) is a young femme writer living and working on the traditional territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg in Ottawa, Ontario. They are co-editor for The Sprawl Magazine ( They like learning theory and writing spec poetry. Their debut chapbook, Claw Machine, was published by Anstruther Press in 2020. You can find more of their work on their website:

Mahaila is the author of the poem “Chemical Rebalance for Young Cyborg Housewives” from Radon Issue 4.

Q: Your debut chapbook, Claw Machine, is currently sold out at Anstruther Press. Has its reception and sales exceeded expectations? 

It’s hard to say, since it was published amidst periods of COVID lockdowns in July 2020. I remember receiving a lot of virtual praise after the Zoom launch and feeling proud of it. I was happy when it was given a second printing, but I was not able to do in-person readings to promote it, so I felt fairly removed from the people who would get copies or hear/read my poems.

Q: From where did you derive its title Claw Machine?

The title was the invention of my editor and publisher, Jim Johnstone. It is taken from a line of a poem in the collection called “Flick Off!” that goes:

     Eating popcorn off the Cineplex floor.

     Hoping the claw machine will pick me up and give me a hug.

There are some spec elements in Claw Machine. There is a whole poem about terraforming called “Earth II: All New Organic Terraformula;” however, for the most part this is a collection of absurd and surreal poetry. Which comes through in those lines, I think.

Q: Tell us about your experience working with Toronto-based Anstruther Press?

I first learned about Anstruther Press through a friend who had published with them and through local small press events and readings.

Working with Anstruther was a wonderful process. I am so happy with what we made. Jim was a lovely, encouraging, and understanding editor, and Erica designed the most gorgeous cover. The lobster tail wraps around the spine and they kept it a secret until after it was printed. That makes me smile.

Q: In 2022 you created Sprawl Magazine, a cyber-feminist speculative space. What was the impetus for its creation?

It was important to me to create the Sprawl Mag because I was a lifelong sci-fi and fantasy reader, but I felt dissatisfied with mainstream spec lit. I found it consistently infantilized or objectified femme characters and did not express their perspectives or personalities.

We have positioned ourselves as cyber-feminists, inspired by the work of Donna Haraway and Sadie Plant. As a cyber-feminist space, we want to promote work that explicitly looks at the relationship between marginalized genders and technology, as well as create a cyberspace that is safe for femme/queer-identifying creators and characters.

We have also expressly positioned ourselves as an anti-colonial mag. This was important as the genre of sci-fi has upheld many colonialist assumptions such as space being an uninhabited place to conquer, or stories of menacing alien invasions, which both uphold western colonial perspectives. In our mag we hope to represent and promote the perspectives of various marginalized and intersectional identities.

Q: What lessons did you learn in creating its first issues 1.1 and 1.2?

So many things! We received hundreds of submissions, many more than we imagined in our calls for both issues. We had to quickly learn how to make our selections and what we wanted to highlight. We want to be a support for the writers and artists we publish. And through this process we have learned how to better communicate and give constructive criticism.

We learned what worked for virtual event organizing and hosting after our first virtual launch party, and we hope to have a smooth and engaging event at our next launch on July 26th. 

Q: Have you encountered any trials and tribulations being a new magazine that pays? 

Currently our magazine is paid for out of our own pockets. It was important to us to pay our creators, however, we are worrying about the sustainability of the mag. We are working on receiving grant funding. And we have made a ko-fi where individuals who like what we do can support us:

Q: How did you find your way to submitting your works to literary outlets?

I first began submitting to lit mags associated with the University of Toronto while I was there doing my undergrad. These were mags where friends and classmates from creative writing courses were working as editors or publishing their own pieces. I found my way to other literary venues from seeing where writers I admire were publishing their work and then submitting to those mags and presses. I now like to use Diabolical Plots’ Submission Grinder and look at the ‘Recently Added Markets’ list to find new venues I wouldn’t otherwise hear about.

Q: What literary theories have you recently learned? Is there one you gravitate toward?

I sadly haven’t had time for learning theory recently. :(

One semiotic theoretical work that I think about on an almost weekly basis is Simulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard. He describes how many of the objects, images, and processes around us are based on varying levels of relation to reality. He defines our current moment as “hyperreal” because so many things in our lives are imperfect copies—or “simulacra/simulations”—which may have no relation to their original form, material, or function. I think a lot about the way we are shaped by objects/images and what our objects will reveal about us to future generations of archaeologists.

Q: Where do you tend to find inspiration for your personal writing?

I primarily find inspiration through reading/watching/listening to other media. If I’m feeling stuck, I will look at themed calls to generate ideas and writing on specific topics.

Q: Still early in a promising career, where do you see yourself going from here?

In the short term, I am working on a few poetry chapbook manuscripts and a full-length poetry collection. All of which are speculative poetry about neural implants, agricultural robots, eels, and space exploration. I am in the process of finding homes for these. I would love to have more editing experience and work on my fiction. It’s hard to predict, but I expect I will continue to write work that falls under the categories of spec writing as well as non-genre poetry and fiction.

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