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Month: February, 2013

In/Words: A Personal Memoir

This month, Ottawa’s rob mclennan wrote a wonderful article about a magazine & press close to my heart called In/Words. During my tenure as an editor there (2005-2010) I witnessed many brilliant writers pass through its pages as contributors and editorial staff: Bardia Sinaee, Justin Million, Cameron Anstee, David Emery, Rachael Simpson, Jeremy Hanson-Finger, Leah Mol, Ben Ladouceur, Jesslyn Delia Smith, Jeff Blackman, Dave Currie, Amanda Besserer, Joshua Nadeau and Jenna Jarvis are all worth googling. The Conduit blog has discussed Jesslyn, Bardia and Justin but we haven’t done a retrospective on the entire In/Words community yet. The following is a strictly personal account of the literary activity that rob’s article outlines. Here are the aspects, moments and events that occurred around In/Words that I remember fondly: the types of things (I hope) are characteristic of literary collectives but seem special in this case, perhaps because they happened relatively quickly in a small, somewhat isolated literary community.

inwords-magazineposterFirstly, it’s difficult to describe the exact nature of In/Words. When I joined the editorial board, they were a sporadically-published poetry magazine revolving around the only permanent facet in the organization, Dr. Collett Tracey. I was involved in the organization in different capacities from volumes 5-10. During my regime there I saw 4 brother/sister publications start & 3 of them fold: Moose & Pussy, a journal of erotic arts and literature; Vagina Dentata, a feminist creative journal; Blank Page, a poetry magazine focused on 1st year university; Mot Dit, a French-language arts mag (which I believe is still in operation.) We also had a small chapbook press sometimes publishing  200-copy runs of 17 different books per year alongside 4 issues of the flagship mag.  We had a monthly reading series based out of the Avant-Garde bar, then the Legion on Kent St. and currently at the Clocktower Bar on Bank. There were weekly writing circles conducted out of the English department at Carleton University and other shady activities having to do with their ancient, terrifying, risograph machine, which gave birth to other presses–operated by the same people–with the purpose of avoiding being technically connected with In/Words… I suppose at the time we all had a pretty clear definition of what In/Words was, but in retrospect it was too big, too sprawling and dissociated to even describe. My favourite tag for In/Words was one Jeff Blackman and I came up with: an ‘eclectic collective’ of writers and artists. This is still probably the easiest way to describe it. As rob pointed out, Cameron Anstee‘s Apt. 9 Press is in many ways a continuation of the frenzy of activity during 2005-2011, and most of the writers mentioned here have also published with Anstee after they retired from In/Words.

From a production standpoint, some of the credit should go to certain individuals at Carleton University’s Graphic Services. It was there that most of the In/Words editors received a provisional education in publishing and design watching some poor printer-jockey (usually a gruff French Canadian named Ron) fix the mistakes we made in Photoshop at no extra cost.

peter-gibbon-eating-thistles1I had a peculiar relationship with the GS operations manager Bob Tippins. As a student-run organization  it was pretty common that we didn’t have enough cash to cover a print job. As such, Bob and I would have a meeting, he would work his interdepartmental financial magic and somehow ink would meet paper. I was usually the one he met with and during the years when my activity with In/Words diminished I would still introduce the new editors to him. During this period Bob would graciously welcome these people and in the first couple years ask them “where’s Eeyore?” Naturally Bob was referring to me and my demeanor when I’d meander into his office basically asking for free or discounted printing services. I guess Bob never realized how generative our relationship was, since in 2010 I had a short collection of poems published called ‘Eating Thistles‘ through Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press. The title itself came from a short lyric poem called “Eeyore song,” something written partly in reverence to my friendship with Bob, and certainly in the spirit of small press publishing:

Eeyore song

though I am a donkey
there is mule inside of me

when I lose my tail
my sawdust body trails behind

laced with gore
from eating thistles

on my birthday I cry
pray while I shit,

try to keep my circulation
low

hide my pink bow,
sleep deep

in my outfit

pithOne of the most validating episodes at In/Words for me occurred when some of us were solicited for publication in a “Canadian” issue of an online poetry magazine Sugar Mule and subsequently published in a print anthology called Pith & Wry: Canadian Poetry (2010, ed. Susan McMaster.) This publication is probably the first external recognition of the In/Words group, and it was exhilarating to be  in print, all in one place. The anthology, published by Sudbury’s Your Scrivener Press included Rachael Simpson, myself, Ben Ladouceur, Cameron Anstee and Jeremy Hanson-Finger alongside Canadian writers we all admire such as Margaret Atwood, Lorna Crozier, Don Mckay, Erín Moure and Monty Reid. This, along with numerous publications from Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press are what formed a strong collective identity within the In/Words crew outside of our initial small magazine work. In fact, Ben Ladouceur has described the print anthology as our ‘yearbook,’ determined to collect every single author’s signatures in the table of contents.

My favourite poem from this natal period is one by Rachael Simpson that was published in Sugar Mule: the Canadian Issue. It has everything a good poem should: wit, elegance, and it’s about me:

Peter

I like you
the way you are now,
head in a garbage bag
puking your guts out.

I will still like you,
it’s a thing we all do—
we show our insides to each other
when we’re not ready.

Rachael’s work has been reviewed by rob mclennan here. This poem reverberates with how Jesslyn Delia Smith spoke about In/Words in mclennan’s article: “at the risk of sounding a bit gushy, they were (and continue to be) a small family pushing each other further all the time.” It is also incredibly unique and accessible at the same time. I don’t have enough positive, supportive things to say about Rachael’s writing, and her chapbook from Anstee’s Apt. 9 press is a terrific example of her voice at its very best.

Another watershed moment for In/Words writers was a semi-impromptu wedding ceremony between two founders of the press’ erotic lit mag The Moose & Pussy Jeff Blackman and Kate Maxfield. This occurred in my back yard. For this occasion, Cameron Anstee, Ben Ladouceur and I formed an acoustic covers band as entertainment. Every preceding Sunday for a month-and-a-half Ben and I rehearsed in my apartment, arranging songs with percussion, guitar, harp, organ and egg shaker. Half the guests were either a former editor or contributor to In/Words. Anstee’s current fiance (Jenn Huzera) even caught the bouquet. The photograph of the wedding party (below) is truly the closest we ever came to an official staff photo, and probably the closest we’ll come to a reunion in a few years. Jeff wrote this poem during that period:

WEDDED

You bathe while I wash

the roof of the shower slopes
so you must bow to condition

I give you the hot and use a lot of soap

I reach in the sink and grasp a knife

I heated the oven and the door fell off
I reached for a trivet and its hook came loose
I put the cream in on its side and it poured into the deli keeper and ruined the roast beef and the head cheese I bought by accident

the water shuts off
the dishes krang in the basin

now you are in the house
but I don’t know where

last night you said to walk ahead

I place faith in objects
they are where I left them

you said you would catch up

I find you still in the bathroom

and did

elbow your arm, you flash your chin

our eyes wed in the mirror

Watching two editors marry brought a sense of wholeness and resolution to a furtive, fertile epoch of In/Words. Most of the senior editors retired the following year.

Since then, many In/Words writers have relocated from Ottawa to Toronto. Currently the group is split between the two cities, with Ben Ladouceur, Bardia Sinaee, Rotem Yaniv, Jeremy Hanson-Finger and eventually Leah Mol residing in Toronto and Anstee, Justin Million, Dave Currie, Rachael Simpson, Jesslyn Delia Smith and Jeff Blackman still living in Ottawa. Ben’s work was featured in the last issue of Jeremy’s Dragnet Mag, and has been nominated for a Prism Poetry Prize. Jeff and I had a collaborative poem published in a small magazine recently (alongside work from rob mclennan) and Blackman has a chapbook forthcoming from Cameron Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press.

There are too many stories about the staff at In/Words to include in one article. For example: the nude calendar that was in the works for years, utilizing famous Canadian books with titles that qualified as euphemisms–Hugh’s Barometer Rising; Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush; Crozier’s Sex Lives of Vegetables; Souster’s As Is; Engel’s Bear. This may sound glamorous  but there are probably reasons beyond poor organization that prevented its publication. In/Words itself is still operating a reading series, chapbook press and magazine. It has been rebooted once again with a fresh editorial team including Jenna Jarvis, whom I can vouch for. Their latest issue can be read here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

A compendium of In/Words contributors at a wedding: (L-R) Rachael Simpson, Leah Mol, Justin Million, Rotem Yaniv, Dave Currie, Ben Ladouceur, Jeff Blackman, Jenn Huzera, Kate Maxfield, Cameron Anstee, Peter Gibbon [the ‘I’ in this article], Hijal DeSarkar, Jenna Jarvis [6 people to the left]

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Valentine’s Haiku

this Valentine’s Day

I realized my life is shit

without you in it

*

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy V-day from Conduit!
may all of your lives be less shit.

DSC_0611-the Editors

Bearing Gender: Marian Engel does Timothy Findley

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Reading Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage in high school taught me that you can be a writer with a conscience and still be poetic. In university, reading Marian Engel’s Bear carried me through the period of my life that Jeremy Hanson-Finger has so accurately described as “the dirty end of my adolescence”(Hanson-Finger 25).  Not all of Engel and Findley’s correspondence have been preserved, but from the letters republished in Christl Verduyn & Kathleen Garay’s Marian Engel: Life in Letters, a complex and affectionate relationship emerges. In fact, their candid relationship could be instrumental to Engel’s notions concerning gender and sexuality.

One of the most fascinating letters in Verduyn/Garay’s book was written from Engel to Findley on 27 October 1982.  The first part of her letter references some correspondence between Engel and Margaret Laurence. In the correspondence between Laurence and Engel, it appears Laurence was offended when a group of Canadian writers confronted her about her alcoholism. Laurence accused Engel and Findley of spreading malicious gossip which aggravated Engel’s insecurities: “I don’t know aboutyou [sic] but I’minfinitely [sic] suggestible (sorry, kids have been using the machine and spacing is off) and my interior voice is very weak” (232).  Laurence, Findley and Engel eventually resolve their differences, but the professional tension between them suggests an intimacy between Engel and Findley that perhaps Engel and Laurence did not share.

Later on in the letter, Engel casually responds to a telephone call from Findley in which he (ironically?) proposed marriage to her, multiple times:  “If I sounded funny about your proposals of marriage—which Adele [Wiseman], I think, suggested in the first place—it’s because I’ve been working out certain relationships with homosexuals, because I’ve got a terrible crush on one of my doctors, who is.” Engel is open-minded when it comes to sexual orientation, and suggests a wry awareness of a performative designation of gender and sexuality: “I haven’t REALLY got my cap set for you or expect you to have yours set for me, but I’m rather amused by it: it acts out some stuff for me.” Admittedly, we must avoid reading correspondence too literally, but let’s indulge a closer reading of Engel’s Bear according to what we can glean from her correspondence with Findley.

As we explore Engel’s sexual identity further, more aspects of her fascination with Bears surface. In the same letter to Findley she goes into candid detail about her own sexual and emotional frustration: “And I’ve decided its okay to have lots of gay friends, but only to marry them if they are chinchillas—fat and furry and elderly, and you’re not one.  So there.” Engel is teasing Findley here, but it’s hard to ignore that she is basically describing a preference for what is commonly referred to in queer communities as ‘Bears’. She qualifies her statement by normalizing her fantasy in a very strange way: “There’s a bend in my libido somewhere; but what I really need is a straight guy who has the right chinchilla characteristics! A Nigerian with his arm in a sling would do.” We have no idea what she in referencing in the Nigerian with an injured arm… perhaps some shades of colonialism are sneaking in here, since she is anthropomorphizing and sexualizing the African male. It demonstrates, at least, that a combination of anthropomorphization and sexualization are the main strategies Engel employed to normalize and explore her own deviance.

Camp and cross dressing are extremely evocative concepts to use in dissecting this novel. As a strategy, Camp subverts the standards of gendered sexuality through praxis: by practicing an exaggerated version of heteronormativity, Camp suggests that all identity is fluid and performative. Conventional cross-dressing and Camp styles often contrast gay male sexuality and femininity through excess, complicating heteronormative desire. The queer category of ‘Bear’ contrasts homosexual desire with working-class heterosexist masculinity, an essentialist concept that lies at the heart of traditional Canadian national identity.

It is unclear how long hairy gay men have been referred to as ‘Bears’. According to the LGBTQ logic of Camp acting or dressing ‘Bear’ is a subversion of hyper-masculine identity. One aspect of being Bear that would be particularly convenient to a discussion of Engel’s novel is its association with the lumberjack archetype:  “Lumberjacks appealed to gay men at aesthetic levels but also for the fact that they were working class, and for the fact that their isolation from urban society (and hence from mainstream gay culture) opened up a fantasy of both secrecy and liberation, within an idyllic, rural, North American setting” (AGLBICAL.org). For critics who maintain a reading of Engel’s Bear as a Canadian nationalist allegory, perhaps the metaphor is more nuanced than we thought.

Reading writers’ personal correspondence can either reinforce popular notions about their personalities or, occasionally, offer quirky insight into how they operate outside of an edited, deliberate text. Reading letters as strictly supplemental to their life’s work, as entirely novel texts, can endear us to our favourite writers. Since Engel and Findley are both deceased, both taken at a relatively young age by cancer, it’s unfortunate that we can only speculate on their discourse. At least there are some spontaneous moments preserved that we can read more intimately, exchanging references so obscure or strange they may escape us completely.

The following postscript to the year Engel published Bear is a wonderful confirmation of this relationship. It comes shortly after Engel published Bear and ended her 10-year marriage to Howard Engel: “Congratulations re: divorce. Having gone through it myself—I know it’s hell.  Try not to think badly of us all—none of us men are perfect ladies” (Findley 15 Dec 76).

Work Cited

“Bear Culture: Hypermasculine Gay Men.” AGLBICAL.org. <http://www.aglbical.org/2A%20BEARS.htm&gt;.

Engel, Marian. Bear. M&S, 1976.

Garay, Kathleen. Christl Verduyn eds. Marian Engel: Life in Letters. Toronto: U of T Press, 2004.

Hanson-Finger, Jeremy. If I Make My Bed (In Sheol) pt. 2. Ottawa: In/Words Press, 2010. < http://issuu.com/jersgarage/docs/sheolpart02-20100207?mode=window>.

Australian Lit Round-up: Peter Carey

G’day mates! Some of you may know that Conduit Canada temporarily resides in New South Wales, Australia.  We thought this week it would be appropriate to promote an Australian writer: Peter Carey.

The following is an excerpt from our favourite Australian novel entitled My Life as a Fake.  The novel is a fictionalization of a fascinating episode in Australian literature in which two disgruntled, conservative poets parodied modernist poetics to Australia by creating a pseudonym and publishing poems they had composed as a joke in an influential small poetry magazine.  Interestingly enough, most readers took the poems seriously and the pseudonym took on a life of its own, producing more reprints in anthologies than the actual authors themselves.  This is a well-known story in Australian circles and worth a look for those interested in international modernisms.  Here’s some preliminary resources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ern_Malley

http://www.ernmalley.com/

In Carey’s novel, a young magazine editor is on a quest to discover the truth behind a composite of Ern Malley.  The following is an excerpt from My Life as a Fake, chapter 25 by Peter Carey (Random House, 2003):

I went to bed with the disconcerting knowledge that almost everything about my life was incorrect, that I had been baptized in blood and raised on secrets and misconstructions which had, obviously, made me who I was.

Yet to finally glimpse my white dress dyed with my mother’s blood was, quite honestly, not much worse than the horror I’d invented for myself. If my life had been shaped by my misunderstanding of John Slater, I was not unhappy with the shape itself. For no matter what crooked road I had traveled  it led me to the moment when I first opened ‘The Waste Land’ and found the laws all broken, and in those dazzling eruptions and disconcerting schisms I saw a world whose dreadful harmonies I never guessed existed. How I fed off it, puzzled at it, peered into it, scratched its scabby surfaces to uncover the coral reef below. I had read poetry before, of course, but nothing that prepared me for this- and no matter why I hated Slater or wished to prick the pretensions of his verse, I arrived at ‘The Waste Land’ and knew that to be both mysterious and true. It is very hard to wish things had happened any other way.

Actually, what had most startled me about the evening’s revelation was my father’s sexual nature.  It was this that later stopped me from sleeping. Perhaps Slater had been correct-I should not have looked behind my parents’ bedroom door, for not even three large glasses of scotch should still whirling pictures in my head. For hours and hours I put Boofy with all the men I recalled from childhood, one one one, together, getting accustomed to the idea. I mean I mated him. I put him with the Squire to see how that would fit or feel. I put him with our gardener-my father’s mustache to the one side, Wilke’s stubbly chin to the other- but of course it was already too late to learn the truth. Had Boofy prayed to God in Chapel to forgive? Did he think it a stinky, beastly business the moment it was over? That is not at all what I would wish for him. No, I would prefer that he strolled up the hill with a blond-haired actor, just as casually as Slater has said. I wish for them to stroke the horse together, and for Lord Wode-Douglass to move his broad hand from the horse’s flank to between the young man’s legs.

Of course this desire for the happiness of a dead man is not really about him at all. Like my father, I have a secret.

I have said that I do not like sex, and if you say a think like that clearly enough and manage to make yourself look sufficiently frightful people do tend to believe you. Fortunately or not, it is untrue. And while I had always imagined my secret nature as being perverse and original, I now began to wonder if I was nothing more unique than my father’s daughter.

You must not think me promiscuous, because this is not the case. I live mostly like a monk inside a cell, surrounded by my mess, my manuscripts, cat food, kitty litter, gas fire, and a shilling in the meter. But I am not mild, would never be thought mild by anyone.

I told Slater about my jealous cat, but what I really had was Annabelle- by then my secret for over twenty-five years. We met at the disgusting boarding school they sent me to when Boofy has his breakdown. I was in a fury for ears before she finally arrived. They could not control me. If I had not been The Honourable Sarah Wode-Douglass I am sure they would have sent me down, for I very quickly became a bad girl and was a very well-established bad girl when Annabelle turned up. She was fifteen when I first saw her, such a dazzling creature even then, with very pale skin, very black wavy hair, wide mouth, and the darkest,  most mischievous almost eyes. I fell in love watching her play tennis the first week of term. She was really just a little thing but she has such grace and fight and she gave a little ‘uh’ every time she hit the ball. Dear Jesus. Of course she did not mean to set me off. She was not a bad girl at all, which made it particularly difficult for me to get her attention and for her to understand that she would finally like me very much indeed. I am not patient by nature but with Annabelle I had no choice. From they day I was smitten until the moment that we actually kissed was in fact an entire year, a year made lovely with so many tiny successes, and so much longing.

That summer her assent-minded mother let her come to say at Allenhurst, so in the long day when Boffy was up in London, mostly occupied with not much more than lunch, I had my clever, pretty darling to myself. I shocked her often but delighted her all the more, and there was no part of her that was secret to me.

Annabelle now lives near Kew, where she is terribly respectable, but she does so love to go shopping in Kensington, twice a month if we are lucky. This part of my life is unknown to anyone. The Housewife and I will have a little lunch. She will tell me about the latest crisis with her children and I will complain to her about the magazine. We will shop a little. And some time in the middle of the afternoon I will take her back to Old Church Street.

We are very proper indeed, which is the point. Even when we get to my flat, even when the door is shut, there is not so much as a kiss. I live in a pig sty, it is true, and she cannot bear it. She tidies while I drink her in. She moves around my hovel as she once moved across a tennis court and now my mind is filled with sex and I lie on the sofa watching. She does like how tall I am, the length of me, and I do stretch myself, point my toes, extend my arms back over my head, releasing myself from all the tension that comes from wishing to be small.

This makes her smile, but nothing can happen until she has taken me to wash my hair, and dried it, until she has put make-up on me, and it is as she does this that she begins telling me how well my face is made, how fine my nose, how she alone on earth can own me like this. She makes me look at myself in the mirror and it is true. I am beautiful, but only for her, only with her, in the secret part of my life.

That Monday night in Malaysia, I tossed and turned until somewhere around four o’clock. Finally I dealt with myself, and then I slept.