Trevor Abes: Writer

Category: Essays

How To Do the Hard Thing

I’ve honed my approach to difficult situations by a mix of willingly diving into them and running away from them enough to realize I should have just dove in. 

I think it’s a good skill to have, not fearing extremes of feeling, and adopting a curious attitude toward how they mess with your mind. 

This is especially true when you’re young and have to put up with situations and people besides yourself you have no choice but to be in/around to avoid poverty or preserve your independence.

The way I see it, it comes down to fending off your anxieties, limitations, and bs from others for as long as it takes to get yourself to a place where you can choose to do what you want.

Your choices will ideally be ones that don’t trigger your anxieties, allow you to sidestep or comfortably overcome your limitations, and include only people you are compelled and motivated by.

When it comes to anxieties and limitations before you have options, fostering a fondness for yourself, however hard a balm that is for you to apply, is the only thing that can claim any kind of long-term reliability. One way this could manifest is by unlearning what you were raised to think you couldn’t do, then proceeding to try your hand at a multitude of projects tied to these things and failing your way until something sticks. 

You’re probably busy doing that already. The failure here a badge of honor you’re too proud to have to let talking down to yourself become a thing, even though it will occasionally rear its head. 

A big part of the unlearning for me is looking fears and anxieties in their faces and getting comfortable with them as tenants in the borrowed space of my mind as I proceed to do what I want. There’s a difference between running away from something, which implies you should have stayed put, and walking away from something that isn’t for you. The ultimate arbiter of what that difference entails is you.

If you don’t have the option to work in your chosen field, selectivity where possible will help ensure a sustainable work environment: small intimate team instead of having 100 co-workers; customer service or its absence; that kind of thing. This year is my year to be more mindful in this area, as I finally have a little buffer to prioritize my mental health in professional settings instead of taking the job because I need the money.

When it comes to bs from other people, I favour the realization that we were all thrown into this world without a choice and left to make our own sense of it. Make no mistake, my skin wasn’t always thick enough to follow through on opening my mind to the many ways people make life sustainable. I’ve quit on great people and professional prospects on principle because I was uncomfortable with one specific person. It felt right in the moment, but I now feel differently about how much extra time this strategy tacks on to financial independence and being the sole owner of your time.

The sooner you foster empathy for people you vehemently disagree with, the faster you’ll get to a point where you can reliably avoid them. And perhaps only seek out their company to be ideologically prudent and steer clear of echo chambers. Not so much when you resist every instance of discomfort along the way, lengthening your path to living as you see fit. I believe this the most when I let myself see that we’re all acting in our own self-interest while trying to be as nice as we can to everyone that joins us for the ride. Most of the time, it’s better to have been a part of someone’s plan than to have missed the dance completely. 

My Favorite Investing Podcasts (Part 2)

As a self-directed investor eager to improve the quality of my financial decisions, it’s a blessing that there are so many solid podcasts out there to learn from.

Whether I feel like hearing an analyst or fund manager wax poetic on their latest investment thesis, parsing through a pitch on the latest ETF, or brushing up on fundamentals like asset allocation, factor exposure, and the historical data that backs it all up, there’s always an episode to dig into.

With that said, here are 9 more financial podcasts to add to my list of favorites:

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1. Stacking Benjamins, hosted by Joe Saul-Sehy (former financial planner) and O.G. (current financial planner), is arguably the funniest personal finance podcast around. The hosts always try to keep it light and keep each other honest with zingers and bad puns that do away with the tension of honest financial discussions. There are so many good things to mention here, including solid all-around advice, neighbor Doug’s announcing prowess, and the edutaining segments about the latest in fintech products on the market.

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2. The Dough Roller Money Podcast covers personal finance topics like The F.I.R.E Movement, the role of bonds in a portfolio, and the pros and cons of different retirement accounts, with a focus on providing honest, actionable advice. I really enjoy the no-nonsense attitude of its host, Rob Berger, who is very good at clarifying when he’s offering an opinion as opposed to a cold hard financial fact. Look no further to tease out your path to financial freedom.

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3. Flirting With Models, the only podcast I know that drops a full season at a time, is for listeners interested in the latest quantitative research and rules-based investment strategies. As I read more and got deeper into the weeds as an investor, the discussions here opened up to me a little more and gave me a better sense of how to work around my behavioral biases. Its host, Corey Hoffstein, is an organic interviewer, contagiously energized by the topics, and refreshingly mindful when it comes to unpacking complex concepts into layman’s terms.

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4. The Contrarian Investor Podcast explores the investing maxim that you should zig when the rest of the market is zagging. Every interviewee has a take that runs counter to current sentiment and should appeal to anyone with the fortitude to put their money against the herd. As a value investor myself, it gives me a lot to think about.

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5. The Rational Reminder Podcast, hosted by advisors Ben Felix and Cameron Passmore, was originally intended to answer their clients’ questions, but has since grown into one of Canada’s go-to sources for financial knowledge. I like that their advice is always backed up by research, and how on-the-ball they both are about calling out bogus advice when they come across it. As a DIY investor, this one’s your best bet to set yourself up with a solid foundation for objective decision-making.

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6. Trillions is Bloomberg’s ETF podcast. It covers the latest developments in the industry and serves as a platform for managers and executives to come on and pitch their newest products. If you ask me, it works because hosts Eric Balchunas and Joel Weber aren’t afraid to ask the hard questions to skewer an inflated or myopic claim.

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7. Superinvestors and the Art of Worldly Wisdom sees value investor Jesse Felder have wide-ranging discussions with leading contemporary investors like Rob Arnott, Meb Faber, Kiril Sokoloff, and Eric Cinnamond. The interviews are rich with insights and always have something to offer that’s liable to shift your perspective. I just wish Felder had more time to record more episodes.

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8. Afford Anythinghosted by real-estate investor, Paula Pant, is a podcast that guides you through the gamut of personal finance topics like retirement, student loans, and how to save more money. Pant is incredibly thorough with every one of her answers, asks her interviewees practical questions, and always takes care to explain any terminology so everyone’s on the same page. I lied about not looking any further to tease out your path to financial independence. This show will help you get there.

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9. Gestalt University provides a highly-detailed view on the latest goings-on in the asset management industry. Topics broached thus far include machine learning, digital marketing, and investing factors such as low volatility. This is one to nerd out to if your portfolio is already in place and you’re looking to deepen your understanding of the investing landscape.

You can read Part 1 of my favorite investing podcasts here.

Of course, always and forever, never take anything you hear on these programs as advice pertaining to you, because the hosts and guests have no knowledge of your personal financial situation. Do your own research and/or consult with a professional before making investment decisions.

Getting Your Investing Mind Right

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Arguably, the hardest part of investing for the long term in broad stock index funds—this includes funds that track the total US Market, Developed International Markets, Emerging Markets, or the Global Stock Market— is keeping one’s psychology in check during market extremes. 

When funds have been going up for a handful of years, most of us think the trend will continue and want to buy more shares. Even though we have to pay an increasingly high price to do so. 

When funds have been dropping for a long stretch, most of us figure it’ll get worse and feel we should sell. Even though prices haven gotten cheaper and thus more appealing.

Why do we act like this? Human nature.

How do we fix it?

One. By setting a range for how high and low stock markets can go, as per the historical record, to get an idea of good lows to buy more of, and good highs to dollar-cost-average into until prices improve. Selling investments should be limited to the reasons you invested in the first place. 

How much can markets rise before a recession knocks them down to fair value? Australia’s stock market has gone more than a quarter century without one.

How much can a country’s stock market drop, and how soon? Eighty percent is a reasonable worst case scenario. This happened in the US over two years in the late 1920s and early 1930s with the market taking over 25 years to recover. It happened again, this time over a couple decades, during the double-digit inflation of the 1960s and 1970s. 

Historically speaking, though, any time a broad index is down double digits (over 10%) constitutes poor performance and thus a buying opportunity/sale/good deal. This with the knowledge that it could drop another 70% or more and get that much sweeter.

Two. By remembering that, excluding problems with the fund’s management or issuing company, a broad market index fund going out of business would require the industrial complexes of the countries they track to go out of business too. And that’s next to impossible, whether in Canada or Spain or South Africa. Barring investment company bankruptcy, dips in your index funds’ prices per share will eventually recover. It may take many years, so it’s up to you to ensure an appropriate time horizon.

Three. By holding firm that, to benefit from index investing in stocks over the long-term, i.e. make money, you have to invest regularly and stay invested—continuously— in a diversified portfolio for ideally a decade or more.

That’s how you watch your index funds drop in value without panic-selling to avoid the stress. Easier said than done? Absolutely. 

But when you compare how inflation currently cuts what you can buy with the money in your savings account by 2% per year, every year, with a diversified portfolio’s long-term expected return of 7% per year, giving into fear looks a lot like very slowly going broke.

You can learn more by reading my introduction to investing for young Canadians.

Disclaimer: This article is meant for general education purposes only. It does not constitute financial advice as I am unaware of your personal situation. Consult a professional who abides by a fiduciary standard before making any investment decisions.

Image by The Langmaid Practice.

 

My Favorite Investing Podcasts

There’s no particular order here. I’ve narrowed down what I like about each podcast with links to episodes I found memorable. All of these have shaped how I approach investing by teaching me fundamentals and new strategies, as well as instilling open-mindedness, thorough analysis, and the pursuit of financial independence. 

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Invest Like the Best is hosted by Patrick O’Shaughnessy, a philosophy major who found his way into investing management and approaches the discipline much like a philosopher might. Which is to say this podcast is for listeners interested in getting deep into the weeds of investing. It is about nerding out and dissecting concepts without thinking too hard about time. Discussions are usually over an hour and quite wide ranging, covering stuff like innovation, decision making, and venture capital. Guests are predominantly of O’Shaughnessy’s caliber, able to meet his probing genuine intellectual curiosity with insights that have undoubtedly improved my understanding of investment risk. O’Shaughnessy is a quant, meaning he employs data and computer models to take human discretion out of the investment process. I particularly enjoyed “The Wu Tang Clan of Finance with Team Ritholtz” and “Cultivating a Disaster Resistant, Compound Interest Machine”

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The Meb Faber Show. Meb runs an investment company that practices trend following, which means buying stocks, bonds, and other assets based on the directions their prices have been going, usually over the last 6-12 months. He is a natural conversationalist, thorough with his questioning, but just as happy to compare favourite tequilas, or reminisce about a tangentially related memory from his youth. The guests are just as instructive as O’Shaughnessy’s, with many years of experience in the industry, but much more accessible to newcomers to investing. Good place to start: any of the Radio Show episodes where Meb answers Twitter questions delivered by his sidekick, Geoff. 

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The Investor’s Podcast is hosted by Preston and Stig, both seasoned investors who favor in-depth assessments of a subject because to them buying stocks is an integral part of life. These gentlemen are systematically curious, in that they have interviewed opposing sides of every debate in the industry pretty much. Their educational mandate is to make discussions clear to everyday investors, regardless of complexity. This respect for everyday investors extends to the duo’s exacting separation of educational content for investors from the paid courses they offer those interested in greater depth. Like everyone else mentioned in this piece, their financial interests in podcasting don’t infringe on the depth of their discussions In a word, they’re fiduciaries. Try: Investing in Women With Sharon Vosmek.
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Odd Lots is a Bloomberg podcast that stands out for focusing on niche topics that don’t get wide coverage in the mainstream financial press, of which Bloomberg is very much a part. Lots of stuff on cryptocurrency, financial history, fraud, monetary policy, and more. The added benefit here is the dynamic duo of hosts Tracy Alloway and Joe Weisenthal, who get along famously, even though it seems like they couldn’t be any more different in terms of taste and style. Try: How a Fraudster Pulled Off An Infamous Scheme.

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The Acquirer’s Podcast, hosted by Tobias Carlisle, features in-depth interviews, mostly with active managers willing to run through their strategies with him. It’s instructive if you oversee your own investments and want to learn about how the pros are thinking about the best investment prospects. Carlisle is a value investor, so his questions tend to tilt toward different ways of determining if companies are selling for cheaper than they should be. He is also a kind and considerate interviewer, clearly interested in listening and learning from his guests rather than holding court before them. Try: Michael Mauboussin – Big Decisions, Luck, Skill, Complexity And Success In Investing.

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Animal Spirits presents the musings of investment analysts/advisors Michael Batnick and Ben Carlson. They cover investment news trends, what they’re reading and watching, as well as listener questions. They are also the living embodiment of contrast. Batnick is a brash New Yorker whose searing sarcastic burns are a perfect foil to Carlson’s considered, even-keeled demeanor. How they interrupt each other is like a well-choreographed dance. Both are rational in their analyses, like everyone else on this list, an antidote to the mainstream media’s bipolar coverage of the stock market’s ups and downs.

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Capital Allocators is the creation of a former hedge fund manager, Ted Seides. The greatness here lies in Seides transferring his investment skills to the podcast format. As a hedge fund manager, a huge part of the job is interviewing other investment managers to see if they’re worth investing with. It comes down to asking the right questions to determine emotional intelligence and the root of what drives their investment processes. This is exactly what Seides does on the podcast, picking managers’ brains for listeners that may have money to put to work. Along with O‘Shaughnessy, Carlisle, and Faber, he is a clear communicator who makes sometimes complex discussions easier to digest. Guests open up because he gives them a comfortable, educational space to do so. Try: Charley Ellis—Indexing and its Alternatives.
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Canadian Couch Potato covers the details of index fund investing, which is the most cost-effective way to get a decent return from capital markets over the long term. This is a contrarian podcast for Canada, because most people don’t index here, they’re active investors. Dan Bortolotti, the host, is a passionate advocate for the everyday Canadian investor. He isn’t afraid of and often relishes pointing out bogus advice when he hears it and setting the story straight on long-standing myths that scare people from investing their money. Sadly, Bortolotti put the podcast to rest back in August, but the 26 episodes he completed are a beginner’s education in and of themselves.
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Masters in Business is another Bloomberg show by Barry Ritholtz, who runs an asset management firm where Batnick and Carlson happen to work. Ritholz has been in the investing and financial blogging world for decades and knows everybody in the industry. This makes Masters in Business a priceless repository of interviews with almost anybody you can think of who has done anything significant in finance over the last 50 years. Off all these shows, I’ve learned the most from this one. You’re literally listening to geniuses have really relaxing hour-long conversations about their work. It’s the literary equivalent of having people like Miguel de Cervates, William Faulkner, Jane Austen, and Agatha Christie as regulars on your podcast. Because Economics is a much younger field than Literature, there are lots of greats who are still with us. The one thing I endure about Ritholtz is that he has a bad habit of talking over people, sometimes chiming in more than listening to a guest. Thankfully, it isn’t a pervasive thing. Try: Bill Bernstein: Efficient Frontier.

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Motley Fool Answers and Motley Fool Money are shows produced by The Motley Fool, an investment advisory service based in Virginia. The company believes in fundamental analysis, picking individual stocks, and holding them for the long term. It’s the kind of lens you can expect from the podcasts as well. Analysts discuss the latest in business news, argue for new stock picks, and answer listener questions about basic investment advice. While The Motley Fool’s written content can read like a road to riches, it is the farthest thing from the more prudent, research-heavy style of investing the podcasts get behind.

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The Long View, by investment statistics provider Morningstar, is concerned primarily with issues in financial planning and anything having to do with investing fundamentals for the everyday investor. Hosts Christine Benz and Jeff Ptak are incisive with their questions and unwavering in their commitment to easing the general public’s fear of the stock market. Try: Rupal Bhansali: FAANG Stocks Are ‘Extremely Risky’.

 

I hope a few of these click with you and offer you something worthwhile. If you’re interested, check out my post on investing basics for young Canadians here.

 

Investing Is Hard And I Don’t Have Any Money: Savings Basics For Young Canadians

I’ve rewritten this article into an e-book called Nine Steps to Successful Investing: A Guide for Young Canadians. Find a copy in the shop.

Community and Self-Help in the Poetry of Rupi Kaur

Let’s evaluate Rupi Kaur’s work against her self-ascribed purpose as an author, that of a confessional self-help poet, which redefines the traditional understanding of poetic excellence as a mix of subtlety, complexity, and innovation of form and content to being one almost exclusively centred on content. This seems the most fruitful route of analysis given that most of her critics read her through the traditional understanding, even though it has little to do with why she writes.

Kaur was born in Punjab, India, and moved at four to a Southeast Asian community in Brampton, Ontario, Canada. Her poems, initially shared through Tumblr, became famous on Instagram in 2015 after she posted an art photograph of herself with menstrual blood on her sweatpants. The network took it down twice, citing a breach of their Community Guidelines, before uploading it again and apologizing, in large part because of Kaur’s impassioned Facebook post on the matter. The sparring resulted in international media coverage, attention she parlayed into a multiplying fan base and an offer from Andrews McMeel Publishing to re-release her first book, milk and honey, which she self published in 2014. Having sold in the vicinity of five million copies to date, Kaur has her throne reserved in the history of Canadian literature. She regularly shares new verse with 3.3 million Instagram followers, and performs to audiences the world over, notably to 900 people at a launch for her second effort, the sun and her flowers, in New York City.

Her poetry is minimalist and direct. It centres on a wide variety of subjects, including physical and emotional abuse, racism, sexism, feminism, family roots, emotional intelligence, her sense of cultural inbetweenness as an immigrant, and a great deal of love and heartbreak. A poem may be deeply personal and step into a vast and complex topic. For example,

 

this place makes me

the kind of exhausted that has

nothing to do with sleep

and everything to do with

the people around me.

—introvert.(1)

 

Or often a poem may simply delineate a feeling or hokey slice of wisdom and allow it to hang in the air. These captured feelings carry vestiges of Neruda writing about an onion, harboring a hope to catalogue the contents of the earth. Except Kaur’s focus is on building a mental toolkit to deal with how to coexist in society as a responsible adult. Such is her remedy to the violence and injustice she confronts in her writing, which we’ll speak on later.

 

it takes grace

to remain kind

in cruel situations.(2)

 

Any seasoned reader of poetry would realize that Kaur’s approach to the genre is more about what she says than how she says it. She spoke to Rolling Stone’s Shannon Carlin about distancing herself from poetry dense enough to need its meaning coaxed from it.

“Kaur…doesn’t want readers to agonize over each and every word like she did when learning poetry in school. “I would have to pull out the list of literary devices my teacher gave me and my 10 colorful pens,” she says, her big, almond eyes getting wider. “It was like doing surgery on the damn thing.””(3)

Those who enjoy flare in their poetry have plenty to site when they dismiss Kaur outright. Take the poem about introversion above. She revisits a thought that anyone who has thought about introversion has had a version of. That would seem to exclude all of those people from the intended audience of the poem, leaving only those who haven’t had much contact with the condition. Kaur’s interest in self-help begins to show here in the attention she tends to pay to readers who are novices in what she’s writing about. She tailors the poem to them, happy to state it flatly to maximize understanding, never threatening to outgrow its minimalist husk. She does not attempt to arrange words such that readers might discover new angles through which to understand introversion. As is the case in virtually all of her work, characterization, imagery, and metaphor follow suit with this spoon-fed flatness by keeping paper-thin and overly friendly with cliches.

Even the shapes of her poems, though they might resemble rich, dense language from afar, turn out to be riddled with line breaks of chopped up prose. Their thoughtless, unpretentious structure is given more importance than the chance at experimenting with structure in the name of expanding poetic meaning, and self-help shows up as a priority once more. Kaur chooses digestibility over aesthetics, dispelling would-be poetry readers’ preconceived notions about having to be learned to understand the genre at all.

Similarly, Kaur’s lack of punctuation and exclusive use of lower-case letters convey grace, humility, and the appearance of innovation, but ultimately feel like resorting to surface changes to mask rather than support ideas left hollow. The same goes for her playfully ethereal drawings, which add little to the purposes of a given poem by being overly literal. In the case below, the drawing risks transforming the poem’s counterintuitive, and for that reason, fascinating comparison, into a belabored point. It takes up space traditionally reserved for a reader’s imaginative freedom when they sit down to meet a text halfway.

rupi the orgasm

(4)

The heavy handedness and redundancy continue with the summations preceded by a dash that end many of the poems. In the example below, repeating the word ‘representation’ in an otherwise stirring rallying cry for the voiceless, once in the text, and again after the dash, causes an unnecessary pause that distracts from the speaker’s demand for space.

 

now

is not the time

to be quiet

or make room for you

when we have had no room at all

now

is our time

to be mouthy

get as loud as we need

to be heard

 

representation

is vital

otherwise the butterfly

surrounded by a group of moths

unable to see itself

will keep trying to become the moth

—representation (5)

 

It is also notable how vague the poem is when it comes to who exactly it’s meant to encourage. There is a blending of experiences of voicelessness inviting readers who’ve been silenced to imagine each other’s lives regardless of beliefs and background. This merging of selves is a major theme in milk and honey and the sun and her flowers, as the ‘I’ that speaks in the poems not only imagines an introvert but also an escaped refugee on an overcrowded boat(6), an alcoholic parent(7), an idealist about love(8), victims of racism and verbal and sexual abuse(9), and a number of other experiences Kaur clarifies later on in this essay to belong to many different sources. She sees the potential empathy and community-building to be gained from poetically putting herself in other people’s shoes as invalidating the notion that authentic stories can only be told by those who have lived them. For her, the determining factor between writing and not writing about someone else’s trauma is whether or not subject, reader, and writer come out of the process seeing themselves and each other with greater humanity. Kaur has been called disingenuous for her appropriative practice, but I will commend her for it later on when we discuss Chinua Achebe’s concept of imaginative identification.

All this is not to say that Kaur is a bad writer, just an underdeveloped one. It isn’t often that she executes a concept and every word feels essential. But when they do, it’s a respite from the onslaught of sentimentalism, a mirage that turns out to be solid.

 

first

i went for my words

the i can’ts. i won’ts. i am not good enoughs.

i lined them up and shot them dead.

then i went for my thoughts

invisible and everywhere

there was no time to gather them one by one

i had to wash them out

i wove a linen cloth out of my hair

soaked it in a bowl of mint and lemon water

carried it in my mouth as i climbed

up my braid to the back of my head

down on my knees i began to wipe my mind clean

it took twenty-one days

my knees bruised but

i did not care

i was not given the breath

in my lungs to choke it out

i would scrub the self-hate off the bone

til it exposed love

-self love (10)

 

Here we have a melding of form and content, one that builds something new out of experience instead of merely accurately sharing it. The images, visceral and sensory, induce you to speed-read toward the poem’s affirmational ending, concentrating the speaker’s shared interest in getting there as soon as possible. You can feel a presence behind the poem, a beneficent hand redirecting violence inward to the roots of inherited beliefs that do not serve the speaker. This is the extent of Kaur’s occasional sense for composition before returning to a plain-spoken diary style. Which, as we’ve seen, pre-removes husks from their kernels, and often accompanies them by realistic drawings of those kernels just so everything’s completely clear. There are no multiple possible meanings to mull over or novel rhythms to be dazzled by. The stage is always relatively free of any sense of linguistic flourishes, which most might view as a disadvantage, something keeping her from standing out and finding a readership, but not for Kaur. Instead of worrying about writing tight, sensory poems like the one above, she has framed her work’s absence of ‘surgeries’ as a path for her lessons to reach her readers. Since nuanced writing carries so little weight in her work, it is clear content or message that makes up the writer-reader exchange. Kaur spoke to PBS News Hour’s Jeffrey Brown about what exactly she’s trying to get across.

Brown: Does it hurt you when the poetry is being critiqued as more therapeutic or emotional than real poetry?

Kaur: Not really, because I never intended to get into the literary world; this is actually not for you. This is for that 17-year-old brown woman in Brampton who is not even thinking about that space, who is trying to live, survive, get through her day.”(11)

Kaur goes on to say she favors plain, accessible language because her poetry is a space of healing, one where readers like herself, who have gone through “some really real things”—like sexism, racism, and abuse— and aren’t able to talk about it, can see their concerns reflected in the voice of another and feel heard and understood. She returns to this notion of reflection when offering her personal definition of poetry, “For me, poetry is like holding up a mirror and seeing myself.(12) But Kaur is quick to state that only the poems’ emotions are autobiographical. The majority of the stories being based on the everyday experiences of love and violence lived by her sisters, cousins, aunts, and mother. Lacking formal writing flare, it is these experiences Kaur is responding to and reflecting back at her readers as a way of making community. That way they might rid themselves, if only for a few moments, of the anguish of suffering through trauma alone.

Kaur replaces craft with unadorned clarity so that her work may offer her readers the comfort of a village having their back. We can express how she goes about populating it into at least two steps: 1) By poetically rewriting her life, the lives of the oppressed, her idols, friends and family, the depressed, the anxious, the lovelorn, and loads of others, such that pretty much anyone can feel how it is to be them from the safety of the page. 2) By laying out a philosophy of emotional intelligence that fills in the gaps in these re-examined, often traumatized lives such that they might stay and understand themselves and each other more fully. It suggests Kaur’s historical awareness of her profession and the circular nature of time, of how people like Plato, Aristotle, and Marcus Aurelius wrote self-help books and were revered for them, but how nowadays giving advice is seen as lowly, heavy-handed territory for an artist. Kaur stands up for the role of education in literature, subverting the ludicrously popular idea among serious writers that providing insights into functional models of behaviour is somehow below the purview of creators of worlds.

Kaur gets at 1) by what Chinua Achebe calls fiction’s property of imaginative identification. As her readers, “things are then not merely happening before us; they are happening to us. We not only see; we suffer alongside the hero.”(13) Kaur takes fiction as an opportunity for “the imagination to recreate in ourselves the thoughts that must go on in the minds of others, especially those we dispossess.”(14) But beyond a mere choice, it is also a responsibility, one she assumes by channeling these minds in the service of humanization. Kaur wants to add the experiences of the people she writes about to her readers’ conceptions of what it means to be in the world. To this end, she relies on the common ethical thread of our shared nervous systems; that if she writes a person under a justifiably favorable or disparaging light, we will follow her there.

When she writes that “drowning is easier than staying”(15) for a refugee escaping persecution, that perhaps “the sea is your country…because it is the only place that will take you”(16), she is co-opting our hearts to care for people who need it. On the contrary, the position from her spoken word poetry community at large is that telling someone else’s struggle in your own voice is wrongful appropriation(17). Silencing someone for one’s own inauthentic artistic ends. Though noble on the surface, loyal as it is to everyone sticking to what they know, this position can be falsified due to how it can’t differentiate fact from fiction. Any concerns about misrepresenting refugees should be quelled by how Kaur is making up a scenario based on their treacherous journeys. Realism is the concern of realists. There is no reason to hold her, or any other romanticist, accountable to the tenet that fiction is somehow bound to replicating the world as it is. This would prevent her from portraying as undeniably human people who tend to be treated as much lesser than.

Kaur repeats the process in a poem about a girl in therapy who was sexually abused by her uncle(18). Her entire childhood seems to evaporate into maturity in the short piece. The aging process begins with when she was “the size of girls/your uncles like touching”, and ends with the last line,“fine/numb really”, its shades of world-weariness too casual and jaded to possibly refer to a child. Kaur shines a light on not feeling as a survival mechanism and hints at the day-to-day consequences it poses to basic interaction. The girl’s mood resembles anyone closed off from the world who still has to talk with you or me to get on with their life, the major difference being that people don’t go around explaining their sourness like it’s weather talk. The poem invites us to save tenderness for these brick walls and what lies behind them.

What I mean with 2) by filling in the gaps is that Kaur has assembled a narrator across both of her books whose prescription for hardship, trauma, anxiety, and depression is confronting it from the standpoint of seeing oneself as intrinsically valuable. In other words, worthy of love regardless of the tragedy and prejudice that claims you aren’t and how much anyone thinks of you.

 

who tricked you

into believing

another person

was meant to complete you

when the most they can do is complement.(19)

 

Reading Kaur is to be reminded that you will remain whole through the salvaging of your shadow side, the redemption of the parts of your life you wished you had processed differently. Her array of prescriptions is vast and safe to mix and match. You may choose, for example, to “get flowers from your pain”(20), or to reassess pain as the sole determiner of its presence in your life(21). You may place things you can control like spirit and intelligence over ideals of beauty(22) and integrate failure as a way forward in your life-plan(23). You may broaden how you love so that it is worth giving in principle only when it is worth giving in practice(24). Then there’s relying on your community(25), periodically blocking the world out with love reserved exclusively for yourself(26), and upgrading your collection of comforts for pains that can only be fixed by letting them hurt(27). Anything you might need to find a way to reclaim experience you could only hope to ignore before.

 

what is stronger

than the human heart

which shatters over and over

and still lives(28)

 

I am a museum full of art

but you had your eyes shut(29)

 

it is a blessing

to be the color of the earth

do you know how often

flowers confuse me for home(30)

 

It is good to remember that Kaur recognizes how self-esteem is easy to forget, and how its existence is always news to somebody. And that the age of that somebody isn’t necessarily 12 or 13 if they’ve grown up being told they have no choice in how confident they can be. It seems pointless to call attention to any flaws in poems that act like assurances that one isn’t cursed and that the world won’t end. You’re probably going to get much more done in a day reading one than not. It is a revolutionary insight to be told that the devastating loneliness of a breakup isn’t actually an involuntary nightmare but a product of having a better idea of what you deserve and the wherewithal to attain it. Kaur is affording people years in terms of getting used to how maturity is choosing the pains we are willing to endure.

She goes a step further, treating awareness of one’s entitlement to love as a privilege, rallying readers blessed with it to remind those who have to deal with the prejudiced sideswiping of it that they should demand it too. Kaur’s mission for her readers is to make fair the oppressive institutions that create the need for poets like her determined to form a counterattack.

 

i stand

on the sacrifices

of a million women before me

thinking

what can i do

to make this mountain taller

so the women after me

can see farther

 

—legacy(31)

 

….last month i visited an orphanage of

abandoned babies left on the curbside like waste…

how can i refuse to believe

my life is anything short of a miracle

 

—circumstances(32)

 

She challenges those who are loved to open pathways to self-realization for people with adverse odds at finding one. They are called to consciousness, to be selfless, and give back for the sake of the greater good. When it comes to building her literary community, Kaur requires a closeness that entails mourning when anyone is lost.

 

i am sorry this world

could not keep you safe

may your journey home

be a soft and peaceful one

—this will free you both(33)

 

Kaur sets her readers up to be people more willing to address negativity, injustice, and irrationality, understanding that all three are default components of the human psyche. This self-image is what makes the difference between granting pain—regardless of provenance— the right to be managed, and repressing it under mistaken religious or political assumptions that it is wrong to feel or that it will just go away. Kaur’s pain management system, her community of imaginative identification and emotional intelligence, does not in principle restrict membership, no matter how contemptible the person’s behaviour. To do so would be to deny someone their humanity—their right to heal, to be forgiven, and to work out a burden with a book like hers that helps you forgive. But that’s exactly what happens, at the expense of the ever-widening altruism responsible for unity among her fans. Ethical issues arise with observations that seem problematic without a more thorough treatment.

 

why

did you leave a door

hanging

open between my legs

were you lazy

did you forget

or did you purposely leave me unfinished

—conversations with god(34)

 

It is easy enough to offer the poem a charitable interpretation and say Kaur is pointing to a topic that branches out into how many women internalize subservience next to men, i.e. ‘finished’ people. But it would seem careless not to also add that the poem doesn’t contribute to minimizing the problem, nor does it completely close off the possibility that its last line carries a hint of truth. The lack of a guiding hand is glaring when we compare it with the straightforward positivity of the complete you and self-love poems above.

 

If you are not enough for yourself

You will never be enough

For someone else.(35)

 

This poem ignores myriad ways love can find you. It is common sense that people incapable of loving themselves fully constantly turn others on, and that the semantic field of ‘my everything’ has room for all. Your circumstances really have nothing to do with someone stumbling upon contentment by your side.

 

take the compliment

do not shy away from

another thing that belongs to you.(36)

 

The poem is another that asks the reader to provide a grain of salt to avoid questionable implications. Given the welcomed emergence of zero-tolerance toward sexual abuse across the world, Kaur’s advice appears too open to recontextualizing an unwanted advance instead of getting as loud as needed to be heard.

 

the thing about having

an alcoholic parent

is an alcoholic parent

does not exist

 

simply

an alcoholic

who could not stay sober

long enough to raise their kids(37)

 

Here Kaur glosses over the roots of addiction, discriminates against those suffering from one, and essentially bans them from her literary refuge. The poem bubbles with resentment, anger, and the jaded person’s tendency for fatalistic pronouncements. Its tone is one of fact, an indefensible kick on the downtrodden.

Kaur’s poetic project responds to what Achebe calls humanity’s “need to explain and alleviate [its] intolerable condition”(38), that of being “caught in a tiny glow-worm of consciousness”(39), with an ultimately inconsistent path to altruistic community. The problem has to do with inconsistently romanticized trauma, how she sometimes gets too caught up in advice and in faithfully expressing victims’ feelings to consider who her phrasing dehumanizes. Her lack of critical engagement with these feelings and their causes has the effect of normalizing them, especially when prescribing behaviour is an integral component of milk and honey and the sun and her flowers. It is the case that there are experiences so grueling that expressing them as they occurred is remarkable progress. I grant the function of externalizing caustic feelings onto the page to diminish their strength. But, as a leader, and as a healer, Kaur loses credibility by conveying that certain people cause more harm than they are worth while professing a belief that people are worth more than any harm they could ever commit. Though she tends toward the latter, her attempt to teach the oppressed with such gaps in the troubles she is willing to take on cannot but inspire suspicion.

 

our knees

pried open

by cousins

and uncles

and men

our bodies touched

by all the wrong people

that even in a bed full of safety

we are afraid.(40)

 

Sometimes it is not enough to summon an injustice into existence for your audience and call it a day. Sometimes unresolved fear shared among many stops being a solution and turns into a crutch. What I’m saying is there is a price to every citizenship. Kaur’s work may be the place to replenish you from devastation, but it is up to you to protect your critical faculties from her efforts to replace them with her version of your best self.

(1): p.85, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(2): p.160, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(3): Meet Rupi Kaur, Queen of the ‘Instapoets’. Rolling Stone. December 21, 2017. <https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/meet-rupi-kaur-queen-of-the-instapoets-w514035>.

(4): Rupi Kaur, Instagram, <https://www.instagram.com/rupikaur_/&gt;.

(5): p.238-9, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(6): p. 126-7, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(7): p.39, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(8):  p.74, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015; p.182, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(9): p.15, 41, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(10): p. 105, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(11): PBS News Hour. “How poet Rupi Kaur became a hero to millions of young women”. January 2, 2018.<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QEgOmgQVG4>.

(12): Ibid.

(13): p. 144, Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments.

(14):  p.149, Chinua Achebe, Hopes and Impediments.

(15): p.126-7,the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(16): Ibid.

(17): “The milk and honey author’s use of unspecified collective trauma in her quest to depict the quintessential South Asian female experience feels disingenuous”. Chiara Giovanni. Buzzfeed. Agosto 4, 2017.<https://www.buzzfeed.com/chiaragiovanni/the-problem-with-rupi-kaurs-poetry?utm_term=.om89j8lN5N#.go8mQxV8q8&gt;

(18): p.15, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(19): p.154, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(20): p. 152, 158, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(21): p.151, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(22):  p.179, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(23): p.160, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(24): p.162, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(25): p.97, 146, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(26): p.107, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(27): p.193, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(28): p.109, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(29): .100, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(30): p.227, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(31): p.213, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(32): p.130, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(33): p. 125, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(34):  p.65, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(35):  p.197, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(36): p .240, the sun and her flowers, Simon and Schuster, 2017.

(37): p.39, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

(38): p.143, Hopes and Impediments, Doubleday, 1989.

(39): p.141, Hopes and Impediments, Doubleday, 1989.

(40): p.36, milk and honey, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2015.

 

New Article on Charlotte Cardin’s Big Boy EP

I have an article about Charlotte Cardin’s Big Boy EP on Under the Deer.

charlottecardin

Writing (About) Other People: Notional Ekphrasis and Parafiction in the Hospital Gift Shop

An essay about a book of poetry I’m working on recently went up in The Town Crier. Have a look here.

Spoken Word Takes a Turn for the Outrageous

Outrageous is a new reading series in Toronto that’s turning heads and making friends by breaking all the rules. Read my article about it in Torontoist.

If you’re in the city, come by for Outrageous X on September 29 at 8 p.m.

From Outrageous VIII: Alex Hood on bass and Callum MacKenzie on sax as the Rainbow Jackson Free Jazz Experience. Photo by Maite Jacobson.

From Outrageous VIII: Alex Hood on bass and Callum MacKenzie on sax as the Rainbow Jackson Free Jazz Experience. Photo by Maite Jacobson.

 

If On A Winter’s Night Michael DeForge: Redefining The Horror Comic In A Kim-Kardashianized World

Here’s my first op-ed for Sequential: Canadian Comix News and Culture. It’s about Toronto-based comics artist Michael DeForge (Ant Colony, Adventure Time) and his very particular use of horror. Have a read.

Ant-Colony-cover-350x273

 

 

The Devolution of Nikki Yanofsky

Photo by Valerie Jodoin Keaton.

Photo by Valerie Jodoin Keaton.

Even if you can’t tell John Coltrane from John McLaughlin, you’ve probably heard of Canada’s most promising jazz singer, 19-year-old Nikki Yanofsky. Hailing from Hampstead, Montreal, Yanofsky immersed herself in music as a child – her two older brothers introduced her to the Beatles and she enrolled in vocal lessons spurred on by her father Richard, also a musician. She turned out to be a natural talent blessed with perfect pitch, and the results exceeded anyone’s expectations. At 12, she became the youngest artist in history to headline the Montreal Jazz Festival, performing in front of more than 100,000 people. At 13, she recorded her debut Ella…Of Thee I Swing, a tribute to her idol Ella Fitzgerald, at a packed Place des Arts in 2007. The album features astounding renditions of “You’ve Changed,” “Flyin’ Home,” and Etta James’ “At Last,” which Yanofsky dedicated to her dog Hudson after stating that, at her tender age, it was the best way she had to emote during the song. Through the 14-song set, she sounds comfortable beyond her years with both the stage and the cadences of soul earned through hardship. She dips into lower registers like a wrong turn purposefully taken, soars for that show-stopping high note like the powerhouse greats she’s studied since primary school, and she scats with the personality of someone who’s dwelled in hell and found her way out at a snail’s pace. A teenaged hell, but hell all the same.

Two years passed before her first studio effort, the laconically titled Nikki, hit shelves in 2010. Listeners encountered a greater prevalence of pop next to the expected jazz standards, but it was clear in Yanofsky’s delivery that she had a history with every song and artist. Nikki also had experience on her side, with St. Catharines legend Ron Sexsmith and Jesse Harris of “Don’t Know Why” fame on board as co-writers for some of her first original compositions. If the production was more refined, it was all the better for it, a necessary upgrade to meet the normal vocal changes from 13 to 16 years of age. On “God Bless the Child,” Yanofsky conveys a fitting cocktail of loss and longing; she understands Billie Holiday’s personal troubles during her 1941 recording without having to live them. On the playful “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” band and singer offer insights into straight ahead jazz that root Yanofsky in the history of her craft beyond proper song choices. Gone is what a certain critic called her “canny mimicry” – referring to her 2006-07 recording of “Airmail Special” on the compilation We All Love Ella– a sense of self-assurance and ownership over the material having taken its place. Nikki is currently certified gold in Canada, having shipped over 40,000 copies.

Throughout these years, what brought people out to the concerts is sheer amazement, at least on the surface. A kid that belts them like the best of them will always draw a crowd. What brought people out to see her for a second or third time, though, carries a considerable weight, and it’s that what we were watching was, without question, the rise of the world’s next great jazz singer. Diehards will disagree, purists always will until they see the grail before their eyes, but Yanofsky was a girl apart from the singers spoiled by jazz-inflected pop. From her Converse and jeans, she slipped into Ella’s high heel pumps better than anyone on the scene since she first squeaked her way onto it, and that all changed when Nikki signed with one Quincy Jones.

Quincy

Photo by Michael Buckner.

As Yanofsky’s co-manager, Jones had a gradual effect on the young singer’s sound. Jazz played second fiddle to pop song-structures; stripped-down, acoustic accompaniment was ditched for digital overproduction; and her supple vocal runs scooted to make room for clichéd R&B acrobatics. Yanofsky’s third album, Little Secret – long delayed since its initial fall 2013 release– saw her in the studio with Rob Kleiner, a songwriter and producer experienced in club-ready beats who’s worked with Flo Rida, David Guetta, and Cee Lo Green. The songs they came up with aim for a broader appeal and for younger audiences through the dilution of Yanofsky’s musical identity. Nikki has been smoothed out, with only vestiges of the uncalculated, care-free approach to soul, classic blues, and jazz that kept her from being swallowed by the industry. From the title track “Little Secret” to “Something New” to “Enough of You,” the album almost uniformly takes heed from repetitious Top-40-esque dribble. Additionally, the backing band on her Little Secret Tour is roughly 20 years younger than her last, with previous musical director Rob Fahie being replaced by Will Wells, a laptop-reliant arranger whose touring background is limited to a stint with LMFAO.

Yet as I said at the start, Yanofsky is immersed in music. Little Secret is masterfully executed because jazz is not the limit of her repertoire and she is a better singer with each passing year. During her set on June 25, 2013 at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, she sang a jazz-medley of recent hits, including Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” and LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” She wrote around her favorite verse on Louis Armstrong’s “Jeepers Creepers” and performed it as the animated throwback “Jeepers Creepers 2.0.” There is ample need for experimentation in jazz – and a need for fun in general, free from critical stuffiness about what jazz is and what it isn’t– as is the case in the career of a girl not yet 20. There are decades still to tread before Nikki’s style settles into any kind of permanence and more changes are surely to come. It’s just too bad the most recent adaptation in her evolution is the outcome of pressure, naiveté, and a desire to excel within conformity when inimitability was already there. 

Forging Connections at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival (2013) was not your average convention. People weren’t dressed in carefully considered costumes or walking around in character stockpiling freebies indiscriminately. Set in the Toronto Reference Library over the second weekend of May, the intimate space lent itself to discovery and spontaneous conversation more than sweaty-palmed, star struck fervor. TCAF opened its doors to the simply curious and the comic-obsessed with equal grace, focusing attention on creators and their work.0511131157-00

Caitlin Cass, an artist based in Buffalo, NY, is the founder of Great Moments in Western Civilization, a cooperative dedicated to picking and blending stories from history. Her work draws on influences from Heraclitus to Paddington Bear in a poetic attempt to fit the whole world into one craggy group picture.

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Caitlin Cass, holding The Text, her latest Postal Constituent offering, about “the anxiety people feel about language and its unbreakable authority over us all.”

Matt Moses, head of New Jersey’s Hic & Hoc Publications, said, “TCAF is the best in my mind. It’s much warmer, and more welcoming, and so much better organized than most conventions.”And no, he’s not just being nice. As a home for alternative artists who eschew mainstream taxonomies, H & H is akin to illustrated Bizarro Fiction.

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Moses, left, with authors Lauren Barnett (Me Likes You Very Much) and Pat Aulisio (Bowman 2016).

Chester Brown promoted an expanded version of The Playboy (Drawn and Quarterly), a nostalgic and curious treatment of his obsession with Playmates and self-pleasure that was first published in 1992. A believer in the idea of looking back as a way of moving forward, Brown said of his use of autobiography, “I was inspired by my friend Joe Matt’s honesty and openness about his life in his comics.” Then, he flipped one open (Matt’s Peepshow #1and, with a warm and wistful smile, pointed himself out drawn on the page. “Of course, this is when I had more hair,” Brown added.

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Chester Brown with The Playboy.

This year’s Toronto Comic Arts Festival showed how the unlimited social circle is the fastest way to becoming yourself. From the small presses happy to have tables, to the centrally located major players digging through boxes of money to make change, everyone’s fictions were courageously laid bare for the sake of forging new connections where none existed before.

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