I’ll be reading poems August 6th on Toronto’s Centre Island with some poets I really admire.
I’ll be reading poems August 6th on Toronto’s Centre Island with some poets I really admire.
Thought they are facts, and highly intuitive ones at that, reading a novel doesn’t necessarily offer more mental benefits than watching a film, and reading a short story isn’t guaranteed to make you a better person than an episode of your favorite TV show. If the relationship between readers and literature was that simple and self-aggrandizing, book critics would be falling over left and right from persistent genital arousal disorder. I did not understand any of this until roughly halfway through university.
In university, I was the kind of English major that looked down on “trashy” fiction for being what it is: easy, popularly-themed reading that hopefully appeals to everyone and your grandma. Authors like Grisham, Patterson, and Coelho didn’t deserve to be called literature because their aesthetics lacked complexity, and their books too-much resembled the products of an assembly line. These authors were, in a sense, garbage.
Where did I first encounter these views? The likely answer is through my fascination with literary theory, the writers of which still hold the places in my psyche that many tend to reserve for rock stars and celebrities. Their personal lives aside, I took reading suggestions from Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, I read Derrida like he was the Oracle of Delphi, and Barthes, well, his style and grace just couldn’t be matched. The logical consequence of believing in and defending a theorist’s teachings is thinking that whoever disagrees is wrong. Now, Derrida never said Danielle Steel’s novels were shit, and Barthes thought a lot of well-respected books were– Bloom, it’s worth remembering, reserves his wrath for Harry Potter and Stephen King; the connection between lit theory and looking down on grocery-store-rack fiction is the presence you keep: People that write about books write about the ones that offer the most mileage; your Austen, your Proust, your Beckett, and your Kafka require a considerable amount more unraveling than the latest Alex Cross thriller. Comparatively, does that mean The Metamorphosis will do you more good than bad? Clearly not. If the relationship between high-literature, an aptitude for learning, and the smooth development of the self was that straightforward, Jackie Collins wouldn’t be allowed near a television studio. And the issue is well beyond different books appealing to different people, because a love for the classics doesn’t preclude a love for what is perceived as kitsch.
‘Appeal’ may not be the right word. Mere interest isn’t what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about life-paths, and passing fancies are but small fragments of their multifoliate makeup. Whichever books you dare crack open, the only way to guarantee they affect you to their fullest degree is to read them without preconceptions; in this way, Twilight and Waiting for Godot are essentially the same.
I’m sitting in a vanilla bean office chair next to my bedroom window on the 28th
floor of my postmodern apartment complex, Sonatina, where there’s never any music
playing. The chair used to belong to my uncle: he died from asbestos in the university
where he served as professor, from drinking whiskey and from smoking cigarettes. He
liked Dunhills, the ones with a crimson stripe on the filter.
I’m smoking a cigarette with a blue stripe on the filter, a beer-and-a-smoke kind
of cigarette that imprints on my lungs a hot patch tingle. Not a Dunhill, a Canadian
Classic. The pack has snow on it.
Despite the warmth of an atomic orange hoodie and thick green-scale
lumberjack-chequered pyjama pants, I’m sick as a parrot on a 3-day saltine bender.
My nostrils are dripping. Wiggly phlegm is coalescing in my throat.
The wind tends to blow in on the 28th floor, and I’ve taken precautions. There’s
a pair of dark blue skinny jeans slotted under the door with a wet Martha Stewart striped
towel to prevent smoke-swirls from sliding into the living room where mom
and dad are on the internet. A plastic fan whizzes against the breeze – blades
speckled with soot and ash because I only look at them when they’re spinning – and I
try to exhale into it from behind, into the window.
I don’t know it’s my last cigarette. At a more basic and less demanding location
in my brain, where the fundamental processes that keep me alive are carried out by
idiots and country bumpkins, I’ve known for a while. I’ve felt the tipping point
approaching on piles of guilt and cancer googling.
Read the rest here by downloading the anthology: Record One: Peep Show.
2. Purchase a hatchet and 7 copies of your most loathed newspaper. Stack the newspapers and roll them together, fastening the resulting cake roll with elastic bands. Plate and freeze. In the morning, slice off a dessert-sized portion for melting next to your bowl of cereal and cup of black coffee. If, after breakfast, you cannot deduce at least one thing you hate about the newspaper from the soggy mush, its contents will determine your poem’s subject matter. Otherwise, dump it in the trash and try the next slice tomorrow.
3. Suppose you spot the word “politics” upside down drooping over the plate onto the table and the name “Tibetan Mastiff” crossed with the word “court” in the middle of the plate where ink should be pooling. You decide to take as your theme the history of court cases in which both defendant and prosecution are of the Tibetan Mastiff breed.
4. Research famous Tibetan Mastiff trials and choose one. Suppose you choose Price v. Shanti 1983, where one Shanti Warren was accused of stealing one Price Kennedy’s gold-encrusted leg of lamb and taking it abroad from Toronto to Botswana, where security discovered counterfeit AAA-grade kibble inside of it and duly detained her.
5. For rhythm, think of the last song you had to turn off to stop yourself from getting sick of it. Play it on repeat and improvise about the case; be how you wish you were most of the time; do this until your ears are worn to the metal. Then, continue in and relish the silence. Record using tape or laptop microphone.
6. From the resulting material, select sentences you enjoy as they stand on their own.
7. Try to put them together.
Saint Augustine taught me about wonder. He said “you acquire it as a child, and you should never lose it, because it’ll come in handy once you get a day-job.”
To feel wonder is to be astonished, floored (but not ceiling-ed), to say “oh my” with jaw dropped and eyes wide open. It is to embrace an unfamiliar idea like a random book-vending machine.
Then after your embrace it, figure out the place it occupies in the world by asking yourself questions like: Where can I find such a machine? (Click on it for your answer). Am I prepared to learn about marine biology if that’s what Lady Fortune thinks my two cents are worth? What if it’s taxidermy, or anesthesiology, or fishing?
But don’t get overwhelmed. Too much whelm can send you to bed.
Next, wonder is never done. Or rather, it never ends. It all depends on curiosity and silliness’ willingness to strong-arm disbelief til the paper is no longer ripped but rugged.
Whomever is responsible for locking English away, I hope they reconsider. Language is claustrophobic, it needs to go outside, lest its feathers fade and its speakers forget what to do during vocabulary tests.
Someone is giving English away for Christmas. I hope for the fresh stuff, even though it spoils quicker than canned, and a canned adjective is always a two-for-one.
And finally, a few words from Mr. Vonnegut about a group of people that don’t want your money, your brain to wash, or your lawn to stick signs in.
What’s compulsive about writing is that your words can affect the world and the pieces stories need to be good are universally the same, yet adaptable to all individual personalities, even lazy ones, just not those easily prone to embarrassment.
The sexiest, most breathtaking chocolate-cake-level gift a writer can receive is motivation. There may be medical reasons behind your obsessive interest in Victorian England; you’ve recently finished an entire encyclopedia of jazz in two sittings, stifling back tears when Coltrane died; gardening is your life and it worries your family: surely it doesn’t, but that’s the passion-driven material you will hone with care and without self-doubt.
I’d be interested in reading gardening fiction. Flower personification could be charming. No? Says you.
It’s fun to think of readers as a shifting soup of expectations, because trying to please every drop is impossible and inadvisable. Imagine a friend or a fresh acquaintance telling you he likes “all music;” now imagine turning into him. Taste works by exclusion. You don’t like everything, so don’t spend valuable typeathons trying to make everyone like you. Yourself included.
I am not saying write things you don’t like. I’m saying allow yourself to write badly about things you really, really like. Transferring perfection onto a computer screen is more evacuation than careful assembly,
More murder and miracle resuscitation than nip, stitch, done,
Which is OK considering the mental image is still there to be your model in the aftermath.
When putting darlings into words, the careful get left behind: spew, cross out and redo.