Beyond the Rob Ford Sublime

Rob Ford

Trying to Look Past the Man

Rob Ford: Sublime? Or just difficult to miss?
Rob Ford“What are commonly and ever more often perceived as ‘public issues’ are private problems of public figures. The time-honoured question of democratic politics—how useful or detrimental is the way public figures exercise their public duties to the welfare and well-being of their subjects/electors?—has fallen by the board, beckoning to public interests in good society, public justice, or collective responsibility for individual welfare to follow them into oblivion.”

—Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity, p. 70 (italics his)


I saw Rob Ford before I knew who he was. I could hardly look away. I was headed for work and he stood on the side street nearest the kitchen I worked in. He stood alone, his head reared and rocking back into a smile so raucous it was like you could hear it. He looked like the big kid on the playground, reveling in the fact he’d scared the others away—because screw those stupid weenies. This was his playground.

Inside I overheard from the wait staff he was running for mayor. What a joke. But he had caught their attention.

I still cannot look away from Rob Ford. I think that means you should write an essay about the Rob Ford Sublime. He makes you turn your body away from the screen, while your neck jacks back, eyes even more locked in. You hate, but cannot stop, looking.

Which brings us to Bauman, who asserts that politics have moved from a focus on the public interest—with politicians thought of as leaders—to a focus on politicians as examples of individual “life conditions.” Thus, politicians are considered as individuals, rather than as products and servants of the community. Even before the crack allegations, Rob Ford fit rather nicely into Bauman’s argument. He could be trusted to disrupt the status quo because he was, personally, so obviously not status-quo. 

That’s a flawed argument, but the conflation of Ford’s ego with his political agenda is to some extent natural. He distrusts notions of the public good as cover for the “gravy train,” and he believes instead in a privileged individual autonomy. So in Ford’s case, Bauman’s argument against personality-based politics could possibly be argued away as a disagreement with an individualist ideology, an ideology shared by an ever-growing group of North Americans. (The same cannot be said of Ford’s “personal touch” appeal—his answering phone calls, addressing specific citizen complaints, etc.—which is clearly personality-based.)

In any case, Rob Ford’s life has recently come so far off the hook that it’s absurd to match the form of his personality to any political goal. Yet, when this craziness passes by, it will become lore, while the actual politics of Rob Ford will live on. Thus, the Rob Ford debacle bears out Bauman’s argument that personality has obscured the communal consequences of politics. I’ll leave the political scientists and historians to sort those consequences out.

Instead, I want to know how the electorate—the communal body in question—plays into all this. Toronto elected the progressive-left leaning David Miller before Rob Ford. This is generally framed as reflecting the urban-suburban divide that also fuels frustrating debates like the “war on cars,” if you can call that a debate.

Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that that divide is as stark as is generally accepted. Does that man it is inevitable? Living downtown, I must admit that the suburbs and their frame of mind are difficult for me to conjure. I know one person with a car. So how can I relate to the suburban mindset?

Literature, it has often been said, promotes empathy. So I thought to visit Rob Ford’s native Etobicoke through literature, to see what might come of it. My portal was Baridia Sanee’s “Etobicoke.”

The poem is set in a Tim Hortons’. It speaks as if estranged from its setting—dominated by “wax paper cups,” “the suburbs more outgoing shut-ins,” “myriad plazas”—but is not totally disconnected. The characters populating the poem, like anyone, are besieged, and end up “looking for somewhere / private to go.” “To go” has a double meaning here, chiding a fast food culture as it feels its pain, but the overall effect of the poem remains neutral, if not sympathetic, to its scene. It treats the suburbs as a strange place, but one where people live and feel a particular kind of pain in the course of living. From a political perspective, it also links the area to its supposed other: “Six lanes of traffic on Dundas / follows a gothic procession of hydros downtown.”

This may only be a minor act of recognition, but “Etobicoke” allows the link to run the other way too: it allows us city-dwellers a nuanced glimpse into what we might easily ignore or oversimplify. In the wake of Rob Ford’s recent extreme behaviour, it seems right to willfully forge that link.

It is easy to see Rob Ford and dismiss anyone who might still support him. But that would be to play into the very lie that many accuse Rob Ford of using to win in the first place: that his persona matters more than his politics. You are, of course, welcome to disagree with those politics, but to dismiss them completely because of Ford’s disgusting behaviour is a questionable stance. What politics Rob Ford’s persona obscures is far more important than the man himself. And the people who share those politics, or seem to, are far more important than those politics themselves.

Author Note: Finn Harvor

Finn Harvor

Youtube, Literary Tears, and Hip-Hop Poetry

Finn HarvorFinn Harvor’s poem “nHI-lizm was featured in Issue 20 of The Puritan. Here he discusses his writing process and influences, both literary and musical.

Town Crier: Does your poem or story have an interesting origin story/compositional history you’d like to share? This could include interesting factoids or bits of research that informed the poems or the story.

Finn Harvor: I was reading a lot of comment threads, especially at places like YouTube or weird political sites. A lot of texting argot—also, a lot of bleakness, for example clips of people dying in a boat (THE POSEIDEN ADVENTURE) and some guy commenting underneath: Hahaha, LOL, suckers.

At the same time, I was working on a mega-novel project (poems are part of it). One of the characters is a white rapper from Regent Park who signs up for a tour in Afghanistan. He’s Canadian, but culturally his mindset is American … a pretty common phenomenon. America isn’t just a geographic entity—it’s a state of mind. Everyone on the planet is influenced by that to some degree. And so a certain kind of macho becomes “American,” even though machismo, bleakness—well, they’re universal.

TC: What was it influenced by? (e.g., Were you listening/watching something when you began to write? Were you in a meeting or class at the time? Was it after a film, art show, concert? Were you on hallucinogens?)

FH: See above. Also, an album by Cypress Hill called Black Sunday.

TC: Tell us the best thing you’ve read lately, or a poet/fiction writer you’re jealous of, or a story/short story collection you wish you wrote.

FH: I read some good work by Russell Smith recently in Young Men. But I’m not sure I was jealous of that even though I think he’s underrated and deserves a bigger audience. Ditto about a story by Matthew Firth that appeared in The Puritan.

I’ve read several short collections of Korean writers from the mid-20th Century. That was a brutal time: Japanese occupation, followed by short-lived US/USSR liberation in 1945, followed by more occupying governments, followed by around a year or so of peace—then, the Korean War and decades of dictatorship. Young Koreans smile a lot, seem similar to young Canadians, but their historical framework is entirely different. Some brilliant writing was produced around this time, mainly short fiction: The Rainy Spell by Yoon Heung-gil, The Grey Snowman by Choe Yoon, Chinatown by Oh Jung-hee … the list is pretty long. And a surprisingly high percentage of it will make your eyes water when you hit its last lines.

The best Canadian poems I’ve read recently are some works by my brother in a book he put together called “Death Haiku.” I can’t really talk about that in detail because I get emotional (he died). But he was a very strong writer that not many people knew about and he should be remembered. Another is “At Gull Lake, 1810” by Duncan Campbell Scott. That one goes back a bit, but it’s got so much power it’s spooky.

TC: How have things changed for you as a writer since you wrote and published the work(s) in The Puritan? Has your approach to writing, subject matter, style, or whatever changed in good/bad/intriguing ways? How do you look back on past work, with pleasure or pain?

FH: I’m trying to convert some of my stuff into videos.

TC: Because we are running various blog posts on music, we have a question on song lyrics. Did music lyrics have anything to do with the piece we’re publishing? Were any particular lyrics important to you in your development as a writer? Is there any recent lyricist you’ve been digging, and why? Is there any piece of writing, by you or someone else, that you would like see turned into a song? Why?

FH: Oh, it’s a hip-hop poem, I guess, so that’s an obvious music influence. I don’t know where to go with this one except to say it was an influence but I wasn’t trying to be hip-hoppy; I was trying to reach into what I thought was hell. My personal theory about hip-hop is that it originally had no particular self-consciousness—it was purer than that. My impression is that it’s in right now in poetry circles to diss hip-hop type work as poetically crude. I think that misses the point. There are all sorts of good and valid ways to make decent art, but one thing they all have in common is that the result is vital. That’s why hip-hop has become such an extraordinary cultural phenomenon. You can actually feel it viscerally. Maybe there are people out there who just pull a giant blank when they hear it. But people who “hate” it but still groove to it need to do a little more thinking about a possible disconnect between their ideas and their bodies.

In terms of turning a poem into a song, I don’t have any titles in mind but I’m sure there are plenty of good candidates out there. I definitely think poets should experiment with media, though. Not just music-related … poetry and art, poetry and performance. And I think turning poems into image-and-text work à la graphic fiction is a good idea (music could also be integrated with this last one). Some of these ideas, such as performance, have been around for years, and consequently can seem corny. The coolness factor of these approaches fluctuates with fashions. But the main thing is, try to reach a vital place when you’re creating.

Finn Harvor is a writer, artist, occasional musician, and academic. He lives with his wife in South Korea. His work has appeared in The PuritanEclecticaCanadian Notes and QueriesThe Brooklyn RailDark SkyPRISMThe Globe and MailThe Toronto StarThe Canadian Forum, This MagazineRabbleThe Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere. He has had work broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and won grants and awards from the Canadian Council, Ontario Arts Council, and Toronto Arts Council. As an academic, he has written on Thomas De Quincey, William Blake, Yoon Heung-gil, and Richard Kim. He has presented papers to conferences in Kuala Lumpur, Osaka, Helsinki, and Jember, Indonesia. He has had group and solo shows of his art, and has experimented repeatedly with art-and-text narratives.

On Writing Vulnerability

lone writer

lone writerWhat’s at stake when we write? What are we risking—metaphorically, materially, and emotionally—when we sit down to tell our stories? For me, these are key questions that separate the best writing from the merely mediocre.

Let me clarify. I’m not suggesting that what we risk in the subject matter of our writing—moral and ethical lapses, sexual and social transgressions, unresolved guilt from childhood—will on its own spin coal dust into gold. It’s not enough to simply reveal, or (as the lapsed Catholic in me might attest) to confess our sins through non-fiction. Simply sharing our own stories is not, for me, the greatest or deepest form of risk, although it may be key part of the process.

I’m talking more about digging a little deeper, muddying what we think of as the truth, challenging and unpacking the familiar grooves and patterns in our brains and hearts that have created personal myths, the tales we tell ourselves again and again about ourselves, the world, and our place there.

Truth, as we all know, is a slippery, dastardly slope. Searching for truth is to search for some kind of certainty and ground that simply does not exist. It’s the stories we tell ourselves over and over, the details we choose, the subjects we fixate on—that come to feel like truths, when perhaps what’s most powerful, that glint of light in the giant rock pile, might be lying just underneath.

The risk in writing non-fiction, then—the risk involved in allowing oneself to be vulnerable as a writer—comes in two forms. The first is a sort of philosophical or ethical high-wire act, a solo improv dance party on a filament of electric string stretched high above the Grand Canyon of our own psyches. In this type of risk, the writer grapples with a fundamental question, considering the many sides of the equation. As researchers of the human condition, the question itself then becomes important. How do we frame that question? What are we really trying to tease out? That’s the first step.

The risk—the vulnerable space that gets jimmied open, bit by bit, once we have our question—is in the act of honest probing, of challenging what we hold as truth; the insistence on turning stone after stone over, and then grinding these stones down to a fine powder that returns back into dust. It’s not just in surveying the pile of stones, choosing the prettiest, the ugliest, the most metaphorical, and so on, and holding it up to the light to say this stone is the truth.

Do you dig?

It’s the process of stone-turning. The act of laying one stone upon the other and then re-arranging the pile that generates the kind of mysterious and vibrating energy that can come to feel like truth.

I’m thinking here of the work of some of the non-fiction writers I admire, folks like Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and Rebecca Solnit, for example, who act not as judges and final arbiters of the world, not as human juries, not as gods or goddesses passing judgment from up high, but as witnesses. They recognize, through writing, that we are each part of a grand, unknowable, ever-evolving project. A mystery. To feel our way toward the truth means pulling our gaze further and wider than might feel comfortable, even as we peer fiercely and deeply into the tiniest bits of the cosmos, the molecules and atoms of feeling and matter and sensation. Vulnerability here means to risk undoing the great claims we’ve made in other parts of our lives, to hold ourselves to account, and to recognize, without expectation or agenda, that knowledge and wisdom are part of that organic, shifting, living process—not a set of moral laws or codes. So to be vulnerable as a writer within your text means to become deeply comfortable with uncertainty, with asking questions that have no simple, pithy, aphoristic answers.

The second way we make ourselves vulnerable when we write is through form. To allow the text to live, to breathe, to occupy its own space and time—this requires a series of decisions, small and large, on the part of the writer. Foucault understood that the creation of knowledge is always a political and ethical act that involves such considerations. Cutting, for Foucault—whether that cut is a word, a sentence, a paragraph, a comma—is a deeply personal choice that reveals intimately how we see the world, how we understand relations of power and accumulation of meaning through the lens of our own consciousness. How text is arranged, what we choose to include or not include, when to cut, especially—these are the workaday issues of the writer. To be confident and bold in vision, yet to remain humble and open within this process—is to create and allow the space, in other words, that makes art art, if only because it replicates the gorgeous, terrifying, contradictory, exhilarating pulse of life. All of this boldness and listening requires another type of vulnerability. If we consider some of the great prose stylists—we might consider again Woolf, or Toni Morrison, or Teju Cole—their vulnerability as writers comes from marrying a sound, solid structure—a world view, if you will—with a tender, ephemeral, pulsing uncertainty. Nothing is locked down. The text tends toward openness, not closure. Put differently, the text involves both a body (the structure) and a soul or spirit (the voice, or style), and the relationship between the two is always symbiotic and changing.

To make this issue of vulnerability concrete, I turn to one of my favourite Canadian non-fiction writers, one of the fiercest truth-seekers I know, Sierra Skye Gemma. In a stunning essay she wrote earlier this year for the Globe and Mail, Sierra considers the issue of sexual education of boys in the age of ubiquitous online pornography. How, she asks, might a liberal, sex-positive mother support a healthy relationship to sexuality in her teenage son? As a parent, how does one balance the desire to nurture an ethical and humane relationship to others with a freedom to explore, choose, learn, and grow? Sierra moves through this piece with a strong, tender, and admirable honesty. Like Solnit and Dillard—or Woolf, decades earlier—she moves effortlessly and organically across the page, complicating her central questions with insightful, incisive arguments and deeply personal revelations. No forced epiphanies and awkward summaries here. No neat morals or clumsy dogma. No axes to grind, either.

As writers, allowing ourselves to deepen our relationship to vulnerability in writing allows us to come closer to touching and experiencing the world in all its difficult, painful, and glorious contradictions. Vulnerability can serve as a vehicle to move beyond and through the personal towards larger, more complicated human truths, and in turn, to feel greater compassion and empathy for others.

Being vulnerable on the page does not mean wearing your heart on your sleeve, necessarily. It does not necessarily mean wearing a sleeve, or anything at all.

It does, however, require a commitment to looking deeply and honestly inside. It requires and demands the fundamental tools of the explorer: curiosity, courage, resilience, the willingness to get lost and then find your way out.

It might also require a heart.


The good news?

The last time I checked, we all—even the jaded cynics and skeptics among us—have hearts.

Five Top Reads For Winter Blues

top 5 books for winter

 Chromotherapy, Noodles, and Resurrecting Kurt Cobain

top 5 books for winterAs a student, I don’t often have time to read for pleasure. Sometimes I get lucky and my Megabus breaks down, or there’s a problem with my internet during finals. Usually I feel like reading only happens when it’s my only option. However I did manage to get my hands on some pretty exciting books this year. It takes a lot for a text to surface in the bottomless pit of titles I have to read and will love!!!. These books managed to do just this, and I’m glad they did.I decided earlier this year that I would try harder to read in my spare time by swapping out some of my other pastimes (see: social media, anxiety, failed romantic endeavours, etc.). My plan consisted of buying more books, which would hopefully shame me into reading them whenever I saw them sitting on my desk. It kind of worked; I read more this year than the first two years of my undergraduate degree. This is either because I read the stacks on my desk out of monetary guilt, or because I moved out of my ex-boyfriend’s apartment and forgot how to leave my bedroom.

The following are a sampling of the books I read on trips home, sleepless nights, in waiting rooms, and while waiting for my Wifi to be fixed. These are my top five, in no particular order:

Otter by Ben Ladouceur
Coach House

Otter by Ben LadouceurIn the article, “Bear (gay culture),”, Wikipedia defines an “otter” as “a slimmer or less hairy bear.” Otter is Toronto-based poet Ben Ladouceur’s first collection of poetry. It is a collection in three parts: “The Honeymoon Festival,” “Rites of Spring,” and “Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men.” The back of the book asks: “If your lover speaks in his sleep, how do you know ‘you’ is you?”, and there isn’t necessarily an answer inside. From queerness and WWI to intimate details of male spaces, Otter is intelligent, stylistically advanced, and educated. Ladouceur seems to have queer history at his fingertips.

I found this collection on the Canadian Poetry shelf in a BMV in Toronto. The cover depicts soft blue sketches of half-dressed, tattooed men, stacked on one another. I turned to his poem, “Happy Birthday, Thomas Dearnley-Davison” at random, which begins:

Happy birthday, Thomas Dearnley-Davison!
Sorry to arrive empty-handed. The plan
was to give you some tallboys, a carton
of Viceroys and a quality handjob, …

There’s something refreshing about Ladouceur. Maybe it’s that he knows how to have a good time, without losing a grip on his poetic foundation. His poems are playful, but never juvenile. This may be Ladouceur’s first collection, but as Emma Healey says in her review for The Globe & ail, “it could just as easily be his 10th.”

The First Bad Man by Miranda July

The First Bad Man by Miranda JulyMy friend emailed me an e-copy of this book over the summer. I hadn’t heard of July at the time, but I mentioned her name at a party that night and a girl came out of the bathroom and screamed, “I love Miranda July!”. I later finished the book and felt a delayed kinship with that drunk girl.

The First Bad Man is July’s wonderfully absurd first novel (but not her first book). Unrequited love, a dirty, TV-obsessed teenage freeloader, and a chromotherapist who makes her clients pee in her office to save time. July isn’t afraid to get weird.

Her narrative flows with ease; before I knew it I had finished the whole book. She writes playfully, the way people write when literature isn’t their first medium. There is often value in coming to something later, and July is definitely a good example of this. Every time I bring up this book in conversation—which, for a while, was often—I heard a similar response: “I knew it would be weird, but it got weird.”

Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Lynn Crosbie
House of Anansi

Where Did You Sleep Last Night by Lynn CrosbieMy introduction to Lynn Crosbie was reading my sister’s copy of Life is About Losing Everything (Anansi, 2012) on a Megabus to Montreal. Crosbie’s work has a way of making me feel nostalgic for a place I’ve never been; and sometimes places I have been (see: Toronto). She writes without holding back, and knows how to highlight the painful parts of the mundane.

Where Did You Sleep Last Night in a way is Crosbie’s own take on fanfiction, but also more. The novel follows a teenage girl’s relationship with (the maybe real and maybe not real) Kurt Cobain. Crosbie masterfully writes passionate, all-in teenage love, though she manages never to condescend to her young protagonist.

It’s risky writing about an icon like Kurt Cobain—and not just writing about him, but writing him into the novel. Cobain appears under the moniker Celine Black: a moody, messy, 90s-grunge kind of guy in a band called Bleach—an homage to Nirvana’s first album. Celine tells the protagonist, “I hate joy and laughter.”

However celebrity call-outs are not a new form for her—her poetry collection, Queen Rat, contained what David Trinidad described as Crosbie’s “personal wax museum.” However this is the most thorough and focused of her pseudo-celebs.

Crosbie is slow and lilting—so much so that you never see it coming when she breaks your heart.

My Struggle Book 3 (Boyhood Island) by Karl ove Knausgaard
Vintage Books

Boyhood Island by Karl ove KnausgaardThe third book in Knausgaard’s My Struggle series isn’t my favourite of his, but it’s still my favourite book from this year. I started reading the series over the summer while I was working as a sales associate in a baby store—but I won’t get into my struggle.

Boyhood Island is a return to Knausgaard’s childhood; an exploration of his earliest memories. It would be impossible to summarize the events of the book without it coming off as a mundane slice of life—and not necessarily a remarkable life. But there’s something to be said about whose life we’re getting an all-access pass to. There’s a reason we’re reading this guy, and not just any guy.

Karl ove Knausgaard is self aware, earnest, and relatable in ways that sometimes feel uncanny. When I picked up an almost-50 Norwegian man’s autobiographical novel, I didn’t expect to think, “this is so me.” And based on the reviews I’ve read—and I’ve read a lot of them—I’m not the only one who feels this way. Knausgaard has a way of capturing emotions I could never put into words, and flawlessly putting them into words. He slips in and out of his child-self effortlessly, weaving meditations on life, death, and pain, into a crystal clear narrative.

Asbestos Heights by David McGimpsey
Coach House

Asbestos Heights by David McGimpseyI’ve seen McGimpsey read more times than I can count. He is always funny, always charming, and always … McGimpsey. Just like his Twitter—and well, his entire social media persona—Asbestos Heights is irreverent, chock-full of literary disses, and aggressively celebratory of the lowbrow. The book’s frequent refrain, “I love noodles,” says a lot—though I wouldn’t want to sell it short. Asbestos Heights is thoughtful, often sentimental, and refuses to back down.

This is David McGimpsey’s latest release, and his fifth collection of poetry. He dedicates it to his father, as well as some lucid and touching images:

The tulips my father planted back home

bloomed steady most Easter-times, sure as

the plans I sketched out to start feeling good

got crumpled alongside a map to Rome

McGimpsey juxtaposes the natural, beautiful, gentle, with brand names like Arby’s and Diet Sprite. He balances humour with raw emotion like it’s his job—and I guess it is.

Against the Enlightenment-Car-Crash

Naben Ruthnum

Narrative Violence, Obsession, and Why the Tattoo Isn’t About You

Kris Bertin’s debut collection of short fiction, Bad Things Happen, has just been released by Biblioasis. Naben Ruthnum’s fiction and journalism have appeared in The Walrus, Hazlitt, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and elsewhere; he was recently the Crimewave review columnist at The National Post. They met when they were both shortlisted for The Malahat Review’s 2012 Novella Prize (Ruthnum won, and was subsequently awarded the Journey Prize); you can read them giving one another a hard time on that magazine’s website here, and here.

Naben RuthnumNaben Ruthnum: In quite a bit of fiction that I would call Not Good, especially Not Good Short Stories, body-fragility in the form of disease and violence enter in the third act or on the last page as a sort of enlightenment-car-crash, giving the story some sort of hidden purpose when it seemed meandering. You find out that the lead character’s wife was dying of cancer the whole time, which supposedly makes his adultery poignant, that sort of thing. A banal plot with banal characters and interactions, supposedly made meaningful by disease or assault. Is this bad writing, or a fair reflection of the way these matters come up in life?

Kris Bertin: Writing a good story within those parameters is just a matter of offering more to your readers—through strong writing, creativity, character—than a stupid twist. A twist is cheap. Once you’ve sprung it, what else do you have to offer? It’s like first-year art students making ceramic cocks and twats. Maybe it’s shocking to your Nan, but for those of us who don’t care, does your piece offer us anything other than this one “daring” element? Probably not. I also feel that violence in and of itself is meaningless without narrative investment in the characters. I have stories where great physical harm comes to a character at the end of the story, but it’s always something that’s been coming for them—that you’ve been worrying about—from page one. Conversely, I have a story in my collection (“Is Alive and Can Move”) where we sidestep an act of violence because it’s not that interesting, and flash-forward to four years later—when our character has served time in prison, gotten clean and tried to come to terms with everything that led him to that moment—where the more interesting path lies.

Both of us write love to write about crime. One of my favourite stories that you’ve written (“Kirsty, 22”) is about a pair of creeps scamming and blackmailing lonely men using Tinder. I remember being dissatisfied with the story’s outcome and demanding an explanation from you about why a character who was betrayed never turned to violence to exact revenge. You told me this was an impossibility for him, because he was—in your words—a wimp. Likewise, in your story “Holdout Man,” your protagonist is caught cheating at a card table and spends the rest of the story with crushed thumbs. Do you find physical impotence to be a useful way to raise the stakes and avoid using violence in a story as a cure-all, or are you just more interested in weakness as a concept (and lifestyle)?

NR: Yeah, in that “Kirsty, 22” story, the character is a natural patsy—a passive person who could only break under pressure, not come back violently. That’s why the hidden protagonist, the real con man in the tale, chose him. The best part of the con is that the guy thinks he’s been chosen as a partner because he’s large and physically imposing, but really he’s been selected because he’s weak in the way that counts in the story’s game: he’s stupid and suggestible.

Don’t think that I haven’t noticed that you’re using this question as a way to passively call me weak, you Muscle Milk addicted display-bicep nothing. But yeah, “Holdout Man” is another story where we’re taking a framework that’s usually used in the tough guy regeneration-through-violence narrative, and we’re seeing that weakness begets more weakness, and that violence is often just a random occasion in someone’s life, not a character-defining moment. The people in that story who perform good acts are also perpetrators of unjustifiable, stupid violence, but there’s no clear morality or reasoning behind either their good or their bad actions. Decency can be as chaotically unmotivated as violence.

There’s a thing in “Holdout Man” about life taking bites out of people, of aging as an act of physical devouring by time. Do you think much about aging and decrepitude in your stories?

KB: It’s always surprising when a seemingly confident person has these kinds of weird hang-ups. I wasn’t calling you weak, but if I hurt your feelings or made you feel emotional I really am sorry.

I always thought of time’s effect on us as a kind of erosion, like water on rock, but I guess your more personal metaphor—about eating—works too. It’s definitely something I’m interested in and I’m actually working on a story right now about it. A real “man’s man” who has been lessened by time, little by little, until he has all these leftover tics and triggers that do anything or make sense without the necessary testosterone to power them. I see older men sometimes and I wonder: where does all that toughness go? And what does it become?

What’s interesting about strength, too, is that it’s all about perception. I have a few stories where the main characters are weak in the same way as your guy from “Kirsty” and thus believe the other men around them are a major physical threat, even when they turn out not to be. I think that if you’re not “in the game” so to speak, you can’t accurately gauge who’s actually dangerous and who isn’t. I wrote about this in “A Man Might Work,” where a little kid sees a horrible fight between two grown men he ends up deifying and only later understands what losers they were, and what danger he was in. If you’re a child and haven’t been harmed, maybe you think no one is menacing, and conversely, if you have been hurt, everyone might be frightening to you.

I wanted to ask you about another kind of weakness—the kind you and your characters are often (inescapably) drawn to: sexual perversion. Knowing you personally and having read almost all of your work, I feel confident in saying you’re obsessed with sexual deviance. You’ve seen every episode of To Catch A Predator, are an avid watcher of Dr. Phil, and have been building a “pain catalogue” or human sorrow for most of your life. You’ve written at least two stories (including an entire novel) about men obsessed with human hair, and you and your close friend Sully (Andrew Sullivan) co-wrote a story about rabid fans of celebrities warring with the paparazzi. What is it about obsessive behaviour that makes a good story? Do you see any of yourself in these characters, or is it difficult to connect with them?

NR: “Avid watcher” is overstating it. I do enjoy the Nigerian love-scam episodes of Dr Phil, but I think I’ve exhausted the supply. This year I’ve been trying to get out of the habit of watching that stuff—“pain catalogue” material—when I don’t really want to watch it. I can tell you that it doesn’t make me feel bad, or sad, but I do feel that I’m re-treading territory that I won’t be able to get much out of again, and it does pain me to click through a bunch of garbage when I could be reading or writing. Still, I did get stories out of that stuff. “Brushing” came, as you say, directly from TCAP, and your joke about my pseudonymous novel is actually not far off. While it’s not about hair-obsession, part of what it’s about is that the impulse to seek out pain, even if it’s depicted in banal reality TV, or in certain true-crime books, is not an immense distance aware from the sadistic impulses of actually bad people. If I’m a sadist, I’m an inert one, but my characters often aren’t. The obsession I wrote about are often body-focused, like Wallace’s hair fixation in “Brushing,” but I think that the way my characters act out those deviances are more about depersonalizing another person’s body entirely: the impulse to possess or damage becomes the entire, degraded project these characters have, an entirely self-focused real-life manifestation of a desire that actually has nothing to do with another person’s body, wishes, or personhood: that lack of empathy, that basic lack of acknowledgment of the humanity of the people these men are coveting, is where most of the worst evil in my stories comes from. The fundamental evil in “Brushing,” though, comes from frustrated love that has flattened out and turned into a wish to passively or actively damage every single person in the world.

As for what it is about obsessive behaviour that makes for a good story, I think it’s both that we either have all experienced obsession and we fear it, and that crafting a story, or any sort of long narrative, is itself an act that requires bursts of obsessive attention and an overarching commitment to creation that only benefits from obsessiveness. You can really see what I’m talking about in the work of filmmakers like Hitchcock and De Palma, and in both cases, the connection to sexual deviance (not necessarily in the creators, but certainly in the characters they choose), is evident. On the page, Thomas Bernhard has more than a little of this overlap between obsessive craft and works about obsessive people. Certainly Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Penelope Fitzgerald, Coetzee as well. The literary novel I’m writing just now is largely about a person’s obsession with a writer. The obsessed person moves from worship of the writer’s work to a desire to become that writer, and from that desire to a hatred and scorn for the writer, and a new desire to create a “real” narrative that will trap and expose the writer for the supposed fake that she is.

I guess I do think and write about this a lot, but if that answer I gave seems calculated, it’s not. I never get an idea or approach its execution with any sort of thought that it has something to do with any of my overarching philosophies or thoughts.

A couple of specific questions about your stories. First, the way you describe the protagonist’s physical development over a year of working as a garbageman in “The Narrow Passage” almost reads like a werewolf transformation, if you put the passages together. Especially that one about his face. I had this thought before I even hit the part at the end with the dog.


kris bertinKB: When I set out to write “The Narrow Passage,” which is a story about manual labour, I wanted to talk about all of it. I wanted to talk about the very obvious bad parts of it, like the smell and mess of garbage or the endless toil, but also the unexpected bad parts, like dealing with troubled households or a lack of structure on the job. And though I talked about some of the nicer parts of this kind of hard work—the camaraderie, the experience of mastery over something, the moments of levity—pain and physical decline was also something I couldn’t ignore. Just about every poor, blue collar or working man I know has some kind of back/hip/leg injury and it’s from working a job like this, where you’re expected to work as hard as you possibly can and where complaining is impossible. I thought it was important to look at the way a job not only changes your life socially or economically, but physically. You grow and shrink, become quick at some things, or else wear yourself down from repeated movements. We as writers tend to focus on abstractions when it comes to work, but some jobs—like being a garbageman—don’t just define you, they change the shape of your skeleton.

NR: How about tattoos? Answer anything you want here, but I wanted to talk about how you don’t use them in a passing way to denote toughness or jailhouse experience. I’m thinking, first, of that deceptive memento mori in “Girl on Fire Escape.”

KB: I do have some of that jail-tough stuff, I guess. But in “Girl on Fire Escape,” the character Tan, who is some kind of erratic, strange-acting pseudo-criminal, has a huge tattoo on her chest that I watched grow and grow in each draft until it was quite enormous. What, to me, started as a symbol of autonomy and maybe self-importance—the stuff the story is about—eventually took on different meaning. It occurred to me, years after first writing the story, that what it means to me or the story is irrelevant. In fact I had fucked up by focusing on it. My editor, Alexander MacLeod, helped me get to this realization and it made a huge difference in the story.

What’s more important is what it means to the character, and what it says about her experience, self-identity and psychology. What she went through to get it. That ended up being something I focused on for the story’s new conclusion—the actual process of actually having your skin pierced with a needle, for hours and hours—an act which, however vain or stupid, is a kind of self-transformation. People get tattoos to fill themselves up with meaning, something we’re all in a hurry to find.

Comics Criticism: A Reading List

Comics Criticism

Comics CriticismLiterature is a dialogue, albeit often an insular one. For comics to occupy a position as a mature literary form, they need to be a part of that dialogue.

I didn’t realize until this week that there’s a crisis in comics criticism. Evidently, I’m part of the problem since I rarely read any comics-specific websites, unless someone links to a review or I’m doing research. It’s partly a lack of interest in an insular dialogue, partly that Canada and Europe, where I’ve worked, always seem like an afterthought

American comics publications sometimes refer to a “North American comics scene,” which seems to be a term used exclusively by Americans, possibly patting themselves on the back for their international outlook because they talked about a Canadian just last week, and know that Drawn & Quarterly is located in Montreal. But I feel about as included under this term as I would when reading American children’s books, with their strange language like “neighbour” and “fifth grade.”

Possibly, the problem is that Canada is too small for publications only about comics; possibly it’s that I like reading about a variety of books, both with and without pictures in them; possibly it’s that comics, at present, need to be placed alongside poems about rural Manitoba and essays on Joseph Boyden to give an air of legitimacy to the general public and those who make decisions about publishing and arts funding in Canada.

Either way, comics criticism—and in turn comics—stands to reach a wider audience when it’s not singled out. To put comics on a comparable footing with other fiction and non-fiction, we need a mature critical debate around literary comics, one that deals with all the issues regular literary criticism has to confront.

Comics criticism and coverage, particularly that published in mainstream periodicals, suffers all the same issues as regular literary criticism, disproportionately favours the white, the male, the Western. Need a cover for your graphic novel issue? Why not another Seth or Chris Ware illustration!

It’s easy to overlook what we don’t see: problems, creators, entire forms of media.

The same blindness leads to issues like the Angoulême debacle this year. There are enough issues with diversity in comics publishing to rely on a dialogue solely between creators (which is not to say mainstream media doesn’t suffer the same problem).

Whether you’re new to reading comics or exhausted by commentary from critics who just finished skimming an Intro to Graphic Novels syllabus, here’s an annotated reading list of the critics and websites I’m reading for comics criticism.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list. Other publications are starting to do a good job of integrating comics into their books coverage, and a growing number of smaller websites are publishing lots of great comics artists. And if you find yourself inspired to start reviewing graphic novels yourself, start with artist Dylan Meconis on how not to write comics criticism.

Hazlitt is one of the best places on the internet for new comics and critical writing of any kind. They’ve been publishing some of the best Canadian and other comics creators online like Jillian Tamaki, Walter Scott and Michael DeForge, as well as work in less typical formats, like Annie Mok and Sophia Foster-Dimino’s Swim Through Fire, which plays with the scrolling format of the screen in a really interesting way, or Sholem Krishtalka’s Berlin Diary (more on that later this month). Beyond the comics, Hazlitt publishes essays on writers you don’t realize you want to read yet and stuff that nobody else is even thinking about, like how video games are affecting literature.

Some sites report on gender bias, while others try to do something about it: Hire This Woman falls in in the latter category. ComicsAlliance’s column profiling female creators is an unsubtle effort to get them more work, showcasing a diverse range of women working in genres from literary comics to webcomics to mainstream titles like Adventure Time. It’s great because they don’t ask creators any stupid questions about gender. However, they haven’t published a new column since May and I’m hoping it’s not dead.

Mey Rude’s tastes run more towards superhero, action and cute webcomics than mine, but she does an amazing job every week on Drawn to Comics of investigating diversity in mainstream, literary, and webcomic titles, tracking who’s scripting queer, trans, and racially diverse characters, and how. The best thing about her column is that she considers everything on equal footing, whether it’s Batgirl, Meags Fitzgerald’s Long Red Hair (Conundrum), or Leah Haye’s Not Funny Ha-Ha (Fantagraphics) book about two women who have abortions; she’ll address the work by its merits, not whether it’s the first thing she’ll pick up at the store.

Sometimes a dialogue requires listening instead of reading. Inkstuds is an essential comics podcast. Robin McConnell has interviewed nearly everyone in comics in North America and much of Europe over the past decade, from artists who’ve made a couple of zines to bestselling authors, including creators he interviewed both when they’d made a couple of zines and after they’d become bestselling authors.

shadow manifestoJeet Heer
 is the first name that comes to mind for Canadian comics critics, writing essays that meld cultural criticism and comics criticism in every sort of periodical since before Canadian newspapers even thought of running some variant of the “comics: not just for kids any more” headline every few months. He’s now a senior editor at the New Republic—an excellent demonstration of how people who read comics also have intelligent views on politics, race and other issues not considered “kid stuff.”The LA Review of Books’ graphic reviews of graphic novels are one cool thing that’s happening in book reviewing. (Full disclosure: I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute to their review section). Every artist does something different with their review, from drawing themselves to redrawing the book’s artwork. Their regular written reviews and essays on graphic novels are also worthwhile reads.

I can’t get enough of comics artist and critic Annie Mok’s writing since her comic-essays started appearing in Rookie Magazine last year. Her writing does everything great literary criticism should, interweaving themes and topics from Tove Jansson to Guy Maddin to racism in comics (this one, for example), and she even has a comic about James Joyce.

Not strictly a critic to read online, Bart Beaty is the top scholar in the country for research on international comics; I found his work through his book Unpopular Culture: Transforming the European Comic Book in the 1990s (UofT Press). He’s not only interested in Europe–his last book was on Archie comics, and you can read an excerpt from it in The Walrus and follow his ongoing research into North American comics at the University of Calgary.

Jessica Abel is a comics artist and journalist, and her blog is a collection of postings of old work in comics journalism, posts about her own work and feminism. She also discusses work and working methods on her blog and in a weekly newsletter, and though it’s informed by her work in comics, most of it is applicable to people working in any creative field.

Laura Kenins is a writer, editor, and comic artist currently based in Halifax, NS. Her comics and writing have appeared in kuš! comics, Truthout, The Coast, Quill and Quire, THIS Magazine, and elsewhere. Find Laura’s work online or follow her on tumblr. 

Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail

Rap Culture

“A Lotta Prada”
Rap Puts the “High” in Highbrow Culture

Rap CultureHow do you “share a brainwave” or find yourself upon the “same wavelength” with someone else? Well, to start, you could be so syncopated in your thoughts and behaviours that you begin to echo each other’s preconceptions of reality. Or, more likely, you’ve been so bombarded with the same image that you can’t help but adopt it into your worldview. E Martin Nolan recently wrote a post about Drake’s function as a “walking advertisement” for Toronto. I was startled to find that both his responses to current trends in mainstream rap and hip hop and my own zoned in on an overwhelmingly dominant motif: branding.

If I was to describe the “point of view” of music right now, the common thread shared by the artists’ approach to their craft, it’s that popular musicians predominantly focus on representations of status. For mega stars such as Jay-Z and Kanye West, money is no object. It has transgressed its traditional function as an aspirational motive—rolls of bills as a symbol of ascending from the streets—into a ubiquitous wellspring. Compare, for example, Jay-Z’s early chart-toppers and the origin stories he traces through narratives of crime and prejudice—with, of course, a necessary dose of the party life and the staking out of rap game territory. Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail, however, is the output of a grandmaster. A person so untouchable in the celebrity sphere that his “billion” is more than a dollar figure; it’s an indicator that wealth—alongside talent, luck, and business savvy—is what has redefined the power that celebrities hold over people’s attention.

Despite marital troubles and a fist-swinging sister-in-law, Jay-Z has built a universe around himself. He is the Hip Hop King, Def Jam is his castle, and everything he touches, glances upon, or puts his mind to (e.g. Rihanna) turns to platinum. He and Beyoncé are arguably the most powerful couple in the world, and their value as iconic people of colour cannot be underestimated. No matter how much I may take issue with the dwindling quality of rap music in general, I cannot level my discontent at the subject matter upon which rappers are making their millions. The boastful image of the successful black man cannot be waved aside just because the swag beats that accompany it have become derivative and boring. Jay-Z’s “Oceans,” for example, has a really catchy hook and Jay spits his customarily simple rhymes (now copied by most other rappers) but the references to Hermès, Mercedes, Basquiat, and other relics of the 1%, represent a narrative of a transformation. The yacht that Jay-Z finds himself on now is the ultimate inverse of his ancestry’s trajectory. Frank Ocean evokes the painful passage across the Atlantic from Africa to America and Jay-Z basks in the sweet sense of triumph as his champagne dribbles into the ocean and the water that “tells [his] story”. It would be foolish to pine for a time when rappers were still spitting about the streets and focusing on social issues such as poverty, crime, and racism because then I’d be negating the value of economic success to a culture whose creative output (at least in rap) has used money as a driving factor in overcoming adversity. But why doesn’t rap sound as good as it did twenty years ago? All of these rappers are richer now, but what else is different?
Kanye rap
Kanye West

To start, Kanye West exists. For better or worse, Kanye West changed rap forever. He didn’t do it, however, in the same way that Wu Tang Klan, Outkast, Tupac, Biggie, or Lil Kim did. He used his creative powers to both imagine new avenues for rap (think “Black Skinhead”) and a new way of looking at rappers. He is not the most handsome man, or the smartest, but GQ’s August issue used Kanye as their cover star and as the man to copy if you want to “grab attention”. When West’s “Bound 2” was released, it was lampooned, celebrated, hated, and most importantly, replayed endlessly. Here, West takes images associated with white culture—mountain ranges evocative of the north, motorcycles, and plaid—and spins them as the backdrop to his erotic odyssey across America’s consciousness. While West has had moments of overwhelming clarity and creativity in combatting racism in the industry, he also appears to have fallen prey to the seductive nature of fame. The Guardian reported a month ago that Kanye West believes that celebrities are a minority that ought to be protected and its rights defended, and that the struggle for privacy is not unlike the issues at the core of the civil rights movement. Black or white, anyone living outside of the 1% can see that West’s argument stinks of privilege and that he has lost sight of the positive impact his fame can have on socio-cultural dynamics.

While Jay-Z and Kanye West are only two examples of the turn to excessive luxury in popular music, younger artists are continuously absorbing the cult of status into their own oeuvres. For any Torontonian with a love of rap, the lyrics of Drake’s “Started From The Bottom,” are hyperbolic and a little emphatic to be taken seriously. Drake grew up in Forest Hill, but here he feels the need to prove his own struggles as a mythic prerequisite for becoming a rap superstar. At this point, “leaving the streets” has been so warped as to mean: “I was poorer then, but look at me now” without the traces of political protest that made ’80s and ’90s rap so powerful, provocative, and dangerous.
A$AP Rocky

A$AP RockyA$AP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” epitomizes the highbrow transformation of rap today. The successful rap star feels as at home with his “Aunt Jemima” as he does in the front row of Paris Fashion Week. His ideal woman “got a lotta Prada, that Dolce & Gabbana” and their closets are legacies for their children as much as their albums (if not more). In “Ghetto Symphony” A$AP declares that, “I decide to spit like Andre” and A$AP Ferg replies with promises to “kill like Big Boi” yet neither of them can claim to rap like either Outkast demi-god. Their lyrics are too slow, their beats too simple and repetitive, to ever see themselves classified in the echelons of the greats. Yet, their material wealth has skyrocketed them to a level of respectability, and the general populous perceives them as rap’s new royalty.

Rap’s downturn is not unilateral. There are underground artists still embracing the experimental approach to music and Eminem is still kicking around. His song “Rap God” is an ingenious response to the rap’s elite who wouldn’t be able to hold their own in the battles that defined the masters of the 20th century. But as high fashion and rap continue to collide, rap’s language continues to change. Instead of impressive verses rife with word play and polemic critiques of society, rappers use placeholders. Need a rhyme? Throw in “Tom Ford,” “Dolce and Gabbana,” hell, why not “Rick Owens” to be really avant-garde? Fashion houses have so seamlessly branded themselves that the roll-off-the-tongue quality of their monikers has been absorbed by rap as a crucial ingredient in both music and persona.

Of course, rappers are not the only people guilty of putting money ahead of quality. In a nutshell, that tendency has cheapened Hollywood, killed cable TV, and reduced visual art to a niche hobby. Is the glamorization of wealth taking over literature, too? For now, a writer’s prowess is more likely to win formal accolades than an Adidas line or Cara Delevingne’s friendship. For most, literary fame is not quite as enviable as celebrity life and many famous authors are still regarded as flukes, albeit talented ones. Most people will have noticed that with the rise of Amazon (the Net Porter of reading), business tends to come before quality. Bestseller lists are as much indicators of pop culture and social media trends as Billboard charts. As bookstore sales dwindle, so too does literature’s buffer from excessive consumerism. In an age where patronage has turned into endorsements, it’s unclear whether rap’s sartorial obsession is just a fad or an indicator of music’s corrupted function in culture.

“There Was a Void of Good, Long Form Sports Writing:” Questions for Mike Spry of The Barnstormer

mike spry barnstormer

mike spry barnstormerTHE BARNSTORMER is a literary sports journal that was founded in May of 2012 by Andrew Forbes, Bryan Jay Ibeas, Ian Orti, and Mike Spry. It aims to celebrate the intersection of sports and humanity with good writing. It means to be an open, accommodating, inclusive forum for considered, thoughtful, funny and strange writing about sports, written by sports fans, for both sports fans and fans of  good writing.

EMN: How much sports literature has the Barnstormer received? Has the pace increased?

Spry: Originally, when we began the Barn, we decided to include sports poetry and fiction (in addition to essays, columns, and op-eds) just by happenstance, in that we didn’t see any point in discouraging contributions, but didn’t actively seek it out or expect it to be submitted. It found us from time to time, but not too often. For some reason, it has increased a lot the past few months, though I can’t think of any reason for that other than, again, happenstance. We’re happy about it, though, and are pleased that the journal has become a place for literary sports writing, no matter the genre.

EMN: How would you describe the writers who submit sports lit to you? Are there any trends you detect as far as the kind of writers who take on sports as a topic?

Spry: Overweight middle class white Christian males, 18-40, who wear team jerseys and dine exclusively on ballpark nachos.

No. It’s interesting, because many of the people who we’ve published have not been people we may have expected, or readers may expect, in that they’re not sports fans in the traditional sense, but they have shared these marvelous stories and narratives of sport from their lives and imaginations.

EMN: You’ve mentioned before how grateful and surprised you are at how much material the Barnstormer has received, but what’s been most surprising, content-wise, about the sports poetry the Barnstormer’s received?

Spry: I think what has been most surprising is the overall quality of the work we’ve been fortunate enough to publish, not just in terms of the sports poetry but overall. We have been blessed with generous, talented, and supportive contributors.

EMN: To you, what are some of the challenges that come with writing sports poems? How does the successful sports poem avoid those? Are they really any different than any other poem?

Spry: The biggest challenge is making the “sports” aspect of the poems feel genuine and natural, so as to not feel falsely inserted into the text. I think a successful sports poem is one that isn’t about sport at all. Though not published by us, Dave McGimpsey’s “What Was that Poem?” is the perfect example of how to employ sports but not be explicitly about sports.
Spry: Haha. Ya. Parker’s poem came out of nowhere. He had had it for a while, and kept meaning to send it to us, and eventually did and we published it and within an hour it had made its way to Yahoo, NBC,, and a load of other places. I actually had to spend the next day or two emailing sites that had reprinted it to properly attribute it to the Barn. I think Parker was surprised, too, in that he’s not a poet. Goes to show that poetry is at its best and most accessible when it isn’t over-thought.

metta world peaceEMN: Jeff Parker’s “Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion,” a hilarious poem culled from Metta World Peace quotes, was a viral success. Tell us a bit about that poem, how it managed to spread so wide. Were you surprised by that?

EMN: Your poem “Atrophy and Labor Day Baseball”—which I close read here—supports my developing idea that the sports poem should not look at the sport directly, but must find some other way of addressing, or including, the sport. In this case, the sport provides the context of a strained, or failing, relationship. It is also an extended metaphor for that relationship.  How did this poem come about? I’m curious to know if it was ever slated to be a story, given its narrative base.

Spry: Wow, ya. I guess I hadn’t thought it through that much. But, like I said above about the success of pieces like McGimpsey’s, and as you note, poems are most successful when they aren’t so overt about their purpose or subject. Everything I write, in one way or another, is about strained relationships and flawed characters. This piece allowed me to explore both in a way I hadn’t explored them before, using baseball. And I’m not sure if I had used sports so actively in a poem before. Usually it had been just a passing mention of the Habs. But I liked the idea of this unhappy couple watching baseball like they always do, and baseball is as much part of the routine that defines them (a routine they hate) as sex, as hate, as love, as drink.

As for whether or not it was meant to be a story, I think it is a story, just not in prose. I like to tell stories in poetry. I like to be told stories in poetry. I don’t want to read a poem and think I’m doing math. I want to access poetry, not be lectured by it, or talked down to by it.

In fact, I want all writing tot tell a story. Poetry, prose, op-eds, essays, journalism, financial reports, CVs, cover letters, guidebooks, instructional manuals. Everything written should tell a story. To me, that’s what writing is. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?

EMN: After the above question, I’m now wondering if the direct sports poem works as an ekphrastic poem. I can’t say, though, that I’ve found one that works as well as, say, William Carlos Williams’ “Landscape with The Fall of Icarus,” or “The Painting” by John Balaban. Do you think a sports poem can do this? Do you know any good sports poems focused solely on the action of the sport itself?

Spry: I can’t think of an example, but I’m probably not the person to ask. Can a sports poem achieve this? Yes. Do I want to read one that does? Maybe.

[EMN: If any readers can think of one, I’d love for you to leave it in the comments.]

EMN: How about fiction and essays? Do you think I’m right in saying sports lend themselves to these forms more easily than to poems? Why or why not?

Spry: I think it’s harder to write poems about sports than essays or prose, but that’s because a lot of poetry tends to stray from narrative. But I think that’s a product of the industry, of poetry that aspires to be academic and elitist, and not a fault of the medium itself.

EMN: What Barnstormer essays or stories would you recommend the reader to start with? What do you dig about those?

Spry: I love pretty much everything on the site, but as a survey of what we do I’d recommend:

  • “Steubenville” by [Puritan contributor] David Brock. Just a compelling, beautifully written poem about a heartbreaking and impossible subject. Brock has been a big supporter of us, and I’m really looking forward to his collection Everyone is CO2 from by Wolsak & Wynn next year.
  • “We Need to Talk”. This was an extension of the Round Bus roundtable we do weekly, with Stacey May Fowles, Natalie Zina Walschots, Bryan Jay Ibeas, Andrew Forbes, and myself, moderated by Orti, about the culture of rape and misogyny in sports. This was an important dialogue, and indicative of the social responsibility that the Barn believes sport has.
  • “Exposition: Loving Something You Can’t See” by Marty Sartini Garner. “The Montreal Expos taste like cereal.” Enough said.
  • “Cheap Throat: Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player”. This was a daily posting from an anonymous locked-out hockey player we ran during the lockout. It was a viral sensation, with whole forums dedicated to trying to figure out the player’s identity. We’ve published it as an ebook. It’s like Five Easy Pieces meets SlapShot meets Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s funny shit.
  • Any edition of “The Round Bus”, a weekly roundtable we do with guests from all over the sports and literary realms.

EMN: Despite the fiction and poems, The Barnstormer is mainly devoted to the essay or dialogue form. It is filling a similar gap that Grantland aimed to fill. That site promised to deliver literary-quality sports writing but is instead only half-devoted to that mission (although they definitely publish some great sports essays). How exactly did the Barnstormer come about? Were you aiming for something different than Grantland? And has the mission changed at all?

Spry: The Barn came from, I believe, an online conversation between Bryan Jay Ibeas and Andrew Forbes, and then Forbes brought it up with me, and then Orti, about how there was a void of good, long form sports writing anywhere. Grantland wasn’t living up to what I believed it was supposed to be, and most sports “journalism” had become sycophantic nonsense and rumour-mongering by fanboys. So we threw the thing together, put it online, and it took on a life of its own.

I think the mission has changed slightly, in that we’re a little more open about what we talk about, especially on the Round Bus.

EMN: A year in, how would you assess the Barnstormer? Where do you go from here?

Spry: I think the first year has been successful beyond our expectations. I think Ian and I are more ambitious about year two. What that entails, I’m not sure. It’s a lot of work, and Orti and I have very busy lives. Our main goal is to create revenue streams in order to pay our contributors. That’s above and beyond any other ambition.



In Translation – Translated Fiction and The Man Booker International Prize

man booker prize

 I know I’m four days late to the game but I felt that a post about the Man Booker International prize couldn’t go amiss.

man booker prizeWhat is particularly remarkable about this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize is that it has been translated by Deborah Smith, a 28-year-old, who started teaching herself Korean in 2010, aged 21, in order to translate more works by Korean authors into English. I am so impressed at her dedication and passion for Korean literature.
As I’m sure you are aware – or possibly not? – the Man Booker International Prize is awarded to a work originally written in any language but available to read in English i.e. translated works. It’s a fantastic way of promoting works from other countries and getting people reading outside their own “culture”. And what is particularly special to see is that the prize money is split between translator and author. Translations of works of fiction are news works in their own right, since the translator cannot simply translate the words. There are certain words, phrases and ideas that simply do not exist in the target language (language being translated into). There are concepts and cultural ideas that would be unknown to an english speaking audience. The translator must, therefore, work hard to make the story accessible to its target audience, whilst being faithful to the author’s style and voice. It is no mean feat. I can say that as someone who has dabbled in literary translation myself. It’s challenging, wonderful and hair-tearingly difficult in equal measures!

On Translated Works…

But the news of the Man Booker International Prize has got me thinking about reading in translation in general. Having studied Spanish and Italian at university, I’ve read my fair share of books. And my fair share of translations (Shh! Sometimes I read them in English too!) However, in English speaking countries I think there is still both a lack of awareness of translated fiction – how many people are aware that the Shadow Of The Wind is originally a Spanish novel? And there is also a suspicion of translated fiction – the idea that it is somehow more highbrow and scary. Yet, in other countries reading works translated from English into their mother tongue is completely normal and accepted willingly.

What is it that we fear from translated works? As Liesl Schillinger wrote recently, Every act of reading is an act of translation. We impose our own worldview and life experiences upon every book we read. Therefore my reading experience will always be completely unique, reflecting my unique background and personality. Books should just be books, and not separated out into English fiction and translated fiction. In fact, in my original blog I had separated out English literature, Spanish literature and Italian literature but I had a rethink and that just seemed crazy to me. I read books because they interest me and because I’m keen to find out what happens. For me there’s no difference between reading a book in Italian and reading an Italian book in English – if the translation is good, of course!

Firstly, we should be kinder towards these often ignored translators, their work is difficult and often goes unrewarded. And secondly, dear reader, go out and widen your book choices. If you only ever read English classics, go buy an Inspector Montalbano (they’re fantastic! The details about the delicious food he eats is such a lovely touch of Sicilian life). Don’t shy away from translated fiction, it needs love too 🙂

What do you think? What books have you read in translation? If you haven’t read any, what’s stopping you?

Donald Trump Doesn’t Read Books

Donald Trump Does Not Read

According to New Republic, when asked about the last book he had read, Donald Trump replied, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time,” …

Donald Trump Does Not ReadI think, considering the current goings on in the US that a blog post about Donald Trump wouldn’t be out of place, plus it follows on rather nicely from my post last week about making time for reading.

Firstly, to say you don’t have time to read – as I’ve mentioned before – is nonsense. If you don’t read it’s because it isn’t your priority. I’m sure Trump finds plenty of time in his day to Tweet bigoted bullshit or watch a baseball game. He just isn’t interested in picking up a book – despite making plenty of money from those he has “written”. But secondly, it is truly alarming that someone running to be president of the United States is so uninterested in self improvement and a widening of knowledge. Not that it comes as much of a surprise that Trump isn’t interested in either of those things!

However, as Harry Truman – himself once president of the United States – once said, “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” All leaders should indeed be readers. In fact, successful people tend to read an awful lot. Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk… The list goes on and on but they all share a common passion for reading.

Reading opens your mind to new perspectives, different ways of viewing a topic, and, most importantly, it makes you think. We live in a world where too many people take information at face value and don’t stop to question its veracity. We live in a society of Facebook memes wrongly attributing quotations to random famous people. Where it is easy to mindlessly “share” information without thinking about where it has come from. Is it a surprise, then, when someone like Trump comes along and suddenly seems to be a serious candidate for president? Or is it a rather inevitable outcome?

Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s business partner, once said: “In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero.” I think it’s safe to say that Trump is not a wise person. An excellent self-marketer and a remarkable salesman he may be, but that won’t help run a country.

So what are you – a non Trump – reading right now, dear reader? Anything you can recommend? I’m currently enjoying Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, and I’ve just started listening to an audiobook version of Frankenstein. I’ll be popping up reviews of both as soon as I’m ready! Stay tuned for those.