Author Notes: Jowita Bydlowska

Jowita Bydlowska

Jowita Bydlowska

 Jowita BydlowskaJowita Bydlowska published the story “Helen is Not My Friend Anymore” in Fall 2014’s Puritan Issue 27. She was also a featured reader at The Puritan’s annual Black Friday bash. In the following post, Jowita answers our question about the making of “Helen is Not My Friend Anymore.”

About a year ago, I went to a magazine launch party.  At this party, there was a leering kind of man with very bad breath. He spat a little as he talked, too. So he leered, breathed, and spat at me, and I kept thinking about this lovely woman I knew who used to be married to him. She stayed married to him for a while. I wondered what it would be like to be married to him, to kiss him and wake up next to him every morning. I’m sure that despite occasional leering, he was a lovable human being—he is well-respected in his field and has a lot of friends—but (because I’m a jerk?) I imagined that being married to him would be very unpleasant. I couldn’t stop imagining it. When this happens—when I can’t stop imaging something, I end up writing about it.  So I wrote about being married to a man I hated. I don’t hate the man I’m with so I had to become someone else while writing it, too, and eventually that character took over and I just wrote down her thoughts.

In my writing I always try to explore that kind of imagining. Every situation is a “what-if.” This started with my being a child and having to go to church. The mass would last an hour or so. My boredom was immeasurable. Everything moved so slowly. It was the same thing week after week. Same readings. Same whiny old ladies singing. Uncomfortable, upset Jesus on a cross in every corner. I was dying to do something to stir things up. I would sit in my pew and picture myself running toward the altar and throwing myself at the priest, shouting and ripping the funny hat off of his head. This obsessive thought was terrifying. I was convinced I was possessed; it was Satan who was putting the thought in my mind, and one day I would have to do it.  It was around that time that I started channelling those kinds of what-if thoughts into writing. It was that or I’d become a lunatic. I became a lunatic anyway, and an agnostic, but also a writer.

“Helen is Not My Friend Anymore” is going to be included in a trilogy of three novellas that I’m writing.  The trilogy explores male-female relationships, the concept of belonging to a specific place (a city), and also poetry. The working title for the trilogy is Wolves Evolve. The title comes from the poem by Christian Bök called “Vowels”:

loveless vessels

we vow
solo love

we see
love solve loss

else we see
love sow woe

selves we woo
we lose

losses we levee
we owe

we sell
loose vows

so we love

less well

so low
so level

wolves evolve



Embracing the Blatantly Poetic

water damage Peter Norman

water damage Peter NormanStuart Cole, of The Urge, has claimed Peter Norman possesses a “peculiar mastery” and that, formally, he “seems capable of writing anything he wants.” I have nothing to add to Cole’s typically astute, honest and accurate account of Norman’s poetry. (You should read his reviews).

But there’s one thing about Norman’s latest, Water Damage, that I’d like to dwell on.  It nearly knocked me off the laundry mat chair where I was reading it: the sheer rhythmic force that at times emerges in this book was as if it was beating back against the roaring washing machines amongst which I was terribly cocooned. You see, Norman’s rubbing off on me as I write this—or a part of Norman’s work is. His mastery is “peculiar,” as Cole puts it, because it’s from a “master whose suspicion of mastery leads him to self-sabotage,” leading to a “weird variousness” that stretches the tonal spectrum from “biblical” to the downright “silly,” with a formal range to match.

While like Cole I dig it all, I find the biblical-high-eloquence end of the spectrum especially refreshing. It’s like reading it heals my brain’s ear. Given his range, especially the humour, Norman is no old-fashioned poet, but he’s clearly comfortable hitting notes that might’ve perked up King James. Take part IV from “Dr. F Attends a Show,” and bear in mind that despite the eloquence, this poem is rife with playfulness.

This is no time to think of the lab, of you.
Diversion’s what you need. But like
your patient, you have shackles at your ankles,
the dun scar of branding at your navel.
Joints of you were finished by the weaver
of think black stitch. Ten donors gave your fingers.
Doctor, none’s more composite than you!
Nor more composed. You’re steely as the ropes
and webs of net that hold your organs in
and keep their insurrections down.
Rise now! It’s an ovation! It’s thunder fills the shell-
shaped hall. The patchwork plating of your skull
is hidden by your pilfered flesh, and you
regard the blazing stage with borrowed eyes.

I could write 500 words, easy, breaking down the prosody of this verse. Many poets wait half a book to get to something as strong as “dun scar”—and that’s sandwiched between “shackles at our ankles” and “branding at your navel.” Then there’s “thick black stitch,” “shell-shaped hall,” and “patchwork plating,” as well as the perfectly cadenced and alliterative “blazing stage with borrowed eyes.” I could go on and on. It’s gorgeous. Like, W.S. Merwin gorgeous.

This is what I mean by the “blatantly poetic:” a refusal to be embarrassed by the fact that you’re writing poems, like people always have, and that you don’t have to run away from what’s always worked. Lisa Pasold put her trust in narrative, and Norman’s done the same here with rhythm and sound. There’s nothing “new” in either poet’s work, but both make vigorous books. Perhaps one rule you can follow, then, is “make it fresh.”

That in no way dismisses the search for the “new” or the pushing against tradition—lord knows we need that. But Norman’s proved that you can write poems unmistakably of this time—hilariously so—while writing others that are beautiful in the most old-fashioned, romantic sense of the word. And sometimes you can do both at once.

Out with the Old

Brockton Writers Series

Brockton Writers SeriesAs 2018 begins, there is a reinvigorated sense of excitement that permeates those looking forward to a new year and those eager to leave the last one behind. On January 8th I attended the Brockton Writers Series, a monthly reading series that emphasizes diversity and offers a variety of writers the chance to share their work in a safe space (for more information about their mandate, check out Jess Taylor’s interview with co-curator Farzana Doctor here on the Town Crier). This month, I was pleased to discover a handful of writers that took on the challenge of transforming established genres, modes, and narratives to create some unique work that surprised as much as it intrigued me.

The first reader of the evening was J.M. Frey, a science fiction and fantasy author who is also a “fanthropologist.” Her fan and pop culture expertise were put to good use in her latest short fiction collection Hero is a Four Letter Word  (published by Fast Foreward) from which she read the story “The Maddening Science.” The story opens with incredibly visceral exposition: “bullets fired into a crowd,” and children screaming. Frey narrates the story, however, from the point-of-view of a bystander, albeit not an entirely innocent one. Ollie is a reformed super-villain that, at the outset of the story, has to decide whether or not he should save the injured woman the police have failed to notice (and risk his incognito identity) or leave her there to die. While the story’s plot is very enticing, I most appreciated J.M. Frey’s capacity for character building. Ollie’s OCD tendencies, which manifest themselves in bullets totaled, seconds counted, escape routes planned and re-considered, colour the story in such a way that notions of victim, bystander, and hero become very complicated. Frey also has a very humorous side and the description of a sports car as a “sleek penis replacement on wheels” was one of many funny moments.  

Following Frey, Michael Mirolla (co-owner of Guernica Editions) took the stage and read from his collection The Giulio Metaphysics III, published by Leapfrog Press. Mirolla explained that the book deals with the fluidity of identity, and so the reader cannot be certain if the Giulio is the same person from one story to the next. Mirolla read “A General Introduction to Pure Phenomenology” and took the audience on an exciting journey in and out of the thoughts and memories of his titular character. Giulio and Pagan sit in a café and argue over butterflies, whether they like to be chased or not, while the audience is suddenly transplanted into a barn where Giulio and his lover are having a roll in the hay. As the story flickers between the past and present the narrator inserts his authorial position into the story, writing, “there’s Pagan in the room,” as though we are conflicted between following Giulio’s scattered remembrances and the permeating eye of the narrator. Philosophical, whimsical, and very well written, The Giulio Metaphysics III ought to satisfy the reader’s hungry for some out-of-the-ordinary fiction.

Katie Boland read next from her debut collection Eat Your Heart Out published by Brindle & Glass. Her story “Swelter” tells the story of a teenage girl whose friend Colin “died in the most badass and tragic way.” Although one would expect a tale of a young man’s untimely death to be utterly devastating, Boland countered the norm through her main character’s self-deprecating and at times selfish reactions to the events going on around her. When she sees Seb at the funeral she thinks, “fuck, he looks good in a suit,” and Boland uses etiquette mistakes and awkward fumblings to demonstrate that life can and does goes on after the death of a loved one.

The final reader of the evening was Sherwin Sullivan Tjia, a Montreal-based writer and illustrator that hosts a Queer Slow-dance with “designated dancers for the shy to turn wallflowers into perennials.” Tjia read from You Are a Cat in the Zombie Apocalypse, the sequel to You Are a Cat, both published by Conundrum Press. The You Are a Cat books put the reader in the perspective of Holden Catfield and as you get to live his life (or nine lives, as the case may be) you also choose your own adventure. Many people will have fond childhood memories of choose-your-own-adventure books that transplanted authorial power onto the reader and Tjia’s offering is equally enjoyable for adults. At one point Tjia even burst into laughter during his reading saying: “it’s weird reading this book.” The second-person perspective, I believe, is often the hardest to both write and read. Tjia, however, successfully employs the narratorial point-of-view to create a book that is funny, silly, and very detailed (especially in terms of feline behaviour).

The Brockton Writers Series, as well as having readers, includes a segment about the world of publishing provided by an industry professional. As a result, it is an ideal place for burgeoning writers eager to flex their creative and business muscles and enjoy the community’s diverse offerings.

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.