Saturday, March 27, 2010

Secret Influences 2: Songs for Drella

I've been revisiting Lou Reed lately, particularly the 1980-1990s period, which many believe redeem his hit-and-miss 1970s solo albums. While it's not Reed's best album, nor my favourite, I've been surprised at how much Songs for Drella, Reed's 1990 concept album about Andy Warhol written with John Cale, has played an influence on my thoughts about artistic creation and the creative life.

Many phrases from that album continue to run through my head involuntarily, or find themselves peppering my conversation about writing, notably: "There's no Michelangelo coming from Pittsburgh," (from "Small Town"), "that's the trouble with Classicists" (from the song of the same name), or "the most important thing is work" (from "Work"). Actually, a whole stanza from that latter song continues to haunt me when I'm feeling unproductive in my creative or academic life, that being the one where Warhol chastizes Reed for not writing enough: No matter what I did it never seemed enough/ he said I was lazy, I said I was young/ He said, "How many songs did you write ?"/ I'd written zero, I'd lied and said, "Ten."/ "You won't be young forever/ You should have written fifteen"/ It's work.

Reed's New York came out the summer I turned drinking age, and all that year it was an essential album at all occasions (I think I had it on vinyl and tape, and it was one of the first albums I got as a CD when I bought a player the following year). In contrast, Songs for Drella was the sleeper album (quite literally: I'd often play it before passing out after a long day) that I listened to all through the first year of university when I'd left home and was trying to figure out my own aesthetics. Songs for Drella, thanks to the presence of Cale, also led me to investigating the Velvet Underground (yep, typical bass-ackward adolescent idiocy--of course "Sweet Jane" was popular again thanks to the Cowboy Junkies cover which was also huge in Canada during 1989, but it took me several years to track down the entire Velvets catalogue and give it the listen it warrants) and Cale's solo work.

Once that album wormed its way into my subconscious, it wasn't long before I started investigating Warhol himself. The 1990s were a great opportunity to do so, as several films featuring Warhol came out during that time (Basquiat and I Shot Andy Warhol both in 1996), a cool Kingston theatre company did an environmental production based on Warhol's Factory when I was in third year, and I got to see a small Warhol exhibit while visiting Madrid in the spring of 1990. My interest in Warhol and his circle continued, but was really rekindled in the last few years after meeting Kenny Goldsmith and reading his excellent critical work on Warhol, including I'll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews (2004). By this time, my interest was less in the gossip and lifestyle of the Factory, and more in Warhol's actual cultural production, which is how it always should have been (as I keep returning: adolescent impressions take a while to overcome).

Beyond the use of pop culture references in my poetry, what Warhol--and more particularly the representation of Warhol in Songs for Drella--taught me was the importance of working hard at your craft, not to be afraid of repetition (which would be reinforced when I first read Gertrude Stein at around the same time), and how you didn't need to come from a cool place (I still struggle with my Oshawa upbringing), be a confident kid, or have a remarkable early family life, to be an artist. I guess it comes down to this song:

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Secret Influences 1: Word Association

A few years back Tim Conley and I were talking about influences on our work that are not readily apparent in our writing, but nonetheless play an important part in shaping our aesthetics. We came up with a few examples, mostly drawn from films, music, or visual works that we enjoyed as adolescents and that now seemed rather juvenile in retrospect. Without getting Freudian I started to wonder if we ever completely overcome our early influences or, at the very least, can we learn anything about ourselves and our poetics by examining these early "secrets"?

In the spirit of that investigation I went back to one of the earliest embarrassing influences on my poetry: a skit by John Cleese. During my teen and pre-teen years in Oshawa, Monty Python was a big source of entertainment at mostly-male weekend gatherings where the albums and films were always in heavy rotation. I imagine it has been the same among socially-awkward and pseudo-intellectual boys across North America and the U.K. for the past 30 years. Thus it is with chagrin that I realize how much my early writing was influenced Cleese's "Word Association."

This piece taught me about parataxis long before I read Gertrude Stein, about the importance of grammatical shifters years before encountering Steve McCaffery, and the energy that can be created by shifting verbal registers before I had even heard of Bruce Andrews. Both the skill of this performance and and the humour of this piece reminds me of the best LANGUAGE poetry, and I wouldn't be surprised if I one day learned that Charles Bernstein was inspired by some of the Pythons (although I'm guessing he would cite Groucho Marx and early American comedians before the British). I also seem to recall that Brian Kim Stefans once made a quip about possible connections between the performances of John Cleese and Steve McCaffery. I can't remember if Steve thought the comparison flattering or apt, but I think there's something there: in my writing, if not in his and the others.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Fave Fiction

As I mentioned last entry, not a "best of," but simply some of my favourite works of Canadian fiction to have appeared over the last decade:

  1. The Pornographer’s Poem (Michael Turner, 2000)
  2. What We All Long For (Dionne Brand, 2005)
  3. Buddha Stevens & Other Stories (Steven Hayward, 2000)
  4. Spare Parts Plus Two (Gail Scott, 2002)
  5. Hopeful Monsters (Hiromi Goto, 2004)
  6. Girls Fall Down (Maggie Helwig, 2008)
  7. Asylum (Andre Alexis, 2008)
  8. Lullabies for Little Criminals (Heather O’Neill, 2006)
  9. Getting Lucky (Matt Cohen, 2001)
  10. The Shadow Boxer (Steven Heighton, 2000)

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Implosions Revisted

I've been thinking about compiling a list of my favourite Canadian fiction of the past decade as a companion piece to the top 10 poetry titles I posted a few weeks ago. I say favourite as opposed to "best" as I don't get a chance to read as much contemporary fiction as I'd like (most of my spare reading time is devoted to poetry and theory). While drafting a list I realized I'd have to leave off many of my most admired fictions as I'd had a hand in their production as editor. To compensate for these omissions I thought I'd revisit the imprint I edited at Insomniac Press from 2002-2006.

Originally planned as a publishing offshoot of the Queen Street Quarterly literary journal, which Suzanne Zelazo and I had edited for the previous seven years, when Suzanne and I split up I took on the imprint at Insomniac as a solo enterprise. In starting out, I chose the title of the imprint from part of a line by Charles Bernstein ("in the imploded sentence the reader stays plugged into the wave-like pulse of the writing") and I also knew that the first book that I wanted to do was debut collection of Emily Schultz who had been a frequent contributor to the QSQ. After that first title, I continued to seek out diverse and challenging texts--often experimental in form or at least thematically unconventional--and after four years had produced a list of which I remain proud.

Working at Insomniac during this period was an exciting and occasionally frustrating time as acquiring exceptional fiction titles proved to be a greater challenge than I had expected when I began in 2002. Thus. when I began full time teaching at York in 2005, the amount of work required by both jobs meant that I had to retire Implosion in order to concentrate on academics.

As for the graphic, which I'm often asked about, in a Spinal Tap moment I scrawled my idea for the imprint's logo on a napkin while drinking at the Horseshoe Tavern and gave it to publisher and designer Mike O'Connor who kindly and admirably rendered the image as it appears above.

Checklist of Implosion titles 2002-2006:

Black Coffee Night (Emily Schultz, 2002)
A Penny Dreadful (Gustave Morin, 2003)
The Inactivist (Chris Eaton, 2003)
Meet Me in the Parking Lot (Alexandra Leggat, 2004)
Certifiable (David McGimpsey, 2004)
Asthmatica (Jon Paul Fiorentino, 2005: 1st Ed., white cover)
Asthmatica (Jon Paul Fiorentino, 2005: Reprint, black cover)
The Grammar Architect (Chris Eaton, 2005)
Whatever Happens (Tim Conley, 2006)
The Mole Chronicles (Andy Brown, 2006)