JC Bouchard’s chapbook, WOOL WATER was published by words(on)pages in 2015.
The first time I thought I was going to die was at a landfill near my duplex house in a subdivision of Elliot Lake, my hometown. We called the suburb The New Sub. Lured there by my mother’s boyfriend, Ben, I unloaded wood scraps from his truck and threw the fractured pieces over a cliff and into a pit of broken televisions, tattered clothes and broken toys. Ben took my waist and lifted me over his head, took hold of my ankles and held me upside down over the precipice. He waited. He asked me if I wanted to die, as if I had a choice, but I don’t remember answering. Like contrived cinema, I only remember the wind, the squawk of crows and a feeling of absolute calm before he would drop me to my death. Fortunately, Ben was sick, and all of that was a little game he played, like trapping a spider in a jar just to see how it will react. He didn’t drop me. But for months after that (and months before) he tortured me in new, creative ways: beatings, suffocation, and threats toward my family. I was seven years old.
The first time I got drunk was at The Bat Cave, a small clearing in the woods behind Hillside Shopping Plaza, Elliot Lake’s most popular locale for loiterers and wannabe smokers. This was while shamelessly making out with my girlfriend, Kathy, who was about two years older than me. Our tongues tasted like cigarettes and cheap St. Des beer, and I didn’t care that it was cold and that everybody could see what I rationalized as young, passionate love. That night, I puked outside a bedroom window at Anthony’s—a high school senior—in an area downtown we called Welfare Square, a community of shoddy townhouses, poverty-stricken families, and drug dealers. The moon was hidden by dusty overcast as I writhed on the concrete after I was booted out.
The only time I saw my grandfather cry was on Christmas Eve when I was a high school junior. He talked about his childhood in a small New Brunswick farming town: the pet fawn he carefully nursed back to health before its slaughter; his father’s alcoholism; and the death of his son (my father). My grandfather migrated from New Brunswick with my grandmother when he heard there was decent work in the fledgling mines of Elliot Lake, once the uranium capital of the world and one of the largest suppliers of uranium to the Unites States. Unlike my grandfather, my father was terrified of going underground. It was like an eerie premonition—perhaps he thought that it would somehow kill him. The mines eventually shut down and Elliot Lake’s economy deteriorated. To keep working in order to support his three kids, my father took a mining job in Pickle Lake in northern Ontario. Commuting home in his blue Ford pick-up, he fell asleep at the wheel and was hit in a head-on collision with a big rig truck. My grandfather’s eyes glazed over as he told his stories. His voice was low and quiet.
Hometowns are places of firsts, of stories nestled in the streets, and of people. Our hometowns often feel like barriers cutting us off from the world and we believe everything worth caring for is beyond our reach. Other times, they’re hotbeds of courage and we feel ready to take on the indefinite courses of our lives. It’s usually in adolescence when things suddenly seem this meaningful—our interests, emotions, friends, surroundings—and we become globalized. The world begins to feel enormous and, against the backdrop of self-actualization, we feel small in its shadow. Some people accept their ubiquitous hometowns out of want for either stability or simplicity. I consciously resented my roots, imposed roles, and family. I saw my town as a malignant scab to pick away, knowing that that would never heal the wound. I wanted to forget the impossible.
So I started writing poetry, thinking that catharsis was synonymous with salvation. By this time I had gotten over my father’s death as much as I could, and my mother’s sociopathic boyfriend was no longer in the picture, although his inflicted scars remained. It was easy to write (badly) and throw myself into any exploit that presented itself in a town of old miners, drinkers, hockey players, and addicts, poor and affluent alike. My buddies and I drank, smoke, stole, vandalized, and bullied. If there was a filter between our brains and our mouths we let it clog until it accumulated all the shit it could take and sputtered out. We immersed ourselves in the muck of our boring, ordinary lives. We were all rebelling, often superficially, and each one of us for different reasons. For me, it was a combination of my upbringing, books, and poetry. Poets must live, I naively thought, not quite aware that the capital-P Poet doesn’t actually exist.
The first time I knew I wanted to be a poet was at an old house near Spruce Beach. It was rented from a cartographer by two older guys who claimed to be artists. I was 14 years old. We smoked pot and talked and listened to bad music, the kind you like only when under the influence of seedy weed. Mick, one of the older guys, gathered nearly ten of us and made us huddle on the floor. He turned off all the lights except one just above his shoulder and told us to be silent. After lighting a joint and taking a long drag, he opened Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller and read the first sentence: “Once you’ve given up the ghost, everything follows with dead certainty, even in the midst of chaos.”
Almost a decade after leaving my hometown for good, I am living in Toronto hurdling inward with poetry. In Elliot Lake I was somewhat of a novelty; poetry simply didn’t exist there, at least not out in the open. But in Toronto, you can’t work long without meeting a poet, writer, editor, organizer, or reader. There is a community, even if it may seem divided, and when I’m not always an active member. What was once a solitary experience for me is now meshed in a network of people as varied as the work itself.
One fledgling community is Worst Case Ontario. It may have been myself and poet dalton derkson who had the idea for this particular poetry tour, but it doesn’t take masterminds to get drunk and decide to pile into a rented car and drive around Southern Ontario and a few American states. Poetry tours are nothing new, and groups like the Ottawa-based An Accord of Poets already toured five Canadian cities with an accompanying book, with great success. However, it was the first time that I, at least, embarked on a large-scale project that considered more than my own personal work. The tour was about collaboration, compromise, and consideration; a respect for not only our own stories, but those of the people we encountered.
What distinguished the experience for me was not only the tour—the unpredictability, tension, apprehension—but the poets and writers who joined. Bebenek, derkson, Francheteau and Mannell transformed a reading tour into a collective, albeit small, as they wove their personal experiences, styles, and writings into a general aesthetic. Without them, Worst Case Ontario would have probably been a one-off thing, and much more boring. There was randomness and perhaps fear at every stage of the journey in every city and every reading. The only constant was our want to have our voices heard and have the good mind to pay attention to everyone else’s.
At least one thing that connected us was our origins: all born and raised in small Canadian towns with their own sordid histories. At some point, we fled to Ottawa, Toronto, or Montreal. It seems at one time or another we consciously disregarded our home communities for spaces in which we could more easily realize our identities, as varied as they are, and in doing so solidify our individuality. As much as we may have actively withdrawn from our communities, we now gravitate to ones which better represent our perspectives while still preserving the old. That is one way Worst Case Ontario is unique: moving on from our pasts while, by facing them head on through our writing, bringing them to life for both audiences and ourselves. Hometowns create the foundations of who we are and leaving them behind creates the pillars that connect us. I realized that we’re formed by our home communities, as chaotic as they may be, and nothing we can do can change that.
Bouchard, a member of Worst Case Ontario, has forthcoming poems in Hart House Review and BookThug’s BafterC.
I also realized that poetry and movement are analogous. Before setting off on trips—almost always alone with no real reason for going—I am reminded of an axiom: You can run away, but you can never run away from yourself. That saying is deceptively simple. It’s true that we cannot wholly avoid our inner voices ceaselessly narrating and reaffirming our identities. However, it’s also true that the mere act of leaving a place ignites unpredictable change. Nothing is absolute, even ourselves, and something as jarring as moving on is a perfect catalyst to confront and transform rather than merely receive and accept. Perhaps acceptance and transformation are one and the same.
It would be a lie to say that poetry (or touring) has served as a respite from the pitfalls and perils of growing up in a small town. Poetry was never a useful coping mechanism and it isn’t now. It’s not poetry’s job to save us from ourselves. If anything, poetry only brings us nearer to states of anxiety, indecision, and instability, combined with all emotions. Maybe that’s why poets and many types of artists don’t have the best records of mental health and spiritual well-being; we are incapable of letting ourselves go.
And we shouldn’t. Despite poetry’s inevitable failure to rectify tarnished histories, we should never give up the inner voices formed by troubled origins and reformed by new destinations. Certainty is static, dead, and as harrowing as impermanence may be, it is what drives the change within ourselves and our readers. It is this same impermanence that leads from one experience to another, a small town to a metropolis, one community to another, however fleeting. Whether in our poetry, pasts, or futures, we should embrace chaos and exist in spite of complacency. We should have the sense to realize the inherent irony in all of us, that the deeper inward we go, the more outward facing we become, cracked open to the world and utterly empathetic.
This Christmas I returned to Elliot Lake and visited Sheriff Creek, an award-winning nature sanctuary once used to deposit Milliken Mine’s uranium tailings, radioactive sludge with a half-life of 80,000 years that poisons anything it touches. An estimated 76,000 tons were dumped into the creek. But with careful planning, the tailings were buried by heaps of earth and water, reducing radium levels to negligible amounts. Like a scabbing wound, the land was restored over time by using the very same land the tailings destroyed. However, despite the creek’s ecological recovery, the poison will exist virtually forever beneath the muskeg. The land will never completely heal. Like us, it changes without forgetting.
JC Bouchard’s poetry appears in Arc, Hart House Review, untethered and (parenthetical). Visit him online to learn more.