Eric Schmaltz has published two chapbooks: YOU WILL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING (No Press, 2015) and MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems (above/ground, 2014).
So the reason I thought it would be fun to interview Eric Schmaltz is that The Town Crier’s theme for the month of January is “Hometowns,” and we both rode the bus together for four years of high school and we both went on to become poets. My friend, Toronto-based artist, Joele Walinga, also rode the bus with us. It’s kind of striking that we all rode the bus in these random small towns (Fonthill, Welland) together for so long and went on to work in the arts in Toronto.
Eric Schmaltz: I’m actually in my hometown, Welland, as I work through these questions. I’m sitting at my parents’ kitchen table, drinking old coffee out of a mug that says, “I Love to Monkey Around.” I was listening to Matt Sajn’s “Opposite of a Saint (Welland Christmas)” when I opened this word document. I’m overwhelmed by nostalgia right now.
Also, I walked home late last night to my parents’ place behind the Seaway Mall. I walked along Niagara Street for a while and realized that the location I remember most vividly is that intersection at Woodlawn and Niagara where the two large cemeteries sit across from one another.
Julie Mannell: Do you remember the name of our bus? Did we have a colour or a number? I can’t remember.
ES: I don’t remember the name of our bus company or its number, but I do remember that it was coloured in the standard North American school bus yellow.
JM: We were both very different in our behaviour on the school bus. Care to expand?
ES: I was forgettable and you were not.
JM: What is your most vivid memory of riding the bus to school?
ES: There were rumours that our bus driver Clarence would let some of our bus-mates occasionally drive the bus once it was outside of Welland. I wasn’t normally on the bus when this would happen so I don’t know how true it was, but I remember the day he went off-route. I can’t remember why exactly, but I think it was to make it easier for one of our bus-mates to get home. While off-route we got into an accident turning off Niagara Street onto Woodlawn (maybe?), and the side of a mini-van somehow ended up partially underneath our bus. I think that was one of Clarence’s last days as our driver.
JM: I used to feel very nervous about the bus, especially in grade nine. My friend Ben was part of a bus ritual called “initiation” where he had to push a penny down the aisle with his nose. I lied and said I was in grade ten so I wouldn’t get initiated. Did you have similar fears? Were you ever initiated? How did you avoid initiation?
ES: Yes, initiation was one of my worst fears in grade nine as well. I remember when Ben was initiated and forced to push a penny with his nose. He came up from the bus aisle floor with a black streak of dirt on his nose.
I was never forced into any of the initiation rituals on the bus, but I narrowly escaped the same penny ritual on my first day of grade nine (a year before you would have started high school, I guess). I was lost and I couldn’t find any of my old friends from elementary school with whom I was supposed to have lunch. We were to meet at the doors of the science wing and go out to Niagara Street, but I didn’t know where that was. I spent that lunch hour circling the school, my hands clenching the straps of my backpack. One of the upper years figured out that I was lost and terrified. He stopped me in the hall near a window ledge and laid down a penny. He told me to push it with my nose, but I said no. He was insistent, but I lied and told him I had to meet friends (who by this point were long gone). There were too many people around for him to forcefully make me push the penny, so he eventually relented. I rode the bus home that day, passed through the gate into my backyard, and wept.
JM: Which did you like better: the ride to school or the ride home? Why?
ES: I preferred the ride to school. As a group we were much more subdued in the morning than in the afternoon.
JM: What do you think was unique about our school bus that caused us to pursue careers in the arts?
ES: I guess I was repulsed by the sports-centric culture of our high school. I always appreciated the half-days for football games, but I am not a competitive person. So that pushed me toward music and books. I was in a band for a bit, and tried to write.
JM: Are there any memorable characters for you? School bus characters?
ES: There are many people that I remember. I became close with some of them. I met my first and only high school girlfriend on that bus. We dated for a good while, even after high school. So she’s definitely memorable.
I remember you too.
JM: Have you or would you ever write about the school bus?
ES: I haven’t written about it and have no plans to do so (outside of this interview).
JM: While we rode the bus over those four years, we grew as people, and I can’t help feeling a debt of gratitude to our two bus drivers, Clarence and Leigh. Can you talk a bit about our bus drivers?
ES: The seating arrangement of the bus itself had a built-in hierarchy: the younger students sat near the front of the bus, and the older you got, the closer to the back you got. Each seat closer to the back contributed to your social worth; big fish in the back, little fishies in the front.
I don’t have much memory of Leigh, but Clarence was striking especially because of the accident I mentioned above. To me, he represents something more complex than a regular bus driver. Even though he broke the rules, we were disappointed (some even outraged) that he wasn’t our driver anymore. He was funny, generous, and mischievous. I remember that he sometimes brought us donuts in the morning. Didn’t he bring everyone red roses on Valentine’s Day once? He seemed to always have the best intentions, which helped to assuage the general angst of high school (even though it got him in trouble).
JM: Do you know of any school bus poetry/literature?
ES: None that come to mind right now.
JM: What do you feel like when you ride the bus today?
ES: Transit is much less of a social affair. I don’t board with the same sense of dread that I did in grade nine, or the same kind of confidence as I did in grade 12. And I don’t get on transit with the expectation of seeing the same people as I did the day before, catching up with them, laughing with them, etc. It is the opposite now. Transit has become totally utilitarian and solitary.
JM: Okay, actual serious question. In what ways has growing up where we grew up influenced your work as a poet?
ES: I’ve been thinking about this question a lot and the more I think, the more connections I find. I’d love to narrativize it all, but that would be excessive and indulgent. All of my hometown life has affected my work. For example, my own work has been circling around ideas of industry, capitalism, and assembly lines. Welland is largely a post-industrial town that hasn’t quite figured out what the next transition phase might be. My hometown is definitely, at least partially, in my mind when I work.
Peter Guzda (left), creator of MsC The Movie.
More generally, I think that a lot of us grew up thinking that there really isn’t much here. The factories were pretty well all gone and the downtown core has been practically empty as long as I can remember. Many of us in Welland and Fonthill were so damn bored, but maybe that’s what led many of us to the arts. We had to make something for ourselves. Peter Guzda’s MsC: The Movie might be a testament to that. There was an explosion of small independent bands—R.C.H.C. People like you and me have found some kind of sense of home in language, books, and writing.
JM: Was anyone in Welland even partially responsible for your love for poetry?
ES: Not really. When I was living in Welland I was much more interested in fiction and music. I became interested in poetry once I started spending most of my time in St. Catharines, where I lived, worked, and studied for about four or five years.
JM: If you have children and they want to be poets, what will you tell them about taking the bus to school?
ES: I would say something terrible like “Enjoy the ride.”
Eric Schmaltz is a language artist, writer, researcher, and curator. Born in Welland, Ontario, he now lives and works in Toronto, Ontario. Eric’s work has been featured online and in print across Canada and internationally, including chapbooks such as YOU WILL NEVER AMOUNT TO ANYTHING (No Press 2015) and MITSUMI ELEC. CO. LTD.: keyboard poems (above/ground 2014). His visual work has been featured across Canada including Havana Gallery (Vancouver), Rodman Hall (St. Catharines), and Niagara Artists Centre (St. Catharines), with upcoming work at Lab T.O. (Toronto).