Ben Ladouceur, Puritan Issue 20
In this omnibus interview, the editorial staff catches up with five past Puritan authors to ask about their 2015 releases. The authors of Otter, Chinkstar, What You Need, Microphone Lessons for Poets, and A More Perfect [ talk about their latest projects and obsessions below.
Catriona Wright and Ben Ladouceur on Naming Names
Catriona Wright: Otter contains many poems that directly address romantic partners and friends. While you choose to keep the love interests anonymous, you use the real names of your friends (a technique favoured by Frank O’Hara). Why did you decide to use this approach?
Ben Ladouceur: It was not really a conscious move to write extensively about friendship. I like how that wound up happening, though, because it was a conscious move to explore relationships between men. The inclusion of platonic friendships makes for a nice counterpoint to all the more amorous stuff. I also think a big component of the queer experience is friendship, with members of the community and with people outside of the community. So the friendship poems have, with any luck, afforded the collection some comprehensiveness.
I think the people with whom I’m closest recognize that they’re in the line of fire. Reactions vary a little, but mostly friends are flattered, even if the poem isn’t flattering. My friend Thomas loves his poem, even though it’s really mean and it ends with him as a pathetic old man. I wrote it early in our friendship; at the time I was nervous it was too early to do that sort of thing, but it brought us closer. I think when you write a poem or a song for someone, you prove that you think about them, that, they’re important and fascinating to you. Thomas’s poem was actually a birthday gift, and the kind of company I keep is largely responsive to that interpretation of the gift economy. I once wrote a poem in exchange for help with a move, and once in exchange for a haircut. It’s the perfect money saver and now I can retire early and go on safari.
Ben Ladouceur is a writer originally from Ottawa, now based in Toronto. His work has been featured in Arc, The Malahat Review, PRISM International, and The Walrus, and in the Best Canadian Poetry anthology. He was awarded the Earle Birney Poetry Prize in 2013.
E Martin Nolan and Jon Chan Simpson on Rap, Race, and Red Deer
Jon Chan Simpson, Puritan Issue 29
E Martin Nolan: Alberta isn’t as far from New York City, the birthplace of rap, as other places that rap has influenced. Yet, for me the presence of a Chinese-Canadian Prairie rap scene really speaks to the relatively young form’s global reach. It proves not just that rap’s reach is widespread, but that it’s made it into the cultural nooks and crannies of the world. It’s not just covering the globe, it’s saturating it. I’m thinking of Nas’s attempt to universalize the form by extending its focus beyond the plight of American blacks and out to all oppressed/minority people or in “What Goes Around,” where he writes, “The Chinaman built the railroad,/the Indian saved the Pilgrim,/and in return the Pilgrim killed ’em.”
Can you talk about what that saturation looked like for you, growing up in Alberta? Do the rappers who inspired Chinkstar relate to rap just as a musical form they’re drawn to, or is there some deeper cultural recognition going on there?
Jon Chan Simpson: When I was growing up—and where I was growing up—rap actually wasn’t the most popular kind of music, but it was undeniably present. I don’t think we understood the way it permeated our culture; we watched hip-hop, or thought we did, from some kind of remove, when in reality we were absorbing it. We listened to grunge, pop-punk, and nu metal, but a rap takeover was stirring. Though it never happened (in that quick and decisive sort of way), I think it could have. And we were close—a cool kid with the right album at the right house party could’ve tipped us full-on into a hip-hop revolution.
I’m exaggerating. What makes this fantasy for my hometown so compelling is the reality it plays with: hungry for an identity that could empower their cultural difference, a lot of Red Deer kids turned to hip-hop. Some of the characters in Chinkstar do the same, though they struggle with the uneasy feeling that hip-hop isn’t wholly theirs. On some level, they recognize the scenario—that they’re a racialized group speaking in the voice of another racialized group—and feel compelled to differentiate themselves and their expression. Ultimately, however, Chinksta (as music and as movement) can’t help being derivative, despite the efforts of its proponents—and despite invitations like Nas’s—and there’s something a bit tragic and a bit powerful in that struggle. If a bigger conversation were to come out of Chinkstar, I’d love for it to start there.
Jon Chan Simpson grew up in Red Deer, Alberta, and lives in Toronto. He is a graduate of the University of Toronto’s MA creative writing program, and his work has been featured in Ricepaper. His first novel, Chinkstar, was published by Coach House Books in summer 2015.
Tyler Willis and Andrew Forbes on Youth, Nostalgia, and Led Zeppelin
Andrew Forbes, Puritan Issue 25
Tyler Willis: Over at Little Fiction, you mention Led Zeppelin as one of the musical inspirations for your short story collection What You Need. In the title story, brothers Richie and Jamie cruise down the freeway, “Immigrant Song” blasting from the speakers, with what you describe as “the galloping fury of the vividly remembered hormonal fever dreams” of their youth.
One of the major patterns in your collection is male characters who share a dissatisfaction with their lives and the people who populate them, and who yearn for an alternate reality just out of reach. Chuck Klosterman says that “Led Zeppelin sounds like the kind of cool guy every man vaguely thinks he has the potential to be, if just a few things about the world were somehow different.” Does this apply to Richie and Jamie as they try to chase down their own reflections, desperate to rediscover a version of themselves they’ve lost somewhere along the way? What do you think connects masculinity, nostalgia, and the struggle for self-identity, and where does music fit into the equation?
Andrew Forbes: The music of Led Zeppelin is a thrilling, seductive, and ultimately dishonest reflection of an unreasonable form of masculinity. The dissatisfaction felt by Richie and Jamie, as well as some of the other characters in the book, stems in part from having been imprinted with a version of manhood which is neither realistic nor terrifically practical, and certainly not universal, just, fair, or equitable. It is alluring for its binary simplicity and the power it represents. The nostalgia those characters feel is in large measure a lament for a time when they believed such a state was possible, and that they themselves might soon get a chance to embody it. That’s what a teenage boy’s life is all about: being deified and empowered for the simple fact of being male, fed bullshit about what a man can or should be, and believing it, having been rendered particularly susceptible to the charms of such a vision by the hot hormonal soup bubbling away within your brainpan. Of course, that masculinity is ultimately toxic to those men and the people around them, especially the women. There are chances laced in there to correct this trajectory, but they usually get swept aside in a “boys will be boys” amnesty which ultimately helps no one.
In other parts of the book, especially in the sports stories, characters play to the script handed them and then, down the road, become unsure what to do when they begin to suspect its inadequacy. They’ve been told that stoicism in the face of that shortcoming is admirable. It’s at the core of the definition of manhood, so they find themselves continuing to cling to that.
In the book, I’d hoped to compare masculinity to responsible adulthood in the face of those interfering signals—to tease at the difference between “manly” and “grown up.” You know, what we need isn’t men who continue that act, but functioning adults who are critical of that narrow role, who chafe at it and then toss it away. People who recognize that their actions have consequences and that bravado without courage is just bluster and empty rhetoric. We cling to a notion of how men should be because the impetus for changing that blueprint for masculinity is not nearly as loud and eye-catching as the call to preserve it. Cop dramas, superhero franchise movies, beer commercials—hell,the entire output of the entertainment/advertising industry—are continuations and reinforcements of that boys-will-be-boys amnesty. So, really, is just about every system currently in place.
This is getting bleak, so I’ll tack back to the other part of your question, about music. Music, being the thing we pick and choose for the soundtrack to the movie starring us, is one of the supreme choices allowed us, a little bastion of freedom granted, and we’re exercising it, walking around in our personal sound bubbles, enjoying the feedback loop of how what we’ve chosen works to reaffirm some vision we hold of ourselves. However, it probably also feeds into the frustration of recognizing that marked gulf between how we wish the world to see us, and how it actually does. Nevertheless, if you want to project and have reinforced a clumsy, limiting sort of masculinity, you can certainly find the music to do that. Or, if you want something more nuanced, that’s out there, too, and you can employ it.
Look, I love Zeppelin, and I love them for precisely the same reasons that Richie and Jamie do, and they hit me squarely at the same rich, oily time in my life. Do I listen to them anymore? Nope. I hear them on the radio sometimes, I guess, since without Led Zeppelin, classic rock radio would cease to be, but when I hear them now I hear an echo of something, not a primary sensation. I’m air-drumming to the memory of a feeling, not the feeling itself. The ghost of John Bonham is the ghost of an innocent belief in the whole faulty menu of choices for what constituted “manliness,” or a desirable identity forged from “manly” parts.
Regarding that Chuck Klosterman quote, maybe I’d add that, as bad as things are, we can be thankful that those few things about the world are not somehow different, or else we’d be awash in a tide of shirtless alphas in bad pants and baseless senses of sexual entitlement, imploring any and all mamas they saw to squeeze their lemons until the juice ran down their legs. Whatever our differences, be they musical or political, I think we can all agree that’d be a bad, bad thing.
Andrew Forbes is the author of the short fiction collection What You Need (Invisible Publishing, 2015). His work has appeared in The Feathertale Review, Found Press, PRISM International, The New Quarterly, Scrivener Creative Review, The Journey Prize Stories 25, This Magazine, Hobart, The Puritan, All Lit Up, The Classical, and Vice Sports. His next book, a collection of baseball writing, will be published in April, 2016. He lives in Peterborough, Ontario.
Domenica Martinello and Helen Guri on Humour and Feminism
Helen Guri, Puritan Issue 26
Domenica Martinello: What struck me about your two recent chapbooks from BookThug is how they make use of humour while remaining forceful and critically engaged. Alongside poems like “Kettle” from Here Come the Waterworks, which make use of collage by splicing two disparate texts together (a cookbook and a crowd control manual), much of the work uses a collage-like aesthetic by assembling moments of comedy alongside critique. How difficult is it for you to find the right balance, especially in the “feminist manifesto” Microphone Lessons for Poets? Do you think humour is a useful tool for feminist thought?
Helen Guri: I can’t honestly say that I understand humour, but it is something that happens a lot in my work and life. I wouldn’t consider its inclusion as collage, or any sort of outside addition, so much as simply the way things are. Just as going on being alive is useful for generating critique or thinking towards feminism, I suspect going on being ridiculous is useful.
Somebody pointed out to me recently that I have an interest in the “instructional mode,” and it is true that both “Kettle” and Microphone Lessons for Poets are basically just sets of instructions. Because of this, I am tempted to say that the humour is the critique—the thing that undoes the authority of the voice telling you what to do. It may be more complicated than that, though.
In Microphone Lessons, for example, my aim was to be straightforwardly useful (telling people how to use microphones) while admitting into the text a spectrum of feminine and feminist panic and rage. I sometimes compare this piece to the sex tips that used to (and maybe still do?) appear in Cosmopolitan magazine, in that they offer advice aimed primarily at women on how to please a male audience, while the latent mutiny in the voice of the speaker complicates these same tips. Some of those tips were borderline violent! While I was careful to never let Microphone Lessons lag in its practical usefulness, I wanted to gesture at things beyond usefulness; to include the complicated feelings that go along with participating in a system that devalues you. I’m not sure whether it’s most apt to say that humour is the vehicle for those feelings, or that humour is what constitutes those feelings, or that those feelings are funny, but they are definitely there. Of course, the instructions themselves are intrinsically funny, too. It is very difficult to separate these things.
Helen Guri is the author of Match, published by Coach House Books in 2011 and shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, as well as two chapbooks published recently by Book Thug: Here Come the Waterworks and Microphone Lessons for Poets. She lives in Toronto.
E Martin Nolan and Jimmy McInnes on the Language of Politics
Jimmy McInnes, Puritan Issue 18
E Martin Nolan: The upcoming Canadian federal election promises to be a doozy. Given the uncertainty of the race at this point, we’ll be hearing a lot of political speeches in the months to come. Then there’s the 2016 election looming south of the border.
Your book’s focus on political rhetoric is thus well-timed. It helps prepare us for what is coming by identifying the bare bones of political speech. However, is there a risk that instead of exposing political rhetorical structures so that we can better push back against them, such an approach actually embeds those structures deeper into our psyches? As someone who works in politics, did you ever feel that instead of allowing for a diversion or break from your work, writing this book meant taking your work home with you and lodging it ever deeper into your own consciousness?
Jimmy McInnes: Given that we are headed into the first set federal election date in Canadian history, we should note the sharp up-tick in campaign-style speeches already being rolled out by our nation’s party leaders. This is a relatively new phenomenon in Canadian politics, and actually closely echoes the campaign time-line that we see south of the border.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if I were to state that an image of the politician has emerged over time that’s a little less than flattering to the general public. With that in mind, I knew that to many, on a surface-level-glance, this book would read as a cynical take on political speech no matter what I did. Pushing back against rhetorical structures was one of many concerns I had in developing the project. I wanted to include as many different aspects of the genre of the political speech as I could. One can’t thoroughly approach the genre of the political speech without addressing more positive themes such as hope, reconciliation, or the collective. Structurally, the placement of anecdote, repetition, contrast, and detail are incredibly important. Irony, cynicism, and doublespeak come with the territory, but they’re certainly not the entire picture. A More Perfect [ is just as much a celebration as it is a resistance.
In regards to the book’s relation to my day job, as just about anyone who has ever worked in politics can attest, taking your work home with you isn’t just a risk—it’s almost a guarantee. In my case, and perhaps for my own sanity, I often deal with the tension that comes from political work in a creative way. I’ve always advocated that poetry and politics share the manipulation of language as a central technique, and this project is very much a mixture of both those loves. As someone who works in both practices, I can tell you that seasoned practitioners are often just as jaded as they are idealistic, and I wanted to create a text that could mimic that balancing act. I chose Obama’s “A More Perfect Union” as the source text because it’s a speech that I’ve always been deeply moved by, but it’s also one that I have enough distance from as a Canadian that I could approach it on a much more critical, structural level.
When a reader or listener is moved by something, it’s important to not just ask why, but how. Whether it’s an esoteric work of poetry, a political speech, or a cereal box, Canada is a nation of readers and listeners of language. We use language as a way to express and organize the reality around us, and this often means engaging in both the positive and the negative aspects of linguistic representation.
Is there a risk of embedding rhetorical structures deeper in the psyche of the reader and myself? I suppose so—but it’s my hope that this book will serve as a fun way to stretch some analytical muscles. As opposed to just tuning out, I would like this book to serve as a way in which people can engage with politics in the broader sense. I want my readership to take the exercise of deconstruction and to use it in interacting with every speech or magazine article or television ad they come across. Whether one is analyzing the work of Obama or Sephora, the deconstruction of language or image is an empowering act. It allows us to approach complicated or simple expressions and filter them through a lens. Deconstruction allows us to better understand our reality, whatever that reality may be.
Jimmy McInnes was born and raised on Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula. His first chapbook, Begin Speech With, was released by Ferno House in the fall of 2013. His poetry has appeared in various journals, including This Magazine, ditch, The Puritan, Descant, and The Capilano Review Web Folio. His work has been shortlisted for the Great Canadian Literary Hunt and the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry. He lives in Toronto, where he completed his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Guelph, and is currently employed as a political hack. A More Perfect [ is his first book-length work of poetry.