Back then Hazel and I lived in a basement apartment on Northumberland Street, near Ossington and Bloor -- at night you could sense the subway cars running under the city just to the south of us. I was reading a lot of Gerry Gilbert, and bpNichol, particularly Book 5 of the Martyrology, and the result was that I became really interested in the idea of mapping. I came to think of language as a map that was plotted by a body's motion through space and time, and I was interested in what was right around me as a gathering of places, things, and people that made up a cultural phenomenon that came into being in my mind, and that's how I wrote: daily, in journals, one poem or one page at a time. I read a lot. I slid across the earth by foot or by transit or by bike, leaving behind trails of language. I became the writer in residence of a bush lot that I visited once a month on the edge of Essex County between confessions 7 and 8. (Ha ha -- that was supposed to say concessions.) Gilbert's totem animal was a slug -- I liked the image of writing as a slime trail of language that you left behind just because of time. I also remember reading Greg Curnoe's Deeds Abstracts, his history of the property he owned in London Ontario that reached back to prehistoric times. That book, alongside certain texts by Christopher Dewdney, opened up the possibility that every space has a past that is deeper than we can possibly fathom with our general concerns in the present, and that maps (and I love maps) are actually static one dimensional representations that erase the past because they are overloaded with information about the present, information that becomes outdated the moment it is printed. A lot of the writing I did then was not published in anything larger than a small chapbook, with funny titles like Backroads and Other Creatures, and somehow that work, that mapping in language, seems to work like actual maps: it erases itself once it is written. Such work wasn't meant to last -- perhaps it is because I was young and it didn't say anything interesting other than "I AM ALIVE!" -- but somehow, that writing points nowhere except to itself. But I do remember the pleasure of writing it -- that cannot be ignored. Maybe no poem is meant to live very long any more, or direct a reader very far from itself. Truthfully, I'm super curious about what lasts -- what will outlive it's own mapping? and as such I'm supremely saddened by the fact that I won't be around in a few hundred years to see how it all plays out. Thankfully no one else will be either. Which is probably why it is so curiously sad and/or gratifying to see what does receive attention in the here and now.
Tuesday, February 04, 2014
Many years ago Stan Bevington caught me going through the recycling bins outside the Coach House on bpNichol Lane. I was looking for paper to make my own smallpress books. I had been dumpster diving for scraps for a while, following the lead from a few micro publishers I admired. What I'd found was used to make books like One Night (a collection of poems I claimed to have written in one night -- a lie) and Box of Legs (which was a sheaf of unbound poems inserted into a pocket envelope of sorts onto which I had printed the title -- the title came from the window of a butcher shop around the corner from our apartment near Bloor and Ossington). I'd also made some journals that I kept daily notes and poems in. This time not only did I find some useful paper, which I stuffed into my backpack, I also found myself "employed" by Bevington in the bindery at Coach House Printing. Which I think surprised John, his print manager, since John didn't really have anything for me to do.
On my first day I was given the task of punching holes in sheets upon which had been printed the contents of a computer software manual. This would allow them to be bound into wire-o binding. There were fifty million of them, and I arrived one morning at 9am and began punching. you could only insert about ten or twelve sheets at a time into the puncher, so each manual took about six or eight repetitive motions: I picked up a little stack of paper, inserted it into the machine, and tapped a pedal with my right foot to trigger the punch. And I did that maybe fifteen million times amidst the cacophony of the churning printing presses and the grind and kerthunk of the perfect binder. After my fifteen million and oneth punch I looked up and noticed that no one was around. It was strangely quiet. After a quick search I discovered everyone was upstairs in the coffee room at the communal table having lunch. "Didn't anyone tell you we take lunch at noon?" said John.
The coffee room was (and continues to be) an interesting space -- many who know it think of it in romantic terms, the place where Canadian literature changed forever, perhaps, or where dropouts and poets hung out and smoked dope and drank coffee and talked and talked; or where some people passing through town even slept in nooks and crannies. Ok, yes, it is interesting for such literary historicities and nostalgia, which I suspect the archive of books lining the walls remembers better than most. But it is also interesting because it is a space where two sets of people co-exist -- both of whom "make" books. Coach House is one of three interesting literary spaces in Canada that are both publishers and printers. Along with Porcupine's Quill and Gaspereau Press, these companies have editorial offices and printing presses on site that operate in parallel universes that are, in fact, part of a larger whole. And I, being the smallpress writer person that I was at the time, I felt that I made books more like the printers and the binders did. I made physical books. I didn't feel a lot of kinship with the editors who were also sitting around the table, perhaps not quite understanding what it was they did in the acquisition and editing of manuscripts. Maybe a little, but not a lot. And I was nothing like the publicist or the managing editor who were also there -- the business and the promotion of books was completely alien to me. I thought a publisher was someone who made books -- publishing was a physical act, one in which an individual did all the work, from writing to designing to printing to binding. Labour. Small press. I ate my lunch, and then went back to the bindery were I repeated the same action that I'd completed all morning another twenty million times, and then I went home. That night I couldn't sleep because of the incredible pain in my lower back caused from lifting tiny stacks of paper over and over and over.
I lasted about a week and a half in the bindery, not because I didn't want to work there, but because John ran out of things for me to do. He did, after all, already have a staff in place. At one point I did get to watch someone else with more binding experience than I use the puncher I had been using to bind an "Old Coach House" limited edition book by Roy Kiyooka with paintings by David Bolduc, and I did get to meet some interesting characters, like Johnny Barbados and the infamous collator slash night watchman known as Rono (both of whom are still there as far as I know). And Nicky Drumbolis was working there too, binding books amidst his famous but largely unheard grumbles about literature and publishing. And I met a musician who gave me his first CD called Fear of Zen that I really liked and years later I realized that Andrew Whiteman had graduated from the bindery to play with Broken Social Scene and as Apostle of Hustle, two musical acts that were in high rotation in my world. But enough of brushes with greatness.
All of this was a long time ago. Maybe ten years later I did work in the publishing offices at Coach House Books for about a year and a half, and there I learned how to edit a book and to work with difficult authors. I also learned some basic book design skills from Stan who is one of Canada's great (if not the greatest) typographers. But because of the proximity of those printing presses downstairs, the idea that I was physically making a book was never far from my thoughts. Now, years later, I am a publisher. I am now in the business of making books. Sure, I do a little of everything at BookThug (and then some), but I suspect that's what one does when they run their own business regardless of what that business does. When I am at events like Word on The Street or an arts festival, standing behind a table of books I have made, I am often asked two things by members of the public. The first is: "how much would it cost to publish my book?" And the second is: "where do you keep your printing press?" And I always smile at that second question in particular because I, like most publishers, have never owned a printing press. It always strikes me as odd what the public idea of publishing is, though I don't understand the inner workings of, say, banking or real estate, so fair enough. But when I was asked the other day what "to publish" means, I answered (to myself, nearly an automatic response) that to publish is to make books. And as it turns out, neither I nor the public who ask me those questions know what to publish means. For to publish literally means "to make public." Thus publishing has as much to do with marketing and promotion -- the activities that get books into people's hands so they can read them -- as it has to do with making books. I did not think about this as I stood in the bindery at Coach House Printing punching five hundred million holes in fifty billion pieces of paper, and I guess my assumptions have lingered with me ever since -- the ghost of some youthful thought.
Now all I have to do is decide what "public" means, for as an aside I might mention that no one who asked me either of those naive questions ever walked away with one of my books, either.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
Friday, January 17, 2014
Last week I was at an event that included a panel of music experts. Asked to sum up their thoughts about upcoming music in 2014, there were a variety of responses from "garbage" to "optimistic" to "plateau" -- but one answer was "1994," which got some laughter but he explained that 1994 was 20 years ago so we could expect a lot of that happening again. Which I get -- my 15 year old son and his friends are presently infatuated with the music and culture of the mid 90s much in the same way I was interested in the music of the late 60s and early 70s when I was in high school.
So the idea is that music circles back at the same time that it moves forward, as though musicians today (or culture, given that taste has a lot to do with these things) have been deeply influenced by Yates' weirdo gyre idea. And suddenly I'm thinking about how many things do work in a circular historical way -- for instance our "new" reading series that begins this on Sunday afternoon called HIJ.
Twenty years ago HIJ was a journal that Hazel and I ran when we were students at York. It was an idea I'd come up with because I was meeting people both at York through various writing workshops and through the activities of the Toronto Small Press Group. Through the latter I heard about a poetry journal that appeared every two weeks out of Minneapolis -- it seemed like an interesting and challenging idea. So we started HIJ in the same fashion: we would gather writing and every two weeks issue it in a publication that we printed in enough copies to give the contributors 2 each. It seemed naturally small: the contributors would hopefully give their extra copy to someone interested in receiving such a gift.
We lasted 5 issues. Not only was it significantly challenging to find work, but because I was interested in slower modes of production -- printing all the sheets on an inkjet printer and binding them by hand into covers that were printed using a combination of silk screen and stamping using hand carved rubber stamps -- we ran out of steam pretty quickly. I wonder how long the journal in Minneapolis lasted.
Over the years we have also hosted a variety of poetry events in our home. I remember an evening of readings in our basement apartment for an issue of BafterC (the same apartment we ran HIJ out of) -- this was back when people still smoked indoors and our apartment that evening was literally a box of smoke. One summer evening we had some people over for a reading in our back yard at that same address and someone brought a bottle of tequila, which was a disaster for me, at least. I was wearing a red tshirt with a blue rubber star affixed to the chest and I kept pointing to it and exclaiming "superstar!!" As Hazel can attest it was super obnoxious. More recently we have hosted some gatherings that were really sweet, like when Dot Devota and Brandon Shimoda came through town or our BookThug Holiday Party both of which featured readings in our living room.
There was also the Speakeasy series of informal talks that I curated and hosted on Sunday afternoons about 12 years ago -- at first we met in Lynne Donoghue's loft on Dundas Street until she passed away suddenly; after that we met at This Ain't the Rosedale Library (also no longer) on Church Street thanks to the kindness of Charlie Huisken. (Goodness, thinking about it all now it is very sad to think what has literally moved into the past tense in the past 20 years.) I very much enjoyed these gatherings. They were for the most past about a shared thinking amongst the small group of people who actually cared -- academic in the literal sense of that word. Gatherings for thought.
So now it is twenty years since Hazel and I first made those issues of HIJ, and ten years since the Speakeasy series. I don't think I even have any copies; likely they are at the Fisher Rare Book Library. If anyone actually has any maybe they will bring them and we will have a moment of show and tell. Or a moment of that was then and this is now, because we have produced a small publication that has links to the past but is far less intensive to produce. I admit that I've been thinking lately around the subject of "returning" as "progress." I don't know if it is because it is winter (which is a yearly returning to reflection) and I want to remember the silly things I got to do when I was young and the stakes were low while the game ran high. It may have something to do with what I'm seeing culturally now: people are gathering once more around creative things they are interested in. And Sunday afternoons are the perfect space enough for such things -- Sundays should be about gathering mindfulness.
At any rate I'm excited for the "smallness" of hosting a reading at our house with Hazel this Sunday, and to host Mat and Fenn, two young poets who are likely around the same age as I was when we first published HIJ, and who are themselves producing very interesting smallpress artifacts now that seem related somehow to the things I was experiencing then. Mostly I'm interested to see who will come out and to find out what will happen.
I'm also in it for the pie.
Friday, January 03, 2014
I first discovered the work of Crad Kilodney because of my brother Darren. He had somehow discovered his work and had decided to do his grade 13 English independent study on his fiction. Now that I think about it, I recall that Darren bought some of his chapbooks from bill bissett when bill used to have his semi-regular fire sales of books and paintings. Darren became the president, and only member of, the Crad Kilodney Fan Club (Lucan Chapter), and ordered, by writing letters to the author in the pre-internet days of 1990, several of his books and some of the tapes that Crad had made on the streets of Toronto. The two of us chortled muchly over the books and the tapes (our favourite recording was of Crad asking a "grade five question: why do we have seasons" to innocent people during Bay Street lunch hours) and thus a mythic something or other was born: here was a guy who wrote weird-ass books, published them himself, and stood on the streets of Toronto selling these books to people.
I'd been reading the history of English Literature as presented by W.W. Norton in University, and after discovering bill bissett's blewointment press and subsequently searching the stacks at the university library for books without spines, I found a good quantity of Crad's books on the shelves of the university library. Some even had spines and had been published by reputable presses -- Malignant Humours (Black Moss), Lightning Struck My Dick (Virgo Press), Pork College (The Coach House Press) and my favourite: Girl on a Subway (Black Moss). Whether published in these "legit" book formats or published by Crad's own Charnel House with insane titles like Blood Sucking Monkeys from North Tanawanda or I Chewed Mrs Ewing's Raw Guts, this work was undeniably different that most, if not all, of what I had been reading in my classrooms. And there was a wondrous punk anti-establishment feeling of DO-IT-YOURSELF STICK IT TO THE MAN that ran throughout it all -- here was someone who invented his own literature and his own place in it.
The story that I learned about Crad Kilodney before I moved to Toronto is much like a Crad Kilodney story: Crad Kilodney is a nom-de-plume. It is the invention of someone who grew up in Queens, went to college and graduated with an Astronomy degree, worked for a few months in that field and then quit to move to Toronto (thus becoming a failure in his chosen profession overnight) and became a writer. Not only did he become a writer, but a publisher as well in the tradition of the Chappies that published and sold their own work on public streets in small inexpensive pamphlets that came to be known as chapbooks. This took the notion of failure a little further: because no one else would publish and distribute his work, he would do it himself, and he would write purposely bad stories that failed at being great literature and sell them directly to a public that for the most part ignored him. It is because of Kilodney's proactive stance (let's face it, it is just that) with regard to his writing I always took the notion of failure with a bit of a smirk. After all, Kilodney did quit his "chosen profession," and and chose to move to Toronto of all places to become a writer. But I think the notion of failure, and it's relation to expectation, plays a significant role in the work he has produced.
It was because of Kilodney and the other authors that I was discovering in relation to him who also self-published that I too began to self-publish my own work. I even tried standing on the streets of London Ontario with a sign around my neck a la Kilodney, offering my first chapbook to the public for $5. I failed miserably -- selling something you have made yourself, in particular a little booklet of poems, is probably one of the most difficult things in the world to do. And every time I caught a glimpse of a police car I would duck into a nearby store or simply walk in the opposite direction, assuming what I was up to was illegal. I tried selling the chapbook to friends in the hallways of UWO but that was as difficult if not more difficult than trying to sell it to strangers downtown -- the awkwardness that I felt, and I'm sure my friends felt, as I pulled the book out of my satchel, handed it to them and suggested they pay me $5 for it was overwhelming. So I have to hand it to Kilodney -- I can honestly say that it takes a thick skin to do what he did for years, and actually (amazingly) made a living doing (although I understand he supplemented his income writing stories for Hustler Magazine). Today things are way easier: you simply post to social media about your new book and everyone can safely ignore you at a distance by either liking the post or not.
Before I moved to Toronto in 1992 I asked my brother what his opinion of Crad's work was, what he had said in his independent study? He replied that he thought the work was a lot of fun, and the position Crad took as an "author" was impressive, but overall he felt the writing was ho hum as "literature." In a way this is a fairly astute and somewhat academic way of reading Kilodney -- one has to balance the writing against the writer -- that weird clash of biography and production. With Kilodney one can easily get wrapped up in the figure of the author over anything they might write or publish, especially if the author does things a little differently.
For example, Kilodney came to be known to me as a literary terrorist -- perhaps his books were not great works or art -- but they were great because they undermined what greatness was supposed to be. It undermined what the upper class of Canadian Literati were supposed to mean. Several of his antics became legendary to me, but could also be seen through. His hilarious recordings of people interacting with him on the streets of Toronto were meant to show the stupidity of The Public he was trying to sell his work to; but it also showed how stupid it was for him to stand on Bay Street in the financial district offering his wares. It also demonstrated his editorial acumen in putting together the recordings (who know how many hours of pleasant conversation occurred that weren't included). When he resubmitted work (I believe by Irving Layton) that had already won the CBC Literary Prize to the prize using a pseudonym, he claimed that the prize was horse shit when said work didn't make it to the final round. But his "outrage" didn't take into account the fact that some intelligent judges might have seen the work for what it was, the dead giveaway being the obviously silly pseudonym that Kildoney chose to use.
When I moved to Toronto in the early 90s to attend York University I continued to check out his books from the university library. I was still surprised that they could be found in an academic library. In 1993 we moved to St George and Bloor and as I was walking down Bloor Street one day in the dead of winter, there he was. A hulked figure in heavy black coat and black toque with a sign around his neck that said something, I can't remember what. Crappy Literature Buy My Book, perhaps. I stopped in my tracks. I had never actually seen Crad before. How odd it was to come across him as easily as stepping across the street at a green light. "Crad Kilodney?" I said. "Oh My God Someone In This Godforsaken City Who Knows Who I Am," said Crad. He was selling a new chapbook: Suburban Chicken Strangling Stories. I bought a copy. I had at last participated openly in subterfuge.
After that I will admit I got kind of bored with Kildoney's schtick. I knew what to expect from his work, and to a certain degree from Kilodney himself. I must have been interested in failure though because I could only seem to write poetry -- thus throwing myself into a caste of literate nobodies. I published myself and other authors. I have met other authors over the years who use a schtick of some sort -- something that deflects from the work, probably because the work operates in a different realm than schticks can. A schtick can hold the anonymous reader's attention more than a poem. But around the time that I found myself less interested in Kildoney he disappeared from the streets of Toronto. What I'd heard was that the city had actually taken him down: kicked him off the streets because he didn't have a vendor's permit. Kildoney claimed he didn't need one because of the freedom of the press and he wasn't selling goddam hotdogs -- and took the city to court. Kilodney dragged the proceedings on as long as humanly possible, and from what I was told played the role of "asshole writer" to a tee, even following the poor lawyer who stood on behalf of the city down the hall yelling obscenities at her after he finally lost the case. The whole thing had been a kind of performance of sorts, and had Toronto been the American city that it is today with Mayor Ford in charge of things, Kildoney might be the subject of a Hollywood film by now. But the Toronto of the mid 90s simply didn't care, few of the members of the literary community showed up to any of the proceedings (including myself, I might add), and so what should have been an important issue was efficiently dealt with and put aside. And now no one can sell literature on the streets of Toronto legally without a vendor's permit. And so Crad Kilodney, from what I heard, decided to stop writing and publishing, and with some money he inherited from his parents turned to selling on-line penny stocks.
To return to the idea of the self-published author for a moment, in hindsight Kilodney was perhaps a little ahead of his time. The world of 2014 is one in which authors self-publish all the time, and services like Wattpad or Lulu dot com make it possible for anyone who can't get their work published by curated publishing houses to pay for the privilege of having their seemingly "bad literature" published. Some of them even manage to build a readership of some kind, a readership that supports their endeavours. "Bad literature" (both in the sense of truly bad writing and writing that doesn't fit mainstream publishing programs) is certainly a more deeply rooted part of that kind of authorship -- fan fiction, Fifty Shades of Bullshit or whatever you want to call it, etc etc. But more often than not this is actually what the public wants, and it would seem that even a small cult following can support a writer directly, as it did for Kilodney before Wattpad was even an idea. And if you are part of the larger indifferent masses who don't get it or don't care, well, you can find ways to make fun of them.
What Kilodney was up to I'd call a localized phenomenon exemplified as the Toronto Small Press Scene -- a group of selfie publishers, some long standing, others who were passing through, all of them interested in participating in some kind of literary discussion. When I moved to Toronto there was the Toronto Small Press Group Fair, and I think that Kilodney had a table at the first one I attended in I think 1993. There have been "academic studies" written on the subject of this Toronto Small Press Scene. What comes to mind in particular are Clint Burnham's Allegories of Publishing: The Toronto Small Press Scene, and Beverly Daurio's Internal Document, an elegant response to Clint's original work. As though to suggest how small the scene really was, both of these chapbooks were published by the same press (Streetcar Editions). A student I met at York named Chris Kubsch did an independent study that stemmed from Clint's book and he interviewed several of the key figures and published the interviews under his imprint Suburban Home(made)sick Press. Younger writers were getting involved in their own ways too, such as the Sin Over Tan "school" that I met here and there at York University or at various readings like the Idler Pub Reading Series and Cafe May -- writers who have grown up to become Christian Bök, Darren Wershler, Alana Wilcox, Nancy Dembowski, Bill Kennedy, Mathhew Remski, John Barlow, Peter McPhee, Stephen Cain, Natalee Caple and RM Vaughn (to name a few). Things were happening, it seemed. And then the Internet happened, and I think that distracted everyone a little. Just as the mainstream publishing world has been "reeling" from the effects of the internet, I think that the small press world did the same thing. And just as the Internet was taking off, Crad Kilodney made his exit from the scene, which might have been a smart move. His work does continue to have something of a cult status, and does have some collectors in California -- I wonder if Kilodney would have done better if he'd moved to LA rather than Toronto. There is something of the Bukowski in him, though less of the flophouse asshole kind of literature -- Kilodney is something more like B-movie asshole literature.
But I haven't said anything about the work itself. I did say it might not be great literature, and I think I am comfortable saying that it is not great literature. Despite this, quite a number of Crad's works have stayed with me over the years. There is a story about a hapless doof who overhears someone talking about Thoreau at a party, takes this idea to heart and sells off all that he owns so he can move to the wilderness unburdened by "things" only to die of exposure -- I recall this tale from time to time. "The Poem That Changed the World" is a story that still appeals to my teenage boy self. "Girl on a Subway" I still think about. "Blood Sucking Monkeys from North Tanawanda" -- how could one forget that odd B-movie narrative? "I Chewed Mrs. Ewing's Raw Guts" is like reading "The Tell Tale Heart" through Lewis Carroll Coloured Glasses. His memoirs, published under the titles Excrement and Putrid Scum are interesting and worthwhile documents for any burgeoning writer to be aware of. And I often find myself referring my students to poems from his Charnel House Anthologies of Bad Poetry -- some of the poems in those volumes are truly awesomely bad. And you'd be surprised at the small handful of well-known poets who have work in them too.
A few years ago while working on a degree in Information Science at the University of Toronto, I was lucky enough to land a placement in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. I went in a few times a week and work on a finding aid for a collection of concrete poetry that I'm sure no one will ever look at. I would say that at least half a dozen times while working there I would return from a washroom or snack break to be told: "you just missed Crad!" Each time I left the room that was when he showed up to donate another box of religious pamphlets or alien abduction clippings, both of which he has been collecting for years. They are part of his fonds, which I understand will be sealed until 50 years after his death. Sadly, I guess that won't be long from now.
Friday, October 18, 2013
So now I propose a cage match in which BookThug takes on Random House for the next Palahniuk novella.
Spoiler: we'd turn it down anyway.
Random House: call me.