Ever since Stuart Ross posted a link on Facebook to what the author claims will be his last story published during his lifetime, I have been thinking of Crad Kilodney. I have been thinking of him because in the comments thread Stuart says that he is ill -- he has not chosen to quit writing/publishing again. In a way it has been chosen for him. I don't know what the illness in question is, but I'm saddened to hear that his is ill. I've never thought of him as old. But as someone who falls in and out with authors, it got me thinking about my own intertwined history with this author. Also, let's be frank: "Dreaming with Jay" was weird to read, because it is the story of two people, John and Jay. Both of these are my names. Such are the weird coincidences that can set off a person's thinking. But "Dreaming with Jay" really is a lovely swan song sort of story. You should read it.
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.