Whiskey with Al Neil in the Blue Cabin in 1971

(from a longer piece that appeared in Geist 57 in the summer of 2005 )

. . . . Some years later, and many years ago, in 1971, when I went to Dollarton to have a look at Malcolm Lowry country, a couple of hundred squatters in Vancouver were living in a shantytown at the mouth of Stanley Park (the eviction notices and the bulldozers arrived a year later); that spring the Queen had come to town to eat dinner with the navy on Deadman’s Island, which lies at the centre of history in Vancouver, a site of serial evictions of the living and the dead, the dislodgement of a First Nations village and at least one shantytown put to the torch by order of the sheriff’s office.

In 1971 I was trying to keep company with a woman whose enraged and dangerous husband had made it impossible for us to pass an afternoon together anywhere in safety, when the idea came to me of escaping for a day to Dollarton to look for signs of Malcolm Lowry’s shanty. We set out on a blustery day in the rain in a decrepit Chevrolet borrowed from a friend who warned me not let the engine cut out, and we drove into the forested country along Dollarton Highway and tried not to be nervous when blue Volkswagens appeared on the road (the husband, I was told, was driving around in a blue Volkswagen with a loaded rifle in the back seat).

We had entered a long, deserted stretch of highway when the rain began to sluice fiercely down onto the windshield and a gnomish figure appeared at the side of the road draped in a voluminous hooded poncho; as we drew near, a hand emerged from within its folds as if in supplication, and I pulled over with a toe on the brake and heel on the gas, and the gnomish figure—I want to say ancient gnomish figure, for there was something of another age about the androgynous creature now scuttling up to the car—opened the back door and fell into the seat in a heap. I let out the clutch and we jerked onto the road and our passenger let out a whoop and a chuckle, and when I looked into the rear-view there was a little man in the back seat holding up a bottle of Scotch whiskey. Wouldn’t you say it’s time for a drink, he said, and he passed the bottle up and we sipped and drove on in the rain, and he talked on about the pleasantness of the occasion, and I recall that he sang something as well, and chanted to himself perhaps more than to us. We began to climb a long hill and the rain let up, and near the crest of the hill, where there was no sign of habitation, he said that here was where he lived, and as soon as we came to a halt the engine in the Chevrolet sputtered and died. We helped him unload the shopping bags that he had been carrying under the poncho and we saw that he was not as old as we had thought he was: he was probably younger than my father. He lived down, down through the woods, he said, and then he waited while I tried and failed to get the Chevrolet going, and he said that we should come along with him and visit, and he led us into the forest and down a narrow path to the sea.

The path down to the beach lay under a canopy of enormous cedar trees, some of which had been decorated with bits of junk, and near the shoreline, which was rocky and covered in pebbles, more bits of junk had been piled up here and there: twisted and rusted pieces of metal, hubcaps, doorknobs, wooden slats, kitchen utensils, broken glass, miscellaneous stuff stuck into frames and propped up on boulders. He lived on an old barge that looked as if it had washed up on the beach long ago. We followed him up a ramp and onto the deck, and into a ramshackle shady room filled with more miscellaneous junk, and books and papers and a couple of big masks on the walls, and a guitar or perhaps two guitars, and flutes and a tambourine. I remembered having seen a notice in an art gallery, or perhaps it was a review, and I asked if he might be the artist that I was thinking of, and he said yes he probably was that person, whose name was Al Neil: I had seen a mask or perhaps a collage in a gallery somewhere, and I knew that he was a jazz musician of renown, but I don’t remember now how I knew that. He brought out the whiskey and some water and we sat in wicker chairs and looked out over the inlet to the far shore, where the oil refinery that Lowry had put into his stories lay in sunlight, for the clouds were breaking up and the rain had stopped. He said that Malcolm Lowry had lived just down the beach a little farther east. There was nothing that way but stony beach and grassy foreshore. You don’t need to go over there, he said.

It was cool and dark on the barge and there was a wood stove in the room and some kind of sink, and I don’t remember if there was water or if we had to go to a pump somewhere to get water. We drank more whiskey and then we drank some beer that came from the inner recesses of the shack, and Al Neil played something on one of the guitars and then he performed a couple of numbers with the tambourine and the shaker, and then he sat down at a piano that we had not noticed tucked away in the gloom and banged out a few chords. We passed an hour, two hours, hidden away from the world in this strange, perfect refuge. Eventually we said goodbye and made our way back through the fierce outdoor gallery of “objets de refuse,” along the path through the tall trees to the car, which started up with no problem, and we drove on to Dollarton and turned around without having to get out to look for Malcolm Lowry’s place because now we knew everything we would ever need to know about Eridanus. We drove back into Enochvilleport and weeks passed and then we never saw each other again.

Nine years later in the spring, Al Neil appeared in my publishing office, wrapped in a green poncho and dripping water onto the floor. He had no recollection of me. He had a manuscript in a plastic bag under the poncho. When I read the first sentence—“I was good with guns in the second World War, and not bad with the neat little Sten machine gun”—I knew that I wanted to publish it. It was a collection of memoirs, glimpses of a life illuminated by flashes of the war that he had gone to when he was eighteen years old and weighted 125 pounds.

“On the beachhead in Normandy I picked off a big Luger pistol from a dead German soldier lying in a ditch and strapped it around my waist. I ripped off his boots too. They were niftier than mine.” In 1944, the year that Lowry’s shack burned down at Dollarton, Al Neil had stormed off a landing barge during the Normandy invasion, “into the predawn darkness, the sky for miles up and down the beach lit up with flares and thousands of rounds of flak from the anti-aircraft batteries, the gunners shooting like madmen at anything the sky that moved”; eventually he was billetted in Nijmegan, Holland, where he learned to ride around drunk on a big Norton motorcycle as he waited with the 2nd Division for the crossing of the Rhine and the Battle of Arnhem, and the final dislodgement of the Nazi occupation. He was a big jazz man even then, bemused by Mary of Arnhem, the propaganda broadcaster beaming outdated swing music at the Allies from behind Nazi lines while he was reading Downbeat magazine and following the careers of Parker, Monk, Christian and Mingus in Harlem, where the bebop revolution was under way. In “The Forest Path to the Spring,” Lowry’s protagonist is a jazz man living in a shack by the sea at Eridanus, dreaming of Bix Baederbecke, who predates even Mary of Arnhem, as he struggles to recover to a life; in Holland Al Neil was endeavouring to find a life: “I lost my virginity in Holland in 1944, I can’t remember where or anything about it”; he remembers Rotterdam “and the wartime hookers in the bombed out rubble of the city, grinding and churning, touching and touching and sighing in the fleshpots.” In Nijmegan that winter he entertained children with Bach and boogie woogie on the piano. He describes a photograph taken on St. Nicholas Day, December 5, 1944, in the children’s hospital: “there in the back row, is what appears to be a silly, naïve juvenile. That’s me, folks.”

Last year (in 2004) I saw a review of Al Neil’s work, and gathered that he still lives part of the year on the barge on the beach near Dollarton. He seems to have eluded eviction all these years; perhaps he has even eluded other processes of history. Malcolm Lowry is remembered today in the chronology of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation as a “famous author forced out of his paradise” fifty years ago on the beach that is still unceded territory, and which is also named Whey-ah-Wichen: Facing the Wind.

from Geist 57

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National Poetry Daze

This year the mavens of As It Happens on CBC Radio celebrated National Poetry Day on the 22nd of March (the second day of spring) by reading aloud a “poem about spring” written in 1916 by Bliss Carman, the poetaster whose not nearly-enough-forgotten oeuvre has been the bane of five generations of schoolchildren. I happened to be eating a bowl of chili and reading Earle Birney’s literary memoir, Spreading Time, when the bubbly phrasings of Bliss Carman’s “The Soul of April” tripped or pranced or tinkled through the air of my kitchen:

OVER the wintry threshold
Who comes with joy to-day,
So frail, yet so enduring,
To triumph o’er dismay?

Earle Birney was twenty-one years old, a literature student and poetry editor of the student paper at UBC when Bliss Carman appeared on campus in the fall of 1925, an event noted by Birney in the memoir that I was reading with the radio turned on on National Poetry Day. Birney describes Carman in a trailing overcoat, a very long white scarf, and a battered stetson hat, as he strides theatrically into the bush where he remained lost until rescued (by Birney). Carman was a man of “pompous, condescending manner,” whose poems “sounded slick and verbose,” filled with echos of the Victorians whose influence infected the High Culture of the day (and apparently still does at the CBC). “Was there anyone alive and young and coming up?” wonders the young Earle Birney: “Would there ever be anyone to write the Canadian poetry that waited in the air?” For the next seventy years (forty-five of which are covered in this volume), the young and then the older Earle Birney searched out the new poets, publishing them in magazines for which he worked such as Canadian Poetry, Canadian Forum and Northern Review, fostering them in the creative writing programs that he invented; he worked for a lifetime to provide Canadian alternatives to the ready-made formulas of Bliss Carman and his gang of versifiers. Birney’s life was a fight against vapourizing. Spreading Time (Véhicule Press, 1980) is a eye-witness account of the formative years of Canadian literature from 1904 to 1949. It includes Birney’s review of Sarah Binks by Paul Hiebert, the hilarious burlesque of Canadian poetry, culture and criticism; his title Spreading Time is taken from a Binksean effusion on the joy of manure spreading on the farm. “Sarah Binks should be required reading,” Birney writes in 1948, “for all English professors, reviewers and members of the Canadian Authors Association.” Today he would have included Creative Writing Teachers in that list.

Copies of Spreading Time can be found on the internet at $6.00 and up.

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Oblivion, waters of


English Bay 2014

 [Eliot] did, though, behave with characteristic punctilio over the rent. This strange combination of self-distancing and financial propriety was well caught by Bob Dylan in “Too Much of Nothing” (written in 1967):
Say hello to Valerie
Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion

r e s o n a n c e
Sometimes what’s news is inarguable—the the outbreak of war, a head-of-state transition, natural calamity—but very often it falls into the category of the resonant incident.

l o s t     f u t u r e s
Furet valued the belle epoque partly for what it was—cultured and civilized—but also for the promises that it had seemed to hold. He was, like many disillusioned left-wingers, nostalgic for a vanished future.

e x a m i n a t i o n
Q: What did T.S. Eliot have to say about April?
He is thinking of a song he heard on the radio this morning: something about the waters of oblivion. Send her all my salary / from the waters of oblivion. What he heard, the rhyme he understood, was celery. Send her all my celery, he heard. Now he thinks of the tall green celery growing there, the pale green stalks waving wetly in the murky deeps, in the waters of oblivion. He knows these waters well; he has seen the celery. Valerie, I’m sorry, you can keep the car, the furniture, the dishwasher, the children. And the celery, if you must. There are so many bodies here in the examination room, and I am filled with desire.
The gardeners wear flippers and masks, pale green, who go down into the waters of oblivion. Gently, they weed and prune. Their bodies  are smooth, with the smoothness of damp plaster, in that light. They make no sound . . . the gardeners use small, ivory-handled knives, souvenirs of the Jubilee, to slice the celery, to sever the tall green stalks.
At the end, proofread.
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Goethe + Nazis; Surnames, Fate



Wahl appealed directly to Hitler—and met him in 1934—in an effort to obtain funding for the new Goethe museum . . . Hitler assented … and the museum opened in 1935. A bust of Hitler was erected in the foyer of the museum along with a display showing Goethe’s family tree—intended to disprove claims that Goethe had Jewish forebears: a kind of “Aryan certificate” . . . A plaque was put up to commemorate the Fuhrer’s generosity, and a Hitler mediallion rests in the cornerstone to this day. All of this is invisible to those who visit Goethe’s house and the museum today—more than 170,000 every year.

f a t e   i s   t h e   s u r n a m e

The name “Pepys,” says Mr. Clark, emerged in 1496, when one of Samuel’s ancestors entered Cambridge University; but it remained rare, with no more than 40 Pepyses alive at one time, from the 16th to the 18th centuries. In 2002, there were just 18 people keeping the name from extinction.

For a population this small, we should expect, says Mr. Clark, no more than two or three Pepyses, over time, to have enrolled in those venerable British markers of social prestige, Oxford and Cambridge; and yet there have been, to our knowledge, 58.

If your ancestors made it to the top of society—whether defined as the aristocracy or the professional elites of doctors or lawyers—the probability is that you have high social status too, and, unless you make some poor decisions, your children will also inherit your status, and their children too. Random variation over time will ensure that your descendants gradually do make poor decisions—they marry a struggling musician or choose to study art history over finance. And the sum of these decisions, along with such random misfortunes as not inheriting the family pool’s best genes, will ensure that, broadly, your class will regress toward the mean social status of society, but even then the regression will be slower than expected and less than complete.

Mr. Clark proposes the concept of “social competence.” The phrase doesn’t suggest a quality that is directly observable; rather, it can be thought of as the unity of, genes, values, material advantage, and the talent or tendency to select a mate who has the same social competence as you have. Its marker, Mr. Clark asserts, is the surname.

 s u r g e o n

This was the moment the surgeon chose to come downstairs.He was wearing a pale grey hat, and gloves to match.

 r e f e r e n c e   a n d   e x i s t e n c e

“How could a person originating from different parents, from a totally different sperm and egg, be this very woman?” Kripke asks. ”It seems to me that anything coming from a different origin would not be this object.” (113) Williamson responds that we have no choice but to acknowledge that a man as brilliant as Kripke must be aware that the precise genetic makeup of Elizabeth II could in principle have resulted from the fusing of different sperm and egg, as all of the genes of Elizabeth II—or mutations thereof—are floating around elsewhere in the population. “It simply cannot be true,” Williamson concludes, “that it seems to Kripke, as he claims, that Elizabeth II could not be born of different parents.”

 b o l t z m a n

Some of my colleagues are busy arguing about Boltzmann brains.

We’re living proof that atoms can be put together in an elaborate pattern that subjectively feels self-aware. So far, our physics research has turned up no evidence whatsoever suggesting that ours is the only possible path to consciousness. We therefore need to consider the possibility that there may be other kinds of atom arrangements that feel self-aware as well, and that some life-forms (perhaps even we or our descendants) will one day build such entities.

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Approaching Toronto, pre-winter

(having just read Erik Rutherford’s very interesting piece about Toronto in uTOpia, I recalled my own account of encountering Toronto, written some years ago for Geist 51. It was called Other City, Big City)

On the last day of October in Toronto a man in an art gallery said: “Showers should be coming in around 4 p.m. They don’t always get it down to the hour like that.” He was talking about the weather report on the radio. “The last real winter we had here was 1993,” he said. “Most people in this city don’t know what winter is. Ninety-two was big, but it was nothing. No one has any idea.” I was not from Toronto and I had never been there in the winter, so I couldn’t be faulted for not knowing what real winter is in Toronto. Nevertheless I could see that knowing what real winter is would be a sign of belonging, of having a deeper claim on a city that lies open but veiled before the visitor or even the less well-informed resident. There could be no argument with the man in the art gallery, who was profoundly a denizen of the city, an indweller of a place; his easy confidence allowed me to glimpse my own status as an outsider. In a new city, everyone you meet partakes of this quality of the denizen, of the holder of a secret: they deport themselves “naturally” without apparent self-consciousness, crossing streets and walking along sidewalks, rather as children in Quebec are able (miraculously) to speak French without having to think about it. The man in the art gallery was also making a kind of promise: the city has a heart, he seemed to be saying, an underlying truth that can be imputed, inferred, derived, deduced, if not embraced.

For is it not true that we wish to be loved by cities, to be claimed and to be wooed by them, as soon as we enter their precincts? (Is this not the danger of cities?) I had been in Toronto for a single day and could still detect the aura that clings to the merest details of cities when they are new (or is newfangled a better word?): street signs are cast in a peculiar typeface and placed in odd positions at intersections; corner grocery stores have a more crumpled look than in the city we know as home; even cartons of milk are of an unusual colour and everywhere there are election signs (it was Halloween and the civic election campaign was underway) propped in shop windows and stuck on lawns: yellow, blue, red, green, a spectrum of meanings withheld from the outsider, hidden away in banal slogans: A Strong Voice, Experience that Works, The City Needs It, A Proven Record: messages encoded in the local, indecipherable to the outsider. Indeed, in new cities everything partakes of the exotic. The seats on the streetcars are inches lower than the seats on the buses at home: upon first sitting down, one falls into the seat, a clear sign to other riders that an outsider is among them (in Ottawa the escalators, which move at terrific speeds, force newcomers to fight for balance). In the new city, buses, police cars, taxicabs are all the wrong colour (you laugh at the solipsism but remain uneasy: what obscure sophistication might these newfangled colours imply?). We are confused by the protocols of the subway, the ungenerous transfer system that refuses to let you go back or get on where you like (with the result that your pockets are always full of loonies and toonies and quarters: you will not be caught out without exact change). At crosswalks you are required to thrust out a hand and point if you wish to cross the street: this is too much for newcomers, who refuse to humiliate themselves and so cross only in the middle of the block (for how many hours or days will they retain their dignity in this way?). Other cities are an opportunity to put one’s being into question.

Walter Benjamin reminds us that the first glimpse of a town in a landscape is incomparable and irretrievable, made so by the rigorous connection between foreground and distance: habit has not yet done its work. As soon as we begin to find our bearings, the landscape vanishes; here we might say that the cityscape vanishes into the city as soon as it becomes familiar (and therefore invisible); once we can find our way, the first glimpse will never be restored. On the first day the foreground is filled with particulars: the grime in the street, the gravel in the ravine through which a rail line has been cut, appear to belong only here, to Toronto: even the cracks in the sidewalk are highly specific. The air is filled with light, but it is a thin light that reminds one of milk diluted with water.

These are particulars of the new city: the man in the art gallery has long ceased to be aware of them. I do not think of telling him this. I walk for miles along downtown streets and the downtown seems never to end: now I feel the great pleasure of strolling in great cities, of observing and being observed, of having no destination, of submitting to the monotonous, fascinating, constantly unrolling band of asphalt. Now the new city has become a big city, and the promise of the big city carries its own exhilaration: look in any direction and there is no end to it, no visible edge. In Vancouver you can see out of the city from almost anywhere; you are never surrounded, ensconced; but here in Toronto there is no outside (in Saskatoon it is always a surprise to look down a street and see the prairie right there, a few blocks away). Here is something more of the big city, then: the big city is everywhere.

Other cities, big cities: soon everything fades; the familiar approaches too rapidly. Street names devolve into hollow signifiers where for a moment lay mystery: Queen, King, Spadina, Bathurst, Roncesvalles, Carlaw, Logan, Avenue Road, Mount Pleasant, the long vowels of Bloor and the strange spelling of Yonge. An enormous overhead sign on the freeway demands the full attention of all who pass by: DO NOT ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE DISTRACTED WHILE DRIVING SAFELY. Here too, for a moment, meaning is proposed: a vestigial trace of paternalism, of the Presbyterian Church perhaps; soon you will not think of it again.

On my last night in Toronto, a friend who has lived there for thirty years drove me across the city to where I was staying on the west side, and we drove and drove and talked and looked out at the street, and eventually we were driving up and down steep curving streets that wound around and into each other, and my friend confessed happily that he was completely lost: this had never happened to him before. He continued driving and looking at street names, none of which were familiar to him and nor were they to me; we carried on blindly in the strange, labyrinthine neighbourhood, and for a time we were absorbed into the city, which lay all around us, unknown and unapproachable, a secret that we had both forgotten to be there, awaiting us.


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Poets, Occupists, NaNoWriMo-ists

(part 3: excerpted from a longer essay in Geist 83)

The moment from which poetry emerges is often a moment of crisis: in the GoldCorp Centre for the Arts (where the conference concluded), crisis permeated the air we were breathing. Poetry is the struggle between language and time, said one of the poets on the panel, and a moment later he asked: what is to be done? Poetry, which has so little purchase in the world, has nothing to lose; precisely for this reason, in poetry everything is at stake. At the close of the session, the city mayor entered the hall, along with four elders from the Coast Salish Nations, who offered a speech of welcome that did not overlook the unfinished business of history, and then performed a powerful, almost overwhelming song of welcome with drum accompaniment that in its emotional and formal power offered a challenge of its own. Brad Cran, the Poet Laureate of Vancouver, whose brainchild, or brainstorm, the Poetry Conference had been, read a splendid “civic” poem written on the occasion of a gray whale swimming into the middle of the city via False Creek before the astonished eyes of citizens and children who thronged to the seawall to express their wonder. He had given his a poem an ambitious and risky title: “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Gray Whale, After Wallace Stevens and ending with a line from Rilke,” and the risk proved fully worth taking. When he came to the last line, I recalled the erasure poem from Shakespeare’s sonnet that we had heard two days earlier, and heard the two come together: nothing / is more / beautiful / you must change your life. 

. . .

A week after the poets had gone home, and records of the poetry conference had been lodged in the city archives, and the new Poet Laureate had been welcomed to her desk, a hundred or so aspiring novelists met for a NaNoWriMo brunch at Moose’s Down Under Bar and Grille, a walk-down joint that shares a wall with the Vancouver Bullion and Gold Corporation, two blocks from the recycled Bank of Montreal in which the Poetry Conference had opened its deliberations. The novelists, several of whom had visited the Occupists at the Art Gallery, were a slightly more homogeneous a group: predominantly twenty to thirty years old, a sprinkling of teenagers, one or two sexagenarians; a few were costumed (my young friend identified a “very good” Dr. Who, and a “wonderful Carmen San Diego”), and all were ebullient at the prospect of writing a novel in thirty days. Included in the “delegate kits” distributed at the door were strips of yellow crime-scene tape for securing privacy while writing, a 30-day calendar indicating an accumulative word-count at 1667 words per day; a lapel badge consisting of a large, elegant semi-colon; and instructions for making a “plot-device-generator” that resembled the bug snappers used by children as aids to prognostication. A woman with an air of experience sitting at the end of our table advised those who wished to hear to “simply start writing and don’t stop for anything at all.” A young voice in the middle of the room rose above the hubbub to testify that there is “nothing cooler than having fifteen or twenty friends and writers around when you hit the fifty thousand word count.” An informal poll at one table elicited a sampling of novels-in-prospect: a Snow White remake; a post-apocalyptic quest; a re-look at vampires; crazy ass crap about Santa’s daughter; stories of my mother and me; people doing stuff that could turn into adventure, tragedy, horror or scientific miracle. A young man in glasses gazed along the table and said, “I’m not convinced that Harry Potter is over yet.” I want to tell you something: here is where the story starts.


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The Poets and the Occupists, part 2


The old Pulp Press office on the 3rd floor, 440 W Pender















(Part Two of an essay written for Geist)

Who were these poets who had appeared in such numbers? At a glance: women and men in equal numbers; youngish and slightly older, new poets and old poets; lyric poets, formalists, traditionalists, avant-gardists, nature poets, and perhaps even landscape poets and at least one geological poet. Those of us who are not poets (it seemed to me that we all resembled poets) wondered what it would be like to be a single poet among so many others.

The book tables in the foyers were strewn with poetry titles; just to see so many pristine volumes awaiting their first owners was an unexpected thrill. Poets and non-poets strolled in the hallway, browsing through the books, conferring in twos and threes: everyone seemed to be surprised or delighted, at the very least to be on good if not best behaviour; some seemed bemused by some perceived absurdity. I could discern there to be no typical poet or archetypical figure who could stand for all, a fact that was confirmed for me by A Complete Encyclopedia of Different Types of People by Gabe Foreman, a copy of which I picked up at the book table, and in which there is no Poet-type to be found, although poets no doubt can be found within the types listed in its pages, among the woolgatherers, underdogs, sweethearts, snoops, piano tuners, house-sitters and adulterers among the lovesick, innocent bystanders, couch potatoes, control freaks, doormats, day traders, eulogists, frequent flyers, history buffs, late bloomers, optimists, optometrists, etc., etc.

Of the literary disciplines, poetry is the most economical; it requires the least space, the fewest pages, the shortest duration; it pays the lowest rates. Poetry lacks the focussed attention of a large public; it is forever seeking an audience with ears to hear; its practitioners are dedicated to clarity rather than meaning, and the struggle for clarity is itself troubling and uncomfortable, and can lead into the arcane, the complex and the weird. The poets invited to speak on the panels were new enough to the art or craft to have had their first books published after 1990; older poets gave keynote readings; over the four days dozens of sonnets were read aloud, several rants, poems of love and loss and geology; one poet, a Canadian from Brooklyn, plucked a thumb piano as he read aloud, a response (thumbs up or thumbs down?), he implied, to the avant-gardists and their arcane attentions to constraints and controls, technologies of erasure, grammar, syntax, genetics, artificial intelligence. A poet from Montreal proposed a tactical rather than a procedural approach to achieving clarity: that being simply to track every moment of melancholy sadness. The politics of the family was not much in evidence until a poet from Commercial Drive observed that so many present were parents as well as poets, and that for them the task of poetry was informed, surrounded, blocked, circumscribed, by the task of parenting, the uncomfortable, difficult gerund derived from the Latin, to bring forth. Someone in the audience proposed that poetry is a dialogue with the dead. I love this question, said one of the panelists. The border between yes and no is porous, observed another poet in another context (the context of poetry implies all contexts); the same poet spoke as well of my dear, difficult, departed ones.

Poetry is inherently of the moment—the moment of composition, of memory, of speaking aloud; the moment extends far from the present instant, from the poet’s desk, this keyboard, this podium, this lectern. A poem yearns for space in which to be uttered, in which to be received. At the Poetry Conference such a place was staked out in these halls once intended for shoppers and bankers, all of this, as we learned, on unceded land, land that remains in a profound way unowned. Poetry within itself is also contested: genre wars are part of the struggle for clarity; excavation and discovery are applied to the body of poetry, as well as to one’s experience of the world, and to continents and subcontinents. A poet who applied an eraser to a sonnet by Shakespeare came up with nothing / is more / beautiful. On introducing it, he said, this one is for Wall Street, and thereby reassigned it to a moment in hand.

On the evening of the third day I walked over to the art gallery and observed the Occupists in the plaza using the wind-it-up signal in their general assembly; the human microphone was in evidence as well, and slow ripples of speech moved through the crowd. A repertoire of hand signals had been drawn on a sheet of cardboard, indicating consensus, disagreement, point of process, repeat, block, clarify, but the wind-it-up sign was not there. Among the tents and the loitering police officers were signs of occupation exhorting passersby to occupy their minds and hearts, to have hope, to $top corporate power, to wake up and smell the oppression, and citing, among other things, the contested status of unceded Coast Salish lands. The art gallery, with its ionic columns and vast central dome, is another recyled venue: it had originally housed the Vancouver Courthouse and served as a point of public display for visiting kings and queens; after its conversion (when the city began post-modernizing itself in the 1980s), it became a contemporary site of protest and demonstration; it retains on its exterior staircase a pair of enormous African lions carved en couchant from Nelson Island granite and whose stern, sightless gaze, fixed on the limitless domain of Empire, disregards equally the demonstrators, the police, the passersby and the passage of history.

(to be continued)

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The Poets and the Occupists

Pulp Press Offices one block from the Poetry Conference

The old Pulp Press office is still standing after 40 years, a block away from the Poetry Conference




(Part One of an essay written for Geist)

In the middle of October 2011, some two hundred poets and friends of poetry from across the country descended on Vancouver for four days of readings, talks, discussion, gossip and high-level binge drinking. The event was the second Vancouver Poetry Conference (the first took place forty-eight years ago), the full name of which, to mark the city’s quasquicentennial was the Vancouver 125 Poetry Conference, and it occupied three downtown venues in succession: a recycled Bank of Montreal and two recycled department stores. Less formal venues extended to several east side bars and restaurants, the Listel Hotel in the West End and the Arts Club in the recycled industrial park on Granville Island.

No one could remember, or imagine, so many poets in the city, in public, at the same time. The first panel session (there were twenty-five in all) opened in the ex-Bank of Montreal on Granville Street—an Edwardian temple with immense vaulted and coffered ceiling, marble pilasters, bronze newel posts and “decorative fire hose cabinet.” One of the panelists—an “avant-gardist,” I was told—presented a summary of Robert’s Rules of Order in place of a poem, or perhaps as a poem, and exceeded his allotted time while demonstrating the “wind it up” signal (circling the hand in the air with index finger extended) employed by the Occupy movement to urge long-winded speakers to a close.

The Occupy movement had coalesced on the lawn in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery two and half blocks from the ex-Bank of Montreal, and over the next four days the flow of energy and ideas, confrontations and contradictions generated by the Occupists flowed into sessions of the Poetry Conference, where, as it turned out, Robert’s Rules, even in the modifed form developed by the Occupists (described by a tweeter as “Robert’s Rules on ecstasy”), were not required, despite the misgivings of organizers (and some of the poets) who feared that poets in large numbers might get out of hand.

On the second and third days of the Poetry Conference, I attended several sessions in the recycled Sears department store a block north of the ex-Bank of Montreal. Several panel moderators in their opening remarks cited the unceded status of the Coast Salish territory on which we were meeting and which the city has occupied since its founding in 1866, and one of them offered thanks for being welcomed onto that land by First Nations hosts at the opening ceremony)—sentiments that one might be tempted to dismiss as merely polite, but as the discussions unfolded, and more poems were read aloud, recited, and talked about, these polite comments began to take on an edge, for the range of subject matter, the scope of imagination explored in the poems and in the discussion surrounding them, extended to the land and its occupiers at many levels: economic, historical, cultural, ecological, geological, technological. Every moment of the Poetry Conference could be said to be troubled or textured by occupation; it soon became clear that every moment was in some way politically charged.

(to be continued)


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DM Fraser responds to Margaret Atwood in 1974

From 3-Cent Pulp, Vol. 2 No. 1 May, 1974

DM Fraser relaxing with a beer at the Inn Transit circa 1978

DM Fraser circa 1978, photo: John Reeves

D.M. Fraser offered one of the very few negative responses to Margaret Atwood’s second novel, Surfacing, after it appeared in 1972. This piece appeared in the 4-page zine published every two weeks by Pulp Press, and was appreciated widely for its scathing treatment of the standard Canlit of the day, a critique that remains equally applicable forty years later.

By the time I came to read Surfacing, the novel had already established itself as some kind of Canadian Ur-Myth, the Great Summing Up of All Our Serious Themes. Enough to put anyone off, especially someone who suspects (as I do) that the themes Canadian writers like best to take seriously are remarkable chiefly for their banality, provincialism, chauvinism: the awful hillbilly earnestness of the Official Literature, so beloved of the Canada Council and people who write long poems about The Land and print them in sepia. It hasn’t been easy to escape Surfacing as the apotheosis of the genre, the novel that finally, definitively, gets our national shit together, thereby—coincidentally?—demonstrating once again the perspicacity of Ms. Atwood’s famous Victim Thesis as expounded in Survival. Given such a context, I was prepared to be humbled—and bored.

As it turned out, I was neither humbled nor (in fairness) bored; it isn’t possible to be humble in the presence of the wilfully third-rate, or to be bored by a book which infuriates to the point of frenzy. In fact, it was rather a lot of fun throwing Surfacing around the living-room, defacing it with rude comments, pacing up and down muttering curses; it’s been a long time—all the way since Beautiful Losers—since a Canadian novel had any effect on me at all. But I’m afraid my response wasn’t so much to Surfacing itself, as a piece of writing neither more nor less inept than most of what gets subsidized and praised here, as it was to the climate in which a work of consistent and self-congratulatory feeblemindedness can be sold, bought and thereafter glorified as an exemplary achievement, as something major. This book, whatever else it may be, is not major. It is so relentlessly minor that you could play it at a funeral and everyone would fall asleep.

As just about everyone knows, Surfacing is the story of a young woman, lately city-sophisticated, who goes home to the North Woods, in the company of some slick friends, to look for her father and ends up by Finding Herself, or some approximation thereof, in a (pseudo-) confrontation with Primeval Forces, one of which may or may not be Daddy. What an opportunity to combine the worst of Ernest Hemingway and Doris Lessing, and in an Authentic Canadian Setting, too! lrresistible . . . . Here are all the standard contrasts: Effete City vs. Tough Existential Bush, Conditioned Sanity vs. Primitive Madness, Emerging Woman vs. Oppressive Male, and best of all, our own very special local twist, Rapacious America vs. Victimized Canada. Add a dollop of Post-Hippie Coitus (see, we’ve come of age, haven’t we?), a dash of Endangered Scenery, a handful of Hardy Quebecois (two cultures, right?), and several cupfuls of Graduate School lntrospection, and there you have it: yessir, the Great Canadian Novel itself, just the sort of thing MacLeans and Saturday Night will lick up by the shovelful. As, predictably, they did.

Well, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because formulas aren’t themes, subject-matter is not content (cf John Berger), and content is not a matter of painting-by-number on the grid of our supposed national neuroses. Stereotypes, as the Great Critic said (rightly, for once) aren’t archetypes. There’s not a single realized human character in the whole of Surfacing—only a crew of one-dimensional clichés wandering around acting out the parts assigned to them by some Royal Commission on the Meaning of Life in Canada. There isn’t a single insight, a single flicker of political revelation, that hasn’t been hammered into baby powder by every liberal-bourgeois publication in the country since 1967. There isn’t a glimmer of self-perception that isn’t corroded, deformed, by self-indulgence, self-pity, the cant and posturing of Pop-psych. In place of feeling, we’re served a smorgasbord of leftover sentimentalities topped with cheap ironies like stale whipped cream; in place of thought, a catalogue of lnformation Canada platitudes; in place of reasoned political analysis, an undigested lump of anti-American rhetoric no self-respecting paranoiac would lay claim to. And, at the end, we have a cop-out even in terms of the novel itself: another of those weary reconciliations in which, god help us, Revolt is snuffed out in the great damp blanket of lnstant Transcendence. Women take note: the message here, what Surfacing at last comes down to, is that Woman’s place really is, after all, with her Man, just as long as he’s a Canadian: “he may have been sent as a trick. But he isn’t an American, I can see that now; he isn’t anything, he is only half-formed, and for that reason I can trust him.” Surfacing? Submerging’s more like it.

There’s more to complain of: secondary characters (i.e., everyone but the narrator) treated with condescension and/or contempt, prose that must have been cut with a dull knife from a mound of melting textbooks (How to Write Groovy and lnfluence People), scene upon scene that sinks like a waterlogged condom under the burden of enforced Significance. As a poet, Margaret Atwood has shown that she’s capable of incision and lucidity ; as an editor (of Bill Bissett’s Nobody owns th earth), that she does have an acute literary judgement. But there is no discernible incision or lucidity in Surfacing; and the wisest exercise of judgement, in this instance, might well have been to have flushed the manuscript down the drain.

But the real outrage here is that we are, as a “nation,” so obsessed with our (nonexistent) Cultural Identity that we are willing to settle for, and embrace, any sort of pretentious mediocrity which offers itself for our consumption, willing to accept any seriosity as seriousness, any topicality, however trivial, as Relevance, any narcissism as self-criticism, any thesis-izing as evidence of intelligence, any “Canadian Content”’ as actual content. Drivel like Surfacing gets touted in the press, writers of limited gifts like Margaret Atwood get transmogrified into culture-heroes (or heroines), billboards flog the New Canada (where dat?) as if it were a new brand of mouthwash, while we remain the same backwater, the same breeding-ground of pious kitsch, we always have been—and while we proceed, with murderous innocence, down precisely the same paths we’ve loved to condemn the United States for taking. If, as some suppose and Margaret Atwood apparently fears, this country will eventually be swallowed up—politically and culturally as already economically—by our more powerful neighbour, we need have no regrets: having championed, encouraged, inferiority for so long, we can scarcely consider it hardship, or change, to have another kind of inferiority imposed upon us. If a book like Surfacing is typical of what we value, then it may be that we have no sense of value worth defending, and no “identity” beyond the empty rationalizations of self-aggrandisement.

In any event, I eagerly await Ms. Atwood’s forthcoming books: Simonizing, Sanforizing, Sinking . . . .

— D. M. Fraser

Notes: Saturday Night was a middle-brow magazine of art and politics, and the Great Critic was Northrop Frye.

Class Warfare, a collection of short fiction by D.M. Fraser written between 1972 and 1974, will be published in a new edition this fall by Arsenal Pulp Press.


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Mr. Tubesteak and the School Teacher

Mehrab Arbab

Twenty-nine years ago in Fanuj in south­ern Iran, Mehrab Arbab, a high school teacher who today oper­ates the Mr. Tube Steak hot dog stand at the Broadway SkyTrain sta­tion in Vancouver, escaped from the Revolutionary Guard of Ayatollah Khomeini, when they took twenty-six teach­ers from the school at which Mehrab Arbab taught English, his­tory and geog­ra­phy, and killed them all. Mehrab Arbab and five of his col­leagues were attend­ing dis­cus­sion groups in the nearby city of Iranshahr; when the killing squad came look­ing for them at the wrong house, they fled into the foothills of White Mountain and lay low for three months among the sym­pa­thetic ­Baluch ­pop­u­la­tion before cross­ing into Pakistan with the help of a pro­fes­sional smug­gler. Since that day in 1982, Mehrab Arbab has never been back to Iran.

In early February 2011, while he pre­pared an All Beef Smokie for me, with fried onions and a lit­tle extra toast­ing on the bun, he pointed out that of the exe­cu­tions in Iran, which had been tak­ing place at the rate of three a day since the begin­ning of the year, one-third of the vic­tims were from his home ter­ri­tory of Baluchestan, where the oppres­sion, which began under the regime of the shahs and inten­sifed under the Ayatollah, has never ceased. I went around to the other side of the stand to dress my Smokie with sauer­kraut, rel­ish, mus­tard, sliced pep­pers. Zahra Bahrami, the Dutch-Iranian woman who had returned to Iran after an exile of some twenty-two years, had just been hanged in Tehran after a far­ci­cal trial: she had been protest­ing the rigged elec­tions of 2009. That is why I never go back, even after twenty-nine years, he said; they will kill me just like they killed her.

Mehrab Arbab has five chil­dren, some of them grown up with chil­dren of their own. The youngest is in grade 9; the eldest have grad­u­ated from uni­ver­sity. He and his wife own a large house in Coquitlam, where three gen­er­a­tions of their fam­ily live together. When he fled to Pakistan in 1982, he had to leave his wife and two chil­dren in Fanuj; even­tu­ally he was able to move them to Islamabad, Pakistan, and then he had to move on alone to Dubai to find work, and to begin sav­ing money for for­eign travel papers. He was twenty-seven years old. He had a younger brother of sev­en­teen, who was picked up by “recruiters” dur­ing the Iran-Iraq war and put into uni­form along with sev­eral other young men from his neigh­bour­hood, trans­ported into the moun­tains and shot to death at the side of the road; pho­tographs of the corpses were exchanged for bounty money sup­plied by agents of Saddam Hussein. Mehrab Arbab’s eyes filled with tears as he told me this story. I searched sev­eral times on Google Earth for the city of Fanuj but failed to find it until I dis­cov­ered the cor­rect spelling, and even then I could never get down to Google Earth street view with­out the image break­ing up into pancake-like frag­ments. Apparently there are no Google cam­eras work­ing at street level in Baluchestan, which ren­ders in Google Earth as an undu­lat­ing sea of brown and grey moun­tains, ragged plateaus and what appear to be dry riverbeds. The web page IranTourOnline names sev­eral winds of Baluchestan, among them the sev­enth wind, the 120-day wind, the south wind and the north and west winds, and the humid wind from the Indian Ocean; there is very lit­tle water in Baluchestan, which seems from a dis­tance to be a coun­try scoured with wind and dust. Mehrab Arbab speaks warmly of the Fanuj of his youth and the nearby moun­tains: a very beau­ti­ful coun­try, he says; he has never men­tioned the wind. His attach­ment to his home­land is evi­dent in his face when­ever he speaks of it. His fam­ily and the extended Arbab clan had been farm­ers in Baluchestan, he says, for more than three gen­er­a­tions, grow­ers of dates, figs, pome­gran­ates, mel­ons, grapes, rice and vegetables.

Google Earth pro­vides a hallu­cinatory ren­der­ing of the Broad­way SkyTrain sta­tion and the umbrella that marks the Mr. Tube Steak stand: a corona of red and white petals resem­bling a bull’s eye from the Google view­point in the sky; even the base­ball cap worn by Mehrab Arbab can be seen clearly as you zoom down in Google Earth to street level, where the Mr. Tube Steak stand reap­pears face-on beneath its colour­ful umbrella. A small group are gath­ered before it and Mehrab Arbab can been seen tend­ing the bar­be­cue, but there are only a few passersby in the pic­ture, no sign of the thou­sands of pas­sen­gers mov­ing through the sys­tem every hour at the SkyTrain sta­tion; the nearby eater­ies can also be seen from the mid­dle of the street: McDonald’s, Quiznos, Fresh Slice Pizza, Megabite Pizza, Uncle Fatih’s Pizza, A&W — all con­joined by a few stretches of grey con­crete and black asphalt.

Mehrab Arbab worked at odd jobs in Dubai for ten years to raise the $4,500 he needed for papers and pas­sage to Sweden. When it was time for him to depart, com­pli­ca­tions led to the flight being can­celled; his ticket agent, or smug­gler, had taken a lik­ing to Mehrab Arbab, he says, and found him a replace­ment pack­age for Canada — which nor­mally would have cost $10,000 — at no extra charge. The smuggler’s route took him to Sofia, Bulgaria, and then non-stop to Ottawa, where, in April 1992, Mehrab Arbab was awarded refugee sta­tus. Later that year he moved to Edmonton, where a friend from Fanuj, another exiled school­teacher, ran the Mr. Turtle’s Pizza near Northlands Coliseum, where Mehrab Arbab found his first employ­ment in Canada. In Edmonton, his sinuses dete­ri­o­rated in the cold weather and a doc­tor rec­om­mended that he move west to Vancouver, which he did in 1994, twelve years after leav­ing his home­town of Fanuj, and on March 31 of that year, a day that he refers to as the happy day, he was reunited with his wife and chil­dren at Vancouver International Airport. They found an apart­ment on Broadway near Main Street, and then a house on Beatrice Street near Kingsway. Mehrab Arbab worked as a gas sta­tion atten­dant and then at Johnny’s Pizza on West 4th. Sixteen years ago he moved into the Mr. Tube Steak fran­chise and went hard to work, some would say relent­lessly to work at the SkyTrain sta­tion. He can be found there today six days a week, rain or snow, a father, hus­band, grand­fa­ther, home­owner and entrepreneur.

Absent from the Google Earth view of the Mr. Tube Steak stand at the SkyTrain sta­tion are the street peo­ple to be found in great abun­dance on a sunny day such as the day in May depicted in Google Earth street view, who along with the usual stream of com­muters seem to have been removed or air­brushed out of the pic­ture: the pan­han­dlers and side­walk sit­ters with their large sleepy dogs; silent Jehovah’s Witnesses hold­ing up copies of the Watchtower, elderly anti-abortionists with their plac­ards and hand­outs, evan­ge­lists hold­ing out their tiny brochures, the ven­dor of used books in plas­tic bags set out against the wall of the Bank of Montreal; the Aboriginal artist who dis­plays his cards and paint­ings against the wall of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce, the skinny guy pac­ing up and down, rif­fling two or pos­si­bly three pack­ages of cig­a­rettes through the fin­gers of one hand as if they were play­ing cards, inton­ing with­out empha­sis: smokes five bucks a pack, smokes five bucks a pack. Some days a tall man strides through the crowd with a pigeon on his head; one after­noon I observed him break off a piece of a hot dog pur­chased from the Mr. Tube Steak stand and pass it up to the pigeon.

Mehrab Arbab is often vis­ited at the Mr. Tube Steak stand by fel­low Baluch, dig­ni­fied men who shake hands when intro­duced; Mehrab Arbab keeps a stack of All Beef Smokies at the back of the grill for his Muslim clients, who like them well done, he says. In 2009, dur­ing the street demon­stra­tions in Iran, he told me that he thinks of him­self as Iranian as much as he might be Baluch. Persian is my sec­ond lan­guage, he said. But I like to speak Baluchi. What will you have, dear, he says to all who approach the stand, and here you go, dear, he says when he hands over the Tube Steak in its bun and paper wrap­per, with a nap­kin. He sug­gested that I look into the life and death of Daad Shah, a promi­nent Baluch rebel who had opposed the Shah of Iran in the 1950s. Mehrab Arbab’s nec­es­sar­ily frag­mented accounts of the his­tory of his coun­try, which I obtained dur­ing many brief con­ver­sa­tions inter­rupted by cus­tomers buy­ing Smokies, Tube Steaks, soft drinks and fruit juice, or passersby ask­ing direc­tions, implied that the CIA had fig­ured in the fall of Daad Shah, whose death was ordered by the Shah after the assas­si­na­tion of a CIA agent. Daad Shah was killed in 1957 in a bat­tle between Baluch fac­tions strug­gling for posi­tion under the regime installed by he CIA in 1953, dur­ing Operation Ajax, when Mehrab Arbab was one year old. Operation Ajax was a botched inter­ven­tion that should have failed; its acci­den­tal suc­cess led the CIA on to fur­ther inter­ven­tions, as Mehrab Arbab put it, in Guatemala, the Bay of Pigs, Vietnam, Chile, El Salvador and the more recent fias­cos that punc­tu­ate U.S. for­eign pol­icy. All of that began in Iran, he said. Mehrab Arbab was kin to the wife of Daad Shah, her­self a heroic fig­ure of resis­tance who lived into old age; one of Mehrab Arbab’s brothers-in-law was nephew to a leader of the oppos­ing fac­tion, who was killed in the open­ing salvo in the fac­tional bat­tle of 1957.

A his­tory of the CIA in Iran writ­ten by James Risen and pub­lished in 2000 in the New York Times con­firms the frag­men­tary account that Mehrab Arbab pro­vided me dur­ing my vis­its to the Mr. Tube Steak stand over the course of a year. The skep­ti­cism that Mehrab Arbab and his friends felt toward the like­li­hood of democ­racy ever emerg­ing in Iran were founded in recent his­tory: the CIA, the Mossad, the agen­cies that invented the tor­ture squads and the secret police under the Shah of Iran, would never allow democ­racy, he said; they want their own strong man. The oppres­sion in Iran today is as bad as or worse than ever; the only hope that Mehrab Arbab feels for his home­land these days is in the Iranian proverb “There is fire beneath the ashes” — the power is still with the peo­ple, he says, and he points to the bar­be­cue. Under the layer of ash, the fire waits to break out.

Mehrab Arbab dri­ves into the city every morn­ing in his Nissan van, haul­ing the Mr. Tube Steak trailer, which con­tains the bar­be­cue, side burner, propane tank and dis­tinc­tive red and white umbrella; a few days a week he stops at Costco to renew sup­plies of condi­ments, buns and hot dogs; the other sausages he picks up as needed from spe­cialty sup­pli­ers. He unhitches the trailer and pulls it into posi­tion in the shade of the SkyTrain tracks at about ten and raises the umbrella; by ten-thirty or eleven the battery-powered refrig­er­a­tor and the cooler filled with pop and dry ice are in posi­tion beside the trailer; the condi­ments are set out: ketchup, hot sauce, three kinds of mus­tard, chopped onion, rel­ish, sauer­kraut, mixed sliced pep­pers. He switches on the bar­be­cue, lays out sausages on the grill, spreads onions in the fry­ing pan. He plugs his iPod into a fur-covered speaker designed to look like ET. The iPod is loaded with pop music selected by his old­est son, who refreshes the selec­tion every cou­ple of months. Mehrab Arbab will still be there under the SkyTrain sta­tion at seven or eight in the evening, as long as the demand lasts. When he gets back to the house in Coquitlam he puts in a final hour clean­ing the equip­ment and the uten­sils. Then he is ready, he says, for another day.

Partisans of the Mr. Tube Steak style of hot dog can be found on the I Love You Mr. Tube Steak Facebook page, which lists three “offi­cers” in Vancouver and one in New York City, and a “cre­ator” in Victoria. Many are devoted to the Smokie filled with cheese and jalapenos: “the great­est jalapeno and cheese sausage hot dog on the street,” writes one fan; another says, “Oh I love you Mr. Tube Steak.”

Mehrab Arbab takes his own lunch to work every day: veg­eta­bles, cheese, flat­bread made at home on the stove. But he too is a par­ti­san of the jalapeno cheese dog; every two weeks he allows him­self one Spicy Smokie smoth­ered in fried onions, sauer­kraut and pep­per slices. In February this year he watched a Persian-language doc­u­men­tary of an Iranian engi­neer who fled from the Revo­lutionary Guard and landed in Germany, where he is now a ven­dor of hot dogs on the street. Mehrab Arbab was pleased to report that the title of the doc­u­men­tary is The Engineer and the Hot Dog Man.

—also published on geist.com

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What is a cultural magazine?

I have started a new blog over at blogger.com devoted the question of what constitutes a cultural magazine. Many arts and literary publishers are struggling to adopt or adapt to the standard magazine publishing models as exhibited by entertainment, news and lifestyle publications that thrive in a world of periodicity and renewal (ie: a consumer world). Literary and arts magazines do not thrive by following this pattern.

Some of Rowland Lorimer’s findings in his study of the Alberta magazine industry have become part of the discussion.
See: What is a cultural magazine?

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Word Cloud

Here is terrific summary of a story in Geist, from www.wordle.net:

(thanks to Lauren Ogston)

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Father, dinner, spiritual machine, excremental

I am preparing to adjust the spiritual machine under the floorboards at the publishing office, which is somewhere out of town, east and south (a large upstairs space shared with other operations). The floors are made of squares of stiff composite of some kind, which can be lifted up at the corner to reveal a supporting structure of boxes about 4 or 5 feet square and a foot deep. I lift up a couple of corners and there is nothing in the boxed spaces below. Dad calls and says that he will be coming along to give a hand on his way to visit others in the family. It will be a while before he arrives. The office manager and another man–I am their superior–say the spiritual machine is working fine and shouldn’t be taken apart until later in the week. I wonder if I should call Dad and tell him not to come: he may have been bringing dinner with him as well. As I think of Dad I keep seeing glimpses of Richard Nixon, but I know that it wasn’t Richard Nixon’s voice on the phone. I have the formula for fixing the spiritual machine on a disk labeled with a list of its contents: I have forgotten what was in the list except for “files” and “formul”–the misspelling seems significant when I see it in the dream and then I am aware of another dinner coming up, and I hear a voice say “Guess who’s coming to dinner,” and I think of Sydney Poitier, and remember or foresee an upcoming dinner with three friends in waking life, on Thursday.

Early in the morning I woke up and read more Jung: a sentence describing the dangers of untrammelled intuition, floating away from the earth. The dream that followed was stark and to the point: I was putting on my good shirt, and realized that it was inside out and that it was smeared with–as they say–excrement! It was disgusting but necessary, and quite odourless. I considered turning the shirt inside out so that no one would see the shitty side but that would mean it would be next to my skin. I was looking into a mirror as this was taking place.

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Short day, long night

Today is my father’s birthday. We always called it the shortest day of the year: he said it was an easier birthday to get through than other birthdays. We ignored the fact that it was also the longest night of the year.

My father took his own life two years ago, a few months before his eighty-fifth birthday. He was unable to find happiness or peace, but he knew how to find the end.

This tiny publication is a memorial of sorts, written after dispersing his ashes one year after he died.

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In the mail today a copy of Readers Digest arrived containing a cheque and a story of mine published ten years ago and collected in 2007 in an anthology called Body Breakdown. The original story appeared on www.openletters.net, the epistolary venture undertaken by Paul Tough after his tenure as editor of Saturday Night, the general interest magazine of some renown that Conrad Black buried a few years later. Open Letters published a new letter every week for six months, and displayed them with an epistolary flourish in monospaced courier type, which reminded us in 2000, of the not-yet-so-lost-age of writing with typewriters.

Paul Tough has since worked as an editor at New York Times Magazine and Harpers. He has kept Open Letters alive for readers, who can find it at www.openletters.net.

My Body Breakdown story in its original form can be found on Open Letters under the title on getting sick, and well. Along with another story that I think is more successful, called on stigmata.

Readers Digest claims to connect to 9 million Canadians. To appear in its pages is surely to arrive (somewhere)!

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