Folklore and Graffiti: A (Potential) Study of Spatial Tactics and Urban Fantasy (Part II)

A graffit-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal
A graffiti-tagged lion guarding the gate to Chinatown, Montreal

When we left off last week, I was trying to prove that graffiti interrupts the rational order of the city, as a spatial tactic, and therefore can be compared to urban fantasy, inasmuch as it too subverts conventional “consensus reality.” I quoted Bramley Dapple in Charles de Lint’s short story “Uncle Dobbin’s Parrot Fair,”  who says, “We live in a consensual reality where things exist because we want them to exist. […] Yet if you were to listen to the world at large, Goon [Dapple’ gnome companion] is nothing more than a figment of some fevered writer’s imagination—a literary construct, an artistic representation of something that can’t possibly exist in the world as we know it” (Dreams Underfoot 24). Dapple implies in a metafictional moment that collective belief is what defines reality. However, this definition of what constitutes reality can only be explained by an investigation of what forces in society constitute reality itself.

This is why, in North American especially, consensus reality is a political issue.

The rationalist, Cartesian, scientific discourse that divides space into a square grid is inextricably opposed to the perspective of ‘traditional,’ and especially indigenous, worldviews, which contain an entirely different ontology, or definition of what things are. I have explored problems of this conflict in other articles: among the Maori and Icelanders. Our consensual reality is tied up with capitalism. Our mode of production, to use a Marxist term, structures how power works and how ideas are disseminated in our society. It is also connected with the imperialism that was responsible for the expulsion and disenfranchisement of indigenous civilization in North America. Perhaps in introducing Native American mythology in books like Moonheart, Charles de Lint attempts to subvert the ideology that enables imperialism by presenting another ontology as valid. Charles de Lint’s urban fantasy can then be seen as subversive, inscribing, through his texts, the identity and worldview of traditional cultures—both Celtic and Native American—on the rational cityscape. (Although, this has been seen as problematic given certain accusations against de Lint’s cultural appropriation. See his response in his Afterword to Mulengro.)

A whimsical yet mythical mural on St. Laurent Blvd. in Montreal
A whimsical yet mythical mural on St. Laurent Blvd. in Montreal

Let us now take a brief interlude and go explore through an example what I mean to say when comparing spatial tactics to urban fantasy. Remember: urban fantasy combines the space-time associated with urban reality and ‘crosshatches’ it with that of the folktale. You are walking on the street one day near the Redpath Museum on McGill campus, let’s say. Then in a glimpse of sublime might, you see the god Pan, cloven-hoofed and decked with horns on his head, standing against the wall. You blink. Pan is gone, but he has left his mark: you recover a set of panpipes. Maybe he sprayed his name in aerosol over the wall, but it would be partly the same effect. The panpipes are a sign: the god not only exists, but also, it is implied, every narrative, every myth, in which the god participates. He exists, but the meaningful space and time in which he exists also exists.

You come to recognize that if Pan is real, then the universe is operating according to a narrative, that the world is heterogeneous, divided between mundane and numinous realities. You have encountered “Story” and such a universe cannot have the random disorder which scientists assure us is the law of the universe.

This world of “Story” means that the Barthesian text of the city is altered forever and that you can conceive the world as whole—not as fragmented and shattered. “The worldness of the world” is restored, which, for Fredric Jameson, is a key mark of the romance genre, on which so many fantasy novels are based (98). In our capitalist mode of production, Jameson implies, romance lets us to re-imagine our alienated society as one, though this has an effect of painting an illusory picture of social reality. Charles de Lint operates less according to a Marxist agenda—which is my critique of how he deals with the urban—but he does align his ‘subversion’ of the urban squarely with the structure outlined in Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories.” He places more of an emphasis on the transcendent encounter with the fantastic and numinous ‘other.’ If the urban world is threatened again with fragmentation—if there is “Wrongness” that appears, threatening it with “Thinning”—then a hero, “Recognizing” the true “Story,” might attempt to “Heal” the city. This is possible in fantasy unlike in social realism, implying the utopian potential of fantasy, which de Lint sometimes invokes, as in the harmonious blending of Native American and Celtic cultures in Moonheart. What Charles de Lint’s novels ultimately do, is attempt to rescue this sense of “Story” from the fragmented urban world, as it already exists for us.

An example of political graffiti, which like sectarian graffiti, marks out a particular kind of space. In this case, a French Canadian Montrealer has expressed solidarity with the Scottish separatists.
An example of political graffiti, which like sectarian graffiti, marks out a particular kind of space. In this case, a French Canadian Montrealer has expressed solidarity with the Scottish separatists.

Like “sectarian graffiti,” de Lint’s novels “make real, by making visible, certain claims to ownership: to convert space into territory” (243). You have all likely seen pictures, at least, of gang tags in bus shelters, a scribble of “FTP” perhaps or, in my province especially, a scrabble of “Vive le Quebec Libre!” These are examples of (respectively) African-Americans asserting space free from the racial profiling of police officers and of French-Canadians declaring that, in this space, there is a people who wish for Quebec to become an independent, de-colonized nation. Subaltern groups especially—those cultural communities who are ‘invisible’— feel an existential need to assert their existence in urban space.

Space is a hot topic given the many land claims First Nations groups are attempting to have Parliament approve. I believe that these claims to territory challenge how poets like Earle Birney have thought of Canada as a “country without a mythology,” because we are too young a nation. In fact, Canada is an ancient country with an erased mythology. These Native American myths, irrelevant to European settlers, have been forgotten, seen as irrelevant and peripheral to modernity—in a word, backwards. Urban fantasy might be a way of asserting not only the space of subaltern territories, but the sacred space of indigenous populations.

The effect would not be dissimilar to bringing the Native American Crow Girls to the center of Montreal in that mural—from the offshore reserve at Kahnawà:ke to a central neighbourhood not far from the transportation hub of the Decarie Expressway. Urban fantasy has an analogous effect: it brings peripheral mythologies and cultures into a central fictionalized-but-real city, in a similar way to how actual cities centralize and condense the populations of entire countries—and indeed form a multinational concentration of many cultures from across the globe.

Urban fantasy can be used in such a way that it engages in a project of representation of postcolonial narratives, bringing them within the central, urban spaces of Canada. In this way, urban fantasy contributes to the postcolonial genre of “New Fantasy” that Lawrence Steven argues expresses a particularly Canadian expression of hybrid identity—an identity composed of a fusion of opposites: central/peripheral, self/other, indigenous/migrant.

panLastly, there is one more potential similarity between spatial tactics and urban fantasy: the idea of play. W.R. Irwin in The Game of the Impossible defines fantasy as a genre of play: a structured game that does not have direct consequences on reality, but enables us to imagine how to deal with reality in a ‘safe’ way. The emblematic deity of play is Pan himself, “the spirit of the Arcadian,” who is “the deity whose disorder is both freedom and discipline” (157). Is it a coincidence that de Lint based Greenmantle on Lord Dunsany’s Blessing of Pan? Perhaps not. When Pan appears in the urban landscape, perhaps a break from the ‘serious’ world is signaled and with an introduction into the world of ‘play.’

However, I object to Irwin on one account: that fantasy as play cannot influence the real world. In urban fantasy in particular, the connection between the real world and fantasy can be fundamental. Play is still a useful way to conceive of fantasy in urban settings because play is a concept involved in subverting urban space, just as it is a concept in fantasy. A skateboarder ‘plays’ in a skatepark–but he can still use his board to travel place to place in a ‘serious’ but alternative manner. In a similar way, fantasy does not always need an alternate universe setting where it has no direct impact or reference to our world. Urban fantasy that refers to real places like Ottawa or Montreal, rather that to fictional locales like Middle Earth, is the equivalent of a skateboarder grinding a stair railing on the way to work. Urban fantasy can make a direct critique on our lived reality at the same time as it engages in subversive forms of  ‘play’ through fantasy. Putting it in another way, fantasy does not have to be ‘escapist’ when it refers to and criticizes reality.

Whether Charles de Lint is consistent in addressing the issues I have here described is another matter. He may not be, in which case my theory is good purely as a theory, though useful to the degree that it might inspire me to adopt my own style of urban fantasy. At present, my readings of de Lint do not confirm my theory on every point, though they do on some. However, I believe I have achieved a valuable theoretical insight into how urban fantasy can be used. Given a free moment to write a short story or novel of my own, I might choose to address these theoretical issues in my own urban fantasy, set in Montreal. However, at present, I have SSHRC grant to fill out and graduate studies to work at.

Charles de Lint
Charles de Lint

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Works Cited:

Jameson, Fredric. “Magical Narratives.” The Political Unconscious. London: Routledge, 1981.

Irwin, W.R. The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Steven, Laurence. “Welwyn Wilton Katz and Charles de Lint: New Fantasy as a Canadian Post-Colonial Genre.” Worlds of Wonder: Readings in Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature. Eds. Jean-François Leroux and Camille R. LaBossière. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 2004. 52-72.

Tonkiss, Fran. “Urban Cultures: Spatial Tactics.” Urban Culture: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies. Ed. Chris Jenks. Vol. IV. London: Routledge, 2004.

Photo Credits:

Charles de Lint: author page.

Call for Submissions: Scrivener Creative Review

Scrivener Creative Review is calling for submissions. In the past, we have published poetry by Leonard Cohen, Louis Dudek, and P.K. Page. Today, Scrivener is dedicated to uncovering emerging Canadian writers and publishing established talent.

Writers from across the globe are welcome to submit. Scrivener publishes high-quality, literary writing in three genres: poetry, prose, and book reviews. Also, your black and white art/photography submissions are always welcome.

As Book Reviews Editor this academic year, I am in charge of all reviews for recent books. Book reviews should be of novels, short stories collections, poetry, or graphic novels. Scrivener strives to give publicity to deserving books from small Canadian presses.

To submit your poetry, please send no more than five (5) poems to poetry.scrivener@gmail.com. Each individual poem may be no longer than four (4) pages single-spaced in length.

To submit your short fiction, please send no more than four (4) submissions per author to fiction.scrivener@gmail.com. Works must be no longer than 2500 words.

If interested in writing book reviews, please send a short writing sample and a topic of interest for a potential review to reviews.scrivener@gmail.com. Reviews should be no longer than 2500 words.

To submit your art and/or photography, please send no more than five (5) images per artist to artphoto.scrivener@gmail.com. Art and photography submissions must be in black and white. Please submit your work in the highest possible resolution.

That is all! We will be publishing online and in a print edition in Winter/Spring of 2015. Due date for the print edition is March 9 2014. Good luck!

UPDATE:

Here is a list of books interested reviewers can read. Contact me at reviews.scrivener@gmail.com:

*New: Hypocritic Days by David Fiore

*New: The Women of Shawa Island by Anthony Bidulka

*New: Dancing Nude in the Moonlight by Joanne C. Hillhouse

Notes and Dispatches by Rob Mclennan

 Blind Items by Dima del Buccia

Date with a Seesha: A Russell Quant Mystery by Anthony Bidulka

Rabbit Punch! by Greg Santos

Butterfly in Amber by Kenneth Radu

A Traveler’s Tale by Byron Ayanoglu

All I Can Say For Sure by John McAulay

The Scarborough by Michael Lista

 

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Leonard Cohen

MythCon 45 Day 3: Postmodernity at MythCon

hogwarts

Sunday morning at MythCon, and I took it easy, only getting to “Harry Potter as Dystopian Literature” for 10:00.

Kris Swank framed Harry Potter not only in terms of the latest dystopian craze in YA fiction (Divergent, The Hunger Games), but also with the dystopian tradition of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. The Dolores Umbridge-corrupted Ministry of Magic in the later volumes of Harry Potter has a simplistic slogan that would not be entirely out of place on the wall of the Ministry of Truth in 1984; ‘Magic is Might’ has the same double-think ring as ‘War is Peace,’ ‘Ignorance is Strength,’ and ‘Freedom is Slavery.’ Umbridge is an O’Brien of the wizarding world, employing exotic forms of torture to elicit “confessions” from witches and wizards who are muggle-born, often employing the morally dubious drug veritaserum, a truth serum.

The disturbing thing is that, as pervasive as government surveillance is in Oceania in 1984 and the wizarding world, we  willingly subject ourselves now, using our instant-communicators, our ever-present smartphones, to the same kind of surveillance. The charm placed on the name “Voldemort” alerts Death Eaters, who eventually run the ministry, that someone has said the word the instant they utter it. Meanwhile, the government tracks what we say online, words like “Bush” and “al-Quaida,” but also plain words like “pork,” and “erosion,” because they can be connected to terrorist-related discourses, presumably. It’s like Michel Foucault’s Panopticon out there.

Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault's insights.
Panopticon, by Jeremy Bentham, and basis for many of Michel Foucault’s insights.

The next talk was a return to J.R.R. Tolkien: Janet Brennan Croft presented “Noms de Guerre: The Power of Naming in War and Conflict in Middle Earth.” She gave a catalogue of swords and other weapons and their names, and more specifically the function these unique names have. Names endow these objects–like Isildur’s sword Narsil, renamed Andúril by Aragorn–with power, distinguishing them from common weapons. In legend, Sigurd owned Gram, and Charlemagne Joyeuse–and who could forget the blade of the leader of latter’s rear-guard, the Dolindale of Roland? Most weapons in LOTR are swords, like Bilbo and Frodo’s Sting, though notable exceptions are Gil-Galad’s Aiglos and Grond, Morgoth’s mace (the same name is given to the battering ram the orcs bring against Minas Tirith).

Noms de guerre, on the other hand, refer to the names characters take on in war. They are like noms de plume, or pen names, except those who use them are more likely to believe that the sword is mightier. They are used by those who wish to break with the past, hide the self. For example, Éowyn turns her name into Durnhelm when she goes to war against her father Théoden’s wishes. In The Hobbit, Thorin is surnamed Oakenshield, in memory of the improvised shield he wore to battle. Aragorn is later called Elessar, to fit his new role as King. These names can also be bestowed by another, as revealing descriptions of one character’s relationship with another. For instance, Gríma Wormtongue calls Gandalf, who he mistrusts, Stormcrow, and Frodo calls Gollum Sméagol, in recognition of the good that he still sees in him.

Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.
Gaiman and Pratchett: Post-Modern Conspirators.

The following talk was “Toying with Fantasy: the Post-Modern Playground of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld” by Daniel Lüthi. Anyone who as read Pratchett will know how hilarious his novels can be; I myself have read too little of Pratchett. Lüthi came all the way from Switzerland to explain to us how Pratchett threw Tolkien’s rules in “On Faerie-Stories” out the window: particularly the line that says comic fantasy can never make fun of magic itself. That is exactly what the Discworld novels are predicated on: mockery of the fantasy genre. All the tired tropes of fantasy—as well as multiple other genres, including the detective novel, noir, and science fiction—are all mocked in sardonic incidents and Pratchett’s playful footnotes. Pratchett comes from the tradition—and perhaps inspired much of the tradition—that produces parodies like Bored of the Rings and Barry Trotter. Yet Pratchett never loses affection for the fantasy genre itself; his parodies do not reject fantasy, only satirizes it lovingly.

Discworld has become much more than just a form of parody, however; in typical post-modern fashion, parody has become its own world. Pratchett employs science to explain his fictional universe, though with wild stretches of the imagination. Narrativium, The Science of Discworld explains, is what holds the world together, the power of Story itself, like a kind of pseudo-scientifical phlogiston. It’s the sort of world, I suppose, that might house of the God of Evolution, who was the funniest character of The Lost Continent. The other Pratchett novel I read was The Wee-Free Men, and I was not disappointed.

Jorge Luis Borges
Jorge Luis Borges

John Polanin II gave a talk entitled “Damnation (Un-)Eternal: Fluid Mythologies of Hell in the Work of Neil Gaiman.” In the Sandman comics, Hell becomes a triumvirate, ruled by three demons and not just Lucifer himself, who later in the series abdicates his responsibilities as regent of the nether regions. This change to Christian mythology shows how Gaiman, like Jorge Luis Borges, writes against textual monoliths such as the bible, Dante’s Inferno, and Milton’s  Paradise Lost. He turns mythology into an unfixed text that can be played around with, in a post-modern manner. Further evidence for Gaiman-Borges connections? In Sandman, Morpheus’ library contains thousands of billions of volumes of literature, including all the books that have only ever been dreamed, or left unfinished. The complete Canterbury Tales lies there, as well as a “lost” Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe that ends as a comedy. An English major’s freakin’ paradise. (Why doesn’t McGill’s McLennan library have any of these volumes?) This library of Dream is like the labyrinth of Borges, a key image for post-modernism in that it emphasizes how literature forms its own twisty-turny simulacrum of infinite reality, an image Umberto Eco may have referred to obliquely in The Name of the Rose.

Clever John Polanin also found a possible source text for Gaiman’s famous tale “The Price”: Milagros de Nuestra Señora by Gonzalo de Berceo, a Catholic book of exempla detailing miracles of the Virgin Mary. Asked about whether he based “The Price” on this book, Gaiman answered, in an email, “no, but the story was true.” Believe what you will.

Stay tuned to read the rest of Sunday’s events–including two memorable panels–and how my own presentation went. Monday’s final events will also be included in next weeks’ post.

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Photo Credits:

Hogwarts: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Potter

Panopticon: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Panopticon_Jeremy_Bentham.jpg

Jorge Luis Borges: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jorge_Luis_Borges

“Return to Methuselah”

“Return to Methuselah,” one of my short stories, is now available at Dark Fire Fiction!

It’s a dark fantasy of an immortal painter who has become fed up with his immortality.

I came up with this story after reflecting on the classical paradox of living an immortal life. An immortal can live forever, but in repayment, he must die every day, lost within his memories of those whom he has outlived. A moment often comes when an immortal realizes that dying once is better than dying a thousand times, and he asks the gods to grant him death. This story is based on that epiphany.

Although it is published on a “dark fantasy” web magazine, I was initially unaware that this was the genre I had unconsciously chosen. The idea wasn’t to write “dark fantasy,” but to use fantasy to explore themes in existentialism and art, which is what must have made it dark.

This initial premise gained depth when, in university, I learned that art is about destruction and creativity is inspired by pain. Taking classes on Canadian poetry, I learned about Leonard Cohen’s martyr-prophet persona and Michael Ondaatje’s existential struggles with the eventuality of death. The ever-present shadow of doom may cause the artist to fall into silence, but it can also inspire him/her to create art, to become ‘immortal’ as an artist. These teachings resonated with me then, because I could see their truth in the sufferings of certain people I know, who went through life-threatening situations, and afterwards created art–partly as therapy, partly due to the inspiration that a new perspective on life had given them.

But what if an artist were immortal? Would you even bother to make art, if you could expect to live on for decades and centuries? Without death, the enemy of great art is dead–but the artist’s  projects die too. That is the paradox my story explores.

 

Since Dark Fire does not have a comments section, feel free to use this post to leave your feedback. I’m curious about my public’s reaction.

More stories will become available as I send out more short stories. I have an Edgar Allan Poe-inspired short that I’m shopping around, along with some longer stories. But for now, I hope you enjoy “Return to Methuselah.”

-M.R.

desert

Photo Credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rub_al_khalid_sunset_nov_07.JPG

 

 

Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke

WhylahFor Black History Month, I thought I’d share a Canadian poet whose lush, cadenced verse is like Nova Scotian blues. I’m talking about Whylah Falls by George Elliott Clarke.

I read it studying Can lit with Professor Robert Lecker in my last semester at McGill and we had fascinating discussions in class.

Some background: Whylah Falls describes a story set in Africadia, which is Clarke’s name for black Nova Scotia. Africadians are descendents of freed Loyalist slaves who fled the American colonies during the Revolution in 1783 and wound up in Nova Scotia, where they set down roots. Although I recognized “Africadia,” which sounds like “Africville,” from the headlines, I was unaware of how deep the roots of this Nova Scotian African-Canadian community really went. Clarke makes it his duty to represent Africadians, who were an illiterate people, in his expertly crafted verse.

The conflicts–internal and external to the poet–which Clarke tackles are one of the many things that are interesting about Whylah Falls (at least from an academic standpoint). But if you took it off the shelf and read it, you might be confused about what genre it is.

Sure, it is partly poetry–but it also has several prose pieces. The table of contents is divided into Cantos like the epic poems of old, under headings like “The Adoration of Shelley” and “The Trial of Saul.” The front matter also contains a dramatis personae list of main characters, in the style of the Renaissance drama folio. This makes no mention of the blurred, grainy photographs he includes throughout the volume.

Basically, Clarke has written a classical epic about Africadia, combining the “white” tradition of the “great poets” with the more intuitive cadences of blues jazz.

Is he crazy for attempting such a mixture of genres? Before you answer, you must consider that Clarke is such a master poet that he is well capable of answering this ambitious challenge.

His rhythm and style–which for him are inseparable–form a syncopated song that follows the cadence of jazz progressions. Although I am no music know-it-all, someone in class mentioned that the scansion of his lines match certain jazz rhythms. This achieves an unforgettable effect in his love poetry, which flows with allusions to the most romantic book in the Bible, the Song of Solomon. (Which even I borrowed from, last Valentine’s day)

Whylah Falls follows a man returning to his home after being educated abroad. The opening stanza of his first poem sets the mood for the book:

“At eighteen, I thought the Sixhiboux wept.

Five years younger, you were lush, beautiful

Mystery; your limbs–scrolls of deep water.

Before your home, lost in roses, I swooned,

Drunken in the village of Whylah Falls,

And brought you apple blossoms you refused,

Wanting Hank Snow woodsmoke blues and dried smelts,

Wanting some milljerk’s dumb, unlettered love.”

The way Clarke breaks each line and the diverse, evocative vocabulary are testament to his mastery of language. As you might have guessed, his book is not only filled with love poetry dedicated to people, but to the place of Whylah Falls itself and the river that runs through it.

Whylah Fall‘s characters are also brilliantly inspiring, the salt of the earth, so to speak. Who could forget the following description of Cora in the kitchen?

Cooking is faith. Cora opens her antique  cookbook, a private bible, enumerating Imperial measures, English orders,–pinches, pecks, cups, teaspoons, of this or that–and intones, “I create not food but love. The table is community. Plates are round rooves; glasses, iced trees; cutlery, silver streams.”

This alchemy of cooking is only possible in Whylah Falls. Even if you do not think you are likely to pick up a book about an African-Canadian minority group in Nova Scotia, you can still see that the imagery in its vital power can awaken the soul.

The story of Whylah Falls eventually centers around the shooting death of Othello Clemence, whose murderer is acquitted on self-defense. The fake newspaper clippings Clarke includes are brilliant and funny, showing a more humorous face to our poet. But his poems about the murder’s effect on the community blend beauty with violence to produce an elegiac effect:

“His breath went emergency in his lungs,

His felled heart grasped impossibly at light;

A thrown bouquet, he dropped softly to earth.

Torn from sweet oxygen, O wilted fast.”

Ranging from the mournful to the humorous, the sassy to the extravagant, and the sensual to the religious, Whylah Falls has something for every reader this Black History Month. If you read it on Valentine’s Day, you have the added benefit of reading some of this luscious verse to your beloved. Just remember that “the language we swill with loneliness is liquor, is love, a turmoil in the bones.”

Excerpts are from: “The River Pilgrim: a letter,” “How to Live in a Garden,” “Eulogy,” and “I Love You/More than Words.”

P.S. Check out this stimulating interview about Africadian identity.

George Elliott Clarke, author of Whylah Falls
George Elliott Clarke, author of Whylah Falls

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Photo Credits:

Cover: http://www.buriedinprint.com/?p=3706

George Elliott Clarke: http://www.playwrightscanada.com/index.php/authors/a-d/george-elliott-clarke.html

“Anticlimax”

My most recent poem to be published was printed in Read this Dammit!‘s January edition: “Janus: God of the Gateways.” You can pick up a copy on McGill campus in the news racks in the Leacock Building or at the MacLennan Library. I am quite happy that I was able to read it at the Paper’s Edge Coffee House at Burritoville last Friday. I was also able to read scene 1 of my novel,  in which I feel quite confident. For your reading pleasure, here it my poem. Sorry if it’s a bit of a let down. It should speak to everyone who has ever raised his or her hopes too far for nothing, whether for a material pleasure or a relationship.

Remember my previous poem “I See You Too?” This one takes a similar but different angle.

Anticlimax”

I feel

there should be greater

harmony in the spheres

now that I have you.

Or that my neurons would

have spilled endorphins

to swell me with pleasures

now inexplicable.

           But you sit there an object

           idle and gilt, shallow

           as a French courtier. Well.

French courtier 2
A French courtier dressed in the latest Parisian fashion of his time. Can’t you just sense the depth of this guy’s soul? Probably goes about his deep as his pantyhose.
French courtier 1
Another eighteenth-century French courtier. Ta-daa! Cricket cricket.

Picture Credits:

Courtier 1: http://www.art.com/products/p4091119739-sa-i4723321/french-courtier.htm

Courtier 2: http://blog.ut.ee/tartu-student-fashion-through-time/

Top 10 Things I Learned While Studying English Literature at McGill University

McGill University
McGill University

Is it even possible to canonize all the things I have learned in my three and a half years studying literature at Canada’s best university to 10 items? I believe my critics will be able to deconstruct the bejesus out of this list. They’d probably base their argument on how I privilege my subjectivity over those of the “other,” namely the other people in my classes. But authors must never write for their critics. Besides, to restate everything I learned would be a heresy of paraphrase.

Lit-crit puns aside, I thought that at this point in my academic career, a retrospective analysis of what I have learned is up to order. Alas, in writing down what I learn, there is so much I must omit. Writing is an erasure as much as an act of creation. An erasure of the blank page. An erasure of infinite possibility–a terrifying possibility we can’t help but whittle down to a finite reality.

Here we go.

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1. Writing is murder.

murder sceneWhen I first came across this pronouncement, I thought my Canadian poetry teacher was using a gruesome metaphor for shock value. But ask yourself, “What gets killed when I write?” Aside from the trees that were chopped down to make the paper you’re wasting, you silence voices when you write, even as you create one. Whose voices? Those of the spirits of the dead who call after you from the whiteness of the page.

Every time you write something down, you exclude so much more. This is true even of the structure of language itself: “warm” only means “warm” because it does not mean “cool.” When you write “warm,” you murder “cool.” Still think it’s a funny metaphor? Then think about this: “male” only means “male” because it doesn’t mean “female.” So what happens when you write “male,” or write from a male voice? You murder the female. Patriarchy explained.

2. Cadence comes before meaning.

Two things here. First, what is cadence? Please read Denis Lee’s essay “Cadence, Country, Silence,” a staple essay on Canadian literature and an existential reflection/confession on what it means to be a Canadian poet–and a writer in general. Cadence means the rhythm, the music, the beat that lives inside of you. It is a different sensation for everyone. You feel it in your gut, in the ticks you feel when writing at your desk. It also suffuses place. The cadence on your home street has a particular rhythm to it. In a similar way, words, if spoken in different places, have certain nuances to them that only cadence can describe. For example, “city” means something in the United States, but something quite different in Canada, and even more different in the U.K. or Turkey. Boston, Ottawa, London, or Istanbul? The trick is to write with your proper cadence–the music that is genuine to you.

Editors searching through the slush pile know within thirty seconds or even less whether an author is good. They know before they even understand the meaning of the words they are reading. This is important: cadence comes before meaning. If an editor feels that the cadence of a writer is genuine, then they already know they are good. The content itself is secondary. Being true to yourself comes before what you have to say.

3. Texts are physical and unstable.

books

Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus has two texts: an A-text and a B-text. Any critic might refer to either or both of them, but the play itself never exists absolutely as any one text. This makes Doctor Faustus an unstable text. But Lord Byron’s Don Juan, which is seventeen cantos long, went through infinitely more censorship and revisions over the course of its composition history. Wordsworth kept adding to and editing his Prelude over his lifetime, as he slid into the conservatism of his later years, producing multiple texts that chart the poem’s corresponding change. These poems are unstable. You cannot read one text and expect its absolute authority. Rather, you must read them in the knowledge that they have been chosen by textual editors.

One of the reasons for textual instability is textual materiality. Books are books. They are physical. They have hard covers against which you can hit your head in frustration as you cram for your final exam. They are burnable. They suffer water damage and texts get damaged–which is a real problem when dealing with rare medieval manuscripts. Different books make it easier or harder to read in certain ways. For example, a “perfect bind” airport paperback novel is meant to be read once and even thrown away (if you’re callous), whereas a hardcover, stitch-binding copy of Shakespeare’s collected works is meant to be read over and over again.

4. Form matters.

Poe's The Raven is inspired by a single obsessive image. Also, see his short stories The Black Cat and The Tell-Tale Heart
Poe’s “The Raven” is inspired by a single obsessive image. Also, see his short stories “The Black Cat” and “The Tell-Tale Heart.”

Sonnets are not just 14-line poems in iambic pentameter that rhyme ababcdcdefefgg. They contain the whispers of Petrarchan love poetry within their lines, something that can be difficult to escape. For some poets and critics, sonnets symbolize a conservative tradition in poetry that revolves around the almighty iambic line, which must be rebelled against at all costs! Even a short story has a form. It is no accident that Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories–which are among the first examples of the form in literary history–revolve around an obsessive image: short stories, being short, cannot encompass more than one deeply symbolic image. (Not that this is the law today, but for nineteenth-century experimenters, it was true.) Form influences how you read literature. Form is tough. Form is political. Form is unavoidable.

5. Things happen and are done in texts.

Eternal Wanderer: a famous painting of the sublime alps, often a cover for editions of Frankenstein. Also an apt name for a literature student.
Eternal Wanderer: a famous painting of a gentleman hiker in the sublime Alps, often a cover for editions of Frankenstein. An apt name for a literature student.

When working on a paper for my Romantic literature class, I struggled to come up with a thesis about Frankenstein and the sublime. The course lecturer suggested, “It always helps to think in terms of what the sublime is doing in the story.” The way she phrased this sounded strange to my ears. Is there agency in texts apart from the author’s? Can the idea of the sublime itself be doing something in a story? The answer was, “Of course!” I ended up writing a fine paper about how Mary Shelley critiques the sublime as a female Romantic writer who has some distance from male Romantic aesthetic. I might have also said that the sublime was working in the story to critique conventional Romanticism. Ideas play in a text even if the author does not will it…

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6. Authorial intention can be irrelevant.

A common objection in High School English classrooms is, “What if Shakespeare didn’t really mean that?” Exasperated by the complexity of Billy Shakes’ lingo, they throw their hands up in the air and choose not to believe in complexity at all. But ANYONE who has tried to write a piece of creative work, if they have put any thought into writing at all, knows that Shakespeare intended to write what he wrote (censorship, his actors’ poor memory at recollecting the text, and contemporary editing aside). When you take the time to think enough about writing, crafting cobbe shakesyour language to an advanced level, you better believe you are intending every word that you write.

However, the High School student does hint at an important point. Sometimes, a professor or teacher will create a complex argument to argue something about Shakespeare and it will seem abstract. Even a seasoned English student will doubt that Shakespeare ever really intended his listeners to understand his plays in that way. But the student would be wise not to stumble into the intentional fallacy. The author may have intended one interpretation of his text, or sometimes none in particular. Does that mean a reader can’t make more out of the author’s work than even the author saw in it? Absolutely not! Critics can explore every range of possible meaning in a text.

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7. You can analyze anything.

Don’t just think because courses revolve around the “big names” of literature–the literary canon–that you cannot study the authors you love. Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pope, Wordsworth, Byron, Browning, James, Eliot … hopefully a literature class will teach you to appreciate the greats, the saints of the religion of English literature. But why not overturn the canon and speak of an non-canonical author? I wrote my Honours thesis on Guy Gavriel Kay, who I had discovered by accident years ago and began reading for pleasure long before I started at McGill. I have now read his completed works. In literary theory, no novel, short story, poem, or play is off bounds.

GGK
Guy Gavriel Kay

8. Topic sentences should be able to read as an independent “phantom” paragraph, or abstract.

I learned this in my first semester.

“I’ll just give you a few statistics,” President Barack Obama said in a speech Wednesday in Washington, D.C. One of the people watching Obama’s speech was Robert Putnam, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who is intimately familiar with such studies. “The part about democracy is relevant,” Putnam said. “The data show that not only is there declining trust in government, there is declining trust in other people”; although it wasn’t exclusive to them, this shift was “concentrated among these poor kids, the kids who have been left out,” Putnam said. These young people […] were becoming “extremely alienated from democratic politics.”

The above paragraph is the first part of a New Yorker article–but it is a phantom. It does not exist as a unity. Rather, it is a composite, formed of the topic sentences of the first few paragraphs of the article “Economic Inequality: a Matter of Trust?” by Amy Davidson. If you are able to write a cohesive-sounding paragraph using the topic sentences of the paragraphs in your essay, then you have a well-structured essay.

9. English teaches you a skill more than knowledge.

When I began at McGill, I wanted to know more about literature. I wanted teachers to lecture on. But towards the later portion of my degree, I had fewer and fewer lectures. Students participated more in class; we all had our different ideas and were prepared to defend them. At a given point in my second or third year, teachers became supervisors and weren’t imparting knowledge of literature onto us so directly. We became independent researchers and thinkers. We learned the rules of the game of English literature and then were able to play that game on our own–even break the rules.

If a professor tells you what a poet means in his or her poem, then be aware that theirs is not the final word. They have a theory and it might be sound and true. But English teaches you how to criticize and think for yourself. In the end, the program taught me to be confident in my ability to read and think independently. That is a skill.

Not to mention, with instant web-based communication so available, errors and misspellings  emerge with frequency (some intentional, others not). English degrees can give you a skill much sought-after in the shrinking pool of people who actually know how to spell. There may yet be hope for the lot of us.

10. Reading poetry must affect you.

THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT! Academia can be a vampire. Sucking the joy out of experiencing poetry and literature since the early twentieth century. Just because you exercise your faculty of critical thinking when reading poetry must NEVER prevent you from enjoying it in a visceral, existential, and sensuous way.

Mark Twain said a “classic” is a book we always wanted to have read, but never want to read. Now I actually want to read some of the classics: Byron and Marlowe in particular. Reconnecting to the fundamental experience of reading literature for enjoyment is the task they don’t–and can’t–tell you how to do in school.

Never stop loving it because you studied it. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in High Schools, where students are forced to write essays on books they should, above all, be enjoying. Only through enjoyment and pleasure can you commit a text to real memory, a memory that will follow you the rest of your life, a memory with personal value.

Poetry must affect you and it must continue to affect you. Frustrated with the insufficiency of our learning, we must, as does Goethe’s Faust, turn from the vanity of academia and reconnect to literature through fundamental experience.

Goethe's Faust
Goethe’s Faust

Photo Credits:

McGill: http://www.alumnilive365.mcgill.ca/2012/10/31/rankings-what-do-they-mean-to-students/

Murder: http://ogdenutahcriminaldefense.com/murder-and-manslaughter/

Books: http://mysynonym.com/2009/02/amazons-kindle-2/

Poe: http://americanliteraturedrescher2.wikispaces.com/D.+Edgar+Alan+Poe

Eternal Wanderer: http://eardstapa.wordpress.com/the-poem-the-wanderer/

Shakespeare: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cobbe_portrait

Guy Gavriel Kay: http://profunduslibrum.blogspot.ca/2012/10/guy-gavriel-kay-ysabel.html

Faust: http://www.hberlioz.com/paintings/BerliozWorks3b.html