Sunday, August 29, 2010

Way Back in Toronto

My, my, this trip has been exhausting. Many apologies on the radio silence, but the scope of these posts has made them difficult to finish in a timely fashion. I'm reminded of the introduction to Don Fiene's R. Crumb Checklist, in which the author talks about getting in contact with Crumb but finding him unwilling to give much assistance because he was too busy being an active living artist to exert energy on an encyclopedic account of his achievements so far. That is to say that the podcasts are the point, and the blog is secondary.

In any case — I'm currently in Long Beach, California, on a bus down to San Diego. For this short leg of the trip I was lucky enough to get a bus with wi-fi, but for the last 34 hours I've been without any connection at all. And I spent the night before that in San Antonio, stranded by Greyhound and forced to get a room in a fleabag motel — again, with no connection. However, that's a story for another day! I'll keep it chronological and pick up back in Canada, 4000 miles away.

I arrived in Toronto at 6 a.m. on a Sunday, and the streets were deserted. I had no map, no web connection, and nowhere to be for nine hours. This has become a familiar situation.

So I set out in search of a place to sit. Lacking any other way of orienting myself, I started walking toward the CN Tower. I walked and I walked, and the sun came up little by little. Everything was closed. So after 20 minutes or so, I made it to the tower and just looked up for a while. It is indeed very tall, just like they say. It certainly isn't a beautiful structure from 50 feet away — just a big block of concrete with discolored patches up and down the sides where they've made repairs over the years. To my sensibility, naturally, that made it more appealing.

CN Tower, Toronto

I kept schlepping, and within a couple blocks I found a Tim Hortons that had just opened. Hallelujah. Got a coffee and a strawberry jam donut. Timmy's isn't the kind of place where one is encouraged to sit and work, so I took the single outlet in the place — presumably where they plug in the vacuum cleaner — and sat there for the next five hours. A hotel nearby had an open wireless connection.

Around noon I decided to take a walk, so I made my way over to the St. Andrew's Market, which isn't a "market" at all but rather a couple streets where vintage clothing stores and organic produce places and various other alt-ish shops have sprung up together. I assumed there would be a bookstore or two, but was rather surprised to find that there weren't any. I'm not sure whether this is a business opportunity or an indication of the local appetite.

So I walked over to Chinatown, a block away, and had some very strange dumplings for lunch. They were pan-fried, but prepared in a way I've never seen before. The cook had added a small amount of batter to the huddled dumplings before taking them off the heat, so a thin disc of crispy dough ended up fused to each, the whole mass connected in one big unit. This was carefully flipped over onto a plate, so the dumplings themselves were hidden beneath the disc when the dish was served. And I really wanted to enjoy eating this odd presentation, but the dumplings themselves were a little off. A little too greasy, and a little unpleasantly sour. Or maybe I was just in a bad mood — who knows. I ate them all, anyway, and was biologically nourished.

Pretty soon it was time to catch the train up to Paul Dutton's place, a little house just to the north of the city center. Paul and I ended up hitting it off right away, and we recorded for an hour or more. He's a guy with some strong, strongly-worded opinions about writing and culture, so it was fun to get him going. I didn't have any obligations for the rest of the day, and ended up hanging out with him for seven hours or so. After we finished our recording, he took me out back to show me his pear tree and vegetable patch, and even gave me a few ripe pears to throw in my bag. We talked and talked about music and books and 1910s newspaper comics and bpNichol and Bob Cobbing and on and on. He pulled out volume after volume of concrete poetry to talk about, including a lot of rare Cobbing stuff. He also told me about listening to a rock and roll station out of Buffalo back in the 1950s, not knowing that the DJs and musicians and intended audience were all black. It was a good time.

Paul Dutton

I left Paul's with a grin on my face and a handful of new books in my bag, and around midnight I got to my friend Sean Cole's apartment in northwest Toronto. We got a beer — Labatt 50 — and sat and chatted for a bit. Sean writes poetry, and he's also a public radio guy — a reporter for Marketplace, in fact. So we talked about audio gear and interviewing techniques and so on. He was quite excited about my trip.

In the morning I met Ken Babstock, which I think went well. He's got a pretty wide audience in Canada, and he'd been recommended to me just a few days before I got to Toronto. We sat in his small backyard for the recording, which ended up being a bit of a technical challenge. One of his neighbors was cutting plywood with a table saw the whole time, so every few minutes the noise would rise up and drown out our conversation. We'd sit and wait, and when the neighbor was finished we'd take a step back in the conversation and pick up there. I'm not looking forward to editing this one.

Ken Babstock

I sent emails for a few hours in a little restaurant nearby, then headed up to Sean's to get cleaned up for the evening. I'd been in contact with Alana Wilcox — senior editor of Coach House Books — before coming to town, and she kindly offered to rustle up a posse of writers to get together for a drink. This she did, and I met the gang at the Victory Café, near the Coach House office. We got a table outside, and as the night went on the group expanded to take over a couple more. There were ten or fifteen people at one point, but I lost track. In any case, it was a great array of personalities. Alana was there, of course, and the poets Matthew Tierney and Kyle Buckley, and Leigh Nash and Andrew Faulkner, who run the Emergency Response Unit imprint, and Bill Kennedy, and a handful whose names I've forgotten. Karen Solie and Christian Bök were in town, so they came too. Christian was a great resource, giving me lots of recommendations on people to talk to in Vancouver and helping me set up interviews with Matt and Karen. It was the eve of his birthday, incidentally, so we drank many toasts to him.

Leigh and Andrew and I are similar in age and disposition, and we talked on and on in a half-crazed way, coming up with elaborate plans for collaborations that will probably never happen, etc. etc. They gave me some of their broadsides, and I talked up my poet friends on the East Coast. Good fun all around. The crowd didn't disperse until well after midnight.

I caught a few hours of sleep, then got up bright and early for my busiest day yet: five interviews. The first was with Sean Cole, my host. One of the topics I remember discussing was the small community structure of the public radio world and its similarity to that of poetry. He has a good radio voice, as you'd imagine, and a relaxed presence on the mic. I learned a good bit about recording from him, just by going through the interview process and asking technical questions as they struck me. He was clearly amused to be on the other side of the exchange.

Sean Cole

Alana at Coach House had previously offered to let me set up my gear in their coffee room to record in one place all day, and I gratefully took her up on it. Coach House, it turns out, is housed in a literal coach house. It's an amazing place, really, with printing presses on the first floor and an elaborate library on the second and offices all over and people scurrying about with manuscripts in hand, etc. In short, Coach House is a real brick-and-mortar publisher with a longer history and more diverse output than I'd previously been aware of. I asked Alana how they're possibly able to stay in business, and she said they only manage to break even with the help of various government grants. Man oh man, Canada.

Matthew Tierney was there when I arrived, and we had a good time together. His work often uses terms and ideas from the world of science, so one thing we talked about was how he ended up becoming a writer instead of studying something more technical. I made a similar decision as an undergrad, so there was a bit of common ground there.

Matthew Tierney

Next up was Souvankham Thammavongsa, who was born in Laos and moved to Toronto with her refugee parents as an infant. Her writing is minimal and delicate, finely tuned visually and aurally. She told me about a recent reading at which she played a wind-up music box to quiet the crowd, which strikes me as a good encapsulation of her aesthetic. We also talked about how much she likes the Wu Tang Clan, and she told me about being influenced by seeing the GZA live in concert. But you'll have to tune in to hear more, etc. —

Souvankham Thammavongsa

My fourth interview of the day was with Karen Solie, whose book Pigeon won the Griffin Prize this year — a big deal and a lot of money. She was very humble about the whole thing and seemed a little surprised to have received such an honor. So we talked about the topic of the book: her relationships with the rural (where she grew up) and the city (where she's lived her adult life). I also brought up the topic of arts funding in Canada, which I find novel and fascinating. We got along nicely.

Karen Solie

Last up was Bill Kennedy, who wrote/curated/appropriated the book Apostrophe with Darren Wershler, as well as doing the programming for its interactive online counterpart. These projects were, in turn, based on a poem Bill wrote back in the early '90s. So he read the original work, and we discussed its various iterations. We also talked a bit about The Scream, an annual literary festival he runs in Toronto.

Bill Kennedy

Then, quick quick quick, I headed to the Greyhound station to catch a bus to Buffalo. Got across the border without issue, and arrived at Joey Yearous-Algozin's place around 11:00 or midnight. More on that in the next post.

Best, all —

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