Monday, February 29, 2016


When, out of lassitude, I cease to scrawl
the rude and sordid things my detractors
were wont to bemoan, my detractors
miss it much, but take credit for the shift
in tone, the numpties, claiming I've been
declawed. By what? By the frequency
of their whinging? By the teardrops massing
at their ducts? By the solemn brick facade
of their virtuecratic mugs? Fat chance,
fuckwads, it's just that I've found less lumpen
trolls and bears to taunt. Funny how when
you babies get what you want, you still
find it wanting, what? Funny how I still
give zero-point-zero flying fucks. Aw, shucks.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Since the dredging of my archives for scurrilous matter is the theme of Freedom to Read Week this year, I thought I might republish a piece I wrote for Arc Poetry Magazine back in 2008. Enjoy, muck misers (and others).

Eskimo Nell: ‘Anon’ takes on Robert Service

Long before literacy was common and print was mechanized, ballads were composed, recited and passed down the generations. Thanks to collectors such as Francis Child, some of these folk ballads, such as “Barbara Allen” and “Sir Patrick Spens” have entered the canon of English literature, even if there is some debate over which version is best. (98 variants of “Barbara Allen” were recorded in Virginia alone.)

In the 17th Centurythe so-called broadside ballad, often humorous and satirical, circulated as a sort of proto-newspaper. Because of its folk origins and populist topicality, the ballad was not seen by many “serious” (viz. educated and well-heeled) poets as a meet vessel for poetry—not, that is, until its literary revival in Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

Since then, a number of poets have used the ballad form quite memorably, including Kipling, Poe, Alfred Noyes and of course Robert Service, particularly in his most famous poems “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” If these latter-day ballads have not ramified in the manner of the old poems, it’s because they were published on paper, so more-or-less authoritative versions have precluded the piecemeal mutation once the norm

But the anonymous ballad didn’t die in the 20th Century. Just as Service drew on the rich tradition of oral balladry for his tales of “strange things done in the midnight sun,” so did the creator(s) of the pornographic satire “Eskimo Nell” draw on Service. Appropriately enough, I first read “Eskimo Nell” in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, in my copy of The Faber Book of Blue Verse—and would occasionally, after a few glasses of illicit liquor, treat friends to a reading of it.

My own poems have, at times, been accused of being indecorously crude in their language and subjects. I’ve had reading hosts advise me to “choose more audience-appropriate work next time”; high-school teachers have asked me to avoid “the f-bomb” when reading to their classes; a CBC radio host once edited out of an interview my reading of a poem about finding two dogs in flagrante delicto. I have a serious soft-spot for raunch and I’m none too fond of taboo. Finding “Eskimo Nell” brought great joy to my heart.

I later learned that the version in my Faber anthology was not the only one out there. One version of Nell’s opening goes:

When a man grows old and his balls grow cold and the end of his nob turns blue,
When it’s bent in the middle like a one-string fiddle, he can tell a tale or two.

So find me a seat and buy me a drink, and a tale to you I’ll tell,
Of Dead-Eye Dick and Mexico Pete, and the gentle Eskimo Nell.

Just like the old oral ballads, however, this is far from the only extant version. The days of a purely oral literature are long gone, but the advent of the Internet in some ways parallels the pluralistic authorship of pre-literate cultures. Here’s another version of Nell’s opening:

When a man grows old, and his balls grow cold,
And the tip of his prick turns blue,
Far from a life of Yukon strife,
He can tell you a tale or two.

So pull up a chair, and stand me a drink,
And a tale to you I will tell,
About Dead-Eye Dick and Mexican Pete,
And a harlot named Eskimo Nell.

I like some parts of each version better. The original and evocative simile “Bent in the middle like a one-string fiddle” is infinitely superior to the rather banal “Far from a life of Yukon strife,” but “a harlot named Eskimo Nell” seems far more apposite than the (perhaps ironic) “gentle Eskimo Nell.”
Here’s another variant:

When men grow old and their balls get cold and the tips of their knobs turn blue,
Looking back on life, 'midst struggle and strife, they could tell you a tale or two. 
So buy me a drink and I will think and a tale to you I'll tell
Of Dead-Eye Dick and his muscular prick and a whore named Eskimo Nell.

Here, the sidekick Mexican (or Mexico, in some versions) Pete disappears, upstaged—like most other men—by his partner’s membrum virile.
Then there’s this “composite version” edited by some guy online who thinks he knows better (he really just makes a mash of things):

Now way out west where the very best and worst live side by side,
I’ve a tale to tell of Eskimo Nell and the men and women who died.

Which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, since no one actually dies in the poem—though there are reports of petits-morts…

The real ballad of Eskimo Nell cannot be said to exist, as such. There are unsubstantiated rumours that Nell was written by a young Noel Coward, but the earliest known print record of it is from a songbook published by South African university students in the 1940s. The poem as a whole varies considerably in length and detail from one version to the next. Were the origins of “Dan McGrew” more obscure, it’s easy to imagine it morphing into a similar multitude of near-copies. But if “Dan McGrew” can’t be re-written, it can certainly be written back at. Many have dismissed “Eskimo Nell” as disgusting doggerel, tittilatingly funny at best, offensively sexist and racist at worst. Others see it as being more subtly subversive, and I’m inclined to agree. This is a far more complex poem than, say, “There once was a man from Nantucket.”

Whereas Service’s tall tales feature the exploits—and exploitations—of rugged white men in the vast feminine wilds of the Yukon, the eponymous heroine of “Eskimo Nell”—a native female voice markedly absent in Service’s boreal ballads—literally, and effortlessly, unmans what anthologist Tom Atkinson calls “two of the most machismo characters in all of literature”:

But Dead-Eye Dick would not come quick; he meant to conserve his power,
When in the mind he’d grind and grind for more than a couple of hours.

She lay for a while with a subtle smile while the grip of her cunt grew keener,
Then giving a sigh she sucked him dry with the ease of a vacuum cleaner.

She performed this feat in a way so neat as to set at complete defiance
The primary cause and the basic laws that govern sexual science.

Granted, this is far from a radically feminist scenario, but Nell’s gifts verbal as well as sexual, as she zings Mexico Pete thus:

“When next, my friend, you two intend to sally forth for fun,
Get Dead-Eye Dick a sugar stick, and buy yourself a bun.”

The suggestion of the pathetically phallic (“sugar stick”) and yonic (“bun”) imagery of those lines is that Dick and Pete would be better off fucking each other than taking on a real pro like Nell (a neat underscoring of the homoerotic tensions latent in Service’s work). And the anonymous authorship lets us imagine a woman writing this riposte to Service’s testosterone-laden gold-rush epics. In this version of the poem, as in many others, Nell has the last word. Of course, with an anonymous ballad, the last word is never really written.

Bailey Lamon on the fascism of the new left

Further to my last post, self-described anarchist and social worker Bailey Lamon has written a really excellent op-ed piece that touches on so many of the problematic issues raised by these attempts to have me barred from various reading venues.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Montreal Reading Report and some notes on satire, censorship and the freedom to read

Rachel and I had a great reading last night at the Atwater Poetry Project. Unfortunately, some technical issues prevented them from recording it as they usually do, but, graciously hosted by Atwater curator Deanna Radford, we read to an attentive audience of approximately thirty and, on the eve of Freedom to Read Week, a very thoughtful post-reading discussion followed, in which we addressed some of the stickier issues that writers face.

It's no small irony that this Canada Council-funded reading came very close to being cancelled because of pressure being placed on Deanna to do so. This pressure came not from secret police, not from government censors, not from fundamentalists or fringe terrorists, not even from Quebec's office de la langue fran├žaise, but from, of all things, a writer and scholar. Rachel and I were already en route to Montreal by train when this person decided to publicly shame Deanna and past curator Symon Jory Stevens-Guille for extending hospitality to the likes of yours truly. Vastly overestimating his capacity to inspire a boycott or ban, this fellow boldly predicted, on the Atwater series' Facebook page, that if the event was not cancelled, it wouldn't matter because only four people would be there. When one woman raised a thoughtful and nuanced objection to his rhetorical fusillade, he proceeded to mansplain to her that she was complicit in endorsing rape culture. Yes, he did. Another poet made a plea for more temperate discourse, as in days of yore before the advent of social media. It was strongly implied by a spoken word performer that perhaps this poet was also feeling nostalgic for slave ownership and legal marital rape. Yes indeed. Clearly, there is a terminological vacuum to be filled: we have Godwin's Law for the invocation of Nazism, but there is as yet, to the best of my knowledge, no equivalent for spurious non-sequiturs about slavery and spousal abuse.

The reason that this scholar and this orator were so exercised about my presence in Montreal (a city I stealthily visit on an almost weekly basis in the course of my duties on the railroad) is a rather stale, old one. You see, he felt it incumbent on himself to remind the unsuspecting public that, some seven years ago, yours truly had authored and self-published, on this very blog, an horrifically offensive lipogram, and that, on the strength of such a Kilimanjaro of overwhelming evidence, its author must be the vilest sort of misogynist creep.

Said lipogram has been no stranger to controversy, although it lay dormant and undisturbed in the digital dust of the CLM archives for four years before any ire was raised against it. Its author, I can assure you, attached no great value to the piece, seeing it very much as a product of a specific point in the spacetime continuum with little to no relevance outside of its immediate contexts, and I therefore never attempted to publish it elsewhere or otherwise disseminate it more widely. Its author also acknowledges the blindingly obvious observation made by its detractors that the sentiments contained within its univocalic text are extraordinarily odious. Fortunately, I do not and never did identify with the speaker in the poem, who was consciously constructed as a strawman reification of certain caricatured assessments of my person and of my arguments, made by certain other persons affronted by said arguments' substance and tone. The idea was to give voice to the imaginary critic who hates women and will aggressively try to shut them up. The decision to write the poem using only one vowel, "i," was further intended as a challenge: the poem dares the reader to identify the source of such a stiltedly awkward speech--the "I" of the poem--with the "I" of the author. The use of the lipogram as form was further intended to send up the oft-heard notion that certain forms of avant-garde "experimental" writing are more intrinsically progressive than other, more traditional and supposedly conservative, forms. The author of the poem finds it wickedly ironic that a piece intended to satirize inflated rhetorical poses and the hypocrisy of self-identified progressives has managed to generate so much overheated rhetoric and so many reactionary gestures in turn. The poem has certainly enjoyed its private gotcha moments in recent years.

Once sufficiently untethered from the context in which it was originally composed, the lipogram was dredged up three years ago as part of the pretext for an op-ed about sexism in the “literary community.” Attempts were made to shame the poem's author into renouncing and deleting it and apologizing to the person supposedly assaulted in its lines. Since I never intended the poem as a sincere expression of my feelings about another person, but as a sendup of that person's slurs about my writing and my person, I could do no such thing. To delete the poem under such pressure would be a tacit admission that it was something I never believed it to be and that I was someone far viler than I, for all my manifest flaws, have ever been. (I also have considerable contempt for the practice of many bloggers and social media pundits of deleting posts to save face once their flaws have been pointed out.) Several individuals contacted me privately and to anyone so courteous, I was pleased to provide my account of the poem's origins, contexts and intentions. Some people seemed more or less satisfied with my explanations, others clearly were not. Which is fine. Some said they could no longer associate with me. So it goes. If the affection and loyalty of an individual are so easily alienated by a single ambiguous text, then they can't have been worth much in the first place, say I. The poem has, if nothing else, proven an effective litmus test for fairweather friends. As for providing the same explanations publicly, I have till now declined to do so because I am reluctant to police readers' interpretations of a text. I am only modifying my policy now out of respect for friends and colleagues who have implored me to do so.

I trust I am not alone in being alarmed by certain writers' eagerness to see another writer banned, censured, censored and shunned for the sin of creating a character with a hideous worldview. This is precisely the sort of well-intentioned wrongdoing we should be talking about during Freedom to Read Week in a country in which there is little to no official censorship or mortal danger for writers. I have made no public mention of it heretofore, but I feel that I should now let it be known that at least one reading venue, Montreal's Librairie Drawn and Quarterly, has made it known to my publisher that they will host no readings by me, because of my authorship of The Poem in Question. It has been claimed that my poem constituted an attempt to silence the person lampooned in its lines. Even if that had been the case, which it was not, I certainly never judged said person to be so easily quelled. (Many of the assumptions about my motives for writing and posting the poem seem to be based on the fundamental notion that I am a singularly unintelligent and unselfconscious person--as if I could have ever thought that this might be an effective way of winning allies to my supposed cause or of shutting up my mortal foe for perpetuity!) If you are truly opposed to the suppression of one writer's voice, I cannot for the life of me see how you could endorse a speaking ban of another. (One detractor has gone so far as to tell a reading host that the series he curates should only host feminists. One wonders if this is assured by having readers swear on a copy of The Second Sex.) Freedom of expression is not worth defending if it only protects approved sentiments.

I am on my way to Ottawa, another erstwhile hometown, tomorrow for a reading on Tuesday and then on to Toronto, where my venue host has been slammed for inviting me in the first place and for failing to take me off the roster once reminded of my sins. Another writer scheduled to read there has decided to withdraw, which is her prerogative, but unfortunate. It was telling, I think, that none of the people so vocal on social media showed up at the Montreal event, where civil discourse prevailed. It is far easier to demonize an other if you are able to avoid actual contact with his or her person. I suppose I owe a debt of gratitude to my detractors, because they may have actually succeeded in increasing the number and commitment of last night's audience. One friend of mine from my non-writing life attended the reading--the first time in his life he had been to one--with his nine-year-old daughter, precisely because of the controversy. Other writers said that they had been on the fence about coming because of scheduling conflicts, but felt that, once I'd been targeted in this way, attendance became mandatory. Several others, unable to make it, wrote to make it clear that their non-attendance had nothing to do with the controversy. I expect that things will be much the same in Toronto because the writing scene is, for the most part, populated by thoughtful, intelligent people who understand that disagreement is not grounds for dismissal.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Upcoming events

Hey, if anyone's out there--and if "there" is Montreal, Ottawa or Toronto--please be advised that I will be doing three readings over the next few days:

Saturday, February 20, 7 pm, Montreal: The Atwater Poetry Project, with Rachel Lebowitz

Tuesday, February 23, 8 pm, Ottawa: The Tree Reading Series, with Ben Ladouceur

Wednesday, February 24, 8 pm, Toronto: Pivot Reading Series, with Jeff Blackman, Hoa Nguyen and Patrick Warner

Hope to see you there!