by Mike Spry
Here’s a poetry where trees don’t have sex,
when the yarrow observed from a car seat
can stand in, plain image, plain symbol,
and not be you observing me as overweight.
If David McGimpsey’s latest collection of poetry is an essay on Canadian literature’s resistance to pop and humour, than the above is its thesis statement. McGimpsey’s Asbestos Heights (Coach House Books) is the Montreal writer’s playful attempt to pen a serious book of Canadian poetry in its grand tradition of birds, Prime Ministers, and trees. Instead, the collection is a clever, witty, and beautiful dissemination of the current state of CanLit and the flaws of its establishment and mythology.
McGimpsey’s work has been called irreverent, absurd, and hilarious, all of which ring true in Asbestos Heights. But to call the collection, or the impressive body of work to this point in his career, simply a caricature or satire of the form would show the lack of understanding for the complexity of the work. McGimpsey is one of the most interesting poets at work today, and his writing is equally adept in the discussion of 18th century literature as it is 21st century popular culture, qualities that should not be mutually exclusive but have found distance in contemporary literature. Asbestos Heights picks up where the Governor General’s Award finalist Li’l Bastard and its predecessor Sitcom left off: playfully and skillfully reimagining our understanding of poetry within a most unique and learned rhetorical voice.
McGimpsey and I sat down to chat about baseball, Beyoncé, and his work, in the Mordecai Richler Reading Room at Concordia University, where he teaches English Literature and Creative Writing.
Note: This interview is excerpted from an episode of the CA Podcast. Give the whole interview a listen here.
Mike Spry: Your latest book, Asbestos Heights, is hot off the presses. I’m excited to jump into it. I just wondered if you could kind of introduce the book.
David McGimpsey: It’s sort of a follow up to my last book which was Li’l Bastard, and it uses some of the same techniques of poetics throughout it, but really the book has a variety of strategies, one is that, throughout my life people have always sort of asked me “Dave, have you even tried to write a poem that doesn’t reference Ashlee Simpson? Have you even tried?” And I thought, this is not going away for a good 25 years now, you know, even before Ashlee Simpson was born I was hearing this. So I thought, “Well no, I’m going to try for the first time to write a serious book of poetry — I’m going to tackle the serious themes that real poets tackle. I was going to write about flowers, and history, Canadian History, and literature. I was going to write about things that were important.
MS: You said that it’s kind of like a follow up to Li’l Bastard. Does it have some kinship with the book that precedes Li’l Bastard, Sitcom?
DM: In a lot of ways, Sitcom had a lot of thematic clarity to it, and this one aims at least in its subject matter, to approach its themes with more direct application. Li’l Bastard was more of a picaresque, where it moved from place to place and reflected travel, and a variety of things that come to the speaker. This one is more subject and theme orientated.
MS: I really see these books as a trilogy of sorts, perhaps on its way to being a quadrilogy.
DM: The Fast the Furious of the poetry world!
MS: This is your Fast 7. Except Paul Walker doesn’t die in Asbestos Heights, he lives on forever. I guess the things I find interesting about all three books is that relationships with tradition and contemporary. You’re equally comfortable discussing Twain and Maupassant as John Stamos and Beyoncé.
DM: I don’t think of those things as being unusual. The only thing that becomes unusual is people’s insistence that things like John Stamos don’t belong in poems. To me it’s all just metaphorical matter, and I’m not really writing about John Stamos anymore than John Keats is writing about a Grecian urn. You don’t say, “Oh I love John Keats because he likes Grecian urns too, this poet talks about the things that I like, he’s into Grecian urns, so am I!”” The world of poetry, for whatever reason, is fairly uncomfortable with the world of working class culture.
MS: Why do you think that resistance pervades poetry? I counted six references to Beyoncé.
DM: They said in my last book that three references to Beyoncé couldn’t be done, and somehow I did it. You know, Michael Jordan doesn’t just quit saying “I got 50 points last night”, he’s going to try for 60.
MS: To those familiar with your writing, these references don’t stand out, because you’ve adopted and developed a consistent rhetoric, where these things don’t alarm us, they fit in with what you’ve built.
DM: Some of the anxieties about these things, especially in relationship to my work, have dissipated over time, because I haven’t died yet.
MS: While those first two books had pop culture references as their aesthetic, this one kind of has them out front, was that conscious?
DM: Conscious but also part of the rhetorical strategy. I posited the book before as an attempt to write serious poetry, also put these things out front, and as a way of confessing or acknowledging this long standing sense of their unwelcomeness, and so over time, the reason why in poetry and not in other things, is because poetry is not a thing you can sell by the market. A fiction writer like Stephen King, people can say, “Oh he’s terrible,” but Stephen King can also say, “Ya but I just sold a billion copies of my last book and made a $20 million contract for the movie so I’ll have to suffer the indignities of you telling me I’m terrible.” Poetry can’t do that. You can’t just say I sold so many copies or I have a following, so there’s no way with which a claim or success in poetry is not conditioned by the society in which its actually produced. That is to say critical opinion the opinion of your peers fellow practitioners.
MS: I find something else interesting that popped up in the book and I’ve heard you read these a lot as you were working on them, and now thsat I actually see them in book form, they read very differently, especially the humour in the long titles. “We should all thank Taylor Swift for taking on what poets so often vaingloriously try (and fail) to express and how she, rather than being intimidated by such endeavour, gives appropriate expression to the most motivating human sentiments and puts it all into catchy, heartfelt songs.”
I heard you read that in public, and I laughed, but to see it on paper it had this thought that it’s so interesting that poems tend to deal with simple human emotions like heartbreak, and sadness, and loss, and loneliness, not unlike what Taylor Swift sings about and yet there’s a societal split between a Taylor Swift song and being pop and saccharin and candy and for the masses and poetry being an elitist and educated and upper class dissemination of that sentiment.
DM: That’s exactly part of the strategy of the poems. And I honestly believe the statement that’s made in the title. I’m not pulling someone’s leg. I actually do believe that, that you could artistically look at what Taylor Swift is doing and if you can’t acknowledge why that’s successful then there’s something wrong with your ears, and there’s something that you’re not really getting something […] or that you have some kind of preconception. I don’t care that you like Taylor Swift, she does perfectly well on her own. She doesn’t need my support.
MS: Is poetry’s resistance to humour tied to its resistance to pop culture?
DM: I think, for me, they are. Neither of these things [is] absolute. I’m sure Sylvia Plath after a glass of wine was a hoot. It doesn’t matter in that way. But, I do think that they’re related, and I will say again they’re both related on the idea of working class culture.
MS: I wonder about the employment of humour. I read a few months ago and the writer I read with read very seriously and I read some things that had some humour and afterwards we were having a smoke and the writer asked me, “Well, why don’t you just do stand-up comedy.” Have you had similar? (And in this instance its not just poetry, some of the greatest comedic performances ever on celluloid were not rewarded with Oscars.)
DM: Comedy is not serious in that way. Comedies don’t win Oscars, and part of the objective of comedy is to make it seem natural, and the response can seem to feel to people to be cheated that way, because people insist upon it being natural. When people don’t find something funny, they think, “Well, that’s not funny,” as if all comedy was meant to make everybody laugh. But anybody who makes people laugh for a living is by definition funny, whether you find them funny or not. You might not find Jeff Foxworthy funny but the guy’s making millions of dollars making people laugh so if he’s not funny than nobody else in the world is funny. It may not be your style, or your type of thing, Saying a successful comedian is not funny is like saying you don’t know how to spell.
MS: You’re Montreal born and bred.
DM: Yes, grew up in Ville d’Anjou, which is a suburb in the east end of the city. My dad worked in the oil refineries out there. I was born in the community of Maisonneuve, which is near where the Olympic Stadium is.
MS: Montreal has become a transient community for Anglos, especially in the cultural sector. They come in, they do there three/four years, they get out. How have you seen Montreal change, and how does that affect or inform your writing if it does at all?
DM: I don’t know that it does or doesn’t. I mean, I’ve had my own relationship with the place where I grew up in and I don’t think it’s entirely different than the ways in which other people have relationships with their city. I would say, for me growing up as an Anglophone in the Francophone east end has a distinct or unique aspect to my relationship to culture as a whole in that way. But I wouldn’t say that Montreal holds any other distinct cultural purpose.
MS: I want to talk about your relationship with the United States. You wrote Imagining Baseball: America’s Pastime and Popular Culture. There’s perhaps nothing more American than baseball. People who are familiar with your writing in En Route, or your travel writing with The Globe and Mail, know about your journeys to the States. And, I’m wondering about your relationship with America and American pop culture.
DM: I’ll start off with the briefest possible, and this may be a little broad strokes, but as an Anglophone growing up in the east end of Montreal, the world outside of this, the English speaking world, English Canada and the United States, were all the same. But America was cooler. And I didn’t come up with that. To me English Canadian nationalism seemed very corny. And it was rather deft to me. Growing up where I grew up it didn’t resonate with me the way it has in Ontario or the rest of Canada, that sort of beer commercial jingoism, the maple leaf on a backpack. Things like that, for whatever reason, not because I was cool, they seemed really corny to me. And it was also the same. There were these vast places where everyone spoke English, and in the same accent and were basically involved in the same things. But America, at least then, seemed cooler to me. I thought more and more about that as I’ve been asked to articulate that. And to me that only because of the high rhetorical function of anti-Americanism in Canada. That is to say, while Canadians participate so fully in American culture. There’s nothing with which Canadians are doing that is somehow foreign to what is being done in the United States. Will still think breakfast, lunch, and supper. We still watch professional sports on television. The way we organize society and our relationship to work, family, living arrangements, it’s all absolutely identical. There’s nothing that would change if you or I were having this conversation in St. Louis, Missouri.
MS: Something that probably ended with my generation is that relationship with the States through the affiliates. I grew up in Ottawa, so our American channels came from Rochester, so you find Ottawans who are Buffalo Bills fans. What were your affiliates here?
DM: One was called WCAX, channel 8 or channel 22. You know on the UHF band you could always get a couple of stations. You could get channel 33 which was a PBS station and you could get channel 22, which was an ABC affiliate. And I had to kind of snake an antenna around towards a window, but because of that I could Boston Celtics basketball every Wednesday. And I wasn’t looking for this. But this was the great Kevin McHale/Larry Bird era of Celtics basketball, and so I got to see all of this. And to me that was magical. Having to struggle for it too, made it rewarding. It’s like those things you have a nostalgic feeling about, like how much effort you took to see so little or to do something like that. I would never go back. I’m glad that I can watch whatever I want to watch on my computer.
MS: We talked about Montreal as a place, as America as a place. What about the Internet as a place, but more specifically social media as a place?
DM: I think these things have been an enormous benefit to literature. I can’t justify it in a full way. My anecdotal psychological insight into this is that Facebook and social media has made younger people generally better poets than they used to be, and the reason why is that now it becomes a thing that people just know how to do without being told how to do it: How to materialize the self. The function that poets often engage in to where your speaking self as a poet is a kind of materialization of an aspect of your personality. It’s not you, but a version of you. And good version of you. One where you’re more articulate, more on point, one where you’re more perceptive. Your Facebook is like that. It’s a materialization of who you are.
MS: So if Montreal is a place, and America is a place, and social media is a place, is Asbestos Heights a place?
DM: Yes, Asbestos Heights is a place. It is the aspiration of all working class people. The title itself is a comedy of the book. That is to say a place of working class danger, or working class unpleasantness, becomes an aspiration. “I don’t live in Asbestos, I live in Asbestos Heights.”
MS: The book is subtitled The Canonical Notebook and is divided into four parts.
DM: This was my attempt to become canonical. I had neglected to write about the canonical subjects, so these were my notebooks that I would keep with me and in the process of doing this I said I would try to stick to writing about things like that. The first section is called “A Harkening of Flowers”. Because I thought, “What is a good Canadian book about flowers called?”
MS: The second section is “The History of Baseball”.
DM: “The History of Baseball”. I write a sequence of poems, all about the history of baseball. I got a little sidetracked though, and I the history of baseball through the lens of famous figures in American literature. So it starts Anne Bradstreet in the Puritan, through Melville and Twain, through Hemingway and Fitzgerald, through Marianne Moore and the modernists and up to Sylvia Plath. So each poem about baseball is refracted through a statement about these authors. I did my PhD in American Fiction, which is where a lot of the notes from this emerge from.
MS: The third section is called, “A History of Canada: Its Poetry, Its Birds, Its Prime Ministers and Its Trees”
DM: It’s Canada, right? I had to get all that in. There all important things as far as I can tell, about Canada. We have Prime Ministers here. It’s not the Mayor of Canada, it’s the Prime Minister. And you can’t really call yourself a Canadian poet if you haven’t written about trees. Is that possible?
MS: It’s certainly not allowed. It disqualifies you from grants.
DM: And I realized that too, because I’m trying in this book to address what people thought had been parlous failures on my account to write about the real things of poetry, so I wanted to write about trees and birds and prime ministers.
MS: Section four is “Les Chansons d’Anjou”.
DM: The last one is a bit more sombre in tone, and a bit more lyrical. That’s why it’s “Les Chansons” and so I’m using actual song lyrics from songs I’ve composed. And I wanted to separate that from the thematic gestures at the end, which gets a bit bleak and dark, but I wanted to separate the final poem, which I wrote in memory of my father.
MS: Each section starts with one of your well-known “I Love Noodles” poems
DM: An important, important gesture.
MS: What was the thinking behind that?
DM: Like putting it in the book?
MS: In having them leading off each section.
DM: I wanted them as a way of returning to some sort of consistent matter, so the notebooks can start with a familiar kind of incantation, in a familiar way like a commercial.
MS: I’d like to finish off with a version of Proust’s Questionnaire combined with the James Lipton Inside the Actors Studio version, with a few curveballs thrown in just for you.
DM: Let’s do it.
MS: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
DM: Jennifer Lopez’ face.
MS: What is your greatest fear?
DM: That you’ll continue to wear this shirt.
MS: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
DM: My stubbornness.
MS: What is the trait you most deplore in others?
MS: Which living person do you most admire?
DM: Merle Haggard.
MS: What is your greatest extravagance?
DM: Taking taxis. My mum would hate that about me.
MS: What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
MS: On what occasion do you lie?
DM: When people talk to me.
MS: What’s your favourite Beyoncé song?
DM: “Crazy in Love”.
MS: Which living person do you most despise?
DM: RA Dickey.
MS: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
MS: What’s your favourite meal?
DM: Fried chicken with collard greens and macaroni and cheese.
MS: What do you consider your greatest achievement?
DM: I have a running Twitter conversation with Doritos Mexico.
MS: If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
MS: Where would you most like to live?
DM: Aside form Montreal, Los Angeles.
MS: What’s the deal with Derek Jeter?
DM: Great baseball player.
MS: Who is your favourite writer?
DM: William Shakespeare.
MS: Who is your hero of fiction?
DM: Huckleberry Finn.
MS: What’s the greatest difference between Canadians and Americans?
DM: How much Canadians care about being Canadian and how much Americans don’t care.
MS: What is your greatest regret?
DM: When I had more opportunities to take care of my financial future I wasn’t as smart as I should’ve been,
MS: What is your favourite word?
MS: What is your least favourite word?
DM: Vague, but they way it’s now being pronounced in Ontario: Vog.
MS: What is your favourite curse word?
MS: Football, baseball, basketball, or hockey.
MS: What sound or noise do you love?
DM: Celine Dion’s voice.
MS: What sound or noise do you hate?
DM: The sound of radios in other rooms.
MS: What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
DM: Full-time musician.
MS: What profession would you not like to do?
DM: Work with the public.
MS: If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
DM: Lets rock.
Listen to the interview in its entirety here.
David McGimpsey was born and raised in Montreal. He is the author of several volumes of poetry, including the collection of sonnets Li’l Bastard, which was named a book of the year by both the National Post and the Quill and Quire and was a finalist for Canada’s Governor General’s Award. David is also the author of the short fiction collection Certifiable and the award-winning critical study Imagining Baseball: America’s Pastime and Popular Culture. He is a musician, a fiction editor for Joyland, and his travel writing is a regular feature of EnRoute magazine. Named by the CBC as one of the ‘Top Ten English language poets in Canada,’ his work was also the subject of the book of essays Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey. A PhD in American Literature, David teaches at Concordia University. His latest collection of poetry, As