Smelling the Smells of the People: An Interview with Spencer Gordon
I recently had the pleasure of conducting an interview with Spencer Gordon, discussing important topics such as where he writes and how he pulled himself out of an early funk to complete a collection of short stories.
Spencer is a mesmerizing writer whose breathtaking first book Cosmo is an absolute tour de force. He is one of the masterminds behind The Puritan (an online literary journal of which I have a deeply repressed envy) and Ferno House, a chapbook press it pains me to admit exists (I am kept awake with the worry that Ferno House will poach authors from my own chapbooking endeavours). His most recent chapbook, Feel Good! Look Great! Have a Blast! was shortlisted for the bpNichol chapbook award and he has an forthcoming chapbook (you see how he outproduces us all?!), titled Conservative Majority, with Apt. 9 Press. Spencer Gordon is an author, publisher, URL, WWE Champion, and according to an unceasing flow of press releases, excruciatingly attractive. Below is the transcript of my interview with him.
AF: Thanks for agreeing to participate in this interview, Spencer. Could you begin by describing your ideal writing environment?
SG: I can begin to answer by describing what was my ideal environment, before the shocking truth of self-awareness levelled my burgeoning confidence.
Once I decided to become the illustrious author and wordsmith that you know today, I simply did what many of my peers seemed to be doing, and ran a Google image search for “Poet” + “writing environment.” After chancing upon the typical romantic and inspiring images officially sanctioned by the Canada Council for the Arts, I began making a list of local Toronto antique shops and furniture dealers at which I could (finally) spend some of my inheritance money and writing grants (which were, to be honest, getting kind of unwieldy). As my greatest fear is inauthenticity, I didn’t want others to assume I wasn’t in this calling ‘all the way,’ so quickly assembled what many would describe as the ideal environment to receive a visitation from The Muse and continue living off the government.
And yet, despite such careful accounting and expensing, ‘tailoring’ my writing environment soon proved to be a gauche bid for just what I feared to appear to be—inauthentic, artificial, as if I were only playing the role of bohemian lay-about in an embarrassing display of bad faith. My peers jeered at the ways in which I’d so carefully, so consciously arranged my surroundings, leading me to a crisis of faith (I care about what my peers think extensively).
As you can imagine, this was a great blow to my assurance as a young writer. It meant that my chipped cherry wood and mahogany desks, my carefully assembled objets d’art (taxidermy mammals, a precious quill, a tortoise shell), scattered tumblers and hookahs and urn-like ashtrays, the stacks of yellowed newsprint and priceless first-editions, my worn butcher’s block reeking with the sensuous ache of garlic and cardamom, my clawed bathtub of cracked porcelain and my ancient rotary phone (perched near the tub so I could ring my dearest friends from Toulouse while I soaked), and oh, those passing shafts of sunlight that pierced my heart as I gazed upon the gothic terraces of my haunted garret’s environs—things I once believed to be spontaneous, authentic, and in no way by design—were in fact not!
Andrew, let me tell you that I immediately destroyed my eclectic assemblage in a roaring fire in High Park, committing the government’s filthy lucre to the flames.
AF: That sounds like a traumatic experience—and it must have dramatically affected your writing! What was your writing environment like after this event, and what influence did your new creative space have on your authorial activities?
SG: Well, it's funny that you mention trauma. I thought burning away the artifice would actually motivate real art—you know, something realistic and relevant to my life, like Fugitive Pieces or The Man from Glengarry. I thought I would win the respect of my peers and win something small but humble. Nothing too outrageous. Maybe just the Giller Prize.
But that was before the (my) Great Financial Collapse of 2012. You see, I realized I'd made a few errors in accounting, owed a tuition’s worth of taxes, and had to actually get a job (imagine!). I had to lower myself to the common denominator; as so many creative auteures must, I began teaching at the college level. This involved babysitting the most unimaginably hideous cretins at a moonbase campus and instructing them how to spell, hold their pencils, and mumble an argument beyond me want or me do drug drug.
And afterward, everything changed. After recovering from a mild case of dementia, I was suddenly tired in the evenings. I was suddenly unable to afford to drink, and even less able to incur a hangover (how I missed my expensive gimlets at the hotels!). The Muses, no doubt noting my lack of romantic furniture, departed en masse (I heard their tinkling bells, their farewell lyre plucking). I was stuck and mentally exhausted, having the unbearable itch to create but unable to give it a proper scratch.
I then moved into an apartment with my horrible, harpy-like girlfriend in the Minto complex across from High Park, the scene of my pyre. And my waking reality became a nightmarish blur of geometry. I was soon surrounded by ugliness, odors, the cruel, primary colours of IKEA. I couldn't afford to write for long stretches, I didn’t own a proper writing desk, and my small apartment had nothing resembling an office. Even working forty hours a week, I barely cleared the poverty line, and watched all my precious leisure time get sucked up with sustenance, recuperation, disgust. I would lose entire days spent on ignoble errands, out scavenging rent money and starchy foods. I often felt somehow subhuman—like a mammal foraging for sustenance in a cruelly indifferent, Schopenhauerian world of chaos and blind will.
This was real trauma. In fact, throughout this period, it would be silly to call myself a writer. I was more slug than boy, more squirrel than man. And something had to change if I were to go on living.
AF: My God, Spencer, that sounds horrendous. But clearly you managed to turn things around, as since then you’ve gone on to write Cosmo, the masterpiece that won you the illustrious CBC Overlookie Bookie Award. How exactly did you manage to pull yourself out of that awful grey porridge of days you’ve just described?
SG: I want to thank you for mentioning the Overlookie Bookie Award for Most Underrated Canadian Book. I’d just like to point out, though, that I’m still waiting for the prize money and the Golden Beaver Medallion promised by the CBC. I was also informed that I would be featured on Radio Q with that ex-Moxy Fruvous guy from this article and The Hour with that tired-looking Slipknot roadie who went to CNN. Let’s hope a CBC rep sees this interview and I get what’s due!
And thank you for calling Cosmo a masterpiece, because it is, and is extremely underrated, and is reviewed by my mother on Goodreads.
To answer your question about my porridge days—and how I managed to turn the tide and become one of the country’s best young writers—I simply had to escape. After a chance encounter wandering western Toronto, I began visiting a local establishment that provides me with more room and privacy—and more inspiration—than what I have at home. And in today’s economic climate, a little space and privacy can mean the world.
Just south of Bloor on the ever-friendly, cosmopolitan Dufferin Street, you can find a delightfully quaint shopping centre named, suitably, the Dufferin Mall. Nestled into the fastidiously clean parking lot, you’ll find one of those local Pizza Huts that continuously boosts our local economy with much needed job opportunities. But hold up. This one’s no ordinary Italian Food Hut, but one that comes as a trifecta of variety; indeed, this is a combination Pizza Hut/KFC/Taco Bell.
That means sophisticated patrons can dine at all three restaurants at the same time. I know; you’re suddenly thinking of the options. What wild amalgams of pepperoni, chicken skin, and refried beans! What heady orgies of Italian, American, and Mexican fare! What sluices of mysterious origin! And while it comes with its drawbacks (e.g., known Google user and food critic ‘Paul Magda’ gave the establishment a rather mixed review in 2011, claiming that “The Pizza Hut buffet is a bit of a rip off as it doesn’t include desert [sic], drinks or pasta. The chicken from KFC isn’t as fresh as competing fried chicken restaurants. But Taco Bell is pretty good quality for the price you pay”), I find this to be the ideal environment to get the trying, yet essential, job of scribbling done (as famous author Shaun Smith often blogs about for Open Book Toronto).
Indeed, even as I write this, I perch upon one of the building’s few commodes, my discount PC laptop jiggling on my skinny knees. When I lift my irradiated eyes to chance upon the wall’s lurid inscriptions—often referencing a girl of local repute, the size and dimensions of my various body parts—I glance upon a framed photograph of my partner, Stephanie, which leans atop the sanitary paper dispenser as a sentimental reminder of her scowling face, her censure of my efforts.
To dissuade incoming patrons from disturbing my focus, my rapt attention, my trousers rest rather obviously (indeed, intentionally so) around my ankles. Any grunts overheard emanating from my stall must surely be considered some unfortunate ogre’s intestinal agonies—my little joke, for if only they could only know it was the birthing labour of art that inspired my coughs and howls, my squeals and shrieks!
When I encounter a roadblock (writer’s block, I giggle), I sneak off to the counter to purchase another large Pepsi from the soda fountains—a beverage sipped (and evacuated) while I compose my verses, my autobiographical accusations, my essayistic thrusts at my numerous enemies. And I recall, smelling the animal smells of composition, the bleating of the meat dispensers, that I have finally found a suitable receptacle of Canadian Literature—that grand, sustaining, continuously new endeavour.
AF: I’m pleased to know my keyboard is only a few removes from your bare knees. But let’s not depart from the matter at hand! Spencer, you raise a very important point, and that is the way in which place affects the Canadian psyche and how we portray that in literature. Are you finding your new venue of composition seeping into your writing—has your new writing locale altered your art? It seems like you’re clearing new ground in CanLit here ... is this the new frontier (or another solitude?) in our national literature? Should each of us toiling in the field of composition have a commode of one’s own? Please pardon the barrage of questions but this seems like important information our readers must know!
SG: Unlike most writers I know, I’m now no longer interested in living in a mansion or getting an endorsement deal from Gucci or Prada or Nike. I’m happy to sit in my stall and scribble, smelling the smells of the people. I suppose mine is a private, lonely sort of commode—alone with my thoughts, the inquisitive janitorial staff, the odd, gassy customer—but the sighs and triumphal marches booming from the Harbourfront for the IFOA no longer pique my jealousy.
The tough thing is: Canadian Literature (or CanLit) is so well formed, so complete and diverse, that it’s a genuine challenge “clearing new ground,” as you call it. In other words, the frontier is so vast and unexplored that there’s hardly a need for more avant-garde or experimental forays.
Take a look around. How cosmopolitan and contemporary our communities are. How noble. Today, Canadian poets and fiction writers are at this moment sharing links to socialist op-eds on Facebook. They’re talking about how bad Harper and the Fords are. They’re sharing funny dog and cat videos. They’re even using irony to describe their love of gifs, Taylor Swift, rap culture! And then saying they need more irony! And then less irony! And then more!
Out of doors, at the great pubs and cafes of the reading and launching world, there is absolutely no gossip, no pettiness, no feuding. Zero alcoholism and bitching. Networking does not exist. Writers are every day striving to step out of their comfort zones; they’re reading what before they would have aligned with some opposing aesthetic camp. They’re constantly endorsing the work of people whom they find most threatening to their own fragile spots on the field of cultural production.
More established writers flock to the emerging; the emerging now respectfully honour the established, but never lick their asses in embarrassing displays. Nepotism was eliminated in 1982. Male writers are always publishing and reviewing women in respectful ways. Female writers constantly meditate on the heroic feminists who broke down the doors in more oppressive times, and live up to their calls-to-arms.
When a new shortlist and award recipient is announced, prize money is given to charity, and a new prize is erected to find less common, more overlooked work. Prize juries are now so blind and impartial that they are drawn from pools of common readers who have no attachments or affiliations or enemies in the industry. Only unknown writers are invited to the award galas. Only the best books receive the best press; reviews are always long, in-depth, probing, and genuine. Grants are given to only the very best writers for the very best projects (you can no longer be a young, unpublished writer and get $100,000 like I did, back in the day). Bookstores are brimming with literature. Skids upon skids of poetry, selling like iPhones.
I do have one idea, though, to make all of this better, more diverse. I thought it up while sitting on the john. Since Canadian literary fiction is so ambitious and daring, so lucrative, I’ve decided to try something different. Now hear me out. I know this may sound a bit outlandish, but a shock usually accompanies that which is truly new …
I’m writing a novel. Against the grain, I’ve decided to write a work of historical fiction in the realist mode. There will be a twin narrative. One of my protagonists will exist in the present day, and will be haunted by the memory of her family’s past. Her ruminations will enforce a strict tone of guilt, eccentricity, and grief. She will live in a small, unnamed city but will keep to herself and hardly speak because she is also an immigrant from a war-torn country and deaf and coping with the loss of her husband and lover. Most of the book will be in her head and she will have an extremely archaic diction. I will be injecting the maximal level of sensuousness throughout. A banana will be effulgent, silky, reminiscent of tarantulas, the hot sun, etc., described across two pages. If sex happens, watch out.
My other protagonist will exist in an interesting but obscure historical period. I will have researched a twentieth or nineteenth century incident rife with suffering. Marginalized, oppressed, and poor, my second protagonist will be just quirky enough to be an anomaly for her time. She will have some skill—e.g., she’ll be a musician, an acrobat, a psychic, a clown, an animal trainer, or something—that separates her from other people, who simply do not understand her. She will also have a different (and oppressed) physical or sexual trait. The book will educate my rich Canadian WASP readers about the era and make everyone feel positively enriched, guilty (again), cultured, and safe. She will struggle against her oppressors and ultimately fail, but in a moving and empowering way.
Against convention, my contemporary protagonist will discover that this woman was actually her ancestor. She will be unable to hold up the weight of the past, and will be crushed my memory and loss and wade out into a field of prairie wheat (or woods, or other wilderness setting) and never be seen from again. Or look out her window and think about doing that.
There is a third character, but I can’t decide whether it will be a hypnotic river, a talking crow, an entire town, or a blind Native Canadian who makes my character tea and provides cryptic moral advice (unheeded, but appreciated). Then comes the fun part. I will pout and stare in my black and white author photo, brow furrowed, just to shake things up. We will blurb the book as “breathtaking” and “mesmerizing” and a “tour de force.”
One can dream, eh? Whatever I choose, I do know that this is extremely bizarre work that has no chance of being published by a major publisher or winning an award of any kind. It’s simply too strange. But I guess that’s what happens when you sit on the toilet for as long as I have—you get weird ideas about CanLit.