Friday, February 05, 2016

An escape scene from Yiddish for Pirates: The Ol' Egyptian Fire Trick translated into Hebrew

At some point in my Yiddish for Pirates novel, I needed our "hero," Moishe, to facilitate an escape from an auto-da-fé where some condemned conversos were about to be burned at the stake. I wanted this to be accomplished with some flair and by fighting fire with fire. I mean, at lot was at stake, as it were. When I want to know about magic, I ask my sagacious and professorially odd friend, Professor Oddfellow AKA Craig Conley author of numerous books and keeper of many arcane fires. He has rabbitted away more hatfuls of knowledge about magic than anyone I know.

He suggested that my scene could use the ol' Egyptian fire trick. From the front, the audience sees only a wall of fire, but what is really happening is that there are two separate walls which allows the magician to appear to walk through a solid wall of fire. This was interesting.

I thought I could adapt this in a number of ways. Firstly, because this is a book engaging with Hebrew, Kabbalah, books, mysticism, and a kind of Yiddish derring-do (I guess that could be translated more plainly as "chutzpah,") I'd make the trick use a Hebrew/Yiddish letter. The letter qoph (kuf) would allow someone to enter the wall of fire and then escape out a secret flaming sally port out the back. This was important not only because my characters needed to escape but also because this scene was taking place in the round, in the Quemadero, the Inquisition's Sevillian execution square.  And the stakes would be in the enclosed part of the letter.

So this is how it would go. While the ceremony was taking place and those to be executed were tied to the stakes, Moishe would walk around the Quemadero dribbling oil in the shape of the letter qoph. Then at an appropriate time, he would light the oil, surrounding the stakes in a wall of flame. He'd dash into the middle, untie those at the stakes and then lead them to safety down an alleyway down the bottom opening of the qoph. With appropriate mumbo-jumbo jabbering patter and some dramatic stage craft—raising his arms, etc—those assembled would be sufficiently discombobulated that Moishe and the conversos would be gone before anyone knew what exactly was happening. 

I can't resist: here's a picture of Barbie wearing tefillin.
The little box on her forehead and on her arm contain prayers on paper.
In my novel, they contain inflammable oil

As it turns out, and here I'm giving the scene away, there is a rabbi who has a teffilin box filled with oil and he throws it like a Molotov cocktail onto the kindling below his pyre. So Moishe has to act more quickly than he planned. Still, the whole thing is pulled off like a brilliant magic trick. Or a miracle. At least, that's what Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor thinks, But more on that another time...

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

An interview about "Shopping for Deer"

Over on his excellent blog, Jonathan Ball asked me insightful questions about my poem, “Shopping for Deer” in my The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House Books, 2010). I gave antlers. We spoke of poetics, ecopoetics, deer, shopping, revision, metaphor and other things. It's here.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and people are sharing many remarkable stories, memories, and photographs, some terrible in their sadness, some of terrible inspiration. I am thinking of the Holocaust today—and all those other holocausts and genocides.

The unspeakable things (which must be spoken) that were done to people because of their difference—racial, cultural, genetic, sexual, disability, mental health. All these tragedies are somehow all part of a terrible family, somehow related while intrinsically different.

I hope that the ever-increasing collection and recollection of Holocaust stories are also somehow helpful to survivors, many who feel that, as they age, time is running out. There are so many resources, and new ones are being created and shared every day, that I hope these survivors feel that their story, or at least the weave of history made of others' stories has taken root in human culture such that we understand and can't in good conscience, forget. History has witnessed and will not forget. Though we need to keep remembering and reminding. And drawing connections to past and future events.

I'm working on a novel which engages with the Holocaust and I was uncertain as to why I was doing this, writing yet another Holocaust-related story. However, I think that it is exactly this. To keep remembering. To continually make new connections with both past and future, with our own culture's history and others'. History should always be rhizomatic and I think we need to keep those often subterranean connections spreading. That kind of forest you can't knock down.

Doing research recently, I came across this documentary about one of the only entire families to survive the camps. They were Jewish, performers, and seven of them had dwarfism. Being discovered by Mengele at Auschwitz was both a curse and blessing. It was his fascination with this family of little people that ultimately kept them alive.

It's a fascinating film, even if the style and narration is quite cheesy.


Launch of Paul Dutton selected & new: Sonosyntactics

I had the great delight & honour to edit this book and write an introduction. It launches tomorrow night in Toronto. There's pizza, the work is fantastic, and Dutton is a masterful performer.

Poem: Mountains of Orpheus

after Lawren Harris

Mountains of Orpheus

the beautiful Rhodope mountains
the beauty of the Rhodope mountains

the red beauty of the rolling Rhodope mountains
the rolling red beauty of the Rhodope mountains

what are you feeling, chronic mountaineer?
all is not lost

there is a tunnel through the darkness which is dark itself
or rather which itself is dark

a dog wins the half marathon after being let out to pee
because there is wonder and joy in the world, even still

last line from a Facebook comment by Paul Vermeersch about a headline about the second last line.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Yiddish for Pirates: a harbinger of spring?

image of action figure Freud, semi-colon and Inuit
hunter which has nothing whatsoever to do with the text below.

Yiddish for Pirates and my not-new faceness made the Quill and Quire Spring 2016 preview. I'm pleased that it also made the CBC Spring books preview. I know I'm excited that it's coming out in spring. It's great that some other people are too.

Is Yiddish for Pirates a harbinger of spring? Nah. More likely a hardanger.

Digital Typewriter Performance

(photo by Alex Zafer)

This past Friday, I had the pleasure of performing at Gallery 435 on Barton St. E. in Hamilton, Ontario. Dave Gould and I played a couple sets of improvised music. I performed on saxophone and flute, laptop and my trusty Underwood typewriter (mic'd and processed through said laptop. Even the typewriter wanted to be David Bowie and dress up in space, and so together we got cosmic.) Dave played a keyboardless piano (the strings and soundboard exposed) and his invented instruments made of whale bone and caribou horn, strung and amplified.

The day before, I read at variety of work at Except for Kenneth as one of 6 performers in Lisa Pijuan-Nomura's new performance series, Red. A lovely night of diverse performances: music, dance, comedy, fiction, and poetry.

Friday, January 15, 2016


The Matador network posted a great little article about unusual words with each word illustrated. My friend, the writer, Lauren B. Davis sent it to me, knowing that I love obscure words. Of course, I took it as a challenge to use all of the words in a story. I wasn't quite able to use them all in order, but I did manage to use them all, plus a bunch of other favourite obscure words.


It is truth: look to those with those with intemperate and untampered heads, those virginal to barbers and stylists whose first-growth hairs have neither been severed nor tempered for they are possessed of the most truth, the undebunkable verities, the tales, and most candid learning, for history is locked in the distant ends of their do. And I am such an acerecomic, for save a handful lost in the turbulent clutches and snatching moil of a tavern bust-up, my hair has been dutifully preserved, permitted to grow as it so desires and by its own physics and gravity, like a treasured library, to expand and increase and thereby retain news of the past. Though we all have our nits to bear, our worms, the head is such a library and I am against the biblioclasms and libricides of those who would be shorn of history or fleas. For though our head is our hair shirt, our hirsute of many colours both brown and grey, I devote myself to such bibliogasms and storied pleasures of both head and history.

They spit at me, “You nit-tonsured cacodemonomanic! You believe yourself suffused with the refuse of past days, this history.” The smugwormy glibness of their tight smiles, the dactylion of their middle finger stuck deep inside their wordbooks, marking the source of this newly acquired lexical plunder they seek to heave against me.

But I know this is but enantiodromic fanfaronade! As witch with toad, they have turned this thing into its opposite, then parade in boasting swagger. They’ll not gorgonize me with mere bluster.

I may be obliged to scratch and tweeze, to herd the minions that scurry across my pate’s long grass, but I have no such prideful hamartia. History is in my hair and I stand by its tangle of lessons, whether unspeakable, too infandous for casual repetition, too odious for song or the weak, or worthy of the poetry intoned to the child and the dying.

Skeptics, doubters, forgetists! Barberists and those barbarous to knowledge! Mesmerists and antimnemonites! Human razors and those devoted to the obscurations of the past! If I could brush aside my fringes and cast the evil eye as a champion jettaturicist, if I could but have completed my diploma in ktenology and become shrewd in the science of death, the scraggy fingerling of your leptosomic bodies would snap under my osteniferous gaze.

For as I wander, montivagant, over hills and mountains, and those other various high places close to truth, I proclaim in words that should be understood by all, the verifiable assurity of pogonotrophic noegenesis! We create knowledge by cultivating our hair. We make Edenic knowledgetrees of our mustache, beard, and sideburns. The thicket of our armpits and pubic forests, the brambledom of our abdominal savannah.

I defy the fatuous quockerwodgers and rum bewilderers to deliver a recumbentibus, an argument sufficiently powerful to knock my faith in this history to the floor. They are but seized with the fetid loquacity and deluded scripturience of the ultracrepidarian and opine interminably and fulminate unceasingly on matters distant to them as God’s own dark star from the luminous excrescence of his ethereal brows.

This lexical tarantism wherein they must spin in the weltery web of their own deluded thought, their fervid brainstems a cotillion of bunkum does verily inspire me to seek a yonderly place of Classical reflection. I leave the sputtering objections of the abject xenizates who travel as blind strangers through the fecund and unshorn lands of memory, knowledge and reason, and peripateticate in vernalagic tranquilitude beneath the coppice of my own hirsute skull.

Instead, I leave them to the zugzwang of their own impoverished and atemporal incredulity—the prison cell of their present is so infinitesimal and bereft of feature like the cropped and fallow deathskull of forgetting that surely they shall languish in its silent, solitary and stony maw. Instead, I make my exuberant and attentive peregrinations to where history becomes shaggy with the fertile irrigations of memory and I have the rich tapestry of both past and future as the rich pilgrimage of possibility beneath the unkempt stubble of my ever-hopeful toes.

Thursday, January 14, 2016


I was the captain of a deep-sea submarine and I dressed as Dolly Parton and wore flippers. This is what I learned: space is big, unlike submarines. Playing the accordion can be a disaster, considering one’s elbow and the pressure gauge and all of us diving deeper into the black oblivion of the trench, losing faith in the outside world and getting the bends. And Martin became a virgin. And Martin lost his chess game.

Also, if something is a rock, something else is scissors. And then, just as one shakes one fist out the porthole at the miracles of obscurity, evolutionary adaptation and blindness while contemplating victory, in a dramatic and unexpected piece of narrative hijinks, something else is paper. It swoops down like an eagle from the conceptual surface and there goes your rock, your place at the top of the food chain. You open your hand. It is empty. It’s paper and it’s the accordion incident all over again. 

Your other hand? Paper also. What is written there? What’s on the other side? A single sheet of paper in a book of a thousand karate chops. If I forget you, let my right hand forget its cunning. But you’re dreaming. The rock is gone and you’re left with Martin weeping over his impotent pawns.

In space, if you had an infinite accordion, you could begin a note and that note would go on forever as the accordion expanded, as the bellows opened and one side of the accordion travelled past Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, all the planets, and then ventured into deep space and the stars, like a probe, a time traveller, a human song that required no air. And down on earth, you would play the melody, your children and lovers gathered round, singing along with those Dolly Parton country songs that you all love while inconceivably far away, like God or an alien civilization or the beginning of the universe, the infinite bass line is a miracle and time itself is left to imagine the tune.

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie, Dvorak, The Kansas City Seven and Me.

:Lester Young

With the news of David Bowie's death, I've been reflecting on what he meant to many people. There have been some beautiful tributes, many of which reflect on how he was a model and mentor for peoples' non-normative identity, indeed, even opening up the possibility that that was even possible. The power to discover, explore, and be one's self. Very powerful. From Ziggy Stardust to Rebel Rebel he was a brilliant articulator and enactor of alterity.

I wasn't a fan, really rarely being engaged with pop or rock music, particularly as a teen. I think I once bought a Pretenders album and there were those very dated Rick Wakeman albums based on Journey to the Centre of the Earth and King Arthur, but really my interests and inspirations were elsewhere. This is not to disparage or look down on anyone's tastes, but to acknowledge that certain musical languages connect.

I was wondering, in trying to understand how people connected with Bowie, if I had some other analogous models or musical languages that showed me how the world was bigger than my own personal experience or circumstance, that showed me that I could forge an identity that was outside my immediate experience or the experience of my immediate milieu.

I played recorder and cello avidly until I was about 14. I deeply connected with cello music -- I remember requesting Casals playing the Bach solo cello suites for a birthday. Both cello and recorder were powerful voices through both space and time for me. Through both playing and listening. When I was 8 or 9 my very favourite recording was Dvorak's Cello Concerto. I remember strong tactile, or maybe more accurately, the synaesthetic feelings evoked by the cassette. The olive yellow colour, the little image of a weaving of thick yarn tapestry on the little white cassette cover, the metal blue of the label. The distant world of longing in the music. The sombre, intense and thoughtful clarinet, the larger heart of the cello in its role as deeply feeling protagonist. These were big emotions which I discovered in myself through listening. This was what it was to understand one's self, to have a "self" which could conceive (and feel) emotional places outside of the everyday, but yet emotional places which affected how one saw one's daily life. The sun came in through the window. It was filtered through my experience of the timbre of the cello. Walking in the woods had the tone of a recorder. The timbre of the trees, yes, but a vision of what Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque music knew, how they felt. Many things were in the dorian mode. I had dorian feelings. Or phrygian emotions.

I played lots of early music on recorder and then discovered Irish music (one reason for my interest was that it connected me with Ireland, where I had lived until I was 9.) . I had the Chieftain's Bonaparte's Retreat and a great Boys of the Lough LP. There were bittersweet moments of melancholy. Tunes with sounds peat-infused. Ancient. And alternative to suburban Ottawa.

And then I began saxophone in Grade 7. From then on, I listened to every recording of every saxophonist that I could. I read biographies of Coltrane and Parker. I devoured the liner notes and scrutinized the images, design, and faces on the covers. What was it like to be from Kansas City? To be so moved as to write and then record "Alabama" in a club after the murder of schoolgirls by southern racists? What was it like to seek through music, to reinvent oneself? To search for a voice, a language, a way toward a larger narrative? To feel compelled to create and to explore new ways of creating? If you were Sidney Bechet, what did that vibrato say about your conception of life? There was that Gerry Mulligan duet with Dave Brubeck, "Sermon on the Mount" where I could feel my own teenage soul in the sound of his baritone saxophone, creeping, hollow, plaintive, earnest, arboreal, prayerful.

"Lester Young and the Kansas City Seven" was the first LP that I bought.  It was a sound from a time, a climate, a audioscape that was far from where I was yet I felt it led me out of my green shag carpeted bedroom, down the hot streets of a Kansas City night and into the perfect choreography of its music.

I also remember buying Moe Koffman's "Four Seasons." I remember going in with a handful of Bar Mitzvah-money silver dollars to Sam the Record Man in Bayshore Shopping Centre in Ottawa to buy it. The inside of Moe Koffman's double album had a photo of a bulletin board, ostensibly Moe's own. There were postcards, to do lists ("buy bread and wine"), notes about recording, etc. This might be the kind of life someone who made the kind of music Koffman did could live. I could live it too. Maybe I was supposed to, one day, when I was an adult.  When I wasn't being John Coltrane or the guy with the Dvorak feelings. I could have a life (and a life of identity and feelings) that might be different than what might be the default expectations of one like me. This was my Ziggy Stardust, my Thin White Duke, perhaps not as profound an alterity, a non-normativity, but one that allows me to understand how he was important to many.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Yiddish for Pirates: book cover

I'm delighted by the just released cover for my forthcoming novel (it'll be released in Canada in April.) The image was created by CM Butzer and the overall design by Five Seventeen in consultation with my amazing editor, Amanda Lewis at Random House Canada.

We worked to get the parrot right. He is a 500-year-old immortal gay Yiddish speaking pirate's parrot.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The 22nd Annual Hamilton Literary Awards and a Joke: Moon Baboon Canoe Nooz

Judy Marsales reads my "Eclogging" while I look on
(picture courtesy of Schooley nominee Sylvia McNicoll—or, likely, her photographer husband!)

I was delighted to be able to be part of The Hamilton Literary Awards which happened last night.

I want to say a few things about it. But first, one of a couple of great jokes that Jack David (of ECW Press) told me. He was there to support one of his authors who was nominated. Mrs. Shapiro phones the newspaper. She wants to submit an obit for her husband Abe. “What’s the cheapest rate?” “$25 ma’am—if you keep it short.” “OK,” Mrs. Shapiro says. “I want it should say: Shapiro died.” “Very good ma’am, but you actually get five words.” Mrs. Shapiro thought for a bit, then said. “Ok then, I want it should say: Shapiro died. Buick for sale.”

It was a lovely event organized by the Hamilton Arts Council, not only Stephen Near and Stephanie Vegh, but the volunteer members of the literary committee—local writers, booksellers, arts people, and publishers. And there was a shout-out to the LitLive Reading Series, also. I was struck how extraordinary the event was. Hamilton is both a big city (over 500,000 people) but also a small town. It was a bit of a love-in for the city. I’m ok with that, though.

Almost all of the local independent bookstores and their owners in the city (four of them) were there. Two sponsored and presented awards, and like all of the award presenters, read excerpts from the winning books. One of the presenters was a local real estate broker and perennial arts supporter who sponsored the poetry category which I won for Moon Baboon Canoe (Mansfield Press)—Judy Marsales—and who was brave enough to read my tongue-twister of a poem (“Eclogging”) with enthusiasm. Fantastic to have business people be arts supporters and recognize the importance of these non-marquee arts categories.

And how great to have the independent bookstores as part of this (Krista Foss and John Terpstra who won the awards for fiction and non-fiction, respectively) both mentioned the importance of these stores for writers. Booksellers who are knowledgeable, supportive, and enthusiastic about book sand their specificity as individual, independent works rather than just sellable widgets.  And the Hamilton Spectator, our local newspaper, was a sponsor of one award (The Kerry J. Schooley Award for a book that evoked Hamilton—which Chris Laing won) and gave excellent media coverage. A story and the winners’ mugs were on the front page of the entertainment section.

The judges wrote citations not only for the winners but for each nominee. These citations were remarkably thoughtful and extremely well said.

Here’s a list of the nominees. Lots of great books and writers here, too.

I do want to thank everyone who was involved. A really warm, celebratory night, one that, though there were winners, I think did still manage to celebrate everyone in involved in literature in the city.

Monday, December 07, 2015

The Beginning of Something: On starting a new novel (revised!)

The Beginning of Something.


My fist loomed over his mutt-wrinkled face. “I used to have a problem with violence,” I hissed. “But now I only hurt people when I’m angry with them. And let me say I am butt-boil-in-damnation-sauce angry with you, my friend.”

But he was out cold. He’d snorked off again. One of his chin-down gurgling gullet jags. It’s a seventh marvel the walls didn’t collapse with the sound and carry us Moses-away down the river of drool without even a single syphilitic paddle to beat the surf. Or the crabs.
There was nothing for it but to push till he spluttered up and burbled “What’s was going on?” That’s rich. As if he knew anything these days. He could be the love-doll of a randy bull elephant and still not notice till he’d birthed twin hedgehogs from his nethers.

“Remember what you did?” I bawled into his hair-spider earhole. “Wake up. Remember what you did?” His thin wet lips were drab oysters and bubbles of spit inflated and burst as he wheezed.
“It was terrible things. Terrible things that can’t be forgiven.” I shoved again but he didn’t wake, only made a little moan. “What’s in the land of damn Nod that you won’t leave—horse-glue and frog-copulation with a great morphine-filled flagon?”

I’d wait to fist his grizzly mug with my knuckles. How else would he appreciate the finesse, the dexterity of the fingers unless awake and aware of the blessed day? I could have slammed him with one furled paw as an aperitif, just to stir him so he’s in the right state of mind. Then followed with the other, not hors d’oeuvres but the gristly main course for the delectation of his jaw, but instead there’s this steel tray beside his bed just juddering with good edibles. Come to me, brown pudding, white sandwiches, lukewarm polystyrene cup coffee and little packages of sweetener. Ah. The sweet lady-carried ambrosia brought to our rooms. Mine for the taking while he dreams his old man dreams. Pestilent.

Out the window, the bottomless black dregs of space. Star-pocked and pointless.
A grim joke. When will it end? It doesn’t.
Are we there yet? We already are. We’re soaking in it.

They’ve sent us from earth toward nowhere. The new sentence. Not “you will be hanged by the neck until dead," but “here’s a one-way ticket into space where we’ll make certain you live forever and stew in your regrets like a baby in a neverchanged diaper.”

And ixnay on opening the airlock and leaping into empty space. Hard to maintain your memory when you’ve stopped breathing.

But it’s not all piteous crony woe and sorrowful lamentation. I believe I mentioned brown pudding, white sandwiches, lukewarm polystyrene coffee and little packages of sweetener. Ah, the olfactory, gustatory pleasures of the simple things. The complex pas de deux of real and imagined flavours. What’s brown is brown and what’s brown might be chocolate if one’s tongue can imagine like a Michelangelo or what’s the long-tongued Kiss-rocker, Gene Simmons?

And I never mentioned boiled chicken. Ask me I’ll tell you: boiled chicken is the human condition for we’re all plucked and boiled tasteless. Perhaps gummed by the ancients in the afterlife with their simpering smiles and Olympian saliva. But in my mouth, boiled chicken is the mash of paradise. Bright farmyard mornings and strolls down the mainstreet dappled in youth itself, the pale flesh vivid and rosy like my sallow guts once were.

Feck. I was to be wheeled back to my room by the great machine-frau Betsy herself.  And before I had the opportunity to explain how the two of us planned our escape from here. Glorious, I say. The two of us dressed like black and white venetian blinds in a little spaceship and heading to Mars with a great barrel of hooch. Just a man and his pretty mouthed wife in the endlessness of space.


I've only ever written one adult novel—that's Yiddish for Pirates due out in April.  I'm very excited about that but I admit I'm now feeling a lot of (self-administered) pressure to write another one. And another one that is the same but different.

And, forgetting on some level, that that novel took me over four years to write, tossing and turning, wrestling and stressing about how to write it: what it would be about, how to proceed, how to keep going, how to organize it, etc. I have the idea that this current novel should come easily. As if I could just begin at the top left hand corner and keep going until the final bottom right where it ends. I keep trying to remind myself how little I knew when I began the first novel. How I had a bunch of very lame ideas for the title. How a whole manner of the narrator's way of speaking had to be excised. How I struggled with plot. I'm even currently teaching a novel-writing course. I'm trying to listen to my own advice.

If I can learn anything from writing that novel, it is something about the process. My computer is filled with process. I have file folders and notebooks filled with process. Bookshelves and browser bookmarks filled with research (and/or inspiration) materials.

I've been sweating it out trying to think of new ideas. I had several but something made me resist them. I did some research. Listlessly. Half-heartedly.

Suffice it to say that the new novel will start not with a bang but with a whimper. Or a whisper. Or maybe a whippet.

But this weekend I had a terrible flu. I was hallucinating. I had some notion of an old cantankerous man who might speak a great line that one of my wife's clients had said to her and so I wrote the few paragraphs that appear above. Is this the start of something? Certainly. Is it the start of the new novel? Who knows. I used to have a problem with novels. Now I only have a problem with them when I'm trying to write one.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

November Round up: some things

It was a happily very busy November. Lots of performances both literary and musical. But more on those later. Here's an update on some of the publication things that I've been happy to have been included in.

I'm really thrilled to have a visual poem on the cover of the very last Rampike magazine, Karl Jirgen's important and always exciting journal of innovative writing which has been going since 1979.

Also very pumped to be in Michael e. Casteels' amazing illiterature: the graphic novel edition.

I have several new poems in Event magazine

I'm delighted to have a new short story (my first western) in the new comix issue of
Taddle Creek. 

Hamilton Arts & Letters; Letters Magazine. Hamilton great and surprising online literary and arts journal has a bunch of great work up this issue. I'm very happy to have two of my poems which engage with other famous poems filtered through the Hamilton Naturalists' lists of local species as well as a webpage of bird sounds.

Sunrise with Seamonsters. Paul Vermeersch has established a new blog for poems which engage with Turner's Sunrise with Seamonsters painting. The first two. Me and & Jeramy Dodds.

Here's a little piece I made using Gertrude Stein's voice recited her Complete Portrait of Picasso.

Friday, October 30, 2015

My poem, "Bones," read by Tom Cull

Tom Cull reads my poem "Bones" from the great new anthology: 

Translating Horses:the line, the thread, the underside (Baseline Press)
poetry and visual art anthology
editors: Jessica Hiemstra and Gillian Sze

Thursday, October 08, 2015

DOUBLE DOUBLE SPEAK: Stephen Harper in his Own Words

Indians don’t believe in them 

metastasizing weather
don’t believe in them

Canadian mouths
Parliament, elections

don’t believe in them
and lakes, rivers

tailings ponds
Saudi Arabia

don’t believe in them
only the Original Six

and double double speak

our only choice
lock ourselves inside

let’s circle the wagons
the only good cover-up is fear


with thanks to Jonathan Ball & Kathryn Mockler

I'm looking to Vote Together for advice on extraction.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Not Just a Jewish Voice but Jewish Eyes: Henry Balinson and the Jewish Voice of Hamilton.

a panel from the exhibition

I was honoured to be able to write the text for this exhibition and to give the talk below at the opening of the exhibition, The Jewish Voice of Hamilton about Hamilton's Yiddish language newspaper and its publisher. It was an amazing event with members of the publisher's family speaking also. The exhibition itself was excellently curated by Courtney Link and managed by Wendy Schneider at the Beth Jacob Synagogue in Hamilton. This morning's opening was very well attended


This is an exhibit about the Jewish Voice of Hamilton, the Yiddish language newspaper that was published in Hamilton in the 30s and 40s. It’s also the story of its publisher and editor, Henry Balinson. But it’s more than that. It is the story of how immigrants—Jews specifically—contributed to Hamilton and all of Canada by bringing with them their own culture, perspective, skills, language, learning, and values.

I don’t know what “an old stock Canadian” is, to use Stephen Harper’s recent questionable phrase, unless it refers to the indigenous people, but modern Canada would be a pretty watery broth without our immigrants. And Henry Balinson, as we say in the exhibition, was the same as every immigrant: like everyone else, but uniquely himself.

So let me tell you a bit about him. In 1911, the ambitious and well-educated Henry Balinson, an aspiring writer, poet, and playwright who spoke seven languages, moved from Odessa to Hamilton. A socialist and a unionist, he had a fervent belief in fairness, workers’ rights, mutual support and justice. Asked whether his father was Orthodox, Conservative or Reform, his son, Morley replied, “Labour.”

This reminds me of a joke. It was the depression and Hershel, a young immigrant to America complained to Rockefeller. “It’s not right that you have more than your fair share of money.”
“So Hershel,” Rockefeller asked, “How many people live in America?”
“100 million,” Hershel replied.
“Well, that’s a coincidence I have a 100 million dollars, “ Rockefeller said. “Here’s a dollar, Hershel It’s your share.”

Balinson moved to Hamilton trusting that life would offer opportunities to an enterprising young man passionate about knowledge, healthy debate and the power of ideas. As his daughter-in-law, Joan, put it, “This was a man who really wanted to understand the world.”

He soon established International Press which printed the newspaper and myriad other items for the Jewish community as well as the Polish, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Latvian, and other communities. He would eventually write, typeset and print his own Yiddish publication,  The Jewish Voice of Hamilton newspaper. At  age, Goldie knew the word collating as tThe whole family helped put out the paper, even the kids.

In Canada, both Yiddish newspapers and printing began at the end of  the 19th century, becoming more permanently established in centres such as Toronto, Montreal and Winnipeg at the beginning of the 20th century. International Press and The Jewish Voice of Hamilton were Hamilton’s first and only Yiddish printer and newspaper. The newspaper was published between 1933 and 1943 with issues generally appearing once a month.

So this reminds me of another old joke, one that I think Henry Balinson might have enjoyed. Abie walks up to Moishe, the editor of a monthly newspaper, “So, this is a newspaper? Why isn’t it a daily—It takes a whole month to print each issue? God himself needed less than week to make the whole world.”
 “Feh,” Moishe replies. “Look at what a mish mash the world is. But look…look at my newspaper!”

Balinson’s Jewish Voice of Hamilton was the only source of local news and commentary from a Jewish perspective. As he wrote in one issue, “It is the Jewish Voice, not a garbled account as interpreted by a gentile reporter.” On the front page of each issue, Balinson wrote a column entitled, “My Stroll Around Hamilton,” in his inimitable style where he thought over “our kingdom of Hamilton,” and wondered “how Jews live, and how Jews don’t live.”

Reading Balinson’s columns today allows one to stroll through 30s and 1940s Hamilton, kibitzing with a charismatic and opinionated observer of the city, seeing local businesses and community leaders, talking about shul politics and universal issues about family and society, about the rise of the Nazis and the war in Europe.

But why is important that the newspaper was in Yiddish? Because language is a library, a storehouse of knowledge and experience, an entire shtetl of philosophy and feeling. It’s a truism that Inuktitut has 100 words for snow. What does Yiddish have? 100 words for fools, shmeckeleh, and a kind of ironic resolve that—though of course, what did you expect? rainbows and roses?—we can keep going through these hard times. Like always. And however little the immigrants were able to carry with them, they always brought their language. As the Yiddish saying goes, “the tongue is not in exile.”

It’s interesting to look at issues of the paper or posters printed by International Press and learn not only about the Jewish community but also the relationship between Jews and the wider non-Jewish community. A call to boycott the German Olympics, a rally at the Royal Connaught Hotel to fundraise for the Red Cross’s war efforts, a paid ad for the 1937 election where a candidate exhorts, “If you don’t want a Hitler in Canada, vote O’Hanley! The advertisements from local businesses also provide a rich window on the civic life of Hamilton. And it’s amazing to see ads for businesses with Irish or Italian names with text written in Yiddish.

And how many Jews spoke Yiddish at the time of the paper’s publication? The 1931 census recorded that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Canadians were bilingual. In Hamilton, almost 90 per cent of the city’s Jewish population were able to speak both Yiddish and English. Across Canada approximately, 150,000 or 1.4 per cent of Canadians spoke Yiddish as a first language. Amazingly, this is roughly the same proportion as that of Canada’s largest language other than English or French today: Punjabi.

Though deeply interested in the local, Balinson was also concerned about the international. Because of his unique and intimate access to the Hamilton Jewish community, he used his paper for vital advocacy, marshalling local action against international crises. This was “Think Global, Act Local.”

Keenly aware of the grave danger posed by the rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism and the outbreak of war, he devoted many pages to rallying the community against Hitler and advocating support for the war effort as well as for the Red Cross.

As the 30s progressed, it became increasingly apparent to international observers such as Balinson that the rise of fascism in Germany marked an emerging political crisis for all of Europe and particularly for its Jews. Balinson wrote that Hitler was “the devil of the civilized world,” and “all intellectuals are his enemies, for he fears the power of thought.” This wasn’t obvious to many Canadians at the time.

For Balinson, his newspaper was a vehicle for “the power of thought” through education, and information and he used it to advocate for the political positions he believed in. In 1935, an English-language article called for the boycott of the Berlin Olympics, exhorting that “the participation by any Canadian athlete in the Olympic Games in Germany should forever remain a blot on his name.”

Balinson also provided a platform for other domestic political opinions against Nazism in the form of advertisements for local elections, such as one Conservative Party supporter advocating against “new and untried parties” because under new political systems, he said, “the Jews have suffered greatly, as witness the situation in Germany.” It is unlikely that Balinson would have agreed with this politician’s politics beyond concurring that the Jews had suffered.

This exhibit tells the story of Hamilton in the 30s and 40s.  It features many items on public display for the first time: many editions of the newspaper, photographs and other valuable historical documents, local letterpress printing artifacts, and video recordings of oral history, all part of the Balinson Family Archive, recently generously donated to the Rosenshein Museum by the Balinson family. Ads in both English and Yiddish for local businesses (some still active today), and their designs and slogans are like walking right into this bygone time in city life.

But it is true that history is not an abstraction but is both lived by individuals and is experienced through their individual stories, and so this exhibition also tells the compelling story of Henry Balinson and his family, and the tragic deaths of three of his children. His four-year-old daughter, Anna Frieda, was playing in the alley with children who had firecrackers. Her dress caught fire, and she was killed. His son, Reuben, died of diphtheria at the age of six. These deaths affected him deeply, however, it was the death of his third son, Alex, in WWII that was the tipping point.

Against his parents’ wishes, Alex enlisted in the Air Force and was posted overseas in 1941. He wrote to his father, “I won’t wait for Hitler to come here.  I will do my duty to eliminate the wild animal.” Flight Sergeant Alexander Balinson died in April 24, 1942 as a result of a bomb attack. In his front page column, his father, Henry Balinson wrote a eulogy for his son.  The entire eulogy is a bitter argument with G-d and humankind and an indictment of war: “Since the time of Adam and Eve, brother has killed brother. And years have passed, and You [G-d] have not found a cure for this plague…When you took away my son, you also gave me a free hand.  I have no more reason to write about my feelings.”

Balinson ended his final column in the final issue of his newspaper: “I swear to you, my son, I will never forget you. Rest in peace. Your beautiful shining face will light my way for the few days that are left of my life.”

Yet that light was not enough to outshine the blackness of his grief. Henry Balinson, the impassioned believer in fairness and justice, ceased writing and publishing and retreated into his own despair and sorrow. As he declared in that final column, “I break off my ties with the world.” This is a powerful expression of one man’s experience of history, one man’s experience of how history is always, ultimately, personal.

But I hope this exhibition demonstrates that this bitterness was not to be Henry Balinson’s ultimate legacy. There is the remarkable record of his Yiddish newspaper which we can view today. And his two sons who were doctors, one of whom served in WWII; and a third son, Morley (who is here with us this morning) who enlisted during WWII, served in Korea and then as an RCMP officer. It seems that Henry Balinson’s vision of support and justice endured. It is certainly celebrated in this exhibition today. His Jewish Voice of Hamilton rings clear with his passionate intelligence and ardent belief in what was right.

Our world is comprised of the stories of a multitude of individuals. Many of these individuals leave records of their stories in the form of letters, documents, or memorabilia. Few leave newspapers. We are lucky that we are able to learn something about one corner of this world and our city through this exhibition about one man and his family, about his unique story expressed in his own unique words.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Not Psychic

I recently participated as a “Non-Psychic” in Tor Lukasik-Foss’s I am Not a Psychic installation/ performance at Hamilton Ontario’s arts festival, Supercrawl.

What I did: I gazed deep into the forlorn Supercrawl souls of the participants, tapping the baleful stalactites of their sorrows and joys with the third eye Hammer of my preternatural charlatanry. Ok, what I really did was this:

I set up an old Underwood typewriter. I had a microphone which picked up keystrokes and carriage returns and sent the sound to live digital processing effects on my computer which were played by little speakers under the table. “I practice the forgotten art of Typomancy. I always use an Underwood because, Underwood, the dark roots know." The way I did the readings evolved over the sessions, but basically when someone arrived, I explained that I was a non-psychic but to set the non-psychic mood, I used typomancy to create a soundscape. I had them type their middle name if they had one and then the secret name they gave themselves, the name for their alter ego, or the one they wished they had. I said that the most significant aspect of a “real” psychic reading, the most profound communication, was the questions that people asked. Whether or not they believed or understood what the cards or the crystal, or the dots on the Dalmatian said about them it was the formulation and self-examination of the questions which was the important part. It revealed what the person wished for, hoped for, desired or feared. So, I explained, I’d asked questions.

The first question I asked was “If you could come back as anything – animal, object, force – what would that be. Some people named an animal, some the ocean, or a lens, or themselves (so they could continue to explore what it meant to live their life.) We discussed why they wanted to come back as this and what were the qualities of that animal or thing that appealed to them, that explained this part of their self.

Then I asked what they would come back as after that. We talked about how the self isn’t just one thing, but has different aspects and talked about what this new reincarnation revealed about them.

Then I asked them to imagine themselves in twenty years. What would this person counsel them to ask a psychic now? What should they know about, what should they think about? Ten or twenty years put them in the middle of their lives, careers, parenting etc. We spoke about the kinds of things that were important.

Then I asked them to imagine themselves as an old person, rocking on a digital porch with digital teeth and wearing a digital cardigan. I asked them to imagine themselves at the end of their lives looking back. What would they think it important for the current self to know? What would they ask the old person? What would the old person counsel that they ask now, given that they’d lived their life. We talked about what might be important in this long view– companionship, good actions, regrets, things they’d be proud of etc.

It was a strangely lovely and moving experience to talk with people about their future selves this afternoon in the rain. People were very earnest, trusting and open. As soon as I established the seriousness and thoughtfulness of the endeavour – even if we joked and weren’t somber – they really tried to think hard about my question and their lives. The meta quality – what would you tell yourself to ask fifty years from now – asking them try to imagine what they might be like and where they’d be as a very old person – was challenging to some. It was also quite often emotional.

One woman was quite sad. She pictured herself as an old woman, alone on a porch without anyone. I discussed her friend’s (who she came in the booth with) choice of animal to come back as: a whale. Her friend had suggested that she chose the whale because it lived in a pod and could communicate great distances, sometimes hearing songs 1000 mile away. So I suggested to the woman that maybe like a whale she has a network of friends that are all around to her even if very distant in time and space. The whale is aware of the presence of other whales all around it and even if they are not close, maybe there are significant presences. So maybe her friends that she has – some she speaks to only occasionally or even mostly on Facebook – are still important. Her “song” reaches 1000s of miles (in time and space) around her and she won’t be/isn’t alone on that porch. She was actually quite moved and consoled by this conversation. I found it very touching and lovely.

I’ve never participated in an art piece that directly engaged with peoples’ emotions in such an intimate way. I had imagined that it was the earnest articulation and discussion of the things that mattered to a person that was at the heart of their visit to a psychic, so it seemed to be with this “non-psychic” visit. The participants became invested in considering their selves and their lives and discussing it with me. I assumed the role of a counsellor, psychic, psychoanalyst, father confessor, seer, even though they knew that I was non of those. It was the kind of intimate transaction that one gets from art. One brings one’s self to an engagement with art that expects that you will do so, that believes that your feelings, thoughts, and self are part of the art and deserve to be considered with sensitivity, dignity, and thoughtfulness.


Thanks to Craig Conley, David Lee, and Lisa Pijuan-Nomura  for very helpful suggestions about the project and of course, to Tor Lukasik-Foss for inviting me to participate.