Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"Pop Singing Always Seemed Gay to Me," a Conversation With Derek McCormack

Share |
Photo by Elizabeth Sullivan.

There are no other writers in Canada doing what Derek McCormack does. His books are obsessed with history, music, sex, fashion and horror; each one reinventing itself in a new form. Like Kathy Acker, he legitimizes obscenity and smut, combining them with dark comedy and making it his metaphorical fuel that he smears across the page in a way that is both very funny and very sad at the same time. I first met Derek over a decade ago when we both worked at the now defunct Book City at 501 Bloor Street. He’s always been great for recommending new writers, so we had a tête-à-tête about poetry, music and self-deprecation.

James Lindsay: You've introduced me to so many amazing poets over the years, from Jack Spicer to Chelsey Minnis. When did you first start reading poetry and what role has it played in your work?

Derek McCormack: I can't take too much credit for introducing you to those poets—I'm just older than you, much older, much, much older, and I'd just come across them before you did.

I came pretty late to poetry—I don't think I really read it until my late twenties. I had books on my bookshelf, mostly by people whose prose I loved. I had Dennis Cooper's poems, though I didn't know them as well as I knew his novels. Same with Kevin Killian and Robert Gluck.

The turning point for me was Ashbery's Girls on the Run. I loved it as a poem and as a novel and as an essay on Henry Darger. I loved it every which way. The nostalgia in it – a nostalgia for the nostalgia that Darger had for his childhood – wowed me, as did the silliness of it. I aspire to silliness. I'm also a fan of nostalgia when it's fake – nostalgia for a nostalgia for nostalgia.

Anyway, I like the potency of poetry – I can read a couple of lines and get goofily happy. It's like Ambien – after I take an Ambien, I think it's not affecting me, I think, Why isn't this affecting me? But it is, it's making my brain loopy. It's a surefire feeling that's full of surprises. It's like the Ashbery line: "We didn't expect the birches to explode just then."

Wait: I wanted to add a question – When did you start reading poetry? Did you ever listen to song lyrics and think of them like poetry?

JL: I think I was sixteen or so when I first read poetry that wasn't Shel Silverstein. I'm pretty sure it was Michael Turner's Hard Core Logo. Maybe before the movie came out? It's the perfect book of poetry for a sixteen-year-old semi-punk. I really liked that it was a novel in verse. The idea that the two forms could be combined really opened up things for me. And of course there all the stupid song lyrics through out the book. I must have spent the next five years trying to rip it off.

It was around the same time I was also obsessed with the Radiohead (the Smith's of my generation) album Kid A. If you separated the two parts of the back of the jewel case you'd find a little book of Thom York's poetry stuffed in there. I remember suddenly making the connection that poetry could be lyrical and lyrics could be poetic for the first time.

Did you have a similar experience with song lyrics?

DM: I was in love with lyrics, that's for sure. I had my favourite acts and I knew all the lyrics to their songs and I wrote them out in notebooks and painted them in liquid paper on my pencil case.

If I recall, the first song I fell for was Debby Boone's You Light Up My Life. Then there was ABBA: Another Town, Another Train.

Then: I went new wave.

In high school I wrote out the lyrics to Crimes of Passion by Rough Trade and slipped them into a boy's locker. It was a small scandal: of course I didn't sign the note, but everybody in the school knew who wrote it. When I was at the next school dance, the boy came up and asked if I was a faggot. I said, “Am I dancing with a boy?” The truth is, I was dancing with my sister!

The thing is: I think that I knew even then that lyrics weren't poetry. I tried to read poetry as a young teen – The Wasteland, I bought it at a local bookshop – but I didn't find anything that I liked the way I liked the lyrics that I liked. I didn't find anything until I found Rimbaud and Baudelaire and especially Lautreamont. I became a French Decadent with the same gusto with which I'd become a faggot!

So in poetry, it was the poètes maudits; in lyrics, it was The Smiths. The Smiths were the Smiths of my generation!

James, what do you think when song lyrics are bound into books of poetry – does it ever work?

JL: I think there's some truth to the idea that all poets want to be singers and all singers want to be poets. Poets want the popularity and singers want the intellectual approval. It's hard to think of an example of someone who is known for being successful at both. David Berman of the Silver Jews comes to mind. I think because the poetry in his collection, Actual Air, is very different that his lyrics. Silver Jews songs are sarcastic and silly in a very sad, self-deprecating way, while Berman's poetry by comparison seems meditative and measured. I think he understands the difference between writing song lyrics, singing poetry and writing for the page. Look at Morrissey. I know we both thinks he's a good songwriter—but that novel of his?

DM: The Morrissey novel is brilliant, so long as you don't read it. I tried to read it; it's terrible. But it's beautiful in that it's so disastrous and so demented. Morrissey did write an essay I loved – his introduction to Under the Influence, the CD he compiled with all his favourite songs by his favourite acts. He ended it with the line, "Will I, too, die?"

What a line! It's something I think all the time: Will I die? Do we all have to die? Is it possible that we're all going to die? I'm a child. I'm in constant fear of death.

Which is maybe why I love Spicer so much: "Death is not final. Only parking lots."

JL: Considering how fatalist Jack Spicer was, I think it's amazing anyone knows whom he was these days. Outside of the small group that "got" what he was trying to do at the time, he seemed to understand that his poetry would not be received by a wide audience, but still remained confident that the work he was doing was important. It's part of what endures him to me and reminds me of the musicians in your loose gay-old-timey-Americana trilogy (The Haunted Hillbilly, The Show That Smells, and The Well-Dressed Wound). Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and Stephen Foster were brilliant but hapless dudes who only achieved widespread fame after their deaths. Is there something that attracts you to this kind of character?

DM: Well, I wouldn't say that Hank and Jimmie and Stephen Foster didn't achieve widespread fame – Hank was the king of country music in his day, and Jimmie Rodgers was a superstar, famous enough to tour with Will Rogers and cut records with Louis Armstrong. But you're right in a way – their fame didn't cut across class lines like it does now.

Stephen Foster, what a fuck-up. The songs he wrote were sung from coast to coast, but I don't think he himself was a star – there was no star machinery then, and in any case he was an alcoholic and a closet case.

To answer your question: I love these hapless losers because I am a hapless loser. The only hope I have for fame is posthumous fame. Spicer is attractive to me because he was an unattractive faggot; I have been an unattractive faggot my whole life, and it sucks. But Spicer had magic; his poems are bitter and beautiful spells that he cast on the world. I would love to have a little of that magic; I would love to alchemize my ugliness into something gorgeous, something that people can't ignore.

I suppose that's something that singing stars do – they transform their suffering into something universal. I'm not interested in the universal; I'm interested in what Spicer did. I'm interested in suffering so specific that it short-circuits the universal, or infects it, or corrupts it, or mimics it or something.

JL: For the record, you've never been a hopeless looser to me. You're a genius; a survivor and I think your work has touched very many people. But I share this self-deprecation and identifying with hapless losers, so I'll ask you this: which comes first? The love of ne'er do well artists who don't get the fame they deserve, or thinking of yourself as a looser?

DM: That is a good question, and I hope that after I answer it, you'll answer it, too. My answer is: I think I developed a love of the loser artist first; I don't think I thought of myself as a loser who then spotted similarly loserly souls in the literary or pop world. I thought of myself as a fag first and foremost. I believed fags were fascinating, and I believed that, since I was a fag, I'd be fascinating – I mean, weren't fags creative sorts, flower arrangers and fashion designers and writers? Weren't fags the funniest guests on game shows? Pop singing always seemed gay to me, as did writing – straights stole them from us! Hand it over! I thought that being a gay writer was powerful, but the world I grew up in thought otherwise. My love of hapless losers developed when I decided that haplessness and affected alienation were good looks – I mean, they were ways to get through school, to deflect attention, to attract attention, to confuse others and camouflage myself. Morrissey was a style, and still is.

JL: For me, as a kid in school, I sort of knew that what the popular people were into wasn’t good. I wasn’t very popular, so I really liked the image of the brooding outsider and I nurtured that in myself. It’s pretentious, but it’s also a survival tactic: a quiet inner confidence that what you like is good and you are good because of that, so fuck everyone else. I don’t feel like that anymore, but I still identify with the hard luck outsiders. Sometimes I’ll see a kid wearing something like a trench coat and a Pink Floyd shirt with purple pants, and I think to myself: keep it weird little buddy!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

James Lindsay

James Lindsay has been a bookseller for more than a decade. He is also co-owner of Pleasence Records in Toronto, a record label specializing in post-punk, odd-pop and avant-garde sound pieces.He is the author of the poetry collection Our Inland Sea (Wolsak & Wynn).

You can write to James throughout April at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to James Lindsay’s Author Page