Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Publishing Inferno

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Spencer Gordon

Catching up with local upstart Spencer Gordon on poetry, fiction, chapbook publishing, online literary magazine editing and the frenzy that is the fall publishing season.

Head to Supermarket on Thursday, October 6 for the Ferno House launch of Spencer's new chapbook, Feel Good! Look Great! Have a Blast, Black Metal Melody by David Brock and Skullambient by Liz Howard. See Open Book's Events Page for details.

Open Book: Toronto:

You've been prolific to a degree, both in your writing and editing of poetry and fiction. Why poetry, and why now?

Spencer Gordon:

I look to others for prolific outputs; I see in myself only wasted time and picking fingers, bed sores and headaches. It's true that I've written fiction and poetry and done some reviewing and interviewing along the way. Most people do that, and better than me. So why release a chapbook of poetry? The answer is pretty lame, I guess — over the last year or so, I wrote about 50 poems. Feel Good! Look Great! Have a Blast! contains about a third of that output. I wanted to have some sort of testament to all that scrawling and alone-time, and I didn't have enough for a complete collection. That's why chapbooks are so fun — they're like trailers to full-length films or a single hit from an album (David Brock likens his chapbook Black Metal Melody to an EP). Importantly, though, I would never have put these abortions together without the encouragement of a couple of kindly magazine editors and personal friends, Mat Laporte especially, who kept bugging me to do it.

OBT:

Your poetry is filled with a cross-section of voices, various appropriations and McGimpsey/Crosbie-esque asides. What is your chapbook about? Who are your influences and favourite poets?

SG:

Mat and I like to say, whenever we feel intimidated or disgraceful, that “poems are dumb — have fun.” In that sense, Feel Good! is a manifesto for being comfortable and honest, about letting go of some anxieties and enjoying yourself. But it's also about stupidity. Everything and everyone in the book is stupid. All the speakers are stupid. Sometimes they say things they don't mean to say — nuggets of wisdom, adages or maxims, quotations from philosophy and canonical poems — but what they really want to do is go back to watching movies and TV shows and listening to Virgin radio, like me. If there's trash culture in the book, it's there because that's reality, that's our daily bread, and it's there to be celebrated as much as ridiculed, which is the easy, knee-jerk reaction amongst boring poets. The book is full of different voices, and some of those voices want to make big and bold statements about life and art, but each one of them can be picked apart, shown to be kind of dumb or sentimental or over-urgent. Or maybe just too mad, too bitter, because if we're talking about collisions between Cheetos and Tchaikovsky we're gonna get a bit riled up, a bit pissed off, or bummed because our art communities are infected with just as much stupidity as Bachelor Pad. There's an amazing zone we can inhabit between irony and sincerity, that millennial filtration tube, soaking everything in yes/no happy/sad high/low fun. I like that zone, but it also makes me sad. These poems aren't experimental in any way. They are dumb.

McGimpsey does his low-brow way smarter (and much funnier) than me, and Crosbie elevates her stars and dreamers to such aching decadence and tenderness that I can hardly see a similarity. But sure, they're both influences, as are some younger Canadian authors who want to engage across a strata of culture, who don't write exclusively about peonies and murky lakes in distant boreal forests. The New York School was huge for me, as was your typical list of mid-to-late 20th-century lyricists. Music and lyrics are an enormous influence on the way I think, as are dumb status updates that seem to sum up an entire world. My favourite poets, though, are dead. A whole bunch of canonical favourites from every tradition.

OBT:

You work online with The Puritan and in physical reality with Ferno House. How in 2011 do you manage both?

SG:

The Puritan has been a joint labour of love between Tyler Willis and me for off and on four years (we tricked Andrew MacDonald into joining us about a year ago). We started the magazine in print, made immense and irreversible mistakes, went into gloomy exile with crippling debt and then decided to resurrect the sucker as a web-journal. Since doing so, it's never been more popular, which I suppose says a lot about both the herculean task of running a print magazine without government funding and how readers now so readily embrace online literary morsels (see Joyland, for example, which is more exciting and relevant than most of Canada's old-guard print publications). We couldn't have scored our Canada Council grant without making the leap to the Interwebs, which is both gratifying and terrifying.

Ferno House, on the other hand, is a stranger and less linear sort of beast, which developed much less consciously and determinedly than The Puritan. Ferno is largely the design prowess of Arnaud Brassard, with me and Mat Laporte finding, editing and guiding work to publication and Patrick Larkin providing some wicked illustrations. From 2009 to this fall, we'll have made three anthologies and four chapbooks. It's not the steadiest record, but we had to work out an immense number of knots before proceeding at our current pace. Whereas The Puritan moves toward embracing all things webby (blogs, hyperlinks, audio and video), Ferno House is all about the physical product — the look, feel, and impact of limited edition books and chapbooks in your hand and on your bookshelf. Making a book the way we do is a long, sweaty and stressful process and relies (unlike The Puritan) on people actually buying our shit. We have faith, though, that making things the slow way still has merit.

With regard to the two mediums, I'm largely ineffectual — I co-edit a web-journal but have next to no computer skills, and I co-edit a micro-press with even less design and book-binding skills. I hover near-uselessly in an encouraging and supportive role when it comes to actual publication, for both online and print projects. But for both, I'm trying to imagine what would be good or timely or important to publish, how to edit effectively, and how to reach people about (often unknown) literature. In terms of “managing” the projects, it's meant that this quarter of 2011 is absolutely nuts with work and my own writing, but I'm entirely reliant on my friends and colleagues to pull any of it off.

OBT:

What do you hope for the Ferno House launch?

SG:

I hope the Ferno House launch brings people together and makes them happy. I hope guests find lively conversations, drink copious bottles of expensive champagne, hear some unusual and engaging poems and never feel a sense of dullness or boredom (though that might be asking for too much). I want guests to enjoy the books — to stroke them, cuddle them, share them, read and re-read them. I hope our authors feel gratified, relieved to see that their work has been properly and painstakingly arranged for publication. And from a sense of pure pragmatism, I hope we sell 'em like Timbits, 'cause we're putting it all on the line and out of pocket for the sake of “art,” or whatever. We want to keep doing this; we want to make more books, chapbooks, broadsides, and we certainly don't have big investors, grant money or magical piggy-banks. Unfortunately, it all depends on moving the products....

In my fantasy kingdom, I hope the launch goes down like the main event at the recent WWE pay-per-view, Money in the Bank. A packed Chicago house. Crazy fans. Huge pops. A good old-fashioned slobber-knocker performance. And most importantly, a happy ending. One can always dream, anyways.

Visit the Ferno House Launch Facebook page

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