canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Grunt & Groan: The New Fiction Anthology of Work & Sex
Various authors, Matt Firth & Max Macarri (eds.)
Boheme Press, 2002

ribsauce: a cd/anthology of words by women
Various authors, Taien Ng-Chan, Alex Boutros & Kaarla Sundrom (eds.)
Vehicule Press & Wired on Words, 2001

Sea Peach (book & CD)
by Catherine Kid (CD produced by Jack Beetz)
Conundrum Press & Wired on Words, 2002

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

It's been a good number of years since Moe Berg (with TPOH) gave us the rock anthem "I'm an Adult Now." At the time, I'm sure there weren't too many who asked: What next? Berg laid it out pretty clearly in that song: "I guess it won't be long until I'm sitting in a room with a bunch of people whose necks and backs are aching and sight and hearings fading and who just can't seem to get it up." The good news is, that horrible future has apparently yet to come to pass. Berg is back - this time as a short story writer - with a tale about a young adult with a particular habit: he jerks off under his desk at work.

It fired so fast then slowed down so abruptly, like a bouncing Ping-Pong ball in reverse. I waited a full minute, feigning intense interest in the words and figures on my computer screen before uncrossing my legs. I couldn't yet feel the wet shock; maybe the Kleenex had stayed in place. ("Truth Serum")

Yikes! Grunt & Groan: The New Fiction Anthology of Work & Sex contains 16 such tales from writers from Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. As one might expect, the work integrates humour with the macabre, the absurd, and the carnivalesque. This week (January 11), NOW magazine in Toronto is running its annual "Sex survey." One of the questions is: Have you ever had genital play at work? It's probably fair to say: some have, some haven't, but everyone has thought about it. 

Grunt & Groan, however, claims to be "not one of those anthologies." Matthew Firth in his Foreword points out that "Grunt & Groan is the anthology of work and sex, not the anthology of sex in the workplace." Hmm. A fine bit of sophistry, that. What is true, is that Grunt & Groan is solidly a Firth product. In an interview with TDR, Firth spoke about his own work:

Most of my work looks at ordinary folks and day-to-day life. I’m not interested in the extraordinary; characters with deep travails and too much time on their hands to ruminate their place in the cosmos. I write about folks in the here and now and the common troubles that unite most of us: earning enough money to feed ourselves, trying to satisfy our need for love/lust, occasionally clashing with those around us. Nothing grander than this.

Nothing grand is probably an appropriate tone for a book call Grunt & Groan. But it would be unfortunate if readers missed the deeper and darker implications of both this anthology and its attempt to provide space for a different kind of Canadian literature. Hey, kids! Stop reading Atwood's Survival and check this out!

ribsauce: a cd/anthology of words by women, a joint venture of Vehicule Press and Wired on Words, revives the debate about the need for anthologies by writers who all share the same type of genitals. In her introduction, editor Taien Ng-Chan admits to being ambivalent about an "anthology of words by women," yet she concluded "we need many strategies," and this anthology is one of them.

Many strategies for what? She doesn't say. She does say: "I think we need new strategies beyond simple identity politics." Great, but again: Where are we going with this? Then she tells us: "in some disciplines of writing, especially theatre and film, there are still very few women." Well, at least that's something concrete: More women should write plays and film scripts. We need many strategies. Apparently, publishing a book and a CD is one of the strategies to get more women writing plays and film scripts. Whatever.

The blurb on the cover says the project features "some of Canada's best women writers and performance artists." I must admit that I'm beyond ambivalent with that phrase "women writers." I don't like it; I think it's insulting to the writers. It reminds me too much of a similar phrase that was used in the 19th century to dismiss female scribblers as amateurs. The January 2003 Harper's contains an essay on how we need to move beyond identity politics and reclaim the universalism of the Enlightenment. Yippee! How commonsensical! (The essay also give heavy credit to the post-colonialists, and others, for their vibrant - and relevant - critiques of the failures of Western rationalism.... And yet, we need to start with the assumption that we are all one. No other foundation contains as much hope. To borrow from Ng-Chan: No other strategy contains as much optimism.)

Back to the book. Like other anthologies of Canadian women writers before it, ribsauce contains a wide mix of new and interesting writing in Canada. The book includes the work of Emily Pohl-Weary and Erin Mouré, for example. And the CD includes Mary Elizabeth Grace and Zaffi Gousopoulos, among others. On the whole, the collection left me cold. It's 2003, and the easy repetition of feminist metaphors is a crime against art. They have become clichés. Earlier generations of women artists fought hard to be heard; they fought hard to a piece of the cultural landscape. Today's young feminists are too often softly repeating tired patterns and vague arguments. Yes, we need many strategies. But building a highway of clichés isn't one of them.

Catherine Kidd's Sea Peach arrives in my hands at the same time as Canada's newly appointed poet laureate, George Bowering, has decided that attacking "spoken word artists" is part of his job of promoting poetry. (As I understand it, Bowering's argument is that poets ought to be dedicated first to language, while spoken word artists are too often only dedicated to their ego.) Personally, I think Bowering is more right than he is wrong; on the other hand, I've seen some remarkable spoken word performances that I thought were just wonderful.

Catherine Kidd is a spoken word artist, not a poet. On the page, Kidd's work reads unevenly. Her work is largely narrative. Some of it seems unfinished, though when I listened to one example on the CD of something that I thought was just terrible on paper - well, let's just say I appreciated it more, though it sounded a little bit to me like kindergarten story time. Other pieces, like "A Big Fat Hen," both read better on the page and treated me like an adult on the CD. 

Kidd's voice is highly self-conscious. Readers/listeners will have the feeling they are, at times, following Kidd through every step of her thought process. And yet, Kidd has the ability to transport her audience into new landscapes, too. This is probably the best that can be said of "spoken word." There is an element of childhood story time in all spoken word performances, as the art is pulling words off the page and back through time to a pre-literate culture. Spoken word is campfire talk; sharing tales at the end of the day that try to make sense of the big world around.

Ironically, perhaps, the book that comes with the Sea Peach CD is a beautiful object all on its own. It contains illustrations and photographs of Kidd performing. And it's just the right size for grasping in one hand while you reach with the other for your morning coffee.

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.







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