canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Matthew Firth

Fresh Meat was the image Matthew Firth chose for the title of his first book of short stories (Rush Hour Revisions, 1997). Packed with gritty realism and pared back prose, that booked helped to strike back at the lyrical pastoralism that seeped into Canadian literature during the past decade. Firth has helped to encourage a new tone for literary writing in Canada by publishing chapbooks, two different literary magazines, and his own growing oeuvre of tell-it-like-it-is short stories. 

The Danforth Review talked to Firth about the trouble with realism, the trouble with Canlit, and his book Can You Take Me There, Now? (Boheme Press, 2001). 

This interview was conducted by email in December 2000.

TDR: Who are you? Outline briefly your background as a writer, including a list of the literary projects youíve been a part of.

FIRTH: Matthew Firth. Born and raised in Hamilton, currently living in Ottawa. Brown hair, brown eyes, medium build. Last seen wearing a brown leather jacket, black boots, green corduroy trousers and Toronto Maple Leafs toque.

Iíve been writing seriously now for eight or nine years. Prose exclusively. Iíve done two chapbooks with my own imprint, Black Bile Press. In 1997 Rush Hour Revisions published a collection of short stories entitled Fresh Meat. Ray Robertson in The Toronto Star said of that book: "Firth is no Ondaatje or Atwood." Conversely, Urban Graffiti editor Mark McCawley called it "Raw and unpretentious." I prefer the second quote.

In addition to writing fiction, Iíve co-authored one book of non-fiction called Workplace Roulette (Between the Lines, 1997). That book has sold over 5000 copies.

Iím also an editor. From 94-97 I edited the litzine Black Cat 115. I am currently co-editor of Front&Centre, a fiction/review magazine. As mentioned, I run a small press and will be issuing a new chapbook this Spring called Stripe, a collection of short stories by British writer David Rose.

TDR: How would you describe your work? Illustrate your answer with examples.

FIRTH: Contemporary. Realistic. Accessible. Direct. Anti-bourgeois. Anti-academic. Anti-theoretical. As McCawley said, "Raw and unpretentious"; that fits as well.

Iíd say that these words describe my work in Fresh Meat and any of the stories that Iíve recently published in magazines, journals and anthologies. I rely a lot on past work experiences to fuel my fiction. A story called "The Job" will appear in the next issue of sub-Terrain. Itís about garbagemen and the misery that is their day-to-day work. There is no romance, just booze, a lousy paycheque, and, one day off on the horizon: retirement. I donít pretend to be a working class hero, but how many M&S books are about garbagemen with bad skin? None that I can recall. 

Most of my work looks at ordinary folks and day-to-day life. Iím 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.

TDR: I read once that you started your now defunct literary Ďzine Black Cat #115 because you were tired of being rejected by the Toronto-based literary magazine Blood & Aphorisms. You have since started a second literary magazine, Front & Centre Magazine, which is published in Canada and the UK. This seems to suggest there is a lack of venues for your work and work like yours. Do you think the publishing community in Canada is too cautious? What do you think should be encouraged, discouraged?

FIRTH: Yes, too cautious, definitely. Canadian publishing is largely this great, self-perpetuating clichť: that we are all WASPish middle class folks with gentle dispositions and manageable problems. There is too little blood and guts and grit in Can Lit; way too little. More diversity should be encouraged: more writing that is truly representative of, and derived from, peopleís day-to-day lives. Writing that is middle/upper class and middle of the road should be discouraged. Weíve far too much of that; weíve had far too much of that. Our writing needs to start challenging overtly the stereotype that Canada is a comfy-cosy place to live and breathe. It isnít so for a large bunch of folks. 

I got off the bus and walked ten blocks to work this morning in Ė23 degree weather and passed half a dozen poor bastards trembling on the pavement, sparing for change. Ten years ago, youíd never have seen such a sight. Comfy and cosy isnít reality any more. This country, like the rest of the globe, is getting harsher and crueler and more uncaring and self-centred. A stroll through any city or town in the country will demonstrate this. 

But why doesnít our literature reflect this? Why is our literature largely staid and soporific? Partly because this has been the tradition here. Partly, I suspect, because all the radicalism and marrow has been sucked out of most of our magazines, journals and publishing houses. I donít want to go on a complete tirade; maybe funding and financial survival has a wee bit to do with it. Maybe itís leftover from the spectre of political correctness. Maybe itís a prim and proper downtown Toronto thing; there are various explanationsÖ

TDR: Realism is a bit of a dirty word, particularly on university campuses these days, but Front & Centre Magazine specifically calls for work from that tradition. What does realism mean in a time when there is so much scepticism in readers about the ability of language to represent either concrete things or universal values or principles.

FIRTH: Well, first off, notions that are bandied about on university campuses are of little consequence to me. I went running and screaming from university when I was finished with it. I think Iím allergic to ivy and sandstone. In a purely theoretical realm, language has shortcomings and is not fully representative of our realities, as you point out. But then since when do people get by on a purely theoretical realm? Thatís not reality, either. Language has its shortcomings, no doubt. I can stumble and fumble with words and not hit the nail on the head. Language, democracy, sex, war: these are but a few of humanityís imperfect obsessions. 

That language is forever tainted by subjectivity doesnít mean it should be abandoned and rendered impotent. If some guy on a job site says, "Hey Frank, pass me the fucking hammer," itís pretty clear what heís saying. If I write in a short story, "I spent most of last night dodging cops and queers so obviously Iím not at my best," (opening line from a story in my new collection) youíve got a pretty good idea what Iím on about, and, more importantly, perhaps, with some luck youíre intrigued. Readers bring biases, writers present biases. So be it. The interaction between the two is what makes writing worthwhile, challenging. 

I donít buy the line that language cannot represent reality. Itís like Ivory Snow soap: itís 99 and 44/100s pure. Or thereabouts. Thatís close enough for me. Close enough for most people. Those intent on deconstructing language are mucking about in minutiae, which is not how we all get by Monday to Friday and beyond.

TDR: Name a few writers you like and why.

FIRTH: A few come to mind straightaway. William S. Burroughs has been a long-time inspiration. Despite the groans I can imagine hearing just now and despite the hype that developed about him in the 90s, he was a true radical. He rejected his bourgeois upbringing and wrote one of the most uncompromising novels Iíve encountered. Kenneth J. Harvey because he is a writer who is forever challenging himself and who rails against typical dreary CanLit. Daniel Jones, an iconoclast and, for the most part, a minimalist and a realist. He also worked at the Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital, as I once did; that eerie place feeds my fiction still. 

Hubert Selbyópure power in that manís work. Raymond Carver because he made the simple literary and demonstrated that literature is best when it is simple. Thom Jones is another, heís in the Carver mould, plus he writes about boxing a lot, which is very cool in my estimation. Alexander Trocchiís Cainís Book was one of those novels that rocked me way back when, too. Another Scot, Laura Hird, is a great new writer whose work packs a punch. Canít forget Bukowski and John Fante, too. All of these writers and others I go back to regularly, which is testament to their sway over me.

TDR: What are you working on now? Whatís next for Matthew Firth?

FIRTH: Iím still editing Front&Centre. Iím pushing forward what I, and the other editors, regard as strong contemporary fiction in the magazine. Will have a national distribution deal soon, if all goes smoothly.

As for my own work, Iíve got a new book due out in the autumn of 2001 called Can You Take Me There, Now?. Itís being published by Boheme Press on their new imprint, Alley Cat Editions. Eighteen new short stories about love, lust, misplaced bitterness and simple survival in this dark age. I shelved a half-completed novel about a year ago. Time to get busy on a new one. Otherwise, I work 50 hours a week at the day job, have a wife and a son and play pick-up hockey every Friday night for two hours at a rink round the corner from my place. Ordinary stuff. Thatís the beauty of it.







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