TDR Interview: Michael Holmes

Michael Holmes is not on steroids. His writing doesnít put you to sleep with its suffocating grip. No, the author of Watermelon Row and 21 Hotels is feeling just fine ... and right now, on these very pages, The Danforth Review is calling him out! Ladies and gentlemen, from the hipster district of Can-Lit, will you please shut the hell up long enough for us to introduce, from Toronto, Canada, the centre of the universe, the reigning and defending, author of Parts Unknown, Canadaís Writer-in-Ring-Resident, Mr. Michael Holmes.

Nathaniel G. Moore conducted this interview in early 2004.

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TDR: What was the first wrestling match you remember watching televised or live?

It's almost impossible to pinpoint where or when my fascination with pro wrestling began. I remember watching with my father when I was very young--I can still hear the canvas snapping, an inflexible Pop-O-Matic Trouble kind of sound, in a studio auditorium of the early 70s, as Jerry Blackwell, Nick Bockwinkle, or Mad Dog Vachon slammed some poor forgotten jobber. Superstar Billy Graham, Jesse Ventura, the Crusher and a young Ric Flair: I remember them all, pre-WWF. In reality, my earliest memories are probably a Saturday and Sunday afternoon mix that misremembers four different territories: Vern Gagne's AWA out of Minnesota, Stu Hart's Stampede Wrestling, Grand Prix out of Montreal, and the Tunney's Maple Leaf Wrestling, broadcast on CHCH out of Hamilton, with Billy Red Lyons as the host.

TDR: I too recall CHCH wrestling with Billy Red Lyons on Saturday nights. Discovering new language and witness seamless physical exhaustion seem to be two major results of watching wrestling. What does watching wrestling do to your brain and if you were a wrestler, what would your gimmick be?

Like many fans of the grapplerís art, Iím an inveterate bookerófor years now, after every Raw, Smackdown and WWE PPV, and more recently after every NWA-TNA show, my imagination has played havoc with history and possibility, let loose amongst all those wildly improbable and deliciously limitless story lines. The narratives fire me up, and I admit I probably spend too much time trying to anticipate where the writers are going next. And yes, like so many fans, I bitch and moan (even if itís just with myself) about wasted opportunities and redundancies, about guys getting pushed while other, perhaps more deserving, talents are overlooked. In wrestling, the booker is a kind of Godóthe guy or committee responsible for all the big decisionsówho wins and loses, who gets the title shot and who doesnít. So, watching wrestling my brain becomes the owner/booker of all wrestling everywhere. Every week I write a new world for WWEóone better and more entertaining than what I watch on TV the following Monday and Thursday. Of course, Iím wrong. Every wrestling fan worth their salt believes they can "fix" wrestling, that they could make it better. Few have any idea how complicated the writing process gets, how many stresses and pitfalls the booker has to negotiate.

But if I was a wrestler? I think Iíd develop a gimmick that was as carefree and hardcore as both Sandman and RVD, and as ruthlessly aggressive as Stone Cold Steve Austin, and then modify all three with Mick Foleyís unlimited flexibility of character. It would definitely be a character as vicious on the mic as in the ring. You canít underestimate how important that isóthe ability to cut a good promo takes you a hell of a lot further than the most impressive hat trick of gut wrench suplexes or the most deadly submission move. Great technical wrestlers, like Edmontonís Chris Benoit, are punished for not being as dominant in interview situations as they are in the ring. Again, itís exactly the same in the literary world. If you give good sound bite, you go overóRolodexes everywhere are filled with the contact info for glib hacks.

TDR: For those at home who are reading this and realizing we are two grown men discussing millionaire fake sports heroes and this site is funded by Canada Council, etc. how can we appease them by perhaps alluding to the fact that most of their lives are scripted and fake. For example, the streetcars on Queen St., they always stop at the same stops and always move east and west. We know how the ride will end. I mean, poetry itself is staged as well isn't it?

Holmes: Every government subsidized theatrical performance--from Sophocles to that Lloyd Webber slapnuts--has a blood relative in pro-wrestling. Jason Sherman and his plays get nominated for Doras and Chalmers awards--Edge and Christian have been 8-time tag champs, and Chris Jericho was the first undisputed heavyweight champion (in the English-speaking world, anyway) in almost a century. There's very little difference. The writing on Raw and Smackdown is often as good as the stuff that gets published here--not that that's anything to celebrate, it's just, as Stone Cold would say, the bottom line.

And yes, of course, good poetry is just as staged as wrestling. Always.

Ultimately, whatís "fake" about wrestling may in fact elevate it above most other "real" professional sporting eventsómore than a simplistic contest, itís art. Anyway, its physical challenges are very, very real.

TDR: The vernacular of pro wrestling is like a weird language one can suddenly engage in if one runs into a like-minded smart-fan or mark. And their names don't have to be Mark. So, what are some of your more favourite wrestling terms?

Holmes: Winnipeg's own Chris Jericho coined my favourite wrestling neologism, the an all-purpose insult, "assclown." Pretty much self-defining, but here it is in a sentence: Carmine Starnino is an assclown. Many things can earn you the assclown's mantle, in this case its self-aggrandizing ad hominem attacks on other, more accomplished writers and thinkers; a Palaeozoic allegiance to the most parochial, chauvinistic tenets of high modernism; and the unmitigated gall to attack the poetics of Al Purdy as a way of making his bones when Al was gallantly living out his life's course.

As far as real, old-school insider wrestling lingo goes, I'm fond of "Kayfabe." It's a term that refers to the protection of industry secrets, or inside info about the business, from the fans. The word itself originated in carnival slang, as a kind of pig-Latin for "be fake."

You mentioned "mark" and that's another fave. A mark is someone who believes that pro-wrestling's gimmicks, angles and matches are real. To "mark out," though, is to be so into something that happens in a match or storyline, or with a character, that a fan "smart" or wise to the business responds as if they were a "mark." I "mark out" all the time.

I'm also fond of the term "over"--which is wrestling lingo for popular, or for something that works with the fans. As far as Parts Unknown goes, however, the wrestling term most important to the poetry might be "work."

"Work" is both the ability to wrestle well, and the deception that underpins, that is essentially at the heart of wrestling itself--it's the predetermined outcome that all matches and wrestlers strive towards. A wrestler, therefore, is a "worker." So, in effect, is a poet.

TDR: The Canadian content in pro wrestling is one that many people won't know about until this very moment when we tell them. Can you go into some detail about ECW's (the press not the former Paul Heymen company) affinity with wrestling?

Holmes: Per capita, wrestling's biggest and best audiences in North America are Toronto and Montreal. The WWE folks know this (that's why two of the 20 Wrestlemanias--and two of the best attended--were held in Toronto). All those big American towns vying for those huge revenues and 1/10 of the events have happened here. Pound for pound, we've also produced some of the most beloved and loathed talents in the game: Killer Kowalski, Gene Kiniski, Whipper Billy Watson, Yvon Robert, Stu and Bret and Owen Hart, Archie "the Stomper" Gouldie, Abdullah the Butcher, Rowdy Roddy Piper, Chris Benoit--the list goes on and on.

ECW Press was one of the first in North America to realize the unexplored wealth of material wrestling had to offer. The truth is, until Mick Foley's Have a Nice Day became an unexpected NY Times bestseller, most book publishers dismissed the wrestling market, believing in the old, lowbrow prejudices: wrestling fans don't (can't) read. How wrong they were. They not only can and do read--they also have disposable incomes and, more importantly, buy books. And they're appreciative of good books, books that actually have historical relevance or are well-written. Foley's memoirs are just that: well-written.

ECW got into the ring early--partly because of my enthusiasm, partly because Jack David, our owner and publisher, is such a student of the publishing game. He saw, before almost anyone else in the industry, the wrestling book market as something ECW could step into and make work. I knew I was into a good thing--in terms of my obsessions--the day I walked into the office to find Jack wearing a Goldberg T-shirt.

My favourite ECW wrestling title, to date, is probably Greg Oliver's The Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame: The Canadians. It's a phenomenal resource, an exhaustive look at Canada's contributions to the squared circle. Wrestlecrap (the story of the worst gimmicks of pro wrestling history), another recent book, has sold very well. As did our first wrestling title, Slammin'. Missy Hyatt's bio was our initial foray into books written by actual vets of the business.

TDR: Any new wrestling titles coming from ECW?

We've got a memoir by Jimmy "The Mouth of the South" Hart that's coming later this year--it's a book I'm really excited about because itís given me the opportunity to work with a childhood hero. Yeah, I've marked out all over the place because of Jimmy.

TDR: Just to be ironical, were many ECW poetry collections or fiction books subsidized by non-fiction titles such as the Missy Hyatt book?

This is tough to answer. Sorta. Kinda. But not really. I firmly believe that the success of our trade titles allows ECW to keep doing CanLit. Of course, like everyone else we're funded by the various government granting agencies to do our literary titles. But when distributors go bankrupt and you're on the brink of going out of business yourself, it's not the revenues from a bunch of short stories that's going to save the company. It's what you collect on Wrestlecrap that will put you back into the printers' good books and allow you to reprint a few hundred copies of Jennifer LoveGrove's wonderful debut collection of poetry, or give you the cash flow you need to properly promote the most important Canadian poetry title of the last decade, Gil Adamsonís breathtaking sophomore effort Ashland.

Over the years ECW has tried to strike the right balance--between literary and commercial efforts--for both endeavours to flourish. I think we've been successful.

TDR: I enjoyed the piece in Parts Unknown on Trish Stratus, Iíve seen her so many times in the exact same way I never imagined she came from somewhere, like York University of all places. There a lot of detail in this book. How did you find these really great little insights into these lives?

When I was a kid just getting into punk rock in Brampton there was no place to hang outóso the 8 or 10 of us with like minds and uniformly bad haircuts gravitated, naturally, to the mallís food court. One day a bunch of us saw one of our mowhawked forefathers, maybe the first real punk in town, a guy by the name of Sean Gorman, walking through the mall happily talking with two very straight laced, older folks. I guess somebody shot him a funny look. He just shook his head, obviously disappointed in his minions. "Parents," he said, "everybodyís got two." Itís still one of the most important lessons Iíve ever learnedówe all come from somewhere, and thereís always something to be learned from that place, those people and those experiences. A big part of the challenge Parts Unknown sets for me has nothing to do with wrestlingóitís imagining the aspects of these charactersí lives that never make it into storylines, that never show up in the ring. Sure, some of itólike Trish Stratus attending York or the plane crash that nearly killed Ric Flair on my 9th birthdayóis "true." Having Scotty Too Hotty read Coleridge, however, is my bad. 

Ultimately, I wonder if folks will be surprised by the detail in this book. Iíve researched everything Iíve written, and Iíve probably done more work for this project than for anything else Iíve ever attempted. But then I remember: itís wrestling. Now, thatís not a complaint, itís just a fact: CanLit folks whoíve got certain expectations for poetry arenít going to recognize the research. Fine. So what, who cares? Whatís more important to me, what Iím truly concerned with, and somewhat apprehensive about, is the quality of what Iíve done in the eyes of the wrestling fan. Is the research good enough to pass the test of someone whoís watched every RAW, someone who cares more about Lanny Poffoís Frisbee quatrains than who was nominated for the Griffin or the GG? Is the poetry compelling enough to interest the wrestling fan who has had little or no experienceóbless themówith CanLit?

TDR: Wrestling With Shadows (directed by Paul Jay) is the NFB sponsored film about Bret Hartís struggle with the business as it boomed in the late 1990ís. One of the themes of this film is the curious Canadian-American which gets to near David and Goliath heights. Despite the subjective nature of the narration through Bret Hartís eyes, it would make a pretty good Canadian novel donít you think?

Itís a great movie, rivaled only by Beyond the Mat, and itís great because itís more than just a wrestling flick, more than a documentary about Bret Hart the wrestler. Iím a nationalist, unabashedly; Iím damn proud, Don Cherry-like, of our in-ring heritage, but Iím not sure if the movie works as a Canadian David and American Goliath thing. Itís more classically tragic. Almost Oedipal. I really think the filmís importance lies in its exploration of Bretís relationship with his father, the legendary wrestler, trainer and promoter Stu Hart. The ostensible "point" of the flick, Bretís problems with WWE owner Vince McMahon, and the whole story of the how he was screwed in front of his family and "country" at the Montreal Survivor Series, may actually be more interesting as an eerily true bit of metaphoric transference.

But Lord, yes, the Hartsóthey are the great Canadian novel. Stu and Bret, the senseless tragedy of Owenís death, the dungeon dojo in the Calgary mansion basementówalk-ons by characters as magical as Andre the Giant, Gorgeous George, the Dynamite Kid and Terry Funk? Daughters that married the Anvil and Davey-Boy Smith? Stu doing the cooking and cleaning and Helen taking care of the wrestling promotionís books? The real stories are so good that if you put them in a novel folks might actually find them too far fetched.

TDR: I know he mentioned wanting to write a big wrestling history book when he retired on Off The Record in 2001. Have you talked with Bret Hart about his next book?

Bretís been hinting at publishing his memoirs for a couple of years now, and as far as Iím concerned theyíre the Holy Grail of Canadian non-fiction. Thereís a contract with his name on it at ECW if heís seriousóbecause any time heís ready, so are we.

Like Bret "Hitman" Hart, Nathaniel G. Moore is a July Cancerian with familial issues. Mr. Moore wrote a four-page-tell-all-memoir about his life as a teenage wrestler in Career Suicide! (DC Books, 2003) and is represented online courtesy of Notho Entertainment www.criticalcrushes.blogspot.com. He has never lost a steel cage match.