canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Micro press generalizations: US and Them

Canada does not have a history of big-time salty writers the same way the US does. [No one who] ever really threatened not only the literary world but also the very social fabric binding the country. ... A first step would be to cut all the precious grandma lit and throw down more from-the-gut short fiction and prickly poetry.

by Matthew Firth

Itís a national pastime in this country to differentiate between Canadian this and American that. Sports, culture, politics, history, climate, international diplomacy, guns, abortion, health care, social policy, dope smoking, sexual behaviours, etc. Ė the list goes on.

One of the few things I remember from high school was a Grade Ten history lesson on the "cultural mosaic" (us) versus the "melting pot" (them). Wouldnít Miss Jewel (though I reckon sheís dead) be proud of me now citing this lesson twenty-five years later. Trite, maybe, but early on we develop biases when measuring us Canucks against them Yanks. And biases are like opinions, generalizations and assholes: ubiquitous.

But what of the micro press? Surely the noble art of smaller than small book publishing is above all this us-and-them stuff. There must be more similarities, youíd think, than differences.

A few months back I wrote three articles for the Ottawa Xpress on the local micro press scene:

The gist of that work showed plenty of activity but the content of micro press stuff wasnít all that different stylistically from what the big presses do Ė just not as polished. Ottawa Ė having a reputation as a staid, soporific town that hugs the centre line Ė is perhaps less adventurous than Halifax, Hamilton or Edmonton when it comes to micro press publishing. Iím not sure. One thing for sure; the US sample I looked at showed way more balls, experimentation, irreverence and iconoclasm. I believe this is linked to different literary traditions in both lands.

Canada does not have a history of big-time salty writers the same way the US does. We have no one we can hold up to compare with Henry Miller, Hubert Selby Jr., Charles Bukowski and Kathy Acker, for example. These are saucy, adventurous, controversial writers not buried in the small presses and only read by a few hundred. They are writers Ė and others cut from the same cloth (William S. Burroughs, William T. Vollmann, Dennis Cooper, etc.) Ė published by larger, influential publishing houses. Their books are/were hardbound and prominent Ė front and centre in American literature. Okay, we had Al Purdy and maybe Leonard Cohen to a certain extent Ė but neither of these guys ever really threatened not only the literary world but also the very social fabric binding the country. That was the perception with, for example, Miller and Selby, whose books were banned, burned and decried in the States and elsewhere. Simply put, Canada has produced very few literary bad asses and those that it has (e.g., Daniel Jones, Juan Butler) have been marginalized to the small press.

Because of this, you might expect the Canadian micro press to brim with irreverent writers. But it doesnít. Itís dominated by flowery, friendly, reading circle type poets the average grandma could read without blushing. Itís a terrible letdown, no, more: a fucking disgrace. However, thanks to the Internet, edgy micro press stuff is easier to locate these days, meaning if you want your underground writing to actually evoke that underground spirit, itís best to look to our southern neighbours.

Hereís a few examples. Beautiful Blemish is a collection of short and flash fiction by Kevin Sampsell (Word Riot Press, p. 96, $9.00). Sampsell is a flexible yet powerful writer, comfortable whether depicting the seedier side of life, sexual oddities or just short bursts of ordinary weirdness. "Earotic" is a poignant story about ear fucking that blends desperation and humour. "My Old Man" is again doused in humour. Itís an absurd story about a guy who picks up an old, homeless man on the street and houses him like a pet. "New Suburban Lit" experiments with form well without being contrived. The title story crosses sexual fetish with a skin ailment in a funny story about an older couplesí feisty sexual shenanigans. Sampsell shows conviction and a human touch in the collection. Heís got a solid grasp on everyday anguish in stories that frequently feature ordinary, slightly damaged folks.

Labor Day by Nathan Graziano (Bottle of Smoke Press, p. 34, $5.00) treads similar terrain to Sampsellís collection but Grazianoís fiction is more straight-up, his prose less succinct. "Pal, the Pit and the Pig" is a great story about three juxtaposed characters that work in a restaurant: a recently-graduated, unsure-what-to-do-next, university student, a psychotic Vietnam vet and a pretentious Swedish-immigrant chef. Graziano portrays the dull rigours of labour expertly while examining the strange bonds that often form between co-workers caught in the same mire. There are plenty of laughs in "Bump in the Road," a story about a manís troubles with genital warts. More yucks follow in "The Hand that Spanks You". But the best story is "Labor Day," a muscular story about how the peace of a beer-and-barbecue afternoon can be shattered by the slightest glitch in conversation, spooling proceedings into stupidity and violence. Itís sort of Trailer Park Boys meets Bukowski and is definitely the type of fiction rarely encountered in Canadian publishing of any scale.

Graziano is also the author of Frostbite, a hardbound short story collection published by Green Bean Press that Iíd classify as more small than micro press. That book also shows heís a fine observational writer with a smooth hand at day-to-day dialogue.

Girl Juice by Ritah Parrish (Heavy Flow, an imprint of Future Tense Books, p. 42, $7.00 Cdn) is a smart collection of off-beat stories. "I Dwarf You" takes nutty neighbours to an extreme. Eve moves into her dream flat only to quickly discover she lives upstairs from a crazy, lesbian dwarf with only one leg. The dwarf Ė Debbie Ė yearns for Eve in a big way and will stop at nothing (including self-abuse) to win her over. "Transactions" is a sorrowful drinking tale wherein the female narrator struggles to sympathize with a junkie stripper and cut her a break but finds, in the end, that she cannot. Parrishís prose is tight and razor-sharp:

I end up driving in circles, through the streets of North Portland, highly conscious of the horrible facts: Itís 1:30 in the morning. I am a little drunk. I am lost. My passenger is a desperate junkie who shoves stuff up her butt for a living.

The final of the five stories in this chapbook Ė "Hit Me Doing Thirtyfive" Ė is a domestic nightmare of a story; violence, booze, infidelity feature prominently but the story is told without exaggeration and without slipping into the extraordinary. Parrish lets the reader know the suffering here is ordinary, commonplace and not to be gawked at incredulously.

An exhaustive analysis of Canadian versus American micro press writing this is not. Iím pretty sure thatís an impossible undertaking. Itís more musing on a random sample with some leaping to generalization. Go ahead; shoot me for doing it. But after thirteen years as a micro press publisher, I stand by my polemic that Canadian underground writing as a whole has a long way to go before it can trade punches with its fiery American counterparts. I welcome all the Canadian micro presses out there to prove me wrong Ė not by defensively ranting back at me but by altering what they publish. A first step would be to cut all the precious grandma lit and throw down more from-the-gut short fiction and prickly poetry.

Of course Iím not suggesting knee-jerk mimicry of American micro presses is the way to go. Letís leave that sort of behaviour to our new Prime Minister. And there are a few gutsy and innovative Canadian micro presses (e.g., Edmontonís Greensleeve Editions, Stuart Rossís Proper Tales Press, the defunct Streetcar Editions). But these presses are by far the minority.

Micro presses should not only be raucous and punky Ė there is plenty of room for nuance and variety. Difference, in fact, should be activated and celebrated fully in micro presses. The trouble is, in Canada, it isnít; the micro presses are far too homogenous and timid and thereby right in step with our mild and mainstream brand of big press literature. If this were beer, by comparison, micro breweries would be spewing out the same innocuous bilge as the big breweries, instead of all the wonderful bocks, stouts, wheat beers and others that have really livened up suds in this country in the past twenty years. Sadly, the same canít be said for micro presses. Whatís needed is more passion, courage and conviction to be bold and blunt on the printed page at the micro level. Given that many writers get their start in micro presses, it just might lead to more dynamic literature at all levels of Canadian publishing.

Matthew Firth is the editor of Front&Centre and the publisher of Black Bile Press.

(February 2006)







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