canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: David McGimpsey

David McGimpsey is regarded by many as one of the funniest writers in Canada. He is the author of three poetry collections: Hamburger Valley, California, Dogboy and Lardcake (ECW Press), as well as the award-winning critical study, Imagining Baseball: America's Pastime and Popular Culture (Indiana University Press). His new book of short stories, Certifiable, was published with Insomniac Press (2004). 

Recently, Jon Paul Fiorentino met with McGimpsey at Montreal's famous watering hole, Copacabana, to discuss poetry, humor and Dolph Lundgren.

Interview in 2004 by Jon Paul Fiorentino

Musing on Meta-Parody

JPF: Can you talk to me about where, for you, poetry and comedy intersect? (I'm thinking of principles of economy, reflexivity, body "translation" etc...)

DM: Well, both depend on timing as much as what is being said. Poetry without timing is prose, comedy without timing is The Mike Bullard Show. The way tensions shift in poetry--from premise to killer line—the reflexive views, and reinvention of terms, often work in the same as comedy's set-up, act-out, punchline, call-back, and shift. The set up of a joke drifts one way--you know, like "that Ben Affleck is one lucky guy"-- and the punch draws it back the other way -- like "yeah, I wish I got paid to look into Matt Damon's eyes." 

Poetry often shifts in those ways. What is "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard I'm through" but a punch line? I'm not a comedian, though--one suicidal profession is enough! The standard of comedy is, I think, way too much for poetry to bear. What's that actor's saw? "Tragedy is easy, comedy is hard"? Joke telling is transgressive--humor is often scary for the gentle spirits who came to poetry because they wanted to write outside of the purview of the towel-snapping, haw-hawing of Mr.Hilarious.

JPF: Elaborate on the place of humor in Contemporary Canadian Literature. My assumption is that it must be a relatively lonely place, with a few kindred spirits milling about and making it tolerable. Where does one situate him or herself if one is, as they say, a "funnytalker"?

DM: Humor is not just one thing and it offers a wide range of situations: Yahoos taking a dump on the Houhnyms, Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo falling in love with Lady Jingly Jones, Jack Tripper pretending to be gay. Margaret Atwood has a strong acerbic wit and Mordecai Richler was a wicked satirist. People have different tastes and generally find the thing they like to be perfectly funny: when I worked insulating pipes this guy who played a slab of insulation like a guitar was pretty damn funny--funnier than many recipients of the Leacock Award to be sure. The brand of Canadian literature is a fairly earnest brand, and most people who are attracted into that circle want to perform their self-seriousness. That's understandable.

The Canadian model of poetry does not account for humor as much as American models do and one can feel this shouldn't be so, given Canadian success in television comedy, but that's what readers of Canadian Literature actually buy. They have been given the choice of urban, hip and funny but they generally prefer rural, earnest and serious. "Thank you Russell Smith, that's fine, but I'm sticking with Carol Shields." But, that earnest brand isn't everything. I don't think it's lonely at all to be thought of as a funny writer. Far from it. I see that as a great compliment and something that has brought much sympathetic company to me throughout my career. I'm always amazed and grateful for the exposure my work has received outside of traditional circles and I'm pretty certain this interest is not just Because my thoughts on the smack of sea salt on Vancouver Island are so heartbreaking. 

Kindred spirits are abundant--though they might not always be prominent members of the League of Canadian Poets or the kind of crabbed person who reviews books of poetry for undergraduate magazines. Whatever those risks, there's quite a few Canadian poets with wide funny streaks—and most have their moments. As a rule, choosing to write humorously attends upon worries one will not be taken seriously. So it goes from Mark Twain to Kurt Vonnegut--comedies don't win Oscars and people hate it when Jim Carrey gets all serious on them--and, so, a man who has a written a 20 page poem about hamburgers can't reasonably complain he's not taken seriously. Big deal. I'm very happy with how my poetry has connected with my readers.

JPF: Talk more about that connection as I've noticed you inspire a kind of intimacy with your readers. Is this, at least in part, due to a kind of confessional thread that runs through your work? A kind of self-effacing, charming "lyric I"?

DM: Maybe the confessional model is where I start--like the confessionals I use the specific truths of my actual life--except, in my case, I tell lies. The speakers of my poems are generally less stuck-up and bookish than I am and, as I believe this interview will not accompany a recent picture, I will insist my speakers are a good 50 pounds heavier than I am. It's done best in Ring Lardner's fiction, but I try to embrace the idea of the transparency of the speaker's personality--I don't know if that's self-effacing or charming but hope it entertains a less grandstanding, less pretentious verse. So many poets write thinking the reader can't see through their attestations to their own wisdom and deep feelings it often becomes a tiresome exercise in middle class cool. "Look at me say the right thing / buy the right coffee -- aren't I something?" Those sweet-me epiphanies that come to those who attend to the parsimmon. Anyways, the speaker's self-knowledge I hope becomes a kind of trust--an acknowledgement of a greatly faulted individual with open eyes in a complex, active culture.

JPF: Whose texts do you turn to? Which books in your library have your fingerprints all over them?

DM: You mean besides the comic books I bought in Mexico? I like the idea of turning to poets, the way one might turn to songs on a bar's jukebox, depending upon what brought them to the bar. If I was just looking to sit by myself and look upon myself "and curse my fate"--which sounds like me--I'd play Yeats, Tennyson and Shakespeare extensively. It's pretty boring and conservative but those are my guys. I used to read the confessionals a lot, but they don't get to me as much now--maybe I'll look through the collected Lowell now that that's out but I doubt it. Amy Gerstler and Denise Duhamel are two contemporary poets whose work I really admire. I just bought a book by Tony Hoagland which won me over. Frederick Exley's novel "A Fan's Notes" is a book I am completely obsessed with—and I'm always trying to get friends of mine to read that novel--it still shocks and delights me. David Sedaris makes me laugh out loud. Mordecai Richler, of course.

JPF: One critic has claimed your poem, "In Memoriam AH Jr.", "suggests parody, [but] the result is startlingly the opposite." I think this applies to the Hamburger poem as well. How does the suggestion (or assumption) of parody speak to the way we read and receive popular culture and its iconography?

DM: Many of the poems work like parody in reverse. Is there a term for that? Meta-parody? I take something that seems slight and beneath contempt (a sitcom, a tabloid tale) and rather than expose them to high-brow ridicule, I try to adduce some sympathetic core in those things--to assure that the heights of comedy and tragedy are also found in the worlds beyond Professor Boring's desk. What better than a commercial product which seems all surface and fake smiles to draw out some human experience that is not so easily contained? I suppose it's often assumed that when a poet says "I'm going to read a poem about Led Zeppelin" it is assumed he or she's really going to tear into the pop culture object and give those who know better a huge laugh--so it often starts out as a giggling proposition. "Oh, goody, he's going to riff on some shirtless hillbillies!" But I like to imagine my work living in a place of greater anxiety: to love and despair of popular culture simultaneously, both a critique and a celebration of its iconography--it is never certain but it is unashamedly literate in these matters. I remember discussing poems once with the late Malcolm Ross—in one of the rare times we weren't talking about baseball--he mentioned how everybody's sure they can see through things, but it took more patience and sacrifice to see into things. I don't know if I succeed on that account but, in terms of popular culture; that is the sacrifice I'm trying to make.

JPF: I think the term meta-parody is quite apt. There is a striking line in your poem "For Meriwether Lewis": "It was funny at first but I saw the looks when you realized I meant it." Perhaps this is the conjugal moment of the meta-parodic condition, the moment where poetic reception exceeds poetic expectation.

DM: Those lines in the Lewis poem are crucial--no matter how many gags, how many references to Barbara Mandrell, I am serious about it all. I come by my enthusiasms honestly and I am not pretending to like things I don't like just to have fun. I care about poetry. It's my good luck that most people get this--and this finds much of the energy of my poetry. It is, in the end, not really about hamburgers or rock shows, but about the fate of the individual's poetic voice, an idea completely within the tradition of English poetry. Nothing new. I am not trying to popularize poetry in any way and I do not grieve for poetry's marginal status--as Hyman Roth told Michael, "this is the business we chose!" As for expectations, over the years, it is true; I've come to accept that in certain literary circles one should just never underestimate the sway of simple snobbery. Pure and simple country club snobbery. If you hang out among literary crowds, I swear you'll never meet so many people who are so proud to say dopey things like "I don't even own a TV!" I understand the pressures on a poet to show out as defender of culture with a capital K but I don't see much complexity in that kind of power play. I may not ultimately be able to escape those enclosures but the motives behind it are not hard to see. There's a reason why phony British accents are not rare in literary circles, there's a reason why most people think an English major's function in life is to correct their grammar.

JPF: Despite the transparency of it all, it is amazing to me how blatant snobbery so consistently goes unnoticed in the literary world. Are you trying to tell me that you have no desire to rail against this? What if a typical misreading of your work results in a kind of populist inference that consequently informs one of the mythology of "high poetic culture"?

DM: That's an interesting way of putting it, Jon. I don't think I have been misread as "populist" in that way. I hope to never rail against such things--to never gently knock at doors where my kind would not be accepted--that would be like railing against never being considered for the cover of GQ. How do you argue against a domineering superficiality? I suppose actors must feel something when all their training turns out to mean nothing compared to the difficult task of being born pretty--but, who forced any of us to become poets? Rather than railing against the snoots, which, you're right, would embarrassingly argue there's a deep contrast between high and low culture that I am bravely trying to gap, I'll continue to have fun exploring the real culture I live in, where Keats and J-Lo both have their say.

JPF: If Lardcake, Dogboy, and Hamburger Valley, California comprise a poetic trilogy, what's next for David McGimpsey? Are you turning to prose to continue this project? Or will you extend the Keats / J-Lo dialogue in poetry?

DM: I don't think of my writing as a "project." That sounds so Soviet--like I'm constructing a water purification plant or something.

It's also kind of embarrassing to talk of future projects--you invariably end up sounding like Emilio Estevez nicely responding to "what's next after Mighty Ducks 2"? There's a good cohesion in those three poetry collections you mention but they are not a trilogy. I do not see the themes explored in those books as closed or thematically restricted. I remember Stallone once trying to justify his prodigiousness by saying Rocky III made his Rocky movies a nice "trilogy"--but if he stopped there, as he promised, we wouldn't have had Dolph Lundgren as Ivan Drago--and the children of America would have cried! If I get to hang out enough to write Lardcake XII: The Legend of Tubby's Gold, I'll be wildly happy. 

I'm still writing poetry, but I also write fiction and I have a collection of short stories out with Insomniac Press. I think it's a funny book with lots of peculiar situations. It's kind of like my other books except, now, it's without the annoyance of poetry!

JON PAUL FIORENTINO is a writer, editor and teacher. His fourth book of poetry is Hello Serotonin (Coach House Books, 2004) and his first book of fiction is the forthcoming Asthmatica (Insomniac Press, 2005). He lives in Montreal where he is the managing editor for Matrix magazine. <>




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