On Reading “Paul” on the Island and Everything That Came After

By Jess Taylor

In the summer of 2013, I had no real publications to my name. I was running a reading series, The Emerging Writers Reading Series (EW), and while I had just finished The University of Toronto’s Creative Writing program, I was known more as a curator than a writer and had a manuscript that turned out to be a total disaster. I felt a remarkable sense of failure even though I knew I was young, knew that I shouldn’t have expected so much for myself so soon. At least I was writing: I was writing every day and when I was writing stories, I was really having fun. The other thing I was doing regularly was performing at reading series. Since I ran EW, people seemed to think I enjoyed being on stage, and I’d often be invited to perform a story or a set of poetry. That summer, I was invited by Chris Graham to read on Toronto Island as part of the series Amazing New Stuff.Taylor, Jess (c) AngelaLewis

Since we were reading outside, Chris requested that the readers read family-friendly pieces that could appeal to all ages. I didn’t have a lot of work that fit that category, but I did have one short story that I’d been writing to blow off steam. It was called “Paul” and featured three Pauls in the same town, loosely based on the landscape of Caledon, where I grew up. The story had a cat based on my beloved childhood cat, Cally, and I thought kids might enjoy the playful nature of the story, even if they didn’t understand its subtleties.

Ward’s Island was the perfect place to read a story with so much imagery of trees and clearings, forests and fields. Everything was green and I could see the lake from where we were reading. The crowd was surprisingly large even though it was the only reading series that required its audience to take a ferry. They were mostly people who were there to support Stephen Thomas, the other reader, who was originally from Toronto and only in town briefly. Two of the people there were Emily M. Keeler and Charles Yao, who were the publishers of Little Brother.

Readings are terrifying. I guess people have different levels of fear when it comes to getting up on stage. Some are able to divorce themselves from that fear and become someone else while performing. I’ve never seemed to manage thiswhether I’m hosting, reading or even teaching in front of a class, I’m terrified. But people learn to manage the stress or find techniques to conquer the fear. For me, preparing extensively helps tackle my stage fright, and even though I was scared, my reading on Ward’s went as smoothly as it could.Taylor, Pauls

I often think about how one thing could have been different that day. I could have read a different story. Emily and Charles could have not come. I could have botched the reading. I could have not even read at that show. But having everything happen the way it did set off a wonderful and unexpected chain of events for me. Emily and Charles really liked the story and requested it for Little Brother. The publication looked great and I was so proud. At this point, Little Brother didn’t yet pay contributors (they do now), and I still hadn’t ever had a paid publication. Emily nominated the story for a National Magazine Award and it was selected as a finalist. Then, on the awards’ night, it was named the Gold Winner, and “Paul” became my first paid publication. This led to my book of short stories, Pauls, being picked up by BookThug, which has directly led me to reading at the IFOA this year.

I wonder if my 2013 self who was so poor she could barely afford to eat, who was sad often and wondering about her purpose, who felt that sense of failure, who was scared but did it all anyway, I wonder if she knew that exposing herself to that fear meant exposing herself to that one opportunity that could change everything. I’m certainly never going to stop being afraid, and I’m never going to stop putting myself out there anyway.

Jess Taylor is a writer and poet based in Toronto. She is the host and founder of the Emerging Writers Reading Series and the fiction editor of Little Brother Magazine. Her work has been published in a variety of journals, magazines and newspapers, including Little Fiction, Little Brother, Joyland, This Magazine, National Post, Emerge Literary Journal, Great Lakes Review, Zouch Magazine and offSIDE Zine. She received the Gold 2013 National Magazine Award in Fiction for her short story, “Paul.”

Hear Jess read from Pauls, her new collection of lively short fiction, at the BookThug celebration happening at #IFOA36 on October 27.

Christian Bök on The Xenotext

Share this post via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets to Christian Bök’s IFOA event on October 25. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

The Xenotext is a kind of experiment—a literary exercise that explores the aesthetic potential of genetics in the modern milieu, doing so in order to make literal the renowned aphorism of William S. Burroughs, who has declared that “the word is now a virus.” Such an experiment strives to address some of the sociological implications of biotechnology by manufacturing a “xenotext”—a beautiful, anomalous poem, whose “alien words” might subsist, like a harmless parasite, inside the cell of another life form. Bök, Christian

Futurists have already begun to speculate that even now we might store data by encoding textual information into genetic nucleotides, thereby creating “messages” made from DNA, messages that we can implant, like genes, inside cells, where such data might persist, undamaged and unaltered through myriad cycles of mitosis, all the while preserved for recovery and decoding. Genetics has thus endowed biology with a possible literary use, granting every geneticist the power to become a poet in the medium of life.

I have composed my own example of “living poetry” so that, when translated into a gene and then integrated into the cell, the text nevertheless gets “expressed” by the organism, which, in response to this grafted, genetic sequence, begins to manufacture a viable, benign protein—one that, according to the original, chemical alphabet, is itself yet another text. I am thus engineering a primitive bacterium so that it becomes not only a durable archive for storing a poem, but also an operant machine for writing a poem.

I have selected a microbe called Deinococcus radiodurans to be the proposed symbiote for my “xenotext,” since this extremophile resists mutation (scorch it, freeze it, wither it—and still the microbe endures). It can survive exposure to the vacuum of outer space. It can even withstand dosages of gamma rays, 1000 times more lethal than the dosage needed to obliterate a human being. A group of biologists have even gone so far as to suggest that the ancestor of this organism might, in fact, be extraterrestrial in origin.Bok, Xenotext

I believe that such a poem might begin to demonstrate that, through the use of nanoscopic, biological emissaries, we might begin to transmit messages across stellar distances or even epochal intervals—so that, unlike any other cultural artifact so far produced (except perhaps for the Pioneer probes or the Voyager probes), such a poem, stored inside the genome of a bacterium, might conceivably outlast terrestrial civilization itself, persisting like a secret message in a bottle flung at random into a giant ocean.

Even though poets may pay due homage to the “immortality” of their heritage, few have ever imagined that we might actually create a literary artifact capable of outliving the existence of our species—an artifact that might testify to our cultural presence upon the planet until the very hour when the Sun itself explodes. I hope that, by fulfilling this experiment, we might encourage other poets to consider the long-term timeline of our aesthetic evolution—to think beyond the formal limits of our own inevitable extinction.

Christian Bök is a poet, conceptual artist and professor of English at the University of Calgary. He is the author of Crystallography, a pataphysical encyclopedia nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, and of Eunoia, a bestselling work of experimental literature awarded the Griffin Prize for Poetic Excellence. He has also earned many accolades for his virtuoso performances of sound poetry, particularly the Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters. Bök presents The Xenotext, a scientific and literary study that combines the principles of DNA mutation and poetry.

Creative Catalysts

From the IFOA vaults, a round table from 2007 with Giller Prize-winning author Will Ferguson, bestselling crime writer Peter Robinson, 2015 RBC Taylor Prize nominee M.G. Vassanji and Governor General Award-winning author Richard B. Wright. They discuss what they’re reading in a panel entitled “Creative Catalysts.” Canadian writer Randy Boyagoda moderates.

Five Questions with… Cassidy McFadzean

Cassidy McFadzean, author of Hacker Packer and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win two tickets her event April 9. Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Tell us a bit about your debut poetry collection, Hacker Packer.McFadzean, Cassidy (c) Credence McFadzean

Cassidy McFadzean: Hacker Packer is a collection of lyric poems written from 2010 or so up until last summer. Through the formal elements of these poems, I’m interested in exploring sound and structure, and the book includes sonnets, rhyming couplets, mock Old English riddles, as well as poems written in persona. Many of these poems are concerned with the strangeness of being in a world where I feel ancient mythology is yoked together with contemporary pop culture. I’m very interested in using humour in my poems, as well as thinking about the spaces that women inhabit, and the appropriating lens of a poet writing about the visual arts.

IFOA: Where do you find inspiration for your poetry?

McFadzean: I write a lot about places I’ve travelled, as well as works of art I’ve encountered either firsthand or online. Visiting Europe for the first time in 2012 was hugely important to my poetry. I’m still not completely over the experience of taking iPad pictures of ancient Greek artifacts, or viewing the sculptures of Rodin while construction workers used machinery outside. When I’m not travelling, I find inspiration in the everyday experiences of living in inner-city Regina, hiking in “nature” or reading a bizarre Wikipedia page.

IFOA: You studied at the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. What was that experience like?

McFadzean, Hacker PackerMcFadzean: Being at Iowa is like living in a community of funny, brilliant people all working toward similar artistic goals. I’m just finishing up my last semester, and it still feels very surreal to live in a place where I can’t leave the apartment without running into another poet. Sometimes as an artist I find myself having to justify decisions in my life, but at Iowa, people instantly understand why you might work a low-paying job so you’ll have more time to write, or why you might stay indoors all weekend to finish a poem. The workshop has also exposed me to a lot of great writers I might have not otherwise encountered—either through poetry readings, seminars I’ve taken, or just word of mouth— and for that I’ll always be grateful.

IFOA: Who are some of your favourite poets whose work you’d recommend to our readers?

McFadzean: I’m amazed by the recent debuts of several Canadian poets who are doing compelling work with form and voice. I would strongly recommend Stevie Howell’s [sharps], Brecken Hancock’s Broom Broom, Kerry-Lee Powell’s Inheritance and Suzannah Showler’s Failure To Thrive.

IFOA: What are you working on now?

McFadzean: I’m working on my second collection of poems, Drolleries, which includes work written during my last year at Iowa, my experiences travelling and camping in Iceland in the summer of 2014 and aswath ofekphrastic poems, including a four-page piece written about the medieval Unicorn Tapestries at the Cloisters in New York.

Cassidy McFadzean’s poems have appeared in magazines across Canada. In 2012, she published a chapbook, Farwell, and in 2013 she was a finalist for the CBC Poetry Prize and the Walrus Poetry Prize. McFadzean presents a reading from her debut collection, Hacker Packer, as part of the McClelland & Stewart Poetry Night on April 9.

Five Questions with… David Vann

David Vann, author of Aquarium and an upcoming IFOA participant, answered our five questions!

Share this article via Twitter or Facebook for your chance to win a copy of Aquarium and two tickets to the event! Don’t forget to tag @IFOA!

IFOA: Your debut collection, Legend of a Suicide, was somewhat based on true events in your own life. How much does your real life inspire or find its way into your fictional work?David Vann

David Vann: My first four books of fiction (Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island, Dirt and Goat Mountain) have true family events in the background. What happens in the stories is made up but references and tries to transform the history. To give an example from Legend, my father asked me to come live with him for a year in Alaska. I said no, and soon after he killed himself. So my account in the book of a boy and his father homesteading in Alaska is fictional but also a second chance to say yes and an imagination of what that year with him would have been like. Writing is largely subconscious for me, since I have no outline or plan or any idea what the book will be about when I begin, but there’s a surprising amount of pattern and structure that happens in the subconscious, and also a drive, I think, to be made whole.

IFOA: Where did the idea for Aquarium come from?

Vann: Aquarium will be my first novel published that does not draw from my family history or have any clear parallels in my own life. It’s also the first one not to be a tragedy. I could first see scenes from Aquarium as I was finishing another novel about the Greek heroine Medea. I’ve always loved tropical fish, and I had eight fish tanks scattered throughout the house when I was 12 years old, Caitlin’s age. So I was drawn to the idea of describing fish, and Seattle as if it was underwater, and I love the public aquarium in Seattle. I went there long ago, in the early 90s, and thought their descriptions of fish at each tank were a kind of poetry indicating human behavior. I should also say that I’ve always loved female coming-of-age stories for some reason, especially Ellen Foster, Bastard Out of Carolina and Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.

Vann, AquariumIFOA: Have you ever written from the perspective of a child before and how is it different from writing from an adult perspective?

Vann: My most recent novel, Goat Mountain, is from the point of view of an 11-year-old boy, but I use a retrospective narrator, which means the story is told from when the boy is much older, looking back at his life. This frees me to be able to say anything, not limited to the vocabulary or perceptions of an 11-year-old, and allows reflection, the making of meaning about the shape of a life. This is what I also do in Aquarium. The story is told from 20 years later, when Caitlin is 32. All of the scenes bring to life her experience at 12, but she’s also able to understand those experiences now and use adult language. I do love Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster, in which she stays closer to the child’s perspective and language, but I prefer the freedom of style and thought that an adult perspective allows.

IFOA: Do you have any plans to do readings of Aquarium in a real aquarium? (haha!)

Vann: I’d love to! We’ve asked the Seattle Aquarium whether they’d be interested.

IFOA: What have you read in the last six months that you have really enjoyed?

Vann: Many books, including Evie Wyld’s All The Birds, Singing and George Saunders’ Tenth of December. And I spend a lot of time on classics, currently translating Beowulf from Old English and Ovid’s Metamorphoses from Latin (struggling on that one!).

David Vann is a former Guggenheim fellow and author. He will be at IFOA Weekly on March 12th.


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