Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Jones, Interrupted

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Even in the final days before filling her pockets with stones and wading into the River Ouse in March of 1941, Virginia Woolf struggled to find reasons to live. Her final diary entry is poignant, noting the fine spring weather and describing a lovely hat whose wearer she encountered in a tea room. "I will go down with my colours flying," she wrote before closing the diary for the last time.

Survivors of others' suicides often wonder whether some combination of impulsivity and regret infuses the final moments of those who have taken their own lives. The suggestion that death might not have been chosen so deliberately -- that suicide can be mitigated by some narrative of accident, compulsion or misadventure -- is a way of making space for grief to well up alongside the anger that suffuses many suicide survivors' memories of those who have lost themselves to us.

Little room for comforting fantasy is left in the wake of the suicide of noted Toronto-based novelist, poet, editor and publisher Daniel Jones, who killed himself in February of 1994, leaving behind three poetry collections, half a dozen published works of fiction, a drafted but unpublished novel and grieving companions, friends and literary acquaintances. After Daniel, Moira Farr's compelling memoir of Jones' suicide and its aftermath, makes it clear that he had become resigned to his death in the weeks before killing himself, and that his suicide was planned meticulously and executed with considerable deliberation. As Lynn Crosbie writes about Jones in her beautiful, tragic poem, "Geography," "He was capable of cruelty; he was meticulous, theatrical."

Seventeen years after his death, Daniel Jones remains an enigma and, to some, a cult figure. For several years on the anniversary of his death, copies of "Things That I Have Put into My Asshole" -- Jones' notorious, scatological Toronto poem about the CN Tower -- were reportedly printed up as broadsheets and posted to utility poles, a kind of posthumous homage to a persona Jones had abandoned long before his death. The character of his legacy is uncertain. Long out-of-print copies of Jones' books command high prices on the rare book market, suggesting that an appetite for his craft -- or at least his notoriety -- persists. Some of his poems and stories show up periodically on undergraduate university syllabi, or are referenced slyly in print publications.

At the same time, as Liz Worth points out in a recent essay on Jones' legacy, "even though so much time has passed there is a noticeable change in tone and expression when his name comes up [...] Quiet warnings to tread delicately, maybe, or reflections of the gap he left behind." However motivated, these responses underscore Crosbie's admission in "Geography" that Jones' survivors are left to walk the haunted streets, “without plan, / without direction", clinging to memories at once "incomprehensible and monstrous” while "forgiveness lies remote / and uncharted."

This spring, however, readers new and old will have a fresh opportunity to appraise or revisit Jones' legacy. Two of Jones' books -- the brave never write poetry (his first trade collection of poems, originally published by Coach House in 1985) and 1978 (his posthumously published punk novel, originally released by Rush Hour revisions in 1998) -- will launch together, tonight, in what is billed as a 'Tribute to Jones' but may in fact be better described as an unveiling of his work.

1978, Jones' posthumously published punk novel, parlays a narrative about self-destructive kids imitating the punk rock bands they admired and hated into a metaphor of the ways the city will sometimes smash you in the face, not out of malice but because you have asked for it. Jones' characters offer hazy slices of parts of the city we remember seeing or perhaps being: rich kids, drop-outs, psychiatric ex-patients, a drug dealer and his sycophant, diner cooks, taxi drivers, unwashed legions of punk bands and would-be punk performers. As with Jones' own life, the novel ends without a tidy resolution although, as Liz Worth writes in the introduction to the reissued edition, it has "a way of making very real, very ugly things seem poetic, almost beautiful" and is an important document of Toronto's punk history. Three O'Clock Press has made an excerpt of the novel available for reading here.

the brave never write poetry, a bold, sometimes outrageous collection of poems about love, Toronto, addiction and the prosaic demands of work, poverty, food and friendship, provides the most accessible introduction to Jones' oeuvre. Many of the lines are cutting, the text is almost always insightful and underlain by a sardonic streak that persists throughout his literary career. In the title poem, for example, Jones intones,

The brave ride streetcars to jobs
early in the morning, have traffic accidents,
rob banks. The brave have children, relationships,
mortgages. The brave never writes these things
down in notebooks. The brave die & they are
dead.
[...]
Someone give me
the strength to be & not question being. Someone
give me the strength to stay out of the cafes &
libraries. Someone give me the strength not to
apply to the Canada Council for the Arts. Someone
give me the strength not to write poetry.

In the introduction to the collection, Jones describes the portentous moment when he first decided to become a poet:

Self-promotion, backstabbing, ass-licking, bitching and fighting for readings and contracts were the order of the day. Canadian poetry had become a huge and corrupt bureaucracy. it was ugly, cynical, full of pettiness and hatred. I loved it. I too wanted a slice of the pie.

One wonders, all these years later, what Jones would have thought of the contemporary literary establishment and the state of literary publishing today. He'd probably say little has changed.

Tribute to Jones will be held tonight at The Shop at Parts & Labour, 1566 Queen Street West. Hosted by Kevin Connelly, with readings and performances by Ken Babstock, Jeffrey Canton, Nathaniel G. Moore, Damian Rogers, Liz Worth, DJ Mark Pesci and some of Hamilton's finest punk acts.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page