Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Incident Report:

Meditations on Home Depot, Acupuncture and Martha Baillie's Latest Book
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By Melanie Janisse

At 4:05 pm, a Page reported that a pair of dentures had been left unattended in the foyer. I went to take a look. The dentures in question lay on the display rack, where flyers for the public are generally placed. I wrapped the dentures in a paper towel, on which I marked the date and time of their discovery. I placed them, thus loosely packaged, in the Lost and Found box behind the Reference Desk. There the dentures remained, a full half hour, until another staff member, Nila Narayan, judged them hygienically suspect – upon which grounds she threw them out. – The Incident Report, Martha Baillie

Entry Number One: On Plumbing

It is afternoon, and I am standing in a small room on the second floor of my building prying lathe off of ceiling joists after a catastrophic bathtub leak. Other than being very cranky, I am musing over the profound workmanship that went into the construction of the ceiling. Everything measured, exacted, precise; everything functioning within a system of logic that creates the very buildings that we inhabit. It strikes me though, as a chunk of wet insulation falls on my head, that systems never truly hold in the human experience. How the human experience can transpose systems into the illogical ramblings of insanity, overflow, ruin. My first article for Open Book: Toronto is the last thing on my mind. I am loathing, loathing the thought of a trip to Home Depot, which is now a bad place since the renovation last year. The only saving grace is getting a Harvey’s hamburger when you cannot handle another aisle of tools, and that if you are very lucky you catch a glimpse of a sparrow flying in the rafters. Promise: I will read the rest of Martha Baillie’s book The Incident Report on the way to Home Depot and back from Home Depot and while I eat my hamburger.

Entry Number Two: On Acupuncture

Before interviewing Martha Baillie, I took a visit to her website and was instantly intrigued by the presence of a visual art section, which consists of a documentation of her reexamining her manuscript, The Shape I Gave You with procedures far outside of the realm of sentence structure and edits. Take a core sample of the MS. Smoke it. Or what’s up with the acupuncture needles?

I hate needles. I loathe them, and I am sure it is why I am not a junkie. My doctor (who, as an aside, has a strange ring that makes me think he is a witch) has been demanding that I get glucose tests for nearly seven years. I always loose the requisition somewhere between the doctor’s office and my house. I really, really hate needles. During the hated renovations, I fled desperately in a cab to the Shiatsu School of Canada for some sort of miracle that would alleviate the terrible pain in my occipital joint. That is when I met Julian, my Shiatsu therapist and developed an instant therapist crush. He was just getting his official papers as an acupuncturist, and in a weak (very weak) moment I agreed to let him convert me into a pin cushion. Herein I learned that the needles allowed the Chi to move differently, that one could manipulate existing energy into different energy and also began my journey back from the needle neurosis.

This afternoon, while in the sunny window of the café listening to Martha describe the alchemic process of deconstructing her MS to smokes and rerouting neurotic words with acupuncture needles, I couldn’t help but think of her latest book and think this lovely lady simply loved putting structure on its head, or perhaps just through the eye of a needle.

Entry Number Three: Field Trip

I will be honest. I got on the streetcar right after chatting with Martha. I desperately wanted to see if I could sneak a peek at the Briefcase Man, or at least the Lavender Lady. For them I had developed soft spots. Briefcase Man comes off the page of The Incident Report so rigid, disciplined to the nth with the snapping open and shut of his case, his diligent photocopying. His rules. I love him for his rules. He is my first love in Martha’s book and will always be so. During my chat with Martha, I asked after the Briefcase Man like a shy paramour. I just loved him so much.

Don’t get me wrong, the Lavender Lady tugs at my heart as well, with her jelly fish drift, all flowing with fabrics and scent, but with tentacles; bitchy, manipulative tendrils that suck you into unwanted, stranded conversations over counters. She reminds me of a fistful of my café patrons that creep into my afternoons, harpoon me and hypnotize me into their stories. Doesn’t matter if I have dishes to do.

I take the Parliament Library branch on the stealth, casual. Set in the edges of Reagent Park, this branch seethes with humanity in varying states of repair and ruin. I enter, moving past droves of young students taking a break from their studies, a homeless man who asks me for some coin. In the hallway leading to the main desk is a collection of posters, an old floor vent and a meticulous sign that reads "Welcome to Your Library" in cool old, back-lit '70s font. Sitting in the hive-like display window between the hallway and the inside of the library is a small collection of traditional moccasins, bead work and artifacts of the Ojibwa. It seems a bit haphazard, like a strange colony of brightly-colored insects found a home in the window; a rag-tag crew that foils the perfect stacks of books housed on the other side of the glass. The stacks of books are perfect. Logos. Everything is in its place, categorized via the Dewey Decimal system, bar coded, accounted for while a lively bunch of patrons inhabit the seats, roll through the aisles, breathe air. I look everywhere, but to no avail. I find no purple outfits, or cool old briefcases. I do pass by a strange dude in a fedora though, and a guy who has parked his shopping cart of stuff beside him while whittling words away on a fairly snazzy laptop.

Entry Number Four: Reports, Official Documents, an Official Book Description. (Supporting Documents Included)

The Incident Report (Pedlar Press). The novel consists of precisely 154 incident reports, which describe in them the strange goings on in the life and work place of Miriam Gordan, a Public Service Assistant for the Public Libraries of Toronto. Herein, she documents the quirky, disturbing and mysterious rhythms of the patrons of her library. The reports struggle to hold in and master the strange behaviors of these patrons, and ultimately fail at categorizing the human drama unfolding within them. The reports remain awkward, vague, without conclusion rendering them strangely impotent as official documents, but brilliant as portals into the psyches of the eccentric and deranged characters of the library.

Each and every character in The Incident Report (including Miriam) is struggling to find a system which comforts them, provides meaning, gives direction, or they are bent on destroying the system which the library represents. Take the copper wire shaver, or the Briefcase Man. Both come to the library to enact simple and repetitive systemic behavior in order to frame the chaos of their minds, while the unstacker of books and the ejaculator use an element of anarchy to tear systems down. In all cases, there is a deep desire to make a statement about the nature of systems, or more precisely, the failure of systems to hold in the messiness of human experience.

In our conversation, Martha and I both agree that we are more in alignment with the book unstacker and the ejaculator. We are much more interested in a rip’er down approach to understanding systems. Sure wish she could lend a hand with a crowbar right now. I am about to bust into the lathe, reveal for myself where the plumbing has blown a load. All of this peeling away has me a bit unstrung. Take this article deadline for instance. (Extreme neurosis emerging). Having a deadline blows when interrupted by a trip to Home Depot. Home Depot frames my typing like book ends. Like the edges of my own private incident report. How can my first writing assignment for OBT suck like this?

Entry Number Five: Avoiding This Article by Watching a Marathon Run of ‘Hoarders’ on the Health Channel

I am a serious perfectionist, who is so meticulous with the plans in my head that I often stumble at the advent of anything new. When I am asked to develop new methods of containing ideas, time, materials, I find the edge of that which is rational. I am so sick to my stomach about this article, that I have given up. I am on the couch, remote in hand. I find myself watching an episode of Hoarders that I have already seen. There is nothing quite as awesome as the first ten minutes of this show. Each and every room piled high with debris, some in nonsensical piles, some fashioned in eccentric, desperate attempts at rationalizing. Take the kid who keeps his dog’s hair on the stairs, afraid that if he disposes of it his dog will die, or the woman who has a running stack of boxes through the middle of her living room of her most precious mementos. Each remind me of how even systems can shift ever so slightly away from the rational, or sometimes our reality can be altered so drastically that we slap a methodology onto utter chaos in the desperate hope that it makes sense.

On my way back from the library expedition, somewhat saddened that the Briefcase Man was really, truly fictional, I came across a small herd of Virgin Mary statues hidden in the clavicle of someone’s odd little front porch. Nice, organized virgins. It calmed me down a bit. Enough to get all the way back home.

Entry Number Six: Long thread Versus Short thread

Martha Baillie shared a parable with me about sewing. It was given to her by a relative who theorized that it is the initial desire, when sewing, to make a really long thread so that you only have to get the tip through the eye of the needle every so often. The only problem with that are the knots that ensue. The longer the thread, the more knots that come up along the sewing job. The shorter the thread, the less likely the knots become messy and the easier it goes.

This was meant to describe her choice to use the small narratives housed in the incident reports, which comprised her novel. Earlier in the interview, she brought up Walter Benjamin and his disdain for traditional narrative. He preferred to hear the silences in between the words. He also loved to take random quotes and recontextualize them, so we know what kind of guy he was. He was a short-thread guy.

Entry Number Seven (Last Entry): Numeric Mantras, Why Rothko makes me Cry and Hopeful Meditations on Chores

Perhaps one of the most personally important aspects of my chat with Martha Baillie was nearer to the end of our huddle in the window seats. We had moved past libraries, reports, the nature of work and how it affects us, needles, visual art, Walter Benjamin, punk rock, anarchy, madness and respect for the representation of the mentally ill. We had moved past ruminations on how structures hold us together and alienate us at the same time. Paris. Even Paris had come up. We had moved past Paris. We got to a place in the conversation where we began to discuss life as artists. That place in the creative process where everything spills over. Where we all struggle in the dark and we have to find meaning, rationalize our vision, give it shape. We grapple with a surfeit of impressions that need to be confined. This is the exact location we had been dancing around all afternoon.

I tell Martha about a particularly dark time I had after the (yep, last mention) renovation. I had finished the last edits of my book. The Home Depot visits were waning. The café was in full swing, and I was so lost inside that I just wasn’t sure anymore what end was up. I had set up my studio in behind the café. It was in piles. Dust was everywhere. It looked like the dry catacomb that I was feeling inside. Not knowing what to do, I began to dust. I slowly, methodically began to wipe everything with clear water. I organized. Brought in fresh flowers, fresh energy. I put my own brand of needles in all of the words that spoke of neurosis. I found momentum in the mundane, much like the man in Martha’s book who writes over and over the numbers one through nine on six sheets of paper until the paper is transformed. All this time Martha and I were talking about the absolute necessity of mantras. The location where we loose track of order and structure because we have incorporated these ideas, made them poetry.

I think that Martha will agree we hit the nail on the head with Rothko. His work never fails to render me a puddle of tears. Why? Because his rational, divisive, systemic canvases are ever so slightly blurred, the edges of each color barely holding themselves in, to the point where there is a spilling over that is most perfect, most human, much like Martha’s incident reports.

Just in case you are wondering, I did catch a glimpse of a sparrow as it soared past the paint department of Home Depot. I gave him a thumbs up while I finished my cheeseburger. It was the very moment I met the Briefcase Man in Incident Report #21. It was at that moment I had an inkling all would be well.


Listen to Melanie Janisse's interview with Martha Baillie.

Click on any image to start the slideshow of photos by Melanie Janisse

Martha Baillie was born in Toronto. After studies at the University of Edinburgh and the Sorbonne in Paris, she returned to Toronto where she continued her studies at the University of Toronto and for a time trained as an actor. It was following a year of extensive travel in Asia in 1982 that Baillie began writing and had her first poems and a novel published. She is the author of three previous novels and has been published in Canada, Germany and Hungary. Her poems have appeared in journals such as Descant, Prairie Fire and the Antigonish Review. The Legacy of Joseph Wagenbach was published by Brick in 2007. Her manuscript-based sculptural installation, Core Sample, has been shown in the Sidespace Gallery and the Type Books basement gallery. She has worked part time for the Toronto Public Library in branches throughout the city for close to twenty years. Baillie is a bilingual storyteller (English/French) who has told stories in schools around the city and at the Toronto International Storytelling Festival.
Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario where she retains memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and the smell of hops. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner city Detroit, and then the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Formally she holds degrees form Concordia University in Communications and Literature and from Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Photography. Melanie has resided in Toronto for the past nine years, keeping active as a visual artist, poet, designer and shop owner. Her work has appeared in Luft Gallery, Common Ground Gallery, Artcite Gallery, Dojo Magazine, Pontiac Quarterly, The Scream Literary Festival, The Southernmost Review, The Northernmost Review and The Windsor Review. Her first poetry book Orioles in the Oranges (Guernica Editions) tells the tale of on old Metis legend, allowing it to dovetail with Detroit's gritty modernity in an unforgettable series of prose poems. Melanie is happy to be a part of Open Book: Toronto ruminating about books and book-like things around Toronto.

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