Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

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By Melanie Janisse

I am out walking on a still chilly spring night. I plan to take myself out to Foxley on Ossington, to imbibe in the strange new reality of that street, but on Mondays the place is closed, so I keep walking. I find myself in Frantic City, on a whim wondering what I will get if the lovely shop attendant recommends a read. I leave with a collection of Jane Bowles short stories. I try not to panic about this and continue down the street.

Here is the dilemma: My love life is a disaster again. Whether it stems from a brush with impossible love or the impossibility of loving someone everyday, it was an evening pregnant with confusion. I am alone on Ossington with fucking Jane Bowles. In the winter of my love life, I wane with an empty nightclub/restaurant, a giant burger, the Smiths blaring out at me and Jane Bowles as a dinner date. If I said I wanted out of this dilemma, I would be lying. Her short story "Simple Things" explains to me perfectly that the boat of other human beings is often missed because of our own deep fear of our selves. I love the scene in the story where the characters are outside baking potatoes on an open fire trying to connect. Sometimes it can be the most interesting night when you are in solitude and cannot seem to interface with your surroundings. Sometimes it is very exciting to be lonely. Sometimes falling short is magical.

EYELINER AND DRUM KITS

Love disappears, it ghosts. I just finished watching the new White Stripes documentary Under Great White Northern Lights. I am left with a heightened sense of bittersweet. I am left with the strange inevitability of love on permanent fail, fragile and endless, boundary-less and unfair. I am left with silent cigarettes, barbs and wordless tears of nostalgia in piano chords.

It goes without saying, that I am a stereotype. My biggest fear is to find myself having aged out of any remaining beauty that I may have been born with, alone with a deep misanthropic depression and fragile. Jane Bowles herself descended into madness and depression in her later years. I cling to her book like a detective, looking for evidence of myself. It has to be my biggest fear of being a woman who has chosen to write: that all women who choose to live outside of society will wind up alone, used up, exposed. It freaks the shit out of me. I dislike cats. I dislike cardigans. I like sex, fancy clothes, tasty meals and company. I like a good laugh.

Since we are on the subject of the impossibility of the woman artist, let me talk about two that have enraptured me this week. One is known for her haunting poems, her love of Egypt, her heavy eyeliner and the other for her simplistic, courageous drumming, her anxiety disorder and her wordlessness. They are my strange and broken champions.

Gwendolyn MacEwen and Meg White are ghosts of each other. Both fragile, housed within the walls of their own silence, their own passivity, the curtains of their plain brown hair. We are assaulted with the audacity of black eyeliner and massive drumbeats that hide the silence of moths, mask the breathless beating of tiny hearts. Inside each woman is a collapsing mythology, a deafening silence that pins down wings, creates void. Each of these women a hieroglyph, a statue held frozen in their own noise.

They are the kind of women that you want to crawl into and understand.

CLAUDIA DEY

Back a few years ago I asked Claudia Dey about Gwen. Here is an excerpt:

CRANES (2009)

I am driving down Queen Street with Claudia Dey, trying my best to balance an ancient analog recorder on her armrest. We had planned on interviewing at my shop, but when she mentioned the Scarborugh bluffs I insisted that we go see the Guild Inn. She interrupts my balancing act and brings my attention to a very large crane working in front of us. She shares an anecdote about ‘Gwen’ visiting her mother Elsie in the mental health center one afternoon. While looking out of the window they see a crane that Elsie thinks is a giraffe. Dey laughs and tells me something most interesting. She is not sure if that story is fact, or something that she re-invented. She is not sure where that story came to her within a sea of research, along a number of years. The construction site passes us by and the crane recedes.

In that very moment, Dey sums up that astonishing place where the writer meets the muse, where the writer’s conscious life chooses to inhabit the research of their subject. The story becomes so much the writer’s own, that the facts merge with the fiction.

MJ: Why Gwen?

CD: I read Rosemary Sullivan's biography of Gwendolyn MacEwen when I was a student at the National Theatre School, and was immediately captured by her story. I then read Gwendolyn's poems and knew that hers was a world I wanted to live in.

Part of the investigation is identifying where I meet Gwendolyn, what is our intersection. The muse-maker relationship is like a love relationship in that you often fall in love with someone who has realized something that you may not have the courage to realize in yourself. You are like twins but much more extraordinary versions. This is what draws you in. Gwendolyn was a dare. She wrote about Icarus, Lawrence of Arabia, and the Loch Ness monster, escape artists. She chose magnificent subjects to cloak her own fears and desires; the exile, the mad woman, the beast, the explorer were all elaborate boxes and chests.

MJ: How was it getting to know Gwen? What did she become?

CD: Writing her is like becoming her - because you have to. It is akin to hunting; it is said you must become the thing you hunt for and writing is, on some level always preditorial. Gwen became muse, tenant, ghost, spy, mentor, outlaw, and inhabitant, always ticking away in my mind. The world became refracted through her. I imagined her perspective on everything - from what I was cooking to my thoughts on God. By the end of the process, I found myself looking at an apartment for rent in the Annex. I checked the address again. It had been one of Gwendolyn's former homes. At this point, I could not tell who was the pursuer. I just knew there was an exacting truthfulness to the situation. She was extremely funny, and this apartment coincidence felt like some kind of cosmic joke. ‘Just how close do you want to get?’ she seemed to ask me, laughing and rolling a cigarette.

Gwendolyn still prompts and answers a million obsessions. She is a meditation on the mortality of the genius, the notion of a bisexual mind, twinship in lovers and in the muse and maker.

* * *

Meg White is sitting on the stage with a tambourine, a Cheshire in poor fitting clothes and trainers. I wonder after her sitting there beside Jack, who is in perfect coif as usual – I wonder after this ingenious wardrobe defiance of Meg’s, wordless, unkempt, keeping time to Jack’s wickedness on a guitar in the middle of Canada’s great north. Meg is a silent smile that I understand. She is her own befuddled, ever-knowing goddess who on a dare extends to the farthest reaches of landmass. She is never sure if she will make it back, but goes anyways. She comes back a deaf mute, greasy haired and caring too deeply. She smokes with deep separation from her surroundings and sits in small tight balls on chairs, on stages, behind drums. What I love about her is that she makes no excuses for what she is, and that she is riveting. She does, just a reminder, keep Jack’s time and I suspect that without her he would be f**ked.

SLEIGHTS OF HAND, KEYS, DISAPPEARING MEN

(I am sorry that you are afraid. You, a beacon from my heart. You, a place I always wish to disappear. I think that you are right. It may not matter to sail your pirate ship in any real direction. That direction too will disappoint.

Sail the pirate flag deep into your own heart. Myself, I am fierce and sad in my own solitude. I have chosen to take myself to Paris. To read Jane Bowles alone in restos that are fake and trendy, to wear hippie pants while laying helpless on my couch staring at ceilings. My friend Ross thinks I should visit Hong Kong instead of Paris. He is not such a fan of the falling down castles.

I love you and bid you well.
I always have.)

I just un-friended my greatest-love-ever from Facebook. What a trip. It all happened in one press of a button and a postscript e-mail sent to him as my not friend. Let me break this down. We had an affair now some twelve years ago for one week. He changed my life, but then disappeared back to Belgium rejecting our love as impossible. He chose to return to his country and work. Oddly enough, he is now a wealthy man, at a crossroads and without a fridge (break-up) wondering what the hell to do. Not sure why, but he always comes and finds me when the illusions and trappings of his current dream shimmer away. His dilemma is fascinating. He has enough money to do what ever he desires for a couple of decades, but cannot decide. Somehow, he knows that no matter which way he ventures there will be disappointment, and eventually this very same crisis. Not to mention, he calculates that he’ll be penniless by the time he is sixty. He feels trapped in the spectacle of capitalism, the conclusions of love and seems to be left with a fair helping of nihilism and cynicism. I let him in via Skype chat. I sang praises of hope and courage and agreement. I do for the record agree with him about the dilemma of wealth and notions of trapped-ness/illusive freedom. I nod from the other side of the trenches and from the window of technology.

The next day I message him a thank-you and never hear from him. The only evidence I am left with is a Soundcloud link on his Facebook page at three or four in the morning of the song "Last night a DJ saved my life," so I am really not sure what has become of him and because I decided to delete his profile and stay here in Toronto, I am not sure that I will ever know.

STEVEN PRICE

A few summers ago, I found myself sitting on a stone at the Scream literary event in High Park, astounded with the accuracy of language that blew life into the quiet moments, the suspensions, the interior reality of Harry Houdini as Steven Price read from his book, Anatomy of Keys. The question I asked myself was "What makes a man live so thoroughly inside of another man in order to illuminate character?" I decided to interview him about Houdini and this is what he said:

MJ: Why Houdini?

SP: I understood early my fascination with Houdini had much to do with what I was, what I knew, where I had come from. Our family business on my father's side is a lock and safe shop, started by my great-grandfather here in Victoria upon his arrival to Canada. This was before the turn of the last century. I grew up around keys and locks.

To write of this directly seemed always to lead to a kind of diminishing. I wouldn't call it self-indulgent exactly but certainly something close. I needed a filter of some kind to hold myself back and aslant, if only to find a way into my own life.

Still, the stories I had heard as a boy made them felt as Anatomy developed. Houdini's bridge escapes, where he leapt manacled into rivers appear throughout the poems and reflect my great-grandmother's suicide (she weighted herself down with chains and threw herself from a bridge). It wasn’t until well into the writing that saw I how such ghosts haunt the book.

MJ: What did Houdini become to you as you met him in research?

SP: I'm hesitant to go too deep here, in part because of the temptation to romanticize. Yes a kind of intimacy grew out of my long immersion in Houdini's life. This intimacy was only with the character of Houdini that I invented, and never with the man himself. I wouldn't presume any sort of intimacy with Ehrich Weiss, historical figure.

The Houdini in Anatomy is very much my own Houdini and I never saw him in any other light. I feel neither kindliness nor kinship towards Houdini the person. I have been asked if I miss him now that the book is finished and although it sounds callous the truth is I don’t. Houdini was only ever raw material for my work. He was lumber. Despite how this sounds I'm not sure it is so very disrespectful. The two biographies essential to Anatomy both recorded the same facts, but one admired Houdini greatly, and the other just as severely loathed him. The same facts exist, but different opinions were reached.

Early on I understood I could not write the real Houdini, that I was accountable to facts alone. I did know in the writing that I wanted to cover Houdini’s public life, his famous escapes, but I also wanted to explore the quieter reflections and epiphanies that interrupt all our of our lives. Houdini must have eaten, say, an omlette one morning and marveled at its taste. I don't know. I suppose I felt it to be more respectful that way. To the character, if not the man.

No, listen. What I am saying is not entirely right. It's all true, just not quite right. By the end of Anatomy of Keys the character of Houdini fit me too well. He was a second skin. He stretched with me and I felt I could write anything from that place. I felt I could come at the darker and more worrying things in the world through his eyes. And it's been difficult since then to step back, to enter the world from another place. Does that make sense?

* * *

Does it make sense?

Constraints. Shackles. Tests. Jack White and his too far away guitar picks, his perfectly wound mic cords serpentine along the stand. With a poet’s fortitude, Jack asserts that we all must push ourselves beyond any comprehensible boundaries, beyond the constraints of every human experience. We must continue to tunnel like the blind inchworms that we are, ever striving for a further place, a destination that reaches past heartbreak, sorrow, the pains of everyday. Love disappears, but the opportunity to forge onwards is embedded in our very DNA. I will always remember the last scene of the documentary, when Jack White’s intensity finally overrides his perfectionism. Meg is in tears, and the real story of their love emerges from its shackles at the bottom of their own private sea. I imagine that they remind each other always of the painful kick to the solar plexus, the heightened state of love, forever binding, forever maddening. Holding us all in a great maw. Then vanishing like Houdini out of his shackles.

What we are left with is the lingering of ghosts, an open-ended question. A new sense of self, grafted with years of dancing in and out of someone else’s life. Someone real, someone imagined. Whatever. Some of us are the keeper of the beats, others are blowing this pop stand. I really and truly think that we should all pat ourselves on the back for trying. This afternoon I am laying on my couch in tye-dyed fishermans pants feeling the slow descent of cats and cardigans. I plan on taking myself out for dinner to the Atlantic tonight – a new restaurant in my hood, once I return Jack and Meg to West Side Stories. I am going to bring Jane with me again. I really feel like I over-reacted on our first date and am willing to try again. We’ll see. Maybe she isn’t so bad after all.

Here’s a little White Stripes to end things. I wish you all a pirate’s journey on this fair day.

White moon, white moon
Breaks open the tomb
Of a deserted cartoon that I wrote
Creature come, creature, creature
My own double feature
As I'm warming the bleachers at home
Well, my nose keeps on bleeding
'Cause it's Rita I'm needing
I better call out a meeting of the boys
Of the boys
My friends are all dying
And death can't be lying
It's the truth and it don't make a noise
Oh Rita, oh Rita
If you lived in Mesita
I would move you with the beat of a drum
And this picture is proof
That although you're aloof
You had the shiniest tooth 'neath the sun
Easy come, easy go
Be a star of the show
I'm giving up all I know to get more
To get more
Photograph the picture
Young grunt pin-up scripture
For locker-tagged memories of war
A mirage, this garage
And a photo montage
And a finger massage from the host
Good lord, good lord
The one I adore
And I cannot afford is a ghost
Is a ghost
Proto-social is the word
And the word is the bird
That flew through the herd in the snow
In the snow
Lemonade me, then grade me
Then deliver my baby
And if my friends all persuade me, I'll go
Blink, blink at me Rita
Don't you know I'm a bleeder?
And I promised I wouldn't lead her on
But she met me, then led me
And I ate what was fed me
'Til I purged every word in this song

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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