Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing: Special Edition with Jeffrey Canton

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Jeffrey Canton

Daniel Jones was just twenty-six when Coach House Books originally published his collection The Brave Never Write Poetry in 1985. Known then simply as “Jones”, the author followed the cult hit by writing the iconic punk rock novel 1978.

Sadly, Jones committed suicide in 1994, and fifteen years later his work was in danger of fading into obscurity. Thanks to the efforts of his friend and literary executor Jeffrey Canton and poet and editor Kevin Connolly, however, two titles have recently been re-issued (The Brave Never Write Poetry by Coach House Books and 1978 by Three O’Clock Press).

Jeffrey Canton talks to Open Book about his experience in the unique role of literary executor.

Open Book:

As the executor of a literary estate, you’re the protector of the writer’s work and intentions. What was the experience like for you?

Jeffrey Canton:

It is a peculiar space to be in because, on the one hand, it's your role to help make sure that the work stays alive and out there for readers but, at the same time, there's no author to turn to help make decisions about doing that or making editorial changes like the small ones that have been done for these two wonderful re-issues of Daniel's books. Part of the problem is also that while you are the protector of the writers' work, you're also limited to what to do with that work. In the sense that even when the work goes out of print, as happened with The Brave Never Write Poetry and 1978, you have to wait for someone to come to you with an interest in reviving that work. And that's tough because you want to keep that writer's work alive but at the same time you're waiting for other people to see its intrinsic value and want to do something with it!

Here's one of the issues I personally grappled with as literary executor — Daniel and I began working together when he was editing Paragraph, a literary magazine published under the aegis of Mercury Press in the early 90s. He was always Daniel Jones to me — not Jones, the dark punk poet of The Brave — and, it seems to me in retrospect, that he needed to separate himself from his poetry by insisting on being Daniel Jones. And that's how I think of him — Daniel Jones — never just Jones.

So when Coach House discussed this wonderful re-issue, one of the things that I was thinking about was whether to ask Coach House to consider issuing the book as by Daniel Jones, even though Jones is the name that was obviously connected with the original publication of this particular title. So what to do? And I decided to let Coach House take the lead — Kevin Connolly is himself such an astute reader and editor and this was so obviously his project and tribute to Daniel's poetic work that I knew that whatever decision he made was done with the goal of making sure that this book got back into the hands of readers. And, in a funny way, by seeing The Brave as by Jones and 1978 by Daniel Jones, respects the separation that Daniel had made between these two parts of his literary career.

I'm actually part of a triumvirate of executors with Moira Farr and Robyn Gillam though I suppose most of the initial contact about re-issuing the books has been through myself. But we make decisions collectively — even though in the case of these re-issues those decisions were quite easy to make.

OB:

Jones’ voice is unique in the literary landscape. What do you think it is about his work that resonates with readers and, especially, other writers?

JC:

I think in part it's so resonant because it's so honest — there is a brutal, don't-hold-anything-back straight-forwardness that makes the reader immediately connect with the authorial voice in both the poetry and the prose. It's gritty and hard-edged and it doesn't try to hide the fact that Daniel was drawing upon his own life and experiences in these works. That ability to bring Toronto's punk scene to life in such spare and clean prose is wonderful because it's immediate and real and is never afraid to show the dark and dirty underside of that life — it's so wonderfully anti-romantic and I think readers respond to that. And I'm amazed how fresh these poems seem to me reading them now. These poems were written over 25 years ago and they are so lively and provocative and heart-breaking. And funny! I think that is one of the wonderful things that we see in these books that Daniel can make fun of himself, expose himself to the readers and say take me as I am, flaws and all, to see that while he is a serious artist and creator, not to get too caught up in that but see the underside of being a writer and poet.

OB:

What do you think sparked the resurgence of interest in Jones’ work?

JC:

I've been aware for some time of an interest in Daniel's work — there was the lovely article by Amy Lavender-Harris, “Imagining Toronto: Reading Daniel Jones' Toronto Punk Novel 1978” and James Lindsay published an excerpt of the book not all that long ago in a little local zine — so I think that it's great that these two books have been re-issued. I hope that maybe it will spark an interest in Daniel's other prose work, Obsessions and The People One Knows: Toronto Stories which are fabulous!

OB:

The Toronto of today is very different from the one Jones wrote in and about. What are some changes, positive or negative, that you’ve observed relative to the music and writing scenes in Toronto?

JC:

The world has changed immensely in the years since Daniel's death — 1994 was a very long time ago. What are some of the big negative changes — the demise of the small literary magazine, the death of independent bookstores, the overall loss of literary coverage for books in major Canadian newspapers and magazines, down-loading, ipods and the rise (and fall) of big box stores — and we have yet to wait and see what happens to publishing period in the age of the e-reader. On the bright side, indie bands and the indie music scene seems to going strong and while the Internet has created lots of havoc for book publishing, it's also meant that readers hear about books in a whole new way.

OB:

Writer and editor Kevin Connolly has been a champion of Jones’ work for many years. In what ways did the two of you collaborate around the new editions? How do you view Connolly’s role in Jones’ literary life?

JC:

Kevin and I didn't collaborate on these two re-issues — The Brave was his project and, as Daniel's literary executor, I basically was involved with the publication of the book on a tangential level — Coach Hose always kept me in the loop but this was their project. I was a little more involved in the re-publication of 1978 because of my role as literary executor but all of the legwork on the re-issuing of the novel was under the auspices of Sarah Wayne of Three O'Clock Press.

But what I will say about Kevin's gracious and insightful afterword in The Brave and the re-issuing of his afterward that were written for the original edition of 1978 is that he's one of those people who has never ceased to believe in the need to keep Daniel's voice and his work alive. At the launch of the re-issues in late May what was wonderful was the way that Kevin mixed the voices of those of us who had known and loved Daniel as well as new young writers whose work has been inspired by reading Daniel's work. And this lovely new edition of The Brave is a heartfelt tribute to that passionate belief and Kevin's recognition of Daniel's literary legacy. We can thank Kevin Connolly for making sure that Daniel Jones, poet, remains as important as that other Daniel Jones, short story writer, novelist, reviewer, literary editor. And that is a huge achievement.

OB:

Do you think Jones’ involvement in the punk scene influenced his writing?

JC:

That's not really a question that I can answer based on my friendship and working relationship with Daniel but I can't imagine that it didn't have an influence on him — after all, that rawness that is so much a part of Daniel's poetry and prose is certainly, from my perspective, what made punk so exciting. And Daniel's ability to convey the grittiness and grudge of punk and to make that world fully come alive — and I remember punk in '78 and Daniel certainly evokes the kind of punk experience that I took part in — depends in part, from my perspective, on his intimate connection with that scene. I knew who Daniel Jones was when we were both at University College in 1978 and I re-call going to one of his parties and that sense of outrageousness that we see in The Brave and in 1978 was the way that Daniel was living!

OB:

Were there local writers Jones admired during his life?

JC:

Daniel was a writer's writer — an absolutely voracious reader and collector of books who was totally interested in all aspects of the local literary scene — partly because of his own writing of both poetry and prose and his superb skills as the editor of Paragraph. He talked about writing with an amazing fluidity. When you were with him on the College Street strip, it was almost impossible to be with him and not run into a veritable who's who of Toronto's young hip literary landscape. Who did he admire? I am afraid to try and make a list because I don't want to leave anyone out by mistake! But suffice it to say that Daniel's literary tastes were as varied as was his own writing. He was excited by new voices, by craft and style and had as much admiration for well-established Canadian writers like Timothy Findley as he was for new and up-and-coming writers like some of the writers who I did profile for him in Paragraph, writers like Makeda Silvera, Thomas King, Jane Urquhart and Nino Ricci.

OB:

What is next for you in terms of literary and artistic projects?

JC:

I'm currently involved in putting together an anthology of performance pieces for the queer storytelling collective I've been a member of for the last dozen years or so called Queers in Your Ears — we have been writing and performing original material as part of the annual Toronto Storytelling festival and it's time to make sure that these alternate voices get heard outside of the storytelling world. So my fellow queers, Clare Nobbs and Rico Rodrigues and I are busy gathering up by some of the many different writers and performers who have worked with us and shared their work as a part of Queers in Your Ears and we're also hoping to do some performance work reviving some of the work in the collection later this fall.

And I keep hoping that just maybe I'll see someone wanting to re-issue Daniel's other prose works — he was a very innovative writer and it would be very exciting to see more of his work available to new readers!


Jeffrey Canton is the Literary Executor for Toronto-based writers Daniel Jones and Doug Wilson. For more than 20 years, Canton was a freelance writer and reviewer whose work appeared in literary magazines ranging from Paragraph, What and Quill & Quire to Books in Canada where he was the editor of the Children's Books pages. He currently teaches in the Children's Studies program at York University in Toronto. He is also a member of Toronto's queer storytelling collective, Queers in Your Ears.

For more information about The Brave Never Write Poetry please visit the Coach House website.

For more information about 1978 please visit the Three O'Clock Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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