Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

THE SORDID LITERARY LIFE OF MARK LABA, MY OLDEST FRIEND

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THE SORDID LITERARY LIFE OF MARK LABA, MY OLDEST FRIEND

Mark Laba is my oldest friend and my first collaborator. He lives in Vancouver, where he once worked as a restaurant reviewer for a daily newspaper. His books and chapbooks include Dummy Spit (The Mercury Press), Movies in the Insect Temple (Proper Tales Press), The Pig Sleeps>, a collaborative novel he and I wrote (Contra Mundo Books), and, he says, “a lot of yellowing leaflets and chapbooks.” His poetry has appeared in my anthology Surreal Estate: 13 Canadian Poets Under the Influence (The Mercury Press), and he and I collaborated on a few poems for my book Our Days In Vaudeville (Mansfield Press). He also won the bpNichol Chapbook Award for The Mack Bolan Poems (Gesture Press) way back, he says, in 1918. I think he’s lying (about the date). My intention is that this small interview will make Mark enormously famous, which, unjustly, has not yet occurred.

ME: I think we met when we were about three or four years old, living on Pannahill Road, in Toronto’s Bathurst Manor. We were nice Jewish boys. Where did we go so wrong?

MARK: Maybe we screwed up on the Four Questions at Passover or something. I’m not sure where we went wrong. Lack of sporting activities, the fact that even at such an early age we both had warped brains and found a camaraderie in that. Though we did have a normal Bathurst Manor upbringing, minus the insect cemetery. Either way we’ve certainly stuck to it with conviction, you more so than me I believe, at least from a writing and publishing aspect. I just quietly mumble to myself and practice half-assed ventriloquism with a ratty dummy that isn’t wearing any pants while my wife and children weep in the next room and wait for my voice-throwing fits to pass.

ME: I’d give the conviction award to you: I think you’re way more prolific than I am, and with less reward. I would like to create a press that is devoted entirely to publishing what you write. But short of that, I have tried hard to find a publisher for your genius manuscript Lives of the Detectives – and I haven’t given up yet. It may be the funniest thing I have ever read, and so well-written. But man, is it ever disgusting. I really admire that you don’t compromise in the name of getting things published. Even when you wrote your Adventures in Dining With Mark Laba column in the Vancouver Province for all those years, you pulled no punches. Sometimes I couldn’t believe they published those weird pieces! The other thing that blows me away is your brilliant blog The Haltiwanger Report, which you began in 2011. Some of those blog entries are longer than my novels. You’re not making money at that or getting literary prizes. What motivates you?

MARK: That’s too kind of you to say. It’s intriguing in that there was a time when I kind of shrugged off my poetry, really pushed toward fiction only, swapped cities, went to art school, came out of that shell-shocked, and returned to writing but my brain had changed. And I had separated myself from the small press community (and still remain at large, wandering the fringes). I thought, I’ll write mysteries and attempt to cash in, or funny personal essays (which I’m still writing and will inevitably prove not to be funny, just because I’ve had too much time to think and procrastinate and rework until the sentences, like the experiences are comparable to old pastrami, dry, greasy and attracting flies, which is how I like to think of my retirement years), and I really wanted to sell-out, whatever that means. Much like you have done with your newest book of poetry. In my mind it was like the literary equivalent of playing the Catskills.

But the harder I tried to sell out, the more demented my writing became. From visions of lucrative detective novels came Lives Of The Detectives, a book you took under your wing, expertly edited and championed on my behalf and is so disgusting it may never find a publisher (except myself), but at least you saw beneath its vulgar skin to the dazzling literary tropes it could only emulate and then, perhaps, have diarrhea upon. You see what I mean, but then you’ve known me for how many decades, and I think, even in those early years I had a penchant for disgustingness — in an artistic sense, of course. In comparison to your erudite Napoleon Solo ways. Nevertheless, I have other interests. Ventriloquism. And a chicken nugget-making machine I’m building in my flooded basement. That’s a roundabout way of saying your conviction is greater than mine in that mine is constructed from a short attention span and wavering loyalties to literary forms, while you have continued, unwaveringly, to write and publish, lauded or ignored. Pretty much against the storm. And your line-up of books is truly prolific, not to mention I think you’re hitting a whole second stride in the world of writing and publishing. That takes some kind of conviction.

But I guess I chose my own kind of obscurity, constructed from a mixture of self-delusion, hope, despair, collusion, confusion and the strange sense I have to make some sense of this world through fictional invention. That’s what pretty much drives me regardless of any outcome of where the work will be seen (if seen at all, which kind of intrigues me and makes social media a weird publishing platform, in my case). I seem to have a capacity for failure and obscurity, which is probably why I populate my writing and my blog with a compendium of characters I consider underdogs as well as being nuts too. That might be what did in my restaurant-reviewing career too, although I did manage to drag it out for quite a few years. It’s true I did write some pretty weird stuff for a large daily paper, and each week became a game of what I could slip past the editors and how much I could get away with. Anyway, I ate for free, even though a lot of it was wasted on me since I’m happy with canned chili. Kudos to me that after eight years of food reviewing, I’ve remained dumb and self-defeating enough not to parlay that work into another job somewhere.

As for my blog, I’m not really sure who reads it, if anyone (well, I know of a few people who do, but my audience certainly isn’t growing), and I’ve had friendly advice telling me my blog entries are too long and that’s not how the internet works, but I’m just committed to Haltiwanger’s long-winded idiocy and warped perspective on things. I really just keep doing this because I don’t know how else to describe the things in my brain, and I enjoy the places narrative (and sometimes poetry) takes me.

ME: First, I’d like to put it out there again: if any publisher wants to see Mark’s Lives of the Detectives, drop me a note! I want to see that disgusting and yet literarily brilliant book published! Second, Mark, tell me a bit about the reading you do that pleases you most. I get the feeling you are more devoted to some obscure 1950s pulpmeister than the latest hot-shot poet.

MARK: I’d just like to add to Stu’s plea there that, in case of any bidding wars, I will take either Monopoly money (but only from the Power Rangers 20th Anniversary Edition) or a case of canned chili as a book advance.

Yeah, I guess that’s true, I do love the pulp novels after finding a bunch of stuff in thrift shops. I can’t say enough about The Cheat by Orrie Hit, a guy who churned out a book every two weeks. Then there was William Seabrook’s Asylum, his account of being an alcoholic and taking the “cure” at an asylum. A little sampling of what to expect appears on the inside cover page, a part of which reads, “Under strict but sympathetic medical care, he builds a white oak chair and table in the carpenter’s shop, dances with a beautiful mad redhead, and wrangles over prunes with the prissy, unpopular manager, Dr. Quigley.” I don’t think it gets better than that. Not to mention, the excellent cover art with a little note from the artist, Charles Andres, that states that to really capture the “stark impact of these confessions of an alcoholic, he went to an asylum to observe and report on canvas.” You just don’t get that kind of dedication in the publishing industry anymore. I discovered another great pulp writer, David Dodge, with a book called The Long Escape and another called Plunder of the Sun, through thrift store scavenging and later found out he wrote the novel that the Hitchcock movie To Catch a Thief was based on.

Anyway, yeah, I like all that lurid stuff, not to mention my fondness for bad joke books like Henny Youngman’s 400 Traveling Salesmen’s Jokes and Milton Berle’s Out of My Trunk, and I really have a soft spot for those truly vile sex-joke books from the sixties. I have one called Over Sexteen #2 (because the first one obviously did so well), with joke titles like “Friend or Enema” or jokes that start “An obstetrician…” You just know this stuff is gonna be good.

There was a time, due to my financial constraints, I was only picking up books at thrift stores or free community centre libraries and such, and so this made my reading very non-discriminatory and a kind of voyage of discovery, both good and wretched. Not to say I don’t read the literary stuff, but again, much of that has been guided these days by thrift store finds. But on that note, I’ve found some amazing stuff like Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!!, a book I particularly love; Sam Lipsyte’s amazing Homeland; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier, about a kid who looks exactly like Sydney Poitier, so his mother names him I Am Not Sidney Poitier, and whose main character is later adopted and lives with Ted Turner and Jane Fonda; Valerie Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, about a guy who implants Marilyn Monroe’s teeth into his mouth, and the book is co-written and collaborated upon with factory workers at Jumex, a Mexican juice corporation; and one of my favourite finds, Ulrich Haarburste’s Novel of Roy Orbison in Clingfilm, which consists of a series of stories about wrapping Roy Orbison in plastic wrap.

So you know, I take the good, the bad, the strange and the mundane and just let it get all cluttered up in my head. I also like old anthropological travel books from the twenties on. I have a few, like Cannibal Land and another called Voodoo Eros, that are beyond explanation, but it’s fun stuff. There are also poetry finds in there too, but really, who wants me to list a bunch of stuff that most folks who follow contemporary poetry have already read or heard of. I just like the thrill of the hunt and then nodding out in bed with a pile of mouldy books on my chest.

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.

Stuart Ross

Stuart Ross is a writer, editor, and writing teacher living in Cobourg, Ontario. The acclaimed author of 20 books of poetry, fiction, and essays, Stuart got his start selling his chapbooks on Toronto’s Yonge Street during the 1980s. His recent books include Our Days in Vaudeville (Mansfield Press, 2014), A Hamburger in a Gallery (DC Books, 2015), (Anvil Press), and A Sparrow Came Down Resplendent (Wolsak and Wynn, 2016). He is the co-translator or Marie-Ève Comtois’s My Planet of Kites (Mansfield Press, 2015). You Exist. Details Follow. (Anvil Press, 2012) won the sole award given to an anglophone writer by the Montreal-based l’Académie de la vie litteraire au tournant du 21e siècle; Buying Cigarettes for the Dog (Freehand Books, 2009) won the 2010 ReLit Prize for Short Fiction; and the novel Snowball, Dragonfly, Jew was co-winner of the 2012 Mona Elaine Adilman Award for Fiction on a Jewish Theme. Stuart has taught writing workshops across the country, and was the 2010 Writer-in-Residence at Queen’s University. Since 2007, he has had his own imprint at Toronto’s Mansfield Press. Stuart is currently working on several poetry and fiction projects, as well as a memoir.


You can write to Stuart throughout the month of August at writer@openbooktoronto.com

Go to Stuart Ross’s Author Page