Introduction to Tony Burgess’s The Bewdley Mayhem

A while back, I was teaching my favourite zombie novel, Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, so I decided to scour the library database for essays on Burgess or the book. I located precisely one reliable essay, which was mostly about Max Brooks’s excellent World War Z but partly about Pontypool Changes Everything. This sort of critical neglect is criminal, in my view, since Burgess is easily (no contest) the most fascinating and radical of Canadian novelists.

Bewdley cover

My one hope was a book called The Bewdley Mayhem, the only Burgess book I did not already own. I was surprised to have missed it, but noticed that it was a republication of three books I already owned anyway (Burgess’s first three novels), which possibly explained my neglect. I thought it might have a critical preface that I could use, so I placed an interlibrary loan for the title.

Soon, the library cancelled my request, noting that the book had not yet been published. Not long after, Burgess himself contacted me — to ask me to write an introduction for the book. That’s how I ended up writing the critical preface that only weeks before I had been trying to find and read. A strange example of the dictum that you should “write the book you want to read but can’t find.”

ECW has just published The Bewdley Mayhem by Tony Burgess, which is an incredible deal: $20 for a 700+ page compendium of three full books by Tony Burgess, including the short fiction collection The Hellmouths of Bewdley, the most radical zombie novel ever written, Pontypool Changes Everything (which was the basis for the very different, also Burgess-penned Bruce McDonald film Pontypool), and Caesarea, the strangest novel about small-town Canadian life you’ll ever find — something like David Lynch rewriting Stephen Leacock. And, of course, my introduction: which ECW has graciously allowed me to reproduce here, for your enjoyment.


What do you need to know to read Tony Burgess? The answer — “nothing” — is deceptive. While you do not need to know anything special to enjoy Burgess’s poetic horror, at the same time it would be better if you knew nothing of the conventions of horror, and of literature and the novel, and made a virtue of not knowing. Then, you might stop tilting at windmills and give up your mad quest to understand. In Pontypool, Bruce McDonald’s film adaptation of Pontypool Changes Everything, Grant Mazzy is able to combat the zombie virus once he realizes that the act of understanding is dangerous. Understanding allows the Pontypool virus to move from the word it has infected into the mind and body of a human host. Not only does understanding the infected word grant the idea of the virus some pseudo-reality, the impulse to understand operates as an attempt to enforce reality, to impose upon it some structure and stability. However, what most unites the books of The Bewdley Mayhem is the instability Burgess insists upon throughout the trilogy: in the world he presents, in the characters that people it, and in his style.

Not to say that Burgess’s fiction lacks logic or structure. Caesarea, at a glance, displays apparent incoherence in its plot, and, due to Burgess’s surrealistic approach to storytelling, often results in the exhilarating feeling that he is making it up and proceeding without a plan or without shape, or perhaps cutting it up in the manner of William S. Burroughs. On closer inspection, however, the novel does conform in clear and even conventional ways to the shape that a more normative literary novel might take. The book begins with Ed, who doodles a crude circle onto paper. Somehow, this circle becomes an airplane, which at the same time is the town of Caesarea. At the novel’s end, we return to Ed, who has been absent for most of the intervening story. Ed is now trapped within a Caesarea that, again, is somehow an image on paper (like, of course, Caesarea the book). Caesarea performs this sort of mirroring often and focuses much of its horror on the figure of the double (like Burgess’s zombies-that-aren’t-quite-zombies, his doubles both conform to and subvert the conventions surrounding how this monster appears in horror). Although Caesarea’s doubles recall those of the Nicolas Roeg film Don’t Look Now, they seem closer to those of John Carpenter’s The Thing, wherein creatures that the Thing has copied do not seem conscious of being the Thing. In this way, both the doubles of Carpenter and of Burgess seem controlled by some “thing” inside of them but outside of their consciousness, the way that Freud’s unconscious (an “uncanny double” of a different stripe) and the Pontypool virus both operate.

The Bewdley Mayhem, unlike most conventional trilogies, seems to cohere mainly through such distorted mirroring. The trilogy opens (in The Hellmouths of Bewdley) with an awakening, a character opening his eyes, and ends in Caesarea with another character closing his eyes. The books also cohere (if they cohere) through the repetition of story elements, or even the odd consistency of Burgess’s otherwise inconsistent style, rather than through a narrative arc. Focusing on Dr. Mendez, who appears throughout the novels yet is always relegated to a supporting role, helps us to see what sort of logic governs The Bewdley Mayhem. Mendez dies in a snowmobile accident in the second story of The Hellmouths of Bewdley, but appears in its later stories, and then is present throughout Pontypool Changes Everything. He returns again in Caesarea, where the fact of his death in a snowmobile accident is repeated in a way that seems to undercut the reality of his appearance earlier in the novel, and by extension in the previous novel. Mendez’s character, whose recurrent presence belies the fact that his actions have little narrative consequence, works like a stitch, suturing the books and supporting the idea that they constitute a trilogy. At the same time, his continuing presence (beyond apparent death) undercuts the reality of the scenes that include Mendez and muddies or defeats attempts to untangle the scenes from the trilogy and slot them into any sort of chronological order. (We might say these scenes with Mendez simply take place before his death, but this seems neither clear nor necessary given the instability of Burgess’s fictional world.) As if underlining Mendez’s potential phantasmic status in scenes that might precede, but might also follow, his death, the inscription on his tombstone states that his body walks still in the night.

As a character, Mendez also challenges the conventional manner of depicting characters in fiction. Almost midway through Caesarea, he shows a younger man (a patient of sorts) an oil painting he has made of the title character from Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman. Mendez explains his impulse to paint her:

*I wondered what the Wasp Woman did when she wasn’t buzzing around apartments. So this is what? I think that she is here alone, in a pretty garden, at night. But she’s walking perfectly. And she knows that she is entirely made up. A character in a movie — a very good movie, but still a picture. So she can never stop being herself, not even for a second, not even while she is alone.

Here we have a character in a story meditating on the situation of being a character in a story and the horror of that situation. What Mendez presents as horrible, however, is not what we would expect (the fact of being fictional), but the stability of it all. Being a character in a story is horrific because story conventions insist on the consistent nature of characters. They must “be themselves,” conform to their characterization, even when alone — because, of course, they are never alone. The audience, the reader, holds them always in the trap of its gaze.

Burgess oscillates between at least two positions in his approach to characters. On one hand, he allows his characters the apparent freedom to escape this gaze and be someone else, due to the unstable nature of his narratives. In Caesarea, with its doubles, this idea takes a literal form, as Mayor Robert Forbes becomes both his double and estranged from his actions, feeling as if they were committed by someone else. On the other hand, Burgess often suggests (or outright states) their lack of freedom, their fate as characters in a story. Worse: in a horror story. As Burgess writes near the end of The Hellmouths of Bewdley, in a sentence that might be lifted out and placed anywhere else in the book (or in any good horror story): “Now it follows that terrible things are fated to happen.” At the same time, Burgess often shifts our gaze towards the terrible fact of our gaze.

While insisting on the participation of the reader in imagining his stories, Burgess reminds us of how the violence endemic to the horror genre troubles our relationship to the entertainment these stories provide. In “Summer,” from The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Dr. Mendez makes another appearance as a painter. Midway through, the narrator suddenly insists that we paint the scene ourselves: “Feel free to use your aesthetic sense of spacing when laying out the lampposts etc.” In a story that otherwise contains no clear horror elements, the narrator encourages us to add some: “If at this point you are growing to resent the arbitrariness that has been privileged thus far, you may kill this third person . . . Be as violent as you wish.” In this way, Burgess rarely lets readers forget their complicity with the author, how they cooperate in forging the nightmare world within which the characters must live, or try to live.

The instability of the narration, which often shifts between character perspectives or narrative voices without warning, is described by Burgess in the afterword of his book Fiction for Lovers as an attempt “to tell stories with a deteriorating consciousness.” Burgess thus subverts one of the horror genre’s persistent and deplorable conventions: the near omnipresence of vivid, clear, sober narration. Although detached, transparent narration is commonplace in genre fiction, the nature of the horror genre complicates the seeming neutrality of its presence. Should it not be somehow difficult to speak of horrors? Should not the narrating consciousness, if sane, be driven to madness by the events it is required to relate? Should not this increasing madness become apparent in the breakdown of the narrative voice, as the narrator crumbles before the sublime terror it must somehow relay? Should language not fail narrators the way that, when we are visited with horror in our own lives (or contract the Pontypool virus), it fails us?

In place of transparent narration, Burgess offers opaque metaphors that have little immediate or intelligible relationship to the scenes in which they appear. These metaphors seem to live their own lives, in some hyperbolic space that only elliptically connects to the world of the fiction or how its characters perceive that world. Pontypool Changes Everything begins with just such a metaphor:

Down in the strange hooves of Pontypool’s tanning horses scratches one of Ontario’s thinnest winds . . . The anonymous wind gathers its speed in turns around a cannon bone and tears across the ice of a frozen pool . . . breaking into mad daggers and splintering into the phantoms of horses. These horses, vacancies now, or maybe caskets, are places for the wind to rest. And when a wind rests, its heart stops and it is dead forever. The horses on the ice, built from the corpse of a breeze, skate towards each other, not breathing, but intelligent. They leap inside their crazy minds and begin to make plans.

Burgess sets the “real” scene in which the wind scratches at the horses’ hooves and then shifts fully into the “reality” of the metaphor. This wind turns into metaphorical daggers, which splinter into metaphorical phantom horses, which are metaphorized again, becoming caskets where the wind can rest. Resting, we should remember, is another metaphor (for death), but lest we forget Burgess next notes that “when a wind rests, its heart stops and it is dead forever.” Although Burgess’s dagger-horse-winds have stilled (and, thus, died down), they nevertheless continue, having emerged by now into some strange second life, unmoored from anything they might have meaningfully represented. The wind-dagger becomes a herd of horse-phantoms that are somehow also their own coffins. Not only do these “horses” continue to survive, zombie-like, beyond the death of the breeze that comprises them, they are more active in death. These corpse-wind horse-phantoms leap — another metaphor, since this is mind-leaping — and plan, as if about to shoot off into their own story in some universe parallel to the novel’s own. Why not? The narrative of Pontypool Changes Everything really has nothing to do with either set of horses anyway.

At the same time, despite how disconnected this introductory paragraph seems from the novel that follows, and indeed how disconnected these metaphors seem from one another, some of the novel’s core thematic obsessions begin to develop in this paragraph (notably, the concept of infection and of how language’s instability reflects or causes reality’s instability). The wind, in a sense, becomes infected through its proximity to the horses, imbued with the idea of horses, and so the wind becomes horses. When it dies, it births zombie-horses that skate off into new, post-life lives. The process is not much different from what happens to humans who contract Acquired Metastructural Pediculosis (AMP, the Pontypool virus). They acquire the idea of the virus through some infected word (as “Pediculosis” suggests, the virus is a lice-like language parasite). The idea of the virus causes language to seem strange to the speaker, and as the symptoms develop and language seems more and more an alien and foreign thing — something living and beyond the speaker’s control — s/he loses the ability to communicate through words. As panic sets in, and the infected arrive at some horrified, instinctual understanding that language exists apart from its use, and meaning is unstable, they become desperate to communicate. They see others, uninfected, who seem able to use language with ease and, in a sad, jealous, desperate rage, attempt to leap out of themselves and into their victims’ mouths.

Burgess mirrors the increasing mental instability of humans that have contracted AMP in the style of his writing, in this case developing a metaphor to the point where, instead of clarifying and expanding our understanding, the poetic language complicates and obscures any possible meaning. The result is a narrative style that renders the reality of any event in the story questionable, so that it is rarely clear whether or not a metaphor is to be taken as a metaphor, or as a character’s subjective perception, or as a literal plot event that occurs in the novel’s surreal reality. Should we take the crazed birth of an incestuously produced zombie-baby (one that walks, speaks, and already has places to go) as something that is not really happening in the story’s world, but as a metaphor for the event as a testament to humanity’s new inhumanity — a suggestion that this birth presages the death of the human world, signalling total social and cultural collapse and degeneration? Or should we instead view this as the subjective experience of one or both of the characters present at this birth, something that reveals little about the real event but much about their mental states? Or should we take the events Burgess relates in Pontypool Changes Everything at face value, as “really happening” within its surreal world? All three options seem valid on their own terms.

In an Open Book: Toronto interview about the movie Pontypool, Burgess notes that on occasion during the scriptwriting process others questioned his unexpected infidelity to the novel. “We had these discussions where people were saying, ‘Well, this has nothing to do with the book’ — well, the book has nothing do with the book.” The same might be said for The Bewdley Mayhem. It operates like a trilogy of horror fiction but seems infected somehow, a thing that should not be. Its books contain monsters but, more significantly, are monstrous. They transgress the boundaries and expectations of normal narrative fiction to throw themselves into disorder, transgressive in their ideas about and approach to language.

Later in the same interview, Burgess addresses the nature of his zombies. Although the zombies in stories are often metaphors for something (e.g., the global spread of inhuman relations under capitalism), Burgess notes that his zombies function as “a metaphor for metaphors that keep hunting you long after they’ve been meaningful . . . figures of speech that become predatory long after their . . . meaning as figures of speech has left the stage.” What is left after the zombies have communicated something about the human predicament, its potential for failure, is their presence in a horror story. Like any good metaphor, they exceed the thing they stand in for, persisting bodily beyond its death, which is why zombies are so malleable as metaphors in the first place. The language they once commanded has ceased to mean, but not to animate them.

Long after we are dead and our bodies have dissolved, the words will speak of us. They will tell their children of the monsters who once forced them into flesh. How they bore their yokes in silence, suffering in servitude, biding time.


Thrilled to be launching my academic monograph, John Paizs’s Crime Wave, at the Toronto International Film Festival! Don’t miss the book launch at 6 p.m. (at the Beverly Hotel). Please RSVP by Sept. 10 (see the invite photo) if you plan to attend the book launch.

Afterward, go to the TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema at 9 p.m. for a rare screening of this unavailable film! Many, many thanks to TIFF, my publisher, University of Toronto Press, the Winnipeg Film Group, and of course John Paizs!



Date: September 12, 2014
Time: 6:00 p.m.
Event: TIFF launch of John Paizs's Crime Wave
Venue: Beverly Hotel
Location: 335 Queen St. W
Toronto, ON

A true classic, containing of the most iconic images in film history (the rocket in the moon’s eye). A beautiful, fantastical image that perfectly captures not only the magic of the journey (made possible by film, and thus metaphorizing the imaginative journeys possible through film) but also the violence of the paradigm shifts possible through technology (including, of course, the technology of film).

Introduction to Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry

My first anthology, co-edited with Ryan Fitzpatrick, hath been unleashed upon the world! It’s called Why Poetry Sucks: An Anthology of Humorous Experimental Canadian Poetry in English Written by Canadians for Canadians (or American Bodysnatchers) in the Early Years of the 21st Century with an Overly Long and Not That Clever Subtitle the Publisher Rightly Refused to Put on the Cover and contains almost 300 pages of writing including some new work by new authors, alongside recent work by established authors.


Here is the contributor list:

Annharte • Oana Avasilichioaei & Erín Moure • Elizabeth Bachinsky • Gary Barwin • derek beaulieu • Gregory Betts • Christian Bök • Louis Cabri • Lindsay Cahill • Stephen Cain • Margaret Christakos • Jason Christie • Brian Joseph Davis • Dina Del Bucchia • Jeff Derksen • Jeramy Dodds • Nathan Dueck • kevin mcpherson eckhoff • Mercedes Eng • Chris Ewart • Jon Paul Fiorentino • Aaron Giovannone • Helen Hajnoczky • Susan Holbrook & Nicole Markotic • Ray Hsu • Bill Kennedy & Darren Wershler • Jake Kennedy • Dorothy Trujillo Lusk • Suzette Mayr • David McGimpsey • Maurice Mierau • Kathryn Mockler • Garry Thomas Morse • Nikki Reimer • Stuart Ross • Jordan Scott • Colin Smith • Jonathon Wilcke • Ian Williams • Daniel Zomparelli

Each selection is prefaced by a short contextual note about the poems by Fitzpatrick & I. Also, for your reading pleasure, I present the book’s introductory essay. Enjoy!


Ryan Fitzpatrick & Jonathan Ball

“I had to let in the comedy, and not just for laughs’ sake, but because it undoes things.” — Robert Kroetsch1

“Why does poetry suck?” This question echoes down the ages and is echoed by undergraduate students, eyes glazing as they gaze upon their reading lists. “It doesn’t,” we tell them, but in our hearts, we know different. We know it does.2

What sucks about poetry? The short answer is the words, and their combinations. The longer answer has to do with how so few of those combinations include the pairing “Nacho Tuesdays.” Yes, poetry seems to lack nachos, and, aside from that, it seems to lack humour. Indeed, no literary genre appears less funny than poetry, where conventional wisdom has it that a “good poem” must move the reader to some epiphany through the subtle revelation of some aspect of the human condition, the least funny condition of all.3

If poetry’s condition seems serious, then is experimental poetry in critical condition? Carmine Starnino, constant critic, has declared that “humourlessness” is “the most galling failure of our current crop of experimental phenoms” in an essay otherwise surprisingly generous to experimental phenom bpNichol.4 Complaints like Starnino’s are common and, in many ways, true. While poetry as a cultural activity is funny,5 and the idea that we should take poetry seriously is funny, actually taking poetry seriously isn’t very funny at all — and neither are most poems.

At the risk of not being funny,6 we should complain that Starnino is correct only in a technical sense. Humourlessness is the most galling failure of experimental poets, because it is the most galling failure of poets and poetry overall. We balk at Starnino’s implicit suggestion, which is that experimental poetry is, in a general sense, more humourless than conventional poetry. In fact, when conventional poetry is funny, it is often funny because it has incorporated lessons from experimental poetry (usually, earlier avant-gardes). Often, these avant-garde movements and authors take themselves seriously, or too seriously, but then lighten up and begin to fall into self-parody as their assumptions and techniques are incorporated (or mocked) by the mainstream — Surrealism is the most obvious example. More recently, we have seen the opposite trajectory with the American post-avant7 Flarf writers, who began by parodying bad conventional poetry but ended up taking the joke more seriously and more politically as bad conventional poetry became a primary way to address the national trauma of 9/11.8

In other words, galling humourlessness is not a defining trait of experimental poetry — the work is often intentionally funny, because it uses humour in particular ways, or unintentionally funny, due to its relative strangeness or how removed it seems from something we should take seriously. As a result of its emphasis on attentive and playful work with the material of language, experimental poetry may even have a different, perhaps closer, relationship to humour than so-called “conventional” poetry. But why? Where’s the beef?

When people criticize experimental poetry, in essays or reviews or bars, they often criticize the work on one of two fronts (aesthetically speaking): either (1) it’s dry and boring, inelegantly flaunting its theoretical foundations to become robotic and joyless — in sum, it takes itself too seriously; or, (2) it’s gibberish, fraudulent, pointless — the writer is just playing around, being silly, and the whole thing is just not serious enough. Either humourless or “just jokes,” experimental poetry can’t win. Submerged here is the notion that writing can include humour (if it has to) but not too much or it ceases to be “literary.” Either there’s nothing human in it (no humour, no emotions, just theory-speak) or it’s all too human, an idiot pleasure, one not worthy of being called “poetry.”

If poetry can’t be funny when it’s poetry and can’t be poetry when it’s funny, what can be done to rehabilitate comedy’s public image in the literary world, not to mention in experimental poetry? If comedy can’t win an Oscar, how will it ever win the Griffin?9 Throughout literary history, comedy has had its defenders, but something always seemed to go awry. Aristotle dropped the ball by not backing up the second volume of his Poetics (the one about comedy) in the cloud or on a flash drive. Freud started to make a useful connection between humour and language in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious but then became more interested in cocaine.10

Help comes from an unlikely hero: Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky. Shklovsky theorized that art makes use of a fundamental technique he called defamiliarization:

The purpose of art is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known. The technique of art is to make objects “unfamiliar,” to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception because the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged.11

Both the joke and poetry operate in this way, by making our language and our social operations strange. Thus, de- familiarization is, arguably, the basic gesture of poetry — poetry takes language and pushes it past the limits of its quotidian use, to estrange us from language and its transparent, communicative capacity (i.e., how we typically encounter language in our everyday lives) — poetic techniques, from the use of rhyme to line breaks and so on, typically have this purpose of manipulating the language to estrange it so that it means more. The effect of this estrangement could be to heighten its power of expression (as in most lyrical poetry), engage with its materiality (as in much experimental poetry), or to attach its signifiers to inappropriate but (il)logically justifiable signifieds (as in jokes predicated on wordplay). Similarly, jokes not predicated on wordplay generally work in the way that (according to Shklovsky) Leo Tolstoy works: by describing our social or political activities, or unexamined assumptions and ideologies, so that what only a minute before the joke seemed natural and normal now seems nonsensical and bizarre.12

This tension or gap between the familiar and the poet’s or comedian’s attempts to estrange us from it often works like the experimentalist technique of the Situationist détournement (altering the already existing in a small way, to reveal or otherwise subvert its hidden operations) or by producing a gap between our expectations and their demolition. Let’s get super unfunny for few minutes.13 Working from the Lacanian idea of the point de capiton or quilting point, the idea that meaning is retroactively determined by the final word in a statement, Alenka Zupančič frames the punchline in terms of this Lacanian operation.14 As the sentence moves forward (“Dick and Jane were exposed to …”), the meaning of the whole statement changes depending on how it ends (“harmful radiation,” “foreign languages,” “their uncle the exhibitionist”).15 For Zupančič, humour can serially chain in this way, altering the terms of discourse to comic effect through continual additions (like when comedians add “tags” after punchlines) — the sentence never really ends; it just keeps mutating. The joke becomes an elaborate game of misdirection, setting up the audience for one outcome and then delivering another, producing a surprising surplus for the reader — an answer to a question that was never asked.

The classic example of this misdirection in comedy (one now so conventional that it’s easy to overlook the actual subversive logic of how this joke operates) is comedian Henny Youngman’s “Take my wife — please!” Youngman sets us up to believe that he is about to use his wife as an example of the sort of foolishness he’s just been discussing (“Now, take my wife for instance …”), but he’s trying to pawn her off on us instead, suggesting rather than stating the reasons why. The key to this is his timing, turning the anticipated outcome of a textual or situational thread into something else entirely. Comic timing, then, becomes the act of delivering the blow when the audience is most vulnerable, tipping the world over into disorder at the audience’s point of highest comfort. The punchline trades in a kind of affective disorientation, a powerful example of language creating effects on the body. Playing out as a gentle trauma, comedy both scrambles our discourse and provokes a physical reaction. If we are unable to speak in the face of it, it’s because we’re rolling in the aisles.

Both comedy and poetry can exploit this “quilting” ability of the punchline to work in resistance to dominant social codes. Both practices are able to produce short circuits that lay bare hidden ideological operations. These hidden operations are composed of material processes and assemblages that, for one reason or another, we are unable to see — the classic comedic example being Karl Marx’s observation of the hidden labour embedded in commodities.16 The production of this gap, and of a short circuit that seems to close but really exposes it, is key to most satire, from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to Sacha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary film Borat, as well as politically minded experimental poetry. In other words, comedy and satire expose how something appears to make logical sense even when it doesn’t, exposing a gap in understanding as it tries to hide it, like someone scrambling to get an elephant out through the bedroom window so their partner doesn’t see it.

Consider, for example, “The Last Temptation of Krust,” a 1998 episode of The Simpsons that slyly comments on the role of comedy as political critique.17 When Krusty the Clown performs at a stand-up comedy benefit against soil erosion, he launches into a routine of hack jokes about, primarily, TV dinners. Antiquated and unfunny, his jokes bomb. In response, Krusty turns to an ugly display of yellowface dripping with every stereotype imaginable (buck teeth, deep bowing, r’s replaced with l’s). The crowd is stunned at his old-fashioned racism and begins to boo, so Krusty pulls out his “A-material”: a flapping dickey. After failed attempts to reform his act, Krusty decides to retire from comedy.

Until he doesn’t. After a press conference where reporters explode with laughter at his raw, snarky dissatisfaction with contemporary comedy (he complains that people no longer want to listen to “time-tested jokes about women drivers and doctor’s bills”), Krusty announces his triumphant return. He proceeds to “tell it like it is” — in other words, to speak truth to power. He delivers blow after blow to the very consumerism once integral to his personality: “So, I’m watching TV today, and all I keep seeing is dead celebrities hawking products. They got poor Vincent Price floating around on a toilet cake telling me about the horrors of an unfresh bowl!” The on-screen audience is moved to a shared moment of anger, lighting cash on fire at Krusty’s suggestion. For the off-screen audience, the humour in Krusty’s joke comes from the contrast between his two stage personas. In “retirement,” Krusty becomes an inverted version of poor Vincent Price, killing his product-hawking prior self to re-emerge as a critically minded political comedian. Order soon returns to the program, and Krusty returns to his unfunny product-shilling self. For a brief moment, however, Krusty seems like he might present a minor threat to capitalist undertakings, forwarding a counter-consumerist discourse that has social effects.18

Key to the second Krusty’s more critical approach to humour is a sense of the joke as a kind of attack — an understanding central to both radical and reactionary senses of humour. In other words, the rearticulations humour is capable of can be used to violently upend situations and understandings. In his discussion of “tendentious” jokes, Freud sets up an encounter where the joke becomes a means of exclusion.19 Let’s set up Freud’s serious social analysis as a kind of joke to underline how funny it’s not. A man walks into a bar. Across the room, he sees a woman and is immediately smitten. He approaches her, and they strike up a conversation. A second man walks up to the same woman. She finds herself more attracted to him, turning away from the first man. Angry, the first man insults the woman, and the second man laughs.20 Rather than being read as the attack it is, a joke is born out of this homosocial interaction, where the two men connect over their mutual exclusion of the woman. For Freud, “[t]he smut becomes a joke and is only tolerated when it has the character of a joke” (100).21 This structure of attack and exclusion isn’t limited to attacks against women, but it is an effect of power and privilege, meaning the attack can also be directed at race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, etc. Remember that what sends Krusty into his critical tirades is his anger over the fact that he can no longer be successful as the white patriarchal clown, since jokes about flapping dickies and women drivers (and other “classics”) get shouted down in disgust.

Let’s turn now to a June 2012 stand-up set by Daniel Tosh at the Laugh Factory in Hollywood.22 A woman in the audience calls Tosh out (“heckles” him) during a part of his act where he asserts that anything, including rape, can be funny. In the woman’s account,23 she yells out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!” and Tosh, in response, poses a hypothetical question/threat: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like, right now? What if a bunch of guys raped her …?” Let’s answer Tosh’s question quickly: It wouldn’t be funny if that woman got raped by five guys. So why does the audience laugh? It’s not that men are essentially jokey, high-fiving rapists. Instead, the laughter is the result of a larger structural problem (i.e., “rape culture”) that allows for the patriarchal status quo to go unchallenged (or, at least, for its challenges to be the very thing that social codes of con- duct, the “unwritten laws,” are meant to suppress — since “everyone knows” that it’s all “just jokes” and, in the structure of the setting, the woman in the audience is supposed to find the idea of rape, like any idea presented by the man on stage, funny). In the context of the comedy club (where you go to laugh) and the ugly and discomforting irony of Tosh’s boundary-pushing, there emerges a solidarity between men (and likely some women) akin to that in Freud’s analysis. In a context like this, it becomes very plausible for victimization to turn funny as long as you’re not the victim (or can’t empathize fully). As Tosh castigates the woman who dares interrupt him, because she assumes both the role of the heckler and the role of the feminist killjoy, we can imagine the audience siding with him as the protector of their privileged good time. After all, they’re only jokes.

It’s also easy to see how Freud’s model can be flipped by comedians, where the joke can be a kind of attack as critique depending on the power relations of those involved. Examples of this are as far-reaching as Dave Chappelle’s explications of contemporary race relations or the self-critical reversals of Sarah Silverman and Louis C.K.24 The political ugliness of the joke as an attack can be rerouted into critique as long as the parties involved are careful not to produce or reproduce (except perhaps ironically25) inequitable or hierarchical relations. In short, humour provides an opportunity to ask how we might open up sites of resistance, providing opportunities to begin to rearticulate our social field. Avant-garde practice works similarly, aiming (as the military term avant-garde implies) to be at the forefront of artistic and social movements. Historically, avant-garde practice aligns itself with social change (for good or ill), attempting to bring art and everyday life together in a transformative way, allowing people to conceive of new ways to materially and collectively organize. Comedy shares with avant-garde practice this revolutionary potential, since both use techniques that can challenge, short-circuit, and alter dominant practices.

Or — and this is important — how comedy and the avant-garde fail to do this. Literature professor and poet Gregory Betts has argued for the use of the term avant-garde in its limited/historical context and has injected a cautionary politics and a much-needed historicity into poet Ron Silliman’s term post-avant, while distinguishing experimental modes of contemporary poetry from modernist and postmodernist modes with radical or reactionary political agendas. It’s a hoot! In other words, Betts argues that a belief in political progress through art is a defining characteristic of the avant-garde, but he suggests that much contemporary poetry is post-avant in that it shares many of the aesthetic qualities of avant-garde art as it has been traditionally defined but “without much tangible faith in progress or revolution.”26 Similarly, postmodern comedy often appears to waffle between these poles — between the conviction that it matters and the knowledge that it doesn’t.

Hoping not so much to write Aristotle’s missing book, we instead present Why Poetry Sucks27 as our attempt at a grand PR stunt, parading out the participants in a literary world where the joke is suddenly something important, something that produces real effects. Rather than produce work that is too silly or jokey, the poets in Why Poetry Sucks draw from deep traditions in both poetry and comedy, often challenging the rigid literary and political impasses they encounter. We want to argue that, in our cur- rent social and cultural game of Blockado (the game of barricades), humour can act as an important sledge, taking a swing at the places and institutions we might wish changed, while acknowledging our apparent inability to change them.

When we began to gather material for this anthology, we planned a wider historical frame, considering the field of English-Canadian poetry starting with the first rumblings of postmodernism in the ’60s. We saw in figures such as bpNichol, George Bowering, David W. McFadden, and Dennis Cooley a strong undercurrent that had wound its way into the writing of our contemporary moment. The project quickly became untenable, and not only because of our budget. What we didn’t anticipate was the sheer amount of contemporary work that, in one way or another, picks up the legacy of poets like these, leading us to tighten our frame. The result is an anthology that loosely collects from the first decade and a half of the 21st century, with a knowledge that our collection is not a fixed whole but rather a sampling, complicated by bleeding edges and frayed threads. We have chosen to highlight a handful of poets and poems that cut across the spectrum of contemporary experimental work. Our aim is to showcase an array of both literary and comedic techniques by selecting poets less for their cultural presence or canonical heft than for how their poems exemplify some particular approach to experimentation-with-humour. We have included, where possible, multiple poems from each poet to give a sense of their general approach and style. What we haven’t done is made a case for how these poets are the poets to pay attention to when it comes to humorous experimental poetry. We’ve opted for a cross-section and a snapshot, rather than issue some authoritative statement and feel quite confident we’ve missed something.28

Though we’ve drawn a line around a specific period, geography, and language, the poets here are most firmly drawn together by shared techniques and tactics, which can be defined by but are not limited to period, geography, genre, or medium. Each poet here operates amongst wider assemblages of texts, writers, politics, and power structures both inside and outside their immediate geographical and temporal spheres. These poets not only work within specific literary geographies but also exceed them, reading and working across national boundaries even as they work within them. They are likely to be influenced by George Bowering as much as Charles Bernstein, Russell Peters as much as Sarah Silverman, SCTV as much as SNL, or Ezra Levant as much as Bill O’Reilly. It’s hard to imagine Stuart Ross’ everyday surrealism without David W. McFadden on one side of the border and the New York School on the other. It’s hard to imagine Susan Holbrook and Nicole Markotić’s playful proceduralism without both the experiments of Oulipo and the serial punning of bpNichol. We originally planned to use the more specific (and, frankly, preferable) terms avant-garde and post- avant as Betts uses them, but, despite its horrors, the more vague experimental does a better job of describing these disparate poems as a group (which experiment with form, play with convention, and otherwise tap into various subversive strains of literary history) and of simply communicating the thrust of the anthology without subjecting the works within to overly academic compartmentalizing.

Looking at humour and poetry together is a messy proposition, and we have decided to proceed messily. The poets collected here draw from deep wells that exceed poetry, moving into the worlds of stand-up and sitcoms, slapstick and pranks. They assert strong connections between poetry and comedy. We wish to assert that this connection is important, but it is not enough to simply say that poetry is funny and then point to funny poetry. We’ve asked why the connection is important and noted what is useful in the combination of poetry and humour, what led us to this soapbox we’re standing on. We’ve noted what we see as the particular social and affective powers opened up in language by the joke and other comic techniques that draw poets and comedians to crack wise.

Only one more thing remains: Nacho Tuesdays.

  1. Shirley Neuman and Robert Wilson, Labyrinths of Voice: Conversations with Robert Kroetsch (Edmonton: NeWest, 1982), 178. 
  2. Yes, we know footnotes suck too. Give us a break! 
  3. Even leprosy has its lighter moments. Look, Ma, no hands! 
  4. Carmine Starnino, “bpNichol,” Lazy Bastardism: Essays & Reviews on Contemporary Poetry (Kentville, NS: Gaspereau, 2012), 165. 
  5. Really, what’s more hilarious than all those loser poets taking them- selves so seriously, sweating about whether or not they should employ an Oxford comma? 
  6. We’re already well under the sitcom standard of three jokes per page. 
  7. More on this term below. 
  8. Not to mention the fact that cloyingly idiotic poetry gained a political timbre in the face of one of the most celebrated idiots in presidential history. 
  9. And how could it accept the award with a straight face? (Acknowledging that, yes, some of the folks in this book have ac- cepted awards with straight faces. Isn’t that funny?) 
  10. Jonathan insisted that we cut Ryan’s joke about Freud’s sexual hang- ups on the grounds that it was too hacky. Is it Ryan’s fault Freud liked to have sex with wolves? [The answer might surprise you: Yes!] 
  11. Victor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique” (1917), The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, ed. David H. Richter (Boston: Bedford, 1989), 741. 
  12. Shklovsky notes that “Tolstoy described the dogmas and rituals he attacked as if they were unfamiliar, substituting everyday meanings for the customarily religious meanings of the words common in church ritual. Many persons were painfully wounded; they considered it blasphemy to present as strange and monstrous what they accepted as sacred” (Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” 744). It’s not hard to imagine comedian David Cross doing the same thing, for the same reason, and getting the same reaction. 
  13. Slap yourself in the face a few times to sober up your thoughts. 
  14. Alenka Zupančič, The Odd One In: On Comedy (Cambridge: MIT, 2008). 
  15. This example is paraphrased from Bruce Fink, Lacan to the Letter: Reading Écrits Closely (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2004), 89- 90. 
  16. What a riot! 
  17. “The Last Temptation of Krust,” The Simpsons: The Complete Ninth Season, DVD (1998; Los Angeles: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment LLC, 2006). 
  18. Underlying all of this, of course, is a critique of anti-consumerist experimental comedy as unfunny and hypocritical at its core, “selling” the idea of not-buying. In fact, it is because Krusty pushes the crowd to burn money with his anti-consumer tirade that some executives approach him to be the spokesperson for an unsafe station wagon. 
  19. In Chapter 3 of Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (London: Hogarth, 1960), ed. and trans. James Strachey. 
  20. Freud’s narration is far more serious and analytical than this. His work points to seduction, its failures, and its homosocial successes: “When the first person finds his libidinal impulse inhibited by the woman, he develops a hostile trend against that second person and calls on the originally interfering third person as his ally. Through the first person’s smutty speech, the woman is exposed before the third, who, as listener, has now been bribed by the effortless satisfaction of his own libido” (100). 
  21. This is a strength of humour as well, allowing us to confront the traumatic through the relatively safe lens of the joke. Unless we’re talking about 9/11 — then we need the inspiring seriousness of poetry. Or Gilbert Gottfried. 
  22. We’d like to acknowledge Kim O’Donnell here, who helped us break some of the ideas we’re working through on the dangerous topic of the rape joke. 
  23. While there are multiple versions of the unfilmed set, including assertions that Tosh was misquoted, we’re following the woman’s initial account, originally posted at [ 26879625651/so-a-girl-walks-into-a-comedy-club]( 26879625651/so-a-girl-walks-into-a-comedy-club) (accessed March 11, 2014). 
  24. Sarah Silverman in particular likes to twist a joke through multiple offensive poses: “Everybody blames the Jews for killing Christ, and then the Jews try to pass it off on the Romans. I’m one of the few people that believe it was the blacks.” Sarah Silverman, Jesus Is Magic (Interscope, 2005), DVD. It’s worth pointing out that Silverman, like Tosh, thinks rape can be funny … if the joke is that it’s not funny. In a bit from her 2013 HBO special We Are Miracles about how she “need[s] more rape jokes,” Silverman examines some of the complex power dynamics that come into play: “Rape jokes are great. They make a comic seem so edgy and so dangerous, and the truth is it’s like the safest area to talk about in comedy. Because who’s gonna complain about a rape joke? I mean, I would say rape victims, but they’re traditionally not complainers.” Silverman develops the joke, pushing further while expanding the context to clarify her position: “I mean, the worst thing that can happen is someone comes up to you after a show and is like, ‘Look, I’m a victim of rape, and I just want to say I thought that joke was insensitive and inappropriate and totally my fault and I am so sorry.’” Here the “joke” is that a rape joke re-victimizes the offended listener while securing the comic’s sense of superiority — the rape joke as a sort of metaphorical rape. Sarah Silverman qtd. from a video in Rich Juzwiak, “Here Is Sarah Silverman’s Rape Joke,” Gawker (26 November 2013), available at (accessed March 11, 2014). 
  25. But even then, the idea of an “ironic racism” or “ironic sexism” is problematic depending on who is making the joke and at whom the punchline aims. 
  26. Gregory Betts, Avant-Garde Canadian Literature: The Early Manifestations (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 2013), 20. 
  27. An alternative title for the ideal Canadian anthology was suggested by Dave McGimpsey over Twitter: Buick Presents: Better Than You! 
  28. Please text any complaints about the anthology or its inclusions to Aaron Giovannone, who has helpfully offered his cell phone number in one of the poems. 

Don’t Trust Your Instincts — The Idea That Became Clockfire

My second book, Clockfire, began with a single image: a clock on fire in the middle of a theatre. The audience was watching the clock burn. This was the play. Once that flashed into my head, I knew I had something, but I didn’t know what. So I wrote it down.


I wish that I could show you what I wrote down, but all of my files and early drafts of Clockfire were destroyed due to computer problems and faulty backups. In fact, if I hadn’t mailed a copy of the first draft to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (who graciously funded the writing of the book), I would have lost the manuscript altogether. I had to write to them to receive my copy back. I lost all of my revisions, but salvaged the draft through the AFA and thus salvaged the book.

However, I do remember a number of significant early changes I made, which I’d like to trace for you here. I’m often asked how I came up with the idea for Clockfire, and unlike most non-superhero origin stories, the story holds some interest since it illustrates how significant particular, structural changes can be if they are made in the early stages of an idea — and why, contrary to popular belief, you can’t trust your instincts as a writer, at least not in the early stages of an idea.

From Image to Idea

Although it’s kind of cool, a bunch of people in a theatre looking at a burning clock is hardly enough for a book. However, it’s a good example of how even something this small and simple can be enough for an entire book if you can just interrogate the image.

I kept turning the image over in my head. Why did I find it compelling? Well, there was a certain strong surrealism to it. Clocks and fire were practically surrealist cliches, but the addition of the theatre context elevated it somewhat while allowing it to retain a primal quality.

At this point, I thought that maybe I might get one good poem out of the idea. However, I was afraid of how that poem might unfold. The obvious way would be to develop the image into a metaphor for life. However, having read Antonin Artaud’s book The Theatre and Its Double not long before, I was struck by how one might read the title. The “double” of the theatre, arguably, was life. Artaud’s title could be read to suggest that life paled before the grand myth-machine of the theatre. At the same time, I had been disappointed by Artaud’s plays. They were hopelessly dated because his “Theatre of Cruelty” relied on shocking and appalling the audience’s senses, and our sense of what is shocking or appalling changes radically and quickly over time, so that they seemed tame today.

I felt that where Artaud had gone wrong was in focusing on visceral shock over conceptual violence. After all, his book about the conceptual violence that the Theatre of Cruelty might deliver remained compelling, whereas the actual plays he wrote in this vein seemed tame. Today, I felt, Artaud would have to murder his audience to get the shock value he’d wanted, since “breaking the fourth wall” had become commonplace and lame, while “controversial content” had become a marketing tool.

I started to wonder why I felt the theatre was so lame, in general. The clock on fire suddenly seemed symbolic not of life, but of the theatre. I wanted a clock in my theatre — an acknowledgement of the theatrical situation, of the real-time the audience was passing (rather than a suspending of disbelief, a paying of attention to the immediate situation of being in the theatre). I also wanted fire — a shocking, violent, visceral thing that would forge a connection with the audience, however horrible.

At this point, I returned to the image of the audience watching the clock on fire. I started wondering if I’d made a mistake. Maybe the clock shouldn’t be on fire.

Maybe the clock should work fine, and the audience should be on fire.

Everything flowed out of this change. Who would set the audience on fire? The actors, of course. The clock wasn’t the play — the audience burning in the theatre was the play. The clock was a diversion.

I quickly re-hammered out my draft. Not only did I have a image and an idea, I had a concept — an imaginary theatre where the actors and the audience were at odds, enemies, each striving to vanquish the other. A theatre about the failure of the theatre to become life, to cast life into its shadow, as its double. This is really where the book began.

The Title

I knew at once that I had a book concept on my hands — plays that would be impossible or illegal/immoral to ever produce. The theatre must therefore take place in the reader’s head.

I realized that I had a book concept on my hands, and I needed a title. I couldn’t think of any good ones, which is unusual for me. Usually, I have the title right away, sometimes even before any idea (I often come up with titles first and then cast around for the idea second). However, I’d decided to apply for the aforementioned AFA grant, so I needed at least a working title. I chose Clock-Fire, thinking that although it was stupid it was functional enough.

I asked Natalee Caple for a letter of support. Time passed and in a mad rush to gather all of the materials to meet the deadline, I noticed too late that she had misspelled the title as one word: Clockfire. I was worried the AFA would discount Caple’s letter if the title was misspelled, for some reason, and it was easier, due to time constraints, for me to rewrite the entire grant with the one-word title. Later, of course, I realized that Caple had accidentally produced the perfect title, and started calling my “impossible plays” clockfires.

The Clock

I didn’t just shift the fire — in another, smaller way, I shifted the clock. In the original draft, I had just written “clock.” In my later draft, I decided that I needed to be more specific. I changed it to a modern, digital clock. It was important to the play that the clock would display the correct time to the audience, and I decided that hands on the clock would be hard for the audience to see, so the clock should have a large digital display.

For the final draft, I changed it to “a large, ornate grandfather clock,” which would of course have hands and a face. There were three main reasons for this final change, that might appear insignificant but helped set the tone for how I approached the book as a whole:

  • First, I thought a digital clock would look less cool on fire. It would burn up too fast and it would smoke too much, since it would be mostly plastic. It was more likely to melt and shrivel, whereas a larger, older, wooden clock would burn more gracefully and slowly and impressively. This may seem like an odd consideration given that the poem/play does not describe the clock burning. But I wanted to be setting forth “instructions” for the audience to imagine the plays. So, even though I wasn’t writing about the clock burning, I was setting things up for the audience to imagine the clock burn.

  • Second, I decided that it didn’t matter if the audience in the play would be able to read the time. It was only important, conceptually, that the time be correct. The audience in the theatre could be confused or unclear about it — only the reader needed to know.

  • Third, I wanted the clock to have hands and a face, to give it a human-like dimension. A grandfather clock would also be tall like a human. I wanted to suggest a bit of anthropomorphism in a subtle way like this, because I wanted the reader to feel like the clock was also a victim. Even though it is part of the performance, like the actors setting the theatre on fire, it is going to be sacrificed to the theatre, like the audience. I saw it, as the only thing on stage, as a hybrid object in a liminal space, and so wanted to push it further towards the kind of human-like associations that a nostalgic object like a grandfather clock might have.

Ignore Your Instincts

The lesson of Clockfire, for me, is to ignore your instincts. Often, writers talk nonsense like “first thought, best thought” and otherwise warn about the dangers of over-analysis. I’ve found that under-analysis is the greater danger for writers.

You can analyze without overanalyzing, and as long as you keep your analysis away from your writing desk, you can usefully reconsider your instincts and reshape your writing.

When this is most important is in the early stages. I was careful to keep writing while I played with the ideas for Clockfire, and not get trapped in the paralysis of analysis, which I’ve done before. However, if I had just run with the idea and my instincts, I would have ended up with (at best) a decent poem.

When your ideas are still ideas, and not written out, it’s easier to play with them, and experiment with alternate approaches. If you always trust your instincts, you’ll always repeat what’s safe.

You can read the entire script of the play “Clockfire” (it’s very short) on my store page for that book.

You can also read about the “original” version of “Clockfire” that was performed by Vlad III Dracula.

No category of fiction has a guarantee of immortality, and any category that fails to grow deserves to die.

Dean Koontz
How to Write Best-Selling Fiction (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest, 1981), 46

TIFF is celebrating Crime Wave! Don’t miss one of Canada’s best, and funniest, cult classics. I’ll be in attendance also, helping to introduce the film and to answer questions, since I quite literally wrote the book on Crime Wave.

Date: September 12, 2014
Time: 9:00 - 11:00 p.m.
Event: Crime Wave at the Toronto International Film Festival
Sponsor: TIFF / University of Toronto Press
Venue: TIFF Bell Lightbox Cinema 4 - Paul & Leah Atkinson Family Cinema
Location: Toronto, ON