the early chapters are the most savage - "The Dilettantes" by Michael Hingston

from The Dilettantes - Michael Hingston

It was his last name: Belmont. His (as yet unwritten) book would inevitably be shelved immediately next to those of Saul Bellow. What self-respecting reader would look at the two of them, and then go with the untested, overwrought young punk? It was enough to make him close his laptop on the spot. Plus, anything he wrote would inevitably be compared to the Nobel laureate anyway, since Alex, like his idol, had a habit of trying to capture the entire universe in every sentence. He didn’t need to give critics such a readymade way to phrase the insult.

Besides, what could he do to give his book even the hint of a fighting chance? Think of a hilarious title? Kidnap Chip Kidd and make him design a cover that could outshine the majesty of the all-black Penguin Classics? Should he switch to non-fiction, or sci-fi, just to get a fair shake in a different part of the store?

Alex remembered reading an essay that pointed out how sad it was that an innocent woman’s one-line obituary will read, “She was Timothy McVeigh’s mother.”

Well, he thought, for every titan of literature, there are two lesser writers who will forever be remembered as their bookends.
from The Dilettantes
(Freehand Books, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

Full disclosure: books columnist, reviewer, blogger (and now novelist) Michael Hingston is my friend, and despite his well-communicated disinterest in poetry, he was very supportive of my book when it launched a couple years back. In other words: he's fantastic and I owe him one and darnit this is my blog and I can do what I want, poetry-only rule be damned. That said, there are a couple other reasons why Mike's first novel, The Dilettantes, is an excellent subject for an interview on this blog.

The first is that it's local to the Lower Mainland - very local. Specifically it is set on Simon Fraser University's Burnaby Campus in the mid 2000s, the place and time where Mike and I first met (he editing the student newspaper, The Peak; I illegally printing off thousands of copies of High Altitude Poetry and leafleting them around campus like a mad man). It was a strange, strange time, and a time that Mike puts under a microscope in The Dilettantes, a "campus novel" about The Peak, early-20s angst and irony, exotic sodas, and writing the next great (or good enough) novel.

That leads me to the second reason why The Dilettantes is at home on this poetry blog - while on the surface the book is a sendup of campus life, it ultimately proves to be a loving tribute to the art of writing - student journalism, yes, but more so books (yes, even poetry books): why we read, why we write, how we get the art of writing wrong and how, eventually, we find our way to getting it a little less wrong. It's a thoughtful and companionable novel for writers as much as for readers. Oh and it's damn funny, to boot.

The Vancouver launch for The Dilettantes is next Friday. The details:

The Dilettantes Book Launch
Friday, October 4th, 2013, 6:30 PM
Pulpfiction Books
2422 Main Street, Vancouver
Featuring: readings by Michael Hingston and Thea Bowering

In preparation for the launch, Mike and I exchanged a few emails in which I tried desperately (and unsuccessfully) to get him to admit that I am a talking inukshuk. You know, normal interview stuff. I hope you enjoy!

Michael Hingston, very much enjoying dodging my most pertinent questions 

Rob: In the opening sentence of The Dilettantes you accurately note that the buildings of SFU's campus resemble Tetris blocks. In many ways, the book that follows seems assembled similarly. Though there is an obvious narrative line running through it, many of the chapters (especially the early ones) read like independent vignettes about particular aspects of campus life that, when assembled together, combine to show the campus as a whole. I'm thinking of the chapters (or long stretches within chapters) dedicated to Clubs Days, the poster sales, The Peak offices, student elections, Higher Grounds, the Highland Pub, the mini-mart, etc.

Was the book written from beginning to end, or did you start with a number of the key SFU "scenes" or locales that you then pieced together? Before you started writing did you have a checklist (mental or otherwise) of campus highlights that you wanted to cover? If so, did you end up leaving any of them out?

Michael: I did write it beginning to end, but before any of that I started out with a bunch of lists - one of which was, indeed, of places around SFU that I thought would be interesting to see in a novel. There are a lot of them. Everything you named above was on that list, I'm pretty sure. And I did have to leave a few out, actually! It was a tiny bit tragic. The big one was CJSR, the campus radio station: I wanted to have a very short scene where Peak editors are storming down a hallway, totally caught up in their own heads and problems, and they walk past a group of radio staff who look basically identical to them, storming right past them, on their own mission. A nice little Bizarro World moment, where they slow down and eye each other warily for a second. Just to reinforce this idea that these mini-crises aren't unique to the student newspaper. Neither are the editors' carefully constructed identities, for that matter. They're happening all over the place. But the editors, at least, are too far inside their own narcissism to recognize it.

Cue the Russian folk music

Rob: The Dilettantes, though a work of fiction, is tied rather closely to your real-life experience at The Peak (at least the newspaper parts, I won't pretend to be friend enough to know about the sex fantasies). How much was this intentional from the beginning, and how much did you find your own experience into the book as you went along? Looking back, is the book more or less tied into your own life than you intended?

Michael: It's a lot less autobiographical than I first intended [Editor's note: smart answer, Mike, smart answer...]. Although, actually, I wonder what my original intent was. I think I started out by pouring as much of my real-life experience into the book as I could - certainly Alex encapsulates some of the worst parts of myself at that time in my life - if only because I needed the raw material. But over time, everything shifted. Certain lines and anecdotes are still true to life, but all of the larger character arcs and personalities have evolved a lot since I first started out. Most characters are total composites now. Some of it, I'm proud to report, I even dreamed up all on my own. Part of me probably knew that was bound to happen.

Rob: I'll admit it: as someone who attended SFU with you, while reading your book I kept a lookout for any characters who I thought resembled me. After much searching I'm now fairly confident (and flattered) that I am the talking inukshuk. Considering how closely this book is tied to your life, have you pre-prepared a line in reply/defence for when people come up to you and ask "Was I _____?" or "Why did you make me say _____?" If so, what is it, and have you had to deploy it yet? What's the most inaccurate connection someone has made between reality and the characters in the book?

Michael: You know, it hasn't really come up yet. The nice thing about this book taking so long to write is that by now, everyone I went to school with is also five years out, and has benefitted from the same added perspective that I have. So I think they're able to laugh at themselves a little more. Or if they are mad, at least they haven't said it to my face yet.

That's a good point about inaccurate connections, though. Or even truth and fiction more generally. I was flipping through the book the other day and saw I mentioned this peculiar SFU tradition called Gung Haggis Fat Choy, which is a mix of Chinese New Year and Robbie Burns Day. That's a real event, but I wouldn't be surprised if someone read that and came away thinking I was a real buffoon for "creating" such a lame - and possibly insensitive - "joke."

Rob: I had that experience, actually, in reading the Gung Haggis Fat Choy part - at first I thought you were having your own David Gilmour moment, but then I quickly remembered it was a real thing: the guy in the dragon head and kilt running around Convocation Mall. I remember how simultaneously absurd and utterly reasonable it seemed at the time. It reminded me what an odd, temporary bubble University life is.

Speaking of such "bubbles", in writing The Dilettantes, did you worry about writing something so locked in a particular time (a particular little moment when both newspapers and Livejournal existed, and even thrived), a place (SFU) and a posture ("post-ironic", as you put it)? Do you worry about how it might read in another part of the country, or in another country? Or how it might read ten or twenty years down the road?

Michael: No, not at all. In a book like this, you have no choice but to choose your setting and then stick to it. Plus, I mean, everything dates it one way or another - do cars exist in your novel? Fax machines? Antibiotics? Either way, that tells me something about the timeline. It doesn't make any sense to ignore questions of technology or slang, in the hopes of writing for "eternity," or whatever. I think truth and humour and beauty come from specificity. For instance, most campus novels (and fiction in general, for that matter) shy away from any technology introduced in the past decade or so. But I wanted to make mine feel true to 2008-09, so my characters are on Facebook, they send texts, and they fall into hour-long YouTube K-holes. They kind of have to, or else it wouldn't be believable at all.

Rob: Shifting gears, you are a regular reviewer for a great number of terribly important newspapers, and have been reviewing for many years. Could you speak a bit about how being a reviewer, and being aware of the community of reviewers out there (with their varying reputations for brutality), might have affected how you approached writing The Dilettantes?

Michael: This seems to surprise people, but it honestly didn't affect me at all. The part of my brain that reads and reviews novels has no contact with the part that allowed me to write my own. I wasn't able to apply any of what I'd learned as a reader to the writing of this book. To my frustration, initially, but I think it's for the best. It was peaceful, in a way - especially because I honestly did not think it would end up being published. There was real freedom in that. I don't know how people who write comics, or for television, are able to give away their story in pieces, which are each summarily eaten up, analyzed, and spit back in their faces by their audience. To be able to follow your artistic vision in that context is, frankly, inspiring.

As for the "community of reviewers," I'm not really sure there is one. At least, I'm not sure there are any overarching personality traits or aesthetic preferences that we all share. I can think of some fellow reviewers who I think would like my novel, and some who probably wouldn't. It's a gamble. But I certainly didn't hedge my bets for fear of reviewer brutality. If anything, I think critics should be hardest on novels that don't push far enough.

Rob: "I wasn't able to apply any of what I'd learned as a reader to the writing of this book." Really? You think your book would have turned out the same if you hadn't been a book reviewer critically reading, oh, let's say, a gazillion books over the last few years? There must be some leakage between the various parts of your brain, no?

Michael: OK, OK, that may have been a slight exaggeration. I will admit that reading and reviewing taught me a bunch of things not to do: dream sequences, for instance. Anything that bored me as a reader I made sure to avoid like the plague in my own book. But beyond those obvious narrative potholes, I felt pretty much on my own.

Rob: With the book now out and receiving reviews, has being on the "other side" changed how you think you will approach writing reviews in the future?

Michael: Nah. Reviews are written for the reader's benefit, not the author's. And let's not forget that while critics get free copies of the books they review, readers are shelling out as much as $35 a pop. That's a lot of money. It's not fair for a reviewer to cut an author a break, just because writing a book is hard. Honestly, who cares? All you're going to end up with is a bunch of readers who are mad they wasted their money - and mad at you, the reviewer, for misleading them.

Rob: According to a note at the end of the book, you wrote it between 2008 and 2011. The book relies quite a bit on a sense of near-nostalgia - an often-fond remembering of the recent past. Looking back, have your senses of The Peak, and SFU, and that world you left behind on a mountaintop in Burnaby, changed over the years? Does 2013 Mike Hingston view the subjects in his book differently than 2011 Mike Hingston? 2008 Mike Hingston? If so, how?

Michael: Very differently indeed. I started out trying to write a scathing takedown of my entitled, shitty, ever-ironic generation. But then a funny thing happened: I graduated. I moved to Edmonton. I got an office job. Each of those steps took me farther and farther away from SFU, and the more that happened, the more I found myself trying to understand that time of my life, rather than simply ridicule it. There seemed to be something worth unpacking there -- something I couldn't see clearly while I was living it. I think you can see that in the book itself, too. The early chapters are the most savage. As you progress through to the end, as Alex gets closer to graduation, even he starts to soften a little.

Rob: Yes, that's very true.

About midway through the book (somewhere halfway between scathing and soft), Alex is scanning through bookshelves and the narrator notes:

"To him, there was no better proof of a life fulfilled than seeing your name on a cover. No matter how slim or unappreciated the rest of the book was, this was a concrete marker of one's legacy - even the bare fact of one's existence. Books outlived everybody... Whatever meagre amounts of love or hate Alex gave to this world would fade, and soon. Maybe they were gone already. But a book could be his way of making a permanent mark on the world."

How much did you believe this yourself as you were writing the book? How much do you believe it now?

Michael: This is definitely Alex at his most hifalutin. Books go out of print all the time. They don't sell. They get remaindered. It's fine. I'm not someone who gets too precious about the concept of The Book. I mean, I do think it's the best and most dynamic art form ever created by humanity. But I don't fetishize the smell of books, or anything like that. That scene is about a 22-year-old struggling with ways to leave a mark on this world. Because he's emotionally sealed off, he naturally gravitates towards objects. If he were more into music, he'd be having this epiphany while staring at a bunch of vinyl in a record store. Or he'd be an apprentice carpenter ogling an old couch. I think Alex is drastically underestimating the power of love, for instance. But, at this point in the novel, anyway, person-to-person meaning is not quite within his grasp.

You can buy a copy of Michael Hingston's The Dilettantes from your local bookstore, or from the Freehand Books website or Amazon. It costs notably less than $35.


better than rain

Fall has come to Vancouver, and brought along its predictable weather forecast. Still, two exciting literary events are coming up in the Lower Mainland this weekend - one is indoors and the other has awnings - so you can be sure to keep yourself relatively dry and very well entertained.

The first is SOFIA/c's inaugural event, entitled Verse on the Edge: Poets in Conversation. "SOFIA/c" is the newly formed South Fraser Inter-Arts Collective, an organization devoted to hosting inter-disciplinary arts readings and events in Surrey. "Verse on the Edge" will feature poets Cecily Nicholson, Wanda John-Kehewin and Taryn Hubbard reading about their connections with Surrey.

The details:

Verse on the Edge
Friday, September 27th, 2013, 7:00 PM
Newton Cultural Centre
13530 72nd Ave., Surrey, B.C.
Featuring: Cecily Nicholson, Wanda John-Kehewin and Taryn Hubbard

SOFIA/c isn't messing around with this - they've produced a promotional video and everything:

If leaving Vancouver-proper is too much for you, you can always fall back on Sunday's event, Word Vancouver (formerly "Word on the Street"). In addition to poetry vending machines you get a gazillion reading, special events and vendors, who this year will almost certainly be fending off the rain with a variety of awnings and umbrellas and plastic bags and lengths of plastic sheeting and prayers. It's always quite the spectacle!

The details:

Word Vancouver
Sunday, September 29th, 2013, 11 AM - 5 PM
Library Square
Homer and Georgia, Vancouver
Featuring: Everyone and everything!

Have a good wet weekend, all!


pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers

We have found a new land - Kofi Awoonor

The smart professionals in three piece
Sweating away their humanity in driblets
And wiping the blood from their brow
We have found a new land
This side of eternity
Where our blackness does not matter
And our songs are dying on our lips.
Standing at hellgate you watch those who seek admission
Still the familiar faces that watched and gave you up
As the one who had let the side down
'Come on, old boy, you cannot dress like that'
And tears well in my eyes for them
These who want to be seen in the best company
Have adjured the magic of being themselves
And in the new land we have found
The water is drying from the towel.
Our songs are dead and we sell the dead to the other side
Reaching for the Stars we stop at the house of Moon
And pause to relearn the wisdom of our fathers.

Robert Serumaga: This is one of your poems. Does it sum up your opinions about the Africa before, the present Africa, and the Africa to come?

Kofi Awoonor: Yes it does, to a very large extent. You can see I was talking and what I was saying in this poem is really that the problem of adjustment for the new African, if there is anything like that, the new African who is caught up in the world of Europe, in the world of the white man, with a ballot-box, with a new outfit, clothes, and with a parliament, with a national anthem, and a song, what is he going to do about the wisdom of his fathers? And this is what I was trying to mirror in this particular part.

Serumaga: And what do you think he is going to do about the wisdom of his fathers in the new circumstances?

Awoonor: This is a very difficult question. I have a strong feeling that on whatever level you are going to discuss a subject like this, the political, or the social, or the economic level, one invariably returns to a certain basic aspect, which is the technological advancement of Africa, and all the things that are added on to it: what are we going to do with some of the basic traditions of African life, African communal life, the general spirit that did motivate African societies long before the white man came? And I see in this a simple answer which is not going to be described in political terms, that one has to adjust one's self to the thinking, the way of life which has almost died, to marry it to this new technology; I am thinking particularly about the traditions and customs and observances, and also positively about relationships to one another.

Serumaga: How much are you yourself, first as a person in your society, and secondly as a writer, influenced by the old traditions of the society in which you live?

Awoonor: Tremendously. I have always felt, perhaps involuntarily, I should take my poetic sensibility if you like the word, from the tradition that sort of feeds my language, because in my language there is a lot of poetry, there is a lot of music and there is a lot of the literary art, even though not written, and so I take my cue from this old tradition, and begin to break it into English, to give it a new dimension as it were.


Serumaga: Now here... you have the writing within which certain people are trying to forge a new kind of African writing in English or in French. Do you think they are succeeding very much? Can you point to particular examples which in your view have succeeded in doing this?...

Awoonor: Well, I would say yes; there are a lot of African writers who have really succeeded. I think readily of somebody like Wole Soyinka. I read Wole Soyinka and have a feeling that he's not exactly writing English - he's got a hybrid of Yoruba strength which is married to English which he uses very well; and I think about Chinua Achebe, and I think of J.P. Clark; I will not mention others, but I feel that African writing is moving; it's moving about say four or five generations into a new field which is going to mean that African writers are going to go back and find materials and inspiration in their own societies to write about. They move from the period of Osadebay and Michael Dei-Anang and so on, the political writing, to personal writing which is going to be defined as writing committed to a certain positive aspect of African life.

- Kofi Awoonor, sagely predicting the future of African writing, a future in which he and his writing would become towering influences, in a 1967 interview with Robert Serumaga. The interview was originally published in African Writers Talking (Heinemann, 1972).

Kofi Awoonor died on September 21st, 2013 in the Westgate Mall shooting in Nairobi, Kenya. He was seventy-eight. Over at One Ghana, One Voice we are preparing to run a series of memorial poems for Awoonor. You can read more about that project here.


Alfred Gustav Press Series Eleven

5. - Kevin Spenst

White Zombie throttled metal as the rental van 
skidded onto the clear cut. One veteran was duct-
taping her fingers, better traction than a glove.
Ten of us clamoured out, cinched belts, unwrapped
cellophaned seedlings, adjusted head phones, 
surveyed row upon row of soil, stumps and rocks.
I made a piecemeal ten dollars that first day:
shovel in, forward and back, slide the root into
the hole, remove shovel, step on soil to close. 
Soon it was rote work and I could run the maze of roots.
To celebrate our day off six of us crawled into Yohav's 
two-person tent. He played the guitar as a joint 
went around the small circle of our mouths.
Even the dirt under our fingernails glowed orange. 
from Pray Goodbye
(Alfred Gustav Press, 2013).
Reprinted with permission.

Depending on who you ask, the best or worst part of the Alfred Gustav Press' chapbook series is that you never know what you're going to get. Three chapbooks by three poets you may or may not have heard of, writing goodness-knows what about goodness-knows what, all arriving in your mailbox one afternoon.

So for better or for worse, consider the above poem a spoiler for Alfred Gustav's eleventh round of chapbooks, which will feature:

Ian Adam, Three
Annie Deeley, Brother
Kevin Spenst, Pray Goodbye

Kevin, fresh from Yohav's
two-person tent.
I got a sneak peek at Kevin Spenst's chapbook, which travels from Surrey, into the tree-planting hills, through Vancouver and back out to the suburbs, all in eleven poems. And along for the ride with you come Goombas and VHS tapes and meat packing plants and Star Trek and French youth hostels and zambonis and Dune and Price Waterhouse Cooper and Guildford Mall and eternal birthday cakes (and White Zombie, of course). Needless to say, it's quite a trip, written with a deft hand and a deep heart, and is certainly worth the $4.33 cover price.

As the chapbooks need to be ordered in advance, Kevin has organized a subscription-drive party, at which he will be reading alongside Ben Rawluk. The details:

Spenst and Rawluk Read
Thursday, September 12th, 7:00 - 9:00 PM
The Paper Hound Bookshop
344 West Pender Street
Vancouver, BC

If you can't make it out to that event, you can also see Kevin in action this Sunday at the Dead Poets Reading Series, where he will be reading the poetry of John Berryman.

And, of course, regardless of your ability to attend any pre-subscription parties (if you're in Winnipeg, Annie Deeley is hosting one on September 11th) you can always subscribe to the next round of chapbooks simply by popping an order in the mail.

Inflation has pushed the cost of subscriptions up to $13 (yes, for all three! $18 outside Canada). The subscription deadline is October 1st, 2013. To order, send cash or cheque payable to David Zieroth at:

The Alfred Gustav Press
429B Alder Street
North Vancouver, BC
V7L 1A9

Please remember to include your mailing address (and include your email address if you wish updated information).

For more information contact David Zieroth at dzieroth(at)telus(dot)net and for more background and history check out the Alfred Gustav Press webpage.