- Brett Josef Grubisic (Editor)
Contra/Diction. Arsenal Pulp Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- rob mclennan (Editor)
Written in the Skin. Insomniac Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Stephen Guy-Bray
I want to begin by pointing out that there are many good stories in Contra/Diction. The stories by D. Travers Scott, Stephen Beachy, John McFarland, ae christopher, Michael Bendzela, Michael V. Smith, Blaine Marchand (who has an excellent poem in Written in the Skin), Michael Ritter, and Duane Williams are especially fine. I was less fond of the others, but no one expects to like everything in an anthology. I would like to single out two authors for dispraise: Wes Hartley, who runs a fairly promising idea into the ground, and Jim Provenzano, whose desire to return to his Italian roots does not include the desire to learn how to spell Italian.
Contra/Diction has a good mixture of established writers and new writers, and of different styles and settings. This is a real plus with an anthology, of course, and this kind of variation is one of the strengths of many of the recent anthologies of gay stories. But in his introduction, the editor, Brett Josef Grubisic, is careful to distinguish his anthology from what he would probably think of as mainstream anthologies like the Men on Men series (a comparison explicitly made in the press release). Contra/Diction, then, fits into the latest niche market: products for homosexuals who feel they are too cool to be gay. This marketing ploy is inherently tiresome, but it’s also bad politically; dividing gay people and the things they buy (furniture, clothing, anthologies) into "queer" and "gay" is the sort of thinking that caused all that trouble in the first place, isn’t it? Contra/Diction provides still more evidence that it is every bookish person’s dream to be a rebel. This anthology is strong enough to stand on its own without relying on trashing other anthologies.
Grubisic does acknowledge a forebear, however. He says that the earlier Canadian anthology "Queeries has stood as a model for me." It does not appear to have been a good model, however. There is a certain overlap between the two anthologies, as they share four writers: David Dakar, George Ilsley, Andy Quan, and Duane Williams. With the exception of Williams, these writers all did better work for Queeries. Even more unfortunately, Grubisic, like Dennis Dennisoff, allows his writers to make author statements (in addition to the biographical notes). The main purpose of these statements would seem to be to demonstrate how little talent short story writers have for explaining themselves. Almost all the statements are dire, and some are almost as long as the shorter stories. I thought the worst case was Reginald Shepherd, whose author statement almost ruins his very fine story. On the other hand, Aldo Alvarez’s statement is superior to his story, so perhaps it all evens out.
Written in the Skin is a poetry anthology which bills itself as "A Poetic Response to AIDS" (and the royalties will go to AIDS charities). The subtitle might suggest a collection of thematically driven poems, but in fact the poems here are only rarely about AIDS in any obvious way. The editor, Rob McLennan, groups the poem into three categories: Love, Loss, and Death. This grouping is about as close as the collection or any of the individual poems gets to straightforward narrative. Indeed, the connection between the individual poems and the groupings in which they are placed is not, as a rule, particularly clear, which is one of the strengths of this valuable anthology. McLennan has managed to avoid the bathetic literalism of much writing on AIDS. Written in the Skin is not a commonplace book (in either sense ofthat term), and it is emphatically not part of what Daniel Harris has memorably called "AIDS kitsch." The anthology requires the reader to do the work of piecing together the poems and connecting them to each other and to their (ostensible) subjects.
A similar indirection can be seen in the excellent photographs by Jules de Niverville. These photos, often slightly blurred or taken from odd angles, have only a tangential relation to the poems they accompany—if that is indeed what they do. It could be said that the status of the photographs as illustrations mirrors the poems’ status as poems about AIDS. This point may be clearest in the case of those photographs which have handwriting on them, handwriting which is itself often blurred. De Niverville’s work adds another layer to the problematizing of representation which is such a salient and interesting feature of the anthology as a whole. Perhaps the closest photographic analogue to the poetry is the picture on page 31 of a young man, wearing a costume consisting of a fur stole, a tiny g-string and what appear to be swimming goggles. On his slim and boyish torso is painted—written on, if not in, the skin— the musculature of a far more athletic man.
Like Grubisic, McLennan has included different styles in his anthology. While some of the poems are fairly traditional in genre—lyric, narrative, ballad—others are more experimental. There are strong poems of many kinds, lengths, and genres in Written in the Skin, from Michael Achtman’s biblical narrative and John Barton’s "Saranac Lake Suite" to the shorter and fierce lyric speeches of Stephanie Bolster, Clare Latremouille, and Gil McElroy and the more noticeably experimental poems of Jill Battson, Brian Burke, and Clint Burnham. These were probably my favourites, bul almost all oÃ the poems in Written in the Skin are worthwhile. The contributions by Sky Gilbert, R.M. Vaughan (who is also in Contra/Diction), and Judith Fitzgerald are weak, but my opinion of Fitzgerald’s ballad may have been affected by her biographical note. Her self-promotion—she apparently gave up a very well-paying job for moral reasons—is particularly distasteful in an anthology largely devoted to poems about people who are sick or dead, as opposed to just not as well-off as they would like to be. Apart from these really very minor objections, I highly recommend Written in the Skin.
- Neither an Empty Blank by Richard Cassidy
Books reviewed: Blackouts by Craig Boyko and Buying Cigarettes for the Dog by Stuart Ross
- From Person to Song by Michael Roberson
Books reviewed: Indexical Elegies by Jon Paul Fiorentino, The Dust of Just Beginning by Don Kerr, The Porcupinity of the Stars by Gary Barwin, and The Scare in the Crow by Tammy Armstrong
- Blk, Wht, Read All Over by Crystal Hurdle
Books reviewed: Blue Feast by Shawna Lemay, Sooner by Margaret Christakos, and This Way the Road by Nina Berkhout
- Mapping and Way-making by Erin Wunker
Books reviewed: Fierce Departures: The Poetry of Dionne Brand by Dionne Brand and Leslie Sanders, Blues and Bliss: The Poetry of George Elliott Clarke by Jon Paul Fiorentino, and Lousy Explorers by Laisha Rosnau
- Re: Composing Biotexts by Guy Beauregard
Books reviewed: Writing the Roaming Subject: The Biotext in Canadian Literature by Joanne Saul and Diamond Grill by Fred Wah
MLA: Guy-Bray, Stephen. Indirections. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 12 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #165 (Summer 2000), (Brochu, Buckler, Davies, Lowry, Ondaatje). (pg. 137 - 139)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.