A Read of Fante Bukowski

Fante Bukowski
By Noah Van Sciver
Graphic Novella
80 pgs
Fantagraphics Books
2015

The most direct leap to satire is through the cartoon frame. Take a figurative blowhard, morph him or her into a literal one through exaggeration of specific physical traits, push ’em out et voilà: instant ridicule.

In Fante Bukowski, Noah Van Sciver blows the parodic target of a struggling, self-centered, and self-stylized writer up into a bearded buffoon with all the pretension and faux-suffering accoutrements – albeit a genuinely earnest one who still retains some soul.

Twenty-three year-old would-be poet Fante Bukowski (née Kelly Perkins) presents a figure familiar to anyone who has been driven to pen/pencil and/or typewriter/keyboard by the existential need to express themselves, but with no real idea of what that self is, past a template of their favourite writer. The protagonist here is, obviously, going for the stylized Skidrow Bard image his namesake, the poet Charles Bukowski, created for himself, with a little John Fante-spice on top. However, this Bukowski lacks the actual talent and, having just (perhaps ill-advisedly) quit his dad’s lawfirm, actual experience of living a back-alley existence.

Narcissistic would-be artists aren’t exactly slippery targets. But Van Sciver isn’t interested in barn-broadside shooting practice. His characters, while flaunting the requisite exaggerated traits, and despite being literally two-dimensional in this graphic novella form, also show more depth than stooges in a drawing room farce. Van Sciver is more interested in exploring the growth of the artist figure, rather than in excoriating artists.

“[H]ighly-respected” literary agent Ralph Bigsburg is played partly for pretension but also as an honest (if hyperbolically) exasperated foil for runaway, untamed and untrained enthusiasm. Fante’s new girlfriend, Audrey, is a writer with an actual publication track record and alternative press image (razored-bald head and razor attitude) but reacts to his primitive approach to literary rebellion with delighted amusement rather than scorn. Fante himself, who beer-sweats the same youthful naievte as anyone who has first cracked the spine of a Black Sparrow Press book, is more sympathetic symbol than simple strawman. And Fante’s main barroom companion, an utterly banal example of someone whose simple dreams have let him down, meets an utterly banal but tragic end, in a scene that punctures any pretension and lets the dirty realism whistle sharply in.

As satires go, Fante Bukowski is more gentle Horatian than barking Juvenalian. Van Sciver uses stark, simple drawings and a very earthy colour palette. These subtle tools ease the reader into Fante’s abrupt awakening to a more expansive existence after his failures in the artistic urban jungle quickly grind him down. An ending which marks, perhaps, his real beginning, as both artist and individual.

Read more on Fante Bukowski (and more from Fante Bukowski).

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Reading (A Vandal’s) Confession

Vandal Confession
Mitchell Gauvin
Now or Never Publishing
153 pages
2015

The romance of the road has long entranced the more rebellious side of the North American literati, though the ditch on the side of the post-Beat literary highway is crowded with Jack Kerouac’s poet-hobo descendants, stranded on their own would-be quixotic destinies. So, literally, is Xavier Bernard, the burnt-out-before-his-time narrator of Mitchell Gauvin’s Vandal Confession.

The On the Road echo may be a faint one here, but it is an apt shotgun partner for the reader who meets Xavier in transit with his friend Felix in Felix’s beat-up Jaguar. The pair stalls on a nondescript rural route in a nondescript part of Central Ontario and, to kill time while waiting for a tow, Xavier hands Felix a copy of the autobiographical novel he has been working on, based on his own nondescript life cruising the boundaries of the Greater Toronto Area.

Vandal Confession, though, is actually an anti-road novel. As the post-Gen Xer/pre-Millenial unheroes wait for assistance on the side of the highway, Xavier’s meandering recount of a standard suburban life takes over. In typical Late-Slacker fashion, he is all snark, nicknaming his nondescript residences (his boyhood home, “Slanty McGee”; his later bachelor pad, “Whitey McConcrete”) and casually tossing off interactions with a set of interchangeable directionless friends and hapless authority figures.

Subtle angst riffs with his constant cultural observations. He notes that “[w]hen built, Whitey McConcrete proposed that living further from the ground translated somehow into being worthy and unique. No one foresaw plumbing problems, flooding fountains, elevator malfunctions – the hamsters in their little wheels would go hungry.” He describes his father as “full of movie quotes and recanted scenes, mementos to simplified truths and rewritten familiar stories that were increasingly irrelevant. He thought he was speaking sincerely of sacred teachings and essential social lessons, but watching Rambo never taught anyone life lessons; watching Wall Street never taught anyone how to do business; although watching Crocodile Dundee will teach you why no one likes the 1980s.” 

These observations may not be the stuff of philosophy but serve double-duty: showcasing Xavier’s sitcom-sidebar wit while also turning out the lining of a consciousness nurtured by Friends rather than the literary Canon.

At the lightly-balanced centre of this short book is a tension between creative and destructive impulses. Xavier’s desire to build meaning into his life and give it some sort of direction is evident from the names he’s tagged his homes with, to the fictional liberties that, as Felix points out, glare vividly from various sections of the manuscript. But Xavier can’t quite hide (or doesn’t quite want to hide) a latent impulse to violence that fractures his milquetoast image. Bold acts of arson (the literal vandalism in the book), threats to old acquaintances with firearms, and spray-painting over the truth (the figurative vandalism) are at odds with his placid self-portrait, and start to twist the reader’s perception with what has gone on before.

As a confession, this vandal’s is couched in a compact hymn to early 21st century existential angst rooted in the detritus of pop culture. But this isn’t about the artistic impulse so much as what can coil behind it. Reconciliation comes with a sinister change of tone when Xavier doesn’t smash the mirror but, rather, welcomes another image of himself into his own confession in what seems an ominous acceptance of his darker side.

Which enforces the notion that you should always be wary of who you pick up at the side of the road…

Pull up here.

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A Flash of Unbroken: A Journal of Prose

Unbroken: A Journal of Prose (Jan/Feb 2016 issue)

So simple and straightforward, but still substantial, Unbroken connects a rich read in brief stories, flips of imagery, and quick hits of literary vandalism. A mix of pictures and prose laid along short, sharp arcs of narrative and verse, with the concrete poured in-between. The collection seems to sort out its own internal rhythm: word into word; sentence through sentence; paragraph and paragraph. Or, you could just scatter them all over, and pick up each one on its own.

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Afloat with Domanski

Fetishes of the Floating World
Don Domanski
espresso
18 poems
2015

Sometimes, it spellbinds you like an old fairy tale focussed through a spyglass that zooms in and out with meditative rhythm. Other times, it fastens your attention down firm like an electron microscope drilling into the atomic level. However you experience it, Don Domanski’s Fetishes of the Floating World serves as both mystical work of art and exploration of modern poetic consciousness.

These 18 tightly interwoven poems are based in a postmodern pastoral setting – that is, both a walk in the woods and a step outside the mind. Fetishes provides a base for the poet to play with a Whitmanesque dialogue on the universal and the particular. But Domanski’s is a Whitman for the newest century, where we are awash in and overwhelmed by information and experience.

This is complex yet primordial stuff. The lyrics flow in dense waves from the narrating poetic consciousness. The instinctive will at its centre casts for a reprieve from mortality in science, nature and religion. At the same time, it attempts to, at first subsume, then simply coexist with, the universe as it draws in and out of its surroundings, as well as in and out of itself. At one point, the poet spies, in the heart of the landscape,

“[a]n old chevy convertible lying in a ditch
two maple saplings growing up through
its frame  one in the driver’s seat   one
in the back   the road ahead filled with
seasons…”

and, shortly after, will be hauled further in, towards “the place just beyond language…where the keening starts”.

At other moments, the poet abruptly backs himself out to focus on traditional muses like “the waning moon sleeved with a thin cloud” or leaps out further still to “exoplanets/and constellations” and “the scaffolding/to hang them on”.

This pulsing perspective, continually mixing subjective and objective, earthly and extraterrestrial, provides the overarching structure for the chapbook. Sometimes, the poet is transforming the scenescape into his own story; other times, he finds that he has been swallowed and tries to negotiate his way out and up again to a higher plane.

Domanski matches this constant shifting with a roiling imagery, stirring the fabulist in with the scientific (“watching/dark and votive chromosomes slowly drift/across the pond’s surface”) and the mundane with the hyper-modern (“flash mob of ants”).

Whitman, in another age, wrote about leaning, loafing, finding both the infinite and transient in blades of grass, sharing atoms, weaving the song of himself through them all, and becoming a veritable “kosmos” that contains it. Here, the 21st century bard has happily lost that battle and thrown himself into a universe where subject and object almost inextricably blend.

Float in through here.

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A Rollercoaster Read of A Free Man

A Free Man or, #6ix
By Michel Basilières
ECW Press
215 pages
2015

A Free Man is pretty close to an indescribable blend of way-post postmodernist art. At its most frameable, the structure is a whirling literary dervish that slips descriptors beyond such PoMo nomenclature as: Chinese puzzlebox; deep collection of nested narratives; onion with multiple layers of meaning; text of infinite regression, etc. etc. etc. But it’s also pretty fresh and fun.

The basic outline is conventional. A writer recounts a friend’s everyday travails that are filled with comic and sexual misadventures. The entertainment, however, is all in the dizzying execution that marks the book as a riddle wrapped in an enigma slapped silly.

The skeletal plot is based on the anti-picaresque adventures, as told to the narrator, of one “Skid Roe”. These involve a variety from garden to scifi, and include, more specifically: failed romance; the 9 to 5 working grind; internet porn addiction; a robot from the future named Lem; and time travel. And none of which are really to the benefit the aforementioned Mr. Roe.

The beauty here is in the anarchic entanglement of genre, intertextual references and dry humour, especially when primary recounter Michel Basilières fluffs the language up to describe the mundane, everyday activities that make up our social and commercial interactions. For example, Skid’s purchase of drugs at the pharmacy becomes a more profound sensory experience:

“I slipped my card into the slot under the keypad on the counter. I entered my number, pressed buttons. Machines communicated with each other, made a decision. The register let out a joyful chime, the cashier handed me my prize, and we waited while the keypad transcribed a record of its conversation with my bank’s computer and printed it. She tore it out of the slot like an old-fashioned tickertape stock quote and handed it to me.”

Such imagery strengthens the novel’s main discernable theme: an exploration of existential alienation in an increasingly connected yet disconnecting world.

Well, probably.

Basilières draws on pastiche, parody and wiseacrey from fellow literary piss-takers – such as when the footnotes take the story hostage from the main narrative à la Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman. Everything is just slightly off-kilter from the real world: “Toronto” becomes “toronto”; “America” is “Amerika”. One of Basilières’ antecedents in the literary-self-destruction genre even makes a cameo appearance, when former author/publisher/street-vendor Crad (here Krad) Kilodney shows up to add a little extra pontificatorial madness.

Whether you want to make sense of it or not is your decision, but A Free Man is an enjoyable literary wild-ride.

Line-up here for departure.

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A Read of the Rocks on Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain: The Legend of Han Shan and Shih Te, the Original Dharma Bums

By Sean Michael Wilson

Graphic Poetry Collection

Illustrated by Akiko Shimojima

Shambhala Publications Inc.

144 pages

2015

Whenever poetry reinvigorates itself as a broader cultural touchstone, the renewal often starts with those grassroots that nourish the base of the ivory tower, along with a populist head wind that keeps the shoots bent close to the ground. Take the Beats of several decades past, or the more recent underground crew of spoken word artists and performance poets. While the quality of work from these disruptors has varied, their desire to reshape tradition in their own image infuses raw passion and genuine wit back into the larger literary world.

In Cold Mountain: The Legend of Han Shan and Shih Te, the Original Dharma Bums, Sean Michael Wilson liberates the poems of the well-mythologized hobo-bard Han Shan from academic study back to the essential aspects of existence they reflect. Wilson mixes Han Shan’s legend and work with the pop aesthetic of Japanese manga graphic novels in a manner that respects the poetic tradition while morphing it into something a twenty-first century audience can recognize. Wilson, in fact, reintroduces us to the legend in the way that Beat poet Gary Snyder did with the Cold Mountain translations in his own Rip Rap collection. (In the process, he also aligned Han Shan with the Beat Generation and Jack Kerouac’s self-styled “Dharma Bums”.)

In his forward here, J.P. Seaton (whose translations are used by Wilson) notes that “Han Shan and Shih Te have come to America again…The two unlikely looking Bodhisattvas RE-ENTER a place they’ve been before. These reincarnations, set to live in a world of computers and global climate change, have a lighter and sharper feel than the several Han Shans who have come to visit us since Snyder’s Beats.”  These new versions, Seaton argues, are “better suited to a folk tradition that now includes a generation that has been raised on manga and anime.” And this literature/manga mash-up certainly pulls Han Shan and his work into modern pop culture.

Parts 1 and 2 of the book mix scenes from the history/myth of the daily lives of Han Shan and his fellow monk/poet/sidekick Shih Te (whether in meditative contemplation on the mountainside or holy-goofing at the temple) with their poems; works that were allegedly found on and copied from the rocks and trees of Cold Mountain itself. The effect is a bit of a literary cabaret, capturing the sense of raw wonder that the unadorned life allows, and reflecting the spontaneity of the artistic spirit.

Part 3 focuses on specific works, presenting a series of Han Shan’s poems narrated by stark, still imagery that re-focuses the reader’s mind on the objective rather than the subjective. The effect is serious, sobering and reflective, allowing the reader to stare at the ripples of the pond, rather than plunging him or her into its depths.

Scholars note that Han Shan’s original work was relatively colloquial and informal for its time and context (though maybe not as free as the verse of the Beats), and various translations have echoed aspects of that, in a variety of interptetations. Where Seaton’s translations are loose and chatty, those of the aforementioned Gary Snyder are more condensed, focused and imagistic. But, regardless of how one foot is placed in front of the other, both sets keep the profound meditations, and the little bit of joking.

And the manga angle here may not actually capture the Death Note fans. But it still serves as a useful tool to draw in the curious, and it allows an easy access point to something as potentially daunting but still highly-rewarding as centuries-old zen poetry.

Read the rocks.

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Reading the Bronwen Wallace Award Winner

Who I Think About When I Think About You
By Irfan Ali

Re-Origin of Species
By Alessandra Naccarato

Roads Home
By Chuqiao Yang

E-chapbooks presented by the Writers’ Trust of Canada – RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers

2015

Despite the kind of major corporate sponsorship that you figure might preclude anything riskier than introspective free verse or drole academia, the annual RBC Bronwen Wallace Award (given to members of the under-35 literary set who have not yet published full-fledged collections) actually aligns with some daring impulses.

The work of 2015 winner, Alessandra Naccarato, for example, showcases a short series of clipped yet sprawling, dark mini-epics set in a haunted poetry-scape where “(h)ope is white bone in the beak of a buzzard”. The selections from the other finalists are just as gripping and mature, and maybe a bit more streetwise: Irfan Ali’s lyrical meditations are slower-paced but much more sensual, while Chuqiao Yang’s pop culture pop-ups reflect a wide palette of imagery and broad range of emotion, pouring out anger, beauty, passion and humour.

Sure, the condensed nature of the electronic chapbooks showcasing the nominated work helps concentrate the quality of each poet; but the award and accompanying releases certainly direct attention to arresting new voices who have micropress edge and professional poise.

Direct yours here.

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