Monthly Archives: June 2014

BWS 09.07.14: S. Bear Bergman

Bear Bergman

S. Bear Bergman is an author, storyteller, and educator working to create positive, celebratory representations of trans lives. Recent and current projects include children’s storybooks featuring trans-identified kid characters, a performance about loving and living in a queer/ed Jewish family titled Gathering Light, teaching pleasure-positive trans/genderqueer sex ed, and his sixth book Blood, Marriage, Wine & Glitter (Arsenal Pulp, 2013). Bear answered a couple of questions for the blog this week, enjoy!

BWS: Your latest book, the essay collection Blood, Marriage, Wine & Glitter, opens with “The Really True Story, Once and for All, of How We Got Stanley (with Footnotes)” and “Starting a Family,” two pieces in which you consistently address encounters with privilege and normativity with humour. How do you understand the power of humour in such situations, and how does humour help you write about the topics that you do (in these two essays, queer parenting)?

Bear: Talking about privilege and normativity and how they work is always kind of a minefield, really, no matter which side of any of the questions you’re on or have ever been on. It makes people uncomfortable at best, and hostile at worst. What’s most interesting for me is that now that people read me as a relatively gender-normative white man all the time, I can speak about racism and sexism and homophobia and gender policing to other white men and they seem to really…listen, which was totally not the case when I was a white gender-nonconforming person people usually read as a woman. So I have a lot more opportunities to practice now, than I used to. As someone who works to be a co-resistor against oppression, the most useful thing I can do is often trying to get the other white guys to do better. Adding a little humor to the call-out helps it get heard just like the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.

But also, when I started doing gender and sexuality education, I was often booked into things like 8 a.m. Abnormal Psychology. There I would be, standing in front of three hundred hungover twenty-year-olds in pajama bottoms and flip-flops, trying to get them to listen to me while I talked for an hour. What I figured out in the first thirty seconds was that if the students are laughing, they’re listening (and in the second thirty seconds I learned that one bawdy remark can earn you the next five minutes of serious talking). As time passed and I figured out what worked, my talks developed into what one professor referred to as “either the funniest academic lecture or the smartest stand-up comedy routine I’ve ever seen.” And that, ultimately, is what I’m aiming for – I want to achieve an Eddie Izzard level of erudition combined with humor combined with insight. (I would also like a beach house, and a plastic rocket, and a pony, in case any genies are reading along.)

I can’t always find the funny. Sometimes I get really angry or scared or sad about what’s happening around me, and I fly into a rage or get in a protracted brawl on social media or have to just stop interacting with the awful thing and watch Veronica Mars on Netflix until I calm down a little. I recently had this around Bill C-36, the brutal and dehumanizing new proposed legislation about sex work. I patiently busted myths and offered perspectives, relying frequently on the work of friends associated with the Bedford case or with Maggie’s Toronto (a sex workers rights and advocacy organization), but then at some stage someone was just too horrible and I went TILT like a pinball machine and spent the next two hours shopping for vintage linens on eBay while sipping ice-cold chocolate milk. It happens. I try to be funny and positive and even-tempered and to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, but let’s not kid ourselves — there are days that all I want to do is go over to someone’s house with a rusty pail of rabid ferrets and make them see reason.

BWS: The essays “Get Up Everybody and Sing” and “Machatunim” talk sincerely of the strength of family-of-friends bonds, and don’t shy away from putting your real friends/family on the page. How do you deal with writing about real people that you care about? Do you seek their permission before publishing? Though what you’re saying is nothing but positive, do you feel the trepidation so many other writers feel about using real people?

Bear: As a queer and transsexual writer and performer, it has long been my habit to draw heavily on my personal life for inspiration and illustration. Because the experiences of people like me have so long been erased from media culture, it’s an artistic choice that seems both educational and, well, interesting. This has come, of course, with some very delicate balancing about who gets written into the stories and who is left out, what I feel I can speak about and what is better left unsaid. In my head, therefore, I have a complicated set of rules (and their attendant exceptions) about the personal — which accounts for so much of my subject matter — and the private; what I don’t write about. There is, however, a guiding principle: Don’t leave anyone feeling exposed.

That’s not a difficult principle to uphold, for me. On the one hand, discourse about transsexual experiences in particular continues to shade so strongly toward hard, bad, left out, cast out, betrayed, unwanted. Modern literary fashion strongly rewards the author for delving into the nakedly awful. But on the other hand, as both a storyteller and a Jew I am acutely aware of how important cultural transmission of our stories can be. I’m tender-hearted and optimistic in both my work and my personal life, and therefore enjoy writing uplifting stories and positive reflections. I don’t very often even consider writing my upset or frustrations with a particular person into my work. Far more likely is a description of some intimacy of friendship, or the recounting of an experience or adventure undertaken with someone I love, or have come to love. I really want to show warm places where a specific and real queer or transsexual person is known, and seen, to be well and happy.

Fortunately, my friends don’t feel any great need for privacy and my relatives are mostly used to my shenanigans. So, the principle against exposing people in my life is relatively easy to follow — at least, most of the time. But sometimes, I’m surprised. For example, I wrote into my show Machatunim/Gathering Light a line from my mother when she heard that my husband and I intended to have an entirely vegetarian wedding: “People are going to expect a real meal.” She later gave me permission to keep it in the show — in no small part because it’s just a really funny line. Though I offered to remove that bit if she felt ridiculed, I wouldn’t agree to remove the discussion of my parents’ long-past bad behavior concerning my gender expression or sexual orientation (though I did contextualize it) from other work. Those chapters give a sense of how far we’ve all come, together. I judge that to be essential to the narrative, and it trumps even my desire to protect my loved ones.

We will see in a decade, I suppose, how my now-four-year-old feels about being written about at such length in his relative smallness. Where other children only have to worry about that embarrassing toddler photo in which they’re wearing only a pair of red socks, my son’s early life is in the library – his journey of having long hair, his feelings about air travel, and so on. While I try to tell only the stories that show him in his better moments, he may feel otherwise and I can’t really predict. Ultimately, I feel the weight of responsibility to him. And yet, I also feel an equally strong and equally protective obligation to tell my full story to an audience that might not otherwise have imagined that a queer trans man could marry, have children, and riff about all this after a performance with his parents — who are still, after all these years, coming to the show.

S. Bear Bergman visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, July 9, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with Kirk DeMatas, Dorianne Emmerton and Tamai Kobayashi. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by literary agent Monica Pacheco, entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literary Agents *But Were Afraid to Ask”!

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BWS 09.07.14: Kirk DeMatas

Kirk DeMatas headshot

Kirk DeMatas is a Toronto-born poet and the author of two poetry collections, Wordspeak and Conversations with Skeletons. He has performed on television, radio and in various venues across Toronto, and frequently collaborates with fellow artists on music, video, film and dance projects. Kirk took time out from his current project — a third book — to talk to the BWS Blog about his work.

 

BWS: You often perform your poetry with musical accompaniment, (as you will at BWS on July 9!). Do you still read it unaccompanied? How do you find the approaches compare? What do you find the music brings to the poems? And what are the biggest challenges that come with reading poems to musical accompaniment?

Kirk: I like to mix things up when I read for an audience, so I tend to read a few pieces unaccompanied and then have a few pieces with musical accompaniment. I enjoy the variety and I especially enjoy seeing the reactions in the crowd when I call up Scott Taylor and Jeff Beaudoin of The Blackwater Project. My voice is naturally soft, so when I read my poetry without accompaniment, there is a vulnerability that comes through easily, but when I am accompanied by music, I find that my voice takes on a harder, rougher edge. The music adds another layer of feeling and tone to the pieces. I grew up watching a lot of big entertainers put on full shows with lights, dancers, background singers, and video clips, so I try to incorporate a super-compact version of that showmanship. The biggest challenge for me is timing. I can’t rush ahead or slow down to a crawl when I recite because I have to listen to the music and go with the flow — otherwise all those rehearsals in the studio were for nothing!

BWS: You work in many different media and forms: poetry and music, obviously, but also dance, dramatic arts, film, video and more. How do you pick your projects? And do you find it hard to choose which material goes into which medium? Do you experiment much, or do you always know which form will best fit which idea?

Kirk: The ideas usually pick the medium right from the start. I like to experiment and try new methods to express myself or to express an idea. I enjoy the challenge and rarely, if ever, does a project “fail,” because if I express what I need or want to, and everything turns out as I envisioned, then that is success to me.

BWS: One striking thing about your poetry is its focus on personal identity – “Witness Me” and “I,” for instance, talk about the struggle to know, to have, to protect one’s identity, not to mention one’s right to it. Tell us more about how and why identity figures so prominently in your work.

Kirk: I was raised in a Catholic household and though my parents did not groom me to become a priest, I did consider travelling up the ranks of the Church, even so far as taking my first steps by becoming a Eucharist Minister. However, my true identity had been suffering in silence (in the closet) like so many before. We are all complex individuals and I was frustrated that I was unable to exist openly and completely as a full person. I was frustrated that even though many around me openly expressed their disgust toward “modern-day” racism, some of those same individuals became extremely quiet when the topic of homophobia was brought up. When I finally came out to friends, I felt that sense of euphoria that I had heard my older gay male friends talk about. Not that this feeling of happiness and relief was directly related to whether or not friends accepted me, but moreso, that I was able to verbally express my identity, regardless of the opinions of others. Knowing who I am has given me so much power to not just exist, but to actually create my life. I think it is important that each and every one of us embarks upon a personal journey to discovering or clarifying identity.

BWS: Is there a difference in your poetry between “a” personal identity and “your” personal identity? Would you say your work largely comes from your own personal experience, self-discovery, etc.? If so, do you find it intimidating to put so much of yourself out there?

Kirk: I have written poetry that comments on the experiences of others, as well as social issues, but the bulk of my poetry is still autobiographical. When I was younger, if I was upset about something, sometimes the only way for me to feel better was to exorcise those negative feelings by writing them down. The more I wrote about my feelings, the better I understood myself. So even now, if I feel that urge to get a particular feeling out of my system, I have to comply. It can be intimidating to be naked on the page for others to see, but it can also be liberating. I have always been inspired by artists, singers and musicians who turned to their crafts to express their feelings, because at times, those pieces moved and comforted me. I would feel honoured if even one of my poems was able to connect with another person in a meaningful way.

BWS: And what about the identity you performed for Conversations with Skeletons? What is the image or character you’re portraying on the book cover, and what does it mean?

Kirk: Conversations with Skeletons was probably my most artistically fulfilling, emotionally exhausting, exhilarating, terrifying and cathartic project to date. The bird that is painted over my right eye is the sankofa, a West African symbol that states that before one can move forward successfully in the present and the future, one must look back to the past, to learn and make peace with it. I looked at 30 experiences that I considered self-defining or life-defining for me and I wrote each piece imagining that I was still in the moment. This was my catharsis. I travelled to the darkest places I could imagine in the hope that I would learn and make peace, and then come out at the other end of the tunnel and walk right into the light. Ironically, that is exactly what happened. I wrote this for my nephews so that when they grow older and experience the pain of heartbreak or other life lessons, they can look at me and see that I made it and find this same strength within themselves. If this book helps my nephews, my own future kids or anyone else to recognize their self-worth and power to take control of life, then my job is done.

Kirk DeMatas visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, July 9, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with S. Bear Bergman, Dorianne Emmerton and Tamai Kobayashi. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by literary agent Monica Pacheco, entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literary Agents *But Were Afraid to Ask”!

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BWS 09.07.14: Dorianne Emmerton

Dorianne Emmerton

Photo by G. Elliot Simpson.

Dorianne Emmerton is a writer, theatre reviewer and radio host. Recent publications include stories in Friend. Follow. Text #storiesFromLivingOnline and Issue #1 of Beer And Butter Tarts, as well as a personal essay in A Family By Any Other Name: Exploring Queer Relationships. Her passions include summer, furry animals, and craft beer. She stopped by the blog this week and answered  few questions about her work.

BWS: Your story, “A Series of Tubes,” (in Friend. Follow. Text, Enfield & Wizenty, 2014), plays darkly with the cliché that internet trolls are just lonely people who need love. And in “Barista Knows Best,” published in S/tick not so long before, your protagonist is on a date arranged over the internet. What is it about people’s online interactions that motivates you to write about them?

Dorianne: Primarily, it’s simply because I, and most people I know except for my parents, live in a world where the internet is significant. It is where we date, where we meet friends and grow friendships, where we stay in touch with those who may not live in the same city. I’m writing from experience. Even though a story like “A Series of Tubes” isn’t at all realism, it was inspired by my own life. I spent a good portion of my 20’s very active on an electronic-music oriented message board, and that’s how I first became aware of the elaborate maliciousness that goes into a troll persona. And it fascinated me: I was there because I had been very insecure and anxious and depressed and then I had a nervous breakdown that was very well-known about in my university program. I joined this message board and I could interact with new people without all of that baggage. Some of them became strong friendships that I still have and hopefully always will. When I met people in person and already had an established dynamic it took so much of the stress out of socializing. (The fact that we were usually dancing and on drugs probably didn’t hurt.)

So seeing trolls coming at the message board from pretty much the opposite direction was so interesting to me. They weren’t there to make friends, they were there to make enemies. They weren’t there to express themselves in relative safety, (which is how it seemed to me back then: now, of course, we know that the internet can be very dangerous indeed); they were there to make others feel less safe. I wanted to dive into that psychology, to feel empathy for the troll without excusing them for their behaviour, and I wanted to posit the internet as a place as valid as any other.

BWS: We learn later in “Barista” that the date has been arranged in order to find a sperm donor for the narrator– a fiction that sets off some echoes in your essay “I, Didi,” (A Family by Any Other Name, Touchwood, 2014), about your own relationship to parenting and your girlfriend’s choice to have a baby on her own. How different were the challenges of using this material in fiction versus non-fiction? Was it more difficult in one piece than in the other?

Dorianne: In “Barista”, I was exploring the similarity – and the difference – between online dating and online sperm-soliciting, and how it feels to be doing the latter when the former is so much more common. I guess I was working out the weirdness of it, but I was also imagining it from a straight woman’s perspective. Since I had been so assured that I would be childless, I hadn’t expected to ever think about fertility, and suddenly I learned all sorts of things about it. I realized that us queer people talk about this amongst ourselves quite openly and straight women don’t always have that. They’re expected to conceive within a relationship, and if they can’t – because of physical issues or because of the lack of a relationship – there’s a stigma, and that must be hard.

In my world right now, it’s: trans single dads, adoption, donor embryos, poly parents — there are a million ways for a family to exist! — so no one inside that bats an eye when they find out I don’t live with my partner and son. But then there’s the outside world, and we all have our challenges dealing with that. So I thought this character must exist, this single straight woman who wants a child so badly, but is all alone in that situation. I felt a lot of compassion for this character, so it was easy to be invested in her story.

“I, Didi”, on the other hand, was torture. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever written. It’s also been the best-reviewed, so hey, maybe crying over your keyboard works. I had to relive some very hard times. And it wasn’t fiction: everyone reading it would know that it really was me, and judge me accordingly. And I was also very anxious about writing about my son when he was too young to be able to consent to that information being made public. My partner read it and gave it her blessing, so I went ahead, but he is a whole different person. And the entire piece is about how I didn’t want him, and I’m putting it out there in the world where he can someday read it. Hopefully we’ll have a strong relationship by then, and will have communicated a lot and it will be fine, but still: terrifying.

(When “I, Didi” was written I still considered the kid to be my girlfriend’s and not mine, but now I identify as a parent – even though I live separately.)

BWS: In addition to your literary fiction, you write for the screen and the stage; your play Obscuring Jude was mounted at Gay Play Day in 2013, and past shows have been produced by Looking Glass Theatre (New York), Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and Erindale Fringe. How does writing for the stage inform the fiction you write? What can a prose writer learn from writing plays or screenplays?

Dorianne: Dialogue! I always notice when I read a book whether the characters talk in full sentences and never interrupt each other, or whether they go on tangents or break off like actual people do. I also notice when they all speak the same way: different people talk in different ways, and to fully flesh out characters they have to have distinct manners of communicating. And that helps create interpersonal dynamics as well: characters are better or worse at understanding each other depending on the similarity or difference of their communication styles. It also makes you really think about a character’s background, since that’s what will inform the way they speak.

I think experience playwriting also helps with immediacy, with cutting down on exposition. In theatre, you’re writing, “This conversation happens, this action happens, this moment happens” — it’s all very immediate. Exposition has to come from dialogue, or monologue, and you don’t write anything someone wouldn’t actually say. So when I’m writing prose and I get into exposition, I’ll ask myself, “Would any of my characters say this? Can I embed it in the action? If not, do I really need it?” Half the time I need to know the backstory, but the reader doesn’t.

BWS: You also write erotica, proudly, which might make you something of an exception among “literary” authors. Do you ever encounter a stigma related to your work in this genre? What might a “literary” author learn were one to take a crack at erotica, and how has it helped your literary fiction develop?

Dorianne: I think if the stigma is there, it gets to me before I know it. The information is on my website — if anyone thinks about publishing me, looks it up, and then emails the rejection letter instead, I have no idea that’s what happened. I don’t care, though; I’ve made a decision to not to hide or compartmentalize parts of my life – mostly because I’m terrible at it – and it’s much easier for me to navigate each day this way. I’m proud of my erotica, although I have to admit that it’s not as much work for me. I usually write it in between other stories, like ginger in between pieces of sushi, to cleanse my palate. I can’t just stop writing for a while when I get to the point where I need a piece of literary fiction to sit, or I’ve sent it out to readers and need to wait to see what they think, so instead of taking a full break, I take a porn break.

And I hate to think I’m trivializing the work of other eroticists, but that’s what it is to me. I don’t have to labour over, “Where is this going?”, because I know – one or more people are going to orgasm. And I don’t have to worry about what it’s about, because I’m just writing whatever scenario has been playing out in my brain during recent times of self-love. There is other erotica out there that is far more sophisticated than mine. But hey – I get paid for it more consistently than I do for literary fiction. So there’s that.

Dorianne Emmerton visits the Brockton Writers Series on Wednesday, July 9, 2014 — full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (7pm, PWYC) — along with S. Bear Bergman, Kirk DeMatas and Tamai Kobayashi. Come early, too (6:30) for a special talk by literary agent Monica Pacheco, entitled “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literary Agents *But Were Afraid to Ask”!

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Brockton Writers Series 09.07.14

BWS is proud to present out annual Queer Night! Wednesday, July 9, at full of beans Coffee House & Roastery (1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto), we feature four fabulous writers:

S. Bear Bergman, Kirk DeMatas, Dorianne Emmerton and Tamai Kobayashi!

Plus, come early — 6:30pm — for “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Literary Agents *But Were Afraid to Ask,” a special talk by Monica Pacheco, literary agent with Anne McDermid & Associates Ltd., which represents literary and commercial novelists and writers of non-fiction in the areas of memoir, biography, history, narrative science, investigative journalism and true crime, as well as children’s and young adult writers and writers in the fields of science fiction and fantasy.

The reading is PWYC (suggested $3-$5) and features a Q&A with the writers afterward. Books and treats are available for sale. Please note that while the venue is wheelchair accessible, washroom facilities are not.

Many thanks to the Ontario Arts Council for their support.

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As always, watch this space for more with each of our writers in the month to come!

AUTHOR BIOS:

S. Bear Bergman is an author, storyteller, and educator working to create positive, celebratory representations of trans lives. Recent and current projects include children’s storybooks featuring trans-identified kid characters, a performance about loving and living in a queer/ed Jewish family titled Gathering Light, teaching pleasure-positive trans/genderqueer sex ed, and his sixth book Blood, Marriage, Wine & Glitter (Arsenal Pulp, 2013).

Kirk DeMatas is a Toronto-born poet and the author of two poetry books, Wordspeak and Conversations with Skeletons. He has performed on television, radio and in various venues across Toronto, and frequently collaborates with fellow artists on music, video, film and dance projects. Kirk is currently writing his third book.

Dorianne Emmerton is a writer, theatre reviewer and radio host. Recent publications include stories in Friend. Follow. Text #storiesFromLivingOnline and Issue #1 of Beer And Butter Tarts, as well as a personal essay in A Family By Any Other Name: Exploring Queer Relationships. Her passions include summer, furry animals, and craft beer.

Tamai Kobayashi was born in Japan and raised in Canada.  She has lived in Calgary and Toronto, and is the author of Exile and the Heart and Quixotic Erotic. Prairie Ostrich, newly released by Goose Lane Editions, is her first novel.

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