var =storagespace[‘location’,’space’,’place’,’memory’]

Two and a half years now, I’ve rented a storage space. Four or five times I’ve visited it. Hundreds of pounds weight I’ve culled from it. Trashed, gifted, or sold. A dozen or so suitcases I’ve cargo-hold-enfolded and cabin carried from there to here. What’s left? Documents, mostly. Books, letters, photographs, tax records, artworks, notebooks. Files from a former life, lived in a former place. A string of variables.

var =storagespace[‘location’,’space’,’place’,’memory’]

In JavaScript, a variable is an amount of memory space reserved to store a piece of information. When a system does not correctly manage its memory allocations, it is said to leak memory. Three mornings in a row now I’ve willed myself to wake from vivid dreams itemizing the remaining contents of my storage space. Tomorrow I’ll fly to Montreal to attempt to empty it once and for all.

Somewhat unhelpfully, over the past two and a half years, various friends have suggested that I “just get rid of it all” because “no one needs things any more.” All information is available online. All archives can and should be made digital. These friends have garages, obviously, and/or parents with basements. Many of these friends have iPads and laptops and cars and plasma screen TVs, which they do not consider to be things. And many of these same friends publicly expressed outrage at the news that CBC has been quietly dismantling its archives of LPs and CDs across Canada – a cultural treasure trove built over decades.

If there’s anything more fetishized than vinyl in the face of the digital homogenization so many aspects of our daily lives are undergoing, it’s hand writing. And very old paper. Websites such as Brain Pickings send out a steady stream of tweets announcing the uncovering of rare and wonderful letters, drawings, chapbooks, notes, lists, maps, and other ephemera and marginalia, most often by long-dead authors, artists, scientists and medieval monks. 30 March 2012 The Guardian ran a review of As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Diaries 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag, and 30 March 2012, an article announcing: Angela Carter’s teenage poetry unearthed at old school. The current collective bravado about entrusting the production, dissemination, curation, sharing, and storage of the cultural artifacts our daily lives to digital cloud storage and social networks and the devices these live archives engender seems to be underwritten by a deep seated belief that somebody has all the hard copies in storage somewhere, and that new old things will continue to be discovered.

Archival photo: my Montreal desk, from when it was still okay to have lots of things.

Tomorrow morning I’ll fly to Montreal to sift through what’s left of my once extensive archive of notebooks, letters, postcards, hand-drawn maps, childhood diaries, grade school poetry, high school essays, art school sketchbooks, earliest dot matrix print outs from first stabs and digitally distributed networked fiction, Mac II boot discs, floppies containing the first hypertextual nonlinear narrative I made on the Amiga in – oh who can remember what years these things happened in anymore… my instinct says: BURN EVERYTHING. Because none of us knows what to keep and what to throw away.

Well Mack the finger said to Louie the King
I got forty red white and blue shoe strings
And a thousand telephones that don’t ring
Do you know where I can get ride of these things
And Louie the King said let me think for a minute son
And he said yes I think it can be easily done
Just take everything down to Highway 61.
Bob Dylan, Highway 61

One pallet I’ll ship to England, air cargo. The rest must be dispensed with. To jet or to jettison? Of every variable in the string var=storagespace I will ask this question. Choice items returning the result jettison will be on offer at a garage sale held indoors in the studio space of jake moore and Steve Bates. Friends help friends throw stuff out. Good friends help friends ship, sell, or otherwise find homes for no longer necessary but still functional, useful, even beautiful things.

a garage sale, but in an art studio
6250 Hutchison #404, Montreal
Sunday 15 April 2012
11 AM to 4 PM.

Please come by to say hi. It may be my last chance to see you, you clever and stylish Montreal folk. Leave with books, music, art catalogs, hand-made hand-painted dishes, storage devices such as wooden drawers and a steamer trunk and a rather fine two-door armoire, other furniture such as end tables, office supplies including and inordinate number of manila envelopes and file folders, old school art supplies like charcoal, and actual art in fact. Many of these items will be surrendered for free if you can convince me you will provide good homes for them. Come say hi and leave with art and joy in your heart.

a list long as my arm of places travelled to this past year, arranged chronologically by name

This is a list of names of places travelled to this past year. Places which took more than half an hour to get to by car or by train, or more than an hour to walk to. Places in which a day was spent, or a night, or a meal. Places involving a strange bed, a map, a menu pondered over, a view contemplated, a waterfront walked along, a walk of any kind, a bookshop, a library, a companion, a conversation, a conference, a performance, a spot of shopping, or any combination there of. Places I remember.

This list does not include the names of airports or ferry terminals or motorway service stations or other such in between places. Nor does it include the names of all the places that travelled to me, via visitors, phone calls, postcards, packages, skype, the interweb, books and films. It doesn’t bother with the countless trips into Dartington or Totnes to purchase provisions and no doubt forgets about a few of the impromptu excursions further afield to South Devon beaches, pubs, and dear friends’ homes.


Though this list begins at home at Sharpham House, and ends at home at Sharpham House, with no other instances of Sharpham House listed, there were certainly stretches of home in between, spent doing pretty much what Elizabeth Bishop imagines herself doing in the “crypto-dream-house,” she longs to walk as far as in The End of March. Which is to say, despite, or perhaps because of all the travel this past year, and though Sharpham is the antithesis of a “sort of artichoke of a house,” there were also many days in which I did nothing but:

look through binoculars, read boring books,
old, long, long books, and write down useless notes,
talk to myself, and, foggy days,
watch the droplets slipping, heavy with light.

Sharpham House
Start Point
Sennen Cove
Peggy’s Cove
Lime Regis
Burgh Island
La Rochelle
Temple sur Lot
St. Ives
St. Austell
Sharpham House

Pondering an almost sanguine acceptance of a sudden and inconceivable absence

I am Canadian. Both my parents were American. I spent most of my summer vacations with my grandparents in New York City. They lived on the tenth floor of a fifteen-floor co-op apartment building in Queens. The bedroom windows had clear views of the twin towers. The North Tower was completed in December 1972, six months after I was born, and the South Tower was finished the month of my first birthday. I don’t remember a time before them. I don’t remember the view without them. I do remember my grandmother making disparaging remarks about them. Most New Yorkers did. They were harsh, they were brash. The New Yorkers were, I mean. The towers were impervious. Metal and glass. Modern. Gigantic. Purposelessly so, went the argument. Hundreds of commercial and industrial tenants, property owners, small businesses and residents were forcibly evicted to make way for them. And there they stood. Half-empty, at first, from what I understood. My mother had an office job in one of them once. My grandmother took me to the top of the other of them twice. From that square patch of high wind world the whole city seemed to shift and sway.

The evening of September 10, 2001, I decided to resign from the software company I was working at at the time. I was somewhat preoccupied when I arrived at the office the next morning. The one of my co-workers told me. The internet froze. I called my grandparents and couldn’t get through. I called my cousin on Long Island. She knew all about it already, in that way that certain New Yorkers seem to know all about everything already. It was an accident, she informed me. It was an amateur pilot in a small plane, she went on the explain. Turn on the television, I implored her. I stood by my desk in Montreal listening to her listening to her television in her den in her huge empty house on Long Island. She was silent for a while, in a way I’d never heard her be before. And then: It’s that Bin Ladan, she said. He hates us. Pause. I have to go. Click. I didn’t hear from her again that day.

I was still standing by my desk holding the phone when the head of HR walked by. We need some televisions, I said. I need a television right now, I clarified. When I saw it, on television, I said, to whomever was standing next to me: My grandparents can see this from their bedroom window. It was evening by the time I got word from another cousin, stranded on the Jersey side of the Hudson, that my grandparents had spent most of the day in their car in a traffic jam on the BQE. It was slightly more complicated than that, but it was basically that. The circumstances of the day were so extraordinary that for two octogenarians to have spent all day in a car on a gridlocked highway constituted incredibly good news. They were on right side of the closed bridges. By right side I mean home side. They didn’t see the planes hit from their bedroom window. They didn’t watch the towers collapse from their bedroom window. By the time they got home, the towers were rubble and smoke.

The gap my grandparents experienced inside the bubble of their car, inside and yet outside of spectacle even as it was unfolding, may explain in part why, when I finally got hold of my grandmother, she sounded so utterly unfazed by the day’s events. We’re fine, she said. We went to donate blood. But they don’t want it. So we’re donating to charity instead. Not cheerful exactly. But impossibly matter of fact.

A few days later Mayor Giuliani said the best thing anyone could do for New York was spend money in it. I called my grandmother. Of course, you’re always welcome here, she said. I bought a plane ticket. September 19, 2001. We circled once, before our final approach to Laguardia. We banked south west of the still soldering hole. For those of you on left hand side of the plane, the pilot said. I arrived at my grandparent’s apartment at seven in the evening. A warm but somewhat bemused welcome. Now, she said, explain to us again why you’re here? I tried to explain about how I needed to see for myself. There’s nothing to see, she said, in a perfectly normal tone of voice. And anyway, the trains aren’t running. People are walking, I said. I’d seen them on the news, streaming past City Hall in droves. There’s no more City Hall, she said. Slowly, and by slowly I mean painfully, it dawned on me that, even eight days after one of most televised events in history, and despite the fact that she could still see lower Manhattan from her bedroom window, my grandmother, who lived the first thirty odd years of her life below Second Street, seemed to believe and to have calmly accepted that all of lower Manhattan was completely gone.

World Trade Center, August 2010

Ten years on and I still don’t know what to make of this almost sanguine acceptance of a sudden and inconceivable absence. Surely it was shock induced. What do the philosophers have to say on this subject? Has Paul Virilio already written a book about just this sort of thing? I haven’t done much in the way of research. Ten years on and I don’t fully understand how or why or what or whom to mourn. The 2,977 civilians who died as a result of terrorist attacks on American soil; the 4474 men and women of the US military and the over 108,000 Iraqi civilians who have died as a direct result of the invasion and occupation of a nation which had nothing whatsoever to do with the attacks of September 11th; the the over $900 billion of US taxpayers’ funds spent or approved for spending on Iraq rather than health care, education, housing, art or deficit reduction; or the sad fact that the executions of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Ladan have not improved the lives of American citizens in any way? All of these things at once. And many others.

My grandmother didn’t die in a terrorist attack. She died in a heart attack. Days before the second US invasion of Iraq. After her funeral, back at her apartment, the family weighed in. Two cousins where for the invasion. One girlfriend agreed. The wife of a relative I’d only just met questioned me closely on the quality of life in Canada. In the event of a draft she intended to send her son north. The hawkish cousins scoffed at this. I pointed out that I was born in Canadian because my father evaded the Vietnam draft. The hawkish cousins insinuated that this proved their point. My grandfather was the only one in the room who had ever been to war. The Great War. The Pacific arena. He witnessed the razing of Manila. But no one sought his opinion. And anyway, he wasn’t listening. For the past few days at intermittent intervals he’d been asking if anyone knew what had become of my grandmother’s rings. He had given them to me himself. I was wearing them. I kept showing him my hands.

The Writer on Holiday

iam mens praetrepidans auet uagari,
iam laeti studio pedes uigescunt.

Exited thoughts now long to travel;
Glad feet now tap in expectation.

Catullus, XLVI


Very early Thursday morning I will board a ferry in Plymouth, England, bound for Roscoff, France, thus embarking on what in common parlance is known as a holiday, though I hesitate to call it one per se, having recently re-read Roland Barthes essay, The Writer on Holiday. According to Barthes the holiday is a recent phenomenon, linked to the rise of the worker class. How very proletarian a notion: the holiday with pay. How very bourgeois of the reader to acknowledge with parsimony the prosaic necessities of the proletarianized writer, “that this phenomenon can henceforth concern writers, that the specialists of the human soul are also subjected to the common status of contemporary labour.”

“What proves the wonderful singularity of the writer, is that during the holiday in question, which he takes alongside factory workers and shop assistants, he unlike them does not stop, if not actually working, at least producing. So that he is a false worker, and a false holiday-maker as well. One is writing his memoirs, another is correcting proofs, yet another is preparing his next book. And he who does nothing confesses it as truly paradoxical behaviour, an avant-garde exploit, which only someone of exceptional independence can afford to flaunt. One then realizes, thanks to this kind of boast, that it is quite ‘natural’ that the writer should write all the time and in all situations. First, this treats literary production as a sort of involuntary secretion, which is taboo, since it escapes human determinations: to speak more decorously, the writer is the prey of an inner god who speaks at all times, without bothering, tyrant that he is, with the holidays of his medium. Writers are on holiday, but their Muse is awake, and gives birth non-stop.” [Barthes 27]

Fortunately, as it would appear from Barthes that – whilst their presumably female Muses are giving birth non-stop – all writers are men, many of these problems may not apply to me. I fully intend to read relentlessly on my holiday, but only books in which nothing much happens. On 22 July 2011 The University of Chicago posted a video of the Pearl Anderlson Sherry Memorial Poet Lecture presented 29 March 2011 by Lyn Hejinian, who spoke – quite brilliantly, I thought – on time in Gertrude Stein’s Lucy Church, Amiably. The title this early Stein novel refers to the site of both it’s writing and of it’s setting – Lucey, France. Gertrude and Alice purchased a holiday home in the region in 1926 or so. In the special perversity of writers in holiday homes, rather a lot of writing got done there. Discordant to the title of Hejinian’s paper, Lateness: The Latitudes Lucy Chruch, Aimably, I ordered the novel immediately and am highly anxious to have it arrive before I leave.

I do worry over the involuntary secretion Barthes mentions. It is my ardent hope that this blog post siphons off whatever excess travel writing tenancies may have built up in my system so that I depart having already written of travel and return refreshed to write of home. There are of course other secretions as involuntary as no less embarrassing than literary production to contend with when travelling. Perspiration, in particular. We become unaccustomed to sweating in England. When we travel to warm places we sweat copiously and spill foreign food items on our clothing at a rate directly proportional to the amount of fresh laundry we have left in our suitcases. I can’t remember where the narrator is travelling to in Lorie Moore’s brilliant short novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? because I read the novel whilst travelling and now have no idea where it is or if indeed I ever owned a copy. False holiday-maker, copious note taker, wherever I was when I read this book I find now that I copied then this, the most relevant of all possible (in this context) involuntary secretion quotations:

“My body fights travel, sends up the weapons of a homeless person, the boundaries thinly drawn, the body with its own knowledge, disorientations, defences: the winy sweat, the cheesy shit.”

In honour of Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday 21 July 2011 I re-read Understanding Media, in which McLuhan argues many half-mad half presciently brilliant things. Among them, he states:

“The book reader has always tended to be passive, because that is the best way to read.”

I completely disagree. In a typically proletarian writer on holiday way, even when I read for pleasure – a somewhat dubious distinction from the reading I do for research, which is almost entirely also done for pleasure – I read in a active, demanding, participatory, bordering on aggressive way. I underline passages, annotate margins, dog-ear pages, walk away, look stuff up, talk back to the book, talk about the book behind it’s back, and, if the book is any good, steal its best bits. The [generalized] bourgeois “book reader” McLuhan and Barthes both refer to is obviously not a writer. The writer reads on holiday. And, since, for the [generalized] writer, reading is a vocation, in reading as in writing, there can be no vacation.

The world vacation comes from the Old French word vacation, from the Latin vacti, vactin-, freedom from occupation, from vactus, past participle of vacre, to be empty, at leisure. The current French word for vacation is vacances and – to hell with Barthes – come hell or high water (though hopefully not high water as the ferry journey is a long one), as of very early Thursday morning, to the best of my abilities, I plan to be en vacances.


Roland Barthes, “The Writer on Holiday,” Mythologies,, NY: FSG, 1991

McLuhan, Marshall, Understanding Media, London: Routledge, 1964

Lorie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, NY: Warner Books, 1994

I’m in Karlsokrona, Sweden.

It’s dark at the moment, and very far from Montreal. It took one taxi, two planes, two passport controls, two trains, eighteen hours and six time zones to get here. The taxi took the best route to the airport. The first plane was empty. It took me to Washington DC. The second plane was full. It took me to Copenhagen. It took eight hours. A long-haul red-eye spent in seat 46B – on the isle in the last row. Right next to the toilet. Which is right next to where the food comes out. I was enraged about this arrangement until I met my seatmate. 46A happened to be a Norwegian novelist named Astrid, a woman around my age who was on her way back from Mexico City. We instantly became Team Last Row and determined to make the best of it. We talked for hours about books and writing, socialism and publishing, travel and translation. I got the low down on the lay of the Scandinavian literary landscape. And an invitation to write an article for a Norwegian authors’ website that Astrid edits. Astrid got a copy of my novel. She is going to be the first person in Norway to read Words the Dog Knows. Sadly, none of her three novels have been translated into English yet. We wrote reading recommendations for each other in our matching black notebooks and got extra free wine because we were in such good spirits despite how hard our seats sucked. The flight crew knew enough to be grateful for our good humour.

We parted ways in Copenhagen. I followed my Swedish host Talan’s Map and How to Catch a Train instructions to the letter. They were excellent instructions, which included such all important details as which ticket booth will take Canadian cash and the amazing (to someone from Quebec) fact that the conductors on Swedish trains are required by law to speak English. The instructions sort of fell apart when none of the automated ticket machines were working and long lines formed at the ticket booths. I eventually managed to procure a ticket to Karlskrona and soon I was on a train speeding through the Swedish countryside. Technically the train was going to Karlskrona, but not all the way. I wound up waiting for an hour in a freezing cold station somewhere half way between Copenhagen and Karlskrona for another train to take me the rest of the way. Once I figured out where the one hot water heater was hiding in the cavernous cold, and huddled up to it, I was free to be amused by the waiting room cast of small town characters culled from the casts of My Life as a Dog and Mon Uncle. An old man spent the entire hour meticulously washing the flagstone floor by pushing a rag mop along with his boot, for example.

On the second train, a man came by interviewing passengers about their use of the train system. The whole car listened with attention as the questions were translated into English for me. I’m sure I skewed the survey’s demographic considerably. Where did you board the train? Copenhagen. What was your point of origin? Montreal. What is your final destination? Karlskrona. What is the purpose of your travel to Karlskrona? To give a lecture. And how often do you use this train service? This is my first time. By this time the whole train car was listening. Soon a second interview ensued, this one from my Swedish seatmate, a gap-toothed affable chap, who found it incredible that I would travel all this way to give one lecture and then go home. Well, I’m giving a workshop too, I explained. He apologized for the cold, lifted my suitcase into the overhead rack for me, lowered the blind so the sun wouldn’t blind me, let me sleep for a while, then tapped my knee to say good bye when he got up to leave. Because we were old friends by then I guess.

Speaking of friends, my friend Talan met me at the Karlskrona train station and walked me too my hotel. I have Talan to thank for being here. When he first invited me, over a single malt scotch in a hotel bar in the small town of Vancouver, Washington, I never thought it would actually happen. And then there we were walking through the streets of cold Karlskrona. Once I was checked into my hotel, Talan left me alone to recuperate from my travels. He ran off to a meeting and then home to prepare a welcoming reception for me set to take place at his place later this evening. Which is almost now.

Now I’ve had a nap and my brain is clearer, though body has no idea what time it is. I’m starving. I’m sucking on a cough drop trying to stay alive the next 50 minutes until Lissa comes to pick me up to take me to the reception at Talan’s, being thrown in honour of my having come all this way. Rumor has it there will be smoked baltic salmon and caviar and cheese and crackers and single malt scotch! Come on cough drop, keep me in this thing!
. . . . .

Vancouver BC: An Inventory of Mostly Minor Injuries

May 22: My mother-in-law drove me to the airport during rush hour. To avoid the Metropolitan Autoroute she took a crazy back-roads route through neighbourhoods I didn’t even know we had in this city, including a Little India and a warren of apartment buildings that may or may not have been Ville Saint-Laurent. I gasped and clutched the dashboard a number of times, but a civilized conversation was maintained throughout, in French, and no injuries were sustained.

On the plane I sat next to a short fat neurotic woman who reminded me a little too much of certain people I’m related to. Throughout the five and a half hour flight she fiddled endlessly with an enormous handbag, forever foraging in it for candies with crinkly wrappers and discovering other half-eaten stashes of food. When I asked her to let me out to go to the washroom she left this purse and various other packages on the floor in front of her seat. Stepping over them I stumbled and fell into the armrest and by the time I got to the washroom I had a vicious arm-reset shaped bruise on my thigh.

In the washroom, massaging my new bruise, I was confronted with evidence of just how old the airplane was that we were all hurtling across the continent in. There was a metal foldout ashtray built in just below the sink – like the kind that used to come standard in the backseats of Buicks and Caddies and other gigantic valour-upholstered cars of the 1980s. Above the sink there was small horizontal hole in the wall. A diagram of a double-sided razor blade clearly indicated that this was an ideal place for disposing of double-sided razor blades. When this plane was built razor blades and cigarette lighters were allowed through airport security and smoking on board was permitted in rows 39 through 23. Those were simpler times my friends, simpler times.

Our flight arrived in Vancouver early. When does that ever happen? Tributaries & Text-Fed Streams curator Kate Armstrong picked me up at the airport and drove me to my friend Emilie’s where I’d be spending the next two nights. Emilie had sent driving instructions but I had forgot to print them. That’s all right, Kate said, I know where we’re going – I just don’t know the address. That was the only thing I did know: 919 number 9, I said. I may be no good with names or faces or dates or following directions, but I do have a head for numbers.

Emilie and I were roommates during a residency at the Banff Centre in 2006. When we first got there we had The Loudest Room. We joined forces and eventually got moved to a way quieter room, one with a balcony and a mountain view. She stayed at my place in Montreal late summer 2007 and directly thereafter many amazing projects came my way, including Tributaries & Text-Fed Streams, so as far as I’m concerned Emilie is good luck. Her apartment is massive by Vancouver standards. She has a balcony and a mountain view, but her bedroom is even louder than The Loudest Room. Luckily I always travel with earplugs and had an extra pair for her. So much to catch up on yet, one glass of wine and we went right to sleep.

May 23: Jetlag was my friend in the morning when I still had lots of work to do in advance of the impending Tributaries & Text-Fed Streams launch, but jetlag was not my friend later that evening. I went for a walk to clear my head and was amazed to discover that Vancouver has colours we just don’t have in Montreal, and some crazy-looking trees I’ve never seen before. Back at Emilie’s we set about preparing to have a few people over for a Welcome to Vancouver / Reunion with Long-Lost Friends party. It turns out Emilie and I have dozens of long-lost friends in common and they’re all long lost friends of each other. Except for this one random girl, a friend of our friend Sameena who met her on the bus on way over, invited her in and she said sure. That’s when you know it’s a real party: when there’s someone there who doesn’t know anyone else.

As the evening unfolded we traveled back in time. Our stories crisscrossed and doubled back again in our retelling of them. We enacted a performance of remembering, drew maps of the interconnections between us that even we couldn’t follow, amazed ourselves with tales of what we’d been up to since we’d last seen each other and marvelled to find ourselves together again all in one room. Thrilled as I was to see everyone, I was falling asleep by 11PM. Everybody has to leave now, I whispered in Emilie’s ear at midnight. As soon as they were gone I missed them. Even the random girl.

May 24: By the time I woke up Emilie had already washed the kitchen floor – a gargantuan task. How could a dozen Long-Lost Friends make such a mess? I started in on the dishes. All was going fine despite the fact that doing dishes isn’t my sport and neither of us had had any coffee and there was none in the house. We were just discussing how and when to procure coffee when under the sudsy water the stem of a wine glass snapped in half and sliced the inside of my left thumb open. The wound was deep. It bled profusely. In seconds there was blood all over the recently washed kitchen floor and some blood on Emilie’s foot too. The blood didn’t freak her out so much as the steely resolve with which I insisted on rinsing the wound in cold water.

I was in shock. And I was furious. I had been working on Tributaries for six months and The Capilano Review had invited me out to Vancouver to launch it and now what if I couldn’t deliver? I was far from home. I hadn’t had any coffee. I am unused to having no idea what to do. Emilie bandaged me up and insisted I eat some eggs. I ate with my thumb above my head, and tried to sort out how I would know if I would need stitches or not. I couldn’t remember if I’d ever needed stitches before. The thought of spending the whole day in an emergency room enraged me. As did the difficulty of eating eggs over-easy whilst holding one bloody throbbing thumb in the air. At least it was my left thumb.

The phone rang. It was clearly someone Emilie didn’t want to talk to. I can’t talk right now, J.R.’s bleeding, she said, but the caller kept on talking. Finally my wound made itself useful. Blood began seeping out over my band-aid and dribbling down the back of my hand. Dude, I managed to intone, holding my thumb out in my friend’s direction. There’s really a lot of blood, she told the caller and hung up.

As soon as we were done eating Emilie got online and started searching for walk-in clinics. We took a taxi to the first one we found open on a Saturday AM that said they’d do stitches. The next part of the story is quite grizzly, but here are the good parts: We didn’t have to wait. Emilie was allowed into the exam room with me and was willing and able to squeeze the hell out of my other hand during the procedure. The doctor was our age and he had a sense of humour. Stitches were indeed needed, five of them! And a Tetanus shot. This goes into the “good parts” category because at least we weren’t over-reacting. While he was stitching me up the doctor asked me lots of questions to distract me. When he discovered that I was in town to launch a new project that evening and tried to get me to explain what it was about. Emilie admitted she had no idea what Tributaries was about either. I proceeded to fail miserably to explain the poetics of RSS. This goes into the good parts category because at least it got us all laughing. I got a big bandage and free drug samples. The best part was when it was all over we went outside and discovered a French café directly across the street from the clinic. There was a table in the sun on the terrace. We literally ran across the street toward that table in the sun.

Somehow we still had time to take the bus back to Emilie’s place, bathe (awkwardly) pack (sloppily) and haul my stuff downtown to the hotel I’d be staying in for the rest of my stay in Vancouver thanks to The Capilano Review. We made it to the gallery more or less on time for one of the worst technical set-ups I’ve ever been through. The internet connection conked out every time the cordless phone received a signal. The data projector would talk to some laptops and not others and for about an hour there it insisted on projecting upside down. I still in shock from the thumb wound. My brain was not functioning properly. At some point I gave up and went out to find Emilie and our friend Billy who’s artwork was just about the only thing functioning in the gallery at that moment. They were conveniently located in a near by park. I sank down onto the grass in despair. Billy consoled me with a neck rub. The weather was glorious and the view was stunning, all of which helped a lot.

It was hot in the gallery. I was flushed and overwrought. I had a change of clothes with me, but decided to save them for some other day as my BO would only sully them and even two days into this trip I was all about making my fresh laundry last as long as possible. I didn’t dare have a drink, what with the shock and exhaustion and jetlag and pain medication, but fortunately for us all the DJ was one of the most positive, helpful and energetic human beings I’ve ever met and between him and the Long-Lost Friends, who turned out in droves, soon my energy was restored to near functional levels.

All things considered, the event itself went remarkably well. A good crowd came out. The internet connection didn’t conk out once during my performance. After my bit was done, a number of other folks performed riffs on the theme of Tributaries & Text-Fed Streams including my perpetually long-lost but always eventually found again friend Michael Boyce. With profound relief I witnessed the project moving beyond me, out into discourse as it were. Many people came up to me after and admitted that they hadn’t understood the project at all before hand but now they did, which was a load off my mind. The curator and commissioning body all seemed happy and eventually it was over and I had chic boutique a hotel room waiting for me, hurrah!

In an attempt to pull the hotel room window closed for the night I managed to both bang and cut my right elbow, which hurt like hell, but everything is relative after having already had stitches earlier in the day. I took a massive doctor-endorsed pain killer and slept and slept and slept.

May 25: The great thing about sustaining a bloody injury and yet somehow getting through the day is that for days afterward everything else seems lovely in comparison. “The day after” was bliss. Two dear long-lost friends made me breakfast in the morning and organized a beach BBQ in the evening to which many more long-lost friends flocked and there was food and beer and a Frisbee and a dog and a glorious sun set and really the only difficulty we had was that we were too lazy to walk all the way to the restrooms so we waited till we were driving out and by then we thought we might die of needing to pee but of course we didn’t die at all. After availing ourselves of the facilities we amused ourselves by taking pictures the lights of distant Vancouver. Surely it’s a sign of true friendship when we enjoy each other’s company so much that it doesn’t seem strange at all to spend a half an hour taking pictures together in the dark.

May 26: No injuries were incurred on this day. Only some slight confusions. Long-lost Michael and I went for breakfast. He forgot his phone and had to go back for it. Then we went for a long walk. He pointed out that many buildings in Vancouver have nautical elements in their architecture. Down by the waterfront I said: Wow, this building looks like a cruse ship. It actually was a cruse ship! How embarrassing!! And yet what a relief. I mean it would have been pretty strange if every single one of the condo owners in the building had the exact same deck chairs.

Later I went to meet Emilie at the gallery she works. She was going to let me in to see the show for free but I couldn’t find her anywhere. I thought I’d missed her, but then through the magic of text messaging another long-lost friend who works at the same gallery came and found me in the lobby and just then Emilie found us and soon all was well. The exhibition was awesome, but by this time I was dead tired. Luckily there was a movie playing in a darkened room equipped with comfy couches. Let’s face it, there’s hardly ever a comfy couch in the middle of the day in a public place at just the moment when you need a nap.

Later still I went to dinner with a long-lost friend who had been at the Welcome to Vancouver party, the Tributaries Launch and the Beach BBQ. Previous to the Welcome to Vancouver Party we hadn’t seen each other for fifteen years; we still had a lot of catching up to do. We decided to eat at a Thai place with a terrace. We knew it was the right place because my orange and fuchsia top matched the décor. The heat lamp over the terrace was so hot we thought we’d have to move inside but then we came up with a brilliant idea: We asked the waiter to turn off the heat lamp and he did. Every one else on the terrace cheered. Why didn’t any of them think to ask the waiter to turn the heat lamp off, we wondered?

After dinner long-long-lost friend and I went for a long long walk along a beach and took pictures in the dark… I guess this happens fairly often in Vancouver. We walked and walked and talked and talked and wound at pub, which is exactly what we used to do when we knew each other the first time around. The big difference being: the first time around I was twenty and too lonely to notice that I was surrounded by friends. And now, boy, do I know better. No I know that long-lost friends almost always remember things differently than you do. They remember the good things; they have the power to give back pieces of the past to you untarnished and intact.

The present is a gift, as Michael Boyce says.

June 3: Back in Montreal. I took my stitches out myself. The wound appears healed yet it still hurts. The scar is hardcore. The long-lost friends are all lost again but hopefully not for too long. In the meantime, I miss you all a lot.
. . . . .

The Stones of Halifax

Halifax is one of those cities that used to be great, back when the world was a different place. Back when navel might meant more than nightlife. Back when ships had sails and guns had bayonets, Halifax was one hopping town. Like Carthage, until the Romans burned it to the ground. Like Saint Louis, until… well, I’m not sure what happened to Saint Louis, and I realize it’s inland, but still, walking around Saint Louis you can tell it used to be one heck of a town.

Halifax still has this weird beauty. Part of it is just good genes. Like high cheekbones, they never get old. Halifax has some natural assets that neither time nor the global economy can wear away. The ocean, for one. The deep harbour still comes in handy. As James Salter writes of Barcelona at dawn: “All the great avenues are pointing to the sea.”

Fog has a way of making dilapidation seem intentional. As Ruskin writes of Venice in the final period of her decline: “a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak – so quiet, – so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow.” I had never noticed before how much this portion of NSCAD looks like a Venetian Palazzo.

There are some very hip restaurants in Halifax now, even by Montreal standards. And there are funky clothing boutiques that I can’t afford to buy things in; is that a sign of progress? Condo developments crust the waterfront like barnacles, hastily thrown up and unsightly. Half the storefronts on Barrington Street stand empty, the same as ever. I was in Halifax the day the NFB building burned down. When was that, fifteen years ago? The façade still stands charred and buttressed with timber, the window-plywood heavily postered. Next door the Kyber Art Centre hangs on by a thread. Across the street from these ruins: a restaurant called Chives and a café called Ciboulette. As a Montrealer I find this perplexing. A friend and I meet for tea at Ciboulette. We haven’t seen each other in almost two years but the first thing I want to know is: does everyone know that ciboulette is the French word for chives? Yes, she assures me, Ciboulette and Chives are run by the same people. Phew. We are sitting in the second-floor window. A portion of the interior wall has been removed to reveal a stone volute, part of the building’s original façade. This is a surprise. From the outside the building is nondescript. I love that they’re preserved it, my friend says, but hate knowing it was bricked over in the first place.

In The Stones of Venice Ruskin addresses himself to the task of determining some law of right, “which we may apply to the architecture of all the world and of all time.” He deduces that we require of buildings two practical duties: “acting and talking: – acting, as to defend us from weather or violence; talking, as the duty of monuments of tombs, to record facts and express feelings; or of churches, temples, public edifices, treated as books of history, to tell such history clearly and forcibly.” Certainly, in Halifax, defending us from weather is of utmost importance. The one free day I have to walk around it blows and spits snow fiercely. The virtues of Halifax’s predominantly short squat architecture are clear. The graveyard’s gravestones do seem forcibly expressive though. They say: Get inside you idiot, before you catch your death of cold.

The most beautiful thing about Halifax is that in ten minutes you can be outside it. I don’t mean in the suburbs, I mean completely outside. If you survive the circular logic of the Armdale Rotary, that is. My last day in the city I meet friends for brunch at Jane’s on the Commons. Afterwards, I have about an hour to kill and they have a car. Let’s go somewhere rugged, I say. They say: Chebucto Head, it’s like Peggy’s Cove but a cliff. Perfect! An alarming number of brand new mega-mansions now cling like blue mussels to barren bluffs along the Herring Cove Road. I’d like to think that if I had enough money to buy up the last ocean front property on the continent I’d build something pretty on it, but who’s to say. These houses are mere shells, and, as Ruskin says of shells: “their being mere emptiness and deserted houses, must always prevent them, however beautiful in their lines, from being largely used in ornamentation.”

During World War II Halifax Harbour was the primary fast convoy departure and arrival point in eastern North America. There several battles between Allied surface escorts and Nazi U-boats the waters off Chebucto Head. Those were the days. A concrete hull of the Royal Canadian Navy coastal gun battery built to ward off the U-boat menace is all that remains. The wind is so strong that it’s a struggle to push the car door open. We stand aslant to the blowing snow at the edge of the lighthouse’s ruined parking lot and attempt to distinguish ocean from sky. A foghorn goes off directly behind us, so loud that I scream. I scream so loud that I stumble. When I stumble I discover I’m standing on a patch of black ice. So then I really stumble, and fall face first into my friend. I get my lip-gloss all over her scarf. Damn. Why do all of my Nova Scotia stories end in embarrassment? Fortunately my friend is not standing on black ice. We manage to right ourselves. We don’t fall off Chebucto Head and down into a salt-watery grave to spend eternity with the U-boats. So, a happy ending after all.

. . . . .

A Semiotics of Public Speaking

If folk wisdom and the Internet are to be believed, a surprisingly high number of people fear public speaking more than they fear death. And unless Wikipedia is pulling my leg, the official term for the fear of public speaking is Glossophobia, from the Greek words glōssa, meaning tongue, and phobos, fear or dread. I have never been afraid of public speaking. Or private speaking. Talking is one of my favourite things to do. Rumour has it my first words were a whole sentence. As a toddler I kept up a constant commentary on every single thing I saw, heard, thought, ingested or excreted. In elementary school, Show & Tell was my best subject. In art school I lived for Critiques. It would have made sense to become a Professor, fond as I am of oration and debate. But I took a more independent route. And a quieter one. Most days I sit at home writing, speaking only occasionally to pose rhetorical questions to my dog. But every now and then I feel a bout of Show & Tell coming on. I get an overwhelming urge to talk to a whole room full of people at once and then there’s nothing for it but to start planning PowerPoint presentations in my head. If there is a Greek word for that, I don’t know what it is.

Around this time last year I decided I wanted to revisit some places in Nova Scotia, where I grew up, and that the best way to get there would be to get invited to give an artist’s talk. It seemed like a straightforward plan at the time. I spent most of 2007 pestering and cajoling professors and gallery directors at universities across Nova Scotia to hook me up. By mid-fall I’d talked my way into speaking engagements at Acadia University, Dalhousie Art gallery and NSCAD. But, as the title of this blog may suggest, non-stop talking leads to slip-ups sometimes. Lapsus Linguae is Latin: lapsus, meaning a lapse or a slip, and linguae, meaning tongue. Just days before embarking on this Show & Tell Tour of Atlantic Canada, I came down with a vicious sore throat and promptly lost my voice. I’m pretty sure the Greek word for that is ironia, meaning irony.

I immediately started reading way too much into the situation. Was this loss of voice a premonition of failure to come? Or was it an echo of the voiceless past reasserting itself? Acadia University is in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, where I went to Elementary School for grades four and five. I was regularly shushed in and out of class and however much I loved Show & Tell, my exhaustive focus on Tell over Show won me few fans and continues to plague my fiction writing to this day. Either way, I was going to get my voice back.

I stayed in bed for two days. I ate so much raw garlic that I was apologizing for my breath even in emails. Through sheer force of will I refrained from talking. The date of my departure dawned sunny and clear, which I took as a good sign. My chronically late mother-in-law arrived on time to drive me to the airport. Another good sign. I decided that if I could explain the topic of my upcoming talks to her – in French, on the Metropolitan Autoroute, in between divining directions and watching for hidden highway signs – then there was some hope that the talks would go over well. I don’t know if she understood exactly what the talks would be about, but she got it loud and clear that I would be paid for them and this impressed her. We only almost died three times during the twenty-five minute drive, which I took as a blessing from on high as usually her old-lady driving statistics average out much nearer the near-death side. We arrived at the airport early and in one piece. I had no problems at security and the flight was uneventful. I recommend to anyone with a fear of flying, or aerophobia, to get a lift to the airport with my mother-in-law. That will put things into perspective.

My first hour in Nova Scotia was spent in the airport waiting for Jon Saklofske, my colleague from Acadia; his carpool schedule and Air Canada’s did not quite correspond. I bought a coffee from a grim Arrivals area café for the free wireless Internet access with every purchase, but no matter how many times I entered the network key (long as my arm) I could not connect. I took this to be a very bad sign (as I had just been flown in to present Internet-based work) until I realized that no one else in the café could connect either. That cheered me right up. I went to sit near the exit where Jon would soon (fingers crossed) miraculously appear. A spectacularly fuchsia sunset ensued. Beautiful, but vaguely post-apocalyptic. Unsure how to read this sign I decided: When in the Maritimes, aphorize as the Maritimers do. Red at night, sailor’s delight. All good.

Jon showed up right on time – yet another good sign – but there was a funky smell in his van – not good at all. I promised not to post any information on the Internet about this smell, a promise I aim to keep in deference to how much driving me around he and his wife did in the few days I stayed with them. Besides, the smell quickly abated once we ganged up on it and accused it of being a burnt smell rather than a rotten one, thus mechanical in nature rather than satanical as initially suspected. Whoops! I guess I’ve gone and written about the smell after all. Sorry Jon, lapsus linguae.

We drove through the dark. Each green highway sign we passed inducing a wave of place-name nostalgia in me: Hammonds Plains, Bog Road, Nesbitt Street! Jon loves to talk just as much as I do and we had a lot of catching up to do. What little voice I had was soon gone. That night I dreamt I was teaching Jon’s six-year-old son sign language. In the morning Jon’s wife informed that their son already knew sign language, which was a huge relief.

I spent a day wandering around Wolfville, my old hometown, scanning for signs of recognition and scrutinizing signifiers of change, all the while worrying over my voice worse than an opera singer’s understudy. Some things were more exactly the same than others. Somehow I’d completely forgotten about a store called The Market where I used to hang out as a semi-delinquent teen. Walking in I had the closest thing to an acid flashback possible for someone who’s never done acid.

No wonder the secretary at the Wolfville Elementary School seemed highly suspicious of me. I said I wanted to take a look at my old classrooms. She quizzed me: What years were you here? What her skepticism a sign that people never leave here, or that they never come back? Who were your teachers, she wanted to know? I’m so bad with names for a moment I drew a blank, which didn’t help my case. Mr. Thompson? I was guessing. Yes, he’s still here, she said, and grudgingly granted me a visitor’s pass.

I never went to Acadia but when I was about ten my mother did a stint there. As far as all parties were concerned, the vending machines in the Acadia Student Association Building made a perfectly good babysitter. In grade eleven my best friend Dana Cole and I split the cost of a library card at Acadia’s Vaughn Library. We used to drive in regularly from Windsor to check out books. What a bunch of dorks. Paid off though, I guess. She’s a PharmD now and Acadia had just flown me in to give an artist’s talk.

The day of my talk dawned incredibly early. Due to Jon’s cruel and unusual teaching schedule we were at Acadia by 8:30AM. I spent most of the day holed up in his office in the English Department doing my best impersonation of a Romantics Professor. I broke character for about an hour to go speak to Andrea Schwenke Wyile’s Graduate Honours English class, Beyond Words: Graphic Literary Art & The Representation of Ideas. It’s always a bit of an ontological struggle to lecture to a class I wish I were taking, but the students asked good questions and as far as I could tell it went well. I was tuckered out afterward. I had yet to develop a fear of public speaking but was beginning to worry about public sleeping. Narcolepsy, that’s a Greek word too, isn’t it? To be on the safe side I took a power nap on Jon’s office floor.

My talk was scheduled for 7PM in a state of the art auditorium in the K. C. Irving Building, which certainly wasn’t around back in the day. I wonder if my life would have turned out differently if, instead of being left to fend for myself over by the ASA vending machines, I’d been brought up by the K. C. Irving’s fireplace, brass lamps and leather couches. In the upstairs atrium the water falling into stone fountains recessed into the Naples Yellow walls sounded exactly like hundreds of fingers racing over laptop keyboards in the quiet of a darkened lecture hall. Downstairs the auditorium soon reached a respectable capacity and my talk was underway.

For all my worrying over losing my voice, and despite a slight fever and a horribly painful patch of eczema blossoming on my right eyelid, once I got going everything was fine. Did my bit about how I couldn’t wait to get out of rural Nova Scotia and then the minute I got to Montreal I started making work about rural Nova Scotia and everyone laughed. Phew. Said how the interface of The Mythologies of Landforms and Little Girls was inspired by those tourist restaurant placemats with maps of Nova Scotia on them and everyone nodded knowingly. All right then. Moved on to the more recent work. The videos in How I Loved the Broken Things of Rome were loading deadly slowly, but whatever, it kind of fit with the ancient themes in the work so I talked around it. I was in full swing, right smack dab in the middle of Entre Ville, when the projector conked out. The screen went black and my mind went blank. What the hell’s the Greek word for that?

A conversation is a journey, and what gives it value is fear. You come to understand travel because you have had conversations, not vice versa. What is the fear inside language? No accident of the body can make it stop burning.
Anne Carson, The Anthropology of Water

You never really know what your worst nightmare is until you’re in it. I’d been so worried about not being able to speak that it never occurred to me I’d wind up with nothing to show for myself. I tried imagining the audience in their underwear. That was no help. Jon and I pushed all the buttons on the lectern’s consol to no avail. You’d better go call someone, I said. He bounded out of the auditorium. I just stood there. Deer in the headlights, only there was no headlight. Think, I told my brain. Think.

For reasons never previously clear to me I’ve always traveled with printouts of the full texts my electronic literature projects are based on. So, I said to the audience. We were just looking at Entre Ville… I happen to have the poem it’s based on here… How about I read it? And then all of a sudden we had a good old-fashioned poetry reading on our hands. Which was fairly ironic considering it was the English Department that had brought me in. And if there were any sceptics of electronic literature in the room, all their most firmly held conviction had just been proven true.

By the time I’d finished reading Entre Ville Jon had gained access to the control room in the back of the auditorium. I could see him in there frantically talking on his cell phone. Look, I said to the audience, when what I really meant was listen. If anyone wants to storm out right now that’s fine with me. I won’t take it personally. I’ll just blame the projector. But if anyone’s interested in staying, I have some more stories here… No one left. So I started reading Sniffing for Stories and tried not to look toward the control booth where Jon was still on the phone, gesturing frantically, and pushing buttons all over the place in a manner reminiscent of Chewbacca co-piloting the Millennium Falcon. At some point the main projector screen rose up into the ceiling. Okay. A minute later another smaller screen descended. A television show came on briefly – it seemed to be about home renovation – and then that too disappeared. Then – boom – we were back to my web site. I was still reading Sniffing for Stories so I got that text up on screen and kept right on reading.

All things considered, the rest of the talk went exceptionally well considering how horribly wrong that wrong patch went. People stayed and asked questions and came up after and bought mini-books as if nothing humiliating at all had happened. Between the auditorium and Jon’s office he filled me in on the phone conversation he’d been having in the control room. Turns out the one night I’m giving a talk on web-based electronic literature they’re doing maintenance on the bandwidth. No wonder my Quicktimes were loading stone-slow. During the taxi ride home we had elaborated the catastrophic parts into the stuff of legend. And speaking of the Stuff of Legend, our taxi driver was a grizzled old dude with long hair and a long beard and he was playing the most awesome music so finally Jon said, Man! I’ve got to ask, what have you got on in here? The driver smiled beatifically: The Essential Chaka Khan, man. The Essential Chaka Khan.

Okay, so I guess now we know what the soundtrack will be in the scene where Jon and I meet up again twenty years from now in a hotel bar at a conference somewhere and start reminiscing about the time we convinced Acadia to fly me in for a talk and then the Internet went down and the projector bulb blew and a small fire started in the lectern consol and the control room filled with smoke and porn started playing on the big screen and the police came and raided the joint cause the whole audience was in their underwear and then a woman gave birth in the isle.

But at least I didn’t lose my voice.
. . . . .


One of my favourite books of all time is The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. I named one of my favourite cats off all time after the main character, Milo, who didn’t know what to do with himself – not just sometimes, but always. “Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered.” One day Milo comes home from school and finds an enormous package in his room containing the following items: One genuine turnpike tollbooth; three precautionary signs; assorted coins for use in paying tolls; one map, up to date and carefully drawn my master cartographers, depicting natural and man-made features; and one book of rules and traffic regulations, which many not be bent of broken. Having lots of time on his hands and nowhere better to be, Milo assembles the tollbooth, hops in a small electric automobile he just happened to have kicking around in his room, drives through the tollbooth and proceeds to have many clever and pun-filled adventures. He befriends a watchdog named Tock (tic-tock, tic-tock). Together they travel through Dictionopolis to Digitopolis and (I hope I’m not giving too much away) rescue Rhyme and Reason from the Mountains of Ignorance. No one told him it was impossible to do this until after he’d done it!

As a kid in rural Nova Scotia I pretty much always wished I were somewhere else. At school I wished I were home and at home I wished I were outside. Outside there was nothing to do. All school year I waited for summer. Every summer I went to New York City to visit family. New York was a filthy, hot and crime-ridden – and my family lived there! – so and almost as soon as I got there I couldn’t wait to leave.

One of the three precautionary signs that came with the Phantom Tollbooth advised: HAVE YOUR DESTINATION IN MIND. Milo consulted the map, also provided:

It was a beautiful map, in many colors, showing principal roads, rivers and sear, towns and cities, mountains and valleys, intersections and detours, and sites of outstanding interest beautiful and historic.
The only trouble was that Milo had never heard of any of the places it indicated, and even the names sounded most peculiar.
“I don’t thing there really is such a country,” he concluded after studying it carefully. “Well, it doesn’t matter anyway.” And he closed his eyes and poked a finger at the map.

When I was twelve years old decided to move to Montreal. I procured a map of the city and thumbtacked it above my bed. I left home the minute after high school. If you would have told me back then that I’d spend the next fifteen years in Montreal writing about rural Nova Scotia I would have said: Shoot me now! But that’s what happened. Check out this early electronic literature project, circa 1997 – the interface is a map of Nova Scotia: The Mythologies of Landforms and Little Girls

In 2006 I was commissioned by the OBORO New Media Lab to create a web project for the 50th anniversary of the Conseil des Arts de Montreal. The resulting work, Entre Ville, was my first big piece about Montreal. Finally! I had figured out how to write about where I actually live. So what did I do? I took Entre Ville on the road. I’ve become habituated to talking about where I live to people who live elsewhere – a side-effect, I suspect, of growing up in a different country than everyone I’m related too.

A year to the day after Entre Ville launched at the Musée des beaux-arts I presented it at a Media in Transition conference at MIT. There I met Jon Saklofske – an English professor at Acadia University. Acadia is in Wolfville, Nova Scotia – one of my old hometowns. I went to Wolfville Elementary School for grades four and five. Jon professed to be a fan of Entre Ville so I immediately started pestering him to wrangle me an invite to do an artist’s talk at Acadia. How perverse. After years of writing about Nova Scotia in Montreal I now all of a sudden I wanted to show my Montreal work in Nova Scotia? How very Milo, always wishing I were somewhere else.

The first thing Milo has to do when he drives through the Phantom Tollbooth is to get Beyond Expectations. Not to conflate my mission to get a free plane ticket out of an academic institution with Milo’s mission to rescue Rhyme and Reason from the Mountain of Ignorance, but a) I’m glad nobody told Jon or me that it was an impossible mission before we embarked on it, and b) I haven’t even got there yet and I’m already grateful to so many people met along the way. There were a few setbacks in the beginning and for a while there my expectations were running low. It was summer, for one thing. So no one was around for Jon to pester on his end. When the school year finally started up again the Acadia faculty went on strike, putting all plans on hold. Happily the strike ended happily. Things started to move more quickly after that. By mid-fall the travel funding was approved and a date was set so I started making inquiries about lining up other talks at other universities. These were immediately met with an outpouring of enthusiasm, generosity, support and offers of couches to sleep on. Thanks to Jon for starting the ball rolling. Get one good thing going and other good things will flock to it. Thanks Andrea Cooper for putting me in touch with Peter Dykhuis at the Dalhousie Art Gallery, Jessica Andrews for putting me back in touch with Trevor and Michele, Trevor for reminding me that Randy Knott taught at NSCAD, Randy for putting me in touch with David Clark at NSCAD and Michael-Andreas for enrolling in that lithography workshop at NSCAD way back when – I can’t wait to see you again old friend.

There is a very funny bit about two-thirds of the way through The Phantom Tollbooth with Milo, Tock and their friend the Humbug (yes, he’s a bug who hums). They’re driving along intent on their mission:

The shore line was peaceful and flat, and the calm sea bumped it playfully along the sandy beach. In the distance a beautiful island covered with palm trees and flowers beckoned invitingly from the sparkling water.
“Nothing can possibly go wrong now,” cried the Humbug happily, and as soon as he’d said it he leaped from the car, as if stuck by a pin, and sailed all the way to the little island.
“And we’ll have plenty of time,” answered Tock, who hadn’t noticed that the bug was missing – and he, too, suddenly leaped into the air and disappeared.
“It certainly couldn’t be a nicer day,” agreed Milo, who was too busy looking at the road to see that the others had gone. And in a split second he was gone also.

The beautiful island beckoningly invitingly was called Conclusions and Milo, Tock and the Humbug had all jumped to it.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I first started pestering Jon. I haven’t been to Nova Scotia in eight years and I can’t remember the last time I was in Wolfville. When I presented Entre Ville at MIT I started with a map of Montreal and said: I live here. Did I think I was going to swoop down from Montreal and pull off a stunt like that in my old hometown? Fortunately Andrea Schwenke Wyile at Acadia saved me, though perhaps unwittingly, from jumping to Conclusions. She came up with the title for the talk I’ll give there: Mapping a Web of Words. I’ve used maps in many of my electronic literature projects – as images, interfaces and metaphors for long-ago places and pasts that could never be mine. Andrea’s title started me thinking about maps in more practical terms. Digging though my files I found photographic evidence of the large map of Montreal that hung on the cluttered walls of my bedroom throughout junior and senior high. No wonder I wound up in Montreal. For years I’ve had a Geology Map of Nova Scotia hanging on the cluttered wall of my Montreal office. No wonder I keep writing about Nova Scotia. The title, Mapping A Web of Words, underlined this mirror map inversion. The contrariness of it all reminded me immediately of The Phantom Tollbooth so I went to find the book on the shelf. Opening it for again for the first time in a few years I was confounded by the map inside the front cover. How could I have forgotten about this map?

The first time I read The Phantom Tollbooth I was nine years old. I was in the fourth grade at Wolfville Elementary School. I wrote a book report about it on single sheet of foolscap. It’s the only piece of schoolwork I still have from those years:

My book took place in an amaganary world witch you enter through the phantom tollbooth. Its realy like a world in a world.

On the back I drew a map of Milo’s route beyond Expectations, through the Doldrums, into Dictionopolis, past the Sea of Knowledge, onward to Digitopolis and upward into the Mountains of Ignorance to rescue Rhyme and Reason from the prison there. The map I drew in no way resembles the map in the front of the book.


J. R. Carpenter: Mapping a Web of Words

Acadia University, KC Irving Auditorium (Wolfville, NS)
Wednesday, February 27, 2008 at 7pm

Dalhousie Art Gallery, (Halifax, NS)
Thursday, February 28, 2008 at 8pm

Noontime talk at NSCAD, (Halifax, NS)
Friday, February 29, 2008 at 12:15pm
. . . . .

MiT5 Endnotes

MiT5 whizzed by in a drizzly blur. As one panellist noted: The weather in New England is a lot like the weather in Old England. Water logged lab rats, we scurried through MIT’s campus maze, almost but not quite able to get where we were going without going outside. The conference theme: “creativity, ownership and collaboration in the digital age.” There was less talk of ownership than of appropriation. Sadly no amount of creativity or collaboration could rid the digital age of rain.

Speaking of ownership, last month I lost my travel umbrella. Last week I replaced it with a used and improved one, liberated from the Lost and Found of the bar where a friend works. This semi-ill-gotten umbrella dripping at my feet, I squirmed uneasily through more than one academic paper cavalierly condoning remix culture’s five-fingered appropriation of other people’s images texts structures and ideas. The Colbert report got high marks for opening itself up to user editing. Nice advertising for Colbert. Hip-hop was idealized for it’s sampling and remixing of culture. Great for the producers, great for the moguls, but not so hot if you’re an up and comer being told what to sample so it sells, or if you’re an indi-artist getting your beats ripped, or if you’re a consumer tired of the radio play list mix. MiT5 did not seem to be critical of what was being sampled. No place to say: no more songs about guns, bitches and hos.

Me: What nobody’s talking about here is money. Academic: Oh, there are plenty of other environments to talk about money in. Give me a break. Though this view appeared to be the prevalent one, I don’t buy it (no pun intended). I worked in the software industry for so long, my critique is tinged with scepticism. After sifting through executive staff rhetoric, world wide sales projection optimism and the codified concerns of corporate lawyers, the stated themes of MiT5 sounded naïve at times, trite even, when divorced from any economic consideration.

There are economics at play in who gets to attend a conference. Not every panellist was an academic and not every academic was staying in a hotel paid for by his university. One professor told me that as an educator he felt he had to stay to hear that evening’s plenary, but as a human being he couldn’t bear it, and besides, he had a three-hour drive home. Another didn’t have his laptop with him because he was staying at a youth hostel. Instead he spent his evenings reading poetry and walking the streets of Cambridge. Nice. Yet another professor was staying in Allston. Actually, he was a research fellow. But still. He had my respect. Allston, that’s keeping it real.

I remain impressed by and grateful to MIT for keeping the Media in Transition conference series free of charge and open to an incredibly broad spectrum of presenters. That can’t be easy. I was especially pleased to see how many more artists presented at MiT5 than at MiT4. I wish I’d made it to more presentations. 25 people speak at once. Far too often there are four people to a panel. If even one paper runs long – the height of unprofessional rudeness, but sadly the norm – the rest get squeezed, leaving no time for discussion.

Like most of the artists I spoke to, the only way I could afford to attend this conference was by taking the Greyhound down and staying with a friend. At the end of each day, the #1 Bus shuttled me from the pillars and porticos of MIT to cracked-out Roxbury, where my friend Lana lives in a loft next door to a boarded up drug store. She says people used to smoke crack underneath the DRUGS sign, until someone stole the sign. They still smoke crack there but now it’s less ironic.

One morning, a woman with drug-rotten teeth tried to get me to take her kids on the bus for her, to save her the fare. Just picture me and two crack babies busting in on some gamer theory session broadcast live on Second Life.

Sometimes real life, Second Life and conference life just don’t synch up. I missed some early sessions because my hostess doesn’t sleep. One night we stayed up late rewriting all her artist’s statements – not exactly collaboration, but after all the conference talk about authorship and overwiting, I felt it my duty as a guest to earn my keep by translating her garbled visual art speak into actual English. Another night we stayed up late making a movie. She tried to hold the camera steady, tried not to laugh, while I told a long story about how I happened to have two dramatically different maps in my notebook, drawn by two dramatically different girls, both giving directions to a notorious party spot in Banff known as The House of Sin.

The notebook as interface, the non-linear story as tangent engine. Just like Entre Ville, we realized in the morning.

I like conferences, despite their occasionally glaring disconnection from real life. And I like real life, despite its occasionally disheartening disconnection from how life ought to work in theory. I especially like the occasional blurring of the two. Most of the breakout sessions were held in classrooms. Artists and academics projected web and PowerPoint presentations onto white screens bracketed by black blackboards covered with mathematical equations surely few if any of us could understand. Conference attendees mingled with students in the hall. I got a student discount on lunch one day!

In the Bartos Media Lab audience members watched the conference unfolding in real-time on stage. Some doubled up on the real by following along on their laptops the plenary sessions broadcast live on Second Life. The sound of typing surged whenever something clever was said. Someone stepped up to the mike to comment on our cultural condition of constant divided attention. A flurry of typing followed. A rainfall of fingers keyboard tapping, I wrote in my notebook.

It rained all weekend, typing and the wet stuff. Thanks MIT, for mixing up art and academics, theory and practice, for offering up so much information to such a broad audience in such a short period of time. A lot to soak up. And only time for tip of the iceburg comments here. I’ll be sorting though my notes for a long time.
. . . . .