1. One day, in the loose years that were my post-grad stupor, I walked into a bookshop and ran into the heavily lauded writer and filmmaker Michael V Smith. Tall, thin, shaved head, thick glasses, and a laughter like Woody Woodpecker.
I’d like to say that I saw a poet. Or an activist. Or a friend. I’d like to say that when I first met Michael V Smith my heart went pitter-pat at stumbling upon one of the pillars of the queer community.
What a jerk, I thought. He was flirting, and I was just looking for a job.
Later that day, Brett Josef Grubisic–nominated in the writer category this year for his novel The Age of Cities–took me to a party out on Main St. “It’s a sobriety party,” said Grubisic, “so there’s no drinking.”
When we got to the run-down apartment block at Main and Broadway we climbed a few floors and knocked. That tall, thin man with the Woodpecker laugh answered the door. “Oh,” he smiled down at me. “Look what you brought!”
Inside I met a lot of the people I would spend the next few years looking up to. Poet Billeh Nickerson, with whom Smith curated the bi-annual literary smut cabaret Skank from 2000 to 2003, was sitting cross-legged on the floor. I liked him immediately. He spoke like Mister Rogers.
As predicted, there was no booze. This was one of Smith’s sobriety parties, which he threw on an annual basis for years to celebrate his break from drinking. But there was pot, of course. And in the kitchen, smoking out the window, was punk rocker Kim Kinakin. Again, I didn’t know he was a culture vulture, or a kingpin of the alt-queer scene. I just knew he had a killer grin and wasn’t afraid to dole it out to everyone.
I wish I had looked around Smith’s party and thought, “Ah, so this is community.”
I’d like to say I realized that Smith had, in a way, introduced me to a coterie of the city’s avant-garde. (Smith was introduced to his own coterie when, at 27, he met John Finlay, Bryan McKinnon, Kim Kinakin, Amber Dawn, Nico Stagias and Sylvain Bombardier.) But I only got as far as realizing Michael V Smith is not a jerk.
2. We were sitting outside of Melriches, a Davie St coffee shop, on one of Smith’s rare engagements in the West End.
Smith has made his home outside of the gay nexus since moving here to do an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia when he was 24. He’s always lived on the fringe of things, calling the mainstreamers into a wider orbit.
I was young and snickered at a guy walking by in a pink, flamboyant outfit. Smith called this person over, by name, and introduced us.
“Michael here was just saying how much he likes your style,” said Smith.
What a jerk, I thought.
Michael V Smith grew up in the small town of Cornwall with people like me. People who weren’t so much interested in building community as finding one that they already fit into.
“I wasn’t welcome there,” says Smith. “I was a very literate, young, long-haired boy in a town where the neighbours tormented cats. Everyone always thought I was a girl.”
Having discovered early on that ready-made communities were not going to accept him, Smith began to learn the importance of building his own.
“All my work–it’s all been about trying to build a permissive space… I’ve always belonged everywhere I’ve been, but I haven’t always been allowed to know it.”
If ever there were a permissive space, it would have to be an Odd Ball. Smith’s WISE Hall parties (running at Pride and Halloween each year, and attracting more than 300 folk to each event) have created a space where straights, queers, and all genders, have partied together. “The more diverse it is, the more successful it is,” he says.
3. What does Smith want back for all his work? “I want someone else to wear the pink pants.”
We’re sitting in his current apartment–same building as that first sobriety party, but a different floor.
“It’s hard work to be the freak in the room. And I’m not an exhibitionist. I’m just more committed to pleasure than to social niceties.”
And whether others take up the call to arms or no, Smith is soldiering on.
His first book of poetry, What You Can’t Have, was published this year–a collection of heartbreaking elegies for thwarted desire and unapologetic denouncements of propriety.
And his short film Two Peanuts screened at the Out on Screen festival–Smith is planning to shoot his first feature film this summer, tentatively called Peanut the Dancing Clown.
The Robson Reading Series, which Smith launched in 2003, continues to grow as well. It’s one example among many of the opportunities Smith creates for young writers to be presented among veterans. He actually believes that line about supporting the underdog. Actually believes we’re stronger together.
Personally, I wonder whether Smith’s work would hold as much meaning for us if that goal of others wearing the pink pants were to become a reality. His work means so much to so many precisely because it is perpetrated by so very few.
Also this year, with The Tickle Trunk Project, Smith pursued his constant gender-bending work. “Gay men are deeply invested in male privilege,” says Smith–so he does his best to confound that.
Tickle Trunk was a series of brazenly costumed portraits by photographer David Ellingsen and, later, a mighty fine T-shirt commemorating the project.
Occasionally, I see folks walking down Robson or Broadway with an image of Michael V Smith emblazoned on their torsos. He’s wearing something insane and zebra-striped; he’s sticking out his tongue at the world.
Oddly, though, it’s the refusal to join into a mainstream identity that makes Smith a community builder that others latch onto. He had to be a hero, in a way, because everyone said a hero was someone else.