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Insects and love’s complexities

New books from two rising queer stars

INSIDE THE HEART AND MIND OF MICHAEL V SMITH: 'Candid talk about sex is still rare in CanLit, let alone poetry. And I'm one of only three Canadian drag poets, aren't I? says Smith. Credit: TJ Ngan photo

The literati have their own variation of the urban myth. It’s known as the Sophomore Jinx: a widespread belief that after first-book acclaim, a bedazzled and ambitious young author will attempt-with scant success-to repeat their winning formula.

With one book apiece already under their belts, Vancouver’s George K Ilsley and Michael V Smith both have launches planned for April.

Xtra West caught up with the queer up-and-comers, and posed some questions about their new works, their histories and their thoughts on the dreaded literary jinx.

Michael v smith

Star signs: “Aries Ram/Pig.”

Day job: “Senior Library Assistant.”

If you could choose another occupation: “Indie folk rock star.”

Worst job ever taken: “Selling tickets for the Cornwall Royals fan club draw.”

Marital status: “On a waiting list.”

Birthplace: “Winchester, Ontario.”

First publication: “‘a poem by peter mcgehee,’ dedicated to myself, 22-ish.”

Debut book: Cumberland [novel, 2002]

Synopsis: Lonely and sexually conflicted but hopeful blue-collar characters in a small Ontario city grasp at new relationships (with tumultuous results).

What critics said: “Cumberland, Smith’s first novel, is a truly fine piece of work” [Georgia Straight]

“It’s unfortunate that Smith spent so much time and skill creating the illusion of life in Cumberland only to sacrifice it to a perceived need for closure and a happy ending. Life just isn’t like that.” [Vancouver Sun]

Public profile (Fingers-in-Pies Scale, 1-10): 8

Literary models/inspirations: “Lorna Crozier, Peter McGehee, David Donnell, David Adams Richards, Bronwen Wallace, John Berger, Helen Humphreys, Michael Ondaatje.”

Writer training (professional and otherwise): “MFA in Creative Writing from UBC; reading piles and piles.”

Preferred writing clothing/location/implement: “Pyjama bottoms at my desk on my Mac.”

Book you wish you’d written: “The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys, or In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje.”

Book you’re glad you didn’t: “A Million Little Pieces by James Frey.”

How does your hometown play in your writing?: “I don’t think my hometown knows how to play.”

Vancouver?: “For a while, I played too hard in Vancouver, then I wrote some poems about it.”

Being a gay man?: “I try to figure out what those terms mean and then define myself within and without them.”

Why you write (10 words or less): “To make the world an easier place.”

New book: What You Can’t Have [poetry]

Synopsis: Forty-two elegant and spare poems-many evoking a haiku-like complexity in simplicity-ponder a classic theme (the human animal) from a queer perspective.

In the author’s words: “A collection of poems about emerging sensuality and identity in youth, the rural poor, sex and death.”

Why this genre: “Poetry? Always for the money.”

Key themes: Love’s complexities, the hard fact of mortality, the draw of sex, the frailty of being, country living.

Characteristic line: “How can I convince you-/it is not the darkness we can’t face/but what it holds/not the light that breaks/but the bulb/not love that fails but the heart/& its capacity.”

What’s new for you as a writer: “I’ve not shared this much of my private life in my other published work. Cumberland was mostly fictional and my Blush columns [in Xtra West] were confessional but still under the guise of Cookie. This concerns more of the heart and mind of Michael V Smith, although, yes, there’s still some dick, too. I have to warn my family before they read it.”

What’s new for the genre you’re working in: “Candid talk about sex is still rare in CanLit, let alone poetry. And I’m one of only three Canadian drag poets, aren’t I [the others being RM Vaughn and Sky Gilbert]? There’s a long poem dedicated to Peter McGehee, one about disastrous sex in the park, a prostitution poem, and a couple of poems about my tranny ex-lover, before and after transitioning. New material for Canadians, for sure. Let’s hope it’s a liberal year for us.”

How are you contributing to/directing queer literature?: “I’m just writing the stories I want to tell, despite any fears of being exposed, judged or misunderstood. Oh, sometimes being understood is even worse.”

Sophomore jinx?: “Who reads poetry? Hype or actuality, only three of us will know.”

Launch date info: Apr 20, UBC Robson Square, 7 pm.

George K Ilsley

Star signs: “Taurus Earth Dog: this means really, really stubborn.”

Day job: “Editor.”

If you could choose another occupation: “Figure skater.”

Worst job ever taken: “Questionnaire developer.”

Marital status: “Involved.”

Birthplace: “A small town in Nova Scotia.”

First publication: “The short story ‘Talismen,’ boy-meets-boy, published in Queeries, the first-ever Canadian anthology of gay male fiction. I was 32 and in Montreal.”

Debut book: Random Acts of Hatred [short stories, 2003]

Synopsis: A dozen dark-hued stories offer startling glimpses of unpleasant childhoods and adults stained by cruelty and alienation.

What critics said: “The best stories here offer an unvarnished vision of developing gay identities warped by ignorance and abuse.” [The Globe and Mail]

“Even despite the stronger stories, the overall effect of this collection may be numbing emptiness and repulsion.” [The Ottawa Citizen]

Public profile (Fingers-in-Pies Scale, 1-10): 2

Literary models/inspirations: “Gertrude Stein, Patrick White, and Yukio Mishima.”

Writer training (professional and otherwise): “Reading and listening.”

Preferred writing implement: “Fat pens. Thick, three-sided pens work best.”

Book you wish you’d written: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

Book you’re glad you didn’t: “I’ve always thanked my lucky stars I never wrote Moby Dick or else that’s all I ever would be known for. That, and Billy Budd.”

How does your hometown play in your writing?: “Represents a level of hell.”

Vancouver?: “Not yet a feature in my work, and is a setting I might have to leave to find.”

Being a gay man?: “A writer does not actually have time to be gay.”

Why you write (10 words or less): “I love to edit.”

New book: ManBug [novel]

Synopsis: The birth, maturity and probable death of the intense romance between Tom (a worldly and charming, if willful and self-involved, spiritual bisexual) and Sebastian (an eccentric, fragile, wounded-seeming and socially awkward insect researcher).

According to the author: “The metamorphosis of an entomologist exploring the world of men with a bisexual Buddhist as his guide.”

Why this genre: “Novels are multidimensional and engaging.”

Key themes: Spirituality, evolution, masculinity, love, sex, insects and insecticide.

Characteristic line: “Even so, Sebastian carries with him what might be called the reek of desperation. This reek is not chemical but emotional or spiritual, and can be readily perceived by those equipped with whatever remote-sensing apparatus is required to detect the apparent reek of desperation.”

What’s new for you as a writer: “This book represents a new direction for me, because there is no particular setting in time or space. Instead, there is a purely psychological or emotional landscape, outside of politics or current events, where significance arises solely from the thoughts and feelings of the characters, and the reader is invited to experience this subjective vision through the voice of the novel.”

What’s new for the genre you’re working in: “The format of this novel mirrors the fragmented, autistic worldview of the gay character Sebastian, who has difficulty understanding the subtleties of social dynamics. To top it all off, he also has synesthesia-in his case, he sees colours when he hears things. There are many little sections, and each is organized around a title theme, to show how Sebastian tries to organize aspects of the ‘world of men’ into small manageable pieces, with the bisexual Tom as his quirky guide, eccentric role model, and ultimate inspiration.”

How are you contributing to/directing queer literature?: “Establishing queerness as a natural part of the synesthetic experience.”

Sophomore jinx?: “Ask me after the second novel is published.”

Launch date: Apr 12, Honey Lounge, 455 Abbott St, 7 pm.