4 min

On being Billeh

Up close and personal with Vancouver's poet, raconteur and recluse

Credit: David Ellingsen

We all know that authors can play fast and furious with truth; it’s their privilege and part of their mystique. So, while writers eat, drink, pay taxes and fall in love like the rest of us, readers usually get to know them through their words. And the personas we’re allowed to see on the printed page-carefully chosen, then edited, revised and tweaked again-often bear little resemblance to that same person we might share lunch with or sit next to on a bus.

Billeh Nickerson illustrates this point, even if he complicates it a bit. First, even his words are not what they initially seem. A selective reading of titles from his debut book (a poetry collection: The Asthmatic Glassblower) might lead you to believe he’s a gay descendent of de Sade, one fascinated by all that’s trashy and scatological in queer men’s culture. The grab-the-spotlight titles (“You Can Stick Your Dick in Me,” “Gonorrhea” and “Poem for My Foreskin”) certainly promise to be verse celebrations of raunchy outlaw carnality.

They’re not, though.

Consider “Last Call Means I Love You” and its closing lines: “But now/I’ve begun to understand why men stand/hours with their backs to the wall/how strangers can make you feel/beautiful again, wanted/less lonely.” The words are anything but depraved and potty-mouthed. Past those titles, then, what shines out is warmth and humour as well as thoughtfulness about the myriad formations of sex.

The same thing happens with Nickerson’s new book, Let Me Kiss It Better: Elixirs For The Not So Straight and Narrow, a collection of short essays, 48 of them, that Nickerson (posing as ‘Hardcore Homo’) wrote for Xtra West between 1998 and 2002. The pieces cover his trademark interests-pop culture, childhood, sex (lots of it)-with a trademark tone: they’re matter of fact, dotted with good humour and, well, fun. And while they might be personal (eg, “The first time I made myself cum was with the plug-in foot massager my mother purchased from our neighbourhood Avon lady”) and are almost exclusively focussed on sex, they’re not obscene or scandalous. If they seem risqué it’s only because they openly discuss ‘naughty’ topics we heirs-of-Victorianism still tend to keep hidden from plain sight.

In the flesh, Nickerson is gregarious and generous. If in fact he’s the sex-crazed Mr Hyde of his books, he keeps his trustworthy Dr Jekyll face fully in place from 9 to 5. When I run into him on campus at UBC going from job A (bookstore serf) to job B (editing the prestigious literary journal Prism International), we talk shop, current events, weather, relationships… there’s never a mention of dildos, STDs, pubic hair or missing foreskins.

Still, his Hyde gets the lion’s share of attention. In the “Author’s Note” of Let Me Kiss It Better, Nickerson relates how people tell him sexual tidbits “pretty much everywhere,” from bus stops and airport lounges to supermarket check-out lines. And yet, he reminds me, there’s a necessarily symbiotic relationship between brazen sex-explorer and dutiful note-taker.

“There are a few Billeh Nickersons-the outgoing social me, and the guy who spends hours by himself in front of a computer. I’m still surprised by what part of myself shows up. In terms of how this concerns my writing, the outgoing part of me quite often offers the fodder for my writer side. It’s not about cultivating a persona as much as just keeping my eyes and ears-and imagination-open.”

If Nickerson’s elixirs are personal, they’re not apolitical-just hear him take to task “protein shake whore” flatulence and pesky dogs being brought to park cruise zones. Yet they’re definitely not finger-wagging Dan Savagesque Thou Shalt (Not) manifestos.

Nickerson explains his choice of tone and platform: “Who wants to read rhetoric? The pieces aren’t about telling people what to do; it’s more about sharing what has happened or is happening or what may happen. It’s about laughing at myself, and others, and all of us together. Besides, much of my work is quite political; many people don’t see this aspect because I layer many of my observations and ironies with humour. I’m a sucker for bittersweet.

“And people sometimes forget how difficult it can be to write about giving blowjobs. It’s akin to standing on the street corner with a placard that reads: ‘I suck cock.’ I’m still learning to deal with the confessional aspects of my work. I’m human and still feel embarrassment or shame. But such small discomforts pale in comparison to the dialogue many of my pieces have initiated. I’m happiest when people come up to me and say they had never really thought of the world that way or tell me they now feel comfortable talking about dildos or one-night stands.”

Elected as a spokesperson for the unapologetically sexual, Nickerson finds he’s the subject of both criticism and praise. But since making all people satisfied is a hopeless cause, he’s content when readers synch with his words, and glad to have the privilege to write at all.

“I receive just as much sex phobia from the gay community as I do from the straights. At first I was scared shitless about reading in Alberta, but they’ve been some of the most supportive audiences I’ve had. It’s frustrating being labelled as a sex writer-or just a humour writer, for that matter-since sexuality is only one of the subjects I tackle. Oh, well. It’s always a trade-off. Writers get thrown off tall buildings for writing about the same things I do.”

The boy from suburban Langley with the long name (“My legal name is William Clifford Nickerson IV. Friends asked whether I wanted to be Billy or Bill and one of them said, ‘Bill, eh?, like all good Canadians.’ I was 15 at the time and have always been Billeh since then”) has evolved into an urban guy with volumes to communicate.

In the next year or so, readers will be exposed to new facets of Nickerson. In Skank: A Book of Questionable Tastes (co-edited with his close friend Michael V Smith), readers will find explorations on the farther reaches of sexual expression. Nickerson is cobbling this project together while working on his MFA at UBC. He explains the odd juxtaposition of ivory tower and skank as almost inevitable, the product of a personality that’s restless and curious.

“I am a writer who needs to challenge himself. It does bother me that some people think I’m ‘just that sex-columnist guy.’ What can I say? It seems quite natural to me that my thesis is a third-person historical-based cycle of poems on the Titanic or that I’m the editor of Western Canada’s oldest literary journal. They are all part of my personal tapestry.”


Elixirs For The Not So Straight and Narrow.

Arsenal Pulp Press, $16.95.