By the time Stan Persky was 16 years old, he was already an aspiring writer living in his birthplace, Chicago. Then he got his hands on a copy of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s landmark beat novel.
“The mid-20th century was a time of literacy, so I had read a lot of books,” Persky recalls a half-century later. “But I’d never read anything like this. Oddly enough, the reason I was prompted to read it was because I had read a negative review of it. The reviewer made the mistake of quoting long passages of the book, and I thought it was great, so I got a copy and read it.”
Persky then gathered together some of the things that he’d been writing and sent it to Kerouac, care of his agent, “along with a note saying that I loved his writing.”
Kerouac wrote back on a postcard, which he had filled with type written words of praise for Persky’s young work, noting that he would pass it along to Allen Ginsberg. (That, in turn, led to a life-long friendship between Persky and Ginsberg.)
“Now, in retrospect, it seems like an intelligent and daring thing to have done,” Persky reflects.
Looking back is in order for Persky and Perskyphiles. One of Canada’s most prolific writers and astute cultural critics has created another volume of his commentary, Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education (New Star Books), released this fall.
The collection, reflecting Persky’s staggering body of work, is essential reading for any queer reader.
Divided into three sections (Before, During, After), the book feels much like its author: epic, sprawling, eclectic, constantly thought-provoking and challenging.
What’s more, it continues to do what Persky has always done so well: fuses the political and the personal. There are his Ginsberg reminiscences, his crucial meditations on the trial of Oscar Wilde, and his deeply heartfelt musings on Christopher Isherwood, George Orwell and academic freedom.
Interspersed are occasional poems, offering a pleasing shift in pace. And while much of it is new, the tome has an historical feel to it, with some pieces stretching back to 1970.
Talking to Persky is much like reading his prose —he’s eloquent and thoughtful, witty and always welcoming.
He says the process of picking and choosing what he wanted to place in Topic Sentence an intriguing one.
“There’s a lot of new writing here that’s never been in book form. I asked myself, ‘Which were the pieces that were mini-breakthroughs, that showed me something about writing?’
“My good friend in Canadian writing is Brian Fawcett [who writes the introduction to the book], and one of the things that we believe is that every piece of writing is revisable at any time. So you could rework anything —and you should rework everything —to make it useful now. I found the stuff that I thought was useful; there were changes made to some of it —either it was wrongheaded or the sentences were just ghastly.”
Of the three sections in the book, Persky found that the gay stuff he had written fell into the “During” section. Much of his gay writing is potent, not surprisingly given Persky’s place in Canadian queer history. He was a frequent contributor to now-defunct The Body Politic (Xtra West’s parent publication), and part of the international gay liberation movement.
For those of you under 40, The Body Politic was arguably one of the best gay magazines or periodicals in history. Persky co-edited (along with Ed Jackson) the 1982 anthology of its writing, Flaunting It! A Decade of Gay Journalism from The Body Politic.
Much of this gay meditation finds its way into Topic Sentence.
“The gay stuff no longer had the kind of intention it did when I first wrote it,” Persky says now. “When I was writing the gay material, early on, we were in the middle of political struggles and we were defining our identities, or arguing for a specific cause, so there was always a polemic element to what we were doing. We were part of an emerging political movement.”
Looking back on the writing meant looking back on both himself and Canada in a different light. “I was reading all of the gay stuff again from an analysis of Canada as a post-gay culture. Now I was reading it as simply writing. Did it meet my standards? Did it have a story to tell that held up on its own? That was the judgment mark. I was happy enough with it that it made up an entire section.”
Asked what he means by post-gay, Persky says he’s not suggesting there’s an “end of gay,” as some writers appeared to a decade or so ago.
“For people who identify as homosexual around the world, I think it’s helpful to resurrect the old Marxist notion about the uneven law of development. You have different situations around the world, each one tied to its own history and culture.
“Right now you have a large part of the world that is still pre-gay, in which there’s huge amounts of homosexual activity, and it’s very difficult for people to conceptualize their identity as gays —it’s illegal to do it, with punishment up to and including death, and there’s not enough discussion that would make the civil rights movement possible.
“There’s a lot of the world like that, and yet they have ritualized ways of incorporating homosexual activities into their culture, but it’s still unspeakable.
“Then you have countries that are engaged in gay struggle. And the US is still one of them —there are gay characters on TV, but there are denials of rights of gays and arguments over gay marriage. You have countries like Thailand —there’s all sorts of gay activity going on —but when you talk to Thai gays, they are having to struggle with telling their parents and so on. So that’s sort of midrange of gay struggle.
“But then you have places where, in general, you no longer have to figure out your gay identity. It’s possible to know your gay identity and it’s perfectly possible to talk about it. There’s a range of legal protections, including gay marriage, and there’s no squabble over gays in the military. And that’s post-gay.”
But an interesting thing happened on the way to liberation, as Persky correctly points out. “What happens in post-gay countries is that people can lower what it is to be homosexual in their list of identifications that make up their identities. At a certain point in my life it had to be number one, I had to think about it every day. Now I don’t. It goes with a lot of other identifications I have, like writer, intellectual, philosopher, left-winger, book reader.
“Post-gay doesn’t mean that things can’t be reversed,” he points out. “There could be another wave of fascism. There are still plenty of things for people to oppose, like gaybashing. Gay doesn’t disappear.
“There’s the practical matter of people having to contact each other —there have to be meeting places and websites.
“But it’s activity that looks more like ethnic group activity than political struggle activity,” he suggests. “The parade is held. The word gay no longer has to be used. It’s just called the Pride parade, and everyone knows what that means.”
Persky has nothing against the concept of getting married or joining the military (he served in the US Navy himself), but he does feel more like what he calls “Classic Queer,” rather than “Queer Lite.”
“I feel I’m Classic Queer in all of the senses, both in the ancient sense, of getting to read Plato and learning about that model of homosexuality, and then, of course, being part of The Body Politic and part of gay liberation. Our view of homosexuality was that it was meant to change views about what sex was all about, how many partners you could have and what sexual relations were for. There was an admiration for the outlaw character. That is all over now.
“All of that has changed now in the post-gay Canada. I have nothing against gay marriages and assimilation into the marketplace and all of that, it just doesn’t have much to do with me. I don’t feel any more connected to that than I would the local Hydrangea Club.”
For the ultra-prolific Persky —who has over a dozen books under his belt, continues to teach and divides his time between Vancouver and Berlin —it’s the question that must be asked: does the man once declared by the Globe and Mail to be “one of Canada’s premier intellectuals” ever tire of writing?
“I don’t think so,” he says without pause. “And I’ve never experienced writer’s block. I was raised in a political context, so I’ve seen writing as a practical thing to do. I’ve written books of political journalism on American foreign policy, the Polish trade union movement, and various other topics. I still feel like I’ve got a bunch of unwritten, imaginary books in my head. There are still a bunch rattling around up there.
“And I think to myself, ‘Oh yeah, maybe I’ll get to that one before I kick off.'”