Culture
8 min

Remembering poet, novelist and playwright RM Vaughan

A friend recalls the magically talented and gregarious artist

rm vaughan
Credit: Jared Mitchell

My friendship with the poet, novelist and playwright RM Vaughan—who died this month at age 55, in Fredericton, New Brunswick, the province of his birth—grew slowly when I started going to parties at his apartment on Rusholme Road in Toronto about 15 years ago. I was an editor at an LGBTQ+ publication that often published stories by and about him, and I lived close by. I first knew him as just a name that came up in editorial meetings, then as a flesh-and-blood writer, artist and man about town, the myriad things he wrote about gradually inserting themselves into many corners of my life and psyche.

His restaurant reviews for the now defunct EYE Weekly in the early 2000s helped me impress dates. His Monster Trilogy plays lured me into the fandom of Toronto’s queer-focused Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which helped me impress dates. When a copy of his 1999 book of poetry, Invisible to Predators, showed up on my desk, his “14 Reasons Not to Eat Potato Chips on Church Street” upended my notion of what a poet could write about (“6. You’re supposed to be broke. So, who paid for the Humpty Dumptys?”). With its witty critique of the body-obsessed neuroses of modern gay life, that poem—all his writing, I eventually discovered—cleared land for queer narratives and ideas without an iota of spin doctoring.

He was not what might be called “unapologetically gay”; for him, heterosexuality was the rare, weird thing. I cried and laughed through his 2010 book Troubled, a sequence of poems about being sexually exploited by his psychiatrist, a feat RM pulled off without a syllable of therapy-speak. As an essayist pitching articles—RM could hustle and usually had to—he could come up with several story ideas in a few minutes, each of them amusing and insightful, each unlike anything anybody else was saying, each, when published, instantly recognizable as the voice of RM.

So I was initially intimidated by RM and his prickly reputation; he always had a smartass barb or deep cultural reference that he could wield as deftly in person as he could on the page or stage. A well-meaning marketing person once asked him if a guy he had brought to an event was RM’s “special friend.” RM quipped back cheerfully: “If you mean ‘Are we fucking?’ the answer’s no.” As someone from Prince Edward Island, which RM referred to as “the sandbar that got lucky,” I had grown up with this quintessentially Maritime form of humour (I write “Maritime” pointedly; RM hated the word like it was a racial slur, preferring “Atlantic Canadian”). While it traditionally deploys grand, almost surreal teasing and complaining as an art form, RM’s version was on gay steroids. I never wanted to get on his bad side.

Parties brought out the gleeful child in him; Richard would literally squeal “whee!” It was at parties that RM the writer became Richard my friend. He’d take any opportunity to festoon his home with handmade decorations, enthusiastically over-glittered pennants strung atop paintings he’d been given or had bought at auction. Dollar-store figurines were stuck into crevices around the apartment as if for a spooky Easter egg hunt. There’d usually be crafting, the witchier the better. The guests were old chums, artists, book-world nerds, the most recent new friends he’d made at a panel discussion, a book launch or Buddies. Richard was always bringing new people into his circle and rarely let anyone go, at least not for long or forever. Partygoers would get surprisingly competitive carving pumpkins to a soundtrack of some perversely cacophonous CD that Richard had found in a bargain bin. I’d pour red wine into one of his thrift store tumblers and stand shyly by one of the bowls of snacks he’d put out (Richard refused status signifiers such as on-trend appetizers—all you really needed for a party was chips). But I wouldn’t be standing shyly for long before Richard introduced me to someone, then someone else, then someone else until everybody present felt like ad hoc family.

While at one Richard soirée, everybody sitting in the grassy yard on a warm evening, I invited over a gay friend who was visiting Toronto on business. My friend cabbed to Rusholme Road with a couple of handsome, well-dressed straight colleagues in tow. Richard quickly developed a crush on one of them, made a timid pass at him in the kitchen and was politely rebuffed. Richard did not point his thwarted sexual frustration at the straight guy; for him, straight guys were puzzling, dangerous creatures. Instead, Richard marched out to the little knoll where my friend and I were sitting, and threw an ice cube-filled drink directly into my friend’s face. “What were you thinking, bringing them?” It was a scene from a soap opera. Or a satire of a soap opera. It was so awful, so beautiful. My friend and I cherish this memory, the splendidly ridiculous drama we have the pleasure of recounting till the day we die.

Within a few days, Richard mailed my friend an apology note, extraordinarily heartfelt. His need to be kind to the people he liked and respected was almost compulsive, even as he brandished grudges like others make use of their smartphones (frequently and for many purposes). In both his writing and his cocktail party chatter, Richard was always finding new riffs on favourite targets: Boomers and millennials, hypocrites and homophobes, his home province of New Brunswick, granting agencies, misguided socialists, heartless conservatives, absentminded editors and most especially pompous, empty art. He teased and made silly in any medium he came across. I have a box of lapel pins he produced and distributed: “END Gnomophobia NOW,” “I’m performing,” “Please stop talking about Richard Florida” (an advocate of “creative cities,” who Richard considered overpraised), “Please stop talking about Berlin” (from before he himself moved there). Who else would dare title a book of mostly charming essays Compared to Hitler? But his boundless, heartbreaking remorse at having let his white-hot anger turn him into a bad host was one of the most deeply felt things I have ever experienced. The personal cards and quirky gifts I received in the years that followed were sweet and sentimental, unfailing 100 percent love.

In my life I’ve been lucky enough to know a couple of magically gregarious people, souls who can light up a room, make everyone feel at home, make everyone feel smart, beautiful, wanted. Richard tried to convince the writers and artists he took under his wing (mostly LGBTQ+ and as many female, trans and non-binary as cis male, which was unusual for a gay man of his generation) that their dreams were valid and achievable. “You should write a book about that, I’d read it,” he’d tell me after I’d make a half-baked sociological observation. He’d initiate projects with the primary purpose of creating roles for people he loved and admired.

He said and did these things with immense sincerity and hope, even as he railed about the establishment having shut him out and, when it did deem to acknowledge him, undervaluing him, contacting him only when they needed a bitchy gay pundit/saucy queer. Yet he was brilliant at wrestling with universal conundrums: figuring out how much of ourselves can be self-created, navigating desires and thwarted desires, coming to terms with trauma, owning the power in being an outsider, articulating what makes something beautiful, balancing rationality and superstition (superstition always wins). There is always an “other side” to magically gregarious people. The other side of Richard-the-connector was his equally astonishing ability (which was also a curse) for noticing things: an unconscious gesture, the décor of a room, a subtle brushstroke on a painting, an offhand comment, a systemic injustice. Those noticings moved him deeply, as he saw what could be and what could have been and what should not be, and all the pain that comes from noticing.

He held himself to an impossibly high standard. In 2013 he moved to Berlin, partly to reinvent himself, to see if he could break from his career trajectory of being “well known gay writer,” not quite as famous or prosperous as he wanted to be. I first thought it was misguided for a man pushing 50, who had roots and stature in his own country, to voluntarily start from scratch. But he seemed to instantly form a circle of Berlin friends and supporters who loved him as much as his Toronto circle did. He was throwing parties, writing about art and life, rooting through bins of tchotchkes in random Eastern European cities in search of something amusing. He knew the best days and venues for finding brawny top men in Berlin’s sleazy gay club scene. When I visited him, I was astonished at how quickly he had gotten himself set up in a foreign country, this man who went into a panic when we had to quickly buy a ticket for an incoming commuter train. Problems with paperwork—paperwork was, in fact, Richard’s primary nemesis—prevented him from extending his stay in Germany. He returned in 2017 to a crane-filled Toronto that he, like so many others, could no longer afford to live in.

Instead, Montreal’s famously cheap rents drew him there and again, seemingly effortlessly, he established a life Noël Coward would envy. His apartment off Mont-Royal was a dump, but when he wasn’t out socializing, he was having people over, putting out bowls of chips. He had arrived in Montreal with few possessions, but despite his best efforts the place slowly filled with art and kitsch (not that Richard drew a line between the two).

Last fall Richard, his best friend and frequent collaborator, the writer Jared Mitchell, and I went on an interminable meandering walk, bobbing around Saint Laurent Boulevard in search of the stupidest item, a plug for his kitchen sink, like it was something nigh impossible to obtain. All the while, Richard was like a kid at Disney World, winding around this tree, critiquing that statue, acting silly for the camera, finally getting tired and cranky and barely having the wherewithal to get home again.

When, last year, Richard was offered a two-term writer-in-residence opportunity at his alma mater, the University of New Brunswick, I thought: Fantastic, this is the career bump he needs, plus it will give me some ammunition when he’s bitching about rivals who got grants, appointments, fellowships or honours he’s coveted. Engaging with curious young minds, one part intellectual bad boy and one part supportive mentor, was a job he was born to do. But while he was in Fredericton, his Montreal apartment became uninhabitable and COVID-19 hit, making his next adventure, like so many people’s next adventure, uncertain. So much uncertainty. Enough to make anyone feel dazed and confused.

When we video chatted during lockdown, Richard would wander around his basement suite in the house on Aberdeen Street in Fredericton where he was last seen, moving from room to room like he was a guide giving a tour. He was pleased with how long his thick white hair had become, sticking straight up like a frightened person in the sort of vintage horror movies he loved. In our last long, real-time conversation in September, a few weeks before he was last seen, he said he was working on a new book and readying for publication an anthology of poetry—an undeniable benchmark, to me, of having “made it.” A plan was in the works for Richard, Jared and I to meet in Cobourg, Ontario, in November, a substitute for a plan, ruined by COVID-19, to meet in Spain’s Canary Islands. Every word he said though our grainy video connection that day was razor-sharp, encouraging, hilarious, a performance that went on for a couple of hours. He lapsed in and out of an exaggerated Maritime accent (that word “Maritime” again, but, hey, he’s dead) as we gossiped about the god-awful behaviour of an award-winning writer we didn’t think deserved their prize.

Richard won’t be getting prizes now. I am crushed. I believe Richard had a prize—many prizes—in his future, not just because he was my friend and I wanted the best for him. But because someone so talented, someone who craved it so badly, who put so much of himself into what he did, should get all the prizes. Every single fucking one of them.

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