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Suggestive Reading: Don Garner’s Dirty Laundry

Voice on the street

In each issue of Xtra, a prominent literary Canadian recommends a queer-authored book. In this installment, poet Ian Young recommends Don Garner’s Dirty Laundry.

Imagine you’ve stepped back in time 30 years or so. You’re coming out of the 519 Community Centre on your way to sit on the famous steps for a while and wander around Toronto’s gay village.  As you head down Church St, you notice a street vendor with an army-surplus shoulder bag and a small pile of pamphlets — a handsome, well-built young guy with a fashionable shag haircut. It’s 1979, don’t forget. He looks interesting, to say the least, and you go over to say hello. He gives you a big smile.

You have just met Don Garner, Toronto’s own gay street poet, and he’s looking good. You fork out $1.50 for a copy of the merchandise, a slim, black and white chapbook called Dirty Laundry, one of four published by the poet’s own Huron Path Press between 1978 and 1981. The picture on the cover is a striking drawing by Rycke Pothiers of a naked, mop-headed young man standing in a Northern Ontario stream. You take it with you to read on the steps.

Don’s poems are not fancy constructions but down-to-earth meditations about travelling through Europe and Africa, bicycling through Toronto’s streets, cruising the bars and coping with a dose of the clap — and about the love of David for Jonathan and the arrest of Jesus.

Don Garner was a fixture on the downtown scene in those years, an attractive, personable guy with bright eyes, a prominent nose and a ready laugh, one of a generation of gay writers to emerge in the gay liberation era of the ’70s.

As a very young man, he had been a married missionary in Asia. Later, he became a high school teacher (history and English) but gave it up to hawk poetry in the ghetto between spells working at geophysics and forest clearing in the Yukon.  He loved to travel, and like other Canadian writers of the day (Scott Symons, Edward Lacey), he spent some time in Morocco, where he linked up with a flamboyant local guy with the improbable nom de guerre of Ali Baba Couscous. 

Sipping your coffee, you dip into the book.

I wanna be young again

naked and brown again

stepping triumphant

in wall to wall orgy…

..My frenzied disco-dancing

secret within these walls

tribal in aspiration

bathing my body in sweat…

Some of the poems take poignant delight in the landscape of the Canadian North. Others strike close to home, like the one about Philosopher’s Walk, the long-time cruising spot at the University of Toronto.

Some of our finest minds

have stopped

at some student’s fine ass.

And as you look up, there is the author in front of you, holding a coffee, asking to sit down. Sure! (Now it’s up to you… )

Back to the future. Thirty years on and here we are again in 2010. Don Garner (1945–1989) is gone now. He died young, like so many of his generation, and his four books (Dirty Laundry, Yukon Violation, Running Sore and Pretend You’re Still Alive) are out of print.  But those of us who were there remember his easy laughter and the quick, inquiring mind of a teacher on a mission.  

Fortunately, some of Don Garner’s poems have just been reprinted in the Alyson Books anthology Persistent Voices, edited by Philip Clark and David Groff.

Time to revisit.  

Ian Young’s books include Sex Magick, The Stonewall Experiment, The AIDS Cult and Out in Paperback. His short stories have appeared in several international anthologies, most recently What Love Is (Arcadia Books, 2010).