“I think all great art is transgressive because all great art brings you to a different place or makes you recognize that you are in a different place than you realized. That’s how it works.”
So says multidisciplinary artist Michael V Smith, whose own artistic journey has been a testament to transgression and to discovering different places — physically, emotionally and philosophically. The BC-based writer, performer, filmmaker, visual artist, teacher will be reading at Transgress, an evening put on by Capital Xtra and the Ottawa International Writers Festival. His appearance here brings him full circle, as he traces his own artistic beginnings to Eastern Ontario.
Growing up poor in blue-collar Cornwall, Smith had little exposure to the wider arts world. What he did have were books. “I think I took to writing first because books were my friends when I was growing up. I was socialized by books. And [writing] was something you could do that didn’t require money.”
If Smith’s writing life started as the private musings of a young gay boy trying to make sense of his small-town world through literature, that life has become very public. To date, he has published two books of poetry and a well received debut novel, Cumberland. His writing has also been featured in anthologies such as Carnal Nation: Brave New Sex Fictions and contra/diction (new queer male fiction). His work is eclectic, ranging from graphic depictions of sex and sexuality to intimate character studies, and he’s snagged some local and national literary awards along the way, including the Dayne Ogilvie Grant for emerging gay writers and a Western Magazine Award.
As an artist, Smith has sought to challenge boundaries, starting with his own. He sees pushing personal limits as a defining characteristic of transgression and transgression as integral to art.
“[Making art] is about handling material that makes people uncomfortable, and by people, I mean me. What I’ve learned is that the more I share, the more generous I am with myself as an artist, the better the return I get on it. It isn’t just about telling my story, but it’s about revealing the truths that you’ve learned from looking within yourself in order to share them with people and have that resonate and have them pick up their own story and reveal their own gems and jewels to you.”
Smith has certainly revealed a few jewels. He even went so far as to have sex with a woman on film. The twist is that he did it dressed as his drag alter-ego Miss Cookie LaWhore. Girl on Girl is a 17-minute “docu-porn” he made with fellow multidisciplinary artists Amber Dawn and Lisa G. It picked up short film awards at both the Vancouver Queer Film Festival and Toronto’s Inside Out.
“To this date, I think it has been my most successful creative accomplishment,” says Smith, “because there’s more humanity packed into those 17 minutes than in any of the other work that I’ve done. And it’s dealing with a lot of my scariest stuff.”
Last year, Smith landed a tenure-track position as an assistant professor in UBC Okanagan’s department of creative studies. That meant moving to Kelowna after a decade studying, living and working in Vancouver.
On the surface, Smith remains sanguine about the move, but he admits to feeling challenged. He talks about the conservatism that reigns even within Kelowna’s gay community. He was shocked when some of the straight women and gay men who showed up to a Pride screening of But I’m a Cheerleader were grossed out by a lesbian kiss.
Smith, however, remains optimistic and a little defiant.
“We as queer people in the world are always imagining ourselves into the heterosexual love story,” muses Smith, “but the straight people don’t imagine themselves into the homosexual love story. They can’t seem to. People in majorities don’t always easily identify with the other.”
Reaching straight people is just another way to connect—and because of that, he’s not willing to be written off.
“I don’t want to just eat of the fruit of my neighbour’s tree,” he declares. “I want my neighbour to eat the fruit of my tree as well. I want to give them what great things my queer community has given me. And people often think about us trying to take power, but actually we’re also trying to give power. The great thing about transgressive art is that it gives you power, insider’s power.”