Today we turn our attention northward and hear from a sterling representative of the Canadian literary scene. Spencer Gordon is co-founder of the Toronto-based literary Magazine The Puritan (which counts Margaret Atwood among its admirers) and author of the short story collection Cosmo, winner of the 2013 CBC Overlookie Bookie Award for Most Underrated Canadian Book. I wanted to chat with Gordon about his experience as the founder and editor of a literary magazine, the peculiar muses which drove him to write a short story collection about starlets, Miley Cyrus fans, and famous actors, and the place and role of fiction in our brave new wired world.
What led to the foundation of The Puritan? Is there a story or an aesthetic/philosophical significance to its name?
The foundation of The Puritan is a long and personal story, but I can touch on a few points about the name. The mag’s co-founder (Tyler Willis) and I were both tickled by a particular story [the peculiar career of Thomas Morton] in the history of puritanism in America; studying puritanism in general seemed extremely absurd (in a horrific way). Secondly, we started in a place (Ottawa, Ontario) that had what one might call a surplus of poetry zines, and what we felt was a time of DIY indifference to editorial rigor (lots of whatevering). Calling our then-fiction-only magazine The Puritan was a two-way joke about our city and our historical interests. We were also young and dumb, and proceeded to make a magazine that lacked a lot of editorial rigour and was rank with whatevering. Now that we are much better we field questions about the name from people who think we’re actually fans of or adherents to puritan ideology, having to reassure our super-sincere millennial cohort that it’s tongue-in-cheek.
The Puritan states its commitment to publishing “a pioneering literature.” What does this phrase mean to you? What limitations or conventions do you most wish to see challenged?
In this case, ‘pioneering’ means an attempt to push against a frontier. Everyone has his or her own borders, badlands, horizons. We seek avant-garde work because it risks the pioneer’s failure, the settlement or stake retaken by the wild. But we also accept conventional works, as long as their own frontiers (of taste, form, or balance) are challenged, shaken up. Pioneering is mostly about risk. Works without risk are rarely satisfying.
I have my own litany of limitations that I’d like to see challenged, but those aren’t representative of the magazine’s editorial team entirely (my co-editor, associate fiction and poetry editors, etc.), so let’s save that for another day.
What are your beliefs regarding the cultural role of the literary magazine in the age of Buzzfeed, Tumblr, Twitter, Thought Catalog, Netflix, video games, et al?
I think, given how well those cultural artifacts accomplish their goals, and how aptly they’ve responded to each need and niche, and how strange and lovely (and yes, terrible) our world can be with their constant flow, I don’t think literary journals have to compete. Or: they’ll certainly fail at it, but that might be cool to watch them fail.
I’m torn. I want people to find interesting work, to read poetry, but I don’t want to be the person who tries to make poetry seem cool. Poetry is not cool (in the way we use that word) like 99.9 percent of the time. Poetry exists for those who need it, who will seek it out, and thus it will always thrive even in the most conservative and lamest of regimes. It’s great to have it be available, but let’s not take out our backs trying to breakdance with the kids. I co-run a very pure literary magazine. It’s filled with stories, poems, essays, reviews, interviews. We try to get it out there to as wide an audience as possible while still not sacrificing that pure literary content. It’s not The Paris Review. We use what meager resources we have at our disposal, and that’s often enough.
Several stories in Cosmo feature living celebrities as their protagonists or as their subjects—Frankie Muñiz, Leonard Cohen, Miley Cyrus, etc. Could you describe your fascination with modern celebrity? What inspired you to cast Matthew McConaughey as the star of “Journey to the Centre of Something” rather than invent a fictional A-list actor to play the role?
It’s a mixture of loathing and envy, delight and disgust. I get a bit obsessed with certain people, and by obsessed, I mean I fall in love a little. I do my best to not explode with impotence once I come down with one of my celebrity fixations; they’re equal parts thrilling and agonizing, unrequited insanity (Dear Taylor Swift, I am an Aries …).
As for fiction, I’m just trying to write my now, or do my best at realism (when we grow up, we all become realists, maybe). That means celebrities, and it means music and books and junk, trash and pearls. But you have to know that the most celebrated (awarded, prized) fiction in my country operates on another plane of existence, just outside the one you think you know (like, the world where post-modernism happened; it didn’t really happen here). Canadian realism is surrealism.
I didn’t cast my protagonist in “Journey …” as an invented A-lister because it was really about Matthew McConaughey. It was always about him. I guess I think the other way: I see a story about a celebrity, maybe, and it gets written. Is that fan fiction? I’m writing about a lot of Canadian celebrities right now. Avril Lavigne. Celine Dion. Drake. Canadian celebrities and my own life. It’s not about celebrity, but persona, those characters. They are not entirely real: the heads and voices they project. Or they are as real as Jane Eyre, Bartleby the Scrivener, King Lear. In 50 years, what will be the difference?
The piece in Cosmo that rattled me the most was “Frankie+Hilary+Romeo+Abagail+Helen: An Intermission” [a staccato of biographical details about young celebrities].How long did it take you to compile and organize all those child star factoids? (If your aim was to induce dizziness and mild nausea in readers, you can tally at least one success.)
I’m not sure how long; it feels like a few days, but it was probably a couple of weeks of intermittent and spotty work. I remember the act of writing it, though, and the raw pleasure. Happened in one of the best summers of my life, 2012. “… An Intermission” was the last piece of the puzzle for Cosmo and I was typing away at it while finishing up some of the trickier stories, which were causing me pain. I wrote the bulk of the piece in a coffee shop in the Roncesvalles area of Toronto. My roommate was working cash and I’d have to pause every few sentences to go inform him of some weird or humorous or frightening bit of information. I’d drink a few coffees and listen to pop and then go outside and have a smoke and just kind of vibrate. It was a real hoot to complete; I mean it was totally fun. Dizziness and nausea were part of the process, the humility, laying bare before the Internet, its boredom and rage. I wish all writing could be like it was with “… An Intermission,” although you might never know it from reading the dang thing.
I can relate to parts of “Last Words” more than I’d like to admit, but that’s tangential to the question: why are we writing short stories when we could be doing (or trying to do) anything else? I’m inclined to think of fiction writing as a kind of behavioral pathology, but I’m interested to know your perspective.
That’s a real doozy. Who knows? When I’m saddest I think fiction is pure sublimation. It’s a coping mechanism for stuff that hurts, stuff you can’t do or say, the people you lose or could never hold onto. If I had everything I wanted forever, what use would art be? God would vanish; there’d be no use to love, and I would be hideous. Or it’s rebellion, protest at lack …
And the weird satisfaction of a thing well made, humming with newness, recognition. You made that baby, that thing that empties you. Then there’s this enormous ineffable light, our un-nameable tire fire, either insane pan-piping at the universe’s core or a cosmic love, a snap of pattern. All my tries toward it mean nothing without you. Hey! I’m here! I’m reaching out to you; I want to be inside you so badly. I want you to remember that we tried at it, together. I don’t want to die knowing you don’t know how wonderful it was to drink Zeller’s Cola from the can in July 1997 near the Pineland Public School creek. It would just kill me!
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