JB: You’ve expressed (in private) an interest in “the trace” and in “ghosts” as well as the abject. Could you flesh out what this interest means to you, in the larger context of a general poetics, and also on the level of craft?Toronto ON: I’ve been getting copies of Descant magazine in the mail for as long as I can remember, and when the issues are memorable, they’re very so. The newest one, #142, is another theme issue, on “Hotels.” I’ve always liked theme issues, but get somewhat wary of journals that seem only to be able to work such; where are the general issues? Sometimes I just want a journal to publish what they think is the most interesting work, instead of working a theme every single bloody time. But still, the “Hotels” issue is a good one, with perhaps one of the most attractive covers I’ve seen in some time (unfortunately the back cover is nearly unreadable because of the design), with photos on the cover and inside by Arnaud Maggs, from the series “Hotels of Paris.”
RF: At a recent reading I gave that I think might have spurred your question, I said that the poems from Fortified Castles that I read weren’t “about ghosts” but “had ghosts in them,” which, I think, speaks to my interest in the absent (or, to steal a bit from Baudrillard, the more absent from absent). I’m very intrigued by the idea that we’re affected and driven by something that we can’t see but can sense. There is a trace of something. Something spectral. Something constantly behind me, urging me to move in certain directions. My interest has spurred a lot of reading into psychoanalysis, but the books that spurred my interest are Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx and Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror and their shared notion that what we think is dead is actually not and is pursuing us relentlessly. As a writer, what this interest has done for me is that I have had to realize that I can’t get to the root of things (as a good radical writer should) by tackling things head on – I need to approach things sidelong, hoping to catch glimpses of the capitalist hegemony with its pants down.
After this, when other lovers lend tongues
and lips, they’ll taste slightly off, like rust
to the drinking water, red wine about to turn.
This is our night to forget everything
except skin. Our lives are as thin
as these hotel walls and we are not in love,
but you feel like open green
inside of me, a crocus pushing snow.
I can hear my voice cracking, letting your voice come
through and my wind chimes at home, hung outside
the kitchen window, how they’ll sound
after losing the layers of ice, how I should have
brought them in for the winter. We know
what we are doing is wrong, but we tell ourselves
that these are only bodies, barely
shedding layers and how can real damage
be done. Already, a crack of sun
through the curtains, calling to us
like the Bible in the nightstand drawer.
Our curved shoulders cast shadows
so strange we can’t tell for sure they’re ours.
you get ready to leave, rest your palm
on the same phone book that strangers
have leafed through to find call girls
and fast food, forgetting the number
for a cab. Morning light,
you won’t look at me. What’s left
is how you loved the dark. Maybe
it’s the brightness in the room or the cold metal
keys in your hands, but we know we’ve touched everything
within reach, are not strong enough
to stretch ourselves out
further for more. (Amy Dennis)
Why are so many of the pieces in this collection about trysts? I understand the idea of hotels, but is that all there is? Otherwise, this is a strong and interesting issue, and even includes a photo series of the artist rooms in Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel, restored as part of the refurbishing of the building in 2004; wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could do that in Ottawa, in the decrepit building at Bank and Somerset that once housed the old Duke of Somerset Pub? Another highlight of the issue is contributing editor Mark Kingwell’s non-fiction piece, “Are You Arabic? Drinking in Hotel Bars and the Female Cruise,” which is an absolute must read, working through numerous old films and hotel bars, including To Catch a Thief (1955), Funny Face (1957), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Love Me Tender (1962), and The Graduate (1967), writing:
The particular hotel bar scene is seared on the memories of more than one generation of young men, who can only sympathize silently with Ben’s ineffectual attempts to hail a waiter, appear suave and in command, or even retain his lunch as leopard skin-clad Mrs. Robinson, a self-assured alcoholic, snaps her fingers for a drink and the cheque together, and twits him for not more smoothly arranging a room. But that discomfort is nothing compared to his bumbling dialogue as she undresses in the room later, where he offers her a choice of wire or wood hanger, because, “they have both.” She finally manoeuvres him past his own misgivings by wondering if this is his first time, and then referring repeatedly to his “inadequacy” – a gambit, let it be said, that will work with most men under twenty-five. (Hoffman, playing twenty-one, was actually twenty-nine; Bancroft, supposedly in her forties, was thirty-five and stunning.)Other than that, Aaron Tucker’s poem “concierge” is worth reading, poems by Priscila Uppal (including an “Ode to Mini-bars”) and the piece “Temporary Keys” by Nathaniel G. Moore. Do you ever get the feeling more journals and book publishers don’t publish his magnificent work because they just don’t know what the hell to do with him? One of my favourite parts is knowing that the two quotes at the beginning of his piece are by him, from his own two published books. Here’s the first section of the second half of the piece, titled “That’s Him Officer: The Rise & Fall of Nathaniel G. Moore,” that writes:
These early scenes can almost make you forgive Ben for the brutally conformist message that is delivered under cover of prima facie satire and that seductive Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. As Roger Ebert has noted, we happily watch Ben and Elaine ride off in the bus, he avoiding her mom and she avoiding the doofus frat-boy fiancé, but their stunned final glances at each other are ambiguous. Really, how long will it be before Ben is in fact moving up in the world of plastics? Elaine was the match his parents wanted, after all. Another victory for bourgeois righteousness and bio-fascist norms. And so much for sexually frustrated middle-aged women.
The door closed behind us. She tossed the bag of ice on the bed, as if she were about to perform some drastic surgery. Fetched some plastic cups. I opened the rum. She poured the juice, added the ice. We drew the curtains and started –
“You ready to party with me?” She was wearing grey underwear?
“It’s my bikini. I’m European, okay?”
“It looks like Serbian army fatigues.”
“Is that from the Sylvia Plath collection?”
The hotel mattress sighed uneasily as our bodies piled on top of one another. “Bring out your dead,” she said, filling up our plastic cups of dwindling ice. The rest is a blur of pink, red and teeth: lover’s spit and treacherous sweat.