Sunday, October 25, 2020

RM Vaughan (1965-2020)

I don’t know what to do with this. Nearly two weeks after he had been reported missing in Fredericton, Canadian poet, writer, critic and artist RM (Richard Murray) Vaughan was found dead on Friday. At the time of this writing, there haven’t been any further details, apart from the fact that police do not suspect foul play, a piece of information that is simultaneously better and worse. I don’t even know. He had been in Fredericton as writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick as part of the 2019-20 academic year, but remained in the city due, I suspect, in large part, to Covid, and living with writers Nathaniel G. Moore and Amber McMillan [see Nathaniel G. Moore's piece today in The Toronto Star]. As he wrote me in an email on September 22nd of this year: “I’m waiting out the pandemic in NB. It’s sweet, quiet, cheap. Montreal can live without me for a bit.”

I first heard of Richard and his work somewhere around 1994-5 through Joe Blades [see my obituary for Joe here, who also died this year], back when Richard (originally from Saint John, New Brunswick) was still living in Halifax. Richard was writing poetry and plays, and making small films, if my recollections are correct. Or was he in Toronto by then, having relocated from Halifax? I know I caught his work in the anthologies Plush, ed. Michael Holmes and Lynn Crosbie (Coach House Press, 1995) and The Last Word, ed. Michael Holmes (Insomniac Press, 1995). It was around that time that I began to visit Toronto a couple of times a year, hanging out with Michael O’Connor (publisher of Insomniac) and Michael Holmes, among others, and Richard was just around. He was a couple of years my elder, and he seemed to be everywhere. I saw him at readings, social gatherings and on the street; I saw his work in journals and anthologies, and heard him read. We spoke of his poetry manuscript-in-progress, the book that became his full-length debut, a selection of dazzling scarves (ECW Press, 1996). I might have been the only one who preferred his prior title, “the sand that is everywhere,” and I even tried to use the title myself, given he wasn’t. I couldn’t quite manage to write anything that properly fit (perhaps he had the same issue; perhaps this was the issue all along). My poem for Richard, utilizing his title, appeared in my own first ECW title a couple of years later.

This was back in the Toronto days of Blood & Aphorisms magazine, of Tortoiseshell & Black, of the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, of Insomniac Press’ monthly reading series at Tower Records, all of which Richard seemed to be around for, whenever I floated through town. There was Richard alongside contemporaries such as Mike O’Connor, Phlip Arima, Stan Rogal, Stephen Cain, Nancy Dembowski, Jay MillAr, Natalee Caple, Stuart Ross, Death Waits (now known as Jacob Wren) and John Barlow, etcetera. During those days, Richard was actively working on poetry, plays, fiction and film, which eventually moved into writing on visual art, all of which he seemed enthusiastic about, even if he did also produce the occasional (often witty) caustic remark. It was part of the package of Richard, to comment at some disappointment or foolishness, that it could all be done better. Why isn’t it being done better?

Richard had such great titles. I included his poem “HOW TO SPEND MOST OF YOUR TIME ALONE AND STILL WRITE CONVINCINGLY ABOUT SEX” in an issue of STANZAS (#8, May 1996) alongside “The Big Fuck,” by Judith Fitzgerald [see my obituary for her here], a gesture that seemed ridiculously appropriate, and even perfect. How could I ever have been so lucky? I included some of his work in an issue of Missing Jacket (#5, April 1997). I published his poem “the seven good reasons why The Boys In The Band could be a musical     or, I am the dollar in the dolorosa” asn an above/ground press broadside (#44, 1997), most likely timed for some event I knew I would see him at. See what I mean? His titles were magnificent. Not long after that, I published his single-poem chapbook 14 Reasons Not To Eat Potato Chips On Church Street (April, 1999), composed as a list poem, and as a love poem (with snarky comments and critiques) for Toronto’s Gay Village. As the poem reads:

3.         If you have to drop by The 519, the tight-faced lesbian at the front counter will remind you, correctly, that queer youth of colour are being physically and verbally absued in Third World sport shoe factories owned by the parent company of Frito Lay.
How could you?

4.         And what are you gonna do with the bag? It can’t be recycled (see #3).

He would mail me items occasionally, and randomly. Small notes, occasionally on print-outs of images not fit for all audience. All sent mischievously, and with a positive note and a great deal of love. The piece Alana Wilcox posted yesterday over at Coach House reminded me of such.

And of course I can’t find my copy of his second poetry collection, Invisible to Predators (ECW Press, 1999), to verify how much or how little of that material might have appeared there. I really don’t know. If not, that would presume that these pieces never made it into print beyond these small bits of ephemera. During this same period (most likely in 1997, possibly as a tour for his poetry debut), he read for my reading series, The Factory Reading Series at Gallery 101, when the series was still called “poetry 101,” and held in the gallery space above Wallacks, at Bank and Lisgar Streets. He was reading with British Columbia poet Joe Rosenblatt, who had returned to town to read from a volume of selected poems and visual art that had been refused by the original printer (a whole other story), thus missing the event that had already passed by, the opening of Rosenblatt’s gallery show at the Carleton University Gallery. I think the week that fit into their schedule was one that had held a number of other literary events, which meant our audience was but two people. Rosenblatt didn’t seem to expect much (the empty liquor bottle underneath his chair after he had left provided some answers to Joe's casual indifference to the small crowd), thanks to the printer of the book, and Richard just seemed amused by it. Richard read first, and one of the audience, most likely not prepared for Richard’s openly gay content, walked out during his reading. Richard seemed delighted by this, and said after that he was going to tell people that “half of his audience walked out” at the Ottawa launch. And in hindsight, Richard's response to this one lone audience member underscores the realities of his approach to life and to art, having come out as a gay man during a period of time that wasn't necessarily safe or welcoming; and the fact that he was an openly, and seemingly comfortable, gay man exploring some of this content in his work, makes it that much more remarkable. He wasn't the first, not even of his generation, to be writing out gay themes and issues, but from the time I first became aware of him, he was consistently producing work, writing and publishing and exploring, in a way that might have provided him enormous difficulty, or even harm. Simply by being himself; his own delightful, funny and scathingly-witty self.

9.         Drop one chip, just one, and you’re increasing the typhus-carrying microbe population by about 2 billion. Thanks a lot.

10.        One publically-consumed bag of chips is sexually counter equal to: one flattering new haircut, 3 subtle yet penetrating colognes, any favourite, loose-fitting flannel shirt, plus a whole week’s worth of consciously sucking in your stomach at 30 seccond intervals. Double the ratios for Ketchup flavour.
Math never lies.

I remember having conversations about him about adoption, as he too was adopted. I had always been interested, and been looking; he was less interested, and published a lengthy article on Parent Finders as being useless and a big scam, basically. The title of a 2018 opinion piece he wrote for The Globe and Mail offered much of what his thoughts on the matter seemed to be: “As a person who was adopted, I'm not lost, I’m lucky.” In March 2014, Richard was in Ottawa (for an arts jury, we think; most likely with the Canada Council) and came over to visit. We spent an evening—Christine, Richard and myself (with four month old Rose)—in our sunroom, talking about everything and anything, and drinking wine. We talked for hours, as though there hadn't been years since I'd seen him. Why didn’t we take any photographs while he was here? He took a cab here, and we hung out for hours in the sunroom, before he wandered off again in another cab. He was charming and witty and delightful, and I most likely loaded him down with chapbooks.

Later on, he responded via email to my journal G U E S T with enthusiasm as well, asking if he could edit an issue as well, not realizing it was a journal for current or former editors of small presses. Earlier this year, when I suggested he could do with what he wished for periodicities, he became immediately enthused, and worked on editing a folio of Queer poets from New Brunswick. After we had posted it, Shane Neilson of Frog Hollow Press had requested Richard expand the project, for the sake of a chapbook, which Richard was very excited about, and actively working on. Might that book still be possible? I had been looking forward to seeing it. The folio also meant that we’d been corresponding over email quite a lot since March (and the essay I posted of his in April, as part of the “Talking Poetics” series), with multiple back-and-forths, including photographs he’d send along, including one of the dog he said he was living with, of whom Richard seemed quite fond. He was excited on my behalf for the half-sibling and birth mother updates and photos I’d been sending him. On March 4th, he responded with: “Your new found siblings are adorable! As, of course, are you. And I'm glad to hear things are better for your dad and Christine. You've been through quite a bit the last few years. Can you go on strike? Tried that once, didn't really work for me, but hey?”

He was warm, generous, energetic, cranky and enthusiastic. He was a champion for those who needed it, and very much attentive to the kinds of assistance he could provide to younger writers. He even wrote on above/ground press's 25th anniversary, when no one else would. How would he have felt about trending on Twitter, I wonder? I know he would have absolutely hated that the original notification from the Fredericton police was his driver's licence photo (both photographs here of Richard were provided by Richard himself, earlier this year). And oh, that wicked wit. I liked him very much and I will miss him a great deal.

And now I’ve been more than two hours seeking out his Invisible to Predators on my bookshelves. Unsuccessfully, I might add, although I did find my copy of his third poetry book, ruined stars (2004), a book that writes about, among other subjects, trauma, visual art, pop culture and queer identity, including this, from a collaboration with the painter William Forrestall, “Conversations with Will”:

(I don’t know about you) But
I’m tired of running around, spending my days
absorbing, absorbing, absorbing

being smart and unhappy at the same time

It’s too much, it makes my hair gray it keeps me up at night it makes me eat
more than I want to
it drowns out the me in things

simple things, the stink of an apple   the weight of a full mug
the heartlessness of the cold air when I walk
home or –

Yes, that Me, that conceit     is just Desire
Sure, but      who doesn’t want the world?



David G. Hallman said...

I so much appreciate this history of Richard’s literary life. Thank you. David G. Hallman

judith said...

Thanks for posting information on R.M. Vaughn. He was such an amazing person. It is such a sad thing that he has died.

allison said...

Miigwetch, rob. My condolences to you and to his family and friends.