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The Pagan Nuptials of Julia on Montreal Rampage

MONTREAL NOW: Why Good Writing Matters

The Pagan Nuptials of Julia

I am a voracious reader, one who often reads books simultaneously.  So it was that last week I was working on a book recommended by several people, Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club and a book I had picked up at the QWF Book Fair at Concordia this past weekend, Keith Henderson’s marvellous collection of short stories, The Pagan Nuptials of Julia.

First off, Palahniuk’s “novel” (and I use the term loosely) is crap. Sure, it takes on the theme of how men have innate violence within, but so what? Critics say this is “edgy” writing with a voice and tone that is purportedly slick, “hip” and “original,” but to me the book reads like a poorly written Trump Tweet.  I stopped reading after 75 pages and flung it into my recycling bin to take to Renaissance.  Life is too short.

And then I opened Henderson’s collection and was immediately captivated. Here was an original voice and sensibility that stopped me in my tracks.  Henderson is an intellectual in the truest sense: he makes no apologies for presenting complex ideas, occasionally erudite references, and multi-lingual commentary.  His is writing that demands work and engagement on the part of the reader—engagement that is richly rewarded.  The stories in The Pagan Nuptials of Julia are multi-layered and present characters as complex individuals, enacting their lives in confusion, yet always accessible through their passions and longings.

In the title story, he relates the tale of a woman who has returned to her birthplace in Italy to attend a family wedding with her Canadian lover. Ian, the lover, marvels at the beauty of the countryside, at the warmth of the Italian relatives, at how they can discourse learnedly about angels and how Julia, the woman in his life, can so easily emote within this context. At the wedding they attend, Ian realizes that Julia’s “homecoming” is a return of the heart, and his “pagan” imagined marriage to her is the acceptance of this communion. The story ends with a wonderful scene in a cemetery where Julia, Ian and a relative gather with the dead, and suddenly the story swings into an allegory about love, loss, and mortality, all rendered with an effortless and deft touch by the author.

“Less and Less Human” presents two divergent points of view:  a husband who presents a classical view of the world, loving music and art that conveys the profoundest and most enduring of human emotions, juxtaposed with that of his ex-wife, a modern composer, whose vision embraces the seemingly absurd through her empirical scepticism.  At the conclusion, Henderson presents a poignant story of Holocaust survivors hearing the “healing” music of Bach, while his wife denigrates his interpretation, suggesting that modern art is predicated on chaos, not human feelings that could possibly endure.  Here, Henderson’s vision becomes apparent to the reader: someone who bemoans the loss of a humanistic connection that has served as the basis of our culture.  A most powerful warning for our age where we have abdicated spiritual values.

It is hard to pick a favorite story from this excellent collection, but two especially stand out.  “Heaven for Pyromaniacs” (such a wonderful title!) and “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. In the former, the main character, Alison, is travelling from Montreal to the funeral of her mother, who has died in Ontario.  The journey, while physical, is really more a passage through her memories, her past, and her feelings about family and loss.  Henderson has the ability to move from the mundane recounting of an event to its core meaning.  For instance, he talks about the reality of people who have fled Quebec after the election of the PQ down the 401 forOntario (the “uni-directional migrants”), yet manages to turn this amusing insight into a metaphor for profound loss as in the following passage: “Bodies moved away from each other in this expanding universe of intimate life.  That is what time and death did.”  Despite the seriousness of the theme, this story is replete with subtle humor and wonderful irony.  At the end, as she and her siblings are removing her mother’s belongings from the nursing home where she had died, Henderson has a startlingly laugh-out-loud moment depicting the elderly residents of the home watching in “delight” and amazement since “unless they were dead or very blessed, they did not move out.” Great writing indeed.

The story though that sticks with me the most is “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” perhaps because this is also my favorite painting by Hieronymus Bosch. How Henderson manages to fashion an allegory about the protagonist’s tainted raspberry patch leading to his subsequent illness and the interpretation of the Bosch painting is a marvel to behold.  He writes about a scene in the  painting of a man surrounded by the “permutation of human evil” and another figure glancing at the world “with wistful despair at the pleasure of the tavern he has just forsworn:  a drunken lout pissing against a wall, a tattered roof, a Dutch whore beckoning from a shutter-buckled window…. Perhaps it was the sense of plague that gave so skeletal a quality to the life of those times just as the sense of holocaust has to our own.”  Juxtaposed with this is his own disease from eating the tainted berries that he states is of a “far less spiritual nature.” Again, an encapsulated summary of what has happened to our notion of suffering humanity.

It is at this point that I wan tto conclude with why such writing matters. Henderson’s vision in these stories reflects the loss of value in our post-modern world, a world of quotidian, material concerns and empty longings.  Gone are the grand themes of art from our lives, he suggests, and we are much the poorer for this.

Besides Henderson being a master of style, it is because of such insights and affirmation that this is good writing—one that makes no apologies and is unremitting in its endorsement of the human spirit.

Keith Henderson’s collection The Pagan Nuptials of Julia is a welcome reminder of what good books once were and hopefully may once again become.

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Excitement Tax at the 2018 QWF Awards Ceremony

Poets John Emil Vincent (left) and Greg Santos at the AELAQ Pop-up Book Fair

About Excitement Tax jurors at the 2018 QWF award ceremony wrote:

John Emil Vincent’s special talent is that these really are poems, not just prose in the shape of a poem. He really plays with language. The result is poems which at first glance seem like nonsense, but a closer reading brings us closer to: well, we’re not sure what — but it is a kind of nonsense that makes sense. . . profound nonsense that comments on everything, including language itself.

After putting down John Emil Vincent’s book, you are still ‘in’ his book.

EXCITEMENT TAX is funny. Sardonic; deeply witty in fact. What a relief. And of course it’s quite sad at the same time. An awful lot like life — especially the confusing part.

Sasquatch and the Green Sash

DC Books is pleased to announce the publication of Keith Henderson’s Sasquatch and the Green Sash, with illustrations by Steve Adams and Introduction by medievalist K.S. Whetter of Acadia University. Sasquatch and the Green Sash is a translation/Canadian adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Gavin McHenry is a lonely, restless man. Even among the beautiful and bountiful yuletide merriment of his cousin Arthur LeMagne’s Christmas feast, the RCMP constable stands apart, brooding and regretful. Then a strange Sasquatch on a sled crashes the party and challenges him to a cruel game. A kind of duel, it will lead to other tests along the way as a year hence Gavin goes in search of the beast the Dene Nation call Nuk-luk.

Is the young constable just an old-fashioned Canadian adventurer or a retro Millennial adrenalin junkie? Gavin’s struggle for virtuous action and nobility of soul in a self-serving world of violent deceit and sexual treachery may be that of every man and woman alive today. In Sasquatch and the Green Sash, Keith Henderson’s narrator presents a scarily enchanting and thrilling tale of two determined, duty-bound adversaries. Gavin’s struggle is ours, and something to savour for sure…but maybe not too sweetly?

One thing clear through all the snow and ice and race to win is what some will risk to gain or lose, be it love or fame through sin and dishonour in the perilous Arctic mountains of Canada’s mystical north.

Sasquatch and the Green Sash by Keith Henderson (Introduction by Prof. K.S. Whetter, Acadia), ISBN 978-1-927599-40-2 is available in hardcover for $29.95 at fine book stores across Canada and into the United States, directly from DC Books, via amazon.com, amazon.ca, 49th Shelf, or Fitzhenry & Whiteside.

“Henderson retells a powerful tale with dignity and grace, successfully transplanting a poem rooted in the mediaeval Arthurian past into a particularly Canadian mythos.”

– K. S. WHETTER, Acadia University INTRODUCTION, SASQUATCH AND THE GREEN SASH

From the Massachusetts Review

10 Questions for John Emil Vincent

I had too much computer. And a bad case of quaint.

Such as it was, time stood still and there I was with someone seemed half my age and less a quarter my hygiene. We walked to Emily Dickinson’s grave. We held hands; he said his fingers were empurpled from picking kale in deep frost. I found that twee. In an adorable way.

from “A crumbling infrastructure,” Winter 2017 (Vol. 58, Issue 4)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
The first prose poems I wrote were in high school. I wrote this epic fantasia called “Bidet and the Giant Silver Rocking Horse.” It involved pretending to be on acid, which at the time I had not tried. The work was finding a way to open up and develop momentum, which is what I love best about prose poems. Snag on something, unravel the whole sweater. For me, this is the supremest form of fun.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
Marianne Moore is my biggest influence, I suspect. For sonorousness I like Nietzsche and Kafka. For intelligence, Plath. My friend Elizabeth Willis has this terrific book, Turneresque, which really impressed me with what prose poetry could do. That book set my present practice spinning.

What other professions have you worked in?
I trained to be an archivist, a job to which I am allergic. I was a lifeguard. I was a legal secretary. I think teaching is my favorite money-bearing activity and the one I’m best at.

What inspired you to write this piece?
“A crumbling infrastructure” was written about a time when I was newly single and newly 40 and living in the Pelham woods. There was this site, Manhunt, which around 2009 served the purpose of Grindr but also connected gay friends in the Pioneer Valley. Not having been single for most of my adult life, it was a revelation. Sex is, of course, rather terrifying. Other people are, however, completely interesting. “Goat boy” of the poem worked in a butterfly conservatory—what could be better than that? He was incredibly sweet and beautiful and really loved marijuana– also he had dreadlocks.  The spur of the poem was remembering how foggy everything looked through dread-musk smeared glasses. The idea of dread-musk.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Montreal is a central character in my first book EXCITEMENT TAX, while our emigrating from the US to Canada in 2011 is the plot. What more could a writer wish for than a city where language is everywhere activated and living, full of conflict and full of fun? And also where the people are very sexy and very well-dressed.

Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I rely on an increasingly intricate system of notebooks. One by the bed, one on the desk, loose leaf for composing. I’ve also taken to using my phone, which I then have to transfer to paper to make it back into language.  I jot constantly (things I hear, things I think) and compose in the afternoon, when not feeling defeated by daily living.

The present poems are hewn from giant masses of prose. Kind of like sculpture. I write and write this id junk and then see what shapes are in it. Then carve. The carving is the work, the junk-spewing is the fun part.

Though I’m a little embarrassed by it, I like to have “Alex,” the computer voice, read my poems back to me over and over while I work on revisions.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My friends. My friend Marcie Frank is the first person I send a poem. My friend Meredith is usually the first person I read a poem to.  When things seem pretty together I like to borrow Thomas Devaney’s amazing eyes and ears.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Film.  Specifically shot-by-shot remakes of Doctor Strangelove.

What are you working on currently?
Working toward another collection of prose poems called The Playfulness of Skeletons, the Sadness of Bones.

Meanwhile I have an essay to finish on this cool little prose poem by Elizabeth Bishop about a cruisy gay toll-taker on the Bay Bridge.

I’m also discovering that having a first book is a lot of work. I’m not really good at any of it, nor natural to it. The idea of showing up at all is a bit uncomfortable. It’s kind of funny doing this first book thing at my age. Getting to feel that awkwardness, however, might be the best thing about it. I feel like I’m learning something about middle age that is actually nice to know. That I like a good awkwardness.

What are you reading right now?
Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds and The Flowers of Evil. Also really savoring my friend Gillian Sze’s book Panicle.

Italy-Canada Tour

Rome, Siena, Bologna, Tagliacozzo, Montreal

March 13th to 17th; April 6th & 27th, 2018
CONTACT: giuliana pendenza — DC Books communications
dcbookscanada@gmail.com         |       www.dcbooks.ca

Acqua Sacra

DC Books is proud to announce the Canada-Italy tour
of Acqua Sacra in Italian translation, Keith Henderson’s
novel on white collar crime in Abruzzo and in Quebec (Edizioni Kirke, Avezzano). In Italy the tour features the author, in Canada the author together with the translator, Fiorella Paris.

Schedule:

Preview on Monday 12th March, Interview with journalist Annalisa Coppolaro, Bar Caracas, Via Camollia 67, Siena

March 13th in Siena: Liceo G.Galilei, sponsored by
CanaDiana, Laura Failli

March 15th in Bologna: Centro Alfredo Rizzardi, Prof.
Carla Comellini

March 17th in Rome: Canadian Club of Rome Book
Club, Prof. Luigi Girolametto

April 6th in Tagliacozzo: Associazione Culturale Marsicana, Emanuele Nicolini

April 27th in Montreal: DC Books spring launch at the Blue Met, 6:30 pm – Paragraphe Book Store

“In Acqua Sacra we find ourselves in a somewhat uncomfortable position, work suspended in the house, a confrontation with the mother of the workers supposed to finish the job. But in exchange for prosecutorial immunity, Susanna becomes involved in a Canadian operation far beyond the scope of normalcy. Her unease about her situation is made clear in a precise psychological portrait Keith Henderson renders perfectly in a series of metaphors that act as a summary of Susanna Ricci’s self-assessment: her distaste for roller coasters, her vertigo at heights, her love of quiet, unhurried driving, her refusal to learn to ski. The final portions of the book intensify the shift toward crime novel. And here both the fantasy and reality of our times combine in situations that lend an entirely different and enriching flavour to so lively a book…. Truly a fine novel.”

— GIANFRANCO FORMICHETTI, City Councillor responsible for Cultural Matters, City of Rieti, Author of Vita di Antonio Vivaldi, Giunti Editore

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Robert Edison Sandiford a non-fiction judge for the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize.

Robert Edison Sandiford is one of the non-fiction judges for the 2018 OCM Bocas Prize.

The NGC Bocas Lit Fest in Trinidad and Tobago administers the annual award, which recognizes the best books of poetry, fiction, and literary non-fiction published in English in the previous calendar year by a writer of Caribbean birth or citizenship living anywhere in the world. Entries are made by publishers, though judges may request other published titles for consideration.

The annual literary award, now open for entries, carries a cash prize of US$10,000 for the overall winner, with two prizes of US$3,000 for the category winners. These are sponsored by One Caribbean Media.

Every year, the prize has ten judges in all, distinguished writers, scholars and publishing professionals. There are three judges for each category, including a chair who will form part of the final judging panel of four persons, the fourth being the overall judge. For 2018, the head judge will be the Poet Laureate of Jamaica, Lorna Goodison.

The other two Bocas Prize non-fiction judges are Judy Raymond and Jeremy Taylor.

The reading period runs from November to February. The judges come up with a shortlist of three books and then the winner in each category.

The winning title in each category will be judged for the award of best title of the year, to be announced in April at the festival.

For more information on the award, please visit:

http://www.bocaslitfest.com/2017/awards/the-ocm-bocas-prize-for-caribbean-literature/