Jon Paul Fiorentino is the recipient of the 2015 National Magazine Award Silver Medal for Humour. He is the author of I’m Not Scared of You or Anything, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and Needs Improvement, which was shortlisted for the 2014 A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. Jon is also the author of the novel Stripmalling, which was shortlisted for the 2009 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction, and five poetry collections, including The Theory of the Loser Class, which was shortlisted for the 2006 A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry and Indexical Elegies, which won the 2010 CBC Books “Bookie” Award for Best Book of Poetry. He lives in Montreal, where he teaches Creative Writing at Concordia University, is the editor-in-chief of Matrix magazine, and is the editor of the Serotonin/Wayside Imprint of Insomniac Press.
Read Jon’s story “Jonny Did Not Want to Participate in the Panel” found in Issue 54.1, and his interview with PRISM Prose Editor, Christopher Evans, below.
“Jonny Did Not Want to Participate in the Panel”
Jonny did not want to participate in the panel. He did not like the other participants, and he did not like himself.
The panel took place on a January afternoon on one of the many stages in the largest convention centre of the city. The city was the only city that mattered to people for whom books mattered. The city was where literature happened. That weekend, the city was host to a bold new venture called Invoke! Invoke! was a book fair/writers’ festival/industry event. Invoke! was hard to put into just one box, but relatively easy to put into just one convention centre, and so that’s where they put it.
The moderator of the panel was Rosalie Fuentes, the senior editor of The Quail Reader. The Quail was one of the city’s most important publications, and everyone knew it. The Quail ran book reviews, industry news, and think pieces by people who could really think. Sometimes the think pieces would be the topic of discussion for other thinkers throughout the city for weeks on end. They became talk pieces it was said. They were that good.
The topic of the panel was “What Makes Short Fiction Last So Long in Our Hearts?” Jonny objected to the title of the panel; he claimed that the language was trite and imprecise, but his protestation fell on deaf ears—Rosalie’s deaf ears.
The other members of the panel were the acclaimed short story writer Gwendolyn Preakness, a multi-award winning author who was scheduled to appear at many more high profile events at Invoke!, Gary Crosby, an emerging short story writer who had recently won his first blogging contest—The Quail’s “Hot Take Takedown” competition (his appearance on the panel was part of his prize), and, of course, Jonny. Jonny the C-lister, small press author, loser of the lot.
The panel began. “Welcome to Invoke! for what will be one of many, many, many practical and wonderful discussions on the craft of writing and the art of living the writing life,” Rosalie said. “And indeed, welcome to our panel, which is a discussion, if you will, about the short story. The short story is a genre that is best known for its shortness in length. But don’t be fooled. Size doesn’t matter! Haha! For it is precisely in the shortness of these narratives, if you will, that we who love books, find a largeness—a largeness of spirit, and generosity, and wisdom, if you will, to see ourselves, and indeed other human beings as well!” Rosalie gestured toward the crowd, and the crowd applauded. “Let us turn to our fabulous writers! Now, I have not had the pleasure of reading any of your work, but, to be honest, your reputations precede you. Gary. You are the young whippersnapper of the group, and so I suppose I should pose the first question to you. Gary? What does short fiction mean to you? To you, Gary. What does short fiction mean to you.”
“Well,” Gary started, “I suppose you could say I am a traveller. I don’t know where I’m going, and I don’t know where I’ve been. But when I get into the groove of writing, I think to myself, ‘Here I go again!’ and then a new adventure begins. Every road winds and every trail is dusty, but no stone can be left unturned in the realm, if I can risk that word, of the short story.” Gary popped his acid-washed collar and continued. “In this country, this ridiculous country we live in, which, truth be told, is a land of exiles … and I want to emphasize this point: We are all in various states of exile. There is no point in denying it. To deny your own status as an exiled subject is to subject yourself to further exile. We, the exiled, need to exhale and accept that this country is a fiction. There is no country. There is only exile. But I digress. What I want to say is that we are all in flux. Our identities are never static in this country, and it is precisely this incompleteness that makes it possible for us, as exiled citizens, to find some sort of identity. We write ourselves into existence. We are our own short stories. And, if I can risk this conclusion, our short stories are us.” A thin, fifty-something man in an oversized lumberjack jacket began to fan himself with his programme.
“Hmm. I really like what you said about exile,” Rosalie said. “Gwendolyn, do you want to pick on that? Expand and, if you will, espouse? Hmm?”
“Yes, well, as you know, I have been writing my way out of various states for years.” The audience laughed and so did Gwendolyn. “But I have to say, with all due respect to my dear young compatriot, that I do not consider our country to be a land of exile or a land of exiled denizens but rather, a community garden. I believe our country is a vast community garden. There are marvelous things in this garden: tomatoes, peppers, radishes, cucumbers! Oh, such variety! But there is a trick to living one’s life in a garden. For you see, there is always so much spadework to do. And readers are much like gophers, and they may gorge themselves on the tomatoes before they are ripe. The tomatoes, that is. And beware, be very aware, and beware of that indeed. As you grow, you must cultivate and gather the goodness of the garden for the sake of the gophers and for the sake of the gardener!”
“Positively delicious!” purred Rosalie. “Am I the only one getting hungry in here? Hahaha! Oh, Jonny, you’ve been silent on this issue thus far.”
“Well, the issue of short stories! Your short stories. Speak, Jonny! Tell us of your short stories. Tell us what short fiction means to you.”
“Well, I suppose I am primarily a poet.”
“How fascinating,” Rosalie said. “Tell us about the difference. What’s the difference between poetry and short fiction to you?”
“Well, short fiction is a thing that allows you to tell a story in a significantly shorter amount of time than a novel. And I suppose poetry is a thing that allows you tell a story or convey an emotion in an even shorter period of time than a short story,” Jonny said.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it!” Rosalie said. “On this magnificent panel today we have heard of gophers and exiles and dusty roads and tomatoes! What are your tomatoes, if you will, Jonny? What are your tomatoes?
“OK. So here’s the thing.” Jonny glanced over at Gary, who was playing with his participant’s badge. “Writing short fiction is like cheating on your partner.” Gary stopped and paid attention. “Writing short fiction is like cheating on your attractive, patient, wonderful partner. Poetry is your partner. Your partner is poetry. You love your partner. Your partner is always there for you when you need someone. Your partner provides you with comfort and kindness. You turn to your partner for wisdom, guidance, and companionship. But here’s the thing. You are a shitty fucking human being. You are less than a human being. You are some sort of amalgam of skin and bone and pride. It’s not short fiction’s fault. Short fiction is great. Short fiction is amazing, as a matter of fact. Short fiction is a respectable and open-hearted person. And you? You’re a greedy motherfucker. You’re a coward. A straight-up, greedy motherfucking coward. Days go by, and weeks go by, and poetry loves you just the same, if not more, but you don’t think for a moment about poetry. All you think about is going to that subway stop in the middle of the night, meeting short fiction, and then going to the park and fucking. That’s all you can think of. And that’s all you are living for. And you meet. And you share five tallboys of Colt 45 in that park. And the humid spring night does its sticky magic. And you fuck under an oak. And you whisper while you fuck under that tree. You whisper: “I will leave my partner. You are my partner. I love you.” But the moment you say that, you feel empty. And, if you’re being honest with yourself, which you almost never are, but if you are being honest with yourself for once, you know that you prefer to remain empty because the only thing you have to fill yourself up with now is guilt. Guilt for the fucking disgusting, shitty thing that you have done. You rid yourself of poetry, and you have emptied yourself into short fiction. There is nothing inside of you any more. And you realize as you slink your sorry self back home that you are not enough of a human being to feel one fucking thing. And as pathetic as all of that is, and as pathetic as every aspect of you is, the most pathetic thing of all is that you know poetry will be there. And poetry will forgive you. You will run back to poetry. Soaked in the shame of short fiction and Colt 45, you will run back to poetry. And poetry will take you back. Poetry will know. And poetry will know that you know. But poetry is better than you. Poetry has always been, and will always be, better than you. And poetry loves the pathetic, the weak, the wretched, the abject. So poetry will take you back, you miserable, ghastly brute. Those, Rosalie, are my tomatoes.”
“Jonny Did Not Want to Participate in the Panel” will appear as a bonus story in the upcoming 10th Anniversary reissue of your first short story collection, Asthmatica. Why is Asthmatica important to you? When you look back at your older work, is there anything that particularly excites you or, alternately, makes you cringe?
Asthmatica represents a time when I just decided to go for it—to risk trying to construct funny stories and make people laugh (or at least smile). Looking back, I was excited to discover that many of the jokes still landed. I cringed at the bad Photoshop art I had originally included, so I was glad to get the wonderful Aneka Smith to replace those with her super cool drawings. Also, I cringed at some of the “edgier” bits, and I was glad that I had a chance to rewrite a few cringe-worthy things. Who knew that jokes about Knowlton Nash wouldn’t age well? But then again, who knew that jokes about Tipper Gore would make so much sense in 2015?
How do you think your work has changed over the years? Is the Jon Paul Fiorentino who wrote I’m Not Scared of You or Anything the same Jon Paul Fiorentino that wrote Asthmatica?
I think I am the same person in a lot of ways. I’ve just read more books and understand a bit more about the world. I still have the same concerns—I hate bullies regardless of ideology; I still care about inclusion and mental health issues; I love provocative and edgy writing. I hate prudishness, and faux moralism. I would say that the only significant way I have changed is that I am sleepier now.
In some dark recesses of the Internet, you’ve been described as a “poet who writes fiction,” rather than a “writer.” And in “Jonny Did Not Want to Participate in the Panel,” the titular Jonny says, “Writing short fiction is like cheating on your partner. Poetry is your partner.” Is this really true for you? Is fiction your red-headed stepchild?
I would never cheat on my partner with my red-headed stepchild if that’s what you mean. What kind of websites are you visiting? And what do you mean by titular? I think I enjoy poetry and fiction equally, but for different reasons. Poetry is a more natural way of communicating for me. Fiction is harder to write because there are more words required, and it has to make sense. I always thought that was stupid.
One of my favourite things about your Wikipedia page is the warning “This article has multiple issues. The neutrality of this article is disputed,” despite the fact that it’s way more factual than subjective. Have you ever edited your own Wikipedia entry?
I would never edit my own Wikipedia page, now. I will leave that to an unpaid intern with my explicit instructions. Actually, I know exactly what happened to my Wikipedia page, and it’s mildly tragic. A professor in Winnipeg assigned rewriting my Wikipedia page to one of his students. I believe his students are responsible for a lot of CanLit wiki-embarrassments. I said I would never name names, but Ellen Francis of Brandon, Manitoba has a lot of explaining to do.
Jon, what are your tomatoes, if you will?
Check your DMs.
Christopher Evans is the Prose Editor of PRISM international. His fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in Grain, Riddle Fence, The Canary Press, The Moth, and more, and are upcoming in Feathertale and the Ottawa Arts Review.