Interview by Matthew Walsh
Religious Twitter user, travel writer, musician, and poet David McGimpsey just released his newest offering, Asbestos Heights this year. In the collection he takes jabs at poetry itself, and the work is colourful, playful, and entirely memorable. I’ve wanted to interview him since I read Li’l Bastard, one of his earlier poetry collections that still packs a punch. I love following him on Twitter, and I love noodles, and was really happy to interview him about what he’s been up to lately, which of course is quite a lot.
How long did it take you to write Asbestos Heights? Were you reading anything while you wrote these poems?
It took me about four years to write the poems that are in Asbestos Heights—which is roughly the same amount of time it took to build the Golden Gate Bridge. I don’t want to brag but, compared to the Golden Gate Bridge, my book has aided much less suicide. During the composition of the book, depending on the section, I was reading a lot of Emerson which kind of brought me back to old notes on American Literature and Leslie Fiedler’s grad school groaner Love and Death in the American Novel. Warren Goldstein’s Playing for Keeps: A History of Early Baseball was also an important bit of inspirational reading and a real spur to the section called The History of Baseball. I realize this makes my book sound as old-fashioned as a pickle factory but I swear it’s not. I read contemporary poetry and fiction, as well as the backs of cereal boxes, all the time.
I really like the quatrains used in Asbestos Heights. Was that the form you initially wanted to write with or did you try out other ways to structure the poems?
The four quatrain poem with deca/penta lines—which I think of as a kind of sonnet—is a form I’ve used before and it still sticks to me like a burr. I did not want to fight the form, thinking of how Berryman unconvincingly tried to fight off the Dream Song form that he hardwired into his rhetoric. I used this form specifically and with careful intention but, as such, the book has no real argument about its form. I hoped, like the ottava rima of Byron, that it had become internalized enough in cadence and rhythm that the formal gesture was transparent, an unseen support. The way, at some point, you don’t hear hymn meter in Emily Dickinson, you hear Emily Dickinson. Not that such hopes matter: I learned long ago that if you have a poem which contains a reference to the cast of The View, some must say it is, by definition, “like prose.”
On Twitter, you called out Justin Trudeau to come sing Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” at karaoke with you. Have you received your answer? How would you show Justin a memorable night in Montreal?
Whenever you see me tweet this out it’s because I made a promise to a friend that whenever I hear “No Diggity” I would tweet at JT and ask him to karaoke. So, it means people still play “No Diggity” a lot and that Justin Trudeau is the vehicle of those tweets and “No Diggity” is the tenor. I’m positive Trudeau fils is no scrub around a karaoke mic but, as a politician, how could he ever be seen in public having the kind of fun average Quebeckers consider fun? So, the answer is a resounding but understood NO.
How would you describe your poetry? Do you think the way you write poetry has changed over the years?
I wish I could describe my poetry the way a gangsta rapper describes their rapping. “I’m the kind of poet that’s built to last / If you fuck with me I’ll put a foot in your ass.” But, alas, I would just describe my own poetry as sincere, citified and occasionally humorous. It has changed over the years insofar as I am much less concerned about the question of “what will happen to me if I keep writing poetry?” The question “what will happen to me if I keep writing poetry?” has been answered and is sadly clear every time I look in a mirror.
Where is Asbestos Heights?
There actually is a mining town in eastern Quebec called Asbestos but the inspiration for the title comes from a suburb in the east end of Montreal, Ville D’Anjou, where I grew up. Not Asbestos but its more aspirational sister city Asbestos Heights. So, it’s more of a fictional everyplace (A Winesburg, Ohio with emphasis on the wine) filled with the pride and pains of the working class. As a name, “Asbestos Heights” captures the desire for betterment in “heights” but it can’t quite distance itself from all that Asbestos and pretend to be Notting Hill. The collection, as a whole, tries to sing about this spot on the map while being fully aware that literary society is often marked by its powerful contempt for the culture of the American working class.
In 2004 you wrote Certifiable, which I loved. Do you have plans to write another short story collection?
I sure hope so. I’m still proud of the work in Certifiable and I think a few of the stories stand up. I’ve written a few stories over the years since, one of them, something called “In for a Pound, In For the Utter Humiliation of Being Alone and Over Forty” was recently published online. Right now I’m taking material which stems from the old “act” I had when I was doing stand-up comedy and fixing that material to fictional frames, but I haven’t quite thought about bringing those efforts into a collection yet.
I wrote some songs over the summer and played guitar a fair bit. I studied classical music when I was a teenager and the discipline which I would need to survive as a student and writer I really owe to that period of my life and music remains important to me. I sing with a house band every now and then and, while I’m no Celine Dion, it’s something I find great joy in. I am in the middle of recording something with Puggy Hammer right now called Perhaps It’s Perhapselline. Our first CD, Rock Like Idiots, is long out of print so we hope to rectify this matter in the cold outer space of the internet very, very soon.
I noticed through social media that you recently took a trip to the States. Did you do any writing on the trip? What were some memorable moments from your trip across the border. Any good music?
I sometimes write travel articles for EnRoute magazine and I was just in Kentucky and I still took extensive notes on the trip, even though I wasn’t on assignment. I saw Secretariat’s grave, the original location of KFC, played a biblical-themed miniature golf course, drank bourbon, ate barbecued mutton, listened to country music on the radio (Tim McGraw’s “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” was my favourite song of the trip) and bought a pack of cigarettes for $3.50. It was all pretty amazing.
How many aubades have you written in your life? What attracts you to the aubade?
“Aubade” is just one of those silly words, like “luminescence,” that appears only in poetry. It makes me cringe to hear a poem with “aubade” in it, not because it isn’t a perfectly cromulent word (as they say on The Simpsons), but because it really reveals the pretentious heart of poetry, including my own. While I’ve never self-consciously written an aubade, I have—to paraphrase Jimmy Carter—committed aubades in my heart. Many, many times.
You have a PHD with a specialization in American fiction. What authors would you recommend to someone who hasn’t read many American writers?
I suppose starting where American literature starts—with Huckleberry Finn—would be the smart thing if one was looking at it from a large perspective. The short fiction of Eudora Welty would also be a good start and perhaps closer to where the genre remains today. But, looking at the corpus of AmLit from the vantage of today—where the novel is no longer considered the heavy-hitting hero of American culture—one might want to read some novels that will simply not be around in the future. Video may have killed the radio star but social media cyber bullied the Great American Novel for its lunch money. As long as there are Universities people will still read books like Moby Dick or The Age of Innocence but the idea that American literary fiction is popular, in the Kurt Vonnegut sense, is gone. In some ways this could be a good thing—at least people don’t have to pretend Norman Mailer is worth reading anymore. But, before it all goes away, I’d really recommend my two all-time favourites: Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes.
What do you think makes for a good short story?
When you read a lot of fiction you start to really respect writers who can move plot through dialogue and action. The most frequent problem with young fiction is that it is overexposed in terms of description. But, I really have no specific “type” of story that I value more than another—it’s the wild west out there for short fiction these days and if you can rob a train, you can rob a train.
There’s a few moments in Asbestos Heights about rejections and what makes “real” poetry. What is real poetry to you?
When somebody is pontificating about what “real” poetry is you can guarantee that what you do runs afoul of this definition. There is no such thing. All poetry is real, all poetry is fake. The spectre of “real poetry” is only invoked to protect the social orders of poetry, never poetry itself. It’s just a way that literary society polices taste and tells you what the “club rules” are. When “real poetry” is invoked it is invoked to connote the values that companion elitist sentiment: self-seriousness, educational status and safe distance from the marketplace. Not that poets aren’t allowed to construct their own exclusive clubs and not that they’re not allowed to want their clubs to resemble exclusive fraternities and sororities on a college campus. It just really isn’t about poetry but about peerage and ideology. So, for example, when somebody says “that’s not real poetry, that’s just stand-up comedy” you can notice the knee-jerk devaluing of stand-up—or whatever can be extemporized as obviously being “not real poetry.” Literary society is not so concerned with generic boundaries that you’d hear someone say “that’s not real poetry, that’s literary criticism!” Poetry and literary criticism are thought to be from the same caste and, therefore, are seen as appropriate partners. Poetry and Snooki, well, that’s different. “That’s not real poetry, that’s just Snooki!”
Do you think you will ever publish all of those “Because of the Metric System” tweets?
I suppose those tweets themselves will be a signature of how, in the future, we will see things that were posted on Twitter as being already “published” and are in no need of republication. It’s more likely people will say “When will you publish your old books on Twitter?” Anyways, I have reams of metric system tweets but I don’t know—in Canada, because of the metric system, we don’t say “reams of paper” we say “true science pulp.”
What will David McGimpsey get up to next?
I’m not sure. I’m going to enjoy reading from Asbestos Heights around Canada and the United States and I’m going to keep hoping that the New York Yankees win their 28th World Championship soon. Is that too much to ask?
Matthew Walsh’s work has been featured in Arc, The Found Poetry Review, Carousel, Descant, Existere, Matrix, Carte Blanche, The Steel Chisel and as part of the Halifax Commons Poetry Anthology. His short fiction will appear in 11th Dimension Press’s Rock is Not Dead short story anthology. He is currently poetry editor of Plenitude Magazine.