Things to Do around Winnipeg when you’re Black By Michael Fraser – Winner of the 2022 Lesley Strutt Poetry Prize
Congratulations to the 2022 Winner of the 2nd Annual Lesley Strutt Poetry Prize
Things to Do around Winnipeg when you're Black by Michael Fraser
Thank you to the contest judge, Richard-Yves Sitoski!
From juror Richard-Yves Sitoski:
This poem riffs on Gary Snyder's "Things to Do in San Francisco" and "Things to Do in Seattle" in a poignant way. "Things to Do in Winnipeg when You're Black" is, as much as Snyder's poems, a call to engagement with the geography of something as vast as a city, but it's an engagement that doesn't follow the white narrative. It's a strong assertion of the hereness of a place, positioning us in the heart of Winnipeg and allowing us to follow the text through the author's history--a history which valorizes the place of Black and Indigenous heritage in their context as creators of the Prairies of today. The poem truly blossoms in its last third, where we see the triumph of the landscape (as landscape must always triumph) and where we're taken outside of time itself.
Things to Do around Winnipeg when you’re Black
by Michael Fraser
after Gary Snyder
Start in The Forks and meander slow as a season
flowing through the market courtyard.
Take the Riverwalk to see where the waters meet.
Lose the present as you become small as a name,
your steps kicking pebbles into the river’s hem.
See the city return to nature with its downtown
face dipped in waterway reflections.
Every elm you see is another word for place.
Get a pair of handcrafted moccasins.
Talk to the owner and know your ancestors
shared all that was broken and cracked with
the world, the sense of history’s remains willow-
hooping through the two of you.
Stop at the Little Brown Jug and enjoy a pint of 1919 ale,
taste how heirloom hops and spices create a moment.
Each daybreak is the sun sticking its landing.
Drive northeast to see the Red River empty into
inverted skies. Know that once water starts turning,
it never stops.
Feel how distant morning becomes on the drive back.
Around you, the prairie’s long stretch is faking forever.
This is how grass owns a landscape.
Michael Fraser is published in Best Canadian Poetry in English 2013 and 2018. He has won numerous awards, including Freefall Magazine’s 2014 and 2015 poetry contests, the 2016 CBC Poetry Prize, and the 2018 Gwendolyn Macewen Poetry Competition. The Day-Breakers (Biblioasis 2022) is his third poetry collection.
(in no particular order)
The Zeignarik Effect by Hollay Ghadery
Litterchur by Jeff Parent
When You Saw Me by Gordon Taylor
Searsville Reservoir Untraumas Me by Cassandra Meyers
Fire in the Hole by Phillip Crymble
Fresh Air by Gordon Taylor – Winner of the Toronto Arts and Letters Club of Toronto Foundation Poetry Award
Congratulations to the 2022 Winner of the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto Foundation Poetry Award!
Fresh Air by Gordon Taylor
About the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto Foundation Poetry Award
A $500 prize, sponsored by the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto Foundation, to the best single poem by a poet in the early stages of their career.
Thank you to the contest judges, Concetta Principe and Stuart Ian McKay.
(in no particular order)
Diving Birds by Catherine St. Denis
Here, Grass by Farah Ghafoor
Florivore by Masa Torbica
Mystics by Hannah Siden
This Arrival Poem by Jason Coombs
About the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto
On a blustery March night in 1908, a group of writers, musicians, architects, academics and supporters of the arts, encouraged by Augustus Bridle, a journalist covering the arts beat, met to found an organization committed to championing of the arts in English-speaking Canada: The Arts & Letters Club of Toronto.
Celebrating both the creative and performing arts — and equally devoted to spirited, sometimes biased and often hilarious argument — the Arts & Letters Club quickly became a forcing-ground for ideas in all artistic disciplines. Into the Club’s embrace came people who would become prime movers in creating the artistic culture we enjoy today: great names such as Robertson Davies, Vincent Massey, Marshall McLuhan, Eden Smith, Wyly Grier, Ernest MacMillan, Mavor Moore and many, many more. Their contributions to the arts in Canada are legendary.
The avowed purpose of the club was to be a rendezvous for people of diverse interests to meet for mutual fellowship and artistic creativity. It was to become a “comradely haven for kindred souls.”
by Gordon Taylor
Do I love you
more than I
love an ampersand
that joins everything
we think can’t be
& the pigeon
in my tea
as I walked
font & Font
serif & fountain
alter egos, hash
tags & pink mini
in ancient linoleum,
silence & swimming
pools & arms
an eight, but
not quite, bone,
salt & jasmine, you,
careless and care
& hot chocolate,
ozone & blue
lobsters & blood,
riots & purple
hibiscus, me &
you, memory, scars,
river stones, our
Gordon Taylor (he/him) is a queer poet who walks an ever-swaying wire of technology, health care and poetry. His poems have appeared in or are forthcoming in Grain, Rattle, Event, Banshee, Descant and Plenitude. In his spare time Gordon is a volunteer reader for Five South Magazine.
What consoles, what is solace? Only the long view, wider than self. Only your voice alive at the back of my head. Only presence, yours, with a tower of gurus rising above you. How can I be other than grateful, when you so generously left in timing that confounds me? No, not lonely, with you still here, memories of decades to keep me company, hovering a- round back of mind, at nape of neck. Although you are now dead and your ashes rest in the hall outside our bedroom door, you are closer to me now than you’ve ever been. Because you live inside my head. Sometimes I hear you speaking. More often you nod approval or shake your head to comment, no. Do you live in my occipital lobe? I don’t know the brain’s mechanism well enough to tell. You live on in replay, in dream, Of course you’re apart from me, in some dimension I cannot fathom until I too am gone— more a part of me than ever you could be in flesh. Grieving, gift bereft. Leaving left. Well enough alone, an intimate presence sent* A poem begins in the deep intimacy of pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. A wo/manual act. Eighteen months hunkered down in cosy comfort, sometimes too close companionship, and six months since my husband’s death, six months figuring out the mobius strip of grief, bureaucracy spiralling back on itself. What is intimacy in a relationship, even or especially after death? Communication falters but does not stop in the space of silence. I listen to the quiet between the lines. I wait for the word to drop into a poem. One word, then the next, and the pause between. How deep is intimacy involved in self-expression? Is there a limit to the subjectivity of expressing feelings and experience in poetry? When does self-expression become narcissistic, given the difficulties in the world we inhabit? What would be worthwhile to communicate? The Oxford English Dictionary defines intimacy as the "inmost thoughts or feelings; proceeding from, concerning, or affecting one’s inmost self: closely personal." The word intimacy is derived from the Latin word "intimus," which means 'inner' or 'innermost', refering to a person's innermost qualities. According to Google, there are four types of intimacy to focus on fostering to create a more holistic connection: “Types Of Intimacy That Exist (Besides Sex)”. These intimacies are: Emotional, Intellectual, Experiential, and Spiritual. The greatest intimacy is with oneself, alone, and finding the freedom in full expression, on one’s own. For me, this new solitude is literal in the isolation, aloneness that the poem requires And yet, how utterly moving to be with dear Ellen Jaffe, LCP member, as she received poems read to her, both by and for her in a Zoom. Poets from Israel, Toronto and Vancouver gathered to greet her as she lay in hospice. What could be more intimate?
Homage for Ellen S. Jaffe, Poet Ellen, dying in hospice, listens in on Zoom as Voices Israel read her poems. How wonderful to be read to at last, at the last, her own poems reflected in words uttered. Ellen, grey, lying on pillows, blows us kisses from her bed. Responding to writers who’ve written, she riffs on Emily Dickinson’s “letter to the world That never wrote to me”. How utterly moving to share this sacred passage, live to the end and in real time. Love to her in that seventh heaven where poets gather, and here, now in last days. May we too respond to “The simple news that Nature told, With tender majesty. Her message is committed To hands I cannot see; For love of her, sweet countrymen, Judge tenderly of me!”My reading of this homage for Ellen’s funeral is up here. She died on March 16, 2022, a day after her 77th birthday on the Ides. *
Die Verse Our beloved dead are more intimate now than ever they could be in flesh. Only poetry can convey their message, intimations of immortality, sly slips we grasp as truth, not knowing for sure what is real, what is fantasy and false, what lies somewhere in between as true. Only poems can transcribe, translate into lines of verse as mysterium tremendum-- reality felt embodied. For me. For you.* How does a poem like the ones above, at its roots so personal, become universal? How can poetry, this most private art, interact in the public domain, once published? An introvert is comfortable sharing because she is writing to herself, speaking to that part of the listener who is attuned and responds. Recognizing the other, the reader out there, the poem calls out, “— hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,— mon frère!'” Tutoyer. I’m writing to you, toi, the reader whom I love even if I don’t know you. The poem is always addressing the lover, the listener, whoever can hear. The poem itself emerges from the depth of heart/ soul/being. Once it has found its community, as a piece published or performed, the poem begins to intimate. Not intimidate, (what a difference that ‘id’ makes!) The language signifies the shift. The poem suggests; it intimates. When we switch from intimate as adjective to the verb or present participle, intimating, we switch from the poem as written to the performance of that poem. In delivering her piece aloud, the poet embodies the poem. The performing introvert is no oxymoron. She considers the audience to be a plurality of intimates, so that she is addressing the respective soul in each person, separately and together. Would that English had an equivalent for the Spanish word for the expanded you: “vosotros”. With Spanish, you have two choices of saying "you all". You can use "vosotros" or you can choose, more formally, "ustedes". "Vosotros" is the personal plural form of tú. "Ustedes" is the plural form of "usted." Such fine distinctions would be useful as the poet addresses different audiences. * An Ecology of Intimacy: at the intersection of poetry and performance. A third discussion involves the role of media, poetry and intimacy. As pandemic restrictions lift, we emerge, blinking like moles in spring sun, expectant, whether hopeful or cautious. Our tentacles inch out to community, to the suffering and strife beyond the hearth and intruding on the heart. The televised terror, two-dimensional on the screen, takes on new aspects, homing in. Tentatively, we negotiate new rules of communication, new challenges in the face of all that is happening in the world, all that encroaches. * With every new technology, is intimacy compromised? It is certainly different. In pandemic isolation, we lost touch, physically and literally, with the real presence of people. Touch and non-verbal signals that indicate intimacy are necessarily limited on participatory media, the media that so lacks nuance, despite the gratification of immediacy. Relationships through Messenger can easily skip cues or switch codes in confusion and misunderstandings. And yet the isolation we have habituated to means that many of us now correspond more often online: we keep up with Facebook friends, Instagrammers, Tweeters. Poets and poetry spring up everywhere. We are LinkedIn, despite the limitations of social technologies. The effects are ambiguous, sometimes displaying a generational shift: my granddaughter regards a telephone call as aggressive: that demanding ring interrupts her personal space. Poems abound in my Twitter feed: often they respond to my need at the time, as synchronicity. The ‘page’ still rules as words on the screen: the poem lives in the widespread community of poets in a new intimacy. * Check out more of Penn's reflections on poetry, intimacy, and the war in Ukraine: A Gathering of Poets in Response to Peril
Poet, performer and playwright Penn Kemp has been celebrated as a trailblazer since her first publication of poetry by Coach House (1972). She has participated in Canadian cultural life for over 50 years, writing, editing, and publishing poetry and plays as well as giving poetry workshops world-wide. She has published 30 books of poetry, prose and drama, and multimedia galore, much of which is devoted to ecopoetry. Recent collections are A NEAR MEMOIR: NEW POEMS (Beliveau Books, Stratford) and P.S., a chapbook of poetry. Out now is POEMS IN RESPONSE TO PERIL: an anthology for Ukraine. See www.riverrevery.ca, www.wordpress.com, and www.pennkemp.weebly.com.
I mind how once we lay such a transparent summer morning, How you settled your head athwart my hips and gently turn’d over upon me, And parted the shirt from my bosom-bone, and plunged your tongue to my bare-stript heart, And reach’d till you felt my beard, and reach’d till you held my feet.A much different, but no less striking, approach was employed by Emily Dickinson, who was definitely more subtle and elliptical, but no less passionate. One lovely instance coupling sexuality and mortality follows (poem 829 by Johnson’s numbering, the version in Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them, edited by Cristanne Miller):
Ample make this Bed Make this Bed with Awe In it wait till Judgment break Excellent and Fair Be its Mattress straight Be its Pillow round Let no Sunrise' Yellow noise Interrupt this Ground.Finally, one could reach much farther back into the past to ancient Greece, and another female poet, namely Sappho, who has sadly only come down to us only in some precious fragments and a few whole poems. From fragment 31, translated by Willis Barnstone:
….Now when I look at you a moment my voice is empty and can say nothing as my tongue cracks and slender fire races under my skin. My eyes are dead to light, my ears pound, and sweat pours over me. I convulse, greener than grass and feel my mind slip as I go close to death.The relationship of poetry and intimacy goes much further than direct expression of desire and consummation, however. As I think those examples also show, poetry at its best is a peerless dance with language to the music of emotion, a singular experience that has intimacy at its very core, whether one is the audience or, even more, the creator. In my case I didn’t write poetry at all until I was nearly 58, in the summer of 2017 (noting that my university education was in Computer Science). The major reason was that I simply couldn’t because major parts of my spirit were, for most of my life, simply inaccessible. But let me back up. I am a transgender woman, but realizing that took a very long time. There were clues during childhood, including one very difficult encounter with near self-harm (“a dance on the razor’s edge” in my phrase from Scarlet Letter, part of my chapbook A Song of Milestones) but I didn’t understand or even have the vocabulary and this was all buried except for
intimations of a primordial incompatibility, seen in fleeting glimpses like evanescent will-o’-the-wisps amidst a marsh, (from my poem Intimations of Incompatibility, part of A Song of Milestones).I was suddenly able to see it all clearly when I was 18, but this didn’t last:
For a moment, the inception laid bare, for a moment, the dream tangible. In the next, freighted down by custom and terror, dragged by shame’s dead hand, the vision sank back into the inky depths, leaving not a ripple… (from Intimations of Incompatibility).And when that vision, that awareness, vanished, it took a critical part of me with it down into those depths “where my music lay chained and submerged” (from my poem I Have a Voice, part of A Song of Milestones). I did a lot of reading over the years (and decades), mostly non-fiction, but some fiction and poetry too. A few things in the last category resonated and stayed with me: Tennyson’s Charge of the Light Brigade (“Cannon to right of them,//Cannon to left of them,//Cannon in front of them//Volleyed and thundered…”); Poe’s The Raven (“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,//Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore—“); Frost’s The Road Not Taken (“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—//I took the one less traveled by,//And that has made all the difference.”); and just about anything from Shakespeare’s plays. However, I suppose you could say that I lacked intimacy with myself, leaving my poetically creative core unreachable and rendering me significantly impaired in my ability to truly connect with poetry in general. And then along came Whitman and Leaves of Grass, when I was in my mid-thirties. Rediscovering my gender identity was still a ways in the future, but he gifted me an extraordinary poetic vision that helped build a crucial inner bridge. From “One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person” through “I celebrate myself and sing myself” and “I sing the body electric” to “Good-bye—and hail! my Fancy” I was enthralled, although it took two or three readings for me to more fully appreciate it. After I started writing poetry, one of my earliest pieces was in part a tribute to him (below are two excerpts from Whitman/Monet):
The Poet, with your vocabulary, your lists, Exulting the everyday, but seeing Much more through and beyond, Joyfully singing the body electric, Claiming all humankind as brothers and sisters, Dancing through time, Immersing in your Leaves becomes wonderful meditation.This was indeed wonderful, and more meaningful as time went on, but it would take additional time and more twists and turns until my gender identity fell on me in the fall of 2012 like an anvil (or, perhaps, a giant book); or, to quote from Looking-Glass (also part of A Song of Milestones):
One, a painter with language, The other, a poet with brush and canvas, Two great spirits entwined by Profound vision and seductive simplicity. I claim you as muses, as ideals, Not to be achieved, but, perhaps, Approached, in my own way.
And whirling right through the mirror not into a dream world but out of it, there in one shattering moment to find, hibernating, waiting for affirmation, waiting for life to finally, truly, begin, just one extraordinary being: Jennifer.I now began to access parts of me long hidden, and with that increasing self-intimacy I was able to speak about deeply personal things in a way previously impossible, my first public speech being in April, 2015. These were, indeed, major milestones, but most certainly not the last ones. The voyage was, and continued to be, quite difficult and extraordinary, but, to quote from that first speech “you carry on, and go forward, because deep inside you know that, as hard as it is, this is your path, this is your chance at feeling whole. The other road, continuing to try and deny who you are, is one you instinctively realize leads quite literally nowhere.” (this excerpt was also included in I Have a Voice) My creation of poetry came along, as mentioned, in the summer of 2017, after a few more pushes from different directions. Once I started writing, and, also critically, being able to follow Whitman’s bridge and truly engage with poetry, I found that it provided a unique mechanism to go farther inside my gender journey, to portray it on deeper emotional, psychological and spiritual levels; indeed to try and pull the reader or listener inside my mind and spirit and feel a bit more from that vantage point. One result was my published (in 2019) poem cycle A Song of Milestones, from which I have been quoting. This consists of a Prelude and ten further sections forming a multi-faceted tour of that gender journey. The title and overall structure are of course inspired by Whitman’s dazzling Song of Myself, and each piece has one or more literary touchstones as foundational referents. Beginning my poetic path, and writing A Song of Milestones in particular, were deeply meaningful and, well, intimate experiences; the initiation is perhaps best described in the cycle’s final section, Phoenix:
And then, through the suffocating gloom creep tendrils of light: Comfort from some who have walked many miles beside me; New friends found in unlikely places; Healing found in the patient, calm souls of trees and the dancing, gentle spirits of birds, all whispering hymns of serenity; Precious balm found in art, Mystical Landscapes triggering sunlit reflections to pierce the dark; Startled by glorious Carmanah Walbran, sacred realm of primeval forest giants, bursting through my memory’s vault and calling for expression; Startled by the unlocking, deep within, of another door, my voice modulated again, evolved, revolutionized, poeticized, verses piling up in my soul’s inbox. Sweet, stolen hours spent translating the cosmic emails while life’s noise abates,Personally, I have continued to find that poetry provides me with the best, or sometimes only, means to even connect with certain emotions and memories, let alone share them with others. A more recent example of this truth would be my cycle Auschwitz Threnody, a belated attempt to come to terms with having experienced (back in 2005) that infamous place (from Inception: “Ghastly residue of incomprehensible evil,//a realm of petrified torment and death and sublime heroism//and ghosts in staggering numbers;//every square inch, every stone,//the air itself, a holy cemetery;//a shrine of hallowed memory”). And, of crucial importance, to honour “…all of the victims and survivors whose suffering and courage transcends all understanding” (from the epigraph). But for the longest time I lacked the self-intimacy to be able to approach this at all (from Inception: “I saw, I heard, yet couldn’t process, not really,//not then, not even for long afterwards”). In the end, poetry was crucial in building a bridge I could follow, a journey sketched in Envoi:
psychological demons retreat,
physical ghouls slacken their grip,while pain transmutes to poetry, nothing existing except me and the phrases. Floating in union in an eternal present, I am suffused in a power and peace dreamt-of but not hoped for.
engulfed in a stupefying cloud, eyes yet to see, ears yet to hear, spirit yet to feel, but in time the shadows slipped in and around, whispering, persistent, swelling to a haunting, ethereal chorale, and, finally, soul to paper attempted,There were, of course, serious limits to what I could do:
but I was not there, in Elie Wiesel’s kingdom of night, as he was, I did not see, in his words,Nonetheless, I was given a means to try and pull the reader into an intimate space where they might be able to viscerally sense along with me
the old men and women whispering the ancient prayers…
the children, frightened and forlorn,
all part of a nocturnal procession walking towards the flames,
rising to the highest heavensI did not walk with those whose bodies survived but whose spirits were forever shattered, (from Envoi)
…a million candles, their humble flickers melded into one, a glorious wafery spire of radiance streaming heavenward through the night more than a hundred feet high (from Consider a Million)Poetry has always provided a powerful vehicle for representing human intimacy in its many manifestations. It is also, in my experience, an intimate phenomenon in and of itself. And to quote Emily Dickinson, “By intuition, Mightiest Things//Assert themselves” (from poem 420 by Johnson’s numbering, the version in Emily Dickinson’s Poems As She Preserved Them, edited by Cristanne Miller); poetry takes me, and, I hope, where my own writing is concerned, my readers or listeners, beyond prose, beyond intellectualization, into that marvelous intuitional realm, to share in a special intimate communion. [*] I will note in passing that this example and the two following all concern same-sex intimacy, making, in my opinion, all three of these authors revolutionary. With consideration of the complete pieces this is clear in the case of Whitman and Sappho (despite attempts at erasure of their identities). For Dickinson, this is now being more generally acknowledged, given the full context of her life and writings, including letters, which make clear her love for and attraction to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert.
Jennifer Wenn is a trans-identified writer and speaker from London, Ontario. Her first poetry chapbook, A Song of Milestones, has been published by Harmonia Press (an imprint of Beliveau Books). She has also written From Adversity to Accomplishment, a family and social history; and published poetry in WordCity Literary Journal, The Stratford Quarterly, Beliveau Review, Journey of the Heart, The Ekphrastic Review, Watchyourhead, Open Minds Quarterly, Tuck Magazine, Synaeresis, Big Pond Rumours, Fresh Voices, Wordsfestzine, and the anthologies Dénouement and Things That Matter. She has also spoken at a wide variety of venues and is the proud parent of two adult children. Visit her website at jenniferwennpoet.wixsite.com/home
I’m not an expert in
neither are you
by Tyler PennockRead this article and poem in magazine format
I used to think that definitive things were evil. That an exact definition, a perfect example embedded the notion that nothing is good enough, and that no one would ever measure up. I felt that definitive answers were a trick to deny people the satisfaction of understanding.
When I taught my first poetry writing class, I realized that definitive things were not the problem. It was how people conceived of them that bothered me. This came largely from how often I had to convince poetry writers and poetry readers that their understanding of creativity was just fine. That the way they write, speak, see things can be beautiful to others, that there is no point in measuring themselves against what was done before. Or rather, what others claim has been done before. There are always unaccounted examples, unconsidered poems outside a person’s definition of great poetry.
Ten years ago, my friend Lee told me that poetry is a moment, a picture, distilled. Since then, I’ve grown to understand this a little better, in that it rarely matters what lens you use – much of the work is in where you point it.
One aspect of poetry that I like is the practice of pointing the lens at unusual places.
Places like me.
The dramatic irony in this?
An adoptee writing about intimacy. It’s not an irony I disagree with. There is something there. Like you, I’m curious to see how these words will play needle worker with familiar fabrics.
Somewhere deep inside that first (missing) connection lies a twist, a hidden detail, a deliberate imperfection in the final product of me that I too, am looking for. Perhaps that something might give you a fresh look, a renewed perception to vicariously ponder, as I retrace my world through relationships, knots on a line I trail behind me; or ahead.
If understanding is another body, then intimacy is the space between you. Like any geography, the features are unique to the climate, the temperature, and ways that space is inhabited. In this, we can imagine the closeness between two people as the growth after a wildfire. The first few touches like birch trees, goose bumps and reaching hairs the nutrients, begging to inhabit something again.
Whatever the cause, something
When my best friend Ian died in his sleep, I called my Ex. He wasn’t someone I would ever turn to, nor trust to soothe or calm me. But I was a squirrel in a conflagration; every reassuring memory, every soothing place was a flame, my destruction total, and I was darting between embers. I doubt I even said anything– and it’s possible that all he heard was sobbing, and Ian’s name.
This was because Ian had grown into me; so much of me was intertwined with his constant presence that almost every strength I developed involved him. That shock took weeks to move through me, and afterward I endured months of ebbing pain.
When Brick Books emailed me to ask if I would attend the printing of Bones, I called Ian to remind him that we’d planned this moment together. The immediate switch to voicemail cracked open my recovery, taking me back to his death. Comfort, safety, and strength were such essential features of our friendship that as I reconciled with the loss, the comfort that followed slowly pushed out the pain, and memory of his death; While growing out of Ian’s orbit, my mind struggled to hold pieces of him exactly as I remembered them, including the Facebook message that relayed his passing.
Another close friend had died months earlier, and his partner, Virginia told me that she feared she would forget what he looked like. She acknowledged that it was likely I couldn’t understand that feeling, but figured I would write that into something anyway, and left it there – between us. I wrote Fire in response, a piece on death and memory as part of Skin Hunger, a project for the Toronto International Festival of Authors:
“I know that what my eyes and my skin miss, my mind and memory will recall. And when you become a fog my mind can’t give description to, I know my skin’s hunger will lend ink to the blank page it’s desperately trying to colour. I don’t fear losing you completely because some part of me will always remember.
And that’s ok.
Even in memory,
Relationships are fire – they must be fed.”
But here I don’t see fire as a necessary constant– a lighthouse in the dark, because if you keep a fire going forever, you’ll eventually forget how to build it. The closeness of a relationship doesn’t exist solely in how long it survives, but in how often it renews itself after destructive events.
The tap-clicking of a dog’s nails on the tiled floor in the morning, the soft, deliberate pressure of four paws moving toward you from the foot of your bed, or that first long, audible breath coming from your partner minutes before sunrise. These things grow into you like shoots through earth, insistence matched by an easing in the dirt around them; repetition growing into the space you leave for them.
I came to Toronto in 1997 to be untethered. To be somewhere without familiar features or memories, no cardinal points to walk between. I wanted new, and I wanted to arrive empty. This was visible through an inventory of the things I brought with me: a stuffed bear, a torn T-shirt, a few pairs of underwear, 23 dollars in change, a writing book, and Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy. The writing book was empty, the T-shirt was a favorite possession of my boyfriend (who didn’t yet know I was in Toronto), the change and the underwear were stolen, and the book was the only thing I couldn’t sell before leaving. Almost everything I carried was memorable for the disconnection it represented.
In a new city –unfastened– I wandered. I walked around or two days before I found Covenant House. From there I wandered for another few days before I found Church and Wellesley, 10 days before I saw the inner harbour, and 2 months before I found my first home, Sneakers. It started as a prominent feature in a growing cartography of Queer bars, youth outreach centers, coffee shops and parks, and then grew into routine. Grew into me.
If you could shut out the green walls and smell of old beer, wash out the jukeboxes and the pool tables, the ceramic tile floors, and the bottles against mirrored walls, and watch us- you’d see a mall, a park, a friends’ basement after school. If you forgot assumptions about bars, and sex work, and youth homelessness, you’d glimpse a freedom. Between tricks we too, experienced friendships, attractions, love, coming-of-age moments, and many significant firsts.
Sneakers was where I met my first trick, and also where I met my closest friend.
In a bar where touch is the commodity, a lack of intimacy is agency – an enforceable boundary, an assumption rolled and kneaded into everything. If you witnessed a friend, partner, or even a john touching us, you knew that was negotiated, and we managed the mystery of that allowance to our advantage. If you saw hand on us, you would want that, too. The longer you witnessed it…
Ian never propositioned me.
I let him hold me. Visibly.
Ian grew into a space reserved for trusted friends, a space later inhabited by some of my partners – reserved for people who made no demands, no claim.
I am not and never will be property.
I’ve written many poems about this – my disgust of ownership. One of my partners (the subject of a poem in Glad Day’s Smut Peddlers, B.) – was legendary for not letting johns touch him in the bar. More than once I heard him scream this at men in Sneakers. This insistence was one of many things we shared when meeting. But our short-lived relationship was as predictable as the painfully obvious, years-long attraction we had – we couldn’t mutually negotiate intimacy. (I left him for his ex, who was far more forward, and I needed that.)
Another poem in Bones was based on a man who flaunted his presumed ownership of us regularly. He would hold his arm around boys all the time, some of whom were frequently his employees. He weaponized the flex, the use of buying drinks as an opener. In the poem, his eczema spots and belly were a stand-in for his face, the excess of both allergens and appetite obscuring any real relationship or understanding. In that scene, the protagonist was not puking over the sex act, but for the damaging influence of the power that john maintained.
Any harsh words or representation of that world comes not from a disdain for sex work, but for the people who didn’t respect our boundaries, our agency.
When a person you love disappears into a thickening whiteness, you search. Not for them, but for their impact on you – every memory, touch, or emotion they triggered, tracing the trail they’ve worn in you over time.
Ian and I shared a love of Clive Barker. Once I told him about my favorite moment from Imajica, where a main character (Pie ‘oh’ Pah) watches his love through a heavy scrim of falling snow. (It’s the reason why I love watching the first snowfall of a season, and why I want to experience a winter in New York.) When I spoke of it then, I focused on the intensity and longevity of one’s love for another through interference. I thought that the intensity of a feeling enabled a lasting connection.
I realize now that I was mistaken. What is beautiful in that moment is the way in which Pie increasingly had to rely on memory to fill what his eyes were losing grasp of. That his vision adapted to the snowflakes falling through the space between them.
That conversation with Ian, and the many that followed it were an opening, a vulnerability that I needed – that everyone needs, and will find a way to foster.
My favorite feature of Sneakers was that it was an unlikely home. A home where thousands of moments like these were held – precious because they existed, defiantly where many thought impossible. Equally impossible was how it harboured Ian – bouncer, protector, and close friend to many.
We, the street youth and prostitutes of downtown Toronto, were not watched carefully by parents or concerned neighbours or teachers, but we were watched. And while the advice we sought, the conversations we held, and the relationships we formed were in the company of men who paid for it, for many of us, it was safer than home.
What grew out of the destruction of our former lives became the strengths we used to negotiate the world thereafter. For me (indeed, for many), Ian was a very large promontory that the web of our lives depended on for decades.
If intimacy were a carpet web, then shared moments would be the branches and walls it holds on to. Each new line is a repetition, the weaver - or weavers, walking and re-walking familiar paths between anchors, trailing silk, strengthening the connections with every passing.
In this, change is a fallen branch, a storm, or a wildfire, and intimacy is the strength of your desire for connection, reforming the lines repeatedly, in ever-changing environments.
intimacy isn’t a definite, discrete thing – it is a pattern
as unique to the weaver
as the place they occupy –
About the Author
Tyler Pennock, author of Bones (2020), is a two-spirit adoptee from a Cree and Métis family in the Lesser Slave Lake region of Alberta. Tyler is a member of Sturgeon Lake Cree Nation. They graduated from Guelph University’s Creative Writing MFA program in 2013, and currently live in Toronto. Their second book, Blood will be published by Brick Books in the Fall of 2022. www.tylerpennock.ca
A Poem On Intimacy by Tyler Pennock