RUSTY TALK WITH JON PAUL FIORENTINO
JON PAUL FIORENTINO is the author of I'm Not Scared of You or Anything, Needs Improvement, Stripmalling (a Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction finalist), and five poetry collections, including The Theory of the Loser Class, which was shortlisted for the A. M. Klein Prize, and Indexical Elegies, which won the 2009 CBC Books "Bookie" Award for Best Book of Poetry. He has written for The National Post, Walrus, Maisonneuve, sub-Terrain, The Huffington Post, The Montreal Gazette, The Barnstomer, New American Writing, Hobo, Joyland, The Capilano Review, Event, The Winnipeg Review, The Queen Street Quarterly, fillingStation, Prism International, Opium, and many other publications. Fiorentino lives in Montreal, where he teaches Creative Writing at Concordia University, is the Editor-in-Chief of Matrix magazine, is a poetry editor for Joyland, the poetry editor for the Snare Imprint of Invisible Publishing, and the fiction editor for the Serotonin/Wayside Imprint of Insomniac Press.
rob mclennan: I thought it curious that for the Ottawa launch of your new collection of short fiction, I’m Not Scared of You or Anything, you choose to read a re-telling of one of the stories from the collection. For many writers, myself included, the work is all about the language and the precision of the finished text. Why did you choose to represent your work in such a way?
Jon Paul Fiorentino: Even when I've read from poetry collections, I've always had edits to the text in order to favour the sense of sound over what works best on the page. They are often very different things. It is perfectly okay to have more than one version of a text. I think it's healthy. In fact, I would argue that deciding to do this was "all about the language" and "precision." This particular story, "When It Got a Little Cold," was rendered entirely in dialogue, sort of in the style of "An Encounter with an Interviewer" by Mark Twain. This was the right choice for the story on the page. But the right way to tell this story to a roomful of people is to look them in the eyes and just tell the story. I think telling this story that way was the correct choice and the generous choice. In this particular case, I was hoping to share not just from the book but also from my life. And I like telling stories. As we all know, shuffling your feet, burying your head in a book, and just reading what's on the page is not always the best policy. At one point in the reading, two lovely older folks came into the room and I was able to incorporate them into the piece. The result was funny, warm, and inviting. That's the kind of thing that's possible when you are telling a version of a story that's conversational and interactive but also remains true to the original text.
rm: It sounds as though to you the idea of a text, whether poem or story, remains relatively fluid. What does that mean in terms of composition? Is a story or poem ever “finished” to you, or does the text itself, once complete, remain unchanged but for how you might read it publicly?
JPF: Well, I write for the page first and foremost. But I am just aware that a public reading is not necessarily best served by a word-by-word recitation policy. So, my understanding of how live audiences work does not really affect my compositional process. I don't think a story or poem is ever finished. But sometimes it is a relief to declare that a story or a poem is "done" (at least for a while). I've recently made some revisions to some very old poems and that also provided me with a sense of relief. Marianne Moore took five decades to finish a poem and people hated her for it. I think that's odd. The previous versions still existed. Writing is about affecting change (in yourself, in others). So why are literary people so often scared of change?
rm: I’m interested in the way that writers who work in more than one genre, as you do, consider the differences between them. You’ve published multiple poetry collections, a novel and now a second collection of short fiction. Is there a way you approach each form differently? When do you know something will end up being a poem as opposed to, say, a short story or the openings of a novel?
JPF: Well, with INSOYOA, I thought I was writing a novel called Invigilator. But there were just too many different themes/concepts I wanted to explore and so I tore the manuscript up and focused on developing alternate protagonists to explore everything that was on my mind.
Poetry is a completely different thing. My thought processes, my way of saying, my particular architecture are constantly being refined and revised. I think in poetry and socialize in prose.
rm: So the delineation between your poetry and prose work is clearly marked? Was this something deliberate, or did it emerge organically? Would you ever consider combining the two?
JPF: I think the considerations are often different. I write comedic prose. I don't write a great deal of comedic poetry. But hybridity is something I'm already interested in and already do. In Needs Improvement, I included a short story that was told entirely in a sequence of photocopied report cards. This new book is more straight-up joke-telling stories.
rm: A couple of your works of fiction play with illustrations, from the illustrations Evan Munday did for your novel Stripmalling to the illustrations by Maryanna Hardy that exist throughout I’m Not Scared of You or Anything. The book even includes a comic strip playing off the old Archie Comics. Why are you so interested in blending illustrations with your prose?
JPF: I really like playing with other artists. Writers can be too precious about their “projects” and I have discovered that if I invite someone else whose work I admire (like Evan and Maryanna) and let them add to my text with their own interpretations, concepts, etc., then it helps me get over myself. The work gets better. Also, INSOYOA is a comedy book so adding an illustrated component to the text seemed like the natural and fun thing to do. Those Archie comics are Maryanna's vision of a lame comedy bit I did on the Internet [http://jonpaulfiorentino.tumblr.com/post/52970266514/heres-the-second-installment-of-my-critical] where I replaced the dialogue from Christian Archie comics with lines from critical theory.
rm: Were the pieces by Hardy predominantly produced for the book, or were you playing with pre-existing works?
JPF: They were all interpretations of the stories. I would like to think that Maryanna went through the stories and when she started getting bored, she started drawing.
rm: You’ve made a conscious decision to write what you term “comedic prose,” and I think it can be said that your poetry has long been thick with comedy. Literary audiences aren’t always known to be receptive to humour. Now that you’ve been publishing books for some fifteen years, have you noticed a shift in how literary works utilizing humour are received?
JPF: I think it's better in some ways and worse in others. David McGimpsey was shortlisted for a GG award for Li'l Bastard. That was a victory for those who value intelligent, funny writing. But in other ways, we tend to make safe literary choices in Canada. In a way, it's completely understandable—it's easy to think that funny = not serious, and literature is supposed to be "serious business" right? We have one national literary award for humour writing, and it is more likely to go to a book of musings by a kooky small town pastor than to a book that is actually funny. Gary Shteyngart wasn't entirely wrong.
rm: There are more than a few of us even frustrated that McGimpsey wasn’t up for that award much earlier, say, for Sitcom. There does seem something baffling about his highly formal poems being dismissed almost entirely for the sake of their content. Stuart Ross is another writer who I think has had his work overlooked for too long for the same reason, although that seems to have changed over the past few years as well. Who else, in your opinion, are we missing out on? Who are the writers doing seriously funny work that aren’t receiving enough attention?
JPF: It makes no sense. David is a special writer. One of our best. Stuart is very funny too. I love Billeh Nickerson and Dina Del Bucchia too. Everyone should read Coping with Emotions and Otters. It's extremely funny.
rm: Finally, what is your first memory of writing creatively?
JPF: I remember writing a science fiction story when I was around nine years old about a fantastical microscopic world that existed under my toilet seat. The good germs were fighting the evil germs. It was pretty intense. I remember handing it in and getting an A+ and being so proud of myself. It's hard to imagine, but that immature little brat grew up to write serious literary texts about pillow fighting and Mr. Spock getting a boner.
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