Brave New Jones

Brave New Jones

With the publication of this first major collection of my work, completed with the assistance of a government arts grant, I suppose I have joined the ranks of the ‘career’ poets. i doubt that this will inspire great joy among my new colleagues; I’m not sure that I’m too happy about this myself. Everyday I tell myself that I will never write another poem, yet again and again I find myself at the typewriter. Perhaps I just have nothing better to do. Perhaps I somehow believe that if anything can save this mad world, poetry will. I’m not sure I care about saving the world. I don’t know anything. I’m twenty-six-years old now; sometimes I feel fifty-six. I’ve been off the booze for several months. If the liver and brain can hold out a bit longer, you can expect more of the same soon.— Daniel Jones, College Street, Toronto, 1985

For me personally, it’s hard to imagine there was ever a punk anything in Toronto. When I was listening to Huey Lewis and the News, my mother’s copy of Twist and Shouton vinyl and watching Family Ties, Daniel Jones was launching his debut poetry collection The Brave Never Write Poetry. A mainstay in the Toronto literary scene throughout the eighties and early nineties, his legacy and work has been mostly forgotten outside of his peers. Many of these writers are now in prominent positions amongst the ranks of Canadian publishing, but began their auspicious careers alongside Jones over twenty-five years ago.

Despite my generational handicap, and inability to see Toronto in any vulnerable or depraved state, I somehow could imagine how Jones, known for his showmanship and occasionally rowdy readings enjoying his role as maniac in publishing circles. Outside of this performance hyperbole, Jones did in fact work furiously as an editor for a variety of journals, on his own work, taught at York University and even had a stint working at The League of Canadian Poets.

The punk thing however still baffles me as I look against these protective facades Toronto artists and writers display on a daily basis. Everything appears to be so predetermined through various fronts: the artist statements, press releases, the tag lines and promotional material for virtually any creative offering in Toronto seems brutally rigid, official and trite. There is no creative mess or chaos in the primped sheen of words and images being pumped out from studios and cafes along College and Queen Street and beyond every few hours.

 “Toronto has a great case of cultural amnesia, we’re always reinventing the wheel in a way, which is silly cause other places invent it and then get rolling,” remarks artist Xenia Benivolski, who is curating a three-part art show on Toronto’s punk scene in the 1980s called The Legend Is Black which will include screenings of work by Jamie Ross and paintings by Jonathan Edward Mayhew; all commissioned by MOCCA.  “I think there is a validation process in reminiscing about the past. In a way this is symptomatic of a city that is starting to get over its ‘We'll never be New York’ phase, and I'm glad it's happening,” Benivolski says.

The renaissance has spilled into the publishing and film world as well. Bruce MacDonald’s Hard Core Logo 2 debuted last year and a handful of punk nostalgia books have also been released: Jennifer Morton’s exhaustively thorough collage memoir Dirty Drunk and Punk, and Liz Worth’s Treat Me Like Dirt. On the poetry and fiction front however, it’s all Jones: Coach House Books and Three O’Clock Press have embarked on similar nostalgia romps of their own with the release of two books by the late Daniel Jones: The Brave Never Write Poetry and 1978.

Barely eighteen months old, Three O’Clock Press is run by editor Sarah Wayne, who was highly enthusiastic to re-issue 1978 from the start. “I have wanted the novel to be re-released ever since it went out of print, feeling like there were so many people that would love it if they could only find it.” Wayne says the recent interest in punk gave her some indication there may be an audience for 1978. 

To showcase these books, a tribute to Jones was held in Parkdale in May 2011 which drew a crowd just shy of a hundred, comprised of local authors, poetry fans as well old friends of Jones including poets Steve Venright and Nicholas Drumbolis who all wore DIY silkscreen Jones T-Shirts with his notorious poem “Things That I Have Put Into My Asshole” stenciled on the front.

“It’s a list poem that portrays its author as a sort of polysexual receptacle who ultimately submits to a carnal coupling with the CN Tower, thus liberating Torontonian’s from its repressed and oppressive rule,” says Venright who was also wearing the limited-edition shirt.    

The night featured readings from poets such as Ken Babstock, Kevin Connolly, Lynn Crosbie, Liz Worth and Damian Rogers. “In each poem I felt like I was meeting this man, that I was in his company, and in his best poems, I found his pulse dazzlingly loud,” Rogers told me after the reading. 

However, opinions on the late Toronto poet, who is considered by some to be a cult figure do in fact vary. “I like Jones okay, not great, a bit self-indulgent, which was proven in the end. But he has an appeal,” confesses Alexandra Leggett, a Trillium-finalist for short fiction collection Animals.

Before his death in February of 1994, Jones worked a variety of jobs (including a stint at The League of Canadian Poets) and was heavy into the writing and research of his novel 1978. He also taught at York University for two years. According to an article published just months after his death in Open Letter by Clint Burnham, the prospect of teaching was a brutal wake up call for Jones.

“For most of this country, these sub-occupations of the general label ‘intellectual’ mean almost nothing, a fact brought brutally home to Jones the two years he taught a fiction-writing course at York University when he would try to teach students, bedazzled by Hollywood ideas of creativity and writing, that most writers are not Stephen King.”

“Jones, even during those delirious days when I first knew him in the early eighties, was a most meticulous writer,” Venright explains. “He may have been a tornado, but the eye of that tornado could be very calm, and it was out of that calmness that he conveyed his vision of the world—by turns miserable, sardonic, touching, hilarious, outrageous and improbably beautiful. He wasn’t interested in something that was strictly a form of self-expression, nor was he out to merely purvey some ideological stance. There was a desire to be recognized for what he was doing, but it was something deeper that compelled him to take the chances that he did, in both art and life. I think the raw honesty and intelligence of his writings are what continue to attract and intrigue people.”

Liz Worth, who penned the new introduction to 1978 and this past fall released her own poetry debut Amphetamine Heartsays Jones captured a side of Toronto that many are not interested in discovering. “The bars that most people are probably too scared to go into are just the kind he brought to life in his work. Through his characters, Jones also captured sides that many of us have, but are too scared to admit to.” Worth believes that Jones sparse prose lends itselfto Punk music’s curt syllabic metre, and is adamant to point out that she would never have written Treat Me Like Dirt if it weren’t for discovering 1978 nearly ten years ago when it was original released by Rush Hour Revisions.

“Name-dropping bands like the Forgotten Rebels, Diodes, Viletones and Poles helped keep a sense of Toronto's punk history on paper. To meld fact and fiction like that and to do it with such an undocumented scene was so important.”

“Daniel asked me to agent 1978 because by the fall of 1993, I had established myself as a literary journalist,” Jeffrey Canton explains. Canton, who is the executor of Jones estate, says Jones had high hopes for his novel. “I’d been doing profiles for him in Paragraph magazine, for Kevin Connolly and Jason Sherman in What and for Dayne Ogilvie in Xtra - and had quite a number of connections with some of the bigger publishing houses like Harper Collins and Random House. I'd also seen gay writer and activist Doug Wilson's posthumous novel, Labour of Love, into print at St Martin’s Press in New York - I was Doug's literary executor - and I think Daniel hoped that my publishing connections would be helpful in getting a mainstream publisher interested.”

Canton estate says 1978 was “a smart sharp novel” that appeared on the surface to be more mainstream than his experimental outings. “He had hopes as well that it might be the kind of book that would interest filmmaker Bruce MacDonald who was living near Daniel on College Street,” he recalls, clutching a hard cover original Coach House Press edition of The Brave which he told me he took out of York University’s library specifically for the tribute.

On more than one occasion, Lynn Crosbie says Jones referred to 1978 as a potboiler, which she points out, is the same term Sylvia Plath used to describe The Bell Jar. “One way of looking at it,” Crosbie explains, “is that it’s two writers moving away from genre, perhaps also being slightly publicly cynical about their work,” she offers, adding that its open to interpretation exactly what Jones meant with the use of the term. 

Connolly, who championed the re-release of The Brave with Coach House Books, says he was pleased to see such a warm turn out for his old friend. “I was gratified to see the work go over so well after all these years, that there was still an audience for this kind of work, and especially that there were a lot of young people in the room; that speaks to the continuing relevance of the work.” The Brave is a youthful personal voyage into abject bars, mental wards and volatile love. The manuscript originally arrived to Coach House and then poetry editor David McFadden via Nicholas Drumbolis, an early fan of Jones.

Shortly after the release of The Brave in 1985, Jones got sober, turned his back on poetry, and began writing fiction. He started his own chapbook press called Streetcar Editions in the early 1990s which would include a chapbook called I Eat Your Flesh by Lynn Crosbie. In 1992 Crosbie and Jones launched Obsessions and Miss Pamela’s Mercy together in Parkdale where Jones performed a memorable (and sober) swearing rant from his book, complete with him whipping the stage with a bullwhip he borrowed from Crosbie. 

Originally from Hamilton, Jones moved to Toronto in 1977 and lived in the College and Grace area, where according to Connolly and Crosby, the poet had a huge collection of books, a meticulous office and a nagging dripping bathtub faucet. Crosbie recalls with acuity the image of this tap showing up on the cover of Obsessions, his experiment novel. “There was a sense of fragility,” Crosby explains over the phone, in Jones using that familiar image from his apartment for the cover, “like something was falling apart and attacking you.” 

The Jones saga may not be complete just yet. Close circle of friends and admirers feel that The People One Knows is due for re-issue. The autobiographical collection of linked stories which traces, among other things, his poetry and fiction career, is a tender escape attempt that fell short, but arguably remains Jones’ finest hour; a terrain which emotional reality is presented with a sheen of purpose, passion and intrigue, carved from the assailable matter of a pained psyche, replete with intense connection to the humans and places he loved, all orbiting around his College Street universe. 

Crosbie says he was the best editor she ever had, and that new writers could gain remarkable insight into a writer who had such discipline, energy and restraint and notes her appreciation of the re-releases of both books. “He existed in an awkward time, before the internet,” Crosbie says, remarking that it has been hard for Jones to maintain a presence since his death.

Jones has remained in her thoughts over the years. In her 1996 collection Pearl two Jones poems surface including Geography (“He spoke to me with difficulty; admissions I cannot remember, but his hands, his lips are still stained with violet.” A story in her upcoming fiction collection, Life Is About Losing Everything (Anansi, 2012) is about their friendship and writing.

For a crash course in Jones’ Toronto, his writing and living world, I suggest reading his short story “In Various Restaurants” which epitomizes what Jones’ work did; ripping life right out of the red-hot embers of passion and desire, without extracting the emotional turmoil or staggering its impact. The story also discusses his relationship with poetry, his book launch with Coach House books and his desire for companionship. (The story can be found in a collection published by Mercury Press called The People One Knows).

Yet other work still remains in limited edition quantities. Mark McCawley, editor of Edmonton’s Greensleeve Editions and the underground literary journal Urban Graffiti, published Jones just before his death and kept the letters the late writer sent him. “I published a chapbook of Jones’, The Job After The One Before, in 1990. Ever since, I have endeavored to keep the chapbook in print, re-printing whenever necessary.”

McCawley describes the chapbook as “a suite of interconnected, semi-autobiographical stories about various jobs the Jones persona experiences during his day passes from the Queen Street West psychiatric hospital—stories which would find further realization in his posthumous book, The People One Knows.”

In 2003, Chelsea Ireton, a first-year York University drama student, was stage manager for a play called Poet based on Daniel Jones’ poetry, written by Robert Wallace. According to an archived issue of student paper Protem from November 2003, Ireton was asked to describe the play in one word, and she responded, “different,” adding “oh that sounded bad, but it isn’t that, it’s different in a good way.”

The play, in which “Wallace and his tremendously talented students explore Jones’ poems, extending them into powerful acts producing stellar moods birthed from the very poem itself,” ran for a week that fall.

As poets, Connolly explains that he and Jones could not have been more different. “That’s why it's so fun for me to read his work aloud. It's like becoming someone else for five minutes.” Connolly says. “I liked the guy. We connected as people.”

Canton sums up the night and the re-issues poignantly as our talk ends. “One thing that I think is really clear to anyone who has re-read The Brave is that the poems are startlingly fresh and evocative and full of such power 25 years after they were first published - and that's amazing. It is a book that is just as shocking and in your face and lovely and lyrical - it's survived the test of time. And it's not just those of us who knew Daniel that are excited to see it back in print - what is even more fantastic is that younger readers have been finding his books and reading his work and wanting to see it back in print.”

Letter courtesy of Mark McCawley photos courtesy of Steve Venright.

Nathaniel G. Moore is the author of Let’s Pretend We Never Metand Wrong Bar. He just completed an autobiographical novel called Savage. Follow him on twitter @NathanielGMoore.