Monday, August 21, 2017

Joelle Barron on Laura Jane Grace

I spent my adolescence trying to prove my love for punk to the boys who thought it wasn’t for me. It started when I was twelve and wore a Ramones t-shirt to school. I bet she can’t even name one song! Already, I was full of hurt and fear and anger; bullied ceaselessly since kindergarten, now dealing with the loss of a close relative and the constant, looming question of my sexuality. Like so many outcasts before me, I found solace in the anger and frustration of rock music, in all its many forms.

Laura Jane Grace, frontwoman of the punk band Against Me!, came out to the world in a 2012 Rolling Stone story titled, “The Secret Life of Transgender Rocker Tom Gabel.” The article was cringey; it used male pronouns and phrases like “becoming a woman.” Still, I felt a huge amount of pride in her, this person whose art I had adored for the better part of a decade, that she could be so brave. At that point, I still didn’t understand my own identity, but I did understand that Against Me!’s music had always been more for me than for the boys around the campfire.

I discovered Against Me! when I was fifteen, sitting at the computer with my high school boyfriend, illegally downloading individual songs from LimeWire. I had an instant connection to the music, its blend of punk and folk, my two most beloved genres. At that time, I was doing my best to be “not like other girls;” still pretty and feminine, with long hair, dresses, and makeup, but supposedly “cooler” than girls who cared about pop music and wore pink. I could not have told you why at the time, but Against Me!’s rejection of all of society’s most violently enforced norms resonated with me on a deep, queer, emotional level.

I secretly loved a much more diverse array of musicians: Aqua, Britney Spears, Macy Gray. My mom’s Jim Croce and John Denver CDs. Still, I knew that being open about my predilection for the Spice Girls/Backstreet Boys would ruin my punk credibility, so I kept it to myself. Rather than just sit back and enjoy bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Mastodon, Husker Du, and The Clash, I had to learn everything about them; every member’s name, every detail of every concert DVD; every record they had ever released. I had to prove myself to the boys who would question me; for girls, casual enjoyment of these bands was not allowed. Even though rock/punk/metal were supposedly a place where gender norms were not so rigidly enforced (see: men in makeup, long hair, tight pants), it seemed as if femininity was being co-opted, not uplifted. No matter how much I knew, the unspoken rule was still there: this music was for the boys who sang it loudly and drunkenly at parties, not for me.

In 2009, my second year of university, I found a group of female friends who were Against Me! fans. I saw the band live for the first time with these girls; we stood at the front, and I enjoyed using my tall, long-armed body to protect them from the mosh-pitters all around us. I continued to struggle with my gender/sexuality, and to relate more and more to Against Me!’s lyrics, which had been quietly influencing my writing for years. They showed me how to be political, and taught me how to think critically about the media I was consuming. They also showed me that there is great beauty in weirdness, and that the oddest things are often the most interesting.

 The writing on Grace’s two most recent Against Me! records are overtly, unapologetically queer. She has always written from a place of intense vulnerability, and is way more punk than any punk who ever called her a sellout. That’s healing, for people like me.

Joelle Barron lives and works on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe of Treaty Three. Their work has been published in The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly, Plenitude Magazine, SAD Magazine, and others. Joelle is a doula, and coordinator of an LGBT2S youth group. Their book, Ritual Lights, is forthcoming with Icehouse Press in Spring 2018.

photo from Wikipedia Commons

Monday, August 14, 2017

Susan Ioannou on Kay Tew

A woman with short brown hair and deep-set, thoughtful eyes, Kathleen Tew Marshall
lived a quiet, art-filled life in an old house in Paris, Ontario. As a child, how I loved her tall living room windows opening to beds of yellow and red tulips, and along the cedar-lined drive, a millrace that chattered as if in long conversation with the large cream and rose nudes leaning from the opposite wall, soft, dreaming women, painted in oil on canvas by Kay’s artist-husband Norm. Never before had I had seen flesh bared so openly, to be admired without snickers.

The high-ceilinged rooms felt airy by day, cosy at night, elegant compared with the plainness of my suburban home. By the millrace windows stood a Victorian settee upholstered in silk mustard and cream stripes, but my favourite seat nestled under the nudes in the front corner, a generously pillowed beige divan flanked by low shelves dense with books. Two pale, thick rugs on the glowing hardwood led my sinking, stockinged feet toward the far end of the room. There, the dark polished table always displayed a crystal vase vibrant with Kay’s flowers, and at dinner was laid with white linen and silver, a ceremony I was honoured to assist. Throughout the day and evening, Puccini, Ella Fitzgerald, or Bach revolved on the record player.

Slow-spoken, precise, Kay matched her living room, casually stylish in dress—her characteristic silk scarf draped with an interesting brooch at the neck. Kay was an exotic island I was lucky enough to visit for weekends once or twice a year, or at my parents’ house a perfume that lingered when she and Norm came to Toronto on a ballet or theatre trip. She gave me a glimpse of a new world where people took pleasure in beautiful objects, where talking was for enjoyment, not just a call to meals, chores, or bed, and like a sip of brandy, a well-turned phrase could tingle warmth through the fingertips; a world where ideas were as valued in their own right as my mother’s smooth rolling pin or my father’s sturdy lawnmower. Kay’s lovely old house, her measured speech, tasteful dress, and artfully arranged flowers showed me that order need not curb pleasure. Indeed, it had a strangely lovely appeal of its own.

Beyond my aesthetic awakening, Kay was also my role model as a writer. She earned her living as a reporter for the London Free Press, the Brantford Expositor, then the Paris Star, under the pen name “Kay Tew”. Hers was the usual small-town beat of council meetings, library events, garden shows, and the rare fire or burglary. But she also enjoyed a free hand in writing “Sitting on the Curb”, her weekly column, collected and published posthumously as a book of the same name. She explored anything that took her fancy, but most often turned her careful eye and wry humour to Ontario history, back-road travels, theatre, books, and the not-so-ordinary people she met. As a friend said of Kay, “She was as happy talking to a ditch digger as writing a ballet critique.”       

I first became aware of Kay’s writing as its occasional subject: Susie, the little girl with long, blond hair in the blue velvet dress (a gift from Kay), who at an evening performance of Swan Lake silenced the tipsy foursome in the row behind by spinning around and making the worst grimace I could muster. The fact that I appeared in her columns made writing as much a part of the real world as softball and riding my bike.

When I was seven, Kay wrote a book for me, illustrated by Norm, The End of the Street: Being the Tale of the Rabbit with Wiggly Ears and of Rosamund His Friend. Of course, I wrote stories back. Writing was just another form of play. In grade two, when I turned detective author, Kay was my first publisher and agent, reprinting “The Death of the Murdered Girl” in her column. Afterwards a friend at radio CKPC in Brantford, Ontario, read it on air. As the years went by, whenever asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “A writer” seemed as good an answer as the expected “Teacher” or “Nurse”. 

Today when rereading Kay’s columns, I hear her voice: direct, friendly, talking about life’s small moments, or Beauty and Truth, all in the same breath. In my years writing my own column for Cross-Canada Writers’ Magazine, I wonder how much of her warm, easy style had rubbed off. I hope some did.

I began to appreciate Kay’s legacy when at nineteen and in love, I had confided my passions in a series of small, tight poems. After her long absence recovering from a stroke, at last she was finally able to take the train to Toronto. I was excited to read her my newest work. When I finished, she squeezed my hand. “Susie, now you write about your own feelings because you are still finding out who you are. But one day you will look outside yourself and write about the world. And if you write well enough, the world will look back.”

I understood. These poems were like opening the tall windows and pulling a few tulips inside for a private bouquet. I needed to focus the inside outward, to make the walls leaning down their nudes, the polished table, the striped settee, and the chattering millrace something to share with others.   
A week later Kay was dead. A second stroke. With the selfishness of youth, I felt abandoned. Later I acknowledged how much she had given already, by her love of the beautiful, her calm, her wry humour, and her devotion to words. I also learned that the writer’s journey must be made alone.

Photo of Kay Tew, circa 1940, provided by the author

Toronto writer Susan Ioannou has published poems, stories, and articles in literary magazines across Canada, plus two children’s novels, a collection of short fiction, and two non-fiction books for writers. Former Associate Editor of Cross-Canada Writers’ Magazine, she also conducted poetry workshops for the Toronto Board of Education, Ryerson, and University of Toronto. Her poetry collections include Clarity Between Clouds (Goose Lane Editions), Where the Light Waits (Ekstasis Editions), Coming Home: An Old Love Story (Leaf Press), Looking Through Stone: Poems about the Earth (Your Scrivener Press), and Looking for Light (Hidden Brook Press). Her website is: