A Radical Cut In The Texture Of Reality

May 26, 2016

World Stage Scholars-in-Residence Matt, Julia and Denise discuss the song Literature

As part of Every Song I've Ever Written at World Stage / Harbourfront (June 9th and 11th), World Stage Scholars-in-Residence Matt, Julia and Denise recorded a discussion - which doubles as a cover version - of my song Literature.

It's never occurred to me to analyze one of my songs in this way, and I'm completely fascinated by all the insights that Matt, Julia and Denise provide, but I thought I would mention a few things I was thinking about back when I wrote the song that, having not written the song, these scholars might have missed.

The first line is "Everyone I met was writing a novel," which to me suggests that the novels the song is talking about might not be the best novels ever written. Perhaps these are wanna-be novels, amateur novels, works by young people who haven't yet found their voice. Literature and art are full of works by young people who want to be artists but don't yet know if they're up for the task. This also, of course, reflects my own youthful insecurity that I would never manage to write anything of lasting worth.

The line: "literary novels about the holocaust" definitely for me conjured the frequently quoted Theodor Adorno line: "to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric." (There are many different versions of this quote.) But it also might bring us back to the first line: by writing failed or not-very-accomplished literature about world-historical tragedies are we even further devaluing them? Are we writing to illuminate the world or only to try to escape our own lives?

The "lottery ticket" might refer to achieving literary fame or riches, but from my beginner perspective at the time it might also only refer to getting a first book published or a first screenplay produced. These are noticeably more modest goals than achieving a lasting literary reputation.

At one point Matt asks: what is a non-literary novel? A non-literary novel might be a popular novel, for example a novel by Stephen King or Dan Brown. Which a lot of young writers were also trying to do. But I wasn't writing (and singing) about them. I was writing about the more pretentious camp of which I was definitely a member.

And, yes, I wrote the song Literature in the nineties, long before 9/11. But the idea that the line "And writing or not writing, these are twin terrors" might refer to the Twin Towers is kind of mind blowing for me.

I'm sure there is so much more I could say, but a writer who answers back to every single point raised by literary critics analyzing his work is a rather pathetic creature. I just wanted to add a few extra thoughts to the conversation. Thanks so much to Matt, Julia and Denise for taking the time to think and speak about my long-ago song. It is an honour my teenage self would have never imagined possible...


May 12, 2016

May 11, 2016

"I’ve often wondered what it might be like to live in a world without money."


"I’ve often wondered what it might be like to live in a world without money. How completely everything might or might not change. When I talk about a world without money people often tell me it’s something so completely impossible it might not even be worth broaching the topic. But money hasn’t always existed and I see no reason to be certain that it will always exist in the future. Without money I suspect many of the most extreme abuses of capitalism would be considerably more difficult to perpetrate. And yet money is so abstract, especially the billions that exist as little more than numbers on a computer screen. As Agamben has said: “God didn’t die, he was transformed into money.” But, I sometimes think: old gods are continuously being replaced with new ones. Rich and Poor isn’t a novel about a world without money, but when I follow its logic it might slowly begin to lead me in that direction."

- From: In Conversation: Jacob Wren discusses Rich and Poor


April 28, 2016

Hannah Black Quote


Down in Atlantis the curator showed me around the space, gesturing to invisible artworks that will soon be expensively shipped from far away to fill the room. I am the least famous and the least rich and the least well paid artist; I am paid partly in the fame of other artists. I am paid pyrrhically in the currency of my desire to be seen on my terms. My desire has almost as many social claims and credit operations on it as a straight man’s sexuality; both are supposed to justify the movements of capital that provide the basic infrastructure of contemporary art. Overdetermined, my art-making suffers the fate of all socially appointed agents of desire; it becomes intermittently impotent, and terrorized by the threat of its own softness.

- Hannah Black, Dark Pool Party


April 24, 2016

Hannah Black Quote


From Los Angeles I write, “Perhaps getting to know a person is like getting to know a city.” The plate glass windows of downtown, the way you are with your friends; the dull suburbs of a half-hidden unhappiness. On the East Coast I’m an animal and on the West Coast by a miracle I am changing back into a woman. But what kind of woman? At night I’ve found a wall inside myself and I try to describe it. I can’t stop crying! I hate myself! I’m a real girl! The wall inside is stone, it doesn’t have a body or a part time job. The person I’m considering falling in love with just as soon as I can stop crying, which should be any year now, brings me a book called Architecture without Architects to distract me from the luxury of my tears. In the book, white colonialists describe the buildings that seem to them miraculous, built invisibly, built by no one. I touch a black and white page to show that I love the image of an ancient city in the desert in Morocco. But imagine, I say, thinking of labor and domination, how terrible it was to build it. My person says, with certainty, because she is always sure, “They built it only at night.” By what light? I ask, looking at her. I can feel my eyes, which are nothing. She says, “They built it only on nights with a full moon.” My inside cracks, now it’s outside and I don’t deserve anything. There is anxiety in my touch but we are comradely now and then, both surprised for example by the thought of Hegel as a baby. Yes perhaps even Hegel can grow up to be a woman from time to time.

- Hannah Black, Dark Pool Party 


April 23, 2016

work that dares to remind us


"Rich and Poor is art in resistance, a work that dares to remind us of our capacity for revolutionary love..."

- Jade Colbert in The Globe and Mail


April 15, 2016

The Stopping Number


I feel five books is the perfect
number of books for a
writer to publish
I have published five books
I want to stop at this perfect number
I want to stop before I ruin it
but I won’t stop
I will ruin it
five books is a somewhat arbitrary
symbol of literary perfection
but I have so much anxiety
about everything being too much
everyone doing too much
moving past strong youthful desires
continuing only out of habit
for one moment
you’re in sync with the zeitgeist
or so they tell you
then the moment is gone
one cannot simply fly into the air
to have some perfect overview
of one’s entire life and practice
one is down in the trench with it
in the muck of it
unable to fully see
what is coming from where
if, like me, you have no desire to kill
only to survive
take the risk of being where you are
you can feel the number five
is the stopping number
yet cannot ground this feeling in anything
or for that matter actually stop
the stopping number
who wants to stay in this trench forever
I finished five books
without ever looking back
and wish
as I now look back
I could turn
not to salt
but to stone


March 15, 2016

Rich and Poor launches and events


I will be presenting my new book Rich and Poor at these fine events:

April 16, Ottawa:
Ottawa Writers Festival
BookThug Spring Launch with Jacob Wren and Phil Hall
The Manx, 5pm
Facebook Event

April 18, New York:
Print Screen: Jacob Wren and Close-up
Walter Reade Theater / Lincoln Center, 7:30 pm

April 21, Toronto:
BookThug Spring 2016 Launch Party
The Garrison, 7 pm
Facbook Event

April 28, Montreal:
BookThug spring launch
w/ Joni Murphy, Malcolm Sutton, Stephen Thomas & Jacob Wren
Drawn & Quarterly Bookstore, 7 pm
Facebook Event

May 6, Toronto: 
Pages Unbound Festival
All Our Bad Ideas: Jacob Wren & Jordan Tannahill
Jackman Hall, 9 pm
Facebook Event 

Rich and Poor Facebook Page
Order Rich and Poor



March 10, 2016

To be a beast and still be happy: An introduction to The Seagull


[This text was written as an introduction to the production Une Mouette et autres cas d’espèces created by Hubert Colas/Diphtong Cie. This free adaptation of Chekhov's The Seagull will also feature texts from Édith Azam, Liliane Giraudon, Angélica Liddell, Nathalie Quintane and Annie Zadek]

(Note: All sentences in quotation marks are lines from The Seagull. Most of them have been altered considerably but a few I left as is. Page numbers refer to the Laurence Senelick translation, Norton edition, 2010.)

We read a quote on the Internet. In a letter to A.S. Suvorin – dated April 13, 1895 – Anton Chekhov writes: “The bourgeoisie loves so-called “positive” types and novels with happy endings since they lull one into thinking that it is fine to simultaneously acquire capital and maintain one’s innocence, to be a beast and still be happy.” Chekhov’s father was a serf and we fear today, in the year 2016, the entire world is drifting backwards towards feudalism. Wikipedia says that: “The decline of serfdom in Western Europe has sometimes been attributed to the Bubonic Plague, which reached Europe in 1347, although the decline had begun before that date.” Russia is certainly not in Western Europe. In Russia, once again according to Wikipedia, feudalism was not abolished until 1861.

Along with feudalism, when we look towards the future we see war, famine and plague. Of course, if we look at the past we see much the same thing. When we look towards the future we also see nothing, since we have little idea what will actually happen in the future, just as we have little idea what has actually happened in the past. Chekhov died at age 44 and we are also currently age 44 (in this sense the author is speaking for all of us.) There is something classical about dying. There is something avant-garde about dying. The future is always a future we will not necessarily live to see.

We are wondering what The Seagull would be like if it were a play not about art but about activism. If instead of talking about ‘talent’ they spoke of action and repression. Page 78: “New forms of protest are what we need. New forms, and if there aren’t any, then we’re better off with capitalist totalitarianism and environmental collapse.” How can we imagine what comes next, how might it transcend the bland magic of our small daily lives? If ever there was a time for us to seriously ask ourselves such questions it is certainly right fucking now. Page 85: “There is not a lot of brilliant activism these days, it’s true, but in general the level has improved considerably.” La Commune de Paris, May ’68 – are these precedents we can continue to seize and build upon or simply the last gasps of a potential lost and long gone. All over the world, at every protest, lines of riot cops in full gear, helmets, shields, tear gas: an intimidation that might almost be described as pristine. As they surround us, we find ourselves trapped in the provincial life of no longer being able to imagine a future with any further potential than the present, or any greater charm than the past. There are no riot cops in The Seagull. There are only the riot cops working the kettle – stopping the blood flow – within the cholesterol-choked valves of our hearts. (That last line was quite bad, and it’s reasonable to assume the author hoped it would be cut.)

In its time, The Seagull was of course lightly censored. In some strange way, today we long for censorship. That someone would care enough about our words to bother banning even a single one. When you are marginal artists how do you know what it means to take an axe to the world and split it in two like a rotting log? What would Chekhov have written about the Russian revolution if he had been alive for its beginning or its end? (He died one year before the Revolution of 1905.) Were the ways in which Stalin censored the arts of his time in continuity with the very same censorship Chekhov so frequently experienced? Did Stalin get the Russia he wanted? Does any leader or artist ever get what they actually want? Page 79: “I wanted to get married and I wanted to be an author, but I didn’t manage to do either one.” We wanted emancipatory politics and a sustainable future, but instead got a well-written first act in front of a serene painted lake. So many we now know want little more than to move to the country and live by the water, to be close to nature and watch the fish so brilliantly die. When we write these things we feel immature. When we speak them we feel even worse. We only feel okay when we post them on the internet.

Carl Pope writes: “In 1915, as the American economy boomed, the huge supply chain that supported horse-drawn transport – harnesses and horseshoes, wagons and buggies makers (13,000 of them), farriers and blacksmiths, hay balers and feedmills – looked like a robust and vital segment for deploying capital. 1920 was the year of “Peak Horse” in the U.S.. By 1940 it was gone. This was not “low-cost”, incremental progress. It was an economic disruption so fierce that the phrase “buggy-whip maker” became a business simile for loser.” His point is that coal and oil might soon go the way of the horse and carriage. Page 105: “Forgive me, I bow down to your talent, I’m ready to give up ten years of my life for your sake, but horses I cannot give you.” We have always wanted to live in a city with no cars. Wouldn’t it be paradise to live in a city with no cars, like a theatre that blends intimately with the most graceful and sublime aspects of daily life? Why does the automobile industry get to decide how each city is built and made? If there were no cars and no plastic, how much oil would we really need? In just twenty years, between 1920 and 1940, the horse and buggy almost completely disappeared. Things can change so quickly. Karl Marx died in 1883. He never saw an automobile. What are the things that we’ll never see? And would we even want to see them if we somehow had the chance? The future is always a future we will not necessarily see.

Page 111: “To find out how it feels to be an effective activist. How does change feel? How do you realize you’re changing the world?” Page 115: “What do you call changing the world? I’m never satisfied. Worst of all is when I become paranoid and barely understand what useful action is. I feel that if I’m an activist I have an obligation to help the people, their suffering, their future, discuss science, human rights, et cetera, et cetera, and I do help people, exhausting myself; I’m attacked from every side, I make people angry. I hurtle back and forth like a fox hunted by the CIA. I see that capitalism and surveillance keep moving farther and farther ahead, while I keep moving farther and farther behind…” To fight the beasts and still be happy, since an activist life is often also a broken one. To move to the country and live as if your most vicious enemies were boredom and your own neuroses. To fight the beasts and fail, be crushed, while the beasts eat good dinners, take luxury vacations and go to the theatre. To fight your own beast, the crypto-fascist that lurks in each and every one of us. We need new forms, while no one believes new forms are even possible. But anything is possible, or if not anything than certainly a wide variety of possibilities we spend our time working as hard as possible not to consider. How could Chekhov ever have imagined we’d be speaking these things about him 112 years after his death?

Karl Marx died in 1883. The modern automobile was invented in 1886. Anton Chekhov died in 1904. The Russian revolution took place in 1917. Oil and coal will have more or less completely been phased out by 2045. Some of the people here tonight, watching us perform this introduction, will die in 2052, 2058, 2061, 2070, 2075, and other years that we won’t bother to list. Page 128: “People with no conscience but plenty of pretensions have nothing better to do than criticize the ones who are trying to make a difference. It’s a comfort to them, I’m sure.” Have nothing better to do than list the years that complete strangers may or may not die. Because, if nothing else, the little daily dramas we incite, inflame and endlessly play out are at least a distraction from the fact that each and every one of us might in the end die. But no one will die here tonight, on stage or off, if everything goes as planned. Page 129 (or page 121, lines 11 and 12): “If ever my life is of use to you, come and take it.”

Between this sentence and the next sentence, two years will have passed. Time goes so quickly. Money is often connected to tragedy. Page 138: “It’s dark outside. Somebody should tell them to pull down that barricade in front of the consulate. It stands there bare, unsightly, like a skeleton. When I was going by last night, I thought somebody was on it, crying…” Even more than a city with no cars we would like to live in a world without money. Money is an abstraction that allows cold savagery to exponentially increase. Page 140: “If money ever burrows into your heart, you’ve got to get rid of it.” Where there’s wealth there’s exploitation, endless gradations of poverty that shred possibilities and in the end force you to kill either something inside yourself or anyone near by. But, of course, none of that matters here tonight. Reality must not be strong-armed into confronting idealism. You turn on those closest to you when no one else is in range. Things can turn so quickly. Different temperaments will view the same few facts as completely disparate realities. Page 146: “There were moments when the world showed some talent for screaming or dying, but those were only moments.” Life is only a series of moments, but moments don’t pay the rent or give meaning, so we superglue them together with narrative. A beast that tells stories, a beast that buys and sells the stories we will never have a chance to live, a beast that exposes paradoxes, paradoxes that get us thinking and therefore do not help us in any way to act. Money is the lie that makes things possible, so possible we could weep. Page 160: “Now I know, understand, that in our work – it doesn’t matter whether we protest or run for office – the main thing isn’t success or failure, the things we feared or hoped for, it’s knowing how to endure.”

How to endure, how to smile when your boss effortlessly humiliates you in front of the others, when you have to scramble, hustle or betray someone in order to get by, or settle for less, or take more at the expense of others or at the expense of the world. To be a beast and still be happy, or smile politely as you endure being some happy beasts prey. To have your children hate you but pretend they don’t because you continue to give them money. Or have your children love you, but be so broken they barely know how. This is only the introduction. The introduction comes at the beginning, when what comes after is still in the future. The future is always a future we will not necessarily get to see. But anything can be the future. We can predict the worst, or hope for the best, or use every trick in our arsenal to manipulate what comes next – but as we whittle away our lives, while telling ourselves we are doing the exact opposite – the future can, will be and remains potentially anything. And, at the same time, it is always bound to look more than a little bit like the past. Page 160: “By chance man comes along, sees, and with nothing better to do destroys… Subject for a short story.” Or subject for a destroyed play.