Those who work in London are all either going down with flu, recovering from flu or in the grip of flu—even though most of the people going down with flu, recovering from flu or in the grip of flu don’t have flu at all. What they’re actually suffering from is verbal inflation because no one says they have a cold any more, it’s always flu. If people have a cold they say they have flu; if they say they have a cold it means there’s nothing wrong with them. Flu and cold are becoming interchangeable. We say flu when we mean cold but we say flu when we mean flu because no one wants to say they have pneumonia when all they’ve got is flu because if you say you have pneumonia people might think you have AIDS. It’s even possible that people who do have pneumonia call it flu so that flu now runs the whole gamut of illness from the common cold upwards. To say we have flu is merely to express the common condition of urban life at the tail-end of the twentieth century. One way or another we all have flu all the time, even during those periods when we are, to all intents and purposes, in perfect health.
—Geoff Dyer, Out of Sheer Rage
2013: one of the lines in my notebook, Fuck those of you who are funny.
I remember I wrote this after attending a reading by Elizabeth Bachinsky at Plan 99 in Ottawa. It was the first time I had seen her read and the experience was gripping, moving, inspiring, and hilarious. Her work delivers optimism, exuberance, pleasure—and her reading from The Hottest Summer in Recorded History was one of my favourite poetry performances of the year. I went home energized—and envious.
That pang: I was craving a talent not my own. At its worst, this is self-effacing, a way of dismissing one’s own approach in favour of something expertly alien. At its best, however, this is utter appreciation and humility, gratitude for other voices in the world that provide complexity, filling out the limitations of one’s own perspective, causing the spark of paradox—simultaneous recognition of and estrangement from the face of the Other.
When I wrote the line in my notebook, I was being facetious. I was thinking about the possibility of composing a funny poem that would catalogue fury at funny poets—both harnessing what I’m humbly able to learn from writers like Bachinsky and at the same time discussing this wonderful and terrible mixture of envy and appreciation. The poem doesn’t exist yet, but it’s percolating. I think about it when I watch stand-up comedy, masters of their craft like Louis C. K., interrogating myself to find the place where darkness turns into absurdity, desperation breaks through to catharsis, and pessimism incongruously blooms exhilaration, delight, joy.
Raising the issue of humour in poetry, I hope to identify something (or a lack of something) inherent in my blog posts these last few weeks: specifically, a deficit of humour. In dwelling on mortality and illness, I tend to inhabit dark places: failure, self-hatred, alienation, self-pity. And the way I’m inclined to treat these subjects means that, in my experience of reading my own work in public, tears are a far more likely response than is laughter.
But thank god this isn’t the only available approach. I was drawn to the passage from Out of Sheer Rage above because Geoff Dyer’s personal narrative about procrastination—which details his extensive and expansive strategies to delay work on a book about D. H. Lawrence—is fuelled by self-hatred, is brutally self-deprecating, and is masterfully, superbly funny. His description of flu as “the common condition of urban life at the tail-end of the twentieth century” strikes me as brilliantly accurate—and it’s cynical at the same time as it is comical.
My response to Dyer’s take on flu was going to be along the lines of what it’s like to deal with depression while working a 9-5 job, where “sick time” doesn’t really translate to "can’t-get-out-of-bed-today time," and how it’s always easier to say that one’s vomiting rather than admit to a boss that one’s paralyzed by grief or mourning or even run-of-the-mill emotional fatigue.
Instead, I thought I’d just say something simple, prosaic, and potentially obvious (but which I still find profound): it’s possible to be funny when talking about grief and mourning and illness. When my family and I were preparing for Mom’s funeral, the gallows humour on our lips was astonishing and relieving all at once. We accepted it; we needed it. And although my poetry—and my discussions of memoir here at Open Book—have tended toward heaviness and sobriety, I wanted to take a moment (before heading into a couple of more difficult posts I’m preparing for the upcoming week) to celebrate humour. I’m inspired by writers like Bachinsky and Dyer and I’m looking to find laughter in whatever project, whatever poem, is next for me: something that both acknowledges grief and manages to push beyond.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.
Brecken Hancock's poetry, essays, interviews and reviews have appeared in Event, CV2, Grain, The Fiddlehead and Studies in Canadian Literature. She is Reviews Editor for Arc Poetry Magazine and Interviews Editor for Canadian Women in the Literary Arts. Her first book of poems, Broom Broom, was published by Coach House Books in 2014. She lives in Ottawa. Visit www.breckenhancock.com for more information.