03 April 2014

Crad and I

The recent news that the author of Terminal Ward is terminally ill has saddened me immensely, and it’s given rise also to a lot of conflicting impulses. While I’ve known Crad Kilodney for nearly thirty-five years, it’s been a decade or so since he and I have exchanged more than a cursory email.

When I met Crad, I was in my late teens and I lived in Toronto. My friend Mark Laba and I were doing a lot of two-voice sound poetry readings. We were kicking around the idea of doing public guerrilla readings, such as on the escalator of the Eaton Centre, or out on city sidewalks. It was 1978 or 1979. Downtown, one day, I came across Crad selling his books on Yonge Street. He was flogging his first chapbook, Mental Cases. I bought it, of course (as I bought every book that Crad ever published), and was inspired by this idea of standing out on the street with a stupid sign around one’s neck, selling literature. I got to know Crad a bit, learned how he’d made his chapbooks, where he got them printed, and so on. I soon started working at York University’s student newspaper, Excalibur, and had access to typesetting equipment (this was before the days of personal computers, and long before the era of desktop publishing), and I decided to follow in Crad’s footsteps. I would eventually write the introduction to his book Lightning Struck My Dick.

Before then, I had made two publications, Africa: A Tale of Moscow, a small mimeographed collaborative story with Mark Laba, and He Counted His Fingers, He Counted His Toes, a 12-page unstapled photocopied chapbook containing about eight poems. But now I was going to publish in quantity, and get my work printed professionally, like Crad’s. My first book was Bad Glamour, in an edition of 1,000 (again, following Crad’s example). It contained mostly poems, and a few very tiny stories. Crad was encouraging all along the way. In fact, in the early days, he and I often sold our works in neighbouring doorways on Yonge Street. Which was ridiculous from a commerce point of view. Anyway, if I hadn’t met Crad, I likely never would have sold my work in the streets, though I certainly would have continued self-publishing.

For my second chapbook, I couldn’t come up with a title. I was at Crad’s place in North York, where we were eating some fried chicken for lunch, the football game on in the background as always on these Sundays. Crad asked to see what would be in the chapbook. Within about a minute he had zeroed in on a line in one of my poems. “This is the title right here,” he said. “When Electrical Sockets Walked Like Men.” And that was the title I went with. That was a pretty influential moment for me: I have, ever since then, had a fondness for long and stupid titles. Anyway, out on the streets, I wound up selling about 7,000 chapbooks over the course of a decade. I think Crad sold about 35,000 during his much longer street career.

Book titles and entrepreneurship aside, I don’t think Crad was a significant literary influence on me. I was reading a lot of insane fiction back then: Bill Hutton’s The Strange Odyssey of Howard Pow, Spencer Holst’s The Language of Cats, David Young’s Agent Provocateur, stuff by Opal Louis Nations, Donald Barthelme, William Kotzwinkle … and Crad. These were the kinds of things I liked to read and the kinds of things I wanted to write. But Crad certainly influenced me in the DIY spirit: this was shortly after punk had begun to break in North America, and I was very excited by bands like the Clash, the Sex Pistols, the Talking Heads — and various local Toronto punk bands, like Martha & the Muffins, the Wives, Crancky Tom, and Blibber and the Rat Crushers, who were putting out their own cassettes and vinyl.

And although I’d published a couple of very small-print-run chapbooks, Crad inspired me to get out there and actually get in people’s faces with my books: confront them with my weird poems and stories right on the street. It’s possible, too, that Crad taught me to not compromise, and not to pander, in my writing. I’ll give him that, too. I get the feeling that if I keep on thinking about it, I’ll come up with even more ways Crad influenced my thinking.

In the broader view, Crad Kilodney, so far as I can tell, has had very little influence on literary Canada. I suspect he is a pariah in academic circles, and certainly commercial circles, and those are powers that determine lit-taste. But through his street-selling, and through the hand-selling of Crad’s books by Charlie Huisken and Dan Design at This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, Crad inspired a lot of young people who were disgruntled about CanLit and had no interest in Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, and the other superstars. He encouraged a few other writers to self-publish and stand in the streets, including Arno Wolf Jr. (pen name for Timothy Weatherill), Lillian Necakov, Michael Boyce, Mark Laba, and me. He encouraged people involved in DIY — whether they were making books, or zines, or music cassettes.

He is and always has been a fan of the transgressive and of independent thought. A fan of kicking against the establishment. Crad was a fan of neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel, who published absolutely bonkers books laced with anti-Semitism and conspiracy theory — Crad championed free speech to a radical extent. He once led a group of us in a sit-in in the office of Ontario film censor Mary Brown, where he argued eloquently against censorship of movies in our province.

There was other activism, too. I remember typing up a copy of a long, dry story by Luigi Pirandello, one of about a dozen stories by renowned writers submitted to CBC’s story contest in a project brilliantly orchestrated by Crad. (Crad's point was proved as none of these stories made the contest's shortlist.) I also remember joining him in an application to the City of Toronto to hold a book-burning at the intersection of Yonge and Bloor. He felt that Toronto was so anti-intellectual that it might as well embrace the practices of another anti-intellectual culture that once burned books. (We were told by the City that only food could be barbecued on the street, and were denied a permit.)

I spent a lot of Sundays at Crad’s place, playing chess. Crad was a mediocre chessplayer, and better than me. We played a lot of chess; and he had the football game on TV (I could care less); and he’d show me crazy literature he’d been collecting — documents from religious cults and marginal political organizations, porn mags with three-breasted women, and more. Like me, Crad read some chess books, learned a lot about the masters (most of whom were bat-shit crazy, so that was fun), and never became a good player, so far as I know. I still play an awful lot, mostly online. I’d like to play Crad again, and see where his game is at.


Lorette Luzajic, a fascinating young painter and writer set out a few years ago to write a book about Crad, who she had befriended. She had become one of Crad’s few close friends. Lorette asked me if I thought Crad was an important writer. I’m not sure what an “important” writer is, unless we’re talking the stature of Samuel Beckett or Virginia Woolf or John Ashbery. Crad has written some truly excellent stories. He cares about his words and his sentences: he is a perfectionist in that way. And within that framework, I think his writing is mostly about the content, the story, the jokes, the tragedy, and not about the writing itself. I mean, he isn’t a great prose stylist, or an eccentric one in any way. Though he does have flashes of prose brilliance. (More on that later.) His eccentricity exists almost entirely in the content of his pieces. That said, he did play with form sometimes, and created some very fucked-up stories in that way. Although he can be extremely funny, I think many of his best pieces were the most serious ones, such as “Rainy Night” (I hope I have the title right), about a guy helping a girl move jars of shit (I hope I have the plot right). It was absurd but also heartbreaking.

Crad was important to me, as a model of DIY, and as a friend.

Then there’s the issue of what I perceive as misogyny and racism in Crad’s work. There may have been hints of it early on, but I think it became much more prominent later. I always felt that Crad’s bitterness and misanthropy grew every year he stood on the street and watched all the morons walk by him, ignoring him. I certainly got pretty exasperated and angry out there at times, watching thousands of people walk by without noticing me standing there with a “Writer Going to Hell” sign around my neck.

I recently read a biography of E.E. Cummings and discovered that he’d been something of an anti-Semite (which Crad has never been); it shocked me, because Cummings was a pretty big hero to me as a kid. But in Cummings’ journals, it seems it was “kike” this, and “jewboy” that, at least in the 40s and into the 50s. Pretty disappointing that such an intelligent man could have also embraced that particular ignorance and hatred. I haven’t read through Crad’s work in a long time. It’s possible that those elements were always there, and it was me who changed, or grew to recognize those things in his writing.

As I wrote above, I learned recently that Crad is very sick. He’s had more than one bout with cancer, and this time he isn’t going to make it. He and I haven’t actually spoken in more than a decade. Probably more like 15 years, though we’ve exchanged one or two brief emails.

The first public hint that things were going poorly in Kilodneyland was this remarkable story he posted on his blog. It’s called “Dreaming with Jay.” It’s startling in its sincerity, its humanity.

It is Lorette who has made Crad’s condition public, with his permission. I’m glad he has such a good friend in Lorette, and I hope he has a few others, too. But she says he is at peace with his situation.


April 2-3: I wrote what came above over the past few months. Today Lorette has reported that Crad is in his last days, or maybe his last hours. She says he is ready to go. He is at peace. My friend Steve Venright exchanged letters with Crad in the past month, and he too reports that Crad is at peace, and even spiritual — something I would never have imagined of Crad.

Lorette has written a great and revelatory book about Crad: Kilodney Does Shakespeare, and Other Stories. Academia has ignored him, but a fellow independentista hasn’t. Her book is a sort of ode to a hero — it’s worshipful; but it’s a great portrait of Crad post-street-selling, a Crad that most of us know little about. Crad cooperated in the book’s writing, and offers a lot of his thoughts to Lorette.

The past while, I’ve been reading and re-reading Crad’s 1990 story collection Girl on the Subway (Black Moss Press). The premise of this book is that it contains Crad’s “serious” stories. (Though it precedes Crad’s two major works of serious writing, Excrement and Putrid Scum, both from his own Charnel House imprint.) Even his serious stories contain more than a little of the absurd. But it’s a beautiful book, and often heart-breaking. What really strikes me is what Crad so often does with the last paragraph of his stories: somehow all of his strengths as a prose writer become focused there. It’s where you’ll find the sublime.

Here’s the close of “The Funeral of Lenny Zeller”: “As I boarded the plane, I saw a girl who looked a lot like Cassandra Reynolds, and I thought it would be nice if we ended up sitting next to one another, but we didn’t. I had a middle seat, and the window seat to my left was unoccupied. The sun had set by the time we took off, and the clouds were thick and violet as the plane climbed through them. I looked out the window, just letting my mind wander, and felt a twinge of sadness and loneliness for no particular reason. The reading light above me was on, and I reached up and switched it off. Then I rested my left hand upon the vacant seat and pretended to hold hands with Cassandra Reynolds’s ghost.”

And this is the last paragraph of “Henry”: “Despite his medication, Henry does not fall asleep until very late at night. And every Tuesday and Friday morning around 7:30, when the garbage men come by, he hears them in his sleep, and he dreams that they are the angels come to pick him up.”

I wish I had written Crad, and tried to make some connection again. Lorette says he’s “feeling” the classical music she is playing for him. That was a few hours ago. Is he still alive now?

Here are the final two paragraphs of “A Moment of Silence for Man Ray”: “The headlights of cars bumper to bumper on the boulevard were the funeral procession for another day thrown onto the trash heap of history. It was not surreal. It was as real as the hunger and the habit that anchored us to our work. / I had wasted several weeks doing nothing, but I did not waste that evening. I had to record what had otherwise died with me. I sat at the unpainted desk that faced the basement wall and gave a moment of silence to Man Ray. And as long as I was alive, one to myself too.”

Good night, Crad.


At April 03, 2014 7:59 pm , Anonymous Cliff Burns said...

A friend brought back a copy of one of Crad's books from Toronto almost thirty years ago and that was certainly one of those moments that triggered my career as an indie writer and DIYer.

I salute his stubborn, relentless spirit and wish him a speedy passing. We need more contrarians these days, to defeat the homogeneity and add some vinegar to the wine.

Thank you, Mr. Kilodney.


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