The Chat with David Bateman

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Acclaimed writer David Bateman has just released his fabulous debut novel, DR SAD (University of Calgary Press). It follows the life of Stephen, a poet and academic living in a small city in the Interior of BC who learns he is HIV positive.

The late artist and writer RM Vaughn said “Only David Bateman, one of our finest poets, could bring academe to such sensual life. DR SAD is the story of a generational shift, one that turned learning into careerism and writing into telegraphing, and, most important, all that’s been lost in this turn. DR SAD makes academe sexy again. That in itself is an Everest-like feat, but to do it with style and grace? Only David Bateman.”

David Bateman has a PhD in English literature with a specialization in creative writing from the University of Calgary. He is currently a freelance arts journalist, painter, and performance poet who lives in Toronto. His poetry collections, all from Frontenac House Press (Calgary), include Invisible Foreground, Impersonating Flowers, ’tis pity, and Designation Youth. His collaborative long poems include “Wait Until Late Afternoon” with Hiromi Goto (Frontenac House Press) and “Pause” with Naomi Beth Wakan (Bevalia Press). His collection of short stories and creative non-fiction entitled A Mad Bent Diva: A Collection of Life Affirming Death Threats, Vignettes, and Epithets was published by Hidden Brook Press in 2017.
 

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Trevor Corkum: DR SAD is your debut novel, although you’ve published a number of poetry collections and other celebrated works. How did you find the switch to this larger canvas? Any particular challenges, discoveries, existential anxieties as it came together?

David Bateman: After living for two years in the interior of BC I had the idea to write a semi-fictional account of my time as a writer-in-residence and creative writing instructor at Thompson Rivers University in Tk’emlups/Kamloops. It was a very special time in my life, and the first job I had after graduating from the University of Calgary. I was inspired by the incredible scenery, the unfamiliar desert-like area in the older part of the city, and so much of what surrounded me in the way of academic community and my role as someone who was trying to inspire students to write about the things that interest them.

The main biographical plot point in the book was a very difficult thing to adjust to, so I was grateful to have the position in Kamloops, as it helped to distract me from a very unexpected diagnosis. When I left Kamloops and returned to Tkaronto/Toronto I began to consider ideas for a novel, and then I applied for a Chalmers Fellowship (through the Ontario Arts Council) based on the early chapters of the novel, and was very surprised and delighted when I got it. So I was able to write for a year, and completed the first draft.

The challenges were mostly structural—how to sustain a longer piece of prose, so unlike my work as a poet, and how to keep it all in order and follow various structural requirements around action, character, etc. My work in poetry and performance has always had an element of storytelling, so that was really helpful. I discovered quite quickly that I was able to draw from past experiences, the ones from my time in Tk’mloops, as well as much earlier life experiences, and weave them together into various flights of fancy, so to speak, all fictional, that allowed me to create fictional characters for the central character to interact with.

The anxieties I felt while writing were a kind of latent Truman Capote complex. I worried, and still do, that people may see themselves in some of the characters and not like what they see, even though much of it is entirely fictional. But I did cut quite a bit of that out during the first edit with Aritha Van Herk, the series editor at the University of Calgary. But you know how fiction be, if you look closely enough you see things that just seem very true, even though you know they’re not. And in my case, well, I sometimes forget the parts that are close to reality and am only reminded when I re-read them, and I take a kind of backwards look, and think, did that actually happen?

TC: The novel explores the world of Stephen, a midlife poet, a gay man with a university teaching job in the interior of BC who learns early in the book that he is HIV positive. Surprisingly, given that the virus is nearly 40 years old, there’s not a huge body of mainstream Canadian literature exploring HIV. Why do you think that is, and what are you hoping to contribute to the conversation?

DB: I did a performance piece about HIV/AIDS a year or so ago at FADO, a performance group in Toronto. It was a one-night event and one audience member remarked that they had come to the performance because they didn’t feel they had the opportunity to see a lot of work being done around the issues of living with HIV.

I think we might be in a strange period, especially now, with the current pandemic, where some mainstream readers and viewers, have a sense that HIV/AIDS has been dealt with, and there are other things to address and manage. This is a very privileged notion in some ways, around class, and access to healthcare, and knowledge about countries where HIV/AIDS is still a very widespread and devastating issue. I remember someone saying to me when I lived in Kamloops, that they felt that HIV/AIDS was over, not a problem anymore. The shock I felt at hearing this motivated me, to some extent, to write more about it.

Before DR SAD I had written two performance monologues about being HIV+ and have performed them in various cities in Canada and internationally. But of course, books are a whole other area, while performance is more ephemeral, traces are left behind and they disappear to some degree, and most of my work before this was based in performance. I’m not sure why more books in Canada haven’t dealt with this. Any specific answer would be a lot of speculation on my part. It’s a very complex situation around what gets published, the market for the work, and what people are interested in reading.

The first time I performed my first HIV monologue, which is included in DR SAD, the artistic director at the theatre suggested I take the words HIV/AIDS out of the title so people wouldn’t respond with that typical thing about, oh, not another AIDS play!

I didn’t remove the words, but I did make the comic subtitle more prominent on the poster. And my work around HIV/AIDs always has a comic element, so why not eh.   

I do hope that this novel adds something to the conversation around the idea of aging with HIV. It is a very different pathology than it was at the beginning. Now considered a manageable illness, and yet still surrounded by a lot of stigma and misunderstanding. The novel doesn’t go deeply into the details of living within larger communities of people living with HIV/AIDS. It scratches the surface and focuses more on a smaller, somewhat more intimate portrayal of someone learning how to cope in the early months of the diagnosis, how he manages to find joy in his life despite a frightening discovery that is disclosed in the early pages of the book.

TC: I love the novel’s structure, zigging back and forth through time and including a healthy dose of poetry. How long did it take you to land on the final structure? And were the poems written specifically for the book or were you able to build scenes around some of your earlier work?

DB: The original structure of the first draft came very quickly. I just decided, at the outset, to base each chapter on the poetry classes that the central character is teaching. It seemed like a simple and effective way to represent daily teaching practice. During the second draft, after encouragement from a couple of editors, I added the Toronto chapters. I kept a similar structure, but instead of a day to structure I developed an hour by hour structure occurring on a very particular day, Halloween. So the overall structure becomes a day to day narrative, on campus and off in Kamloops, and in various setting around the downtown Toronto Co-op where Stephen lives after Kamloops. Much of the book follows Stephen’s day to life as he dives into the very structured life that academia can be—teaching, grading, consulting with students on their work, and then going home and just relaxing with, as one will find as they read the novel, a healthy dose of martinis.

Many of the poems written by Stephen are from my four poetry collections over the past ten to fifteen years (Frontenac House Press, Calgary). All of the student poetry was written specifically for the novel, and grew out of themes/interactions related to the characters that Stephen meets in the classroom during the poetry seminars and workshops. Some of the scenes relate to my earlier work around issues of gender and cross-dressing. I tried very hard to create a character as far away from me as possible. But I failed. He’s fictional in many ways, and he’s a lot like me in many other ways. As I say in the acknowledgements at the end of the book—“I have always found it difficult to create fiction without implicating myself.”

TC: Another thing I love and appreciate is your trademark smart, dark, campy humour. There’s melancholy behind it, but such intelligence and compassion and wit. Can you talk more about the ways humour has been important to you as an artist?

DB: Well, it’s very simple for me, and kind of sad. I always look to the same place when this question arises. My father had a very dark, abrupt, delightfully vulgar, and constant sense of humour. He would just blurt out the most outrageous things that both amused and startled people. He died very suddenly when I was just twenty. We had a loving but somewhat distant relationship due to my obvious queer identity that he was very uncomfortable with, although we never openly discussed it in his lifetime. So I never found the opportunity to get to know much about him and the ways in which his sense of humour developed over the years.

But I do think that his experience in the Second World War certainly contributed, because I have faint memories of the ways in which he would speak of very difficult memories in a humorous way. I think it helped him cope with some of the biggest obstacles in his life. And I get that from him, and my mother as well. They both had very difficult lives, but a sense of humour always surfaced, perhaps not enough for them, but enough for me to remember very fondly. It has become an important way for me to cope with my own challenges.

TC: The book comes out in the middle of an entirely different pandemic. Some queer artists and activists have been talking about the erasure or amnesia in the media and general culture towards the AIDS pandemic…as if we haven’t already lived through a devastating pandemic in recent memory. What are your thoughts?

DB: During this pandemic I often find myself recognizing certain things as being very similar to the beginning of the AIDS crisis. But the erasure/amnesia that you mention makes these moments of recognition quite different in some ways, and frequently disturbing. I lost my three closest friends during the early period of HIV/AIDS, many people lost far more, and it has given me a very strong sense of how quickly life can change in a devastating way.

I hesitate to make connections that are too specific because the scope of the current pandemic and the complexities of how it is being treated globally around class, race, etc. is very frightening and in some ways uncertain. I am very fortunate to have a community of friends who have helped me move through the first nine months of this pandemic with relative ease. So many people live without these support systems, and I think huge communities of people who were already living within stigmatized, disenfranchised communities must be aware, to varying degrees, of how unjust particular forms of government continue to behave as they make very predictable and catastrophic errors. This happened during the early years of AIDS, notably in the U.S. around the Reagan administration’s negligence regarding AIDS research in the medical community. But similar things have happened in Canada and elsewhere. In many ways history is repeating itself at various social and cultural levels. I hope that more dialogue between various communities can help to reveal, and to share, ideas and narratives regarding the AIDs pandemic and how it relates in some ways to what is happening now.

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Excerpt from DR SAD

Day One—Tk’emlups—Tuesday, October 2

the boy on the flute is a fright / his face is a horrible sight / when he walks his knees knock / it creates such a shock / his braces light up in the night

Stephen’s doctor’s appointment was scheduled for 1:15, and his poetry workshop started at two. The bus ride from Vancouver had taken an extra hour due to bad weather on the Coquihalla. Satisfied yet flustered by his late-afternoon bathhouse escapade, he had missed the bus the night before, had to stay in a hotel and catch one early morning. When 
he arrived, he would still have time for a bagel and some herbal tea before his appointment at the campus clinic just before class. There were six remaining manuscript proposals to go over, and an exercise on limericks and villanelles to prepare. He could have graded the last half-dozen proposals on the bus, but listened to a mixed cd of all-female vocalists instead—a homemade collection made by a deceased friend who had hand labelled the tape Mostly Ladies. Falling asleep halfway between Hope and Merritt, he woke up in time to see the sign advertising the country-music capital of B.C.
 On his antiquated portable cd player, Alison Krauss was just finishing up “My New Favourite,” and Norah Jones followed her with “Come Away with Me.”

As Stephen opened his eyes, he found himself sweaty. He had been drooling on his own shoulder, muttering the lines to a limerick he had written in high school English class as he woke. The limerick exercise had involved giving Grade 9 students the first line; then they were expected to complete the poem according to the form they had just been taught, and they were not allowed any notes. They had to listen. The point of no notetaking was to ensure that the structure of the limerick was imprinted on their brains long enough to write one of their own. It was an old-fashioned teaching strategy, before laptops littered the classroom and memory sticks were a dime a dozen.

Stephen’s high school limerick, from more than four decades ago, had something to do with an unattractive yet musical young man whose face was not a pretty sight.

the boy on the flute is a fright

He was required to rhyme the word fright with another word, and then make up three more lines comprised of one original couplet, and one more rhyming word in the final line that corresponded to the last word of the opening line.

his face is a horrible sight

Stephen didn’t have a scientific, structured brain. He
was a Virgo Monkey, extremely organized with a foundation of chaos underlying everything he fastidiously attended to.
He found himself struggling with strict poetic forms. The seemingly rigid quality of patterned poetry, ranging from the villanelle to the sestina, always confused him. The limerick was his favourite. He considered it a simple perfect rhythm for the comic edge that invariably seeped into his poetic voice.

when he walks his knees knock

A precocious wordsmith from an early age—an idiot savant of sorts—Stephen’s talent for writing short poems, poems that the teacher often thought he had stolen, was quite sophisticated by the time he entered high school. He once wrote a poem about snow for another student and the teacher refused to accept it, claiming it must have been plagiarized from a poetry book.

it creates such a shock

Stephen didn’t think it was a great poem himself, and had tried to keep it simple for the student he was writing it for, but as it turned out, the student was a strange-looking creature with grimy braces and no mental capacity whatsoever when
it came to poetry, so it was a wasted effort and created no small amount of conflict in the schoolyard immediately after English class.

his braces light up in the night

“Ya fuckin’ homo! I told ya to write somethin’ easy for me to understand. Like about a snowman or hockey, for fucksake.”

And then the brazen bully kicked Stephen in the shin, followed by a swift punch to the stomach. Stephen suspected that his crotch had been the intended focus for the first kick, but knew from experience that the witless bully’s aim was never very good. It hurt, but could not really be considered much of a physical injury. He was more concerned about the unsightly rip in his trousers, and whether his mother would be able to mend it in a way that would conceal the offending flaw.

Later in life, Stephen wished he had kept a copy of the snow poem he had written for that taunting halfwit. But alas, it had been lost to the great humming canister of unsung literature, sucked into the not-so-literary stratosphere like so much vacuum cleaner detritus. He especially liked creating metaphors for vacuum cleaners. When they worked properly, vacuum cleaners could solve the most mundane of daily problems, erasing the crass material excess that surrounded them. Had he owned a giant vacuum cleaner as an adolescent, he could have taken it into the schoolyard and vacuumed up all his shrieking detractors, those who shouted names like sissy, pansy, and girlyboy. There was one name he never quite understood. It was always shouted at him by the little blonde boy Caleb, who went to Jamaica every winter for Christmas. He was taken out of school for almost a week, then came back to class midwinter with a tan that the little girls, and some of the little boys, loved to admire.

Caleb had relatives in Jamaica, and his parents visited every year. When he shouted names in the schoolyard, the one Caleb seemed to have saved especially for Stephen was batty boy. Stephen thought it was because he was so bad at baseball that everyone moved in toward the pitcher whenever he was up to bat. When Stephen was in the field he went as far out
as possible, because all the other kids would shout whenever he tried to throw the ball, “Ya throw like a girl.” But Caleb always shouted, “You throw like a batty boy, batty boy!” Caleb was tiny, with blonde hair, and just as effeminate as Stephen. The taunt never worked, because Caleb’s boyish bravado was outwitted by his own effeminacy. They cancelled each other out. The other kids would just laugh at Caleb when he shouted batty boy, and Stephen would feel sorry for him. But they never became friends. They feared the reflective surface that their childhood bodies mirrored when they looked each other’s way. It was too painful to see someone else, someone they felt powerless to help. Caleb passed more than Stephen did. It was all limp wrists and lazy tongues for Stephen as a boy—a batty boy.

As the bus rolled into Tk’emlups, about an hour after he woke, Stephen put the finishing touches on a poem of historic and culturally astute proportions about a certain vacuum cleaner that revealed his penchant for finding the erotic within humorous semiautobiographical modes. This carnally charged form was a style he had cultivated during his late teens and early twenties, something he had become known for as a middle-aged poet whose presence at readings was sure to arouse no small amount of laughter—and some shock—from an amused audience. The poem was semiautobiographical, with a light academic subtext that would allow people to laugh and feel slightly intelligent at the same time. It was loosely based on an experience he remembered fondly. But whenever he did remember it, he always felt a little alarmed and very lucky that he had never injured himself in the process of his adventurous and creative adolescent carnal experiments.

McLuhan’s Bride

Once, at a graduate student soiree

the professor’s wife told him
that 
McLuhan’s Bride was afraid of her first vacuum cleaner he was clearly shaken, and hesitated to add that he

on the contrary, felt little techno-based fear

when it came to small appliances

and all the strained emotional ties
they liberate their lovers from, and had, in fact, experienced a prolonged affair, late sixties

with his mother’s first vacuum cleaner

an avocado green Westinghouse

amply accommodating his great pubescent shaft
in a most delightful way

stored in the basement, this Mechanical Bride
 this compact galaxy of carnal pleasure
pre-dating certain ground-breaking
post-structuralist thought.
stood proud alongside boxes of old clothes

hunting rifles, bewildered wwii army uniforms

broken rear view mirrors, pocket westerns

and his father’s liquor bottles stored in heating ducts among the detritus of lives infused with sex and booze standing squat and satisfied, his thoroughly modern fully equipped paramour, astute and wild-eyed

in ‘her’ stolid ambient purring
giving him uncomplicated joy

strengthening his love for his mother

her taut brisk arms pulsing strong

around her fervent breasts, pressing that small appliance into layers of 1950’s synthetic pile
the charged erotic ways of her domestic engineering— reminding him of the ways in which

she kept her house in order
providing sons and lovers with the necessary tools

to survive in global villages where
as McLuhan once implied
we live centuries in a decade
and telephones remove us from our bodies

inspiring one to think

when you are screwing a vacuum cleaner

you have no conscience, no need of one

save the sudden onset of a short circuit

as you engage in one final perfect act

of consummate industrial self-indulgence and the grand sweep of oral history

that will one day go the way of items stored in a musty basement

works of art, mechanical reproductions

boxes of old clothing, hunting rifles bewildered wwii army uniforms

thoroughly modern, fully equipped paramours canisters, astute and wild

having borne silent witness to
the grand eternally pubescent shaft of time

Stephen didn’t think it would be a good idea to share his new household appliance poem with his students. Generally speaking, bringing one’s own work into a creative writing class that one was teaching was frowned upon. He did it the odd time, but because of this one’s sexual nature, he felt it might be best to show a little restraint this week. Little did 
he know, as he scribbled the final words of his poem into a notebook, that written sexuality would be the least of his worries by the time he arrived in the classroom at 2:15. He apologized for being a quarter of an hour late and began to improvise limerick exercises from his rough notes. To hell with villanelles. Fuck sestinas. They could wait until next week. Under the circumstances, the limerick was all he could withstand for now.

Despite being visibly shaken by the news he had received at the clinic, Stephen managed a bit of pseudo-prudish humour by telling his students that he would prefer that they did not use the word Nantucket in their limericks, because it had become such a cliché within this particular form. And then, as quickly as he had cautioned them, he retracted and said, wryly—“Use whatever words you like.”

Faintly vulgar innuendoes often managed to work their way into his teaching style. It was something he couldn’t seem to resist, and on this particular afternoon, it lightened the load of his astounding diagnosis. Although he had told the doctor not to call him regarding test results over the weekend, she still managed to leave a message. Stephen ignored it, and decided to see her at the previously scheduled appointment when he got back to campus. He had said to her, clearly and emphatically, that he would be out of town on both Saturday and Sunday, so there would be no point in contacting him until he returned on Monday. He had expected the news to be something about another round of antibiotics for a bacterial infection he had in early September, just before classes started. But she was clearly misguided. He felt perfectly fine. But the blood test was routine. There was no need to worry.

Worry. From the paraphrased words of a country-music-singing Rhodes Scholar with a name like a fairy-tale writer, worry was just an alternate word for nothing left to lose. As for freedom, Stephen had given that up for an academic career. But he would have the summers off.

The first thing the doctor said to him after revealing the results annoyed Stephen instantly.

“A lot of people are prone to suicidal thoughts when they first get the news. Perhaps you might consider counselling?”

He had one gay nerve left, and she was all over it.

She had ruined his weekend. So he retorted, as gently as possible, without resorting to an excess manifestation of his signature sarcasm—yet managing to fill each word with a subtle, underlying rage over her forgetfulness about his wishes regarding the results.

“I appreciate your concern, but, no, I won’t be experiencing any suicidal feelings. I am well acquainted with the immediate emotional effects of this news, and on several occasions have helped others deal with their initial response. But thank you for your time. I have to run, or I’ll be late for my limerick workshop. I’m really looking forward to it, especially after you’ve managed to inject such a strained poetic rhythm into my weekend. I’ll contact you later in the week if I have any more questions or concerns.”

As he walked toward the classroom, Stephen thought of how he often liked to alter the final rhyme of a limerick in order to punctuate the narrative with a jarring tone, bringing faint chaos, and a kind of contradictory open-ended closure to an otherwise ordered poetic microcosm—the man with the lisp is afraid / he hides his rage in a cage / as calm as can be, he makes merrily, concerning his status / regarding hiv

Reprinted with permission of the author.

December 15, 2020
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