Stephen Cain plays games with poetry

On Oct. 27, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet and author Stephen Cain. Teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report.

Four phantoms in a shifting labyrinth. Prozac indigo failsafe. The
breakfast was nothing more than a lucky charm, the vision a
narrative failure. Imploding at a touch, the swallower swallowed.

from Pac-Man by Stephen Cain

Stephen Cain (left) had only a short walk to Stedman Lecture Hall where he was welcomed as the third author in the Canadian Writers in Person series. The young poet had just been honoured at a reception at the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies as the newest member of its faculty. He’s also a York graduate (MA ’95, PhD ’02). Students were delighted to learn that this evening was just a preview of what they might expect if they took a course with the exciting young professor. Cain read from his newly published collection, American Standard/Canada Dry (Coach House Books, 2005).

Cain began the evening by playing games with language. Rather, he made a new poetic language about video games. Partly inspired by his ’80s childhood, Cain says he sees the video game as a relatively unexplored space of North American culture. Blending his memory of video games with his love of the classics, he wanted to create epic poetry out of Pac-Man and other games, mixing high and low culture. In Cain’s poetry, the video game arcade becomes a “street of lascivious commerce” and then Arcadia, the resting place of Greek heroes. The arcades of Cain’s youth were more like pool halls, places of smoky danger with names like “Spanky’s” and “The Crystal Palace”. In these colourful and alien environments, he explored themes like youth and masculinity.

The poet playfully experimented with other media in the “Viagra Monologues”, a poem he composed by compiling words from spam e-mail messages. With “inflating and deflating” verse, he looked at the way we are bombarded with images of advertising, sexuality and war. Admitting that he has difficulty with prose, saying “I’m not so interested in stories”, Cain explained that he likes to play with words in this way, creating new perceptions.

As one might gather from the title of his collection, Cain is also concerned with the relationship between Canada and the US. When asked why he ridicules some of our Canadian heroes, he replied that it is the default opposite of the US treatment of history. Whereas the US mythologizes its heroes, Cain chooses to be satirical and critical, traits he’d rather claim as Canadian. As well, “by making it funny, people will get interested and want to find out the real story of Canadian history.”

Cain is even more critical of current US politics and his reading of his poem “American Psycho” was the dramatic highlight of the evening. In this poem he used language just as cleverly, but with a staccato anger that mimics a militaristic cadence. The effect left both the author and the audience breathless. When asked if the title character might be a certain US president, he replied diplomatically, “If the shoe fits…”

When asked about how his work might be perceived overseas, the author paused. He considered that his first audience is Canadian but hoped that people in other nations would recognize the differences as well as similarities. “I like reading Australian or African literature because I feel somewhat out of place,” he said. “The difference creates energy and excitement.” 

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. Another York professor, Priscila Uppal, was the featured author on Nov. 10, 2005. Caitlin Fisher, writer and York’s Canada Research Chair in Digital Culture, will be the featured author on Dec. 1, 2005. The Canadian Writers in Person reading series is generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Writers’ Union of Canada.