Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

In the Underbrush: The Literary Tribes of Windsor

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By Melanie Janisse


When asked to write this piece for Open Book, about the Windsor lit "scene," I found myself in a funny pickle. First off, I am a visitor to the area, having left a really long time ago and only recently returned for a short stay — I have no real idea what the "scene" is at all. To be honest, panic started to set in about writing this article, because as soon as a decent enough group of individuals accumulated in my mind to comprise a "scene," I would recall others that were missing, struggle to accommodate other times, an event would pop into my head that I had forgotten to include. There seemed to be no one solid form that I could put forward, but an entity with many moving parts that were difficult to keep track of. Instead of a nice neat package, difficult questions:

What is a scene? How can we quantify this into who "belongs" and does "not belong"? How do we take into consideration the different ways in which individuals pass though a physical space and contribute? How do we account for the passage of time?

I was tripping over the "scene," a thing frozen in time and space, inadequately suited to describe a complicated system of human interaction, never fully encompassing what is/has been/will be, and for these reasons and many more, I felt it was important to find a way to show the richness of the writerly "wanderings," "passings through" and "stayings" that can occur in the City of Roses without the word "scene."

Really, I felt no pressure at all.

At the eleventh hour, a conversation with Phil Hall saved my butt.

In my interview with Phil during Bookfest Windsor, he chats about Tom Wayman’s analogy of "the places that poets live." Hall said:

Tom Wayman calls poetry the underbrush, the places that you can hide in at the bottom of the tree. When I come to read, I climb up the tree, but I like to stay close to the ground. If poetry has any power it’s something like a rat, something like an underbrush, something that is too small to kill.

The poets live in the brambles, fox runs and rabbit holes of the land — we exist close to the ground and away from the heights where we may be surveilled — and it was here in this analogy that I could find some traction. This image of the underbrush has stuck with me for these weeks and co-mingled with my great love of Walter Benjamin’s Arcade Projects, which in the concrete talks about the old arcades of Paris, but more conceptually talks of the slippage of space and the ways in which hallways operate as transient, liminal spaces of passage. The idea of a "scene" slipped away and was replaced with the heterotopic and anarchic hallways and foxholes that I have stumbled along in Windsor. What I can do is tell you who I bumped into along the way.


There are two local maps that inspire my thinking as I write this. The first I met in the entry hallway to Phog (a fantastic venue that features a newly kindled reading series, Toast). It began as a fun mapping project where locals could begin to trace the music scene as it collided with Windsor. Before long, it was an astounding testament to the richness of the music scene in the city, but also a testament to what collective memory can accomplish.

The second map is the Tribes of Cass Corridor website, which identifies the addresses of old communes, bars, venues, collectives, etc. in the Cass Corridor area of Detroit. It offers individuals virtual space to reminisce, ask after old friends and add their knowledge to the site in a free and easy way, so as to thread and quilt together a narrative that is most definitely of space, but is also about "not space."

Murky and low to the ground, these two mapping projects lay down the relationship of artists like palimpsest. What holds us all together as artists is the remembrances of where and when we brushed shoulders with each other, and rarely do we get it all down in archive form. I hoped to have a website started for this article that acted as a map of Windsor’s literary activity, but as I laid down the bones of the site, I realized that it needed a more precise visual rendering. I scrapped the free Wordpress site and now have settled myself down to design a real map, open-sourced, interactive. Stay tuned. I promise I will not let this one go.


(Observations along the South border.)

1. Black Moss Press. BpNichol. 1978. I can hear the crackle of old recording equipment and the wind in the trees down by the river.

2. It is a sunny day, but I am hiding in the office of Media City in the half light. Gus Morin comes in with jw curry who is in town for Messagio Galore. When they leave, Oona and I smoke and my mind is full of postcards, boxcars, howling.

3. Windsor Salt. The book, not the salt. Also, the way the salt factory loomed as my dad and my brother and I caught catfish off the old dock at Goyeur’s Marina when I was a kid. This one is an oldie. Not so many internet links.

4. Windsor is full of Detours and Whisky Sours.

5. I buy Eugene McNamara’s new book, Dreaming of Lost America (Guernica Editions), at Biblioasis, listening to him read from an old armchair as Al MacLeod comes in out of the snow in a plaid hat with earflaps.

6. Phil Hall is everywhere. He leaves behind a trail of Cowichan sweaters, hand-made chap books and 1940’s ties with cowboy motifs.

7. The Windsor Review overarches. Reaches decades. Don Kerr, Al Moritz, Barry Dempster, 1980s. Bronwen Wallace, W.P. Kinsella, Phil Hall, Irving Layton, 1970s. Gwen MacEwen, Joyce Carol Oates, George Bowering, Eugene McNamara, Marshal McLuhan, 1960’s.

8. Marty Gervais hosts an evening of poet laureates at the old Willistead Manor. I sit on the carpet beside some carved angels while Bob Stewart snaps photos of the event beside me. The elderly all have come early, I suppose, as they have all of the chairs. The young line carpeted stairs, find corners in the old manor. The young are in the rafters.

9. I enter the Capitol with Faizal and as I walk past the old mirrors in its hallway, I refract. I am sent in the direction of each mirror as I enter Bookfest’s Poetry Cafe. The event is hosted by Stephen Pender, who is a combination of eloquent and funny that behooves a host. Also, he is a great dj.

10. Firstly, the Oak Room at the University of Windsor is haunted. Vanier Hall is strange like an after-thought. It seems perfect for a Jeramy Dodds reading. His words reward the members of the audience with back flips, high wire balances, pitches and jogs that leave everyone dizzied. Later I take him to Detroit on the tunnel bus where we succumb to the art deco.

11. Ray Robertson joins the University of Windsor English Department as Writer in Residence, bringing thoughts on God and whiskey, tucked under his cap. The South. Handlebar moustaches.

12. NourbeSe Philip incants for us all dressed in white. Fiercely holding space for the ghosts, she is more poet/shaman. She ask us to collectivize the reading. A dozen reedy voices. I leave the classroom having shaken off the pedagogy.

13. If you want to know the secrets of the city, ask Marty to take you on a walk through the ghost roads.

14. Margaret Atwood loves rubber chickens. And the birds of Pelee Island.

And so, I leave you all with some observations from the southernmost. Consider my Windsor experiences a few lines in sharpie connecting a very small portion of the writers, publishers and venues that take up the foolscap. Inside of the particular passages I walked along are the ghosts of people and places long gone, the shifting collectives, the individuals that have used Windsor as an anchor or as a passage that missed my passing through. Likely there are fox holes I did not find, and never will. I offer you a glimpse along the edges of this special city — the ways in which writers have interfaced with this physical place, and in turn have come together and fell away from each other in the brambles and hallways — but I could never show you the whole thing. I hope my short time here along the arcades has left you with enough of an impression of this fine town, its long-standing love affair with the word and it’s quiet propensity to attract some of our country’s most fascinating writers.

With special thanks to Alexa Garant (photographer) and Natalie Hillis (designer) for permission to publish the image above from Whisky Sour City (Black Moss Press).

Melanie Janisse is a native of Windsor, Ontario, where she retained memories of old docks jutting out into the Detroit River and strange underground drives to her father's hometown of Detroit. Melanie began her education by leaving home early and wandering around the abandoned houses of inner-city Detroit, the quirky streets of Montreal and the intense forests of the Canadian West Coast. Along the way, she obtained degrees from Concordia University in Communication and Emily Carr in Visual Arts. Thirteen years in Toronto has produced an ouevre of work that includes: a book of poems (Guernica Editions), a regular literary column/ publication (Open Book Toronto/Open Book Ontario), a café (Zoots), clothing stores (Melanie’s Closet, Pineapple Kensington), a quirky old commercial building and a nearly completed MFA from OCAD U. Currently Melanie is residing in Windsor, Ontario/Detroit Michigan and is delighted to have completed work in this area that is being published in Bayou (University of New Orleans), The Windsor Review, Palimsest and Black Moss Press.

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