Poet Billeh Nickerson’s latest offering is fresh from the deep fryer and teeming with substance
The language of quotidian cuisine comes to life in the pages of Billeh Nickerson’s new book of poetry. McPoems, recently released with Arsenal Pulp Press, is more than just camp and cholesterol. A careful examination, or exhumation, of a vocational past haunts these lines. The book certainly begs the question, was Billeh Nickerson’s past life as a fast food restaurant employee-of-the-month some 20 years ago so instrumental that it inspired such poetic inspiration today? And why now?
Nickerson, who recently relocated to Toronto from Vancouver, charmingly takes up my order, “I suppose the easy answer to that question would be that I worked at a certain fast food restaurant during my last year of high school. In terms of inspiration though, I would say the manuscript came from a desire to bring the subject matter into poetry.” Throughout all of Nickerson’s years as a teacher and an editor at literary journals, he can only think of one poem that touched on the subject of fast food. “Given the millions of Canadians that eat fast food each day, I think the poets have failed–yes, I said failed–to delve into this cultural phenomenon.”
Beyond his own stint at a fast-food restaurant, Nickerson confirms that this book was also inspired by Douglas Coupland’s term McJobs. “It’s pan-fast-food, not as in fast food cooked in a pan, but across all restaurants.” Instead of writing from a staunchly autobiographical place however, Nickerson felt he needed to do something different. This is why he chose to situate the reader behind the counter. “This narrative stance seemed much more effective and universal,” he says. “I didn’t want it to be about Billeh’s relationship with French fries, rather your relationship and his and hers and ours.”
It wasn’t until Nickerson started performing a few McPoems that he decided he needed to write a book of them. “I found audience members were surprised and intrigued that someone was writing about such a topic,” he remembers. He finished most of the book while working at Queen’s University as its Writer in Residence. The decision to break the book into sections entitled “Quality,” “Service,” “Cleanliness” and “Value” happened later on and helped him to fill some of those last minute holes.
The concept of lowbrow cuisine as a creative topic seems to rise and bubble oddly to the top of the poetry reputation this season, as most poetry camps are stuffed with the usual destination points: pastoral vignettes and familial anxiety. When asked where he feels his poetry collection sits in terms of the various groupings of Canadian poetry between high and low art Nickerson says, “I find the whole high versus low art debate terribly boring and too often bogged down in classicism and divisive poetics. Having said that, I wonder if many poets are too safe in the subjects that they tackle,” he says. “I don’t really care what sort of images and cultural allusions poets employ in their work as long as they can make me consider something in a way that I hadn’t previously,” The collection is full of inventive distraction. Somewhere amongst the grease trappings a person is described as having “wacky-straw prowess;” when I pry for a definition, Nickerson explains it as “someone who can suck a golf ball through a garden hose.” The book has its share of linguistic triumphs and shift work slapstick.
Comparing his experience as a writer/artist in Vancouver to his new home in Toronto, Nickerson says his Toronto experience has been wonderful so far. “I love how the streets get shut down for all sorts of festivals and celebrations. It’s always an adventure. And compared to Vancouver, people don’t look at you like you’re an alien when you say you’re a writer.” When it comes to fast food, Nickerson says he’s trying to stay away from that type of food and has been favouring salads, of late. “What the hell is up with all the Pizza Pizzas [in Toronto] though? I don’t get it.”
However, Nickerson hasn’t fully given up the fast food ghost. And, when it comes to seeking out the best fast food, he says a lot of it has to do with fate. “The best fast food happens when you least expect it. Whether it’s a random road trip burger or a late night post-drinking wolfing, I’m always partial to surprise.”
After working every day for two weeks straight
a co-worker points out you always eat the same thing:
two cheeseburgers, a large fries, and a big cola.
You’ve never thought about them
as separate items before, have barely considered it
a ritual, nothing more than the right amount of food
to induce comfort and satisfaction.
But when she points out you’ve eaten
twenty-eight cheeseburgers, fourteen large fries
and a kitchen sink’s worth of cola,
you make a mental note
to pack a sandwich for lunch tomorrow,
eat an apple, possibly some celery.
Two days into a month-long promotion
head office recalls the wacky straws
shaped like mascots
as children were sucking too hard
and starting to hyperventilate.
You can’t stop thinking
about one little girl in particular–
her face purple with determination
as her too-thick milkshake
slowly snaked its way around
to her mouth–and a friend
who thought he’d impress a pretty new hire
by showing his wacky-straw prowess
only to suck so hard
that he broke a blood vessel in his eye
Since the Halloween when the skinny hippy guy who looks like
Jesus dressed up as Jesus and spent the entire dinner rush in
the restaurant foyer dipping French fries into his palms, you’ve
grown tired of fake stigmata. Draculas, werewolves, zombies,
all have used your ketchups, as have stupid teenaged boys with maxi-pads
on their foreheads. Once when an old man
stumbled into the restaurant with blood all over
his face, you didn’t believe him at first. Wished
he could have been a bit more original
from McPoems by Billeh Nickerson (Arsenal Pulp Press)