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February 2013

R. M. Vaughan's 14 Reasons Not To Eat Potato Chips On Church Street

Inv_to_pred

For those of you who are wondering about my title, no, it has absolutely nothing to do with the nutritional content of potato chips or any sort of guide to dieting. It is the title of a poem, one written by R. M. Vaughan and originally printed as a chap book back in April 1999 for National Poetry Month by Ottawa-based Above/Ground Press. A few months later that same year, it came out in Vaughan's collection of poems Invisible to Predators, published by ECW Press. But more recently, in 2007, it was published in Barton and Nickerson's anthology Seminal by Arsenal Pulp Press. This is where, with the guidance of a wise professor, I happened upon it. The poem is a riot. It made me giggle all the way to this blog page.

And now that I have read it through a few times, googled some of the more oblique angles in my spotty connaissances, I find it is perhaps less fluffy than I may have judged at first glance.

First, a bit about the poet. R. M. Vaughan, or Richard Murray for those who, like me, are curious about the meaning of initials in place of actual names. Of course, this curiostity only amounts to silly sleuthing and is usually quickly solved with the first lines of a Wikipedia entry, but in this case, and in the name of serious academia, I relied on the University of Toronto's Canadian Poetry Online website to provide me with an encyclopedic quantity of information on Vaughan. Needless to say, I will not repeat what can easily be found on the above mentioned site, which is chalked full of information.

Broadly writing, this poet, novelist, playwright, video artist and journalist seems to live up to his "writing philosophy" of Genius is Volume. The sheer quantity of material he has written, produced, published, brought to the stage is a bit overwhelming. Until I read the poem I will discuss, I had never heard of this New Brunswick-born, Toronto-residing artist. One piece of biographical information that I find relevant to mention is his passage in the mid-1990s, as the playwright-in-residence, in Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times professional theatre, a not-for-profit company "dedicated to the promotion of Queer Canadian culture." The reason I find this relevant is that it clearly places Vaughan's writing in the Gay literature genre. Gay experience is at the heart of what he writes, and his collection of poetry Invisible to Predators clearly demonstrates this.

A reviewer in Quill & Quire called the collection "A candid celebration of homosexual love" where Vaughan's poems navigate from the deeply emotional connection of love, to a considerably abstract reply to a French revolutionary's last words to his wife before being sent to the guillotine. In all of this rather profound and touching poetry, we find a piece about potato chips held together with strange words of wisdom based on Torontonian geography. And what immediately comes to my mind is that there has to be more to it than that.

 A quick first reading of the poem made me snicker. Who hasn't been plagued with the little (and sometimes not-so-little) insecurities of weight gain and the social pressure to "keep thin?" By giving heed to the 14 reasons, the poet essentially wants to remain/become attractive (reasons 1, 5, 10 and 12), watch his nutrition in public (reason 7), steer clear of social shame associated with the consumption of junk food (reasons 3, 4, 11 and 13), watch his personal hygene in much the same way a mother would warn her son (reasons 2 and 9); let's not forget the financial predicament of an artist which stipulates that he or she be poor and therefore starving (reason 6 pushes in this direction) and what of the concept of luck, where only bad things will happen to you, much like crossing the path of a black cat. Although, I would like to find out more about the adversity of wearing a white shirt on Saturday night.

I have purposely left out the last reason, number 14. Prior to Vaughan terminating it on the satiric and resolutely fatalistic "But now it's too late," the preceeding four lines contemplate a different place: "a kinder neighbourhood, someplace more real, a family place", where he might meet someone who would be able to love him for what he is, potato chip-eating and all.  By leaving (specifically the Church and Wellesley Village, Toronto's largest LGBT neighbourhood), he might have a chance at some kind of peace. The safety zone of the gay community seems to be suffocating our poet. Gay turf, historically cloistered and turned onto itself, has become a space of repression where stereotypical political and social righteousness rule. You have to walk the walk, or else. And sadly, for this poet, and in his own words, "it's too late."