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Sex at Thirty-One -- McKinnon, Fawcett, Gold, Stanley, etc.

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"[T]here is nothing to understand," Prince George poet Barry McKinnon wrote in the first of his "sex at" pieces, "sex at 31." Who was it who said all literature, in the end, is about sex or death? Al Purdy even titled a book from the idea (Sex and Death, published in Toronto, 1973, by McClelland & Stewart). Along the same lines were the "sex at 31" poems, written now as variations by half a dozen poets over the thirty years since the originals. Instead of a one-time piece, the "sex at 31" poems began with the idea of open-endedness (a notion on the "serial poem" borrowed from Jack Spicer) that, in the end, only McKinnon and Brian Fawcett have serialized, attempting to hold to the original idea. Still, after multiple years and multiple poems, the last few of McKinnon's poems are difficult to find (his first two appeared recently in his spring 2004 selected/collected, The Centre: Poems 1970-2000 (Talonbooks. Vancouver, 2004.), and Fawcett, while still writing poems, appears to have abandoned publishing poetry altogether, and, among other projects, is focusing more on non-fiction, through his Dooney's Café (his collection of essays, Local Matters, A Defense of Dooney's Café and Other Non-Globalized Places, People, and Ideas, appeared with New Star Books in Vancouver, 2003).

Constructed exclusively in British Columbia, the ongoing poem "sex at 31" was started by McKinnon, Fawcett and others in the mid-1970s, with the first poems of the series written when they were thirty-one, and rewritten every seven years. As McKinnon himself writes, "fawcett and I were goofing around years ago; I think we agreed that the hardest thing, or one of them, . . . to write about was sex. We were both 31 and I think simultaneously started working on the sequences. For some reasons we agreed on a 7 year span, or at the age of 38 decided to try it (sex and the poem, ha) again. Since it was a 7 year stretch we set the pattern or 7 years: sex at 45. sex at 52. Etc. So? Anyone who picked up on the idea was welcome to write their poem. The condition was that you had to be 31, or 38, etc. to do it. Artie was in PG [Prince George] at one point and wrote his lyric. George Bowering wrote something I think called 38 at sex." Most of the pieces written have been difficult to trace, in old magazines or out-of-print solo collections, but for the two pieces in McKinnon's selected (the first of which also appeared in Bowering's The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology. Coach House Press. Toronto, 1983.) and various others, written as one-offs, by George Stanley and Artie Gold (editor Margaret Atwood included Gold's piece in one of the Oxford anthologies).

Brian Fawcett's version gives a bit more detail: "I think it started off in North Vancouver between Barry McKinnon, Tubby (David Phillips), Pierre Coupey and I. Others might have been involved, but I can't remember. One night at the Kypriaki (a restaurant where we used to get pissed all the time) someone said, hey, we should write what we know about sex. Someone suggested we call it Sex at 31 (we were all about the same age, except Pierre [Coupey], who was 2 or 3 years older.) and that we should repeat it every 7 years, which is the time it takes for all the cells in your body to change – or so we thought. Brain cells aren't replaced, which is why we get more stupid. I know McKinnon and I wrote Sex at 31 – a short poem, for us both. The others did, too, and then it kind of took off, and more people did it, although I don't think anyone ever collected any of it. McKinnon and I did Sex @ 38, in much lengthier form, and I did Sex at 45, which really formed the basis of Gender Wars: A Novel and Some Conversation About Sex and Gender (Somerville House Books. Toronto, 1994.), although the poems never appeared in the book, and nobody has ever seen them. 45 was the point at which I thought I understood sex (I didn't) so I had a lot to say. By 52, I'd figured out I didn't really know anything except specifics and so wrote one poem, and Sex at 59 is under construction. McKinnon has done versions at 45 and 52, I think."

Later collected in his The the. (Coach House Press. Toronto, 1980.), McKinnon's first piece in the series was originally published as Sex at Thirty One (a poem) by his Caledonia Writing Series in Prince George in 1977 (and, as McKinnon writes, "also pubd in brians no money from the government" [Fawcett's No Money From Government magazine]). In two parts, each written in small fragments, it probably remains the best:

          I must invent you. I forget the
          greek gods. who will replace them in
          this tawdriness

                                   this timelessness of sex

[. . .]

          what was it I was going to say. these years pass
          without a moment

          so I return to what was simple & intended, had no
          more to do with any thing

          than a hand & flesh. some kiss, stolen I thought

          what humans do in this other
          difficulty. despite it

[. . .]

          sex at 31. men so lost in talk they will not
          see her. I must look in the dictionary
          to find aphrodite. look again to wives who
          inhabit these kitchens, cursed by what
          they think they are – the bodies drawn, or fat.
          I will hold you. I will wash
          these dishes. heat up this food

          for where did you go

          rake men as
          the early going moon. imagine us
          at 31 more in love than what we thought could
          be.

Brian Fawcett's "Sex at 31" piece, dated June 1975, works less fragmented than McKinnon's, but is still written in four sections, starting:

          Sex at 31 is the disappearance
          of ease, the thoughtless grace
          of innocence becomes graceless ignorance,
          the human body a different instrument
          you are must begin to play with skill.

[. . .]

          You've been 31 years in this world now
          long enough to discover that
          nothing works the way you imagined at 21.

I like the way that Fawcett's piece works in the two notions inherent to the series as a whole, of "sex as the great mystery," and the fact that no one knows anything in their twenties (presuming we learn anything later on).

There is even a small publication written by Coupey and McKinnon around the same time, FOR WALLY STEVENS / SEX AT 31 (Weasel / Throne Press. 1977.) and published only in an edition of fifty copies. The short piece reads only:

          Only the awkwardness remains . . .
          I'm almost happy . . .

with the second of the two pages reading:

          This is the most depressing poem in the world.

          June 4 1977

Not the only collaboration, McKinnon mentions that he and Fawcett "did a collaborative version of splicedversions – as a gorse press chbook. I think I only did about 5 copies... We also read collaboratively I think at the western front ( sex at 31 ). We spliced versions. Worked well – a 2 voice thing that balanced out in terms of equal length etc."

One of the seven Véhicule Poets from Montréal (both from their activities in and around the founding of Véhicule Press in the back of Véhicule Art Gallery and the anthology of seven poets of the same name, published by Maker Press in 1979), Artie Gold, wrote a few versions of his "sex at 31" poem. Only one was ever published, appearing first as a publication through McKinnon's Caledonia Writing Series (physically run through the press by Gold himself) in an edition of about 80 copies in the spring of 1978 during a return trip through British Columbia before returning to Montréal. The piece later appeared in his last collection of new poems, Before Romantic Words (Véhicule Press. Montréal, 1979.) and, later, in his selected, The Beautiful Chemical Waltz (Muses Company. Montréal, 1992.). It's short enough to appear here in full:

        sex at thirty-one

          Is like love at seventeen. it plies deep
          Affords the illusion there is nothing else.

          Every few years kicks sand in the face of everyfew years
          Love, only a pornography of the heart has a habit of being

          Waylaid, it had a habit of suddenly throwing down
          Its basket of roses and running. rape, basic call of thing

          Changed. suddenly and love dies like drool on a napkinless chin
          Love gives way to one of love's perversions. dry skin

          To wetness. even the idea of sex glistens. like the heart
          Thinking of where it left its bubblegum. the heart

          Is a dry old taskmaster. its puppies are like the grains
          of sand dragged on to a picnic blanket. as the afternoon

          Turns into death. count love with a slight chill. too many
          Times love has occurred, reared its beautiful head. we are sick

          Sick of change. sick of wind change. sick of lifeguard change
          Sick of the tides of the heart.

According to Gold's papers, the poem appears to have been written in Prince George during one trip, and published there during another. Among his papers, too, there are a number of variants of this piece, composed during the same period of 1977, including the three-line "love at thirty-one" ("sensing something phony / the gods deliver longstemmed roses to / the wrong address . . ."), a longer untitled piece (with Gold's own notation at the end, which reads "June 4.77 Kathy's PG") that begins with "sex at thirty-one / a golden shower for the / milkman / the sun setting on a lake / regret," and a third piece, dated June 20, 1977, back in Montréal, as "sex after death" (referencing, perhaps, the literal translation of the word "orgasm" in Japanese into "little death"). One of his last seems to be the short "love at 31" poem:

        love at 31

          The word

          stands against the idea

          aug 19/20.77

So far there has been no evidence that Gold wrote any more in the series, but it's interesting how long the resonance of the poem stuck with him. There are rumours of piles of unpublished poems in Gold's apartment (since very little of his writing after this period has seen print), persisted by Gold himself, but almost no one has seen any of it.

Referenced earlier by McKinnon, here's Bowering's piece, which doesn't seem to have been reprinted since. Published in an issue of CrossCountry: A Magazine of Canadian-US Poetry (No. 13-15), the magazine was edited and published, on both sides of the border, by Robert Galvin, Jim Mele and Ken Norris:

          THIRTY-ONE AT SEX

          is a general meeting of the North York
          psychology & sundry therapies club,

          is the League of Canadian Poets
          getting nothing, not a wink-off
          out of each other,

          is the locker room of the winners
          after the Grey Cup, 7-3,
          & the cheer-leaders are back at the Holiday Inn
          watching Gilligan's Island,

          is you imagining me in the shower
          & I imaging you in the shower
          etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc, etc,

          is what the Marxists seemed to promise us
          when they started
          & now they are right, you could drive
          a ten-ton truck thru this country
          & never hit anyone.

          So where are they all now?
          Inside insulated bungalows
          filled with fancy
          dreaming of three at sex
          just once.

                    (Page 63.)

It seems strange that there appear to be no women poets writing their equivalent to these pieces, let alone that, despite various of the participants publishing their poems in various corners, the series remained almost exclusively in B.C. (with the exception of Artie Gold, even with the fact that he wrote his while in Prince George). To the lack of female participants, Fawcett later wrote, "If women are going to talk about sex, they write novels." (A female poet suggested, instead, that women poets at the time were too busy having sex.)

Another participant who added his voice is Vancouver poet George Stanley, in his "Sex at 62," originally published in Tads #4, and later appearing in his collection At Andy's (New Star Books. Vancouver, 2000.). A three-page piece, more emotional and physical than the pieces by the other poets, as well as one of the few to revel in getting older, it ends:

          the lighted-up minutes, desire breaking
          through fixations, making me
          glad I'm old, glad they don't hold
          no more, letting him, body against mine,
          turning & turning over – but going
          too fast – doing too much too fast – not
          loving the time, slower, better next time

          never get any closer

                    (Pages 35-36.)

As much as Fawcett's earlier comment about David Phillips as a participant made me hopeful (after a couple of collections from Talonbooks, Phillips published his selected poems, The Kiss, with Coach House Press in Toronto in 1978, and nothing further), McKinnon writes in an e-mail that "pierre & I did the 2 line thing & I don't think pierre did anything else. david, I don't think wrote one." But all impossible to know for sure without going to the source.

Further McKinnon and Fawcett pieces in the series have been written, with Barry McKinnon's "sex at 38" in The Centre (Caitlin Press. Prince George, 1995.) and nine-page "sex at 52" in his self-published A walk (Gorse Press. Prince George, 1999.) included since in a long sequence he's currently working on, titled "in the millennium." As with much of McKinnon's work, both poems have a tendency to build up slowly to a particular point, and then spend the rest of the poem moving slowly away, the crux of each piece being a single line on a single page, moving from "we're dummies" ("sex at 38") to "in beds in fields in green" ("sex at 52"), the poem as a whole boiling down to that one fine element. Of a "sex at 45" piece, McKinnon writes, "I have [it] in note form, but it never came together." His "sex at 38" writes:

          there is the outer. here is the inner. there is a point
                    where it doesn't make a difference

[. . .]

          talk: thrust of verb and fragment becomes our sex –
                  the world opening female, trees & birds & shoots
                 & rushing spring northern creeks, dusty grass & fiddleheads . . .

          my head is in the clouds. so be it. fuck the tree. hug the rock.

moving into his "sex at 52," which begins:

                    it was not so much sex

[. . .]

          to hazard a guess: there is no angle in paradise

          a curve we don't deserve: sex at 52, in life

          I had to go into the dark to be alive.

[. . .]

          what I do, driven that it gets
          no better, a world of thin design

          of what men have done and said, becomes opposite in the obsessive blind
          reliance on their gizmos. in this life I'm driven

          to the fuck, a joke

          so the coat leaks & lets me
          to the weather/dull suburbs as landscape when I look out
          the bus - despondency
          to sex

                    as a force against it.

As Fawcett mentioned, he has written a number of follow-ups to his original as well, but few of them have seen print. He did a lovely follow-up to "sex at 31" – cheating, perhaps, not waiting the full seven years – with his "sex at 34" piece, dated summer 1977, and short enough to include here in full:

          SEX AT 34

          Rain in the swaying evergreens,
          rain on the laurel hedge,

          and if not that, then
          overcast, overcast:

          But what has become of my wonder
          at the delight
          that women do not get
          from men?

          Ashes in the burning forest,
          acid on the laurel's waxy green,

          tears in the darkness
          women seldom see

          in men.

Fawcett's "sex at 45," for example, is a series of over a dozen unpublished poems under the umbrella title, including the title poem. Fawcett's poems in his "sex at 45" series are punctuated by moments of casual wisdom within the bulk of larger poems, as these two fragments from the inside of the title poem, "sex at 45," writing:

          It is the world I desire,
          with its complexities,

[. . .]

          but alas,
          I tire more easily.

As far as younger poets doing their own versions of "sex at 31" since, there appear to have been very few. When I was in Prince George in fall 2000 for a reading I was doing with McKinnon, he challenged me to do my own, later published as the chapbook sex at 31 (above/ground press. Maxville/Ottawa, 2001.), first written in November 2000 in Calgary (where my tour took me after Prince George) and completed in Ottawa the following March, the same month I turned 31. Having already read the McKinnon and Gold pieces, I took it upon myself to read the Fawcett poems before completing my own fragmented version of the series, starting:

          sex at 31 competes w/ its own failures

          *

          & always has a spare key

[. . .]

          sex at 31 neither condones,
          nor condemns
          but is

even making a slight reference to the Coupey/McKinnon collaboration:

          the most depressing poem, returns
          into the dream
                                 hands
          in the shower, break
          a cold sweat, this is

          the awkwardness remains, only

          ever in the world

          *

          between disbelief
          & true comfort
          overwhelms unlike
           any other

After the visit to Prince George, McKinnon and I toyed with the idea of editing a "collected sex," challenging various poets around the age of 31 to write their own, but, so far, it hasn't really gone anywhere. Apparently, (with my prodding) versions have been written by Edmonton poet Andy Weaver and Toronto poet Stephen Cain, but, to date, they remain unpublished.

At the advent of my thirty-third birthday I, too, cheated (unaware at the time of the Fawcett "sex at 34"), and wrote a "sex at thirty-three," published first as a broadside on my thirty-third birthday (broadsheet #166. above/ground press. Maxville/Ottawa, March 15, 2003.), receiving Vancouver poet Mark Cochrane's "Rotator Cuff at 33 1/3" as response, written when he was the same age (but three or four years earlier). It also appeared as a broadside (broadsheet #167. above/ground press. Published a few days after the previous piece.). A short piece full of shock and verve, it reads like a thing alive:

          Body is a made thing, time-share, a Christ
          or T.S. Garp. At 33

[. . .]

          Beached jogger, advised to rest
          his swollen feet. Tongues pop from the Nikes, saying
          Shuddup about it, already,
          damn: oracle
          e.g. husband
          to the winged goddess. Fatigued

          like any fan belt
          or vinyl on long play. Never again

          to rev like a single.

 

My own poem, on the other hand, in a single piece, worked to keep to the fragmentation of the McKinnon originals, starting:

 

          is mere a fragment, rotation
          of a memory

          scratch at songs in daytime,
          & dance mix all night long

          some days i remember little,
          need a few bars hummed

          to start

[. . .]

          a day like any other, sure,
          burning sawdust

          on the tongue

Both poems later appeared in the chapbook 33 1/3 (above/ground press. 2003.) with other "response" poems by Hamilton writer Gary Barwin ("SEX AT 03"), Toronto writer Gordon Phinn ("Sex Before Birth") and Ottawa writer Peter Norman ("SEX AT 45"). The short collection was my own response to the frustrating lack of response to the "collected sex" invitations, and was published as a small chapbook to coincide with a party for my own thirty-three-and-a-third birthday on July 15, 2003. Predominantly, the interest in following the form set down by McKinnon and Fawcett seems generational, as the writers from the '70s get older, and the numbers on any further pieces only get higher.

 

Postscript

After reading an earlier draft of this essay, Brian Fawcett wrote:

Don't be frustrated by the failure to cohere. Sex doesn't. That's why we keep going back to it. If human beings could remember sex, we'd mate the way cattle do. Nature equips us by destroying body memory, which causes us to return – out of curiosity. (i.e. what is this, anyway?)

Cheers//bf

(E-mail dated May 1, 2004.)


Works Cited

Bowering, George, ed. The Contemporary Canadian Poem Anthology. Coach House Press. Toronto, 1983.

_______. "THIRTY-ONE AT SEX." CrossCountry: A Magazine of Canadian-US Poetry, No. 13-15. Eds. Robert Galvin, Jim Mele and Ken Norris. New York, 1982.

Cochrane, Mark. Rotator Cuff at 33 1/3. broadside #167above/ground press. Maxville/Ottawa, March 2003.

Coupey, Pierre and Barry McKinnon. FOR WALLY STEVENS / SEX AT 31. Weasel / Throne Press. Prince George, 1977.

Fawcett, Brian. Gender Wars: A Novel and Some Conversation About Sex and Gender. Somerville House Books. Toronto, 1994.

_______. Local Matters, A Defense of Dooney's Café and Other Non-Globalized Places, People, and Ideas. New Star Books. Vancouver, 2003.

Gold, Artie. Before Romantic Words. Véhicule Press. Montréal, 1979.

_______. Sex at thirty-one. Caledonia Writing Series. Prince George, 1978.

_______. The Beautiful Chemical Waltz. Muses Company. Montréal, 1992.

McKinnon, Barry. A Walk. Gorse Press. Prince George, 1999.

_______. The Centre. Caitlin Press. Prince George, 1995.

_______. The Centre: Poems 1970-2000. Talonbooks. Vancouver, 2004.

_______. The the. Coach House Press. Toronto, 1980.

_______. Sex at Thirty One (a poem). Caledonia Writing Series. Prince George, 1977.

mclennan, rob. sex at 31. above/ground press. Maxville/Ottawa, 2001.

_______. 33 1/3. above/ground press. Maxville/Ottawa, 2003.

_______. sex at thirty-three. broadside #166. above/ground press. Maxville/Ottawa, March 2003.

Phillips, David. The Kiss. Coach House Press. Toronto. 1978.

Purdy, Al. Sex and Death. McClelland & Stewart. Toronto, 1973.

Farkas, Endre, Artie Gold and Ken Norris, eds. The Vehicule Poets. Maker Press. Montréal, 1979.

Stanley, George. At Andy's. New Star Books. Vancouver, 2000.



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