#80 Stan Persky
January 26th, 2016
LOCATION: 1018 Burnaby Street, Vancouver, former location of Buddy’s Bar.
Born in Chicago in 1941, Stan Persky was easily one of the most significant figures in the rise of British Columbian writing and publishing during the 1970s and 1980s. He was inspired to pursue a literary career as a 16-year-old in 1957 when he sent his writing to Jack Kerouac, and soon received replies from Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and other writers of the “Beat Generation.” In the late 1960s, Persky co-founded the Georgia Straight Writing Supplement in Vancouver which led to the formation of New Star Books, a leftist imprint managed by Lanny Beckman. For many years Persky, as an author and political activist, was closely associated with New Star Books and wrote a series of books about B.C. and international politics for the press. He lived in the houses in which the press operated for many years, first at 2249, and then at 2504 York Avenue. (In 1990, Rolf Maurer took over as New Star publisher and its majority owner, moving the company to East Vancouver.) Persky, who taught philosophy at Capilano College, was also a leading light in a Philosopher Cafe initiative to stimulate philosophical and literary discussions around Vancouver, a program founded by Yosef Wosk of Simon Fraser University. As well, Persky was an early activist in the Vancouver gay movement, and wrote about gay life in his book “Buddy’s: Meditations on Desire” (1991), which took its title from a gay bar that operated out of 1018 Burnaby Street.
In the 1990s, books about B.C. politics and politicians became much harder to find. The more that B.C. publishers had to worry about getting their books into Chapters and retaining precarious public funding, the less they produced critical works about B.C. society and its managers.
It wasn’t always thus. When Stan Persky was full of vigour, having audaciously run for the Chancellorship of UBC as a student, he led the way for populist critiques of the Social Credit government of Premier Bill Bennett with Son of Socred (1979). His subsequent series of lively paperbacks about B.C. politics was available in supermarkets. Persky suggested that academics should “spend more of their time and skills addressing the general public rather than just talking to each other.”
Son of Socred (1979) was followed by The House That Jack Built (1980) and Bennett II (1983)–both about B.C. politics. At the Lenin Shipyard (1981) explored Polish politics and America: The Last Domino (1983) examined U.S. foreign policy. Fantasy Government (1989), which scrutinized Bill Vander Zalm’s premiership in B.C., marked the end of Persky’s ten-year flirtation with populism.
Persky taught Sociology and Philosophy for many years at Capilano College and he had a stint as a columnist for the Globe & Mail. As a pundit and author, he had been influenced politically and philosophically by Bob Rowan, one of the founders of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and the force behind the unconventional Arts One curriculum at UBC, and by Robin Blaser, his older lover in the 1960s who taught for many years in the SFU English department.
If there was an overt turning point in his writing career, it was probably his autobiographical meditations on homosexuality, Buddy’s (1989), which received a Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize nomination and marked a return to Persky’s literary roots. Buddy’s was a gay nightclub at 1018 Burnaby Street in Vancouver’s West End. As a frequenter of the club, Persky recorded gay sexuality with an explicit frankness. “It looks at porn in the milieu of the gay world. And it deals with the stereotype of hustlers. It sees them as ordinary human beings and it also sees them as the gods of Eros, Cupid and Amor,” he wrote.
Persky’s examination of homo-erotic behaviour in the Lower Mainland appeared during the AIDS crisis when many homosexuals were retreating back to the closet. “The book is about understanding pleasure in the middle of a plague,” said Persky. “It’s about bars, hotel rooms and gyms. It’s about desire and darkness. On the one hand, if you’re gay, you’re often in the presence of death, dealing with friends who are living with AIDS. But on the other hand, life has to go on. Eros winks while Eros weeps.”
It was a brave book by a writer at a crossroads in his intellectual life. “Parts of the book are poetic,” he said, “But I hope it’s accessible. As far as I’m concerned I’m still continuing my career in advocacy journalism. I’m advocating, in the simplest sense, that any consensual sexuality is natural… There’s no such thing as abnormality, except when you speak statistically… I can foresee all sorts of adverse responses to Buddy’s, but I’d always wanted to write a book about the big subjects -God, Death, Sex, Beauty -and that’s what this one’s about.”
Persky’s detour towards self-referential writing and personal essays was partially motivated by his admiration for the works of French author Roland Barthes.
Autobiography of a Tattoo (New Star 1997) chronicles Persky’s journey through the U.S. Navy in the 1950s, post-Wall Berlin and his views of ancient Greece via Plato’s Symposium. The title story is about the young writer’s education in love and art, while sequences explore education and life in post Communist Berlin, in the world of boy bars and among the author’s friends.
Increasingly attracted to the societies and writers of Europe, in general, and to the culture of Berlin, in particular, Persky became much less of a presence in B.C. in the 21st century.
With co-author John Dixon, he did examine the legal, moral and philosophical issues surrounding the case of accused porn collector Robin Sharpe in their book, On Kiddie Porn: Sexual Representation, Free Speech and the Robin Sharpe Case (2001) which was a finalist for the 2002 Donner Prize for the best book on Canadian public policy.
Persky was in Berlin when A Short Version: An ABC Book (2005) was awarded the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in 2006, accepted on his behalf by its publisher Rolf Maurer. Much of this diffuse memoir, The Short Version, had first appeared in Brian Fawcett’s electronic newsletter Dooneyscafe.com. It contains Persky’s casual ode, in prose, to Robin Blaser, who had been classmates at the University of California at Berkeley with Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan. Persky first met Blaser in a San Francisco bar in January of 1962, in the company of Jack Spicer. Persky proceeded to live with Blaser for about five years afterwards, moving to Vancouver in 1966. Having been a student of Jack Spicer in California, Persky first read poetry by Robin Blaser when Persky was a 19-year-old sailor stationed in southern Italy. Robin Blaser died in 2009, in Vancouver.
A Short Version was followed by another collection of critical thinking, meanderings and reworked material, Topic Sentence, with an introduction by his friend, Brian Fawcett.
For Persky’s Reading the 21st Century, he republished a variety of essays and book reviews evaluating works by established authors such as Philip Roth, Orhan Pamuk, J.M. Coetzee, and José Saramago, as well as emerging writers like Naomi Klein, Javier Cercas, and Chimamanda Adichie. He also highlighted reporters – Steve Coll, Dexter Filkins, and Rajiv Chandrasekaran – who have written essential books about global issues. “My qualifications for an overview of the books of the decade go back to my first brush with literary criticism as a ten-year-old fifth grader, when I wrote a critical essay about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick under the sensationalist title of “Bloated Whale Beached” (I found the sea-going masterpiece a bit long). Since that precocious debut, it’s been mostly downhill. If this writing helps readers, even in a small way, to resist the forgetting of history and what philosopher Martin Heidegger called the ‘forgetting of Being,’ I will consider that the work has achieved its purpose.”
Stan Persky was named the seventh recipient of the annual Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence in 2010. He was cited by jury member Terry Glavin for his “bravery as a philosopher, a polemicist and a storyteller.”
Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (2014) marked the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The stories commemorate Persky’s early 1990s’ travels through Tirana, Warsaw, Budapest and other post-Communist capitals as he recollects experiences and conversations held with those living in the shadow of the Iron Curtain. In a final essay reflecting on the end of communism, Persky ponders how recent events in Ukraine could represent a continuation of the hope that motivated the revolutions that felled the Iron Curtain.
Persky’s literary influences are legion. “I notice that over the years my writing has become increasingly a tangled skein of bits and pieces of other authors’ writing,” he has observed, “a Talmudic interweaving of my own and others’ commentaries, a text filled with quotes from and references to other texts. My books, like late-medieval chrestomathies, are a patchwork of books.”
[For other political books by non-politicians, see abcbookworld entries for Adam, Heribet; Antliff, Allan; Avakumovic, Ivan; Baldrey, Keith; Birney, Earle; Blake, Donald E.; Block, Walter; Boyle, Patrick T.; Brière, Elaine; Brunet-Jailly, Emmanuel; Bryden, P.E.; Byers, Michael; Cairns, Alan; Cameron, Stevie; Carr, Paul; Carty, Kenneth; Clearwater, John; Clements, Alan; Coats, R.H.; Cohen, Lenard; Conway, Robert; Covell, Caroline; Cross, William; Day, J.C.; Ditmars, Hadani; Dobbin, Murray; Doyle, Charles; Eisenberg, Avigail; Engler, Allan; Engler, Yves; Enomoto, Randy; Evans, Elwood; Fenton, Anthony; Finlay, K.A.; Foster, Leslie; Friedrichs, Christopher; Garr, Allen; Gawthrop, Daniel; Gerolymatos, André; Godfrey, Sima; Grey, Deborah; Harding, Jim; Haskett, Michael J.; Head, Ivan; Herath, R.B.; Howlett, Michael; Jefferess, David; Johnson, Genevieve Fuji; Julian, Terry; Kavic, Lorne J.; Kay, William; Keene, R.; Knox, Paul; Leslie, Graham; Lewis, S.P.; Lund, Darren; MacMinn, George; MacPherson, Donald; Magnusson, Warren; Marchak, Patricia; Mathews, Robin; Mauzy, Diane K.; McClung, Nellie Letitia; Mgbeoji, Ikechi; Millard, Gregory; Moens, Alexander; Morley, Terry; Morton, James; Mugridge, Ian; Munro, John; Murray, Peter; Nadir, Leilah; Nixon, Bob; Onstad, Gary; Ore, Kenneth; Palmer, Bryan D.; Parker, Gilbert; Plant, Geoff; Plecas, Bob; Prentice, Roger; Prince, Michael J.; Resnick, Philip; Robin, Martin; Rodney, William; Rose, William; Rothenburger, Mel; Sajoo, Amyn B.; Sakolsky, Ron; Scott, Jack; Sharifad, Yadi; Shelton, George W.; Sherman, Paddy; Spector, Norman; Stankiewicz, W.J.; Steeves, Dorothy; Stephen, A.M.; Stevenson, Michael; Swankey, Ben; Townsend-Gault, Ian; Twigg, Alan; Varzeliotis, Tom; Walker, Len; Walker, Michael; Walker, Russell Robert; Webster, Daisy; Wharf, Brian; Wild, Roland; Williams, David Ricardo; Wilson, Donna; Woodsworth, Glenn; Ykelchyk, Serhy; Young, Lisa; Young, Walter D.]
Review of the author’s work by BC Studies:
Bennett II: The Decline and Stumbling of Social Credit Government in British Columbia, 1979-83
The House (Convention Centre, Stadium, Rapid Transit System, Etc.) That Jack Built: Jack Volrich and Vancouver Politics
On Kiddie Porn: Sexual Representation, Free Speech and the Robin Sharpe Case
Son of Socred: Has Bill Bennett’s Government Gotten B.C. Moving Again?
Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant Books 2014) $24.95 978-1770864467
Reading the 21st Century (McGill-Queens 2011). 9780773539099 $34.95
Robin Blaser (New Star, 2010) 978-1-55420-052-8 $ 16.00
Topic Sentence: A Writer’s Education (New Star, 2007).
The Short Version: An ABC Book (New Star, 2005)
On Kiddie Porn: Sexual Representation, Free Speech And The Robin Sharpe Case, by Stan Persky and John Dixon (New Star, 2001)
Delgamuukw; The Supreme Court of Canada Decision on Aboriginal Title (Vancouver: Greystone Books, 1999)
Supreme Court of Canada Decision on Abortion (New Star, 1998)
Autobiography of a Tattoo (New Star, 1997)
Boyopolis: Sex And Politics In Gay Eastern Europe (Overlook Press, 1996)
Then We Take Berlin: Stories from the Other Side of Europe (Knopf, 1995)
Buddy’s: Meditations on Desire (New Star Press, 1989)
Mixed Media, Mixed Messages (New Star Press, 1991)
Fantasy Government: Bill Vander Zalm and the Future of Social Credit (New Star Press, 1989)
The Supreme Court Decision on Alberta, co-editor Shelagh Day (New Star, 1988)
The Holy Forest, introduction by Robin Blaser and Robert Creeley (Coach House, 1998)
The Solidarity Sourcebook, edited by Stan Persky and Henry Flam (New Star, 1985)
America, The Last Domino: U.S. Foreign Policy In Central America Under Reagan
Bennett II (New Star, 1983)
Flaunting It: A Decade Of Gay Journalism From The Body Politic, edited by Ed Jackson and Stan Persky (New Star, 1982)
The Solidarity Sourcebook (New Star, 1982). With Henry Flam.
At the Lenin Shipyard: Poland and the Rise of the Solidarity Trade Union (New Star, 1981)
The House That Jack Built (New Star, 1980)
Son of Socred (New Star, 1979)
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2015]
Autobiography of a Tattoo (New Star $19): Interview
“It’s a cult love story,” Stan Persky jokes, describing his latest compilation of memoirs and investigations of desire, Autobiography of a Tattoo (New Star $19).
“It represents the other side of Bill Richardson’s Bachelor Brothers Bed & Breakfast Pillow Book. It’s Danielle Steel for the post-modern era.”
Written in Berlin, Persky’s new amalgam of fiction and sociology frankly portrays the world of boy bars in the spirit of his Vancouver-based reflections, Buddy’s, and also recalls Persky’s formative years in the US Navy.
“I write about homosexuality,” he says. “In a sense I talk about the classic centre of homosexual desire which has to do with man’s desire for young men. That in itself is almost a forbidden subject, even in the world of domesticated homosexuality.”
Persky believes gay writing is largely at an impasse, particularly in North America, because it has become predictable. Within his field of belles lettres, he says he is chiefly concerned with experimenting with literary forms rather than writing explicity about sex.
“I’m perfectly willing to cooperate with the censors,” he says, “if only I know what the censors want! Meanwhile I keep writing what I want to say and so far there are people who are willing to publish it.”
Stan Persky lives four months of each year in Berlin. He has written ten previous books, teaches philosophy at Capilano College and currently reviews books on Fridays for The Vancouver Sun.
Mixed Media, Mixed Messages
IS IT OKAY FOR A MALE WRITER TO OGLE a waitress in print, but not a waiter? Is the word’ ogle’ itself an expression of sexism? To ogle or not to ogle. That is the question the Vancouver Sun considered when it temporarily refused to run a column by its newly-returned media columnist Stan Persky. In a column about ‘outing,’ the process whereby homosexuals in public life are being forced out of the closet, Persky referred to a brief and slightly flirtatious exchange he had while talking to a waiter in Berlin about outing. Having just ironically returned from Albania and East Berlin where freedom of the press is increasing, Persky was taken aback when a senior Sun editor refused to run the column. Persky said he would have to quit if the Sun didn’t print his column with the word ‘ogle’ in it. Meeting to discuss the issue, Persky advised Sun editor-in chief Ian Haysom he should fire the senior editor and get on with the business of publishing a modern newspaper. “It appeared to me that everyone else on the paper was free to write colunms about their kids, cats and spouses,” says Persky, “but as a homosexual I wasn’t allowed to refer to my private life.” The Sun backed down and Persky’s column was to appear on August 31. “I would have had to put the column as an epilogue to the new book,” says Persky, whose collection of newspaper writings, Mixed Media, Mixed Messages (New Star $13.95), will be out this fall, “but this means it’ll just have to go in the next one.” During the week-long impasse with the Sun, Persky was offered a media column with the Globe and Mail. Meanwhile former Globe columnist Brian Fawcett, a friend of Persky’s, also has a collection of non-fiction, Unusual Circumstances/Interesting Times (New Star $14.95). “We’re the terrible twosome from Vancouver,” laughs Persky.
Persky ISBN: 0′-921586-23-X; Fawcett ISBN: 0-921586-26-4
[BCBW 1991] “Media”
The Short Version: An ABC Book (New Star)
Many reviewers of Stan Persky’s The Short Version: An ABC Book will begin by mentioning Persky’s new collection of memoirs and opinion pieces is supposed to be modeled on Czeslaw Milosz’s two-volume work Milosz’s ABCs in which the late Polish Nobel Prize winner, in his mid-eighties, provided a miscellany of literary profiles, reflections and recollections, in alphabetical order.
Some reviewers will also mention that many of Persky’s ruminations and ramblings have been initially posted on the Dooney’s Café website managed by his friend Brian Fawcett in Toronto. Or they’ll quote Persky’s own obtuse explanation for his A-to-C litany. “An ABC book is perforce the short version of another, conceptually amorphous entity, just as life itself is the short version of the dream of immortality. That entity is one that includes both a database—the sum of all my vocabularies—and the events of my life; together, they provide a locus in which I experience the world.”
All of which just gets in the way. Whether Stan Persky is writing about Athens, Woody Allen or AIDS; describing sex-acts in a Bangkok nightclub or providing a paean to his former mentor/lover Robin Blaser; or discussing Canada or Chicago, his amalgam of seemingly informal A-to-C chatter is mostly a lot of fun.
Clearly Stan Persky is not writing a book to change the world, or even an insightful self-portrait. He’s amusing himself. And the undeniable intelligence of his amusement is infectious. Reading The Short Version is like being in the presence of a confident joke-teller. Even though one suspects Persky’s easy-going style is an illusion, we want to believe the rabbit really does come out of the hat, as if he’s just making up his prose as he goes along, effortlessly and without artifice. It’s a clever act to follow. The Short Version is a one-man show in which Persky is free to be an enthusiast, indulging in the comfort of his memories and intellectual discoveries with all the zeal of a record-collector putting on tracks from his favourite albums. Spalding Gray-like, Persky could easily perform excerpts from this book as a one-man play at the Fringe Festival, and Balding Gray would be a hit.
Persky’s flirtations with the mainstream are apparently over. He won’t be writing any populist paperbacks about the Gordon Campbell government, as he did in the old days of Bill Bennett. That would take a lot of work. Instead The Short Version enables the now-venerable Capilano College professor and habitué of Berlin to explore the self-satisfaction of his accumulated riches. The Short Version: An ABC Book presents Persky the philosopher king, unplugged, unfettered, counting his chips, with the insouciance of Jabba the Hut. A is for Art and Auschwitz. “Theodor Adorno sternly declared in the wake of the Holocaust that lyric poetry is impossible after Auschwitz. I think that the best way to interpret that remark is not that good poetry can’t be written after Auschwitz, but that good writing now requires an understanding of the Holocaust.”
B is for Bald. “My father was bald, and I inherited, along with much else from him, his standard male pattern baldness. I fretted about it, mainly worried, I suppose, about its potential effects on my sex life. For years, I fought a losing battle by arranging my hair in a desperate ‘comb-over,’ attempting to disguise the obvious. What an extraordinary waste of time, of mirror gazing, of brilliantine and gels occasionally, walking around the streets, when a breeze comes up and riffles through my fringe, I forget that I’m bald, and like people who have lost an arm or a leg are said to experience a phantom limb, I experience some imaginary hair. Then I run my hand over my crystal-ball-shaped dome, and move on.”
C (at the end of the book) is for Continued. “I remember how thrilling it was as a child to come to the conclusion of something I was reading, a story or a book, and discover, at the end, it wasn’t ‘The End,’ but that there might be more to come. More Walter Farley Black Stallion stories, more Wizard of Oz books, more John R. Tunis sports novels or Amazing Adventures. Ever since I began to write, I’ve always wanted to end a book with the magical promissory words: to be continued.”
It adds up to a smorgasbord, not a five-star restaurant. You can go back and forth along the line-up, dismissing some dishes, finding delight in others. The spice of candour is Persky’s most consistent quality, whether he is hyping Chicago Cubs’ shortstop Ernie Banks or the influence of French heavy-hitter Roland Barthes. (Discovering the latter’s posthumous, alphabetically-ordered book entitled Roland Barthes, we learn, was “an indelibly liberating experience” that encouraged Persky to embrace himself as a subject, leading him from his breakthrough homosexual memoir Buddy’s, and now onto The Short Version.)
You don’t have to be previously committed Stan fan to appreciate someone who admits, “My books, like late-medieval chrestomathies, are a patchwork of books.” To emphasize his point, Persky proceeds to provide a six-and-a-half page bibliography of his favourite books and authors. He’s telling us everything he wants us to know, and very little otherwise. 1-55420-016-4
Lieutenant Governor’s Award: Press Release (2010)
Vancouver, BC – The West Coast Book Prize Society is proud to recognize Stan Persky as the recipient of the 7th annual Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence.
British Columbia’s Lieutenant Governor, the Honourable Steven Point, will present the award at the Lieutenant Governor’s BC Book Prizes Gala to be held at Government House in Victoria on April 24, 2010. The event will be hosted by broadcaster Shelagh Rogers.
“We have chosen Stan Persky as the recipient of the 2010 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence because of the intellectual and moral integrity he brings to his work as a writer who engages with some of the most difficult questions facing society, and because of the great contributions he has made to the literary canon of Canada and British Columbia.
His numerous books and his trail-blazing efforts in creating literary journals and a forum for public engagement – not least New Star Books and the Georgia Straight – have helped develop British Columbia’s literary community into what it is today.
From his earliest days in the ‘New American Poetry’ community of San Francisco to his sojourn teaching philosophy at Capilano University in North Vancouver, Stan has cheerfully persisted in his role as literary colleague, mentor, guide, teacher and collaborator. From the real-world and digital versions of Toronto’s Dooney’s Cafe, and even from his part-time residence in Berlin, Stan has always taken British Columbia seriously. He has subjected British Columbia to thoughtful inquiry, and has held British Columbian literature to the highest standards.
Stan’s bravery as a philosopher, a polemicist and a storyteller leap from the pages of his twenty books, from Lives of the French Symbolist Poets and Topic Sentence: A Writer‘s Education, and from At The Lenin Shipyard: Poland and the Rise of the Solidarity Trade Union to Fantasy Government: Bill Vander Zalm and the Future of Social Credit and Buddy’s: Meditations on Desire. His grace as an essayist, his curiosity and independence of thought as a critic and newspaper columnist, and his exuberance as a civil rights activist and a leading voice of the gay community, have enriched us all.
Stan Persky is our Socrates. British Columbians can rightly boast that he is truly one of ours. We are enormously proud to offer him the recognition of the 2010 Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence.”
– Terry Glavin, jury member
The jury for this year’s Lieutenant Governor’s Award: Terry Glavin, author and journalist; Lynne van Luven, Associate Dean, University of Victoria; and Robert Wiersema, author.
This prize was established in 2003 by former Lieutenant Governor, the Honourable Iona Campagnolo, to recognize British Columbia writers who have contributed to the development of literary excellence in the province. The recipient receives a cash award of $5,000 and a commemorative certificate.