Jon Paul Fiorentino’s new collection of poetry Needs Improvement (Coach House Books) contains some of his best and most important work yet.
The Winnipeg expat and native Transconian has called Montreal home for years now but the move hasn’t stopped him from continuing to write about his old hometown like he’s done in his previous books.
Pieces titled In Perfect Winnipeg, Winnipeg Cold Storage Company and Salter Street Strike (a poem dedicated to Weakerthans frontman John K. Samson) shows that Winnipeg remains a very important place for Fiorentino.
The collection also draws from Fiorentino’s experiences in academia at Concordia University where he teaches writing. Instructions for Invigilation and Guide for Taking Exams are steeped in Fiorentino’s sarcastic wit and humour.
“Get a good night’s sleep. If necessary, take prescription-grade painkillers and tranquilizers.
You can generally obtain these from a classmate.
Do not exceed triple the recommended dosage.
You can generally find the recommended dosage on the Internet. If not, use common sense,” Fiorentino writes in Guide for Taking Exams.
Needs Improvement also sees Fiorentino playing with visual poetry. He’s taken diagrams of plain, everyday objects such as a dishwasher, an oscillating fan and a shower wand and re-labeled their parts and their purposes.
The dishwasher is the summary of ideology while the oscillating fan is the summary of the history of sexuality and the shower wand is the summary of condensation and displacement.
It’s really some of Fiorentino’s most interesting work to date and the visual pieces have the capacity to transcend literature and be viewed as artistic instalments as well.
However, the real anchor of the collection is The Report Cards of Leslie Mackie. It’s a stunning “narrative sequence of visual poems that sets out to critique the culture of homophobia, transphobia and bullying in early childhood education.”
At first glance one may see it as a comical take on the school system but further reading gives way to Fiorentino’s true intention.
The work succeeds in removing the political language used regarding homophobia and bullying in early childhood education. Raw and unfiltered, Fiorentino forces the reader to consider what was a relatively quiet and unaddressed issue for far too long. Only in recent years are we starting to see anti-bullying legislation being proposed and coming into effect.
The result is an intelligent, thought-provoking and sometimes humorous collection of mixed work that shows Fiorentino is a memorable voice all of his own.
American poet William Carlos Williams said “If they give you lined paper, write the other way.” Fiorentino is consistently pushing the conventional boundaries of how we use language to express ourselves.
Needs Improvement is a work that requires multiple readings to be fully appreciated but then again, all great books do.
Jon Paul Fiorentino is at this year’s Thin Air: Winnipeg’s International Writers Festival, Sept. 20-28.