When she makes this statement, over a cup of black coffee at a café in downtown Toronto, Liz Worth appears the very antithesis of emotional. Composed and self-spoken, Worth does not exude the kind of in-your-face attitude that spawned the Toronto punk movement she chronicled in her oral history, Treat Me Like Dirt, or the searing intensity of the poems in her first full-length collection, Amphetamine Heart. She is thoughtful, pausing before speaking as if to choose precisely the correct words.
And yet she responds to questions with an honesty that is disarming, if somewhat unsurprising given the rawness of the material in Amphetamine Heart. “When alternating between vivisection / and vaginal secretions / to determine what will satisfy your / open sores faster,” she writes in “Internal Dialogue,” “take note of discolouration / versus saturation.”
“A lot of the poems in Amphetamine Heart are physical and emotional,” she says, arguably understating the case. The experience of reading the collection, which is shot through with images of injury and anxiety, boozecans and remnants of stale cigarettes (or, as Worth puts it in “Asymmetry,” “the swamp rot of this / gin and tonic mouth”), is uncomfortable, verging on voyeuristic. For this, Worth is unapologetic. “The intention,” she insists, “was never for anyone to sit there and say, ‘Oh wow, this is brightening my day.’”
Indeed, Worth is an unabashed advocate of art that disturbs its recipients. “The works that you remember are the ones that you have to put down for a while because they get too heavy or too strange or too graphic.” She admits to reading Poe at a young age: “If you’re younger, Poe is fun poetry to get into. If you’re twelve years old, it’s the kind of thing you’d pick up.” And she seems happiest, or most satisfied, when confronted with art that is in some way unsettling. “I love it when the characters die,” she says. “I love it when there’s no redemption.”
The poems in Amphetamine Heart grew out of a particular time in Worth’s twenties, something she readily admits: “There were a lot of things that were all coming to a head for me when I was writing … I don’t know whether this book could have been written five years down the road.”
Nor does she know if she could have written it had she been sleeping well at the time. “Sleeping problems dominated me so much” during the period leading up to writing Amphetamine Heart, she says. “I was preoccupied with them, I was worried all day about whether I would be able to sleep. Lots of good things came out of that insomnia, and ended up in the work.” (The book is dedicated to “my old friend insomnia.”)
Given this context, is is perhaps to be expected that the volume contains material that is fraught; what is remarkable about many of the poems in the collection is the commingling of pleasure and pain. “Second Guessing,” for example, begins with an image that is at once startling and mordantly humorous: “From this side of the door / the sounds of dry heaves / are the same as orgasms.” When asked about the affinity between pleasure and pain, Worth pauses for thought before responding. “We do a lot of things that seem really fun or seem to make us happy, but in time are damaging or there’s going to be a huge comedown,” she says, and offers as an example binge drinking. “There is pleasure in pain, and that’s just on a regular weekend.”
The word “regular” is significant for a punk aficionado who grew up in Alderwood, a neighbourhood nestled in the west Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. “Alderwood is like everywhere else,” Worth says, “where you see people who have a lot of money, and people who have no money. And then everybody else. It’s very mixed. Which I think a lot of people don’t expect when you talk about the suburbs.”
The mix of industrial and residential landscape was also influential on the young Worth’s burgeoning aesthetic. “Just looking out my bedroom window every day and seeing these little factories where people were working on assembly lines and shipping things out and everything, that really influenced the things that I was thinking about and I incorporated that into my writing.”
Worth disavows the stereotypical idea of suburbia as a field of cookie-cutter houses, strip malls, and auto-body shops. Like the David Lynch of Blue Velvet, she locates a whole world of intrigue and drama roiling beneath the polite, well-kept surface, a world she asserts can be every bit as fascinating as that of the self-conscious bohemians downtown. “I’ve often found that in some ways downtown scenes or urban scenes that people kind of associate with things that are edgy and dangerous or progressive often aren’t all that interesting.”
This kind of cultural snobbery, Worth suggests, can result in a blindness to the contours of society as it actually exists outside a self-enclosed, proscribed area.
“If you look at Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal, they are not representative of how the rest of the country thinks or operates at all.” In industrial cities like Sudbury or small towns across Canada, Worth points out, the people “are not thinking about the sociology of music, they’re not thinking poetry, they’re not thinking literature.”
“If you spend enough time in Toronto,” she goes on, “you create a bubble and you forget.”
While Worth is careful to ensure that she remains cognizant of the fabric of life outside Canada’s largest city, it is clear that Toronto – or at least, a particular version of it – inhabits her down to her bones. Treat Me Like Dirt, Worth’s first full-length book (following the chapbook Eleven: Eleven), is an encyclopedic oral history of the early days of punk music in and around Toronto in the years between 1977 and 1981. In fact, Worth ran into initial difficulty finding someone to take on Treat Me Like Dirt, in part because there was a sense that it was too Toronto-centric. “That book was really hard to get published,” she says. “I shopped it a lot and a lot of people came back and said, ‘We don’t see a market for it, we don’t think we can sell it, we think it’s too Toronto.’”
The one person who was willing to take a chance on it was Roger Alfonso, former manager of the Diodes, one of the bands profiled in the book. Alfonso had since started an indie music label called Bongo Beat, and he expressed an interest in publishing Worth’s manuscript. “He pressed me along the way as I was interviewing him,” Worth says. “He said, ‘If you’re looking for someone to put it out, if you’re serious about this, keep me in mind.’ When it was done, I sent it to Ralph and he liked it.” The book was a success, and was later picked up by its current publisher, ECW Press.
“It’s in its fourth printing now,” says Worth. “After the book did so well, it was easy.”
Indeed, Treat Me Like Dirt was something of a trailblazer given the initial reluctance to touch anything dealing with punk in Toronto. “Since [Treat Me Like Dirt's initial publication], there have been two other books about Toronto punk rock. There was Don Pyle’s Trouble in the Camera Club, and that came out with ECW as well, and then Dirty, Drunk and Punk, about the BFGs, which Jennifer Morton put out. Now it seems like it’s getting easier to publish Toronto punk, because there’s obviously an interest.”
Certainly it remains a subject of abiding interest to Worth, who was deeply invested in the material from the beginning. “I didn’t really put myself into that book at all,” she says, “[but] that book would never have happened if I wasn’t really, really, really in love with the subject.”
Worth’s introduction to punk came as a result of her affinity for popular music in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “Radio and MuchMusic were so different from what they are now,” she says. “They actually played different songs every day. MuchMusic still played music videos. That was the biggest way that me and my friends would get our music. You could sit down in front of the TV for a couple of hours and watch videos and you might actually find a band that you liked.” One such session led to Worth’s punk rock road to Damascus moment: “I remember seeing the Ramones’ video for ‘Pet Sematary,’ the song that they did for the movie, and that was the first time I’d heard the Ramones.”
Although the relationship between punk and poetry may at first seem counterintuitive, Worth points out that the two art forms actually have more in common than might appear at first glance. “Patti Smith was a poet before she was a singer,” Worth says. “A few years after Patti Smith, Lydia Lunch came along, and she always had her hands in spoken word, art. She kind of did it all.” Worth also mentions Bif Naked, who put out a spoken word album in the 1990s. “I read an interview with her and she said that the poetry came first. She never saw herself as someone who would be a singer. She thought she was going to be a dancer. But she was really into poetry and she considers herself a lyricist before anything.”
Contradiction or not, Worth plans to continue writing, albeit at her own pace. She admits to having a novel in the works, but cautions, “You never know how these things will go.” At the moment, she is content to get on with the daily business of living. “Because my writing does come from personal experiences,” she says, “I have to make sure that I keep living my life and not let writing become my life.”
And does that life include remaining in Toronto, or striking out for different, uncharted environs? “When I was younger, I used to have a plan that I was going to move to London, England, by the time I was twenty-five,” she says. Now, however, “It would be really hard for me to leave.” If she were to decide to make a break, she says, “I’m more likely to move to the middle of nowhere than I am to move to another big city.”
Still, she is reluctant to rule anything out entirely. “I think that we’re always changing and evolving, right?”
Yesterday, ECW Press launched the book Trouble in the Camera Club, Don Pyle’s photographic history of the punk movement in Canada. The launch took place at the Garrison in Toronto, where three fourths of the Canadian indie band the Sadies played a set with various punk vocalists. One number featured Damian Abraham, front man for the band Fucked Up, who had some trouble of his own around the 2:40 mark, when he attempted to headbutt a pint glass.