Over the past five or six years, I’ve had the opportunity to promote plays, art shows or poetry readings by my friend and client PHILIP CAIRNS. He’s currently celebrating the release of his latest book HOLLYWOOD POEMS AND OTHER DIVERSIONS, now available from Amazon.ca. The first section of the book offers stream-of-consciousness narrative poems about Hollywood stars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Jayne Mansfield, Lee Grant, Anita Ekberg, Gloria Grahame and Canada’s own Jackie Burroughs. The author weaves biographical tidbits about these women into each poem, and includes snippets about his own life growing up as a gender-questioning, queer boy in Scarborough, then living as a struggling artist in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood. The second half, “Bedbugs and Cockroaches” features satirical, comical stories and poems in which these itchy-scratchy critters come to life. They are like truth-telling cartoon characters, forcing the protagonist in each piece to face reality. The first half is mostly serious in tone and confessional while the second half will make you laugh out loud!Philip has already garnered glowing kudos and thumbs-up from fellow writers and literary media, and I recently spoke with him and asked him to share his thoughts on completing the book during this past year of Covid.
What was the inspiration for your new book of poetry & prose, Hollywood Poems and Other Diversions? It was David Bateman, my editor, who suggested the concept. He’s very familiar with my work through my public readings. We’ve also co-written short plays that were performed at various festivals. This book is 12 years’ worth of poems, written on the theme of the Golden Age of Hollywood, though not by any means the only poems I wrote during that period. I’ve been a movie freak since I was 9 years old. I was sleep-deprived all through my adolescence because I stayed up half the night watching classic films on the late show. As a teenager, I once saw 4 movies in one day with my best friend. I always identified with the actresses. I loved to get lost in a different world in the dark. I would often sit through a movie more than once. I once saw a double bill of a Robert Altman film and a Jane Fonda movie and I sat through both of them twice…8 hours of movies. I was in my late teens and seeing Bonnie and Clyde was a turning point for me; I came out of the theatre wanting to have sex with Warren Beatty and wanting to be Faye Dunaway. That was scary for a 14 year old. Many of the poems in my book are loving biographies of movie stars I love like Anita Ekberg, Gloria Grahame, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe. And Canadian icons like Mary Pickford and someone who was supportive of my work, Jackie Burroughs. But interwoven in many of the narratives, there are incidents from my life growing up as a queer, gender-questioning person in Scarborough. The second section of the book is pure fun, the Bedbugs and Cockroaches chapter. These critters come to life and do tasks like raiding a jewellery box and hiding pills, and they comment on the action with razor sharp accuracy. They are satirical and fun pieces and mostly fictional. They usually get laughs – I used to perform these works live a fair amount. I love to hear an audience laugh. Bringing laughter into people’s lives is manna from heaven. This is such a challenging planet to live on. Economically, it’s like being a hamster on a wheel.Have you spent time in Hollywood and visited any of the homes of those legends about which you write? I’ve never been to L.A. It seems kind of scary with all those back streets full of pup tents close to movie star mansions. I’ve been outside of Brad and Angelina’s former place in the French Quarter and I did go to the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago where I starred in a short film that played at the Short Film Corner. I went to lots of cocktail parties and met filmmakers from all over the world. It was surreal. I went to one queer party in a tent on the beach but that said, No Celebrities Allowed although it was hosted by a queer celebrity. When I left the party, there were fireworks over the water. We’d been to a screening of our movie that day as well. I think it was the happiest day of my life. I felt like Grace Kelly in To Catch a Thief without her jewels and fine gowns.
As a young man, were you a big movie fan and if so, who was your favourite star and what was your favourite film? Probably from 8 or 9 years old, I’ve loved movies. I was precocious. I was reading newspaper reviews of foreign films when I was 9 or 10. I wanted to be on TV from the age of 4 or 5. My favourites as a child were Hayley Mills and Annette Funicello. As a teenager, it was Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. In high school, I once asked my mother if she would write me a note for the office saying I had a dentist appointment. I told her I wanted to see a Marilyn Monroe movie on TV. You know what her response was? “Okay. You’ve been working hard at school and I know how much you like her so I’ll do it.” Wasn’t that cool? She and I didn’t always get along that well but that’s another story. My favourite film is The Wizard of Oz. Number two is 2001: A Space Odyssey. And Cabaret with Judy’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, is on my Top Ten list of fave movies. Judy Garland is my fave singer and her record, Judy at Carnegie Hall, is my favourite album. My second favourite album would be Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. Notice a theme here? And of course, All About Eve is on my Top Ten list, as well. I think I have about 25 films on my top ten list. I love many of Robert Altman’s films. Watching James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden on the late show when I was 16 was a turning point. I sobbed in my bedroom the whole next day. I love Brando, Montgomery Clift, Geraldine Page, Maureen Stapleton, Lee Grant, Bette Davis. The list goes on. I work as a background performer in film and TV – I feel lucky that I get to be on set with famous actors and watch them work and be well paid to do it. My family isn’t impressed because being a background performer is the lowliest position on a film set. It was worse back in the 1970s when I started out. I’ve been at this a long time, plugging away in the underground trying to be heard. I don’t go to a lot of auditions these days. I would love a really juicy part in a film. The character would be someone who questions their gender. I lived the life of a gay male for decades, and now I don’t identify as male or female. For me, gender is totally irrelevant. What I have between my legs serves as a function and gives pleasure but does not define who I am. What difference does it make what gender I am? At the same time, I wish to be considered for male roles in film, TV and theatre. Below, Philip performing poetry readings around Toronto. In the second part of the book, you’ve written about bedbugs – those stories are so funny and biting (pun intended!) – what motivated you to explore those themes? I suppose it was losing my bed to bedbugs. They kept spraying and spraying but they wouldn’t go away so I threw out my mattress and box spring. It was the only one I had ever bought as an adult. I have been sleeping on the floor every since. They are really horrid little creatures. I don’t know what made me give them voices. Weed, maybe? I can’t for the life of me recall. I love writing those pieces because the bedbugs and cockroaches can say things that people normally are too polite to say…like a little devil sitting on your shoulder. It’s almost like those pieces write themselves. I am just the channel or conduit. I think they work because audiences laugh and even request them.
Philip, you’re quite the renaissance man – a fine artist, a writer, poet and an actor for both film and theatre…what do you find more challenging or fulfilling? I think I do all these things because I don’t like to be bored and I bore easily. What I found hardest was making a living. I always had to have another part time job to get by, and I would have to juggle things. Sometimes the Universe is kind. I was rehearsing a play and I got 2 TV commercials which shot at night so it meant not much sleep but I could still attend rehearsals. And then finding time to paint, write, draw. I’m pretty driven but I also need down time to recharge. Often, it’s marketing time that goes out the window. I’d rather get out the drawing book and coloured pencils than start submitting myself for film roles or my work to publications. I think I find painting the most relaxing even though I feel it is not my strongest talent or skill. Reading my poetry in public or sitting in the audience watching one of my plays is exhilarating and fulfilling when you really connect with an audience. You can feel it in the air. Total silence. No snoring. Ha!! Hearing a big, big belly laugh from an audience is indescribably wonderful. I suffer from stage fright these days. I have a terror of forgetting my lines. But if I’m reading one of my poems, I’m fine. I have it right in front of me. I’ve been studying with the most wonderful acting teacher, Alan C. Peterson, which has taught me to tune out everything on a film set or on stage, and just focus on what is happening in a scene. That is all that is happening. Below, Philip running lines as Julius Caesar and as a glammed up blonde for a recent indie film Has the isolation and quarantining throughout this past year of Covid affected your writing or ability to earn a living? My income from film and TV has dropped considerably but then my expenses have dropped, too. I used to spend a fortune going out with friends and colleagues. Now, I make all my meals at home. But it has afforded me the time to assemble the book and edit and rewrite it which is much harder than the initial writing of a poem or story. It’s a great feeling when you’re in the zone and it’s flowing out of you onto the page or screen. That usually happens with the first draft. Since the first lockdown, I’ve written a lot and done a lot of drawing and painting. I don’t like to watch more than one movie or TV show per day, if that. It’s been a time of deep, deep reflection. What is awful is that all the dumb, stupid things I’ve done in my life have come bubbling up to haunt me, perhaps to teach me a lesson or something. It has helped me to grow but has been quite painful to behold.
Below is a selection of Philip’s paintings that have been exhibited in Toronto galleries… About the author: Philip Cairns writes poetry, performance-pieces, plays and short stories. His work has been published in Labour of Love, Resistance Poetry 2, Excalibur Monthly, Xtra! and The Body Politic. In Toronto, Philip has performed his own writing at “Plasticine Poetry” at The Central, A Space, The Art Bar, the Black Swan, the Gladstone Hotel, Glad Day Bookshop & the Theatre Centre. He was one of the organizers, and a frequent host for The Beautiful and the Damned Poetry Cabaret at The Central. He was MC for “Sexy Words” at Lula Lounge and “Bent Expressions” and “Smash Words” at Press Club. He performed in “Hard and Able #2” at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, on the TV series “William Shatner’s Weird or What” and in “The Judy Monologues” at the Toronto Fringe Festival and in a province-wide tour (winning the Best Actor award at the London One Act Festival). Philip has exhibited his acrylic paintings, watercolours and coloured pencil drawings in numerous solo and group exhibitions in Toronto and Edmonton, most recently at Urban Gallery, the Parliament Street Library and at Arcadia Art Gallery in Toronto.
Philip has a number of interviews coming up in May, including CIUT-FM radio’s Howl! show as well as on the Art Bar online poetry show May 11. Follow Philip on Facebook for all the news… Facebook.com/philip.cairns.16
HOLLYWOOD POEMS AND OTHER DIVERSIONS
By Philip Cairns
Purple Poet Press (April, 2021)
$17.89 – Soft-cover, 186 pages
Available from Amazon.ca