Dina Del Bucchia:
I think I was a bad writer before I discovered that I could use humor effectively and that I could use it at all. But being able to crack into just something and use humor kind of broke open a little bit of a creative gate that was really holding me back.
You’re listening to Parallel Careers where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
Dina Del Bucchia:
I’m Dina Del Bucchia. I live in Vancouver on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people. I’m a writer. I write fiction. I write poetry, I write some other stuff too. I host literary events. I’m the artistic director of the Real Vancouver Writer Series. And I have a podcast that’s called Can’t Lit and I host it with my very good friend, Jen Sookfong Lee. I teach a course at the University of British Columbia and what is now called the School of Creative Writing. And I teach a course called Introduction to Comedic Forms. And it’s real weird and real fun.
In some ways, I learned way more about writing from reading celebrity blogs in the early days of celebrity blogging than from reading any books about craft. In sort of the Canon of CanLit. It is not really something that was considered important or that was ever really taught to me.
And so a lot of the humorous teachings I got were from watching and reading things that were outside of what I had been taught in an academic setting.
When I’m thinking about how I use humor in my own work, the way I use it, and the way I hope my students use it, is that using it as another extension of their own creative voice and that they’re using comedy because the piece of writing the tone, the theme, the content is served by it. Not just because you want to be hilarious. And that’s what takes so much time. That’s what takes time in writing in general to be able to marry all that stuff. And so to me, humor is another element that is similar to thinking about the emotional content. And I think they’re very connected. And I think that’s probably why oftentimes people have told me that my work has like a stabbing emotional core. And I think it’s because I try very hard—and if I am successful, I am grateful—to make the comedy and the emotion really connect.
I really need to make sure and let students know that everyone has their own comedic taste. Everyone has their own comedic sensibility and not everything is going to be for everyone. At the beginning of the term, I always have a little list of things that I ask students if they think are funny, just—I hate icebreakers, but it’s just sort of a way more of getting everyone to participate in something that feels very, I think, low stakes. So I’ll go through a list of things like puns and wordplay, irreverent comedy, you know, body humor or fart jokes, physical slapstick stuff. And then at the very last thing on the list is just Adam Sandler. And it also, the list then itself also becomes almost like a joke with a weird punch line, but at the same time, it still feels relevant because some people do find that funny.
I mean, I do, and I’m deeply ashamed of it.
So in my course, I have one whole lecture that is devoted to talking about comedy and if it has power and, uh, comedy and social commentary. And I talk about the ways that often all writing and comedy as well comes from our own experience or identity. And I introduce the concept of punching up as a way to try and get students to understand what that means. And in that week’s class, I like to present work where we can see it sort of explicitly presented. So looking at types of standup, where punching up is very obvious. There’s a great Wanda Sykes bit, where she talks about how she had to come out as gay, but she didn’t have to come out as Black. And so she’s talking about these two very, you know, marginalized or oppressed identities and presents it in this almost like a rhetoric piece to the audience to get them to understand.
Also that’s one of the only times where I feel like I want to be a bit of an authority figure in a way where I’m like, just don’t do this. So I do have a list I’m like sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, which is, I think still the most common thing that people want to joke about. They’re like, no, it’s funny that person’s fat. And you’re like, no, it’s not funny at all.
This is why I have a lot of information in the syllabus. Often I will directly point to the syllabus and say, you know, this is what I have asked you not to write, but then I’ll address the work directly. So I will leave a comment indicating how the framing could be better used or another way that the material could be approached. So offering suggestions instead of just shutting it down completely, or I’ll ask the student questions and be like, were are you trying to say this? Or, what are you actually trying to do? Just trying to be a bit generous. Even if, even if it’s upsetting.
Excerpt from “It’s a Big Deal”
This is not a joke for frat parties. Though
I’m sure beavers still like to have a good time.
Taller than any basketball player,
beasts with wide tails, a big, floppy booty you might say.
The broad teeth on that beaver could rip off a man’s dick,
you might say. You might say the look
of these beavers’ unkempt for is retro, or disgusting.
They should have gotten a wax, gnawed off the excess.
Oh, you’re really saying something. They’re not around anymore.
Maybe extinct because of those jokes.
Killed by you all not being funny.
My most recent book came out in 2019. It is called It’s a Big Deal! with an exclamation point at the end. And it is a collection of poetry divided into four sections. Each of which, for me, were riffing on bigness or big deals. There is a section on big ideas that is all like more conceptual ideas like politics and success. There is another section that is just about extinct megafauna, which are big animals that all died. Goodbye. We miss you.
I started writing It’s a Big Deal! in 2013, when I went to the Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse, you can kind of see it from the highway because there’s huge sculptures like giant dioramas of many mammoths. So your first impression as you’re coming into Whitehorse in general is just like, oh, this is the mammoth zone. So it’s very exciting. There’s also similar sculptures of giant beavers all around the outside. It’s incredible stuff. Yeah, and then when you go inside, it’s just beautifully preserved skeletons of these, of these animals. And I just really loved it.
And there’s also a giant, weird, beautiful painting of a, of a graph of a ground sloth that I was like, Ugh, what a weirdo! Part of this also started after going there with me then going through countless images and images and images of different interpretations that people have artists of what these animals may have looked like. I’ve always loved that I’ve always loved seeing what those recreations look like, because we don’t know, you know, we don’t have photographic evidence of a mammoth or a ground sloths or, you know, uh, any of these big cats. We only know what animals look like now and can sort of interpret what they were like. And I don’t know, it’s just really fascinating to me.
And that artists changed so much, like there’s pictures of woolly, rhinoceroses illustrations, and some of the older ones just look like a horse with a horn. And then you’ll see one from, you know, 20, 30 years later. And the illustration is like super buff. It’s like really jacked looking and it’s just, yeah, I find it very amusing to see the different iterations of, of what these creatures may or may not have looked like.
I love writing about class in a way that is, uh, coming from a more working class perspective. I was raised in a working class home. I have done aside from teaching, which in some ways is kind of working class because of the pay, but not because of the, you know, the level of, of danger or, or harm that could be caused to you by that work. But, you know, I’ve worked in retail for almost all of my adult life, which I consider part of the new working class. I think yes, people who are working in the energy sector are doing dangerous work, but they’re getting paid like four or five times what people are being paid to make a coffee.
And people who are being paid to make a coffee are treated like garbage. I am really interested in the ways that—I guess because I was raised in the eighties too, you know, Reaganomics was spattered all over us—thinking about these corporate dreams that people have and how those are so—they’re really illusions. They’re a disaster. And again, I think because working in a bookstore, I’ve had to sell so many business books to ding-dongs that I guarantee you are not treating their employees. Right. And they think that, you know, reading Who Moved My Cheese is gonna make them a great person or, um, when Good to Great came out. And I remember thinking about that book so much because it was such a huge deal. And it was one of those books that to this day has never been released in a paperback. And I’m like, this is an additional part of the capitalist problem.
Like you are asking people to buy this book to improve things, and you’re never going to offer it to them at an affordable price. It is always going to be, you know, this is a $40 book. Like this is more than people make per hour. This is outrageous, it’s more than I get paid per hour to sell that book guaranteed.
Excerpt from Don’t Tell Me What to Do
Don’t tell me what to do
I probably can’t drink another shot. But I do. I drink two more. I put my leg up on the side of the pool table and stretch it, even though there’s a sign screwed into the side that says, “do not sit on pool table!” with a little clip art old man wagging his cane at me. If Gus comes out from behind that bar, I’ll just say that I’m not sitting; this is stretching, and it’s for my better health. Break the rules just enough to annoy.
Gus looks over and makes an angry face. He’s old enough to be my dad, but he acts like we were at prom together, close forever. Just because I like music from the eighties doesn’t mean we’re buddies. I like him, though. He’s always making sure the women’s washroom is kept clean, and he throws guys out the back door if they’re being assholes to me or the other girls who hang out here.
“Alex, we should go home.” Robert grabs my hand, but I pull away.
“Don’t tell me what to do.”
He knows I hate that more than anything. Being treated like a child, being told what I should do. Like the time he tried to convince me not to bring my half-coffee-half-Bailey’s into the movie theatre. No one in this town gives a shit if I want to get a little tipsy while I watch Spider-Man.
Robert is old, too. Like, he actually did hang out with Gus at prom. They’ve been friends for thirty years. They used to live in a basement together before they each got married, then divorced. Robert’s been divorced twice. Three times if you count common-law.
I don’t care that Robert and Gus both look like they’re going to ground me. I run up on stage and grab the mic from the Rocktown Hillbillies front man. He just laughs, keeps playing “Back in Black.” I belt out the lyrics. A group of girls in the back cheer, and I can see them clink their bottles of Canadian together, beer bobbling out the tops. They come up to the front and start singing along, dancing in their short denim skirts and V-neck T-shirts. They’re shouting wildly, blocking the small dance floor. Robert is trapped in the corner by the dartboard. I’ll come down when I’m ready to drink with these girls, escape into the bathroom to see if anyone has any drugs, any stories, anything fun at all.
I wrote a book of short stories. It is called Don’t Tell Me What to Do. Almost all the protagonists are women except for one young boy and it’s women of all different ages. The majority of the stories are sort of set in a rural area of BC around where I grew up in the Kootenays, in the West Kootenays. I love writing about women’s emotions. I think so often women are not supposed to be emotional. And if we are, we are supposed to only be compassionate and that’s perfectly fine. And I think we can all be more compassionate and empathetic, but it’s a little kind of boring. And if we’re talking about writing other emotions are more suited to narrative and drama and tension. And so anger is certainly one.
Also in the collection, I wanted to explore some mundane aspects of life that I think actually are bigger stories. Like I think in a lot of ways, this is a collection that deals in domesticity and kind of breaking down what that looks like. Even though it is not a traditional, you know, domestic narrative. In “Keeping Things Alive Is Too Much Work” and “Hamsters,” lawns figure prominently, which is very funny. Um, I think our obsession with lawns is very strange. You know, they’re like these extremely weird wasteful things that we spend a lot of time and money and resources trying to maintain. But the characters in both of those stories are in positions where they have to take care of things, whether it’s, uh, their families or, and the lawns, both, both, all of these things are happening.
And, um, there is a real class thing about having this perfect lawn and having a perfect family and what that looks like and to not have any imperfections and you know, people sometimes don’t have the money to maintain their lawn or their house or whatever it is.
If someone is perceived as not looking how they’re supposed to or doing what they’re supposed to do, people love to give unsolicited advice about that in a way where we can be like, Hey billionaire, you have so much money. You should give it away. Everyone’s like, don’t do that. That’s so rude. You know, you’re like, is it? Like Elon Musk could share some money. Nope. Let’s tell people that don’t have enough money that their shirt and their shoes aren’t right. And their lawn looks like garbage. And let’s really focus on things that are not relevant to the core of what, of what people really are as humans.
I teach comedy and a lot of the exercises are fun. Some of them are less fun. Some of them are really trying to do a hard things like just getting students to try and write jokes, using joke structure. Honestly, I think they find extremely frustrating because it takes time. It’s not an easy thing to learn quickly. But one specific thing I love doing, and I don’t know if anyone else will ever use this exercise, but I think it honestly has produced some of the best and funniest work in my class is we watch clips from musical comedy TV shows, and then I get them to write their own songs. So we watch a clip from the TV show, Crazy Ex-girlfriend and then another from Flight of the Conchords. And I like both of those examples because they’re real, they’re just real life kind of stories.
And then they have to take a situation from their regular life and turn it into a song. So it could be an everyday occurrence. It could be something special. But, uh, I asked them to consider the tone of the song, where is it coming from and what do you want to convey personally, and also in a larger context. And it’s just a verse chorus verse, that’s it. So during the pandemic, when I would get students to do this exercise, there was obviously a lot of toilet paper shortage talk. And there were several extremely funny songs that students wrote about, uh, trying to get toilet paper or being on the toilet and realizing they were out of toilet paper because of the toilet paper shortage. And I still remember a lot of that because it was an extremely funny trend in class. It was super funny.
I’m an adjunct. When I was an MFA student, teaching was very different. And when I was an undergrad, uh, when I was an undergrad, there were not these lectures. When I was an undergrad, you were in a small workshop. Right now, I’m redeveloping, my course, as part of this program that the university has funding for, for it to be a blended class where half of it will be asynchronous. And as I am preparing all this stuff, it just really made me think about some of my experiences being in the classroom, as both an undergrad and a grad student. To me, in my head, it feels like I’m doing a hundred times more work than people did when I was young. And someone would just write like one crappy sentence on my work and it’d be like, oh, and you’re getting paid more than me also. Cool. I love this. I love the system. It’s really working how it’s supposed to and that anyone who comes after you gets a real, a real toilet situation. And it’s super fun and cool. And it’s really working for everyone. Is that too harsh? Who cares?
Can’t Lit Intro theme
So one of the projects that I love doing is Can’t Lit the podcast that I host with Jen Sookfong Lee, and that I started with Daniel Zomparelli. And when we started it, at the time, there were no podcasts that were focused on Canadian literature. There was radio interviews and we really wanted to try and do something that was a little different. So, similar to our project, Poetry Is Dead that Daniel started that I’ve worked with him on. We wanted it to have a similar vibe within the community, that it would be something that was both a really fun project, where we would have interesting conversations, but also we could joke around. And we would take the writing and the writer seriously, but also that it would be a celebratory thing. And a lot of times we really want to talk to writers who are published by small presses because often they don’t get the same platforms that people who are publishing with bigger presses do.
And I feel the same about Real Vancouver Writers series. Every event, I really want there to be a variety of writers and genres represented. Mixing genres is really important to me as part of that series, because I think so often there can be a real limiting thing of wanting there to be, you know, fiction writers only reading with other or in conversation with fiction writers, or poets with poets. And I think all of these things speak to each other and also having an event that allows for multiple genres gives you more opportunity for more writers to read. And with that too, you know, we want to make sure that everyone gets paid for their work. And that’s another thing in terms of thinking about, you know, community practice. I don’t want to be asking people for their labour without being able to pay. And this is something I really learned from Daniel. He was always like, we can’t do things unless we’re paying people. And I was like, I agree.
Excerpt from Blind Items
A whimper, an inhale, 2 a.m. club noise from the hollow of the adjacent stall. Murmurs, a stutter of complaint. I listen through my stream. Under the wall, I don’t see feet, tottering heels, just tile and toilet. Reach a tipsy hand over and wave.
She gulps, can’t choke back her tears.
Bleats turn to sobs. I squirm under the barricade. Britney crouches over the toilet bowl fully clothed, silk shorts, sequined halter sticky with Long Island Iced Tea, tears, and despair. She clutches a roll of toilet paper. Glossy traces of her lips stain a used portion, a trail of peach sorrow that will grow longer as the night goes on, as her career drags itself along on puffs of teen possibilities, miniskirt promises that dissipate.
Graffiti clutters the stall, floor-to-ceiling celebrity photographs, a collage of faces. Then I see. Someone took time, climbed the industrial beams, clawed her face with a Sharpie, black brows, mustache, SLUT in bubble letters.
This is less tender than tabloid slander, required more effort than a quick blurb on a shiny pink blog. Maybe it was spontaneous, maybe premeditated. On the dance floor crush, she can co-mingle with bodies, music, fizzy liquids. Here, lights give her spray tan a sallow tinge. She can’t wipe away her eyes creased with pain. Her whole body could shatter at any moment. Every motion she winces, either from psychological damage, or neck strain, craned to absorb the insult.
I stroke and shush with gentle waves of my hand through strings of synthetic hair, weave my voice through the bass and titters until the two of us are all she knows. Attention gained without much trial. A wounded dog. It takes time for her to look at me. Kiss me. Her kisses a repayment, an expectation for her. Bodies together means success, means I’m a savior, an agent.
A cracked manicure grabs for my belt. I hold her off. Her head bobbles, brain rattled, heart burned by small rejections. Instead, I hold her close, head to chest, count the pop song beats of her sobs until they fade out.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Dina’s work, including her most recent poetry collection It’s a Big Deal! There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Dina Del Bucchia discusses developing her own comedic voice outside an academic setting and bringing humour to cultural critique. She discusses:
1:39 | Marrying humour to the emotional core of the story
3:15 | Encouraging students to write comedy that “punches up” in her introduction to
comedic forms class
6:09 | How seeing Wooly Mammoth skeletons at Whitehorse’s Beringia Interpretive
Centre inspired her to write her collection It’s a Big Deal!
8:44 | Writing about class from a working class perspective, and selling $40 business
books that will never be released in paperback
12:43 | Her story collection Don’t Tell Me What to Do and writing women’s anger
15:20 | Getting students to write song lyrics in class and the unexpected pandemic
content it produced
18:22 | Hosting the podcast Can’t Lit and giving a platform to writers from smaller