The King of [Canadian] Arts [Awards]: Arthur Talks with John K. Samson

(photo: Jason Halstead)

John K. Samson is the frontman of Winnipeg power folk group The Weakerthans, Managing Editor at the self proclaimed “left leaning” Arbiter Ring Publishing, and the 3rd ex-bassist of the political punk group Propaghandi. He will be playing on September 14th at the Gordon Best Theatre with Michael Feuerstack and local hero Nick Ferrio.

John was gracious enough to spend some time answering Arthur’s questions.

I understand you are a founder of a small publishing house in Winnipeg. What is your current role with Arbiter Ring Press?

John:  I am managing editor there now, sort of my title. A.R.P. started in the same month as the Weakerthans, October 1996. So it’s been a good 16 years now. Our aim is to publish vital leftist literature and by that we mean all genres from academic and overtly political to fiction, non-fiction, cultural studies, poetry. The fundamental thesis is that written words still carry a lot of power in the world so we’re trying to build an institution that promotes that. We started it off in a building in Winnipeg, called the A-zone. We moved several years ago. [The name] stands for Autonomous zone, it’s at 91 Albert St in Winnipeg and is a building full of activists that is now owned collectively. It became a geographical focus for Winnipeg activism over the last 15-20 years. They just fundraised to purchase the building and have done that. Exciting, it will be permanent and viable for many years to come.

What do you think of the relationship between art and politics?

John: The most political things I have ever read, or pieces of art I have ever encountered, were works of fiction. I think that I adhere to the George Saunders School of fiction, who is an American short story writer. The reason that fiction is political is because it forces you to empathize with someone which makes it harder for you to kill them. It’s very fundamental, a little bit glib but true. Increasing empathy in the world, which is what I think good art does, is a really political thing. That is kind of the way I have approached it. I can’t write overtly issue-oriented material. I think there is a role for that but it’s not the way I do it.

Let’s talk about Peterborough.

John:  I am certainly familiar with Peterborough. One of our authors is Leanne Simpson, who lives in the area, who teaches Indigenous Studies. She is one of my favourite writers. Her books are the reason, at least for me, we fulfilled the purpose of starting ARP.  It was the privilege of getting to publish her.  Her book “Dancing on the Turtles Back” has a lot of information from your area of the world. It seems like there is a lot of interesting things going on.

This past spring a lot of interesting things started to happen in Quebec with student strikes against tuition increases and the public response to the provincial government’s reaction. What are your thoughts?

John:  It is inspiring. I was lucky to be in New York and San Francisco during parts of Occupy, and the Occupy genesis. The events in Montreal are thrilling, I have friends and relatives who are out there spending a lot of their time and energy on keeping it going and I think its impact is going to be felt for a long time. I go through cycles of hopefulness. Despite all the evidence that suggests we are doomed there are some remarkable things happening. The focuses of the Quebec protests are really interesting, this idea of tuition, very fundamental educational issues. I hope that it spreads to other places, not just in Canada but in the world. Education is essential, a right.

Trent was originally designed to be a classical liberal arts University.  That seems to be changing. It seems like there are few places left with that sort of mentality.

John: Commodification, commercializing, militarization of education is everywhere, it’s insidious. I didn’t go to University; most of my friends seem to teach there.  I meet a lot of students at shows. Hearing about their lives is fascinating. The life of the mind is the life I want to lead. It does require a certain base level of respect in the world that it doesn’t always receive. A well-rounded liberal education is important. An education that doesn’t have a financial end. Commerce is the goal of education these days it seems. That’s why the roots of the Quebec protest are so much deeper than just tuition; they are about how a person should live their life.

Tell us about being listed for the Polaris prize and Western Canadian Music Award.

John: Trying to break myself free of caring about arts prizes. It’s been a project this year, kind of felt that they were dumb. When short-listed for the Polaris prize I never went to the ceremony. I have never been because I feel awkward about it. I think it is an unhealthy thing, arts prizes. We should try to focus our energies on something else. I think there is a lot of interesting things about the Polaris prize as it brings all these people who write and think about music together. I was thinking maybe it would be better if we spent that prize money on a symposium of sorts, where we could all get together and talk about music we love. Or instead of awarding a prize for an album that’s already out maybe give an honorarium to 3 different musicians. One at the beginning of their career, one in the middle and a senior artist and give them money to make a record, commission things, encourage production of art.  I’m not fond of this idea of one winner who gets chunk of money and what that means. The process around it is lively and there is debate but the end is dismal.

Do you think this awards ceremony orientation is reflective of the general attitude towards music and arts in Canada?

John: Maybe. I don’t generally think about it on a Canadian scale which is why I feel sort of left out of the conversation. Arts in Canada are prize driven and inward looking and never really interested me. I’ve never really considered myself a Canadian artist.  I consider myself a regional artist. Personally, I have more in common with a writer from North Dakota than I do with a writer from Vancouver Island. For me, I think the land itself is a lot more important than people think it is.  I feel like I have to sit out of these conversations in a way. A healthier way to look at literature and music is to take away geographical border, which broadens your perspective of everything I think. My first act as king of Canadian art prizes would be to remove the words Canadian and prizes.

Listen to “When I write my Masters thesis” off Samson’s new record “Provincial”