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'Hello Nice Man' by Jaclyn Desforges and Canada’s Changing Poetics: MFA Earners as Small Business Feminist Entrepreneurs During the Era of Far-Right Politics

By Terry Trowbridge

Feminist poetics in a far-right Canada 

Jaclyn Desforges’ first poetry chapbook, Hello Nice Man (from Anstruther Press, 2019), can be read as something like an artist’s statement. In 2019, Desforges was a new voice in Canadian writing, who had made impressions in journals such as The Minola Review, Contemporary Verse 2, and untethered. Desforges was following in the footsteps of major Canadian writers and critics, thanks to her education in Cultural Studies at York University and an MFA in creative writing at the University of British Columbia. Unlike the typical Canadian experience of attending university within one’s home province, Desforges’ education immediately established her as a national, rather than regional, poet. Furthermore, her early career began with an international presence through the Amherst Writers and Artists Method, and therefore her writing was, and is, bound to be received differently in the USA and in Canada. In the future, literary critics should look for opportunities to compare the different kinds of success Desforges finds in either nation’s literary circles and culture industries.

Desforges also has training in journalism, which at first seems like an unlikely career gamble for a young Canadian. Canadian journalism is in a decades-long process of de-professionalization. News is a rapidly diminishing media industry under an international shadow of rapidly metastasizing disinformation cultures: mem-driven amateur fake news and offshore low-cost content providers. Professional journalism, however, aligns Deforges with some of her contemporary women of colour poets who live on the shore of Lake Ontario, for example, Hana Shafi (Shafi, 2018, 2020), who has a journalism degree and retains connections to Ryerson Toronto Metropolitan University. 

Therefore, in the context of journalism’s professional dissipation, along with peers like Hana Shafi, maybe Desforges’ journalism should be understood as a political commitment to engaging with the world in an evidence-based, critically intersectional way, as a Canadian woman of colour, during a historical moment when democratic political and cultural institutions are rapidly destabilizing around the world. The combination of poetry backstopped by journalistic training is the kind of “pluralist intersections” advocated by thinkers like American social justice methodologist William Connolly, for multifaceted democracy in the age of far-right disinformation and Trumpism (Connolly, 2017, 94).

In contrast to the unstable world of journalism, Desforges had, by 2019, sustained a leadership role where she has taken her future into her own hands, as an entrepreneur. She ran Nest & Story, a business that organized literary workshops in Hamilton and Toronto. Through organizing her workshops, she somewhat-blurs the lines between the traditional creative writing workshop and consulting for non-profits, such as with a series of workshops at the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre. 

The small-scale, small-business corporatization of poetry production and social justice poetics is noteworthy in itself as a phenomenon of self-privatization in a neoliberal country, Canada, that always reduces the availability of public arts grants for individual artists. However, there is also a politically oppositional aspect of small business for poetry contrasted with anti-feminist, neoconservative charities that receive more than one billion dollars at a time to lobby for patriarchal ideologues in democratic institutions (such as in federal judiciaries; see: Perez, Kroll, and Elliott, 2022). Why not use privatization and corporate law, on a tiny scale, to resist capitalist imperialist white supremacist patriarchy (hooks, 2000a)?  All of this is to say that Desforges’ peers will all have different responses to her debut poetry collection, whether they are Cultural Studies theorists, Canadian or American poets, journalists, or women of colour with leadership roles in small business and local charities with an international, intersectional style. 

Entrepreneurship matters to this generation of poets and should matter to this generation of critics. Desforges represents a new feature of what it means to be a poet. Poets are graduating MFA and Creative Writing programs, and running writing workshops as an income stream before they publish a book. Long gone is the era characterized by the Canadian cultural icon Susan Musgrave dropping out of high school and sustaining a career as a writer. Poetics is being reinterpreted as a service or product that can be hired and sold, and business ownership is increasingly the product of Creative Writing education, with a priority of establishing income streams and workshop synergy before publishing a full book’s manuscript, or even a chapbook. Poetics is now a business model. 

The idea that the liberal arts and fine arts are somehow liberated from capitalism is struggling to survive. On one hand, Francis Saunders has exploded the myth of creative writing workshops and graduate programs as means to personal freedom, with their seminal book about The Cultural Cold War (Saunders, 2013). Creative writing MFAs proliferated in North America because of CIA funding, as a culture-based propaganda tool for opposing socialism and propping up capitalism.

Put another way: sustaining liberal arts-based feminist organizing and college-educated women like those who produced the cultures that nurtured brilliance like, say, Susan Sontag’s essays (Sontag, 1966, 263-274), are stuck in an endless cycle of capital co-opting feminists co-opting capital co-opting feminists…with no end in sight (Salvage Collective, 2021, 9). Even the cyberfeminist poetics (Phoca and Wright, 138-144) of activists like, for instance, Laboria Cuboniks (Cuboniks,2018; Hester, 2018, 70-138), is ironically beholden to Peter Thiel, Elon Musk, and other patriarchal capitalist moguls of platform capitalism (Smicek, 2017). Poets are aware; but the pessimism each generation faces when they confront capital’s creep can be debilitating. Desforges is a leader as an entrepreneur because capitalism’s creep is Zerglike in turning resources into forgotten goo. Writing grants and tenured professorships, writer residencies, and paying audiences for poetry books, are at the cost-cutting mercy of merciless neoliberalism and neoconservatism, both with literary culture roots a hundred years deep. Small business has become a valid platform for attempting to achieve personal freedoms, and if poetry survives on that ironically slippery platform, at least it is a ledge to grasp.

 On another front, some feminist theorists oppose the suggestion that women-owned business is a form of liberation, because those corporate leadership positions require women to simply reproduce patriarchy and exploitation (Arruza, Bhattacharaya, and Fraser, 2019, 1-6). Those same feminist theorists, though, redirect attention to the damage done by capitalism to “social reproduction” and the maintenance of the family (Ibid., 72-80). Social reproduction is, for the most part, the unifying theme of the poems in Desforges’ Hello Nice Man. Desforges is not, at the moment, an oxymoronic patriarchal figure of the “girl boss” analogous with Facebook COO Sharyl Sandberg, former Wal*Mart Board of Directors member and former US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, or Canada’s legacy business mogul and Member of Parliament Belinda Stronach. Desforges’ training for a small business entrepreneur in MFA courses is a different structure than the Ivy League Law degrees that lead to the business culture of transnational corporations.

Future analysis of poetry by a workshop entrepreneur is, at least partially, a reflection on what individual poems can signal about the poet as a member of a community of entrepreneurs, and community leadership, through for-profit workshops or with charitable and non-profit clients. The major message of Desforges’ professional website was that she is a small business owner, therefore her first chapbook can be read as a signal of her self-identified leadership role in her community, empowered through her enterprise but personalized through the poems’ messages. Her place in the poetic community is further underscored by being published by the Canadian Anstruther Press instead of self-publishing, like other women of colour small business owner poets (for example, Meena Chopra who publishes her own poems, pastel art and paintings under her own Starbuzz media business imprimatur).


Hello nice poems

The poems of Hello use language that is accessible to all readers, whether read to oneself or aloud to an audience. The imagery is clear, the syntax is direct, and the poems are easy to visualize because they contain objects and pastimes that are part of daily life in southern Ontario, but also North America as a region of similar family homes and household economies. The meanings of the poems, however, are complicated descriptions of gender and what sociologists refer to as “standpoint” (Harding, 2003). The scenes are easy, but the interactions of the people in them are reactions to conflicts of gender and self-image. The people are difficult to parse, which is why this book is an important contribution to politicized, contradictory, twenty-first-century Canadian conversations about gender.

Hello’s poems are written in order to clarify the standpoints of men and women in our society, as they live with each other, in the presence of men’s violence against women. The images are never gratuitous and always direct our attention to empathy, by analyzing emotions, rather than to physical damage or moments of distress. But the poems are written from the point of view of someone who has experienced some form of domestic abuse, possibly physical assault by a romantic partner. The narrator has, furthermore, been through a period of recovery and is writing about regaining her dignity and new standpoint for knowing herself and knowing her abuser. It is unclear if all of the poems address living with her abuser or with different men; but to some extent, self-knowledge and conflicts are questions all women must wonder about the men they live with. 

The narrator, like Desforges, is a mother of a small girl, and her daughter’s relationship to the narrator’s abuser is unclear. Desforges would rather explore the daughter’s relationship to her mother. Because these processes of pain, harming, healing, and perspective, take time, young readers might not connect with the meanings of the poems, even though the imagery is memorable. Hello is written by a mature writer and requires an adult audience to appreciate it as the contribution to social theory that it is. The audience need not be academic, but they must be experienced.

There is one, unstated, social fact behind the logic of poems in this collection: Every man is implicated in men’s ability to sexually assault any woman, if they chose to use that power. Assault is choice for men to make, and there is no way to prevent them from choosing; to be masculine is to be potentially brutal. Men who are not abusers are gentle by choice, and not because of extrinsic limitations. All twelve of the poems address either one of two consequences of the facts of men’s gendered violence. 

One, is that regardless of the implied threat of gendered violence, every man can have an image of himself as being a “nice man.” Because of his potential for violence, that self-image is always steeped in hypocrisy. Two, is that every woman, in order to find peace, has to rely on her own ability to create a personal space, along with a mental state, that is independent of the social reality. That means every woman is alone in her attempt to find peace. In order to find that peace, she must negotiate with herself, by negotiating with her own awareness of men’s violence, with her awareness of their abilities to choose to be violent or refrain from their using power. Every woman has to construct her own awareness of “men” as an abstract or socially constructed group. 

Inevitably, that means every woman must cope with the fragile, sometimes reliable, sometimes unreliable, claim that there are, in fact, nice men. Some of these poems are about nice men’s hypocrisy. Some of these poems are about finding peace in the isolated lulls of a violent social fact.

Hello does not begin with men. Rather, the poem “Hello Nice Man” (12) appears in the middle of the book, the central problem. This poem’s particular man has a self-image of restraint, of but since the power to revoke his own image is his own power, his image is arbitrary. He is, by analogy, the “Old Testament God/with morning wood that means nothing” able to betray her without signs or reasons. Even his self-image as a man who rejects gendered violence becomes weaponized, as another way to deny he is the sort of man who would hurt her. 

You don’t believe in violence against women

against me. You don’t believe in abandonment

until you abandon me.

His violence, whatever it was, is part of his identity. It is visible in his relationships. She is no longer connected to this particular man, but someone must be in his life, “Somewhere a child is learning not to cough around you.” Men’s arbitrary betrayals begin early in life, and become the basis for women’s self-images, early in life, “You’re a hoarder plucking buds from my stems.” In a way, the title poem is a sociological poem, but also a sociolegal poem. Canada is a jurisdiction with a history of arbitrary and contradictory laws about implied consent and long-term relationships (Plaxton, 2015). The stability of a living together is an unsafe stability.

What do those limits look like? The metaphorical poem, “I’d Rather Be Drab” (13), is about the effort that it takes for insect moths to become extraordinary, and in the context of Hello, suggests various defensive reactions to being a victim of violence. For instance, there is a suggestion of trauma-induced eating disorders, “Beautiful moths do not have mouths…the crecropia moth…lacking…a working digestive system.” There is a hint of sexualized ideal beauty standards, and the limiting trap that marriage or monogamy can become, “…she can only mate,” having spent their entire lives as caterpillars preparing for their two weeks of moth life. Desfogres, however, chooses drabness, because unbeautiful moths “feast on wedding gowns” and are not kept by collectors. She rejects patriarchal beauty standards and rejects men’s attention. The poem is ambivalent about the social cost to herself, if she is drab, if she rejects socially symbolic acts like the care and keeping of a wedding dress.

The poem “In Which an Incel Steps On A Snail” (14-15), is an analysis of the power of the Incel movement, and this poem could become required reading for journalists and media activists who look for Canadian reactions to the well-documented violence of the Incel constituency (Nagle, 2017). Desforges has found a way to dismiss the power of individual Incel members. As a movement, they want to punish individual women because of the Incel fantasy that coordinated injustices are perpetrated by women as a group. Incel is an ideology that imagines a reversal of the power dynamic behind men’s violence against women, in order to justify the Incel’s desire to punish particular women. Incel gives a false narrative to a man’s arbitrary use of his power. 

Desforges, though, recognizes the potential for any man to be arbitrary, sudden, and to change his mind about hurting a woman, even if he lives his life decrying violence and misogyny up until that private moment. The Incel self-image as a man who wants to hurt women is of little real consequence to whether he will hurt a particular woman, or not. And, readers might furthermore add, a man need not believe in Incel ideology, but can use his dissociation from them to justify his own violence. A man does not believe in Incel motivations until he simply does. For Desforges, GamerGaters, Men’s Rights Activists, and the Incel movement are crisis inflection points in the media, but their threats are banal.

However, “In Which an Incel Steps On A Snail” goes further than a critique and a declamation. Deforges recognizes the Incel persecution complex as a fantasy. Because their self-declared persecution is a misinterpretation, and their threats are a misguided but normalized fact of gender dynamics that, although odious, is, in actual fact, not more threatening than a father, brother, or lover’s mere existence, Desforges can suggest a kind of remedy. She offers patient detachment. If an Incel member remains, himself, patient, then at some point, a woman will offer him the relationship he wants. If he does not “despair” and, presumably, if he can resist his urge to punish even though he is depressed or humiliated, a relationship with another woman will, in time, come.

Nevertheless, Desforges is resistant to Incel ideology. Her theory of acceptance of their feelings as banal, and the potential for them to be saved, leaves questions unanswered about the larger presence of misogyny in society. Men are either violent or they choose not to be violent. In the lives of women, men are either fully present or they are peripheral. While they negotiate their own self-image, women play some role in men’s conversations about power. The last poems in Hello are about the unavoidable burden women take on, in order to be part of those conversations. In Hello, there is no obvious social theory for men taking responsibility for peace among each other, and no explanation for any particular man’s ability to process his emotions. Otherwise, we rely on his hypocrisy, even though hypocrisy is largely inexplicable. Without a dialogue with women, without some kind of omniscient psychoanalysis, maybe the hypocrisy of any particular man is tautological, and practically speaking, axiomatic.

Hello Nice Man begins with two poems that establish the narrator’s distance from men, as well as her peace of mind. The first poem, “Things That Fade” (4), begins on the hopeful note that trauma, given time, can leave a mark on the body, but the mark does fade. Given time, the narrator has found a life where she passes without the unwanted attention of men. “Men don’t look at me anymore” she explains, although there is something about the priorities of men, rather than her own ingenuity, that account for her protection. She has a pixie cut and a baby, fine lines on her face, and no interest in the men around her. Haircuts, beauty: these are things that also fade, and there is some security that with time, so will men’s attention.

It is the “lost cause” of her disinterest that the narrator thinks requires more thought. In the first poem of the book, the narrator’s intentions are subtle. On a second reading, though, the importance of this question, “Can they [men] tell it’s a lost cause?” is really, “Can they [women] tell it’s a lost cause?” a question about women’s personal agency.

The second poem, (and the last to be individually reviewed here), is titled “Lacuna” (5). There is no mention of men in this poem. She has found a physical place without them: her yard, with her toddler, playing. Even in the presence of her toddler, she is alone in her contemplation of her self-image and her safety. Her daughter is introduced to the idea of a harm that is projected onto her by her environment, “the graze of light sunburn,” a kind of parallelism for the male gaze. The sunburn, as a literary conceit, also becomes a way to treat the male gaze not as something with agency or personality, but an impersonal condition of being alive. However, that meaning for sunburn as a literary conceit is only possible because of the context of “Lacuna” in this collection of poems. What “Lacuna” provides for the reader is a promise, based on personal experience, that victimization is not necessarily permanent. Danger is not necessarily omnipresent. It is possible to create a home where there are hours, days, weeks of safety. There is privacy. There is self-satisfaction. There is family on your own terms. 

The questions to ask are materialistic and geographical. “Things That Fade” suggests that danger diminishes at the same rate that physical damage fades. There is a question of when a woman will be safe. “Lacuna” tells us to ask where women are safe. And, with whom are women safe? A woman can make a home that is safe for her. A woman can be safe with her daughter. Desforges draws the reader’s attention to the mundane parts of life, “This isn’t about…that possum spooked” but social reproduction, “It’s the rest of it – the biannual/scrubbing of the outdoor windows,/that porch at dusk with dry Riesling…” 

There is a risk in writing poems like those in Hello Nice Man. In a poem about desire and longing for stability, one of Desforges’ peers, the Markham, Ontario, poet Arina Kharlamova has written, “let me love you the way I know how to love./If you are not who you say you are,/I will know/Because I will start keeping a tally” (Kharlamova, 2016, 9-11). Desforges takes a risk of creating only a politics of resentment, thereby leading her readers into a state of  Nietzschean ressentiment and bitterness. There is no need for poetry that exclusively treats social reproduction as a kind of punishing imprisonment for women, however necessary the poetic consciousness of oppression can be. Desforges needs to offer her readers a remedy to their bitter experiences in “Lacuna,” but does she?

The poem “Lacuna” is beautiful and hopeful. Aesthetically beautiful interludes are a requirement for poets and for activists, in order to make a sociopolitical point about the rewards for taking time and creating safe spaces. Readers should think about social reproduction’s contrast between the mundane satisfactions of housekeeping, distinguished from the banal threats of Incel punishments. That is the contrast that makes everyday life either patriarchal or feminist. That is where Desforges’ poetry points to our individual theories, as women and as men, for social change and liberation from our oppressors.

Conclusions for Canadian poetry and social change

Hello Nice Man by Jaclyn Desforges is an important piece of art, in the context where it was written, Hamilton, Ontario. In the year 2018, Hamilton had Canada’s highest rate of police-reported hate crimes in Ontario (Moro, 2018). Currently, Hamilton is Jaclyn Desforges's home, but she is a traveler who could easily create, for herself, a feminist geography, anywhere in the USA or in Canada. Her readers might embark on exactly that travel project. For Desforges, as a poet, the reason Hello Nice Man is a unique artist’s statement to make, is that it introduces her not at the beginning of her healing journey, nor as a victim of gendered violence. One of the most important contributions of feminism to social theory is that all social theorists must, at some point in their careers, present some kind of thesis about gender binaries and the inequalities of power between men and women (hooks, 2000b; Fraser, 2013, 1-16). Hello Nice Man is exactly that kind of thesis. She is empowered to carry her theory forward into the non-profit shelter spaces where the theory can be put into action as healing and protection, thanks to her role as workshop designer and entrepreneur.

Desforges is a social theorist as well as a poet, an entrepreneur, a mother, and a Cultural Studies graduate. This chapbook belongs in workshops and Sex Ed classes for women and men, but not necessarily for young, inexperienced readers (with the exception of “In Which an Incel Steps On A Snail” for Sex Ed courses in high school, for both boys and girls to discuss). This chapbook belongs in the offices of social workers in need of a reference to share with patients (Martain et al., 2014, 1-5). In the backpacks of teenage girls, it could be a sort of gazetteer of future inner thoughts.

Hello, as a chapbook, is poison to Incel ideologues. Hello Nice Man should be read by the police who monitor online Incel communities for their potential terrorism, for this is the sociolegal theory that will help women to protect themselves from the next GamerGate. Or, more likely, this book should be shared by the police whose typical day involves protecting women from the capricious power of men who love them (Maynard, 2017; Merlo, 2013; Schulman, 81-110). As a potential artist’s statement for a nationwide consciousness raiser and poet based in Hamilton, Ontario, Hello Nice Man is a debut that empowers the reader. Desforges has given us a gift.

Works cited

Arruzza, Cinzia; Bhattacharya, Tithi; and Fraser, Nancy. Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto. 

London: Verso Books.

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the Age of Trumpism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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Crisis. London: Verso Books.

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Hester, Helen. (2018). Xenofeminism. Cambridge: Polity.

hooks, bell. (2000a). Where We Stand: Class Matters. New York: Routledge.

hooks, bell. (2000b). Feminist Theory: From margin to Center. Cambridge: South End Press.

Kharlamova, Arina.(2016). for want of exhaustion. Untethered 2(2), 9-11. 

Martin, Ruth; Korchinski, Mo; Fels, Lynn; and Leggo, Karl. (2014). An invitation to Readers. In 

Ruth, Martin, et al., Eds. Arresting Hope: Women taking Action in Prison Health Inside Out. Toronto: Inanna Publications.

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Breakwater Books.

Moro, Teviah. (2018, April 27). Hamilton has highest rate of police-reported hate crimes in 

Canada. The Hamilton Spectator. Retrieved from:

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Trump and the Alt-Right. Winchester: Zero Books.

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Handed His Fortune to the Architect of the Right-Wing Takeover of the Courts. ProPublica. Retrieved from:

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Autonomy, and Voice.  Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Saunders, Frances. (2013). The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters. 

London: The New Press.

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and the Duty of Repair. Vancouver: Arenal Pulp Press.

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Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Picador, 263-274.


About the Writer:

Terry Trowbridge is a Canadian living on Lake Ontario, a plum farmer, a sociolegal researcher, a book reviewer, and a Pushcart nominee. His poetry and essays have appeared in something like 100 different journals, zines, and chapbooks. His Erdős number is 5.


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