Shannon Stewart faces the dreadful with sly humour

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As upsetting events go, the 2007 demise of the Weekly World News was just a blip on her radar. It was, after all, the tabloid that dreamed up the infamous Bat Boy-remember when he bit Santa Claus and helped find Saddam Hussein? "It was the best tabloid for the bizarro-crazy, circus-freaky stories," said Shannon Stewart, poet, teacher-in-training, and authority on things bizarro-crazy. " 'Hero Turkey Saves Family of Six!' The headlines were way better than the stories."

Inside Penny Dreadful (Véhicule Press, $16), Stewart's new book of poetry, she's a pretty dab hand at titles herself: "Man Jailed After Sucking the Toes of Three Unsuspecting Women"! "Gay Disaster Dooms Dinosaurs"! Off the page, she's not sure she's having fun yet. There's the wee question of what people will make of this penny dreadful of hers.

"There are some disturbing elements," Stewart told the Straight on a recent afternoon, arriving at a Crosstown coffee joint muddy and sweaty from a Cultus Lake retreat with her classmates in Simon Fraser University's teaching-certificate program. At least, she claimed muddiness and sweatiness, but she came off exactly as, well, girlishly fresh-faced as she appears in her book-jacket photo. For the record, her poems are not as nice as she looks.

"I couldn't not write this," she said of Penny Dreadful. Some of it disturbs her and makes her uncomfortable. She was yet more disturbed and uncomfortable writing it, but she wrote anyway. It is a far grittier, grislier, riskier thing than her award-nominated first collection, The Canadian Girl. It is what she reluctantly calls the "Pickton poems", "the Downtown Eastside missing-women poems."

She didn't set out to write about the disappearing women of the Downtown Eastside. When body parts were turning up on Robert Pickton's Coquitlam pig farm in early 2002, Stewart-who has a master's degree in creative writing from UBC-was composing "Crazy Jane" poems, after W. B. Yeats's canny old prostitute. " 'Crazy Jane Talks With the Bishop' is one of my favourite poems," she said. "But the missing women leaked into my consciousness."

Her consciousness leaked into an entire book. The book is funny, horrifying, bizarre, rawly sexual, and heart-rending, frequently all at once. "Certain stories," she said, "get under your skin."

Under her skin were things that needed out: Stewart's husband, Michael Diner, an art director and production designer, was working on Da Vinci's Inquest, filming in the Downtown Eastside. He walked the police beats, taking photos. The couple discussed nightly what he saw. In the media, missing-women stories mushroomed. She recalled the prostitutes who had worked the edges of her former East Side neighbourhood. Then, a mentally ill, drug-addicted woman with two children moved into the "white bread" neighbourhood where she, Diner, their 15-year-old daughter, and 11-year-old son now live.

"You think, wow, that's really, really tough," Stewart said. "When you consider your own life, you realize how easy it is for things to go wrong. We put judgments on people, cache away our empathy in fear and repugnance, but really, we're all in this. I think we have to stop thinking 'us and them', 'white and aboriginal', 'rich and poor'. Ultimately, it's hard to turn away." Also tricky to ignore was what she called "the visitation".

"I had the sense of coming home and my house felt haunted," Stewart said. "I felt haunted. Then I knew I had to write that poem." That was "63 Missing From the Low Track", in which the poet finds the missing women in her house, cleaning, cooking, washing undies: "That's not mine, I say / I have never owned anything lacy and red". She calls cabs, hustles them all off to their fate.

"It was one of those terrible poems to write. I didn't want to dig deeper. I thought, 'How can I write about this?' People said, 'How can you write a poem about this?' " She wrote more poems, then she dismissed them.

Véhicule poetry editor Carmine Starnino didn't. "He said, 'Let's do the book. These belong in the book.' They were the ones I'd written off as garbage. He had the vision."

If this feels heavy, fret not. While there's no dodging the dreadful, this horror show has slyly entertaining homages not only to today's sensationalistic rags but also to the original, lurid Victorian penny-dreadful tabloids. "I think that out of something horrifying, you can laugh," she said. "If your tone is earnest, it's painful."

And women, tragic, touching, ribald, and tough, are everywhere. They're wooed by pigs, they wing away astride houseflies, they are "tomatoes in a hot garden, all scent and staked flesh". "We're all part of this sexual economy, this sisterhood," Stewart said. "We're all linked to the sexual predatory realm. Essentially, we're all selling ourselves, wired to seek mates. That was kind of an ah-ha moment."

Really, the book was one big ah-ha moment. "If there's anything I learned, it's step forward," Stewart said. "You're probably going to get your feet dirty, but you have to say something."

Penny Dreadful will be launched at 7 p.m. tonight (October 16), at the Railway Club (579 Dunsmuir Street).

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