Other recent books include Franzlations (with Hugh Thomas; New Star), The Obvious Flap (with Gregory Betts; BookThug) and The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House.) He was Young Voices eWriter-in-Residence at the Toronto Public Library in Fall of 2013 and he will be Writer-in-Residence at Western University in 2014-2015. Barwin received a PhD (music composition) from SUNY at Buffalo.
Barwin is winner of the 2013 City of Hamilton Arts Award (Writing), the Hamilton Poetry Book of the Year 2011, and co-winner of 2011 Harbourfront Poetry NOW competition, the 2010 bpNichol chapbook award, the KM Hunter Artist Award, and the President’s Prize for Poetry (York University). His young adult fiction has been shortlisted for both the Canadian Library Association YA Book of the Year and the Arthur Ellis Award. He has received major grants from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council for his work.
He lives in Hamilton, Ontario and at garybarwin.com.
Four Poems by Gary Barwin
for Carmel Purkis
We use our mouths to carry birds
We so often carry pitchforks
History is holes to fill
We so often carry birds
Our heads are marble busts in a museum
We hardly remember the missing limbs
We so often use the wind for a mouth
What is missing is also pitchforks
The mouth: birds made of pitchforks
a museum for farmers
Look through the mouth at the haystack of birds
filled with holes we think of as flying
We use our mouths to carry birds
We could carry pitchforks or kings
We spit birds out like the history of birds
Here: a ticket to the museum
In bed, China is a baby kitten. India purrs expectantly. America twists on its back, shows me its belly. They’re jealous. Here China. Here’s milk. Let me scratch you. Let me love you, poor frail thing. Come under my long moustache, China, for it protects those over which its thin shadow falls. My rock n’ roll hydroelectric brain, my bird’s nest calligraphic heart. Each border between cell wall and cell wall, the delicate tracing of ink. A nostalgia for a future. China, there you were on my doorstep. Your thin cry, your scrabbling paws. The moon is a superpower. I hold you in my arms, whisper to your economy, your ecological disaster, your hope. China, the world is a superpower. We comfort each other.
The New Squeeze
A new accordion because the accordion is the world and it should do more than push and pull. The hiss and sigh, the 1 and 0, the squeeze and press are three dimensions only, considering time. But what of Newton’s up and down, sink and rise, backward and forward, away and toward, what of the new tessitura of spacetime, the infolding diapason within the electron, the asymptotic passacaglias of hadrons, the tiny cassotto of exotic mesons and tetraquarks? There’s a cave filled with the shadows of accordions or of accordion music. There’s a pyre of accordions alight. We cannot know if the accordion plays or not, or is inflamed, or both. The caged accordion observed is not the incorporeal accordion true. An accordion may be dimensionless polka or a chatroom hora, but we cannot know if it is Mozart, if its shadows play the numinous ompah of root and fifth, if our true love wrapped in an accordion is but an emergent system of grace notes and obligatos drawn from our connected minds, or stripped naked to the waist, what risk is ours to play. Inside the accordion, the vast multidimensional darkness of the possible; above us, the constellation of buttons and keys, the dance pattern of what we know already and would now like to forget.
The Sleep of Elephants
On its side, half-covered in blanket, the elephant fills the bed, its slow breathing a confession, the consolation of lungs. The elephant, its shadow skin, cobweb-coloured. I am a road, grey and endless, leading out from the fog-bound house. I am an elephant also, if only in solidarity.
World, I say, your parking meters and slate roofs, your storm clouds and uncertainties, pencil leads and the rain. You have always been elephantine, winding through the half-lit maze, your baleful trumpeting and subaudible song. Mouse, you whale of the wainscot; bat, you whale of dusk, you are elephants seen through the multifaceted eyes of insects. All roads are elephants, all bathtubs, laundromats, and reference texts. What is plural is elephant. What is singular. A rural road, I fly alone in the night sky, itself a dark road with no border but the horizon and the rich elephantine earth, a constellation of shadows.
I find a pillow, half-buried beneath the vast foreleg of the elephant. I wash my hands, my face. I lie down beside the elephant which is dying. I do not hear, but feel the elephant’s murmuring, the worlds it speaks in consolation, time, a kind of twilight articulated in sound. I sleep beside its universe, its inhalations and outbreaths, a slow expansion and contraction of the rolling curves of its body. If there are stars, they have closed their eyes, they are past shining outward.
Elephant, old man, old woman, what is beyond old man and woman. Landscape, helium, dust; settlement, spacetime, nest. Let us be governed by twilight, or the twilight of twilight which is a shadow in the mirror. Elephant, there are others, too, who will find you, who will bring you the consolation of sleep. The somnolent rest with you, march beside you into night. And when you turn, deep in your dream, our crushed bones will become, like a comet’s dust, a radiant trail of loss and return, an elephant.
Interview with Gary
(Interview by Kevin Heslop for London Open Mic Poetry Night)
KH: As Burgess has his Cervantes say: “God is a comedian. God does not suffer the tragic consequences of a flawed essence. Tragedy is all too human. Comedy is divine.”
This collection has been noted for containing your “trademark humour”; the words “goofiness” and “witty” also find the back cover. Any response to Burgess’ Cervantes quotation? What, in your opinion, is unique to humour, and of what importance is it to the human condition?
GB: Look how I’m windmilling my arms around while Burgess charges at me with his “Take all of creation…Please!” It’s because I disagree with his Cervantes. I believe comedy is inherently human exactly because tragedy is inherently human. After consciousness—and an awareness that we have ‘lives’ and ‘feeling’, comedy is one of the great existential technologies that we humans have discovered. And we needed to, exactly because of this consciousness.
This existential comedy includes the inherent comedy of communication. We’re mimes on a telephone. Underwater. But this comedy is deeply, darkly beautiful. It speaks of our affection, our connection to our experience, to our sorrow, our joy, ourselves.
The traditional Jewish line is that “we laugh to keep from crying.” And as David Foster Wallace puts it about Kafka, “the deeper alchemy by which Kafka's comedy is always also tragedy, and this tragedy [is] always also an immense and reverent joy.” This suffering, this joy, this ungainly staggering in uncertainty, contingency, and conflict is ridiculous and is ours, is our comedy and tragedy, and so, without being able to help it, we can’t but love it. It not only helps us keep going, but is a tool of understanding and knowledge. It unpacks. It questions. It wonders.
What’s funnier than finding half a worm in your apple?
KH: The poem “civilization” seems to explore the contrast between unbeautiful action and artful stasis, or, perhaps - and I’m tentative because there’s a porous quality to this collection which eludes interpretational mettle - the rift between gymnastic academia and an earthier workforce, the bourgeois and the proletariat, say. The lines “Our heads are marble busts in the museum / We hardly remember the missing limbs” and, later, “We use our mouths to carry birds / We could carry pitchforks or kings” seem to support this interpretation.
Having been involved in and recognized by both the marketplace and the ivory tower, (1) how have these two worlds influenced your work, (2) do you in fact see them as distinct and (3) what insight(s) into the place of poetry in contemporary society as a whole has the position of writer-in-residence at Western, uniquely allowing you one foot in both camps, granted you?
GB: I’m very interested in your thoughts on my poem, “Civilization.” It certainly does engage with ideas regarding the mind (thoughts) and the body—both somehow mediated by language. “We use our mouths to carry birds.” The ‘mouth’ here is both body and mind (language.) And birds, here, are, I think, both physical (birds-in-the-world) as well as the idea of birds, of language, of art. Of moving from one place to another. My notion of birds is of movement, of activity, of a connection between one modality and another (earth/sky; flight/gravity; creature/song.) You do mention “artful stasis” and “unbeautiful action.” That’s there in the birds as well as the contrast between the marble heads in the museum and the farmers and their pitchforks. Do people use pitchforks still? I always think of those wooden implement handles, smoothed and shaped by their use. I’d hope a poem could be like that, though maybe also encouraging you to perform an activity that you weren’t expecting. Making hay while the language aitches. Milking A while the language itches.
As to your question of the place of poetry in contemporary society, I’d say that it leads inevitably to the larger question of how language works in society. Of the relationship of our understanding and communication to systems which become epistemological frames such as capitalism and/or power and its team of reindeer: media, commodification, government. I have a poem:
why do we worry?
we word every earth
is in place perfect the
KH: As both a composer and poet, how do you differentiate between whether a creative impulse is to manifest musically or poetically? How liberally do the mediums overlap, in your case? To what degree is your muse forked, spliced?
GB: I have a long-standing interest in the relationship between music and literature. There are so many ways that they can connect. The way material can be patterned or organized formally, the play of rhythms, the pacing of ideas, the connection between sound and content. I’ve written many works that include both music and spoken text—my doctoral dissertation was a composition that used an interactive music program which created music from the speech patterns of a spoken text. And I write and perform sound poetry exploring the nonsemantic elements of language and its performative aspects.
I try to allow the material to suggest where it might go, so it is more of a question of how particular material attracts my attention and makes me wonder or inspires me to explore it further. I feel that the material dictates the medium. Of course, a particular sound might inspire a short story just as much as a composition. Its texture, its synaesthetic association, its heft might result in words as much as sound, or in an image as much as a narrative.
KH: You mentioned David Foster Wallace, the titanic post-modern, and in many ways, post-television writer, who once said: “I was raised to view television as my main artistic snorkel to the universe, and I think television, that’s a commercial art, that’s fun, that requires very little of the recipient of the art, I think affects what people are looking for in various kinds of art.”
Firstly, to what degree do you see capitalism and art fused and, perhaps more importantly, extricable? And secondly, with or without reference to the above quotation, how intimately aware during composition are you of your audience?
GB: I love the phrase, “main artistic snorkel.” Is that the internet now? Or is the net both snorkel and ocean? Or, a ‘net’ as in fishing net or ‘net’ as in opposed to ‘gross’? Either way, a tough net to crack, a daft knot to crock, a titch gnat to creak.
I think it is one of the roles of any art (and certainly for a thoughtful audience) to unpack our assumptions and, indeed, the assumptions inherent in the transaction that is art. You know the phrase, “the male gaze”? Identifying this concept helps us to be aware of what is implicitly being constructed in certain communications or texts. I think interacting with art (and more specifically literature) asks us to consider what is our gaze, what are the gazes implied by the work. So, at least in this way, I believe, art can have some independence from capitalism (even when it is entangled with it) by allowing us to reckon with its relationship to capitalism, and by allowing us to ‘look under the hood’ and allow us a glimpse of how it’s all working. Now give me twenty dollars.
In answering your question about considering audience, my word processing program accidentally created a smiley-face emoticon. J Doesn’t that seem apt? I thought you’d think so, dear readers. I think I am aware of audience. Some of my awareness is internalized, sometimes I’m aware that I’m creating a piece for a certain context. The best times, though, for me, are when I’m ‘in the zone,’ that is, when I’m visited by the muse of lack-of-self-consciousness and follow the writing (whatever kind of writing that is), the resonances, pulses, gravities, physics, and allure of the language as if I were in a direct relationship with it, though of course that relationship is highly constructed by context, culture, implied notion of audience, reading practice, etc.
KH: I spoke recently to Western’s own professor Joel Faflak, asking him to respond to the slightly sardonic statement: “The Tweet shall inherit the Verse.” He replied, in part, as follows:
“On one hand, that’s dictated by the fact that your generation apparently has a much shorter attention span than mine did. I don’t know necessarily if that’s true or not, but the technology that you’ve grown up with has forced upon you a completely different way of processing information. ...My generation was taught about depth and verticality, you know, looking beneath the surface or above in the skies. Your generation works across the surface. And I’m not saying that one is better than the other, I’m saying that they’re both integral. But what it’s ended up producing is the sound byte.”
Your response? As a writer of youth fiction in particular, do you feel in any way obliged to address, forced to adapt to or constrained by the virtual ubiquity of social media platforms and the technology which makes it tick?
GB: I don’t know that I agree that there is something inherently different in the cognitive abilities or processing proclivities of the “youth” today that results in ‘sound bytes.’ I actually think that the sound byte (and the phenomenon of ‘click bait’ social engagement/analysis) is a result of the way a particular approach to commodity drives the media to pursue certain forms of engagement with its audience. Click on this link. You won’t believe what happens next. It’s not what you expect. In this interview, I seem to come across as all Marxist in my analysis, but I think that it is too easy to put the cart before the horse—in this case, the media (the horse) as passively responding to its audience (the cart)— instead of the correct way round. It is true that with the rise of the internet and access to massive amounts of data (and the ability to perform “distance reading” as Franco Moretti puts it) we are able to consider things in a different way, and our daily lives are certainly “mediated” by social media and the net in a different way than before, but, do we really fundamentally process information differently? Is it just that we have access to different data sets, and are able to process information differently? I don’t know that we (or “the youth today”) all are in a state of “continuous partial attention” (to use Linda Stone’s term) continuously or inherently.
Professor Faflak’s contends that his “generation was taught about depth and verticality.” I want to say that “horizontality is the new verticality,” and that “surface is the new depth.” You just have to lie down and everything is different. But it is true that there is a deeper sense of context when one is able to consider a broader range of data. If you are able, instead of burrowing deep down into the canon, to consider the wider field of literature, does that necessarily produce “the sound byte”—i.e. a simple often glib summation without insight or context?
But I haven’t yet answered your question about writing youth fiction. Sorry. Short attention span. My last post on Facebook was getting lots of likes. Weird. Because I posted it on tumblr while tweeting with instagrammatic snapchatitude while twerking dilithium on LinkedIn. Much amaze.
But writing youth fiction is about creating a perspective that youth can engage with, so that necessarily includes considering the technological, material, and interactional realities of their lives. This doesn’t mean that the work has to include explicit references to these things—and with material things its easy to miss the subtleties and specificities of their experience, or to condemn a work to a very short best-before date—but it does mean being aware of them. I think it is more about entering the youth zeitgeist. Or to be aware of it while guiding them somewhere else. Just like any piece of creative work.
WHERE: The Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, covered terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60 poetry lovers. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. Except for the coldest months, the terrace is open to the parking lot behind. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: Wednesday, Feb. 4th, 2015
MUSIC: We are quieting down our music to allow for easier conversation than was possible in the past. Consequently, we will have live accompanying music from 6:30 to 7:00, or, if we can't get a musician, piped-in restaurant music.
THE FEATURED POET: Gary Barwin will open the poetry portion of the event at 7:00, followed by a Q&A.
OPEN MIC: Following the featured poet, 15 open mic poets will read for about 1.5 hours, ending about 9:00 pm. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). Sign up on the reader`s list, which is on the book table at the back. It's first come, first served.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates to London Open Mic Poetry Night receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked after the intermission. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by Brick Books and The Ontario Poetry Society. Donations are our only source of income. We still haven't paid off our initial debt!
New book: Moon Baboon Canoe (Poetry, Mansfield Press, Spring 2014)
I, Dr. Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457 (fiction; Anvil Press, Spring 2015)
Sonosyntactics: Selected and New Poetry of Paul Dutton (Laurier Poetry Series, Spring 2015)
Yiddish for Pirates (novel; Random House Canada, 2016)