The Gary Barwin Interview by Nathaniel G. Moore

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Let’s face it, Canadian poets will never be as exciting per capita / household as the average serial killer special on Amazon Prime or the latest morality lesson voiced by celebrity drunk drivers on Disney +.  That being said, the internet sure makes a fuss about original casting choices, all those important interviews and adult-aged speculation, hot takes and recommendations. Meanwhile, Canadian poetry (the poets – the publishers – the loving book buyers, the godlike booksellers and all the free-to-follow social media channels) operates like a beautiful swaying island of tiny ants, moving words and units and more words across every granule of sand available. Like a National Geographic film crew, early one morning, filming sea creatures being born and moving away from the water to safer (hopefully) ground, the world (should they choose to) can witness this daily miracle – as another poem, another poet, another reader is united with what the creator has created. 

The bestselling author of 26 books of fiction and poetry, Gary Barwin has won the Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour, the Canadian Jewish Literary Award, and has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Award and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. He lives in Hamilton, ON.

The Most Charming Creatures (ECW Press, 2022) explores the contemporary and its language, considering our anxiety, wonder, sorrow, bewilderment and tenderness.

A follow-up to the award-winning author’s acclaimed selected poems, this new collection continues Barwin’s examination of the possibilities of the poem: a celebration, a story, an investigation, a riff, a word machine, a parable, a transformation. But what are the “most charming creatures” of the title? In 1862, scientific illustrator Ernst Haeckel termed radiolarians (ancient single-celled organisms with mineral skeletons) “the most charming creatures,” but here Barwin turns the microscope around to consider something just as strange and mysterious: language, our culture, and the self. From microorganisms, onion rings, grief, and Gerard Manley Hopkins to beetles, neoliberalism, sandwiches, Martin Luther, and stand-up comedy, he offers: “it’s a miracle that we’ve survived / it’s a miracle that we’ve survived at all.”

I feel with your poetry and to a similar extent your fiction – your art in general, invites both a place for the reader to be entertained and carried off into your eccentricities, but also slyly insists that further investigation is more than welcome. For example, in your recent novel, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted, you manage to infuse quite a few scenes with humour – but the surroundings, the circumstances (World War II – the single-most devastating thing to happen in the 20th century – period) isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. How on earth did you figure this one out? 

Gary Barwin: I like how you frame this: art as being entertaining but also encouraging further engagement, perhaps even an understanding of what is entwined with that “entertainment.” What it is hiding, or opening up for view, or counterbalancing. How a work uses ease or resistance (accessibility and “difficulty”?) both which might be involved in complex, multivalent art. How a work braids different approaches, tonalities or expectations. I do think about all of that.

Guy goes up to heaven, tells God a Holocaust joke. God doesn’t get it. Guy says, “Guess you had to be there.”

I’ve used humour as a technique which allows me to energize my writing in a number of ways (and because I can’t resist being a ham, even a Jewish one.) It’s a metafictional technique: it unpacks expectation, convention, and canned responses as both reader and writers. Yeah, I guess I just said it unpacks cans. As in worms.

Of course, it serves to leaven what can be difficult subject matter, even for the characters involved. In Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted, the people use humour as a way of dealing with what they’re going through. Not making light of it, but as a kind of expression of the dark irony of life. Yiddish saying: “Man plans; God laughs.”

Humour can be a way of having agency: if they’re viewing something with humour, they are claiming epistemological space. It’s their perspective. There’s also always something resistant—if not implicitly hopeful—about humour. Who might they tell this joke to or share the anecdote? When (and it presupposed the possibility of a when) might they share it?

Q: Why don’t Jews drink?
A: Because it dulls the pain.

I should say, in the above discussion of humour, one might, more broadly, substitute the word “art” for the word “humour.

Jean-Michel Basquiat loved to listen to music while he painted. You play the saxophone and, as we know, write. How does music inspire your writing – how do your competing (Maybe they don’t compete) skill-sets / artistic practices affect each other? Or do you keep them separated on the plate so to speak? 

GB: For me, there aren’t clear—or maybe any—boundaries between art forms. I know that writing mainly uses language, visual art mainly uses visuals, and music is concerned primarily with good hair. Of course, there’s significant overlap in materials and I feel that with the process of conceiving & executing the work. There are many ways to create each art. Is there a difference between saxophoning a poem and typing a free jazz solo? Only (somewhat) in the amount of spit produced.

A work in one medium immediately suggests kinship with another. If I write a poem, I often create music and visuals to go with it, work that emerges organically. The work naturally reaches across perceptual and genre boundaries. So to address your “separated on the plate” metaphor, I’d say it is all a great glob of multisensorial goulash.

Is your poetry impossible to recreate in real-time? If you took one of your poems, let’s say one that is very high on the impossible to recreate (and by recreate in real time I mean like a film, play or animated – maybe an opera or a music video), and you had limitless, Griffin-like resources to translate it or have it accompanied by a high-budget production, which poem would it be from your new collection and what would be some of your storyboard ideas? Don’t worry, they’ll all be approved in this magical interview question.

GB: As I mentioned with regard to the gesamtkunstgoulash of how I think of my work, I do actually do this. My ancient-days Ph.D. used the live performance of a poem of mine to generate its own musical accompaniment in real time using an interactive computer system. Recently I wrote music for a string quartet to go with readings from Yiddish for Pirates for the Hamilton Philharmonic and I continue to create work both live and prerecorded. But that isn’t with a Griffinous Gillerose budget. I’d definitely leap from a helicopter while declaiming triolets in Renaissance Italian about the Fibonacci/Golden Mean ratios of sex toys.

But I have imagined larger projects. I’ve seen some amazing Laurie Anderson performances incorporating text for example. And the site-specific work of R. Murray Schafer. And John Cage’s large pieces, like Roaratorio. I also loved Justin Stephenson’s The Collected Works, film about bpNichol, integrating fantastic digital text and visual processing. Charles Bernstein and Brian Ferneyhough’s modern opera, Shadowtime. And, ages ago, bpNichol and David Mott’s sound poetry “opera,” Meme, which I had the great honour and thrill to be part of when I was an undergrad.

The possibility of a large-scale work—in length and performers is really exciting. A kind of spoken and sung opera with multimedia, site-specific elements (maybe the text changes depending on where and when the performance is.) I love the idea of multiple poems playing against each other—the book as an evening, an evening as a multidirectional multisensory collection of poems. There’s a sequence of three poems which are transcreations of passages of Lucretius—they both have a kind of gravitas (all those falling, clinamening atoms) and self-awareness and humour. I feel like they have space in which to explore. They are poems in which I could build nested prosceniums for performance and performers. So what: elephants, high-speed chase scenes, waterfalls, a rocket ship? I don’t have ready storyboard ideas but could imagine live & recorded music, field recordings, sound poetry, projections of visuals and texts, interactivity (so many computers!), and creating a theatric spacetime with actors. Everything together all at once.

You have been doing this now since the late 1800s, writing, etc. You’ve met dozens and hundreds of writers and artists. You are generous with your time and would likely be on anyone’s list if there was such a thing as a Canadian All-Star Team for writing (but there isn’t because we are not an official league and don’t have competitive team-based games – so far as my research has revealed). What do you suggest to young writers who are very eager to jump into the world of book publishing

GB: Thank you for the kind words. My dramatic irony jump-shot is ready for the All-Stars. Also my post-event weeping.

What would I say to young writers? The world is really big. And time is big also. So I think it’s really important to find a chosen community. Once some children’s books of mine were going out of print so I went to the warehouse to pick up some boxes of them (I’d bought literally thousands of them cheap.) There were my 3000 books in a vast sea of other books. Tiny literary drops in an ever-expanding universe. It could have been like going into the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s Total Perspective Vortex, but I felt that I was actively part of a number of literary communities. I wrote, performed, read and published others in those communities, shared success, failures, obscurities, failures, scandals with them. So that’s the first thing I’d suggest. Find or make literary community. Create small presses, magazines, reading series, performances with the people in that community. No matter what happens with things outside that (bigger publishing opportunities, prizes) you will have this foundational place where you have agency and a more real sense of belonging outside the market and all of that.

Also, generally, I’d suggest trying everything. I don’t think that writers necessarily have a single “voice,” or genre, but that rather they can discover a number of processes of writing that lead them to discover and create work that interests them. It’s amazing, I’ve found, how trying something out of one’s expected wheelhouse can unlock more than you’d expected from you as a writer.

In the poem “Song” the main character, the I of the poem, conjures up possibilities for a sound they hear. It could be anything it seems, as we read along. Yet at the end, a stance is taken. A definition and verdict is clearly marked for all to see. Plus it’s the last line of the poem – I mean, impactful or what? So, you wrote, as you know, “A coffin is a piano for a corpse and not song.” It’s both somber and subjective, accurate and poetic. How did you arrive at this ending, this particular note, if you will.

GB: I wonder how I arrive anywhere, like here, twelve words and one comma before the end of this sentence! It’s one of the things that I love about the process of writing: how things churn and surface, entangle and attract. From within the text, from within the brain. Writing, in this way, is like dousing or like birdwatching. Hush. Is that what I think it is? Listen. What are those feathers, those markings, that sound? Is it water? The ocean? A chicken? Santa, I knew it was you all along. It was the whiskey breath.

And if it is like dousing or birdwatching, where is it? Language, the brain, the culture. I’m at the end of a stick waiting for tremors. Or I’m peering through glass.

So how did I arrive at the ending? The poem was a series of associations, from image to image, me listening for connections “out there” (in the world) and “here” (in my brain.) I once met Oscar Peterson. And, even more uncannily, I once heard a Bösendorfer Imperial Concert Grand piano rigged with solenoids and attached digitally to a computer (a kind of high-tech player piano) playing something which Peterson had just played, though he wasn’t there when I listened. I also heard a student’s piano performance played back. Peterson’s performance was flawless, of course, just a more perfect CD recording, but the piano seemed haunted by the student performance with its hesitations, mistakes, blurring. I also read a children’s picture book about Peterson as a lanky and sickly boy in the Little Burgundy area of Montreal. So he got into the poem and somehow a coffin. A piano is often made of the same kind of black polished wood as a coffin and has gold or brass fittings. It feels like it “contains” like a coffin—it has a lid! It has that presence, that gravitas. And let’s talk ivory and bones. If Death played an instrument it wouldn’t be the tuba, it’d be the piano.

One more thing: though the line takes the structure of a verdict or definition, I think it only asserts a “poetic” “truth.” 

  1. Coffin = piano for a corpse.
  2. Coffin ≠ piano for song.
  3. Coffin is to corpse as piano is to song. (Though strictly speaking, a piano doesn’t play “songs” –they must be sung by bodies.
  4. A piano and a coffin are similar (as noted above) except in their contents.
  5. Death ≠ song.
  6. The entire poem is called “song.” Oscar Peterson is dead. The poem is quite like an elegy.
  7. Song = death (?)

I’m glad we’ve sorted that out. I’d hate if one of my poems had any ambiguity in it. I mean, if we don’t have literature to clearly guide our actions and instruct us, what are we to do? Ask sea creatures?

Nathaniel G. Moore is a writer, artist and publishing consultant grateful to be living on the unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi'kmaq peoples.