Saturday, January 12, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Gary Barwin
Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and performer. His music and writing have been published and presented in Canada, the US, and Europe.

He received a PhD in Music Composition and was the recipient of the 1998 KM Hunter Foundation Artist Award. Seeing Stars, a YA novel, was a finalist for both CLA YA book of the year, and an Arthur Ellis Award.

His most recent books include frogments from the frag pool (with derek beaulieu, poetry, The Mercury Press, 2005) and Doctor Weep and other strange teeth (fiction, The Mercury Press, 2004.) His work has been commissioned and broadcast by the CBC and has appeared in hundreds of periodicals including The Walrus, This Magazine, Geist, Rampike, and Descant, Coconut, and Shampoo.

Other books include Raising Eyebrows and Outside the Hat (poetry; Coach House); a novel written with Stuart Ross, The Mud Game and Big Red Baby (fiction, Mercury.)

Barwin is also a writer for children. The Magic Mustache (Annick Press) was selected as one of the season’s best picture books by Macleans (1999). It was published in French translation in 2003 by Les 400 Coups. His YA novel Killer Poodle Made Me Island King was co-winner of the 2003 Muskoka Novel Writing Marathon and his The Unibrow Underground was a co-winner in the 2004 marathon. He has published other picture books with Annick Press and his work appeared regularly in Chirp and Chickadee.

His work has been performed by Arraymusic, The Vancouver Chamber Choir, The Bach-Elgar Choir, The Burdocks, Uh-Maybe, Ensemble Symposium, The Windtunnel Saxophone Quartet, and The Fires of Tonawanda. His music & text piece, Martin’s Idea was chosen as a “Desert Island Pick” by Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar (WDGR Radio). He has written on musical subjects ranging from Louis Andriessen to the multidimensional timespace of contemporary harmony.

Barwin teaches music at Hillfield Strathallan College. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario with his wife, three children, and a fear of the family car. His website is and his blog is

“Between the freaky, funny filmmaker Guy Maddin and author Gary Barwin, Canada is producing some of the most innovative creative works of our time.”
Utne Reader

Barwin…can open your eyes with a limitless sense of wonder.” –Toronto Star
1 - How did your first book change your life?

I’m not certain what my first book was. It might have been a board book. There in my crib, did I chaw the corners of cardboard, did I taste the wide margins.

The first book that I wrote myself was Cosmic Herbert and the Pencil Forest. I was in Grade Six and I sold it with some success at the school’s White Elephant sale instead of brownies or old sweaters.

I went on, after a twelve year hiatus and puberty, to begin publishing chapbooks and other small things with my serif of nottingham press.

My first vertebrate publication was Cruelty to Fabulous Animals (Moonstone Press, 1995). Really there was no sudden change. My voice began to deepen; I began to have hair in places where I’d never been before. It was a gradual thing.

2 - How long have you lived in Hamilton, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

In the 1930s, my grandparents moved away from the economic and religious persecution of Jews in Eastern Europe to South Africa. My parents immigrated to Northern Ireland in the early 60s. I was nine when we relocated to Ottawa, where, we joke, after several unsuccessful tries, my family finally found a stable country. I went to Grade 11 and 12 in north Michigan. My undergrad was at York University, I went to grad school in Buffalo and lived in St Catharines. Eventually, I moved to Hamilton about 18 years ago when my wife was expecting both our first son, and me to finally graduate.

Amidst, the religious and social dysfunction, and the loss and turbulence of my family’s experience, it feels to me that somehow there seems to have been a safe path leading to where my family is now.

Landscapes which I’d never seen directly, affected my imagination. The notion of stories, narratives, and traditions of which I had only some small intimation, made a vivid impression.

The intense experience and geography of my own childhood also powerfully shaped my emotional and creative landscape.

Because of my family background (where we lived, our own complex sense of identity through culture & religion, & our emigrations) and my own experiences, I have a sense of being something of an outsider, just to the left of the main action. Not entirely ‘other’, but never quite part of the dominant culture, never quite living in the centre. I think I like it here.

From about eight weeks into my fetal development, I have been male.

I haven’t explicitly addressed these issues in my work, though I believe that in some ways, they are implicit.

3 - Where does a poem or piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

I always consider myself a ‘savant idiot.’ The opposite, an ‘idiot savant’ knows very little generally, but is preternaturally talented in one area. I know much about many things, but am only able to approach my work as if I knew nothing, as if I were totally naïve. I’d like to have a clever plan. I never have a clever plan. I hope it doesn’t sound disingenuous to say that I stumble through the writing. Only later, do I engage my non-idiot side.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

I want to be Mick Jagger. I want to be Buster Keaton. I want to be a desk, Sarah Bernardt, Samuel Beckett, some mittens, a gas giant, and Sidney Crosby. I want to stand there wearing my skeleton only. Sometimes I want to do this on stage. Sometimes on paper.

I consider public readings a separate, parallel part of my creative work. I don’t think of a reading as saying out loud what is in my books. I think of a reading as a performance, as if I were performing music.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

Life, the universe, squirrels, everything.

I hope that due to my theoretical concerns, and my many questions about my work and life, the little universe of my work is expanding. I have the sense that definitive answers are (and should be) just beyond the event horizon of my writing.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I love collaboration. I find dialogue/discussion very helpful.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

When my children were babies, I had the sense of always having to make up how to be a father. Now my eldest is 17. Knowledge of one stage of development, or of another child doesn’t apply directly to the others. I continue to have to make it up on the fly. It is the same with writing books. There are new challenges, new satisfactions.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

I eat a pear almost every day. I work as a music teacher at a private school where we are given lunch. I sit at the end of a table of 14 kids. At the end of lunch, I pick up a pear to eat. As a senior teacher said, “I hope these are good for me. I’ve eaten one every day for thirty years.”

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Once, about twenty-five years ago, I asked Lillian Necakov, the first of my friends to have a book published, how to write a book. She said something like, you write one page and then you write another until you have about a hundred. Then you have a book.

This simple wisdom was immensely freeing for me. One could, I suppose, apply it to life as well as writing.

Likewise, one could apply to writing this piece of advice that my wife gave me when I was working at a sign shop:

Don’t cut off your penis with a power saw.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

I compose, conduct, and perform many types of music. ( I write a number of types of poetry and fiction and the occasional article. I create visual poetry(, poetry videos (, and visual art. I write poetry and fiction for children (from 3 year olds to teens).

It’s like writing different sentences. I write the ones that seem right or that I feel like at the time, or that will communicate to the particular audience that I’m trying to speak to. I know that they are different but they are also all made out of the same thing.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I work as a teacher, and so I get up at 7 every weekday. If I’m motivated, I turn on my computer, and do some writing, reading, or emailing over breakfast. Then I have to get my family mobilized for work / school and my sons and I head off. I fit in writing in the little spaces between things. Some more prolonged times in the summers, weekends, and holidays. I am hankering for an extended period to really dig into some larger projects that I’m anxious to work on. Perhaps I can arrange for some jail time for myself.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

Anxiety. Self-loathing. Frustration. Coffee.

Actually, that’s probably more true than I’d like to admit. But, I certainly turn to other arts. To walking. To random or unplanned input. To other projects.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

For my new poetry book, coming out with Coach House, I’m working with Kevin Connolly. We discussed my desire to try to move my work in new directions, and so he is suggesting throwing out anything that comes easily to me, anything that relies on my old competencies. It’ll probably seem more different to me than to readers, though.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Round things. Square things. Things with no shape.

Actually, all of the above disciplines that you suggest.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are too many to listen definitively, but off the top of my head:

Kafka, Beckett, bpNichol, David W. McFadden, Stuart Ross, Murakami, Saramago, Basho, Tate, the Simic of The World Doesn’t End,” Kevin Connolly, Joyce, Joseph Campbell, folk tales and legends from many traditions, George Saunders.

The many collaborators I have or am currently working with, including,
derek beaulieu, jwcurry, Gregory Betts, Hugh Thomas, and Kerry Schooley (we’re in a music and text band called Bump Head).

Lately, two of my children, Ryan (he’s 17) and my daughter Rudi (she’s 10) are important to me as writers and readers. Their developing understanding of themselves as both writers and readers is not only inspiring to me, but clarifying.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Be able to clearly answer this question without feeling like I’m experiencing vertigo while gazing into the existential abyss.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I would like to be ‘a writer.’ Part of me would like to identify myself as only that instead of the complex network of identifications that I have. It would be a pure and lovely world and a whole lot less messy.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

A pen. A typewriter, A computer. A mouth. I do other things when I don’t have those.

I don’t feel that there is a significant difference between art forms. My sensibility and aesthetics move between them.

I have, obviously, a powerful desire to express things through language. To engage with thinking, feeling, & the sense of things. To read things through the paradigms of semantics, grammar and narrative.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I’m in the middle of reading Gabriel Gudding’s A Rhode Island Notebook. It’s ungainly and great. I recently saw the film Juno which I thought had a depth which belied the expectations of the conventions of its cinematic genre. A while back, I saw Steven Wright’s One Soldier
(commentary: which I found very vivid.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Some of the jumble of things that I’d consider myself to be working on (during the school year, I tend to pick away at things without any particular formal work plan):

-the new Coach House poetry book
-a collection of short prose
-a new story for chickaDEE magazine for children
-a YA novel entitled The Unibrow Underground
-a collaborative project based on translating Kafka, with Hugh Thomas.
-a collaborative poetry project entitled The Obvious Flap with Gregory Betts
-some new performance pieces for Bump Head
-settings for choir of my story “Rover,” from Big Red Baby, and my picturebook, The Magic Mustache.

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