Friday, October 18, 2019

Gary Barwin, For It Is a PLEASURE and a SURPRISE to Breathe: new & selected POEMS, edited with an Introduction by Alessandro Porco


for Jeffrey Donaldson

there’s a girl walking
down the street
carrying an oar

later, another girl
walking down another street
carrying a different oar

like delta and source
the girls have never seen one another

obviously there’s a boat somewhere
and the sun disappears
behind the lip

wherever the river is
the river is somewhere else

One of the benefits of an increased mainstream attention for Hamilton writer, publisher and composer Gary Barwin’s work, sparked by the publication of the novel Yiddish for Pirates (2016), is seeing the attention spread out to other elements of his incredibly-expansive range of creative works—fiction, poetry, musical composition and performance, visual poetry and collaboration. His latest collection, For It Is a PLEASURE and a SURPRISE to Breathe: new & selected POEMS, edited with an Introduction by Alessandro Porco (Hamilton ON: Wolsak and Wynn, 2019), is a hefty volume nearly two hundred and fifty pages large exploring thirty-five years of Barwin’s publishing, and a volume that can’t help but provide a spotlight on Barwin’s playful, serious writing. The selection bookends with a replication of his first self-published chapbook, produced for a class at York University in 1985, to some twenty-five pages of new and uncollected work, and run through visual works (including a section in full colour), prose poems, longer sequences, short bursts and surreal twists, and more traditional lyric poems. Before we even get to the poems, the volume begins with a forty page introduction by editor Porco that, towards the end, writes:

For It Is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New and Selected Poems is a collection of eighty-plus poems – “counter, original, spare, strange,” to borrow from the aforementioned Jesuit priest-poet – that demonstrate Barwin’s nimble commitment, over four decades, to divining and documenting those very “changes of mind” in la(w)nguage and by the way of old and new techniques of writing.
            Barwin’s poetry has been published by micro, small and large presses in Canada, the United States and Europe; however, it has also appeared in public and semi-public spaces – the musical stage, gallery walls and city streets – as well as across social media platforms (e.g., Twitter, Instagram and Facebook) and in various formats (e.g., cassette tape, CD and MP3). He identifies with and occupies multiple convergent and divergent artistic, social and geographic communities, including the post-WW II avant-garde, the Toronto small press scene, the literary Niagara region and the Jewish mystical tradition, among many others. Suspicious of Canadian nationalism and its reified forms of literary power, Barwin’s poetry moves and mows between the lyrical and ludic, folk and fabulous, musical and visual, civic and conceptual, verse and prose, and local and diasporic. Barwin recognizes both the ideological force of language and the arbitrariness of the sign, but he also believes – like his mentor bpNichol – that making and sharing poetry, or poetics, is a deeply human and humanist practice. It breathes. Poetry is wildly imperfect, yes, but it aspires, formally and proprioceptively, to be open and present to dialogue with the universe’s smallest and grandest elements.

Alessandro Porco provides the sort of thorough introduction that many authors could only dream of, extending his own foray into critical exploration and literary archaeologies (he is also responsible, as editor and critic, for Jerrold Levy and Richard Negro’s Poems by Gerard Legro, Steve Venright’s The Least You Can Do Is Be Magnificent: Selected & New Writings, and Deportment: The Poetry of Alice Burdick [see my review of such here]), writing of Barwin’s engagement with the fabulous, surreal, magical lyric and lyric narrative. Porco also gives the impression that this collection is less an assemblage of Gary Barwin’s “greatest hits” than a volume that explores the movement and expanse of Barwin’s poetry, including some corners of his work that might have been overlooked the first or even second time, providing a portrait of that the author himself might not have been able to shape. Part of what I really do appreciate about this volume is the acknowledgment of the range of Barwin’s interest and attention, which is incredibly broad, even when you consider that the range of his creative interests and engagements exist far beyond the scope of even this incredibly generous volume (novels and short stories, musical composition and performance, and collaborative works). In a review I did of the recent A CEMETERY FOR HOLES, poems by Tom Prime and Gary Barwin (Gordon Hill Press, 2019) [see my review here], I wondered aloud, knowing this volume was forthcoming, if a selected volume of Barwin’s collaborative works might be worth considering, and I suspect Porco might easily be one of the best choices of editor for such a project. Given Barwin already has another novel forthcoming, might some the readers of his fiction be brought along for the ride? For their sake, I certainly hope so.

we have a dog. his name is martin.

one day martin walked over to my wife and said, you should have a baby. then martin walked over to his dish of water and drank from it. then he walked over to the fireplace, lay down on the rug and went to sleep. martin was asleep for a long time. this is what he dreamed:

he was walking across a field without end, a field the colour of his blonde hair. at one end of the field was a large red house. out of its chimney came puffs of smoke, the shape of dogs. the sun lay low on the horizon and all about him, he heard the arfs of small dogs, calling.

he turned around. at the other end of the field there was also a red house. puppies spilled from its windows onto the soft grass of the lawn. they looked silvery and mysterious by the moon’s pale light. he tried to call them, but his barks fell into the field without sound.

it seemed he had been walking for days, the moon never rising, the sun never sinking, when suddenly he heard a voice, my voice, talking on the phone. i was saying, i think we will call him martin, and yes, we can hardly wait. (“MARTIN’S IDEA”)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Three poems for White Wall Review


With all this talk of walls; a lack of comprehension
of how borders. Irrelevant, perhaps. A durational performance

is landscaped, crisis. What
is he on about? Some guy agonizing

over generalities, lies, responds

with venom, violence. Escalating. Between earth
and earth, a grave

the size of fear.


Toronto, what have you. The future Bishop, John Strachan,
to Thomas Jefferson’s complaint

of British forces burning America’s Government House,
the Library of Congress: Can you tell me, Sir, the reason

why the public buildings and library
at Washington

should be held more sacred than those
at York?


Tributaries, lakefront. Heartland. I could hear
you breathe. History responds, erases,

rewrites. Governs. Surrenders copy.
A door unlocked

along the Gardiner, the Don Valley. Are you
island or centre? A photo finish. All those

northern roads. Cold at the mouth. This hearth,
this written word.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Keith Garebian

Keith Garebian [photo credit: Elisabeth Feryn] of Mississauga holds a Doctorate in Canadian and Commonwealth Literature from Queen’s University, and has published 26 books to date, 8 of poetry. He was shortlisted for the 2014 Freefall Poetry Award, the 2015 GritLit Poetry Award, and the 2015 Gwendolyn MacEwen-Exile Poetry Award for the Best Single Poem from a suite. In 2013, he was a judge for the Gerald Lampert Poetry Award. His eighth poetry collection, Against Forgetting, was published by Frontenac in September 2019.

How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My first book was a critical introduction to the writing of Hugh Hood. It was published by Twayne in 1983 when I was teaching high school and between stints of part-time university teaching (at McGill, Concordia, and Trent), so it was my entrée, as it were, into academic writing, though, of course, I had already published numerous essays and pieces of literary criticism in journals and newspapers. It gave me some status as a freelance literary critic and as a university lecturer. It wasn’t till twenty years later that I brought out my first book of poetry (Reservoir of Ancestors), which was very much a beginner’s collection, with some fine poems among others that had far less technical sophistication. But even that book showed some of the predominant themes in my poetic oeuvre: historical and personal trauma, generational conflict, the outsider, poetry of voice.

How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

As a child, one is not totally aware of the distinction between these genres, but on a more serious note, I did not come to poetry first, as my previous answer outlines. Of course, as a teenager and undergraduate student, I wrote execrable stuff, thinking that it was poetry, but it wasn’t till my post-modern memoir, Pain: Journeys Around My Parents (2000), that contained some prose poems in a field of diverse forms (epigram, anecdote, documentary history, autobiographical narrative, meditative sections) which many readers liked, that the possibility of poetry as a vocation took root in me. Irving Layton, whom I had befriended in Montreal (where I lived for 21 years before moving to Ontario), had liked a couple of free verse poems I showed him and told me I should write more poetry, over my objections that I was primarily a non-fiction writer (chiefly of theatre and literary criticism). I wondered what he knew about my writing that I hadn’t known myself. This led to my extensive reading of other poets and the production of several poetry collections.

How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

The initial impulse to begin a project varies from project to project. Once I have decided on an overall subject, my poems come quickly, in general. This has been true, as well, of my non-fiction. Even in school, I was very quick with essays, sometimes to the shock of my teachers, but there have been cases where the first draft has had to undergo major alterations. And, again, depending on my overall subject, sometimes I keep copious notes: for instance, when I was doing my collections on Frida Kahlo, Derek Jarman, and Georgia O’Keeffe/Alfred Stieglitz, I did an enormous amount of background reading, so I needed to make copious notes and not write everything off the top of my head.

Where does a poem 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?

Once again, my answer would be on a case-to-case basis. A poem can be inspired by a painting or a film or a piece of music or by another fine poem by another poet. Usually, I compose books as a large project, rather than as a collection of short, disparate poems. In fact, as a serious reader, I am more drawn to books with an over-arching subject or theme.

Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I treat public readings as a high definition performance, which is what any art (especially one that relies on sound, rhythm, cadence) should be. As a poet, I believe very strongly in public readings, because communication is an essential role. A poet who can read his own work well has a distinct advantage over a poet who reads badly. As I mentioned earlier, my professional freelance writing career began with non-fiction, primarily theatre studies, and because of some acting experience, I know how to do a reading. After seven more poetry collections since, my work has certainly evolved technically, without ever renouncing or lessening its emphasis on voice as a mask and medium of expression. To say this is to cling to the idea of poetry as fundamentally an oral/aural medium because, as the long history of poetry shows, the genre began as song (from scop to troubadour and balladeer) and shares many qualities with music. Basil Bunting has remarked: “Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound—long sounds and short sounds, heavy beats and light beats, the tone relations of vowels, the relations of consonants to one another which are like instrumental colour in music. Poetry lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life, just as music, on the stave, is no more than instructions to the player. A skilled musician can imagine the sound, more or less, and a skilled reader can try to hear, mentally, what his eyes see in print: but nothing will satisfy either of them till his ears hear it as real sound in the air. Poetry must be read aloud.”

Of course, I am quite aware of objections to the primacy of orality. I, too, object to the notion of all voice and nothing else (vox et praetera nihil). As Robert Graves once put it: “Though the poet ought to write as if his work were intended to be read aloud, in practice the reading aloud of a poem distracts attention from its subtler properties by emphasising the more obvious properties. The outward ear is easily deceived. A beautiful voice can make magic even with bad or fraudulent poetry which the eye, as the most sophisticated organ of sense, would reject at once.”  I don’t subscribe to his notion that a beautiful voice can camouflage a bad poem. A Rupi Kaur could never fool me into thinking that her shtick is poetry, any more than the late Gielgud or Olivier could turn a telephone directory into a long poem. Whoever invented the canard that good public readings or performances are usually camouflages of weak poems must have suffered from terminal oral envy. Would they have laid the same charge against Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Milton Acorn, Sylvia Plath, et cetera?

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

Theory is for academics. When I read Shakespeare or Chaucer, Derek Walcott, or Ocean Vuong, theory is the farthest thing from my mind. I grapple with real existential questions, not hypothetical ones. Issues of personal and tribal identity, cross-generational/cross-cultural trauma, culture shock, guilt, the outsider, the interplay of life and art: these are my leading subjects. Could any poet or layman reasonably argue that these subjects are not of current concern? 

Of course, if you change directions, and speak about artistic experiment, then some theory is relevant, if only as a guide to practising and furthering the particular experiment. What I loathe about end-of-year reviews of poetry books is the academic tendency to force disparate books into a narrow “system” or organization of genre or sub-genre. This tendency betrays an ignorance of the fact that a good or worthy poet writes a book, not necessarily in relation to other books in the same genre, but for other reasons or purposes or compulsions. I believe the poet writes first and foremost for himself/herself. He may be his own ideal reader. He cannot hypothesize the average reader. Every book is an experiment of some type, however good or mediocre the result. Every work of art or attempted art needs to be considered on its own terms and then, perhaps, in relation to a much broader class.

What do you see the current role of the writer being in a larger culture? Does he/she even have one?

Wallace Stevens contended that “poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” Now, I am not promoting Shelley’s idea of the poet as an unacknowledged legislator of the world. A poem is not a manifesto, but its energies should be adequate to the experiences beyond it. 

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

No writer should ever be completely on his own. Every writer needs at least a third eye, as it were, a cold eye that can spot deficiencies or weaknesses. So, I like proficient editors, but there is a special value in having an editor who has more than a passing familiarity with the books or poems I have done over time. But an editor who has not known my poetry previously can also be very helpful, because he or she could treat the new work with scrupulous clarity and critical rigour. But more often than not, house editors seem shackled to their publisher’s grid or overall biases about what good poetry is. In those cases, I simply shrug, though I always consider their comments because a writer should take negative comments as seriously as he does positive ones, without giving up believing in his own work.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard?

I am too eclectic a reader and writer to boil down pieces of advice or wisdom to a single thing.

What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep?

I never have a writing routine. I have written poems late at night, early in the morning, during periods of great emotional or physical distress, or during periods of calm. I sometimes have written flat out for long stretches, and sometimes only for brief spans. I am disciplined and I adhere to deadlines, but in poetry there is not usually a deadline. A poem usually tells you when it is ready or complete. If it doesn’t, then you need to keep refining it.

When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for inspiration?

I know there is no point in trying to force a poem into being or to completion. I recall Auden saying that “the writing of poetry is not, like carpentry, simply a craft; a carpenter can decide to build a table according to certain specifications and know before he begins that the result will be exactly what he intended, but no poet can know what his poem is going to be like until he has written it.” When I am really stalled—and not simply fatigued—I turn to other poets for inspiration. Or to art, movies, music, theatre. I have a huge library in my condo apartment, and I read everything from Canadian and American poetry to European, Asian, and South American poetry—all in English, of course. I read (without necessarily enjoying) the more experimental, esoteric poets (if simply to stay in touch with or to know what the post-modernist experimentalists are doing) as well as what are considered the more conventional poets. But, again, every poem can be considered experimental.

What fragrance reminds you of home?

If by “home” you mean my present place of domicile, I would say the smell of paper—because of the vast collection of books I own. Second, the smell of trees and the lake because I live in a suburban community directly opposite Lake Ontario.

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

All of the above—as my earlier answers have shown. I have written ekphrastic poems, glosas, sonnets, elegies, prose poems, monologues, et cetera and all of these owe different things to various other art forms.

What other writers or writing are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

This depends on what sort of book I am working on. When I was writing about Frida Kahlo, I devoured all the best biographies of her I could find, studies of her paintings, her letters and diaries, and poems by others about her. When I worked on my Derek Jarman poems, I read Jarman first and foremost, then biographies of him, and critical studies of his films. There weren’t many other poets who wrote poems about him. When I wrote of the Armenian genocide, and Armenian culture and trauma in Children of Ararat and Poetry is Blood, I read the Armenian classical poets in translation (Sayat Nova, Komitas, Siamanto, Yeghishe Charents, and others) and, best of all, the Armenian American Peter Balakian (who specializes in the collage form), as well as international poets (such as Charles Simic, Lorca, Layton, et cetera), and anthologies of poetry of witness, especially Carolyn Forche’s Against Forgetting, whose title I have stolen for my 8th poetry collection). When I was composing my 9th (as yet unpublished) poetry collection, In the Bowl of My Eye, which is about outer and inner landscapes and suburbia, I read mainly poets such as Wendell Berry, Whitman, Gluck, Doty, Pinsky, Anne Carson, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison (rock poet), John Ashbery, A.F. Moritz, Jorie Graham, et cetera. 

I do not separate writers on the basis of those important to my work or who are outside it. All writers I like are important to me for diverse reasons.

What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?

Two things: complete a 10th poetry collection about my experience with cancer that will incorporate not only that subject but other autobiographical subjects as well, without advocating victim poetry; and a selection of poems from all my other books that may include poems that have been published only in journals or other anthologies.

What do you think you could have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I have no idea. Poetry is a calling that (as Wallace Stevens once observed) “increases the feeling for reality.” Of course, it has only been the last 19 years when I have been writing full time. Prior to this, I wrote only part time as a freelancer while teaching school, and part time at college and university. My freelance career began in July 1975; my first book (non-fiction) was published in 1983; my first poetry collection in 2003; my 8th poetry collection in 2019; and my 27th book (non-fiction) will appear in the fall of 2020. Evidently, I was a late starter, as far as book-writing is concerned, but I have certainly made up for lost time.

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

Words, words, words. The sounds of them, the rhythms they could create, the tones, and moods of language. Their power, their versatility to create various forms of writing. I guess, if I were asked to go back to my greatest inspiration, it would have to be Shakespeare and his dramatic poetry. I know this sounds cliched, but it is true. I re-read him multiple times, and I always discover something new.

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

Again, it is difficult to narrow my choice down to a single book because I am a voracious reader, and “great” is a dangerous, difficult adjective to define. However, I do not separate emotional power from artistic craft, so I would have to say that in terms of poetry, it was probably Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World, which would also be the first time I have agreed with the Griffin and Governor-General’s juries for poetry (2017-18) in the same year. I was familiar with Gregory Scofield’s, Jordan Abel’s, Armand Garnet Ruffo’s, Richard Wagamese’s, and others’ but Belcourt’s voice was a fresh, original, gay aboriginal one for me. His book plays with form, decolonializing it in a strong way, and the voice comes directly from 
the heart.

As for film, the last great film I saw was Roma by Alfonso Cuaron, a marvellous black and white creation that shows how film can put together a story seamlessly while collecting disparate pieces of domestic, social, and political life. Every shot seemed to be a perfect artistic one that captured reality, often expanding it in my imagination, and reaching down to my heart.

In both cases of Belcourt’s book and Cuaron’s film, you may notice how important passion is to me as a writer. Neither work is cold; both throb with passionate sincerity wedded to technique, their respective techniques fulfilling Pound’s dictum that technique is a test of sincerity.

What are you currently working on?

A collection about illness and other subjects dear to my heart. At its core will be my bout with cancer.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Christina Vega-Westhoff, Suelo Tide Cement

If you were in need of forgotten memory
or to seek the place of displacement
refreshed, as in, the sailors we
cleaned. / Foretold or not, these were
the promisings / we beyond (collaboration)
(promises) (carrots) (we want)
// and though the scientist speaks of
what you want to know, you cannot hardly
listen // as the rocks were
additions from the time before the land
emerged / and then attached / and then
separated / by mar / shoreline receding /
but the human remains still uncovered
in the earth of ocean
                        if the “facts” “create” “imagination”
deforested & replanted
here (in the tropics) in ten years
thick—a path in constant need
of maintenance—or redistribution—sprouts
eliminated, at most (“”)

Buffalo, New York “poet, translator, aerialist, and teaching artist” Christina Vega-Westhoff’s full-length debut is Suelo Tide Cement (New York NY: Nightboat Books, 2018), the manuscript of which won the Nightboat Prize for Poetry in 2017. I’ve only recently discovered Vega-Westhoff’s work, thanks to this years’ volume of P-QUEUE [see my review of such here], so the opportunity to work my way through her debut is one I’d been looking forward to. According to Google, “suelo” is Spanish for “ground,” which makes her title translate to “ground tide cement” (although the titles of her sections suggest a better translation might be “soil”). Set in a suite of five sequence-sections—“SUELO,” “ON SUELO │ SOIL,” “TIDE,” “CEMENT” and “COMPOST/COMPOSED”—the poems in Vega-Westhoff’s book-length lyric eco-poetic exist as an accumulation articulating an erosion, working from the ground up, writing the ground wore down to impossible bone. “The exotification of rock then—would it / be a sensual elopement or a question of / returned sight. How far back if / time is imaginable as any other / (than) fairytale. It was the calm / thought today that seemed out of place.” (“SUELO”). As she responds as part of a 2017 interview at The Public, conducted by Cory Perla:

Eco-poetry is getting through ecology. There are connections to place and people and to whatever our webs are. People think of environment—I think of poets like Ed Roberson. You can talk about ecological justice. I guess people like poetry that is engaging with the current situation of the world and our local place especially. How does language inform existence? What does language have to do with how we’re thinking? You were asking about the difference between Tucson and Buffalo—how does the place have to do with how we’re thinking and engaging with each other?

In her talk of stone, there is something slightly reminiscent here of work done over the past decade or so by Canadian poet Don McKay, working a conversation of ecology (his being both far more direct and subtle) through stone. Through long, thoughtful stretches of staccato, Vega-Westhoff’s lyric fragments distill, instill and wash over with such grace and energy that I haven’t seen in some time, and make me eager to see where her writing might go next (I am, admittedly, disappointed that her section in P-QUEUE is one of the few without accompanying author statement; I would like to hear more from her on her thinking and process). There is an enormous amount of power in her writing, one that is simultaneously forceful and restrained. “in the task of destruction / after the visa acquired,” she writes, as part of “CEMENT,” adding, further on:

like the claustrophobia
of the room
the man
the country in accompaniment
the line of hills
with no clouds

the roosters already
  marking insomnia