Friday, August 11, 2006

a brief note on the poetry of Douglas Barbour

Last night I was having a drink with poet and former prairie resident Monty Reid and (since he's just about to take a new house, packing/unpacking boxes) he gave me a copy of in by one, out by four (1980), a small poetry publication with the work of Douglas Barbour, George Melnyk, Reid and Stephen Scobie. According to Reid, it was published as a response to more precious poetry publications at the time, and the whole run was published, from submission to final product, in a three hour period (hence the title), in Edmonton by what Reid called the "Instant Poetry Press," in June 1980.

Edmonton poet Douglas Barbour [see my interview with him here], roughly the same age as those Ken Norris would call "first generation Canadian post-modernism," such as George Bowering, Fred Wah, Daphne Marlatt and bpNichol, he started his own publishing a bit later on, putting him more with that second generation of Canadian poets that would include Dennis Cooley (also a late bloomer), Sharon Thesen, Ken Norris and Barry McKinnon. Still, considering the amount and quality of publishing Barbour has done over the years, it seems surprising that his writing hasn’t received the attention that it deserves. Is this a prairie problem in general? Is this due to the fact that Barbour isn’t really a self-promoter? I think the same things have happened to Winnipeg poet Cooley; both are highly respected in their individual geographic regions (watch for a new Cooley poetry collection this fall), but given short shrift in anything further. My own bookshelf of Barbour books includes (I know I'm missing a few) A Poem As Long As The Highway (Kingston ON: Quarry Press, 1971), shore lines (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1979), visible visions, the selected poems of Douglas Barbour (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1984) edited by Smaro Kamboureli and Robert Kroetsch, Story for a Saskatchewan Night (Red Deer AB: Writing West / Red Deer College Press, 1990), Fragmenting Body etc. (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2000) and Breath Takes (Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2001), as well as the chapbooks a flame on the spanish stairs (Victoria BC: greenboathouse books, 2002) and It’s over is it over: Love’s Fragmented Narrative (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2005), his collection of literary essays Lyric/Anti-Lyric: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (Edmonton AB: writer as critic / NeWest Press, 2001), and the collaboration he did with Arizona poet Sheila E. Murphy, Continuations (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006) [see my review of such here]. Other books of his (that I don’t have) include Land Fall (Montreal QC: Delta Canada, 1971; Ottawa ON: The Golden Dog Press, 1973), White (Fredericton NB: Fiddlehead Books, 1972), songbook (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1973), he. &. she. &. (Ottawa ON: The Golden Dog Press, 1974), Worlds Out of Words: The SF Novels of Samuel R. Delany (Frome UK: Bran's Head Books, 1979), The Pirates of Pen's Chance (with Stephen Scobie, Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1981) and The Harbingers (Kingston ON: Quarry Press, 1984), as well as a critical work on the writing of Michael Ondaatje (Twayne) and another on the work of John Newlove (ECW Press).

Working variations on breath and spacing, Barbour's contribution to in by one, out by four is a selection of poems from a series called "Cheque Book"; did these ever appear in a further trade collection? If not, are they worth digging out now? Reid says they were originally composed on the backs of old cheques, reminding me of the late New York school poet Ted Berrigan's A Certain Slant of Sunlight, composed entirely on the backs of file cards.

from Cheque Book:
for Robert Creeley: vancouver:

& so did here
hear him speak

the one eyed man's
a squinter but
he sees close-up
the splinter of the real
he's stepping across
touching & listening to
now. now i
listend & the voice
was quiet was

what's known
is what you re/
call your
own life if you
lived it awake

i hear him
say he
did as
best he could &
the warmth of the shared
memories Mallorca
the first time & the loss
of 'history' 'you have no
history' he said & he
was right he was
wrong but he
was right & 'Let me
recite what history teaches' he
might also say
who spoke last night
smiling at his memory
his only eye
clear he
implied 'History


A former collaborator with Victoria poet Stephen Scobie [see my note on Scobie here] (the two moved away from such when Scobie left Edmonton to teach at the University of Victoria), the argument that the two were more formidable as a unit than they ever were individually obviously hasn’t taken into consideration Barbour's collection Fragmenting Body etc. (or even Scobie's ghosts or McAlmon's Chinese Opera), which is easily one of his strongest books if not the strongest and most vibrant book he's produced. Why hasn’t his work been written about? Considering the amount of critical material Barbour has produced on various of his peers, including more writing on the work on the late poet John Newlove than anyone else, it seems that Barbour got the short end of the stick. What is it that gets some writers attention and others completely ignored? I've learned long ago it has very little to do with the writing itself; is it still the geography that matters?

creature slain by Bellerophon in

the late night show
on every screen every scream
narrates a bodys parting

but that creature never existed

ever existent it haunts our nights
now more than ever

how many imagined & imaginary
odd bodies can
we afford to break

'the Balkanized body'
a new study in psycho somatic
engineering engineered (Fragmenting Body etc.)

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