Wednesday, November 01, 2023

Barry McKinnon (1944 – October 30, 2023)

Rae Armantrout and Barry McKinnon at VERSeFest (Ottawa), March 2012

Sad to hear from Paul Nelson that Canadian poet, editor and publisher Barry McKinnon died 11:30am on Monday morning in Prince George. Nelson writes that “plans for a spring memorial service will be made soon.” I don’t precisely recall when I started interacting with McKinnon, but I know I was reading his work in the early 1990s, sitting in the Morriset Library at the University of Ottawa reading The the. (Coach House Press, 1980), i wanted to say something (Red Deer College Press, 1990) and Pulp/Log (Caitlin Press, 1991), all of which became important for me in terms of thinking of the cadence and breadth of the long poem. If you can, pick up a copy of The Centre: Poems 1970-2000 (Talonbooks, 2004), a collection that really displays the ‘poem as long as a life’ mantra that bpNichol articulated, something shared with Nichol’s own multiple books of The Martyrology (1972-1993), or Robert Kroetsch’s Completed Field Notes (2002).

There was something jwcurry once said of McKinnon’s poems, his long poems, that I always thought was interesting, suggesting that the first half of any McKinnon long poem is working up to a single point, and the second half working away from that same point. My collection Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011), was one of a number of works I produced over the years as a direct result of reading Barry McKinnon’s work. At McKinnon’s prompt, as well, I’m probably one of the few continuing the “Sex at 31” poems he and Brian Fawcett began, something I wrote about a few years back as part of Jacket2. It must have been in 2000 or so that I was up in Prince George, staying with McKinnon for the sake of a reading, and digging around his archives to see what there was. He handed me a “Sex at 31” poem by Artie Gold that he produced back in the late 1970s, which Artie allowed me to reprint as an above/ground press broadside, a poem that later fell into the second ‘best of’ above/ground press anthology. Thanks to Barry, I followed that particular thread (composing poems for every seven years, as was their original consideration: thirty-one, thirty-eight, forty-five and fifty-two, so far), and am still pulling away at it, in as much homage to McKinnon and Fawcett (and Gold) as anything else.

Barry McKinnon and Brian Fawcett post-Talon/ECW launch, Toronto, 2004

In McKinnon’s basement circa that 2000 visit, as he was complaining that a particular bill bissett title he produced in 1970 (Stamp collection) wasn’t seen or acknowledged by anyone, and he opened a cupboard to reveal a stack of a few hundred copies. Hard to get attention for something sitting in your basement storage, I suggested, so he gave me some fifty copies to distribute, which  I handed out at further stops on that same reading tour, including in Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto. We met prior to the reading over drinks, and he offered me a copy of The the., telling me it was one of only five copies he had left (extant copies had fallen prey to one of Coach House Press’ infamous “dumps,” which left unannounced copies out at the curb). After the reading, we went out for drinks, landing late in his living room. His wife Joy, unimpressed.

We launched together in 2004, having both books in the same season with Talonbooks, landing in Toronto as Brian Fawcett heckled us both from the crowd (David Phillips, on his part, heckled McKinnon through his Vancouver launch at the Kootenay School of Writing space). We even brought him to Ottawa for VERSeFest in 2012 [see my report on such here], where he participated in The Factory Lecture Series.

It always felt like Barry McKinnon was a poet who deserved far more attention than he received, and how moving north to Prince George to teach in 1969 put him on the outskirts of literature (this was certainly how he felt), despite the enormous amount of activity he encouraged, prompted and hosted during his time in the north. Who else would have brought Robert Creeley to Prince George? i wanted to say something, originally self-produced through his Gorse and reprinted years later by Caitlin, is an important early long poem from the Canadian prairies, one that was hugely influential to other writers, even if the larger public weren’t aware of it until long after those influenced by the poem had published their own variations. McKinnon became an important figure in Northern British Columbia, as publisher, poet, organizer, teacher and as an example of someone in that geographic space who was able to produce interesting work, and take seriously the conversation and thinking of literature. I know over the past twenty years or so he was getting frustrated with traditional publishing (he’d long been a chapbook publisher, so one foot was always on the outside), focusing more on putting work online than sending it out to anyone. I would recommend working through his website and seeing everything he’d putthere.

I interviewed him a few times, including in 2012 and more recently, for Touch the Donkey. I reviewed a number of his works, and even attempted a lengthy essay on his work circa 2006, which fell into my first essay collection with ECW Press. Paul Nelson also did an interview with him in 2015 that is worth paying attention to.

He was always kind to me, and deeply engaged at what was going on with writing. Those visits were always few and far between, and I shall miss him.



Pierre Coupey said...

Thanks for this Rob. We will miss Barry terribly, 55 + years of friendship and companionship in poetry. A touchstone all these years.

Sid Marty said...

Thanks for your attention to Barry's work over the years. It meant a lot to him and to those of us who followed his career. Sid Marty

Sharon Thesen said...

Thank you Rob for this great bibliography of a long friendship in poetry. Barry's absence is deeply mourned.

Anonymous said...

I’m so sorry to hear about Barry.
I was 17 when I first met Barry and Joy in Calgary: I remember sitting on two rocks at the edge of the Bow River talking about poetry and watching the sun rise.
Then later in Montreal the same year walking up Mount Royal at dawn having talked long into the night.
When I moved to Vancouver at 18 Barry was there, and through him, I met many other poets.
He had a huge effect on my interest in writing: he both gave permission for it and enabled it, though I am pretty certain I was too much in awe of him to show him my early efforts. He talked about what he was reading, and I went home and read the same titles.
We met now and the through the intervening years, but I most vividly recall how wonderful it was to be very young around him and have access to his own youth and love of poetry. He was a gifted teacher even before he taught. And a wonderfully thoughtful poet.
Very sad day.
Jane Urquhart