Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

'A Grammatical Scale': An Interview with Gary Barwin

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Hi, everyone. I’m almost at the end of my run here as Writer-in-Residence at Open Book. Somewhere along the line in my recent travels, I caught a nasty chest cold that’s knocked me out for the last week or so -- hence the dearth of recent posts. Nonetheless, I am venturing forth. Posted below is my last interview for the month. And in the next couple of days you can expect a small flurry of posts, including “My T.S. Eliot” and “Secret Influences,” as well as a couple of other surprises. Stay tuned… and, now, my interview with Gary Barwin!

AP: Hi, Gary. Thanks you so much for taking the time do the interview. Before we turn to your forthcoming collection of poems The Porcupinity of the Stars (Coach House, Fall 2010) and some newer chapbooks, I wanted to ask you about your time as a graduate student at SUNY-Buffalo. You completed a Ph.D. in music (a project I’ll ask you about later) but I also know you participated in the poetry scene— for example, I recall you mentioning that you performed once with Michael Basinski, Dick Higgins, and Jackson Mac Low, quite a trio of heavy hitters. Could you talk more about your experience there, in terms of participating in the lively poetry community?

GB: I was a graduate student from the late-80s to the mid-90s. Long enough to crochet a medium-sized continent, though instead I knitted a doctorate. I didn’t participate in the literary scene as much as I retroactively realize I would have liked to because the new music scene was very active and I was quite involved in that. Much of my music composition involved text in some way, and I performed these pieces a fair bit. I did have the sense of living a double life. One larger ear in flourishing literary Toronto and one smaller one in Buffalo while my family head was at home in a cottage outside St. Catharines. The quite new online world (email and things like SwiftCurrent— Frank Davey’s online journal) were just taking off, and that helped mediate my multiple placeness. I remember doing a reading at Hallwalls and speaking about this crazy new thing: connecting with writers across the continent via “email” and online forums.

I did have the chance to perform my writing around Buffalo and I was a furious buyer of books. Mike Basinski and I knew each other through mail art and visual and sound poetry and through little magazines such as Industrial Sabotage and Score. I was very actively publishing chapbooks (through my serif of nottingham) and distributing them in Buffalo as well as Toronto.

There’s something vivid and strange about being strange in a strange land, that is, being a Canadian in Buffalo and having another scene as my point of reference. I don’t feel that at that time there was as much Canadian engagement with US writers as models as there is now. But I found the dialectic quite exciting and focusing. Plus, I liked retreating to our decidedly non-urban cottage in the orchards where I could point my periscope out at the rest of world.

Though I haven’t lived in Toronto for almost 25 years, I consider it -- in addition to the ever expanding virtual world -- my artistic home.

AP: I was hoping, Gary, that you could tell Open Book: Toronto readers about that dissertation / musical performance project you produced at the University of Buffalo. The work is called Martin’s Idea. I think it’s important for a few reasons: first, philosphically, you emphasize a mutli-disciplinary artistic practice, moving from music to text to visual work, and I think this early project is indicative of that approach to cultural production; second, I think the project also demonstrates your interest in forms of translation (in this case, translation from text to music, with a computer acting as a key mediator between the two). Could you talk about the work, keeping those issues/ideas in mind?

GB: When I was at UB, I became interested in the musical elements of spoken text. I wrote a number of chamber pieces which derived their music from the rhythms and structure of spoken text. I was interested in the translation of aspects of one form to another. I was a musical spelunker clonking my frontal lobes on the forgotten scansion of textual rhythms, creating a kind of concussion music. It was a remapping but also a way of finding a common world between spoken text and music. Rhythm is a constant in both. A clarinet or a Sousaphone can play the rhythms of speech. However, I also saw notes as a translation of the words and meanings of the text. The semantic and lexical patterning is analogous to the patterning of pitch.

Martin’s Idea expanded this concept with the aid of an interactive computer program. The program tracked the performance of a speaker. It followed the speaker’s spoken rhythms as well as other performative elements (volume, pitch contour, etc.) and then generated music based on a live analysis of it. The musical elements of the text also influenced the musical output of a live keyboardist.

I work in the visual, the auditory, and the textual, and quite often, in collaboration with other creators. I don’t really see a division between one discipline and another. I imagine translating aesthetic concerns or interests across different aesthetic platforms or technologies. A musical semantics. A grammatical scale. Eyes in the back of the alphabet. I imagine sitting down at a multi-dimensional typewriter. Sometimes the keys have letters on them. Sometimes sound or pictures or a combination of all three. Sometimes the keys strike two-dimensional paper. Sometimes four-dimensional spacetime. Recently, I was invited to contribute something to It seemed natural to create a visual piece, write a textual poem, and then create an audio composition (, all as different facets of a single idea.

AP: I’d like to turn my attention to one of your more recent chapbook publications, The Punctuation of Thieves (Hamilton, Ontario: Serif of Nottingham, 2010). It’s one of my favourite things on my desk these days. The book presents a series of prose-poem meditations or excursions, each taking as its inspiration a punctuation mark. You transform each mark into an icon that contains a multitude of meanings. For example, “?” begins, “A small island, a curling flame rising, obsidian, a djinn hissing from the prison of its tittle. // An exclamation mark bent by the wind, a cupped hand seeking purchase on the sleek face of the page.” (The book immediately brought to mind Stein’s relationship to punctuation, which she of course says “one can have feelings about.”) Could you talk about the chapbook a little, and your running interest in punctuation (e.g. in 2008, you also published the chapbook Punctuat!on Funn!es)?

GB: As you mentioned, I’ve had an abiding interest in punctuation. You mentioned -- and thanks for the kind words -- my recent Punctuation of Thieves chapbook. In the past, I’ve also created many other works, vispo and textual, exploring punctuation. I’ve created many works, vispo and otherwise, exploring punctuation. anus porcupine eyebrow (supernova tadpole, 2009) for example makes verbo/visual haiku from punctuation. Punctuation Funnies has several comic strip-like pieces as well as explorations of the shape of punctuation. And I’ve just published a chapbook with derek beaulieu’s No Press, Servants of Dust, which is a collection of conceptual translations of Shakespeare’s Sonnets 1-20. The ‘translations’ are just the punctuation of the sonnets, their names written out (i.e. “comma”) with the words removed .This is the hidden breathing, thinking, and grammar of the sonnets spoken out loud, and thus the epigraph is “Poetry notices/ Poetry does not notice.”

I see punctuation marks as the secret operatives of language. Punctuation makes no sound, but effects what is around it. The CIA. The ghosts in the machine. They are potent visual marks.

I’m interested in the figure/ground relationship between punctuation and letters, but also the punctuation as pre-eminently non-vocal, iconic glyphs which are rich in association, graphic interest, and exist in the liminal space between writing and drawing, reading and looking at. Punctuation marks are, to me, also magical symbols. A Kabbalah of the unspeakable, the pararational, the unknowlable. A brand logo in the mall of language. And each mark has a certain conceptual and associational weight. They are like character actors in the drama of language. They are visual icons removed from sound or lexical meaning, but they shape semantics, grammar, breathing. They are physical but yet not physical. Language from another textual world. If the letters are on one plane, punctuation appears in another, but from the surface of the page, they appear to be part of the same constellation. So, we have a deep connection to these little dark marks. Each of them is like a tiny tarot-card, the reading of which depends on the reader. The Punctuation of Thieves was one way I read their miniscule portraits.

You can’t look punctuation up in the dictionary. At least, not as punctuation appears as marks on a page. Creating a work only out of punctuation is like making a model airplane by assembling only the glue, a brick wall of the mortar only.. The shape of meaning; the shape of meaninglessness. A verbo/visual glossolalia. A glypholalia.

Punctuation exists in the diaspora of meaning. Again, “poetry notices/poetry does not notice.”

AP: The Punctuation of Thieves as well as your other, more recent chapbooks, including Servants of Dust and This is visual poetry, all indicate a clear and abiding investment in small press publishing (this includes your own serif of nottingham editions as well as your role on the editorial board of the “Meet the Presses Indie Literary Market.”) You alluded to this earlier, too, when talking about your “mail art” correspondence with Michael Basinski and others in the 1980s. Could you talk the aesthetic, political, and social import of your involvement with the small press.

GB: Publishing is not a neutral act. It is implicitly political and aesthetic. The publishing is part of the aesthetic of the work, in terms of its look, its distribution, and how the audience interacts with the work, both in terms of reading it, engaging with its writers and publishers, and in how it finds its audience. In the small press, there is a reason, a conscious decision, to publish the works in the way that they do. The presses choose to publish in this form not because they have to, but because they want to. In this kind of publishing, success is defined as an authentic interaction between engaged writing, publishers, and readers.

I see publishing, and events like Meet the Presses Indie Literary Market as responding to, and facilitating community around literature and publishing. The technology of the book is not one merely of information technology, but interactive technology. Readers, writers, and publishers come together to share their joie de livre in a context that is outside the strictures of predominantly market-driven publishing. In the small press, we can turn on a dime because we don’t need thousands of dollars to continue. Our share-holders are people who share in our work by holding our publications in their hands, and share our mutual appreciation of independent literature and publishing.

As a writer, publisher (serif of nottingham editions) and editor (supernova tadpole editions), I see technology in all its forms as expanding the possibilities and opportunities of publishing, writing, readers, and community. There has been a flourishing of online literature and of networks of readers, an online equivalent to the small press. The internet offers access to online publications (many which can now affordably include colour, sound, and video) and performances, but it also provides access to information about and discussions of publications in traditional forms. It is also a powerful means developing community and connection.

I believe that there will always be an interest in the physical object of the book in all its forms. Recording and online music hasn’t supplanted live concerts. The book continues to be a powerful form. There is nothing like opening a book and exploring its pages. There’s a certain elemental and satisfying joy in engaging with the physical object of the book that will never go away. We share the same physical world as the book. I feel that the book, the original wireless, handheld technology will continue inspire readers.

I’ve been involved in the small press since 1985. In a creative writing class at York University, our professor, the brilliantly laconic and insightful Frank Davey, told us about this event downtown called "Meet the Presses", a gathering of small presses devised by Stuart Ross and Nicholas Power. He encouraged us to create books and get a table. I did, and ended up attending both Meet the Presses and independent book fairs for the next twenty-five years publishing a series of broadsheets, chapbooks, and various ephemera for each event. Stuart, Nick, plus some others of us, re-formed Meet the Presses two years ago in order to create the Indie Literary Market. These kind of community-based writer/publisher events, along with readings and the online world have been a constant and important part of my writing and cultural life. They’ve really contributed significantly to my development as a writer and have been responsible for introducing me to many writers, publishers, friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and readers, and much writing which has been important to me. All of which made my last twenty-five years of engagement in the literary scene inspiring, collegial, pleasant, welcoming, intellectually engaging, and fun.

AP: Gary, it’s been a pleasure interviewing you— thanks for the thoughtful answers. I want to end by giving you a chance to tell readers about your forthcoming collection of poetry, the wonderfully titled The Porcupinity of the Stars, which is due to be released this fall by Coach House. It’s a collection of surreal lyrics, with great lines such as “my abdomen was a sand dune / shaped by the wind / into the grains of a million / directionless games of beach volleyball,” but also lovely, spare poems like “My Grandfather,” which has some philosophical heft to it. What should Open Book: Toronto readers know about the collection?

GB : Thanks for the great questions, Alessandro. Other than pontificating in front of the mirror, on the bus, or at wife and my children as they try to ignore me, I don’t get that many opportunities to explore, out loud, some of these aspects of my work.

To answer your question, I’d first like to talk about what you’ve termed as “surreal.” Of course I know what you mean, and “surreal” is a handy handle to describe a wide range of work. I don’t know that there’s a simpler way to describe some of the pieces in my book, but I always have some misgivings about the term when applied outside of its original context. I think that it points to the dominance of realism as a creative mode, or at least, to its dominance in our perception of our perceptions. What isn’t “realistic” is often called “surrealism” by default, though, really, there are many modes of everyday engagement with our thoughts and perceptions that are outside what we categorize as realistic. I always think, What exactly is being realistically represented, anyway? What counts as real? What conventions do we have to render invisible in order to see some work as “realistic”? As if I were a painter, I see my writing as ranging from the seemingly entirely abstract to the quasi-representational. And of course, what is abstract may elicit deep feelings or questions. Is the colour blue abstract or is it realistic? Is it unrelated to emotion and perception?

The blurb on the back of the book says that I’m “addressing the joys and vagaries of perception in poems touching on family, loss, wonder and the shifting, often perplexing nature of consciousness.” I wrote some of that, so I’d have to agree! (At least in the sense that that’s what I’m aiming for.) There is an engagement with philosophical issues (“things with shape and no shape/keep it up!”) but hopefully not in a turgid or lugubrious way. There is also an ongoing exploration of family. I have the sense that there are not that many Canadian male poets writing about this, but I might have missed them since I was driving my daughter to music lessons.

I also have poems in the book about the feet that washed up in B.C., Descartes, the letter H, death, a psalm translation incorporating the Partridge Family and the Brady Bunch, inverted deer, Coleman Hawkins, grief, jazz, hairstyles, and dualism.

Perception and the perception of perception is, as far as I’m concerned, big fun. And then, when one incorporates the many ways that we can frame our experience (science, mythology, language theory, philosophy, psychology, media), well, we’d need some kind of pan-dimensional Brian Wilson to sing in a hyperspace falsetto to express the thrill of it all.

“it’s not so much that Polly wants a cracker
but that the lark wants its small supper of sky
its late dinner of twilight among the blue leaves"

Thanks again for the opportunity to speak about my work. It's been fun hearing myself talk. But really, it's been great having this discussion with you. Thanks very much for the chance.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Alessandro Porco

Alessandro Porco is the author of two collections of poetry, Augustine in Carthage (2008) and The Jill Kelly Poems (2005), both published by ECW Press, and the editor of Population Me: Essays on David McGimpsey.

Go to Alessandro Porco’s Author Page