Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Gary Barwin

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Gary Barwin

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Rachel Wedekind:

Hello Gary, thank you for taking the time out of your day to do an interview with me. I was first introduced to your work when angela brought frogments from the frag pool to her poetry session. I was drawn to the particular style since it incorporated drawn images into the poetry. Being an artist, I found this quite interesting and different from conventional poetry.

Without further ado, here are my questions:

In the collaboration piece frogments from the frag pool, you expressed your haikus in drawings, arrows and parenthesis to recreate the effects of rippling water and reflections on a pond surface. I was drawn to the style since it’s so different and unlike any poetry I have ever seen before. That being said, what inspired you to break away from the “norm” and incorporate drawn artwork into your poetry?

Gary Barwin:

I’ve been fascinated and inspired by visual poetry ever since I first encountered it — I think I was first introduced to it at the same time that I discovered inventive variations on Basho’s frog poem: in my university writing classes with bpNichol. Visual poetry confirmed my suspicion that words — and their component letters and interleaved punctuation — were, in addition to being a way to store and point to meaning — visual machines, or visual organisms with their own grammar of shape, structure and movement. I feel like the human brain has evolved to include a special relationship with the shape of texts — just like we have a specialized relationship with faces and facial recognition. The moment we write something down, we might wonder about how that writing becomes a thing in itself, and not just an abstract container for an imagined word. My collaborator for that book, derek beaulieu, and I were inspired by various writers who experimented with the visual and specifically with this poem: bpNichol, Steve McCaffery, Dom Sylvester Houédard and jwcurry. derek does fantastic visual work — he has a blog that has lots of his work on it.

RW:

In one of your most recent blog posts, you mention creative writing and creative writing programs. You express your thoughts on using words in media (in recordings, in video, in sculptural media) and demonstrate great support towards collaboration and workshops. Would you care to explain more about this idea? Would this program be for poetry or understanding words better in general?

GB:

To be honest, I’m not sure what the limits of "poetry" are. Sound, video, visuals, words, story. They all are part of what poetry can be. And the border between prose and poetry isn’t clear either. So I think that such a program is for developing a better understanding of words and what can be done with them. Of where you can take them. Of what you can combine them with.

I think of it in the same way that I would if I were designing a program about eggs. What can you do with eggs? Think about all the forms that eggs can take and where you might find them. Bread. Cake. Omelettes. Meringues. Soups. Egg salad. Salads. Streaking down car windows and in chickens. And that’s just grocery store eggs. We all came from eggs. Frogs and ostriches. Humans. So…what I mean is that I see words as something as flexible, as "investigatable" as eggs. Teaching writing should be such a scramble. Writing and words can exist in places other than the page. We find words and thoughts that relate to words in places other than the page. These words and these places can be shaped to make writing and poetry. And people in writing education programs should have the opportunity to explore this and to have guidance while they do.

RW:

On your website and in an interview with Open Book: Toronto, you express your love for music. Has there ever been a point in time where music has come before poetry? Or have they always gone hand in hand and inspired each other?

GB:

I’ve always seen all the arts (and for me, particularly literature, music and art) as intertwined. Though they may seem different on the surface, I see them as having the same basic forces, the same operating principles, as being subject to the same physics and grammar. If you drop an ostrich, a poet and a toaster from a tall building, gravity operates on them in the same way. I began playing music very early, but very quickly, I wanted to describe what I was feeling, the texture, the colour, the shape of the music. The stories that seemed to be in the music. I wanted to be able to write magic spells that would conjure music. So, music, writing, and poetry have always inspired me. They do go hand in hand. Or multi-sensory tentacle thing in multi-sensory tentacle thing.

RW:

While reading Outside the Hat I noticed that a great deal is related to wildlife. In correspondence to frogments from the frag pool and from reading your blog, I can tell you love nature. In saying that, is there anywhere in Canada (or any part of the world) that inspires your writing the most?

GB:

You’re right. I do love nature. I spend a lot of time walking in the fields and woods around where I live, in Hamilton, Ontario. But I think a lot about other places, too. And, every chance I get, I explore nature in other places where I travel. I do love the natural world. And I find it inspiring. Of course, I love to consider what is "natural" and how human culture constructs what is "natural" and what is not. I love tromping through fields, but they’re a kind of human/nature hybrid. Heck, humans are a human/nature hybrid. So, I also see toasters as a hybrid. I have a poem, “Shopping for Deer,” (in my book, The Porcupinity of the Stars, but it’s also on my blog at http://serifofnottingham.blogspot.com/2008/11/shopping-for-deer.html — see the comments section for my revised version!) which is about deer and shopping carts and how our way of thinking about each of them is influenced by the other one. Loving nature, for me, then, is not only about the trees and the animals which I love, but also about seeing the connections between things.

RW:

How would you say your style of writing has changed from past to present? Any particular people or events involved?

GB:

Jeesh! Difficult question. Certainly my experience of writing classes in high school and university vastly changed my approach to writing. I was exposed to tons of writing. I took classes with Mark Strand and Robert Bly in high school which amazed me. Then, in university, I studied with bpNichol and Frank Davey. That blew the top of my head off! Another significant thing was meeting many people in the small press community in Toronto — jwcurry and Stuart Ross, for instance — who were doing things that were exciting and inspiring to me. I’m someone who likes to try out many things and so, though my writing style changes over time, what has seemed to have happened is that I’ve tried out more and more different kinds of writing. Various kinds of writing for children. Surrealism. Conceptual work. Lyricism. Various "post-avant" disjunctions. Visual poetry. Sound poetry. Music and text. Video. Collaboration. Prose poetry. Short stories. Novels.

RW:

Where do you see yourself in the future… pursuing music or poetry? Or both? Are there any future projects you are currently thinking about investing your time in?

GB:

I think that I will continue to pursue a variety of arts, individually and in combination. So, music, poetry, prose, visual arts, video. The possibilities are really exciting and I want to take words and music out and test drive it in as many different situations as I can.

I’m currently writing a novel. It involves Jewish pirates, a 300 year old immortal Yiddish-speaking parrot, the Spanish Inquisition and…well, I haven’t figured out what else, yet.

Thanks for these questions, Rachel. They were thoughtful, perceptive, and interesting to answer.

RW:

Thank you for your time!


Gary Barwin is a poet, fiction writer, composer and performer. His music and writing have been published, performed and broadcast in Canada, the US and elsewhere.

His publications include poetry: The Porcupinity of the Stars, Outside the Hat and Raising Eyebrows (Coach House), Servants of Dust (No Press) and frogments from the frag pool (with derek beaulieu) (The Mercury Press); and fiction: Doctor Weep and other Strange Teeth, Big Red Baby and The Mud Game (a novel with Stuart Ross) (The Mercury Press). Forthcoming books include The Obvious Flap (with Gregory Betts; BookThug) and Kafka Franzlations: A Guide to the Imaginary Parables (with Hugh Thomas and Craig Conley; New Star). He was the co-winner of the 2010 bpNichol chapbook award for Inverting the Deer (serif of nottingham) and was a recipient of the KM Hunter Foundation Artist award. He edits supernova tadpole editions for Paper Kite Press.

His music 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; http://kalvos.org). He has written on musical subjects ranging from Louis Andriessen to the harmonic theories of James Tenney as a metaphor for the physics of multi-dimensional space.

Barwin is also the author of several books for kids, including Seeing Stars, which was nominated for a CLA YA Book of the Year and an Arthur Ellis Award, and The Magic Mustache (Annick), which was listed as one of Macleans’ top ten reads of the season in Winter of 1999.

Barwin received a PhD in Music Composition from SUNY at Buffalo. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario with his wife and three children and online at garybarwin.com. If you were the last word of this bio, you’d be home.


Rachel Wedekind, a self-proclaimed mushroom, hails from the darkly acclaimed basement dweller association. When she isn’t sleeping, you can find her indulging in her favourite television program, Iron Chef, along with some spicy Thai curry and rice. She will be attending the University of Toronto in the fall, but she would rather not think about growing up and instead waste all her time doing childish things. Rachel doesn’t have any publications to date, as all her ideas are mostly in her head or doodled on the blank side of a school handout.

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.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page