Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Gary Barwin

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.

The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

Gary Barwin

is a writer, composer, and multidisciplinary artist and the author of twenty-one books of poetry, fiction and books for children. His latest book is the poetry collection No TV for Woodpeckers (Wolsak & Wynn). His recent national bestselling novel Yiddish for Pirates (Random House Canada) won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour as well as the Canadian Jewish Literary Award (FIction) and the Hamilton Literary Award (Fiction). It was also a finalist for both the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize. His interactive writing installation using old typewriters and guitar processors was featured during 2016-2017 at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Forthcoming books include, A Cemetery for Holes, a poetry collaboration with Tom Prime (Gordon Hill Press, 2019) and For It is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New and Selected Poems, ed. Alessandro Porco (Wolsak and Wynn, 2019.)

A finalist for the National Magazine Awards (Poetry), he is a three-time recipient of Hamilton Poetry Book of the Year, has also received the Hamilton Arts Award for Literature and has co-won the bpNichol Chapbook Award and the K.M. Hunter Arts Award. He was one of the judges for the 2017 CBC Poetry Prize.

 A PhD in music composition, Barwin has been Writer-in-Residence at Western University, McMaster University and the Hamilton Public Library, Hillfield Strathallan College, and Young Voices E-Writer-in-Residence at the Toronto Public Library. He will be Edna Staebler writer-in-residence at Wilfrid Laurier University in Winter 2019. He has taught creative writing at a number of colleges and universities and currently teaches writing to at-risk youth in Hamilton through the ArtForms program. His writing has been published in hundreds of magazine and journals internationally—from Readers Digest to Granta and Poetry to the Walrus—and his writing, music, media works and visuals have been presented and broadcast internationally. Though born in Northern Ireland to South African parents of Ashenazi descent, Barwin lives in Hamilton, Ontario. He is married with three adult children and lives in Hamilton, Ontario and has never been Governor of Louisiana. garybarwin.com

The Interview

1. When and why did you start writing poetry?

The first poem I remember writing was written on filing cards. I was smitten by the way the cards seemed to belong in the world and how they fit in their little filing card box. I had heard of “rosewood.” My parents had furniture made of rosewood. I assumed, however, that rosewood meant the wood from a rose plant and so I found a small stub of dried rose vine and brought it to my bedroom. I was perhaps 8. I wrote an incantation for the rose wood. The wood seems druidical. Magic. Elemental. And so what I wrote was not English, but numinous, potent sounds. I remember writing it in Roman script but highly stylized and with diacritics. This idea of the immanence of things, of language as an invocation, as an object in itself, made of the elements of the world but rearranged into something different, something that allowed a deep engagement with thought, a sense of things, tactility, pataphysics and a sense of being a particular time and place while being highly conceptual was formative to me.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

I was introduced to poetry in waves. When I was young, I recall going to synagogue and hearing the chanted prayers in Hebrew which I didn’t understand but being captivated by its allusive and inscrutable beautiful. I remember Mr. Calvert, my P.5 teacher in Inch Marlo school in Northern Ireland reading us Robert Service. There were the often cosy and mythic words of hymns and Christmas carols. “Without a city wall.” Not not having a wall around the city, but outside. Then my parents had copies of Seamus Heaney in the house. And various poetry anthologies. And once I stole a complete Shakespeare from someone whose kids I was babysitting when I was 13. And then I went to an arts boarding school where my roommate, Jay Frost, would recite The Waste Land—from memory. And we had poetry workshops with guest writers, such as Robert Bly, Mark Strand and Etheridge Knight. I was surrounded by this poetry. And finally, I attended York University where my little Seamus Heaney-limited poetic world, my “eye clear as the bleb of icicle” was blown open by studying with bpNichol. Poetry as curiosity, as investigation, as an appreciation and exploration of the materials of language and their possibilities.

3. How aware are and were you of the dominating presence of older poets traditional and contemporary?

“Dominating” is interesting. Just like a word doesn’t function as a word without other words, without past and current uses of words, I don’t think poems (or poets) can either. We write and read in the context of other work. So, I don’t think of being dominated, rather as existing in a poetic ecosystem. I came to writing and I have stayed here by experiencing other writing and also language. So reading and listening comes before writing. And in fact, writing is a form of reading and listening. In one eye or ear and out the fingers as writing. Some processing may be involved. Other writers have made me aware of what is possible, what ways language can be explored, how it can be taken apart and put together differently, how I can follow the myriad forces that it embodies, how it can be used as a tool to explore, a vehicle to ride. All of which helps me spelunk the human, the non-human, the world, the linguistic and the non-linguistic both.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

This changes depending on what I’m working on, however, distraction and diversion are a standard part of my routine. I often start by avoiding a project and instead creating a visual piece—lately, works exploring the ampersand—or a poem based perhaps on a whim or something I tumble onto on social media. I’ve been working on a novel for the last year and a half and so my goal for my daily minimum is 500 words. I write until I’ve written 500 words. Often this includes figuring out what is going to happen in those 500 words as I don’t write from a premeditated plan, except in a very general sense. In order to keep motivated, I keep a chart of words written compared to words projected (i.e. if I actually wrote 500 words five days a week vs. what I actually managed to write.) Sometimes I write more than the 500, sometimes less, or, more likely, I have something else to do that day and so don’t manage to work on the novel at all, except in my head. Some days, I schedule time to work on collaboration. These days, I’m writing a poem or two once a week with Tom Prime. We Skype each other and open up a Google doc. Then we write. I like the idea of writing as dialogue and so work often emerges from interactions on social media, riffing off an image, a phrase, a discussion, or some other writing that I encounter.

I like the energy of the impulse or the distraction. Sometimes it’s fuelled by nervousness or uncertainty about the project that I’m “supposed” to be working on. But I’m ok with channelling that into something else, knowing that I’m getting work out of it. Of course, at some point, I have to confront the procrastination, and buckle down and actually work on the main project, otherwise it won’t get done. The other good thing about distraction is that one can be surprised by a sudden confluence of ideas or inputs and connect things or write in a way that enables something unexpected to occur.

5. What motivates you to write?

This seems like a very simple question, however, it isn’t so easy to answer. Certainly, my writing comes from curiosity. I am intrigued to explore what is possible—what is possible in language, in writing. What it is possible to say. Where the language might guide me, what it might draw out of me, what it might draw out of itself through my engagement. There is something about communication. About connection or engaging with people (readers) — the impulse for interaction. There is something elemental, something fundamental, somatic, about the act of making. Writing is about exploring writing, but also about exploring the world and the act of writing. About exploring the writing self and the self writing. And also, I want to be so rich I can buy all the letters of the alphabet, bronze them in solid gold and then, when the sun is bright, signal to it with its own light.

6. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today?

I am young. At least when compared to English. Or a rock. Or that obscure jarred thing in the back of my fridge. But I am always reminded of the elemental and preternatural power of language—and of poetry specifically—of its ability to be a trickster, a Rorschach test, a finger in a socket, a consoler, debunker, debater, songster, and seducer, and how, even though my knowledge was limited, I immediately got the sense of what might be possible. And so with the writers that I read in the past. From Spike Milligan and Ogden Nash to Wordsworth, Heaney, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Trakl and so on, to religious texts (the Jewish translations direct from Hebrew as well as King James and the others.) I have the sense, as I did with reading poets when I was young, that there was more just around the.corner: more confusion, more understanding, more meaning, less meaning, more technique, more chances.

7. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

The way your question is phrased is interesting. You ask about which “writers” I most admire rather what “writing” and so it leads me to think about what are qualities that I value in a writer. Passing over the issue of what happens when the work is good, but the writer is perhaps ethically or morally compromised in some way, I do think about what it is to be a writer in society, what it is to be a writer in community and (to paraphrase Sheila Heti) “How should a writer be?” and what does creativity look like.

I admire writers who mentor, support and build community. But I also admire those who are able to forge their own paths and remain true to their values both aesthetically and politically even if that leads them to pursue an individual path, perhaps one not comfortable with the prevailing fashion. Of course, this only makes sense to me if they are sensitive, thoughtful listeners who consider how large-scale historical, political and systemic issues shape aesthetics and the writer’s life and opinions and continually check in to ensure that they haven’t gone astray or been seduced by their own solipsism into thinking that their view is the only authentic one. And here I’m making a distinction between “fashion” and “developed contemporary understanding.”  A writer and their writing can’t exist outside of the systemic influences on them and the culture, whether legible to them or not, but they can write outside of the prevailing fashion or taste.

I also consider the kind of writer who is curious about everything and explores many creative avenues—perhaps different forms, media, aesthetics and so on. I tend to be like this, creating music, art, poetry and fiction, using digital and analogue means, exploring both more lyric as well as more experimental approaches, creating, performing, exhibiting, publishing in a wide variety of ways. The other type of writer is one who hones their craft to an almost laser-like concentration, working within one approach or aesthetic. Samuel Beckett was like this. He spent his life focussing his work more and more acutely, stripping away everything extraneous to the essential vision.

I’m hesitant to begin naming who I “most” admire. I resist hierarchies and ranking as too fraught. But since I had a conversation yesterday about her yesterday, I will say that I follow Kai Cheng Thom’s online presence with great respect. She is thoughtful, articulate, earnest, compassionate and willing to consider positions with great insight, even if they reevaluate what may appear to be the consensus opinion or approach.

8. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

For me, a writer is someone who writes. So, regardless of who you are, if you write, you are a writer. I believe everyone can be a writer. Everyone can have a particular and personal relationship to language, whether spoken or written. Becoming a good writer involves reading a lot, trying many things, really thinking through what you’ve written and what it is doing. Considering what assumptions you’ve made about what the writing should be, or things you haven’t considered? So, becoming a writer involves reading and thinking intently. Others’ work. One’s own.

One of the hardest things is to write what you actually want to write rather than what you think you should write. Well, that and seeing what is actually going on in the writing one is doing. And keeping going. Because becoming a writer involves keeping doing it. I feel that it is important to keep writing. That’s how one becomes a better writer. But it is important to keep pushing, to try to see more of what is possible, to try to learn to make one’s writing more resonant, or to contain more, if not multitudes then multivalences or multiverses. Tumult or mulch. Unless you’re a born genius like Rimbaud, I feel the difference between the path of someone who writes and someone who learns to make really good writing is that for the good writer it isn’t about being a writer, but about really trying to make the writing the best it can be, to learn to really read the work in front of you and edit or develop it so that it truly is the best it can be. For me, becoming a writer is about learning to really be attuned to your creative process, and also about really trusting the writing and, like a dowser, learning to see how it pulls you, learning to sense the subterranean before you, learning to be attuned to the language and where it wants to take you. And to keep learning to follow it more places, to be more keenly attuned to it. It is a kind of dance—the language leads you, sometimes without you even realizing it, and you follow it, waltzing or polkaing around the dance floor. I know this sounds like I’m Yoda, and I’m saying, “Follow the Force.” But I guess I am. Though I have more restrained ears and a better barber. And I’m (usually) less green.

9. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

I have many specific projects that I am working on, but I also relish the opportunity to explore a whim or particular inspiration and create something on the spur of the moment. Sometimes these get folded into a larger project and sometime they exist as confounding outliers. I am an advocate of allowing  the moment to suggest something to you. Often this results in creating something fresh and surprising, something which subverts your usual expectations of what it is that you do.

The main project that I’m working on is a novel, Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted. It is a Wild West Holocaust novel set in 1941 Lithuania. My protagonist is a Don Quixote-type middle-aged Litvak who imagines himself a cowboy. It makes connections between the Holocaust and North American Indigenous genocide via the Western novels of Karl May. Also, my protagonist is looking for his testicles which became frozen in a Swiss glacier after being shot off 20 years before. It’s scheduled to come out in 2021. I’m also writing a new book of collaborations with Tom Prime (we’ve just published our first one,  A Cemetery for Holes). A chapbook of prose poems with Kathryn Mockler will appear next year as will a collection of ekphrastic works I created with the artist Donna Szoke. I’m also working on a big public art piece about persecution and refugees with Tor Lukasik-Foss and Simon Frank for a park in Hamilton. (I’ve never worked in bronze before!) I’m working on a collection of my ampersand-based visual poems and finishing a book and recording with Gregory Betts and Lillian Allen. Greg and I are also part of the band TZT and will be releasing a recording of sound poetry and sound works we did with a variety of sound poets.(We’re hoping for vinyl!)  I’m also doing a collaboration with Shane Neilson involving hurricanes, naming and class photographs. I’m also working on a continuing poetic project of my own based on experimental translations of a variety of poems, from William Bronk and Rilke to Medieval poetry. It combines a kind of oblique lyricism with a variety of conceptual and experimental transformational practices. (Maybe that’s our life. Oblique lyricism and conceptual and experimental transformations.) Also, any minute now, my “New and Selected Poems” will come out with Wolsak & Wynn. And while writing this, I just got an email inviting me to create some visual poems out of scientific papers, something I’ve done before. It’s really intriguing to explore technical language and a very specific textual form (the scientific paper) about which I know nothing and is just on the border of intelligibility for me.

This kind of disorganized multidirectional chaos—this whole mess of projects—seems to work for me. Because, as they say, if it’s not one thing, it’s another.

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