Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist, and educator and the author of 17 books of poetry and fiction. His work has been performed, broadcast, anthologized, exhibited, presented, and published nationally and internationally. Barwin holds a PhD. in music composition, and is 2014-2015 Writer-in-Residence at Western University in London, Ontario. His latest book is Moon Baboon Canoe (Mansfield Press, 2014.) His novel, Yiddish for Pirates, will appear with Random House Canada in 2016. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario and at garybarwin.com. “how I watched until the moon” was written in 1986.
His piece “how I watched until the moon” appears in the fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.
Q: Given how productive you are as a writer, I’m curious about the fact that you chose a work nearly thirty years old to submit to Touch the Donkey. What is it about the piece that still draws you in, after so long, and why hadn’t it appeared in print before?
A: The piece is from 1986 when I was 22, and did appear with my serif of nottingham, but only in an edition of about 5-10. I’d forgotten about it and I don’t have any copies of the old shiny Xeroxed version, but I came across the original drawings when searching through a box of old files. (Was I looking for the mummified remains of my youth carefully stored in mortuary jars? My hollowed out copy of Proust with my memories preserved in a hidden diary?) At the time, I was studying at York University with bpNichol and was working through his immense influence on me, and specifically, in this piece, exploring an understanding of the elemental both in language and image. Moon is both an archetypically powerful image in our culture and a potent signifier in literature. It is ripe for semiotic and imagistic play. I love the simplicity of poetic variations on a few elements (both as a system of signs as well as a set of poetic images) like frog, pond, plop in the case of versions of Basho’s famous haiku. Because the set of images is fixed, it allows for a kind of self-reflexive metacommentary. In “how i watched,” there is the moon, a tree, and the watcher, as well as the sentence, “how I watched as the moon was caught in a tree.”
Over the years, I’ve integrated a lot of old work into my new publications; there’s even a piece from around this time in my recent, Moon Baboon Canoe. It’s a pleasure to discover that though I felt I had no clue whatsoever when I was a young writer, I actually occasionally stumbled upon something that is still of interest. It’s a nod of confidence to my younger, uncertain self who not only would be surprised to see my continued interest in the work, but would be astounded at the very notion of how nearly 30 years has passed. That astounds my current self, too.
Q: It seems a conscious choice to have a conversation between your current work and much older work, something David W. McFadden has also done, reworking his three “Great Lakes Suites” novels into a single volume for Talonbooks, for example. Does this conversation allow, perhaps, for a different kind of clarity to your overall production over the past thirty-plus years, or does the clarity appear as more of a patchwork?
A: I think conversation is the right term. Of course, I can see perennial or latent concerns in my past work which continue or are developed in the present work, but often these seem different not only in the context of my writing and my life, but with regards to literary culture in general. We ‘re-see’ certain things in light of what has developed after them (like that Borges piece where he examines how Kafka influenced writers that predated him.) Looking at my own past work, I’m also aware of certain crossroads that I arrived at where I took one path instead of others. Past work allows me to go back and explore these paths (if only to confirm my decision not to follow them.)
You mention McFadden: I’m interested in how he has revised some of his past work. His editor, Stuart Ross tells me (in an interview for Jacket2) that Dave “in revising his early poems for his selected…often got rid of the word love and sometimes replaced it with the word thing.”
But in general—in writing, as in life—I have the sense that regardless of what happened in the past, it was somehow necessary to get you to where you are now, though admittedly, I’m not entirely sure how I could explain how watching all those afterschool episodes of Hogan’s Heroes.
Q: Part of what I’ve always found interesting about your work is the ease in which you appear to move between genres, from concrete/visual poetry, lyric modes, prose fiction and works for children, as well as your years of musical composition. How are you able to move from one to the other so freely, and what do you think the variety of modes have brought to your individual works?
A: I really don’t feel that each genre—or indeed each art form—is any different. I conceive of them in the same way. I suppose that means I think of them each as a semiotic system. It’s the difference between the games of tennis and water polo. There are certain guidelines which establish meaningful behaviours, a framework against which to interpret what happens. I understand, of course, that each genre or art form has a different tradition, a different history of how its material works and how it is interpreted; a different physics of reading.
You know how we speak of “booting” up a computer? I understand that the term booting is actually short for bootstrapping. Early programmers were thinking about the recursiveness inherent in the fact that computers start themselves up using a program that they themselves are running. In other words, computers pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. And so I think of different genres, or art forms, similarly as running their own operating programs. Built into the form is how it operates, how we interact with it. Of course, we are also using the art form to create ‘updates’ to itself.
It’s hard to know what working in different forms does to the individual piece, though I do think that it has brought a sense of possibility, a sense that writing, music, visual work—or indeed any specific work is just one particular iteration of what is possible. And that if there are borders between things, they are chosen by convention and not necessity. It is true though, that as a receiver of a particular form, a different part of the human is addressed. There is a difference between eating a ham sandwich, feeling the wind on your face, and a haiku. I think there are extra syllables in ham sandwich.
Q: Given the fact that you’ve been composing and publishing for some three decades or so, how do you feel your work has developed over the years? Where do you see some of these divergent threads leading?
A: When I was a school teacher, I would hear the term “the spiral curriculum,” which referred to the idea that subjects were revisited over the years with increasing complexity, context, and sophistication. (I think it would be more accurate for the image to be a corkscrew—or a hurricane—rather than a spiral to reflect the upward direction.) In any case, in many ways, this spiralling back to certain concerns is how I imagine my writing. I hope I bring greater understanding, or at least, greater context to the work with each return. So perhaps it’s a case of “exactly the same, just more so.” I feel that I’ve been able to expand my range and technique, to further develop concerns, but also to reflect my development and experience as a person—I turned fifty this year, which, I understand, means I’m not twenty anymore. So my experiences inform the writing: fatherhood (I've three kids...two who are in their twenties), grief, loss, illness of friends and family, of a bewildering complexity of joy, sadness, surprise, and memory. Of the body, of an awareness of living through history. Once, one of my sons pointed at a Saturn V rocket and said, “That’s an old fashioned rocket.” It used to be the future. Now even the Shuttle is a thing of the past.
I do feel that, compared to when I was younger, I’m now able to conceive of writing on a larger scale, or rather, perhaps, as the elements as being more rhizomatic, as connecting to other elements in a larger network. By this I mean not only in more developed and complex forms (i.e. the novel, the poetry book as a form, a 40-minute multimedia piece incorporating sound and visuals—all things I’m currently working on) but also a sense of writing as relating to its context in time: present, past, and future.
So where is this leading? Certainly to more approaches to gesamtkuntstwerk (multimedia integrating my various interests) but I continue to want to explore the small and the individual, also. And to be aware of the classic struggle: between the desire for mastery and control vs. uncertainty and experiment. I try to trust the process. To have faith that the writing knows more than me.
Q: You spoke of composing this piece when you were at York University, taking classes with bpNichol, who was said to be, among other things, a great teacher, a great supporter of other writers and a great editor. Overall, what was the experience of taking a class from Nichol as a young writer, and what do you think you learned from him? Does he influence your work still?
A: When I came to York, though I was interested in experimental music, and loved Kafka and Beckett, as a poet, I was most interested in Seamus Heaney. I arrived early for my first writing class and waited. Then this hippyish guy arrived with scraggly dirty-blond hair, carrying a big bottle of Pepsi, and dressed in some kind of velour smock thing. Interesting student, I thought. Of course, that was bp. And he did turn out to be the things you mentioned: a great teacher, editor and supporter. I would bring work in and prepare to be lauded. (He gave great praise to many of his students.) But he wouldn’t allow me to rest on my 17-year old’s laurels, which I wanted to do. He’d read my piece and then—in addition to edits—would suggest a writer who had created a body of work that developed what I’d begun to explore. So I’d go to the library and read a ton of work by that writer. And then the next week, it’d happen again. He read me very well. He knew that, even more than praise, I genuinely wanted to be a better writer. I did also want to earn his respect. He was immensely inspiring, and really blew the top of my writing brain open. The idea that a writer’s knowledge, interests, and writing could be entirely heterogenous. That one should follow one’s interests, whatever they were. That it was about invention and exploration, self awareness as a writer, and possibility. And lack of pretension. But also about community, support of others, DIY and small press.
And so all these things still influence me. (Well, except for trying not to be pretentious. I like to stay in practice, y’know, for interviews.) I take bp as a model for what a writer could be. And of course, he informs my interest in sound poetry, in visual and concrete work, borderblur, ‘pataphysics, and the quantum relations between the lyric and the experimental. And at home, I wear velour smocks. Or not that I’ll admit to, but I did make a t-shirt with a picture of bp with his arms outstretched and the caption, “What would bp do?”
The large multimedia piece (H: for it is a pleasure and a surprise to breathe) that I mentioned that I’m working on is directly inspired by bp and is intended to celebrated the 70th anniversary of his birth. I’m incorporating computer-manipulated samples of bp performing as well as my own work.
Q: Given your range of modes, what is your normal method of composition? Or do you even have such a thing?
A: I think that’s a really interesting question to ask writers. I wonder how many of us are aware of what is our default mode. I don’t think that I have a “normal method,” but rather a range of different approaches or techniques. In the last hour, I’ve taken a visual poem by Ukrainian writer Volodymyr Bilyk and distorted it in 3D, overlapped several iterations of it using Photoshop and then added some contrasting material based on one of my favourite icons, the speech balloon. (Volodymyr and I sometimes riff off each other’s work on Facebook.) And before that, I was up early this morning because I couldn’t sleep, and, in some sort of hypnogogic state, had the idea for a poem based on the idea of doing origami in reverse, namely, unfolding a paper crane until it became a blank sheet again. I imagined writing lines of a poem to go under each image of some origami instructions (but the instructions would appear in reverse, telling you how to unfold the crane.) I played around with the words concentrating on words which had a sound relation to the word wish based on the idea that if you fold a 1000 cranes in origami you get your wish; this was, for me, somehow related to the current conflict in the Middle East.) I also had a few (terrible) lines based on something like “the architecture of (f)light.” And at some point in the middle of last night, I had read (on my phone) work by and about John Taggart on Jacket2, and specifically, his work relating to Mark Rothko and the chapel he created. I had some notion of abstraction through verbal repetition that I wanted to apply to this text. I tried to add the text that I’d written this morning to the reversed images of the origami instructions, but they didn’t seem to work. I played around with them, being more or less grammatical, repetitive, or having denotative meaning. I eventually deleted almost all of them and the returned to Word whereupon I wrote about seven or eight lines, deleted half of them (the ones which seemed to be too proscriptive or delimiting of meaning) and then added the four retained lines to the image. I posted the image on my tumblr with the caption “origami makes nothing happen,” but think that I will delete the caption as it, too, is too delimiting. These kinds of processes are something like my normal methods for individual works whether created with sound, visuals, or texts. Of course, the novel that I wrote required a very different process. I wrote on the treadmill desk for hours each day and had lots of charts, sticky notes, text files, and so on, but that hasn’t been typical.
Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?
A: To reenergize, I try to choose work that not only amazes and inspires, but that exists a certain energetic distance away from where I’m at—not too far so that my work and it are entirely beyond each other’s gravitational pull, but enough so that I’m shifted from my usual orbit or at least am aware of the larger space around it. There are works that put me in a state that is receptive to listening in particular ways or returning to the idea of works, especially things from when I was young. Sometimes work that creates a kind of creative propulsion isn't necessarily my favourite, or that I would hold out as an exemplar, or that I even particularly like, but rather, is full of a kind of jaunty jalopylike momentum, a galootish exuberance, an arcane and coded chamber music.
I don't really have particular works that I return to as touchstones. The short fiction of Kafka. Beckett’s novels. Myths and fables from around the world. Medieval and Renaissance poetry. Reading Mark Strand or John Asbery in a half-wake hammock-induced reverie. Anne Carson, Yeats. David W. McFadden. Borges. bpNichol. Wallace Stevens. Joseph Campbell. Ron Padgett. Inger Christensen. Aase Berg. Satu Kaikkonen and Márton Koppány. Bruno Schulz.
I’m a messy magpie of a reader, but try to make continuous partial retention a virtue.