Thursday, February 7, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with John Barton

John Barton: I was born in Edmonton and raised in Calgary, and have published eight books of poetry and five chapbooks, including Designs from the Interior (Anansi, 1993), Sweet Ellipsis (ECW, 1998), Hypothesis (Anansi, 2001) and Asymmetries (Frog Hollow, 2004). A bilingual edition of my third book, West of Darkness: Emily Carr, a self-portrait, was published by BuschekBooks in 2006. My ninth collection, Hymn, is forthcoming from Brick in 2009. I co-edited Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay-Male Poets, which was published by Arsenal Pulp in 2007. My work has won three Archibald Lampman Awards, the Patricia Hackett Prize (University of Western Australia), an Ottawa Book Award, a 2002 CBC Literary Award, and a 2006 National Magazine Award. I was educated at the Universities of Alberta, Calgary, Quebec, and Victoria, as well as at Columbia University in New York, studying poetry with Gary Geddes, Eli Mandel, Robin Skelton, and Joseph Brodsky. In 1986, I received a Master of Library and Information Science from the University of Western Ontario and in 1994, studied book editing at the Banff Publishing Centre. Since 1980, my poems have appeared in over twenty-five anthologies and seventy-five magazines (often more than once) across Canada and in the United States, Australia, India, and the United Kingdom. I’ve worked as a librarian and editor for five national museums in Ottawa from 1985 to 2003, where I also co-edited Arc: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine for thirteen years and was editor-in-chief of Vernissage: The Magazine of the National Gallery of Canada for two years. I have been poetry editor for Winnipeg’s Signature Editions since 2005. I live in Victoria since 2004, where I edit The Malahat Review.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

It made every book afterwards possible.

2 - How long have you lived in Victoria, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I have lived in Victoria since 2004, but went to university here between 1978 and 1981, followed by two years of work as a shelver in the university library. Also, my maternal grandmother lived in Oak Bay until I was eleven, and we would visit her over the summer. Consequently, my link to this place is quite layered, if fragmented, as if I were peeling back brittle wallpaper, with several clashing patterns showing. It occurred to me the other day that I have been looking at the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington for more than half my life.

I suspect that anyone who knows my poetry would feel that I evince a strong connection to geography, but I would prefer to say that I am shaped by geographies. I believe landscape imprints itself upon us from an early age—Highway 1A west from Calgary is my true primordial landscape—but I have now lived in so many places that I have a hard time feeling a strong bond to any particular locale. However, those that I have known persistently creep into my writing these days; I live in on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, but I can find myself writing about Edmonton’s North Saskatchewan River valley one day, the nineteenth-century Victorian ambience of old Montreal the next, or the neoclassical facade of the British Museum a month later. It can make me feel very disconnected from where I am.

It would be fruitless to deny that race and gender profoundly impact on my writing. After all, by default I am male and white; god knows what unconscious attitudes are communicated through my work as a result. However, because I write from a gay perspective, I feel I am very self-aware and forthright in my ongoing explorations of orientation. I am very committed to the articulation of a fully gay sensibility.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of shortpieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a"book" from the very beginning?

Though poems have come at me from many different angles over the years, I find it hard to isolate a single definitive source of inspiration. I carry many potential poems in my head at any given time; which one gets written often depend upon what other stimulants lure it onto the page. Something I have read, for example, will provide the key that will get the process going, and once I have a few words committed, so to speak, the poem truly starts to take shape. I greatly enjoy research to find details that I will inspire me. The majority of my poems have formed themselves from seemingly disparate elements; the goal of writing them is to find out what those elements have in common. While many of my books are composed of poems that may not have been conceived as belonging together, I have also conceived of large projects that I consciously realized poem by poem from the outset.

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Like periodical publishing, I see readings as testing grounds, especially of new work, not so much of new books, which are promoted by tours that are marketing-oriented in nature. A lot of experienced writers eschew the open-sets that often open or end the nightly programs of established reading series, but I like to read new poems in them to see how they sound. I also like to put myself on the same stage with the more novice writers who form the backbone of such open sets, reading with them under the same conditions and terms. I recently read a new poem that referred to 9/11 in an open set during Wendy Morton’s Planet Earth Reading Series, here in Victoria. Afterwards, a sociologist came up to me and placed the poem in context of the analysis ongoing among his professional peers about what happened that day, its causes and its aftermath, which led me to make several three small revisions that rid the poem of some irksome rhetoric.

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kindsof questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I am not sure if I consciously take on “theoretical concerns,” though I am preoccupied with the idea of sensibility. For me the best poems evince a way of being that it is their place to record and preserve.

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

It is both difficult and essential. Once I get over the shock of my editor’s insights, I find the process very enlightening and enriching—and the book or poem improves. I soon get over the narcissistic idea that, by taking in consideration the considered suggestions of an outside reader, I am somehow losing creative control. It’s wonderful to consider other possibilities for meaning.

7 - After having published more than a couple of titles over the years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

I find it both easier and harder. The former because I am simply more experienced at knowing how to compile a book and the latter because my expectations as to what a book should be becomes ever more exacting and ambitious. I don’t want my books to be too similar to one another—though some similarity is inevitable—so the challenge rests in figuring out how to make each one new or different, at least to me.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

As far as I remember, at Christmas, at my mother’s in Calgary. Pears make me think of Phyllis Webb’s poem, “Two Pears: A Still Life”:

The pears
fruit, the first idea, seed
into core, into pulp and glowing

skin, love’s
radical contour shines here in stillness
secret, original, a dream of candour.
Though they can fail to ripen or can all of a sudden rot, pears are very pure, life’s ultimate ephemeral fruit.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

It’s not anything that was told to me, but rather something I read and wrote down when I was a student—and it’s not exactly advice. In a Paris Review interview compiled in the Writers at Work monographic series, Conrad Aiken said: “We isolate, we exile our great men [and women], whether by ignoring them or by praising them stupidly. And perhaps this isolation we offer them is our greatest gift.” From this I took solace—not that I would eventually be a great writer; rather that it didn’t matter whether or not my work was greeted with renown, incomprehension, or passed unnoticed. Any of these eventualities need not hinder my ability to realize, in personal terms, what my true potential was, and is, for it could be something I could pursue alone and in my own terms. In the time since, this has helped me put the reception of my work into a right and proper perspective—especially when it has been ill-informed or negative!

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

When I am writing well, I like to work in the afternoon. The morning is devoted to reading (perhaps in preparation), exercise, or domestic chores, the evening to socializing or solitary relaxation. I like also to think of writing as a weekday activity, with the weekends off. I cut my teeth as an after-hours civil service poet, so it took a grant for me discover that this regimen works best for me. However, when I am in the grip of a poem, I can write at all hours, through the night, and for days on end.

11 - Where is your favourite place to write?

At my computer, which is a desktop, so I am always cloistered in my apartment when I am writing. I should really get a laptop so I can make the world my office. Because I am very fond of reading in coffee shops, I suspect that I could write well in them as well were I suitably equipped. Blocking out distracting environmental noise helps me focus more narrowly on the task at hand. I haven’t written a poem in longhand in over twenty years, so sitting with a notebook in Starbucks is out of the question; I am very tied to technologies far more sophisticated than the pen. It is the technology keeps me creatively stuck and lonely as a cloud in my office.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I place a great deal of faith in the healing, purgative powers of revision. I like to rework poems abandoned long ago as failures, poems that I might not have looked at for a decade or more. I am freed by the fact that I can’t remember what my original intentions were, so can therefore happily pervert or cannibalize them, wrenching them in some new direction. By reworking these poems, I am saved from the agonizing void of the first draft. Similarly, if I get blocked when writing a brand-new poem, I simply write down the first thing that comes into my head, however inane. That random thought often proves crucial to what the final draft turns out to be.

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

It is technically more adventurous than anything I have written so far.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

I derive a great deal of stimulation from the visual arts and also have at different times drawn inspiration from science and the natural world. I greatly enjoy researching ideas as a method of discovering ways into them that might not have otherwise occurred to me had I instead tried to write my poems more naively. I like details to be accurate.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I am very interested in understanding what constitutes the gay canon, so I am constantly reading gay writers, past and present, to chart the complexity of a shared sensibility. While, obviously, the majority of what I read has been written in English—Auden, Crane, Isherwood, Ackerley, Forster, Capote, Hollinghurst, Cunningham, Toibin, etc—it does cause me to read much more internationally than I might have otherwise—Gide, Mishima, Genet, Yourcenar. I also try to read the occasional Canadian writer: Ondaatje, Moure [see her 12 or 20 here], Munro, Page, Webb, and Hay [see her 12 or 20 here].

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I would like to live a long time in another country. I am a Mavis Gallant manqué.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

When I was a child, I wanted to be an architect, so I entered university with the long-held intention of becoming one. Early on, however, I got thrown off track by doing badly in calculus, which I stupidly studied in French, a language I had a faulty grasp of then, at Faculté Saint-Jean at the University of Alberta. I was also enrolled in distracting English courses on the main campus. Thirty years later, I am still fascinated by the built environment, a fascination inspired by watching office towers go up in downtown Calgary, the rapidly changing city where I grew up in the 1960s and 70s. Looking back, however, I suspect that had I pursued architecture as a profession, I would have ended up, like most graduates, working on very small projects like the design of cookie-cutter houses for developers in suburban areas. Domestic architecture, kitchens especially, hold absolutely no appeal for me, for my abiding interest has always focused on public architecture: performance halls, museums, libraries, embassies, colleges, hospitals, office buildings, etc., signature projects that would have been exciting to design. However, the architecture of today’s public buildings seems to me to be more in the control of developers whose interest is not aesthetic, but monetary. The number of true artists in the field has always been destined to be very few, and my chances to have been one of them doubtlessly almost non-existent. As a poet, the factors affecting my ability to pursue my vocation are so obviously very few in comparison, and if no one wants to publish what I have on offer, I can still write, if bitterly. Architects (and the kind of architect I would like to have been) depend on the good graces of too many who have vast amounts of power and money. That said, I love mooning vicariously over the architecture magazines at my nearby newsstand, skipping the spreads on designer homes, of course.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

The one place I can be an authority is in my own work. Therefore, I took a degree in creative writing rather than in English, which would have required me to be an expert—likely a nerve-wracked and ineffectual one—about the work of others.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

I find it hard single out one book, so I will mention three: André Gide’s The Counterfeiters, originally published in 1925 to controversy for its “frank” depiction of homosexuality (to the present-day reader, it seems quite indirect); Augustín Gómez-Arcos’ The Carnivorous Lamb, which explores an incestuous relationship between two brothers as a form of protest in Franco’s Spain; and J. R. Ackerley’s memoir, My Father and Myself, which documents the life of a homosexual in the first half of twentieth century—which in turn led me to my current book, Martin Taylor’s 1989 anthology, Lads: The Love Poetry of the Trenches, which collects poems written by comrades to one another during World War One, when the relations between men were less scrutinized, because under fire, in the aftermath of the Wilde trials and before theoretical paradigms of psychology became entrenched. A like poetry was not written during World War Two.

As to movies, I will mention the recent French film, Lady Chatterley, which beautifully and accurately captures the Lawrentian spirit, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. The last two especially, I believe, are two of the best films in recent memory, and I am struck that both are based on works of nonfiction. The former a memoir painstakingly dictated by its paralyzed author, the editor of Elle, who can only blink one eye, once for yes, twice for no, to select the letters he needs to form words and express himself ; the latter is a work of creative nonfiction that explores a young man’s disastrous attempt to fully abandon the shallowness of mainstream society.

20 - What are you currently working on?

Actually, at present, I am working on the revision of my next book (which is forthcoming next year from Brick), based on my editor’s rather detailed and excellent report. It’s been enjoyable, almost contemplative work. When I am finished, I will go back to the two books of poems I am writing. One is composed of set forms, which I have never tried before. I have been trying to bend, twist, and even distort them while also researching obscure poetic forms not common in English. A good source for these is Robin Skelton’s posthumous The Shapes of Our Singing. My other writing project is very long-term historical project about three men drawn from a loosely knit group of gay artists and friends that thrived in New York through the middle of the twentieth century and, more crucially, before Stonewall, an era when gay identity was much different than it is today. I am very interested in what the lives of these three men—Paul Cadmus (a painter), George Platt Lynes (a photographer), and Lincoln Kirstein (founder of the New York City Ballet)—suggest about the times they lived in and how their aesthetic concerns came to shape the gay body. These poems are coming very slowly, but I am in no rush. I feel very fortunate that no one hangs on my every word.

2 comments:

Poet Hound said...

I love your questions about fruit throughout your interviews, it's a fantastic surprise! Also wanted to let you know that you are featured on my blog today. (02-09-08). All of these interviews are fantastic, I can honestly tell you it is hard to name a favorite. I look forward to reading more of them.

shibby said...

What inspired you to be a poet?