canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: John Barton (I)

Shane Neilson interviewed John Barton by email in late- 2001 & early-2002.

Shane Neilson interviewed John Barton again in 2003.

John Barton has written eight collections of poetry and three chapbooks, including Notes toward a Family Tree (1995 Ottawa Book Award), Designs from the Interior (1995 Archibald Lampman Award), Sweet Ellipsis (1999 Archibald Lampman Award), and Shroud. A new edition of his third book of poetry, West of Darkness: Emily Carr, a self-portrait (1988 Archibald Lampman Award) was republished in a new and expanded edition in 1999 by Beach Holme. Barton’s eighth collection, Hypothesis, was published by House of Anansi Press in 2001. He won the Patricia Hackett Prize for Poetry in 1986, awarded by the journal Westerly, University of Western Australia. His poems, essays and book reviews have been published in more than eighty magazines and anthologies across Canada and in the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Born in Edmonton in 1957 and raised in Calgary, he studied with Gary Geddes at the University of Alberta, with Robin Skelton and Eli Mandel at the University of Victoria, and with Joseph Brodsky at Columbia University, New York. John Barton lives in Ottawa, where he has co-edited Arc: Canada's National Poetry Magazine since 1990.

Read Shane Neilson's review of John Barton's Hypothesis (Anansi, 2001).

Poetry by John Barton:

Shane Neilson: There is an rigorous intelligence at work in Hypothesis that, at times, seems almost scientific. The poems name things as a taxonomist would, try to formulate a hypothesis, and then make a beautiful case, a kind of thought-experiment in verse. This method is apparent from the first poem onward. “Watershed” begins “Everywhere the blue and green world.” It then describes (beautifully) the blue and green components of that world, making a case for the poem's stated hypothesis. Of course you do more than just name things; there's eroticism “boxers large and loose upon your hips, tongue/ leafing into mouth...” and a consideration of one's place in the world “a city where some of us/ grow afraid of/ adding/ nothing to the flow...” The poem concludes with a circularly triumphant restating of the poem's hypothesis, “Everywhere the blue and green world.” Was the scientific method a purposeful technique used in Hypothesis, or do you think that my interpretation is coincidental to the fact that all poems could in some way be thought of as constructs of the poet's imagination, designed to test a series of conditions?

John Barton: I am very pleased you see this at work in the poems, as it was an observation I had made about my way of writing that motivated me to call the book Hypothesis. I consider a poem to be a kind of experiment where a number of elements or forces are brought together under test conditions (the first and subsequent drafts) to see how they will interact to create meaning or relevance. I have become increasingly intrigued with the combining of seemingly unrelated ideas or images, or the drawing upon the many, sometimes dissimilar, meanings a word might have. 

“Phone Lines” is a good example. The poem is organized around the mechanisms of voice-mail, especially one of its most complex forms, the telepersonals, which is often the only experience the many callers who use such a service will have of those they wish to attract and pursue. I then load voice-mail with diverse metaphors: music and the chorale, law, body imaging, cellular technology, synesthesia—a condition where some people have powerful secondary sense perceptions evoked from the mere sound of words. Voice mail, when engaged with the imagination, can be a veritable orgy of synesthetic experience. 

My challenge is to weigh all these factors or elements, to see what happens when they interact, to make sure all the possibilities for meaning have been pursued, and to determine when the experiment has come to a conclusion. In other words to decide when the poem is finished. The point of an experiment is not to arrive at a predetermined end point, to prove or disprove anything, but to deliver a poem that reveals much about the process taken, the observations made and the emotions felt on the way to get there. The reader’s challenge is to replicate the experiment by reading the poem and to draw their own conclusions, which are influenced by whatever previous personal and aesthetic experiences they take to it—a set of conditions I cannot control. An experienced reader uses the poem as an agent of inquiry. This makes poetry very exciting, unstable, and interactive. 

The reactions of readers often allow me to see new possibilities for meaning, to see something in a poem I might not have seen. They give me more data to consider, so while the poem itself might be completed, the poetic engagement is not. I have to be careful, though. Some readers get off track and allow their prejudices to blind them. A good reader knows how to disregard inappropriate responses. No poem is easily grasped; so why should any reader expect fast results? Timothy Findley once said he accepted that no reader would ever get all he had intended in a novel in the six or seven or hours spent reading it when he had taken several years to write it. Reading should be a repeat performance, involving multiple acts of replication. How else to appreciate nuance and texture? You can never step into the same book twice, because you are different each time you read it.

SN: Ever have a poem blow up on you? Poets can't resist the dramatic pull of their lives and so inevitably write autobiographical verse; has anyone ever objected to your (necessarily) biased experiments?

JB: It’s funny, but I can’t think of any major example. Most victims of my “autobiographical” verse are either far too polite, remarkably understanding, or, unaware that I have written poems about them. On the rare occasion anyone has commented unfavorably about one of my poems, it has typically been about a detail. For example, my father told me he did not wear bifocals, as I incorrectly reported in a poem published in Notes toward a Family Tree. The content of the poem was never mentioned. Perhaps such a complaint is merely the tip of the iceberg, with much more serious resentments pushed below the surface.

As I get older, I find I am far less interested in writing directly autobiographical poems, especially about my childhood. In Hypothesis, I made a conscious decision to leave it out of the book, as far as possible, the one exception being “Trudeau’s Children.” This poem illustrates how I would prefer to use personal experience: as a springboard to other areas of interest. A cast-off leather coat of my father’s is a metaphor for growing up in the Trudeau era and how the Canada he promised does not have much relation to the one we live in now. The poem also touches upon how the coat itself has caused me to view my father with different eyes, but I believe this thread is pulled to the background by its other more dominant theme. Perhaps this is simply an attempt at camouflage, to get readers off my scent. To become less visible, in some—very likely unconvincing—way. Is one a ghost unless one is seen as one in the first place?

SN: Is poetry well suited to the discipline of the scientific world?

JB: Poetry is but another form of inquiry into the nature of phenomena, using with its own unique procedures and tools. No one would write a poem to split the atom or to cure cancer—though someone might have in the past, when poetry came in the form of spells and chants used to effect change. Poets, however, can mine science for raw materials to make poems, to engage with experience.

SN: Poetry may be another form of inquiry, but is poetry an equivalent means of inquiry? Is it another means of salvation on par with randomized controlled trials? Or is it the pen-waving of people without cure?

JB: This is the age-old question of which is more important, science or art. I suppose when pursued in their purest forms, they are equivalent, but their ends are different. Research scientists and artists both approach the questions they ask themselves as they best can without prejudice or preconceptions about the answers, even if what results is simply more questions. Auden is famous for the line, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” which is from the second part of “In Memory of W. B. Yeats.” I have always felt that the line has been misinterpreted, that it merely connotes a depression, from which Auden, in his grief, rallies. In the third part, he itemizes the various ways Yeats’s death—and poetry—affected life. To me he is saying that it does matter, that the poet matters, that he can change things through his writing. If poetry alters the way in which the reader views the world, then it has had its desired effect. Not all poems do this, but some have. Even if it is only one poem affecting one person at a time. And who is to say that the pleasure felt in reading is not a kind of change? A kind of cure?

SN: Your poems read as thought-experiments. Can you tell me more about your artistic scientific method?

JB: Going back to the idea of inquiry, for me the experiment of the poem is mostly intuitive. I write the first draft, pulling in the various elements that interest me, in the hope that their being combined will lead to some kind of insight. The selection of these threads is the conscious part. Subsequent drafts usually involve an improvement in the materials: alterative words that have more resonance, a change in form, an examination of the structure, perhaps the addition of another element. I sometimes like to tinker with poems that have failed, ones that I have sent aside. Even years afterward, I will revisit them if there is something about them that I cannot give up on, some vital sign that merits nurturing, that suggests the poem is not brain-dead. 

“Watershed” is the best example in Hypothesis. I cannibalized it from a poem I wrote eight years ago. I could not let go of its contrast of blue and green, colours that some people believe clash. Yet no matter where you go, they coexist in the world naturally and harmoniously. I wanted to write about that harmony. Still, the poem was missing something; it needed more ideas in it. I became intrigued with colour theory. The absurd pronouncements of the Colour Institute, a group that decides what colours are ‘hot’ each year or season, amused me. The Institute chose blue as the colour of the new millennium—hence the line in the poem: “blue/ is the hue of the future, millennial. . . .” Combine this with fact that gay people are less likely to procreate and therefore are not worsening overpopulation—gay sex is green sex—and voila, a poem is born. 

I really did not have any more to go on than that. What emerges, to my mind, is a kind of gay anthem. Whether the process I followed is a textbook case of the scientific method, I wouldn’t know. I have been told my poems unfold in such a way that it is not at all obvious from the outset, or even halfway through, where they are going or how they will end. Readers have told me they had the feeling that even I didn’t know where a poem would end until I got there myself—a meandering kind of thought-path, if you like. I hope this infuses my work with an aura of interrogation and surprise, even wonder, that it makes my poems feel intimate. Because I love to revise, poems are gone over rigourously and endlessly. 

The trick is to leave the impression that they have not been overworked, but appear immediate. I want the intuition that drew me to write them in the first place to survive and linger in the final draft.

SN: Hypothesis is many things, but its elegiac heart is the AIDS epidemic. How tough is it to avoid sentiment when writing about a disease that, in its early days, was predominantly killing a community—your community?

JB: AIDS is but one of the book’s many hearts and many loci for elegy. In many ways I would say that what is central to the book is always shifting. Is it about AIDS? Is it about nationalism? Is it about the idea of a gay country? I chose ‘hypothesis’ as the book’s title in part because it does not anchor the book around any one particular theme. It is an abstract noun devoid of sentiment or narrative. However, because the title poem is about one man’s response to being infected with HIV, I can understand why readers would focus the book around the pandemic. Perhaps this is no more than an inadvertent curve ball I throw purposely to readers them off. They read the book with AIDS in mind, but then encounter so much other data that they have to rethink. In a sense, they form a hypothesis and then must decide if the evidence supports it. If not, they must recast their suppositions and repeat the experiment by rereading.

The poet must decide not to impose his feelings in order to write without sentimentality. That is not to say that his approach needs to be cold, rather his task is to observe the emotional facts of a situation and report on them as they truly exist. He must also observe his own feelings and responses during the act of writing and report on these well. Oscar Wilde said that a “sentimentalist is simply one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” Sentimentality is merely unprocessed emotional content. Empathy is its natural opposite and must be given room to be experienced. In the case of AIDS, the emotional facts speak for themselves; there is no need to overlay them with histrionic patina or to distance oneself from them by restating the obvious responses.

SN: Yet I think you’re emotionally evading me. The book’s cover is a electron microscope-like photo of plasma; much of Hypothesis is concerned with HIV directly; sentiment is an uneasy emotion to bear amongst the emotionally afflicted, despite Wilde’s diminution of it. I repeat: the heart of this book is the HIV epidemic. As a reader, I feel that your characterizations and narratives with respect to this topic are eerily close to gut reaction as an intellectual’s viscera can issue. Hypothesis is panoramic, although it focuses most sharply on the toll of a virus. Your answer seems dismissive and self-conscious. If a poet’s task is to, as you write, "observe the emotional facts of a situation and report on them as they truly exist," then how difficult is it to avoid sentiment when writing about a disease that kills the ones that sentiment thrives upon, your loved ones?

JB: Well, I will have to defer to your experience of the book—and not to avoid answering your question. What I will say is that, as a gay man, AIDS is always a factor in any intimate relationship I enter into (though this should also be true for straight couples since HIV is blind to sexual orientation). Because sex is the most visceral expression of intimacy and because unsafe sex is the agent of transmission, I am always aware of the risks taken and the protections required. AIDS is a third partner between two men, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged, spoken about directly or merely alluded to by actions or words. I firmly believe the disease has had a powerful impact on the ability of gay men to bond. 

Whether I am aware of it or not, my response to AIDS likely informs every aspect of my consciousness when I write, so on this basis only, I will accept your supposition that AIDS is the core of the book. Who knows to what extent the voicing of caution and fear in my other poems has been influenced by it? AIDS, however life-threatening, has nevertheless become a chronic, ongoing part of the lives of so many; perhaps the habits of response it has taught us colour how we interpret and express our reactions to other aspects of our lives. To be honest, I am interested, if puzzled, that you see the book so focused upon the disease; your take has caused me to re-engage with the book differently to try to understand your reading of it. For example, to me the cover art has always been more suggestive of geography, a aerial or remote-sensing satellite photography, but your interpretation is equally valid.

As for sentiment and my loved ones, I wish to point out something not generally acknowledged by many people inside of or outside of the gay community. I came out in 1985, the year that Rock Hudson died of AIDS, making AIDS, through his death, a household word. Through the media it finally came into everyone’s homes. AIDS outed a closeted matinee idol whose straight persona made him a sex symbol. His death was therefore doubly shocking; finally everyone ‘knew’ someone who had died of it. The disease was talked about more openly and covered much more regularly and sympathetically after that. Safer sex guidelines were also starting to be written and most of my friends began practicing them. As a result, I have not watched my friends die of AIDS in the numbers that gay men slightly older than I am have, men who were sexually very active through the hedonistic seventies and early eighties. Their friends have fallen in legions, and they remain amazed at, and feel guilty about, their own survival. And their grief is boundless. 

Because I write from my own experience, from the experience of a slightly younger man, I write more about living in the shadow of the AIDS pandemic, rather than exclusively about the fallen. I write about the fear of being counted among them and the lengths I go to prevent it from happening. I write about the fears of being intimate, because death has become so closely linked to the expression of love. I feel very fortunate that I have lost almost no one to AIDS, though I know many who have. Many have sustained in their 30s and 40s the loss of peers on a scale normally only experienced in old age. And it is important to point out that the gay community has prospered despite the losses, despite AIDS. It has learned how to take care of its own and has become a more mature, responsible community as a result. So, AIDS has not pushed it to the brink of extinction, though at times it might look like it has.

However, a new generation of gay men are coming into their sexual maturity, and sadly, as part of their youthful rebellion, they are having unprotected sex as a way of throwing aside the lessons and fears of their elders. They want no barriers to intimacy; they don’t want to mute it in any way. Also, because protease inhibitors and other very recent therapies have been so successful for so many, and because so many equate the effectiveness of these medicines with penicillin in its triumph over other STDs, a lot of gay men, the young included, are engaged in what the community calls bare-backing—or barrier-free (ie. condomless) sex. They figure that the new medicines represent a cure, which they patently are not. They do not rid the body of HIV, they simply control it. I touch on this in “Plasma, Triangles of Silk.” In Canada, the average age of infection is 23. I am afraid another generation of gay men will begin to suffer the losses that gay men older than I am have—and continue to endure.

When I do write about loss and AIDS, I attempt to write as close to the heart as possible, dropping postures, which I feel distance and sentimentalize rather than focus on felt experience—or “sentiment” if you like. Most diseases pathalogize its victims; they become to be seen as their symptoms. I attempt to make those infected as human as possible, to restore their humanity to them. Atwood once said that instead of writing a poem that describes pain, she would prefer to write one that makes the reader feel pain. Sticking to the facts, emotional and otherwise, as one knows them is the surest way. Let the reader do the emoting.

Gay men have been writing novels, poems, essays and plays about AIDS for two decades; it is difficult to say something new about a disease that has affected so many so profoundly. If I write more about it, I want to find different angles. I have begun to take note of the other communities affected: intravenous drug-users, for example. In “Transient,” I make a subtle reference to AIDS among the homeless. Gay men do tend to be very proprietary, thinking of it as their disease when whole countries in Africa are being infected, with huge economic and humanitarian crises looming. I am very interested in seeing AIDS in its global context.

SN: Has your co-editorship (with Rita Donovan) of Arc changed the way you write poetry? What are the greatest joys and frustrations of running Canada’s premier poetry journal?

JB: I would say it is the other way around. Because I am a poet, I try to make Arc the kind of magazine where other poets would want to publish. A literary journal is intended to connect writer with reader; the role of the editor is to mediate. I try to serve the community’s needs by publishing new poems as well as reviews of new books. Rita and I try to be as inclusive as possible, by publishing the work of both new and established poets and by publishing as many book reviews and as much other critical work as we can. My greatest frustrations rest almost exclusively with the completion of grant applications and satisfying arts bureaucrats’ bolemic appetite for detail. I also find it exhausting to administer the magazine on a shoe string, without an office or paid staff. 

The greatest satisfaction comes from publishing interesting poems and well written, thoughtful critical material, and to help build a community. I suppose it also serves me well by making me feel very connected to poets across the country. I also know that the opportunity to publish in journals was very important to developing a sense of myself as a poet when I first began to see poetry as part of my life. I think Arc, as the last national magazine devoted solely to poetry, is a very important endeavour important to health of the genre in Canada. Poetry could be equally well served by another magazine, but right now that function happens to be Arc’s. I have been co-editor for eleven years, and one of the things that keeps me committed to it is my belief in its importance.

SN: How does Ottawa influence your poetry?

JB: God, what a question! How does any place influence one’s poetry? Has it made me more politicized or socially conscious? Perhaps, and these are attitudes that I do take to my poetry. Certainly it is an epicentre for Canada’s linguistic strife. Sometimes I joke that Hypothesis is about an Alberta boy’s struggle to have French boyfriends.

However, in another way, Ottawa has been very good for my poetry. I have published six of my eight books in the fifteen years that I have lived here. I found the Ottawa poetry community very refreshing and supportive when I first arrived, mainly because I did not find it as hierarchical or as political as the Victoria literary community, which is where I began to write and had lived for almost seven years. Ottawa possessed no grand dames or eminences grises who overwhelmed or orchestrated their lessers and underlings. I joined a circle of Ottawa poets and we workshopped new poems once a month for almost a decade. We attended each other’s readings and book launches; it was a very tight circle. I suppose to some our group appeared too full of ourselves and exclusionary, but that is not how we saw ourselves. It was through this circle that I ended up joining the Arc board in 1987. The community of poets I belong to is not as close as it used to be, if only for the fact that our lives have become busier: jobs, children, and the like. Also, a new generation is now running the local reading series and other activities, which keeps things fresh and is as it should be.

SN: Is your poem "Case History" inspired by John Colapinto’s book As Nature Made Him?

JB: Not directly, as I have never read it. However, there was a lot of reportage when the man it is based on went public just prior to the book’s publication. I read the news stories in the papers and watched a documentary The Fifth Estate aired on the CBC in the spring of 2000. I also read several scientific articles about the case that I searched out at the University of Ottawa medical-school library, which helped me sort out detail, theory, vocabulary and tone. I was fascinated because his experience substantiated the nature (or essentialist) side of the nature-nurture debate, a debate that has had a great impact on gay men and lesbians. Think of all the jokes and epithets: “Mummie made me a homosexual” (nurture) or “I was born that way” (nature). 

Queer theory has been polarized around and problemized the split between constructivism and essentialism. This poor man, because of a slip made in a medical procedure to loosen a tight foreskin when he was as an infant, became the victim of nurturist folly, which, in his case, was entirely based on the belief that we are born asexual and therefore shaped into either a masculine or feminine identity (gay or straight) by environmental factors. After the medical accident, a decision was made, based on expert medical advice, to raise him as a girl. Surgeries were done; medicines prescribed. At puberty he could not shake visceral feelings he was actually a boy. Through the force of what he felt, he finally got the truth out of his family and convinced them that the sex-reassignment surgery inflicted upon him as a child should be reversed. He is now living as a man and speaks of his experience with great courage. 

Many believe that sexual identity is a learned response, a charge too often made against gay men and lesbians about their sexual orientation. This man’s experience is proof that sexual identity is innate, and I would allege that this fact applies whether one is gay or straight. To me a pivotal phrase in the poem is “what makes him sexy is the brain.” When I decided to write the poem I decided not to make the link explicit between the poem and the story it is based on. Writing can sometimes be exploitative. I like to take a few steps of remove in order to respect the privacy of the subject. If readers make the link, it is a sign they have engaged with the poem to some extent.

SN: Can you tell me about the circumstances (personal, environmental) surrounding the poem "Transient"?

JB: Again, “Transient” was based on a very moving piece of personal journalism published by a Toronto nurse in the front section of The Globe and Mail’s back page about her experiences seeing to the medical needs of the homeless. Over the course of the poem I relocated the nurse from Toronto to Calgary, and became interested in the many meanings of the word ‘transience.’

Because the nurse’s op-ed piece highlighted another side to the health-care crisis and the widening gap between haves and have nots in Canada, I threw in a reference to the controlled implosion of Calgary General Hospital, which once rose on the north bank of the Bow River, across from the zoo where, as a child, I would play at the feet of immense concrete sculptures of several species of dinosaur. The circumstances of their extinction conflated with the other ideas and metaphors in the poem. The poem is about many kinds of transience—including homelessness and species extinction—and one person’s attempts, despite the inherent obstacles, to care for the sentient victims.

SN: “Shroud” is a formally symmetric poem. Beginning with the single-line, provocative Edmund White quote of “There are no pockets in the shroud”, proceeding on to a P. K. Page stanza that is broken up throughout your poem, is the gestation and creation of this poem muted by (a) the esteem of the quoted writers, and (b) the academic endemic staginess of such self-devouring muses? Has poetry become an incestuous conference-fest or is poetry able to write itself out of the backwater of academe?

JB: Sometimes poetry is inspired by the conversation entered into by reading other poems. “The Living Room,” one of the four poems that make up “Shroud,” is a glosa, a traditional form common in Spanish and Portuguese that has become quite popular among Canadian poets. The quote from P. K. Page is taken from a glosa that she wrote using four lines from a poem by W. H. Auden about the death of William Butler Yeats. A glosa is made of four ten-line stanzas, where the last line of each is one of the lines from the quote, used in order. I selected this particular P. K. Page quote because it includes one of the lines she in turn quotes from Auden. So, in a sense, my poem becomes a cat’s cradle of referentiality. The function of any poem is, in part, to draw the reader into an engagement with the history of the form, whether explicitly or implicitly. 

I tried to write “The Living Room” in such a way that the reader would first engage with the meat of the poem and second with the references. I chose to write a glosa as a homage to P. K., Canada’s most celebrated practitioner of the glosa (read her book, Hologram), and it was published in a special issue of The Malahat Review devoted to her lifetime accomplishment as a poet, novelist, essayist and visual artist. The quote from Edmund White is taken from his novel, The Farewell Symphony, a roman B clef about the AIDS deaths of several prominent members of the New York artistic community. Such quotes are included not to alienate readers, but to share some small part of what inspired the poem or poems in the first place. They are intended to guide readers in their understanding of what they are about to read.

SN: Hypothesis features a number of long poems. Was there a conscious decision at this stage of your poetic career to tackle the challenge of the long poem? How does (for you) the process of writing a long poem differ from the writing of a shorter one? What are the strengths and weaknesses of both?

JB: I would not go so far as to say I chose to write long poems on a conscious level. If you go back to my previous books, you would see that the long poem has been a relative constant. That said, I would acknowledge that the kinds of ideas and experiences of interest to me as writing subjects, and the ways in which I want to conflate them, require a larger physical footprint than the typical lyric. This is not to say that a long poem is anymore resonant than a poem of twenty or thirty lines. A haiku or a short poem like Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” (which is one of the many strands of inspiration I drew upon to write “In a Station of the Tongue”) can have an immense emotional impact. 

Also, my attraction to narrative tempers my lyric tendencies; the story becomes the clothesline from which I hang my many obsessions, allowing them to tangle and interact while the narrative impulse winches everything forward, forcing me to provide all the multi-coloured bits of thought with some kind of coherence by the time I (and the reader) reach the concluding line. The desire to find a pattern causes me to be tangential, to go down many paths at once because something about their routes is similar, though the differences fascinate. Such tangential narratives require amplitude. A short poem is an aperçu, a more immediate and unified apprehension of experience; the longer poem is multi-layered, more elaborated. If you like, the short poem is the synopsis, the long poem the treatise—or the body itself. They make different demands upon the reader. A short poem can go by too quickly, but requires the reader to apply all the skills of careful reading to catch it. 

The long poem asks the reader to keep up resolve, to get to the end, to find the many linkages between the various ideas, images and patterns, to deal with the overwhelming accumulation of data. The short poem is the 100-yard dash; the long poem the long-distance run. Like an athlete, the reader may have his strengths, may be more able to appreciate one over the other. I am more comfortable writing in a longer mode; there is only one poem of a single page in Hypothesis. Someday I want to write an entire book of short lyrics with the intensity of those by the American poet Louise Gluck. To me many short poems read and write feel like beginnings that simply whet my appetite; I want to get over that. Phyllis Webb wrote her book Naked Poems, which is composed of Sappho-like, short-lined, short poems, as a counterpoint to her previous, very long-lined, expansive work. I would like to be as disciplined and exploratory a writer as she is.

SN: Perhaps our discussion can expand outside Hypothesis to include the poems that appear in this issue of TDR. Why didn’t these appear in Hypothesis? They seem quite continuous with the book.

JN: Not every poem one writes ends up in a book. For various reasons these poems and about twenty to thirty others were dropped while I was compiling the manuscript. Sometimes I felt they repeated themes more fully explored in stronger poems. Sometimes their tone was wrong. Sometimes I felt they were not completely finished. Poems were cut partly on the advice of three people I asked to read the manuscript in its early stages, whose opinion I trust and who helped me tune the book. By dropping some poems the overall merits of the book became clearer. It sometimes hurts to cut poems I like. If I ever do a new and selected, maybe some of these poems can be collected there.

SN: “Mentioned in Dispatches” employs a longer line. Did it start out this way? How do you temper the prolix temptations of the longer line? “Mentioned in Dispatches” isn’t overly device-laden; do you consciously attempt to reinforce a poem with effect in mind, a little assonance here/consonance there, in your ‘more disciplined’ poems, and ‘let loose’ a la Whitman in your long-lined ones?

JB: I consciously chose to write the poem with a long line. Over the course of writing Hypothesis, I found myself becoming increasingly weary and suspicious of the line break. The long-lined poems are a product of my reservations, as are the poems in the second section of the book, which may appear to the reader to be left-and-right justified columns of double-spaced prose. To me they are composed of single-line stanzas, what I call “singlets.” When I began writing those poems, I simply set the column-width, turned on the justification and double-spacing, and let it rip. I found it freeing and exciting. I did not stop to consider when to break a line, at risk of losing the thread of inspiration I was following. 

The great irony, of course, is that while revising the poems, I began to work on the line breaks, on the way the justification automatically broke the lines, so they would not end on articles or conjunctions, for example. The justification was still on during the revision process, so this meant that in order to break lines where I wanted to, I had to make adjustments both before and after the breaks in question. One change would lead to many other changes. In order to keep a break in place, I had to make concessions elsewhere. I found this to be an intriguing way to enter into the meat of the poem. Add a word here, remove one there, substitute with a synonym that is one or two characters longer . . . it was great fun.

Writing the longer-lined like “Mentioned in Dispatches” similarly liberated me and allowed me to think about the line itself in broader terms. These lines are about flow and expansiveness, and are less self-conscious and directive than some of my shorter-lined poems are, like the title poem in Hypothesis. Because these long-lined poems, like so many others I have written, are a single sentence, I love the way the words pile up on one another unmediated by relentless line-breaking, There is something panoramic and open about them. Nonetheless, I still found myself thinking about both the line and stanza breaks, and how such breaks toy with reader expectation and surprise. Line breaks and stanza breaks are really just a game of Snakes and Ladders. How to get the eye, ear, and head to move in interesting, thrilling ways.

SN: With direct reference to “Our Embrace”: eroticism comes across in your writing as honest hunger, and not ridiculousness. It is perilous to write about the act, as many writers come to know. How do you skirt the awkward awfulness of writing about sex?

JB: This is an extremely difficult question. I suppose the key is not to alienate my readers, to diminish, in some way, any feeling of voyeurism they might have, which means I cannot be an exhibitionist. Therefore, the use of erotic imagery cannot seem gratuitous. If anything, I am aiming for illumination, for the poem to be enlightening. In the same way that good sex involves some kind of emotional connection between lovers, readers have to become engaged emotionally. In the case of “Our Embrace,” lust is an emotion, a very visceral one at that. Because I write about gay sex, straight readers often feel discomfort, especially when they find themselves identifying with the emotional content of the poem. What I am asking them to realize is that the connection between two men is equivalent to the one between partners of different sexes.

SN: Do you consciously write/revise poems with heterosexual readers in mind?

JB: I cannot factor them out as readers. Going back to your question about poems blowing up in my face because of their autobiographical content, I have had complaints from straight audiences, readers, and poets about the apparent explicitness of what I write. I once had fellow (straight) poets ask me not to read any sexually explicit material in front of their (straight) friends and family when we have shared a stage. I have had an audience member threaten me several weeks later after a reading I had given when our paths crossed on the street. I have been told by a member of the board of one of Canada’s most prominent literary magazines that a submission of mine once caused a great deal of controversy because of the explicit nature of one of the poems, which they ultimately rejected in favour of one of the more vanilla poems I had also sent them to consider. Sometimes the only collection of poems mine that I think straight readers are fully comfortable with is my book about Emily Carr, West of Darkness.

Poets have to be sensitive to their audience, but it does not mean that they censor themselves either. I realise my audience is very diverse, and that the straight part of it is also diverse. Some will read with empathy and curiosity while others will take offence, misread, or simply remove themselves emotionally.

So, do I write for straight readers? Yes, but I also write for gay ones as well. If poetry is a mirror, what each of them sees of themselves in my writing differs. From my answer, you might suspect that I write defensively. This is not the case. When I am alone writing, I concentrate on what is important to the poem. Afterwards, I may feel some anxiety, wondering what kind of reaction I will get when I go public because, as a poet, I have chosen to write about gay experience. Will someone storm out of a reading? Will my poems be returned by magazines, the real reason not written down, out of fecklessness or politeness, on the standard rejection form? What I find really amusing is that gay readers never find my work explicit—or explicit enough. I doubt even “Our Embrace” would be sufficiently juicy for them. Maybe a people whose own imagery was, until relatively recently, hidden from view in the public realm are simply literalists. So who is the ideal reader: god only knows....

SN: “Fault Lines Of A Geographer” has an intriguingly open ending after a succession of hard natural imagery, yet this ending also cyclically returns to the poem’s beginning, in which time returns to itself. The poem’s fluid time line is pleasantly disorienting. A unifying subject and engine of all of these poems is time (beyond the fact that this could be said of all narrative poetry, which takes place both in a time and a location). How does time preoccupy you in your writing?

JB: I suppose I have always been very obsessed with time. I remember wondering, even as a small child, what my father was like and what he thought about when he was my age. Maybe it was my way of bridging the gap between adult and child. I find I am often looking back at my parents’ lives and wondering what they felt at a given moment in their lives and how very different or eerily similar my life is to theirs when they were my age. For example, I am 44 now; at that age my father saw his eldest child married. I have no children. I am curious about the reasons behind this conjecturing. I do this with a lot of people, not just my parents. Perhaps it is my way of recognizing and appreciating someone else’s and my own humanity. Time’s passage makes us all very vulnerable and because we all experience it in our own way, it can make us feel very alone. 

My obsession with time informs my poetry so completely it is hard for me to summarize it. We live in such a strange relationship to time’s passage. We want time to pass, for new things to happen to us, we want to hold on to certain moments and have others pass quickly by, we don’t want our lives to end. We also cannot imagine not existing. We are comfortable with the fact that we cannot know personally what happened in the world before we were born, yet we are uncomfortable with the notion that we will stop engaging with time at some point in the future. I suppose I want to document time passing—and the manner in which it passes—and not simply the passing of my own life but the passing of the lives of those around me and the life of the planet. I see the passage of time everywhere and my seeing is everywhere in my writing. It manifests itself in my obsessions with history, anthropology, and geology, among other things. 

The voice speaking in Hypothesis is middle-aged, aware that his body is losing its youthfulness and whatever beauty it once possessed, that his hair is falling out, that his friends are also aging. There is a wistfulness about the book, that elegiac tone you have previously noted. Layered onto the narrator’s melancholy is an awareness that the Earth is a self-written record of its own passage through time and also bears the disjointed record of humanity’s journey. My obsession with time combines these threads and Hypothesis is the current result. God knows what kind of appearance time will make in my future work.

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.






TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.