canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: John Barton (II)

John Barton has written eight collections of poetry and three chapbooks, including Notes toward a Family Tree (1995 Ottawa-Carleton Book Award), Designs from the Interior (1995 Archibald Lampman Award), Sweet Ellipsis (1999 Archibald Lampman Award), and Runoff. 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. A limited-edition collection, Asymmetries, which features poems that placed second in the 2003 CBC Literary Literary Competition, is forthcoming from Frog Hollow Press in 2004. 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. Co-editor of Arc: Canada's National Poetry Magazine in Ottawa from 1990 to 2003, he is now the editor of The Malahat Review in Victoria.

Shane Neilson interviewed John Barton in 2003.

Poems by John Barton:
  - The Troubles
  - Aquarium (I)
  - Aquarium (II)
  - Sandy Hill Gothic
  - Installation in the Homage to Gathie Falk

SN: What have you been up to since the last TDR interview in 2001?

JB: When we last spoke, I was still in what I would consider a post-Hypothesis stage. When the book appeared in April 2001, I had very little work leftover around which to start a new collection. Hypothesis essentially cleaned me out-or so it felt at the time. That kind of emptiness is something a writer can focus on too much, especially when the requirement to honour other life obligations cuts into what little time and energy there is available to write. Because I have a very demanding job, because of the work involved in editing and managing Arc, and because I need other things in my life besides poetry (and work and Arc), I sometimes find it difficult to concentrate or to enter into the kind of space amenable to being creative. The day can be so fast paced that ideas for poems can slip by, almost unnoticed. At the same time, I find I have become very selective about what I write. Not every impulse to write is acted upon. I often rationalize that those ideas that stay with me must therefore have something essential about them to merit my attention, which may not always be a good thing. The least likely subject can turn into a good poem and lead to other innovations and directions of thought. Sometimes I feel absolutely no motivation to write at all, which can be very frightening, but this is likely due to potential, meritorious subjects having slipped past me.

That said, over last year I have indulged in revision. I love to revisit abandoned poems. Like the good ideas that stick with me, these abandoned poems refuse to let go. They can date from several years back; they can even be poems that I have published in magazines, but did not collect into the book I was working towards at the time because they seemed puzzlingly unfinished or incompatible with the book's principal themes. Yet there is something about them that still seems compelling, that merits revitalizing. So I begin to recast them, often applying formal approaches I have adopted since I last worked on them. A case in point is "In the House of the Present." I worked on it off and on for more than twenty years-I joke that I have attempted to save it once a decade since the initial draft from late 1970s. I could never make it work until last year, until I transformed it into a single comma-splice sentence dropped into a right- and left-justified column of double-spaced lines. I like to think of the form as constructed of equal-width, single-lined stanzas, which I like to call 'singlets.' Of course, a singlet is a man's undershirt-a tank top or a muscle shirt, which, on certain men, can look very sexy. I elaborate the joke by alleging that this form is uniquely gay.

The final key to finishing "In the House of the Present" was to convert every active verb to the present tense. Because the poem cumulates memories of a friendship dating back to infancy, the use of the present disorients the reader. Every time period becomes equally immediate, and there is no way of knowing when the present itself ultimately is. In a sense what is past is always in the present, yet not there at all.

The other major thing that I have done this year is to commit myself to a large work in progress about three gay male figures-Americans-of the twentieth-century: Paul Cadmus, an artist, George Platt Lynes, a photographer, and Lincoln Kirstein, a patron of the arts and the founder of the New York City Ballet (he brought Ballanchine to America). They all knew one another (Kirstein was married to Cadmus's sister) and belonged to a loosely knit community of gay American artists, writers, and bons vivants that flourished in New York for several decades prior to the Stonewall riots in New York City in June 1969, an event which heralded the beginning of the gay liberation movement of the 1970s. Stonewall, of course, changed everything and made it possible for gay writers like me to raise their individual voices without fear.

I had first come across Cadmus and his circle in a gay history of New York that I read a few years ago. I paid no real attention to him until the Globe and Mail reprinted his half-page obituary from The New York Times in late December 1999, during the year I took off from work to finish Hypothesis. I don't know why, but I was immediately seized with the realization that I could write not merely one or two poems about him, but a book-length work. Perhaps it was simply that I had time to notice an idea was actually taking shape. Over the next year I started to read more about him and realized that I was more interested in writing about the community around him, which, of course, included Platt Lynes and Kirstein. I had already written a book of poems focused on a single artist, Emily Carr, so had no desire to repeat myself-though after I had finished West of Darkness, I decided that if I were ever to write something like it again, I would do so differently, with lots of archival research, etc. This is the approach I plan to take with this project. So, since December 1999, as time permits, I have been familiarizing myself with his life, community, and period.

Still, even before I started to write this book and knew that it would be about how a particular community anticipated and participated in what came later, I knew Cadmus would be its centre. His life spanned the twentieth century (1904-1999); and gay consciousness is definitely a twentieth-century phenomenon. Also, there are many aspects of his life that I identify with heavily; I knew intuitively that he would be the right anchor.

SN: Have any similar undertakings been attempted by gay poets, American or Canadian? Here I mean ambitious works that seek to dovetail their community's sensibility with a representative icon?

JB: Off the top of my head, I cannot think of anything, but that does not mean that someone is not pursuing something similar. Certainly, poets have written poems about a wide range of gay figures through history. I am thinking of poems about Oscar Wilde written by the American poet, Mark Doty, which appear in My Alexandria. If I did a bit of sleuthing, I am sure I would find scads of other examples.

I can think of similar things in other genres, for example Michael Cunningham's novel, The Hours, which, of course, is the basis of the Oscar-winning movie of the same name. Cunningham anchors his novel in a careful and artful reworking of certain themes in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. The subtextual and transgressive lesbian undercurrents between Clarissa Dalloway and her friend Sally in their youth in Woolf's book, which was written in the 1920s are foregrounded in Cunningham's book, which is set in the 1990s. His protagonist Clarissa, who is an editor (nicknamed "Mrs. Dalloway" by Richard, a poet dying of AIDS and a friend from her youth), lives with her lover Sally in a Manhattan brownstone. It is almost as if Cunningham chose to express themes and patterns that Woolf could only allude to in less tolerant times. This may sound simplistic and perhaps a little artificial, but he pulls it off somehow-and many other things-with such awe-inspiring finesse. To me this is very exciting. Another example of this is the recent film version of The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was published by Patricia Highsmith in the 1950s. The overt homosexuality in the film is much more circumspect in the book, largely because the times permit it. As a result, both the original and the spin-off can stand on their own. The intertextuality (or dialogue) that results between them deepens them both.

I am not sure that either example is about a representative icon, though certainly Woolf has that status, with many hoping to claim her as the poster girl for whatever cause they are pursuing. Ripley certainly is not-though he is a paradigm for evil. But I don't think Cunningham was interested in icons. To me, the desire to re-examine and engage with the past leads us to reopen what time has archived. Perhaps there is something there that may allow us to recover antecedents that presage our experience, that helps us feel part of a continuum. I suppose I am focussing on an artist this time round because I want to feel that I am part of some larger aesthetic project as a gay man, that collectively gay artists and writers are building a tradition. Also, there is something revitalizing about speaking with and about the dead.

SN: Are you doing anything in a literary fashion to promote the work of gay poets?

JB: I am in the process of founding a small chapbook press called Viola Leaflets, "viola" being the Latin name for 'pansy' and 'leaflets' being the title of Adrienne Rich's first book of poems. The press is a joint project with a friend, who is a graphic designer. I provide the content, which he then sets. We have been test-driving the process by producing two chapbooks of my own work, Shroud and Runoff. Our output will likely be irregular-one or two every three or four years-but my ambition is to approach gay poets living in Canada and elsewhere whose work I admire. I also hope that the look and feel of a Viola Leaflets chapbook will be slightly above the norm-not as deluxe of the limited edition letterpress equivalents produced by a press like Frog Hollow, but finer than anything produced using a photocopier and a stapler.

SN: Was there any backlash when you described your intent to other art-loving members of the gay community? Is Cadmus too sacred a cow to "do" in verse?

JB: This interview is the first time that I have ever spoken about this project publicly, and among the people I know, too few of them know who he is to have any response one way or the other. It might be different if I were living in the United States and circulating in the much larger gay-writing/art-making scene there. I do suspect, however, that Cadmus's star is posthumously on the ascent. I know that a full biography is under preparation. Also, I found reference to a play recently mounted about his friend George Platt Lynes. Certainly people in their circle are being written about. The novelist Glenway Wescott, who died in 1986, was the subject of a biography published last year, and I would imagine that more of his novels and criticism might be brought back into print. He is also the subject of the title essay of Susan Sontag's latest book, Where the Stress Falls. So Cadmus and his circle are certainly in the air at the moment. Whether this is good or bad for me and my project is open to question. There will always be detractors, as there were when I was writing my book on Emily Carr. I don't think it really matters. To quote the title of the playwright George F. Walker's adaptation of Turgenev's novel Fathers and Sons for the stage, "Nothing [is] Sacred." But there will always be those who won't like the results.

When I was working on West of Darkness, which I started as a student of Robin Skelton's in Victoria in 1978 and completed while living in Vancouver in 1984, I did encounter some resistance from some people who thought Carr was an ill-chosen subject. Since her death, she has been such a huge presence on the West Coast; some of my friends wondered why I would want to write about so ubiquitous a figure-as if there was nothing new or compelling to discover about her, as if I had no personal stake that would merit my retelling. Also, when I wrote about her Indian-themed work, I would sometimes be accused of writing what was then derisively called "white-Indian-poetry." How could I have the effrontery to go native, Grey Owl-style? Or else I would be told that it was inappropriate for a man to write in a woman's voice. This last criticism is the one that still gets raised. As a gay man, I try to make light of it by countering that Emily is my drag persona. I find this very humorous because many such politically correct people have even more problems with drag. Intellectual drag must be even worse.

Also, there are those who think that writing about art is to use it as a crutch, that the creativity involved is suspect, borrowed, and perhaps easy. Those who had problems with me using Carr's work as a source of inspiration will likely feel similarly about my Cadmus poems.

SN: What caused you to take your recent hiatus from working? What was it like to write only poetry for a time?

JB: I was fortunate enough to receive an individual artist's grant from the City of Ottawa, which allowed me to take a leave of absence-October to December 2002-from my job in order to begin writing about Cadmus, Platt Lynes, and Kirstein. By pure luck, the first week of my leave coincided with the opening of an exhibition of Cadmus' male nude drawings in New York at DCMoore Gallery, which represents his estate, so I flew down for it. At the opening, I was more or less a wallflower, watching New York's gay beau monde pour through the exhibition of perhaps 40 works representing his lifelong obsession with figure drawing. Over the week I was in New York, I visited DCMoore two more times and also made the rounds of New York's wonderful art bookstores, looking for relevant material. It was a great week, and a wonderful way to immerse myself in my subject.

It was a very productive three months. Because of the amount of time available, I decided to train my attention entirely on Paul Cadmus. Along with five other unrelated poems, I wrote seven towards this new book, three of which form a single longer poem that took me a month to write, working five days a week and often up to five hours per day. I could never have written that sequence in the time I have to spare after the workday. Being able to focus so intensely on Cadmus confirmed that he is an ideal subject for me, one that I could handle being immersed in for a long period of time. I feel a great deal of affinity with him. Much of his work critiqued the complacency of the society in which he lived; in addition, he also incorporated homoerotic content into his work, as best he could, often in very covert ways given the times he lived in. In contrast, his nudes have an intimacy to them that is very private and revealing. Yet he saw his pursuit of them as a conscious way to revive the male nude as a genre that had disappeared from the tradition. Men drawing men is highly suspect. He also was out of step with the aesthetics of his own time, not sharing the non-representational impulses of his peers but feeling more attracted to the figurative work of the Renaissance. I admire his quiet single-mindedness and his tenacity, two qualities so necessary in the career of any creative person.

SN: Do you have any aspirations to do a dual art/poem exhibit, i.e. your poems mounted against the work of Cadmus?

JB: I very much doubt that any museum or curator would decide to put together a Cadmus exhibition solely on the basis of my poems. Knowing how art galleries work and what is involved in scheduling exhibitions, the best I can hope for is that any gallery planning to stage a retrospective of his work might be interested in including me in their public programming. I have read from my book on Emily Carr at exhibitions of her work in Victoria and Vancouver. However, not all art galleries are open to this kind of thing. For example, the McMichael Canadian Collection organized a travelling exhibition of Carr, Kahlo and O'Keeffe. However, when I wrote the McMichael about giving a reading of my Carr poems during the exhibition's run there in the summer of 2001, my letter was never answered. Who knows, but I might have written there too late; public programming is often planned many months in advance. It is hard to budge institutions. Their spontaneity is glacial.

SN: Art is clearly an important source for your poetry. How has working at the National Gallery influenced you as a poet?

JB: Working at the Gallery has exposed me to a lot more art and art ideas, both historical and contemporary, than I would have found on my own. I also have a much stronger sense of how to contextualize the art experience.

I am editor in chief of Vernnisage, the Gallery's quarterly magazine, which is sent to Members and is also sold to the public at large on newsstands across Canada. It is aimed at the non-expert, general reader, and is written in a more journalistic, less scholarly language than the kind of writing to be found in an art-historical journal. We try to keep the magazine as jargon- and ism-free as possible and use it as a way of engaging with readers to jump-start their enthusiasm for what I like to call the 'art spirit.'

In the Summer 2003 issue of Vernissage we publish a story about Montreal artist Jana Sterbak and the inspiration she finds in the written word for her own work. In the article, she says that she finds it very freeing to work outside the art historical context of her own training as a visual artist since she is not daunted by too much knowledge, by knowing too much about how a particular literary work fits within the literary tradition.

Working at the Gallery has made how I experience writing about the visual arts quite different from Jana's. I have become more self-conscious. The Gallery valorizes authority, placing it solely with curators, who are at the top of the hierarchy as subject specialists. For example, their approval must be obtained before articles in the magazine are published. This deference has become so much part of my work life that, by osmosis, I have begun to notice that I had brought the Gallery's resident experts home with me when I sit down to work on my Cadmus poems. I sense them cynically looking over my shoulder while I work. I feel obliged to get the details right, to make no mistakes. Am I describing a particular technique or material appropriately; am I describing the image patterning and content of the picture plane correctly? I was never this careful while I was working my Emily Carr poems. It would not have occurred to me. Now, for me to feel that each Cadmus poem is finished, I have to feel certain that it is credible not only as a poem but as art criticism as well-yet who am I to judge? It makes the writing very challenging-both to write to these standards and to rebel against them.

SN: In what ways do you feel your own art (poetry) is sympathetic to the art of Cadmus? Not your personality or affinities, but as poetry itself?

This is a difficult, philosophical question. For me, poetry is inherently visual, creating images in the mind that are open to interpretation while painting, at least the representative and figurative approach that Cadmus practised, exteriorises such images, puts them on the canvas. Both of us manipulate images that tell stories or that contain narrative fragments, which the reader or viewer may work with to create their own stories. Often these stories or story elements are atmospheric, are simply moods - and in Cadmus's case, are simply posed.

SN: Have you consciously modified your technique in the intervening period from Hypothesis to now?

JB: I would not say that I have modified my technique in any particular way. However, I have further explored certain devices that came to the fore while working on that book, refining them and applying them to different themes.

SN: I note that you've paid a lot of attention to line length in your recent work, trying to tailor each line to a specific length. Some would find this technique constraining. Do you?

JB: You are referring, I believe, to the very long-lined couplets that made their first appearance in Hypothesis. No, I don't find them limiting at all; to the contrary, I find them quite liberating.

If you look back at my earlier books, you will see that a good percentage of the poems are composed of short lines or of lines of varying lengths, with tricky line breaks. In the last year of the writing of Hypothesis, my usual short-lined forms became tiresome and uninteresting to me. I also found my penchant for unconventional line breaks to be too gimmicky. Along with the short lines, they inhibited the flow of a poem. Also, when I was writing Sweet Ellipsis, I began to be obsessed with writing single-sentence poems that could go on for several pages, that would be funnelled (I often think of poems as funnels) as comma-spliced syntax through lines of varying lengths and stanzas with differing line counts-a kind of cat's cradle of sense. All these kinds of convolutions were intended to make readers think, to make them explore the many possibilities called to mind. After awhile, I became a little bored with the snarl. So, I began to make fewer line breaks, which seemed to modulate the flow of syntax inherent in single-sentence poems, as if I were diverting water into a series of parallel irrigation channels fertilizing a field.

I have a long-standing affection for the couplet, which I find to be a very compelling, appropriate and eloquent bearer of meaning. It is everywhere in my work. My longer line seemed to enhance the couplet's inherent strengths. Long-lined couplets seem to have a deeper interiority-maybe there are fewer exposed, sharp edges pointing outwards-because the increased length slows down readers, makes them more thoughtful. Short lines are quicker, less reflective.

SN: Some of your new poems utilize the same 'defined margin' technique you developed in Hypothesis and used to revise "In the House of the Present." What devices do you use to make the poetry come through the form?

JB: So far, I have not felt compromised by it, but then I don't apply it to every poem that I write. However, I find that my use of it has evolved since I first experimented with it during the writing of Hypothesis. Again, I started writing poems in this way out of an exhaustion and impatience with the line break. Because the column of text is justified, the line breaks are automatically generated. I initially let the breaks take care of themselves. However, because justification would cause the lines to break at awkward places or insert a lot of empty space between very long words in a given line, I started paying more and more attention to where lines broke and how those breaks would affect spacing between words. The poems since Hypothesis have been written with more sensitivity to these problems. It has been a challenge to get justification to give me good breaks and lines with better spacing between words. Still, these kinds of constraints force a writer to constantly rethink and therefore explore their inspirations more deeply. I might not have examined what was behind a particular set of lines had I not had to get them to work properly within my selected form. (I would approach the sonnet and other traditional set forms in a like manner.) I suppose that is why I have developed a minor obsession with the singlet form, applying it to a wider range of themes, using it to write a multiple-part poem like "The Strata" as well as much shorter lyrics. I have even varied the width of the column itself. All these permutations have kept the singlet form very fresh to me.

SN: The Cadmus poems appear to have a great amount of deliberation placed on line length and line break. Specifically, one poem has a declension, a tapering stanzaic length. Others are staggered by indentations. Can you comment on this?

JB: In any book or book-length project, how the poems look on the page is important. If all the poems had the same shape, the visual impact of the book would be monotonous. Of course, the forms used should suit the individual poems as well and not merely enhance the surface beauty of the book as a whole. Take "Self-Portrait, Mallorca" with its tapering stanzas:

Intimate space: the self-the shaving

Mirror propped on the window ledge holding
You, head turned slightly so you

Yourself as others do-or can you?-can I?-ornamental
Brass clips anchoring its corners, this modest
Rectangle of light angled

Up to your gaze and to every appearance, like you, fully
Reflective, its neutral silvered back a ground
For the early morning

Shorescape behind you, with its mountain and bay, the stilled
Trees along the beach and endless strata of cloud
Whorled into the sky's heavy


or "Neoclassic Triptych" with its staggered indentations:

Ingres in his studio
A model lounging
Nude on her left side, braced

By a triangle her arm makes with the elbow
Indolent, turning her head
In profile towards him, gazing opaquely
Beyond the future past the eyes
Of Cadmus at the Louvre in the 1930s, wanton
Yet passive, her cold aesthetic

Marmoreal flesh warm to the touch, glistening
Dew perfumed under the careful
Ministrations of the brush as she is

Fixed within the space Ingres consigns her to-
Eternity-though she does not laze equal among
The Homerids he deifies...

Form is used to emphasize sense. Each line in any poem is a unit of meaning. In a tapering stanza, in this case a tercet where the lines get progressively shorter, the units of meaning direct the reader's attention downward, with the third and final line focusing it, with luck, on something of consequence. The line breaks should reinforce this effect. I very much like breaking lines after adjectives because it gives them more weight as words, almost equivalent that of a noun, while the next line starts on a strong word, not a less meaning-rich word like an article or a conjunction for example-but on the noun the adjective from the previous line is modifying. Breaking the line between adjectives and nouns gets more out of both. The indentations in "Neoclassic Triptych" help to break the tyranny of the left margin. If you look at the poem carefully, you will notice that the line lengths vary enormously, concentrating and elaborating meaning as the reader is shunted from shorter to longer line. The indents are used to help to further throw meanings of individual lines into a higher relief.

In the Cadmus poems I also started each line with a capital letter. I have done this in part to echo the formal elegance and tradition that Cadmus so admired. His work plays homage to the art of the past, so I thought I would reference earlier poetries that prevailed before vers libre. However, at the other end of each line, I have dropped all punctuation except for periods, question marks, dashes, and exclamation points. I let the line breaks stand in for everything else - commas, semi-colons, and colons. Combined with the initial capitals, which suggests each line is the beginning of a new sentence, this effect removes some of the navigation the reader looks to for direction. Each line is isolated. To move successively from one to the next, the reader must pay attention, and also pay attention to the dissonances that the missing punctuation and the imposed capitals create. So while the stanza is accorded structure through the use of a consistent pattern of line lengths and the use of initial capitals, the impaired navigation from line to line creates a kind of surface abstraction that draws attention to itself.

SN: "The Troubles" is a very democratic poem-ironic, I know, in terms of subject-but the poem is quite loose with its care for breath and cadence. I've reread it in different moods and the result is a different reading in each circumstance-but the freedom of the long line is more than liberating, it's panoramic. The poem's success lies in this freeing of convention; the poet provides no traditional signposts as to how to interpret the poem. The poem's margins are artificial, but the readers' embrace of the poem is organic and their idiosyncratic own. How did this come about, other than serendipity?

JB: Again, this poem grew out of my frustration with the line break. The first poem I ever wrote using this form was "Eye Country" in Hypothesis. The artificiality imposed by the margins freed me to move with the poem, to free fall, to see where its rush of sensations and ideas would take me, unimpaired by the usual anxieties about where lines should break. Each line, each unit of meaning, is 'created equal,' with no emphasis given one over any other. No line is more equal than others.

As I said earlier, though, I began to pay attention to how justification broke the lines; the uniform shape in and of itself discourages the reader from paying close attention to line endings. The form does make the poem feel like it is the product of automatic writing, especially as it is one long, comma-splice sentence. This may cause readers to feel as if the author has withdrawn from the process, is merely a medium, thereby freeing them to make their own interpretations. I believe that the meanings of poems are formed in the union of the text (as transmitted by the author, or in this case, 'channeled') and with the imagination of the reader. I want to create a cognitive space where the reader is free.

SN: Speaking of freedom, "Aquarium" reads to me like a love poem, a grand summation of all human interaction. Did you have this intent when beginning this poem, or did your object declare itself through the writing of it?

JB: I was very surprised when you first suggested to me that "Aquarium" might be a love poem. I have never read it that way-so, yes, if you like, its love theme declared itself through the writing. I have read it over several times since you first posed this question, and I can acknowledge the poem has an intimacy to it, especially as the narrator is describing an intense experience shared with another-or others, for the 'you' in the poem can also be read as plural. Also, since the poem is about waking and dreaming, I can see how one could imagine the narrator and the person addressed in the poem (the singular 'you') to be sleeping together, to be lovers. To me, if anything, the poem explores the sub-aqua experience of the (collective) subconscious and its conflict with the waking state. The garbage under the surface of the river is the detritus of the conscious mind that we suppress awareness of, which we nonetheless process. I wrote "Aquarium" from a visceral perspective, where the narrator is on the verge, half aware of being at the cusp of dreamscape and waking dream. It explores a polluted environment from which we all long to emerge pristine. It is a poem about psychic ecology and critique. When two people fall in love, they experience and have to come to terms with what is under the surface in each other's psyches. Love felt intensely is existential, lonely though shared. I think the poem does paraphrase that kind of state, so your take on it, which I find interesting if unexpected, has credence. Any poem is open to interpretation.

SN: How did the early draft of "Aquarium" become the final draft? What was the thought process behind this metamorphosis? The difference is amazing!

JB: To me, "Aquarium" has had an interesting history. I first wrote it perhaps eight or nine years ago, during the period when I was working on the poems that were eventually collected into Sweet Ellipsis. It was a summer of feverish activity, with the first drafts of poems literally forming in my head spontaneously as I walk across the old military airport in Rockcliffe (which is a ten minutes drive east of Parliament Hill) to the Canada Aviation Museum where I worked at the time as a librarian, walking across marshy grass, listening to the sharp cries of red-winged blackbirds. It was a very heady time, if you will forgive the pun. As you can see from the earlier version, "Aquarium" was one of those short-lined poems I have already described, full of sensory, surrealistic details, and though I felt there was something to it, I could never animate it. It was dead on the page. I abandoned it there for years.

Early in 2002, when I was reworking "In the House of the Present," I also revisited "Aquarium." I took it apart like a stopped watch in a bid to reassemble it in working order, adding new parts and applying new techniques. The aim was not to make it the same watch, only to make it tick. If you look at the present version you nevertheless see the outline of the original.

Both are written in couplets, though in the earlier draft, the lines themselves are much more truncated, often with no more than three or four words in each. How did I get from it to the final product? Frankly, I am not really sure. Revision is a very intuitive, organic process, performed by one insignificant change after another, cumulating almost imperceptibly into the finished poem. I know elongating the line helped. Perhaps the need to make and maintain fewer line and stanza breaks forced me to focus on other things, on what was going on within the longer line. A longer line is a larger, more sweeping canvas. Perhaps that sweep forced me deeper into the imagery contained in each one. Certainly, I fell in love with the poem's expansive mental footprint.

I believe longer lines create more intensity, density, and depth. Perhaps this is why form and content marry well in "Aquarium," for, in a sense, the poem explores the idea of depth and hidden depths, what is under the surface, what crosses the line, back and forth, between the waking and dreaming worlds.

When you are having trouble with a poem, the best way out of it is drop it into a different form. The changed shape reveals strengths and weaknesses, opens up other possibilities for meaning. Also, I don't think you can discount the passage of time that elapsed between drafts. It creates latency. I believe that like unfinished business, unfinished poems stay with you, even when they are not actively worked on. They can lie dormant for years, and this fallowness enriches them somehow. Maybe, eight years later, I was finally ready and equipped to write this poem. The poem had to mature; perhaps so did I.

SN: How melancholic do you become when writing love poems? If you had a cookbook technique for your love poems in terms of where they come from or the mental attitude you adopt, what is it? A general stance or position towards the subject?

JB: God, what a question! To be honest, I am hardly ever aware of my emotional state while I am writing. To me, writing is about creating something in words that elicits or engenders feelings. It is not merely an act of transcription.

I am not terribly interested in writing simple love poems, and I seldom do so. Usually, my love poems are about something else as well. For example, "Book of the Southwest," a sequence of eight poems in Hypothesis, may explore unrequited love, but it also documents a landscape, becomes a travelogue, and a treatise on human and geologic time, among other things.

I am very interested in how different human experiences mix together. I find simple love poems, while evocative and empathetic, somehow narcissistic. Love to me is relative to the environment in which we love. Why not bring the conditions of that environment-social, political, ecological-into the poem as well? Those threads might bring out aspects of love that would otherwise remain unexposed.

SN: How "political" a poet do you consider yourself to be?

JB: As a gay writer, I used to consider myself, by definition, to be very political, but the term I prefer is "socially engaged." I suppose this links back to what I said just now about love poetry. I want what I write to be about more than just my own experience. While so much of what I wrote through the 1990s engaged in politics of identity (which were first articulated so forcefully by the feminists of the 1960s and earlier) and my identity as a gay man in particular, I now find that this gesture of thought is so much a part of my point of view. I less consciously push it to the fore. Susan Sontag talks about wanting an erotics of love in Against Interpretation. I want a homoerotics of love.

However, as a writer, I don't really want to be a one-trick pony either. I am interested in writing about other things that shape identity besides gender or sexual orientation. I have written a lot about AIDS and my relationship to it as a gay man. Well, the public face of AIDS has changed over the last few years, with increased recognition of other communities that have been affected and, in the case of Africa, convulsed and even destroyed by HIV. I want to write about these other communities, to bring the full face of AIDS into my aesthetic treatment (if you will forgive the pun) of it as a disease. The gay community currently struggles with its sense of ownership of AIDS, and there are some who don't want to give up centre stage because, as the most visible and vocal community of Westerners to have been affected, they fought hard for the seriousness of the disease to be acknowledged and dealt with. The AIDS crisis forced the gay community to grow up. Life wasn't a party anymore in 1982. Today it has to continue to mature and realize that AIDS does not solely belong to it. Ill gay men in Western countries do have something in common with positive mothers in Uganda and Namibia. It is time to use our vast resources to fight for them as well.

To me, to be socially engaged is to use my writing in order only to hold up a mirror and not to articulate any particular ideology. Good political writing rises from empathy and its ability to inspire empathy.

SN: You tackle your Irish-I presume this to be so-heritage in "The Troubles." Have you ever done so before? What special considerations do you keep in mind when writing about family members?

JB: I don't consider myself to be Irish, but my mother's family came to Canada as Late Loyalists from upper-state New York after the American Revolution, having left Co. Armagh several years before. They settled on Amherst Island west of Kingston, receiving one of the original land grants. The original house is still standing and is now a bed-and-breakfast. When I went to Northern Ireland in June 2001, I spent an afternoon visiting Armagh town, at my mother's request, as well as the other surrounding towns where our ancestors came from. "The Troubles," which juxtaposes the collapse of a relationship and the impasse between Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants, is the first time I have ever touched on my Irish connections. However, eastern Ontario is haunted territory, and I guess I will some day exorcize it.

I guess I am much more careful writing about my family than I used to be. If you read my earlier books, you will find that I have endlessly and unreservedly explored the alleged traumas of my childhood. I suppose it is arguable that since I have now put all those things into perspective-if there is such a thing as perspective-I can be much more sensitive to my family's feelings. But at the time I wrote those poems, I had to ignore any fear I may have had that I would upset them.

Now I am not terribly interested in writing about the dynamics of my family. With Hypothesis, I decided to see if I could leave them out of my poetry for once, and for the most part I have succeeded. "Trudeau's Children" is the only exception that comes to mind. It draws upon the memories awakened by an old leather trench coat my father gave me. Whether it is really about him is open to question, as my real aim was to use the coat to explore Trudeau's impact on those of us who grew up during his years in power-I was 11 when he came into office in 1968. When my father gave me the coat, Miranda Pearson, a Vancouver poet, challenged me to write a poem about it, saying she would write one about a coat her brother had given her. Four years later, she has yet to live up to her end of the bargain - as far as I know. The Trudeau connection was made when a friend observed that this coat was very 'seventies' and just like the one that Pierre used to wear.

SN: Are there any young Canadian poets you could recommend to TDR readers, some of whom are still in school?

JB: I read a lot of poems by young or emerging poets as co-editor of Arc. Over the years we have published quite a few of them, and it is always satisfying to see them publish their first books later on. Catherine Owen, Tim Bowling, and Alison Pick, whose first book was just published by Polestar, are notable examples. I harbour a perhaps vain belief that Arc had a small part in helping them develop confidence in their vocation and continue writing. It is hard to think of names, but two poets who have recently impressed me are Jason Hereux, a Kingston poet whose work will be making its first appearance in Arc in 2004. Another is Esther Mazakian, who lives in Toronto. I chose her poem, "Lobby" as my Editor's Choice in the 2002 Poem of the Year Contest. Her poems are complex and mysterious, with a sophisticated use of form. I am not sure if either of them is still in school (if, by school, you mean university and creative writing), but both are poets whose work I will look forward to reading more of in future.

SN: Have you ever had unpleasant dealings with-we'll keep them unnamed-rejected correspondents of Arc?

JB: To be honest, not very often. Having sent my own work out to magazines for over twenty years, I think I understand the process from the other side of the editor/author relationship. I try to write the kind of acceptance and rejection letters that, as a poet, I would prefer to receive. My first rule when it comes to the drafting of rejection letters is to include comments only if I want to see the poem or poems I am returning again. In other words, the work must be good enough to publish with a few changes. I try to be as specific as possible, giving reasons as to why some aspect of the poem doesn't currently work and then make suggestions on how to revise it. While being as precise as possible in my observations, I seldom suggest exact rephrasings. How the poem is to be written is the business of the poet. Overall, I try to impart enthusiasm for the work, hoping that what I am observing in the work is interpreted as a response to it, not negative criticism.

Therefore, I actually write very few rejection letters. If I don't want to see the any of the work again, I simply send it back uncommented upon, or only with some hand-written blandishment such as "Please try us again" or "Sorry to say no" to soften the blow. I don't think it is fair to lead anyone on. I know from bitter experience that rejection is always a disappointment. Why further deepen it by adding a comment that will wound much more than can ever be imagined or will be taken entirely the wrong way? If you get comments from me in a fully fledged rejection letter, it means I am taking your work very seriously, have thought about it a great deal, and would very much like to publish it in a more finished form. It is very seldom that the poets who receive letters from Arc do not send back revisions for us to consider, and it is very seldom that we don't accept them. The poets in question may not have followed the suggestions made to the letter, but that is not important.

Earlier on in my career as co-editor, I was less careful. On one occasion, with a beginning writer, I went through several exchanges where she would respond to my suggestions, only to have me return the submission, yet again asking her for more changes. I eventually must have exhausted her patience, for, after the fourth or fifth time, I did not hear from her again, which is really too bad, as I would have loved to publish the final results. In another similar instance, I actually received a letter from a friend of the poet in question, chastising me for so unnecessarily upsetting my victim. So, I have stopped such indulging in such correspondence marathons.

SN: Who are you reading at the moment?

JB: The novels of Christopher Isherwood in order of their publication. I have finished the first four, the ones he wrote while still living in England prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. He left for America with Auden when he was 35 in September 1939 and wrote five more novels there, among many other books. I read them all in helter-skelter order more than 20 years ago and well before I came out as a gay man. By reading them in sequence, one can see how he developed his style and his many themes, including the homoerotic ones, which he dissimulated in his early novels and progressively foregrounded in the later ones. I am reading him in part because he was a contemporary of Paul Cadmus. They were born in the same year. E. M. Forster mentored both men. I am not sure if they ever met. I have become increasingly more interested in the evolution of homoerotic aesthetics over the course of the 20th century. Once I have finished reading through Isherwood, I plan to read Forster's novels in sequence.

Besides reading an enormous number of poems submitted to Arc, which sometimes saps my appetite to read other poetry, I have been reading Margaret Avison's Concrete and Wild Carrot and Louise Gluck's The Seven Ages. Along with Eavan Boland, they are among my favourite contemporary poets. Right now I am also leafing through an anthology of poems about New York City as part of my research for the Cadmus project.

SN: How seriously do you take your role as a senior poet in Canada? Does it frustrate you that, despite your widely recognized status as one of the best Canadian poets, you haven't received an accolade commensurate with that status?

JB: Not terribly seriously, since I don't really consider myself to be a senior poet. I don't think this is false modesty, for I entertain delusions of grandeur like most poets. However, I do want my work to be taken seriously and am grateful that some writers and readers do so. I acknowledge that awards do make a difference career-wise. They do impress hiring committees, for instance; when it comes to making academic appointments, they like the celebrity aura a decorated writer can give their departments. I have applied for a number of writer-in-residence positions over the years and have always been passed over in favour of another candidate who either has had more success in the awards lottery bedazzling this country than I have had or is what I would call poly-genre-ous-i.e. some blessed being who writes more than just poetry and who, more importantly, also writes fiction. There is more buzz around fiction writers because they win big, highly moneyed, and newsworthy awards than poets do. The Griffin Prize has changed this somewhat. Christian Bök will be dining out on his win for years, and that is probably a good thing. Still, recognition is a chimera. Sometimes the stars align as they should and an award is given to a significant book by a significant writer, as was the case when Atwood won the Governor General's Award for Poetry in 1966 for The Circle Game. George Bowering being appointed poet laureate is something different. However important a writer he might be, he has been conferred a dubious honour and has been given the pop cultural status of a ubiquitous talk-show guest or of a high-end product demonstrator in an infomercial.

I am sure this is making me sound bitter, inadvertently answering your question more clearly than I might wish. But, really, all I want is for my work to be taken seriously and to be able to continue writing it. For me, accolades are merely a way to move up the food chain and perhaps to be able to escape my multitasking, hybrid lifestyle of a demi-seer and silly servant.

SN: I think we need a happier note to end on. How about another question, one I don't think I asked you before. Oh yes, the dreaded, awful question that amateurs pose. Ready? What made you become a poet?

JB: God, who knows? As a young child, I always had a fascination with language and the patterns that words made together. I think I liked the idea that words carried and conveyed meanings. I was awestruck that I could manipulate the meaning of any word by the others I chose to use in relation to it.

What got me to think about becoming a writer was Margaret Atwood's novel, Surfacing, which I discovered when I was 17. The tone of that book spoke to me like no other. It was written in my language. It led me to her other books and to books of other Canadian writers and of other poets. I began to write while reading the writers who came on stream in the heady days of CanLit after 1967. I was swept up in the nationalistic fervour to create an authentic Canadian literature. I wanted to be part of that. I always say mine is the first generation that did not have look outside the country for inspiration; we had enough literature of our own to read. I got sidetracked from my nationalistic agenda later on when I decided to write about gay experience. Being gay is a whole 'other' nationality to explore.

I used to believe that being a poet was a noble calling. Now I am not so sure, though I do think of it as a vocation. I lost my innocence about that when I was a student in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of Victoria. I realized poets and their ilk were not necessarily nice people. Ambition corrupts.

I think an easier question to respond to is this: "Why do I remain a poet?" Answer: beyond the simple fact that I have been one for so long now, I would not know who I am if I were to cease to be one. I simply like the privacy of the creative act, especially when the writing is going well. Language is an excellent companion when patiently abided. The inside of a poem can sometimes be a lonely place, but once a poet accepts the conditions of tenancy it is a good retreat.

SN: Any Barton books/projects forthcoming in the near future other than the Cadmus?

JB: Frog Hollow Press will be publishing a limited edition book of three long poems in 2004; two of these poems-"In the House of the Present" and "Asymmetries"-came second in the poetry category of the 2003 CBC Literary Competition. The three poems are connected stylistically, as they are written in my singlet form. I am also writing other poems unconnected to the Cadmus project, which is natural, I suppose. Over the six years that I wrote the Carr book, I wrote poems that formed the basis of two additional books. I anticipate the same happening this time round.

Shane Neilson is a poetry editor with The Danforth Review.




until what centers no longer holds us, we compose
pictures  along  the  Falls  Road,  our  car  stopped
shoppers window-gazing and unaware of the feints
of shadow and light  we insinuate among pyramids
of fruit or  trail  across  headlines in the newsstand
tabloids  as we jump quickly in and out, frame time
with  our viewfinders, the countless murals we snap
drafted by  sympathizers  on the long overexposed
exterior walls  of  the  steep-roofed, red-brick, soot
tarred houses, grocers, haberdashers, and hardware
shops, murals  about strikers who, two decades ago
in Armagh,  starved to  death by choice, the English
prison not far  from the  seat of my mother’s family
who  left  the  North years  before the Famine, later
Loyalists  settled in Upper  Canada west of Kingston
the  first  house standing  still in the  plentiful winds
gusting over the lake and Amherst Island, its crawl
space  scooped from shale damp with the panic felt
hiding  with  the  family  silver  carried with care all
the way  from  Markethill,  Johnson’s  Yankee gang
of sympathizers tacking over the lake, staging raids
during  what  at  school  we  labelled  the Rebellion
the unsettling climates trailed behind my ancestors
becalmed into what is now a quaint four-poster bed
and-breakfast where I would’ve taken you, another
adventure in the Boy’s Own story of Ireland we had
hoped one day to expatriate, the history of two men
who through their  troubles  unite  as  one,  despite
what might  hold  them apart, checkpoints and pipe
bombs, this  uncentred  and sudden widening maze
of streets turning  us away  from where we thought
to go,  visiting  from  elsewhere,  driven by a friend
who has lost  any  faith she knows where to take us
so keeps  us  lost,  hers an  entire life of roadblocks
and  Guinness,  having  learned  she  is  who  she is
where she is – the best and the worst – and, hoping
to drive us clear of  danger, turns us into the centre
of a riot,  the car  dividing  perspectives while rocks
skid across a  fragmenting  windscreen, this woman
at the wheel living in an  eternal present  that is not
Belfast,  her vision  of this  intensely passionate city
a  long-fallen  capital where,  despite  every  wrong
turn, couples meet  and love, where despite  herself
she drops us off so we can shoot murals to the dead
mothers and  their missed  children–they shame her
far more than they trouble us–--these commissioned
vigilante  works of  art  vitalizing  the  Easter  Rising
and Civil War two stories high in  green  and orange
or blacks and  sombre greys in  contrast to the coat
of arms  painted  by paramilitaries  at  every corner
of the Shankhill Road, the  Red Hand  of  Ulster held
religiously  palm  flat  and  forward,  complex  URLs
of   the   UDA,   the  UUF,  the  UVF,  and   the  UYM
blazoned in scrolls beneath  crossed  machine  guns
and mute black-masked  men who through torn slits
look at us  while  we  block  our shots, you filling up
your  throwaway  until  it consumes itself, my hands
shaking,  my  Minolta  unable  to track however few
exposures my film still can  make  accommodations
for, both of us  cropping  similar photos of the same
wayside towns  as we are later driven cross-country
on the grand  tour,  sheep-crazed and whiskey-wise
the  kamikaze  switchback  roads  along  the jagged
coastline  turning  and  turning  us  into  unexpected
vistas,  promontories  sharpening  against the azure
our separate records  overlapping,  as  if  something
untoward  will  drive  us  apart, a gesture or veering
look at a stranger, cognizant already of  the troubles
we might import and give anxious  voice  to at home
love’s terrorism,  his  sweet  erasure  so annihilating
it  undoes  the  existence  first of one of us and then
the other, the briefest of excursions across the most
faint of lines there  is  never  any  coming back from
the Republic a  haven  where the North goes to relax
the air  on  either  side  of  the border acrid with turf
smoldering  as  it has for centuries in village hearths



At night, under the river, there are rooms,
doors opening and closing

in the arhythmic current of sleep,
all of us floating.

Who really lives down here,
windows and doors opening and closing,

floating like the dead in rent-control
apartments just under the surface?

The fish are restless,
it is not winter,

who visits less often now
with his cool lips and clever

his incantatory snows,

the flakes landing like mayflies,
like kisses, only to melt

and we are fish
busy starving in this polluted,

cold-blooded shallows, forgetting
hunger by exploring the picturesque

many-roomed castles of garbage,
gills filtering

out what remains of the oxygen,
tiny mouths nipping ragged

moons out of the mirror which
throws the private

reflections of the impassive,
narcissistic trees back

in their faces, they deserve it,
those sly fisherman

with their baited roots.
From the highrises where they live,

filing cabinets opening and closing,
they watch us, keeping notes,

psychoanalytic anglers casting
endless lines and sinkers

into how we came to be down here,
why we have yet to crawl out,

sudden humans gutted after such a long swim
through darkness,

so empty come daybreak,
we long

for our ancestors,
the frogs and the pickerel.



At night, under the river, there are rooms, doors opening and closing
in the chill arhythmic currents, all of us floating. Who really lives

down here, windows opening and closing, doors ajar? Our dead
shoaled in rent-control apartments just under the surface, the river

restless, held back by its relentless slow moving. It is almost winter
which is always so luminous with its anaesthetic lips and clever tongue

its incantatory snows a shift into freezing rain drawn close as a cloud
of falling, crystalizing mayflies, of kisses, only to melt, and we are fish

busy starving in this overpopulated, cold-blooded shallows, ignoring
hunger as we explore the picaresque many-roomed castles of garbage

gills filtering what remains of the oxygen, tiny mouths nipping ragged
moons out of the mirror throwing the dark reflections of the narcissistic

trees back at themselves, they deserve it, feckless anglers with baited
roots. In the high rises where we sleep, our bodies open and close

approximate absence, recasting nervous lines into how we came
to be down here, why we have yet to crawl out, sudden humans

gutted after such a haunted swim through darkness, so empty come
daybreak we long for our familiars—the sunfish and the lamprey.



the house down the street
where we hoped to live
sold before we had a chance

to make it ours, the red-brick bay
of chapel windows cool at night unless lit
by a fire in the livingroom, olive and mustard
balustrades leading down from the front
veranda at sunrise to tended beds
and raked gravel, the lawn given over to day
lilies and columbine, maples leafing
shadow across our room beneath
the mansard as we wake
for breakfast, work separately
in well-lit studios where I adjust
the scattered record language makes
and you consider the pathologic
ephemera of the newly born and dying

these rooms stand empty now, wait
for the belongings of an unknown
other, most other houses
not quite so
perfect, though we had never been

inside, walking by together or apart
we glimpse the floorplan through
uncurtained windows, assume behind
the intact, hand-blown panes of glass
there would be room for all
we own or hoped to buy, nothing but
the best rugs and tasteful chintz
hardwood unneedful of refurbishment

I am not afraid to continue looking
with my own hands help make
real what cannot be imagined, buy
a long occupied house too many have
overlooked, its garden gone to seed
on some untrafficked nearby street

a structure less grand and in need
of repairs it will take us years to find
our way into, a transformation
without blueprint we can guess at
where poetry and healing still
intersect but with space enough for gaps
always preexistent, which halls connect



on the picket line, National Gallery of Canada, May 2001

red shoes leading us forward, the porcelain-smooth leather dyed and the red not
dying, the efflorescence of sunset flushed through storm clouds glazed overhead

withholding the evaporated red rain of Belarus the wind blew west from Chernobyl
refugees for centuries walking westward in red shoes that looked black in the news

reels our parents watched after the whitest of nightly air raids during the darkest
of days brought to mind by red shoes lined up in single file down a public sidewalk

the shed shoes of Auschwitz or those removed before dance class, pairs of bound
feet called up to the bar, faces turned forward and looking en pointe into the blood

shot depths of the eye, red shoes leading past insomnia or hallucination to stare
down forethought and aftermath, power meant to be balanced and binary, hand

linked with hand rather than toe stepping on toe, the shoes we slip back into
forced to walk in circles in the public square outside the closed museum

where the shoes insist we belong, blood coursing in our interlocking veins, red
shoes leading us forward, umbrellas opening as one against the corrosive rain






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