Gary Barwin

Part 2 of The Puritan‘s Summer 2016 Omnibus

Each year, The Puritan Editorial Staff catches up with past magazine contributors who have published a book since the last Omnibus Interview. In the second installment, we hear from Laurie D Graham and Gary Barwin.

“Dudn’t Mean I’m Gonna Stop”: Spencer Gordon Asks Laurie D Graham about a Classic Auden Quote


Gary Barwin

Laurie D Graham is a writer, reviewer, and editor.

Spencer Gordon: In a recent article for ​​The Walrus, Michael Lista writes: “​Poetry is worth a damn ​because it isn’t good for anything. It doesn’t do well as therapy, social advocacy, linguistic research, hagiography, or gospel. Poetry buckles under the weight of occasion, which is when most of us most frequently turn to it for guidance or consolation. It’s almost always at its lowest when it presumes to be high art. And yet nearly everyone in the Canadian literary ecosystem is interested primarily in poetry’s utility—how it can redress injustice​ …” To me, Settler Education​ seems like ​a b​ook that’s ​specifically oriented to this notion of ​redressing injustices, or to carrying a kind of ethical tonic​. If not, it’s at least a place wherein the tonic can coexist with a less utility-oriented aesthetic experience (I enjoyed the book on multiple levels, for what it’s worth). What do you think about these claims, in general? Should poetry ever attempt to fix things? Are poems useful? Should they be?

Laurie D Graham: Lista’s rooting his words in a version of Auden’s famous partial line “poetry dudn’t do fuck all.” (I’m quoting that right, right?) That partial line, which we so often take as edict now, comes from Auden’s poem “In Memory of WB Yeats.” Here’s a fuller excerpt:

You were silly like us; your gift survived it all:
The parish of rich women, physical decay,
Yourself. Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.
Now Ireland has her madness and her weather still,
For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Interesting how gospel-truthy we take these old dudes to be, eh? I don’t read Auden’s declaration that “poetry makes nothing happen” nearly as seriously as it’s so often read or prescribed. I detect a bit of flippancy in that line; there’s a smirk in it, Auden throwing his hands up, along with Yeats, over the futility of writing small poems about the big stuff that moves us. I also read a marginally cheeky lament of the poem’s inevitable failure, which is what all poems are, perhaps: a failure of language to fully encompass the things we experience. And yet we go on grasping to articulate those things. We go on writing poems.

I do not make of Auden’s half-line a recipe or a command: “poetry does not ever make shit happen, so it must not include or desire such things and only then will it be good or worthy.” We could instead take Auden’s words more as a reminder: poetry and public policy (to take one example) are two different things, and poetry does not at all guarantee remediation. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t ever had a hand in change. And it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to use it to reach towards a truer story of the place in which I live. Mad Canada hurt me into poetry, after all.

Poetry allowed me to say the things I needed to say in Settler Education. I was drawing together a lot of seemingly disparate things, which didn’t seem at all disparate in my mind: the Frog Lake “massacre,” the monuments in Queen’s Park in Toronto, Omar Khadr’s release, my elementary school classmate who was run down by Michael Bryant in Yorkville, John A Macdonald’s train to Vancouver, the resurfacing of the Bell of Batoche, reading out-of-print histories, the great leaders of the prairies, Big Bear, Poundmaker, and Gabriel Dumont. This wouldn’t have come together as prose—I know because I tried. The poems in the book eschew the sequential, logical, narrative way we explain things to one another. I was standing in these places, seeing and hearing things having learned all these stories, and I was moved to poetry. And of course it was injustice that moved me that way, in part. The immediate project was to articulate the contours of that injustice and how it exists in me, and to show how the oppression that led to the killings at Frog Lake still inhabits the present tense.

It’s not ethical tonic I’m going for. There’s a strong moral centre to the book, yes. Lista was moved to poetry by the murder of Kristen French. It would be alarming to learn that the kernel of inspiration didn’t contain for him anything resembling an ethic. To say that the only thing poetry is good for is the arrangement of language risks abdicating the poet’s duty to the things and beings that move one to write. It omits the life at poetry’s core, and denies the fact that language (especially this damn thieving English language) is a far from perfect method of transmitting emotional, critical, or aesthetic responses to the stuff of life. Poetry may buckle under all this weight, sure, but does that mean we should disregard it wholesale when it points to something and says “No,” or “Yes,” or “Why,” or “Look?” Settler Education is somewhat about this imperative pressure to abdicate, to omit. I don’t know if or how that makes it useful to anyone, but I know how it’s useful to me.

Settler Education is somewhat about this imperative pressure to abdicate, to omit.

Let me return to Auden’s poem: “For poetry makes nothing happen … it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.” The punctuation might (for good reason) bar a definitive parsing of the meaning here, but nonetheless, Auden has not precluded the possibility of political drive in a poem. Think of how Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies “happens,” or Di Brandt’s Now You Care, or Dionne Brand’s Inventory, or Sky Dancer / Louise Halfe’s Blue Marrow. This can be the hardest thing to see, the way a poetic voice makes its way to us—me ’n’ Lista’ve been trained pretty well not to see it, in fact—but part of the poet’s job is to see the blinders and pull them back, to see the ways of happening.

So, in short, to answer (part of) your question: yeah. Damn right poetry should attempt to fix things, if that’s what the poet is moved to do. I think the poet should write whatever she bloody well needs to write. I worry, or at least wonder, sometimes about the amount and quality of grief that shows up in my poems. You should see the stuff I’m working on now. But that’s the tenor of the voice that comes out of the mouth, so to speak. To claim that poetry is and can only be about language, as Lista claims, sucks out the emotional core of it, and the meaning of it, and that’s so much of the reason why I read and make the stuff. If he doesn’t think it works, that’s fine. Dudn’t mean I’m gonna stop.

Laurie D Graham’s first book of poetry, Rove, was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for best first book of poetry in Canada. Poems from her second collection, Settler Education, were shortlisted for the 2014 CBC Poetry Prize and won The Puritan’s Thomas Morton Memorial Prize for Poetry. Graham holds a BFA in Creative Writing from the University of Victoria and an MFA from the University of Guelph. She is an editor of Brick, A Literary Journal, as well as an instructor at Fanshawe College. She grew up in Sherwood Park, Alberta, and now lives in London, Ontario.

“Fecund & New-Fangling Modern & Antique Language”: Fawn Parker Interviews Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin is a Canadian writer, composer, poet, and multimedia artist.

Fawn Parker
: There is incredible wit in Yiddish for Piratesit’s one of the most intelligent books I’ve read in a while, yet it still achieves a certain level of fun. The book made me feel nostalgic for a kind of storytelling I don’t encounter very often anymore. Your mastery of language and wordplay seems like second nature to you. Was it a constant effort to maintain the book’s level of complexity/playfulness, or did you tap into some subconscious rhythm with it?

Gary Barwin: A few days ago, just an hour or so after my old dog Pepper died, this rather scraggly guy walked up the front steps and knocked on my door.

“Knock knock,” he joked.

I peered nervously though a crack in the door. “Who’s there?” I said. I had Pepper’s worn old collar in my hands.

The guy said, “I love how within the great inertia of story you can include almost anything, and, as long as there is this narrative context (“the big question of all stories: And then what happened?”), the structure of each sentence can be a treasure box of diversions, anacoluthons (or however you pluralize that), registral and tonal swiatches (because fecund & new-fangling modern & antique language), allusions, wordplay (“my other meaning is a time machine, but I already knew that you knew that I would say that”) and just general linguistic lo! and high jinx.” The guy looked at Pepper’s collar with the little jangling dogtags and shrugged shyly. He put his hand on my shoulder. “What—” he said. “What about the dog?”

‘You asked about maintaining the book’s level of complexity and playfulness—and let me assure readers that I was way more restrained and subtle in the book than in this answer.’

“To tell you the ganzeh megillah, the whole story, it was a sorry tale, and a pretty shaggy one at that, and really only existed to prove a point,” I said.” “Sorry,”

“Cheap trick.” And it was.

“But,” I said. “You asked about maintaining the book’s level of complexity and playfulness—and let me assure readers that I was way more restrained and subtle in the book than in this answer.”

“Yes,” you said, sitting down at the table and pouring yourself a drink. “I did ask you that.”

“I thought about that a lot,” I said, wiping away a tear. “Because the narrator of my novel is a parrot, he is kind of shikkered drunk on language and on the tropes of literature and story (aren’t we all?), and there’s always a balance between his expressing what he is thinking and his being pulled along by the flow of the language—narrative, jokes, allusions, idioms. Hello? Howaya? Ach. Fuhgettaboutit. What? I should just ask for a cracker and not be a pretty Pollyglot? Oy. Am I tired of those. And his speech is a salmagundi of Yiddish and nautical expressions (who’s a nautical boy?) So, I was more or less following his character (which is always mediated through the languageworld in which he finds himself both subject to and creator of). I did work to try to create both variety and consistency in the novel’s mixing of humour, drama, pacing, complexity, and fun as the novel does have a mix of poetic speech, jokes, shtick, high literary style and the style of genre fiction as well as a boatload of plundered scenes from other books. I was listening for a kind of music, a texture, a textural weight, an atmosphere or something akin to a directorial and cinematographic style to the world that I found myself in. I think that maybe this texture is how the characters (or the reader) might experience that world, with its joys and difficulties, paradoxes, ironies and wonders. I do consider that there’s somethinga deeply Jewish in the book’s use of humour and language to engage with philosophical and emotional issues.”

“That,” you say. “This is turning into a long-winded answer.”

“So,” I said. “I have something better to do with my afternoon?”

“Right,” you said, lighting a cigar.

“And by the way,” I said. “Thanks for this. The kind words and the question.”

“You’re welcome,” you said, as ol’ Pepper lopes into the kitchen and nuzzles against your leg.

“Not so shaggy after all,” she says, bursting into flame.

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist and the author of twenty books of poetry, fiction and books for children. His recent books include Yiddish for Pirates (Random House Canada), the short fiction collection, I, Dr. Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457, and the poetry collection Moon Baboon Canoe. A PhD in music composition, Barwin has been Writer-in-Residence at Western University and Young Voices E-Writer-in-Residence at the Toronto Public Library, and has taught creative writing at a number of colleges and universities. He is writer-in-residence at several shelters/custody facilities with ArtForms’ “Writers in the House” program for at-risk youth. Born in Northern Ireland to South African parents of Ashkenazi descent, Barwin moved to Canada as a child. He is married with three adult children and lives in Hamilton, Ontario and has never been Governor of Louisiana.

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