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In conversation with John Barton

John Barton is one of Canada’s pre-eminent poets. Though the thematic concerns of his poems are broad, his work often maps the emotional, psychic, and sexual terrain of queer male desire and the complexities of relationships between men.

I have long admired the expert craftsmanship and discipline in John’s work, the tautness of his lines, and the tension he’s able to evoke between the often formal demands of his poems (for example, in the sonnet or the villanelle) and the complicated, chaotic, rich emotion seething underneath. His new collection, Polari (Goose Lane, 2014), is an exceptional collection of poems, most written using set forms drawn from Robin Skelton’s The Shape of Our Singing: A Comprehensive Guide to Verse Forms and Metres from Around the World.

John Barton has published eleven books of poetry and six chapbooks, including Hymn (Brick, 2009), For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin: Selected Poems (Nightwood, 2012), and Polari, (Goose Lane, 2014). Co-editor of Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets (Arsenal Pulp, 2007), he has won three Archibald Lampman Awards, an Ottawa Book Award, a CBC Literary Award, and a National Magazine Award. From 1990 to 2003, he co-edited Ottawa’s Arc Poetry Magazine. He lives in Victoria, where he is the editor of The Malahat Review.


Congratulations on the publication of Polari. How does it feel to launch this new collection?

I have been working on the poems in this book for almost a decade, so it feels otherworldly to have the best of them collected together between a front and back cover, with an alarmingly thick spine. Polari does feel like a personal achievement, for, in this book, I challenged myself to write formal poems, disciplining myself to stick with the rules of each chosen form, usually without deviation (despite whatever good writing ended up on the cutting-room floor) and while figuring out how to make my lines chime with one another subtly rather than sounding like I was banging two pots together.

All told, I collected between 25 and 30 different into this book. I owe a debt of gratitude to Robin Skelton’s posthumous The Shapes of Our Singing: A Comprehensive Guide to Verse Forms and Metres from Around the World, to Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve’s anthology of Canadian formal verse, In Fine Form, and to the Oxford Rhyming Dictionary—the pages of my copy have become as unglued as I feel, and to such an extent that it needs to be rebound. Most importantly, I wanted to take set forms and make the resulting poems read as contemporary. Some of this of course may be due in part to my choice of subjects—Omar Khadr, the 2008 financial meltdown, and global warming—but I believe it has rather more to do with voice and the casting off of even the least alarming idioms that have given formal verse a very bad name.

I also learned a great deal about writing itself in the struggle to write these poems and feel that writing them has rendered me much more flexible as a poet. Cramming what I wanted to say to fit a set number of syllables and stresses, while also observing an often brutally exacting rhyme scheme, with repeated lines piling up all over the place, changed my relationship to language itself. These poems expanded my vocabulary and pushed deeper into their subjects than would have occurred in free-verse poems. A repeating line has be good enough to read and heard more than once. I was forced to cast aside many perfectly acceptable words and lines in an effort to find more adaptable ones that fell in step with the metre or the rhyme. In the squaring of round pegs to fit maddeningly tight square holes, only to be forced to round them again, and vice-versa, I made countless discoveries about how and what my poems could mean. Anyone who thinks following the rules of a form hands a set of crutches to creativity has no idea. Now I could run a marathon or take up heli-skiing. As I got ever deeper into the writing of Polari, I found myself unable to imagine writing another flaccid free-verse line and began to wonder if formal poetry had become the Viagra I hadn’t known I’d needed. Now my readers can test my performance for themselves. Meanwhile, I will turn my back and take up some other extreme sport, like language poetry.

The book jacket indicates that polari comes from the Italian parlare, and refers to a “coded anti-language or idiolect at one time spoken by gay men for cover”. It’s clear from the poems that you’re often mining the unspoken between men, the codes of longing, memory and desire that charge same-sex relationships. How do you feel your own work is part of a lineage or tradition of gay or queer poetry?

To ground my writing, I feel my life’s work might be best described as a reader’s search for a queer tradition, and I would hazard that a very high percentage of what I read today touches on queer experience. I am less a CanLit poet than a same-sex poet. I came of age when there was barely such as a thing as gay studies or queer content that was mentioned, much less discussed, in a university literature class. The early post-Stonewall authors were then publishing their first important works, novels like Edmund White’s Forgetting Elena (1973) and Andrew Holleran’s Dancer in the Dance (1974)—not that I was aware of either at the time. They were faraway, in New York, and there was no such thing as the Internet. The drawers of catalogue cards in the library were the only retrieval tool that I had access to.

I did read Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novels when I was in high school, after seeing the firm version of Cabaret, and I happened upon a remaindered copy of Ian Young’s first book of poetry, Year of Quiet Sun (1969), two or three years after I had started university—1977?, 1978?—and reading it was my first encounter with openly queer poetry. While I didn’t self-identify as gay until much later, I knew Isherwood and Young were speaking to me—maybe they were speaking to some future self I hoped and feared that I would inhabit, the books encountered like avatars in Second Life. Isherwood remains an author I still read and reread. He continues to help me remember who I am.

As a Canadian poet, I have often felt that the grand queer tradition is something going on elsewhere, which is why I accepted Billeh Nickerson’s invitation in 2004 to compile and co-edit what became Seminal: Canada’s Gay Male Poets (2007). A compendium of poems by 57 writers arranged in birth order who wrote between 1895 and 2006, it is the first such anthology to be published in Canada. Putting it together in a sense “invented”—or at least teased out—a some semblance of a home-grown tradition, and of course, as contributors, Billeh and I couldn’t help but place ourselves in context, however arrogant such a gesture might sound to some.

Where do I fit in a queer tradition? I have no idea. I suppose every poet—queer or not queer—wonders which tradition will lay claim to them—or whether or not they will be lucky enough to be claimed by one at all. I guess I feel I must first understand this tradition before I pigeonhole or incriminate myself. Fitting in is not something poets do (and some queer poets don’t do so with such flair), though poets may follow or ascribe to any preoccupation (read “fad,” if you’re cranky, “issue,” if you’re less so) that sweeps the writing community—writing poems of political solidarity that decry the lot of the missing in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s (Margaret Atwood’s True Stories is an exceptional example)—or poets writing about the Athabasca tar sands with great moral relish today. I can hardly complain; I have written my own fair share of queer adjit-prop in the past.

One of my favourite poems is “La vie bohème”, in which the coffee mugs “turning still” on a lazy Susan remind the speaker of an important train trip to the Pacific earlier in life. It’s filled with such controlled and sustained melancholy, a resolutely clear-eyed nostalgia, which I greatly admire. How much does memory contribute to your creative process?

Memory plays an important role as a source of inspiration, I suppose; certainly it is a repository of unused or previously used material that I may choose to tap and readapt—or it taps me on the shoulder and says “Hey, turn around for a minute. Let’s talk.”

I do not feel poetry must be faithful to memory, per se, but instead it transforms, reverses, or even undoes memory as words coalesce and incarnate what’s recalled in its off-kilter image. This particular poem, which is a villanelle, was actually cannibalized from an abandoned free-verse poem, and it is for my mother, who is the unidentified “you” whom the narrator (me) wistfully addresses. I wasn’t given the mugs by my mother, as the poem suggests, but during a train trip away from home as a young adult, one of my sisters bought them at the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver and gave them to our mother upon her return. They were mugs I loved, and being six years younger than my sister, I used them for years and watched them spin on an eye-level shelf in my mother’s kitchen.

What’s true in the poem is the emotion. The two refrain lines—“On the lazy Susan, mugs you gave me turn still” (they turn in memory) and “The Pacific breaching the grasslands’ landlocked will” (with the present participle changing each time the line is repeated) both articulate something crucial about my relationship with my mother, forged out of the complicated love between parent and child. What she “gave me turns still” alongside the anguish of leaving home (I grew up in landlocked Alberta) for the inevitable adventure of life ahead. In some ways, 36 years later, I am still leaving home and even though she died in June, I am still leaving her behind, perhaps literally this time in the dust of the grave. I am like Lot’s wife (I have so many drag identities), and as I watch my mother first turn to salt (the precipitate that memory is), the rain washes her away.

The fact that these two repeating lines rhyme, as required by the rules of the villanelle, fuses together the intense emotions that they each express, emotions opposed but joined like the obverse sides of a medal. And of course, her great gift to me is her sense of perfection: “I still make tea the way you showed me, morning chill / Shocked from a china pot by water boiled to Om.” Her sometimes-oppressive exactitudes gave me the high standards that made me into the poet I am today. The poem honours the gift and childhood she gave me, but it also mourns the separation that becoming an adult always effects, which death has now made permanent.

I also very much like the two ways one can read “turn still”—the mugs are spinning, but they are also transformed into stillness. As if the complicated memories are alive, but I am at peace with them. And can therefore hold onto them, which is very much connected to the Om of the boiling water and the pleasurable temporary stasis of a good cup of tea, a good poem, or any act of making. And it is a social pleasure, for the tea in the poem is as shared as are the mugs plural.

So, yes, memory does fuel my poetry, but perhaps it’s best to say that I use the shards of memory’s broken crockery and glue them into new, perhaps awkward shapes (there’s nothing natural about a villanelle) that suit the delusions and disillusion of the present. It is the vividness of invented memory that at last brings joy. Maybe for me writing a poem was the only way to get here. It took about thirty drafts, on top of however many drafts the abandoned poem exist, so I am glad you like it.

I also loved “One Bedroom Apartment”, a longer poem that explores in crisp, clipped detail a one-night gay hook-up. Your lines often startle, offer new ways of seeing the connection between male bodies. I’m thinking of lines like ‘Of men not prone to spoon, who fast enmesh’ which is repeated throughout the poem and has stayed with me. Do you feel same-sex desire offers a new or different way for poets (or any artist) to communicate the complexities of human connection?

I would rather emphasize “different” rather than “new” because men have been having sex with each other since long before the Greeks. Gilgamesh, considered the earliest known poem, is excellent evidence of this. Since the time of Wilde, Gide, Whitman, and Huymanns, when the idea of “homosexual” was first being defined, writers have found ways to express increasingly less discreet typologies of gay carnal love, and many have suffered the consequences no matter how discreet or open they have been in their work or behaviour—look what happened to Hirschfeld’s Institute for Sexual Science under the Nazis. Today we can be candid, at least in most western countries, with our right to do so now more or less enshrined, depending on which of those western countries you call home.

Of course, what we have to say will be different from non-queer writers feel moved to put on paper. The question becomes then of how well they listen to us or embrace the belief that we are filling gaps in the record they alone have been responsible for up until now—i.e., the canon. Some queer poets I can think of, whom I shall not name, seem to be looking for or have found ways to pass aesthetically while also speaking about what they do with their own bodies and the bodies of other men.

Writing “One Bedroom Apartment” got this book going at the end of 2005 and is a crown of seven sonnets—where the last line of each sonnet becomes the first line of the next, with the last line of the suite repeating the first line of the first sonnet. The repeating line you quote—“Of men not prone to spoon, who fast enmesh” speaks to the damage wrought by how gay men are socialized—at least the gay men of my generation. Many of them are unequipped for intimacy, but through intimacy they can discover the surprise of tenderness. I am not sure if anyone will read this poem in the future, but I like the idea of someone someday stumbling upon this poem in a compact shelving unit in an academic library’s damp basement. Books and poems are time capsules to be opened later on.

Your previous collection, For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin, was a collection of selected poems tracing your own literary and personal history. What was it like to look back on and select from your own body of work? How do you feel your work has evolved since your first poems?

This selected, of course, is just one take on the work found in the nine previous books, with the chosen poems written between 1977 and 2007—a span of thirty years. I could have put out a Canadiana-themed selected instead. The choices I made about which poems should appear in this book sometimes felt very arbitrary. How do you choose between apples? Do you go with the ones that appear less bruised? What does the difference between bruised or perfect apple-flesh suggest? It’s not too different from having to decide between pursuing a god-like young man or settling for a well-worn older (or old) one—and given how titillating this metaphor is, I won’t say which kind of poem—or man—I’d opted for.

More seriously, what strikes me most is the growth in complexity as you work your way past my earlier poems toward the later ones. I have come to demand more of my reader now, I think, but also hope and feel I deliver more than I had before. I write less impulsively than I once did, but with more consideration. It’s seldom now that I will find myself writing lines of a poem on the backs of several deposit slips while waiting in a bank lineup as I had to in 1980 when a section of “Hidden Structure” came to me out of the blue. Now I put a poem through draft after draft after draft over weeks, months, years, and decades, mulling over every aspect of it to the point of exhaustion. Yet I never tire of the work and the depths that I hope are in my later poems reflect this. It’s akin to putting down many coats of paint to make the colour of an accent wall denser, and eye-catching enough to meditate on.

You also co-edited (with Billeh Nickerson) the groundbreaking anthology Seminal: Canada’s Gay Male Poets. Since its publication, are you seeing any new trends among younger or emerging gay or queer-identified poets?

Just as the queer tradition is hard to tease out, it is not easy to sum up the cohort of today’s younger poets, and I’d rather talk about attitudes than trends. It is easy to assume that younger writers are confident about their place in the world than I was at their age and that this confidence is immediately evident in their work. Or even easier to say that since all the issues of being queer have been addressed, there’s no reason for them to write about being queer—this is close in spirit to one criticism levelled against Seminal by Zach Wells when the anthology came out, that it was published twenty years too late to be relevant.

There are so many people younger than I am who believe that because all the legal protections are in place—“You guys can marry now, for God’s sake!”—there is now nothing more to defend or decry or celebrate—“Why celebrate by yourselves when you can celebrate with us about what really matters?” It may be better to say that younger queer writers are not as prone to draw attention to themselves as writers of my generation were, and say “Look at us, look at what you have done to us, hey, you assholes, listen up.” The outrage of Larry Kramer (turning 80 next year, incidentally), who in the early 80s used his work as a cudgel to bludgeon the straight and powerful into paying attention to AIDS, is perhaps less necessary now—though gay teenage suicide is definitely worth making noise about. Young writers can write about the issues of being gay and have more hope than past generations could harbour of being read without first being ignored as outsiders or exotics.

You’ve lived in Victoria now for over a decade. Based on my time in Victoria, I’d say it probably lays claim to having more poets per capita than any other Canadian city. How important is that literary community to your own practice?

Yes, it is a poet-overrun provincial capital and poetry is in as profligate bloom here as on the cherry trees in spring—and the flowering never seems to stop. I value my colleagues tremendously, some of whom, Patricia Young and Derk Wynand, I have known for four decades, both of whom I met when I was enrolled in the writing program at the University of Victoria. Patricia is an excellent example of my sense of community. I have been reading her work since we were workshopping our poems in class in 1978. It’s been wonderful to read her accumulating books in the years since. I am in awe of her talent, especially her inventive imagination and her passionate commitment to expression. I would not say that I see her regularly—our paths cross at readings and parties and book launches, but I have been in an ongoing reading relationship with her for decades, including while I lived in Ontario, one that is as rich as any correspondence or face-to-face conversation. But it’s great to know she’s in the vicinity and not across the country.

For me, editing The Malahat Review, Victoria’s great gift to the national writing community, has been enormously meaningful. I take no credit for its reputation because that reputation existed long before I became editor. When I was an undergraduate at UVic, a Malahat acceptance was considered a career watershed, and maybe it still is—it’s not for me to say. I studied with one of the magazine’s founding editors, Robin Skelton, for three years and observed him at work in the same way I learned how to cook by watching my mother make meals as a child. Robin provided me with the model I applied to the editing of Arc in Ottawa for thirteen years. When I returned to Victoria to assume the position he’d resigned just over twenty years before, it felt like I had come full circle.

On some levels, it is as the Malahat’s editor that I interact most consistency with poets in Victoria—the same kind of relationship I have with writers from all over. I often paraphrase a line from my favourite poets, Phyllis Webb— I “throw a bridge of value to belief.” As a teacher, Robin helped me gain confidence as a poet, as he did for many of the writers he published in the magazine. I’d like to think I do the same for the contributors I work with, affirming them in what they already know, however tentatively, or not, about their vocation.

What’s next for you, John? What can we expect from your latest work?

After publishing a book I feel empty, an emptiness that often impresses itself upon me around the time the manuscript is first submitted to a publisher, and this book came out so very quickly after acceptance that I’m still dry. My word-horde feels depleted. I am also reacquainting myself with free verse and realizing it’s not necessarily the loose line I had come to fear after eight years of writing a more structured one.

I have one hundred pages of poetry toward another book called “Contrapposto” about Paul Cadmus, George Platt Lynes, and Lincoln Kirstein, all twentieth-century figures and respectively a painter, a photographer, and the co-founder of the New York City Ballet. My interest in part is how they conceived of and caught the queer male body through paint, the lens, and movement in lives that spanned nearly the whole of the previous century. After twelve years of work, the book should be finished, but there are a few final poems to write, along with the anxious, but highly pleasurable work of fine-tuning.


John Barton will read in Toronto on October 6 as part of the Rowers Reading Series, and on October 8 at Glad Day Bookshop. You can also find John on Twitter.