Friday, March 17, 2017

St Patrick's Day



St Patrick's Day. I always think back to growing up in Northern Ireland and what that might mean. Here's a picture of woggle-proud me, with my sister in the background, standing in front of our house in Dunmurry, Northern Ireland. Standing beside my dad's MGB. I remember my dad driving Santa around in that: he sat on the boot (trunk) On the bonnet (hood) were taped white inflatable plastic reindeer. I also remember driving full speed on my little bike into that white fence and flipping right over it. Whatever the physics, colour theory, rhythm, and landscape which explain childhood, for me, they developed here. Also, my cub scout leaders always called me Bary Garwin. I never learned to tie knots. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

New Book & Radio interview


The cover for NO TV FOR WOODPECKERSmy new poetry book, coming out with Wolsak & Wynn this April.

I'm very happy about this. A variety of lyric and conceptual lyric pieces, and something very different for me in a full length book; a longer sequence derived from the species names of organisms found in Hamilton, Ontario.

*

I was delighted to appear on Bernadette Rule's Art Waves Radio show on @1050TheHawk. Lots of intelligent & thoughtful questions and to have the opportunity to discuss many aspects of Yiddish for Pirates that I don't often get to speak about. In this hour-long show I (according to the note on the link) "scatter my treasures liberally over Art Waves." I think that might be a euphemism meaning I talk too much and don't stay directly on topic.

Here's the link: https://archive.org/details/309GaryBarwinFeb.192017

Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Some visuals


New constellations for an alternate sky (for Craig Conley)






Another And.




The rare Ragefingered Alternate Zeitgeist Butterfly
(for Kathryn Mockler)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Audiobook and French publisher for Yiddish for Pirates!




I'm very excited that Yiddish for Pirates is going to be an audiobook. The actor Peter Berkrot is recording it for Audible. I've had several great email exchanges with him, including discussing exactly how to pronounce certain words and just "how Jewish" the parrot narrator should sound. He's very thoughtful, funny, smart and does fantastic voices. I've been listening to lots of his other work over on the Audible.com site. I'm delighted that he was the person chosen to voice the book.

Another piece of exciting news is that French rights (i.e. Quebec and France) to the novel has been sold to Les Éditions du Boréal. I can't wait to see what a translator does with the book, though I joke that they only have to translate half of it, since the rest is already in Yiddish. Translation, especially with books that is so embedded in the specifics of a language is such an interesting thing.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Antlers: a "holiday story"



ANTLERS

It was a large world and the antlers were alone. Above, the grey sky remote and unobtainable; below, the grey ground cold and impassive. The antlers felt only the frigid wind as it rattled toward the bare winter branches, the branches smug and self-satisfied, each branch attached to each other, each attached to still larger branches and those attached to the solid trees themselves.

The branches were not alone. There would be spring and running sap. There would be a green budding, and new leaves, and the reassuring flurry and buzz of insects. There would be birds' nests and song and the new life and companionship in the snug of the forest.

But the antlers were alone.

Surely, the antlers recalled, they too once had had the warmth and security of their own home, a warm home in the warm head which had been their birthplace. The antlers could almost remember that time when they were young and velvet-covered, that time when they were nestled in scalp skin and did not worry.

Surely, the sleek head that had been their home would worry for them. The soft skin beneath the antlers would wrinkle and furrow as the head considered what was to be done, as the head recalled the past and considered the possible configurations of the future, and the antlers, only just born, would feel their belonging, their roots cossetted in the reliable skull of the reindeer or caribou that was their steady place in the world.

But now, the antlers were alone. And now they remembered. They were once not one but two. Together, their brother or sister antlers had reached and branched toward the future and the sky. Together, they had grown, knowing that beside them another antler was growing, a curling slow-motion sarabande of development through the unbridled air as they pronged and tined, as each diverging part of them found its own road, a bony flowering, opening to possibility.

But the antlers were alone. Without deer or caribou or fellow traveller, they could not signify maturity or dominance, they could not crash against another, they could not be a proud constellation of bone, an efflorescence pointing to various in the night sky, a proud flourish above an animal as it chewed bark with vigour.

But, in this life, the antlers thought and they lay alone on the barren ground, whether fern or dinosaur, leaf or antler, despite ice age or nuclear winter, capitalist apocalypse or the Icarus-like oblivion of political systems, we must wrestle our fate, we must be vibrant and hopeful though the world be contingent and insecure. We must rise as the worm rises from its hole when the rain fills the earth with its drowning. We must be the quarry which leaps over the bullet's path, the fruit which rolls from the indifferent knife's treacherous descent. We must choose to be the road itself lying down before our own life's traveller. We must be the snail and not its iridescent yet regressive trail.

And so the antlers hoped. The antlers imagined. The antlers attempted to reframe their desire and their memories. They attempted to remember the wisdom of their past and the practical guidance of their dreams. Where would they go? They had neither legs nor wings, claws nor fins. The antlers could neither crawl nor fly, climb nor swim. The antlers must remain. They must find solace or triumph in their own contingence. They must seek a meaningful narrative trope to guide them. A child, a victory, a consolation, a miracle, an unanticipated change in circumstance.

Just then, a small boy emerged from the forest and wandered along the frozen ground. He had a round face and eyes that examined at the world without expectation.

“Oh!” he exclaimed and picked a small stone from the ground and placed it in his jacket pocket.
“Oh!” he exclaimed as he found another one.

The two stones ticked against each other in his pocket he walked. He whistled tunelessly, like the wind blowing through a crack in a door.

Further along, he found a piece of string, a red bottle cap, and an empty bullet casing.
Then he saw the antlers.
“Oh!” he said. “Oh!”

He stopped and examined the antlers. He waited. Then he lifted the antlers from the ground. He turned them about in his hands. He felt their smooth surface, their bends and their pockmarks, the places where they had been worn by rain and wind, the sharpness of their tines, the corrugations and furrows of their base. He held them close.
“Oh,” he said. “Oh.”

 Then he removed the string from his pocket and tied the antlers to his head. Then he began to walk. The antlers and the boy. They did not speak. They walked.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Yiddish for Pirates on a bunch of lists...

Recently, Gregory Betts and I had the rare pleasure of recording with legendary Canadian (& Lunarian) poet, bill bissett.


This has been an immensely surprising and gratifying year. My novel, Yiddish for Pirates, has, very happily, received some very nice attention and appeared on several lists. I am both blabberfasted as well as delighted.

The Globe 100 Best Books of the Year 

National Post Best Books of the 2016 (#27) 

CBC Books 12 Best Debut novels of 2016 

Quill and Quire editor’s pick

CBC Books Best Books of 2016

“National Bestseller”: has appeared on the CBC Books, The Maclean’s, The Globe and Mail, McNally-Robinson, and Toronto Star lists.

Scotiabank Giller Prize finalist

Governor-General’s Literary Award Fiction finalist

Letter to Audible.com about the Audiobook version of my novel Yiddish for Pirates

I played klezmer/jazz saxophone at the Authors Reading Series in Port Colborne, Ontario


Dear A.,


I’m so very delighted that Audible is doing the audiobook of Yiddish for Pirates. And I greatly appreciate the opportunity to contribute my thoughts for casting notes.

So here are some.

The novel has an unusual voice and tone which is really the heart of the book. I was very aware of the possibility of it being too rich, too much of a muchness, and so I think casting a voice actor must keep this in mind. The text is already rich and dense, a bit like a “Death-by-Chocolate-cake” or a “piecaken" narration. I tried throughout the novel to balance the humour with a genuine approach to tragedy and emotion.

Aaron, the narrator of the book, though a parrot, is like an old Jewish old man in a Florida retirement home. I had initially thought that the voice would be very New York/Miami Jewish, but I think that that might be too much and would make the character sound like a stereotype and it would be too much. Also, there are other characters who, while narrated by Aaron, are not Yiddish-speaking—sea captains, Spanish priests and inquisitors, Indigenous Americans, etc.

When writing, I was very careful not to just make the Jewish character and the narrator himself sound like Borscht-Belt comedians (though obviously I’m riffing off some of the humour) but just to energize the language with its expressions and sensibility. Also, I definitely don’t think a Gilbert Gottfried parrot voice (high and nasal and very sarcastic) would be good, though he is undoubtedly is the world’s pre-eminent Jewish parrot interpreter.

So after some consideration, I imagine the narrator to be something like the old George Burns. Infused with irony and humour, but not too shticky or Jewish-comedian sounding Jewishness (i.e. with a New York/Yiddishy kind of sound & delivery—e.g. Jackie Mason.) I understand, however, that George Burns is not available for this project.

I do hope my narrator to be wise, ironic, philosophical, with a bit of the Yiddish shoulder-shrugging irony and sarcastic “so what you gonna do?” sensibility but there is also a tenderness and genuine poetry to the voice.

I listened to a variety of readers on Audible.

I especially like George Guidall reading Wiesel’s Night. I like the primary sound of the voice but also the Jewish voice dialogue he does here and his ability with Yiddish/Jewish words. It also is an old and somewhat careworn voice but has a strength, wisdom, earnestness, but the ability for irony (and I hope, humour.) All things I’m really hoping for in the audiobook narrator’s voice. Night voice sample.

I thought the recording of Eli Wallach – old and a bit scratchy – reading Stephen King’s Insomnia was also a good model. or his memoir (though he sounds a bit too old for our purposes in this recording.)

I also like Kerry Shale – he can do an old thoughtful voice with humour, though, I note in some of his recordings he does strong accents. He is great with doing a variety of distinct accents and voices. Again, though, such performances could easily take my novel into a too stereotypically “Jewish” voice. Here's a sample of what I was listening to.

Again, thanks very much for the opportunity to provide my thoughts. I’d be very happy to be of any help I can at any point in the process (all of my contact info is in my signature below.)

Best, Gary

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Interview about _Yiddish for Pirates_

My friend, Natalee Caple, who teaches at Brock University invited (ok, assigned...) one of her students to interview me. I'm going to ask the student for permission to cite her name, but in the meantime, I'd like to post her interview here. She asked a bunch of intriguing questions to which I was able to drone on in a mind-numbing, soul-deadening way. (N.B. I wrote "numbling" initially and it is perhaps an apt neologism.) Here follows the numblingness, the souldeadinatory blitherings which I blatherationally provided.

Yiddish for Pirates is a story about a young Jewish man during the time of the Spanish Inquisition told from the view of his friend and pet, an African grey parrot. What inspired you to write this story? Why from the point of view of a parrot?

I was amused and intrigued to read about the historical reality of Jewish pirates -- though in truth they existed 100 years later than when I wrote about and mostly in the Mediterranean. And they didn't speak Yiddish. There were various theories and old wives' tales which posited that Columbus was actually Jewish, or from a converso background. The famous Nazi-hunter Simon Weisenthal even wrote a book marshalling the evidence as he saw it.



The notion of Jewish pirates seemed a rich fictional world ripe with comic possibilities. It’s also a compelling idea that some of the Jewish mariners sailed because they hoped to find a “new world” that was safe for the Jews.  I was further stuck by the fact that the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492—the exact moment when Columbus left on his voyage of discovery.  I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of crypto-Jews – hidden Jews.



There is also the matter of the European attitude toward the native peoples. What would be the relationship between my Jewish protagonist and this new persecution? In the manner of a Bildungsroman, my youth/explorer/pirate protagonist experiences the moral, social, and conceptual turbulence of the age, and develops both psychologically and morally.



The parrot is like a Go-Pro camera on the shoulder of the pirate and seemed an obvious (and comic) choice to have a pirate narrative told by a parrot.  He is a wise-cracking, quick-witted Greek chorus-of-one. The other thing is that the parrot “parrots,” – that is, he speaks in the language acquired from those around him and can only use this language and the tropes of character and story to tell this tale. Like the writer, and like everyone else, he must use this received culture and language to try to express his perspective, thoughts and feeling. In what way does what he has receives affect how he sees the world? Is it possible to use this received language in new ways to shape a new vision? There is much of the book that is plundered from other sources (for example, Treasure Island, Dostoyevsky, Shakespeare, Captain Blood, Candide.)



In terms of language, I was thinking about the tremendous vitality of both the Yiddish language and nautical argot. And about how the use of multiple languages in a single sentence make that sentence more energetic and supercharged--and rich in association. Once I started seeing how some old fashioned nautical-sounding words bumped up against Yiddish phrases, I found 'my' voice (or, actually, my parrot narrator's voice.)

I was thinking also thinking generally about identity, history, oppression, the self, masks. And money.

Aaron, our narrator, uses copious amounts of Yiddish words and phrases while telling his story. Was it hard writing using Yiddish? Did you already know it or did you have to learn it? Were you ever concerned it would make the book difficult to read for people?

Like many Jews, I have a very strong connection to Yiddish without actually knowing how to speak it. I do know many words and expressions as I heard my relatives use them and, I suppose, was particularly sensitive to their appearance in my verbal environment. As I wrote, I was surprised by how many words I did know, how many words I dredged up from cultural memory. I did, however, use many word lists and engineered opportunities to use them in the novel, or, when needing a certain kind of verbal move, searched for the appropriate Yiddish term or phrase. I did get a Jewish editor (the writer of popular books on Yiddish, Michael Wex) to check my Yiddish to ensure that I had made no mistakes. I had made many mistakes.



I endeavoured to make the Yiddish intelligible by context but I also included the translation of any Yiddish word in almost every sentence that it was used, except for certain words which were more commonly known or which the reader would know from earlier in the book. This rhythm or rhetorical device of having both the English and the Yiddish created a certain effect (both rhythmic and tonal) in the book which I explored as I wrote. I was also influenced by Junot Diaz’s work in which he uses Dominican Spanish. Part of the effect of his work is to represent a profoundly different non-Anglo sensibility. The world he writes about is a different world, a world outside of White privilege. I wanted to explore how the use of this language of the other would present such a different sensibility and perhaps would make clear to those who were not Jewish or Yiddish speakers that my protagonists were “other,” that they had a different experience of the world than people of traditional privilege.

What was your process while writing this book? How did it differ from the process used when writing I, Dr. Greenblatt or a book of poetry like Moon Baboon Canoe?

The main difference is that it is one very long textual object. The other books you mention are an accumulation of different elements and the book as a whole accrues slowly. And this book is deliberately suffused with research and source material and riffs off historical fact and characters. I wrote a minimum of 500 words a day in order to give myself a concrete and quantifiable goal to attain. I didn’t plot the book in advance, however, I made charts and summaries of what I had written as I went along and did write some short term plot elements, for example, the next scene. I would say, however, that all of my books—whatever else may inform them—originate in language. The language is the driving force behind the creation and the nature of the language determines the nature of the book and the process of its creation.

In the story our main character, Moishe, meets Christopher Columbus. Columbus is described as short on gratitude but never short on words about himself. He is fanatical about Christianity and obsessive about traveling. When he finds new lands, he is described as sitting “enthroned, benevolent and regal”. Why did you write Christopher Columbus in this way? Was there research that showed his personality or did you make it up yourself?



I read a lot of historical and fictional sources about Columbus. I also read some of his own writing in translation. (I incorporated some of it in the book.) The historical Columbus is a fascinating and complex figure. I thought a lot about his motivation. He has been considered both a hero as well as the symbol of colonialism and genocide. I wanted to think about what was really inspiring him. It seemed that it was web of ambition, the willingness to say whatever was needed to be said to achieve his goal (fame and prestige primarily, but also, though less so, money and power.) He did have a powerful religious bent which did come out, as is reflected in my novel, in eccentric religious behaviour in his later voyages. (He really would dress as a monk and he would quote biblical passages with near prophetic zeal.)

In the book Aaron tells quite a few jokes and small tales, or parables. What prompted you to include these? Did you make them up yourself or did you learn them from somewhere else?

I knew many of the jokes, tales, and parables. Some of them are old standards that I have heard over the years. Many of the jokes I’ve been told by people in my family. I did also make up or adapt others to fit the situation or for other reasons. Why did I include these? The Jewish tradition—and, in fact, the Jewish rabbinical tradition—is replete with these jokes, parables, and tales. The Jewish Midrash is filled with stories, homilies, and riffs on iconic tales. Storytelling and humour is a powerful component of Jewish life and thought. They express a quintessentially Jewish irony and a fatalistic yet celebratory humour. And a love of paradox. And humour is one of the great technologies of humanity. It gives you distance, and also an opportunity to deal with difficult things. Jewish humour in particular has this optimistic pessimism, or pessimistic optimism, that is so much part of the culture. The speaker can connect with the people they're telling the jokes to, and they're able to stand outside what's happening and look at it philosophically. Through this kind of humour, they find a way to engage, think about what is happening and still have agency. Humour always gives you agency, because you are the one telling the jokes. That's a very powerful position from which to address tragedy.

The novel is separated into five parts: wind, fire, water, land and quintessence. The parts all seem to relate to the titles of each part. Why did you separate the book into five parts? What effect were you trying to convey?

I wanted to frame the book with a metaphysical structure. Though the plot involves searching for treasure (at first, for books and then, later, the Fountain of Youth), really what is being explored is more metaphysical: life, death, memory, love, the presence of goodness/evil/God on earth, the attainability of immortality, the role of language/memory/story in living forever. There is also play between physical reality and the immaterial. And so, I chose to divide the book into the four traditional elements of Western culture plus the fifth, the one of which the heavenly bodies are composed and which is present in everything. Also, they are part of Kaballistic thought (cf. Tzimtzum and Tikkun Olam) with the quintessence representing divine light.

Each element relates to the plot. The first, air, is when Moishe is a dreamer (a luftmensch, literally an “air” man.) Fire represents Spain and the burning fires of its Inquisition. Water is the transatlantic crossing. Land is the European “discovery” of the Americas. Quintessence is the Fountain of Youth. Clever, eh?



Each of the five parts of the book begins with a different quote. What made you choose these five quotes for each of the five parts? What was their significance or relevance to each chapter and the book?



Each quotation addresses something that happens in the part it precedes. My goal was to contextualize the events. Not only to frame them within the larger context of thought and literature (and often anachronistically – though Aaron is speaking from the present day and he often draws on the entire range of his experience which have often occurred the events described in the novel) but to establish a central question or concept for each part.

Here are two examples:

The book begins with a quote from Candide. (“We are going to different world…”) The book ends with a riff off the end of Candide where Candide’s solution to the strife, immortality, and senselessness of the world is addressed by return to and tending his garden. Moishe begins the novel as a naïf, like Candide, and, by the end, like Candide, he has experienced many terrible things which have challenged his unexamined optimism and faith in the good.  In Part Two, “Fire,” the quote is “my flesh burns with history.” The quote obviously refers to the burning of heretics in the Inquisition, but also metaphorically to the consuming fires of history and the events of Part Two. It also connects this specific persecution with the persecution and genocide of Indigenous people (which will come later in the book) as the quote is from a Queer Cherokee poet.

Through out the story there are pieces of song. The first one sung by pirates, “I wish I was back in my native land heave away! Haul away!”. In another part, the Christians sing “Venite, adoremus” and in response the Jewish people sing “Sh’ma Yisroel Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad”. How did your knowledge of music contribute to the story and why include these snippets of song?



I was trying to represent a range of language but also to set the mood. Pirate or nautical songs are a characteristic part of the mariners’ life but also of pirate narratives and so I wanted to include some, though I modified them to include Yiddish. These songs would also have been a part of the life (and literature) of the time. They also provide a useful change of rhetorical pace. The book is so densely packed with wordplay, allusion and metaphor, the songs provide a brief respite. 

The songs (the Christian and Jewish examples you provide) are also another way to incorporate allusions. The Christian song would have been the prayer that would have been sung when I represent it. The Jewish prayer, The Sh’ma, is the central affirmation of faith for Jews. I deliberating engineered this scene to include it. It is an allusion to an event that happened in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust. A group of Jews knew they were about to be executed by the Nazis and stood up and spontaneously sang this song. It always seemed to me to be a very powerful moment, these people who knew they were going to die, standing a proclaiming their identity and choosing to die with dignity on their own terms. There is a remarkable musical composition by Arnold Schoenberg called, “A Survivor from Warsaw,” which I have always found very powerful. 



Other than specific knowledge of music and such compositions as the one that I cited above, I would say that my general approach to language is very musical. I approach the pacing and prosody of a text in a very musical way, as if I were writing music rather than text. It allows me to hear the overall shape, pacing, drama, tension and tone of the text in addition to its content.

The book has been shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and nominated for the Governor-General’s award for Literature. What are your thoughts and feelings on this?



It has been a remarkable experience to have this kind of attention and engagement from readers and the media. Hitherto, my work only reached a quite specialized and marginal readership (often only particular kinds of literary aficionados and/or other writers and literary specialists.) This book, greatly helped by these nominations, has secured a vastly widely audience of the general public. This has been hugely gratifying. I did set out to write a book that didn’t do anything that would unduly marginalize it, that is, that would alienate a mainstream audience (unless I felt that the needs of the book demanded it.) I set myself the challenge to write such a book which at the same time would explore those themes and elements that most concerned me at the time, using the full range of my abilities and techniques as a writer. The fact that it received these “mainstream” fiction nominations means, at least in part, that I was successful. I’m happy about that! I have also had many very moving encounters with a wide range of readers – from older Jewish men and women – to a banker who immigrated to Canada from West Africa – to whom the book spoke to and who connected with what I was doing. For that I am profoundly grateful.

In the acknowledgements at the end of the book you express appreciation for the year as writer-in-residence at Western University. What is this position and how did it affect your writing of the book? 

I was lucky enough to be Writer in Residence at Western for a year when I was writing the book.
The position, shared between Western and the London Public Library, places a writer in residence to advise, teach and be available for consultations with the students of the university and the residents of London. I ran many workshops and met with many writers of many levels of experience. Part of the role is to give the writer time (via funding) to write. To be honest, I was not able to accomplish as much work as I’d hoped on the novel. The position took more time and energy than anticipated in order to do it properly. And the pay wasn’t enough to live on. And so I did a lot of other work for pay. I was able to complete a fair amount of other writing—I was able to write shorter texts in the interstitial time between writer-in-residence commitments and other work‑ and so I finished and edited a short story collection, wrote many poems, and completed a variety of criticism.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Questwers and Anstions: the wild and unfathomable always



University of Ottawa Graduate student, Olivia Vanderwal asked me some questions about my visual poetry book the wild and unfathomable always for some coursework. I thought her questions were very interesting and I asked her if I could post her questions and my bloviating blatherations on my blog and she gave me permission.

OV: I was wondering if you could talk about some of the processes behind "the wild and unfathomable always," as both a conceptual and physical work. How did you first conceive of the project -- what thoughts or ideas led you toward visual poetry? What did the method or technique of production look like? 


GB: I tend to imagine the world and its concepts as a metaphor for language. Not only do I imagine “grammar,” but more concretely, I imagine letter-like processes. Eg.: That’s a kind of m-behaviour. That’s w-ish in its relations. I imagine that the letters are the icons of entire ecosystems, systems of physics, or even of beliefs or conceptual systems and that what we see are just projections on the flat screen of our awareness, on the flat surface of the page.

I especially consider punctuation as representing the ineffable or at least the unsayable, the unsaid, or the inexpressible. Language but not language. Punctuation is an energy-field, a fundamental force like gravity or the electromagnetical force. Or being. Punctuation is the other. The strange beauty, the alphabets’s ostranenie. And as if squinting at the infinite, the alphabet can seen to be a multidimensional thing of strange beauty itself. A physical phenomenon but also something noumenal or even numinous (and here, we’re not talking of the divine per se, but rather of the mysterious, the uncanny.)


I have been thinking about written language and its relation to impossible forms as well as constellations for a long time. And when these elements collide, they fracture both visual space, the integrity of the letterforms, as well as challenge the production of meaning. Or perhaps, I should say, produce multiple not easily parsed meanings. A network of signification. Signifiers as broken open and multidimensional and which exist beyond the usual limits of the semantic. Polysemic but also its inverse. A sign which exists in 22-dimensional space. Is it the signifier or the signified which has 22-dimensions?


I began with exploring the collision of these various visual elements. Punctuation, the Hebrew and the Roman alphabet. Constellations. Impossible visual illusions. Using Photoshop, I mashed up the images. I scanned some impossible shapes and constellations. Then I modified the shapes and constellations (often I’d create the constellations star by star, dashed line by dashed line using the star and dash elements that I’d scanned from old images of constellations.) By creating empty space between lines (i.e. erasing the white space), Photoshop allows images to break the visual illusion of their shape or solidity. Visual signification intertwines.


OV: Your title frames the book in terms of time or infinity. What role does time/spacetime play in our understanding of language, or the way we (de)construct meaning from it? 

There is much play in the images themselves with time and infinity. I consider that the 3-D illusion figures/impossible figures play with the perception of space and exist in the perceptual/conceptual interstices between time and space. They are, in their own way, sigils of infinity. They both break the “fourth wall” of visual and language illusion and its suspension of disbelief.

And of course, constellations mark a particular relation between space and time. At the distance that stars are from earth, the relation between space and time becomes apparent as we know that the starlight we see may be a record of something which doesn’t exist anymore.  The Hebrew letters, which appear through the text, also explore some of these ideas. Indeed, the traditional Jewish notion (particular in Jewish mysticism such as the Kaballah) of the Hebrew letters is that they have always existed. There are, in some way, the building blocks of the physical universe and are themselves creative forces (cf. stars.)

Not only do I see letterforms as constellations, I think of them as having traversed time and space. They carry information from different time and space. Also, I feel that language, like constellations, might seem connected and to offer a unified view or pattern are actually from very different time and places and just appear as one since they onto the platen of our consciousness. Language is, like the perceptual trickster figures of the images like a 3-D illusion. Like a Necker cube, we may interpret messages or text different depending on our expectations or perceptual predisposition. But that is also the great creative genius of language: that is can exist in a kind of quantum state between two ideas or ways of seeing. It can convey paradoxical or impossible meanings. Meaning which refuses to resolve into a single state, the rational directional state. (Perhaps the state of technocratic patriarchy?) It is always a mystery and resists having a one-dimensional or simple relation to time and space.

BTW the title is from Thoreau: “We do not associate the idea of antiquity with the ocean, nor wonder how it looked a thousand years ago, as we do of the land, for it was equally wild and unfathomable always. . . The ocean is a wilderness reaching around the globe, wilder than a Bengal jungle, and fuller of monsters, washing the very wharves of our cities and the gardens of our sea-side residences.”

OV: Could you speak toward the relationship between verbal and visual in the work? How, or to what extent, do both of these categories dialogue or "constellate" with one another? 

GB: I’ve probably answered that in the biovating blatherations which appear above.

OV:  I'm just curious, what are those script-like symbols that appear in several of the images (ie. those that aren't punctuation)? 

I think you mean the Hebrew letters. Though letters have powerful associations in Hebrew (particularly in Jewish mysticism) these particular letters were not exactly chosen for those meanings, but rather for their visual and associational resonance. The letter that has three arms (a little W-like) is a shin and is associated with the name of the divine.

BTW here’s a little video based on some of the images.

Questwers and Anstions: the wild and unfathomable always



University of Ottawa Graduate student, Olivia Vanderwal asked me some questions about my visual poetry book the wild and unfathomable always for some coursework. I thought her questions were very interesting and I asked her if I could post her questions and my bloviating blatherations on my blog and she gave me permission.

OV: I was wondering if you could talk about some of the processes behind "the wild and unfathomable always," as both a conceptual and physical work. How did you first conceive of the project -- what thoughts or ideas led you toward visual poetry? What did the method or technique of production look like? 


GB: I tend to imagine the world and its concepts as a metaphor for language. Not only do I imagine “grammar,” but more concretely, I imagine letter-like processes. Eg.: That’s a kind of m-behaviour. That’s w-ish in its relations. I imagine that the letters are the icons of entire ecosystems, systems of physics, or even of beliefs or conceptual systems and that what we see are just projections on the flat screen of our awareness, on the flat surface of the page.

I especially consider punctuation as representing the ineffable or at least the unsayable, the unsaid, or the inexpressible. Language but not language. Punctuation is an energy-field, a fundamental force like gravity or the electromagnetical force. Or being. Punctuation is the other. The strange beauty, the alphabets’s ostranenie. And if squinting at the infinite, the alphabet can seen to be a multidimensional thing of strange beauty itself. A physical phenomenon but also something noumenal or even numinous (and here, we’re not talking of the divine per se, but rather of the mysterious, the uncanny.)


I have been thinking about written language and its relation to impossible forms as well as constellations for a long time. And when these elements collide, they fracture both visual space, the integrity of the letterforms, as well as challenge the production of meaning. Or perhaps, I should say, produce multiple not easily parsed meanings. A network of signification. Signifiers as broken open and multidimensional and which exist beyond the usual limits of the semantic. Polysemic but also its inverse. A sign which exists in 22-dimensional space. Is it the signifier or the signified which has 22-dimensions?


I began with exploring the collision of these various visual elements. Punctuation, the Hebrew and the Roman alphabet. Constellations. Impossible visual illusions. Using Photoshop, I mashed up the images. I scanned some impossible shapes and constellations. Then I modified the shapes and constellations (often I’d create the constellations star by star, dashed line by dashed line using the star and dash elements that I’d scanned from old images of constellations.) By creating empty space between lines (i.e. erasing the white space), Photoshop allows images to break the visual illusion of their shape or solidity. Visual signification intertwines.


OV: Your title frames the book in terms of time or infinity. What role does time/spacetime play in our understanding of language, or the way we (de)construct meaning from it? 

There is much play in the images themselves with time and infinity. I consider that the 3-D illusion figures/impossible figures play with the perception of space and exist in the perceptual/conceptual interstices between time and space. They are, in their own way, sigils of infinity. They both break the “fourth wall” of visual and language illusion and its suspension of disbelief.

And of course, constellations mark a particular relation between space and time. At the distance that stars are from earth, the relation between space and time becomes apparent as we know that the starlight we see may be a record of something which doesn’t exist anymore.  The Hebrew letters, which appear through the text, also explore some of these ideas. Indeed, the traditional Jewish notion (particular in Jewish mysticism such as the Kaballah) of the Hebrew letters is that they have always existed. There are, in some way, the building blocks of the physical universe and are themselves creative forces (cf. stars.)

Not only do I see letterforms as constellations, I think of them as having traversed time and space. They carry information from different time and space. Also, I feel that language, like constellations, might seem connected and to offer a unified view or pattern are actually from very different time and places and just appear as one since they onto the platen of our consciousness. Language is, like the perceptual trickster figures of the images like a 3-D illusion. Like a Necker cube, we may interpret messages or text different depending on our expectations or perceptual predisposition. But that is also the great creative genius of language: that is can exist in a kind of quantum state between two ideas or ways of seeing. It can convey paradoxical or impossible meanings. Meaning which refuses to resolve into a single state, the rational directional state. (Perhaps the state of technocratic patriarchy?) It is always a mystery and resists having a one-dimensional or simple relation to time and space.

BTW the title is from Thoreau: “We do not associate the idea of antiquity with the ocean, nor wonder how it looked a thousand years ago, as we do of the land, for it was equally wild and unfathomable always. . . The ocean is a wilderness reaching around the globe, wilder than a Bengal jungle, and fuller of monsters, washing the very wharves of our cities and the gardens of our sea-side residences.”

OV: Could you speak toward the relationship between verbal and visual in the work? How, or to what extent, do both of these categories dialogue or "constellate" with one another? 

GB: I’ve probably answered that in the biovating blatherations which appear above.

OV:  I'm just curious, what are those script-like symbols that appear in several of the images (ie. those that aren't punctuation)? 

I think you mean the Hebrew letters. Though letters have powerful associations in Hebrew (particularly in Jewish mysticism) these particular letters were not exactly chosen for those meanings, but rather for their visual and associational resonance. The letter that has three arms (a little W-like) is a shin and is associated with the name of the divine.

BTW here’s a little video based on some of the images.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

New Review, publications, Yoda, Guitar Picks, Art Exhibition and....



Naomi MacKinnon of the Shadow Giller has written a lovely and moving review of Yiddish for Pirates. I'm so grateful for such a thoughtful review and one that quotes from the book extensively. (Nothing like seeing your own words quoted back to you...but really, I really like how she explains the book through quotations from the book.)

The Hamilton Review of Books is a new review of books from Hamilton. (Bet that wasn't something that you could have figured out from its name.) It is edited by a bunch of amazing writers, mostly from Hamilton, Ontario where I live. I think it is part of a burgeoning literary scene in Hamilton and I'm delighted. I'm also delighted that they featured my visual work for their first issue. I'm honoured!

My visual work is also in Word For/ Word, a great online publication of text and visuals edited by Jonathan Minton out of West Virginia.

Installing the Subject Object Verb show.

Opening this weekend is Subject. Object. Verb. an interactive installation/response to the work of Susan Kealey that I created for the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Visitors can type on four vintage manual typewriters wired to audio processing and record their memories on paper. They can then illuminated these works and they will form part of an expanding exhibition of these works which will continuously be collected into book form. There will also be a live performance based on the work.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

I don't want to make this blog all mad raving about good things but...


Here I am (above) at Random House Canada signing an enormous tableful of books. Such a crazy surreal experience. But fun. And I resisted leaping onto the table and rolling around in them, like a frolicking dog.

What does it feel like? Completely surreal, as if I were playing the part of “the author” in a movie. But I also kept thinking about these books flying out into the world like some kind of flock of literary storks delivering stories.

And...Yiddish for Pirates has been shortlisted for the Governor-General's Literary Award for Fiction! Really, I am smobgacked by this and honoured to be there with my four fantastic co-nominees.

My hometown paper, The Hamilton Spectator wrote about this nomination here. Thanks to Graham Rockingham. I also did an interview on CHML Radio. I start at 14'37" Thanks to Scott Radley for the interview.

There's a new review of the book, too. Robert Fulford wrote about it in the National Post. 

Today, I spent an hour and a half with a photographer from Maclean's Magazine.  I spent the hour and a half trying to look like I wasn't trying too hard too look or not too look too authorly. But the photographer was great; she made me feel as comfortable as I could be considering the various parts of my face kept wanting to either escape or do their death mask imitation.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Yiddish for Pirates on the Scotiabank Giller Prize Shortlist!


This is surprising and delightful news. Yiddish for Pirates is on the shortlist with five other books. Here's the complete list.

When I read the Jury Citation for my book, I'll admit to tearing up. I was so moved that the jury "got" what I was trying to do & that they articulated it with such precision and enthusiasm.

There are lots of events associated with the shortlist—media and readings—and I get to stay in a hotel that has a "glass-enclosed cheese cave." I want to repeat that phrase over and over. It feels better in the mouth than any cheese.

The Hamilton Spectator had a story about my nomination on the front page (the front page!) and interviewed me. That astounded me. And as I was walking on a downtown street, a guy pulled his car over to the curb and jumped out, ran up to me and shook my hand to congratulate me. Really, Dad, that was too much. But actually, I didn't know the guy. Very strange but sweet.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Count from Sesame Street was a Holocaust Survivor



The writer and scholar, Jennifer Glaser wrote on her Facebook page that, as a child, she thought that Sesame Street's The Count (AKA Count von Count) was a Holocaust survivor. This made sense to me, it resonated. So I wrote a prose poem based on this recollection.

I'm delighted that it was published today on Menachem Matthew Feuer's the Schlemiel in Theory Blog. Here it is. Von beautiful poem. Two beautiful poems...ah ha ha ha ha....


Sunday, September 18, 2016

Crap Orgasm and Owls.




In response to the magazine The Walrus's new "family friendly" fiction rules, and the subsequent resignation of its fiction editor, Nick Mount (see here for the story), A.G. Pasquella created a new lit journal (named after two words which were forbidden in the new rules.)

I'm delighted to have the first piece posted in this new venture.
 I think A.G. missed the fact that I sneakily integrated the forbidden words into this piece along with another element which was the initial cause of the kerfuffle—why else would have let this in?

But really, it's important that significant journals choose quality and not some patronizing and misguided notion of what might be appropriate. Writing is about engagement and sometimes that engagement might be not be silky smooth, indeed might have some grit and resistance. I think we can take it.

Here's my story, Owls.


Saturday, September 17, 2016

India, Books and a Great New Review of Yiddish for Pirates



As you can see from the above picture of a guy (not me, I'm taking the picture) checking his cellphone in a monument, we've just returned from 9 days in India (via New York City.) We were in Agra, Delhi, and Jaipur and points in between.  Truly a remarkable experience and one which I have to write about properly but first, laundry and catching up on responsibilities, including composing/programming a digital interactive typewriter piece for installation at the Art Gallery of Hamilton next month. Now here is a photo snapped from a bicycle rickshaw of a bookseller on a street of booksellers just opening up for the morning.


I did come across this really insightful review/ essay concerning Yiddish for Pirates by Kerry Riley on her fantastic blog which I'm just discovering now. (I know, a blog isn't real until it talks about me...) I'm really grateful for her perceptive examination of the novel from a number of different perspectives, including the motif of books, the repository of past narratives in our culture, and the notion of story which run throughout the novel.








Friday, September 16, 2016

Yiddish for Pirates is on the Giller Longlist!




Very excited that Yiddish for Pirates is on the Giller Prize longlist. It's there with eleven really fantastic books including Susan Perly's Death Valley published by local small press, Wolsak & Wynn.

I'm really happy for the recognition of these great writers and publishers but I'm also thinking about all the others who weren't able to be on the list but who also deserve recognition and excitement. Also all those editors (mine was Amanda Lewis), publishers, and other book support people who make all these books possible.

Also...I just got news that my book will soon appear in paperback. I've posted the cover (front, back, and spine) above It's another beautiful cover designed by Five Seventeen in cahoots with my editor, Amanda Lewis. It does looks a bit like a scrimshaw.

Before I was on the shortlist, the designer stuck in a dummy prize sticker which I really wish was an actual category. Here it is: