Sunday, July 30, 2006

Hello There, You English

My eldest son, Ryan, who is fifteen, had his first professional gig in a jazz club. This past Thursday, the Ryan Barwin group premiered at The Pepper Jack Cafe in Hamilton. Due to a last minute band crisis, he had to have fill in musicians: the amazing Mark Sepic on guitar, percussion, and digital looping, and the markedly less amazing Gary Barwin on saxophones. There's a Yiddish word, kvelling, which means something like "overflowing/welling with pride." I was definitely doing this. (Indeed, made a big puddle of pride on the floor.)

Ryan was playing guitar and --even if I do say so myself -- he was fantastic. Some people get nervous when they perform and the anxiety shows. Others do better the moment they hit the stage. He is in the later category. I've never heard him play so well. It did make a difference that Mark, a seasoned and relaxed performer, was on stage with him. I guess also the fact that I was there too, kvelling.

He played two long sets: a bunch of jazz standards, some Coltrane-influenced extended improvisations, some Bill Frisell, Grateful Dead, Low Rider, and an original tune.

The place was packed. A fantastic night altogether.

It's been a while since I saw this the first time, but I recently received this old joke again. It is appropriate as I'm heading through Pennsylvannia to Washington DC for 10 days.

Hello There, You English:

Thou hast just received the Amish Virus.

As we haveth no technology nor programming experience, this virus worketh on the honour system. Please delete all the files from thy hard drive and manually forward this virus to all on thy mailing list.We thank thee for thy cooperation.

— The Amish Computer Engineering Dept.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The trunkless tree was threatening me.

I'm enjoying the work of poet Heather Christle. I came across her poems in Octopus #6, an online journal. "Five Poems for America" are particularly great. I've adapted/stolen the following lines from this poem for something I'm working on (see below):

Magnificence comes
in a small car, but we all fit.

The title of this post is from her Trunkless.


Have you seen this? A guy, through a series of trades or barters (14 in all) manages to trade his initial single red paperclip for an actual house in a small Saskatchewan town. And I wasn't able to trade my liver for a salami.


Magnificence comes

to our small ears, but we all fit

teeth on a small jawed shark

a thousand people on an island no bigger than

any green noun or

pink earhole

Some think our small ears

which are magnificent and

radiant fetuses

Magnificence in a tiny car

shouldering the pink road

an unfurled map, giant Ontario ear

fluttering the rolled-down half dawn

How do we know

the thousand shrunken ears of stars

a pink light reaching

very brief Marx brother time

atto and zepto and yoctoseconds

the disco ball in the heart

a mosaic of shiny blood

Jack Robinson! he has no time to blink

Monday, July 24, 2006


There’s a man standing before an open window, 37 storeys up. He’s wearing a Groucho nose and glasses. On the ground, like the open mouth of a tiny frog, a bowlful of water awaits him.

His feet are normal. He wears large red shoes.

Someone has replaced his left eyeball with his right, his right testicle with his left, has replaced his skinny arms with wings.

On the horizon, a cream pie rises amid fleshy pink clouds. These are everyday materials and we are oh so very tired.


I didn't know this:

In The Tin Woodman of Oz, Nick Chopper (the Tin Woodman) finally sets out to find his lost love, Nimmie Amee, but discovers that she has already married a man constructed partly out of his own discarded limbs. For the Tin Woodman, this encounter with his former fiancée is almost as jarring as his experiences being transformed into a tin owl, meeting another tin man, and conversing with his ill-tempered original head. (see here for more.)

And thus (though I'm not sure if the ending is too pat for me.)


ax enchanted it cuts

off bits of

my body one


one: left leg, arm, ear, test


right ear, nost


leg, fingers, head

each replaced with its self

made of tin

later I meet the flesh

girl who I was going to marry

but she’s already married all my cut

parts together

my doleful empty torso a hollow


I wish I were of wood

the jigsaw of myself

the sudden flame of being

a single image




In the days before Marco Polo discovered the Miniature Doberman here on Planet of the Tired Clown, the Unconventional Creeps Race began at noon instead of one. I was drunk log before that playing the jigsaw snapping race with my lost woodman brother. What kind of death satin sailor sails the piping North Pole with nothing but a random rabbi generator beneath his cap? I’m an impossible planet circled by the weepy noses of my dream detonators. Mice wish themselves twenty legs then begin a new life of scurrying. Don’t we all.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

The Original Middle of Nowhere

I came across this very interesting interview with Shelley Jackson in the Iowa Web Review and also, most especially, her really fascinating website.

Of particular interest to me is the piece "Skin," a short story of which each word is tattooed on an actual body.

There's also the Instititial Library project (E pluribus plurum.)

Another thing is her novel Half Life about conjoined twins. I've been researching conjoined twins (what used to be called Siamese Twins) for a novel I'm thinking about. (Wait! I'm supposed to be the only one writing about conjoined twins, didn't she know?) The idea of sharing a body, sharing a circulation, even sharing parts of the brain is fascinating and resonant. What are the limits of the person? How much experience can one share? What about more than one person accessing parts of your brain? How does one conceive of the self in this situation? In any situation? What about being separated?


Another thing I'm wondering about: In time travel narratives, do people ever interact with themselves? I know this somehow usually violates some time travel code. Sometimes people see themselves (recently in the Harry Potter book and movie) but they don't talk to themselves. In thinking about the self, this seems to be a really interesting conceit to explore.

My Credo
from the current Paris Review (Issue 177) an interview of James Tate by Charles Simic:

Simic: What was [your] first poem like?
Tate: It was stupid.
Simic: There are various ways to be stupid.


Frederick Seidel has an interesting poem "Barbados" in the current Harpers. It's from his forthcoming collection Ooga Booga. Great title. "The poems in Ooga-Booga are about a youthful slave owner and his aging slave, and both are the same man.

Here are the first two lines, which belies the incisions of the rest of the poem. (He's been called “the most frightening American poet ever” (Calvin Bedient, Boston Review).

Literally the most expensive hotel in the world
Is the smell of rain about to fall.

I'm not the most frightening poet ever, except on occasion, to myself. Or my kids. And sadly, never to my students. Here's a little poem of mine which originated from seeing an old Balinese woman casually standing around in the middle of a village with a large rock on her head.

I was born with my head
in the middle of nowhere

until someone placed a rock on it
Then I knew

where I was

which rock
I was under

And when I learned to walk
I walked

in the cool shade

Thursday, July 20, 2006

The Life of Complicated Apes



with my large broom.


They are clean now.

We can take our hearts and go bowling

in the city streets.

We can go bowling

down the dark tongues

of the city’s streets


They are clean.

The Woman who Lives in the Sun

Recently I saw a call for ekphrastic poetry written for kids ages 11 and up. There isn't enough good poetry for kids that age (well, ages, really: 11-12; 13-14;15 up) -- too much of it is of the Shel Silverstein variety, or the "School of (Adult) Quietude". It's a hard age for which to write poetry that seems authentic. And, especially at the younger end of the spectrum, many kids respond to poetry that I wouldn't like to write (or read.) But you have to respect that. The poetry is for them after all.

Writing for kids is like that. It's a balance between writing what you'd like them to read, that is, writing that you think brings something new to their reading experience, but yet will attract them, and writing what interests you as an adult writer. It is liberating though, because mostly, you're not writing for yourself directly, for your own sensibility. You're trying to write for an audience that isn't you. Well, at least that isn't you now. Perhaps the younger version of you (either in memory or in some other strata or modality of being within you.) I love meeting kids who have read my work. The response is so authentic, direct. The idea that I am able to contribute some imagination or joy to their reading lives is intoxicating. And they are thrilled by the idea of writing, by the idea of being a writer.

I'm currently working on a little story for chickaDEE magazine, which I do every few months. I write these little themed stories for kids aged 6-9. The magazine editors give me a basic theme. The current one, for the December issue, is "Winter Fun." They'd like me to incorporate some family or holiday celebration. And it is to take the form of a Mad Lib (i.e. a fill in the blanks story.) It should be 300-400 and will be illustrated. Sometimes I write for Chirp, which is for even younger kids

I'd like to write some funny, thoughtful, sad, sensitive, insightful, goofball, accessible and brilliant poetry for those ages. OK. I'll confess it. I'd like to write some Stu Ross poems for that age. But in the meantime, see below for an ekphrastic (sort of) poem that I wrote in response to the call. It doesn't meet the goal of those adjectives up there, though.

I've another version about "The Woman who Lives in the Son." The mother's inside him, nagging, asking him to clean his room, to pick up socks, to chew more times. She weeps in the dark. She tidys up. Her little hands stick out his ears. She makes him brave.

Which reminds me of this story a friend of mine told me. She is a doctor and when a young patient complained of an earache, she looked down the young girl's ear canal. She was stunned to see a little eye peering back at her. After taking a moment to recover from the surprise, she realized that it was a little plastic doll eyeball that had got stuck there.

The Woman Who Lives in the Sun

someone bit my father’s hand

right through the glove

he needed stitches

things like that happen

all the time, he says

to dentists

each morning before school the door

like teeth snapping shut:

Dad leaving for the land of the pearly whites

my mother visible only during the day

her almond eyes

her nose like a pear

the roads of her warm breath

as she laughs with me

I sleep outside and she warms my arms

everything in the garden reaches toward her

even my heart, a red fist


finger by finger

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Saturday, July 15, 2006


So I was joking about Doctor “this is one of the great books of the century” Weep in my last blog post. A friend of mine brought by this review from Utne (Jan/Feb 06) that she'd noticed. Did they really say that between Guy Maddin and I, Canada was "producing some of the most innovative, creative works of our time."??? Does that include Jim Carrey?

I'm thrilled by how much the reviewer "got" the book, though the first line is ridiculously hyperbolic (sorry, Guy.) It's amazing to discover a review from somewhere far away when you didn't expect it. Next time I see Utne, I'm going to buy it a drink.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Your Encephalograph, Dear Reader, Not Your Applause

1. In a recent Paris Review interview (which I highly recommend – Charles Simic interviews James Tate!), Peter Carey says that there’s no reason to read reviews other than “vanity or insecurity.”

2. derek beaulieu sent me a lovely review of our frogments from the frag pool from Calgary’s FFWD. The review said that the books is "perhaps profoundly, a delightful book of poetry."

I now have that tattooed on my biceps which I flex constantly at passersby.

3. Are vanity and insecurity the only reasons to read reviews of one’s own work?

4. No.

5. End of blog post.

6. More: I do have an insecurity guard, walking beside by limo, constantly listening to advance signs of threats and situations. Cf. Don DeLillo’s marvelous Cosmopolis.

7. Vanity? Vanity? Vanity?

8. But really, I often do value reviews. Why? My vanity and insecurity. But I think primarily because I want an echo back from my audience, my readers. One writes a book and then one wants some response, some feedback. Imagine telling jokes everyday and never hearing anything from your audience, neither groans nor guffaws. I’d like a thoughtful response. I’d like to know that someone “gets it,” that they understand what I was trying to do. Perhaps they understand implications that I wasn’t aware of, perhaps they can offer a perspective on the work different than mine. Though of course I want to hear things that tell me that (as on the back of DeLillo’s Underworld, which I’m reading) “this is one of the great novels of the century,” I’m interested in thoughtful critical feedback. I’m interesting in hearing what I could have done with my book, parts that are perhaps misguided, or – perhaps most usefully – things to consider.

9. I have had terrible reviews. But my response is always equaniminous and gracious about those stupid, fetid, nano-minded critics with their horrible, horrible, hurtful, stupid, stupid, subliterate squibs. Actually, as long as they seem to have actually read and considered the book, I’m OK. And no personal attacks.

10. I once had a review of my brilliant Doctor (“this is one of the great books of the century”) Weep in an important journal. Was it Chapbooks in Ontario? Blokes in Canned Adder? Boks in Kanata? The review said that

“The entire book, divided into vignettes (these divisions must make sense to Barwin alone)...”

Perhaps you might hate the book, but the stories (vignettes isn’t the correct word) in this book arrive at very clear endings and for the most part, have very clear beginnings. Perhaps the middle is awful, but I can’t imagine that this reviewer read the book carefully, at least, based on the above quotation. That kind of review makes me veer from my usual eqaniminiousness to the point where I pitch small animals at passersby, writing the name of the reviewer on my chest in blood while screaming the name of the reviewing journal into my doctor’s stethoscope. Oh. And I also make sure to abduct the reviewer, tie them to a moving airplane which, pilotless, I send out over the Rockies, a tape recording of my voice reading my book blaring louder than the decrescendo-ing whirr of the engines as they run out of gas over somewhere sharp and cold.

11. It’s easy for Carey to dismiss reviews. He does say he reads them, though often getting people to read them first, steering him away from one’s that wouldn’t be good for him. He gets lots of feedback.

For writers like me (Kafka, Beckett, John Grisham) who don’t either sell many books (at least the adult ones) or have critical articles written about them, and frequently don’t hear hardly anything from readers, reviews (and here I’m including those of the blog kind) provide me some feedback, some idea that people have actually read the book. Further, that they have engaged critically in the reading and have something to say. This is an inspiring and helpful echo.

12. If I could get sent encephalographs of my readers as they read the book, I’d be delighted. I’d much prefer these to all those boring cassettes of audience applause that I’m perpetually getting sent in the mail.

13. The picture is of Pulpit Rock in the Blue Mountains of Australia, the place where I heard the very best echoes.

(Though when I yelled, "Barwin," I didn't hear back, "The best writer this century." Damn. Perhaps my hearing was off.)

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Albatross of Sense

poetry: their in the best words order best


Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834): I wish our clever young poets would remember my homely definitions of prose and poetry; that is, prose,—words in their best order; poetry,—the best words in their best order.


I can't find that passage where Coleridge mentions that "kerplunk," is one of the words he considers the best.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Sundays at the Vowel Museum

A long hall bounded by teeth.

“I…” begins Marta the cleaning lady, leaning on her mop, remembering.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Moon-fearing Bachelorettes of My Ancestors

Last night, I participated in the Scream's Small Press Dating Game, modelled after the original Dating Game. Three "bachelors" answered questions from a "bachelorette" hidden behind a curtain. (All the roles were non-gender specific, so both males and females were bachelors and bachelorettes.) It was a fun night of silliness and humour. The list of participating writers are here. It was good fun and a pleasure to be part of.

In my absurd role as "bachelor" in the game, I was thinking how the format (based on the original) would have been an interesting performance opportunity to play out the constuction of gender, sexuality and sexual identity/relations. We were supposed to "woo" the bachelorettes. How does one create a "wooing" personnae? What are the identity and language gambits should one employ? How are traditional notions of male, female, straight, gay, bi be played out particularily within such a formal structure? I was imagining if a writer like Margaret Christakos was a "bachelor," what she could have done with the set up.

I wrote a ridiculous poem in order to "woo" my bachelorette (who turned out to be Mark Truscott, O he who spurned me...) I've written few love poems. And certainly hardly any public ones. Of course, the tradition of poems to a loved one, or poems seeking to woo a loved one are very old. But what does one do? Praise the would-be lover? Tout one's own wonderfulness and the things that one can do or would do for the lover? And what is the nature of the boasting or the praise? You have great lips (they're really red, they look extraordinarily kissable). I'm a hunk-a-hunk of a burning love machine? Perhaps one could write about how the lover makes you feel. Or how you will make the lover feel? I was considering drafting an ode to my potential bachelorette's brain, based on the idea that the poem had to be gender non-specific. (Besides, the "date" was really to talk about writing, and not about wining, dining, dancing, and bases achieved in the National Amourous Baseball League.)

Here is my (very) occasional poem--it's only occasionally a poem--for your very own dining and dancing pleasure:

My writing is a needle shortening the pants of monotony and dread

It leaves an impressive narrative thread as it winds through

the abreviated cuffs of you who hitherto did proceed trippingly through the daily darkness and stumble of everyday speech

My writing will ride a bicycle through the stitchholes of your hems

the fabric of your mind stretched by my thousand-speed cosmic roadbike cosmos with wheels of pure joy

and your thoughts, undiscovered planets embraced by a multitude of imperceptible moons
suddenly will be Hubble-ized and named by the perspicacious cartographic lexicon of my cerebral sewing

For I am a one-handed phrenologist kneeling in a haberdasher’s fantasyworld funhouse,

a contestant playing the carbon dating game with the moon-fearing bachelorettes of my ancestors

Through the chest hairs of language, my poems seek gold medallions and the burnished signs of the zodiac in the mythic resonance of the curly pectoral forest

my writing is a BeeGee sestina hallelujah chorus

a John Travolta post-structuralist jumpsuit fandango of literary theory

a Hilary Duff post-colonial mega-sized writing samba in the blog roll drive-thru

My poetry contains multitudes and they appear small within its vastness

a single molecule within the molehill of my talent

I write on a desert island and the desert island feels glad

signals the boats of meaning, the search-and-rescue helicopter critics:

says, stay away,

stay away for we have something here

Yes, I’m a bachelor married to the archipelago of my own talent

going on a date with me would be like Y2K all over again

an excitement of digits, an anticipation of irrational calculations, airliners seeking the arcing chaos of their own inspirational routes through the cloud-busy air

a date with me would be like changing from the Gregorian to the Julian Calendar while hang-gliding through the National Library dressed in an asbestos nightie while the books are inflamed

the librarians run blindly down the stacks and inhale the smoking grammar of our lives headbutting the opposing players of tedium, madness, and apathy as they attempt to fan the bookish flames with facile rhymes, trite metaphors, and a limited understanding of the depth of my literary consciousness

I am the literary Jeffersons of the century, the poetic Archie Bunker of our times

I speak of Love Connection glory

of radiant Gilligan’s Island subplots singing Partridge Family small press bliss in the triumphant World Cup publishing paradise of Toronto

A date with me would be like having God’s credit card, Satan’s expense account, and the incisive ontological wardrope of Samuel Beckett as if he were born as one of the stagecrew for Gladys Knight and the Pips and his daddy owned the big rhinestone factory on the outskirts of sense.

Look! Someone’s revved the motor, turned on the highbeams of language’s monster truck. Seems like its blind driver is driving you to your first date with me.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Harm Hill

a candelabra of fingers clutching the dusk

a taste of puppy under the eyelids of touch

Henry wrote me a letter from Bali

there are no dogs or hands wide enough

(except for the wide dogs and wide hands)

to say what must be said

the ghost-king was sad when he swam onto the gravel

there was nothing but grief, sorrow, and distress

on the unpaved road to harm hill

inhabitants! come out of your huts

you are not hostages of your own doom

the sun shines its grief rays on your little hats

doff them and radiate your plum brains with opportunity

let the ghost-king ride his dune buggy off-road and imprudently

green grass green grass puppy dogs and green grass

the world is wide as any dog or as the new words of yesterday



Franks Casket

The Practice of Poetry, Behn and Twitchell, eds."2o Little Poetry Projects," Jim Simmerman, p.119

Image: from here

Monday, July 03, 2006

Translating Translating Basho

Last week, I did a reading/talk at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo. Upstairs, Dalton McGuinty was talking about his plan to privatize quatrains. Actually, I’m not sure what he was talking about, but he drew a bigger crowd. And they had better canapés. I did have a cut-out Mountie present, though.

My talk was downstairs in the Embassy’s large library. I was asked to read from derek beaulieu’s and my frogments from the frag pool and talk about the book, haiku, translation, the interaction of cultures, Canadian writing, and the creative process. The Embassy supplied a translator to translate everything I said (but not the poems) into Japanese. They suggested that I provide a handout with copies of what I would read so that those whose English wasn’t strong could follow along (unless of course I objected to the “rustling of paper.”)

There were about 30-35 people there. They invited a range of guests – people from various haiku societies, academics, haiku and other poets, someone from the Canada Japan Cultural Foundation, students, and teachers. About half of the people spoke fluent English. There was a reception afterwards.

I can’t remember such a warm, interested, expressive audience. I was quite worried about being translated, but the translator was excellent – good natured (she seemed to get into it, and laughed a lot – at least, I hope that was good…) and astute (she queried me when I said that Thumper was from Snow White instead of Bambi. Of course, she was right.) I was astounded how much longer it took to say things in Japanese. Also, how many English words she used. But her manner really put me at ease. The previous night, she had been at a press conference, translating, I think it was, Ken Watanabe (The Last Samurai). The only poem I asked her to translate was:

Why do we worry?

Every word on earth is

In the perfect place

I thought it would be a good opening invocation to my reading/talk.

I was a concerned too, about talking about the haiku tradition in Japan. Explaining coal in Newcastle, but there was lots to say about haiku in the West. To contextualize how I thought of what I was doing, I also mentioned that Borges story about Pierre Menard writing Don Quixote in 19th France and how it was an entirely different text than Cervantes writing it in Renaissance Spain.

I had no reason to feel anxious about anything, though. As I spoke, the audience quietly chuckled, smiled effusively, nodded enthusiastically, and took copious notes. They asked great questions afterwards. What do I think about how to render cutting words in the original Japanese into English? Why is the Blythe translation the best known English version? We discussed the Japanese calligraphic tradition vs. Western visual poetry and the philosophical underpinning of the original Basho poem. A TV actress (who had performed dramatic versions of haiku) mentioned the difference between great big western bullfrogs and the more delicate Japanese frog alluded to in the poem, and how Westerners often think of many frogs jumping as opposed to just one. One woman discussed alternate interpretations of the poem (as explained to her by an old Japanese teacher). A very articulate and seemingly older man questioned me about my (and typical Westerners’) seeming interest in the physical specifics of the poem (frog, pond, water sound) as opposed to Basho’s intent to oppose those physicalities against the implied silence. He asked about how “mind” was prevalent in derek and my versions, and probed to see my ideas about Buddhism in the poem. He commented on how Japanese don’t trust rhetorical devices or speech, often believing that these devices cover up or obscure. We talked about images, Imagism, Ezra Pound, the rise in the west of images which imply rather than state, the interest in Western poetry in Eastern techniques, approaches, and philosophy. He discussed the difference between the highly homogenous Japanese society where context is clear and is everything. Things can be implied, the context taken to be inferred, whereas, in the West, he believed, this wasn’t so clear. He also told me how he preferred to read Haruki Murakami in French since many of Murakami’s techniques seemed fresher and more experimental when they weren’t in Japanese. (When seen outside of the coherent Japanese cultural context, the language seemed full of leaps. In Japanese, he said, it is too easy to fill in the leaps.)

Quite few poets spoke with me about their work and interest in haiku. One poet, Hiroko Takahashi, gave me a book of her collaborations with a visual artist (Takuro Iwamoto) The images were all rendered with a pen or brush. Ink blobs, squiggles, scratches. All derived from the calligraphic tradition. Very lovely. The book (Wind and Ellipse) consists of two page spreads. Each page comprises visuals, haiku in Japanese (written vertically), and English translation.

Here’s one:

I am pregnant with the clown of snowy day

or another:

The thirteenth night moon—

the wax doll’s pubic hair grows


The pistol muzzle

tunnel at summer’s end

Many of the haiku are filled with Western references: Rilke, JFK, Monet, Man Ray; some refer to more tradition haiku material. The book is a dynamic interplay between visual and verbal movement/energy. In both arenas, it plays with allusion, referentiality, and resonance.

I also had a really interesting talk with a professor from Tokai University. He was Japanese, but spoke English with a Polish accent. He had learned English at Warsaw University. He is a professor of Slavic studies and had recently attended a big haiku conference in Bulgaria. He translates haiku from Eastern European languages into Japanese. Amazing to talk with someone with such a different perspective and experience. And to find out how much we had in common. He invited to drink vodka with him, which sadly, I’ll have to wait until next time to do.

After the reading, the Etienne Lambert, the Third Secretary at the Embassy, and his wife, Erin, took us out on the town. We went to the mad, busy area of Tokyo known as Shinjuku. At 11pm, thousands of people were crossing the street. Evidently over 2 million people per day go through the metro station there. You could buy designer "perfect" fruit for a hundred or more dollars. The placed is filled with teenagers and people out to party. Also, Love Hotels.

We went to a Buddhist themed restaurant and then to a bar which where you are handcuffed and led to little cells to have your drinks.

A perfect way to end a night of haiku.