Monday, May 28, 2007

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Hemmingway, My Son, Fiction, and the Yaks

In preparation for the fiction reading (see my previous post) that I'm doing tomorrow night, I was thinking about how fiction differs from poetry. I'd love to be really clever. I always want to be really clever and in my best writing, I thankfully fail at that completely. Here are two definitions of fiction and poetry that I was thinking about:

a real box
with an imaginary mime inside

an imaginary box
with a real mime inside

One of them is a definition of poetry. One of fiction. Of course either one would serve as a definition of either form. Maybe a more accurate definition would be more like

an imaginary mime
with a real box inside

or perhaps

a mime
with an imaginary inside

a box
with no outside

See! My mom just called me to say how clever that was!

My son Aaron is 14 today. He and his brother and several of their friends are in the back yard around a big campfire playing guitar and singing. It's almost midnight and I'm surprised that the neighbours haven't called. They didn't call when they lit the big firecrackers. Or had the food fight with the fruit flan. Inside each of my sons is a mime climbing halfway up the imaginary staircase of their intestines. Singing half a Rolling Stones' song into the imaginary wind. climbing through a real window in an imaginary wall. They've pitched a tent big enough to hold a herd of yaks if a herd of yaks would gather in a backyard in Hamilton, Ontario on a Saturday night and then shuffle into a tent with a handful of teenage boys and their guitars. I seem to remember a Hemmingway story about that or was it a Leonard Cohem poem? The guy wires of the tent have just caught fire and it is falling. The yaks are moaning disconsolately. Their wailing is fiction or poetry in the humid Hamilton air. A mime creates the illusion that a real mime is there.

But none of us believe him.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Entirely Fictional Post

Hi there, Fictitious Blogerati:

Stuart Ross and Kate Sutherland have this great reading series that they've kindly invited me to read at with Maggie Helwig. I've known Maggie for years, but have never had the pleasure of reading with her. She's a novelist, poet, essayist, publisher, and social activist.

Stuart passed this notice along to me:

This Sunday, the Fictitious Reading Series is pleased to present Maggie Helwig and Gary Barwin. We hope you can make it to this very special reading!

And please pass this notice along to anyone else you think might be interested. Thanks!

Sunday, May 27, 7:30 p.m.
This Ain't the Rosedale Library
483 Church St (just below Wellesley).

The FICTITIOUS READING SERIES: An Evening of Nothing but Fiction


Toronto novelist Maggie Helwig (Between Mountains) and Hamilton short fictioneer Gary Barwin (Doctor Weep and Other Strange Teeth) read from their works. This is followed by an onstage chat conducted by Fictitious co-host Stuart Ross.

Pass-the-hat admission goes to the writers.

Snacks and soft drinks are provided, but feel free to bring the beverage of
your choice.

More info at

Here's a picture from a past reading/discussion with Elyse Friedman, Stuart Ross and Clint Burnham:

I'd be delighted to see you at the reading. I don't think I've every read only fiction (except for kids' readings) so I'm excited for this one.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Shaman's Spelling List / The Slave Names of Jews

Here are some other images of mine from POETIKHARS, a Turkish visual poetry site.


I had an interesting discussion with my son Ryan about names. We were talking about Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. He embraces his traditional last name but notes that his first two names are names from the residential school system. He only signs his paintings with his traditional name. Likewise, many people of African descent, leave their "slave" names, or at least, identify that the names have this origin. Dollar Brand, the South African musician, became Abdullah Ibrahim. Leroi Jones became Amiri Baraka.

Ryan was wondered about our Jewish last name. As I recall from Hebrew school, Jews of Eastern European origin only got last names sometime in the 19th century for census purposes by the non-Jewish government. Different names were given to different families according to status and money. Hence, Goldberg was worth more than Greenberg. Waxman was a occupational name. And Jews made lots of candles.

The traditional way for Jews to be named is "Someone Son of Someone." Thus, Ryan Ben (son of) Gary, or, with our Hebrew names, Ronen Ben Gershon. Nowdays, it's usual, at least in reform congregations to include the mother's name. So: Ronen Ben Gershon v'Bela. (The v means 'and.')

Jewish last names, like many non-anglo names were also modified when Jews emigrated. 'Barwin' was "Borwein" or "Borweinis" in Lithuania where my grandfather was born. His family changed it to Barwin when they moved to South Africa. I still have Borwein relations. For example Jon Borwein. My maternal grandfather's last name was Zelikowitz, which became Zelikow when he emigrated to South Africa. Ryan remembered that Stu Ross's family name was Razovsky which was Anglicized to Ross and then appeared on and in some of Stuart's books.

I have chosen to consider "Barwin" as an invented name, albeit one derived from my family's past. I consider that my grandfather changed it to reflect his new life of opportunity outside of the shettls of Europe. Perhaps I could see it as a concession to the dominant power and language of the time and place, however I'd prefer to consider it as part of a process of shaping a life and a person. (For more on the very interesting topic of Jewish emmigration to South Africa, check out Victor Barwin's -- my grand-uncle or cousin, I'm not sure -- book about it "Millionaires and Tatterdemalions" )

"Ryan" is obviously not a traditional Jewish name, though he was given it in memory of his great-grandmother whose name began with an "R" --Rita Barwin. It is traditional with Ashkenazi Jews to name children after dead relatives. It would be bad luck to name them after someone alive. (No Moshe Jr.'s for Jews.) My son Aaron Barwin is named after Aaron Barwin, my dad's dad. Once when we were at a funeral, Aaron (age 5) noticed that his great-grandfather's grave was nearby and ran and lay down with his arms crossed in front of the gravestone. It was very freaky for Beth and I to see him lying on a grave with his own name on it.

I don't know what Ryan will do about his name. Perhaps he will change his name. Perhaps he will modify or stylize it in order to claim it for his own. bpNichol. e.e. cummings. Geof Huth. mIEKAL aND. Or, like Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, keep it as a sign of the complexity of his personal and cultural history. Maybe he'll be "the son formerly known as Ryan" and invent his own sign. (When Prince navigated away from "Prince," Bob Wiseman suggested that he would change his name to Prince, and then the name "Bob Wiseman" would be available for someone else to adopt. Basically, we could all move one name to the right.

What would it be like with a different name? Would I think differently about myself if I were John King? My friend Kerry Schooley is a very big man. He writes under the very funny pen name of "Slim Volumes," as a poet. He also writes as "John Swan" for detective fiction.

Certainly the exploration of culture, identity, and naming is a powerful and unfolding topic for discovery.

A few years ago, when my son, Aaron completely lost his temper, he would call me a "Bitch." This was convenient, since he is my son, and there exists a rather simple and pre-made retort, one with much precedent in popular culture, and available to me should I choose to invoke the fact that he is my male offspring.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Twenty Fireman Walk a Rope through the Graveyard

Was it a usual Saturday? Hard to tell.

We are looking after my in-laws’ ancient blind teacup poodle.

On a great bike ride to the Bayfront park, I did get introduced to Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun’s work through a great Ideas’ Podcast.

I attended the Arraymusic 35th Anniversary concert and finally got to meet one of Canada’s senior experimental composers Udo Kasemets. The concert was excellent. I always enjoy Arraymusic’s choice of program, their amazing musicianship and Bob Stevenson’s affable yet intense leadership.

While I was in Toronto, my daughter got a tick embedded in her and it had to be removed by pulling off its head with tweezers.

My wife came home from doing the groceries to see six heads poking out from over the roof. (My three kids and their friends.) They’d set up a cardboard city and, from the roof, aided by fireworks, were reinacting the firebombing of Dresden.

When I arrived home from Toronto, my son’s friend told me that my wife had called 911 and that my son and his friend were stuck half way up a cliff leading to a graveyard, their pockets filled with fireworks. They couldn’t get up or down. It had begun to thunder and lightning. My wife had to call the fire department to rescue them. By the time I got there across a dark and rainy field, there were about 20 firefighters, and EMS guys, a variety of fire engines, SUVs, and many pulleys, ropes, and a large search light. I found my wife and other son and the bottom of the cliff. Once the fire dept had got ropes to my son and his friend we drove around to the top of the hill, through the graveyard to be there when they were pulled up. A TV crew was there. (They phoned us in the morning, but I declined to allow my son to speak to them. I couldn’t see how it would be a positive thing for them, even if it might have been a good lesson for others.) The firefighters went down the cliff in harnesses and attached the boys to harnesses. Then about 15 firefighters pulled the rope back through the old graveyard until the boys were safely up and on flat ground.

Friday, May 18, 2007


Yesterday, a fellow teacher asked me to visit his Grade 12 philosophy class to talk about poetry. They had been talking about beauty and aesthetics. Earlier in the day they had held a Philosophy Bake Sale. A biology teacher came to the class to joke about the existence or non-existence of the muffins at the bake sale. He joined the class and contributed his scientific perspective to the proceedings.

For this presentation I brought a stack of books including some David McFadden, Lisa Jarnot, Steve McCaffery, bpNichol, Mark Truscott, James Tate, Gil Adamson, and Charles Bernstein. I cut the questions below into individual strips and then gave each student (and teacher) one question to "answer." I also randomly assigned then a book of poetry. I asked everyone to answer their question by choosing a quote from the poetry book that they were assigned. They were also given the option of answering the question in their own words.

I was really pleased with how quickly this process engaged the students. It was fun, a kind of poetry game. The students dug into the books and explored them. When each person read there was the intrigue and humour of comparing their question with their answer. Of wondering about how the quotation worked and then seeing how it jibed with the question. Of course there was often an oblique, anti-rational correspondence, not to mention the inherent recursivity of answering these kinds of questions with poetry.

We had a fantastic discussion afterwards about poetry and about the various issues raised by the questions and by the answers and further questions of those present. And of course, the biology teacher got the question about the amoeba.

Here are my questions:

What is poetry for?

Can poetry change the world?

What is language for?

What does language want?

How does language behave in the ‘real world,’ outside dictionaries?

How does language behave in a world other than our own? In a parallel world?

If an ameoba thought or spoke, what would it sound like?

How would a combination of half a person / half a toaster think and/or speak?

Does language change how we think or how we see the world?

There is such a thing as abstract painting. This is what abstract poetry sounds like:

How do we know how someone else feels or thinks?

What is the sound of one hand barking?

WWPD? (What would poetry do?)

WHIPSIP? (What happens in poetry, stays in poetry) Is it true?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


the shadows flicked undulations against the cave walls and they took the tv set and threw it in the fire. no pixilated mammoth a hairy flag across the screen, no advertisements to stop the caveman itch or new high performance footbags that make you dash against the pterodactyl air.

og used a wireless mouse to smash the small skull of an unfamiliar rodent. a flicker of irony in his boulderlike head. the dome of the rodent the small head of heaven inside a cave, the pink crenelated brain the earth in late afternoon.

they took the tv and plugged it into a mammoth, turned the channel, waiting as they still were for the guy to jumpstart the cable, and there was a mammoth on the screen. they pulled the plug and stuck it into the river. a wash of waves, floating leaves, logs, large simple beaver-like creatures, and the rush of water engulfing ig as he waved to those outside the screen.

a thunderstorm. summertime and then they plugged the tv into itself. a small brown tv appeared on the screen, frightened, meek, wanting home.

a ceremony. ug and the tv married and it broadcast itself and its marriage, the purple of the sky, the russet of the sinking sun, ug’s thick words of life together.

the tv as pillow. as something to be thrown to stop and stun a mammoth, a mountain, a snake fitting itself in the crack between one caveman and the next. before the thought of leaves or proper nose care.

children, remember your grandmother veneer, honour the dials and antennae of your grandfather screen, your boxshaped ancestor spirits. life coverage of wisps, of warnings, of the ghosts of the history that will be.

it speaks, a hiss like the embers of the fire at night. sleeping cavemen hear the slither and sibilance of its ray tube tongue. a bird that has hidden its wings, its feathers the slow static on a nighttime screen. it becomes its own flapping, the rush of its breath the trees of eyes and ears.

ig hears its secrets, begins to be moon suspicious, wary of the ferns. egg believes her babies find milk in raindrops, gather berries from under the thighs of the fields, wish for the quicker cereal and plastic of toys.

we feast on the mammoth light, the burning channel, the canyon of our stories.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Anteater Green Day Football

My daughter is almost 10 years old. For two years now, she has played as about the only girl on a boys tackle football league. Though she is shy, she doesn't shy away from participating, decked out in full football regalia and grabbing and attempting to sack the opposing boys. Watching her run off toward a field full of players, without a doubt in her mind about her right to play, is one of those moments when you know you've done something right as a parent.

Yesterday she played and sang guitar (a Green Day song) for her entire school. She was stricken with nerves and -- she tells me -- froze in the middle but saved herself by jumping to the chorus. We talked about how everyone gets nervous and how this was important practice. We also talked of how it sucked and how she felt like throwing up. Still, she's singing again on Thursday for the parents.

And, regarding the prose piece below, I don't have any concerns about my daughter's future partners, whether anteater or not. The best thing one can hope for one's children -- other than physical and mental health -- is that they have a clear sense of themselves, which, I'm confident, she does.


An anteater raised by the Director of Admissions chews through the house. The chair arms. Glasses. The legs of chairs. The mattress. The anteater winces. It’s the boyfriend my nine year old daughter’s going to have 10 years from now. It chews up the swimming pool. I sit on the porch throwing toasters. “Don’t never come back,” my empty mouth says. From under its coat, the boyfriend takes out a violin and begins to play some obscure mountainous anteater song. Then my daughter appears from the roots of a burning tree, dressed in football equipment. The sun in an obvious attempt at drama, backlights her with its glowing crimson tongue. She crouches low and runs into the house. It falls, a sack of doleful rooms, stairs and carpeting. The anteater splits in half. From its insides are born three angels, white as fridges, icemakers hidden between their cloud-like wings.

Unlike some other artists, I have a compulsion to create new work constantly. I "should" be finishing work I've started -- adding, excising, reconsidering, revising, restructing, etc. Or even promoting its cause. I could be thinking about what new directions to consider, thinking through what the weaknesses of my work are and taking the time to find some new area to genuinely inspire me. Maybe I'd like to plan a longer work which I develop after much reading and research and thoughtful consideration.

But I've got this addiction to constantly creating something new--even if maybe seem a bit like more of the same ol' stuff. I do constantly think of how to improve, what else to explore, how to push my envelope while trying to polish and develop aspects of my work. And I do have my eye out for new ideas. Still, though, I can't help plunging in. Msybe this is a good thing. At least coming up with new work has the advantage that I come up with new work.

I don't think that I've gotten better to the point where I've rendered my past work as something significantly different. I do think, though, that I have been able to deepen some concerns and techniques and to explore new areas. Some of my collaborative work does this. Greg Betts and I are working on a book project "The Obvious Flap." This has taken me into new areas (for me). I deliberately set out to write things that questioned my practice, that made me uncomfortable and unable to rely on some of my perennial concerns and techniques. When is developing, polishing, and deepening a set of concerns relying on a 'voice' which is some kind of proxy for one's ego?


Sunday, May 13, 2007



the three of me is a goat
on a hillside
near a bath
tub ring
holding hands
girls in braids
and an antique car
hold hands and hum
those sounds which can
be hummed
m and n
while they make their mouths
into hyphens
a dash between vowels of one kind

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Dried Jews Mallow

(Another beguiling image by Maxi Luchini from his blog.)

The other day I was at a Middle Eastern food store and bought some Dried Jews Mallow, mostly because of the name. It is a leafy vegetable, somewhere between tea and spinach. There were several recipes on the net and my friend Byron knew how to make a Greek version. Evidently the vegetable is very mucilaginous when cooked. Common recipes involve rabbit, lamb, or Chicken. It is very popular in Egypt.

I have signed up for Facebook though I don't know why yet. Everyone's doing it. I want to know what it is and what I could use it for. A teacher friend of mine discovered photos of his (clothed) butt there, taken by his students with a cellphone. The hyperintelligent shades of the colour blue which monitor our paperclip ridden life here on Planet Earth are laughing.

Soon I'm going to post some raps that my Grade 5 students wrote and recorded recently. (They record their raps over some bed tracks that I made and then I add in a variety of accompaniments and processing.) In my assignment for them, I gave them a form (four metric feet per line, rhyming AABB.) There are some brilliant and charming ones which explore the possibilities of the form. Some of the most enjoyable, though, are the raps where the kids wrote entirely random words only to fulfill the scheme. They didn't seem to mind that it made no logical sense.

There was one where the kids wrote about Vikings' Underwear. Another where the kids wrote about doing drugs in the ghetto. I questioned the "appropriateness" of this (it did seem a bit racist the way they wrote it.) They happily changed "ghetto" to "Alberta."


I scoop out the inside of my face
spit the seeds
at the Welcome Wagon

Children, enter my empty head
I have dangerous zits and a porcupine
also a hammock of great ideas

some kind of emotion whirrs like cards
stuck between the spokes of my teeth
or the library

they ask me
what will we see
through your one blind eye?

and I say the childless stars which spangle
the dark thong of the faceless sky
the pole dancing god which made me