Queers Fail Better – Q / A with John Barton
Queers Fail Better – Q / A with John Barton
In her book ‘The Queer Art of Failure’ Judith Halberstam offers alternative ways of knowing and becoming. Instead of valuing the conventional paths of belonging, achievement and completion, she thinks about and champions the ways of “failure”: losing your way, giving in, being excluded, forgetting, awkwardness, coming apart. Not just rejecting the “normal,” Halberstam shows alternatives to success as paths that have always been there, moving away from mastery and coherence. In this series of Q&A’s with contributors to our upcoming Queer issue, we play with these ideas. When we aren’t trying to finish first (or finish anything) where do we end up?
Think back to when you started writing. What’s an earlier influence you outgrew, abandoned, or turned against?
The writer who led me to my so-called vocation is Margaret Atwood, whose novel, Surfacing, I first read when I was seventeen. I always say this one book changed my life, a paperback I found in a spin-rack in a drugstore. In Power Politics, which I read in a Can Lit class in first-year university, I found the lines “Please die I said / so I can write about it,” from her poem, “Their attitudes differ,” particularly exhilarating. I read everything she wrote from the mid-seventies to the early eighties, before her national fame went viral.
My avidity began to wane around the time Wilderness Tips came out in 1991. Of the books that were published since, I’ve only read Oryx and Crake, though I did read Surfacing again four years ago to figure out why it had impressed so much to me in 1974. I must have identified with her evocation of the natural world, her sense of place in general—that boreal reality that haunts us—and of English Canada in particular. To my 17-year-old self, her voice sounded “local,” perhaps the first such voice I’d ever encountered. I also must have felt attracted to the blatant anti-Americanism of some of Surfacing’s characters—a brand of hortatory chauvinism fashionable in the 1960s and 1970s. However, I think it was the book’s anger against men that must have most captivated me, as did the feminism expressed by her poetry, which was so outspoken about the predicament of women—a marginality I no doubt felt vicariously as an incipient gay man in denial about my sexual orientation. Atwood’s anger was a thrill.
However, as I began to find my voice as a poet and became confident in my identity as a gay man, I found Atwood’s books interested me less. My sense of craft evolved away from what her work had generously taught me by example as I began to read more gay and lesbian writing at the expense of my past, near-exclusive focus on Canadian literature—a habit I still maintain, which is ironic since I’ve edited two of Canada’s leading literary journals, Arc and The Malahat Review. Atwood has been a casualty of my parochialism or my heterosexism—take your pick!
I included a pastiche of Power Politics’ opening poem in Hymn, my book from 2009:
You slip in
side of me, a key in
side a lock
Is the poem a tribute? Is it satire? Is it both? Is it a turning away? Certainly, it’s an acknowledgement of Atwood’s earlier influence on me, one I can’t categorically repudiate nor now wholly embrace.
When a piece of writing doesn’t work out, what do you do with it? Discard? Fold it into another project? Salvage parts?
I am a great recycler. Many of the poems in Hymn were scavenged from past unsuccessful poems, even poems I’d published in magazines, but never collected into my books. I often characterize Hymn as a book of failures. I find writing the initial draft of any poem a nerve-wracking act of dare-devilry. Am I going to get something good out of this mess I’m working on, or am I wasting my time? Once the first draft is done, however, I am fine and happy to tinker endlessly.
Thus, resuscitating a long-abandoned poem allows me to bypass the agony of writing a first draft. I sometimes think that a discarded poem must have set me a challenge that I was not up for at the first-draft stage, but now, months or years later, I may have the smarts and distance to make it work, that I’ve caught up with its potential. Usually, I’ve forgotten what inspired me to write it to begin with, so am no longer tied to any illusions or ambitions I might have previously held about it. Recycling poems is a kind of self-sufficient organ-donation program. I excise the bits still alive in some past failure and transplant them into the body of my aesthetic now on life-support.
What do you do with your rejection letters?
I used to keep them all in the belief that I’d one day wallpaper a bathroom with them. Now I simply shred them upon receipt. My favourite rejection letter, which I received in 1980 or 1981, came from a long-defunct Montreal magazine. It went something like this:
Dear John Barton,
The editors of Cross Country have moved without leaving a forwarding address. However, I have read your poems and wish you luck.
I did frame this one, but it soon faded in the sun. It’s now almost completely illegible.
Do you plan out the piece beforehand or find your way as you go along? A combination of both?
My method involves both planning and chance. Many of my poems are backed by hours, even weeks, of research and are often part of a larger sequence of poems. However, when I sit down to write them, I freefall, even with the poems that I choose to write in set forms. I find the strictures of form—rhyme, meter, rhythm—to be good ways into the unconscious. Somewhere Michael Ondaatje has said that when he’s stumped in a poem, he writes down the first thing that comes to him. I find this ploy to be very effective, for it allows poems to unfold unpredictably, which is a good way to maintain reader interest. If I am not bored, there’s a better chance readers won’t be either.
When a project is finished, how do you start the next one? Or do your projects overlap?
My projects and poems overlap constantly, though once I am working on a poem, I usually take it as far as I can before moving on to something new or back to a revision. I can tinker with a poem for years. Getting a poem right requires a kind of attentive listening one must be prepared to maintain for as long as it takes to catch it.
Have you ever not sent a piece of writing somewhere because it seemed “too gay/queer” for that publication?
In 2002, I submitted two poems to the CBC Literary Competition, and knowing that any winning poem or poems would ultimately be read by Air Canada’s passengers in enRoute, I felt it might be best if the already vaguely queer content in one of them was slightly reworded to make it even more imperceptible. Not everyone, I surmised, would necessarily want to read about same-sex experience, even tangentially, at 30,000 feet. My changes didn’t dramatically alter the poem’s substance, which in essence evoked what being a tourist in Barcelona felt like. That was its principle subject and the reason why I wanted to enter it. Whether or not my caution was an accurate gauge of my perceived audience, whoever that might have been, or rendered my entry any more prize-worthy is hard to determine in retrospect. The poems, however, did come in second in that year’s competition. I’d like to think that they still would have placed with my original phrasings intact. Perhaps they would have.
What do you do to procrastinate?
I play Solitaire endlessly. I am also an embarrassed devotee of late-night Friends reruns. I’ve found that the best way to get a lot of writing done is to use a computer not connected to the Internet.
Has anyone ever said something completely discouraging to you as an artist? Did it take the wind out of your sails or did it drive you forward? Or both?
Well, I am a bit of survivor. I’ve had my poems compared to Hallmark cards; I’ve been told my vocabulary is way too fancy. Apparently, “pellucid” doesn’t belong in a poem.
Perhaps the most memorable incident occurred in a reading I gave in Ottawa in the mid-90s. I was midway through the first “Centre of the World” poem from Sweet Ellipsis—I think at the point where Lake Michigan is compared to an erect penis—when a “member” of the audience stood up, and before being asked to leave by the evening’s host, yelled out: “You should come with a warning.”
Years later, I was walking past the National War Memorial, deep in thought. I came to and looked up, only to meet the eyes of the same man. He hissed “Fuck off, faggot,” as he walked by.
However, what I feel keenly is the silence that has often met my work—silence or ignorance, or a certain kind of gay-friendly awkwardness expressed by “straight” or “mainstream” reviewers. Reading their reviews, it’s clear that they don’t quite know where to put down their ill-shod critical feet, so inadvertently take missteps—or sidestep acknowledging whatever it is that might be making them feel itchy-footed. In an era when reviews are so few and far-between, an ill-conceived notice strikes me as almost more disappointing than the receipt of a bad one. All that effort wasted to say nothing relevant. I suspect a lot of writers feel this way, and it is not just a matter of sour grapes.
Can a piece of writing fail, or is that a bullshit notion?
Thinking poems can’t fail sounds like another version of the platonic ideal. The poems we write are not shadows cast on the wall, with their perfected texts extant in unchanging, pre-ordained forms outside the cave. Whatever we come up with is not mere smoky approximation. Each poem is always in flux and some poems are in more flux than others. The fact that they can fail is part of their beauty and their utility.
John Barton has published ten books of poetry, including Hymn (Brick, 2009) and For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin: Selected Poems (Nightwood, 2012). A chapbook, Balletomane: The Program Notes of Lincoln Kirstein appeared with JackPine in 2012. Coeditor of Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Poets (Arsenal Pulp, 2007), he lives in Victoria, where he edits The Malahat Review.