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Jacket 18 — August 2002   |   # 18  Contents   |   Homepage   |  Catalog   |


rob mclennan

Interview with Douglas Barbour

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This interview is 2,800 words or about six printed pages long. It was conducted over email from July to September, 2002.

These are the days, nothing so
foolish as making music. Some
things are forever, or at least to
remind you of one night when for
me now as you four then all
of it was right. The music played
you, you played
Perdido, something by Hoagy, say
Stardust, and a few other well known tunes .
The band was cooking in the
way it could but
you know it wasn’t always like this .
Look, listen, learn once again that
tonight is only tonight and
how you reached that recorded summit
high above the average gig when
the music simply poured forth and the
moon seemed to lean down through that window to listen

— from Recording Dates (March 2, 1953)

rob mclennan: I’m interested primarily in your two most recent books, Fragmenting Body, etc. (NeWest) and Breath Takes (Wolsak and Wynn). Considering the space between these and previous collections, you must have been working on them for quite a while. How did the Breath Takes come about?

Douglas Barbour: That’s a difficult one. Both books represent work that went on, in varying ways, over nearly two decades. Of course, that’s partly due to the vagaries of publishing, as Fragmenting Body, etc. was completed sometime in the mid-90s. The poems for other writers in Breath Takes were written at different times for different reasons, but the ‘Breath Ghazals’ became what I have come to call a formal serial poem fairly early on (which is to say sometime in the mid-80s).
      The first one I wrote more or less as a one-off, just an attempt to try the (englished) Ghazal form, which has been brought to North America by the poets who worked with Aijaz Ahmad, who in 1971 edited Ghazals of Ghalib, a fascinating translation project. Adrienne Rich and Jim Harrison, especially, found the form so attractive they tried writing original work in it. John Thompson brought the form to Canada, and, of course, Phyllis Webb picked up on it and created her own versions. It intrigued me too, but at the same time I was searching for a way to play with lyric sound and rhythm and intensity while somehow ‘breaking’ with a lot of ‘lyric’ baggage, the lyric ego, the insistence on a kind of autobiographical emotional narrative, etc.

Photo of Douglas Barbour

Douglas Barbour

      Given my work in sound poetry, mostly in the duo Re: Sounding with Stephen Scobie, I thought to introduce pure sounds (mostly breathing sounds) into the lines, hoping that on the page they would introduce a baffle in their inscribed presence, and in performance, in the non-linguistic sounds they’d interrupt the lines with. After I had written a few of them, I found that the mode took over in certain moods when writing, so that although there is no necessary thematic connection among the poems (although the concept of ‘breath’ in all its allusiveness does I suppose come to reign there), there is a formal one. I may write more.

rm: The ghazal in Canada still seems rare, with few taking it on (Catherine Owen and Andy Weaver being exceptions). What is it about the form that appealed to what you wanted to accomplish in Breath Takes ? And, despite the ‘lyric baggage’ inherent to the different forms of all three works — Breath Takes, Fragmenting Body, etc. and your sound poetry work — did the fact that they were roughly concurrent mean separations between them, or did parts of one work float into another?

DB: ‘Seems rare,’ yes, but not quite so rare as you suggest. In the 70s and early 80s, a number of poets tried the form, if only once or twice, partly due to the success of John Thompson’s Stilt Jack (1978, Anansi). D.G. Jones did a few, and very fine they were too; Douglas Lochhead tried the form. I think a number of other poets attempted it, or used some of the ideas inherent in it (that break with logic between couplets or stanzas). But I’m not sure I took that aspect as far as many did.
      I remember an Iraqi-born scholar from New York lecturing on the ghazal telling us at the University of Alberta that one reason it appealed to english-speaking writers was that the translated form (10 lines, 5 couplets) was even shorter than the sonnet. He explained that the true form of the ghazal was a single couplet (at a time; the series was something that would happen in performance, but the base form was just two lines) but decided ‘we’ couldn’t think that small. I liked the idea of trying to get whatever was to be said into that small space. So that concentration was certainly one of the things that appealed to be. And once I had the concept material presence of ‘breath,’ it seemed clear to me that there was a formal possibility there that could open up a number of other possibilities in the writing.
      As to whether or not the poems that became Breath Takes, Fragmenting Body, etc. (but each of the serial poems in that volume grew out of a particular situation, or else a particular formal possibility), and the sound poetry work, which is usually a collaboration with Stephen Scobie, connected somehow, I feel that they did. If I had not gotten into trying sound poetry performance, I would never have been able to think my way into the soundings built into the ‘Breath Ghazals,’ for example. And both the ‘Breath Ghazals’ and the serial poems in Fragmenting Body, etc. came out of my continuing study of poets who used that open form, and my desire to try something along those lines too. I think that, indeed, aspects of one work did enter into the writing of the others...

rm: I’ve heard say that part of the appeal of the ghazal (for us english, that is) is that its considerations run counter to that of the sonnet — making disconnected leaps instead of running more of a narrative, allowing the author more of a freedom. Would this, then, simply be an extension of a structure that the open form hasn’t fully explored?

DB: Yes, you’re right, and certainly that logical, narrative, disconnect is what attracted many of the poets who took up the englished form. Adrienne Rich wrote about the way its possibilities offered her a sense of freedom. So did John Thompson. In the original languages, the ghazal is a highly rhymed form, but the englished version as we know it now refuses the rhyming couplet, and plays a kind of demotic speech off the rigidity of the 2 line stanzas that need not connect. Although Harriet Zinnes, a New York poet has written some poems which refuse even the couplet (usually having a 3-line stanza) yet feels like a ghazal to me. I certainly felt that the thing that was most attractive was the ‘openness’ combined with the demand that everything get done in ten lines...

rm: In your sound work, and even in parts of Breath Takes, how important is it for you to have a ‘readable’ text? Do you strive for any consistency in notation from what has already been established, or are they merely markers, open to interpretation?

DB: Interesting question, and I’m not sure I can answer it fully. The ‘breaths’ on the BGs are meant to be fairly clear, although some might use mouth breathing where I use nose breathing, but size suggests loudness, etc. Other sounds are I hope clear. In my solo pieces there isn’t too much notation, and certainly no ‘consistency’ I’m afraid. In Re: Sounding, Stephen Scobie and I think in terms of jazz, improvising something different each time on the more purely sound pieces, and even on the ones that are all words (for two voices) finding ways to make each performance at least slightly different. The one bpNichol wrote for us is a lot like some of the ones he wrote for The Four Horsemen, and again leaves lots of room for improvisation. So the latter, ‘merely markers, open to interpretation,’ would be the right way to think about them...

rm: The Fragmenting Body sequences, I think, are some of your finest work in years, and seem among your most ‘free,’ taking riffs from random phrases. What was the process surrounding those texts? And you call them ‘response’ texts. In some regard, can’t all be writing be considered ‘response’ texts?

DB: Yes, in the sense that no writing, even the most popular/ populist, takes place outside of conventions, the history of the kind, and whatever this writer knows of those. It’s hard, indeed, to find the first text. But sequences like Fragmenting Body call attention to both their core pre-text and, perhaps, all the others that hover there in the background.
      In that one, I deliberately used chance methods to ‘find’ the titles/ first lines, and then, when I had them all, wrote the sequence in something of a rush, over a period of about a month. The poems for bpNichol, on the other hand, came piece by piece over a number of years, but certainly owed a lot to his work. The very short poems of ‘Paratactical Manoevres’ were written one-a-day (sometimes more) during the Gulf War but did not concentrate only on that. And the sequence based on the marvelous, huge, print, ‘Bird of Paradise,’ took shape over a number of years of looking at it, and wanting to write a response that did it without just describing it. So there, my desire was to avoid anything like description or narrative.
      I think I used ‘response’ to discuss these because each one had a specific text or event to respond to; but your point about all texts in some way being a response certainly holds. If you’re right about how ‘free’ they feel, it is interesting to note that each one had some kind of ‘baffle’ (I think Christian Bök uses that term? Of course, in Eunoia he uses far more than most of us would ever dare to attempt), which indeed freed the writing imagination during the act of writing.

rm: Well, Bowering’s whole career plays the ‘baffle,’ and his heavily structured pieces don’t give off any sense of restraint or constraint, whereas parts of Eunoia do. What is your consideration about balancing the two?

DB: Hmmn, well, I’m not sure how to think this one through. I’d agree that part of the delight in reading Bowering is the way he manages to use (usually single) baffles, and yet somehow balance on the ski, so to speak, and keep moving with such grace that we as readers don’t feel ‘any sense of restraint or constraint.’ Here the always already (joke) ‘dead’ author comes back to life, as so often: it strikes me that there is a continuing Bowering person/ writer whose wit and lightfootedness registers in just about everything he writes. It’s a matter of style (being the man). On the other hand, I tend to agree with Christian Bök that he needed all those baffles in the one work to achieve what feels, to this reader, equally smooth, almost easy. I don’t feel the sense of constraint is obvious; it’s only when you check that you realize how completely it’s there.
      But, if we allow that it’s more ‘present’ somehow, then I admit a) that I would never have the patience etc to do the work Bök’s constructions demanded, and b) that I like the feeling that one (or perhaps two) baffle(s) just lets me play harder, and will also let the poem flow, move. So some balance, yes, between the ‘machinery’ of the baffle and how it works, and the ‘animality’ of the freeflow, the body-in-motion of the poem in its writing.

rm: Fragmenting Body, etc. was also published by Salt Publications [link http://www.saltpublications/] in the UK, something that Canadian audiences might not be aware of, as well as various other non-Canadian publishing just about everywhere. How did the Salt publication come about?

DB: That’s a long story, but it partly has to do with my visits to Australia over the past two decades. At some point, a poet I know there let John Kinsella know about me, and he wrote to me. Eventually, I met him in Perth, when Stephen Scobie and I were performing as Re: Sounding there. He enjoyed what we did, and I kept in touch. He had become a resident at Cambridge University in England, and I met him in London one summer, when I was carrying some of the work that would make up Fragmenting Body, etc., which I had been trying to find a publisher for in Canada. He expressed interest in including it in the new Salt Publishing list.
      Eventually, as these things take time, NeWest also said it would do it, and eventually, rather than a co-publication, the two presses agreed on which areas of the world each book would be available in. It’s kinda neat, as the two editions are different, although they contain the same poems. I also hope that the Salt edition has perhaps reached some readers my work would otherwise be unknown to.

rm: I’m interested in the collaborative work you’ve been doing with American poet Sheila E. Murphy, the ongoing ‘CONTINUATIONS,’ published so far as an issue of STANZAS magazine and a chapbook by housepress. How did it get started, and how long has it been going on?

DB: I think I can answer most of this question. I’m not sure how I came across Sheila’s work, but I do recall that when I came across the title of her Selected Poems, Falling in Love, Falling in Love, with You Syntax, I knew I wanted to read it, and thought that bpNichol would have loved that title. She may have been on the Buffalo list, or else poetryetc, but I corresponded with her, and we became e-mail buddies. Then she and Bev invited Stephen Scobie and me, as Re: Sounding, to create some poems in response to art works and read them at the Art Gallery in Scarsdale, near Phoenix. So in fact my interest in collaboration goes back some way, as Stephen and I have collaborated on almost all the pieces we perform together.
      We met Sheila then, and she’s a delightful person, as well as a fine poet, and I kept in touch with her. I noticed that she had collaborated with a number of other poets (she’s an indefatigable writer, and seems to have a number of projects going at once), and, as I wasn’t doing all that much of my own poetry at the time, I asked her if she’d like to try one with me. She was keen, so we worked out the format, and began. That was maybe four years ago, and we soon realized that it could just keep going, so we tend to look for obvious breaking points, where we can conclude a section and begin another. So far, so good. The first five sections, as you point out have been published, and at least one other is appearing in a journal soon. But we’re up to 21! So we could certainly publish other sections elsewhere.
      I really like doing it for the way it keeps me on my toes, especially in terms of responding to language, finding out things to write directly in response to what your partner has written. We never discuss themes or content, as we know they will come of their own anyway. For example, we almost consciously made a decision (I know I was saying at the time that my only honorable response could be silence) not to write directly about 9/ 11; yet looking back on the section written during the next couple of months, it’s all over it. Working with Sheila is great fun, energizing, and a continual exciting provocation.
      We put together a Note on Collaboration for a journal:

Douglas Barbour and Sheila Murphy met in Arizona when Douglas and Stephen Scobie were in the State to perform their collaborative sound poetry as well as their individual work in association with the POG Reading Series and Chax Press in Tuscon and at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts Poetry Series in the greater Phoenix area. Following that visit, Barbour and Murphy corresponded online. Among the topics pursued in written conversation was Murphy’s enjoyment of the collaborative process. Douglas asked her to participate in building a text together.
      Murphy and Barbour find collaborating a chance to get outside the self in linguistically tuned and turned ways. The process brings forth a different creator, representing the combination of energies often vastly different from those of the original participants.

Douglas Barbour is a professor in the Department of English, University of Alberta, where he teaches creative writing, modern poetry, Canadian Literature, and science fiction and fantasy. His critical books include studies of poets Daphne Marlatt, John Newlove, and bpNichol (all ECW Press 1992), and Michael Ondaatje (Twayne 1993). Volumes of poetry include Visible Visions: Selected Poems (NeWest Press 1984), Story for a Saskatchewan Night (rdcpress 1989), and, most recently, Fragmenting Body etc (NeWest Press 2000 and SALT Publishing 2000). Lyric / Anti-lyric: essays on contemporary poetry was published by NeWest Press in 2001.

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