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Douglas Barbour

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Douglas Barbour Feature

rob mclennan

Introduction: Call and Response

Douglas Barbour at 70


for a long time i have looked for some way to explain what it is that i see in the poetry of douglas barbour what it is that draws me to read it again & again beyond the simpler act of friendship (being as he is after all a friend of mine) because if its only friendship then you read the book in a cursory fashion & grunt something fairly non-committal (if you’re afraid of hurting his feelings) but don’t go back & read it again & you don’t find yourself saying to other people in conversation “well i think you’re missing the point” when they launch into a criticism of his work (which missing of the point i have never been able to articulate clearly enough to have my words carry conviction) so that it was in mulling over in my mind my sense of his most recent work WHITE that i happened to pick up my copy of MOMENTS OF RISING MIST (a collection of landscape poetry from the Sung period of Chinese history) & the two things came together in my mind    i’m going to try to make this as clear as possible   to my mind doug barbour’s poetry is concerned with landscape in a way ii have seen no other Canadian poet be concerned in as much as it is not for him a hostile force but a reality greater than the reality of his own existence   for him the landscape simply is
        this poem is full of facts:

        These are not metaphors:
        they are facts
        , of life/of death
                                & it is not the landscape that disrupts him or alienates him but (& this is the essential acknowledgement) the fact that he is out of touch with it disturbs him

                        — bpNichol, “Overwhelming Colour,” Open Letter


There is something quite telling in bpNichol’s review of Edmonton poet Douglas Barbour’s poetry collection White, published in Open Letter back in the summer of 1974. It’s almost as though Nichol is working to counter an already-existing dismissal of Barbour as a writer, of others “missing the point.” One can claim that Barbour’s work over the years has consistently managed to miss the eyes and ears of far too many, despite what he has accomplished as a writer, editor, publisher, reviewer and critic. Roughly the same age as those Ken Norris would call “first generation Canadian post-modernism,” such as George Bowering, Fred Wah, Daphne Marlatt and bpNichol, Barbour started his own publishing a bit later on, putting him more with that second generation of Canadian poets. Still, considering the amount and quality of publishing Barbour has done over the years, it seems surprising that his writing hasn’t received more attention. I’ve often wondered if this was simply a matter of timing, his late-blooming (Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley falls into the same category) putting him closer to a group of 1970s writers including Christopher Dewdney, Andrew Suknaski, Sharon Thesen, Barry McKinnon and Monty Reid that all, especially those who remained to live and work in the prairies, were left critically out in the cold, remaining under the long shadow of those 1960s poets. In the anthology Post-Prairie: An Anthology of New Poetry (Talonbooks, 2005), edited by Jon Paul Fiorentino (a Winnipeg writer living and teaching in Montreal), and old master Robert Kroetsch (an Alberta poet who, after a few decades, has but recently returned to his home province), the two editors worked their introduction, “Post-Prairie Poetics: A Dialogue,” as a conversation on what it means to be a prairie poet in the twenty-first century. As Kroetch writes:


My obsession was silence itself, as it might be for Doug Barbour. Consider Doug’s work with the overflow of bpNichol as a cover for his own creating of gaps.


It’s as though Barbour has managed to get more acknowledgement for his work not getting the proper credit than actual proper credit. In his self-interview at the back of his By Word of Mouth: The Poetry of Dennis Cooley (2007), Cooley himself writes:


And then there were others, Doug Barbour for one. Barbour’s one of the best poets and critics in Canada and he gets very little credit.


Is this a prairie problem in general? Is this due to the fact that Barbour isn’t really a self-promoter? I think the same things have happened to Cooley, but far less so, somehow; both are highly respected in their individual geographic regions, but given short shrift anywhere further. Barbour’s array of poetry titles include Land Fall (1971; 1973), A Poem As Long As The Highway (1971), White (1972), songbook (1973), he. &. she. &. (1974), shore lines (1979), The Pirates of Pen’s Chance (with Stephen Scobie, 1981), The Harbingers (1984), visible visions, the selected poems of Douglas Barbour (1984) edited by Smaro Kamboureli and Robert Kroetsch, Story for a Saskatchewan Night (1990), Fragmenting Body etc. (2000) and Breath Takes (2001), the chapbooks A Flame on the Spanish Stairs : John Keats in Rome (2002) and It’s over is it over: Love’s Fragmented Narrative (2005), and the ongoing collaboration with Arizona poet Sheila E. Murphy, first published as Continuations (2006). His critical contributions over the years include Worlds Out of Words: The SF Novels of Samuel R. Delany (1979), Lyric/Anti-Lyric: essays on contemporary poetry (2001), a critical work on the writing of Michael Ondaatje (Twayne) and another on the work of John Newlove (ECW Press).


I’ve always been intrigued by poets who publish consistently over years, and then pull back for an extended period before returning to book publishing somewhat changed, altered, in their style, as though a line drawn between what came before, and what came after, such as John Newlove between the Governor General’s Award-winning Lies (1972) and The Night the Dog Smiled (1986) and a second gap, before the chapbook THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems (1999), or Monty Reid, between his Flat Side (1998) and Disappointment Island (2006). There are other examples, I’m sure, but I won’t go into such here. With some ten years of trade silence after Story for a Saskatchewan Night (1990), Barbour returned to publishing with the poetry collections Fragmenting Body, Etc. (2000) and Breath Takes (2001), alongside his collection of literary essays, Lyric/Anti-Lyric: essays on contemporary poetry (2001), seeming to hone that particular style he’d been experimenting with for years, returning with poems more playful, and tighter. With these two new poetry titles, the response element that existed in previous works became far more prevalent, turning what was once a thread into a larger issue. With these two titles, Barbour achieved in his sixties what most authors wouldn’t have the patience to achieve: an already-accomplished writer coming into his real strength after decades of publishing.


creature slain by Bellerophon in

the late night show
on every screen every scream
narrates a bodys parting

but that creature never existed

ever existent it haunts our nights
now more than ever

how many imagined & imaginary
odd bodies can
we afford to break

‘the Balkanized body’
a new study in psycho somatic
engineering engineered (Fragmenting Body etc.)


Anyone who still manages to ignore Douglas Barbour’s work as a whole obviously hasn’t taken into consideration Barbour’s collection Fragmenting Body etc., possibly the strongest and most vibrant book he’s produced so far. The sequences in Fragmenting Body etc. turn like jazz riffs, a scattered scope of sound and visual play that bounce across the page, manoeuvring in unexpected twists and turns, and riffing off a number of friends’ works, including a section in homage to his late friend, bpNichol, who died in 1988 at the young age of 44. As Kroetsch said, “the overflow of bpNichol as a cover.” A book produced for more of an international market by Salt, why not let the poems simply speak for themselves, as this fragment from the sequence “Bird of Paradise”?


        & if that mouth     would
speak how   its what
        darkness than would allow
                itself to merge   (or
bracket that)    emit
        such sounds of scraping
      ‘an acid tone    could be detected in’
              her every peep


Published the subsequent year, his Breath Takes, as the title suggests, responds to the breath, responding to the ghazals of Phyllis Webb (a long-time Barbour touchstone) and the late British expatriate John Thompson. Thompson was author of the seminal and posthumous Stilt Jack (1976), the collection that really brought the English-language ghazal form into Canadian literature, sending shockwaves through writers and writing that is still being felt. Barbour’s collection also includes poems composed for/after various writerly friends, including Al Purdy, Daphne Marlatt, Tom Pow, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Fred Wah, Robin Blaser and Leonard Cohen, such as this section from “History: Manhattan – Montréal – Berlin”:


I’m through being guided. Poems are by the way. A song is signal enough, and in those days the stairway to heavens. You say I’m not only guided but it’s by the text. This heretofore unacknowledged birthmark is language on parole. Remember: my razor cut skin. But now I’m a sucker guided through labyrinths by monks offering the revelation of beauty in and of itself. Let our politicians sell weapons. Let the first be last. We know that. Take off for Manhattan; sing loud then sing soft. We hear you take chances in Berlin.


Given some of the “seriousness” of literary writing in Canada, there aren’t that many writers brave enough to cite Cohen, but with Barbour’s explorations come a kind of fearlessness. A fearlessness, or simply remaining above the concern. Where others might be more subtle in acknowledging where and how poems are generated through the works of others, this, at least, Barbour seems to relish.


The ghazal, according to John Thompson’s Stilt Jack (1976) preface, was “the most popular of all the classical forms of Urdu poetry,” and is built of five couplets that have no re-occurring connection, whether narrative or lyrical, distinguishing itself from the English classical form, the sonnet. It seems interesting that Thompson would have made a point of mentioning the five-couplet structure and then not kept to it, whereas Barbour and Phyllis Webb stuck close, and called theirs “anti ghazals.”


Exactly what seems to make Barbour’s work dismissed is, alternately, the clear strength of his poetry over the years, that he is a reader (or, “fan”) first, and a writer second, in far more blatant a way than many of his peers who profess to the same. Barbour, as reader and writer, manages to engage with other writing at a far higher level, it would seem, than many of his peers, from his creative writing, his critical essays to newspaper reviews, even to the point of being a part of the current incarnation of Edmonton’s poetry monthly, the Olive Reading Series. Barbour’s range goes in many directions, including Canadian, American, Australian and New Zealand poetry, science fiction novels, graphic novels (including The Sandman and Planetary), and jazz, some of which he has written critically on, and much of which has fallen directly into his poetry. It isn’t an accident that in the introduction to visible visions: The selected poems of Douglas Barbour, editors Smaro Kamboureli and Robert Kroetsch wrote that Barbour’s poetry has “an intense sense of occasion and response.” It’s something echoed by Barbour himself as part of his prose contribution to Danielle Schaub’s book of photographs, Reading Writers Reading: Canadian Authors’ Reflections (2006), starting his “Reading for Writing for Pleasure” with:


Reading is writing is reading is writing. For a writer the two are inescapably-entwined. So what do I mean when I talk about reading for writing? Is it something I always do? No and yet, yes, perhaps. Certainly, when I read poetry, I find some of my pleasure comes from the experience of learning something I may be able to use in my own writing. Not that this supplemental pleasure takes away from the central pleasure, be they emotional, intellectual, or various combinations of these, that good poetry offers any reader. But I think writers never quite forget their craft, even when lost in the intricacies of another writer’s work, and so they are always learning. At least, so I think of my own reading.


What makes Barbour’s writing is in just how willing he is to get lost, to them write his way back out, and through, such as in the small chapbook A Flame on the Spanish Stairs : John Keats in Rome (2002):


I know now I always wanted to write, to
find a way to release the dreams
that spelled desire onto the page
I loved letters from the first for what they
cannot hide — their own palimpsests they
exist in multiple layers of time
without even thinking about it that is what
poetry means to me now          &
without desire nothing’s written but     death
eternal to keep us apart.    Oh, there must be
poetry to remember beauty by     & for me at least
half that beauty is your body    flush with
the soul within      but never mine to hold
day or night you are but imagination’s grace



at least that’s how it seems       coughing the
last of my breath redly out in
the backstreets of Rome         then the very
idea that we could have shared our bodies
has an air of desperate folly      I have
grown much worse lately          & I dream
so much of you         yet I grow
monstrously weak       only my imagination soars
beyond the mundane details of
my slowly approaching death        all is a
seeming     & there you glow        the
power of your body, your eyes & smile
of welcome once       now lost to all
attainment     —     only my heart still wishes


Another more recent change, and movement into direct response in Barbour’s work has included the ongoing collaboration with Phoenix, Arizona poet Sheila E. Murphy, together writing their accumulation of alternating six line passages. The first volume of such was published as Continuations (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006). A long poem made out of twenty-five sections, the poem encompassed both daily activity, a call and response of distance of years and thousands of kilometres in the form of a sustained long poem composed through email exchange. The book, and the poem, begins with:


storm und
with that angel always
back upon
the piling ruin

solo fires thicker
than    or wider
wings spread to
raise the ante
‘in front of’ the sun
what signs float in the empyrean

foreground of stranded
sun   sans
seamed mild
blue eggshell
her name, Celeste
over a win afield


In this, the poems/stanzas respond not only to their immediate surroundings, from domestic matters to the daily news, but directly to each other, continuing the response as an act of dialogue, of conversation, out of what was previously more one-sided. Not that this is the first collaboration for either of them, given Barbour’s years collaborating with Stephen Scobie, an association that reduced after the latter moved from Edmonton to teach at the University of Victoria. Still, in Barbour and Murphy’s collaboratively written text at the end of the collection (including bibliographical information on the two authors), they include a note on previous texts:


Students of innovative textual work will undoubtedly pose questions concerning the place of collaborative poetry: What is the relationship between collaborative efforts and the individual works of a writer? Should collaborative texts be regarded as a category of their own, or classified within the sphere of innovative textual creation?


We share the belief that textual collaboration must undergo the same critical rigour as any written work of literature. The process of jointly writing an extended piece naturally entails risk, but the sustained engagement with crafting what is possible in language easily surpasses such risk. Stabilizing structural features such as the six-line format and daily practice, provide the necessary structure for propelling innovation.


What makes any collaboration between two writers, specifically, interesting, is that when the project is done well, it introduces a third author that is neither of the two, but a combination of both. Neither the work of any individual, but the space where the two writers/works meet; a perfect call and response work blended into a third voice, calling out to itself.


        the breath of disappearing
        moments loses sunfall, folded
        points filled with imagined
        integers breeze toward
        skin blessed with other
        skin, through fields again

        what is the point of aspiration,
        is there a place to which dance finally
       arrives, the step merely a metaphor
        for something, perhaps a world within
        the chosen calling that eventually confiscates
        what inherently is there

        taken away it goes further
        than believed and the feet stumble
        slowly to a stop beneath
        the great blossoming chestnut tree
        leaning toward seed reaching
       out to the dancing stars (p 57, from “XV”)


Wasn’t it Margaret Atwood who once said that the best response to a poem is another poem, or was it Phyllis Webb? Still, why hasn’t more of Barbour’s work been written about? We are hoping that this small tribute might respond, in its own way, at least, to correcting some of that. Considering the amount of critical material Barbour has produced on various of his peers, including the largest body of critical work on the poetry of the late John Newlove, it seems that Barbour got the short end of the stick. What is it that gets some writers attention and others completely ignored? I’ve learned long ago it has very little to do with the writing itself; is it still the geography that matters?

Works Cited

Barbour, Douglas. A Flame on the Spanish Stairs : John Keats in Rome. Vernon BC: Greenboathouse Books, 2002.

———. A Poem As Long As The Highway. Kingston ON: Quarry Press, 1971.

———. Breath Takes. Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 2001.

———. Fragmenting Body etc. Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2000.

———. he. &. she. &. Ottawa ON: The Golden Dog Press, 1974.

———. It’s over is it over: Love’s Fragmented Narrative. Chapbook. Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2005.

———. Land Fall. Montreal QC: Delta Canada, 1971; Ottawa ON: The Golden Dog Press, 1973.

———. Lyric/Anti-Lyric: essays on contemporary poetry. Edmonton AB: NeWest Press/writer as critic, 2001.

———. “Reading for Writing for Pleasure,” Reading Writers Reading: Canadian Authors’ Reflections. Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press/Jerusalem Israel: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2006.

———. Story for a Saskatchewan Night. Red Deer AB: Writing West / Red Deer College Press, 1990.

———. shore lines. Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1979.

———. songbook. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1973.

———. The Harbingers. Kingston ON: Quarry Press, 1984.

———. visible visions, the selected poems of Douglas Barbour, eds. Smaro Kamboureli and Robert Kroetsch. Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1984.

———. White. Fredericton NB: Fiddlehead Books, 1972.

———. Worlds Out of Words: The SF Novels of Samuel R. Delany. Frome UK: Bran’s Head Books, 1979.

________ and Sheila E. Murphy. Continuations. Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2006.

________ and Stephen Scobie. The Pirates of Pen’s Chance. Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1981.

Cooley, Dennis. “After Words,” By Word of Mouth: The Poetry of Dennis Cooley, selected with an introduction by Nicole Markotić. Waterloo ON: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2007.

Nichol, bp. “Overwhelming Colour,” a review of Douglas Barbour’s White. Open Letter, Second Series, Number eight, Summer 1974.

rob mclennan. Photo: Lainna El Jabi

rob mclennan : Photo: Lainna El Jabi

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections gifts (Talonbooks, Vancouver), a compact of words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), wild horses (University of Alberta Press, Edmonton), kate street (Moira, Chicago) and a second novel, missing persons (The Mercury Press, Toronto). He is currently working on a creative non-fiction book about his time in Toronto, as well as a third novel, a collection of short stories, and a second collection of literary essays. An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (, The Garneau Review ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( He spent the 2007–8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

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