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Douglas Barbour

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Douglas Barbour Feature

Stephen Scobie

The Rock Garden

a tribute to Douglas Barbour


I first met Doug Barbour in the late summer of 1969. We had both been hired, for our first jobs, by the University of Alberta in Edmonton, whose English Department was undergoing not so much an expansion as an explosion. Memory tells me they hired 15 people that year, however implausible that sounds in these days of cutback and restraint. One of the first things that the Department did was to assign us both to a committee — typical — but in this case the bureaucratic reflex produced a lifelong creative partnership.


The committee was set up to organize a conference on the topic — which was entirely novel at that time — of the emerging relationship between Canadian poetry and its nascent academic criticism. The somewhat risqué title was “Poet and Critic ’69.”  And it did turn out to be a good, trend-setting conference, though at the time it was (in)famous mainly for an obstreperous American immigrant poet heckling a revered Canadian one.


Anyway, there was a meeting of the committee at the Faculty Club, in August, shortly before term began, and it was there that I first met Doug. Neither of us had ever so much as heard of the other before. By the time term began, a week later, our colleagues couldn’t believe that we hadn’t known each other for years.


The rapport between us was instantaneous and comprehensive. At every turn, it seemed our interests and enthusiasms coincided. Ezra Pound? — Yes!! bpNichol? — Yes!! The Rolling Stones? — Yes!! Within a month, the aforesaid revered Canadian poet had taken to referring to us as The Bobbsey Twins. People even claimed that we looked alike — but then, in 1969, many people couldn’t see beyond a beard and moderately long hair.


Even our wives got pulled into this comparison. My wife Maureen’s full name was Sharon Maureen, and when we first moved to Edmonton, she was entertaining ideas of reclaiming her first name. Then she ran right into Sharon Barbour, and that was that. Even the Bobbsey Twins couldn’t have wives with the same first name. Nevertheless, they became fast friends, and remained so until Sharon’s tender solicitude during Maureen’s final illness.


Doug and I never denied the ties that bound us, but often enough over the years we have wanted to insist on some nuances. Take music, for instance. The Austrian critic Franz Stanzel (dearly beloved friend) once portrayed one of us as constantly listening to music, always with a record on in the background, hours a day absorbed in rock or jazz. He was right, of course, but he was also wrong; he thought it was me, when actually it was Doug. In fact, I listen to far less music than Doug does. I can go for days and weeks on end without putting on a CD; Doug can’t last more than a couple of hours. Moreover, Doug has the capacity to multi-track; he can be reading a book, or carrying on a conversation, and still say “Listen to this moment!” on a background CD. For me, there is no background music; I have to listen to it with single-track concentration, especially if there are any words. Nor have I ever shared Doug’s passion for jazz.


Nevertheless, music formed the basis for our first collaboration. Somehow or other, Doug managed to snag an offer from a local FM radio station, CFRN, to host a 4-hour show every Saturday night, and he asked me to co-host it with him. Together, we went and solemnly asked permission for moonlighting from our Department Chair, George Baldwin, who gave us his gracious and bemused consent. We called it “The Rock Garden.”  Every Saturday night, we drove out the Yellowhead Trail to the CFRN station on the outskirts of town, and spun records like real live disc jockeys. This was 1969 — so we weren’t doing frivolous “pop,” we were doing serious “rock.”  We did one complete 4-hour show on The Rolling Stones; we did  another one featuring only songs at least 8 minutes long. I  sat in the studio listening to every word as it played, whereas Doug was happily reading and exclaiming over his latest discovery, an American SF writer called Samuel R. Delany  (who was transforming the SF from Science Fiction into Speculative Fiction). Doug later published a book on Delany, but I published the first article.


The show was, of course, a disaster. The standard CFRN audience liked middle-of-the-road soft pop, mellow background for Saturday night parties. They didn’t want Bob Dylan singing “Desolation Row” (more than 8 minutes). Ratings plunged. After the minimum 13 weeks of our contract, we were unceremoniously canned.


In music, though we generally agreed, we had our differences of emphasis. (My devotion was to Dylan; Doug’s was to Van Morrison.)  In other areas, our tastes have remained consistently in step with each other. In painting, for example, we have admired together everyone from Matisse to our Edmontonian contemporary, Norman Yates. Perhaps our greatest shared enthusiasm is for the work of the late Barbara Caruso. Though little known even in Canada, Barbara’s work — austere in its abstract minimalism, rich in its endless exploration of colour — has inspired us both, and it is one of the great privileges of our lives to have known her as a friend.


But right from the start, the most important area of our coinciding interests was
Canadian poetry. Here, we spoke with one voice, and that voice was bpNichol’s. I mean that figuratively rather than literally — though, a few years later, when we started performing sound poetry together, our first texts were poems by bp, and our performance of them was, to put it mildly, derivative. When we first met, we both already knew bp. Doug and Sharon had been friends with him back East, and I had met him earlier in 1969, at a major exhibition of Concrete Poetry which I helped to organize in Vancouver. For both of us, he was, clearly, the cutting edge of the Canadian avant-garde.


Given our widely different backgrounds, it is remarkable how similar the positions were that we had arrived at. Doug came out of Eastern Canada, and already had an extensive background in Canadian poetry and small magazines. I came from Scotland, and had spent only 4 years in Vancouver, just beginning to learn about Canadian poetry. Yet we both had the same poetic instincts, and we recognized our tradition when we saw it.


So, the first thing that Doug and I discovered about each other’s poetics was that we shared the aesthetic line in modern poetry that stems from Ezra Pound. (I was deeply envious of the fact that Doug had inherited two first editions of very early EP.)   In American poetry, that line leads from Pound to Williams to Zukofsky, and then to the holy Black Mountain trinity of Olson, Duncan, and Creeley; in Canada it migrated into the Vancouver TISH movement of the early 60s. Both Doug and I could have been TISH poets, but we came along about half a decade too late. And being too late, we did not quite align ourselves directly with, say, George Bowering or Daphne Marlatt, but rather, on an eclectic parallel course, with John Newlove and Phyllis Webb. Then Doug imported into this mix the formidable presence of the young Michael Ondaatje. (Back in Kingston, he and Sharon had proof-read Michael’s first book, The Dainty Monsters, letter by letter.)  So, for the decade of the 1970s, Doug and I operated in a Canadian scene which we regarded as dominated by Webb, Nichol, and Ondaatje.


Elsewhere in Canada, the Black Mountain-influenced poets were often attacked as being pro-American. On the prairies, Doug and I were attacked (or more often ignored) for being pro-Eastern. We were reading people published by Coach House Press, and that was in Toronto. There we were up in our odd corner of Alberta, obsessing over bpNichol and Phyllis Webb, while all around us was the flat landscape of regional realism — meticulous narratives, written by poets (fine enough in their own way) who cared passionately about the locality of history and didn’t give a damn about linebreaks. In those years there was, believe me, an orthodoxy about prairie poetry — and it didn’t include Barbour and Scobie, those two nuts up in Edmonton who cared more about Coach House Press in Toronto than about Thistledown Press in Saskatoon.


I’m exaggerating of course (though not by much) — things were never that cut and dried, though sometimes it felt that way. The 1976 anthology Twelve Prairie Poetsincluded Doug, but not me. (Doug was, after all, born in Winnipeg.)  But it’s not as if we were oblivious to what was going on around us. In 1981, to whom did Andy Suknaski entrust the editing of his Selected and New Poems? — me. And thereby hangs another tale.


Suknaski at that time was the high priest of prairie poetry, and he had carved out for himself a unique form of personal and historic narrative. Part of its condition, and of its charm, was that it was sprawling, untidy, and resistant to editing. For the “New Poems” section of the projected volume, he sent me, literally, a cardboard box, overflowing with papers: notes, typescripts, scraps and fragments, held together by bits of tape and string . It so happened that, the day it arrived at my office, Doug and I were scheduled to be photographed for the cover of a book we were publishing together. By this time, we were known for our sound poetry performances, and the photographer, trying to liven up our poses, said Go on, do a poem, make some of your funny noises. We protested, rather feebly, that we didn’t have a text handy — and then our eyes fell upon this large, untidy, tumbling cardboard box, on the side of which was scrawled in large black letters




We immediately adopted these words — or rather, the letters comprising them — as our “text,” and we have been performing it ever since.


We began performing sound poetry on a whim. I can’t remember the exact date — probably Doug has it somewhere in his journals — but it must have been early to mid-70s. We were scheduled to give a joint reading in Red Deer, and drove down from Edmonton together in Doug’s car. The radio was playing a country hit  —


Are you in the Top 40 of your lordy lordy Lord?
Will you be a hit in heaven ‘cos you were a hit on earth?


—  and we were enthusiastically singing along. Let’s do this at the reading, one of us said. And let’s follow it up with a piece by bp —


You are City Hall, my people
And look what you’ve become, I said
You are City Hall, my people
And look what you’ve done, I said


Why not? I have no memory which of us made the suggestion; it seemed to arise spontaneously between us. When we got to Red Deer, we found a neat, small auditorium with two separate microphones and a top-notch sound system; we let it rip. Since then, like bp, we have been very cautious of the power-trip rush that amplification gives a performer, and have preferred to work without microphones. But that first afternoon, it felt just great.


In the best Canadian tradition of The Four Horsemen (not to mention The Rolling Stones), we gave ourselves a group name —  Re : Sounding. And for three decades, we have performed all over Canada; as far south as Tucson, Arizona; throughout Scandinavia, Germany, and Austria; for a hectic, insanely concentrated month touring around New Zealand and Australia; and in New York City, where the  New York Times described us as both “interesting” and “infantile.”  We embraced both adjectives, choosing to interpret “infantile” in its root sense as “not speaking, pre-verbal.”


Doug and I have always worked well together. Early on, we were given a supreme model of collaboration by the editorial philosophy of Sheila Watson. Sheila was a dominant, though never domineering, literary presence in Edmonton. Prior to moving there, I had not read her 1959 novel The Double Hook, and I don’t think Doug had either, but we quickly realized that it occupied a place in prose fiction equal to any of our idols in poetry.  In 1971, Sheila established a new magazine of literature and the arts, entitled White Pelican. It had a wide-ranging editorial board, including the novelist Henry Kreisel, the painter Norman Yates — and, generously, Barbour and Scobie. Sheila had no interest in imposing her own personality on what appeared in her magazine: each member of the board, in rotation, edited a single issue, and had complete freedom to decide on its contents. Doug and I both edited separate issues; in addition, we conducted joint interviews with the painter/poet Roy Kiyooka, and with Michael Ondaatje. Both of these interviews appeared in White Pelican; unfortunately, the interview we conducted with Sheila Watson herself never did. With all too typical self-effacement, she wouldn’t allow it.


The simple fact is that Doug and I work very well together: smoothly, instinctively, with very little premeditation or retrospective editing. We have rarely disagreed, and never quarreled.  We can go for months without seeing each other, and then resume the dialogue as if no time has passed at all.


The high water mark of our collaboration came in 1981, when we published two books together. One was The Pirates of Pen’s Chance (Doug’s title), a collection of experimental poems which we called “homolinguistic translations”: adaptations of texts from English to English. During the time we were writing it, Doug and I would sometimes quite literally race along the corridors of the English Department, from office to office, to show off what new trick we’d tried. The book was published by (of course) Coach House Press, and edited by (of course) bpNichol.


The other was an anthology of Canadian comic poetry, The Maple Laugh Forever.  (The title is again Doug’s; I finally got my turn in 1999, when we edited a CD of Canadian sound poetry, which I named Carnivocal.)  We were determined that this anthology would contain poems which were both funny and also good poems, not just versified jokes. We also wanted to acknowledge that much humour is ribald, lewd, or outright obscene. There was, however, the problem of audience, since high school classes might form a significant market. The question came to a head over a particularly obscene (and funny) poem by Montreal writer Artie Gold. We decided we had to take it to Mel.


Our publisher was Mel Hurtig, an Edmonton businessman who had owned the best bookstore in the city, and was also prominent in Canadian nationalist politics. I once played golf with him; he gave me a stroke-a-hole handicap, and I won by one shot. Every letter I subsequently received from him began “Dear shyster… ”  So Doug and I went to see him, explained our predicament, and showed him Artie’s poem. As he read it, the merest twitch of a smile passed across his face. “Well,” he said at last, “the high school market isn’t that important, anyway.”  Unfortunately, as subsequent sales figures showed, it was.


1981, oddly, was also the year I left Edmonton, and moved to Victoria. I embraced the West Coast; Doug stayed on through prairie winters. But some of our strongest collaborations have come since this split, and though the line between us has stretched, it has never broken. At any moment it becomes again as strong and as instinctive as it was on that first afternoon we met, forty years ago, or when we worked together, as we have ever since, in the rock garden.

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