Sunday Apr 14

BarbourDouglas Douglas Barbour is the author of many books of poetry, including Visible Visions: The Selected Poems of Douglas Barbour (NeWest Press, 1984), winner of the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry, Story for a Saskatchewan Night (rdc press, 1990), Fragmenting Body etc. (NeWest Press / SALT Publishing, 2000), Breath Takes (Wolsak & Wynn, 2001), the chapbook A Flame on the Spanish Stairs (greenboathouse books, 2002), and, most recently, his collaborations with Sheila E. Murphy, Continuations and Continuations 2 (University of Alberta Press, 2006/2012), and Recording Dates (Rubicon Press, 2012). His critical works include monographs on Daphne Marlatt, John Newlove, and bpNichol, Michael Ondaatje (Twayne Publishers, 1993), and Lyric / Anti-lyric: Essays on Contemporary Poetry (NeWest Press, 2001). He has edited many books, and most recently, with Stephen Scobie, his partner in the sound poetry duo Re: Sounding, edited the CD Carnivocal: A Celebration of Sound Poetry (Red Deer Press & Omikron Publishing, 1999). Professor Emeritus in the Department of English, University of Alberta, he was inaugurated into the City of Edmonton Cultural Hall of Fame in 2003. He writes a review blog on SF&F and contemporary poetry. 

                                             Douglas Barbour interview, with Jenna Butler

Your latest trade collection of poetry, Continuations 2, is just that: a continuation of the online project you’ve been working on with Arizona poet Sheila E. Murphy for the past decade. The voice created in the collection is vastly different from either yours or Murphy’s; did you intentionally set out to create this “third voice” in your work, or did it emerge organically through the writing?

I’d say it emerged organically, & I, at least, recognized it as such when I read Emmylou Harris talking about such a “third voice” in reference to her collaboration with Mark Knopfler. Although we write separate stanzas, because much of the “push” forward comes from the language of what’s already there, it does come to sound as if one voice is there. We found that this worked when we read together & each of us read more than one stanza at a time: the audience seemed to hear just the poem, not either of us.

The poems in Continuations 2 are formally constrained in regard to stanza length, and also in the sense that the reader ought not to be able to identify a particular writer (you or Murphy) in any given stanza, so any overtly personal marks have been removed. Your latest chapbook, Recording Dates, is a series of word-line acrostics, and one of your earlier books, Breath Takes, explores the “Englished” ghazal. Why this fascination with form…and moreso, why this fascination with nudging form out of its comfort zone, as you do in the Breath Ghazals?

I guess that, like a number of poets today, I’m a bit leery of that concept of “finding a voice.” One way to undermine both a writing & a reading that takes a singular “lyric voice” as central is to put up what George Bowering calls “baffles”; some formal aspect that interferes with simple “I am feeling this” representation. Word/line acrostics demand a response to the words already there; in the Breath Ghazals, the introduction of pure sound into many lines interrupted the lyric once again, & then I could also play into personae, etc. (which are always there, even in the most “personal” & autobiographical lyrics; once you start writing you start shaping, therefore fictionalizing).

In addition to being a much-published poet, you are a recognized Canadian critic. How do you see your critical work, especially in books such as Lyric / Anti-lyric: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, feeding into your creative work as a practicing poet?

Some writers do & some writers don’t try their hand at critique; I’m one of the former. I feel that you are always learning when you read & should read as much as you can. Then, as a seemingly determinedly formal critic, I like to look at the how of other writing more than the what. If I can figure a bit of that out, it will feed into my own writing for sure, so that’s continually helpful to my practice. Certainly, the title essay emerged both as a response to other critiques of modern poetry, & by exploring what it was in the poems I found most interesting & enjoyable, I learned a lot about how I want to try to write (my whole take on maintaining “lyric” sound & rhythm while finding ways around traditional “lyric” attitude[s]). And in working on, say, John Thompson’s ghazals & Phyllis Webb’s take on his work that led to her anti-ghazals, I certainly discovered ways into writing my own breath ghazals. The kind of close & repeated reading required to write a critique can’t help but teach you something about the technique involved, which you can then apply to your own writing. You never stop learning, I hope.

For several years now, you’ve explored the intersections of art (perhaps I should say “various arts”) and literature in your poetry. The Monet pieces included in this feature are deeply ekphrastic in their physical embodying of the paint on the canvas, the intent behind the images and gestures. Why this fascination with ekphrasis?

Ah, as with reading other writing, looking at art & listening to music just spark things in me. Those are the two major arts I love (just about all kinds), & I tend to want to write my essentially visceral responses. When I’m in an art gallery, there’s always at least one work that demands sustained attention, & then I need to write something (because it’s through language that I process my responses). Valued “experiences” include what you read, see, and hear, etc., not just walking, chopping trees, etc. And, for me, they do feed into my writing. We collaborate with history, or with what remains of the past in those books, artworks, and pieces of music that still touch us.


‘turning the body against itself’


the body          deliberately
out of synch       &
the sluggard oils
almost too thick

violence of the gentlest
dab      squish              blob
the oiled colours          slapped
hither &   yon     in
each square inch

against all
                 gone before
under   coated             slap
dash     &     somehow
thoroughly controlled
there                or

Claude Monet: "Les Nympheas':

to enter in / to
the light   /
of the queen of all


            the surface       vast

it all
light     colour       the forms
of earth alive

                        surface chaotic
he painted /

look     it
pulls perception in

we enter

the light

            (homage to the world

                                    & vision           vision
                                  through   failing flesh
                                         to felt              joy

                        the canvas
                        barely contains

            the flowers



homage à Claude Monet


the light
in a small pond
in the streams     streams
                                         of light

the paintings         all


lilies          the
water / lilies
in         light


                        (h)        arbour
            au bout de la