Gary Barwin, “Shopping for Deer”

Poem + Interview

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist, and the author of 20 books of poetry and fiction as well as books for kids. His most recent books are the short fiction collection, I, Dr Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457 (Anvil) and the poetry collections, Moon Baboon Canoe (Mansfield), and The Wild and Unfathomable Always (Xexoxial). Yiddish for Pirates, a novel, will appear in April 2016 from Random House Canada and a new poetry collection in 2017 from Wolsak & Wynn. A PhD in music, Barwin was 2014-2015 Writer-in-Residence at Western University and the Toronto Public Library Young Voices eWrite-in-residence in 2013. He has taught creative writing at a number of colleges and universities and currently at Mohawk College. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario. GaryBarwin.com

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Shopping for Deer

I went shopping for deer

there were no deer

the shopping cart became the deer

I brought it home

climbed inside

and turned off the lights

the seasons changed

I lived on earth

sometimes the bright sun shone

I became old

when I die, I will remember the deer

I will remember its wheels and antlers

I will remember its flesh and lightning

its womb of silver bones

from The Porcupinity of the Stars

( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

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Interview

Let’s start with this poem in its broad strokes — in a review earlier I said that “Barwin’s poetry expresses a near-religious faith in poetry’s transcendence, its ability to forge meaning rather than simply convert meaning into money.” You said that you disagree with this, or at least don’t fully agree — I’d like you to comment on my comment, but let’s get there through the poem.
 
I feel that when it comes to forging meaning, “it’s complicated.” It’s not that I don’t believe that poetry or “the poetry experience” can’t construct meaning — and a meaning that is somewhat sometimes able to elude being co-opted by capital — but I believe it’s a question of what kind of meaning and where it is located. For me, the issue is connected to my interest in non-realistic forms of representation, of moving outside of the consensual forms of reality (including grammatical reality), those that are sold to us by mainstream culture and master discourse. In this poem, I think I could make an argument for the shopping cart as an image that resonates with this. By not consenting to a normative notion of reality and representation, or at least by problematizing it, I think the poem attempts to open up the implicit assumptions about the reality we are “sold.”
 
It’s also true that I am intrigued by poetry’s ability to create an aura of meaning, a husk of numinosity, resonant meaning-ripples moving out from the signifier and/or signifying empty or ambiguous centre. To get all Basho about this: “plop” = centre, “water-sound” = ripples. The writer and reader are somehow involved in the concepts of water, leap, and frog. But the relationships are destabilized, not quite what they seem. I do think it “begs” these questions.
 
This puts me in mind of a favourite few lines of Wordsworth’s from when I was an adolescent (and yes, I had friends…really…)
 

Oh! grant me Heaven a heart at ease
That I may never cease to find
Even in appearances like these
Enough to nourish and to stir my mind.

          — “A whirl-blast from behind the hill”

I think about how the “appearances,” in addition to the “natural” world and human culture, are also the process and results of signification, of metaphorization. Of enlanguaging.
 
Here’s how I like to look at “Shopping for Deer”: the first stanza forges a metaphor (shopping cart as deer) but the real metaphor, the one that gets overlooked (by people who read the poem as about homelessness, or hunting, which are the two common ways I see it interpreted) is this: the shopping-cart deer fusion is the vehicle in a metaphor where the tenor is metaphor itself. The poem then becomes an extended metaphor for how central metaphor is to our lives and our understanding of our lives, and of course is our only way to somehow comprehend death.
 
I do really like how you look at it — the tenor being the metaphor. The message is the medium.
This chimes with what I’ve said above about consensual ways of conceiving of the world, I think. We see the world metaphorically. Is it that perception is a metaphor for itself or that our world is always metaphor for itself?
 
I also see the deer/shopping cart metaphor as engaging with an exploration of the relation of the technological or human-made and the construction of nature and the natural. What ideas are embedded in the concept of the pastoral and how does it relate to the modern world? In this sense, the poem explores ecopoetic concerns. I think that the poem asks if shopping can be considered as hunting and gathering. Are shoppers (i.e. the modern person) both hunter-gatherers and consumers of the spoils of hunter-gatherers?
 
And as for death, I hear it is inevitable, but I’m waiting until it’s all over before I make my final determination. To click on that ultimate shopping cart and “check out.” But I think the fact that we have the possibility of metaphor, the possibility of both engaging in and feeling a kind of poiesis is how we can try to, if not understand, then at least reckon with our world of life and death and the experiences in between.  To have it to “both nourish and stir our mind.”
  
Can you explain a bit about how you came to write this poem? I understand it was inspired by an image by Banksy?
 
First of all, as I walked about the city (Hamilton, Ontario), I kept discovering deer. Deer in the woods. Deer on the road and on the lawn bowling field, deer in the park, late at night as I walked through the mist with my dog. And I’d find shopping carts nestled in alleyways, nuzzling telephone poles. Shopping carts tipped into rivers. Carts that had strayed far from their grocery store.

I had been thinking about how we respond both emotionally and intellectually to human-made materials versus those of the “natural” world. How the modern pastoral might include a toaster, a TV, sheep and a cellphone. And perhaps beyond the pastoral, how an ecopoetics would include wire clothes hangers, a gas giant, an echidna, and tractors. I’d been following the blog Next Nature whose philosophy states that, “Where technology and nature are traditionally seen as opposed, they now appear to merge or even trade places,” and considering the notion of biomimicry and how we populate our image banks and metaphor hordes with a kind of conceptual pareidolia or technological/nature synaesthesia. In other words, we tend to biomorphize. On the Next Nature blog, I came across this image by Bansky which was a resonant conflation of shopping cart with prey.
 
The conflation of shopping cart with prey seemed apt. Of course there is the visual rhyme: the rectangular box-form and four wheels of the cart resembles the torso and legs of the imagined prey. (It also conjures for me a gurney and a coffin in a procession.) The carts often seem to roam and graze across the urban grasslands. But, unlike Banksy, I was interested in the cart/prey image in the “developed” world. We are hunter-gathers as we prowl the city for product, pulled by the tracks and scents of our commodity prey, picking and choosing, both hunting and gathering. And there is the implicit movement of capital, of commodification, of marketplace in the transaction. The shopping cart is the “check-out” symbol on websites.
 
And what does the image of the deer mean in our culture? I’m thinking back to the heads of deer on medieval castle walls, on the modern hunter’s wall. The deer carried on a stick back from the hunt, or on the roof of an SUV. The deer as spoil. The ballads about the aristocracy’s control of deer. As a symbol of wealth and power. I think of, for example, a song that I love, “Geordie” where the eponymous geordie “stole sixteen of the King’s wild deer,” — the “wild” deer “belong” to the king — and so the geordie is sentenced to death for hunting them.
 
But there’s also deer-headed people in cave drawings who I think are shamanic. And so the deer is a portal, a gateway between worlds. As I said, between the human and the non-human (whether animal, commodity, object) but also between the worlds of life and death, the immanent and the transcendent, the phenomenal and the noumenal, the material and the spiritual. But as I see the glinting silver of the shopping cart, its strange yet familiar shape, I see these dualities in the image of the shopping cart also. I feel that it’s not me doing the Shklovskian ostranenie but the world is making me strange to myself.
 
I assume you wrote the poem operating with the image more surrealistically, without trying to develop it metaphorically. Can you respond to my reading here by way of explaining how you see yourself working in poetry to forge or even resist meaning?
 
So, in terms of your question about the actual writing of the poem, it’s true I don’t begin with an explicit concept of what an image or trope means, but rather feel its heft and location in multidimensional meaningspace, culturespace, or languagespace. That is, how it feels to me as material — what it suggests in terms of development as an image, what might go with it, or where it might go formally. “Meaning” per se isn’t something that I consider except, as you suggested, to resist it colonizing the poem with big-booted obviousness.

Putting my ear to the verbal track usually means that there will be some “meaning” coming down the line in some form, though I won’t know what it is until it arrives. My usual line is that “the writing knows more than I do.” This means that I try to trust the language to take shape and self-organize, the way interstellar dust gradually forms planets, comets, and other space objects. I feel like I am tapping into language and culture this way and the result will be much more complex, subtle, and interesting than if I tried to impose my likely more monolithic and simplistic ideas and meanings.

Of course, it some way it necessarily will reflect the shape of my looking, the way I see or am able to conceive of language and culture as I work with the material until I’ve shaped it into—or discovered within it—a satisfying aesthetic shape. (By the way, I do hope you are enjoying the ongoing unfolding and salmagundi braiding of my mixed and mashed metaphors. Perhaps they’re reflective of the heterophony of my thinking on this. Or just lazy bloody noise.)

Your earlier draft of the ending stanza read this way:

When I die, I will remember the deer.
I will remember its wheels and antlers.
I will remember its silver bones that are
a womb for flesh and lightning.

Then, you moved to this:

When I die, I will remember the deer.
I will remember its wheels and antlers.
I will remember its womb of silver bones.

Can you talk about how you (1) moved from one draft to the other, and then how you (2) combined elements of both drafts to produce your “final” version (the one in your book The Porcupinity of the Stars, which is reproduced above)?

I can’t quite remember the process, but looking at these various drafts, I can see how the last two lines of the original draft are more pedantic or at least less energetic (“its silver bones that are” is a much more passive construction). Also, “[i]ts silver bones” isn’t as interesting or surprising (for a shopping cart) whereas a “womb of silver bones” is much more so, both imagistically and sonorously.

The image relates the part of the cart meant for carrying to a womb, which brings in lots of interesting associations: the cart as a female body, as a mother figure, as (re)productive, as a source of birth. But yet this fecund place is metallic (silver) — maybe that glitter is magical or alchemical or symbolic — or maybe fruitless?

Likewise “bones.” Is that a fetal image or one of death? What is a “womb of bones”? It doesn’t sound good, quite like a death image, although of course we grow bones inside the womb and they’re not the dry rattling Wasteland bones of T.S. Eliot. I have a line in the same book describing fetuses as “soft-fisted swimmers.” What if they were silver-fisted?

I wonder how this “womb of silver bones” relates to shopping? To cultural icons? The poem refers to getting old and aging with is, of course, related to birth and the life cycle. Also, the w of womb and wheels plays nicely and there is an interplay with the o of womb and of bones, and those m’s in remember.

As you note, in the final draft, I put back the “flesh and lightning” which I liked for its contrast of images (this is also present in the womb and the silver bones line). All the way through the poem, there’s a contrast between the organic and the non-organic and how they relate. And also, between some kind of energy — “light” or “lightning” or life-force — and the corporeal (whether embodied in a deer or shopping cart) so I can imagine why I added the line back in.

I can also see why I chose to end with the “womb of silver bones” line — that’s a stronger image and one that ultimately embodies the energies of the poem. It also has a better rhythm and sound for ending the poem, I think.

Your earlier versions of the poem contained normative capitalization and punctuation, as the ending drafts show, and I’m wondering why you moved away from this?

There are two reasons. One is that in putting poems together in a book, I want to standardize how I handle punctuation and capitalization so that when there is a deviation it is meaningful, either in terms of semantic or musical notation. In this book, I opted for no capitalization (except for the first person “I”) and to reduce the use of punctuation wherever possible. Part of this is an impulse toward minimalism and concision: I try to use only the signs that are absolutely necessary and include nothing extraneous or non-essential. Part of the decision also stems from the thought that I am signaling that this is specialized linguistic space. It’s not expository text but a particular kind of textual music.

I also like the idea of the contrast between the energy of the poems (their “meaning” or their images) and the fact that they are made from such unpresupposing and plain materials. Even the choice of a very simple and inconspicuous unselfconscious typeface is part of that.

When you are making changes in editing like this, what are the typical things you are trying to do? In other words, what are your usual editing goals, other than the vague “improve the poem”?

As I mentioned, I do try to eliminate anything extraneous, to compress and compact. I try to remove any weak spots, any dips in energy, any “filler” or merely functional text. I look for opportunities to tweak the poem in order to create the most energy. This doesn’t mean that the poem is necessarily a blur of high-intensity gesticulation. Sometimes it means that it is a quiet yet steady flow, or perhaps, better, an ebb and flow. I look for places that I haven’t considered, places that aren’t doing anything particular and see if I can make something of them. I also see if by changing the order of lines or images, or by eliminating or modifying words, phrases, or images, or by reorganizing the shape or size of stanzas, and linebreaks, I can generate more textual electricity at whatever is the appropriate wattage for the particular poem.

When I teach, I tell my students to “trust the writing, it knows more than you.” I try to be guided by this. I really believe that by trying not to get in the way or impose one’s own expectations or desires, but rather by listening carefully, by looking for opportunities and possibilities and then by tinkering, tweaking, buffing and shining to attempt to bring out the innate music of the poem (whether punky, brash, luminous or shimmery), the inherent “genius” of the language and culture will make the text far richer than if you relied on your own conscious desires for it.

Connect

What do you think of Gary’s poem? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook, or send me an e-mail — and if you haven’t already, join my mailing list and keep in touch.

Support this site, Gary Barwin, and Coach House Books by buying Gary’s book through these affiliate links:

The Porcupinity of the Stars

( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

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“Serial Killers” by Kathryn Mockler

A poem + an interview

Kathryn Mockler is the author of the poetry books The Purpose Pitch (Mansfield Press, “a stuart ross book,” Spring 2015), The Saddest Place on Earth (DC Books, 2012), and Onion Man (Tightrope Books, 2011). Her writing has been published in The Butter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Found Press, Geist, and This Magazine. Currently, she is the Toronto editor of Joyland: a hub for short fiction and the publisher of the online literary and arts journal The Rusty Toque.

Author Photo 2014

“Serial Killers” is from The Saddest Place on Earth ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

Kathryn’s other books are available here:

The Purpose Pitch ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

Onion Man ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

Serial Killers

Humanity is stopped in its tracks when everyone is sterilized to eliminate the human race. Basically it’s mass suicide.

Wow that’s a good idea.

They’ve decided to let the plants and animals take over to see if they fare any better.

So in this scenario getting pregnant is the worst thing you could do for mankind.

Yes, it’s worse than serial killers.

This sounds romantic. This sounds too good to be true.

Interview

I read your poem “Serial Killers” not long after reading Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM ), in which he outlines the philosophical history of pessimism and the idea that consciousness is an evolutionary mistake and humans should march into self-extinction. I then watched the first season of True Detective ( Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM ) and recognized wholesale borrowings from Ligotti there, when Rust is going on about the same ideas.

By the time I read “Serial Killers” the idea wasn’t so weird, but when I teach the poem students are shocked by the extreme oddness of the idea. I’m wondering, first of all: how did you come to grasp this concept and write this poem?

First of all, this concept is basically my world view which is the reason I enjoyed the first season of True Detective and Ligotti (which you had recommended to me a while back). I’m not one of those people that think life is good and we should be grateful to have been born.

I think life is pretty much a horror show and no one gets out unscathed. There are moments I enjoy in life and there are things and people I like and love of course especially my husband and my sister and mother—I’m not dead in inside (completely!), but on the whole if someone (or my parents) had given me a choice to live or not exist then my choice would have been, no thanks, I’ll pass on life.

The first line of the poem Serial Killers is screenplay idea that I’m developing. Jason Camlot edited The Saddest Place on Earth and he sent me about 10 or 15 suggested titles and just said go and write a bunch of poems from these titles. He gave me one week to do this, and Serial Killers was one of the titles.

That week I wrote about 15 poems. Of course a bunch were terrible and didn’t make it into the collection, but having the title prompts and time limit put the right kind of pressure on me and I was able to write a lot. In my searching for poems and ideas, I started flipping through my notebooks and pulled out the tag line for a screenplay that I was working on: “Humanity is stopped in its tracks when everyone is sterilized to eliminate the human race.”

I thought this line kind of fit nicely with the theme of the book, so I just used it as the starting point for the poem and just went from there.

But essentially the poem is literal and describes the way I actually feel about the world and humanity.

This poem, like many of yours, can be read either as a monologue or a dialogue. How did you hit on this structure and why did you find it appropriate for this poem?

Many of the poems in The Saddest Place on Earth and my recent book The Purpose Pitch have a dialogue or monologue structure. I don’t try to do it, but it just comes out that way.

You know, I’ve never written a play, but I think I might be a frustrated playwright because almost all my stories, poems, and even my screenplays are more like plays than anything else.

The poem resembles poetry less than it resembles a movie story pitch meeting. In fact, I sometimes use this poem in screenwriting classes to show how you can start developing a story by teasing out the implications of a basic premise (since a premise is not a story). You teach at a film school — how do you find film influencing your poetic writing?

Although I started writing poetry first as a creative writer, the majority of my adult writing life has been as a screenwriter. I went to UBC and my thesis was a feature film which was optioned and went through a long development process but didn’t end up getting made. In 2005, I went to the Canadian Film Centre where I had a couple of short films made.

I started writing poetry again in 2008 after becoming really frustrated with the film world. Having to rely on funding to create something really bothered me, so I went back to writing poetry where I didn’t need a grant or millions of dollars to write what I wanted. But I really identified as a screenwriter and had a lot of trouble when people called me a poet.

I still don’t really think of myself as poet even though I write poetry. I turned to poetry for creative freedom. Although I absolutely love reading poetry and I’m passionate about publishing it, I’m not much interested in the concerns of poets—especially all the infighting. I’m not interested in rules or any kind of poetic purity. I write what I want and I call it a poem if I feel like it.

Partly my attitude towards poetry is a reaction to the structure of film writing and the reliance on other people and money. If you’re a screenwriter and you’re not directing the film you’re writing, you don’t have creative control and that is something I wanted again and poetry gave it to me.

It’s not surprising, given my background, that the poem would resemble a pitch meeting because I had spent so many years pitching scripts and ideas to other writers, directors, producers, and agents.

Image is at the heart of both genres and that’s what makes them not so different from each other. Film writing is really visual story telling and there’s a lot of poetry in film writing because of that. Harmony Korine’s films scripts, for example, read like poems.

The big difference between the genres of course is that filmmaking and screenwriting require collaboration. I teach in a creative writing program, and one thing I really try to help my students develop in my screenwriting classes is their ability to give and receive feedback and to work with others.

I tell them that if you want to be an asshole be a poet because poets don’t need to rely on anyone, but if you want to work in film, you need to learn how to work with others. Not that there aren’t asshole directors and screenwriters, but, wow, it really sure helps a lot when you’re starting out to not be an asshole.

The ending line often shocks and startles readers. Did you have alternate endings for this poem, in earlier drafts? How did you hit on that ending line?

To be honest, I can’t really recall how I came to this ending. Endings are usually instinctual for me. But in dialogue poems, I think I’m conscious of trying to say something unexpected to avoid the poem from getting repetitive or boring.

I guess having a speaker say that the extinction of the human race is romantic is something that one might not expect at the end of a poem.

What do you think of Kathryn’s poem? Let me know on Twitter or Facebook, or send me an e-mail — and if you haven’t already, join my mailing list and keep in touch.

Support this site, Kathryn Mockler, and her publishers by buying Kathryn’s book through these affiliate links:

“Serial Killers” is from The Saddest Place on Earth ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

The Purpose Pitch ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

Onion Man ( McNally | Amazon.CA | Amazon.COM )

Frosty the Existentialist Snowman

Once upon a time some children were playing outside in the middle of the winter, near Christmastime. The day was warm, and the snow sticky, and so the children decided to build a snowman.

snowman_over

They rolled three balls of snow, each smaller than the other, and stacked them up. They found a carrot and placed it in the centre of the top ball, as a nose. Then, they used lumps of coal to suggest eyes and a wide smile. They found some leafless branches for arms, and wrapped a scarf around the snowman’s neck.

The children agreed that the snowman needed further decoration. On the street nearby, half-submerged in the snow, lay a discarded top hat. One child dug the hat out of the slush and, brushing it off, placed it upon the snowman’s head.

As soon as the hat had been laid on its head, the snowman began to stir as it came to life. The children were startled, but, as children do, they accepted the event without question or fear.

The snowman was disoriented. He looked around at the children gazing up at him, then down at his thin, fragile stick-hands.

“Who are you?” the snowman asked.

“We are the children of the neighbourhood,” answered the oldest, “and we have built you out of snow on this warm winter day.”

“Who am I?” the snowman asked.

“Your name is Frosty,” the child answered, “and you are our friend.”

“Then play with me,” said Frosty to the children, mouth frozen in a smile. “The day is warm. The sun is shining. Soon, I will melt. Play with me now, while I still live. Hurry.”

The fun continues in December with a second Toronto reading, at the Rowers Pub!

Date: December 7, 2015
Time: 6:00 p.m.
Event: Rowers Pub Reading Series
Sponsor: Rowers Pub Reading Series
Venue: The Central
Location: 603 Markham St.
Toronto, ON
Canada

Excited for Lit Live, where I’m reading alongside Donna Langevin, Pearl Pirie, Ron Schafrick, Maureen Hynes, and Ruth Roach Pierson!

Date: December 6, 2015
Time: 7:30 p.m.
Event: Lit Live Reading Series
Sponsor: Lit Live
Venue: Homegrown Hamilton
Location: 27 King William St.
Hamilton, ON
Canada

Excited to be reading at the PIVOT reading series alongside Laura Clarke and Amina Farah! See you in Toronto!

Date: December 2, 2015
Time: 8:00 p.m.
Event: Pivot Reading Series
Sponsor: Pivot Readings at The Steady
Venue: The Steady Café
Location: 1051 Bloor St West
Toronto, ON
Canada