Gary Barwin

1. After twelve books of poetry, what questions do you seek to answer in a new collection?

I’m always looking for new questions or ways of questioning the old questions. In my forthcoming Bird Arsonist (New Stars, Feb 2022) the second collaborative book I’ve written with Tom Prime, I’m interested not only in ways of expanding the mind-meld of collaboration but of investigating the mind-meld of language, thinking, feeling and reading.

2. How has your background in music informed your writing?

I think it encourages me to trust the music, the associative and sensory dimension of language, and also how patterns of language, creature and receptions are everywhere. Also, I like to stage dive during poetry readings.

3. Could you share some details about the conception of your art installation involving old typewriters at the Art Gallery of Hamilton?

I was most interested in how the physical presence of a typewriter encourages creation. The gallery-goers couldn’t resist typing and telling their stories. It was something about the tactility and the powerful icon of the typewriter. I further encouraged the material pleasure of writing by processing the sounds of typing through microphones mounted on the typewriters attached to digital audio effects.

4. Yiddish for Pirates is set in 1492, could you share your research process for the title?

I began by thinking about what it meant that two significant events occurred in 1492: Columbus set sail west, and the Jews were expelled from Inquisition Spain. Then I read extensively about both. I also read about pirates and the fact that there were many Jewish and other types of pirates in the Mediterranean, some of whom took revenge on Spain for the expulsion, including a Jewish teacher who went to sea (i.e. became a pirate) to rescue some important Jewish texts. I also researched by reading about and meeting an African Grey Parrot (a parrot narrates the book.) I also studied Yiddish and old-fashioned nautical word lists in order to infuse my book with both. And, very significantly, I researched many Yiddish jokes. In many cases, I understood the research on an as-needed basis.

5. What memorable or formative experience around learning to write springs to mind?

I was given a typewriter for my Bar Mitzvah. A beautiful portable Olivetti. I would take it with me into the woods to write. The sound of writing mixing with the sounds of the forest. The physical presence of letters. Of language. Of pages being inscribed. Then writing on those pages with a pen to revise. Then retyping. My Olivetti was like a musical instrument to me. We worked together to create work together.

6. What specific song, painting, film, or other non-written art-work inspired your recent work?

I’ve been collaborating with the Indian/US writer and artist Dona Mayoora on several projects lately, including a recent video based on a striking performance piece that she did where she wrapped her head in a long strip of paper which she had painted on—it looked like she was wrapped in bandages, perhaps—and then proceeded to slowly cut herself free with scissors. I wrote music and poetry to accompany this recording. I found this simple iconic, archetypical action profound and inspiring.

7. What does it mean/suggest for you to think about your craft that you are able to grow with each published work? How do you do that? 

I do try to “grow” with each published work. Like a fungus. A child. A beard. But I try to let the craft guide me. By exploring new ways of writing, of listening more attentively to the possibilities of language and the work, by being more attuned to the process, trying to expand the ways that the work arrives and develops, I hope to continue to develop my range and, to quote Susan Howe, my “debths” as a writer. I try to undertake different kinds of projects with different collaborators and to renew my approaches to forms I’ve undertaken before.

8. Have you ever collaborated on a writing project with another writer? Or maybe you’ve collaborated with an artist/dancer/musician/actor? Can you share your experience?

Collaboration is a big part of my creative work. I am constantly collaborating with other writers but also with musicians and visual artists. I am keen to find myself bewildered, destabilized artistically, and questioning my own aesthetics, process and craft. I like to immerse myself in another’s sensibility—their artistic material and choices—and discover new ways for myself and for working together. I like to try to learn to be more flexible, to discover more tools or ways of thinking about writing. I also like the feeling of getting out of the way of the work and trusting the collaborative process that evolves between the collaborators. This may mean collaborating on the process before we begin, or allowing it to develop as we work, following a procedure suggested to me, or some combination of all of this.

9. What writing rituals or behavioral patterns do you follow in where, when, or how you write?

I tend to cover myself in chicken fat less often nowadays. I do maintain extended bouts of self-loathing and self-aggrandisement however, sometimes dressed as a lasagna or a lutenist. But I do believe in not fetishizing writing practices—i.e. not needing to be facing north by northwest with a special candle and your favourite running shoes while humming the theme to Hogan’s Heroes in order for the muse to arrive. I try to be able to write in many different situations, to be open and flexible which, hopefully, encourages my mind to be open and flexible. Of course, I do have some common patterns. I often write at my desk or on a treadmill. When writing novels, I aim for 500 words a day and I chart my progress on a graph. This helps keep me motivated and like I’m actually accomplishing something. It’s hard to track quality, but you can track quantity. Sometimes this means that I sneak off and write illicit poetry instead of the novel (as long as the process enables writing, I’m good with it) but mostly it means that I’m off the hook after I’ve reached my goal and can therefore experiment with other things, confident that the novel is progressing. A novel is a lot of words and requires you to keep the faith over a long time and not give the project up. My graph system helps me with that. When I get tired of writing in one place, I often go to another. So, I might go to a coffee shop, or into the woods, or a different place in my home, or the library. I mean, before Covid. For me, the goal is to know myself. So much of writing is about knowing and/or working with your own (possibly wonky) psychology. For me, once I understand that it’s about writing the way I write, by which I mean, my process and procedure, though I learn, of course, from how others’ do it, I have been able to enjoy it more, or at least feel more comfortable with the process.

Gary Barwin is a writer and multidisciplinary artist and has published 25 books of fiction, poetry and numerous chapbooks. His latest books include Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy and For It is a Pleasure and a Surprise to Breathe: New and Selected Poems, ed. Alessandro Porco. His national bestselling novel Yiddish for Pirates won the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award, was a finalist for both the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and was long listed for Canada Reads. He lives in Hamilton, Ontario and at

Listen to Gary Barwin reading “Archaeology”

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