What We Have Allowed to Be Expressed: An Interview with John Barton

By Andrea Routley

In the Summer of 2013, The Antigonish Review published a review by David B. Hickey of three new books of poems by Norman West Linder, Jan Conn, and John Barton. The tone of Hickey’s remarks about John Barton’s For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin: Selected Poems (Nightwood Editions, 2012) raises questions about the critical reception of queer-authored books in Canada. Andrea Routley, the editor of the queer arts and literature magazine Plenitude, interviews John Barton about his response to Hickey’s review and the larger issues it brings to scrutiny.

You have published ten collections of poetry, and are about to publish your eleventh, and your writing has appeared in magazines since 1980—a decade before the World Health Organization removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders. Have you noticed a change over the years in how reviewers write about your work?

My first openly queer book, Hidden Structure, appeared in 1984 and was the second title in the Ekstasis Editions’ catalogue. I think it attracted exactly one review, which, if I remember correctly, was positive. The modesty of its reception may have had less to do with the book’s content than with the visibility of the press at that early moment in its history. Almost 30 years later, it was added to the syllabus for a course Robert Lecker taught at McGill on the Canadian long poem in 2007, alongside such books as Dionne Brand’s Inventory and Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red. It has also been taught by Robert G. May at Queen’s University. In the interval between the book’s publication and its being included in course curricula, queer studies has emerged as a discipline, and society’s attitudes toward queer people have changed, making the hallmarks of our experience—coming out, for example—teachable talking points. However, if I consider the reviews my books have received cumulatively over the past three decades—some of them positive, some of them negative—I sometimes detect a certain anxiety among some of my reviewers whether they like the books or not. “Should I foreground the queerness of Barton’s work, or should I instead treat it as a matter of course and make little or no mention of it?” When they draw attention to it, their remarks often read as self-conscious—“Am I framing Barton’s poems properly? Am I using the right terms?” However, when they don’t bring it up, I feel erased. It’s not that reviewers bear me any ill will, but some seem uncertain or afraid of putting their critical feet down wrong. Their awkwardness becomes an undercurrent that pulls their readers along with them.

The thing about reviews is that they become part of the historical record, lying in wait in libraries like dinosaur bones for discovery by a researcher. When I was trying to decide which poems by Robert Finch to include in Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, I came upon John Sutherland’s damning review of Finch’s Governor General’s Award–winning book, Poems (1946). In an article that Susan Gingell-Beckmann published in Essays in Canadian Writing in 1982, she attributes the neglect of Finch’s work to Sutherland’s single review, implying that the aspersions it cast upon Finch’s “dandy” aesthetic isolated him as unsavory from the mainstream of Canadian taste. Whether Sutherland’s review can be cited as the cause of Finch’s marginalization, and whether Sutherland’s aspersions should be considered homophobic is another question—Gingell-Beckmann doesn’t say as much—since, at the time that Sutherland was writing, homophobia had not been articulated as a bias. It’s telling, though, that Sutherland tarred and feathered Patrick Anderson over some “questionable” content in his work two years earlier, to the extent that Anderson threatened to file a lawsuit against him. It takes very little to skew the reception of someone’s work permanently and not every researcher is as observant as Gingell-Beckmann. This is why it is crucial sometimes to call reviewers on their ill-considered, thoughtless, if unconscious deficiencies. 

In your introduction to Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets (co-edited by Billeh Nickerson, 2007), you wrote “It seems less interesting nowadays to consider what legitimately constitutes a gay poem or whether someone is a ‘gay poet’ versus a ‘poet who happens to be gay.’ The time to feel diminished or emboldened by labels—or to feel one should trumpet, duck, whistle around, or deny them (strategies that all imply hubris, anxiety, or discomfort)—should be long over.”

How do these labels—or avoidance of such labels—affect critical reception, by both straight and queer reviewers, of queer-authored works today?

Perhaps straight reviewers can be forgiven for being befuddled by all the labels the members of the LGBTTIQQ community have used to describe themselves over the course of the past 45 years—for one thing, we keep adding letters to our ever-more precise, ever more encompassing acronym. It suggests to me that identity, whether of the individual or the group, is an ill-fitting garment we keep adjusting to make our lumps and bulges—our uniqueness—more becoming or at least more apparent. When you don’t know what signifier to use to characterize the experience being documented in the book before you, how can you begin to adjust to its body temperature or go for the heart? I suppose I am more comfortable with someone using a label, any label, rather than nothing at all or allowing quotes from my poems or from my books’ cover copy to telegraph that my work is queer. When the reviewer doesn’t use any of the Q-words in their own voice, unknowingly or not they betray timidity, caution, discomfort, false neutrality, or an unexamined desire to do the right thing—whatever the reading of my work summons up in them. The queerness of my work, the place queer experience takes in my work, is a matter of fact—it is what it is—and increasingly I write about it without intentional blatancy or subterfuge. To ignore that it is one of my primary reference points would be like denying I breathe air. I hope—no, I expect reviewers to acknowledge it with the same naturalness, even if the interest in my work falls elsewhere. Queer reviewers, on the surface, seem to have no issue with the content, per se, and I think the queer community is more and more comfortable with a diversity of subjectivities about what constitutes queerness or what a queer writer may or may not write about. What often divides the responses of queer and straight reviewers is explicitness of the contents—or what is perceived to be sexually explicit. I’ve found that the former sometimes feel my work is insufficiently candid while the latter can find it to be far too much so.

Historically, how has critical reception of queer authors impacted the Canadian literary landscape?

By this question, I assume that you’re asking if critically well-received books by queer authors have entered into the mainstream of Canadian literature, to the point of being considered important or even canonical. Sinclair Ross’s As For Me and My House immediately comes to mind as a seminal work of Canadian literature by a gay man, as do the plays and novels of Michel Tremblay. Both men wrote in very different times and with different objectives, and Ross’s novel is not typically read as queer, though some queer theorists have done so, whereas Tremblay’s work is populated with drag queens, leather queens, and the like. The question must then be reposed: are their works valued for their queerness or for other attributes? Of course, we value them because they are works of art, but whether that valuation includes a genuine appreciation for how well they directly or indirectly plumb queer experience is open for debate, with the question needing to be rephrased again: how universal is a queer text? The question I’d pose in reply is: is empathy universal?

Your book, For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin: Selected Poems, was recently reviewed by David B. Hickey in The Antigonish Review. While Hickey praised the collection for “precision of [your] diction and rhythms,” the “genius of [your] metaphors,” and the way the reader “effortlessly trusts that what [you] [offer] was forged in an honest fire,” he criticizes the subject matter, claiming “there is no hinting at the ontological”—that the “universal, the communitarian reach of each poem is secondary in this [post-modern] aesthetic.” What is your reaction to this review, and how does “queer” factor into this example of critical reception—or does it?

I was mailed a contributor copy of the TAR issue featuring David B. Hickey’s review because two of my poems happen to appear immediately before it. His characterization of my book hit me so hard that I felt numb. I saw that characterization as homophobic. Before proceeding further, I don’t wish to suggest that I believe David B. Hickey himself is homophobic. Instead I want to point out that how he’s chosen to express his opinions—the freighted terms and language he’s deployed—has left him vulnerable to interpretations he may not have fully realized he has set himself up for.

There’s a term that I’ve recently come upon that perfectly defines what I believe is operating in Hickey’s argument: “implicit bias.” If I understand the term properly, it refers to a matrix of attitudes operating below the level of consciousness and without intentional control. A careful reading of Hickey’s review unmasks his implicit bias, which I believe is quietly expressed through covertly worked appositions.

Hickey begins with a quote from R. M. Vaughan’s introduction, which he uses to suggest that I write with an agenda: “A John Barton poem is, then, an interventionist act, a drag (in all gender directions) performance staged in Canadian poetry’s musty, briny Legion Hall, a poem just asking for trouble. John was ‘queer’ before the word became the Open Sesame! to tenure, and its subsidiary safeties.” Vaughan’s use of “queer” is the only time Hickey directly alludes to the “sexual orientation” of my work. Though he never otherwise refers to it, he works it as an invisible but ever-present thread through the rest of his review.

In addition to his not finding any ontological content to my work, there are several other places where his implicit bias betrays itself. Soon after quoting the introduction, he observes, “In so many of these poems—and so much contemporary poetry—the poet points at the pain and names it and renames it, over and over, or grabs it from various angles until it speaks for/to him. And hopefully for us.” He never gives my pain a name or character, but instead deprives it of its essence. His readers have to read back to “queer” and “interventionist” to give it some flesh. While he’d no doubt argue that by “us” in “And hopefully us,” he’d meant “readers” in general, it’s hard not to interpret it as referring to “non-queers”—i.e., readers who do not share this particular kind of pain, readers better known as “straights.” As a result, how could I fail to read “And hopefully us” as anything but arch at best or dismissive at worst?

If Hickey’s implicit bias ever becomes explicit, it is in what he says next: “The universal, communitarian reach of each poem is secondary in this aesthetic.” From this I can’t help but infer that he does not consider queer experience to have anything universal about it. It also allows him, in his next breath, to misconstrue the concluding stanza of “The Man from Grande Prairie,” one of the most “reaching” poems I’ve ever written:

We all carry a darkness inside us
that has nothing to do with
forest roads, cities, and moonless nights.
It is not what we are born to,
but it shadows forth within us
as we age, desire casting
silences longer than we can bear.
We all run before them, but must learn
to stop, learn to carry this darkness
toward each other with unblaming hands of light.

Hickey’s only critical observation about this stanza is “And so it goes.” So it goes, apparently, when it comes to my queer pain, in a poem where I generalize it—or so I thought—to embrace a shared experience of pain, regardless of its origin and who experiences it. Perhaps he’d argue that his problem is with my focus on my pain, not with what my pain is about, but how can the former be separated from the latter?

To stress such a separation, however, of course would deflect my reading of Hickey’s remarks. The average reader, unaware of how homophobia works, might not read them as homophobic because he never uses any of the Q-words in his own voice, here or elsewhere. Never once using them in his own voice is the equivalent of knowing how to hide in plain sight, which I suspect is how implicit bias remains implicit.

Hickey’s observation that there’s no ontological content to my work (nor apparently is there much eroticism either) is not too far from how Black people were characterized by white society prior to the civil rights movement and the American Civil War. Whether he knows it or not, he is implying that my queer experience—or, by extension, queer experience in general—has nothing existential about it, which he further elaborates by suggesting that, however intellectually challenging my poems may be, they’re not philosophical.

Hickey sums up his review by reasserting that any positive appreciation of my work as “interventionist” does not make a case for its merits. Funnily enough, I don’t disagree, but I do find it laughable that he dismisses my work while acknowledging my talent: “There is nothing awkward anywhere in this volume of John Barton. His mastery of line and detail and image is obvious from page one. A unique vision, for sure, but any interventionist friction is not a difference that makes a difference when it comes to imaginative translations of the muse.” His use of “friction” may be telling—perhaps my particular queer experience has produced a sort of frottage that’s discomfiting once in contact with Hickey’s critical erogenous zones—but his use of “difference” is troubling. It suggests to me that he reads my difference as not essentially part of the “universality” of human experience—that my pain (to focus on one of his preoccupations), once it’s stripped of any alienating queer specificity, is nevertheless not a pain that can be seen as in any way like anyone else’s pain.

I find his acknowledgement of my skill at the expense of my substance disillusioning. I’d always hoped that if my skills and my grasp of the so-called tradition would help readers warm to my themes. In my essay “We Are Not Avatars: How the Universal Disembodies Us,” which you published in Plenitude, I state that if, as an author, I hope to be read with empathy, “my obligation in return is to write well.” Hickey has reminded me that skill is sadly not enough.

You point out that Hickey latches on to R.M. Vaughan’s characterization of your work as “interventionist” and limits his reading to that label. As Vaughan wrote, “A John Barton poem is, then, an interventionist act, a drag (in all gender directions) performance staged in Canadian Poetry’s musty, briny Legion Hall, a poem just asking for trouble.” Given this was in the introduction to the book, why was this not a fair framework for Hickey to use?

I suspect Hickey appropriated “interventionist” in a way R.M. Vaughan never intended it to be used—certainly not as pejoratively. Vaughan draws the term from the stage, I believe—he is a playwright as well as a poet, novelist, and journalist—why else would he campily, frivolously, describe my poetry as a drag performance? Interventionist theatre aims to engage with its audience for social change. Often it is a collaborative endeavour, where the play itself is written and performed by the people it’s about, where the aim is to transform those staging the play as profoundly as those watching. I suspect that Vaughan views my poetry is an articulation and sharing of previously unheard or seldom spoken-about experience—at least when I first began writing and publishing. If my poetry must be characterized this way (and I don’t think that Vaughan could have guessed that the specifics of his introduction would be understood so narrowly), it’s clear that as a reader Hickey doesn’t want to be drawn into any sort of collaboration with me as a poet—or to be moved, let alone changed. This doesn’t bother me, but how he marginalizes me does.

I see my “interventions” to be simple requests for inclusion. If there’s “manifesto” behind my work, it’s best summarized by “Naked Hearts,” a poem I first drafted in 1980, when I was twenty-three years old, then initially collected in Great Men in 1990 and then in For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin in 2012:

In this century those like us
refuse like us
to live as if we have never been.

My “agenda” has always been to add my stories—the stories of queer people—to the shared discourse. That it took me ten years to publish “Naked Hearts” illustrates how much risk was involved in voicing queer experience in Canada over thirty years ago—at least for me (sexual orientation was not added as a protected category to the Canadian Human Rights Act until 1992). Hickey’s review is instructive about how much risk continues to be involved.

How do publishers present queer-authored work to reviewers? What role might this play in the ways it is critically received? 

I believe it is publisher-dependent, and it will vary from publisher to publisher. Publishers betray their biases and anxieties in all the material they may produce to support a book, including cover and catalogue copy. Anxiety may prevent them from submitting a queer book in place of a straight-themed book to the Giller Prize.

In the past, some publishers have minimized the queerness of their books because they felt it would limit readership and the consequent sales. Others pursued an opposite strategy, flaunting a book’s queerness because they began to see queer readers as a growing market segment, especially gay-male readers, many of whom were perceived to have reserves of disposable income ready for the tapping. By the 1990s, many American commercial publishers had queer imprints (an example is St. Martin’s Stonewall Editions) and significant queer writers on their lists—lists later they trimmed when publishing fell upon hard times in the 2000s, with a high percentage of queer authors, even prominent queer authors, jettisoned as marginal earners.

Dionne Brand said, “What some white reviewers lack is a sense of what literature that is made by Black people and other people of colour is about. If you read my work, you have to read Toni Morrison, you have to read Derek Walcott, Rosa Guy, Jean Rhys, Paule Marshall […] I don’t consider myself on any margin, on the margin of Canadian literature. I’m sitting right in the middle of Black literature, because that’s who I read, that’s who I respond to.”[1]

Can we talk about these experiences with straight reviewers of queer-authored work, such as yours (and Brand’s), in this same way? How important is a broader knowledge of queer literature in understanding queer-authored works today?

I wish I could feel as wholeheartedly in the centre of a literature as Brand feels she is, though I do feel that my first literature is queer more than it is Canadian literature, which is ironic given I edit The Malahat Review, one of our country’s most important literary journals. Ideally, I’d like to feel part of a visible queer literature that is recognized as part of Canadian literature. However, I don’t feel that such a recognition has yet come.

I have long read queer-authored books from the past and present in order to obtain a fuller sense of my place in a queer-centric tradition. Whether it’s reasonable of me or not, I still often feel that this tradition comes to me from outside of Canada. One of the reasons Billeh Nickerson and I co-edited Seminal was to help articulate a gay-male tradition of poetry in Canada because we both suffered the absence of such a tradition when we started out as writers and would have appreciated having Seminal put in our hands.

My approach to finding a queer tradition has always been idiosyncratic and haphazard, propelled by the whims of curiosity as much as intuition. In the same way that I gained entrée to Canadian literature through a copy of Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing I’d found displayed by chance in a drugstore spin-rack, Cabaret introduced me to Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories—it’s never occurred to me until now that I discovered both Atwood and Isherwood (and Canadian and queer literature) at the same time, when I was 17—the former immediately making me want to be a writer—a Canadian writer; the latter eventually leading me to my subject and to seeing myself as part of a transnational literature that has substantially longer narrative threads and is bigger in scope than Canada has thus far ever willingly allowed itself to be. As I read Edmund White, E.M. Forster, C.P. Cavafy, and Yukio Mishima (to name a few), it’s as if I am putting together an intricate puzzle of what the queer tradition is without having the picture on the box lid as a reference.

Ideally, a sensitive reader should be able to read and appreciate a queer-authored work without a previous grounding in queer literature. However, as with anything else, a curiosity about and a familiarity with what motivates queer authors will deepen that appreciation. For example, queer writers also speak to one another across time, two excellent recent examples being Alan Hollinghurst’s homage to Henry James in The Line of Beauty and the homoerotic thread in the trench poetry of the First World War Hollinghurst wove through his next novel, The Stranger’s Child. You can read both books without knowing much of anything about the queerness of James or the no-greater love that erupted among British forces under fire, but how much richer each book becomes when those stitches are hooked back in to the durable tweed of our unwary awareness.

 

Photo by Holly Pattison.

Photo by Holly Pattison.

John Barton has published ten collections of poetry and six chapbooks, including Hymn and For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin: Selected Poems from Nightwood Editions. Co-editor of Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay-Male Poets, he has won three Archibald Lampman Awards, an Ottawa Book Award, a CBC Literary Award, and a National Magazine Award. Since 1980, his poems have appeared in anthologies, magazines, and newspapers across Canada and in the United States, Australia, India, and the U.K. He has been writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library and at the University of New Brunswick, and has taught at the Sage Hill Writing Experience and at the Banff Centre. From 1985 to 2003, he worked as a librarian, a production manager, a publications coordinator, and an editor for five national museums in Ottawa, where he edited Vernissage: The Magazine of the National Gallery of Canada, and, in his spare time, Arc Poetry Magazine. He has lived in Victoria since 2004, where he edits The Malahat Review.

Andrea Routley is the founder and managing editor of Plenitude Magazine, Canada’s queer literary magazine. She is the editor of Walk Myself Home: An Anthology to End Violence Against Women (Caitlin Press, 2010), and author of Jane and the Whales (Caitlin Press, 2013).

As stated in the summer 2013 issue of the Antigonish ReviewDavid B. Hickey “writes and reads and sometimes gets published: poetry, essays, and reviews, in Atlantic Canada publications. He’s spent most of his life teaching in Newfoundland but currently resides in Kelowna, BC.”


[1] Quoted in Carol Morrell, ed., Grammar of Dissent: Poetry and Prose by Claire Harris, M. Nourbese Philip, and Dionne Brand, (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 1994. 170.

 

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