John Barton was born in Edmonton and raised in Calgary. He has published eight books of award-winning poetry and five chapbooks. His ninth, Hymn, is forthcoming from Brick in 2009. He is co-editor of Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay-Male Poets, which was published by Arsenal Pulp in 2007. His poetry has won three Archibald Lampman Awards, the Patricia Hackett Prize (University of Western Australia), an Ottawa Book Award, a 2003 CBC Literary Award, and a 2006 National Magazine Award. He was educated at the Universities of Alberta, Calgary, Quebec, and Victoria, and at Columbia University in New York, studying poetry with Gary Geddes, Eli Mandel, Robin Skelton, and Joseph Brodsky. Since 1980, his poems have appeared in over thirty anthologies and seventy-five magazines (often more than once) in Canada, the United States, Australia, India, and the United Kingdom. He worked as a librarian and editor for five national museums in Ottawa from 1985 to 2003, where he co-edited Arc: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine and edited Vernissage: The Magazine of the National Gallery of Canada. He lives in Victoria where he edits The Malahat Review. In 2008-2009, he is the twenty-eighth writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
I find it hard to pinpoint an exact moment that induced me to write. However, I believe that from an early age I was interested in words; learning to read exhilarated me with the realization that written language was a transcript of speech or thought—of course, I am framing a childhood memory with adult perceptions and terms! However, I believe that even at the time I understood words were containers meant to carry meaning and hold it for future use.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
I find it in diverse sources: personal experience (i.e. autobiography), including my interactions past and present with members of my family, friends, or even strangers; nature and land/cityscapes of great personal attraction; the visual arts; music; the life stories of historical figures; and contemporary social issues.
What is your writing process?
Often the poems I want to write involve prior research that will provide me with the details I need to make them believable—for example, a poem about the arrival of the Russian ballet maker, George Balanchine, in America requires a basic understanding of who the man was. Presently, I am exploring the use of traditional poetic forms—the sonnet, the villanelle, the sestina, the palindrome, etc.—as a way to push my voice in new directions in order to see if I can broaden its range. I spend a lot of time finding a form appropriate to the subject I wish to write about. Continuing with the example above, I chose the stanza form used by the Russian poet Pushkin in his verse narrative, Eugene Onegin, to compose my poem about Balanchine—“Russianness” being the connection.
I tend to research my poems in the morning and write them in the afternoon. If the writing is going well, I can write late into the night. Depending on the complexity of the poem, I can spend several days or even weeks writing the first draft.
What is your revision/editing process?
I am an obsessed reviser of my own work. I find the composition of a poem’s first draft to be fraught unpleasantly with anxiety, for until I have cranked out the last line, I feel no certainty that I will succeed in finishing the poem. Writing the first draft is like learning how to write all over again. The pleasure for me lies almost exclusively in the revision of a poem over countless drafts. On an emotional level, revision involves balancing vulnerability with embarrassment: I make sure that I do not remove those essential, often revealing characteristics that state its theme (and my essence as a writer) while also addressing all the technical weaknesses that I would feel embarrassed by, should the reader encounter them. Revision involves self-policing as a writer. Most poems do evolve to their final drafts over a short period of time, with a few additional changes made later on; however, there are other poems that can take up to twenty years to write. I have difficulty abandoning poems, so when I am not feeling terribly inspired to write something new, I will go back to unfinished poems and attempt to resolve their problems. It can take many attempts, often separated by many years, to get a poem right.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
I began to write poems in grade 10 or 11; mostly these poems were depressing “songs of myself” that allowed me to release whatever angst I might have been feeling at the time. They were mostly written disconnected from any sense of what poetry was, for back then I was not an experienced reader of the poetic canon. For me early on, poetry was wholly about self-expression.
When I was sixteen or seventeen, I read Margaret Atwood’s novel, Surfacing, which completely changed how I saw writing. For some reason, Atwood’s book resonated with me more than anything else that I had read up till then, as if I were being addressed for the first time in a language that I recognized as my own, that spoke to who I was and what concerned me. It caused me to read her other books, especially her books of poetry, which in turn led me to the work of other poets. Surfacing is the book that made me a writer.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
I recommend that young poets read lots of poetry by both canonical and contemporary poets; reading the work of others shows us the range of possibilities for expression that poetry offers. As to web sites, I would suggest that they explore the e-journal scene on the web. A good Canadian e-journal is The Danforth Review; another, which is about poetics, is poetics.ca. Also, there are an enormous number of poets’ blogs to read and many writers and writing organizations have pages on Facebook. Finally, they should check out the League of Canadian Poets (especially its section for young poets), Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and Poetry Foundation web sites.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
For me as a young poet, as I am sure for the many poetry-inclined high school students of today, it was hard to believe the poems that I read in books were written by real, breathing, flesh-and-blood people. Though I had never met her or had seen her read, I suspect that this is part of why Margaret Atwood attracted me so much; she was a Canadian writer and she was visible through the media through radio interviews, newspaper articles, etc.—all of which suggested to me that she was “close by”—unlike John Donne and Shakespeare. I encourage young poets to attend the countless reading series that are happening everywhere in cities today to hear poets read.