Victoria poet John Barton, perhaps as well known as the editor of The Malahat Review as for his 10 previous books of poetry, has just launched Polari, a new collection with Icehouse Poetry, an imprint of Goose Lane Editions. Co-editor of Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, he has won a number of writing honours, including three Archibald Lampman Awards and a CBC Literary Award. He teaches poetry workshops across Canada, at such places as The Banff Centre, the Sage Hill Writing Experience and the University of Victoria. He recently answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions about Polari in an e-mail exchange.
John, I like the title of your new poetry collection, Polari. Can you tell me a little about when you first learned about the word, derived from the Italian parlare, which you define as a “coded anti-language or idiolect at one time spoken by gay men.”
Polari? I am not sure when I first became aware of the term, exactly. In the last 10 years, maybe longer? I would hear mention of polari, then forget what it was or how to spell or pronounce it, go searching for it, find it and forget it again, in a long, irritable and irritating cycle, until one day it stuck.
Of course, I am not of the generation who would have used polari terms in order to pass, since the reasons behind needing to “pass” are now nowhere near as relevant as they were sixty years ago (or more precisely thirty years before I came out)—at least not in the part of the world and the stratum of society that is mine. It’s a different matter in Russia or Uganda, for instance—and God knows how one chooses to pass in either. However, I am old enough to remember when the society I belong to was not as open-minded and the urge to speak plainly did truly involve risk—though not risk of imprisonment. I am sure gay men do still talk differently amongst themselves than they would if “non-gay” people were present—and when “non-natives/speakers” are part of the exchange, “experiences” are “translated” for them. Any group is like this.
I realized a few years ago that anyone who might overhear a group of gay men discussing matters solely of their mutual concern might still find the conservation hard to follow. This tendency toward opaqueness—toward this anti-language—is a way of marking and restricting space—and even of policing access of it. The idea of polari even became a kind of joke to me—”Oh, am I speaking in tongues again—LOL?”
I can’t claim that I was consciously thinking about all these ideas while writing the poems collected into this book, but after writing the title poem it occurred to me that “polari” helped characterize their texture. The surface “beauty” of their language is a protective crust that challenges the reader to take a firm bite—sharpen those intellectual incisors!—by reading carefully (and sympathetically) in order to break through to whatever substance resides within. (Or so I vaingloriously and self-consciously think.)
I also enjoyed the way you played with rhyming language in this collection. There was a time – not too long ago – when Free Verse Ruled; a poet dared not rhyme words for fear of being thought fusty, but now I see it cropping up in many contemporary books of poetry. Can you talk a bit about this shift?
Observing metrics and rhymes has fallen in and out of fashion since the origins of modernism in the early part of the twentieth century. The current vogue in Canada found its inspiration in the New Formalism movement that began taking hold in the United States in the mid-1980s, with Canadian poets like the late Diana Brebner taking up the influence in her work; I can’t think of anyone who would have tried her hand at such formal concerns in Canada as early as she did—or at least not as well. Today, Matt Rader and Elizabeth Bachinksky, I believe, are among the best practitioners.
For myself, I grew tired of writing in free verse and was looking for a new challenge, which so-called traditional, rhyming forms offered. I had written a little bit of formal verse—the sestina, the sonnet, and the villanelle—when I had been a student over 30 years ago, but had never explored the opportunities to be found in formal writing with any focus until eight years ago.
Writing a formal poem is akin to offering different appetizing tidbits to a fussy eater, having them refused one after the other until said child (or poem) takes a bite and some sustenance—and substance—has been both derived and transferred. It takes patience and inventiveness—much more than I would have ever guessed, especially once one gets beyond thinking that merely observing the rules is enough—the “what a nice plum, what a good boy am I” syndrome. Writing a formal poem is less like filling in the answers to a crossword puzzle than designing a mandala—it’s all about balance and intent. I like how adhering to a strict syllable count and a subtle rhyme scheme forced me to make decisions I might not have had to make had I chosen to write a free-verse poem. I might settle early on for something reasonably satisfying in the latter, whereas to get to something satisfying in the former takes much more tenacity. Writing formal poems expanded my vocabulary, made me more flexible in my expectations, and open to change. Writing in form is like doing aerobics or weight training; writing free verse is like going for a nice walk with great scenery, and if you have a dog, picking up after it.
Writing formal verse has re-enforced my belief, developed while writing free verse, that it doesn’t matter which words you use as long as they work well together. The challenge ultimately becomes how to write a formal poem that still feels contemporary. For example, I decided not to be a stickler for singsong metrics—ten syllables always, but not necessarily in iambic pentameter. You want the formal attributes to support the poem and not be the end in itself. Also, to match the form to the subject can be crucial; it can make the tension between traditional form and the contemporary subject a subject of inquiry too. However choosing a form arbitrarily, without regard for the subject, and then making it seem like the obvious and only choice is great fun too.
Some of your titles — I am thinking of “Bombproof Your Horse” or “The Book of Marmalade . . .” — tackle the world with a wry eye that simultaneously notes its violence and its mundanity. Is that a renewed tension in your work?
The absurdity of these titles—which are titles that have won a Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year—automatically draw attention to itself, doesn’t it? They bring the humour implicit in my work right to the surface. That said, I agree this book is wryer than my previous books. Humour is a defense mechanism we all deploy to sample a smorgasbord of personal and social hurts—a way to make them visible, to decry them if necessary, and if we are lucky, to put them into perspective. Up to a point, self-deprecation is so much attractive than self-aggrandizement. I might not have been able to write many of these poems had humour not empowered me to do so. In the case of the Diagram Prize poems, they might not have occurred me at all.
John, you have lived and worked in many regions of Canada – Saskatoon, Fredericton, Calgary, Ottawa – and your family history in this country goes back a long way. Do you think of certain of your poems as products of geography, or is your relationship to space and place more nuanced than that?
I am not sure what place means to me any more, having moved about so much. It is a pleasant wallpaper against which I live my existence. Now my response is less one of a tourist, by which I mean I don’t write a poem simply because I have been somewhere (though I have written my share of such poems)—a temporary geographic cure equivalent to grazing at a salad bar. I suppose I see locale as an opportunity to give a particular concern a context. Sometimes, through the concern in question, I become connected to the place where a poem is set. Writing a poem set in a familiar location renews my connection to it. “I am somewhere, therefore I am a particular am”—and am forever. How many tourists taking selfies of themselves with a smart phone can truly say that?
I’m an old fogey, I fear, but I think our use of language is growing less precise every day. Is there any one essential piece of advice you like to give the emerging poets you mentor in workshops?
No poet can afford to be imprecise, if she or he hopes to be any good. Anyone who aspires to the craft (however fey that may sound), should never allow themselves to think that their readers will get the gist of what is intended—i.e., don’t become too wed to what you’ve put down in your initial draft and think it’s good enough. Instead, revise, have fun, agonize, fall in love with your genius, despair, be surprised, and explore. And most importantly, be your toughest and best reader.