by JIM NASON
TORONTO REVIEWS VICTORIA
QUEER POSITIONS, NAKED PROSE:
THE VULNERABLE WE
We Are Not Avatars: Essays, Memoirs, Manifestos
[Windsor: Palimpsest Press, 2019, SALE: $15.96]
In 2007, along with Billeh Nickerson, John Barton edited Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets. At the time, standing with my contributors copy in hand, I had no idea of the significance of what I was holding. A dozen years later, I now see the ground-breaking importance of that anthology. It was the first attempt to bring queer voices together, to apply a critical analysis, and historical framework to some of Canada’s most marginalized. I remember flipping through the pages and finding a few poets whom I knew, but many more whom I didn’t know. They’re gay? I would say, as I turned the pages – who knew?! I felt proud, but more importantly, I felt visible and included. I was We.
In the introduction to We Are Not Avatars: Essay, Memoirs, Manifestos, Barton’s first full-length work of literary criticism, the author informs us that he writes to “find a community of like minds and to ensure the community is heard.” In particular, Barton addresses the queer community, for his queerness “infuses every word and accomplishment” (p.14). The insistence that for him and other gay men queerness “informs our attitudes, locates our polestars, and filters the light that guides us” (p.14) is stated with conviction, clarifying who is intended by the We pronoun in the title of the book.
From this identity position, We Are Not Avatars explores queer sexuality and much more besides. The book is divided into four thematic sections—Men of Honour, Phantom Diary, Snow Angels and Inside the Blind— that steep the reader in personal history, politics, philosophy, art, and religion. They tell stories, ask questions, and roar against apathy. The first section begins with an essay, “Visible but Not Seen: Queer Expression in the Age of Equity,” which itself opens on November 28, 2017, the moment when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is standing in the House of Commons. Trudeau’s apology to the LGBTQ2S community on behalf of the federal government for forcing thousands of queer people out of the civil service, the RCMP, and the military until the early 1990s is juxtaposed against the 2017 arrest of Bruce McArthur, who was the serial killer who preyed upon racialized and Caucasian men in Toronto’s gay village. In the early going, then, the reader begins to intuit that the We of this book includes anyone who has ever been marginalized, victimized, persecuted, or forced into hiding his or her full identity because of state-sanctioned hatred and oppression.
In the prose that follows, I write less out of a spirit of analysis and critique, but rather out of the immense satisfaction and elation I feel at having queer Canadian poetry history and memoir, once again, finding its first published utterance in Barton’s voice. I write to share what Barton covers, in order to attract readers to this key text, because I think my own reactions to Barton’s vulnerability will be useful markers for others to gauge whether they should read this book.
The title essay, “We Are Not Avatars: How the Universal Disembodies Us, begins: “How often have we heard critics pronounce a book good because they feel its author has succeed in saying something universal about the human condition?” Barton continues, “Over the years, I have become suspicious of the universal… the universal embraces everything and everyone and, therefore, everything and everyone must exude it” (p.64). Why the suspicion? Why this harangue against the universal? The answer comes soon enough. “As a queer writer of emphatically homoerotic texts,” he writes, “I have often felt marginalized and made to feel that what I write about is not the common ground that most readers expect to find beneath their feet” (p.65). Barton writes that it took a while to “disabuse” himself “of the universal”. However, when he did disabuse himself, he did it with a deep awareness of his place in the literary world, and with a sense of purpose.
I’m pleased that Barton included “’It Will Be Me’: Stayin’ Alive, AIDS as Part of Life, and Life Writing” in this book for many reasons. Barton’s review of an anthology called Still Here, written by thirty-one Torontonians living with HIV/AIDS and edited by Allan Peterkin and Julie Hann. The contributors to this anthology had attended one or more of the fourteen groups that Hann and Peterkin led over seven years. Barton discusses the impact of these individuals telling their “stories.” These mostly anonymous contributors puts Still Here in the context of other AIDS literature such as Paul Monette’s Borrowed Time (Memoir), Thom Gunn’s The Man With Night Sweats (poetry), Tony Kushner’s Angels in America (drama) and Michael Cunningham’s The Hours (fiction)—“great works embraced by straight readers and critics almost as rapturously as they were by queer readers and critics” (p. 90). He rightly concludes that Still Here’s “contributors are not writing to establish reputations or achieve immortality. They have committed to the page in order to connect with themselves and others, to stay alive” (p.92).
“Queer Rose Country,” the first essay in the second section of the book, is a very personal account of Barton’s “coming out” journey and it reminds me of a time in my life when I too was living in Calgary, in the closet and struggling to come out. This self-loathing yet-to-be-poet was deeply buried in the vocabulary of denial and shame. “Queer Rose Country” reminds me of my struggle, but also the struggle I share with other gay men looking to accept themselves, struggling to find a voice that is straight enough, man enough, to fit in. The bar that Barton writes about, Murtz, was the place where I had watched my first drag show and, in a drunken stupor, had my first kiss with a man in Marilyn Monroe drag. The essay discusses Everett Klippert, “the last person in Canada to be arrested, charged, prosecuted, convicted, and imprisoned for homosexuality,” immediately bringing me back to, as Barton puts it, my own “learned vocabulary of shame” (p.129).
This section of the book also includes an important essay about Barton’s literary journey with Emily Carr. His earlier book, West of Darkness, is an extraordinary exploration into the life of Carr. Barton writes that she had become his “muse and anchor for six years” (p.132). He takes on the complex issue of gender and voice appropriation with integrity and grace, acknowledging the significance of his poetic quest and the “no regret” outcome of where writing the poems took him. In crafting the poems in response to Carr’s art, he acknowledges that her paintings gave him “a visual vocabulary to experience any grief [he] may have felt in [his] own life and to hide it in plain sight”. Barton discusses whether or not it was appropriate for him, as a man, to appropriate the voice of a female artist. In the end, he concludes that what he had written was “an attempt at empathy, not theft” (p.145). His writing is, as always, clear-headed and vulnerable.
In an effort to encourage students in my writing classes to understand how great writing works to bring suffering from a concept in the brain to something that is real, in the body, and on the author’s page, I ask them to read Joan Didion’s 1968 essay, “In Bed”. Didion’s ability to write about physical pain in strong, clear prose, interjected with emotions, is almost too painful to read. Recently, however, after reading “The Pain Closet: Outtakes From a Phantom Diary,” I have abandoned Didion for Barton’s essay and it’s passionate precision. In the middle of the book, from the core of his physical being, Barton’s essay begins: “Last night, after a long day of puzzling rectal pain so deeply set and illuminating that it gave actual teeth to the word ‘viscera’,” I struck on a likely way to dislodge it” (p.163).
The Snow Angels section of the book is rich with friendships between Barton and women whom he admires for various reasons, such as Diana Brebner, Pat Lowther and Ruth Roach Pierson. In his essay, “Fluid Epiphanies: Margaret Avison’s “The Swimmer’s Moment,” Barton writes: “Avison articulated for me a sense of destiny I have never completely lost—not just to be a poet of substance but, more significantly, to be a fully realized human being. To become the latter—and even the former—meant braving the sacred tests that life presented” (p.182). For its part, “Time at a Standstill: Ruth Roach Pierson, Ekphrasis, and the Museum of Memories” describes its eponymous subject as: “an autobiographical poet with a historian’s perspective, wise to how over-focusing on the self inflate’s one’s self-importance. Ruth’s poetic self is aware of other’s selfhood, the ‘us’ of society and the ‘you’ of friendship and intimacy”. Barton discusses Pierson’s Aide-Memoire “as a contemporary museum of lived and relived experiences, some of them direct responses to works of art; others, response to human memory, the most artful of pursuits” (p. 213). “Time at a Standstill” helps us to appreciate Pierson’s ability as “an autobiographical poet with a historian’s perspective, wise to see how over-focusing on the self inflates one’s self-importance.”
The final section, Inside the Blind, opens with a plea to poets to “open their drawers more often” (p. 236) in “Where Have All the Poets Gone?” and includes an accounting of his experience as an editor at Arc (“Aspiration, Devotion, and Community: A Short Introduction to the Long Life of a Little Magazine”). This section of the book is rich in insight and instruction on topics as varied as the role of literary contests in CanLit and the editorial process. He writes, “while acknowledging my very deep reservations about how contests and awards are shaping literary magazines and literary culture in an age of reality TV, I can’t see any way forward without them” (p.250).
“Inside the Blind: On Editing Poetry” is a gift to poets and editors alike. It opens with a question posed by journalist Sameer Rahim in the Telegraph after Scottish poet John Burnside won Britian’s T. S. Eliot Prize in 2012: “Is it ever possible to retrace, let alone imagine, the sleights of ‘unseen hands’ behind the editing of poetry, ‘that most personal and mysterious of literary forms?’” It discloses Barton’s rules for himself about giving feedback to poets during his tenure at Arc poetry magazine that include: “Never make suggestions about poems that I never want to see again or would never publish in revised form” (p.254) and “always remain indifferent to the outcome” (p. 255). Barton provides readers with a comprehensive overview of the editorial process with a poem by Maureen Hynes, “Wing On”, submitted to The Malahat Review. The to-and-fro correspondence between poet and editor is revealing and, at times, reads like an editorial manual that includes a debate about the poem’s dedication to James Schuyler, line length, punctuation, which images to call up, and even the ending of a poem that was already solid and included in Hynes’ book The Poison Colour (Pedlar Press). An established and award-winning poet, Hynes appears open to Barton but stands her ground on a few of his suggestions and throws back a few of her own. In the end, Barton writes: “I was still satisfied that she had addressed all of my key concerns, if not exactly in the ways that I had proposed” (p.269). Barton is a master poet and scrupulous technician. This essay sheds light on the editorial process in a manner that is sincere and informative—it’s one of Avatar’s essays that will live on in the literary world for years to come.
The final two entries in We Are Not Avatars—“Vulnerability, Embarrassment, and the Final Draft” and “Endings: On Closure”—are brief, almost poetic in their sensibility. Like much of the writing in the book, they are both personal and professional, reflecting a deep knowledge of CanLit. He says the poet “must train himself to be ruthless, to be sensitive to every social aesthetic nuance and valence of language.” He pulls no punches: “Embarrassment has everything to do with technique, with how well language is deployed; vulnerability is tied entirely to what the poem is about, to what language expresses. I write against embarrassment and cultivate vulnerability” (p.294).
Timely and timeless, We Are Not Avatars fearlessly interrogates the cultural norms of the last five decades and should be featured in bookstores, libraries, and classrooms immediately. As I read Avatars, I reflected on Barton’s maxim that we read for two reasons: “to see ourselves by having our experience of the world elucidated for us,” and “to learn something new by having our experience of the world broadened, if only vicariously.” True to form, this book satisfies both motivations. Having digested his thoughts and words, I feel his passion and intention and I am grateful for how his words have embraced me and informed who I am.
Jim Nason is the author of six volumes of poetry, a short story collection and three novels. He has been a finalist for the CBC Literary Award in both the fiction and poetry categories. His most recent poetry book Rooster, Dog, Crow was shortlisted for the 2019 Raymond Souster Award, and his poems have been included in anthologies across the United States and Canada, including The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2008, 2010 and 2014. Jim is the founder and organizer of Canada’s annual human rights poetry event Meet Me in the Middle: Writers on Rights. Visit Jim’s website at www.jimnason.com.