Mini-interview: Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin is the author of 27 books including Nothing the Same, Everything Haunted: The Ballad of Motl the Cowboy which won the Canadian Jewish Literary Award and Bird Arsonist (with Tom Prime),The Fabulous Op (with Gregory Betts) and forthcoming, Portal (visual poems.) His national bestselling novel Yiddish for Pirates won the Leacock Medal for Humour and the Canadian Jewish Literary Award, was a finalist for 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

What draws me to the writer: Gary is a delight as a human and as a performer. If you get the chance to see him live, grab it, whether his music or his writing. His writing is flexible. He doesn’t typecast himself into a mood and syntax. His mind is alert and curious, compassionate, reflecting and respectful. It goes to dark places but does not cache the reader there as pemmican. It brings back context.

I don’t even know how many of his books I have. This one will go to the buy list as well.

Book: The Most Charming Creatures: Poems by Gary Barwin (ECW, Sep 20 2022)

Sample: Here’s a video of the poem that I made with Dona Mayoora: Here’s the poem itself (which will appear in the new book):


(after Lucretius 3.830–842)

Death is nothing to us, and matters not a road

since the soul is held to be like rain

Just as in times past we had no sensation and were not troubled

when we were the rain coming from all sides around the family car

and we on impact shook hard with tumult

trembled and quivered around Dad’s jokes and Mother’s breezy compromises

and no one knew which of us would win empire

and rule over family

just so, when we no longer are, when brother is gone from family

— those parts whose whole is our being —

nothing can happen, be sure of it, nothing can happen to us then

for then we shall not be, and nothing can make us feel

not if brother dissolves into rain, and from rain to puddle

and puddle to small rivulets which stream into the drain and darkness

But then this water, here where I kayak

here in this river, this lake

here under this flock of wintering & unmovable geese

here on its way to the rising salt sea

About the book:

With uncanny wit, inventive beauty, and numinous surprise, The Most Charming Creatures explores the contemporary and its language, considering our wonder, sorrow, bewilderment, anxiety, and tenderness. While these poems energize and connect and “turn the paren- / theses inside out so that / we mean everything,” they are also alive to the alluring complicity of language and its duplicity and deceptions. “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but / while we watch.”

A follow-up to the award-winning author’s acclaimed selected poems, this new collection continues Barwin’s examination of the possibilities of the poem: a celebration, a story, an investigation, a riff, a word machine, a parable, a transformation. But what are the “most charming creatures” of the title? In 1862, scientific illustrator Ernst Haeckel termed radiolarians (ancient single-celled organisms with mineral skeletons) “the most charming creatures,” but here Barwin turns the microscope around to consider something just as strange and mysterious: language, our culture, and the self. From microorganisms, onion rings, grief, and Gerard Manley Hopkins to beetles, neoliberalism, sandwiches, Martin Luther, and stand-up comedy, he offers: “it’s a miracle that we’ve survived / it’s a miracle that we’ve survived at all.”


PP: I’m curious about how your visual art and your writing play. Do you go into one mode, one form, or one idea, shunted towards words or image?

GB: I write in a variety of forms, and create visual art, music, video, all in various combinations. Truly, I don’t know that I feel a distinction between the media or how I work in them. I find myself making in one or the other, or a mix of them. Sometimes, it is about a certain initial impulse with material or process. Sometimes, one thing naturally develops into another. I think that each medium is just another dimension of the others. Of course, each one offers certain opportunities, has certain affordances, certain particular materials (sound, visuals, movement, etc.) but they don’t feel that different to me when working with them. Is mowing the lawn that different than making a sandwich? It is about process, about a balance of technique with material, it is locating oneself in the work, seeing what the materials suggest. Though last time I tried to eat a lawn, I got a swing set caught between my teeth.

PP: What do you consume that keeps play alive for you? What’s the secret to staying so alert?

GB: One of the things that keeps play alive, that helps me feel the possibility of exploration, of being open and also transcending my own self-imposed limitations is error. By making mistakes, but not trying too hard not to, and by being open to what they might suggest, I’m often shown another way to proceed, to consider something that I might not have. Another practice is collaboration. I continually collaborate with a wide range of writers and creative artists. Through this engagement, I can’t hold on to my preconceptions, or my ownership of work and processes, but instead have the opportunity to follow this new process, these other ways of conceiving of the work and the creative process. Of trusting the writing itself and the collaboration. I do try to work on craft and at getting better, to be able to do more things and do them better, but at the same time, I make a point of trying new approaches, of learning about other ways of writing and other approaches. I try to pay attention to what interesting writing is happening or has happened. I try to watch with three eyes and clap hands with one.

PP: Has the pandemic changed the tone or expression of your creativity?

GB: One thing that the pandemic changed for me was the amount of collaboration that I was doing. At this time when I felt a need for connection, for presence, for being out in the world, I ended up collaborating widely with many different people in many different places. I completed three collaborative books, several chapbooks, made many videos, created music, and wrote several manuscripts with people that I knew well but also with some that I didn’t. I also found that I made more of my own solo work. I felt need to make something positive, to have agency, to speak to the world and my position in it. As for the tone, I made more experimental work as well as work that was more directly emotional. It’s a really great question. I’ll be interested in looking back on these times and see how it changed things generally in the arts.