A revealing journey

By Amy Reiswig, November 2012

Poet and self-identified gay writer John Barton.

The very first line—“I’ve let you in.”— in John Barton’s new collection welcomes us into a poetic and personal world about broken boundaries, where the poet is vulnerable yet generous, blunt yet welcoming, and where he encourages us to see into ourselves while simultaneously taking us out of ourselves. 

For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin: Selected Poems (Nightwood, September 2012) offers, in chronological order book by book, 38 poems from Barton’s nine previous collections published over almost 30 years (1981-2009). This is more time than many of us will ever spend in our regular jobs or in any one relationship, and many of us would also likely hesitate to showcase our early selves, the people we have changed from. Barton’s opening poem therefore aptly draws attention to this opening up of himself, as the book’s journey through time reveals a man who struggled very consciously with that very idea: of revealing. 

For anyone who does not already know, the Alberta-born-and-raised Barton is gay and self-identifies as a “gay writer.” He is also often talked about as a social writer instrumental in normalizing the publication of gay experience. Yet Barton says his intention was not actually to be a social critic or advocate, but to simply explore basic human issues of fear, loneliness, pain, loss and, of course, that most universal of poetic subjects, love. “The idea of being ‘out’ before it was safe [as mentioned in the book’s intense and often hilarious introduction by R.M. Vaughan] didn’t ever really occur to me,” the gentle-voiced, bespectacled Barton explains over coffee, tucked inside Habit’s fishbowl window. While he reminds me that homosexuality was only decriminalized in 1969 and removed as a psychological disorder from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1973, he also tells me that he only turned 18 in 1975 and therefore wasn’t aware at that time of that history or of events like the Stonewall Riots. “I was aware of the fear of social consequences—not that I really knew what those would be—of publishing some of those early poems,” he recounts. “I had just graduated from UVic and hadn’t really found a social community. I remember the first time I showed any of that work to anyone—it was a big deal.” 

Now it’s thankfully less of a “big deal” for gay men or women to share in their art the kinds of personal details—desires, sensual and sexual scenes—that heterosexual artists have been putting on show for centuries. But one thing evidently occupying Barton’s mind from the beginning of his writing career is the ongoing need for empathy and compassion—for everyone. “Sadly, we haven’t moved far enough along,” he says, “so that the question ‘Who am I?’ is answered by ‘It’s all right.’” 

This collection shows that Barton doesn’t just observe his own experience but explores how his experience leads him into that of others. In the masterful piece “Hidden Structures” from 1984 he writes: “I know a woman who has crawled inside/the alarming shell of herself,/her voice a faint shock of sea over the phone./What she never says/tightens like lightning voluptuous/in a fist of cloud…She is nearly ready to say,/I want this, I want this,/meaning she does, meaning she doesn’t.” Later in that same poem he continues: “Father/put your head to my heart./Though you have left my mother/alone for another/like me I believe you are learning/to break free of the shell/of yourself./…Father I have no room for hate,” and he ultimately declares: “we are all first human beings/then women and men.”

While Barton is fine with being labelled as a gay writer (“I want to own it,” he declares), he also says that “sometimes the envelope gets in the way. People read my work and say, ‘It makes me feel foreign.’ Others, however, recognize that the love, no matter if it’s between two men, is what’s universal.” 

That essential human relatability is what enables Barton to, for example, write in the voice of Emily Carr, get inside the head and experience of being an artist of different gender, different time and different art form. In fact, one of the great love affairs we see in the book is the one Barton has with artistic exploration and expression, as he writes in a variety of poetic forms, one poem seldom reading like the next. In “Forest, British Columbia,” the opening line “More than one way in” speaks to so much more than the forest. 

Note, too, that the book is not simply about sex and love in the gay world or of intimacy living in the shadow of AIDS or indeed of human relationships at all. We are also, for example, let into Barton’s love of nature, and we see small, thoughtful observations like “frogs dropped like cold stones/to the river bottom, flesh made ice” or “maples loosening darkness along a river” or down-home childhood moments we probably all had of “tuna sandwiches my mother made/ squashed by books /with broken spines in my backpack.” How I remember those!

“People read for two reasons,” Barton explains: “to see themselves and to see something new. Too often we’re looking in the mirror rather than looking out the window. I write about representative experience because it creates empathy—the mirror. Over time I wanted to take these mutual experiences and see them in a new light, turn them so that readers discover something new—the window.”

It’s a goal that obviously resonates with readers, as the UVic (creative writing) and Western (library science) grad has, over his writing career, won three Archibald Lampman Awards, a Patricia Hackett Prize, Ottawa Book Award, CBC Literary Award, and National Magazine Award. He was writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library in 2008 and at UNB Fredericton in 2010/2011.

Barton is now back in Victoria editing The Malahat Review and slowly working on two more books. There are, it seems, more people to keep letting in and ever more ways to do it. 

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig believes—and loves—that all of us are large and contain multitudes.