Coming Soon: Gary Barwin’s The Porcupinity of the Stars

Coming Soon: Gary Barwin’s <em>The Porcupinity of the Stars</em>

Ah, summer. The time of year when many authors simply sit around and wait for their book to hit store shelves. The time when authors wait for the inevitable publicity and media frenzy.

In reality, the time between when the book goes off to press and when it gets into the hands of readers everywhere can be a difficult one. What if there’s a mistake? What if something goes wrong? What if the cover is really, really ugly? In Books@Torontoist’s Coming Soon series, we ask authors exactly what this process is like and what they do to cope.

Our latest victim interviewee is poet and musician Gary Barwin. His most recent collection, The Porcupinity of the Stars, will be published by Coach House Books in October. In the collection, Barwin explores family and loss in his usual biting, vivid, contemporary style.

Torontoist: How long have you been working on this book? Has the process differed from previous projects?

Gary Barwin: Most of the poems in The Porcupinity of the Stars were written over the past several years, though I did disinter one poem from a writing workshop that I did with bp Nichol 25 years ago. It was quite a delight to discover that, all those years ago, I actually did have a clue, at least intermittently. It gave me a kind of retroactive confidence in myself as a young writer.

The book was accepted by Coach House three years ago and so, against my natural impatience and impetuousness, I had lots of time to reflect, to hone, to write, rewrite, and substitute poems. Together with my editor, Kevin Connolly, I developed a really clear vision of what this book would be—and what it wouldn’t be. I had the time, and the encouragement from Kevin, to really push some of these poems beyond my initial conception of them. I greatly respect Kevin’s writing and his editing—he’s really insightful and sensitive to patterns and possibilities in both the individual text and in the manuscript as a whole. I asked him to be brutally honest with me. He wrote “Not on my watch” on a couple of the poems, a comment which I found funny in its honesty while being grateful that he was willing to be tough and to help me bring pressure to bear on the manuscript in order to improve it and give it more focus.

Torontoist: You’ve written both poetry collections and fiction. Is your creative process different for these projects?

GB: I think about my short fiction and my poetry in much the same way. Writing in these different forms is like playing different styles of music on the same instrument. Longer fiction, like novels, is something else. Not that I’ve run one, but I imagine a novel like a marathon. There is time to reflect, to have doubts, to strategize, to think ahead to different stages in the race. To secretly sneak on a bus. Poetry and short fiction are more like 100 metre dashes. Before the race, you work repeatedly to hone beginnings and endings, to improve your ability with style and form, and to think about what kind of race you would like to run. But, once the starter’s pistol goes off, you’re in the middle of it and what you do relies on the experience of all your previous races and training. Unlike a race, though, you can go back and fix that slow beginning, you can add some extra oomph to the ending, or white out that competitor biting at your heels.

Torontoist: How did it feel when the final galleys arrived at your door?

GB: I had a nice surprise with this book because Coach House Books is unusual in that it is a publishing house that actually prints its own books. Stuart Ross, my son Ryan, and I took American poet Gabriel Gudding for a tour. When we looked in the window, we saw my book’s cover literally running through the press. It wasn’t hot “off” the press, it was hot “in” the press. Inside Coach House, there were big piles of the guts of my book just sitting there. It was a thrill to see the physicality, the raw materials for not just one copy, but for all the copies. Like all the stones for constructing the pyramids just sitting there in the sand.

There is something reassuring about seeing the words of one’s own book as a solid physical object. As if the words won’t evaporate like dawn fog as soon as the sun rises. Of course, my son, with his wicked sense of humour, suggested that we just move all the books to our basement right then, and skip all that futile flapping about between the printing and the remaindering.

This book does seem different to me than my other books. I’ve worked harder on it. Really put pressure on the poems. Many of these poems have a deeper connection to concerns in my life in a fundamental way. Not only to family and daily emotions but to more fundamental existential and philosophical concerns. I should say that though this includes loss and an investigation of consciousness, it also includes humour, wonder, and joy. These, too, are existential and ethical in nature, as is an engagement with language. An inquiry into the nature of dessert shouldn’t preclude the daft and ecstatic trembling of jello.

Torontoist: Did you catch any last-second mistakes?

GB: On the very last read-through, I discovered an extraneous period at the end of a line. After such an intense and up-close editing process, it felt like I’d discovered a vast black spherical lifeform hurtling toward Toronto and sure to bring certain doom to life as we know it. Likely, no one else would have noticed. It was just a small black dot and I was looking so closely.

Torontoist: What do you think of the cover? Did you have an idea for the cover going in or did the designer take the reins from the start?

GB: I really love the cover. It wasn’t what I expected, but collaboration and surprise are part of the satisfactions of working on a book. We—Alana Wilcox, the editorial director, and Kevin Connolly—had ideas about using cacti in order to express the sharpness, the porcupinity of the title. Evan Munday, who designed the cover and the insides, came up with a number of lovely cover ideas, though none were quite right. Then he found this great image of a deer wearing sports socks by Charmaine Olivia. It was perfect: solemn yet laconically funny, and riffing off the fact that several of the poems in the book make reference to deer. Also, many of them are balanced between the traditionally poetic and the absurd, and find meaning and “just-so-ness” in everyday things.

I should also mention the blurb written by Gabriel Gudding. He is a poet whose work I really love. I was honoured that he agreed to write something for the back cover, and delighted by what he wrote. It was fantastic that this “first reader,” whom I admire, really “got” my book. He was able to write something that, aside from being flattering (and who doesn’t like that!) was able to express what I was trying to do, but couldn’t have articulated so well.

Torontoist: What are you hoping to achieve with this new collection?

GB: A doctor once told me that I should aspire to have people walk by my house and say, “Ah, those poems…how does he do it?” That made me laugh, but really, this book seems like something different for me, even though it draws on my experience writing for the last nearly 30 years. I feel that in the past few years, I’ve developed a lot as a writer. I’ve been trying to extend myself, to understand more, to be open to new possibilities, and to get further into the heart of things, whatever that means. I’m hoping that when this book goes out into the world, readers (I’m hoping it will have readers) will find something satisfying in it, whether pleasure, amusement, surprise, consolation, or, at the very least, apoplectic rage.

Torontoist: Have you started on a new book or are you taking a well-deserved rest?

GB: I see writing as part of my daily life, so I never formally stop. It’s part of what I do, how I process the world. A kind of maniacal yet pleasurable hobby. This past spring, I resigned from my day job as a middle school music teacher in order to spend this year writing. I am working on—I feel a bit surprised to admit—a novel, as well as some work for kids (a novel and some picture books.) I have two books coming out in 2011, so I’m continuing to work on them. They are: The Obvious Flap (poetry; with Gregory Betts, BookThug) and Franzlations: A Guide to The Imaginary Kafka Parables (with Hugh Thomas & Craig Conley, New Star.) I regularly post new work, or writing investigations, to my blog, Serif of Nottingham. I’ve also been known to write cheques, but only after receiving pleading phone calls and ominous notes attached to my door. So, if you’re one of the people who’ve been waiting. It’s in the mail.

The Porcupinity of the Stars will be available in October 2010 from Coach House Books.

Photos courtesy Gary Barwin and Coach House Books