Gary Barwin, a few words and a poem

LH: I’ve been following your blog on and off for a few years now. I’m very intrigued by the tooth and deer series, which for some reason I find as disturbing as it is compelling. Can you tell me where the idea for this came from?

GB: I’ve always had a fascination with deer, with teeth, and with antlers. In my walks through the woods of Hamilton, I frequently come across deer. There’s always the—what feels like—rare surprise of encountering a deer in my everyday life. The experience is typically fleeting, silent, and seems like an encounter with a parallel dimension. The deer exist predominantly in silence and invisibility between the trees of my world, hidden except when we come across each other at a gateway between my forest and theirs. I’m also aware that they appear to me as the flesh-and-blood analogues of images that I know from literature and song. It seems like antlers could sprout from anywhere. Teeth. Mailboxes. Toast.

Teeth aren’t surprising, but they also exist at a gateway. The gateway between some kind of unconscious experience, something on the edge of the psyche, and everyday life. They are also wonderfully absurd. When at the dentist, I always wondered, my mouth gurgling and full of instruments, the dentist picking at things and speaking a strange Dental Kaballah to the nurse, if the whole experience was not medical at all, but really a complex performance art piece performed at the expense of the patient/audience.

I’ve quite a few works exploring teeth as imagery. Teeth invoke speech, primal experiences of reality, childhood, and the oral, but are also like letters in an alphabet parallel to our own. Here’s a poem from my book, Raising Eyebrows, called “The Birth of Writing.” There’s a connection between teeth and the alphabet, between teeth and the keys of a typewriter, between teeth and childhood.

Somehow antlers and teeth seem to possess a similar literary weight for me. If one could construct a table like that of the periodic table, a table of weights and comparative properties on the subatomic level for images, they would be in the same family and share the same atomic weight or charge.

I don’t find the series to be disturbing, personally, though I can understand how it might be a bit, um, creepy, to some. I hope for it to be psychically and culturally rich in association and resonance.

LH: In a sense I think of this as nature poetry in the way that it makes us confront the human tendency to either graft whatever we find onto ourselves, or embed ourselves in whatever we see. The “deer and toothhead” for example. How do you see this work as relating to the larger Canadian strands of “nature poetry”?

GB: I’m glad that you make the connection with nature poetry. I do, too. I’ve been interested for a long time in how our experience of nature, indeed the whole notion of nature is mediated or constructed by language and by the arts. Our language, our culture, our image hoard developed from our relation to nature. ‘Light’ is nature. So is ‘dark.’ And, of course, on some basic level, our bodies are nature. The multidimensional spacetime of contemporary signification has rivers of Canadian nature poetry running through it, not to mention a cirrostratus layer of nature painting and music. In a way, I think all of our experience of nature is ‘post-natural,’ and so, while acknowledging this, and indeed relishing the iconography of toasters, dishtowels, and candy wrappers, I hope to reclaim some of the resonant authority of the world of runes, petroglyphs, and lichen, and explore how there is a green fuse of sorts running through our language, our experience, and the light switches of our consciousnesses.

LH: Equally compelling are the poems you have been posting with the visual poems. For example the poem “Inverting The Deer” (which appears at the end of this interview):

the deer of this earth have been doubly inverted
once, and their antlers point toward the centre

(the antlers of inverted deer point toward
the antlers of every other inverted deer)

once again, and their antlers point toward space

and later,

fish swim around the remembered hooves of deer
they understand
they understand
they know

These are funny, poignant poems. In Canada we don’t seem able to appreciate humour in poetry. Do you feel you are in conversation with Canadian poets?

GB: Yes. I definitely feel a sense of conversation / dialogue. We have a brilliant tradition of “funny, poignant” in Canada. Stuart Ross and David McFadden come immediately to mind. But we have a wide range of other writers who use humour as a significant part of their work, for example, writers ranging from bpNichol, Kevin Connolly, Hugh Thomas, Frank Davey, to Christian Bok, Robert Kroetsch, Steve McCaffery, Anne Carson, and George Bowering, to list just a few.

I feel that Canadian writers and readers thinking about humour are in more direct conversation with Americans. Or rather the Canadians are in conversation with each other about those Americans. The writers I’m referring to here use humour to question the assumptions of the poetry itself, to bordercross, to investigate the construction of meaning and discourse. It isn’t diversion from ‘important concerns’ but is an intrinsic and significant part of their overall project.

I have the feeling that the ability to trust humour in poetry is a mark of a confident tradition and an unapologetically sophisticated literary culture. I’m really pleased to see the call for papers for an upcoming Open Letter on humour in experimental Canadian poetry. I think it’s an important beginning.

LH: That is good news about the Open Letter call. Thinking too about the relationship between tone and humour. We can have a lightness in verse, but it seems to need to be of a certain note…. You posted two versions of the “Tooth & Antler” image. One with stars and one without. I thought that the version with the stars revealed a slightly more earnest gesture. Is there one you prefer, and are these part of a larger project?

GB: The continuum from earnestness to irony is an important concern in my work. I imagine exploring ironic earnestness and earnest irony. I’m not entirely sure which image I prefer, though I tend towards minimalist, stripped-down images such as the one without the stars. Recently, I’ve been interested in exploring the complex meanings of apparently simple work. The “Tooth & Antler” images are part of a developing series of such images. For me, series develop haphazardly, organically, chaotically, like choosing a route across a highway busy with cars.

LH: “Molar + A + O” =?

GB: Molar + A + O = Three letters from a parallel alphabet. Three teeth from a parallel mouth. Three icons from a parallel culture.

LH: You teach high school I believe, and from what I can tell on your blog, you’re very engaged in pedagogical questions as well as the world around you–recent references to Algonquin and outdoor education. Is there some strand of this thinking in your poetry as well? Do you introduce your students to this work? If so, how do they engage with it?

GB: Actually, I usually teach music in middle school. Primarily Grades Five and Six. However, as my school is from K to 12, I often have occasion to teach high school kids. The main interaction students have with my work is through my children’s writing, both picture books and YA novels. In fact, the Grade Sevens study a YA novel of mine for English. However, more generally, they know me as a writer and I provide lots of creative writing opportunities in my music classes. I do think that allowing creative exploration is important for kids. Too often they are shut down by the goal orientation of the curriculum and by some utilitarian notion of learning. I try to encourage and validate the creative imaginations of my students. I also try to lead by example. Many of my students seem to feel empowered by my appreciation of their flights of ‘wayward fancy’ and their humour. I try to engage with them as young creators or imaginators, not just as ‘students’.


In thinking about these questions, I came up with these brainstorming explanations:


Antlers are diacritic, a growing, a branching, a choosing of routes. A fluorescence, or florescence, something dendritic. They are the potential of things externalized, a thought growing outward, reaching outward. The blooming of the sign, a crowning.

Humans, animals, letters are trees, antlers, are the fractal shapes of crystals, are signs, experiences, realities in flux.

And punctuation lives in quiet symbiosis around the walls of the castle of letters, the mystic serfs of the alphabet, sworn to silence, to breathing only.


All these glyphs reveal a secret art, an alchemy outside the church of words. And a tooth is a new letter, an alternate sign, a resonant archetype from a parallel alphabet.

These images connect the tooth to the alphabet, an alphabet connected to the mouth, to the tongue, to the place where the sounds of consonants are formed. But yet the tooth is a letter, a sound, a meaning extracted from the mouth, fallen. It is a sign out of place, removed from the locus of signification, from the place of utterance. It becomes itself, its own talking head. It is a megalith, a dental henge, an inukshuk.

The mouth is an alphabet of teeth. The air is an alphabet of potential antlers.

LH: Do you know Tim Lilburn’s work? He has an ongoing and intense relationship to deer as well, and though it still falls in the rubric of the romantic poet, it’s nowhere near as romantic as someone like Mary Oliver; her much cited poem, “Picking Blueberries, Austerlitz, New York, 1957.” Here the deer “stumbles” against the poet who surmises that the deer is “busy with her own happiness…” I am deeply troubled by the representations of animals in contemporary poetry…it seems we have no ability to describe our relationship.

GB: Yes, I know Lilburn’s work, though not well enough. Some of his work is wonderfully overgrown and brambly.

I am intrigued by how we represent animals and by extension, ourselves and our relationship to the things around us. In fact, representations of our representations of animals have occurred throughout my work; my first full collection was called “Cruelty to Fabulous Animals” (Moonstone Press). The magic thinking of traditional cultures is based on the idea that our relationship with the things around us is filled with the potential for fluidity and change, the transformation from human to animal, vice versa, and states, both physical and mental, in between, and how animals may talk or enter into non-hierarchical relation to humans in these tales. One day a ‘wild animal,’ one day a ‘talking animal’ in a fable, one day a coat. Of course, I’m also interested in how our notion of animals relates to the possibility that our shag carpeting may talk to us. Or that our appliances may look at us with the steady, gentle gaze of deer. I found a hunter squatting by the kitchen sink, eyeing my refrigerator greedily.

Is our relationship to animals hierarchical? Are we fellow travellers? Are we ought-to-be-humble pilgrims on a permanent pilgrimage through the sacred wilderness of the universe or are we at the top of food/value chain? Is it as we joke in my family when not feeding table our dog from the table, “Sorry Dude, better luck with evolution next time. We won.”?

In terms of value, I don’t think that the contemporary world, generally, has sorted out our relationship with animals, and with nature in general. We are nature but yet we’re not natural. Animals aren’t us but yet they may be us in our stories. Animals may be more closely connected to ‘nature,’ or they may be our belts. Or both.

LH: I wonder about the relationship of metaphor to eco-poetry. You mention that your students “seem to feel empowered by (your) appreciation of their flights of ‘wayward fancy.’” I’m wondering about imagination as a force of eco-poetics. We seem focused on “capturing” in some way the natural world before it becomes “unnatural.” Again, thinking of Canadian poets such as Don McKay and Jan Zwicky for example. Here we see metaphor as a kind of flight of fancy, but it seems to operate within a very specific, representative system…

GB: I see an analogy between how we think of ‘vision’ and how we represent our relationship with nature. Vision is a paradox. When we look, it’s not that our vision beams out at the world as if our eyes were headlights, but that light from the world enters into our eyes, though we tend to conceive of it otherwise. We have the same paradoxical relation with nature. We’re caught between imagining that we shape it with our vision (shining our conceptual light upon it) and having it shape our vision.

To go back to our discussion of deer, I think that when we see a real world ‘deer’, it is a sign, a signifier, and not the signified. When we look at nature, it is as if we are looking into a massive dictionary. Under ‘deer,’ there are many definitions, and its various meanings can be cited from contexts throughout history. We can’t look at a deer, or at anything at all, and see some objective and pure notion of that deer or that thing.

Just as ‘history teaches that history teaches,’ I feel that ‘writing represents that writing represents.’

I see the imagination not as shaping nature, or capturing it (or indeed as some kind of conceptual taxidermy, but rather, as being nature. The history of everything is the imaginative unfolding of the universe. Evolution is the brainstorming, the free writing of the natural world.

A few days ago, I was gardening at the end of my yard, when a bird flew onto my shoulder. We spoke about going green and about the environmental impact of each of our species. It was worried about its nest. We talked about our instincts and our interest in novelty and imagination. I talked about evolving a new language for my poetry. It spoke of becoming a new species. It gave me a gift of some feathers. I taught it how to create nouns. Then one of us flew away.

From Gary Barwin’s blog serif of nottingblog “Inverting the Deer

for Craig Conley


the deer of this earth have been doubly inverted
once, and their antlers point toward the centre

(the antlers of inverted deer point toward
the antlers of every other inverted deer)

once again, and their antlers point toward space


do not touch deer
and you will not touch deer

do not walk on deer
and you will not walk on deer

do not mourn deer when you are dying
though their noses are against the glass

do not mourn deer when you are dying
though their minds are edgeless


fish swim around the remembered hooves of deer
they understand
they understand
they know


antlers grow toward deer
the deer which grow toward the ground

the wind rustles the hair of deer
the deer are a harp


when the first trees
whose home was the water
whose home was the sky
began to die
the deer did not know what to do

and so, their smooth heads wrinkling
their hooves beating the water
their hooves beating the air
they ran through the world weeping

until they planted the branches
and ran over the world
trees growing like memories
from the tops of old televisions
from the tops of old brown heads


there is only a single vast deer
and there is no longer sky

the deer has but one season
and the hunters wait for it

after a great while
they become trees
and bullets lose their green

night falls in the skyless rivers
& a deer’s breath warms the sky

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, and performer. His music and writing have been published and presented in Canada, the US, and overseas. He received a PhD in Music Composition and was the recipient of the KM Hunter Foundation Artist Award for his writing. Seeing Stars, a YA novel, was a finalist for both Canadian Library Association YA book of the year, and an Arthur Ellis Award. His poetry includes Outside the Hat and Raising Eyebrows (both Coach House) and, with derek beaulieu, frogments from the frag pool (Mercury) His fiction includes Doctor Weep and other strange teeth and Big Red Baby. The Briefcase Hand, a new poetry collection, is forthcoming from Coach House. Lives in Hamilton, Ontario and teaches music at Hillfield Strathallan College. He can be found at and

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