Victoria poet John Barton will give a reading from his work at Ottawa’s Collected Works bookstore, on Wellington street at Holland, on Thursday, September 8, at 7:30 pm. The evening’s readings will pair Barton, former editor of Arc magazine, with poet Anita Lahey, who has edited Arc since Barton’s departure from Ottawa nearly two years ago.
Born and raised in Alberta, John studied with Robin Skelton at the University of Victoria and recently returned to the West Coast as editor of The Malahat Review. Employment with some of the top national museums kept him in Ottawa for two decades, though, and in that time he contributed enormously to the capital’s literary culture: helping to organize Tree readings and the Wilde about Sappho festival; co-editing Arc with Rita Donovan: keeping alive the Archibald Lampman Award for the best book each year by an Ottawa poet.
Residence in Ottawa was also a time of personal growth for Barton, who arrived in the city shortly after publication of his first book (The Poor Photographer, Sono Nis, 1981), followed by his his celebrated poetic portrait of Emily Carr, West of Darkness (Penumbra, 1985). In Ottawa, his writing tackled the issues of sexual identity ambiguously hinted at in his 1984 chapbook Hidden Structure (Ekstasis Editions). With Great Men (Quarry, 1990) Barton emerged as a writer who celebrates gay sexuality while delving with ever greater maturity into the emotions of love, loss, abandonment and anger, universal feelings, whether one is male or female, straight or gay. In the poem "Patriarchy" (Designs from the Interior, Anansi, 1994), for example, the poet finds in his own capacity for violence and cruelty "the patriarchy that I thought/ in loving men, I would escape."
Ambiguity; complexity; fluent, even beautiful verses; that’s plenty to merit a visit to Collected Works for a poetry reading on September 8. There’s more. In recent years, Barton has extended the scope and scale of his work, as if adding to the verbal artistry he learned from American poets like Louise Glück some of the structural experimentalism associated with fellow Albertan Erin Mouré.
There’s also a trickster side to John Barton, evidenced in his adding the subtitle to Arc: Canada’s National Poetry Magazine. It’s a parody of the Globe and Mail’s claim of being a national newspaper. The ironic humour tends to be lost on most readers, but then, there isn’t much anyone could do to make Canadians see Ottawa as a poetry capital rather than a depository for taxes and resentment. Under John Barton’s leadership, Arc reached its 25th year as an established magazine of reliable quality and attractive design, one of the few sites in print for serious reviewing of Canadian poetry.
After editing a special issue featuring Ottawa Poetry Now, perhaps he felt it was time to skip town. About the only promotion available to him, among Canadian literary magazines, was the editorship of The Malahat Review, which he assumed last year. The half-time job has allowed him to return to the West Coast, where he says he feels most at home, and leaves him time to write. Since returning to the West, he has continued his prolific record of publication and solidified his national reputation with the publication of two new books from Frog Hollow Press, In the House of the Present and The Strata.