John Barton Poet-in-Residence

Posted on October 31, 2010 by

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JOHN BARTON    [By Eugene Campbell]

He may be one of Canada’s best known and widely published poets, with poems published the world over, a resident of Victoria, B. C., and UNB’s most recent Writer-In-Residence, but 53-year-old John Barton holds at least one strong family tie to the Maritimes.  His great-great-grandfather, Andrew Inches—long-time Deputy Surveyor-General of New Brunswick—is buried in the Old Burial Ground in downtown Fredericton.  Inches came to Canada with his parents in 1832 and went on to become the father of seven children.  Having served some 61 years in the position, he died in 1897.

John Barton, Poet

Openly-gay – the life and career of this prolific writer will surely be of interest to all.  “I began to write, probably when I was around 18 or 19” he said.  “I always wanted to be a poet.  I certainly don’t earn my living as a poet.  I see it as a vocation rather than a career.”  His first published poem was ‘The Revelation’, which appeared in a student publication at the University of Alberta in 1978.  Today, nine books later and a tenth in the works, he is UNB’s newest Writer-In-Residence.

The position with UNB is a well respected one, the poet said.  “I was honored to be asked.”  He goes on to tell about his job, which he has held for only two months.  “It’s a two-fold position”, he said.  “Forty percent of my time is supposed to be meeting with students and the public to discuss their writing concerns, as well as giving readings.  The rest of my time is for my own writing.”  He said that over the past 35 years-or-so, he has written probably between three-and-four-hundred poems.  “I am not sure.  While I am at UNB, I try to write a poem a week.”

The fact that he is openly gay, has influenced his work greatly over the years.  In fact, the words ‘gay male’ and ‘gay poet’ are often used to characterize his works.  As far as being gay goes, he said, “I see it as my subject.  I have written a lot of poems with gay themes.  I think my work is quite closely identified with gay experiences.  I wouldn’t call it an influence – I would call it a subjectivity.  Maybe 20 years ago, I was much more conscious of choosing more obviously gay subjects.  I have written quite a few poems about AIDs, for example.   My whole adult life has been shaped by AIDs.  It’s just a fact of life.”

He said that in some ways, being gay has stood in his way.  “In some ways, I have been very successful.  One of my friends once asked someone if they had read John Barton’s new book, and the reply was, “Oh!  I don’t read gay poetry.”  Barton said that straight people feel happy to write about their sex lives and think nothing of it.  “If somebody writes from a gay perspective, people feel that you are flaunting it.  I find it rather tedious.”

Barton reflected on his earlier years.  “I would say, looking back, that I don’t know if I would have been able to identify what the feeling was, but from an early age, I knew I felt different.  I grew up in Alberta.  It certainly wasn’t a gay-friendly environment.”

He said he wouldn’t have done things different, in looking back.  “I wish that the world had been a kinder place.  I think a lot of people could say that.  It doesn’t have a lot to do with being gay.  Homophobia played a great role in how I grew up.”

Barton said he is happy to meet with gay and lesbian writers.  “So far, I have met with one gay student. All the issues of writing from a gay perspective are familiar to me.”  He encourages gay and lesbian writers to get in touch with him, adding that he would be only too happy to meet with them, “by appointment only!” to discuss their work. He can be contacted at jbarton@unb.ca.

As well as being UNB’s Writer-In-Residence, he also edits a literary magazine called, ‘Malahat Review’, “one of the most important literary magazines in Canada.  I’ve been editing this forty-four year old journal for the last six or seven years.”  He adds that he has been doing literary editing for 25 years.  “That’s my background.”

If you would be interested in hearing Barton speak, or perhaps  meet him, plans for early in the New Year will find him reading in several Maritime centres.  On Thursday, January 13, he will be meeting and reading in Charlottetown at the University of Prince Edward Island.  Check with them for a time.  He will be in Halifax at St. Mary’s University Gallery on Wednesday, January 19 at 7 o’clock; and in Saint John at the UNB Saint John campus at the Faculty Staff Club, on Monday, March 14, at 7 p.m.

His plans for the future – “I just want to stay employed – to just be able to continue writing, to continue my work and to participate in the conversation about writing.”  His term as Writer-In-Residence at UNB, expires in April.

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