Friday, October 03, 2014

On Writing #41 : Gary Barwin

Gary Barwin

There are those who feel at home in several languages. Language-wise, I’m always in a hotel, or just across the road from it.

I speak only English, it is my mother tongue. I speak but trippingly only a light sputtering of words from other languages. And so I wonder: is there such a thing as a ‘mother hand’, that is, a writing script in which one feels at home, a script in which one writes fluently as opposed to an experience of writing words which is more like drawing them?

I did learn to read Hebrew and to write its script, though I know only little of what it actually means, but what I am referring to here is a variety of styles of writing Roman letters.

Though I can produce many written ‘fonts’, there are a few styles of letterforms that seem natural to me, scripts which I learned early and which continue to form a natural and ongoing part of my writing life. These in addition to the script I employ in my signature.

If I were a computer, I might cite Arial, Times New Roman, or Courier. Instead, I have a style of cursive, and three styles of printing: all caps, upper and lower case printing, and an ornate style that I developed when I was about 12.

Certainly my styles were influenced by observing scripts around me and adopting some of their elements.

My ‘th’ ligature was learned from a middle school science teacher. The G and the B in my signature were adapted from my father’s (and somewhat from my mother’s) signature. Something about the shape of their letters appealed to me and so I took them on board my orthographic canoe. I use these forms of the letter as a specialized kind of display font, mostly when writing my name, but occasionally in writing uppercase G and B. (For security, I haven't posted an image of my signature. I would hate the $4.53 in my bank account to be emptied by an unscrupulous reader.)

I grew up in Northern Ireland and I remember, when I came to Canada, a principal looking at my script and noting its British provenance. I suppose it was more spidery, less plump and round than the standard North American school script.

When I studied with bpNichol in my first years of university, I learned to love his style of lowercase printing as it appeared on my work for class as well as in his work. The writing seemed to delight in itself  and in an entirely unostentatious way. This was an influence on my writing.

When I was twelve, I taught myself to write an ornate, swirly curly script after reading a book on heraldry. The actual style in the book was somewhere between Irish Uncial and Italic, but I adapted it and added its little leafy swirlycues to my repertoire.

I tried to adopt an Irish lowercase ‘g’ sometime in my teens upon observing a friend of my father’s who came from the south of Ireland. It was an affectation for a while, like wearing a cravat which, I confess, I also did for a painful year in my teens.

It is true that, as a teenager, I wanted my writing to say something about me, to make an aesthetic statement, to be an interesting feature about me. This gave way to my current fascination with typography, lettering, orthography, and visual poetry.

I wonder how many writing forms most people would consider their mother script, or at least a script in which they feel at home?

This leads me to wonder, also, what are our default ‘voices’? What is our mother sound?  And mother grammar and father lexicon? The nation tongue of our micronation? What script do we follow? What form of natural selection occurs in the ecotone between our past and future?

Indeed, I’m interested whether people’s writing—their literary and literal writing—remains stable or if they are aware of it changing over time as those who must sign many documents find their signature evolving through repetition and exhaustion. For me, my writing, while remaining stable for the most part, is not so fluent; this causes me to examine it, making conscious decisions as I write as to which form to use, how to connect letters, and even how to shape individual letters.

And so writing—like that other creative writing—remains a form of discovery, a wavering line wandering onto the page, an alphabetic artery coursing with orthographic blood—our own, and that from our history, family, and culture—or perhaps, the blood of outer space.

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist, and educator and the author of 17 books of poetry and fiction as well as books for both teens and children. His work has been widely performed, broadcast, anthologized and published nationally and internationally. His latest book is Moon Baboon Canoe (poetry, Mansfield Press, 2014.) Forthcoming publications include: Dr Greenblatt, 251-1457 (short fiction; Anvil Press, 2015); Yiddish for Pirates (novel; Random House Canada, 2016); Sonosyntactics: Selected and New Poetry of Paul Dutton, introduced and edited by Barwin (Laurier Poetry Series). Two recent visual poetry chapbooks are Bone Sapling (with Amanda Earl; AngelHousePress, 2014) and The Wild and Unfathomable Always (Xexoxial Editions, 2014). He is this year's Writer-in-Residence at Western University for 2014-2015. and lives in Hamilton, Ontario and at

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