Nonfiction Review by Kevin Shaw

John Barton, We Are Not Avatars: Essays, Memoirs, Manifestos (Windsor: Palimpsest, 2019). Paperbound, 304 pp., $19.95.

We Are Not AvatarsThe art of revision may be the most challenging practice for a writer to learn or teach. More than the technical-sounding “editing” and
“proofreading,” the word “revision” emphasizes the task’s holistic nature: “to see again,” not just the writing but the thinking as well. The process of putting words on the page alternates so frequently between writing and rewriting that we’re left with a Mobius strip of invention, the two tasks indivisible. A writer’s revision, like good editing, is ultimately unseen by readers (save for scholars digging through old drafts), which makes the process so difficult to articulate, and even harder to master.

Revision provides John Barton’s recent collection of wide-ranging prose, We Are Not Avatars: Essays, Memoirs, Manifestos, with both its overarching, if unstated, subject and, arguably, its form. While it may be a cliché in discussions of nonfiction to trot out the etymology of “essay” in the French essayer, meaning “to attempt,” it’s worth noting that not all essayists embrace the flux of their form as well as Barton has in this book, which collects two decades’ worth of thinking and re-thinking. While We Are Not Avatars provides a retrospective of the evolving thought and praxis of the poet, critic, anthologist, and editor, the essays indicate a writer still questioning and engaging with the country’s literary culture. Similarly, Barton’s most recent full-length collection of poetry, Polari, mounts a formalist experiment following ten books of mostly free verse. If poets are charged to “make it new,” even if by renovating received forms, Barton proves an admirable model of writerly evolution.

This collection also serves as a prose companion to Barton’s selected poems, For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin, published in 2012. While in the latter, Barton opted to arrange the selections in chronological order without revising the previously published entries, We Are Not Avatars follows a thematic organization, and the essays have been revised, in some cases, for republication. In the introduction, Barton notes this approach reflects “[his] thoughts when each [essay] was written and … if read together, trace how [his] thinking’s grown and even changed.” The structure also allows for fascinating reverberations and echoes across time and topic.

The first section, “Men of Honour,” collects Barton’s writing on queer poetry and poetics. In the book’s titular essay, he argues for an embodied, individual poetics over literature of the so-called universal experience, which has historically excluded the perspective of queer people, among others; however, that we’re now living in what Barton elsewhere calls “the age of equity” has produced strange effects. He shows, for example, how funding agencies and arts councils may be too quick to believe homophobia and heterosexism exist only in the past (a belief which has, paradoxically, legitimized defunding 2SLGBTQIA?+ artistic output in some cases). As Barton eloquently argues in this section, we have only just begun to fill in the as-yet incomplete representation of queer lives and literary history. To that end, Barton’s introductory essay to Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, co-edited with Billeh Nickerson, and now over a decade old, remains an essential and erudite survey of the subject.

The remaining sections of We Are Not Avatars collect short memoirs, personal essays, and criticism that prove the power of individual perception. Here, there’s no mistaking the “I” for a vague lyric speaker, yet the range of essays indicates the complexities of the first-person persona in prose as well. The concerns and locales of the memoirs will be familiar to readers of Barton’s poetry and provide greater insight
into some of his recurring subjects: the visual arts, the natural world, and the body in pain and pleasure. Of particular note, his essay “Queer Rose Country” offers a too-rare glimpse of gay life’s relationship to rural spaces.

Yet for Barton, “Identity … is as much about placelessness as it is about place.” He has also found himself in the words and images of iconic figures such as Emily Carr, and a lifelong engagement with this BC artist’s life and work is reflected in his early collection West of Darkness: Emily Carr: A Self-Portrait. The third section of We Are Not Avatars includes essays on several women writers who have provided mentorship, friendship, or a literary education through their published work, including Anne Szumigalski, Diana Brebner, Pat Lowther, and others.

The final section of his collection indicates how Barton has paid forward that mentorship in his role as editor of two long-standing Canadian literary journals (Arc Poetry Magazine and The Malahat Review). This section finds Barton at his scrappiest, from a sharp satire on Canada’s literary prize culture to a gentler critique of mid-career poets who have seemingly abandoned journal publication. The essays
included here are perhaps more intimate than even the memoirs, as Barton takes us “inside the blind” of poetic invention, editing, and revision, as well as offering a deeply felt and honest reflection on the changing role of cultural gatekeepers in the era of Indigenous reconciliation.

Barton began publishing in the 1970s, when the contemporary movements for queer and Indigenous rights were nascent endeavours. As a gay settler Canadian writer and editor, he is uniquely positioned to share not only why previously held convictions must change, but how one begins to do the work of revision writ large: by “stepping
back” in order to listen and move forward. Throughout the collection, Barton proves himself a fine critic of his contemporaries, but the insight he brings to his own poetry and poetics is particularly impressive. In his essay “Of Books,” Michel de Montaigne writes, “I guarantee no certainty, unless it be to make known to what point, at this
moment, extends the knowledge that I have of myself.” In his best essays, Barton thrives inside a similar indeterminacy.

In concluding his reflection on Margaret Avison’s “The Swimmer’s Moment,” Barton wonders, “What new readings will I bring to [the poem] and how will the future further shape my understanding and response?” At the end of We Are Not Avatars, I found myself asking a similar question of the book in my hands, and I looked forward “to seeing again” Barton’s poetry through the prism of his prose.

—Kevin Shaw

As in The Malahat Review, 211, summer 2020