A memoir told in sonnets?! Who takes on this type of challenge — and pulls it off with poetic aplomb in 140 syllable segments! Who else but celebrated poet John Barton with Lost Family. It’s an extraordinary portrait taken as a whole or in single sonnets. Barton, Victoria’s current Poet Laureate, has pushed the boundaries of his craft and of what family is in this exploratory and insightful story of remembrance and discovery. Its very likely you’ll find something of yourself, your family, within Barton’s sonnets; his ‘little songs’ and their nuances can’t help but lead you home.
John Barton is the author of twenty-six books, chapbooks, and anthologies, with his 27th—Lost Family: A Memoir, a book of sonnets—upcoming from Signal this fall. A three-time recipient of the Archibald Lampman Award, he’s also won an Ottawa Book Award, a CBC Literary Award, and a National Magazine Award. Between 1989 and 2018 John edited Arc Poetry Magazine, Vernissage, and The Malahat Review. He is the City of Victoria’s fifth, first male and first queer poet laureate.
Interview by Robin Dyke.
Robin Dyke (RD): Lost Family is described in the advance reading copy as “a bold experiment in autobiography,” how did the idea of Lost Family as a book come about?
John Barton (JB): After I’d sent six sonnets to The Walrus around September of 2018, Carmine Starnino, the magazine’s poetry editor and also, at the time, its deputy editor, wrote back to thank me for my submission. Because I’ve known him professionally for many years, I replied that I’d been working on sonnets and had written about 300 of them so far. He emailed back to say he liked what I was doing with the form and would I like to publish a book of sonnets with Signal. I was stunned, absolutely stunned that he’d make such an offer. Of course I said yes. It was magical. I was overwhelmed that he felt confident enough, based on six poems, to propose such a thing. It amazed me then, it amazes me now. As I say in the book’s afterword, he took to my sonnets practically on faith. It’s worked out really well.
RD: Those 300 plus sonnets, how long had you been working on those?
JB: The idea to write a crazily large number of sonnets all started the summer of 2016 with a conversation after the memorial for a Victoria artist named James Gordaneer, a friend’s father. I’d just written a sonnet about Jim, “Inside the Frame,” which is collected in Lost Family, and while talking with some people at the reception about the sonnet, mentioned that a sonnet is 140 syllables. Such was my small talk. Someone in return said, “Well, you should write 140 sonnets!” This seemed an astronomical number to aim for, but I went ahead and got there, sometime in early 2017. Around that time I learned Petrarch wrote 366, so I thought, I’ll match him!
Part of my thinking was that if I got to 366, then I was sure to have written enough good ones. If I’d set a smaller number like fifty as my goal, it would put greater pressure on me to make each sonnet work out. 366 gave me freedom. I could bomb occasionally with some assurance that, overall, I would get enough sonnets for a book. A friend of mine read most of the sonnets as I was writing them and jokes that I’m the Sudoku poet.
While it’s daunting to think you’re going to write 366 sonnets, to reach my goal, almost no subject could be dismissed as unsuitable, so I wrote about many things that I might not have in the past. Whilst I wrote many poems about the family I was born to, the number of sonnets I had committed to writing allowed me to build a larger sense of family into the project. What is family? There’s a poem about the Syrian refugees, one about the horrible massacre of school students in Finland. The parameters I’d set myself allowed me to articulate a very broad sense of what family was or is, not a sense of family as narrowly defined as it might have been if I were to have written only thirty sonnets about my parents.
RD: What was your first experience writing sonnets?
JB: In a fourth-year poetry workshop at UVic in the fall of 1979, Robin Skelton set us a task to write a poem using a traditional form for our next class. At the time, while other students felt intimidated at having to write a formal poem, I thought far be it for me to waste my time writing something that I couldn’t use; I’d write something short and sweet like a sonnet that I could also add to my project on Emily Carr. That poem is perhaps the most technically perfect Petrarchan sonnet I have ever written. It wasn’t until 2007, when I’d begun working on the formalist poems that became Polari, that I wrote another sonnet.
RD: So if I can call it your affair with the form of the sonnet itself, how and when did that start and blossom?
JB: That’s funny! I guess while I was writing Polari, I became curious about trying a variety of sonnet forms as an experiment. I stumbled upon the crown, which is composed of seven sonnets with repeating first and last lines, and wrote one called “One Bedroom Apartment”; each of its seven parts being a different sonnet form. It was among the early work that I wrote for Polari. There are a few other sonnets in that book, including a sonnet form I discovered through Toronto poet Ruth Roach Pierson called the sonnenizo, a sonnet variation invented by Kim Addonizio, an American poet.
In the sonnenizo you take a line of a poem by another writer, ideally a sonnet, and use it as the first line of your own sonnet and then repeat one word from that initial line in each of the next thirteen lines. In Polari, “The Trial of Omar Khadr” uses the first line from Rilke’s sonnet “Ancient Torso of Apollo”: “We cannot know his legendary head.” I had heard an interview with the sketch artist at Khadr’s trial at Guantanamo Bay. Rilke’s line resonated with what she said about her sketches because they were the only way the pubic would get any sense of what he looked like since the trial was of course closed. His treatment by the Canadian and American governments appals me to this day. The word that repeats in almost all of the sonnet’s lines is “know.”
There is a sonnenizo in Lost Family, “A Son’s Nineteen-Seventies Wardrobe.” It begins with a line from a poem by P. K. Page called “Arras”: “Consider a new habit—classical.”My poem is about the time my mother embroidered flowers onto a jean jacket for me when I was an eighteen-year-old, something your girlfriend—or in my case, a boyfriend—should do for you instead. The word that repeats is “new” and, to make things easier, its homonym “knew.” I’m the sort of person who likes pointing out a repeated word to any poet I’m working with, so making myself compose a sonnenizo was good penance!
RD: What is it about the sonnet that captivates you?
JB: Dante’s description of the sonnet is “little song.” I love that about the sonnet, that you can take something ephemeral and turn it into something, into a poem about my mother cutting apples (“Malus Pumila”) or about waking up to a singing box in my bedroom, a phenomenon that turned out to be a canary singing inside a cloth-covered cage as early-morning light poured into my bedroom (“Fourth Birthday”). The most fleeting things can be fit into a sonnet and gain heft. To me, that’s what is so beautiful about the form.
RD: A workshop with Molly Peacock in March 2016 was a formative moment in your appreciation and use of the sonnet, a catalyzing hook for you —
JB: Molly gave me the push I needed to explore the crossover between poetry and creative nonfiction and I decided to appropriate the sonnet to do so. By the time I published Polari in 2014, I had been writing formal poetry in a focused way for seven years, and I had become more and more adept at writing within the limitations of form and using those limitations to exploit my poems’ subjects. What Molly made me realize is that I could write a sonnet quickly, at one sitting, and have something worth working with later on. I thought, “Okay, this is a perfect form for me.” This was an amazing realization, one that arrived at the right moment. I saw that I could fit writing a draft of a sonnet into my busy life, I could apply all the skills I’ve developed thus far and push them further through this form. The sonnet provided me with all the challenge that I wanted and to keep writing them gave my writing practice both shape and continuity. The game of the sonnet asked me to cram everything I wanted to say into fourteen lines.
I saw it as a tool of exploration as well, I could jump blindly into the form and not worry too much because it would lead me forward. I’m describing it as if there wasn’t a lot at stake, but there was investment in the application and in finding out what a sonnet was really about by probing its depths. I wasn’t trying to live up to the sonnet tradition or to write on subjects suitable to the form, whatever those are. I was instead going to use the form for my own purposes.
It’s important to note that I joined the Creative Nonfiction Collective in 2015 and became further intrigued with that genre as well. There is something about creative nonfiction and the people who write it. They embrace other forms as creative nonfiction, some even see poetry as a branch of creative nonfiction. I was taken by this and when Molly came to UVic a year later to give a lecture on the relationship between creative nonfiction and poetry, I was already primed to the idea of using poetry—and the sonnet—as a tool for telling my story since I felt that I had a lot of stories to tell, in particular the one about my sister’s death. I remember going to the Creative Nonfiction Collective conference in Banff a month after Molly was in Victoria. I think I was at sonnet twenty at that point, and I wrote one there about Pam called “ In Memory of Your Thirteenth Birthday,” and it really started gelling that I should keep going.
RD: How do you size up the success of Lost Family as “a bold experiment in autobiography” at this stage?
JB: I’m satisfied with the journey that it took me on; the book contains around 140 of the 366 sonnets (and rising) that I’ve written. It’s telling a “big story” in miniature, or in a series of miniatures; each sonnet to some extent is a single experience. I ended up writing eight crowns—five of them are in the book—because I discovered that there was sometimes more to say than I could conceivably fit into a single sonnet and a seven-sonnet crown allowed me some latitude for narrative and to unpack the story that I wished to tell. In “For Our Father Who Sang in Limbo”, the crown about my father, I focus on his stutter, how it shaped his life and affected his relationship with my mother, my sisters, and me. He was an RAF pilot during the Second World War and my mother learned from his crew that he did not stutter in the air. I wanted to give him a level of agency. We can’t help who are, the family we are born into, or the circumstances of the world into which we are born. Because we have no choice in all of that, how do we find agency in a world that is less than what it should be. Sometimes you don’t, or your agency is taken from you. The chapter called “Coda For The Victims,” which documents the AIDS pandemic and the struggle for queer rights, is about the loss as well as the attainment and re-attainment of agency.
RD: Was there anything that surprised you as you reviewed your book’s proof?
JB: When I was proofing the book, I was really struck that the chapter called “Postwar Philately,” which I’d thought of as being about my father, was as much about my mother. I hadn’t quite grasped how large a presence she was in these particular sonnets until I read them slowly, with a proofreader’s eye for detail and a bit of objectivity.
I noticed when I finished proofing the book that the final word of the first sonnet is “hesitant” (I’m about to knock on the door of the house where I grew up) and the last three words of the final sonnet are “I am sure” (I’m imagining my own death). “From caution to certainty” perhaps best characterizes the journey that this book has taken me on.
As I was checking the proof over, I was equally struck by the number of times I use the phrase “the real.” I think that its repetition also captures a motivation in this book to find what is genuine in experience. It’s occurred to me that since most of the sonnets in the book are a single sentence, maybe one of the things that makes them work is that those single sentences embrace multiple ideas. The single sentence suggests that, when ideas are brought together, they become simultaneous—these assemblages of images, assemblages of phrases, assemblages of free-standing thoughts, all of what they represent on their own somehow, through the sonnet and the sentence, become distilled into one idea, a multi-faceted idea.
RD: So the tool leads to the magic, the sonnet leads you to the idea —
JB: Yes, it arrives at…I don’t want to say crystallization or closure…but somehow it arrives at an end point where everything is hanging in balance, however temporary. I’ve often found if there’s a problem in a poem, I can get it to snap into its final form by replacing a word that’s not pulling its weight with one that is its opposite—with an antonym rather than with a synonym. This parallels the movement in the book from “hesitant” to “I am sure.”
The sonnet encourages the use of rhyme as a tool of exploration. Poets should not be daunted by the sonnet or by rhyme. To see the sonnet as an opportunity, to say, for example, “Oh, that’s an interesting word to rhyme on, I like that word to rhyme with it, what does this word make me think about in relation to what I’ve written and am about to write.” I think some of the surprises in the book, language-wise, are because of that impulse to use rhyme to push into what a poem is about. I wouldn’t have got where I ended up without the form leading me and without using its rules as tools to mine my feelings and my responses, to see both in a new light.
There’s a lot of nuance in the Lost Family poems. You’re forced into nuance when you have such few words in a poem. Each of my sonnets contains around 90 to 110 words, which is not a lot of space to manoeuvre inside. And then you have to perform all of the gymnastics the form expects by rhyming, maintaining some sort of consistent cadence, counting syllables, and making sure the sonnet turns where it should after the eighth line. And somehow the sonnets have to mean something after you do all of that.
In the book’s acknowledgements, I quote Don Paterson: “Sonnets make it easy for poets to write poems.” It’s challenging to use the form in such a way that it allows you to excavate your feelings, but the form itself points the way toward a merger of form and content. Whatever you want to say, it’s that merger you’re directed toward to create a finished work.
I believe a poem is less the words on the page then the response that those words generate. Those words shouldn’t complete the poem for the reader at all. How you experience a poem as you read it is a critical part of the meaning and everyone reads in their own way. A poem has many meanings, a single meaning into which many meanings are read.
RD: Lost Family is your story, being queer an integral part. How has this influenced the book?
JB: I’ve been writing about queer experience for a long time, starting with my second book, Hidden Structure, which is a single long poem I wrote in the 1980s. Because I have been doing it for a long time, it feels natural to write about this kind of experience, it’s normal for me. There are two chapters in In Lost Family that deal with queer topics, “Faithful Street” and “Coda For The Victims”. Queerness is felt elsewhere in the book in the context of how I define what family is.
There has to be space for queer stories, it’s as simple as that. In the chapter “Coda For The Victims” many of those sonnets might actually work as occasional poems. which you write in response to an occasion or something that’s happened in the greater world, usually in the present. For example, the poet laureate of the United Kingdom might be asked to write about a royal wedding or the birth of an heir to the throne. The title poem for this section of Lost Family is about Bruce McArthur, the Toronto serial killer who took the lives of eight racialized men. I wanted to elegize those men. “What You Live For” among other things makes mention of a mass shooting at a Latinex gay bar in Orlando, Florida, where almost 100 people died. “The London Patient” is about only the second man in history to have been “cured” of AIDS through a bone-marrow transplant. My use of a tweet by Donald Trump as an epigraph for this poem will, I hope, be understood as irony.
HIV has shaped my life ever since I came out in the mid-1980s when I was in my late twenties. If I had come out in my teens, I could likely have caught the virus and died since AIDS at the beginning of that pandemic was an automatic death sentence if you tested positive. You’d be lucky to survive two years. When I came out coincided with the first real understanding of how to protect yourself. I talk about this in “Rock Hudson, Safer Sex, and What Comes Next.” A matinee idol going public that he was dying of AIDS was a ground-breaking moment in the history of the disease. It changed everything in that AIDS suddenly became very real to the general public.
“HIV: A History” was written in response to a definitive study published in the spring of 2019 that concluded AIDS has been beaten decisively by the medical establishment, that if you follow the protocols for living with HIV by taking your medications, you literally can’t pass the virus on, even through unprotected sex. The authors declared this to be a great achievement, which it is, but if you don’t have access to the drugs that lower the presence of HIV in your blood to untransmittable levels—in other words, if you don’t enjoy the privilege of health care available in developed nations—then the AIDS pandemic is far from over for you.
RD: The AIDs pandemic and the attainment of equal rights is far from settled?
JB: As we speak, more people around the world have died from HIV this year than they have from COVID-19. This will come as a surprise to many, including members of the queer community. Though the infection rate is rising in Canada, AIDS is now considered to be a less alarming, manageable disease. We are largely unaware that people are still succumbing to the disease in great numbers in other countries around the world. It’s not as simple as claiming that the mainstream hasn’t noticed this; I don’t think many queer people in my own community have really noticed. Larry Kramer probably did. He was one of the first to sound the alarm when gay men in New York starting dying in the early 1980s and he became one of the most vocal, uncompromising advocates protesting the Reagan administration’s indifference to the AIDS pandemic. When Kramer died in May, I wrote a sonnet in his memory. It’s the last poem I wrote for Lost Family.
I had a very interesting conversation with Saanich poet Philip Kevin Paul a year or so ago. As an Indigenous person, he was talking about “my people” and in response I said “You know, I had no people when I was born.” His eyes widened and he said that I needed to hold onto that thought. I think this lack of a people is still central to being queer today. When you’re born queer into a family and you slowly recognize who you are, you’re not necessarily surrounded by people like yourself or even by people who will affirm your identity. Even though being queer is now part of the zeitgeist, acceptance is not automatic. As a queer person, you still have to go looking for your people, though some want a community more than others. The suicide rate and rate of homelessness among queer youth, especially trans youth, is much higher than it is for youth in general. Until those rates fall to the national average, I don’t think the struggle for equal treatment will be over. I’ve read that there are still 100 laws on the books in Canada that discriminate against queer people.
There’s a term within the queer community, “straight-acting,” which gay men use to characterize themselves as just regular guys. Sometimes I think the queer community, as it is constructed today, considers itself to be a straight-acting success, that’s the sort of acceptance we’ve achieved. We have attained all the rights we think we need, like the right to marry, which allow us to blend in. For the government, how do you assert control over a community of outsiders: you bring their lives into the fold by giving them those rights that will turn each of them into citizens no different than any other acceptable members of society. These rights, however, may pare away those aspects of who we are that make us different. The rights conferred are styled on the rights that everyone already has and they can therefore control us via the small print of those rights—if and when we break rules that are meant to civilize us and, whatever our identity, keep us all civil.
RD: How did you go about creating a book out of 366 plus sonnets?
JB: It was a very intuitive process. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to think of the sonnets as collectively constituting a work of creative nonfiction. At 180 pages, Lost Family is longer than a normal poetry book and it gets away with this, I think, because of the memoir structure. Thinking of the sonnets as a vehicle for telling my own story helped me sort through them. I had known that the book would be called Lost Family for some time, so when I went about putting it together, I first removed the sonnets that didn’t seem to fit the title. My idea of what “family” was was purposely very broad. I sorted those that fit within that wide range into separate folders on my computer: poems about my sister Pam, poems about my mum, poems about my dad, poems about my mum and dad, my early childhood, early adulthood, poems about AIDS. If a sonnet seemed to be the right subject for a folder, then that sonnet was filed there. Then I went through the sonnets that I’d tentatively screened in as candidates to decide which were finished, which needed more work, and which ones I wasn’t sure of. I eliminated still more sonnets until I felt ready to cobble those that were left into a reasonable semblance of a book and sent it to Carmine, my editor.
RD: And Carmine’s reaction?
JB: To my surprise, he only wanted me to cut nine sonnets. Since he had read all 366 of my sonnets, there were eight I’d cut that he missed and he asked me to include them, which I was happy to do, and, with his blessing, I retained two of the sonnets that he’d asked me to drop as well as two that I had regretted not including in the first place. Working with him to fine-tune the book was a really interesting process. It’s fortunate that our tastes and our sense of what should be in the book were more or less the same.
“Family Epidemic” was one of the sonnets that Carmine had wanted me to drop, but I couldn’t let it go. He’d argued that it lacked the interiority of the other poems, so I decided that my job was to figure out how to infuse it with the interior qualities he missed. To me, the poem initially wasn’t about having an interior since I only remembered lying very still in my bed while watching Pam and our cousin Val count their chickenpox. We’d all come down with them at the same time. I was not even two years old, so in writing the poem, I’d had to recreate an experience from over sixty years ago. It’s very hard to have a full sense of something that far back in the past. As a consequence, it can sometimes take a long time for the Sudoku to snap into place and you have to be vigilant. I revised the poem once more in response to Carmen’s further comments at the second-proof stage. There’s a line where I’d described my sister being the “first” to recognize that life is “piecemeal,” I changed this to “last”—and I could literally hear the snap of the poem coming together. “Piecemeal” is an observation my two-year-old self made—or, more precisely an observation I’d imagined my toddler-self as already being capable of making. This one change from “first” to “last” captures who my sister was better than anything else in the entire book, “last” helping to characterize her as an optimist, not someone who sees the world is disappointing. Here she is, counting our chickenpox, and in her mind, everything is exponential. For me, at two-year’s old, life is already circumspect. From an early age, Pam had a positive worldview and I think her example helped make me into the person I am, or at least it prevented the light within me from blowing out. This is why I couldn’t let go of this sonnet.
As I’ve said, I’d like to think that there’s a lot of nuance in the sonnets in Lost Family. You’re forced into creating nuance when you have such few words. Each of these poems is around 90 to 110 words, which does not allow for a lot of space. And then you have to perform all of the gymnastics of the form: rhyme, cadence, syllable count, and the volta. Somehow the sonnets have to be meaningful after you’ve imposed all of that on them.
RD: Your title, Lost Family, what’s going on there?
JB: The book’s immediate focus is my family and the impact that three family deaths, my sister Pam’s and my parents’, have had on me. My sense of “lost family” also embraces the gay community and the men who died during the AIDS pandemic. In the section called “Chosen Family,” “family” is further expanded to also include those comprising what Tales of the City author Armistead Maupin calls the “logical family” (as opposed to the “biological family”)—in other words, the people you invite in.
There are also sonnets that seek to redress the exclusion of refugees, Indigenous people, and others from the stories that settler society has long told itself. “The Last of the Catchers,” a poem about the dying seas, extends the book’s idea of family to include the natural world. Its inspiration comes from having walked along the breakwater at Ogden Point countless times and never seeing anyone fishing along it catch something. One day, however, I at last witnessed someone catch a ling cod, I asked the fisherman if he’d often caught fish along the breakwater. Even though he’d said “Oh yeah!” this is the only time I’ve ever seen anyone meet with success and this success seemed to articulate something critical about our relationship to the environment, a waiting for Godot feeling. While we continue to expect it to provide, we are rapidly depleting it. Whether family is lost or not, it’s determined by our capacity for active empathy.
RD: Your eight chapter titles came easily from the themes you had collected?
JB: The chapter titles jumped out from the sonnets in each chapter. Except for “Faithful Street,” I didn’t struggle to find a title for any of them. “Faithful Street” delves into issue of gender identity and sexual orientation that I struggled with as an adolescent and young adult during the last years of my parents’ marriage in the 1970s. “Faithful to what?” is the question that this chapter asks. I think of all the chapters as essays. For this reason, the table of contents is composed of the chapter titles only; the poems’ titles are instead arranged in alphabetical order in an index at the back of the book.
RD: The last chapter, “Photo Finish,” what was your intention at this point for the book?
JB: This sequence, a crown of seven sonnets, was inspired by something I heard New Brunswick poet Alden Nowlan being quoted as saying on Out in the Open, a CBC Radio One show that until recently aired on Sundays: “The only way you can come to terms with grief is to imagine your own death.” This crown, which begins and ends with me imagining my last moments, felt like an appropriate way to conclude this book.
RD: Tell me about your variance of the length of your stanzas within each sonnet and how you knew what stanza form would fit the particular poem —
JB: Some are very standard sonnet structures—three four-line stanzas and a couplet—others less so. I began the project by experimenting with ways to break down the shape of the traditional sonnet, but I found that the form was just so beautiful in and of itself, so I started respecting it more. Some of my sonnets are composed of couplets. Arranging lines into couplets is an automatic thing for me to do. The couplet by its very nature has a great deal of poise and lends its sense of poise and of equipoise to what’s being written about. The title poem for the section called “Chosen Family” is a good example. It’s about finding balance with two other people through feeling that I belonged inside the circle that their table implicitly created.
For a very short time, I tried to break away from making each of my poems a single sentence, which most of my poems have been for the past twenty or more years, but it’s just too ingrained in my nature to let go of. The single sentences in Lost Family in turn influenced how I negotiated every line and stanza break. Most of my clauses in these sonnets do not end on a rhyme, nor are most of my rhymes full ones, something that the frequent use of a good rhyming dictionary made possible.
RD: Your choice of epigraph, tell me about that — “It struck me, right then, that some of us on this planet are simply loved. That’s all, loved. The rest of us are umpires.”
JB: It’s purposely frivolous and is drawn from a short story by Ethan Mordden, a New York-based writer who’s published a series of books that are referred to collectively as “Tales of Gay Manhattan.” These tales are breezy, off-hand observations of the goings-on of the residents of the apartment building where the narrator lives. As an observer, he is never fully a part of the stories that his friends are immersed in, just like an umpire. The narrator of Lost Family is negotiating the consequences of other peoples’ or his own relationship to love, constantly, observant in the way an umpire is always observant. An umpire is supposed to call them like he sees them, is supposed to be honest. I asked Carmine what he thought about the epigraph, It impressed me that he took the time to research Ethan Mordden, a writer few readers outside the gay community know of. Carmine thought Mordden’s style of writing matched mine. There’s a cocky tone of the epigraph, and a little bit of this bravado every now and then surfaces in Lost Family.
RD: I felt an optimistic tone throughout your book, had a sense you thought you were progressing in the right direction with your Lost Family —
I think it comes down to observation, how you approach the world. If you approach it with wonder then you are a citizen of that world. That’s why I end the second-last chapter of the book with “Three Amazing Things on Thursday,” which captures the awe that the natural world, even in its depleted state, can still inspire. This sonnet sets up the closing shot of “Photo Finish,” which in a way is less a chapter than an afterword.
I hope the joys of the language are clear in my work. To me a poem becomes alive when you can sense, even unconsciously, the pleasure the writer experienced in its composition. I think that’s where immortality lies. As a poet you’re downloading your assets—your being—into the words; they will survive long after you are no more. What you leave behind may be a humble immortality, even an ignored immortality. I don’t think immortality has anything to do with fame, it’s what you pass on. Poetry expedites that.
RD: What else have you been working on, what’s next in your writing?
JB: It’s funny, one of the things Carmine said to me in a recent email is “I guess there’s another collection of sonnets in the outtakes”—that is, in the sonnets that did not get collected into this book. At some point I’ll have to pick my way through them to put together another book of sonnets. I’ve been joking I’d revise one of these two-hundred-or-so uncollected sonnets each day for the duration of the pandemic. I haven’t kept up with this, but it would be one way of figuring out what the next book of sonnets should be. I do have a title, though: Existential Navigation.
Three of the sonnets I’ve been revising are about my British grandmother, whom I don’t remember meeting as a two-year-old and who died when I was thirteen. I’ve been thinking a lot about why we are haunted so much by the first twenty years of our lives. Why do the people we’d shared those years with impress us so much? These people, our lives, are fodder for great stories. And there are still more stories to tell. My task has been to get at them and I’ve recently been writing longer, free-verse poems about my family. Unlike the sonnets, there’s nothing formal about these poems in any way, shape, or form. Besides their subject material, all they have in common with the sonnets is their being single sentences. It strikes me that these poems are calling me to tell similar stories using different techniques to find out if they will lead me to a different sense of my past.
I’ve also been working on another book-length project called Contrapposto. I started it before moving back to Victoria in 2004 and it’s about three gay figures active in the New York art scene from the mid-twentieth century onwards: the artist Paul Camus, the photographer George Platt Lynes, and New York City Ballet co-founder, Lincoln Kirstein. I’m interested in the ways in which the queer self had self-identified back then.
Lost Family is still so new, it continues to feel like a work in progress. One of my earlier books has “family” in the title, Notes Toward a Family Tree, which I published in 1993. I really didn’t think much about the overlap until after Lost Family was finished. It seems that I’ve gone from writing “notes toward” to being “lost.” Maybe, at some point, I’ll write the book in between.