By Lola Lemire Tostevin
This post is a copy of Lola Lemire Tostevin’s beautiful presentation delivered as a part of Meet the Presses’ “An H of a Night for bpNichol” on October 17, 2017. We share this post with a big thanks to Tostevin for sharing her words that night, and for allowing us to share them again on our site.
I think it was in early 1986 when Philip McKenna from the Phoenix Foundation phoned to ask if I would meet with him and Barrie at a restaurant on St. Clair Avenue to discuss a new chapbook award the Foundation was sponsoring. It turned out that I was being brought in to serve as a judge, which lasted, in some capacity, from 1986 to about 2005, either as a judge or in selecting judges.
I was a little late arriving at the restaurant, having gone east instead of west—or vice versa—because I have no sense of direction. When I arrived, the guys were already seated at a white table-clothed table, the restaurant a large open space, the tables relatively close to one another, most of them occupied.
Some of you will remember that for the last few years of his life Barrie almost always wore blue velour outfits that Ellie made for him—loose top, loose pants, the blue velour the colour of bp’s eyes. As soon as I sat down, I noticed seams and interfacing sticking every which way from Barrie’s top. “Barrie,” I said, “your top is inside out.” At which Barrie immediately jumped up and proceeded to take off his top. He wasn’t wearing anything underneath. For those of you who knew Barrie, you know he wasn’t in the best of shape, but this didn’t matter to him. He stood in the middle of the restaurant taking his time turning his top inside in, then sat down, as if this was a perfectly acceptable social thing to do.
If anyone else had done this, I probably would have been mortified. But with Barrie, it didn’t matter. Friends accepted this kind of behaviour because we understood that Barrie was free from social conventions, especially if they inhibited. Those were there to be broken. He would break into song in a subway, break wind in a movie theatre loudly enough even the actors onscreen turned to the audience as if to say, “Excuse me?” But Barrie doing it was all right, because we understood that at one point in his life he had freed himself from anything he didn’t deem important, in order to make more room for what mattered most: his family, his creativity. In turn, his freedom allowed many of us to free ourselves to explore our creativity. We didn’t worry so much about what others might think, because he gave us the freedom to dare: dare to think outside the box; dare to write about it; such as in Barrie’s workshops that Nicholas Power and I attended for the better part of two winters in the early ’80s. Barrie knew that writers felt freer to experiment within smaller groups and in smaller formats like chapbooks, because within smallness lay the possibility of bigger things, perhaps an entire series of life-based books. You know, like a Martyrology. He knew that from those small groups and chapbooks the possibilities were endless.
Then . . . the man who freed himself from social conventions died at 44 years old. That was hardly fair, now, was it? Because a man who dies at 44 remains forever 44 years old, freed from all social conventions, while the rest of us get old, probably still trapped within social conventions. What a trickster. For a long time, I didn’t forgive him for that. Until, slowly, I realized it wasn’t really up to Barrie anymore; in fact, it may never have been up to Barrie to free us, not entirely. He’d known this all along. He knew. Nor was it up to him to free us from staying young; it was up to us to free ourselves from the idea of perpetual youth—just as language itself is old; just as language would be on the brink of dying, if it weren’t for poets, for writers. Writers work with a language that is so old it threatens to become a dead language. But the freedom to write a new poem, a story, not only frees language from getting old, it constitutes a kind of resurrection, so that it too can stay forever 44 years old. And just as we undergo different bodies over the course of a lifetime, we undergo different ways of writing. The writer’s job, no matter how young or old, is to give the essence of language an ever-changing body.
I, personally, will never be free enough to break into song in a subway, although I’ve hummed a few times. As for breaking wind in a movie theatre, well . . . but never loudly enough to stop actors on a screen. And for most of us who read here tonight, obviously we didn’t stay 44 years old. We moved on, doing our own kind of writing, sometimes ceding our place to younger writers who hopefully will keep this great bpNichol Chapbook Award going. And that’s OK, as long as they too keep language from perishing in the ever-growing dead clichés of public, political, and entertainment pablum; as long as they promise to protect language’s fragile and living body, even if at times it appears in public wearing an inside-out blue- velour outfit.