7 books that excite CBC Poetry Prize juror Gary Barwin

Poet, musician and multidisciplinary artist Gary Barwin is putting on another hat - he's a juror for the 2017 CBC Poetry Prize alongside Rosanna Deerchild and Humble The Poet

Barwin's novel Yiddish for Pirates was recently named a finalist for the 2017 Leacock Medal and was shortlisted for the 2016 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and the Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Barwin shares seven books he really loves - and thinks you will too.


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His guilty pleasure

I know I'm supposed to be cooler and I always think of that stinging Lynn Crosbie line, something about a guy in socks and Birks, holding a hash brownie - the confluence of Toklas, Tolkien and toking - cornering her at a party and relentlessly dwarfsplaining about elves. But Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien was hugely influential to me, though not for all that mountain-bound ringshlepping. Instead it was the deep sense of the interpenetration of language and culture, of folklore, myth and legend being intertwined in a new work and especially, the intimate feeling, the presence and story of the landscape. But, as long as you're here, let me explain something about elves...

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A book that electrifies him

Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Mesmerizing and electric speculations about the colour blue, language, loss, philosophy, love and sex. This more recent book - an intriguing, thoughtful, emotionally rich and affective mix of autobiography, essay and poetry - is lush, incisive, forthright and beguilingly blurs its blue borders. "All right then, let me try to rephrase. When I was alive, I aimed to be a student not of longing but of light."

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A Kafka primer

The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka. Somehow we wake into this world of strange codes. While we feel intensely, it seems we have stepped just to the left of real life. It's in our peripheral vision. But there is agency and mysterious humour, a searing compassion and tenderness, folktales seeping from between the anxious cracks of our existential jokebook. And reports by an ape, a burrowing creature, a singing mouse and a beautiful, sad, numinous story about guy riding a bucket into the sky.

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Words in the time of trouble

North by Seamus Heaney. Words have physical presence. They are things in the world. You can feel their texture, their heft in your body and in your sense of the world. "Keep your eye clear / As the bleb of the icicle, / Trust the feel of what nubbed treasure / Your hands have known." Also, bog people.

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A model of the possibility of language

The Alphabet Game by bpNichol. I'm cheating because this is a compendium of Nichol's work. For Nichol, writing is the possibility of language as invention, play and experiment; as a place of quantum relations but also as a self-aware music of emotional exploration, insight and transport. "speech / each / to / eech" but also "every(all at(toge(forever)ther)once)thing."

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Where he found elation in translation

Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person by ErĂ­n Moure. Hard to choose just one book by this prolific poet, translator and inventor of heteronymic (not-)selves, but this translates Fernando Pessoa's sheep-strewn pastoral into the stray cats/hidden-creek world of Toronto. The (trans-)elation of strata: the rural and urban, the past and present, here in the sense of being vividly alive in both time and place, locations in which echoes and resonances abound in language as in life.

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A contemporary American classic

The vitality of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz amazes me. The potent plait of English and Dominican Spanish. The vocabulary and the rhythms of the sentences. The language signals that the experience of the world is different for these people. (For Dominican Americans, it signals: this is us.) And the weave of literary, cultural and historical references. A novel is a window made of language.

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