An interview with Barry Callaghan by Todd H. C. Fischer, 1999
Very few Canadian poets receive the recognition they deserve. This is a sad and sorry trend which may, hopefully, be coming to an end. Big chain bookstores are beginning to include large sections devoted to poetry, and older books by Canadian poets are being reissued. One poet who is seeing such a resurrection is Barry Callaghan, author of [insert bibliography]. Callaghan is perhaps best known for his series of Hogg poems and paintings, which McArthur and Company have reissued as Hogg: The Poems and Drawings. Recently, I had the pleasure to talk to Barry Callaghan at York University—where he teaches English—to discuss Hogg.
After scouring the campus for a half hour, looking for a quiet corner to conduct the interview, we finally settled in a small supply room on the third storey of the Ross building. Callaghan, with his near-mane of steely grey hair marked with one white streak, waited patiently as I set up my recording equipment and gathered my notes. At first I was intimidated by him, from his reputation as a canonized Canadian poet, and secondly by his physical presence. Callaghan seems larger than life, a looming presence with piercing eyes and a deep voice that almost seems to rumble forth from below ground. When I finally had everything ready, I decided to start at the beginning, asking him why he chose to make the main character of his long series of poems a historical one.
“Originally,” he said in his bass rumble, “they were all written in the personal pronoun. There are certain strengths to writing in that voice. It is the great strength of the great lyric poetry and prose, like Huckleberry Finn. The strength of the personal pronoun is that nothing stands between the narrator’s eye and the reader’s eye. However, there are also weaknesses. You cannot have Huckleberry Finn speculate on the nature of the Civil War, for example, because he is an illiterate kid, he wouldn’t do that; it would be false. Also, when the sequence began to grow, I had the feeling that what was really needed was that space for the speaker to have a large dimension. There are advantages to distance. And so, when I fell upon the idea of naming him Hogg, it gave me a kind of freedom to cast my own lyric voice, and begin to create what had been my lyric voice as a character.”
He went on to explain how, upon doing some research on the Toronto area, an area he feels is too little mythologized, he stumbled across James Hogg, who lived in a section of the city called Hogg’s Hollow.
“A great deal has been made of that by critics and writers who like to sometimes make more of things than are there,” he added with a smile.
The poems in Hogg have a great deal to do with Jerusalem, and Callaghan felt that James Hogg would be a good comparison. He had, as historian Henry Scadding noted, built a shell of a place of worship in a hollow. Those words—‘worship’ and ‘hollow’—resonated for Callaghan. Also, since so much of the poetry is a study of betrayal, he felt that Hogg was a logical choice. During MacKenzie’s Revolution, Hogg had turned in a party of rebels to the local authorities. His betrayal would be a good comparison with Biblical betrayal, particularly that of Judas.
“It’s as profound as that, and as simple as that,” said Callaghan, leaning forward in his chair. “Other than that I had no interest in pursuing who James Hogg was. I don’t care who James Hogg was, although long and serious essays have been written on the subject. It was the resonance. If there is one thing that interests me in language, it is resonance. It’s very hard to explain that to academics, that what I care about is the resonance, not whether James Hogg had a pimple on his head or not. He served my purposes to my imagination.”
After a moment of thought Callaghan went on. “I liked the idea that the guy was called Hogg, because a hog is a pig, and there are aspects of Hogg’s character in which he is piggish. In fact he’s often swinish. He’s many things—which allows him as a character, now freed from my lyric voice, to be a lover, a betrayer, a pig, even a bit of a swine, to hang around with swinish people, to pass through the world of Doctor Ded in the subway and react as if he’d met Ezekiel the prophet.
“So Hogg became who he is that way, and he became a useful device to me because I could refer to myself as Hogg and be ironic and sardonic about it and joke about it and, at the same time, be deadly serious about it. Because I had distance, whereas if I had written the whole thing like [Layton] Irving in the personal voice, it would have been all ‘I’, ‘I’, ‘I’ all the time. This would have made it very difficult to persuasively step into the voices of all the characters or prophets that Hogg meets. I wanted to write inside the voice of John the Conqueroo. I wanted to write inside the voice of prophets in Jerusalem.”
From there, Callaghan began a comparison of prophets in Jerusalem and crazy folk in the subway. They are, he felt, one and the same. They were both prophets and wackos. “To me, Jerusalem is the wackiest place on the face of the earth. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the centre of all the wackiness. Christian, Moslem, Jew—you should visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to see how insane religion makes people. Then take a waltz up to the Wailing Wall. People walk around that city and say, ‘Here’s Adam’s foot print’. You know they’re lunatics.”
After laughing for a moment, with his right eyebrow dancing with mirth, Callaghan went on. “Now, ‘The Emperor’s Imperial Beak,’ that’s a very cruel poem. It’s a poem about the Jews obviously. Face to the wall. That’s stone. I’ve spent a lot of time around that wall—rocking bodies, in black coats, like men trying to hold their balance on a ship, face to the wall. The only other position for them, in my language, is to stand back to the wall. Nobody wants to stand with their back to the wall, but why would anyone want to turn their back to the world and face the wall? That’s a kind of despairing poem about the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jew’s plight at the hands of the Romans. The prophets aren’t working, so the old woman turns to the wall and enters colloquy with God. But it’s face to the wall, and to me that’s a despairing position. I would argue that the real problem in Jerusalem is that they have two philosophies of despair. Zionism is a form of despair, in that its basic principle is that a Jew is unsafe among non-Jews. This gives me the willies. The Palestinians don’t trust anybody. They have reason not to trust anybody, because they’ve been abandoned by everybody.
The astonishing thing to come out of that is you’ll find, among the Jews of Israel, a kind of sweet and sometimes heartbreaking melancholy about what they think they have become as a people. When you are dominating a people, and worrying about what you’ve become, that’s a form of generosity. The Palestinians, you’ll find, are among the most forgiving people you can talk to. If you don’t believe me go and hang out with the Irish. Try the Irish Protestants and Catholics in Belfast. The magic, for me, in Jerusalem, is that you have these two despairing positions. The Jews and Palestinians have this melancholy hope in the midst of despair, and to me that image is the face to wall. My position would be to go up on the top of the wall and dance on it.”
At this point conversation turned to the second book of Hogg, the section of paintings. To begin, Callaghan read one of the epigraphs from that book, by Jerzy Kosinski: “There is a place beyond all words where experience first occurs to which I always want to return.” After setting his copy of Hogg back on the table, Callaghan leapt into a lengthy explanation for the paintings.
“The simple structure of the first book is about a guy who is paranoid—Hogg, who seems justifiably paranoid. And if some scholar in the future were to go and read my memoir [Barrelhouse Kings] and try and read it into Hogg, they’d see that there was good reason at that time for Hogg to be paranoid. That’s why he comes up for air, why he goes to the one place on earth where he thinks the last word could be holy [Jerusalem]. While there he engages in a love affair and runs into the failure of passion that comes to passion, the craziness of Jerusalem and the insularity of tribalism. What can such a man do? He’s played his own role in it—he’s part betrayer, part pig, part swine, part lover, part saint—and it comes to what? The Lazarus Stone—nothing. He must come home. When you come home from a situation like that, you come home in pain. You come home in the silence that accompanies pain deep in the body, which is why I included the second epigraph. That’s a long statement that means simply that Hogg watched his hand move, describing the pain that he felt. The pain was at the end of his fingers. Is this a real pain that the author of Hogg went through at the period?”
After a moment’s pause, he answered, “Yes. I’ve been in a lot of pain in my life. I’ve had very sever arthritis all my life and to live with the pain I actually pretended it was not there. At some points I’ve been quite stupid. I’ve pretended so well that I’ve ended up in a state of shock. While I was writing these poems, this happened to me. I went into the hospital in a state of shock and I watched the way I communicated with myself, which was drawing. I believed, and still do believe, that pain is speaking when my fingers move. I watched those drawings emerge and I kept at it after my three week jaunt in the hospital. I understood this to be my body articulating all it had accumulated. My body had accumulated an awareness, and the images are there in one’s self. Some people can’t let them come out; they’re very self conscious, they hold them back and they press them down.
“I remember the day I drew one of my favourites, which is some weird man with wings and a penis for a nose. I remember drawing that penis on his face. It was not done lasciviously, or for comic effect, it just seemed at the moment organically right to me. Organic in the sense that Coleridge and Keats spoke of the organic—everything as a whole. And it was a way of reordering the parts of the body, fragmented by pain, into a wholeness. It was a re-gathering of the silence that is the music inside one’s self. It came out, I suppose, in some weird images.
“At the same time, it seemed to me to be perfectly in tune with Hogg’s sensibility, in that there is no difference to Hogg, in a moral or self-conscious way, between a big toe and a cock, or a breast and a knee, or a cunt and a mouth. Those are all just parts of the body. Hogg does not have the Judeo-Christian hang-up about sexuality and sensuality. To him, the body is the body. So to me, the drawings are a pause in the clock, important because they sit there as the expression of that period of pause, as Hogg re-gathers himself and explores a kind of primal silence that speaks to him, and speaks through his fingers. And he learns about himself through what emerges and what he does.”
Since we were already coming towards the subject anyway, we turned the conversation to the issues of sensuality and sexuality in Hogg.
“You have no idea how uptight this culture is when it comes to sexuality,” Callaghan stated emphatically. “There’s a poem in [Hogg] called “The Gift of Tongue” in which I have tried to describe in a sensual, but, I think, in a discreet way, oral sex given on the side of the hill of Mt. Olives. Not just as a carnal gesture, but as a gift of tongue. This is how words resonate—you can’t hear that phrase without thinking of the Holy Ghost, of Pentecost and the gift of languages that gave promise to the Word abroad, unfettered by the narrowness of tribalism. And in the midst of this resonance is of course the woman, the muse who also releases the Word. I take it even further than that. I take it into the image of the muezzin, and the cry that the muezzin utters and the cry that the lover utters, as the minaret, a stone shaft, enters the mouth of God. I think, and many people around the world think, that this is a beautiful poem. However, one of the reviewers here in Toronto [Fraser Sutherland] was so incensed by the imagery of that poem that, insanely enough, he publicly said that Moslems should be offended and I should suffer a fatwa. He said this in the Globe and Mail. Can you imagine? I was stunned the Globe and Mail would actually print such a thing.”
Those easily offended, he went on, could not cope with the open embrace of sexuality in some of the poems. He asserted that little has changed since the 1950s, when Irving Layton had a rough time of it for saying, in his poetry, that all of the women he loved, he loved sensually. Callaghan, like Irving, loves sensually, and is not afraid of women or the female form.
“In my fiction I’ve written a novelette and several short stories in the voice of a woman. I don’t feel alien from women. I feel at home with women, and if you feel at home with women, at ease with their sensuality and sexuality, they bring out your own sensuality and femininity. Then, you’re really in touch with the Dionysian forces, and there’s no problem in writing and approaching the body and women in the way I do. The problem is that we live in a patriarchal society that almost by definition is afraid of women. The Catholic Church won’t let them be priests; the Jews put them at the back of the Synagogue and if they’re really orthodox, make them wear wigs. They do all kinds of weird things to women. I like to do friendly things to women, and not in a prurient way, just in a condition of ease. I’ve never understood all of that stuff, the things the priests said as I went through the Catholic high-schools. It always seemed strange. Maybe because I felt so close to my mother. My mother was a remarkable woman. She grew up in an Irish Catholic family, so how did she end up being a woman of such gaiety?”
Here Callaghan shrugged and looked out the window for a moment. When he turned back we changed the course of our discussion, and I asked him what was so powerful about the image of the stone, that it ended up in seventeen of the poems, was the title of the second book of Hogg, and was displayed prominently on the front cover.
“That’s either the moon or the Eucharist,” he said pointing at the white disk on the cover of Hogg. “You’ll note that its held in a hand. If it’s the moon, it’s the holding of the woman in a courtly way; if it’s the holy wafer, it’s the holding of God in a courtly way. If it’s a stone, it’s what sits at the centre of life, the mystery of stone, the rock. ‘Upon this rock I shall build my church.’ And if you’re going to build a church it has to be human, and so right beside [the disk on the cover] is an erect penis. You don’t build churches if you don’t have a big cock. I’m not just being facetious. Go to Rome, and wherever you see a dome, there’s an obelisk. It’s worth thinking about. The dome is the womb, and the obelisk—big cock. I shouldn’t interpret [the cover] too much, but stone suggests everything to me: the mystery of what is in stone, the origins of life in stone, the voice that is locked in stone, the water that is locked in stone, God who builds his church on stone. Stone is everything, all possibilities and all origins. That’s what it means to me, it sits at the centre, the whole of nature is alive and resonates.”
At this point I mentally slapped myself in the head and said, “So that’s why section two is called stone—because its at the centre of the book. And his redemption at the end comes out of his painting, his stone.”
Nodding, Callaghan said, “Inside the stone are all those images. Inside the silence that is stone—all those images. I remember years ago, I wrote ‘And Moses broke the rock and sucked the water free.’ You have to open stone to get the water. You have to go through stone. There’s a poem of Margaret Atwood’s [in Progressive Insanity of a Pioneer] where a farmer makes it clear to himself and the landscape that he is there by stamping his foot on a stone. And he watches as his foot sinks up to his knee.” Laughing, he added, “Margaret understands. There’s stone, and then there’s stone. You better be careful when you stamp your foot or you may sink all the way down, and discover the whale who is down there—the big Leviathan.”
As stated earlier, Hogg is a collection of poems about betrayal, stemming from Callaghan himself being betrayed during the early seventies, when he lost his job at CBC and was threatened with the loss of his job at York University for acknowledging the Palestinian argument, as well as the Jewish, in the “swamp of the middle east”—that is, “I said simply, straightforwardly, ‘Look, they are there…see them, they are there.’” He had been totally silenced, “In my terms,” by 1971.
“Hogg is fascinated by betrayal, that’s true. He’s really interested in betrayal as its portrayed in the ‘Judas Priest’ poem. It is a profound moral question as revealed through the story of Jesus, and I emphasize ‘story’, as it is one. One that has seized the imaginations of people. Each generation, each century, seems to have its fascination with a Jesus. I was fascinated, roughly around the time I got interested in writing this book. I was fascinated with the idea that at one point in the Egyptian Church, around one or two hundred AD, Judas was a saint. This led me to actually go back and read the story. I read it and I said to myself, ‘Wait a minute.’ Judas plays the most astounding role in this story; he plays the absolute key role in this story. And so does Peter. And what they both share with Jesus is that they both betray him. As Judas Priest in the book says, when it came time to build his church, to build his rock, Jesus didn’t hand it over to those namby-pambies Luke and John. He gave it to Peter, who had stood outside the gates saying, ‘I don’t know anything about that guy. Leave me alone.’”
Going on, Callaghan related how Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, but let him do so. He also remarked on the kiss that Judas gave Jesus to show the Roman soldiers who he was. But everyone in the city knew who Jesus was, he had arrived two weeks earlier to fanfare (people laying palm leaves before him as he rode into town upon a donkey). The kiss, felt Callaghan, was ritual, part of the story-telling process, and necessary for the story. The kiss was for our benefit, to mark Judas—who was prepared to accept the marking—as a betrayer. “And then Judas, in perfect imitation of Jesus, hung himself dead, bearing in mind that in the early Church there were theological thinkers who argued that the all-knowing God Jesus—in knowing his ‘story’ before he lived it—had committed a suicide. What a story, eh? What resonances. Don’t tell your parish priest that story today—he’ll box you about the ears.”
As our time began to wind down, Callaghan spoke of his own story, the basis for Hogg’s love affair in Jerusalem. “I’ve actually told in my memoir how that affair came to an end,” he said, “and it’s terrible.” He revealed that the woman involved, a Jew, felt that to leave Jerusalem, let alone with a non-Jew, would be a betrayal of her father. After breaking off the affair, she suffered a breakdown. When her father came to visit her, and she told him what she had done, he shook his head sadly. “If you think,” he whispered, “that I survived a death camp, so you could turn away real love, then you’ve misunderstood everything.”
This story succinctly draws together all the threads that Callaghan has woven into Hogg: the matter of betrayal, of religious tribalism, of “prophets” who utter truths, of despair and of love.
“These things must come to an end,” said Callaghan as we wrapped up our session, “because there are forces, and the forces always involve the word, and the word is supposed to be Holy.”
‘Supposed to be’ being the opportune words.
(c) Todd H. C. Fischer, 1999. If interested in publishing this work, please contact the author.