Gary Barwin's Red Letter Day


Red Letter Day is the 49th Shelf series originated by George Murray where Canadian authors tell us about a dream day where all pleasures are possible, thanks to a combination of extraordinary talent and mad cash.

Today that day is envisioned by Gary Barwin, author of the poetry collection Moon Baboon Canoe and current writer-in-residence at Western University. Utne Reader cited Barwin, along with filmmaker Guy Maddin, in their assertion that "Canada is producing some of the most innovative creative works of our time."

Here is the premise: It’s been a good year. Things are looking up. You’ve sold your book, some lucrative foreign rights, and won a few prizes. AND it’s your birthday. It’s time to treat yourself. For once, money is no object. It’s time to go live a little.

And so ...


49th Shelf: You walk (or fly!) to your favourite bookstore (GB: Bryan Prince, Bookseller or else Epic Books on Locke, both in Hamilton, Ontario) and browse the shelves for three books you’ve been meaning to buy. What are they?


49th Shelf: Then you see a struggling student scanning the shelves of the Canadian Literature section. You decide to “pay it forward” and buy three must-read books by Canadian authors to leave anonymously at the counter for the student. What are they?


(I note that these are three men. I’d never really only represent men and I wouldn’t limit myself to three writers. Choosing only three makes my head explode. I’d absolutely add Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red, Lillian Allen’s Revolutionary Tea Party CD, and Erin Moure’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person. And a financially crippling (for me) selection of many other Canadian writers. 

49th Shelf: You’re a little bushed from all that buying and being considerate. So you’re going to go home, flake out on the couch for a while, and celebrate the birthday indulging in some of your favourite things to do at home. Here are some options:

  • donkeylopez
    Listen to a killer album: GB: Donkey Lopez: Juan Lonely Night (a CD featuring brilliant poetry/sound poetry performances by Stuart Ross, with two brilliant improvising multi-instrumentalists.) I’ve heard a whole bunch of tracks already and they’re spectacular.
  • Watch a movie you've been dying to see forever: GB: The Coen Brothers' Barton Fink.
  • Visit your favourite non-book website: GB: Teleporter by Jim Andrews. With each click, you’re transported to a different entirely random place in the world visible through Google Street view. Simple but strangely exhilarating and moving.
  • Anything else? GB: My favourite thing is to hike in the woods or across fields and there are many around Hamilton. I often go with our dog and often with one of my sons or my daughter.

49th Shelf: Now you’re going to fly ten friends into town and take them out for dinner somewhere special. Where are you going to go? Why?


GB: I remember as a child, having great picnics on the dark and stony floors of a little castle on the coast of Northern Ireland, and I’m partial to the very charming Julie’s Cuban Café (in Toronto) but here in Hamilton, I’d go to our go to restaurant to go to, The Bean Bar. I like the food—varied textures, light and crunchy, soft and thick—but also the variety of customers, from students to the retired, and the delighted-to-be-sophisticated-in-a-self-aware-but-not-ironic way of the place and its servers.

And it’s especially great to be able to wander down on an evening from my house with friends and then maybe after, go to a movie in the old-fashioned charmingly run-down Westdale Theatre where my son’s friend works the in the little glass ticket booth, or walk over to the Royal Botanical Gardens’ former Teaching Garden and Aviary and stroll around the hedges and look for deer or else find a path into the dark woods.

49th Shelf: At dinner, that good old question comes up: what would you be if you weren’t a writer?

GB: And the good old answer: solvent. But I’ve been a teacher and that inspired me greatly, whether teaching kids or adults.

49th Shelf: Finally, because you’re the sort of person who puts aside 10% of your income for charity, you decide to spend make a significant a charitable donation.

 GB: My wife is a criminal lawyer and yesterday—which was Mother’s Day—she went to the jail. There was an awkward little girl who had long unkempt hair and was ‘dressed up’ by being squeezed into a misshapen bright pink polyester dress. Her grandfather was taking her to visit her mother at the jail. I’d want to give my donation to help families like these. Poverty, Mental health. Addiction. Abuse. Education.

49th Shelf: That night you head to bed a contented person. Only one thing remains: deciding which of your new books you’ll read first until you fall asleep.


GB: The History of the Flea Circus, of course. Though my dreams might be filled with crawling and formication, little top hats, velvet curtains, and circus patter. As per usual.


gary barwin

Gary Barwin is a writer, composer, multimedia artist, and educator and the author of 17 books of poetry and fiction as well as books for both teens and children. His work has been widely performed, broadcast, anthologized and published nationally and internationally. His latest book is Moon Baboon Canoe (Mansfield Press), He has just recently completed a novel, Yiddish for Pirates.

He received a PhD in music composition, a BA, BFA, and a BEd, and he and taught middle school and high school for nearly ten years. He has taught writing at McMaster University and at Mohawk College to street-involved youth, and at Offcentre Art and Creativity Workshops. He was the Fall 2013 Young Voices eWriter-in-Residence at the Toronto Public Library and is Writer-in-Residence at Western University in 2014–2015.

Barwin is winner of the 2013 City of Hamilton Arts Award (Writing), the Hamilton Poetry Book of the Year 2011, and co-winner of 2011 Harbourfront Poetry NOW competition, the 2010 bpNichol chapbook award, and the KM Hunter Artist Award.

He lives in Hamilton, Ontario and at For one crazy summer, Barwin shared a shoe-size with Allen Ginsberg. 








July 28, 2014
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