City of Victoria Poet Laureate John Barton has gathered together and recorded a celebratory sampling of his poems about Victoria that he’s drawn from across his four-decade-long writing career.
Victoria Poems showcase John Barton's personal relationship with the city from the time when he was Robin Skelton’s student at the University of Victoria in the late 1970s until the present.
Listen to John read his poems, which he recorded in his dining room. You may also follow the accompanying texts of each poem while he reads. As an extra bonus, the photos illustrating the poems are ones that John has taken himself.
To provide you with some context, John has provided the notes below to shed light on what inspired each poem. For John, these six poems are as fresh as ever, as all poems should be, even though some were written years ago. He hopes they will be as fresh and engaging to you.
I wrote this poem for Robin Skelton’s fourth-year poetry workshop in either the fall of 1979 or the spring of 1980. Robin had assigned the class with the composition of a formal poem and I took this opportunity to add to the poems I’d already written in the voice of Emily Carr, a sequence that over the next four years grew into what I would publish as my third book of poems, West of Darkness: Emily Carr: A Self-Portrait in 1987. “St. Joseph’s Hospital, 1937” is a Petrarchan sonnet and catches Emily recovering from the first of a series of heart attacks she had in the last eight years of her life. Illness changed her career as an artist dramatically. Even though she could still paint in the forests closer to home, which she did avidly, she was no longer able to travel to remoter parts of the B.C. coast. It was during this time that she also committed herself more fully to her writing, drafting the short anecdotes that became Klee Wyck, The Book of Small, The House of All Sorts, and Growing Pains. To make it easier to write while convalescing, she had a typewriter suspended above her hospital bed, which she could easily lower whenever inspiration struck.
When I was a student, I lived for a time in the Passmore, a now-demolished building on View Street just east of Cook, having been encouraged to move in by friends who’d found themselves an apartment in this tumbledown, faux-adobe structure that hid a beguilingly paved, ivy-hung courtyard behind its unassuming entry door. Over the two years that I was a tenant, my friends and I moved in more and more of our circle, to the point that the Passmore felt less like an apartment building populated by strangers indifferent to one another than a commune. We were all too young to care much about its decrepit state, including the mice that ran through the walls day and night. It was here that I found myself as a poet and even today the Passmore’s mice can wiggle their way through the holes of my poems without me really noticing them until it’s too late. I remember those years with fondness, even though I have since lost track of nearly all of the friends I had made there. Unlike the mice, we scattered.
Because I knew absolutely no one when I first moved to Victoria to study writing in September 1978, I went to Cinecenta, UVic’s student-run repertory cinema, almost every night, sometimes attending both showings. This was before BETA, VHS, Blu-Ray, and livestreaming. The films changed almost every day and sometimes two movies were shown of an evening. I saw my first films by Fassbinder, Truffaut, Cocteau, Welles, Jutra, Kurosawa, Bertolucci, Wertmuller, Malek, and countless others. For the first time I truly knew what auteur cinema meant. Because I was such a regular, I got to know all the other regulars and after the theatre went dark, we often found our way to Pagliacci’s, which had just opened. We’d order coffee and pumpkin cheese cake while listening to Balkan Jazz and talking until closing. Those evenings taught me more than anything I learned in most of my classes during the day. This poem is about one particular older gentleman who mentored us in the wiles of café society, and I think of him often to this day. I only ever knew by his first initial.
This poem, which is one of my shortest, recalls a dream-like incident that I witnessed while walking home from a friend’s across Gonzales Beach in the early 1980s. It seemed to write itself and is among the first of my poems to have been accepted for publication by a magazine. Despite that early success, it did not appear in book form until 2009 when, although its text changed dramatically, I collected it into Hymn. Many poems lose their currency over time but the surreality that inspired this one haunts me still.
This poem is inspired by the Ogden Point Breakwater, which is my favourite place to be in the world. Until the pandemic began, I walked it almost every day. Once I’m at the end of it, I feel as far from my worldly concerns as I can be without leaving town. I take a book out there and I have written first drafts of poems despite the threat of being outgunned by the seagulls. A stranger once very kindly helped me gather up the pages of a falling-apart rhyming dictionary that were starting to blow away. This poem also explores my love of perspective and geometry.
I’m ending this survey of my Victoria-themed poems with another sonnet, which is also one of my most recent poems. A sonnet of course is composed of fourteen, theoretically iambic-pentameter (or ten-syllable-long) lines that respect a set rhyme scheme, which in this case is Petrarchan, like “St. Joseph’s Hospital, 1937.” While respecting the constraints of this very short form, I attempt to evoke what it is like to be on the Dallas Road cliffs from dawn to dusk.