"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Writing the World: Conversations with Writers at the Elizabeth Bishop Festival

One of the afternoon events at the Elizabeth Bishop Festival in Great Village, N.S., on 8 August 2015, is a conversation with four exceptional writers: John Barnstead, Binnie Brennan, Carole Langille and Harry Thurston. The conversation will be moderated by yours truly. This post features a profile of faithful amanuensis and general factotum John Barnstead, in the form of excerpts from a brief interview (graciously granted to me via Ouija board, in the hallowed tradition of Sylvia Plath and James Merrill) with his erstwhile employer, the Late and Much-Lamented Pernicious the Musquodoboit Harbour Farm Cat (1992? – 2010).


 "Pub Lush or Parrish"
graphite on Bristol board
("dim, but how alive, how touching in detail")
drawn by Brooks Kind
[left to right: two unidentified young ladies; the Late and Much-Lamented Pernicious the Musquodoboit Harbour Farm Cat; SF author Spider Robinson; the Late and Much-Lamented Pernicious the Musquodoboit Harbour Farm Cat's faithful amanuensis and general factotum;  painter Brooks Kind]

MISS BARRY:  [inarticulate spluttering, as the Interviewer is ushered into The Presence (tm) and suddenly realizes that she has no idea of how to address her interlocutor: "Mister the Musquodoboit Harbour Farm Cat"?  No, that initial definite article is just too awkward.  "Mister Pernicious"?  Far too Eudora Welty... oh botheration...]

TL&M-LPtMHFC: [ever the gracious host]  "Do sit down, Miss Barry.  No, no -- no need to genuflect first, although I quite understand.  It's a natural urge.  It is purr-fectly purr-missible to address me simply as "Pernicious."  I'm sure you've noticed that there is currently something of a fashion for celebrities of the first order to adopt one-word sobriquets -- "Madonna", "Sting", "Cher", "BeyoncĂ©", "Adele", "Rihanna" -- and one must keep up with the times. Now, where shall we begin? My extensive and extraordinarily valuable art collection? [gestures casually with his tail at the Maxfield Parrish painting behind his Louis XIV ecritoire (ex collection George Lucas -- although the substitution of a carefully-crafted reproduction has not yet been noticed at Skywalker Ranch -- Mum's the word, folks)]  My exceptional display of valour and chivalry when duelling with "Big Al" Smith in defence of the unjustly-impugned literary honour of Edward Elmer Smith, Ph.D. (1890-1965)My unsuccessful run for the Presidency of the United States of America in 1996?  Or purr-haps my --

MISS BARRY: [taking her courage into both hands and daring to interrupt] Well, actually, Pernicious, I'd like to ask you a few questions about your faithful amanuensis and general factotum, John Barnstead...

TL&M-LPtMHFC: [the ambient temperature drops precipitously to approximately −273.15° C.]  Oh.  Yes.  Well.  Carry on, then.  What may I tell you?

MISS BARRY:  Well, do you know anything about his antecedents, purr- -er- personal and literary?

TL&M-LPtMHFC:  What's to know?  He comes from Schenectady, like all good science fictions ideas.  He generally passes himself off as a pudgy, non-descript, shabbily-dressed retired professor of Russian, but with the advent of the internet that little mystification has become increasingly difficult to maintain.  In actuality, he  may be a clandestine member of Robert A. Heinlein's Howard Families, most probably born in 1869, but, like the heroine of that recent film, The Age of Adeline, has been concealing the inconvenient fact of his extreme longevity from the unsuspecting public for something like the last hundred and forty years.  A cursory Google (tm) search reveals that he is descended from a long line of inventors on one side, and of maiden aunts on the other.  He is first mentioned in literature, if I am not mistaken, in volume 14 of The Rosary Magazine (1899), pp. 599-600.  I assure you that his subsequent entirely spurious claims to have issued forth supernaturally from the footnote to chapter three of the 1939 novel Gray Lensman by the saintly Edward Elmer Smith, Ph.D. (1890-1965) -- blessings and peace be upon him -- had nothing whatsoever to do with my memorable duel with "Big Al" Smith on the New Jersey Palisades some years ago.  Alas, I can offer you no explanation for his latest appearances in the works of Hugo-award-winning science fiction author Spider Robinson, who but for his unaccountable fondness for my faithful amanuensis and general factotum would seem to me to be an entirely rational human being, one of the subtlest and most knowledgeable SF writers practicing the art today.

Barnstead himself, although more or less completely talentless, is not entirely incompetent at refilling water bowls and inventing new games to play with string...

MISS BARRY:  I see.  We've invited him to participate in a panel discussion entitled "Writing the World" at the Elizabeth Bishop Festival on August 8, 2015 in Great Village, Nova Scotia.  Has he written anything, do you know?  And, purr- -er- perhaps more importantly, has he published anything?  Has he received any literary awards or honours?  Is he distinguished?  [increasingly desperately] In any way whatsoever??

TL&M-LPtMHFC:  You've issued him an invitation?  My dear, how... precipitous of you. Let me see... I do believe he was the Indiana High School Forensic Association Champion in Poetry Interpretation for 1968, would that count?  Though purr-haps in light of the governor's recent shenanigans there one would wish to conceal that connection... And at one time he did have the largest collection of purr-sonally-received rejection slips in North America -- this was prior to a recent bonfire of the vanities in a fit of existential despair, but I am reliably informed that he refrained from consigning the very first one he ever received (in 1964, I think it was) to the flames... [sounds of rummaging in the background].  Ah, yes -- here it is --

Well, and there are the usual sorts of pretentious academic poppycock, but you'd hardly be interested in an enumeration of those, surely.  There was a rumour floating about that he self-published a volume entitled And Other Poems back in 2007, but I shouldn't lend the random natterings of literary gossips amongst the canaglia much credence, if I were you.

And now, if you are quite finished, I'm afraid I --

MISS BARRY: I do have one other question.  Does he have a favourite passage in literature?

TL&M-LPtMHFC: Oh.  Well. Just one more, then.  While he is inordinately fond of Elizabeth Bishop's works, his favourite passage in all of literature is the last paragraph of The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  He also likes The Alice B. Toklas Cookbook, which contains a recipe for his favourite dessert.  Three guesses which one it is...


We are, if not precisely thrilled, at least not totally in existential despair that John will be joining us in Great Village for the Elizabeth Bishop Festival.

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