Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Do you already say it in Yiddish: a brief glossary for Yiddish for Pirates:

Do you already say it in Yiddish?

Yiddish is the perfect pirate tongue. It plunders with panache and delights—often with delicious irony—in the rich swash of its own buckle. 

Below are some definitions of many of the Yiddish words that are used in Yiddish for Pirates. But maybe you’re a maven and already know them all, and not some poor shmuck who can’t make head or tail of this farkakteh list.

I didn't include a glossary in the book for a few reasons. I didn't want the reader to get hung up looking up words but rather I wanted to allow the sentences to flow over them and immerse the reader in the sensibility of the novel and its narrator. And for the most part, I cunningly included the corresponding English word or phrase along with the Yiddish in the sentence where it was used, because I'm no fool shlemiel. In any case, the meanings are usually clear given their context.

I love Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoOne thing that I especially love is that it is filled with idiomatic Dominican Spanish. For me, as a non-Dominican and non-Spanish speaker it made clear to me that this was a novel narrated by and about a worldview that was very different to mine, and I was an outsider, albeit one who was charmed, moved, entertained, and captivated by the voices and experiences of the novel. Of course, Dominicans would immediately get that it spoke directly to them and reflected something of (at least one part of their culture's) linguistic experience and worldview. I hoped that my novel could do the same thing with its Yiddish and Yiddishkeit, though my novel has its own very different, decolonializing project. I've found it very moving when I've read from Yiddish for Pirates that Yiddish speakers (usually older people) have expressed their appreciation of the Yiddish, often speaking to me in Yiddish and sharing Yiddish jokes, stories, and expressions. One nonagenarian told me that "Yiddish always provides you the words to say at a hospital bed."

There's something really energizing about an admixture of languages in one sentence. It's a vibrant polyphonic or polyrhythmic music. A lively dialogue. Or maybe it is a case of "you can't dance at two weddings with only one tuches."

And now you look at the words below and you say, “This, eppes, is a dictionary?” So, nu, not all of the subtle shades of meaning are included. That would take example stories, jokes, sayings, and …hand-gestures. Also, as Yiddish is normally written in Hebrew script, there is not really one standard way to render it in English letters…except for the wrong way. But, abi gezunt, what does it matter, really. As long as you’re healthy. (P.S. I'm planning on creating a comprehensive glossary of ALL the Yiddish in the novel for those who just need to know, but that's a bigger project for later.)

abi gezunt
as long as you’re healthy

a broch
an expletive, a curse 

a blessing

alav ha’shalom
“May he rest in peace”

alter kaker
old fart

so (appears in many expressions and has many meanings); Azoy geyt es: That’s how it goes!)

impressive housewife (who often runs things)

an expert (often used sarcastically)

fated or predestined; often used about one’s soulmate


a small baked roll

young boy, a kid (often as a term of endearment for any familiar male)

like “darling,” a term of endearment

nothing, worthless

elementary school; cheder-bocher: schoolboy

cheek, audacity, guts, temerity

evil possessing spirit

a little

farkakte, farkakteh
shitty, messed up

overcome with emotion; also spelled verklempt

mixed up, confused, crazy

lit. “little bird,” but also used pejoratively for homosexual

“Oh my God!” “help!” or “good grief!”

a crook, a scoundrel 

Said to ward off the evil eye, a bit like “knock on wood”…but spookier

intestines, guts

to beam with pride and pleasure

a toast, “to life!”

maidel, maideleh
girl, especially shaynah maidel, beautiful girl/young woman

the mother tongue (i.e. Yiddish)


the traditional unleavened bread of Passover

big shot

expert (often used sarcastically)

a feeling of pleasure, delight or relief

a lengthy, involved story or explanation 

craziness, nonsense





dish of chicken gizzards



v. to move laboriously; to lug
n. a long or arduous journey, or a slovenly person, a drag 

a fool, often clumsy


a slob, an ineffectual loser

rags, clothes

little penis

a fool, buffoon, dawdler

a nerdy fool 


someone who is greedy

nose, big nose 

tough guy, a thug

a small piece

to stuff; (vulgar slang) to have sex with

trinket, knickknack




Images from the amazing YiddishWit.com

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

On Names and Naming: How the Jews Sunk the Titanic

New Chiefs on The Land, Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, 2006

Several years ago, I had an interesting discussion with my son Ryan about names. We were talking about the Canadian Indigenous artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun. He embraces his traditional last name but notes that his first two names are names from the residential school system. He only signs his paintings with his traditional name. Likewise, many people of African descent, leave their "slave" names, or at least, identify that the names have this origin. Dollar Brand, the South African musician, became Abdullah Ibrahim. Leroi Jones became Amiri Baraka.

Ryan was wondered about our Jewish last name. As I recall from Hebrew school, Jews of Eastern European origin only got last names sometime in the 19th century for census (thus tax) purposes by the non-Jewish government. Different names were given to different families according to status and money. Hence, Goldberg was worth more than Greenberg. Waxman was a occupational name. And Jews made lots of candles.

And there's that ancient joke:
—The Jews sunk the Titanic.
—No, they didn't. That was an iceberg. 
—Greenberg, Goldberg, Iceberg. They're all the same.

The traditional way for Jews to be named is "Someone Son of Someone." Thus, Ryan Ben (son of) Gary, or, with our Hebrew names, Ronen Ben Gershon. Nowdays, it's usual, at least in reform congregations to include the mother's name. So: Ronen Ben Gershon v'Bela. (The v means 'and.') 

Jewish last names, like many non-anglo names were also modified when Jews emigrated. 'Barwin' was "Borwein" or "Borweinis" in Lithuania where my grandfather was born. His family changed it to Barwin when they moved to South Africa. I still have Borwein relations. For example Jon Borwein. My maternal grandfather's last name was Zelikowitz, which became Zelikow when he emigrated to South Africa. Ryan remembered that Stuart Ross's family name was Razovsky which was Anglicized to Ross and then appeared on and in some of Stuart's books.

I have chosen to consider "Barwin" as an invented name, albeit one derived from my family's past. I consider that my grandfather changed it to reflect his new life of opportunity outside of the shettls of Europe. Perhaps I could see it as a concession to the dominant power and language of the time and place, however I'd prefer to consider it as part of a process of shaping a life and a person. (For more on the very interesting topic of Jewish emmigration to South Africa, check out Victor Barwin's — my grand-uncle or cousin, I'm not sure — book about it "Millionaires and Tatterdemalions" )

"Ryan" is obviously not a traditional Jewish name, though he was given it in memory of his great-grandmother whose name began with an "R" --Rita Barwin. It is traditional with Ashkenazi Jews to name children after dead relatives. It would be bad luck to name them after someone alive. (No Moshe Jr.'s for Jews.) My son Aaron Barwin is named after Aaron Barwin, my dad's dad. Once when we were at a funeral, Aaron (age 5) noticed that his great-grandfather's grave was nearby and ran and lay down with his arms crossed in front of the gravestone. It was very freaky for Beth and I to see him lying on a grave with his own name on it. 

I wrote a prose poem (which appeared in my book, I, Dr. Greenblatt, Orthodontist, 251-1457 (Anvil Press) last year. 

A cloudless day in the cemetery where we have gone for the funeral of an aunt. Our five-year-old, named after his late grandfather, wanders about the headstones, dragging his fingers along the streambeds of carved-out letters. He stumbles upon his own name inscribed above a small bed of grass. He lies down, crosses his arms, closes his eyes, and waits. In time, he becomes old. The wind carves his features smooth as river rock. Someone lifts him and places him on his grandfather’s headstone. We no longer remember the town where he was born. 

I don't know what Ryan will do about his name. Perhaps he will change his name. Perhaps he will modify or stylize it in order to claim it for his own. bpNichol. e.e. cummings. Geof Huth. mIEKAL aND. Or, like Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, keep it as a sign of the complexity of his personal and cultural history. Maybe he'll be "the son formerly known as Ryan" and invent his own sign. (When Prince navigated away from "Prince," Bob Wiseman suggested that he would change his name to Prince, and then the name "Bob Wiseman" would be available for someone else to adopt. Basically, we could all move one name to the right. 

What would it be like with a different name? Would I think differently about myself if I were John King? My late friend Kerry Schooley was a very big man. He wrote under the very funny pen name of "Slim Volumes," as a poet. He also wrote as "John Swan" for detective fiction.

Certainly the exploration of culture, identity, and naming is a powerful and unfolding topic for discovery. 

A few years ago, when my son, Aaron, completely lost his temper, he would call me a "Bitch." This was convenient, since he is my son, and there exists a rather simple and pre-made retort, one with much precedent in popular culture, and available to me should I choose to invoke the fact that he is my male offspring.

Monday, April 18, 2016

On being a multifarious denizen in the Winnipeg Review. On being enthralled in Quill and Quire

Very happy to have this review of the novel in Quill & Quire.

Rarely does one  encounter a work of Canadian literature this exuberant, impassioned, and enthralled with the very nature and essence of storytelling.

And I loved this sentence from Shawn Syms' column in The Winnipeg Review describing me. I've never been identified as a denizen of anywhere before, not to mention multifarious. Is that like nefarious squared?
The multifarious experimental scribe and noted small-press denizen Gary Barwin ...

Saturday, April 09, 2016

This Globe & Mail review made me entirely verklempt!

"some of the freshest and most whimsical English ever contained between covers"

This Globe and Mail review of Yiddish for Pirates rendered me smobgacked. I was really delighted, overwhelmed really, by the kind words, of course, but especially by the fact that the reviewer, S. Bear Bergman really seemed to "get" the book, and indeed made some points which I hadn't quite considered or thought of in the way that he framed them. I found it really moving that he was engaged in this way.

Review: Gary Barwin’s Yiddish for Pirates is unlike anything else you’ll read this year.

The book received another review today, also, this one from the Winnipeg Free Press. 
Here is that one.

And finally for today, the writer/critic Jeanie MacFarlane has this great blog where she writes about things to do with the neighbourhood that we both live in, as well as about Hamilton, and lately, some amazing memoir-like writing.

She recently asked me to add to her series "Where I Write" where she asks other writers to answer that question. I guess I should have cleaned up my desk, but I wrote this piece in answer, speaking about our neighbourhood, city, and even, Facebook as a place where writing happens. Thanks for the opportunity, Jeanie. (And actually, I DID clean up my desk & yeah, I know...)

Thursday, April 07, 2016

Metro News (Toronto) writes about Yiddish for Pirates

"This humorous, pun-laden twist on the classic adventure story which at its heart deals with the very serious issues of religious persecution and identity…"

Wednesday, April 06, 2016

Pirates, Radio shows, book releases, shopping carts, and one the best seller list

My friend and collaborator Craig Conley on receiving Yiddish for Pirates coincident with the arrival of this galleon. The world always offers curious and wondrous marvels as seen through the lens flare of Craig's eyes.

I read in Sarnia and made the front page of the local newspaper along with a probing article about the problematics of dog hair for car detailers.

April 5 was the official publication date of my novel Here is a picture from thousands of miles away Victoria, B.C. that my brother Alan sent.

I did a great radio show on Sirius XM today. The Ward and Al show. They were lovely and we had a great talk about the book as well as a range of other things. 

Here are the three of us, post show. Fun.

My art show with Lisa Pijuan-Nomura at the Hundred Dollar Gallery opens on Friday. The rest of the work is prints, but here is the one sculptural piece.

And—amazingly enough—on the day that it was first out in the world, the book was on the Macleans' best seller list! Number 6!

Sunday, April 03, 2016

Indie Bookstores, Yann Martel, Yiddish for Pirates, Indie for Authors Day and community.

I pose with Yann Martel and the great staff of The Book Keeper bookstore.

Over the last week, I read a few times from my not-even-released-yet novel Yiddish for Pirates (it comes out officially, tomorrow, April 5!) notably in two events arranged by independent bookstores in Sarnia and Uxbridge. Both events were with Yann Martel (Life of Pi, and just released, The High Mountains of Portugal.) I'd never met him and he turned out to be a fascinating and charming guy. I had quite a lot of time to chat with him as we took a limo (when you're Yann Martel you get a limo!) to the events and when we had dinner with the people from the bookstores. That was great and I'm really glad to have had the opportunity. And the events each had nearly 200 people in attendance who were extremely enthusiastic and engaged and bought books (and not just Yann's!—I was relieved there were some who lined up to have me sign also—I've been at events as a poet reading with a graphic novelist where he had a line-up of 300 and no-one, except my kind wife, came to my table. And she didn't even ask me to sign!)

What really struck me at these events was the vitality of the readership in these small communities. And the importance that these local bookstores (Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge and The Book Keeper in Sarnia) have in cultivating, maintaining and energizing these reading communities. These both were small independent bookstores with a handful of staff (but yet who regularly organize these large events.) Both were owned and run by very dynamic and knowledgable women who appeared to know everyone—the network of other booksellers, authors, and most especially, their customers and community. 

Here I am in Sarnia likely making a terrible joke about parrots or language.

This is perhaps something that isn't talked about enough. How local indie bookshops not only know books and know the tastes of their customers, but how they add to the community by participating in and organizing a host of community events and creating and supporting local initiatives—literary, cultural, educational, social, and more. 

The Book Keeper event in Sarnia, for instance, raised money for the Organization for Lambton Literacy. I know my local Hamilton bookstores (Epic Books and Bryan Prince Bookseller) do a ton of things in the city. Every time I look around, there they are, involved in events, supporting community, schools, local writers, etc. 

Indie bookstores make readers and writers connect and believe that writers and readers have a place in the community and that they add something positive to life in the city or town. That thinking and talking about ideas and literary is worthwhile, enjoyable, and fun. And that the whole shebang—reading, writing, thinking, talking and engaging—is an extremely positive and important endeavour. 

So many indie bookstores punch far above their weight. They don't just sell widgets but books as well as that thing that isn't selling.

AND they are enthusiastic, hospitable, friendly and supportive to an author like me. I'm grateful as both a writer and a reader. As someone who buys a ton of books he reads. And a ton of books he does't get around to reading but buy anyway. I'm really glad that I'm going to be participating in the Authors for Indies day on April 30 (I'll be at Epic Books and Bryan Prince Bookseller in Hamilton) to celebrate indie booksellers and let everyone know—including them—how much important they are to me and to our community.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Pirate Stories, Shalom Village, Memory and Yiddish

I write in the Hamilton Jewish News about some the sources of my novel including Yiddish, the Shalom Village retirement home and walking my dog (pictured above. "Please love me,  oh please please," his eyes say.)

Sunday, March 27, 2016

An Encyclopedia of Everything: Artist Statement

An Encyclopedia of Everything

Everything that is one is also two because two is one just more so. One and then some. Joined at the hip you might say. Or the shoulder or wing. Yes, it’s all hybrid and go seek in the Encyclopedia of Everything because we live in hybridity. Language is hybrid. Looking is hybrid. Culture is hybrid. Memory. For this I went to collage? These images explore the hybrid connection between humans and animals, between the real world and images, between the natural and the human-made world, between language and language. Each word, each glance, each thought is a centaur, or a hand-headed owl, a grammar-horned deer. Antlers on a shopping cart. And everything changes. Everything is in the process of changing. Knowing is quantum. Understanding is chimerical. So is wonder. A jackalope, a feejee mermaid, cryptozoology or cryptocognition. We don’t know what to believe. We even doubt our skepticism. When is a pipe not a pipe? When it is a brain that is half a butterfly’s wing. Why is a raven like a writing desk? Because it has wings. Except I lied about the wings. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Jewishness as a specific response to the condition of being Jewish: Charles Bernstein and all the blackbirds in heaven

"I am interested in Jewishness as a specific response to the condition of being Jewish (the circular reasoning is liberating)—and as an argument with that condition."
This from "Jellyfish with a Jew's Ear," a great little review/discussion of Charles Bernstein and his latest book of essays, Pitch of Poetry at Tablet magazine.

They discuss Bernstein's frankly very moving poem,"All the Whiskey in Heaven" (the title poem of his selected) and link to a video of him reading it.

As part of an ongoing project of exploring the repopulation of poems with a variety of species, I wrote this version some years ago (it was published in Arc Poetry magazine) and will appear next year in my poetry book No TV for Woodpeckers from Wolsak and Wynn next year--unless of course my editor, Paul Vermeersch cuts it. Don't cut it, Paul! I like it!):


for all the blackbirds
for all the blackbirds
for a million blackbirds

for the blackbirds’ wings
for the blackbirds’ eyes
for a sky of blackbirds

if you paid me feather
if you paid me wing
if you gave me flight
if you gave me nest

for all the blackbirds
for all the blackbirds
for the mind of blackbirds
for the whole heart of blackbirds

Friday, March 18, 2016

Stumbling Before the Law

A gatekeeper sits before the gate. As always, it stands open. A traveller asks to be let in. 
        “No,” the gatekeeper says. 
“Maybe,” the gatekeeper says. “But understand that though I am powerful, I am only the most lowly gatekeeper. Before each of the many gates, one after the other, there are other gatekeepers, each more powerful than the other. For instance, I can’t manage even one look at the third.” 

“I understand,” the traveller says. “But you look hungry. Have some soup.” The traveller takes a bowl and spoon from his greatcoat and offers some to the gatekeeper. As he does, he trips, and trying to not to spill the soup, stumbles through the gate. He staggers past the first gatekeeper and, still balancing the soup, staggers past the second gatekeeper and the second gate, and as he stumbles through the third gate, he spills soup on the third gatekeeper, so terrible to behold.

“Sorry, sorry,” he says as continues to stumble, now past the fourth gatekeeper, more terrible still, and the fourth gate. 

The traveller continues to stagger. He continues to stumble past both gates and gatekeepers, spilling soup on many. He may be stumbling still. It is a mystery not easily explained and he has left the bowl and spoon on the outside.

An Encyclopedia of Everything: Paperworks. An Upcoming Art Exhibition

In Memoriam

a knock on the door
they try to sell me
an encyclopedia

look, I say
outside is an encyclopedia
inside is an encyclopedia

right, they say
and try to sell me
the door

but I remember
a heart he had
a heart she also had

a heart an encyclopedia
of everything
an open grave
a door

Love You Forever

Love You Forever

don’t be nervous, baby says to frog
I have a knife

don’t you be nervous, frog says to baby
I, too, have a knife

no, you dropped it, baby says
I picked it up

I stole it back, frog says
ok, says baby, but when I’m a teenager, I dissect you

ok, says frog, but first I jump into a pond
and oh the sound of water the sound of water

Craig Conley posted the above amazing image on his Dansk Javlarna tumblr, always a repository of fascinating visual archivery.

This past week, I suggested to my novel writing class at Mohawk College that they use the image as a prompt for writing a short scene. Then that they go back and rewrite the scene, interleaving more words and details.

Last class we had been talking about editing and about paring back, about how much could be implied or inferred and how often what isn't said creates more power or intensity in writing. And indeed, how much one can leave out to create a dynamic field for the reader to imagine within.

So this class we tried the opposite. We thought of the basic structure of a text as the equivalent of a wireframe representation of a 3-D shape. In our former exercise, the reader might fill that in with surface detail, but in this class we spoke about the idea of the writer elaborating the surface. I think of it like the crenelations of the cerebral cortex. Each of those folds creates a world of detail, association, richness and complexity of thought and emotion.

I always try to write along with my students. And I even try to follow my own instructions. In this case, however, I came up with some text that I found interesting but that worked better as a poem. I then laved and chiselled until I came up with the above short poem / riff off Basho.

Monday, March 14, 2016

An audio recording of the Prologue to Yiddish for Pirates

I spent a very pleasant morning recording the prologue to my novel, Yiddish for Pirates. I wish I could do a Yiddish accent, but instead I went for the spirit of the Yiddish narrator. Besides, the narrator is a parrot, a Polly-glot, so maybe there's some latitude with his accent.

And I created a little intro and outro music which sounds vaguely Klezmorish. A piratey accordion sound and a piano that could lurch its syncopated tune on any galleon.

Here is recording of the prologue.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

We fall into the ditch: a homophonic translation of Rilke

after Rilke

we run away like deer
we make the world

wander and take
a long time to die

we die randomly like when
flowers halt

exhausted and their colours
suddenly become others

we become a heavenly
Fahrenheit of elms and fat
fall into the ditch

what is lost from us
we cannot know
how it is gained in bird time

night gains by dunking the house in darkness
night gains such that wigs flourish on our naked heads

what we know about stars, night games, and states
the less said is a kind of butter

our life bangs with the heft of reason and refrigeration
so what is bald begreened and bald beginning—

wait—stars are in the words that have snuck up behind me
we go unwisely to the worm


I discovered this forgotten poem on my computer. It is a homophonic translation from Rilke, that is, I imagined reading the original German as if it were filtered English and tried to find the closest sounding English words. Of course, this required me to squint my ear somewhat, both to discover the English word, but also to try to hear something that might communicate and make some kind of poem. Then, this afternoon, I made this image. The face is from a photograph of Rilke. I've been thinking a lot about Walter Benjamin's Angel of History / Paul Klee's Angelus Novus and there is certainly something of that earnest hopeful/hopeful figure here.

Here a more direct riff off Benjamin where I construe the Angel of History as more like the Angel of the Future.

Future Pastoral

there are sheep
far from now

so distant it makes you
nostalgic for small

I know what happens
just not yet

but time and space
are the same

or that’s what my landlord said
renting me the room

there’s me and a star
one of us may already be gone

I turn my back

look toward the future
I would like to awaken

those who will be dead
make whole what will be smashed

but a storm propels me
toward the past

while the future grows
those who do not

learn the future
are doomed to repeat it

until it’s gone


Wednesday, March 09, 2016

My New Spine!

My new spine! (My almost-in-bookstores novel Yiddish for Pirates without its jacket.) I love the embossing on hardcovers and always look under the dustjackets to see what the book looks like when “naked.” I was very thrilled to discover this. And as the book is narrated by a parrot, there is even a parrot on the spine (just above the title.)

Also pictured is the what the book was wearing before I “undressed it,” replete with an image of my rather rosy mug and the lovely back cover blurbs courtesy of Gary Shteyngart, Emily Schultz, Lauren B. Davis, and Terry Fallis.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Authors for Indies Day

Authors for Indies 2 from KOVE productions on Vimeo.

I was really happy to be part of this video previewing a book that I'll be recommending on Authors for Indies day. I'll be a Bryan Prince Bookseller and Epic Books, both in Hamilton, Ontario.

From the Authors for Indies Day website:

Authors for Indies Day (Saturday, April 30, 2016) is a day when authors show their appreciation for Canadian independent bookstores (indies). We do this by volunteering as guest booksellers for the day. When you visit an indie bookstore on AFI Day, you'll have the opportunity to meet local authors, chat with us booklover to booklover, and get book recommendations from us. Perhaps share your recommendations with us. You may buy a book or two, or just get to know your local bookstore better.  Authors are doing this to raise awareness of indie bookstores and how important they are to our communities, our reading lives, and our cultural well-being. It's a day to give some love to your local neighbourhood bookstore.