Writer in Residence

The Poet Series

By Jowita Bydlowska

     “I don’t like bad dialogue.”

     “What kind of dialogue?”

     “Shit that sounds like no one would actually say it.”

     “Like what?”

     “Like expository dialogue, unauthentic-sounding dialogue. When dialogue is done badly, it just explains everything; it’s just an explainer. It gives instructions and directions instead of actually making the characters follow instructions or directions. It seems lazy and if it goes on and on, unless it’s done brilliantly—like what Michel Houellebecq does in Whatever—it’s kind of silly and you, the reader, can tell right away that this is not the characters talking but rather the author elucidating because she couldn’t be bothered to provide a scene or break it up nicely so it’s not just talky-talky in one big chunk of text. Think of all those The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo-kind of books and how they just tell you things instead of showing them. You turn the pages and you read those phrases and they don’t sound anything like real people; it’s more like prep for screenplay and even when the dialogue doesn’t over-explain, the talky-talky seems more like speeches, or lectures, than a conversation. You get those wacky sentences, for example, ‘I’ve had many enemies over the years. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s never engage in a fight you’re sure to lose. On the other hand, never let anyone who has insulted you get away with it. Bide your time and strike back when you’re in a position of strength—even if you no longer need to strike back.’ This is from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Who actually says things like that? Maybe you do, I don’t know you.”


But let’s move on from bad dialogue and introduce my next writer who does visual art. The newest project she’s working on is beautiful, original and it has a lot to do with writing. But I’ll let her explain. Melanie Janisse Barlow is a critic, columnist (formerly for our very own Open Book!) and the author of the book of poetry Orioles in Oranges. She’s also a trained visual artist.

I’m wondering if you could tell me about your art, why you do it, what are you working on now?

I have been working with likeness/portraiture, painting with acrylics and oils. I became interested in developing my own style within the constraints of producing likenesses. It seemed a challenge to develop along these lines. I wondered, could I develop a real style of my own within a more traditional constraint? The Poet Series emerged as a way to embrace this new direction within my visual art practice.  I have always been interested in a more haptic, inclusive practice with my painting. I was curious to see what would happen if I turned over the reins of the project to the subjects themselves. I ask each poet to choose the next, and also ask for the image that I am going to paint from each poet. Having no control over the subject matter of my work has taught me to become flexible as an artist, applying my own spin to a roster of images that aren't necessarily curated by myself.

How do your painting and writing co-exist?

Painting has always informed my writing and vice versa. Working with the Poets Series keeps me surrounded by poets and their work, which broadens my reading and understanding of poetry. Aside from this obvious bridging of my work as a poet and as a painter, I find that the disciplines harmonize and weave in their own particular ways, each one asking for air time at particular moments, then the other calling me back.

I sense there is a pat answer happening. The other thing is that I don't know at all what the fuck is happening. I almost become uncomfortable when I have to talk about my practices, or how they operate, either by themselves or in tandem, because I have no reasons for doing either that make any sense to me, and the ways in which they inform each other feels like assembling some kind of horoscope reading, without knowing much about the starts and planets. It feels hoaxy and like something to avoid.

Would you ever consider abandoning one form of artistic expression for another?

I have abandoned both, usually not for each other, but to survive in the world of dollars and bills. There are eight years that span my last two books of poetry, and over a decade that was filled with coffee and vintage clothing, but not much paint. I don't foresee choosing writing over painting or vice versa, they each have their conversations with materials, that have me in my head and with my hands in ways that ache, but answer questions and challenges that I have set up for myself.

Have you ever made living from your visual art (how?) or is it “just” for you.

Because I work in likenesses, I am commissioned frequently, and since this is my only 'employment', I am grateful for the work. Though, when my studio is filled with paid commissions I can go a little squirrely. There has to be time for my own projects, or I get really weird and avoid my studio. So, I guess I have learned that I do my work in the realm of both, but there has to be a balance that works for me.

Who is your favourite artist and why?

Lately I have been quite interested in Arthur Shilling's work. For its colour. I also adore Anne Mikolowski's portraits for their tender portrayals of the poets and artists that she captured in miniature. I have been fortunate to have held a few of these in my own hands—an unforgettable moment for me. There is something electric about miniatures. In the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the AGO, I stood in front of her miniature self portrait for a very long time, interested in the power that such a small rendering could emanate. 


Melanie Janisse

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Jowita Bydlowska was born in Warsaw, Poland, and moved to Canada as a teen. She is the author of the bestselling memoir Drunk Mom. A journalist and fiction writer, she lives in Toronto, Canada.