On bpNichol — Lionel Kearns
can I write about bpNichol? I loved him. We all loved him. When he died,
suddenly, in 1988, in his 44th year, on the surgeon’s
table, by accident, it was terrible. Barrie had hundreds, perhaps thousands,
of close friends in the literary community and out in the world. He was a
very special human being. Everyone who knew him will tell you that. It was
always a privilege and pleasure to be with him. And now that he is gone,
well, at least we have his work, because Barrie worked hard. He was a model
poet, always committed to his craft, always inventing, experimenting, turning
the language into forms and figures that were as unique as they were elegant,
and full of evocative power and insight. Not that his work is difficult or
simplicity and directness. He was playful but sincere, honest but delicate.
I can think of no one else who was like him at all.
Barrie grew up in Vancouver. In the late 50s, while he was still in high
school, he began picking up on the active poetry scene in the city at that
time. After a brief stint at UBC in the early 1960s, he moved to Toronto
and became a lay therapist in the Therafields collective, with which he remained
associated for many years.
I did not come across Barrie’s work until 1964 when I was living in
London. The only Canadian poets that any one over there knew about were Earle
Birney and bpNichol. It was the early days of the Sound and Concrete Poetry
movement that was happening on that side of the Atlantic, and bp was an active
correspondent and frequent contributor to the movement’s publications,
like the influential Tlaloc, edited by Cavan McCarthy.
I met Barrie for the first time in Toronto in the summer of 1966. I was
on my way to Vancouver after being out of the country for two years. We shook
hands and he said, Lionel, I’ve heard you read your poems, and I know
your son, Frank. What? My son was only 5 years old. Barrie explained that
he had been a volunteer at my son’s playschool in Vancouver 3 years
before. I was amazed.
That is the way he was, always full of surprises and good vibes. He loved
life and people and language, and he was a dedicated craftsman, artist, and
teacher. Once, when we were on a reading tour together he spent his off-time
training me in the intricacies of sound poem performance. At a later date
he encouraged me to get my first serious personal computer, an Apple IIe,
and showed me how it could do magical things with language. It was on such
a machine, in the early 80s, that Barrie produced the various dynamic poems
that eventually came together as First Screening.
It is easy to forget how primitive the technology was in those days, before
the invention of the mouse or the graphical user interface (GUI). The Apple
IIe had only a few kilobytes of memory. The user had to install a special
card in order to get both upper and lower case letters. And there were few
commercially available applications. To get the damn thing to do anything
interesting one had to master Apple BASIC, a primitive programming language
that enabled you to do mathematical calculations and, if you were exceedingly
patient, focused, and wily, to make the numbers and letters move around on
Barrie distributed his screen poems to his friends on 5.25-inch floppy disks.
Whenever he came to town he would show those of us who had IIe's what he
was doing, and how the program worked, or didn’t work. Gradually his
more successful pieces came together into a group that he called First Screening.
Barrie was very focused on new developments in personal computer software
and hardware. I remember he purchased an expensive program called Gutenberg
that allowed the IIe to make use of three or four different fonts. When Apple
released the Macintosh in 1984, Barrie was the first person to buy one. I
was in Toronto that day, and went down to see it at Coach House Press where
Barrie was demonstrating how the mouse moved the cursor on the screen. And
cutting and pasting! And all those fonts! He was ecstatic.
The Mac brought the process of writing, and text manipulation, to a new
level, and it allowed visuals to be part of the show. However, in its early
days the Mac was not as flexible or accommodating as the IIe for maverick
poet-programmers who wanted to animate language on the screen, so Barrie
kept both his machines warm. It was not until Apple brought out HyperCard
in 1987 that the Mac became the dominant machine of choice for poet animators,
but, sadly, it was shortly after that when Barrie left us.
And so bp’s computer animated pieces existed only in old Apple BASIC,
a form and format that soon became obsolete and unrunnable as the IIe disappeared
from desk tops.
In response to this sorry situation, Brian Hohm, a student and friend of
Fred Wah at the University of Calgary, reprogrammed the poems in HyperCard
on the Mac. Considering the fact that he had to re-engineer the poems to
make them appear as close as possible to Barrie’s originals, Brian
did a remarkable job. Eventually Red Deer College Press brought out a commercial
version of Brian’s First Screening HyperCard stack, which
sold for $9.95. I am not sure how widely this HyperCard version was distributed,
but I was happy to get a copy at that time, so that I could again run the
As more time passed, HyperCard itself became obsolete, and so it was difficult
for anyone to view bp’s poems without making heroic efforts to get
access to a very old Mac running very old system software that could still
run HyperCard, which could then run Brian Hohm’s translations of First
Now, in 2007, we have a new solution. Thanks to Jim Andrews, Marko Niemi,
Geof Huth, Dan Waber, Jeff Rivett, Jason Pimble and a handful of other digital
archeologists, devotees and other interested parties scattered across cyberspace,
bp’s First Screening is now available at Vispo.com in its
- running from its original code on a downloadable Apple
- running from Brian Hohm’s HyperCard code, if you
can dig up an old Mac to run it on, or download a HyperCard emulator on
the Web, or
by Marko and Jim.
This has been an exciting and enlightening project to be involved in. Thank
you for all your work, gentlemen, and thanks too to Ellie Nichol for her
co-operation and encouragement.