On bpNichol — Lionel Kearns

ow 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 obscure—he appreciated 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 the monitor.

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 poems.

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 Screening.

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 various iterations:

  1. running from its original code on a downloadable Apple BASIC emulator,
  2. 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
  3. running directly on the Vispo.com site from a brand new JavaScript translation 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.

Click to visit vispo.com