“At the Moment of Composition: Brian Barker and the Gospel of Poetry.” Southern Indiana Review. 19 (Fall 2012): 41-54.
A native of rural Virginia, Brian Barker’s first collection of poetry, The Animal Gospels, won the Tupelo Press Editor’s Prize in 2004. Lauded by Mark Doty for its exploration of “faith, identity, loss, racism, the transience of being, and coming of age in the South at the end of the 20th century” while tapping “into the mythic and totemic power of animals … to bridge the gap between the past and the present, remembering and forgetting, personal history and public history,” The Animal Gospels was a shockingly good debut and, it turns out, only a harbinger of things to come.
Now, with the release of Barker’s second collection of poetry, The Black Ocean (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011), Barker has become one of America’s Contemporary masters virtually overnight, plumbing the depths of American (and Barker’s own) history to translate the goings-on of the present in “heart-wrenching poems [that] glow with the vision, the poignant vanishing light, of last things” (Edward Hirsh). In poem after poem, Barker reaches for the highest degree of narrative and lyrical plangency while tackling the weltering nexus of elements that make up the soul.
Perhaps most impressive about this collection is how successfully it challenges the linguistic pliancy of its reader within the controversial contexts of American fear, politics, war, domestic terrorism, and torture without losing its reader; The Black Ocean is a page turner that dares us, time and time again, to walk away. “Though these poems are frequently dizzying and threatening,” says Kevin Prufer, “they are also distinguished by technical dexterity, sonic complexity, and a truly visionary sensibility. The Black Ocean confirms my belief that Brian Barker is one of the most ambitious and talented young poets at work in America today.” This conversation took place in the summer of 2011.
Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: Your first book, The Animal Gospels, is a collection of lyric narratives loosely structured around the notion of, as Matthew Ladd puts it, “mammals and birds as mechanisms of human failure.” The Black Ocean, on the other hand, seems to revolve around a more apocalyptic narrative. Just glancing at the table of contents makes this pretty clear with titles such as “Visions for the Last Night on Earth,” “The Last Songbird,” “Silent Montage with Reagan in Black and White,” and “Gorbachev’s Ubi Sunt from the Future that Soon Will Pass.” Tell us about how this book came to be and how it came to rest in this particular form.
Brian Barker: The first poem I wrote fairly soon after The Animal Gospels came out is the opening poem of The Black Ocean, “Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods.” In many ways, both in terms of form and subject matter, it felt like it actually belonged in The Animal Gospels but just missed the boat. It’s a long, elastic lyric narrative poem in sections that’s composed at the crossroads of the personal and the historical, in this case mixing childhood memories of visiting Cherokee, NC with meditations on the violence inflicted on the Cherokee by the United States government. After I wrote it, I didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t know what direction my poetry was going in next, but I knew that I wanted to do something different and this poem, to my eyes and ears at that time, seemed very akin to The Animal Gospels. So, I sat on it for a while and waited for new poems to arrive, for a new obsession to take hold.
You know, at the time it was the Bush years and it was impossible to escape the now — the war in Iraq and against terrorism; American torture couched as “extraordinary rendition;” Abu Ghraib; global warming; Hurricane Katrina and the bungled response by the government. And just a whole culture of fear that seeped into everyone’s individual and domestic lives, and an administration that used that fear to manipulate our actions and public opinion. There are those moments in life when you can feel the weight of the historical moment—the nightmare of the historical moment—pressing against you, and for me as a writer, it became harder and harder to ignore it. I felt compelled to try to address some of these things, to try to reframe them in ways that would help me, and maybe others, to understand them. In doing so I also found myself looking into the more recent past, into my own historical memory of Reagan and Gorbachev and the Cold War and the Chernobyl disaster to examine further how those in power manipulate and repress those below them, and how the failure to act, on the part of both political figures and everyday citizens, can be just as devastating as willed violence.
I think the apocalyptic narrative is part of a larger narrative of fear and the nightmare of history that runs throughout the book. And it wasn’t until I had written some of those poems that I could see clearly how the Dragging Canoe poem fit in. It’s a bridge from the first book to the second, setting up many of the themes and concerns that the rest of the poems in The Black Ocean try to address. The history of Native Americans is one in which a burgeoning American empire exerted its will on another people in the name of natural resources and the conquest of land. The result of this, as I see it, is an early example of domestic terrorism, of the less powerful trying to find a way to fight back. The Cherokee warrior Dragging Canoe, enraged about the loss of his people’s land, formed an alliance with other tribes and for years indiscriminately attacked white settlements, brutally killing men, women, and children. There’s a parallel here, I think, to our current state of affairs. I’m not trying to be an apologist for terrorists; it just seems to me that terrorism is a response to particular American policies now and at other times in our history. It’s a cliché, but still true: history repeats itself if we don’t learn from it.
I should also say that I thought I was writing a fairly impersonal book compared to The Animal Gospels, but looking back on it now I realize that this new book is really a reflection of my mood at the time. The imagination can be a great tool of promise or hope, or it can be one of despair and fear, and it was difficult during those years (and even now, at times) to keep my imagination from moving like a black wave toward the darkest scenarios. In this sense, then, the book is very personal: a portrait of my mind at a specific time in history. Charles Wright once said that every poem is a self-portrait, and I have to say I agree.
AMK: Carolyn Forche’s The Angel of History and Joshua Poteat’s Ornithologies are books of poems these poets set out to write and that work most effectively within the structure of that “project.” The Black Ocean (and The Animal Gospels, for that matter) strikes me as a book that could be taken this way. I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.
BB: I think my books fall somewhere in the middle of this dichotomy: “collection of poems” vs. “project book.” When I think of project books, I think of books like Davis McCombs Ultima Thule and Dismal Rock, and I would probably put Carolyn Forche’s The Angel of History in there too. Ed Pavlic’s Winners Have Yet to Be Announced also comes to mind. Such books focus from the outset, it seems, on a particular subject matter. In these cases, historical subject matter, but it could be something more imaginative, like the world and subjects created in Alan Michael Harper’s The Vandals, for example.
I think there is a third category here that falls somewhere in between—books that are tightly unified through subject matter and/or aesthetics. They don’t feel quite as deliberate as project books. Books that come to mind are Terrance Hayes’ Wind in a Box and Lighthead. Or Larry Levis’ Elegy might be another example, and I’d put Poteat’s Ornithologiesin this category, though his second book, Illustrating the Machine That Makes the World, feels more like a project to me.
I never set out to write a project book, per se, but I like poetry collections that work as books, that are more than the sum of their parts, so I pay attention to ways of unifying my collections. This has to do with finding a kind of aesthetic locus or center that most of the poems seem to spring from. And it has to do with worrying related, but not always the same, subject matter. A lot of these decisions, for me, happen during the writing of the book—are discovered along the way and aren’t predetermined. For example, after I had written about half of the poems in The Black Ocean, I noticed that I had employed the image of a black ocean a couple of times. I started to think of that image metaphorically. It was suggestive of an environmental disaster, yes, but I also thought of the imagination driven by fear as a kind of black ocean, and history as a black ocean engulfing everything in its path. Then I used the image a few more times in the book, deliberately, as a unifying factor, something that helped sew the individual poems together more tightly.
AMK: Having kept an eye on your work over the years, it’s hard not to observe your desire to work in various forms and with various theories of composition while maintaining a style that is unmistakably yours. The Animal Gospels is comprised of lengthy, seemingly autobiographical poems. The Black Ocean makes use of the short poem a bit more and is clearly more imaginative than factual. And the newer work I’ve seen in places like The Indiana Review and West Branch have been brief, highly-fictionalized prose poems. What accounts for this shift and for, perhaps more importantly, this ability to shift while staying true to what compels you to write in the first place?
BB: Good question. I guess what accounts for these shifts is restlessness. My obsessions change, and I like the challenge of trying to teach myself how to write a particular kind of poem that I’ve never written. I’m also a bit wary of just going through the motions, of learning how to write one type of poem and doing it over and over again. Stephen Dunn, in Walking Light, talks about the need to depart from the known place and to move without a compass. I think he’s right. I think writing poetry is about making discoveries, so I often try to insert unknowns, to dislocate myself, to veer off into unfamiliar territory.
I think this is particularly important when writing about politics and history. I don’t want my poems to simply be mouthpieces or delivery mechanisms for a point-of-view, and I often know how I feel about a subject before I start a poem. For example, I was really angry about America’s policy of torture under the Bush administration and the Abu Ghraib scandal. But it didn’t make sense to just write a poem that spouted that anger. What good is that? To address it—to reframe it so that I could understand it better—I had to find a way to write about it that put me in the dark, that clouded or subverted my a priori knowledge. In “A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Down Out of the Wind,” I got the idea to speak from all of these different voices in an attempt to write a mythic history of torture that wasn’t being told by politicians or in the newspapers. That led to writing from the point of view of a hood, a dog, a fly, etc. So I try to find ways to come at these subject matters slant, so to speak, to get beyond the simple thesis that something is good or bad to something more complex, more complicated.
AMK: What does compel you to write poetry; narrative, music, the world, what?
BB: When I sit down to write I’m usually trying to do two very different things: I’m trying to understand the world around me more deeply and I’m trying to entertain myself. I really became more at peace with myself as a poet when I realized that even when you’re writing about dark subject matter—violence, the juggernaut of history, etc.—the writing itself, at the moment of composition, is serious play. So, this shifting of forms and approaches is part of that play, part of that fooling around with words.
AMK: It seems to me that, with the publication of The Black Ocean, you’ve got to be one of the Contemporary masters of the long poem. There’s the opening poem, “Dragging Canoe Vanishes from the Bear Pit into the Endless Clucking of the Gods” which employs sections and bracketed interjections to depict a roadside Cherokee village complete with sheetmetal teepees, a bear pit, and an overweight “chief” with “a pack of Marlboros snug in the elastic band of the shorts he wore beneath deerskin pants.” Later, opening the second section, Mikhail Gorbachev addresses former President Ronald Reagan from beyond (what seems to be) his future grave in “Gorbachev’s Ubi Sunt from the Future that Will Soon Pass.” Finally, The Black Ocean ends with the ten-page “A Brief Oral Account of Torture Pulled Out of the Wind” which utilizes individually titled sections such as “What the Hood Whispers to the Head” and “What the Fly Whispers to the Voices in the Wall.”
What is it that draws you to the long poem and how do you manage to keep them simultaneously original, controlled, and lyrical?
BB: Thanks for your kind words! I don’t really feel like a master of anything, to be honest. I’m still a student of the craft of poetry, as I expect I will be, God willing, in another 30 or 40 years.
But I do love working with the long poem, mainly because there’s so much room to range. Most of my long poems are in sections, and I like trying to do new things in each section. The white space between sections gives you the freedom to shift gears, to move between lyric and narrative and meditative modes, to move in time, or switch voices. I find that liberating and fun, and, practically, a way to work against the poem becoming too monochromatic. I like the texture this creates. I think, too, that when dealing with large subject matter, this approach allows you to circle it, to come at it and enter it from different angles.
I also like the fact that when I’m working on a long poem it can sustain me for months; I always have something to work on when I wake up in the morning, as opposed to having to try to crack the ice of a new poem. And I guess, too, that the contrarian in me likes working in a longer form. I get the sense that a lot of poets and readers have less patience for the long poem these days, so I like the challenge of trying to write something that spins out and keeps going and that grabs the reader’s attention and holds it.
AMK: “Gorbachev’s Ubi Sunt…” is probably my favorite poem in this book. How in the world did you arrive at this poem and how did it end up in its current shape?
BB: I’m a child of the Cold War. I remember sneaking and watching The Day After on television, which absolutely terrified me. I remember watching, completely riveted, “The Miracle on Ice” with my father during the 1980 Winter Olympics when the United States improbably defeated the Soviet Union in hockey to win the gold medal. I rememberRocky IV and Balboa’s epic battle with the evil and tragic Ivan Drago. (It seemed at the time that the Soviets as the bad guys pervaded every part of popular culture.) I also remember watching the news about the Chernobyl disaster and the fall of the Berlin Wall and, eventually, the fall of Communism in Russia. All of these things are part of my own historical memory, and I naturally gravitated back to them when thinking about our own moment in history that felt (feels) so large and uncertain.
In reading around and doing some research, I found some photos by the photographer Paul Fusco that document the ongoing tragedy that is Chernobyl—the worst environmental disaster we’ve ever known. Terrible types of cancer and genetic orders are still manifesting, babies are still being born with birth defects. The photos are moving and difficult to look at.
I was also reading around about Mikhail Gorbachev. He was (and is) a complicated figure. He’s often revered in our country as the leader that brought down Communism, although many argue that was never his intent, and many Russians never liked him. He can be rather arrogant. In 2007 he appeared in a Louis Vuitton ad! And yet, he rose to power through a hard line Communist system, and despite his tenet of glasnost—bringing a kind of Western style openness to politics in the Soviet Union—his first impulse was to cover up the Chernobyl accident and downplay its scale.
In his memoir, Gorbachev vacillates between presenting himself as a martyr, someone who has been unduly attacked and blamed for the accident and its aftermath, and displaying a great amount of guilt over his handling of the Chernobyl situation. The memoir is, I should say, really bad. I could only read excerpts. He often speaks in the third person and the writing is overblown. But this voice got into my head and the poem started that way, building off of facts and my own memories of the 1980s, Star Wars defense, the space program, etc. I somehow got the idea to pretend the poem takes place in the near future and that Gorbachev is speaking from a purgatorial state. The purgatory I chose for him was floating through space, speaking through the mic in his space suit to Ronald Reagan. The premise of the poem is more absurd than the actual tone, which surprised me. The end of the poem, especially, when he accepts the blame, came out of nowhere, and I hope the reader finds it plausible and moving.
AMK: How do you think the long sentence functions in poetry? You’re quite fond of them in The Black Ocean. “Visions for the Last Night on Earth,” for example, is two sentences broken up into two sixteen-line stanzas. The next poem, “Poe Climbs Down from the Long Tapestry of Death to Command the Army of Street Urchins Huddling in the Dusk,” makes use of punctuation and white space to great effect in a five-page poem with a grand total of three periods. Similarly, “The Last Songbird” is a single sentence forty-nine lines in length. You don’t use such long sentences much at all in The Animals Gospels. Why now?
BB: I’m not sure I could say how the long sentence functions in poetry without being reductive. We can think about a couple of one-sentence poems, for example, like Robert Frost’s “The Silken Tent” and Gerald Stern’s “The Dancing.” Frost manipulates the one-sentence in his sonnet for an effect of elegance and grace, while Stern’s poem uses it to generate an ecstatic energy. It depends on whose hands it’s in and what they’re after, I think.
In my own case, in The Black Ocean, I kept returning to the long sentence for a sense of urgency, for a kind of headlong momentum, the actions barreling forward, seemingly out of control, toward some finality. That syntactic energy felt in tune with the mood and subject matter of the poems.
AMK: Talk to us a little about humor. I tend to miss it entirely in Contemporary American poetry or to find it more overbearing than entertaining in poetry that utilizes it more deliberately. In The Animal Gospels, however, I always look forward to “Self-Portrait with Einstein’s Testicles,” which is a simply hilarious poem. And while this new collection doesn’t have any particularly funny poems, it’s replete with humorous moments that break up the more serious subject matters of these poems and reveal something otherwise kept secret about their speakers. Is humor something you try to use when you can or does it naturally seep into your work?
BB: I’m glad that you see the humorous moments. Even though I think I’m a fairly witty guy and have a good sense of humor in my every day life, I think there is a dearth of yucks in my poems. I don’t know why that is, but I’m guessing that at times I subconsciously censor myself because I’m worried about pulling the humor off. It’s not easy. “Self-Portrait with Einstein’s Testicles” is really an anomaly in my poetry. You’re right; there are more humorous moments inThe Black Ocean, but those are often fleeting, riding in on the knife-edge of a scathing irony. It’s something I’ve thought about often, as I admire poets who can strategically wield humor to disarm the reader or for contrast or dramatic tension. As I gain maturity as a writer, I notice that I’m willing to let more and more in to my poems, to take risks that I didn’t feel comfortable taking in the past. So I hope that leads to more humor. We’ll see.
AMK: Just skimming through this new collection, it’s hard not to fall in love with word choices: batik, calliope, Ubi Sunt, cull, sargassum, etc… My sister once read a poem of mine and said (lovingly of course), “I think it sounds great, but I have no &*@#ing idea what all these words mean.” I think I complained about it later to my wife but saw, overtime, that she had a point: you can use all the ornate language you want, but if it turns off a reader, well, it turns off a reader.
I don’t think The Black Ocean has this problem; your word choices are either used in a clear context or are so beautifully woven into the action that I think most readers will take them at face value or may even look them up. Is this something that concerns you as a poet? Is this something you’ve worked on?
BB: Man, your sister is mean! You know, this doesn’t concern me too much. I’ve learned that you’re not going to please everyone. You use language that is too ornate and you lose some readers. You use language that is too plain and you lose others. You just have to be true to yourself and to what the poem at hand needs.
I happen to like poetry that employs language that has a rich texture and music to it. I like the material feel of it in my mouth when I say the words. And I like poems that send me to the dictionary. There’s so much language out there, so much raw material for making poems, words I’ve never heard before. It’s inexhaustible and that excites me. Of course you can over do it, and I try to be aware of that and make cuts where cuts are needed for clarity and rhythm and music.
With that said, though, the teacher in me wants to scold the lazy readers who can’t bother to pick up a dictionary! When did reading become so passive? I heard an interviewer ask Junot Diaz once about all of the allusions to pop culture and comics in his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and if he worried about readers being turned off. He had this really eloquent and passionate response about the great debt he felt personally as a reader to all of the people who taught him to read. He talked about all of the one-on-one attention that it takes to teach a child to read, all the hours of encouragement and instruction from parents and teachers. Thus, he argued, we owe it to all of those people to wrestle with difficult texts, to keep expanding our ability to read by picking up a dictionary or an encyclopedia (or Google) and not be so passive. I have to say I agree.
AMK: Speaking of audience, who do you write for? Do you imagine a reader somewhere off in the not-so-distant future as you put your poems together; do you try to (as Judy Jordan would put it) “take care” of your reader in your work, do you actually care if anyone reads your work?
BB: At the moment of composition, my only audience is myself. I’m just trying to get it right for me and to enjoy the pleasure of the process. I think self-consciousness is the death of creation, and if I were to imagine an audience at that moment, it would be paralyzing. I’m only trying to be submerged in the world of the poem and have the real world fall away around me. In later drafts, I begin to imagine an audience, mainly other poets who I show my work to—my wife, Nicky Beer; Wayne Miller; and Jake Adam York—all fine poets and smart readers. I’m thinking about how they might react to parts of the poem that might be nebulous or excessive or sentimental or sloppy. I see this imagined audience reading over my shoulder working as a kind of corrective to the over-indulgences or half-baked ideas of early drafts. I trust their voices.
Do I care if anyone reads my work? Of course! Ultimately poetry is about communicating with other human beings about what it means to human. It’s about a quest for universal truths. You need other readers for the poem to be fulfilled, and some of my most rewarding moments as a poet up to this point have been emails from strangers who’ve come across my poems one way or another.
However, you have to lower your expectations about how many people that might be. A typical print run for a book of poetry is 1,000 copies. You’re doing pretty well if a book sells 500 copies. A lot of people lament that more Americans don’t read poetry. But I don’t despair, and I often wonder if a mass audience for poetry would actually be a bad thing. I think of jazz. Part of the experience of hearing it live is the intimacy, being packed into a small club with a handful of others who are just as passionate as you are. I feel the same way about poetry. I like the intimacy of the art, the intimacy between poet and reader and the handful of others who are also paying attention. Poetry readings in a stadium? I don’t know; when I stop to think about it, it sounds kind of horrifying.
AMK: You are a poet who seems to wear his influences on his sleeve. Even when you’re doing a little thievery you seem unafraid of the criticism that might follow. Why is that?
BB: Like a lot of young poets, I was obsessed with the notion of “finding my voice.” I had no clue how one actually did this, except possibly by reading and writing until this mysterious voice that was unmistakably yours, that expressed your unique and individual existence, bubbled up, slick and new, from the molten center of your being. The worst thing that could happen during that search was for someone in workshop to say that your poem reminded him or her of such-and-such famous poet. It was mortifying, a sign of failure, a still birth on the page.
As my graduate studies progressed, I started thinking about influence and voice differently, not as two notions that were diametrically opposed, but in a complementary relationship. Mark Doty, my teacher at the University of Houston, said he didn’t believe in this notion of “finding one’s voice,” that he thought voice was something cobbled together from what he was reading and what he was obsessed about at that moment. Talk about feeling liberated! I started to think of voice as something not so much as found but built up, layer by layer, from what I read and experienced, something continually in flux. I started to trust that what I had to say would be original and that would have my mark on it simply because I was an individual and experienced the world and other works of art like no one else.
I think some young poets run into the problem of having only one or two influences, and so they end up just sounding like knock-offs. This was a problem that I had for a while. I was enamored by Charles Wright’s work and not reading much else. Another teacher and mentor, Ed Hirsch, encouraged me to find “counter-weights,” as he described it, poets that were aesthetically and philosophically different from Wright. Good advice that I give my own students now.
Perhaps I do wear my influences on my sleeve, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. And I don’t think of what I do in my work as “thievery.” Thievery implies that you’re trying to get away with something. I’m not. I see myself as in dialogue with the writers that I love, and that kind of dialogue is something I like seeing in other poets as well. For instance, I can’t read Mark Doty’s poem “Metro North” without thinking of Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Filling Station.” The poems stand as poems on their own, but in my mind, my experience of both poems is enriched by making the connection. Similarly, in my own work, and in The Black Ocean in particular, I’m in dialogue with all kinds of authors, poets and fiction writers, that I consider influences—Larry Levis, Judy Jordan, Philip Levine, Roberto Bolano, Cormac McCarthy, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Charles Wright, Walt Whitman, Federico Garcia Lorca, Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Frank Stanford, and Jaime Sabines, just to name a few.
AMK: Many of these poems have a Biblical, almost Chaucerian feel to them with the hosts of characters they speak to or through. “In the City of Fallen Rebels” is a particularly good example. There’s “the boy…dragging his death / by a string”, “the angels…,/ …those starved revenants”, “Mrs. Wen./…trying to coax the register open,” the gods who “refuse to blink,” and, finally, the poet “What does he want?)” who’s “scared of the dark.” I can only imagine how difficult it must be not only to control all of these characters and their strange behaviors but, perhaps more so, to give them a place in your poems in the first place. Is this something that you are doing on purpose or does it come naturally? How do you keep all of this under control so effectively?
BB: Because I wanted this book to be less personal, I deliberately wrote more poems that integrated characters outside of myself. I don’t know I’d say that this character control comes naturally, but I do read a lot of fiction, so thinking about conflict between characters wasn’t altogether new. I haven’t written a lot of fiction, but my feeling is that it’s actually easier to control characters in poetry, in some sense, because it’s easier to move them through space and time. Readers are more willing to make leaps, more willing to accept ambiguity. Incidentally, my anxiety of what this poem was about is written into this poem. I see the poet that suddenly appears on stage at the end as myself: an intruder worrying the narrative and the characters, poking into the dark recesses of the mind, trying to make sense of what’s going on. That “What does he want?” is meant to be a sneering back at the poet-self. Who am I to think I can control this imagined world and make sense out of it? So the anxiety is written into the poem, which I found interesting. In the past this might have been something I’d edit out, but here it felt like a dynamic of the poem that deserved to stay.
AMK: You use the first, second, and third person in The Black Ocean in almost equal proportions. Beth Lordan, one my professors at Southern Illinois University, teaches that “point-of-view” is everything. She’s talking about fiction, of course, but I think this applies to poetry just as much. What are your thoughts on point-of-view? How do you utilize it in your work?
BB: I was somewhat conscious of the equal proportions in The Black Ocean, mainly because I don’t like books where the poems seem to bleed together. Switching up point-of-view is one way to create texture or depth in a book. I don’t have any hard and fast rules exactly, just some things that I remind my students and myself. First person is personal, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the speaker. Just because you didn’t begin the poem with some distinct persona in mind doesn’t mean that the voice is yours. The whole “do-not-assume-I-is-I” advice. We keep it in mind as readers, yes, but we should also remember it as writers. Second person can create intimacy, but it can also be used to implicate the reader. Third person can provide some distance.
Often when I’m struggling with a poem, I’ll switch points-of-view just so that I can re-see the material. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes it’s just the trick needed. For instance, for a long time the poem “Silent Montage with Reagan in Black and White” was in first person, but not working. I switched it to third and realized that the poem was about silence and dissociation. The third person provided the poem the distance it needed to bring these elements to the forefront.
AMK: It seems to me that every poet has a few main elements they are most in love with. In your case, I’d say they are figurative language, repetition, and surprise. Would you agree?
BB: Yes, I do agree with you. These are my favorite tools and toys. I’m a naturally visual poet; I think in images. I love the play of figurative language, and there are times when I’m writing that the poem itself feels like it could be an excuse for the chance to come up with similes and metaphors.
Repetition feels similarly engrained in me, probably from the Biblical cadences that were so familiar in my childhood. Barthes says, “Repetition induces bliss,” and I agree. I sometimes use repetition as a musical element that creates rhythm and emphasis. At other times I repeat images strategically in long poems or throughout the book itself to create for that image its own mythology.
And in regard to surprise, who wants to read a poem when they know how it’s going to end? I also like to push my imagination. I like to take leaps in a poem and see how far I can skitter out on a branch before it breaks. So the surprise works both ways: I want to surprise the reader and myself, to see what I can pull off, what I can get away with.
AMK: Many of your poems emanate in large part from your childhood experience(s) but with a mature and reflective voice active throughout. I often find myself negotiating this sort of perspective rather unsuccessfully, but you do it very well. How do you navigate this rocky terrain so successfully?
BB: Thanks. I think that when you’re writing about childhood that this is always an issue: how to negotiate the adult consciousness and the child’s perspective. Honestly, I’m not sure it’s possible to capture the child’s perspective purely since there is always the mature and reflective voice, or poet, behind the scenes shaping the poem. The question is how much of the latter to let filter through, how much you’ll let the adult, the poet, onto the stage. With this poem, I knew that there was a certain complexity of emotion and thought that I wanted that would be impossible to capture with just the child’s perspective. I’m thinking mostly of the more meditative parts of the poem—the meditations on defeat, on poverty, on work—and moments of high lyricism or irony.
So the challenge is how adult consciousness can punctuate the poem, or surface within the child’s perspective, without it feeling contrived or heavy handed. My model for this was, and is, Elizabeth Bishop’s “In the Waiting Room.” Part of the power of Bishop’s poem is that it establishes a kind of vulnerability through the simplicity of the child’s perspective—“It was winter. It got dark / early. The waiting room was full of grown-up people, arctics and overcoats, / lamps and magazines.” But the poem also needs the long-view of the adult to describe the shock, the out-of-body experience the child feels when she realizes, among other things, her own smallness and the largeness of humanity: “I said to myself: three days / and you’ll be seven years old. / I was saying it to stop / the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world / into cold, blue-black space.” Bishop’s poem needs both the child and the adult. It becomes an issue, then, of striking the right balance, finding the right tension between the two views. Bishop does it masterfully. I hope that I’m a fraction as successful in my poems that deal with childhood.
AMK: I’m curious how much your poetry, to your mind, is the retelling of experience or the transmission of memory. How much of your work is about this “juxtaposition?” How dedicated do you feel your work is to “the truth?”
BB: Good question. I’m not sure we can separate the two. Any retelling of experience depends on the transmission of memory. For example, we know that if three people witness the same event, their stories of what happened will most likely vary somewhat, and those variations will probably grow over time. That is to say, I see memory as something that is in flux or fluid. In this regard then, the parts of the poem that are autobiographical have been shaped by memory and time. How I remember things happening I’m sure is not how I would find that they actually happened if I were able to return to the moment.
I think that this notion of transmission of memory is separate from the idea of “the truth.” That is, there are things in the poem that happened and I wrote them the way I remembered them. There are other things that happened and that I deliberately embellished in the retelling. And there are still other aspects of the poem that I made up entirely. All of this is to say, I guess, that I believe pretty strongly that the poet is not a memoirist or journalist who must write “the truth.” The poet’s only fidelity is to the poem itself and not to how things may or may not have happened. I try to pay attention to the larger, universal truth or truths—what the poem is trying to show us about living on this earth. To get these you sometimes have to deviate from actual events, to get lost in the world of myth and imagination. As William Stafford famously said, “You must revise your life.”